The Girl Next Door

By Janet Owens (aka TicAndToc) <ticandtoc@earthlink.net>

Rated PG

Submitted June 2008

Summary: Lois Lane has a secret that dates back to the earliest days of her childhood; a secret she's kept all her life. Now a prize-winning reporter for the prestigious Daily Planet newspaper, her safe but solitary existence is shaken up by the arrival of a disturbingly handsome man.

(Copyright 11/2005)

Many, many, *many* thanks go to LabRat for her extremely fast beta reading of this story despite a thousand-plus other things she already had to do. And for her enthusiastic and encouraging comments. I swear when I started it that I had *no* idea how long it would turn out to be. Nor, I imagine, did LabRat <g>.

My thanks, also, to Wendy for her encouragement -- and her insistence that I should be writing fanfic in the first place. And to the members of the message boards at http://www.lcficmbs.com for their helpful answers to my questions, and their enthusiastic, flattering, and thought-provoking comments -- several of which helped me improve this story.

My sincere thanks, also, to ML Thompson -- while reading one of her stories, I was reminded of a certain plot device, which I promptly borrowed to wrap up a loose end in my own story. The specifics -- which story and which plot device -- are detailed in the Author's Notes at the end of this story.

The haircut in this story is dedicated to Tank.

The characters in this story do not belong to me. All rights belong to DC Comics and Warner Brothers. I don't actually have permission to borrow them, either. But no copyright infringement is intended and this story is strictly for entertainment purposes, not for profit.

Last, but by no means least, my sincere thanks to Tricia for her quick turn-around time GE'ing this story, and particularly for her cheerful patience while I took forever (3-plus months, I think) to get it back to her.

***

Lois Lane had a secret.

A whopper of a secret, one she'd spent most of her lifetime keeping.

It wasn't actually too hard to keep, either, but for that she probably had Mad Dog Lane to thank.

***

Lois Lane was good at secrets.

She was the top investigative reporter for the Daily Planet, the world's largest and most widely read newspaper. She had climbed to the top of her profession through a mixture of ability, luck, and sheer gritty determination.

Lots of natural ability. She'd always had a knack for turning mere words into powerful tools. Powerful weapons, and powerful forces for change. For making things right.

A small amount of luck. She'd grown up in Metropolis, had attended Metropolis University and earned a journalism degree, and had been lucky to land a summer internship at the Daily Planet. It had given her an advantage when she'd graduated and applied for a reporting job at the paper.

Lots of determination. Although many people would probably call it sheer pig-headed stubbornness. Whatever. It had worked.

But she'd also earned a title. Mad Dog Lane. She was actually kind of proud of it, although she never let on that she was affected by it when she overheard it.

At twenty-six years old, she was hugely successful, had several awards for outstanding journalism under her belt, and had been blessed with above-average looks in addition to her intelligence.

But she was also alone.

It was her choice. She'd had to fend for herself from an early age, and it had colored her adult life. She stood alone. She didn't need anyone. She wasn't interested in a relationship, and was accomplished at getting that message across to any man who dared step out of line.

She didn't need friends.

It was that prickly independence, the walls she'd erected around herself that had created the Mad Dog title. Her coworkers thought she was cold and unfeeling, standoffish. That was fine with her. They left her alone to do her job, and that was what she wanted.

It was what was safest.

It guaranteed that her secret stayed that way. Secret.

***

Lois's earliest memories were bittersweet. She remembered Mama, but the glorious full colors of that time when she'd been the happiest had faded into pale watercolor hues. Always beautiful, but muted with time.

Mama had died when Lois was six. Mama had always been frail and ill, but it hadn't stopped her from surrounding Lois with love and laughter and hugs, fairy tales and kisses and short little outings to their favorite park.

Most of what Lois remembered was in short little snippets, like little video clips designed to tease viewers into seeing the whole movie.

***

"Mama, will you read to me?" Lois asked, climbing carefully into the chair where Mama was sitting. Mama bruised easily, so Lois always made sure she snuggled under Mama's arm instead of sitting in her lap, and she always made sure her shoes were off before she climbed up into the chair.

"Which story will it be, sweetie?" Mama asked. She smiled her lovely warm smile, which lit up her pale and thin face, transforming it into the face Lois imagined her guardian angel must have.

"The one about Princess Elizabeth, who goes out and fights the dragon and saves the prince, even though he's a real stinker," Lois said. It was her favorite story. Mama had told her the story for as long as she could remember, and had given her the book when Lois turned four.

Princess Elizabeth was smart, and tough, and she knew how to do the right thing. When the prince wouldn't fight the dragon, the princess did it herself. And she didn't even have dragon-fighting clothes on.

That was the kind of princess Lois would be, Mama always told her. She wouldn't sit around waiting for some prince to do the right thing; she'd do it herself.

***

Lois was kind of scared. Her eyes were doing funny things sometimes. Rubbing them didn't help.

"Is it happening again, sweetie?' Mama asked.

She was sitting at the kitchen table, helping Lois color the pictures in her coloring book. Mama would color a picture, and Lois would color a picture, and then they would hang them on the refrigerator. Lois always picked the Snoopy magnet, and Mama always picked the Woodstock magnet. Mama called the refrigerator their art gallery, which Lois thought was funny. A refrigerator was a refrigerator.

Mama would tell Lois that if a refrigerator could also be an art gallery, a little girl could also be anything she wanted to be, when she grew up.

Lois had stopped coloring and was pushing at the wood of the table with her pointing finger. The wood looked mushy, but it didn't feel mushy. It felt like a table.

"Mama, can a table also be a window?" Lois asked. "Because I can kind of see the floor through it."

Mama's thin and tired face creased into a frown, but Lois knew Mama wasn't mad. Mama was trying to figure things out. That was how Lois looked when she stood in front of the bathroom mirror and tried to figure things out. It was just a figure-out face, not a mad face.

"I think it's one of those special things about you, Lois," Mama said. "It's like Princess Elizabeth. She was smart and beautiful, and special, too."

"But *she* didn't have see-through eyes, Mama," Lois said.

"But she *was* born special, Lois, just like you," Mama said, smiling her angel smile. "She was the only one like her, and you're the only one like you. And she did good things. Just like you would do, if you were Princess Elizabeth."

She frowned her figure-out frown again.

"But remember, sweetie, you can't tell *anybody* about your special eyes, okay? Princess Elizabeth had a secret weapon, her brain. She didn't tell the dragon what she was going to do. You can't tell any dragons, either. Can you remember that?" Mama asked. "Some dragons look like people, so don't tell *anyone*. That way no dragons will find out. Can you do that, sweetie?"

"Yes, Mama," Lois said. "I'll remember. I won't let any dragons trick me."

***

"Tell me the story again, Mama? Please?" Lois asked, as Mama tucked her in.

Mama smiled at her, and brushed Lois's hair back from her face.

"You're my own real live baby angel, sweetie," Mama said. "I found you, or maybe you found me."

"Tell about the spaceship, Mama," Lois prompted, smiling.

"I was nineteen years old," Mama began. "I was all alone in the whole world. I never knew my father, and my mother... she wasn't around either. I never even knew my real name. The state of New Troy gave me a name because nobody else knew what my name was, either. I lived in a lot of foster homes, some good ones and some... with dragons living there."

That was the part of the story that always made Lois feel sad. Mama was like an angel. It made Lois sad to think of little-girl-Mama living in a sad place, or a bad place.

"But I was okay, sweetie," Mama continued. She knew how that part of the story made Lois feel. "I knew the story of Princess Elizabeth. I knew I could --"

"...Do anything I decided I could do," she and Lois finished together.

Mama leaned over and kissed Lois on her forehead, then continued with the story.

"I moved out of the last foster home and found a job, and a place to live," she said. "I saved my money, and I went to Centennial Park for fun. Nature is free and it's better than any other show if you know how to watch," she added.

She had always told Lois that, and Lois knew it was true. Mama and Lois spent a lot of their free time in the park, walking or sitting and watching. If you sat still and watched, you could see birds, and squirrels, and even imagine you could see the flowers growing.

"One day, when I was leaving the park as it got dark, I saw a shooting star," Mama said. "I felt special, because the star came across the sky right where I was looking. Like I might be the only one who saw that shooting star. I imagined that it was just mine."

Lois smiled. Mama was coming to her favorite part.

"As I walked toward home, I realized that maybe the shooting star had actually landed. There was a smoky smell and a sort of glow in the trees near the lily pond in the park. Over where we feed the ducks," Mama continued.

"I went over to look. It wasn't a star at all," Mama said. "It was you, my own angel baby, in your own little spaceship. I couldn't believe my eyes! I touched the top of the ship, right by the window where I could see you looking up at me. And the top opened up, and there you were. A dark-haired little baby angel."

"I didn't know if you were a real angel, but you looked like a human baby. A baby! And somebody had put you in a rocket ship and sent you into space all alone." This was the part where Mama sounded fierce, like she was fighting dragons. "I knew what it was like to be alone. To have no one who loved you. I looked at you, and I promised I was going to do what was right. I was going to take you home with me, and protect you, and love you, and never let someone send you out all alone in the dark."

Lois sighed. It was the same big, happy sigh that Mama sighed when they were snuggled together in the big chair.

"Tell the rest, Mama," she begged.

Mama smiled her angel smile, and finished the story. "I picked you up and took you home with me. When we got there, I got a big garbage bag, and we went back out to the park. I pushed the ship into the bag. It wasn't very big, your ship... you were a tiny little thing. It was kind of hard getting you and the bag back to my apartment, but I managed it."

"I kept the ship for a while, waiting to see if somebody would snoop around at the park," Mama continued. "I wasn't going to give you up for anything, and I didn't want anybody else to use your ship to send another baby off all alone."

She sighed, a tired sigh. Mama got tired easily, even when they were just sitting and talking.

"I kept the ship until about the time you started to walk," she said. "By then I had a stroller for you, one of those old-fashioned ones that look like a buggy. I used it for our groceries because both the groceries and you fit in it. So one day, I put the bag with the ship in it into the buggy, and you and I went for a long, long walk. I left the bag at the city dump, among about a million other black bags that looked just like it."

"And that's the end of the story," she said, "and time for you to go to sleep."

"Tell me about my name, please, Mama?" Lois begged. "And then I promise I'll go to sleep."

Mama smiled at her. "I went to the library with you, and I looked through a couple of books of baby names," Mama said. "I chose your name because 'Lois' means 'good', 'better', 'wanted', and 'desired.' And you were all those things, beautiful girl. You *are* all those things. You are good. Want and desire mean the same thing, and I wanted to keep you. And you have made my life so much better."

"And 'Lois' also means 'battle maiden', sweetie," Mama finished. "You are special, Lois, and strong -- strong enough to do what's right, to fight dragons. You're my own special angel baby with special things you can do, and you can make the world a better place. And now, good night, little angel girl," Mama whispered, and Lois hugged her carefully.

"I love you, Mama," she said.

"And I love you," Mama said. "Never forget that."

***

"Concentrate, sweetie," Mama said. She was sitting in one of the kitchen chairs, across from Lois, and holding her hands. "Focus on me, Lois. Look into my eyes and listen to me, just to me."

Lois clung to Mama's hands. Her face was streaked with tears, but she'd managed to stop crying. She looked into Mama's eyes; her blue-sky eyes that made Lois feel so safe.

"What do you hear now, Lois?' Mama asked. She began to hum, the song she sang when she was tucking Lois into bed at night.

"I hear you humming, Mama." Lois said. "And I hear your heartbeat, like when we snuggle to read.

"Good girl," Mama said, smiling her special Mama angel smile. "That's how you turn it off, sweetie. When the noises get too loud again, focus on just one noise. Then the other noises will go away. Can you do that?"

"Yes, Mama," Lois said. "I can do anything I decide I can do."

Mama's angel smile got brighter when Lois said that. "Or that needs doing," Mama said. "And don't ever forget," she continued, "you can't tell anyone. Will you remember that?'

"Yes, Mama," Lois said. "I won't let the dragons know what I can do. Then if I ever need to use my extra-noisy ears, I can do it and the dragons won't even know."

***

"Mama, do you want me to read to you?" Lois asked. Mama was resting on the couch, and she was getting all fade-y looking. Not real fade-y, like looking through things, but paler and thinner and more tired. Like a cloud unraveling in the sky.

"Yes, sweetie," Mama said. Her voice was all fade-y too. "Read me Princess Elizabeth's story."

Lois carefully scootched the step stool closer to the couch, so that her head was right by Mama's head. She opened the book and began to read to Mama, who smiled her angel smile as she listened.

When the story was over, Lois laid her head on the couch next to Mama's, and she rested one of her arms carefully over Mama's arm. Mama turned her hand and squeezed Lois's hand. They stayed that way a long, long time, until finally Mama moved, turning so she could look into Lois's eyes.

"You need to remember, sweetie," she said. "Remember that you are special. Remember that I love you, my beautiful girl, more than the whole wide world. Remember that you can do whatever you decide you want to do. Remember to always do what needs to be done, especially to stop the dragons. And remember to never, never tell about your special extra things, okay?

"I won't forget, Mama," Lois whispered.

She could feel the tears starting in her eyes. Mama wasn't going to be able to stay much longer. They were running out of time.

Mama's eyes were starting tears, too. Once again, Lois tucked her head up close to Mama's, and they stayed that way a long, long time. Snuggled tight and crying.

Saying goodbye.

***

Lois stood solemnly at the graveside. Mama wasn't here any more. She'd turned into a real angel, and Lois knew Mama was watching her from heaven.

"I won't ever forget, Mama," she whispered as the casket was lowered into the grave. "I won't ever forget that you love me. I won't ever forget about the dragons. And doing what's right. I promise."

"Come now, Lois," Dr. Lane told her. "It's time to go."

Lois looked up at Dr. Lane. Mama had fixed it so that Lois would live with Dr. Lane and her husband, who was also Dr. Lane.

Dr. Lane -- the lady doctor -- was Mama's doctor. She and Dr. Lane -- the man doctor -- had no children of their own, Mama had told her. They wanted to adopt Lois to be their own little girl, Mama had said.

"It will be okay for you to be their little girl too, Lois," Mama had said. "That's the nice thing about love. You can keep giving it, and the people who already have it won't lose it."

Dr. Lane, the lady doctor Lane, was a nice lady. Lois had been to her house many times. At the end, Mama and Lois both stayed at Dr. Lane's house. Mama had explained to Lois that the doctors would adopt her, and that her name would change to Lane. That was okay, Mama said. The name she had before was only a borrowed one, anyway.

"But not your first name, Lois," Mama had reminded her. "That's your very own name to keep forever. I gave it to you, and I chose the best one I could find. So you'll always remember how special you are, and how much I love you."

Now the doctors were leading Lois to the car, the big black one that Mr. Dr. Lane drove. Lois bit her lip and climbed into the back seat. She was going to be strong, so Mama would be proud of her. She was going to fight dragons when she grew up.

***

Life with the Lanes was very different.

While they seemed to understand her need to grieve, she was left alone far more than she should have been. Sam Lane was a psychiatrist, but for all that, he didn't relate well to Lois. He didn't seem to be able to do small talk, at least not with her. She'd formed the impression within a short time that he'd have been much more comfortable with a boy.

Ellen Lane showed Lois genuine affection, but not the powerful love Mama had always shown. Ellen was not physically demonstrative. She'd always had staff at the medical office to do all the mundane things throughout the day, and it was the same at home.

Lois had a nanny, a good woman but one who was always conscious of the social difference between her and her employers. There were no more snuggly reading sessions, no more hugs. No more messy sessions in the kitchen; the Lanes had a cook and a housekeeper and both were too busy for an introverted and lonely child.

Lois had tried once or twice to make a connection with one of the staff members. And she'd come into the kitchen one morning, very early, and had decided to try to make herself an omelet. Maybe the cook would appreciate not having to fix her a meal every morning.

Maybe she would let Lois help fix some of the meals. Maybe they could even bake cookies.

Mama had always allowed Lois to help on omelet mornings. Lois would stand on a chair next to Mama at the stove, hair and sleeves carefully fastened back, and Mama would let her stir the eggs as they cooked.

It wasn't easy to do it all by herself. She dropped one of the eggs on the stovetop before she could crack it into the pan, and the other egg's shell crumbled into the pan along with the egg. She carefully turned on the burner like Mama used to do, and tried to stir the eggs.

Unfortunately, she didn't know she should use a nonstick pan. She didn't know that she should put a pat of butter in the pan so the egg wouldn't stick. She had the heat too high, and the egg mixture quickly began to stick to the pan and brown, and then blacken.

Dismayed, Lois took the pan off the burner and tried to dump the ruined mess into the trash. She rested the pan on the edge of the plastic garbage can, forgetting how hot the pan was. The garbage can's rim and the garbage bag melted on that side.

She was standing there, unsure how to fix everything, when the cook arrived in the kitchen. Instead of reassuring Lois, the woman reacted to the mess, and immediately and loudly involved the Lanes in the situation.

Lois stood there fighting tears while the cook raged about unattended children, and Sam Lane assured her that it wouldn't happen again. He sat Lois at the kitchen table across from him and Ellen, who was irritable because she was going to arrive late at her office.

"Now, Lois," Sam Lane began pedantically, "you simply *can't* cause this kind of damage. Cook will overlook it this time, but from now on you must not attempt this sort of thing again. You need to leave the cooking to someone who knows how to do it."

"But -- " Lois started, but Sam held up a hand.

"You don't know how to cook, Lois," he said, 'and it would be better for everyone involved if you just gave up on any further attempts."

"But I can learn, Sam," Lois protested. He preferred that she call him Sam.

"It would be much better if you simply leave it to the expert. You can't cook, and you don't really need to. You should concentrate on your schoolwork. Good grades are imperative if you want to get into medical school."

"But I don't want..." Lois hesitated, then continued bravely, "I... I want to be a reporter when I grow up, Sam."

Sam was shaking his head dismissively before she even finished. "No, no, it would be much better if you just dropped that idea now," he said.

Ellen was nodding. "Yes, my dear. The medical field is just the sort of thing you need. It's prestigious and will earn you a decent living." She stood and continued briskly, "Well, now that we've sorted that out, I do need to get on with my day."

"I want to be a journalist," Lois whispered softly, but neither of the doctors heard her.

Before he left, Sam made Lois promise she would stay out of the kitchen and out of the cook's way.

***

Materially, Lois lacked for nothing as she grew. There, at least, Sam Lane was generous. She came to realize as she got older that while the Lanes were basically good and decent people, her presence in their family had been intended partly as an effort to save their marriage.

They argued all the time. Their childlessness was an issue that had driven a wedge between them long before Lois joined the family. They didn't seem to have anything in common outside their professions. When they did talk to each other, they couldn't agree on anything, and there were many silent, tense meals in the Lane house.

Lois tried not to hear the fights, but she was still learning to control what she and Mama had called her extra-noisy hearing. When she couldn't concentrate enough to block the angry voices out, she would pull the pillow over her head and sing Mama's song softly to herself. On those nights, she usually woke up with a tear-streaked face in the morning.

Lois spent a lot of time alone. She stayed in her room, writing in her journal and planning her future. She became involved in journalism in school, but steered clear of close friendships. She read a lot, and every night she opened the Princess Elizabeth story and read it. It made her feel closer to Mama.

***

When she was sixteen, she started to change again. It was a terrifying time for her, and she'd never felt so alone. She couldn't tell anyone about the scary things that had started happening.

She'd become used to her special vision and hearing over the years that she had been living with the Lanes. But one day while she was studying in her room, working on a particularly frustrating math assignment, she accidentally set fire to the paper as she glared at it.

In a panic, she snatched the paper off the desk, crumpling it in her haste to get to her feet, thinking to take it into the bathroom and pour water on it. The flames died beneath her clutching hands, and shaking, she turned her hands over to see the damage.

There was none.

Her hands were shaking, but there were no marks on them. No burns, not even any redness.

What if something like this happened at school?

Determined to learn to control the strange new thing she could do, she began to practice secretly, carefully testing her fire-starting ability with tiny scraps of paper in her bathroom, in the tub so that nothing else would accidentally catch on fire.

That was how she discovered her freezing breath, too.

She blew a little too hard on one flaming scrap of paper, coating it with ice in a matter of seconds. Flabbergasted, she jerked backwards, slipped, and landed on her bottom on the bathroom floor. It seemed like a good idea to just sit there for a while, trying to wrap her brain around these new abilities.

But two things Lois had in abundance were curiosity and determination, so before long she was up on her knees by the tub again, practicing both new abilities.

She learned, also, that she couldn't be hurt.

She knew that she should have been burnt when she'd had her hands in the flames that day, and her natural curiosity drove her to find out why she hadn't been injured. She tried to get a paper cut; the paper wouldn't cooperate. She pricked her finger with a pin; the pin bent like a misfired staple, and her skin remained unbroken.

Sitting at her desk after she bent the third pin, she tried to recall the last time she'd had a cold; it had been at least three years ago.

Fire vision.

Freezing breath.

Never sick, never hurt.

How far did this... invulnerability extend? There was probably no way to know for sure; she certainly wasn't going to go as far as to... jump off a roof, or step out in front of a car or something. It was a good thing she was done with all the normal childhood vaccinations, though.

Trying to hide her strange abilities, to cope with them and control them, further isolated her. No one at school was mean, really, but she had developed a reputation for being standoffish and hard to know. 'Socially uncomfortable' was what Sam Lane would probably call it. She didn't date, didn't have giggling girls over to stay the night.

She didn't really have time for that anyway, though. She had dragons to fight, a world to save.

***

There was a facet of her invulnerability that she hadn't considered at all, though -- until she encountered it. Being invulnerable meant she couldn't trim her nails or her hair with ordinary scissors.

Lois looked at the broken nail scissors lying in her bathroom sink. The broken fingernail clipper was already in the trashcan.

Of course, it also meant she wouldn't have to worry about breaking a nail ever again, but of more importance was the fact that she couldn't very well just let her nails -- or her hair -- grow.

What to do, then?

Bite them? Invulnerable teeth versus invulnerable nails... but she'd never had a nail-biting habit and didn't intend to start one. No matter how good a reason she had in favor of nail biting.

What was strong enough to trim invulnerable fingernails, to cut invulnerable hair?

Certainly a metal nail file wouldn't do it. She'd just broken her scissors *and* her fingernail clipper, both of which were stainless steel.

"How about one of those heavy-duty industrial files -- don't they have diamonds on the cutting surface?" she asked her reflection. "Or a -- what do they call those knife-sharpening things? A whetstone." She could buy one of those at the kitchen store in the mall.

For Lois Lane, to have an idea was often to act on it. Heck, sometimes she acted on the idea first and then had it. At least, sometimes it seemed that way.

The kitchen store not only had whetstones, it had them in various sizes. Including a cute little one with its own little cloth pouch. Just right to fit in the palm of her hand.

Shut carefully in her bathroom, she ran the stone once across her index fingernail, experimentally.

Nothing.

Weren't you supposed to get the stone wet?

Okay. She ran the stone under water and started again.

Still nothing.

She began to file fast and furiously.

Still nothing. Unless you counted the deep groove down the center of the stone.

Okay. What was stronger than diamonds?

Ginsu knife? What did those commercials say, again? Lifetime guarantee or something... Slices, dices, juliennes... <What the heck's a julienne, anyway?> ...And, maybe, cuts fingernails?

Maybe. And if not, she'd get her money back. If she could adequately explain what, exactly, the knife had failed to do.

Or how about titanium? Where would she get titanium, though? Did anybody actually make titanium-bladed nail scissors? And if they did, *why*?

Or... how about acid? Hydrochloric acid? But where on earth would she get something like that? Hydrochloric acid -- wasn't that what was in your stomach? Ick.

Okay. Acid was out.

A laser?

A focused beam. Like...

Like her fire vision? A tightly focused beam of heat... and maybe a mirror when she started on her hair.

If she ever wrote an autobiography, she'd have to put that in -- 'I did it with mirrors.'

"Okay, Lois, get a grip," she muttered. "You're losing it. Let's try the fire vision gizmo."

The first few attempts weren't real professional. And she accidentally scorched the wood along the edge of the sink counter.

After that, she shifted operations so that she was working over the sink itself.

"I'm pretty sure porcelain doesn't burn,' she muttered, directing a short, focused beam at her left index fingernail.

Trimming her nails with heat made the bathroom smell kind of funny, but hey, so did perm solution.

"The things we go through to look nice..." she muttered, tipping her hands back and forth as she inspected the final result.

It was the same with her hair -- her first attempts were pretty ragged. And trying to guide the focused heat using a mirror took a while to master. She burned the back of her shirt once, and melted part of the plastic frame on her handheld mirror.

Fortunately her hair was quite long by now, so she had enough length to refine her technique. By the time she was finished, though, it was fairly short. Oh, well. Short hair was easier to take care of, she'd heard.

Lois looked at her reflection. Not bad. The hair looked even on both sides. And her nails were short and well-shaped.

Okay. She finally let herself think about the other side of this whole thing: it would work for the... other stuff, too. Legs. Underarms. As long as she was careful and took her time.

It might be a while before she tried a bikini line, though.

She sighed. "I did it, Mama. I figured it out. But sometimes I *really* wish you were here."

***

Lois was a good student. By the time she was in high school, she had been on the honor roll consistently since fifth grade.

She was on the staff of the school newspaper, and won the journalism award in both her junior and senior years.

Ellen Lane seemed proud of Lois's accomplishments, although her typical comment was a brisk "Good work, my dear."

But with Sam it was harder to tell.

She remembered the math assignment that had given her so much trouble -- both the actual assignment and her setting it on fire. Despite the terrifying incident, she had persevered and turned it in on time. She'd gotten the highest score in the class, ninety-eight percent.

When she showed the paper to Sam, at Ellen's prompting, he took the assignment and looked it over carefully.

"Hmmm... Ninety-eight percent?" he asked in the slightly ponderous voice he often used when addressing her.

"Yes, Sam," she said proudly, "I got the highest score in the class."

He glanced at her over his glasses and returned to the paper. "I see..." he continued. "Hmmm. Calculus. I see you had trouble with implicit differentiation."

"Yes, but Mr. Sorenson, my math teacher, said everybody did. He's going to go over it again."

"You are not 'everybody', Lois," Sam said. "You need to be *better* than everyone else to succeed in life, especially if you want to get into the right school."

"But I did... I was," Lois said, starting to feel defensive. "Ninety-eight percent was the highest score."

Sam handed the paper back to Lois. "Ninety-eight percent. That leaves two percent for improvement, Lois."

He stood and picked up his briefcase. "I have a meeting in an hour," he told Ellen, who was also preparing to leave.

Lois watched them go to their separate cars, and then went up to her room and closed the door. She had half an hour before she had to leave for school, and suddenly she wasn't hungry.

She sat down on her bed, fighting tears.

No. She wasn't going to cry.

She picked up Mama's picture from the table beside her bed.

"Hi, Mama," she whispered. "Look what I got. A ninety-eight percent. The highest score in the class. And I did it because of what you said, Mama. I decided I could do it, and I did, even with my fire-starting eyes."

Despite her best efforts, a single tear tracked down her cheek.

***

Having won the High School Journalist of the Year award two years running, Lois was awarded a two-week junior internship at the prestigious Daily Planet during the summer after her senior year.

The program was in partnership with the American Society of Newspaper Editors Foundation, and the internship was awarded to an outstanding high school senior who had participated in high school journalism for at least two years. ASNE funded several such programs in different regions of the country, awarding internships at the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Washington Post, as well as the Daily Planet and many others.

The too-brief internship reinforced to Lois that journalism was what she wanted. And not just any sort of journalism. She was going to be an investigative reporter for the Daily Planet, and she was going to be the best.

ASNE had also awarded her several grants and a partial scholarship to Metropolis University's School of Journalism.

When Lois announced that she had won the scholarship to Met U and intended to earn a journalism degree, both of the Lanes were openly disappointed that she hadn't chosen to become a doctor.

"A... reporter, Lois?" Ellen asked in dismay. "It's so... menial. Grubbing around for stories, and ink all over the place..."

Ellen obviously had no idea what journalism was really like.

"And... Metropolis University? Really, my dear, a public school? What about Harvard? Princeton? Cornell or Yale?" Ellen asked her.

"Lois, you must discard this idea," Sam added in his most pedantic voice. "You put a GPA such as yours to shame squandering it on this sort of thing. You may choose any of the Ivy League schools that you want, but I'm afraid I simply can't support your decision to attend Metropolis University."

"Sam, it's what I want," Lois told him. "I've wanted to be a newspaper reporter for almost as long as I can remember."

"Then you'll have to do it on your own, Lois," he replied. He seemed to have no doubt that his ultimatum would change her mind.

<You need to remember... Remember that you can do whatever you decide you want to do.>

Mama's words echoed in her mind. She straightened her spine, crossed her arms, and looked first Ellen and then Sam in the eye.

"Then I will do it on my own," she stated clearly. "I will become a journalist and I will be the best investigative reporter the Daily Planet has ever had."

***

By the time she graduated from high school, Lois had discovered that she seemed to have an almost photographic memory -- particularly if the subject matter appealed to her. In her less favorite subjects, she did have to study, at least a little. But in general, she seemed to remember, with minimal effort, most of what she read or saw.

She still spent time studying, though -- she wasn't going to leave anything to chance when it came to achieving her goal.

She'd also discovered that she seemed to have an aptitude for languages. She studied French in high school, but also picked up some Spanish, Chinese, and even Russian by listening to other students practicing their vocabularies during study hall.

She continued to live with Sam and Ellen Lane throughout most of her college years. Sam had come around enough to accept that he wasn't going to be able to change her mind. He didn't like it, but he had learned that Lois Lane at her most stubborn was utterly unbudgeable.

Ellen, understanding exactly how stubborn both of them could be, had recognized that Sam would not support Lois financially while she attended Metropolis University. She also knew that Lois would not ask him for help.

In a moment of relative peace in the household, she had convinced them both that Lois should live at home while attending college. She simply wore both of them down until they finally agreed with her, just to stop her talking. To her credit, she was helping Lois stretch the scholarship and grant money much further than if Lois had also had to pay rent.

During her second year of college, Lois did consider moving out. She would have had to find a roommate, but it would have brought a respite from the increasingly acrimonious battles between Sam and Ellen.

But that same year, she began to change again.

Gradually, over the end of her first year at Met U and through the summer following it, she had noticed that she seemed to be getting stronger. It was subtle at first. She never seemed to notice the weight of the books she needed to carry from class to class, although she heard her classmates complaining about it frequently.

She took several elective courses over the summer, one of which was a printing technology course. The students were taught how to operate, among other things, a linotype machine and an old manual printing press. Neither of the machines was difficult to use, but both were huge, old, iron antiques.

One day, the last to leave the printing lab, Lois stumbled as she rounded the printing press, putting out a hand to catch herself. She didn't fall, but she pushed the machine, twice as tall as she was and weighing several tons, about a foot out of its usual resting place.

Flabbergasted, and terrified someone would enter the lab and see what had happened, she frantically pulled on the press with very little expectation that it would move, despite what had just happened. The machine moved easily back into place, and Lois shakily exited the lab.

"Are you all right, Ms. Lane?" her professor, who had just finished talking to one of her classmates, asked. "You look very pale; are you ill?"

Lois was trembling, and she had no doubt that she was, indeed, pale. It wasn't every day that your average one-hundred-twenty-pound college student could physically move a two-ton printing press without any help.

"I'm okay, thanks," she said quickly. "I... didn't eat breakfast... I woke up late and... I just need to go get some lunch," she improvised hurriedly.

The professor nodded, still looking concerned. "Well, okay, but take the time to eat a proper meal, Ms. Lane."

"I will," Lois said, already moving for the exit. She had to get out of there.

She headed for the park where she and Mama used to spend so many happy hours. It was still a source of comfort. She sat on one of the benches near the lily pond, where Mama had found her all those years ago. Watching nature's free show, the way Mama had taught her to watch, calmed her considerably.

After she'd sat for a while, she took a deep breath and looked around. There was no one else in the immediate area. She used her special vision to look further; the closest people were several adults and a group of children in the playground area a considerable distance away.

Looking around again, she noted a boulder near the far end of the pond. She stood and walked over to it. It was roughly half the size of a Volkswagen, which meant it had to weigh a considerable amount.

Scanning again with her special vision, she assured herself that she was still unobserved. Bending, she tucked one hand partly under a lower edge and lifted. The boulder came off the ground easily, and she was able to raise it above her head, still using only one hand and steadying it with the other.

She set it down carefully and deliberately in the exact spot it had occupied, brushed her hands off against her jeans, then returned to the bench just as carefully and deliberately.

"Mama," she whispered, "I really, really wish you were here. What do I do now?"

She remembered how Mama had helped her practice her special vision and those extra-noisy ears. Okay, so she would have to practice until she could control this new strength thingy.

She rose from the bench and headed for home. She'd have to find some place to practice this new ability. Maybe a gym? She'd have to be very careful to only practice her version of weight lifting when she was alone, though.

"I remember the dragons, Mama," she whispered softly. "I'll be careful, I promise."

***

When she told Sam and Ellen that she would like to join a gym, Ellen expressed concern about the idea.

"I just don't like the idea of you going to a public gym, Lois," she said. "They're full of germs -- I'm sure none of the equipment is cleaned adequately between uses -- and you have no control over the membership. And you'd be going at night, wouldn't you? Any... *criminal* could join. You aren't a very large person -- someone could overpower you so easily."

Lois had been at somewhat of a loss as to how to answer that. She probably couldn't be overpowered easily -- possibly not at all -- but she couldn't very well tell Ellen or Sam that. She ended up simply repeating her desire to have a place where she could work out.

"You need to be safe at the same time, Lois," Ellen insisted. "Sam, isn't there any sort of private gym we can get her into?"

Sam stroked his chin in thought. "I consider this an excellent idea, Lois," he began. "Every young person should choose ways to stay in shape while they are still young. It pays to start good health habits early..."

"Yes, yes, Sam," Ellen interrupted. "But look at her! She's so small! She won't be safe at some... unregulated public gym."

Lois knew it was pointless to argue with Ellen about whether she could protect herself or not. It would be easier to use Sam as an ally in this particular battle.

"Yes, Sam," she agreed, "I need to start exercising more. I really need somewhere to work out."

"What about Mike?" Ellen asked suddenly. "Couldn't he help us out? You used to go over there, remember, Sam?"

Sam was nodding approvingly even before she finished speaking. "I can ask him," he said, reaching for the telephone.

Lois exhaled softly and felt the tense muscles across her shoulders loosen. It looked like maybe she was going to get her way.

Her Uncle Mike, Sam's brother, was also a doctor. He was the director of a sports medicine facility associated with Metropolis University. The facility had a fully equipped gymnasium, including an Olympic-size pool and an indoor running track.

Mike was quite happy to help out, although he cautioned Lois that she would have to use the facility outside of its normal operating hours. Lois agreed readily, since that was exactly what she wanted, anyway.

The possibility of observers had been one of the big drawbacks to her plan, but she hadn't been able to think of any other viable way to practice controlling her strength. They lived in the middle of the city, and her only access to the outdoors was Centennial Park, which wasn't very secluded at all.

And there were very few things at home large enough -- or heavy enough -- for her to practice on. Practice effectively, that was. She couldn't bench press the grand piano -- well, she probably could, but it was Ellen's pride and joy. How would Lois explain it if she accidentally damaged it?

She'd started out lifting her bedroom furniture over her head, but quickly realized that if she was going to safely control every movement she made, she needed more diverse activities. She needed to focus on every muscle group, which meant physical activity such as weight lifting and running and swimming.

Mike arranged for the security staff to let her into the building in the evenings, and to escort her to her small car, a high school graduation present from Sam and Ellen, at the end of her workouts.

He also gave her keys to the large gym and the pool and locker room. And expressing concern that she would have no spotter if she chose to weight-lift, he gave her a key to his athletic performance lab. It had a full range of weightlifting machines where she could safely work out without a spotter -- and it had the added advantage that it was off-limits to anyone else except Uncle Mike.

For entirely different reasons, both Lois and Ellen were perfectly happy with these arrangements.

Mike stayed late on Lois's first visit, to make sure she knew how to use the equipment safely. That was a nerve-racking experience for Lois. Uncle Mike showed her how to set weights he considered safe for her size and supposed strength, then had her try out the machines. Lois had to make it look like she found the weights heavy, while at the same time trying not to push or pull hard enough to damage anything.

He had also mentioned the lack of security cameras in any area of the building, other than in the front lobby where the business office was located. "Most of the athletes who use these facilities are recovering from injuries," he'd told her, "and they value their privacy. So you don't have to worry that someone is, say, ogling you while you swim, or anything like that."

The possibility of cameras hadn't even occurred to her. "Uncle Mike, you have no idea how reassuring it is to hear that," she told him with utter sincerity.

Satisfied that she knew what she was doing, he'd reminded her that she could call on him if she needed any help with the machines, and then left her to her workout. Left alone, Lois had decided that a visit to the pool area -- specifically, the hot tub -- would be a good first step. She'd needed to sit quietly and let her adrenaline levels subside a little before she could begin an actual workout.

***

By the time the fall semester started, Lois had gained considerable control over her newfound strength.

There had been a few mishaps, of course, but fortunately, they were of a much less notable nature than the printing press incident.

Grabbing for a cup of coffee one morning, in a hurry to leave for school, she'd exerted too much pressure and crushed the mug to fragments, spilling hot coffee all over her hand and the table. Luckily, neither Sam nor Ellen had been there.

Uninjured, she'd hurriedly cleaned up the mess.

She'd accidentally bent a couple of the iron bars at the gym and had had to bend them back into shape. She'd also inadvertently broken the lock on one of the locker room doors.

The door was set to lock automatically behind her. She'd realized, just as it was clicking shut, that she'd accidentally left her purse, keys, and jacket in the locker room. Reflexively trying to stop the door closing all the way, she'd grabbed and twisted the door's handle a little too hard -- and had heard a crunching noise as the lock gave way.

Chagrined, she had automatically glanced around; no one was in sight, of course. For probably the hundredth time, she'd thought how lucky she was that the place didn't have security cameras. She had quickly grabbed her things and left, trying to look nonchalant as she joined the security guard at the front desk. Suppressing a twinge of guilt, she'd told him that the locker room door's lock seemed to be jammed or something. He'd assured her he'd let maintenance know, and had escorted her to her car exactly as usual.

Not too long after that incident, she was sitting in her room one night after another workout, rather idly cataloging her current list of abilities, when she'd become aware that she could probably add 'impervious to temperature extremes' to the list.

She'd started spending much of her sessions trying to fine-tune her degree of control over her strength and endurance, once she had tested the limits of those abilities as well as she was able to with the equipment available at the gym. But she'd realized, that night in her room, that she never broke a sweat, whether she was pushing the heaviest weights the gym offered, or running slow and steady endurance laps.

And Ellen Lane had commented several times that she still had to remind Lois to take a jacket on cold days, exactly as she had when Lois was in grade school.

While Lois had originally started frequenting the gym in order to practice controlling her strength, she'd found that the regular exercise was almost therapeutic. She probably didn't *need* to exercise; it followed, considering the temperature thing and her invulnerability, that she was unlikely to get fat or out of shape. But she enjoyed the physical activity, and it seemed to help dispel the stress of hiding her abilities so strictly under the mantle of ordinary girl-next-door normality.

Sometimes she swam in the indoor pool or ran laps on the elevated track, and there, in those two activities, she had discovered two more new abilities.

Swimming laps, she had realized she could hold her breath for an inordinately long period of time. She'd timed herself by looking at the wall clock as she went under, then looking again when she had to come up for air.

Her longest time, so far, was twenty-one minutes.

Running laps, she had discovered her increased speed. Lost in thought one night, she'd increased her pace until she'd realized that the world around her was a blur. Slowing down, she'd been amazed to see that the impact-absorbing surface was... smoking. She'd hurriedly blown gently, cooling the track, and had resolved to return the following day with a stopwatch.

Her best time for one mile, so far, was barely measurable -- mere tenths of a second.

Noting how her invulnerability extended from not getting sick or hurt, to not being affected by temperature extremes, to effortlessly staying in shape, she'd wondered if her speed might include more than just a track coach's hyperventilation-inducing, wildest-dreams running time.

She experimented in her room -- showering, writing, dressing. She could do all of those things in seconds, and sometimes in fractions of seconds.

At least learning to control the speed thingy was much easier than learning to control her enhanced strength had been.

***

Lois moved into her own apartment at the end of her third year at Met U. Officially, there were a number of reasons for the move.

The fights between Sam and Ellen had escalated. Sam was writing a book and was, from Ellen's point of view, underfoot much more than he had been before he stopped seeing most of his patients. This led to more frequent clashes, and Lois found the constant tension difficult to cope with.

She had taken as many classes as she could during the summers after her first and second years, determined to earn her degree and get on with her plans as soon as possible. She managed to win the highly-coveted summer internship position at the Daily Planet her third year, and felt the whole experience would seem more like an actual job if she lived on her own.

And she was actually able to afford it without having to ask Sam for help.

Shortly after she turned twenty-one, she was contacted by the law firm who had handled her mother's will and Lois's formal adoption by the Lanes. When she called the office, she was told that there was some final business in regard to her mother's estate, to be executed now that Lois was of legal age.

Sitting in the waiting area of the office, Lois tried hard to look composed. She resolutely kept her special hearing focused on the sounds immediately around her, terrified that she would overhear something devastating. Did they know about the spaceship? About how Mama had found her? Why, suddenly, after all these years was there still something to discuss?

"Miss Lane?" the receptionist interrupted her increasingly panicky thoughts. "Mr. Stone will see you now."

Mr. Stone had been her mother's lawyer. Lois remembered him, vaguely -- a stiff and dark-suited presence in the family courtroom during her adoption proceeding. After a brief but friendly greeting, he asked her to take a seat.

"Miss Lane," he began, "your mother was able to do something many people are not able to do. Because she knew she was dying, she was able to put into place several... safeguards for your future."

Lois could feel her heart pounding, and strove to appear calm.

"Your mother set up your adoption by the Lanes," Mr. Stone continued, "and left instructions with this firm as to her wishes in that regard. She also had, and I imagine this is something you did not know, a quite generous life insurance policy."

At Lois's start of surprise, he smiled slightly. "Yes, I thought that would be a surprise. She was, if you'll pardon my saying this about a woman dying of leukemia, quite lucky. She applied for a life insurance policy shortly after you were born, I believe. This was before she became ill, so she was able to purchase a very good policy. She instructed this firm to invest the insurance pay-out and to hold it in trust for you until you turned twenty-one."

Lois had not moved during this time, except to blink.

Mr. Stone continued, "The initial pay-out value was fifty thousand dollars. That sum has grown to approximately one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Your mother was a smart woman, Miss Lane, and I am honored to carry out her wishes."

"Thank you," Lois whispered.

Mama.

Mama had surrounded her with love all those precious days they'd had together, and here was a final gift from her.

Mr. Stone seemed to understand Lois's inability to speak, and after a moment he continued, "Your mother also left instructions for the yearly rental of a safety deposit box, to be paid by the trust. I believe there were family heirlooms she wanted to ensure you would receive... The box is located at one of the downtown branches of the First Bank of Metropolis, and you merely need to present your driver's license and another form of ID to gain access to the box."

In a daze, Lois accepted the paperwork the lawyer had prepared for her, thanked him, and left the office. Almost of their own volition, her feet carried her to the park.

***

Sinking onto a bench near the lily pond, Lois let the quiet sounds of nature enfold her and tried to come to terms with Mr. Stone's completely unexpected news.

Mama had worked hard, but they'd certainly never had extra money for anything. Yet somehow, she'd managed to pay the premiums on a life insurance policy. And Mr. Stone had said she'd left 'family heirlooms' in a safety deposit box. Mama had had no family. Maybe she'd saved something from the time she'd found Lois.

Feeling more composed, Lois rose from the bench and made her way to the First Bank of Metropolis branch where Mama's safety deposit box was located. The bank was about a half block from the park's Michigan Street entrance.

Lois presented her Met U student ID card and driver's license at the bank, and was directed to Mama's safety deposit box. Taking a deep breath, she fitted the key into its place and opened the box.

There were two things inside: a shoebox, wrapped in brown paper with her name written on the outside, and a small envelope. With shaking hands, Lois opened the envelope.

In Mama's familiar writing was a short note:

***

*Happy twenty-first year, my beautiful girl!

I've saved some things for you, but do not open the box here at the bank. Take it home and only open it when you are sure you will be undisturbed.

All my love, forever,

Mama*

***

Lois carefully lifted the package out of the box, and then returned the box to its place. She left the bank and hailed a taxi. Poor student or not, this was definitely a taxi situation. She wasn't going to ride the bus with her precious package.

***

When she got home, she went directly to her room. Neither Sam nor Ellen was home, of course, and the only live-in staff, the cook, was probably in the kitchen somewhere. Lois locked the door of her room, and then sat on her bed.

She took a deep breath, then tore the paper off the box, careful to save the piece that had 'Lois' written on it in Mama's writing. She lifted the top off and looked inside.

There was another envelope, this time a legal-sized one. Her name was written on it, again in Mama's writing.

Under the envelope was a folded pale blue cloth of some kind, silky-looking and very soft. Lois lifted it out and unfolded it. It was a tiny one-piece baby garment, sort of like a nightgown. It had a collar edged with something that looked like a cross between lace and crochet-work, in the same pale, pale blue. There was a small, strange crest of some kind pinned on the collar. The crest was mostly a pale yellow, with a symbol that looked like a stylized S in the center, in pale red.

There was also a baby blanket, loosely woven of threads in those same three colors. And there were two intertwined chains -- gold? -- about adult-wrist-sized. One had the S-crest incorporated into it and the other had the same crest shape, but this time with what looked sort of like a W or a pair of crossed V's in its center.

The last item in the box was a small photo album, the kind that held one photo per page. With trembling hands, Lois opened it and began to turn the pages.

Photos.

Photos, some a little blurry, obviously taken by an amateur. Photos of a small, dark-haired, smiling baby -- her. Photos of her as a toddler. Grinning from under a blanket, and sitting in the old-fashioned buggy. Feeding the ducks. Curled up in Mama's big chair, asleep.

And there were two photos of Lois and Mama. In one, they were sitting together in Mama's chair, and in the other, at the old kitchen table. Lois stroked her finger gently over the photo Mama's face.

She remembered the one taken at the kitchen table. Their elderly neighbor, Mrs. Burch, who baby-sat Lois when Mama was at work, had been visiting. Mama was already ill by then, but was feeling pretty good that day. Lois had been playing dress-up. The women had chatted over tea, and Mrs. Burch had offered to take their picture.

At the back of the album, behind the pages with photos, there were a few keepsakes tucked into the clear plastic photo pockets.

A lock of dark hair.

A pressed wildflower.

A folded sheet of paper, that when unfolded revealed a child's drawing of a pond, and trees, and two smiling stick figures, one large and one small.

A small, faded, pink construction-paper heart, with 'I LoV YoU MAMA ' written on it in shaky letters.

And two more folded up papers, an inexpertly drawn Princess Elizabeth and a building with many windows. There were dragon faces peering out of each window.

Lois laughed out loud, remembering. She and Mama had colored those in after Mama had drawn them at Lois's request.

<Mama, will you draw me Princess Elizabeth, and then draw me her stable?>

<Does Princess Elizabeth have a stable, sweetie?>

<Of course. You remember, Mama -- where she keeps the dragons.>

<I didn't know Princess Elizabeth keeps dragons in her stable.>

<Yes, Mama, remember? You told me she doesn't kill them. She jes' stables them.>

She remembered Mama's sweet laughter, and her loving hug.

<Oh, sweetie, I said Princess Elizabeth *disables* them. That means she fixes them so they can't hurt anyone or anything. She makes their fire burn out, remember?>

<Oh.>

Lois remembered her little-girl-disappointment. The idea of a stable full of dragons was just so appealing.

<But you know what, sweetie? May she *does* stable them. After all, they do need somewhere to go, don't they?>

And with Lois looking on happily, Mama had drawn the stable with smiling dragons looking out all the windows.

Those pictures had hung on their refrigerator art gallery the longest, Lois remembered.

With a huge lump in her throat, Lois turned her attention to the envelope. Inside was a letter.

***

*My beloved Lois,

In this box are the few things I found with you. You were wearing the little pastel outfit and the blanket, and the chains were tied into a corner of the blanket. I don't know what the symbols mean, but the S was also on the outside of the ship. I don't know anything more about where you came from or why.

I can't give you a family history, but I can tell you my story. I grew up in foster care. I don't remember anything about my parents. I was found on the steps of a church at about two-years-old. I was too young to tell anybody anything, not even my name, so the state gave me a name and a birthday.

As soon as I was eighteen I moved out of my foster home. I was already working at the library. When I wasn't working, I spent a lot of my free time at the park or the library. It was free entertainment, and you can never run out of stories to read and things to learn.

Then I found you. I was scared to tell anyone how I found you, or even that I had found you at all. What if they took you away? What if they were looking for you? Were you some kind of government experiment? I'd been in good and bad foster homes, and I knew there were people out there who might do something like sending a baby into space!

Well, I was going to keep you. You were meant to be my little girl. I knew it the moment I opened your spaceship. You must have been so scared and hungry and cold, but you smiled at me. I think I fell in love with you right then. You were so sweet! I swore I was going to protect you. I went to a free clinic with you about a month after I found you, and pretended I was sort of dumb, and said I had you at home. I got you a birth certificate that way; I got a lecture, too, about proper health care and all that, but that was a small price to pay to make you legally mine. Nobody ever suspected any different!

I changed jobs right after I found you. I was lucky; I found a job as a filing clerk in a law firm. I liked my job at the library, but while it was okay for people to think I was an unwed mother -- that was what I wanted them to think so I could keep you -- everyone at my old job would have known I'd never been pregnant.

The law office did a lot of estate planning. I thought it all sounded so interesting, so I did a lot of reading. I learned about stuff like safety deposit boxes and life insurance. I wanted to make sure you would never end up like I had, so I got a life insurance policy. My boss fixed it so that the premiums came right out of my paycheck. That was actually kind of unusual, I think, for those days, but it was one of the advantages of working for a law office.

Then I found out I was dying. The doctors never came out and said that, but I knew it was true. I was so scared! I had to find someone who would take care of you. Mrs. Burch loved you, but she was too old to raise a small child. Dr. Lane -- I knew they wanted a baby, but she said she would take you, and would even adopt you. I know they weren't perfect, but they could give you an education and advantages you otherwise might not get.

I never, ever told anyone the truth about you. I thought it would be safer that way. I hope it hasn't been too hard on you. You always were a strong little thing; I admired that about you from the beginning.

Remember what I always told you? You can do anything you decide you want to do. Don't ever be afraid to do what's right, what needs doing. Don't be afraid to fight dragons. And always, always remember how much I love you!

All my love, Mama*

***

By now tears were streaming down her face, but Lois read the letter again, and then a third time.

"Oh, Mama," she whispered around a sob, "I miss you so much! I wish I could tell you how much I love you. How much I thank you for those wonderful years and all the things you taught me."

She carefully tucked everything but the photo album back into the box. She put the box in the bottom -- lockable -- drawer of her desk, and locked it.

She put the photo album in the bedside table drawer, next to Princess Elizabeth's story, so that she could look at it last thing at night whenever she wanted.

***

Unofficially, there was another very good reason why Lois should have her own place, although she didn't discover that reason until she'd been living in her small apartment for about two weeks.

Working on a midterm assignment for one of her less-popular classes, she dozed off while sitting on the couch -- a couch that was much more uncomfortable than she had anticipated when she picked it out. She'd sat on it in the store, of course, but she hadn't done more than perch politely on it as the saleswoman talked.

Furniture stores should let you test their couches the way you'd really use them.

With your sock feet on the coffee table, watching TV and eating pizza.

Sprawled out with one leg hanging over the arm while you talked on the phone.

Or sound asleep after that all-nighter you'd just pulled, writing that term paper.

But no, they expected you to sit briefly and then decide to buy the thing. You couldn't wiggle around and get comfortable, sort of mash the pillows down and settle in. So you didn't know how awkward and cramped you'd get when you actually fell asleep on it until you had it in your own living room.

So, in retrospect, what happened next wasn't too surprising.

And it wasn't at all surprising that she reacted the way she did.

She woke abruptly with a startled jerk when the telephone rang. But Lois's startled jerk didn't knock the telephone off the end table, or her coffee cup off the table in front of the couch.

No, Lois Lane's startled jerk knocked *her* out of the *air*.

In a frantic tangle of waving arms and legs -- and wits -- she crashed down apparently from thin air about two feet above the table, sending her books, papers, pens, *and* the coffee cup flying. Disoriented and in utter shock, she fumbled automatically for the phone, mumbling "Hello?" into it in a shaky voice as she brought her feet around, off the coffee table, and stood up.

"Lois?" Ellen Lane asked, "What's the matter, my dear? Are you ill? You sound... I don't know, shaky. Out of breath."

"No," Lois said in a stronger voice, pushing her tangled hair back out of her eyes. What had just happened?!

"Lois?" Ellen's voice came again.

"I'm fine," Lois said quickly. "I was just... um, unlocking the last of those locks you insisted on, and I heard the phone ringing, and..." She hoped that sounded believable.

It must have. "Well, I imagine it does take a little extra time, but what I said made sense, you know, Lois. It's wise to be a little extra cautious in this day and age."

"Yeah, I know." It was pointless to argue with Ellen about any sort of safety precautions. The locks were a pain, but Lois could deal with it. Maybe she'd just lock *some* of them. If somebody tried to pick her locks, maybe they'd end up locking the ones she left unlocked.

"Well, anyway," Ellen continued, "I just called to see how you were settling in."

"Uh, can I call you back?" Lois asked quickly. She needed to think about what had just happened. She scrambled for a believable excuse. "I'm... I... um, I've got something I have to do..." That was actually the truth. She had to figure out what was going on. Had she just been... *floating* in midair?!

"A date?" Ellen asked.

Lois forced her attention back to the phone. "No..." she said, and heard Ellen's sigh of disappointment.

"Lois, take some time to... to go out, to meet people. You can't just focus on school all the time. Why don't you meet me for lunch, and we can talk about introducing you to some nice young men..."

Lois had heard all this numerous times before. She didn't want to hurt Ellen's feelings but a relationship with *anyone* was out of the question. She had no idea if she could ever have a normal relationship with any man.

How could she be sure it was safe to tell someone else her secret? And what if... what if she lost control of one of her abilities? Could she even *have* a... physical relationship safely?

And now there was this new thing. Thank goodness this hadn't happened while she lived at home!

"Ellen," Lois said in increasing desperation, "I have to go, I'll call you back later, okay?" And on Ellen's goodbye, she hung up the phone and collapsed onto the couch.

She sat and stared at the mess around her. Coffee had soaked into the rug between the couch and the coffee table. Papers littered the carpet and her Press and Politics textbook lay on its face, pages crumpled, under the table.

It could have been worse, though. At least the table wasn't one of those glass-topped ones.

So what *had* really happened? She was almost positive she hadn't been dreaming. Besides, how did she explain... landing on the coffee table?

She'd been -- she'd been... floating.

And why was this so hard to comprehend? Especially after all the other things she could do.

She took a deep breath.

Okay.

She sat straighter on the couch and thought 'up.'

Nothing happened.

"Okay," she muttered resolutely. "I will figure this out."

What if this only happened when she was unconscious? When she was asleep? That could be really awkward. It really, *really* was a good thing she'd moved out.

Maybe she just had to be relaxed. She certainly wasn't really very relaxed right now -- actually, she was feeling a bit highly strung at the moment.

<Highly strung... not the same as floating.>

Lois forced back her increasingly hysterical thoughts.

"All right, Lane, deal with this," she said fiercely. "How can this be any more freaky than fire-starting eyes, after all?" She made a conscious effort to relax and clear her mind. Maybe she would float automatically.

A half hour later, she acknowledged that nothing was happening. She sighed and stood up. It was time to start cleaning up the spilled papers and coffee. She still had to finish that assignment.

She'd have to deal with the rest -- the floating -- later.

***

Her assignment didn't go as smoothly as she'd hoped. It was difficult to stay focused on her notes, to lay them out in logical order on paper, when thoughts of her newest... skill continued to float in the back of her mind.

<*Float*? Cut it out, Lane!>

Lois gave up.

No more schoolwork. She was going to bed. Maybe if she slept on it, she'd have more answers in the morning.

Lying in bed, she let her mind wander. Random thoughts...

She sat up abruptly. What if it really was involuntary? If she had no control over the floating, she couldn't go out in public. She'd be... trapped forever in her apartment...

"Deep breaths," she whispered. "Remember what Mama said? 'Concentrate, Lois, take deep breaths.' Okay. I am. I'm taking deep breaths." She lay down again, forcing herself to breathe evenly and deeply. "Think of Mama..." she repeated. She began to sing Mama's song softly. Gradually, she began to calm down, began to relax.

Was that -?

What -?

She felt herself begin to rise, and immediately tensed up. At once she sank -- bounced -- back down onto the bed.

Deliberately, she loosened her tense muscles. She sank bonelessly into the quilt, and tentatively thought 'up' again. To her increasing delight, she came steadily up off the bed until she hovered a foot or so above it. She looked up at her bedroom ceiling, and in moments had drifted high enough to touch it. She was *floating*!

"Oh, this could be so much *fun*," she exclaimed, laughing out loud, feeling more lighthearted than she'd been in a long, long time.

Placing one palm against the ceiling, she pushed off, instinctively righting herself, and drifted down until her feet touched the bed. She sank down into a sitting position, settling fully onto the quilt, and then began to experiment in earnest.

By 5:00 a.m. she had the rudiments down. She could take off fairly gracefully from any position -- lying down, sitting, or standing. She could land okay -- mostly. She did knock over the bedside lamp a couple of times, and once she misjudged the distance to the floor and landed on her rear.

And she could do more than just drift up off the floor, the bed or a chair. She could also move horizontally... like... more like *flying* than *floating*.

She needed -- wanted -- to keep practicing. But where? She needed more space than her small apartment provided.

She could go somewhere... a park, maybe? Not Centennial Park, though -- that was too risky. Too many chances that someone might see her.

And if she was going out somewhere to practice, she ought to go at night, and wear dark clothes. She certainly didn't want to be seen.

She could... take off from her apartment roof? But that was so much higher than her bedroom ceiling. What if she fell?

The invulnerability... how far did that extend? Was she truly, completely invulnerable? Utterly? It wasn't like she'd really tested it... by, oh, being shot at, or... stepping in front of a train...

She couldn't take time off from school and travel someplace remote, like the mountains, to practice. It was the middle of the semester. And summer was coming up, and with it her highly prized internship at the Daily Planet. There was *no way* she'd give that up.

"Think, Lois," she grumbled.

What if she were to start small? Like maybe... the roof of the Lanes' house? It was only two stories tall. Couldn't she start there? Yes, she could walk over there at night. And maybe... try floating up until she reached the roof.

"Ugh. How am I supposed to *wait* until tonight?" she groused. "And I can't blow off class because it's the midterm!" <You have *never* blown off a class, Lane.> She stomped into the bathroom to get ready for school.

***

Lois discovered fairly quickly that she could, indeed, do more than merely float.

After a couple of practice sessions on the Lanes' roof, she grew gradually bolder and began to experiment with height and speed. She could rise into the air from any spot as fast as she could run -- which was pretty fast. She also practiced landing.

Naturally graceful, Lois found that there were almost no limits to what she could do. She could swoop and soar and even hover. She could fly slowly, and so fast that her stopwatch couldn't time her speed. She could take off abruptly or slowly, and land so lightly that she disturbed nothing around her.

Even the sky itself was no limit.

She could go wherever she desired -- as long as she was extremely careful to avoid being seen. She quickly assembled what she thought of as her 'flying clothes' -- black jeans, black t-shirt, black socks and shoes.

When she could, she experimented with speed and distance, finding that she could literally travel across the country in a matter of minutes.

The only drawback was that she wasn't always able to figure out where she was. The actual states didn't have those helpful black lines drawn around their borders the way they were on maps. Or those handy contrasting pastel colors that so many maps had.

Obvious landmarks made some locations easy to figure out: the St. Louis Arch; Chicago, situated as it was on the distinct lower edge of Lake Michigan; Washington, DC, with its well-known buildings and monuments, and San Francisco with the Golden Gate Bridge.

But with the smaller towns and cities, she sometimes had to look for a newspaper stand in order to figure out if she'd correctly found her intended destination.

She began to research flight, looking for an effective way to keep her bearings, and soon focused on the ancient sailors' methods of steering by the stars. She studied star charts and brushed up on her geometry, and tested herself by choosing and correctly finding several destinations.

Flying quickly became a way for her to relieve the stress of daily life complicated by incredible abilities she had to keep hidden.

***

Lois spent the summer after her third year -- her last year of college -- at the Daily Planet.

By dint of taking all of her electives during her summers, she'd managed to finish both her core classes and the required number of electives by the end of her junior year. Once she finished the summer internship program, she would have enough credits to graduate.

The two-week junior internship at the Planet that she'd won in high school had been primarily an observational one. She'd been given a tour of the entire building, and had then spent her days in the newsroom, shadowing in turn a researcher, a reporter, and an editor.

This internship was a college course, for credits needed to graduate. As an intern, she was a very junior member of the staff -- but she was staff nonetheless. She spent time in almost all of the Planet's departments, learning the entire process from rough first-draft editing of news items, to collating and printing, to advertising and revenue.

She even spent some time in delivery. While working in delivery wasn't very appealing, she did see the humor in coming home with hands blackened by fresh newsprint -- exactly as Ellen had feared.

And after a month of rotating through departments, she was given a desk and assigned some actual stories.

A dog show. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new corner drugstore. A church festival. They certainly weren't the cutting-edge investigative journalism pieces she longed to do, but she understood that she had to work her way up to the more interesting areas.

She didn't like it, but she understood it.

And ever curious, she managed to stumble onto a pretty big scandal, involving rigged games and kickbacks, at a prestigious suburban high school while she was covering a junior varsity basketball game. Her special hearing helped tremendously, but her developing sense for news and her excellent observation skills were what clued her in to the story in the first place.

She carefully and meticulously documented everything she discovered, presenting the information to the Daily Planet's legendary editor-in-chief, Perry White, when she had ample proof to back up her story. She'd already learned, in the short time she'd been there, that he expected his reporters to deliver 'hard facts, not supposition.'

Mr. White -- he preferred Perry or Chief -- commended her initiative at the morning staff meeting, and he put her story on the front page. It was allotted only a small corner, with most of the article continued inside, but it was still the front page.

Lois was absolutely thrilled to see her byline, 'by Lois Lane,' on the *front page* of the Daily Planet.

Mr. White began to assign her stories with a little more grit to them. And Lois thrived on the work. Finally, she was beginning to achieve her dream -- beginning to fight those dragons.

***

There was only one thing that was unpleasant about her entire internship experience.

It began when she unintentionally attracted the attention of a reporter named Claude Rochert. He was a handsome man in his early thirties, with a suave and sophisticated, almost courtly manner. He spoke with a French accent and was somewhat of a flirt. He seemed quite friendly, had a keen sense of humor, and appeared to be well liked. Many of the women at the Planet gushed over him.

Lois wasn't interested in him at all. Not only had she decided long ago that it was too dangerous for her to have any relationship, but Claude in particular she found just a little bit too... oily. There was something about his bantering that didn't ring completely true, and her natural shyness and the caution she'd cultivated all her life kept her from responding to his overtures.

Instead of leaving her alone, however, he began to seek her out, paying her extravagant compliments and hinting that he was interested in a relationship with her.

Lois had no experience with this sort of thing. In high school and college, she'd been very much a loner. She had acquaintances, and would sometimes study with a loosely knit group of both male and female fellow students. But she had established a reputation for being somewhat standoffish early on. The few young men who had expressed any personal or romantic interest in her were firmly rebuffed.

Claude, however, didn't seem to take the hint.

Her resolve to avoid him was strengthened when she overheard him one afternoon. He was speaking to Ralph, a sleazy reporter who had already been reprimanded several times, so the office gossip went, for incorrect behavior toward female members of the staff.

Her attention was caught when she heard her name.

"...Lane. You know, that hot little intern?" It was Claude's voice. He and Ralph were sitting at Ralph's desk at the back of the bullpen, far enough away that no one could hear them. No one with normal hearing, anyway.

Unfortunately, Lois's hearing certainly wasn't normal.

Ralph snorted -- a singularly unappealing sound. "Her? Man, you're not *really* considering --"

"But of course I am!" Claude interrupted him with a laugh. "Have you looked at her lately?"

"Buddy, she may be stacked, but she is *cold*," Ralph argued. "I bet even you can't get her in the sack." Lois, head bent over the article she was editing, fought a shudder.

"...It is just a matter of time, my friend," Claude replied expansively.

"What, did you get a date with her?" Ralph asked, his voice tinged with something that made Lois's skin crawl.

"Not yet, mon ami," Claude said, "but I will. She will not be able to resist my... shall we say, my charm?" He laughed nastily. "She has been giving me the cold shoulder, but I believe I shall be able to... *persuade* her to... see things my way."

"You better watch that if you mean what I think you mean," Ralph said. "I almost got canned for trying something like that."

"You, my friend, went about it without my flair," Claude replied with a laugh.

"Yeah, but what if the broad tells?" Ralph asked sourly. "All I did was... let the kid know I appreciated her... assets. And the little b--"

"You should not use force. Not in the beginning," Claude interrupted him. "No," he continued with a laugh, "first you... seduce them. With words, with charm. With alcohol. Once you get them softened up, once you are alone with them, you can... *override*... any objections they might have. Women often say 'no' when they mean 'yes,' I have found."

Lois was unable to prevent a shudder at his words. Was he saying -?

"Well, what if they *do* mean it, and they tell?' Ralph persisted. "I think you're playing with fire, no matter how much fun it must be."

"Whom would Perry White believe?" Claude asked with an ugly laugh. "I -- I am beloved of all of the Planet's matrons. I am polite -- something which might net *you* more positive results, my friend. Again, I ask you -- whom would he believe? Whom *did* he believe? The word of an unknown, an immature college girl who dressed in tight jeans and obviously must have had a crush on his established reporter? Or the reporter, who has had no breath of scandal linked to him in all these years? One who sorrowfully admitted that he had perhaps not been vigilant enough to avert the girl's misguided interest? A girl who obviously had no staying power if she could quit in the middle of her internship..."

Lois felt ill. Whom were they talking about? Had Claude done this before? To an intern?

"And there are... ways to discourage complaints," Claude continued. "If this one isn't cooperative... there is the alcohol, for instance. And threats to a reporting future with the Planet. Unprofessional conduct, you know," he said as Ralph laughed. "A few well-chosen words will knock the confidence right out of her."

"She's the original ice maiden, buddy," Ralph said. "I don't think it's gonna happen."

"Ah, but this one has an extra... how shall I describe it? A flair for news. She is only an intern and Perry has already put her on the front page. This one -- I can... become a mentor, if you will. Offer advice..."

"Huh. Sleep with her and steal her story, you mean."

"I prefer to think of it as more of a... collaboration. I am the reporter. I present Perry with a superb story. And I magnanimously offer to put this intern under my byline, for her help. Again, whom will he believe?"

"She's already got a front-pager," Ralph argued. "Why wouldn't she have another one all on her own?"

"A disappointed and distressed assertion that she has... borrowed my story... should do the trick," Claude said with a laugh.

Lois had to force herself to stay calm. To carefully loosen her grip on the computer mouse before she crushed it.

It wasn't going to happen. It was *not* going to happen. To her, or to anyone else, either, if she had anything to do with it.

This creep had *no* idea whom he was dealing with.

He couldn't hurt her -- physically -- and now that she was warned, he couldn't hurt her emotionally either.

And alcohol didn't affect her. She'd learned that on the very few occasions she'd joined a crowd of students at one of the campus haunts. It was another reason young men found her somewhat intimidating -- she could apparently drink them under the table. She never deliberately drank large amounts of alcohol on purpose, but there had been a few times when a group of students would share several bottles of wine after an exam. Lois never got tipsy when the others did. Nobody ever questioned it -- they just teased her about her excellent metabolism.

When Mr. White stepped out of his office and called the first warning to start wrapping up stories for the day, Claude stood and began heading back to his own desk. As he passed Lois's desk, he gave her a wink and what appeared to be a friendly smile.

She looked down quickly to hide the revulsion she wasn't sure she could conceal. Claude would probably interpret it as shyness on her part.

That was fine with her, if it meant she didn't have to speak to him.

The first thing she was going to do tonight when she left the Daily Planet was buy a miniature tape recorder. The good kind with the background noise filter, so she could be sure of a high quality recording even from the depths of a pocket. And the device was going to reside in *her* pocket at all times.

She'd get the jerk on tape and expose his true nature to Mr. White.

***

Over the next few days, Lois contemplated how to bring this particular dragon down.

She didn't think she could accept any sort of date with Claude. She wasn't that good an actress. However, given what she'd heard, she suspected that even if she continued to remain unmoved by his advances, he would become bolder. Especially if she appeared to have a story he wanted.

He was already beginning to show an increased interest in the stories she was working on. And chillingly, he was very convincing. If she hadn't heard him talking to Ralph, she might very well have taken his comments and questions as a genuine desire to help her.

So what should she do?

Patience wasn't really Lois's strong suit; used to fending for herself, she'd developed a tendency to make decisions quickly.

But when it came to investigative journalism, she was already learning that thoroughness and patience were her greatest allies. Other than her special... advantages, of course.

She had worried, when she'd started her internship, that she would somehow be cheating if she used her abilities to help her get a story. She was learning quickly, however, that a lot of investigative journalism involved slogging through large amounts of information or research, or waiting for something to happen.

Waiting for your quarry to show during a stakeout.

Waiting for your source to confirm or deny something.

Waiting while your editor went over your story.

Any extra advantages she had -- her enhanced senses, her speed, her strength -- were perfectly acceptable as long as she followed the rules. As long as she only used her abilities to help her fight the dragons.

To expose corruption.

To do the right thing.

To report truthfully and fight for justice.

So... she would continue to work on her assigned stories, while she waited for Claude to act.

If -- when -- that happened, she would be ready for him.

***

By the end of the week, Lois was ready to scream.

She'd finished researching one of the two stories Mr. White had assigned her. She had written it, proofread it, and submitted it for editing.

The other story was giving her some trouble. It was supposed to be a straightforward story about some innovative amenities and programs a local nursing home was offering its residents. But she had encountered some strange undercurrents of... something when she'd attempted to augment her interview with the director by talking to some of the nursing staff.

She couldn't ignore her instincts, even though the deadline Mr. White had given her was looming. What she'd overheard whispered among some of the staff seemed to indicate that there might be something illegal going on, although she hadn't figured out what it was yet. She was planning to go back to the facility again at least once more. If she couldn't get anyone to talk to her, she would have to resort to a stakeout with assistance from her special vision and hearing.

And on top of the increased amount of time the investigation was taking, she had to deal with Claude, who was practically in her pocket these last few days. Every time she turned around, it seemed, he was there watching, or asking if she needed help or advice.

She had to keep playing dumb about his true nature. She had to be pleasant in order to catch him, but she was finding it harder to conceal both her revulsion and her irritation. Was irritation enough of an excuse to just deck the creep and get it over with?

She sighed. Not if she wanted to bring him down.

Claude leaned against the edge of her desk. "You look frustrated, cherie," he said, his voice soft with what she knew was false concern. "A story that is not turning out so well? Perhaps you can talk it over, hmmm? I would be happy to assist you, if you wish."

Lois forced herself to loosen her grip on her pen. It wouldn't do to break it in half in front of him.

Decision time. Politely rebuff him, as she had been doing regularly? Or offer him bait in the form of a possible story?

"Um..." she said, stalling for time. She shot a quick glance at him, using her increased speed. He was staring at her chest, and the expression on his face was purely predatory. As she brought her head up again at normal speed, he raised his eyes to her face and smoothed his expression in a manner so practiced that had she really been the na´ve college student he supposed her to be, she would have missed the moment entirely.

Okay. That did it.

"Well, there's this story Mr. White gave me," she began. She heard his pulse rate quicken. "It's supposed to be an informational article on this nursing home, but I think there might be something going on there. I was going to go back and talk to the staff again..."

He sat on the edge of her desk and leaned in, reaching for her notes. "May I?" he asked with smiling charm, "I may be able to find something you have overlooked."

She fought the twin urges to lean back well away from him, and to knock him into next Tuesday.

"Well, I might have to do a stakeout," she continued. "I thought I might wait for the shift change, you know? And ask a few questions."

"Would you like me to accompany you?" he asked, all solicitude and apparent sincerity. "I am concerned for your safety, cherie."

Lois looked down quickly. She couldn't do this. In a moment, he was going to realize it wasn't shyness he was dealing with. She clenched her hand under her desk, and felt the pen she still held give way. Rats. Now she'd also have to deal with spilled ink.

"Claude!" Mr. White bellowed. To Lois, his gruff voice sounded better than a chorus of angels. "Take Eduardo and get over to Tenth Street. There's a bakery on fire. News, people! I want news!"

Lois exhaled softly in relief as Claude stood smoothly. "Duty calls, cherie," he said, already moving away. "You must take extra care tonight, and return safely. Perhaps I shall see you here tonight, once you have the information you seek? I can assist you in laying out your facts?"

Sure, apparently, of his impending conquest, he didn't wait to hear her assent. Which was just as well, since she wasn't sure she'd have been able to speak just then.

Carefully, she stood and dropped the mangled pen into her trashcan, then turned toward the ladies' room. She needed a moment alone, and glancing ruefully at her hand, she noted that she also needed some soap and water.

***

It turned out to be a protection racket.

She was lucky enough to find two staff members leaving at the end of their shifts who were willing to talk to her. Once she knew what she was looking for, she was able to hover -- literally -- and listen in on the director's activities.

The director had a gambling problem and had borrowed money from some unsavory sources. Money that he was unable to pay back. Now he was being threatened, and he had resorted to taking funds from the nursing home to pay the debt. He'd also begun to steal medications intended for the patients -- specifically, narcotics -- to sell.

The voice-activated recorder she'd bought came in handy when, around midnight, the director met with a couple of burly and threatening-looking men at the side door of the nursing home, an area sheltered from prying eyes by a dumpster and a row of tall bushes. Lois silently drifted down far enough to set the recorder on a windowsill above the men's heads, then sat on the roof and listened in. After the clandestine meeting, when the thugs had left and the director had retreated into the building, Lois retrieved her recorder.

Her luck held. On a hunch, she quietly explored two closed cardboard boxes near the top of the almost-full dumpster. They were full of pages entitled 'Medication Administration Record,' for scores of different patients. The two staff members she'd spoken to earlier had said that there were falsified records in some of the charts. These, then, were probably the originals. Lois didn't know why the director hadn't shredded them, but now they'd be evidence.

***

As an intern, Lois was supposed to let Mr. White know where she was if she was out of the office on Planet business. Normally, interns didn't do stakeouts, either. Lois, however, wasn't an ordinary intern.

She had suspected that he would either try to stop her stakeout plans or send a seasoned reporter with her. However, she didn't want to share her story with someone else, especially if they hadn't done an equal share of the work. And of course, going alone meant she could fly to the nursing home, and hover over it if necessary while listening and looking.

So when she stopped at her apartment to change clothes before starting her stakeout, she'd sent him a quick email:

***

*Mr. White,

I've picked up some odd undercurrents in my interviews with some of the nursing staff while researching the City Life article on Lifecare Nursing and Rehab. I'm getting the strong impression that there may be some sort of illegal activity involved. Since the article is due tomorrow, I'm going over there tonight to sort of look things over and talk to some of the staff at the shift change. I'll send you more information as soon as I finish there.

Lois Lane*

***

He couldn't stop her from going on the stakeout, she had reasoned, if he didn't know about it until it was too late. She'd been sure -- pretty sure -- that she wouldn't get into *too* much trouble with him if she was able to deliver a good story.

***

After the stakeout, she returned first to her apartment, where she wrote out, at the fastest speed her computer keyboard could handle, a rough outline of her story and emailed it to Mr. White.

She wouldn't normally send the editor an unfinished story, but the date of transmission of the two emails would prove the story was hers -- especially since her stakeout had occurred while Claude was covering the downtown fire.

Then she returned to the Daily Planet to properly finish the story.

***

It was very late -- or very early, depending on one's point of view -- when she arrived at the Planet.

The morning edition had gone to print several hours ago, but there were still a few people in the newsroom. As sometimes happened, there were a couple of day staff finishing up stories for the following day. And there was always a night crew, of course, although they usually didn't stay in the bullpen. There was a smaller 'command center' adjoining the research room that worked better for a skeleton crew; it had several computers and a printer, scanner, and fax machine, as well as a police-band scanner, all of which were closer at hand than in the main newsroom.

Lois began by diagramming her story on paper, as she'd been taught.

Mr. White preferred that his reporters begin their stories with diagrams or outlines on paper, the way it had been done for years. He didn't object to the computers for the final drafts -- most stories were submitted to him via computer. If a story required corrections, he usually printed it out and wrote on it with his blue pencil -- again, just the way it had been done for years. He subscribed to the theory that seeing their errors in color, on paper, made the corrections more likely to stick in his reporters' minds.

So Lois created a diagram for her story, just as she always did. But this time, since there wasn't anyone close enough to see, she did it much faster than humanly possible.

She wanted to have the story written and safely submitted to Mr. White before Claude showed up.

Next, she retrieved the rough outline of her story, which she'd copied to her Planet email address when she'd sent it to Mr. White. After a quick look around to make sure she was still unobserved, she again used her special speed to swiftly but thoroughly go over it, crafting it into a readable story. Then she sent it to the editor's story submission drop box.

Once the story was safely filed, she returned to the story diagram and rough draft. She needed to appear to be working on it, just in case...

And sure enough, she'd been sitting there for only a short while before Claude showed up.

"Hello, cherie," he said, hovering over her like a predatory bird. "I've been watching for you." Lois repressed a shudder. "How was your stakeout?" he continued in his best concerned-mentor voice. "Do you need some help?"

"No, thanks," her mouth said before her brain engaged.

It didn't matter. Claude pulled up a chair and sat beside her -- too close -- and demanded, "Show me what you have so far."

He leaned in even further and began to read her rough draft over her shoulder.

It was a good thing she was invulnerable; she bit the inside of her mouth so hard in an effort to restrain herself that she would have drawn blood otherwise. She dropped her right hand -- out of sight since Claude was sitting on her left -- into her jacket pocket and pressed the power button on the concealed recorder, happy that she'd spent the extra money for the added features. The background noise filter meant she'd get a clean recording even from the depths of her pocket, and the voice activation thingy would ensure that she wouldn't have long stretches of silence when she listened to it later.

"This is very good for a first outline," he said, resting his hand on her shoulder as he leaned forward to pick it up. It had the same information she'd already sent Mr. White, but Claude wouldn't know that. "But I can help you polish it. Perhaps we can go someplace quiet?"

"No, thank you," she managed to say politely, and glanced at him swiftly, catching the thinned lips and flash of annoyance he quickly concealed. He was being very pushy, and probably wouldn't have backed off if they were not at the Planet. Even though there were very few people around at this time of night to witness anything.

She was not going *anywhere* with him. Still, she needed to set her first trap for him -- to give him the opportunity to help himself to her story. She hadn't really worked out how she would get the rest of it -- his refusal to accept that 'no' meant 'no' -- yet, anyway.

Deliberately, she moved away from him, closing the folder containing her story and notes, and then tucked it into her top desk drawer.

"I think I've got everything I need," she continued, pushing her chair back far enough to stand up. Claude rose with her as she said, "I'm tired, Claude -- I'm going to go home. I think I'll finish the story tomorrow, after the staff meeting, and then give it to Mr. White."

Claude took her hand and raised it to his lips. She fought another shudder. "Sleep well, cherie," he said caressingly as he stepped back. "I would like to see you home, but unfortunately, I still have some work to do."

<Yeah -- like helping yourself to my story.> She forced herself to smile at him. She slipped her hand into her jacket pocket and deactivated the tape recorder. She didn't have anything incriminating, but their conversation might help establish that the story belonged to her.

"Well, goodnight..." she said, and moved toward the elevator. Glancing back at him, she saw he was watching her. She stepped through the doors and saw him turn away. At top speed, she pressed the 'close door' button, waited for the door to close at least halfway, then zipped out of the elevator. Moving too fast to be seen, she sped into the stairwell, opening the stairway door just far enough to slip through and immediately pushing it closed again.

Scanning through the door, she watched him glance around, then boldly open her desk drawer and remove the folder.

"Gotcha, you creep," she whispered, and sped up the stairwell to the roof.

***

Lois arrived at the Planet just before the morning staff meeting, which was held in the larger of the Planet's two conference rooms. She dumped her bag in the bottom drawer of her desk, and then made a quick scan of the newsroom. Claude was nowhere in sight. She pulled the top drawer of her desk open, confirming what she already knew -- her story was missing.

The meeting started slightly later than usual -- Mr. White had been upstairs with the 'suits' -- but otherwise proceeded as normal. Claude still hadn't arrived. Mr. White said nothing about Lois's story, although she assumed Claude had turned it in already -- he would have wanted to do so before she had a chance to discover it was gone.

Of course, if Claude had turned it in this morning, after fleshing it out to look like it was his work, Mr. White might not have read it yet. In the normal course of things, the morning meeting addressed ongoing and follow-up stories, and Mr. White spoke individually to reporters after editing anything they submitted during the day.

"That's it, people!" The editor's voice ending the meeting brought Lois out of her reverie. "Get out there and get me some news!" he continued in his usual motivate-the-writers bellow.

There was the customary general rush of pushed-back chairs, a gathering of papers and coffee cups and half-finished donuts, and a semi-orderly mass exodus from the conference room, while one or two Planet employees approached Mr. White for 'a quick word' or a question. The room cleared rapidly as each employee hurried back to his or her desk to start the day's assignments.

Lois exited with the others and returned to her desk, sat down, and booted up her computer. She'd jotted notes in the margins of the morning assignment handout during the meeting; now would be a good time to look those over again. But it was hard to concentrate on anything other than her story.

Now what? Did she go to Mr. White? Wait for him to call her into his office?

And where was Claude? Had he given Mr. White her story? Lois didn't like feeling directionless, and she was bursting with the need to *act*, to wrap up this particular situation. Where *was* Claude? Out on a story, perhaps?

Was she... had she misjudged him? But no -- she'd *seen* him take her story. She'd *heard* his comments to Ralph.

She sighed, and tried again to concentrate on the information listed on her handout.

"Lois!" Mr. White's voice, booming across the newsroom at his usual volume, actually managed to startle her. "My office, please!"

Her heart started to pound. Was this it? There was no way of knowing from the tone of his voice. Everyone in the newsroom was used to his bellow, to his method of managing his reporters from the doorway of his office, and his usual manner of addressing whatever reporter he needed to speak to. There was nothing unusual about his summons whatsoever.

She rose and headed for his office.

***

Mr. White was seated at his desk when she stepped through the doorway. She'd already scanned quickly through the office walls, even though she knew Claude wasn't there.

"Yes, Mr. White?" she asked, stopping near the chairs in front of his desk. He had papers spread out over almost the entire surface, and even had a stack of papers balanced on the top of his computer monitor. There was a Daily Planet coffee cup filled with blue pencils positioned within easy reach of his right hand.

"Sit down, please," he said gruffly. As she sank into the chair closest to her, he rose to his feet, crossed to the office door and closed it, and returned to his own chair. "And you know you can call me Chief, don't you?" he continued. "Or Perry. 'Mr. White' makes me feel like I ought to be looking over my shoulder for my father." He smiled at her and leaned back in the chair, giving the impression of laid-back ease.

But she knew he was anything but lazy. Mr. White -- Perry -- was a sharp old news-hound who missed very little that went on around him. The slow drawl and easy manner had probably netted him more information from interviewees -- both willing and unwilling -- over the years than anyone imagined.

Sobering, he looked at her for a moment, then said, "I read your emails last night. I'm not sure if I should start by explaining -- *again* -- that you are an *intern*. We don't send interns on stakeouts." He straightened up and fixed her with a stern eye. "Not to mention the potential liability involved in something that could potentially be dangerous, there's the whole issue of the fact that interns are *students*, not seasoned reporters."

