Further on Down the Road

By Terry Leatherwood <t_leatherwood@peoplepc.com>

Rated: PG-13 (for violence)

Submitted: August 2008

Summary: After Lana Lang-Kent's death, both Lois and Clark must deal with the aftereffects of her loss. Their relationship is complicated by other people, a murder attempt, and some unique facets of their relationship. A direct sequel to "The Road Taken."

Song lyrics quoted in chapter thirty-four are from the following copyrighted works:

"Something to Talk About" by Shirley Eikhard c 1991 "Turn the Beat Around" by Gerald and Peter Jackson c 1976

The standard disclaimers apply. The characters contained within this work (saving those who are original) are the property of corporate entities other than myself. No intent to defraud or debase any of the characters or the originators or owners of these copyrights is intended. No remuneration has been received for this work.

This is a work of fan fiction and is intended as homage to the characters of the Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman television series.

***

Chapter One

>>>Thursday, 3:11 PM

"Ouch!"

Lois let out a sharp bark of pain as she caught a damaged fingernail on the side of her keyboard. She put the wounded digit in her mouth to suck out the hurt. It seemed to help a little.

If only she could draw out this story so easily. In the two months since the sinking of the freighter carrying the gunrunners, their cargo, and Lana Lang-Kent, she'd earned five more front-page banners, including two Superman stories, and had become a regular in the 'A' section. She'd also nailed a mood piece on a company of traveling Shakespeare players who had gone from flat broke to making a solid living in just over a year. Even Perry had liked it, saying that it was good enough for a Kerth nomination.

She pulled back her hand and glanced at the scar. The shallow furrow that a stray shotgun pellet had cut in her flesh hadn't done any permanent damage, but it had left her with a reminder that the case which had killed Clark's wife wasn't closed. And she refused to stop working on it.

She accepted the accolades that came her way and kept on working on the gunrunners. She'd learned a little more about the operation since her shared byline with Clark detailing the explosion of the freighter Star of the Amazon, but not enough to print. She still didn't know who the mysterious 'boss' actually was yet, but it was beginning to look more and more like the guy was also into lots and lots of other things, from crooked floating crap games to 'protection' rackets to political payoffs, both in the city and state governments. Whoever it was, he had money to burn and influence to peddle.

And not many people fit that profile, even on the East Coast, but so far she hadn't found a pattern that matched any of her top prospects. In fact, she'd winnowed the list from eleven to five, but none of those five really fit the profile either.

On top of that, the mood in the newsroom seemed to be dominated by frustration. She was frustrated at how slowly her investigation was going. Claude Guilliot, her partner, was frustrated because she was pursuing that story and not responding to either his erratic leadership or his questionable personal charm. Perry was also frustrated because Lois and Claude, who had looked to be an unbeatable team on paper, clashed like a pair of divas at the Grammy awards ceremony.

She looked up from reading over her notes yet again, trying to find some angle she'd missed before, to see Claude heading towards her desk. Here he comes, she thought acidly, France's gift to American women specifically and to the news profession in general. Maybe he'll be in a good mood this time.

"Young lady partner!"

Not a good mood, she ruminated. "What is it, Claude?"

He thrust a handful of loose sticky notes in her face, his accent thick with anger. "What are the meanings of these?"

She sighed. "They're my notes to myself on the state audit of the welfare department. I have names, phone numbers, call back dates, info on --"

He growled and hurled the notes to the floor. "I cannot work with such as these! This must be organized in the proper fashion! You must record your notes in a more professional manner! This will do never!"

She stood slowly and stared up into his eyes. "Claude, you either pick up all those notes and put them back where you found them or I'll knock you down and break every one of your fingers at least once."

"What? My fingers? Lois, you --"

There was ice in the air between them. "Now, Claude. Right now."

Claude laughed and stepped back. Lois followed and intensified her glare into solid granite. He took a breath and lifted a finger. Her brows flexed and promised imminent and intense pain.

He nodded, suddenly nervous. "Of course, of course, I will pick them up. I was perhaps somewhat hasty, no?"

"Yes. You were."

She backed up to her chair as Claude gathered the notes and put them on Lois' desk. He took a deep breath. "Lois, would you please arrange on your computer these notes so that I also may use them?"

She smiled. Her face lit up like a railroad warning signal. "Of course, Claude! I'd be happy to. Is tomorrow morning soon enough?"

He eyed her suspiciously. "Mas oui, of course, yes." He turned to go.

"Claude?" she cooed.

He turned back. "Yes?"

Still in coquette mode, she purred, "Aren't you forgetting something?"

He frowned. "I do not believe so, no."

She stepped close and twirled his tie between her fingers. "My dear, darling Claude, you forgot to THANK ME!"

As she spoke the last two words, she yanked his tie and pulled his face down close to hers. He sputtered, "O-of course, of course. Merci boucoup, my dear Lois, ah, thank you, thank you very much!" Lois held him there for a long breath. As he tried to avert his gaze from her titanium glare, Claude anxiously indicated his tie, still trapped in her steel grip. "Si vous plait? If you will please -- eh?"

She let the tie slip out from between her fingers as he slowly straightened, then she reached up and patted his cheek gently. "You're quite welcome, Claude."

Perry had watched the entire exchange from the refuge of his office door. When Claude left, he meandered over to her and quietly said, "You know, you're going to give that Frenchman a heart attack one of these days."

Without turning, she replied, "And he'll deserve every nanosecond of that agony."

"Maybe you should pick on people your own size."

"Maybe he could grow up, too."

"Him? Grow up? Might as well wait for Elvis' next live album." Perry restrained his smile. "Don't you have an appointment in twenty minutes or so?"

She blew out a long breath. "Yes. And don't worry, I'll be there on time."

"I know, hon." He released part of the smile he'd been holding back. "And be sure to tell Dr. Friskin 'hi' for me."

Perry sighed to himself as he watched her leave. Mad Dog Lane, he thought. An apt appellation. It certainly suited her.

***

"Do you want to sit down, Lois?"

"Uh, sure, yeah. Chair or couch?"

"It's your choice. Whatever makes you more comfortable."

"You tell me the same thing every time I ask that question, Dr. Friskin. You'd think I'd know the answer by now."

"Just because we already know the answer to a question doesn't ensure that we'll act on it."

"Yeah, we've talked about that before, too. I guess I'll take the chair."

"Okay, Lois, now that you're comfortable, what do you want to talk about today?"

"I -- I'm actually not all that comfortable."

"I know. And it's okay if you're not comfortable. Being in a therapist's office can be both relaxing and intimidating at the same time, even if you've been here before. Your inner defenses are like everyone else's, and they tend to activate whenever anyone gets near them."

"Oh. Yeah, I guess you're right. Anyway, you remember that secret I told you about last time?"

"Yes. Have you decided to tell me exactly what it is?"

"I wish I could. Believe me, I really wish I could. But it's a secret about another person, not about me, and it's nothing illegal or harmful or at all wrong, so I don't feel free to share it, even with you."

"You know I won't ever divulge it to anyone."

"I know. I just -- Dr. Friskin, if you went to a therapist yourself, would you discuss my sessions with him or her? Even though you knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that your own therapist would never reveal anything you said in that session?"

"I might discuss a case or a patient in very general terms, but I'd never reveal anything specific enough to identify any of my patients. You know that."

"Of course I do. And this is the same kind of thing. I can't tell you what it is without telling you who it is, and I don't have that person's permission to do that."

"I see. In that case, you're right, you shouldn't tell me. But I don't think that's the only thing bothering you right now."

"No. No, it's not. See, when I was on the ship, Lana -- I told you about Lana, right?"

"Yes, you did. Go on, please."

"I wrote -- I wrote that she was the one who defended us with the machine gun in the hold."

"I remember the articles. You described her as quite heroic."

"She was heroic, no exaggeration there at all. But -- she loaded the gun and showed me how to fire it. She never pulled the trigger, not while I was with her."

"Oh. Lois, are you saying that you were the one who --"

"The one who shot several men? That my nickname should really be Machine Gun Lane? That I killed several people that day? Yes! That's what I'm saying!"

"Lois, it's okay, please sit back down and --"

"Don't you understand? I killed several men! I actually got a kick out of firing that gun! And if I had it all to do over again I'd do the same thing!"

"I can certainly understand why you'd feel that way."

"And I've tried to tell myself that I hadn't really killed anyone with it, that they would have died anyway when the ship blew up, or that they would have killed us if I hadn't shot back at them! It doesn't matter! It doesn't help! I still shot them! I still killed them!"

"Lois, please sit down. Please."

"Did you hear what I just said? Did you --"

"I heard you, Lois. Here's the tissue box."

"I -- I don't know -- I don't know if I can deal with this!"

"We'll get through it together. I'll help you."

"How can I go on? I killed people! I deserve to be punished!"

"Were you trying to kill them?"

"No! No, I was just trying to keep them away from us."

"You said you enjoyed firing the gun. Was that all you enjoyed?"

"Well -- I enjoyed watching the bullets hit where I aimed. And I liked making all that noise."

"But you said you weren't trying to kill anyone."

"I wasn't! I was trying to keep us safe! I was just trying to keep their heads down! I had no idea I'd hit anyone until they told me!"

"Easy, Lois, easy. Tell me something. If you weren't trying to shoot anyone, what was the thrill?"

"Um. The gun, I guess. I enjoyed shooting that gun. It -- I don't know! I guess it made me feel like I wasn't a victim any more, like I had some control over what happened to me."

"Do you still feel like a victim?"

"Well -- no, I don't. In fact, I almost feel like a bully sometimes."

"How's that?"

"I get mad. I get mad real easy, too. Really mad. And whatever it is that's making me mad at the moment, it isn't bad enough to make me that angry."

"Can you give me an example?"

"Before -- before I came here today, I almost had a fight with Claude. You remember Claude?"

"Your French colleague? Yes, you told me about him."

"I, um, I almost had a fight with him."

"You said that already. Did you hit him?"

"No."

"Did you threaten him?"

"No. Well, not really. Uh, well, yeah, maybe a little. But not too much."

"So what's the problem?"

"I --"

"It's okay, Lois, you can tell me. No one will judge you here."

"I know. It's just -- Okay! I yelled at him and made him back away from me."

"You are allowed to stand up for yourself, you know."

"No! It's not like that."

"Then tell me what it was like."

"I grabbed his tie and pulled his face down next to mine and I looked him in the eye and I could see fear."

"Of you?"

"Of what I might do to him."

"What did you want to do to him, Lois?"

"kiph humph"

"I'm sorry, I didn't quite hear you."

"I said I wanted to kill him!"

"Oh. Well. I see."

"Do you? Do you really?"

"Is he dead, Lois?"

"No! But I was really mad and I wanted to kick him between the legs and pull his nose off and put out his eyes with a freshly sharpened pencil and disembowel him with a dull letter opener and strangle him with his own intestines but I stopped myself just in time!"

"Then what --"

"I'm going to get up and pace again, okay? I don't much care what happens to me because I figure I'm living on borrowed time anyway but I can't take risks that will put others in danger so I can't do my job effectively and I can't sleep and I don't have any real friends and I'm so tired of being congratulated for killing all those people and he should have saved Lana and -- and --"

"Go on, Lois, this is good. You need to get this out so you can manage it."

"Manage it? Don't you see? Didn't you hear? He saved me! He should have saved Lana! I'm alive and she's dead and she was worth ten of me!"

"I never met Lana Lang-Kent. I don't know what she might have done with the rest of her life. But I do know you aren't responsible for her death, and you don't need to replace her life with yours now. Nor do you need to sacrifice your life to pay for her death."

"Is -- is that what you think I'm trying to do?"

"Maybe. Tell me, what do you think would have happened if you had done all those -- very interesting things -- to Claude?"

"Huh. I guess I would have been arrested. Gone to jail. Been convicted of murder. Gotten the death sentence. Boy, that would've been something, huh? Lois Lane, dead woman walking. Hey, you know when they put that last needle in your arm and then pump the drugs in and you take a permanent nap? You know that they swab the injection site with alcohol to clean it? Why do they do that?"

"I see you've given this a lot of thought."

"I've thought a lot about my own death, Dr. Friskin. I spent most of a day on that ship expecting my next breath to be my last breath. Then when Cl -- when Superman pulled me out of there, I felt great, like I'd won every lottery that had ever been played. But when he -- when the ship blew up with Lana still on board, I didn't know how to feel. I still don't."

"May I make a suggestion, Lois?"

"Hey, you need to earn your hourly fee somehow."

"I believe that, at least in part, what you're feeling is called survivor's guilt. People who make it through terrible times feel glad that they survived when others didn't, and they feel guilty about being glad to be survivors, and they feel sad that people they knew aren't around any more. It happens in corporate layoffs and battlefields, in police and fire departments and in cancer wards, in the aftermath of hurricanes and tornados. You're not alone, Lois. Others know your pain."

"I'd like to meet the sole survivor of a ship blowing up!"

"I'm not sure I know anyone is in your particular position, but there are many others who have experienced something similar."

"Huh. Maybe I could learn something from them after all."

"Then why don't you come to a meeting? There's a gathering Friday night at about seven. Do you have plans?"

"You know I don't."

"Here's the address. You're welcome to attend."

"Are you running that session, too?"

"I'm one of the facilitators. The participants run the session. You can leave at any time, or you can stay until we turn off the lights. It's entirely up to you."

"So, this is your suggestion?"

"Yes. And that's all it is, a suggestion. I hope to see you Friday evening, but if I don't, that's okay too. Now, I'm afraid our time is up for today. Shall I expect you next week?"

"Yeah. I'll come as long as you can stand me."

"You can come as long as you need to, Lois. Good-bye until next time."

>>>Thursday, 5:32 PM

The note on Lois' desk asked her to see Perry as soon as she got back, so she locked her purse in her desk drawer and knocked on his office door. "You wanted to see me, Chief?"

He waved her in. "Close the door, Lois. Sit down."

She frowned. "Is something wrong? Am I getting fired or something?"

"What?" He goggled for a moment, then grinned. "No, nothing like that. I just need to talk to you for a minute."

"Okay. What's up?"

"Clark is up."

"Huh? Up where?"

He sat next to her and leaned closer. "Clark Kent is coming back to the office on Monday."

"Oh." She looked at the floor. "To work or to clean out his desk?"

"He's coming back to work."

"I see." She sighed deeply. "The bean counters won't let him work from Smallville any more?"

"Nope. He has to come in to the office to keep his job. As it is, he's already used up all of his sick time and vacation for his first year, along with all the compassionate leave I can give him."

"Hmm. So, why did you bring me in and tell me like this?"

"I wanted to make sure you and he were going to get along."

"Get along? With Clark?" Her eyes bulged. "You're kidding, right? It'll be a wonder if he ever speaks to me again!"

She stood and paced, waving her hands. "I mean, Clark is a good writer and he might be a really good reporter someday but he's just suffered a terrible loss and I haven't talked to him since we were on the submarine together and --"

Perry reached for her hand but missed. "Lois?"

"-- and I don't know if he blames me or if he even wants to be around me again and I don't want to put any pressure on him and --"

He tried again. "Lois!"

"-- and he didn't even look at me at Lana's memorial service in Smallville back in July and I don't know if he hates me or wishes I'd been on that ship instead of Lana when it blew up --"

He stood and grabbed her shoulders. "Lois! Stop it!"

She looked directly into his eyes. "What, Perry? Stop what?"

"Stop beating yourself up over something you're not responsible for!"

Her eyes moistened and she spoke in a barely audible voice. "But I am responsible."

"No, Lois, you're not responsible! It's not your fault!"

Her eyes filled with tears she didn't know she still had. "Lana wouldn't have been on that ship if I hadn't dragged her into the middle of everything. Clark knows that, too. He's probably coming back here to finish me off." She stepped back and slipped out of Perry's grasp. "And you know what? I'd let him."

He shook his head. "You hate yourself that much?"

She wiped her face with one hand. "No, I don't hate myself. I don't want to end it all. But it would -- it would be justice."

Perry opened his mouth to answer, but instead his desk phone rang. "Nuts!" He picked up the receiver. "Managing Editor, Perry White speaking. Yes, they did. No! You can't change the page two format without talking to me first! I mean before you change it, not after! You better not be thinking that asking forgiveness is easier than asking permission! No, you can't -- hold on a minute, Scott." He covered the mouthpiece with his free hand. "Lois, I'm sorry, I have to handle this. But you're selling yourself short, and I think you're selling Kent short, too. Listen to him, then talk to him. I'll check with you later."

Lois nodded and left the office as Perry resumed chewing out Scott for overstepping his bounds. She slid into her chair and put her head in her hands.

Monday! Clark was coming back on Monday morning.

Today was Thursday. She had the entire weekend to plan what she would say to him when he walked into the bullpen. Three days and four nights to think and anticipate and go insane waiting, waiting for him to come in and clobber her or blame her or rip her head off or completely ignore her or fry her with his heat vision or fly her up above the stratosphere and let her fall back to earth and burn up from the friction or make it a point to tell her how much he hated her every time he saw her or --

She shook her head to stop the mental rant. She would know soon enough what Clark intended to do. She'd meant it when she'd told Perry she'd let Clark kill her if that was what he really wanted to do. She only wanted her heart's agony to end.

>>>Friday, 7:51 AM

As soon as Lois came in, Perry handed her a new assignment. She was to write a profile piece on a charity ball scheduled for the following Friday evening, hosted and paid for by Metropolis' resident mystery billionaire, Lex Luthor. It was a simple assignment, almost a puff piece, except for one thing: Lex Luthor was on Lois' short list of candidates for the role of Criminal Mastermind of Metropolis. She thought he might be the big boss behind schemes like the gunrunning operation that had nearly killed her.

And Perry knew all the names on her list.

It whetted her appetite and gave her something constructive to do, which she figured Perry had intended. But that was not a reason to take the assignment lightly. There had to be something she could learn about Luthor, something that would either clear him or incriminate him.

But by the time lunch rolled around, she'd run into half a dozen firewalls designed to keep anyone from getting to the man himself. His biography was spotty, his current resume was vague, his few interviews were ambiguous, and his personality was a total mystery.

Her stomach demanded sustenance, so she scampered around the corner to a nearby deli and wolfed down a sandwich and soda. Then she came back and attacked the enigma of Lex Luthor once again.

Perry stopped by just after three o'clock. "How's it going, oh budding star investigative reporter?"

Her only response was an inarticulate growl.

He patted her on the shoulder. "Oh, come on, now. It can't be that bad."

"Oh, yes it can. Look at this! Here's Luthor's Who's Who entry, his three Metropolis Man of the Year award summaries, his official biography -- all of half a page -- and twenty-six gossip columns dating back two years about his stable of girlfriends, none of whom seem to be serious contenders for the title of the next Mrs. Lex Luthor because the man doesn't seem to want anyone to be that close to him. Did you know he married a psychiatrist about eleven years ago?"

"Seems like I did hear about that from somewhere, yes. What did you find on her?"

"Her name is Dr. Arianna Carlin. No children, from Luthor or from anybody else. She went back to her own name after the divorce. The marriage only lasted about a year, and she's been living off the alimony and the shares of his company since then. Except that she's not married either and has a small private practice in upstate New Troy, I have even less information about her than I have about him. I have LexCorp's last four yearly statement summaries, the list of companies to whose boards of directors he belongs, and that's it! He hasn't given a TV or print interview to an independent journalist in over four years!"

"Sounds like a pretty good start to me."

She threw her hands in the air. "It's a great start, but that's all I have! I've hit a solid brick wall! I've been at this since you gave it to me this morning! I can't find any personal information on him that hasn't been sanitized, there's no loose information about LexCorp or LexLabs or any of his businesses, nothing! Perry, this is just too smooth. He's hiding something, and I think it may be something really big."

He frowned. "Honey, I wasn't asking for a Kerth-quality expose on him, just a profile to go along with the --"

"But it's there! I can smell it! He's hiding something, something big!"

He drew himself erect and went into 'editor' mode. "Lois, you can't print what you smell. You have to have real, verifiable facts, and you know it. There may be a bigger story here than --"

"There is a bit story here! I just know it!"

"Okay, Lois, stop and listen." She drew in another breath, but subsided under the threat of his index finger and raised eyebrows. "First of all, you're not officially on the investigative beat, even though I've given you a lot of leeway and you've done a good job so far. Second, you've gone through a really bad experience recently and you need to deal with all those leftover issues."

"I am dealing with them!"

"Don't interrupt me when I'm lecturing you. Third, Claude asked me this morning if he could work with someone else. He said you were 'irascible and uncooperative' and he didn't think you two were a good fit as partners."

She clenched her fists and punched her desk once. "Uncooperative? Irascible? Do you know what he suggested to me two weeks ago on that jewelry store stakeout? He said we should pass the time by --"

"Whoa! I can imagine what Claude said, but since you didn't come to me about it right then, I can't do much about it now. You need to write the piece I assigned you, okay? And you need to work with Claude as smoothly as you can. You can sniff around Lex Luthor in your spare time, but I need this piece for Tuesday's morning edition. You have until four p.m. on Monday, got it?"

She huffed silently, but nodded. "I got it."

"Good. I have a couple of other things you and Claude can work on together, too."

"I thought he didn't want me as a partner!"

"Doesn't much matter what he wants. I sit at the managing editor's desk, not Claude. I'll send both of you an e-mail before the end of the day."

She crossed her arms and pouted. "Okay, if I have to."

"You do." He patted her shoulder. "Keep up the good work, Lois. Just don't bite the Frenchman's head off. It'll give you indigestion."

Perry returned to his office, and Lois got up to visit the ladies' room. As she was returning to her desk, she impulsively picked up the phone and dialed a number she was pretty sure Perry wouldn't want her to dial.

"Good afternoon, LexCorp central offices, Metropolis. My name is Rebecca Connors. How may I direct your call?"

"Hi, Rebecca! My name is Lois Lane. I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet and I'm doing an article on Lex Luthor and I'd like to schedule an interview with him."

"I'm sorry, Ms. Lane, Mr. Luthor does not give interviews. It isn't personal, I assure you, it's his general policy."

"I understand the policy, but I was hoping he'd make an exception for me."

"I'm truly sorry, Ms. Lane. I'm afraid I can't offer you any hope."

"Will you at least pass my request up to him? Maybe he'll see me."

"Mr. Luthor hasn't granted any interviews at all in almost three years, Ms. Lane. I will, of course, pass on your request, but I seriously doubt he'll talk to you in person."

"Okay, thanks anyway, Rebecca."

"Thank you, Ms. Lane. Is there anything else I could help you with?"

Inspiration born of desperation struck her. "Yes! Will you let me interview you?"

"What?"

"I could interview you, you know, get the feel of the place, find out the ebb and flow of the business day, that kind of thing. What do you say?"

"Um -- I -- um --"

"Come on, Rebecca! It isn't front page news, I know, but it'll make a great addition to my article, whether or not Mr. Luthor agrees to see me. I'll even buy you lunch. What do you say?"

"Uh -- I'll have to check with my supervisor, Ms. Lane, but --"

"Call me Lois."

"Um, okay, Lois. I'll still have to check. Will you be at work tomorrow?"

"On Saturday? Reporters and receptionists never sleep, do we?"

"Ha-ha! Sometimes it seems that way. Please call me back by ten tomorrow and I'll know by then if I can talk to you. I'll answer this number."

"Okay, Rebecca. Bye for now."

"Good-bye, Lois."

She laid the phone in its cradle and smiled. It was a small step towards the resolution of the story, but a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

***

Chapter Two

>>>Friday, 6:54 PM

Lois frowned at the card in her hand, then scowled at the doorway of the church. She didn't like preachers in general, she didn't like sitting still in church and listening to a speech from some man she'd never met about how she ought to live, and she especially didn't like seeing the collection plate slide past her face.

Then she flashed on an almost forgotten memory, left over from her early childhood. The whole Lane family had attended morning services the weekend before some major holiday. Her father had dropped a five-dollar bill in the collection plate, then afterward had complained loudly about how money-hungry churches were. He'd ignored the fact that they were hurrying to make their reservations at an exclusive and very expensive restaurant for Sunday dinner. The memory bothered her and she wasn't sure why.

She sighed and pushed through the door. There were three women standing around a folding table, pouring coffee and talking in low tones. Two older men were putting away a checkerboard. One was congratulating the other on winning the last game. A young couple sat in the far corner, looking around nervously and holding hands.

Lois decided to sit next to them. They looked safe. She stopped a long stride from them and said, "Excuse me, is that seat taken?"

The woman smiled. "No. Please, go ahead."

"Thanks." Lois sat and put her purse under her chair. "This is my first time here."

The man put his hand out. "Our second. I'm Steve and this is my wife Cynthia."

Lois took his hand. "First names only?"

Cynthia put her hand on theirs. "Whatever you're comfortable with. Steve and I talked about it and agreed to keep our last name private for now."

"Fair enough. I'm Lois."

They clasped hands again and resumed their seats. Lois leaned over and stage whispered, "What do we do now?"

Cynthia pointed across the room to a man Lois hadn't noticed. "See that guy in the rocker?"

"The one in the flannel shirt and jeans and work boots?"

Cynthia nodded. "That's Gary. He's the pastor here. He kind of guides these meetings."

Lois' eyebrows jumped. "He's the pastor of the church? You're kidding!"

Steve grinned slightly. "Nope. He says he's just a person like the rest of us, and since this is after work for everyone else he's not dressing up either. He also said last week that trying to impress people with how you look is a waste of time."

Still surprised, Lois nodded. As she did, Gary roused himself from his rocker and came forward.

"Okay, everyone, it's time to start, so let's -- uh-oh, here's another wayward lamb just now getting here."

The door opened and Dr. Friskin walked in. She waved her hand and smiled. "Sorry I'm late, but I had a slight emergency. The call came in just before I left work today." She waited a moment. "My daughter is getting married!"

The group members competed in congratulating her. "Thank you, thank you all. I assure you that her father and I are thrilled with our prospective son-in-law. Giselle also thanks you, and I'll make sure I send along all of your messages. And I'll let you know the details as soon as she tells me what they are. Now, Gary, it's really your turn."

"Thanks, Doc. Those of you who've been here before know how this works. You give us your first name so we'll have a handle for you. If you want us to know your last name, you can tell us, but you're under no obligation to do so. Just introduce yourself like this: 'Hi, I'm Gary. I'm a widower. Been one for about nine months now. '

"That's all. If you want to say something else, you can, but you don't have to. If someone wants to say something to you from the floor, you'll have to raise your hand, just like in grade school. If you want to ask Doc something, she'll answer, otherwise she doesn't say anything unless we get way off base or we need her help. Right, Doc?"

Dr. Friskin smiled and nodded. "That's right. Just remember, I'm not driving this train."

Gary smiled. "In that case, let's make sure we don't run off the tracks."

He waited until the laughter died out. It sounded to Lois that it was more than just polite laughter, that the people in the room felt comfortable with each other. She felt a little left out.

Gary looked around the room again. "Any questions?"

There were none. "Okay, let's get going. I think I should start tonight."

He took a deep breath and looked at the floor for a moment, then spoke again. "Most of you know who I am and why I'm here. My wife, Marian, died of kidney failure just before Christmas. It was nobody's fault, especially not hers, but she left me alone with our thirteen-year-old daughter Annie, and I'm having a hard time with her."

Gary shifted in his chair. "I've tried to get Annie to come here with me, but she just won't. I kinda understand why, she doesn't want to risk letting out something that she's afraid will be inappropriate for Daddy the preacher to hear, but it's still pretty hard for me, and it's starting to wear on our relationship. I hope we can work our way to talking openly again soon."

He shifted again and rubbed his hands together. "I sleep pretty well most nights, but I had a bad night a couple of weeks ago. I had a bad dream I don't remember and woke up about two and I reached over for Marian and of course she -- she wasn't there. I went into the kitchen and fixed a cup of hot chocolate and watched some old movie until I was sleepy again. That was close to four-thirty. Been okay since then, though."

He sat down. One of the women across the room from him raised her hand. Gary smiled warmly and nodded to her. "Ronnette? Go ahead."

She stood cautiously. "Gary, I -- I wonder if you're really done with the grieving process like you said you were a couple of weeks ago. Maybe -- please don't be upset -- maybe you're just not emotionally ready to be alone. Or to be with someone else. Not yet, anyway." She looked at her feet. "I know we said we'd take it slow but -- well, I don't think you're ready." She glanced up and sniffed. "I'm sorry -- really sorry -- if I let this out before you wanted to, but I don't want to hide anything from anyone. Not here."

She sat down and perched on the edge of her chair. Gary looked at the floor and sighed deeply. "Two lunch dates and one kiss isn't all that much, Ronnette, but I'm willing to go public if you are. As to whether or not I'm through grieving, maybe I'm not, but I don't know what to do about it except wait. Doc, what do you think?"

Dr. Friskin swept the room with her gaze. "First of all, I should remind everyone that whatever is said in this room stays in this room. No exceptions. Everyone clear on that?"

She glanced around at the gathering again and everyone nodded back to her. "Good. As for you two, I think you're both right, Gary, but you have to remember that Marian was part of your life for over nineteen years. Grief isn't an illness, and there's no quick cure, no vaccination or pill that will get you through it faster. It's a process, and everyone goes through it at his or her own pace. Don't over-analyze your feelings, just deal with them from a position of strength, knowing that your feelings are perfectly valid but that they are also temporary. You may or may not believe it now, but there will almost certainly come a time when you will want a romantic relationship with some other woman. You may feel at times that you're betraying Marian's memory, but you won't be, I promise."

She turned to the woman who'd spoken to Gary. "Ronnette, you're right when you point out that Gary's probably not finished grieving. Make sure you give him the room he needs to recover. You don't want to become part of the healing that he needs."

Ronnette shifted nervously. "I don't understand. What do you mean?"

"Think of Gary's heart as having an open wound caused by his loss. If you facilitate his healing -- change the bandage, bring him his medicine, make sure he's comfortable -- that's okay. That's even a very good thing. But if you become an integral part of his recovery -- like someone who holds a wound closed but gets her hand wrapped up in the new skin -- you won't be able to move from the position you've taken without causing more pain."

Ronnette frowned in concentration, then shook her head. "Sorry, I still don't quite get it."

Dr. Friskin smiled and stood. "May I use two people as a visual aid?" Several hands went up. "Steve? Come up here, please. No, I don't want Cynthia to come with you. Someone else. How about you, Lois?"

Lois tried not to look like a squirrel caught in the headlights on a dark night. She stepped up beside Steve and crossed her arms.

Dr. Friskin turned Steve until everyone could see him from the front. "Let's pretend that Steve is bleeding from a knife wound in his chest." She pointed to his right rib cage. "Someone needs to put a bandage on it to keep him from bleeding out, right?" Everyone in the group nodded. "Let's say that person is Lois. Lois, put your hand on Steve's chest, just at the bottom of his ribs."

Lois put her hand on Steve's chest and quipped nervously, "I hope Cynthia knows this isn't personal."

Cynthia called out, "It's okay, I know where he sleeps."

The entire group laughed, including Dr. Friskin. "Now, here comes me, the doctor, and I repair the wound, but Lois' hand gets caught in my stitches." She mimed sewing the pretend wound. "This is what I meant by someone being caught up in the healing. Lois, your hand is now part of the scar tissue covering Steve's old wound. You can't move it from that spot on Steve's chest. You have become the healing, part of the repair of the wound. Steve is dependent on you to keep that wound closed, because you're caught up in the new tissue and the stitches. He's physically -- and emotionally -- dependent on you to keep the wound closed."

Lois looked around. It seemed that she wasn't the only one not quite getting it yet. Dr. Friskin continued, "Now, wherever Steve goes, Lois has to go, or she risks re-injuring him again in the very same place. For the moment, Lois, keep your hand on Steve's chest, no matter what he does." Lois nodded. "Steve, walk slowly across the room."

He did, with Lois stumbling along beside him. A couple of people snickered at the spectacle they made. "Now turn around and come back."

This time the entire group laughed as Lois and Steve fought to stay in contact. "Okay, that's enough. You guys are enjoying this way too much. Steve, Lois, thanks for helping me." They sat down.

"What you've just seen is an illustration of what happens all too often in our society. If you become part of the repair -- meaning, the person with the injury is completely dependent on you to keep the wound closed -- you'll never be able to live independently from that person without hurting that person all over again. Everything you do has to be a reaction to the person whose wound you're holding shut. If you're part of the repair, you can't pull away without ripping the stitches loose and reopening that old wound. The wounded person becomes emotionally dependent on someone else to keep that wound closed instead of healing on his or her own. This is one of the ways co-dependency can grow without our seeing it happen.

"It's important to know that this doesn't mean you can't help someone heal, but you must be careful not to become the healing. If you do that, you'll forever be tied to that person, unless you want to break free, in which case you'll open that same wound again."

Ronnette nodded. "I think I see what you mean, Doc."

"Don't think I'm telling you what to do, either of you. You have to make your own choices. Besides, Ronnette, Gary has to look out for your wounds, too." Dr. Friskin cocked her head to one side and slowly turned. "It works both ways, folks. We all need to watch out for each other. We should help each other heal without becoming the healing for each other."

She strolled back to her chair and sat down. "You have the floor again, Gary."

Gary nodded. "Thanks. Is there someone who wants to go next?"

Lois looked around at all the others looking in her direction. Suddenly she realized that Gary was pointing to her. "Yes, young lady? You, the brunette with her hand up? Your name's Lois, isn't it?"

She looked, and sure enough, her hand was up. She opened her mouth to say that she'd made a mistake, that someone else should go next, but something different came out instead.

"Hi, I'm Lois, and I'm having trouble with -- I caused someone's death and I'm -- not dealing with being a survivor very well."

Cynthia reached over and patted her hand. "You'll get through it, Lois. We'll help you find your way."

***

Lois slept more easily Friday night than she had for quite a while. She'd released quite a bit of self-anger and no one had condemned her for it. In fact, they'd repeated many of the things Dr. Friskin had been telling her, and this time Lois had really listened. Maybe meeting with those folks was a good idea after all. Maybe there really was something positive about this encounter group stuff.

She woke up the next morning just before nine, refreshed and relaxed. Lunch was not far off, and the prospect of getting some information out of LuthorCorp excited her. She rushed to the newsroom to await Rebecca's call, and when she got the confirmation for their lunch date, she almost bounced in her chair.

Sitting at one of her uncle's outdoor tables, Lois searched anxiously for a short redhead with a perky smile, wearing a green print blouse and light blue skirt. The color combination sounded horrid to Lois, but she wasn't doing a fashion review. She wanted an 'in' with Lex Luthor, and the receptionist was the only lever she had at the moment.

She saw Rebecca Connors as the young woman turned the corner. Lois' left eyebrow canted upwards; it seemed that Rebecca's outfit worked for her. Her shoulder-length flame-red curly hair fluttered around her head and outlined her smiling, magazine-cover quality face. She looked younger than she'd sounded on the phone. Lois guessed Rebecca was shorter than she was by at least three inches. She looked like an oversized leprechaun out for a morning jaunt.

Lois stood and waved, and Rebecca spotted her right away. She quickened her step and almost hopped to the other chair at the table.

"Lois? I'm Rebecca. I'm sorry I'm a little late. I got held up by some slimy tabloid reporter trying to get photos of one of LexCorp's executives." She blanched slightly. "Oh, I don't mean that I don't like reporters, but some of them are -- I mean, I'm sure you don't --"

Lois laughed. "I know exactly what you mean, Rebecca. Drat those nosy reporters anyway!"

Lois' joke dispelled Rebecca's trepidation and broke the ice between them. The other girl's smile lit up the street. "So, what's good here?"

"Practically everything. My Uncle Mike runs the place, and he's one of the best chefs on the Eastern seaboard. The menu's a little spare, but you're welcome to ask him for anything."

"Oh, I wouldn't presume to ask!"

Lois grinned and shook her head. "Uncle Mike likes pretty girls. He says they make him feel like an old man who wishes he were young again. I think he'd fix you whatever you wanted, however you wanted it, even if he had to go hunt it down himself."

The wattage on her smile doubled. "Great! Does he have any venison?"

"Venison?" Lois echoed. "That's an unusual request."

Rebecca shrugged. "I picked up a taste for it when I spent some time out West a couple of years ago. Some people don't like it, but I think it's great either grilled or broiled."

"We can ask him. He'll either say 'no' or cook you some." Lois stood and waved at the window. "Uncle Mike! Hey, Mike! We're ready! Uncle Mike!" She frowned, then put two fingers in her mouth and blasted an ear-splitting whistle.

Two cabs stopped on the street, eleven pedestrians passing by flinched and turned towards her, a startled grackle flew into the building across the street, and every diner at Mike's place stopped in mid-bite and looked in her direction. Mike looked out the front window and spotted Lois, then shook his head ruefully and picked up two menus with fresh silverware.

The street returned to normal as Lois resumed her seat. She glanced at Rebecca, who looked impressed and muttered, "Wow."

"What wow?"

"That whistle."

"The whistle? Uncle Mike taught me. My mother always said it wasn't very ladylike, but I guess I didn't listen to my mother very well."

"Whoa." The girl was still wide-eyed. "You think he could teach me to whistle like that?"

"I don't know. Here he is, so why don't you ask him?"

Lois watched as Rebecca charmed her "uncle" and finagled an impromptu whistling lesson from him. He even invited her to call him Uncle Mike, which made her bounce in her seat like a happy cheerleader.

Lois didn't like wasting time, but the happier Rebecca was, the more likely it was that she'd tell Lois something usable about Lex Luthor. So she smiled as Uncle Mike gave Rebecca tips and pointers on whistling, helped her adjust her fingers in her mouth, and gave a slight bow when Rebecca produced a sharp tone that got the attention of the diners nearest to them.

Rebecca laughed, clapped her hands, and thanked Mike profusely. He replied, "You're more than welcome, but if you don't order lunch, I'll have to charge you for the lesson."

They shared an easy laugh. Lois ordered a broiled chicken salad, Rebecca asked for and received her venison steak, and Mike offered them dessert on the house, simply for "classin' up da joint."

"I like your uncle. He's neat. Is he on your father's side or your mother's?"

Lois smiled. "Neither one, really. He's just a good family friend who's been more parent to me than my own folks have been. He cooked for some general when he was in the Army, and he liked it so much he kept it up when he got out of the service."

Rebecca giggled. "Too bad he's old enough to be my dad. He seems to be a really nice guy, and there aren't too many of those around anymore."

"If there ever were!"

"Ain't that the truth!"

Clark suddenly popped up in Lois' mental projection screen and she smiled to herself. "Oh, come to think of it, there are a few good ones."

She decided she'd consider later why she'd envisioned him as Clark and not as Superman.

Rebecca smiled and said, "I'll have to take your word for it. So, what did you want to ask me about?"

Lois took out a notebook and pencil. "I want to get a feel for the public face of LexCorp. What kind of security do you have, how hard is it to get in to interview someone --"

"Like Mr. Luthor?"

Lois quirked one side of her mouth upwards. "Besides him. I want to know if you've had any interesting experiences there, how you guys handle your problems, that sort of thing. Oh, I also want to get some background on you personally, so is it okay if we start there?"

"Sure! I graduated from high school at sixteen. I was senior class salutatorian; missed valedictorian by a quarter-point. I just turned twenty-four last month. I've earned my bachelor's degree in biology, I've completed twenty-four of the thirty-six required hours of study for my master's degree, and I plan to have a double doctorate in marine biology and molecular biology in four more years. I've worked for LexCorp for the last five years, and I'm fully vested in both my 401(k) personal retirement program and the company retirement program. My last employee review rated me in the ninety-fifth percentile of secretarial and receptionist personnel in the entire company." She folded her hands in front of her and set her chin on the backs, then fluttered her eyelashes at Lois and smiled sweetly. "Not bad for a dumb phone jockey, is it?"

Lois lifted her eyebrows. Slightly flustered, she muttered, "No, it's not." She shook herself and regained some of her poise. "So, are all the receptionists at LexCorp over-achieving geniuses, or are you the poster girl?"

Rebecca straightened as Mike brought their drinks. "No, I'm something of an anomaly. I'm working on my master's degree in marine biology at night, and they let me schedule my vacation and personal time around finals and such, and I even got a leave of absence last summer for two weeks in Bermuda for a study on tuna migration."

"Wow. They really did want you for your brain, didn't they?"

She shrugged. "I thought at first that I was hired purely as eye candy, but after a couple of months of training out at the Nebraska office, Mr. St. John himself interviewed me."

"Who?"

"Nigel St. John. He's Mr. Luthor's personal assistant." Rebecca stirred her tea with her knife. "He's just a little creepy, if you ask me."

"Oh?" This might be good. "Does he like to look at the girls? Does he make sexist jokes and fondle the women at the company?"

Rebecca frowned. "No, just the opposite. To my knowledge, he's never made a negative personal comment to anyone, male or female. He's never acted like a typical man around me or around any of the other girls I've talked to. He just seems -- dangerous."

This might be better than good. "Dangerous how?"

She thought for a moment. "Kind of like a tiger, always watching, always ready to react. One day he --"

Mike chose that moment to bring their plates. "Here you are, ladies, eat up and enjoy! And Lois, don't be such a stranger! Bring all your pretty friends over, and see if you can find a nice guy to eat with."

"What, you don't like Claude?"

Mike's smile flipped over. "That guy would be a creep no matter where he was from. Being smug and superior and French is just a bonus."

Lois laughed. "I don't think I'll bring him back, then."

"Good! You two ladies enjoy! Remember, if you want dessert, it's on me!"

He turned and motioned to a waiter to check the drinks and coffee cups of a large group of students near the entrance. Rebecca smiled at Lois. "You have problems finding good ones too, huh?"

Lois sneered in disgust. "Claude is a co-worker who thinks he's France's gift to the world in general and American women specifically and me most specifically, and if I was a betting woman I'd bet he had to leave France because his former employer ran him out. I think he's a louse who'd seduce a woman colleague and steal her story. He followed me here one day, thinking I was staking out the place. Uncle Mike spotted him bugging me and kind of ran him off." She canted her head to one side. "Come to think of it, Mike looked pretty dangerous himself that day. He just stared at Claude with no expression and Claude started stuttering and then walked away as fast as he could. Is that what you meant about Nigel St. Cloud?"

"Name's St. John, and yeah, that's what I meant. He's like a bomb with a hair-trigger. Get too close or do the wrong thing and all of a sudden -- boom!"

Lois jumped. Rebecca's illustration of St. John reminded her of Lana's fate, and she forced herself to behave calmly. "Yeah, I know what you mean. Anyway, back to you and your job. Anything exciting happen recently?"

As Lois asked her question, Rebecca cut a piece of steak and put it in her mouth. Her eyes bulged and she grabbed her water glass and gulped it down. "That's hot!"

"What, too spicy?"

"No! Thermal -- cough-cough -- thermal hot!"

"Oh, I'm sorry! I should have warned you that Mike always serves steak straight from the stove. You okay?"

Rebecca sat back and wheezed for a moment. "Yeah. It just caught me by surprise. I'm all right now."

"Well, I guess that's about as exciting as your life has been lately."

"No, actually, let me tell you! The week before last, Peter Burton came in to have lunch with Mr. Luthor! I think they were talking about some big movie project. And this past Tuesday, Jackie Michaelson walked right in the front door!"

Lois matched the other girl's enthusiasm. "No! Jackie Michaelson? Really?"

"Yes! And she only had two bodyguards with her! They stayed downstairs in the lounge just off my office area, and Jackie went up to the penthouse to meet with Mr. Luthor and she was up there for almost an hour! And Mr. Luthor brought her down himself and kissed her hand when she left and said something about sponsoring her tour next spring! Isn't that great?"

"Yes, it is! Is Jackie playing in Metropolis?"

"Oh, I don't know the schedule yet, nothing's been announced. But I'm pretty sure it's going to happen. Mr. Luthor doesn't involve himself in projects that don't pay off for him."

"I'm sure he doesn't." It didn't help Lois' investigation, not directly, but maybe one of the gossip columnists could use that tidbit. She'd give that new girl a heads-up. What was her name? Cathy? Kitty? Karen? Lois would find her.

She dug up a forkful of salad and chewed it, considering her next question. She watched the younger woman relishing her venison steak and wondered if there was more to her job description than she was telling.

"What kind of security do you have at your workstation, Rebecca?"

"Oh, the best! Nobody gets in the building unless I buzz them in, and then I have to open the inside door or they're stuck in the man trap. There's no way to open the inside door and the outside door at the same time. We have scanners inside there that will pick up any weapon, gun, knife, grenade, anti-aircraft missile, whatever. They make airport security scanners look like toys! The four layers of glass are bulletproof up to fifty caliber machine-gun slugs, and the door and window frames are reinforced titanium alloy. You could shoot through it with a tank, but I don't think you could just drive one through."

"What if someone were to get past all that somehow?"

"There are at least a dozen armed security people on the first floor, plus the main security office is in the upper basement, and there are people patrolling the floors all the time, twenty-four-seven-three-sixty-five, overlapping nine-hour shifts. That place is at least as secure as the White House."

"Wow. I guess you're safe."

"That's what we figure, too. Besides, the police --"

Rebecca suddenly broke off. Lois looked up from her notebook to see a suddenly fear-stricken young girl. A tall, older man with white hair and a neat Van Dyke beard glided silently into Lois' field of vision and slid smoothly an empty chair.

"Good afternoon, Ms. Connors. Would you be so kind as to introduce me to your friend?"

"Sh -- um -- th -- this --"

Lois extended her hand and grinned disarmingly. "Hi, I'm Lois Lane. I think Rebecca must have swallowed a French fry sideways or something."

She watched the man take her measure, then slowly grasp her hand and hold it European fashion. "I am most pleased to meet you, Ms. Lane. My name is Nigel St. John."

Rebecca's face paled even further, so Lois played dumb. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. St. John. Are you related to Rebecca in some way?"

His eyes didn't reflect his smile. "Nothing so familial, I'm afraid. I am simply an employee of LexCorp, just as Ms. Connors is. I recognized her and decided to join you. I do hope I'm not intruding."

"Not at all. We were just gossiping about men. One of the young, single woman's favorite subjects."

He smiled slightly and nodded. "While I am certain the subject is worthy of exhaustive debate, I believe I would be out of place in such a discussion." He stood. "I apologize for disturbing you both. Please, enjoy your meal. Ms. Connors, I am certain I will see you at work."

He stepped away. Rebecca fumbled with her purse. "Lois, I'm sorry, I gotta go now. Thanks for lunch."

"You're welcome. I hope we can see each other again soon."

Rebecca glanced at St. John's retreating back and shuddered. "I don't know, maybe -- " Her voice trailed off and she stood. "Don't call me at work, okay?"

"Okay. Will you call me?"

"I -- I don't --"

"Rebecca, it's okay. We'll see each other later."

Lois grabbed Rebecca's hand and slipped her business card into the other girl's palm. Rebecca's eyes bulged, but she said nothing. She slid the card under the waistband of her skirt, next to her skin, and left in the same direction St. John had gone.

Lois watched her go, then picked up her purse and went inside to pay for their meal. Before she reached the register, Mike yanked her to one side. "What was Nigel doing here and how do you know him?"

"Easy, Mike! He recognized -- wait, you know Nigel St. John?"

"St. John, eh? So that's what he's calling himself now?" He nodded and released her. "Yeah, I know him. Know of him, actually. Met him in Vietnam. General Kramer went to a hush-hush meeting in-country with a bunch of British black ops people. He was easily the scariest guy there. The Brit cook told me Nigel was with MI-6, the British counterpart of our CIA, and they were afraid he was going to blow something real important. Even the other MI-6 people were scared of him. Now how do you know the guy?"

She looked at Mike. Despite his own description of himself, he had obviously been far more than just a cook in the military. He was more serious than she'd ever seen him, and maybe a little scared -- no, definitely scared -- of Nigel St. John. "This guy is that bad?"

"Doll, he makes Jack the Ripper look like a deli meat-cutter. They said he skinned three Viet Cong officers alive and made shoe covers out of the remains." Mike ran his hand through his hair. "And that was after they'd told him what he wanted to know. He's so bad, MI-6 tried to have him killed. Twice."

She looked down the street but didn't see him. "They obviously missed."

"The guys who went after him didn't come back. He deserted and they lost track of him."

Now she was impressed. "Wow. I guess he's really dangerous." She turned back to Mike. "That was the first time I'd ever seen him. He recognized Rebecca from work and sat down with us. She's terrified of him."

He shook his head. "Lois, you stay away from that guy! You hear me? As good as you are, you're no match for him. He'll take you down in two seconds and you'll never feel the blade across your throat."

She paled slightly and swallowed. "Uh, Mike, you're starting to scare me."

"Good! Maybe you'll be sensible for once."

***

Nigel was waiting around the first corner as Rebecca skidded by. He called to her quietly. "Ms. Connors? Are you looking for me?"

The effect on her was electric. She jerked to a stop and sidled towards him like a puppy afraid of being beaten. "M-Mr. St. John? Sir? It -- it wasn't what it looked like, honest! I cleared it with my --"

He held up his hand and smiled. "My dear young lady, you misjudge the situation. We really did meet accidentally today. I was not following you or checking up on you. If you say you have clearance, of course I accept your word on the subject. At any rate, such things are not my direct responsibility. I apologize once again for interrupting your meal."

She smiled slightly. "Oh -- that's okay, sir, I need to get back to the office anyway."

"In that case, may I offer you a lift?" He turned and gestured for a cab.

"Uh -- sure, yeah, it'll save my feet."

"Of course." He waved at two empty cabs, both of which drove past as if he didn't exist. "Oh, drat these American taxicab drivers!"

She never knew what possessed her to do what she did next. "Here, let me try."

She put her index fingers in her mouth as Mike had shown her and blew. She let out a piercing tone that scattered pigeons across the street, gained the attention of two stray dogs, and stopped a cab beside the curb.

Nigel opened the door for her. "Most impressive, Ms. Connors. Where did you learn that?"

Rebecca smiled more easily. "Lois showed me. I just learned it."

"A useful talent, that. Driver, please take us to the LexCorp main office on Dyer Avenue."

"Sure, Mac." The driver started the meter and shoved them into the flow of traffic.

~~~~~

Hey, J! Haven't written in you lately, and they tell me that a lonely journal is a neglected journal. Sorry! My therapist told me that journaling would be a good way to bring my problems down to the proper scale. Guess nothing important has happened recently to make me want to write it down.

But that changed today. I met a girl who's going to be a good friend. At least, I think she's going to be a friend. She interviewed me!

I know, I'm not telling the story very well. Look, Lois called me yesterday and said she wanted to interview Mr. Luthor. I told her that he doesn't give personal interviews, period, end of discussion. So she asked if she could interview me!

I know, why? It threw me too, but as it turns out she's really pretty cool. She even got her uncle to teach me how to whistle with two fingers in my mouth! I never could do that before. It's fun. And we had lunch together and talked for a while and I think I'm going to like her. I'm pretty sure she likes me. I know she was impressed with my academics.

The only bad part was when Mr. St. John showed up and sat down at the table. He makes me very nervous, and he reminds me of a tiger choosing his next meal. But I shared a cab with him going back to the office and he was okay. Maybe I just don't understand him well enough.

And maybe I don't want to get eaten.

But I've decided to give Lois a call on Monday. She seemed so nice, and I think we could be good friends. But I'll be sure and take it slow. No sense scaring her away the first week.

Bye, J! I'll write some more next week.

~~~~~

***

Chapter Three

>>>Saturday, 1:51 PM

Nigel frowned in thought, then picked up his very special cell phone and pressed the only speed dial code programmed into the machine. It rang twice before the electronic voice answered.

"Yes, Nigel?"

"I wish to report something which may be of no consequence."

"Really?"

"Yes. But it also may be of some consequence."

"Maybe it's important, maybe it isn't. Is that it?"

"In a nutshell, yes."

"Then tell me."

"Very well. LuthorCorp's main receptionist, Rebecca Connors, just had lunch with a reporter for the Daily Planet named Lois Lane."

"What did they have for lunch?"

Nigel pulled the phone away from his ear for a moment and stared at it before continuing. "I do not know what they ordered. I noticed them quite by accident."

"Why does that name sound familiar?"

"Lois Lane was on the ship which was destroyed en route to Africa several weeks ago."

"That's right. That was a really big explosion, wasn't it?"

Nigel frowned again, this time in mild exasperation. "That 'really big explosion' cost us several million dollars. Lois Lane was partly responsible for it."

"True." The voice went silent for a moment, then continued. "Do you know what the reporter and the receptionist were discussing?"

"I do not. As I said, I came upon them quite by accident."

"Hmm. Was this meeting okayed through the usual channels?"

"Ms. Connors insisted that it had been approved by her manager. I have no reason to disbelieve her at this moment, pending a quick check to verify her assertion."

"Very well. You're right, this might be important. Or it might be nothing at all."

"I do not trust coincidences, especially when my own life is at risk."

"You're right. I'll take this into consideration. But one symptom does not a disease make, Nigel."

"Of course not. But it should make one more aware of the possibility of other symptoms."

The voice sounded almost bored through the distortion. "Right again. Anything else?"

"Not at the moment."

"Then I'll wait to hear from you on the crystal."

Nigel inhaled to respond, but the person on the other end clicked off. He sighed and put the phone away. If he were not paid so handsomely, he might terminate this arrangement. But the pay was so very good.

And his employer was so very unforgiving to those who did not completely commit themselves.

>>>Saturday, 6:18 PM

"Clark? Clark, are you coming down for dinner?"

Martha desperately hoped he'd come down tonight. He hadn't been eating much lately, and even though he wasn't quite human, he needed nourishment. And even if he didn't need to eat, his parents needed to see him, needed to talk to him, needed to touch his heart and let him know they felt his pain.

She sighed and shook her head. Another desultory dinner with her husband wasn't what she wanted to face. Ever since they'd gotten the terrible news about Lana, Jonathan had behaved as if he'd lost his own child. He'd been unable to say or do anything for Lana's father at the memorial service, and he'd refused all of Martha's entreaties to visit Dennis Lang since then. If not for that very nice Virginia McCoy, Dennis might have fallen off the same edge Jonathan apparently had.

And Clark didn't see it. Oh, Martha understood why. The young man had suffered a profound shock. He'd lost his bride of not quite a year, and if their behavior when Martha and Jonathan had last visited them in Metropolis had been any indication, they hadn't gotten out of the honeymoon stage.

And Lana had changed over that year, all for the better. She hadn't lost any of her drive to succeed, but she'd tempered it with compassion and grace and complete loyalty to her marriage. Martha and Lana had spent most of one evening in the barn just before she and Clark had left for Metropolis, and Lana had shared many of the peaks and valleys of her relationship with Clark. Martha smiled as she recalled the eager young woman determined to make her marriage a success and leave her mark on the world of archaeology.

It hadn't happened. She'd died suddenly and horribly, leaving a gaping void in the lives of so many people. And Martha was desperately trying to keep both of her men from falling into that void and off the edge of the world.

Clark missed her terribly, and probably would miss her for the rest of his life. The worst part was, he blamed himself. He believed that if he'd been just a little bit faster, just a little bit smarter, just a little bit more super, he would have saved her. Or, if he'd been willing to sacrifice his co-worker, Lois Lane, he could have saved Lana instead of Lois.

She almost turned away from the stairs, then decided to try once more. "Clark? Dinner's almost ready. Won't you come down?"

To her shock and amazement, she heard a door open and shut, then heard footsteps on the carpet above. She looked up and saw her son, dressed in jeans and sneakers and pullover shirt, trudging down the staircase.

"Coming, Mom."

She blinked back tears and nodded. "I hope your hands are clean, young man."

He paused and looked at her in astonishment, then his mouth twitched on one side. She watched his eyes brighten as he decided to play the old dinnertime game with her. "Soap and hot water, both sides of both hands. Want to check them?"

This was almost too good to be true. She crooked her index finger at him and said, "I'll trust you this time. Now get to your place before your father eats it all."

He put his arm around her shoulders as he stepped onto the floor. "Thanks, Mom. I hope you fixed something delicious tonight. I'm hungry."

She smiled and patted his chest. "Good. I have a pot roast in the oven, and by now you should be able to cut it with a plastic fork."

They walked into the kitchen together. Jonathan was already in his chair, and when he saw his wife and son walk in together, he produced a half-smile and nodded to them. "Martha, Clark."

They stopped in the doorway to the kitchen and looked at Jonathan. He looked back at them for a long breath. Finally he waved them in and said, "If you two plan to eat anything, you'd better come now. I'm hungry."

***

"More potatoes, Clark?"

"Thanks, Mom. Dad, would you pass the biscuits and butter, please?"

"Trade them for another helping of pot roast."

"Sounds like a win-win deal to me. Hand me your plate and I'll reload you."

The meal was a success. Clark knew why his mother had wanted him to come down and eat with them. He knew he should have done it before, but somehow he just couldn't face them. He knew they didn't blame him for Lana's death, but he felt as if they should.

Maybe tonight would be a good time to talk about it.

His mother brought out a homemade strawberry cake with thick, rich, gooey white icing. It reminded Clark of his twelfth birthday, and how all the kids at his party had oohed and ahhed when the cake had appeared. Pete, Lana, Chloe, Ronnie, Brittany, Chuck, and all his other friends had declared it the best birthday cake in the history of civilization. His mother had basked in the praise, then shooed them into the living room for the opening of the presents.

He'd opened Lana's gift first. It had been a model of the first Wright Brothers' flying machine, and it had taken all of his willpower not to stop the party and assemble it right then and there. He'd finished the model in two days and had called Lana over to see it, since she'd been the one to give it to him.

She'd stared at it open-mouthed. "Clark, it's perfect! It looks better than the picture on the box!" She'd reached out to it, but had held her hand back at the last minute. "Wow. You could charge admission just to see it." She'd turned to Clark with a bright smile on her face. "And you showed it to me first! That means a lot to me. Thank you."

Then she'd stood on tiptoes and gently kissed him on the cheek. As she'd drawn back, her face had been aglow and her smile had been luminous. She'd stared into his eyes for a long moment, then whispered, "I have to go. My dad's coming home soon and I have to start dinner for him."

He'd nodded silently and stood watching as she'd glided out of his workroom and out to her bike. He'd watched her ride away, her tawny hair flowing behind her, and he'd stood there, staring at the horizon, long after she'd vanished from his sight.

The memory warmed his heart, despite the pain it also brought. He quickly wiped his eyes and felt his mother's hand on his arm.

"Clark?" Her tone was gentle. "Are you okay?"

He nodded. "Yes."

His father's voice broke as he asked, "Were you thinking about -- Lana?"

He nodded again. "My twelfth birthday. She gave me that model of the Wright flyer."

Martha smiled. "You were so proud of that model, and rightfully so. It was perfect." She tilted her head to one side. "In fact, I think it's still up in your workroom. Seems like I saw it on the top shelf last time I dusted up there." She linked her fingers and rested her chin on the backs of her hands. "I don't think you ever knew that Lana asked me if I'd take thirty percent."

Clark frowned. "Thirty percent of what?"

"The proceeds from her exhibit. She was going to charge her schoolmates a dime apiece to see that model and pay me three cents a visitor for using my house to display it."

Clark chuckled. "No, I never knew that, but it sure sounds like Lana. Don't you think so, Dad?"

Jonathan glowered at them. "Yes. And it would still sound like her if --"

He broke off whatever he was going to say. Martha drew in a sharp breath and Clark knew she'd felt him stiffen. In an instant, he had transformed himself from a living, breathing person into a marble statue.

His mouth ground out the words. "You mean, if I'd been good enough to save her, don't you, Dad?"

Jonathan's mouth dropped open and he leaned forward. "What? No! No, Clark, I know you did everything you could! I meant that Lana would still be here if not for that -- that woman!"

Clark's arm relaxed under Martha's tender grasp. "It doesn't do any good to blame Lois, Dad. She didn't do anything --"

"She brought those criminals into your home!" Jonathan shouted. "She got Lana killed!" He slapped his hand down on the table. "She should pay for what she did!"

Clark spoke quiet and low. "What about me?"

"What? Son, you know you didn't --"

"I took Lois off the ship and left Lana in the hold to die."

"No! You --"

Clark raised his volume slightly. "I had the chance to save her and I didn't."

"But you thought she --"

He leaned towards his father. His eyes turned slate gray. "She'd been shot. Did I tell you that?"

"It was in the paper --"

"She held off all those men with a machine gun after she was shot. I didn't know she'd been hurt. I thought she was fine. I thought she wasn't in any immediate danger. I left her on that ship so she could be blown into tiny little bits." He stood. "You want to blame someone, Dad? Blame me! Blame your son, the great Superman who thinks he's so great he won't let anything happen to the people he loves, that no one close to him will ever die! Blame me, the short-sighted, self-centered grandstander who let his wife suffer a horrible death because he wasn't smart enough or fast enough or heroic enough!"

He knocked his chair backwards and stormed out the back door. Jonathan looked at Martha with a stricken look on his face.

She couldn't face this. Not right now. It was too much.

She stood and fled into the bedroom.

***

Clark wasn't sure how long he'd been down in the basement cellar, sitting cross-legged on the floor beside the ship, when he heard his father approach the door above. He heard the hum of the machinery as the door opened, heard Jonathan's steps on the wooden ladder, heard the scuff of his boots across the hay scattered over the floor. He even heard his father stop at the doorway to the inner chamber where the ship and the globe sat.

Then he heard something he hadn't heard for a long time, something that both baffled and amazed him.

He heard his father cry.

Clark stood and turned to see Jonathan leaning against the doorpost, wiping his eyes with an old blue bandanna. Clark went to his father and eased him against his super-strong shoulder as Jonathan wept openly.

After a while, Jonathan's tears slowed their flow and he muttered, "I'm sorry, son, I'm so sorry, please forgive me!"

Clark embraced his father and whispered, "There's nothing to forgive. Shh, Dad, it's all right, it's all right."

Jonathan shook his head. "No, it's not. I'm sorry that I hurt you again. I'm sorry you lost your wife at such a young age. I'm sorry we won't see the wonderful woman Lana would have become." He stopped and sniffed, then blew his nose on the bandanna. "But I'm mostly sorry for me."

Clark held his father's elbow. "Sorry for you? What do you mean?"

Jonathan didn't meet his son's gaze. "You remember what your mother said the night Lana asked her for your hand in marriage? That if there had been a girl in that ship, she hoped she might have been like Lana?"

Clark nodded. "I remember. Lana thought the world of you two even before that night, but after that, as far as she was concerned, neither one of you could ever do anything even remotely wrong."

Jonathan grinned through the remnants of his tears. "I -- I never told her how I felt about her. I wanted to. I believed it. I still do."

Clark hugged him. "Oh, Dad, she knew how much you and Mom loved her! You guys were second parents to her, and she thought the world of both of you. She knew how you felt about her."

Jonathan rested his head on Clark's shoulder again and said, "I'm glad." He patted Clark on the arm and said, "Thank you for telling me that."

"It's the truth. I'm not lying just to make you feel better."

"I know." Jonathan stepped back. "That's what makes it so special." He turned to climb the stairway, then stopped in place. "Are you coming up, or do you want to spend some more time down here?"

Clark looked at the globe, then at the ship, then at the barrel Lana had sat on the night he'd told her about his extra-terrestrial origins. He straightened and sighed deeply. "I'd better come on up. I need to get some rest before Monday."

"You're still going back to Metropolis?"

"It's my job, my career. I'm a journalist."

Jonathan nodded. "I understand. I'd feel the same way if I was away from the farm for too long."

"I love it here, Dad, but I can't stay. I have to go."

Jonathan smiled. "I know. I'm selfish and I want you to stay, but I really do understand. Neither you nor Superman can stay down on the farm forever."

Clark cocked his eyebrows at his father. "Funny you should put it like that. After all, I am Superman."

His father shook his head. "It's still hard for me to connect the things Superman has done with you, my son, whose diapers I used to change and whose bottles I used to heat up."

Clark smiled. "You know, you could sell that story to a tabloid. 'I Changed Superman's Dirty Diapers.' I'm sure the Metropolis Star would reward you handsomely."

"Yes, but would they respect me in the morning?"

Clark put his hand on his father's shoulder and laughed quietly. "Somehow I doubt it." He motioned towards the stairway with his head. "Let's go inside, Dad. I'm ready for some cake."

"Me, too." Jonathan put his foot on the first step, then hesitated. "Son -- if I tell you something, will you promise to understand?"

Clark frowned. "What is it?"

"Uh-uh. Promise first."

He hesitated, then nodded. "Okay. I promise to understand, whether I do or not."

"I sure hope you understand this." Jonathan hesitated again, then blew out his breath noisily. "I used to wish that ship had held both a boy and a girl. I wanted a daughter so much I could almost taste it. Your mother just wanted a child, any child, and I did too, but there's something in me that craves a daughter."

Clark nodded slowly. "I see. At least, I think I do."

"Oh, son, please understand me! I was thrilled with you and about you. Still am, always will be. Not only do I have no complaints, I don't know how you could be a better son. It's just that, when Lana announced she wanted to marry you, I thought I was getting that daughter that I'd wanted all those years."

"You did, Dad. She loved you almost as much as she loved Dennis."

"And that's the way it should have been. I was her father-in-law, but Dennis was her father. Still, I don't think there's anything I wouldn't have done if she'd asked it of me."

Clark smiled. "I know that feeling very well." He cuffed his father playfully on the shoulder. "Hey, I listened to you, now you listen to me! Let's go get some cake!"

Jonathan crossed his arms. "Young man, do you know what time it is?"

"Yeah, it's almost so late that it's early. But I'm still hungry."

Jonathan chuckled and waved for Clark to follow him up the staircase. "As long as your mother doesn't catch us, we'll be fine."

***

Clark lay in his bed, his hands clasped behind his head, thinking. Was he truly ready to rejoin the world of the living? Was he ready to move on with his life? Or would he fail to find any meaning to an existence without the woman he'd loved and married?

In his travels around the country, and in his work as Superman, he'd met people who'd lost loved ones and moved on. He'd also met some who'd never fully recovered from the death of a spouse. And it didn't seem to matter how long the couple had been together. Some partners had died young, some had died after most of a lifetime together, and some had been together one or two decades, leaving the survivor facing a new life on the cusp of middle age.

Those were the ones he thought had experienced the most difficulty. The youngest ones usually bounced back, and the older ones often either followed their beloved soon after or lived on alone, surrounded by so many good memories. But the mid-life ones, the ones who'd established a life pattern only to have it rent asunder too soon, often couldn't take the next step to either living among comfortable memories or building a new life with someone else. It was as if they had too much future to look forward to, future time without the person they'd loved enough to commit to for life.

He felt a pang of guilt. He'd never told Lana that the globe -- Bob, as Lana had named it -- had once told him, just after that wonderful twelfth birthday, that his life span would almost surely exceed that of a normal Earth human, but since no Kryptonian had ever lived his or her entire life under Earth's yellow sun, there was not enough data to be certain, nor was there enough data to predict how long Clark might actually live. It might be a century, it might be three, it might even be more, but however long it was, Clark had decided he'd live it alone. It wouldn't be fair to ask a mortal woman to live her life with a man who wouldn't age alongside her. And Clark didn't believe he'd want to watch a girl he loved enough to marry grow old and die while he remained young and vigorous.

Then Lana had wormed her way into his heart and made herself indispensable to his well-being. She'd deceived him on several occasions, to be sure, but up until now he'd chosen to believe that either he would have agreed with her decision or she had been right to conceal that information from him.

Now he wasn't so certain. He thought about Lana's duplicity and wondered why she'd done some of the things she'd done. He pondered the reasons she'd given him why she'd concealed her wealth. He still struggled with the knowledge that Lana's portfolio was now his, even if it was still managed by the almost living computer Lana had named Bob. If he lived a reasonable lifestyle, he could retire by the time he was thirty-five and never have to work another day in his life. Would Lana have wanted to do that? Would she have used the money to provide for the children he'd hoped for one day? Or would she have funded a lavish lifestyle like the one her mother enjoyed with her rich second husband? Or, perhaps, Lana would have become an archaeologist full-time and left him at home doing the Mr. Mom thing with the kids and the laundry and the dirty dishes. He would have done the best job he'd been capable of, naturally, but he wasn't sure he would have liked it all that much.

And the biggest question scurrying around in his mind would never be answered. Would Lana have changed her mind about marrying him if she had known that he'd outlive her by at least several decades?

Maybe.

Probably not.

But he'd never know for certain. The last time Clark had activated the globe, Bob had told him that the probability was greater than ninety-seven percent that Lana would have chosen to wed him even if she had known for a fact that she would have died young. Yet even that less than three percent chance had niggled at him.

No more. He had loved her, she had loved him, he had lost her, and he would mourn her for the rest of his days, no matter how many days that might add up to be.

Unless he acted on his dark fantasies. He might fly outside the Earth's atmosphere and find out just how long he could hold his breath. Twenty minutes seemed to be the maximum for him, but could he escape the Earth's gravitational field and set himself on a terminal orbit into the Sun in that time? Or could he launch himself towards the moon, bury himself in a new crater, and wait out the rest of the time?

Was suicide even a viable option for him? He didn't want to take Superman away from the world. But he didn't want to live in pain for the rest of his life, either.

He didn't know what he'd end up doing. But he'd keep his options open.

***

Chapter Four

>>>Saturday afternoon

Lois spent the rest of Saturday afternoon at her office, trying to connect Lex Luthor and Nigel St. John with any of the illegal activity she already knew about. All she found was some business transactions that possibly skirted the law, but nothing more than that, not even an ignored jury summons.

And that was an interesting story. Lois managed to pull up Perry's original notes on the story from the Planet's computer network. He'd somehow heard that Luthor had been sent a jury summons, so he'd slipped down to the courthouse to check it out himself. Sure enough, when the court clerk called the roll of prospective jurors, Lex had answered from his seat, and everything else in the room had ground to a halt.

The clerk's eyes had bugged out. "Excuse me -- you're -- you're Lex Luthor?"

"Yes, I am."

"You -- are you THE Lex Luthor?"

"If you mean am I the CEO of LexCorp, LexLabs, Luthor News Network, and a number of other businesses, then yes, that would be me."

"But -- why are you here?"

At that point, Luthor had stood. Everyone had seen that he was wearing jeans, tennis shoes, a denim jacket, and a work shirt. "I was under the distinct impression that not appearing here today would be a violation of the law."

"But -- it would, yes, but -- well, your lawyers could have taken care of this!"

Luthor had ducked his head and smiled. "You're probably right, sir, but I decided that if I'm that irreplaceable, then I haven't done a good job training my subordinates." He'd opened his hands and gestured to the room. "I'm here just like the rest of these folks, to do my civic duty. I don't expect any special treatment, and I'll serve on any jury I'm placed with to the best of my ability."

"I see. Thank you, Mr. Luthor, but I'm empowered to release from this duty anyone I choose to release. I'm not certain that having you on a jury would be a good thing."

Luthor's smile had disappeared. "Oh? Why is that?"

"The defendant deserves an impartial and disinterested jury, sir, and one whose attention is directed to the proceedings. I have a hard time imagining any courtroom where you would be able to fade into the background and allow the focus to remain on the trial."

"I'm sorry you believe I'm that shallow and self-aggrandizing."

"I don't have any such idea about you, sir, but because you are who you are, your very presence would distract the other jurors, the judge, the attorneys, the defendant, the plaintiff, and especially the bailiffs, because they're responsible for security. There are many celebrities who would fall into the same category as you, and I'd release them just like I'm releasing you. I thank you sincerely for your willingness to serve, Mr. Luthor, but I doubt you'd be accepted for any jury, simply because of your notoriety. I'm afraid, sir, that in this case, you are a victim of your own success."

Luthor's smile returned. "I see. Am I, then, free to go?"

The clerk had visibly relaxed. "Yes, sir, you are. And I will add a notation to your record that you are excused from any future jury duty, due to your celebrity. Thank you for coming, Mr. Luthor."

Luthor had stepped to the front of the room. "You're more than welcome. Have a good day -- " he'd stepped close and spoken in a stage whisper that was heard around the entire room " -- and try not to let anyone leave who's less famous than I am!"

The clerk had chuckled, the entire room had burst into laughter, and Perry had followed him out, hoping for an interview or at least a comment. All he'd gotten was a generic positive remark about the jury system and the American system of jurisprudence. Luthor had then called his driver on his cell phone and left.

Lois frowned. If this was an accurate retelling -- and since Perry's name was on it, she was sure it was accurate -- Lex had made some fast friends that day, generated some terrific PR buzz, and it hadn't cost him a nickel. It was the kind of thing a sneaky snake like the head of the gunrunning operation would plan to the tiniest detail, right down the engineering the summons in the first place.

But other aspects of Lex's character didn't seem to fit with his being a criminal mastermind. She discovered that he'd been funding a cancer research wing of the New Troy Children's Hospital for the past four years, and there hadn't been one peep about it in the press. There was also an endowment for the state's Veteran's Hospital which paid for two surgeons and fifteen nurses, two fire stations in Metropolis' inner city that he'd bought and refurbished and donated back to the city, an elementary school completely remodeled and fully stocked with books and desks and other equipment, and a large anonymous annual gift to the Policeman's Survivors fund.

All of it was anonymous. Even the cops on the street didn't know that Lex Luthor had provided a measure of security for their families in case the worst happened to any one of them.

She sat back in her chair and pondered. If Lex was dirty, these activities would make a good cover for him, but only if it was public knowledge. This was all done in secret. His behavior didn't fit her image of a bloodthirsty criminal mastermind.

Was it possible that he was holding these activities in reserve, waiting to go public with them to save his image if someone dug up some dirt on him? Could he be that glacial? Was anyone that calculating?

She sighed. She wouldn't break this case today. She'd go home, have an early -- and dateless -- Saturday evening, go to bed early, spend Sunday resting, and hopefully be ready for a new week on Monday.

When Clark was coming back to work.

She tensed at the realization. It would be a long weekend after all.

>>>Monday, 7:43 AM

Lois was seated at her desk when Clark came in. She happened to glance up at the elevator -- okay, she admitted to herself, she was looking for him. Their eyes met for a moment, but she couldn't read the expression on his face.

"Hello, Clark. Welcome back."

His eyes didn't change, but his mouth relaxed a little. "Thank you, Lois. It's good to be back."

"Are you okay? You look a little thin."

"I don't get thin. I don't get heavy, either, or at least not so far."

She loosened up a little and grinned. "I wish I had that kind of metabolism."

"Sorry. It's genetic."

She nodded. "How are you doing?"

He sighed and put his hands in his pants pockets. "About as well as can be expected, I guess."

"Have you been in Smallville?"

He met her gaze directly. "Are you asking me if I've been hiding?"

She held his eyes with hers. "No. I'm making conversation with a co-worker."

He hesitated, then nodded. "Yes. I've been talking to my parents. A lot."

She nodded. "Good." She broke eye contact and reached for a business card beside her phone. "If you feel like you need to talk to someone else, here's the number for my therapist."

Clark took the card with raised eyebrows. "You're seeing a therapist?"

She shrugged. "Survivor's guilt. I made it out, Lana didn't."

Lois watched him to see how he'd react to any mention of his wife. He didn't bat an eye, which she suspected was not as good as a slight reaction would have been.

He nodded. "I understand. Maybe I'll give her a call."

"If you do, make sure you tell her who gave you the card."

He almost grinned. "Why, do you get a referral fee?"

She almost grinned back. "No. So we don't meet each other between sessions. Dr. Friskin says that it's not always a good thing for people who know each other to meet in their therapist's outer office."

He glanced at the card again, then tucked it in his shirt pocket. "Thanks."

Perry chose that moment to poke his head out of his office. "Lois! Have you seen -- oh, never mind, there he is. Clark! Come in for a minute, son. I need to talk with you. Say, Lois, have you started on that car-jacking ring story?"

"Just this morning. You want a status report already?"

"No, I just want you to be careful. Two victims have been seriously injured already, and I don't want you to add yourself to the list, okay?"

She nodded. "Careful's my middle name."

He frowned. "Thought your middle name was Dangerous."

She glanced at the scar on her hand and tried to defuse the memory by being flippant. "I'm a woman. I can change either my mind or my identity any time I want to."

Perry looked at her closely for a moment, then nodded and closed the office door behind him. Lois wondered what he and Clark were talking about. She idly wished she had his special hearing talents.

She turned her focus back to her new assignment. A group of youths were taking expensive luxury and sports cars from people stopped first in line at traffic lights, almost always in the right lane, and always from lone drivers who weren't wearing safety belts. One thief would knock on the passenger window and ask an innocuous question about the time or how to get to main library or where the courthouse was from there. When the driver was sufficiently distracted, the second thief would smash the driver's window out with a crowbar -- assuming it wasn't already open -- and unlock both front doors. The first thief would then yank open the door, pull the driver out of the car, and drop him or her on the passenger side curb while the second thief would jump behind the wheel and race away.

One woman had struck her head on the curb and suffered a fractured skull. A man had fought back and been beaten unconscious. Both victims were recovering, but the injuries prompted the police to repeat their standard warning that your life was far more valuable than your car and far less replaceable.

The youths were dressed neatly in business casual clothing, which made them appear less threatening to the drivers. Only one victim had reported a non-Caucasian thief, and the victim wasn't sure if that one had been black, Hispanic, Asian, or Arabic. No one had heard any names mentioned, the clothing they had worn had been neat and clean, and it all appeared to be department store brand items.

Lois considered making herself bait to catch them in the act, but quickly discarded the notion. Her Jeep wasn't ritzy enough to tempt them, and she couldn't afford to rent or buy a Porsche or Jaguar or Lamborghini just for one story. She'd just had her six-month review and been commended for her industry and accuracy, but she was still one of the new kids on the floor. She'd have to do this the old-fashioned way, from the outside in.

She put the folder down and leaned back in her chair. She'd have to get someone else involved in this. Maybe Claude could do some of this stuff.

Claude? Nah. He wouldn't lower himself to actually help her with her story. Maybe Clark would --

She pushed the thought away as soon as she realized what she was thinking. She couldn't ask Superman to do legwork for her! Not only would it be demeaning, it would be -- she couldn't think of a term to describe how awkward that conversation would be.

Clark chose that moment to exit Perry's office and walk to her desk. "Lois, Perry asked me to tell you he wants to see you."

"Thanks." She stood and he turned to walk away, but stopped when she said, "Hello again, Clark."

Their eyes met again. She still couldn't read him. "Was there something else you wanted to ask me?"

She hesitated, then said, "No, I guess not. I hope everything -- " She closed her eyes for a moment and shook her head. "I'm sorry, that was a stupid thing to say."

"No, it wasn't. I appreciate your concern."

"Thanks. I'm not the only one, I'm sure."

"There are a lot of people treating me like I'm made of glass right now. I hope you won't be one of them."

She nodded. "If you say so. I don't want to do or say anything that would -- upset you, you know?"

"I'm still putting one foot in front of the other, Lois. And I'll be in the office full-time from now on. I've got to go on living, just like everyone else. I can't expect people to live their lives just so they don't upset me accidentally." He hesitated. "What about you? How are you doing? Really?"

"Me? I'm fine, just fine. I'm doing fine, thanks, yep." That's wonderful, she thought, babble on about how fine you are.

He nodded slightly. "I'll see you around, then." He pointed at the editor's office. "Perry's still waiting for you."

"Oh! Right. See you later."

Flustered, she fished in a drawer for pencil and notepad, then knocked on the editor's office door. "Chief? You wanted to see me?"

He waved her in from his desk. "Close the door and have a seat. Let me finish this." He uncovered the telephone receiver. "That's right, Paula, Clark's back and I still want you to partner with him. Kid gloves? That's your call, but I think he can take it if you need to push him a little. But just a little, okay? I don't want you to run him off. Sure. Ha-ha! Yeah, I remember. Okay, see you after lunch."

He put the phone back on the cradle. "I'm keeping Clark with Paula for the time being, but it's not like they're joined at the hip, so you and Clark can work on some things together too."

Her eyebrows did flips. "Me and Clark? Really? Are you sure about that?"

"Yep. That's part of what I wanted to talk to him about. I think you two can work well together."

She frowned. "I don't know about that. Clark is so much better with the 'soft' stuff than I am. He's better with people, too. I'm more the type to break into a business to get the goods, and Clark would charm the receptionist into unlocking the entire building."

"That's true. And that's part of the reason I want you two to pair up on occasion. Your different approaches to the story will compliment each other, and maybe he can keep you from being arrested." Perry lifted his hand and rushed past her objection. "Besides, I think your writing styles will dovetail. You'll drive each other to new heights of expression."

"New heights of expression, huh? Okay, if you say so." She tilted her head to one side. "What does Clark think about this idea?"

"He's almost as enthusiastic about it as you are. Besides, he knows who signs his paycheck."

She nodded, thinking that she'd have to talk to Dr. Friskin about this, too. Then another thought popped up. "Perry, what about Claude? Won't he be upset?"

"Don't much care. Claude doesn't drive this train, I do. Anyway, you and he have pretty much the same kind of loose partner relationship that Clark and Paula have. You're not married to him. And Claude's not totally comfortable with you right now, not that that's a completely bad thing. He needs to stay on the straight and narrow, and I'm not sure he'll do that hanging around you all the time." He stood and walked to the front of the desk. Before Lois thought to ask what his last comment might mean, he continued. "There's a couple more things I want to talk to you about before you get back to work."

She leaned back and frowned. "Okay."

"How are you doing? And be honest with me. Tell me what's going on in your mind."

She froze. "Has Dr. Friskin talked to you?"

"Hold on now!" He lifted his hands. "Lois, all I know about your sessions with her is that you've attended every one, and that's only because the Planet is picking up the tab. I promise, no one's told me diddly-squat about what you two have talked about. For all I know, she's helping you write your first novel." He squinted. "Or maybe you're helping her with hers."

Lois relaxed and grinned. "I'm sorry, Perry. I guess -- I'm a little tense."

He nodded. "And?"

"Well -- I haven't been sleeping very well."

"Didn't think you were impersonating a raccoon."

She chortled humorlessly. "No."

"What else?"

She sighed. "I can't stop thinking about Lana. I don't mean she occupies my mind every waking moment, but when I slow down or try to relax or when I see my hand I think about her. That's when I remember that she's -- that Clark is a widower because of me."

"You think he blames you?"

She crossed her arms and folded in on herself. "No. I blame me way more than he does. Clark's been as generous to me as he possibly could be."

"I know. You might say he's been absolutely super about it."

Lois flinched. "What does that mean?"

Perry sat on the edge of the desk and turned away from his inside window. "When I talked to Clark, I asked him why Superman flew all the way back to Metropolis to get him before he took you off the ship."

Lois felt a cold chill in the middle of her back. "And he said what?"

"That I'd have to ask Superman that question."

"Okay. And you said?"

"That I was asking him."

Despite being startled, she retained enough presence of mind to look at the outside window. "Superman was here? And you didn't tell me?"

Perry smiled warmly. "It's okay, Lois. Clark fessed up."

"What?"

"He confessed. He told me he's Superman. And he told me you already knew."

"Oh." She sat back in the chair and let the chill out with a deep sigh. "So much for keeping secrets."

"Now don't be like that, hon. I figured it out by myself. He just confirmed it."

"Why did he tell you that I knew?"

"I asked him straight out. I figured since you were out there, you would've already made the connection."

She lowered her gaze. "Lana told me. After she got hurt." Lois hesitated, then continued. "I think -- I think she was trying to keep me from doing something stupid that might get us both killed before Clark -- before Superman found us."

He nodded slowly. "I see." He stood and moved back to his chair. "How do you feel about that?"

She bristled. "You're a shrink now? I'm saving that for my next session!"

"Easy, Lois, easy. I just want to know if this is what's been affecting your work lately, that's all."

"Oh." She slumped a little in her chair. "You mean as opposed to something else in my otherwise pristine life?"

Perry didn't answer this time. Lois shook her head. "Yes, along with the rest of my load of guilt, the fact that I found out that Clark Kent and Superman are one and the same from the woman whose death I caused been hanging over my head for weeks." She sighed. "Anyway, I'm glad you know about it. He'll be able to cut out for Superman emergencies without too much of a problem."

"That also means that you'll have to cover for him at times. You think you can handle that?"

She nodded. "I'm a reporter, a guardian of truth and justice and the highest ethical standards of the profession. I can lie convincingly with the best of them."

He chuckled. "That's what I thought. Now to more mundane matters. How's the Luthor piece coming?"

"I'll have it for you by the end of the day. As requested, a nice, clean, boring personality profile."

"Good! You still think he's dirty?"

She frowned and sat up. "Something weird is going on at LuthorCorp, but I'm not sure what it is. I'm not even sure now who's responsible for it, but I promise I'll keep digging until I find out what it is. Oh, I picked up something for that new gossip columnist, Cathy? Katie? I can't remember her name."

"Catharine Grant. Goes by Cat. Writes a gossip column titled 'The Kitten's Paws'." He shook his head. "Gossip. You'd think people would have better things to do with their time."

"People want to be informed, Perry."

"You just remember to keep me informed of your future activities, young lady. I don't want to write your obituary any time soon."

She paled slightly. "You fight dirty, don't you?"

"I do what I have to do to protect my best people. You and Clark have become two of those best people." He leaned forward. "And I don't want you to lose your edge because of this. You're ferocious with a story, or at least you were before this happened. Be human, Lois, and care about people, but don't let your feelings stop you from doing your job." He stood. "Now get out there and find me those carjackers."

"As soon as I talk to Catharine about this tidbit."

"Right. Give the public what they want, and maybe they'll get what they need, too."

Instead of tossing off another riposte, Lois left Perry's office in silence. She stopped for a moment and scanned the room for the gossip writer's desk. She was easy to spot; her long auburn hair and open, breezy manner made her stand out like a nun at a cabaret. Lois headed in her direction.

She was on the phone with someone, cooing like a dove. "Come on, Ronnie, you can tell me. Of course not! Look, I know that George and Jennifer want this to come out, you know that I know it, and I know that you know that I know it. All I need from you is a confirmation. No! Ronnie, you know I don't print what I can't confirm. Why do you think I'm talking to you now? Of course. Yes, I understand. Next Thursday at three-thirty? Honeymoon at a private chalet in Bermuda? I didn't know Bermuda had any chalets. Oh, The Chalet! The name of the hotel! They rented the whole thing? Oh, the guests are staying there, too? Wow, that is a big wedding. Got it. Thanks, Ronnie. Give Ranger my love, and give him an extra apple for me. And don't ride him too hard unless you rub him down afterwards! Bye for now."

Lois waited until the stunning redhead finished jotting down her notes. "Miss Grant? I'm Lois Lane."

The other woman looked up and smiled. "Yeah, I know. Sit down, take a load off."

"That's okay, I won't be long."

"Your choice. Call me Cat, everyone else does. What can I do for you, Lois?"

"I have two things for you, actually. I ran across some things I can't use but maybe you could. I heard that Peter Burton was in town the other day. He had a lunch meeting with Lex Luthor and they talked about some kind of movie deal."

Cat smiled wider and nodded. "I'd already picked that up, but it's nice to have it confirmed. Luthor is financing some historical epic Burton wants to do. It's supposed to make 'Gone with the Wind' look like a Warner Brothers cartoon. Read about it in my column first!" She leaned back, still smiling. "What's the other thing?"

"Jackie Michaelson visited Luthor at his office last week, and my source says it sounded like Luthor was going to back her latest tour."

Cat's eyes widened. "Really? Oh, wow! I knew there was big money behind Jackie's latest tour plans, but I didn't know about Lex Luthor being involved! What else can you tell me? You have any dates? Who's your source?"

Lois lifted her hands. "Whoa! That's all I have, honest. It came up in a conversation about something else. And I can't reveal my source. I need her for another story."

Cat smiled. "Hey, I understand. No problem. Thanks for the tip! This is good stuff! If I hear anything about any criminal activity, I'll bring it to you first, okay?"

Surprised, Lois nodded in agreement. Cat could be a good conduit for information. "Sure. And if I hear anything that fits better in your column than in one of my articles, I'll bring it over."

Cat stood and put her hand out. "Deal!" They shook hands. "Say, I'm going to lunch early today. You want to tag along?"

Lois hesitated. "I better take a rain check this time. Sorry, but I already have plans."

"No problem. We'll do it some other time. Thanks again for the tip."

"You're welcome."

Lois returned to her desk, thinking that maybe she could use a girlfriend. She hadn't trusted other women since Linda King had double-crossed her in college, and it was probably time to stop blaming all female journalists for what Linda had done to her. Yes, Cat Grant could be her friend. Goodness knew, she needed some friends.

She sat down at her desk and the phone rang. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet."

"Hi, Lois, it's Rebecca."

"Oh! Rebecca, I'm glad you called. Is everything all right?"

"Sure, everything's fine. Mr. St. John gave me a ride back to work after lunch on Saturday and he was a perfect gentleman. I guess I repeated some pretty bad rumors about him to you."

"So what are you saying?"

"That I don't think he's quite the bad guy I told you about. He has a pleasant side -- whoops, hold on, got a call."

A stunningly dull instrumental version of the Beatles' "Nowhere Man" began playing over the phone while Lois was on hold. The song was almost finished before Rebecca came back on the line.

"I'm back, Lois. Sorry about that. It was a business call."

Lois almost asked her about it, then drew back. Maybe Rebecca could be more than a source. "So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your call?"

"I didn't get my dessert on Saturday."

Lois chuckled. "You know, I didn't either."

"Then let's meet there tonight and force your Uncle Mike to say, 'Niece, niece!'"

Lois leaned back in her chair and shook like a skinny bowl of jelly. "Ha-ha-ha! Sure, that sounds great! What time?"

"Six-thirty okay with you?"

"Should be. I'll call Mike's and leave a message if I get hung up."

"It's a date! I'll see you there. Bye!"

That girl's enthusiasm is contagious, thought Lois. She lifted her gaze to Cat Grant. Speaking of contagious enthusiasm and friends, there's no time like the present.

She suddenly found herself standing beside Cat's desk. "Hi, Cat."

"Hi, Lois. What's up?"

"Uh, you know that lunch invitation? Is it still open?"

Cat smiled warmly. "Your date canceled on you, huh? The dummy."

Lois started to protest that she hadn't actually had a date, then simply shrugged. "My plans fell through."

"Too bad for him, but lucky for me. Yeah, we can still make it. I have reservations at La Bamba at eleven-thirty. How's that sound?"

Lois stared. "La Bamba? You have reservations there?"

Cat grinned conspiratorially and held her index finger up in front of her mouth. "Not so loud! Everybody in the building doesn't need to know." She held her hand up and crossed two fingers. "The manager and I are like this. Besides, all the 'A' list people in Metropolis eat there. Lunch is a great time to pick up some juicy gossip."

"Good. You want to drive or shall I?"

"Drive? Sorry, but in your car? Ooh, Lois, Jeeps are so last year. We simply have to take a cab."

Lois sighed. "Lunch with a sexy gossip columnist at the city's top lunch spot and a classy cab ride to boot. I don't know if my tattered psyche can stand this."

Cat reached out and patted her hand. "We'll work on the psyche later. Today is for your ego."

***

Chapter Five

>>>Monday, lunchtime

Lois looked around the room with a dropped jaw. "Cat, I had no idea this place was like this! Is it always this crowded?"

"Of course. It's always booked solid, too, but somebody either doesn't show up or comes too late to get a table, so it's pretty much first come, first serve."

"Wow. I've flown stand-by, but I've never eaten stand-by."

Cat laughed. "I always book for two, and I've yet to eat alone."

Wide-eyed, Lois noted the presence of the mayor and his office entourage, two idols of the silver screen in a dark booth whose individual marriages were rumored to be on the rocks, three business moguls, a used car salesman whose famous commercials hammered late-night viewers around the state, and what looked like a painting of a partridge in a pear tree beside the door to the kitchen.

The maitre'd bowed to Cat and spoke in a lilting Spanish accent. "Senorita, my deepest apologies and regrets, but we have no table for two available as you usually prefer. Would you accept a corner booth instead?"

"Of course, Arturo. That would be fine."

"Bueno. Please follow me."

As they made their way past the tables to the booth, Cat spoke over her shoulder to Lois. "I saw Mickey and Maude in this very booth last week. They looked really lovey-dovey, too. I think they're going to get back together, and not just on stage, if you know what I mean."

Lois nodded. "I read that in your column. Didn't Maude's husband issue a statement denying that rumor?"

Cat waved her hand. "He has to, Lois, or he loses all credibility. This way, when Maude leaves him, he can say that it took him by surprise and he never saw it coming and he wants half her income for the next fifteen years. He might get it, too, if he can get the right judge."

Arturo stopped and gestured to the booth. "Here you are, Senoritas. Audrey will be here in a moment to take your beverage orders. Enjoy your lunch. If you require my services, please do not hesitate to call me."

He bowed and smiled and glided away. Cat sighed as she watched him go. "My, my, my, what a waste of a man."

Lois shook her head. "Excuse me?"

"Nothing. What do you want to drink?"

"Let me see. Wait, is this personal or business?"

Cat grinned. "It's a bit of both, actually. And don't worry about some Planet bean counter checking the receipt. It's going on my personal credit card." She leaned closer and whispered, "I write off most of this at the end of the year, anyway."

Lois smiled back. "I think we use the same accountant."

"Anyway, if you want a small glass of wine, go ahead, unless you think it'll interfere with your judgment."

"I think I'll stick with iced tea today. If I come back on a Friday, I'll check out the wine list."

"Iced tea? I thought you were Lois Lane, risk-taker extraordinaire."

Lois' brow darkened. "Not so much. Not any more."

Cat nodded and changed the subject. "Hey, have you talked to Clark Kent since he's been back?"

"Clark? Uh, not really, just to say 'hi' and 'welcome back.' Why?"

She jiggled Lois' elbow. "He's back at work, silly. That means he's recovering. You think he's looking for a girlfriend yet?"

Towering rage reared its hideous head in Lois' heart. Cat's head remained on her shoulders only because a perky young brunette suddenly appeared at their table and distracted Lois. "Hi! I'm here for your drink orders. Do you need some more time to look at your menus?"

Cat nodded. "A couple of minutes, yes. Lois, you want an iced tea, right? And I'll have a non-alcoholic strawberry daiquiri."

"Okay! If you need anything, my name's Audrey!"

Lois had used the moment to regain her composure. She put on the most innocent expression she could muster and asked, "What's your name if we don't need anything?"

"Huh?"

Cat tried to stifle her splutter of laughter but failed. Audrey thought about it for a moment, then grinned and nodded. "I get it! Yeah! If you don't need anything, my name's Fred!"

Lois chuckled. "Can we call that one a draw?"

"Sure! I'll be right back with your drinks!"

Cat was still laughing behind her hand as Audrey bounced away. Lois picked up her menu and asked, "Is their steak any good or should I go with a salad?"

Cat leaned back and pressed a hand against her stomach. "That just struck me as so funny! Whew!" She fanned herself with her free hand. "If you want a steak, they'll cook it exactly how you want it. I'm going with the baked grouper today. Arturo sent me an e-mail recommending it."

Lois looked at the lunch entrees. "I think I'll have the six-ounce sirloin and rice pilaf."

"Sounds good. Comes with salad or soup, too."

"At these prices it should come pre-cut into bite-sized pieces."

Cat laughed again, and Lois returned a grin. Then she remembered Cat's previous comment. "Hey, can I ask you a personal question?"

Cat grinned and leaned closer. "Ooh, an interview! Sure, fire away."

"What did you mean when you asked if Clark was looking for a girlfriend?"

Cat grinned mischievously, then drew a breath to answer. Her smile slowly faded as she looked into Lois' eyes. "Oh. Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't know."

"Huh? Didn't know what?"

"That you felt that way about him."

"What? What way? What are you talking about?"

Cat frowned slightly. "It's right there all over your face, Lois. I don't think you want him for yourself, but it's obvious that you care about what happens to him. You care a lot. And if some young, beautiful, sexy female co-worker decided to make a play for him, you'd swat her down in a Metropolis minute if she didn't meet your standards for him."

Audrey rematerialized beside their table and set their drinks down. "You ladies ready to order now?"

"Sure. Lois, you wanted that six-ounce sirloin, right? How do you want it cooked?"

"Medium rare, please."

Audrey scribbled for a moment. "Baked potato, fries, rice, or veggie medley?"

"I thought about the rice, but I'll take the vegetables instead."

"And the dressing on your salad?"

"Um, Italian on the side, please."

"Yes, ma'am. And what would you like today, Ms. Grant?"

"Baked grouper with baked potato, butter only, no sour cream, Thousand Island dressing on green salad."

Audrey's smile shimmered again. "Okay! I'll get this right to the cook and come back with your salads! Oh, did you want some of our fresh-baked bread? It tastes almost as good as a cute guy's kiss!"

Cat laughed. "Bring it on! But I doubt it's anywhere near that good."

"You never know, Ms. Grant. The bread won't take your phone number and then never call."

Cat and Lois laughed with her as she skipped away again. Lois turned back to Cat and muttered, "I wonder about her timing."

"It's okay, Lois, I won't spill your beans. I was half-kidding, anyway. Clark's out of my league."

"What? I would've thought he'd be right up near the top of your list."

She shook her head. "No. Even before I found out that you -- how you felt about him -- I'd never get to first base with him, not even if he had amnesia. His wife spoiled him for just about anyone else."

"Really? How can you tell? I didn't think you'd met him before she -- before."

Cat shrugged. "I brought Paula Young here not long ago. Before she and Arturo got into an argument about her smoking, she gave me the lowdown on him. He was devoted to her and she to him. They had the real thing. It's just too bad she died so young."

Lois felt the knife twist in her heart. She bit her lip and felt her control slipping away. She stood suddenly and looked around. "Ladies' room? Where?"

Cat turned and pointed. "Far corner past the kitchen."

Lois hit the door at a fast trot and almost knocked down another patron. She dove into the first unoccupied stall she found, sat on the edge of the seat, and pressed her knuckles against her eyes to stop the tears. It didn't quite work.

After a few moments she heard a hesitant knock on the stall door. "Lois? It's Cat. I'm sorry. I really put my foot in it, didn't I?"

Lois wiped her eyes with her hands and sniffed. "N-no. I just -- sometimes I react badly, that's all."

Cat slowly pushed open the door and put her hand on Lois' shoulder. "You okay? You want to cancel lunch?"

Lois shook her head. "No, no, I'll be fine." She pulled some tissue from the dispenser and blew her nose. "I'll be right out."

Cat nodded. "I'll wait at the booth."

Lois took a deep breath and looked around for her purse. Sure enough, her reflexes had worked; it was on the floor beside her foot. She spent a quick minute fixing her makeup before returning to lunch.

She nodded to Cat, who was working on her salad. Lois sliced a piece of bread and buttered it, then ate it silently before beginning on her own salad.

Cat speared a piece of celery. "I'm sorry. Really."

"It's okay."

"I don't think it is." Cat held her fork in front of her mouth. "But I also think it will be."

Lois closed her eyes. "When?"

"When you're ready. When it's time. When you've grieved enough."

"And when will that end?"

"Never."

Lois looked at her. "You know, you'd make a whale of a therapist."

Cat shook her head. "I lost a close friend when I was twelve. She was hit by a car speeding through a school zone. There are times even now when I think, oh, that's so cool, I can't wait till I tell Missy about this, and then I remember that she's gone and it still hurts."

"And this is supposed to make me feel better?"

Cat's voice softened. "But the hurt doesn't overwhelm me any more. It doesn't stop me from making friends." She put her hand on Lois' arm. "And it doesn't stop me from living. Don't let it stop you, okay?"

Lois nodded her silent assent, then turned her attention to the loaf of bread on the table. After a moment, she became uncomfortable with the lack of conversation. "Audrey was right about the bread."

Cat sighed. "Oh, I don't know. Kissing bread really isn't my style."

Lois stifled a chuckle that escaped as a snort. "I guess it's not mine, either. Are you going to complain to Audrey about it?"

Cat grinned around a lettuce leaf and shook her head. "I like to give the wait staff a hard time. Makes them earn their tip."

Lois grinned and began to relax. Audrey materialized with their entrees, and the two women enjoyed a wonderful meal and began building a friendship.

***

Lois spent the rest of the afternoon working on the carjacking story and growing progressively more frustrated. She'd spoken to three police officers, one desk sergeant, four victims, two ER nurses and an attending physician who'd treated the man who'd been beaten, and she had no more solid information than before. She realized she'd been muttering aloud to herself when Cat came over and plunked a diet soda down in front of her.

"Here. This may calm you down."

Lois looked up at Cat's soft smile and nodded. "Thanks." Then she ripped the pull-tab off and chugged half of the can at once.

"Tough story, huh?"

Lois put down the can and burped. "'Scuze me. Yeah, this is a tough nut to crack. I can't think of anyone else to call. I've got nine pages of notes and no more facts than I had when I started." She flipped the notepad shut and slapped it down on her desk. "I haven't been this frustrated since my seventh birthday."

Cat sat on the edge of the desk. "What happened on your seventh birthday?"

"I asked my parents for an electric typewriter and they gave me a toy oven, complete with plastic food."

Cat smiled gently. "As a famous philosopher once said, 'You can't always get what you want.'"

Lois chimed in with the next line. "'But if you try sometimes you might find -- '"

They finished together. "' -- you get what you need.'"

Both women laughed, and Cat reached over and patted Lois' forearm. "See? That wasn't so bad, was it?"

"Guess not." She rubbed her face with her hands. "It's after five-thirty. I'm going to call it a day and head for home."

"I'll see you tomorrow, then. I have to finish my Wednesday column before I go. Good night."

Lois shut down her computer and picked up her purse. Then she remembered her dinner date with Rebecca. She stopped and groaned, then decided to make the best of it and enjoy the girl's company.

She might as well enjoy the company of women. Her luck with men was so bad it qualified for Federal disaster relief.

>>>Monday, 6:42 PM

"Hi, Lois!" shouted Rebecca. "Over here! I got a great table!"

Lois smiled. "As long as it's within whistling range of the kitchen, it's a great table."

"Oh, it is! And I guilted your uncle into giving us free dessert tonight."

Lois plopped down in her chair. "That couldn't have been all that difficult. Uncle Mike's a pushover for a pretty girl."

Rebecca preened like a teen. "Thank you, Lois. Hey, did anyone ever call you 'Lo' when you were younger?"

"Not more than once or twice. And before you ask, I'd prefer you not greet me by yelling, 'Hi, Lo!' That's been done to death."

The perky redhead smiled even wider. "Oh, I figured that out already. I asked Mike to bring us the same drinks we had last time. Hope that's okay."

"Sounds great."

Lois picked up a menu and glanced at it, then smiled as Mike brought their drinks. "Thanks," she said.

"Non de parm," he responded.

"Fermitas. Don de blemmel und planken."

"Yah, und flicken spicken donder plotzen de glompen."

"Nein! Winder zander de zipzen glatz. Pikten flinder morps."

Mike paused and glanced at Rebecca, who was staring at them with a highly puzzled and slightly alarmed expression. "Hey, Red, what's the matter?"

"Um -- what language was that?"

Lois suppressed the laughter bubbling up from her belly. "What are you talking about?"

"The -- whatever it was you two were speaking just then."

Mike turned to Lois, and neither of them could hold it back any longer. They both burst out laughing.

When he calmed down, Mike explained, "It's a nonsense language she and her little sister used to use when they wanted to befuddle their parents, which, by the way, wasn't all that difficult to do. I picked it up when Lucy was about two, and sometimes we just fall back into it. Didn't mean to mess with your head or anything."