He ran his hand through his hair, dislodging the pencil he'd tucked behind his ear, and smiled at her again. "Aw, hell, never mind. You're like I was at your age -- you've got a rare talent and you're *not* just another intern. We both know you're gonna do things your way. Just -- try to be careful, Lois. And I want to know what you're planning if -- when -- you sniff out another story that involves extra-office activity, you hear?" he told her sternly. He didn't give her time to respond, but continued in a more serious tone of voice.

"I also read your rough draft story." He looked at her sharply, but she said nothing, waiting instead to see what else he had to say. "While I was somewhat surprised to see a rough draft appear in my correspondence in the middle of the night, I had a few... suspicions as to why you would suddenly submit an unfinished story to me." At her start of surprise, he smiled again, but this time it was more of a grimace than a true smile. "I think you know what I'm about to say. But you know, I didn't become editor of the world's best newspaper because I can yodel."

Picking up a sheet of paper in front of him, he looked at her for a moment, then said, "You know that Claude Rochert presented me with an extremely well-written story first thing this morning?"

"Mr. White -- Chief," she started, but Perry continued before she could say anything more.

"It was a story I recognized, Lois. Written in a style I recognized. Not only because it said -- almost word for word -- what the story by Lois Lane I found in my submissions drop box this morning said, but because Claude doesn't... shall we say, *usually*? -- write in quite that style." Holding up his hand to forestall her as she opened her mouth, he continued, "I commented on the different style. Thought I'd give the man a fair chance to let me know all about how you'd partnered up with him for this story that I'd assigned to *you*."

"Perry," she began, totally forgetting to call him either Mr. White or Chief.

"Now, darlin', I *know* that was your story. *Yours*. I know you didn't team up with Claude, Lois. That's what you were going to say, wasn't it?" Perry asked her gruffly.

"Yes," she said simply.

Perry leaned back in his chair. "You know, I've had my suspicions over the past year or two," he mused, swiveling his chair slightly back and forth as he gazed at her. "But I could never pin anything on the man. I think he did this to another intern, you know -- although I don't have any proof. His story -- pretty believable -- was that she'd developed a crush on him, and that *she* tried to steal *his* story. And she wouldn't talk. She left the Planet in the middle of her internship, though. Ended up at the Metropolis Star after she graduated."

He leveled his gaze on her. "Claude Rochert presented your information, your story, as his own work, Lois. When I confronted him, he had a lot of unpleasant things to say. Suffice to say I don't believe any of it, and because you managed to prove beyond any doubt that you have a prior claim to the work in question, he has been suspended without pay. However, you will probably have to face him at an inquiry meeting, which I'm afraid is necessary in a situation like this. Can you do that?"

She looked him straight in the eye. "Yes, I can," she stated, and relaxed at his smile.

"Good girl," he said softly, clearly not expecting her to hear him. Strangely, the comment -- and his earlier use of 'darlin' -- didn't upset her. It was simply Perry's southern upbringing, and she knew it was unintentional and not intended as any sort of condescension or harassment. Her mind flashed briefly back to her childhood years, contrasting Sam's reserved manner with this man's natural, if blustery, warmth.

***

After a few comments related specifically to her story, Perry told her he had sent it on to layout. It hadn't made the front page of the paper, but he was placing it on the front page of the city section.

"Good work, Lois," he told her, and after a reminder that he would keep her updated on the progress of the upper management's inquiry, and a quick explanation of what the inquiry would involve, he dismissed her back to her desk. An independent team would now go back through Claude's entire submission file, looking carefully at writing styles and matching handwriting samples to any handwritten notes or rough drafts. Anything questionable would be set aside for further study. Perry had also mentioned that in accordance with ASNE policy, the situation would be reported to the Kerth Award committee. The committee would conduct its own inquiry; if Claude's winning story turned out to be someone else's work, his Kerth would be revoked.

For her part, Lois intended to try to track down any former partners Claude had worked with, as well as the intern Perry had mentioned. If Claude had done this before, his victim -- or victims -- deserved a chance for justice.

First stop, then -- the personnel department, for the name of last year's intern. And any partners Claude may have had -- although, on reflection, perhaps the best source for names would be Perry.

Then she'd take a quick look through some of Claude's work. The Daily Planet's morgue -- its reference library -- wouldn't help her there, but the stacks -- located one floor above the newsroom -- should have every article he'd ever written for the Planet. A little judicious use of her enhanced speed would allow her to get an overall picture of his writing style -- and any discrepancies -- in a very short period of time.

***

The morgue had outgrown its original space in the Daily Planet building's basement and had been relocated to the same floor as the stacks a few years ago. It had been laid out like a small but conventional library, down a short hallway from the elevators.

The stacks themselves, directly across from the elevators, were more crowded, although the entire area had been modernized somewhat. Like the newsroom, there was a second level -- a loft -- along one wall. Shelves of bound issues -- the more current ones -- were arranged in rows on both levels, with a few desks and tables, bearing computer terminals, interspersed throughout. There were also two microfiche machines for viewing the older issues, and a huge cabinet containing decades of microfiche archives.

There was an ongoing project to computerize the entire archive, but with a newspaper of the Daily Planet's caliber, the project would take several years. The Planet's computer system made it easy to find articles in past issues, allowing searching by author, subject, title, and date of publication, which eliminated the need for attendants in the stacks or the morgue. Once all of the back issues were added to the database, there would be little need for the actual paper copies. Many newspapers around the country were getting away from the physical storage of back issues.

Lois had climbed the stairs to the loft and was sitting at one of the desks toward the back, looking through some bound copies of the paper from the previous April, when she heard the elevator doors open. She'd found she couldn't look through the shelves very clearly. It was a problem she'd encountered once or twice before, and since it had only occurred with the walls of older buildings, she thought it might have something to do with the paint. Older paints had often contained lead, and she knew that conventional x-rays were blocked by lead. It might be the same with the x-ray-ish part of her special vision.

She could hear just fine, though, so she listened to the footsteps for a moment; it wouldn't do for someone to see her doing her version of speed-reading. Whoever it was headed toward the morgue, though, so she went back to the article in front of her.

Several other people came and went as she worked her way backward through increasingly older issues. Beyond listening briefly to determine each person's direction, she didn't pay much attention to them. The stacks were rarely used, so she wasn't *too* concerned that anyone would see her decidedly unusual abilities. The morgue was a more common destination, especially for the researchers and students.

By the time she'd moved to the microfiche files, traffic to and from the morgue had slowed down considerably.

Since it was lunchtime, she probably had the floor to herself. As she finished re-filing an envelope of microfiche film, having already selected a new one, she heard someone climbing the stairs to the loft. Probably someone with a message from Perry. He'd agreed to make her a list of the reporters he'd partnered with Claude over the years, and he'd given her the green light to look through the stacks. But he had warned her that he'd probably have another story assignment for her in the afternoon. She hadn't heard the elevator, so it was probably one of the young men from research or one of the younger reporters whose world outside of the Planet revolved around physical fitness, sports, or bodybuilding. Several of them ran stairs during their lunch breaks.

Funny that whoever it was hadn't called her name in order to locate her more quickly, though.

She sat down and gathered up the new set of microfiche films from the table. Time to put them away, too. She'd managed to go through quite a few of Claude's articles already, anyway -- enough to note his general style of writing, and to note that sometimes it seemed to... change. Once she got her afternoon assignment, she'd ask Perry for his list of names.

As the man -- the tread was too heavy to be a woman -- rounded the corner of the shelves to where she was sitting, she finished tucking the films into their envelope and looked up with a smile.

It was Claude.

And it was obvious that he was extremely angry.

Beyond angry.

She stood and moved back from the table, keeping it between them. Without really thinking about it, she dropped her hand to her pocket and hit the switch on the little recorder.

As he advanced on her, he hissed, "You set me up, you little bi-." He abruptly switched to French, apparently finding it easier to curse at her in his native language.

"You'd better watch what you say, Claude," she said, hiding her nervousness behind a belligerent tone of voice. "You're already on some pretty shaky ground, you know."

She'd been expecting some sort of reaction from Claude after her meeting with Perry, but this was still completely unexpected. She'd thought she might get an angry phone call from him, or that she might encounter him outside the Planet. Or that he might somehow show up at her apartment or something.

After Perry's announcement of his suspension, she hadn't expected to see Claude inside the Planet at all. And she hadn't even considered that he might try anything in the middle of the day. But he certainly didn't look like he wanted to have a cozy chat.

He came around the end of the table, and she had to decide quickly -- stand her ground? *She* was in the right, after all. Or back up? Her feet took her backwards even as the thought flashed through her mind.

She wasn't afraid of Claude -- she knew he couldn't hurt her physically. But she'd never been in a close and heated confrontation with another person. Never had anyone hissing invective -- a continuous stream of vile French hate words -- at her with such venom.

She wasn't afraid of him, but she wasn't feeling very calm. For the first time in her life, she understood exactly why that surge of adrenaline was called a 'fight or flight' reaction.

The Lanes had handled almost everything -- even most of their fights -- with reserve. Freezing politeness, icy distain, and cold silences -- those she knew. As she'd grown older, there'd been more raised voices and insults, but even those had usually been conducted at a level no more intense than a heated political debate. This -- she suspected it could get pretty ugly.

He'd stopped at the chair she'd been sitting in, and was gripping its back so tightly his knuckles were white. She wasn't completely sure he wouldn't pick it up and throw it at her.

"You took my story." She decided direct confrontation was her best option. "You're getting what you deserve. You *stole* it from me, Claude. If anyone, *I* should be the angry one."

He laughed nastily. "I don't know how you found out about it ahead of time, but you did, and you set me up." He broke off to curse at her again, stepping forward around the chair, and she decided she'd had enough.

Moving around the end of the table with the idea of putting it between them again, she was unprepared for his lunge. He grabbed her arms just above her elbows, his momentum knocking her backward against the nearest shelves.

Reflexively she yanked away from him, smacking her head against the edge of a shelf. If she hadn't been invulnerable, she'd have been seeing stars and the battle would have been over. As it was, she yanked again and twisted sideways, breaking his hold. She ran for the stairs, only her lifelong habit of hiding her unique abilities keeping her at a human pace.

And this was something she hadn't considered at all -- how could she fight him off without giving her secret away?

Claude caught her again at the stairs, slamming her into the railing with the full force of his weight behind him. As she twisted again, trying to break his grip, he grabbed a handful of her hair at the base of her neck. Yanking her head back viciously, he pulled back from the railing and shook her violently, his other hand wrapped around her upper arm.

"I got suspended because of you, you little -" he snarled, dropping back into French.

"Claude -" she began, grasping his wrists, but he cut her off.

"I may even lose my job! You are worth nothing, do you hear?" he raged. "You should be grateful for my help, put

***

! And always you ignore me, put me off!"

How hard to pull? How much force to break his grip, without giving anything away? The brief pause as she tried to temper her strength was enough for him to undercut her, sweeping her legs from under her and following her down, one hand, still gripping her hair, covering her mouth with cruel force and his weight pinning her to the floor.

"Now I will take what you have -- " he grunted, beginning to paw at her skirt, which had become twisted around her thighs. "I will take what I want from you, and we will see how I break your icy cold attitude -- when I am done with you your reputation will be nothing, con

***

!" Lois had no idea what the French word he spit at her meant, but his tone was filled with hate.

Regardless of her invulnerability, and of her strength and speed, Lois was beginning to realize that she was quite possibly in real danger. She had no idea how to defend herself from this madman without exposing her secret, but she might not have a choice.

She twisted and almost managed to dislodge him without any use of her abilities, but he flung himself further across her, then let go of her hair and grabbed her breast as he pushed her skirt to her hips with his other hand. The shock of his hand on her breast, where no one's hand had ever been, shocked her motionless for a fraction of a second, and he tightened his grip there, twisting viciously. Simultaneously, she felt his other hand on her upper thigh, pushing her legs apart enough to settle between them and ripping at her hose, then fumbling at his own clothing.

Truly frightened, Lois flexed her arms, about to throw him off her without any further thought to protecting her secret. But even as she straightened her arms, his weight was suddenly gone from her.

Bewildered, she looked up to see Perry, looking ready to kill, and Eduardo, one of the sports reporters. The heavily muscled young man had plucked Claude off her by the back of his shirt, and as Claude rounded on him, Eduardo -- a lunchtime stair-runner and a body builder -- drew his fist back and slugged Claude squarely in the jaw.

As Claude slumped in Eduardo's grip, Lois finished tugging her skirt down over her thighs and shakily scrambled to her feet, assisted by Perry.

"Are you all right, darlin'?" he asked her urgently. "What did he... Did he hurt you, honey?"

"No, Perry," she assured him, although she was still trembling in reaction, "but I'm awfully glad you're here." She *was* glad to see him -- them -- but neither man needed to know that it was mostly because her secret was still, in fact, a secret.

How ironic that with all her fantastic abilities, it was Perry -- and Eduardo -- who ended up saving her.

"Eduardo, here, was just leavin' the stairwell after his lunch break," Perry continued, his southern drawl more pronounced than usual. "Y'know he runs stairs?" And at her nod, "He saw Claude comin' up, lookin' like thunder. One of the gals in reception's been talkin', and word of Claude's suspension -- and why -- has already spread through the bullpen. So Eduardo asked me where you were, and we hightailed it up here thinkin' you might need us."

Perry paused, frowning. "Come to think of it, exactly *how* did Claude know you'd be in the stacks?

"Ralph," Eduardo suggested with disgust.

Perry nodded, scowling. "You're probably right. I've had my eye on that boy for a while now; it's time I had a serious talk with him. There've been some complaints from a few women about inappropriate comments, and I've noticed him and Claude havin' some cozy chats lately. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was Ralph who told him where you were."

Lois turned to Eduardo, who had allowed Claude to slump to the floor. "Thank you, Eduardo," she told him sincerely, if a bit shakily. "The words seem inadequate --"

"It's okay, Lois." Eduardo's expression relaxed as he looked at her. "And you're welcome. I have no tolerance for men who don't respect women. Not many people see it, but Claude -- obviously -- has a temper. I wasn't expecting him to attack you, but I did suspect he might get a bit too confrontational for comfort. I'm just glad I could help."

He looked at Perry. "What do we do with him, Chief? I know you told Glenda to call the police -" Glenda was the newsroom secretary; her desk was at the edge of the bullpen closest to Perry's office. "Do we wait for the police or take him downstairs with us?"

"You called the police?" Lois asked, surprised.

"We'll wait here." Perry turned to Lois. "Bill Henderson's a captain with the MPD, and a good man. He's a friend of mine -- our sons were in school together. I've known him a long time and he knows how to be discreet."

He looked down at Claude with disgust. "When Eduardo told me he'd seen Claude headin' upstairs, I had a little hunch we might need some official help. I told Glenda to send Bill up here when he arrives. He oughta be here soon."

Perry's 'little hunches' were legend in the newsroom; more often than not, they'd turned out to be true. If he sent a reporter out to investigate something because he 'had a hunch' about it, the Planet usually ended up with good story.

"You will press charges, honey, won't you?" Perry added.

""I have to," she said soberly. "Otherwise --"

"He might do it again," Perry finished as Eduardo nodded in agreement. He turned as a male voice called his name. "Up here, Bill," he called. "Straight ahead from the elevator, through the shelves. We're at the top of the stairs.

Captain Bill Henderson, an attractive man in his mid-forties, was accompanied by a young plainclothes officer. Between them, they removed a still-groggy Claude from the scene after taking brief statements from Perry, Lois, and Eduardo. Captain Henderson warned Perry and Lois that he'd probably need a more thorough statement from her, and that he would be in touch.

"C'mon, you two -- we'll take the stairs," Perry said as the policemen shepherded their stumbling charge into the elevator.

Eduardo paused on the landing outside the newsroom. Turning to Perry and Lois, he assured them, "You don't have to worry about my saying anything out of turn."

"I know that, son," Perry replied, as Lois nodded. "But I appreciate your saying it. This doesn't need to turn into a circus. As it is, the gossips'll have a field day."

"Thanks again, Eduardo," Lois added. "I -" she stopped. "Thanks to you and Perry --"

"You're welcome, Lois." Eduardo smiled grimly. "Claude tried to hit on my wife about a year ago -- she's an interior designer and her firm did the business offices upstairs when they were remodeled -- and he was hard to discourage despite her telling him she was married. He eventually got the message, but I've always wondered if he'd try something with someone else. I'm glad you're okay."

He pulled the stairway door open and the three of them entered the newsroom. Eduardo headed toward his desk while Perry directed Lois to his office.

He gestured toward one of the chairs in front of his desk as he rounded the edge of it and dropped into his own chair with a sigh.

As she sat down, he ran his hand through his hair. "I'm glad you're okay, Lois."

With another sigh, he continued, "You know, any complaint is one complaint too many. I told you earlier about a young intern -- a bit like you, smart, a lot of promise -- a few years ago. Linda King. There was an issue with a story and it involved Claude. It was kinda messy -- they had a short relationship, apparently, and Claude's take on it was that she'd developed a crush on him and carried it too far. Her story was different. But I was never able to get any solid proof of what had happened, and before I could follow up with a formal investigation of her complaint, she recanted her story. Quit the Planet in the middle of her internship."

He shook his head ruefully. "I hear she's workin' for the Star now -- it's a respectable newspaper but not on a par with the Daily Planet. I've always wondered what really happened there, but she wouldn't talk. So the most Claude got was a warning be more careful to avoid any misunderstandings in the future."

He leveled his gaze on her. "I would never say I'm glad this happened, but I *will* say I'm glad you will pursue legal punishment for him. This whole thing might be somewhat messy, Lois. We'll try to keep it low-key here, but it may be kinda tough for a while. I know you'd rather report the news than *be* the news, and you've got my support a hundred percent. If anyone hassles you over this, you let me know, you hear?"

At her nod, he said, "And Ralph... that boy's gonna be taking a Planet-sponsored intensive course in sensitivity training, and I'm gonna be keeping a sharp eye on him. Fortunately, he's not another Claude, just stupid. We can fix that. I hope. If not, his future with the Planet is likely to be quite short."

"I'll be fine, Perry. It's like fighting dragons, you know -- not real pleasant but it has to be done. This is no different than exposing any other wrongdoing. Just -- it's my story, okay?" She gave him a cheeky grin.

He laughed. "Atta girl, Lois -- but you come to me if anybody gives you trouble, young lady." And with a cheeky grin of his own, he continued, "Now... seems to me you never got that afternoon assignment I had for you..."

***

The Daily Planet investigation resulted in a total of seven stories of questionable authorship. Where possible, former partners, interns, and research notes would be used to determine the writer. The independent team also re-examined Claude's Kerth-winning story, with the result that its authorship was called into question.

Unfortunately, his partner at the time had been killed in a car accident shortly before the piece was published, so there was no way to verify ownership of the article with certainty. Claude was allowed to keep the award, but its status was changed to 'provisional,' with the Daily Planet itself and both reporters listed as 'award holders.'

Emboldened by Lois's willingness to testify against Claude, two other young women at the Planet -- one in the billing department and one in distribution -- came forward with their own experiences of Claude refusing to take 'no' for an answer. Both had kept silent out of fear that they wouldn't be believed. Their tales were similar: too much alcohol and the belief -- promoted, apparently, by Claude -- that they were to blame by getting into a compromising situation.

Faced with assault charges in his attack on Lois, and with the threat, however thin, of possible further charges in relation to the other two women, Claude accepted a plea bargain that gave him some jail time with several years' probation.

***

The story of the set-up, Claude's attack, and the resultant charges was told and retold around the newsroom for months, with varying degrees of accuracy. While the bulk of the staff felt Claude deserved everything he got, someone coined the title 'Mad Dog Lane' for Lois -- and it stuck.

She heard the comments, of course, even when she tried not to. The gossip was not necessarily intended to be cruel, but it isolated her further from the casual gatherings around the coffee machine.

Already lonely, Lois began to focus almost exclusively on searching out stories, determined to be the best investigative reporter the Planet had. By sheer determination, she was at least partway toward achieving the goal by the time her internship ended.

Alone in her apartment, Lois thought long and hard about the other truth her experience with Claude had demonstrated -- that while she was, of course, invulnerable, she couldn't always rely on her special abilities to get her out of trouble. Not unless she revealed them. She needed something more -- a self-defense course of some kind. Tae Kwon Do, perhaps? Something that would help if she were ever in a similar situation.

Needing a sounding board, she mentioned it to Perry. He endorsed the idea whole-heartedly, and pointed her toward a Planet-sponsored self-defense course that all of his reporters were encouraged to take.

He also offered her a job before her internship was even over. Of course, she had to officially apply for the job after she graduated, but that was a mere formality.

Based on her performance to that point, he started her as a junior investigative reporter, even though that wasn't the norm for a new hire. Inevitably, his decision caused some mild dissension among some of the other staff members, despite the fact that she had already demonstrated that Perry's faith was not displaced.

Lois couldn't shut off her enhanced hearing completely, so she heard a lot of the comments and resentment put forth by some of her coworkers. While she also heard those who defended her abilities and Perry's decision, the knowledge that some of the staff resented her made her defensive around them.

Focused fiercely on her job, unused to casual banter and unable to blithely share confidences with almost-strangers the way many of her coworkers did, Lois's reputation as the prickly, unapproachable Mad Dog Lane was cemented. Intent on becoming the best she could be, and wary of letting anyone get too close, Lois herself allowed the illusion.

***

By the end of her first year of full-time employment, Lois was already a name to be reckoned with. She was consistently bringing in quality stories and Perry was allowing her the kind of latitude he normally reserved for his veteran investigative reporters.

Shortly after she entered her second year with the Daily Planet, she was nominated for a Kerth. Unheard of this early in a reporter's career, her subsequent win surprised everyone -- except Perry. By the end of her third year, she had a second Kerth under her belt, and had been promoted to senior investigative reporter.

Sam and Ellen may have disagreed with Lois's choice of careers, but they both showed grudging pride when she started winning awards.

They never really understood how much Lois loved it, though. She was living a Princess Elizabeth life, making a difference, fighting dragons and exposing corruption. Forcing change for the better.

Neither of the Doctors Lane ever understood that. They never saw the parallels to what *they* considered a noble career, the field of medicine.

Gradually, the three of them drifted farther apart. Lois saw Ellen once a month or so, for what had increasingly felt like a duty lunch. Their ideas and goals were so different that it was hard to find any common ground. Ellen wanted to see her safe and settled in a good society marriage, while Lois wanted to keep fighting dragons.

Sam she saw rarely. He and Ellen had finally divorced when Lois was in her third year at the university, and he'd moved to New York. He sent her a card and a check at Christmas each year, and he usually called when he was in town. They would sometimes meet for lunch, but neither of them was good at small talk, so their meetings were uncomfortably stiff and formal.

***

Lois's days were filled with her investigative work, and she often worked well into the nights as well. It was only in the deepest, darkest part of the night, as she was dropping off to sleep, that she ever allowed herself to acknowledge that she was lonely.

It was usually a thought she stifled at once. She couldn't afford to get close to anyone. She needed to accept that loneliness was just another of her... well, 'gifts' wasn't the right word. But it was just another thing she did -- unlimited speed and strength, fire vision, enhanced sight and hearing, flight, and loneliness -- all part of the package.

She had continued on in Tae Kwon Do, finding that the discipline necessary for advancing through the different levels also helped her refine her control over many of her enhanced abilities.

She'd progressed frustratingly slowly at first, fear of inadvertently exposing her secret in some manner making her uncharacteristically hesitant. Learning the mechanics of the different techniques of striking, kicking, and blocking had been relatively easy, as were the forms -- putting the movements into specific patterns. Those were done individually, so she could concentrate fully on learning them.

But the sparring drills had been a problem. The program promoted increased strength, flexibility, and endurance, and the knowledge that she already had unlimited strength and endurance had kept her stiff and awkward while attempting to apply the techniques with a partner. But Lois Lane never gave up. She had doggedly overcome every other obstacle she'd ever faced, and she had resolved that this would be no exception.

After several weeks of her struggling grimly and unsuccessfully through the drills, her instructor had made the observation, "You're trying to pit your strength directly against your opponent; that won't work. You are a small woman, and you would have no hope of outmatching an assailant on strength alone."

Not without exposing her secret.

He'd continued, "Do you know how to dance -- ballroom dancing, the waltz?" And when she had nodded, "Think of this in the same way. Let your opponent 'lead'- then allow his own impetus to work in your favor. Remember the laws of motion -- once he is moving, his tendency is to continue moving in the same direction. Changing his direction makes him unstable. So as he shifts, you simply use his own momentum to do the work for you."

That suggestion, simple as it was, had helped immensely. One of the many things that the Doctors Lane *had* considered that Lois should learn was ballroom dancing, and she was quite good at it. Approaching the sparring not as a combative situation, but as if it were a dance to be performed, had made all the difference. Moving with her opponent -- rather than pulling away reflexively -- allowed her to use his own momentum to break his hold, and to her delight, flip him almost effortlessly over her shoulder.

Once she'd made that breakthrough, her skill and flexibility had increased rapidly. She was currently taking three classes per week: two forty-five minute self-defense classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and a fifty-minute light sparring class on Fridays. In this, the fourth year of her employment with the Planet and her fifth year since the incident with Claude, she was at the brown belt level -- it was the highest student rank at her school. From this level, she would become a black belt candidate, and eventually, begin to work her way up through the black belt ranks.

***

Eduardo was one of the few people, other than Perry, who didn't seem intimidated by Lois's Mad Dog reputation. Possibly because of his role in Lois's confrontation with Claude Rochert -- although neither he nor Lois ever spoke of it -- he treated her with a casual sort of friendliness that she got from very few people.

He refused to be drawn into any sort of gossip about her, and greeted her pleasantly whenever their paths happened to cross. Since he had been promoted to one of the two senior sports editor positions shortly after Lois won her first Kerth, that wasn't very often. His attitude, however, had influenced at least a few of the newer employees, especially those who had had no or very little interaction with her.

One such employee was an eager, earnest young man by the name of Jimmy Olsen. He had been hired as a copy boy, a position that included running errands and other general gofer work. Now twenty-one, he had started at the Planet at age nineteen. In those first years, he spent most of his time delivering paperwork to different departments for Perry, and very little time with any of the main newsroom staff.

He had, however, shown a high aptitude for all things computer-related, a talent that had not only Perry but an always-increasing number of reporters relying on him for everything from fixing a balky keyboard to ferreting out information for a story. And while Jimmy's heart seemed set on making a career as an investigative photojournalist, he willingly and cheerfully helped whoever needed him.

Lois had picked up on Jimmy's talents relatively early in his employment, and did not hesitate to make use of them whenever she needed to. It was something she did so often after his first year at the Planet that Perry hired another young man to take his place as copy boy, and promoted Jimmy to Production Assistant -- a fancy title that included all of the things he was already doing.

And since Jimmy had a mild case of hero-worship on the Planet's star reporter, which she knew and ignored, he now tended to be at her beck and call. He was, perhaps, the closest thing she had to a friend at the Planet, although he was clearly intimidated by her in full Mad Dog mode. But even when he was lying low and staying out of her way, Jimmy, like Eduardo, obviously respected her.

He had recently completed a two-year technical college course in photography, and Perry had allowed him to accompany a couple of reporters, particularly those on the National and City News Desks, on one or two occasions. At least twice, the photos Jimmy took on those occasions made their way into the newspaper.

Right now, he was sitting at the unoccupied desk directly across from Lois, sorting printouts into stacks for her.

She was currently investigating a series of setbacks at EPRAD -- the Extra Planetary Research and Development agency -- in the final phases of the deployment of the international Space Station Prometheus, looking for any indication of shoddy workmanship. A local philanthropist was offering to finance an alternate space station, claiming that the current station's construction had been dangerously underbid and was therefore built with inferior and unsafe materials.

A sudden racket at the railing near the elevators drew her attention. Someone was calling her name repeatedly in an increasingly loud and desperate voice.

As she looked up, a man stumbled down the ramp toward the bullpen, his progress so erratic that he bounced off the railing several times on his way down.

"Miss Lane! Miss Lane!" His volume increased as he caught sight of her. "I must talk to you! I must tell you my story before they try to stop me!"

He wore a ragged and stained coat and what was either scrubs or pajama pants. A threadbare slipper on his left foot and a dirty gray tennis shoe on his right foot appeared to be the reason for his unsteady gait. His hair was tangled and unkempt. He had a large, torn, stained paper bag bulging with papers clutched tightly in his arms

Ignoring the curious looks from other employees, Lois stood and stepped around her desk as the security guard caught up with the man.

"Sorry, Ms. Lane, he got past me," he said apologetically as they reached her.

"Wait," she said, as the unkempt man pulled away from the guard's grip and held the bag out to her. "Who are you?"

"Be careful, Ms. Lane," the guard told her urgently. "You don't know what he has in there!"

"No, no -- I mean no harm," the ragged man exclaimed. "No, I need your help to tell my story, Miss Lane. My story, and the story of Space Station Prometheus and the sabotaged shuttle flights. I've brought you all of my research notes; you are the best -" He dumped the bag's contents out on her desk; scraps of paper, fast food napkins, a torn piece of cardboard, receipt tape from an adding machine, and a shoebox lid, all of which appeared to be covered with closely spaced writing, cascaded across the desk's surface.

By now, a second guard had arrived; between the two of them, they grasped her unkempt visitor's arms and drew him firmly away from her. "Do you want us to call the police, Mr. White?" one of the guards asked Perry, who had exited his office when the commotion caught his attention.

"Just remove him from my newsroom, Hank," Perry said, and continued more loudly, "Back to work, people!" He glanced at the mess on Lois's desk, shook his head wryly, and said to Jimmy, "Get a garbage can, son," then turned and headed back to his office.

As the guards started up the ramp with her unexpected visitor, he pulled ineffectually at their hold, protesting, "Look at my work, Miss Lane! Please! My name is Samuel Platt -- Professor Samuel Platt. I live in the Bradner Apartments building. Please come see me -- I need to show you the proof..." His voice grew fainter as the guards muscled him into the elevator and the doors closed behind them.

Lois could hear him reassuring the guards, all the way down in the elevator, that he meant no harm but needed Miss Lane to tell his story.

She was still staring thoughtfully after the man when Jimmy spoke, close by and startlingly loud, and she hurriedly shut out Samuel Platt's fading voice.

"Boy, that guy is a couple cookies short of a dozen, huh, Lois?"

"Jimmy," she said abruptly, not acknowledging his comment, "see what you can find me on Dr Platt, and everything out there on the Space Station Prometheus shuttle flights, too. And find me a box for his... research."

"Lois, are you *serious*?" Jimmy exclaimed. "The guy's a nutcase! I mean, look at this -" He held up the stained and torn paper bag, still partly full, and more scraps of paper, napkins, and torn pieces of cardboard fluttered onto the floor at their feet. "He says these are his 'research notes' -- it looks more like something a wino would use for a pillow in his cardboard box down in Suicide Slum! I mean, --"

Lois turned and gave him a mild version of her Mad Dog look, but it was enough to stop him in mid sentence. "Uh, yeah..." he stuttered awkwardly. "I'll just... go and... just, you know... see what I can find..." Still talking disjointedly, he made a fast retreat.

Lois didn't watch him go; instead, she sat at her desk and, after looking at the mess the man had left, shifted Dr Platt's papers to the side. More of them cascaded off the edge of the desk, but she left them where they landed for the time being. She would have to go through them all, but that was a job probably best left until she was on her own and unobserved. Hopefully, a little judicious use of her enhanced speed would help her to read through all of it and get an idea of what Dr Platt was talking about.

For now, she was already jotting questions and ideas down as fast as they occurred to her.

***

Even with her enhanced speed, Lois found it incredibly slow going putting Dr. Platt's papers in some semblance of order. Some scraps had mathematical formulae written on them; it was difficult to place those in any sort of order. She had better luck where the man had been merely writing -- piecing straight narrative together into chronological order was much easier.

She'd been working on it for two nights now, the first night at the Planet at the end of the day. After that first night, she had simply shoved it all in the box Jimmy'd found for her and flown back to her apartment with it. By then, she had been more than half inclined to believe everyone else's opinion that the man was some kind of crank. But some sort of instinct -- she couldn't explain it, but it had served her well in the past -- nagged at her that regardless of the fact that he looked like a street bum, he should be taken seriously.

And tonight, finally, she was beginning to see a glimmer of what the man had been talking about. She still needed much more information, of course; once she'd slogged her way through his mess of notes, she would have to talk to him again.

Lois sighed and leaned back, gazing idly around at Dr. Platt's bits and scraps and pieces spread out over her living room floor. She already had several lines of pieced-together notes spread out in front of the coffee table, stretching to where the kitchen tile started, but the box was still at least two thirds full. She needed to find time to devote to this. It was looking like she would have to get out of the feel-good story Perry had assigned her for the week -- not that she'd mind, of course.

Everyone, including the investigative reporters, had their share of 'ordinary' assignments -- non-earthshaking, non-breaking-news stories. Not even Lois could find scandals twenty-four hours a day. As a matter of policy, Perry expected every reporter to research, write and turn in a number of other articles assigned as he saw fit -- human interest stories, AP news bits, press releases, etc.

Lois had little interest in those types of stories. She wrote them grudgingly, and got out of writing them at all whenever she could. She was continually finding creative ways to dump the assignments on other reporters, or to get Perry to reassign them. Her various strategies worked a fair amount of the time because her instincts for situations worthy of investigating were so extraordinarily high. Perry recognized that, and quite often allowed himself to be swayed by her arguments -- but not always.

With another sigh, she carefully gathered up the first twenty feet of Dr. Platt's lined-up research notes and placed them in an empty shoebox she'd retrieved from her closet. These would need to go back to the Planet with her tomorrow; she had a number of things she wanted Jimmy to clarify for her.

***

Nine hours later, she was sitting at her desk in the newsroom, studying one of Dr. Platt's scraps. It was covered with a combination of what appeared -- possibly -- to be hieroglyphics, and disjointed lines of letters -- only some of which were recognizable words. She was systematically turning it ninety degrees, studying it, and then turning it another ninety degrees and studying it again, on the odd chance that the hieroglyphics parts might make more sense sideways or upside down. The man's notes were in such a mess, it was entirely possible he'd started writing down words in one direction, got distracted, and not noticed that the scrap had got turned around.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Jimmy's arrival at her desk, bearing a thick sheaf of printouts.

"Lois, I found some interesting stuff on Space Station Prometheus," he began. "You know, technical specs, and even a couple of blueprints. I also found a couple of reports on the shuttles that they're supposed to be using for transport. Apparently, they've had a lot of problems with 'em."

She tossed the scrap back into the shoebox. "Thanks, Jimmy. What about Dr. Platt?"

"I'm still working on that. Apparently, he was highly respected at one time. Lately there have been some rumors that he's let personal problems interfere with his job. But then other sources -- former colleagues -- say he's always been a bit odd but that he's brilliant."

Lois, only half listening, had began to page through the stack of printouts he'd laid on her desk. "Well, keep at it, okay?" she asked, reaching for a pencil.

As Jimmy turned to walk away, he commented, "You know, this Dr. Platt would normally be the kind of guy I admire -- although it's hard to believe he's a scientist, having met him. It's only slightly easier to believe the guy's computer-geek rep."

"What?" Lois asked abruptly, her interest caught.

He turned back. "Huh?"

Somewhat impatiently, she asked, "You said Dr. Platt's a computer expert? I thought he was an aeronautics and aerospace scientist."

"Well, yeah... But a lot of those guys really know computers, you know. This guy apparently did some AI work..."

"Well, I guess the computer thing might explain this." Lois gestured to the scrap of hieroglyphics at the top of the notes in the shoebox. "I thought it might be computer code, but I can't read it."

Jimmy picked it up. "Yeah, it's computer code... Oh, cool! It's Lisp -- that's like, AI's mother tongue, you know," he said excitedly.

"Lisp? AI? What's that?"

"It's -- Lisp is -- a computer programming language," Jimmy began, "It's used in AI -- artificial intelligence -- programming, among other things. It's been around a long time -- since like the 1950s, I think. It's almost as old as Fortran. It's called Lisp 'cause it's a list-processing language -- get it? L-I-S from 'list' and P from 'processing.' It's also popular with hackers. It's better than C or C++, actually, because it's extremely versatile..."

"Jimmy --"

"See," he continued, warming to his subject, "it handles complex data structures more easily than other programming languages, using list processing, recursion, and character string manipulation..."

"Jimmy -" She tried again.

He dropped the scrap of paper on the desk and started shuffling through the printouts he'd given her. "You know, I read an article that said that a lot of the space shuttles' programs are written entirely in Lisp... I think I printed it for you; it should be here somewhere. It said that's one of the main reasons that the shuttles have managed to reach the runway at all. It also said the Space Station Prometheus expert environmental and energy management systems will all be implemented in Lisp, too..."

"Jimmy!" she snapped.

He stopped shuffling through the printouts and looked up at her with the slightly wary look he often wore when faced with Mad Dog Lane.

She waved the scrap of computer code impatiently at him. "What exactly does this computer code do?"

"Uh, I don't know, but I can find out," he answered cautiously. "All I'd have to do is work through it -- maybe try to run it, you know..."

"Fine. Do that, okay? I want to know what this does. And why does Dr. Platt have this in his notes? Did he write it? Is it part of the shuttle programming, or is it malicious? He said the shuttles had been sabotaged; what about the space station itself? Oh, and --"

Jimmy was beginning to look alarmed; she waved the scrap of paper she still held at him again and took pity on him. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Jimmy -- go find out what this code thingy does. I'll find out the rest. Go!"

He went.

***

By the late afternoon, Lois had worked her way through most of Jimmy's printouts and all of the scraps in the shoebox. Perry had co-opted Jimmy for something just after noon, so she was still waiting for information on the computer code. With Jimmy and computers, however, she'd learned to leave him alone and let him get the job done, so for now she'd have to be patient.

Dr. Platt had said the shuttle flights had been sabotaged; there did, indeed, seem to be a higher than average number of mishaps in the launches, all of which had been aborted so far. It could be coincidence, of course -- computer malfunctions, human error, and structural issues had all caused problems for the space program in the past.

Or there could, in fact, be something going on. She needed to clear her schedule of Perry's routine little story assignments and focus on Dr. Platt and his allegations.

It was time to get Perry involved. Unfortunately, he'd seen Dr. Platt, so she might have to do a fair amount of convincing. She might as well start right now.

Rising, she headed toward Perry's office.

"Perry, I have to talk to you -" she began before she was even all the way inside his office.

"Uh, Lois -- Haven't you heard of knocking and waiting to be invited inside?" Perry drawled, one eyebrow raised questioningly. "As you can see -- now -- I'm in the middle of an interview here."

It took Lois a moment to switch gears. Caught up in what she needed Perry to understand, she hadn't thought about whether he would be busy or not.

She glanced quickly at the man who had risen to his feet as she entered the room. It was intended to be the quick but all-encompassing look she usually used to assess someone she was meeting for the first time. Particularly today, since she had a bone to pick with the chief, it should have been a lightning glance, and then back to her own agenda with Perry.

But there was something different this time. There was something about this man that drew her interest, however reluctantly, and caused her gaze to linger.

On the face of it, there shouldn't be anything particularly special about him. About her own age, he was a very good-looking man -- okay, the most attractive man she'd seen in a long time. But Lois Lane just didn't react to men that way.

With interest.

At all.

She couldn't risk it.

This man was undeniably attractive. At least six feet tall, he was well built but not excessively so. He wore glasses with tortoise-shell frames, which broke up the line of his face. But she could still see the high cheekbones and the almost imperceptible slant to his eyes, which hinted, perhaps, at an Asian ancestor or two. His eyes were dark- probably brown, she guessed -- and his hair was inky back. While it looked slightly long, as if he was overdue for a haircut, it wasn't an unattractive style. Cut it just a bit shorter, get some of that hair off his forehead and the back of his neck, and he would be even more devastatingly handsome than he was now.

Lois felt her heart race, unaccountably, at that thought.

What was going on?

He wore the standard city attire -- dark gray business suit, shirt, and tie -- although it was probably a stretch of her imagination to include his tie in that description. It was a brightly colored mix of shapes and lines, rather than the muted patterns most of the men who worked at the Daily Planet wore. On anyone else, she might consider that he'd chosen it in an effort to make himself stand out. But surely he knew he was handsome? That he would stand out anywhere, even in a group of equally attractive men?

He looked startled, as if she -- or something about her -- was unexpected.

And that brought her thoughts back to her own unexpected -- and unwanted -- reaction to him. She forced her gaze away, wondering if she looked as dazed as she felt, and became aware that Perry was speaking.

"Lois," he was saying, "This is Clark Kent. Clark, this is Lois Lane, the Planet's star reporter."

Thoughts still in turmoil, she barely heard Perry's compliment. The man -- Clark Kent -- began speaking, drawing her attention back to him. "I'm pleased to meet you, Miss Lane." He extended his hand toward her.

She stared at it for a moment. She didn't want to touch him. This -- reaction, whatever it was -- was alarming. She glanced up at him again, meeting his eyes briefly before quickly looking away.

This was unacceptable. She was Mad Dog Lane -- time to act like it. She made herself look at him as she said baldly, "Hi." She grasped his hand at the same time, shaking it quickly and letting go almost immediately.

But it didn't matter -- sensation shot up her arm and for the first time in her life, Lois felt the pull of a deep and almost visceral attraction -- like her body recognized him, even if they'd never met before today.

Wide eyed, she saw his own startled awareness, and she hastily looked away from him. She didn't have time for this... whatever it was.

She didn't want this... this attraction, this sudden treacherous longing for... something <a future> with a man <with this man>. It was simply too dangerous. She'd acknowledged long ago that she would never have a close relationship of any kind. She could never get close to anyone for fear that they would find out about her special abilities.

<Oh, help!> She had to get out of here.

But that would be running away. Mad Dog Lane didn't retreat -- she took prisoners.

"What did you need, Lois?" Perry asked, and she remembered why she'd been so anxious to talk to him.

Gratefully seizing the opening, she wrapped her Mad Dog persona around her like armor, and trying desperately to ignore the disturbing presence of Clark Kent, launched into her argument. "Perry, that man, Dr. Platt -- I think there's a story here. I know he looks like he lives in an alley, and yeah, his calculations and notes were in disarray... Okay, yeah, he gave me a paper bag full of notes and diagrams written on napkins, newspaper margins, old gift wrap, and cardboard -- but he had a sort of... *conviction*, you know? Like he knew what he was talking about..." She stopped to draw a breath.

Perry looked at her, one eyebrow raised, and drawled, "Where's that mood piece I assigned you, Lois?"

"I wasn't in the mood!" she snapped. <Easy, Lane...> She drew a deep breath, and putting on her most persuasive voice with an effort, began again. "Look, Perry -" She was interrupted by Jimmy's quick rap on the office doorframe.

"Sorry, Chief! Lois, phone call! The guy says he's a source; doesn't want to leave a message."

Seizing the opportunity to escape, she bolted, tossing over her shoulder, "I'll get back to you about Dr. Platt, Chief! Gotta take this call!" She didn't hang around to listen to Perry's reply.

She knew it by heart, anyway. An exasperated "Lois!" followed by arms flung in the air and the oft-muttered, "Don't mind me, I'm just the editor of this fine newspaper." She never let it bother her.

***

Lois's source had had some information for her -- information he'd only give her in person. The man's preferred form of payment was lunch or dinner -- complete with dessert and gourmet coffee. He went by the name Bobby Bigmouth, and it wasn't because he made his living providing information. He was skinny as a rail but could put away more food at a single sitting than anyone Lois had ever known.

The man was phenomenal at ferreting out information she could use, and she knew how incredibly lucky she was that he'd apparently assigned himself to her. He was much more altruistic than he let on, too. Some of the information he'd given her over the years could have made him a fortune if he'd chosen to sell it to the highest bidder -- yet he gave it to her for the price of a meal, knowing she'd use it to expose corruption or crime.

She'd never questioned him as to his reasons, and while she'd been tempted to use her special abilities to follow him -- see where he lived, what he did when he wasn't finding out information for her -- she'd decided to respect the unspoken limits they both placed on the relationship. She had secrets of her own she wanted to keep.

Returning from her meeting with Bobby, Lois set a half-empty Metropolis Coffee Company cup on her desk. As long as she was getting Bobby coffee, she'd reasoned, she might as well get one for herself. One advantage she had over the average coffee drinker was that she never had to settle for cold coffee; a discreet glance into the cup and it was warm again.

Dumping her purse in the bottom drawer, she signed on to her computer and picked up the cup. She had just removed the top with the intention of heating the contents when Jimmy appeared in front of her desk.

"Chief said to send you in to see him the moment you got back, Lois," the young man informed her, laying a stack of computer printouts on her desk. "And here's that information you wanted on Dr. Platt, and some more stuff on Space Station Prometheus."

Lois grabbed the papers and started flipping through them, coffee forgotten. "Thanks, Jimmy," she said absently, grabbing blindly for a pencil from the mug stuffed full of them near her monitor. She began reading, jotting notes in the margins as she went.

After several moments she realized that Jimmy hadn't moved.

"What?" she asked impatiently, looking up at him.

"Uh, Lois..." he began hesitantly, "The chief said he wanted you in his office *right away*."

She waved her hand in a shooing motion. "Okay, yeah, thanks, Jimmy. I heard you. I'll stop in there in a little while. Now scram until I decide what else I need you to find for me."

She didn't watch to see if he left.

She skimmed rapidly -- but at human speed -- through the first printout, looking for anything that stood out that might support Dr. Platt's allegations. While there was nothing obvious, it did give her some more ideas on where else to look. Completely focused, she began one of her investigation lists -- jotting questions, suggestions, phrases, and words in the order they occurred to her on the bottom of one of the pages in Jimmy's stack.

The sound of her name at full bellow startled more than one of the Planet staff; Lois herself looked up and around at Perry, standing in his office doorway, in mild irritation. Having caught her eye, he continued at full volume, "What part of 'now' was unclear?"

With a heavy, put-upon sigh and a roll of her eyes, Lois flipped the printout closed and slid the pencil behind one ear. Rising, she made her way toward him. Stepping back into his office, Perry muttered in a voice she wasn't expected to hear, "I'll tell you, son, if that young woman wasn't one of the best reporters I've ever known..." He trailed off as she stepped through the doorway.

She was instantly aware of the second man in the room, even as Clark Kent rose to his feet at her entrance. He smiled at her -- a smile so brilliant and beautiful that she felt herself begin to leave the floor.

She almost panicked. She *never* lost control of her powers any more.

*Never*.

Looking away from him, she grabbed quickly for the back of the chair nearest her, hoping she looked like she was steeling herself for a possible confrontation with her editor, not trying desperately to reestablish the bonds of gravity. Kent -- she couldn't let herself begin to think of him as Clark, it was too... familiar -- made a motion as if to steady her. She glanced at him, saw the concern on his face, and remembered what had happened when she'd shaken his hand. She couldn't let him touch her. She dredged up her best Mad Dog glare while she edged away from him. His face reflected his confusion as he allowed his hand to drop to his side.

Forcing herself not to look at him, she looked instead at Perry, who had just rounded the corner of his desk and was pulling out his chair. The whole unsettling incident had flashed past in mere seconds; it only felt like she'd been standing there for hours. Maybe she could Mad Dog her way out of here. Letting go of the back of the chair, she took a step toward the door and began, "Chief, I'm in the middle of this --"

"Sit," he interrupted her firmly, and she dropped grudgingly into one of the chairs in front of his desk. She tried not to react as Clark Kent seated himself in the chair beside her.

Perry sat down as well, leaning back and regarding her with a benevolent smile. It was a smile she'd learned not to trust. "Lois," he drawled blandly, "I've yet to go wrong following one of your hunches. If you say there's something to this whole Samuel Platt and Space Station Prometheus thing, then I'm giving you the go-ahead on it -- I'm not done yet," he added sharply as she began to rise.

"Chief -" was as far as she got before he was speaking again.

"Kent, here, is the Planet's newest investigative reporter. He comes well recommended by your own Professor Sterling at Met U, and has quite an impressive portfolio. For the time being, you'll be working with him on this Prometheus thing."

She gaped at him. "What?"

"Say hello to your new partner, Lois," Perry said with an expansive smile.

Lois was flabbergasted. A partner?

She didn't need a partner. She hadn't *ever* needed a partner!

Why was Perry deciding, after the past several years and her two Kerths, to assign her a partner? Especially *this man*? She couldn't work with him! How could she?

"Perry!" She started again. "I can't --"

Perry raised a solicitous and inquiring eyebrow.

"Oh, I get it," she said. "This is about my blowing off that mood piece, right? You're taking me down a peg because I got a little too... Perry," she put on her most beseeching look, "I'm sorry -- you know me, I just jump in without checking the water level sometimes. But you have to admit, usually I'm right." She chuckled a little, inviting him to share the joke.

He was smiling, but it wasn't a share-the-joke smile at all. It was the sort of smile she used when she knew she was going to get her own way.

This wasn't looking good.

"Chief," she began again, but he held up his hand before she could continue.

"Now, Lois." He sounded like a parent with a recalcitrant child. A noise that sounded suspiciously like a smothered laugh coming from her left forcibly reminded her of the man she was trying so hard to ignore. She looked sharply at him, but he gazed back at her innocently, and meeting her eyes, smiled that... that *smile* at her again. She snapped back to look at Perry, who was rising to his feet.

"Lois, you are the best of the best," he said, and his smile smoothed into a genuine one. "Kent, here, is new to the Planet, yes. But he is also *very* good. I reckon if I put the two of you on it, this story will be Kerth material for sure. Because I agree with you, darlin' -- there's something wrong with that whole program. Give this idea of mine a chance, Lois," Perry added persuasively. "I smell a possible Pulitzer in this."

She tried one last time. "Perry, I work best alone. You know that. I don't do that whole partnership thing very well --"

Perry interrupted her again. "Time you learned, darlin'. Now I can give this whole assignment to Kent, here, or you can work *with* him on it. Your choice."

She knew when to fold. Grudgingly, she nodded. "Fine, Chief," she muttered. "Now, if you're done with me -- with *us* -" she added as he cocked that eyebrow at her again, "my *partner* and I have work to do. C'mon, Kent!" And she stalked out of the office, trying not to notice if he followed her or not.

He did.

***

Jimmy was waiting for them at Lois's desk, his usual cheerful smile in place.

"Hi!" he said, extending his hand to Lois's unwanted companion. "Clark Kent, right? I'm Jimmy Olsen. Pleased to meet you." The two men shook hands as Lois sat down at her desk, trying not to pay any attention to either of them.

"The Chief said to set you up over here, with Lois," Jimmy continued, earning a glare he didn't see from her. He patted the top of a computer monitor sitting on the previously empty desk across from hers. "Here, sit down and try this out -- I've got your computer set up, and it's connected to the network and ready to go..."

Watching surreptitiously as Jimmy went over the computer setup with Kent, she thought about the whole annoying partner thing Perry had foisted on her. Well, she might have to work with this man, but she didn't have to like it.

She'd have to find a way to make this tolerable, somehow. She'd overcome a lot of other things in her life; she'd just have to ruthlessly crush this... *insane* attraction to Kent. Glowering at the two men as Jimmy went on and on about the computer, she admitted it would be a whole lot easier to keep this guy Kent at arm's length if only he was just a little less friendly. But no, apparently he was one of those never-met-a-stranger-everybody-likes-him kind of guys.

Well, most people in the office were intimidated by Mad Dog Lane. Maybe if she just... *deliberately* gave him the full treatment, it might keep him from getting too close. She'd just have to keep the upper hand in this supposed partnership and show Clark Kent the brashest, most abrasive Mad Dog behavior she had.

Jimmy was still talking. "You just need to sign in for the first time and set your prefs, and you're all set, okay? And the supply closet's just over there, near the chief's office." He gestured in the general direction of Perry's office. "Feel free to get whatever you need -- paper, pencils and pens, office supplies, and so on..."

Lois interrupted him. "Yeah, yeah -- he can do all that later, Jimmy. Any luck with that code?"

"Well, no -" Nicely distracted from the rest of his welcome-to-the-Planet chatter, Jimmy shook his head. "I'm still working on it. It's harder to figure out, you know, 'cause it's only a fragment. It's like... taking a single paragraph out of a book and trying to get the whole story from just that one paragraph. I'm trying to hack into -- er, I mean..." He glanced around nervously and lowered his voice. "That is, uh -- well, I'm trying to... *access* the space program's files. If I can get a look at the Lisp code for the whole program -- you know, the shuttles' computer programs? I can get a better idea of what, exactly, this is."

Clark Kent spoke up. "May I see it?"

"Yeah, sure." Jimmy fished the folded scrap out of his pocket, unfolded it, and handed it over. "It's a fragment of Lisp code; we're trying to find out what it does."

"Dr Platt's?" Kent asked.

"Yeah. Well, I don't know if he wrote it -- you know, authored it -- but it was in his research notes."

"His research notes -- which he delivered to me in a large paper bag," Lois couldn't resist adding. "The entire body of research is written on an assortment of scraps of paper like that one, and on napkins, pieces of cardboard, a pizza carryout menu, and even a shoebox lid. And none of the... pages... were in order."

"Ouch. How far have you gotten with them?" Kent asked sympathetically.

"Not very," she admitted, forgetting her resolve to be Mad Dog Lane. "I'm about a third of the way through them, and they're full of stuff like that." She nodded at the scrap he still held. "That one, in particular, gave me fits."

"Yeah," Jimmy chimed in. "We know it's computer code, but we don't know what it's for."

"Couldn't we just ask him what it does?" Kent asked.

Lois shook her head. "I want to know what it does, first," she said flatly. "According to Jimmy's sources, Dr. Platt's supposed to be a computer expert, so he could tell us anything. This could be some sort of malevolent... I don't know, computer virus thingy. I don't really think the guy's in on any kind of sabotage, and I suspect he didn't write that code -- I think he found it when he wasn't supposed to. But I'd like to know what that code does before I go talk to Platt."

Kent nodded. "That makes sense." He smiled at her across the desks, and she remembered she was supposed to be Mad Dog Lane. She forced herself not to react to his smile. After a moment under her blank stare, his smile faded.

Jimmy glanced at Kent, then at her, and she knew he was contemplating a quick retreat in the face of Mad Dog Lane.

"Do you think it's malevolent, Jim?" Kent asked the young man, handing back the scrap of code.

"Well, not..." Jimmy glanced warily at Lois again. "Not deliberately malevolent like... like erasing a hard drive or anything. I haven't tried to run it yet -- not sure I can, since it's incomplete -- but so far it really just looks like nonsensical lines of code."

He forgot Mad Dog, relaxing as he warmed to his subject. "But I don't know Lisp all that well. I mean, I can read it, and I've written a couple of short... uh, search programs using Lisp, but there're a couple of variants out there. Besides, it's just a few lines -- probably taken from a larger body of code. Like I said, it would be easier to figure it out if I had the whole program."

Lois asked, "But it wouldn't necessarily have to be deliberately malicious, right? What happens if some 'nonsense code' is written into a program?"

"Well, usually it would just crash the program."

"Shut it down?" Kent asked. When Jimmy nodded, he continued, "You said the shuttle programming is in this same language? All of it?"

"Yeah."

"So..." Kent said slowly. He glanced at Lois. "If this small bit of code were inserted into one of the shuttle's programs...

"...Like the countdown and ignition sequences..." Lois interjected.

"...It could cause the whole process to abort?" Kent finished.

"Yeah," Jimmy said again.

"And just a line or two of nonsense would be hard to find in a large amount of code, right?" Lois asked him.

"Yeah -- extremely time-consuming; you'd have to go through every line."

"I think we need to get through the rest of Dr. Platt's research notes as soon as possible," Lois said. "And then we need to go talk to him."

"Do you want to work on it tonight?" Kent asked.

Yes. No.

No. She wasn't ready to have Kent in her apartment. It would feel way too... intimate. She glanced at him unwillingly, not meeting his gaze, and said gruffly, "No. The notes are all at my place. I need to bring them back in so we can go through them..."

"Didn't you say you had a lot of them laid out in order on your floor?" Jimmy chimed in unhelpfully.

She glared at him. "Don't you have some more research to do?" she snapped.

He backed up a step, clearly deciding retreat was his best option. "Yeah... uh, I'd better get to that..." he stammered, already moving away from them. "See you guys later, huh?"

There was a short silence.

"Lois." Clark -- Kent -- said her name gently, and she reluctantly met his too-perceptive gaze. "It's okay. You don't know me. I can understand that it would make you uncomfortable to have a perfect stranger in your home. We can work here. I'm sorry you'll have to undo the work you've done so far, but with two of us going through it again tomorrow, it shouldn't take as long to re-sort it all."

She looked away from him, from the soft look in his eyes. The urge to stay and talk was strong, but instead she began gathering up her things. Without acknowledging what he had said, she stood abruptly. "I need to get going. We can start on the rest of Dr. Platt's notes tomorrow."

She was halfway up the ramp before Kent could say anything.

***

The following morning, Lois arrived at the Planet just in time for the morning meeting. She'd slept poorly, and had then lingered over the lines of Dr. Platt's notes, trying to decide if she really wanted to gather them all up and start over. In the end, she'd left them where they were, seizing on the excuse that she was going to be late. She had refused to let her thoughts wander past that point.

She slid into the meeting room on Perry's heels, to find that Kent had left an empty place beside him. The only other places were at the far side of the room, and she would have to squeeze past several people to get there.

As she hesitated, Perry pulled out his own chair and asked, "Lois? Did you forget something?"

With a tiny, soundless sigh, she dropped into the chair beside Kent. "Well, I could use some coffee, Chief..." She trailed off as Kent slid a coffee cup toward her.

"When I realized you must be running late, I thought you might like a cup," he said softly. "I don't know what you like in it, so I also grabbed some sweetener and creamer."

What she would like was to be in another room -- even another building -- far away from this sweet man who disturbed her so much. "Thanks." She said it flatly, not looking at him, and focused on Perry, who had begun to speak.

But she found it very hard to concentrate on what Perry was saying, and had to keep forcing herself to block out the sound of Kent's heartbeat. Glancing covertly at the man beside her, she watched his hand, lightly tanned with well-kept nails, as he jotted notes in the margins of the morning handout. She remembered the jolt of feeling she'd had when they'd shaken hands that first day.

No. That must have been her imagination. Nobody actually experienced that kind of reaction to anyone outside of fiction.

She was so aware of the man she was ready to scream. How could Perry do this to her? She needed to... to... She didn't know what she needed to do. She could feel her heart pounding, and wondered if her increasing discomfort was visible to anyone else. She was going to have to find a way to escape.

No, to *leave* the meeting. Mad Dog Lane never 'escaped' from *anything*. Mad Dog Lane was intimidated by no one. Mad Dog Lane did *not* have panic attacks. Mad Dog Lane was --

"That's it, people! Now hustle! Get me news!" Perry's voice broke into her thoughts, and she took a deep breath, forcing herself to unclench her hands and slow her heart rate.

In the same moment, Kent leaned slightly toward her and whispered, "Are you okay, Lois?"

Perry saved her from having to respond to that. "Lois? Clark? You two need anything?" he asked, and she shook her head.

"Not yet, Chief." She was pleased to hear her voice sounded completely normal. As she rose to her feet, Kent pulled out her chair for her, stepping back to allow her to precede him. She shot an annoyed look at him as she turned toward the door, and ignored the surprised look he gave her in return. The dratted man. Every time she turned around, literally, there he was doing something *nice* for her.

Once again, she headed for her desk, trying not to notice that he was right behind her.

***

In the short time it took for them to cross to their desks, she had gathered her thoughts and her resolve, and was ready to treat him to the full Mad Dog effect.

"Okay," she announced briskly. "We have work to do. Here's how it works, Kent. *I'm* the senior reporter here. You may have experience, but you don't have Daily Planet investigative experience. *I* call the shots, *I* make the rules. *You* do not work *with* me, you work *for* me. Keep that in mind at all times and we'll get along fine. Got it?" She looked at him with the light of battle in her eyes.

He gazed back at her for a moment, nonplussed, began to say something, and then obviously changed his mind.

"What?" she snapped.

He looked at her somewhat searchingly, and she gritted her teeth to keep from reacting to the soft look in his eyes. After a moment, he smiled slightly and replied, "Got it, Lois. You like to be..."

He paused for a moment, and she bristled. If he said something chauvinistic and condescending, something totally Ralph-ish like 'You like to be on top,' she wasn't going to be responsible for her actions.

"...a leader," he continued, without any undertone of insincerity. "A kind of mentor, in a way. That makes sense -- you are, after all, considered to be the best of the best. It's one of the reasons I'm proud to work with you. Well, lead away, partner. What do we do first?"

Realizing she was gaping at him, she hurriedly shut her mouth and dropped into her chair. "First, we go through the rest of the information Jimmy found for me. If Dr. Platt is correct, we'll need to know as much as possible about the people involved in the program in order to find out who is sabotaging the shuttle flights, and why." Booting up her computer, she reached for the stack of printouts and divided them roughly in half, sliding one stack across to him as he sat down and booted up his own computer.

He took his stack, flashed a smile at her, and began to read. She looked down at her own stack, but it took a few moments before she was able to school her thoughts and concentrate on the words in front of her. The man's smile ought to be outlawed. It was too unsettling, and she didn't like the way it made her feel.

***

They worked their way through the information steadily until lunchtime. At that point, Lois reluctantly pushed the last of her printouts to the side of her desk. She'd finished reading it half an hour previously, but had resolutely not looked over at her new partner to check on his progress. She was afraid he would catch her eye and suggest something unappealing <appealing> like having lunch together. She looked up when he spoke from across the desk.

"Have you finished reading your printouts?" he asked pleasantly.

"Yes." She kept her reply short and abrupt.

"Me too." He stood up. "I think it's time for lunch." She braced herself, ready to throw her best Mad Dog Lane attitude at him when he continued with the invitation she knew he was about to issue.

"Lois..." As he stepped around the edge of his desk, she made herself look up at him. He hesitated, looking away from her toward the top of the ramp for a moment, and she got the impression he was rethinking what he had been going to say. "I have an errand I need to run... So I'll see you here in about an hour, okay?" With a quick smile, he turned and headed up the ramp, replying pleasantly to those who spoke to him as he went.

Lois sat watching him, telling herself that it was relief she was feeling, not surprise. And absolutely not disappointment. The less she was around him the better.

***

She grabbed a sandwich at her favorite deli and sat in the park to eat it, as she often did if the weather was nice. She didn't enjoy it as much as usual, though. If she weren't invulnerable, she might have wondered if she was coming down with something. Well, it was probably the... the uncertainty of the investigation that was getting to her. That it had never been an issue in any of her other investigations she refused to consider.

Her new partner wasn't in the newsroom when she returned.

"Where's Kent?" she asked Jimmy abruptly as he walked past.

"I don't know; I haven't seen him since -- oh, there you are, CK," Jimmy smiled at Kent, who was coming toward them from the direction of Perry's office.

"Hi, Jimmy. Hi, Lois," he said as he reached them.

About to ask him where he'd been, Lois instead found herself asking, "CK?"

Kent shrugged and smiled as Jimmy replied, "Yeah -- CK; Clark Kent..."

"I get it," she informed him snappily, then turned to Kent. "You don't mind?"

"No, of course not," he replied with a smile. As Jimmy continued on his way, Kent set one of the two Metropolis Coffee Company cups he held on her desk. "I stopped to get myself a coffee and remembered I've seen you drinking them. So I brought you one, too -- it's a Double Mocha Latte. You like chocolate, don't you?"

She loved the stuff. She looked at him warily, but saw only simple friendliness in his expression. "Thanks," she said gruffly. Then after a brief silence, more softly, "Thank you... Clark. I do like chocolate."

He smiled and moved to his own desk. "You're welcome, Lois. Did you bring Dr. Platt's research notes in? Unless Jim's got more information for us, I think we're ready to tackle that mess."

She sighed. She'd spent the whole morning *not* thinking about those notes and the fact that they were still laid out on her living room floor.

"Lois?" her partner asked.

She sighed again, then squared her shoulders and looked at him challengingly. "No. I didn't bring them in," she said belligerently. "I decided that I didn't feel like messing up two days of work. We can work on them there. If Perry vouches for you I guess that's good enough for me." Her eyes dared him to comment.

All he said was, "If that's what you prefer, Lois, that's fine with me. Do we work on them now, or this evening?"

"Now." She stood up, Mad Dog Lane from head to toe. "The sooner we get through it all, the better." She grabbed her coffee and headed up the ramp without looking back. After a moment, she heard him follow her.

***

The walk to her apartment was made in silence, but to Lois's surprise, it wasn't an uncomfortable silence. By the time they arrived, she was actually feeling quite calm. She could do this. It wouldn't be any different from having, say, Jimmy stop by to help her.

Once they were actually standing inside her apartment, she started to have second thoughts again. What was she supposed to say? She hadn't ever had visitors, other than Sam and Ellen, and even that had been rare. Jimmy had stopped by several times to deliver information she'd requested, but he'd never stayed.

As she stood there trying to hang onto Mad Dog Lane, Kent solved her problem. Instead of standing there like a guest, he had moved into the living room area and was inspecting the neat rows of Dr. Platt's scraps.

"Wow, you *have* done a lot of work, haven't you?" he asked. Looking into the box still partly full of scraps, he continued, "And is this the rest of them? You weren't kidding when you said they were a mess, were you?" He lifted the box off the coffee table and set it in the middle of an empty area of floor, near where her previously laid lines of scraps ended. "It looks like we're all set," he continued cheerfully, glancing at her with a quick smile and then returning his attention to the box. "We've got coffee; we've got plenty of work. How about if we start at opposite ends of this open space, and both of us sort? Think that'll work?"

To her surprise, Lois found herself agreeing without argument, and settling onto the floor at one end of the open area with her coffee and a stack of Dr. Platt's notes. Kent settled at the other end with his own coffee and stack of notes.

They very quickly worked out a process where each of them sorted what they could into order, laying it out in rows parallel to each other, with the scraps that were illegible or out of order tossed into a narrow sort of no man's land between the two areas. If one or the other of them came to a gap in the bits and scraps, he or she could sort through the discards; more often than not, the gaps were filled in.

The reading and sorting, and the occasional comment about a scrap from one or the other of them, soothed Lois with its normality. While she was still very aware of Kent, she found that they worked very well together, and she was feeling calm enough and secure enough to admit it to herself. She'd been right, down there on the pavement -- it wasn't any different than working with Jimmy.

Recalling something Perry had said, she asked, "Where did you go to school?"

"Midwestern University." He grinned at her. "You know I'm from Kansas?" And at her nod, "Midwest was close enough to go home on weekends, and its School of Journalism is in the top ten."

"How do you... That well-recommended thing -- you know, that Perry said... How does Professor Sterling know you, if you went to Midwest? He's been at Met U for at least a decade."

"He and the dean of Midwest's School of Journalism set up a sort of trial exchange course between the two schools," Clark explained. "I was chosen for the program my senior year. I spent three weeks at Met U that spring, and one of Dr. Sterling's students spent three weeks at Midwest."

"Oh." She pretended to be engrossed in the scrap she'd just picked up. He had been there, on campus, at the same time as she had. Spring of his senior year -- he was about two years older than she was, so that would have been her second year. The year she'd been perfecting her control over her strength and speed at Uncle Mike's gym.

He'd been there only a very short time, and as an upperclassman, wouldn't have been in the same classes. But still... He had been that close; somehow she should have sensed it. She knew how ridiculous that sounded -- one man in a student population of close to thirty-five thousand -- but it still felt like she ought to have known. Ought to have somehow sensed he was there.

She was getting tense again. For a brief while, she'd allowed herself to ignore her reaction to this man, but it was back in full force now. She also realized that Mad Dog Lane had been nowhere in sight. Granted, they'd spoken very little, but she couldn't afford to appear friendly. It was too dangerous. It made her want things she couldn't have.

How to get him out of here, though? They still had a long way to go, and suggesting that they stop for dinner might give him the impression that she wanted to have a meal with him. Which she didn't.

She *didn't*. She... couldn't.

She'd have to unleash the full force of Mad Dog Lane on him, and she didn't want to. Not because she wanted him to stay, or to like her. No. Of course not. But she *did* have her pride; she didn't want him to... think she was unstable. Yes. Even *she* couldn't pull off quite that mercurial a mood change without causing some concern.

Once again, the man solved her dilemma for her. Glancing at his watch, he rose to his feet. "Lois, I'm afraid I have to call it quits for the night. I'm sure you have plans for the evening, and we seem to have accomplished quite a lot. I'll see you tomorrow morning at the Planet, okay?"

And before she had time to say anything more than "Oh. Okay," he was wishing her a quiet goodnight and had left her apartment.

Lois looked at her living room floor. They had, indeed, gotten a lot accomplished. At this rate, they might empty the box tomorrow. Then the reading could begin in earnest.

He'd left rather abruptly. Maybe her strategy was working.

She picked up the two empty coffee cups and went into her kitchen. She didn't *want* Kent to be interested in her. So why was his unexpected exit bothering her so much?

Why had he left so quickly? She hadn't said anything to him... Maybe that was why. She hadn't made much effort to talk to him. Or maybe he had a date or something. He was a strikingly attractive man. And she hadn't missed the way the Planet's resident female version of Casanova, gossip columnist Cat Grant, had brazenly introduced herself earlier today.

Grumpily, she dumped the cups into the trash and opened the refrigerator. Dinner. And sleep. She could have a nice quiet dinner and then use this time to catch up on her sleep.

***

It was raining rather heavily when she arrived at the Planet the following morning, another bunch of Dr. Platt's sorted notes, this time in a plastic bag, tucked under one arm. She shook out her umbrella in the foyer, wishing she could have just flown over from her place. She could fly fast enough -- and high enough -- that she wouldn't have gotten wet. But years of caution kept her from flying during daylight hours.

When she entered the newsroom, she saw Kent sitting at his desk, turned sideways, brushing rather ineffectively at a large patch of mud marring one pant leg near his knee.

"What happened to you?" she asked him, dropping the wet umbrella on the floor near her chair, and setting the bag of Dr. Platt's scraps on her desk.

"I..." he began, but was interrupted by Jimmy's cheerful voice.

"Same thing that happened to me, it looks like," he said, gesturing to his own slacks; the bottom six inches or so of both pant legs were soaking wet and dirty. "I was the victim of a drive-by splashing."

She looked back at Kent. "You're going to have to get that cleaned." Turning to Jimmy, she demanded, "Didn't you show him where the cafeteria and locker rooms were?"

"Not yet, Lois -- I haven't had a chance to," Jimmy said hastily. "It is kind of a neat setup, CK," he added. "There's the cafeteria, of course, and there are showers and lockers and stuff, too. It's a bit unusual, but since the Planet owns the whole building..."

"Jimmy! Just show him where they are already!" she snapped. Honestly. Kent could've been down there and back by now. "You'll have to see if you can borrow something," she told Kent crisply. "Or make do with whatever repairs you can -- at least until after the morning meeting. You ought to do what most of us do -- keep a spare set of clothes here."

Jimmy hurried away, taking Kent with him. She stared after them for a moment, shaking her head. It wasted valuable investigation time when things like this happened, although it was inevitable in a big city. She'd learned that early on. After she'd had to spend the whole day in clothes she'd worn for a stakeout, she'd made sure have a change of clothes on hand at all times. Being able to shower and change on the premises had saved a lot of that valuable time.

Usually, she made use of the Planet's amenities after a stakeout spent in some elaborate or heavy disguise. But once, she'd been at lunch when she'd come upon a cluster of workers and onlookers at the entrance of a manhole. Hearing alarmed shouts from below, she'd paused. She'd heard one of the men say in a panicky voice, "I can't reach him. But if we don't get him out of there soon..."

A low, pain-filled moan had decided her. Looking around carefully with her enhanced vision, she'd seen a second manhole cover partway down a narrow alley. As the bystanders focused on the man just inside the hole, she'd slipped down the alley, lifted the cover, and dropping quickly down to hover above the dirty concrete floor of the conduit. Apparently, there'd been some sort of cave-in, and one of the workers was pinned under the debris. She'd come up behind and below the injured man, lifting both him and his coworker toward the surface.

The surprised coworker had found himself on the street with the injured man beside him, and no adequate explanation for it. As he had gabbled that an angel had helped him rescue their coworker, she could hear the others wondering if he'd hit his head coming up. She'd retreated, fast, the way she'd come, and in less than thirty seconds she'd replaced the cover, exited the alley, and made her way halfway down the block. She'd arrived at the Planet aware that her blouse was dusty, with smears of dirt on the sleeves, and had had to concoct a quick story of being knocked against a dumpster by an over-exuberant jogger who hadn't been watching where he was going.

She sat down and booted up her computer, checked her email, and then carefully pulled Dr. Platt's research notes out of the bag.

She looked up as Jimmy and Kent returned, talking about some ballgame or other. Looking them over, she noted that Jimmy had changed clothes, while Kent had been more effective than she'd thought at getting the mud cleaned up.

"Hmmm, nice job, Kent. You can hardly tell it's there."

"Oh, thanks, Lois." He gave her one of those unsettling smiles of his, and she remembered Mad Dog Lane.

"Yeah, whatever. C'mon, let's get to work on this," she said flatly, handing him half the stack of notes.

With a small shrug, he took them from her without comment, and they spent the next half hour reading carefully through the scraps of paper, jotting down notes and questions as they went.

***

The morning meeting proceeded much the same as the previous one had. Kent was already in the conference room when she entered, having been delayed with a phone call from Bobby Bigmouth. Once again, Kent had left a seat for her. This time she dropped into it without hesitation. He was her partner, after all; it would look strange, even for Mad Dog Lane, if she appeared to be avoiding him. Mad Dog did not retreat, after all.

And besides, if she left the seat open she had no doubt Cat would be hanging all over him, annoying Lois and getting in the way. Of their investigation.

He slid a cup of coffee over in front of her with a smile, and she saw that this time, the coffee already had additions. "I remembered what you used yesterday," he said quietly, "and I figured I'd go ahead and fix it for you today. Saves time and mess."

"Thank you," she said shortly, but her tone was much softer than it had been the day before. Honestly, how on earth was she supposed to keep Mad Dog Lane firmly in place when he kept disarming her at almost every turn?

Perry's voice, calling for everyone's attention and ending any necessity for her to make conversation with her disturbing partner, was a welcome intrusion into her thoughts. And to her relief, the intense awareness of Kent was muted to a point where by concentrating fiercely on what Perry was saying, she was able to push it to the back of her mind.

After the meeting, they spent a little time updating Perry on the progress of their investigation, before commandeering Jimmy to help them find some specific data on the space program. Reading through the information he found and the rest of the most recent batch of Dr. Platt's notes kept them both busy until lunchtime.

***

Once again, they spent the afternoon sorting through Dr. Platt's research notes at Lois's apartment. Kent had provided the coffee again, and they'd started in where they'd left off the night before without incident. By four o'clock, they'd finished sorting out every piece of paper, napkin, cardboard, and other strange detritus that made up the professor's work. The oddest things he'd used were a one-dollar bill and one of those heavy-duty blue paper towels of the kind offered at gas stations to clean windshields.

Now all they had to do was read it. Lois knew she could probably speed through much of it very quickly, and if she'd been investigating alone, she would have. How would she explain something like that to the partner Perry had foisted upon her, though? With a sigh, she looked around at the scraps of paper in neat rows across her floor. They'd even had to extend some of the rows into the kitchen.

"We ought to gather some of these rows up into stacks and secure them somehow," Kent commented. "Maybe with rubber bands? You're not going to be able to get across the floor from one room to another tonight without disturbing some of these rows."

She honestly hadn't thought of that. She'd spent the last few nights simply hovering over the mess whenever she needed to. She couldn't very well tell Kent that, of course. With another sigh, she conceded that if she couldn't fly, his suggestion would probably have already occurred to her.

"Fine," she said somewhat shortly, more out of annoyance that she'd let down her guard around him to the point that she wasn't carefully watching everything she said or did. She couldn't afford to have him start wondering how she might have accomplished this thing or that thing. She had to admit, however reluctantly, that the man was sharp.

Standing up, she picked her way carefully to the kitchen and dug around in one of the drawers for rubber bands. Returning to the living room, she found him carefully gathering up Dr. Platt's notes, starting at the empty area from which she'd taken the first two sets of research notes she'd brought back to the newsroom.

When he'd gathered about three inches of notes in a relatively neat stack, he held it firmly while she wrapped a rubber band around it, then turned it ninety degrees so she could wrap a second rubber band around it. Once it was secured, he picked up a Sharpie marker off her coffee table and wrote a small numeral 3 in an empty space on the top page of the stack. "Because we've already got two stacks at the Planet, right?" he commented.

"Yeah. Good idea," she said grudgingly.

They worked their way together through about half the living room, creating stacks four, five, six, and seven. She was careful not to touch him any more than necessary, and almost managed to convince herself that she didn't feel *something* every time one of their hands brushed against the other's.

Kent put each of the stacks carefully into the big box Jimmy had found her for the loose notes, and looked around the room in satisfaction. "There. Now you can actually walk around in here without worrying about whether you'll accidentally kick some of the pages out of order."

She smiled slightly; her mind had seized on another dilemma. It was now six o'clock; would he expect her to feed him? Or... would he try to invite her out for a meal? She didn't have anything she could feed him, and anyway, having a meal with him would be so... intimate. She didn't *do* all that... close interpersonal stuff. Mad Dog Lane just didn't have time for it.

But then he was collecting the empty coffee containers, walking into her kitchen and placing them into the trash, and as she followed him slowly, he glanced at his watch. "Well, I guess I'd better get going," he said. "I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" And once again, he was leaving with a quiet "Good night, Lois," while she stood there trying not to wonder where he was going.

***

Lois didn't get to work until nearly one o'clock the next afternoon, and when she did arrive, her mood was so volatile that it made mere Mad Dog Lane seem mild enough to soothe a baby to sleep. She stormed in like a small fury, and the day went downhill from there.

Jimmy, approaching with a stack of printouts Clark had asked him for, stopped abruptly half the newsroom away from her, and avoiding her eye, flashed a rather sickly, apologetic smile at Clark and fled down the hall toward the research rooms. Planet employees in the immediate vicinity kept their heads down, focusing intently on their work. More people than usual donned headphones; there was little talk between desks as most of them suddenly discovered the joys of music.

She stopped at her desk, dumped the two bundles of Dr. Platt's notes she had brought in with her into the center of her work area, and sat down. She stared down at her copy of the morning edition for a moment, unmoving, then bent and stuffed her purse into the bottom drawer.

"Are you all right, Lois?" Kent foolishly chose to ask her.

She straightened up and glared at him, but said nothing.

Most people would have stopped there, but he tried again. "Where were you this morning? Did something happen?"

"What are you, my keeper?" she snapped at him, ignoring his surprise.

After a few moments, he asked cautiously, "Should we get started on Dr. Platt's notes?"

"Get this straight," she snarled at him. "There is no *we*. There is *you* and there is *me*, but *there* *is* *no* *we*. You think I'm going to carry you in my back pocket through this investigation? Think again, buddy!"

Rising to her feet, she grabbed the two bundles of Dr. Platt's notes, the morning edition, a notebook and a handful of pencils, and charged across the newsroom to the closer of the two conference rooms. Entering on a tide of anger, she tossed everything onto the table, slammed the door, and sat down at one end of the table, her back to the newsroom.

As the afternoon wore on, her cantankerous mood deteriorated to one of deep gloom. She deliberately shut down her hearing, blocking out by sheer determination the whispered mutters and comments she knew were making their way around the newsroom. As the day wound down, she made less and less effort to read Dr. Platt's notes, and finally she just sat and stared at the table.

Three months ago, she'd written a series of hard-hitting investigative reports on one of the city's most notorious slumlords. She'd researched her information thoroughly and had exposed many of his dirty dealings and the deplorable conditions of the buildings he owned.

Her work had helped get him a day in court, and she'd hoped the resultant charges would force him to clean up his buildings and bring them up to code. Unfortunately, he'd gotten off with a few fines and a slap on the wrist, and had gone back to managing the various properties -- with only a few cosmetic changes.

She'd been working on a follow-up article when the Space Station Prometheus investigation had begun to heat up, and the slumlord's activities -- or lack of -- had been pushed aside for later.

This morning, getting ready for work, she'd gotten a call from Bobby Bigmouth about a fire in one of the shabby apartment buildings on the edge of Suicide Slum. It was a building that was particularly unsafe. It had only one stairwell, the elevators were almost always inoperable, and there were no fire escapes.

By the time she got there, the fire was mostly under control. The firefighters had managed to contain it fairly quickly, but not fast enough for the few tenants remaining in the building. They had been trapped on an upper floor, and while the flames had not reached them, they had succumbed to the thick, poisonous smoke before the firemen could get to them.

Lois had learned over the years to block out a lot of the sounds she heard, concentrating only on her immediate surroundings. But sometimes she couldn't help but hear people in need of help. On several occasions, she'd been able to help unobtrusively, but more often than not, she couldn't help without exposing her secret.

She'd heard the final, gasping cry of one of the fire victims as she'd arrived, and it wasn't something she was likely to forget any time soon. Based on what the firefighters said about the fire, she'd probably have been unable to help any of the victims even if she'd been able to use her powers openly. But that didn't matter. What did matter was that six people had died and she hadn't saved any of them.

Now she opened the morning edition and paged through it until she found the small article about the fire. It listed the victims -- six people who might have lived if she'd heard about the fire earlier. If she'd been there soon enough to find a way to get them out of the building, or extinguish the fire, or clear the smoke. If she'd gone after that slumlord harder.

The door opening behind her brought her attention back to the present. The newsroom outside the conference room windows was dark; it was past quitting time for the day staff and the lights had gone to night-shift settings. Her partner entered the room, and pulling out the chair at a right angle to hers, sat down and setting a covered foam cup in front of her. "Hot chocolate," he said softly. "I thought you could use it."

She took the cup, not looking at him, and sipped.

"Are you okay?" he asked her just as softly.

Her anger had mostly burned itself out. She sat for a moment, staring at the article, then slapped her hand down on it and looked up at him. "Look at this," she burst out. "This fire -- it shouldn't have happened! I shouldn't have *let* it happen! I could have stopped it, Clark!"

He couldn't know that her words had more than one meaning. There was the obvious meaning -- she should have done more to expose the slumlord, the unsafe building. But there was also the meaning only she knew: she should have found a way to get in there and help those people.

But her fear of exposure was so strong. All her life, she'd had to keep her special abilities hidden. Usually she could deal with that; she'd found that being an investigative reporter was the best non-special-abilities way to fight dragons. But this sort of thing was the worst -- when things like this happened, where she *could* have helped but didn't.

"Lois, you did try to stop it. I read that series of articles -- they were compelling and they launched a full-scale police investigation into the man's activities."

"You don't understand," she whispered miserably, fighting tears. "I *could* have helped those people..."

He reached over and placed his long fingers gently against her chin, turning her face so that she was looking at him. "Lois, I covered that fire this morning. I spoke to the fire chief." With one finger, he brushed away the single tear that spilled over, so tenderly that she almost lost control over the rest of them.

He took his hand away and handed her a clean, neatly folded handkerchief. Trying not to miss his touch, she mopped at her eyes. "The poor quality of the construction produced massive quantities of poisonous smoke," he continued, "and those poor people were unlucky enough to be trapped in a pocket of it. The fire chief said that even if his men had been on the same floor in full fire gear at the start of the fire, they would have been unable to save them all. It wasn't the smoke itself, but the toxins in it. There was nothing anyone could have done to help."

"But I should have found a way..." she insisted.

"Lois." He waited until she looked at him again. "Sometimes you just... can't. You can't protect everyone, no matter who you are -- policeman, fireman, rescue personnel, doctor -- or investigative reporter. What you *can* do is not let their deaths be in vain. You can expose this guy further, Lois. Now, in addition to poorly maintained buildings, shortcuts in construction, and code violations, he has the deaths of six people to explain. You can fix it so that he pays for those shortcuts, and that those buildings are emptied and either fixed or condemned."

"What about..."

"Dr. Platt and Space Station Prometheus?" At her nod, he said diffidently, "We can put Dr. Platt's notes aside for one evening and concentrate on this. I can help you, if you'd like. We could quite possibly get the legal ball rolling on this guy as soon as tomorrow, or at least the end of the week."

She drank some more hot chocolate and thought about what he'd said. It would definitely ease her mind to jump on this guy, figuratively, and maybe get some closure on the whole thing. And Clark was right -- Dr. Platt's notes could wait until tomorrow. She looked up at him, to find him watching her with an expression she couldn't interpret. He smiled encouragingly at her, the expression gone, and she nodded slowly.

"Yes. Let's do that. We may even be able to get it into tomorrow's morning edition.

"How about a quick follow-up reiterating what the fire chief told me?" Clark suggested. "From there, we can work on properly exposing this guy. If we work on it tonight, we can make tomorrow's evening edition with both stories. How about that?"

It took them several hours to craft a story they were both happy with. It was close to midnight when they finished, and if she'd been alone, Lois would have simply flown home.

Clark, however, had suggested that he see her home safely, and after a brief consideration, she had agreed. It seemed easier than the machinations she would have had to go through to avoid going down to the lobby with him, or to stop him hailing her a cab.

Even Mad Dog Lane wouldn't have worked. She was learning that Clark Kent was chivalrous to a fault; he would have accompanied her down to the lobby and seen her safely on her way regardless of how ill-tempered she was. In the end, they shared a cab, since her apartment was apparently on his way home.

He had offered to stop by in the morning and help her carry the box of Dr. Platt's notes, and again, it was easier to agree than to find a believable excuse to refuse his help.

***

As soon as they arrived at the Planet the next morning, Lois commandeered one of the conference rooms. There was no morning meeting today; Perry was closeted with the 'suits' for the monthly business meeting. After setting down the box of Dr. Platt's research notes, Clark excused himself without further explanation, saying only that he would be back shortly.

After the amicable cab ride this morning, Lois wasn't sure what to make of that. Well, she wasn't his keeper. Deliberately pushing it to the back of her mind, she emptied the box and set it on the floor, then sat down and pulled the first bundle of notes toward her. She looked up as the door opened, to see Clark coming into the room with a smile and two Metropolis Coffee cups.

"Surprise," he said, still grinning, and set one of the cups in front of her. "Your usual; ready to get to work?"

"If you're done gallivanting around, Kent," she replied snootily, then spoiled it by smiling back and taking a long, appreciative sip.

They read steadily, doggedly through the morning, occasionally calling Jimmy when they needed more information. Finally, Lois sighed and leaned back, and Clark glanced over at her with a sympathetic smile. "It sure would be easier to read this stuff if it was in more of a... conventional format, wouldn't it?" he asked.

"Or even if the man's handwriting didn't look like a spider dipped in ink had crawled across the page..." Lois said, recalling the phrase from an essay she'd read in college. She'd found it particularly evocative, but even the mental picture she'd formed at the time didn't come close to the reality of Dr. Platt's notes.

She stretched. "I need a break from this."

Flying would be perfect -- except that she couldn't do that in the middle of the day. She'd have to wait for the cover of night. She sighed again. Fine. In the meantime, though --

Jimmy rapped on the door and stuck his head in. "Hey, guys. Lunchtime. The Chief sent me out for Chinese -- c'mon and grab some before it's all gone."

As they rose and prepared to follow him, Lois asked, "Have you made any progress on that code?"

He paused in the doorway. "No -- but..." he looked around and lowered his voice. "I finally... uh... *found* the program for the countdown launch. I was going to work through that today -- see if Dr. Platt's code is in there. I'll need to go through it line by line -- that'll take a while, you know."

"Well, get started on it right after lunch," she said.

"Uh, well... I have some other stuff to do, too. A couple of the City News Desk reporters have some --"

"This is more important," Lois cut in decisively. "Grab what you need and get in here, Jimmy. Bring your lunch." She gestured to the conference room's computer. "Clark and I don't need that computer right now, so you can get started on it right there."

"But what about the City News -" Jimmy started.

"If you're in here, they'll leave you alone," she answered matter-of-factly.

Jimmy glanced at Clark, who shrugged and said with a laugh, "You heard her, Jim. I'm certainly not going to argue with her."

"There, see? Even Clark agrees."

Ignoring her partner's laughing, "Actually, it's more that I don't dare *disagree*, Lois," she wheedled, "C'mon, Jimmy. You know that's what you'd rather do."

"Well... I was going to get the drudge research out of the way first, then work on this computer code. But... Yeah, okay. It's kinda like getting to eat my dessert before dinner, you know?" Jimmy happily led the way to where lunch was laid out in the break area.

They filled plates and headed back to the conference room, where Jimmy immediately settled in at the computer, donned the headphones of his music player, and was instantly oblivious to everything except the lines of code on the screen in front of him.

Despite his presence, though, the room seemed more private than it had in the morning. Maybe it was the intimacy of eating together, or maybe she was just getting too comfortable with Clark. Lois realized suddenly that she'd forgotten to be Mad Dog Lane with him.

Abruptly, she pushed her plate away. She *had* to remember to keep him at arm's length!

"Would you like anything else?" the man in question asked. She looked up and caught his eye; he was leaning back in his chair and watching her, and she could see clearly the admiration in his eyes.

She almost panicked. Caught in his gaze, for a moment she couldn't look away, and the room seemed to narrow down to just the two of them. Heart pounding, she looked down, shuffling Dr. Platt's notes around and no doubt disarranging the carefully ordered pages. But right now, she didn't care about that.

"Lois?"

"No!" she cried. To her disgust, she even sounded panicky. With an effort, she dredged up a little bit of Mad Dog Lane. "I'm fine. Let's get back to work," she said flatly.

Clark -- no, *Kent* -- looked at her, one eyebrow raised in inquiry.

She looked challengingly back at him. Her grasp on Mad Dog Lane felt much firmer. "Look, we've got a lot to go through," she said crisply. "We need to get on it right away."

She turned away from him deliberately, and went back to reading Dr. Platt's notes. After a moment, she heard the rustle of movement that indicated that he, too, had gone back to reading.

Okay. Mad Dog was back. Things ought to go much more smoothly now.

***

Around four o'clock, Jimmy let out a sudden whoop, startling both reporters. "Woo-hoo! Guys, I've got it! We were right! See, here -" He tapped the monitor as they rose and came over to him. "These lines -" He pointed to a spot halfway down a screen filled with lines of closely spaced gibberish that meant nothing to them. "Someone inserted this -- this is all nonsense. It's not a loop or a command -- it's basically just a break in the code. It doesn't mean anything and it doesn't tell the system to *do* anything..."

"And that would cause the whole system to...?" Lois broke in.

"Yes! Exactly! The launch would just shut down. This is so... so *devious* -- the shut-down would seem inexplicable -- there'd be no obvious reason for it."

"Wouldn't they think to look for it?" Kent asked.

"Well, no. Not right away, probably. 'Cause, you know, for this to work, the sabotage code was inserted *after* the whole program was certified and test-run. Why would they even consider it was a programming issue? First they'd assume it was an external system fault like... you know, a faulty component -- electronics, or wiring, or... conduits or something. That kind of thing. They'd go over the whole shuttle, practically with a magnifying glass, before they went back to the code."

"It would have to be someone who works for the program," Kent said thoughtfully.

"Oh, yeah -- the only way to insert these lines is to have access to the whole code. And believe me, guys, the only way to have access is to work there. I mean, it took me a couple of days to crack their security codes enough to get a copy of this..." Jimmy was practically bouncing in the chair.

"Not just *anyone* who works there..." Lois said. "Someone --"

"Do you think Dr. Platt *did* do this?" Jimmy interrupted her.

She rolled her eyes. "Get real, Jimmy. Why would he call our attention to it if he was the culprit?"

"Well... you know, if he was sorry for doing it, or something..." Jimmy trailed off as she shook her head.

She thought she heard the tiniest, smothered snort of laughter from Kent, but she ignored it. "Jimmy, you are *so* na´ve. If that were the case, he'd have just told us about it -- not left us to figure it out from his notes. As a matter of fact, he doesn't know who it is, either. I bet he suspects someone, though. That's why he told me -- us -- about this. He wants us to figure out who it is and stop them."

"Jim," Kent broke in. "Can you print that out and mark the lines for us?

"Sure -- but it'll take a lot of paper. This is probably... Oh, I don't know... Maybe a couple hundred pages? Around there... Why can't I just put it on a floppy?"

"We're going to need it on paper so we can highlight the nonsense lines," Lois explained." And then take it to the authorities. It'll be harder to find if we just transfer the entire body of code to a floppy."

"Oh. Uh... You know, I didn't exactly obtain that program *legally*," Jimmy pointed out worriedly.

"Don't worry -- we won't name you, Jim," Kent assured him. "Right now, let's just say you're one of our 'confidential sources.'"

"A confidential... Oh, hey, CK -- I like that! A 'confidential source'... Wow!" He sat straighter in the chair, making Lois wonder briefly if he was confusing 'confidential' with 'confident.' "Okay, guys, gimme, like... twenty minutes, okay? I'll have it printed and highlighted and ready to go."

"Go to it, Jimmy," Lois said.

"Good job, Jim. Thank you," Kent added.

And Lois was willing to admit, albeit grudgingly, that he had a point. Jimmy *had* done a good job. Without him, they'd probably still be struggling over those few lines of code.

Catching the young man's eye, she flashed him a genuine smile. "Yes, thanks, Jimmy. You've done an excellent job. And wasn't it more fun than doing... whatever... for the City Desk guys?" Her smile widened as all traces of the confident young man vanished and he blushed and stammered a semi-coherent agreement.

She glanced at Kent, who grinned and shook his head at her mock-reprovingly, and she found herself fighting a smile. Honestly, the man just wasn't intimidated by Mad Dog Lane at all. She couldn't decide if that made him very foolish or very brave.

Well, she'd worry about that later.

"I think it's time we went and talked to Dr. Platt," she said briskly. "We've gone through most of his research notes, and we know that code was inserted into the shuttle's program --"

He nodded. "And if we can find out whom he suspects... Here, I'll get his research refastened into bundles and stash the box... Where? Under one of our desks for now?" At her nod, he began gathering the stacks of notes. "...While you collect whatever we need to interview Dr. Platt --"

"Our notes. Notepads for both of us... Pens, of course... Oh, my tape recorder..." she began to itemize what they would need.

"...And hopefully, by the time we're ready, Jimmy will have that code printed." He hefted the box easily and left the conference room.

By five o'clock, armed with the paraphernalia of reporting, they hailed a cab and headed for the place Samuel Platt had told Lois he was staying.

***

The Bradner Apartments building looked like it might be slated for demolition soon, if it wasn't already. There were several boarded windows, one of which also sported a grimy 'NO TRESPASSING' sign, partly obscured by graffiti. There was another sign near the door that read, 'Bradner Apartments -- FOR RENT' with 'Weekly rates' in smaller letters underneath.

"Well, this explains why he looks like a street person," Lois commented as they picked their way over the broken, weed-choked sidewalk and several bags of trash toward the main entrance. "He might as well be. Do you think he's hiding out?"

"No... The building's still in use." Kent replied. "Remember, he was fired. He has no job; this is obviously a cheap place to live."

The front door, grimy glass on the top half and graffiti-covered plywood on the lower half, opened into a dingy lobby. A bored-looking attendant of uncertain gender sat behind the desk, a cigarette hanging from his -- or her -- mouth and a cell phone to his or her ear. As they entered, he -- or she -- scowled at them and moved the phone away slightly with a grumbled "Hang on a sec, babe."

"We got one-room apartments and a loft available," he or she -- there were no clues in the voice, either -- began as they approached. "Rates by the week --"

"We aren't here to rent; we're looking for Samuel Platt," Lois said shortly.

"Whatever," came the reply. "He's got one of the suites. Fourth floor, 403." The attendant jerked a thumb toward the elevator and refocused his or her attention on the cell phone.

"The stairs, I think," Kent suggested as they crossed the stained and buckled linoleum. "It's... marginally safer, I suspect."

Lois didn't bother to agree; she merely turned with him toward the stairs.

The stairwell obviously did double duty as a storage area. Or a junkyard. There was a battered, rusty bicycle chained to the bottom stair post. They passed a shoe, a broken light bulb, several Styrofoam cups -- no Metropolis Coffee Company products here -- and a tangle of plastic hangers, stepped over a few empty boxes, moved around a broken chair and several bags of trash, and began climbing.

The fourth floor hallway, as dingy as the lobby, was empty. Suite 403 was halfway down the hall on their left. As they approached, they could see that the door was not secure. It stood just slightly ajar, and when Lois reached for the handle, the door opened easily.

Lois and Clark glanced at each other before he cautiously pushed the door wider.

She tried to look through the walls into the apartment, but found she couldn't. The best she could achieve was a fairly murky view of the room -- a bathroom, which was empty -- beyond the outer wall.

The paint in these old tenements was often lead-based; city zoning prohibited such paint for newer buildings, but made no provision for removing it from the older buildings. She'd found from experience at Met U, some of whose buildings were quite old, that there was often enough lead in the paint to block most of her special vision. She could usually see through the thickness of one wall, somewhat blurrily, but more than one wall's thickness was beyond her abilities. It was like trying to see the bottom of a muddy pond.

Very softly, Clark asked, "Should we call the police?"

She hesitated, and then answered, "Not... yet. Clark, he... he looked like a street bum. Several of the man's contemporaries implied he was more than just a little odd. And... he had one shoe and one slipper... Maybe he just... lives this way."

Clark -- *Kent* -- nodded, then rapped on the open door. "Dr. Platt?" he called. There was no answer.

Lois extended her hearing. There was a heartbeat -- rather fast, but steady -- and a television show, both coming from the room ahead of them. The suite -- surely a misnomer -- was laid out like a hotel room, with the bathroom and a miniscule kitchen on their left as they entered. The room widened toward the left at the end of the short hallway, which was strewn with boxes, books, scraps of paper, and a few crumpled items of clothing.

They picked their way through the mess just inside the door, and Kent called again, "Dr. Platt?"

Lois tried again to use her special vision to look through the wall, but because she was looking at an angle from the hallway, she found herself looking into the bathroom again. But the heartbeat remained steady, if fast, in her ears, and the TV droned on. Maybe the man was sleeping. Moving slightly ahead of Kent, Lois turned the corner, saying briskly, "Dr. Platt? You must not have heard us..."

A gray cat perched on the bed closest to the door, and she realized instantly that it was the cat's heartbeat she was hearing. At the same moment, she heard Kent behind her say urgently, "Wait, Lois -" as she stepped past the end of the bed.

Only to freeze in her tracks. Dr. Platt -- what was left of the man -- was sprawled on the floor between the beds, obviously dead. Maybe he hadn't been a poor housekeeper. The place looked like it had been ransacked, and whoever had ransacked it must not have found what they were looking for. Or maybe they had, but had killed him anyway. She'd seen bodies before, but never someone she knew... And... Oh, God, it looked like he might have fought back, and his killer -- or killers -- had shown no mercy. And after... His cat had come to sit beside him at some point, because there were small bloody paw prints around him and on the bedspread --

With a small sound of distress, she turned away -- to find Clark right behind her. He wrapped his arms around her, one hand curving up over the back of her head, pressing her protectively to him. She could hear his heartbeat without any special use of her senses, strong and steady as she clung to him; it drowned out the sound of the cat's. His arms were comforting, secure -- it felt like coming home.

"I won't let the dragons win," she whispered, not realizing she'd said it loud enough for him to hear until Clark pulled back slightly and repeated, "Dragons, Lois?"

She drew a shuddering breath. She needed to be strong, but she wanted to stay where she was just a little longer, drawing strength from him. "Dragons, Clark." She said it urgently, looking up at him, hoping he'd understand. "We can't let the dragons win. We have to stop them -- whoever did this."

His arms tightened around her, and he drew her head back to his chest. His voice, deep and steady, said just above her head, "Don't worry, Lois. We'll both fight the dragons. And Lois -- they won't stand a chance."

After a moment, she took a deep breath. Clark's arms loosened as she stepped back slightly, but he didn't let go of her until he'd drawn her back into the hallway, away from Dr. Platt's body. She looked up into his dark, sympathetic eyes, and said softly, "Thanks."

"You're welcome," he replied equally softly. "C'mon, let's go out into the hallway. We need to call the police."

***

It was several hours before they were back at the Planet, sitting at their desks. Treated at first with some suspicion, which was understandable under the circumstances, they'd gone from possible suspects to welcome sources of background information when Inspector Bill Henderson showed up.

They were almost the only two in the newsroom; the normal workday had ended well before they had returned. Lois looked over at her partner, who was concentrating on his computer screen as he wrote up his part of their notes. She knew what had happened to Dr. Platt bothered him as least as much as it bothered her -- not only had he said as much in the taxi on their way back to the Planet, but he had chastised a young patrolman who'd made an inappropriate joke about the situation.

Watching him, she admitted that it was impossible to dislike him. Before she could think better of it, she said, "Clark?"

He looked up, his gaze softening as his eyes met hers. "Yes, Lois?"

"Thanks for..." she began awkwardly, "...you know... Thanks for earlier..."

He gave her a sweet smile. "It's all right, Lois. You already thanked me."

"I know I'm... probably difficult to work with," she continued. "And I'm not very nice to you. It's not like you weren't probably warned before you even started working with me, but I'm... I'm the poster child for 'doesn't play well with others'..."

"Lois," he insisted, "it's okay, really --"

"I'm not sure I can change that about me, Clark." She kept talking, needing him to understand.

"Lois." He stood and came over to her side of the two desks, and squatted down beside her chair so that his eyes were almost level with hers. "I don't want you to change. I... think we're becoming friends?" He smiled at her, and she nodded tentatively.

"I like you just the way you are." He looked intently at her, unsmiling. "I like everything about you." She stared back at him for a moment, and suddenly it was too much. She felt her heart racing, and her tension level rose.

He seemed to understand that things were getting a little too personal for her. Standing up, he moved back. Tucking his hands into his pockets, he leaned casually against the side of her desk where it met his, putting at least three feet of space between them. Smiling teasingly, he continued, "I even like you when you're cranky."

His comment lightened the mood instantly.

"Watch it, Kent," she mock-growled at him.

With a laugh, he returned to his chair, and both went back their notes.

After a few moments, though, she stopped again. With a sigh, she said, "Who -- why would they... Clark, he was harmless! I was the only one who believed him, anyway. Everyone else thought he was some down-and-out has-been, a nutcase. All you had to do was look at him -- the crazy clothes, all his 'research' in a paper bag... Whoever did this could have just written him off as a mental case! Why... *torture* him and kill him?"

"But you did believe him, Lois." Clark said it gently. "What if someone knew he'd come to you? An investigative reporter with an excellent reputation as the absolute *best* in the business. What if that someone had millions of dollars tied up in an illegal scheme? Would they take the chance you'd write him off as a nutcase?"

"I --"

"And have you considered that you may be in danger, Lois?" he continued. "I... can't force you to, but you need to be careful when you're out on your own."

She shook her head dismissively. She was at less risk for danger than he would ever know, but she couldn't tell him that. "I don't think anyone knew --"

"Lois, the *whole newsroom* saw him here!" Clark exclaimed.

"Are you suggesting one of my -- our -- coworkers had something to do with this?" she demanded.

"No, of course not! He could have been followed -- someone could have been in the lobby, or even on the street outside. All they had to do was watch the man enter -- it's no mystery as to what sort of business is housed in this building!"

About to snap back at him, she paused. "Okay..." she grudgingly conceded. "Maybe..."

He didn't say anything else, just sat looking at her. After a moment, she said, "Okay, okay! Assuming you're right, we need to work even harder to figure out what's going on and who's behind it. And with only Dr. Platt's research notes, it's going to be hard."

"But we're going to keep at it until we figure it out and stop them," Clark said. "We're going to fight your dragons, and we're going to win."

She stared at him. Princess Elizabeth's prince had been a total loss, but it was beginning to look like Lois might have one that was a champion.

***

"You know, just before Dr. Platt showed up, I was looking into a local philanthropist's allegations of inferior materials and shoddy construction on Space Station Prometheus," Lois said.

She and Clark were sitting on her living room floor, finishing a pizza. They had spent several hours painstakingly rereading Dr. Platt's notes, and when he'd offered to get them a pizza she'd endorsed the idea wholeheartedly.

"This guy's made this generous offer -- more than once -- to fund a space station. Not to fund *this* space station -- to fund a new one. To start over entirely. New design, new name, and so on." She looked over at Clark.

"Kind of over the top, I'd say." He placed another slice of pizza on each of their plates. "Is he on the up-and-up?"

"Well, this guy, Lex Luthor , is... He's been voted Man of the Year three times in a row, Clark. He's squeaky clean."

"But...?" Clark asked encouragingly.

"But in my opinion, he's *too* clean." She shook her head. "I mean, just for kicks, I had Jimmy look for stuff -- anything -- on the guy. There's a ton of stuff on him -- press releases, charitable contributions, the people he employs, the companies he owns... But there's no history, Clark. I mean, *nothing*. Jimmy couldn't find *anything* on the man before he came to Metropolis. He had to have grown up somewhere! But there's nothing. Just his press release bio, a polished rags-to-riches story without any details. The whole thing is just too... pretty."

"You think he has something to do with the problems this project is experiencing." It wasn't a question.

She shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know. I put it all on the back burner of stuff to investigate, you know, because it did seem like some of the space station's problems stemmed from faulty parts or poor construction. But based on what we've found in Dr. Platt's notes -- you know, the deliberate sabotage in the shuttle code, and with... what happened to Dr. Platt, I wonder..."

"If we should be investigating Lex Luthor more thoroughly?"

"Yes... It's just..." She gave voice to her thoughts. "There's no sign of his involvement at all -- absolutely nothing that we can tie to him. But -- his offer... I mean, a whole *different* space station... And there's something about him... The one time I met him in person, all my... investigative reporter senses just *screamed* at me." She looked at Clark. "I can't explain it..."

"You don't have to -- I've had that feeling before. Can we go through what you *do* have on the man again? Let's see what we can find if we both look through it. Tomorrow?"

"It's a date," she said without thinking. "Oh! I mean, not a... *date* date. I... What I meant was... You know, just... a confirmation that we'll go over that information Jimmy found me. Tomorrow, at the Planet..." Good lord, she was babbling. She *never* babbled. Hardly ever, anyway.

"Lois." He briefly rested his hand on hers, and the sensation as well as the action stopped her words. She looked up at him. "I know what you meant. I'll see you tomorrow at the Planet, and we'll start on whatever you have so far. Okay?"

So saying, he rose to his feet, curling his hand around hers long enough to tug her to her own feet, and then he was offering his quiet "Good night," as he opened her apartment door.

The sensation of his hand on hers lingered for what seemed like an awfully long time.

***

They didn't actually get started on their research plans until the afternoon.

After the morning meeting, Perry kept them behind for an update on their investigation, including Dr. Platt's death. When he'd heard all of it, and they'd showed him Jimmy's printout with the sabotage lines highlighted, he said, "I think we should print what we have so far."

"But... Perry, we weren't able to confirm anything with Dr. Platt," Lois said. "All we really have are suspicions."

"I'm talking about your discovery that one of the space shuttles' main systems programming codes contains a small amount of possibly deliberate errors that render the program un-executable," Perry said blandly.

Lois and Clark looked at each other. "Have you been talking to Jimmy?" Lois demanded.

Perry chuckled. "Now, darlin', I didn't get to be the editor of this fine paper because --"

"Yeah, yeah, because you can yodel," she finished impatiently. "What I meant was... *Can* you yodel, Perry?" she asked, momentarily diverted by a sudden mental image of the editor on a mountainside like in those TV commercials for the sore-throat thingies. No, wait, those guys used horns...

Clark's laugh brought her back to the present. "Not that I want you to," she said hastily, as both men laughed harder.

She glared at them both. "What I *meant* was, that was a pretty technical way to avoid saying 'deliberate sabotage,' Perry."

"Well, you have no proof it was actually sabotage. You can't confirm it with Dr. Platt, nor does he directly address who might be responsible for it. What you *do* have is proof that the code is flawed. Making the code's errors public knowledge will force EPRAD to take you seriously when you present them with the highlighted printout given to you by your unnamed source."

"What if delivering that printout to EPRAD headquarters plays into the wrong person's hands?" Clark asked.

"We publish the story first. Then even if you deliver it unintentionally directly to the author of those lines, they'll have to fix it -- or answer to the inevitable Committee on Science investigation."

"So..." Lois ticked off each point. "We write the first part of the story -- that a former employee brought to our attention his suspicions of sabotage. And that he provided us with the code -- well, the errors he'd found -- which we have in turn presented to EPRAD after further investigation backs up the man's claims..."

"Yes -" Perry held up a cautionary hand. "But only the man's claims that there are errors. The sabotage is still only alleged. From there, go into the problems the whole program has been experiencing, and Dr. Platt's death. Hold back your suspicions that it's part of a bigger plot, and who might be behind it." He stood up. "That's a story for another day."

He handed the printout to Lois. "That's it, kids. Get writin'. I've gotta go light a fire under a couple of people. I want that story by noon, you hear?"

"We're on it, Chief," Lois said briskly as Clark added, "Yes, sir."

Tucking the printout into a folder, she exchanged a grin with Clark as their editor waved a hand dismissively at them with a grumbled, "And don't call me 'sir'!"

They spent the next hour writing and then fine-tuning the story, then sent it to Perry. Then they delivered a copy of the flawed code to EPRAD with a request for comments. Not unpredictably, there were none, outside of an assurance that their information would be forwarded to the appropriate department.

Glancing back at the building as their taxi pulled away, Lois said with a grin, "I bet he just throws that printout in some non-urgent in-box. I wonder how he'll explain that when our article appears in the evening edition of the Daily Planet?"

Clark's laughter, warm and rich, made her feel the way she did when she drank hot chocolate.

***

Once again, late afternoon found them sitting in the conference room, this time looking through the information on Lex Luthor that Jimmy had given Lois. There was so much of it that, like Dr. Platt's research, they needed more space than their desks offered.

With a heavy sigh, Lois pushed the papers in front of her away in frustration. "Nothing!"

"Maybe we're going about it wrong..." Clark mused, pushing his own stack of papers aside. "Instead of scouring all these sources for something that may not exist..."

"Clark, it *has* to be out there somewhere!" she protested.

"But it could have been deliberately removed -- you suggested that last night," he countered.

"So, you're saying...?"

"What if we keep going over everything that *is* out there... but instead of hunting for a background that isn't there, or anything obvious, we look for... I don't know -- subtle discrepancies? Coincidences. Lucky breaks in his business dealings. Things like that."

She nodded. "Okay... So we really need more information about the companies he owns, the companies he's acquired... Stuff like that, instead of stuff about the man himself."

"Exactly."

There was a quick rap on the open conference room door as Jimmy entered.

"Jimmy!" Lois began, "Just the guy we need --"

"Hey, you gotta see this, guys!" Jimmy interrupted excitedly. "EPRAD's just announced that the next shuttle launch will take place as planned, a week from today." He held up a copy of the evening edition with their story, under the headline 'Possible Sabotage Discovered in Space Shuttle Launch Program,' featured prominently on the front page. "The news anchor referred to your story -- kind of, anyway... He said an investigative news team had called EPRAD's attention to what appeared to be deliberate sabotage."

"Huh. Faster than I expected," Lois whispered to Clark, who chuckled as they followed the still-chattering Jimmy out into the newsroom.

"...I think they're gonna let your Dr. Platt take the fall, though -- they said a 'disgruntled former employee' was suspected, blah, blah, blah... And --"

By now the three of them had joined the crowd around the newsroom's TV monitors, and Jimmy was shushed by several people. The anchor was saying, "...EPRAD has stated that their experts have rechecked every systems program, and have verified that only the launch sequence was affected. The code is being corrected, and an internal investigation is ongoing. And now, in other news..."

"All right, people, show's over! Get those stories finished up; it's almost quittin' time!" Perry called loudly, and the crowd began to disperse, discussing the news as they went.

"...A lot of people were surprised that the Congress of Nations didn't take Mr. Luthor up on that offer..." one of the City Desk reporters commented, heading toward his department. "I know I was..."

"Man, that guy's got his hand in a lot of pots," came the reply. "...'Course, he's rolling in dough -- sounds like he's just what the space program needs..."

Rolling her eyes, Lois moved back toward the conference room. "C'mon -- we've still got a lot to do. Jimmy, I need you to -- *we* need you to find us everything you can on a bunch of companies... Here, Clark's got a list in here..."

As the two men followed her through the door, Jimmy asked, "Have you seen the model of Space Station Luthor, CK? It's on display in the lobby of the LNN building. We -- Perry, Lois, me, and a bunch of other Daily Planet people, saw it the night he unveiled it, at his big Orchid Ball --"

"Perry, Lois, *and I* saw the model, Jimmy," Lois stated sharply. "Now look, we have barely a *week* to figure this out! We've got to get some kind of proof... *Someone* wants to stop that program, and I for one don't think they'll just go away. If the code is fixed, they'll try something else."

Clark nodded grimly. "Yes -- I think so, too. Jimmy," he continued, turning to the young man, "we need you to dig up some more information on a bunch of companies Luthor Industries has acquired over the last several years. Whatever you can find, and we're not really interested in the glossy press release sort of stuff, okay?"

Jimmy took the list Clark proffered, skimmed down it and whistled softly. "Holy smoke! He's gotten all these in the last *couple* of years? Man, you don't want much, do you?" He flashed them both a grin. "I suppose you want it yesterday, right, Lois?"

She snorted, flashing a mildly exasperated look at Clark as he chuckled. "I *suppose* you can start on it in the morning," she said with a heavy, put-upon sigh. "Clark and I will just have to do what we can with what we have..."

Jimmy nodded seriously. Lois Lane in a teasing mood was a pretty new phenomenon, and he wasn't sure how to deal with it. "Well, you know, I can probably get you at least some of this in... Oh, I don't know -- gimme at least a couple hours, okay? I'm gonna have to do a little cracking, but you'd be surprised at how many companies have only a basic security setup... You can break in pretty easily if you use something like L0phtcrack -" He stopped abruptly. "Uh... well, never mind. Anyway, I'll... uh, get onto your research right away, okay?" He turned and started for the door, then stopped. "Um, Lois? CK? I'm still gonna be an unnamed source, right?"

Lois lost the battle to suppress her smile. "Yeah, Jimmy -- don't worry. We'll protect you just like we do all our sources."

Her partner's rich, hot chocolate laugh flowed around her as the young man exited.

They didn't work past six o'clock; Lois had skipped her last two regular Tae Kwon Do sessions, what with the late night spent writing the story to expose -- again -- the slumlord, and then last night, rereading Dr. Platt's notes over pizza with Clark. She really needed to do the sparring tonight; she hadn't realized how much she still used the exercises to help distract her from an intense investigation before heading into the enforced slower pace of the weekend. News didn't take the weekend off, but access to a lot of information did. Government officials, city offices, and many other sources were usually unavailable on weekends.

And Clark apparently had somewhere to go, too, although she refused to ask outright, preferring that he volunteer any information.

He didn't.

It *had* to be a girlfriend, she thought glumly, and then pulled herself up sharply. It was nothing to do with her. They were *friends*. He'd said that -- "I think we're becoming friends, Lois?" And she'd agreed. It was... nice to have a friend. She didn't need anything more.

***

Monday found them back in the newsroom, poring through the first set of documents Jimmy had ready for them.

Tuesday and Wednesday also found them looking through still more information Jimmy had dredged up from who knew where. It was slow, tedious work because there were an astoundingly large number of companies which were in some way associated with Luthor Industries. And they had to go through the financial documents page by page.

The pile of discarded documents grew steadily, but they also had a second stack, growing much more slowly, of documents detailing unexpected declines in the fortunes of some of the companies. Sudden inexplicable stock downturns, or withdrawal of financial backing. Large business loans suddenly coming due. And in two cases, the unexpected death of someone of importance. And each company, shortly after its reversal of fortune, had been snapped up by Luthor Industries.

Thursday morning, they took a break from the research when Perry sent them both out to a press conference at EPRAD. There, they listened as the director of the entire space program, the director of the Space Station Prometheus project, and the director of the shuttle program assured the members of the press that the programs were safe, secure, and on track. The assurances themselves took quite a while, leaving very little time for questions.

On the way back to the newsroom, Lois and Clark agreed that the reduced time for questions had quite possibly been deliberate. "I don't think they want Lane and Kent asking uncomfortable questions," she'd said with a grin.

Clark had agreed laughingly, and they'd made their way up to the newsroom amicably discussing the statements they'd heard.

They were currently sitting in one of the conference rooms again, side by side, as they worked their way through the pages and pages -- and pages -- of financial documents. With a huge sigh, Lois tossed the one she'd been reading in the general direction of their discard pile, and propping her elbows on the table, dropped her head into her hands.

"I am so *tired* of reading about this guy I could scream!"

Beside her, Clark chuckled sympathetically. Lifting her head, she glanced over at him. Tossing his own document on the discard stack, he smiled at her and teased, "Tired enough that you're ready to work on one of Perry's little extra story assignments?"

She tossed her head at him, and with a straight face, said haughtily, "A true investigative reporter *never* gets that tired. Expecting me to write some of those drabble stories is like... like asking a leopard to eat oatmeal." The snooty effect was ruined by the giggle she was unable to completely suppress.

He laughed as he picked up another document and tossed it lightly in front of her. "Here you go, tiger -- sink your teeth into that one, then." As she reached for it with a groan, he grabbed a second document for himself and began to read through it.

She'd barely gotten halfway down the first page when Clark suddenly straightened up in his chair. "Lois -- look at this!"

She leaned toward him and he tipped the document so she could read it more easily. "You know this list of companies Luthor's taken over recently? Well, look at the way Jimmy's got some of them listed."

"He's got them all linked together, instead of listed separately," she said. "Why?"

"Well, I wonder... There was something I read in one of the news articles on Luthor's 'empire.' It's here somewhere..." Clark flipped through a stack of documents they'd read earlier in the day. "It says he's made use of shell corporations to... Let's see... Here: '...Been called a corporate raider by some disgruntled rivals...' No, that's not it. 'Savvy businessman...' Here. Here it is: '...Has grouped several failing businesses under shell corporations to more easily obtain financing for them, thereby preserving the businesses and eventually bringing them back from the brink of financial failure...' So -- could they all be shell corporations?"

"Shell companies have been used for tax evasion, haven't they?" Lois asked. "Or for tax *avoidance*, anyway... And for money laundering."

"Well, seeing the way these companies are all linked together made me think of that article. Maybe these're all companies that have shells. The same article, by the way, said he's got a knack for finding companies in trouble and basically absorbing them into his empire."

"Huh. *Finding* companies in trouble, or creating trouble for companies and then acquiring them?" Lois muttered.

"That's what I'm hoping we'll find," Clark reminded her. "Some sort of trouble in a previously prosperous company that made it susceptible to a takeover."

"Well, first let's find out if Jimmy listed these companies like this on purpose." She sighed and stood up. "Then it's back to the documents. If Luthor *has* sabotaged companies so he can scavenge them, he's certainly hidden his tracks well."

She stuck her head out the conference room door, and seeing Jimmy across the newsroom, stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled. Although it was pretty ear piercing, no one except Jimmy reacted to it. When he looked her way, she beckoned him with a smile. He rose from the computer he'd been either dismantling or repairing, dumped an armload of stuff on the corner of the desk and trotted toward the conference room.

Returning to the table, she encountered Clark's slightly incredulous expression. "What?"

"Uh... No one else in the newsroom even looked up when you did that," he said wonderingly.

"Nah, they're used to it," Jimmy answered for her as he entered the room. "It started as a joke -- Perry did it once when I was digging around in some computer files and didn't hear him call me --"

Clark's eyebrow shot up again. "Uh, Jim... Perry's got a pretty... commanding voice," he commented mildly.

As Lois laughed, Jimmy said with a grin, "Yeah, well, I get kinda... carried away doing computer stuff sometimes, you know? So anyway, he whistled, and I looked up, and now sometimes one of the reporters'll do that if they see me messing around with a computer." Turning to Lois, he continued, "Whatcha need, Lois?"

She handed him the printout. "Jimmy, those companies you researched for us -- it looks like some of them are shell corporations. But you've got all of these names linked together. Was that intentional?"

He took the document and skimmed over it. "Oh -- yeah. Yes, I linked 'em like that on purpose. When I started to dig around, it was like... those rows of dominoes where you knock the first one down and then all the others fall in a line. Or -- like those wooden nesting dolls, you know? You open one up, and there's another one inside it -- and then another one inside that. All these companies -- I'd start with one, but the deeper I looked, the more there were. Each one led to another."

"Like here -- this one..." He tapped the first name in one of the linked groups; Clark stood and joined them as Jimmy continued, "...This company, Upco, turns out to be just a name. So someone is using it to do some sort of business, but it isn't actually a company itself. Like you said, a shell corporation. So I go looking for information on Upco, thinking I'll be able to tell you what it does or who's on the board of directors... And I find another company called BRC. So I dig into BRC, and it turns out *it's* a shell corporation, too... I don't know why, guys, but quite a few of these companies are shell corporations several layers deep."

"Wait a minute..." Lois exclaimed. She took the printout from Jimmy and pointed to a name at the end of one of the strings. "Clark, this company -- NovaCo -- wasn't it in Dr Platt's notes?"

Without waiting for his answer, she whirled toward the conference room door. "Here -- we need his notes..."

"I'll get 'em," Jimmy volunteered. "Is that box is still under your desk, CK?"

"Yes -- thanks, Jim."

Within a couple of minutes he was back with the box, which he set on the table.

"Thanks, Jimmy," Lois said, already taking the neatly rubber-banded stacks out of the box. "It's gonna take me a while to find it... Why on earth the man couldn't write on ordinary paper like everyone else..."

"Did you need anything else?" Jimmy asked, as Clark began to help Lois remove stacks.

"What, Jimmy? ...We'll have to page through each one," she told Clark. "I'm pretty sure it wasn't the first two stacks... No, Jimmy, that's all for the moment. Thanks," she added.

She dropped back into her chair. "This is going to take more than just 'a while,' Clark." She sighed. Now would be an excellent time to make use of her enhanced speed, but unfortunately, she couldn't.

"Here." Clark set down his stack. "How about if I go get us some coffee? The gourmet kind, with chocolate? I think we might need it."

"Good idea." Maybe she could do a little... speed-reading while he was gone.

***

By the time Clark came back, she'd zipped -- sort of -- through two stacks. Well, perhaps 'zipped' wasn't exactly the right description. The quality of Dr. Platt's writing precluded the use of much of her speed, after all, and she'd been forced to go much more slowly than she'd intended.

As he set the familiar Metropolis Coffee cup in front of her, she finished refastening the rubber bands around a stack and pushed it aside. He sat down beside her and picked up a stack of notes.

"Do you remember that list of subcontractors for the space station?" she asked him. "He listed every company that had provided components for the shuttles, as well. I thought it was at the end of his notes, but I can't find it. I'm working backward from the last few stacks. The problem is, neither one of us read every single... page... of his notes. But I *know* I saw a list --"

"He listed them more than once, I think." Clark replied. "Let's keep working backward -- eventually we'll come across it."

Thirty minutes -- and all of her coffee -- later, Clark found what they were looking for.

"Here, Lois -" He smoothed the list -- written on a torn and crumpled piece of a brown paper bag -- out on the table between them. As he held it flat, Lois leaned nearer and read it aloud.

"INX Global. Agilius Systems. Cohe Incorporated. Acor PLC... NAL. AdentED... Searec Technologies... Symacker USA... Here! NovaCo!" She turned her head, smiling triumphantly, forgetting how close she and Clark were as they both leaned over the list.

And promptly forgot all about the list. He was so close. Close enough to... If she just leaned forward a little... She could feel her heart start to pound as she stared at him. She felt... as if the air was too thick to breathe. Was this what it was like to be short of breath? His gaze dropped to her lips, and as she suddenly found herself moistening them, his eyes darkened behind his glasses.

"Lois," he began softly, moving even closer. She held her breath, and unconsciously reached for something -- anything -- to hold onto. As her hand brushed over his, he turned it palm up, and she found herself gripping it tightly. Sensation shot through her, and she gasped.

His other hand came up and cupped her cheek -- and there was a quick rap on the conference room door as Jimmy came in, his attention focused on the document he held. Lois and Clark sprang apart.

"Hey, guys! I went ahead and found you everything I could on NovaCo..." Jimmy looked up. "Uh -- what's up? Guys?"

"Nothing." Lois said shortly. She jumped up, peripherally aware that Clark was also getting to his feet. That had been... She wasn't going to think about it right now. "What've you got, Jimmy?"

He looked back and forth between them dubiously, but at her impatient, "Jimmy!" he handed her another computer printout.

"Well, uh... Like I said, I went and dug up what I could on this NovaCo -- I figured that'd be what you wanted next, you know?

As Lois focused on the printout, trying to ignore how... *aware* of her partner she was, Clark asked, "Was this already one of Luthor's companies?"

Lois found her voice. Time to scrape up some Mad Dog Lane. "Yes -- Jimmy, how deep does this go? And which came first, the contract or the purchase?"

"Huh?"

"Did NovaCo get the contract with EPRAD after Luthor acquired it, or was it already contracted?" Clark elaborated.

"Yes -" Lois grabbed the first printout and tapped one of the lines of linked company names for emphasis. "Like the chicken and the egg, Jimmy. Which came first? Did NovaCo get a contract with EPRAD first? And then got acquired by Lex Luthor, who concealed his ownership by hiding it inside a shell corporation called Vize, who does business as Indetics? Who in turn does business as Dynaron? Which is doing business as --"

"Whoa -- I got it, Lois." Jimmy held both hands up in a stopping gesture. "I don't know which came first, but I'll go find out." He left the conference room almost at a jog.

Without looking at Clark, Lois flipped through the information Jimmy had gathered on NovaCo.

"Lois?" Clark asked softly, but she interrupted him quickly.

"Well, that was enterprising of Jimmy, wasn't it?" She sat down again, still talking, and waved the printout in the direction of his chair, hoping he'd sit, too. "We're one step closer to solving this. And if he can find out whether NovaCo got the contract before, or *after* Luthor Industries acquired it, we may be able to link Lex Luthor with the sabotage. Now, let's see..."

Her enhanced hearing picked up a small sigh as her partner sat down, but he didn't say anything. Just in case, though, she rushed on. "...We should probably also have Jimmy look at the rest of the names -- you know, of the subcontractors -- on Dr. Platt's list. But anyway, let's see what he comes up with before we get excited, huh? In the meantime -- while we're waiting for whatever he can find..." She was glancing rapidly over the document as she spoke, and now tapped a list of names midway down the page. Without pausing for breath, she charged on. "Oh! Hey, look what he's found so far -- here's a whole list of names. What do you think -- NovaCo's board of directors, maybe? Or their scientists? Or... maybe their board of directors is all scientists? We've got to..." She actually ran out of breath.

Clark shifted in his chair, and she tensed slightly as he leaned in closer to read the section she'd indicated. "I think they're probably just scientists -- most of them are Ph.D.'s." He spoke mildly, and she relaxed. Good. He wasn't going to mention what had happened -- what had *almost* happened -- earlier. That was good. She wasn't going to dwell on it either --

"Lois, look!"

Clark's voice, so close by, startled her. She'd gotten distracted. Well, this *was* tiring work, though. Anyway, while she'd been thinking of... something else, he'd continued to read the document she still held, and now he was leaning closer, indicating one of the names on the list. Her eyes catalogued the contrast of his crisp white shirt cuff against his dark suit coat sleeve, the silver watchband on his lightly tanned wrist, those elegant fingers. He wasn't an excessively hairy man -- that was another appealing thing about him... She forced her eyes from his hand to where he was pointing.

"Lois, this name -- Antoinette Baines. Her name's in Dr. Platt's notes, too. Here, I remember roughly where I saw it..." He half-stood, bracing one hand on the table, and began looking among the stacks of Dr. Platt's notes that were still in the box.

It should be easier to concentrate now that he wasn't sitting so close to her. Except that... She watched him for a moment. His suit jacket pulled taut across his shoulders as he leaned forward. Her eyes followed the line of his back, down to where...

Good heavens, she was... *ogling* the man. Not that it wasn't a... pleasant sight, but... She could feel her heart pounding.

She forced herself to look away from him; forced her eyes back to the list that had prompted him to stand up in the first place. What had they been talking about? Oh, yes -- "Do you think there's an association there?"

He was thumbing through the corners of one of the stacks. How he could read much of anything that way, she didn't know. Although really, some of Dr. Platt's notes were memorable simply because of what they were written on -- and so the content tended to stick in one's mind. Maybe the name had been written on one of the more unusual... media.

"It would be awfully coincidental if it's not..." he said absently. Then, "Ah! Here we go." He unfastened the stack and removed the page he'd been seeking, tucked one of the bright orange three-by-five index cards they used as markers into its place in the stack, and refastened the bundle. Despite herself, Lois was impressed at the speed with which he'd found what he'd been seeking.

"Huh. How lucky is that?" she asked, leaning forward to look as he laid the page in question on the table. It was actually very easy to read for a change. Dr. Platt had written, in blue crayon on the inside of a torn piece of a Pop Tart box, 'A. Baines,' followed by an exclamation point and a question mark. And under that he'd written 'Lisp' and underlined it twice.

"I'll go find Jimmy. We need to find out more about Dr. Baines as fast as possible," Clark said, rising to his feet.

"And I'll work my way through the stuff on NovaCo." She forced herself not to watch as he left the room.

***

An hour later they were sitting at the table again, as Jimmy laid out the latest information he'd found.

"Well, it was easy to find out a lot of the stuff on this Dr. Baines," he said. "It's pretty impressive. She's young -- and attractive," he added, indicating a glossy photo attached to the short bio he'd printed. "She's in charge of the actual implementation of the shuttle flights. A... supervisor, I guess you'd say. She was an assistant -- then after Dr. Platt was fired, she was promoted."

"Kinda... suspicious..." Lois commented. The photo showed a young, blue-eyed blond woman. Her eyes looked kind of shifty. And she probably dyed her hair that color; it couldn't be natural. Did... Clark think this woman was attractive? Lois glanced at him, but he wasn't looking at the photo.

"Well, you know, she was actually a logical choice, according to this." He indicated one of the printouts. "She's the youngest scientist ever to receive the Geminox Award. She worked for EPRAD itself for... let's see... five years, and only took a job in the private sector a year ago."

"Yeah, and all that was really pretty easy to find," Jimmy told them. "I also found you some trivia, but I really had to dig around for that."

"Trivia?" Lois and Clark spoke together.

"Yep. I hacked into her alma mater's computer files, and then into EPRAD's personnel files -" He stopped abruptly, glancing nervously around the room. "Uh... How often do you think Perry has the place swept for bugs, do you think?"

"Jimmy, it's just us," Lois said impatiently. "The room isn't bugged. You're not being recorded. You're safe." She grinned mischievously at him and added, "We already know you find us most of our information by hacking into various... secure and impenetrable systems. We won't reveal our sources." She glanced at Clark, and then added, "...At least, not until the December issue of 'All Our Sources' comes out." She sat back and smiled Perry's deceptively benign smile at Jimmy.

Jimmy looked even more alarmed and began to rise to his feet. Then as Clark began laughing helplessly, he sat back down with a thump.

"You're joking, aren't you?" he began, and then as Lois also started laughing, he finally relaxed fully and chuckled along with them. "Okay, okay -- so maybe I'm just a little bit paranoid..."

They laughed harder.

"Okay, a lot paranoid." He shook his head, and muttered, "Lois 'Mad Dog' Lane is actually *teasing* me. Of course I'm not gonna get that right away."

Clark laughed again as Lois mock-glared at the young man. "I heard that."

He turned red and squirmed for a moment, smiling sheepishly. "Uh. Yeah... So, didja want to know this trivia I found?"

"Okay, yes. Time to get back to the serious stuff," Lois said, once again all business. "Whatcha got?"

"Well, guess what? She's been married -- although there isn't an easily-retrievable record of that."

"To Luthor?!" Again, Lois and Clark spoke together.

"No, no -- gosh, wouldn't that be weird? If all this time the richest guy in the country was secretly married? Nope, dude's single, as far as I can tell -- and that's pretty far," Jimmy added. "No, she's a widow. She got married real young -- like, just out of high school. To some rich old guy who died when she was in college, I guess. But get this -- guess what her *maiden* name is?"

"Don't tell us it's -" Lois began incredulously, as Clark asked, "You're kidding; it's -?"

"Yep. Luthor." Jimmy beamed at them.

One of the reasons Lois used Jimmy exclusively for her research needs was that the kid was *good*. He got her what she wanted, and then some. He knew valuable information when he saw it, and he also knew how to keep his mouth shut.

She and Clark looked at each other. "She's too old to be his daughter... His sister, maybe?" Lois mused. "Or a cousin?"

Clark shrugged. "I have no idea. I honestly wasn't expecting that at all."

"I'll try and find out the exact relationship," Jimmy interjected.

"...And NovaCo?" she asked him, suspecting she already knew the answer.

"...Got the contract. First. And then got acquired, barely eight months later," Jimmy said with a grin. "By a company called Vize, who does business as Indetics. Which is a shell corporation for a company called Dynaron. Which turns out to be another shell corporation -- for a company called ING Investments. Which is yet *another* shell corporation, for a company called Invicro. Who is doing business as IntEDD. Which led me to a company called T-Cor. Which in turn led to an outfit called BRC, which led to Upco -- which is owned by Luthor Industries." He stopped to draw a breath.

Lois looked at Clark. "Bingo."

He nodded. "You think it's him?"

"Yes." She was sure of it.

"There he is, Lois -- your dragon." He spoke softly. "Now let's get him."

"If he's behind it..." Lois said equally softly, "I think... he may stop at nothing to prevent that station from going forward."

Clark nodded. "Or almost nothing. Thanks, Jim."

Lois smiled at the young man, a genuine non-Mad Dog smile. "Thank you, Jimmy."

He blushed bright red and muttered a quick "You're welcome." Rising, he gestured vaguely at the newsroom. "I'll... If you need anything, you know..." He left the room.

Clark chuckled.

Lois ignored it. Time to get busy again. "Okay," she said briskly. "Let's see what we can put together. We need to find out if NovaCo was in trouble and headed for a takeover..."

"...*Before* they got that contract," Clark finished.

They divvied up the information on NovaCo and began to read.

***

"I've got to get onto that shuttle."

"Mmmmm. I don't think that'll happen, though." Clark, still reading through the rest of Jimmy's information, spoke absently.

"Well, probably not *officially*, anyway," she conceded. "But that won't stop me, you know. I'll stow away if I have to."

That earned her his full attention. "Lois, you *can't*!"

"Sure I can," she said confidently. "One of us needs to check out that flight."

"Lois, it's likely to be heavily guarded. You're not going to be able to even get close to the thing, much less get on board it!"

"Clark, I'll find a way." She couldn't tell him, of course, but with her abilities, it would probably be pretty easy to get onto that shuttle.

"And anyway," he continued, "what could you possibly hope to find? You don't know enough about it -- about how the shuttle works, or what's normal and what's not... How would you know what to look for?"

"Clark, it won't be subtle!" she argued. "Not only is this guy out of time, but he's obviously gotten so arrogant that he's just... just bulldozing his way to what he wants! You saw that with some of those companies!"

"Lois, it won't be as obvious as a... a panel out of place, or an obvious cut line, or something!" Both of them were on their feet -- Clark apparently felt the need to pace, and Lois didn't like the height advantage he had if she stayed seated. She ignored the fact that she only came to his shoulder when they were both standing.

For the first time in her life, she found herself *wanting* to tell someone -- Clark -- what she could do. She wanted to explain it to him -- that she was pretty sure she *could* see something out of place -- if she looked carefully enough with her enhanced vision.

"Lois, the best thing for us to do is just stay off that flight and figure out what he's up to from this side of things," Clark added, apparently thinking he was making headway with her.

He hadn't learned yet how stubborn she could be. "*You* stay and figure out things from this side," she snapped. "And *I'll* go and observe things from the shuttle side."

"Lois --"

She kept talking. "Besides, I don't think he *will* sabotage the shuttle flight, Clark. We found the code problems and EPRAD has fixed them... Don't you think it would be just a little bit *too* coincidental if there was another problem with the shuttle? I think that flight will make it to the station this time -- and there'll be some sort of malfunction there... What'd Jimmy call it? Essential systems issues of some kind that require the whole program to be aborted."

"Lois, we can have Jimmy start looking at the space station's programs, just the way we did with the shuttle's. He can start with those 'essential systems' and --"

"Yeah, fine -- you have him do that. And I'll keep in touch with both of you by cell phone,' she said.

"Lois! Look, do you really think Perry would okay your going on that flight?" Clark demanded.

She could see this argument going on and on and on. Normally, she'd just keep arguing until she won, which was usually pretty quickly. Very few people argued with Mad Dog Lane. For long, anyway. But this was Clark, and he just didn't seem affected much by Mad Dog.

Besides, she didn't really feel like arguing with him.

He was... he'd somehow gotten around her defenses enough to become a friend, and if she was honest, she kind of... liked it, having a friend. What if... what if he finally got fed up with her? She was getting used to having him around.

She sighed and sat back down at the table. What was happening to her? Mad Dog Lane didn't just... just wimp out. But still...

"Lois?" She glanced up to see that he'd sat down next to her again. Well, there was nothing wrong in allowing him to think he'd convinced her. She wasn't really backing down. She was simply... preserving the peace.

"Fine, Clark. We'll do it your way," she said flatly. She *would* do it his way -- for a little while, anyway. She'd work with him on this just as they had been doing, but on launch day, she would simply do what she had intended to do all along.

***

Accordingly, Lois didn't go in to the newsroom the next morning. Instead, she went to EPRAD, to the shuttle launch site. With a little judicious use of her special vision and hearing to avoid the guards, and a... teensy little bit of -- completely justifiable -- breaking and entering, she located the shuttle's small galley, which she knew wouldn't be in use until the shuttle was well on its way. It would make a good hiding place -- she could avoid detection there, at least until after lift-off.

While the shuttle was still empty of passengers, she decided to seize the opportunity to explore. Watching -- and listening -- carefully for crewmembers, she scanned through the walls into the interior spaces, where the various electronic, hydraulic, and electrical systems were housed. The scanning made her a bit uncomfortable, since it reminded her of a few long-ago incidents where she'd seen much more than she'd wanted -- or intended -- to see. This search was necessary -- but she hoped she wouldn't stumble visually across an unexpected restroom or something like that.

Everything looked normal. As far as she could tell, that was; there weren't any obvious cut lines or panels out of place. Just as Clark had said. He didn't need to know that, of course.

A rumble beneath her feet and a swell of noise alerted her to the fact that the settlers were beginning to board, and that the auxiliary power units were being started. Quickly, she retreated to the galley, where she was able to watch the crew as they began their preflight preparations. There was no suspicious activity, as far as she could tell. Everything looked normal; everyone seemed to be acting normal. It looked like she'd been right. Any sabotage would likely be on the space station instead.

"See, Clark?" she murmured as she moved to the jump seat against the wall of the small galley and sat down. Watching through the outer wall, she noted that the last of the settlers had boarded, and the launch crew was closing the shuttle's main doors. The rumble around her increased; she could feel the power as the main engines geared up. This was it! This was history in the making, and Lois Lane was a part of it --

A small, sharp click caught her attention. It wasn't repeated, but after a short pause she heard a steady... ticking, like a clock. Wow, she could even hear the countdown clock! No, wait -- wasn't the countdown done digitally for accuracy? And this was a lot closer to her than mission command; it sounded like it was... in the same room? She quickly scanned the small area, and pinpointed the source of the noise almost immediately. High on the wall, tucked up against a bulkhead, was... not a clock.

Not a clock at all. It was... Oh god, it was a bomb. It had to be. So tiny... But -- the small box, the tangle of wires, the little dial like a timer, clicking down toward zero...

A bomb! It wouldn't hurt her -- probably. She'd never actually tested that out. Did 'invulnerable' really include things like bombs? She'd been in some... mildly dangerous situations during her time with the Planet, but she'd never encountered a bomb before. How did she stop it?

Could she... crush it? Right there on the wall? Or remove it and throw it... where? The shuttle's windows didn't open, did they? There were no windows in here, anyway. She doubted she could pull it off the wall and make it to a window before the thing detonated. Even assuming the windows on a shuttle actually opened.

Why hadn't she studied bombs? Well, it was too late to worry about that now. How much time did she -- they -- have? Enough time to call the police? Or would that take too long? Somehow, she had to raise the alarm...

The alarm... The fire alarm! A fire alarm was universal -- and a fire alarm would evacuate everyone, no questions asked. Now, where would one be located? There had to be one in a galley, right? After all, a galley was a kitchen, with a stove and stuff...

Yes, there! She pulled the lever.

A claxon wail sounded immediately, followed by a voice alert over the speakers: *Fire alert, please evacuate all personnel... Fire alert, please evacuate all personnel... Fire alert, please evacuate all personnel...* The siren sounded again, then the voice alert again, then the siren...

Extending her hearing past the alarm was difficult; it was hard to selectively tune out something so loud and so close. But she could make out the subdued roar of hundreds of voices raised in confusion, in panic. People must be trying to exit. She concentrated, trying to hear whether they were evacuating successfully. Over all of it, in the distance, she could hear more sirens as emergency personnel responded to the alarm. Well, that was good, but staring back at the bomb timer, she figured it would be too late. She'd have to get out herself, but was everyone else out yet?

Suddenly, the emergency door to her right was wrenched open with enough force to almost tear it from its hinges. In the opening was possibly the most incredible sight she'd ever seen -- a man, *hovering*, apparently unsupported, outside the craft. A man... dressed in a brilliant blue, form-fitting suit that faithfully showed every facet of his superb physique. He also wore a red cape. And red boots. And red... Her eyes flashed back up to his face. His arms were crossed almost regally across his chest. Her gaze lingered there before traveling then back to his... attire.

She noted in a detached way that he was devastatingly good-looking -- that made two gorgeous men within the last month -- but what absolutely flabbergasted her was the fact that he even existed. He was... The costume he was wearing -- it had to be a costume, right? It was certainly distracting, but... He could... He was hovering in midair, and he'd practically torn the emergency door off its hinges. But how could there be someone *else* who could do the things she could do?

And the colors he wore -- they were brilliant, vibrant hues, yes, but... they were *her* colors... She backed away from him as he stepped into the ship and moved toward her. And... without his arms across his chest, she could see that he was... He was wearing the 'S'... *Her* 'S.' The 'S' Mama had saved with the things from her ship.

Was this some kind of... elaborate hoax? Oh, God -- had someone found out about her? Was her secret exposed?

Only seconds had passed since the door had been wrenched open, but it seemed like time had come to a complete halt as she stared at the man who was even now nodding rather formally and murmuring, "Excuse me, please."

His voice stirred something in her. He seemed... somehow familiar. But how...? Why? Because he could do the same things she could do? Who was he?

While she'd been standing there staring, he'd stepped into the shuttle -- from thin air -- and now strode confidently right past her to the bomb. And pulled it off the wall!

She found her voice. However fantastic -- unbelievable -- this whole situation had become, he was still messing with a *bomb*. "Watch it! I don't know how to disarm it -- if you joggle it, it might go off --"

She watched in amazement as he glanced around, then... *swallowed* it. As she stood there gaping, once again rendered absolutely speechless, there was a muffled explosion.

And then he burped.

"Excuse me," he said softly.

He.

Had.

*Swallowed* the bomb.

It would never... *had* never... *ever* occurred to her that she could... stomach a bomb.

Of course, she'd never been faced with this sort of urgency. It was her first experience with a bomb. She had not been quite sure what to do...

The man in red and yellow and blue did, though. Did he... regularly swallow bombs? As a kind of extra-hearty breakfast?

She forced down the rising hysteria. Maybe she was dreaming? He looked real... But... She'd never, ever imagined -- never even dared *dream* that there could be another one like her...

Was this some new ability -- to imagine things so vividly that they seemed real?

She tentatively reached out and touched his arm. And felt the familiar electric sensation.

And the pieces fell into place.

Still, she couldn't stop staring at him -- he looked so... *different*. Her voice was a mere whisper. "Clark?"

The formal demeanor faltered, and he stared at her the way she imagined a deer in headlights probably looked. Then swiftly, he turned -- and she knew, just *knew* that he was going to run -- fly -- *leave*.

"Clark, wait!" she said it urgently but still softly.

"Lois, please -" he began pleadingly.

"I won't give you away -- I promise. Clark, I *promise* I won't! But I *must* talk to you."

With a tilt of his head, he gestured to the ship in general. "Lois, I have to go... if you recognized me..."

"No! You won't be," she said quickly. She, too, could hear people -- probably firemen -- beginning to enter the shuttle. "I *didn't* recognize you, Clark! I swear -- not until I... touched you, and..." She faltered.

There were men in the hallway outside the galley. <Mad Dog, I need you now.> "Trust me, Clark -- no one will be looking at your face!"

"Lois!" Interesting. This super man could blush.

The door handle began to turn. This was it, then -- show time. She squared her shoulders and hissed, "Follow my lead!"

A swarm of law enforcement officials, firemen, and shuttle personnel surged into the small galley, crowding into the already small space.

Time to seize the moment. She said quickly, "This is..." Her eyes fell on the 'S' on his suit. "S..." <C'mon, Lois, *think*!> "...Superman!" she blurted.

'Superman' raised an eyebrow, but once again crossed his arms across his chest, looking impassively back at the gaping men.

"Superman has saved the lives of over one hundred people by disarming a bomb..." she continued.

"Is this some kind of publicity stunt?" demanded a skeptical-looking official.

"There was a bomb! I found it when I was..." Perhaps it was better not to explain *why* she was there, and just focus on the end results. "I found it and pulled the fire alarm."

"What bomb? I don't see a bomb," said one of the men.

"Who are you?" barked another, looking back and forth between Lois and Superman.

"He... he swallowed the bomb," she began, realizing how unbelievable it sounded. She hadn't thought of that -- but he'd also swallowed the evidence. She glanced helplessly at him.

Superman rose about a foot off the floor and moved past her, back to the emergency exit. He moved through it, once again hovering in midair in the doorway. Inclining his head at the silenced, gaping men, he said authoritatively, "This young woman is correct. Upon entering this compartment, I saw an explosive device fastened to that wall." The gaping stares traveled to the wall he was indicating, then back to him as he continued. "You can still see the wires and fastenings. In the interests of preventing what was an imminent explosion, I did, indeed, ingest the device. As I am invulnerable to all weapons, it did not harm me."

Lois was gaping as well. Even though she *knew* this was her partner, Clark, he was so... different. Not just in the way he was dressed, or in his abilities, but in his manner. In the way he carried himself, and in the way he spoke. There was no sign of the gentle, soft-voiced, laid-back reporter.

Reporter! Recovering quickly, she played the reporter to the hilt. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet. Would you consent to an interview, ...Superman?"

He inclined his head formally. "Certainly. First, however, may I offer a lift to the settlers?"

One of the officials cleared his throat. "Uh... Superman. I... I understand they lost their launch window...?

"That isn't a problem," he replied in his deep voice.

A babble of voices arose. In it, she heard several questions raised. How could he offer them a lift? The engines had been fired and then shut down; how could he fire them up again without refueling?

She was Lois Lane. She didn't wonder, she asked. "How?"

The hubbub died as he smiled and replied, "I'll give them a boost."

It was obvious that no one had any idea how he was going to do that, and equally obvious that no one was going to challenge him further about it.

"Ms... Lane?" The same official turned to her. "You'll have to disembark. Only the settlers and flight crew will be on this flight. We'll also need a detailed statement from you; you said you are the one who found this bomb?"

She glanced at Cl- Superman, and then nodded. She should probably wait for him here, instead of going back to the newsroom. It would be easier to coordinate their stories before they returned to the Planet. Besides, he was bound to return to EPRAD before he returned to the newsroom -- the EPRAD people would expect him to confirm the delivery of the settlers to the space station. It shouldn't be too hard to stay attached to the group of officials, even if they banned the rest of the press. All she'd have to do was claim Superman expected her to be there. And in just a moment, he would.

Turning to follow the others, who were slowly leaving the galley, she murmured too softly for anyone but him to hear, "Go. I'll play reporter here; when you're done, meet me... on the..." She glanced around. "Meet me on the roof of the main building here -- where the observation deck is." Glancing back as she stepped through the doorway into the shuttle's main passageway, she saw him nod slightly.

So she stood with the police and the space program bigwigs on the observation deck, and watched. Watched as Superman fitted the emergency door back into place and welded it closed with... heat vision. Watched in amazement as he proceeded to lift the shuttle into the sky -- and kept going.

Could... *she* do that? She knew she was strong -- very, very strong. But she'd never tested her limits beyond the weights her uncle's gym had offered. There was the boulder at the park that day, of course... And every now and then, undercover of the night, she would lift a pickup truck, or a dumpster -- just to see if she *could*. So... Why not a shuttle, then?

But... how did he *know*?

She sat down on the edge of the low wall surrounding the stairway entrance to the observation deck. The various officials milled around, alternately exclaiming over the events of the past several hours, and looking up into the sky. She ignored them.

Maybe he was actually stronger than her. It was possible. After all, what about the classic physical differences in strength between men and women? And there might be some things she was better at than him. Or... were there no differences at all in their abilities?

Of course, there were certain things -- such as sight or hearing -- that weren't gender linked. That would mean he could... see like her. Hear like her...

His voice echoed in her mind. <Lois, I covered that fire this morning.>

How had he been there to cover that fire? Had he heard the sirens? Gone, like her, to see if he could help?

<There was nothing *anyone* could have done to help.> Not even her -- or him.

<Sometimes you just... can't. You can't protect everyone, no matter who you are.> Even if you were extra strong and fast and could hear and see better than anyone else.

<What you *can* do is not let their deaths be in vain.> Was that why he was an investigative reporter? For the times he couldn't help someone? To right wrongs he couldn't fix by sheer strength or speed?

Her partner -- Clark -- was the same as her.

She felt a lightness she normally only got from flying. At last, she could let herself... She could admit to herself how... *attracted* to him she was.

If he was the same... he obviously understood the need for secrecy. If he was the same... she wouldn't have to worry about whether or not she could actually... have a relationship with him. A... *real* relationship...

She deliberately pushed those thoughts out of her head. First, she and her partner had a pretty huge story to write.

Then she had an interview with Superman. And she needed to tell him her own big little secret.

***

She looked up as the noise level on the observation deck swelled, and saw that Clark -- Superman -- had returned. He was surrounded -- but at a respectable distance -- almost immediately by the various officials still present.

She glanced at her watch. Still plenty of time to get back to the Planet and write up the events of this amazing morning. She'd placed a quick call to Perry shortly after she'd disembarked from the shuttle, knowing he'd be watching LNN's coverage and tearing his hair out. She'd assured him she had inside information on both the latest attempt at sabotage and on the incredible appearance of Superman. Perry had told her he was holding the entire front page for her. She'd ended the call as he'd rambled on about special editions and second print runs.

She'd given the EPRAD officials -- and law enforcement -- her statement, openly stating that Superman could corroborate her story. Mad Dog Lane to the teeth, she'd boldly asserted that he expected her to be waiting on the observation deck when he returned, as they'd arranged an interview. No one had argued with her; when the members of the press had been dismissed, she'd been allowed to stay.

Apparently finished debriefing the various officials, the caped figure approached to stand in front of her. He nodded a reserved greeting as she stood up, brushing her hands nervously down her skirt, conscious of the stares of the remaining officials.

"Shall we do that interview now, Ms. Lane?" he asked in the same deep, measured tones he'd used earlier. A small smile broke the sternness of his expression as he added politely, "May I offer you a lift to the Daily Planet?"

Flustered, she replied, "Uh, sure... I mean... Thank you, yes, Superman." Was he serious? How would he... He would have to carry her, wouldn't he?

He confirmed her thought. "I'll need to carry you, Ms. Lane. Please don't worry -- I won't drop you. I have transported people like this before."

He had? Who? How on earth had he maintained his secret, if he went around carrying people from place to place?

His voice interrupted her thoughts. "Ms. Lane? I'm going to pick you up, okay? If you would place your arm around my shoulders?"

She allowed him to gather her into his arms, and sensation shot through her. Reflexively, she tightened her grip on him, and he glanced at her reassuringly as he straightened up.

"Ready?" he asked, and was rising into the air even as she nodded. The buildings below them dropped away quickly.

He didn't say anything as they flew toward the Daily Planet building. She didn't know what to say, either. This man in the blue and red outfit who was flying her back to the newsroom was her *partner*. She looked down at the city. *Her* partner. Somehow, the one man she'd ever allowed to get close had turned out to be... What were the odds that they would have found each other?

Within a few minutes, Superman landed on the Planet's roof, and carefully set her down.

"Uh, shall we do that interview now?" he asked, and she heard Clark in his voice as he dropped the formal manner.

"Oh. Um, no." Her voice sounded a little husky, and she cleared her throat before repeating it. "No, Clark. Not right now; Perry's probably having a cow. We'll do it a little later, okay? Maybe tonight...?"

He smiled tentatively at her, and it was strange seeing Clark's special smile coming from the costume-clad superhero. "Okay, partner," he said softly, then stepped back and began to spin in place. When he came to a stop, he was dressed as Clark.

"Wow!" was all she could say.

He smiled briefly, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. Worried, she began, "Clark?"

He sighed and looked seriously at her. "Lois, are you... okay with this? Are you mad at me for... not telling you about all this?

She blinked. Mad? Pretty much the opposite, actually. Over the moon that this special man was just like her. "No, I'm not mad," she managed to say.

"Are we still okay, then?" he persisted. "Are you... You aren't scared of me or anything, are you? I would never hurt you --"

She interrupted him hastily, putting a hand on his arm in her desire to convince him. "No! Clark, it's okay -- we're fine. I'm not -- I don't think I could ever be afraid of you. I..." She drew a deep breath and looked him in the eye. "I think... I think we're friends, aren't we, Clark?" she asked softly, deliberately using his words.

His eyes darkened behind the glasses, and she felt him relax. He covered her hand with his own. "Yes. Yes, we are." He said it like a vow.

She wanted to... She didn't know what she wanted to do. She had no experience with this sort of thing -- this... charged emotion they were both generating. "So... Um..." She gently tugged her hand out from under his, letting go of his arm. "I guess we should..." She gestured toward the stairwell.

He cleared his throat and nodded, following her lead. "Yeah. Let's get in there before Perry has that cow."

She laughed, and he laughed, and then things were back to normal.

As they approached the roof door, she said, "That was a pretty cool trick, there, by the way. You know, that spinny thing?" She twirled a down-pointed finger around in imitation of his earlier spin change.

"I had to practice that a few times," he said with a grin, but then stopped at the door and looked at her soberly. "Lois, there are a lot of things I just... can't tell you about Superman. I just don't know a lot about my origins."

He didn't? So he didn't know anything more than she did about their respective... what had he said, origins? She'd have to find out what he *did* know -- compare notes, in a way. "Okay, well... we'll have to be careful what we say in the interview, then -- we'll have to keep it kind of vague. And we need to decide what spin to put on your 'arrival.' But in the meantime, we have another story to write. Oh -" She snapped her fingers. "And has Clark been at EPRAD with me for this story?"

"Perry knew I was headed over there -- once you didn't show up this morning, I knew where you'd gone. And don't think we aren't going to talk about that little stunt, Ms. Lane," he added in a very Superman-like voice. When she laughed, he shook his head at her. "So, yes, I think Clark was with you, at least at the end."

He sobered, and his hands came up to gently cup her upper arms, and once again, she felt his touch to her toes. "Lois -- when I saw you in the same room as that bomb, I... I don't think I've *ever* moved that fast -- and I can move pretty darn fast."

"I... I was scared, Clark," she admitted softly, her own hands coming up to rest on his chest. "I didn't know how to disarm it, and I couldn't think of anything else to do except sound the alarm. And I knew there wasn't enough time for everyone to get out. I... " Her hands fisted in his shirt. "We have to stop him, Clark! He's getting bolder and bolder!"

He drew her gently into his arms in a loose hug, and she went willingly, tentatively slipping her arms around his waist. "We *are* going to get him, Lois." His breath ruffled her hair. "We will find a way to stop this dragon."

She rested her head against his chest for a moment, listening to his steady heartbeat, and then sighed and stepped back. He let her go immediately, and at once she felt the loss and wanted to be back in his arms.

But they had work to do. He was already holding the stairway door open for her. As she passed through it, he asked, "By the way, how'd you come up with 'Superman'?"

She laughed. "I was on the spot, okay? I looked at you and just drew a blank -- and then the 'S' caught my eye and the name just popped into my mind."

He laughed, too, and they went down the stairs together. On the landing outside the newsroom, she paused and looked up at him. "Are you ready to face the mania in the newsroom?"

"As I'll ever be," he told her wryly, reaching out to open the door.

***

As they descended the ramp, he glanced at her. "And don't think you'll get away with fooling me again. That's the last time I believe you when you meekly give in during an argument."

She gave him her best innocent look. "Why, Clark, I don't know what you mean."

He laughed. "*You* are high maintenance, Lois."

She shot a cheeky grin at him. "But I'm worth it."

Both of them were laughing when they reached the bottom of the ramp, where Perry pounced on them. The editor was so excited that he was practically floating himself.

They were the objects of most of the newsroom staff's interest, in fact. Within minutes they were practically surrounded, and questions were thick in the air.

"It's all a publicity stunt -- it *has* to be, right?"

"Did this guy *really* fly?"

"Did you see him? Talk to him?"

"Who is this guy? Where's he from?"

"I saw LNN's coverage of the launch -- it's a hoax, right? It has to be!"

"Jase Jenner got photos of the guy -- it sure looked real, didn't it?"

"Lois, were you really inside the shuttle? Did you talk to him?"

"What *really* happened, you guys?"

"LNN said there was a bomb. Did this guy really disarm it?"

"What's his name?"

"Is he single?"

That last question came from Cat Grant. Lois glared at her as Perry held up his hand.

"People! This isn't a circus sideshow! I know we all want to know exactly who this fellow is, and what he's doing here, and how he can do all those amazing things we saw on LNN. Lois, Clark, what've you got?"

"We have the exclusive of the century for you," Lois said briskly. "Not only do I have the inside story -- literally -- on the events at EPRAD this morning, but Superman has guaranteed me -- us -- an exclusive interview in a day or two."

The clamor arose again, and Perry shouted for silence. "I sent Edmunds and Jenner over there as soon as we heard what was going on, and Peters was already there, covering the launch for the City Desk. Jenner got a couple photos with a small camera he carries, although they're all distance shots, and Peters had Olsen with him. The kid got several shots of this Superman lifting the shuttle off the platform, and he managed to get a close-up of the man when the shuttle passed over where they were standing. He's in the darkroom right now, enlarging them for me. Now -- back to work, people! Lois, Clark -- get writing! We've got a front page to fill! We've got a special edition to get out, people! Now, hustle!"

Clapping his hands for emphasis, Perry whirled away toward the City Desk, where Edmunds, Jenner, and Peters sat hunched over their keyboards, pounding out their stories.

The newsroom staff began dispersing toward their various desks, although the noise level didn't go down much as they all continued to discuss the day's amazing events. Lois and Clark made their way to their desks, and Clark dropped into Lois's visitor's chair with a sigh.

Running his hand through his hair, he said softly, "Lois, I'm kind of worried about those photos. What if --"

Also keeping her voice low, she murmured, "Clark, I don't think you'll have to worry. I think people will be focusing on what y- ...uh, *he* can do, rather than who he is. And the one close-up we have is apparently taken from the ground as y- *Superman* flew overhead. His face is going to be in shadow." She smiled suddenly, remembering what she'd said to him in the shuttle. "And that outfit -- I don't think anyone's going to spend much time looking at his face!"

To her amazement, he blushed again, squirming slightly in the chair. "Lois! I can't believe you said that -" He broke off as Cat Grant approached them.

"So, Lois," she drawled, leaning against the edge of the desk closest to Clark. "Are you always the investigative reporter? Don't tell me even a god in a cape doesn't interest you? Make sure you find out if he's single, will you? And get me his telephone number -- if he has one."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Yeah, sure, Cat... Now go away. Some of us have work to do." She glanced at Clark as the woman straightened with a laugh and walked away.

With a wicked grin, he leaned in close to her and whispered, "You *are* going to protect Superman from her, aren't you?"

She laughed. "C'mon, partner -- we have a lot of work to do, and Perry won't be distracted by Edmunds, Jenner, or Peters forever. She shifted her chair over slightly as he hitched his closer to the desk, and they began to outline their stories.

***

Lois had never been so glad to see the end of a day. Finally -- *finally*, the last of the day staff had trickled out, and she and Clark were the only ones left in the newsroom.

Now she looked across at him, watching as he shut down his computer and began gathering his things. She took a deep breath. "Clark?"

He looked over at her and smiled, and she felt the familiar tug of attraction. "I..." She stood up, and he immediately rose to his own feet. She could feel her heart start to pound. This was ridiculous! It was just Clark, her partner! Her friend.

But just maybe... Maybe something more?

"Lois? What is it? He was looking at her with warm concern, and she took courage from his expression.

"Clark, can you... Will you come over to my place tonight? I need to talk to you."

"About the interview." He spoke softly.

She hadn't been thinking of the Superman interview at all. "Oh, well... Yes, I guess we need to hash that out too, don't we? But I also need to... to tell you something --"

He nodded rather abruptly. "I'll be by in about an hour, okay?"

This time it was she who stood at the bottom of the ramp watching him go.

***

She was so nervous by the time he was due to show up that she'd considered -- twice -- calling him and inventing some sort of excuse to stop him coming over.

Why had he left the newsroom so abruptly? When she'd mentioned that she needed to tell him something, his manner had changed. Was he... regretting their friendship? Maybe he thought she was going to turn into a... a Superman groupie or something.

He couldn't still believe she might give away his secret, could he? He'd acted so... normal with her this entire afternoon.

She paced agitatedly into the kitchen. Maybe a... cup of tea would be relaxing. Or even hot chocolate. Did she have any hot chocolate? The hot chocolate Clark had brought her that night at the Planet had been so good -- she had to remember to ask where he'd bought it. Maybe they could stop wherever it was some evening and... and get some hot chocolate and just... hang out together.

What if -- she caught her breath -- what if he didn't *want* to hang out with someone who had his same abilities? What would she do if he... pushed her away? She suddenly realized that she'd been absentmindedly twining the spoon she'd forgotten she was holding around her fingers, into a sort of free-form spiral.

A knock sounded at her door. Guiltily, she opened the nearest cupboard door and tossed the spoon inside. She didn't want to have to explain, until she was absolutely ready <if at all>, how it had become modern art.

Brushing her hands nervously down her sides as if to smooth the jeans she wore, she went to the door and opened it.

"Hi," Clark said softly, and she stood aside mutely to allow him to enter.

Then burst into speech. "Um -- make yourself at home, okay? There's -- have a seat... Can I get you something to drink? I've got -- let's see... Um, I didn't have time to stop and get anything, so I can only offer you water, or... I can make coffee. Would you like coffee? Are you... Are you hungry? Only, I didn't get a chance to do any shopping, so the cupboards are kind of bare..."

His quietly spoken "Lois." hushed her. She stared up at him as he moved to stand in front of her. His expression was sober -- almost grim -- and she was suddenly afraid of what he was going to say.

"You said you needed to talk to me," he began. "I got the impression that it was something pretty serious."

"Uh... Yeah... But..." she wasn't making much progress here -- and he'd given her a such nice big opening to jump into.

"Lois, does all this... You know..." He made a sort of flying motion with his hand; she assumed he meant the whole Superman thing. "Does it... change anything? Can you still... Are you all right with this? With me?"

He'd asked her that once already today. "Clark..." she began, and then stopped. How to say this, to tell him it was so much more than just all right? Why was it so hard to find the right words? He was the same as her -- there was no risk. Well, hardly any risk. She was risking her heart, but she was pretty sure -- hoped -- that he felt the same way.

So why couldn't she just... *say* it? Tell him both her secrets? Because there were two of them, after all. There were her special abilities, and there was... her attraction to Clark.

Only she'd never, ever told anyone before. Not only her secret -- she'd never entrusted her heart to someone else, and that was almost scarier than talking about her special abilities.

She could feel her heart pounding.

"Lois, is it that hard?" he asked. There was an undercurrent in his voice that she couldn't identify. He... couldn't know already, could he?

"I..."

"Lois." He turned and paced away from her, stopping near the living room window. Looking out, his back to her, he continued, "You've been kind of... distracted this afternoon. Kind of... jumpy, almost..."

He seemed really upset. *Did* he already know? And didn't like it? She moved toward him. "Clark..."

He turned and looked at her. "And I can hear you -" He tapped his ear. "You know, your heartbeat. It's been... Well, you seem to get nervous every time I'm near you. I can hear it now, too. Is that because... Lois, is this because I'm an... alien?

An alien?

"What?" Astounded, she stared at him. That had never occurred to her.

It should have, but it hadn't. "An alien? Like, from outer space?" She'd been found in a spaceship, for heavens sake -- yet she'd never considered that there might be an... extraterrestrial explanation for it. "I honestly never even thought about that, Clark. How do you know that for sure? Is it because of the writing -- the letters, or symbols, or whatever they are, on the spaceship? They're not a foreign language? From somewhere on earth, I mean? So it wasn't -- we weren't some government experiment, then? Do you have it? Your spaceship?"

He stared back at her, bewildered. "What? My ship -- uh, yeah... Mom and Dad kept it. But... Wait, how do you know about the ship? I never mentioned it." He frowned. "What's going on, Lois?"

Suddenly, she knew how she could tell him her secret. "It's okay, Clark -- it's nothing bad. How I know, I mean. I... Well, wait here a minute, okay?" She hurried into her bedroom and took Mama's box out of the bedside table drawer. Setting it on the bed, she opened it and carefully lifted out the pale blue baby outfit and the blanket.

He'd moved while she'd been out of the room, and was now standing near the couch. She crossed to where he stood and held the items out to him. "These are mine, Clark." He took them from her, clearly not understanding, and glanced down at them before returning his gaze to her. She touched one of his hands lightly. "Take a closer look."

She watched as he carefully unfolded the outfit, and she knew the instant he spotted the small crest on the collar. He went still, then looked up at her.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped back slightly and said, "I know about the spaceship because... my mother found a spaceship, Clark. Twenty six years ago -- a spaceship with a baby inside." So saying, she rose gracefully into the air, and tried not to smile at the stupefied look on his face.

He stared at her for a long, long moment, and it seemed like the whole world was holding its breath. Then he exhaled, and sat down abruptly on the edge of her couch. "Oh, boy. This really complicates things," he muttered, and stared at the floor without saying anything else. Her heart sank. This wasn't the reaction she'd expected. After a moment, he looked up at her, and she slowly drifted down until she was standing on the floor again.

"Clark?" she whispered.

He sighed and ran one hand through his hair. Gesturing to the empty space beside him, he said almost grimly, "Lois... we really need to talk."

Oh, God. She'd blown it. Somehow, she'd blown the whole thing. Maybe... Despite what she'd thought, maybe he just wasn't attracted to her after all. Heaven knew she wasn't exactly easy to like. She knew that, had even fostered that in the past by deliberately keeping her distance from most people. But that was before.

Before Clark.

"You... don't seem very happy about..." she ventured, sitting down gingerly about two feet away from him. "I mean, I guess you aren't... You don't feel the same way... Her throat felt tight and she swallowed back tears. She was *not* going to cry."

"Lois..."

"I mean..." Maybe if she kept talking, she could keep the tears at bay. "You don't like me --"

"What!?" He sounded utterly shocked.

"I mean, you like me," she amended hurriedly. "But you don't... *like* like me. I --"

"Lois --"

"It's okay, Clark." She looked away for a moment, forcing the tears back again, then continued before he could speak. "I guess I already knew... I mean... I guess you already have a girlfriend, right?"

"A girlfriend? Lois," he tried again. "Look, I don't --"

She met his eyes apprehensively. She couldn't bear it if she saw pity in his gaze. She saw only confusion, and hastened to explain. "It's okay, Clark, really. I figured out that's where you go, you know. After you leave... After you left here, those nights we were working on Dr. Platt's research. And then last Friday night..."