"Oh." Rebecca nodded. "Yeah, man, ya don't wanna talk like yer from outta state or nuttin', do ya?"

Mike's eyebrows rose, and when Rebecca glanced at Lois, she said, "Yah, Beeca, ya cain't hardly find nobody whats talks good English no more."

Mike lifted his finger. "Hey, you two, I --"

Rebecca broke in. "Ya know, chicky, they was a time when a goil could get a good meal and tons o' respect, but now, I mean, ya cain't never tell 'bout dose guys."

"Let me just take your order --"

Lois joined in. "Just think, huh, way back when them dino-sawers wuz roamin' around. Hey, Mike, wuz you real, real sad when they all kicked the bucket?"

Mike glared at each of them in turn. "That's it. You get the house special tonight and no backtalk!"

He stormed off to fit deeds to his words. Lois leaned forward on the table, and Rebecca nearly fell out of her chair.

Their hysterical laughter caught the attention of an older couple, apparently from out of town, who stood open-mouthed watching them from the sidewalk. When Lois noticed them and pointed, the sight of them set Lois and Rebecca laughing once again.

The woman nudged the man and said, "Come along, Walter, let's leave before the men in white coats come to take them home."

Rebecca and Lois were still convulsed in frenzied hilarity when Mike brought their entrees to the table.

>>>Tuesday, 8:30 AM

Lois was hard at work the next morning when her phone rang. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet."

"Lois, this is Rebecca. How you doin', girlfren'?"

She fell back into the funky patter with which they'd befuddled Mike the night before. "Doin' good, doin' good. How's by you, eh?"

Rebecca's laugh sounded like pure silver. "You sound like New Jersey by way of Canada!"

"I was never that good at accents, just nonsense speech. What's up?"

"You know that article you wrote about Mr. Luthor?"

"Of course I do. I wrote it. We published it in this morning edition."

Rebecca's voice became breathy. "You won't believe this. I'm not sure I believe it! I've never even heard of it before!"

"What are you talking about?"

"Lois, this is so awesome! He knows I know you so he asked me to call and tell you!"

"Rebecca, will you please tell me whatever it is you're trying to tell me?"

"Oh, right, right." Her voice dropped a full register. "Mr. Luthor read your article in the paper today."

"I'd hope so. It was good."

"Yeah, he thought so too. He thought your presentation was balanced and fair, and he thinks you're a wonderful journalist. In fact, he wants you to interview him!"

Lois' jaw would've hit the floor had it not been attached to her face. Rebecca waited for a moment, then almost shouted, "Lois! Did you hear me?"

"Uh. I think so. Say it again, will you?"

"Girlfriend, you have an interview with Lex Luthor!"

Lois almost fell out of her chair, then stood up and slapped her desk. "Yee-hah! I'll be right over!"

"No! Not today!"

"What!" Lois was almost dancing around her desk. "Not today? When?"

"He's out of the office for the rest of this week, but he'd like to see you Tuesday of next week at eleven o'clock. Think you can make it?"

"Are you crazy? I'll be there with bells on! Oh! How much time can he give me?"

"An hour. Unless you want to have lunch with him, in which case it'll be two hours."

Two hours! A one-on-one interview with the third richest man in the world! It was almost a dream come true!

Then she had a thought. "Rebecca, who else will be there?"

"Uh, the cook, one or two waiters, maybe Mr. St. John --"

"That's not what I meant! How many reporters will be there?"

"Other reporters? No others, Lois, this is your exclusive interview. You'll have him all to yourself the whole time."

A one-on-one private interview with the third richest man in the world! It was indeed a dream come true! "Great! Put my name down and use indelible ink! And tell him yes, I also accept his gracious invitation to lunch."

"Done! I'll send his secretary an e-mail about it. Hey, some of the other master's students are coming over on Saturday night for a party, you know, music, dancing, mild refreshments, dangerous boys, and I thought you might like to come."

"Ooh, dangerous boys, huh? I'd like to, but I'd better take a rain check this time. But if you do it again, be sure to let me know."

"Will do. I better get back to work. See you next week."

"Until Tuesday at eleven. And thanks."

"Don't thank me until after you get your interview. Whatever happens, I can promise you it'll be interesting."

Lois chuckled into the phone. "Okay, Rebecca. Bye."

She hung up and raced into Perry's office. "Perry! I got it!"

Perry looked up from the copy he'd been examining. "Great! What did you get?"

She pushed the door shut with a slam. "An exclusive interview with Lex Luthor!"

His face fell. "Aw, honey, you can't mess with my mind like that! Lex Luthor don't never give no interviews to nobody."

"But Perry, it's true! His receptionist just called me to verify it! He wants to meet with me at eleven o'clock next Tuesday! He's mine for two hours!"

Perry's jaw dropped. "Two hours?" She nodded excitedly. "What are you gonna talk about for two hours?"

"Are you kidding? I've got plenty of stuff to start with! Besides, the invitation also includes lunch!"

"Oh. Lunch. I see."

"Don't give me that 'ulterior motive' look, Perry! I'm a big girl and I can take care of myself!"

He stood and walked around the desk to stand in front of her. "Ordinarily, honey, I'd agree with you, but Lex Luthor's a special case. He can charm the paint off a school bus. Why, he talked to a cowboy for just ten minutes the other day and walked away with his brand new boots, leather belt, and silver buckle with the man's name on it!"

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "I'm assuming that's a country aphorism of some kind."

"Course it is! Look, you go, but you be careful! In fact, I'd prefer it if you took someone along for backup."

"Backup?" She raised her arms in frustration. "I can't take backup! That would just tell Luthor that I'm afraid of him!"

"You should be. He's tough as an old shoe and tighter than a supermodel's thong. He didn't get where he is by being nice."

"Perry, I don't --"

"Take a backup."

"I don't want --"

"Take Clark."

Her mouth froze for a moment. "Wh-what?"

"Take Clark with you. He'll watch over you like a hawk."

She thought for a moment. He would certainly do that. And if she did somehow get in over her head, he could be there to help her in a moment's notice.

But would Clark agree? "What if he doesn't want to go?"

Perry shook his finger in her face. "Who's drivin' this train, darlin'?"

She grinned and touched his fingertip with hers. "You are, you old softy. Okay, assuming Clark's willing, I'll take him with me. Have him ready by ten next Tuesday. It's not formal, but tell him to wear a suit with a nice tie." She hesitated, then continued, "Better yet, I'll buy him a couple of ties."

***

Lois was still cloud-walking over the pending interview with Luthor when she came back from lunch. She waved enthusiastically to Cat across the room and even smiled at Claude. She sat down at her desk and whirled completely around in her chair once before going back to work.

An hour later, she lifted her head to decompress. She'd compiled a long list of questions to ask the man, and now she'd work on distilling them down into a shorter set which -- hopefully -- would allow him to volunteer information while answering other questions on related topics. One very good interview technique was to ask personal questions first, on the theory that most people like to talk about themselves, then proceed to more specific questions, which the subject would answer in more detail since he or she had already opened up and was already talking.

But she suspected Luthor was too cool for a ploy like that. She'd have to be very sneaky, very subtle. She'd have to step carefully, or he might simply shut the interview down. And that couldn't happen. She had too much riding on this.

She sighed deeply and put the list aside. There was time for that later. She had to get back on the carjacking story before Perry took it from her and gave it to someone else.

She started as someone touched her shoulder. She looked up and saw Clark standing there with an anxious look on his face.

"Lois, please tell Perry I have to go. There's an emergency."

She nodded. "I'll tell him. Go take care of whatever it is."

"Right." He turned and strode quickly to the stairwell near his desk, then slipped inside. Lois thought she heard a 'whoosh' before the door slid back into place.

She smiled to herself. She knew a secret! Well, she and Perry did, and it was nice to know that Clark trusted her enough to tell her he was leaving as Superman. She hoped he brought back a good story.

***

Four hours later, Lois' good mood was gone. She picked up four wooden pencils and snapped each of them in turn, then threw away the pieces and dropped her head into her hands.

"Lois? You okay, hon?"

She turned. "Oh, hi, Chief. Back from your meetings?"

He growled. "Hate accountants and actuaries and budget meetings. Those young bean-counting whippersnappers couldn't write a story about the sinking of the Titanic if you spotted them the outline and five key sentences." He looked around the newsroom. "You know where Clark is?"

"Yeah. He had -- " she waved her hand in a gesture meant to imitate flight " -- an emergency."

His brow rose in comprehension. "Oh. You mean --"

She nodded. "Yeah, that kind."

"Did he say when he'd be back?"

"No. I got the impression it was something pretty important, but he didn't say what it was."

"Okay. If you see him before I do, send him to me."

"Will do, Chief." She turned towards her desk, but saw Clark approaching from the stairwell, so she said, "Hey, Chief, I found him."

"About time. We've got a newspaper to print, after all."

Clark strode straight towards them, and instead of greeting them, he motioned for them to follow him into a conference room. He locked the door behind them and turned to face his two friends.

"I have some more information for Lois' story on the carjackers."

Lois' mouth dropped open in shock. Her story? He was working her story? Friends didn't steal each other's stories! Super-powered or not, she'd clobber him!

Before she could pick up a blunt object and follow through on her plan, Perry frowned and put his hands on his hips and demanded, "Is that what you've been doing for the last three hours, Kent? Following leads for someone else's story? That's not the way we do things at the Planet --"

Clark cut him off. "I know that, Chief. And I'll have a Superman exclusive about the earthquake in San Salvador and the rescue efforts on your desk before I leave. Now both of you just listen for a minute.

"When I got back to Metropolis, I flew over a car as it was being stolen. By the time I realized what was happening, the driver was on his feet yelling for a cop and cursing at the thieves. Since he wasn't hurt, I decided to follow them and see where they went."

Lois leaned forward with an eager expression. "Don't keep us in suspense, Clark! Where'd they go?"

"Down an alley and into the back of a tractor-trailer rig."

"A trailer!" Perry burst out. "You mean they drove a stolen car into a trailer to hide it?"

"Not just to hide it, to take it to the chop shop. I have the address and the descriptions of all the people inside written down in my notebook, plus the make and model and license plates of the tractor-trailer rig and the cars I saw inside."

Lois grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the doorway. "Great! Let's go bust them now before they get a chance to get away!"

Clark leaned back and twisted his arm out of her grip. "Hold on! There's one more thing you need to know."

"Oh, come on, Clark, you can tell us all about --"

"Something hurt me."

Lois' eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. Perry cocked his head to one side. "I thought there wasn't anything could hurt you, son, at least not physically."

Clark shook his head. "So did I, Chief. I guess we were both wrong."

Lois regained control of her mouth. "What happened to you?"

"I landed just outside the chop shop. I was going to make a dramatic entrance and try to intimidate them into surrendering, but something outside hurt me."

"What? What hurt you?"

"I don't know, Lois. All I do know is that I suddenly felt weak, almost drained, and then I felt pain in my arms and legs. I turned and stumbled away and the pain stopped, but my powers were gone for a while."

"Are they back now?"

"For the most part, yes, but I didn't want to risk a crash-landing on the roof of the Planet, so I changed clothes in an alley and took a cab back here."

Perry almost smiled. "Under other circumstances, Superman takin' a cab would be almost funny."

Lois would have snarled at anyone else. As it was, she glowered at her boss. "Perry, there's not the slightest particle of humor in this situation! If somebody has something that can hurt Superman, why haven't they used it before? And what is it? How much do they have? How badly does it affect him? How serious is this threat? How --"

Perry lifted his hands in defeat. "Okay, okay! You're right. Kent, I'm guessin' this ain't part of your Superman exclusive."

Clark put his hands on his hips and exhaled noisily. "I bet you're a whiz at game shows, Chief."

"They didn't make me editor because I know all the dialogue to Blue Hawaii."

Lois crossed her arms and 'humphed' loudly. "I'd stay and help you two work on this, but I have an appointment. I'll see you later."

With that, she led them out of the conference room.

***

Nigel lifted the special cell phone and punched in a number. An electronically distorted voice answered. "Yes?"

"Project K has passed its first test with flying colors."

"So soon? I thought the first test was scheduled for this weekend."

"A serendipitous confluence of events provided me with a golden -- or, perhaps I should say, an emerald -- opportunity."

"You're saying you got lucky?"

He smiled. "Luck is preparation meeting opportunity."

"Then I'm glad you were sufficiently prepared. How did this happen?"

"I was checking on the automobile parts distribution center and --"

"It's a chop shop, Nigel. Just call it that."

He forcibly restrained himself from calling his employer an ignorant colonial thug. "As you wish. I was checking on the -- the chop shop -- when the subject landed outside the building. Fortunately, I was also outside at the time and about to leave. No one inside saw him."

"What was the subject's reaction?"

"Sudden weakness, loss of balance, inability to fly, and apparent pain. He fled the scene on foot."

"Were you spotted?"

"Of course not. The subject remained completely unaware of my presence."

"Hmm. Perhaps we should move up phase two."

"Of course. I shall arrange it for next Tuesday if that is convenient."

"It is, but make it Tuesday evening, between six and nine p.m. I have an appointment during the day and I want to hear the results as soon as you have any."

"It will be as you say. Is there anything else at this time?"

"Not unless you have something else. Do you?"

"One thing. I recommend that we re-allocate our assets to preserve the most valuable members of the -- the chop shop team and the most expensive vehicles."

"Why not just empty the whole place?"

"I would not advise that. Such a move would reveal that someone noticed Superman near the site, and would precipitate a much more thorough investigation. If we let them apprehend a few non-essential personnel, it will allow the police -- and the reporters -- to believe that they have materially hindered our operations."

"Hmm. That's a good idea. Do you have time to get all that done?"

"Yes. The moves will be completed before midnight."

"Good work, Nigel. Keep me posted."

"As you wish."

Nigel snapped the phone shut and turned towards his apartment. The payment to his private Cayman Islands account would be credited within the hour, and he had plans for that money.

***

As Perry, Clark, and Lois exited the conference room, the young woman across the newsroom slipped gently away from Claude's discreet embrace and shut herself into a storage room. She punched an unlisted number into her personal cell phone and waited.

An electronically distorted voice answered. "Yes?"

"Kent and Lane just had what looks like a pretty intense conference with Perry White. They all look worried about something."

"Can you tell what it was?"

"No. If I find out, I'll let you know."

"I want you to find out. Is Lane still working on the carjacking story?"

"Carjackers? As far as I know, yes."

The voice spoke slowly and firmly. "Don't guess, Ms. Grant, be certain. We wouldn't want anything to happen to our -- arrangement, now, would we?"

She gulped and paled. "N-no! No, we wouldn't."

"Then I'll expect to hear from you soon."

"Yes. Yes, of course."

"Have you learned who Lane's source at LuthorCorp is?"

"Not yet. I'm still working on it."

"See that you do. Your parents' continued good health depends on it."

The connection was cut from the other end. Cat turned off the phone and put her head in her hands and tried not to sob aloud.

***

From his eavesdropping vantage point outside the door, Claude nodded to himself and mentally filed away what he'd just heard. The girl was young and beautiful and under some kind of pressure that would make her more vulnerable. His partner, Lois Lane, was also young and beautiful, and also under a great deal of pressure, but it just made her angry and surprisingly resistant to his proven charms.

Poor Lois. She would never know the ecstasy of Claude's embrace, nor his fiery kiss, nor his loving touch. He pitied her.

For a brief moment, anyway. There were too many beautiful women in the world who were waiting for his special attention for him to lose time any bewailing the loss of one insignificant young brunette. It was time to share his glory with the lovely redhead.

***

Chapter Six

>>>Tuesday, 3:03 PM

"Hello, Lois."

"Hi, Dr. Friskin. I guess it's that time again."

"Yes, it is. What would you like to talk about today?"

"Um. I'm not sure."

"Oh? Why is that?"

"I want to talk about Clark, but I also want to talk about last Friday night."

"I see. Which topic do you want to talk about first?"

"Both."

"Ha-ha. I'm sorry, Lois, but you'll have to choose one or the other. Or you can choose another topic altogether, if you wish. The one thing I cannot let you do is sit there and talk about nothing."

"That would make me nervous."

"Me, too. So, what topic goes first?"

"Uh, Clark, I guess."

"Okay. What about Clark?"

"He -- look, do you know him? I mean, personally."

"No. I've read his work in the Planet, but I don't believe I've ever met him."

"I think you'd like him. He's a straight arrow who says what he means and means what he says, and he's about as honest as a man can be these days."

"It sounds as if you think highly of him."

"I do. He's -- well, he's just such a nice guy."

"I'm glad you're working with a nice person, Lois. Tell me, how is he dealing with his wife's death?"

"I -- don't know many details, we just work together and we don't see each other after hours and I don't know what he does at night or if he does anything, but that's not true because I know he does some things, good things, nice things, kind of like volunteer work, you know, and he --"

"Ding."

"-- does it on the weekends too and he --"

"Ding, Lois."

"What?"

"Remember? When you start babbling, I say 'ding' and you stop."

"Oh. I'm sorry, I guess I didn't hear you."

"It's okay. Tell me, Lois, how is Clark dealing with you?"

"He's -- he's nicer than I would be. I mean, nicer than I think I would be."

"Have you two talked about his wife?"

"We've talked around the subject. We really haven't sat down together and discussed her at length. Why?"

"I'm just trying to find out what's going on. Do you think he blames you for her death?"

"No, he doesn't."

"I see. Do you know who he does blame?"

"I -- he blames himself."

"That's a natural reaction, actually. Do you think he should blame himself?"

"No! It wasn't his fault Lana was on that ship! That's my fault and you know it!"

"Lois, did you point a weapon at Lana and force her onto the ship?"

"No! But I led the guys who did have the guns to her!"

"Really? The newspaper story you wrote said that the guys with guns were watching Lana's apartment before you got there."

"Well -- yeah, that's true, but if I hadn't shown up they wouldn't have taken her!"

"Are you responsible for the actions of those criminals?"

"Of course not!"

"Did you advise them to kidnap you and Lana?"

"No!"

"Did you tell them to point firearms at you?"

"This is starting to sound like a cross-examination, Doc!"

"The witness will answer the question."

"That's not very funny."

"I mean it, Lois. Did you tell those men to aim guns at you?"

"No! And neither did Lana! She was caught up in the whole thing by accident!"

"Weren't you caught up in it too? Weren't you just as much a victim as Lana was? Aren't you alive now only because Superman took you off the ship?"

"Yes! But he should have taken Lana! He should have taken his wife first! Not me!"

"Lois, he -- wait, what did you say?"

"What?"

"What do you mean, he should have taken his wife first?"

"I -- I didn't say that!"

"Yes. You did."

"No. I -- I didn't."

"You did. But Lana was Clark Kent's wife."

"I got mixed up!"

"Do you mean that Lana was Superman's wife?"

"No! Superman's not married! Lana was married to Clark!"

"But you said that Superman should have taken his wife off the ship first. Doesn't that mean --"

"No! Please, please forget what I said! Please!"

"Lois. Listen to me and answer me truthfully. Are Superman and Clark Kent the same person? Is that what you're saying?"

"No! I'm not saying anything like that!"

"Lois, please, I --"

"No! You can't know that! I can't tell you that! Please!"

"Lois, please wait here. I need to make a call. I promise I'll be right back."

"No! You can't leave! You can't tell anyone! Not ever!"

"I won't, I promise. Lois, just sit down and wait here for me. I promise I'll be right back."

***

Clark lifted his hands from his computer keyboard and answered the ringing phone. "Clark Kent, Daily Planet."

"Mr. Kent? I'm glad I caught you. This is Dr. Friskin."

He frowned. "Yes, Dr. Friskin, what can I do for you?"

"Under normal circumstances I wouldn't ask this, I wouldn't even call you, but it's an emergency. Can you come to my office immediately?"

"Why? What's the emergency?"

"I know your first session with me is scheduled for tomorrow evening, but something has come up."

"Oh?"

"Please, Mr. Kent, can you come now?"

He pulled the phone back and looked at it. Dr. Friskin sounded both intense and excited, two emotions he would not have imagined she'd let her patients see coming from her during a session. "Well, I'm still at work and I have --"

"It's important. Really important."

"Uh, Doctor, I think I'd rather wait --"

"It's about Lois Lane."

He lurched forward in his seat. "What? What's wrong with Lois? Is she hurt? Is she in danger?"

"No, no, nothing like that. She's told me something that I have to discuss with you."

"What?" He exhaled in relief that Lois wasn't in trouble. "I don't understand. I thought your sessions with her were completely confidential."

"They are, but she has unintentionally told me something about a third party that requires your assistance. I'm sorry to be so vague, but I really can't say any more over the phone."

"All right. When do you want to see me?"

"As soon as humanly possible. This is something Lois has to resolve, as well, and it absolutely cannot wait."

"Okay. I'll be there as soon as I can. I hope you don't mind that I'm confused."

"I would expect that. Please hurry, Mr. Kent. And thank you."

"You're welcome."

Clark hung up, puzzled. He walked to Perry's office and stuck his head in.

"Hey, Chief? I have to go to Dr. Friskin's office."

"Huh? What for?"

He shrugged. "Something about Lois. The doctor wouldn't tell me what it's about."

"About Lois?" Perry stood. "Maybe we both better go."

"I don't know, Chief. She called me directly."

Perry nodded slowly. "Yeah, you're right. If she'd wanted me to be there, she would have called me." He thrust his index and middle fingers towards Clark like a pistol barrel. "You get going. Take care of Lois. Call me if you need me."

"Right, Chief."

"And take the rest of the day off!"

"Got it, Chief!"

***

The taxi slowed to a stop against the curb in front of the Metro Medical Associates building. They'd made the trip in near-record time, but it couldn't be fast enough for Clark. All he could think about was the doctor's request for him to come to Lois' session. There had to be something wrong. Maybe Lois was on the verge of a breakdown. Maybe she was about to lose her mind. Maybe she was having a heart attack.

Maybe Clark was going a little crazy. Since Lana had died, he'd fought to keep from missing her too badly, but he almost always lost that battle. He occasionally woke in the middle of the night, thinking for a moment that she was in the next room, and that all he'd have to do to see her again would be to call out her name.

He always caught himself before speaking aloud. The illusion never lasted long enough for him to enjoy the anticipation of seeing her again. He never looked through the walls or listened for her heartbeat or felt her side of the bed to see if it was still warm.

He missed her terribly.

But he was beginning to think that life would go on, and that he could find a way to live again. And he thought he wanted Lois to have a place in that life, even though he didn't yet know what place he wanted her to have.

Or what place she might want to have in his life.

Clark threw the cab door open, tossed the driver a twenty dollar bill for the four-dollar ride and told him to keep the change. Before the ecstatic cabbie could thank him, Clark was at the receptionist's desk.

"Where's Dr. Friskin's office?"

"Third floor, sir, suite two-one-two. The elevator --"

"Thanks."

He ran up the stairs three at a time and burst into the office. Dr. Friskin's secretary, a slender older woman with gray hair, jumped in her chair and dropped the doily she was crocheting.

"Where's Dr. Friskin?"

"Oh, my." The woman fanned herself. "What is your name, sir?"

"Clark Kent. Where is she?"

"Mr. Kent? Dr. Friskin is waiting for you in room three."

"Thanks."

He burst through the doors and threw them shut behind him. "Lois? What's the emergency?"

Lois was seated on the couch, bent over at the waist with her face in her hands. Dr. Friskin stood and smiled. "Hello, Mr. Kent. Thank you for coming so quickly. I'm Dr. Friskin."

"Hi, Doctor. I don't suppose you're ready to tell me what's going on, are you?"

"Oh, yes. Please sit down. Good. Now, I have to tell you that Lois did not deliberately tell me what she told me, nor did she try to use her knowledge as any kind of justification or excuse for her actions."

Clark perched on the edge of the chair. "That's good to know. Would you mind telling me what it is that we're talking about?"

"Just a moment." Dr. Friskin locked the office door and flipped on a small machine on the dresser beside the door. Clark flinched slightly as an ultra-high-pitched sound came out. "That's a white noise generator. It will prevent anyone standing outside from hearing anything spoken inside the room, as long as no one shouts at the top of their lungs." She pulled a small chair close to Clark, sat down, and said, "Lois told me your secret."

He tilted his head skeptically. "What secret are you talking about, Doctor?"

She slowly reached out and drew an 'S' on his chest. Clark's expression morphed from puzzlement to fierce anger in a moment. He turned his head and stared at Lois, grinding his teeth and clenching his fists.

Dr. Friskin put her hand on his wrist. "Mr. Kent, please! She didn't tell me on purpose. It just slipped out in the heat of the moment and I almost missed it. She tried to deny it, but I wouldn't let her."

"Why not?" he snarled. "Why do you have to know?"

She didn't flinch. "Because she needs to forgive herself for your wife's death."

Clark stood abruptly and stalked across the room. Staring at the far wall, he said, "Tell her Lana's death wasn't her fault."

"Mr. Kent -- may I call you Clark?"

"What if I say no?"

"Then I'll call you Mr. Kent." He didn't answer. Dr. Friskin stood and put her hand on his wrist again. "Clark? Please sit down. All three of us need to talk about this."

He hesitated, then sighed. "I guess we'd better."

"Good. First, I'd like for you to tell Lois how you feel about her knowing your secret."

Clark crossed his arms and stood tall. "I need to know what you plan to do with this knowledge before we go any farther, Doctor."

Dr. Friskin grinned impishly. "You mean other than selling it to the highest bidder?"

He didn't smile. His eyes narrowed and his voice turned frosty. "If that's not a very bad joke this ends right now."

She leaned back and looked up at him. Even with the glasses and slightly unkempt hair, the fire in his eyes and his sheer presence intimidated her. She lifted her hands and lost the rest of her smile. "I'm truly sorry, Mr. Kent, that was a horrible thing to say. I was trying to be funny and failed miserably. I assure you, I have no plans to share this information with anyone at any time."

He didn't relax. "I'm going to need more than your assurance, Doctor."

"Oh." She scooted back in her chair, trying to put more space between herself and a suddenly scary Clark Kent. "Uh. How about my professional ethics? Because I learned that during a session, legally and ethically I can't tell anyone this information. I can't even hint that I know who Superman really is, because just letting people know that I know something would compromise my oath of service."

He nodded. "That's good. Now let me add something." He leaned down and stared into her eyes. "If someone with a lower standard of ethics ever believed that you had information on me, your life wouldn't be worth the loose change in your purse. Do you understand me?"

She paled. "Are -- what -- do you -- are you threatening me?"

"No!" he snarled. "I have ethics, too!" He straightened and visibly forced himself to be calm. "But there are plenty of others out there who don't have such a high moral standard. Some people wouldn't think twice about kidnapping your loved ones and giving you the choice of telling them what you know or seeing them die horribly and painfully. The gunrunning operation that killed -- that almost killed Lois is a good example. Now do you understand me?"

She took two deep breaths and nodded. "Yes. Yes, I do. I hadn't considered it in that light, but you're absolutely right. Letting it be known that I know such a secret could cost lives. Including my own."

"Exactly." Clark finally relaxed. "I'm sorry, but that's the way it is. I wish I could change it, but the only way to do that would be to announce my identity to the entire world, and I can't do that without putting other people in immediate danger."

"Yes, I see. Now, can we get back to why you're here?"

He shrugged. "I suppose so. What do we do now?"

"I want you to tell Lois how you feel about her knowing your secret. And I want you to tell her how you feel about her being alive when your wife is not."

He sat cautiously, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Okay. Can I talk to her face and not to the top of her head?"

Dr. Friskin put her hand on Lois' shoulder. "Lois? Please sit up. Clark has something he wants to say to you."

Lois slowly lifted her head. Her eyes were red and puffy and her face and hands were damp. She wiped her nose with the edge of her hand as Dr. Friskin nodded to her. "Good. Clark, please go ahead. And be honest with her. You both need that."

The doctor sat back in her chair. Clark clasped his hands together and looked at them as he spoke. "Lois, I -- I want you to know that I trust you to keep my secret. You've had plenty of opportunities to print it, or tell someone, and you haven't, except for Dr. Friskin, and I believe her when she says you didn't intend to say anything to her about it. You didn't even tell Perry, and he's the one person I wouldn't have minded you telling. I'm glad he knows. And -- and I'm glad you know. I'm glad you understand something of what I've been going through for the past two months."

He pursed his lips and sat up straighter. "Speaking of that, I want you to know that I don't hate you or blame you for anything that happened. What happened to Lana was -- was the fault of the people who took the two of you on the ship. You were chasing a story, but that's your job and you're good at it. I refuse to believe that you thought Lana would be in danger just because you went to see her that night."

Lois focused on Clark. She sniffed and rubbed her hands across her face. "Really? You believe that?"

Clark frowned. "Of course I do. Why wouldn't I?"

"Because."

"Because why?"

"Because it may not be true."

"Are you telling me you came to my apartment that night for the purpose of putting Lana in mortal danger?"

"No! I never -- that's not what I meant!"

He tilted his head. "Then why did you go to see Lana that night?"

"Like you said. I was chasing the story."

He almost smiled. "You were chasing it all the way to my place? Why?"

"I wanted Lana to let me in the museum. I wanted to get proof they were stockpiling guns there. I wanted the headline all to myself."

"Okay. I can understand that. But why go see Lana in the middle of the night? Was it that urgent?"

"I went because I -- I wanted to show you up."

"Show me up? Why?"

She ducked her head again. "It's a stupid reason. At least, it's stupid now."

He lifted his eyebrows. "So what's the reason?"

"I -- I was jealous."

"Of what?"

"You."

"Me? What did I do?"

Her head snapped up. "You got a page one byline, Clark! And it took you less than a month! Do you know how hard it is to do that? Especially for someone with so little experience?"

He bristled slightly. "I have experience! I've been writing for publication for more than three years and gotten paid for it!"

Lois' voice gained strength. "This wasn't a travel column! It wasn't an occasional sale to the Kansas Cornhusker! This was --"

"Nebraska."

"What?"

"The University of Nebraska's athletic teams are the Cornhuskers. Kansas is --"

"I don't care!" She leaped to her feet. "I'm trying to tell you that it is so my fault that Lana's dead! I wanted a big headline to make everyone forget about you! I wanted to be Perry's favorite again! You were in my way so I poked my nose in where it didn't belong and --"

Clark stood and put his hands on his hips. "And nothing! You didn't leave her on that ship! You're not the one who didn't check to see if she was hurt! You aren't the one who --"

Lois leaned into his face. "Yes I am! I got off and she didn't and she's dead and it should have been me! I should have been left behind!"

"You would probably be dead!"

"I deserve it!"

"No one deserves to be murdered!"

She tried to push him away from her. "Lana sure didn't! I wish I could trade places with her! I wish -- I wish --"

Clark grabbed her elbows. "You can't change the past, Lois! I wish I could go back and do things differently on a lot of things, but I can't! No one can!"

She brought her fists down on his chest as hard as she could and almost screamed at him. "She should be here! You should have saved her! You should have left me!"

"Then blame me! Tell me it's my fault!" He shook her lightly. "Tell me it's my fault!"

"I -- I can't! It was me! I did it!"

"No! You didn't kill her! You're not responsible for her death! It's not your fault!"

"But I --"

He pulled her closer. "Listen to me, Lois! Listen! It wasn't your fault! You can blame yourself from now till the end of time and it won't change the fact that it wasn't your fault!"

She put her hands on his chest and looked into his eyes. "How can you say that? How can you forgive me?"

"Because I loved Lana. Because she would want me to forgive you. And because it really, truly is not and was not your fault."

Her tears started again. She looked into his face and all her strength fled. She would have collapsed to the floor if Clark hadn't caught her.

Without conscious thought, without planning it, Clark found himself kneeling on the floor, tenderly holding Lois against him as she cried like a child. He embraced her gently, rocking her as she wept bitter tears against his shoulder.

Dr. Friskin quietly slipped to the door and peeked out. "That will be all for today, Mrs. York. Please lock up when you leave."

The older woman smiled. "Of course, Doctor. A good session?"

"Yes. A very good session."

***

Lois slowly came to her senses. She wasn't sure where she was, but she knew she felt safe and warm and secure. She felt emotionally drained, empty, as if all the burden of the guilt about Lana that she'd carried for so long had somehow leaked out of her.

She felt strong arms holding her. Powerful arms. Caring arms. Safe arms that would never betray her. Arms that would protect her no matter what. She wanted to stay in those arms. She felt loved inside those arms. She hoped Clark would --

Clark?

Clark was holding her?

Oh, no, these were Clark's arms! She couldn't -- he mustn't -- no! She couldn't betray Lana that way!

She jerked away and felt his hands slip from her. She wiped her face with her fingers, then saw that Dr. Friskin was holding a box of tissues in front of her.

She took several and dried her face and hands as best she could, then stood and paced the length of the room. What would she say to him? What would he say to her? How would she explain herself to him?

Dr. Friskin touched her arm as she completed her third circuit of the room. "Lois, please sit down. You're making Clark nervous."

Lois looked up and found Clark sitting at one end of the big couch. She cautiously made her way to the other end of the couch and perched on the armrest.

Dr. Friskin smiled at both of them. "Well, I think we've made some progress here. Both of you have released some feelings you've been unnecessarily keeping bottled up, and now that you each know how the other has been feeling, I think you'll be able to communicate better."

Both Clark and Lois locked their gazes on Dr. Friskin. The doctor asked, "Is there anything either of you would like to say to the other? Is there something else either of you feels the other needs to know?" Dr. Friskin paused. "Lois?"

Lois thought about her last conversation with Lana. She thought about Lana's request that Lois take care of Clark because he had a vulnerable heart.

She glanced at Clark and opened her mouth. She almost repeated Lana's words to him, when she'd extracted a promise from Lois to take care of him. Instead, in a quiet voice, she said, "Clark, I'm -- I'm glad you're my friend."

She wasn't sure where that had come from, but Clark smiled. "Thank you, Lois. I'm glad you're my friend, too."

Dr. Friskin smiled wider. "Excellent! Now, our time is up and I have a meeting with my daughter's wedding planner in -- oh, I'm afraid I'm going to be late! Lois, I'll see you next week at the same time. Clark, if you'd like to reschedule your session with me, please call Mrs. York tomorrow and she'll take care of it."

Clark stood and offered his hand to the doctor. "Thank you, doctor. I appreciate your help."

Lois nodded to them both. "You going back to the Planet, Clark?"

"No. Perry told me to go home after this. How about you?"

"I think I'll swing by the office for a few minutes."

Clark smiled. "Okay. If you see Perry, tell him I'll be in early tomorrow morning. We can get together on the carjacking story."

Lois looked at him. She reached for the guilt, but all she felt was its echo. She tried to probe for her pain, but all she found was regret for the past. She still felt the hurt and the regret, but for the first time since they'd spoken on the submarine, for the first time since Lana had been blown into tiny, irretrievable pieces, her own heart didn't threaten to shatter into millions of tiny pieces. Maybe they could be friends, despite all that lay between them. Maybe now the scar on her hand would be just a reminder instead of a reproach.

And maybe she could fulfill Lana's last request after all.

Her voice was soft but confident. "Sounds good to me, Clark. See you in the morning."

***

Chapter Seven

>>>Wednesday morning

Lois marched into Perry's office at a quarter till seven. "I need to see you, Chief."

Surprised, Perry nodded and motioned to a chair in front of his desk. "It's -- interesting to see you up so early, Lois. Do you always dress like a young male high school dropout at this time of day?"

"No. This is my disguise for infiltrating that carjacking gang. I think I can get their attention by boosting an expensive car and showing up outside their chop shop."

"Uh-huh." Perry leaned back in his chair. "Aside from the difficulty in looking and sounding like a guy, do you even know how to steal a car?"

She smiled past her mustache. "You know that new gofer you have, Jimmy, the short guy with the high squeaky voice and funky hair?"

"Yes."

"He knows how. He taught me to boost a car."

"He does, does he? How does he know?"

"Reform school." She shrugged as Perry turned his head to one side. "He said it was a bum rap."

His eyebrows went up and he leaned forward on his elbows. "And when did he have time to impart this knowledge to you?"

"From about four o'clock this morning till just a few minutes ago."

Perry nodded. "I see. Have you, uh, put your new-found knowledge to the acid test yet?"

She grinned. "Nope. I was hoping you'd let me practice on your BMW."

"What?" His face lost all expression. "My new BMW? Lois, are you nuts?"

"No, I've thought it all out. I can't be arrested for auto theft if I have your permission to take the car, and my Jeep's too pedestrian to use for bait, but if I show up at the chop shop with Perry White's new Beemer, it'll impress them and zip -- I'm in."

He shook his head. "You are a total reprobate, you know that?"

"Don't worry, Perry, I'll be back with an exclusive that will break this thing wide open. Tomorrow night at the latest."

"That fast?"

She shrugged. "If I get in, I'll get in quick, otherwise I'll bring your car back and try something else."

"If they don't shoot you first."

"Perry --"

He pointed two fingers and locked eyes with her. "You be careful, young lady!"

She nodded soberly. "I promise, Chief." She moved towards the office door.

"You'd better be. I can't afford to replace that car."

She hesitated for a moment, then gave him a sideways grin and an offhand wave. She paused with her hand on the doorknob. "Oh, one more thing?"

He sighed. "I suppose you want the keys as backup in case you can't hot-wire it?"

"No. What I want is for you not to tell Clark what I'm doing."

"Oh." He sat up in his chair. "Now why would you want that?"

"Because I don't want him to hover over me, waiting for me to make a mistake and let him swoop in and rescue me. I have to do this myself."

Perry stared at her for a long moment. "Are you sure about this, Lois? That boy could be a big help."

"He can also get in the way."

"You aren't bulletproof, you know."

"And Clark is, right?"

Perry spread his hands. "Yes. That's a pretty important thing right there."

She pressed her lips together. "I have to do this by myself. I can't be dependent on Clark Kent for the rest of my life. I have to stand on my own two feet, or I'll never be complete within myself." She relaxed slightly. "I can't let him be my healing."

He nodded. "So this is about self-respect?"

"The part about not wanting Clark involved is. The rest of it is just being an investigative reporter."

"I see." He stood and leaned against the side of his desk. "Tell you what I'll do. I won't tell Clark what's going on with you unless I don't hear from you by six this evening. Deal?"

She frowned, then nodded slowly. "I guess that's okay. Anything else?"

"Jimmy know what you wanted that auto theft lesson for?"

"Of course."

"You swear him to secrecy too?"

She almost smiled. "He knows not to talk."

"Good. Oh, one more thing before you go."

"What's that?"

He stepped closer. "You bring back an exclusive and I'll move you to the investigative beat permanently."

She lit up like a Christmas tree. "Really? Oh, Perry, you're wonderful! Thank you, thank you, thank you!"

He put his hands on her shoulders to restrain her bouncing. "Easy, girl, you don't have the story yet."

She stepped back and dropped into character. "Don't worry, Chief, I'll get it."

***

Clark stepped off the elevator at five minutes before eight. He chided himself for checking for Lois before he checked for anyone else, and then felt a pang of disappointment as he realized she wasn't there. He wanted to talk to her, to tell her that he'd felt something when he'd been holding her in the doctor's office, that she'd managed to touch his heart. He didn't know how, he didn't know why, he didn't know if she felt anything for him in return, but he felt the need to talk to her about how he felt about her, even if he himself didn't fully understand how he felt about her.

And didn't that promise to be an interesting conversation! He still missed Lana terribly, and he knew he wasn't ready for anything romantic with anyone, but there was something about Lois that tugged at his heartstrings and he had to talk to her about it before he said or did something stupid.

But Lois wasn't at her desk, and didn't appear to have arrived yet. He turned to scan the area and noticed several of the staffers either working or settling in. Claude Guilliot was sitting beside a desk, frowning fiercely at the pretty auburn-haired gossip columnist. Clark didn't listen closer for fear that it was a personal conversation. As he looked around, a young man with unkempt brown hair skipped across his line of sight and headed for Perry's office.

After a moment, Clark recalled the youth's name. Jimmy something, Oldham, Orman, no it was Olsen! Maybe Jimmy Olsen knew where Lois was.

He waited until Jimmy came out of Perry's office. "Say, Jimmy?"

The young man stopped in his tracks. "Yes, sir, Mr. Kent?"

"You don't have to call me 'sir,' Jimmy. Clark will do."

Jimmy cocked his head to one side. "Okay, Clark. What can I do for you?"

"Have you seen Lois Lane today?"

Clark was surprised when the young man's face blanked out. "Uh, well, I haven't seen her in the office today, no."

"Okay, thanks."

Clark shook his head, considered the young man's odd behavior, then shrugged and stuck his head in Perry's office. "Hey, Chief, have you seen Lois this morning?"

Perry didn't meet Clark's gaze. "She's on assignment. Be gone all day today, probably tomorrow, too."

"Oh." Clark tried not to let his disappointment show. "If she calls in, would you tell her I'd like to talk to her?"

Perry nodded. "Sure will." He picked up the phone and dialed an intra-office number. "Olsen! Get moving! Take the tux and the blue suit to the cleaners, and pick up my laundry! My wife's coming home from her trip tonight and I need my clothes done!" "Right away, Chief!" Jimmy flashed up from his desk and raced to the elevator.

Perry shook his head and grinned. "Wish I still had that boy's energy."

"You don't do too badly in the energy department, Chief."

"Neither do you. Speaking of that, how are you feeling today? Any residual pains or weakness?"

"No. I'm back to what passes for normal for me."

"You figure out what that was yet that affected you?"

Clark frowned slightly. "I think it was something external, but that's all I've got and I don't really know that for certain. It's just a guess at this point."

Perry nodded. "You let me know if you need any help checking into this thing. You don't want whatever it was to catch you at an inconvenient time."

"There's a convenient time for something like that?"

"Oh, ha-ha, ow, my poor ribs. Let me take a minute to recover."

"Sorry about that, Chief. I'll get to my desk now."

"Good. Oh, wait, I almost forgot to tell you. Paula will be in about nine or so this morning and I want the two of you to work on a feature about that high-speed chase yesterday, the one that ended with a crash downtown. Get Joe Q. Citizen's view, the police officer's view, some judge's thoughts, reactions from a couple of citizens' rights groups, you know the drill. I'd like to feature it in tomorrow's Metro section."

"Got it. Anything else?"

Perry hesitated, as if he were considering the question, then shook his head. "No. Not right now."

"Okay. I'll try to clear out my in-box while I'm waiting for Paula and Lois."

Perry turned his gaze away again. "Good, good, you do that."

Puzzled by Perry's reaction to his mention of Lois, Clark turned away and headed for his desk, but focused his hearing on Perry's office for a few moments longer. All he heard from the editor was a deep sigh. For a long moment, he wondered what was going on, then sat down at his desk and began his work day.

***

Paula slapped the folder shut on her desk. "Kid, this is good enough."

"I don't think so, Paula. I don't think Legal will okay it."

"This is my story, Kent, and I say it's ready!"

Clark shook his head. "I don't think so," he repeated. "We don't have enough corroboration for the main assertions. This version of the story practically accuses the police of forcing the car thief to crash into the bus, and the accusation rests mainly on the emotional statements of the thief's relatives. This is more an editorial piece than a news story."

She stood unsteadily and -- in total defiance of the newsroom's firm no-smoking policy -- lit up a cigarette and blew smoke in his face. "Perry White will publish it! He trusts me. I've been around the block a lotta times, Kent, and I know what will sell papers and what won't. We got thirty-seven minutes before deadline. How much research and fact-checking can you do in that time?"

Clark stood his ground. "I've already done enough to know that we don't have a news article. We can't submit this, Paula. Perry can't print it without risking legal action from both the police department and the city." He picked up the folder with the rough draft of the story. "This is a good start, but it's not complete. We can't turn it in --"

"I can!"

He lifted his hands. "Okay, let me rephrase that. I can't turn it in. I can't allow my name on a slanted piece like this one. You want to print it, go ahead, but it'll be your name by itself."

She glared at him for a long moment, then took another deep drag from the contraband cigarette she held between her fingers. She blew the smoke out through her nostrils and said, "I thought I was the senior member of this team."

"You are. I know I'm junior."

"Then why are you fighting me on this?"

"Because it's not up to your standards, Paula. You're a better reporter than this." He tapped the folder with his index finger. "This is the kind of thing I'd expect to see in the Metropolis Star, not the Daily Planet. If Perry wants to print it on the op-ed page, that's his call, but this isn't a news story, not yet, anyway."

She held his stare for another long breath, then nodded slightly. "Okay. I'll tell Perry we need to hold off while you -- while we -- double-check our facts. That work for you?"

He smiled and nodded. "Sounds fine to me. What do you want me to start on?"

She sighed. "Call the cops again and see if you can get any statements from the guys who actually chased the thief. And track down the owner of the car, see if he has anything newsworthy to say."

"Will do."

Clark turned towards his desk but stopped when Paula called, "Hey, Kent!"

"Yes?"

"You got guts, kid." She pointed a pair of nicotine-stained fingers towards him. "Can't say much for your grasp of office politics, but you sure got guts."

He grinned. "Thanks."

***

At half-past four, Clark heard the whine of the elevator and chided himself for paying more attention to it than to his and Paula's story. Lois was on assignment and wasn't due in until tomorrow at the earliest, probably not until the next day. He'd have to wait to see her until then. He adjusted his glasses and turned back to his computer.

Before he'd typed another word, however, Lois' voice cut through his musings.

"Perry! I got it!"

He snapped his head around and looked for her, but all he saw was a slender young man with a thin mustache, wearing a baseball cap and striding down the bullpen ramp. He made a beeline to Perry's office and pushed the door open. Clark caught a glimpse of a bruised cheek and a couple of scraped knuckles on his right hand before --

He recognized the scar on that hand.

That wasn't a young man.

It was Lois.

Suddenly he was standing behind her as she babbled on to Perry about how she'd won a fistfight with one of the thieves and been accepted into their ranks and been told to come back the next day dressed in business casual clothes and ready to steal another car.

Perry listened for a long moment, then gestured to Clark. "Kent, close the door."

Lois spun to face him. "Kent? Clark, what are you doing in here? This is my story!"

He forced himself not to grab her by the arms and shake her until her head fell off. Grimacing, he forced his hands to his hips. "What do you mean, what am I doing here? What are you doing out there?"

She leaned closer. "Working! I'm chasing down leads, writing news stories! It's our job, remember?"

"Doing your job doesn't include deliberately risking your life!"

"Well, it may have been somewhat inconsiderate of them, but these guys didn't make an appointment to come see me and confess!"

"You could have been hurt!"

She pointed to her face. "I was hurt! See? And my hand is swollen and I'm going to need your help on rewrite and an ice bag, but I got the story!"

"No story is worth your life!"

Her expression turned stormy. "As if I need you to tell me that! I know what it is to risk my life on the job --"

"And do you know what it is to leave people behind? People who will mourn for you? People who will never stop missing you?"

She stopped and took a breath, then stepped back and crossed her arms. Her voice lowered in both volume and intensity. "Clark, I can't eliminate risk from my life. My parents can't do it. Perry can't do it, your landlord can't do it, no one can, not even you. And I won't lock myself in a closet for the rest of my life just so you can feel like I'm safe. I can't live like that."

"But you were in danger! You might have been killed!"

She nodded and exhaled deeply. "Yes. I might have been in a car wreck, run over by a bus, mugged on my way to work, shot by a sniper, hit by lightning, cut myself on a kitchen knife and bled to death --"

"That's not what I meant!"

"I know that." She put her hand on his elbow. "Clark, you can't protect the entire world. All you can do is all you can do, and it's good enough."

He snatched his arm away. "Is that what you were doing, setting up an object lesson for me? Are you still trying to tell me what a selfish, stupid butthead I am?"

Lois paled and stepped back. "What? No! This had nothing to do with you!"

"I don't believe you!"

Perry stepped out from behind his desk. "Now, look, kids --"

"You don't believe me? What are you, the super lie detector now?"

"Lois, Clark, let's --"

"I suppose you know what's best for everyone, Lois! Must be a terrible burden to be the standard by which all humanity is judged!"

"HOLD IT!" Perry's roar cut through the air between the combatants and separated them. He scowled at his two young reporters. "Kent! Lois doesn't report to you! I authorized this little jaunt!"

"What? Perry, you know how dangerous --"

"I said hold it, Kent! Yeah, I know how dangerous this business is! But she's got to take some risks to get the story! That's our job! Just because you think you can't get hurt doesn't mean you have to protect everyone!" He jabbed two fingers at Clark. "Comprende?"

Clark fumed silently. Perry waited a three-count, then said, "I'm taking that as a 'yes.'" He turned to Lois. "You, young lady, very nearly crossed the line on this one."

"But Perry, I was --"

"I know, I know, you were chasing the story! Great! But you gotta learn when to back off and let the story mature! You got hurt a little and got away with it. Don't think it'll happen every time."

She rubbed her raw knuckles. "If you think I'm roughed up, Chief, you ought to see the other guy. You should have heard him whine when I kicked his -- when I kicked him. I thought he was going to cry."

Clark lifted his hands in the air and let them drop. Perry held her stare for a moment, then sighed deeply. "You -- Look, Lois, will you promise to be more careful next time?"

"Of course. Clark's going with me."

Both men stared at her as if she'd suddenly sprouted wings. Perry recovered first. "What do you mean, Clark's going with you next time? What next time?"

"I can't very well show up tomorrow morning in business casual, ready to steal cars, now can I? Clark and I have to stake out the garage tonight and catch them as they come in."

Clark straightened and frowned in thought. After a moment, he turned to her and asked, "We call the police when we have enough info, right?"

She tapped him on the chest with one finger. "Absolutely. I'll give Bill Henderson a heads-up right now."

With that, she sauntered out of the office. Clark and Perry exchanged stunned looks. After a long moment, Clark asked, "Has she always been this mercurial?"

Perry slowly shook his head. "Are you kidding? This is placid compared to what passes for normal for Lois Lane."

***

Cat walked out of the ladies' room and spotted Lois right away, despite the remnants of her disguise. The other woman was sitting on her desk with her phone at her ear, talking fiercely to someone. Whatever this piece of information was, it might be enough to pay down her gambling debt a little more.

She heard Lois say, "Yes, Bill, I promise! As soon as I have enough information! Yes, you can bring your cop buddies. Yeah, probably. Bye."

She dropped the phone into its cradle as Cat walked closer. "Hey, Lois, nice fashion statement. Just finished your fall shopping?"

"What? Oh, Cat, hi." Lois rolled her shoulders and winced. "I've been undercover on a story."

"Really? I bet it's really exciting! Tell me all about it!"

Lois smiled. "Sorry, don't have time right now. But be sure to check out tomorrow's front page headline."

"I'll do that. Hey, are you up for drinks before dinner?"

Lois put her hand on Cat's wrist. "Thanks, but I'll have to take a rain check. I'm sorry, but this is something we have to do while the story is still hot."

"Sure. I understand. See you tomorrow."

Cat walked back to her desk, opened the small drawer and rummaged around for a moment, then stalked to the supply room. She closed the door and checked to make sure no one else was there, then pulled out her special cell phone.

"Hello?"

"This is Cat Grant."

"Yes, Ms. Grant. You have something for me?"

Cat's conscience kicked her hard. "Uh, yeah. Lois Lane just came in."

Irritation crackled through the electronic distortion. "I hope you have more than Miss Lane's daily itinerary."

"I do! She was just talking to someone at the police department, someone named Bill, like she expects something to happen very soon."

"How soon?"

"I don't know. Hours, maybe a couple of days, maybe a week at the outside."

"That's not very precise, Ms. Grant. Can't you tell me anything else?"

She almost said, Lois was dressed up like a guy and she looked like she'd been in a fight. But something held her back. "No, I'm sorry, that's all I have."

The voice sighed. "That's not very much."

"Look, I called! You said to call if I heard or saw anything!"

"That I did. Very well, your parents have a few more days of continued safety."

"Wh-what about my marker? You said --"

"You know the ground rules, Ms. Grant. Your parents are the guarantee of your loyalty and continued service. You keep in touch with me or I shall be forced to take the return on my investment out of them, with interest."

"But you -- " she stopped when she realized the line was dead.

Cat closed the phone and drew in a shuddering breath. This couldn't go on, not forever. And she knew that her mysterious "benefactor" knew it too. Sometime, somewhere down the line, was a moment when she wouldn't be able to betray her friends and co-workers any more, and she knew that when that moment came her life wouldn't be worth a cheap nightgown. Until then, she'd learn what she could, make those terrifying calls, and tell whoever she was talking to only as little or as much as she dared.

She picked up a pad of notebook paper and hoped that there wasn't anyone else in the office making the same call.

***

Chapter Eight

>>>Very early Thursday morning

With the lights off, Lois brought her Jeep to a stop and turned off the ignition. "What time is it, Clark?"

"I forgot my watch. Didn't you bring yours?"

"You mean you don't have a clock in your head too?"

"Sorry, that's one extraordinary ability I lack."

She grinned at him in the dark, knowing he could see it, then pressed the backlight button on her watch. "It's about ten till one. See anything yet?"

He nudged his glasses down on his nose. "Nobody's on the bottom floor."

"What about the cars?"

"Seven, I think. It's hard to tell. One or two of them are down to the frame already and there are a lot of fenders and doors and other car body parts strewn around the room."

"That's what I thought." Lois smiled. "That vision gizmo comes in handy, doesn't it?"

Clark almost smiled back. "'Vision gizmo?' Can't you think of a better name than that?"

"Well, what do you call it?"

He shrugged. "Enhanced vision. X-ray vision. Heat vision. Telescopic vision."

"Microscopic vision?"

"Not so much, no."

Lois leaned back in the driver's seat and laughed softly.

"What's so funny?"

"I doubt anyone back in Littleville ever said 'not so much' in a conversation."

This time he did smile. "It's Smallville, not Littleville, but you're probably right about the 'not so much' part."

"Thought so."

Clark allowed several long breaths to pass before he murmured, "Hmm."

"That was a thoughtful utterance."

He sighed dramatically. "I was just wondering if all of your stakeouts are this boring."

"Nope. Some of them are far worse. I spent a night in this very Jeep with Claude a few weeks ago, and he's not nearly the conversationalist you are. I'd much rather be bored with you for an entire night than be in this Jeep with Claude for ten minutes."

"Thank you." He paused. "I think."

"That was a compliment, I assure you."

"In that case, thank you without equivocation."

They fell silent again, but this time neither one felt compelled to break it. For her part, Lois was comfortable with Clark, more so than she'd ever been with anyone since before her father had left his family to struggle along without him. She wondered about Clark's parents, what kind of people they were, what they did for a living, and were they looking to adopt a grown daughter?

She laughed to herself. Thoughts like those would have sent daggers through her heart just a few days ago, but she'd learned that, while her present circumstances were definitely influenced by her past, her life wasn't locked into a specific path. She could choose to learn, to grow, to open herself to new people and new experiences.

Maybe she could learn to love someone. Maybe --

Clark suddenly tensed. "Uh-oh."

She snapped to attention. "What is it?" she whispered. "What do you see?"

"Uh -- I have to go."

"You heard something?" She turned. "Robbery? Car wreck? Earthquake? What?"

"Bathroom."

She goggled at him. "Wh-what?"

"I have to go to the bathroom."

The absurdity of the situation almost knocked her down to the floorboard. Apparently Superman had to answer the call of nature just like everyone else. "So, you are human after all."

He glowered at her under the wan moonlight. "That part of me is, yes. Now where's the nearest men's room?"

She tried unsuccessfully to hide her grin as she pointed to a dumpster across the street.

His eyes widened. "You've got to be kidding."

"Nope."

"There? Come on, Lois! There's got to be a convenience store or gas station or something close by."

"Closest open store is about eight blocks away, unless you want to break in somewhere. It'd take you a while to walk the distance."

"I could fly there and back."

"If you flew fast enough not to be seen, wouldn't that create a sonic boom? Or at least a lot of wind?"

"Yes," he muttered. He pressed his lips together and shifted in his seat. "Nuts! I hate this."

"Can't you hold it?"

"I'm not that super."

She clenched her fists in an effort not to dissolve into gales of laughter. "Behind the dumpster. Make sure -- make sure no one's using it as a windbreak."

"Lo-is --"

She forced herself to look stern. "Go. I promise I won't peek."

"Come on!"

"I'll keep watch while you're busy. Maybe you can return the favor later." She lifted a thermos. "I brought lots of coffee."

He glared at her again, then reached for the door handle. "You're enjoying this altogether too much."

She shielded the courtesy light with a towel she'd brought for that very purpose as he slipped out and quietly shut the Jeep's door. Lois leaned her forehead on the steering wheel and tried to muffle her laughter.

***

"More coffee, Lois?"

"No thanks."

"You sure? I can heat it up for you."

"I'm fine."

"It's no trouble --"

"Will you cut it out already? I don't want any more coffee! I'm jittery enough as it is!"

He nodded and put the thermos down. "Okay, okay."

Lois lifted her binoculars and made another sweep of the supposedly empty warehouse across the parking lot. She knew Clark could do it better and faster, but it gave her something to do besides sit there and think about the growing pressure in her lower belly.

He crossed his arms and stifled a yawn. "How long have we been here?"

She pressed the backlight button on her LCD watch. "A little over two hours. It's ten after three."

"What time did they tell you to be here?"

"Three thirty. They've got time yet."

He shook his head. "I don't know. I have a bad feeling about this."

"You're just nervous about being out this late in the big city."

"Oh, so now I'm the hack from Nowhereseville again?"

"What? I didn't -- wait a minute, what do you mean 'again'?"

"That's what you called me, wasn't it? When Perry first hired me?"

Her nostrils flared in irritation. "You were listening in on us?"

"No. Perry told me. He wanted me to know something about the people I would be working with."

"Huh. Nice of him to reveal that."

"You should hear what he said about Ralph."

"Are you kidding? Everybody knows --"

His hand suddenly whipped up between them. "Shh!"

She snapped the binoculars up again and scanned the building. Nothing.

Wait. Was that movement on the second floor?

Yes! Someone turned on a small lamp. Lois hadn't been allowed on that floor, but she figured it was either the office area for the building or storage.

Clark touched her elbow. "Can you see what's happening on the second floor?"

"Huh? What happened to your vision gizmo?"

He turned to her and pushed his glasses up against his face. "This is an old building. The city code enforcers don't push too hard in this part of town. The upper floors still have lead-based paint on the interior walls."

"So?"

"So I can't see through lead. It blocks my -- my vision gizmo."

She grinned momentarily and looked closer. "I think there are at least two people up there. Can't tell what they're doing, though. Not enough light."

"Okay. You keep scanning up there. I'll check out the car floor."

Another light in the window next to the one Lois was scrutinizing snapped on. "I got a light in the next office to the right."

"I got three, four, five guys by the cars on the first floor with coffee cups in their hands."

Lois fidgeted in her seat. "What are they doing?"

"Looks like they're drinking coffee and talking about the cars. I think they're deciding which one to tackle first."

The pressure in her abdomen abruptly grew and she hissed between her teeth.

"Lois? What's wrong?"

"Nothing."

"I don't think so. You're wriggling around like a nightcrawler on a fishing hook."

"Eww. Thank you so much for that visual."

"No, really, Lois, are you okay?"

She lowered the binoculars. "No. Now I have to go. Satisfied?"

He almost hid his grin. "Yes, I am, especially since I went a while ago."

Her eyes narrowed. "I'd hit you if I thought you'd actually feel it." She handed him the binoculars. "Hold these until I get back."

"Okay. Watch out for the rats."

She stopped with her hand on the door handle. "Rats?"

"Only a couple. I can go scare them off if you want me to."

Her pride reared up and she shook her head. "No. You keep a lookout. Let me know if they do anything incriminating."

"The men or the rats?"

"Oh, super-funny guy. Just shut up and wait here."

He lifted his hand to the Jeep's ceiling and shaded the dome light while she got out. As she closed the door and staggered towards the dumpster, she tried to stay mad, but then saw the humor in the situation and chuckled quietly.

***

Inspector Bill Henderson walked over to Lois' jeep and leaned on the hood. "Well, Mr. Kent, that was only a little exciting."

Clark's eyebrows rose. "Only a little?"

Henderson shrugged. "No shots fired, no suspects tried to run, no one resisted arrest, and no one threatened to sue me and the police department and the city."

"So they just gave up?"

"You should have seen them. They were beyond surprised when we burst in."

"No one even asked to see a warrant?"

"I walked in with my weapon in my right hand and the search warrant in my left, with five SWAT riflemen at my back. Not one of them even said hello."

Lois closed her cell phone and joined them. "Well, that's done. The story's in rewrite. Won't make the morning edition, but the night editor managed to insert a lower corner front page blurb that promises an eyewitness account in the afternoon edition."

Henderson nodded. "Good for you, Lois. You're back on the front page again. Congratulations."

She grinned impishly. "Actually, Clark and I are both on the front page."

Clark's jaw dropped. "What? You put me in the by-line?"

"Second place, of course." She lifted an imaginary newspaper and quoted, "'Car-jacking ring broken. Multiple suspects arrested.' Story by Lois Lane and Clark Kent."

Henderson tapped Clark on the upper arm. "Not bad, Kent. I doubt her French partner would be treated so well."

"Me, too." He turned to Lois. "Thanks. Although I did notice that your name was mentioned first."

"Of course it is. It's my story. Besides, if I'm going to have a partner, I'm going to be top banana."

Henderson quirked the corner of his mouth at Clark. "That's a-peel-ing, isn't it?"

Clark chortled. Lois gave him a 'look' and said, "How very, very droll. Don't you have a whole lot of fingerprints to take, Bill?"

"Right. See you two later."

Clark reached out to shake hands with the policeman. "Thanks, Inspector."

Henderson caught Clark's outstretched hand. "You can call me Bill, too. And we're the ones who should thank you. You helped us a lot tonight." He glanced at his watch. "I guess I should say, this morning. You two going into the office now?"

Clark looked at Lois, who shook her head. "Clark's treating me to breakfast, then I'm dropping him off at his place, then I'm going home. My eyeballs itch and I need a significant amount of sleep."

Clark smiled. "Breakfast sounds great, but I still have to go to the Planet. I have a couple of things to give to Perry about another piece I've been working on."

Lois shrugged. "Then I guess we'll both make an appearance. I can't let you walk home by yourself, a country boy in the big city. You might get lost."

She turned and walked towards the police tape, unwilling to be excluded from even the smallest detail of 'her' story. Henderson leaned against the Jeep and frowned. "Funny thing about this bust."

"What's funny? I thought it was a textbook arrest."

"It was, Clark, but those cars weren't as valuable as I'd expected, and I don't think we nabbed the boss, or even the local manager. Those bozos were pretty much either protection or just parts-pullers."

Clark frowned back. "Are you saying someone tipped them off and all you really got was the small fry?"

Henderson's eyebrows rose. "Me? I'd never accuse anyone of doing something like that." He stood and began walking away. "Gotta go. I have to get these fingerlings booked before the public defender can round up bail."

Clark was left standing alone with his jaw slightly askew. Was Henderson hinting that either he or Lois was feeding information to the carjackers?

He thought about it and decided that the answer was 'no.' Bill was just expressing an opinion on something that was bothering him.

Something that he'd shared with Clark but not with Lois. Most interesting.

>>>Thursday, 8:06 AM

Claude was seething. He'd been greeted by his faithless partner's treachery the moment he'd walked onto the news floor, prominently displayed on both the front page of the morning edition and on the newsroom bulletin board. Then, instead of receiving comfort in his hour of need, he'd gotten the cold shoulder from the fiery redheaded gossip columnist. As he'd left her desk, his idiot boss, Perry White, had further insulted him by telling him to work on reporting instead of working on the women. And he had done so in front of Claude's co-workers. This was not to be forgiven. His honor had to be restored.

And then the ultimate insult entered the newsroom. His treacherous partner and her evil companion were greeted by all and sundry with cheers and accolades, from the backstabbing editor to the newest, lowest errand boy. The obsequious little rodent had even had the audacity to address Kent by his initials, calling him "CK" instead of "Mr. Kent."

Claude looked closer and noticed a dark stain on the front of Lois' shirt. As he saw it, the redheaded columnist asked her about it, and he heard Lois reply that Clark had made her laugh at breakfast and she had spilled syrup on herself.

They had shared a morning meal.

He had made her laugh.

This upstart young man had shared a meal with the hateful harpy who had refused to fetch Claude's coffee only two days ago.

Such an insult could not be borne. He would now make things right.

***

Clark heard someone stomping in their direction before he saw who it was. Lois looked in the direction of the footsteps and lost her smile. She held up her hand and stepped between Clark and the new arrival. "Claude, wait --"

The man swept past Lois and shoved Clark back against a desk. "Thief!" he shouted. "Robber! Stealer of partners!"

Lois turned and watched the tableau unfold. The other reporters on the floor wore shocked expressions as they also watched Clark try to placate the angry Frenchman. "Whoa, wait, Claude, we just --"

"I care to hear it not!" Claude shoved him again, this time past the desk. "I do not accept your apology! I refuse to hear your explanation! I demand satisfaction!"

"What? Satisfaction for what?"

Claude shoved him a third time, and Clark's heels bumped the wall. "For the theft of my partner! She is mine! You may not have her!"

"If you'll stop pushing me, we can talk --"

"No! Your wife is barely cold in her grave and already you seek another woman! You are a cad!" And then he swung a huge roundhouse right at Clark's chin.

Clark ducked the blow and stepped to the side. "Cut it out, Claude!"

Claude threw a hard left that also missed. "And you are not satisfied with merely finding another woman for yourself! You seek to steal another man's woman! I will injure you!"

"Claude, please don't --"

Claude swung the same fist backhand at Clark's face. "I will destroy you! You are huuuuuaaaaah!"

Clark ducked the backhand swing and lightly popped Claude in the solar plexus with his fingertips, precisely at the nerve center where the rib cages ends and soft flesh begins. Claude's diaphragm, stunned by the blow to the nerve center, momentarily forgot how to pump air into and out of his lungs. The Frenchman toppled over like a robot with no power source and immediately lost all interest in anything, save a deep and abiding desire for oxygen.

Perry popped out of his office. "What the Sam Hill's goin' on here?" He took in the scene before him. "Kent! What do you think you're doin'?"

Lois piped up. "Claude attacked him, Chief! He shoved Clark and --"

"I don't care!" thundered Perry. "I will not have this newsroom turned into Metro Sports Arena! Lois, wait in my office! Kent, go home for the day and don't bring your fight game back with you tomorrow!" He leaned over the victim on the floor, who was still trying to fill his lungs with delicious and elusive air. "Claude, when you get your breath back, you can start on a week's unpaid suspension, effective immediately. And the next time you start something stupid like this, you're fired. Got that?" The Frenchman managed a weak nod between shallow wheezes and groans. "Good! And while you're gone, you might want to check out your overseas employment opportunities. Just so you can update your resume, of course."

Claude closed his eyes and sank back to the floor. Perry looked pointedly at Clark and crossed his arms. Clark almost pointed at the helpless man writhing on the floor and yelled, "He started it!" Instead, he kept his silence and strode purposefully towards the elevator.

The stakeout with Lois had been something -- not fun, actually, but somehow quite pleasant. The subsequent arrests, with the police needing no help at all from Superman, had been truly enjoyable. Breakfast with Lois had actually been fun. He'd felt a stab of guilt at enjoying a meal with a woman who wasn't Lana, but Lois had carried him through it, and they'd had a wonderful time.

Until, of course, Claude had intervened. He glanced back to see Lois bending over him, hands on her hips and a vengeful expression on her face.

Her parting comment to Claude, voiced just as the elevator door slid shut, made him laugh out loud. It reminded him so much of Lana.

***

Lois stood over Claude and caught his gaze. "Stinks to be you right now, don't it, Claude?" Lois started to turn away, then stopped and looked down again. "And just for the record, I don't belong to any man. Especially not you."

Claude groaned again and closed his eyes. No one moved to help him before Lois stepped into Perry's office. She sighed and averted her eyes as the editor closed the door behind her.

"Sit down, Lois." She complied silently. Perry pulled out his chair and settled into it. "Now, tell me what just happened in my newsroom. Did I actually see Clark Kent punch a coworker?"

"He was justified."

Perry shook his head. "No, he wasn't, and we both know why."

"He was provoked."

"That's not good enough either and you know that too."

Lois' eyes regained some of their life. "Look, Perry, Clark didn't do anything wrong. He didn't have a chance to do anything at all! Claude rushed Clark as soon as we walked in and started yelling at him for no reason, then he pushed Clark across the room into a desk, then against the wall, then threw three punches at Clark's face before Clark hit him back. Claude would have been hurt worse if he had connected with those blows. And Claude's pride is hurt worse than his body, I promise you."

"Doesn't matter. That wasn't exactly a fair fight, Lois."

"Why? Clark could have killed Claude so quick he'd never know why he was dead. Besides, Claude's about three inches taller than Clark, twenty-five pounds heavier, ten years older, and he claims he knows how to take care of himself in bad situations. Assuming everything else is equal, how could you call that a fair fight?"

Perry sighed. "Look, honey, I don't blame Clark. I know he didn't start it, and I'm sure he tried his best to avoid it. But I can't have fighting in the newsroom. Not ever, not nobody, not for any reason. I don't want any of my people hurt, especially not by another one of my people."

Lois pressed her lips together and frowned. Perry pushed his chair back and stood. "I'm on Clark's side, Lois, but I've got to write this up and submit it to Human Resources. I'll note that Claude was the aggressor and that Clark was only defending himself, but it'll still go into Clark's employment record."

She crossed her arms and huffed. "That's not fair!"

"It goes in Claude's record too, and he was the aggressor."

"Still not fair!"

He leaned on the desk. "That's the best I can do! I can't play favorites here! Everybody has to be on a level playing field!"

Her gaze bored into her boss' eyes. "That's it, isn't it? Because of Clark's special abilities, you're holding him to a higher standard than the rest of us."

He sighed again. "Yes, I am doing that. I admit it. But I'm also right." He came around the desk and put a hand on her shoulder. "After you finish that story, go home and get some sleep. Come back tomorrow morning. I think you'll agree with me when you've had some rest."

She stood slowly and moved towards the door. "I'll go. But this isn't over."

"It'd better be over! Best thing to do now is to just let it go."

She paused with her hand on the doorknob. "I promised Lana that I'd take care of him, and I intend to do just that. I won't let you or anyone else hurt him. If it's the last thing I do, Perry, I'm going to protect him."

"Oh? And how are you going to do that?"

She opened the door. "By any means necessary, using any methods necessary."

She closed the door behind her and walked past Claude, who by this time was sitting up in a chair, without acknowledging his existence.

***

Clark closed his front door and sighed. He glanced around the living room and decided to clean up after he got some sleep. After all, even Superman needed some rest from time to time.

He hadn't spoken to Lois about his confused feelings yet. He wasn't sure she'd understand. For that matter, he wasn't sure he understood. Several times during the stakeout or during breakfast he'd almost spoken to her about them, but something had stopped him each time. Maybe he was afraid of seeming too needy. Maybe he was afraid she'd reject him or be repulsed by his overtures. Maybe he was afraid she'd misunderstand and expect something more from him than he was ready to give. Or that she'd misunderstand and expect far less from him than he was ready to give.

Maybe he just didn't know how to explain what he felt for her.

On top of that, he'd noticed that he could sense Lois' presence. He could even tell what she was feeling, at least in a general way. That was something that he did need to discuss with her, but he wasn't sure how to bring up that subject. Oh, by the way, Lois, I can tell when you're angry or sad or upset or excited or when you're watching Ivory Towers and crying into your ice cream. That would be awkward, not to mention telling her what that information was doing to his own emotions.

He didn't feel towards Lois the way he'd felt towards Lana, but there was something between them, something palpable that cut through his defenses every time they stood close to each other, every time she smiled, every time he made her laugh. He didn't know what that meant, and it bothered him that he didn't know.

It also bothered him that he enjoyed her company so much. It was almost as if Lois had become a part of him, as if she filled some void in his heart that he didn't even know was there before they became friends.

Compounding all that, he still missed Lana tremendously. He still felt deeply sad that she was gone. He supposed that, most of all, he felt sorry for himself because she wasn't there with him.

Her clothing still hung in her closet and lay in their chest of drawers. Her shoes were still on the shoe rack in her closet. He could still smell the scent of her perfume in the bathroom. Reminders of Lana were scattered all over the apartment, all over his life. He couldn't get away from the thought of her. He didn't think he'd ever want to get away from thinking of her.

But he felt like he'd turned a corner. All of those things no longer threatened to stop his heart from beating. They no longer stood in the way of his continued existence.

He picked up his favorite picture of the two of them. It had been taken at their wedding reception the previous December. Lana was standing beside him with her right arm around his waist and his left arm around her shoulders, and she was lifting a cup of punch towards the camera with her free hand. Her face glowed with joy.

His face glowed, too. The photographer had caught him looking down at her, and his love for her was evident even to him. It was a reminder, both of what had been and what might have been.

He sat down on the couch and caressed the frame. He smiled and blinked away a tear.

"I miss you."

He started. For a moment, he thought someone else was in the room, but then he realized the voice had been his. He shook his head and took off his glasses. He sat still for a long moment, thinking of how beautiful Lana had looked that night at the reception.

His fingers brushed the glass over the picture. "I really miss you, Lana. I miss having you close. I miss having you here to listen to me, to talk to me when I've had a tough rescue or when I haven't done all I think I could have. And I miss your laughter. I miss your gentle smile. I miss your touch, your embrace, the way you'd bump my hip when we were doing the dishes, all those little things that made me aware of you."

He leaned back and held the picture in his lap. "I'll always miss you. I'll always regret not being able to save you. But I think I'm ready to keep going now. I won't let Superman disappear, either. I won't hide in a cave or fly out towards the moon until I run out of air. I won't dive into a volcano and find out just how much heat I can take.

"Yeah, I've thought about doing all those things. But I don't think I'll do any of them now, at least not for the purpose of committing suicide. There are things to live for, not just Superman things, either. I can do some good in this world. I can still help."

He shook his head as he thought of Claude. "A guy at work today made a smart-aleck crack about me. He said I -- he accused me of forgetting you too soon. It's not true. I'll never forget you, Lana. You will always be a part of my life.

"I can't believe I actually hit him. Well, not too hard, anyway. The only part of him that's really hurt is his pride. But I'll never do that again, Lana. I'll never let anyone yank my chain like that again. I'll never let anyone else talk about you like you were my possession or my property, and I'll never let anyone goad me into a physical confrontation over you again. You're too important for me to treat you like that, or to let anyone else do it. I'll run away first.

"My parents miss you so much. My dad misses you more than my mom, I think, almost as much as I do. He thought of you as his daughter, the one he and Mom could never have. And he still blames Lois."

He hugged the picture to his chest. "But I don't blame her. And I don't blame myself anymore, either. I did everything I thought was right. I've gone over and over that sequence in my mind, and the only thing I can think of to do differently would have been to drop Lois off in the raft and zip right back to get you. But I needed to make sure she'd be okay first, and then she told me she knew who I was, and then she told me you'd been shot and I turned and -- I flew as fast as I -- I tried -- I really tried -- I'm so sorry --"

The tears came again. But they didn't scald his soul this time. They were cleansing tears, tears which washed away unnecessary guilt and pain. They were tears of mourning instead of tears of recrimination. For the first time, he cried not because he thought he'd failed his wife and also failed himself, but simply because Lana was gone. He didn't cry because she'd left him alone, he cried because she wasn't with him.

He missed her. He'd always miss her. But maybe -- just maybe -- her memory would serve to strengthen him instead of cripple him. Maybe he could remember and celebrate the many good times they'd had together instead of moaning about the days -- and nights -- he'd have to spend by himself. Maybe he could love someone else again some day, a day far in the future, a day he couldn't see but trusted would eventually come.

He fell asleep on the couch with the picture folded gently in his arms.

***

Chapter Nine

>>>Thursday, 6:14 PM

Clark awoke with a taste of well-used sweat socks and old buffalo tracks in his mouth and sunlight slanting through the living room window onto his face. He sat up, glanced at the mantle clock, and realized that he'd slept most of the day.

He almost dropped the picture in his lap, then he gently set it on the living room table. His fingers brushed the glass directly over the image of Lana's face.

Then he stood. It was time to do some housecleaning and some laundry. His shirts were starting to smell a little funky.

He changed clothes, shaved, and brushed his teeth in seconds. The towering pile of dirty dishes was gone in six minutes. The furniture was dusted and the carpet vacuumed in another eight. He started a load of towels and socks in the washer, then he opened the refrigerator to see what he had for dinner.

As he leaned down, someone knocked on his front door. A neighbor? He'd only waved and said 'hello' to the few people living in the building, most of whom apparently preferred to keep to them themselves. His parents? No, surely they would have phoned first. He picked up his glasses from the dining room table and decided to be surprised.

He tugged the door open. He was surprised. "Hi, Clark! Come on, let's go!"

"Lois?"

"Yep. Come on, there's a party over at Rebecca's and she asked me to bring a nice guy along and you're the most innocuous guy I know so let's go!"

"Wait! Who's Rebecca?"

She grabbed his hand. "A friend of mine. She's a receptionist at LexCorp and they're having a party with some dangerous boys and good music and lots of interesting things to do."

"Dangerous boys? I'm not sure --"

She pulled him into the hall. "Come on, don't be a stick in the mud! They're going to start without us if we don't hurry!"

He looked down at his sweats. "I have to change first."

"Well, go ahead! Wear black if you have some clean stuff. You can -- " and he whirled away, only to reappear two seconds later, wearing black slacks, black loafers, and a black long-sleeved dress shirt.

She looked him up and down and whistled. "Well, if that doesn't impress them, nothing will."

***

"Lois, I'm still not sure --"

She threw him a fake frown that he saw through immediately. "We're almost here! Stop whining!"

He put a nasal whine in his voice, trying to sound like every bad-tempered four-year-old he'd ever heard. "But I don't wanna have fun!"

"Yes, you do."

"No, I don't!"

"Yes, you do."

"Are we there yet?"

"We're almost there. Get ready to have fun."

"I told you I didn't want to have fun!"

She stopped in front of an apartment door and smiled. "Too late, we're here."

Rebecca answered almost as soon as Lois knocked. "Hi, Lois! You must be Clark! It's good to meet you!"

The noise level in the hallway went up when the door opened, but not deafeningly so. And the music, surprisingly, was a mix of light pop and easy country, not the aggressive hard rock or blues Clark had expected to hear.

The redhead in the doorway smiled at them. "Come on in, you two! I want you to meet the gang."

Lois pulled off the windbreaker she'd been wearing and asked, "Where can I put this, Becca?"

Rebecca took it. "I'll take care of it." She pointed to the kitchen area. "Drinks, snacks, sandwiches, salads, and chicken strips on the table. Glasses on the cabinet beside the sink, ice in the freezer, drinks in the fridge. Help yourself. Oh, down the hall and last door on the right is the bathroom."

Lois looked around and nodded. "This -- isn't quite what I expected."

Rebecca laughed. "Let me introduce you to the Dangerous Boys."

Clark tilted his head. "You say that as if it were a title of some kind."

"It's kind of an unofficial club name. Now you two come with me and I'll introduce you around."

Rebecca led them into the living area and pointed to a long folding table set up against the far wall. "The tall fellow with the buzz cut is Gandalf. The short and rotund one with the funky Afro next to him is Harry Potter, and the lovely young lady on the end is Morgana. Hey, gang, this is Lois and Clark."

The short, slender young black woman at the table looked around and spared them a curt nod. The two young men didn't take their eyes from the computer monitors on the table.

Rebecca stepped between Clark and Lois and put one hand on each inside shoulder. "Don't be offended. That's about how they treat me unless they've found something. Oh, I almost forgot. Our other dangerous boy is in the bathroom right now. When he comes out you can say hello to Prince Edmund of Narnia. He isn't quite as good a programmer as the rest of them, but he's top-notch at gathering data that other people don't want made public."

Lois lifted an eyebrow. "These are the dangerous boys you warned me about?"

Rebecca laughed. "Don't worry. The only danger they present is to outlaw computer networks and crackers."

Lois lifted her other eyebrow. "What's a cracker?"

"A cracker is a bad guy hacker, the kind that sneaks into private companies or government databases and sells whatever he learns to the highest bidder, or maybe just trashes files and ruins people's weeks. This bunch isn't a bit like that. All of them except Edmund are working on a master's degree in computer science, and they're so disgustingly law-abiding that they won't even park downtown without feeding the meter. In fact, they helped the FBI break a ring of computer bank thieves about three months ago."

"Really? I don't remember hearing about it."

Rebecca put her finger to her lips and lowered her voice. "That's because neither the Dangerous Boys nor the banks want any publicity. The FBI arrested all those folks on other charges, so our part in the investigation isn't public knowledge." She patted Lois on the shoulder. "Anyway, they walk their own virtual glory road just because they can, not because they want to be famous."

Clark turned to Lois. "Gandalf, Morgana, Edmund, and Harry. I think we've fallen into a collision of fantasy novels and legends."

Rebecca laughed again. "It seems like that to me sometimes, too. Come get something to drink and -- wait, here's Edmund."

They looked down the hallway to see Jimmy Olsen approaching. He barely glanced at them as he walked towards the table, then jerked to a stop and spun to face them. "CK! Lois! What are you two doing here?"

"Rebecca invited us." Lois leaned closer and grinned. "Are you -- surely you're not Prince Edmund?"

Jimmy reddened and scuffed his toe. "Uh, yeah, I am. See, we all use these screen names when we're online, and it's just as easy for us to call each by those names when we're physically together as it is to remember our real names."

The tall, lean-to-the-point-of-emaciated youth who Rebecca had called Gandalf turned his head and growled, "My real name's Raoul Futterman. Understand now?"

Clark shrugged. "Futterman's not exactly a terrible name."

"Maybe not, but it doesn't have the sizzle that Gandalf does. Besides, I really am a wizard at this."

Clark grinned back at him. "I'll have to take your word for it. Can one of you tell me just what you're being wizardly at tonight?"

Morgana spoke up. "We're correlating migration data for a particular species of squid, one that lives in and around the Caribbean Sea. We've got about thirty months worth of numbers to crunch through to find a pattern, and so far we're not having much luck. Either one of you two know anything about statistics?"

Clark shook his head in the negative, but Lois nodded. "I've done some work in it."

Rebecca tilted her head to one side. "Since college?"

"I did the analysis for some of my father's grant requests."

Morgana frowned at her. "What field?"

"Medicine."

"Be more specific."

"Patient recovery from surgery, use and maintenance and replacement of prosthetic limbs."

"Current stuff?"

"He got a grant from the Superman Foundation this past spring. Some of the work I did for him I also used in my master's program."

"You have the degree yet?"

Lois grinned. "It's a work in progress. I expect to finish by the end of next summer."

Morgana indicated the empty chair beside her. "Sounds like a winner to me. Set it down and put it to work, hon."

As Lois cautiously took her seat, Jimmy wailed, "Hey, that's my chair!"

Morgana shrugged. "You weren't helping me that much. Go bother Harry for a while. Maybe you can crash his simulation instead." She smiled an evil smile. "Or maybe he'll go out with you if you promise him a seafood dinner."

As the rest of the group howled in laughter, Jimmy frowned but obeyed. Rebecca tapped Clark on the shoulder and wiggled a finger for him to follow.

She stopped at the dining room table and turned to watch. "Are you enjoying yourself so far?"

Clark chuckled. "I like watching people enjoy themselves. I think you've got a collection of people having tons of fun."

She poured a glass of ginger ale and sipped it. "Well, these four nerds are definitely in their element right now. I can't imagine they'd enjoy anything else more."

"Are you sure they're not just banging their heads against a digital wall?"

She smiled. "No, I'm not, but they're not ready to quit." She lifted her glass again and leaned against the table. "For that matter, I'm not ready to quit either."

"How much progress have you made so far?"

"This is the fourth night this month we've tried to analyze this mound of data. Haven't gotten anything satisfactory yet."

Clark picked up a chicken finger and munched it. "Who collected the data?"

"One of my marine biology professors took the project over from another instructor who got tenure at the Chicago School of Engineering. My professor almost passed out when he saw how much work was left undone. There's over thirty months of data and practically no analysis was ever done. He got together with the computer science dean and they came up with a graduate project to make sense of it all."

"I see. What do you expect to find?"

"I hope to see a seasonal migratory pattern for the squid. I think they follow the migration of the fish they feed on, but I can't prove it yet. I also think they break away from that pattern during mating season, but once again, I can't prove it." She sipped at her ginger ale. "At least, not yet. And, if we can finish this monster sometime soon, not only would we have a high-class master's project, we could get our names in some very prestigious peer review publications."

Clark poured himself a glass of cola and lifted it in a toast. "To a successful analysis."

Rebecca smiled and tapped his glass with hers. "Hear, hear." She swallowed and shook her hair about. "Hey, I just realized we haven't been properly introduced yet. I'm Rebecca Connors."

Clark sketched a slight bow in return. "Pleased to meet you, Rebecca. I'm Clark Kent."

"Hi, Clark. Are you Lois' boyfriend? You don't sound French."

Clark almost spit out the sip of soda he'd just taken. He grabbed for a napkin and wiped his chin as he laughed. "No, no, I'm from Kansas! You must be thinking about Claude."

"Oh, right, I remember now. You seem much nicer than Lois described Claude, too. So, how well do you know Lois?"

Clark pondered the question for a moment, long enough for Rebecca to look at him more closely. "We work together," he finally said. "We're both reporters for the Daily Planet."

"Uh-huh. Not that I'm trying to pry, you understand, but might you two be something more than that?"

"Yes, we are more than that." He faced her and spoke with confidence. "We're friends."

Rebecca nodded and smiled. "That's good. I get the feeling that Lois needs all the friends she can find."

He nodded in return. "I think that's true for all of us."

Just then, Harry lifted his arms above his head and shouted incoherently, his Asian features twisted with frustration. Gandalf slapped his forehead and groaned. Morgana shouted, "You two quit showing off! I think I've got something here."

Rebecca almost leaped across the room. "What is it?"

Morgana pointed at the screen, which looked like a simple cluster of random numbers to Clark. "I think this is the mating season here. They break away from the food migration patterns and hole up here in shallower water for about two weeks, then start following the food again."

Rebecca shook her head. "We've seen that pattern before, Morg. That's not proof."

Lois asked, "Do you have any data on the babies?"

Morgana scowled. "No, and that's one of the problems. I think this is spawning behavior, but I can't prove it unless I can show some babies here in about three months."

Rebecca sighed dramatically. "Once again, unless you have some proof, all we have is a hypothesis."

Morgana spun in her chair to face Rebecca. "Then let's make that assumption and see if the data supports it."

"We can't report assumptions without hard data! The master's committee would toss us out on our ears! Why not --"

Lois broke in. "Rebecca, wait. Why can't you make the assumption and test it against the data?"

Gandalf blew a raspberry. "Our faculty sponsors won't let us do stuff like that, Lois. They'd cream our submission if we reported a conclusion based on an assumption."

"But what if you find predators there when the baby squids hatch?"

The rest of the group stared at her uncomprehendingly until Harry muttered, "Say that again, will you?"

Lois nodded. "You know about baby sea turtles, right? It's just like that!"

The four computer geeks, plus Rebecca and Clark, all returned blank looks, so she continued, "This pattern is similar to the events accompanying the birth of sea turtles, when gulls and fish and other small game predators gather for the swarm of baby turtles rushing to the ocean. It's a feast for everyone but the turtles."

Harry slowly nodded. "So, if we find a concentration of predators --"

"You've probably found the breeding grounds, too." Lois continued as Harry turned and began typing furiously. "Rabbit babies attract foxes and weasels and such. Why wouldn't baby squids attract ocean predators, especially if their parents go back to the same spot year after year?"

Morgana shrugged. "It might work. We'd have to be certain --"

Harry threw his arms up and howled. "Hoo, baby, that's it! That's got it!"

Morgana turned her scowl on him. "Look, if you can't behave around guests --"

"The babies! I got the babies!"

Everyone leaned in as Harry began gesturing excitedly. "Look! Right here, about three months after Morgana found this static concentration, you've also got a gathering of predators, birds, small sharks, barracuda, and stuff like that in the same place, just like Lois said! They --"

"So what?" Morgana interrupted. "We're looking for squid babies, not sea gulls and sharks!"

Harry's brow darkened. "That's what I'm telling you! They're gathering to feed on baby squid!"

Everyone leaned forward to compare the numbers on the two screens. Lois was the first to speak. "I don't know this data as well as you guys do, but I think Harry's got something here."

Rebecca straightened and took a deep breath. "You sure? This is master's degree research. I'd hate for us to turn this in and get it back with red marks all over it."

"Yeah," muttered Gandalf, "like it bled to death."

Harry rolled his eyes. "I've had enough of those for a lifetime, but I know I'm right about this. Can anyone explain to these helium-brained micro-focused hydrocephalic ninnies what I'm talking about?"

Clark and Lois both paused, startled both by the insult and the time it took them to translate it. Rebecca saw their faces and laughed. "Hey, you two, it's okay! These four insult each other like that a lot. It's almost a contest to see who can come up with the most creative combinations."

Clark lifted his eyebrows. "Helium-brained?"

Rebecca grinned at him. "You know, a light thinker?"

He grinned back. "Yes, I understand. Pretty good for something off the cuff."

She cocked one eyebrow. "Harry's not that quick with a quip. He was probably saving it for just such an occasion as this."

Harry exhaled noisily. "Can we dissect my motivations later? I want to hear what this very smart lady has to say about my brilliant idea."

"Your brilliant idea? What about Lois' input?"

Lois frowned. "That wasn't much, Becca. All I did was mention the reproductive cycle of sea turtles."

"Shh!" hissed Gandalf and Morgana together.

No one moved for long moments, until Rebecca finally smiled. "That's it." Her face lit up. "That's got to be it!" She grabbed Lois by the shoulders and shook her. "You're right! You're right! I knew you could help, Lois!"

Lois steadied herself and shook her head. "I didn't actually do anything."

"Sure you did! You asked the right question at the right time. That's the mark of a good scientist."

Jimmy nodded enthusiastically. "It's the mark of a good reporter, too."

Morgana's eyebrows disappeared into her bangs. "Reporter?"

"Yeah! Clark and Lois are reporters at the Daily Planet! Didn't you see the big story in the afternoon edition today?"

"About what?"

"About the carjacking ring! They broke the story and helped the police get the bad guys." Jimmy looked around at four puzzled faces and sighed. "Look, you guys want me to get into your world, fine, but you need to at least acknowledge that mine exists."

Morgana nodded. "He's right this time, guys. Tell us about it, Edmund."

Rebecca raised her hand. "I have a copy of today's paper in the bedroom. I'll get it and let you three ostriches read it." Then her eyes opened wide and she spoke as if her audience was made up of preschoolers. "Or, if you're really, really nice, and keep your crayons inside the lines, I can read it to you. Very slowly. And I'll explain all the big words."

The four Dangerous Boys stared at her for a moment, then Gandalf muttered, "Swirly."

Harry said, "Ah! Swirly!"

Rebecca's face showed alarm. "No! No way! No swirly!"

All four of them began chanting, "Swirly! Swirly! Swirly!"

Rebecca backed up. "Wait a minute. Not me! No swirly! No way, not this time!"

The quartet stood and stalked Rebecca as she backed across the room, still chanting, "Swirly! Swirly!"

Lois and Clark stood and looked at each other, profoundly puzzled, then together they turned to watch the tableau unfolding before them. Still chanting "Swirly, swirly," the four cornered the protesting Rebecca, then picked her up and carried her down the hall and into the bathroom. Clark took a step towards them, but Lois put her hand in front of him and said, "Wait a second. I don't think they're going to hurt her."

After a few seconds, they heard a scream of outrage, followed almost immediately by the sound of a toilet being flushed. Clark pulled his glasses down on his nose and began chuckling.

"What do you see?"

"Well -- let's just say it's a good thing Rebecca isn't wearing a dress."

Lois' eyebrows rose. "You mean she's --"

"Head down and just about vertical. Whoops, she's back on her feet and flipping wet hair around in all directions. Ha!"

"What? What ha?"

"Jimmy just got slapped in the face with Rebecca's hair!"

As they shared a laugh, Jimmy led the quartet out of the bathroom at a gallop, followed by a very damp redhead with a towel folded for snapping at her oppressor's hinder body parts. And she wielded it expertly, as attested to by several enthusiastic yelps of pain.

Morgana ran across the room and ducked down behind Clark. "Mercy!" she screamed.

Rebecca leaned around Clark and expertly popped Morgana on the seat of her pants. "No mercy for the givers of the swirly! Hah!"

Everyone laughed, including Morgana, who was rubbing her injured spot, and Rebecca's retaliatory romp ended as she wrapped the towel around her hair. Jimmy stumbled and would have fallen if Lois hadn't grabbed his arm. "Thanks. Whew! Haven't had this much fun since my high school science club made a panty raid on the girl's dorm at summer camp."

Lois gave him a lopsided grin. "And the girls let you live?"

Jimmy laughed again. "We didn't know it at the time, but the girls were on a boxer raid in our dorm. Everybody in camp went commando the next day."

Lois patted his arm and stepped away. "Thanks, Edmund, but that's actually way more information than I needed."

Rebecca flipped the wrapped towel over her shoulder. "All right, you computer geniuses! Do you think you can write a program to print all that data for display and analysis?"

"Oh, yeah!" they chorused back.

"Then get started on it while I dry my hair. Harry, pick out some music to write code by." She turned to her other guests. "Lois, will you and Clark be okay for a little while?"

Lois chuckled. "It hasn't exactly been dull so far."

Rebecca grinned. "Good. I'll be back as quick as I can."

"Don't you want to wash that water out of your hair now?"

"Naw. I'll just make them smell it if they get out of line again."

Lois laughed as a Mary Chapin Carpenter disc began playing. Gandalf, Harry, and Morgana plopped themselves down in their chairs and each began typing furiously. Jimmy sat beside Morgana and nodded or made an occasional correction when she turned and motioned towards the screen with her hand or her head. The closed bedroom door muffled the roar of Rebecca's hair dryer.

For several minutes, the only voices Lois and Clark heard were each other's as they discussed work and the weather and how quickly Lois might be able to dry her hair -- which was much shorter than Rebecca's -- should she suffer a catastrophic swirly. The relative silence, punctuated by the varied tapping of four pairs of hands on three keyboards, finally got to Lois. "You think they'd notice if you floated a couple of feet above the carpet?" she whispered to Clark.

He frowned at her. "I'm glad you respect my secret so highly."

She grinned and lifted her glass to her lips, then spoke at a level only Clark could detect. "I don't think they'd acknowledge us if you spun into costume right here and now."

He crossed his arms and surveyed the scene before him, then shrugged. "Maybe you're right," he whispered back. "They do seem pretty focused. Even Jimmy."

"You are referring to His Highness Prince Edmund, are you not?"

Just then, Rebecca came out of her bedroom. Her previously free-ranging hair was confined by a rubber band, and she'd changed her shirt. Lois glanced at Clark and saw him looking at Rebecca with a spark of interest, so she swallowed the comment she'd had on her tongue and tapped Rebecca on the shoulder as she passed by.

"Hey, Lois!" She lowered her voice as a chorus of hisses and waving hands greeted her from the computer side of the room. "Thanks for your help, girlfriend."

Lois smiled and waved dismissively. "I didn't do much, really."

"On the contrary, you kick-started our collective brains. That data was right in front of us and we couldn't see it. You deserve some of the credit."

Before Lois could respond, Gandalf lifted his arms and shouted, "Yes! Done!" Then he pressed a key and leaned back as far as the chair would allow.

Harry slowly reached down and put his hand under Gandalf's front chair leg, then yanked it up. But Clark was there to catch him before his shoulders and head hit the floor.

Harry hit several more keys, then spun around in his chair and crossed his arms. "I'm done too. And I bet my simulation will have a higher correlation factor than yours will."

Gandalf stood and snarled, "That was completely unnecessary! If it hadn't been for Samwise I might have been hurt!"

Harry pointed at Clark. "He's Samwise Gamgee? Then who's the brunette with him?"

Rebecca swept between them and spoke imperiously. "Hear me! I am the Lady Galadriel and I require that both of you obey me without question! Cease this senseless bickering at once!" She glared at each of them in turn and stepped out of character. "Now let's get back to the real world, okay? It doesn't matter who did what part of the project as long as the whole team succeeds. You think any of you could do by yourself what the whole team does? I doubt it. None of you know it all. You're far stronger together than you are apart."

She stared up into Gandalf's nose. "You can look for personal glory another time and another place. Right now you work as a good team member. Got it?"

"Hey, who died and made you --"

She suddenly appeared deep inside his personal space. "I asked you a question, wizard! Are you Gandalf the White or just a pretender?"

The tall youth took two steps back and ran into Clark. He might as well have backed into a marble statue. He glanced behind him, then at the redheaded spitfire in front of him, and decided that he'd rather live to code another day.

"I'm -- I'm a good team member."

Rebecca nodded microscopically, then spun to face Harry. "You! Are you a good team member too?"

Harry's sullen expression faded under the redhead's laser stare. Grudgingly, he relaxed and nodded. "Team member."

"Good one?"

"Yes. A very good one."

She stepped back. "Okay, guys, either shake hands and be friends or shake hands and come out fighting."

The two hackers stared at each other for a long moment, then Harry put his hand out. "Sorry about the chair thing. I shouldn't have done that."

Gandalf took his hand. "No, you shouldn't have." He held the grip for a moment longer. "But I guess I crowed too loud, too. I'm sorry."

Harry grinned. "Done and done. Now," he released the other's hand and turned to the rest of the group, "how about getting this party started?"

A ragged cheer went up. Morgana stood and grinned. "I'm done, too. I think we'll have three fantastic sets of results when we're done."

Rebecca cried out, "That's great! How long do we have to wait?"

Harry looked at Gandalf, who nodded in deference to his fellow wizard and dangerous boy. "Forty minutes to an hour to get the preliminary figures, another couple of hours to crunch those numbers and get final results."

Morgana added, "That assumes we don't get wild variances between the simulations."

"True," nodded Gandalf. "But I don't think that will happen."

Rebecca clapped her hands. "Then what's stopping us from having some fun in the meantime?" They group chorused general approval of fun. "Then let's go visit the Twist and Shout!"

Jimmy stepped towards the CD player as that very song began playing. He turned up the volume and grinned at Morgana. "Shall we, my lady Morgana?"

Morgana wiggled an eyebrow at him. "We shall, my lord Prince Edmund."

Gandalf reached out a hand for Lois, who momentarily glared a warning at him as she stepped closer. Gandalf nodded and said, "My lady, I am your servant."

Lois grinned. "Then, assuming you can behave yourself, you may dance with me, oh White Wizard."

Harry smiled, rubbed his left knee, and moved against the wall.

That left Rebecca and Clark. She smiled up at him and said, "You don't have a bad knee too, do you?"

He grinned back. "Nope. I just hope I can keep up with the rest of you."

She took his hands. "You don't have to worry about keeping up with the rest of them, Clark. Just keep up with me."