"Lois, that's not --"

She just had to get this over with. Reassure him and send him on his way. So she could be alone. "You... obviously had somewhere you had to be -- you looked at your watch, a-and then left. I didn't talk to you that whole weekend." Oh God, that sounded like an accusation. She was getting upset and making things worse. She tried again. "I mean, there wasn't any reason you had to call me or anything, of course... You should be able to do what you want on your weekends off --"

He stood abruptly, pulling her to her feet with him. Oh, God. She was driving him away.

"*Lois* --"

"A-and anyway, it's such a relief; just to know..." She looked at him through a blur of tears. She couldn't -- wouldn't -- cry. That would make this whole thing even more uncomfortable for him. "I thought I was the only one like me. Like us. I never had anyone to talk to about it..." She broke off as he stepped closer to her, his hands coming up to cup her shoulders. He was so close that she had to tip her head back to look up at him.

The look in his eyes made her heart start to pound again, slow and heavy, and she caught her breath and unknowingly held it.

"You think I'm not attracted to you?" he growled, his voice low and incredibly sexy, "Lois, I am *very* attracted to you." Each word was said with deliberation as he raised his hands to gently stroke his thumbs across her cheeks, then slid his arms around her, drawing her so close that she could feel the heat -- and the electricity -- between them.

For a long breathless moment they hung there, staring at each other. Her breath whooshed out in relief as she moved closer to him, drawn by the look in his eyes. She rested her head against his chest and clung to him, and his arms tightened around her. "I don't have a girlfriend." His breath ruffled her hair. "I don't *want* a girlfriend -- unless she's *you*." He pulled back slightly and she raised her head to look up at him again. "Lois, I am so *very*, *very*, attracted to you." His voice was a mere whisper, his mouth only inches from hers.

Instead of the kiss she expected, however, he rested his forehead against hers for a moment, then raised his head to look deeply into her eyes again. For a moment she saw her whole future in them, but then he sighed and closed his eyes. And stepped back, releasing her.

The feeling of loss was profound. "But, then, why..." Her voice was a mere thread of sound. "Is it... because of my abilities?

His eyes snapped open. "What? No! Of course not. Oh, Lois..." He made as if to draw her into his arms again, but her heart stuttered from anticipation to disappointment as he checked himself. "No. It's not about that at all -- at least, not in the way you meant it."

He fiddled with his tie for a moment, then stuffed his hands into his pockets. "I *am* attracted to you, Lois. Very attracted to you. Completely and utterly -- and I have been since the moment we met. And I've hoped that you would come to feel the same. I don't think I could change how I feel about you -- regardless of your abilities or mine." He shifted both hands to his back pockets. "And I'm having a hard time keeping my hands off you right now."

Bewildered, she stared at him, ignoring the odd little leap her heart gave at his words. He was telling her what she had wanted to hear. Sort of. But at the same time, it was somehow not what she wanted to hear. There was something wrong. "Then why..."

He gestured to her couch. "Here, let's sit."

She sank down, and he sat beside her, taking her hands in his. "I always thought I was the only one, Lois." He smiled faintly. "On the one hand, to find out that you have the same... gifts... Well, I won't deny it's very exciting." He looked down at their clasped hands, and she felt his tighten around hers for a moment. "But there's something else to consider..."

What, Clark?" It was barely a whisper.

He looked directly at her. "What if... Lois, what if we're somehow... related?"

Well, that was something else that had not occurred to her. Not once. It should have, but it hadn't.

He hurried on as if she would interrupt, but at the moment she couldn't have said anything to save her life.

"There are the obvious similarities... We both have dark hair, dark eyes. We both have these abilities. And there's the manner of our arrival on earth. But most of all -" He gestured to the baby garment and the blanket, now resting on her coffee table. "How do you explain the crest? And the colors?"

"I never even..." She finally found her voice. "Clark, it never even occurred to me. Even when I saw your outfit the first time..."

"I know. And I guess we could be cousins. That wouldn't be *so* bad, I guess. I mean -- at least I wouldn't feel so... guilty for being so attracted to you. But what if..." His hands tightened on hers to the point that if she hadn't been invulnerable it would have hurt. He was clearly reluctant to say it. "Lois, what if you're my... sister?" The last word was an anguished whisper.

No. *No*. They couldn't be. Not after she'd finally found him.

"We can't be, Clark," she tried. "What about this... attraction? If we are related, then how..."

"It could happen, Lois. Two adult siblings, having never met before? Who didn't grow up in the same household, didn't have an entire childhood of... *knowing* they were related?" He shook their still-clasped hands gently. "We just don't know for sure. We can't act on this attraction unless... until we know for sure. And I don't know of any way to find out."

She couldn't look at him. Couldn't think. Couldn't... Despite her best efforts, a tear dropped onto her shirt, leaving a small, dark spot on the fabric.

"Oh, Lois," he said softly, and drew her into his arms. She went unresistingly, and rested her head against him and cried. She cried for what she was losing -- and what she'd already lost. She cried for sad and lonely little-girl-Lois, and poor, beloved, tired Mama, who had died and gone away. She cried for the love she barely remembered, and all the times she'd had to struggle over some looming obstacle all alone. And finally, she cried for what she'd found. If he was her brother, she'd finally -- finally -- found a family. But at way, way, *way* too high a cost.

***

A very long time later, the two of them were sitting -- carefully not touching -- on her couch. Lois had finally managed to slow the torrent of tears that had been building up steadily behind the dam she'd put in place when she'd climbed into the big black car with the Doctors Lane that long-ago day.

Any trace of self-consciousness she might have felt at losing such complete control over her emotions was instantly stilled when she pulled away from him, looking up almost apprehensively into his face, and realized that he, too, had tears tracing down his cheeks. He'd brushed one hand, cupped, down the side of her face, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, and gently cradled her cheek for a brief moment, then smiled fleetingly before wiping his face with no sign of embarrassment.

"How about if I make us some tea?" he had asked quietly. "My mom always says that while it might not solve any problems, it gives comfort. I think we could both use a little comfort right now."

When she'd shyly nodded, he'd risen to his feet, again taking her hand and bringing her with him. He'd matter-of-factly asked if she wanted to take the opportunity to wash her face, adding that he would do the same at her kitchen sink if she didn't mind. His calm treatment of the situation had further allayed her lingering uneasiness at so completely breaking down, and she had agreed with his suggestion.

She'd brought Mama's box with her when she'd returned, joining him as he placed two mugs of milky tea on her coffee table. She'd started telling him about Mama and how she'd found a baby in a spaceship, and about Sam and Ellen, and about Princess Elizabeth and fighting dragons.

And she'd showed him the chains, asking, "What do you think they mean?" as he fingered them gently.

"I don't know," he'd answered. "They sort of look like letters." He'd glanced at her and said softly, "I'd like to think they're like those friendship bracelets -- you know, 'best' on one half and 'friends' on the other. But..." He'd trailed off, then added, "But I think... they're probably letters. Initials."

They'd both fallen silent, remembering that they shared the 'S.'

After a moment, she'd offered him Mama's letter. He'd read it slowly, then without speaking, he'd read it a second time while she'd sat as patiently as she could beside him, waiting for his reaction.

He'd surprised her when, instead of commenting on the letter, he'd asked if he could read the story of Princess Elizabeth, clearly not doubting for a moment that she still had it. She'd brought it to him from its place in the bedside table drawer, then sat watching his face as he read the gently-used little book to its end.

Now he looked up at her and said soberly, "I wish I could have met her, Lois. It's obvious that she was an intelligent and courageous young woman, and she had such a tremendous influence in helping make you who you are. She taught you to fight the dragons, didn't she?"

"Yes." She whispered it, fighting tears again.

"You never really lost her completely, you know," he said gently. "Because she's always been in your heart. And she passed her loving heart on to you, Lois. Her strength and courage -- and love -- live on in you. I know she would be proud of what you've accomplished."

"I... Clark, I'm not... Thank you, but I'm not what you think. I don't think I know how to love. I'm... I'm Mad Dog Lane, you know."

He smiled at her, his beautiful smile that still made her want to grab hold of something to make sure she didn't start floating. "I know what I see, Lois. You wear Mad Dog Lane like armor, and you fight dragons. But underneath all that, I see a beautiful and courageous young woman who's fought dragons in the form of corruption and dishonesty, greed and evil, so well that she is at the top of her profession. And I see -- although you keep it well hidden -- how much you care. You may not think you have a soft heart; you may not think you know how to love, or that you're worthy of love. But you do, and you are."

Except for the part about being at the top of her profession, he was describing Mama. She had to swallow hard around the lump in her throat. He saw all that in her? She had to... she wasn't going to cry again. She'd done enough of that. It was time to be strong. Time to finish this investigation, expose Luthor, and then...

Then fight with everything she had at her disposal to keep this incredible man in her life. If she had to accept him as a brother, she'd -- she'd find a way. Letting him go wasn't an option. But until she had proof, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they were related, she wasn't going to give up hope.

She straightened up and looked directly into his eyes. In a voice firm with resolve, she said, "Clark, this -- you and me -- is just another kind of fight. Just a different kind of dragon. We just have to fight this the same way we'd fight a dragon. To find out for sure, somehow..."

"Lois, how do we fight something so intangible?" He took her hands in his again, squeezing them gently, and then released her. "I want to know for sure, too -- just as much as you. But I'm scared, too. Right now, I can wonder. I can dream. I can hope. But if what we suspect is confirmed, my hopes are gone... You know?"

"Yeah." She knew. It was why she was so determined to disprove it.

Neither of them said anything else for a while. Finally, Lois leaned forward and set her empty mug on the table. "Clark, I need to know for sure. If we *are* related... I -- we -- have to find a way to... resist this attraction. If we find out we're... related... for sure, do you think this... thing... between you and me will just go away?"

"I don't know. I don't think I could just... turn it off, Lois. Maybe... maybe I'd have to move on again."

Sheer panic coursed through her and she reached blindly for him. "No! No -- Clark, I can't lose you! <I can't lose you, too.>" If he *was* her brother... that was better than not having him at all, wasn't it?

She didn't realize she was clinging to him until he gently freed one hand and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "Lois, I'd still come and see you, you know... Or you could come and see me. But if we *are*... Well, I think it would be easier if I... didn't get to see you all the time. It would be just too hard."

"There *must* be some way to find out! There has to be something, somewhere," she cried. "Maybe... If only we could do genetic testing..."

"Yeah..." He ran a hand through his hair again. "Of course, even if they could get a needle in -- who knows how similar or different our DNA would look from everyone else's?"

"But would they really know what they were seeing, Clark?" She felt the first faint stirring of excitement. "Nobody knows about us. Even if there are some differences between our blood and everyone else's, I'd think it would be subtle, wouldn't it? I don't know much about genetic testing, but they'd only compare us with each other, right? Not with... the entire human DNA thing. Besides, other than our special abilities, we *look* like everyone else. We don't really know for sure that we're from..." She waved a hand vaguely toward the ceiling. "...outer space. Maybe we really were both... I don't know, some kind of experiment..." She trailed off because he was shaking his head.

"Lois. I think we can pretty much guarantee the 'outer space' part. The ships aren't the only proof of that. But more importantly -- you're forgetting the invulnerability thing. How would they get a sample of blood in the first place?"

"Oh." Caught up in the idea, she'd forgotten that huge little detail. "Yeah."

After another small silence, she ventured, "What if... Do you think -- since we have the same powers, would we be able to do it? Draw blood, I mean? Not really *hurt* each other, but..."

He was on his feet in an instant. "No!"

It was loud and emphatic, and she was startled. It must have shown on her face, because he drew in a deep breath, and as she also rose to her feet, he said in a much quieter voice, "No, Lois. Absolutely not. Not even for this. Don't ask me to hurt you, to somehow draw your blood. I just... can't." The last was said in a whisper, and as if he couldn't help himself, he pulled her into his arms, one hand curving up over the back of her head as he pressed her to him. "Please don't ask me to do that," he whispered into her hair. "Because even if we do have the same powers, I don't think it would be just a little pinprick."

"I'm sorry, Clark." She wanted to stay where she was, listening -- without any special effort -- to his heart beating just under her ear. But after a moment, she pulled away slightly. He let her go, but when she looked up into his face, he still looked troubled.

"I *am* sorry, Clark," she repeated. "I'm just... grasping at straws, I guess. I wasn't thinking. It wouldn't be just a pinprick, would it? And you're right -- I couldn't hurt you in any way, either."

His expression softened. "I know. And I understand. I just wish there was an easy way to figure this out."

"What about... can't they test other things, Clark?" she asked hesitantly. "What about... Don't they test hair sometimes? It doesn't *have* to be blood, does it?"

He frowned. "I remember reading something about the latest developments in forensics... It's all very new technology, but yeah, I think they can use hair as well as blood. Certain skin cells, too. But we're back to the potential differences between us and everyone else. Can we risk it? Assuming we can find somebody who'd do it, and assuming it even works for siblings. There's less shared DNA between siblings than between, say, parent and child. That I do remember."

"Shoot. Yeah, I remember that from college." She sighed. "I think it's worth researching, Clark. Maybe if we know more about what it entails, we can decide whether it's worth pursuing."

He nodded. "Okay. We'll see what we can find. Maybe... maybe we'll get lucky." He gently stroked one finger along her jaw. "Okay?" he asked softly.

She gave him a slightly tremulous smile. "Yeah. Maybe we will get lucky."

He picked up the empty mugs from her coffee table and turned toward the kitchen. She followed as he went to the sink and washed them with a minimum of fuss.

"Where do these go?" he asked. "They were already out on the counter when I made the tea."

"Yeah, I figured we'd have coffee or something," she replied. He'd found the tea easily enough, but since Ellen had bought -- and stocked for her -- a set of jars labeled 'coffee', 'tea', 'sugar', and 'flour' when Lois had moved in, it wasn't exactly a difficult task. "The upper cabinet closest to the sink."

He opened the door, paused for a moment, and then reached in and pulled out a silvery metal spiral. "Uh, Lois... is this supposed to be in there?" he asked her with a crooked grin.

It was the spoon she'd been twisting absently around her fingers while she waited for him to arrive. She could feel herself blushing, which was a definite first. "No. And I'm not discussing it, either," she said with a touch of Mad Dog in her voice.

He chuckled, then laughed outright as she continued, "Just put the mugs away, Kent." Complying, he shut the cabinet door and turned to her, still laughing. And then stilled suddenly, looking at her intently as she laughed back at him.

Her smiled faded. "What?"

"You," he said simply. "You are beautiful, Lois."

They stared at each other, across what felt like a rapidly narrowing space. Lois could hear both of their hearts, racing, and she held her breath in anticipation of... He moved closer, reaching out to again gently cup her cheek, his long fingers tucking under her hair.

"Lois..." It was a whisper.

He was so close they were almost, but not quite, touching. His gaze moved to her mouth, and became intent as she self-consciously moistened her lips. His eyes darkened at the action, and she shivered with anticipation at the look in his eyes.

Six inches. Six tiny little inches was all that separated her mouth from his. All she had to do was rise onto her tiptoes, and she could know what it was like. To learn what all the fuss was about kissing. To kiss him. Clark. Her... brother?

She backed away quickly, even as he seemed to remember at the same moment. He turned away from her, running one hand through his hair, breathing hard. She closed her eyes and drew deep, steady breaths until she felt like she was in control again, then opened them to see that he'd moved around to the other side of the kitchen's island.

"Um, maybe I should go..." he started, and she rushed into speech. She wasn't ready for him to go yet.

"No! No, Clark. Please stay -- just a little longer? Let's go sit down again -- we can... can talk some more and maybe figure something out..." Grasping at any excuse to make him stay, she remembered what he'd said earlier. "You said the ships aren't the only proof that we're from... Well, not from earth."

"Yeah." He hesitated. "I don't know if I can just... sit with you and talk, Lois." But seeing the dismay she didn't bother to hide, he added gently, "Yes, I'll stay awhile longer. C'mon. Maybe we can brainstorm a little more? And I'll tell you what else supports the whole 'outer space' thing."

***

They sat down again, taking care to leave space between them. After an awkward moment of silence, Clark said, "From the letter and your box of... things, it sounds like your mother kept everything that was in your ship. I wonder, though, if yours had a globe?

"A globe?"

"It was in my ship; we think it was part of the navigation system."

Curiously, she asked, "You said earlier... You still have your ship? Where is it?

He nodded. "Yeah -- Dad hid it at the farm."

"So what does it look like? What was in it besides the globe thing?"

"Well, I've only seen it a couple of times." Slowly, he continued, "There are symbols -- maybe letters -- on the outside. The ship is very small... Mom says they estimated I was about eighteen months to two years old when they found me. I was wearing a one piece suit, like a sleeper, and there was a blanket tucked around me."

"Like mine?"

"No -- yours is sort of... loosely woven. Mine -- Mom showed it to me when she made the suit; that's where the 'S' came from, the blanket. It's more of a *blanket* sort of blanket, you know? Thicker, solid. Like a typical blanket on your bed."

"It's blue, though? And yours had the 'S' emblem on it?

"Yes, but -- Superman's blue. Bright, primary blue the same color as the suit. And yes, the actual emblem Mom sewed to the chest of the suit was originally on the blanket -- you can see where it was fastened on."

"So what is the globe, do you think?" she asked curiously. "You said maybe the navigational system?"

"Yeah. I think it might be a guidance system. Mom and Dad kept it with the other stuff. I saw it once when I was about ten years old -- I was asking questions about these powers I was developing, so Dad and Mom told me the story of how they'd found me. Dad took me out to the barn and showed me the ship, and then Mom showed me the stuff -- the blanket and globe and things -- that they'd stored in a box inside the house. I didn't see any of that stuff again until I asked Mom to make me the suit. She brought the box out to show me the 'S' emblem, and we started talking about the whole thing again. Mom gave me the globe, and I was holding it -- you know, looking at it -- when it started to glow."

"It did? All by itself?"

"Yeah. I didn't turn it on or anything. It showed earth, then a red planet. And the word 'Krypton' came into my mind."

"Like... telepathy or something?" she asked.

"More like... I don't know... Like when you're trying to remember a song. You can't quite remember the tune, but then you see the lyrics, and the tune comes back to you."

"Krypton. You think that's your -- our... home planet?"

"I don't know. Yes." He sighed. "I think so. The thing is, that's all the globe did. It showed earth, then this red planet; I... remembered Krypton, and the display went back and forth between earth and Krypton a few times, then shut off."

"Where is it? Can I see it?" It had probably been packed away again at his parents' farm, but maybe they could go see it some time.

"It's at my place -- I brought it back with me from Smallville. I can go get it, or we can go over to my apartment, if you prefer."

"Where do you live?" It was something she'd been wondering.

"It's not too far from here, actually. About four blocks away -- on Clinton. It's a loft apartment, on the roof; it's in a semi-industrial area, so I don't have to worry... you know, about a lot of neighbors as I'm coming and going. I moved in right after I got the job at the Planet. The place was in poor shape, but the landlord agreed that I could fix it up a bit."

"That's one of the drawbacks here," Lois commented. "I've never felt comfortable flying except at night. I'm afraid someone will see me. Is your apartment a penthouse?"

Clark laughed. "No -- not by any stretch of the imagination. But it is on top of the building. I'm not sure what it was before it was an apartment, but the building is a converted warehouse. So maybe it was -- I don't know, maintenance or something. Anyway, I like it. It has a balcony, and there are no other residential buildings immediately on either side..."

"So no curious neighbors, huh?"

"Right," he replied with a grin. "I was lucky to find it. The buildings on both sides are businesses, and they each share a common wall with mine. Both neighboring buildings are a story shorter than mine if you count my place, so there are no windows facing my apartment."

"I'd like to see it. And the globe, of course."

"Anytime," he said warmly. Then more soberly, "It probably won't tell us much, though. I mean -- I guess if it's a navigation system, it might have the coordinates for the planet -- Krypton. But anyway, you should at least see that. I wonder if it'll remind you of anything, though. You would have been so much younger when you arrived."

She nodded. "Around three months old or so, I think, based on when Mama decided my birthday must be. You said you were around eighteen months to two years old? When your parents found you?"

"Yes. We probably arrived at about the same time. So -- probably -- we left this planet, Krypton, at about the same time, too."

"And maybe..." she sat up straight. "Clark, you said you haven't seen the ship since you were about ten years old? Maybe we should -- I don't know, look it over again, too. Maybe there's some information still inside it."

"I doubt it. I think Mom and Dad removed everything that might give us any kind of clue to my origins. But sure, we can go look -- when I was ten, I was more interested in the fact that it was a spaceship than anything else."

"Could we go out there and take a quick look -- maybe tomorrow night? Would you need to call your mom and dad and let them know you're -- we're -- coming?"

"I do usually call them if I know ahead of time that I'm going to stop by," Clark answered. "But not always. I'm going out there tomorrow night for dinner -- Mom and Dad want to hear all about my debut as Superman. Why don't you come with me?"

"Oh..." Meet his parents? Somehow, she'd thought they'd just stop by, check out the ship, and then leave. But -- actually have dinner with his mom and dad? She wouldn't know how to act. Or what to say. And what if they hated her on sight? She hesitated, then said, "Well... but won't they be expecting just you? For dinner, I mean? I... I'm not very good at meeting people, Clark. And what if they don't... Well, I'm not very easy to like..."

He turned to face her, raised his hands, and gently cradled her face so that she was forced to look directly into his eyes. His palms were warm against her cheeks and his fingers tunneled under her hair against her neck, causing a long delicious shiver to run through her. "Lois." He leaned forward, and for a breathless moment she thought he was going to kiss her. Instead, holding her gaze with his, he said softly but emphatically, "You are infinitely likeable. I know you don't think so, but all you have to do is look at how the people you *do* allow past your barriers treat you. Perry treats you like a daughter; Jimmy will drop whatever he's doing if you need help. Please come with me tomorrow. My parents know how I feel about you, and they really do want to meet you."

His eyes were beautiful, dark and liquid, like coffee and cinnamon and the finest chocolate, shot through with golden flecks. She would do anything he wanted, follow him anywhere, when he looked at her like that. "Okay." It was a whisper, but he would hear it.

He did. "Tomorrow night, okay?" he asked softly. His thumbs stroked lightly along her cheekbones and then he was letting her go. "We can fly, if you like? It should be dark enough. If not," he flashed a quick grin at her, lightening the mood considerably, "Superman could always carry you. He does that sometimes, you know."

She laughed a little, as he had intended, and he rose to his feet and pulled her to hers. "It's not very late; would you like to see the globe? I can bring it here, or we could go over to my place. I suspect we won't have much free time tomorrow, what with Superman's appearance and everything, and then going out to Smallville tomorrow night."

"Yes -- I'd like to see the globe tonight, if that's okay," she told him. "We can go to your place -- I'd like to see it, too."

Sweeping his arm toward her window, he asked with a smile, "Fly with me?"

Within seconds they were airborne.

It was the strangest, most exciting and exhilarating feeling, flying with Clark. Flying *with* him, beside him -- although there was something to be said in favor of flying held in his arms -- with nothing but the night air around them. She'd always loved flying, but now it would never be the same again. No -- forever more, it would be better -- beyond good. Even if she didn't ever fly with him again, the memory of sharing it with him would last forever.

***

Clark's apartment door opened onto a landing, from which a short stair led down into the main room. She looked around at the gleaming wood floors, the brick archways through which she could see there was a bedroom. The kitchen ran along one wall; it had an island like hers did. His apartment had a vastly different look and feel to it -- hers was much more modern and almost... utilitarian -- but she liked his place. It had a homey feeling to it that she hadn't felt for a long time -- not since those early years with Mama in their cramped little apartment.

"Wow."

"Feel free to look around," he said with a smile, moving down the steps.

She followed. "You said... it was in poor repair? It sure doesn't look like it..."

"Yeah, it was. The floor was trashed; the cupboards had no doors, and the handrail there at the stairs was broken off at the floor. I fixed it up -" He paused to flash a teasing grin at her. "...I can do it pretty quick, you know. I had to replace the sink; I went ahead and replaced the refrigerator and stove while I was at it. About the only thing in good condition -- grimy, but sound -- was the brickwork and those windows in the bedroom." He gestured toward the archway.

She looked past him, through the archway; there were windows extending from a window seat to the ceiling, and she could see the balcony he'd mentioned. She didn't enter the room -- somehow, it felt a little too intimate.

She gestured toward a black cast-iron spiral staircase near the archway. "What's up there?"

"It's a small loft; I use it for storage right now."

She moved away from the archway, back into the main room. "Oh. Well, it all looks really nice, Clark. I don't think I could... I mean, I'm fast, too, but... I don't know how to... replace sinks or fix floors, or..."

He followed her, and gestured to the couch. "Have a seat. Well, I grew up on a farm. There were always lots of opportunities to do carpentry, plumbing, mechanical work -- stuff like that. I also traveled a lot -- all over the world, after college -- and in a lot of places, if I didn't fix whatever it was that needed fixing, I had to do without."

She sat down on the couch, which was about a thousand times more comfortable than hers. "You said something before about moving on..." She trailed off as they both remembered the circumstances in which he'd said it. After an awkward moment, she rushed on. "So, you traveled a lot? You said -- all over the world?"

He sat down too, carefully leaving several feet of space between them. Leaning back into the corner of the couch, he rested one arm along the back and said, "Yeah, you know -- it's easy to move around -" He made a hand motion that she took to mean flying.

He looked so comfortable. She mimicked his position, settling into her own corner of the couch and stretching her legs out, feet on the coffee table. *This* was the kind of couch she'd *intended* to buy. Of course, then maybe she'd never have discovered her ability to fly... "But... how did you handle... I mean... if you left Kansas at night, wouldn't it be daylight in some of the places you went?" How did he fly in the daylight before he had his Superman suit? Hadn't he worried about being seen?

He looked puzzled. "Well, yeah... Why?"

She was amazed that he didn't get what she was asking. "What if you were seen?" she elaborated.

"Oh." He shrugged, and she marveled at how unconcerned he appeared about the whole thing. "I was always real careful; in the more developed countries, I just picked uncrowded places and scanned from above the clouds for potential witnesses before I landed."

"But what about your passport? I mean, I guess you carried one, but what about -- I don't know, don't they stamp your passport in most places if you enter or leave a country?"

"Yes, although in many countries, once you're there, you don't have to keep showing your passport. I could walk around in France, or Italy, or wherever, just like anyone else. I guess it could have been a problem if I was crossing borders in a more conventional manner -- you know, by car or rail... But I'd usually just take off, you know, and fly to my next destination."

It had never occurred to her to leave the USA. "...And here I thought I was doing some cutting edge exploring when I finally went across the country," she said ruefully.

He smiled at her. "Lois -- I had an advantage. I had two parents who knew all about my abilities, who encouraged me and helped me explore them. From what you've told me, you had only yourself. Without a mentor or really, any guidance, it's far more impressive what you've done so far with your life."

She didn't know what to say. 'Thank you' somehow seemed inadequate. She just wasn't completely sure how to handle his praise. She had been complimented on her abilities as a journalist for so long that she was used to it, but she was not used to compliments on a personal level at all.

"So... Where is it -- the globe?"

His mouth quirked in a lopsided grin, but he allowed her to change the subject without comment. "Right where you'd expect a globe to be -- on the bookshelf," he said with a laugh.

She looked at him in astonishment. "On the...?"

His grin widened. "Yep. See?" He tilted his head toward the shelves set into the brick behind them.

She looked. A small, featureless, burnished silver globe -- like something from a modern art gallery -- sat on a small metal globe stand among the books and display objects. She began to laugh. "Clark --"

He laughed with her. "Hey -- if I store it in plain sight, everyone sees what they expect to see: a silver modern art globe on a stand. Mom found the stand at a flea market in Smallville; that's what gave me the idea."

She stood and went nearer, aware that he was rising to follow her.

"May I?"

In answer, he reached out and picked up the globe, then turned and placed it in her hands.

It wasn't as heavy as she'd expected, and it felt -- almost warm. She held it cupped in her hands, turning it slightly as she inspected it, and then almost dropped it when it suddenly began to glow.

Clark, slightly behind and to her right, reached out and placed one hand under hers, adding his support. His other hand settled on her shoulder; neither of them noticed. "Earth," he said softly as the blue and green planet appeared, almost as if it was floating in the depths of the globe. "...And ...Krypton," he continued, as the blue and green faded, to be replaced by a glowing red planet. Lighter bands, almost orange, swirled across its face. After a moment, the red planet faded into the familiar blue and green of earth.

As the blue and green faded into red again, he asked softly, "Do you... hear it? Or I guess I should say... think it? Krypton?"

As the red planet faded and the globe once more became a smooth and featureless orb, she said equally softly, "No. There's... nothing."

She looked up at him. "I didn't feel it, Clark. Maybe I *was* too young when we... left there." She handed the globe back to him, trying to stifle her disappointment. Turning back toward the couch, she asked over her shoulder, "Have you tried to open it?"

"I don't think it opens." Still holding the globe, he returned to the couch. As they both resumed their seats, he continued, "I did try, actually, but I don't want to damage it, or crush it."

He shook it gently. They both heard a soft sort of hum, but nothing else.

Lois slumped back into her corner. "Rats." She hadn't realized until now how much she'd pinned her hopes on learning something from the globe.

"Yeah." Clark looked like he felt the same way. He turned the globe idly, holding it in both hands, then set it on the back of the couch between them when he stretched his arm out along the top again.

For several minutes, both of them sat quietly -- not brooding, exactly, but each immersed in their own thoughts.

***

Finally, Lois stirred in her corner of the couch. "Clark?"

He looked up at her; he looked like his thoughts had been far away. "Hmmm?'

"How did you know about the bomb?"

"I heard the alarm."

"No -- no, I mean, how did you know you could... swallow it?" she asked. "I mean, it was a *bomb*, Clark. How did you know it wouldn't hurt you? Had you ever done that before?"

He frowned. "No, but... Lois, you're invulnerable too. Why would you think it could hurt you?"

"Clark, how would I know that?! That it couldn't, I mean. I told you about Uncle Mike's gym -- it's all I had. I mean, most of us know better than to... to stand on the tracks as a train is coming, or... or eat a bomb! Super-powered or not, those sorts of tests just didn't occur to me." She sat up straighter, throwing her hands up and out in frustration as she tried to make her point. "...Just like it never occurred to me to... fly to China, or..." She slumped back against the corner of the couch. "I guess living my life from an enforced... *normal* human point of view, I just never even thought about... venturing out of the earth's atmosphere or anything like that. I mean, I flew, but always at night..." She trailed off unhappily.

"Lois," Clark said very gently, and she looked up at him. "You're... upset about something specific. Can you tell me what it is?"

She hesitated, and then burst out, "It's just -- I'm supposed to be this great, fearless reporter -- best ever, Mad Dog Lane -- and I've just been living this safe little life here in Metropolis! As if I were just some ordinary... I don't know -- like your basic girl next door! No adventure! You've been all over the world! And here I am. Never even flown during the daytime! Well, except with you -- with Superman -- but you know what I mean. Some fearless reporter!"

Clark swung his legs off the coffee table and shifted closer to her. Reaching for her hands, he tugged her gently out of the corner of the couch, then turned so that they were both facing forward. He draped his arm loosely around her shoulders and tugged her lightly against his side, leaning back against the cushions again. She sat stiffly for a moment before relaxing against the cushion beside him.

"Is this okay? It's kind of like a hug, but nice and low-key." When she nodded, he reached back with his free hand and moved the globe from where it rested behind them, handing it to her rather absently. As she turned it slowly, looking at it without really seeing it, he tucked her a little closer to his side and spoke.

"You know I traveled a lot," he said slowly. "Mostly, that was because I wanted to be able to help people -- but eventually I'd find myself in a situation where people were beginning to wonder about me, and so I had to move on. I ended up living in a lot of different places during that time."

He dropped his head back against the couch, then rolled it to the side to glance at her before looking forward again.

"In some of those places," he continued, "life isn't like living in the US at all. There's strife -- real strife -- fighting, bombs, attacks -- right there in the middle of people's lives. They live their lives surrounded by that stuff, and they learn to... work around it, I guess. Like we live with what are really mere inconveniences -- power outages, bad weather, rush hour traffic. I couldn't help but be exposed to that violence sometimes. And once I realized that 'invulnerable' really, truly meant... *invulnerable*, it was easy for me to extrapolate that to other new situations."

He glanced at her again with a faint smile. "So -- faced with a small bomb and not enough time left on the timer to get it outside and safely away from the ship even at super speed, I had to come up with an alternative solution. The only thing I could think of that was, essentially, a bomb-proof containment system, was me."

He ran his free hand through his hair, ruffling it slightly. "And I guess... I lived more of an explorer's life, I think. I mean, growing up on the farm -- I got used to exploring, finding new things -- like, could I climb that tree? And how high could I go? Could I hit that target on the hay bale? And from how far away? I grew up in a wide open area where it was much easier for me to experiment with some of my powers."

He straightened up, withdrawing his arm and turning to look at her fully. Without a hint of a smile, he said softly and deliberately, "Lois, you are the best and most fearless person I know. So much more than me, because you faced all of this completely on your own. I had my mom and dad to fall back on -- to discuss things, to run to when I accidentally set a section of the pasture fence on fire, to talk me through all the startling -- and scary -- things I could do. I had complete and utter acceptance from them. Why would you even think of... of leaving the atmosphere, or flying across the ocean -- when you had such huge frontiers to conquer, all alone, right here in the city?"

She gazed back at him, the globe forgotten in her lap, wanting to believe him. "But..."

"Lois, while I was wandering around, trying to figure out where I wanted to be and how I could help, you were here -- fighting dragons. And like Princess Elizabeth, you weren't automatically handed a suit of armor, and a sword, and a fearless steed. Like her, you had to make do with what you had -- just yourself. That is the greater accomplishment."

She looked away from him for a moment, unable to speak. When he spoke to her like that, looked at her like that -- it was like flying and hot chocolate and Mama's arms all at once. Around the lump in her throat, she whispered, "Thank you, Clark."

He leaned back against the couch, draping his arm across her shoulders again and tugging her lightly against his side once more. "You're welcome, Lois. But I'm simply telling the truth."

***

They sat for a while longer before she moved away from him reluctantly. "I guess I should go." She handed him the globe. "It's going to be crazy at the Planet tomorrow, isn't it?"

"Yeah." Clark stood up with her. As he moved over to the shelves and replaced the globe on its stand, she suddenly thought of something.

"Clark -- we never talked about the Superman interview. I think we ought to get it into tomorrow's evening edition, don't you? Right now, nobody really knows anything about Superman. But if you're going to start openly helping people, it would be good if people know you're really just here to help -- before you show up. Before anyone starts speculating and gets it wrong."

He smiled at her. "You're right; there haven't been any emergencies I've needed to deal with yet, but that's bound to change." He frowned thoughtfully. "We'll have to find a way to cover my absences, though."

"Oh, that's easy," she said, waving a hand airily. "You're a reporter. You've got sources to meet." She flashed him an impish grin. "Or I'll suddenly decide you need to go get us some Metropolis Coffee. I'm Mad Dog Lane; nobody'll think twice about it."

He laughed. "Here, let's sit at the table and hash out the basics. Speaking of coffee, do you want any?" He stopped, an arrested look on his face.

"What?" She had followed him into the kitchen area and dropped into the chair he pulled out for her. He picked up a notepad and pen from the island and handed them to her.

"I just thought of it -- everyone at the Planet knows you function better with your morning coffee... but if you're like me, caffeine doesn't affect you."

She laughed. "Haven't you ever heard of the placebo effect? Just because it doesn't *actually* affect me doesn't mean I don't rely on the whole 'gotta have my morning coffee' routine to start my day. Besides, I like the taste. And yes, thanks, I'll have a cup."

Chuckling, he set up the coffee maker quickly, then pulled out the chair opposite her and sat down.

"So... what do we say?" he asked.

"Well, people are going to want to know where you came from. Let's see... what sort of spin can we put on that, without actually lying?"

"If we say I'm an alien, you know that's going to freak some people out," he commented. "All the doomsday, aliens-are-coming folks'll be crawling out of the woodwork."

"Good point." She chewed idly on the end of the pen while she thought. "Okay -- how about this? You've been here as long as you can remember; you don't know how or why, but you were born this way. Technically, that's all true. We can keep it vague."

He nodded. "I guess that'll work. What else?"

"Well, people will want to know who you are -" She raised a hand to stop him speaking as he opened his mouth. "I know, I know -- the whole point of the suit is to protect Clark Kent. But they *will* ask, Clark."

He slumped in his seat. "Maybe I shouldn't have done this."

She smiled sympathetically at him. "No, I think you needed to do this, Clark. I fight the dragons my way, and you fight them with me -- but you also have a deep-seated *need* to... help. It's just part of your personality."

"So how do we avoid that question?" He still looked worried.

"We don't. We simply say you're Superman. And if -- when -- they ask who you were *before* you were Superman, you simply say you've always been this way, but have only recently been able to help. People'll think it's about one of your powers -- you know, that you've only recently begun to... I don't know. Hear cries for help. Fly. Something like that."

"Okay... What else?"

"Well, the usual. Where do you live, what do you do when you're not saving people, do you have a family and are they all like you, *how* do you do the things you do, how strong are you, how fast are you, are there others like you, are you an alien who's going to take over the world, *why* are you doing this, why the suit..." she trailed off, noting his deer-in-the-headlights look.

He dropped his head into his hands. "I'm beginning to think this was a really, really bad idea." His voice was muffled.

"Clark, as Superman, you can *choose* not to answer questions, you know. And it's okay to say you don't know. The 'where do you live/what do you do' questions -- you can simply say that you prefer not to answer questions of a personal nature."

He raised his head and looked at her hopefully. "And the rest?"

She grinned at him. "Let's see -- the 'how strong are you/how fast are you' questions? You just answer those truthfully." She gazed at the ceiling a moment, thinking back over the questions she'd listed. "And... Oh, yeah -- the family stuff -- you say again that you prefer not to answer questions of a personal nature. The answer to the 'are you an alien/take over the world' question is a firm and emphatic no. With a reassurance that you're merely here to help. The 'are there any others like you' question -- the answer's no." She stopped, waiting for the objection she knew was coming.

He didn't disappoint her. "But, Lois, that's not true. What about you?"

"It's all in which word you focus on, Clark. I'm not like you -- not exactly. For one thing, I'm a girl. You're not. Nit-picky, I know, but hey, whatever works. And don't forget, *I* don't fly around in a brightly colored and highly distracting form-fitting suit." She laughed as he blushed again.

"Okay..." he said doubtfully. "It's a stretch, but... I'll accept it. Maybe I could just say no, not as far as I know..."

"So all that's left is the 'why' questions... 'Why are you doing this?' and 'Why the suit?' ...Let's see..." She chewed on the pen again as she thought.

"Well," he ventured, "the first 'why' is that I help because I can. I have these incredible powers -- why not use them for good?"

"That's incredibly na´ve and simple, Clark, but since it's true, we'll let it stand. We can always say you stand for truth and justice; it's what we do at the paper, too, so it's doubly true. Okay?" At his nod, she continued briskly, writing it in the notebook as she spoke, "So -- truth and justice... Hmmm... and... Oh, I don't know... how about 'The American Way'?"

"Well... But I'll help anyone who needs help, Lois. Not just in the USA. I would want people to know that..."

"Okay. Actually, it does sound a little hokey. So truth and justice it is,' she said, scribbling out part of what she'd written. Then, looking up, she smiled impishly at him again. "Now... about the suit. What was it that Cat called you? A 'god in a cape'?"

He actually squirmed.

She burst out laughing. "Okay, okay -- I'll stop teasing you." Over his ironic "Thank you" she said, "How about a nice, technical answer? We can say it cuts wind resistance when you fly, and the colors instantly identify you in cases where scared, anxious, or panicky people may need help quickly. Like red or yellow for firemen. What do you think?"

He smiled his brilliant, float-inducing smile at her, and she actually left the seat of the chair slightly. "I think I'd be totally lost without you, Lois." His smile faded. "I just wish..." He trailed off.

"I know," she said softly. "Just... we *will* find out, Clark. We *have* to. And now, I think we have enough here." She tapped the notebook on the table. "I guess I ought to go."

He stood. "C'mon, I'll fly you home." As she rose to her feet, he laughed. "Boy, now that's not something I ever imagined myself saying!"

They were both laughing as they stepped out onto his front step and lifted into the air together.

***

The level of excitement at the Planet the next morning was almost as high as it had been the day before. LNN was constantly replaying Superman lifting the shuttle into space, and the newspaper staff kept drifting to the television monitors to watch. Apparently, no one tired of seeing it.

A television news team returning from filming some scheduled interview, according to LNN, had managed to briefly catch Superman flying over the city just after dawn; LNN alternated the EPRAD segment with the newer segment, which was barely a minute in length.

Lois had arrived early, to see Clark exit the stairwell shortly after she'd sat down at her desk. He was adjusting his tie; he must have changed out of Superman's suit on the roof.

"Good morning, partner," she greeted him with a smile. "What's up?"

He pulled her visitor's chair out and sat down, leaning toward her as he said quietly, "There was an accident on the Queensland Park Bridge; Superman helped extract a trapped motorist." He smiled at her. "I've got the story; it ought to make Perry happy."

She laughed. "Definitely. Ready to start on the Superman interview?"

He nodded.

"Was that where y-" She glanced around; there was no one within earshot. Even so, they might as well get in the habit now of speaking about Superman as if he were a separate person. "...Was that where *Superman* was going when the news crew filmed that?" She tilted her head toward the news monitors, where the shorter segment was beginning again.

Clark either had the same thought or more likely, picked up on her unspoken hint. Glancing at the monitors, he shook his head. "No -- nobody got the rescue on film. Superman was just doing a fly-over -- you know, checking for anything obvious...."

"Ah. We should put that in the interview. That Superman does regular patrols over the city. I imagine that information alone may deter at least *some* of the criminal element."

He laughed softly. "Nice. You are obviously a master at this sort of thing."

She smirked at him. "And don't you forget it, Kent!"

They began to work the Superman interview into a readable story.

***

By early afternoon, they were again working on what they both had begun to call the Luthor story. At least between the two of them; when in earshot of anyone else, both they and Perry referred to it as the space program story.

They were in the conference room again, re-reading through some of the information on the newest additions to the Luthor Industries empire. What they had so far wasn't enough proof to break the story, but they were getting closer to that point.

They both looked up when Jimmy knocked on the doorframe and entered. They needed him to start looking for anything else he could find on the strings of shell corporations; for this, they would need his less advertised computer hacking abilities. Lois instructed bluntly as he entered the room, "Jimmy, hack your way into any place you can think of that will give us information; if you could just sneak in to Luthor Industries' own system, that'd be great, too!"

Poor Jimmy gulped, glanced around the conference room somewhat desperately, as if he didn't quite believe that the room wasn't bugged, and hissed, "Lois! Don't *say* stuff like that! What if someone *hears* you?"

She only just managed to suppress both her laughter and her smile by turning her back on Clark, who'd suddenly developed a cough. Facing Jimmy squarely, she nodded seriously and patted him on the shoulder. "Okay. No problem, Jimmy. I understand. Give me a code word, though, okay?"

He took her seriously. "Uh... You could... Uh..."

"How about..." Clark began helpfully, but Lois quickly cut him off. It was hard enough to keep a straight face *without* his help.

"We'll stick with 'in-depth background information,' okay, Jimmy?" she asked briskly. When the young man agreed, clearly relieved, she shooed him rapidly out of the room, relying on Mad Dog Lane to motivate him.

Then she turned toward Clark, who had begun to laugh the moment the door closed behind Jimmy.

She swatted at his arm. "And some help *you* were, *partner*," she said in exasperation. "I mean, *honestly* -- 'unscheduled file maintenance on a non-client system'? What did you do, haunt one of the hacker's forums for that one?"

He stopped laughing abruptly. "Lois --"

She sat down, shaking her head and smiling. "Poor Jimmy. I could barely keep a straight face, and there you were..."

Clark sat in the chair next to her and grabbed her hands. Startled, she stopped speaking and looked at him.

Looking at her intently, he said, "Lois, I didn't say anything. At all. How did you know? That I was going to say that? All I did was think it."

She stared back at him. "Clark, what are you suggesting?"

"I think somehow..." He hesitated. "I think somehow, you... read my mind, Lois. Or... somehow *heard* me thinking."

Without changing expression, she asked him, "What am I thinking now, Clark?"

He gazed at her intently for a long moment, a slight frown on his face. Finally, he shook his head. "I have no idea, Lois." He let go of her hands, sitting back and running one hand through his hair, as he often did when he was trying to work something out.

She'd been deliberately thinking of her two Kerth awards and the cabinet she kept them in. She hadn't *really* expected him to pick up on that, but found she was at least a little disappointed that he hadn't.

"So..." she began.

He sighed. "I don't know how you did it. *Somehow*, though, you picked up on it. It can't possibly have been sheer coincidence. Did you even know that phrase before you said it?"

"No," she admitted. "I didn't."

***

As the workday drew to a close, Lois began to feel more and more nervous.

They would be going to Smallville this evening. To see the ship -- but also to have dinner with Clark's folks. What if... What if his mom and dad took an instant dislike to her? She didn't really know how to make a good first impression...

It was different with work, of course. She didn't worry about what sort of impression she was making at all when she was interviewing someone. They knew it was business; she knew it was business. She wasn't... *trying* to be nice.

And she hadn't been very nice to Clark at all, at first. What if his mom and dad knew that? His relationship with his parents seemed so different from her experience with the Lanes, from things he'd said. So he might have told them all about her. Everything. Even the... not-so-nice stuff.

Maybe this wasn't a good idea. Maybe Clark could go and just... take some photographs of the ship, maybe. Of course, then they'd have to worry about developing the film, and keeping control of the photos and negatives...

She sighed.

Clark looked up and smiled at her across the desks. Despite her worry, she found herself smiling back.

"Are you about ready to go?" he asked.

Her smile faltered. "Um... Well, are you *sure* your Mom and Dad won't mind...?"

His smile became softer. "Lois, they're looking forward to meeting you. Try not to worry, okay? I know it's easy for me to say, but it'll be all right."

She couldn't resist teasing him. "You're right, of course..." And as his smile widened, she added, "It *is* easy for you to say."

His hot chocolate laugh actually did relieve some of her tension, though.

***

Smallville wasn't exactly what she'd expected.

Actually, she wasn't sure what she had expected. She'd had a vague idea of a few buildings in a vast open space -- she'd pictured the town sitting in the middle of a flat and featureless prairie.

Instead, it could have been one of the smaller towns outside of Metropolis. There was a town square with a courthouse -- "Smallville is the county seat," Clark told her -- and a lighted fountain. There were trees everywhere -- in the small park, lining the main street, and in the small, neat neighborhoods surrounding the town's center. There were lots of businesses, and a fair amount of traffic. But it was early evening, so people were probably doing their usual after-work chores and activities, such as buying groceries, or stopping for pizza or a video. "Some of the stores -- the drug store, the grocery store, and the pizza and video stores -- are open until 9 pm," Clark told her.

The Kents' farm was several miles from the town. It looked a lot like she'd imagined it might. There was a farmhouse -- two stories, wood and stone -- painted white, with a wrap-around porch that looked like it would be a cool and inviting place to sit on a summer evening. There were security lights at the end of the drive and in the yard, apparently motion-activated because they blinked on as she and Clark flew over. The barn was big and solid and old, but again, it looked freshly painted.

They stopped and hovered for a few minutes -- "So you can look around," Clark said. "That's the barn, of course -- Dad uses it mostly for farm equipment now. It has stalls -- this used to be a cattle farm. We have just a couple head now; Dad grows corn and wheat."

There were a few other buildings -- one looked like a smaller barn; one was apparently a storage shed, and one, she didn't know what it was for. Unlike the other buildings, it looked like it was made out of cement blocks, which had also been painted white. There was a small concrete pad at one end, with a rusted round iron cover in the center. A big bell was suspended from a post set at the edge of the concrete pad.

"What's that?" she asked.

"That's the milk house," he replied. "And access to the water pump -- that iron cover opens down into the pump area. They used to store the milk cans inside the milk house -- it kept them cool until the truck came and collected them. It's mostly used for storage, now. Mom uses part of it for her art and sculpting supplies, as well as the gardening stuff." His mouth quirked into a grin. "Dad used to ring that bell when it was dinner time -- I'd be out exploring or fishing or climbing trees with my friends; it was my signal to come home."

As in the town, there were trees. Lots of them. There were quite a few around the house itself, and a row along the fence dividing the yard from the road that ran along the property. And there were dense strips of trees along the edges of some of the fields. Clark pointed toward a fairly large area of trees in the distance. "There's a creek over there, and a small pond. I used to fish in it... And in that tree line -" He pointed in a different direction. "...Dad and I built my tree house."

"It's all... so different from what I was imagining," Lois told him. "There are a lot more trees, for one thing..."

Clark laughed. "Most of the state is agricultural," he said. "...Crops, cattle, and buffalo. And we have our share -- well, I suppose more than our share if you compare it to New Troy -- of buttes, mesas, limestone formations, and hills. And of course, there's the prairie -- there are no trees there, although it's certainly not flat. It's all rolling hills. Oh -- and of course, Cawker City, Kansas, is home to the world's largest ball of twine," he added dryly.

Lois laughed. She was still laughing as they landed on the walk in front of the porch. Within moments, a small blond woman and a slightly older man had exited the house and were greeting Clark with hugs. Then they were turning to her.

"I'm Martha, and this is Jonathan. Hello, Lois -- we're so happy to meet you!" Clark's mom told her with a smile. "Clark's told us all about you."

Involuntarily, Lois shot an alarmed look at Clark.

He threw his hands out innocently. "It was all good, Lois -- I swear!" he said, laughing.

Martha laughed, too. She had the same warm laugh as her son. "Oh, Lois, honey, of *course* all of it was good. Now, you're probably anxious to see the ship, I imagine, so let's do that before dinner, shall we?"

Within a few minutes, Lois found herself walking with Clark's mom as they followed the men out to the barn. "I'm so happy he has you to talk to now, Lois," Martha said with a smile. "He's never had anyone he can share any of this with besides us. And I'm looking forward to being able to talk to you, too. We'll need to get together again soon for a proper visit. We'd love to have you come and stay, and of course, you're welcome to spend your holidays with us. You could come out with Clark..."

Lois wasn't really sure what to say, so she just nodded.

Martha didn't seem to need an answer, anyway. She continued happily, "After all, from now on, honey, you're part of the family."

Lois looked a little wildly at Clark, who had reached the open door of the barn and was waiting with his dad for her and Martha to catch up. It wasn't that she didn't *like* his parents; on the contrary, she liked them very, very much. But she was practically a stranger! She wasn't used to being able to talk so openly about all of this, and it was a little overwhelming.

He smiled at her reassuringly. "Mom, we don't really know for sure -" he began.

"Oh, Clark, I know that. I wasn't suggesting you marry her tomorrow, you know..."

Lois resolutely looked at the ground, resisting the urge to fling herself into the air and fly home. He'd never even *hinted* that he was thinking of anything... that permanent. And his mom *did* know that they might actually be... related, didn't she?

"Mom!" Clark didn't sound upset, just mildly exasperated.

"I'm sorry, honey -- I'm embarrassing you, aren't I?" Martha asked her cheerfully. Lois risked a glance at her as she continued, "I just meant that whatever happens, you have people here you can come to if you need to. Both of you. It might take quite a while to discover the truth, but there isn't a deadline you have to meet. And in the meantime, it's nice for both of you to have each other as a friend. A friend who understands you in a way that no one else really can."

As the four of them entered the barn, Lois said softly, "He... might be my brother, Mrs. Kent."

"Martha, honey. And yes, Clark told us that. If that's the case, then we'll welcome you with open arms as our daughter." She stopped and looked Lois in the eye. "And if it turns out that you *aren't* related, we'll be just as pleased to welcome you to this family. In whatever capacity you are comfortable with, even if it's just as Clark's friend."

This dynamic little blond woman was totally different in manner, lifestyle, and background from Mama. But they had the same warm heart, and standing here with Clark's mom, Lois felt closer to Mama than she had in a long, long time.

She wasn't going to cry again. She'd been doing altogether too much of that lately. "Um... where is the ship?" she asked. Looking up at the loft, she continued, "Do you keep it up there?"

"Oh, no, Lois." Martha gestured toward the back of the barn, down a wide passage between two rows of empty stalls that led back under the loft. "At haying time, there are people all over that loft. We keep it down in the cold room."

"The... cold room?" Lois asked curiously. "Is that like a... root cellar or something?"

"More like -- oh... a basement." That was from Jonathan, who was waiting for them at the end of the passage.

"Barns have basements?" Lois asked. She'd never pictured that.

Clark laughed. "It sounds funny, doesn't it?" he asked cheerfully. "But no, not a basement. It's in the lower area of the barn -" he gestured through the door at the end of the passageway, and as Lois stepped through, she could see that there were several steps down into an area that was noticeably cooler than the main part of the barn. There were smaller stalls, or pens, in this area, and another door at the end.

"This was where the smaller animals -- sheep and goats, mostly -- were kept, years ago," Jonathan said. "When my grandparents owned the farm. Before the milk house was built, the milk from the sheep and goats was kept down here, in the cold room. They didn't have refrigeration, so they relied on the natural cooling from under ground.

"Now, of course, we use it for storage," Martha added. "We keep potatoes, apples, and much of our canned produce down here."

The cold room was actually quite a lot like a basement. There was a light bulb, nice and bright, in the center of the ceiling, and there were shelves along one wall. There were what Lois assumed were canning supplies -- two huge metal pots, a multitude of empty glass jars and lids, and a whole section of canning jars, all neatly labeled. Extending her vision slightly, she read some of the labels with interest. Stewed tomatoes, dilled carrots, dilled green beans, chutney, salsa, peaches, plums, apple butter, sweet pickles, pears, winter compote... She didn't know what all of those were, but she was impressed with the sheer variety of foods.

There were also boxes labeled 'Seasonal' and 'Christmas Ornaments.' She didn't see the ship, though. She'd thought that maybe, like Mama, they would have it wrapped in black plastic garbage bags, but there was nothing like that at all. "Where...?" she began. Would they mind if she just started... scanning through things?

With a grin, Clark lifted a large box from one of the lower shelves and set it on the floor. According to the preprinted cardboard, it had once held a computer monitor -- one of the old ones, judging from the size of the box. 'Party Supplies' had been scrawled on it in marker. "In there?" she asked, and looked through the cardboard to see that the ship was, indeed, inside. "It's... so small."

"Well, honey, he wasn't real big," Martha reminded her. "We estimated he was about eighteen months old when we found him. And he was small for his age, according to his pediatrician."

Lois glanced at Clark.

He grinned at her. "Obviously, I grew."

She moved nearer as Clark folded back the box flaps, lifted the ship out, and set it on the floor. "May I -?" she asked him.

"Of course." He brushed his hand over the top of the ship, and the lid opened smoothly.

She dropped to her knees beside the little ship and peered inside. The interior was only just large enough for a baby or a very young child, with very little room to move around. Toward the front of the compartment, there was a small recessed area about the size of Clark's globe. "Is that where...?"

"Yes."

She looked more closely at the ship's interior, using her special vision. She was aware that Clark, who had knelt down beside her, was doing the same thing.

Finally, she sat back on her heels. There was nothing else inside the ship. No compartments, no clues of any kind. She looked at Clark.

"Nothing." They said it simultaneously.

"And there are these..." Clark indicated the symbols etched along the edge of the opening. She recognized the 'S,' but nothing else.

"I wonder what it says?' she mused. The flowing, fluid-looking symbols went all the way around the ship's opening. A few of them looked vaguely familiar; there was a sort of 'K' with an extra hook at the bottom, a very stylized 'Z' whose lower edge curled back on itself, and a slanted sort of 'F' that extended far above and below the other symbols -- but everything else was unrecognizable. "I don't suppose any of this means anything to you?" she asked Clark without much hope. He'd been awfully young...

"No." He sighed. "I was pretty sure there wasn't anything here," he told her, "but I couldn't help hoping maybe I'd missed something..."

She'd been hoping the same thing.

But she wasn't ready to admit defeat. "We aren't giving up, Clark," she said almost fiercely. "We *can't*. There *must* be something, somewhere..."

"Maybe you should take the inscription with you..." suggested Martha. And as they both looked at her in inquiry, she continued, "If you were to treat it like a code, maybe..."

"...How?" Clark asked.

"Take a rubbing of the letters," she answered. "Clark -- Lois -- one of you must know someone who is good at languages, or codes..."

Jonathan spoke up. "Martha, do we really want to bring someone else into this?"

Lois had already noticed that he let the others do most of the talking, but that when he did speak, everyone listened. He reminded her, in a way, of one of her college professors -- a man who had been a genuine mentor to many of his students, and who had had a wealth of commonsense, practical solutions to the various questions or problems some of them had had.

"Well, no -- maybe not," Martha conceded. Turning to Clark, she asked, "What about your friend, Jim -- would he have access to a... computer decryption program, maybe, or something like that?"

Clark answered doubtfully, "I... don't know, Mom. I'd have to think about that... I mean, it's not a *code* -- at least, I don't *think* it is -- it's a language. And how would we explain it...?"

Lois added, "Even if we told someone -- Jimmy, or some language expert -- that Superman asked us to help him with it, what if it says something... well, revealing? About Clark, I mean?"

"Good point." For a moment Martha didn't say anything else. Then with a sigh, she said, "Well, let's at least do the rubbing, though... maybe you two can quietly work it out on your own. Maybe your friend could just supply the software, but not be involved in its actual use..."

Lois glanced at Clark. It was a good idea; then they wouldn't have to keep pulling the ship out of storage each time they wanted a look at the inscription, or whatever it was. She suppressed a giggle. Maybe it said something along the lines of 'to open ship, press here.'

"That's a good idea, Mom. Then we'll have it if we need it, and we won't have to keep taking the ship out of storage each time we want to look at the inscription -- if that's what it is. Maybe it's just... instructions of some kind..."

Lois started and stared at Clark. Was that just coincidence, or had he...

"I still have some of Clark's crayons." Martha's voice distracted her from the thought.

"Mom!"

Martha laughed. "I'll go get them, honey."

***

Dinner was so far from the ordeal she'd been expecting that Lois wondered why she'd been so nervous about it.

Martha was a good cook but not a pretentious one. The table was set, neatly but not overwhelmingly fussily, with green- and blue-patterned stoneware. The silverware and glasses were simple and understated.

The conversation was warm and friendly, and Clark's parents were knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects and current affairs. They lingered over coffee, still talking, and Lois found herself comparing this meal with the meals of her childhood. No wonder Clark had grown up to be the kind of man he was, with this couple loving, guiding, and mentoring him.

After a quick consultation with Clark as they had prepared to leave Metropolis earlier in the evening, Lois had brought Mama's box of keepsakes with her. At the last moment, she'd retrieved the little photo album from her bedside table and added that to the box.

Once the table was cleared, she showed the items to Martha and Jonathan, at Clark's prompting. Martha exclaimed over the baby outfit as only a mother would: "Oh, Lois, what a darling outfit, honey! You couldn't have been more than three months old or so, from the look of this. Look how tiny you were! And your mother found you just like we found Clark? Do you have any photos?"

And when Lois showed her the photos in the album, Martha reached out and placed her hand over Lois's. "Oh, honey... You were just precious, weren't you?"

Lois wasn't sure how to respond to that, so instead, she said, "There are only a few pictures, but Mama saved some other things, too..." No one else had ever seen the little album until she met Clark. Now not only had she shared it with Clark, but she was showing it to this small, energetic woman whom she hardly knew -- and yet, it felt like she'd known Martha and Jonathan for a long, long time.

"Is this your mother?" Martha softly asked her now, indicating the picture taken at the kitchen table so long ago.

Around an unexpected lump in her throat, Lois replied equally softly, "Yes."

Clark reached out and took her hand, squeezed gently, and then kept hold. She curled her fingers around his. Whether or not he was... Well, whatever he turned out to be, it was... good to have his support.

"I wish we could have met her," Martha said. "She looks... well, you can see where your loving heart came from, Lois."

Lois stared at her in surprise. How could this woman, who'd only met her tonight, see something like that? Clark had said it, of course, but he was... Well, Clark was... her friend. He'd been hanging around her for a while now, long enough to maybe see some of her more redeeming qualities. But...

She glanced at Clark, who smiled at her and said softly on a laugh, "I told you the same thing. Do you believe me now?"

She looked back at Martha. "How do you...?" She trailed off. She didn't even know how to ask what she wanted to know.

"Lois, it's obvious to those who love you," Martha said gently. "Maybe to someone who doesn't look past your job, it's not so obvious. But we -- Jonathan and I, and Clark, of course -- we see the whole 'you.' And honey, it just *shines* out of you."

She held up her hand, guessing -- correctly -- what Lois was going to ask next. "And yes, we love you already. We felt like we knew you from listening to Clark talk about you, you know. And it's obvious how he feels about you, and you about him. How could we not love you?"

Lois felt Clark's hand tighten on hers. "Mom..."

"I know, Clark. According to what we know so far, you may well be sister and brother." Lois was impressed by how matter-of-factly Martha was able to talk about it. "But we don't know for sure, honey. And I don't know... maybe it's just wishful thinking, but I don't see a lot of family resemblance... Do you, Jonathan?"

"Martha, there's no way to really answer that. How many times have we heard, from more than one person, how much Clark looks like your mother, or my younger brother, or Aunt Anna? It's often a matter of perception. Lois and Clark are both dark-haired, dark-eyed. But their faces have different bone structures. But then again, they both arrived in space ships, from the same place. And they have the same... I don't know what you'd call it -- family crest?" He sighed, and glanced around at each of them. "I know that's not what you want to hear..."

"We thought about some kind of... genetic testing," Clark said. "But we wouldn't be able to provide blood samples..."

"...Clark said he heard somewhere that they can test other things than blood now, though," Lois added.

"Yes," Martha confirmed. "There are an increasing number of laboratories that are starting to use other things for DNA testing now." When they all looked at her in surprise, she shrugged and said, "When Clark told us about... Well, I found an article in a recent issue of Scientific American at the library. It said they're starting to use hair -- you have to have the root attached -- and skin swabs from inside a person's cheek. The article said it was as accurate as blood samples for forensics, paternity testing, and carrier screening -- you know, before a couple has children, if one of them has some sort of risk for a disease. It's very new and very expensive technology, much more expensive than blood testing. But the article also said that unless you have samples from one or both parents, siblingship testing isn't very accurate. So even if we can find a lab that can do it..."

"And yet, if that's what we have to do... " Jonathan sighed. "Bottom line -- we just don't know whether or not you two are related. We need to keep looking for clues, because living in a kind of limbo, not knowing, is no way to live for either of you. That means exploring different options. And if that means trying this DNA testing, or trying to translate whatever it says on your ship, son, then that's what you'll have to do."

There wasn't really anything any of them needed to say in reply. Clark's dad was right. The reality was that they simply didn't know for sure. Yet. It was important to remember that. They didn't know *yet*. But they would. They would keep searching for an answer until they found one. They *had* to. Lois refused to spend the rest of her life wondering, and maybe missing out on... Well, they just had to keep looking.

They took their leave of Clark's parents shortly thereafter. Martha and Jonathan both hugged Clark, then hugged Lois as well. "Come back any time, honey," Martha told her. "You're always welcome. If you need anything; if you need to talk -- you don't even have to call. Remember that, okay? You aren't alone anymore."

Lois wasn't able to answer. Whether she would ever take advantage of the offer or not, the fact that it had been made so sincerely rendered her incapable of speaking. So she simply nodded, and then on impulse, hugged Martha. The older woman hugged her back fiercely, and for a moment it felt like Mama's arms.

Then Lois and Clark were lifting into the air, and after a last wave, they turned toward Metropolis.

***

As they approached the city, Clark said rather diffidently, "It's still fairly early... Would you like to stop by my place for a while? We could watch a movie, or just talk..."

Lois wasn't really ready for their evening to end, so she welcomed the suggestion. "Sure."

They landed on Clark's balcony and within a few minutes, Clark was making coffee while Lois sorted through his collection of videos.

They watched one of the more recent action films, each of them sprawled comfortably at opposite ends of his big, cushy couch. When it ended, Clark said lazily, "I'm too relaxed to move. How about you?"

From her corner of the couch, she laughed softly. "Yup, me too."

He smiled across at her. "Rock, paper, scissors to see who has to get up and put in a different movie?"

She laughed again. Shifting to face him more directly, she opened her mouth to answer. And then sat up straight and stared.

"Clark, look!" On the shelf behind them, the globe was glowing brightly.

Clark was in front of the shelf within seconds, followed almost at once by Lois. He picked up the globe, cupping it in his hands as Lois had the first time she'd seen it. This time, however, it didn't display the two worlds. Instead, it began to hum softly, although both of them could hear it without the use of any special senses.

There was a click, and then a sudden beam of light burst forth from no discernible opening on the globe's surface. It played over the wall between the bookshelves before coalescing into the ghostly figure of a man. For a long moment it hung in space as they stared at it in amazement.

"A... hologram, do you think? Or some sort of... projection?" Clark whispered.

As if the figure had heard him, it -- he -- turned toward Clark. The man was dressed in pants and a long tunic with elaborate embroidery along the sleeves and hem. He wore a gold circlet around his forehead. He appeared to be looking directly at Clark; they could almost believe the figure could actually see them.

The man raised his right hand, palm upward, then brought it up to touch his chest over his heart. "Greetings, my son." Clark almost dropped the globe, and the image flickered wildly for a moment. The recording, interrupted, resumed. "... you from the doomed planet Krypton."

With a small, formal bow, the man turned toward Lois, and again, he appeared to be looking directly at her. With the same gesture of upraised hand to heart, he said, "Greetings, my daughter."

Lois groped for the chair behind her and sat abruptly as her hopes crashed down around her. She could feel Clark's anguish as if it were her own.

Dimly, through her distress she was aware that the figure flickered again, then stabilized. The man spread his hands, appearing to look at each of them in turn, and continued, "If you are seeing this message, it means you have found one another --"

One of them -- Lois wasn't sure which -- made a low noise of distress.

Abruptly, the globe died.

She looked up, tears running down her face, in time to see Clark set the now dark and silent globe on the nearest flat surface. Without looking at her, he walked into his bedroom. From where she sat, she watched him move to the window, where he stood and stared out into the night, shoulders slumped in despair.

She had to go. But... where? She had nowhere to run to. Clark had become her haven, but she couldn't go to him now -- couldn't run to him, couldn't seek comfort in his arms.

He couldn't be her haven. Not anymore. The treacherous attraction between them made it impossible. She couldn't be expected to conquer it, to eradicate it, instantly upon learning the truth, and it wasn't fair to Clark to expect him to do so, either.

With one last glance at the man standing, head now bowed against the glass in defeat, in the darkened bedroom, she turned toward the door. Maybe if she flew, and flew, and flew, she could find a way to change her mental picture of Clark from what her heart desired... to that of her brother.

Within minutes, she was airborne.

Hours and hours later, as the sky was starting to lighten, she glanced at the stars to orientate herself, then turned toward home. On automatic pilot, she got ready for bed, crawled in, and pulled the covers over her head. She'd thought she was cried out, but once again, tears coursed down her cheeks.

She made no effort to suppress them.

***

Lois arrived late at the Daily Planet on Monday morning, to find that Clark had apparently just arrived, too. He'd obviously only just sat down at his desk and turned on his computer; she heard the familiar chime as it booted up. They greeted each other quietly, but made no further effort to talk.

There was a gulf between them that hadn't been there before, and neither of them knew how to cross it. They worked independently on the Luthor story, each at their own desks. There was none of the familiar bantering give-and-take, no comfortable side-by-side tussle over proper grammar and spelling -- and any discussion between them was subdued.

Around noon, Jimmy, passing them with an armload of computer equipment, paused to ask, "What's up, guys?"

"Nothing." Clark said it without looking up from where he was sitting.

"Nothing," Lois echoed, unable to keep her gaze from straying to the down-bent head of her partner. Her... brother.

Jimmy was looking back and forth between them. "No, really. What happened? Didja have a fight?"

"No." Again, Clark's answer was short and abrupt.

Lois just looked down at her desk.

"Whatever it is, I'm sure it's not Clark's fault, is it, handsome?" Unnoticed, Cat had approached them and was leaning on the low wall that ran along one side of the two desks. "We all know how difficult Lois is to get along with, don't we?"

Lois couldn't summon the energy to respond to the dig; it just didn't seem to matter. So she was startled when Clark rose abruptly to his feet.

"I'll thank you not to make unkind comments about my partner," he said brusquely. "Whether they are made *in* my hearing or out of it," he added pointedly as all three of them stared at him -- Cat with shock, Jimmy with surprise, and Lois with wonder. He continued in a stern voice totally at odds with his usual easygoing manner, "Whatever you are choosing to assume, Lois is without blame. I count myself fortunate to be able to work with her, and I consider her a friend. Leave. Her. Alone." The last was said with a quiet, almost deadly emphasis, and Jimmy actually stepped back a pace.

Those closest to the little group had given up any pretense at working.

In any other circumstances, the look on Cat's face would have been amusing; as it was, Lois barely glanced at her. Cat looked from Lois to Clark and then back at Lois again, and her murmured apology actually sounded sincere. Lois nodded absently, her gaze fixed on her partner.

He caught Lois's eye, and his expression softened considerably. His voice was also soft. "I -- need to go out for a while. I'll be back later, okay?"

Mutely, she nodded. She watched him all the way up the ramp and through the stairway door, as those in his immediate path quickly and self-consciously refocused on their work. She was still gazing through the door as he gave up any pretense at normal speed and zipped up the stairs.

She didn't notice when Cat, with a muttered excuse, turned and headed toward her own desk.

"Uh, Lois... I..." Jimmy hesitated, and when she finally turned to look at him, he shrugged helplessly and said, "...If you need anything..." When she nodded absently, he turned and walked away.

***

Clark didn't return before the end of the day.

By concentrating fiercely on the Luthor story, Lois was able to block the events of the evening at Clark's place from her thoughts -- mostly, anyway. She didn't get much written, but she got through the day.

At one point, Perry asked her where Clark was.

"I don't know for sure, Chief," she answered. It was true, mostly. She suspected that Clark might be flying aimlessly -- he was more comfortable flying in the daytime than she was, for one thing. And of course, he could fly as Superman.

And if Superman were needed, Clark would have a story when he did get back. She might as well lay the groundwork for that. "I think he was meeting a source... There might be a Superman story in it," she added.

That was enough for Perry. "Good. Good," he boomed, and moved on to motivate someone else.

As the afternoon wound down toward evening and people began to leave for the day, Lois finally managed to write several coherent paragraphs, and even jotted down a few ideas on finalizing the story. She'd discuss them with Clark when she saw him.

When she saw him.

When she saw him, she'd just have to... to focus on the fact that he was her partner and her friend -- and could never be anything more. She just needed to be happy with what they had. And really, he was exactly the sort of big brother she'd have wished for, if it had occurred to her to wish for a brother while she was growing up.

Her mouth quirked into a half smile. He'd defended her today just the way she would have wished, if she'd ever needed a knight in shining armor. She could almost imagine him defending her on the playground in grade school. Or defending her from one of the more vindictive groups of girls in high school. There had been a small group of girls in her high school who had been less than kind to some of their classmates, although Lois herself, focused almost single-mindedly on journalism and not any sort of threat to their popularity, hadn't come under their immediate fire. But if she had...

Anyway, she'd just have to put that Mad Dog Lane stubbornness to work and force herself to ignore any attraction she felt. It probably wasn't really attraction, anyway. She was probably confusing the heady feeling of true friendship, and a... familial kinship with attraction in the first place. Hadn't she decided, years ago, that she'd never be able to have a... relationship with anyone? It was just one of those things. She'd just... forgotten that for a while.

And Clark had gotten a little... confused, too.

They'd be all right. They had to be. The alternative, to lose him entirely, wasn't acceptable. She wasn't going to give that any consideration whatsoever.

***

As the daylight faded, the newsroom grew darker. There were low-level emergency lights at intervals on the walls, and the overhead lights were never actually turned off, just dimmed automatically to their night settings each evening. Lois's desk lamp cast a pool of light around her desk, but much of the rest of the room was in shadow.

Normally, she found the solitude of the newsroom after hours conducive to writing, but tonight, she found herself focusing less on the story -- and more on her partner -- than she liked. As she wondered for perhaps the hundredth time where, exactly, Clark might be, she heard the elevator as one of the cars began to climb toward the newsroom level.

She didn't need to look through the doors; somehow, she just knew it was Clark. She watched as he stepped out, and without pausing, made his way down the ramp.

"Hi." He spoke softly.

"Hi," she replied, meeting his eyes.

"I thought you might still be here," he continued.

"Yeah... I've been trying to work some more on this story." She needed -- *they* needed -- to get past this awkwardness and focus on this story. So she added, "Clark, I think we should go out to EPRAD tonight."

"Uh..."

"...It's not so dangerous, really," she continued, pleased at how brisk and... professional she sounded. "We wouldn't even have to break and enter, you know."

He seemed to be taking his cues from her. Good. In no time, they'd be back to the way they'd been... before... Her thoughts faltered for a moment, but fortunately, he spoke.

"We should also... stop by Luthor Towers -- maybe Superman should do that -- and check on him..."

"Have you been doing that?" she asked.

"Yeah -- when I leave work, sometimes. It's dark, and no one will see me. I've been... looking and listening. I haven't heard much, but maybe we could set up a recorder..."

Really, they thought so much alike that it was almost uncanny. With a more genuine smile, she told him, "I'm ahead of you, there, partner. I put a recorder up there Thursday night -- before the launch." As he quirked an eyebrow at her, she continued slightly defensively, "Well, I couldn't *tell* you that, you know, because neither of us knew about... each other then, did we?"

He laughed. It was a small laugh, but it was genuine.

She felt some of the tension leave her. They'd be all right; it would just take a while.

***

It didn't take much arm-twisting to convince Clark they should stop by EPRAD to... see what they could see. He'd probably have been harder to convince if she didn't share both his abilities and his secret. As it was, he'd agreed that they might not even have to go inside.

"Should we swing past Luthor's place first?" he asked as they went up to the Daily Planet's roof.

"Well, if he's there, we'll have a recording of anything he's said..." She paused for a moment, thinking. "I'd say let's go see if Antoinette Baines -- nee Luthor -- is working late at EPRAD tonight, first. Then go listen in on him."

"How good is your recorder, though?" Clark asked her. They'd reached the roof, and without conscious thought, both rose into the air and angled toward EPRAD.

She smiled. "It's a small, powerful voice-activated recorder. With a transmitter. I... exploited a small design flaw in Luthor Towers' construction, to position the transmitter in a location that'll guarantee we get every word the man speaks."

He laughed. "Exploited a small design flaw, huh? So you located the man's inner sanctum..."

"Yep." Lois laughed, too. "There's a new, inconspicuous little hole in his office windowsill, and I've got a powerful listen-through-the-wall microphone tucked in there. It's voice-activated, so I'm recording only what he -- or anyone else in the room -- says. And since his office is on the top floor of Luthor Towers, the likelihood of someone actually *noticing* the little hole, which is on the *outside*..."

"Where did you find something like that? No, wait -- don't tell me. You had Jimmy find it for you, didn't you?"

"Yes -- I used it for one of my stories last year. I was just wishing out loud one night, and a few days later he brought it to me. Got it from some surveillance guy he knows, who has a shop somewhere downtown. I remembered how well the transmitter worked, and decided to try it on Luthor. I only put it up there Thursday night, so I haven't checked yet to see what I -- we -- have."

By now, they were approaching the EPRAD complex.

They hovered above the main facility, scanning and listening. There was very little activity -- a few white-coated individuals worked at desks in one or two small labs, and what appeared to be a skeleton crew sat in front of computer monitors in the main command center. A lone janitor was collecting trash from rooms along the main level.

They moved on to the shuttle hangar.

They scanned the building thoroughly; the offices were dark and empty. The hangars were dimly lit, much the way the Daily Planet building was lit at night. The only person in the building was a night watchman making his rounds.

"Nothing. Well... Let's go see what my recorder has so far," Lois suggested.

Clark agreed readily, and within minutes they were settling onto the roof of Luthor Towers.

"Is it a tape recorder -- you know, with a removable cassette?" Clark asked her as she retrieved it from where she'd secured it under the low retaining wall that ran around the edge of the roof. The device was wrapped in two large Ziploc bags to protect it from the elements.

"No, it's digital," she answered somewhat absently, as she checked the display. It showed that they had about four hours' worth of data. "It's voice activated, and it has a time-stamp function so we can follow a time line; Jimmy got it for me at the same time he got the transmitter microphone."

"So we need to either listen to it here, or take a chance that we won't miss anything..." Clark was scanning through the roof as he spoke. "There's no activity down there; just a couple of people sleeping -- different floors... Probably Luthor and his staff."

"Let's go ahead and listen to it at your place, if that's okay," Lois suggested. "Your apartment is more comfortable, and... Well, I haven't bought groceries lately..."

Clark laughed. "That's okay -- I can make us coffee, and I've got some of Mom's cookies..."

"Ooh! Yum! ...Race ya!" Lois exclaimed, springing into the air. She made it to Clark's balcony barely a second before he did, and they entered the apartment together, laughing.

***

With cups of coffee and a plate of cookies on the coffee table in front of them, they settled in to listen to the recording.

Lois pressed 'play.' An electronic voice announced the time of recording.

<<Monday, 7:09 pm.>>

She pressed 'stop.' At Clark's look of inquiry, she said, "I put it up there Thursday. But there's nothing recorded until tonight?"

"Maybe he was out of town. We'll have to have Jimmy check on Luthor's whereabouts over the weekend -- including Friday."

"Yeah. Hmmm... Think he was out of town to establish an alibi? I was kinda hoping we'd hear his reaction to the shuttle's successful... flight." She grinned at Clark. "Oh -- and to your appearance." She smirked at him. "Wanna bet he wasn't too happy?"

Clark laughed. "I imagine you're right."

Laughing, she pressed 'play.'

There was the sound of a door opening, followed immediately by an impatient-sounding male voice. <<...And get Antoinette over here. Tonight.>>

<<Yes, sir.>> The second voice was also male, slightly accented.

The door opened again, then closed. There was the clink of glassware, and then after a pause, a sudden swell of classical music.

They listened for several minutes. When there was no other sound besides the music, Lois glanced at Clark, eyebrow raised. "Fast-forward a bit?"

He nodded.

She pressed the appropriate button, held it for a count of five, and released it. The recording resumed with a woman and man singing. She looked at Clark.

"La traviata." And at her look of inquiry, he elaborated, "He's listening to La traviata -- you know, the opera? Italian -- by Giuseppe Verdi?"

"Uh... I've heard of it, although I'm not familiar with the actual story," she said. "Do you know it? Roughly how long is it?"

"Yes, I've heard it before. I don't know -- maybe three hours for a live performance... I imagine a recording would be shorter."

"So if he's listening to the whole thing..." Lois mused. She pressed the 'fast forward' button for a count of ten. The recording resumed with a group of men singing. She looked at Clark expectantly.

"Uh..." He listened for a moment. "I can't place it, exactly -- they're singing about bullfighters... I think act three. Anyway, it's toward the middle of the story -- maybe the far side of halfway through."

"Okay." She fast-forwarded the recording again. It resumed with several people singing, then just the woman -- a slower, more deliberate-sounding piece.

"This is the last part," Clark said, after listening for a few moments.

Lois fast-forwarded the recording again, this time in short bursts by pressing and immediately releasing the button, until the music ceased. Then they both waited. After a short silence, they heard a door open and close again.

"Think that's the end of that?" Lois asked.

The machine's electronic voice announced the time. <<Monday, 10:40 pm.>>

"Yes," Clark said with a straight face.

She laughed and held one finger to her lips. "Hush, Kent -- and listen."

They heard the sound of the door opening again.

<<...Lex, it's not my fault you couldn't get those idiots to see it your way, so don't blame me.>> The speaker was a woman.

<<And what about that code?>> The speaker -- Lex, apparently -- spoke icily.

In contrast, the woman's reply was light. <<Those reporters got lucky; that bit of code should never have been found.>>

Lex's voice was terse. <<You told me no one would find it, and yet what do I find on the very morning I had reason to believe the Congress of Nations was going to see it my way? The discovery of an error in the shuttle code, splashed across the front page of my morning paper!>>

<<They never would have discovered it if Platt hadn't set them to sniffing around.>> The woman laughed. <<I still can't believe they even listened to him.>>

<<I don't see the humor in this, Antoinette.>> If possible, Lex's voice was even colder.

<<Lex, loosen up.>> The woman -- Antoinette -- sounded exasperated. <<We win some, we lose some.>>

<<I had the anticipation of a very large sum of money to be made with Space Station Luthor, my dear. A very, *very* large sum.>>

<<So what, Lex? You already have more money than almost anyone else in the world.>>

<<But with that money would come an even larger amount of power, Antoinette.>>

<<And we all know how much you like power, brother dear. Well, you'll think of another scheme; you always do.>> Antoinette laughed lightly. <<Too bad my little bomb didn't work, though... I must say, however, that the appearance of this... Superman is almost worth the disappointment.>> There was another laugh. << He's certainly... eye catching...>> Her voice dropped suggestively as she spoke.

<<Ah, yes...>> Lex's voice was almost a drawl. <<The appearance of that flying freak was certainly unexpected. It's going to be a challenge to find a way to neutralize it.>>

<<*Him*, Lex... And quite a him he is, too...>> This time, the laugh was low and lingering.

<<He is not important at the moment, Antoinette.>> Lex sounded angry. <<The failure of my plan, however, is foremost in my mind. You know I don't like failure in the people who work for me, my dear.>>

Antoinette's voice turned deadly serious. <<Don't you threaten me, Lex -- I don't work for you. I work *with* you, and don't you forget that. ...Oh, the tales I could tell...>>

Unexpectedly, Lex laughed.

<<I'm going back to EPRAD,>> Antoinette sounded calmer. << I've got an image to maintain, you know... Head of the program, gravely concerned about the targeting of the space program by... Hmmm, shall I suggest terrorists?>> There was another light laugh. <<Goodnight, brother dear.>>

A door closed; there was a short silence, and then a different voice spoke. <<Will there be anything more, sir?>> The speaker was the man with the slight accent.

<<Ah, Asabi. Yes, as a matter of fact. You know how I feel about failure, don't you? My darling sister seems to be... less concerned about this latest setback than I'd like. I believe it is time to... do something about that.>> In contrast to the words, Lex's voice was quite light.

<<Shall I arrange an accident, sir?>>

<<Yes, Asabi.>> Lex's laugh was soft. <<It's such a waste; she showed such promise at the beginning of all this. I think... something related to the space program; something quite dramatic -- you understand?>>

<<Indeed, sir. Another failed sabotage?>>

There was another laugh. <<Exactly. This time... the helicopter.>>

"Clark!" Lois leaped to her feet even as Clark was rising to his. "C'mon -- this was recorded -- what? A couple of hours ago? We have to warn her!"

Clark spun into Superman as she finished speaking, and headed through the bedroom at a jog, with her on his heels. As they both rose off the balcony, he asked grimly, "Can you call the police? Ask for Bill Henderson; tell him what we heard!"

Hanging in the air with him, she pulled her cell phone from her jacket pocket. "Go! I'll call them and meet you there!"

As she spoke, they both saw a flash of light, followed by the sound of an explosion, from the general direction of EPRAD.

"Oh, God. Go, Clark!" Even as she finished speaking, he was gone.

She made the call, which took only seconds but felt like hours, and then headed at full speed for EPRAD.

She knew as she got close that they were too late. The wreckage of a helicopter -- the blades were mangled but still recognizable -- was engulfed in flames. It had come down on one of EPRAD's mobile refueling trucks, and the resultant spill kept reigniting almost as soon as Superman, who was hovering above the wreck, would put it out. Two EPRAD emergency vehicles were parked nearby, and a few small figures plied water hoses. As she watched, Superman directed a stream of frozen air at the flaming fuel. The flames died, but then flared up again almost immediately.

She could hear sirens without the use of any special ability; fire fighters and the police would arrive momentarily.

She moved back from the edge of the building on which she'd landed, then turned and descended along the far wall. She could claim she'd been alerted by one of her sources, but she'd better be down on the ground as if she'd approached by cab.

If the tape were to be believed, Luthor had killed his own sister. Maybe not by his own hand, but certainly by his order. This particular dragon was getting bolder -- or more desperate. And it was up to her and Clark to stop him.

***

Several hours later, Lois and Clark sat in Bill Henderson's office at police headquarters. Superman had talked to him at the scene, and had then referred him to Lois and Clark.

In the presence of the two men, Lois had faked a call to Clark on her cell phone. Speaking to Clark's answering machine, she'd asked 'Clark' if he'd had any luck finding out anything from their sources. Then, after a suitable pause where she 'listened' to his reply -- keeping her back turned to Superman in case he had trouble keeping a straight face -- she'd instructed Clark to meet her at Henderson's office.

Turning back to the men, she'd pocketed her cell phone and stated briskly that she was ready to go. Superman had taken his leave with a small, formal nod to her and Henderson, and had lifted into the air.

"Good thing he's on our side," Henderson had commented gruffly. "Restores my faith in human nature -- at least a little." Considering what Bill Henderson saw in the normal course of his job, that had been a pretty powerful endorsement.

Lois had accepted his offer of a lift to the police station, and they'd met Clark in the front lobby.

Now they sat listening to the end of the recording.

<<Shall I arrange an accident, sir?>>

<<Yes, Asabi. It's such a waste; she showed such promise at the beginning of all this. I think... something related to the space program; something quite dramatic -- you understand?>>

<<Indeed, sir. Another failed sabotage?>>

<<Exactly. This time... the helicopter.>>

Lois pressed the 'stop' button.

Henderson stirred in his chair. "Is that everything?"

"There's a bit more... We haven't listened to it yet. When we heard... what he said about the helicopter... Well, Superman was listening to the recording with us, and he instantly headed toward EPRAD to warn Ms. Baines..." She pressed the 'play' button.

The electronic voice gave the time. <<Monday, 11:45 pm.>>

"We were listening to this just after midnight," Clark commented.

Henderson nodded, holding up his hand to stop them saying anything else.

Lex spoke matter-of-factly. <<What have you to report, Asabi?>>

<<As you instructed, sir. The helicopter Mrs. Baines travels in will shortly experience an unfortunate and catastrophic engine failure.>>

<<Excellent. I shall be distraught, of course.>>

<<Will there be anything else, Mr. Luthor?>>

<<No, thank you, Asabi. That will be all for the moment.>>

<<Goodnight, sir.>>

Over the faint sound of a door closing, there was a soft, satisfied laugh.

They listened, but there was nothing else. After a moment, the recording shut off automatically.

Henderson sighed, running his hand through his hair. "None of this is admissible, of course."

"But --"

"Look, Lane -- you know it's him. I know it's him. We've had our suspicions about the guy for a while now, but nothing sticks to him. This is an illegal recording. You already know all this, Lois. Even if it saw the light of day, a good lawyer could easily suppress it." He held up his hand again as she started to speak. "No judge will issue a search warrant based on this. You need to find me proof."

"Superman said it was clearly sabotage," she said stubbornly. "He told you he saw evidence of engine tampering..."

"And I believe him. I believed him even *before* I heard this tape," Henderson replied. "But we're still stuck."

He looked at each of them in turn. "Kent. Lane. Find me proof. Get your sources talking; get me a name. But be careful. This guy Luthor is slippery -- and he's dangerous. He's just killed his own sister -- had her killed, anyway. If you can find out who sabotaged that helicopter... If it was some gun-for-hire, whoever it is'll likely talk. Maybe it was this Asabi guy. Chances are good he'll talk if it's his neck. But we need some kind of proof. A reason to haul the guy in for questioning. Get me whoever this was and we've probably got Luthor. Unless he's also disposed of whoever it was that tampered with that helicopter."

"What about the other information we have?" Clark asked.

"It's a good start -- but I want this guy nailed to the wall so tightly he'll never get loose. We're looking, too, you know. I've got a couple of my most trusted guys on this, and they're talking to no one but me." Henderson flipped through the documents Clark had brought with him. "This is great stuff, but I want to hold off on any search warrants on these companies until we see if we can get the guy who did the sabotage. I don't want to tip our hand until we can nail Luthor on this entire thing -- the sabotage, the money involved, and this murder. Probably more than one; your Dr. Platt was almost certainly another of Luthor's victims."

Clark rose to his feet, and offered Henderson his hand. "Thanks, Bill. We'll keep working on this."

Lois had also risen to her feet. "We'll get him, Bill."

"If anyone can find the dirt on this guy, it's you two," Henderson replied. "And you've apparently got Superman helping you. He's a pretty powerful asset, I'd say."

"Yeah. He's been invaluable so far," Lois said with a smile. "C'mon, Clark -- we've got a lot to do."

They left Henderson's office together, and, conscious of possible witnesses, hailed a cab instead of flying back to the Daily Planet.

***

They spent part of the next morning contacting sources and asking questions -- getting names of possible for-hire criminals who might take on a contract hit. And from the discouragingly long list, they had to verify who was incarcerated and who was free; who was known to be in the Metropolis area and who was documented to be elsewhere. Even with Jimmy's help, it would be a slow process with no guarantee of success.

Midway through the morning, they heard a bulletin from the police radio in the command center, reporting that there was a robbery in progress at one of the downtown First Bank of Metropolis branches.

Lois and Clark were sitting side by side at his desk, working on their list of suspects. Lois dropped her pencil on the desk, stretched slightly, and glanced at Clark as he pushed back his chair, ready to stand up. "I need some good coffee, Clark," she commented around a pretty realistic yawn. "Would you get me a Metropolis Coffee -- Double Mocha Latte? From our usual place? They know how I like it there."

The Metropolis Coffee Company shop in question was conveniently located close to the bank branch currently in need of Superman's help, so if her partner got a story out of it, no one would think twice about it.

With a grin, he agreed cheerfully and headed up the ramp. Lois picked up her pencil and returned to her work, waiting -- and within a few minutes she heard him from the roof. "Nice touch, partner -- if it takes a while to get back with your coffee, it'll be because I just happened to be on the spot for a Superman story." She had to stifle a grin; it was a good thing she had her head down, ostensibly concentrating on the papers in front of her.

Within moments of Clark's comment, Perry bellowed from his office doorway, "Edmunds! Jenner! Get over to the Hayes Street branch of the First Bank of Metropolis; there's a robbery in progress! Hustle!"

As Edmunds and Jenner hurried for the elevator, Lois casually leaned back and gazed at the ceiling, tapping her pencil against her lip as if in thought, and looked through the floors above the newsroom. As she had thought, Clark was gone. He probably hadn't heard Perry's shout; he would have been concentrating on the unfolding events at the bank.

With Superman involved, Edmunds and Jenner were likely to arrive as the drama ended; standoffs ended pretty quickly when he was around to help. So... should Clark worry about not being seen at the bank branch as himself? If he were to return with a Superman story, but Edmunds and Jenner didn't see him at the bank... Or was she being too cautious?

How to warn him? She couldn't very well call him on his cell phone. Maybe... She looked back down at the desk and focused on a mental picture of Clark's face. <Clark?> She waited.

Nothing. She shut her eyes and blanked her mind further, blocking out as much of the newsroom noise as she could, and thought of Clark. No -- better make it Superman.

Still nothing. Well, maybe she was only transmitting, not receiving. With her eyes still closed, she concentrated on sending him a message. <Clark, Edmunds and Jenner will be there. Be careful. Let them see Clark if you can.>

"Lois?"

She yelped and almost fell out of her chair as Jimmy's voice sounded practically in her ear.

"Jimmy! Give me a heart attack, why don't you?!" she snapped, more Mad Dog Lane than she'd been in quite a while. Her heart was actually pounding; not a particularly pleasant sensation.

He stepped back, hands raised placatingly. "Sorry, Lois. Really -- I spoke to you once and you didn't hear me; I wasn't sure if you were okay or not. *Are* you all right?"

"Uh, yeah. I..." She heard Clark's heartbeat just before he stepped through the stairwell door, coffees in hand. "I just need my coffee," she said with relief. Saved by Superman! Or more precisely, Clark -- which was even better. She smiled at him as he approached, and he winked at her as he handed over her coffee.

"Here you are, partner! Knock some of that back and wake up; we've got a lot of work to do," he said teasingly. <Better than Superman?>

The question flashed through her mind as he sat down beside her, and she had to work hard not to react. Had he just...?

It was a good thing he kept talking; it took her a minute to regain her equilibrium. "Guess what happened while I was getting coffee?" he asked cheerfully. "A bank robbery at that branch near 'our' Metropolis Coffee shop. Superman stopped it, and I got a quick interview."

"Cool! The Chief sent Edmunds and Jenner over there when it came over on the scanner." Jimmy glanced at his watch. "But I'll bet they're not even there yet. Man, that is so cool -- so you got to meet Superman, huh? We're -- Metropolis is -- pretty lucky, right, guys? If he wasn't around, that bank robbery might still be going on. But that dude just zips in and saves the day." He shook his head admiringly. "And it's all over already if you got to talk to him, right? That was like, what? Maybe twenty minutes, tops?"

As Clark laughed, Lois suppressed her smirk with a small amount of difficulty. Really, she had to get a handle on her tendency to react that way when people praised Superman to, well... Superman. Grinning like an idiot every time the man was mentioned would make her look like a brainless groupie with a crush the size of... Kansas. She fought an increasing urge to laugh.

<Kansas, huh?> The thought rolled through her mind on a tide of laughter.

She almost dropped the coffee cup.

"Whoa, there, partner -" Clark reached over and steadied her hand. "You must be more tired than you thought, huh?"

<Nice save.> He didn't react to the thought -- no smile, no nod or wink. So... she wasn't transmitting? This was so confusing, and --

"Oh! Guys!" Jimmy snapped his fingers and almost dropped a document he had tucked under his arm. "I got distracted... Sorry about that! I came over to tell you -- you won't believe what I found!" He stopped and glanced around. "Uh... that is, I've got some information..." As Lois and Clark looked at him inquiringly, he said much more quietly, "Um. It's pretty... sensitive..."

Clark rose to his feet. "C'mon, Jim -- let's go talk in one of the conference rooms." He pulled Lois's chair back for her as she rose, and she flashed him a quick smile.

They had barely closed the conference room door behind them when Jimmy burst into speech. He waved the papers in the air. "You won't believe this, guys! I went back to the EPRAD website... I was going to see if I could find any more code, you know? Well, I didn't find any good stuff to explore -- well, nothing interesting in the way of computer code, anyway... Except... So then while I was wandering around in their computers, I got into a pretty secure area, and..." He stopped and glanced out into the newsroom. No one was paying them any attention; the conference rooms were used regularly by many of the Planet's reporters, and frequently by Lois and Clark. There was nothing unusual about their presence there. "Um, do you think we should pull the blinds? In case, you know..."

Lois huffed impatiently as Clark smothered a laugh beside her. Elbowing him, she said briskly, "Jimmy, no one is looking this way. No one out there reads lips. No one out there has bugged this room. Now, give!"

"Well..." He set the papers on the table, then rushed into speech. "I found Antoinette Baines' files. Her *personal* files. Not like... financial stuff or taxes or anything like that... It's all stuff she put in there. Like a... like a diary, kinda. A 'just in case something happens to me' sort of thing. There're files outlining the whole sabotage program... Can I call it a program? Anyway, I couldn't believe it! She has loads of information -- it's all in encrypted files, of course, but still! Right there in EPRAD's main system... Where anybody could get at it! Well, anybody with a good decryption program. I've got a couple I use pretty regularly... One of 'em is just ace, man. She was using a pretty good level of encryption, but I cracked it anyway..." He ran out of breath.

"Jimmy, slow down!" Lois exclaimed, waving him to a chair. "Now, say it again--"

"Are you saying you've got solid proof of the sabotage?" Clark asked at nearly the same moment.

Jimmy dropped into the chair Lois had indicated, but he was so excited he was bouncing in it like a child waiting to be excused at the end of a meal. "Well, almost! Here, look -" He slid the papers toward them. "She says here that she's got a safety deposit box at a First Bank of Metropolis branch -- someplace in the suburbs; she says which branch it is -- where she's got all kinds of proof of sabotage, including what, and who, and when, and all that. She's got it all listed here, kinda in time order. She names -" He glanced around the room again and lowered his voice. "...She names Lex Luthor as the mastermind, and she's got dates and times -- and recordings -- of their meetings. And she lists a guy called John Black who she says Lex Luthor hired to kill Dr. Platt..." He ran out of breath again.

"John Black? He's on our list, Clark!" Lois told him urgently.

"We need to get this to Bill Henderson." Clark was reading the document over her shoulder. "I think -- hope -- this is what he's looking for. He can probably get a search warrant for the safety deposit box, and it sounds like we'll find our proof inside it."

"Do you think there's any way of us getting a look at it first?" Lois asked without much hope. "I mean... This is the story of the century, Clark! Well, almost, anyway. Do you think we can get in there somehow?"

"Not legally, Lois."

"How about..." She hesitated. It wouldn't be a good idea to refer to Superman's -- or anyone else's -- special abilities in Jimmy's presence.

Clark understood what she wanted to ask. "I don't think so, Lois. I think we need to do this as... legally as possible. We don't want to give Luthor any possible way to wiggle out of any of this."

She sighed. "What a pain. Okay, fine -- but Bill better give us the absolute exclusive, Clark."

Jimmy had been looking back and forth between them expectantly; now she turned to him and said, "Jimmy, that was excellent -- no, *outstanding* work! You are a hacker of the first order!"

She watched interestedly as the young man blushed and gulped nervously at the same time, then took pity on him as Clark chuckled next to her.

"Seriously, Jimmy... That was great work. And don't worry -- you'll be completely anonymous and protected, as we protect all of our confidential sources. But would you like to be listed as a special contributor for this article? Share the byline? It's gonna be a killer article," she added without a hint of conceit.

Clark's chuckle turned into outright laughter as Jimmy gaped at her. Lois 'Mad Dog' Lane offering to share a byline was akin to a complete solar eclipse -- so rare that most people hadn't -- and likely wouldn't -- ever see it.

"Uh. Uh... Yeah. Gosh, thanks! You really mean it?" Jimmy stammered.

Now Lois laughed, too. "Yes, Jimmy. I really mean it. We'll get Henderson onto this stuff, extract his promise that it's our exclusive, and finish the story. Stay within reach by cell or email, okay? When we get the 'go' on this, we'll have you help us write it."

After stammering his thanks multiple times, then making it as far as the door, only to turn back and thank her -- them -- once again, Jimmy finally left the room. He still looked dazed; Lois glanced up at Clark, who'd casually and unconsciously draped an arm across her shoulders as they sat there watching Jimmy leave.

He smiled at her; at the same moment they both remembered their... other problem. Clark moved away from her, slumping back in his chair with a sigh. "I hate this... having to watch how I treat you," he muttered. "If only..."

"Yeah." The lightness of the moment was completely gone.

With a determined effort, he straightened up and smiled at her. "Lois, you did good. That was very generous, to offer to share our byline with Jimmy."

"He deserves it, Clark," she said seriously, forcing herself to think only of their work. "Let's get this stuff to Henderson right away, okay?"

He stood and pulled out her chair for her. "Let's fly," he said with a straight face, and they exited the room laughing.

***

They delivered the document to Henderson, who lifted an eyebrow in enquiry after he'd glanced over it briefly. "And how do we explain where this came from?" he asked.

As Lois and Clark looked at each other, Henderson sighed. "I don't mean I don't appreciate this, people. This is dynamite, and I've got a judge standing by who'll issue a search warrant for this safety deposit box so fast it'll make your head spin. *But* -- and that's a big one -- our girl didn't leave this lying around, I'm sure."

He leaned back in his chair. "I'm open to suggestions."

"Um. I don't suppose 'we found it' is good enough?" Lois asked.

Henderson actually smiled. Lois blinked. Usually the man kept the straightest face she'd ever seen, even when he was joking.

She glanced at Clark. "Any ideas, Clark?"

"Well..." he said slowly, "She left this document in EPRAD's main system, according to our source. Not in her private computer... So..."

The man was a genius. "Yes, Bill! Sure, it was encrypted, but it was out there in the public forum, if you will..." She ignored the raised eyebrow and hurried on. "No, really! She died on EPRAD's property, and that document was in their main computer system. Companies have access to their employees' email and stuff like that; surely they have legal access to anything she put in their system in the line of her work? And since her death was suspicious, it's not like they're not gonna search through everything she left behind for clues, right? And she obviously wanted someone to find this and read it; why else put it there? She --"

Henderson held up both hands. "All right, all right, Lane. You've got me convinced." He shook his head, and his mouth quirked in another half smile. "Gimme..." He looked at the clock on his desk. "...about an hour and I'll have a search warrant. I imagine you want to be present when we crack the box?"

"Yes!" They said it in unison, and Lois experienced another first when Henderson laughed out loud.

"Okay. Meet me back here at 5 pm." Henderson was already reaching for the phone. As Clark held the office door for her, they heard Henderson say, "Harry? Bill Henderson. How fast can you get me a search warrant...?"

***

Outside the police station, Lois had to concentrate to keep from floating off the ground. Laughing, she turned to Clark.

"Yeah -- me, too," he said, smiling.

His words wiped the smile from her face, and she stared at him. "Clark, I didn't even say anything yet. But you answered me anyway."

He stared back at her, his own smile fading. "Yes..."

"Clark, did you hear me earlier, while you were at the bank?" she demanded.

He frowned. "Hear you? What do you mean? Like... just now?"

She grabbed his hand and tugged him across the street to one of the benches in the small shady park just down the block from the police station. It wasn't a patch on Centennial Park, but it was a pleasant little place all the same. "Clark, I was... *thinking* at you while you were at the bank -- while Superman was at the bank."

He shook his head. "Maybe I was too busy, Lois. I didn't hear anything. Or should I say, I didn't 'receive' anything from you."

"But... what about the sleepy-here's-your-coffee thing?" she asked. "And the 'better than Superman' thing? And the Kansas thing?" She flung her hands out, exasperated. "I *know* you thought those at me. I got 'em, Clark. But..." She slumped on the bench. "Maybe I can't send you anything. Just receive. I don't think you... 'heard' my 'nice save' comment either, did you?"

Bemused, he ticked the items off on his fingers. "Well, let's see... I did pick up your relief to see me and your 'tired' thing with Jimmy when I came through the door. I heard your thought about Clark being better than Superman -- thank you for that, by the way, Lois," he added warmly. "And I got your Kansas-sized crush comment, too. That was pretty funny. Lois Lane, groupie? I can't see it."

"But --"

"You have to be sending me stuff, Lois. Otherwise, how could I reply to your 'I'm tired' thought -- or your 'Clark is better' thought -- unless I picked up what you were thinking?"

She shook her head. "I don't understand how this works. It seems to happen randomly."

"I don't know. Maybe we have to be together for it to work."

For some time they sat quietly, each immersed in their own thoughts, idly watching the city around them.

After a while, Clark said, "I also picked up your inscription-or-instructions thing, in Kansas, with the ship." He grinned at her. "That was pretty funny, too. It'd be just our luck if the inscription *was* just ship-opening instructions, or something like... 'please change this baby's diaper,' or..."

She began laughing helplessly. "Clark!"

He laughed with her. And then stopped abruptly.

Her own laughter died as he grabbed her hands and leaned in close. "That's it, Lois! Every time I've picked up something from you, or sent some thought to you, we've been happy. Laughing or smiling. That's it! That's the key! I'm almost sure of it!"

She stared at him in wonder, and he laughed again. "That's it, Lois! <And I think we can learn to control it. Like everything else we can do.>

"So..." she breathed, beginning to smile. <Another super power?>

And when he nodded, she whispered, "We can really... Wow!"

"Yeah." He smiled at her, and she *felt* the waves of affection rolling over her. It was at once the most wonderful and the most terrible thing she'd ever felt. They just *couldn't* feel this way about each other!

She shut her eyes tightly. "Clark..."

She felt his hands gripping hers hard -- hard enough to hurt if she weren't invulnerable. "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry. I --"

She opened her eyes, squared her shoulders, and stood up. He released her hands. "C'mon, Kent. We've got work to do. Henderson ought to have that warrant by now, don't you think?"

He was also on his feet. "Yeah." He sounded... relieved. And disappointed. A curious mixture, but she knew exactly how it felt.

"Let's go, then," she said briskly, and together they started back toward police headquarters.

***

The actual safety deposit box cracking was almost anticlimactic. While Lois and Clark waited with the bank's tellers, the police and the bank's security man supervised the bank manager as he opened the locked box.

The contents were removed to a lockable attachÚ case and borne away to Henderson's car. Lois and Clark rode back to the station with him, which was a pretty weird experience since the back seat was equipped with a cage.

Once they'd settled in his office, Henderson paged quickly through the documents while Lois and Clark waited more or less patiently. The 'more' was on Clark's part and the 'less' was on Lois's part; at one point, Clark quietly reached for her hand and held it, which shouldn't have helped stop her fidgeting, but did.

Finally, Henderson spread the papers out on the desk, and the three of them began to read. It was somewhat unusual for members of the press to be allowed to examine potential evidence, but Lois and Clark weren't exactly typical reporters, nor was Bill Henderson a typical policeman.

"You helped break this story," he'd told them upon entering his office. "Without some of the information you provided, we'd surely still be spinning our wheels over this. And I want this guy bad."

Antoinette Baines had indeed stockpiled ample proof of both her and Lex Luthor's involvement in the space program sabotage. She had listed who was in on it, who had masterminded the plan -- Lex Luthor -- and what her own role had been.

"Here's something -- she describes how she got Dr. Platt discredited. It was part of a plan to make him either step down or get him fired, so she could take over." Lois handed the document to Henderson.

Clark exclaimed a minute later, "Here's a handwritten message -- it's signed 'L' -- that instructs her to destroy all correspondence related to... Here, I'll read it: 'Destroy all correspondence related to our plan to sabotage the space program, immediately. I wouldn't have thought I would have to remind you of such precautions, Antoinette.' And -" He passed the document to Henderson. "Could a handwriting expert analyze that? I'd be willing to bet money that the author is Luthor."

"There are also several tapes -- apparently from surveillance cameras. Let's see what they show." Henderson put the first of the tapes into his office VCR, and they watched the grainy images with interest.

After watching all three of the tapes Antoinette Baines had left behind in the safety deposit box, Henderson allowed himself another of those rare smiles. "She kept it all. And these tapes will be admissible evidence, since they're from an overt, legal surveillance system. I'd be willing to lay odds myself that she was supposed to dispose of those tapes and instead chose to keep them; Luthor obviously didn't suspect that."

The phone rang. Henderson picked it up, uttering a terse, "Henderson." He listened for a moment, and then said, "Excellent. Put him in interrogation room one and get George in there; I'll be along shortly. Make sure you do everything by the book. We don't want any procedural errors on this one."

He hit a button, ending the call, and then pressed another button. "Harris, get Johansen for me, will you? Thanks." He replaced the receiver and looked across at Lois and Clark. "My men just picked up a guy called John Black."

"He's on Antoinette Baines' list," Clark said.

"He's got an extensive record; the word is that he's a hit man who'll take just about any contract," Henderson replied.

The phone beeped and a tinny voice announced, <<Bill, Johansen's on line three.>>

Henderson picked up the phone, glancing at his watch. "Johansen? Where are you? ...Good. Okay, it's a go. Yes. And Rod? By the book at every step. Take only experienced men with you. Pick up the manservant, too."

He hung up the phone again, leaned back in his chair, and allowed himself still another smile. It was just as surprising as the first one. "Now, we wait," he said. "I need to go talk to this fellow, Black; can I offer you one of the conference rooms while I'm doing that? Or do you want to wait here?" He didn't mention the fact that he was trusting them to respect his office privacy, nor anything about their promise not to break the story until he gave the word. He'd worked with Lois long enough to know that she was trustworthy, and that she would respect his request as long as he respected her right to be the first on the story once they did break it.

They opted to wait in Henderson's office. "I want to look at those surveillance tapes again, Bill," Lois told him. "I'm sure you'd rather we watched those in here."

"Help yourselves to coffee -- if you can stand police-issue brew," Henderson merely said, and then stood and left the office, closing the door behind him.

"Can't be any worse than the newsroom version at the end of the day," Lois said.

***

Henderson returned about an hour later. Lois and Clark had made use of the time by taking extensive notes on the contents of Antoinette Baines' documents and the surveillance tapes for use in their story; if all the pieces really did fall into place as they hoped, they could well be writing at least the first part of the story for the paper's morning edition.

They both looked up expectantly when he entered the office.

"Anything?" Lois asked hopefully.

"Well, John Black is *not* talking. We've dealt with him before, and he's a regular clam. But... shortly after he was picked up, a young man showed up here at headquarters with quite a tale. He's -- get this -- Black's kid brother. He's an airline mechanic -- and the kid's singing like crazy. He has detailed information -- inside -- on how the helicopter sabotage was done, and he has the name of the guy who hired his brother."

He sat down. "Apparently, Black brought him along on the meet and introduced him to Luthor's man -- Asabi -- as a 'technical consultant.' The kid didn't do the sabotage, but he provided a working diagram of a helicopter engine and described some of the ways such an engine could be tampered with. He says Black told him this Asabi was a scriptwriter under contract to some foreign movie studio. When the kid saw the news coverage of Baines' crash, he panicked. Says he didn't know anyone was going to actually use the information to sabotage a helicopter."

He shook his head wryly. "I think he's telling the truth. And we've actually got the meet on surveillance camera -- from a gas station across the street from the diner where they met. It picked them up entering, then leaving, although the tape quality's pretty poor at such a distance. But after the kid brother scrammed, the other two came across the street, directly into the camera's field of view, so we've got a nice, clear, pretty little shot of this Asabi and Black together."

"Black was taking quite a chance involving him, unless the brother has a criminal record, too," Lois commented.

"No; he's clean. And yes, it was pretty sloppy of Black to have a witness like that -- he must've thought that since the kid's his brother he wouldn't tell. Black knows when to clam up, but he's not real bright. I am surprised, however, that this Asabi fellow didn't consider the kid a loose end."

"Maybe he *does*, but hasn't gotten around to doing anything about it yet," Lois said darkly.

"Or perhaps Asabi takes his cues from Lex Luthor," Clark said. "It seems like Luthor's getting more... careless."

"Well, we'll do what we can to keep the kid safe until this is all over. Anyway, things have been moving fast since Black was brought in... As well they should," Henderson added dryly. "I've got my entire department working on various aspects of this case."

"And Luthor?" Lois asked.

"Lex Luthor is under arrest. My guys picked him up without incident at his residence. And because the man is so high profile, we got an unprecedented rush on the preliminary legalities -- we processed him through night court. Because of the magnitude of his resources and the flight risk, as well as the sheer number of charges, the judge is denying bail."

Lois looked at Clark. They'd done it. "We've got him, Clark!"

He smiled at her. " 'Who's come to slay the dragon -- come to watch him fall? Making arrows out of pointed words...'"

She smiled, recognizing the lines he was quoting.

"Dragon?" Henderson repeated, quirking an eyebrow. "An apt description."

He leaned back in his chair. "My men also picked up the manservant, Asabi. He's talking, too. I'm guessing he'll get some sort of plea deal if he cooperates -- and he knows it. He's giving us dates, and times, and names. More than we ever suspected, as a matter of fact -- stuff entirely unrelated to the space program. It turns out Luthor is probably the biggest crime boss in the city. This guy Asabi's list includes corporate espionage, insider trading, and other illegal forced takeover tactics, and also money laundering, arms trafficking, and a couple of unsolved homicides." He shook his head. "If even half the stuff is true... Well, even in my wildest dreams I didn't suspect quite this level of criminality."

He stood up, offering Lois his hand across the desk. As she stood and shook it, he said, "Thanks, Lane. Good job." His mouth quirking into a half smile, he added, "I'll look forward to a series of articles, shall I? And possibly still another journalism award, too?"

She laughed as he turned toward Clark, who had also risen to his feet. As the two men shook hands, Henderson said, "And thank you, too, Kent. This guy's somebody we've been after for a long time."

"Our pleasure, Bill," Clark replied, smiling. "We're just as happy about this as you are."

"Thanks for including us in the Baines thing, Henderson," Lois said with a grin. "And who knows? Maybe we'll see you at the Kerth awards this year."

"Get outta here, Lane. Go write your story. I've still got a lot of work to do."

She gave him a mock salute as she and Clark left the office. She glanced back through the door in time to see Henderson shake his head with a smile. "Lois Lane, dragon slayer. I like that," she heard him murmur.

With a soft chuckle, Clark leaned toward her and whispered, "Dragon Slayer Lane... think it'll catch on at the office?"

She laughed, tucking her hand into his bent arm and bumping against him affectionately. "Well, the mental picture sure beats that of Mad Dog's."

"C'mon, then, Dragon Slayer." He patted her hand with his free one, and gestured toward the door. "Ready to write?"

"Lead on," she told him cheerfully.

It wasn't until they were settled in the cab, careening through the streets of Metropolis in true downtown-cabbie-style that she realized neither she nor Clark had felt uncomfortable with those few minutes of physical closeness as they'd exited the police station.

They must be getting the hang of this whole sibling thing.

***

They returned to the Daily Planet first.

When Lois called Perry at home to tell him about Luthor's arrest, he assured her that he'd be back at the Planet, ready and waiting, when they finished the story.

Lois also called Jimmy and asked him to meet them there, and the three of them spent some time going over the information Lois and Clark planned to put into the first article. Jimmy would also do a sidebar about the space program and the shuttle, in addition to having his name on the main story as a 'special contributor.'

So it was almost midnight when Lois and Clark finally returned to Clark's place. They'd decided to finish the story there, as they both agreed his place was more comfortable.

They'd left Jimmy writing busily. He would turn his work in directly to Perry, who was standing by now, holding one of the presses. Lois knew he would spend at least the next hour or two shuffling stories around to make room for theirs on the front page. It didn't happen often, but he'd done it before in order to break a big story in the Daily Planet's morning edition.

By the time they had the story written to their satisfaction, another hour had passed.

Finally, Lois stood and stretched, yawning widely. She'd just sent the story to Perry; now she closed down Clark's email program and turned off his computer.

She was happy that this story was over -- Luthor deserved whatever he got, and Henderson had assured them that they had enough charges that he wouldn't be able to escape punishment.

Perry had already told them to take the morning off; considering the lateness of the hour, it was nice to know she didn't have to hurry home so she could get at least a couple hours of sleep.

She glanced at Clark, puttering around his kitchen. Did she look as tired as he did? With the story finished, there wasn't the distraction of work anymore. For a few hours, she'd even forgotten about... that... for a while.

But she didn't want to leave yet. Maybe they could talk for a while.

"Clark?" He was putting the finishing touches on two cups of hot chocolate.

He glanced her way with a small smile. "What?"

"Where did you go -- you know, the nights we were working on Dr. Platt's notes? And on that Friday night?"

He brought the two mugs into the living room, handed one to her, and sat down a respectable distance away from her, at the other end of the couch. "I heard things -- people who needed help. That first night, it was a mugging. It was close by your place. I... Well, it was an elderly woman; I needed to go help. I was lucky, though -- I didn't need to think up some flimsy excuse. You were nervous having me there, although you hid it well..."

She didn't argue the point; after all, he was perfectly correct. She *had* been nervous, and she'd suspected, when she'd thought back on that night, that he had known it. Curiously, she asked, "Weren't you afraid you'd be exposed?"

He shrugged. "It's always been a tightrope for me, everywhere I've been. In this case, I landed in an alley just behind them, and moved up on them as if I'd been out walking -- basically, I looked like any old Good Samaritan."

She laughed a little, and he smiled back before continuing.

"It was the same sort of thing with the next night we were working together. A car accident; that was a bit trickier. I couldn't do much -- I sort of... *helped* a mashed-in door fall off its hinges, and I helped get the children out. Fortunately, there were only minor injuries -- but I always worry about... you know, fire... an exploding gas tank... something that will require me to do something... obvious."

"It's different now that you've got the suit, though..." Lois observed. "You're more comfortable with Superman's role now, aren't you? Now that you know the disguise works okay?"

"Yeah... I'm still getting used to it. It's getting easier to remember to hold myself straighter, and to speak more formally and in a deeper voice... I'm finally not worrying every single moment that someone's going to recognize me. Instead..."

He paused, and she glanced over at him enquiringly. "Instead...?"

He flashed his brilliant smile at her. "Instead, I only worry every *other* moment that someone will recognize me."

She laughed, as he'd obviously intended her to do.

***

For a while, they both sat and sipped hot chocolate. Clark had turned on the TV to LNN, with the volume turned low. Neither of them was really watching it; instead, both were immersed in their own thoughts.

Gradually, though, Lois began to feel restless. She didn't want to leave, but she was very... aware of Clark. No matter what she tried to tell herself, it was... hard to force herself to ignore how... *attractive* he was. When she was relaxed like this, thinking her own thoughts as he lolled at the other end of the couch, thinking his, she found it harder to tune out his heartbeat, his breathing. And she was afraid she'd accidentally stray into that mental off-limits area concerning him.

Edgily, she rose to her feet and wandered aimlessly around while Clark, who had also risen to his feet, took their empty mugs into the kitchen. Focusing on his movements as he washed the mugs and put them away, she found herself in front of the globe.

She studied it. It was just a plain, featureless little silver globe. Nothing striking about it. Nothing to indicate that this little globe had sent all their hopes crashing down around them only a few days ago.

She picked it up, moving slowly back toward the couch with it cradled in her hands. It wasn't really very heavy, either. So small, and so light -- yet it had managed to destroy her whole world.

The globe began to glow.

She started to turn, intending to put it back, but more quickly than last time, the ghostly man appeared.

She couldn't remember if he'd started to speak immediately upon appearing last time, but this time, he seemed to be waiting -- like before, almost as if he could see them. He turned to face Clark, who was just now slowly leaving the kitchen and moving toward her.

She looked away from the image, up into Clark's face, as he joined her. His expression was grim, and he said softly, "I don't know if I want to hear this again..."

She nodded, but before she could say anything, the man turned fully toward Clark. Raising his right hand, palm upward, he brought it up to touch his chest over his heart. "Greetings, my son."

The globe wobbled in Lois's grip and she sat down abruptly on the edge of the couch. Clark instantly sat down next to her and placed his hand under hers, helping her to hold it. With the globe held steady, the image appeared to be standing in front of them, in the middle of Clark's living room. It -- the man -- continued, "I speak to you from the doomed planet Krypton."

With a small, formal bow, the man turned toward Lois; again, he seemed to be looking directly at her. Repeating the upraised-hand-to-heart gesture, he said, "Greetings, my daughter."

She didn't even realize that she'd leaned against Clark, although she was dimly aware that his free arm had come around her shoulders as if to steady her in the same manner his hand helped steady the globe. All she was really aware of was that he was a solid presence, a rock she might have to cling to when this man -- this now-flickering image -- once again had his say.

The figure stabilized. The man spread his hands, appearing to look at each of them in turn, and continued, "If you are seeing this message, it means you have found one another --"

He bowed low, then turned and beckoned at a spot beyond them, off to their left into a distance only he could see. As they watched, a young woman, clothed in a long, exquisitely embroidered gown, moved into view beside the man. Like him, she wore a metallic circlet around her forehead.

She smiled at each of them in turn, and finished the man's sentence. "...And are ready to fulfill your destiny."

Clark glanced at Lois, and the pressure of his hand under hers lessened slightly. The globe clicked, and the images flickered. Clark again brought his hand up firmly under Lois's, and the images brightened again.

Lois spared Clark a quick glance. "Do you think it needs both of us?" she whispered. Before he could answer, the man spoke again.

Once again, he turned to face Clark fully, as if the recording really was somehow attuned to him. "I am Jor-El, of the House of El," the man said, and his voice acquired a more formal tone. "You, my son, are Kal-El, son of Jor-El, prince of the House of El."

As Lois and Clark gazed at the figures, the man's formal demeanor seemed to falter slightly. "You, Kal-El, are the culmination of a long and illustrious line of a most noble family -- reaching back to the great Val-El, who set our glorious civilization in motion. Your mother and I -" He drew the woman beside him closer for a moment, and then continued -- "...have sent you forth to the distant planet, third from Sul-El's golden star, El diSol; the planet called Earth -- so like Krypton but for its yellow sun -- in order to save your life. Our world, once-sound and once-enduring Krypton, is disintegrating around us. Our cities are in ruins; our citizens are dying. Within hours, our once-great planet will implode. Your mother, Lara, and I have determined that you will live, and one day accomplish great things."

He turned toward Lois, who was trembling in Clark's half-embrace and struggling to hold the globe steady. Only Clark's hand, firm under hers, felt real. This man... was Clark's father. And hers. And the woman was...

The man's voice continued, breaking her train of thought. "You, my daughter, are Zara Than-Ar, daughter of Than-Ar and princess of the House of Ar. For years, our two houses, both of which have produced great leaders of our civilization for generation upon generation, dreamed of a match between them. A match to unite the Houses of El and Ar. You, my daughter, were given in betrothal to Kal-El upon your birth. Accordingly, you became my daughter, and the right to wear the crest and the colors of the House of El were bestowed upon you. The great sculptor Jhan-Ar himself, brother to your father, gifted you with marriage bracelets of unparalleled craftsmanship; incorporating the seal of the House of El and the seal of the House of Ar within the Unending Circle."

As Lois and Clark gaped at the man -- Jor-El -- he continued. His formal manner had crumbled, and his voice suddenly seemed to falter. "Even the mighty House of El is useless now. My children, you were sent away from Krypton in the planet's very dying day. We shall not be able to save ourselves; the task is too great and the time is too short. We have modified two small exploratory ships to carry you both to safety. We pray that our God, Rao, will protect you." His voice strengthened again, and was filled with resolve once more. He drew the woman -- Lara -- now softly weeping, firmly against his side. "Rokyn dau amzeto orutoo Laraa Bythgar El," he said softly, and embraced her. Then he turned to them and continued, "Your mother inscribed a blessing on your ship, Kal-El, and on that of your betrothed: Rokyn dau flezur amzeto orutoo Kal-El. Rokyn dau flyzar amzeto orutoo Zara El. May you live long, children of Rao."

The images faded, and once more the globe was dark.

For a breathless moment, it felt like the whole world stopped.

Then Lois drew in a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, and shifted to look up into his face. "Oh! Clark -- did you hear? We're... he said we're *not*... You're *not* my brother! We're... It's --"

Whatever she'd intended to say was cut off when he rose abruptly, took the globe from her and dropped it on the couch, and pulled her to her feet. "I heard." His voice was low and rough, sending shivers over her scalp and down her spine. "And I don't want to talk right now." He drew her into his arms as he spoke, tunneling the fingers of one hand gently into her hair, and tipped her face up to his as his other arm tugged her close. She felt his breath feather over her lips. "I just want to..."

His lips came down on hers, and sensation tumbled through her. It was like riding an arrested avalanche as the urgent pressure of his lips slowed, becoming a series of tender, soft caresses, and it felt like he was... discovering her. Shiver after delicious shiver cascaded over her as his lips moved over hers. It was unlike anything she'd ever felt before. She gasped, pressing closer to him, and as her lips parted he gently deepened the kiss, arms tightening around her.

Everything she'd ever read or heard about kissing paled in comparison to the real thing. She'd never been kissed at all, much less like this, but it felt... Oh! Like... hot chocolate, and... and *Clark*, and... flying, and Mama's laughter, and... every single moment of happiness she'd ever, ever experienced, but all happening at once.

She responded without reserve, giving him full access to her mouth -- and her soul. "Oh, Lois!" he whispered, lifting his mouth from hers for an eternity as he swept her up in his arms and sat down, cradling her in his lap. "I... need you closer." He kissed her eyelids, her cheeks, her jaw, and then returned with a groan to her mouth.

Without conscious thought, her hands were exploring his shoulders and arms, fingers tunneling into his hair. She was trembling in his arms, awash in delight. She thought dimly that they might be floating, but maybe it just felt that way.

He raised his mouth from hers again, resting his forehead against hers as they both fought to catch their breaths. When his hands came up to gently cup her face, she opened her eyes and gazed straight into his soul. "I love you, Lois," he said softly, solemnly. "With all my heart. I think I fell in love with you the first time I saw you."

"And I love you," she whispered, recognizing it at last. She loved him -- had loved him before she had known who he was. Somehow, they'd managed to find each other, as Jor-El had said. Somehow, they'd found their way, reached that state of grace.

She kissed him, and he kissed her back with love. And knowing he loved her, what she'd felt before was a pale shadow of what she felt now.

***

A long, long time later, Lois lifted her head from his chest to look up at him. "Clark?"

He kissed her gently. "Hmmm?" he murmured, and began placing small kisses along her jaw.

"You never did tell me about that Friday, you know..." She shivered. It was hard to think when he did that. "Where... mmmm... did you go?'

He chuckled, and she felt it rumble through his body where she lay against him.

"Do you remember the morning both Jimmy and I came in wet and muddy during that rainstorm?" he asked with a smile.

"Um... Are you telling me you *weren't* the victim of a drive-by splashing?"

This time he laughed outright. "Nope. It was another rescue. I kind of messed up my suit; I could have kissed you -" He paused. "I'll do it now," he whispered, and then did it so well that she whimpered when he stopped. "Where was I?" he asked dazedly.

"Uh. You kissed me..." she managed to say fairly coherently.

"Oh, yeah. I could have kissed you when you gave me that out by badgering Jimmy..."

She began to sit up, but his arms tightened around her. She had to make do with propping herself up on his chest. "Badgering?! I was *not* badgering! I was merely... offering sound advice," she said primly.

"I'll stick with badgering," he teased her, and as she opened her mouth to argue he swooped in and kissed her again.

It was quite some time before they resumed the conversation.

"So... about the rainstorm? And where you went that Friday?" she finally reminded him.

"Ah, yes... Well, we went down to the lockers. I was lucky -- one application of freezing breath, and I was able to remove most of the mud. But your comment about a change of clothes stuck with me. I thought and thought about it..."

He shifted, settling them more comfortably into the cushions, and continued. "The one thing that kept me moving, during those years after college, was my fear of discovery. When I met you, I knew I was done traveling. I also knew, however, that it would be hard to conceal my abilities if someone was in need, and it would be impossible to ignore a cry for help. It was a frustrating dilemma."

He smiled at her. "But what you'd said -- a change of clothes -- started me thinking about adopting some kind of disguise. So I talked to my mom; I was originally thinking of a mask, you know. But she made a comment about unmasking -- she said it might be better if people thought I had nothing to hide. If I left my face bare -- no mask, no glasses -- and changed my hair, stuff like that... But I wondered..."

"...If it would it be enough to keep Clark Kent secret?" she asked as he trailed off. When he nodded, she continued, "It does, though -- because people can't imagine that the brightly dressed flying man could be some regular guy with a job and bills and stuff. You're hiding in plain sight."

He laughed. "Yep."

"So that Friday..." she prompted.

He obligingly continued. "...So that Friday, I went home for dinner -- and a costume fitting. It took a while, but we finally came up with the... with Superman's suit. It kind of all came together when Mom brought out the stuff she'd saved. She said the... I guess we need to call them the family colors, huh? Anyway, she said the bright colors, the cape, and my actual abilities would distract people enough that they might not focus a lot on my face..."

"Oh, definitely," Lois said, not bothering to suppress her grin. "I suspect that *very* few women looked at your face for very long at all..."

Even after the fairly intense activities of the past several hours, he still blushed and squirmed, which threatened to dislodge her from her position. Laughing, she levitated slightly and then resettled against him as he tugged her back down.

"And -" Her voice caught as he threaded his fingers into her hair again, tipping her face up to his. "...the final touch was..." He began to kiss her gently, and she moaned softly. "...when she added the 'S' to the chest?" It was hard to concentrate, but she managed to finish the question.

"Hmmmm?" he murmured. In the same moment, he shifted so that she was partly under him, and began to kiss her in earnest.

She forgot her question, forgot the whole conversation, forgot everything except Clark and the feel of his lips on hers, and the sensations he was invoking in her.

***

By the end of the following day, Superman had put in several appearances across the city, helping out at various emergencies. There were two fairly serious car accidents, and, early in the day, an explosion and fire relatively close to the downtown area.

Lois heard the explosion at the same time Clark did. As he began to rise, tugging at his tie, she suddenly and helpfully remembered a source he was late in meeting. "Clark! It's -" She glanced at super speed at the clock across the newsroom. "...twenty after ten! What about that source!? Hustle, partner! I'll meet you for lunch and we can compare notes. Now go!"

He went.

Tipping her head back and staring at the ceiling, she faked a stretch and watched through the floors as he spun into the suit -- a sight she'd probably never get tired of watching -- and launched himself into the air. He hovered briefly, scanning the city, and then said, "Looks like maybe a gas explosion -- I can smell it. Near eastside. Fire engines on the way already. Make another one of those brilliant excuses and meet me there; I'll give you a Superman exclusive." She was barely able to suppress her smile as he added that last bit.

She glanced around. Perry stood in his office doorway, giving some kind of instructions to Jimmy.

Okay... better make this look believable. If she was going to say a source called her, she'd better get a phone call first. Picking up her phone, she dialed the ringback number and hung up; within seconds her phone rang. She picked it up and said briskly to the dial tone, "Lois Lane. ...What? Where? Okay, thanks."

She hung up, stood, and headed for Perry. As soon as she was within earshot, she began, "Perry! One of my sources called -- big fire, near eastside -- possible arson... I need Jimmy and a good camera."

The Daily Planet had two of the big, new Nikon cameras equipped with Kodak's Digital Camera System. She'd heard each camera carried a five-digit price tag. But with one of those cameras -- if she took Jimmy with her -- she could walk back into the Planet with, essentially, a completed and ready-to-print story, pictures and all. Perry would be ecstatic. Dramatic fire scenes, Superman in action, a well-written story... And just in case he'd noticed Clark's longer-than-usual absence today, this would nicely redirect his attention.

"Where's Clark?" Perry asked, while Jimmy began fidgeting in excitement like a puppy promised a walk.

She waved her hand airily. "Meeting the same source who called me. I already left a message for Clark -- he'll meet us there. C'mon, Perry! We're wasting time! Your City Desk guys are out on assignments; give me Jimmy and one of those digital cameras, and I'll have a story -- and pictures -- for you for the evening edition!"

She was already turning away as she said it. Perry wouldn't turn down a potential story. "Grab that Nikon camera -- the Kodak Digital one -- and let's go, Jimmy!" she snapped, over Perry's "You can't argue with that woman --"

"Not when I'm right," she called over her shoulder with a cheeky grin. She strode toward the elevator as Perry laughed. She heard him tell Jimmy, "You better hustle, son, or she'll leave you behind."

She was almost at the elevator before Jimmy caught up with her, jogging up the ramp with the Kodak DCS slung over his shoulder, almost incoherent with excitement at being allowed to use the big, expensive camera.

Thanks to a cab driver who took her seriously when she told him to "Step on it!" she arrived at the scene of the fire, with Jimmy in tow, in good time for him to snap pictures of the flames, with the firemen plying their hoses, and Superman hovering over the building, using blasts of his freezing breath.

It was obvious that with Superman's help, the fire was being quickly brought under control. Like Bill Henderson, she knew the fire chief fairly well. John Gregory was a big man with a round, weathered face and brown hair going gray at the temples. He was cheerful and easy to talk to, although he took his job seriously.

"Hi, Lois. Been here awhile?" he asked, taking off his helmet long enough to swipe one hand across his forehead before resettling it on his head.

"Hi, John; no, we just got here maybe fifteen minutes ago. Looks like it's under control; what've you got?"

"Not sure yet if it's accidental or deliberate. We're leaning toward accidental; we think a utilities crew nicked a gas line. Thanks to Superman's help, we got this baby contained in record time. He's gonna do a preliminary sweep for me while my guys finish up here."

"Any injuries?" she asked. Most of the buildings in this neighborhood were businesses, although there were a few residential buildings mixed in. It was hard to tell what this one had been.

"Nothing serious. This was a small factory of some kind -- empty -- that was being remodeled into residential units. That's why we think it was probably accidental -- there were a couple of utilities crews here, working on the individual apartments."

They both watched as Superman stopped blowing freezing breath over the building and swooped down low over it. Every few feet, he stopped, hovered, and scanned over the rubble, then moved on.

"This -- Superman's help -- has speeded up containment times?" she asked John, already knowing that the answer was yes.

"Yeah, but you know what's really great about Superman?" John glanced at her, then back at the smoldering shell. Superman had worked his way around to the far side of the building. "And you can quote me on this, Lois. The best thing about Superman is that there are fewer injuries -- and fewer fatalities. For both fire victims and firefighters. *That's* what's great about him. Sure, he helps us do our job faster and better -- and he's better than an arson dog at sniffing out accelerants. Of course, stuff like that's really our job, you know. He shouldn't be expected to do it. But with the fires themselves -- there's a statistically significant decrease in fire-related serious injuries and fatalities in the city -- and that's why most of us do this job. To save lives. With his help, we're doing that more often than not nowadays." He took off his helmet again and ran his hand through his hair. "That's what matters the most."

She'd wondered if she would be able to interview Superman with a straight face, but it wasn't going to be a problem at all. This was what they did, she and Clark -- they helped people. And it was what countless other dedicated people -- firemen, policemen, medical personnel -- did as well, on a daily basis. Sometimes with little reward. It was good, and right, and moral -- but not funny.

As John's crew began to overhaul the structure, exposing pockets of smoldering rubble and extinguishing them so that the fire wouldn't reignite, Superman landed lightly on the sidewalk several yards away and approached them. Jimmy drifted over, still snapping pictures.

"Good morning, Ms. Lane," Superman said formally. He acknowledged Jimmy with a reserved smile and then turned to John. "Well, I can go over it again if you'd like, John, but it does look accidental. No trace of any accelerants, and no clean cut in any lines. There's a nail in the gas line where several different conduits -- the gas line, two water pipes and several electrical cables -- share a narrow space. That's the only breach I saw."

John nodded. "Thank you, Superman. This doesn't have the... 'feel' of an artificial fire. I'll have my investigators go over it, but I suspect you're right. We've got statements from the men on the utilities crews, and we'll check with the city-zoning inspector. See if the proximity of those lines was approved and see who laid what in the wrong place."

There was a shout from one of the firemen as small flames erupted from a section they'd been overhauling; John, Superman, and Lois turned to watch. Jimmy moved toward the action, snapping pictures.

"They've got it under control," Superman stated.

John nodded, and offered his hand. "Thank you, Superman. Again. My men and I appreciate your help."

Superman inclined his head with a smile as he shook the fire chief's hand. "You're welcome, John. If there's nothing else?" He began to turn away.

"Superman -- a few quick questions?" Lois said quickly.

He turned back with another formal smile and nod. "Certainly."

"You said it looks accidental. Were the crews in the building when you arrived?"

"Yes. Both crews were on the floor above the breach and were trapped by the smoke. They went up to the roof. As you can probably still tell, this building was only four stories tall, so the ladder truck was already beginning to rescue them when I arrived. I flew some of them down, then checked the building. There were no other people inside." His smile widened slightly. "I did find a cat and three kittens, however; mother and children are safe and unharmed."

John chuckled. "And some of my guys are like big kids. They'll probably want me to let 'em take mother and babies to the firehouse. We don't really need a firehouse cat -- or cats, though... Want a kitten, Lois?"

She laughed.

Smiling, John glanced at Superman. "I don't suppose you'd be interested...?"

"Thank you; no," he replied in his formal, deep voice. It probably wasn't noticeable to anyone else, but Lois could hear the laughter underlying his words. "I wouldn't have a place to keep a cat. But..." <Think Clark Kent would like a cat?>

Lois interjected quickly, "I'll ask around the newsroom, John, and let you know." <Cut it out, you bum. If you make me laugh...>

If she burst out laughing for no apparent reason, John would probably think she was nuts. <And a certain superhero *could* get into trouble with another certain super-powered person.>

<Sorry...> She could still hear... feel? ...his amusement.

"Thanks, Lois." John's voice broke into her thoughts. With a resigned smile, he added, "I suspect I might end up taking a kitten home to my kids." He laughed, shaking his head. "It won't be the first time. My wife has started referring to our house as the Gregory Animal Sanctuary..."

Lois chuckled. "So that's one down..." She slanted a quick grin at Superman. "Good thing it was a small litter."

John laughed again. "Yeah. And I suspect we're going to end up with a firehouse cat -- that'll take care of the mother cat."

Superman had smiled at her comment, and she felt a warm wave of gentle amusement wash over her. <An exclusive Superman interview, and a sidebar on the cats?>

<Definitely. Guess we better wrap this up, huh?>

Turning back to Superman, she said, "John says there weren't any serious injuries to the men. But there were some minor ones?"

He nodded. "There were a couple of cases of smoke inhalation, but no other injuries."

"The area of the breach -- does it look like a code violation?"

"Well, I'm no expert, but I don't think so. The units are somewhat unconventionally shaped; this was an old factory and there are some structures remaining that have to be worked around. So some areas where bathrooms and kitchens were planned have limited space in which to place the utility lines. I think it was an error on the utilities crew's part -- there's a bracket holding some electrical cables, and one of the nails hit the gas line."

"The crew in question has two apprentices; one of them may have installed that line," John interjected. "We've got detailed statements from the men on those crews; it looks like simple human error."

"So you're confirming it was accidental?" Lois asked Superman.

"Well, that's really up to John's inspectors; they'll look over what I found, do their own investigation... They're the experts, and it's certainly possible that I've missed something."

She looked back at the fire chief, an eyebrow raised in inquiry. "John?"

"Superman is right; my guys will still go over every inch of the building. But Superman frequently does an initial once-over for us, and it saves time and resources if we know where to focus our attention. But to answer your question: Pending final word from my fire inspectors, yes -- it probably is accidental."

"In other words, a definite maybe," Lois couldn't resist adding, and watched Superman's smile broaden while John laughed outright.

"Exactly," John answered, still chuckling. He settled his helmet more firmly on his head, then nodded to both Superman and Lois. "My thanks again, Superman. Lois, give me a call; I should have an official answer for you late tomorrow, or the day after."

"Will do, John -- thanks." With a brief salute, the man headed toward his crew. Lois turned back to the brightly clad man beside her.

"If there's nothing else...?" Superman asked.

She smiled at him. "No, that's it. Thanks, Superman."

He lifted off and was gone.

Lois glanced around for Jimmy. He'd stopped taking pictures and was apparently scrolling back through the ones he'd taken. She'd heard all about that feature in the cab on the way over -- about how exciting it was to be able to see what he had instantly, instead of waiting to develop the film, and so on.

"Clark?" She said it softly. Did he have time to put in an appearance? She'd said he'd meet them at the fire.

Yes -- there he was, coming around the corner, smiling at her.

"If anybody asks, I've been talking to the owner of the building," he said when he reached her.

"Nice. And have you been, really?" she asked him playfully.

"Well... briefly," he said with a laugh. "I..." He moved even nearer and lowered his voice to a whisper, knowing she'd still be able to hear him. "I did a quick rinse in the ocean to get rid of the smoke smell --"

"How?" she asked curiously.

He glanced around; Jimmy was turning toward them. "If I spin fast enough, the water heats up enough to do the job without soap," he said rapidly. "Then I spun dry, headed back this way and changed out of the suit in an alley -- left it too fast to be seen, then slowed down as I came around the corner."

He resumed his normal speaking voice as Jimmy approached them. "The owner was speaking to John, so I got a quick statement from him." As Jimmy reached them, he finished, "The guy plans to rebuild... I assume you spoke to both John Gregory and Superman?"

She nodded, smiling.

"Hey, CK -- Lois said you'd meet us here," Jimmy said.

Clark grinned. "And here I am. Lois tells me she's got information from both the fire chief and Superman. So we're good to go?"

"Yeah --"

Lois heard it at the same time Clark did. <Help, Superman!>

"Well, I'll call this in and Jimmy and I will go back to the Planet and finish it up," she said briskly, glancing at her watch. "Think you can make that meeting with our source? And meet me later at the Planet?"

"I can if I hurry," he said, grin broadening.

"So, go!" She waved him away. Clark turned and headed away at a jog. As he turned the corner, she heard him say softly, "Thanks, Lois!"

She called the story in, and then hailed a cab to take her and Jimmy back to the Planet to fine-tune it for Perry.

Her companion was only slightly less exuberant than he'd been on the way to the fire. She learned more about the future of photography during the short ride than she'd ever need to know. She endured the conversation, though, because in his enthusiasm Jimmy had dumped the camera in her lap. Perforce, she'd found herself scrolling through the pictures he'd taken, and she'd had to admit that yes, it was a pretty cool feature.

When they arrived at the Planet, Jimmy disappeared into one of the resource rooms to download the photos he'd taken.

She was working on editing the fire story when she heard Clark call her name from the roof. She looked up, affecting a sort of thoughtful staring-into-space-because-I'm-thinking expression as she gazed up at him through the floors. He had apparently already spun out of the suit before he heard whatever it was he'd heard; she watched now as he spun back into it. Nope, she'd never get tired of watching him do that.

"There's a multi-car accident on the beltway; I need to go help. I'll see you as soon as I can; thank you ahead of time for whatever brilliant excuse you think of this time," he said rapidly, and took off again.

It was a good thing they were in the newspaper business. She could probably use the 'meeting a source' excuse ad infinitum without getting either of them in trouble. Good thing they hadn't chosen to be lawyers or surgeons or something. She could only imagine how awkward -- how impossible, really -- it would be for him to make an excuse during some big trial, or mid- open-heart surgery, or something.

She smiled at the thought and returned to work. He'd be back eventually.

***

And now here he was.

She looked up when she heard his heartbeat. Clark was striding down the ramp, straightening his tie.

"Ah, partner, there you are. Got what we needed from that last source?" She barely suppressed a grin.

He dropped into the chair next to her, leaned forward, and said very softly, "Sorry it took so long; *two* car accidents. ...What have I been up to?"

She barely restrained herself from kissing him. If he insisted on being so close, she couldn't *really* be expected to resist temptation, could she? "Well, let's see... We saw the first accident on LNN -" She tossed a thumb over her shoulder at the row of television monitors across the newsroom. "...So I guess we don't have a story on that one. I can't think of a good way to place you on the scene for a Superman interview or a write-up of the accident itself." She heaved a theatrical sigh that made him smile. "Where was the second one?" she added.

"On Michigan; not too far away from here." Smugly, he added, "I got some exclusive Superman quotes from that one."

"Gee, that was lucky," she said with a straight face. "Too bad you didn't have a camera."

He laughed. "I'll admit that would be a little harder to pull off. But at least we have the story."

"I might have to think about that camera thing..." she mused. "But yes, we do have the story. And in that case, you were meeting our source -- the one whose meeting was delayed because of the fire. On the way back you got the Superman story when you saw him helping at a car accident. And you ought to hurry and write that up, partner." She grinned at him.

"Okay," he said cheerfully. <Thanks.> He rose and moved to his own desk.

<You can pay me later. I'm thinking... chocolate. Or kisses. No, wait -- both.>

Any doubts that he'd received her reply were quelled when she heard his muffled snort of laughter.

<You're on.>

"Time, everyone!" Perry yelled from his office doorway.

Every now and then, someone -- usually Ralph -- would holler back, "Two beers!" or "Another round, bartender!" or something similar in response. It would usually get a few laughs, but most of his coworkers had heard it before. Perry would either ignore it or threaten him with the dregs of story assignments.

Most of the newsroom staff were convinced that Perry held onto such stories precisely because they *were* such duds, and worked so well as deterrents. Lois had been threatened with covering a dog show on a few occasions, although Perry had never followed through with any such assignment. Ralph, on the other hand, was the unofficial record-holder for Perry's leftover stories.

Today, no one said anything. It had been a busy day, news-wise, so most of the staff had their heads down, busily finishing up whatever they were working on prior to submitting it. They had roughly fifteen minutes before Perry cut off any more submissions for the day.

Lois had sent Perry the fire story earlier, and everything else she had was still pending -- needing research or quotes, or something similar. So she just sat and watched Clark as he sped discreetly through writing up the car accident.

She hadn't heard either of those accidents, but he seemed to have a better ear for emergencies.

They'd discussed that a little this morning. He'd shown up at her apartment after his early Superman patrol and since Perry had said they didn't have to come in early, they had had a leisurely breakfast together at a place near her apartment, and had then driven in together.

"I think you hear people in need better than me," she had told him.

"Don't you hear them too?" he'd asked, somewhat surprised.

"Well, yes, sometimes..." She'd thought about it for a moment, then continued slowly, "But... It's usually not real strong; I have to really concentrate. I just... don't hear cries for help like you do." She had hesitated, glancing at him rather anxiously. "It's not that I don't care about people, but..."

Clark had nodded sympathetically. "Well, you never really had a chance to truly live with your abilities, though; you also never had a chance to talk to anyone about them. It was more that you lived your life... *despite* them. Or... *around* them."

"And I think maybe I can... tune it out better than you can," she'd added. "Not intentionally, I mean...."

"No, it's more of an instinctual thing, I think," he had agreed. "Except in rare situations when you're... right on top of a situation, you know? If it's happening in your immediate vicinity, you don't tune it out."

He'd been right. She'd learned very early to suppress that sort of thing, until it was second nature. "Sometimes, I just... I *couldn't* listen -- because I couldn't help. But... you did say that before Superman, there were lots of times when *you* couldn't help, either..."

"But unlike you," he'd replied seriously, "I had my mom and dad to talk it over with. You didn't have anyone, Lois. I think... maybe you couldn't let yourself hear cries for help, or even think about it, or it would have destroyed you."

"I don't really know... *how* to help, anyway, Clark." As she had pulled into the Daily Planet parking garage, she'd added, "Except... you know, by other... non-super ways. I mean, I can, and do, use my powers to help me do my job as a reporter; there've been times when it's been a huge advantage. And as a reporter, I can fight and expose corruption, evil, and exploitation -- and hopefully, I can make things change for the better. That's really the only way I know how to help."

He'd hugged her against his side briefly as they walked toward the elevators. "But that's a perfectly good way to fight those dragons, Lois. And you do seem to have a real knack for it," he'd added, smiling.

They'd had to put the conversation on hold at that point, since there were other Planet employees arriving for work.

She was roused from her musing when Clark stood up, saying cheerfully, "All done, partner. Written, proofread, and submitted. Ready to go?"

"That depends," she said haughtily, but the effect was ruined by the smile she couldn't hide. "Where are we going?"

His grin widened into a full-fledged, brilliant, float-inducing smile. It was a good thing she was still sitting down; she grabbed the edge of her chair's seat just in case her control failed.

"I thought we'd go to my place; I'll cook you a nice meal and we can just... hang out. Watch a movie, or something..." He winked at her.

<Or something?> She rose to her feet as he held the chair for her. "Sounds good to me." Her voice sounded normal, even though her insides felt all tingly.

<Mmm hmmm. Talk, maybe. Fly...> She felt the wave of love and desire roll over her. <...Kiss.> "Let's go, partner." His voice sounded normal, too -- if slightly deeper to her sensitive ears.

She wasn't sure she'd be able to walk; her brain was almost fully occupied with the anticipation of a... delightful evening. < Um. Having a little trouble concentrating, partner.>

With a low chuckle, he offered her his arm. They made it to the elevators arm in arm, with Clark talking idly of the somewhat nebulous story ideas they'd been discussing earlier in the day. And after a minute or two, she was able to hold up her end of the conversation.

They separated, waiting for the elevator, still chatting idly. There were only the two of them; other staff members were still packing away various items preparatory to leaving. When the elevator arrived, Clark gestured her in, then followed and pressed one of the buttons on the control panel.

The doors closed.

Instantly, Clark's arms were holding her securely against him. "I love you," he whispered just before his lips came down on hers. She responded with enthusiasm, and the world around her faded. She felt their feet leave the floor as she was overwhelmed with sensation, and then there was only him.

They were interrupted when the elevator stopped with a small jolt and their heads gently bumped the ceiling. They both returned to the floor as the doors opened onto the basement parking garage. Dazedly, she looked out into the garage, then looked up at Clark. He still held her against him, which was good -- she probably couldn't stand on her own -- and he looked equally dazed. He was leaning back against the elevator wall; apparently, they were holding each other up.

He reached out and pressed the 'door open' button and held it. "Um." He shook his head slightly as if to clear it, and his other arm loosened around her. "Did we mean to come down here? Or was I supposed to push the 'up' button?"

She straightened up. "Wow, flyboy. That was..." She drew a deep breath. He expected her to be able to think after that kiss? "Uh... I think we drove in, didn't we?"

"Yeah. Yeah, we did."

She was still feeling a bit dazed. "You're very good at that, you know?"

He leaned down and kissed her again, gently. "You inspire me." It was a brief kiss, and as if he couldn't help himself, he followed it with a second, more lingering one.

Then he straightened, hugging her against his side briefly, and let her go. Releasing the 'door open' button, he stopped the doors as they began to close and gestured for her to precede him.

As they exited the elevator, he took her hand. She curled her fingers around his, and they walked in comfortable silence to her car. Within a few minutes, they were driving through the city toward his apartment.

***

When Clark had said he would cook her a nice meal, Lois had assumed he meant 'cook' in the sense of throwing a frozen pizza in the oven, or making sandwiches. Instead, she found herself in his kitchen, sitting at his table while he set water to boil for pasta, and began to gather ingredients for the sauce.

She watched as he added canned tomatoes, tomato paste, several different seasonings, and a generous amount of white wine to the bowl of a machine sitting next to his coffee maker, and pressed a button. "This is my mom's recipe," he commented. "White wine marinara -- I think you'll like it." After a few moments, he lifted the bowl off the machine -- a food processor? -- and set the now-blended mixture aside, and began to chop an onion.

"I don't know how to cook anything that doesn't come in its own pan, frozen, with directions on how long to leave it in the oven," she confessed. "Or the microwave. I... never learned how." What if he minded about that? What if it really mattered, and --

"That's all right." He said it over his shoulder, then turned back to his preparations. "I can teach you, if you really want to know how. But it's not necessary, if you'd rather not. Don't feel like you have to learn how to cook for me."

He dumped the onions into a smaller pan, added a small amount of olive oil, then turned on the heat under it and began to gently stir the contents. "Mom has always felt that both girls *and* boys should learn basic housework -- cooking, cleaning, and laundry -- because these days, very few women stay home full time," he continued. He poured the blended mixture from the machine's bowl into the pan and stirred it again. "It's only fair that if a husband and wife both work outside the home, they should share the household tasks. I'm perfectly happy being the cook in this rela-" He stopped abruptly. "That is -- well..." He stopped again.

Lois watched him, unconsciously holding her breath. Did he mean...?

He turned the heat down under the small pan and covered it. Then he turned to face her fully. He looked -- not worried, exactly, but... He must not have meant what it sounded like. And he was trying to find a gentle way to make sure she didn't get the wrong idea...

She exhaled. Time to let him off the hook.

"Clark... it's okay," she began awkwardly. "I didn't think you meant -- you know, anything specific about you and me, or... I mean, I know you didn't mean you wanted to mar-" She stopped, trying to swallow around the lump in her throat. She *wasn't* going to get upset. Doggedly, she plowed on. "Well, you know -- I didn't take it seriously when your mom said --"

She stopped when he squatted down next to her chair, taking her hands in his. "Lois." His eyes level with hers, he gazed at her seriously and said softly, "I *did* mean it. I *do* mean it. I want us to be together like that. I love you. I want..." He took a deep breath. "I want to marry you, Lois. I want us to be husband and wife. It feels like I've wanted that forever. But..." His mouth quirked into the beginning of a smile. "I didn't intend to propose to you in between stirring the pasta sauce. I meant to wait for a nice, romantic moment. So..."

He sobered again. Letting go of her hands long enough to cup her face gently in his larger hands, he leaned forward to kiss her softly, sweetly -- and way too briefly. When he pulled back, she saw everything he felt for her shining from his eyes. Taking her hands again, he continued, "Can you consider this a... pre-proposal statement of intent? And then -" He smiled. "...Could you be surprised, when I ask you for real?"

He stopped rather abruptly again, the smile fading. "That is... If you even want to... Well, I guess I'm just assuming you'd say --"

She felt the joy welling up inside her. Would she float off the chair if he weren't holding her hands? When he looked at her like that... When he was... pre-proposing? She felt lighter than the air around her. So if she wasn't actually floating, she ought to be.

"I will, Clark."

"You'll...?"

"I will. I *will* consider what you just said to be a pre-proposal. I *will* be surprised when you ask me for real. And I think -" She smiled her own smile at him, letting him see everything she felt for him. "...that I *will* say... 'I will,' ...if you're sure --"

His laugh was joyful. "I'm sure, Lois." To her delighted amusement, he floated up off the floor. "I was sure almost from the moment I met you."

She found herself floating, too -- up off the seat of her chair when he didn't let go of her hands. And as he straightened, he shifted his hands to her waist, and lifted her and twirled her around. After a startled moment, she began to laugh, and he laughed with her, joyfully. And then they were both returning to stand on the floor, and she was in his arms. And he was kissing her, and nothing else mattered.

The only thing that saved the pasta sauce was the oven timer, beeping to announce that the preheat cycle had ended.

***

Lois ended up helping to prepare the meal. Clark had provided her with a large bowl, a cutting board, and a knife, and had then set several salad ingredients in front of her. "Can you cut these up and make a salad?" he'd asked.

"I guess so," she'd answered, slightly dubiously. She knew how the various ingredients should look in the final product, anyway. "Do they require any special sort of cutting?"

"No -- just in bite-size pieces," he'd said. "You can cut the lettuce in half, then separate the layers and tear them up into smaller pieces." Indicating the small tomatoes, he'd continued, "These are cherry tomatoes. Some people leave them whole, but if you could cut them into quarters, that'll be fine."

So she'd torn up lettuce, cut tomatoes, and then, at his direction, sliced carrots and cucumbers. She'd also mixed up the dressing, again following his directions.

And so it was with a real sense of accomplishment that she'd joined him when everything was ready, and it seemed like everything tasted better than their equivalent versions in her favorite Italian restaurant. But maybe that was just because she was with Clark. Lots of things in her life seemed better since she'd met him.

"You were right, Clark," she told him as they ate. "I think this is the best tomato sauce I've ever tasted."

He smiled at her. "Mom calls it 'The Best Marinara Sauce Yet.' She won a ribbon with it several years ago at the Corn Festival. I think the wine is what makes the difference. And it's relatively easy -- and quick -- to make."

"Well, it's very good." She hesitated, then asked, "Have you talked to them? You know, since..."

"Since Jor-El spoke to us?" He nodded. "Yes. I called them this morning, before I came by your place." His smile widened. "It's a good thing I have super powers; Mom squealed so loudly when I told her, I'd have gone deaf if I wasn't invulnerable. She shouted for Dad to come to the phone, and then she had me tell them both all over again. They're absolutely thrilled for us, and they want to know when we'll come out there again."

"I'd like to see them again; I liked your parents," she said shyly.

"And you know they like you. Mom suggested this coming weekend; we could go out there Friday night for supper, then come back on Saturday night or Sunday morning. What do you think?"

"I'd like that, except..." She hesitated. There was only one spare bedroom at his parents' house. Where would they each sleep? She and Clark hadn't really discussed intimacy at all; ...things... hadn't progressed beyond holding each other and kissing. Yet. She didn't even know how much experience he had in that area. He was certainly a good kisser... She glanced up at him.

He was waiting patiently while she worked through her thoughts. With a gentle smile, he said encouragingly, "...Except...?"

"Well..." She hesitated again.

This was silly. She was Mad Dog Lane, for heaven's sake! "Um..." She squared her shoulders. "Where would we stay, Clark? Your parents only have one extra bedroom. It's not that I don't want..." She floundered. This was easier to think about than it was to talk about, and that wasn't saying much. "Well, I'm just not sure I'm ready... That *we're* ready..." She glanced rather desperately at the front door. Would it look silly if she made a dive for it?

But her prince was nodding calmly, and reaching out to place his hand over her agitated one. She'd been pushing the last few bites of pasta around on her plate; his touch stilled her fidgety movements. She looked up into his concerned and sympathetic eyes.

"It's all right, Lois." He said it softly. "I understand. And I agree." He rose and came around to her side, squatting down again so that their eyes were nearly level. One side of his mouth quirking into a half grin, he said, still softly, "I seem to be making a habit of kneeling at your feet, my love."

She gave a choked laugh. "Clark --"

He took her hands in his, sobering. "Lois, I love you. That means I want... well, what you want. I want your happiness. And I think you want mine." When she nodded, he continued, "We want what's best for each other -- it's why the idea of being related was so hard. Neither of us wanted the other to be unhappy, but the situation was not under our control. Now that we know the truth -- well, we have all the time in the world. For intimacy. I'm perfectly happy taking it slow."

She released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Oh, Clark." It was nearly a whisper. Unable to resist, she freed her hands from his, slipping them up his chest to rest on his shoulders as she leaned forward and kissed him softly. He returned her kiss sweetly, and it was several moments before she remembered that there was something else she needed to tell him. She pulled back and tipped her forehead against his. This was easier to say if she wasn't looking directly at him. "I'm... Well, I have no experience. At all. In... you know..."

He stroked one hand along her cheek and into her hair before he pulled back slightly and gently tipped her chin up so that he could look into her eyes. "Neither do I," he whispered with a soft smile. "At all. So we'll learn together, okay? But not right now. Later, when we both feel it's the right time. And maybe..." He framed her face with both hands and kissed her as gently as she had kissed him. It felt like a promise. "...Maybe that will be on our wedding night. There's no pressure, Lois. Okay?"

She nodded solemnly.

He kissed her again, just as gently. "And don't worry -- at Mom and Dad's house, you'll get my old room. I'll sleep on the couch. They won't assume anything different, Lois. We won't have to explain anything to them." Taking her hands again, he asked, "Does that help?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Clark." She looked at him for a moment. He was so good-looking, and so self-confident, and he was such a good kisser. How had he managed to not...

"Lois? What is it?" He was still holding her hands; he squeezed them slightly as he added, "There's something else, isn't there?"

She took one hand from his and gently touched his forehead, running her fingers along his hairline to his temple. "How did you...? Well, you're so..." She stopped, but he smiled encouragingly at her. She began again. "I thought all guys... You're so good-looking, Clark. You must have dated, in high school or college. But you've never...?"

"No, I haven't," he replied seriously. "There was just no one I ever felt I could share that with. Yes, I did date. In high school, it was more a group of us that hung around together, although a few of the gang were considered to be couples. But it wasn't anything intense. At least, not for me. And in college, it was still pretty casual. I had a couple of girlfriends, but being that intimate... Well, I never felt I could share something that close without sharing my secret first. And I never felt close enough to anyone to even consider it, until I met you."

He paused, then continued with a slight smile, "That works both ways, anyway, Lois. You're a strikingly beautiful young woman, but you've never been intimate with anyone, either. I know you grew up differently, and held yourself apart from your peers more than I did. But still, we all have a need for closeness with another person. There *must* have been men who showed an interest, but you never reciprocated, no matter how... lonely you might have been."

"You're right," she replied slowly. "There were a few guys that... asked me out, especially in college. But even if I was lonely, it was never worth the risk of getting close to someone. It was easy to say no to them." She smiled at him. "I never even thought about sharing my secret with anyone but you."

She leaned forward and kissed him. "Thanks, Clark."

"You're welcome." He raised her hands and kissed the backs of her fingers, then let them go to cup her face for another kiss. "So... What do you think? Would you like to visit Mom and Dad this weekend?"

"Yes, I would."

"Okay. I'll call them and let them know." He rose to his feet. "Now -- I have a surprise for you," he said with a small grin. "A dessert I picked up earlier."

He had set up the coffee maker earlier in the evening; now he pressed the switch to start the coffee brewing. As the machine began its cycle, he moved to the refrigerator, opened it, and removed a cardboard pastry box.

Intrigued, she focused on it and --

"No peeking," he said sternly.

She harrumphed at him. "Fine." She gave an exaggerated sigh and sat back, arms folded, and gave him an imperial look. "So? Surprise me, already." She lost the fight to suppress her smile when he winked at her and performed an elaborate bow.

"Yes, milady," he intoned seriously, and then they were both laughing.

Returning to the table, he took his seat opposite her again, then opened the box with a flourish to reveal a tiny and elaborate chocolate creation -- a cake? -- just right for two people.

"Oh! What is it?" she asked.

"It's a chocolate hazelnut truffle cake. There's a little place in San Francisco that sells them." He carefully lifted the cake out -- it was presented on a small, pale yellow ceramic plate -- and set it between them, then handed her a fork.

She hesitated. "It's almost too pretty to eat, Clark." Then, as he grinned at her, she smiled back and they said simultaneously, "Nah..."

Laughing, she tried a bite.

"Oh." She closed her eyes and savored the taste. Opening her eyes again, she met his amused look. "Marry me."

He threw his head back and laughed heartily.

They shared the cake between them. Clark got up long enough to pour them each a cup of coffee.

As they were finishing, she remembered the conversation that had been put on hold when they arrived at work.

"This morning, we were talking about your hearing cries for help better than me," she reminded him. "Yesterday, I never heard either of those car accidents."

"Well, I heard the first one just after I landed on the Planet's roof," he said. "It was probably easier for me to hear it, though, because I was up there in the open -- you were inside the building, so sounds would be more muted, you know."

She nodded. "What was Superman needed for just after the fire, by the way? You made it back to the Planet -- as far as the roof, anyway -- only about a half hour after Jimmy and I left the fire."

"An attempted car-jacking. The carjacker must have thought I couldn't chase him down. While the victim stood on the curb -- with a few witnesses -- and called the police from his cell phone, I grabbed the car and returned it to the scene of the crime. I held it up in the air until the police arrived, then brought it down and let them take over." He grinned. "The carjacker seemed a little shaken."

She laughed. "I'll bet. Nice job, flyboy."

"Thanks. I thought it had a certain flair." He winked at her. "Too bad there weren't any reporters around." As she laughed, he continued with a grin, "Anyway, after that, I headed back. Just after I spun out of the suit, I heard the first of the cars hit the next one, and by the time I got there, it was a sort of domino effect. Five cars in all. They hit pretty hard -- there were some fairly serious injuries, and Superman helped free two trapped people. He also took a couple of the less injured victims to the hospital."

"Yeah, LNN showed it. They had a helicopter there -- the cameraman got some nice, clear shots of Superman peeling open that one car to get to the driver. It was pretty impressive."

He smiled at her. "And the pilot had the good sense to stay out of my -- out of Superman's -- way. So Superman could do his job and help the rescue personnel free those people."

"Okay..." She shook her head at him. "It's just weird to talk about you in the third person when we're alone, Clark."

He laughed. "Mom says the same thing. It's just habit. We can save the third person for when we're in public, if you like." He stood up and reached for her empty plate, stacking it with his.

"I do like. I don't think either of us will slip up when we're at the Planet or at some emergency or something, Clark." She got up, too, and began to help him clear the meal. "We've both had to hide our abilities all of our lives, after all. It'd be different, I think, if only one of us -- you, for instance, were..." She frowned. "What do we call it, anyway? Different? A... Kryptonite? Or would that be Kryptonian? A strange visitor from another Planet?" She ignored his snort of laughter. "...Super?"

"Kryptonian, maybe... 'Kryptonite; sounds more like someone who actually lives there. We're just of... Kryptonian descent." He opened one of the cupboard doors and removing several food storage containers. "And 'super' still seems a little... pretentious. Although with the Superman name, 'super' *has* sort of caught on with the media."

She grinned at him. "Hey, I had to come up with some sort of name for you in less than a minute -- and I'll bet that was something you didn't think about at *all*, flyboy -- what to tell people to call you." She gathered the salad plates, stacking them with the larger plates. "The name had to go with that 'S' on your chest. At least I didn't say something like... 'Splendiferous Man' or... 'Supreme Guy...' Or 'Sensational Man,' or... or Sean, or something."

He threw back his head and laughed heartily. "And I want you to know how much I appreciate it that you *didn't* say Splendiferous Man. Or Supreme Guy -- that makes me sound like the pizza delivery boy."

She was laughing, too. "Help, Supreme Guy! I don't know what to cook for dinner!"

That cracked them both up. He had to set down the food containers, and it took several minutes for him to stop laughing enough to speak. "And... *Sean*?"

She had been leaning against the counter, laughing; she straightened, grinning, and waved a hand airily. "All I knew was that it had to be something grand and it had to start with an 'S.' So under that kind of pressure, of *course* all I could think of at first were ordinary male 'S' names. Sam... Steve... Stanley... Stuart... Sean..."

He was still chuckling. "Well, you're right -- I never thought at all about what to call myself. I never even realized I hadn't thought about it until just now, as a matter of fact." He sobered slightly as he looked at her. "Thank you, Lois. I was still in the planning stages, you know. I was at Mom and Dad's; I'd gone out there quick to get the suit -- I don't even know why, but I'm glad I did -- before hustling over to try to stop your little adventure at the launch." He ignored her snort. "Mom and Dad were watching the launch on TV when that alarm went off, and I just reacted. I never thought about the media, or a name, or anything. And then when I got there, and I looked into the shuttle and saw you..." He moved closer.

She smiled up at him. "I was awfully glad -- and awfully startled -- to see you, Clark. And then -- to realize that the man with the same abilities as me, the one saving the shuttle from a bomb, was *you*..." She reached up and gently stroked his cheek and jaw. "I had been fighting my attraction to you so hard. It was such a relief to realize that I could tell you this hidden thing about me, and that you would understand..." Softly, she finished, "That was when I began to think that maybe I *could* have a future with you."

He captured her hand against his cheek, then turned his head and kissed her palm. Looking back at her, he said, "I thought about telling you, you know, but I was afraid...

"That I might see your abilities and not the real you?"

He frowned. "You mean like a... groupie or something? No -- not really. I've never thought you were a shallow person, Lois. And really, the abilities are a part of me --"

"That I might print it, then?"

"No! No, Lois -- never that -- even though it would have been the story of the century. No. I never thought that you'd print it. I already knew you would never do something like that to a friend -- to me."

"Clark, I was so mean to you!" She looked down, biting her lip. She hadn't been very friendly even at the best of times, and especially that awful day when those people had been killed in that tenement fire.

"No you weren't, Lois." He gently touched her jaw, urging her chin up until she looked him in the eye. "You're thinking about that fire, aren't you? I knew you didn't really mean the things you said. It was obvious -- to me, anyway -- that something horrible had happened. And I knew if I gave you a little time, you'd be able to talk about it."

She hugged him fiercely. "Thanks, Clark." Her voice was muffled against his chest, and his arms were tight around her as he hugged her back. "For not giving up on me."

He chuckled, and she felt it rumble through her. Resting his chin lightly on top of her head, he said softly, "You're welcome."

After a few moments, she pulled away slightly. "What were you afraid of, then, Clark?"

He smiled crookedly at her. "I thought you might recognize me and... I don't know... hate me. For having this secret. For not telling you -- not trusting you with it. Or worse, be afraid of me. And I didn't want to lose you -- lose your friendship."

She told him earnestly, "I didn't hate you. I was just so relieved. That it was you, I mean. If there was going to be somebody else like me..." She paused. "I'm saying it awkwardly, but what I mean is, if... Well, there's no one else I'd have wanted it to be. Does that make sense?"

His arms tightened again for a moment before letting her go. "Yes."

"...All I knew was that I had to reassure you that your secret was safe," she continued. "And then -- I had to tell you about me."

"And you did. And after overcoming a few obstacles, here we are." He glanced around, and then gestured at the table. "Cleaning up my kitchen."

She giggled. "I think 'a few obstacles' is rather an understatement, Kent."

He laughed and began putting the leftover food into storage containers.

She gathered the silverware. "So, anyway -- on your way back from that big multi-car accident, there was the other one -- the one on Michigan..."

"Yeah... That one wasn't too bad, although one car was flipped over. But no one was injured seriously -- just bumps and bruises." He was spooning the leftover salad into one of the larger containers.