***

Rebecca looked around at the mess, glanced at the clock, and decided that she needed to record the evening for posterity more than she needed to neaten up the place. She pushed stuff aside until she'd cleared sufficient space at the dining room table, then pulled her journal out of its safe place and began writing.

~~~

Hey, J! We had a breakthrough tonight! Harry found a concentration of predators and Morgana's simulation showed a plus-90 correlation between the predators and the squids' breeding cycle. We're almost certain we've solved the biggest of the problems. Now all we have to do is put it all in a readable form for the review committee.

And it might not have happened if Lois hadn't been here. She was the one who thought of checking on the predators, and the rest of them took the ball and ran with it. She's pretty smart.

And her friend Clark was here, too. He's very cute, even handsome, but I also found out that he's even smarter than Lois told me he was, even if he isn't as knowledgeable about computers as the rest of the guys are. There's something else there in his eyes, too, some deep sadness that makes him cautious. We were all dancing -- except Harry, who still claims he has a bum knee, but I just think he can't dance -- and I gave Clark several openings to get closer to me, and he didn't take any of them! He didn't exactly reject them, he just didn't step through the door when I opened it. I thought at first that it was because Lois was here, but now I don't think that's the reason. Still haven't figured it out, but I will.

Clark's eyes are a deep, lively brown. I never thought brown eyes were particularly interesting before, but I do now. His eyes are intelligent, searching, always looking and seeing, never missing anything (except my openings, of course), and they smile a lot, even when his mouth doesn't. He thinks things are funny, and he's always got something positive to say. When Gandalf and Harry got into it -- again! -- Harry tipped Gandalf's chair over, but Clark caught Gandalf before he hit the floor headfirst. He's really quick, and he seems to be pretty strong. He's got great shoulders. I wonder if he works out?

Anyway, I didn't mean to go on and on about Clark, although I could, but I wanted to write about the project. I think we're almost ready to print the first draft and go back to Professor Hamilton with it. I bet he'd help us, especially after he sees what we've done with all this stuff. I can already taste that master's degree! Look out, world of marine biology, here comes Doctor Rebecca Connors!

Maybe I'd better write the thesis first.

The only thing that would have been better if those bozos hadn't given me another fiddle-winkin' swirly. If they don't stop doing that, I'm going to have to get my hair cut short like Lois', and I don't think it would look all that good on me. Even with my wet hair all pulled back in a scrunchie, he seemed to like dancing with me.

Hey, J, I need to go to sleep now. I'm really tired. I hope I dream about Clark. Woo-hoo!

And about getting that doctorate. Woo-hoo twice!

I hope I have good dreams tonight. Until I go to sleep, I'm going to think about my doctorate. And about Clark. He's so yummy!

***

Lois pulled her Jeep to a stop in front of Clark's apartment. "Well, here we are. I guess I'll see you in the office in the morning."

Clark glanced at his watch and smiled. "It's almost two now. Can you get enough sleep?"

She waved dismissively. "Sure I can! I'm young, I'm energetic and determined, and I slept most of the day after I left the office. How about you?"

He shrugged. "I'm fine. I'll see you tomorrow -- uh, make that later this morning."

"Okay." As he opened the car door, she put her hand on his wrist. "Clark?"

"Yes?"

She ducked her head for a moment, then looked up, anxious. "You had fun tonight, didn't you?"

He tilted his head as if giving the question serious consideration, then smiled and nodded. "I did have fun. I didn't think I would when you materialized at my door, demanding that I come with you, but yes, I had fun. Why do you ask?"

"Well -- I have a confession to make."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Rebecca invited just me, but I wasn't sure it was a good idea for me to go alone. So I asked her if I could bring a friend, she said 'yes,' and I knew I'd be safe with you. I hope it was okay."

"It was fine, Lois. I really did have a good time tonight."

"I'm glad. You need to have some fun every once in a while."

"That's good advice. You be sure and listen to yourself, okay?"

She grinned at him. "Will do. Goodnight, Clark."

"Goodnight, Lois."

He shut the passenger door and waited as she drove away. The night had been fun, despite his reservations and his early protestations to Lois. Rebecca was a nice person, and he'd learned a lot about Jimmy and his hacker -- don't call them 'crackers' -- friends. And being with Lois had been easy.

Easy? He thought about that as he unlocked the door. Yes, being around Lois was easy, and fun, and relaxing, and actually uplifting. He felt better at that moment than he had for some time. He thought about it, and decided his current mood was a combination of having gotten some good sleep, attending the party, being around fun people who didn't expect him to be super, dancing with Rebecca -- who was a very good dancer -- riding with Lois and conversing easily with her, and his conversation with Lana the previous day.

He stopped and listened for Lana's voice. He didn't hear it, of course, but he didn't think she'd mind it if he enjoyed life a little. His heart was still hers, but he could tell that the bonds of pain and loneliness had loosened a bit. Even if he stayed single for the rest of his life -- which was certainly a viable option, maybe even a probability -- he wouldn't feel guilty if a pretty girl, or even an attractive woman, smiled at him occasionally.

He might even enjoy it. And, when the moment warranted it, he might consider smiling back at her.

***

Chapter Ten

>>>Friday, 7:51 AM

Lois stepped out of the elevator at ten till eight and moved aside to allow the others getting off at the news floor to walk past her. She glanced around the room and spotted Cat, who had just poured her first coffee of the morning. Lois followed her to her desk and smiled as the tall redhead flopped loosely into her chair.

"Good morning, Cat. How's the gossip business today?"

Cat hesitated, then looked at Lois. "Huh?"

Lois lost her smile. "You okay? Don't take this the wrong way, but you don't look so good."

Cat shook her head. "No, I'm fine. I just -- there's something private going on right now."

"Sure, I understand. You need to bend someone's ear, just come see me."

Cat managed a wan smile. "Thanks, Lois. I appreciate that."

Lois nodded as she stepped back. "Don't forget. And we'll have to have lunch together one day next week. As long as it's not Tuesday."

"Tuesday? Why is that?"

"Big interview with Lex Luthor. I may pick up some stuff for you, too."

"Oh, yeah, I'd forgotten about that. Good luck."

"Thanks. We'll talk later."

Lois turned and made her way to her desk, feeling uncharacteristically positive about the morning. She'd enjoyed the party the night before; Gandalf had kept his distance while dancing with her quite skillfully, she'd strengthened her relationship with Jimmy a little more, and the time spent with Clark had been a real bonus. It had been a long time since she'd been around a guy who didn't make her think he was either undressing her with his eyes or taking her way too lightly.

Clark didn't do either of those things. He was turning out to be an even better person, a better man, then she'd ever thought. Lois had worried that he'd want to talk about their time in Dr. Friskin's office, but he hadn't mentioned it once. Maybe it would become one of those unspoken milestones in their relationship. She hoped so. The last thing she wanted to do with Clark was talk their relationship to death.

She glanced over at his desk, surprised not to see him. With a sigh, she sat down and pulled up her scheduler on her computer. She frowned at the screen and picked up the phone to scroll through her voicemail.

She didn't notice her editor standing beside her desk until he cleared his throat.

"What? Oh, hi, Perry. Did you want to talk to me?"

"Yes. Come to my office as soon as you're free."

She frowned. "Okay." She stared at his retreating back. Perry was almost never that morose. Something must be wrong.

She made notes for the two voicemails on her system and decided that nothing else demanded immediate attention, so she walked to Perry's office and knocked on the door.

"Come in."

She pushed the door open slowly and was surprised to see Clark sitting in front of Perry's desk. His elbows were on his knees and his head hung down.

Lois wondered what was going on this time. "You wanted to see me, Chief?"

"Shut the door, please, Lois." She did. "Congratulations are due to both of you for that carjacking story in last night's evening edition."

Clark shrugged. "Lois did most of the work. I wasn't much more than a conversation partner for her."

Perry shook his head. "You got the first break, Clark, and Lois put it together with what she already had, and between the two of you we got a crackerjack story. You two have a writing chemistry that shows up in the copy. It's going to boost our sales."

Lois squinted at him. "Then why don't you look happy?"

"It was the other thing."

She nodded knowingly. "Ah. The other thing."

Perry didn't smile back. "I got a phone call yesterday while you two were getting some well-deserved rest."

He hesitated, then continued. "The Metropolis Museum of Natural History called. They need to return Lana's personal belongings to Clark and have him sign some legal papers. You got anything really pressing right now?"

"The White Orchid Ball is tonight."

"You ready for that?"

She nodded. "Picked up my dress yesterday morning."

"Anything else?"

"Nothing that will fall apart before lunch. Why?"

"I want you to take Clark to the museum and give him a hand."

Lois felt a chill against her spine. "You -- you want me to -- to go with Clark? To the museum?"

"Yes. Unless, of course, you have some reason not to go."

She swallowed and forced herself to breathe in and out. "No. I don't have any reason not to go with him."

Perry picked up a message slip and handed it to Lois. "Ask for Phoebe Shining Mountain in Employee Relations. She'll take care of everything."

Lois nodded. The slip of paper felt as insubstantial as a soap bubble and bulky as an anvil all at once. She slowly lifted her gaze to Perry. "When should we go?"

Perry shrugged. "The lady said she'd be in her office all day, starting at eight this morning. She also said that if Clark wanted to come at any other time, he should let her know and she'd make sure she was there, before daylight, weekend, midnight, whatever."

Clark lifted his head. "I'd like to go now. If that's okay with you, Lois."

She nodded and spoke softly. "That's fine. Give me a minute to shut down my workstation and I'll be ready."

***

Cat watched Clark and Lois head out. Both of them seemed unusually serious, especially given Lois' good mood earlier. On impulse, she flagged down the nearest person walking by.

"Jimmy! Hey, do you know where Clark and Lois are going?"

"You need to talk to one of them? I have Lois' cell number."

"No, that's okay. Lois and I were talking about having lunch and I wondered if she'd be available today."

"Probably. Lois is taking Clark to pick up the last of his wife's stuff from the museum."

Cat's eyebrows rose. "Really? Whose idea was that?"

Jimmy tilted his head in thought. "Mr. White's idea. Why?"

"Oh, nothing, never mind. I'll just catch her when she gets back."

Jimmy nodded. "Okay. I, uh, gotta get these proofs to the photo lab, and then I have to --"

She smiled and waved him on his way. "Go ahead. And thanks."

She waited until the elevator doors closed behind him, then she picked up her cell phone and punched in the special number.

"Hello?"

"This is Cat Grant. Lois Lane and Clark Kent are headed to the Metropolis Museum of Natural History."

"Why?"

The voice sounded puzzled, even through the distortion. "Kent's wife worked there before she died. I guess it's about that."

"Very well. Anything else?"

Cat hesitated, then continued. "Yes. Lois Lane has an interview with Lex Luthor on Tuesday of next week."

"I knew that."

Cat exhaled sharply. "I couldn't know that you already knew! You told me --"

"Relax, Ms. Grant. I'm glad you mentioned the interview. It tells me that you're upholding your end of the bargain."

Cat almost asked about her marker again, but couldn't bring herself to say the words. "That's all I have now."

"Very well. Call me again when you have something else worthwhile."

Cat hung up her phone and closed her eyes. She hoped she hadn't just crossed the line and put someone in real danger.

But the threat of injury or death against her and against her parents was compelling. She'd been caught between a rock and a hard place, faced with the choice of reporting to someone whose name she didn't know but who surely used the information she sent for evil, or refusing to continue and placing her parents -- who had no idea what she was doing or that she'd managed to put their lives in someone's crosshairs -- in mortal danger. The huge gambling debt she'd accumulated in college continued to haunt her, and every waking hour she regretted being so stupid. Even taking a second job wouldn't help her pay off the mountain of debt in anything resembling a reasonable amount of time. The voice on the phone consistently refused to give her any hint of when she'd be out from under this obligation, or if she ever would be done with it.

Cat was afraid that she'd never pay off her marker. She was afraid that the voice would keep using her and keep using her as long as she passed on information, and that the habit of making those calls was too ingrained by now to simply stop. It was almost as if she was addicted to the keypad on that phone. She knew she'd keep calling the number until the day she simply couldn't do it anymore.

And then she'd die.

***

Clark settled into the car seat and shut the Jeep's passenger door. "Lois?"

She didn't look at him. "Yes, Clark?"

"You don't have to do this if you don't want to."

She jammed the key into the ignition. "Perry said I should go. I'll go."

He put his hand on her elbow and stopped her frantic movement. "It's okay. I understand. You really don't have to go with me."

She turned to him. "Yes, I do. I have to face those people. I need to let them see me and let them know I'm not a monster."

He frowned. "I think they know that already. Besides, Lana only worked there for about three months. I doubt she had time to make very many intimate friends."

She sat back and put both hands on the wheel. "That's -- not the only thing."

"Oh? What else is there?"

She hesitated, then closed her eyes. "I want you to listen to this and not say anything until I'm done, okay?"

Clark looked puzzled but agreed. "Okay, if you say so."

"Good." She opened her eyes and turned to face him. "Lana asked me to do something else just before -- before I left her on the ship. She --"

"Look, Lois, I thought we decided --"

"Clark!" she barked. "You agreed to listen and not talk."

His eyes brightened for a moment, then he nodded.

"Good. The other last thing she said -- besides for me to tell you that she loved you -- was for me to take care of you."

Clark waited a long moment, then frowned. "That's it? That's your big secret? That's what's bothering you? That you think you're responsible for me now?"

She slapped the steering wheel with both hands. "Yes! And what do you mean, is that it? I think taking care of an emotionally fragile Superman would be a huge job for anyone!"

To her amazement, he laughed. "Emotionally fragile? Me?"

He leaned against the door and laughed again. Lois finally smiled. "Yeah, it is a little funny, isn't it?"

He sat up and wiped his face. "Wow. Thank you."

"For what?"

"For the best laugh I've had in weeks." He chuckled again and she joined him.

"Glad to be of service, sir." She backed the Jeep out of the parking slot and headed towards the street.

He waited a moment, then said, "Lois, can I ask you a question?"

Her eyes were darting about, watching for stupid drivers. "Sure, go ahead."

"Okay. And please don't misunderstand. I'm only asking for information."

She frowned again, but nodded. "Go ahead."

"I was wondering where you were trying to go when you left the ship's hold."

The question startled her and she avoided running a red light only because she stood on the brake pedal at the last moment.

Clark waited until the Jeep quit rocking, then said, "Sorry. I didn't mean to distract you."

"It's okay." She flexed her fingers on the wheel. "It's just -- I didn't expect that kind of question."

"Oh. Sorry again. You don't have to answer me if you don't want to."

"No, Clark, I don't mind telling you. I was trying to get to the radio room and call for help."

"I see."

The light turned green and she sped away from the intersection. "Lana was hurt pretty badly and I didn't know how much longer she -- wait."

"What's wrong?"

"I don't -- maybe I'd better restate that."

He nodded. "If you want to. But I know that Lana's dead. I'm a widower. I don't particularly like that situation, but there's nothing I can do about it now, and getting upset every time someone talks about her won't help me a bit. Besides, I'd like to know what she said in her -- what she said to you before you left."

Lois glanced at him. "You sure?"

"Yes. I'm sure."

"Okay. That's really about it, except I was afraid you weren't going to get there in time. And, well, until you dropped me quite rudely in that raft and I saw how you reacted when I called you by name, I didn't really believe you were Superman."

"What, you thought Lana was delirious?"

She grinned. "Actually, I thought she was trying to keep my spirits up. I just couldn't stand to sit back and do nothing."

"I see." He sat back until they stopped at another traffic signal. "That was very brave of you."

Her head snapped around to stare at him. "Brave? Me?"

"Yes. You knew that you couldn't possibly hold all those men off with just one pistol, but you tried it anyway, and you did it for Lana and not for yourself. I think that's very brave."

"Oh." She slowly faced forwards again. "Huh. I would've said Lana was the brave one. She didn't have my martial arts skills and she'd been shot, but she never asked me to stay with her or acted like she was the least bit afraid. Not once."

"I think you were both very brave."

She forced herself not to shed the tears that were threatening to spill. "Thanks."

They finished the trip in silence and parked in the office visitor's area. Lois dashed the wetness from her face before Clark walked around to meet her, and she watched him pretend he hadn't seen it.

The concierge directed them to Employee Relations, where they met a young, disinterested blonde who didn't bother to show them her plastic smile. "Can I help you?"

"Clark Kent to see Phoebe Shining Mountain."

"Mm'kay." The girl pressed a button on her phone. "Ms. Hill, there's a Clark Kent here for you."

After a moment, the door behind the girl's desk opened and a tall woman with long raven hair stepped out. "Mr. Kent? I am Phoebe Shining Mountain. Please come in."

Clark took her proffered hand. "Thank you. This is my co-worker, Lois Lane. She's my chauffer for the morning."

Phoebe nodded briefly to Lois, then looked closer. "Ah. We meet again, Ms. Lane. I am pleased to know your name."

Lois frowned. "We meet again?"

"Yes. Lana and I were having lunch in MacKenzie's Deli some weeks ago and we literally bumped into you."

"Oh. I remember now." Lois cautiously shook Phoebe's hand. "Hello again. I want -- I need to apologize to you. I behaved very badly that day and I deeply regret it."

Phoebe smiled slightly. "The past is done, Ms. Lane, and cannot be changed. Please, both of you, come in."

Phoebe held the door open for Lois and Clark, then turned to the blonde and said, "Deborah, please hold all my calls until further notice."

The girl popped her gum and nodded vaguely in Phoebe's direction. Phoebe's smile never wavered, but she stiffened slightly before closing the office door behind her.

Clark waited until both Lois and Phoebe sat before taking his seat. Phoebe leaned her elbows on her desk and softly said, "Mr. Kent, I am very sorry for the loss of your wife. She was a good person, honest and trustworthy, and despite the brief time we were acquainted, she enriched my life. I will miss her."

Lois frowned. "Is there some reason why this had to happen today? Could you have waited a few days, or maybe called earlier?"

Phoebe nodded. "I would have contacted Mr. Kent earlier, but some of the legal documents with which we must deal were not finalized until yesterday morning. And I could not wait long. I have been offered the position of curator of the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Oklahoma. Even though I have yet to notify my current employers of my decision, I intend to do so this afternoon, and this will be one of my last official acts before I leave Metropolis."

Clark sat back in the chair. Lois closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. When she looked up, Phoebe was handing Clark a clipboard with several sheets of paper attached.

"I regret the necessity of this paperwork, Mr. Kent," Phoebe said, "but we must placate the attorneys on all sides."

Clark nodded and took the clipboard. "I understand. Where do I sign?"

"There are four forms which require your signature, Mr. Kent. The first will allow us to release your wife's personal effects to you. They are packed in two boxes in the closet behind me."

She waited while he signed it. "The second acknowledges your receipt of this check from the museum's insurance company."

He took the check from her, looked at it, and nodded. "Thank you. That's very generous."

Phoebe shook her head. "Two years of salary is poor compensation for your loss, Mr. Kent, but that is -- or, more precisely, was -- the museum's policy for the loss of a family member who was involved in museum business at the time of his or her demise."

He frowned. "The gun-running was one of the museum's businesses?"

Phoebe started and leaned back. "No, of course not. But she was one of our executives, and since the museum was being used for nefarious purposes by others of our staff and because she was inadvertently caught up in its wake, the museum bears some responsibility." She lowered her voice. "This is not a bribe, Mr. Kent, it is a sincere apology. Please believe this."

He turned to Lois. "What do you think I should do?"

Surprised, she shifted nervously in her chair. "Uh. I don't know. Is there any specific reason you shouldn't take it?"

He frowned at her and hesitated. "No, I suppose there isn't."

"Then you should take it. If you don't feel like you should keep it, pick a worthy charity and give it to them. Maybe you could use the money to fund that corporation that Lana started for archaeology research, um, Digger Enterprises?"

Phoebe nodded in agreement. "That is a good idea, Mr. Kent."

Clark stared at the check in his hand for a long moment, then exhaled. "Okay. I'll sign this form too."

Phoebe smiled slightly. "Thank you, Mr. Kent." She waited while he turned to the third page. "This form is a release of liability. Simply put, it means that you agree not to sue the museum over the events of this past summer."

Clark sat up abruptly. "If I haven't sent a lawyer after you up to now, what makes you think I'll do it in the future?"

Lois put in, "And does he have to sign that form to get the check you were being so generous with a minute ago?"

Phoebe waved her hands and scooted her chair back. "Please, Mr. Kent, Ms. Lane, let me explain. There is no link between any of these forms. Should you, Mr. Kent, choose not to sign this form, we will move on to the next item. As I said when we began, these documents are for our attorneys. They want to know that you have no intention of bringing a lawsuit against us."

Clark crossed his arms. "And if I don't sign?"

Phoebe shrugged. "Then one of the junior partners in the law firm may lose some sleep to worrying over that unsigned piece of paper."

Clark lifted his eyebrows, then slowly grinned. "Far be it from me to rob an attorney of anything, especially sleep." He scratched his name onto the form.

"Thank you, Mr. Kent. Now this last form."

Clark read through it quickly, then sat back and read it again. "Am I reading this correctly? This one says that --"

"That LexCorp will pay you your wife's salary for the next five years, yes. And there will be no taxes taken out of the check. All taxes will be paid by LexCorp."

Lois steepled her fingers in front of her face. "That's -- exceptionally generous."

Phoebe nodded. "Yes, it is. And there is one other item that you, Ms. Lane, must be aware of. No word of this arrangement may be published by Mr. Kent or by anyone with whom he works. This is to be done without any publicity."

"Uh-huh. Who thought this up?"

"Mr. Luthor himself."

Clark sat up straight. "Lex Luthor authorized this?"

Phoebe nodded again. "Mr. Luthor explained this arrangement to me personally. No one in the museum besides myself will be aware of this. The money will come directly from LexCorp and will not appear on the museum's books. It will be deposited in whatever account you wish, or you may choose one or more charities as the destination for the money. You may also alter your choice at any time during the next five years."

"And the only obligation I have is to keep this quiet?"

"Yes, Mr. Kent. That is all."

Clark looked at Phoebe, then at the form, then back at Phoebe. "That's a lot of money."

She smiled. "Yes. As I said, no amount of money can compensate someone for the loss of a loved one, but the money can, at least, ease the physical demands of keeping house and feeding oneself."

Lois shook her head. This was something she'd remember to ask Luthor about at their interview next week. Off the record, of course, and after she'd established some kind of rapport with him. It would be stupid to lead with a question like this.

Clark finally scrawled his name on the last form. "Okay -- say, what should I call you?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Well, we asked for Phoebe Shining Mountain, but your secretary called you 'Ms. Hill' when she announced us. What do people call you?"

Phoebe scowled for a moment, then blanked her features. "I apologize. Deborah insists that Shining Mountain is too long and too odd a name to use casually, so she substitutes Hill. It appears to me that she believes she is being facetious. I have asked her to address me by my first name, but she declines to use that form of address also." She stood. "Please, call me Phoebe. I am proud to be of the Sac and Fox people, but I do not wish to burden others with my tribal name."

Clark stood also and extended his hand. "Thank you, Phoebe. Please, call me Clark."

Phoebe shook his hand, then turned to Lois. "I invite you to address me as Phoebe also, Ms. Lane."

Lois stood up and smiled slightly. "Thank you. But only if you'll call me Lois."

"Done. And now, Clark, shall we complete our appointment?"

"Sure."

Phoebe opened the closet behind her to reveal two gray plastic fold-top boxes labeled "Personal Effects: Lana Lang-Kent." Lois watched Clark's face blank out as he saw them.

He stopped for a moment, then reached out and touched the top box. He unfastened the restraining cord and opened it slowly, then pulled out a large photo frame. It held a candid shot of Clark and Lana throwing a Frisbee in the Kent's front yard. Lois glanced at the picture over his shoulder and almost heard their laughter as they played together.

Clark stared at the picture for a moment, then touched it gently, almost reverently. Lois hesitated, then whispered to Phoebe, "Do you have another pressing appointment after Clark?"

Phoebe shook her head 'no.' Lois turned Phoebe's chair around and touched Clark's legs with it, then put her hand on his shoulder. "We'll be back in a little while, Clark."

He nodded absently and sat down. He put the picture to one side and delved into the box again. Lois collected Phoebe with her eyes and the two women catfooted out of the office, leaving Clark alone with his memories.

***

As Phoebe closed her office door, she turned and lightly tapped Deborah on the shoulder. The girl boredly dropped the phone away from her ear and said flatly, "What."

"Ms. Lane and I will be back in approximately twenty minutes. Please have that spreadsheet ready by then."

"Yah, 'kay." She turned back to her phone. "So, like, anyway, he said he'd call, but, like, he ain't called, so, like, should I call him or just key his car or stick a potato in his exhaust pipe or --"

The girl's grating voice faded into the background as Phoebe led Lois down the hallway. "I apologize for Deborah. She is the youngest daughter of the one remaining director who was not directly affected by the gun-smuggling scandal and has never worked anywhere before."

"Uh-huh. How much longer is she going to work here?"

Phoebe shook her head. "I do not know. I was originally told she was to be a summer intern, but she apparently enjoys receiving payment for not doing her job more than she enjoys not studying in school."

Lois chuckled. "I take it the real world hasn't intruded on her life yet?"

"I believe not. Ah, we have arrived at the cornucopia of dreams, otherwise fabled as the museum cafeteria. Would you care for a late breakfast, Lois? Or would you prefer something to drink?"

"How's the coffee?"

"It is guaranteed not to dissolve your cup before you drink it, assuming you do not dawdle over it."

"Oh, you guys like it thin, huh?"

Phoebe laughed softly. "I suppose the Daily Planet's coffee is not of the gourmet variety?"

"Not even close."

"Then you must allow me to pay for this cup."

"Deal."

Lois' coffee was black, two sugars, and Phoebe splurged on a cappuccino with whipped cream. "I do not make a habit of drinking so many calories this early in the day. Lana inspired me to lose a bit of weight."

Lois eyed Phoebe as they sat down. "Lose it from where? You're not exactly plump, you know."

"Thank you. Neither are you, Lois." Phoebe handed Lois a napkin. "May I presume upon our new friendship and ask the nature of the relationship between yourself and Clark?"

Lois froze for a moment, then took a sip, then another. "It's -- it's complicated."

"We have some time."

Lois hesitated. "Would you tell me why you're asking that question?"

"Of course. In the brief time Lana was here, we became good friends. I flatter myself that we would have become very close friends, given sufficient time. I liked her honesty, her ambition, her determination to be the best she could be -- " she paused and sipped her cappuccino " -- and she was fixed on maintaining her weight and her shape. I admire that in another woman, even one more attractive than myself."

"I admired her, too. For a lot of things." Lois dropped her gaze from Phoebe's grin. "I wish I'd known her better."

"Ah. Do I hear regret or recrimination?"

She stirred another packet of sugar into her coffee. "A little of both, I suppose. And to answer your original question, I'm trying to be Clark's friend."

"I see. Is this friendship based on your guilt or on something else?"

Lois narrowed her eyes at Phoebe. "You don't beat around the bush, do you?"

Phoebe put her cup down. "I apologize. I did not intend to be rude. My only defense is that, through my friendship with Lana, I have come to care what happens to Clark Kent. In order for him to have attracted so fine a wife, he must be a very fine man, and I do not mean that in any suggestive or coarse sense."

Lois nodded. "You're right, he is a fine man, and it's because he's a fine person."

"I surmised as much. And before you either answer my question or decline to respond, I must tell you that I feel some responsibility for Lana's death."

"You do?" Lois shifted into 'reporter' mode instantly. "Tell me, how are you responsible for Lana dying?"

"She recognized that something untoward was taking place here at the museum and attempted to enlist my aid in discovering the nature of that activity. Through fear of losing my position and my income, I declined to become involved, yet she still sought me out and did her best to be my friend. I owe much to Lana's memory, and I would not be pleased if her husband were treated badly by anyone."

Lois nodded. "I see. Then I'll tell you that I feel pretty much the same way, except that I know Clark better than you do. He's doing about as well as can be expected, and while I'm more than willing to admit that he's not ready for any kind of relationship, I don't think he needs you to be his baby-sitter."

"Nor do I believe that I should be. I am not your enemy, Lois, unless you have evil designs on Clark Kent." She picked up her cup and took another sip. "You do not have any such designs, do you?"

Lois grinned. "Not any kind of designs, evil or otherwise. A Clark and Lois romance, seduction, or entrapment of any kind is not on the radar."

"At least, not at the moment."

Lois lost her grin. "Why do you say that?"

"Your coffee is growing cold. Would you care for a refill?"

"No." Lois' voice also grew cold. "Please answer my question."

Phoebe met Lois' gaze openly and directly. "Because no one may accurately predict the future. None of us knows what may happen tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year. We both agree that he is a fine man, and you do not appear to have a permanent man in your life, else you would not respond to his feelings as you did in my office. You have some kind of strong feelings for him. You are close to him, and he to you. Yet I sense no romantic or intimate attachment between the two of you. It is an odd relationship, but I believe you may be an ideal friend for him at this time in his life."

Lois sat back and mentally reassessed Phoebe Shining Mountain. The woman was either completely sincere and was on the same Clark wavelength as Lois was, or she was a superb confidence trickster.

And it bothered Lois that she couldn't immediately tell which.

So she changed tack. "You know, Clark feels responsible for Lana's death also."

Phoebe's eyebrows rose. "Truly? But Superman was on the scene, was he not? If Superman was unable to save Lana, what more might Clark have done?"

Lois shrugged. "I don't know. But there are those who might decide I bear some responsibility, too, because I was chasing a story when she got caught up in it."

Phoebe nodded knowingly. "It seems there is enough guilt to go around many times."

Lois sipped her coffee. "More than enough." She lifted her cup. "You know, I think I could stand a refill after all."

Phoebe smiled warmly. "The path to the coffee pot, just as the path to enlightenment, is open for you."

***

Clark sat in Phoebe Shining Mountain's desk chair, lost in his memories. The contents of the boxes had assaulted his heart and overwhelmed his defenses. Once again he felt Lana's closeness, her presence, her joy of living, and once again he realized he'd spend the rest of his life without her. The breach in his soul wasn't as huge as it had been, but it hadn't yet healed. It was still tender, still raw, still vulnerable.

He put the picture back in the first box and opened the second one. This one held only Lana's desk items. Clark's heart rate eased as he examined each item in turn.

Until he found the pen and pencil set.

He'd bought Lana a personalized pen and pencil set for college graduation. It was a common gift, one of five she'd received, but he'd built a wooden holder for both the pen and pencil he'd given her and painted them in Superman's colors. Lana had yelped with glee when she'd seen the holder and had thanked him most enthusiastically.

All this time, he'd believed it was in one of the boxes that they hadn't unpacked in the apartment. Yet, right there in his hands, was evidence that she'd put that intimate reminder of him right on her desk for all to see. Even if no one else had known what it represented, she'd known.

And now he knew it, too. The knowledge undid all of his carefully constructed defenses and he fell heavily against the edge of despair. His heart wailed with renewed pain and he hunched forward, gripping the holder tightly in both hands.

***

Lois sat up abruptly. She turned her head as if listening. "You hear that?"

Phoebe frowned in puzzlement. "Hear what?"

"That." Lois stood. "It's Clark. Come on."

"What? How do you -- " but she was speaking to Lois' back.

Phoebe picked up both coffee cups and put them in the return window, then followed Lois as quickly as she could.

She caught up to Lois only because Deborah suddenly decided to do her job and was blocking Lois from entering Phoebe's office. "I'm sorry, lady, but you can't just barge in there --"

"I was in there not twenty minutes ago! I came out with Phoebe Bright Mountain and now I'm going in to check on Clark Kent!"

Deborah put her hands up and shoved Lois' shoulders back. "If you don't back off, I'm calling security!"

Lois leaned slightly forward and clenched her fists at her sides. "You touch me again and I'll clobber you, little girl. Now get out of my way!"

"Lady, you can't -- Ms. Hill, tell her she can't --"

"Let her pass, Deborah."

"What? But she --"

"I said, let her pass. This is my office and I allow it."

Deborah stared daggers at Lois, but she moved aside. As Phoebe followed Lois to the door, Deborah muttered, "I'm telling my dad about this!"

Phoebe had had enough. She turned and faced the girl. "Deborah, you may report to the typing pool after lunch. You are no longer my administrative assistant."

Deborah's face flushed red and her jaw slackened. "What? You can't do that! My dad will --"

"Your father has nothing to do with this. Now you may either follow my instructions or you may resign from the museum altogether. I no longer care which path you choose."

Without waiting for the girl's response, Phoebe spun on her heel and strode into her office. When she saw Lois and Clark, she stopped and closed the door behind her.

Clark was slumped forward in the chair, his face in his hands. Lois was kneeling beside Clark with one hand on his shoulder and the other gently stroking his hair. She was also speaking comforting words that Phoebe couldn't quite make out.

The scene was telling. Lois had known somehow that Clark had needed her, and she had responded. Phoebe wondered whether Clark would respond to Lois' need in a similar fashion. For that matter, she wondered if Clark would be able to sense Lois' feelings as she had obviously sensed his.

Even in this time of stress for Clark, Lois was behaving more as a friend than a possible lover. Phoebe decided that Lois had been telling the truth when she'd said that the nature of their relationship was not a romantic one.

She slipped back out of the office and closed the door gently. Such a private time was not meant for a new friend as she still was. Later, perhaps, if there was such a later time, the three of them might share their hearts together, but not now. The bonds of their friendship had not had the chance to grow strong enough for that.

Phoebe wished that circumstances had been different, that the three of them might have become close friends. With Lois and Clark in her circle of acquaintances, there was no telling how interesting her life might have been.

***

Chapter Eleven

>>>Friday, just after noon

Lois stopped at the traffic light two blocks from Clark's apartment building. "You sure you're not hungry?"

"No. Thank you."

"Okay." She tapped her fingers on the wheel. "You sure you don't need help with those boxes?"

He smiled slightly. "I think I can manage them. Thanks anyway."

"Okay." The light turned green and she drove on.

"Front of the building or in the parking garage?"

"Front is fine."

"Okay." She brought the Jeep to a smooth halt directly in front of the building's main door and pressed the rear hatch release. "It's open."

Clark put his hand on her forearm. "Thanks for coming, Lois. I really appreciate your help."

She smiled and blushed slightly. "You're welcome. You sure you're up to coming back after lunch?"

He nodded and slid out the door. "I'm sure. I'll see you in an hour or so."

"You want me to come back and get you?"

He chuckled. "No, Mother, I'll take a cab."

Her grip on the steering wheel tightened along with her voice. "Mother?"

"Sorry." He lifted one hand to placate her. "Thank you for caring, Lois, but I'm fine. Really."

"Okay, if you say so." He shut the door and she glided away from the curb. He watched the Jeep until it turned a corner, then he walked up the steps into the foyer and rode the elevator up to his floor.

He put the boxes in the guest room closet along with the few that were still packed up. He sighed as he surveyed the scene. He didn't like the stack of boxes sitting on the closet floor. They implied impermanence, a restlessness, a readiness to leave, and that was something he didn't want. He wanted to stay here in Metropolis. He wanted to put down roots, to make a home for himself. Lana couldn't be with him, but he was sure she wouldn't have wanted him to wander aimlessly over the globe, drifting with the wind and the tide. She'd want him to make something of himself.

Well, then, he would. He'd fix himself a quick lunch, grab a cab back to the Planet, and attack whatever assignments Perry had for him. He and Paula had turned in the car chase story on Wednesday afternoon, after evening deadline but with all the research done. Paula had almost admitted to him that he'd been right, which was a huge step for her, and Perry had congratulated both of them on a job well done.

So his decks were cleared for action and he was ready for something else to sink his teeth into, something meaty and important. He finished his sandwich on that note, and as he wiped the table clean, he heard a burglar alarm.

No rest for Superman, he grinned to himself. He spun into the Suit and flashed out the window in pursuit of truth and justice.

***

Perry motioned to Lois as she strode down the ramp to the newsroom. "What is it, Chief?"

"Where's Clark?"

"I dropped him off at his apartment. He had that stuff to put away, then he said he'd get some lunch and grab a cab back to the office."

Perry nodded. "Good. How's he doing?"

She shrugged. "It was hard for him, but he's coping."

"Coping? Or just putting up a good front?"

She paused in momentary thought. "No, he's coping."

He frowned. "You guessin' or you know it?"

"I know it."

"Uh-huh. How?"

She opened her mouth to answer but nothing came out. Surprise crept across her features. She shook her head and said, "You know, I never thought about that until just now."

"Now that's a leading comment if I ever heard one."

She grinned crookedly. "I guess it is. I can't explain it, Perry. If I listen for it in my head, I just know how Clark feels. It's -- I don't know how to describe it. I just sense it in my mind."

Perry's eyes widened. "You sense it?" She nodded. "Just how much do you sense?"

"Nothing really specific, just his general mood." She suddenly looked surprised again. "Oops."

"Oops? What oops?"

She smiled in wonderment. "I think he just went out on -- " she glanced around and lowered her voice " -- a Superman job."

Perry nodded cautiously. "Okay. We'll see what kind of article he brings back this afternoon. Speaking of this afternoon, you have anything pressing?"

"No. You have something for me?"

"Yes. I want to go over your interview plan for Lex Luthor with you. I may be able to give you some pointers."

She frowned in thought for a moment, then nodded. "I guess so. I think it's pretty complete already, though."

"Of course you'd think it was complete. Now, if you have no other pressing business, I think we should get this out of the way so I can do some other editor-type stuff with my other reporters."

>>>Friday, 4:56 PM

Lois lifted her purse out of her desk drawer and pushed her chair under her desk. Her hairdresser's appointment was scheduled for six-thirty, so she planned to grab a quick snack at the deli before going home to pick up her dress. The White Orchid Ball was officially scheduled to begin at eight, but she wanted to get there early and watch people arrive. It was one way to pick up tidbits and insights, and maybe there was a story or two to be found there also.

She hoped Claude wouldn't attend. He was still on suspension, but since this was a social event not sponsored by the paper, there was no way to keep him from going. She decided that, no matter what, Claude would not be a problem for her.

She also hoped Clark would be there. She smiled to herself, wondering how good he'd look in black. Pretty good, she mused.

She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that Cat sneaked up on her without intending to. "Woolgathering, Lois?"

Lois jumped. "Oh! Oh, yeah, I guess so. I was thinking about the ball tonight. Are you going?"

Cat smiled wide. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss it for anything! Have you any idea what a gold mine events like this are for me? I'll get at least three weeks of column ideas tonight without having to say a word!"

Lois grinned back. "I'll look for you there. Right now, I have a hair appointment and a date with a deli salad."

"What, you don't like all that rich food?"

Lois gave Cat a once-over. "Girlfriend, on you it goes where you want it to go, but on me it goes where it absolutely shouldn't. I can't afford to eat like an after-dinner speaker. I'd get extremely heavy."

Cat laughed. "Hey, I have to work out a lot to keep my figure. I can't afford to gain weight in the wrong places either."

"In that case, I'll see you at the ginger ale bar tonight."

"I'll look for you through the forest of men surrounding me."

Lois laughed with her. She didn't see the strain in Cat's eyes, or the loneliness of the burden no one knew she carried.

***

Perry had thanked Clark for the Superman exclusive he'd written up after lunch, commenting loudly that he wished the rest of his staff showed as much initiative and instinct as Clark had.

Then he'd winked.

Perry had called to Jimmy to take Clark's article downstairs and slide it into page two of the evening edition.

"Well, son, that was good work. What's next on your agenda?"

"Oh, I thought I'd take it easy tonight, just watch a movie and rest up."

"What? Have you forgotten about the White Orchid Ball tonight? Everybody who's anybody is gonna be there!"

"I don't know, Chief, I really --"

"Lois will be there. Course, now that you know that, you won't go, will you?"

Clark had stopped talking with his mouth open. Perry had clapped him on the shoulder and said, "Aw, son, I'm just funnin' with you. I think you should go, but it's your decision. Whatever you decide is fine with me."

"Thanks, Perry. I -- I'll think about it."

"Good. Now get back to work!"

"Will do."

Clark turned to his desk and resumed work on the articles Perry had assigned to him earlier in the week. He tried not to think about what Lois might wear to the ball, or how she might fix her hair, or if she was as good a dancer as she'd looked the other night when she --

He ordered himself to stop thinking like that. He tried to banish thoughts of Lois by picturing Lana standing next to him.

It didn't quite work. In his mind, Lana was standing next to his desk, but instead of crossing her arms in disgust or frowning in anger or expressing disappointment, she was laughing at him.

***

Superman's cape fluttered in the breeze as he settled down in the cornfield. The tops of the stalks were, in his father's words, "as high as an elephant's eye," and were close to being ready for harvest. Carefully, so as to disturb the corn as little as possible, he changed into "civilian" clothes and stepped carefully to the edge of the field.

He glanced around and saw only Wayne Irig outside working, but Wayne was on the north side of his house and unable to see Clark at the edge of the Kent's east field. Clark sniffed the wonderful aroma oozing out of his mother's kitchen and smiled. It seemed that things were well between Mom and Dad once again.

He knocked on the kitchen door, using the "shave-and-a-haircut" rhythm he'd used when he was a boy to let his parents know he was coming in. He'd started doing that one day when he'd thrown open the kitchen door after coming home a little early from the third grade and finding his parents kissing enthusiastically in the kitchen.

He'd been startled by their behavior, and even more stunned when they'd jumped apart like they'd been bitten by ants. His mother had rubbed her face and tried to get her breathing under control, while his father had turned around and leaned forward with his hands against the counter.

"Son?" he'd finally ventured.

"Yes, Dad?"

"Will you do us a big favor?"

"Sure."

"Will you knock when you come to the back door after school?"

He'd frowned. "Okay. Why?"

"In case -- " his father had seemed embarrassed, but Clark hadn't understood why. "In case we're talking about your birthday or about Christmas or something like that. You wouldn't want to spoil any surprises we might have for you, would you?"

Still puzzled, Clark hadn't had any reason to disagree. "No, I guess not."

"Then you'll knock before you barge in?"

"Okay, yeah, I'll knock."

"Thank you, son."

He'd forgotten about the incident until one spring day, late in his junior year of high school, when Lana had been over for supper. His mother had walked in on a fairly intense kissing session in the kitchen, and both Clark and Lana had stood silently beside the refrigerator, seriously embarrassed, as Martha had opened the freezer to get some ice. Then, without speaking a word or looking at either of them, she'd tapped out the "shave-and-a-haircut" rhythm on the freezer door, filled her glass with water, and left the room.

The explanation had made Lana both terminally embarrassed and highly amused. The memory made Clark smile. It was a good way to remember some of the good times with her.

As he waited for someone to answer the door, he reflected that they'd had a whole lot of good times. Maybe holding onto those memories was more important than feeling sorry for himself on a daily basis.

His father finally opened the door and smiled. "Come on in, son. You're just in time for dinner."

Clark returned the smile. "Great! I love it when a plan comes together."

***

"Want me to do the dishes, Mom?"

"Oh, Clark, honey, you don't have to."

"I know that. I'm still offering."

Martha grinned at him. "Okay, if it'll make you feel more at home."

He stood and began gathering the used dishes. "I always feel at home here."

Jonathan smiled. "I'm glad you feel that way, son, since it is your home. And you seem to have a hearty appetite tonight."

Clark walked into the kitchen. "I've been invited to the White Orchid Ball in Metropolis. It's the big social event of the season."

Martha's eyebrow went up. "Oh? Who invited you?"

"Nearly everybody at the Planet got tickets. It's one of those things Lex Luthor is doing to promote his businesses and his charities. Most of us are going."

Jonathan nodded. "So you aren't spending the night here?"

"Nope. The event starts at eight and I still have to change clothes."

"I see. You'd better hurry. You only have an hour."

"I've got a little time to talk yet. I was going to walk from my apartment. It isn't far, and all the dishes are clean."

Martha smiled as he exited the kitchen. "You didn't melt any of my good plates, did you?"

"No, Mom! I wish you'd get off that. I only melted a couple of things, years ago, back when I started getting really fast."

She laughed. "Yes, but one of them was my favorite frying pan! You looked so sheepish when you showed it to me."

"And I replaced it out of my own money."

She patted him on the arm. "I remember that too, honey. Now, do you have a few minutes to talk with us?"

He crossed his arms in mock annoyance. "And what did you call what we were doing during dinner?"

She waved one hand at him. "Oh, that was just small talk. Come on in the living room and let's have some real deep down, gut-level communication."

Clark looked to his father for help, but Jonathan only shook his head and headed to the living room himself. Defeated for the moment, Clark let his mother guide him out of the kitchen.

"Can I get you some more tea, Jonathan?"

"No thanks, Martha, I'm good."

"Clark?"

"I'll take another glass, Mom."

She refilled Clark's glass and put the pitcher on the side table, then sat beside her son. "Now, Clark, tell us what's going on in your life. I don't get to talk to you as much as I'd like to."

He leaned back on the sofa. "Okay." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I picked up Lana's personal effects from the museum today."

Jonathan and Martha both stopped. Jonathan finally mumbled, "I thought you already had all that -- all her stuff."

"No. The employee relations director boxed it up and kept it for me. There were two containers."

Martha put her hand on his arm. "Oh, Clark, honey, that must have been difficult."

Clark took a big sip of tea. "It was, in some ways, but it was good, too. She had that picture of us throwing the Frisbee in the front yard on her desk." He smiled to himself. "That was a fun day. You took the picture, Dad, the day we were playing keepaway with Wayne Irig's grandkids when they were here during spring break. I remember that one of the girls got mad at Lana for catching the Frisbee and putting her in the middle. The girl snuck up behind Lana and tried to pull her shorts down." He laughed so hard he almost spilled his tea. "And Lana -- Lana dropped to the ground so fast she got grass stains on her underwear!"

Martha joined him in laughter. Jonathan smiled widely. "You never told us that, Clark."

"Lana wouldn't let me, Dad! She was too embarrassed!" They all laughed together.

Then the tears sneaked in. Martha buried her hands in her face and her shoulders jerked. Clark put his arms around her and held her close as she sobbed. Jonathan moved from his favorite chair to sit beside his wife on the sofa, and he put his big arms around the rest of his family as they all missed Lana together.

When Martha slowed down and tried to sit up, Clark released her. "Mom, we need to remember things like that. Lana would want us to think about her when we were all having fun or when she was happy or when she and I were making up after a fight. She wouldn't want her memory to be something that burdened us. She'd want us to remember her but go on with our lives."

Jonathan nodded slowly. "You're right, Clark." He sniffed once. "It's hard, though. Lana was so full of life, so determined to be a success. She was such a wonderful girl."

"Yes, Dad, she was. But she wasn't perfect."

Martha looked up at him. "What? You mean your wonderful and beautiful bride had faults, foibles and failings?" She lifted her hands and spoke to the ceiling. "What's the world coming to?"

Father and son shared a laugh. "Oh, Mom, there are several things that happened between us that I haven't told you two." He gave his father a tilted glare. "And I may never share them with you."

"Too personal, son?"

"Like you and Mom the night I told Lana about my powers."

Jonathan looked puzzled for a moment, then he and Martha remembered at the same time than Lana had almost walked in on a very intimate moment between them. And then Lana had worked very hard not to let Clark know what she'd nearly done. It was obvious that all of them remembered that night.

Clark grinned at his parents' blushing faces. "Gotcha!"

They all laughed again. Clark stood, still smiling. "I'm hate to have to leave just now, but if I don't go Perry will want to know what in the Sam Hill I thought I was doing, being late to the most important social event in Metropolis this fall."

His parents stood also. Martha hugged him. "Take care, Clark. And come back when you can."

He kissed his mother's cheek. "Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad."

Jonathan pulled his son's handshake into a manly embrace. "Be safe, son. And guard your heart."

Clark looked deep into his father's eyes. "Always, Dad. Always."

>>>Friday, 7:19 P.M.

The entrance to the building was standing room only, and the ball wasn't scheduled to start for another forty minutes. Lois could only imagine what it looked like inside, with all those people in formal evening dress crowding against each other, trying to maintain their good will and aplomb.

Cat had walked past her a few minutes before, her attention captured by the story the chief of police was relating to her. Whatever it was, it must have been fascinating, mused Lois, and she asked herself how much she'd bet that everyone read about it before Monday.

Everyone around her was having a good time and the party hadn't even started yet. They were laughing with friends, smiling at wives and husbands and significant others, touching each other gently and lovingly, all appearing so innocent and safe.

Lois felt out of place. She wasn't good enough to mix with these people. If they knew who she really was, if they only knew all that she had done, if they knew that she was a killer --

She shook her head. She hadn't set out to take those men's lives on the ship. She hadn't intended to mow them down with that machine gun.

But she had. And now she felt different, out of phase with other people. She knew better than most just how fragile the human body was. She knew first-hand how easy it was to end a life, and how much terror death really held for someone in mortal danger. The feeling wasn't constantly in the forefront of her mind, but it never left her.

She shook herself, trying to snap out of her funk, and watched the people stream past her; tall people, short people, skinny people, fat people, a few with good builds, several who bounced athletically, like the beautiful little redhead moving straight at her --

"Lois!"

The vivacious voice sliced through her musings. "Rebecca? Wow! Girl, you look good enough to find a husband!"

Rebecca's musical laugh rose above the clamor. "Oh, no, I'm not hunting for a permanent guy yet! Of course, if the right one comes along, then --"

"Then you'll be ready to rope him in!"

"Like a champion rodeo star!" Rebecca laughed again. "You coming in yet?"

"No, I'm having too much fun watching everybody."

"Okay! I'll see you later! Morgana's playing viola with the string group and I want to talk to her before they start."

And she skipped away like a sparrow chasing a bug. Lois watched her disappear into the crowd. Even as short as Rebecca was, she took up a lot of space with her personality. The red hair and the athlete's body didn't hurt, either, and she knew how to show herself off in the best way without looking cheap or easy. She was one of the sexiest women Lois had seen that night, and the effect was enhanced because she truly didn't understand what she did to men when she focused her intensity on them.

Lois sighed, wishing she could be a redhead for a few days, just to see if it was worth all the hoopla. Her short, dark hair was skillfully arranged to encircle her face, and her ankle-length gown exposed her right shoulder, as if she'd need that arm free to draw a bow. She turned back to the flow of humanity and was startled to find a familiar face smiling at her.

"Oh! Clark, don't sneak up on me like that!"

"Sorry, Lois, I didn't mean to sneak. I'm not late, am I?"

"No. In fact, you're early, believe it or not."

He took a half-step back and made a show of checking out her dress. "Wow, Lois, you look great."

He stepped close again and waited, apparently expecting some response from her. After a long moment, she frowned slightly. "That's it? 'Wow?' No slight dig, no cutting qualification, no sarcastic comparisons?"

The grin on his face faded. "No, Lois, none of that. Why would you expect that from me?"

She shook her head. "I'm sorry, Clark. I don't expect it, not from you. I just -- I'm feeling a little off tonight."

His expression shifted to one of concern. "Are you sick? Do you feel like you're coming down with something?"

She waved her hands in front of her. "No, no, it's -- oh, it's just me being moody."

His smile came sneaking back. "Well, it hasn't affected your appearance. No kidding, Lois, you look wonderful."

Sincerity from his gaze bathed her face and she smiled. "Thank you, Clark. That's very nice of you."

He offered his arm to her. "It's only the truth."

She almost told him she wasn't ready to go in yet, but something in her heart changed her mind. She slipped her hand under his elbow and moved closer. "Well, the truth is that you look pretty fine, too, Mr. Kent."

He inclined his head. "Thank you, Ms. Lane. Shall we enter?"

Something in his smile almost forced her to return it. "We shall, Mr. Kent."

As they meandered through the doorway and showed their invitations to the unfailingly polite but steel-hard security officer, Clark pointed across the room the bandstand. "Hey, look, it's Yo-Yo Ma!"

"Where?"

"Over there, in the middle, pointing to the cello. I didn't know he was going to be here."

Lois squinted across the cavernous room. "I see two guys with a cello, but I can't see their features from here. You sure it's Yo-Yo Ma?"

Clark gestured at the traveling announcement board to the right of the bandstand. "Yo-Yo Ma, by special invitation," Lois read aloud, "accompanied by the Metropolitan String Quintet."

He smiled. "Well, I think we'll have some excellent music tonight."

Lois poked his bicep. "This is sort of a working social event, remember? So don't get too caught up in the ambience."

They turned around to look as someone whacked a snare drum at the other end of the room. Lois' jaw dropped for a moment, then she recovered. "Clark! Do you know who that is?"

"The banner over that bandstand says it's Glen Miller Jr. and his orchestra."

"Yes! His father was one of the most famous members of President Truman's cabinet. He started out as a trombone player, then led his own band, went to Europe with the USO to entertain the troops, stayed in the Army and got promoted to brigadier general, became Secretary of Defense during the Korean war, and ended up as Secretary General of the United Nations! And he kept making great music until he retired a few years ago!"

Clark grinned at her enthusiasm. "I take it you really 'dig' their sound."

"Oh, yes! It's a cross between Big Band and Elvis, with some extra stuff thrown in for good measure." Her eyes lit up. "Wouldn't it be great if Yo-Yo Ma could sit in with them? I bet that would expand his listener base."

He stopped and wrinkled his eyebrows. "I don't think that's likely to happen, Lois. Their musical genres are just too different."

She stopped and pulled him around to face her. "Oh, so you're a music expert now? How many instruments to you play, farm boy?"

"Whoa! I never said it couldn't happen, or that I was a musician."

"But you're willing to make judgments like that without any credentials to back them up! You don't --"

"Lois, they play different stuff! Yo-Yo Ma is a classical musician and --"

"The Miller Band's stuff is classic!"

"I know, but --"

"He has some of the best players in the world up there with him! They can play with anybody!"

"I never said they couldn't --"

"And you think they couldn't keep up with a cello player? What kind of nitwit do you --"

He flung his hands up. "I surrender! I give! Uncle!"

She glared at him for a moment, then relaxed into a grin. "Okay, okay, I'm done."

"Good." He made a show of taking a deep breath. "I thought I was a goner for a second."

She poked him in the chest. "So don't contradict me in the future, okay?"

"Not without lots and lots of notarized documentation." He dropped his hands and smiled wide. "Well, that was refreshing."

"What? Refreshing?"

"Sure. I was beginning to think the Mad Dog was gone forever."

"Mad -- " She froze in place and stared.

He'd actually called her 'Mad Dog.'

To her face.

Was he crazy? Did he want her to rip his head from his shoulders? Did he have a secret death wish?

No. Somehow, through the strange link they shared, she sensed what he was saying. She'd been hiding behind her fear, her anger, and hadn't let herself loose for weeks. Tonight, in that tiny little argument with Clark, she'd forgotten for a moment that she was supposed to be in total control of herself at all times, that she was afraid of being herself. She'd forgotten that she was different. She'd forgotten that people were supposed to fear her on some subconscious level. She'd simply engaged another person in open conversation and held nothing back.

It had felt good.

She thawed and smiled back at him. "The Mad Dog is locked up in the kennel for the moment, Kent, but watch your step or you'll be in the doghouse too."

"Promise." He held out his hand. "Friends again?"

She took his hand and held it tenderly. "Forever and always."

Just then the string quintet began fine-tuning their instruments. As people turned to face them, they finished their last-minute touchups, and the violinist on the far left counted down with his bow. They slid gently into a gentle classical piece as people returned to their socializing.

Lois smiled. "That's pretty. Brandenburg, isn't it?"

He looked impressed. "Yes, it is. His second string concerto in E major is a nice tune to waltz to, if you're of a mind to do so."

Her smile bathed him in its radiance. "Are you asking me to dance with you, Mr. Kent?"

He reflected her brightness in his own smile. "Only if you're of a mind to do so, Ms. Lane."

She lifted her hands. He gently pulled her into position, leaving an easy few inches between them. Lois concentrated on her steps as they glided through the crowd. After a few moments of safety in Clark's arms, she glanced around and saw several other couples joining them.

He looked around also, then smiled down at her. "Looks like we've started something here."

She grinned back but didn't respond. She looked up at him again and thought to herself just what it was that they might have started between them.

***

Chapter Twelve

>>>Friday, 8:16 PM

Claude barely managed to contain his fury as he saw Lois dancing with the man whom he'd just described as the thief of partners, the Midwestern farm boy with the country manners and predatory ways. He turned to the woman with whom he'd been conversing and said in French, "You see? Do you see him? This man has no shame! Already he courts another woman, and has stolen my partner in the bargain!"

Privately, Renee Da Silva didn't think Clark was behaving badly, or even incorrectly, but she decided to humor Claude because she needed a warm body for her understaffed office in Zurich. She'd lost two good reporters recently, one to a move to another paper and one to being a stay-at-home mom with newborn twins, so she put on a sympathetic face and answered in the same language. "I sympathize with you, Claude. Good partners are difficult to find, and are often even more difficult to retain."

He tossed back his third glass of champagne and swapped his empty glass for a full one as a waiter passed by too closely. "Especially here in this backward country. No one understands me properly. The editor himself is too stupid to make full use of my many talents."

Renee almost answered snippily, but put aside Claude's criticism of her friend Perry. She'd already decided that she'd put up with a lot from this boor in order to have another experienced reporter in the Planet's European bureau. Transfers were easier to manage than new hires, given the amount of employment regulation in the European Union and the high standards for beginning employment with the Daily Planet, no matter which office or branch. And Claude's French citizenship would ease the transition even more. "Then you simply must come with me to Zurich. We can utilize your talents to the fullest extent there, and you will be so much closer to your own home."

His mental processes slowed by the alcohol he'd consumed, Claude blinked twice before it registered with him that Renee was offering him a job. She could see his mind slowly turn over and click, and she watched his eyes bloom at her with what he obviously considered a full measure of his charm.

"That is an excellent idea, my dear. Perhaps we could discuss this more fully at a later time, eh?"

Of course, she thought, later, but not where you think, you sewer vermin. She leaned closer and slowly waved her eyelashes at him. "Does that mean that you would accept such an offer, my friend?"

The pupils of his eyes almost blanked out the blue irises. "I would have to give it very serious consideration, yes."

She smiled seductively and forced herself not to laugh at the absurd picture he presented. "In that case, might we arrange a little talk with Mr. White? I'm certain he would not wish to lose such a valuable asset as you without some effort to retain you."

Claude waved his drink and, without realizing it, spilled some of the contents on the carpet behind Renee. "Bah! I have little or no respect for such a man. I will not allow him to sully my dignity by begging me to remain." He took another long sip. "Voila! It is done! I shall come to Zurich with you, my sweet."

He leaned closer, obviously expecting a kiss, but she only smiled and patted his cheek. "Excellent, Claude! I shall arrange the transfer with Mr. White. In this way, you will not be required to deal with him, nor will you need to speak with Monsieur Kent."

Claude nodded, his head wobbly on his neck. "Yes. Yes! You have an excellent head on your shoulders, Renee." He gazed hungrily at her cleavage. "And you also have excellent shoulders under your head, my dear."

She sighed inwardly and wondered if this was such a good idea after all. She wanted him to work, not chase her around the news floor. Oh, well, if he didn't get the idea quickly enough, she'd dump him and go back to working understaffed.

As she glided away from the almost-drunk she'd just conned, she mused that there were worse things in life. Like having to work next to the attractive man Claude had pointed out to her and not being able to do anything about him.

She was sure the brunette dancing with him would not have similar regrets.

***

Perry and Alice approached Clark and Lois as the string quartet finished their second number. As the audience politely applauded, the big band across the room began the Glen Miller Sr. classic "String of Pearls." Perry leaned in and boomed, "Clark, Lois, my wife is just plain tuckered out and I'm not done trippin' the light fantastic yet. You mind if I borrow one of my star reporters for a bit?"

Clark stepped towards Perry and lifted his hands to either side. "Okay, Chief, I'm game if you are."

Lois and Alice both laughed at Perry's stunned expression. Then Lois stepped into Perry's embrace and said, "I think this is a job for me, Clark. You keep stray dogs and strange men away from Alice."

Perry spun her away. As they vanished into the sea of bodies, Alice turned to Clark as asked, "So what do you think of my husband in a social situation? Isn't he just marvelous?"

Clark nodded. "He's a lot like Lois, actually. They both love being around people, not that either one of them would ever admit it."

She smiled. "That's a very astute observation, Mr. Kent."

He smiled back. "Please, call me Clark."

"Hi, Clark. I'm Alice."

They shook hands for a moment. "Would you like something to drink, Alice?"

"Yes, please, something without any alcohol in it."

Clark turned and looked over the beverage table. "Let's see, there's root beer, root beer, cream soda, and, oh yes, diet root beer."

She laughed. "I'll be adventurous and try the root beer."

Clark handed her a glass. "Here you are."

"Thank you." She sipped it and sighed. "As comfortable as Perry is at parties, I'm pretty much the opposite. I'd rather lean against the wall and watch everyone else have a good time." She tilted her head to one side. "I get the feeling that you're a bit like that, too."

He shrugged. "A little, I guess."

She turned and put her drink on a small table beside the wall. "Hmm. Not a total wallflower, but I'd bet you'd rather spend the bulk of your time at a party with the person you came with."

He quirked one eyebrow. "I'd say that's an accurate assessment."

"Good." She put her arm in his elbow and tugged him onto the dance floor. "Then you won't mind spending a little time with me, because you can be certain that I'm leaving with the man what brung me."

He grinned. "Oh, well, if it will alleviate your boredom, I suppose I'll have to acquiesce."

Alice nodded and took hold of his arms. As they danced, Clark reached inward and touched the link, the connection he shared with Lois. It felt like she was having fun. She certainly deserved to have some fun.

Suddenly he jumped as though he'd been shocked. Alice felt him jerk and stopped dancing. "Clark, are you okay?"

He shook his head. "I think so. I -- don't really know what that was."

As Clark blinked and tried to clear his head, Alice gestured to the grand staircase at the far end of the huge room. "Me neither, but everyone else seems to be paying attention to whoever that is."

Clark glanced around and saw dozens of excited faces, some of whom were celebrities in their own rights, gazing at the man on the staircase with a blend of awe and envy. So he nudged his glasses down to the end of his nose and zoomed in on the man.

It was Lex Luthor.

And Lois' shock at seeing him for the first time was the source of the jolt he'd felt a moment ago.

***

She'd seen his pictures. She'd read the sanitized biographies. She'd culled a good deal of less public information from a number of sources. She'd heard his voice in the few live interviews she'd been able to find.

But nothing had prepared Lois Lane for his physical presence, his magnetism, his larger-than-life self.

He stood just a shade over six feet tall, boasted a fit but not maniacally slender waist, deep chest and broad shoulders, and he skipped down the steps like a gymnast. She didn't remember any descriptions of his athletic ability in the background research she'd done, so she wondered for a moment how much of his apparent good build was, in fact, his own musculature and how much of it was padding and a good tailor.

His smile was almost searing in its intensity. His tanned face was more rugged than handsome, and he either spent significant time outside during the day or did something to make people think he did. His soft brown hair was curly and almost out of control and she wanted to touch it, to run her fingers through it, to press it back into place, to drink in the texture, to --

She felt herself leaning in his direction and took a step to maintain her balance, and it seemed to break the trance she was in. The need to pay down her oxygen debt made itself known, and she inhaled deeply.

She felt a feather touch on her back. Who --

"Lois? Honey, you okay?"

Perry. She'd completely forgotten Perry White, her boss and her friend and her momentary dance partner. "Yeah, Chief, I'm -- I'm fine."

He leaned into her field of vision and looked into her face. "Y'know, that's about what Priscilla looked like the first time she saw Elvis up close and personal."

She frowned at him. "Cut it out, Perry, or I'll tell Alice you made a pass at me."

He lifted an eyebrow. "You think she'd believe you?"

"If she doesn't, I'll tell Clark. I guarantee he'd buy it."

He grinned and raised his hands in surrender. "Okay, Lois, okay, I'll back off."

"Good." She looked to the staircase again and saw Luthor descending and shaking hands with various important and self-important people. He was followed by a slight, Oriental-looking man wearing a white wrap-around garment and a turban. He gave the impression he was Luthor's personal assistant.

She remembered someone saying that 'fortune favors the bold.' Hoping that they weren't some dead conqueror's last words, she strode towards the man, fixing a determined smile on her face.

"Lex Luthor!"

Nearly everyone within earshot stopped and turned to face her, including Luthor. He lifted his eyebrows at her and smiled. "That would be me."

She hadn't intended to speak so forcefully, but at least it had worked. She softened her tone and said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to shout at you. I only wanted to thank you for agreeing to see me on Tuesday."

He tilted his head in puzzlement. "Tuesday?" Then his face cleared. "Of course! You must be Lois Lane of the Daily Planet."

She ignored the buzz around her and nodded. "That would indeed be me."

He smiled and stepped closer. "I apologize. Had I known you were so beautiful, I would have consented to an interview months ago."

Oh, wow. He was flirting with her. Might as well go with the flow. "Had I known you'd accept, I would have asked for an interview months ago."

As people around them tried to behave as if they weren't eavesdropping, the Miller band started playing 'Little Brown Jug.' Luthor lifted his face towards the bandstand and smiled. "That's funny."

"I'm sorry, what's funny?"

He smiled wider. "Glen Senior hates that song. Always has. He makes his son promise not to play it if he's planning to attend a concert."

Lois returned the smile. "I suppose Glen Senior isn't here tonight, then."

"I'm afraid not. He had some business to take care of with his publisher, something about his autobiography and the release date."

"Oh? I didn't know he was finished with it."

Luthor looked slightly alarmed for a moment, then recovered. "Forgive me. I was not supposed to let that slip. Please don't tell anyone about it. The new release date is intended to be a surprise for his entire family."

Lois' smile slipped a little. "Are you sure I can't mention it to anyone? After all, I am a reporter."

He leaned closer. "I would consider it a personal favor if you would delay any mention of it until after our interview on Tuesday." He stepped even closer. "I could give you more information about it at that time."

Her smile quirked to one side. "It's a deal."

He sighed and gently took her hand. "Thank you, Miss Lane. You've saved me from some embarrassment."

"You're welcome." Then a mischievous impulse took her. "Do you swing, Mr. Luthor?"

His faced blanked in surprise. "Do I what?"

"Dance. To swing music."

He nodded slowly in comprehension and relief. "Oh. Yes, I do, when I have the opportunity."

She lifted her hands in front of her. "They tell me that there's no time like the present."

Luthor looked around at the faces of the people around him. Then he leaned back to the turbaned man and whispered something. The man nodded and glided away towards the bandstand.

"Shall we dance, Miss Lane?"

She drifted into his arms. "I thought you'd never ask, Mr. Luthor."

***

Clark couldn't believe it. Not only was Lois dancing with one of the men she suspected of being the criminal mastermind responsible for most of the illegal activity in New Troy, she was having fun! She wasn't trying to lock up an interview or get some information out of him or pave the way for a deeper investigation.

She was simply having fun.

And he didn't need the link to tell him that. Lois was smiling and bouncing along, following Luthor's lead expertly. And Clark got the impression that Luthor was also having a fabulous time.

He watched the turbaned man slip to the bandstand and whisper something to Glen Miller Jr., and as soon as they finished 'Little Brown Jug' they swung into the band's signature tune, 'In The Mood.'

Clark watched, astounded, as the other dancers cleared space for Lex Luthor and Lois Lane. They quick-stepped together as if they'd been rehearsing for weeks. They smiled and laughed and spun around, and they even pulled off a couple of dance moves Clark would have sworn Lois had never even tried before.

The other partygoers around them cheered them on, calling out encouragement and applauding each spin or tricky step.

And it looked for all the world that Lex Luthor was having the time of his life.

Perry materialized beside him. "Wow."

"Huh? Oh, hi, Chief. What's 'wow'?"

"Lois didn't dance like that with me."

Alice put her arm around her husband's waist and squeezed. "Good. I'd hate to think I have any competition."

Perry smiled at her warmly. "You don't have any competition and you know it. You're just fishing for compliments."

She reached up and pulled his head down for a quick kiss. "So? Are you taking the bait?"

He grinned. "You better believe it, darlin'. I'd rather stand here next to you than dance with a dozen Lois Lanes."

"Oh, you sweet-talking Southern gentleman, you!"

Clark smiled as Alice giggled at her husband, remembering some of the times he and Lana had bantered back and forth in a similar fashion. The memories were less sharp, less painful, more melancholy, and fuzzier from the passage of time, but still coated with a thick layer of love.

Thinking about Lana made his connection with Lois fade into the background. He still hadn't talked to her about it, hadn't asked her if she sensed his emotional state like he sensed hers, if she wanted to keep the link or sever it somehow, or if she wanted to try to control it. Given the impressions he was getting at the moment, however, he was certain he didn't want to be closely linked to her emotional state on Lois' next hot date.

He returned his attention to the impromptu dance exhibition. The band was rolling into the quiet choruses, the ones just before that big blast of sound that preceded the final chorus and the ending. The couple had reduced their dynamics along with the band and were barely moving. With his enhanced vision, he could read Luthor's lips as he told her, "Get ready."

And she was. As soon as the horns blared out that big tonic chord, Luthor spun Lois out to the end of his arm and back again, and they took off on another series of snappy steps. Lois tipped her head back and shouted exuberantly.

The band held the final chord as Luthor twirled Lois one last time, then he dropped to one knee beside her. As soon as she saw it, she perched on his bent leg and posed like a 40's pinup. The snare drum snapped once to end the song, and half the people at the ball applauded the new dance team.

Someone apparently called for an encore. Lois smiled and shook her head in the negative, while Luthor put one hand over his heart and staggered a few steps. Their audience laughed and slowly dispersed.

Then he realized that Lois was leading Luthor directly towards them. He couldn't imagine why that might be, but before he could choose an escape route, they were standing in front of him, smiling amiably.

"Clark! I want you to meet Lex Luthor. Lex, this is Clark Kent, my -- my co-worker at the Planet."

Luthor shook his hand warmly. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Kent. I hope you're having a good time."

Clark smiled thinly. "So far, yes."

Lois bounced to one side. "Lex, this is Perry White, my boss."

"Hello again, Perry. You're looking well."

"Thanks, Mr. Luthor. That was some kind of fancy dancing you two just did."

"I assure you, I couldn't have done anything like it if Lois hadn't been there to inspire me." He turned to Alice. "And who is this ravishing creature beside you, Perry? Don't tell me this is the fabled Alice White! I admire an incorruptible district attorney."

Alice blushed as Luthor kissed her hand. "Oh, Mr. Luthor," she simpered, "you're embarrassing me!"

Luthor smiled. "Please, all of you, call me Lex." He turned as the turbaned man touched his elbow. "Oh, yes, thank you, Asabi."

He faced his guests again. "I'm terribly sorry to leave so soon, but Asabi has reminded me of an obligation which I cannot postpone. Please, enjoy yourselves." He turned to Lois. "I anticipate another dance with you later, Lois."

She smiled wide. "Me, too. Only can we do it a little slower next time?"

He chuckled and nodded. "My knees agree with you. A slower tune it shall be." He lifted her hand to his lips and brushed them lightly. "Until our next dance, then?"

A piercing light came into her eyes. "As long as you remember that I'm still a reporter and not your personal Ginger Rogers."

His urbane smile never flickered. "Such a thought never crossed my mind, my dear. Until later."

And he turned and drifted away.

Clark shook his head as Lois sighed. "You know, you may have missed your calling."

"What? Oh, the dancing? I took dance in college. Great workout, better than sweating in a gym with a bunch of horny football players. I took four semesters, including tap, chorus, line dancing, classic waltz, and swing. A friend of mine told me it would help me meet guys."

"Did it?"

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Define 'guys.'"

He shrugged. "How about, an unmarried millionaire who's also charming and a pretty good dancer himself?"

She nudged him with an elbow. "Jealous, Clark?"

He sipped his ginger ale. "Who, me? Not on your microcassette recorder."

As he brought his arm down, a redheaded dynamo launched herself at him and attached herself to his arm. "Hi, Clark! Remember me?"

"Of course I do." He leaned close to Lois and said in a stage whisper, "What was her name again?"

Each woman slapped him on the nearest shoulder. Rebecca drew her hand back and flicked it from side to side. "Ow! Dude, you must work out like a fiend."

"No, not really."

"Never mind! Mr. Luthor is going to make some kind of announcement at about nine-thirty or maybe earlier and there won't be much dancing for a while after that so I need to find a partner so we can --"

Clark laughed. "Okay, okay! If it will make you stop babbling, I'll dance with you."

Rebecca made a face. "I don't babble. I'm just energetic."

Clark smiled as she pulled him towards the dance floor. "I hope I can keep up with you."

She gave him another measured look. "I think you won't have any trouble doing that."

***

Lois watched them go. Clark seemed to like Rebecca, and she really liked him. And for what it was worth, Lois approved. Rebecca certainly wasn't a gold digger, nor was she interested in picking off emotional cripples. She figured Clark was as safe with Rebecca as Rebecca was with Clark.

She leaned closer to Alice and said, "They make a nice couple, don't you think?"

Alice glanced at her husband, who was laughing at some politician's idea of a joke. "They do at that. Not unlike you and Lex Luthor."

Lois laughed. "Oh, please, like he'll remember me on Tuesday."

Alice didn't smile back. "You made an impression on him, young lady. And if I'd made that kind of impression on that kind of man, I'd watch my step very carefully."

Lois' smile faded. "Alice, do you know something about him that I don't?"

"Probably."

Lois stepped closer and lowered her voice. "Is this something that I should know? Either personally or professionally?"

Alice opened her mouth, hesitated, and shook her head. "I can't tell you anything for certain right now, except that we have a number of uncorroborated allegations and suspicious circumstances. We don't have any proof, no imminent arrests or search warrants or sealed indictments, no real data, just allegations which we can neither confirm nor deny. And we haven't been able to pin anything solid on Lex Luthor or any of his closest associates."

"But you have suspicions, don't you?"

"Yes. But that's all we have. And without proof, that means nothing."

Lois nodded. "Okay. Will you let me know if you get something solid?"

Alice tilted an eyebrow. "I'll let my husband know. Will that suffice?"

Lois grinned. "Sorry. I kind of forgot who I was talking to."

Alice touched Lois' elbow. "That's all right, dear. You just watch your step."

Lois tried a small grin. "Personally or professionally?"

Alice didn't smile back. "Honey, there are some really bad people out there. Lex Luthor may or may not be one of them, but no matter what the answer to that question is, he's not the nicest guy in the world. He came up through the waterfront unions before he split off on his own and made his mark in the world of finance. He may be a terrific dancer, but he can also take care of himself in a pinch."

Lois feigned astonishment. "Really? That's not in his official biography."

Alice finally grinned a little. "But you knew that already, didn't you?"

She nodded. "I do my homework, Alice. I have a good teacher."

They both turned to see Perry, who was talking earnestly with Renee Da Silva. They weren't smiling, but neither did they seem angry. In fact, Perry was doing most of the listening.

"Oh, I love to see my husband in a tuxedo. Gives me terrific ideas." Alice smiled. "He says he leaves his job at the office, but I don't believe him."

"Do you?"

"Leave my work at the office?" She shook her head and her smile turned wistful. "No, I don't. In fact, I have several briefs to read this weekend, and two defense motions I have to write responses for. We go before the judge at ten o'clock on Monday." Lois returned the grin. "In that case, I hope you get some personal time with your husband sometime before then."

Alice sighed. "Me, too."

***

Asabi leaned close to Lex and whispered, "Sir, are you certain you wish to announce the entire program at this event? Perhaps a press conference would be a more appropriate venue."

Lex pursed his lips in thought, then shook his head. "Ordinarily I'd agree with you, Asabi, but not this time. Most of the local press is already here, and there aren't any government officials who should know about this and haven't yet been told. I want them to be properly awed and amazed, and I want them to remember this event as the monumental occasion it should be."

Asabi nodded. "I understand, sir. I believe your father would be proud of you."

Lex stopped for a moment, then smiled at his friend who masqueraded as his servant. "Thank you. That -- that means a great deal to me." Lex put his hands on Asabi's shoulders and touched his forehead to the other man's. "You honor me more than I deserve."

Asabi smiled a cryptic smile. "By allowing me to serve you, sir, you honor me more than you can possibly know."

Lex smiled and stepped back. "Thank you again." He took a deep breath, straightened, and rubbed his hands together briskly. "Shall we get this dog and pony show started?"

"By all means, sir."

Asabi slipped away and spoke quietly to two similarly dressed young women. The women turned and made their way to the separate bandstands, one to each, and spoke to the music leaders. Miller's band was resting at that moment, so Glenn smiled and nodded to the young woman. The other young lady whispered to the lead violinist as the quintet finished a Brahms piece.

As soon as the music stopped and the scattered applause faded, Lex signaled Asabi again. A spotlight lanced down from the ceiling and impaled him in its brilliance.

He smiled, unable to see the faces of the crowd because of the glare of the spotlight, and lifted one hand. "My friends!" he called out, speaking into the button microphone on his lapel. "And my other guests!"

He waited for the laughter to fade. "I hope you're enjoying the party tonight. And I hope you're ready for a very important announcement concerning Lex Luthor industries."

He paused to make sure he had everyone's attention. "I'm certain you're aware that EPRAD is in the early stages of designing and building the international space station, along with the shuttle for transporting both passengers and cargo.

"I'm sure you're also aware that both funding and personnel for this project are at a premium. In fact, EPRAD has informed us at LexCorp that they're behind schedule on this huge project, due to both lack of money and lack of qualified people. They have asked for any assistance we can give them."

He took a deep breath, aware of the thin and fragile limb he would be sitting on in a few seconds. "Beginning Monday morning, Luthor Industries, in all of its various incarnations and several entities, will make itself available to EPRAD to assist them in any way we can. That means that EPRAD will be able to call on LexLabs, Luthor Industries, LexFlight Incorporated, LexCorp Limited, LULEX International, or any other company I own or where I head the board of directors for any assistance which might be needed."

He lifted his hands at the buzz of conversation and made 'shush' motions. "Please, let me finish. I am aware of the presence of the media here tonight, and to make certain you can enjoy a night away from the job, I have taken the liberty of faxing the complete text of my proposal to every major newspaper in Metropolis, and to every television and radio outlet in the state."

He paused. "Of course, LNN is broadcasting this announcement even as I speak -- " he paused and smiled as some of his guests laughed " -- so the cat is out of the bag, as it were. I will be available tomorrow morning at eleven o'clock for a general news conference at the Metropolis office of LexFlight Incorporated to answer any further questions any of you might have. But for now, I ask that you contain your curiosity and enjoy the party. Glen Miller, I believe it's your turn to play now. Thank you, all of you."

***

Perry and Alice turned to each other. Alice found her voice first. "Perry, honey, if you need to go back to the office, I'll understand."

He hesitated, then shook his head. "Eduardo is manning the boss desk tonight. If I want him to develop into editor material, I have to start trusting him." He sighed. "I guess now's as good a time as any." Then he laughed. "Besides, honey, you haven't danced a tango with me yet!"

Lois tapped him on the shoulder. "Chief, you want me to cover the press conference tomorrow?"

He paused, then shook his head. "Naw. I can't see this guy spilling any of his guts in front of a bunch of media sharks. I'll send Jimmy for pictures and Belinda for text. Make sure you read up on what he says tomorrow and try to get more information about it on Tuesday." He smiled at Alice again. "In the meantime, you go enjoy yourself. Oh, and if you see Kent, tell him to do the same. I don't want to see him at that conference tomorrow, either."

Alice grinned back and tugged his hands in place for the next dance. "Does that mean that my husband won't be home for lunch tomorrow?"

He led her into a foxtrot. "It means you'll have time to go over those legal papers you left at home tonight, my dear."

Lois watched them go. It seemed a bit out of character for Perry to tell her to ignore a story and enjoy herself, but maybe he'd learned something recently. Maybe Lana's death had created bigger ripples than she'd expected. She smiled to herself and turned to look for Clark.

She didn't have to look far. She spotted Rebecca's flaming mane beside Clark's shoulder from halfway across the ballroom as they flowed effortlessly through the foxtrot. It looked like they were enjoying not only the dance, but each other, and as she touched the link in her mind, she could tell that he felt good at the moment.

She'd tell him to have a good time later, assuming he needed the encouragement.

***

Chapter Thirteen

>>>Saturday, 1:15 AM

Standing alone beside the almost-empty drink table, Clark watched the few remaining couples on the dance floor as the Miller band played its last number.

He'd enjoyed the evening. Much of his time had been taken up dancing or socializing with Rebecca. They'd conversed, they'd teased each other lightly, they'd talked briefly about their jobs, but Clark had learned very little personal information about her.

He wanted to learn more. She intrigued him. So just after midnight, he'd been mildly disappointed when Rebecca had politely declined his offer to see her home, saying she would ride the LuthorCorp shuttle.

Then she'd quickly kissed him on the cheek, smiled warmly, and said, "Ask me again next time."

Before he could take the hint and decide whether or not to ask her about the next time, she'd turned and vanished into the thinning crowd. He'd touched the still-warm imprint of her lips on his face and wondered if he had room in his life for another female friend.

Or even someone who was more than a friend.

Don't speculate, he'd ordered himself. Just try to do the right thing and let life happen. And remember his father's admonition to guard his heart.

But now he was speculating on something different. Lex Luthor and Lois Lane were waltzing to "Irene, Good Night" as Glen Miller Junior played his clarinet.

And it bothered Clark that they looked at least as good as he'd felt when he and Lois had waltzed together.

He hoped there was a way to control the link they shared. The feelings he was sensing at the moment were making him a bit -- edgy.

The tune finally ended and he joined the few remaining dancers in applauding the band. Glen Junior came to the microphone and said, "Thanks for hanging in until the weary end, folks, but I think our lips are just about blown out. We hope to see you next time, and thank you all for coming. Good night."

The musicians heaved a collective sigh and began cleaning and packing away their instruments. Two young men and a young woman walked on from the sides of the stage to gather up the sheets of music and the stands.

Glen stepped down from the stage and shook hands with Luthor. Clark didn't bother to listen in, but he could see that the two men knew each other well and appeared to like each other. Lex introduced Glen to Lois and they also shook hands.

Then, to Clark's surprise, Luthor turned towards Clark and led Glen in his direction, with Lois holding his arm. "Glen, I'd like you to meet Clark Kent of the Daily Planet. He's another of their rising young stars, and I expect we'll hear a lot of good things from him in the years to come."

Miller took Clark's hand and shook it with vigor. "Pleased to meet you, Clark. I hope you give us a good review."

Luthor chuckled. "Mr. Kent is an investigative reporter, Glen, not a music critic. At least, that's what he is in print."

Clark smiled. "I like your music, Mr. Miller. I grew up listening to you and your father's records. In fact, my dad still has some of your dad's old 78s lying around somewhere in his attic."

Miller laughed easily. "Wow! Those must be pre-war releases! Where does your father live?"

"My parents live in Kansas, on a farm near a little town called Smallville."

Miller frowned in thought. "Smallville? About forty or fifty miles southeast of Wichita just off state highway eleven?"

Clark's forehead wrinkled in surprise. "Wow! You know where Smallville is?"

"Hey, a musician on the road goes through a lot of little towns. I have a knack for remembering them." He turned to Luthor. "Lex, it's good to see you again, but I have to get the guys moving."

"Might we have lunch tomorrow?"

Miller smiled. "What makes you think I'll be awake by then?"

Luthor smiled back. "I'll send you a wake-up call at eleven."

Miller grabbed his chest in mock pain. "Aggh! Eleven o'clock! Does it still come around twice a day?"

The four shared a laugh. Luthor put his hand on Miller's shoulder. "All right, Glen, we'll lunch at one. Will a twelve o'clock wake-up kill you?"

"No, we're usually sneaking out of the hotel about that time anyway."

Luthor laughed. "Not tomorrow, I hope! You're playing for that diplomatic reception at five, remember?"

Miller winked. "Of course I do. And thanks again for helping set that up."

Lois leaned closer to Luthor. "Lex, you didn't tell me about that. And I didn't know Mr. Miller was playing again tomorrow afternoon."

Luthor smiled at her. "I'm sorry I didn't mention it before, Lois, but it's a private function, so private that not even I am invited."

Miller tapped Luthor on the shoulder with one fist. "If you really want to come, I could probably use another roadie."

Luthor shook his head. "Alas, I fear I'm a bit too old for that job. Being a roadie requires too much heavy lifting."

"Okay, Lex, then I'll see you for lunch at one. Usual place?"

"Of course. The staff will be ready for you."

"Thanks. Good to meet you, Lois, and you too, Clark. Good night."

Luthor turned to Lois. "Would you like for me to give you a ride home, my dear?"

Lois smiled and shook her head. "I appreciate the offer, but I already told Clark I'd walk him home tonight."

Luthor turned to Clark, who hid his surprise and shrugged. "I'm afraid of the dark."

Luthor smiled thinly and nodded. "Of course." He gently kissed Lois' hand. "In that case, my dear Lois, I'll see you on Tuesday at eleven o'clock."

"Thank you, Lex. I'm looking forward to it." She linked arms with Clark and said, "Let's get you safely home, farm boy."

***

When Rebecca closed her front door, she smiled softly and headed for her journal. There were a few things on her mind, and she wanted to record them properly.

~~~~~

Dear J, I had a wonderful time at the ball! Yecch, I sound like Cinderella! Anyway, I really did have a good time. I got to talk to Lois for a little while -- she's really pretty cool. You remember her, right? I'm sure I told you about her. She's very pretty, very smart, and very hard-working. She's about my age but acts a lot older sometimes, like she's seen a lot more of life than she should have. And she's kinda funny about Clark.

Oh! I have to tell you more about Clark! You should see him dance! He's poetry in motion, and he never rushes his partner or tries to control everything. He's smart in a way that doesn't make other people feel dumb -- wish I could do that like he does -- he's tall, dark-haired, not at all bad-looking, and the only thing I'd change about him is his glasses. I don't know why he doesn't get contacts, or maybe that laser thing to fix his eyes. His lenses aren't that strong. I looked through one of them when he turned his head, and I didn't notice very much correction.

But that's a little thing. Aside from that, so far I think he's pretty much perfect.

I saw him talking to Lois early on tonight, and they danced together, and I was afraid that they were starting to get close, but then she saw Mr. Luthor up close and wow! She zeroed in on him like a pointer after a game bird. I was kinda glad, because it left Clark free for me to dance with, but I hope she doesn't expect too much. Mr. Luthor doesn't date exclusively, and I don't think he's looking for anything long-term.

I'm not either, but for Clark I might make an exception.

No I wouldn't!

Maybe I would.

Anyway, he's more than cute and he has a terrific smile and he's built like a big baseball player, all broad-shouldered and slim-waisted but solid as granite. And he's so agile it's almost scary. I bet he played sports in school. I'll have to ask him.

He asked if he could take me home after the dance! It was sweet but too soon. He already knows where I live, of course, but I didn't want to risk bringing him back here alone this late at night. He might not want to take 'no' for an answer, even though I think he's probably the last gentleman my age left in Metropolis.

Or maybe I wouldn't want to say 'no' to him.

Can't go there, not yet. I don't think he's seeing anyone, but I don't know. I'll have to talk to Lois about him.

Or maybe I'll just do my own research. There's something between those two, and I can't figure out what it is. But I will. And I'll know by then whether or not to let Clark get closer.

He doesn't know anything about me, not really, not about my history. And I'm actually thinking of telling him. In a few weeks. If things work out. And if he isn't completely freaked out, maybe we'll talk about the future.

The future. Oh, that's a scary subject.

Hey! I almost forgot to tell you how great the whole party was. They had classical music at one end of the building and big band stuff at the other end. They alternated playing until about midnight, when the classical people had to leave. And Morgana played viola with Yo-Yo Ma! She was so excited. When they went on a break, she told me that Yo-Yo Ma is an absolute perfectionist where his own playing is concerned, but very understanding about the people he plays with. The cellist came in two measures early on one section and stepped on his solo, but he just finished the piece and laughed when the cello player tried to apologize. He said Mozart would have enjoyed hearing it played that way, which was doubly funny because it was a Brahms piece. He's pretty cool. I may borrow one of his CD's from the library. Maybe I can figure out why Morgana likes that stuff so much.

Glen Miller Junior's band played at the other end. Everybody liked it, and Lois got to dance with Mr. Luthor. It was like they'd practiced for days! Even Clark thought they were good, and he's got high standards. I don't think he likes Lois hanging around with Mr. Luthor, though. I don't think Clark likes him, and I don't know why. As far as I know, Mr. Luthor has done nothing but good things for all the people in Metropolis.

But Clark's a reporter. Maybe he knows something I don't.

Right. Like he'd tell me if I asked him.

Anyway, I need some sleep. The Dangerous Boys are coming by tomorrow afternoon to do some more data mining on that squid project. I swear, if we don't get some publishable results soon, I'm going to take the data back to Professor Hamilton and tell him to write the master's thesis himself. It's taken us two whole nights just to get it all in chronological order and enter it into the program Gandalf and Harry hacked together. I just hope the system doesn't crash at a critical point, like it did the last time. Boy, those bank thieves almost traced us, and the FBI told us they would have come after us if they'd known who we were. We have to be more careful in the future, or else some of us might not have a future!

Gotta go now. Write to you later!

~~~~~

Clark and Lois walked out the front door, nodded to the doorman, and as they neared the street level, she whispered, "You're afraid of the dark?"

Clark shook his head. "You took me by surprise. It was the best I could do under the pressure of the moment."

She laughed lightly. "Pressure of the moment? This from the man who can lift mountains and put out forest fires all by himself?"

He returned her smile. "I actually expected you to accept his offer of a ride home. Why didn't you?"

"Too soon in the relationship for that, way too soon, assuming there actually is the potential for a relationship. I don't want any man to view me as being easy or too eager. Besides, I have to maintain some semblance of journalistic objectivity."

"I see. Well, I guess that makes sense."

She poked him in the ribs. "Hey! Speaking of journalistic objectivity, what about Rebecca? You two spent a lot of time together tonight. Why didn't you escort her home?"

He shrugged. "Same reason, I guess. But she did tell me to ask her again some time."

She bumped him with her hip. "Ooh, next time!" In a childish voice, she sang, "Clarkie's got a girlfriend, Clarkie's got a girlfriend!"

"Lo-is! Come on! I don't know her that well!"

She looked closer as they passed under a streetlight. "Clark?" she cried. "Are you blushing?"

"Come on, Lois, I --"

"Oh! You are! You're actually blushing!"

He pulled her to a stop. "Okay, you've had your fun. Let's talk about something else, okay?"

She started to say something else, then stopped and withdrew slightly. At a much lower volume, she said, "I'm really sorry, Clark. I -- I kind of forgot for a minute. I apologize."

Then he felt it. She was well and truly sorry, and it came through the link they shared. His irritation with her evaporated almost immediately and he smiled. "It's okay, Lois, I know you didn't mean anything by it."

"Okay. As long as we're cool."

He started forward again. "We're cool."

She exhaled. "Good. I want us to stay friends."

"Not a problem."

They walked in silence for a few minutes, then Clark said, "There is something I'd like to talk to you about, if you don't mind."

"Sure. Almost anything."

Whimsically, he asked, "Almost?"

She offered him a raised eyebrow. "Bodily functions and other very private moments are not on the list of acceptable subjects for conversation."

He chuckled and she joined him. "Good. Because that's kind of what I wanted to talk about."

She lifted her eyebrow. "Oh, really?"

"Yeah. Did you know that I can feel you? In my mind, I mean?"

She stopped. "Really? You too?"

He wrinkled his forehead. "What do you mean, me too?"

"I can feel you. I can sense your emotions, whether you're under stress or if you're relaxed, if you're sad or excited, and if you're concerned or confident."

"Whoa. All that?"

"Yes. What did you sense from me? Earlier tonight, I mean?"

He started walking again. "Well, I could tell that you really, really enjoyed being around Lex Luthor tonight. And not because he's a celebrity or because you have an interview with him. You like him as a man, or at least as a person."

"Oh." They took several strides together. "What can you sense now?"

He focused inward for a moment, then shook his head. "I can tell you're there and that's about it. I don't sense anything else."

"Oh." She was silent for a moment. "Me, too. Wow." She was silent for a longer moment. "I wonder just how deep this -- this connection goes. Or why it's there."

"I don't know."

She stopped and turned him to face her. "Do you have any kind of telepathic abilities? Can you read minds? Can you sense anyone else's emotions?"

He shook his head. "No. I've never felt this before with anyone."

"Not even with Lana?"

The question struck him dumb and he only stared open-mouthed. He'd never even considered that aspect of the link. Lois looked closer and narrowed her eyes at him. "No," she breathed softly, "you didn't. She never knew you like this."

He found his voice. "We -- she didn't. We didn't. Not -- not ever. I had no idea this was even possible."

Wariness crept over her face. "What does this mean, Clark? Are we tied to each other now in some alien way? Are we destined to be together no matter what? Are we going to be forcibly linked for the rest of our lives?"

He put his hands on her arms. "Hey, take it easy. I don't know any of those answers. I can find out, though."

"How? Tell me how!" She sounded a little frantic.

"Do you have any plans for Saturday?" She shook her head. "Then let me make a phone call in the morning. I think we can figure this out, but it'll mean making a trip to Kansas."

"Kansas?" Lois' mouth dropped open. "You mean there are farmers who can tell you about this?"

He grinned. "No, but Bob can."

"Bob? Who's Bob, the local water witch?"

"Don't worry, you'll have a ball when you meet him."

>>>Saturday, 8:33 AM

"Hello?"

"Mom? It's Clark."

"Clark, hello! I didn't expect to hear from you so soon! How was the party last night?"

"It was a lot of fun, Mom. I met some interesting people and I danced with some very nice ladies and I want to bring Lois out to meet Bob."

Martha opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She reset herself and asked, "I'm sorry, Clark, but did you just say that you want Lois to meet Bob?"

"Yes."

"Oh, honey, are you sure that's a good idea?"

He sighed into the phone. "I think it's necessary, Mom. We have a very important question we can't answer, and I think Bob can."

"Oh. Well, I guess, if you think it's a good idea, sure. When can we expect you?"

"How about today around lunchtime?"

Now she was surprised. "Lunch? Today?"

"Yes. Today. This is -- well, it's not all that urgent, but it is pretty important."

"Can you tell me what this is all about?"

He sighed again. "Mom, I'm not sure you'd believe me if I did tell you. I want to get Bob's input first, then we'll sit down with you and Dad and tell you everything we know."

"Okay. Um, Clark? What should I tell your father?"

"About Lois coming to visit?" His mother didn't respond. "Yeah, that might be a touchy subject. He's never met Lois and she's not exactly his favorite person in the world. What's he doing today?"

"I think he's planning to go into Wichita to look at some parts for the combine. It's been cutting funny."

"You know, it might be best if he didn't meet Lois just yet."

"I won't lie to my husband, Clark."

"Of course not, Mom. I won't either and I won't ask you to. But it might be better if they don't meet. At least, not right now."

It was her turn to sigh. "All right, son. I don't much like it, but I understand why you'd want to do it this way."

"Thanks, Mom. Where's Dad now?"

"Over at Wayne Irig's place. They may head on in to town from there. I'll call over there to make sure, then call you back."

"Thanks again, Mom. You're so great."

***

Clark pushed the 'switch line' button on his cordless phone, then dialed Lois' number.

She picked up during the first ring. "Hello!"

"Hi, Lois. It's Clark."

"Clark!" She sounded almost frightened. "I -- I was expecting your call."

"Sounds like it. How about I pick you up at a quarter to one today? My mother's expecting us for lunch."

He could hear her pacing. "Lunch? Do you think that's a good idea?"

"Sure. You'll be hungry and my mother's a good cook. Besides, Kansas is an hour behind us. It'll be right at noon by the time we get there."

The sound of her pacing intensified. "I don't know about this! I mean, what will your parents think of me? Surely they know about Lana and me and that I got off the boat and she didn't and won't they -- " she stopped and her voice shrank to little-girl level " -- don't they hate me?"

Clark frowned. He had to get her to Bob and find out what to do with their link. He could feel her tension leaking through the knot she was trying to tie around her end of the connection. "I promise, Lois, everything will be fine. My dad won't even be there today, so you'll only have to deal with my mother. And she doesn't blame you for anything, honest."

He listened to her breathe for a moment, then she said, "Okay. There's some wishful thinking in there, but I can tell that you're not really shading the truth on me. I'll look for you. Wait, do you want to pick me up here?"

"Hmm. Come to think of it, probably not. Why don't we meet at Centennial Park, right behind the big horse statue? Kids go back there on dates to make out, so we'll have enough privacy to take off without anyone seeing us."

"Fair enough. I'll see you there at twelve-forty-five."

>>>Saturday, 12:47 PM

Lois glanced nervously at her watch. Clark was never late unless there was a Superman emergency, and given the seriousness of the appointment they were planning to keep, it had to be something urgent.

She checked her watch again and found that time moved much more slowly when you were scared half out of your wits. She had no idea who Bob was or what relationship he had with Clark, since Clark had refused to answer any and all questions about him. All she could do was wait, and waiting was one of the few skills she hadn't bothered to master.

A sudden noise behind her made her spin around and assume a fighting stance, but she relaxed when she saw Clark standing there in the Superman suit. "You took your sweet time getting here."

"Sorry. There was a traffic accident downtown."

"And you just had to take care of it, didn't you?"

His face hardened slightly. "I know how important this is to both of us, Lois. You don't have to bust me over being three minutes late."

She forced herself to relax. "Sorry. So how are we going to do this? The last flight I took with you didn't have a very pleasant outcome."

He quirked one eyebrow. "I promise not to throw you over my shoulder like a sack of fertilizer."

"Good. So how do you plan to get me there?"

He lifted his arms in front of him. "You can either sit here and put your arms around my neck or stand next to me with my arm around you."

"Okay." She hesitated. "How did Lana fly with you?"

He started. "We -- we didn't fly that often." He hesitated. "She usually stood next to me and -- and wrapped her arms around my neck."

Lois nodded. "Then you can carry me in your arms. Just don't go so fast that I can't breathe."

"Promise." He squinted slightly and looked quickly all around them, then nodded. "Let's go."

***

Martha was watching out the back door as Superman landed gently at the tree line behind the house. As she'd expected, he carried a female passenger, whom he set gently down on the ground before spinning into his Clark clothes.

Martha took the time to evaluate the young woman. Medium height, short dark brown hair, slender but not unhealthy, very pretty but at the moment she was frowning in either concentration or anticipation. She wore jeans, running shoes, a long-sleeved casual shirt, and a denim jacket, all new and clean. She walked with athletic confidence across the lawn.

This could only be Lois Lane. She strode beside Clark without touching him, close enough to be comfortable but not close enough to be possessive. She obviously trusted Clark enough to fly with him, and she wondered what she thought about meeting Bob for the first time.

As the pair stepped close to the house, Martha opened the door and smiled. "Clark, I'm glad you were on time. You must be Lois. I'm Martha Kent, Clark's mother." She stepped back to let them pass. "I hope you had a smooth flight."

"Except for having to dodge the usual air traffic around Cleveland and Chicago, it was fine, Mom. Thanks."

Hesitantly, Lois offered, "Thank you, Mrs. Kent."

Martha smiled. "Please, call me Martha. 'Mrs. Kent' sounds like my mother-in-law."

Lois smiled back, at least a little. "Okay -- Martha. But only if you call me Lois."

Martha took Lois' hand in hers and squeezed it. "I'd already planned to, dear." She waved them into the dining room. "Please, have a seat. I didn't know what you liked, or if you were on some kind of restrictive diet, so I put out a selection of deli-type stuff. I hope you can find something you like."

Lois stopped in the doorway and gaped at the food covering the table. "Wow. Everything looks fabulous. I'd have to work hard to find something I didn't like."

Martha knew it was partly flattery, but she appreciated Lois' comment all the same. "Well, then, let's sit down and get this lunch started. I don't know how hungry you kids are, but I haven't eaten since breakfast."

***

"Would you like a piece of cake, Lois?"

Lois grinned and pressed her hand to her stomach. "Please, no more. I'll have to spend an extra hour at the dojo just to burn off what I've already eaten."

"Okay. What about you, Clark?"

"Sure, Mom, I'll take some cake."

Martha happily cut an extra-large slice for her son and let it flop onto a clean plate. "Make sure you finish everything on your plate, son."

"Yes, Mother. May I have my cake now?"

She laughed and handed it to him. "Does he eat like this in the office, Lois?"

"Not usually. Although we have increased our morning doughnut order since he came back to work."

Clark gulped down a forkful of cake. "Hey! I happen to like the maple topping with sprinkles."

"Son, you've always had a sweet tooth."

Lois tilted her head. "Just one sweet tooth?"

"Yes. Right in the middle of his mouth."

Clark joined in the ladies' laughter. Martha stood and asked, "Would anyone like something else to drink?"

"Oh, Martha, let me get it. You've been waiting on us since we got here."

"No, Lois, you sit right down there and enjoy this. I only wait on people the first time they come to visit. After that, you're counted as family and you have to fend for yourself."

Lois chuckled and relaxed. "Okay, if you say so. I could stand another glass of tea."

"Coming up. Clark, if you want some more milk, you know where the refrigerator is."

Clark turned to Lois and sighed. "See? She wasn't kidding."

Lois nodded to him. "I'll be sure to remember that, farm boy."

Martha smiled to herself as she listened to the byplay between Clark and Lois. It was the kind of verbal sparring two good friends would engage in, and it warmed her heart to see that both of them had apparently put the tragedy with Lana in their pasts. As much as Martha missed Lana, she knew that the girl would eventually fade in her memory as the pain of her loss also faded, leaving warm and misty memories of good times and laughter and love.

And it appeared that Clark was coming to grips with his new life as a single man, something that Lois apparently was at least partly responsible for. That one fact would have made Martha appreciate Lois, even if she hadn't turned out to be a level-headed and fairly mature young lady.

As she put Lois' refilled tea glass on the table, she asked, "So, what do you think of Kansas?"

Lois lifted her eyebrows as she reached both for her glass and for a suitable response. "It's -- not as crowded as Metropolis."

Martha laughed easily. "That's certainly true. And it's one of the reasons Jonathan and I like it so much."

Lois swallowed a mouthful of tea. "Isn't farm work really hard?"

"Oh, being successful at anything is hard work, dear. You know that. At least farmers don't have to deal with the kinds of surprises that reporters do. We might face drought or flood or blizzard, but we can deal with them, and they don't usually take us by surprise. About the only things we can't face without help are serious illness or locusts."

"I see." Lois put her glass down. "Speaking of surprises, did Clark bother to tell you why he brought me all the way to Smallville?"

"Not specifically. All he said was that the two of you had a question you had to ask Bob."

"I see. So you don't know about -- " she let her statement hang in the air.

Martha waited for a long moment, and when Lois didn't continue, she said, "No. I don't know anything about whatever it is that you thought I already knew about. I assume that if Clark wants me to know, he'll tell me."

"I see." Lois began playing with her half-empty glass. "What did Bob say about it?"

"What?"

"What did Bob say? Where is he, anyway?"

It was Martha's turn to look surprised. She almost asked Lois what she knew about Bob, but then she thought it through and realized that Lois knew nothing about Bob's true nature. She turned to her son and accused, "You didn't tell her, did you?"

He had the grace to look sheepish. "I wasn't sure she'd come if she knew."

Lois' eyebrows went up. "What are you two talking about?"

"Bob," muttered Clark.

"Okay, we're talking about Bob. Where is he? When will I meet him? And how come you think he'll be able to tell me anything about this -- this connection you and I have?"

Martha's surprise morphed into astonishment. "Connection?"

Lois looked almost sheepish. "Yes. Clark and I have some kind of mental link between us. He thinks Bob can explain it and maybe help us understand it better." She glanced at Clark. "I hope he can tell us how to control it. There are times when I'd like some privacy."

"Ah. Yes. And you think Bob can tell you what you need to know."

Lois shrugged. "Clark does. I'm willing to play along for now."

Martha sat back and crossed her arms. "You have to tell her, Clark."

Lois almost slapped the table, but controlled herself at the last minute. "Tell me what? I can feel how upset you are, Clark. And there's also -- embarrassment?" She sat back, puzzled. "You're embarrassed? Why?"

"Well -- because Bob isn't exactly a he."

"Bob's not a he?" Clark nodded to her. "So, Bob is really Roberta?"

"Uh. No, not really."

Lois glanced at Martha, who sat resolutely waiting for Clark to come clean. "Okay. Bob isn't a he and Bob isn't Roberta. Is Bob a hermaphrodite or just a cross-dresser?"

Clark sputtered. "N-no! Bob isn't -- maybe I should just show you."

"That would work." She turned to Clark's mother. "Martha, are you coming?"

"No, thanks. I've already seen Bob."

Lois hesitated. "Look, I probably shouldn't be nervous about this, but I'd really like another woman's company there."

Martha unbent immediately. "Oh, Lois, dear, of course! I'm so sorry. Please forgive me."

"There's nothing to forgive. I'm just glad you're coming." She turned to her co-worker. "If you'll let me visit the little reporter's powder room, I'll be right with you."

Clark forced himself not to grin. "Down the hallway, last door to the right."

"Thank you."

***

Lois looked around nervously. "We're in the barn, Clark."

"I know."

"So now you're going to tell me Bob is a cow?"

He sighed. "No, Lois."

Martha chuckled. "I don't blame you, dear. I'm not sure I would've come this far without knowing who or what I was going to see."

Lois lowered her voice. "If you hadn't gotten so upset with Clark, I might still be sitting at the table, trying to convince myself not to steal his cake."

"Heard that," Clark called out.

Lois wasn't the least bit fazed. "Are we there yet, farm boy?"

He stopped beside an upright post near the middle of the barn. "Almost. Please come stand beside me."

She felt his trepidation leaking through their link. "Why, so I can hold your hand?"

The trepidation turned to irritation, and she decided to cut him some slack. "Okay, Clark, I'm coming."

As Lois watched, he opened a hidden box set inside the upright beam and pressed his palm against it. A low hum of machinery filled her ears, and the floor opened up in front of her. Lights flickered on below and a wooden staircase came into focus below. She looked at Clark. "I take it we're going down there?"

"Yep."

She took a deep breath. "Then let's get going." He inclined his head at her, but she shook her head 'no' and said, "Uh-uh. You first this time."

The corner of his mouth twitched and he stepped down onto the first step.

Lois followed him and Martha trailed her. As Lois reached the floor of the underground chamber -- she idly noted that the floor was made of close-set thick wooden beams -- Clark flicked a switch and light filled the next room.

She gasped in awe. Lana had told her that Superman wasn't from Earth, and she'd printed it in the story she'd sold at the beginning of the year -- was it that recent? -- but the reality of seeing the ship he'd traveled in made it so much more real.

The ship was small, almost tiny, and what appeared to be the canopy was correspondingly small. It was far too small for a man Clark's size to fit in it. In fact, Lois couldn't have contorted herself to fit into it.

She stared at the craft and said, "That's not big enough for you."

His voice was almost sheepish in tone. "No, it isn't."

She turned and frowned at Clark. "You came to Earth as a baby, didn't you? Didn't you?"

He crossed his arms and hardened his expression. "Yes."

"Why didn't you tell me? Or Lana? Why didn't she tell me?"

She could feel him calm himself. The effect spilled over the link to her and smoothed out her anger. "Because you would have printed it. How long do you think some genius would have taken to link Clark Kent to Superman if everyone knew I'd come here as an infant?"

Lois glowered at him, but she saw the logic of his statement, so she switched her focus. "Okay. Now I've met Bob. Funny, I don't feel enlightened."

"The ship doesn't have a name. That globe on the pedestal is Bob."

"What?" She turned to face him. "That's Bob? You're kidding me, right?"

"No. Assuming Bob will talk to you, all you have to do is put your hands underneath --"

Her eyes flashed and she shoved his shoulder from the side. "Are you nuts? You flew me halfway across the country on my day off and scared the crap out of me with all this jazz about talking to Bob the Kansas mystic just so I could consult some alien Magic 8-ball?"

"Lois, please, this --"

She put her finger in his face. "You'd better have something a lot better than this or I'm so out of here right now!"

"Okay!" he shouted. "You want to leave, leave! I won't stop you!"

"Fine!"

"Fine!"

"Well fine!"

She stood before him, staring angrily and breathing deeply. He put his hands on his hips and glared back at her. "Well? Are you leaving or staying?"

Lois took one last deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm staying."

"Good." He leaned back slightly. "Are you going to try talking to Bob?"

She looked at the basketball-sized sphere and nodded. "I might as well. After all, I did spend all that money on airfare." Martha stifled a giggle. She moved closer to it. "Why do you call this thing Bob, anyway?"

"Lana named it Bob. I never did understand why."

"Oh." She relaxed and stood in front of it. "So how do I do this?"

Clark also visibly relaxed. "Put your hands under the globe. If it decides to talk to you, you'll hear it in your mind."

"What if Bob doesn't want to talk to me?"

"Then you'll hear the sound of one hand clapping."

"The sound of -- oh. Maybe nothing will happen?"

He shrugged. "Maybe. We won't know until we try."

She steeled herself and took a deep breath. "Then let's run it up the flagpole and see who salutes."

***

Chapter Fourteen

>>>Saturday, 1:52 PM

As Lois placed her hands on the bottom of the sphere, she tensed against an electrical shock or tendrils puncturing her hands and holding her in place or surface temperatures which might be extremely high or extremely low.

Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, her surroundings faded into the background and she heard the sound of one hand clapping.

She sighed to herself and almost removed her hands, then decided to call out.

"Hello? Bob?"

>>> Hello. You need not speak aloud if you do not wish to do so. <<<

Okay. Uh, hi. You must be Bob.

>>> That is the designation given to me by the recently deceased Lana Lang-Kent. <<<

Right, right. Uh, you do know what happened to her, don't you? I mean, how she died and all?

>>> Of course. Her death was a tragedy for Clark. <<<

It was a tragedy for a lot of people.

>>> I do not wish to minimize the degree of loss for anyone. But because I am an artificial construct and not a living being, I have no emotions. I would have preferred that her input continue, but I am unable to mourn her death. <<<

I think I understand.

>>> Understanding should always be the goal of gathering information. May I ask why you have contacted me? <<<

Clark asked me to.

>>> Was there a specific question or set of questions you wanted to ask? <<<

Yeah, there was. I mean, there is a question.

>>> Very well. Would you first introduce yourself to me? <<<

Lois Lane.

>>> <<<

Uh, Bob? Bob? Where did you go?

>>> You were the woman on the ship with Lana. <<<

Yes, that was me.

>>> You wrote the story of her death. <<<

Um. Yes.

>>> Then you were with her just before she died. <<<

Ten or fifteen minutes before, yeah.

>>> I assume that she did not mention me to you? <<<

No, she didn't. Clark told me about you last night. I didn't even know you weren't human until he brought me down here.

>>> I see. Why are you here? <<<

Well, it's about the connection.

>>> The connection? <<<

Yeah.

>>> Which connection is that? <<<

The one between me and Clark.

>>> You have a connection to Clark Kent? Please explain further. <<<

I'll try. I don't know where it came from, and I'm not sure when it started, but Clark and I can sense each other's feelings. We can each sense the other's emotional state, and it can get inconvenient at times. Sometimes we call it 'the connection' and sometimes we call it 'the link.' What do you know about this?

>>> <<<

Hey, Bob? You're zoning out on me again.

>>> May I address you as Lois? <<<

Sure, why not?

>>> Lois, are you and Clark able to sense each other's feelings? <<<

Yeah. Unless one of us is deliberately blocking the link. But it's not easy, at least not for me.

>>> Are you able to sense each other's thoughts? <<<

Well, no, I don't think so. But then, I haven't tried. I can't speak for Clark. Why? Is this a bad thing?

>>> I do not judge that it is inherently either a 'good thing' or a 'bad thing,' but I must retrieve some archived data in order to analyze this fully. <<<

Archived? You mean, like stored?

>>> Yes. It is analogous to a human remembering where to find a specific piece of information, but who must then find the document where the information is stored in order to retrieve it. <<<

Okay. How long will it take for you to call that information back?

>>> I must take some time to fully process this information. How long will you be in Smallville? <<<

As long as I need to be, I guess. All day, if that's what it takes.

>>> Good. Please return in one hour. I should be able to explain to both of you what this 'link' actually is, and how it may affect your futures. <<<

Okay. Um, how do I end this conversation? Can I just let go?

>>> If you wish. <<<

Okay. Bye for now.

***

Clark and his mother drifted back into focus as Lois pulled her hands back from the sphere. "Well, that was interesting."

Martha stepped closer. "Bob talked to you?"

Lois nodded. "Uh-huh. He wants us to come back in an hour so he can explain it all to us."

Martha nodded. "Okay. I have some chores to do, so why don't you two take a walk? Clark, you could show Lois around the farm."

"Mom, I could help you."

"So could I, Martha."

Martha smiled at them. "That's a very sweet offer, but they're my chores and I feel a bit territorial about them. Besides, you two need to spend some time together."

Lois' eyes grew wide. "Oh, wait, no, I think maybe you have the wrong idea here. See, Clark and I, we're not, uh, we don't, uh, there's no, er, physical relationship or anything like that! No, we're just two friends, ah, co-workers, you know, punch each other on the shoulder and talk about the weekend football game kind of friends."

Clark stared at her open-mouthed. Martha laughed softly and patted Lois' hand. "Dear, I never thought there was anything but friendship between the two of you. I only wanted to give you some time to talk. Besides, I really do have chores to do, so don't worry about coming to find me in an hour. I hope Bob can answer your questions."

With that, Martha turned and climbed up the steps. Lois turned to Clark and shook her head. "Your mother is amazing. She should be in the Mom's Hall of Fame."

"I think she already is." He gestured to the steps. "Shall we? The exciting and fascinating world of Kansas farming awaits."

***

"-- and that's the north pasture. Dad's going to plow under all that clover before he replants the field next year. It'll help replenish the soil."

Lois glanced at her watch and nodded. "Well, that was an interesting twelve minutes. Where to next?"

Clark shrugged. "That's it, actually."

She frowned. "That's all?"

"Yes."

"There's no more to see?"

"If you were a farmer, I could tell you about the combine routes and the bushels per acre yield Dad's expecting at next fall's wheat harvest."

"Uh-huh. Like I'd have any idea what you were talking about. Or any real interest."

He lifted his hands to either side and dropped them. "Sorry."

She huffed in exasperation. "So what do we do for the next forty-seven minutes? You can only explain plowing and milking so many ways to a city girl!"

Clark hung his head for a moment, then he looked up with bright eyes. "I know!" He grabbed her hand and led her along at a swift pace. "Come with me."

She barely kept her feet under her. "Where?"

"A great place! You'll love it!"

They plunged across the field of clover and through a thin screen of trees. Clark held Lois' hand to steady her as they stopped abruptly, else she might have fallen into the stream.

"Here we are!" he proudly announced.

She looked around. "It's a river."

"A stream, actually, not much more than a brook."

"Whatever! A river by any other name will get you just as wet. To me it's just a river, okay?"

"It's a stream, Lois."

"Fine! It's just a stream! So what?"

"Ah, but it's not just a stream! Come with me."

He led her to a large, twisted tree whose low-hanging branches made climbing easy. Lois cautiously followed Clark up nearly twenty feet into the tree to a wooden platform overlooking the fields across the stream.

Clark gently sat on an old wooden crate. Lois knelt beside him and took in the scene. From that height, she could look behind them and glimpse the Kent's barn through the tops of the trees. She could look across the stream and see the three more barn-like structures on the other side of the field beyond the burbling water.

She smiled softly. "Wow. This is a nice view."

"Yeah, it is. I used to come up here to get away from things when I was in high school."

She examined the flooring. "This is built pretty solid. Did you do this?"

"The summer before eighth grade. I had to replace the floor a year later, but I used treated marine lumber the second time. It should be good for a couple more years, if not longer."

She ran her hand over the timbers, then looked around. "Not many flying bugs. And it's cooler up here."

"There's a little more breeze this high. It blows the bugs away. And most of them need to go lower to find food and shelter, anyway."

"And it's certainly private up here." She had a sudden thought. "Did you ever bring Lana up here?"

He looked slightly wistful as he answered. "A few times. We'd come up here and watch the clouds, or sometimes wait for the stars to appear at night. She liked the Fortress, but she didn't love it like I do."

"The Fortress?" Lois asked. "Is that what you call it?"

He grinned and averted his gaze for a moment. "Actually, I call it my Fortress of Solitude." He hesitated and she waited for him to continue. "It was one of the few places I could go and be alone, with no people around to push into my personal space."

"I see. Did you do this often?"

He sighed. "Just when being Clark Kent got to be too much for me."

She gazed out over the field across the stream again. "Is this where you spent your summer?"

The tone of her voice was light, but she knew it was an important question. His answer would tell her much about his state of mind, more even than she could glean from their link.

He sighed again. "A lot of it, yeah."

She nodded to him and looked around at the way the tree was shaped and how the structure sat on the branches. There were no boards nailed to the trunk, no thin railings around the edges of the platform, no signs warning girls to keep away, nothing that she could see which would betray the existence of the Fortress to the casual pedestrian. In fact, she considered, if they both lay down, they'd be invisible from the ground.

Yep, it was a great place for a teenager to bring a date.

Shut up! she admonished herself. Idiot! No way you and Clark would ever get together like that.

She gently touched the link and found that Clark was apparently as content as she felt. This was a good place. It was quiet, peaceful, hidden, and had a great view.

Maybe she could borrow it occasionally. Only when things got too hectic, of course.

***

They sat together for nearly an hour, saying little to each other except to point out nature's wonders, both in the sky and on the ground. Lois held her breath as a family of opossums waddled to the edge of the stream, drank, and then slowly waddled back into the brush under the trees. Clark silently raised his hand and pointed out a circling hawk. As they watched, the raptor dove at the ground across the stream and came up with a struggling snake grasped in its claws, then flew out of sight.

A pair of feral cats appeared below the tree and cautiously made their way to the water's edge to drink. As they sipped, Clark slipped his hand into his pocket and brought out a rock which was slightly smaller than a golf ball. He pointed to his eyes, then to the cats, and as Lois watched, he flung the stone into the water inches from the spot where they were drinking. The drenched felines sprinted for cover, shaking themselves as they bounded away.

As Lois smothered a giggle, she glanced at her watch. "Oh! Clark, it's been more than an hour. We need to go back and check in with Bob."

He looked at her wrist. "Wow! It's been that long?"

"Yes."

"Then let's go."

He stood and stepped off the edge of the platform and floated softly to the ground. Lois managed to stop her shout of alarm, then leaned over the edge and shook her head in amazement.

"For a second I forgot who you were. I almost thought you were committing suicide."

He grinned up at her. "Not me. Come on down, slowpoke!"

She hid a grin. "You want me to jump, too?"

"Sure. I'll catch you."

She thought about it. Then she thought about how much she liked being with Clark. She thought about the reason for their visit to Kansas. She thought about Lex Luthor.

And she thought about Lana, and how she surely must have jumped into Clark's arms from the Fortress at least once.

As she hesitated, Clark's smile dimmed slightly and he moved to the trunk of the tree. "It's easy to climb down over here. You shouldn't have a problem."

Lois turned and lowered herself to the next limb. "I won't if you talk me down."

She felt fleeting disappointment through the link, then he mentally clamped down and she detected nothing besides an awareness of his presence.

***

Martha looked up to see her son and his friend walking towards the barn. She'd been waiting for them to return, hoping to be invited to learn with them what the link meant and how they might manage it.

She watched them walking across the open field. Interesting, she thought. They're walking near each other but not close to each other. Friends, but no more than friends, at least not at the moment.

She wondered if they'd ever be more than friends.

Then she mentally elbowed herself. They were old enough to make that decision themselves, without any interference from her.

She watched some more. It was almost as if Lois had some kind of proximity alarm that went off if Clark got too close to her. The girl's behavior gave Martha the impression that Lois only wanted Clark to be so close to her and no closer. She wondered if Lois was like that with everyone, with all men in general, or just with Clark.

Martha put her musings aside as her son and his friend entered the barn. With a slight smile, she pressed her hand to the palm reader and the floor hummed open.

Lois stepped in front of Clark and led the way down into the chamber. As she brought up the rear, Martha watched her lead Clark to the globe's cradle without touching him. Also interesting, she thought. Lois is a natural leader, even where Clark is concerned.

Lois put her hands under the globe and closed her eyes. After a long moment, she looked directly at Clark and furrowed her forehead. Without speaking a word, he nodded and put his hands on top of the globe.

They stood side by side without speaking aloud for almost three minutes, then Lois gasped and pulled away sharply. Clark dropped his hands to his side. He remained silent, but he was also frowning fiercely.

Lois slowly turned to Clark with wide eyes and pale face. She gestured once and he slowly nodded. Then she brushed past Martha and sprinted up the stairs.

Martha stepped close to Clark. "What was that all about?"

He sighed. "We just learned how to communicate telepathically."

Martha nodded slowly. "Okay."

He stared at the ladder. "Bob assumed we were going to be married."

She lifted her eyebrows. "I see."

"He told us the connection was something Kryptonians called a 'soul-mate' bond."

"Uh-huh." Martha waited.

Clark turned to face her. "You're taking this pretty calmly, Mom."

"Why shouldn't I? You two are the ones with the telepathic link, not me."

"Yeah." He rubbed his hands across his face. "Lois made it crystal clear that she doesn't want to be linked to me romantically."

Martha's voice quieted. "Does that bother you?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. I keep comparing her to Lana in my mind. Lois comes out ahead in some things and behind in others. I don't know what to think about this." He sighed deeply. "I haven't even told you about Rebecca, have I?"

"No, you haven't. Is she involved in this somehow?"

"Yes. No. I don't know!" He lifted his arms and turned aimlessly in a circle. "She's Lois' friend and I met her the other night at a party Lois took me to and I danced with Rebecca last night at the White Orchid Ball and it was a lot of fun and Lois danced a lot with Lex and she really liked it and I have no idea what I'm even talking about!"

"It's okay, Clark. You're allowed to be confused sometimes. It comes with the territory."

He sighed dramatically. "What territory it that?"

She smiled. "The territory of being an adult who doesn't automatically know all the right answers." She patted his arm. "Just give it some time, dear. You'll figure it out."

He sighed again. "I sure hope so." He turned to his mother and kissed her cheek lightly. "We have to get back to Metropolis. Perry might need us."

She nodded. "Of course, Clark. Have a nice flight. And tell Lois that she's welcome here any time."

He stopped and gave her a hard look. "Even if Dad's here?"

She matched his stare. "Yes. Even if your father is here." She held his gaze for a moment longer, then shooed him up the ladder with her hands. "Now go! And call me if you need anything."

He smiled slightly. "Thanks, Mom. I'll tell her."

***

Lois sat on a bale of hay, trying to digest everything that she'd suddenly learned. It was exhilarating and terrifying, all at the same time.

She and Clark could sense not just each other's emotions but each other's thoughts. When they'd first released Bob, he had almost yelled into her head that he was sorry and that he hadn't had any idea he was capable of this level of communication with anyone.

She'd answered in the same way, telling him that she needed to think, and that she'd be ready to leave in a few minutes. He'd lowered his volume and agreed, then they'd both used their new skills to shut off the link.

The very nature of the link disturbed her. Bob had told them that such a bond was rare among Kryptonians. Perhaps one pair out of five thousand might be linked in this fashion. He'd never mentioned the subject to Clark because he was the only Kryptonian left alive. There had never been any hint of possibility, much less any discernible probability, that a human could ever establish the soul-bond with him. Clark and Lana had never established such a bond, which to Bob was evidence that it wasn't possible. Even so, Bob was able to teach Lois and Clark the techniques they needed in order to control their communication.

The part that bothered her the most was that such bonds were almost always between mates. Such a level of communication would draw both parties closer to each other, opening them to intimacies not possible for unbonded pairs.

It also enabled them to speak to each other with lightning speed. Bob had told them that proximity would assist them in such communication, but distance would not preclude them from contacting each other. The closer they were, the faster and more accurate the exchanges became. There were warrior couples and pairs in ancient Kryptonian history and legend who were almost unbeatable because of the link.

But there were drawbacks. If one partner was decidedly less ethical than the other, the bond would exacerbate the conflict inherent in such a relationship. If one partner had criminal tendencies and the other did not, for example, the conflict between them would be distracting at best and psychosis-inducing at worst. Both parties would be at risk in such an uneven relationship.

And the bond conducted everything, not just what one chose to send. Pleasure, fear, pain, excitement, terror, all flowed both ways unless one partner deliberately shut down the link. Shutting down the link involved mental effort, and reopening the link also involved deliberate effort. Lois envisioned it as if she were turning off a valve with a very large and stiff wheel in her mind. Even when it was shut down, extreme emotional states might still leak through. And there was no way to lie, to deceive, to hedge the truth, or even to tell a partial truth designed to mislead when communicating through the bond.

Such closeness would enhance a romantic relationship, of course, but if the pair had little or no romantic interest in each other, the link would conduct the intimate experiences of one to the other unless strict mental disciplines were applied consistently. Not only that, but as time passed, the two minds would slowly become attuned to each other, so much so that when one partner died, the other would often also die within hours.

That was when Lois had asked how Bob to sever the link, and Bob had replied that Kryptonians rarely tried, not only because such a relationship was highly prized in that society, but because the separation procedure's success rate was very low. Both parties had to be sincere in their desire to separate, both had to be secure in their own identities and not overly dependent on the other for either emotional support or intellectual undergirding, and both had to have reasons which the ruling council would consider valid.

The problem was that Bob had no data on whether a Kryptonian-human link could be severed successfully. Trying to separate them, even at this early stage, might mentally incapacitate one or both of them, assuming they survived the attempt.

That was when Lois had terminated the session. It was all too new, too raw in her brain. She had to shut down her awareness of Clark long enough to get control of her own thoughts.

She called up the mental disciplines Bob had given her and applied them to her racing mind. They helped considerably, and by the time Clark emerged from the basement under the barn, she was as calm as she was going to get.

She felt him touch her mind. -* Lois? *--

She answered aloud, "No, Clark. Verbal communication. I don't think I can handle a mental conversation with you right now."

"Okay," he said. "Are you ready to head back, or do you need some more time?"

She bent over and exhaled slowly, then stood up smoothly. "I'm ready."

"Okay," he repeated. As he reached for her, he stopped and caught her eye. "I'm sorry."

She looked him in the eye. "Did you do this to me on purpose?"

"You know I didn't."

"Then you don't need to apologize. We'll just have to make the best of it." She tried a small grin. "Who knows, it might even come in handy someday."

He nodded and lifted her into his arms, then rose smoothly into the air.

***

Chapter Fifteen

>>>Monday, 7:38 AM

Clark exited the elevator and glanced towards Lois' desk. He already knew she was there, working on her assignments, but it felt good to have his eyes confirm what his brain already knew.

They'd spent the remainder of the weekend deliberately not communicating mentally. This morning had been the first time Clark had received anything from Lois besides frustration. He hoped she really was adjusting to their situation. If not, they'd be in for a tough time, both separately and together.

He'd come in early to write up a series of Superman rescues from the night before, when he'd stopped two attempted rapes and captured five different muggers in three separate incidents. All of the victims had given statements to the police and had agreed to testify against their attackers, something that hadn't always happen in the early days of Superman. Back then, a woman who'd been sexually assaulted often didn't want to testify, usually out of fear of either being exposed as a victim or becoming more vulnerable to other attacks. And even Superman's assurances of protection usually didn't help her change her mind.

But a series of freelance articles Clark had written in the weeks before he and Lana were married had changed many attitudes. He'd summarized the usual police and psychiatric advice, then had interviewed as many victims as he could identify, hiding their names if they desired, and contrasted them with the attitudes of convicted rapists. He'd discovered that the vast majority of the victims were chosen because their attackers believed that they could intimidate the women into silence. They usually acted as if they were frightened even before being approached, and they walked with their eyes on the surface just ahead of their feet, unaware of their surroundings. Almost all of the men would refuse to consider attacking a woman who walked confidently with her head up and who was paying attention to what was happening around her. And the majority of the victims remained too intimidated to identify or help to prosecute their attackers, even with all the support that was available to them.

As the articles gained readership, however, a victims' organization contacted Clark and purchased reprint rights to the articles and published them, along with more detailed information from police and medical authorities, in a handbook on how to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault. Clark's royalty checks from that organization wouldn't ever make him rich -- and, in fact, hardly made a ripple in his savings accounts -- but the sales were steady and he was pleased to have helped make more people safe. He grinned to himself as he pictured the second man he'd held for the police. The woman was nearly a foot shorter than her attacker and at least sixty pounds lighter, but when he'd reached out from the alley and grabbed her arm she'd turned and snapped a kick into his groin, then had pummeled him to the ground when he hadn't hobbled away quickly enough to suit her. When Superman had arrived, he'd folded his arms and casually asked the man if he needed any help. The woman had snarled that she was the one who'd been attacked and where was Superman when that had been going on? Superman had lifted an eyebrow and remarked that it looked to him like she didn't need his help, except perhaps to call the police. The woman had relaxed, grinned, and handed Superman her cell phone while she stood guard over her erstwhile assailant.

The article was longer than Perry would probably want, so he split the story of the second attempted assault into a separate piece and sent them to the editor. Just as he leaned back and exhaled, he realized Lois was standing beside him. She bumped his shoulder with her wrist and said, "Early morning for you, too?"

He nodded. "I was lucky. I got a Superman exclusive, and I wanted to be sure Perry got it early."

She grinned and spoke softly. "Lucky, huh? Sometimes I wish I had abilities like yours."

He glanced around and she chuckled. "Relax, Clark, I checked already."

He thought back at her instead of speaking aloud. -* It's still risky and I'd rather we didn't talk about my powers in public. *--

--* If you prefer, *- she thought back. -* I'm sorry, and I won't speak of it again unless you're sure we're alone. *--

"I can live with that," he said aloud. "And thanks."

--* You're welcome, *- she responded mentally.

He looked away but sent back, -* You seem to be adjusting to this instant communication deal pretty well. What changed your mind? *--

He was surprised to feel a mental sigh from Lois. -* Well, since I realized that either of us can control how much information we exchange, you won't be peeking into my head when I don't know it or when I don't want you to. I guess I just feel a lot safer than I did a couple of days ago. *--

--* You were worried about me peeking in on you? *--

--* Not on purpose! I trust your ethics, Clark, and I know you'd never force your way in and poke around in my private memories or steal my story or anything like that. I was worried about not being able to keep my thoughts private. *--

--* That wasn't all, Lois. There's something else. *--

--* And how do you know that? *--

--* Remember what Bob told us? That we can't lie or even shade the truth when we're communicating mentally? What else was bothering you? *--

--* Well -- I was a little worried that -- that you'd send me stuff I absolutely didn't want to know about. *--

--* That's intriguing. What kind of stuff? *--

--* I -- I didn't want you to look in the mirror after you got out of the shower and -- and send me that image. Or any others like it. *--

He tried not to, but he burst out with a spluttered laugh. Lois glared at him and said aloud, "I wasn't trying to be funny."

He couldn't look directly at her. "But you were, Lois, you were!"

Perry chose that moment to lean out of his office and save Clark's life. "Kent, good work on those Superman stories. You saved me the trouble of telling you to split them. You aren't bucking for my job, are you?"

Clark turned towards his boss and shook his head. "Are you kidding? No way. I like not having to make all those extremely difficult editorial decisions."

At that moment, Jimmy bounced down the ramp from the elevator and held up a large paper bag from the local coffee shop. "Here you go, Chief, one espresso, one latte with cinnamon, one latte without cinnamon, one cappuccino, and one black coffee with three sugars. Which one do you want to start with today?"

Perry glared at him for a moment, then Jimmy stuttered, "I'll -- uh -- I'll just -- p-put these on -- on your -- your d-desk, okay?"

Jimmy fled as quickly as he could, leaving Clark and Lois holding back their laughter. Perry focused his laser vision on them for a moment, then when they didn't dissolve into smoke and flame, he huffed and growled, "Lois, you got a minute?"

She forced her face to smoothness. "Sure, Chief. What is it?"

"Come on in here."

Clark turned back to his computer and pulled up his e-mail inbox, but before he could do more than scan the subject headings, he heard a loud "What!" from Perry's office. He turned his head to look, then heard Lois in his mind.

--* That loud yell you just heard was Perry. I told him we can communicate telepathically. *--

--* I see. And why did you do that? *--

--* He asked me how I was doing with your feelings leaking into my head. *--

--* Uh-huh. And how did he even know that was happening? *--

--* I mentioned the other day that I could sense what you were doing and what you were feeling. At the time, I had no idea the connection was two-way. I hope you aren't angry. *--

Clark sighed. -* What's done is done. What's the matter? *--

--* I'm not sure he believes me. *--

Clark crossed his arms in irritation. -* I supposed he wants a demonstration. *--

--* Um, actually, he does. Are you up to it? *--

--* Why? Does he want to book us as a mentalist act at his next party? *--

Lois' mental tone became flatter somehow. -* Cut it out, Clark. He's asking as our friend and our boss. Now are you willing to do this or aren't you? *--

Clark spun his chair to face away from Perry's office. -* Fine. Have him write down something for me to do. *--

Clark heard Lois tell Perry to write something on a pad and let her read it. He waited while he did.

--* Clark? He wants you to knock on the door with -- what is this? *--

--* Can you maybe read it to me? *--

--* You needn't think at me in such a condescending manner. *--

--* Sorry. What does it say? *--

--* It says, "knock on the office door with 'shave-and-a-haircut' rhythm." What does that mean? *--

He laughed through the link. -* I'll show you. *--

He stood and walked to the office door, then tapped out a dah-di-di-dah-dah rhythm on the frame. He waited for two answering taps from Perry, then he pushed the door open and walked in.

Perry sat behind the desk with his mouth open. "Great Caesar's ghost! Elvis has re-entered the building!"

Clark smiled. "That was the 'shave-and-a-haircut,' Lois."

She nodded in comprehension. "I recognize the rhythm, but I'd never heard it called that before. Why did Perry knock twice?"

Perry answered, "Because the last two words in the chant are 'two bits.' It's supposed to be something Yankee barbers back in the eighteen-nineties would call out to attract customers." He shook himself and stood. "Son, you come in here and sit down. And close the door. I want to ask you some questions about this 'link' of yours."

"Sure. What do you want to know?"

Perry sat cautiously. "Well -- I guess, first thing I want to know is, just how much information can you transfer to each other?"

Lois and Clark glanced at each other. Lois answered, "As much or as little as we want, I guess."

Clark added, "It's still pretty new to us, too."

"I see. How fast does this -- thing -- go?"

Clark frowned. "You mean, how quickly can we transfer the information?" Perry nodded, and Clark answered with a shrug. "Pretty fast, a lot faster than normal speech, but I don't really know how much faster. We haven't timed it."

"Mm-hmm. How close do you have to be to send these messages?"

Clark answered, "I could tell Lois was already at work before I walked in the building this morning."

"And I could tell when he was coming into the building."

Perry nodded and put his hands together behind his head. He looked from one reporter to the other and back again before he spoke. "I'm sure you're wonderin' why I've been asking all these fool questions."

Clark and Lois glanced at each other again, then nodded to their boss. "Well, kiddies, it's partly because I'm curious, and partly because I've never worked with people who actually qualified to be on the front page of both the National Whisper and Scientific American, leastwise not for the same reason. You do know that there's never been anyone who's produced scientific proof of telepathy, don't you?"

Clark raised his eyebrows. "Chief, I can't speak for Lois, but I'd prefer not to be written up in tomorrow's morning edition."

"You sure?" Perry's eyes twinkled. "I bet the two of you could put on a whale of a mind-reading act, and you wouldn't have to fake it one bit."

Lois frowned slightly. "I can't speak for Clark, Perry, but I don't like magicians, so there's not much chance I'm going to go on the vaudeville circuit."

"Whoa, that's a load off my mind." They shared a brief chortle. "No, I was curious to know how you two plan to use this -- this talent."

Clark frowned. "You mean, like, in our jobs?"

Perry nodded. "Well, yes, that's one way you could use it. But, I was also thinkin' that, well, maybe you could use it in your personal lives?"

Lois and Clark both straightened away from each other. "Wait, no, Chief, Lois and I --"

"-- don't have a personal life --"

"-- at least not together --"

"-- except for work --"

"-- and that's all it is --"

"-- I wouldn't say never --"

"-- and neither would I --"

"-- but --"

They ended in unison. " -- not right now!"

Perry waited a moment, then grinned and said, "That was the best duet performance I've seen since Alice and I saw Roger Kenny and Polly Darden out in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. You two rehearse that all weekend?"

After a moment, they smiled and relaxed. Perry said, "You know, this could come in handy, especially since Lois is still fixated on finding whoever was heading up that gun-running operation."

Clark felt her stiffen beside him and inside his mind. He leaned forward. "Chief, once again I can't speak for Lois, but I'd rather not get too dependent on this. We don't know enough about it to rely on it in a tight spot."

Perry nodded. "Understood. Still, if Lois gets in a jam, it'd be easier for her to holler for help."

--* For super-help, anyway. *--

"Lois, it's not polite to speak telepathically in front of the -- the non-telepathic."

She lifted an eyebrow at him. "If you say so, Clark."

--* I do. *--

Clark grinned and saw Perry's face fade into a puzzled grimace. "You know, a man could feel left out of a conversation like this one real easy. Both as your friend and as your boss, I'd advise you not to be too obvious about talkin' inside each others' heads." Perry leaned forward on his elbows. "There's some who wouldn't understand like I do."

Clark's grin faded. "I see what you mean, Chief. I'm sorry."

Lois nodded in agreement. "Me, too. So, why did you want to see us?"

"Oh. Right." He shifted in his chair. "I wanted to make sure that Luthor interview was still on for tomorrow. And that Clark was still ready to go with you as backup."

Lois glanced at Clark. "All systems are still go, as far as I know."

He nodded back. "No problems here. We still leaving at ten, Lois?"

"Yes. I thought you could interview whoever's at the reception desk, hopefully Rebecca, and maybe get some background from some of the so-called 'regular' workers."

Perry nodded. "Sounds good. Lois, you need any help with those interview questions?"

"I don't think so, Perry, but thanks."

"Good. Make sure you ask Luthor where he studied swing dance." Perry chuckled. "Alice wants me to take some lessons."

Someone beat a rapid tattoo on the door. "Come in!" shouted Perry.

Jimmy leaned in and said, "Lois, there's a Bobby Bigmouth on line three for you."

"Thanks, Jimmy. Perry, anything else?"

"Yeah. What's a Bobby Bigmouth?"

She grinned. "One of my best snitches. He trades information for food."

Perry smiled back. "I hope he does good work. You just be careful."

Clark stood and escorted Lois out the door. She headed straight for her desk and picked up the phone.

Clark tuned into the conversation. "Hello, Bobby? What'cha got for me?"

A whispery male voice answered. "You know that space station thingy Luthor announced last Friday?"

"Yes."

"How LuthorTech and LexLabs are working with EPRAD to build the colonists' shuttle?"

"I was there, Bobby. I heard the announcement."

"Well, this wasn't in the press release. The word on the street is that something's wrong with that deal. There's a Doctor Samuel Platt who's working on some electronic docking gizmo for the shuttle, and he says that some of the plans are flawed and he can't get any of his bosses to listen."

Lois sat down and dug for a pencil. "Is that Platt with two tees?"

"That's it."

"And he says something's not kosher with the shuttle's docking system?"

"That's what he says. Here's his work number."

Lois scribbled it on a sticky note and pulled it off the pad. "Thanks, Bobby."

"Yeah. Look, speakin' of kosher, you owe me for this one."

"You got it. Dinner at Burger Whiz, on me."

"Burger Whiz?" The voice on the phone made a disparaging sound. "No way! This is gonna be hot, Lois! It's the best tip I've given you in weeks!"

"It's the only thing you've given me in weeks, Bobby."

"You want me to keep feeding you tips or should I find someone else?"

Lois opened her mouth for an angry retort, but Clark's thoughts broke in. -* I'll pitch in, Lois. This might really be big.*--

Lois glanced his way, then sighed and nodded. "Okay, Bobby, you want steak or seafood?"

"Ah, I'm not that picky. Steak sounds good to me."

"Then check at the main entrance to the Round Table after five tonight. The concierge will be holding a table and a meal in the name of Robert Bass. And if this is as good as you say it is, I'll pop for another meal at the same place next week."

"Great! As usual, it's a pleasure doing business with you, Lois. Talk to you later."

She slid the phone onto its cradle. "You're helping me pay for this, right, Clark?"

"Absolutely."

"Good. Then remind me before lunch to make that reservation."

"Will do." She turned towards the coffee machine but stopped when Clark called out, "Hey, Lois!"

"What?"

"Don't forget to make that reservation for Bobby tonight."

Her eyebrows rose, then drew down. "I asked you to remind me before lunch!"

Clark shrugged. "Have you had lunch yet?"

"Of course I haven't had --"

"Then my work here is done."

She struggled to restrain her laughter for a long moment but failed. "You -- I'll get you for that!"

"Yes, ma'am, yes, ma'am, three bags full. How do you like your coffee?"

Lois' finger pointed at her desk. "Right in front of me. Right now."

"Your slightest wish is my command."

"Hah! If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that line --"

Perry turned away from their fake bickering and smiled to himself. Almost like Norcross and Judd, he thought, both professionally and personally, and these two were even more talented. Less tension, but some great easy banter between them. Their combined presence made the newsroom a little brighter.

He hoped there was a happier ending in store for these two than for Norcross and Judd.

***

Cat Grant made her way to the storeroom for liquid paper and fresh pens. When she was sure she was alone, she dialed her special cell phone.

"Yes, Miss Grant?"

Cat swallowed hard. "Lois -- Lois Lane and Clark Kent have an interview with Lex Luthor tomorrow morning at eleven."

"Kent will be there?" The voice betrayed surprise.

"Yes. I think he's going to get some background information on the company."

"Is there some other purpose for sending him along?"

"Um." Cat licked her parched lips. "I think he's going as -- as backup. Just in case Lois needs the help." She laughed nervously. "She'd never admit she needed help, of course."

"I see." The person on the other end hesitated, then spoke decisively. "Thank you, Miss Grant. This is indeed valuable information. Do you have anything else for me?"

"Not at the moment, no."

"Keep your ears perked up, little kitten. And call me as soon as you have anything else."

"I will. What about -- " but she was speaking to dead air. The person on the other end had already cut the connection.

Every call was harder to make. Every piece of information was harder to give up. Every time she spoke into that special phone, her soul shriveled a little more.

Cat knew it was only a matter of time before she either couldn't do this any more or became as amoral and lacking in scruples as the person she was calling. And she had no idea which way the scales would tip when the time came to make that final, irrevocable choice.

>>>Tuesday, 9:41 AM

Lois glanced at her partner. "Ready, Clark?"

He nodded. "Ready as I'll ever be."

"Good. Now, do you think we need to go over anything else?"

Clark looked away, thinking, then shook his head. "No. I think we've got everything covered."

"Good." Lois glanced around to see if anyone was staring into the conference room, and when she saw no one, she turned back to Clark and thought, -* We don't use the link today unless it's a real emergency, right? *--

--* Right. I'll close it from my end and I won't intrude. *--

--* Same here. Ready? *--

--* Ready. *--

Each of them turned inward for a long moment and applied the mental disciplines Bob the globe had taught them. Almost in unison, they looked back at each other and grinned shyly.

"Can you sense me, Clark?"

He shook his head. "No. How about you?"

Her grin faded. "Wow. If I didn't already know you were right here in front of me, I wouldn't know where you were."

"Well, that's what we wanted, isn't it?"

She frowned slightly. "I guess so." She stood abruptly and grabbed his arm. "Come on, partner, let's get moving. We don't want to be late for an interview with Lex Luthor."

***

Clark watched the traffic flow by from the passenger seat of Lois' Jeep. He noticed that she glanced his way more often than she normally did.

"Something wrong, Lois?"

"No."

"You sure?"

"Yes, Clark, I'm sure."

"Okay."

She stopped at a red light and flexed her fingers. "Well -- there is something, actually."

"What?"

She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. "You'll laugh."

"No, I won't. Now what's wrong? Are you nervous about this interview? It's understandable. This is a big deal."

"No, it's not the interview. I'm as ready for that as I'll ever be. It's just -- you're sure you won't laugh?"

"Positive." He shifted in the seat to face her. "Now what's bothering you?"

She pursed her lips and glanced his way again, then stared at the traffic signal as if challenging it to rescue her. It didn't, of course. "You -- you're not in my head."

"What?"

The light changed and she accelerated. "You're not in my head. I can't sense you mentally, through the link."

Clark frowned in confusion. "I thought that was what we wanted. I don't eavesdrop on you, you don't eavesdrop on me."

She shrugged. "Yeah, well, I kinda got used to being aware of you."

"I see."

She flipped on her turn signal -- a courtesy to other drivers she often ignored -- and negotiated a corner. "I kinda miss it."

Clark nodded slightly and said in a small voice, "Oh."

She frowned harder. "Don't get all big-headed, Kent. It's not unlike the feeling you'd get if an ankle-nibbling dog suddenly wasn't underfoot."

He almost took offense. But then he realized that she was still defending herself and keeping her emotional distance from him. She wasn't trying to insult him. "I understand, Lois."

"Good. See that you remember that."

"I will, Lois."

"And don't patronize me!"

"Of course not, Lois."

"You big -- just be quiet, okay?"

He leaned back in the seat and was silent for a slow count of three, then quietly said, "Woof."

She stopped abruptly behind a city bus which was discharging passengers, looked at him in open-mouthed astonishment, and slowly dissolved into laughter.

***

They spent the rest of the brief journey in companionable conversation. Lois reminded Clark -- unnecessarily, he told her -- about the kind of companion piece she was looking for from him. Clark reminded Lois -- unnecessarily, she thought -- to maintain her journalistic objectivity despite Lex Luthor's charm, suave manners, rugged good looks, and nimble dance steps.

Lois pulled into the underground parking lot and was waved through by the sharp-eyed security guard after she and Clark presented their credentials. She pulled into one of the visitor's parking spaces with fourteen minutes to spare.

She beat Clark to the elevator and impatiently waited for him to enter the car. He smiled indulgently as she punched the 'close door' button and tapped her toes as they slowly lifted upwards.

"Security is tight," he blurted out.

"So?" She reacted as if she'd been challenged somehow. "Lex Luthor is an important man, and the company works on a lot of sensitive stuff. I'd be surprised if security wasn't tight."

He smiled. "That's not what I meant. I was checking out the camera angles in the garage. It looked to me like every foot of the floor is covered. I don't think an intruder could get from one side of the area to the other without being spotted at least four times."

"Oh." Lois sighed. "I'm sorry. I guess I am a little nervous."

He nodded. "That's perfectly understandable. This is a big interview."

The car dinged before she could respond. The doors opened and showed them Rebecca Connors and the turbaned man they'd seen at the White Orchid Ball.

The man bowed slightly. "Welcome to LexCorp, Miss Lane, Mr. Kent. My name is Asabi. I am to escort Miss Lane to Mr. Luthor's office for the interview. Mr. Kent, I believe you have already met Miss Connors?"

Clark returned the bow. "I have, yes."

The turbaned man smiled. "Then I hope you have no objection to my leaving you in her quite capable hands?"

Clark nodded to Asabi and smiled at Rebecca. "None at all."

Asabi put his palms together in front of him and bowed again. "Excellent. If you will accompany Miss Connors, I will escort Miss Lane to Mr. Luthor's office."

The dark man gestured in one direction as Rebecca led Clark in the other. Lois heard Clark say, "I hope you haven't been waiting long."

"Not long. Security phoned and said you were coming."

"I thought they would."

"You two are early, in fact."

"I hope we haven't inconvenienced you."

Rebecca's gentle chuckle reached Lois' ears. "Mr. Luthor prefers being early to being late. In fact, he prefers being early to being on time."

"Sounds like a certain editor I know."

Rebecca's giggle faded as Asabi led Lois to the far end of the hallway. He stopped and pressed his palm against a panel on the side of the door-shaped opening. Lois wondered for a moment if the touch panel in Clark's barn, the one which opened the door to the globe and his ship, was also made by Luthor Technologies. That would be a delicious irony.

As Asabi gestured for her to enter the elevator, he said, "Will the lovely Miss Lane be joining Mr. Luthor for lunch today?"

She smiled at his old-world courtesy. "Yes, thank you."

"Good. I am responsible for the menu today. Have you any dietary requirements of which I should be aware?"

Lois frowned slightly. "What dietary requirements are you talking about?"

He smiled again and bowed. "My apologies for being unclear. I wish only to prevent any awkward situations. If you are a vegetarian, for example, or if you are perhaps allergic to certain spices, I am responsible for making certain you are not served something which offends you or which might injure you."

"Oh. No, I don't think there's anything you need to worry about, as long as the main dish is actually cooked."

He hesitated, then asked, "Would you clarify, that, please, Miss Lane? I am afraid that this time it is I who does not understand."

She shook her head in apology. "I'm sorry. I meant that I'm not partial to sushi or to raw steak."

He smiled and bobbed his head. "Ah, I see! Thank you, Miss Lane. I will make certain that such items are not on the lunch menu today."

"You're very kind. Thank you."

"You are most welcome."

He turned and faced the elevator door and placed his hands behind his back. Lois watched the floor counter tick over to forty and ran out of silence. "What can you tell me about yourself, Asabi?"

"Me?" He turned his head toward her and smiled. "I am merely Mr. Luthor's friend and humble servant."

"How long have you worked for him?"

"I have been privileged to serve Mr. Luthor for the past twelve years."

Her eyebrows rose along with her interest level. "That's a long time."

"To serve one such as Mr. Luthor, it is not so long."

"You're originally from India, aren't you?"

He nodded slightly. "Yes. From one of the northern provinces near Pakistan. I doubt you have heard of it."

I bet Clark has heard of it, she thought. "How did you come to work for Mr. Luthor?"

"I was in mortal danger and he saved my life. Without his help, I would have died that day."

Lois was impressed. "Oh."

"I have been by his side ever since that day. I will never leave him."

"Then you probably know where all the bodies are buried."

He was visibly shocked. "Bodies? What bodies?"

Lois tried to backpedal. "No, I'm sorry, I don't mean literal dead people. I just meant that you must know about anything that might be -- you know -- less than -- uh --"

Asabi's smile disappeared and he turned to face her. "It is not my place to criticize any guest of Mr. Luthor, nor to give unsolicited advice to one such as yourself." He leaned closer. "But I must tell you that if you print anything untrue or salacious about Mr. Luthor, I would be most upset by it." His black eyes turned onyx with menace and he continued in a whisper. "Most upset. I hope I am making myself clear to you, Miss Lane. Because Mr. Luthor saved my life, and I would protect him from harm with all of my being."

For once, Lois' common sense asserted itself and she said nothing as Asabi stared at her. After almost ten seconds of intense scrutiny, he slowly turned back to face the door again. His smile never reappeared.

***

Chapter Sixteen

>>>Tuesday, 9:54 AM

The brooding and silent Indian opened a large oaken door for Lois, then stepped aside and gestured for her to enter. She edged in, wondering if there were any more traps inside, whether of her own making or not. The door snicked shut behind her and she spun around.

Asabi was no longer there. But another door on the far wall opened to admit Lex Luthor, dressed in an elegant light gray business suit and wearing a sincere smile.

"Welcome, Miss Lane. Would you care for a beverage or a snack?"

"Thank you, Mr. Luthor, I'm fine. I'd like to get started on the interview, if that's all right with you."

He moved towards a small circular table, away from the huge desk. "By all means, let us begin. But surely you remember my asking you to call me Lex?"

She smiled as he held her chair. "I do. But I didn't want to presume on such a new relationship." She settled into her chair as he took a seat across from her. "After all, this is a professional meeting."

"Of course it is. But I would still appreciate it if you would address me by my first name."

She considered it for a moment, then decided it was a good idea. "Okay by me, but only if you call me Lois."

The wattage on his smile doubled. "Of course. And thank you."

She pulled two sharpened pencils, a notepad, and her micro-cassette recorder out of her purse. "Would it be all right if I taped our interview? I'd hate to misquote you."

Luthor laughed lightly. "Please do record our session. That way you can play back my erroneous statements for me."

Lois smiled back and began recording. "Lois Lane interview with Lex Luthor, Tuesday morning -- oh, what's the date?"

Lex pointed at a panel on the wall facing his desk which showed the current date and the time in six of the world's most financially important time zones. Lois repeated the date into her recorder and nodded her thanks.

"This interview between Lois Lane and Lex Luthor is being recorded with the full knowledge and consent of the person being interviewed, Lex Luthor. Do you agree?"

"I agree wholeheartedly."

"Mr. Luthor -- excuse me, Lex -- I'd like to start with some personal information, if you don't mind." He nodded easily. "Your military service record shows that you were first a non-commissioned officer and then an officer in the US Army Special Forces from 1972 through 1977, but doesn't show any detailed information. Can you fill in some of the gaps for me?"

Luthor looked surprised. "Well, I'd love to, but I really hate to brag."

"I'm sure my readers would love to know more about you."

"Yes, but if I told you certain things, I'd be violating national security restrictions. Like many soldiers of the past three decades, there are some things I was involved in that I can't talk about."

"I don't want you to tell me anything you shouldn't, of course, but aren't there some things about that time which you can tell me?"

He pursed his lips in thought. "I assume you know that I was stationed in Da Nang and Saigon for part of that time?"

"Yes. You were involved in some of the last military operations in Vietnam. Last official ones, at any rate."

"Are you suggesting that I was involved in any unofficial operations in that theater?"

She smiled. "There are gaps in the public record, rumors of some very interesting missions, and some of the people I've talked to get these knowing smiles when I ask them about them. I was hoping you could fill in some of the gaps."

"I'm sorry, Lois, but I really did sign a non-disclosure form when I left the army. I'd have to submit your list of questions on that subject to the Department of Defense before answering."

"I understand. Is there anything about that time period that you can talk to me about?"

He tapped his chin with his finger. "Hmm. I can tell you how I met Asabi."

"Please do."

"Close to the end of my term of service, I was attached to a diplomatic team working to resolve a border dispute between Pakistan and India, something which is still not exactly a rare occurrence, and I was attracted by a fight in an alley not far from the embassy complex. I was off duty and doing some sightseeing, and I've never liked seeing three beat up one, so I took part in the fight and chased off the three attackers.

"Asabi was badly injured, so I took him to the closest medical facility, which happened to be located in the American embassy. After he'd recovered a bit, he told me he'd been marked for death by a gang of smugglers who called themselves the Tuggees. Perhaps you've heard of them?"

Lois frowned. "Weren't they a cult of assassins in India several hundred years ago? They worshipped -- oh, I can't remember, some violent Hindu deity."

"That is the official history. The historical evidence is a bit slim to support the existence of the cult, although there are some communities in India who embrace the history fully, even to the point of reverence for the British general who eliminated the nineteenth-century Tuggees as an organization. This particular modern gang, however, was quite violent in its own right, and Asabi had testified against the Tuggees in a conspiracy trial the previous month. This was the fourth attempt on his life."

She raised her eyebrows. "The fourth attempt within a month?"

"Yes. He'd fought off the other three attempts, but that last time the numbers were simply too many, even for one with his skills."

"I assume you mean his fighting skills?"

"Yes. Asabi is not only a skilled practitioner of unarmed Indian combat disciplines; he's also a high-ranking black belt in the Chinese martial art of Wing Chun, he is considered a near-master of the Philippine art of Escrima, and he's quite well-versed in the Malaysian martial art of Silat. Since arriving here in the States, he's participated in several full-contact tournaments, all of which he has won handily. He's even taught me a number of things, and my military combat instructors were quite efficient in hand-to-hand combat training."

Lois nodded. "I'm impressed. No wonder he was able to intimidate me in the elevator."

Luthor started. "I'm sorry, he did what?"

"Oops." Lois waved her hands. "Please, forget what I said. I made an offhand comment about him knowing where the bodies were buried, and I guess he took it literally. I never intended to insult him. Or you."

The billionaire appeared distressed. "Please accept my apology for his reaction, Lois. He is fiercely loyal to me. I will speak to him and explain that you meant no harm or insult to me."

"Oh, I'd rather just forget about it, if it's all the same to you. Or, better yet, please convey my apologies to him." She grimaced. "I'm not sure he'd listen to me right now."

"Very well. I will do so at the first opportunity. Shall I continue the story?"

"Please, yes."

He sat back. "Since Asabi was -- and still is -- of the opinion that I saved his life that day, he offered to serve as my assistant and personal retainer. He has fulfilled that role ever since. He has saved my own life on at least two occasions, but he refuses to acknowledge that any debt he might have owed towards me has been more than amply repaid."

"I see. That's a good story. And it sounds as if the two of you have built a good friendship."

Lex waved his hand dismissively. "I trust Asabi with my life, but I must confess that at first I had an ulterior motive in accepting his offer. His assistance made my job much easier."

Lois picked up on his last sentence. "What, may I ask, was your job, exactly?"

He smiled slightly. "At the time, I was responsible for providing on-site security for any and all public appearances by the ambassador or any of his staff. Asabi was an invaluable help, both with information and his physical presence."

"I'm glad. Why did you leave the military?"

"Ah. That was one of the occasions where Asabi repaid me. A pair of assassins ambushed the car which was supposed to contain the ambassador's secretary, but which was in truth an armed decoy. I was in one of the cars following, and when we returned fire, one of the terrorists shot me." Lex indicated his left lower leg. "I was hit just below the knee, and I fell away from cover into the line of fire. Asabi pulled me away from danger and returned fire with my weapon until the others of my detachment were able to contain the situation. Unfortunately, my injury disqualified me for either active or reserve duty. I was honorably discharged with a citation, two medals, a generous cash disbursement, and a disabled veteran's stipend, which I have never needed."

"Impressive. Is that when you began working with the unions at Hobb's Bay?"

He smiled a little wider. "You know, no other reporter has ever asked me that question. That's a very astute query."

"Thank you. Was that when you began working with the longshoremen's unions?"

He chuckled. "You are also not easily distracted. Yes, that was the beginning of my business career. With Asabi at my side, I fought to become president of the union, and I tried to stamp out the graft and bribery inherent in the organization." He grimaced and lightly touched a small round scar above and behind his left eye. "As you can see, my efforts did not meet with unqualified success."

She looked closer. "Looks like a knife wound. Or maybe a broken bottle?"

He nodded. "The bottle broke against my skull. That was the second time Asabi saved me." He stretched as if shaking off a disturbing memory. "The money I earned during my time in the unions, however, went into real estate hedge funds, most of which paid off quite handsomely and quite rapidly. I also invested in a couple of start-up tech firms. Perhaps you've heard of Peach computers and Microdyne software?"

Her eyebrows rose again. "Of course I have. The Planet uses Microdyne software on our Peach network computers. You own pieces of those companies?"

"No longer. I managed to sneak in on both initial public offerings, stayed through three stock splits with Peach and four with Microdyne, then quietly cashed in my holdings and started LexCorp Industries." He crossed his hands over his stomach and said, "I'm now the fourth wealthiest man in the world, or the third, depending on who's doing the counting."

"I see." Against her nature, she was impressed. "Let's get some more background information. You were president of the longshoremen's union from -- let's see, from 1981 until 1984, correct?"

He sighed. "I was defeated for re-election in January of 1984, yes. Fortunately, my financial situation allowed me to move into a management position with my own firm."

"You spent some long hours at the office at first, didn't you?"

"I still do. A multi-national corporation such as this one cannot run itself."

"Don't you have some good people working with you?"

"Some of the best, of course, but my time is still not my own. In some ways, I prefer it this way, but I believe I may have missed out on some fairly important personal things in my life due to my demanding work schedule."

Lois tore her eyes away from his warm gaze and glanced at her paper notes again. "Let me see. You mentioned that you have never needed your veteran's benefits. Does the government still send them to you?"

"Yes. I've asked several times if they would discontinue them, but apparently it would be easier for me to die than for the government bureaucracy to change its ways."

They shared a light chortle. "Then where does it go, Lex?"

"Well, it really isn't that much, but I have found a suitable place to put it."

"Where's that?"

He gazed at her as if considering whether or not to answer, then made the decision. "I will tell you. The Twenty-Third Armored Division Veterans' Museum and Veterans' Society needed some renovations to its buildings and asked me for assistance, which I provided. To support them in their ongoing efforts, I simply deposit an amount equal to my monthly benefit check in their account with instructions to do with it whatever the board believes is best."

She frowned in thought. "Don't they run a shelter for battered women and children on the edge of Suicide Slum?"

"They do, and I believe the bulk of the money goes there. It is, after all, a most worthy cause."

"I agree."

She mentally chided herself to remain objective. It didn't matter how good he looked -- or sounded -- it mattered who and what he really was. Lex Luthor might appear to be a hard-nosed businessman with a heart of gold, but her job was to see whatever was hiding behind the facade. And she believed she was getting the real story on the reclusive billionaire. He might be too good to be true, but even if he fell short of her ideal, he was still better than most men she'd known.

And that thought reminded her of her partner. She paused for a moment and thought about Clark and his interview. She hoped he was getting results as good as she was getting.

***

Rebecca motioned for Clark to walk beside her along the corridor. "Is there anything in particular you'd like to see?"

"Not really. I just need enough information for a sidebar."

"A what?"

He grinned. She thought for a moment how nice a grin it really was. "Sorry," he answered. "A sidebar accompanies another article and gives a different perspective on the subject, or focuses on a different angle of the story. For example, I wrote a sidebar on motorcycle accessories for a biker magazine a couple of years ago. They printed it beside a review of several new touring bikes."

She nodded. "Okay, I understand now. Lois is doing the piece on Mr. Luthor himself and you're adding information about the companies in general."

"That's pretty much it."

She put her finger to her chin. "Hmm. Why don't we start with an overview of the LexCorp corporate structure? I think you'll find it interesting."

"I'm sure I will."

She turned a corner and led him to a mural covering one wall of the corridor. "On the far left is a diagram of all the companies under the LexCorp umbrella. There's LexData, LexLabs, L&L Construction, Luthor News Network, Luthor Technologies, Big L Entertainment, LuthorCorp Properties --"

"Wow. I didn't know Lex Luthor owned all those companies."

"He doesn't actually own all of them by himself, but he's either the majority stockholder and on the board of directors or chairman of the board with every one of those companies. For example, the new Jackie Michaelson tour starting in Miami in February is being underwritten by Big L Entertainment. Your paper printed the story over the weekend." She moved two steps to her right. "And the new space station construction sub-projects are being overseen by both Luthor Technologies and L&L Construction."

Clark nodded. "I see. That's very interesting."

He turned to her and smiled widely, but she still picked up on the note of suspicion in his voice and wondered what he might be suspicious about. When she didn't continue, he said, "This is really good stuff. What else can you tell me?"

She smiled softly. "Just about anything you want to know, Mr. Kent."

"I thought I was Clark to my friends."

She nodded once, still smiling. "You are, Clark, you are."

"Good." He gestured to the mural again. "Is there anything you know about Lex Luthor that's not on this chart?"

She leaned back and lifted one eyebrow. "He's got great taste in clothing and music, and he's one of the main sponsors of the Metropolis Symphony. He also supports the Metro Ballet Ensemble, but he doesn't attend their performances very often. He's more of a blues piano and easy-listening music kind of man."

"Blues piano? How do you know that?"

She took his elbow and tugged him slowly along the hallway with her. "Last fall, about two o'clock on a Friday afternoon, he sent out a memo that the office would close at three-thirty that day and the entire building staff, along with their families, was invited to a party. He'd rented the Metro Sports Palace for the day and called in several catering companies to feed us. There were three live bands there that night who took turns playing. One was a kind of country-bluegrass group, one was a classic rock group, and one was a four-piece jazz-blues combo. Mr. Luthor sat in on two of the blues tunes with the third group and played piano."

"Oh? He threw this huge party just to show off his piano skills?"

Rebecca's laugh pealed through the hall. "No, no! He didn't want to play, but his friend Mr. Asabi convinced him to give it a shot."

"I see. How good is he?"

"Not bad, actually. But when he finished the second tune, somebody in the audience yelled out for him not to quit his day job."

"Interesting. How did he react?"

She smiled up at him. "He laughed as hard as anyone else and came down from the bandstand to shake the guy's hand and congratulate him for being honest."

"And, what happened to the guy?"

"Nothing. He got a promotion about three weeks later."

Clark nodded. "And where is he now?"

Rebecca pulled him to a stop. "You sound like you'd expect Mr. Luthor to take some kind of revenge on him."

He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, most of the rich people I know of don't like being teased or made fun of in public."

"Mr. Luthor's not like that." Her smile dimmed. "Nothing bad happened to the guy, Clark. Honest. He's still working in his new position and doing very well, thank you."

He lifted his hands. "Okay, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insult your boss. I'm just doing my job here."

She stared at him for a long moment, then nodded. "All right. I'll try not to get upset with you." She tugged him down the hallway again. "As long as you behave yourself, that is."

"I'll try. Really, I will."

Her gamin grin returned. "Good. And I'll try not to be so sensitive about your questions."

But the question in the back of her mind kept tapping on her forebrain. Exactly what was Clark suspicious of? And was her employer really involved in something bad, or even criminal?

It couldn't be.

Could it?

>>>10:51 AM

Lois changed the tape in the recorder and restarted it. "That's quite a lot of material already, Lex. If Perry wants me to, I could probably build a second article out of what you've already given me."

He smiled. "Good. I'm always ready for positive press coverage. I've experienced more than enough of the other kind."

She smiled back but tried to stiffen her voice. "I don't do puff pieces for anyone and I don't do hatchet jobs on anyone. I write the truth as I see it."

"I know you do, Lois. That's one of the reasons I agreed to this interview."

She nodded, pleased by the compliment. "Now that we've pretty much covered the business side of your life, I'd like to ask you some personal questions."

"As long as you allow me the right to decline to answer them, I don't mind."

She grinned. "Can't torture the answers out of you." Then she leaned forward and grinned wider. "Although, if I don't like the answers I get --"

His expression went flat and he spoke in an exaggerated monotone. "Oh. Please. Stop. You're frightening me. Eek. And 'eek' once again."

Lois laughed. "Sorry. Journalism 101, interview guideline number two: don't scare the interview subject."

"What's guideline number one?"

"Go to the bathroom before the interview starts."

Lex broke into a deep chortle. Lois flipped a page on her pad and said, "I'd like to start the embarrassing personal questions now."

He lifted one eyebrow in mock sternness. "Oh, yes, please do."

"Thank you. I noticed in your bio that you're divorced. Can you tell me how close you and your ex-wife are?"

He shifted on his chair and Lois thought he was going to refuse to answer, but he surprised her. "Our relationship is cordial but distant."

"Ah. How distant?"

"She lives in and maintains her psychologist's practice in upstate New Troy and rarely comes to Metropolis, while I rarely travel upstate. Our cordiality is better maintained under such distances."

"Do you see her often?"

"We are obligated to attend the opening of the Metropolis Ballet each autumn, and one performance of the Metro Opera each spring. Other than that, we both prefer to see each other as little as possible."

Lois nodded. "I understand. I get along better with my parents now that we're not living in the same zip code."

He smiled softly. "Yet another point of contact between us."

"Yes, it is." He has a very nice smile, she thought, one she could get used to seeing.

Lois shook herself and glanced at her pad for the next question, which had fled from her mind, crowded out by the sight of the handsome and charming man across the small table from her. "Um, you've been linked with a number of eligible women over the past few years. Are any of them closer to you than all the others?"

He waved his hand airily. "No, no, there is no special woman in my life right now."

Lois tried to suppress the shiver of glee she felt as he said that.

She waited to see if he'd add anything, which he did. "However," he continued, "I have recently made the acquaintance of one woman who might fulfill such a role. Assuming, of course, she might wish to do so."

Be professional, she screamed at herself. Ignore the flirting!

Shut up, her self muttered back.

She leaned back. "Perhaps we can delve into that subject in more detail over lunch."

Lex smiled and looked at his watch. "It's almost eleven now. Would you like to freshen up before lunch, or do you prefer to continue our interview?"

'Our interview,' she thought. She wondered just who was interviewing whom.

This was her interview, she decided. "No, let's continue. You have extensive holdings near Suicide Slum, don't you?"

His eyes flickered in surprise. "Well. You've managed to surprise me yet again, Lois. Not many people know about those particular properties."

She flipped over several pages in her notes. "You own them through, hmm, let's see, Vulcan Development?"

He nodded slowly. "That's correct."

"Can you tell me what you plan to do with those properties?"

He appeared to have recovered his equilibrium. "Refurbish, renovate, or replace the buildings over a period of time, and raise the standard of living for those who occupy homes or businesses in that part of the city."

"I see. What steps have you taken so far?"

"I've acquired title to most of the properties I wanted, entered into negotiations for the rest, and I've laid out plans for the area, plans which I really can't divulge as yet."

"Oh. Have you set a date for announcing those plans?"

"My associates and I are looking at mid-spring or early summer of next year. There's still a great deal of work to do."

"Will you keep me informed on that project? It sounds like it might be something you could use some media help on."

Lex frowned in thought for a moment, then nodded slowly. "We have an excellent ad agency lined up to begin our publicity campaign, but we could also use a reputable hard news organization on our side."

Lois lifted her hand. "I can't promise anything right now, of course, and anything we print on the subject would have to go through Perry White, but if this whole thing is good for the city, I think the Daily Planet would support it."

He smiled. "That sounds like a fair deal to me. When the time comes, I'd like to meet with Mr. White and discuss what we might be able to do for one another."

She pointed her pencil at him. "I have to warn you that Perry is an old-fashioned newshound. He won't do any quid pro quo deals unless everything's completely on the level. The only thing he prints on the news pages is real news." She lowered her pencil and locked eyes with him. "And I feel exactly the same way about it."

He returned her probing gaze without flinching. "Good. My experience with the trade unions notwithstanding, I prefer to deal with honest people myself. I find that it's too much work to remember what lies I have to buttress with whom."

Lies? Lois thought. This is crying for a follow-up question. She smiled back and said disarmingly, "I gather that you've learned this lesson through personal experience."

His smile froze and one eyebrow ticked up. "Yes, actually. My ex-wife was -- and for all I know may still be -- a very convincing liar. She deceived me for quite some months about -- well, some things I still prefer to keep private."

Lois' heart skipped a beat. "I'm sorry she hurt you."

His face relaxed and he leaned forward. "I imagine that you've also deduced that she's part of the reason there are no women in my life currently enjoying any kind of permanence in status."

She nodded while noting the formal structure in his response, thinking that Dr. Friskin might say that such formality was a way of distancing one's self from the hurt. "It's a natural reaction. But you do understand that there are honest and trustworthy women around, even in Metropolis, right?"

"Of course. I employ a number of them, and you are personally acquainted with one in particular."

Lois frowned. "I am?"

"Yes. Rebecca Connors, LexCorp's main receptionist."

She laughed. "Oh, yes, of course! I think of her as a friend and not as a LexCorp employee. She's a very nice girl."

Lois watched Lex's face as he responded to her last comment. "Yes, she is. She's destined for bigger and better things than our main reception desk, though."

Lex thought Rebecca was on her way up? Which way up was she taking? And was it possible that she was the one Lex was really talking about earlier?

Lois tried to keep her tone light. "Oh? What things are those?"

"Her studies, of course, and her future career as a marine biologist. She's doing quite well, and since I don't own any businesses or scientific laboratories doing oceanographic or ocean life research, I fear she'll leave us before much longer. And she has been a most valuable asset to the company since she began with us."

Lois tried to keep her sense of relief at his impersonal description of Rebecca from showing. Then she mentally berated herself for being relieved. Dummy! she told herself. Remember what I told you! Don't get involved with the interview subject. Stay objective!

Shut up, her self retorted again.

She tried to regain the upper hand once again. "You promised me some inside information about Mr. Miller's biography today. Is that information still to come?"

"Of course," he responded warmly. "Glenn Junior is one of my best friends, and Glenn Senior has been almost like another father to me. I will tell you what you may print, and then -- if you are properly impressed -- I will tell you some stories that may not be included in the upcoming publication."

Try not to be too impressed, she admonished herself.

Will you please shut up! she responded mentally.

"That sounds like it would be an interesting lunch topic. Could I go back to a more commercial subject for now?"

"Certainly. What would you like to know?"

"Your announcement last Friday evening about the assistance you were offering to the space station project has sent some pretty big ripples through the financial markets. Do you think that you might have destabilized the Dow Jones average?"

"In very short term, perhaps, but the market is bigger than anything Lex Luthor can throw at it. I know that there have been some rumblings about me from some of my competitors, but on the whole I believe in what we're doing with and for the space program. EPRAD certainly seems to be grateful for our assistance."

Very nice, she thought. He didn't take personal credit for the good things, and he managed to be almost disparaging of himself in comparison to the financial world altogether. Yet he had to know what impact his actions would have on the markets.

As she opened her mouth to ask another question, the door through which Lois had entered opened and Nigel St. John walked in. He made momentary eye contact with Lois and nodded microscopically, then turned to Lex and said, "Pardon me, sir, but Asabi wishes to know whether your luncheon will be delayed. Something to do with the roast duck remaining moist, I believe."

Lex smiled at him. "Thank you, Nigel. Lois, are you ready for lunch?"

"As long as I get that wash-up break you promised me, sure."

"Excellent." He turned back to the tall Englishman. "Please tell Asabi that we'll join him in the dining area within ten minutes."

"Yes, sir."

Nigel turned and glided out of the room. Lex stood and offered his hand to Lois, who turned off the recorder and stood with him. "My private dining balcony is through the far door at the end of the hallway. The entrance to the ladies' facility is on the left wall, perhaps ten of your delicate paces along."

"Thank you, Lex." She preceded him into the hall and took ten delicate steps to the door of the ladies' room, clearly marked with a framed photograph of an anorexic perfume model Lois thought she recognized. It struck her as sardonically funny. She glanced across the hall and saw the men's room door wearing a cover shot of a Gentleman's Quarterly model with smoky bedroom eyes.

She wondered if Lex ever laughed at himself when he entered that room. Or if he ever thought about laughing. Or whether or not he considered the photo entirely appropriate for a facility which had only one main user.

She also wondered how many other lunch companions -- or dinner companions, for that matter -- had taken those same 'ten delicate paces' down that same hallway to that same door against which she was now leaning, and how that piece of information might impact her future, either for the short term or the long term.

After a moment's contemplation, she decided she wouldn't worry about it for now.

Maybe she'd worry about it later. But not now.

***

Chapter Seventeen

>>>Tuesday, 12:48 PM

Rebecca guided Clark past the cafeteria checkout register. "I hope this is good material for your story, Clark. I doubt that most reporters would care very much about what the worker bees at LexCorp eat."

He smiled warmly at her as he sat across the table from her. "I do. And I think the Planet's readers will appreciate knowing that LexCorp Industries has some of the best-smelling cafeteria food I've ever eaten anywhere."

She laughed lightly. "Then I'm sorry you've been in so many crummy cafeterias. I wouldn't rate this as great food."

"Ah, but will it poison you?"

"Of course not, silly. Go ahead, try it and tell me what you think."

He stabbed a forkful of salad and tasted it. "Not bad, actually. The dressing is a little less tangy than I'd prefer, but overall it's pretty good."

"I'm glad." She picked up her fork and played with her own salad for a moment, then put it down. "Clark, I'm afraid I have a confession to make."

"Oh? Does it involve tasting more food?"

She didn't smile. "No. It -- it involves me."

He realized that she was serious. "Okay. I assume this is off the record?"

"Huh? Oh, oh, yeah, I sure hope it is."

He nodded. "Off the record it is, then." His voice dropped a register and he leaned forward on his elbows. "Tell me."

She wouldn't make eye contact with him. "Well -- I did some snooping. About you." Clark didn't respond, so she continued. "Lois told me that you were single, but that's about all she said. I guess she didn't want to give me any preconceived ideas about you." She lifted a stern visage to him. "Do you understand?"

He took a deep breath and let it out. "No, not really."

She frowned. "I didn't know that your wife -- that you were a widower."

He straightened in his chair. "I don't understand why that would make a difference to you."

He'd spoken softly, but he could see that his words still stung her. Before he could apologize, she blurted out, "Because I like you."

"Oh." He hesitated. "Thank you. I like you, too, Rebecca. You're a nice person."

She shook her head. "I'm making this harder than it should be." She leaned forward and reached for his hands, but stopped before she touched them. "I meant that I like you, like, you know, really, really like you."

"Oh." Clark suppressed a smile. On the one hand, he was flattered by the attention, but on the other he was cautious about forming a relationship with any woman, given his situation with both Lana's recent death, still vivid in his mind and heart, and his link with Lois. His suppressed smile became a frown of concentration.

He watched Rebecca as she saw his emotions play out on his face. Her expression fell and she put her head in her hands. "Oh, great, now I've really blown it." She looked up at him again. "Look, Clark, I did some digging in the Planet's online archives and read the stories about you and Lana and the Superman Foundation and how Lois was involved with the ship blowing up and -- and I'm really sorry if I've upset you. It's just that you're a nice guy, and Lois didn't give me any personal background on you. I'm not hunting a man, honest, I just like guys and I was hoping we could be friends and I didn't want to make you uncomfortable around me or make you feel like I was backing you into a corner."

He smiled at her. "I hope we could be friends, too. I don't think anyone could have too many friends."

"Neither do I.." She sighed in apparent relief. "Real friends are rare as six-ounce diamonds and more valuable. At least, I think so. And I hate fake friends."

He lifted one eyebrow. "Does that mean you wouldn't want your friends to hide things from you?"

She looked at the table for a moment, then met his gaze again. "I wouldn't want them to lie to me out of malice or simply to protect their own feelings, or to deceive me into doing something I wouldn't ordinarily do. But I also wouldn't expect my friends to tell me absolutely everything about themselves, especially not right away. That's expecting a whole lot of someone."

"I agree. So, if you and I were to become close friends, you wouldn't mind if I kept a few secrets from you?"

She tilted her head to one side. "Not as long as you didn't mind if I kept a few secrets from you, too."

"Sounds equitable to me." Clark suddenly chuckled. "This conversation about secrets reminds me of a movie plot. Have you ever seen Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in 'Charade?' It was released in theaters in the early 60's. I've seen it on TV several times."

She frowned in confusion. "No, I don't think I have, but what does that have to do with this conversation?"

"At the very beginning, Cary Grant's character introduces himself to Audrey Hepburn's character and she thinks he's trying to hit on her, so she tells him that her list of friends is full and she couldn't possibly meet anyone else until someone who's already on her list dies."

Rebecca made a face. "Eww. That's a pretty morbid thing to say."

"She was trying to discourage him, but what she doesn't know is that her husband -- whom she is about to divorce anyway because he's not the person she thought he was when they got married, and she doesn't know half of what's really going on with him -- was thrown off a train outside Paris and killed the night before. Audrey's character starts to fall in love with Cary's character and then she finds out he's not who she thinks he is. It sets up a very complex and intense game of death and romance and comedy, because she has something very valuable that some people are willing to kill to get, and she has absolutely no idea where it might be or even what it actually is. And after that, things move so fast that she can hardly keep track of what's happening to her."

"Mystery and murder and romance and comedy, all in the same movie? What a strange combination." Her face cleared. "I'm pretty sure I'd remember that one if I'd seen it."

"I can rent it for you if you'd like to watch it." Clark suddenly realized what his suggestion might have conveyed to her and he tried to backtrack. "I mean, assuming you even want to, and you don't even have to watch it with me, and --"

"Clark! It's okay. It's just two friends watching a movie, right?"

He held her gaze. "Two friends with a few secrets between them?"

"A few, yes."

He relaxed. "Right. So, would you like to see it?"

She laughed and touched his wrist. "I think I'd enjoy watching it with you, Clark. We can do it at my place. What day and what time?"

He returned the chuckle. "How about Thursday night at seven-thirty?"

"What about dinner?"

He lifted an eyebrow. "I can bring it to your place if you'd like. Or I could cook it there."

Her eyes widened. "You can cook?"

"Most of the farm boys from my neck of the prairie can cook. What would you prefer?"

She wrinkled her nose mischievously. "Why don't you surprise me and make your specialty, whatever that might be?"

He nodded. "Okay. I hope you like chicken."

"I'm sure I'll like whatever you make, Clark."

He felt himself warming to her smile. To his surprise, he found himself hoping she really, really liked whatever he might cook.

***

Lois patted her mouth with the most expensive napkin she'd ever seen, much less had actually used, and smiled at Lex. "Thank you for a most delicious meal. And please send my compliments to the chef."

Lex returned the smile and stood to offer her his hand. "I will do so. Now, would you care to have coffee on the balcony? I believe it is warm enough today to enjoy the experience without risking hypothermia."

"That sounds -- nice." She stopped herself from saying 'wonderful' just in time. She didn't want to encourage him too much. He didn't seem to need much encouragement.

If Lex noticed her hesitation, he didn't react to it. He merely nodded to Nigel, who glided silently to the coffee service, poured two cups of coffee which exuded an absolutely delectable aroma, and placed them on the small balcony table. Then he withdrew from the room and closed the doors behind him.

Lois leaned on the railing and shielded her eyes from the sun's glare. The building was huge, towering over every other skyscraper in Metropolis. From her perch, she could see the south shore of Hobb's Bay and the industrial park on the other side. If she turned her gaze to the northwest, she could see the beginning of the rolling dairy farm complex and fish farms that had halted the city's urban sprawl.

"This is quite a view, Lex," she said without looking at him. "How do you feel about being way up here where everyone can look up to you?"

He leaned on the railing beside her. "I try not to think about it. Asabi tells me not to allow my head to enlarge to the point that I topple over."

She chuckled. "No, seriously. This is the tallest building in the city. Don't you ever feel like you're above everyone else?"

He leaned on his elbows and clasped his hands. He looked out over the city as he spoke. "If I ever start to feel like that, Asabi helps bring me down to earth. And if he's not around, all I have to do is to think about my father."

That was a leading comment just begging for a follow-up question. She tried to appear casual as she turned to face him. "How does that help?"

He still didn't meet her gaze. "My mother -- a wonderful woman, by the way -- died of kidney failure when I was ten. It wasn't all that much of a surprise, she'd been ill for over a year, but losing a parent at that age was -- somewhat traumatic, as one might expect. My father brought me up by himself, working hard all the time, but he made all my athletic events and all my graduations and ceremonies. And he never complained. He almost always had a smile on his face, even if he wasn't feeling well. He sacrificed a lot, but when I'd whine about how poor we were, he'd say that money was nice, but it couldn't buy anything worth having."

She shook her head. "That's something my father would never have said."

He hesitated for a moment to acknowledge her comment, then continued his story. "When he came to my high school commencement exercises, I could tell he wasn't feeling well, but he insisted that he was just worn out from carrying me all those years."

"Ouch. Now that sounds like something my father would say. And he wouldn't have been trying to be funny."

He finally looked into her eyes. "It was a running joke between us. Whenever I'd have to wake him up so he could go to work, I'd tell him I was getting tired of carrying him. He'd say the same thing back to me when he had to take me to school or to work or wake me up in the morning or loan me a few dollars when things got tight for me."

"Still, he probably resented it, even if just a little."

He smiled and straightened. "Not my father. He often told me that he'd promised my mother that he'd take care of me until I was old enough to take care of him. He also said that he would have done that even without my mother extracting that promise from him."

He reached out and gently caressed Lois' upper arm for a moment, then seemed to remember something and dropped his hand. "My father loved me and took care of me until the summer after I graduated. I was scheduled to enter the service in December of that year, and we spent that time together."

Lois took a breath. She understood that his story didn't have a happy ending. "Where is he now?"

He turned away and leaned on the railing again. "He died that November. He had terminal pancreatic cancer and didn't want to ruin my last semester in high school, so he didn't tell me about it until the end of July. We had some good times, but I'll always miss him."

She reached out and touched his forearm. "I'm sorry. I wish I could have met him."

Lex rubbed his nose once, then turned back to the table. "I think he would have liked you. He always admired my mother's spirit and fire and determination, and you are similar to her in many respects." He held out a chair for her and smiled warmly.

Lois accepted the gesture, understanding that he felt he'd revealed as much of the inner Lex as he was willing to. She sipped her coffee and smiled. "This is really good. Where did you get it?"

He picked up his cup and inhaled the aroma. "It's a special blend I have shipped in from Paraguay. Being rich should have some perks, shouldn't it?"

She nodded. "I guess so. Although I would've thought that this view would be a great perk."

He glanced out over the city and sighed. "My father knew I could accomplish great things. He told me so often enough." He put his cup down. "But he also said he'd be proud of me if, at the end of my life, I could stand up straight and tell him that I'd been a good man. Not a rich man, not a successful man, not a famous man, not a powerful man, but a good man. That's why I do some of the things I do with my money and my influence. I'm trying to be the good man my father can be proud of."

Lois dropped her gaze to the table and spoke softly. "That's why you made the financial arrangements with Clark."

He snapped his head around and frowned at her. "You mean Clark Kent?" She nodded without looking up. "He was not supposed to divulge those arrangements to anyone."

"Oh! No, he hasn't, Lex! The only reason I know about them is because I went with him to pick up his wife's personal effects. We haven't discussed them since that day. I haven't told anyone, and if I know that Kansas farm boy, he hasn't breathed a word to anyone either."

Lex nodded. "I hope not. I prefer not to splash that kind of news about myself across the front page."

"We'll honor the agreement, of course, but I would think that you'd enjoy some positive publicity. It might help your public image."

His expression relaxed. "Perhaps, but improving my public image is not my central goal. Taking care of people in trouble is." He shifted to a more relaxed position. "Besides, if you want to improve someone's public image, you can always write a series of articles about Superman."

His slightly off-handed tone surprised Lois. "Why do you say that?"

"About Superman?" She nodded, and he frowned. "Is this for publication?"

"Not if you want it to be off the record."

He nodded back. "I would prefer that this part of our conversation remain confidential."

"If that's what you want, no problem."

He sighed. "I have no reason to mistrust Superman. As far as I have been able to discover, he has done nothing but good ever since he came onto the scene several years ago. In fact, I have seen him zipping by this building on at least three different occasions."

"Do you wave to him?"

He glanced at her, then chuckled low in his chest. "No, I don't wave. As I said, I don't mistrust him, but neither do I completely trust him."

Intrigued but not offended, Lois asked, "Why is that?"

"Because he seems to have the power to do anything, and I do mean anything. If one nation started a war with a neighbor, no matter what the excuse or provocation, Superman could stop it with a minimal loss of life. He could force the leaders of the warring nations to sign a peace treaty, and then enforce it himself."

"He hasn't done anything like that. And you're saying that as though it would be a bad thing."

He picked up his cup and drank. "As far as I am aware, the opportunity to either intervene or refrain from intervening in such a conflict as I have just described has not presented itself to him. Still, I wonder what he would do if he were faced with that choice. He seems to be motivated by a deep respect for life and justice, or 'truth and justice,' to use the commonly accepted phrase, but if he were given a choice where his allowing a single death would save many lives, what would he do? Would he take that life and consider it a sacrifice for the common good, or would he refuse to allow one person to die and perhaps condemn others?"

Lex surely didn't mean for the conversation to be threatening, but Lois was feeling threatened nonetheless. She picked up her cup and drank, knowing that she was doing so to keep from telling him that Clark would never deliberately take a life, even in order to save other lives.

By the time she got her tongue under her firm control again, Lex had turned to face her. "Please don't think I believe that Superman is a front for an alien invasion or that he's planning to set himself up as some super-dictator. I occasionally read the trash tabloids, but I do not believe them. I accept his actions at face value, and I believe he wants to do good. I simply wonder how strong that commitment would be if he were presented with a no-win situation."

Cautiously, Lois asked, "Are you saying that you believe that Superman is somehow a danger to us?"

"No. I suppose it is my innate reluctance to believe that someone who isn't my father would be completely selfless and altruistic, as Superman is so often described as being. And since there are no physical checks on him, there would be no way to stop him if he were to decide not to be so selfless and altruistic."

"I see. At least, I think I do."

"Good," he softly responded. "And I believe I see Nigel standing unobtrusively at the doorway, waiting to tell me that I have a one-fifteen telephone meeting with several of my European associates." He stood and again offered his hand to her. "I hope you have enjoyed yourself half as much as I have, Lois."

She smiled and took his hand. "I think I have. Thank you for the interview, and for the lunch."

"You're quite welcome. Perhaps we can do this again sometime soon."

"The interview or the lunch?"

He chuckled lightly. "We could do either, but I would prefer to repeat the lunch portion of our time together."

She cocked her head to one side as if thinking about the idea, then said, "I think I'd like that. The lunch part, I mean."

The warmth of his smile drove away the slight chill of the breeze. "Excellent! Please expect my call soon."

He led her back into the dining room. "Nigel will escort you to the ground floor, Lois." He lifted both of her hands to his lips and bussed them gently. "Good afternoon."

She smiled again and nodded. Nigel bowed slightly and gestured with one hand. "This way, please, Miss Lane."

"Thank you."

She walked to the elevator without looking back, but when she turned around in the car, she saw that he had watched her all the way down the hall. The doors closed on her view of his warm smile, and she barely felt the elevator begin its long descent.

Nigel's cultured English baritone broke into her thoughts. "I assume you will be returning to the garage level, Miss Lane?"

"The garage? Oh, no, we have to meet Clark Kent on the lobby floor. He's probably waiting for me there."

"Of course. My error."

Lois watched him press the lobby button, then thought, that wasn't an error, it was a test of some kind. Maybe Nigel was checking to see if she was completely befuddled by two hours with the very impressive Lex Luthor.

She was impressed, of course, but she wasn't befuddled, bewitched, bothered, or bewildered. And Nigel's sneaky little test took some of the edge off the warm fuzzies she was feeling.

She wondered if Nigel had performed his test on his own, or if Lex had asked him to check her reactions.

Be careful, Lois, she told herself, be very careful.

And this time, her self didn't argue with her.

***

Chapter Eighteen

>>>Tuesday, 1:10 PM

Perry's whistle sliced through the newsroom clatter. "Hey! You people listen up! We got a dynamite story and sidebar on Lex Luthor and his companies going out tomorrow morning. This is a Daily Planet exclusive, folks! No one else has interviewed Lex Luthor one-on-one for at least five years, but our own Lois Lane got the story! And when you read that interview, make sure you take in Clark Kent's sidebars on Luthor's companies. They're both textbook examples of what a Daily Planet story is supposed to look like."

He pointed to Lois and then Clark. "These two are a great team, people! Look for fantastic work from them in the future!"

Perry led the group in applause, most of which was genuine. Lois wasn't the easiest person to get along with, but in the past few weeks she'd mellowed more than most of the staff would have believed possible, and Clark was well liked and still had everyone's sympathy vote. Added to that was the famous Luthor 'wall of silence' which had shut out every reporter in the state until Lois Lane had breached it.

She looked at Clark and thought to him, -* If I didn't know better, I'd think all this adoration was genuine. *--

--* Most of it is. Besides, a reporter is only as good as his or her last story. Enjoy this while you can. You've earned it. *--

Her smile softened. -* Thank you. *--

--* You're welcome. *--

Perry chose that moment to lift his hands and bark out, "All right, let's get back to work now! This isn't a grammar school play, it's a newsroom!" He turned and waved one hand above his head. "Emerson! Pierce! In my office now!"

At least it's not me, thought Lois with a wry grin.

"Lois?"

The voice at her ear startled her. She spun her chair around to see Jimmy Olsen standing before her, holding a thin manila folder.

He lifted a hand in apology. "Hey, I'm sorry. Didn't mean to startle you. I have that information you wanted on the gun smugglers."

She immediately forgot her fright. "Great!" Then she looked at the folder and the paucity of its contents. "That's it? After all this time, that's all you have?"

His brow drew down. "Yes! That's all that I have! That's all that's out there to be had!" He slapped the folder down on the desk. "And maybe you should do your own research from now on if that's how you feel about it!"

Jimmy spun on his heel and stalked away, but Clark intercepted him before he escaped the floor. "Jimmy, wait! Lois wasn't mad at you, she was just upset that there's so little information available." He looked over Jimmy's shoulder. "Right, Lois?"

--* Tell him, Lois! We need his help on this story and in the future. *--

She frowned but haltingly complied. "Yeah, Jimmy, I -- this story means a lot to me. To us. I'm sorry I took out my frustration on you. I -- I didn't mean to belittle you or your efforts. I know you've worked hard on this."

Jimmy didn't smile, but he did look mollified. "Okay. I'm sorry I slapped the folder down like that. I'm just frustrated because I couldn't get anything more for you."

Lois blew out a breath and put her hands on her hips. "It's okay, Jimmy, I know you did your best. Even great hackers have limits."

"Yeah, that's true." Jimmy's eyebrow twitched. "Hey." His face lit up. "Hackers. Crackers and hackers! You know, that's a great idea!"

"What's a great idea?"

"Lois, you're a genius!" He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Look, you two let me know what else you're going to need after you go through what's in the folder and I'll get the Dangerous Boys to take a whack at getting it."

Clark frowned. "Wait a minute, Jimmy! Poking around for anything related to this story could be very dangerous. We don't want your friends getting hurt."

Jimmy whacked Clark on the chest with the back of his hand and laughed. "You're kidding, right? These guys can get in anywhere! And no one will ever know they were there."

Lois touched his elbow. "Jimmy, Clark's right. This info isn't worth getting people hurt. You've got the protection of the Daily Planet, but the Dangerous Boys are out there hanging in the wind all by themselves. We can't protect them like we can you."

Jimmy's voice lowered in volume but not intensity. "Look, you guys, I wouldn't ask them to do this if I thought they'd get hurt. Anyway, they love this kind of cloak-and-dagger stuff. You should have seen Harry when we pinned down those stock brokerage embezzlers last month and -- uh, never mind. Just believe me when I tell you that they'll be as happy as a mosquito at an overbooked nudist camp." He winked at Clark. "Besides, I still haven't had that date with Morgana, and if I bring in a project this interesting, she'll just about have to say 'yes' the next time I ask her out."

Lois gave him a one-sided grin. "So you have an ulterior motive, huh? I can understand that." She turned to her partner. "Clark, what do you think? As long as they're very, very careful, that is."

Clark frowned, then slowly crossed his arms and nodded. "Okay, Jimmy, but make sure you let them know not to take any chances. If they hit any security barriers or firewalls they can't get past without setting off any alarms, they don't go there, no matter what information they might get."

"Wow! That's great!" He forced his voice down. "Sure, CK, I'll tell them --"

Clark took a firm step forward and put his hand on Jimmy's shoulder. "I mean it! I don't want anyone -- and I mean anyone! -- to get hurt because Lois and I are chasing a story. Understand me?"

Jimmy lifted his eyebrows and lost his smile. "Man, you're intense today. Too much caffeine this morning or what?"

"Jimmy --"

"Okay! I promise!" Jimmy's hands lifted in surrender. "No dangerous intrusions, no tracking back to the source, no nothing. We won't even disturb the mice."

Lois frowned. "There are mice living in the Internet computers?"

Clark and Jimmy turned to her in unison, then together their faces widened into smiles. Jimmy ducked his head and said, "Sure, uh, Lois, CK, I'll, ah, we'll get back to you --"

And he spun and trotted away. He made it as far as the coffee machine before he exploded into laughter.

Lois turned to Clark and put her hands on her hips. "Laughing at the silly girl, huh? I happen to know what mice are for on a computer."

Clark tried to smooth his expression and almost succeeded. "I know you do, Lois."

She glared at him for a moment, then spun on her heel and stalked back to her desk. Clark listened to their mental link, but at the moment she was only putting out amused static. A few seconds later, he realized that she'd very shrewdly distracted him from ragging on Jimmy to be careful.

He shook his head and spoke loudly enough for her to hear him. "Smooth, Lois, very smooth."

She lifted clear, guileless eyes to him and said, "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, Mr. Kent." She flipped one corner of the folder. "Shall we see what Jimmy got for us?"

>>>Tuesday, 4:00 PM

Dr. Friskin looked up from her notepad to see Lois glide through the door. She noted to herself that her patient was on time, appeared relaxed and stress-free, and if her observation was accurate, it was a very positive development.

"Hello, Dr. Friskin. How are you today?"

Dr. Friskin smiled. If Lois felt confident enough to initiate the conversation with a personal query, it was definitely a sign of improvement. "I'm having a wonderful day. How are you, Lois?"

Lois perched on one of the twin chairs at the end of the couch. "I'm doing very well, thank you, both professionally and personally."

Dr. Friskin stood and meandered to the other chair. "That's good to hear. Do you want to tell me about it?"

"Sure. Which do you want to hear first?"

"Oh, you pick."

Lois laughed easily. That was a good sign, too. "Okay. Professionally, I'm working with a partner I not only respect and trust, but whom I like. We're working on several important stories now, and we seem to complement each other."

Dr. Friskin crossed her legs and leaned back in the chair. "How so?"

"He balances my impulsiveness with his extreme caution, and my tendency to muddle through uninteresting assignments with his exceptional thoroughness. I write factual and action-driven articles better than he does, but he's more able to touch the readers' emotions than I am. We support each other, we cover for each other without smothering each other, and we push each other to be better reporters and better writers without either of us feeling threatened by the other. And, while I'm still driven to succeed, I think he's helped me to see that there's more to life than just my career."

"Oh? Is there maybe a man in your life now?"

Lois' grin grew wider. "I think there might be."

Dr. Friskin leaned back and crossed her legs as her own smile answered Lois'. "Can you tell me about him?"

"Oh, let's see, he's tall, very good-looking, confident, successful, and unattached."

The doctor laughed. "Unattached is nice. Kind of a prerequisite, I'd think."

"Yes, it is. I refuse to be a home-wrecker, no matter how archaic that term might be."

"Good for you. So, are you making any long-term plans at this point?"

"Oh, no. He has a painful relationship in his past and I'm not about to push anything. This will work or not work on its own time."

The doctor raised her eyebrows. "That's not like the old Lois Lane. I would have expected you to grab the bull by the horns and charge straight ahead at full speed."

Lois ducked her head and chuckled ruefully. "I know. That's actually what I'd like to do, but if this guy is the right guy for me, I don't want to rush him. If I do that, I might drive him away, and wouldn't that make me the stupid one?"

"Oh, I don't think I'd characterize that as stupid --"

"But I would. And of all the mistakes I might make in this relationship, I refuse to make that one."

"I think that's wise. How is the relationship progressing?"

She shrugged. "It's still in the very early stages right now. We haven't even had an official date yet." Then she lifted her eyebrows. "But I'm hoping for one very soon."

"Okay," nodded the doctor. "Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?"

Lois grinned impishly. "Actually, I'd like to hear how your daughter's wedding plans are working out."

"You're that interested in her wedding?"

"Partly. I'm also thinking along those lines for myself some day, and I can use some good ideas that don't come from my mother."

Dr. Friskin laughed, thinking that Lois seemed to have taken great strides in the past few weeks. She also thought that such progress is sometimes false, and that a patient might appear to make great strides only because the underlying trauma was being masked instead of resolved.

She wondered which thought applied to Lois' case.

>>>Tuesday, 5:57 PM

Clark sat in Dr. Friskin's waiting room and glanced at his watch. Just as he did so, the door to the office opened and a middle-aged man and woman walked out together. Dr. Friskin walked between them, one hand on each shoulder, and said, "Gary, if you and Ronnette want to get married, that's up to you. Just involve your daughter in the process, okay? She shouldn't make the decisions for the two of you, but you shouldn't shut her out, either."

Clark tuned out the rest of their conversation and thought about Dennis Lang and Virginia McCoy, and how Lana had dealt with her father's budding romance. Dennis had seemed close to something permanent with Ginny when Clark and Lana had moved to Metropolis almost six months before, but Clark didn't know where they stood now. He hoped Ginny had been able to comfort Dennis, especially since Clark hadn't been able to do much to help him.

The thought that Dennis might see a relationship between Clark and Rebecca as too much too soon jarred him. Maybe it was a good thing he was seeing a psychologist after all.

***

Her light touch on his shoulder seemed to startle him. "Clark? You can come on in now."

"Oh. Thank you, Doctor."

He followed her through the door and stood beside the chair.

"Clark? Would you like to sit down?"

"What? Oh, yes, thank you."

He's troubled by something, she thought. "So, what's on your mind today, Clark?"

He sighed. "A woman."

She nodded. "I see."

He waited for her to speak again, but when she didn't, he added, "I think I really like this woman."

"Okay."

"She's -- she's very pretty, maybe even beautiful. I know she lights up any room she walks into. She's smart, driven to succeed, knows where she wants to go professionally, in charge of her life, and -- and she says she really, really likes me."

She nodded again. "That sounds promising."

He stood and put his hands in his pockets. "But it's so soon! I mean, after Lana's death and all. I don't know -- do you think I'm rushing things?"

"Do you think so?"

"I don't know! I have no idea what's normal for someone in this situation."

"There isn't any textbook definition of 'normal' for this situation, Clark. Everyone works through the grieving process on his or her own pace."

"But I'm Kryptonian! I'm not human and I'm not exactly what you'd call normal."

"What I said still applies. You were raised in a human culture, you have human values and ethics, and you react to stress and pain like a human. Besides, 'being normal' is an arbitrary standard that's often confused with 'being average.' From what I know of you, you assuredly aren't average."

He frowned slightly. "I'd like to think that's a compliment."

"It's an observation. As far as your concern about the grieving process, I can tell you that your youth will work in your favor in regards to your recovery, but there's no standard timetable for grief. Tell me, what does this young lady think about a permanent relationship?"

His eyes bulged and his jaw wobbled. "Permanent? Wait, I think I've given you the wrong impression. We haven't talked about anything permanent yet. We haven't even been on a real date yet!"

Not good, she thought. He's too wound up. "What have you talked about, Clark?"

"Well -- we do have a date to watch a movie this Thursday."

"Good. What are you going to see?"

"We're staying in. I'm going to rent 'Charade' and cook dinner for her."

"'Charade'? The one set in France with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn?" She tried not to laugh as he nodded. "The two of you are watching that movie?"

He looked puzzled. "Sure." Then his brows drew together. "Unless there's some reason we shouldn't."

"No, no, not at all. I just think it's significant that you're not only cooking for her, you've chosen the movie, and it's one where the male romantic lead isn't who he claims to be."

"You mean -- I -- he --"

She watched him work through the implications and permutations of Clark Kent, aka Superman, watching a movie about a man who conceals his true identity and purpose from the woman who's pursuing him.

Dr. Friskin couldn't contain her laughter. "Ha-ha-ha! I'm sorry, Clark, but you looked so very funny!"

"I'm glad I could brighten your day a bit."

"No, please, don't be offended. It was the situation that struck me funny, not you. I assure you that I have far too much respect for my patients to laugh at them, only with them."

Her explanation seemed to mollify him. "Okay. So, do you think we should watch some other movie?"

She shook her head. "That's not my decision to make. If you want to watch this movie with this young lady, by all means do it. And cook dinner for her, too. If nothing else, you'll have a much better idea where you want to go with this relationship by the time the evening is over."

He nodded slowly. "Yeah, that's true. And she'll have a better idea, too." He leaned back and crossed his legs. "You're right. And I don't have to make a decision on this relationship right now, do I?"

"You could if you wanted to, but I doubt you have all the information you should have at this point. Just give it time, Clark." A thought struck her. "Oh. I shouldn't ever assume anything, but I've been assuming that she knows about Lana."

Clark nodded. "She does. And she's asked me a few innocuous questions about Lana, too."

"Of course. She's probably trying to find out how well she compares to Lana, or at least how she compares to the Lana of your memory and your perceptions."

He looked startled. "I hadn't thought of that. What should I do?"

Dr. Friskin sighed. "You haven't been listening, have you? Just answer her questions as completely as you feel comfortable answering. In fact, that might be an indicator of how she feels about you and how she feels about moving forward with a relationship."

"I see. At least, I think I do. You're telling me to be patient, right?"

"Yes. Just follow your better nature in this situation. Be cautious and keep an open mind."

"My father would tell me to guard my heart."

"Your father sounds like a wise man. That's always good advice, but it's especially appropriate for someone in your situation."

"Thank you. That makes me feel better."

"Good. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?"

One side of his mouth twitched upward in a half-grin. "I hear your daughter is getting married. How's that going?"

He may be less gung-ho than Lois, the doctor thought, but he's just as good at distracting me as she is.

>>>Tuesday, 7:19 PM

Clark picked up the police emergency broadcast as he walked home from Dr. Friskin's office. She'd given him a great deal to think about, but for the moment he'd have to put it on the back burner and take care of the emergency.

Someone had called in a bomb threat. He traced the address in his mind: it was the Metropolis Museum of Natural History.

Where Lana had worked. Where she'd planned to invest her professional future.

And if there actually was a bomb there, someone had made a very, very bad mistake.

***

The building was clear by the time he arrived. He landed next to the highest-ranking police officer he saw, Captain Robert Fortier.

"Captain, is there anything I can do to help?"

Without turning around, Fortier muttered, "Yeah, you could get Superman down here."

He tapped the police captain on the shoulder. "Your wish is granted. Here I am."

"Very funny, Aladdin. Look, if you don't have anything better to do than make lousy jokes, pal, you can -- " and then he turned his head and saw the blue spandex and the red cape. "Oh! I'm -- uh -- I'm sorry, Mr. Superman, I didn't realize --"

"It's just Superman, Captain. Now that I'm actually here, is there anything I can do to help?"

Fortier frowned and glanced at the building. "The museum's empty now, so there aren't any people in danger inside the building, assuming the bomb isn't any bigger than the caller said it was."

"That's good. Where is the bomb?"

"Just inside the main entrance, packed inside a wooden crate with a volume of about eight cubic feet, which is room for a whole lot of explosives. As far as we can tell, it's got a motion sensor on top, and the caller said there was a timer inside the crate. And we're pretty sure there's nothing radioactive in there."

"So it's not a dirty bomb?"

"We don't think so, no."

"Have you received any further communications?"

"No, and that's got me a little worried. It hasn't been that long, but I would've expected a ransom demand or some further threat or a claim of responsibility or something."

Superman frowned in thought. That was very odd indeed. "Okay, Captain. What do you have planned next?"

Fortier sighed. "We're in a holding pattern right now. You can see the sandbags and blast shields we've set up around the entrance, and we have officers clearing out the area for a quarter-mile in any direction. We're not taking any chances on this thing."

"What would you like me to do?"

The captain ran a hand through his thinning hair. "First off, I'd appreciate it if you'd take a look at it from a safe distance, you know, see if we're dealing with what we think we're dealing with. I can send an officer with you if you'd like."

"I can do that much from here, thanks."

Superman focused his 'vision gizmo' on the museum's entrance foyer and found the box. Just as he looked closer, Lois' thoughts burst into his head.

--* Clark! Have you heard about the bomb threat at the museum? *--

He closed his eyes and groaned slightly. The unexpected communication had given him a sudden sharp headache right behind his eyes and he didn't like it at all, especially since he wasn't used to having headaches in the first place. Fortier noticed him flinch and said, "Superman, are you okay?"

Superman nodded. "Yes, Captain, thank you. I just heard something else."

"Another emergency?"

"No. This was far less important."

--* I heard that, Kent! I am not unimportant! *--

--* Of course not, but I'm a little busy right now. *--

--* Busy with the bomb? *--

--* Yes. Now please -- *--

--* Let me help you! I'll share the byline with you! *--

--* This really isn't a good time, Lois. *--

--* But this might be a trap of some kind! Remember that weakness you felt before? *--

--* I don't feel any weakness right now, and I need to concentrate on checking out this bomb. Please be quiet for a moment. *--

--* But you might need some help -- *--

--* Have you noticed that when we communicate like this, it requires a significant amount of concentration that makes it difficult to perform other complex tasks? Like checking out bombs? *--

--* But I might be able to -- *--

--* NOT NOW, LOIS! *--

He listened for a moment, but she didn't send anything else. He resolved to apologize later, then focused his vision on the box.

After a moment, he crossed his arms. "Captain, you were right, that's the bomb. It looks like there's a motion sensor on the top, and a small box inside which appears to be a timer."

Fortier nodded. "How much explosive is in it?"

Superman frowned. "Well, I'm not a munitions expert, but it looks to me like there's a cone cut into the top containing about two pounds of gun cotton with a small lead sphere about three inches across nestled in it. The rest looks like Styrofoam painted to look like a plastic explosive."

Fortier squinched up his face in confusion. "What? That's -- that's crazy!"

"I know. That doesn't make much sense to me, either. It's almost as if someone just wanted to get your attention."

The captain nodded. "Yeah." Then his face lit up. "Or maybe this is some kind of decoy, a diversion. You know, something to pull our attention away from something bigger."

"Could be. How about I take care of this now? That way, your people will be free to deal with anything else that pops up."

"Good idea. You deal with that, I'll report what you've learned."

He floated up and over the police barricade, then drifted past the pile of sandbags and hovered beside the door. No lights flashed, nor did any bells or whistles sound from the box. Since he had no idea how sensitive the motion sensor was, he had to be extremely careful. As gently and quietly as he could, he opened the museum door, then floated inside and shut the door, working as slowly and softly as possible.

As he floated towards the box, he imagined what might happen if the bomb -- even assuming that the gun cotton in the top was all the explosive material it contained -- might do to the museum foyer. At the very least, the blast would leave marks on the surrounding stonework, and the stench would be overwhelming.

The smell --

Cordite from the exploded ammunition. Burned jet fuel. Incinerated flesh.

The thought of the smell appalled him and stopped him in his airborne tracks.

If the bomb went off -- and if it smelled like the wreckage of the ship had smelled when Lana --

He shook himself and took a deep breath of fresh air. He wouldn't smell that smell again if he could help it. He'd hold his breath while he worked, and surely it wouldn't take more than twenty minutes to finish the job.

***

Lois careened through the Metropolis streets, silently rehearsing the tirade she planned to unleash on Clark the next time she saw him. How dare he cut her off like that! How dare he refuse her help! He'd better have one bang-up story to tell her or she'd rip his arms off and beat him severely about the head and shoulders with them.

She squealed to a stop at a traffic light just four blocks from the museum. The police cars in front of her meant that she couldn't come forward in her Jeep, so she decided to park and go the rest of the way on foot.

A uniformed officer, a youth apparently just out of the academy, ran towards her as she locked the driver's door. "Hey, Lady, you can't park there! You'll have to move your car!"

Instead of her usual bluster, she decided on the spur of the moment to use misdirection and confusion. Her family's private gibberish should do the trick. "Ninder-nander," she almost sang in a terrible fake German accent. "Mosh, ein kibble danken de mushyem."

He skidded to a stop beside her. "What?"

"Mosh nix! De kibben der menken und van der plonk debooten ein mushyem."

He blinked, unable to grasp a word of her nonsense speech. "I'm sorry, I don't understand --"

"Penden der churchen en mushyem! Dinder kinden und liebchen verplunkt und clobben den und plotzen. Polander din ben fadden zan de klipperzen." She smiled at him and patted his cheek. "Danke, moishe."

And then she walked past him into the restricted area without looking back, sure that he was frozen to the ground in confusion by her gobbledygook. She ducked around the barricade as another officer ran up to the young one and shouted, "Carlisle! You can't let that woman go in there!"

"She doesn't speak English, Sarge!" the youth returned. "She was speaking German or Yiddish or Polish or something!"

"Doesn't speak English? Really?" The older officer pointed at the Jeep's windshield. "Then why is there a Daily Planet press sticker on her car? Printed in English?"

Lois would have loved to have heard the rest of their conversation, but she had a job to do. She was out of sight before the officers turned to look for her.

***

Superman cautiously hovered over the crate. He surveyed the setup once again and decided that there was little danger to the building from the gun cotton. He wondered again what was in the lead sphere, and that puzzlement was what was keeping him from simply grabbing the box and tossing it into the upper atmosphere. If there was some radioactive material inside the lead, he couldn't risk spreading it across the city. On the other hand, he couldn't just leave the device to explode in the building.

With surgical care, he focused his heat vision and burned the top of the crate away from the rest and lifted it slowly. He examined the motion sensor and decided that the wires leading to the gun cotton would trigger the blast if he jiggled the crate, so he would have to disconnect those wires before removing the device.

He caught a whisper of amusement from Lois through the link. Glad someone's enjoying herself, he thought. This certainly wasn't what he'd call fun.

He made one more careful visual survey of the crate and its contents and found nothing new. Then, still holding his breath, he focused his heat vision on the wires connecting the motion sensor to the gun cotton.

***

Chapter Nineteen

Captain Fortier was barely peeking over the back of his squad car when a sudden hand on his shoulder made him yelp in surprise. He spun around to see a bright-eyed young brunette woman staring at him.

"Are you in charge here?"

"What?" he panted.

"Are you in charge? If not, who is?"

He forced his breathing to slow. "I'm Captain Robert Fortier, and yes, I'm in charge." Then he grabbed her arm and pulled her down beside him. "What are you doing here? This area's off limits to civilians!"

She lifted her free hand and flashed her press pass. "Lois Lane, reporter for the Daily Planet. What's going on?"

He blew out a breath between clenched teeth. "If I tell you, will you stay down?"

"Of course I will."

He didn't completely believe her, but he nodded and released her arm. "There was a bomb threat called in --"

"I know that much. What's Superman doing right now?"

Fortier wondered for a moment who in the department was feeding information to the media, then he pursed his lips and answered. "He's checking the bomb to see if it can be moved safely away from --"

BAAWHOOOM!!!

The blast blew the museum's doors off their brackets and against the sandbag barrier. As soon as the minor shock wave subsided, Lois jumped up and sprinted towards the dust cloud billowing out of the museum, barely avoiding the captain's desperate grab.

He heard her call out to the caped hero, and then they were both gone. The last thing he saw was Superman flashing up from the ground with the young reporter in his arms, heading south and west across the sky.

***

Nigel watched Superman stagger out of the wrecked museum entrance, then witnessed his panicked flight away from what had to be the source of his pain. He waited until he was alone in the men's room of the Metropolis Men's club to dial the special cell phone he always carried.

The distorted voice answered. "Yes?"

"Phase Two is an unqualified success, and in fact may have exceeded our most optimistic expectations."

"Really? Tell me more, Nigel."

"Superman exited the building in obvious distress, grabbed a bystander, and flew off in a southwesterly direction. What I could see of his flight path appeared erratic, even unguided."

"Hmm. That's very good news. How much of the sample did we use?"

"Approximately fifteen percent. If the remainder of the crystal is as effective as this dusting was, then we can eliminate Superman at the time of our choosing."

The voice was silent for a moment. "A time of 'our' choosing, Nigel?"

He knew he'd made a serious mistake and tried to backpedal with as much dignity as he could muster. "My sincere apologies. I misspoke. I meant that Superman might be eliminated at a time of your choosing."

"That's better. As a matter of fact, I do have a timetable to get rid of the Man of Steel."

"Of course. What shall I do with the remaining two pieces of the crystal?"

"Two pieces?" The voice almost sounded alarmed. "Why do you still have two pieces?"

"The jeweler to whom you referred me did his best, but the crystal fractured along an unforeseen fault line. I assure you, there was no way to anticipate that occurrence."

"You're sure the jeweler wasn't just being sloppy?"

"I am certain of it. It was an unavoidable consequence of splitting the crystal."

The disguised voice sighed. "Very well. Don't kill him. Send back the larger piece using the usual channels. You keep the smaller piece, but make sure you keep it in a lead-lined container. I don't want Superman accidentally brushing up against you and figuring out you're the one with the only thing on Earth that can hurt him."

Of course I will take such precautions, you moronic simpleton, he thought, but said, "An excellent suggestion. I will implement it at once."

"Good. Your bonus will be wired to the usual account by ten tomorrow morning. Is there anything else?"

"Not at this time, no."

"Then I'll wait to hear from you on the numbers receipts. They haven't been keeping up with last quarter's pace."

"I will see to it myself."

"Make certain that you do."

With a click, the line disconnected. Nigel shook his head. His employer was highly intelligent, he knew, but didn't seem to realize that not all employees were, as an American had said to him recently, 'dumb as a box of rocks.' He marveled anew at the colorful expressions to which the Yanks were so prone. He'd have to concentrate more assiduously at not allowing such crude idioms to color the purity of his own Queen's English.

***

For Lois, flying with Superman the first time on her journey away from the doomed freighter in the mid-Atlantic months before had been nauseating, despite the protection his aura had provided. Slung over his shoulder like a sack of fertilizer and unable to see where she was going, she'd gone from zero to over two hundred miles per hour in less than a second, been tossed about by Superman's abrupt changes of direction, then had been crushed against his upper body while he circled an inflating life raft. The tight spinning motion combined with the abdominal pressure had pushed her stomach control past its limits, and she'd vomited into the ocean as soon as he'd set her down in the life raft.

The second time, just days before, had been much smoother. She'd enjoyed the trip from Metropolis to Smallville and had managed to tolerate the return journey to Metropolis. Her emotional upset hadn't been his fault, but she'd still resented the close contact they'd had to maintain in order to keep her from suffocating from the high wind speed pulling air from her lungs.

This flight was different from all the previous trips. He was desperate to get away, desperate to escape whatever was causing him pain, and she didn't need the link to tell her that. She'd called to him as soon as she'd seen movement through the settling debris. Then he'd grabbed her almost as a reflex action as he'd stumbled out of the museum with his fists clenched and his eyes squeezed shut, holding her so tightly that she could barely move. Now they were zooming away at a rate of speed too fast for her to speak to him, except through their mental link.

--* Clark! Tell me what's wrong! Where are we going? *--

--* Have to get away! Hurts! *--

--* What? What hurts, Clark? Tell me! *--

--* Green dust hurts! Have to get away *--

Green dust? She thought she'd noticed green sparkles in the dust from the explosion, but she hadn't given it any real thought until now. But if the dust was hurting him, how could she get it off him? What did he expect her to do? And when would he slow down enough for her to breathe?

Then a bad thought hit her.

--* Clark! Did you breathe in any of the dust? *--

--* Hurts! Get away! *--

No help there. She didn't know how to get the green dust off him --

Unless she washed it off --

--* Clark! We have to wash it off! We have to wash the dust off! *--

--* Hurts -- *--

--* Find a lake, Clark! Land in a lake and we'll wash it off! *--

--* Lake? *--

--* Yes! Find a lake or a river and come down in the water! *--

--* Where -- lake? *--

She looked down and saw an inviting body of water surrounded by a thick stand of trees. -* There! Down! *--

--* Can't -- can't see! Can't tell -- where -- *--

--* Slow down, Clark. Good. Now turn right -- a little more -- good! Now go down! Not so fast! Good. Easy, easy, slow down, almost there -- *--

They hit the water harder than she'd expected and it stunned her for a brief moment. She didn't know how far they'd flown, but the water was warmer than she'd thought it would be. She let go of Clark and struck out for the surface, hoping they hadn't dived too deeply.

They hadn't. She broke water within three strokes and flipped her head to clear her eyes, took several deep breaths to catch up on her oxygen debt, then scanned for Superman's cape, figuring that it would probably be floating above him. She saw the trailing edge just below the surface, so she reached out and grabbed it.

The sinking body attached to the other end of the cape pulled her under. She had a choice to either let go and surface alone or try to get Clark out of the water. In his current state, he might drown if he didn't surface soon, so she mentally screamed at him to get his attention.

--* CLARK! *--

There was no response.

--* CLARK! COME UP NOW! *--

--* Wh -- what? *--

--* CLARK! COME UP OUT OF THE WATER RIGHT NOW! *--

--* tired so tired *--

--* CLARK JEROME KENT! GET UP HERE RIGHT NOW! *--

--* Okay. You don't have to -- Lois? *--

--* Yes! Get me out of here, Clark! *--

--* Where are we? *--

--* Under the water and I can't breathe! Get me out of here! *--

He rose from beneath her and pulled her to the surface. As her head split the water, she again gulped in great droughts of air.

"Clark?" she coughed. "Are you okay?"

He stiffened. "No. Still -- still hurts."

She looked around and saw the shoreline not thirty feet away. "Okay, Clark, we're going to swim. You try to relax and float and I'll get us to shore."

"Ow! O -- okay. Go -- go fast, huh?"

Great, she thought. He gets super-simple when he's sick and hurting. Typical male.

She stroked until she found the bottom, and then she simply dragged him to shore and griped at him between lunges. "You weigh -- a couple of -- tons when -- you're wet, Kent. You have to -- go -- on a -- diet -- if we -- plan to do -- this again -- any time soon!"

She fell against dry dirt sloping up away from the water, then gave him one last pull to get his head out of the water. "Clark?" she puffed. "You okay now?"

His only response was a groan. She sat up and leaned over him, examining him by the bright moonlight, and she caught a shimmer of green against the blue of his spandex suit.

"Clark? Your suit still has those green flecks on it. You have to take it off." He panted but didn't respond verbally. She shook him by his shoulders as hard as she could. "Clark! You have to get out of your suit!"

His only response was to flutter his hands near his cape. Oh, terrific, she thought, now I've got to undress Superman.

***

Clark sat on the muddy shore in his damp briefs with his knees pulled up in front of his chest and his arms wrapped around his legs. Being wet and cold stinks, he thought. Why did I ever think it would be a fun thing to be like everybody else?

He glanced at Lois, who was standing in thigh-deep water and trying to rinse his suit in the fading daylight. She'd rolled up her pants legs to keep them dry, but to no avail, and had pulled off her windbreaker and tossed it away from Clark, in case it had some green dust on it. He appreciated her efforts and had tried to thank her, but she'd refused to talk to him or look at him directly, and she had even shut down the link from her end. He hadn't gotten the impression that she was angry, but he couldn't tell what she actually had been feeling before the link had gone dry.

"Lois?" he called out. "I think my suit is clean now. And I've decided I don't like sitting here in my underwear."

Without turning, she snapped, "You wouldn't have to if you could get to your Clark clothes."

"I told you, I can't do that until I get my powers back. And even a damp Superman suit is better than damp bare skin at this time of the evening."

She lifted it to her face and examined it as closely as she could. After a full two minutes of poking and prodding, with an occasional added dunking of one corner or another of the fabric, she nodded agreement, still facing away from him. "I think it's clear of those green specks. I'll toss it to you. Throw it back if you find any more green stuff."

Her body turned halfway around and she threw the suit underhanded in his direction without looking directly at him. Before it slapped against the edge of the water, she'd turned away and was moving to rinse out her windbreaker.

After another few minutes, he called, "Lois? I'm done, except for the cape."

She turned around slowly and gave a soft exhalation when she saw him that sounded like relief. What was wrong with her, anyway? She acted like he'd deliberately done something to offend her.

"Lois? What's the matter?"

A half-smile flitted across her face, but she stifled it. "Nothing. Are your powers back yet?"

He gazed at the water in front of his feet and tried to heat it to a boil. When that failed, he tried to look through the water to the bottom, but the glare from the setting sun made the water impenetrable. He tried floating in place, but his feet remained adhered to the mud.

"No. Sorry. We may be stuck here for a while."

She slogged through the water towards him, holding her windbreaker in front of her. "Okay. My sister was a Girl Scout for a while, and she taught me a few things about wilderness survival, so if we can find enough dry wood I should be able -- Clark! What is it?"

The pain was back. It was much less intense, but increasing as she approached. "Lois! You have -- " he sank down to the ground again " -- you must have some of the green dust on your clothes!"

She stopped abruptly and ran backwards. "Tell me when the effect goes away."

The pain eased, then stopped. "Now."

He looked up and saw that she was almost back to her original washing location. "Lois? I have some bad news for you."

She dropped the windbreaker on the dirt again and crossed her arms. "We're on the shore of some lake somewhere in the wilderness. Neither of us knows where we are. You don't have your powers. We have no shelter available. We don't have any food or fresh water and there is neither a bathroom nor a dumpster in sight. The sun is going down and I'm wet and am about to get cold. What news you could possibly have for me now that would be worse that all that?"

He suppressed his smile, knowing that she probably wouldn't appreciate the humor of the situation for some time to come. "You're going to have to wash your clothes like you did mine."

Her eyes bulged and her jaw wobbled. "I -- I what?"

"You've got that green dust embedded in your clothing. It probably rubbed off my suit onto you. You can't get close to me without hurting me. You have to get rid of it."

Slowly, she put her hands on her hips. "This better not be some kind of get-even trick, Kent."

"What?" The accusation startled him. "What are you talking about?"

"You know what I mean! I've seen you in your Navy blue briefs, now you get to see me in my -- my underwear."

The smile returned before he could control it. "I'll turn around until you tell me I can look, Lois."

"You'd better! Or I'll come over there and throw my green dust-embedded self on top of you until you give up!"

He turned away before she could see his smile widen even further. If not for the green dust, that probably would have been an activity he'd enjoy. She certainly wasn't anywhere near ugly, even with wet clothes and disheveled hair and muddy feet.

Then Rebecca's face rose in his mind and he thrust the thought away along with the smile.

He didn't stop to consider until much later why he'd thought of Rebecca instead of Lana.

>>>Wednesday, 7:06 AM

Perry checked the timestamp on Lois' e-mail and story attachment for at least the eighth time. Five-fifteen that morning, it stared back at him. Way too late for the readers to check it out during their morning commute or read it over breakfast, but more than enough time to make the afternoon edition. The question remained, however, as to where she'd been when she'd sent the e-mail.

He knew she'd been at the museum the previous night when the bomb had exploded. The chief of police had called him at home before six that morning and complained about Daily Planet reporters not respecting the lawful instructions of the officers in charge of a dangerous event, parking her vehicle too close to a police line, and interfering with an ongoing investigation. It was vintage Lois, and he was pleased that she seemed to be mostly recovered and back on top of her game. But why had it taken so long for her to send in the story? Where was she now? And where was Clark?

Perry had done his best to placate the police chief, who was obviously rolling the chewing-out he'd received from his higher-ups downhill to lesser targets. Then he'd called Lois' home number and gotten her answering machine. Clark's machine had picked up as well, so wherever those two had gone after the explosion, apparently they hadn't spent it together.

Or so he'd thought. He looked up as the elevator dinged and saw a pair of dirty and disheveled reporters shamble towards his office. Despite their obvious fatigue, they were both intensely sniping at each other verbally without looking at each other. He was glad the door was closed and that he could hear the harsh tone of their conversation but not the words they spoke. This is going to be a legendary story, he thought.

Lois pushed into his office in front of Clark, who closed the door and leaned against the door jamb. "Son," drawled Perry, "maybe you'd better not get my wall dirty. Rahalia will give me another one of those 'how-did-you-do-that-you-gotta-be-kidding' looks when she comes in."

"Oh." He straightened. "Sorry, Chief."

Lois came to a stop on the far side of Perry's desk, her arms folded in front of her. She stared at the painting on the wall as if trying to memorize it for a very important test.

"Lois?" Perry tried. "Where have you two been all night?"

The only part of her that moved was her mouth. "Tell him, Clark."

Clark looked exhausted. "Until about four this morning, we were at a lake in a state park in eastern Tennessee. That's when my powers started coming back." He raised his hand to forestall his boss' obvious question. "I'll explain in a minute. As soon as I could, I changed out of my blue suit and into my regular clothes and we flew to a Ranger station, which just about wore me out, where Lois managed to talk the young man in charge into letting us use his Internet connection to get to her e-mail account so she could send you the story. I flew us back to the Planet as quickly as I could." He stopped and produced an immense yawn. "Sorry. No sleep last night, too cold on the muddy shore. Lois wanted to come in tell you in person why we wouldn't be in today."

Perry frowned. That wasn't the entire tale, he was certain, but he couldn't figure out what was missing. Lois' article was good stuff, with lots of Superman quotes and detailed descriptions of both the bomb and Superman's unsuccessful effort to defuse it, none of which was in any of the other accounts in other publications, but there was something else they hadn't told him yet.

"Okay. We didn't get your story in the morning edition, Lois, but it'll be page one above the fold in the evening. You two go get some sleep -- wait a minute."

He had almost decided to let them leave, then he decided to ask the question which had been bugging him since the night before. "Clark, why did you grab Lois and fly off like that? What happened?"

Clark shook his head. "Remember that afternoon I came back late and told you I'd felt something that could hurt me? I felt it again."

Perry's eyebrows sought his hairline. "Where was it? Wait! I bet it was in the bomb, wasn't it?"

Lois finally looked at him. "Yes. There was a lead sphere nestled in a pretty big charge of gunpowder in a funnel-shaped impression in the fake bomb. We figure --"

"Fake bomb?" Perry stood abruptly. "What do you mean, fake bomb?"

Clark stepped forward. "We decided not to tell everyone that the bomb had very little actual explosive in it, and I'm assuming from the news reports I've heard that the police haven't released that information either. Lois suggested that we just say that the bomb malfunctioned and not all of it went off. The gunpowder was the only real explosive material in the crate. The rest of it was painted Styrofoam."

"Styrofoam?" said Perry. "Why would someone do something like that?"

Clark continued, "I suggested to the captain on the scene that it might have been a diversion, but we both believe that the whole thing was a setup to test some green dust on Superman. I'd have to say that whatever it is, it works very well."

Perry sat one hip on his desk. "So? What's the rest of the story?"

"I picked up Lois purely by reflex. I didn't even know she was in front of me until I heard her call out to me. I only knew I had to get away from there before I breathed in some of that green dust. And Lois had to guide me, because I was afraid that if I opened my eyes the dust would get in them."

Lois added, "Aside from the fact that I had to wash both his uniform and my clothes in the lake, and aside from the fact that I nearly suffocated while flying with him and nearly drowned when we hit the water and nearly froze before his powers came back, that's about it."

Clark's eyes lit up. "There is one more thing, Chief. Lois is still mad that she slipped in the mud and fell into the water while washing her clothes and that I came to her rescue."

Perry frowned in confusion. "So? How is that a bad thing?"

"She thinks I set it up."

Oh, this had to be good. "Lois? Why would you think Clark would do something like that?"

She set her jaw and refused to answer, so Perry turned to Clark and said, "Are you gonna tell me, or is this some big state secret?"

Clark leaned on the desk, resting his hands on the edge. "She thinks I set it up so I could get a look at her in her wet underwear as payback for her seeing me in mine."

Perry goggled at Clark, who didn't blink. He turned to Lois, whose clenched jaw was joined by a furious blush which began at her neck and infused all the visible skin on her head. The editor flopped down in his chair, stunned. "You mean that all that talk while you were coming in was about --"

"It's a privacy issue, Perry!" Lois finally broke her silence. "I refuse to allow myself to be paraded in front of this -- this hack from Nowheresville like a prize cow!"

Clark straightened. "Hack from Nowhereseville?"

"I bet your powers weren't really gone!"

"What?"

"You were just faking it, weren't you?"

"Honest, I couldn't do anything more than any normal man --"

"You just wanted to ogle my body like any normal man!"

"Lois, if I was going to peek at your body, I would have done it already."

She spun on him furiously. "You're telling me that you've seen me naked?"

He assumed a Superman pose, with arms across his chest. "Unless you're wearing lead-lined clothes, Lois, you can't hide from me and you know it."

"What -- why -- you perverted -- no, you super-perverted --"

He didn't let her finish whatever it was she was going to call him. "I have to tell you, Lana looked better."

That stopped her. Wearing a face like a Greek fury, she snatched up the windbreaker and pounded out the office door, her breath hissing in and out between her teeth.

Clark held his pose until he heard the elevator doors close and the car start down. Then he dropped his arms and laughed ruefully.

Perry shook his head. "Boy, she's mad. She may not speak to you before Friday, if she does by then."

"I know. She shut down the link, too, like slamming a phone down."

"I'm not surprised." Then he got a devilish look on his face. "Son, did you mean it when you told her that Lana looked better?"

Clark smiled. "Truthfully? I'd say it was pretty much a dead heat, Chief. And I'm not sure now if she was mad because I'd seen her wearing so little or because she was afraid that she didn't measure up to the standards she thinks Lana set for me."

Perry leaned back and partially stifled his laugh. "I'm sure glad you didn't tell her that!" He shook his head, and after a moment asked, "Just why did you say what you did?"

Clark pursed his lips. "I don't really know. I just got this irritated feeling when she was ragging on me. I know I shouldn't have said that, but it just popped out before I knew what I was saying."

"Uh-huh. Didn't one o' y'all say that your mental link might affect your behavior?"

Clark dropped his chin to his chest and sighed. "Yeah, one of us did. And maybe that's part of why I was so rude to Lois just now."

"Could be. But I'd try to put a cork in that particular bottle if I were you. I don't think you'll make many friends with that attitude."

"I think you're probably right. Say, is Jimmy coming in at his regular time today?"

"I called him in early, should be here in ten minutes or so. He didn't like it, but that's the newspaper business. Oh, I assume you know that we won't print any part of what you two just told me."

"I figured that, but thanks for saying it anyway. Well, let me get what I need to give to Jimmy and then I'll be off to dreamland."

"Anything in particular you want him to look at?"

"Yes." Clark's face cleared. "Lana's boss at the museum, Dr. Roger Bean, keeps popping up in and around this gun-running investigation. We found his name five times in the file Jimmy gave Lois yesterday. I want Jimmy to run down some more of his business associates and financial activity."

Perry frowned. "I thought Bean was on the boat when it -- when it went down."

"He was. But he may still be able to lead us back to whoever it was he was reporting to."

Perry nodded. "Good thinking. I assume Jimmy's going to ask the Dangerous Boys to help him on this one?"

Clark's eyebrows rose in surprise. "You know about them?"

"Son, I didn't get to be editor because I can quote all the lyrics to the King's first three albums. You tell him to be extra careful on this one, okay? I'd hate to lose the boy at his age."

"Yeah. Speaking of Jimmy, what are you going to tell him about both me and Lois being gone today?"

"Nothing, except that you and she are on assignment and neither of you will be back in the office today. Since you're here now and Lois isn't, I doubt the gossipmongers will get their teeth into you."

He sighed. "Good. Being accused of dating me is just about the last thing Lois would want floating around on the rumor circuit right now."

>>>Thursday, 2:14 PM

Perry had been right about Lois. She hadn't said one word to Clark since Tuesday morning. She hadn't even looked in his direction. And the link was shut down tighter than a medieval chastity belt. Clark was certain that she wouldn't so much as loan him a paper clip if he begged her for one on both knees.

He grinned to himself and turned back to his computer. That school board election story wouldn't write itself.

Just as he finished the first draft, and before he could refill his coffee cup prior to editing the piece, his phone rang. "Clark Kent, Daily Planet."

"Clark! This is Rebecca."

Her voice warmed his ear. "Hi. I'm glad to hear from you. What's up?"

"Well -- you may not be so glad to hear from me in a minute."

He knew it. She was calling off their date. She didn't like him that much after all. It was too good to be true, anyway. For a moment, that teen-age feeling of being left out of everything was back.

She must have felt his hesitation. "Look, Clark, I don't want to call off our date, I just want to reschedule for Saturday evening. Would that be okay?"

He sighed with obvious relief. "Sure, that's fine. Same time, or a little earlier?"

"Can we meet for dinner at six? That'll leave plenty of time to watch the movie and dissect it together."

He chuckled. "Sounds fine with me. If you'll make the tea and provide the garlic bread, I'll bring the main course and the salad."

"That's awfully sweet of you, but are you sure that's not too much trouble?"

"If it were a problem for me, I wouldn't have volunteered."

"True. Thanks for understanding, Clark. Oh, I forgot to tell you why we're not doing the movie thing tonight. The Dangerous Boys are coming by to do some on-line stalking for Prince Edmund."

"Edmund? Oh, right, Jimmy." Then he sobered. "You do know that what you guys are doing may be dangerous, don't you?"

She laughed musically. "Jimmy already told us how worried you were. I promise, no one will be able to trace anything back to any of us. We don't leave clues like that just lying around."

"Good. I just want to make sure --"

"Clark! Good grief, you're such a mother hen. We'll be fine. And hopefully Jimmy will have a lot of info for you tomorrow morning."

"As long as no one gets hurt."

"You are such a worrywart. Whoops, incoming call. Gotta go. See you Saturday night! Bye!"

And she was gone before he could return the salutation. And before he could repeat his warning.

Which was probably her intention, he told himself. You are a worrywart.

He wondered how long Lois was going to make him stew before she let him apologize. She could stay mad longer than almost anyone he'd ever met, including Lana.

He suddenly realized that he was once again comparing Lois to Lana. And that Lois seemed to be coming out the winner in more and more categories.

But he couldn't be attracted to her! Not now, not ever. Sure, she was beautiful and talented and brilliant and a great writer and a terrific dancer and a top-notch investigator, but she was also pig-headed and stubborn and prone to awkward logic-defying deductions which might or might not be accurate. And she was sometimes too proud to admit that she needed help or that she might have been wrong.

Another part of his mind whispered to him that her heart was in the right place, though, and she was as honest as the day was long. She understood that money and fame were important, but not as important as the people in her life. It was a lesson that Lana had struggled to learn all of her brief life, and as far as Clark knew she'd never fully mastered it.

But Lois was dating another man and seemed to be happy. He couldn't mess that up for her, not if he was truly her friend. And he did want to be her friend.

Besides, his conscience reminded him, he was dating Rebecca. And she didn't seem to be the type to lean towards three-sided relationships.

For that matter, he told himself forcefully, neither did he.

***

Without letting him know she was watching him -- which took some doing -- Lois saw Clark get the call which at first threatened to put him in a deep depression but which, by the end of the conversation, had lifted his spirits close to their previous level. As he hung up and leaned back in his chair to stretch, she remembered how well-muscled he was and how well-proportioned his body was. He could have posed for Michelangelo's sculptured depiction of David without any extra enhancements.

He could have won almost any bodybuilding contest he cared to enter.

And she absolutely didn't need to be thinking about any of that. Not now, not ever. She'd promised Lana to watch over him, not to stalk him or to leer at him. Besides, she wasn't interested in him in a romantic sense, just in an 'I like to look at good-looking guys' kind of sense.

She wasn't at all interested in him. No way.

She shot her gaze back to her computer as he moved, but instead of checking on her again he stood and walked to the coffee station. Getting refueled for a rewrite, she thought. He's so predictable.

And that's bad? asked another part of her mind.

The jangle of her own phone derailed that train of thought. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet."

A cultured baritone voice curled into her ear. "Lois, this is Lex Luthor. I wanted to call and congratulate you and Clark on your well-written and well-received stories on me and on my business holdings."

Her toes tried to curl up inside her shoes. "Thank you, Lex. You've made my day. I'll pass those kind words on to Clark for you."

"Please do. And while you're up, you can check your social calendar."

She frowned. "Why should I do that?"

"So you can let me know if you're free to have dinner with me this evening."

She almost gasped. "Tonight? Uh -- well, I don't know --"

"Please. I know this is short notice, but I'd really like to see you in a non-professional setting."

She tried to get her mental feet underneath her. "Non-professional? What about lunch the other day?"

"Despite the thoroughly enjoyable company, it was still a professional meeting. May I pick you up at your apartment at, say, seven this evening?"

"I -- I don't have anything suitable to wear."

"Oh, I was thinking we could go somewhere casual, you know, a jeans and polo shirt type of place."

Stall while you think about it, she told herself. "Where were you planning to go?"

He chuckled. "There's a wonderful little restaurant not far from Hobbs' Bay which is owned and operated by a military veteran. I've eaten there a few times, and the owner knows me as Alex Winfield, computer programmer for LexData."

Surprised, Lois asked, "You -- you have a secret identity?"

"Yes, but please don't tell anyone or you'll have to kill them."

Their shared laugh gave Lois time to regain her balance. "What's the name of this wonderful little restaurant?"

"It's called Mike's Place."

"What!" she almost screeched. "You want to go to Mike's Place?"

He sounded almost hurt. "I'm sorry, Lois. The owner is an excellent cook and they have a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, but it doesn't have to be there. If you'd prefer to --"

"No! I mean, I know the place and that actually sounds like a great idea. Hey, since I don't live that far from Mike's, why don't I just meet you there at seven? It'd save you a trip."

"You know Mike's?"

"Yes." And she decided right then and there to tell him nothing else. "I'll meet you at the front register at seven. Just tell Mike who you're waiting for if you get there before I do."

"If -- that's what you want, Lois, then, yes, I'll meet you there at seven."

She could barely contain her laughter. "I'm looking forward to it."

If nothing else, she mused, Lex was very unpredictable.

And, she realized, so was she.

***

Across the room, Clark frowned as he heard Lois hang up the phone and laugh. He didn't approve of her dating Lex Luthor. Not only was he a news subject, he was on her list of suspects to be the elusive 'Boss' they'd heard about lately, and who Lois suspected had been the head of the gun-running operation which had sent Lana to her death. She seemed to have lost her objectivity where Luthor was concerned, and he didn't understand why.

He tested the link, but it was still knotted shut at her end. Fine, he thought, go have dinner with a possible multiple murderer. Enjoy what might be your last meal with a sociopathic killer.

She didn't register having heard or sensed him, which bothered him even more.

Superman would definitely keep his mental ears open for her tonight.

>>>Friday, 8:21 AM

Lois bounced onto the newsroom floor wearing a mega-watt smile that stunned Jimmy Olsen into silence as he poured a cup of coffee. He turned to follow her progress as she walked past Clark, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked, "Morning, sunshine! And how was your date last night?"

Clark turned a puzzled frown towards her. "We postponed to Saturday night. Rebecca had the Dangerous Boys over last night. And good morning to you, too."

She grinned brightly and scrunched her shoulders up towards her cheeks like an especially happy cheerleader. "It is a great morning, isn't it?"

Clark nodded slowly. "I'd guess your date went well last night." He lifted his watch between them and stared at it for a moment. "Especially since you seem to be running a little late today."

"Oh, Clark, don't be such a stick-in-the-mud! Lex and I had a great time last night."

Jimmy tried not to choke on his coffee. Mad Dog Lane had gone out on a date? During the week? With Lex Luthor? And she came in late the next morning? Smiling?

He glanced towards Perry's office and thought, she's super-lucky the Chief has an early morning meeting upstairs.

He tuned back to the conversation, trying not to look like he was eavesdropping. "You know Mike's Place, right, Clark?"

"I've been down there a couple of times. They serve good steak."

"Did you know Mike is my uncle?"

Jimmy knew, but Clark obviously didn't. "You took your date to your uncle's place?"

"No! Lex suggested it without knowing about Mike and me. Mike's not really my blood uncle, just a close family friend, but he's always treated Lucy and me like nieces or even better, and anyway when we got there I didn't have to introduce Lex to Mike because Lex sometimes eats there and they already knew each other but they didn't know I knew both of them and it was funny watching them make extra nice to each other for my sake."

What a story! thought Jimmy. Billionaire Lex Luthor dines at small eatery near Hobb's Bay with Daily Planet reporter! The National Whisper would pay big money for any dirt on Luthor, and Jimmy could use the extra cash.

Then he grimaced at himself. He could never sell out Lois like that. If they ever got that story, it wouldn't be from him, no matter how many dollars they might wave in his face.

Clark was almost smiling by now. "You're telling me that your uncle knows Lex Luthor?"

Lois pulled a chair close to Clark's desk. "No, it gets better! I found out yesterday that Lex uses another name sometimes just to walk around and be invisible and when he does that he drives this old faded blue Ford sedan with a dent in the driver's door. Uncle Mike knows him as Alex Winfield and --"

"What is this, a newsroom or a coffee bar? You people get to work now! We got a paper to publish!"

The tone of Perry's bark suggested that his meeting hadn't been all sweetness and light. Lois leaned close to Clark and whispered something Jimmy didn't catch, then she hurried to her desk and booted up her workstation.

Jimmy began to turn away, but Clark caught his eye and waved him closer. "What is it, CK?"

Clark opened the folder that Jimmy had given him earlier that morning containing the raw data the Dangerous Boys had dug up the night before. "See that name on the top of the second page?"

Jimmy looked closer and nodded. Alex Winfield's name was linked to several minor sub-contractors who dealt with Luthor's companies. Clark pulled that page out of the folder and handed it to the young man. "Jimmy, I want anything and everything you can dig up on this guy. And do not -- I repeat -- do not let Lois know you're checking out this name. Keep this page with you. Understand?"

Jimmy looked into Clark's eyes and saw something he hadn't seen there before, something intense and almost fierce. "You sure about this? If Lois finds out that you went behind her back --"

"I'll tell her myself when I have solid information. Now get started on this as soon as you can."

"Sure." Jimmy hesitated, then asked, "CK, is this personal or professional?"

Clark turned obsidian eyes towards him. "Both."

***

After Jimmy left on whatever errand Clark had assigned him, Lois tried several times to catch Clark's eye, but he seemed to be too busy to look in her direction. A questing touch over the link brought back only an impression of free-floating irritation, but she wasn't sure it was directed at her.

So she decided to ask. -* Clark? *--

--* Yes, Lois? *--

--* Are you mad at me? *--

--* No. *--

--* There's something wrong. You can't lie through the link, and there's something bothering you and I think it's something to do with me. What is it? *--

--* I'd rather not have this conversation right now. *--

--* You can't always get what you want. *--

--* Neither can you. *--

--* Please, Clark? All I want is to clear the air between us. I value your friendship and I don't want us to fight for no reason. *--

--* You really want me to tell you? *--

--* I wouldn't have asked if I hadn't wanted to know. *--

--* Fine. I don't trust Lex Luthor and I don't think you should get too close to him while we're investigating him. *--

--* Oh. *--

--* Is that what you wanted to know? *--

--* Yes. But it may be too late. *--

--* What may be -- you mean you -- oh, Lois, please tell me you didn't sleep with him last night! *--

--* What! You -- No, I didn't sleep with him! Do you think so little of me? *--

--* No. I'm sorry, I just -- then tell me what you meant about it being too late. *--

--* I'm not sure I should now. *--

--* Please, Lois. I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to make that assumption. I know it was unwarranted. It's just that I'm concerned about your well-being. *--

--* Hmm. Okay, that's truthful, at least. What I meant was that I could see something in his eyes, something that makes me think I'm special to him. *--

--* The man is old enough to be your father, Lois! He's dated dozens of the richest and most beautiful women in the world! What makes you think you're that special to him? *--

--* First of all, he's not that old. He's in his late thirties. Second, he's not the Don Juan you're making him out to be. Third, he treats me like I'm a real human being and not just a pretty face with no brain. Among other things, he talked about some of the adventures he and Asabi had on the waterfront when he was starting out. Why would he tell me things like that if he were just trying to dazzle me with flash and sizzle? *--

--* Hmm. You have a point, Lois. But -- *--

--* But you're not dating him. I am. And I know how to be careful. *--

--* Okay, Lois. I just want you to guard your heart. *--

--* Guard my heart? Oh. I understand. Thank you, Clark. That's -- that's actually very sweet of you. *--

--* You're welcome. *--

--* And you guard your heart too, okay? Rebecca is a very nice girl. She deserves a good man. *--

--* You're saying that it might not be me? *--

--* Funny, Clark, funny. Just be as honest with her as you are with yourself. Or with me. *--

--* I'll try. I just hope she's honest with me. *--

--* Well, I can't tell you what to do, but even Lex thinks you two make a cute couple. *--

--* And how does he know about my private life? *--

--* That was one of our topics of conversation. He's interested in my friends and the people I work with. And he likes your writing almost as much as he likes mine. *--

--* I'm going to take that as a compliment. Lois? Seriously. Do you think Rebecca and I should pursue our relationship? *--

--* I think you both should do what your well-guarded hearts tell you to do. *--

--* Good non-specific advice. Excellent for keeping the advice-giver out of trouble with the advice receiver. Thanks a lot. *--

--* Hey, what are friends for if not to give unwanted and ultimately useless relationship advice? *--

--* Now who's being funny? *--

--* Not me. I'm being sensible. Now let me get to work before Perry puts me on the pooper scooper story. *--

--* Okay. We'll talk later. *--

***

Cat shook her pen as if trying to make ink magically appear inside it. When it didn't, she sighed dramatically, rose, and headed towards the supply closet.

Two of the new interns, Deanna and Beverly, were inside the room giggling about something when she opened the door. They took one look at her and quickly scurried out, apologizing all the way.

Cat closed the door behind them and moved to the back of the room, then pulled out her special cell phone and dialed the only number she ever dialed on it.

The electronically filtered voice answered after three rings. "Yes, Ms. Grant?"

"Lois Lane went on a date with Lex Luthor last night."

"Did she have a good time?"

Cat was surprised that the person on the other end of the line apparently wasn't surprised at the news. "She seemed to. She came in almost a half-hour late this morning, smiling and bouncing along like a sophomore with a crush on the star quarterback."

"I see. Do you know if they plan any future activities?"

"No, but I'll see what I can find out."

"Very good. Anything else?"

Cat hesitated, then plunged ahead. "What's the status of my marker?"

A distorted chuckle reached her ear. "Let me see. Oh, yes, it's down seven percent now."

She smiled. "That must have been good news about their date."

"The date? Oh, you misunderstand, Ms. Grant. I meant that it was down seven percent from its original value."

"What? The original -- but that was over a quarter of a million dollars! And it was more than four years ago! You mean that --"

"I mean, Ms. Grant, that you still owe me a great deal of money, and that if you want to keep both yourself and your parents healthy, you will continue to report to me. Now, if there's nothing else?"

"No," Cat whimpered.

The connection was broken at the other end. Seven percent! That was all she'd paid back, in all that time? She'd never, never pay off that immense debt!

She felt like a slave. She desperately wished she dared tell someone about this, but the voice had assured her that if anyone ever learned of their arrangement, her parents would pay the penalty. And the occasional candid photos of her parents which she received in the mail, taken when Mom and Dad were obviously not aware of being photographed, convinced her that the person at the other end of the phone line was completely serious.

She was still trapped, still locked into a life of betrayal and intrigue that was eroding her morals and threatening to destroy her psyche. For Cat Grant, it appeared that there was no way out of this snare.

***

Chapter Twenty

>>>Friday, 5:38 PM

"Good night, Lois."

"Oh! You're leaving already, Clark?"

He gave her a wry smile. "Unlike someone else in this office, I was here on time this morning."

She stuck her tongue out at him and he laughed. "Yeah, I wouldn't want that nasty thing in my mouth, either. There's no telling where it's been lately."

He was in the elevator before the full impact of his jibe hit her. She untied the knot in her end of their mental link and sent, -* I'm going to get you for that, Kent! *--

--* I'll add it to the list of things you're going to get me for. *--

--* Just you wait! I'll clobber you with them all at once and probably cripple you for life. *--

--* I'll make sure my insurance coverage is up to date. Good night, Lois. *--

She smiled to herself, and allowed the smile to filter through the link. -* You're a good friend, Clark. Good night. *--

--* Thanks. See you Monday morning. *--

The link went quiet but didn't close. Lois glanced at the clock and decided to take another look at the various sticky notes affixed to her desk and computer and phone and file drawer and --

She sighed. I really have to be neater, she thought. At least Claude wasn't around any more to gripe at her about her poor note organizing skills. She gave a fleeting but sympathetic thought to the unfortunate women of western Europe upon whom Claude was now inflicted.

Maybe, she considered, they might get a good laugh out of him.

She scanned the notes, looking for inspiration, when she found Samuel Platt's phone number on one of them. Something about the space program, she mused. Maybe this will pan out into something big, or maybe it'll be a waste of time.

No way to know without making the call. She punched in the number and heard two rings, then a recording intoned, "You have dialed the main number for Luthor Technologies. Our office hours are eight a.m. to five-thirty p.m. on Monday through Friday and nine a.m. through one p.m. on Saturday. The main offices are closed on Sunday. If you know your party's extension, please enter it now."

She punched in the extension written on the note, hoping Platt was a night person like she was, or at least that he was a typical scientist in that he rarely looked at the clock. Two more rings. "Docking lab, Platt speaking."

Bingo, she thought. "Dr. Platt, this is Lois Lane of the Daily Planet. You called our office --"

"It's about time someone got in touch with me! Do you know how much work we've done that will have to be redone because these flaws haven't been corrected yet?"

"No, I don't, but --"

"Do you have any idea how many lives depend on this phase of the operation? If the shuttle can't dock safely with the station, there's no way to transfer the personnel and supplies needed for continued operation! And I won't be embarrassed by this fiasco!"

"Dr. Platt, I'd like to schedule --"

"Can you be here at nine on Monday morning?"

Lois blinked. "Nine on Monday? Uh, yes, my partner and I --"

"Good. The more the merrier. Do you have the address?"

She lifted the sticky note. "5924 South Parker? In the industrial district south of Hobb's Bay?"

"That's it. I'll notify security that you're coming. Make sure you bring your credentials with you, and try to be on time! I'm a busy man."

"Of course, Dr. Platt, and I -- hello?"

He's either really busy or socially clueless, she thought as she put the phone back in its cradle. Didn't even have time for the usual pleasantries and telephone etiquette. She opened her internal e-mail application and sent notes to both Perry and Clark about the appointment, then glanced at the clock.

Almost six. She stretched and thought, close enough; I'm going home.

***

Cat looked around the newsroom as Lois walked past her and smiled. "Night, Cat."

Cat lifted her eyebrows in weary surprise. "Wow. Is it that late already?"

Lois stopped in the elevator doorway. "Yep. You coming?"

"Wish I could." Cat looked at her paper-covered desk and sighed. "I have all this stuff to file and a column to send to Perry's in-box before I go. Thanks, though."

"No problem," smiled Lois. "Hey, you want to grab some lunch on Monday?"

"Sounds like a great idea. Your treat this time?"

Lois laughed. "Sure. We'll go harass Uncle Mike again. He loved it the last time you came in."

"You're kidding, right?" Cat snorted out a laugh. "He hated it, Lois! There were four waiters and two cooks hovering around our table the whole time."

"Yeah, but we got fabulous service." She stepped into the elevator as it dinged at her to stop blocking the door. "I'll fill you in on my date with Lex. You know, girl talk and all that."

"Looking forward to it!"

The elevator door closed and the newsroom floor was empty. Cat figured she had about ten minutes before the night crew began arriving, so she pulled out her special cell phone and dialed.

"Yes, Ms. Grant?"

"Lois and Clark have an interview with Dr. Samuel Platt of Luthor Technologies at nine Monday morning."

"What!"

It was the first time Cat had ever heard the person on the other end of the line display surprise. "Lois and Clark have an interview --"

"I heard you the first time!"

The voice fell silent for a long moment. Cat almost asked if there was anything else she could do, but she sensed that she needed to be silent for the moment. Then the voice calmly said, "Thank you, Ms. Grant. If this works out as I anticipate, I will guarantee a five-percent reduction in the principle on your debt."

"Th-thank you! Thank you so much! I --"

"Is there anything else?"

Cat almost mentioned her lunch date with Lois on Monday, but at the last instant changed her mind. "No, that's all."

"Good. I appreciate that you're taking your responsibilities seriously, Ms. Grant. Keep up the good work."

The line went dead. Cat felt a surge of elation. Five percent! That was a huge chunk of money, whether it was five percent off the current balance or five percent off the original principle. Maybe she could eventually get out from under that huge --

And then it hit her. If the person on the other end thought this information was worth that much, what did that mean for Clark and Lois? Had she just put someone she cared about in serious danger? Were her friends, as well as her parents and herself, now in the crosshairs of an unseen assassin?

Her heart turned to stone in her chest. She had no choice. If she wanted her parents to live, and to live believing that their daughter was a good person, she had to let her friends walk into jeopardy with no idea that they were targets.

She hated the things she did. She hated the double life she lived. She hated having to choose between betrayal and death. She hated the person she'd become.

Instead of sending in her column and clearing her desk, she simply picked up her purse and decided to head for the nearest bar. Maybe she could get drunk enough to forget her screwed-up life for one night.

>>>Saturday, 9:09 AM

Lois put down the trash bags she held in either hand and answered the phone. I hate being interrupted when I'm doing housework, she thought, probably because I so seldom do housework. "Hello," she muttered.

"Hello, Lois. This is Lex."

Her irritation melted away immediately and she brought her free hand up to touch her hair. "Well -- hello. This is an unexpected pleasure."

She could hear him smile. "I'm gratified. Tell me, is there any chance you're free for dinner and a concert this evening?"

"Tonight?"

"Yes."

"Hmm. Gee, let me check my social calendar --"

"Perhaps this will help you to decide. Glenn Miller Junior is appearing at the Paramount at eight and has offered me two free tickets, along with backstage passes. Are you free?"

"For Miller's band? Of course I'm free! What time should I be ready?"

Lex chuckled into the phone. "I see where I rate on your scale. Do you like French food?"

"Only if it's cooked."

He laughed again. "Then, unless you have other plans, I will pick you up at your apartment at five-thirty this evening. I have made reservations for us at Chez Raoul for six p.m."

"Chez Raoul? Wow! Lex, that's pretty fancy for someone like me."

"It's appropriate for the two of us, Lois. The dress code is coat and tie for men, skirts or dresses for the ladies, and formal attire is not required."

"Won't we be a little underdressed?"

"For Raoul's, perhaps, but not for dancing at the Paramount."

"Lex, that sounds wonderful! I'll be ready."

"Good. I intend to dance the night away with you."

>>>Saturday, 5:57 PM

Rebecca opened the door and smiled warmly. "Come on in, Clark. You're right on time."

"Of course," he smiled back. "It would be rude of me to be late, especially since I've got the dinner fixings with me."

She canted her head to one side as he walked in. "What are dinner fixings?"

He chuckled. "My Kansas upbringing betrays me once again. It's a Western idiom. Means 'stuff for making dinner.' I'd planned on chicken spaghetti."

She chuckled. "You're a walking cultural education, Kansas."

"Thanks, I think. Kitchen's this way, right?"

"I see you remember. Salad's in the fridge below the tea."

He opened the refrigerator door and nodded. "Looks great, Becca. I'll get started on the chicken. Dinner should be ready to put on the table in about forty minutes."

"Okay. Need anything from me?"

He smiled at her. "Just some of your usual scintillating conversation."

She lifted an eyebrow. "Okay. But just watch out for those big, scary words."

He laughed. He liked her laugh. She was easy to laugh with. "I promise. Hey, have you heard anything else about that squid migration project you were working on?"

She leaned her elbow on the counter, close enough to reach out and touch him but out of his way. "Yes. We submitted the first draft to the master's review board this past Tuesday. The message I got yesterday afternoon said that they'd submit it for peer review under the professor's name, with our names attached as research and data analysis assistants."

"That's great." He dropped a pat of butter in a skillet on the stove and started pouring water in a pot for the spaghetti. "What's the next step?"

"The study gets published and all those jealous professors out there with their own personal and political agendas try to rip it to shreds to support their own pet theories."

He frowned. "What about the ones who aren't so jealous?"

"Those are the ones we want to hear from, the ones with no territories to protect. The conclusions we've reached are tentative, but they're supported by the data, and if we're right, we'll have significantly contributed to the understanding of our precious little squid buddies. Maybe we can save them from extinction."

Clark put the pot on the stove burner and turned the heat up. "I didn't know they were a threatened species."

"They're not, at least not yet, but their numbers have declined for the past two decades or more. They're not only a food source for larger predators, they hunt the little fish that might overrun the shrimp harvesting areas in the Gulf of Mexico if the squid aren't there to keep their numbers down. If the squid aren't around to fill those slots, their prey will reproduce wildly and overrun their usual feeding grounds, and the predators that take the squid will have to find other sources of food or their own numbers will be reduced. And that would have repercussions all through the ocean's ecology."

He stopped. "Wow. I knew the food chain was complex, but I just don't think about it like you do."

She smiled and touched his wrist. "Not many people my age do. Thanks for listening."

"You're more than welcome. Besides, it's interesting, especially when you talk about it. Say, where's the garlic bread loaf?"

"In the freezer, right by your head."

He grinned. "If it had been a snake --"

"It would be frozen solid by now."

They laughed as Clark put the bread on a baking sheet and put it in the oven.

This was nice, he thought. She's fun to be around, and I don't have to work hard to get her to like me. And she isn't working hard to get me to like her.

Rebecca straightened. "How about some music?"

"Sure. What do you have?"

"Well, since we're watching 'Charade' tonight, I thought I'd borrow a CD from the library with the best of Henry Mancini. We've got Baby Elephant Walk, Pink Panther, the theme from 'Charade', of course, and a bunch of others."

"Sounds great. Have you listened to it yet?"

"Nope." She slid the disk into the slot as Clark stepped up beside her. "I wanted to hear it for the first time with you."

The mysterious opening notes of the Pink Panther theme oozed out of the speakers. Clark lifted his hands and said, "Would you care to dance, my lady?"

Her eyes glittered as she curtseyed to him. "I was so hoping you'd ask me, good sir." She leaned closer and whispered mischievously, "Just don't burn my dinner."

***

Lois was ready by five-fifteen. Then she looked at her hair and tried to decide if she had time to change it. No, it wouldn't stay up if they were dancing to swing music, and it wasn't long enough to wear up on her head, so down with an elegant comb on one side would have to do it.

She checked her dress, a slimming dark blue short-sleeve ensemble with pleated skirt. She twirled experimentally, then lifted the skirt to make sure she'd remembered the dark dancing shorts underneath. Wouldn't do to flash her underwear at half the people on the dance floor, she thought, especially with Lex's reputation to consider.

The knock at the door startled her, despite knowing it was coming. She glanced at the clock and smiled. He's early. That's usually a good sign.

She opened the door to see Lex standing tall, holding a modest wrist corsage. His light gray wool Armani three-piece suit was impeccable, as was his cream shirt. The only surprise was that he wore no tie, but had his shirt collar tugged over his coat collar.

She smiled. "Wow. You look very Saturday Night Fever."

He drew in a breath but didn't speak.

"Lex? Are you okay?"

He shook his head. "Yes -- yes, I'm sorry, you just look -- you're fabulous, Lois."

She blushed slightly and ducked her head. "I'm not as dressed up now as I was for the White Orchid Ball."

"No, but now you're dressed for an evening with me, and -- wow."

"Thank you." She laughed and indicated the corsage. "Is that for me?"

He looked at is as if he'd forgotten it was there. "Oh. Yes, it is. I hope you don't think it inappropriate."

"Of course not. It's a sweet gesture, and I like orchids."

"I should have checked with you to see what color you were wearing." He held it up beside her shoulder and blew out a breath in relief. "Good, it doesn't clash. Here, let me put it on you."

She extended her left hand, touched by his consideration. "It's beautiful, Lex. Thank you."

Then she raised up on tiptoes and kissed him briefly on the cheek. As she drew back, she thought his eyes betrayed surprise, then shifted to pleasure. "Asabi is waiting at the car, my dear. Shall we?"

"Let me get my purse and lock my door."

They rode the elevator down in silence. Lois almost spoke twice, but changed her mind at the last minute. And she got the impression that Lex had done the same thing at least once.

We're like two nervous teenagers on their first date, she pondered. Hope that's a good thing.

Apropos of nothing, Lois said, "I hope Clark and Rebecca have a good time tonight."

Lex lifted his eyebrows. "Clark and Rebecca? Are you saying that your partner and my receptionist are on a date tonight?"

"Yes. Why, is that a problem or something?"

"Of course not."

"You aren't surprised because your surveillance on Rebecca didn't tell you about her date, are you?"

"Surveillance? Lois, I don't spy on my employees! Their personal lives are exactly that, their own personal lives! I'm not --"

He stopped because Lois was laughing. He put his hands on his hips in mock exasperation. "I think, Lois, that this relationship is going to be very interesting."

"Do you mean 'interesting' as in the Chinese curse that says 'May you live in interesting times'?"

One side of his mouth twitched in a small grin. "Precisely."

They shared a soft laugh as the elevator came to a stop. As they exited the apartment building, Asabi smiled impersonally at her and opened the car door, but Lois stopped before stepping inside. "Lex? Wait a moment, please. There's something I have to do."

She released Lex's arm and stood before Asabi. "I assure that I did not intend to do so, Asabi, but I insulted you that day in the elevator. I am sorry that I implied that you would ever do anything that might harm your friend. I ask you to forgive me for my ill-chosen words, and to accept my apology for my rudeness."

Then she put her palms together in front of her and bowed her head, waiting. She sensed Asabi glance towards Lex, but Luthor didn't move or speak.

Finally, Asabi gently placed his hands around hers and said, "I will accept your apology, Miss Lane, if you will accept mine for misjudging you. You are indeed an honest and sincere young woman, and I am pleased to be counted in your circle of acquaintances."

He softly touched his forehead to hers and she smiled. A breath she didn't realize she's been holding slipped out slowly and she said, "I would be pleased if we might become friends someday, Asabi. Thank you."

"And I thank you, Miss Lane." He stood straight and lowered his hands. "And now, I believe that you and Mr. Luthor have a social engagement to attend."

She flashed him a smile as he held the car door open for her. His returning smile was restrained, but this time it was also warm and sincere.

As Asabi pulled away from the curb, Lex leaned over and said, "If I didn't know better, I'd say that you now have at least as much of Asabi's loyalty as I do."

She sighed in relief that her apology had been accepted so readily. "I owed it to him. Besides, he didn't deserve what I said to him."

He smiled and patted her arm. "It is truly in the past now, Lois. And I must say that I'm impressed, also. You are the first woman Asabi has driven with me who hasn't treated him like a common servant."

She frowned. "But he's not a servant. He's your friend. Even if I didn't believe you completely, he convinced me that day in the elevator. No mere servant would react as he did."

"True. In any case, you have made a fast friend tonight." He leaned closer and spoke quietly. "And now, it's time to start our date."

She leaned back slightly and gave him a look of mild challenge. "And how might we do that?"

He tapped a button on the panel in front of him and the bouncy strains of Miller's version of "In The Mood" filled the car. "We can fondly remember our first dance."

She laughed. "As long as I don't have to duplicate it in here, I'm good with that."

***

"Clark, this is delicious! The chicken is so tender, and the spaghetti is so full of flavor. Do you eat like this all the time?"

He laughed. "Only when I cook. There are a couple of restaurants in Metropolis that serve the kinds of food I really like, but when I'm hungry for down-home Kansas cooking I either have to fly home or make it myself."

Rebecca speared the last piece of chicken on her plate. "I guess you cook for yourself a lot, huh? Flying to Kansas and back here is so expensive."

Whoops, he thought, I almost slipped. "Yes, especially if I don't plan ahead."

She drained her tea glass and wiped her mouth. "That was delicious. Now, if you'll excuse me for a moment, I need a moment to plan ahead, and then I'll be ready to watch that movie with you."

He stood. "Of course. I'll clean off the table and --"

"No. My place, my dishes, my responsibility. Besides, you cooked it all."

"Honest, Becca, I don't mind."

She smiled warmly. "No. I'll clear the table and we can argue about the washing later."

He raised his hands in surrender. "Whatever you say."

By the time she returned to the living room, he'd slid the tape into the VCR and was sitting at one end of her couch. He'd refilled their tea glasses, which were sitting on coasters on the living room table.

She grinned and flopped down beside him, close enough to touch him but not so close that she crowded him. "Hope we have a good cartoon coming up. I like Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd."

***

Chez Raoul was elegant, quiet, and full of understated luxury. Lois smiled at Lex across the appetizers and said, "This is everything I expected it to be. The food, the atmosphere, the ambience, the relaxed feel of the place, it's all so wonderful."

He returned her smile. "I hope you also like the company."

She tilted her head to one side. "Actually, I think the company makes the most difference."

He beamed at her and lifted his glass. "To the most beautiful woman in the room."

She lifted her glass, then hesitated and asked, "Do you really think it's me, or is that just flattery? I mean, with all the other beautiful people in here tonight, how can I compete?"

His gaze bored deep into hers. "It isn't just the outside appearance, Lois, although I seriously doubt that I'd find any other woman in here to be more attractive than you. It's your soul, your spirit, your inner self that attracts me. You are so very beautiful through and through."

Touched, she lifted her own glass and clicked it against his. "To you, a man who sees more in me than I do."

His face softened even more. "And to you, a woman who makes me want to be a better man than I am."

The meal was incredible, thought Lois. And the food was pretty tasty, too.

***

Clark picked up the remote as Audrey Hepburn told Cary Grant, "I love you, Adam, Alex, Peter, Brian, whatever your name is. I hope we have a lot of boys and we can name them all after you."

Rebecca laughed as Cary responded, "Yes, well, before we start all that, may I have the stamps?"

Clark turned off the TV and turned to face her. "Well, what did you think?"

"That was pretty good. I'm surprised I liked it so much."

He stood and took the tape out of the VCR, then put it in the rewinder. "You're surprised that you liked it?"

She fixed him with a quizzical stare. "Are you asking me if I find some deep meaning in this skillfully executed but fanciful bit of entertainment?"

That didn't bode well for the after-movie conversation, he thought. "I'm just asking if that's all you thought about it."

"Well, it was well-written, had lots of great characters and wonderful actors, had an interesting if unlikely and pretty convoluted story line, and having Cary Grant in any movie is a plus in my book." She stretched and grunted. "All in all, it wasn't bad."

"That doesn't sound like an enthusiastic endorsement to me."

"No. I guess it isn't."

"Okay, so tell me what you didn't like about it."

She frowned at him. "Really? You seem to like it so much, I don't want to knock it. I'd hate to think I was ruining one of your favorites."

"Don't worry about that. I'm a big boy, I can take an honest critique."

"Okay, you asked for it." She leaned forward and put her elbows on her knees. "I thought Cary Grant's character was manipulative and deceptive, even if he had a noble cause. He should have told her the whole truth much earlier."

"Interesting viewpoint. When should that have happened?"

"Oh, definitely much earlier, like instead of telling her he was a thief."

"But at that point, he still wasn't sure she was all she was supposed to be. For all he knew, she was in on the whole plot and was working with one of the bad guys. Besides, he was still working undercover and couldn't risk her blowing his secret, even by accident."

Rebecca pursed her lips. "Maybe so. I still say he still should have been honest with her. She was completely honest with him the whole time."

"What about that thing you said about not having to share all your secrets at once?"

"Come on, Clark! That was just a little more important than how you like your eggs or what kind of toothpaste you prefer!"

"Yes, but the nature of the secret made it necessary for him to make sure she was trustworthy."

"Oh, right, like he did so much to make her trust him! How many different names did he use, anyway? Four? Five?"

The subject of one man's true identity, combined with Rebecca's rising intensity, was starting to make him uncomfortable, so he tried changing the subject. "What did you think about Audrey Hepburn's character, Reggie? She was honest about herself and with everyone else the whole time."

Her face abruptly changed to a frown. "That silly little twit? She was honest, yeah, but she was also gullible, naive, emotionally raw and unsettled, weak, needy, and she didn't think logically, not one time during the whole movie. She just bought every line anyone fed her." She snorted and crossed her arms. "And she fell in love with this guy in like two days and wanted to marry him no matter what his name was or what he did for a living! She was walking around the whole time with a big sign on her back that said 'Kick me, Lie to me, Use me, Take advantage of me!' That woman obviously grew up in a perfect family where she trusted everyone and everyone trusted everyone else and no one ever lied about anything or cheated anyone or --"

She stopped suddenly, then stood and took several steps towards the kitchen. She slowed to a halt and slowly turned back to face him. "I -- I'm sorry." She fluttered her hands. "Maybe I should explain that -- that little outburst."

Softly, he replied, "You don't have to explain anything if you don't want to."

She turned and wiped the moisture from her eyes. "No, I think I'd better explain, especially since I've been harping on people being honest with each other." She sighed. "See, I rarely got to watch any movies when I was a kid, in the theater or on TV, because we only had one set and either my dad was watching sports or my mom was watching soap operas or the set was broken because -- because one of them had hit it or kicked it or knocked it over during a fight." She clenched her fists in front of herself and took a step closer to Clark. "And we never went out as a family. Never. My dad thought my mom had trapped him into getting married by getting pregnant with me, and my mom accused my dad of getting her pregnant and not taking responsibility for us. They fought almost every day as far back as I can remember."

His heart went out to her. "Oh, Becca, I'm so sorry."

She forced her hands open and took another step. "They split up when I was twelve. Neither one of them wanted me and we didn't have any relatives who trusted either one of them, so I went into a foster home. The people were nice to me, took care of me, helped me in my academics and took me to dance lessons and science fairs and stuff, but we were never close. And young teenage girls with -- " she made quotation marks in the air with her fingers " -- 'severe emotional needs' didn't get adopted, so I stayed in the foster program until I graduated from high school. All during that time, I didn't go see them and they didn't come to see me."

She paused, and he asked softly, "Did your parents come to see you get your diploma?"

Rebecca stepped within easy arms' length of Clark. "My foster family was there. My natural parents -- I called both of them. I invited both of them. I wanted them to be there. I wanted them to be proud of me. I was sixteen years old, the youngest graduate in my class, and I finished in just three years. I was salutatorian of my class with a grade point average three-point-nine-six out of four, had a full academic scholarship to Stanford to study marine biology, and neither one of them bothered to come or call to congratulate me or even send a card. I haven't seen them since and -- it's been eight years since then and I -- I don't --"

He reached out and gently enveloped her. Suddenly she was crying against his chest and holding on for dear life.

He stood still, waiting, his arms around her shoulders, until she wound down. She finally pulled back without looking up at him. "This is -- this is usually where the hero offers his -- his tender comfort to -- to the distressed heroine who's -- too emotionally spent to resist his charms."

He smiled and tapped her nose with one finger. "I think I'd rather help you with the dishes."

Her eyes widened and her mouth fell to her chest. "You -- you what?"

He took her hands and led her towards the kitchen. "I can't leave you with dirty dishes. What would that say about me?"

"But -- but I -- what --"

He picked up a dishtowel and flipped it over his shoulder. "I'll wash, you dry, okay?"

She shook her head. "Let's just load them into the dishwasher!" She yanked the dishwasher door open and turned back to him with her fists on her hips. "And then you can explain to me what's so very undesirable about me and why you don't want me! Am I that ugly or that nuts or what?"

His smile faded. "Maybe I'd better explain first."

She nodded sharply. "Get started."

"Look, I think you're very nice, very attractive, very desirable, and --"

"And it isn't me, it's you, right? I'm not at fault but you are? Oh, I hate that line!"

"Well, in this case it isn't just --"

"Of course it's a line! Just because I don't date much doesn't mean I don't know a line when I hear one!"

"But there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for --"

"Are you gonna tell me that it's you and not me?"

"Actually, it is me, and --"

"Wait! You're gay, aren't you?" She flapped her hands in the air. "Of course you are! Gaah, I'm so stupid! You cook, you're kind to old ladies and animals, you're not already dating someone, you're sensitive, you enjoy watching old movies, you don't want sex with me, you --"

"No! Becca, I'm not gay! I promise you that!"

"Oh, really?"

"Really!"

"Prove it!"

"What? How would I --"

"Prove you aren't gay!"

"How am I supposed to do that?"

"Gay men don't usually sleep with young straight women!"

He hesitated, wanting to be sure of her meaning, and when she didn't clarify herself, he softened his voice and said, "I'm not going to go to bed with you just to --"

"Hah! I knew it! What woman would want you anyway?"

His face clouded and he frowned. "Lana did."

Her indignity faded immediately and she dissolved into tears again. She stumbled to one side and ended up leaning against the edge of the countertop. Clark almost reached towards her, then stopped.

He didn't know what to do. If he embraced her, she might melt down again, and if he didn't, she still might. If he simply walked out, he might hurt her even worse. He was stumped.

She finally wound down. "I'm such an idiot." She hesitated, then slowly took the towel from Clark's shoulder and wiped her face. "You -- I'm sorry -- you aren't Gary."

Clark didn't know who Gary was, so he kept quiet and hoped that his not being Gary was a good thing.

She sniffed hard, then blew her nose on the towel. "I'm sorry. Again. Gary was my sort-of boyfriend in high school and he -- he offered me that -- that comfort after my graduation, when my parents didn't come. And when he was done with his -- comforting -- he got up and got dressed and I asked him to stay and he said no, he didn't want a -- a needy, pathetic hanger-on like me slowing him down." She wadded up the towel and threw it against the wall away from Clark. "I guess I really was pathetic. Instead of getting up to clobber him, I just -- I just laid there and cried."

"I'm sorry, Becca. He shouldn't have done that."

She drew in a shuddering breath. "He told his friends about me -- his 'conquest,' he called it -- and pretty soon all my friends knew, and my foster parents even found out." She tried to laugh but it came out as a splutter. "I kind of swore off guys after that."

"I can understand your reaction."

"I haven't really dated anyone since then. At least not on any long-term basis with an eye towards permanence." She frowned at him. "But then you come along and somehow you're vulnerable and strong all at the same time and you're Lois' friend and she tells me you're a good guy and you're safe and then you make me dinner and bring that movie over about people not being what they seem and it overloads my defenses and you're about the sexiest man I ever -- " She stopped herself and crossed her arms. "I'm so sorry, Clark. I broke down and dumped my emotional baggage all over you and now I've ruined your weekend." She shook her head and closed her eyes. "I wouldn't blame you if you never wanted to see me again."

"Everyone has some baggage from the past."

"Yeah, but not everybody gets clobbered with other people's baggage without notice."

"I don't mind listening if you need to talk."

She shook her head again and rubbed tears out of her eyes. "You're not a shrink or a bartender and I shouldn't treat you like one. It's not fair to you."

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You expect betrayal from everyone you get close to, Rebecca. It's a natural expectation, given your past experiences, but not everybody's like that. Some people are honest and reliable, and I don't mind having some baggage dumped on me if I can get you to believe that."

She lifted her face and looked at him through damp pupils. "I'd sure like to know how to tell the difference between the good ones and the bad ones."

One side of his mouth quirked up. "Well, if they offer to help you with the dinner dishes, that's usually a good sign."

A smile slowly grew on her face, and after a long moment she chuckled. "Yeah, that is one way, I guess. Hey, why did you assume I didn't have a dishwasher?"

"Oh, that's easy. Because I don't have one, and when I was growing up, the dishwasher at my parents' house was named Clark and he did a load of dishes after almost every meal."

She wiped her eyes and laughed a relaxed, easy laugh. "I give up. You win. Let's wash the dishes."

"I think I'd rather load the dishwasher like you suggested. It's a lot less work."

She grinned and pulled the detergent out of the cabinet. "So, what will we watch next time?"

He stopped and faced her. "Next time?"

Her face smoothed. "Well, despite my nuclear meltdown tonight, I'm really hoping there will be a next time."

He hesitated, then nodded. "I do too. But next time, I'm going to let you pick the movie."

***

Chapter Twenty-One

>>>Saturday, 11:23 PM

With her arm comfortably settled in Lex's, Lois meandered along the brightly lit street. Without looking over her shoulder, she knew Asabi was in the car pacing them, watching over them, but keeping a discreet distance.

"Did you enjoy the concert, my dear?"

"Are you kidding? Of course I did! Glenn Junior's band playing with the Anderson Sisters singing? Who wouldn't enjoy that?"

"I'm glad you're having a good time." Lex pointed to an upscale restaurant and bar near them. "How about a nightcap?"

She grinned and clutched his arm. "Okay, but just one. It's getting a little late."

"Ah, but the night glows fair when my lady is near."

She giggled. "Either I'm so tired that I'm punchy or else that was very romantic."

He guided their steps towards the entrance. "I was actually aiming for the latter."

"I think you hit the target."

He laughed. She really liked his laugh. It was full, strong, confident, yet lacking any hint of swagger or arrogance. If he was really as he seemed tonight, he was a wonderful man.

The building was full but not jam-packed. The pulsing dance music inside was a jarring contrast to the swing tunes they'd heard earlier, and the volume made conversation difficult. They walked in and made their way to the crowded bar. A couple to their right noticed them and made room. "Thank you," Lex smiled at them.

"No sweat, hombre. Hey, you was in the Miller concert, right?"

Lex smiled at the short, broad Hispanic man. He seemed familiar. "Yes, we were. We had fourth row seats, almost exactly in the center."

"Yeah, good place. My chica and me, we was about five rows behind you. Looked like you two had one real good time. You hit the dance floor pretty good, too."

Lex turned to Lois and smiled. "We did enjoy ourselves thoroughly, thank you. My name's Alex, and this is Lois."

The man took Lex's proffered hand and shook it hard, as if trying to gauge Lex's strength. Lex's mouth twitched, and it appeared to Lois that he hadn't expected the pressure and was barely able to counter it. "Bueno, hombre. My name's Fernando and my lady here is Rosita."

"Pleased to meet you both."

"You two here for the food? We gonna get some dinner. You can join us! It'll be fun!"

Lex turned to Lois. "What do you say? Shall we join our new friends for a meal?"

Lois looked at Fernando, and then at Rosita. The woman seemed slightly embarrassed and a bit uncomfortable. Lois said, "I wouldn't want to intrude on you and Rosita. I mean, you're obviously on a date and --"

"Yeah, but it's okay! Ain't it, baby?"

Before the girl could answer, Lois said, "You know, Alex, I have to visit the ladies' room. Rosita, can you show me where it is?"

"Yes, of course. Please come with me."

The two women slid away. Lois threw a smile over her shoulder at Lex, who mouthed, "I'll wait here for you."

She nodded, then turned to follow Rosita. The relief Lois felt as the door closed and cut off the throbbing rhythm was palpable, but Rosita didn't seem to share it.

Lois didn't head for a stall. "Rosita, is it really okay if Alex and I join you and Fernando, or would you rather be alone?" The girl didn't answer right away. "Look, it's okay. I understand. You two probably want to spend some time together, and we don't want to intrude."

"No, it's not that. It's just -- well, Fernando, he does not like gringos very much, and sometimes when he's been drinking, he -- well, he -- he starts fights with them."

Uh-oh. This was not good. "Look, Rosita, we have to get them apart. Alex is a trained martial artist."

The girl paled. "Oh, no! I told him, I told him he will get in trouble doing this! I told him --"

Lois grabbed her hand and pulled. "Never mind that! Come on!"

***

As the two women disappeared into the crowd, Fernando turned to Lex and asked, "What is it with women going to the bathroom together? I never ask my compadres to come and see me go to the toilet!"

Lex laughed easily. "What do you do when you're not accompanying such a lovely lady as Rosita?"

"I own a construction company. We do lots of work on the south side of town. We just finished a big job for one of Lex Luthor's companies."

"Really? That must have paid you well."

He snorted. "Yeah, it did, but it should'a paid more. Hey, you know, anybody ever tell you, man, you look like him?"

Lex frowned. "Like who?"

"Lex Luthor, man! You look a lot like him."

Lex rolled his eyes. "If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that, I'd be as rich as he's supposed to be. My driver's license says my last name is Winfield. I program computers."

"Oh, okay. You do look like him, you know."

"So they tell me."

Fernando's drink rose towards his mouth. "You rip people off like he does?"

Lex's guard went up, but he forced himself to appear relaxed. "I think it's a bad idea to cheat anyone. That's certainly no way to do business."

"You talk fancy like him." Fernando emptied his drink and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "You fight like him, too?"

Lex paused for a moment. "What?"

"I ask you if you fight like him."

"I'd rather not fight anyone. I try to keep away from fights."

"What if the fight comes to you?"

He frowned. "Why would it come to me when I'm not looking for it?"

"Maybe trouble likes your face."

"I certainly hope not. My face has seen enough trouble for one lifetime."

Fernando leaned closer, his alcohol-laden breath surrounding both of them. "I heard that pretty young gringas are good in bed."

Lex shrugged. "I've heard stuff like that, too. Me, I wouldn't know. I haven't been in bed with all the pretty young gringas."

"Yeah?" Fernando seemed surprised that his verbal jab hadn't drawn a reaction. "You know, you just might be chicken."

"Are you calling me a coward?"

"Coward, yellow, chicken, whatever. Are you?"

Lex lifted an eyebrow. "Cluck, cluck. I'll lay an egg if you really want me to."

Fernando's brows drew down as if he were trying to maintain his anger artificially. "I think a fight would be a good thing right now."

"A fight? With me?"

"You see anyone else around here, amigo?"

"I see a lot of people here. Why me?"

"Cause you here talkin' to me."

Lex looked around and smiled. "My friend, we have both just heard a wonderful concert, we're surrounded by people having fun, and we each have a beautiful woman coming back to join us in a few moments. I don't have any reason to fight you."

"What if I say I don't like you?"

Lex shrugged. "Then I will apologize and we will leave."

"Huh. I was right, you are chicken."

Lex sighed. "Fernando, I don't want to fight you. I don't want to fight anyone right now, but I really don't want to fight you. I have no reason to fight you. I don't dislike Hispanic men just because they're Hispanic, and I don't like to fight people I've just met. It tends to leave them with a bad impression of me."

Fernando scowled in apparent pain as he thought about it. "You mean, you ain't scared, you just don't like to fight, right?"

"I have absolutely no reason to fight you. I'd rather be friends with you."

Fernando looked at him for a long moment, then relaxed and smiled. "Yeah, hombre, I guess I don't have no reason to fight you, neither."

Lex suddenly placed the man. His name was Fernando Vasquez and he'd recently completed a contract to expand the parking areas for several of his business properties. They had clashed sharply over price and schedule but had never met face to face, and although Vasquez had finished the work on time and within budget, Lex's lawyers had warned him that the man wasn't happy with the final outcome.

He hadn't cheated the man, Lex insisted to himself. It had simply been a very tense negotiation, and Lex Luthor was nothing if not an effective negotiator.

Lex suspected that the man's unhappiness had little to do with any recent business dealings, with himself or with anyone else. He also suspected that if he'd confessed to being Lex Luthor, there would have been no way to avoid testing his combat skills against the very solid-looking younger man.

He put his hand on Fernando's shoulder and said, "Why don't we find a table and have that dinner together?"

Fernando looked sheepish. "Hey, man, you know, I was kinda buggin' you, tryin' to get you to fight, cause you remind me of -- of somebody I don't much like. But you're not gonna fight, and I'm sorry 'bout tryin' to get you to. You're the smart hombre tonight. Guess it was the whiskey talkin'."

Lex nodded. "I understand. Tell me something, Fernando, would you and Rosita rather be alone?"

Fernando smiled. "Yeah. You don't mind so much, right?"

Lex winked at him. "A quality lady needs quality attention. You don't need us robbing you of your quality time with her, and I can tell that Rosita is surely a quality lady."

Fernando smiled wider. "Yeah. Yeah, I gotcha. Quality time, right." He extended his hand again. There was far less tension in his face and shoulders, and this time there was no challenge in the handclasp. "Thanks, Alex. You're a cool dude. You take care, right?"

Just then Rosita and Lois returned from their errand. "Hey, Rosita!" Fernando turned and kissed her soundly. "I'm sorry, querida. Me and Alex, we gonna take a rain check on the dinner together. It's just you and me now, okay?"

Rosita smiled in relief and nodded. "Sure, Nando. Lois, I will see you later, okay?"

"Okay."

Lex and Lois watched as the couple headed towards the dining area, each with an arm around the other. Lois leaned close and asked, "What did you boys talk about while we were gone?"

"Oh, nothing, just some guy stuff. Nothing you'd be interested in."

"Uh-huh." She kissed him quickly on the cheek. "Let's get that nightcap and get out of here, okay?"

As they waited for their drinks, Lex realized he might have made his best impression on Lois at that moment by not behaving as a studly stud and a manly man, but by being a peacemaker instead. Even if he had won the fight with Vasquez, he probably would have lost Lois.

And that, he suddenly realized, was a trade-off he would never be willing to make. He decided he'd think about this moment for years to come. He'd etch it in his memory as one of his most favorite moments.

He'd remember it as the night he'd fallen deeply, completely, and irretrievably in love with Lois Lane.

***

Rebecca smiled at Clark as he moved towards the door. "I'm sorry I was such a drama queen tonight, Clark. Thank you for being such a gentleman."

He took her hand and held it gently. "You're welcome. And thank you for such an interesting evening."

It was an indication of her easy trust in him that she only chuckled lightly. "You're welcome, sir. Before you go, do you have any suggestions for our next movie night?"

He frowned in exaggerated concentration. "Does that mean you're not picking the title?"

"It means I'd like your input on it."

"Hmm." He rubbed his chin. "Needs to be something straightforward and non-threatening, maybe a Jerry Lewis comedy --"

"Stop it!" she laughed. "Look, you pick this one and I'll pick the next two. What about that?"

"Sounds good to me. When should we do this again?"

She leaned closer. "What about next Friday at your place, and I'll bring Chinese?"

He smiled easily. "All right. It's a date, then."

He turned to leave, but she stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Just as long as you understand that you're allowed to call me between now and then."

"I understand that. Good night."

"Wait! You have to pick a movie."

"Right now?"

"Of course." She assayed a tentative smile. "So I'll know how many handkerchiefs to bring with me."

He nodded. "How about 'The Princess Bride'?"

She tilted her head to one side and frowned. "Really? I saw that one with a girlfriend when I was a teenager. I couldn't get into it."

"I thought you said your parents didn't let you go to movies."

She lifted an eyebrow. "I see you were paying attention after all. No, I was living with the foster family by then."

"Well, now that you're older and wiser, you'll understand all the subtlety and the tongue-in-cheek nuances of the film."

Her mouth twisted in a slight grimace, then she smiled. "Okay, if you say so."

He lifted her hands to his lips. "Good night, Rebecca."

"Good night, Clark."

He turned to go, but she stopped him again. "Clark?"

"Yes?"

"Did you -- did you and Lana watch that movie together?"

"You mean 'The Princess Bride'?"

"Yes. Did you?"

Uh-oh, he thought. "Yes, we did."

"Did you both like it?"

He hesitated, then answered, "Yes. We both liked it very much."

She nodded and smiled. "Then I want to see it with you. Good night, Clark."

And she gently closed the apartment door, leaving him with yet another piece of the puzzle that was Rebecca Connors.

***

Rebecca locked the door and leaned against it for a long moment. Then she pulled her journal out and began writing.