Lois stacked their plates on the counter. "Leave those -- I'll do them," Clark told her as she began to run water into the sink.

"Tell you what -- you put away the leftover food, and I'll do the dishes," she suggested. She winked at him, turned back to the sink, and tossed over her shoulder, "Race ya!"

"Lois -!" she heard him laughingly exclaim, as she poured on the speed.

Seconds later, finishing, she dried the last plate, hung up the towel, then slowed and turned back to him, laughing. "Ha!"

He was still a blur, but as she turned fully toward him, he slowed, and she saw him shut the refrigerator. He, too, was laughing. Throwing his hands up in defeat, he said, "You win!" He moved toward her, gathering her into a hug. "...You goof," he murmured. As she laughed up at him, snuggling closer, he dropped a quick kiss onto her lips. Then sobering, he slid one hand up to cup the back of her head and kissed her again, more deeply.

It was several minutes before they separated slightly, Lois laying her head against his chest just over his heart. He kissed her hair, then laid his cheek against the top of her head, and they just stood that way for a while, there in his kitchen, enjoying the freedom to hold each other like this.

Finally, he stirred, arms loosening from around her. "Let me make some more coffee and then let's go sit down," he suggested. "We can watch a movie, or just talk." He kissed her lightly. "And I can hold you."

***

They sat together on his comfortable couch, more or less watching the featured movie on one of the cable channels. After a while, though, Lois resumed the conversation they'd started earlier.

Hitching around a bit from where she sat tucked up against him, under his arm, she turned so she could look at him. "I do think you hear cries for help more easily, Clark."

"Well, we talked about that earlier," he said. "Remember, I had the kind of support you never had."

"Yes, and I agree -- I do think I've probably... I guess you could say 'trained' myself not to hear many of them -" She scootched around a bit more, sitting with her legs crossed Indian style so that she could face him.

He straightened up, too, from where he was sprawled down into the corner of the couch. "Unless they're close, or it's something really big," he reminded her. "You hear those. You heard the fire, for instance."

"Yeah... Actually," she mused, "Maybe that's because I've been hanging around with you so much." And as he cocked an eyebrow at her in inquiry, she continued seriously, "Really, Clark. I think I've actually started to hear more of it -- people in need -- since you've been Superman. Maybe I've become more... sort of in tune with your ability, or how you think."

He laughed softly and leaned forward to drop a quick kiss on her mouth. "How I think, huh?"

She frowned at him, an effect that was spoiled when she giggled. "Quit distracting me, Kent."

"But it's so much fun." He smiled at her. "Seriously, I wonder if it's because we've got this sort of ability to... not exactly read each other's minds, since it doesn't happen all the time, but to have a better-than-normal ability to know what the other is thinking."

"Yeah... I don't know what that is, but you're right. But I also think that you hear more of those cries because you're more... altruistic, Clark. More empathetic."

Taking her hands in his, all traces of teasing gone, he said earnestly, "Lois, you have a lot of empathy for others." And as she shook her head, "You do. Or you wouldn't be as good at your job as you are. You can't tell me you don't care, because it's obvious that you do."

"Well, okay... But you're the more... uninhibitedly empathetic." When he laughed, she insisted, "Really. It's part of your natural makeup, Clark. You're always willing to lend a hand."

"Like a boy scout?" He grinned at her. "A big, brightly-colored one? That flies?"

She swatted at him. "Well, if the boots and cape fit, flyboy..." She continued seriously, "I mean it, Clark. You *are* more altruistic --"

"But remember, I grew up that way," he reminded her gently. "Mom and Dad actively encouraged me to help others in need. Of course," he added reflectively, "that was back when we thought it meant carrying someone's groceries, or mowing an elderly neighbor's lawn..."

She smiled, but shook her head. "I think that's why you hear more cries for help, Clark. I'm more... more driven --"

"You do have a sort of bulldog tenacity," he said teasingly.

"Yeah... Mad Dog Lane, that's me," she said ruefully.

He stood up, bringing her with him, and tugged her gently against him. She went willingly into his arms, tipping her face up toward his. "Ah..." he said, barely above a whisper, and kissed her lightly. "But you're *my* Mad Dog Lane -" He kissed her again, a fleeting and gentle brush of his lips. "And you're -" Another feather-light kiss. "...Perfect just the way you are..." Again, he lifted his lips from hers, and this time, his mouth remained poised just a hair's breadth away from hers, waiting...

With a moan, she closed the distance between them, and kissed him, letting everything she felt for him flow into the kiss. He groaned and began kissing her back in earnest.

***

It was quite some time before she became aware of their surroundings again to find that they were floating about six inches above the couch. She dimly remembered sinking back down onto it at some point during that incredible kiss, Clark pulling her down to rest against him. After that, she'd lost all contact with the world around them, and apparently with the bonds of gravity, too. Lifting her head to look down at him, she saw that he looked as dazed as she felt.

She laid her head on his chest, listening to the fast but steady beat of his heart, and felt him bring them both down onto the couch cushions again. He shifted slightly to the side, so that she was lying partly beside him and partly on him, and she felt his arms tighten around her.

"Mmmm..." he murmured, bringing one hand up to cradle the back of her head. It was a sweetly protective gesture, probably unconscious on his part, but it made her feel cherished.

She closed her eyes and let herself get lost in the sound of his heartbeat, until it was all that she heard. She had no desire to move. Vaguely, she wondered what time it was. She should look, or ask Clark. In a minute or two she would...

She woke up some time later when Clark stirred and shifted against her. Reflexively, she looped her arms around his neck as he raised himself on one elbow, shifting further so that he was partially above her. She opened her eyes, gazing up at him sleepily, then closed them again and tipped her head back, raising her mouth to his as he tugged her further under him and kissed her gently.

"Lois," he whispered against her mouth. "Wake up, honey."

"Mmm'awake," she murmured, seeking his lips again.

"Are you?" he asked with a soft laugh. He kissed her again, another soft and gentle brush of his lips, as she shifted her hands into the hair at the nape of his neck and tugged him down to her. He settled more fully against her, still careful to keep most of his weight off her. "You're making it hard for me to concentrate, Lois..."

She succeeded in bringing him into reach, and pressed her lips against his, inviting him to deepen the kiss.

With a groan, he did so, and she moaned softly.

After a few more delicious moments, he raised his head reluctantly. "Lois, sweetheart... C'mon, honey, wake up..." he said softly. "It's getting late..."

"Don' wanna go home yet," she murmured, eyes still closed. "Wanna stay here with you..."

"Lois..." He kissed her closed eyes, her forehead, her jaw, and finally, her mouth again -- sweet, soft caresses. "I don't want you to go, either. But Superman has to do a patrol -- he told Henderson he'd be doing nightly patrols about this time."

She opened her eyes and smiled up at him. "But this is so nice," she murmured. "I like this so much better than my alarm clock, Clark." She reached up and pressed a string of small kisses along his jaw. "...Just a few more minutes...?"

He groaned and kissed her again, as if he couldn't help it, and his kiss, while still gentle, was much less fleeting this time.

Now fully awake, she stretched against him, and felt more than heard him catch his breath. His arms seemed to give out and she felt his full weight pressing against her.

"Stop that," he growled, his voice suddenly lower and rougher. But he was seeking her lips again even as the words left his mouth, and this time his kiss was strong and deep and fiercely passionate, demanding -- and getting -- an equally passionate response from her. Her hands fisted in his hair as his traced down her sides, molding her to him.

By the time he lifted his head again, she was shaking. So was Clark. She felt the tremors all along where his big body was pressed tightly against her smaller one. Panting, she gazed up at him, dazed and wide-eyed.

"Oh, love," he whispered. "Oh, wow." He dropped his forehead against hers for a moment, breathing roughly, then carefully moved his hands back to her waist and lifted his weight from her, rolling onto his side and tucking her against him, her head under his chin and his arms tightly around her. "Here, give me a few moments, okay?" She nodded, resting against him, and listened to his pounding heart and marveling at the power of the kiss as she caught her own breath. 'Oh, wow' was right.

Gradually, his tremors eased and his arms loosened slightly. He still held her close, but the desperate urgency between them was gone. Her own heartbeat was returning to normal, and while she was still trembling, her breathing was returning to normal.

After a few moments, he carefully sat up, bringing her with him, still tucked close. "I didn't intend to let things get out of hand," he said softly. "But you make me lose my head, Lois." He pulled back slightly, looking intently at her. "I didn't frighten you, did I?"

"No," she said, smiling softly at him. "It was... Will it always be like that, Clark?"

"It was...?" he echoed, looking at her searchingly.

"It was exhilarating." She gazed back at him equally seriously. "Will it always be like that?" she repeated.

"I... don't know. But it might." He smiled tenderly. "It's very powerful, isn't it? Will that be all right? I don't want to overwhelm you."

"I trust you, Clark." She reached up and gently touched his mouth. He kissed her fingers as they moved over his lips. "And I love you. I'm not ready yet for... well, for complete intimacy. But I think -- I know -- that I will be, in time. With you." Her mouth quirked into a slight grin. "I already know that I like the practicing very, very much."

He laughed and hugged her against him again, and then rose to his feet, offering her a hand. She took it, and when she was standing, she meshed her fingers with his.

He raised their joined hands and kissed her fingers. "Ready for some more coffee? Or maybe some hot chocolate?"

"Hot chocolate would be nice... but what about Superman's patrol?" she asked curiously.

He grinned at her. "I've decided he's quite flexible. He's going to postpone the patrol for half an hour or so, so he can spend some more time with you before he has to go." His grin widened when she chuckled. Squeezing her hand before letting go, he continued, "C'mon. I'll show you how Mom makes hot chocolate."

She followed him into the kitchen area and watched as he began to assemble ingredients. He set a jug of milk on the counter, then opened a cupboard and set out a small bottle of ground cinnamon, a bottle of vanilla extract, a jar of what looked like twigs, and a chocolate bar. She moved closer, curious. She'd heard of 'cooking chocolate'; did it look just like a candy bar, then?

"Mom likes to use real chocolate instead of cooking chocolate," Clark told her. "It's already sweetened. I bring her gourmet bars from a small place in Switzerland, and I usually keep one or two on hand here, too."

She nodded. "I wondered. I'm used to the packets of powder you dump in hot water or milk."

He kissed her quickly. "This is much better. You'll see."

She watched as he opened one of the lower cabinets, took out a small pan, and set it on the stove. He set two mugs on the counter, then opened one of the drawers and got out the small grater he'd used to grate Parmesan cheese for their meal earlier in the evening.

"It has cheese in it?" she asked in surprise, as he began unwrapping the chocolate bar.

He laughed. "No, honey. I'm going to grate the chocolate with it."

"Oh." Embarrassed, she opened her mouth to apologize, but before she could say anything, he popped a small piece of the chocolate into her mouth, following it with another quick kiss.

"I love you, Lois," he whispered. "Exactly as you are."

It was the best chocolate she'd ever tasted. "Oh, wow."

He laughed softly. "The chocolate, or the kiss?" he teased, beginning to grate the rest of the chocolate bar into the pan.

"Both," she said with a laugh.

He laughed again. "Flatterer." Finishing with the chocolate, he offered her the small piece still remaining. "Here, honey. And can you get me the whisk, please? It's in the second drawer down, below the silverware."

"Sure." She put the chocolate into her mouth and pulled the drawer open. "Um... what's a whisk, Clark?"

"The metal thing with the loops of wire on one end," he said. "You use it to mix up ingredients when you want to add air to the mix -- like with eggs, or hot chocolate. It'll make the milk foamy."

"Okay." She found the item and handed it over, and then watched as he poured a small amount of milk into the pan, added a couple of drops of vanilla, shook some cinnamon over the mixture, and turned on the heat under the pan.

He glanced at her with a small smile.

"You know, we haven't really talked about it, but I've been wondering... do you want to be a superhero, too?" He was pouring the rest of the milk slowly into the pan, stirring it with the whisk at the same time.

"I don't know," she said slowly. She'd never really thought about it, actually.

He lifted the pan from the heat and poured the mixture into the two mugs. It certainly smelled good.

"I've done all my dragon fighting this way -- as a reporter -- for so long... I don't know if I want to -- or... *could*..." She frowned. Despite the existence of Superman, she hadn't actually thought about becoming a superhero herself.

"Well, I don't see why you *couldn't*. We could talk to Mom about it." He opened the jar of twigs and took out two of them. "Cinnamon -- the way it looks before it's ground up," he explained, seeing her look of inquiry. "You stir the chocolate with it; it adds a... subtle something extra to the taste."

He put one stick into each mug, then brought both of them over to where she leaned against the counter and handed her one.

She took it from him. "Get her advice, you mean?" She took a long, appreciative sniff, and then sipped at it slowly, savoring it. "Mmmmm... That's so good!" she exclaimed.

He laughed. "Yeah, it is, isn't it? It's Mom's -- she adapted an old recipe of her aunt's. It was already good, but when she switched to the gourmet chocolate..." He grinned. "And yes, we could ask her what she thinks -- her and Dad -- but what I meant was get some ideas for a costume." He gestured toward the living room.

"Oh." As she moved toward the couch, she thought about that for a few moments. "The only problem I can see," she said slowly, stopping and turning toward him, "is that we're together on the job -- partners at the Daily Planet..." She glanced rather shyly at him. "And... from what you said, together as..." She hesitated.

He took her mug and set it with his on the coffee table, then straightened. Taking hold of her shoulders, he turned her to face him, moving both hands out to gently cup her outer arms, before sliding them down to take her hands in his. "...As a couple. Yes." He kissed her softly. "Never doubt I want that." He squeezed her hands gently, then let them go and picked up the two mugs.

She accepted hers from him and sipped again. The liquid was still very hot. The temperature of the treat wasn't an issue to either of them, of course, but hot chocolate deserved to be savored in slow sips, not guzzled down in gulps.

"So you're saying that might be too much togetherness?" he asked.

She shook her head. "No. That is, not from my point of view. I'm perfectly happy being with you at both work and home, Clark." She continued slowly, "What I meant was... if there are two reporters, and also two superheroes, well, what if someone makes the connection between..." She gestured between the two of them with her free hand.

"Ah." He nodded. "I'm not sure having two superheroes and two reporters would make people more likely to connect the two, though."

She shrugged. "Maybe not. But here's something else -- what would my name be? And how would we explain me? Would I be some sort of... associate of Superman? A sidekick?" She smirked at him. "A rival?" As he laughed, she continued, "It'd be a pretty huge coincidence if I just sort of showed up, you know? Out of the blue? People would be very likely to associate me with Superman."

"I guess we couldn't say something like... Oh, I don't know..." He grinned. "We couldn't call you 'Superman's wife,' huh?"

She laughed. "Well, wouldn't people be more likely to start wondering about Superman's personal life if he suddenly had a family?"

"Good point. I never thought about any of that." He paused thoughtfully. "Of course, once she appears on the scene, Superman could meet her -- this new superhero -- just like any guy meets any girl, you know, and date, and THEN get married..."

She laughed again. "Leaving yourself a future option, there, flyboy?" she teased.

He moved to sit down on the couch, grinning at her. "Of course I am." It was a pleased sort of grin, probably the same kind of grin he'd have given Martha as a child, after successfully conning her out of a cookie before supper. He patted the spot beside him invitingly.

"Goof," she said affectionately. She sat down next to him and drank some more of her hot chocolate, savoring each mouthful for a few moments, before continuing. "And another thing, by the way... We can't -- we shouldn't -- appear to be too closely associated with Superman. We, the reporters."

"Because if we appear to be Superman's friends, we might be targeted by criminals looking for leverage or revenge?"

"Well, yes, but also... Because it could be another clue. To Superman's identity." She rolled her eyes. "I can't believe that I, Lois Lane, reporter, am saying this, but I think... the less we're associated with Superman, the better." She sighed. "That means... if at all possible, other reporters need to get stories about Superman. Preferably, the *Planet's* other reporters, of course," she added as Clark laughed.

"We *are* investigative reporters, Lois," he reminded her. "So we could keep the stories involving criminal situations, I think. I -- we -- can try to steer our City Desk guys toward accidents. But there's nothing wrong in Lane and Kent looking into a bank robbery, or a suspicious fire, or the apprehension of some criminal."

She smiled at him over the rim of the mug. "Now that's much more appealing than giving up all of our Superman stories." She leaned forward slightly and whispered playfully, "The reporter part of me likes your compromise very much."

He moved nearer. "And all of us -- the reporter part of me, the ordinary-guy-who's-in-love-with-you part of me, and the Superman part of me -- are very happy that you're happy," he teased her, and stole a quick kiss over the mug of hot chocolate. "Mmmmm. You taste happy, too," he added.

She laughed.

"You do raise some good points, Lois. But if you really want to be a superhero, I think we could find a way to work around it."

"I don't think I *do*, though, Clark. I want to help, of course, but... I really am happy providing behind-the-scenes support."

"But..."

"No, really, Clark," she insisted. "Besides, I still think you're better at this whole hero thing. You hear people more often, and farther away, and I think you can determine more easily than I can what needs to be done."

"How do you figure?" he asked curiously.

"Well, the bomb in the shuttle, for instance." She waved her hand in emphasis, forgetting she still held the partially full mug, and almost spilled it. Clark made a grab for it as she righted it just in time. "Oops! I don't want to waste a single drop of this!"

He laughed.

"The bomb in the shuttle," she repeated. "I had no experience with that; I had no idea what to do. It's very possible -- extremely likely, in fact -- that that sort of thing would happen often. You, at least, have experience dealing with... you know, walking into fires or getting rid of bombs. Or even just foiling bank robbers." She grinned at him. "I bet you just gather them up and secure them with whatever you find that'll work as a rope, to whatever is available -- like a lamp pole. Me? I'd be *so* tempted to kick some serious butt, first."

He threw his head back and laughed heartily. When he'd finally caught his breath, he said, grinning, "Don't think I haven't been tempted, honey." He sobered. "But Lois, back to whether you could do this or not -- your instincts are good. I think you'd adapt easily. You're right that I have more experience at it right now, but I think you could do it." He smiled sweetly at her. "It needs to be your choice, though. If you'd rather not, that's okay."

"It's not that I don't want to help," she reminded him anxiously.

"Lois," he said gently, "I know that. You help all the time. Sometimes covertly, using your powers -- but more often overtly, using your skill as an investigative reporter. And I'll say it again: you have a real knack for finding and exposing corruption, and greed, and evil..."

"And *you're* better at the... helping-old-ladies-across-the-street stuff." She gasped, clapping a hand over her mouth. "Oh! I mean, you're a good reporter -- an excellent reporter," she said quickly. "I didn't mean that you weren't --"

Clark laughed softly. "I knew what you meant, Lois."

"I didn't mean that like it sounded, Clark," she said worriedly, patting his chest anxiously with her free hand.

He rescued the tipping mug again, then kissed her gently. "I know," he whispered against her lips. He pulled back again, and continued thoughtfully, "I think you're the... Oh, for lack of a better word, the 'sniffer' in this partnership."

The sip of hot chocolate she'd just taken went down the wrong way. "The *sniffer*?" she wheezed, coughing. "I'm not sure if I'm being insulted, Kent!"

"I'm sorry, Lois!" He steadied her cup again, then thumped her gently on the back, looking worried. "Are you okay?" She waved her free hand vaguely, half coughing and half laughing, and nodded.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, his hand lingering on her cheek. "I didn't mean to make you choke."

"I'm okay, Clark," she reassured him. "You just caught me off guard." She laughed again. "Sniffer?"

Now it was his turn to hurriedly reassure her. "That wasn't a real good choice of words, I guess." His thumb caressed the corner of her mouth briefly before he removed his hand. "I was thinking along the lines of that bulldog tenacity of yours -- I meant that you can sense... *feel*... when a situation smells. I'm not talking about... ESP or anything. But I do think you're just... finely attuned to falseness -- malevolent falseness, or evil -- in others."

"Maybe it's a gender-specific thing among Kryptonians."

"It could be, I guess. The fact is, you do seem to find it where no one else spots it. Including me."

She sipped some more hot chocolate as he finished his and leaned forward to set the empty mug on the coffee table. "And maybe you really are just better at hearing people in need." She grinned impishly at him. "Maybe it really *is* nature, not nurture."

He laughed. "Or maybe it's both," he rejoined playfully.

She finished the last of her hot chocolate and set the mug on the coffee table, next to his. "So we're agreed? You wear the suit, Flyboy, and I'll stay here behind the scenes."

He chuckled. "Lois, you could never stay behind the scenes."

She laughed. "You know what I mean. You do the fancy, flashy, red-cape-and-blue-suit stuff, and I'll help provide the excuses. And I'll keep *sniffing* out the stories. After all, I'm good at that, you know," she added smugly.

Clark kissed the tip of her nose. "Yes, you are."

"At least you don't have to worry about me; I can protect myself," she added.

He sobered. "Lois, you may be super-powered, but you can't exactly let people know that..."

She stood up, glancing back saucily at him as she moved toward the open space near the kitchen. "You're forgetting the TKD."

"The what?" He looked adorably confused.

She smiled at him. "Come here, Clark," she said sweetly.

Automatically, he moved toward her. "Lois, what --"

Before he could finish the question, she'd flipped him over her shoulder in as smooth a Tae Kwon Do move as her instructor could ever hope for. Only Clark's quick reflexes saved him from hitting the floor. With a growl, he rose into the air.

With a shriek of laughter, she darted upward and away from him. He caught her in midair and dove for the couch, where he proceeded to kiss her until they were both short of breath.

When he finally let her up for air, she managed to say teasingly, "Just remember, I *let* you catch me, Flyboy."

He laughed, gave her one more kiss, and then stood up, pulling her to her feet at the same time. Spinning quickly into the suit, he crossed his arms across his chest in Superman's usual stance and said mock sternly, "Now that you've been dealt with, I'll begin my nightly patrol." Then he ruined the effect by cupping her face in his hands and kissing her again.

"Want to come with me?" he whispered. "I don't want to say goodnight to you yet. It's dark... no one will see you if we stay up high. And we could stop at your place for your 'flying clothes' if you want..."

Tempted, she thought about it for a minute or two. She wasn't really ready to say goodnight to him, yet, either. Smiling at him, she nodded. "Yes."

His smile widened and he extended his hand to her. When she took it, he walked with her into the bedroom. Stepping out onto the balcony with her at his side, he smiled down at her and said softly, "Fly with me?"

With an answering smile, she tightened her hand in his and stepped into the air with him.

***

Clark wasn't in the newsroom when she arrived the next morning. She extended her thoughts toward him experimentally, but didn't pick up anything. She hadn't really expected it would work; so far, they'd only managed to communicate like that when they were happy and laughing.

The city -- or at least, the criminal element -- had been quiet last night when they'd done Superman's rounds. She'd enjoyed flying patrol with Clark more than she'd expected she would. Maybe she would have to consider some kind of disguise after all, just to be safe; then she could go with him again.

She looked up as Jimmy dropped a copy of the Planet on the corner of her desk. "Hey, Lois! Where's CK?" he asked, tossing Clark's copy of the morning edition lightly into the center of her partner's desk.

"I don't know, Jimmy," she answered truthfully.

It was true; she didn't know where he was at the moment. It was just the rest of what she was about to say that was completely fabricated.

"He's either checking on some information one of our sources gave us, or meeting with the actual source. It was sort of up in the air last night..."

Had she really said that? Laughter bubbled up but she stifled it in a cough. If Clark were sitting across from her right now, he'd be choking back suppressed laughter, too. Of course, if he were sitting across from her right now, she wouldn't have to be making all this up. "But he was going to meet me here later," she finished. Hopefully, Jimmy would interpret her grin as anticipation at seeing Clark.

"Oh. Okay." Shifting the stack of newspapers under his arm, Jimmy dug into his pocket and pulled out a ten-dollar bill. "Will you give him this when you see him? I borrowed ten bucks from him last week."

"Sure, Jimmy." She tucked the folded bill under her coffee cup; at some point in the day, Clark would more likely than not bring her coffee. She'd give him the money then.

As Jimmy wandered off to deliver the rest of his stack of newspapers, she marveled briefly at how easily the lies about Clark's whereabouts rolled off her tongue.

Lies of necessity. Neither of them had a choice if they wanted to protect their secrets.

At least she already had some experience in finding believable explanations for those times when she'd had to quickly cover for herself. It wasn't really any harder to think up excuses for Clark.

Although it was easier to think of them as excuses, rather than lies.

She sighed. It *was* necessary to lie to protect their secrets. Just another part of the super experience. Super strength, invulnerability, flight, enhanced smell, fire -- no, Clark called it heat -- vision, freezing breath, super hearing, and excuses.

"Hey look! It's Superman!" She turned to see one of the staff writers pointing at the TV monitors.

As people gathered to watch, LNN showed a helicopter view of police surrounding the front entrance of a building. Behind them, a crowd of onlookers milled. The camera panned on Superman as he flew up along the side of the building, then moved around out of sight toward the far side.

"Isn't that the Morrissey Building?" someone asked.

"Yeah. Wonder what -" someone else began.

"Shhhhh!" several voices said.

The scene shifted as the helicopter maneuvered, following Superman as he made his way slowly around the building, apparently looking it over carefully. The view stabilized a few moments later as Superman landed and approached the group of policemen. There were a few people in civilian clothing as well.

"Turn it up!" somebody said.

They heard the tail end of a question from a male voice, probably the news anchor, apparently talking to the reporter at the scene. "... a bomb situation, Julie?"

A female voice responded, "Yes, Phil. Apparently, a bomb threat was called in early this morning to the management of the Morrissey Building here in downtown Metropolis."

"Has anyone claimed credit for the threat?" Phil asked.

"No, Phil." The view changed to show a blond woman, hair blowing in the brisk morning breeze, holding a microphone. Behind her, another police car drew up. Someone off-camera spoke, and she gave a short nod. The camera view shifted slightly, the woman turning with it to stay facing the camera, until the group of officials and Superman could be seen behind her.

"Police responded immediately, as did Superman," she continued. "It appears to be a false alarm." She gestured to the group behind her, who appeared to be discussing the situation calmly. "I was just speaking to the chief of police; he said they've found no bomb whatsoever. Superman has canvassed the entire building and has just finished one more courtesy look-over at the request of the building's owner."

As she spoke, the camera view changed back to the overhead shot. The scene was the same as before -- Superman and a group of mostly policemen standing together near the front entrance of the old building.

"Thank you, Julie." The scene changed to Phil, sitting behind the news desk at LNN. "That was Julie Green, live from the Morrissey Building. Stay tuned to LNN for further updates. I'm Philip Mann. You're watching LNN, your twenty-four hour news channel."

The anchor was replaced by a commercial.

Lois stopped listening. She knew where Clark was now; he'd likely be back fairly shortly. And if possible -- if they could find a way to explain his presence at the scene -- he'd have a story about the bomb threat. As long as one of the Planet's City Desk reporters hadn't already been there. She hoped he'd remember to check before he left. Until he showed up, however, she had some work to do for Perry, who had asked her for a follow-up on one of her more recent stories.

***

She had been sorting through the information, working on a story outline, for about half an hour or so when she heard Clark's heartbeat. She looked up, smiling, as he came through the stairway door and headed down the ramp. He was holding two Metropolis Coffee Company cups. Her smile widened.

"Hi, partner," she said cheerfully when he reached her desk. "Welcome back. Anything interesting happen while you were out?" Dropping her voice to a near-whisper, she added, "We saw the news report on LNN."

"Hi, Lois. Here's your usual." He hooked a foot around one of the legs of her guest chair and dragged it closer, then sat down and handed her one of the cups. "Yeah," he said equally softly. "A false alarm. The police are looking into it; probably a disgruntled employee." In a normal speaking voice, he continued, "Sorry I'm late; that little errand took me longer than I thought it would."

"Well, that's how it goes with sources." She knew he'd understand that if anyone asked, he had been meeting a source.

"Didn't pan out, though," he said with a grin.

She laughed softly. <You're having entirely too much fun with this, Kent.> She sipped her coffee appreciatively. "Mmmm. They certainly know their Mocha, don't they? <So we don't have a story about it?>

She felt as well as heard his laughter. <Yes, I am. I haven't had this much fun for a long time.> "Yes, they do, although I'm partial to the caramel. What are we working on?" <And no, we don't have a story. Jenner was there with a photographer.>

<Oh. Rats.> "Well, Perry wants a follow-up on the Ameri-T Development story. <Not even a teeny little hey-I-happened-to-be-in-the-area-and-met-Superman-and-he-gave-me-a-quick-interview story?>

He smothered a laugh in a fit of coughing.

She thumped his back helpfully. "First you swallow, then you breathe, Kent," she teased him. <Oops, I'm sorry. Careful, there. Don't want to make anyone suspicious.>

"Got it. Swallow, then breathe." <It's okay. I don't think anyone's paying any attention to us, anyway.> He grinned and winked at her. <Weren't you just telling me last night that we didn't want to have too many Superman interviews, just to be safe?> "So... has Perry got something else for me, then, or are we working together on this? The Ameri-T Development scam was originally your story."

She waved a hand in dismissal. "That doesn't matter, Clark. We're working together on it now, okay? I want your input." < Yeah, I guess I was. Darn it.>

He smiled. "Okay --"

"Kent! Good of you to drop in today!" Perry's voice cut into Clark's reply, and they looked up to see the editor approaching, a deceptively mild look of inquiry on his face. "I was about to put out a missing person bulletin."

"I'm sorry, Chief, I -" Clark began, as Lois rushed in to defend him.

"He was meeting a source, Perry," she said briskly. "We've got some feelers out on a couple of things."

"Well, now that he's here, I've got a story assignment for him," Perry said, thrusting his hands casually into his pockets. He continued blandly, "There's a guy who says he can --"

"Can't do it, Chief," she cut in. "We've got a lot to do, here." She waved an arm toward the back of the newsroom. "Give it to Ralph. He's not doing anything."

"Who is the editor, here, Lois?" Perry demanded in a pronounced drawl, even for him.

She grinned at him, unrepentant. "You are, Chief. But Clark's mine." She flashed a grin at her partner, who was watching the exchange with a bemused smile. "He's far too good to be wasted on some dog show, or one of those touchy-feely things."

Perry crossed his arms and regarded her skeptically. "If you weren't my star reporter, Lois..."

She laughed. "Oh, go on, Perry. Go torture Ralph. You know Clark and I will deliver."

"The Colonel didn't have this much trouble with Elvis," Perry muttered, shaking his head, but he was grinning as he turned and bellowed, "Ralph!" He moved away from Lois's desk.

"How do you know it wasn't a story we'd be interested in?" Clark asked curiously.

She waved a dismissive arm again, her attention already refocused on her partial outline. "Oh, Clark, Perry was just messing with you. He didn't have a story for you. He just likes to remind people that he's the editor. There've been some people who have taken advantage of the fact that Perry doesn't hover, and doesn't require us to log in and out..."

Clark frowned. "I guess there are a lot of things I didn't really think through before I..." He lowered his voice. "Before I created... you-know-who."

Lois stopped what she was doing and looked directly at him. "Clark, this is different." She spoke softly, mindful of where they were, but it was important to stop him worrying. "You're not taking advantage of the situation. You work hard; you deliver good work." She leaned forward slightly, speaking even more softly. "And in addition to your regular life, you do something many people wouldn't even consider doing for pay, much less for free."

"But..."

"Clark, Perry was not serious." She almost leaned forward and kissed him, before she remembered, just in time, that they were in the newsroom. She didn't know how Clark felt about public displays of affection, or whether he cared if anyone knew their relationship had changed. "If Perry were serious," she continued, "he'd have called you into his office. Trust me on this one, okay?"

He smiled. "Okay."

She'd been prepared to argue the point some more. "Okay, then..." She popped the top off of the Metropolis Coffee cup and glanced inside it, reheating the contents. "Well, then... shall we get started on that story?" She recapped the cup and took a healthy swig.

He nodded, but then said, "Uh... One more thing, Lois. How do you know for sure that Ralph isn't doing anything?"

She laughed, and inhaled coffee. As she choked and wheezed, still laughing, and clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from spraying coffee all over her papers, he thumped her on the back.

"Are you okay, Lois?" he asked in concern. Super powered or not, both of them only breathed air, not liquid -- coffee or otherwise.

She waved an "I'm okay" sort of gesture at him. After a moment, she regained enough control to sort of gasp, "How do I know he's not busy? Clark! This is Ralph we're talking about. He's only barely more active than a pet rock."

"Lois!" he admonished, but he was laughing. Her description wasn't particularly kind, but unfortunately, it was pretty accurate.

She set the cup on her desk. Better hold off taking another mouthful until she knew for sure he wasn't going to say anything else funny.

"C'mon, partner. Let's get to work," she commanded cheerfully. "Here, see if you can wrestle these two paragraphs into a better flow, would you?" She shifted the story outline over where he could read it, and keyed her password into the computer, bringing up the partially written story.

"Let's see... What've you got so far?"

As he leaned in to read, she picked up her Metropolis Coffee again, setting the tall, disposable cup into her empty Daily Planet mug so that it wouldn't tip over.

"Oh -- I almost forgot..." She pulled Jimmy's ten-dollar bill out from under the coffee mug. "Here's your ten, from Jimmy."

He took it absently. "Oh, thanks. I'll have to remember to thank him." He paused, then waved it at her with a fake leer. "Can I buy you lunch, Ms. Lane? I'm flush."

She laughed. "Sure, partner. After you help me with this, okay?" She frowned, once more focused on the story. "I'm not entirely happy with the way this reads..."

"Okay, right. Work first, then play." He hitched his chair closer. "Let's see... What if you moved this sentence up, and rephrased this..."

They worked steadily until almost lunchtime, sorting through information and deciding what to present, arguing good-naturedly about grammar. Finally, Lois typed the first full draft of the story, bantering lightly with Clark, who was reading over her shoulder and making suggestions from time to time.

***

Shortly before noon, Clark broke off a comment abruptly. Glancing over her shoulder at him, Lois saw his head come up; he appeared to be focusing on the far wall of the newsroom, and she knew he was hearing something. She extended her own hearing, but heard nothing except the city around them.

She turned to face him and waited until he refocused on her. "What is it?" she asked softly.

"Airplane... Lois..." He was already standing up, his eyes darting toward the stairs. "It's urgent! I have to --"

She stood immediately. Her computer would go to station-lock when the screen saver started up in a few minutes, requiring her password to continue working, so she didn't need to waste any time there.

So -- it was show time.

"Aaaah! Clark! Look at the time!" Grabbing his arm, she turned toward the stairs, already moving as she barked, "C'mon, Kent, let's go!" She glanced quickly over her shoulder at him; he was already beginning to tug on his tie.

She charged up the ramp at Mad Dog Lane speed, which was just short of a jog. Clark, of necessity, was right on her heels, since she hadn't let go of his arm. Putting on her best Mad Dog, waving her free arm for effect, she commanded, "We need to hustle, partner!"

Her coworkers would be familiar with Mad Dog Lane, of course, and would most likely ignore her -- them. Just in case, though, she should provide a reason for their abrupt departure. "Let's go! We have that meeting with Bobby! And you know he won't wait around!" Reaching the top of the ramp, she turned toward the elevators, stopped abruptly, and then moved toward the door to the stairs as if she'd just made the decision. "C'mon, let's take the stairs; it's faster!"

She ducked through the stairwell door with Clark at her heels. The moment they were through the door, she let go of his arm, and simultaneously, both of them headed for the roof, fast. They were through the door at the top of the stairs in seconds. Clark immediately spun into the suit, and as he came out of it he said urgently, "It's a small plane -- in trouble and just about to land..."

"Go now, Clark!" He was gone in an instant.

She might have to rethink this behind-the-scenes stuff. It was harder than she'd expected to ignore a potential story. It would be difficult to come up with a believable explanation for her presence at the airport, but she didn't want to miss this.

Of course, she didn't necessarily *have* to explain how she got her stories... In fact, it wasn't something she had *ever* explained. And she had had years of perfecting the Mad Dog glare -- she could simply turn it on anyone who even asked how she'd managed it.

If only it wasn't broad daylight, though. She'd have to go by cab...

She hesitated at the door to the stairs, looking back at the bright sky and the billowy clouds. Clark had said that he traveled in the daytime all the time. He'd said he just moved fast, going high enough so he wouldn't be seen.

Could she...

Should she take the chance?

She looked around again, then one more time, thoroughly, using her special vision. She was absolutely alone. The Daily Planet building was the highest one in this part of the city.

She was wasting valuable time. She took a deep breath and shot into the air at top speed. She went high, above the clouds, scanning in all directions. There were no airplanes, no helicopters -- no one to see her.

It was so strange to be up here, flying, during the day. She would have to use the layout of the city below for guidance. She'd always navigated by the stars, but of course, she couldn't do that right now. She turned slowly in the direction of the airport. It was strange, but exhilarating -- there was a sort of freedom to flying in daylight that was wholly different to even the most unrestricted flight undercover of night.

Clark took this for granted, but it would be a while before she got used to it.

***

She made it to the airport in time to see Clark -- Superman -- gently setting a medium-sized commuter plane down on one of the runways. There were emergency vehicles and fire trucks parked haphazardly along the edges of the runway, and men with hoses poised, ready to extinguish the flaming wreckage that wasn't going to happen. She only had time for one quick look before she realized, suddenly, that this close to an airport, she very possibly *might* be seen -- not just on radar, which was a certainty, but by real people -- pilots or passengers in the planes that were circling in holding patterns or coming in for landings.

She needed a hiding place. Where she could observe, but not be observed.

The terminal? Or one of the outbuildings -- anonymous-looking, they might be offices or commuter terminals, or maybe the headquarters of some small regional carrier.

Or maybe one of the hangars?

She scanned hurriedly over the various airport structures. The terminal roof was a tent-like structure -- a wide expanse of white fabric stretched tightly over a supporting frame in a series of arched ribs and valleys. The Planet's Weekend Magazine had had a feature article on it shortly after its completion several years ago. Denver's Jeppesen Terminal was of a similar design, although its roof was more sharply peaked, mimicking the Rockies.

At any rate, this terminal roof afforded no hiding places. And the office buildings, or whatever they were, were too low. Someone in the tower, or maybe even in parts of the terminal, might be able to see her.

Most of the hangars were big and sleek and utilitarian-looking, with smooth, slightly arched roofs. But there was one big old brick building -- probably one of the original airport structures -with tall, arched windows above the huge doors at each end and conveniently-placed ventilation shafts, short and boxlike but offering excellent cover, on its roof.

She dove for one of these as fast she could, knowing she was moving too fast to be seen but also hoping that she wouldn't register on the tower's radar. Or rather, that she wouldn't register as anything alarming, like a bomb or something.

This was nerve-wracking. How did Clark do it?

Well, of course, *now* he did it in disguise. But before -- how had he done it before, and kept his sanity? Honestly, it was beginning to look like the greatest super power of all might be a superior ability to multi-task. There were so many things to keep track of!

Maybe a disguise wasn't such a bad idea, after all.

She focused on the activity around the grounded plane. The emergency slide had been activated or deployed, or whatever, and the passengers were exiting the plane from the rear door, jumping somewhat awkwardly to slide down, legs splayed out in front of them like preschoolers testing out the big kids' slide.

And here -- there was a pause while Superman moved in, reaching into the doorway where flight personnel were apparently waiting to hand him someone... She focused her enhanced vision and saw that Superman's passenger was a small, elderly gentleman, who gripped a cane and a small carry-on bag in his arms. Superman delivered him to the waiting paramedics, setting him down gently on a gurney, then gravely shook the man's hand before returning to the plane to hover over it, waiting to see if his assistance was further required.

She watched as the rest of the passengers left the plane, followed lastly by the flight attendants. She listened in as Superman landed and conferred with the emergency personnel. No one had been seriously injured, just shaken up somewhat when the plane had abruptly tipped nose-down in a steep dive just before Superman had arrived and caught it.

And she listened as the pilot, whose heartbeat still sounded awfully fast, insisted that there'd been a sudden and complete systems failure -- including all back-up systems -- when he'd disengaged the autopilot preparatory to beginning his landing approach. And that no, he was sure that there'd been no external forces, no wind shear or turbulence, which had caused the problem.

As the last of the ambulances and shuttle buses pulled away, she watched and listened as Superman spoke with several flight mechanics who'd arrived during the dramatic assisted landing. All three of the mechanics seemed to be taking the pilot's concerns quite seriously. They began to discuss several possible causes of the sort of total systems failure that the still-shaken man was describing, and they assured both Superman and the rescue personnel that the plane would be checked over thoroughly.

She didn't need to listen in to every word Superman exchanged with the emergency personnel, the flight crew, and the mechanics. Clark was an excellent reporter, and as Superman, he had a great opportunity to ask all kinds of questions. She had no doubt he was getting lots of good information.

So she could turn her attention to other areas. See what she could see, and hear what she could hear. Maybe she'd see or hear something interesting.

Like those two guys over there -- standing in the open door of the hangar across the... what? Runway? Parking lot? If that was what you called the place where they parked airplanes. Anyway, were the two men in question simply taking a break? Looks could be deceiving. She tuned in.

"...But they acted all weird when I ordered a cheeseburger and asked 'em to hold the cheese."

"Isn't that just a hamburger?"

"No! They're different."

Okay... Nothing there.

She looked back at the rescued plane. Superman was still talking with the maintenance guys.

She scanned the nearest buildings. There -- the tower. Probably routine stuff there, but you never knew. She listened in.

<<...Metropolis approach, American three-five-six.>>

That sounded like a radio transmission. The voice was tinny and she could hear a faint feedback echo.

"American three-five-six, turn twenty degrees right, maintain altitude."

That must be the guy in the tower. She scanned through the tower's walls. One of the two guys in the tower, then. They each sat at a... not a desk, more like a... command center. Yes, that was it. With headphones on, and lots of computer screens and stuff to keep track of.

<<Twenty degrees right, maintain altitude, American three-five-six.>>

So the radio voice was probably the pilot or copilot of a plane.

"Delta two-seven-seven-three, cleared for takeoff. Contact Departure on frequency..."

That was the other guy, sitting at his own command center thingy.

Well, it all *sounded* routine. It probably was.

She looked over the terminal itself. There were massive numbers of people standing and sitting and walking -- and running -- around, and shops and restaurants that looked as busy as those at a shopping mall. There was no way, even with her exceptional hearing and almost equally excellent multi-tasking abilities -- really, it must be another super power -- that she could hope to follow all the conversations. And there wasn't anyone overtly suspicious-looking -- or acting -- that would allow her to single out a particular conversation to listen to.

Come to think of it, it sure would make their lives -- hers and Clark's -- easier if all the criminals looked -- and dressed -- like the bad guys on Saturday morning cartoons...

The gates were smaller versions of the main terminal areas -- people standing and talking, walking around, or sitting in the rows of chairs in the waiting areas. There were a few people sitting cross-legged on the floor in several of the waiting areas, open laptops in their laps, power cables snaking to a central access point set into the floor. At one busy gate, there was a man stretched out on his back, legs crossed at the ankle and head pillowed on his duffle bag, apparently sleeping. Hopefully, he had either an alarm clock of some kind or a traveling companion who would wake him when his flight was called.

Interesting. There was a Metropolis Coffee Company shop situated near each group of gates, as well as several more at the intersections of hallways -- airports called hallways concourses, according to the signs -- throughout the terminal. That was a lot of Metropolis Coffee Company shops. She counted seven along just one concourse, including the ones at the ends of the two branches, each with its group of five gates.

So apparently, even if you had to hurry to your gate, you could grab a Metropolis Coffee to enjoy until your flight was actually called. And if you'd sworn off the stuff, by the time you passed the fifth shop, you were ready to give in to temptation when you got to your gate and saw shop number six. Fiendishly clever of the Metropolis Coffee people.

She scanned over the crowds slowly, not expecting to see anything unusual, but --

There! Near the windows at the edge of that seating area, farthest from the gate whose waiting area it was. What were those two guys doing? As she watched, one surreptitiously handed the other something... She zeroed in on it. Yes, folded bills. More than one. The outer one was a one-hundred-dollar bill. What were they doing? What sort of shady deal were they making?

She concentrated, listening, trying to separate their voices from the multitude around them.

"...Can't take all that, Brad."

"Yes, you can, man. Spend it on the wife and kids. Seriously, you guys have been great. This trip was just what I needed."

"But..."

"Come on, Danny, let me do this. She's my only sister, and I don't see you guys that often. She won't take money from me. So you take it, and spend it on her, okay?"

"Well..."

Okay. Looks could be deceiving.

She continued scanning over the crowd. Nothing stood out. There were just too many people and too many conversations going on. Maybe Clark was better at this sort of thing than she was.

Speaking of Clark... She checked on the plane and the small group of men standing near it.

Apparently, the discussion was over. She watched and listened as Superman lifted the plane effortlessly, politely asking the astonished mechanics where they would like him to put the aircraft so that they could begin to work on it. She smiled as he turned and moved toward the hangar one of the men indicated, flying just high enough to keep the airplane off the ground. He set it down carefully in the middle of the building's vast floor and waited courteously for the men, crammed en masse into one of the small utility vehicles, to arrive. She watched as he shook each of their hands, gravely accepting their thanks, before he suddenly disappeared, leaving them gaping at the empty sky.

She'd been focusing mostly on the mechanics and the other airport personnel, listening to their comments, and hadn't seen him move. Now, where had he --

She yelped as he said from behind her, "Lois..."

"Cl- Superman! Don't do that!" She thumped his shoulder. "If I wasn't invulnerable, you'd have given me a heart attack!" She smacked him again as he began to laugh.

"Okay, okay," he said placatingly, raising his hands in surrender. "I give." He was still laughing, but she wasn't really upset with him. Actually, she was impressed that he'd managed to sneak up on her without her hearing him. Of course, she'd been concentrating pretty hard on the conversations at the hangar...

He had folded his arms across his chest in his classic Superman pose. "So..." He raised an eyebrow in enquiry. "What happened to the we-shouldn't-get-too-many-Superman-stories philosophy, Ms. Lane?" The aloof Superman look was ruined by his grin.

"Clark, you know how hard it is for me to pass up something like this, don't you?" she began.

"Wait -- how did you get out here so fast, Lois?" he asked, dropping the stern pose. Grabbing her upper arms, he asked delightedly, "Did you fly? In the daylight?"

And as she nodded, a big grin on her face, he exclaimed enthusiastically, "That's great! Isn't it neat? It's so different than flying at night, isn't it? Did you like it?"

"Yeah, I did," she said happily. "But..." Her smile faded. "Clark, how on earth did you keep everything straight? If someone was in trouble, before -" She indicated the suit. "Before Superman. How did you keep from being seen? How did you choose where to land so no one saw you? Especially if there wasn't much time? For that matter," she continued, warming to her subject, "How did you help people in the daytime? There's no way you could keep from being seen..."

His own smile had faded, and he gazed at her seriously. "I told you I moved around a lot, Lois." He was gently brushing his thumbs over her upper arms, and she wondered if he was even aware he was still holding her. "I helped as much as I could without being seen, trying to limit my rescues to nighttime. But it was always so hard to ignore cries for help in the daytime. More often than not, I'd end up helping, and eventually, I wouldn't be able to move fast enough or hide behind something, and I'd be spotted. When that happened, I had to move on."

He paused. "But then I moved to Metropolis -- and I met you, Lois. And I knew I didn't want to move again. I'll be eternally grateful to you for giving me the idea for Superman; it gave me the first real chance to stay in one place -- with you -- without worrying about having to move on."

"Oh, Clark." She slipped her arms around him in a hug, leaning into him and hanging on tight. His arms came around her in response and he rested his cheek against her hair, and they stood together quietly, neither speaking.

After a moment, she let him go and stepped back, grinning up at him. "So... Superman. Want to tell me your thoughts on this situation? What went wrong?"

He crossed his arms again, one eyebrow up. "I know you were listening in, Ms. Lane, so I know you heard everything I heard. Didn't you?"

She laughed. "Yeah. Mostly, anyway. I also listened in to some other areas while you were finishing up with the crew and the maintenance guys." Glancing down at the airplane in the open hangar, the men already setting up equipment around it, she continued seriously, "Really, though, Clark. What do you think happened?"

"I don't know, Lois." He frowned thoughtfully down at the activity. "The pilot has been flying that particular make of aircraft for a long time, and has years and years of experience. He told me he's an ex-Navy pilot and has flown in all kinds of weather. He insisted that it wasn't turbulence or any external force, and he said that it wasn't a normal systems failure. He said that there's always a backup system -- multiple backup systems -- but that those failed, too. All of them. And that, apparently, is extremely rare. He hinted that it might be... manufactured."

"You mean some sort of sabotage?" she asked, reporter's senses tingling.

"Yeah." He nodded down at the mechanics, who were setting up scaffolds and positioning several large carts full of equipment, preparatory to working on the plane. "A couple of those guys have worked on these types of planes for years, and one of 'em is also a pilot -- recreational and sport, but still a pilot. He's ex-Navy, too. And he, too, suggested that it's somewhat suspicious. The other two mechanics agreed. They're going to go over that plane *very* thoroughly."

"But why? Why would someone sabotage a small commuter plane?" She ticked each item off on her fingers as she worked her way through the possibilities. "Not a terrorist act. Too small a target. Nobody claiming responsibility. Suicide? No, too many things could go wrong. Revenge? Some kind of scam? Insurance money? Like that horrible guy who put his mom on board that plane a few years ago and planted a bomb in her luggage, right after buying life insurance on her?"

She had been pacing in the small, flat area of the hangar roof where they were standing; she turned abruptly to Clark. "We need to see the passenger list, Clark! Need to see who's on it, and figure out if anyone profits from the death of someone on board that plane! Come on! We can get Jimmy on it right away --"

He was looking slightly mind-boggled.

She took a deep breath. "Okay. Are these guys -- the mechanics -- seriously looking for sabotage?"

When he nodded, she continued, "Okay. Good. So Superman... Or no, wait -- a couple of investigative reporters he knows -- can check back in with the mechanics in a few days or so, right? We can say Superman sent us. And we can see if they've found anything..."

"Yeah... And actually, that *would* be a good way to introduce ourselves," he said. "Keeps Superman from looking too..."

"Reporter-ish?" she asked with a grin.

He laughed. "Well, I was going to say from appearing too closely associated with news reporting, but I guess that works just as well. We probably shouldn't have Superman asking the kind of questions we'd ask as part of an investigation."

"Good point. Okay, we'll come back here as us in a few days and see what they've discovered." She looked down at the mechanics and the plane once more, and then turned back to Clark. "C'mon, then, Clark. Let's go back to the Planet. We've got some work to do." She turned, looked up at the sky, and then hesitated.

"What?' he asked.

"Well, I can move as fast as you, but... Well, the chances of my being seen are greater here, aren't they? There are probably more than just a couple of planes up there that we need to avoid. And they can see us on radar, can't they? If there are two specks... Well, won't they wonder?"

"Well, we could go up close together -- you know, arm in arm or something. We might look like a couple of birds." He smiled and winked rather exaggeratedly at her. "Or I can carry you..." When she laughed, he extended one arm around her shoulders, drawing her gently closer. "What do you think, Ms. Lane? Can I offer you a lift back to the Daily Planet building?"

She was laughing as he gathered her into his arms and headed for the clouds.

***

By late afternoon, she was sitting at her desk, waiting for Clark, while most of their coworkers were packing up and getting ready to go home.

He had had to go out twice more, first for a car accident and then for a mugging. The latter was a particularly bold and brazen attack, in full daylight in a normally safe part of town. Superman had stopped the mugger very quickly, but just as he had apprehended the man, he'd heard frantic and panicked shouts of "Help, Superman!" The initial shouts had been joined by screams and shouts of alarm from a sudden surge of voices, possibly from onlookers to whatever was happening.

Superman had had no time to transport the mugger to police headquarters, nor had he felt he could wait for them to arrive at the scene of the crime. After the briefest of pauses, he had therefore secured him to a lamppost with the pole of a No Parking sign, bending it neatly around the man like a big bread tie, and had headed as fast as he could toward the increasingly terrified yells.

He had managed to get to the scene of a freak accident on the other side of the city, arriving literally in the very nick of time to save two extremely shaken window washers from crashing to the pavement.

The two men had been washing windows on the fifty-fourth floor of the Baxter Building when one of the cables supporting the platform had broken without warning. They'd slid helplessly down the skewed platform, grabbing futilely at the edges, at the rope railing, at anything in an effort to stop their fall. Their safety lines, instead of being fastened to the same mooring at the top of the building as the window-washing platform, had been fastened, inexplicably, around the cable that had broken, and trailed uselessly below them along with the broken cable.

The only thing that had saved them was the tangle of buckets and cleaners and equipment, each attached to the platform by its own cable, that had been caught in the rope railing at the dangling end of the platform. Holding on desperately to this temporary and precarious perch, the two men had begun yelling desperately for Superman.

He'd arrived on the scene barely minutes after they began calling for help, but in that time, the remaining cable, stressed to breaking by the uneven weight of the platform swinging wildly, had snapped. Superman had caught the platform, with the terrified window washers still tangled in the ropes and equipment at one end, at about the tenth floor. A few seconds later and he'd have been unable to save them from crashing to the ground, and certain death.

LNN had been on the scene, by sheer coincidence. The entire incident had taken no longer than fifteen or twenty minutes from start to finish, but LNN had had a traffic helicopter in the area for the start of the downtown evening rush hour report. The cameraman, panning across the buildings prior to focusing on the traffic below, had paused on the window washers just before the cable broke.

So LNN's evening viewers, countless numbers of people all over the world, had watched in horror as the two men had fallen toward their certain deaths. And the countless numbers of viewers, joined hurriedly by still more viewers summoned to TV monitors by the shouts of their friends or families or coworkers, had seen the flash of red and blue as Superman had swept down almost too fast to see, catching the platform from below at almost the last possible moment and bringing it carefully and safely down to street level.

It had been incredibly dramatic and impressive. News reporters from all over the city had converged on the spot, vying to interview the rescued window washers, the police, first-hand witnesses, or -- the ultimate prize -- the superhero himself. All three of the Daily Planet City Desk reporters had been there, too, Perry having dispatched them to the scene the moment LNN had broken into their normal rush hour coverage with the unfolding drama.

Lois had initially been as riveted by the news reports as everyone else in the newsroom. However, she'd progressed rapidly to having to practically sit on her hands to keep from leaping up and charging out to the scene of the rescue.

But by the time that LNN showed the police arriving and holding back the excited crowd, and Superman, standing beside the police chief, had given a brief and somewhat formal interview to several reporters, she'd gotten past the driving urge to *be* there and had started paying closer attention to Superman. Not to his words, but to a very subtle, underlying... *something*.

It was so subtle, in fact, that she might be imagining it. It was most certainly undetectable to anyone else, regardless of whether they were watching the whole thing on LNN, as she was, or standing at the actual scene.

But while this somewhat remote and formal man was Superman, he was also Clark, her partner, her friend, and now so much more. And there was... something there.

Lois had never been very good at patience. She could wait when she had to, but she'd certainly never embraced patience as a virtue. Circumstances might be able to make her wait, but they could never make her like it. Much like, say, having Ralph as a partner. Circumstances could make her...

No, forget it. Bad comparison. Circumstances could *never*, *ever* make her accept Ralph as a partner.

But anyway, once again, here she was, waiting. This time, she was waiting for Clark. With such a thin grip on her patience that she was just about ready to make up an excuse and get out there and look for him. Because something was up. Every instinct she had was screaming that at her, and she had to find out what that something was. *Had* to.

But she couldn't -- well, she shouldn't -- pounce on Clark the minute he returned --

And here he was now. She heard his familiar heartbeat a few minutes before he came through the stairway door and headed down the ramp toward her.

She searched his features. He looked much the same as always, and as she caught his eye, he flashed his warm and wonderful smile at her. She was so worried for him that she had no trouble staying in her chair this time, although her hand had tightened reflexively on the armrest for a moment, just in case she began to float.

"Hi, Clark," she said softly when he was close enough. "Everything okay?"

Was it just her, or did his smile seem a bit forced?

"Yeah..." He sat down across from her. "Busy afternoon, though."

People were still packing up and leaving the Planet for the day, so there was the occasional staff member passing by her desk -- or Clark's -- on his or her way out. Mindful that someone might overhear them, she asked him, "You were near the Baxter Building around the time of that accident, weren't you?" <Clark?>

As he looked at her, startled, she added, "Didn't Maury say he'd meet you at that little place near there? You must have seen all the activity on your way back, right?" They didn't know anyone named Maury, but nobody else would know that. <Clark?>

He wasn't picking up her thoughts. Rats. She'd have to approach this from a different angle, then.

"Oh. Yeah... I didn't get to talk to anyone, though..." He frowned, still obviously confused as to where she might be taking this, but unable to ask her directly since they weren't alone. "I saw Jenner and whats-his-name, Peters, from the City Desk, so I imagine Edmunds was there somewhere, too...?"

"Yeah, Perry sent them out as soon as LNN broke into the evening rush hour coverage. But you saw what happened?"

"Just the end of it," he said, somewhat shortly.

Good, he was achieving the right tone of voice without prompting. She wanted it to look to anyone passing within range of them as if she was grilling him because she'd missed it herself. If people thought she was just being her usual can't-leave-it-alone Mad Dog Lane...

"So...?" she prompted.

"So... What? Lois..."

Really, it would be so much easier if they could speak to each other mentally... telepathically? ...all the time -- it would be awfully handy right now, for instance -- instead of just when they were happy or laughing. For one thing, she could explain where she was going with this. She didn't want to truly upset him; she just wanted it to look like she was sour-grapes-quizzing him because she'd missed out on the action.

The newsroom was finally emptying; another half hour or so and they'd be alone, and she could speak to Clark freely. In the meantime, though... She might as well finish laying the groundwork...

"So, did you see anything interesting? What do you think happened?"

"The cable broke." He sent her a sort of what-are-you-doing kind of look.

She smiled gently at him and leaned back in her chair. "So... should we consider investigating it, Clark? Do you think there's a story there? Negligence? Was it an accident? Poor maintenance? And what if it wasn't? An accident, I mean?"

Clark's confusion cleared, and he grinned, shaking his head wryly. She felt the slightest whisper of a thought; she couldn't quite pick it up. It was just out of reach, like a word on the tip of her tongue. <Clark?> Maybe if she --

"Oh, Lois, you and your conspiracy theories..." Cat commented as she swept by them, heading for the ramp.

And the wisp of thought, the feeling of... Clark, was gone.

"Hey, don't knock 'em entirely -- a lot of times they work out for her," Jimmy rejoined, appearing from the direction of the research room and dumping an armload of papers on the corner of Lois's desk.

Cat laughed, giving them a half wave over her shoulder. "Whatever. I've got more interesting things to do tonight than talk news. See you later!"

As she continued up the ramp, Jimmy said, "Hey, guys -- here's the passenger list for that commuter plane Superman saved, and some basic information on each person. There are a couple of executives, some sales people... It's all here -- company names, job titles, and all that. I can get you more in-depth information on specific people if you want -- just let me know..." He glanced at the clock and added somewhat anxiously, "...But for right now, unless there's anything else, I'm gonna head out, okay?"

"Got a date, Jimmy?" one of the newest sportswriters, a recent graduate, asked as he passed them on his way to the ramp.

"No... Well, not yet, but... Hey, Adam, wait up!" Jimmy abandoned Lois and Clark and loped up the ramp after the young man. "You said you were gonna talk to your sister..."

Lois chuckled, watching as Jimmy ducked into the elevator just before the doors closed. Turning back to Clark, she saw him watching her with a smile.

"You aren't just frustrated because you missed out on a Superman rescue, are you," he said softly. It wasn't a question.

"No."

There were a couple of staff members left in the room, hunched over their desks, finishing up whatever they'd been working on. Neither of them sat near Lois and Clark, however.

She looked at him seriously. "I'm sorry, Clark. I needed to establish some sort of basis, however pointless it might look to anyone else, for investigating this accident. Because there *was* something, wasn't there, Clark? At that rescue? Something about it bothered you."

"Don't apologize, Lois. I didn't understand where you were going with this right away, but I should have known you weren't just hoping for a story." He hesitated. "Did you... you know..." He tapped his temple very briefly with one index finger. "...Get that from...?"

"No. At least, I didn't... hear, or... feel? ...anything specific. It was more just a... sort of feeling as you spoke. Were you trying to send me something?" She still spoke in an undertone. He could hear her even if she whispered, anyway, and they might as well play it safe. There was no one close enough to overhear them at the moment, but still...

He shook his head. "No. Although I *was* thinking about you, because I wanted to tell you about it as soon as possible..."

"What happened?" She paused. "Was I right? Was it *not* an accident?"

He sighed. "The cables. They were partially cut."

She leaned forward. "Both of them?"

"Yes. An ambulance and several police cars arrived just after I caught the platform, so by the time I had it and the men safely on the ground, the paramedics were ready to take over. You know -- untangling both men from the equipment ropes that helped save their lives, then checking them over for injuries..." He ran a hand through his hair, ruffling it, then sighed again and continued.

"In the confusion, I looked at those cables. I was wondering if there might have been... I don't know, faults, worn places... that stressed the cables to breaking. It wasn't a particularly windy day, but up at that level, the platform would sway, which might cause an already overstressed cable to break..."

"And?"

"I looked at the cable ends closely, with -- you know..." He touched one temple of his glasses as he spoke. "The cables are like wire rope -- they're made of multiple smaller strands. I looked at the ends still attached to the platform, but I also went up and looked at the ends still hanging from the support. Both support cables had been cut into. Just a few strands were cut on each one, but that was enough to weaken the cables to the point that they'd break under even normal stress."

The platform would have been suspended from the roof. She wasn't quite sure how that worked. But there might be points where the cable rubbed against the building, like at the roof's edge. "There's no chance it was due to natural causes of some sort, like friction, or...?"

He shook his head. "No. There's a sort of outrigger pulley system that keeps the cables away from the roof edge. And the cuts were too clean. It wouldn't be noticeable to the naked eye, maybe, but with..." He adjusted his glasses slightly again.

"What about the police? Was Henderson there?"

"Yes. I talked to him privately, before the police allowed the media to speak to either of us. He asked me not to retrieve the cables still attached to the building; he wants forensics to look at the mooring and the area around it first."

"But he's not publicly acknowledging any sort of suspicions at the moment?"

"No. He told the media that an inspection was routine because of how easily this accident could have resulted in death. He mentioned injury to innocent bystanders as well as to the window washers."

She sat back and looked at him. "Well. Looks like we have a couple of things to investigate, huh?" She hesitated. "Clark, do you think... is there any way, or any reason, that they're related?"

"Who are related?" he asked, frowning.

"Not who. What. The airplane and this accident," she clarified.

"No." He paused, thinking about it. "Well, how could they be? It's kind of a stretch, don't you think?"

She shrugged. "Maybe. But maybe we ought to consider it."

"Lois..." He grinned at her. "C'mon. An airplane -- a small commuter flight filled with businessmen, one of whom might have been targeted -- and a couple of maintenance men? I guess we could consider some sort of company sabotage, if it turned out that the maintenance guys and someone on that plane work for the same company... But I think the fact that both accidents look like sabotage is just a weird coincidence."

"Still..." she mused.

He shook his head at her and said with a small laugh, "I know that look, Lois. We can look for a connection, but I just don't think we'll find anything."

She sighed. "Probably not. But I just don't like coincidences."

"And yet, in a city this size... Well, we see this sort of stuff in the national news all time. Metropolis has its share of... acts intended to harm. There are a lot of bad people in the world, who do bad things for their own reasons." He sighed. "Who knows? We'll look, Lois. Your instincts are second to none. And who knows what we'll find? Maybe they *are* related."

She grinned at him. "I like a partner who sees it my way."

He laughed. "Glad to oblige," he teased. "Now... are you ready to go?"

"Yes. It's been a pretty busy day, huh? For..." She glanced around; the two other staffers were still hunched over their desks, earphones on, working steadily and oblivious to her and Clark. The need for caution was so second nature, however, that she lowered her voice. "...You know..." She made a small waving motion with her hand to indicate flying. "Let's hope it's a quiet night."

He rose and came around to her desk, offering her a hand as she began to stand up. "Yeah. You know, maybe we should try to think of a way for the police to contact..." He grinned and made the same flying motion.

"Or I suppose you could just keep relying on calls for help," she said. "Seems to work for you."

"True." He laughed, tucking her hand into his arm. "Anyway, enough about the guy in the cape. C'mon... How about some pizza and a video?" He leaned over and whispered, "I'll buy. I know this great place in Seattle..."

She bumped him with her hip. "Sounds good. Now all we have to decide is, your place, or mine?"

"Don't forget about the video," he reminded her. "We still have to decide about that, too..." <Are we flying, or driving?>

Their mental thingy was working again. She smiled. <I'd rather fly, but I drove in this morning.> "Ah, yes... now, what sounds good tonight? A musical? A romantic comedy? An action flick? Or how about..."

Still discussing the merits of various movies, they headed for the elevators.

***

Once again, Clark was missing when she arrived in the morning. Hopefully, he'd be back in time for the morning meeting, though. This time, it was she who would be saving a seat for him.

She chose a donut for him, too, and after some hesitation, got his coffee mug from his desk. He was always bringing her coffee; now she could do the same for him. She was pretty sure she remembered how he took it...

But what if she messed it up? Knowing Clark, he'd drink it and tell her it was fine, no matter what she did to it. And then she'd remember it wrong for the rest of their lives, and he'd be doomed to drinking the wrong coffee forever because he didn't want to hurt her feelings, and...

Oh, for heaven's sake. This was ridiculous.

She looked over the offerings. There was sugar, artificial creamer in packets, sugar substitute, and some of the little containers of real cream. She did know that Clark didn't use the artificial stuff. She just didn't know how much of each he used.

As she hesitated at the coffee machine, one of the staff columnists stopped to pour himself a cup. As he did so, the columnist who sat at the desk next to him called out, "Hey, Mark -- can you get me a cup, too?"

"Yeah. Whatta ya want in it?" Mark called back.

"Two artificial creamers," the man replied.

Mark poured coffee into two disposable Styrofoam cups and grabbed a couple of the creamer packets. He didn't add them to the coffee, though. He grabbed a stir stick and headed for the larger conference room, stopping at the other man's desk on the way and handing him one of the cups, the stick, and the packets.

Relieved, Lois realized she could do the same thing. She could bring Clark some of each, sugar and cream, and he could add as much as he wanted. Carefully, she poured a cup full of coffee for him and one for herself. She added her usual extras to her cup, then grabbed a couple of containers of cream, a few packets of sugar, and a stir stick, and juggling everything, headed for the conference room.

A few minutes before Perry entered the room, Clark slipped in and dropped into the chair next to her. He leaned toward her, and for a startled moment she thought he was going to greet her with a kiss. He seemed to check himself, though -- or maybe the whole thing was just her imagination.

They still hadn't discussed that... whether their relationship outside of work was to remain a secret or not. She wasn't sure how she felt about it, anyway. She already knew how it felt to be the subject of gossip, and she didn't like it. Besides, part of her wanted to just... hug their relationship to herself for a while. To keep the rest of the world out.

Well, she didn't have time to deal with that right now.

"Hi, Clark," she whispered as Perry entered, already talking as he moved to the end of the room and the chair left vacant for him. "I got you some coffee, but I wasn't sure how much of the cream and sugar... Well, so I brought some of those, too. I thought you could add your own..."

He was smiling that sweet smile at her again, and she surreptitiously wrapped one ankle around her chair leg. No floating allowed.

"Thank you, honey," he whispered into her ear, giving her shivers. "And this is perfect. Sometimes I add more, sometimes less, depending on how big the cup is -- and how strong the coffee is," he added with a chuckle. She shivered again, barely registering his words.

"Lois! Clark! What have you got for me?" Perry demanded, and she dragged her attention back to the meeting.

As Clark doctored his coffee, she briefly sketched the incident at the airport, pitching it as a possible maintenance problem for now. It would save questions from curious coworkers, and she preferred to keep their -- hers and Clark's -suspicions under wraps, anyway.

Clark chimed in with an equally brief outline of the accident with the window washers, again making it sound like they were simply going to investigate possible safety violations by the company that held the contract for washing the windows on the city's tall buildings. The story of the accident itself, of course, belonged to Jenner and Peters, two of the City Desk reporters. But as investigative reporters, Lois and Clark often started with news reported by other Daily Planet staff, delving past the factual account of what had happened, into the why or the how -- or both.

Once the meeting was over, Lois and Clark headed back to their desks to go through the preliminary information Jimmy had found them on the commuter plane passenger list.

And when he stopped at their desks with information on the plane's flight crew, Lois was ready for him with another list.

"Jimmy!" she started briskly, "I've got some more information we need, okay? It's a lot of different stuff -- whatever you can find..." Wickedly, she added, "Kind of time consuming, I suppose, but at least you probably won't need to hack into anything for most of it."

"Lois! Shhh!" Jimmy hissed, glancing around anxiously. "Don't *say* things like that! What if someone hears you?"

She could feel Clark's laughter, although he was sitting across from her with a perfectly straight face.

<Lois, you brat. You're gonna give Jimmy an ulcer.> He rose and came around to her desk, perching on the edge and facing her and Jimmy.

She choked on the coffee she'd just sipped, trying not to laugh. Clark leaned down slightly and thumped her gently on the back until she stopped coughing. <Are you okay? Although it serves you right for teasing the poor kid.>

She looked back at Jimmy with as innocent a look as she could manage. He was fidgeting nervously, still glancing around anxiously as if he expected to be put into handcuffs and led off to who-knew-where immediately.

<Sorry. I couldn't resist.> She grinned unrepentantly at Clark, then turned back to Jimmy. "Don't worry, Jimmy. You're a protected source, remember?"

"Oh, uh... yeah... Okay..." He hesitated, not completely convinced. "But what if..."

She kept going. However nervous he might be about anyone finding out how he got some of his information, he was an investigator to the core. As soon as she gave him her lists, she knew he'd forget all about being anxious, as he succumbed to the lure of hunting information.

"Here's what we need, okay? Whenever you can manage it, as long as it's today..."

<Lois! Ulcer, remember?>

"...Or tomorrow's okay, I guess," she continued without a pause. < Hush, Clark.>

She handed Jimmy one of her lists, then stuck her tongue out at Clark when Jimmy, distracted, looked it over. Clark crossed his arms and grinned at her, then settled back further onto her desk, crossing his legs at the ankles, and regarded her with an amused, one-eyebrow-up look. He wore the air of someone getting ready to watch a show.

"We need to know about those two guys, the window washers, from yesterday's accident. Who are they, where do they live, what's their company name, how long have they worked there, and do they have any criminal records? Do they have families? Hobbies? We also need to know about the company they work for. How long has it been in business? Who owns it? Who's on the board of directors -- if there is one? Who are the stockholders? How's the company doing? Is it failing or doing well? How many clients does it have, and who are they?"

She handed him another list. "I also want to know what tenants are in the Baxter Building -- that's where the accident happened. Who works there, and for whom? Who's responsible for building maintenance, and does it include the thingy on the roof where they attach the window-washing platform?"

At this point, Jimmy was beginning to look both excited by the idea of such an involved hunt and boggled by the sheer amount of information she was asking for. She didn't know why he'd be boggled; for goodness sake, she gave him lists like this all the time.

<Give him another list, honey. Hair of the dog, you know.>

<Yeah, yeah. Cute, Kent. Hair of the Mad Dog Lane, are you trying to say?>

She handed the third list to Jimmy.

A wave of amusement, affection, warmth, and love rolled over her like a tidal wave, knocking her back slightly in her chair, and completely obliterating what she'd been planning to say. <I want to kiss you.> The thought was hushed and intense, exactly as if he'd whispered it aloud. <So, so badly.>

She stared at him, unable to speak. <Clark...> It was a plea. And it was filled to overflowing with love and longing, a plea echoing his. <*Yes*> She doubted she could stand up at the moment, and she'd lost every coherent train of thought -- and so the plea was also seasoned with the jumble her thoughts had become.

"Uh..." she managed to begin. "And..." She closed her eyes, struggling to get a grip on her thoughts.

Jimmy, oblivious, read on.

<Clark.> She kept her eyes closed. <I can't...>

He leaned forward slightly and took her hand. Her eyes shot open at his touch, and he smiled gently at her. <I'm sorry, Lois. That wasn't very fair of me. But you are just so appealing.> He squeezed her hand gently, then let go and turned to Jimmy.

"We'll need more information on that airplane's passengers, too, Jim. Can you find out if any of them are on more than one board of directors, or holds stock in any of the other companies represented by the people on that plane? Anybody holding any grudges against someone on that plane, or against some business represented by someone on that plane? And does anyone on the plane's passenger list have any ties to the Baxter building, any of its employees, or the window-washing company?"

Jimmy glanced up, even more intrigued. "You guys think the two things are related?" he asked in surprise. "Why?"

"No -- no, nothing concrete," Clark told him. "We're just being thorough, Jim."

She found her voice -- and her thoughts -- again. "Yeah. We need criminal background checks on everyone on that plane, especially on anybody who is connected to any one else on that plane through business. And we need to know exactly what the official job description is, if you find that someone from the plane has any kind of close tie -- business partners, whatever -- to anyone connected to the Baxter Building or that window-washing company. And --"

Abruptly, the sound of sirens -- more than one -- caught her attention. She knew Clark was listening, too. She glanced at him; he might be hearing more than she was...

<<Bomb situation...>> she heard a male voice say before it faded out again.

She rose to her feet an instant before Clark was on his.

"Oh! C'mon, Clark." She spoke briskly. "Later, Jimmy." She strode toward the ramp without bothering to say anything else. She knew Clark was right behind her.

"Where're you going?' Jimmy called.

"I've got a hunch," she tossed over her shoulder without stopping. "Get us that stuff, okay?" She reached the ramp and charged up it.

People left her alone when she was in Mad Dog mode. There would be no obstacles to hinder her leaving the newsroom. No comments, no questions. Most of the Daily Planet staff knew to steer clear of her when she was like this, and the few who didn't would get a hurried explanation once she was safely out of the way.

She stepped through the stairwell door, moving forward on the landing to accommodate Clark, and then together, they headed for the roof.

As they stepped through the door, he smiled admiringly at her. "Nice." He spun quickly into the suit before continuing. "Very smooth. It makes a nice change from 'meeting a source.'"

She shrugged, grinning. "Hey, ya gotta vary it sometimes. But anyway, go. I'll follow. I'll get the story while you fix whatever it is. Maybe it's another false alarm."

He leaned forward and snatched a quick kiss, then sprang into the air and was gone.

***

Lois was one of the first reporters at the site. Greatly daring, she had chosen to fly again, flashing up into the patchy cloud layer as fast as she could, then traveling toward the sound of the sirens before dropping just as quickly onto the deserted and partially-shaded colonnaded balcony of the old City Building, just across the street from whatever was going on. Stepping quietly out from behind one of the columns, she calmly made her way to street level.

Seeing Bill Henderson, she ducked under the yellow police tape, ignoring the indignant "Hey, lady!" of a young policeman who had obviously been assigned to guard the line against all comers.

"Press!" she snapped at him, not pausing to see how he received the information, and made a beeline for the detective.

"Hi, Bill. What's up?"

The detective glanced at her. "Lane. Who let you through?"

"Somebody's little brother," she said cheekily. "C'mon, Bill, I know you're happy to see me, really."

He gave her a sardonic look, the closest he usually ever came to a smile. If she hadn't seen evidence to the contrary personally, during the Lex Luthor investigation, she'd have been convinced the man was genetically unable to smile.

"Yeah? Well, I'm particularly glad to see our caped friend," Bill said, nodding toward the building in front of them.

Just as he finished speaking, there was a swell of noise from what she realized, upon glancing around, was a growing crowd of onlookers. She looked back at the building to see Superman exiting through the front doors, holding something in his hands.

And she saw that the city's bomb squad was present; had Clark -- Superman -- found a bomb, then? She watched as the men moved forward, but he held up one hand, shaking his head.

She heard him easily from where she stood.

"It's on a timer and has less than five minutes left -- I need to get it away from all these people. The building looks clear from what I can tell, although I was mostly focused on this. If you want to wait until I return..."

When the bomb squad leader looked at Henderson, standing beside her, Lois glanced at him, too, and saw him nod. The squad leader gave his men orders to stand back.

Without further comment, Superman shot into the air, almost too fast to be seen. Lois, of course, could see him easily, and she watched as he shot straight up, moving fast, apparently aiming for the earth's upper atmosphere. Or more likely, come to think of it, *past* the earth's atmosphere and into space beyond it.

She took a couple of steps forward toward the building, curious. Clark had obviously not had time to poke around for clues; now might be a good time to --

"Lane!" Henderson growled as he clamped a hand on her arm. "Even the press isn't allowed to go into an unsecured bomb scene, even if the bomb has apparently been removed."

Oops. She'd forgotten. She'd have to look from here.

"I wasn't going to go inside, Bill," she soothed him. "I just want to poke around outside a little..."

He looked unconvinced. "I let you past the line -" He scowled at her when she raised an eyebrow at that. "Okay, I didn't *object* when you *brazenly* disregarded the police line." He raised his own eyebrow back at her. "How's that, Lane? More accurate?"

She laughed.

"So stay right where you are," he continued. "Remember, a good reporter is a live reporter."

She laughed again. "I don't think that's really how that goes, Bill."

"Stay put, Lane," he growled again. "Where's that partner of yours, anyway? I need somebody to keep an eye on you while I do official police stuff."

She glanced around casually, adding a lightning-fast upward glance to check on Clark's progress. "Oh, he's on his way," she said airily, barely suppressing a grin. He *was* on his way -- as Superman. He wasn't visible to the naked eye yet, but she could see he was headed back. He passed through the cloud cover.

Within seconds, Superman was landing lightly on the sidewalk near where Henderson and the bomb squad leader waited. She stayed where she was, at Henderson's side, as the men discussed their options. Then Superman, accompanied by the bomb squad, reentered the building.

She watched with interest through the walls -- and listened -- as they systematically worked their way through the lobby. The squad leader gave orders for his men to branch out, although he asked Superman to give the areas a preliminary look before his men got close. That made sense. Might as well use the talent you had, and if that talent included a bombproof man, might as well make him the point man.

Henderson was listening, too -- although he was limited by the abilities of the radios that he and the bomb squad were using.

In addition to watching the squad work, Lois was conducting her own investigation. It was harder to do it this way; she preferred the hands-on method. But she looked around, zeroing in on floors and corners and surfaces, scanning walls and through walls. She saw nothing obvious, but she felt compelled to look. The idea of *not* looking, when she could look so easily, was like... leaving the box with the last chocolate donut in it on the edge of her desk, and expecting her not to touch it. Or... or leaving incriminating evidence in a folder marked TOP SECRET in plain sight on a file cabinet, and expecting her not to read it while she was casing an office.

Finally, the members of the bomb squad began exiting the building, followed by Superman. As they began packing up their containment equipment, Superman approached Henderson.

The two men conferred for a few minutes, then shook hands. Superman stepped back, ready to leave, and she spoke up quickly.

"May I ask a few questions, Superman?'

He inclined his head slightly, answering her gravely. "Certainly, Ms. Lane."

They moved slightly away from Henderson, who had turned to speak to the bomb squad leader.

"Did you find anything that might shed light on this?" she asked.

He hesitated.

"Is there something, Superman?" she asked.

"The building has a rather odd security setup. It might bear investigating."

She glanced at the various police officers moving around. It was probably time to have Clark show up; she'd have a lot more freedom in discussing things with him than she would with Superman. She didn't want anyone to see Lois Lane bouncing ideas off Superman the way she did off Clark.

"Thank you, Superman." She spoke formally.

"You're welcome, Ms. Lane." He spoke equally formally but she was close enough to see the faint gleam of amusement in his eyes.

Then he was rising into the air. Several policemen paused in what they were doing to watch Superman rise and fly swiftly away.

Lois immediately began looking around, trying to project a 'waiting for my partner' sort of attitude. And as if on cue, here he came, jogging around the corner of the building with a grin on his face.

"Hi, Lois. I've been talking to witnesses. What've you got?" he asked cheerfully.

"Hi, Clark," she said with an answering smile. "I was just talking to Superman." She hooked her arm through his. "C'mon, partner. Let's go compare notes."

"Hold on there, Lane." Henderson approached them. "Kent. Where've you been?"

"Hi, Bill. Around the other side, poking around. Why?"

Henderson snorted. "Because someone needs to keep Lane here in line. But now I'm wondering if you're just as bad. You'd better not have been inside that building, buddy."

"Bill, Clark wasn't inside the building," Lois said reassuringly. It was true. *Clark* hadn't been in the building at all. *Superman* had. A fine distinction, but nobody else needed to know that.

Henderson regarded them both skeptically. "I believe you. But only because it makes my life easier. And I know neither of you would consider holding out on me if you find out anything that could help, here. Right?"

"We only have suppositions, Bill," Clark said. "The same as you -- disgruntled employee, some kind of scam... we'll look into it, see what we can find out."

"You'll investigate, we'll investigate," Lois chimed in. "We don't print speculation, but if we find anything concrete, you'll be the first to know, Bill." She glanced at Clark, grinning, before she turned back to Henderson and continued with a smile, "...Right after Clark and me. And Perry, of course."

Henderson rolled his eyes. "Nice to know my ranking, Lane." With that same I'm-not-really-smiling-at-you look, he turned back to his men, shaking his head.

"Bye, Bill," she said irrepressibly, and he flapped a hand back at her in a gesture that could have been either a wave or a go-away-kid-you're-bugging-me sort of thing.

She laughed, turning back to Clark. He was smiling, too.

"You, Ms. Lane, turn prevarication into an art form," he said softly. "Telling him I wasn't in the building..."

She grinned at him. "*You* weren't, Clark." She assumed an air of innocence. "I was telling the truth."

He laughed softly. "Just not all of it, you minx. Have I told you recently how much I love you?"

She tucked her arm in his. "I don't mind hearing it again."

As they moved away from the men still working around the building, she said, "Now... You said something about the building's security setup?"

He nodded, serious again. "Yes. It was... odd, Lois."

"Odd? In what way?"

He lowered his voice. "Way more cameras that you'd think they'd need, for one thing. I don't know why, unless that building houses something way more important than professional and medical offices."

"Do you think it's some sort of scam? Insurance?"

"I don't know." He hesitated again. "I can't see how... but we should talk to the building's owner, I guess. Find out who the security company is. If there is one. Have 'em explain the setup..."

"Do you think there's something going on here? Something someone wants to keep hidden?" She frowned. "The thing is, Clark... I didn't see anything. Did you?"

He shook his head. "No. That's just it. I looked pretty thoroughly -" He adjusted his glasses very slightly. "...And I didn't see anything suspicious. It looks just like any other building."

She nodded. "That's what I saw." She paused, thinking that over for a moment. "Um, didn't see." She swatted at him when he started to chuckle. "You know what I mean, Clark!"

He laughed. "C'mon, Lois. Let's go write this up. We can -" He stopped abruptly as they both heard a distant cry.

"Help, Superman!"

He shook his head wryly. "It's going to be one of those days, I guess." He listened for a moment. "Can you hear it?"

She nodded. "Sounds like a mugging." She steered him in close to the building they were currently walking past even as he said, "There. That alley -" As one, they ducked into the narrow space just past the end of the building.

They both scanned around them, making sure there were no observers. She continued scanning as Clark spun into the suit, and as he came out of the spin they both heard the cries escalate.

"I'll meet you at the Planet," she said hurriedly, and he nodded and was gone.

After another thorough look around, she, too, took to the air, moving upward fast and not stopping until she was above the cloud layer. The sky had been only sparsely populated with clouds earlier in the morning, making it harder to find cover. She preferred this more evenly clouded sky, which was fairly common in the late morning and early afternoon this close to the coast at this time of year.

Clark had assured her that she didn't have to use the clouds for cover; if she stayed at a high enough altitude, he's said, no one would be able to see her. She knew that, but... Still, it felt safer with a layer of clouds between her and the earth below. After all, what if some birdwatcher with a really good set of binoculars happened to be looking up as she flew by? Or what if some amateur astronomer with a telescope had it aimed wrong and saw her? Didn't Clark worry about that kind of stuff?