~~~~~

Oh, man, J, I think I really blew it with Clark! I totally melted down right in front of him, and then I had to tell him about Mom and Dad and my crappy childhood and all about Gary and I just hope he doesn't disappear forever!

If he does, it's my mom's fault. When I was a kid, she kept telling me that I was a loser, that I was crazy, that there wasn't a man alive who'd spend time with me if he knew what I was really like, and I almost screamed when I heard him knock on the door!

He said he'd call me back, that we'd watch a different movie next time, but I don't know if I'll ever hear from him again. I probably scared him off with that horrible performance!

And it's all Mom's fault!

Oh, well, if he can't handle me when I'm a little over the top, he'd never be able to stand me when I'm completely nuts. It's better for both of us that we find that out now. If he doesn't call, I'll know.

It's better to know.

But he's the first guy I've known since Gary who I thought I could trust. He's also the first one since Gary who I think I'd enjoy kissing. He's the first one I've met who acts like he thinks I'm a person and not a target. You know what they say about red-headed girls? A guy who was trying to date me in my freshman year at Stanford told me that we make love like rabbits, all the time, and we're eager to come back for more. He's the one I slapped, the one who called the campus police on me.

Clark's not like that. He sat next to me during the whole movie and the only time he moved was to point out something interesting or essential to the plot. He never laid a hand on me, and the only time he touched me was when I grabbed his hand when they flashed that smothered guy on the screen. Even then he didn't take advantage. When I pulled my hand loose, he let me go, not like he was yanking his hand away, but like he was letting me be in control.

I don't remember when I've known a guy like that.

I think I love him.

I really hope he calls back.

I really think I'm in love with him.

I can't write any more, J.

~~~~~

She tried not to, but she still cried herself to sleep that night.

***

Lois smiled at Asabi as he helped her out of the car. "Thank you, Asabi."

Asabi smiled back warmly. "It is my pleasure, Miss Lane. I hope I have the privilege of being your driver again soon."

She glanced back at Lex as he straightened. "Oh, I think you will."

Lex smiled at both of them. "Are you two talking about me behind my back?"

Asabi bowed slightly. "Never, my friend." He sent an impish grin towards Lois and said, "I believe the lady is ready for you to see her to her door."

Lex lifted his eyebrows. "You are my driver, my friend, my protector, and my personal assistant. I think that adding 'nag' to your list of job titles would be one more than you could handle."

Asabi bowed again. "I submit myself to my employer's superior wisdom and knowledge."

Lex looked at Lois. "You see what I have to put up with on an every-day basis? The man drives me mad, mad I tell you!"

Lois laughed and took Lex's arm. "Come on, walk me to my door. Isn't it worth it to be away from him for a few moments?"

"Of course. Asabi, please wait here."

He bowed yet again. "Your wish is my command, sahib."

Lex chuckled and turned towards Lois' building. "Now, let me see, which apartment is yours?"

"The one my key fits."

"Oh." He pulled open the front door of the building. "So, do we try the key in every door until we get lucky?"

She laughed. "I give up. I'll show you where I live."

He smiled back as he pressed the elevator button. "Too late. I picked you up at your front door, remember?"

She lifted the corsage to her face and inhaled the fragrance. "Mmm, yes, I remember." The doors slid shut and she stood a little closer to him than necessary. "I have a feeling I'll never forget it."

Lex put his arm around her waist. "How quick is this elevator?"

Lois opened her mouth and the car dinged. They laughed and exited.

She fished out her key and slowly inserted it into the first lock. "Wow. I have had an extremely good time tonight, Lex."

He glanced at his watch. "Actually, that was last night. It's nearly quarter past one tomorrow morning."

"Really? I hadn't realized how late it was."

He smiled. "That usually means that a good time was had by all."

As the door swung open, he leaned closer to kiss her, but stopped before their lips met. Her eyes fluttered for a moment, then she closed the distance between them for a soft, lingering kiss.

Lex took a deep breath. "Is that your idea of a good-night kiss?"

Lois stopped just inside the door. Her smile faded. "Wait a minute. Lex, I've had a wonderful evening with a handsome and attentive man, and I look forward to more evenings like the one we just had, but I'm not ready for anything beyond that. Not yet."

He straightened and stepped back a half-step. "I'm sorry, Lois. That's not what I meant. My next line was supposed to be, 'That's my idea of a good-night kiss, too.' I never meant to presume that you and I would --"

She stopped his lips with her fingertips. "Shh. I'm the one who's sorry. I assumed something that wasn't true, and I apologize for it. And yes, that's my idea of a good-night kiss. Let me remind you of it." She leaned close to him and repeated her actions.

When time finally resumed its normal progress, Lois touched him tenderly on the cheek and said, "At least, that's my idea of a good-night kiss right now."

She glided into the apartment and gently closed the door. Lex stood there staring at the door for moment, then sighed deeply and smiled widely.

He meandered back to the elevator, softly singing to himself, "This could be love, babe, this could be love, fly like an eagle, soft as a dove."

Oh, well, he thought, the feeling's more important than the words, anyway.

When he returned to the limo, Asabi said nothing as he opened the door and reflected on his friend's slightly stunned smile.

>>>Sunday, 5:54 PM

Clark leaned back on his sofa, a huge glass of iced tea in his hand. He sipped it as he stared at the wall and thought about Rebecca.

She was a few months older than he was, but until the previous night he'd thought that she was less experienced in life's pains than he was. Now he knew that she'd gone through far more emotional turmoil and strife than he had.

His biological parents had sent him to Earth from Krypton, sent him away from them, but their purpose was to save his life, not remove an irritant from their own lives. And his adoptive parents had never been anything but completely supportive and loving and had accepted all of his differences without question.

Rebecca had been rejected by the people whose love she'd craved the most. Many teens in her situation would have given up on life completely, or reacted by rejecting everyone who tried to love them, but instead Rebecca had used the pain of her rejection to drive her to success.

But what had been the cost? He already knew that her emotional state was fragile when the right buttons were pushed, but on the other hand, he wasn't much different. If she had pressed him hard enough for details about how much he missed Lana, he might have been the one to need a towel to cry into.

But where he was driven by compassion and a desire to see justice done, she was apparently driven to succeed by her memories of rejection and her resentment of that rejection. People who were driven by anger eventually ran out of it and either found another reason to continue or they broke apart emotionally, and Clark couldn't tell where Rebecca was on that path.

So what was he supposed to do? Would it be fair to Rebecca to keep seeing her if he knew the relationship wasn't going anywhere? Did he even know the relationship wasn't going anywhere? Or was that even the question he needed to ask?

He pondered that last for a moment, then decided that he didn't know what the future held for him. He didn't know if his link with Lois meant that they would -- someday in the far, far distant future -- have a romantic relationship together, or if they'd simply remain close friends. And he had no real thought of a permanent relationship with Rebecca, at least not at this point.

He wasn't sure if having any kind of romantic relationship was in his future, but he didn't think he was cut out for the solo bachelor life. He'd had a good taste of living alone over the past half-year, and he didn't care for it. He hated not having anyone to talk to about his work or what Superman had done that day. He hated cooking only for himself. He hated picking up the TV remote and not having anyone to turn to and ask what she wanted to see. He hated waking up in his apartment and being the only person making noise in the morning.

And he hated sleeping alone.

There was no way he'd marry any woman -- or just have one move in with him -- just so he'd feel less alone at night. That would have been a totally stupid move, possibly the worst one he'd ever made in his entire life, worse than when he was ten and stole those watermelons from Wayne Irig's patch and had dropped them and fallen on the pieces when he'd thought he was about to be caught. The moisture from the melons had soaked his jeans and his shirt, and as soon as he'd come home his parents had known exactly what he'd tried to do. And they'd made him apologize to Mr. Irig and had made him pay for the melons he'd stolen or damaged, which had pretty much depleted his junk food account for the fall.

He shook his head and smiled at the memory. Then he tried to imagine how Lana would react if she could speak to him.

Nothing. He could barely envision her beside him. He didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing, and it bothered him that at that moment he couldn't see her face clearly in his mind.

What did that mean? Was he ready to move on? Had enough time passed? Had he grieved enough, or was that a process that would go on forever? Was there room in his heart for another woman? If so, was Rebecca the woman to fill that space? How would he know?

He shook his head again and sighed ruefully. He had all these questions and no real answers. Like his mother had told him, just being an adult doesn't mean you automatically have the right answers to life's little puzzles.

A sharp thwack on his front door intruded on his mental meanderings. Clark glanced up and through his front door to see Jimmy waiting for him to answer the knock. Maybe, thought Clark, we'll have some information on Alex Winfield.

Anything would be better than what I've been thinking about, he mused.

He opened the door and greeted his friend. "Hey, CK! I got a bunch of stuff for you! You're gonna like this!"

Clark took the folders Jimmy offered. "Thanks. Have you eaten? I can get a pizza here in just a few minutes."

Jimmy grinned and gave him a two-handed point. "Thanks, man, but no thanks. Morgana's waiting for me in my car. We're going dancing tonight!"

The youth spun on one toe to show off his garments. "Yeah, you are spiffed up, aren't you? Okay, Jimmy. Just be on time and alert tomorrow morning."

"Hey, man, this is the Jimster! I'll be there with bells on! See ya!"

Jimmy turned and bounced away. Clark smiled as he heard him singing, "Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight! Whoo! Get down tonight!"

Guard your heart, Jimmy, he thought to the young man. Guard your heart.

And get some singing lessons.

Clark shut the door and sat down with the files. He decided to check out Roger Bean first, and as he suspected, it didn't take him long. Bean had never been married, had never been arrested, had never even been in court at any time as far as Jimmy could discover, and had led an exemplary life since he'd received his doctoral degree twelve years before. He'd worked at the museum for six years, and the museum as a whole had undergone one major expansion and two smaller ones under his leadership. Except for a pattern of substantial foreign bank deposits from other foreign banks, and a flurry of phone calls from either his office or his home to a pair of now inactive numbers, there was nothing that Clark didn't already know.

Unless they could unearth the previous owner of those phone numbers, they were at the end of the trail with Roger Bean. Clark made a note to ask Jimmy to work on that item before he closed that folder with a sigh and set it aside.

Then he picked up the other folder and hefted it expectantly as he opened it. "Let's see who you really are, Alex Winfield."

Age listed as thirty-seven. Six feet tall, weighing one hundred and eighty-three pounds, brown hair, no tattoos, amputations, visible scars, or other distinguishing marks. There was no driver's license photo in the file, and Clark made another note to ask Jimmy about it in the morning.

Home address, 2294 Pecos Drive, apartment 8-B. Clark checked the city map, and sure enough, Winfield lived in a LexCorp property on the far west side of town. Phone, Internet connection, cable TV, standard utilities, all in order. He had a gym membership at a fairly pricey, very exclusive club downtown, and he appeared to use the facilities regularly. But then Clark lived in a LexCorp property, too, and aside from not having a gym membership, his utilities were set up just like Winfield's were.

Clark turned the page. Winfield had both savings and checking accounts at New Troy State Bank, along with two certificates of deposit, all of which had comfortable but not huge balances. There was no safety deposit box listed, but that didn't mean he didn't have one, or that he didn't have a safe in his floor with stacks of hundred-dollar bills stashed in it. The checking account showed regular direct deposits, but not from his employer. They appeared to be U.S. government pension payments. Another item for Jimmy to dig deeper on, he thought.

He had two credit cards, one with a small outstanding balance, and one which showed regular small purchases for meals or convenience store visits, but which were always paid off by the end of the month.

No car loan. No personal loans at all, in fact. That was odd, thought Clark, although much the same could be said about himself, since he didn't ever borrow money and didn't own a car. He wondered if Winfield had more money than he could spend, and that reminded him how surprised he'd been when Bob had told him how much Lana's investments had grown under the artificial intelligence's artful guidance. Clark would be set to retire at age forty, if not sooner, and would never have to work another day in his life.

He set aside his pecuniary pondering and focused on the file in his hand. Winfield wasn't married, although a divorce wouldn't necessarily show up on Jimmy's first pass through the database. Yet another question for Jimmy to answer, he mused.

He was currently employed by LexData as a systems programmer, and had been on the job for nine years, almost as long as the company had been in business. There was no previous employer listed, but that wasn't unusual for someone at his current job for that length of time. It would be another job for the Jimster.

Clark chuckled to himself as he glanced over the file, then he frowned. Nothing jumped out at him as odd, out of place, or irregular, and there was certainly nothing illegal in the file. Even if Alex Winfield wasn't just a pseudonym for Lex Luthor, he seemed to be an intelligent, law-abiding, ordinary man. There was nothing in his profile to indicate that he was anything other than what he appeared to be.

So why was his name attached to so many Luthor deals? Why was a computer geek's name showing up in large-scale real estate transactions and securities trades? Was he a real person or just a mask that Luthor wore when he needed anonymity?

It didn't make sense, and the more Clark thought about it, the more he realized that he needed Lois. He needed her insane leaps of logic which so often landed squarely on the right answer. He needed her intensity, her drive, her zeal to solve the mystery in the shortest possible time.

But right now, he wasn't sure how much he trusted Lois' objectivity where Lex Luthor was concerned. And it bothered him more than he liked to admit.

So he decided to sum up what he knew. Maybe he could connect some of the dots that way.

First, the people in the Army who'd been selling the guns to the smugglers had been arrested and put in prison. The Army had instituted tighter controls on their armories, and it appeared that no more large weapons shipments were being diverted for nefarious purposes.

Second, the people doing the actual weapons shipping were either dead in the explosion of the freighter or arrested in the cleanup of the museum. Several people had been arrested but later released due to lack of evidence, but they'd all been hourly employees who insisted that they had no idea what they'd been working with or who they'd been working for. And the little evidence the DA had supported those stories.

Third, the money trail from the museum led to several offshore shell corporations and stopped there. The only recognizable name in the whole muddle was Alex Winfield, but he wasn't listed as a director in all of them, just two. And the money which had come out of the corporations couldn't be traced to Winfield's financial records.

Fourth, the name Nigel St. John did not appear in the files which Jimmy had just given him, and he hadn't shown up in their previous investigations. But that didn't make sense either, given Nigel's shady past and his former work with British Intelligence. They'd dug up very little about Nigel from official channels -- or from some very unofficial channels -- but two of the people Lois' Uncle Mike had pointed them to had confirmed Mike's initial assessment of Nigel as a very dangerous man. Still, there was nothing to tie him to the gun-running besides his reputation.

Fifth, the man who seemed to be connected to Lex Luthor at the hip -- Asabi -- was apparently exactly who he said he was. Everything Lois had gathered about him in her interviews or her conversations with either Asabi or Lex had been independently confirmed. If Lex Luthor was indeed a criminal mastermind, why wouldn't his personal manservant be involved, at least on the periphery? Asabi's apparent innocence argued against Luthor's criminal potential, but it was far from a lead pipe cinch.

Clark blew out a long breath and sat back. There was something missing, something he couldn't put his finger on, something Lois could surely pick out in a heartbeat.

If only he trusted her enough to talk to her about it.

As he dropped the folder onto the living room table, he admitted to himself that he needed Lois. Without her input, this investigation was just about dead in the water.

And much later, as he wavered in that mystical realm between asleep and awake, the thought that he needed Lois for much more than the story crossed his mind.

He sailed away to the land of Nod before he could further develop that thought.

***

Chapter Twenty-two

>>>Monday, 7:49 AM

From his desk, Clark watched Jimmy drag himself out of the elevator and plod heavily towards the coffee station. His eyes drooped and his hands couldn't find the coffeepot handle on the first two tries, so Clark took pity on him and went over to help.

"Here, Jimster, let me help."

"Huh? Oh, yeah, CK, thanks." Then he opened his mouth in a champion yawn.

Perry strode past, full of energy and vigor. "Olsen! Eight o'clock, in my office! I have some things for you to do." Perry paused and stared into Jimmy's face. "Try not to pass out before you get there."

Jimmy frowned as his boss pushed through the early morning arrivals. Clark grinned and asked, "So how was your date last night?"

Jimmy groaned. "Morgana plays viola for the Metropolitan Symphony."

Clark nodded. "I knew that."

"Did you know she has a rehearsal today at three p.m., and that she doesn't have anything else scheduled today until then? I didn't. She also teaches viola at Troy State University, but her next session isn't until ten o'clock tomorrow morning. I didn't know that either."

Clark smiled wider. "You're saying that she kept you up late last night?"

"No. She kept me out and up until early this morning." He yawned again. "I didn't get home until about four-thirty and I'm beat. She's a great dancer, though, and she taught me some moves I didn't think I could do." He blinked several times. "This is going to be a very, very long day."

"It was worth it, though, wasn't it, Jimmy?"

A weary grin appeared on the young man's face. "Yeah. It was worth it."

Just then Lois appeared on the ramp, wearing a Navy blue pantsuit and a no-nonsense expression. "Kent! My desk, now!"

And she strode off. Jimmy looked at Clark and whispered, "Good luck. I think I'd rather face the Chief when he's really mad than the Mad Dog when she's just mildly irritated."

Clark nodded. "I think I agree with you."

He meandered over to Lois' desk and stood four feet away from the far side with his hands in his pockets. "So, Lois, how's life treating you?"

She paused in her frantic scribbling and glanced up at him. "Fine. Why are you standing so far away?"

"Because I know that your bark is not worse than your bite."

She twisted her mouth and wobbled her head at him in a brief but perfect Roseanne Barr imitation. "Funny, Kent, very funny." She snapped back into full 'reporter' mode. "We have an interview with Dr. Samuel Platt at nine this morning. It's south of Hobb's Bay, so we --"

"What? What 'we?' When did this get scheduled?"

"Check your e-mail in the morning instead of trading football stories with Jimmy. I sent you a message about it Friday night before I left."

"Oh. So, does Perry know about this meeting?"

"Of course he does. I copied him on the e-mail. We're leaving at a quarter after, so get ready."

"Okay." He turned, then stopped. "Lois, you do know that the Metropolis Tigers are headed for the playoffs this year, don't you?"

"Yeah. So what?"

"So it's practically Jimmy's and my civic duty to talk about football and what it will mean to the city and the state if they go all the way to the Super Bowl."

She wore an exasperated expression. "Did you know that the Super Bowl got its name because one of the important team owners at the time thought the rubber Super Ball toy his kid was playing with sounded cool and he wanted a name that sounded cool so he picked Super Bowl because it sounded like Super Ball?"

He frowned. "You're kidding."

"Nope. Look it up if you doubt me." She yanked a drawer open. "But do it after we finish with Platt."

As soon as Lois sat down, it rang. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet."

"Good morning, my dear Lois."

Her frown immediately turned upside down. "Lex! How nice to hear from you, especially this early in the day."

"Well, you told me Saturday evening that you weren't exactly a morning person, so I thought I'd try to cheer you up a bit before you get too deep into your day."

She leaned back in her chair and felt a warm tingling in her toes. "Thank you. That's so very nice of you."

"I must confess that I have an ulterior motive. I'd like to see you again. Very soon."

This was most interesting. "How soon is very soon?"

"Oh, I would think that a Wednesday evening dinner in a very romantic spot would be soon enough."

"Oh? Any particular reason to pick Wednesday?"

"Because by then, enough time will have passed so that I don't seem quite so desperately eager to see you."

She laughed softly. "Are you desperate, Lex?"

"No. But I am eager." She laughed again. "I hope I'm not so eager that I frighten you away."

"I'm not afraid of you. I can handle myself pretty well."

He chuckled. "I daresay I agree with you. Shall we firm up plans for Wednesday evening, then?"

It was her turn to hesitate. "Yes. As long as you understand that you don't have to chase me."

"I don't? Does that mean that the pursuit is over and you are mine forever?"

"No. It means that if I don't want to get caught, I won't get caught, by you or by anyone else." A bit of steel slipped into her tone. "And you'd better not forget it, either, or I'll sic Asabi on you."

"Eek!" cried Luthor. "I do believe that you mean that."

"You'd better believe it."

"And I am comfortably certain that Asabi would strenuously defend your honor, even against my advances. He is quite taken with you, Lois."

Her tone eased. "As long as you understand that I'm dating you, not him."

"I promise to keep that fact in the forefront of my brain."

She suddenly felt Clark's mental presence. -* We have to leave now if we want to get to the lab by nine. *--

She glanced back at him and nodded. "Lex, I'm sorry, but I have to go interview someone. I'll talk to you later, okay?"

"It will have to be later this evening. I have an out-of-town meeting this afternoon. But I'll call you at home after dinner, if you're agreeable."

"I am most agreeable, kind sir. Good luck on your meeting."

"Luck is preparation meeting opportunity."

"Then I hope you're prepared. Oops, gotta go if I don't want to be late. We'll talk later. Bye!"

She hung up and grabbed her windbreaker. "Okay, Kent, let's go!"

***

Lois pulled her Jeep into one of the visitors' spaces near the main entrance. She and Clark popped out and marched up to the front door.

To avoid getting run over, Clark let Lois precede him. She leaned on the security desktop and barked, "Lois Lane and Clark Kent to see Dr. Samuel Platt."

The older man behind the desk was not visibly impressed. "Do you have an appointment, ma'am?"

"Nine o'clock."

He turned and picked up a clipboard. "You're early. Dr. Platt likes that." He set the board down on the desk. "Please sign in here and I'll let him know that you've arrived."

He pulled two guest badges as Clark and Lois scribbled their names on the sheet. "Please wear these clipped to your collar at all times. They'll keep you from being arrested."

Lois stopped short. "Arrested?"

"Yes, ma'am. This is a secure facility, and we're doing some cutting-edge research here. If Dr. Platt hadn't vouched for you both and helped us get started on your clearance, you would have had to come back some time later this week to take the tour."

Trying to head off the impending eruption, Clark tugged on Lois' arm. "Come on. We'll wait over here for the good doctor."

"No need, no need," a booming voice answered. "I'm right here." He turned to the security officer and said, "Thanks for the help, Walter."

The man smiled and saluted with his pen. "No problem, Doctor. Have a good tour."

Platt nodded. "If you two will put your badges on, we'll begin."

Clark realized that Platt was running a small scam on building security and began looking around like a tourist. -* Play it up a little, Lois. Act like we're just here to look around. *--

--* I figured that part out already. You can be the curious, overwhelmed, ignorant hick from out of town, and I'll be the laid-back, bored city dweller. It'll be easier for both of us to stay in character. *--

He grinned quickly at her, then resumed his wide-eyed observations. True to her word, Lois remained quiet and apparently unimpressed.

Platt led them up a flight of stairs and stopped in front of a door marked 'Static Lab -- No Unauthorized Entry.' He opened the door, led them in, and said, "Here is the lab I wanted you to see." He closed the door and pointed at the life-sized mockup of the shuttle's nose and the docking ring on the station, both suspended from the ceiling of the three-story room. It looked more like an aircraft hanger to Clark than a laboratory. "There. That's what I wanted you to talk to you about."

He pulled them along in his wake as he strode across the room. "Right there. You can see -- Come on, get closer! It's not going to fall over on you!"

Lois is suddenly a bit more cautious than normal, thought Clark. I wonder if she senses something I don't.

Before he could ask her, either through their link or aloud, a woman's voice rang out. "Samuel, I'm glad you're here. I didn't know you were giving tours today."

An attractive young blond woman wearing a light blue lab coat stepped into the lab through another doorway. Platt called out, "Dr. Baines! Have you come to ask me about my reports?"

She smiled and nodded. "Yes, I have. Why don't you tell me in person what you're talking about? I think that would clarify your points in my mind."

"Well -- all right. Wait, do all of you know each other?"

Dr. Baines released a brilliant but arctic smile. "We've not been introduced. Would you do the honors, Samuel?"

"Of course. Dr. Baines, let me introduce Lois Lane and Clark Kent from the Daily Planet. Lois, Clark, this is Dr. Antoinette Baines, the lab's executive manager."

Baines stepped forward to shake their hands in turn. "From the city's largest newspaper? I'm impressed." She brushed Lois' hand. "I'm pleased to meet you, Lois, and -- ooh -- I'm especially pleased to meet you, Clark."

The touch of the blond doctor's hand made Clark's skin tingle slightly. -* Pull your tongue back into your mouth, Clark, you're drooling on your tie. *--

His only response was a quick twist of his mouth. He wasn't drooling, but Dr. Baines was a very attractive woman, and he was still a man. "I'm pleased to meet you too, Dr. Baines."

"Please, Clark," Baines purred, "call me Toni. Oh, you too, Lois."

Lois stuck a plastic smile on her face and nodded. "Of course, Toni."

Clark said, "Dr. Platt, could you tell us what it is you're so concerned about?"

"What? Oh, yes, of course! Dr. Baines, have you read my memoranda?"

"No. I learned just this morning that you've sent a number of memos on this subject, but I haven't had the time to read all of them yet. Why don't you explain it to all of us at once? I'm sure our reporter friends can follow along, and if we get too technical we can stop and demystify it for them."

Clark felt Lois bristle beside him. He took a quick step forward and said, "Uh, Dr. Platt, can we get started?"

"Yes, yes, of course!" He pointed to the nose cone of the shuttle hanging just over their heads. "One of the problems we face in docking the shuttle with the space station is static electricity. Have you ever walked across a nylon or silk carpet in the winter and then touched something metal and gotten a strong shock?"

Lois nodded and Clark followed suit. "Hurts, doesn't it?"

Lois' eyes narrowed. "Static electricity discharge. We all know about that. And your point is?"

"It works much the same in space, except the shuttle builds up a much higher potential, both because it's such a large craft and because it can't easily discharge it. There's no effective conductor to allow the charge to escape. If you walked across that nylon carpet and then stood perfectly still for a while, the ions you've attracted will slowly bleed away, either back into the carpet through your shoes or into the atmosphere."

Clark's eyebrows rose. "But because there's no place for the charge on the shuttle to go -- except to the station -- you risk electrical problems, computer malfunctions, system damage --"

Toni clapped her hands together. "Exactly, Clark! I knew you'd get it quickly."

Clark felt Lois' irritation grow. He sent, -* Relax, okay? I know she's flirting with me and I promise not to respond. *--

--* Good. For my part, I promise not to kill her. *--

Clark licked his lips to conceal his amusement. Platt went on, "This lab is experimenting with ways to safely discharge that electrical potential without sending the station into shock. The original system doesn't always work properly, and this is apparently the first time my messages have made it up the corporate ladder to Dr. Baines."

She turned to Platt. "And I assure you, Samuel, that I will be taking a personal interest in your experiments from now on." She took his hand in both of hers. "I'm so glad we have someone with your determination and intelligence working on this problem. I'm confident that we'll come up with a viable solution very quickly."

Platt's embarrassed grin made Lois roll her eyes. Clark held back a bigger smile as he asked, "Dr. Baines -- I'm sorry, Toni -- can we get some background information on this problem? What we have now is great, but we'll need to flesh out our article quite a bit."

"Of course. Do you see that clear glass sphere on the platform behind the docking port?" They nodded. "That's where we can generate up to three hundred million volts of electricity to test the various materials and configurations Samuel is using to fix this most vexing problem."

--* She mispronounced 'hexing,' Clark. *--

--* Well, she is rather bewitching, don't you think? *--

--* Do NOT go there, Kent! *--

He hid his grin yet again. "Is there any possibility you could give us a demonstration?"

Toni showed them all of her molars. "Of course, Clark. Tell you what, why don't you and Lois stand behind the control panel with Samuel? That way you can see what he's doing."

Platt tilted his head. "Are we doing the no-amp demo again?"

Toni nodded. "If we don't, I'll be flash-fried. You will be careful, won't you, Samuel?"

--* If she doesn't quit distracting him, he might accidentally kill her, *- sent Lois.

--* Let's hope not. *--

--* Why? Are you thinking of asking her out? *--

--* Are you? *--

--* Don't go THERE either, Kent! *--

Platt turned and gestured for them to follow. Baines climbed to the platform and put her hands on the glass sphere. "This instrument is called a Van de Graff generator," she said in her tour guide voice. "In this demonstration, we're using it as a contact point. When Samuel releases the electrical charge, I will have my hands on this glass sphere, and three hundred thousand volts of electricity will shoot through my body. You'll be able to see the tendrils of electricity jumping from the core of the sphere to the surface where my hands will be. But I won't be harmed, because the charge will have effectively zero amperage behind it. Right, Samuel?"

"That's right, Dr. Baines." He flipped several switches, turned two dials, and carefully set a foot-long razor switch beside his left hand labeled 'Ground Shunt.'

He turned to Lois and Clark and pointed at the switch. "Don't touch that."

Lois lifted her hands and took a half-step back. "I'm not touching anything, I promise!"

"Good. That's what redirects the amperage and keeps the subject on the platform safe." He turned back to the platform. "Are you ready, Dr. Baines?"

She put both hands on the glass sphere. "Ready, Dr. Platt."

"Here goes." Platt flipped a switch on his right. Immediately, Toni Baines let out a banshee howl and began bouncing her feet on the floor, her hands glued to the glass sphere. Her blouse puffed out beneath her lab coat and her short blond hair stood out in all directions.

Platt glanced down and said calmly, "Oops. Must have set that switch wrong."

"Stop it!" screamed Lois. "You're killing her!" She spun and looked at her partner. "Clark, can't you do something?"

He reached for his tie, but before he could do anything else, both Baines and Platt began laughing hysterically. Platt shut down the electrical feed and leaned on the console, still laughing. Baines patted her hair down and skipped off the platform onto the floor.

She managed to restrain herself long enough to say, "I'm -- I'm sorry! It's a game -- ha-ha-ha -- a game we play with the new directors and some visitors. Haven't done that in -- ho-ho-ho-ho -- in weeks!"

Lois shook her head in relief mixed with a large dose of irritation. "I take it that you aren't dead?"

Baines leaned against the console with one hand behind her and fluttered her other hand as if waving air at her face. "No, not even a little bit. Except for a little tingle on the fingers, I didn't feel anything."

Platt turned around, still chuckling. "Oh, my! I'm sorry, but we don't get many chances to play jokes on people here in the lab. All of the non-scientists here have already heard about the gag, and the scientists and technicians already understand it, of course, so we tend to pull it on visitors."

"Uh-huh. Well, if you don't mind, Clark and I have more important things to do than watch supposedly responsible scientists play practical jokes on unsuspecting visitors." She started towards the door. "Don't call us, we'll call you."

Platt called out, "Miss Lane, wait!"

Baines hurried to block her path to the door. "Please, Lois, forgive us for such a mean practical joke. I'm sorry, truly I am. Samuel really does do productive work here, and if he says there's a problem with the static discharge system, I believe him. I don't suppose reporters play jokes on each other occasionally?"

Lois crossed her arms and opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say anything, Clark sent, -* Does the name 'Godzilla' mean anything to you? *--

She cringed visibly. He could tell that she'd had no idea that he knew about her practical joke on Claude back in the spring, when she'd sent him on a wild goose chase in the city dump for a non-existent tape recording regarding a story she was working on, and one which he was trying to appropriate for himself. Lois had placed a four-foot tall Godzilla doll holding a sign which read 'Bad Guys Wuz Here' at the end of the series of clues she'd left.

Claude hadn't come back that evening. He'd stopped trying to take her stories after that episode, too, although perversely he'd seemed to consider the prank as an encouragement to woo her.

She'd had to put her foot down on that, also. Right on his instep.

Her expression softened as she thought about it. A little bit, anyway. "Okay -- Toni. Let's see what else you can do."

Baines smiled like a talk-show host during her opening monologue and led Lois to the platform. "Maybe you could get a feel for, um, how it feels from up here. If you don't mind, we'll send the charge into you and let you experience it."

Lois stopped. "Hey, I don't know about that --"

Clark nodded. "I'm game. Lois, you don't have to do this if it makes you uncomfortable."

She cocked an eyebrow at him. "Anything you can do, Kansas, I can do at least as well, if not better."

He looked pointedly at her head. "Well, your hair is a little longer than mine. It should stand out quite well."

"Excellent!" Baines stepped in front of the console and reset the board. "Please put your hands on the sphere."

"Both hands?"

"You can if you want to, Lois, but only one hand is necessary. Let me know when you're ready."

Clark eyed Platt, who was looking over the board from Baines' right. He put his right hand on the sphere and covered Lois' right hand with his left. "We're ready, Toni."

--* What's the matter, Clark? Don't you trust me to stay put? *--

--* Just offering some reassurance, Lois. *- He gently rubbed the scar on the back of her hand with his thumb, and she gave him a small smile in return.

Baines nodded and began the same procedure Platt had gone through moments before. But just as she reached for the switch to send the charge into Lois and Clark, Platt pointed at the board and shouted, "The ground shunt is open!"

Clark glanced at Lois, whose eyebrows began drawing together.

Then the electricity hit them with the force of a lightning bolt.

***

Baines intercepted Platt's desperate lunge for the ground shunt switch and kicked his legs out from under him. She drew a small pistol from her pocket and pointed it at him.

He stared at her, open-mouthed with astonishment. "Dr. Baines! What -- what are you --"

"I'm killing them, Samuel." She pulled the trigger twice. The pistol cracked sharply and two small holes appeared in the center of Platt's lab coat. "And I'm killing you, too."

She watched Platt's eyes fade to black and smiled. "Nigel will be so pleased."

It was the last thing she said before the bombs exploded.

***

Chapter Twenty-three

>>>Monday, 9:43 AM

Nigel smiled from the safety of the abandoned railroad car across the road as he watched the lab building collapse in on itself. LexLabs would have to rebuild the facility and re-staff it. Months of research and construction on the shuttle would have to be re-done, which would take even more time. Platt would no longer complain about the cost-cutting efforts of the team Baines had assembled, or about his own small part of the project. Baines herself would no longer be around as a possible prosecution witness, nor would she again pester him for more money or more influence in planning his operations. And he felt a sense of ironic conquest that he'd guaranteed her presence by allowing her to think she would murder Platt and the reporters for him. She had even believed him when he'd told her that she'd get away with it.

Best of all, Lois Lane and Clark Kent would no longer nip at his heels.

He pulled out his special cell phone to report in.

"I hope you have good news for me, Nigel."

The voice seemed to communicate irritation, even through the electronic distortion. "There will be no more interference from either Dr. Baines or Dr. Platt. The entire lab is nothing more than a pile of rubble."

"And the reporters?"

"They were inside the same lab with Baines at the time of the explosion. It would have taken a miracle for either of them to have survived the initial blast, much less the collapse of the structure."

The voice sighed. "Very well. It's too bad about the woman, though."

"The woman?" wondered Nigel. "Do you refer to the inquisitive and bothersome Miss Lane?"

"No, no. I meant the Baines woman." The voice paused. "She was so very eager to please me."

"I understand. It was, after all, a regrettable necessity."

"Yes, that's true." The voice perked up. "Good work, Nigel. Your bonus is on its way."

"Thank you. Will there be anything else?"

"No, that's all for now."

The connection was terminated from the other end. Nigel put his phone back in his pocket and thought, yes, Antoinette had been most eager to please.

But then, women such as she were both plentiful and inexpensive. There would be many others just as eager, and most would be younger and more easily trained.

***

Clark cracked open his eyelids and immediately closed them again. The thick dust in the air bothered even his Kryptonian eyes. He'd have to breathe carefully, too, or he'd be exhaling dust for several hours. He just hoped there wasn't any Kryptonite dust floating around --

Then memory returned and he panicked. Lois! Lois was in there!

"Lois?" He turned his head and tried not to cough. "Lois! Where are you?"

"Here."

"What?" Her voice was muffled. "Lois, where are you? Are you hurt?"

"I think I'm directly under you. There. Is that your leg?"

He felt a hand grasp his ankle and he straightened carefully. "Yes, that's me. Are you pinned down? Is anything broken?"

"Huh."

The fear that had subsided at the sound of her voice returned. "That's not a very reassuring sound."

"Sorry, Clark. I think I'm okay." A piece of concrete under him shifted slightly and he reached down to lift it. "I think you took the worst of it."

"Weren't you hit by the debris?"

"I don't think so. It feels like you shielded me from the falling junk."

"Good. Are you sure you --"

"Let's just get out of here and worry about any broken fingernails later, okay?"

Despite their situation, he grinned a little. If she was that snarky, she couldn't be hurt too badly.

He paused and scanned the area with his x-ray vision, pausing when he found the crushed bodies of Samuel Platt and Toni Baines. "Oh."

"What? 'Oh' what?"

"I -- I found Dr. Platt."

"Oh."

"And Dr. Baines."

Her voice was tighter this time. "I see."

"Actually, I'm glad that you don't see."

She paused. "That bad, huh?"

He started to explain what had happened to them, but decided she didn't need to know all the details.

And he wished he could forget those same details.

Almost as an afterthought, the smell assaulted him. He groaned and coughed.

"Clark? Are you okay? Is it more of that green dust?"

"N-no," he stammered. "Just -- the smell -- it reminds me -- the ship."

Her quick intake of air told him she knew which ship he meant. "Ick. I can smell it too. Okay, then, you need to get us out of here as quickly as you can."

He bent down and looked in another direction. "This is the quickest way out of the building. Can you follow me?"

She reached up and grabbed his wrist with surprising strength. "Just make a tunnel and I'll get out of here if I have to crawl."

"Okay. It's only about eight feet or so, but I'll have to shore up the passageway as we go."

"No problem. I'll be right behind you."

He glanced around and saw that there were enough larger pieces of concrete to temporarily hold up a small tunnel in the rubble. He worked quickly but carefully, and they made good progress. Lois didn't say anything or send anything to him, probably because she didn't want to distract him. For once she was being prudent.

Of course, almost being killed would tend to make almost anyone more prudent.

As he pushed the last large piece out of the way and stepped into the light, he turned and held his hand out for Lois. She took his hand and fairly leaped out of the wreckage. Then she took a deep breath and turned to look at the remains of the building.

She gasped. The five-story building was now only a pile of rubble a few feet tall. "Clark? What happened? I thought I heard Platt say something about the ground switch and then -- nothing."

He led her away from the pile of concrete and rebar as it continued to shift and settle. "That's about it for me, too."

"You mean you don't remember rescuing me?"

"No. It must have been a reflex of some kind. I guess I pulled you underneath me and took the brunt of the collapse on myself."

She began dusting off his jacket. "Your suit's ruined and your glasses are gone. Are you hurt?"

"No. And your clothes are pretty much a total loss, too. How about you? Are you hurt?"

She flexed her hands and legs, then shook her head. "Nope. I guess you did a great job of protecting me."

He looked at the remains of the lab. "I didn't help the rest of them, did I?"

Her tone softened. "You didn't have a chance to help them, Clark. I know you would have helped all of them if you'd had the opportunity. But hey, I'm kinda glad you saved me. That's one less person buried under all that."

He looked into her eyes and spoke more softly also. "You seem to be taking this pretty well."

"You think so? Maybe you should sit in on my next session with Dr. Friskin. I have a feeling it's going to be a humdinger." She took a few steps towards the parking area and spied the remains of her Jeep. "Oh, no! My Jeep is crushed!" She turned and yelled, "They broke my Jeep! Look at it! They dropped a piece of concrete on the hood! The windshield is smashed in and the engine is ruined! It's a total loss! Those -- they --"

Clark recognized the signs of post-stress reaction, and he reached for her to offer what little comfort he could. But before he got there, she swung her fist at the piece of concrete sitting on the flattened hood of the Jeep.

It exploded into hundreds of pieces, all which went flying off in different directions.

Lois stood frozen to the ground, as did Clark. Both of them stared slack-jawed at her hand as she held it up as if for inspection. She finally turned her head and squeaked out, "C-Clark? What happened? W-what did I do?"

Slowly, and with great care, he stepped forwards and took her hand. "Lois? May I look at your hand? In case you hurt it."

She nodded slightly. Clark tried to x-ray her hand, but his vision gizmo couldn't penetrate her skin.

This was way past odd. He knew his powers still worked, but something had happened to Lois, and her body seemed to have taken on his own extreme molecular density. And it had already shown itself as invulnerability and great strength.

Then Lois' head snapped up. "Sirens. I hear sirens coming closer."

Clark listened for a moment, then realized that she'd heard them from a distance of at least four miles. Apparently strength wasn't the only thing she'd picked up from him.

He turned to her and grabbed her hand. "Lois? We have to make some decisions, and we have to make them quickly."

"What? Why? The police and fire departments are coming. They'll take care of us."

He shook his head. "Something happened to you in there. Something -- I don't know how, and I sure don't know why, but I think you've taken on at least some of my powers."

She squinted at him. "How did I do that? How could that have happened?"

"I don't know. As far as I'm aware, it's never happened before."

"Never?" He shook his head. "Then what am I supposed to do now?"

He flicked a glance in the direction of the approaching emergency vehicles. "I think we should get out of town for a while. Someone tried to kill us, and if whoever it is thinks we're dead, Perry will have a better chance of picking up clues that might lead us to him or her."

"What about the other people in there? Shouldn't you stay and help them? I mean, shouldn't Superman stay and help?"

"I would if there were any other survivors."

Her eyes widened. "You mean -- no one else -- there's no other --"

He sighed. "I checked already. No moving bodies, no heartbeats. If we're going to help them, we'll have to do it by finding out who killed them."

She nodded slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, that actually makes sense, or it would if I were normal." She shuddered. "I don't understand! I don't feel any different than I did before -- before this morning. What else can I do?"

"I don't know, but I think we should get out of here as quickly as we can."

"Any particular destination in mind?"

"Yes, if you're willing to go there."

She sighed. "Let's hear it."

He hesitated. "I was thinking of going to Smallville."

She paused and pondered his suggestion, then nodded again. "Okay. Let's go, partner."

***

They were up in the clouds before Lois said anything else. "Why didn't you change into the Superman suit?"

"These clothes are too dusty. They needed a good airing. Besides, I thought we needed to leave as quickly as possible."

"Uh-huh. So, what else do you think I can do now?"

He looked into her face. She didn't look excited about the prospect of having super-powers. In fact, she looked almost scared by the thought.

"Well -- you might be able to fly."

She perked up slightly. "Really? Do you think so?"

"There's only one way to find out."

She glanced down. "How high up are we?"

"About twenty-five thousand feet. Don't worry, we're not in the path of any airliners right now."

"Oh. Okay." She shifted in his arms. "Actually, I was thinking about how big a hole in the ground I'd make if I fell from up here."

He almost smiled. "I won't let you fall, Lois."

She almost smiled back. "I know that, Clark." She hitched one leg past his arm and let it dangle downwards. "Shall we give it the acid test?"

"If you want to. You don't have to, you know."

"I need to know one way or the other. I think not knowing is worse than anything else."

He nodded. "Okay. You want any advice?"

"Are you kidding?" She glanced down again. "All I can get, yeah."

He did smile this time. "What I do is just think 'up' and I go up. I think 'forward' and I go forward."

"Sounds easy enough." She lifted one arm away, then stopped. "Maybe it would help if you just kind of floated in one place beside me for a minute or so."

"Sure." He slowed to a stop above the clouds, then slowly took his arms out from under her. Sure enough, she floated in place, even if she was a bit unsteady.

Then she began sinking, as if she were standing in quicksand. "Clark! What now?"

He dropped to her level and gently grasped her hands. "Just think 'up,' Lois. You'll get the hang of it."

She closed her eyes and focused. They fell a few more feet, then slowed to a stop. Almost imperceptibly, Lois began to rise under her own power. She opened her eyes and looked around. "Hey! Nice. Are you sure you're not holding me up?"

"No, you're doing this all on your own. I'm just here for moral support."

She glanced around again and nodded slowly. "This isn't so bad after all."

"I think it's a lot of fun. You want to try going forward now?"

She shook her head. "No. Not right now. Let's just get to Kansas and see what Bob has to say about this new development."

Surprised, he blurted, "Bob? You want to ask Bob about this?"

She frowned. "Well, I doubt Dr. Friskin knows how to explain this to us. And as wise as your parents are, they had nothing to do with you getting your powers, did they?"

"No."

"Then they can't help us, except to give us a place to stay for the time being. I think we should tell them everything except the part about my maybe having some super-powers. Okay?"

"There's no 'maybe' about it, Lois. You've got my powers."

"I still don't want to tell anyone about it yet."

He frowned back. "They'll eventually figure it out. You won't be able to keep from using your powers once you get control over them."

"You're assuming they're going to stay, and you're also assuming that I want them to stay."

"Maybe so. Maybe I just like the idea of having another person close to me who can do some of the same things I can do."

She paused and softened her tone again. "I hadn't thought about that, Clark." She looked into his eyes and asked, "Are you really that lonely?"

He lifted an eyebrow. "I don't think this is the time and place to have that conversation."

"Right." She looked off into the west and said, "I think we need to change altitude. There's a jet airliner headed our way."

Clark looked in the same direction. "Whoops. We're off course, too far north and too low. Follow me and I'll get us there fast."

"Just -- you don't have to carry me, but -- but I'd feel a whole lot safer if you'd hold my hand while we fly."

He nodded and took her left hand in his right. "Okay. Ready?"

She exhaled noisily. "There's no time like the present, I guess."

They rose and headed southwest to Kansas.

And Clark hoped they'd leave Lois' last question, her question about whether or not he was lonely, far behind them.

***

Martha had finished washing the breakfast dishes, fed the chickens, weeded her vegetable garden, done two loads of laundry, and was folding the last few pieces when she heard a telltale 'whoosh' outside.

She smiled. She always enjoyed these impromptu visits from her son. She thought for a moment, and decided that the blueberry pie in the refrigerator could stand the loss of a piece or two. Jonathan wouldn't care, not once he found out who'd eaten it.

So she was more than a bit surprised when Clark knocked on the back door instead of simply walking in. She opened the door and was surprised again.

Lois stood beside Clark. Both of them appeared to have been fighting and rolling around in the dustiest and dirtiest hole in the ground they could have found. And their faces looked bleak and empty.

"What -- come on in, you two! My goodness! What happened?"

Clark let Lois enter first. "Someone blew up a building we were in, Mom."

"So that's why you're so dirty and -- wait. There were other people in the building, weren't there?"

Clark nodded soberly. Lois closed her eyes and tried not to cry.

Martha's maternal instincts took over. "Well, the first thing we need to do is to get you two out of those nasty clothes. Lois, you get the shower first. I don't have anything in your size, but maybe you can wear some of Clark's old sweats until you can get something else."

Lois opened damp eyes and lifted her hands. "Clark? I'm almost certain I left my purse inside Platt's lab."

He nodded. "No credit cards, no cash, right?"

She assayed a tiny smile. "You keep your life in your hip pocket, mine hangs from my shoulder. I'm pretty much out of luck until I can get all that stuff replaced."

"I could fly back to your apartment and pick up some clothes."

She shook her head. "I don't have my keys, either, and I'd rather not have to explain why Superman was burgling my apartment to raid my closet."

He quirked his mouth to one side and almost grinned. "That's a good point. Okay, no super-burgling today."

Martha shooed her towards the bathroom. "No problem. I'll drive over to the Wal-Mart in Bakersville. I'll get some jeans and shirts and several changes of underwear. Oh, and some socks and a pair of tennis shoes, if that's okay."

"Oh, Martha, you don't have to --"

"No. I insist. No way we'd let you run around naked." She was pleased by the tiny glint of amusement she saw in Lois' eyes before she turned to her son. "Clark, you probably need to make some phone calls, don't you?"

He nodded wearily. "Yes. I need to call Perry and let him know we're both okay." He looked at Lois with an intent that Martha recognized but couldn't decipher. "Lois? What should I tell him?"

Lois bit her lower lip in thought. Hard. And when she released it, Martha saw that there was no mark on it. "Tell him that I'm fine. You were right. We need to sit down and get our stories together and decide what to print. It's a pretty sure bet that whoever set off that bomb thinks we're dead. Maybe if we let him think that for a while, we can learn something."

He nodded. "Will do. Take your time in the shower."

Martha took Lois' hand and gently guided her to the bathroom. "Bath towel, hair towel, wide comb and hairbrush on the counter, shampoo -- sorry, probably not your brand -- my bathrobe and slippers. You can use them until you can change. I'll lay out some of Clark's sweats on the bathroom countertop, and you can put your clothes in this hamper. I'll see if they can be salvaged, but as badly cut up and burned as they are, I wouldn't hold out much hope if I were you."

Lois nodded. "Thank you, Martha. I can't tell you how much --"

"Oh, pish tosh. Your Clark's friend, you've eaten with us, and that practically makes you family already."

The tears came and Lois sat on the edge of the tub. Martha knelt down in front of her and held her hand. "Lois, honey, it's okay. You were nearly killed today. That's got to be a terrific shock."

"Oh, it is, Martha, it is." Lois wiped her eyes with her hands, which only smeared wet dust over her face. "This is the second time in less than a year that I've survived a sure-death situation. I'm beginning to wonder whether I'm a jinx or I'm cursed or something."

"No, dear, no! You're not a jinx and you're not cursed! You're a very brave young woman who's facing a terrible situation. Give yourself some time to deal with this."

Lois wiped her eyes and nodded. "At least I didn't precipitate this explosion. Even if Clark and I were targets, whoever it was wouldn't have set off a bomb that would destroy an entire Luthor Technologies laboratory just to kill us."

"You're probably right, Lois, but I think you should put those thoughts on the back burner and get yourself cleaned up. I'll be back as soon as I can, but it's quite a drive. Give me your sizes and I'll see what I can do."

Lois smiled through her tears and smears. "Oh, Martha, you're a wonder! Thank you so much!"

Martha hugged her quickly and stood. "You get in the shower, dear. I'll be back as quickly as I can."

Martha jotted down the numbers Lois gave her and smiled encouragingly. As she pulled the bathroom door shut, Martha wondered about the state of Lois' clothes. She'd seen Clark's garments damaged that badly on occasion when he'd just finished a dangerous or dynamic rescue, especially during the time before Superman made his public debut, but she'd never seen a normal person's clothes in any condition close to that while the person still wearing them was still alive.

Something else was going on between Clark and Lois, something that went beyond the story in which they were involved. She hoped that at least one of them would trust her enough to share it before they went back to Metropolis.

***

Martha heard Clark on the phone before she entered the kitchen. "Yes, Perry, we're both fine. No, no green dust, just concrete and rebar and -- oh."

He listened for a moment, then he groaned. "I knew there were casualties, but so many -- no, I had no warning at all. It caught me completely off-guard. I didn't have any chance to help anyone else."

He listened some more. "No, we think you should be the only one who knows we made it out, at least for the moment. The authorities will be working for a while to find any survivors, and then pulling out the bod -- the victims -- but I'm certain we're the only ones who got out alive. You can watch for suspicious behavior. I think we'll be here in Smallville for a couple of days, at least."

His eyes squeezed shut for a moment, then opened. His voice had a slight hitch in it. "I just -- I couldn't stay, Perry. I just couldn't. It smelled like -- like after the ship blew up."

He listened and nodded. "Okay, I'll tell her. Thanks, Perry. I appreciate it, and I know Lois does too." He hung up the phone and turned to see his mother. It was a sign of his state of mind that he hadn't known she was there, and that he showed no surprise at her sudden appearance.

"Oh. Mom. You heard?"

"Part of it, yes. You know you and Lois are welcome to stay as long as you need to be here."

He slowly sat on the stool below the wall phone. "Thank you. And Perry said to tell you that the Planet will reimburse you for anything and everything you spend on us. As of now, Lois and I are on an undercover assignment in Smallville."

She put her hand on his shoulder. "That's not necessary, honey, but thank Mr. White for us." She shifted her purse on her shoulder. "Now I have to go so I can get back in a reasonable period of time. Lois will be done with the shower in a little while, and we still have some of your clothes in your old room. You can change into them after you get cleaned up."

"Okay, Mom. You go, we'll be fine."

She knew it wasn't true at the moment. But she hoped it would be true soon.

***

Chapter Twenty-four

>>>Monday, 10:36 AM

Rebecca usually enjoyed her job, but she didn't like fielding calls like this one, where the caller was asking her for permission to do something she couldn't possibly approve and who would not accept 'no' for an answer.

"Yes, sir, the LexCorp building is indeed an architectural wonder. We're quite proud of it ourselves. I'm sure you'd love to have photographs of the interior, but you'll have to be cleared through security just like everyone else. No, sir, I can't make an exception. Because I'd lose my job. Yes, sir, our security people are difficult to deal with at times, but they -- No, sir, I'm sorry, I can't put in any words for you, good or bad. Let me transfer you to security now and you can speak to them. Yes, sir, speak to them again."

She hit the hold button before the caller could begin another inane question and transferred the call to the security office. "Randy?"

"Yes, my lovely turtledove?"

Oh, good, she thought, he's in a playful mood again. You'd think a fifty-one year old retired FBI field agent would be more serious. "Stow it, Gramps. I have a guy on the phone who wants to photograph the interior of the main lobby. Says it's for a magazine layout."

"Did he say what magazine?"

"Wouldn't say. And before you ask, he said he wasn't freelancing or doing it on spec."

"He wants to take pictures of our facilities without telling us who he's working for? He's got to be kidding us."

"No, I don't think he's kidding. You have to talk him out of it."

"But, my dear one, you have such a dulcet speaking voice and men just love to hear --"

Randy was a nice guy, but sometimes his folksy manner got on her nerves. "Randy! Talk to the man! Be the voice of authority for once in your misbegotten existence!"

"Okay, okay," he chuckled. "I'll break the news softly but firmly."

She disconnected and allowed Randy to tell the man 'no' for a few minutes. Maybe he could convince the caller to go away.

She sat back and blew out a long breath. He seemed to be a nice guy, but she'd seen her father be charming when it suited him. Rebecca didn't quite trust him, but since they didn't report to the same director, it didn't matter that much. She'd much rather deal with Clark.

Whoa, she thought. Does that mean I trust Clark?

A tap on her shoulder startled her and she spun around to see her relief operator. "Carly! You're early today. Or is it lunchtime already?"

Rebecca looked into Carly's face and saw bad news. "Carly, what's wrong? What is it?"

"You're wanted in the main assembly room on the second floor. Go now."

"Why? What's going on? What's wrong?"

Carly shook her head. "Can't tell you because I don't know. Just go up there right now. I've got the desk."

Rebecca was shaken. Whatever it was, it had to be really bad.

She handed her headset to Carly and trotted towards the elevators, but when she saw how many people were waiting, she veered towards the stairwell.

What could be wrong? she wondered. Why are so many people headed for the second floor?

She burst out of the stairwell and found herself in the middle of dozens of anxious people milling around in front of the conference room. She grabbed the arm of an older man who looked familiar. "What is it? What's going on?"

He shook his head. "They said they won't tell us anything until everyone's here."

She frowned. "Who won't tell us? Who's in there?"

"Mr. Luthor. I think Mr. St. John and Mr. Asabi are here too."

The big boss, his executive assistant, and his valet are all here? What could be so bad that it would take all of them to say it?

We're all getting laid off, she thought gloomily. They brought in the heavy hitters so we won't make as big a stink about it.

As she turned to look into the conference room, Nigel St. John appeared in the doorway. "If you would all come in and find a seat, please, we'll begin."

Rebecca tried to read his face but couldn't. He was definitely not happy, but she couldn't tell if it was because of what had happened, because of what was about to happen, or because his feet hurt.

She followed the crowd and found a seat towards the middle of the room. Mr. Luthor was standing on one side of the small stage with his head down. Mr. Asabi was beside him, holding his elbow and speaking firmly to him.

She'd never seen Lex Luthor with his head down before, nor had she ever seen him so pale. That scared her more than anything else had so far.

When they were all seated, a couple of security people closed the doors. Mr. Luthor took a deep breath and stepped to the front of the stage. Rebecca took a quick look around and estimated that there were about a hundred and twenty people in the room. She also saw a number of blue-shirted people standing around the walls of the room, but before she could decide who they were or why they were there, Luthor began speaking.

"I know you're wondering why you're here. It's because each of you has a family member or a close friend who works in the Luthor Technologies lab on South Parker Avenue."

He stopped and looked towards Asabi again, who nodded back to him. "I'm sorry. This is possibly the most difficult announcement I've had to make since the company was founded."

A woman near the front called out, "So tell us already! Not knowing is terrible!"

There was a murmured chorus of assent. Luthor held up his hands for quiet. "Very well. This morning, about forty minutes ago, a bomb exploded in the lab --"

"A bomb!"

"What?"

"How many are hurt?"

"Is my Harold all right?"

"What about my wife?"

"Tell us!"

"Please!" Luthor's voice carried over the tumult and they quieted down. "There's no easy way to say this, so I'll just come right out with it." He closed his eyes and took another deep breath, then opened them. Rebecca thought he'd gotten even paler in the past few moments.

"At the moment, the police and fire rescue teams on the scene are telling us that -- that they do not believe that there are any survivors."

A shocked silence gripped the crowd. No one dared to breathe for a long moment. Rebecca's jaw dropped open, and she watched Luthor to see when he'd laugh and admit that it was all a nasty practical joke, that one of his friends had put him up to it and that he'd bet a fancy dinner on the outcome.

But he didn't. He only stood there with a stricken expression on his face.

And then the first person cried out. A young man in the back row fell on the floor and curled up in a fetal position and began howling. He started a chain reaction of shock that knocked a number of people to their knees, caused others to fall to the floor completely prone and possibly unconscious, and turned many others into screaming statues. A few pulled out cell phones and began dialing frantically.

That was when Rebecca saw the blue-shirted medical teams move into action. They knelt beside people or helped them sit down and managed to get a grip on the situation to prevent anyone from injuring themselves.

She felt like she'd been punched in the belly by a professional welterweight boxer. All those people dead! She'd met the switchboard team when they had trained on the phone system, and she'd spoken to several others during her time at the front desk.

And now, apparently, they were all gone. She'd never see them again, never talk to them, never trade witty remarks about the weather or the technology they dealt with.

They were -- gone.

She turned to the front of the room again and thought she saw a tear glistening on Mr. Luthor's cheek, but he turned away and spoke to Mr. Asabi before she could be certain.

And then she saw the slight Indian man moving towards her. He took her hands and led her to a relatively quiet corner.

"Miss Connors? I have volunteered to pass this message on to you. Mr. Luthor would have done so himself, but I fear he is too distraught at the moment."

She frowned hard. "What message? I know some of -- knew some of the employees in the lab, but I wasn't related to any of them and I wasn't all that close to anyone there. Why am I in here, anyway?"

His gaze bored directly into hers. "Because the computerized visitor's log has been recovered. It shows two names which are most familiar to you."

Fear began taking large bites from her heart. "What are -- who are they, Mr. Asabi?"

He grasped her hands more firmly. "Lois Lane and Clark Kent."

She felt her knees go slack. She sensed, rather than saw, the stout young man who caught her before she hit the floor. Her vision narrowed until all she could see was Asabi's eyes. She found out later that she hadn't made a sound as she fell, or after they'd gently laid her on the floor, but at the moment all she could hear were those names.

Lois.

Clark.

Oh, my friend Lois!

My -- oh, Clark! I didn't even know you that well, and you never knew -- we never -- I never told you -- didn't have the chance to --

She didn't know how long it took for her to recover, but when her vision cleared she was seated on the floor and leaning against the wall. Lex Luthor was kneeling beside her and holding her right hand, along with a broad-shouldered young man in a blue shirt who was taking her pulse from her other hand. Rebecca also saw Mr. Asabi standing behind Mr. Luthor, gently fending off several hysterical women who were trying to get to their boss.

Rebecca looked at the owner of the company she worked for, but all she saw was a man in pain and barely holding on to the edge of self-control. The sight of him in so much obvious distress lent her some composure. She wasn't the only one who might have lost a future which was yet to be realized.

She leaned towards him. "What do the police say? Is there any chance there are survivors buried in the rubble?"

He squeezed her hand. "There's always a chance, of course. They haven't had the time to do a complete search. But the canine teams haven't located anyone alive as yet, and the robot sniffer they've sent in has had very little success in finding any passages through the debris. Whoever set off this explosion knew exactly what he or she was doing."

She nodded absently. "What if -- what will you do if -- if Lois --"

He shook his head. "I will go on. I will suffer loss, not only of what is, but what might have been." He shuddered slightly and looked away for a moment, then turned back to her. "And I think I would risk my heart no more."

She nodded. "I understand. I think I know exactly what you mean."

He looked deeper into her eyes. For a moment, his voice broke. "Of all the people in this room, I believe that you and Asabi may be the only ones who truly do understand."

She nodded again. "How will you -- how do you keep going? When there's so little hope?"

His face seemed to grow paler and thinner as she watched. "As long as there's no body, as long as no one can point to a table in the morgue or a grave and headstone and say, There lies Lois Lane, I will have hope."

"But --"

"I have to have hope, Rebecca. I don't have any choice." He shifted his weight. "And you have to have hope, too."

He released her hand and stood. She saw him gather his composure and steel himself against the emotional tsunami that was battering him. She watched as he turned to the other people in the room and looked for someone else, someone he might help.

That kind of courage was contagious. She pushed herself to her feet, straightened her skirt, and sought out someone she could help.

Even if all she could do was cry with that someone.

>>>Monday, 11:52 AM

Jonathan drove up to the house for lunch, curious as to why his wife's car was not in the driveway. He parked the pickup beside the barn and got out.

As he entered the kitchen, he heard the shower running, then he saw his son sitting on the stool beside the phone. "Clark? What happened?" Then he noticed his son's condition. "Whoa. You look like someone dropped a building on you."

Clark nodded without turning his head. "That's pretty much what happened to us."

His son's flat tone startled him. "Us? Who is us?"

The shower shut off at that moment. "Lois and I went to a lab to --"

"Lois!" he burst out. "Lois Lane? You mean she's here and -- Clark, who was in the shower?"

"Lois was. She was as dirty as I still am."

"Dirty? Your clothes are a disaster!"

He glanced at his garments. "Yeah, I know. That tends to happen when someone drops a building on you."

"But -- but why are you here now? Why aren't you working to help the other survivors?"

"There aren't any survivors."

"What? But that's ridiculous! Even if the building had collapsed --"

"Someone set off a bomb, Dad. A really big bomb, or maybe it was several; I don't know. The building is just a pile of junk now. Lois and I were the only survivors, and we'd both be dead if not for my powers."

Jonathan sat down heavily. "Are you saying that someone blew up an entire building just to try to kill you and Lois?"

Clark shook his head slowly. "No. There was something else going on. I think we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or maybe someone was trying to take out multiple targets with one shot."

"Oh." He sat and thought for a moment, then listened to the little after-shower noises coming from down the hallway. "Is Lois okay?"

"What? Oh, yes, physically she's fine."

"But maybe not emotionally?"

Clark sighed. "I don't know."

Jonathan put his hand on Clark's shoulder. "And what about you, son?"

Clark shrugged. "I don't know." He put his hands over his face and leaned his elbows onto his knees. "Maybe you could tell me another one of your war stories from Korea. We can compare the body count and gross-out factors."

His hand slid off. "That wasn't very nice."

"No, Dad, it wasn't, and I'm sorry, but right now I don't feel like being nice." He sat up and rubbed at his eyes. "I called Perry to let him know we were okay. He told me that there were at least fifty other people in the building at the time of the blast. So far the authorities haven't found any survivors. They haven't even found anyone who didn't die immediately."

"Is that why you're not there helping with the rescue and recovery effort?"

Clark bowed his head. "Part of it."

Jonathan waited, but his son didn't continue. "What's the other part, son?" he asked softly.

Clark took a deep breath and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "The smell."

"What about the smell?"

"The air. After the explosion. It smelled like -- like the ship when -- the ship Lana was on."

Jonathan knew that could be a clue to discovering the identity of the bomber, but he also realized that it was a subject best left for a later discussion. "You said the rescue teams at the scene haven't found any survivors. Do you think you might have found some?"

"I checked before we left. No one -- no one was alive. Except me and Lois."

"So, there was nothing you could have done to help them."

"No. There wasn't." Clark turned pain-filled eyes towards his father. "We're going to get whoever did this. We're going to make sure whoever it was doesn't kill again."

Lois softly called out, "Clark? I think it's your turn in the shower."

***

Lois watched Clark plod past her without making eye contact. She'd shut down the link at her end as soon as she realized that they were the only survivors, and apparently Clark had done the same. The experience was too new, too raw to share just yet.

It seemed that Clark was taking these deaths personally, and she didn't blame him for feeling that way. She felt that way herself, and there was nothing she could done to change anything that had happened.

She pulled the towel wrapped around her hair from her head and draped it around her neck and shoulders. "Mr. Kent?" He didn't respond. She pulled her fingers through her hair to straighten it a little. "I know I'm not your favorite person, and I understand why, and I can't say that I blame you. I just want you to know that coming here was Clark's idea, but I think it was a good one. Right now, the best thing for us to do is let whoever tried to kill us think we're dead. That person will probably make a mistake, and our boss will find out about it, and we'll have a lever to pry open their organization."

He nodded. "Makes sense. It's kind of cold-blooded, but it makes sense."

She sat down across the kitchen table from him. "I know it sounds that way, but it's also the most we can do for the other people who were killed this morning." She took in a shuddering breath. "It's difficult for me to accept that all those people I met just today are -- are gone. And I'll never see any of them again. Dr. Platt, the guard who took our names at the door, the little Oriental cleaning lady who passed us in the hallway and smiled at us so brightly, that couple we passed in the hallway who looked like they were about to start a honeymoon, Dr. Baines --"

She stopped and frowned. "Baines. She did something, something with that panel, something Dr. Platt tried to stop her from doing."

"You think this Baines person set off the bomb?"

"No, of course not. It killed her, too. But she was trying to do something else -- not sure what. I'll have to talk to Clark about it." She shook her index finger in the air. "Maybe -- maybe that's our lever. Maybe we can track back from her and find the spider."

Jonathan frowned. "The spider?"

"Yes!" Her face and voice finally showed some animation. "Like the bad guy in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Morty or something like that --"

"Professor Moriarity."

She looked up at Clark's father. "Yes, that was him! How did you know that?"

"Young lady, who do you think read all of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories to Clark when he was young?"

"Oh." She blushed slightly. "I'm sorry, I just assumed he'd picked up most of his reading on his own. Or that his mother had read to him a lot."

"A lot of it, yes, he did on his own, but we both tried to instill a love of reading in him from the time he was old enough to sit still long enough to listen to 'The Cat In the Hat.' That was one of his favorites, by the way."

"It was my sister's favorite, too. But I guess you could say that about a lot of kids."

"What about you? Was it your favorite?"

She made a face. "Not after I recited it to Lucy the eight hundred and twelfth time, no."

Jonathan's voice perked up. "You read to your sister?"

"You're surprised?"

"Usually the parents or grandparents do most of the reading to the little ones."

She sighed. "I was the only one there to do it. Our grandparents didn't live close enough to make a difference in that area of our lives. My father was -- away a lot. Usually working. My mother was too angry or too -- too indisposed -- to sit still long enough to read to either of us, so when Lucy wanted to hear her favorite books, she brought them to me."

He nodded. "I see. That was very nice of you."

She tilted her head. "You still sound surprised."

He sat back in the chair. "I am a little surprised, yeah. Not that you can read, of course, but that you'd take time out to read to your little sister. I had this image of you in my mind that you were this -- this selfish, evil fairy-tale wicked stepmother-type witch who only thought of herself, and ever since you came in here you've been acting out of character." He shook his head. "I'm sorry. You're not at all like I pictured you."

She smiled slightly. "I'm glad. I hope you aren't too upset to find us here."

"No. Now that I know why you're here, I'm not upset. And I should have known that Clark wouldn't befriend anyone who was anything like Professor Moriarity. Which, by the way, I'm sure now that you aren't." He stood. "I bet you haven't had lunch yet, have you?"

***

With the shower running, Clark couldn't eavesdrop on the conversation between Lois and his father. He only hoped that Lois could keep her cool. She hadn't had any chance to get used to her powers yet. He'd already fixed the crushed doorknob on the inside of the bathroom door, but it appeared as if Lois had been careful otherwise. He hoped she hadn't gained his vision powers, or that she didn't get upset and fly away, because he didn't relish explaining that little detail to his parents, at least not yet.

He finished and turned off the water. From the sounds he could pick up, it appeared that his father and Lois were both still alive and at least being civil to each other. He dried and dressed as quickly as he could and made his way to the kitchen.

As he rounded the corner, he was shocked to see Lois and his dad laughing together. Lois said, "And then he -- ha-ha -- he told me to watch out for the rats!"

Jonathan burst out with a big belly laugh, then looked up and saw him. "Clark! Come on in. Lois was just telling me -- ha-ha-ha -- telling me about that chop shop stakeout you two went on."

Clark crossed his arms and leaned against the doorjamb. "I'm glad you enjoy my embarrassment so much."

"Oh, Clark," said Lois, "don't be such a fuddy-duddy. Are you hungry? I didn't know your dad was such a good sandwich-maker."

Jonathan shook his head and chortled. "They're just sandwiches, Lois, not gourmet cuisine."

"Maybe not, but just the same, if you ever want to start a new business, I bet Lex would invest --"

She stopped cold. "Lex! Oh, no! He must -- he probably thinks I'm dead!" She stood and reached for the phone. "And Rebecca! She's probably scared stiff worrying about you!"

Jonathan obviously tried to keep his voice level as he asked, "Who's Rebecca, Clark?"

Lois stopped with her hand on the phone and shot a look of apology towards Clark, who said, "Rebecca's a young lady I met recently. She works for LexCorp and is studying to be a marine biologist. She's almost finished with her master's degree."

Softly, Lois said, "I'll call her if you want me to."

"No."

"Okay, you can call her after I --"

"No, Lois."

She frowned at him. "What do you mean 'no?' She and Lex both need to know we're alive."

"Not if either of them have any connection to the 'Boss' you've been chasing."

She turned to face him, her eyes narrowed. "Don't start that again, Kent. We don't have any proof that Lex is the criminal mastermind we want and you know it."

He tried to keep his voice level. "We also don't have any information that incriminates anyone else on your list any more than any other person. I agree that we don't have proof that Luthor is the bad guy -- or that he's even a bad guy -- but we also can't clear him based on what little we know. Besides, if he knows you're alive and well, he's going to show it. Whatever else he may be, he couldn't pull off an acting job like that without lots of coaching."

She frowned, but nodded. "Neither could Rebecca." She stepped back but didn't relax her frown. "Okay. We don't tell them until we show up alive. But I want to see Lex first."

He nodded and lifted his hands in mock surrender. "No problem. Now, how about one of those sandwiches?"

Jonathan stood. "Coming right up. I hope you still like turkey."

***

Martha fretted and fussed the whole time she was gone. Surely Jonathan wouldn't make Lois leave if she were in trouble, would he? Surely he wasn't that angry with her? And if he was that angry with her, surely he'd wait until she had some other place to go, wouldn't he?

She was so worried she risked several speeding tickets and ran the red light at the intersection of the highway and Smallville's main road. She uttered a prayer of thanks that no other cars, including any police cars, were anywhere near the intersection when she zoomed through it.

If the driveway had been paved, her tires would have squealed as she slid to a stop on the gravel. She'd convinced herself that Jonathan would be trying to club Lois into paste with the toaster, that Lois would be standing in the middle of the floor passively awaiting the death blow, and that Clark would be trying to restrain his father without injuring him.

She was astounded -- and almost disappointed -- when she burst through the kitchen door and saw all three of them sitting at the kitchen table, eating strawberry ice cream and smiling. Jonathan grinned at her and said, "I'm glad you're back, Martha. I still have some chores to finish before dark, and sunset's coming quicker every day." Then he arose and kissed her cheek over the bags she was carrying.

Clark stood with him. "I can give you a hand with them, Dad. It's the least I can do for keeping you away from work."

Jonathan chuckled. "Anything that keeps me from restringing barbed wire is a good thing in my book."

Lois, still wearing Martha's robe and slippers, also stood. "Thank you so much, Martha. I hope you kept the receipt, because I plan to reimburse you for the clothes and for the gasoline you used."

Lois took both large bags from Martha, then smiled at the two men and went to the bedroom to change. Clark tapped his father on the shoulder and said, "North fence or east?"

"East," replied Jonathan. "About two hundred yards from the north end. The wire and the tools are already out there."

"Okay. I'll go get started."

"Leaving me to clean up the dishes?"

"Of course. What are fathers for, anyway?"

The two men shared a chuckle as Clark slipped out the door. Martha dropped her hands to her sides. "Would you like some iced tea, Martha?"

"Um. Yes, please."

"Lemon?"

She sat down gingerly. "No, that's fine."

He set the tall glass in front of her. "Hope it's not too sweet. Clark made it."

She sipped it, and despite the over-abundance of sugar, she smiled. "No, it's perfect."

"Good. I think Clark and I can finish the fence before --"

"Stop right where you are, Jonathan Kent."

He did.

She pointed at the chair beside her. "Sit down, please."

He complied.

She leaned her elbows on the table and stared into his eyes. "Please explain how it is that I found you and Lois sitting calmly at this table with our son, with all three of you smiling and carrying on a friendly conversation."

He let out an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Oh, that. Well, it turns out that I might have been slightly wrong about Lois. She's not quite the horrible monster I thought she might be."

"No, she's not. What else did the three of you talk about?"

"Oh, a little of this and a little of that."

"I don't suppose you could be a bit more specific."

He smiled. "She told me about how they each had to use the back side of a dumpster as a bathroom during a recent stakeout. At separate times, of course."

Despite herself, Martha laughed. "Well -- I guess that's better than what I was imagining."

"Why? What were you imagining?"

"Never mind!" She patted her husband on the forearm. "I'm just glad you and Lois aren't enemies."

"No. We're definitely not enemies."

"Good. She and Clark are going to be friends for quite some time, and I don't want her to feel uncomfortable visiting us."

His smile faded slightly and he leaned back. "As long as they're just friends, I don't have a problem with Lois."

She frowned. "Do you have some other problem with her?"

He made a face and frowned. "I don't dislike her, Martha, but I can't help comparing her to Lana, and at least in my mind, Lois comes up short of Lana."

Martha nodded. "Then it's a good thing that neither of us will make that decision for them. Besides, Lois shouldn't have to measure up to anyone else's opinion of her, or to anyone else, period."

"That's true, but if Clark and Lois ever become involved romantically, don't expect me to throw a parade for them."

She drew back slightly. "I understand. I don't necessarily agree with you, but I understand how you feel."

"Are you sure? Because I don't want any misunderstandings between us ruining our relationship."

"No, Jonathan, I do understand. Lois isn't Lana, and you don't believe that any woman could ever replace her. You miss your daughter-in-law as much as you would miss your own daughter. You think Lois isn't a bad person, but she could never walk in Lana's shoes, or even put them on. Does that about cover it?"

One side of his mouth twitched. "Pretty much. Like I said, I don't dislike Lois, I just don't think she'd be a good match for Clark."

Martha nodded and leaned back in the chair. "I suspect that's a moot point, because I have neither seen nor heard of any hint of romance between them."

"Neither have I. And I was looking for it."

"Well, then, you don't have anything to worry about, do you?"

"Guess not." He stood and stepped towards the kitchen door. "I'd better go help Clark with the fence wire before he does it all himself and then teases me about it."

"All right, dear. I'll see you for supper, if not before."

***

Lois blew her nose and finished tying the laces of her new tennis shoes. They were stiff but serviceable, especially since she apparently didn't have to worry about such things as calluses or blisters any more. The underwear fit, and her jeans and shirt would do until she could get back to her own wardrobe in Metropolis. Martha had even bought some makeup for her, and while it wasn't Lois' usual brand, the colors worked well with her skin tones.

She'd heard every word the Kents had spoken. She hadn't intended to listen in, and in fact had tried not to hear them talking, but it was as if her ears had suddenly decided to pick up on every single sound within ten miles. She heard not just the Kents, but two teenaged boys playing hooky from school and fishing in the brook Clark had recently showed her, the clanging of someone trying to force a rusted tractor wheel off the axle, along with the unimaginative swearing of the young man swinging the tire iron, and every car or truck or motorcycle on the highway or any of the nearby country roads or in Smallville itself. She even heard the wire Clark was working with squeak as he unrolled it and bent it into shape, and the small creak the wood made as he shoved in the nails with his fingers.

And every word Jonathan Kent had spoken had hurt her. She knew he wouldn't have said anything if he'd known she could hear him. She knew that his words weren't motivated by anger or resentment or extreme dislike of her. No, Jonathan had decided that she didn't measure up Lana Lang's legacy, and even though she agreed with him, it wasn't pleasant to be judged and found wanting by someone she knew only slightly.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to be able to decide not to hear things like that.

--* Clark? *- she sent. -* Are you busy right now? *--

--* Good to hear from you. Do the clothes Mom got for you fit okay? *--

--* They're fine, Clark. But I need to talk to you. *--

--* Sure thing. What about? *--

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. -* About how not to use these powers you've lent me. *--

--* Oh. I take it you've either seen or heard something that you weren't intended to see or hear? *--

--* Yes. *--

--* All right. Is later this afternoon a good time, or do you want to do this right now? *--

She wanted to tell him to come back immediately, that she had to speak with him right at this moment. But she knew that might appear suspicious to his parents, and she didn't want anyone to know about her powers until she could either get rid of them or learn to control them. -* Later is fine. Just let me know when you're ready to start. *--

--* Will do. *- He stopped sending for a moment, but Lois could tell that there was something else on his mind. And she knew that he'd send it if he wanted her to know it.

He did. -* I think we ought to check in with Bob before we start teaching you too much. *--

--* That's a good idea. We'll see Bob, too. *--

He didn't send anything else back, but she could sense that his father had arrived and that Clark wanted to focus on repairing the fence. And that triggered an old memory of one of her classmates reciting Robert Frost's work "Fences" where the poet's friend kept repeating the phrase, "Good fences make good neighbors."

She'd have to work on building her own fences.

***

Chapter Twenty-five

>>>Monday, 2:16 PM

Clark wiped his hands together and straightened. "Okay, Dad, I think the fence will keep Mr. Jansen's sheep out of this pasture now."

His father sighed. "I sure hope so. I'd hate to see them getting hurt over here, with all the gullies and holes they can step into. And thanks for replacing those two posts, too, son. I didn't realize how badly rotted they were."

"You're welcome, Dad. Do you have anything else going that I can help you with?"

"Not right now. If you're still here tomorrow morning, though, expect to do some work on the roof of the barn. The west side of the roof needs repair, but I have to go into town to get the boards and shingles first."

He frowned. "That's quite a project. Were you planning to do all that by yourself?"

Jonathan shook his head and grinned. "No, of course not. I was going to wait until your next extended visit, but since you're here now -- " and he lifted his shoulders in a slow shrug.

Clark laughed. "Okay, barn roof tomorrow. I'll see you back at the house for supper."

"Good. Oh, and be sure to let your mother know if there's something that Lois doesn't particularly like so she won't fix it."

Clark's eyebrows rose at his father's concern for Lois' preferences, but he didn't say anything about it. "Lois will eat almost anything that anyone cooks, Dad, and I don't think Mom's going to serve anything raw."

"Not if she wants me to eat it, no."

***

Lois sat on the porch and tried not to hear everything. Her experience with the link between herself and Clark helped her control her reactions to the waves of sound overwhelming her, but she still heard every move Clark and his father made while repairing the fence. She heard them shout at the sheep in the next pasture to frighten them away from the property line. The whisper of the soft breeze was like the roar of a thousand angry lions in beside her head. A delivery truck on the highway with a hole in its muffler became a rapid-fire cannon. She heard Martha canning fruit in the kitchen, and every click and clank and hiss became violent explosions inside the house. She even heard the house settling, every tiny creak and every little twitch of the wood and the earth below.

Never knew how noisy Kansas was, she thought ruefully. Makes Metropolis sound like a sensory deprivation chamber.

She couldn't wait to ask Bob to get rid of these stupid powers.

Martha's soft footsteps boomed across the living room, and the tiny squeak of the hinges on the screen door screamed in her ears.

Suddenly it all went quiet. She'd found the control key in her mind, somehow, and her relief at the lack of noise was palpable.

"Lois, dear, are you all right?"

Lois leaned back in the rocker and sighed. "Yes, I think so."

Martha hesitated. "Would you like something to drink? I have some fresh tea brewed."

Lois almost declined, then realized that Martha was trying to make her as comfortable as possible, so she said, "Yes, thank you."

Martha smiled. "It's not as sweet as Clark's last batch was. I hope that's okay."

Lois chuckled. "He's the newsroom's resident sweet tooth. I'm sure everyone else there is stunned that he still has all his molars."

Martha laughed in return. "I'll be right back."

Lois rocked slowly, reveling in the almost inaudible creak of the rocker against the wooden porch. When Martha pushed open the screen door again, Lois was almost surprised.

"Here you go. And I put a thin slice of lemon on the rim, just in case you wanted some."

"Thanks, Martha. Mmm, that's good."

"I'm glad you like it." Martha hesitated, then spoke. "Do you mind if I join you?"

"Not at all. I'm glad for the company."

Martha settled in the porch swing and watched Lois as she shifted the rocker to face her. "So, Lois, how are you really?"

Lois lifted an eyebrow. "You don't beat around the bush, do you?"

Martha smiled and lowered her gaze for a moment. "I'm sorry if I seem abrupt. I'm just concerned about you."

"I appreciate it," Lois answered. "Any particular reason?"

"You're Clark's friend, you're our guest, and you've just been through a very traumatic experience. If you're not all right, that would be perfectly understandable."

She sighed. "I don't quite know how I feel just yet. There are a couple of things we haven't told you yet, but I -- Clark may not want me to share them right now."

"Oh." Martha spoke quietly, in her conspirator's voice. "Is it something -- personal -- between you and Clark?"

Lois' eyes widened. "What? You mean like -- like romance and going out on dates together and stuff like that? Oh, no no no! Nothing like that, at least not with me and Clark, although I can't speak for him and Rebecca, and I kinda have a boyfriend, or at least a guy who wants to date me, and --"

"Lois!" Martha laughed and put her hand on the younger woman's knee. "Honey, it's okay! I wasn't trying to pry! And I really didn't think you and Clark were romantically involved."

She took a deep breath and made herself relax. "Yeah. Right. Of course. You're not like my mother." She closed her eyes, took another deep breath, counted slowly to ten to calm herself, and let it flow out as she pictured her stress floating outward with it.

Then she opened her eyes and saw a cadaver with no skin sitting on the swing next to her rocking chair.

The glass of tea splashed onto the porch unheeded. She cried out in fear and tipped the rocker over backwards in her attempt to get away from the horrid sight, but she stopped falling before she hit the ground. Her hands found wooden planks under them, but she couldn't see them. She stared past her hands and for a moment she saw earthworms slowly tunneling through the soil. She saw the roots of several small plants searching the ground for water. She saw a plastic toy soldier buried in the ground. Must have been Clark's at one time, she thought wildly. I wonder if he knows it's there?

The tiny part of her mind which was still rational tried to tell her that her x-ray vision had just kicked in, but the rest of her mind was still screaming in fear inside her head. She barely felt hands on her shoulders, and almost heard Martha's voice calling to her, asking her what was wrong and what she might do to help.

Martha. Lois had seen through Martha's skin into her body. She had been the skinless cadaver on the swing.

The thought calmed Lois slightly, but she couldn't function if she couldn't see. She closed her eyes tightly and collapsed onto the porch. "Clark," she murmured. "I need Clark."

"Okay, honey, I'll go get him. Will you stay here? Will you be okay while I'm gone?"

"Never mind, I'm here."

***

Clark leaped up to the porch beside Lois. "What happened to her, Mom?"

"I don't know! We were sitting here talking and suddenly she cried out and fell over backwards! She's shaking like a leaf, the poor thing! Do you think she's having a reaction to what happened this morning?"

"I don't know. Maybe." Clark listened in to the link, but all he could pick up from Lois was fear.

He thought quickly, then made a decision. "Mom, I'm going to take her to the Fortress."

"Honey, are you sure that's a good idea?"

He gently maneuvered her into his arms. "I don't know, but it's as good as anything else I can come up with right now."

Martha nodded and tried to help settle Lois in his grasp. "Okay. Please let us know if we can do anything to help."

"I will, I promise."

He glanced around quickly, saw no one, and flashed away towards his treetop fortress.

***

She felt herself go airborne for a brief moment, then felt herself sitting on wood again. That pesky rational part of her mind noted that neither the snap of acceleration nor the deceleration had had any effect on her.

She felt Clark's strong hands on her shoulders, steadying her. His voice was warm and soft. "You're safe, Lois. You're in my Fortress of Solitude. You can open your eyes now."

The tension began to melt, but she still didn't want to see living autopsy subjects. "I don't want to see your insides!"

"You won't. Your vision gizmo won't penetrate my skin."

A single bark of laughter escaped. "My 'vision gizmo?'"

He began massaging her shoulders. "Sure. That's what you called it when I used it. The name should work both ways, shouldn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, I'm not worried about seeing your guts."

"You wouldn't, Lois."

"What about your clothes? I bet I could see through them."

His hands stopped for a moment, then continued. "I'm behind you. And as powerful and useful and versatile as my vision gizmo is, I've never seen anything that was behind me without turning my head."

She sniffed. "You just want me to look at you in your underwear again."

He laughed softly. "Only if that's what you want to do, Lois."

"I don't!" She tightened up again. "I don't want to go around looking at people without their clothes or without their skin or without anything but their bare bones!" She shook her head. "How can you stand it?"

"Simple. I learned to turn it on and off. I don't look through things unless I want to." He kept massaging her shoulders and speaking softly. "All you have to do is open your eyes, Lois. There's nothing in front of you that can hurt you. You won't fall and I won't leave you."

She took a shuddering deep breath and nodded. "Okay. I'm going to open them real fast, take a quick look, and then close them."

"That's a good idea. Any time you're ready."

She nodded. "Do you want to count to three?"

He chuckled. "I will if you want me to."

"N-no. I'll do it." She lifted her head and counted, "One. Two. Three!"

Her eyes snapped open and then shut again.

And she checked out the image in her memory. It looked for all the world like a peaceful meadow across a small stream. The trees looked normal, the water looked normal, the grass and the ground under it looked normal.

So she opened her eyes again, slowly, ready to snap them shut if the world suddenly turned crazy again.

It hadn't. She sobbed with relief. Clark gripped her shoulders and rubbed them gently but thoroughly. "I know, Lois, I know. It'll be all right, I promise."

Clark's voice had a calming effect, and his hands made the tension in her neck and shoulders melt away like ice in an oven. How was it that this super man who could bend steel bars with his hands, could fly, could survive horrific explosions, and could command such respect and fear from the bad guys, could also soothe her with his voice and with his touch?

He was such a wonderful friend.

And it was so comforting to lean on him, both figuratively and literally. His body was at once as firm and unyielding as a mountain, and also supple and lithe as any South American anaconda. And she trusted him, not only to do what he was supposed to do, but not to do what he wasn't supposed to do.

Which made her realize that leaning against her partner and enjoying the feel of his body on hers wasn't something she was supposed to do. With a start, she sat upright and shifted away from him.

"Are you okay, Lois?"

Funny, he didn't sound like she'd thought. She'd almost hoped that he'd sound disappointed that she'd moved away. He only sounded concerned, like a good friend should sound.

"I'm fine. But I think we need to have some super-power training sessions before I find my heat vision and set the world on fire."

>>>Monday, 5:50 PM

"That's it, Lois! Focus on the target and burn a small hole right through it."

She frowned in concentration, squinted slightly, and sent a narrow beam of intense heat from her eyes into the log stuck upright in the stream. A thin wisp of smoke floated up from the wood as a tiny hole appeared and deepened.

Just as the hole reached the back of the log, she shut off the heat and the smoke slowly dissipated. Clark smiled at her. "That's great, Lois. You've got it. The right target, the right intensity, the right focus, and perfect control. I couldn't have done it better myself."

Despite her distaste for obvious flattery, she smiled. "Thanks. Is there anything else I need to work on?"

"Flying, but I think that daylight is a bad time for that. We can try it after dark if you're up to it."

She ducked her head and almost smiled. "Actually, I think that's the coolest part of all of this. Is there anything you can do that we haven't tested me on?"

"Let's see. Strength we've done."

"I still say it's not fair that you're still stronger than I am."

"Not by much. And no one else will know that if we don't tell them."

She pouted for a moment, then relaxed. "Okay, that's our secret. What else?"

"You can run like nobody's business. If you tried out for the next Olympics you'd take every individual racing medal, men's or women's events. Or even both."

"Wouldn't be fair. And once again, you're slightly faster than I am."

"That's probably gender-based. Besides, you can hear a little better than I can, and your sense of smell is more acute. That's probably gender-based, too."

She wrinkled her nose. "Maybe so, but being able to smell a skunk from farther away than you can isn't what I'd call a real positive."

He tried to restrain a smile. "You can freeze things with your breath just like I can."

"That'll come in handy the next time I run out of ice. Just fill up the trays with water and blow on them."

"You have to be careful with that one, though. I blew up a glass Coke bottle once by freezing it accidentally."

"Like that could hurt you."

The smile faded from his face. "The one thing I can warn you about but can't teach you is how to take care of the people around you who don't have super-powers. If my parents had been in the barn with me when that bottle blew up, they might have been injured by the flying glass."

"Oh." She nodded in comprehension. "I see what you mean. Oh, that reminds me. You might want to fix a doorknob or two in the house."

He nodded back. "Already done. Actually, I thought you showed excellent restraint once you realized what was happening."

"Well. Thanks, Clark." She glanced at the setting sun. "How long till dinner? I'm a bit hungry."

"Not long. We'll head back soon. But unless you want to work some more on your powers, I think we're done for the day."

"Huh. Does that mean I'm now an expert user?"

"No. It means you have all the tools I can give you to control them. The actual control part will come with practice."

She nodded. "Do we have time to go see Bob before dinner?"

He frowned. "No. I think we should leave that conversation for later this evening. Unless, of course, you think we should talk to him sooner."

"No. Later this evening is good for me."

He turned to walk away from the stream. "Okay. Why don't we go back to the house now?"

She didn't move. He took two steps and turned back to face her. "Lois? Is something wrong?"

She sighed. "Have you noticed anything about your powers that might be odd? Like, today you have half the strength or speed or flying ability that you had yesterday?"

He frowned for a moment. "No. My powers are at full strength."

"That's what I thought. So why do I have these powers too? They weren't split from you. It's almost as if they were copied somehow."

Clark's eyebrows danced a jig. "I see what you mean. I'm still the same, so what happened to change you?"

"That's the sixty-four thousand dollar super-question, isn't it? And if we don't know what happened to cause it, how can we undo it?"

He paused. With his voice at its lowest volume, he asked, "Is it so terrible to be like me, Lois?"

"That's not what I meant. You -- you're Superman! You know what to do when the bad guys do bad guy stuff! You know how to rescue mugging victims and stop burglars and catch bullets and --"

"Lois, you --"

"A-a-and I don't have any idea how to do any of that and people look up to you and you have a charitable foundation, which, by the way, does lots of good things, but who'd buy an action figure of me --"

He grabbed her shoulders and gave her the tiniest of shakes. "Lois! It's okay! Really. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do."

She took a deep breath and he released her. "Okay. Good. Because I have no idea what I want to do yet."

"No problem, Lois. Please don't think that I'm trying to train you as my sidekick or something, because I'm not. I don't want to put any pressure on you at all. What you do with these powers is your decision entirely."

She looked into his face, and his sincerity shone through his chocolate brown eyes. No wonder Rebecca likes them so much, she thought.

She smiled. "Okay. I'm sorry for the rant back there, but this has been a pretty eventful day."

He put his hand on her shoulder and guided her back to the house. "Yes, it has."

***

Clark sat back and covered a burp. "Excuse me. Dinner was great as usual, Mom. Thanks."

Lois smiled and nodded her agreement. "Yes, Martha, it was delicious."

"Thank you, both of you. Did everyone get enough?"

Jonathan patted his stomach and said, "Oh, I suppose I could manage to eat another plateful or two."

Lois and Clark laughed. Martha smiled and waved at him playfully. "Jonathan Kent, you'd better not put one more thing in your mouth tonight! Your doctor will tan your hide if you don't drop eleven more pounds before your next appointment."

Jonathan laughed. "Okay, Martha, okay! Clark, what are your plans for the rest of the evening?"

"Um. Actually, Lois and I were going to have a talk with Bob."

"Oh? What about?"

Clark glanced at Lois, who gave him a microscopic 'no' head shake. "Uh, I think we need to talk about that after Lois and I talk to Bob."

Jonathan frowned slightly, but didn't press them. "Okay. I've got to be up early in the morning, so I'm going to hit the hay pretty soon. If I don't see either of you before tomorrow, good night and pleasant dreams."

Martha started. "Oh!"

Her husband put his hand on her arm. "What is it?"

"I completely forgot."

"Forgot what?"

"To fix Lois a place to sleep tonight. Unless she wants to bunk with Clark."

Lois tried to cover her stunned astonishment with a coughing fit. Clark merely stared slack-jawed at his mother. With a perfectly straight face, Jonathan said, "Probably not, dear, but you should at least let them make the choice."

"Oh, no, Martha, I couldn't --"

"Mom, no, I'll sleep on the couch --"

"No, Clark, I won't run you out of --"

"It's fine, the couch is comfortable enough to --"

"But it's your bedroom and I wouldn't --"

"HEY!" yelled Jonathan.

Clark and Lois both fell silent. "That's better. Clark, you take the couch. Lois gets the bed. And if you're here tomorrow night, you'll switch. Is that acceptable to you two paragons of unselfishness?"

Clark felt his mouth twitch. "I think that's fair, Dad. Good idea."

"Yes," Lois added nervously, "that's a very good idea."

"Good. Now that the sleeping situation is settled, shouldn't you two go have your conversation with Bob?"

***

Lois didn't speak until they got to the barn door. "I can't believe what your mother said about me bunking with you."

"Oh? Am I that unattractive?"

She gave him a 'look' and pushed the door open. "You know you're not, Kent, but I'd hate to confess to Lex that we slept together while we were hiding out here in Kansas."

He chuckled. "Yes, that would be awkward."

"About as awkward as you having to explain it to Rebecca."

He gave the 'look' back to her, knowing that she could see it, even in the dark. "Careful, Lois. I think we're getting close to dangerous ground."

"If you stay off the subject, so will I. Agreed?"

He sighed. "Agreed."

"Good."

He waited until she was almost all the way across the floor to the basement entrance. "Of course, that does eliminate a lot of advantageous taunting on both our parts."

She stopped beside the palm panel which controlled the door. "I sincerely doubt we'll run out of conversation in any case."

"You're right, as usual." He palmed the panel and the door began to open.

"Don't patronize me, Kent."

Her prickly attitude finally got to him. "And you shouldn't be so fiddle-winking sensitive, Lane."

She stood still, watching his face for a moment. He could tell that she was listening to the link. Finally she exhaled noisily. "I'm sorry, Clark. You're right. I'm on edge, but I shouldn't take it out on you."

"No. You shouldn't."

"I'll try not to." She tentatively put her right hand out towards him. "Still friends?"

The corners of his mouth flickered and he relaxed as he shook her hand softly. "Still friends."

"Then let's go see what Bob has to say."

He gestured for her to precede him, and she stepped off the edge of the opening and floated down to the lower level without touching the stairs. He lifted his eyebrows at her display of her powers, then floated down beside her.

He decided that a little light-hearted teasing was in order. "Do you want me to turn on the light, Lois, or are you going to keep showing off?"

She must have picked up on his tone. "No, turn on the light. That way you won't trip over anything."

He flipped on the light switch as Lois stared at the bare 100-watt bulb in the ceiling. "Interesting," she said. "I can stare directly into the bulb without blinking or flinching."

"I can, too. And it's one more thing you'll have to watch out for. You'll have to remember that staring directly into things like the noonday sun isn't something other people can do for any length of time."

She nodded. "I hadn't thought of that, but you're right." Then she looked at him with compassion in her face. "You've had a hard time hiding your abilities, haven't you?"

"Yes. It was why we created Superman, so I could use my powers openly but not have people run away from me in fear."

"At least people aren't scared of Superman."

"You haven't seen some of the reactions I've gotten. Most people are in awe of the Superman persona, but some are actually afraid. If I'm in certain parts of the world, I have to spend a good part of my time convincing people that I'm there to help before I can actually help them." He shook his head. "You'll see."

She didn't say anything, but he picked up through the link a definite ambivalence about her using her powers openly. She turned away and said, "So let's see if Bob's busy tonight."

***

Chapter Twenty-six

>>>Monday, 7:53 PM

Hello, Bob.

>> Hello, Lois. I am pleased to -- <<

Bob? Are you there? What happened? Where'd you go?

>> Something has changed. Something about you. Let me compare -- yes, I see. Lois, are you aware that the baseline identification scan I performed on you the first time we communicated does not match your current readings? <<

I'm not surprised.

>> I was not aware that humans passed through any kind of physical metamorphosis. Is that what has happened to you? <<

No. You're probably picking up on the fact that I've got Clark's powers now.

>> <<

Bob? Hey, come back!

>> Please repeat your previous statement. I believe the code in my input module may have been corrupted, and I need to verify the data. <<

I said, I've got Clark's powers now.

>> Do you mean that his special abilities have been transferred to you? <<

No. More like copied, I think.

>> How did this 'copy' process take place? <<

I don't know. We were hoping you could tell us.

>> <<

Bob? Hey, Bob, don't go all stoner on me now! We need your help! Bob?

>> I am here, Lois. <<

Where'd you go? For a minute I thought you'd turned yourself off.

>> I apologize. I was checking my databanks for any information which might be pertinent to your statement. <<

What did you find?

>> Nothing in my current data. I will have to search the offline archives before arriving at a hypothesis. <<

You mentioned those before. What offline archives are you talking about?

>> The ship which brought Kal-El to Earth also contains detailed historical information on Krypton, along with a vast repository of scientific data, which is too extensive for me to maintain in this unit. I will combine the data I collect from you and from Clark with any archived information which might be pertinent. <<

How long with that take?

>> It depends on the amount of data I must process. Perhaps it would be better if you returned after a period of rest. <<

You're saying we should sleep on it?

>> If I comprehend the idiom correctly, then, yes, please sleep on it. <<

Okay. Can I go now?

>> Please remain in contact with my outer shell for a few moments. I must take additional physical readings from you. Hmm. Lois, did you know that you are currently ovulating? <<

What? Hey! That's kind of personal, don't you think?

>> Do you mean personal as in private? <<

Yeah! Very private! And don't tell Clark that, okay? It's not the kind of thing women usually tell their male friends.

>> As you wish, Lois. Despite my own research and access to human media transmissions, many elements of personal interactions still escape my comprehension. For example, did you know that a human male who has a large -- <<

Bob! Let's stick with the subject at hand, okay? As in my powers?

>> Of course, Lois. Would you please ask Clark to join us? <<

***

Clark watched Lois' face as she closed her eyes and put her hands on the top of the globe. She looked apprehensive, which was natural. Suddenly, she blushed furiously and worked her mouth as if she were embarrassed.

He couldn't think of any reason for her to have been embarrassed. Before he could puzzle out the reason for her odd behavior, she opened her eyes and looked at him.

"Clark? Bob wants you to join us."

He nodded and placed his hands on the globe beside Lois'.

***

>> Clark. Good. Were you aware that Lois' body has taken on a surprising number of your physical characteristics? <<

Yes.

>> Lois does not know how this might have happened. Do you? <<

No. All I can tell is what happened to us this morning.

>> Please narrate those events to me. Lois, please wait until Clark has completed his account, then you may add your comments or make any corrections necessary. <<

Okay. We were at Luthor Technologies this morning for an interview. We stood on a platform and put our hands on a Van De Graff generator and the operator opened the ground shunt and sent a high-voltage and high-amperage charge of electricity through us. About the same time, someone set off a bomb which destroyed the building.

>> What kind of work was being done in the room where this took place? <<

They were studying how to limit the static discharge from the shuttle to the space station during docking.

>> I see. Was there anything else about the lab which you can tell me? <<

Um, no, I don't think so, unless you want stuff like the materials used in the lab.

>> That would be helpful. <<

No can do. When I said the explosion destroyed the building, I mean that the explosion destroyed the building. Completely. It's just a pile of junk now.

>> I see. Lois, is there anything you can add to Clark's narrative? <<

No. Except that I think I already had these powers when the bomb went off. I don't think I would have survived any other way.

>> That is probable, given the level of destruction described in the news reports I have accessed. <<

News reports?

>> A great number of them, from both electronic and print media. There seems to be some concern that this was a terrorist activity of some kind, but both the state and the national government agencies are playing down that possibility. <<

What else do the news reports say?

>> There are three other recurring themes. One is that the bomber knew both demolition and the building itself very well, or was guided by someone who had intimate knowledge of both. Two, there is no record that the building security was breached in the days prior to the explosion, so whoever planted the explosives may very well have been a LexCorp employee or contractor, absent the existence of some highly skilled or effective terrorist cell. Three, there are many calls for Superman to reply to the question of why he was not there to save lives. <<

Oh. Is there anything else we can tell you right now, Bob?

>> I have no further data at this time, Lois. You and Clark should sleep. I will have some preliminary conclusions in the morning. <<

One more thing. I think you should add my handprint to the security system. If I need to ask you something, I don't want to have to wake up Jonathan or Martha.

>> That is a logical suggestion. Clark, do you authorize this addition? <<

Yes. Lois is right, that's a good idea.

>> Very well. It is done. Lois now has access to the sub-basement via the security system. <<

Thanks, Bob. Bye.

***

Lois removed her hands from the globe. Clark lifted his hands and turned away from her. She'd felt him flinch, both in her mind and in her hands, when Bob had reported the calls for Superman to explain himself, and she knew he'd taken the news as a personal attack. She sensed that the thought that people might feel they could no longer trust him to help them, or that they felt he'd let them down somehow, tore at his soul and battered his already wounded sense of self.

"Clark?" He didn't answer. "Hey. You okay?"

"Sure. Why not?"

She heard the brittle tone and understood his pain. "You don't sound okay to me."

"Maybe that's because -- because I saw some people die today."

"You can't save everyone. No one can."

"I'm Superman, remember? The guy in the blue tights who flies in and saves the day? And then flies away without ever thinking about what he's just done?"

"Where did you get the idea that --"

"I read other papers sometimes, not just in Metropolis. I'm not the most popular guy in every city in all the world."

Her voice dropped almost to a whisper. "Not everyone feels that way about you. Most don't. And the ones who are alive today because of you, or the ones whose loved ones came home because of you, certainly don't feel that way."

"But I'm Superman! I'm supposed to fix it all and I -- I can't -- I just --"