Without really thinking about it, she found she had moved in the direction from which they'd heard the cries of the mugging victim. Looking down, she began to scan, looking for --

Yes, there he was. Clark had apprehended the mugger -- none of that politically correct stuff for her; there was no sense saying the 'alleged mugger' if you caught the guy in the act -- and was even now delivering him into the hands of two policemen who were also on the scene. They had probably been dispatched to the scene in response to the emergency call from one of the bystanders. She couldn't tell which one of the people watching was the victim, though. Of course, he or she might have been transported to a hospital. Maybe.

She saw Clark's sudden move as he reacted to something that she didn't hear. He thrust the mugger into the policemen's hands and in the next instant had disappeared. He'd moved too fast for her to follow, which was pretty impressive.

She strained her ears, but heard nothing.

How frustrating. The speed with which he'd left implied something important, unless he'd somehow heard or sensed her up here watching and was replaying the scene at the airport... She whirled around.

Nothing.

Okay, so there had been an emergency of some sort. She had no idea where he was; she'd have to go back to the Planet and discreetly listen for any news of an emergency of some sort, or any Superman sightings.

Turning, she headed back toward the Planet. Might as well go work on the bomb story. And maybe set Jimmy to finding out what he could about the security for the building with the bomb.

***

When Clark finally returned to the Planet, at almost lunchtime, she was just about ready to scream from frustration. She'd heard nothing that gave her any clues as to where he'd been or what he'd been doing.

He looked...not tired, exactly. But definitely not his usual cheerful self. It was more like he was... preoccupied. Yes, that was it. He looked preoccupied, worried -- as if something quite serious was bothering him.

He flashed his usual smile at her, but it fell flat. He might look much the same as always to anyone else, but he couldn't hide his disquiet from her, and it shone through the smile. There was no danger of floating today.

She watched anxiously as he came down the ramp and arrived at her desk. Pulling out her desk chair, he sat down, saying, "Hi, partner. What are we working on?"

"Clark, what's wrong?" she demanded.

He hesitated, then leaned forward, rested his elbows on her desk, and dropped his head into his hands with weary sigh. Alarmed, she asked, "Clark, are you okay?"

He raised his head and glanced around the newsroom, then looked at her somberly. "Lois." He spoke very softly. "Can we talk? Privately..." He looked around again. No one appeared to be paying any attention to them. "Let's use one of the conference rooms."

She suppressed a frisson of fear. There was something really wrong. She'd never seen Clark like this. In his Superman guise, he could be formal and stern, but this was... He looked troubled. Grim. Almost angry, in fact.

"Okay." It was almost a whisper. He rose to his feet and pulled her chair out for her, and she stood and followed him to the smaller conference room.

As soon as he closed the conference room door behind them, she whirled and demanded, "Clark, what's wrong?"

He hesitated, and her fevered imagination began to conjure up worst-case scenarios. He was... was quitting his job and moving back to Kansas. Or no, he'd... changed his mind about... them. Their relationship. No... He'd met someone else. Or... his parents were ill. *He* was ill. No, wait. He was Superman; he couldn't *get* ill. He was...

He was repeating her name, in a voice that suggested he'd already repeated it more than once.

She blinked and realized that she'd been standing there, staring at him without seeing him. She'd been seeing him in her mind, remembering. Remembering when they'd first met -- how startled they'd both been, and how attracted to each other. How she'd fought it. Remembering all the sweet things he had done -- still did -- for her. Remembering --

She was startled when he stepped in very close to her, tugging her gently into his arms. As she looked up at him, he brought one hand up under her hair, cradling the back of her head as he bent his own and kissed her tenderly. And then lifted his mouth a hair's breadth from hers to whisper her name.

"Lois, sweetheart, are *you* all right?" He pressed a second gentle kiss to her mouth.

Neither of them remembered that they could be seen by anyone who cared to look into the conference room through the wide-open blinds.

"Clark." She closed her eyes and tipped her forehead against his chest for a brief moment. "I'm okay. I'm just..." she drew a deep breath and looked back up at him.

There was still something very much the matter -- she could feel it.

"I'm worried -- scared -- for you. Clark, what's the matter? What is it? Did something happen? Did you..." She caught her breath as something else occurred to her. "Oh, God. Has someone discovered... your secret?"

He was still holding her. "Lois, no." He kissed her once more, as if he couldn't help himself, before his arms loosened and he turned her toward the conference room table.

"Here, sit down," he added, pulling out a chair on one side of the table for her.

She sank into it as he pulled out a chair at the end of the table, at a right angle to hers, and dropped into it.

"It's nothing like that," he continued. "Nothing terrible. At least... Well, it's... troubling. I thought I might be imagining it, but..." Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on the table and dropped his forehead into his hands with a heavy sigh.

"Clark!" Now she was really worried.

He lifted his head, looking at her soberly. "I think..." He hesitated. "I've thought and thought about it... And I just don't know how else to explain it, Lois. I think someone is... testing me."

"Testing you?" she asked, confused. "What do you mean?"

"The last few..." He frowned and ran his hand through his hair. "I don't know... *things*... that Superman was needed for were..." He shook his head in frustration. "They were... false alarms. Sort of."

"I don't understand," she said, bewildered. "Somebody called you when they didn't need you? So... somebody just panicked or something. It's happened before, Clark."

He shook his head. "No. No... Okay, look -- the bomb threats, for instance..."

"Well, yeah -- the one yesterday was a false alarm, but there was a real bomb this morning, Clark. Just because it didn't explode doesn't make it a false alarm."

"No... I know." He had slouched in the chair and was staring at his hands as he fiddled with a pen someone had left on the table. "Maybe I shouldn't say false alarms. Maybe *setups* is a better word." He looked up at her. "At this last bomb threat, there were similarities to the first one today."

"The *first* one today?" She sat up straight. Had she misheard him? "What do you mean, the first one *today*, Clark? And what 'last' one? There was another one? Here? In the city? There wasn't anything on the news -- and... And I didn't hear anything, either."

He was shaking his head. "It wasn't in Metropolis. It was in Washington. But... Yeah. After I left you this morning, downtown... Well, you know I went to that mugging. And right after I nabbed the guy, I was called to the second bomb threat."

She blinked. "Oh... I wondered where you'd gone." He'd heard this latest bomb threat, in Washington, all the way from Metropolis? Even Clark's hearing wasn't *that* good, was it?

He straightened up, leaning forward. The pen rolled in a loose arc, coming to rest near her hand. "See, that's what finally made me realize I'm not imagining this," he said earnestly. "There were too many similarities to the first bomb today. And to the one yesterday. I think they're setups, Lois. Someone has been planting bombs deliberately. To... test Superman, I think."

"Clark, I don't understand. What similarities? How many bombs were there? And how did you know about the one in Washington? You can't hear that far, can you?"

"No. At least, not unless I really concentrate, and even then, it'd have to be a fairly loud noise. I could probably hear a cry for help, but anything else -- a conversation, something on a TV or radio, or something like that -- I'd have to sort of be expecting it, you know?" He looked at her curiously. "Didn't you ever test it out, Lois? See exactly how far you could see or hear?"

Momentarily sidetracked, she answered, "Well, sort of." She stopped and thought about it for a moment, then frowned. "No, not really. I spent my whole life being very careful to *not* overhear things I shouldn't. I guess... my focus was more on learning to live with the sheer amount of noise coming at me all the time. Mama used to sing to me -- that's how she taught me to... choose what I listened to."

He was nodding. "Selective hearing. Yes, it takes on a whole new meaning for us, doesn't it? I remember how scared I was when I was learning to control it. In a way, it was worse than when my super vision started. I could choose not to look at something, but learning to filter out the bulk of all that noise was really hard."

She nodded, remembering. "I only really started seriously using my extra noi- um, my super hearing after I started working as a journalist. Well, when I was an intern at the Planet. I sort of tested it out then, I guess. It came in handy, you know -- if I could overhear things without being close enough to be caught eavesdropping..."

He nodded again, grinning. "Yep, been there and done that, too. It's a huge advantage in some situations, isn't it? Although then you have to explain how you overheard something at a distance." He chuckled. "Once, I told an editor I could lip-read. It was the only thing I could think of, but after that he never asked me again, so he must have believed it."

She laughed. "Very creative, Kent."

They had strayed off the subject, but the reminiscing and banter seemed to have eased some of his tension.

"So..." She hesitated. "How many bombs have there been now, Clark? Three?"

He sobered, but to her relief, he didn't seem as upset as he had earlier. "Well, technically, two -- one in Metropolis and one in Washington. But there were three threats -- one yesterday and two today." He picked up the pen again, capping and uncapping it absentmindedly.

"And how did you hear about the one in Washington?" she asked curiously. "Because I didn't hear anything, and it wasn't on the news -- at least, not on LNN. And if LNN didn't have it, I doubt it would be on any of the local TV stations, either."

"When I was handing the mugger over to the police, I heard a bulletin on their car's radio."

"But..." She shook her head in confusion. "...Why would a bomb threat in Washington be broadcast by the Metropolis police?"

He sighed. "I wondered the same thing, so I stopped by both police stations -- in Washington and Metropolis -- after the bomb was dealt with. It turns out that some anonymous someone called police headquarters here in Metropolis, asking for Superman's help."

"Someone from the Washington police?"

He shook his head. "No. Henderson says it wasn't an official request from Washington, but that when he checked with them, they acknowledged receiving a bomb threat. They then officially asked for my -- for Superman's -- help, if Bill could get a message to me. He decided I'd be very likely to overhear a call put out on the police radios, especially since two units had responded to a call to assist Superman at a mugging in progress."

"Who called police headquarters about the bomb? Do they know who this 'anonymous someone' is? Were they able to trace the call?"

"I don't know -- I don't think so. Bill said there was some concern that it was a prank call, which is why he called Washington to verify the threat first."

"Well, we need to find out who it was, then," she declared. "How bad was it -- the one in Washington? Was it just another threat or was there a real bomb?"

"It was a real bomb -- it exploded when I entered the building. No one was hurt, though -- the building was being renovated, so there weren't any tenants. And the police evacuated the workmen when they first received the threat."

"I wonder why it wasn't on the news, then," she mused. "Washington is... Well, you'd think that a bomb going off in a building there -- even an empty one -- would at least get a mention on a nationwide news station like LNN. Maybe we should check into that, too..."

He shrugged, shaking his head. "I don't know. LNN may not have had video. It may have just been on the news ticker."

She hadn't thought of that. "True... I checked LNN a couple of times after I returned to the Planet, since I didn't know where you'd gone, but I wasn't watching the ticker. I guess I just expected that something involving Superman would be on the actual news."

"Maybe there was something else happening somewhere, something more important," he suggested.

She shook her head. "But that's just it, Clark -- there wasn't. That's why I couldn't figure out where you'd gone."

She paused. "But anyway, there's something else, isn't there? What else about these threats points towards a setup, rather than a coincidence?" She held up one hand as he began to answer. "You know I don't like coincidences, but I got the impression it was something very specific that cemented the idea for you."

"Yeah," he said rather grimly. "At the first one this morning, for instance. You were there. You know it wasn't a false alarm. There was a real bomb, on a timer, with less than five minutes to detonation. And you know I got it out of there, up and away from the city, before it exploded..." He was rolling the pen lightly back and forth on the table with one hand.

She nodded. "But...?"

"Well, then I went back in to make sure everything was okay..."

"Yes," she said encouragingly, "And...?"

"Remember how I said that the security setup was unusual...?"

She nodded.

"When I first went into the building," he continued, "I was focused on that bomb. But even then, peripherally, I thought that there were an awful lot of cameras. So when I went back in again, with the bomb squad, I made a point of really *looking* for security cameras. And there were... just too many cameras. In addition to the ones mounted in plain sight, there were others. They were hidden pretty well -- without my super vision, I might have missed them."

"Couldn't it just be an extra layer of building security?" she asked. "I mean, sometimes, if people know the range of a security camera that's in plain sight, then they'll just make sure they're out of sight of that camera. So... I don't know, maybe some hidden cameras add extra security..."

"I thought that might be the case at first, too, although I still thought it was odd. There's nothing about that building -- at least its lobby -- that really warrants that kind of security. I looked through the rest of the building, too. It's just medical offices, accountants -- stuff like that. So I decided that you and I needed to talk to the building's owner and find out about the security -- have it explained to us. I figured the owner could tell us why there's such an elaborate setup."

"Yeah, that makes sense," she agreed. "So then, in Washington... Did that building have the same kind of overkill setup?"

He snorted. "Overkill setup. That's exactly what it was, Lois. Too much security for the building's needs."

"Maybe the building owner's just some chump that some overzealous security equipment salesman took advantage of," she said facetiously. "And maybe the same guy owns the building in Washington." She paused for a moment, then added with a smirk, "Of course, then we'd still have to investigate why two of his buildings had bombs planted in them..."

He rolled his eyes, grinning. "Talk about overkill."

She laughed. "Okay, yeah, that is pretty farfetched. And we can check out the ownership thing easily. But I'm playing devil's advocate here, Clark."

"I know, Lois." He stopped rolling the pen and took her hand for a moment, squeezing gently. "And believe me, I've been over it and over it in the last couple of hours, trying to come up with logical explanations for the similarity of the incidents. The one in Washington was another real bomb, but this time it exploded when I entered the lobby. The whole thing was the same sort of setup, Lois -- the lobby of a public building, a threat called in anonymously, and everyone was safely evacuated from the building. The first big difference is that the bomb went off when I entered the building."

"And there were too many cameras there, too?"

"Yes -- I think so. And this time, I looked *very* carefully. It was harder to piece together because this time there was quite a bit of damage to the building, but there seemed to be a lot of extra cameras there, too. And even with the damage, I could tell that some of the cameras had been hidden. And the hidden ones were different -- a different brand than the ones mounted in plain sight."

He sighed. "So after I wrapped up stuff in Washington, I went back to this morning's site and I looked again. Those cameras... the ones that seemed to be extras -- they were placed to view the area where the bomb was. Only that area. So I looked very, very closely..." He tapped the temple of his glasses. "Those cameras were wired into the building's phone lines. And I think now that they might have been transmitting video. During the bomb removal."

"Why? And to whom?"

He sighed again. "I don't know. But I think..." He lowered his voice, although they were alone in the conference room. "I think someone is... testing Superman."

She leaned forward, worried but intrigued. "You said that before -- *testing* you. Why?"

"I don't know," he said. "And part of me still wonders if I'm just being paranoid. But... there've been an awful lot of emergencies -- the airplane, the window washers, the different bomb threats -- that appear to be... manufactured."

He'd gone back to fiddling with the pen again, flexing it between the thumb and fingers of one hand. She reached out and gently took it from him before he snapped the barrel and ended up with an inky mess on his hands -- literally. He looked up at her again.

"And... I think these last two muggings were part of this thing, too. Well, maybe not yesterday's -- I'm not as sure about that one. But especially today's. It was... just weird, Lois."

"How?"

"Well, yesterday -- remember how *bold* the whole thing was?" When she nodded, he continued, "The mugger didn't seem particularly concerned about being caught, and the victim took off. I didn't have a lot of time to think about it, though, because that's when I heard the window washers yelling for help. I wrapped the mugger up in a signpost -" He stopped when Lois laughed.

"I'm sorry, Clark," she said immediately. She reached out and rested her hand on his; he turned it over and meshed his fingers with hers. "It's just... do you remember our talking about that the other day? I know you already told me all this yesterday, but it's still kind of funny to picture you actually securing somebody to a -- what was it, again? A tree? No -- a lamppost, right?"

He gave her a small grin, nodding. She laughed again. "...With a stop sign or something. It just seems more like something I would do."

"It was a No Parking sign, actually." He smiled at her; although he was obviously still worried, it was a brief but genuine smile. "And where do you think I got the idea, Ms. Lane?"

She laughed again, then sobered and squeezed his hand gently. "So... What was weird about today's mugging?"

He frowned and ran his free hand through his hair. "Both times, the muggers shot at me. That happens; I catch the bullets, catch the guy, and that's that. But this time..." He trailed off, staring blankly at the wall, shaking his head.

He couldn't be implying he'd been hurt. It had to be something else, but -- "What, Clark? This time, what?" She shook the hand she held a little.

He focused on her again. "Yesterday, it was just -- you know, a gun. The guy shot at me, point blank in the head and chest. Five times. I caught the bullets, of course. The mugger acted almost... I don't know -- just not very amazed that the bullets weren't hurting me. And not at all concerned that he'd been apprehended. And the victim took off running. That's why I think it might have been another test -- maybe whoever this is wanted to verify that bullets can't hurt me."

"And today...?"

"Like yesterday, the mugger shot at me. And like yesterday, the victim took off as soon as I stopped the guy. But the really, *really* weird thing was the bullets. They were... unusual."

"*How*, Clark?" she asked impatiently.

"One was... a silver bullet."

She gaped at him for a moment. "Okay... That's just weird. Real silver? Like... vampire legends silver?"

"Yeah. And one was tipped with an uncut diamond. Well, mostly uncut. Cut enough to fit into the chamber of a gun."

"So do you think the mugger's just some kook? Have we maybe got some sort of serial-mugger lunatic out there?"

He ran his hand through his hair again. "It could be..." he said slowly. "Except that one of the bullets... The fired bullet was an unusual shape, so I took it to Bill Henderson. He said it's a... It used to be called a Black Talon, and it's designed to do maximum damage. It's considered to be so dangerous that it's marketed only to law enforcement. It's called something else now, but the bottom line is it's designed to incapacitate someone fast."

"Okay..." She frowned. "Clark, that almost sounds like someone is trying to find something that will hurt Superman. What were the other two bullets made out of?"

"They were as strange as the first two. One was some kind of metal -- I don't know what it was and neither did Bill. The other was some kind of metallic rock. It crumbled when I put enough pressure on it. I don't know what it was, either."

"Do you think we could find a lab or something that can tell us what those last two are?" she asked. "Maybe it would give us some clues as to where they came from."

"Bill probably knows someone. I left them with him. But even if they figure out what those last two are, the materials may not be rare enough or valuable enough to trace to a specific source."

She sighed. "True. And even knowing the source doesn't necessarily lead us to a specific person, I guess. Still, we should be as thorough as possible."

"Definitely. But what do you think, Lois? Do I sound paranoid?"

"No. You don't. I think you're right -- something is going on. There's definitely something up with the bombs and bomb threats, I think. And yesterday's mugging might have been intended not so much as a test to see what happens when you're shot at, but more as a... distraction. Especially if..." She trailed off, thinking.

"If the thing with the window washers was partly a test to see how fast you are..." she said slowly, "Then..." She snapped her fingers. "...have Superman involved in stopping a mugging, and right in the middle of it, clear across town, you have a dire emergency that requires immediate intervention to save lives..."

She looked up to see him staring at her in amazement. "What?"

He shook his head. "I never thought of that. I was focusing more on the shooting. But yes, I had to stop what I was doing and head toward those yells at top speed, Lois, and you know I only just caught that platform in time."

Frowning, she continued, "But that would mean that whoever this is has no concern for who might get hurt during these... 'tests'..." She looked over at him again. "You're pretty sure the window-washers thing was a setup, too? The guys you saved -- do you think they're in on it?"

She sat up straighter as something occurred to her. "Wait a minute. Clark, you said their safety harnesses were attached to one of the support cables, not to the anchor point on the roof. Why would they have done that, unless..."

But Clark was shaking his head. "No, Lois. The platform was already set up; that was their second day window-washing at the Baxter Building. Maybe they should have checked, but they assumed everything was the way they'd left it. They just climbed in, put on the harnesses, and deployed the platform."

"Oh." She slumped against the back of the chair. She didn't necessarily *want* the window washers to be the guilty parties, but for a moment, there, she'd thought she was on to something.

"So do I think it was a setup?" he repeated. "Yes. Those cables were partially cut. But no, I don't think the window washers are in on this at all."

He shook his head again, and she could see how worried he was. "That's the scary thing, Lois -- I'd swear, based on their reactions, that they aren't -- weren't -- in on this plot. Scheme. Whatever it is. I think those guys were innocent bystanders. And if it turns out that the airplane was, in fact, part of this... Then yes, whoever is doing this is apparently willing to deliberately put people in danger."

"Yeah. And then... today's mugging sounds more like another outright test -- because of the strange bullets. Whoever this is has already learned how fast you are..." She broke off again, thinking.

Clark didn't interrupt her; he just sat watching her, waiting.

"And those bombs -- well, they've learned that bombs don't hurt you, so..." She sat up straight. "And from what you say, whoever they are might have video to prove it!" She frowned darkly. "I don't like the way this is looking at all, Clark. I think today's mugging was definitely a test to see if anything *else* can hurt you." She looked up at him, worried. "So what's next?"

He shook his head helplessly. "I don't know, Lois. That's why we need to figure out what's going on -- who's doing this -- as soon as possible."

"That airplane is definitely looking like an awfully suspicious coincidence, isn't it?" A sudden thought occurred to her. "What about that fire, Clark? You don't think that was a setup, too, do you?"

"No. I really think that was just as it seemed -- an accident. I think this thing started with that airplane."

"We need to figure this out." She leaned back in the chair again, tapping the pen she'd taken from Clark against her bottom lip in thought. "Hmmm... Jimmy hasn't found anything that stands out about any of the passengers on that plane. Yet."

She straightened up. "Okay," she started briskly. "We've got work to do, Clark." She glanced around. The conference room's computer had a printer attached; she stood up and grabbed a blank piece of paper from the paper tray. Uncapping the pen, she began to make a list. "We need to find out who owns those buildings, ask about their security setups. Rule out a legitimate reason for those cameras. We need to really dig into the information Jimmy found us about the airplane passengers. We need to go talk to those mechanics. Find out what they've found out."

She looked up to see him smiling at her admiringly.

"What?" she said again.

"I knew the best thing to do was tell you about my suspicions."

She smiled back. "That's right, buster." She sobered. "Actually, Clark, that's exactly right. You *should* tell me what's going on whenever you can -- and that includes your suspicions, no matter how farfetched they may seem. What affects you affects me, Clark. You can't keep secrets from me."

He nodded seriously. "I realize that, Lois. You're right. I'm glad I told you."

"You weren't going to, though, were you? You had your suspicions after the window-washing platform fell. And you only told me today because I asked what was wrong."

He raised his hands off the table slightly in mock surrender. "Guilty as charged, ma'am -- about yesterday. I really was going to tell you about it today, but I was going to wait until tonight." He caught her hand gently when she shook a mock finger at him. "But I see the error of my ways, now, and I promise I'll try to tell you things instead of holding back."

"Good," she said with a smile. "You're trainable."

He laughed. "Yep. And besides, I love to watch you in action, Lois. If anyone can get to the bottom of this, you can."

He was still holding her hand; she smiled back at him and meshed her fingers with his. "It's not just me, Clark. It's *us*. Together." Her smile broadened as she added, "I'll never admit it to him, of course, but Perry sure knew what he was doing when he made us partners."

Clark laughed. <I love you, Lois.>

Her smile softened. <And I love you.>

He leaned over, slipping one hand into the hair below her ear and gently caressing her jaw with his thumb, and kissed her. She sighed into the kiss, enjoying the unhurried, gentle intensity of it. After a few moments, he lifted his head.

"I could go on doing that for a long time," he said softly, "but I suppose we should get back to work."

"Slave driver," she said affectionately. She handed him the pen and the list. "Here. I'm not sure I can remember how to write after that kiss."

He laughed, and read quickly over what she'd written.

"We also need to check into the backgrounds of both muggers." He added it to the list. "And we need to see if we can identify either of the victims, and check into *their* backgrounds, too."

"You said you already talked to somebody at both the Washington police station and the Metropolis station, Clark. Didn't they record the calls?"

He grimaced. "Yes, but both were too short to trace."

"Well, we can at least get copies of the calls, right? We probably won't get much from the caller's voice, but maybe we could get an idea of where the person was calling from... You know, by concentrating on the background noise in each call."

She trailed off as she realized he was staring at her in surprise. "What?"

Smiling, he shook his head. "That never even occurred to me, Lois. I figured we'd be unlikely to identify the caller's voice on either tape, and that since the calls were untraceable, we were out of luck."

She smiled back at him. "So then you probably won't laugh at my other idea. I think we should see if the phone company can give us call information for the phone lines in both of the bombed buildings. Especially any outbound calls right at the time of the bombing."

"I'm not about to laugh," he declared. "I think it's a great idea. I thought about trying to find out if there were any tapes from any legitimate security cameras, but I never thought about phone records. I'll add it to the list." He wrote it down, then recapped the pen and handed it to her.

She tucked it absently behind her ear and turned the list around so she could read it again. "Let's see..." She skimmed down it, then retrieved the pen and uncapped it again. "Let's add your idea, too -- at least some of those cameras had to be part of a real security system, didn't they? I bet Henderson can find out if there are any tapes."

"Maybe. And we can ask about copies of the voice tapes from both police stations, too."

She scribbled 'voice tapes police x 2' at the bottom of the list. "Okay. Good. So we can start by having Jimmy -" She broke off as something else occurred to her. "Clark, were there any extra cameras at the very first building? The one yesterday, before the plane?"

He frowned, staring unseeingly at the wall as he thought back. "No..." He refocused on her. "No. But there were plenty of cameras *outside*, because it was caught on LNN..."

She stared at him. "So... Maybe whoever is behind this was there, at the scene...?"

"...Or maybe just relying on the same information as the rest of the viewers, and only later set up the cameras..." he said slowly.

She nodded. "That's certainly possible. Were there... There were no extra cameras at the airport, were there? I remember looking around pretty thoroughly, because I didn't want to be seen. There were cameras inside the terminal and just outside it, but no other ones that I saw."

But she hadn't thought of hidden cameras. What if... What if someone had seen her? Flying, that day at the airport. Without a disguise. She hesitated, then said in a rush, "Of course, I wasn't really looking for hidden cameras... I didn't really think of it.; I don't even really know how to make sure there aren't any..." She could feel her heart rate increasing. "Clark -- what if someone saw me? I never thought about hidden cameras!"

He reached out and took both her hands in his, squeezing gently. "Lois, it's okay. I didn't detect any. In public places like that, part of my standard scan as I go in is for cameras. It's an old habit, from the days before Superman. I look and I listen. Cameras emit a spectrum of electromagnetic noise that I can hear... I can teach you what to listen for, okay?" At her nod, he repeated confidently, "I didn't detect any hidden cameras, honey." As he spoke, she *felt* the wave of warmth and reassurance settle over her like a blanket, and her fear receded as wonder took its place.

<Clark?> She stared at him.

<It's okay, love.>

<You're... *thinking* to me.> She saw his slow smile. "How are you doing that?" she whispered. "Neither one of us is laughing... < But I can... hear you. Feel you.>

He looked back at her, mirroring her wonder. <I don't know, but it's -->

A sudden, loud knock on the conference room door shattered the connection. They both turned as Jimmy stuck his head inside.

"Hey, guys -- CK, there's a Detective Bill Henderson parked at 271 for you."

"Thank you, Jimmy," Clark said, rising to his feet.

Lois stood, too, absently slipping the pen behind her ear again. <Clark?>

Jimmy was standing in the doorway, looking back and forth between them. "Um, guys... Are you... Is there..." He trailed off as Lois turned her best bland, give-nothing-away look on him.

"Yes, Jimmy?" she asked mildly, but he must have seen enough Mad Dog Lane in her expression to decide that he was safer not finishing his question.

"Nothing," he said hurriedly, raising his hands slightly and stepping out of their way. "Uh... I think Perry needs me..." He retreated rapidly.

Clark laughed softly.

Lois smiled perfunctorily, but she was more concerned with what had happened just before Jimmy interrupted them. <Clark?> "Why do you think Bill's calling?"

"Superman told him to call me if he found out anything about those two bullets," Clark told her very softly as they headed toward their desks.

<Clark?>

Rats. He wasn't picking up her thoughts. She sat down at her desk as Clark perched on the edge of it and picked up her phone.

"Is this okay?" he asked, finger poised over the 'park' button.

That moment in the conference room must have been a fluke, because he wasn't picking her up at all. "Of course it's okay, silly," she said, adding for the benefit of anyone nosy enough to be listening, "How else am I supposed to eavesdrop?"

With a laugh, Clark keyed the correct extension and spoke into the phone. "Bill? This is Clark Kent."

<<Kent? Superman told me I could leave a message with you.>>

"Yes, that's correct."

<<He brought me two bullets earlier today. You know about that?>>

"Yes." Clark slanted a look at Lois as he added, "Lois and I were talking to Superman earlier."

She grinned at him. "I was, anyway," she whispered. Clark covered the mouthpiece of the phone with one hand as he smothered a laugh.

<<I've sent them to a place called S.T.A.R. Labs -- Science and Technology Advanced Research Laboratories -- for analysis. It'll be a few days, at least, but the fellow I left them with, a Doctor Klein, ventured a guess on the second one.>>

Lois sat up straighter, listening.

"What did he say?" Clark asked curiously.

<<He said he thinks it might be a meteorite. Apparently, it's metallic enough that it's magnetic; he called it an iron meteorite. That's all I've got for the moment.>>

"Thank you, Bill." Clark hung up the phone and looked at Lois.

"A meteorite, huh? Weirder and weirder," she said softly.

***

The rest of the afternoon was quiet, Superman-wise. Both Lois and Clark kept expecting another manufactured emergency to crop up, but there was nothing. Lois wasn't sure if that meant that whoever was testing Superman had learned all that he -- or she -- needed to know, or if it meant that there was something bigger headed their way.

And she and Clark would be going to Smallville for the weekend. She knew Clark was worried about the city's safety in his absence, but should they cancel their plans for fear of what might happen?

She looked across at him. His head was bent over one of the documents Jimmy had found them; Lois had just finished going over another of them. It was slow and tedious work, especially as neither of them could read through the information at super speed while they were in the newsroom.

Not when there were so many people around, anyway. Even when they were in one of the conference rooms, of course, they needed to be careful. The blinds were rarely shut all the way, and during most of their investigations, Jimmy would be in and out with information they'd requested.

They weren't using either conference room right now, though. They needed access to more than one phone, for one thing. Clark had taken on contacting the building owners and their security companies, and Lois was putting out feelers to all of her sources -- and there were many -- for information. For that, she needed her Rolodex. Not the general-purpose one she kept on her desk; all of her sources were in a second Rolodex she kept locked in her desk drawer.

"There must be *someone* who's heard *something*," she'd told Clark.

Whether Clark felt the weight of her gaze or whether it was sheer coincidence, he looked up, and catching her eye, smiled. She hooked an ankle around the bottom of her chair just in case, and smiled back.

"Ready to call it a day?" he asked. "Or do you want to keep reading this..." he waved a hand at the papers spread across both their desks and faked a huge yawn. "...absolutely *fascinating* subject matter?"

She laughed. "I'm ready to call it a day." She began gathering the papers on her desk into a neat stack.

Clark gathered his own stack of papers and stood up. "Seriously, shall we check with the airplane mechanics on Monday? We've been through most of the passengers' backgrounds by now; nothing stands out, does it?" He moved to her desk and added his stack to hers.

"No, there's nothing. And yes, I think it's time we checked in with the mechanics." She hesitated. "Clark," she said softly, looking up at him, "Are you okay with..." She dropped her voice to nearly a whisper. "...with leaving the city?"

He bent and tidied the stack of papers, then tucked it into the slim portfolio he often carried. "Yes." He met her eyes. "Yes," he repeated in a low voice. "Because if I start worrying about what *might* happen..." He straightened up and tucked the portfolio under one arm.

She nodded sympathetically. "Yeah. Besides, the pattern seems to be during the day." She glanced around quickly. This wasn't really the best time or place to be having this discussion. Very, very softly, she added, "And I guess you could still..." She sketched a brief version of the motion they both used to describe flight. "...later tonight."

He smiled at her and leaned in close. "Nope. Superman's going to be hanging out with his girl..." he whispered. As she giggled, he added in his normal voice, "Ready?"

Lois got her purse out of the bottom drawer of her desk and stood up. "Yes."

They headed up the ramp together.

"Stairs?" She asked, and added for the benefit of the staff members waiting for the elevator, "That was a pretty filling lunch."

"Sure," Clark said cheerfully, and they turned toward the stairwell door. As they went through it, they heard someone -- Ralph? -- say sourly, "Who's got enough energy at the end of the day to take the stairs? That's what elevators are for."

Clark looked at Lois and grinned. She shook her head and rolled her eyes, but didn't say anything. No sense in wasting even a few sentences on Ralph.

***

On the roof, Lois paused. "Clark, what should I pack?"

He raised an eyebrow.

"No, I mean... What sort of luggage should I use?" she hastened to clarify. "I know *what* to pack -- clothes and toiletries and so on... But I don't think I have a duffle or something I can carry easily. I was thinking maybe my old college backpack would work, because then I could wear it. You know, while we're flying? Except... it might not be big enough, and besides, I don't remember for sure where it is..."

"Lois..."

She sighed. "I guess I'm a little nervous, Clark."

He framed her face in his hands and kissed her sweetly and way too briefly. "You don't need to be, you know," he said gently. "Mom and Dad are looking forward to seeing you again. Dinner with my folks won't be a big, fancy party. It will be a lot like last time -- just visiting, talking... We just won't fly back tonight."

He kissed her again. "It doesn't matter what kind of luggage you use. I thought I'd fly out there with it and then come back; then we can go out there together. Or we can both go, and then I'll come back for the luggage."

"That doesn't make sense, Clark. Why not just make one trip?"

He grinned at her. "Because if I take our bags separately, then I can hold your hand while we fly out there," he explained matter-of-factly.

She laughed.

"So -- meet you at your place in... what? About thirty minutes?" he asked.

"Clark, no! I can't pack, and choose an outfit and... all that in thirty minutes! Give me an hour, okay?"

Clark laughed. "Lois, you're super powered," he teased. "You could do all that in two or three minutes if you wanted."

She folded her arms and gave him a mock glare. "Clark, these things can't be rushed," she informed him loftily.

"Okay, okay," he chuckled, "I stand corrected." He offered her his arm, exactly as if they were getting ready to take a leisurely stroll.

She tucked her hand in his arm and they rose together into the night sky.

***

Halfway through packing her toiletries, it suddenly occurred to Lois that she was going to be the Kents' houseguest, and therefore should really take a gift to her hostess.

"Okay, panic time," she muttered. What could she get in -- she glanced at the clock -- in fifty minutes? It couldn't be just anything. Martha was a special lady, and Lois wanted to give her something nice.

After another few minutes of pacing, she came to a decision. "Time to seek expert advice," she announced to the empty room. She strode to the phone and dialed.

<<Hello?>>

"Hello, Ellen," she began. "It's Lois. Are you... Do you have a moment? I need your advice."

Ellen sounded pleased. <<Lois! How nice to hear from you. Certainly, my dear -- what do you need?>>

"I've been invited to dinner, and I need a hostess gift," Lois began. Ellen had what might actually be a genetic talent for all things etiquette. If she couldn't advise Lois, no one could.

<<For whom?>> Ellen inquired.

Lois hesitated.

<<It does help to know what sort of gift is appropriate,>> Ellen added.

"My... A friend's parents."

<<A man?>> Ellen's voice sharpened with interest.

"Yes..." Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. She didn't have time to play twenty questions, and Ellen had been saying for years that Lois needed to meet 'some nice young man.' She was bound to start firing all kinds of questions at Lois, and --

Ellen surprised her. <<Oh, Lois. I'm so pleased to hear that, my dear,>> she said simply. <<Someone whom you've known for some time?>>

"Um... Sort of. He's... someone I work with."

<<And... more than a friend.>> Ellen sounded pretty sure about that. <<Is that wise, Lois?>>

Lois squirmed inside. She really didn't want to answer a lot of questions right now. "Um... He's... Ellen, I only have a minute..."

But she *was* asking for Ellen's help, and Ellen was being remarkably restrained with her questions. "Can I... I can give you a call sometime in the next week or two; you could join us for lunch and meet him... I think you'll like him, Ellen," she added in a rush. "He's got a college degree; he's smart, and polite, and --"

<<Handsome?>> Lois could hear the amusement in Ellen's voice.

"Uh... Yes. Yes, he is."

Ellen laughed. <<I'd like that. Now -- have you met her, Lois? This young man's mother?>>

"Yes."

<<Do they live here in the city?>>

"No." She certainly couldn't tell Ellen that the Kents lived in Kansas. "Uh, no, Ellen. It's more rural..." It didn't get much more rural than a farm in Kansas, actually, but -- "...it's outside the city..." She trailed off.

<<Hmmm. How about... a tin of gourmet cookies?>>

Martha was a fabulous cookie maker... baker?...in her own right. "No -she's got a couple of really good cookie recipes of her own..."

<<A plant? Maybe a basket of herbs?>>

Martha had all the herbs and plants she needed; they lived on a farm, and Lois had seen the bundles of dill and garlic and other herbs hanging from the chains Jonathan had hung from the ceiling in the barn's cold room.

"Well, they live... um, she's a gardener, Ellen." A farm was kind of like a large garden, wasn't it?

<<Wine is usually a good choice,>> Ellen continued. <<Of course, if you don't know their tastes, sometimes that makes it more difficult to choose the correct one.>>

And besides, wouldn't there be some kind of pressure on the Kents to immediately serve it? And what if they had their own wine choice already?

"What else?" she asked, beginning to feel somewhat desperate.

<<Chocolate?>>

Martha could get gourmet chocolate any time she wanted; all she had to do was ask Clark...

<<Or... Maybe some gourmet *hot* chocolate?>>

Lois had never, *ever* had hot chocolate as good as Martha's recipe. There were probably very few gourmet versions that were any better, in fact. "Well... I'm not sure... Can you think of anything else?"

<<What are these people like?>>

"They're nice." Lois smiled at the thought of the Kents, and even she could hear the sound of the smile in her voice. "Warm. Friendly. I... I really like them."

<<Hmmmm...>> Ellen murmured. There was a brief silence; Lois heard the tap of her fingers and could picture her sitting at the little desk off the dining room, starting at nothing and idly tapping her fingers as she thought. <<Ah! I know just the thing, Lois. Downtown, at Union Station -->>

The old train station, long in disrepair, had been restored to its former glory during the revitalization of the downtown area several years ago. It now housed a shopping mall that was attached to the Lexor, a five-star hotel that was one of the downtown area's jewels.

<<...I don't know if you know it, but there's a shop in the mall called The Red Envelope...>>

"No..."

<<It's a very nice shop. It belongs to one of my patients -- she sells stationery, candles, jewelry, and house wares, as well as various gourmet baskets. She also sells online, I believe. I was in there just the other day. She has an exclusive line called Circle of Friends -- very elegant but understated. The nicest piece is a votive candleholder -- a circlet of silver figures standing arm in arm, in a brushed finish. They're facing inward, and each has a heart on its chest. What do you think?>>

It sounded perfect. "Thank you, Ellen," she said gratefully. "It sounds perfect."

<<You're welcome, my dear. ...And Lois? Please do call; I would like to meet this young man of yours.>>

"I will, Ellen. Thank you again." After listening to Ellen's goodbye, Lois hung up the phone.

She looked at the clock. Did she have time to get to this shop and back in forty minutes?

Of course she did. The only limiting factor, really, would be how many other people were shopping at Ellen's patient's shop when Lois got there. At top speed, she changed into her black flying clothes, opened the window, and zipped out.

***

By the time Clark arrived, Lois had finished packing her small suitcase and a tote bag.

The young woman at the shop had packaged the candleholder carefully in blue tissue paper before tucking it into a bright red gift box, which she then tied with a wide white fabric ribbon. Lois had carefully carried the box back to her apartment, and had packed it into the tote bag, after wrapping the box in her favorite Met U sweatshirt for added protection.

She was ready, with five minutes to spare, when Clark knocked on her door. He stepped inside, setting a medium-sized carryall on the floor just inside the apartment. "All set?" he asked with a smile.

She handed him her suitcase, but kept the tote back. "I think I'd like to carry this one myself, Clark."

"Okay," he said cheerfully. "Is it waterproof, though? Dad said there's rain forecast for most of Kansas tonight. We'll be above any storms, of course, but we may have to go down through some fairly heavy rain."

"Oh." She didn't know if the tote was waterproof or not. "I don't know, but I don't want the box inside to get wet," she told him worriedly.

"We can wrap the whole tote in a plastic bag," he suggested, "but that'll make it harder to carry -- you won't be able to sling it over your shoulder." He thought for a moment. "Here, let me have it. There's some room left in my bag; I think it'll fit."

"The whole tote?" she asked incredulously.

He grinned at her. "Yep."

He lifted his bag onto her kitchen island and unzipped it.

"It's fragile, Clark," she said somewhat anxiously, handing him the tote bag.

Sure enough, there was room for the entire tote in his bag. "I'll make sure I tuck it down between a couple of my shirts, then," he said, suiting action to words. "And I promise I'll be careful with it." He zipped the bag closed, then turned to her.

She shook her head. "I don't know how you do it. I needed *two* bags, and I filled them both."

He laughed and reached down to pick up her bag. Slinging both bags over his shoulder, he turned to her.

"Don't worry, Ma'am," he said formally, straightening up into a Superman-like pose and deepening his voice. "Superman Airways treats your luggage as if it were our own, and we haven't lost a bag yet." He relaxed back into himself and grinned at her.

"Goof," she said affectionately, laughing. She leaned in to him, hugging him, and tugged his head down. When he obligingly leaned down, she kissed him.

After several delightful minutes, he lifted his head. "Will you wait here a moment while I deliver the bags?" he asked, punctuating the question with another kiss. "I'll be quick, and then we can fly out to Mom and Dad's together."

She still thought it was an extra trip; the bags weren't that big. But he seemed to feel strongly about it, so she nodded. "But hurry back -" She was interrupted by her stomach growling loudly.

She clapped both hands over her middle, giggling helplessly, as he began to laugh. "Oh, dear," she said in between giggles.

"I'll hurry," he said, still laughing, and in the next instant was gone.

Barely three minutes later he was back. "Ready?"

When she nodded, he extended his hand to her, and together they stepped through her window and shot up into the night sky. Neither stopped until they were above the clouds.

***

Sitting at the kitchen table in the Kent farmhouse, Lois sipped her coffee. Clark and his dad had just excused themselves to go out to the barn, and after the small flurry of activity as they rose and put their plates on the counter, the house was quiet. Across from her, Clark's mom had just returned to her seat.

The Circle of Friends candle holder sat in the middle of the table, the candle itself lit and flickering merrily.

Shortly after she and Clark had arrived at his parents' house, Lois had somewhat nervously presented the gift to his mom. Anxiously, she'd watched as the older woman had admired the elegant little red box, then carefully untied the ribbon and lifted the cover.

She'd hoped that Clark's mom would like the gift, but had been unprepared for the warm and enveloping hug Martha had given her. "Oh, Lois, it's just lovely!" Martha had said. "And it's just right, isn't it? It's what we are -- all of us, honey, you included. Not just a family, but a circle of friends."

Jonathan and Clark had both nodded in smiling agreement.

"It's beautiful, Lois," Clark's dad had told her gruffly, "And Martha's right -- you're part of our family. Part of our circle."

Martha had enfolded Lois in her arms again, and for a brief moment Lois was back in Mama's arms. And yet in the same moment, the small sharp ache of loss as Lois remembered Mama was mitigated by the genuine love and caring this woman was showing her.

Unable to speak for a moment, Lois had smiled tremulously at Martha, who seemed to understand. "Let's put it here, in the center of the table," she'd said, "So that we can enjoy it while we eat."

She'd then turned to Jonathan, giving him some sort of instructions regarding the place settings, and allowing Clark to draw Lois into his own arms for a moment.

"It's perfect, sweetheart," he had whispered to her before kissing her gently. "Where did you find it?"

She'd found her voice with some difficulty. "I really have to thank Ellen, Clark. I called her to ask for suggestions -- I wanted it to be special, and Ellen is good at that sort of thing. When she told me about the candleholder, it sounded just what I wanted."

He'd kissed her again. "Well, it's just right." Letting her go, he'd held her chair for her. At Martha's request, he'd lit the candle with a small burst of heat vision before taking his own chair. And in its cheerful light, they'd begun their meal.

Now Lois looked across the table at her hostess.

"Thank you again, Mrs. Ke-" Lois began.

"Martha, honey," Clark's mom reminded her with a smile.

"Thank you again, Martha," Lois repeated. "Dinner was very good."

"You're welcome, Lois. We're happy to have you here," Martha replied with Clark's warm smile.

There was silence for a moment while Lois thought of something to say. The silence wasn't uncomfortable, but maybe she wasn't holding up her end of this social occasion.

"So..." she began, but trailed off. The conversation had flowed smoothly during the meal, with the four of them laughing and talking, the talk moving effortlessly from one subject to the next. But now the only thing she could think of was, "Nice weather we're having, isn't it?" And the kicker was that they *weren't* having nice weather at the moment, at least here in Kansas. She and Clark had encountered rain around St. Louis, part of a weather system that extended over most of Kansas and into Colorado. The steady downpour hadn't let up yet.

Martha sipped her coffee, and pushed the plate of homemade cookies closer to Lois. "Would you like any more cookies, Lois?" she asked, then continued with a grin, "You might as well claim a couple of them now; they'll be gone by tomorrow. Since Jonathan *isn't* blessed with a super metabolism, I only make these when Clark comes to visit. And since both men are partial to them... Well, they go fast."

Lois laughed, and suddenly everything seemed comfortable again.

"Other than this current situation," Martha continued, "how are things going for you?"

Lois and Clark had told his parents some of what had been happening in Metropolis.

She smiled. "Good..." This was Clark's mom; Lois couldn't very well say anything else about her son. Not that there was anything bad to tell, of course. Other than those weird tests, things were going well with Clark, both at and outside of work. But still...

"We make a good team," she added as the silence seemed to lengthen.

Martha reached out and put her hand on Lois's. When Lois looked up at her, Martha smiled gently. Considering that Clark was adopted, it was uncanny how much Martha's smile was like her son's. Or was that the other way around?

"Lois."

She refocused on Martha.

"It's not that I think there's anything wrong, honey," the older woman said. "But I want you to know that if you need to talk, I'll listen. You don't have to tell me what you think I want to hear. Clark is my son and I love him, but like everyone else, he's human."

She paused. "Well, no, actually, he isn't -- but you know what I mean." She flashed an infectious grin at Lois, who found herself smiling back.

"He's flawed, like the rest of us," Martha continued. "He's always had a strong sense of responsibility, and I think that sometimes he takes it too far. He tends to be overprotective of the ones he loves, and he tends to keep things to himself rather than worry anyone else."

Lois nodded. She'd already encountered that, but fortunately, now she'd know to watch for it.

Martha patted Lois's hand. "Don't let him stifle you in the name of love, Lois. He won't do it on purpose; he probably won't even know he's doing it. I'm not saying you should take any sort of foolish chances, super powers notwithstanding. And I'm not saying you shouldn't ever lean on him or seek comfort from him -- from what you've said, you've had far too little of that in your life. But don't lose yourself. Don't make the mistake of changing who you are to become what you *think* Clark wants."

"Am I... doing that?" Lois asked hesitantly.

"No, honey. Not at all," Martha said reassuringly. "It's just that -- you already work together, and at some point you'll undoubtedly be living together, and you share the same unique abilities... There is a very real, very strong, and very natural tendency to fall into the trap of doing absolutely everything together, and that's unhealthy. For both of you, and for your relationship."

She patted Lois's hand again. "Take time for yourself, and encourage Clark to do the same. A healthy relationship requires compromise, of course, but it also needs both of you to keep your individuality. Remember that he fell in love with the you that you already are. And don't be afraid to disagree with Clark if you feel that he's wrong. The occasional healthy disagreement won't hurt your relationship." She winked at Lois. "And it's a lot of fun to make up afterward."

She laughed softly as Lois blushed a little, and continued, "And don't give up your hobbies or friends or interests because they're not his." She grinned at Lois again. "My son is a sports fanatic. Don't sit dutifully beside him cheering for some team in some sport just because Clark is their biggest fan -- unless, of course, you're a sports fanatic, too."

Lois laughed. "I'm not."

Martha squeezed Lois's hand gently. "I'm not trying to preach to you, honey -- I think you're the best thing that has ever happened to Clark. And I'm not trying to force you to talk to me if something is bothering you, or worrying you... I just want you to know that I can be an unbiased listener if you need one."

"Thank you," Lois said sincerely. After Mama died, she'd never had a confidant until she'd met Clark, and now here was his mom, offering to be yet another if she needed one. "Actually, there is something I've been thinking about..." she added, but then stopped.

"What is it?" Martha prodded gently.

"Well... You know," Lois began slowly, "I wasn't going to be a superhero -- I'm still not sure I want to..."

She looked at Martha, who nodded and said encouragingly, "Go on..."

"Well... Clark and I talked about it. He left it entirely up to me," she added hurriedly. "I mean, he was fine with whatever I decided..."

Martha nodded again. "I understand. And what did you decide?'

"I was going to stay behind the scenes. I'm still not sure about doing anything else, but... There've been a few times -- well, a lot of times, actually... It's just that... you know, when he's off somewhere, it's really hard sometimes to stay behind. Besides, we... you know, bounce ideas off each other, so..."

"Lois --"

"Oh..." She stopped, embarrassed. "I'm sorry. Clark says I babble."

Martha laughed. "So does he, honey. Don't tell him I told you, but you should have heard him telling us about meeting you for the first time."

Lois laughed.

"But go on, Lois... You're rethinking your original decision?"

"Well..." She hesitated. "I don't have much experience saving people or... or stopping bombs. But I've had to fly during the day a few times, and it's hard to... Well, I worry about someone seeing me. So I've been wondering if maybe I should..." She trailed off.

"Have some sort of a disguise?"

She smiled with relief. "Do you think that's silly?"

"No, honey. I think if you want to, you can certainly be a superhero, too. Or you can have a disguise for when you need it, and continue to do what you do now, which might actually be more important."

"Work behind the scenes?"

Martha laughed. "No, Lois. Work with Clark. Work *with* him. The two of you together are stronger than either one of you alone, you know. He's been so much happier, so much more... confident, Lois. And you -- you were already an appealing young woman, infinitely likeable --"

She nodded adamantly as Lois shook her head. "Oh yes, you were," she insisted. "But you have really bloomed, Lois."

"Thank you," Lois said simply.

"...And yes, I think a disguise might be a good idea," Martha continued.

"Would you be willing to...?" Lois began, but Martha was already nodding.

"Yes. I'd be happy to help."

"Help what?" asked Clark, smiling at Lois as he and Jonathan came back into the kitchen, jackets dripping.

"Hi, Clark," Lois said with a smile.

"Leave those wet jackets -- and your boots -- in the mudroom," commanded Martha.

"Help what, Mom?" Clark repeated as he dutifully shed his jacket, leaned in through the open mudroom door and hung it on one of the hooks that had obviously been put there for exactly that purpose. He moved aside to allow Jonathan to hang up his own jacket.

"We're going to make Lois a disguise," Martha announced as Clark toed off his boots and set them inside the mudroom door.

Lois watched Clark anxiously as he padded to the table in his socks. She'd told him pretty adamantly that she didn't want to be a superhero... Would he be upset that she'd apparently suddenly changed her mind? She'd pitched a pretty strong argument for an increased risk to their secrets if there were two superheroes...

But no, he didn't look upset. "That's great!" he exclaimed, beaming. He pulled out the chair beside her and sat down, reaching out to draw the plate of cookies closer. Martha poured him a cup of coffee, then a second one for Jonathan as he, too, sat down at the table.

"You... don't mind?" she asked.

"Mind? Why would I mind? I think it's a great idea," he said cheerfully. He looked at her curiously. "Why would you think I would mind?" he asked.

"Not... *mind* mind..." she tried to explain. "You said that it was entirely up to me. But remember how I said that if we were both superheroes, people might figure us out? Figure out our secret?"

He nodded.

"I don't want to jeopardize your disguise. And..." She paused, trying to explain it. "I'm still not sure I really want to actually be..."

"A superhero?"

"Yeah." She knew a disguise would certainly make some things easier, but to be a full-fledged superhero...

Clark leaned over and kissed her. "You already are, sweetheart. You just don't know it." There was a hint of coffee and chocolate in his kiss -- her three favorite things, all together. "I couldn't do what I do half so easily without your help," he added.

"But..." It was nice that he saw it that way, but... "I'm still not sure I want to actually..." She waved an arm vaguely, unable to explain what, exactly, she didn't want. Maybe it was the responsibility -- the commitment that coming out as a real life, actual, named superhero implied. She couldn't... choose not to answer a call for help if she was an actual superhero.

She stilled. Not that she did that now, did she?

Clark's voice interrupted her thoughts. "And you don't have to, Lois. Whatever you're comfortable with is fine. But I do think a disguise is a good idea. Something to have, just in case..."

She smiled halfheartedly. "Yeah."

"Lois?" He turned more fully toward her. "What's wrong, honey?"

This was a disturbing line of thought. Was she...By choosing not to be a superhero, was she *choosing* not to answer a call for help? Did she do that? That was like... deciding who would live and who would die. Who would be injured and who would be saved.

Would she really do that? Had she been doing that? Was she so scared of the responsibility, the commitment, involved that she would consider just... ignoring someone in need? How could she tell Clark that? What would he think? And his parents were sitting right there, listening. With a groan, she folded her arms on the table in front of her and buried her face in the dark circle they made. Closed her eyes tightly.

"Lois!" She could hear the alarm in his voice, and --

"Lois?" That was his parents, speaking simultaneously.

She heard Clark push his chair back. His hand brushed gently over her hair and then rested on her back as he dropped to his knees beside her.

"Lois?" His other hand tugged gently on her folded arms, turning her toward him and the waiting circle of his arms. She resisted for a moment, and then allowed him to gather her against him. "What, honey?" he whispered. "Just tell me."

And it all tumbled out in a jumbled mess of half sentences, and she began to cry. Lois Lane never -- hardly ever -- cried. But that didn't matter any more. She didn't even care that Clark's parents were right there witnessing her tears.

"Lois." Clark was rocking her gently in his arms as he knelt beside her chair. "Oh, sweetheart..." He drew a deep breath.

"Lois, that's normal." He pulled back slightly, lifting her chin so that he could look into her eyes. "It's an awesome and terrible responsibility to have powers like ours."

He gently brushed at the tears still slowly spilling down her cheeks. "To publicly acknowledge it -- to put yourself in a position to be judged for what you can or can't do... It's perfectly normal that you'd want to avoid that. Because even if you were on call -- just... sitting on a cloud waiting to be needed, twenty-four hours a day -- there would still be people you just... can't help."

He drew another deep breath, and she felt, somehow, his lingering sadness as he spoke. "People you can't save because you can't get to them in time, or that you don't hear because you're somewhere else. People that you simply *can't* save, because sometimes even being right there right away and doing your best won't stop someone from being hurt -- or dying. And if you let it, the guilt over the ones you *can't* save will eat you alive."

He stroked her hair back from her face. "It's perfectly okay to not *want* the responsibility that goes with our powers, Lois," he continued. "And it's okay to be afraid. The true test is what you actually *do*. Don't think that I wasn't afraid -- am not still afraid -- of what wearing the suit means. Of the responsibility. It was a hard decision to make. And some days, especially those times when I fail to save someone, it seems like it's a decision I have to make all over again. I start to think -- what good is Superman if he can't save everyone?'

But... he'd been doing this -- helping people -- for so long. Even before Superman was created. "You were afraid, Clark?" Her voice hitched around a small, residual sob as she spoke.

He smiled slightly at her surprise.

"Oh, yes -- I was. And sometimes I still am. Sometimes it's almost crippling. What if I can't help? What if I can't get there in time? What if it all goes wrong? Wouldn't it be easier to just -- hide from the responsibility? Of course it would. But you and I both have a strong sense of responsibility -- witness our jobs," he added dryly.

"But this is... this is different, Clark..."

He shook his head. "I'm not so sure it is, Lois. You already help when you can -- every time you expose corruption, greed, or evil through an investigation. You already fight injustice -- this isn't really that different."

He smiled slightly. "Even with investigative reporting, there've been times when your best hasn't helped. There'll always be times, for whatever reason, when you just can't help. And then... you have to find a way to live with the guilt over the ones you can't save. Before I was Superman, I *did* sometimes have to ignore a cry for help, and each time, it got harder. Yes, it's incredibly scary to have taken on this job, but wearing the suit gives me opportunities to avoid the heartache, because it allows me the freedom to help openly."

"It's okay to be afraid, Lois." Martha had come around the table and was sitting in the chair that Clark had vacated. "It's what you do about it that matters."

"Everyone has fears," Jonathan added. He, too, had come around the table and was standing behind Martha. "Courage doesn't mean not being afraid..."

"Courage is acting *despite* your fear -- choosing to do what's right, even if it's a scary prospect," Martha continued. "And that's what you already do, honey. Even if you don't think so -- I think if you look deeper, you'll see."

In response to Lois's dubious look, she added, "You're thinking you made a choice -- the wrong choice -- years ago. But sometimes life dictates your choice -- so that what you think you're choosing isn't what ultimately happens. Weigh what you think you chose against your altruism, your empathy, and being particularly suited for helping someone in need, and, well... What you thought you chose isn't what you've ended up doing. Sometimes circumstances choose for you."

Clark framed her face in his hands. "I said it before, sweetheart -- you already are a superhero. You just didn't realize it. You've already made the choice to accept the responsibility, Lois."

"Not just now, when you asked for a disguise," Martha added. "You chose long before that, Lois. The first time you risked exposure to help someone in need. The first time you used your powers during an investigation and brought someone to justice. The first time you fought for justice at all, in fact, regardless of whether you used any special powers or not."

"Exactly." Clark took her hands in his. "You decided to fight the dragons a long time ago, Lois. You took on that responsibility. It's what you've always done, and what you will always do."

He smiled at her. "Yes, having a disguise will make it easier to keep your identity secret; will allow you greater freedom in using your powers. But not just for things like... flying in the daytime. It will allow you to help if someone needs you. And that's what you'll do. I can guarantee it, because I've learned that that's who you are. Someone who has chosen to use the awesome powers she has -- and not just your superpowers, Lois, but your intelligence and strong sense of justice -- for good, not evil."

"But isn't it evil to... ignore cries for help?" she whispered.

"When have you done that?" he asked gently.

"When I suppress..." She freed one hand and touched her ear. "You know... Turn it off. Deliberately don't listen."

"I don't think that you're deliberately not listening, Lois. We talked about this, remember? You just don't hear everything I hear. I really think there's a difference in how you and I hear, because sometimes I pick up things you don't, even when you're actively listening. Like that bomb in Washington. And when you think about it, it makes sense -- why should each of our abilities be absolutely identical? Super-powered or not, there are real physical differences between us; why shouldn't there be variations in how or what we see, or hear?"

He smiled at her. "You may just have a better ability to filter out background noise. And you have to do that -- you can't walk around with your super hearing always turned on, so to speak, so that you don't miss a cry for help, you know. The sheer volume of noise would make it impossible for you to function at all."

He brushed a strand of hair back behind her ear. "When you *do* hear things... Well, what about the times when you've made it very easy for me to leave the Planet to go help? Once we're out of there, and I've left to go save someone... Do you really think that if you heard someone yell for help, and you had a disguise, you wouldn't don it and go help? If I were unavailable?"

She opened her mouth, ready to reply.

But Clark put one finger on her lips. "Wait. Really think about this, Lois. If you were up on the Planet's roof with me... I've just taken off to help someone somewhere. You're going to go with your original plan -- change into a disguise so you can follow me, and if you're seen, you won't be recognized. And by arriving separately, we'll look less like we work together as... I don't know, a 'Superman and sidekick' kind of thing."

She smiled slightly at that.

"But anyway, what if, just as you're getting ready to follow me, someone else needs help? If you hear them, and you're in your suit... You'll ignore them?"

"Well, no. Of course not. I mean, if I was wearing..." She trailed off. If she was protected by a disguise, of course she'd go help.

He smiled at her. "See?"

Behind him, both Martha and Jonathan were also smiling.

***

"This disguise... what were you thinking of? Any ideas on how it would look?" Clark asked. The four of them were settled comfortably in the living room. A fire crackled quietly in the hearth.

"Well, no... I don't really know."

He grinned at her. "We could do what Mom did with me," he said teasingly.

Turning to Martha, he asked, "Do you still have that leopard print, Mom?"

Martha laughed.

Lois swatted at him. "Clark!"

He laughed, then sobered as he asked Martha, "Seriously, Mom, how do we do this?"

"Hmmm. Well, I guess we could go with a more feminine version of Clark's costume," Martha mused. "Except that's exactly what you *don't* want, is it?"

"Right." Aligning herself too closely with Superman might somehow allow someone to make the leap from Superman and... Whoever, to Clark and Lois.

Jonathan spoke up. "It will be harder to hide her identity, too, Martha. She doesn't wear glasses."

"True," Martha replied. "...Well, what about a mask?"

Clark was nodding, but Jonathan said, "Remember, though, what we said with Clark? With a mask, people might wonder what you're hiding.

Martha nodded. "Still... without a mask, she'll be instantly recognizable, regardless of what she's wearing." She looked over at Lois again. "And maybe... I don't know... maybe a hat? I don't think we have many options for her hair."

Lois grimaced. "Too bad I can't somehow dye it on command, then go back to this..." She fingered her hair. "...afterwards."

"Hmmmm..." Martha said, leaning forward slightly. "Actually, maybe..."

"There isn't really such a thing, is there?" Clark asked.

Martha laughed. "No... Well, actually, yes -- you could probably get temporary hair dye in a costume shop. But dying her hair, even temporarily, would be inconvenient. You want something fast and easy, Lois. Let's see..." She thought for a moment. "What about a cowl?"

"A cowl?" Lois and Clark spoke together.

"A hood," Martha elaborated. "Or the old fashioned word for something similar to a hood -- a snood. My grandmother wore one."

"Ah, yes. I remember. That might work," Jonathan agreed.

Clark frowned. "A snood?"

"What is it?" Lois asked curiously.

"A snood is a woven net -- sort of like a bag -- for your hair. But we could adapt that idea -- make you a costume with a cape and a hood similar to a snood that encloses your hair."

"Wouldn't that cut down on her peripheral vision?" asked Clark.

Martha shook her head. "No -- I'm thinking of something close-fitting that would go over her head and cover her hair and eyes -- like a combination snood and half mask. We could leave the lower part of her face uncovered."

"Sort of like a hooded cloak with a half mask?" Lois asked.

"Kind of, but we really shouldn't have the cape supported only by your neck. And the weight of the cape -- even a short one -- would probably distort the suit's neckline. That's why I made Clark's cape as a separate piece -- you know it's attached to a harness that goes over his shoulders under the suit?"

Lois nodded. "So it would be three pieces -- the suit, the mask and hood, and the cape?"

"Well, I'd like to try making the suit, hood, and mask as one piece -- then you could just pull the hood and mask up and over your head. We'll have to experiment, Lois, and see if you'd be able to stretch it up over your head yet still have the mask fit snugly. If not, then yes, the hood and mask will have to be a separate piece."

"And the suit itself?" asked Jonathan. "What would it look like?"

"I think the colors should be very different," offered Clark. He glanced at Lois. "To help establish that you're a separate superhero, not just Superman's sidekick."

Jonathan and Martha both laughed.

"Sidekick to Superman? If anything, boy, I suspect that *you* have to hustle to keep up with *her*," Jonathan said. "If you did form a superhero team..." He paused. "What will you call yourself, Lois?"

"I don't know," Lois replied helplessly. "I have absolutely no idea. Just -- something not too similar to Superman."

"Well, if you two formed a team, I suspect it would be 'Something-Not-Too-Similar' and her sidekick, Superman," Jonathan finished.

They all laughed.

"So 'Sean' is out?" Clark asked Lois, and then laughed even more heartily when she swatted him.

Martha and Jonathan watched them with bemused smiles.

"It's... I told him that when he showed up in the shuttle with the 'S' on his chest, I had to quick think of a name that started with 'S.'" she explained, rolling her eyes. "And of course, under that kind of pressure all I could think of at first were regular old men's names that started with 'S.'"

Both of Clark's parents chuckled. "Doesn't pack quite the same punch as 'Superman,'" Jonathan told his son.

"That's what I said," Clark said, still laughing. "Believe me, I've thanked her sincerely for going with 'Superman.'"

"What *would* we call me?" Lois asked.

"I think... let's come up with a color scheme, Lois, and try out a few designs first," Martha suggested. "Then we can sit down and figure out a name."

Jonathan was nodding. "That's a good idea, Martha. And now," he continued, "this old farmer needs to get to bed. We can work on this tomorrow."

He stood up and offered a hand to Martha, assisting her to her feet. "Goodnight, kids," she said cheerfully. "Lois, Clark's old room is made up and ready for you, and Clark, honey, you can use the spare pillows and blankets I keep down here in the hall closet. Do you want me to put a sheet on the couch?"

"I can do that, Mom," Clark answered, and with a few more goodnights, Martha and Jonathan retired for the night.

"Are you ready for bed, Lois? Or would you like to sit here for a while?" Clark asked.

She smiled at him. "Let's sit here for a while," she said. "I'm enjoying the fire."

***

"Lois?" They were both slouched down comfortably into the couch cushions, idly watching the fire.

"Hmmm?" She turned her head lazily to look at Clark.

"Earlier today, when I came back to the Planet -- after the bomb in Washington... When we first went into the conference room, you kind of zoned out on me." He hesitated. "What happened?"

"Oh." She sat up. "Um. I thought maybe... I don't know... Maybe you'd changed your mind about... us, or something..." She trailed off. It sounded silly now.

He shook his head. "That will never happen, Lois," he said matter-of-factly. "I love you. I'm not going to stop loving you." He shifted to face her more directly. "But why would you think that?" he added curiously. "Have I... Have I done or said something that would give you that impression?"

"No!" She squirmed around a little on the couch. Now she really felt silly. "No. It's just..." She trailed off, not looking at him.

"Here," he said softly, extending one hand, palm up. When she placed her hand in his, he tugged her gently into his lap. "Let me hold you?" She nodded silently, and he wrapped his arms around her, leaning back against the couch cushions. "Can you tell me?"

She held herself stiffly for a moment, self-conscious, but then relaxed against him. Slipping her arms around him, she rested her head against his shoulder just above his heart.

He rested his cheek against her hair, and she tipped her face up into his neck, breathing in his warm scent. "I thought maybe... it might be easier if you aren't looking at me," he murmured. "Can you tell me now, honey?"

"It's just... I've always been alone, Clark," she began. "Except for those early days with Mama... and she went away. I know she couldn't help it, but..." She sighed. "It wasn't the same after that. The Lanes -- well, I didn't get... I don't know. I know they cared, in their own way, but... Sam was too wrapped up in his psych stuff to bother much with me. And Ellen... Well, it just wasn't the same. She hugged me sometimes, but it was more like... like the way you hug someone you haven't seen in a while, sort of casually, you know? Not like..." She trailed off for a moment, listening to the steady beat of his heart. "Not like this," she whispered.

"And tell me, Lois, what do you need?" He straightened up enough to look down at her, and she lifted her head from his shoulder. When she moved to shift off his lap, though, his arms tightened around her and she subsided. Unsure what to do with her hands, she rested them on his arms.

"Do I need to hug you more?" He gave her a lopsided grin. "Although maybe you don't want to say yes to that. There've been a lot of times where it's been really hard keeping my hands off you, you know."

She laughed a little. "No, Clark. You're very affectionate." Impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed him softly. "I'm just... not used to all this. I'm afraid that if I get... dependent on it... Well, what if..." She bit her lip, gazing into his eyes. "What if you get tired of me?"

He looked back at her solemnly. "Lois... What if *you* get tired of *me*?"

That would never happen. She shook her head. "That won't happen, Clark. I'll never..." She trailed off. "Oh."

"See?" he whispered. "I'm just as vulnerable."

This time, he leaned forward and kissed her. "Lois, honey, there aren't any guarantees," he said gently. "We'll have to work at it, just like we do everything else." One corner of his mouth quirked into a smile. "I think we can probably rule out any chance of sickness or an accident breaking us up, at least."

He brushed one finger lightly along her jaw. "As for everything else, look at how successful we've been in other areas of our lives. That's partly due to talent, but a lot of it is simply the desire to be good at what we do. There's no reason why we can't make this aspect of our lives just as successful, sweetheart. If we both want it enough to keep working at it."

"I want that," she whispered.

"Me, too." He looked deeply into her eyes. "I love you. And I am not going to stop loving you. I've seen the real you -- at your best, and..." He kissed her quickly, and continued teasingly, "at what you *say* was your worst."

She giggled.

"Better, now?" he asked softly.

"Yes." She hesitated, then said with a smile, "Poor Clark. Here I am, never even been on a date before -- so you get to watch me go through all the stuff that most girls go through when they're teenagers."

He laughed. "But you'll be going through every one of them with me, so I don't mind at all."

He kissed her again, more lingeringly, and added, "I think maybe it's easier for me to... I don't know... trust love, than it is for you. To believe it will stay. But you do love me, don't you?"

"With all my heart," she whispered.

He smiled sweetly at her. "That's a start, then. We have love, and we have a strong desire to make this work. We can take it slow, Lois. I meant it when I told you that. As slow as you need. And we can talk about it if we need to. And I think, in a way... trust is like being a reporter. You have to start with a good base -- a good story, a good relationship -- but you can turn it into a great thing if you keep at it."

"What about work, though?" she asked, looking down at where her hands still rested on his arms.

"What about it?" He looked at her quizzically. "We work well together. Or are you worried about too *much* togetherness?"

"No, but... It's not that I want to be the subject of any more gossip, but it's getting hard to treat you like just my partner, when we're more."

"Oh." He was silent for a moment.

A little worried, she looked up at him, but he was smiling. "I'm just thinking how to say this without making you feel pressured."

"What?" she asked, intrigued.

"If it was up to me, you'd be wearing my ring for everyone to see," he began. Over her small "Oh!" he continued, "But I said I'd give you time. I don't know -- we haven't really discussed it yet -- how comfortable you are with my demonstrating how I feel at work. I don't know how you feel about..."

"...Public displays of affection?"

"Yeah. I don't want you to have to listen to gossip."

"I don't think we can help that, Clark." She slipped one hand up to the back of his neck, threading her fingers into the soft hair there.

"How comfortable are you, then, with..." He waved his hand vaguely. "...this sort of thing at work?"

Unable to resist, she wiggled a little on his lap, and as he caught his breath, she said with a wicked grin, "With *this*?"

"No," he growled, but he was laughing. "You minx."

When she laughed, he suddenly tipped her backwards, allowing her to fall to the couch and following her down, whereupon he kissed her until they were both short of breath -- and floating.

Finally, she looked around and then down, and laughed again.

He smiled back. "Especially not this," he said ruefully, and floated them back down to the couch.

She shifted off his lap to sit facing him. "Clark, I'm okay with shows of affection." She grinned at him. "Small and appropriate for work, of course -- and non-float-inducing..." When he laughed softly, she continued seriously, "You'll just have to be patient with me as I really get used to all this."

"I'll wait," he assured her, and kissed her again.

***

After breakfast the next morning, Martha rose from the table. "Jonathan, if you and Lois will clear the table, I'll get my supplies and we'll see what we can come up with for Lois's disguise. Clark, come help me carry the basket of material, will you, please?"

Lois stood and began to help gather plates and silverware. "Leave the coffee cups, Lois," Jonathan told her, running water into the sink. "We'll probably have more coffee."

He began to wash the dishes, rinsing them and setting them neatly into a wooden rack beside the sink. "We'll just leave them to drip dry here," he said, handing her a wet cloth to wipe the table. Just as she finished, Clark and his mom returned.

"Now, about this disguise, Lois," Martha said briskly, reentering the kitchen carrying what looked like a medium-sized tackle box. Clark followed with a laundry basket piled with shimmery material -- most of it in Superman's red, blue, and yellow -- under one arm, and what looked like one of those plastic pet carriers with the handle on the top, except that there was no door or ventilation holes.

"Put the sewing machine on the floor, Clark; I won't need it right away. Oh, Jonathan, leave the rest of those dishes," she added, waving her free hand at him. "I'll do them later. This is more important." As Jonathan chuckled, she continued, "Now, let's see what I have. Clark, put the basket on the counter for now, please. Have you given any more thought to colors, Lois?"

Lois blinked. Martha might not be super-powered, but she was certainly energetic. "Not really," she answered. "Just that if possible, we should try for something different enough to distance myself from Superman..."

"Different colors would certainly help," Jonathan said.

Clark had set the basket of material out of the way on the kitchen counter, and now he set the pet-carrier-that-wasn't-a-pet-carrier on the floor. That must be Martha's sewing machine, then.

"Here, everyone sit down," Martha continued. "Jonathan, get me some scrap paper, please. I've got a couple of ideas, and you might be able to envision them better if I draw them for you."

Lois and Clark sat down at the table. Jonathan took a notepad and pencil from one of the kitchen drawers, handed them to Martha, and took his own chair.

"I've been thinking about this quite a bit," Martha said, beginning to sketch out a vague human form. "You know," she added, "you could also pitch your abilities differently."

"How?" Lois asked curiously, watching the drawing take shape under Martha's hand.

"How, Mom?" Clark echoed.

"Instead of presenting yourself as a female version of Superman -" Martha held up her hand as Clark made to speak. "Not intentionally, Clark. Bear with me."

She stopped drawing to look directly at Lois. "Superman is a super-powered alien from the planet Krypton."

She waved away Clark's quickly interjected, "Nobody knows that but us, Mom."

"Well, he's suspected to be an alien, anyway," she said briskly. "The point is, what if you were to present yourself as something entirely different, Lois? Like... oh, let's see... how about a telekinetic?"

"How?" Lois asked again, as Clark added, "Mom, a telekinetic couldn't do all the things Superman does..."

"Not a regular telekinetic, Clark. A *tactile* telekinetic."

"A what?" This time, Lois and Clark spoke together.

"A tactile telekinetic," Martha repeated. "Yes, there is such a thing. You move things by touching them. It doesn't matter how big they are or what they weigh, because you're supposedly using your mind to move them, although you have to be touching them first. But that would take care of the super strength."

"Mom, how do you -" Clark began, but his mom anticipated him.

"How do I know about things like tactile telekinesis?" She laughed. "I've read about it. It's quite fascinating, really. There was a woman in Russia in the early sixties who could move small objects, for instance..."

"But..." Lois glanced at Clark. This was his mom; she didn't want to say anything that might hurt anyone's feelings. She looked back at Martha. "Aren't those just... tall tales?" she asked tentatively.

Martha laughed. "Who knows? It certainly sounds like something out of a comic book, doesn't it? But here we were, raising a child who could start fires with his eyes, hear things miles away, and fly around the house. We had no idea how or why Clark could do the things he did. But after watching a few of his powers develop, it was relatively easy to suspend my disbelief that such things might exist in others."

"I'll be the first to admit that I spent a lot less time scoffing at tales of amazing feats once Clark was about ten years old," Jonathan said dryly.

They all laughed.

"If I did claim to be a... tactile telekinetic?" She looked inquiringly at Martha, who nodded. "...A tactile telekinetic," Lois repeated, "that would explain being able to lift things and move them around easily, but... what about things like flight?"

Martha flapped a hand in dismissal. "That's easy. Your entire self changes the air around you. You could even put in some small gimmick of some kind, you know... a motion or gesture of some sort. Like -- get into the habit of lifting off with, say, your arms crossed, or spread out, or something like that. So that you look different when you take off than Clark does," she added.

"What about the other things we can do?" Clark asked.

"Some of them you may have to be sort of mum about," Martha said. "But it could work to your advantage to have a couple of hidden abilities. Or... you could always claim they're due to some sort of psionic ability, too."

Jonathan rested an elbow on the table, propped his chin in his hand, and smiled at his wife. "Martha, I think you're getting more entertainment out of this whole thing than the kids are."

She laughed and went back to sketching.

As the figures took shape under her hand, she began to explain what she had in mind. "We talked about the hood," she said, sketching in a hood that went over the figure's head, leaving the lower face bare. She sketched in generously-sized eye holes -- "You don't want your vision obscured because of a fashion mishap," she commented.

For some reason, Lois found that uproariously funny, and her laughter soon had the others laughing with her. Martha had to stop drawing for a moment, and every time she caught Lois's eye, they would both go off into peals of laughter again.

Finally, they wound down, and Jonathan rose to pour everyone more coffee. Martha picked up the pencil again and went back to her drawing. "I think a full-length body suit would be best," she said. "As opposed to short sleeves, or something along the lines of a gymnastics outfit..."

Clark grinned wickedly at Lois, but he didn't say -- or think -- anything to her.

Just in case, though... "That'll be fine, Martha. What about the cape?" she asked quickly.

"Well, I thought -- maybe a bit more full at the top, and not as long." Martha rapidly sketched in a cape flowing out behind the figure, then drew a very rough side view that showed the cape coming slightly more than halfway down the figure's length. "Unless you want a full-length cape like Clark's?"

"Is there any kind of advantage to a shorter cape, Mom?" asked Clark.

"Oh, nothing huge," Martha answered, shading in the cape. "Just that she's much slighter than you are, Clark, and it makes a different line. Another visual difference between you two." She tipped the picture in Lois's direction. "Something along these lines, honey. And I thought -- maybe black with an accent color panel here in the front, the same accent color in the boots and maybe on the sleeves -- or gloves, if you want -- and a slightly lighter cape -- maybe navy blue? We can try other colors, of course..."

"I like it." Lois looked at Clark. "What do you think?"

He smiled at her. "I think you'd look good in anything, but yes, I think Mom may be on to something." He grinned at his mother, then turned back to Lois. "Are you sure you don't want that leopard-print stuff, though?"

He ducked as she tossed her napkin at him.

"Did you really make him a leopard-print outfit, Martha?" she asked curiously.

Martha laughed. "I certainly did, honey. I still have it; maybe we can get him to model it for you."

Laughing, Clark stood up. "Uh uh -- I think it's time we went out and worked on... whatever you have that needs working on, Dad," he said, and looked back at Lois with as straight a face as he could manage. "I'm going to be far, *far* too busy, honey. And I'd hate to distract Mom from making your costume..."

Surrounded by their laughter, Martha shooed the men out of the kitchen. "Come on, Lois. Let's see what we can come up with. We still need to see if this pattern translates into a practical outfit, and I think the ultimate test would be to try it on and do a few super things in it. I'll need to get your measurements, and then you can keep me company while I work on it. I'll tell you all about how cute Clark was as a little boy."

***

Martha turned out to be a quick and talented seamstress.

She began by getting Lois's measurements -- a lot of them. She took *six* measurements on each of Lois's arms alone -- wrist, mid forearm, elbow, mid upper arm, and shoulder circumferences for both arms. The shoulder circumference was taken by wrapping the measuring tape around Lois's arm, flush against her torso, as she held her arm straight out from her side. Martha also measured from Lois's neck down to her wrist.

There were similar measurements for both legs and for her torso, and by the time Martha had taken and recorded all of them, Lois was feeling kind of boggled.

"Why so many?" she asked. "I mean, the fabric is stretchy, isn't it?"

Martha was sitting, measuring tape draped around her neck, at the kitchen table. Her sewing machine was set up and ready, and she was currently charting out Lois's measurements on a roughly drawn outline of a vaguely female body. "Yes, there is a lot of give in the fabric," she answered. "But these outfits need to be well-made or they won't hold up."

"But what about... Well, Clark calls it his 'aura.' It keeps anything close to him from... well, ripping or burning or shredding, or whatever."

"Yes, honey, but all fabric still wears out over time, with repeated use. Here, sit down." She indicated the chair to her left.

Lois dropped into it, resting her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands as she watched Martha.

"Since you'll most likely be wearing this on a daily basis, or close to that," Martha continued, "it also needs to be very comfortable. I know you don't feel discomfort from... Oh, I don't know -- chafing, for instance. But there's nothing more annoying than constantly having to tug down a sleeve, adjust the fit of a neckline, or yank down on pants that ride up." She grinned at Lois.

Lois laughed.

"Now, on a more serious note, we need to consider colors. It's ultimately your decision, of course, but I'm still leaning toward black as the primary color. With your coloring, black looks good on you. If we pair it up with a nice, vibrant color in this front panel -" She tapped the drawing she'd done earlier. "- it should look quite dramatic. And the bright colors will help draw eyes away from your face."

Lois thought about it for a moment. "Yes... I wear black now, when I fly -- at night, anyway. I've been experimenting a little with daytime flight," she added self-consciously.

Martha nodded matter-of-factly. "You didn't have the freedom Clark had, while growing up, to really explore that ability, did you, honey? I'm glad you're getting a chance to explore it now. I imagine it adds a whole new dimension to the experience."

"Oh, yes. Definitely. I'm only sorry I didn't discover daytime flying sooner. But anyway, yes, I do think I like the idea of black."

"And for the accent colors..." Martha thought for a moment, then stood and began rummaging in the basket of fabric, digging below the reds and blues and yellows of future Superman suits. "Let's see what I have..."

She drew out a swath of bright fuchsia cloth. "How about something like this?"

Lois blinked. It was very... pink.

The bulk of the fabric in the basket was the familiar blue, red, and yellow of Superman's suit. But there were several other colors as well, all of them the same shimmery material. So everything in the basket was probably left over from when Martha made Clark's -- Superman's -- first suit.

"Uh... It's... pretty. Very... pink." She looked at Martha. "Did you really use that in one of the... reject Superman suits?"

Martha laughed. "No, honey. This -" She held up the pink material, letting part of it spill onto the table where she'd already laid out the black. "...is the result of having Jonathan pick up more fabric for me." She refolded the pink material into a loose bundle and set it aside on the table, then sat down again.

"To avoid calling any attention to myself, I usually only buy one color at a time. And I wait until I'm in a larger town than Smallville. That way I'm just an anonymous person buying fabric. Well, Jonathan had to go up to Topeka not long after Superman made his debut, so I asked him to pick up more red for me. But Jonathan's red-green color blind."

"Oh. Then why..." Lois hesitated, and Martha anticipated her.

"Why did I send a color-blind man out to buy me colorful fabric?" she asked with a laugh.

Lois smiled back. "Yeah."

Martha laughed harder. "Because Jonathan will ask someone for help to make sure he's getting the right color. Since fewer women than men are color-blind, he usually asks a woman. Unfortunately -- or fortunately, I suppose, if you choose this for your suit -- the woman he asked must have been color blind, because she told him this was red."

Lois laughed, too. It *was* pretty funny.

"And sending the poor man all the way back to Topeka to exchange or return it just didn't seem right, when after all, he was doing exactly what he was supposed to do."

"So really, I ought to choose this color," Lois observed. "It'll make the whole fiasco seem worth while -- at least to Jonathan."

Martha laughed again. "I'll admit that I'm not likely to use it for anything else any time soon, but don't feel you *have* to pick this."

She stood again, and rummaged through the basket of material. "I also have this blue -" She laid out a blue fabric very similar to Superman blue, but a little darker. "We could use it with a navy blue cape -- although that color scheme may be too dark." She laid the blue fabric on the black, and they both studied it.

"It's certainly different than Superman's colors," Lois ventured. "Do you think it's... bright enough? One of the things we've said about Clark's suit is that the colors are nice and bright, so Superman is easily recognizable in an emergency."

"Hmmm. The pink would certainly work better, in that case," Martha mused. "I guess we could go with a pink cape, too -- except that your hood will be black."

"I like the idea of a dark cape, though," Lois said. She grinned at Martha. "Gives me a sort of dark and mysterious air." She drew out the last few words dramatically.

Martha laughed. "Actually, that might work in your favor, Lois. If you're going to pitch yourself as a tactile telekinetic, and especially if you were to reveal psionic powers of some kind, being a little dark and mysterious would help further the image."

She shifted the blue fabric to the side, where she'd set the pink. "At any rate, let's get started on the actual suit. The colored panel will go in last, so you've still got plenty of time to decide."

"Okay." Lois watched as Martha opened the tackle-box-like box and began to set out pins, scissors, and thread -- regular big rolls of thread and tiny little metal ones. Travel size?

"Um, is that an actual tackle box?"