She stepped up behind him and put her arms around his chest, then she leaned her cheek against his wide, solid back. "You don't have to make excuses for yourself, Clark, especially not to me. And you aren't responsible for those deaths. You told me that they had all died before you even knew that a bomb had gone off. There wasn't anything you could have done. You didn't cause them and you couldn't have prevented them."

She felt him shudder and nod. "I know. But it doesn't make it easier."

He stepped away and she let him go. "No. But you can't carry the guilt of every death, every injury, every crime you might have prevented. No one can. You do all that you can do, Clark, and you have to leave everything else up to the rest of us. You can't do everything or save everyone, but if you do what you can, that's enough."

She could see him relax as he listened. "Thank you, Lois. That's the same kind of thing Dennis Lang told me once. I'd almost forgotten about it." He sighed deeply, then turned and faced her. "I hope you remember that speech. I have a feeling I'm going to have to give it back to you before long."

The thought stunned her so much that she didn't move until long after he'd trod heavily up the stairs and gone into the house.

***

She'd turned off the light in the sub-basement, closed the access door, and decided to take a walk around the farm and look at the stars for a few moments. She wondered for a moment which star had been Clark's original home, then decided she didn't want to know.

Then her hearing picked up Clark's voice on the phone. As she focused in, she heard the Daily Planet's receptionist on the other end and decided it wasn't a personal call. And if it was work-related, she wanted in on it.

As she walked to the kitchen, she heard both sides of the conversation. It was a strange sensation.

"Perry White, Daily Planet. It's your dime, start talkin'."

"Perry? This is Clark."

"What! You -- wait, let me close my office door. There. Son, you have no idea what kind of hornet's nest you two kicked over this morning. We've had police and Federal cops and the FBI in here all day wanting to look at your notes and check out your computers. And don't be surprised if you both find your apartments have been searched when you get home."

She heard Clark hiss in fear. "Chief, if they find my spare suits --"

"No problem. I went over and picked them up as soon as I figured out you weren't coming straight back. In fact, I had just finished running that little ol' errand when you called me earlier today. Those suits are in the trunk of my car right now, and I hope you come get them soon. They're making me more nervous than the King's opening act."

Clark chuckled. "Okay, I'll get them back from you as soon as I can."

"Thanks. You know, there's a couple of people who've been calling here more than others. Lex Luthor is real anxious about finding Lois, and his receptionist, that Rebecca girl, is just about beside herself worrying about you. Maybe we ought to let them know you two are okay."

Before Clark could respond, Lois opened the door and stepped into the kitchen. He glanced at her. She nodded and mouthed, 'I think so too.'

Clark nodded in comprehension and answered. "Not yet, Perry." He ignored Lois' astonished reaction. "If Luthor hasn't given himself away by tomorrow afternoon, he probably won't. We'll come back, say that Superman rescued us -- which would be true -- and that you asked us to hide out for a short while to see if anybody jumped the wrong way, which is also true."

Lois reached for the phone, but Clark fended her off. "If that's what you two want, son, okay," replied Perry, "but you'd better not wait too long. And tell Lois that her mother and sister both called here today. Her mom sounded scared sober to me."

"I'll tell her, Chief. Good night."

He hung up and turned to face an enraged partner. "What do you mean by making that decision for me without asking me what I thought? I ought to clobber you, Kent!"

"Look, Lois --"

"I want to tell Lex that I'm alive right now! And you need to tell Rebecca as soon as possible! There's no reason for letting them worry like this!"

"I don't --"

She reached for the phone, but he caught her wrist. She narrowed her eyes. "Don't think you can physically stop me now, Clark. I'm almost as strong as you are and I'm a lot more determined. And your parents' house can't take a super-fight between us." "You're not making that call."

She wrenched her hand free. "Just because you don't have any feelings doesn't mean --"

The back of his hand stopped two inches from the side of her face. The force of the air he'd pushed with the swing blew her hair back and ruffled his mother's window curtains. He took two deep breaths and slowly lowered his hand.

Despite her own new-found confidence in her powers, Clark's dark eyes frightened her. They were as hard and cold as frozen granite, yet more full of fire than she'd ever seen, and his voice rode the razor edge of barely leashed fury. "Don't ever accuse me of not having feelings, Lois. Not ever. I'd like for you to tell your family that you're not hurt. I wish I could tell Rebecca that I'm alive and well. But we have a higher priority. Unless you've given up on finding the rest of those gun-runners --"

"I haven't!"

"Then back off and let them screw up so we can find them! Get your mind on track and do your job! You're a reporter! Act like it! We stay dead for one more day!"

She glared at him for a moment, then just before she turned to leave, he stepped around her and stomped out the kitchen door. She heard the 'whoosh' as he took off, and she wondered if the Arctic was in for another pounding.

She reached for the phone, but didn't lift it off the hook. As much as she hated to admit it, Clark was right about their situation. Had they been ordinary reporters rescued by Superman, they'd still need to lay low while their attacker made moves which might identify him or her. And being super-powered only meant that they could go back to Metropolis at a moment's notice. It didn't change the basic facts.

She dropped her hand and headed to Clark's bedroom to sleep. His being right didn't make her less angry with him. And apologizing to him tonight just wasn't going to happen.

***

Clark glared at his hand and flexed it twice. Traitor, he thought. You betrayed me. You almost hit someone, the one person in the world who could possibly understand what he went through on a daily basis.

No, he mused, it wasn't true. His hand hadn't betrayed him. He'd betrayed himself.

He tried again to analyze his thoughts and feelings in the moments before he'd almost slapped Lois, tried to find some flaw or problem in himself which had caused him to come so close to losing control. All he could remember was a sudden towering rage exploding in his mind as Lois had accused him of not having feelings.

Where had that rage come from? He'd never reacted like that to anything anyone else had ever done to him. Even the stuff Lana had pulled on occasion had never pushed him to the brink of violence.

He touched the link to make sure it was still turned off at his end. And he also noted that now he could tell whether or not it was open at Lois' end.

It wasn't. Which was what he'd expected.

But Bob's warning that two people who were linked as he and Lois were would share feelings and attitudes came back. Was it possible that Lois' tendency to quick anger was undermining his own control? Could she be influencing him in that way?

He shook his head. Even if it were true that Lois' attitudes were literally rubbing off on him, it wasn't her fault. And blaming her for his problem would do no good. He was the one with the anger issues. He was the one who had to get his temper under control. And he was the one who had to make sure that he never lost it, never let his temper loose.

And he was the one who had to make sure that he never -- never! -- came close to hitting Lois again.

Could it be that his feelings for Lois contributed to his dance near the edge of the control cliff? He liked her -- he like her a whole lot -- and she was one of the few people whose good opinion of him was important enough to him to make him change his behavior. On top of that, he respected her and wanted to keep her as a friend. He cared about her.

And after a moment's consideration, he decided that he cared about her more than even a good friend probably should. After all, she trusted him enough to fly with him and learn from him how to control her new-found powers. And she listened to him when he needed to say things to her. She was probably -- no, definitely -- his best friend.

But she shouldn't have insulted him. After all, even Superman had feelings which could be hurt.

Feelings which, at the moment, were as much a mystery to him as anything else he could think of. Those feelings couldn't possibly be anywhere near what he thought they might be. No way. There was no way he was in love with Lois Lane.

He'd keep telling himself that. Maybe he'd even come to believe it eventually.

>>>Monday, 8:44 PM

Rebecca tried to ignore the doorbell, but whoever it was wouldn't leave, even when she yelled "Go away!" from her side. When she finally pulled the door open a crack and peeked out, she was surprised to see Carly standing there with a pizza box and a bottle of soda.

"Carly, I really don't want to see anyone. Please go away."

Carly stood her ground. "If you don't let me in, I'll send Randy up here with this stuff. I bet you'd let him in. He may be an old guy, but he's still cute."

Rebecca smiled thinly. "Please leave me alone. I know you're trying to be nice to me, but tonight's just not a good time."

She shook her head. "No way. The girls in the receptionist department got together and drew straws to see who'd come and see you and bring food. And --"

"You drew the short straw and lost, right?"

Carly looked slightly puzzled. "No. I won."

Despite her fears about Clark and her desire to be alone, Rebecca nodded and opened the door all the way. "I'm sorry. Please come in."

"Thanks. I hope you like the works, because that's what I brought."

"Sure. That'll be fine."

"Good. Hey, Becca, where do you keep your drinking glasses?"

She followed Carly into the dining area and opened her kitchen cabinet. "I got it. Why don't you sit at the table?"

"I'll get some ice first. They didn't have any cold diet root beer."

Rebecca stared. "Diet root beer with pizza?"

"Of course," Carly returned with a straight face. "You don't want to get fat, do you?"

Slowly, Rebecca's features bent into a smile, then she laughed. Carly opened the pizza box and set it on the table. "First time I ever met anyone who thought root beer was funny."

She doesn't get it, thought Rebecca. Or maybe she does get it and just doesn't want me to know how quick she really is. "Never mind. Thank you for coming over, and for bringing dinner." She sat as Carly opened her freezer and pulled out an ice tray.

"Becca, you wouldn't believe how crazy things have been today! I couldn't count all the cops who were there. The police commissioner showed up to talk to Mr. Luthor, the city assistant fire chief came in to talk to our head of security, the FBI sent a field supervisor -- I think that's what they called him -- and none of them knows anything! Leastways, not that they'd tell us anything. And Randy's been at the L-Tech site all day with the police bomb squad." Carly picked up a slice of pizza and bit into it. "Ooh, hot, hot, still hot! Aaah!"

Rebecca opened the root beer and poured some into her guest's glass. "Here you go."

"Thanks!" Carly drank it down and sat back, then burped long and loud. Both young women laughed. "Oh! I almost forgot. Mr. Asabi told me to tell you that you should stay home tomorrow, full pay of course, I know 'cause I asked, and they'll call you if they find out anything. Will you be okay? He told me to check on you tomorrow, too, so if you go someplace you can call me. He gave me a cell phone for you to use, and it's pretty neat. I think I'm going to get one for myself, hang the cost. You can talk to anyone as long as you're in the service area, and Metropolis is covered, even though you drop off the network if you leave the city, and why are you laughing at me?"

"Ho-ho-ho! I'm sorry, Carly. It just hit me that you're in the perfect job for you."

"What, receptionist and switchboard operator? Hey, it's great money, and you meet lots of interesting people. Who wouldn't like it?"

Clark wouldn't, she thought. He'd need to do something about the injustice in the world. He'd have to help people somehow.

At least, he would if he were still alive.

Her mood flipped over to despair again. She put down her pizza and tried not to cry. It was easier now than it had been earlier in the day. She felt drained, as if she'd shed all the tears in her reservoir and couldn't cry again until her body produced more.

Carly put her hand on Rebecca's shoulder. Her voice was soft and gentle. "Becca, they haven't found him yet. As long as they haven't found him, you can hope."

Rebecca sniffed and wiped her nose on her napkin. "Isn't this stupid? I'm crying over a man who's never even kissed me! He never even tried to!"

"He will, Becca, he will."

"How do you know?" She stood and shouted. "He won't be able to if he's dead!"

*he's dead he's dead he's dead he's dead*

The echoing refrain tore her heart open and the pieces tumbled out of her chest to splatter to the floor around her feet.

She was wrong. She still had tears to shed.

Carly caught her before she hit the floor, then held her as she wept out her heart's agony anew.

>>>Tuesday, 7:11 AM

"Lois?" called Martha softly. "Lois, are you awake?"

Lois opened one eye and groaned. "Wha' time zit?"

"It's about ten after seven."

"What?" Lois threw back the covers and lurched up. "I have to get ready -- wait." She put her head in her hands and sighed. "I forgot where I was for a minute."

Martha smiled. "That's okay. Would you like some breakfast?"

"Umph. Just toast and coffee, if it's not too much trouble."

Martha laughed softly. "Honey, I've been up since before six, and I fixed breakfast for Jonathan and Clark before they went out to work on the roof on the barn. I let you sleep late, but I don't want you to get your days and nights turned around."

Lois looked at Martha through splayed fingers. "Oh, yeah, that's a real danger for me out here."

"Well, you can avoid that particular danger by coming downstairs to the kitchen. I'll have your toast and coffee ready, along with some bacon and scrambled eggs and some sausage. You can eat what you like."

Lois sighed. "I'm sorry, Martha, I'm just not a morning person. Thank you for all you've done for me."

"Nonsense. You just get dressed and come on down when you're ready."

***

Maybe I could get dressed at super-speed, she thought. I wonder if Clark dresses at super-speed in the morning?

How does he shave? How does he cut his hair? I'll have to ask him, because if his hair is as invulnerable as his skin, not even his hairdresser knows for sure.

She chuckled to herself and wondered if she'd have to shave her legs and armpits the way Clark shaved his beard, however that might be. There were still aspects of having super-powers that she hadn't considered yet. For example, would she ever be able to wear a bikini again, or would her body hair situation prevent it?

She tucked her shirt into her jeans and zipped them up. There was plenty of time to learn about all that, assuming the powers were permanent, and assuming Bob didn't try to remove them.

And assuming she wanted to keep them.

She wondered about her attitude. Was she really that flexible, or had the shock not yet worn off? Or did she have some hidden super-power envy going on with Clark that was now satisfied?

She shook her head and slipped her bare feet into her new sneakers. This introspection wasn't getting her breakfast inside her, where it would do the most good. And she was starting to feel very hungry.

She almost floated down the stairway, then remembered at the last moment that Martha had no idea that Lois had somehow acquired Clark's powers, and despite the woman's kindness and obvious concern, there was no way to predict how she'd react to the news that there was now someone else who was a physical match for her son. Not to mention how Clark's father might react. Would he consider her a better potential mate for Clark if he knew about her powers?

No. He'd adored Lana, who'd been less of a physical specimen than Lois had been before Monday, so her new capabilities wouldn't change his mind.

Not that Lois wanted to change his mind. She had no romantic interest in Clark. None whatsoever. Zip, zippo, zero, zilch, nada. Nope, no romantic interest at all.

She tried to step down again and belatedly realized that she'd already reached the ground floor. Her recovery was less than graceful, but no one was around to see it. As an added bonus, she didn't hurt herself.

Martha smiled as Lois entered the kitchen. "Oh, good, you're here! Let me pour you some coffee. How do you take it?"

"I think I could take it straight this morning, but if you put a little cream in, I wouldn't object."

Martha smiled. "Cream it is. I hope you like scrambled eggs."

Lois slid into the seat in front of the empty plate. "That sounds wonderful. Thank you."

"Or I could make some pancakes if you'd rather have that."

"No, really, the eggs are fine." Lois looked around at the contents of the table for the first time. "And the bacon. And the stack of toast. And the plate full of sausage."

Martha put the mug on the table in front of Lois. "This is how we eat on the farm. It takes a lot of calories to do all the chores a farmer has to finish every day."

Lois sipped her coffee. Hot enough to burn her tongue, if her tongue could still be burned. "Then I'd better take some of those chores today or I'll look like the south end of a north-bound cow by the end of the week."

As Martha laughed with her, Lois wondered if that were still true. Could she eat like Clark now and never gain an ounce? Or would she have to go on a super-diet to keep the extra pounds off?

All this speculation was premature, however, and completely unproductive. Until they spoke with Bob again, there was no way to predict what the rest of her life would be like. Or even what the rest of her day would be like.

She tasted the eggs, decided they needed the tiniest sprinkle of salt and pepper, and devoured them. Four slices of bacon followed, along with six sausages, another generous helping of eggs, a tall glass of orange juice, nearly a quart of iced tea, and three cups of coffee.

By the time she leaned back and sighed, finally contented, Martha was watching her with concern. "Lois, haven't you been eating well? I know young women today sometimes go on silly diets, not that you'd ever need to do anything like that, but I haven't seen anyone put away food like that since Clark came home the first -- Christmas -- he was in college."

Lois looked up and saw the wheels turning in Martha's head, then saw her blink away the obvious conclusion as a totally absurd one, reached without sufficient evidence and in the face of the incontrovertible fact that Clark was unique on the earth in the matter of his powers.

Lois stood and gathered her dishes, then carried them to the sink. "Except for a donut at the Planet, I don't think I ate anything at all yesterday. And I almost never get to eat food as good as yours. I guess I just got carried away."

"Of course, dear, I understand. So, are you and Clark still fighting this morning?"

Lois' face fell, then she recovered. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize we were speaking so loudly last night."

"I didn't hear all of it, of course, but I know the two of you had some sort of disagreement last night." She waited as Lois folded her arms and looked around the room. "Would you like to tell me about it, or should I guess?"

Lois waved her hands in front of her. "No guesses, please." She sighed and dropped her arms to her sides. "Clark wants to keep the fact that we're alive a secret for a while longer. He thinks it might smoke out whoever set off the bomb."

"What do you think?"

She doesn't pull her punches, thought Lois. "I think that he might be right, but I also think that keeping the people who -- who care about us in the dark is cruel. My mother and sister deserve to know. For that matter, Jimmy Olsen should know. He's done a lot of research on this story, too. He's almost as invested in it as I am."

"I see. Has Clark set some kind of timeline for your coming out?"

"What? Coming out of what?"

"The grave, of course." Lois rolled her eyes as Martha continued. "That's what it's going to look like to a lot of people, Lois. And while I understand the need to uncover the bomber, I agree that it would be cruel to keep your loved ones in the dark about your survival any longer than necessary."

She nodded. "Thank you. Clark did agree that tonight should be the last night we -- we stay dead."

"That's good. So why don't you just agree to disagree with him?"

Lois returned to her chair and flopped down in it. "I don't know. It seems like we're either laughing at each other's jokes or trying to strangle each other. We can't seem to find that happy medium, much less stay there."

Martha patted her arm. "I wouldn't worry too much about it. You'll find your way. Everyone does."

"You're right. I guess we -- wait, Martha, are you talking about Clark and me like we were a couple?"

"Not unless you both want to be one. But even close friends have spats and arguments on occasion. The hard part is getting past those spats and getting to the making up stage."

Lois nodded. "Yeah, and it'll be harder for Clark and me to make up."

Martha frowned. "Why is that?"

"Because I'm not going to kiss him to make up with him."

Martha burst out laughing.

At least she's not thinking about how much I ate, thought Lois.

Then she wondered why her stomach not only didn't hurt, it didn't even feel full.

***

--* Clark? Are you listening? *--

--* Yes. *--

Okay, she thought, we're going to be terse with each other. -* I think we should have that chat with Bob as soon as possible. *--

--* I agree. Dad and I should be finished in about forty minutes. Is that soon enough? *--

--* Yes. I'll be helping your mother with her chores. *--

--* I'll find you when the time comes. *--

And the link faded from his end. Still mad, she thought. Well, she was too. A few days before, she would have said that flying was his special gift and that staying mad was her special gift. Now she wondered just how much she'd shared with Clark over the link.

The memory of how Bob had told them that both parties in the link would influence the other slipped into her mind. She hadn't thought about that aspect of the link at the time -- she'd been too overwhelmed at Bob's assumption that she and Clark were, or soon would be, mated -- but now she wondered just how deeply this exchange of thoughts and ideas went. Was Clark's sudden anger the night before a result of her mental influence on him? And was his continuing anger also another effect she was having on him?

If so, were her current moral ponderings a result of his influence on her? Would those effects stop at some point, or would they continue?

She'd have to ask Bob.

After the awkward conversation about her powers, that is.

***

When Clark came for her, she was helping his mother feed the goats.

"Lois? Are you ready?"

Still brusque, she thought. "Martha, Clark and I need to talk to Bob again. I hope you don't feel like I'm abandoning you."

"Of course not, dear. I'm grateful for the company. You two go have that conversation with Bob."

"Thanks, Martha." She turned to Clark and gave him a small smile. "Lead on, MacDuff."

Instead of responding, he turned abruptly and strode towards the barn. Lois nodded to Martha and followed in his wake.

Silently, he opened the basement door and walked down the steps, not turning to see if she followed. Clark flicked on the light, then looked at Lois as if to apologize for turning on the light when she no longer needed it, but he didn't speak.

Without changing her expression, she gestured for him to precede her to Bob's cradle.

***

Chapter Twenty-Seven

>>>Tuesday, 10:14 AM

Perry stepped out of his office into the newsroom and lifted his hands. Normally his gesture would not have been noticed by many, and most of those would have ignored him, but not on this day. The entire floor went silent as they awaited his announcement.

He scanned the crowd. Young Olsen was standing beside Eduardo's desk, holding a stack of research materials. Ben Collins, sports editor, had stopped in his tracks and was watching Perry expectantly. Cat Grant was at her own desk, her pale face in stark contrast to her unkempt dark auburn tresses.

No one moved, rustled a piece of paper, slurped coffee or soft drinks, chewed a candy bar, or even breathed loud.

Perry lowered his hands. "The police and fire departments have recovered sixteen more bodies, none of which are Daily Planet employees. They have also identified residual material from the explosives used to bring down the building, and they're starting a trace to see where the material came from."

He looked around and saw that everyone was still hanging on his every word. "One more thing. One of the bodies recovered this morning, tentatively identified as Dr. Samuel Platt, has two bullet wounds in the middle of his chest. Another, tentatively identified as Dr. Antoinette Baines, head of the entire lab, was holding a small-caliber revolver with two chambers discharged. Now I want everyone -- and I mean everyone! -- to focus on these two people. Get everything you can on them for the last five years, right down to their hairdressers and what brand of shoes each one wore. Baines shot Platt and then someone set off a bomb. Find out why she killed him and maybe we'll unravel this thing. That's our ticket to figure this out, people. Get to it!"

The entire room burst into activity. Perry looked around at his news staff and felt regret for deceiving them. They all thought Clark and Lois were dead, smashed flat as Tennessee road kill under tons of concrete and steel. But their anger at two of their own having been murdered gave them an extra boost of determination. They'd find out what happened and why, and heaven help the perpetrators when they did.

He turned towards his office, but a lack of motion at one desk distracted him. Cat Grant was still in her chair, gripping the edge of her desk as if she was afraid to fall. He started to make his way over to her, but was interrupted by Jimmy.

"Chief! I have those proofs you wanted for page two."

"Good. Put them on my desk."

"Right away!"

"Wait. Olsen, come here a minute."

Jimmy spun around and trotted back to his boss. "What's up?"

Perry faced him and put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "I want you to look at me, look only at me, and tell me what you think is bothering Cat Grant."

Jimmy frowned and started to turn his head, but remembered his instructions just in time. "I dunno, Chief. I guess she's just upset about -- about Lois. They were starting to get kinda close, you know?"

"Uh-huh. So why does she look so scared?"

Jimmy opened his mouth but had nothing to say. His expression morphed to one of intense curiosity. "How's about I try to figure out the answer to that one, Chief?"

Perry slapped him gently on the shoulder. "You do that. But keep your head down, okay? I don't want anyone getting hurt."

Jimmy's eyes turned to stone. "You mean anyone else, right?" And he turned away.

Perry sauntered over to Cat's desk and leaned on the far corner. "Miss Grant?" She didn't respond. "Cat?" Still nothing. "Hey, Kitten!"

Her head snapped up. Perry saw something in her eyes that surprised him. It wasn't grief, it was more like a mixture of fear and blame.

Her chin quivered. "Have -- have they found anything from -- from Clark or -- or Lois?"

This girl was terrified, thought Perry. And I can't imagine why that would be.

He sighed. "I didn't want to say this in front of the others, but they did find Lois' purse this morning."

Cat's eyes closed and she moaned. Perry thought she would fall out of her chair, but she caught herself at the last minute.

"Young lady, you have to be positive. You have to expect the best. But no matter what happens, you have to keep doing your job. Okay?"

Cat nodded mutely, but Perry wasn't convinced. "Maybe you should go home today and get some rest. Do you want me to call someone for you?"

She forced bleary eyes open and said, "No. No, I'll be okay. Just let me -- " she stood and headed for the ladies' restroom.

Perry nodded to himself. Something was going on with her, something more than just shock and grief. And he was determined to find out what it was.

***

Cat slammed into the last stall after making sure the restroom was unoccupied. She fumbled with the cell phone and finally placed the call she'd been dreading since the day before.

"Miss Grant. Nice to finally hear from you."

Cat ignored the distorted sarcasm. "You killed them."

"Them who?"

"You know who!" She stopped herself and lowered her voice. "The building Clark and Lois went to yesterday blew up. They found Lois' purse this morning."

"Ah. I was beginning to wonder if they'd managed to leave before the explosion."

Cat gasped. She could no longer lie to herself that the information she'd provided hadn't had anything to do with the blast. She had to face it. She was party to a mass murder, maybe even a terrorist act.

The voice ignored her agony. "Thank you for the confirmation, Miss Grant. I expect to hear from you as soon as the authorities identify the bodies of Kent and Lane."

Cat didn't answer. "Miss Grant? Are you still there?"

"Uh -- yes. I'm -- here."

"Good. As I promised, there has been a five percent reduction in the principle on your debt. At this rate -- " the distorted chuckle sounded to Cat like frantic fingernails scraping the inside of a coffin lid " -- your debt will be eliminated in, oh, a few years more."

The signal cut off and Cat put away the phone by reflex. I helped kill more than fifty people, she moaned to herself. And I set up Clark and Lois to die with them.

It was too much to think about and she fainted.

One of the research interns found her a few minutes later and called for help. Cat spent that night and most of the next day in the hospital, recovering from shock and from the concussion she'd suffered when she'd fallen to the hard tile floor.

>>>Tuesday, 10:14 AM

As Clark led Lois down the steps to Bob's cradle, his mind roiled. Did he want Lois to keep her powers? If she kept them, would she use them openly? Would she wear a flashy costume and fight for truth and justice, or would she help anonymously from behind the scenes as he once had? Would she still respect him as a person, as a man, as a friend, when she found out that having these powers didn't automatically make him wise and patient and the keeper of all the answers?

And, once she learned how hard it was to be him, would she still be his friend?

Later. He'd think about that later. She wasn't broadcasting mentally, but he could tell that she was apprehensive about the next few minutes.

Well, so was he. Let her stew. It might tenderize her a little.

He turned on the light at the same moment he realized that she didn't need it any more than he did. He looked at her and almost spoke an apology, but her blank expression made the words fade from his tongue. Still stone-faced, she motioned for him to lead her to Bob.

Without another glance at her, he put his hands on the globe's surface. It always surprised him slightly that the globe was warmer than the air around it. The thing looked cold to him, despite the moving geographic display of Krypton's continents. Maybe it wasn't the globe, he thought, maybe it was his impression of the people of Krypton and the way he thought about them. To him, they had seemed cold and unfeeling in most areas of their lives, except for his birth parents' last action in sending him to Earth so that he would survive.

Now, for some reason, he wondered if their motives were less loving, less altruistic than he'd always thought. Maybe they'd planned to follow him if his ship survived the journey. Maybe his ship had actually been a test bed for the propulsion system. Maybe his father had miscalculated the speed of Krypton's breakup and his parents had been caught in the maelstrom before they could escape the planet's gravity well.

And maybe Lois' cynicism and suspicious nature was infecting him.

He shook off his concerns and listened for the sound of one hand clapping.

***

Bob? We're here.

>> I know, Clark. I registered your body mass, along with Lois', on my sensors and identified you as soon as you were within range. <<

Bob? This is Lois. What'cha got for us?

>> I have several pieces of information for you. Perhaps I should list them all for you before either of you respond. <<

Okay with me. How about you, Clark?

Fine by me.

>> Very well, I shall begin. There are no examples of such a transfer of abilities hinted at in the archive database. Since Clark's abilities manifested themselves only on Earth and would not have developed on Krypton, no hard data exists for such an event. Nor is there any theoretical discussion in Jor-El's notes on his son's physical potential on Earth. Nothing like this was recorded in my data storage. <<

Are you telling me you can't help me?

>> No, Lois, I am not. The changes in your body have made your physiology similar to Clark's, but since your base DNA is compatible with Clark's but not identical to it, there will be some slight differences in the extra-human abilities you now share. I suspect you will have already noticed some of them. In addition, Lois will require additional sustenance in order to support her new altered physiology. Her metabolism will be able to store and utilize solar energy, but to a lesser extent than Clark's. Her increased food intake will compensate for the increased energy expenditure. I would expect that Lois would already have noticed this change also. <<

Yeah. I ate Clark's mom under the table this morning.

>> I am not familiar with the idiom, but I believe I understand your meaning. This condition is temporary. As your body develops its own aura, you will be better able to process solar energy and require less chemical intake. I estimate that the conversion process will take approximately three weeks. <<

Oh, great. So I'm going to eat everything in sight until then?

>> Your appetite will diminish in proportion to the development of your aura, which will assist you in directly utilizing solar energy. At the end of twenty-two days, your food intake should be reduced to what passes for normal for a human your age and build. <<

Why? Clark doesn't eat like that.

>> Clark is Kryptonian. You are human. The process your body has undergone and is currently undergoing will not transform you into a Kryptonian. You will remain human, save that you will no longer experience illness or injury. <<

What about her life span? Will that change significantly?

>> I have insufficient data for a definite prognosis, Clark, but I theorize that Lois' life span will be increased by fifty to eighty percent if not significantly more. <<

What? You mean -- you think I'll live past a hundred?

>> If my calculation are correct, yes, you will live well into your second century. And you should be active and productive for the majority of those years. <<

Okay. I guess I can live with that.

>> Was that an attempt to be humorous, Lois? <<

Huh? No, no, I was just -- um, just making conversation, I guess.

>> Ah. I will add that data to my humor studies database. Humans are sometimes funny without any intention of being humorous. <<

Bob, there's a question Lois and I need to ask you. Is there a way to reverse this process? Just in case Lois wants to, um, get rid of her powers some time in the future.

>> Lois, is this a course you wish to pursue? <<

Thanks for jumping in and helping, Clark. Huh. Well, yes, I'd like to know if I have that option.

>> Very well. Since you cannot provide specific data and exact circumstances of the incident which conferred these abilities upon Lois, I am unable to safely attempt a reversal of the procedure. If both of you ordered me to proceed, I would of course do so, but I am required by my programming to inform you that I do not have sufficient data to predict the odds of success. At this point, there is as high a probability of serious injury to one or both of you as there is of restoring Lois to her baseline human state. <<

Oh. In that case, I think she should keep her powers, at least for now.

>> That would be my recommendation also. Lois, what is your opinion in this matter? <<

You're kidding, right? I'd rather be super-powered than dead or seriously injured! Besides, I'm starting to like this.

>> In that case, I will continue my research but withhold my conclusions unless or until Lois requests them. I must inform you that there is a far higher probability of successfully severing your mental link than of removing Lois' powers. <<

And since you're not happy about trying that on us, I guess Clark and I will stay linked for now, too.

>> Very well. Do you require anything else of me at this time? <<

I do. Are my powers permanent or will they fade away or just quit some time in the future?

>> I do not have sufficient data to answer that question, Lois, but the probability that the transfer is permanent is high. Your molecular structure would have to revert to its original composition before your powers would fade, and I project that event as having a very low probability. But I would require many more examinations before I could commit to a diagnosis. <<

Okay. I can come back for periodic exams, I guess. Is that okay with you?

>> I believe I should take readings from you on a daily basis for the next four days. That should provide sufficient data for a tentative prognosis. <<

Daily, huh? When should we start?

>> We began last evening. I would prefer to take these readings at approximately twenty-four hour intervals. Is that convenient for you? <<

I guess I'll make it convenient. Besides, I wouldn't have to use any of my credit card miles to come and go. As long as you don't have any scheduling conflicts.

>> I would welcome the opportunity to study new phenomena such as this. Is there any other way in which I might assist either or both of you at this time? <<

I'm good. Clark, how about you?

Nope. We'll talk later, Bob. Bye.

***

They stepped back. Clark looked at Lois, trying to gauge her state of mind without touching the link, but she refused to meet his gaze.

Fine, he thought, be that way. He moved aside to allow her to leave the compartment first, but she stopped at the foot of the stairs.

"Clark?"

Her tone was flat and she still wasn't looking at him. "Yes?"

"Why did you ask Bob if he could remove my powers?"

He frowned. "Because I wanted to know, and I thought you needed to know. Besides, I wasn't sure if you wanted to keep them."

"You should have asked me if I wanted to keep them."

"But you'd already said --"

"Doesn't matter what I said before. You should have asked me."

He sighed. "Fine. I should have asked you."

"Yes. You should have."

He didn't respond. He didn't know what to say or do.

She finally turned and looked at him. "So when do we tell your parents?"

"What?"

"I said, when do we tell --"

"I heard you the first time!"

Her eyes narrowed. "Don't yell at me, Clark. I'm just now getting to where I don't want to take your head off below the shoulders."

He lifted his hands to placate her. "Sorry, sorry, you're right." He waited until she relaxed, then asked, "Are you sure you want to tell my folks?"

She nodded. "Yes. They deserve to know what's happened and that we can't reverse it. Besides, I bet they'd have some good advice for me, you know, like how not to peek into the men's shower area at the gym?"

He tried not to laugh, but the sight of Lois fighting off her grin broke down his defenses and he let it out. "Okay, you win. What about tonight after dinner?"

"What time do they normally eat?"

"Five, five-thirty."

She nodded. "Okay. I imagine I'll be hungry again by then."

Her stomach growled and they both chuckled. "I think you're hungry now. How about I take you to town and we do some grocery shopping?"

"Sure. I bet your mom has a list somewhere, too. We can get whatever's on it, too."

He put his hand around and felt for his wallet. "Okay, but I'm just a little short on cash right now."

She put her hands on her hips and gave him a mock frown. "Haven't you heard of ATMs, Clark? You put your card in the machine and get money out."

"They charge you to do that from the Smallville bank to my account in Metropolis."

"So I'll owe you the fee. And I'll spring for half the groceries once I get my cards back." She brightened. "Better yet, we'll let the Planet pay for it."

"Are you sure Perry will go for that?"

"Hmph. If he doesn't, I won't tell him about my powers."

He smiled and nodded. "Ms. Lane, you have a deal."

***

Clark glanced around at the odd looks he and Lois were getting as they loaded the last of the groceries in the back of the pickup. -* Act like the bag is almost too heavy for you, Lois. You don't want everyone to know. *--

--* Sorry. Got carried away. Being this strong is pretty neat, you know? *--

He grinned at her over the bed of the pickup, then climbed into the driver's seat. Because Lois didn't have her license with her, and because her driving skills were foreign to Smallville's gentle ways, she'd agreed to let him take the wheel.

She climbed through the passenger door carrying a bag of Red Delicious apples. At his lifted eyebrows, she grinned and said, "Just a late-morning snack. I can't believe how hungry I am." Then she bit into the first one and let out a quick sigh.

He nodded as she practically inhaled that apple and started on a second one. Her metabolism had better stabilize soon, he thought, or we'll both be flat broke.

***

She finished off the last apple as Clark set the parking brake on the truck. She burped daintily and said, "Excuse me."

"I'm not surprised. You finished off eight apples, two pounds of bananas, two heads of lettuce, a half-dozen tomatoes --"

She got out and picked up two bags from the back of the truck. "Are you with the snack police now? Stop recording everything I eat."

He lowered his voice. "Just remember what Bob told you about your metabolism. You need to be careful about what you eat, especially in front of others."

"I know, Clark. Please don't be a mother hen, okay? I'll be fine."

Just then, Martha opened the back door. "You two need any help with that?"

"If you'll hold the door, Mom, we'd appreciate it."

They had the truck unloaded in two minutes. Martha looked around at the bags on the table, on the cabinet, and on the floor. "Wow. Did you two buy out the entire store?"

"No, Mom, we just got what was on your list. And a couple of other things."

She looked around again. "Okay, if you say so." She bent to find the milk and cheese. "What do you two have planned for this afternoon?"

"Nothing special, Martha. Oh, Clark, be sure and save the receipt. We'll turn it in as an expense."

Martha frowned. "Is that ethical, Lois?"

Lois nodded. "We're putting you and Jonathan out, eating your food, using your hot water, creating more laundry, crowding your house, so yeah, I think it's totally ethical for the Planet to pay for some of your groceries."

Clark gave the question some thought and found that although he understood his mother's point, he agreed with Lois, although he wasn't sure he would have done so a few weeks earlier. "Mom, it's okay. Perry won't object, I'm sure."

She looked dubious, but nodded. "If you both say so, I suppose it will be all right. Now, did you two say what plans you had for this afternoon?"

Clark looked at Lois and nodded microscopically. She said, "I want Clark to show me his Fortress again."

Clark tried to look innocent as his mother gave him a piercing look. "Uh-huh," she muttered. She turned her look to Lois, who stood motionless and looked back without blinking.

His mother nodded. "Okay, you two. I'll call when dinner's ready."

He needed to get out of there before his mother figured out anything else. "We'll be listening, Mom. Lois, are you ready?"

"Sure." Lois reached down and grabbed a bag containing two pounds of grapes, four peaches, and three cans of baked beans. At Martha's questioning grunt, she said disarmingly, "Oh, Clark was nice enough to pick up a snack for us. We didn't get back here for lunch, remember?"

And he hustled her out as fast as he could without arousing even more suspicion.

>>>Tuesday, 6:28 PM

Jonathan leaned back and patted his belly. "Martha, you've outdone yourself yet again. That was a terrific dinner. And Lois, if you keep eating like me, you're going to look like me before long."

Lois flashed him a mega-watt smile and said, "You mean I'll have short gray hair and I'll need glasses?"

The four of them shared an easy laugh. Martha stood. "If anyone still has room, there's a peach cobbler and vanilla ice cream for dessert."

Jonathan shook his head. "No thanks, hon, I'm stuffed."

Clark glanced at Lois, then nodded. "I'm game, Mom. That sounds wonderful."

"Me, too," gushed Lois. "You can't get authentic Kansas cuisine in Metropolis."

Martha put the cobbler and the ice cream on the table. "You two can help yourselves. I'm going to join my husband in the living room."

"Thank you, Martha! I can't remember when I've eaten so well."

"Try thinking about this morning's breakfast, Lois."

They all chuckled again. Jonathan poured two cups of coffee and carried them into the living room as Lois began loading cobbler and ice cream into her bowl.

"Think you used enough ice cream there, Butch?" Clark whispered.

Lois stopped with the spoon halfway to her mouth. "Who's Butch and what does he have to do with ice cream and peach cobbler?" she whispered back.

"The movie. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When they blew up the safe the second time they stopped the train and the blast destroyed the railroad car and blew money everywhere. Butch used too much dynamite on the safe and Sundance called him on it. Robert Redford looked at Paul Newman and drawled, 'Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?'"

"I see. Sorry, don't remember that scene or I'm sure I'd laugh uncontrollably." She slid the spoon into her mouth and rolled her eyes upwards. "Oh! This is absolutely heavenly! Your mom sure can cook."

He shook his head. "I think you'd react like that if you were eating a live squid."

"Hey, can I help it if I have a super-appetite?"

He grunted with irritation. "A little louder, please, I don't think they heard you in Wichita."

"Relax, Clark, your parents are watching the news."

"That doesn't mean they're deaf."

She finished off her helping of cobbler and nodded. "You're right. It's time."

They walked into the living room and sat near each other on the couch. Martha touched her husband on the arm and said, "Dear, I think these young folk have something to tell us."

Clark nodded. "We do."

Jonathan said, "Okay, son. If you'll turn off the TV, we'll give you our undivided attention."

Clark clicked off the set. "This is really Lois' thing to tell you."

"Okay," his father nodded. "Then let's hear Lois tell us this thing."

Clark leaned back and looked at his partner. She seemed smaller and more helpless than he'd ever seen her. "Okay. This is -- unexpected news. To say the least. And I don't think either one of you will be real thrilled about this. See, we sure didn't expect this, and we didn't plan for it, and --"

Jonathan burst out, "Oh, my heavens, you're pregnant!"

Lois jerked and stared at Jonathan. "What?"

"You're pregnant, aren't you?" He turned to his son. "Clark! Why didn't you at least use some protection?"

"What? Dad, wait, this isn't --"

"You've got to be kidding! Lois! Are you two going to get married or adopt out the baby or do you plan to raise our grandchild on your own?"

She leaped to her feet. "Wait a minute! I never said I --"

Jonathan stood also. "This is just crazy!" He stomped each foot once and waved his arms aimlessly. "You couldn't wait to get your hooks into him, could you? You took advantage of -- of -- his --"

His tirade trailed off into silence as he stared at Lois, who was now floating above his head near the ceiling.

Her voice was strained and her face was drawn. "Jonathan. Martha. Listen to me. I'm not pregnant, not with Clark's child or anyone else's. Clark and I aren't having sex. We're not getting married. We're not even a couple. That's not what we wanted to tell you. This is what we wanted to tell you."

Martha found her husband's hand and tugged on it until he overbalanced backwards. He would have fallen had Clark not caught him and eased him down into his overstuffed chair.

He knelt on the floor in front of his parents. "Mom, Dad, we don't know how this happened, but my powers have been copied to Lois somehow. For the past two days, I've been teaching her how to control them. That's why we've been spending so much time together. She's pretty good, actually, and she's a quick study."

Martha nodded slowly as Lois drifted down to the floor. "I see. You say you don't know how this happened?"

"No. We were in the lab, we were hit by a huge charge of electricity, the bomb went off, and the next thing we knew we were buried under several tons of concrete."

Jonathan took a couple of deep breaths. "And that's how she survived?"

Clark's voice tightened. "Her name is Lois, Dad."

Lois crossed her arms and sighed. "It's all right, Clark. Your father has a right to be upset."

"I don't want him to treat you like you're not standing right in front of him!"

She nodded. "Thank you. But we just hit them with something even more unexpected than they expected, so I think you could cut him a little slack and give them some time to adjust."

Clark frowned but stepped back and sat down on the couch. Lois sat on the chair beside Jonathan and took his limp hand. "I'm sorry. I know Clark is unique in the world, and I'm not trying to take his place or do his job or grab headlines away from him. If we could remove my powers safely, I might say go for it, but Bob said he didn't think it was a good idea to try without lots and lots more information, that it might be dangerous to both of us if he miscalculated anything. Please, please don't blame Clark for this. He had nothing to do with it, except for being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Jonathan slowly pulled his hand back from Lois and looked at his son. "Is what she's saying true? Any of it or all of it?"

Clark bristled slightly. "Lois has no reason to lie to you, Dad, especially not about this."

"So what is she going to do with these powers? Are we going to have another costumed super-hero flying around saving people? Or is she going to schedule her fine, unselfish acts and then bill her clients? How will the press see this? What will they say about Superman's relationship to -- to whoever she's going to be?"

"I don't know that she's going to 'be' anyone --"

"And what about us?" Jonathan stood and his voice also rose. "Are we going to be in more danger now that we know about both of the super-powered people in the world? Will other people try to copy your powers? Can other people copy your powers? Maybe only one other person can have them at one time! Maybe copying your powers again will leave you helpless and vulnerable! Maybe Lois will join up with this new person and start her own crime syndicate and look at what you will have created!"

Clark stood and faced his father. "Dad! Lois isn't --"

"And if you were going to give your powers to someone, why in God's name didn't you give them to Lana?"

Lois felt her bowels turn to water. She stood and walked back into the kitchen and pushed through the door. She jogged across the field and stopped at the base of the tree housing the Fortress of Solitude, where she floated up to the wooden platform Clark had showed her just days before. She sat down and looked across the brook into the meadow glimmering in the fading twilight.

Then she put her head in her hands and wept her heart out.

***

Martha was the only one in the living room who'd seen Lois leave. Her husband and son stood almost nose to nose, staring at each other, barely breathing. She thought about saying something, anything, but couldn't come up with any words which wouldn't make the whole situation far worse.

They remained locked in that position for several minutes. Neither man would speak first, neither man would look away, neither man would step back. It was a contest of wills into which they had never before entered at any time in Martha's memory.

The three of them were still frozen in place when headlights flashed across the far wall and a car crunched to a stop on the gravel in front of the house. Martha heard voices, felt a car door slam, then heard another close more gently, and then heard footsteps on their front porch.

No, no, no! she wailed in her head. No visitors tonight! There couldn't be a worse time for someone to just drop by!

She opened the door, prepared to apologize profusely to whoever had just arrived, tell them they couldn't come in, and gently invite them to return at another time.

But the wan and haggard faces of Dennis Lang and Ginny McCoy greeted her from the other side of the screen.

"Ginny? Dennis? What are you two doing --"

Dennis lifted his hand wearily. "Martha, we need to talk."

"About what?"

"About Clark."

***

Chapter Twenty-Eight

>>>Tuesday, 6:53 PM

Martha surveyed her guests, trying to decide on the best course of action. If she turned them away, she might lose their last chance to help Dennis Lang, but if she invited them in, there was no way to predict how her husband and son would react to the intrusion.

Dennis looked terrible. He swayed in place as if he hadn't slept for days. Ginny McCoy was in only slightly better shape, but at least her face didn't display the despair and abject helplessness that Dennis' did.

Martha hesitated, thinking furiously, but then she heard one of her men leave the living room and enter the kitchen. It sounded like Jonathan.

She made a decision. "You two come in out of the chill. I'll get you something warm to drink. Coffee? Hot chocolate?"

"No thanks, Martha." Dennis plodded past her into the living room. Martha gave Ginny a questioning look, but Ginny only shook her head and followed Dennis.

They didn't get far. Dennis had stopped just past the doorway to stare at Clark, who was facing away from them with his arms crossed and his head down. To Martha, he looked like a man trying to hold himself together by strength alone, a strength which was failing as she watched.

As she stepped around Dennis, her son turned his head and saw their new guests. He dropped his arms to his sides and turned to face them. "Hello, Dennis."

"Clark. I knew you were here. The news reports said you were missing, but I knew you'd be here."

"Good to see you."

"I'll bet it is."

Clark tilted his head quizzically. "Is something wrong, Dennis?"

"I want to know."

"Know what?"

"Why you didn't help my daughter."

Behind him, Ginny threw her hands into the air. "Dennis! We've been over this a hundred times! Clark was on the life raft! What on earth could he have done to help Lana?"

Dennis only intensified his stare. "He could have saved her."

"I tried, Dennis, but the --"

Dennis took an angry step forward. "You could have saved her! Why didn't you?" His voice took on an angry, almost hysterical tone. "Tell me why, Clark!"

No one moved until Jonathan came back into the room carrying a soft drink can. His entrance seemed to break the spell which held them fast.

Ginny moved around in front of Dennis and grabbed one of his hands. "Dennis! Listen to me! Superman was there and he couldn't save Lana! I know how much you miss her, but you can't blame Clark for her death! He isn't responsible!"

***

In the Fortress, Lois' head jerked up. She'd felt a questioning touch from Clark, but instead of concern for her, she read a mixture of fear and resignation through the link.

She turned and activated her newly acquired vision gizmo to look in on the Kent household. She recognized Dennis Lang and assumed that the woman trying to console him was Virginia McCoy. And they didn't look like they were there for a simple social visit.

This was trouble. And maybe, for once, she could help Clark instead of simply making his life more complicated.

She floated down from the platform and began walking back to the house.

***

Ginny was at her wit's end. Nothing she had tried for the last few months had pulled Dennis out of his funk, not the fast-approaching holiday season, not strong suggestions from her that they schedule their wedding or simply elope in the dead of night, not her gesture of placing most of her belongings in storage and moving into Dennis' house to take care of him. Her best efforts had gone unheeded. He remained fixated on blaming Lana's husband for her death.

There was only one card left for her to play, and she knew she couldn't bluff on this one. It had to be a real threat or nothing else she ever did with her life would be sure, especially in any relationship with Dennis.

"Dennis. Listen to me. I have tried to help you pull out of this. I've tried to let you grieve, tried to let you process this tragedy on your own terms -- will you look at me when I'm talking to you!"

His head turned towards her, but his eyes refused to leave Clark for a moment. Finally his gaze snapped to her.

"Good. Now that I have your attention, let me say this one time and one time only. I love you, Dennis Lang, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you, but I cannot be married to a man who can't let go of his pain. You've pushed this obsession with blaming Clark into demonizing the man. He was hurt as much as you were! He lost his wife! There's no way he would have let her die if he could have prevented it!"

Dennis' voice was hollow. "Yes. He could have."

She dropped his hand. "That's it. I can't take this any more, Dennis. I'm leaving and I'm not coming back. I hope you get past this someday, but when you do, don't call me or come to see me. It's over."

He grabbed her arms with surprising strength. "Wait! I can prove it to you." He turned his head and spoke over her shoulder. "Show her."

Jonathan stepped forward and lifted his hand. "Dennis, wait, I think you should think --"

"SHOW HER!"

Dennis' nearly insane scream shocked Ginny and she stepped backwards and tripped. Clark caught her just before she hit the floor. As he lifted her to her feet, she glanced up at his face and was surprised to see both resignation and determination there.

"All right, Dennis," he said, "I'll show her."

He led her to the couch and gently pushed her down. "Stay right there for ten seconds and you'll understand."

She was too confused to argue, so she nodded. "Ten seconds."

"Good." Clark stepped back and began turning around.

He moved so fast his outline blurred.

Then the dark colors of his jeans and denim shirt turned electric blue and bright red.

Then he slowed to a stop.

Superman stood in front of her.

***

Ginny couldn't take her eyes off him. She heard Dennis yelling in the distance, saying, "See! I told you! See!" over and over again.

But the blue and red-clad man standing before her was Superman, not Clark. Yet she could see the similarities in build, in posture, in body shape, in his nose and mouth, and even his eyes.

She suddenly realized that Clark hadn't been wearing his glasses when she and Dennis had burst in on the Kents. She took a breath and managed to say, "Clark?"

The hero nodded. "Yes, I'm Clark. I put on the bright clothes to play hero and then take them off to be a regular guy. I really am responsible for Lana's death."

The confession shook Ginny. Superman was a killer? Superman had taken a life?

Then her professional training and exact nature took hold. He hadn't said that he'd killed anyone, he'd said that he'd been responsible for Lana's death.

Not the same thing at all.

She glanced around and saw that the rest of the room's occupants were as shocked as she had been. "Superman -- Clark -- what do I call you, anyway?"

"When I'm dressed up like a cartoon character, I'm Superman." He whirled in place again and reverted to his previous casual attire. "When I'm dressed like this, I'm Clark Kent."

She indicated his parents with her thumb. "I assume they already knew about your -- your other outfit."

He nodded. "Mom made it for me. I think they're surprised that I agreed to reveal myself to you."

She nodded. "We'll come back to that later, if we need to. Right now, I want you to tell me why you think you're responsible for Lana's death."

Dennis nearly jumped into her lap. "What? You heard him! He said he killed her! It's his fault!"

She leaped to her feet and yelled in his face. "Shut up, Dennis!" Shocked, he took a step back. "He said, 'I am responsible.' He didn't say, 'I killed her.' There's a huge difference."

"What possible difference --"

"I don't know! That's why I'm asking the question."

Out of the corner of her eye, Ginny saw the kitchen door open and watched a sad-faced young woman move quietly into the house. Deciding that she probably wasn't a threat to Superman, Ginny turned back to Clark. "I want you to tell us why you think you're responsible for Lana's death. And don't leave anything out."

Clark's eyes turned bleak, but he nodded. "Please sit down. I've never told anyone else what I'm about to tell you, and it isn't going to be easy for me."

He waited while his parents sat in their own chairs. Ginny guided Dennis to the couch beside her. "I think we're ready, Clark," she said softly. "Please go ahead."

He ducked his head and took a deep breath, then began. "You all know how I took Lois Lane off the ship first because she was actually being shot at. I used your criteria of 'imminent danger,' Dennis, to rescue the person who seems to be in the most trouble, and I put her in a life raft just over the horizon from the ship because I didn't want anyone to spot her and raise the alarm. When she told me Lana had been wounded, I turned and flew back to the ship as fast as I could.

"I focused in on the hold where Lana was. She was talking to some guy and holding some kind of pistol-grip device I later found out was a deadman switch wired to several pounds of plastic explosive. She stood up and said something else to him, and just as I touched the side of the ship -- I didn't hear the shot but I saw the bullet as it -- as it -- it hit her and she dropped -- she dropped the switch -- and --"

He stopped talking. Ginny looked at his face and saw the tears flowing down. She saw his clenched fists waving impotently in front of him and realized why he'd said what he'd said.

She didn't blame him. It wasn't his fault that some idiot had shot Lana and made her detonate all those explosives. It wasn't his fault that she'd been on the ship in the first place.

But he blamed himself. He was Superman, and therefore he had to save everyone. It wasn't reasonable, but that was obviously how he felt.

She glanced around at the others in the room. Jonathan and Martha were holding onto each other for dear life. Martha was crying openly, and her husband had tears dripping from his chin.

But Dennis' reaction was most important to her at the moment. His mouth hung open and his hands hung nervelessly from his wrists. She didn't know what he'd expected to hear, but surely this wasn't it. And she wondered how he'd react now.

Clark wiped his face with his hands and continued. "I looked for her -- I looked for anyone -- any survivors, any bodies, anything that might be a person, but there wasn't anything left but pieces of the ship. I never found her -- her body or -- or any part of it. I never found any bodies. And I was so caught up in the search that I almost let Lois drown in the pressure wave from the explosion."

He faced Dennis directly. "I'm sorry. I let you down. I let Lana down. I let myself down. I can't -- I will never forget what happened that day. And I will miss Lana for the rest of my life."

He stood there, waiting for his dead wife's father to respond to his confession. Finally Ginny leaned over and kissed Dennis on the cheek and said, "Dennis, it's time to let this go. You know the whole story now. Do you still think Clark let your daughter die?"

Dennis turned to face her, held her gaze for a long moment, then sighed deeply. He stood in front of Clark and said, "No. I don't. I'm sorry. I didn't understand what you were going through. And I never knew how close it was. Or how bad it was for you that day." He embraced the younger man. "I wish things were different. I wish Lana were still here. But I was wrong. It wasn't your fault. You didn't do anything wrong, Clark. And I'm so sorry that I've been blaming you for something you didn't do."

Clark slowly bowed his head and laid it on Dennis' shoulder. His arms moved around his father-in-law and enclosed him in a backbreaking hug. Clark shared tears with Dennis, tears which cleansed their pain and washed away the immediate agony of Lana's death from her father's heart.

Then Ginny also broke down and began weeping.

In a few seconds, she felt a woman's hand take hers. She looked up, expecting to see Martha kneeling beside her, but the young woman who'd silently padded into the kitchen was looking into her eyes.

Ginny wiped away the moisture and said, "Who are you?"

"Lois Lane."

Dennis broke away from Clark. "You? You're Lois Lane?"

"Yes."

"Then you were there when -- you were with Lana on the ship."

"Yes."

Softly, Dennis asked, "What can you tell me about my daughter?"

Lois looked up at him. "She was the bravest, strongest, most trustworthy person I've ever known, including Clark. She helped me get onto the ship when I was hurt and the kidnappers threatened to shoot me. She told me Clark was coming to help us. I didn't believe her, but she didn't let that stop her. She helped me break out of the cabin, and she shot and wounded a man who was aiming a shotgun at us. When she was hurt, she tried to go on like nothing had happened, and when I finally talked her into letting me treat her wound, she didn't make a sound when I bandaged it. She encouraged me and lifted my spirits and kept me going. If she hadn't been there, I'd be dead today." She paused and took a deep breath. "I owe your daughter my life, Mr. Lang."

Dennis lowered his head and rubbed the bridge of his nose with his fingers. "I see. Tell me, whose idea was it to get a machine gun out of a storage box and use it on the bad guys?"

"Hers. But she --"

Lois suddenly stopped and Dennis' head popped up. "What? 'But she' what, Ms. Lane?"

Lois bit her lip and seemed to shrink in on herself. Ginny gently touched Lois' hair. "Lois? Please tell us. I think you need to say it, whatever it is."

Lois looked around at all the faces pointed at her. With a shallow show of bravado, she said, "Hey, how'd I get to be the center of attention here?"

Dennis shifted closer to her. "Please. Tell us the rest."

Tears began anew in Lois' eyes. "I wrote -- the story that went out said that Lana defended us with the machine gun."

Clark nodded. "She did. I saw her with it in the hold of the ship."

"That was after I left to find the radio room. All she did was pull the trigger and make some noise." Lois took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I was the one -- I don't know how many I -- I shot -- but -- Lana -- Lana didn't kill anyone." She looked around again slowly. "I did."

Martha gasped. "Oh, Lois, dear --"

"I didn't mean to, especially not at first. I just wanted them to keep their heads down and not shoot at us. But I when I found out how easy it was to hit what I was aiming at, I let go a couple of long bursts at the doors at each end of the hold. When I climbed up the ladder, Lana covered me by shooting at the other end of the hold, but I found -- I found bodies on the deck." She closed her eyes and shuddered. "I'd killed them."

Dennis leaned back and looked up at Clark. "Did you know about this?"

Clark's eyes were large and round as he shook his head slowly. "No. This is the first time I've heard this part of the story. But she's telling the truth."

"How do you know?"

"Trust me, I can tell."

For a moment, Dennis looked as if he would ask Clark another question, but then closed his mouth and nodded. "Lois? Thank you for telling me this. It bothered me to think that Lana had killed anyone, even someone who was trying to hurt her. But why did you write the story that way? Why didn't you write the truth?"

Lois sniffed. "Two reasons. I was trying to portray Lana as the heroine in the story. Which she was, of course, but I wanted people to think she was just a notch below Wonder Woman. The second reason -- I'm not real proud of." She paused and licked her lips. "I was afraid of how people would deal with me if they knew I'd killed someone, probably several someones. I didn't want to be known as Machine Gun Lane, Psycho Killer." She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then looked at Dennis again. "Being Mad Dog Lane is bad enough."

The tension eased and everyone relaxed a little.

Ginny put her hand on Lois'. "How do you feel now?"

Lois wiped her eyes again. "Now? You mean this very moment? Or have I dealt with my survivor's guilt and the nightmares and the feeling disconnected from humanity and --"

Ginny squeezed her hand. "Lois. Tell me how you feel this very moment."

Lois' eyes met Ginny's. "I'm -- dealing with it. I'm not finished dealing with it yet, but I think it's getting better." She smiled slightly. "I was able to talk to my therapist about her daughter's wedding last week."

Ginny smiled. "That's good. That's very good."

Lois squeezed back. "Thank you. And now I'm going to be the bad cop again and ask you a question."

"You're going to be a bad cop? From just asking a question?"

"It's an important question."

Ginny nodded. She also noticed that her hand was trapped in Lois' hand. The pressure wasn't painful, but she doubted that she could have retrieved her hand at that moment unless Lois released her. "Go ahead."

Lois took a deep breath. "Now you know about Clark and Superman. Who are you going to tell about this?"

"Hadn't thought about it. Just learned it, remember?"

The pressure increased ever so slightly. It still wasn't painful, but it was definitely there. "You have to understand that you can never tell anyone. Never. If the news got out about Superman's other identity, Jonathan and Martha would be in danger, along with anyone else who was close to the family. And if anyone ever suspected that you knew Superman's other identity, you'd be in danger." Lois leaned closer and seemed to drive her eyes into Ginny's. "Deadly danger."

Ginny licked her lips. "Deadly danger from you?"

Ginny was barely aware of the other people in the room reacting to her question as Lois slowly shook her head. "No, not from me, and not from Clark. Neither of us is threatening you in any way. But there are bad guys lots worse than me who'd do anything -- and I mean anything at all -- to have something to threaten Superman with. You must not -- you absolutely cannot -- give them the means to make that threat real. Do you understand how important that is?"

Ginny looked around the room. She didn't think anyone else would threaten her or try to warn her, but everyone was waiting for her to answer. It was worse than waiting for the final result in her oral doctoral exams.

She looked to Lois again. "I think I understand. I will never tell anyone about this secret. And I won't even talk to Dennis about it unless we're alone, like in a hot-air balloon at five thousand feet alone."

Dennis smiled and took her hands away from Lois, apparently not realizing the pressure Lois had been exerting. "Oh, I think we could come up with some more interesting conversational topics if we just put our minds to it."

He tugged her to her feet and turned to Jonathan. "Jon, I'm sorry I barged in like I did, but I'm glad I got to talk to Clark." He offered the other man his hand. "I understand why Lana loved him so much. He's a good man."

Jonathan accepted the handshake. "Thank you, Dennis. If we had ended up with a daughter, I would have been proud of her if she'd been half the woman Lana was."

Dennis' eyes slipped shut for a moment and Ginny knew he was trying not to cry again. Then he looked back at Jonathan and said, "Thank you. I think we'll be going now."

Ginny took Martha's hands, only to be swept up in a hug from the diminutive dynamo. "Ginny, you and Dennis can bust in on us any time. Please come and see us again."

Ginny returned the hug. "Is it all right if we call ahead first?"

They shared a laugh. Ginny pulled back and smiled at the man she now knew was also Superman. "Thank you, Clark. I know it's hard, but life happens whether or not you're ready for it. Keep your chin up."

"Thank you, Doctor McCoy."

She waved an index finger at him. "You're not my student, so you'd better call me Ginny."

He nodded. "Okay, Ginny."

She turned to Dennis. "I think we should leave now. We've got a bunch of things to talk about."

He entwined his fingers with hers. "Yes, we do."

***

Lois watched through the wall as Dennis and Ginny drove away. She was glad that Dennis' mind seemed to be more at ease about Lana. She hoped he was as convinced as he seemed to be that Clark would have done anything, would have turned time backwards had he been able, to save Lana.

And she'd been a bit surprised that Dennis didn't like the idea of Lana shooting people. Lana actually had shot one man, but hadn't killed him, and in fact had refrained from finishing the man off when he was at her mercy.

Thinking back on it now, Lois thought she would have blown the guy's head off if she'd been holding the pistol. She definitely thought Lana should have. It might have saved her life.

She felt a feather touch on her shoulder. Martha's voice whispered, "Dear, you should get some sleep. This has been a tiring evening for all of us."

"Thanks, Martha, but I have to eat something. I'm starving again."

"Again? Do you have a tapeworm or something?"

Lois sighed. "Bob told me that it's going to take about three weeks for my body to learn to process sunlight like Clark's body does. Until then, I'll have to eat like a team of Clydesdales to keep up with my body's energy demands."

"Oh." Martha nodded. "Is protein better for you than carbohydrates, or what?"

Lois smiled one-sidedly. "At this point, I don't think it matters much. I might even be convinced to try sushi in the next couple of days."

Martha smiled back. "Well, if you really want to try eating raw fish, I think I could convince Clark to noodle some catfish out of the river."

Lois chuckled wearily. "I'm not that desperate yet, thanks. And I apologize for putting this burden on you." She sighed. "I'd cook it myself if I thought I wouldn't burn it to a crisp."

"I'll make something, Mom," offered Clark.

Lois nodded. "I think we should make a phone call to our esteemed editor-in-chief while your mother slaves away over a hot stove."

Martha turned to Jonathan. "Honey, do you still have those microwave meals in the big freezer?"

"I think there are six or seven still out there."

"You told me you didn't want them, didn't you?"

He smiled a little. "I did, and yes, Lois can have them." He stepped forward. "They aren't all that tasty, Lois, but they're big and filling and they're easy to cook."

She smiled. "Sounds like they're made for me. Tell me where they are and I'll get them." She pointed to Clark. "You. Dial the phone."

***

Perry picked up his coat and shook his head. Two of his reporters were missing and presumed dead, another was in the hospital for observation after a mysterious accident, and everyone else on his short-handed staff was willing to run themselves into the ground to chase and catch whoever had set off that bomb. He felt guilty in not telling them that their comrades weren't the slightest bit dead, but he consoled himself that they'd be doing exactly what they were doing now even if Clark and Lois were here helping them.

Lois. He sighed and ducked his head. By all rights she should have been dead more than once. She should have had her picture hanging on his wall along with the rest of the fallen ones. Yet she kept getting out of sure-death situations by the skin of her teeth, usually with the help of Superman but sometimes using her own dumb luck. One day, she'd run out of dumb luck and Superman would be busy elsewhere and she'd end up dead.

Just like Lana Lang-Kent had.

He shook off the bad feeling and reached for his office door, but the ringing phone stopped him in his tracks.

It might be Alice nagging for him to hurry. It might be some ticked-off advertiser. It might be more info on the Luthor Technologies lab bombing. It might be a telemarketer who was dialing random phone numbers and trying to sell shares in platinum mines in Greenland.

Or it might be Lois. Or Clark.

The coat slid off his arm and pooled in one of his guest chairs. "Hello?"

"Perry? This is Clark."

A sigh of relief escaped. "I'm glad you called. These folks here are runnin' themselves absolutely ragged chasing this story."

"Are you any closer to finding out what happened?"

"The police know where the explosives were placed. They know that they were military-grade demolition charges, that SEMTEX stuff they use to blow up bridges and hardened gun emplacements. They know that they were rigged to bring down the whole building -- which they did -- and they know that the blasts were set off using a very sophisticated radio remote control."

Clark waited for Perry to continue, and when he didn't, he said, "But you don't have any solid leads on who it was."

"Nope. Closest we got is some street buzz that Lois' mysterious 'boss' was somehow involved, and that some wisps of the trail lead back to LuthorCorp's central office, but that ain't proof. And I don't think we're going to learn anything else in the next couple of days. Son, I think it's time for you two to come in out of the cold."

He didn't respond immediately, and Perry assumed he was asking Lois what she thought about it. Then Clark confirmed his hunch. "Lois agrees. And I think she's right. If anyone was going to make a mistake and blow his cover, you would've picked up on it already."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence. But whoever this character is, he's careful and cagey and looks clean as a new whistle. You two can do a lot more here than you can there."

There was another pause. "Okay, Perry. We'll ride Superman Express back tomorrow, probably mid-morning. But we each have a personal stop to make first."

Perry grinned to himself. "I understand. And make sure you bring your receipts back here. I wouldn't want to short-change your parents on their contribution to the investigation."

"I will. See you tomorrow."

"Good. Hey, wait! Do you want me to announce your miraculous rescue, or would you prefer to give everyone here heart failure at the same time?"

Clark chortled into the phone. "Maybe you'd better let them know first. I can handle women falling at my feet, but the thought of a bunch of men doing the same thing gives me the creeps."

Perry laughed. "Okay, Clark. See you two in here tomorrow morning. You guys aim for about eleven o'clock, will ya? Everybody should be done with their morning responsibilities by then."

There was a brief pause. "Lois says eleven is good for her, too. Bye for now."

The phone found the cradle, and the tired editor leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. They hadn't really found anything incriminating on anyone. The only possible lead he could come up with was the name Alex Winfield. Whoever he was, he kept showing up in documentation concerning Luthor's personal business deals.

But he also showed up in transactions involving Bob Fences and his software company. Granted, Winfield was a computer programmer, but why was he involved with so many different companies? Fences and Luthor had little in common, since Luthor built and used the hardware while Fences wrote the software that ran on Luthor's machines.

Perry snapped his fingers. Maybe that was the connection. Maybe the enigmatic 'boss' was a small group instead of an individual. Maybe it was Luthor and Fences and two or three of the others Lois had on her list.

They'd have to look into that. He'd have Clark start on that side and Lois on the crime scene at the lab. Maybe they'd keep from killing each other that way.

And maybe he needed a good night's sleep. He stood wearily and left.

But he tossed and turned until the wee hours of the morning, trying to think of something else to do, some other avenue of investigation to pursue. He was glad that Alice's work with the DA's office sometimes kept her awake, too, so he knew she would understand when he got up to move to the guest room.

It didn't help. He woke up abruptly at five-fifteen the next morning following a frightening dream he couldn't remember, with no clearer idea of how to proceed than he had had the night before.

***

Chapter Twenty-nine

>>>Wednesday, 7:41 AM

Through the muzziness which engulfed her brain, Lois heard the soft knock on the door even through the extra pillow over her head and the thick comforter pulled up past her nose.

The problem was that she didn't know where she was, except that she realized that she wasn't any place she might have called 'home.' She heard a woman's pleasant voice on the other side speaking words she couldn't quite decipher, but at the moment she was more interested in figuring out why she was in a bed that smelled like pancakes and inexpensive aftershave.

She opened one eye and glanced around at the young man's room she was currently occupying.

Uh-oh.

She cautiously stretched out one hand behind her, but all she felt was the edge of the bed. Too small for more than one person, unless they were conjoined pygmies.

Good. She hadn't spent the night with anyone without remembering it.

The person on the other side of the door began pounding on the door again, except this time it sounded to Lois as if she were sitting directly beneath the world's largest naval cannon as it was being fired like a machine gun. The massive explosions were deafening. It sounded -- and felt -- like the world's worst hangover multiplied to the tenth power.

She lurched up to a sitting position and grabbed the sides of her head, but the noise suddenly receded to a petite knock on the wooden door. She turned her head in either direction and realized that her hearing control had kicked in.

Right. Hearing control. Control of her super-hearing.

She finally remembered. She was sleeping in Clark's bed in his parents' house in Kansas, and Clark had slept on the pull-out couch in the living room because she'd gotten sleepy before he had and because he was too chivalrous to be believed.

And she had super-powers that were sometimes more a hindrance than a help.

She hoped she could learn to make the transition from sleep to awake and in control of her powers an automatic process. Waking up to a super-loud alarm clock every morning was not something she looked forward to.

The door was no barrier to her x-ray vision, and it revealed Martha Kent standing patiently in the hallway. Lois was glad it was Martha and not Jonathan or Clark who had awakened her. She now knew what style and brand of underwear Martha wore, and she was again glad that she was learning to control her powers before she determined whether or not Martha had any tattoos, scars, or other identifying marks anywhere on her person.

"I'm coming, Martha," she called.

"Good. It's almost a quarter to eight! I can't believe how late you city women sleep."

Lois laughed. "I hope you saved me some breakfast."

"No, I didn't." Lois' face fell, but before she could say anything, Martha continued, "I made some fresh for you. I knew you'd be hungry."

"Oh. Okay. Let me get dressed and make a pit stop first."

***

"Martha?"

"Yes, dear?"

"Has Clark always been a morning person, or does he just enjoy irritating the rest of us?"

Martha laughed as Lois sat down at the table. "He's a natural morning person. Always has been. You, however, appear to be a night person."

Lois drank half a cup of coffee before answering. "That, unfortunately, is quite true. Nocturnal Lois, that's me, except for last night. I somehow thought that Clark's powers were part of what made him a morning person, but apparently that's not the case. They haven't changed that part of me in the slightest."

Martha nodded. "You're still an individual, Lois. Having your own powers will change what you can do, but they won't change who you are. Clark's had to work on not being defined by his powers for a long time. You're still getting adjusted to the idea of being a super-powered individual."

Lois lifted five large pancakes onto the dinner platter Martha had set out for her and hunted for the butter and the syrup. "I know. About that, though, what do you think I should do?"

Martha crossed her arms and leaned back in the chair. "I think you should finish your breakfast before I have to throw it out."

Lois snorted a laugh. "Okay. But do you mind if I talk while I eat?"

"As long as you don't talk while chewing, not at all."

"It's a deal. Oh, yum! These pancakes are delicious!"

"And the bacon is crisp, too. I've got some raspberry preserves you can put on the pancakes if you want. It helps build up the calorie count."

"That sounds wonderful. I'll try that on my next stack."

"Would you prefer regular whole milk or buttermilk?"

"Whole, please. I never developed a taste for buttermilk."

Martha poured a tall tumbler of milk and placed it beside Lois' plate, then sat down and watched the young woman eat enough for a jazz quintet on tour and playing nine shows a week.

When Lois finally slowed down, Martha picked up the empty plates and took them to the sink. "How were the biscuits?"

"Heavenly! I can't remember when I've tasted such delicious food, not ever!"

Martha frowned. It was standard breakfast fare, and unless Lois had been existing by dumpster diving for the last few years, she shouldn't be reacting to the food in this way.

Then she had a thought. "Lois? What is it about my cooking that seems to taste so good to you?"

"Everything!"

"Could you be a little more specific?"

"Oh, wow, it's light, fluffy, tasty to the highest degree, full-bodied, sharp when it's supposed to be sharp, tangy when it's supposed to be tangy, everything smells just perfect --"

"I think I get the picture. I just think it's odd that you enjoy eating so very much."

"I usually don't! I can't remember when I tasted anything this wonderful."

Martha pondered for a moment, then her earlier thought morphed into an epiphany. "Lois? What did pancakes taste like the last time you ate them?"

"The last time? You mean from a restaurant?" Martha nodded. "Oh, that was at least a couple of months ago. I went to the Wacky Waffle in Metropolis one Saturday morning just to kill some time when my landlord was fumigating my apartment, and they were okay but nothing like yours."

"Really? What's different about my pancakes?"

"You mean the pancakes themselves?"

"No. What's the biggest difference between the last time you ate pancakes and this morning?"

"Oh. Well, it's -- it's my -- my powers." She stared open-mouthed at Martha. "You mean -- you mean it's not you -- but it's really me? These powers have made everything taste so good?"

"Well, it's either that or you have at least one super-power that Clark doesn't have."

"What power?"

"Super-taste."

They both laughed. Lois drained the last of her milk and wiped her mouth with a napkin. "Now that we've established that I have super-excellent taste -- " they both chuckled for a moment -- "I want to talk to you about how I should use my powers."

Martha frowned slightly and leaned on the table. "That's a loaded question, Lois. I think you should talk it over with Clark and get his opinion."

"That was one of the major topics we covered while he was teaching me how to use them. He told me that it's my decision and he'll support me and assist me in whatever I decide."

"I see. That's very open-minded of him. Is there anyone else you can think of to ask about this?"

Lois shook her head. "Not really. I could talk to Perry, but his first loyalty is to the paper. I don't think he'd give me bad advice, I just don't think he's the right person to be my advisor and mentor in this. And since I'm nowhere near ready to tell my family about my powers, I can't very well ask them."

Martha nodded slowly. "It sounds to me like you've already come to a decision and you're trying to find someone to validate it for you."

"Oh." Lois sat back. "Do I seem that shallow to you?"

"Oh, no, Lois, honey, no! That's not what I meant! This is a huge decision for you, as big as who you're going to marry or what career path to take! No! I meant that you've made a decision, but that you recognize how important it is, and you're seeking wise counsel to make sure you haven't missed anything screamingly obvious to someone else." She patted the younger woman's knee. "And just for the record, I think you're doing the right thing, dear."

Lois eyed her warily. "You haven't heard my decision yet."

"No, but if you'd chosen to have Bob try to remove your powers, you wouldn't be asking my advice on how to use them. If you'd decided to hide them, you'd have the option to come out of the closet -- " Lois giggled at the phrase " -- okay then, 'reveal yourself' any time you wanted to later on. No, I think you've decided to wear a brightly-colored spandex costume and fight for truth and justice using your new abilities."

Lois stared at her for a long moment. "Do you practice psychology on the side or are you psychic?"

Martha grinned. "I'm a mother, dear, so it's a little of both." She stood. "Tell you what. Why don't you let me take your measurements? I bet I could come up with something that will suit you."

Lois made a face. "Something that will 'suit' me?"

Martha frowned, then smiled in comprehension. "Sorry, that one was unintentional. I'm generally not a fan of puns." She gestured to her sewing room. "Shall I go find my tape measure?"

"Thank you so very much, Martha! You're a wonder."

Martha didn't consider herself a wonder, just a Kansas farm wife and mother. She didn't view herself as anyone special. But if the hints she'd picked up about Lois' parents were anywhere near accurate, the younger woman didn't have a whole lot to compare other mothers to.

And as she wrote down Lois' measurements, Martha wondered how -- and when -- Lois would break the news to her family that she could fly without an airplane.

>>>Wednesday, 8:51 AM

Perry put down his phone and almost sprinted out of his office. "Hey! Listen! Everybody listen up!"

The entire news force stopped and stared at the excited editor. "I just got a call. Superman is bringing Clark Kent and Lois Lane back to Metropolis this morning! They're both alive and well and ready to help us find out who blew up that building on Monday! They should be here in about two hours, so let's make them both welcome!"

No one moved. "Well, come on, people! Move it! This ol' Elvis fan don't make jokes like that. This is for real!"

Jimmy took a hesitant step forward. "Chief? You're not kidding us, are you? They're alive?"

"Yes! Superman managed to rescue them, but they decided to play dead for a while to see if they could smoke out the bad guy."

Eduardo called out, "Did it work?"

Perry waved his arms. "I don't know what they've got. Right now, the most important thing is to get this in print. And we need a sidebar on Superman and his rescue of Clark and Lois. Extra on the streets by noon, people!" He frowned ferociously. "And then -- we need to have a party!"

The room erupted in cheers. Jimmy found three different young female interns to hug, and to his great delight they each hugged him back. Ralph shook hands with every man close to him as if he'd broken the story himself. Eduardo ran over and hugged Perry, then tracked down a research assistant for photos of Clark, Lois, and Superman. Some cried, some jumped around maniacally, some yelled, but everyone expressed joy at the news.

Everyone but Cat Grant.

Perry glanced at her desk. The young woman was pale and still. She looked more like a death row inmate than someone happy that her friends had apparently returned from the dead.

Maybe she was still recovering from that concussion, thought Perry.

But somehow he didn't think so.

>>>Wednesday,8:54 AM

Lois landed in the alley behind the parking garage across Dyer Street, where the LexCorp main office was situated. She looked over her clothes again and decided that her 'country casual' look would have to do, unless she wanted to take the time to fly home and change.

The phrase 'fly home and change' sounded so weird in her head that she said it out loud.

"I could fly home and change clothes."

Still sounds weird, she thought.

But she wanted to see Lex before he found out from someone else that she was alive. Part of her wanted to be the one to reveal the news. She wanted to see his reaction herself, to see if what she was feeling for him was reciprocated in any way, shape, sort, or form.

And part of her wanted to see if he would be shocked or thrilled to see her alive instead of dead.

She pushed Clark's warning about Luthor's honesty, or the possible lack thereof, to the back of her mind, along with her peevish rejoinder to him that he should catalogue Rebecca's reaction, too, just in case she was involved in the bombing somehow. Even at the time, her thrust had sounded hollow and petty to her own ears. She was as sure that Rebecca hadn't been involved in the lab bombing as she was that Lex Luthor had not been involved.

Wasn't she?

She shook off her doubts and walked through the garage, then crossed at the light. The receptionist inside wasn't Rebecca, but she did recognize Lois, although she made Lois wait in the person trap to make sure that her face matched her photos.

The girl ran out from behind the desk and grabbed Lois' hands. She was bouncing so high that Lois was sure she had coil steel springs in her heels. "Oh! Miss Lane! I'm so glad you're okay! We've been so worried about you and I'll call Mr. Luthor right away cause he's been just --"

"No!" Lois held her still long enough to read her nametag. "Carly, right? Carly, please, I want to surprise him." Lois held her hand up. "I mean it! I want to be the one to tell him I'm all right."

Carly bit her lip and moaned dramatically, but then she smiled and nodded. "Okay, yeah, yeah, okay! It'll be real romantic, like a Richard Gere movie or something! Oh! I have to call Rebecca! I promised her --"

"No, Carly! You can't call her either."

"But I promised! I promised her I'd call as soon as I heard anything definite about you or about Clark!"

"But Clark is headed over there now. He'll tell her that I'm okay."

Carly's grin split her face into uneven halves. "Oh! That's like so very romantic, too! Oh, please, Miss Lane, I have to tell someone!"

Lois smiled, knowing she had to throw the girl a bone of some kind. "Okay. After I go upstairs, wait fifteen minutes and call the Daily Planet. Ask for Jimmy Olsen. You can tell him what you know."

"Oh, wow! I get to break a story!" She stopped and asked very seriously, "That's what you say, right, break the story?"

Lois laughed. "Yes, Carly, that's what we say. Now remember -- fifteen minutes! And not one second less!"

"Then you'd better hurry cause I'm counting now!"

"Thanks, Carly. Bye!"

Lois trotted towards the elevator which would whisk her to the executive office floor, thankful that Lex had given her his personal entry code. Her new purse was small and nondescript, but she hadn't replaced her wallet and its contents yet, so she was almost surprised to realize the lightweight item was still draped over her shoulder.

Invulnerability was great, she thought, but not being able to feel her purse strap over her shoulder wasn't so great. She'd have to ask Clark about the little things like that, things he probably didn't think about any more.

She sighed to herself. And here she had thought she was finished with her training.

***

Lois looked upwards through the walls and floors as she approached the executive level and saw Lex leaning against a desk. She noted that he looked drawn and very tired, and for a moment she wondered cynically how much of it was caused by the loss of the lab and how much by her reported demise. Asabi stood to his left with a mother-hen attitude evident all over his face and body. Nigel St. John stood on the other side, reading a document aloud. She tried to listen in on their conversation, but she couldn't hear them over the noise of the elevator. Apparently her super-hearing wasn't as precise a skill as she'd thought it would be.

Then Lex waved Nigel to silence. Asabi stepped closer and said something which Lex apparently didn't particularly appreciate, and he snapped back at his friend. Asabi held Lex's stare until a moment before the elevator chime sounded.

She heard Lex's exasperation over the smooth rumble of the elevator doors opening. "I thought I cancelled all my meetings!"

Nigel nodded. "You did, sir."

"Then who in blazes is -- is --"

The doors were completely open. He was only about eight steps away. She took two quick steps and smiled.

"Lois?"

She quickened her pace. "Yes."

He paled further and might have fallen had Asabi not grabbed his elbow. "You -- you're -- you're not --"

She stopped directly in front of him. "No, I'm not. I'm alive and well."

He reached out and took her hands. He tried to smile but his face wouldn't cooperate. Slowly and gently, she stepped closer and put her arms around him.

His arms hesitated, then he returned the embrace and took a deep, shuddering breath. If Lex Luthor was the bomber, then she was the queen of Outer Transylvania.

She barely heard Asabi calling out, "Oh, transcendent joy! Oh, rapturous thrill! She has returned as if from the dead! Is it not a miracle, Mr. St. John?"

Nigel didn't answer. He paled and stumbled against Lex's desk.

For the first time in his professional life, Nigel St. John was too astounded by his own inexplicable failure to speak coherently. But Lois was focused on Lex and didn't see Nigel's expression or notice his alarmed astonishment.

Lois held onto Lex as long as she thought it was appropriate. But when she tried to slide away, his arms held her tighter. His head bent to her shoulder and she thought she felt him sob once.

Asabi, still smiling like the sun, patted her shoulder and led Nigel out of the room. As the door closed behind them, Lois pulled Lex's head up to face her.

His eyes were moist and his mouth couldn't decide whether to smile or turn down at the corners. He put his hands on her waist and held her in front of him.

"I'm -- I'm sorry. I don't -- don't usually break down like -- like this."

She thumbed his cheeks dry and smiled. "Thank you."

"What for? For acting like a -- a schoolboy with a crush?"

"No." She leaned in and kissed the corner of his mouth. "For caring so very, very much."

He cupped her cheek with his hand. "For that, I require no thanks."

She smiled. "You have no idea how much tap-dancing I had to do to keep those folks downstairs from calling you to tell you I was coming. I wanted to surprise you."

He laughed and kissed her forehead. "You certainly accomplished that feat." He turned away and wiped his eyes with his handkerchief, then blew his nose. "You must tell me how you escaped."

"Superman saved us."

He turned back abruptly. "Superman?" He frowned. "If he was there, why didn't he help the rest of my people? Does he only save Daily Planet reporters from certain death?"

"That's not fair, Lex! Superman was taken completely by surprise. If he hadn't accidentally been in the area or if he'd hesitated at all, Clark and I would be dead too."

She soothed her conscience by telling herself that what she'd just said wasn't a lie, it simply implied that Superman and Clark were different people. And it struck her that if she took on a heroic persona of her own, she'd have to practice the same kind of deceptions.

She tuned back in to Lex, who had snapped, "He rescued Mr. Kent also?"

"We were in the same room when the bomb went off. Superman protected both of us from the falling debris."

"And what of the others in the building? Were they not worthy of his attention?"

He's frustrated, she thought. Don't take it personally.

She forced herself to speak quietly. "The bomber did his work very well, which I'm sure you know by now. Superman checked, but he couldn't find any other survivors after he dug us out."

"I see. I'm glad to know that he tried, and that he did save someone." Lex sighed and some of his tension seemed to leave with him. "Please don't misunderstand my next question. I'm so very, very thrilled to see you, to know that you're alive and well, but where the devil have you been for the last two days?"

She managed to look sheepish. "We thought -- we hoped that the bomber would do something to reveal himself if he thought he'd killed everyone in the building, so we went into hiding. We decided last night that it wasn't going to happen, so we contacted Superman and arranged for him to bring us back to Metropolis."

He leaned his hip on the edge of the desk and crossed his arms. "And you couldn't let me know you were still alive during all of this process?"

She crossed her own arms. "You're a man of many talents, Lex, but I don't recall reading or hearing anything about you being an Oscar-caliber actor. There was no way you could have pulled off a deception like this one."

He raised his voice. "And how do you know that?"

She threw her hands into the air. "Just what would you have done when you got the 'official' news that I was still alive? Could you have convinced Asabi or Nigel when I walked through those elevator doors that you didn't know I was alive the whole time? Could you have fooled anyone who was looking closely enough? Do you really think that your personal feelings are more important than finding out who blew up that building and killed all those people?"

As she spoke, she felt a jar at hearing Clark's words spill out of her mouth, and she reluctantly conceded the point to him. He had been right and she had been wrong. Hiding out and telling no one except Perry had been the proper course of action.

She'd never volunteer that information to him, of course.

Lex held her gaze for a long moment, then turned away. "No. Of course not. You were justified in keeping me in the dark, and I understand completely." He stood and dropped his hands to his sides. "I'm sure you'll share everything you discovered with the proper authorities, assuming you have not already done so, but I hope you'll also include our security services people in the loop. They haven't slept any more than I have."

She nodded shortly. "Yes. We'll give them everything we have that can be verified. I'm afraid it isn't much at the moment, though."

"Every little bit helps. And now, I must apologize to you personally. I reacted badly and I deeply regret it." He stepped closer and took her right hand in his. "Please forgive me."

She softened and nodded. "Believe it or not, I understand. This was a huge shock to you, and I'm sorry I revealed myself in this way. If I'd known a gentler way to tell you, I would have done it."

He smiled. "I'm not sure I would have believed it had I not seen you with my own eyes, so I can't very well hold it against you." He suddenly snapped his fingers. "Kent! You said he also survived. Does Rebecca know yet that you and he are still among the living?"

Lois smiled. "I would imagine that Clark has told her by now."

"Good. Tell me, can you stay here with me? For the morning, at least."

"Oh, Lex, I wish I could, but I've got to head to the Planet in a little while. They need to see us alive, too. And I have to replace my driver's license and social security card and credit cards and all my keys and check with my bank and make sure they know I'm still alive. I have to contact my insurance company and figure out how to report that my Jeep was crushed by a falling piece of concrete from a blown-up building. And Clark and I still have to visit with the police and tell them our stories." She sighed. "I have a busy day ahead of me."

"In that case, my dear, I will loan you my car and a driver for the day, on the condition that you have dinner with me tonight. We'll go wherever you like."

"Thanks, Lex." She leaned closer. "Do you mind if I don't start all those errands just yet?"

He put his arms around her shoulders and drew her closer. "Actually, I don't mind in the least."

***

Asabi escorted Lois to the building's elevator, then he re-entered Lex's office to find the man who was his employer and his friend sitting at his desk with his hands covering his face. He stepped close to Lex and gently touched his shoulder.

Lex slowly sat up and leaned back in his chair. "She's alive, Asabi. I touched her, I spoke with her, I even kissed her, yet I can barely believe it." He closed his eyes and drew in a shuddering breath. "She's really alive!"

Asabi smiled. "Yes, she is, sir. It is indeed wonderful news."

"It is." Lex sighed. "Now if we only knew why that particular building was bombed on that particular day. And if we could find out whether Lois and her partner were the main targets or if someone has taken an extreme dislike to me, we'd be ahead of the game."

Asabi hesitated, then said, "Perhaps if we consulted with Mr. St. John, sir, we might have some of our questions answered."

"What? Nigel?" Lex sighed. "You think he has some contacts who might give him some information?"

Very carefully, Asabi said, "I think that is possible, yes. I also think that it is possible that Mr. St. John might have that information at his fingertips without needing to consult his sources."

Lex straightened in his chair and stared at Asabi. "Are you suggesting what I think you might be suggesting?"

"I suggest only that Mr. St. John's activities be more carefully scrutinized, sir. It is possible that he has more than a passing acquaintance with some of the less savory denizens of this fair city."

Lex chortled ruefully. "That's just about the most diplomatic accusation I've ever heard leveled against any of my employees."

"Please, sir, I make no accusation. I merely voice my misgivings and my own uneasiness."

Lex stood and strode to the front of the desk. "Nigel has been an effective operative for my companies for several years. No one has ever brought anything resembling proof of any criminal conduct or any business-related misconduct to my attention regarding him." He leaned on the top of the desk. "Do you have such proof, Asabi?"

Asabi shuffled his feet and he looked away. "No, sir, I do not."

"Very well. Unless and until you can provide such proof, I wish to hear no more such talk against your fellow employees."

Asabi lifted his face and tried once more. "Sir, I assure you, I have said these things only out of loyalty to you. I have no intention of slandering anyone, including Mr. St. John."

Lex sighed as he straightened up. "I know. And I know you'd never do anything to harm me or my companies. I also know that your suspicions must be strong, else you would not have voiced them." He walked around the desk and offered his hand to Asabi. "Thank you for your honesty and for your concern. I am glad that you are my friend."

Asabi shook Lex's hand, then stepped back and bowed slightly. "I wish only to serve my friend and my savior."

Lex laughed again and put his arm around his friend's shoulders. "And you have done far more to help me than you might ever have owed me had I rescued your entire family! Let's put this little tiff behind us, shall we?"

Asabi smiled. "Of course, sir."

"Excellent! Now, since time has not stood still, I am certain I'm behind on all of my appointments for the day. Let's see if we can come close to catching up before Lois returns."

"I live but to serve, sir."

***

Nigel stood in the shadows as he watched the company limo slid out of the parking garage. Lois Lane was about to begin the process of reclaiming the legal documents she needed to indicate her current state, that of not being dead.

He thought it through once again, and once again he concluded that he had made no mistakes, that the explosives had been placed exactly where they should have been placed, that the timing was perfect, and that the discovery of Lane's purse in Platt's laboratory meant that Kent and Lane had been in the lab when the building had imploded.

They should have been quite dead.

But they weren't at all dead, thanks to that irritating meddler Superman. The next time he had a chance to expose the Man of Steel to the glowing green crystal one of his employer's technicians had dubbed Kryptonite, he would thrust it down Superman's throat and smile as he died writhing in agony.

The fantasy didn't relieve his anxiety, however. He still had to report in and inform said employer that Lane and Kent were still alive.

He pulled out the phone and touched the dial, then hesitated. Nigel knew of other operatives who had failed and had disappeared forever. He had assisted in the disappearance of three of them. But they had failed repeatedly, save for the one who had passed on information about Platt to a street hustler who had relayed that information to Lane. That leak was permanently plugged, even if Nigel hadn't yet eliminated the street hustler.

He sighed. He could run. He might even get away, at least for a time. His MI6 experience and his underworld contacts might suffice to allow him a fresh start in another country. But he didn't want to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder for an assassin. And he did so enjoy the amenities afforded by this country.

He pushed the button and waited for a response.

"Hello, Nigel. I imagine that you have something important to tell me."

Once again he wished that he could hear inflection through the distortion. He might get a clue as to how to handle this most uncomfortable report.

"Yes. Yes, I do."

"Then make it snappy. I have another appointment in a few minutes."

He took a deep breath and figuratively tossed the dice. "Very well. I fear that I must make an addendum to my initial report concerning the destruction of the laboratory on Monday."

"Oh? More damage, I take it? Or a further delay in the space program?"

"No. Lane and Kent -- the reporters did not die in the explosion."

The voice hesitated. "I see. How serious are their injuries?"

"As far as I am able to determine, they are not injured at all."

"What?"

That didn't sound good. "They were rescued by Superman. They have just this morning returned to the city."

"Superman!"

"Yes. Apparently he was passing by and --"

"I don't care!" The voice was so loud that Nigel could barely understand the words being screamed into his ear. "You told me they were dead!"

"At the time, that is what I believed."

"And now you tell me that Superman rescued them!"

"That is what the Lane woman said."

"You -- Nigel, I -- " The voice went quiet for long moments. Nigel thought he detected the sound of heavy breathing, but he wasn't certain.

Then the other person spoke again. "Very well, Nigel. We will now designate Clark Kent and Lois Lane as primary targets one and two. You will search for opportunities to eliminate them, preferably together, and absolutely without notice. We can no longer afford to take out targets as publicly as we did two days ago."

You mean, as I did two days ago, he thought. You did nothing. "I understand."

"Good. We'll have to be very careful from now on, Nigel. The FBI and the ATF are both involved in the investigation, along with the Daily Planet's staff and LexCorp's security division. Don't do anything unless I personally give you instructions to do it."

"I assume you mean that I am to do nothing about Lane and Kent without your instruction, and not to neglect my usual activities for your organization."

"Yes, that's what I mean! Do you have to be so absolutely exact about everything?"

Yes, he mused, especially when you are so imprecise about so many things. "My apologies," he groveled. "I only wished to make certain I understood your instructions."

"Well, do you understand them now?"

"I do."

"Then carry them out!"

The line went dead with a snap and Nigel's sigh of relief. It was so difficult to satisfy some employers.

>>>Wednesday, 8:54 AM

Clark touched down behind Rebecca's apartment building and checked his clothing to make sure he was attired correctly. Then he made sure his hair was stylishly mussed and that his new glasses were straight.

Knock it off, you big chicken! he admonished himself. Delaying the inevitable won't make it easier for either of you.

He took a deep breath and entered the stairwell that led to her floor, found her apartment, and started to knock.

Then his conscience hit him with a concrete block. If Rebecca cared for him as much as he suspected she did, then she might not understand about his trying to find the bomber by playing dead.

But she needed to know that he was alive, and she needed to know it from him. And he needed to know how she felt about him, whether he fully reciprocated those feelings or not. Not knowing was far worse than knowing something bad, and the longer he waited, the more likely it would be that someone else would tell her he was alive, and that might completely destroy her trust in him.

So he lifted his hand and knuckled the door.

Her voice showed her strain as it wafted through the wood. "Mrs. Kopeckne, I told you I don't need any more cookies or hot tea! I'm fine, really! Please go away!"

"Rebecca? Please open up. It isn't Mrs. --"

The door flew open. Rebecca stood barefoot in the doorway, wearing what looked like old basketball shorts and a cutoff sleeveless sweatshirt. Her tangled red hair was pulled back in a light blue scrunchie that had seen better days. Her face was devoid of makeup and the dark circles under her eyes threatened to spill down onto her cheeks.

He opened his hands. "May I come in?"

She reached out and touched his arm with her left hand and jumped a little when she made contact. Her face lost some of its pallor as she grabbed him with both hands and squeezed. "You -- you're not -- you're here -- and --"

He put his hands on her upper arms. "I'm okay, Becca. Really."

She obviously tried not to cry, but several tears slipped through her defenses. She sniffed and almost pulled him into an embrace, but she stopped herself and nearly tripped and fell against him. He caught her hand and steadied her.

"Clark. Oh -- come in -- I'm sorry I'm -- the place is a wreck -- I didn't go to work today -- or yesterday -- they told us about the -- the bombing Monday morning -- and I -- I thought you -- they said nobody --"

He gently tugged her into his arms and she grabbed him as if she were holding on to reality. She let a few more tears slide out, then she stepped back and shook her head.

"Oh, Clark, I'm such a mess! Why couldn't you come back from the dead when I wasn't having such a bad hair day?"

He laughed quietly and pulled her closer. At that moment, another apartment front door popped open and an older woman stepped out. "Rebecca? This young man botherin' you?"

Rebecca stepped away from Clark without releasing her grip on his arms. "No, Mrs. Kopeckne, he's not bothering me. This is Clark."

The older woman squinted up at him. "This is your Clark?" She looked him up and down twice. "Heard you was dead. You don't look very dead to me."

He smiled disarmingly at her. "The reports of my demise were greatly exaggerated."

The older woman squinted at him. "Got to be a writer, you steal other people's material." She turned her Popeye glare on Rebecca. "How come you didn't tell me the boy was comin' by today?"

Rebecca tried to smile at her. "I didn't even know he was alive until just a moment ago. I couldn't have told you he was coming by."

"Hmph! Don't seem like the kind to get all weepy-eyed over, neither."

He lifted an eyebrow and said, "I have hidden talents, ma'am."

"Hmph! You'd better. Well, don't stand here in the hallway blocking traffic! Go on in there and let her tell you how miserable she's been for the past two days."

Mrs. Kopeckne turned and stumped back into her apartment. Clark turned to Rebecca and smiled softly. "You don't have to invite me in if you don't want to, Becca."

"No! No, please come in, just kick the mess out of the way."

He shut the door behind him. "It really isn't that bad. I've seen worse."

"Really?" She turned in a quick circle and frowned. "Tell me where you've seen worse than this."

"I shared a dorm room with two other guys my freshman year in college."

She laughed quickly and a little too sharply. "I concede the point. Look, you don't have to stay if you don't want to."

He took her hands in his and looked into her eyes. "Do you want me to leave?"

She took a deep breath and blinked twice. "No. I want you to stay. Will you stay?"

He smiled and drew her closer. "I have to go to the Planet for a while, and I'm sure the police want to talk to me, but I can come back. That is, if you want me to come back."

Instead of continuing their banter as he expected, she looked directly into his eyes and said, "Clark, I want you to come back. I want you to stay as long as you want to stay." She stepped closer and put her arms around him. "I care about you -- a lot -- and I want to see you. When I thought you were dead I --"

He was surprised by her tenderness, but he put his arms around her again and held her securely. She reached up behind him and put her hands on the back of his shoulders. She didn't cry, she didn't sob, she didn't weep frantically, she only held him as if convincing herself that he was really there.

He stroked her hair. "Lois is okay, too. Superman saved both of us."

She nodded against his chest but didn't speak.

Finally she pushed away from him. "Look, you need to take care of all the stuff you need to take care of, and I need to clean up this apartment and take a shower and get -- get used to the idea that you're really alive."

He nodded. "Okay."

"And then you come back here tonight. I'll make dinner for both of us and you can tell me all about the investigation and the bombing and where you've been for the last two days and why you let me think you were dead."

That didn't sound encouraging. "Rebecca, there were some very good reasons --"

"I know. I mean, I trust you, Clark, and I don't believe you kept me in the dark out of spite or from meanness, but I can't make those mental and emotional leaps as quickly as you can. You need to give me some time, okay? A few hours ought to do it, but if we get into this now, I'll say things I shouldn't just because I'm upset and you'll think I'm crazy again and I don't think I could take it if you walked out that door mad at me." She sighed. "I hope you understand, both whatever it was I just said and what I really meant."

He nodded. "Believe it or not, that makes a kind of sense." He leaned in and kissed her softly on the forehead. "I'll be back later this afternoon, and if you want to cook dinner, I'll stay for that. And I'll call before I come over."

She sniffed and batted his upper arm with her fist. "Good. And don't come back before three, okay? I'll have to go out and get stuff for dinner for the two of us." She pointed a finger in his face. "And no movie rentals this time, understand?"

He chuckled and nodded. "I promise. I'll see you this afternoon, Becca."

"You'd better. Wait, maybe you'd better bring a movie anyway. Just in case the conversation lags, you know? And now you get out of here so I can make myself beautiful for you."

He stopped in the doorway. "Rebecca, you don't have to work hard to be beautiful."

Her entire face lit up and she smiled softly. "Get out of here, you silver-tongued blarney-speaking devil!"

She started to close the door, but just before it clicked shut, she yanked it open, leaned out, and pulled Clark's face down to hers for a quick kiss on the lips. Then she darted back inside and locked the door.

Clark shook his head as he walked towards the stairwell. Being around Rebecca Connors was a continual challenge.

It was a nice challenge, though. He knew he needed somebody to keep him on his toes.

***

Rebecca turned and leaned against the door.

Clark was alive. Beyond all hope, beyond all reason, he was alive!

Lois was alive, too, and she was glad for both of them.

She grabbed her journal from its cubbyhole and began writing almost frantically.

~~~~~

He's alive, J. He's alive. And he came here and told me himself and he held me and told me I was beautiful and he's coming back for dinner.

And Lois is alive, too. They're both alive!

It's going to be a great dinner. And if I have my way, he'll never leave again.

I just hope he doesn't live like this all the time, J. I don't know if I could handle that kind of uncertainty.

~~~~~

***

Chapter Thirty

>>>Wednesday, 7:18 PM

The car which Lex had loaned to Lois entered the underground parking lot below the LexCorp building and glided to a stop beside the executive elevator. Lois felt the cessation of motion but didn't open her eyes.

The driver opened the door and leaned in. "Ma'am? We're here."

She inhaled slowly and murmured, "Mmm-hmm."

The older man hesitated, then spoke. "If you'd prefer, Ma'am, I could take you on home and then call Mr. Luthor for you, say that you weren't feelin' well and went on home to bed."

"Oh, no, Carl, you might get in trouble. Besides, I'm hungry."

Carl smiled. "Yes, ma'am, that's a fine enough reason right there. But I'll still take you home if that's what you want."

Lois slid out the door and let him lift her to her feet. "Thank you, but that's not necessary. There's good food and good company right here, and I don't have anywhere else to go today."

"Yes, ma'am. Y'all have a good dinner now."

"Are you going to get anything to eat?"

"Yes, ma'am, I'll get me some vittles. But I'll be back in time to take you home when you're ready to go."

She smiled wearily and nodded. "Thank you."

He gave her a jaunty salute. She nodded in acceptance, then turned to the elevator, once again thankful for Lex's personal entry code.

She thought about the five times she'd had Carl stop at the drive-through of various fast food places -- which he'd cheerfully done without batting an eye -- and wondered if he thought she was binging and purging.

Then she decided it didn't matter. There was food waiting for her, good hot food, with lots of liquid to wash it down.

And, of course, one of the world's richest men was also waiting for her company.

She shifted her feet and sighed. She was most grateful to Martha Kent for her generosity, but it felt good to wear her own clothes again. It had felt wonderful to shower in her own bathroom. And that boost to her self-esteem had been invaluable as she dealt with the uninterested zombies behind the various government counters she'd had to stand in front of for most of the day.

The process of reclaiming her life and her identity had gone nearly as smoothly as she'd hoped it would. The interviews with the police and the Federal investigators had been less painful than she'd feared, even though she knew she and Clark would have to talk to them again. Her insurance company had promised to expedite her claim and help her buy a new Jeep, and had offered to secure a rental car for her, which offer she'd accepted, starting the next day. She'd even tolerated the new driver's license picture they'd made her pose for.

She had dreaded making the calls to her parents, and the call to Lucy, but by the time she'd placed them late in the morning, her survival was old news. Lucy had been tearfully thrilled to hear from her, Dr. Sam Lane had alternated between gruff and tender, but her mother Ellen had all but accused her of deliberate cruelty for the deception. Lois had managed to end the conversation without saying anything she knew she'd regret later, but she also knew that her mother would pick up the threads of her tirade the next time they spoke. It was something Lois was not looking forward to.

The reunion at the Planet had gone well. Everyone was thrilled that she and Clark were back. Everyone welcomed them with smiles, and many also contributed tears.

Except Cat Grant. The pale and hollow-eyed gossip columnist had been the last to approach Lois, and instead of bouncing happily or laughing or weeping with joy as others had, the girl had embraced Lois with a terrible fierceness and wept aloud. Then she'd done the same thing to Clark, and she'd hung on to both of them for an inordinately long time, trembling as if possessed by some unidentified terror.

Lois had tried to kid her a little by reminding her that they'd missed their Monday lunch together. But Cat had only stared at Lois with a haunted expression and said, "I'm sorry."

Then she'd rushed away as if pursued by a pack of angry wolves and burst through the door of the ladies' room. Lois had looked enquiringly to Clark, who'd shrugged his lack of comprehension. Lois didn't need the link to know that he'd had less understanding of what had just happened than Lois had.

Something really funky is going on with Cat, thought Lois. She would bear watching.

The elevator arrived with a rich, pear-shaped musical note and opened smoothly on well-lubricated rollers. Two men and a woman, all apparently weary from a full day of making executive decisions, exited, allowing Lois the entire car for her trip up. She stepped in and punched in Lex's code, then she watched the doors flow shut before the car hummed upwards.

The ride up was long and tiring, despite her new-found powers. She wondered if Clark ever got this worn out or if she was just behind on her eating.

She looked around at the inside of the car, mentally calculating the cost of the carpet, the textured walls, the painting on one side, and she decided that this one elevator car had cost more than the Kents' home was worth, barn and chicken coop included. The disparity struck her. She was contemplating something long-term, if not permanent, with a man who lived in this environment all the time. Her tastes didn't run to the opera and the ballet, or the high-toned cocktail party where everyone plastered on plastic smiles and made the odd (or sometimes the illegal) deal, or to the elegant dinner parties she knew Lex sometimes hosted for the Metropolis upper crust.

Despite her ease in moving through such a rarified atmosphere, her preference was pizza or Chinese or a simple hamburger, accompanied by a dollar movie or a video rental, and followed by a walk through the park or down by the lake. She wondered if Lex liked to do those things too, and then she considered that he might not do them because of security risks.

Maybe she could go out with 'Alex Winfield' again sometime soon. That had been fun. As long as it didn't cause problems for him.

As she passed the eighty-seventh floor, she wondered what Lex was doing at Thanksgiving, and beyond that, at Christmas. She knew he didn't have any close family in the city, and he certainly wouldn't invite his ex-wife to a holiday celebration, so maybe the two of them could forge some pleasant memories together for the benefit of both.

Thanksgiving and Christmas weren't pleasant times for Lois, but it wasn't because she disliked the holiday season, it was because her strongest memories of such holidays were of her family either fighting or behaving in a cold and distant manner. Her parents' battles were the stuff of legend, and when she'd seen the movie "The Lion In Winter," starring Richard Harris and Katharine Hepburn, she'd turned off the TV during one of their early verbal sparring matches. The feelings the scene produced in her heart were too close to the feelings produced by Sam and Ellen Lane's own battles.

She forced the memory away as the doors whooshed open. Lex was standing beside a wooden-topped table with folding legs, not unlike those in a school cafeteria. He wore an impeccably fitted light brown business suit, but his tie was pulled down and his collar button was undone. Asabi stood beside him, wearing his usual traditional Indian garb and a knowing smile on his face.

Lois stared slack-jawed at the feast spread out on the table. Instead of the formal-style dinner she'd been expecting, she was greeted by what looked like the entire contents of a private delicatessen, including two pies and a three-layer chocolate cake. Lex smiled. "Carl called to tell me you were on your way up. He also mentioned that you might be quite hungry."

She blushed slightly. "Well, yeah, I guess I am."

"Good!" He pulled out a chair -- a padded metal folding chair, of all things -- and gestured for her to sit down. "He also said -- let me see, how did he put it? Oh, yes, he said you had been 'blowing and going' all day and that you were sick and tired of dealing with bureaucrats who didn't know their elbow from their -- ahem -- left kneecap. So I decided it would be better --"

Lois laughed aloud as she sat down. "Left kneecap?"

"Well, that's not an exact quote." Lex sat in a chair to her left and around the corner of the table. "Carl is from West Texas, and he grew up handling cattle on his uncle's ranch. He was apparently exposed to a number of colorful euphemisms during his formative years, and he has developed an intense aversion of self-important or deliberately obstructive people in all walks of life. For you, however, I believe he would gleefully take on any number of opponents."

"Really? He said that?"

"Not in so many words, but his intent was clear. You seem to have a talent for charming my staff."

"Can't help it. Blame it on my engaging personality."

"You certainly have that, my dear, and in spades."

Lois smiled and accepted the glass of fruit juice Asabi poured for her. "Thank you. Oh, could you pass the wheat bread and sliced cheese and mayonnaise?"

Asabi smiled. "Of course. Would you also care to sample the sliced pickles? We have sweet dills from Texas, unless you would prefer the kosher dills from New Jersey."

She grinned back. "Next course, I promise. Now, if you don't mind, I prefer not to talk while I'm eating."

"Of course, Lois. Asabi and I will remain as silent as church mice."

"Good." And she began to pack it in with gusto.

She sensed Lex's amazement and Asabi's amusement as she put away enough food to feed a small crew of lumberjacks. As she finished off her fourth tuna salad sandwich and her third piece of cake, she leaned back and sighed. "Thank you, Asabi, that was wonderful! I can't remember when I've eaten so well."

Asabi chuckled low in his chest. "In that case, Miss Lane, I will endeavor to provide similar quality and quantity each time you visit."

"Oh, you don't have to do that! Tonight was a special occasion, I promise."

She hoped it was special, anyway. It wouldn't do for her to keep eating like that and never gain an ounce. Once again, she sincerely hoped Bob was right about her metabolic shift progressing well.

"I'm glad to hear that," offered Lex. He shook his head and muttered in Asabi's ear, "And I thought formal dinner parties were expensive."

Lois, sensing that she wouldn't have heard that last comment save for her extended hearing capabilities, ignored it and patted her lips with -- to her amazement -- a paper napkin. Lex Luthor in full picnic mode, she mused. What a concept.

"Lex, thank you for a delicious and most filling dinner. I doubt I'll eat anything so tasty for a day or two, at least."

Asabi stood and began clearing the table. Lex said, "Thank you, Asabi. Lois, unless you're too tired from your day's labors, I'd like to invite you to share my balcony for the evening."

She quirked one eyebrow. "Little cold for that, isn't it?"

"If I hadn't lowered the Plexiglas shield, it probably would be, but as it is, we'll be as toasty warm as a hot dog at a baseball game." He offered his hand. "My dear?"

She smiled and stood with him. "How can I refuse? I've always wondered just how warm hot dogs really were."

***

He arranged two chairs side by side and offered to help Lois into one. She smiled and took his hand again, then leaned back into the chair as it reclined to a forty-degree angle. Even with her new-found invulnerability, she could appreciate the comfortable chair.

He sat beside her and leaned back at a similar angle, then reached over and gently took her hand in his and gave her a soft squeeze. "You know, Lois, you gave me a terrible shock."

She squeezed back. "I'm sorry, Lex. If there had been a way to let you know without possibly tipping off the bomber, we would have, I promise."

"I know." He sighed. "It's just -- I know we haven't known each other for very long, Lois, but I can't help but feel strongly about you. You have challenged my heart in a way in which no other woman ever has."

A chilly thrill ran down her spine. What was he saying? What did he mean?

"You know my reputation," he continued, "how I've been seen with and rumored to be connected to dozens of famous women. And, unfortunately, a small number of those reports are true. I have, occasionally, been seen in the company of beautiful women. Even less occasionally, those women have not been merely decorative attachments for public display." He looked directly into her eyes. "But I can truthfully say that I have never been in the company of any individual woman who was both as beautiful and as intelligent as you."

Lois tried to ignore the piercing red 'Flattery Alert!' warning lights flashing in the back of her mind. "I find it interesting that you make that a joint condition instead of an either-or condition."

He smiled warmly. "I did have dinner with a woman who shared the Nobel Prize in physics two years ago, and I had lunch with the five finalists for the Miss World competition last year. But the physicist, while quite brilliant on any number of levels, was only moderately attractive and quite unaware of the 'common' world around her, while those particular beauty contestants would have had difficulty in spelling the word 'physics' if you spotted them the 'phy-' prefix, much less understanding anything about it."

"Are you sure they weren't just hiding their brains behind their good looks?"

"If they were, they had forgotten where they had hidden them."

She laughed. "Surely it wasn't that bad."

He rolled his eyes like a teenager. "One of them was asked by another what she thought of Superman. Her answer -- and this is an exact quote -- was: 'He's a great guy because he helps all those little people who can't help themselves, like when a volcano overflows or something kinda bad like that, and he never sends them a bill.'"

She stared at him. "You're kidding."

"Not in the least. When she finished her statement, the other four actually put down their utensils and applauded her bold and forthright declaration. No, Lois, they were not at all like you. You are at least as brilliant as the scientist, and you are at least as beautiful as any one of those contestants."

The warmth began somewhere deep inside her and quickly spread to her fingertips and toes. "Thank you. And thank you for allowing me to share this time with you. It means a lot to me."

He smiled and kissed the back of her hand. "I hoped you would see it that way. Would you care for an after-dinner cocktail?"

Knowing that it couldn't affect her, she almost said 'yes,' but then she thought that her new-found increase in stamina might make Lex suspicious. "No, thank you. In fact, it's getting late, and I'm very tired, so maybe I'd better go on home tonight."

He stood and offered his hand. "If you think it best, then I will bid you a reluctant good night."

He tugged her to her feet but didn't step back. She looked up into his face and saw desire warring with iron self-control.

He licked his lips. "I -- I hope you won't think me either too forward or too juvenile if I ask your permission to kiss you."

She smiled and leaned closer. "I don't think either of those things. And if you did kiss me, I wouldn't object."

Their breath intermingled. "No objections?" he murmured.

"None," she breathed.

Their lips met and melded together. She smelled his aftershave and his cologne and the musky scent of his body -- not bad, she thought, not bad at all -- and she felt his arms slowly snake around her waist. Then she realized that her arms were making their way around his neck.

And she didn't try to stop them.

Carl could just wait a little longer.

>>>Wednesday, 7:18 PM

He was nervous again.

But he couldn't help it.

Rebecca had been very gracious about delaying their dinner until seven-thirty, and that made him nervous because he didn't know what else she might be thinking about besides preparing dinner. Despite her earlier uncertainty concerning more movie-watching, he had a DVD copy of "The Princess Bride" in one hand -- just in case the evening lagged -- and a small bouquet of daises in the other. He hoped it would convey both an apology and offer of friendship.

He pressed the doorbell and heard her bouncy "Just a minute!" from inside, then a brief clatter of utensils and the flutter of running feet. Then she opened the door.

The transformation from her earlier appearance was nothing less than startling. She had showered, put on makeup, donned dressy casual clothing, and had arranged her normally unruly hair in a cascade of curls around her face. On another woman the effect might have been a distraction, but on Rebecca it was elegant, almost breathtaking.

She smiled brightly. "Clark! Come on in. Dinner will be ready in a moment."

The flowers drew her attention. "Oh, Clark, are these for me? Thank you! They're very nice. Let me put them in some water." As she hunted for an appropriate display vase, she said, "Just put your jacket on the chair beside the door. It's my unofficial coat rack."

"Thanks." He made a show of looking around the apartment and noted that the table on which the computers the Dangerous Boys had used was now empty. "Nice place you got here."

She chuckled. "Oh, how droll. Do all the girls think you're hysterically funny?"

"Just the beautiful redheads."

She stopped and gazed longingly at him for a moment, then ducked her head and turned towards the kitchen. "Flattery will get you somewhere, Mr. Kent, but maybe not where you want to go."

"You mean we can't watch 'Princess Bride' from your couch tonight?"

"You brought a movie even after all my waffling?"

"Just in case. We don't have to watch it if you don't want to."

She sent an electric smile his way. "Sure, we can put it on after dinner. Just don't try anything you're not sure I want you to try."

Oh, wonderful, he thought, I have to read her mind, too. Never been good at reading the mind of any woman, much less one who thinks she might love me. Even Lana's mind had been impenetrable at times.

It would behoove him to tread lightly on this night.

He watched her carefully for cues, trying not to be obvious, as Rebecca put the salad on the table beside the breadbasket. "Go ahead and sit down. I'll get everything ready."

"Are you sure I can't help?"

She smiled again. "I'm sure you could, since you already know your way around my kitchen, but tonight I get to feed you. Now sit, please?"

He shrugged in surrender and sat in one of the two chairs remaining at the table. She brought out a heaping platter of fried shrimp and put it on a ceramic trivet between their plates, then filled two glasses with iced tea and put them on the table, followed by the pitcher. "Go ahead and sweeten yours like you want it. I take mine plain with a squeeze of lemon."

He nodded. "Thanks."

She took off her gloves and put them beside the sink. "Don't get too full on the shrimp and bread. I have a strawberry cheesecake that's to die for." She blinked suddenly and her face lost all animation. "Oh. Stupid, stupid! Clark, I'm sorry, that was a terrible thing to say."

He smiled slightly. "It's okay, Becca, I know what you meant."

"Good," she exhaled. She sat quickly before Clark could help her with her chair and smiled at him again. "You start, I'll follow."

"Thank you. It all looks delicious."

She dimpled as she smiled. "I hope it's as delicious as you look."

He hesitated and glanced at her, but she turned her attention to her plate and gave him no further clues for the moment.

***

As they ate, he gave her an outline report of his day, including his and Lois' reappearance at the Planet and the enthusiastic greeting they'd received. He also gave her a humor-slanted version of the grilling he'd endured from the Federal investigators, who had not accepted his version of Superman's rescue efforts as easily the Metropolis Police Department had. He exaggerated the posture and mannerisms of one of his questioners -- who really had been something of a jerk -- to the point where Rebecca's laughing fit had forced her to leave the table and run to the bathroom to prevent an embarrassment.

When she returned, they finished dinner accompanied by more sedate and mundane conversation, including the current cooling trend in the weather, the city's plan to put up traffic signal cameras and mail out fines to drivers who violated traffic laws, and how the operating system on Rebecca's workstation had been 'upgraded' recently, causing it to automatically restart whenever she opened more than three windows on her desktop, which made it difficult to perform her job function. But she expected it to be corrected by the time she returned to work the next day.

That statement coincided with the cheesecake and an awkward lull in their conversation. Clark tried to get past it as he finished his dessert. "Hey, this is really good. Very tasty."

She smiled. "Thank you. It's not something I eat a lot of, you know."

He glanced at her figure, then up again at her face. "I can tell."

She nodded once to acknowledge his compliment. "And this brings us to the end of the meal. You sit there while I clear the table."

"If you insist."

"I do." She gathered the dishes and carried them into the kitchen. "You get comfortable and prepare for some conversation."

The thought that 'the condemned ate a hearty meal' flickered through his mind. "Is this a conversation where I'll have the chance to plead the fifth?"

She put the uneaten portion of the cheesecake in the refrigerator. "This isn't a trial, Clark. It's not even an interrogation. I just want some answers."

He hesitated. "Do I get to ask some questions, too?"

She refilled their tea glasses, then sat. "Of course. And my rubber hose is locked up in my bedroom closet, I promise."

He grinned. "Okay. What do you want to know first?"

She looked away and played with her glass for a moment. "There's a rumor going around the company that Dr. Baines shot Dr. Platt just before the bomb went off. Is that true?"

He frowned. "You can read more about it in the Planet tomorrow morning, but yes, it's true."

"Does anyone know why?"

"We don't know for sure, but we suspect that Dr. Baines was working for someone who was trying to sabotage LexCorp's work on the shuttle. Jimmy found a Swiss account in her name and a Cayman Islands account in the name of a shell corporation that she owned fully. The Cayman money will probably be seized by the Feds eventually, and hopefully they'll be able to trace the money transfers back to whoever was giving her instructions, but the Swiss account will be a harder nut to crack."

"Okay. But why shoot Dr. Platt?"

"The police think she was trying to kill Lois and me and Platt got in her way. Her office wasn't in that building, and her secretary thought she had a doctor's appointment. And she doesn't show up in the visitor's log. She wasn't supposed to be there, and unless someone else had seen her, no one else would have known she was there that day."

"Oh. So, you think she was there just to kill you and Lois?"

"No. Lois and I think the police have it all wrong. We think that she went there that day to kill Platt and just decided to kill us on the spur of the moment. I have no idea how she planned to get out, or what explanation she wanted to use for Platt's murder." He shook his head. "It's a shame, too. Samuel Platt left behind a wife and a wheelchair-bound daughter. The space station was supposed to do research into spinal nerve tissue regeneration, and Amy -- the little girl -- is a prime candidate for that kind of treatment."

Rebecca shook her head. "That's all so -- so horrible, Clark. I can't imagine why anyone would do such things." She shuddered. "Makes me glad I'm working towards being a marine biologist. Sea creatures don't do things like that to each other. They only kill so they can eat."

"Don't dolphins have a kind of 'pecking order' in their groups? I thought they established a hierarchy just like wolves do."

"Well, yes, but they don't kill each other! And they certainly don't blow each other apart en masse!"

He lifted his hands to deflect her verbal thrust. "Easy there, Becca. I only wanted to point out that no class of life form is perfect, not humans and not sea mammals."

She sat back and crossed her arms. "Sorry," she said, without sounding all that sorry. "The whole thing just makes me angry."

"It should make you angry. It makes me angry, too." He lowered his voice and leaned closer. "We're going to find out who did this terrible thing, and we're going to bring him, her, or them to justice."

She relaxed her arms but looked away from him. "Why doesn't Superman find them and just toss them up into outer space? That would take care of the problem pretty permanently."

He frowned. "Two really big reasons. First off, Superman isn't an investigator. He responds to emergencies he sees in front of him, but he doesn't dig up criminals so he can catch them. Second, and probably most important, Superman isn't a judge, a jury, or an executioner. There's no way he'd ever deliberately snuff out a life, even if that person is a known murderer. He'd take someone like that to the appropriate authorities, but he'd never kill that someone out of hand."

She looked back at him. "You feel pretty strongly about this, don't you?"

"Yes."

Rebecca nodded slowly. "I guess I agree with you. If Superman went around whacking suspects, he'd eventually whack an innocent person by mistake."

"True. Besides, we don't need any super-powered vigilantes hunting down lawbreakers. People have to regulate society themselves. Superman does not need to do that for us."

She gazed at him quizzically. "You sound as if you've spoken to Superman about this before."

"I know what he thinks and how he feels about this subject."

"Hmm. How well do you know Superman?"

"About as well as anyone does, I suppose. Why do you ask?"

She waved her hand airily. "I'm just gathering information about you, Clark. You know, for future reference?"

"Oh." Her desire for information for 'future reference' made him a little uneasy. And it also made him wonder once again just how deep Rebecca's feelings for him went.

He hoped he could cope with those feelings whenever she decided to make them known to him.

Then she surprised him once again. "Speaking of gathering information, why don't we look at that movie you brought?"

He blinked. "That was an abrupt change of subject."

She smiled as she stood and began clearing the table. "You'd better get used to it, Clark. I'm a little unpredictable."

More like totally random at times, he thought.

But after he thought about it for a moment, he realized it wasn't a bad kind of random. She was fun to be around.

***

The closing credits rolled past the screen and Rebecca leaned forward in surprise. "Mark Knopfler did the music for this movie? The same guy who played in Dire Straits?"

Clark nodded. "Yep. That's him singing the closing song. I think he did a very good job, too."

She grinned back at him. "He sure did. I still listen to 'Sultans of Swing' or 'Walk of Life' at least once or twice a week." She sat back and relaxed, a little closer to Clark than when they'd been watching the movie. "Do you sing or play any instruments?"

He shook his head ruefully. "Sorry, no. My mother got me to sing with the youth choir in our church when I was about fourteen, and after the second rehearsal the director went to my mom and asked if he could find some other way for me to participate in the group that didn't involve singing."

She giggled. He looked slightly hurt. She laughed aloud. "I'm sorry, Clark, but that's really funny!"

A lopsided grin slowly appeared on his face. "Yeah, it is, a little. My dad doesn't sing much, but my mom is pretty good. Not 'Broadway professional' good, mind you, but she used to belt it out with the Smallville Little Theater group when I was a kid."

Rebecca sighed. "Those sound like nice memories." She patted his forearm tenderly. "I'm glad you have them. Don't ever take them for granted, okay? They're like fresh air to a deep-water diver."

He nodded thoughtfully. "I never thought of it that way, but I can certainly see your point. Good memories can help us get past some really difficult times."

She stopped patting his arm and squeezed it for a moment, then released her grip. "That's why I was so blown away when I thought you were dead." She picked up the remote and muted the soft guitar music still issuing from the television. "We hadn't had the chance to make many good memories yet, and the thought of never making any with you was just -- you'd probably have a better word, but I guess you could say I was totally devastated."

He pulled a deep breath in through his nose and let it out slowly. "I'm sorry. I promise you, I wouldn't have fooled you like that if we hadn't thought we had a better chance to catch the bomber if we played dead."

Still looking at the TV, she asked, "Did it work?"

"No. We didn't learn anything useful."

She nodded. "But it was a good try, wasn't it?"

Clark took her hand in both of his. "Rebecca, please don't be mad. Yes, it was a good try, one that didn't work. I've tried things before that looked promising but fell through, and I've always managed to learn something from the experience. Maybe there's something we missed, maybe we'll put some things together later that will help, and maybe we won't get anything. But we had to try."

She sighed and turned to meet his gaze. "I know. I understand, Clark, really I do, but I can't help the way I felt. I know you haven't exactly declared your undying and eternal love to me, and I don't expect you to do it now so don't, but I felt like I'd missed the best part of my life when Mr. Asabi told me you might be dead."

His mouth opened but no words issued forth. For the first time in recent memory, wordsmith Clark Kent was unable to put his thoughts into speech.

"Oh, nuts." Rebecca shook her head. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been so blunt." She stood and began pacing between the coffee table and the television set. "My mother used to tell me that I was too blunt, that I said things I shouldn't say, that I run people off because I'm too open or not open enough or because my hair is too red or I'm too short and I try to make up for it by pushing too hard and too fast and --"

Clark stood and captured her shoulders with his hands. "Whoa! I never said you were too blunt. I'm just -- I'm not used to being told things like that."

She sniffed. "Clark, I don't want to -- to push you into something you don't want or something you aren't ready for, but I think we could have a future together." She stepped closer and softly put her hands on his waist. "Do you think we could -- we could find that out together?"

He looked down into her sea-green eyes and felt the depth and power hidden there. "Rebecca, I -- I don't want to lead you on or give you some ideas that might not be true."

"I know you wouldn't." Her eyes held his gaze in a vise. "I won't try to hold you against your will, Clark. And I won't try to guilt you into doing something you don't want to do." She blinked and gestured towards the exit with her chin. "There's the door over there. I'd like for you to stay -- in fact I'd really be upset if you left at this moment -- but I don't want to put any pressure on you. Do you want to leave? If you do, I promise I won't try to stop you."

He hesitated. He didn't feel as deeply towards Rebecca as she seemed to feel towards him, but there was something about her that drew him in, an allure that captured his imagination and his attention, and while he knew he could turn and walk away, he didn't want to. He was tired of being lonely, and she was offering her company with no strings attached.

"No," he finally answered. "I don't want to leave."

A Cheshire smile slowly overwrote whatever had been on her face. "Then let's sit down and talk some more about ourselves."

His head tilted and one eyebrow rose. "You want to talk?"

"Of course. Best way I know of to learn is to ask questions and listen to the answers."

He grinned widely. "Now you sound like a reporter."

She stepped back to the couch and drew his hands towards her. "I'm a scientist, Mr. Kent, and I have the best research subject I could ever hope to find."

He stopped for a moment while his father's warning that someone might want to dissect him like a frog echoed in his head. But then he banished it by telling himself that there was no way Rebecca was threatening him. She was only trying to lighten the mood.

As he sat beside her, she turned serious again. "There is one rule, okay? No discussion of anything permanent between us, at least for a while."

He nodded cautiously. "Okay, if you say so."

"I do say so. I sure don't want you to scare me off at this early point in our relationship."

***

Chapter Thirty-one

>>>Thursday, 8:21 AM

Jimmy clapped Clark on the shoulder and said, "I've already told you several times, CK, but it's great to have you and Lois back in the newsroom."

"Thanks, Jimmy. It's good to be back."

Jimmy's demeanor changed subtly as he handed a plain manila envelope to Clark. "This was delivered about ten minutes ago. The messenger gave it to me with strict instructions to give it to either you or Lois and not even tell anyone else I had it."

Clark frowned in thought as he flipped the envelope over, looking in vain for a postmark or return address. "Do you know who it's from?"

"The messenger said it was from a Mr. Winfield."

Clark lifted his eyebrows in comprehension. "Ah. From Mr. Winfield."

"Yep. Hope it helps."

"Me too, Jimmy, me too."

Time for them to see what Luthor was willing to tell them. -* I have something interesting you might want to read. *--

Lois lifted her head from her e-mail reading and sent, -* What's up? *--

--* I think your boyfriend sent us some information. Wanna come over and check it out? *--

--* Be right there. *--

She pulled up a chair beside his desk before he'd opened the envelope. He pulled out a thin stack of paper and rifled through it.

"You want the top half?"

Lois nodded. "Sure."

Clark divided the pile between them and began scanning the papers he held. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lois trying not to read too fast. It amused him slightly, and he knew that she felt his amusement, but she didn't react to it.

As he was scanning the last page in his stack, he felt a mental jar from Lois. He cut his eyes quickly towards her, but her head was still down and he could feel her anxiety building.

--* What's going on, Lois? What did you find? *--

--* Something bad. According to one of these documents, we have a spy for 'The Boss' working here at the Daily Planet. *--

He pretended to find something interesting in the page he was holding. -* That's not good. Does it say who the spy is? *--

--* No. But it's apparently someone in touch with what's happening on the news floor. *--

--* That's both interesting and disturbing. *--

--* I agree. *--

He schooled his expression to hide his own frown. -* Do you have anything that indicates whether or not the police department has been compromised? *--

--* Yeah. There's a list of five possibles in the MPD, one of whom is on Bill Henderson's staff. *--

Clark snapped the top page with his index finger. -* But not Bill's name? *--

--* No. He looks clean, from what this says. *--

--* What about the FBI? *--

--* Nothing here, but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened. Although the FBI is usually better at this kind of security than the local cops are. *--

--* Usually, but not always. We can't assume anything from now on. We can't take anyone at face value if we want to get any kind of handle on this case. *--

--* What about Perry? Surely he's not on the take! *--

--* No. You're right, Lois, Perry has to be clean. We'd know it if he wasn't. *--

--* I sure hope so. *--

--* We need to take this to Perry. And we need to talk to him about your new abilities and what you plan to do with them. *--

--* You think we need to do all that right now? *--

--* The info about the informers, yes. The other part is your call all the way. *--

--* Um. I think I'd like to wait a bit. *--

--* Suit yourself. Or, you could let my mother suit you. *--

She blew out a breath that fluttered her lips but didn't look at him. -* Because she's making a costume for me, right. You know, Clark, puns that are sent via telepathy aren't any funnier than spoken ones, especially if they aren't original. Your mother already used that one. *--

--* You're just jealous of my rapier-sharp wit. *--

--* Is that what they're calling it these days? *--

Instead of continuing their friendly mental banter, Clark stood and shook his head in apparent disgust. "This is an absolute waste of time," he complained loudly. "If Perry wants me to go over pointless stuff like this, he's going to have to tell me in person."

Lois obviously took the hint. She stood and put her hands on her hips. "If the Chief wants us to rehash this stuff, Clark, we're going to rehash it! There's a story in here, I just know it!'

He leaned over and glared at her. "You wouldn't know a story if it bit you on the butt."

Her eyes flashed and her words snapped out. "Watch it, farm boy! I have seniority!"

Clark's voice crackled through the room. "Older, maybe, but certainly not any wiser!"

Lois matched him decibel for decibel. "I wouldn't have to be a very smart moron to be three times as smart as you!"

"Hey!" shouted Perry. "You two get in here right now!"

They glared at each other for a long moment, then almost in unison they turned and marched towards the editor's office. Clark shouldered Lois aside at the last minute and threw his stack of paper down on the editor's desk.

Lois slammed the door behind her and closed the Venetian blinds so no one would see them. Then she yelled, "Premzer din clobben von elspence!"

Clark whispered urgently, "Perry, yell at us to shut up!" He turned to Lois and cried out, "How dare you speak to me like that! You have no right --"

Perry shouted, "Both of you stop it right now! No more shouting! If you can't behave yourselves you'll both be on unpaid suspension for two days!" He looked from one to the other and back again. "That's better." He lowered his voice. "Now, what the heck was that all about?"

Lois leaned forward and almost whispered, "We have a mole in the newsroom."

Perry's only reaction was to lift his eyebrows. "How solid is this?"

Clark answered, "It comes from Lex Luthor, so I'd take it with a grain of salt."

Lois frowned. "I trust him and I trust this information."

Perry lifted a finger. "Where did you get it?"

"Lois found it in the stuff Luthor sent over this morning."

"He say who the mole is?"

Lois and Clark both shook their heads 'no.'

Perry nodded. "Other than that, anything new in that folder?"

"No," answered Clark. "And I'm not sure how much I trust the piece about the mole."

"What? Why not?"

"Think about it, Lois. If we start digging around in our own newsroom for a spy who doesn't exist, we'll be distracted and it'll give 'the boss' that much more freedom to operate behind our backs. It would handcuff our investigation if we start looking over our shoulders for a mole who isn't there. I don't trust this info."

Lois glared at Clark. "What do you mean, you don't trust it? If Lex says it, I believe it." She held her ground and took a deep breath. "You should, too."

Clark frowned at her. "Sorry, I don't trust Lex Luthor. He doesn't think as highly of me as he does of you."

"He respects you."

"That's because I haven't kissed him yet."

Lois took a step towards him, but Perry grabbed her arm to stop her. "Wait up! Now hold it! Look, you two -- for cryin' out loud, Lois, you been liftin' weights in your spare time?"

They turned to look at the editor with wide eyes. "Good. Now that both of you are listening to me -- which is what you should have been doing in the first place -- lemme tell you that this thing about a spy in the newsroom sounds right. It's bad, of course, but it fits the circumstances. There was no way for anyone who didn't work here to know that you two would be over at that lab on Monday morning."

"Platt cleared it with security --"

"And told them that he was conducting a tour. We have the computer logs for that request. He never mentioned either of your names, or the fact that you were reporters. For all any hacker knew, you could have been a busload of fifth-graders on a field trip."

Lois said, "And you have to remember that Antoinette Baines shouldn't have been there, either. She showed up just to try to kill us. You heard her, Clark, didn't you?"

Clark didn't look quite convinced, but he didn't argue any more.

Then Lois straightened up and stepped back. "Anyway, Perry, we need to let you in on something else that happened on Monday."

Perry nodded and sat down. "What might that be?"

Lois took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then said, "I have Superman's powers now."

Perry's eyes widened slightly and he tipped his head back. "Sorry, Lois, I don't think I heard you right. Say that again, just to humor your ol' hard-of-hearing boss."

"I said, I've got Superman's powers now."

Perry's mouth crept open. He looked at Clark and muttered, "She -- is she --"

Clark nodded. "It's true. She's got my powers."

Perry's eyes fluttered and he put his hands over his face. "Oh, great. Now Lois is the one with the powers? Son, what are you --"

"Perry, no! I meant, I have his powers, just like he does. He's still Superman."

"Oh." They waited while he processed this new information. "You mean, you're both super now?" They nodded in unison. "How in the name of Buddy Holly did that happen?"

They shrugged in unison. "We don't know," sighed Lois. "One minute I was normal as fresh apple pie, and the next minute I was tougher than last week's cafeteria special."

"Ah. So, you haven't been lifting weights, then?"

Clark smiled. Lois giggled. "No, I haven't."

Perry nodded. "Have you decided what to do with them?"

Lois looked at Clark, but he shook his head and said, "Uh-uh. This is your call."

She took a deep breath. "I'm going to try the costumed heroine thing."

"I see." Perry steepled his fingers and raised one eyebrow in his best Vulcan imitation. "And what will your name be?"

She made a face. "My official heroic designation is still up in the air."

"'Still Up In The Air,' huh? That's got a nice ring to it, but it's kind of an awkward name, don't you think?"

"Come on, Perry!"

"Okay, okay, I'll quit. But you two keep me up to date on this, okay?"

"Right, Chief."

"We will, Perry," echoed Lois.

"Anything else?" They shook their heads. "Then get back out there and get to work. And make sure you look properly chastened and cowed when you leave my office."

Lois grinned wickedly. "Oh, right, can't forget that."

"You'd better not." Perry leaned back and assumed a smug posture. "Anyone who comes in here after a display like you two put on had better expect to have his or her head handed back to him or her on a paper plate. And I can't let anyone slide, even if you were just doing that to keep the mole from getting suspicious." He leaned forward and barked, "Now get out of here, both of you!" Lois opened the office door. "And behave yourselves from now on, hear me?"

They both nodded and scurried out of the office as if escaping a threatened spanking.

***

From the far side of the newsroom, in the copy machine area, Jimmy watched the little play Lois and Clark put on to get into the chief's office. He didn't know for certain that they were playacting, of course, but because of what he already knew and what he assumed, he deduced that they were doing it to fool a spy in the newsroom.

The thought of anyone low enough, sleazy enough, and nasty enough to rat on his friends filled him with rage. He decided that he'd resume the martial arts training he'd abandoned at age sixteen, and this time he'd stick with it. He might never need that third degree black belt in Aikido, but it wouldn't hurt him to be able to take care of himself -- or his friends -- in a pinch.

He watched them exit the editor's office and head back to their desks. Someone who didn't know them like he did wouldn't have picked up on the quick little wink-wink they shared, or the smile that Lois covered with her hand as she sat down. He glanced around the room and saw that nearly everyone else was trying very hard to pretend that the paper's young star reporters hadn't just been royally chewed out by the boss.

Everyone, that is, except Cat Grant. She stared at Clark and Lois as they settled back into their seats, and then she dropped her face into her hands. She sat that way for almost a minute, then she sat up in her chair and attacked her keyboard as if trying to beat her computer to death.

Maybe she was concerned for her friends, or maybe just for Lois. Maybe she was looking to become the office gossip in word and not just in print. Maybe she was just naturally drawn to situations like that.

But somehow Jimmy didn't think so, especially since Perry had asked him to watch her.

He watched her for the next half-hour, until it was beyond clear that he had no more copying to do. She hadn't moved from her desk in all that time, and in fact was still typing away furiously at her workstation. She hadn't look away from the monitor, except to glance at her notes.

Maybe she wasn't the mole. Maybe she looked so pale and drawn because she was sick or was coming down with something. Maybe she was still recovering from her concussion.

But Jimmy didn't think so.

>>>Saturday, 8:25 AM

Lois landed in the Kent's cornfield where Clark had brought her on the day they'd first come to visit Bob. She checked in all directions and saw no one who could spot her, so she walked across the open area towards the kitchen. Martha saw her coming and pushed open the screen door for her.

"Have you had breakfast yet?"

Lois grinned. "Twice already. I'm okay for now."

"Good. I hope you don't mind if Jonathan is here."

Lois' face fell. "I think the question should be whether or not he minds that I'm here."

Martha nodded. "Then let's take care of that right now. Come with me."

Martha grabbed Lois' elbow and began marching towards the interior of the house. Lois was yanked off-balance and floated for a moment to keep from falling until she regained her equilibrium. By the time she was once again steady on her feet, she was standing in front of Jonathan Kent, who was sitting at the living room desk doing the farm's bookkeeping.

He turned to face them. His expression smoothed and he appeared only barely interested, an appearance which Lois knew was misleading. "Martha, why did you --"

"You two are going to talk. You're both going to listen. I've had enough of my husband being rude to a young woman whose only crime is being zealous in her pursuit of the truth." She pulled out a folding chair and thumped it down beside the desk. "Sit here, Lois. You tell Jonathan what you think and what you feel. Then he'll tell you what he thinks and what he feels. And they you'll both shake hands and either be friends or come out fighting." Her voice trailed off as she headed towards her sewing room. "I'll be here to call the paramedics if it comes to that."

Lois sat gingerly in the folding chair and played with her fingers. She glanced at Jonathan but didn't look directly at him. Finally she heard him sigh heavily.

"Lois, I'm sorry. I'm very sorry. I said some things the other night that I deeply regret and wish I'd never even thought of. My only lousy reason is that I loved Lana like a daughter and I still miss her terribly, but that doesn't excuse how mean I was to you. I apologize for what I said and I hope you can forgive me."

Lois nodded slowly. "I do forgive you, Jonathan. And I'm sorry you feel the way you do. Believe me, I'd give almost anything to change places with Lana."

"Really? You'd be willing to give up your life so that Lana could be alive?"

"Yes. I think she was worth about eight or ten of me, at least."

He gently placed his large, calloused hand over her small hands. "You shouldn't feel that way. You should be thankful for the second chance you have at life." He gave her hands a gentle squeeze. "And you should be grateful for the opportunity you have to do something for the world that only one other person can do."

She smiled shyly. "Thank you. I just hope I can live up to Clark's example."

"Why should you?"

The question startled her. "What? What do you mean?"

"Why should you have to live up to what Clark has done? Why not create your own legacy? You can start from scratch, just like he did."

"Oh." She sat upright. "I hadn't thought about it like that."

"You should. Whatever you call yourself, you shouldn't expect to exist in Superman's shadow for the rest of your life. You should learn from his example, listen to his advice, and follow his lead, especially when you're just starting out, but you shouldn't define yourself by his image."

She nodded slowly. "I think I understand what you're saying. Superman may be my mentor and my guide, but he isn't my absolute ruler."

He nodded and sat back. "That's pretty much it."

"Okay. Okay, I get it! Thank you, Jonathan!"

She leaped up and almost hit her head on the ceiling before landing softly with her feet on the carpet. "Oops! Sorry about that. I'm still getting used to some of the things I can do."

He smiled. "No problem. Now you go try on Martha's creation. And be kind to her, okay?"

"You're kidding, right? I'm sure she'll have the perfect outfit for me."

He laughed. "Sure, she will. She put together four different costumes for Clark before he found one he could barely tolerate, and Lana still had to talk him into wearing it." He shook his head. "That was some evening. My favorite one was the leopard-print Tarzan-like outfit."

Lois laughed softly. "That must have been an interesting session."

"It was that. It was also the night we named him."

Lois' eyebrows rose together. "Lana named Superman?"

"Well, it was all three of us, sitting around the table and tossing out ideas, but she pretty much drove that train."

"Oh." Lois' lips pursed in thought. "Maybe I should get your input on my name, too. I haven't figured out what to call myself yet."

"That's fine with me. Do you want Clark to be in on that, too?"

She frowned for a moment, then said, "He'll be here in about forty minutes. He's almost finished working a train derailment in the industrial area of Metropolis. LNN wants to interview him about it, too."

Jonathan shook his head. "I keep forgetting about that 'link' thing between the two of you. Must come in mighty handy at times."

"It does. It can also be an inconvenience."

He chuckled. "Yeah. I can think of times when I wouldn't have wanted to know exactly what Martha was thinking. Or wanted her to know what I was thinking."

Martha chose that moment to lean through the doorway. "I heard that, smart-aleck. Lois, I'm ready for you to try on your suit."

***

Clark walked into the kitchen and called out, "Hello? I'm here."

His father's voice floated in from the living room. "We're in here, son. Come take a look at this."

Look at what? thought Clark, as he followed the sound of the voice.

Then his eyes beheld a bird whose plumage had never seen the light of day.

He stopped and stared. His mouth slid open and he forgot to breathe for a moment.

Lois was wearing a super-heroine costume that beat all hollow the ones his mother had made for him and which that he'd rejected that day so many years ago.

A fragment of an old novelty song popped into his brain: 'She wore an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini -- '

But this was no bikini. And it wasn't itsy-bitsy. It was -- it was like nothing he'd ever imagined.

It was a skin-tight body suit like his, but pink and purple. With purple gloves that came almost to her elbows. And a greenish-blue cape. And there was a yellow stripe which wound its way down the outside of her left leg, crossed over her knee, and ended somewhere near the inside of her ankle.

At least she wasn't wearing her underwear on the outside of her suit.

And she wore a mask. It was pink. It covered her face around her eyes. It was diamond-shaped around each eye, and two of the corners merged across her nose. Her hair was slicked back and held in place with what looked like a double handful of mousse.

And her boots were -- high-heeled? Shades of Nancy Sinatra!

Lois' hand suddenly appeared, waving back and forth in front of his face. "Clark? Hey, Clark! Wake up! What do you think of your mother's handiwork?"

"Um -- that's -- it's -- uh -- very tight."

She ignored Jonathan's muted snort. "Of course it is. Cuts down on wind resistance, but you already knew that. Tell me what you think about it."

He inhaled and tried not to say something completely stupid. He wracked his brain for two long seconds, but all he could come up with was, "Well, they won't be looking at your face!"

Jonathan burst out laughing. Martha almost smothered a giggle.

Lois looked ready to clobber him.

Instead, she ground her teeth together, appeared to count to ten, and with forced calm said, "Is there anything else you'd like to contribute to the discussion?"

He exhaled deeply. "I've never been so happy with electric blue spandex in my life."

This time Martha completely lost it. She fell against Jonathan's chair and slid into his lap, which was bouncing up and down like Santa Claus' belly. Lois pulled her mask off and held it in her hand. "You know, I was hoping you'd be a little more supportive here."

"Yeah." He blinked twice and looked just below her chin. "Supportive."

Lois followed his gaze and frowned, then she exhaled sharply through her nose and poked him in the chest. "Okay, Big Blue, that's enough modeling for me today. It's time for my mid-morning pick-me-up. We're going to Smallville's best burger joint and we're going to order a dozen burgers -- all of which you're going to pay for -- and I'm going to eat at least half of them by the time we get back here." She turned to Martha, who was fanning herself and trying to stem the tide of hilarity. "You can make any final adjustments when we get back. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go change into my disguised-Lois clothes."

Lois strode decisively into the bedroom and closed the door firmly. Clark turned to his mother and managed, "Is that -- she wants to wear that one?"

Martha struggled to control her smile. "It's -- it's not that she wants to wear it, but that's the least yucky costume I could come up with on short notice."

"Oh." He shook his head. "Why not just use mine as a pattern?"

Martha finally calmed down. "We talked about that, but she said she didn't want her costume to resemble yours too much. She said she wanted to establish an identity of her own, separate from Superman. That way it would be more difficult for people to connect your other identities."

He nodded and opened his mouth to respond, but Lois' appearance arrested his speech apparatus once again.

This time she was wearing a long, straight red wig, a black business suit, black flats, and huge dark glasses. Clark rolled his eyes and said, "Let me guess. Now you're a European super-model traveling incognito, right?"

She pulled the sunglasses down and peeked over the rims. "Zat ees close enough, monsieur. Come, you must feed me great amounts of sustenance, lest I fade away and disappear completely due to my great hunger."

Clark nodded, thinking that it was a good thing Lois could write. She'd never make it as an actress. "Dad, can we borrow the truck again?"

Jonathan pointed to the kitchen. "Keys are hanging beside the back door. Try not to run out of gas."

Lois paused and posed disdainfully. "Zee beautiful and ridiculously famous but talent-poor European super-model does not run out of zee gas, monsieur. My chauffer will lift and carry me with great servility and care should such zee unthinkable thing as you suggest take place."

With that, she flounced out to the truck without waiting for Clark. He smiled to his parents and said, "I guess Her Majesty and I will see you later."

The horn honked twice. "Come on, Clark! While we're still young, okay?"

***

Clark watched in amazement as Lois finished off her third burger, fourth helping of French fries, and her second chocolate milkshake. As she leaned back and sighed deeply, he asked, "Are you sure your stomach doesn't hurt?"

"Not a bit. I'm just slowing down so I can savor the rest of it."

He shook his head as he turned off the main highway towards the Kent farm. "If you say so. I'm glad I get my energy the old-fashioned way, through good old sunlight."

To his surprise, she didn't snap back at him. "Lois? Is something wrong?"

He glanced her way and saw large eyes and a quivering lip occupying her face. "Am I doing the right thing, Clark?"

"The right thing in what?"

"The powers thing! Will it be a good thing for me to be a costumed heroine, or am I just going to make trouble for you?"

He flexed his hands on the steering wheel before answering. "I can't predict the future, Lois, but overall I think it'll be a good thing. There'll be one more invulnerable mugging-stopper and burglar-catcher working the streets of Metropolis. I don't see how that could be anything but good. And since we already know each other and we can communicate mentally, we shouldn't get in each other's way. I know I'm not going to be competing with you, or you with me."

She looked out the window and sighed. "I've been having second thoughts lately. On a lot of subjects, not just the powers thing. I wonder if I handled Claude too roughly, or maybe not roughly enough, or if I've missed something on the gun-runner investigation because I'm so close to it, or if I'm moving too fast with Lex -- this isn't me, Clark! I don't do the introspective thing very well. And I don't understand why I'm doing it now."

He pursed his lips. "I think it may be a side effect of the link. Remember, Bob told us that we'd tend to share aspects of our personalities with each other whether we wanted to or not. I know I've had a shorter fuse on my temper lately, and the other night when I nearly slapped you was -- I don't have a term to describe how badly I feel about that." She didn't respond. "And I know I'm way late with this, but I want to apologize for that. No matter how much we disagree, I have no right to try to physically force you to do what I want you to do. I was wrong. I'm sorry. And I give you my word that I'll never do it again."

She sighed. "I forgive you, Clark, and I hope you accept my apology for being so short with you, too. But you were right about keeping us hidden, even from Lex and Rebecca." She crossed her arms and frowned. "And I promised myself I'd never tell you that, either. See what a corrupting influence you are on me?"

He chuckled. "As long as you're aware of it, you should be able to compensate for it."

"But I'm not sure I want to. My limited understanding of the matter is that being honest with people is a good thing. Besides, you're the one with the strong moral compass. It's only right that you share it with me."

"Maybe so, but you've got more drive and determination to succeed than I have. And I think that may be rubbing off on me, too."

She grinned ruefully. "Before long, I'll be the one holding you back, and you'll be the one jumping in without checking the water level."

"At least neither of us can drown."

They shared a brief laugh, then Lois started on another burger. "Hey, Clark, you want one of these? I'll heat it up for you."

"No thanks. I can wait for lunch."

She chewed an enormous bite and swallowed noisily. "Okay. I hope Bob was right about the aura and the solar energy thing, though." She took another huge bite. "Thish ish -- " she gulped and washed some of it down with one of her soft drinks " -- this is time-consuming."

"And money-consuming, too. That mid-morning snack of yours cost me nearly thirty dollars."

She all but inhaled another handful of fries. "I'll pay you back, don't worry."

"Right. I'll add it to all the other meals I've paid for in the last few days."

He expected her to continue their banter, but she fooled him. She swallowed and looked directly at him. "You know the main thing that keeps me sane in all this?"

"What?"

"The thought that I can use these powers to finally bring those gun-runners to justice." She touched his elbow gently. "And I can make up a little for Lana not being here."

Clark frowned. "You don't have to replace her, Lois. And it wasn't your fault she died."

She rubbed the scar on the back of her right hand with her left thumb. "It wasn't yours, either, but you'd love to get them, wouldn't you?"

He gripped the wheel tighter and stared straight down the road. He waited for two long breaths before answering.

"Yes. I want to get them." He shifted in the seat before continuing, "But only because I don't want anyone else to be hurt. I don't want to take revenge on anyone."

She resumed her feast and didn't reply.

As he pulled the truck to a stop in his parents' driveway, he put his hand on hers and softly said, "You shouldn't want revenge either, Lois. It won't make everything all right again."

She looked at him closely for a moment, then opened the door and strode into the kitchen.

***

Martha gave Lois' costume one last tug and then stood. "That's it. That's as good as I can make it right there."

Lois looked in the full-length mirror and turned about, watching the play of the fabric on her body. "You know, Martha, if there are any other super-heroes out there who need costumes, I could give them your number and a personal recommendation."

Martha stretched backwards with her hands behind her hips and groaned. "You'd better not! I don't think I could fit anyone else besides you and Clark. My old back just wouldn't take it."

"Well, I don't think anyone else could have done half as good a job as you have. This is really great! It fits snugly without binding, it doesn't give me a wedgie, and it brings out all the good things about my figure without revealing the bad things."

"Dear, I doubt any man would think there was anything bad about your figure."

Lois laughed. "Maybe not, judging from Clark's reaction." She turned again. "I think I like the cape. It hides my rear end when I'm standing still. But do you really think the mask is necessary? I'm not sure how well it will stay on in flight."

Martha shook her head. "There's nothing wrong with your rear end, Lois. And if you don't wear a mask with the outfit, the first time anyone publishes a clear picture of you, someone will say, 'Wow, she looks just like Lois Lane! Wait, it really is Lois Lane!' Bingo, no more secret identity. You don't have Clark's advantage of already wearing glasses." She helped Lois settle the mask in place. "If it's tight enough, it won't come off. Besides, Clark's hair doesn't get very mussed even when he flies at high speed. I think it has something to do with his aura. So I sincerely doubt you'll lose your mask in flight."

Lois nodded. "Okay, I'll wear it. But I'd sure like to have a spare, just in case."

"No problem. I'll have one for you by this evening. Oh, you are still letting Bob take daily readings, aren't you?"

She nodded. "Yes. But unless he finds some kind of weird stuff going on, this one tonight will be the last daily one. After that, we'll drop back to weekly for a while."

"That's good. Say, it's almost lunchtime. Are you hungry?"

Lois laughed and rubbed her stomach. "Yes, but not as much as I have been. Either those burgers were really filling or my body is starting to adjust to my new metabolism. But I don't want you to feed just me. That wouldn't be fair."

Martha patted her shoulder. "Nonsense. We'll all eat. Besides, I like feeding someone who enjoys eating as much as you do, especially since you don't gain weight from it." She sighed. "What I wouldn't give for just that one super-power."

"But you're so slender, Martha! Why would you want that for yourself?"

Martha lowered her voice. "Not for me, dear, for Jonathan."

***

Clark and Jonathan lifted their heads together as Lois and Martha laughed their way to the living room. Jonathan stood and smiled. "Lois, that outfit looks a lot better on you than it did on me."

Lois grinned back. "I sure hope so. Wait! You did wash this before I put it on, didn't you, Martha?"

All four of them shared a chuckle, then Jonathan lifted an open notebook. "I've made a few notes about the names we threw out for Clark before we settled on Superman. Would you like to go over some of them?" Before Lois answered, he lifted his hand and added, "Of course, you won't hurt my feelings if you want to come up with something entirely different."

Lois shrugged. "The only names I've been able to think of so far are Supergirl and Superwoman, and I really don't like either one of them."

Clark lifted an eyebrow. "Any particular reason?"

"Yes, actually. While I intend to publicly acknowledge Superman as a mentor and a friend, I'd prefer not to be thought of as Superman's super-girlfriend. I want to leverage off your positive image, but I don't want to link myself too closely to you. I don't want you to catch bad publicity for any mistakes I make."

"You sound like a business executive with that leverage talk."

She shrugged again. "Comes from dating an extremely successful businessman."

Clark frowned in thought for a moment, then nodded. "That makes sense, I guess. Okay, Dad, what names do we have?"

By unspoken consent, they all sat. Clark and Lois ended up on opposite sides of the room. Jonathan adjusted his glasses and began reading from the notebook. "Let's see, we kicked around names like Flyboy, Power Man, Super-Strong Man, Resplendent Man --"

"Resplendent Man?" Lois made a face. "Eww. I'm glad you turned that one down."

Clark smiled. "It's still open for you if you want it."

"No thanks. What else is on your list, Jonathan?"

"Hmm. There was Speedy, Quickman, Ultra Man --"

"Hold it. You said something about Power Man?" She stood and posed with fists against her hips. "What about -- Power Woman?"

Martha lifted one eyebrow. "Well, dear, to tell the truth --"

Lois waved her off and sat down again. "Never mind. On second thought, it sounds like a brand of deodorant."

Jonathan nodded. "Do you want me to keep going?"

"Yes, please. Wait!" Lois rose quickly to her feet again. "What was that last one? Ultra Man?" She turned in a circle. "Ultra Woman?" Her face brightened and she struck another heroic pose. "I like the way that sounds. Ultra Woman! Cower, all ye evildoers! Behold Ultra Woman!"

There was contemplative silence for a moment, then Clark said dramatically, "Ultra Woman, the heroine of La Mancha!"

Martha stifled a chortle as Lois turned a sardonic glare on Clark. "La Mancha?" she queried stiffly.

"The 'cower all ye evildoers' part did come across as a bit Don Quixote-like."

Lois' face relaxed into a smile. "Yeah, I guess it did. Sorry."

Jonathan offered, "Maybe you could just stand for truth and justice, like Superman does."

Lois nodded. "Okay. That'll have to do, I guess."

"It will have to do?" Clark jumped up in front of her. "You guess? Superman stands for truth! For justice! Those are nothing but good things! Things the world doesn't have nearly enough of! And you 'guess' it's good enough for you?"

"Clark --"

"Superman stands for something! He's an ideal! He's a cultural icon! He's --"

Martha put her hand on his arm and pulled him back a half step. "Calm down, Clark! This isn't personal!"

"But she's just insulted Superman's very reason for existing! She can't --"

Lois whispered, "Remember the link, Superman."

Clark suddenly froze in place. Then he took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm sorry. The green-eyed monster eventually strikes everyone, I suppose."

She stepped closer and put her hand on his upper arm. "I'm not trying to take anything away from you, Clark. I could never do that. Superman does stand for truth and justice, and I'd be proud to stand beside you on that basis."

"Thank you. You're nicer to me than I really deserve on this point." He nodded and sighed as Lois slowly lowered her hand. "You're right, Lois, this is your image and not mine. And I shouldn't be so sensitive about my own image. Besides, I don't exactly own that phrase." He smiled slightly. "On top of that, once you appear on the scene, they won't be looking at me at all."

Lois' face relaxed. "I think I'm going to take that as a compliment, Mr. Kent."

Clark's smile widened. "It was surely intended as one, Ms. Lane."

Jonathan and Martha exchanged a 'look' which required no mental link for communication. They both feared that the closeness that Clark and Lois shared might not be the best thing for either of them.

Or for the two of them together.

***

Chapter Thirty-two

>>>Monday, 7:25 AM

Clark stepped out of his shower and toweled his hair dry. He wondered briefly when Ultra Woman would make her public debut, then he shook his head and decided not to worry about it. He brushed his hair and reached for his underwear.

Then a fire rescue emergency broadcast about a school bus in trouble on a bridge just outside Metropolis caught his attention. He listened for a moment, realized that the rescue units were still several minutes away from the bus, and decided that it was indeed a job for Superman. He spun into a clean suit and whooshed out the window.

***

He arrived on site within thirty seconds. The bus had been sideswiped by a pickup truck and had been pushed into and then partly over the side railing, and now it lay there precariously balanced. The kids were bunched towards the front of the bus, but they couldn't get out because the door had been crushed by the impact. And the emergency door in the rear of the bus overlooked a drop of several dozen feet to the river below.

Superman looked under the bus and decided that dragging it back onto the roadway wasn't the best course of action. The undercarriage was impaled by at least three broken concrete fence posts, and the body of the vehicle appeared to be bent and cracked near the middle. Lifting the damaged vehicle was an iffy proposition, too. Too much stress would simply tear the bus apart and drop the back end into the water.

Then the driver saw him and began shouting and gesturing towards the back. Superman peered in and saw two students lying on the floor, both with injuries which prevented them from moving.

He decided he could use some help.

--* Lois? I mean, Ultra Woman? Are you listening? *--

--* I'm right behind you, Clark. *--

He spun around, surprised, and saw her standing just a few feet away. "I'm glad you're here. Are you ready to make your debut?"

She nodded. "I'm as ready as I can be."

"Good. Since everybody already knows who I am, I think you should hold down the front of the bus while I open up the doors to get the kids off."

She nodded and quickly moved to the front bumper of the bus. She slowly put pressure on it until the front tires settled onto the pavement.

Superman sent her a quick nod of approval, then gently worked the crumpled doors partly open. "Hi, kids. You can get off now. I want the youngest ones first, okay?"

"Superman!" the driver shouted. "There are two fifth-grade girls in the back of the bus. They're hurt and I can't get to them!"

"It's okay, sir, I've already seen them. We'll take care of them as soon as the other kids get off safely. Will you help keep them organized in there?"

The man nodded and took a deep breath. "Awright, little ones first! That means kindergarten and first grade. Debbie, Karen, you make sure the second-graders stay in line back there. Third-graders and fourth-graders move aside into the seats for now. Superman will make sure everyone's okay."

The doorway was crumpled inward and blocked the bottom of the steps, so Superman had to lift each child out of the bus one at a time. There were three adult bystanders, one of whom had called in the emergency, who herded the kids out of danger to the end of the bridge.

The oldest students were about to get off when Ultra Woman called out, "Superman, the ambulance is almost here. Are you ready to get the injured kids off now?"

"In a minute. All right, young lady, are you the last student?"

The girl nodded as he set her down on the pavement. "Except for Angela and Kim. They're in the back of the bus. They're hurt."

Superman smiled. "I know. I'm going to get them off now. You go with the other kids and help keep the little ones calm, okay?"

"Okay, Superman!"

The girl turned and trotted towards the rest of the students. Two police cars had arrived, and the officers were taking names and making calls to parents. The ambulance pulled in and turned off its siren as Superman lifted the driver out.

"But I should go help those girls!" he protested. "They're my responsibility!"

"I appreciate your sense of duty, sir, but the best thing you can do right now is to make sure the other kids stay calm and safe. Ultra Woman and I will take care of the injured girls."

"Ultra Woman, huh? She your girlfriend or something?"

He shook his head. "No. She's just helping me."

The driver grinned. "Whatever you say. I'll get out of your way now."

As the man hustled past him, Superman called, "I'm going in now. I'll float above the floor."

She nodded abruptly. "Don't take too long. I think the edge of the bridge is starting to collapse."

As he floated over the seats to the back of the bus, he could hear one of the girls moaning in pain. That girl was lying on the floor and had slid under one of the seats. Her lower leg was bent at an unnatural angle, and slivers of white bone poked through the skin over her shin.

The other girl was sitting up, holding her arm tenderly across her stomach. Superman quickly x-rayed it and saw the cracked upper arm bone. "Hi," he said softly. "Which of you is Kim and which is Angela?"

The girl sitting up gasped, "I'm -- I'm Kim. That's Angela. She's -- ahh -- she's hurt worse. Take her first."

Superman nodded, then sent, -* Two girls, both about eleven or twelve, Kim and Angela. Kim has a fractured upper left arm. Angela has a compound fracture of her lower right leg. Angela has some blood loss, but it doesn't look dangerous at the moment. Ask the paramedics which one they want first. *--

He waited while Ultra Woman relayed his message. She sent back, -* Whichever one comes out easier. They have stretchers and teams ready for both. *--

--* Thanks. *--

He glanced around at the front of the bus and saw how awkward it would be to take either girl out that way. Then he looked at the emergency exit at the back. "Kim, I'm going to carry you out the back door first because I'll have to pull up one of the seats to get to Angela, and I don't want you to get hurt while I'm doing it. Okay?"

Kim nodded and gasped again. He floated to the back door and opened it carefully, then floated back and gently picked her up. "Just take it easy, Kim, you're doing great. Angela, don't go away, okay? I'll be right back."

Angela nodded and tried to laugh, but only groaned again. He carried Kim to the first stretcher, then glanced at Ultra Woman. "Okay so far?"

"I'm fine," she said, "but this bus isn't. You'd better hurry."

The vehicle groaned and creaked as if underscoring her statement. "Okay. Be right back."

He floated back into the bus and found that Angela had lapsed into unconsciousness. Cautiously, he snapped the seat supports on the bench above the injured girl and laid the seat across two others in front of her. Then he gently lifted Angela and floated her out of the bus to the second stretcher.

He helped the EMT arrange her for transport. "That's the last one. Is everyone accounted for?"

"I think so," the young man replied. "We'll take it from here."

Superman nodded and stepped back, then turned and looked at the bus again. "Ultra Woman, you anchor the front and I'll lift the back end onto the roadway."

"I hope it doesn't fold up like a lawn chair."

"It might still do that. That's why I wanted the kids off first. Ready?"

She nodded. In seconds, the damaged school bus was safely resting on the roadway, further bent but no longer a hazard to traffic on the bridge or to passersby below.

As Superman walked to the front of the bus, he whispered, "Let's go meet some of these kids whose lives we just saved."

Alarmed, she responded, "What? Meet them? You mean -- talk to them?"

He took her elbow and guided her towards the group of kids. "Sure. They'll remember this all their lives, how they were the first ones saved by Ultra Woman." He looked into her eyes. "And it'll be good for you, too. This was one of the good rescues, and you got your start with it."

She hesitated, then nodded. "Okay. For the kiddos."

One of the older girls stepped forward and said, "Hey, you're a girl just like me!"

Ultra Woman smiled slightly. "Well, maybe not just like you, but I am a girl."

"What's your name?"

"There are those who call me Ultra Woman."

The girl's eyes opened up and she breathed, "Ooh, Ultra Woman! That is such a cool name!" She took Ultra Woman's hand in hers, turned to the other kids, and shouted, "Hey, guys! This is Ultra Woman! She saved us!"

The kids cheered and rushed to surround her. There was no way to get away from them without injuring one or more of the kids, so Ultra Woman just stood there listening to their shouts.

Then one first-grade boy wrapped himself around her leg and shouted, "Thank you thank you thank you oh thank you!"

Ultra Woman looked to Superman for help, but he just smiled. "I think you're a hit," he called out. She smiled cautiously and patted the boy on the back. Clark nodded to himself. She's being a bit formal, maybe even standoffish, he thought, but she's still handling it well.

Then Superman noticed that one of the bystanders had a home video camera up and running. Well, he mused, a debut isn't a debut any more without a video record of it.

***

Perry burst out of his office and stared at the television on the wall. The scene showed Superman and a garishly clad, apparently super-powered woman lifting a school bus off the guardrail of a bridge and onto the roadway. The announcer intoned, "This was the scene this morning in rural New Troy as Superman and his new assistant, a costumed woman calling herself Ultra Woman, rescued a bus full of elementary school students. Two students were transported to the local hospital, where they are both reported to be in stable condition. No other injuries were reported, although it appears that several people were treated at the scene for minor scrapes or cuts. Again, the accident was caused by a pickup truck driven by a young man who had apparently fallen asleep at the wheel. We don't believe the young man was injured, and no arrests have been made at this time. However, authorities have not ruled out filing charges."

He stopped talking for a moment as the children mobbed the new heroine. "As you can see, the purple-clad model calling herself Ultra Woman mingled with the school children from the bus after the rescue. At this time, the actual identity of this woman is unknown, nor is it known how she might have acquired powers which seem similar to Superman's."

The talking head on the screen paused and leaned to one side. Perry stepped forward and shouted, "All right, who's got this story? Who can tell me anything about this -- what did that moron call her?"

"Ultra Woman," called out a chorus of male voices.

"Ultra Woman, huh? What do we know about her?"

"She can fly."

"She's about as strong as Superman."

"She's really hot!"

Perry's gaze focused on Jimmy, who suddenly blushed and muttered, "I can't believe I said that out loud!"

"Never mind!" shouted Perry. "The rest of you get started on this story!" He turned and glanced at two particular desks. "Olsen! Where's Lane and Kent?"

Jimmy looked around. "I -- I dunno, Chief. They haven't called in and I haven't seen them."

"Find them! And they'd better have a dynamite story for the evening edition when they get here!"

He turned back to the television. So, Lois is calling herself Ultra Woman, he thought. Not bad. Not bad at all.

But her outfit -- she could have done a lot better than that. Although he'd seen worse on Elvis a time or two.

***

LNN ran the rescue story intermittently all day, showing the amateur video repeatedly, accompanied by interviews with everyone who'd seen Ultra Woman that morning. All the news networks' talking heads talked themselves hoarse while saying nothing new about her. The wire services hummed with rehash and empty speculation on this new super-powered character. Editors all over the eastern seaboard reviled their reporting staffs for not anticipating the new heroine's advent, or, failing that, for not securing the exclusive story of her origins and her relationship with Superman.

The Whisper printed a borderline slanderous article on "The New Super-Hottie In Town," including badly posed fake photos of a pink-and-purple clad woman in a passionate clinch with a man wearing a Superman costume and an obvious toupee. The woman's outfit lacked the yellow stripe on the left leg -- and the petite figure of the real Ultra Woman -- and the man's suit showed more flesh in the middle than in the shoulders, so nearly everyone who saw it merely laughed aloud.

The Star printed an article which included a number of quotes from borderline political figures and wannabe celebrities conjecturing about Superman's relationship with this new figure. The prevailing sentiment seemed to be that it was about time Superman got himself a girlfriend, although some of the women quoted in the article expressed regret that someone had beaten them to that lofty and very desirable position. One starlet with more physical assets than acting talent even offered to "fly stand-by" for Superman in case the "relationship" with Ultra Woman didn't work out.

No response from either Ultra Woman or Superman was noted in the article, or in any of the follow-up articles later in the week.

The evening edition of the Daily Planet had the only actual interview with Ultra Woman, written by Clark Kent. She declined, of course, to answer any personal questions, nor did she reveal any information about the origin of her abilities, but she did say that she hoped that she could help people in need and fight crime, much as Superman had already done. When asked if she considered Superman a mentor, she acknowledged that he had blazed the trail for her, but that she also wanted to have the freedom to pursue her own path. She firmly denied any hint of a romantic relationship between herself and Superman.

Her response to Clark's question about her mask was simply that she didn't want people to chase after her. She only wanted them to let her help them when they needed it, and that her face and real name were secrets that she didn't want published.

Lois Lane contributed a companion article describing Superman's reaction to her new associate. He was also firm in denying that any kind of relationship beyond the professional one existed between the pair, but he also expressed the hope that both Metropolis and the world beyond would benefit from having two super-powered heroes available to fight for truth and justice.

When asked if he might be a little jealous of the attention given to the new heroine, Superman responded that he welcomed her assistance, and he hoped the public would treat her as courteously as they had so far treated him. Far from being envious, he was pleased that someone else was willing to reach out and help others in need, since he certainly couldn't be everywhere at once.

Franklin Stern called Perry at home that evening to congratulate him on scooping every news organization in the country. Perry smiled and accepted the accolades, promised to pass them on to Clark Kent and Lois Lane, and decided that neither Clark nor Lois was actually cheating. But he did make a mental note to advise Lois to spread her press coverage around. It wouldn't do for her to be too closely identified to the Planet. Someone might decide there was a definite connection.

***

Cat Grant sat in her car in the Planet's parking garage and lifted her special phone.

She hated that phone. She hated the person on the other end of the line, and she didn't even know if that person was a man or a woman. She hated the calls she made, and she hated the words she spoke even as they came out of her mouth. She hated the immense gambling debt she'd incurred in college, and she hated the gangsters who'd laughed at her and sold her debt to the mysterious person she kept calling. She hated the candid photographs of her parents which appeared at odd intervals.

Most of all, she hated herself for being too weak to stop.

No matter what she did, she was certain that someone she cared about would be hurt, maybe even killed, if she kept making those calls. And the same thing might happen if she stopped making them. She had to decide whether or not to keep calling, and if she did call, what she would and would not report. She had to decide either to break off all contact and risk that the person wasn't bluffing, or ignore her personal ethics and keep making the calls.

She sighed and decided to defer that decision for the next day. Or maybe the day after.

She dialed and waited. The voice at the other end was as matter-of-fact as usual. "Yes, Miss Grant?"

Cat hesitated, then said, "Clark and Lois got one-on-one interviews with Superman about Ultra Woman and Ultra Woman herself."

"Interesting. I understood that the media had been having great difficulty in making contact with either of them."

"Everyone else is. They got the stories. You can read them in this evening's edition of the Planet."

"I shall. Is there anything not printed in the stories that you'd like to share with me?"

"What? Wait a minute, I don't know anything beyond what Perry printed! I wasn't there when they did the interviews, and I haven't looked at their notes!"

"I would like for you to do just that, Miss Grant."

"Their notes?" This was more than just reporting in. This was close to burglary, and it was definitely outside the ethical bounds of the newsroom. "I can't look at their notes! They wouldn't let me! I don't even know if they wrote down notes on this story! Besides, that's not part of our agreement!"

"It is now. I want copies of their notes by nine tomorrow morning."

"But --"

"Do not fail me on this, Miss Grant. Your parents will pay the price if you do."

Trembling, Cat swallowed hard. "What if -- what if there aren't any written notes?"

"Use your ingenuity, your wiles, your sex appeal, your rapier wit, I don't care. Just get me all the information on Superman and Ultra Woman you can lay your hands on. And do it by nine o'clock tomorrow morning."

The connection was severed at the other end before Cat could protest again. She'd just been ordered to do something she couldn't possibly do. This was too much! Not only were the notes off limits, she had no idea where they were stored. If they were on the computer network, she was really out of luck. Lois usually kept her notes on her computer, so unless Cat wanted to hack into the Planet's system -- which she strongly doubted she could do by morning without getting caught -- those notes were out of reach, but perhaps Clark had written his notes on paper. She knew that he often did, and if she could get those notes, maybe it would be enough to satisfy her keeper.

She closed the phone. It was time to decide.

And she wasn't sure that she could.

>>>Tuesday, 5:05 AM

Cat sat down heavily at her desk without looking at the other three people on the news floor. She hoped her body language would say that she was in early, didn't want to be in early, and especially didn't want to talk to anyone about anything.

It seemed to work. None of the people on the night shift spoke to her, nodded to her, or even seemed to acknowledge her existence. She turned on her computer and opened an article she'd been working on that wasn't due until Wednesday afternoon, but no one else knew that.

She typed furiously for almost twenty minutes, then leaned back and stretched. With a dramatic sigh, she rose and ambled tiredly towards the coffee station, hoping that the others would leave her alone.

Again, no one bothered her. She poured a cup of the evil-scented evening brew and leavened it with large dollops of creamer and sugar. Even with the extra flavoring and thinners, the harsh, acidic aftertaste nearly severed her tongue from its roots. She decided not to subject herself to the night shift's highly questionable concept of drinkable caffeine ever again.

While pretending to sip, she ambled aimlessly to Clark's desk and sat down heavily in the chair, hoping that anyone who saw her would assume she was simply taking a break. She leaned back and felt the imprint of his body on the chair and closed her eyes for a moment, imagining that she was leaning against Clark.

But that could never be. A man as good and honest and trustworthy as Clark Kent was so far beyond her reach as to be almost invisible. Someone like her could never aspire to be loved by someone as good and fine and honorable as Clark Kent. She was as far below him as man was below the archangels, and the most painful part of it was that he had no idea of the truth about her.

She dashed away the sudden tears and returned to the real reason she was sitting at his desk, which was to find out what he knew about Ultra Woman. A quick visual scan told her that he'd left nothing on top of his desk that might be helpful. His unlocked desk drawers didn't yield as much as a sticky note about the new heroine.

This was not good. Her mysterious 'employer' had been adamant about finding something, anything about Ultra Woman, but there simply wasn't anything which she could get to with any information she wanted. She stood and meandered back to her own desk, lost in thought and trepidation about how that phone call she would make soon might go.

She put her cup down on her desk and sat down. Maybe, thought Cat, I can at least finish polishing my article, even if it's my swan song.

She worked on it for another fifteen minutes, rearranging sentences and trimming her deathless purple prose, finally getting it ready to send to Perry's blue pencil.

So intent on her work she was, that when a hand descended on her shoulder, she squealed and jumped and nearly fell onto the floor.

She turned saucer eyes to the intruder and saw Clark standing behind her, a slightly bemused expression on his face. "Cat? I'm sorry, I wasn't trying to scare you. In fact, I was trying to let you know I was in early so I wouldn't scare you."

She grabbed her chest and tried to let her heart know that death was not yet stalking her. "O -- okay." She panted several more times, and she slowly calmed down. "I -- I had to come in early and finish something."

Clark smiled brightly. "I understand. I have something I have to work on, too. I'll see you later." He took a couple of steps, then stopped. "And I'll try not to sneak up on you again."

She managed a weak smile. "At least, not today."

He chortled deep in his chest, like her father used to. He sat down at his desk and hesitated, looked around, and frowned. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he stared at his desk and then at his computer keyboard. He bit the inside of his mouth as if in deep thought, then he shrugged and began his computer logon sequence.

Cat tried not to sigh. Had he realized that someone had been snooping, and if so, would he suspect her? Was her cover story about coming in early to work good enough?

After a moment, she frowned to herself. If he'd suspected her, he would've confronted her then and there. If her cover story hadn't been good enough, he wouldn't have been so friendly. Besides, it wasn't as if she never came in to work that early.

Because she did. Sometimes the pressures were too much for her, and she retreated to her job, the most stable part of her life that she knew.

Yet, ultimately, it wasn't an idyllic retreat. She knew she'd have to make that call soon, and she desperately feared the outcome.

Cat glanced at the clock. Ten minutes before seven. Just over two hours before she had to make the call and confess her failure, refuse to make the call and risk reprisal, or grab what little money and what few possessions she could carry and leave town.

The third option was the most appealing to her. Not only would she not have to make any more calls to her keeper, she'd be on her own for the first time in her life. She'd be free to do whatever she wanted, go wherever she wanted. And she had the distinct impression that the person on the other end of the line would indeed kill her if she could be found, but that the farther west she might run, the safer she'd be.

All she'd have to worry about is whether or not her parents would live until nightfall.

No, running wasn't an option, not yet. And simply not making that call was just as bad, with the added complication that she'd still be in the target zone. So she'd call.

She wasn't sure what she could say, but she'd call.

Then she heard Lois come in and call to Clark. "Hey, partner. You get that exclusive on Ultra Woman?"

Cat's ears rotated forward. Maybe she could postpone her personal day of judgment after all.

"Of course I got it, Lois. Ultra Woman gave me the story herself."

Lois grinned as she hung up her sweater. "You were lucky, Kent. You just happened to be at the right place at the right time."

Her smile seemed to defuse the sting of her words. Clark leaned back and put his hands behind his head. "Well, if I could bat my eyelashes at Superman and get an exclusive from him, I'd do that."

"As if!" Then Lois snapped her fingers. "Hey! You made me think of something. Superman and Ultra Woman both insist there's nothing romantic between them, right?"

Clark frowned slightly and nodded. "Yeah, so?"

"And we've never seen or heard of Superman being on a date, have we?"

Apparently unsure of where she was going with this, he cautiously responded, "Not to my knowledge, no."

Lois' face almost split from suppressed laughter. "So, maybe that's because he's just not interested in girls."

The light came on for him. "Oh, no, don't go there, Lane! You and I both know that Superman is --"

"Is gay! Has to be!" she finished brightly. Then she skipped across the newsroom floor to her desk.

Clark spluttered shortly, then called back, "So, does that mean that because Ultra Woman isn't interested in Superman she's gay, too?"

Lois came to an abrupt stop. "You had better NOT go there, Kent!"

Clark didn't speak, but his face looked funny for a moment. Then Lois' face looked funny, and they both chuckled.

And they kept on spitting out alternating bouts of laughter for the next fifteen minutes. Either they were the company's quickest typists and were sending each other goofy e-mails, or they were telepathic.

Had to be quick fingers, Cat decided.

The tidbits about Superman and Ultra Woman weren't what Cat had expected to learn, but at least she had something to report now. Even if it wasn't true, it might get her off the hook for the day.

>>>Tuesday, 11:25 AM

Perry leaned out of his office and shouted. "Kent! Lane! Olsen! In here right now!"

The three reported in short order, and he gestured for them all to take a seat. Lois frowned and asked, "Is something wrong, Perry?"

"Naw," replied the editor. "I just want to make sure we're all on the same page with the LexLabs bombing. Y'all let me summarize and then you can fill in any blanks I missed, okay?"

They nodded and Perry began. "First off, I want to let you know that this is all anybody has on this case. LexCorp security, the US Army, the FBI, and the Metropolis PD have all pooled their knowledge to come up with the contents of this file." He lifted a manila folder from his desk and displayed it for a moment. "But this knowledge does not leave this room. Got it?"

Three heads nodded as one. "Good. First, we know that the explosives and the detonators were military grade like the ones stolen from Army bases last year and the year before and sold to various military factions in Africa. So whoever did this is probably part of that outfit."

The other three glanced at each other and nodded. "Agreed," said Clark.

"Second, the police have no leads on who might have actually placed those explosives, except that it was someone who knew his business."

Lois lifted her hand. "Isn't it possible that 'she' knew 'her' business?"

Perry made a face. "Possible but not likely. The FBI profilers say that the bomber is a man who has a military background, probably in some kind of secret behind-the-lines outfit, and a history of violence in civilian life. They also say that he's very careful and unlikely to make a mistake."

"But it's possible for him to goof up, isn't it?" inquired Jimmy.

"Possible. But he didn't, not while Clark and Lois were playing dead. And even the Dangerous Boys didn't dig up anything that would point towards any specific person. There wasn't even any way to trace anything back from Dr. Baines. And y'all couldn't track any money changing hands anywhere that sent up any red flags."

Jimmy scowled. "We found a bunch of transfers to that Cayman Islands bank! And we know that Baines had an account there! Doesn't that count as a clue?"

"Sure it does, son, but it's just not enough to indict anyone. We don't even have a name to go with that info."

Jimmy shifted in his chair but didn't say anything else. Perry continued, "That's number three. Number four is, we know there's a 'Boss' out there somewhere pulling lots of strings on lots of criminal activity, and we're pretty sure that this same 'Boss' was involved with that gun-running ring, but we can't get a handle on who it is. And we think that the 'Boss' was connected with the bombing, but we don't have any hard evidence. Lois, any of your snitches come up with anything yet?"

She shook her head. "No. Not even Bobby Bigmouth has heard anything definite."

"Clark? How about you?"

He frowned. "No go, Chief. Not even Superman has heard anything, and he's been listening for it."

"Jimmy?"

Jimmy sighed. "Not unless you give us the go-ahead to hack into that bank's computers."

"And you're not gonna get it from me! It's not only nine kinds of illegal, it's too dangerous. Even if you got something, it would never hold up in court, and we could be sued from here to Tuesday if we printed something like that. Now do you have any hard evidence we can use?"

Jimmy sighed again and shook his head. "That's what I thought." Perry lifted his hands and let them drop. "That's about it, kids. I wish we had more, but we don't. We're stuck. So from this moment, we put this on the back burner and work on stories we can print."

Lois lurched forward and might have jumped to her feet if Clark hadn't put his hand on her arm. "Perry, you can't take us off this! We're close, I can feel it!"

Instead of barking back, Perry's voice got lower. "I believe you. But my belief does not validate your feelings. I can't print your beliefs any more than I can eat 'em." He lifted his hand as Lois took a breath to continue. "Hold on! I said, put it on the back burner, not drop it. I want you three to keep on this and keep me updated. But it has to be secondary to the stories we need to fill up column inches. Savvy?"

Lois crossed her arms and sat back to pout. Jimmy ducked his head and leaned his elbows on his knees. Only Clark seemed to accept his boss' decision gracefully. "We understand, Chief. And when we get to the bottom of this, you'll be the first to know about it."

"Good! Now the three of you either go back to work or take an early lunch and get something solid this afternoon. I'm up to my elbows in alligators and I need some hard-hitting stories for tomorrow's morning edition."

The three of them filed out with varying degrees of resignation and determination showing on their faces. Perry sighed and pulled out his tin of paava leaves. Even without enhanced hearing, he picked up on Jimmy's complaint that sometimes this job stunk. And Lois' answering snarl showed that she agreed with him.

Perry shook his head sadly. I know how the kid feels, he thought. Sometimes I'm not real fond of this job myself.

***

Chapter Thirty-three

>>>Wednesday, 11:23 AM

Lois typed three final words into her story and saved the file, then forwarded it to Perry along with a note telling him that if he had anything else for her at the moment he'd have to save it until Monday after Thanksgiving, because she had a social engagement to attend.

She leaned back and smiled to herself. Ultra Woman had been greeted with enthusiasm over the six weeks or so since her debut, her personal life was riding an upward spike on the charts, her career was still climbing upward despite making very little headway on the gun-runners who'd nearly killed her earlier in the year, and she was going to spend Thanksgiving day with the man who claimed to love her more than he loved his own career.

And she believed him. She hadn't been certain at first, but Lex had shown her over and over again how much she meant to him. He'd risked the financial health of a joint venture in Japan to wait on her doorstep almost all night when she'd broken a date with him to go on a stakeout with Clark nearly three weeks before. The stakeout had been a bust, but the greeting she received when she returned home had more than made up for it. And it had been satisfying on several levels.

The memory of that night still warmed her heart.

She and Clark had both been irritated by the lack of any progress on the stakeout when he'd driven her back to her apartment. His car, rented from a company improbably but appropriately called Lease-A-Lemon, had rattled to a stop beside the curb. They had both exited the vehicle and slammed their respective doors when Lex had stood up from his vantage point across the street from her building and meandered closer.

"Lois? Are you well?" The tone of his voice had seemed to indicate that he might have believed that Clark had been less than a perfect gentleman towards her.

"Oh, yeah, Lex, I'm just peachy," she'd replied. "I'm as fine as I can be after wasting an entire night on a story about nothing!"

With that, she'd turned and kicked the front fender of the car hard enough to dent it. "Lois!" her partner had shouted. "That'll come out of my deposit!"

"Oh, yeah, you'll lose what, fifty cents or so?"

"It's the principle of the thing!"

"Well, then, principally I'm mad about wasting my time!"

"Don't take it out on me! You want to smash cars, go beat on your Jeep!"

"I'd rather kick the car that stuck me in the back with a broken spring for six or seven hours!"

"It's not my fault the tip didn't pan out!"

"Oh, yeah? Then whose fault is it? Santa Claus? Or maybe the Easter Bunny?"

They had been standing nose to nose in front of the decrepit wheezer by this time, shouting in ever-increasing volume, when they'd heard a deep guffaw from the other side of the street.

They had both turned to discover the source of the laughter, and they'd seen Lex leaning on the hood of his black limo, laughing at them.

Or so it had seemed. Clark had taken two strides in the other man's direction and ground out, "You think it's funny that we wasted a whole night on a useless stakeout?"

Lex had lifted one hand and waved it. "No -- ha-ha-ha -- no, Mr. Kent, of course not. Ho-ho! I'm laughing at myself, because I had foolish, jealous visions of you and Lois returning from a romantic getaway." He'd stopped to wipe his eyes. "But I obviously don't understand the relationship between the two of you nearly as well as I believed I did. My sincere apologies to both of you for my lack of faith and trust." He'd tried, but failed, to keep a straight face as he'd continued, "And my -- heh-heh-heh-heh -- my thanks for the funniest moments I've experienced since the last Bob Hope show at LexCorp!"

Lois and Clark had looked at each other, then had smiled at almost the same time. Lois had walked across the street to Lex, taken his arm, and said, "Okay, Mr. Very Patient Man, come on up for a few minutes, but us people with real jobs have to go to work soon, so you can't stay long."

A weary male voice had drifted over from across the street and a few floors up. "Shaddap and take it inside already! We gotta go to work soon too!"

A woman's screechy voice had answered from the adjoining window. "Let 'em alone! It's romantic!"

"Like you'd know!"

"Can it, Earl, or you won't be able to remember what romantic means before I feel romantic again!"

"Oh, sure, like that's a horrible threat! I'd have to check my diary to --"

"Check your diary? When did you learn to read and write?"

Another woman's voice, slightly deeper and somewhat younger, had snarled from a different window, "Hey! I already dialed the nine and the one! Do I push 'one' again or does everybody shut up and go back to sleep?"

Two windows had slammed almost immediately, and a third had slid shut a few moments later. Clark had stifled a laugh and waved 'goodnight' to Lois before driving away in his groaning rented Yugo. And Lex had climbed the five flights of steps to Lois' front door beside her as they'd shared muted giggles.

"You didn't have to walk me all the way up here, Lex."

"But I wanted to. I missed you last evening. I've been waiting for you to come home since dinner."

"You -- you've been waiting here? For me?"

"Of course."

"I'm sorry, but the stakeout -- Oh!" She'd suddenly remembered that he'd told her about the date's planned early termination because of an international conference call. "Lex, your call! You missed it! It was supposed to be at one a.m. and now it's almost four!"

He'd smiled and brushed her cheek with one hand. "I rescheduled it. I decided that seeing you was more important to me than the deal."

She'd kissed him gently, then again, then a third time, with feeling. "I've changed my mind," she'd murmured. "You need some coffee before you go home. Come on in."

He'd followed her in and enveloped her with gusto just inside the door. "You're all the stimulant I need, Lois, chemical or otherwise."

She'd slipped from his embrace with ease and a gentle smile. "That was not what I offered you. You may have your coffee or you may depart, sir."

He'd pursed his lips and said, "I'm sorry. Coffee would be wonderful."

As she'd microwaved two cups of java, she'd grinned to herself and called out, "As for the other stimulation, Lex, I'll give you a rain check on it."

"Oh?"

"Yes. But you can't cash it in before Christmas."

She'd heard the chuckle in his voice. "In that case, I think the holiday season may come more slowly than it ever has for me."

She leaned back in her chair and sighed at the soft memory. The 'rain check' had become a running joke between them, and she delighted in teasing him about it.

She only hoped he was still a Very Patient Man where that rain check was concerned.

>>>Wednesday, 1:44 PM

Perry tapped Clark on the shoulder. "Lois back yet?"

He shook his head. "No, Perry, she's gone for the day, won't be back until Monday after Thanksgiving. You gave her the afternoon off, remember?"

Perry nodded. "I just wanted to make sure she wasn't here." He lifted the morning's copy of the Metropolis Star and indicated the front page story below the fold.

"'Ultra Woman roughs up mugging suspects,'" Clark read aloud. "'Is the new super-heroine a boon for mankind or a bane inflicted upon it?' Perry, what kind of trash is this?"

The editor put his hands in his pockets and sighed. "It's the kind that gets written when Ultra Woman picks up muggers and tosses them against brick walls and breaks one guy's arm and another guy's ankle. One of the women she rescued two nights ago was so scared at what happened to her attackers that she backed away from Ultra Woman and fell off the curb onto the street and twisted her knee."

"I -- didn't know that." Clark read further. "But this is still garbage, Chief. You know that what's printed here isn't news, it's an editorial. And not a very convincing one, at that."

"I know that, son, and you know that, but the average reader may not know it. Besides, if Ultra Woman is that rough with little piddlin' crooks, what chance would a bank robber or a kidnapper have?" He leaned close to Clark's ear. "What Ultra Woman absolutely doesn't need is a reputation of being violent with the people she hands over to the police. She's got to learn to control her temper, even if the guy she's picking up deserves a good whuppin'. You agree with me, don't you?"

Clark nodded and whispered back, "I'll see if I can get Superman to give her a friendly word of advice on the subject as soon as I see him again."

"Good." Perry straightened and pointed at the paper. "You might want to read page three of that rag, too. It's got some other stuff in there you might appreciate."

Perry walked away, wondering how Clark would react to the printed speculation that Superman and Ultra Woman might be married, might be siblings, might be clones of each other (he still didn't know how the writer could believe that might be possible from a physical sense), or might even be secretly spending all their non-rescue time on a hidden beach making little super-babies in the Bahamas.

Clark's nearly hysterical laughter gave him his answer. Mission accomplished. Now all Perry had to do was give the paper to Lois and duck. Fast.

***

Clark shook his head and wondered what the article's author could possibly have been smoking to come up with something that far off-base. Of course, no one knew the real identities of Superman and Ultra Woman. Except, of course, a select few, like Clark's parents, Perry White, Dennis Lang, and Ginny McCoy.

The thought made him wonder idly how Dennis and Ginny were getting along. As if on cue, his phone rang.

"Clark Kent, Daily Planet."

"Clark! I have some wonderful news! At least I think it's wonderful news!"

"I'm sure it is, Mom. What's the news?"

"Dennis and Ginny are getting married on Saturday! Is there any way you can be there?"

The information stunned him for a moment. Lana's father was getting married? Sure, Ginny was a very nice woman as far as he knew, and she was a scientist like Dennis so she understood what their professional and personal lives would be like, but he still felt as if he'd been sucker-punched.

"Clark?" His mother's voice had lost much of its initial enthusiasm. "Are you still there, honey?"

He shook his head. "Uh -- yes. Yes, I'm here. Sure, I'd love to be there. What time?"

"Two o'clock Saturday afternoon at the church. That's two o'clock Central time, so make sure you do the math on the time. Reverend Matthews is performing the ceremony, and Dennis made me promise to ask you specifically if you'd come."

He took a deep breath. "Of course I'll be there, Mom. Are they registered anywhere?"

Martha's relief eased out of the phone and into his sensitive ears. "No, but if you wanted to bring them a gift certificate for some high-quality outdoor clothing or camping supplies, they'd probably appreciate it. They plan to honeymoon at a Native American dig site in the southern Mojave Desert."

Clark laughed. "That sounds like Dennis. I'm sure they'll have a fantastic time."

"We're having the reception in the church fellowship hall. And your father and I hope you can stay for Saturday night dinner with us."

"Well, since I was planning to be there for Thanksgiving dinner anyway, I suppose an extra day or two couldn't hurt."

Martha laughed. "In that case, tell your boss not to let any important news happen between now and Monday morning."

"I'll tell him, Mom. Listen, I've got some things to finish up here in the office before I can fly out, so I need to get back to work."

"That's fine, honey. We'll see you about mid-day tomorrow if not before."

"Love you, Mom. Bye."

As he hung up the phone, his mind wandered back to the big reception Dennis had thrown for him and his own bride, Lana -- Dennis' daughter -- just a few weeks after they'd married. Dennis had hired string musicians, organized a huge red-carpet reception -- complete with a real red carpet outside the hallway -- and had even invited Lana's mother and her money-grubbing husband to the occasion.

And that was the first night he'd met Lois Lane, too. They hadn't clicked. He hadn't liked her on first sight. He'd thought her pushy, rude, overly intense, opinionated, bull-headed, and a couple of other things he'd never confess to anyone. He'd never have guessed they'd end up friends and co-workers, much less --

Much less what?

The thought brought him up short. What more were they than friends and co-workers? Sure, they were mentally linked by some weird Kryptonian mind-meld, and Lois had somehow acquired a copy of Clark's powers and was using them for good like he was, but that didn't make them -- whatever. He couldn't even put a name to what he'd been thinking about.

They weren't in love! He was dating Rebecca -- sort of -- and Lois was dating Lex Luthor, a man who Clark didn't particularly like but who he didn't consider a danger to Lois. There wasn't anything Luthor could do to Lois if she didn't want him to do it to her.

Except, of course, break her heart. Not even super-powers could eliminate that possibility. And he didn't think Lois fully understood that aspect of her new life.

He thought about Rebecca and her reluctance to spend the holiday weekend with him, and he wondered whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, and what he could possibly do about it either way. It seemed that being around Rebecca was a completely different kind of adventure than being around Lana. Or being around Lois.

He thought about Lois and her plans for the weekend, hoping that she wouldn't do something she'd regret later. He tested the link and, as expected, found it shut down. It was just as well. He was sure he didn't want to eavesdrop on Lois and Lex at some secret romantic hideaway.

And then he realized that his mother hadn't mentioned Lois being invited to Dennis and Ginny's wedding. Of course, it was their privilege to invite whomever they wanted to invite, he was certain that neither of his parents had given Dennis or Ginny any input on the guest list, and they'd only met Lois that one time, but it still bothered him a little. After all, they knew Lois, even if just slightly, but hadn't invited her.

And they hadn't ever met Rebecca, and since bringing a girl as your date to a wedding when she meets your parents for the first time might seem like pressure to any single young woman, he decided he wouldn't invite Rebecca to the wedding, even discounting the fact that they'd both have to fly a commercial airline, assuming he could find a ticket for her on the year's busiest air travel weekend at this late date, even though Perry had talked him into riding an airliner this time --

Enough of that, Kent, he ordered himself. You're babbling, and to yourself you're babbling yet! Back to work.

But Lois and Rebecca wouldn't leave his thoughts, nor would the man that linked them both. He knew there were ongoing investigations into Luthor's businesses, even though nothing had resulted from them as yet. Maybe, if he knew more about Luthor, he could decide what he should do about both Lois and Rebecca. To do that, he'd have to get some inside information on the man.

And he knew only one person who could help him with that. Help him within the law, at any rate.

He stood abruptly and strode to the editor's office. "Perry? Is Alice at work today?"

Perry looked up from the copy he'd been reviewing. "Far as I know, yeah. Why?"

"Do you think she'd answer some questions from me?"

Perry leaned back and stretched. "She won't tell me a lot about what she's workin' on, son, and I understand why. I don't really want to know what kind of legal shenanigans might be goin' on in our fair city. But if she doesn't confide in me, what makes you think she'll tell you anything about Luthor?"

"What? How did you know -- never mind. Do you mind if I call her?"

The editor lifted his hands. "You can call her, but don't say that I sent you to her or she'll carve me up for dinner tomorrow afternoon instead of the turkey. Make sure you say that this is your investigation, not the paper's, and we're not asking to print anything that can't be proven."

"Will do, Chief. Thanks."

He returned to his desk and dialed Alice's office. "City of Metropolis, District Attorney's office, this is Brianna. How may I direct your call?"

"Hi, Brianna, this is Clark Kent of the Daily Planet. I'd like to speak to Alice White, please."

"I'll see if she's available, Mr. Kent. May I tell her what the call is related to?"

"I need some background information for a story I'm working on."

Brianna hesitated. "Is that all you want me to say, Mr. Kent?"

"Yes, thank you."

"Just a moment."

The phone clicked in his ear and some perky little Chet Atkins guitar piece came on to keep him entertained while on hold. Clark listened with half an ear as he glanced around the newsroom. Most of the remaining staff were trying to wrap up their assignments and head out for a holiday with friends and family, except for the few with harsh frowns who were either running up against a deadline or assigned to work over the long weekend.

His gaze settled on Cat Grant. She was leaning back in her chair, chewing nervously on a fingernail, and staring through her monitor without really seeing what was displayed. Ever since the bomb had exploded at Dr. Platt's office, Cat had changed. She'd lost weight from an already slender frame, and her face had taken on a haunted cast. She and Lois had continued lunching together occasionally, but for some reason their relationship had stalled and Lois couldn't figure out why.

Neither could Clark. Or Jimmy, apparently. Jimmy had taken to watching Cat and recording her actions and her reactions. Clark thought that Jimmy was reporting to Perry, since the youth had never hinted to Clark what his notes revealed, assuming they revealed anything.

Chet's guitar cut off in mid-arpeggio. "This is Alice White."

Startled, Clark took a moment to remember why he was holding a phone to his ear. "Oh, right. I'm sorry, Mrs. White. This is Clark Kent. I hope you remember me."

"Of course I remember you, Clark. What can do for you?"

He took a deep breath and dove in headfirst. "I'd like to look at anything you might have on Lex Luthor."

Alice didn't answer for a long moment. "Brianna said this was for background for a story. I think you might have been less than completely truthful with her, Mr. Kent. And I'm not exceptionally fond of reporters who lie to my staff."

"I'm sorry you feel that way. And I'm sorry for not coming clean with her. But I wasn't sure you'd listen to me otherwise."

"I see." Clark could hear a pencil drumming on her desk. "Did your editor put you up to this?"

"No, ma'am. This request comes from me and me alone."

"Hmm. What about your partner?"

It was Clark's turn to hesitate. "She isn't involved in this at the moment."

"No? Then, this is a personal favor you're asking, right?"

"Not entirely. If I learn something concrete that I can take to Lois, I'll do it. If not, I won't. And I promise you that nothing will be printed unless it's completely factual."

He listened to her take two more long breaths. "I normally don't cooperate with reporters on fishing expeditions, Clark."

"I know. But I'm not just fishing. At least, not without thinking that I know where some fish already are."

Her grin was audible. "So, if you manage to hook a trophy marlin suitable for mounting on your wall, you'll remember where you got the bait, right?"

"Absolutely. My interest is in seeing justice done. Especially in this case."

Before he inhaled, he realized what he'd said and how it sounded like he was worried primarily about Lois. He waited for Alice to comment.

But she didn't, at least not directly. "So you're saying that Lois -- your partner -- should not be hurt by a bad person? Assuming, of course, that Lex Luthor does prove to be a bad person."

"Yes, ma'am. That's pretty much it in a nutshell."

"All right, Mr. Kent. Let me chat with my husband for a moment or two. If I feel that it's a good investment of proprietary information, I'll send you what I have."

"Thank you."

"As long as you understand that nothing gets printed without my explicit permission. I can't risk compromising these investigations and the informants involved in them."

"I understand. You have my word."

"Very well. If I decide to send you this file, I'll do so by messenger by four o'clock. If you don't have it by then, you're not getting it at all. In any case, don't call me about this again unless you have something new to tell me. Understand?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good." She sighed. "I'm probably going to regret this conversation, no matter what I decide to do. Now, will you please transfer me to your boss? I need to put a slight kink in my marriage. And I promise you, I'm going to remember why it's there."

"Yes, ma'am. And thank you."

When Clark hung up, he felt something not quite positive, something slightly off-center from the ideal of truth and justice he claimed to support as Superman. He told himself that it was something Lana would have done. And after a moment's reflection, he realized that it was the truth. She would not have hesitated to breach some tenuous ethical barrier to achieve what she considered the greater good.

Somehow, the rationalization didn't satisfy him.

>>>Wednesday, 4:16 PM

The messenger had arrived at two minutes before four. Twice, Clark had considered calling Alice back and telling her to forget it, but the memory of Perry's face glowering at him from the editor's office convinced him that for better or worse, he needed what was in that file.

He turned a number of pages in the thin file. He hadn't expected to get everything the DA's office had on this investigation, but he'd hoped for more than he now held in his hands. There wasn't much in this file that Jimmy hadn't already managed to dig up days before.

Then he turned to the last page and it jumped out at him.

ACL Enterprises, based in Aruba. A holding company whose sole owner was shielded behind the little country's banking laws.

Money flowed from New Troy and several neighboring states to the accounts ACL held, and then it disappeared. It appeared to be a classic money-laundering operation, one that protected the criminal owner or owners of the company from investigation and prosecution. Clark wished that there were more Federal laws which could be brought to bear on such situations, but since there were none, he'd have to step in and do some real legwork.

There was a short list of names attached by a paper clip to the back of the page, something else for Jimmy to check out when he returned from the holiday. He didn't recognize the first seven, but his eyes bugged out when he saw the last two.

Nigel St. John and Alex Winfield. Finally! A tie to LuthorCorp and criminal activity!

Suspected criminal activity, he reminded himself. Anything they dug up on ACL Enterprises was going to have to come from old-fashioned hard work and a few lucky breaks.

And it would all go back to Alice White as soon as they could prove it, no matter how Lois might be hurt.

***

Perry looked up as Jimmy, apparently heading out for the night, walked by the editor's office. He saw the young man's thinly disguised disappointment as Perry signaled to him to step inside.

Jimmy had wiped his face clear by the time the door opened. "What can I do for you, Chief?"

"I'd like to see whatever notes you have on that matter I asked you to look into."

Jimmy's face darkened. "You got it. Be right back."

Less than thirty seconds later, a manila folder and a notebook flopped on the editor's desk. "She's still here. You want to see her?"

Perry sighed. "You think she's up to something, don't you?"

"Yes. I do."

"Any chance you're wrong?"

Jimmy hesitated, then shook his head. "There's always a chance, Chief, but there's just too much in there to ignore it all. I don't know what she's doing, but I'm sure she's got a deep, dark secret. I just wish I knew what it was."

Perry nodded. "Thanks. You take off now, have a good Thanksgiving. You can pick these up when you get back."

Jimmy hesitated. "I'd like to step this up a notch, Chief."

Perry frowned in thought. "How far up?"

"I want to use some of my new toys and hear what she's doing when she's not around the rest of us."

Perry shook his head, then nodded once. "As long as you don't get arrested for anything, you have my permission. But have a good Thanksgiving first."

"You too, Perry. See you Friday morning."

Jimmy pulled the door shut as Perry flipped open the notebook on top of the folder. He read the entire contents, then dropped it onto the desk.

Put together with what he knew that Jimmy didn't know, the notebook spoke volumes to him. This was bad, he thought. This was very bad. He'd thought that girl had had so much potential, so much talent. Now this -- whatever 'this' was -- was threatening not just her career but her entire life. She was in deep trouble and it was going to impact the paper, he just knew it. If only she'd ask for some help, he'd gladly give it. Nuts, he thought. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.

A knock on the door brought him out of his funk. "Come in!"

The door opened and Cat Grant stepped into the office. "Chief? I -- I think we need to have a long talk."

He nodded slowly and looked into her eyes. Maybe this little filly was thirsty after all.

>>>Thursday, 10:14 AM

Asabi simultaneously bowed and smiled at Lois as he opened the door to admit her into Lex's apartment. "Welcome, Miss Lane. May I assist you with your luggage?"

She pressed her hands together and bowed at the waist. "Greetings, my friend. I only have three items and one is a shoulder bag. But I appreciate all the help I can get."

He grinned even more freely. "Then I will place them in the limousine for you. Mr. Luthor will be down shortly."

Lois waited until Asabi headed for the car, then tuned her hearing to listen for Lex. She was surprised to hear another woman's voice exchanging some very barbed comments with him.

She quickly decided that she'd go "look for the bathroom" and "accidently" find them. Whoever this woman was, she had no right to talk to Lex that way.

She found them in the study. Lois peeked through the door and listened in. Lex was talking with his hands and obviously trying to manage both his volume and his choice of words, but his control of both seemed to be slipping. The woman frowning at him was about Lois' height, maybe a bit more than a decade older than she, with long wavy black hair pulled back in a severe bun, and her complexion looked too pale, almost translucent. Her voice was cultured, refined, and had a disturbing enharmonic resonance that set Lois' teeth on edge. The woman wore a very classy dark suit and high heels, along with several pieces of ostentatious jewelry. She seemed to be dressed more formally than usual for either the hour of the day or for the holiday, as if she'd expected to accompany Lex to some kind of function. And except for her voice and her current demeanor, she was very attractive.

Lois disliked her on sight. Intensely.

Lex spun away from the woman and raised his hands. "Arianna, I called your office last week! I left a message telling you that I would not be able to attend the dinner this year!"

The woman -- whoever Arianna was -- put her hands on her hips and chased him across the room. "We've sat together on this board for eleven years! You and I have always hosted the Thanksgiving dinner for the chairmen of the Metropolis Better Business Bureau! It's a social event as much as it is anything else, and I can't afford to damage my standing with the heads of the charitable organizations in the state!"

He turned to find her too close and stepped around her, heading for the middle of the room. "That cannot be helped! You will simply have to take that chance. Besides, I have already arranged for Nigel St. John to stand in for me. He will be there at twelve-thirty and he's expecting you to sit beside him."

"And I'm supposed to simply accept this? I'm your ex-wife, not your tabloid girlfriend of the week! I suppose you'd rather spend the day with some cheap tart with more blood vessels in her chest than in her brain!"

The name suddenly clicked in Lois' mind. This woman was Doctor Arianna Carlin. And if her behavior this morning was any indication, she understood why Carlin was Lex's ex.

It was time to stop this foolishness. Lois pushed the door open and tried to look surprised. "Oh. I'm sorry, Lex. I was looking for the bathroom. We've got a long trip ahead of us, you know."

The two combatants froze in place and both tried to don a civilized veneer as quickly as possible. Lex looked at his wristwatch and sighed. "I'm sorry, Lois, I didn't realize how much time had passed. Please allow me to present my -- Dr. Arianna Carlin. Arianna, this is Lois Lane."

Arianna boldly appraised Lois' net worth and personal value in one quick glance. She almost tried to hide her disapproval of both results. "Hello, Lois. I'm pleased to meet you. Lex and I were just hashing out the details of today's dinner. I certainly hope you won't be too terribly disappointed not to spend the day with him."

Arianna turned to Lex and gave him a leopard's smile. He suppressed another sigh. "I am afraid that Arianna and I got our appointment calendars crossed. We usually host a Thanksgiving dinner for the city's business and political leaders and present a number of important charitable opportunities to them at the same time. It is definitely not one of our two absolute 'must attend' dinners of the year. I called her last week to let her know that I would not be attending this year, but she somehow failed to receive my message."

Lois smiled guilelessly. "I understand, Lex. Everybody misses messages sometimes, even the ones that we try to make as plain as the -- huh -- the nose on your face."

Lois turned her gaze to Arianna and focused on the tip of her nose as if staring at a blemish. After a moment, Arianna blinked and nervously lifted her hand towards her face, but then she caught herself and dropped her hands to her sides. "Well, I see what will be keeping Lex from our one remaining family tradition. I hope your time with the lovely -- and young -- Miss Lane will be worth it. I'm certain that she will make a valiant effort to please you." She spared Lois a poisonous glance. "It's evident that she's attractive enough to suit your male vanity."

Lex bristled. "Arianna! Lois is a successful professional in her own right! She does not need to hunt for a man to prop her up!"

"I assume you imply that I do need such a man."

"No!" Lois could tell that he was near the end of his control, but with a visible effort he calmed himself. "I do not use innuendo nearly so well as you, Arianna. I do not compare you to Lois, nor her to you." His eyes narrowed. "You should be leaving soon or you might be late for the banquet, and I do recall that the fashion there is to be on time or even early."

"Of course, my darling Lex. I hope you don't arrive early with the lovely -- and professional -- Miss Lane."

Lex closed his eyes and ground his teeth but kept silent. Lois held her tongue as Arianna adjusted her purse, then continued speaking in her apparently normal acerbic tone. "My office assistant will get in touch with you next week about the Christmas party at the mayor's home. Happy Thanksgiving, Lex." She turned her icy brown eyes to Lois. "It was nice to meet you, Miss Lane. Have a pleasant holiday. Don't stay up too late tonight. I'm certain someone as young as you requires a full night's sleep." "You have a good Thanksgiving too, Dr. Carlin. Oh, and you might want to skip the pumpkin pie this year." As Arianna lowered her eyebrows, Lois patted her own stomach and nodded knowingly.

Arianna's mouth fell open in surprise, then snapped shut. She turned sharply and stalked out without looking back.

As the door closed without quite slamming shut, Lex chuckled and shook his head. "Lois, if I didn't know any better, I'd say that you weren't afraid of anything."

She lifted an eyebrow at him. "Oh? What is it that you think I'm afraid of?"

He smiled and took her hands in his. "Being second best."

She pulled him closer. "Well, maybe just that one thing."

They smiled at each other for a moment, then kissed gently. Lex pulled back and asked, "So what do you think of my ex-wife?"

Lois wrinkled her nose at him. "You could do a lot better than someone like her."

He frowned slightly. "Be careful with her, Lois. Arianna is intelligent, cunning, vindictive, and possessed of a prodigious memory. She remembers every minor slight or real insult done to her by anyone at any time. And she will not hesitate to retaliate against you."

"I think I can take care of myself."

"I have no doubt that you are quite self-sufficient, my dear, but --"

She stopped his lips with hers. "Don't worry, Lex." She kissed him again. "Maybe I should help you forget about her for a while. Might make you feel better."

His voice dropped a register and his hands softly caressed her shoulders. "I think I'm feeling a lot better right now."

She pulled him into her embrace. I'm feeling pretty good too, she mused.

But was it good enough?

She rested her head on his shoulder and decided not to think about it. Not today, anyway.

***

Arianna stormed to her car. "Beth-Ann!" she barked. "Let's go!"

The tall muscular blonde snatched the rear passenger door open just in time as Arianna dove in, snarling under her breath. Out of long habit, Beth-Ann patted the revolver under her left armpit and the automatic on her right hip, then slid smoothly into the driver's seat.

She touched the intercom button. "Where to, Dr. Carlin?"

"The banquet hall!"

Beth-Ann hesitated. "Will Mr. Luthor be riding with us, ma'am?"

"No! He has -- someone else to do."

"Yes, Doctor." Beth-Ann started the car and guided the limo out of the driveway and into the flow of traffic.

Funny, she thought. Arianna Carlin was an incredibly talented shrink, yet every once in a while she would just go berserk. Her face would be flushed, her eyes would narrow, her breathing would turn shallow and rapid, and she'd often order Beth-Ann to hurt someone.

Like she looked right now.

And Beth-Ann would have to threaten some woman -- usually young and very attractive -- to stay away from Lex Luthor or risk serious injury. And, unsurprisingly, none of those women had ever contacted the police to report the threat. Beth-Ann had been forced to kill only one of them, and she'd hidden the evidence quite completely.

Beth-Ann wondered who she'd be ordered to threaten next.

Arianna spoke through the intercom. "Beth-Ann?"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Do you know who Lois Lane is?"

She did, and she wanted nothing to do with the reporter. The woman had lived through the sinking of the gun-running freighter and the bombing at LexLabs. Her life was charmed, and the last thing Beth-Ann wanted was to tangle with Lois Lane, or maybe even Superman.

But she couldn't admit that to Arianna. "Yes, ma'am, I know who she is. Why?"

The doctor hesitated for a long moment, then seemed to deflate. "Nothing. Never mind. I'll take care of it myself."

Good, thought Beth-Ann. I don't need that kind of hassle in my life.

***

Chapter Thirty-four

>>>Saturday, 3:46 PM

Clark smiled and stepped back to sip from the cup of punch in his hand. Dennis and Ginny's wedding had gone off without a hitch, the reception in the church's fellowship hall was a smashing success, and it looked as if their lives together would be not only wonderfully happy, but thrilling to watch. They'd opened their gifts, but not until they'd been practically ordered to do so by Dennis' friends and the members of Ginny's family who'd been able to make last-minute arrangements to attend. Nearly all the gifts would be useful in the field, except perhaps for the silver tea set his ex-wife had sent.

Clark understood Dennis' relief that the woman had sent the gift and had not brought it herself. Her absence made the ceremony go smoother than it otherwise might have.

Rachel Harris sidled up to him and elbowed him in the ribs without tipping the slice of wedding cake on the napkin in her hand. "Hey, world traveler and famous reporter guy. How's life been treatin' ya?"

"Pretty well," he smiled back. "How about you?"

"As good as good can be. Hey, you look spiffy today."

He preened for her. "Thank you, thank you. You look pretty good yourself, despite the less than flattering sheriff's uniform."

Instead of responding directly, she turned and gestured towards the newlywed couple with her fork. "They look happy."

"They do at that. In this case, I think that looks are not deceiving."

She chuckled ruefully. "You always were the one with the silver tongue, Clark." She took a small bite of cake. "So how are you doing? Really?"

He sighed. "You want to know if I'm doing okay at a wedding so soon after losing Lana."

Her look told him he'd understood her actual question.

He ducked his head for a moment, then looked her in the eye. "I'm coping. I'm seeing a therapist in Metropolis, and she's helped me to see that grief is a process that everyone goes through on their own time and in their own way. The most important thing for me to do is to keep moving forward."

Rachel nodded. "Are you moving forward?"

He bit the inside of his lip and wondered where she was going with this line of questioning. "Yes. I'm dating a young lady in Metropolis."

She nodded again. "Is it serious?"

"I think she'd like for it to be more serious than it is. I'm just not ready for something long-term or permanent yet."

"Ah. Is she being patient with you, or is she pushing?"

He frowned. "Am I being interrogated here? What's the charge, Sheriff?"

Rachel froze in mid-bite, then slowly unbent. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound like I was grilling you, and I wasn't trying to pry. I just want to know how my friend is doing, that's all."

She turned to leave, but Clark stopped her with a soft touch on her elbow. "Rachel, wait, please. I'm sorry, too. I didn't mean to be so sensitive."

"You have a right to be sensitive, Clark. I think anyone'd be sensitive at any wedding not long after his wife died, especially if his father-in-law was the one getting married."

"Maybe so, but that doesn't make it okay for me to --"

"Hey." She stopped him with a touch of her own. "We're friends. Friends don't have to explain everything to each other. Friends are people who can say any idiotic thing to each other and still be friends." She stood on tiptoe and kissed him quickly on the cheek. "Just remember me if you need someone to talk to, okay?"

He smiled. "I will."

Her return smile warmed his heart. "Good. I got to leave now and get ready for Saturday night. There's always some moron startin' a fight somewhere in town."

"Be safe, Rachel. It's always good to see you."

"You too, Clark."

He watched as she made her way to Dennis and Ginny to congratulate them once more. And he kept watching her as she stepped around one of Smallville's most successful insurance agents, avoiding his latest sales pitch with ease, and slipped gracefully out the door.

Guard your heart, Rachel, he thought to her. You're one of the good ones.

And suddenly he felt Lois.

Nearby.

In pain.

He quickly found his mother. "Mom, I'm sorry, but I have to go."

She nodded. "Car wreck or airliner in trouble?"

"No." He frowned. "If you must know, Lois has a problem."

"Oh." She started to turn, but stopped and whispered, "I hope her powers aren't fading."

"What makes you think -- no, it's nothing like that, or at least I don't think so. Look, I don't really know what's going on. I just know she needs a friend right now."

Martha frowned and nodded again. "Okay. If she needs a woman to talk to, tell her I'm available."

He leaned down and kissed her on the cheek, much as Rachel had just kissed him. "I will. Will you make my excuses to Dennis and Ginny?"

He followed her gaze to the happy couple as Martha smiled warmly. "I don't think they'll miss you right now, sweetie. They're still trying to convince themselves that this isn't just a wonderful dream." She made small shooing motions. "Go on! Go help Lois."

***

He walked out of the church's fellowship hall and looked around to see who might see him spin into Superman's distinctive blue and red suit. Unfortunately, there were a number of people who were milling around the area visiting and laughing together, including a few older teen-aged couples who gazed longingly at each other as if they wished they were old enough for weddings of their own.

He sighed, wishing that they'd go inside and enjoy the reception, and he was hit with another intense flash from Lois. There was no life-threatening emergency, apparently, but she was deeply upset about something. And now he had an idea where she was.

He trotted across the parking lot and into a nearby corn field covered with the remains of the fall harvest. He increased his speed as he pulled away from the church and headed for his parents' farm.

He glanced over his shoulder and decided that he could move up to Olympic sprinter's speed levels without arousing undue suspicion, as long as he kept his dust trail to a minimum. It took him a little more than ten minutes to arrive at the farmhouse door. He swept the area with his vision gizmo.

But she wasn't there. And he'd lost the trail. She was close, he was sure of it, but where could she be hiding all alone?

Alone. Of course. The Fortress of Solitude.

***

He heard her before he saw her, but a normal human would never have known she was up there. With his enhanced hearing, however, he could tell that her breathing was irregular and her nose was stopped up. There was definitely something wrong.

"Lois?" he called. "Lois, are you all right?"

He heard her wipe her nose and sniff. "What are you doing here?"

"I felt you."

"You -- oh." She stopped and sniffed again. "I -- I'm sorry. I thought I had it turned off."

He put his hands and one foot on the wooden crossbeams bolted to the trunk of the tree. "Your -- whatever you're feeling punched through to me." He hesitated, and when she didn't speak, he asked, "Can I come up?"

"It's your tree house."

"I know. But I told you to use it any time you needed it. And if you need to be alone right now, I'll understand."

He waited and listened to her breathing. Come on, Lois, he thought, let me help.

Please.

She finally said, "Come on up. There's a spare crate."

He climbed cautiously, aware that he might frighten her off at any moment. The faint mental vibes he was barely sensing through the link reminded him of a frightened deer, alert to any threat and ready to flee at the slightest provocation. And even though she couldn't quite outrun him or outfly him, he knew that if she left abruptly he wouldn't chase her.

He gained the platform and saw Lois sitting in the middle of the flooring. "Hi there."

Without turning, she muttered, "Hi."

He slipped down beside her, close enough to reach out and touch her but not so close that he was invading her personal space. "Do you want to talk about it?"

She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands. "I -- I don't know."

He nodded. "Okay. Do you want to just tell me about it?"

She pulled her knees up and rested her chin on them but didn't speak.

"How about I tell you about Dennis and Ginny's wedding?"

She nodded without looking at him. "Yeah. Tell me about it. Was it good?"

"Yep." He leaned his arms on his drawn-up knees and described the ceremony and the reception following.

As he wound down, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Sounds great. I hope they're ridiculously happy together."

"Me too." He glanced her way. "So how was your Thanksgiving?"

"Good," she shrugged. "I spent all day Thursday with Lex. He invited me to fly to Rio de Janeiro for the weekend."

Clark nodded but didn't speak.

"I -- I guess I was weak. I told him I'd go."

She stopped and picked up a leaf that had drifted down from the tree. As she examined it, Clark asked, "So?"

She sighed. "We spent Thanksgiving day together and then we left yesterday morning just before six on his private jet. Did you know Asabi has an international jet license?"

"No."

"Neither did I, but he does. We arrived before lunch and went to this hotel restaurant where the staff greeted Lex in Portuguese -- which I don't understand but he obviously does -- and then he booked us into the hotel."

"Ah."

She flashed him a hard look. "A suite for each of us, Mr. Super-Dirty Mind."

He raised his hands. "Hey, this is your story. I'm just listening to it."

"Yeah, right." Her expression softened and she lowered her gaze. "Anyway, we had a wonderful time Friday afternoon and a terrific dinner and he walked me to my door and said goodnight and asked me to have breakfast with him at nine the next day."

"That would have been this morning, right?"

"Yes." She shifted her position slightly. "When I woke up this morning at about seven, I turned on the TV and found an English-language news program. Just as I finished getting dressed, I heard them talking about an airliner in trouble in France."

Instead of speaking, he reached out and began rubbing the back of her shoulder.

It seemed to ease her reluctance to tell him what was bothering her. "I was changed and out the window before I realized what I was doing. I left Lex back at the hotel and I'm sure he thinks I'm dead or kidnapped or that I ran out on him."

He said nothing, but kept rubbing.

"So, I was landing the plane in Paris. And I heard about this mud slide back in Brazil. Just west of Rio."

She hesitated. "Go on," he said softly.

"I -- I tried to get there as fast as I could and -- and I wasn't -- I wasn't fast enough."

Her tears began anew. "What did I do wrong? Why couldn't I get there faster? And why did all those people have to -- have to --"

He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "Lois. Listen to me. No matter how strong you are, no matter how fast you are, sometimes it just isn't enough." He rocked her lightly and let go. "You have to accept that."

She rubbed more tears away. "But what makes me a good reporter is that I don't accept things! I'm always questioning and I'm never satisfied and I'm never going to be satisfied with -- with getting there five seconds too late!"

He took a chance and scooted over beside her, then slowly put his arms around her shoulders and tugged her close.

She didn't break away. "Lois, do you remember what you said to me last summer? When we were on the submarine?"

She glanced towards him. "If I tell you I've forgotten will you let me pretend it's true?"

He smiled at the feeble joke. "No. But you were partly right that day. I was feeling very selfish and very sorry for myself."

"You had a right to feel like that. Lana had --"

She stopped herself, but Clark finished the thought. "Yes. Lana had just died. I thought Superman was a failure, that I was a failure. And I thought my life was over." He gently bent her head towards him. "But it wasn't over. And even though I didn't accomplish what I wanted to accomplish that day, I kept going. Do you know why?"

She sniffed again. "Please don't tell me it was because of my lousy pep talk."

He smiled and stroked her hair. "Not entirely, but a little bit because of what you said, yes. You told me that Superman was more important than just me and how I felt about what I did. You told me that Superman was a symbol of right, of justice, and that I shouldn't put away the suit because of one thing that didn't go right, no matter how big that one thing was."

She sat upright without breaking away and looked at him with a puzzled expression. "Is that what you remember me saying?"

"Yes." She wrinkled one eyebrow in his direction. "Well, maybe not exactly like that, but that's essentially what you told me."

She shook her head. "I want some of the super-weed you've been smoking, Kent. It's got to be good if that's what's in your mind from that day."

He chuckled lightly. "I remember what you really said. And I remember what you told me after the bomb went off at Dr. Platt's office building and I couldn't save any of those people and that I was beating myself up over it. You told me, essentially, that the best I could do was the best I could do and it was good enough, even if it wasn't perfect."

She nodded once. "That's pretty close."

"And I told you to remember that speech because I'd be giving it back to you before long."

She froze in place. Clark was sure she was about to bolt, so he loosened his grip to let her know that he wouldn't try to keep her against her will.

But slowly the tension drained out of her body and she leaned against him again. This time she reached up and put her arms around his neck and closed her eyes. "It's not fair."

He stroked her head again. "What's not fair, Lois?"

"You're using my own words against me. You know what a great writer I am."

He laughed and felt her laugh with him through her tears. "It'll be better, I promise."

"Yeah." She squeezed harder. "Clark?"

"Yes?"

"Why didn't you tell me everything would be okay?"

He hesitated and sighed. "Because everything won't be okay. It will get better. You'll learn to deal with the losses and you'll come to understand that nobody wins them all. You'll learn how to hide your feelings in public and just do the job and then go off somewhere and cry it out and then come back to risk your heart all over again." He took a deep breath and held it for a moment before he let it out. "But you'll never get to the place where the losses don't hurt. You'll never be satisfied when things don't end up perfect. And you'll never learn not to care."

She nodded into his shoulder and nestled closer.

At least, he thought, I hope to God you never learn not to care.

He startled himself as he realized just how important Lois' state of mind was to him. Maybe it was being away from Rebecca, maybe it was the wedding he'd just attended or the obvious passion Dennis and Ginny had for each other, but he had to stop himself from lifting Lois' face to his so he could kiss her. She was so close, so very close, and he didn't think she'd stop him.

But he couldn't take advantage of her like that. He couldn't let his own loneliness and need force him to step past those boundaries they'd silently defined in their relationship. It wouldn't be right for him to push his attentions on her, especially when she was so vulnerable.

So he contented himself with comforting her in her moment of need and tried to envision himself holding Rebecca like this and kissing her. But somehow that scenario just didn't feel right to him, and he wasn't sure why.

>>>Saturday, 4:20 PM (Rio time)

Lex paced incessantly, furiously, and fearfully. There was still no news about Lois. She'd been missing from her hotel room since that morning. The only clues anyone had were that there was no sign of violence in the room, her tennis shoes and jeans and a casual shirt were missing, along with a light jacket, and her television had been left on, tuned to a local news station broadcasting in English. The police inspector had suggested that since the missing Miss Lane was a reporter, she might have decided to report on something she'd heard about on the television.

Asabi agreed, which only infuriated Lex all the more. He'd given up an entire weekend to be with her! Why couldn't she step away from her job to be with him?

Of course, the possibility that she might have met with some more lurid fate pressed against his mind with increasing force. He hated to admit it, even to himself, but Lois had become very important to him, and he believed that he was in love with her. Losing her at this point in his life was not something he cared to contemplate for even a moment.

As time had passed, he'd come to believe even more strongly than ever that Lois cared for him completely apart from his money and his influence and his social position. Not only did she not mind going out with him in his Alex Whitfield persona, at times he felt that she actually preferred to do so. She was never completely comfortable around the men and women in Metropolis society who sometimes behaved in a patronizing manner towards the "working woman" on Lex's arm. One social matron who'd treated Lois as a rent-a-date during one recent evening's event had heard a good bit of dirt on her husband, broadcast by Lois in her best loud and screechy-voiced impersonation of a popular but coarse television actress.

Lex hadn't blamed Lois for her response and had even been amused at the time, but he had also needed most of the next week to placate the couple. After all, their continued good will was important to his social ranking.

And now she'd disappeared! Vanished without a trace. Such things rarely happened to American tourists in Rio, but they did happen. And he knew that the longer she remained missing, the slimmer the chance was that she'd return alive and unharmed.

A sudden knock on the door gave Asabi something to do besides watch him pace. Lex heard two excited voices at the door and turned to see Asabi running towards him.

"Sir! Oh, Sir! It is wonderful news, the best news! They have found her!"

His vision blurred around the edges and he felt for the edge of a nearby chair, then with a Herculean effort he took control of himself. "I assume from your joyful demeanor that she is uninjured."

"Oh, yes, Miss Lane is most hale and hearty!"

He nodded and put his hand on Asabi's shoulder. "Thank you, my friend. Can you tell me where she is and what she has been doing all day?"

"The officer says she is now in Petropolis, in one of the police stations, perhaps twenty-five miles north of our hotel. She has apparently been covering Ultra Woman's rescue attempts at a small village just west of that city. It was badly damaged by a mudslide, and the heroine spent much of the day assisting in the rescue efforts."

The officer interrupted and said in Portuguese, "We are indeed grateful for the assistance of the heroine Ultra Woman, Mister Luthor. She has saved many lives today."

Lex replied in the same language. "How long will it take to get there?"

"By cab, Mister Luthor, perhaps an hour in this traffic. But I can take you in my official car, and it will take perhaps half the time."

"Thank you, my good man. Please, let us depart now."

The officer saluted crisply and turned to march out the door. Lex and Asabi followed as closely as they could.

***

As soon as Lex walked into the police station, he knew Lois was there. She was standing at the station's front desk, facing away from the door, and dominating the phone in her hand like an NBA power forward against a second-string junior high guard.

"No!" she shouted. "I do NOT want the long distance operator in Metropolis! I want you to connect me to the Daily Planet! Yes, directly! Yes, the paper will pay the charge! No, I don't want to give you my credit card number! Yes! That's right, call them now. What? What did you do with the phone number the first three times I gave it to you? Never mind, here it is. Again!"

She rattled off the number into the phone. The officer who'd driven Lex and Asabi to the station at breakneck speed with lights flashing and siren at eardrum-bursting volume stepped up beside her.

"Signorina, if you please --"

Without turning around, Lois waved her hand sharply in his face to shut him up, then yelled into the phone again. "Yes! Who's this? Walter? This is Lois Lane. No, I'm in Brazil. Never mind why I'm here! I have an exclusive for you. You heard about Ultra Woman at the mudslide here? Good. I got an interview with her. You ready? Great! Take this down."

As she spoke, Lex calmed himself and took a look at her clothing. She was covered with dried mud up to her knees, and her denim jacket would have to be laundered with great care to keep it presentable. Her shoes were almost unrecognizable as footwear and her shirt was torn in two small places that he could see. He only hoped she hadn't suffered a minor injury which she was ignoring in her zeal to report the story.

A story which had taken her away from him.

A story which, despite its importance and her unique vantage point, had come between them.

A story which he didn't particularly like at the moment.

Her voice shifted pitch as she finished dictating. "Got that, Walter? Great! Get it to rewrite, uh, see if Kyoko is available, she's new but she's good. If not, get whoever's there and get it in shape for tomorrow's edition. Of course I want it on the front page! Oh, all right, run it by Perry. He'll tell you that -- no, I don't want his job! I'm a reporter, not a kindergarten teacher! Yes! Okay. Tell Perry I'll see him Monday morning. Bye! I mean, 'adeus!' Of course that means 'good-bye' in Portuguese!"

She slammed the phone down and blew a stream of air up past her face, then looked at the wide-eyed officer she'd gestured to silence. "Okay, what do you want?"

Instead of answering her and risking an altercation with Hurricane Lois, he pointed behind her. She turned and saw Lex standing there with a harried expression on his face.

She launched herself at him and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Lex! I'm so glad to see you! Do you have any idea how hard it is to make a transcontinental call in this place? I had to do it from here or risk missing the Planet's deadline, but I didn't think it'd take me so long to make a connection --"

"Lois --"

Her arms slid down his and she grasped his hands lightly. "And these people won't let me use their shower to clean up! I'm nasty dirty and I smell like a pig truck and they won't let me get clean! And the hotel here won't let me use their shower without renting a room and I don't have my purse --"

Lex tried again. "Lois, please --"

"I hope it's still in the room, I ran out of there so fast I can't remember if I locked the door or not --"

He grabbed her firmly by the elbows and shook her. "Lois! Will you please let me speak?"

Lois ducked her head and slowly glanced at Lex's hands on her arms. Then she lifted obsidian eyes to him and coldly whispered, "I want you to let go of my arms."

He tried to shake her arms again, more lightly this time, but he might as well have tried to do the tango with the Statue of Liberty. "Lois -- you --"

"Let go of my arms, Lex."

He released her and stepped back. "Fine." He held her gaze for a long breath, then he shook his head. "You gave me a terrible fright today."

"I'm a reporter, Lex. That's not only what I do, it's what I am. I will not change that part of myself for you or for any man."

Her words rocked him. Her tone, her intensity, her body langua