Martha laughed again. "Yes, it is. All the little compartments work so well to hold everything I need for sewing. When Jonathan asked for a new tackle box one Christmas, I was so taken by the ones I looked at that I just had to get one for myself." She grinned at Lois. "When he saw mine, he thought I'd decided to take up fishing with him. Since it's sort of a guys-only thing for him and his buddies, or Clark when he's here, poor Jonathan didn't know how to break it to me gently that while he loved me dearly..."

Lois started to laugh. "Did you put him out of his misery right away?"

Martha smiled beatifically. "Of course I did. Right after we finished the ice cream sundaes I'd wistfully mentioned I'd like to have..."

They were still chuckling off and on over that several hours later, after Martha finished the first part of the suit. She'd shown Lois how to wind bobbins on the sewing machine, and had set her to winding quite a few black ones. "I usually just buy them, but we won't have enough if I'm going to make you several suits. You'll need at least two to start with -- one to wear and one to wash," Martha had told her. "And of course, for colors I don't use very often, I just wind my own bobbins when I need them."

Bobbins were the little 'travel-size' spools, and they went in the bottom of the sewing machine. They provided the underside of the stitch, according to Martha. The sewing machine had a function that allowed you to wind a bobbin from your spool of thread very quickly. Lois made a few of them under Martha's guidance, and then took over the task so that Martha could work on the suit.

In between winding bobbins, Lois watched interestedly as Martha created her pattern on pattern paper from a big roll, then cut it out and pinned it to the black fabric, and then cut it out again.

They paused in their tasks now and then for Lois to try on parts of the suit.

"You'll have to try it on in pieces, Lois," Martha said during the first try-on. "If I pin the whole thing together and then have you put it on, we may end up snagging the material on one of the pins as you pull it on. Although I don't have to worry about poking you with a pin," she added with a smile.

By early afternoon, Martha had finished both suits to the colored panel stage.

"Okay, honey. Decision time."

Lois sighed. "I have no idea."

Martha smiled and handed Lois one of the unfinished suits. "Come on. Let's try them both out." She picked up the pink and blue fabrics, tucked them under her arm, and beckoned, and Lois followed her into the room they'd been using to try on the suits.

"Put that on, and we'll tuck this into the front," Martha instructed, folding the pink fabric until she had a rectangle roughly half the size of a bath towel. "It's not very sophisticated, but it will give us a general idea..."

Lois changed into the suit at close to super speed. Martha had fashioned it with the half mask and hood attached. The cape had posed a small problem at first -- with suit, hood, and mask all one piece, there was no open neckline to allow the cape, attached to a harness, to go on under the suit as Clark's did. After some thought, however, Martha had cleverly got around the problem of the cape's potential to drag at the neckline by building the support harness directly into the top of the suit. Lois, she'd explained, would slip the harness over her shoulders as she pulled up the suit, and the cape -- which was detachable -- would fasten to anchors attached to the harness through the suit.

Lois pulled up the hood and tugged the mask down over her face, shrugging her shoulders slightly to settle the cape into place. Martha walked around her, adjusting a little here and tweaking a little there, and nodded briskly. "It looks good, Lois," she said without conceit. "I think we made the right decision to have the suit fasten up the front. You can just pull on the hood, pull the mask down over your eyes, fasten the front and you're ready to go."

"Now... let's see how this looks." She tucked the pink fabric into the open front of the suit, and both women studied the effect in the mirror.

"It looks good." Martha smiled at Lois in the mirror. "Want to try the blue?"

Lois nodded, and with Martha's help, exchanged the pink fabric for the blue. Once again, they both studied the effect in the mirror.

"Hmmm." Lois looked at Martha in the mirror. "This helps, but it's still going to be hard to decide."

"Well, let's look at your choices again, shall we?"

***

Lois chose the pink. The blue appealed to her equally well, but the color contrasts were much more muted. Clark's belief that the bright colors made him quickly identifiable was valid; the sharp contrast between the black suit with its dark cape and the bright pink would very likely help her in a similar manner.

Martha cut out the color panels and sewed them into the suit. Because the torso of Lois's suit was much more contoured than Clark's was, Martha created the front panel out of several smaller pieces sewn expertly together. The end effect put a seam down the center, which she used to conceal a zipper that ran down the length of the suit from the neckline to just below the waist.

Finally, she added accents -- a padded belt which she fastened to the waist at the back and sides, and pink cuffs from the wrist to mid-forearm. The cuffs almost looked like gauntlets, although they'd discussed and discarded the idea of gloves.

The last project was the boots, which Martha also made out of the pink shimmery fabric. "This is spandex," she told Lois, "and if I use several layers of it, it makes a nice soft, stretchy boot that stays up when you pull it on."

"So it's more like a... sock?" Lois asked curiously.

Martha laughed. "No, honey -- more like a high-top moccasin. I use a special rubberized fabric, non-slip and waterproof, which I buy at an outdoors outfitters, for the soles.

Both suits were finished by late afternoon, and Lois helped Martha clear away the sewing supplies. The men returned from the barn, where Clark had been helping Jonathan with many of the things Martha said were on Jonathan's 'get to it someday' list.

Slightly self-consciously, Lois modeled one of the suits for the men, both of whom heartily approved. At Clark's suggestion, seconded enthusiastically by both of his parents at the same time, the four of them went outside so that Lois could, as Clark put it, test the suit out.

"We have about an hour and a half before dinner, honey, so this is an excellent opportunity to see how it holds up -- and how it fits -- during daily use," Martha said.

So with Clark, Lois went outside to the field behind the farmhouse. Other than the four of them, there wasn't another soul for miles, although both she and Clark checked to be sure. A lifetime of caution had made it ingrained.

And with Clark, spun into Superman, she flew and leapt and ran and lifted and threw and floated and flipped, and then the two of them soared up into the dusky sky in tandem.

Clark took her hands much in the way ice skaters were depicted skating in pairs, and they indulged themselves in a purely aimless lark. No destination, no goal -- just fun. The flight itself, fast and full of swoops and rolls in and among the clouds, was exhilarating, and the connection between them seemed to grow stronger.

To the watching couple on the ground, the two of them looked like birds in flight, moving as one, before they faded into the night sky. A lilt of laughter floated down like an autumn leaf, and Martha and Jonathan smiled at each other.

"Come on, honey," Martha said. "Help me lay the table, and tell me how many things you two managed to cross off your list." Arm in arm, they went inside.

***

"Dad, I wanted to ask you... what should I do about that sign?"

"What sign?" Jonathan asked.

The four of them were sitting at the kitchen table. The meal had been cleared away and the remains of an apple pie sat on the counter. The candle in the Circle of Friends candleholder flickered merrily as they sat sipping coffee.

"The sign whose post I used to secure the mugger the other day."

"What about it, Clark?" Lois asked.

"How do I replace it?" He sighed and shook his head, glancing ruefully at her. "That's yet another thing I didn't really think out before creating Superman. If I destroy public -- or private -- property, what should I do? I suppose it's not very practical of me to pay to replace stuff. People would wonder where Superman gets the money, and I wouldn't want any kind of trail to lead to Clark Kent..."

"It doesn't seem fair, somehow, anyway," Martha said. "That if you're helping someone out -- voluntarily -- by stopping a crime, that you'd have to pay for damage."

"Even unintentional, it is property damage, though," Jonathan reminded her. "I wonder if insurance would pay for that sort of thing?" he added thoughtfully.

Clark made a face. "At first, probably. But what do I do if they start excluding 'damage due to Superman' along with... what do they usually exclude, acts of God? And not everyone has insurance, Dad."

"The city property, of course, would be maintained by the city," Lois said.

"Paid for by taxes -- and they could go up," Clark said.

"Clark, I wonder if you're over-thinking this," Jonathan said. "There are some things even Superman just can't fix. Taxes can go up for many reasons -- new public utilities, improvements... If taxes did eventually go up because of you, well -- sometimes you just have to balance your options. Is the city safer because of Superman? Higher taxes for a safer city."

"But there are always people who would oppose that. We may hear from them -- letters to the editor, talk shows..."

"What about..." Lois began. "This wouldn't happen right away, but maybe..." She stopped, marshalling her thoughts.

"What?" Clark asked curiously.

"Could we set up a... I don't know... a fund?"

"How? What kind of fund?" .

"Well, set up a charity -- maybe in Superman's name..." The idea was gelling in her thoughts. "We could be Superman's voice, you know? Say he asked us to suggest it..."

"Or better yet, pick a different person altogether to pitch it, Lois," Martha said. "So that you two are not too closely associated with it."

"Yeah." Lois nodded. "Good point. That might be better. But anyway..."

"How would you fund it?" Clark interrupted.

"C'mon, Clark -- you *know* there'll be merchandising now that Superman's on the scene. Actually, it's amazing that there hasn't been any yet." She grinned at him. "Just think -- in airports, tourist shops, and street vendors' carts around the world." She threw her arms out in a grand gesture. "Superman mugs, Superman decals and bumper stickers, Superman posters, Superman dolls -- uh, action figures," she amended, ignoring Martha's sudden snort of laughter. "Superman jammies..."

Clark looked horrified. "Superman *jammies*?" he asked, appalled.

Lois laughed. "Hey, I'd buy 'em," she teased.

"Me, too," Martha chimed in.

"Mom!"

"Superman wallpaper, Superman sheets, Superman toothbrushes and Superman nightlights. Superman lunchboxes. Superman T-shirts. Superman soap-on-a-rope..." Lois continued, grinning. "...Superman Halloween costumes, Superman undies..."

Clark groaned, leaning forward to put his elbows on the table and dropping his face into his hands. "Superman *undies*? Another thing I never -- *ever* -- thought of." His voice was muffled.

By now, Jonathan and Martha were laughing heartily.â

Lois continued blithely. "And... if Superman did appearances -- and you know he'll be asked, Clark -- he can designate his own charity. And the funds can be used to help people in need, or offer scholarships..."

Clark looked up. "Now that, I like."

"You usually need a lawyer for that sort of thing," Jonathan said.

"Yes, and you need to copyright the name," Martha added. "Soon."

"But he'd have to go as Superman, wouldn't he?" Jonathan asked. "Couldn't that pose problems? For instance, wouldn't he have to prove citizenship?"

"I bet Perry knows a way around that," âLois said. "And with a little leverage, I imagine the city might be induced to make Superman an honorary citizen. Or something. After all," she said with a straight face, "Superman's a free agent. He's not under any kind of contract. I'm sure there are cities all over the world who'd be perfectly happy to be Superman's home base, and perfectly happy to add a few... incentives to get him..."

"Lois!" Clark stared at her, apparently unsure if she was teasing or not. "Superman can't ask for money!"

"Of course not," she said reasonably. "But if some other country offered him citizenship..." She lost the battle to contain her laughter, and he relaxed.

"Seriously, though, Clark -- I would think the city would be happy to grant Superman honorary citizen status, especially if the reason you wanted it was to create a charity which would further help people."

"You two probably shouldn't be very involved as yourselves, though," Martha reminded them. She thought for a moment. "What if you designated someone else...

"Like who?" Lois asked.

"I don't know -- someone trustworthy..." Martha glanced at Jonathan.

"How about Perry White?" he suggested. "Or that policeman you two know."

"Hmmm. Good idea -- either one of them would be great," Lois said. "It's probably a fulltime job, though." She looked at Clark, who nodded in agreement.

"Not Perry himself, Lois. Have Perry suggest someone," Martha said. "And you need to find a lawyer. Maybe... have the Planet -- Perry -- contact a lawyer on Superman's behalf?"

Lois nodded. "We'll talk to Perry on Monday -- unless you want to stop by as Superman and ask him, Clark?'

He shook his head. "I think the less Superman is associated visibly with the newspaper, the better. You and I can ask on Superman's behalf. Perry knows we're talking to Superman about the bomb threats. We'll say he mentioned it then."

"Excellent. Now, on to more important things," Martha said with a smile. "Would you like to take the rest of the pie back with you?"

She ignored Jonathan's quick "*Some* of the pie, Martha -- *some* of the pie," but she did remove one slice and set it on a plate.

Clark excused himself to take their bags -- and the pie, well wrapped and secured in Tupperware -- back to the city. He returned within five minutes.

Finally, with hugs all around, Lois and Clark lifted into the air and turned toward Metropolis, hand in hand.

***

Monday morning found them back in the newsroom early, digging into the newest information Jimmy had found them. They were in one of the conference rooms again, since the table offered a larger work surface than their desks.

"You know, Clark," Lois said suddenly, "whoever is behind these tests must have lots of resources. And I don't just mean money. There're people, too. People who must have helped set some of this stuff up, but who aren't talking. People like those muggers who are willing to take a fall and not talk. So who wields that kind of power? Who do we know who has those kinds of resources?"

He looked up, and she knew what he was going to say; she was nodding even as he said it.

"Lex Luthor?"

She sighed. "Yes... You know," she added slowly, "A few weeks ago I might have immediately thought of him. But now... Do you really think he could organize something from jail this fast?

He shrugged. "I don't know. The guy was pretty powerful. He had a lot of enemies, but he also had a lot of... loyal employees, I guess you could say. And I'm almost positive that somebody that rich didn't have all his assets stashed in places where they could be found -- and seized -- easily."

"So even from jail, it's possible he's behind all this."

"Or had it in the works before he ever got there, maybe."

She tapped the end of her pen thoughtfully against her lower lip. "But what about motive?"

"You said it yourself, Lois, when we were investigating him. You told me about the time you met him -- what he said when you attempted to interview him." His mouth twisted into a grimace of disgust. "The guy likes power. Better than anything else, I think. I know he told you that it was the pursuit of pleasure that drove him, and that power was a means, not an end..." He trailed off at her look. "What?"

"Clark, you're repeating word for word what I told you," she said. "How can you even remember that -- photographic memory aside?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Lois, do you really not know? I was bowled over the moment I saw you. I just tried very hard to keep it low key -- I wanted your heart, but I also wanted your friendship."

"But..." She frowned. "Clark, I remember every... *special* conversation we've had about... you know, about us. Those conversations have been the important ones, though -- the life-changing ones for me. But what was so special about that conversation? It was just an investigation."

He smiled at her. "You were what was so special, Lois. It was my first real investigation with you, and you were just awesome. You were in full Mad Dog Lane mode, determined to solve that whole space program thing. I can see -- could see then -- why you won all those awards."

Unable to resist, she told him, "Stick with me, buddy, and you'll be winning them too."

He laughed, and continued, "Why do I remember that conversation so well? Simple. You are a brilliant investigative reporter, Lois, and you were hot on the trail -- and that combination of brilliance and passion was, and still is, absolutely fascinating."

"You're making me blush, Kent," she said, a little overwhelmed. No one since Mama had ever invested so much worth into what she felt, what she said, and what she believed.

It was heady. It was scary. It was powerful and appealing and flattering. And it was making her speechless. She looked up when he took her hand, and encountered a look so full of emotion she had to tuck one ankle around the chair leg in case she started floating.

"Too much?" he asked softly. When she nodded shyly, his smile broadened. "Then back to the grindstone, Ms. Lane," he commanded in his best Superman voice, then raised her hand to his lips before giving it back to her.

The brief kiss on the back of her hand was so incongruous with what he'd said -- and how he'd said it -- that she laughed, immediately feeling herself again. "Slave driver," she said affectionately. "Okay. So you were saying...?"

Obligingly, he continued. "Whatever Luthor told you, I think he was lying. Or at least prevaricating. I think he likes -- craves -- power. Even if he justifies it by saying that achieving power gives him pleasure, the bottom line is, the guy likes power."

"And...?"

"Well, it's like..." He paused, thinking. "Like his tower, Lois. I think he liked to look down at the city. Liked being way up there, literally, at the top. But then Superman showed up. Regardless of whether Luthor's a free man or in jail, Superman probably causes him a lot of frustration. Because Superman is more powerful. Because Superman appears to be undefeatable."

She nodded. "Okay... I can see that. I think you're right. It's a strong argument for what might be driving him to do this. If nothing else, he sees what to him is the ultimate in power, but it's not being used for gain. In the hands of a man like Luthor, power like yours -- like ours -- would be absolutely disastrous."

"Exactly," he said. They smiled at each other.

"Of course, we still have to prove all this," he added dryly.

She laughed. "I guess we can try to find out by asking him. We can go see him." She rolled her eyes. "He's already in jail without any hope of release, so it's not like he's got anything to lose. Maybe he'll talk, especially if we appeal to his ego."

"We'll need to call Bill Henderson first. Luthor's in the maximum security unit, so we'll need Bill's help to even see him."

"I wonder how Luthor managed to pull this whole thing off?" Lois mused. "I hope he'll talk to us."

"And I suppose, later, that Superman should probably pay him a visit, too," Clark added thoughtfully. "Explain, precisely and in very clear detail, exactly how strong, how fast, how invulnerable, and how powerful Superman is. And explain why enough is enough."

She stood up. "Well, there's no time like the present, flyboy. Want to go see him now?"

"No," he said with a straight face. "I don't like the guy and neither does Superman." He heaved a dramatic sigh and rose to his feet. "But if you insist..."

She laughed. "C'mon, silly," she said, patting his chest affectionately. "Let's go call Henderson."

***

Clark ended up making the call, because when they exited the conference room, Jimmy was waiting with a clarification request on some of the information Lois had asked for most recently.

She waved Clark on toward their desks. "If you'll call Henderson, Clark, I'll see if Jimmy and I can figure this out."

She and Jimmy headed back to the conference room to begin sifting through the stacks of documents, looking for the pertinent information. Focused on one of the pages, she was startled when Clark spoke suddenly from the doorway.

"I just got off the phone with Henderson," he said grimly. "He said he was just getting ready to call us."

"Why? What's wrong?" It obviously wasn't good news. "Did Luthor escape?" That would be a nightmare.

He shook his head. "Worse than that, Lois. Luthor's been killed."

Both Lois and Jimmy gaped at him.

"*Killed*? How? When?" Lois demanded.

"Whoa -- really? What happened?" Jimmy asked.

"Apparently, one of the guys Luthor set up to take a fall decided to get even with him. There was an altercation in the mess hall yesterday evening, and when the guards managed to break up the fight, Luthor was found with his throat cut."

It didn't seem possible. The man had been the most powerful criminal in Metropolis; surely he'd have been considered untouchable in prison? With the resources he undoubtedly still had available, he could still wield power in the form of promised monetary rewards to those who carried out his orders, couldn't he? And didn't the prison system isolate some prisoners for their own safety? Hadn't he been isolated, then?

Maybe it was a hoax. Maybe it was part of some sort of escape scam. "Are we sure it's really him?" she asked.

"I asked Henderson that," Clark replied. "He said there's no doubt whatsoever. He said he saw the body this morning -- that's why he hadn't called us with the news earlier."

"Why do you guys need Lex Luthor?" Jimmy asked curiously. "A follow-up story?"

At this point, the fewer people who knew about these apparent tests of Superman, the better. Including Jimmy, and for that matter, Perry and Bill Henderson, too. They -- she and Clark -- could tell the others when they had more concrete information.

"Yeah, you could say that," she answered Jimmy. "And it's thrown a wrench in the works, so we've got a lot more work to do."

He took the hint cheerfully. "Okay. I've got a bunch more stuff to look up for Jenner, so I'll go work on that." He grinned at them. "Whistle if you need me," he said, and exited the conference room on their chuckles.

When the door had closed behind him, Lois looked at Clark. "Then who...?" she began slowly. If Luthor was dead, who was testing Superman? "If not him, who, Clark?"

"I don't know. Maybe..." He paused, thinking. "It could still be Luthor, Lois. He had to have planned this out over time, and obviously, other people actually carried out his plans for him."

She nodded. "That makes sense. We still need to track down who actually carried out each of the tests, but I imagine they'll eventually lead us back to Luthor. At least we know that the tests..." She stopped.

Clark gave her a half smile. "At least we know the tests will stop."

"Yeah. That's what I was going to say, but..." She hesitated. "Well, he deserved the jail time, but I would never..." She stopped again.

"But you would never have wished him dead? I know that, Lois. I remember Princess Elizabeth's story." He grinned at her. "You -- we -- don't kill the dragons. We jes'..."

She began to laugh. "Yeah."

***

By mid-morning, they had worked through the rest of the information Jimmy had provided so far.

Lois tossed the last of her documents onto the discard pile. "Well, I've got exactly nothing, Clark. How about you?"

He shook his head. "Nothing here, either."

She pushed her chair back from the table. "I'm more sure than ever that your -- our -- theory is correct, Clark. That these are all manufactured situations to test Superman. Because there are no other connections, no hidden scandals, no one seeking some sort of revenge, and no business dealings -- nothing that indicates why each of these incidents happened. Nothing that either explains each of them on their own, or links them all together."

He nodded. "The only thing left to verify is the mechanics' findings. Do you want to go out there now?"

"Sure." She stood up. "We might as well, and then we can get lunch on the way back." She sighed. "I think we're going to hear that it was sabotage, Clark."

He grimaced. "I think you're right."

He gathered up his documents and dumped them unceremoniously on her desk. She scooped her own into a loose stack and added it to his. "Nothing confidential here; we can file all this later."

Together, they headed for the ramp. They were slightly more than halfway up it when they both heard sirens.

Without pausing, Lois grabbed Clark's hand, tugging him up the remainder of the ramp and through the stairwell door. As it closed behind them, they both slowed to listen.

"Do you hear it?" Clark asked. A police radio was broadcasting a bulletin about a bank robbery in progress.

"Yes -- bank robbery." She zipped up the stairs, knowing he was right behind her.

On the roof, she hesitated. Lois Lane couldn't coincidentally be at every criminal event in the city; maybe she'd better not go with him this time. Besides, the faster they got information about that plane from the mechanics, the faster they could hopefully figure out what was going on, and stop it -- or at least, solve it, assuming Luthor's death put an end to the tests. "Clark, you go -- and be careful, okay? It may be another test. I'll go out to the airport and see what I can find out."

"Okay -" He spun into the suit. "But you be careful, too. Meet you back here?"

That spin thingy he did was still just as impressive as the first time she'd seen it. She was nowhere near as smooth with her own costume change, but Clark had reassured her that with practice, it would go effortlessly and flawlessly. "Yes."

He was gone instantly.

Now... about the airport. She looked at the sky. Should she take a cab? Or should she test out the new disguise? Of course, she'd only practiced changing into it a few times out at the farm, and she hadn't decided yet how -- or if -- to wear it under her clothes the way Clark did with his.

There were some logistics to the whole thing that she and Clark needed to really sit down and talk about. Wearing the suit under clothing, for instance. That was fine in the winter -- she'd have to wear slacks instead of a skirt, of course -- but what did they do in the warmer months? Clark could get by with wearing it under his clothing, although he often had his jacket off and his shirt sleeves rolled up -- but what about her? It would look odd if she wore long sleeves in the summer.

And if she didn't wear it under her clothes, where -- and how -- would she stash her suit? She'd thought about that briefly in Smallville but had then forgotten about it until this morning, when she'd had to decide whether to wear the suit or not.

She'd left it -- both of them, actually -- still hanging in the back of her closet.

This sort of indecision wasn't like her. Usually, she assessed a situation, made a quick decision, and went with it. But this was a scary new step for her, not unlike learning one of her powers for the first time. Somehow, she had to find a way to be comfortable with all this.

So it was probably best to wait, and show up in disguise for the first time at some emergency. Bide her time, more or less. Like Clark had done with the space shuttle. It was the exact same decision she'd already reached this morning, which was why both suits still hung in the back of her closet.

Besides, she didn't want this new persona -- they had tentatively decided she would call herself 'Kinetic' -- to be linked to Superman any more than necessary; showing up in full disguise at the airport and asking about the plane would certainly cement in at least some people's minds that Superman and this new superhero -- superheroine? -- were working together.

Still... the thought of a cab didn't hold any appeal. There was no comparison to the beckoning sky.

Okay... So she'd fly.

She'd save the disguise for later -- and she really needed to speak to Clark about how he managed the whole suit and clothes thing.

***

When she returned to the Planet, she saw immediately that Clark wasn't back yet.

She'd been relieved to find that that the mechanics who'd been there the day of the near-crash were on duty -- that they might not be had occurred to her on the way to the airport. They had steered her to an Air Safety Investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, who had finally had told her that the plane had, in fact, been sabotaged. The actual, technical description of what had happened was best left to the NTSB -- but what *had* happened had been confirmed as sabotage.

It was what she'd expected to hear, but having it confirmed officially had somehow made the whole situation seem more... dire. She and Clark had suspected, *expected*, that the plane had been sabotaged. They had also suspected that it was the first of the Superman tests. But there must have been a tiny little hope that it was unrelated left somewhere inside her, because having their suspicions confirmed only increased her unease about the whole thing. Maybe it was the callous disregard for the lives of the people on that plane that was so upsetting.

Anxious to get what the NTSB investigator had told her written down in more detail than that which her rough field notes provided, she signed on to her computer and pulled up the proper file, and got to work.

She was citing her sources at the end of the document when she abruptly felt a flash of... something. A fleeting touch -- not so much an actual thought as just a sort of *feeling* of Clark. But it was... It felt somehow... *odd*. The fleeting whisper of... *Clark* didn't feel exactly... right.

Worried, she looked up through the floors of the Daily Planet building above her to the roof. If she was somehow... sensing him, he must be returning. But there was something... off about it. At least, she thought there was. The fleeting feeling was gone now. Maybe she was just... subconsciously hearing his heartbeat farther away than she usually sensed it, or something.

He wasn't on the roof. She looked through the stairwell door, but still didn't see him. Maybe she'd just imagined the whole thing, borne out of her unease over learning the plane had, indeed, been sabotaged, and her desire to see Clark.

With a sigh, she went back to work.

She'd typed part of a sentence when she heard the hum of the elevator as it moved upward from the lobby. And she knew, somehow -- didn't she? -- that it was Clark.

She was sure it was Clark.

Well, maybe it was Clark. Maybe she was still obsessing on the whole 'sensing Clark' thing, and suddenly hearing the elevator because her subconscious mind was *wanting* it to be Clark. And maybe, if he was coming up from the lobby, that was why the brief touch of him that she knew she'd felt -- thought she'd felt -- seemed off, somehow.

And maybe she was just losing her mind. Huffing impatiently, she refocused on the document on her computer screen. Time to concentrate on her work and ignore the office around her.

Nevertheless, she was watching the elevator door -- reluctant, for some reason, to look through it -- before she heard the ding that signaled the elevator's arrival. Unconsciously, she held her breath as the door opened... and Clark exited. She exhaled in relief --

But he wasn't the Clark she was expecting. Her Clark strode confidently, head up, smiling at those around him. This Clark stumbled out of the elevator, apparently barely able to stay on his feet.

She stared, dumbfounded.

He looked... ill.

She stood in alarm as he staggered partway down the ramp, stopped, and grabbed for the rail. As she moved swiftly toward him, only just remembering to check her speed and stay within normal limits, he swayed there, eyes closed.

"Clark?" she said urgently, reaching his side.

"Lois..." He sounded horrible. "I..."

"Clark?" She repeated, alarmed. He looked ill, but he shouldn't *be* ill. They -- she and Clark -- didn't get sick.

She couldn't leave him standing here, looking like he would collapse at any moment. She took his arm, placing it over her shoulder. "Here, Clark, lean on me. Let's get you sitting down." When he staggered again, she wrapped one arm around his waist, and they moved slowly down the ramp.

She parked him in the first chair she came to, unsure he could make it all the way to their desks. Leaning over him, she put one hand on his forehead. She didn't know what the gesture was supposed to tell you about the sick person, but she'd seen it done countless times. His forehead felt cool and clammy.

"Clark, are you all right?" She knew it was a stupid question the moment she uttered it. Of course he wasn't all right. "What happened?" she whispered.

He tipped his head back against the chair back wearily. "I don't... Lois, I feel..." He shut his eyes again and gestured vaguely at his midsection. "My stomach... I think it hurts. And it's hard to see... I think I have a headache..."

"Sounds like you've got the flu, CK." Jimmy, pausing on his way past them, surveyed Clark critically. "You probably oughta just go home."

Clark opened his eyes. "I think maybe I'd better..." he said softly, looking up at Lois as she smoothed his hair gently.

"Okay," she said, heart racing in fear. She glanced around. Several people were beginning to look their way, and Perry was crossing the newsroom toward them.

Straightening, she began, "Perry --"

"Son, you don't look too good," Perry interrupted as he approached them.

Clark shook his head weakly.

"Perry, I think I'd better take him home," she said anxiously.

"We think he's got the flu, Chief," Jimmy chimed in.

Perry nodded. "I think you're right, Jimmy." He looked at Lois. "Can you manage on your own, Lois? He looks pretty ill."

She knew she could hold Clark up, even if she didn't look strong enough. She just wanted to get him out of there and find out what had happened.

"He walked okay with my support, Perry," she said matter-of-factly. "I'll take him home, okay? And get him some..." What did you do for sick people, anyway? Medicines -- and... and chicken soup. "Um, I'll get him some chicken soup," she continued, "and stop by the drugstore... You know..." Yikes, she was beginning to babble again.

But Perry was nodding. "Okay, Lois. Call me later and let me know how he's doing." Turning to Clark, he said, "Get some rest, son."

"Yes, sir," Clark said wearily, and she took that as her cue to haul him to his feet, taking care to make it look like she was merely assisting him instead of lifting him.

"Come on, Clark. Let's get you home," she said, and steered him carefully toward the ramp.

Slowly, they made their way up the ramp and into the elevator. The ride down to the parking level seemed to take forever. She guided him carefully to her car, where he sank into the passenger seat with a sigh of relief.

"Clark, what happened?" she asked urgently as soon as they were closed safely in the car. "What did this to you?"

He had his head tipped against the glass, eyes closed. Without opening them, he mumbled, "Don't know, Lois..." For a moment, she thought he'd fallen asleep, but then he added, in a slurred voice, "...Just need to rest..."

She forced down the rising panic. She was Lois Lane. Mad Dog Lane. She could cope with this.

She'd always coped.

Always.

She leaned across him and carefully fastened his seat belt. He seemed to be sleeping. She started the car and headed for Clark's place at a speed just slightly under warp.

***

She had to wake him up when they arrived at his apartment. She could carry him if she needed to, of course -- at least, she thought she probably could. They had discussed the possibility that while both of them were super powered compared to humans, he might be stronger or faster than her merely because he was male, and males usually were larger and more powerful than females. And Clark certainly was bigger than her, so he might be stronger than her. Of course, she had yet to find something she couldn't lift. But anyway...

Good heavens. She was so distressed she was even babbling in her thoughts. Thinking-babbling. Thabbling?

She shook her head.

"You're losing it, Lois," she muttered out loud, unbuckling his seat belt.

"Mmmm?" Clark mumbled, and she hastened to reassure him. "It's okay, Clark. We're at your place. Let's get you inside so you can lie down."

She got out of the car and came around to the passenger side, carefully opening his door since he was still leaning against it. He tumbled against her, and she found she was supporting his full weight.

Okay. So the answer to the burning question of whether she could carry him or not was 'yes.' Probably, anyway. She wasn't exactly carrying him at the moment, just sort of supporting him, so...

Oh, for heaven's sake. She needed less thought and more action. She needed to get Clark inside his place and figure out what had happened.

It was awkward, though, since she couldn't just pick him up in her arms there on the street. She had to make it look like she was merely supporting him, which meant they had to move side by side with his arm draped over her shoulders. And she'd have to move him like this until they were safely inside his apartment. They were very unlikely to meet anyone once they got to the roof, but she couldn't take the chance that they might encounter Clark's landlord.

Slowly, they made it into his building, into the converted freight elevator and up to the roof. From there, it was only a short distance to his front door.

"C'mon, Clark," she said now. "Just a little bit farther..."

He groaned something that might be assent. He seemed to be a little more awake, and to have his feet under him somewhat. At his door, though, she realized that she'd absentmindedly dropped her keys -- including the one he'd given her to his place -- into her purse, which was slung over her shoulder. With her arms full of Clark, she couldn't maneuver very well to get at the keys, though. And he didn't seem to be able to stand on his own.

Maybe she could use his.

"Clark?" He muttered something and turned more fully toward her, dropping his head on her shoulder, and she tried again, joggling him gently a little in her arms as he leaned against her. "Clark? House key?"

"Pocket..." he mumbled.

Pocket. Okay. That would be pants pocket. Probably his right pocket, since he was right-handed. But with Clark barely conscious, wouldn't... groping around in his pockets be sort of an imposition?

<C'mon, Lois,> she chided herself. <You're not taking advantage of him; you're just helping him. This isn't that kind of intimacy.>

It wasn't. Even she, who knew nothing of intimacy, understood that this was different. Clark needed her because he was sick, and getting his key out of his pants pocket shouldn't seem excessively intimate.

Even so, she knew she would remember this -- the heat of his body and the firmness of his hip and thigh under her hand.

Since he also seemed to be in pain, she wanted to get him lying down as soon as possible. Pausing briefly at the base of the three steps down into his living room, she looked toward the bedroom. His couch would probably be okay for now. Once she figured out what was going on, she could move him if necessary. And right now, she wanted him where she could see him at all times, anyway.

He was standing more firmly now, so she continued to just support him as they moved across the room. Slowly and steadily, she got him as far as his couch. He sank down onto it with a groan.

"...'m cold..." he muttered.

"I'll get you a blanket," she told him, and straightened up. Then hesitated. Where did he keep extra blankets?

After a moment's thought, she strode into his bedroom and took the comforter from his bed. Returning to the living room, she guided him to lay flat and tucked it carefully around him, then tucked a couch pillow under his head.

"Clark?" She knelt beside him, her face close to his. He might be sleeping again -- although his heartbeat seemed a little fast. Maybe she was imagining that, though. "Clark?" she said again, softly. Unable to resist, she kissed him gently on the cheek.

"Mmm?" he groaned.

"What happened? When did it start?" She smoothed his hair off his forehead.

He opened his eyes and looked blearily at her. "After the bank robbery." His voice sounded rusty. After a moment, he added, "I think... maybe another test..."

"What happened, though?" she asked softly. "Can you pinpoint it at all?"

"Don't know. I was... fine one minute... Then the next..." His breathing seemed a bit uneven. "...felt a wave of... something... pain, and just... dizzy. Nauseous, I guess you call it. ...Stomach feels... Well, I don't want to eat anything." He closed his eyes again.

"*Did* you eat anything? Drink anything?"

"No. No... just... stopped the guys inside the bank..." He trailed off.

"Clark?"

He stirred again, but didn't open his eyes. "Hmmm? Oh. Uh... waited for... police. Handed the guys over..."

"Did they shoot at you?" She was still smoothing his hair, trailing her fingers gently over his head and curving her hand to stroke lightly down along his cheekbone. He turned his head slightly into her hand, and she stilled, cradling his jaw for a moment.

"No."

"Hit you with anything? Put anything on you?" Was it maybe... some kind of poison? Some kind of powder or... or... She patted him anxiously. There didn't seem to be any sort of... residue or anything on his clothes.

"No..." It was a mere whisper; without her enhanced hearing she wouldn't have heard it. He appeared to doze off again.

She knelt there close to him, fighting panic. What should she do? It was obvious that he was ill. Take him to the hospital? No, that wouldn't work. But... what if he got worse? She had no idea how to help him. The hospital would be the obvious choice for a normal human...

But he'd never agree to it, and she would have to make sure he was at least partially conscious in order to move him. Regardless of her super abilities, he was bigger than she was. A small woman couldn't physically carry a full-grown, unconscious male any distance -- a normal human woman, anyway. A man leaning heavily on her for support, yes. A six-foot plus, fully unconscious male? No.

And besides, what would she say if they couldn't start an IV or take blood for tests? He appeared to have lost at least some of his abilities, but what if his skin was still invulnerable, or at least resistant, to needles?

She felt his forehead again. It was still cool and clammy, but Clark seemed to be sleeping. He wasn't shivering, but she tucked the comforter more closely around him. It would hopefully keep him warm enough -- it was very thick and soft. Feeling a small, rough spot, she turned the corner of the comforter up, and saw that a small label had been sewn along the edge. It said 'Handmade with love by Martha.' Clark's mom had made him this comforter...

Of course. She sank back onto her heels in relief. Martha!

She could call Martha. Martha would know what to do.

Hurriedly, she rose and went to the phone. Lifting it, she moved as close to Clark as the cord allowed, dialed the number, and waited. "Please be home," she muttered anxiously.

Martha answered on the second ring. <<Hello?>>

"Martha, it's Lois -" She had to stop and gulp back tears.

<<Lois? What's the matter, honey?>> She could hear the concern in Martha's voice, and her eyes stung.

"It's..." A sob shook her. "It's Clark, Mama. He's sick. I don't know what happened..." Despite her best efforts, two tears rolled slowly down her face.

<<Sick? How?>> She could hear the incredulity in Martha's voice.

"I don't know. He was... he was at a rescue. Well, at a b-bank robbery. A-and something happened, Mama -- Martha. He can't... can't pinpoint anything, just said he began to feel sick..." She trailed off, trying to compose herself. "If you could s-see him... He *looks* ill."

<<What is he doing? Just a minute, honey.>> Martha broke off and speaking away from the phone, shouted, <<Jonathan!>>

Just hearing Martha's voice was helping Lois to calm down. "Right now he seems to be s-sleeping." Her voice hitched around another sob.

She heard Jonathan's voice in the background, and then Martha said, <<Pick up the extension, Jonathan.>> Then into the phone, <<Lois, sweetie, describe what happened.>> Lois heard a click as Jonathan picked up the phone, and Martha added, <<Clark is sick, Jonathan.>>

<<Sick? How?>> Jonathan's question was an echo of Martha's.

"Well, I didn't see him until he returned to the Planet... He was... was stumbling. He looked really pale..." She knew she sounded disjointed, and made an effort to speak more clearly. "I felt his forehead -- I don't know what good that does, but he was cool and kind of... I don't know... sweaty..."

<<Clammy,>> Martha suggested.

"Yes, I guess..."

<<What happened, Lois?>>

"I don't really know. I mean, he was at -" Her breath hitched again. "He was at a bank robbery. He came stumbling into the newsroom -- I think he must have walked back to the Planet, because he came up in the elevator..."

She knew she probably wasn't making much sense, but neither of the Kents attempted to stop her for clarification. "He was barely able to stay on his feet. I asked him what happened and he said he didn't know. He was at the bank and he was fine one minute and then the next, he felt dizzy and nauseous..."

<<It sounds like his invulnerability is gone. What about his other powers?>> That was Jonathan.

"I don't know, but I think they're gone, too. He could hardly walk -- I pretty much held him up as we left the Planet, and by the time we got home, I was just about carrying him. He was -- he fell asleep in the car, and he barely woke up as I got him inside and onto the couch."

<<Were you able to talk to him at all?>> That was Martha again.

"A little. At the Planet, he told me his stomach hurt, and his head. When we got here, he said he was cold. I covered him up and right now he's sleeping. Before I called you, I asked him to tell me what happened at the bank. It sounds... from what he said, it was just a normal old bank robbery. He can't pinpoint anything anyone did to make him sick." She drew a deep breath. "He did say -- he thinks it's another one of those tests."

<<Does he have a fever?>>

"Um..." How did you find out if someone had a fever or not?

<<You can take his temperature, Lois.>> Martha was either reading her mind or just had a really, really good idea of how Lois's mind worked. <<Although I don't know if Clark has a thermometer. Is he shivering?>>

"No, not right now. He was when we first got here, but I covered him with the comforter from his bed... I have him on the couch, so --"

<<So you can keep a close eye on him. Good idea. Is he sweating? Can you feel any heat coming off him?>>

Lois stretched out her hand and held it near his face. She didn't feel any unusual heat. She gently touched his forehead, then his cheek. He made a sound that might have been her name and turned his head slightly into her touch, but he didn't wake up.

<<Lois?>>

"I was checking to see if he was hot," she said into the phone. "He isn't, and he's not sweating, either. I don't think."

<<You'd know, honey. His face and hair would be wet. Well, if he does have a fever, it sounds like it's mild. Let's see -- what else? Did he throw up?>>

"No, but he said his stomach hurt."

<<Any other intestinal symptoms?>>

"What -- Oh, you mean like... Oh. No."

<<A headache?>>

"Yes. I think. He said he thought that was what it was."

Jonathan said, <<Sounds almost like the flu, Martha.>>

"That's what Jimmy said."

<<How is his breathing, Lois?>>

"Okay -- maybe a little fast at first but slower now." She looked at Clark. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully.

<<Okay.>> Martha's voice strengthened. <<I don't know what he came into contact with, Lois, but -->> She broke off, then asked, <<How do you feel, honey?>>

"Me? I'm fine."

<<Good. So it most likely isn't something on his clothing, or you would probably be affected, too.>>

That hadn't even occurred to Lois.

<<So you don't need to worry about stripping him down, washing anything off him,>> Martha was continuing.

"Uh, good..." Lois said faintly. That, also, had not occurred to her.

<<Did he eat or drink anything unusual?>>

"No -- I asked him that earlier. He said he stopped the bank robbers and handed them over to the police just like usual, but at the end he suddenly felt sick."

<<Hmm. When he's better, you'll have to go over every step he took at the bank. See if you can pinpoint exactly when he began to feel ill, and what exactly he was doing at the time. For now, though, let's let him sleep, Lois. Do you have to go back to work?>>

"No -- at least... No. I told Perry I was going to stay with Clark, in case he got worse."

<<Okay. Do you want me to come out? Well, you'd have to come and get me at this point...>>

"Um... I don't know." Part of her really wanted Martha there, but she'd have to leave Clark to go get her. "Do you think you should come?"

<<Well, there's not much I could do right now,>> Martha said. <<Besides, you probably don't want to leave him, do you?>>

Lois gave a half-laugh, half-sob. Martha understood. "No."

<<Why don't you call me in a few hours, honey? Let me know how he's doing. In the meantime, you need to let him sleep. And push fluids.>>

"Push fluids?"

<<Offer him plenty to drink. Water is best. You might try a couple of Tylenol,>> she added musingly. <<If his invulnerability is down, he may respond to it.>>

"Okay..."

<<It's a pain reliever and fever reducer. Standard treatment for flu symptoms.>>

"Oh. Okay."

<<Try the Tylenol. I know he has some; he keeps that kind of thing on hand for when his father and I are visiting. Look in his bathroom medicine cabinet.>>

"How many?"

<<Two -- and a glass of water.>>

"Okay."

<<And Lois? Try not to worry, honey. Let's let him rest and see how he does. I know you're worried; I am, too. But he doesn't seem to be getting worse, and you know I'll come out there the minute you need me to.>>

"Okay." It was barely more than a whisper.

***

It was a long, long night.

At first, Lois was afraid to sleep; what if Clark got worse? Fortunately, she didn't need much sleep, but to keep her mind from going over and over -- and over -- some of her scariest worst-case scenarios, she needed something to do.

She spent some time using Clark's computer to do some research via the Internet.

Like an increasing number of its competitors, the Daily Planet provided computers and Internet access for employees' use in the newsroom. Unlike most of its competitors, the Planet also offered, to its top reporters, Internet access from home. Both Lois and Clark had Planet-issued laptops, the newest , top-of-the-line high-speed modems, and second phone lines -- installed at the Planet's expense.

Jimmy Olsen had explained -- very enthusiastically and in more detail than Lois had needed to hear -- exactly how fast the new 56k modems were. Lois would have been happy with the simple explanation that they were twice as fast as what they had been using. Regardless, in practical terms, the improved speed was amazing.

Jimmy had also made sure they were using the newest, premier Internet browser and the current best search engine. It wasn't as good as using Jimmy himself for research, of course, but it worked pretty well for any research they did outside of the newsroom.

A search for Clark's symptoms returned a multitude of hits, mostly medical information sites -- almost all of which listed infectious agents as the most likely cause. With the exception of food poisoning, though, which usually had a rapid onset, all of the illnesses described began with gradual symptoms. Clark's symptoms had occurred suddenly -- but how on earth could an invulnerable man have food poisoning?

Several sites also mentioned radiation sickness. Researching that, Lois saw similarities to some of Clark's symptoms, but not all. The treatment listed was called supportive, and it was similar to what Martha had suggested. The first step was to make sure the offending substance was gone -- which was likely since Lois hadn't been affected. The next step was rest, fluids, and individual symptom treatment with antiemetics, which were medicines for nausea and vomiting, and painkillers and so on.

Well, she didn't have any antiemetics, but Clark didn't appear to need anything like that, anyway. And she could certainly make sure he rested and drank lots of fluids.

She checked on Clark frequently, at first waking him up to offer water, which he drank in a state of semi-consciousness that alarmed her at first, until she realized that he was simply still half-asleep.

Between checking on Clark and trolling the Internet for any possible cause of his symptoms, she'd also done a lot of thinking.

She had felt him, earlier that evening. She was sure of it now. That fleeting feeling of... *Clark*, when she had thought she must be imagining it. And the feeling of unease -- somehow, he had managed to transmit at least a ghost of his distress to her.

Was there some potential, then, as she was beginning to suspect, for them to use their unique telepathy in a broader sense? With a few exceptions, they'd only communicated when both of them were happy, particularly when they'd been laughing. But she hadn't imagined that moment in the conference room at the Planet, and she was becoming more and more convinced that she'd... *felt* something from Clark after the window-washers incident. And of course, tonight.

Or rather, yesterday, since it was now well after midnight.

She'd spoken to Martha and Jonathan twice more, giving them updates. Both times, Clark had been sleeping restlessly, but had otherwise seemed all right. During one of those calls, Jonathan had wondered again if Clark had lost any other powers in addition to the loss of his invulnerability.

Lois hadn't been able to ask Clark yet. He had come into the newsroom via the elevator, not the roof. Did that mean he'd lost his ability to fly? Martha had mentioned that he sometimes floated in his sleep. He hadn't floated yet -- even while she was researching his symptoms, Lois had barely taken her eyes off him -- but that didn't necessarily mean he *couldn't* float.

The Tylenol seemed to be helping, or the fluids, or both. By the very early morning hours, he seemed to be sleeping soundly but naturally, and Lois was able to get some sleep, too.

Sitting on the floor, leaning against the couch near his head, she dozed off, and was woken by Clark gently stroking her hair and saying her name. She lifted her head from her pillowing arms to find his face not ten inches from hers.

"Hi," he said softly.

"Hi," she said equally softly. "How you doing?"

"Okay... better. I'm thirsty." His voice still sounded rusty and unused, but it was stronger.

She sat up and took an insulated cup from the coffee table. "Here -- it's just water, but that seems to be the best thing for you right now."

"Thanks." He took it from her and drank, then handed it back. "Why don't you go use my bed? Get some sleep."

She put the cup back on the coffee table. "I'm not comfortable leaving you, Clark. Not yet."

"Then come here." He lifted the comforter, and she didn't need much coaxing to move up to lie next to him. He draped the comforter and an arm around her, muttered, "That's better," and went back to sleep.

She tucked her head against him and tuned in to his heartbeat. It sounded slow and reassuringly steady in her ears, and she fell asleep to its soothing cadence.

***

She woke when Clark stirred. He pulled her closer for a moment, arms tight around her, and she hugged him back. Too soon, he was carefully sitting up on the couch, she with him.

"How do you feel, Clark?" she asked.

He grimaced. "Right now? I have to..." He gestured vaguely somewhere in the general direction of his bedroom -- and bathroom. "Too many fluids..."

With a smile, she stood up. "Well, come on, then, big guy. Let's get you on your feet and see how that goes."

With a flash of his old self, he grinned weakly at her. "But, um... even if I'm not very steady, I'm going to..." His face flushed a little, and her smile widened. "I'm going to, uh... you know..." He gestured toward the bathroom again. "Do this on my own..."

To Clark's obvious relief, he was able to walk unassisted to the bathroom. Lois took the comforter back to his bedroom, then sat down to wait for him.

"So how do you feel?" she repeated when he returned and sat down beside her. "How's your stomach? Do you still have a headache? And..." She hesitated. "Have you... tested any of the powers?"

"I feel okay. No headache, no stomachache. But I'm not..." He slumped back against the couch cushions. A ghost of a smile -- more of a grimace -- crossed his face. "I'm not... super. I did test most of them. I can't hear or see very far. They're not completely gone; I can look through stuff -" He made a palm-upward gesture that seemed to encompass all of the apartment walls. "But everything is really fuzzy. Like... like in the early days, remember? Before the power fully developed."

She remembered. "Can you fly?"

He grimaced again. "Nope. Not at all. And my strength is... well, I can't test it very well here, but it seems to be affected, too. I tried to lift the big armoire in my bedroom. I can get it a few inches off the floor, but it's very heavy." He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees, and sighed. "I can't remember ever feeling like I did yesterday, Lois."

She nodded sympathetically. "What about other things -- like your ice breath? And heat vision...?"

He gave her a rueful smile. "Lukewarm."

She gave a small laugh. "Oh, Clark." She scooted forward and put her arms around him.

He immediately lifted the arm closest to her, putting it around her and pulling her close, then turned fully into the hug and wrapped both arms tightly around her. She felt his breath on her hair, then his kiss on top of her head.

Pulling back enough to look up at him, she stretched up the small distance and kissed him. He responded and they shared several gentle and unhurried kisses before just simply sitting and holding each other.

Clark's phone ringing separated them, and without thinking much about it, she picked it up. She'd talked to Martha and Jonathan last night, and also to Perry -- she'd left it that she would call him in the morning with an update on Clark. This might be Perry anticipating her.

It was Martha, and after greeting her, Lois gave her an update on Clark as he sat there grinning at her from the couch. After thanking Martha again for her support and advice the previous night, Lois passed the phone to Clark and went into his kitchen. She might as well make some coffee. It wasn't exactly cooking, but it was something she could do pretty well.

When Clark concluded his call and joined her, she said, "I'm sorry about just jumping in and answering that. I sort of made myself at home here with the phone, and..."

He stopped her with a kiss. "I don't mind at all, Lois. The call was for you, anyway. Mom said she was more likely to believe it if the all clear came from you."

Lois laughed and poured them each a cup of coffee before remembering his stomach the night before. "Oh! I'm sorry, Clark, I wasn't thinking. What about your stomach?" she exclaimed as he took a long, appreciative sip.

"I'm fine, Lois," he reassured her. "Maybe not up to speed super power-wise, but physically, I'm okay. Maybe a little weak, but okay."

She smiled back. "Good. Your mom said rest and fluids were what you needed, so I guess you could stay here today and -" She stopped because he was shaking his head.

"No -- we need to keep looking into this, Lois. More than ever, now. Whoever this is -- and I'm beginning to wonder if it was Luthor after all -- has managed to find something to hurt Superman. We have to put a stop to this."

"Clark, you were sick," she argued. "You're still not back to normal. What if..." What if he had a relapse at work? But... what if he had a relapse at home? Maybe she should stay with him...

"I'm well enough to work," he argued back.

***

It was an argument that Clark won.

Of course, he won because she let him win, but they didn't have time to debate the fine points of the issue at the moment.

Right now, they needed to devote all their time to solving this mystery. To discovering what, exactly, it was that had affected Clark, and to find it and somehow destroy it. If the two of them together ever encountered it...

It was a chilling thought.

She drove more slowly than usual, conscious for the first time that though they both had abilities far beyond those of anyone else on the planet, they were still mortal. And if Clark was without his powers, he would be vulnerable to injuries if she were to have an accident on the way in to work. It was after the morning rush hour, but traffic in a city the size of Metropolis was always a challenge.

As they drove through the city, she quizzed him about the bank robbery, going back over it minute by minute with him. As he had said, it was much the same as other, similar situations Superman had dealt with before. He'd apprehended the robbers quickly and without incident. He'd secured them, as usual, and waited for the police to show up.

"And you didn't... Nobody shot at you?" she asked again.

"No. No one. I disarmed the robbers first, like I usually do. Nothing about them, or their clothing, or their weapons, was at all unusual," he repeated.

"You didn't eat or drink anything..."

"Nope. I also didn't handle anything anyone gave me -- you know, sometimes people approach me after a rescue and ask me to autograph a photo or something..." he reminded her self-consciously. It was an aspect of being Superman he still wasn't very comfortable with. She knew he preferred to fly in, fix the problem, and fly out, avoiding any celebrity treatment.

"When, exactly, did you start to feel bad?" she persisted.

"After I handed the robbers over to the police. I was getting ready to go..."

"What, exactly, did you do?" she pressed. They were at a stoplight; she looked over at him. "You know, Clark -- did you leap into the air? Walk with the police for a moment before taking off? What did you do?"

He looked back at her. "There was a crowd," he said slowly. "There always is..."

She nodded shortly. "Yes..."

The light turned green, and she looked both ways before she pulled into the intersection, causing the driver immediately behind her to lean on his horn at the -- infinitesimal -- delay. Honestly -- some people were so impatient! She didn't bother to acknowledge him with her usual gesture, though. She had better things to do, like get Clark safely to the Planet.

If the guy had a problem with her driving, he could go around her.

"I talked to the police for a few minutes, then walked along the sidewalk a few paces before I took off. And..." He trailed off for a moment, and she shot a quick glance at him before she returned her attention to the traffic.

"So you actually got off the ground?"

"Yeah..." His voice strengthened. "Yes. That's when it hit me, Lois. As I was going over the crowd, still very low. Someone..."

She glanced at him again, nodding. "Yes. Someone in the crowd..."

"Someone in the crowd must have had something," he finished.

She pulled up for another light, stopping as it turned yellow. Normally she'd have zipped through it, and the driver behind her apparently felt, from the length of the blast on his horn, that she should have done so today. Again, she ignored him. She had more important things to do than to reply to a rude driver.

"And what happened, Clark?" she asked softly. "How did you... get away?"

He grimaced. "I felt like I'd been... hit by a train. I think. I mean, normally being hit by a train wouldn't affect me, you know, because of the whole invulnerability thing, but... Well, I felt like a person would probably feel if they got hit by a train. Or maybe by a car. I guess a train would be kind of extreme... If you weren't super powered, you know..."

"Clark, you're babbling," she said gently, smiling, as she reached for his hand.

He curled his fingers around hers. "Sorry." He grinned at her, then sobered again. "Well, I managed to stay airborne -- just barely. I think I hid it okay, though... You know, from any observer. I hope I hid it okay. Anyway, I went up and around the side of the building quickly, and landed on the roof..."

"And?" The light turned green, and she let go of his hand reluctantly to return her attention to the street. She glanced in her rearview mirror as she entered the intersection; Mr. Impatient Driver behind her was cut off by a taxi whose driver swerved into the lane behind her, in front of him, thereby earning his irate horn blast. She grinned involuntarily. Apparently, it wasn't Mr. Impatient Driver's morning.

Returning her attention to their conversation, she prompted Clark, "You landed on the roof..."

"I rested there awhile, then tried to fly -- and couldn't. But the buildings along there are all pretty close together, so I jumped from building to building until they ended. The last one in the row was that new office tower -- can't think of the name of it, but it's still mostly empty. I went in through the rooftop door and changed clothes, and walked down. By then I was feeling pretty rotten, and by the time I got to Centennial Park I probably looked like a drunk. I had to stop to rest twice, and once I threw up in the --"

She hit the brakes involuntarily; fortunately, there was no one immediately behind her at the moment.

"You threw up? Clark, you didn't tell me that!"

He grimaced. "I felt too bad to tell you much at all, Lois. And it was mostly just... well, my stomach was empty, so it was more -- what do they call it, dry heaves? I sat on a bench and rested awhile, and the feeling faded somewhat. But all I wanted to do was to get back to you, so I kept going. I guess I'm lucky I didn't run into anyone we know in the Planet's lobby, or in the elevator. I probably looked pretty out of it."

"You looked ill, Clark." She took his hand again, squeezing it tightly. He returned her grip, and they drove for a while in silence. Finally, she whispered, "I'm glad you made it back to me. I was..." She looked at him. "I was so scared for you."

He didn't say anything, but he meshed their fingers together, then bent his head and placed a kiss on the back of her hand.

***

As they approached the Daily Planet building, Clark suddenly said, "Lois..."

She glanced at him. "Yeah?" She returned her attention to the road and negotiated the ramp into the Planet's underground parking.

He hesitated.

She threw another swift glance at him. His brow was furrowed. "What, Clark?"

"Until we resolve this..." He hesitated again.

It must be something important because he was fumbling a bit for words, which was unusual for him. So instead of pushing him, she kept silent as she drove through the parking area to her reserved space -- a perk given to her after the last Kerth award.

"Would you consider holding off a bit longer on your disguise and debut?" he finally asked as she pulled neatly into her space and parked. "The thing is," he hurried on, "it's not that I don't think you can take care of yourself... I mean, I wouldn't wish this -" He made a vague gesture that she took was meant to indicate himself -- "on you, ever, of course. But it's more that... it might be a good idea to... sort of hold you -- Kinetic -- in reserve..."

She reached out and took his hand. Martha was right; he *did* babble, especially when he was worried. She did, too, though -- according to Clark. Maybe it was a Kryptonian thing.

"Clark, it's okay," she said soothingly. It was what she'd already decided, anyway. She turned to face him. "And I agree. Until this is all resolved, it would be good if we had a sort of a... secret weapon." She grinned at him. "I kinda like being Secret Weapon Lane instead of Mad Dog for a change."

He laughed, then leaned over the console between their seats and kissed her. "I love you, Lois."

She kissed him back. "I know," she said softly. "And I love you." She pulled back to look at him, and honesty compelled her to add, "I had already decided to wait on the debut thing, Clark."

"I thought you might have. I hoped you had," he replied. "I'd been thinking about it on the flight back from Smallville, but I forgot when we were at your place."

The fact that they'd grabbed a movie and a pizza, then ended up kissing and cuddling until late, had nothing to do with either of them forgetting about her disguise, of course. Or with the fact that neither of them had any idea how the movie had ended.

"Anyway," he continued, "There are a few hints I'd like to give you -- things that work for me, and things that don't... And like I said, until we know what happened to me yesterday, the less anyone knows about you the better."

"Works for me," she said with a grin.

He grinned back. Opening his door, he asked, "Ready to go fight this dragon?"

She opened her own door. "Lead on."

***

They had missed the morning meeting, of course. Perry had asked her to check in with him when she arrived, though, so they got the highlights from him at the same time.

He asked Clark how he was feeling, looking a bit skeptical at Clark's reassurance that he felt fine. That was probably due to the fact that Clark didn't look quite as clean-cut as he usually did. He hadn't been able to shave normally, so they'd had to scrounge up a razor; the hair had been just invulnerable enough to give him some trouble. Still, Perry understood that they were in the middle of an investigation and probably assumed that Clark, like Lois, couldn't leave it alone until they'd solved the puzzle and written the story. After cautioning Clark to take it easy, he'd ended their meeting.

Dismissed to their desks, they settled at hers so that she could show him what she had on the sabotaged plane. They were interrupted once or twice by coworkers asking Clark how he was feeling; each time he thanked them and assured them that he felt much better.

Once he was back up to speed, they worked companionably on the information he'd collected regarding the buildings and their security setups.

<<Clark Kent, call parked at 271. Clark Kent, 271.>>

As the overhead page went silent, Clark pulled her phone slightly toward him, keyed in his extension, and spoke into the phone. "Clark Kent."

Although she wanted to, Lois deliberately didn't listen in. It might be a personal call, and besides, it felt like an invasion of his privacy to just brazenly listen in without permission.

He touched her arm, and when she looked at him, gestured at the handset he held against his ear.

She tuned in at once as Clark said, "Hi, Bill. What can I do for you?"

<<You can give Superman a message for me. I just got the results from S.T.A.R. Labs on that last bullet Superman gave me.>>

"And...?"

<<It's made of adamantium.>>

"Adamantium? I've never heard of it." Clark looked at Lois, who gave him a wide-eyed shrug. She'd never heard of it, either.

<<Dr. Klein says it's the strongest metal known -- tougher than titanium. Astronomically expensive compared to titanium, which is why it's not used very much. But it's basically impenetrable, if used as a shield, by anything short of a nuclear weapon, apparently. Whoever this is has access to unlimited funds if he -- or she -- has managed to obtain adamantium. According to Doc Klein.>>

"Unlimited funds," Lois repeated. "Lex Luthor certainly fits -- fitted -- that description."

Clark nodded. He spoke into the phone. "If someone has enough money to afford it, though, is it easy to obtain?"

<<Doc Klein says no. He says it's not available for sale through any 'normal' channels.>>

"What about black market?" Lois asked just before Henderson continued speaking.

<<It's not even easy to find on the black market, according to the Doc.>>

Clark gave her a half grin. "So... if we can determine where this came from...."

<<Yeah. That's a pretty big 'if,' though, Kent.>>

"Clark -" Lois waved a sort of vague 'stop' motion at him.

"Hang on a minute, Bill," he said, and covering the mouthpiece with his free hand, raised an eyebrow inquiringly at her.

"What about the other bullet?" she asked. "Was this Dr. Klein able to confirm its composition? Was it a meteorite?"

Clark repeated the questions into the phone.

<<Yes. It's an iron meteorite, as he had suspected. Not the most common kind of meteorite, apparently, but not particularly rare, either.>>

"Rock shop, or rarer?" Lois asked.

"Rock shop, or rarer?" Clark repeated.

<<I didn't ask. Tell Lane, for the answer to that question, she needs to go talk to Dr. Klein.>> Clark grinned at her as the detective continued, <<That's all I have for you at the moment, Kent...>>

"Wait! Clark, ask him if we can have that adamantium bullet!" Lois said urgently.

<<I heard. She's joking, right? No, Lane. It's crime scene evidence. But thanks for asking; I like a good joke as well as the next guy.>>

"Then can we have a copy of whatever information this Dr. Whoever gave him?" She winked at Clark, and he grinned back at her.

<<What's she asking?>>

"Can we have a copy of the information Dr. Klein gave you, Bill?" Clark repeated.

<<I never said he gave me anything, but yeah, sure. Want me to fax it over?>>

"Yes, please. Thank you, Bill. I'll tell Superman what you said."

Clark hung up the phone and turned to Lois. "Why ask for the bullet, Lois? You didn't think he'd give it to us, did you?"

"No. I knew he couldn't give us the bullet. But I wasn't sure he'd give us whatever printouts he got from this Dr. Klein, and I want the same copies Bill has. Ask for the impossible first, you know." She laughed. "And I like to give Bill a hard time. That way he knows I care."

Clark laughed.

"I wonder if we should we go see this Dr. Klein, Clark," Lois said thoughtfully.

"Maybe. Let's see what Bill sends us first." When she nodded, he stood up. "I'll go check the fax machine."

***

"Let's go get some lunch, Clark," Lois suggested a short time later. "We can stop by this S.T.A.R. Labs while we're out and see if we can talk to Dr. Klein."

"All right," he said cheerfully, beginning to gather up the files and documents they had spread across both desks. "I'm ready to go when you are." He tapped a thick bundle of papers on the desk to straighten them and handed them to her.

She dropped them into a hanging folder in her file drawer, took the second stack Clark was holding out to her, and did the same. "I think we're gonna need a larger capacity folder, Clark."

"Here's the active and follow-up files, too." He handed her two more stacks. "Either that, or solve this puzzle and break the story."

She laughed. "Yes, or that." She dropped them into the correct folders, shut the drawer, and locked it. Unlike earlier, these documents contained sensitive information.

Clark had a lockable file drawer in his desk, too. Every Daily Planet writer or editor did. Lois had keys for both drawers, as did Clark, since they both needed equal access to the information.

She signed off her computer and stood up, waiting while Clark moved to his own desk and signed off his computer. As he rejoined her, she tucked her arm in his. "Ready?"

They went up the ramp together.

Without his powers, they couldn't fly. Well, they could, but she would have to carry him. For lunch, however, they usually took the elevator down to the lobby and walked to one of the eateries near the Daily Planet building. And equality of the sexes aside, it just seemed... *odd* for her to carry him.

There was no one else waiting for the elevator, and the cab was empty when it arrived at the newsroom floor. As soon as the doors closed behind them, she asked, "How are you doing, Clark? Any return of your powers?"

He shook his head. "No, not really. My hearing seems a little sharper than this morning, but I haven't really tested anything out." He touched his chin self-consciously. "I thought maybe I'd try the shaving thing again later this afternoon."

"Or maybe you should just go for the mysterious bluebeard look," she teased him, running her own fingertips lightly along his slightly stubbled jaw.

He caught her fingers and kissed them before letting her hand go. "And how will people react to a bearded Superman, hmmm?" He hesitated, seeming to stand straighter for a moment. "Assuming there'll still be a Superman." Before she could say anything, he added softly, "No flight, yet," and she realized he had just tried to float.

She slipped her arms around him. "They'll come back, Clark. They *have* to." He was still Clark without the powers, and she would love him regardless, but he'd had them -- as she had -- all his life. They were a basic part of him and helped define, to him, who he was. He had to be feeling their loss.

He wrapped his arms around her and held her close. She felt his sigh as much as heard it. "I hope so, Lois. I keep wanting to... poke at them, you know? The way you poke at a loose tooth. It's there and you can't keep from wiggling it."

She nodded against him. She knew. She was always conscious that the powers were there, whether she was using them or not. If they were gone... Of course she would keep trying -- keep poking at them, as Clark had said -- to see if they'd come back.

The elevator doors opened onto the lobby, and she let him go reluctantly.

As they stepped out of the elevator, he bent down to whisper in her ear, "I'm afraid we'll have to eat with the locals, honey. My take-out picking-up abilities are offline."

She giggled. That was her Clark, dealing with what had to be a frustrating situation with grace and humor. She wrapped one arm around his waist. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and they ambled across the lobby, only separating to go through the revolving doors at the main entrance.

***

Their visit to Dr. Klein at S.T.A.R. Labs didn't net them much in the way of new information, but it was an interesting visit nonetheless. Lois filed much of what happened under the mental heading of 'things that might be good to know some day.'

They arrived at the facility and were buzzed in to a reception area, where they were asked to present IDs and sign a visitors' log. They were then issued security badges and escorted to a small conference room, where they were assured someone would be with them shortly.

While they waited, Lois occupied herself with scanning through the walls around them and describing what she saw to Clark in a low voice. The front area, closest to the reception desk and their conference room, seemed to be mostly business offices. But beyond that, there were what looked like suites of labs, all with small offices attached. Based on the wide variety of equipment in the different labs, it appeared that many diverse types of research went on here.

After a short time, a clean-cut young man -- if you discounted the long ponytail -- in a long white lab coat entered the conference room. Introducing himself as Dr. Klein's graduate student, Tom Welch, he led them down the hall and through a second secure door, then up a flight of stairs to one of the bigger lab suites.

Dr. Klein was a youngish, balding man with an appealing smile. He shook their hands in turn, welcomed them, and repeated -- almost verbatim -- the information that Henderson had faxed them earlier. There was very little else he could tell them, though, except that iron meteorites were certainly available in rock shops.

"Or even in fields, if you're willing to do some searching, and quite often, some digging," he added. "If you watch the Perseids in the summer, you could conceivably vector potential landing sites based on observation. Of course, meteorite *finds* are much more common than meteorite *falls*. The Great Plains is a good place to look, you know. A lot of rocks and meteorites that were buried for years were exposed during the dustbowl era, and many of those are still on or near the surface. Australia is another good place to look --"

Lois glanced at Clark; he was trying to suppress a smile.

"Uh, Dr. Klein..."

"Of course, metallurgy, astrology, and geology aren't my main areas of study, however," the doctor rattled on. "My main interest was originally in medicine, although I've moved pretty much to the molecular level. But I have my hobbies -" he smiled at them, "as do we all, I'm sure. I've always enjoyed biochemistry, for instance, and I've recently been dabbling in astrobiology and xenobiology. Oh, and computational physics."

Oblivious to their incredulous expressions, he continued happily, "Anyway, those interests have spilled over into my work, somewhat. That's been easier here in Metropolis, I suppose, than in any of the other S.T.A.R. Labs cities. This branch has become a sort of all-purpose research center over the past few years -- much more so than any of the other branches. In addition to the usual things, we handle most of the more unusual requests from all over the country, most of which ultimately come to me."

He paused. "I hope that doesn't sound like I'm boasting," he said earnestly.

"Oh, no," Clark said quickly. "I'm sure it's an advantage for both the facility and for you..."

Dr. Klein smiled, but was already moving on to his next subject.

"You've met Superman, right?" he asked somewhat abruptly.

Lois and Clark glanced at each other. "Once or twice, yes," Lois said cautiously.

"I wonder if he'd give me an opportunity to study him?" Dr. Klein asked eagerly.

"Uh..." She glanced at Clark again.

"I don't think he'd be interested in being a research subject, Dr. Klein," Clark said firmly.

"Oh, well -- not a research subject, of course," the doctor replied. "I meant..."

He stopped abruptly, eyes widening behind his glasses. "Wait -- research subject? Like... Like a lab animal?" He drew a shocked breath. "Oh, no, no. No," he repeated anxiously. "That's not what I meant at all." He shook his head. "Like a... You mean... dissect him like a frog? Good heavens, no. No, no, no," he repeated again, almost wringing his hands. "No, you've got the wrong idea. I meant... When I said study him, I meant I want to help him," he assured them earnestly.

"Help him? With what?" Lois asked.

"See, I have this theory..." the doctor said, beaming. "I think much of Superman's physiology is based on solar power..." He gestured at some almost totally illegible mathematical calculations on the white board above the desk. "Here, see? It's absolutely fascinating..."

"Dr. Klein..." Clark began.

"I think the sun acts like a... battery re-charger," the doctor rambled on.

"Dr. Klein?" Clark repeated more insistently.

"...His cells store up the solar energy, while --"

"Dr. Klein!" This time, both Lois and Clark spoke together.

"Hmmm? Oh -" Dr. Klein looked up, blinked at them, and then laughed somewhat self-consciously. "I'm sorry. See, the thing is," he continued earnestly, "Superman's physiologic processes are quite different than the average person's -- well, they must be, or he couldn't do the things he does. What I'd like to do is learn more about that if I can. For him. Sort of like a..." He hesitated, then continued almost shyly, "like his personal physician. Oh, I know he doesn't get sick," he hurried on, "but it might be helpful to know... well, how he works. In case he ever needs to know..."

Clark frowned. "Do you know of something that could potentially hurt Superman, Dr. Klein?" he asked, beating Lois to the question by a hairsbreadth.

"Oh, no. No, no -- I doubt there is anything that can hurt Superman," the doctor said sincerely. "Although I suspect that at least part of the criminal element is searching for a way to harm him," he added darkly.

Lois shot a quick glance at Clark, who looked slightly alarmed. The Superman tests weren't supposed to be common knowledge.

"Although Detective Henderson hasn't said anything, I do believe that this unusual ammunition he's obtained is the product of some deranged mind," the doctor continued, oblivious to any undercurrents. "And it almost certainly involves Superman. Why else go to the considerable -- very considerable -- expense of obtaining adamantium? Notwithstanding the sheer *difficulty* of getting ahold of any of it in the first place, regardless of how much money one has..."

"So... you suspect that someone is... searching for a substance that could harm Superman?" Lois asked tentatively.

"Yes, although I believe it's a fruitless endeavor," the doctor replied.

Both Lois and Clark could have told him otherwise, but neither of them knew *what*, exactly, the mysterious substance was -- assuming it was a substance, at all, rather than some sort of radioactive pulse or something.

"But I was an M.D. first, you know -- a medical doctor," Dr. Klein was continuing. "They teach us preventive medicine." He shrugged. "These days, I do mostly catch-all research. You know -- if it doesn't fit the mold, give it to Bernie. He'll figure it out." He smiled slightly. "I'm good at that. But -- I've always believed in being prepared, so..." He trailed off.

Lois and Clark looked at each other again. The man seemed sincere -- there was a sort of childlike enthusiasm about him that reminded Lois of Jimmy.

"Anyway..." Dr. Klein said somewhat awkwardly, "if you wouldn't mind suggesting it to him..." He drew a deep breath, and added quietly, "I, personally, can't help my fellow man much on a one-to-one basis -- but I can help make sure their hero stays healthy and happy."

Lois smiled at him. Beside her, she was aware that Clark was doing the same.

"We'll mention it to him the next time we see him," she said.

The doctor beamed. "Good, good. I'd really like to meet him. He's doing good work."

Clark rose to his feet and offered Dr. Klein his hand. "Thank you for all your information, Dr. Klein."

"Oh, Bernie -- please," Dr. Klein said.

Lois had also risen to her feet, and offered her hand. "Yes, thank you... Bernie."

"You're welcome," Dr. Klein -- Bernie -- replied, and with another reminder that Superman could contact him any time, he escorted them back to the security door between the labs and the business offices.

They solemnly turned in their security badges at the reception desk, signed out in the visitors' log, and exited to the street. Once there, Lois looked at Clark, who looked back at her soberly for the space of a millisecond. Then both were shaking their heads and chuckling. "That was quite an... interesting interview, Clark," Lois said. "I'll bet, back in his college days, Bernie was a lot like Jimmy."

Clark laughed, tucking her hand through his arm as they began to stroll up the street. "I'll bet you're right, Lois."

He glanced down at her and said more soberly, "He's got a pretty keen brain under that absent-minded researcher manner, though. I suspect he might be pretty darn helpful if we figure out what it was that made me sick. And I guess Superman could do a lot worse than have Bernie Klein as his personal physician..."

She nodded. "Yeah. I'd like to do some more digging before we really involve him, but I think it might be a good idea for Superman to stop in at S.T.A.R. Labs at some point and meet Bernie."

***

Neither of them felt like taking a cab, and S.T.A.R. Labs was only a few blocks away from the Daily Planet building, anyway. They were walking -- strolling, really -- through Centennial Park when Clark stopped suddenly.

She took several more steps forward before she realized he'd stopped. "Clark?"

He looked at her, wonder and a smile in his eyes. "My powers are back. Completely," he said softly.

The overcast morning had given way to a rainy noon, and now, in the late afternoon, it was raining frequently enough -- although not at the moment -- that the normally crowded park was almost deserted. There was no one within hearing -- or sight -- so they could talk relatively freely.

"Oh!" She exhaled with relief. "Oh, I'm so glad, Clark. But... how do you know? I mean, -" Hearing and vision were easy to test, but they'd just been walking along. How did he know the rest of his powers were back?

"I can... hear stuff." He touched his ear. "And I can... feel it." He frowned, trying to find a good way to describe it. "It was like a... background noise. Like... the low-level hum of machinery that you don't notice until it's gone. I never noticed it before -- but once the powers were gone, there was... That 'hum' was missing. I could *feel* it missing."

She had nothing against which to gauge what he was describing, having never lost her powers. She was always conscious that the powers were there, but Clark wasn't describing a conscious knowledge. He was talking about a physical feeling. "So even it you weren't deliberately trying to use a power... You know, to see if it was working... You could tell they were gone?"

He nodded. "Yeah. I could... *feel* them missing," he repeated. He looked at her seriously. "I didn't like the way it felt."

"Not the actual... sickness."

"Right. I mean, that wasn't any fun, either, but this was like... part of me was gone."

Part of him *had* been gone. She had realized, earlier, that regardless of how normally they lived, how they'd grown up, their unique abilities had played a major role in defining them. And while Clark liked to live like an ordinary guy, he was an ordinary guy who had never experienced pain or illness.

Not ordinary at all. He'd probably only rarely felt true hunger or exhaustion, if at all. Certainly she never had.

But something had changed all that for Clark.

"Your parents said your symptoms sounded like a 24-hour flu," she said. "Do you think it was some kind of... virus or something?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. I still think we're immune to any sort of infectious agent. I've lived in places where illnesses like malaria or AIDS were endemic... And in remote places in Africa, where unnamed and lethal viruses lurked, appearing rarely but catastrophically. And in many other places, with other infectious agents. Rabies. Leprosy. Lice." He smiled slightly. "Fleas. Nothing ever affected me."

"Last night, I researched your symptoms," she said hesitantly. "There were at least a couple of references to radiation poisoning. Do you have any experience with any kind of radiation? Could it hurt us?"

He shrugged. "I just don't know." He gave her a half grin. "Until yesterday, I would have said no. I've been in space, unprotected from the sun's rays. I've helped at a -- small, but still dangerous -- radiation leak at a nuclear plant... Nothing's ever hurt me."

"Until yesterday."

He nodded. "Until yesterday. Now we know, definitely, that there *is* something out there that can hurt us. And maybe..." His mouth twisted. "Maybe it isn't the only 'something' out there. Maybe there are other things."

She wrapped her arms around her middle, feeling almost cold. Whatever it was, he hadn't been exposed to it for very long. Even if it had been present from the start of the bank robbery -- the whole thing had taken maybe an hour and a half. What if he -- they -- came across it again? What if, like radiation, the effects were dose-related? Could the unknown substance eventually permanently remove their powers? Could it... kill them?

They had resumed walking slowly along the path; now she stopped and looked at him. "Oh, Clark." She drew a deep breath, then expelled it in almost a sob. "I'm so glad you're okay."

He stopped too, and drew her into his arms. "I am okay, Lois."

He was okay -- now. But he hadn't been. He'd been vulnerable, and for the first time since she'd discovered her own invulnerability, she was realizing that she'd subconsciously equated invulnerability with immortality. And while she'd spent most of her life living around her abilities, trying to blend in, she'd never actually thought of who she was without them. Those abilities were part of who she was. Who they were.

She tightened her arms around him. "I'm glad it wasn't permanent," she whispered, following her train of thought.

"Me, too," he whispered back.

Somehow, what she'd said sounded wrong. She'd said she was glad he hadn't lost his powers permanently... "Oh!" She pulled a little away, looking up at him. "Not because... Not because I would love you any differently if you were an ordinary man," she began hurriedly.

He smiled down at her. "I know what you meant, sweetheart."

***

Centennial Park had a wide, paved path circling its perimeter, frequented by joggers and bicyclists during the day, although it was deserted right now because of the rain. There were also many narrower paved walks throughout the park, connecting fountains and benches and picnic areas, playgrounds and reflecting pools. Lois and Clark passed several of the small fountains as they continued on toward the Daily Planet.

They had passed the big central fountain and reentered the surrounding trees on one of the paths when the rain started up again. Just as Clark opened the umbrella they'd been sharing, they both heard the distant, sudden squeal of brakes. It was followed almost immediately by the sounds of vehicle hitting vehicle hitting vehicle -- heavy, dull metal crunches, like giant steel dominoes falling. An almost musical jangling hail of breaking glass played background to the discordant mix of shouts and screams, and the bray of a jammed car horn.

Clark handed her the umbrella and tugged on his tie, glancing swiftly around. They were still in among the trees, and no one else was in sight. "I have to go," he said urgently.

He did need to go. She knew that. But irrationally, she wanted to grab him, hold onto him. To hold him fast and protect him --

But she couldn't do that.

But...

She could go with him, watch over him.

"I'll come, too, Clark. As a reporter. I'll meet you there," she said hurriedly.

"No!" he said almost fiercely, reaching for her. "No, Lois," he said more gently, holding her upper arms as if she might fly away if he released her. The umbrella, which she'd taken reflexively when he'd handed it to her, tipped, allowing rain to speckle his hair and glasses. "Please, sweetheart..." Despite the raindrops, she could see that his eyes were dark with worry. "What if it's another test? We can't take the chance. If we were both affected by... whatever that was..."

He was right.

He was right, and she felt a surge of anger toward their unknown adversary. If it wasn't Lex Luthor, who was beyond any earthly punishment, then whoever it was had better hope that Superman, rather than Lois Lane, got to him -- or her -- first.

She shut her eyes for a moment, then opened them and drank him in. "Be careful," she said, reaching up to touch his face, then whispered, "*Be careful*, Clark."

The umbrella tipped further and she felt the rain on her face as he pulled her close for a moment and kissed her. It was swift but powerful, and she felt his tightly leashed passion, as hot against her lips as the drizzle of rain was cool. "I will. I promise," he said, and was gone, spin-changing into Superman as he left the ground.

She righted the umbrella and made her way back to the Daily Planet on autopilot, listening to the sounds of the accident. Trying to piece together what was happening.

When police and rescue personnel began arriving, sirens blaring, she tuned out for a few moments, which was fortunate since she was poised to cross the busy street in front of the Daily Planet building. It was hard to decide which would be worse -- trying to explain any lack of injuries to the inevitable crowd who would gather if she were hit by a car, or trying to explain away, to a typical Metropolis cabdriver the damage to his chariot if she were hit by a cab.

She resisted the urge to listen to the unfolding rescue scene as she dutifully -- but grumpily -- crossed with the light, in the crosswalk, dodging slow-moving shoppers, puddles, and an overloaded dog-walker in a sea of wet, wagging tails.

But she tuned in again as soon as she was back on the sidewalk on the Daily Planet side of the street. As she crossed the Planet's lobby, it sounded like the rescue personnel were taking charge of many of the victims, leaving Clark to free the ones who were trapped.

By the time she exited the elevator into the newsroom, she was almost convinced that the accident wasn't another setup.

The newsroom TV monitors were tuned, as usual, to LNN. The news channel had reporters on the scene, reporting live as Superman and the city's police and firemen worked to free, treat, and transport the injured.

With visual proof that Clark was okay, she should have been able to work. She *tried* to work, ruthlessly suppressing her anxiety for Clark's safety.

This was no way to live, after all. If they -- she -- spent every single waking moment worrying about what *might* happen, she -- they -- would get nothing done. They just had to believe that, most of time, Superman was really helping real people, in real need.

Clark was fine. She could see it right there on the TV monitors. He was *fine*.

This time...

No! Enough of that.

***

She had doggedly -- Mad Doggedly? -- managed to put her worry out of her mind -- well, push it well to the back, anyway -- and was finally making some slow progress on a sidebar Clark had started earlier this morning when someone sat down in her visitor's chair. She looked up to see Ralph, wearing a smile as oily as his hair.

"So, Lane," he began in a gratingly fake friendly voice. "Don'cha think you're taking this whole partner thing a little too far?"

"I beg your pardon?" she asked icily. It had no visible effect on him.

Really, the man must have very few brain cells. Anyone with more than a dozen knew that retreat was the best option when Mad Dog Lane spoke in that dangerously low, cold tone.

"Hey," Ralph said expansively, shifting around in the chair and leaning back, trying to effect -- and failing miserably -- a casual and sophisticated air. "Everybody knows what you and Kent are *really* doing when you aren't here, you know."

Lois's eyes narrowed as she sized up the distance between Ralph's face and her fist. Between the man's rear and her foot.

"We all saw you in the small conference room Friday, after all, playin' kissy-face, and -" he continued, apparently unaware of his imminent fate.

He was cut off by Cat, of all people, while Lois was still assessing her options.

"Shut up, Ralph," the older woman snapped at him, appearing at the opposite side of Lois's desk without warning. "Go back under your rock before I find Perry and remind him you've already been written up twice for inappropriate comments."

As he glared at her, she added, "Three times and you're out, you know."

"Man, I was only kiddin'," Ralph whined as he got clumsily out of the chair. "None of you dames can take a joke," he grumbled, slouching off toward his own desk.

Cat moved around Lois's desk, made a show of brushing off the chair Ralph had vacated, and then dropped into it without being invited. She leaned back much as Ralph had done, but unlike Ralph, she looked composed and elegant.

Lois eyed her. "Thanks," she said gruffly, then, "You *do* know I can fight my own battles, Cat?"

The gossip columnist grinned at her. "I'm aware of that."

"Then, why..."

Cat laughed softly. "Why did I step in, when normally I'm more inclined to hassle you myself?"

Lois found herself smiling back at her. "Yeah."

"You remind me of me when I was younger, in a lot of ways, Lois. I had that fire." Cat paused as Lois cocked an unbelieving eyebrow at her. "Well, maybe not."

Lois laughed -- she couldn't help it.

Cat grinned at her, then continued. "Seriously? Clark's a nice guy -- one of the few really nice guys out there, and it's obvious how he feels about you." She sobered. "And it's equally obvious -- to me anyway, but observation is my business..."

She inspected her nails, then looked up at Lois. Unsmiling, she continued, "...And it's equally obvious how you feel about him. More importantly -- you've been a loner for a long time, haven't you?"

Lois nodded mutely.

Cat nodded. "Yeah. Well, I know how that feels. There was a time when I was utterly alone... I spent most of my teenage years in foster homes..."

She trailed off, remembering, before straightening up and refocusing on Lois. "Well, it was a long time ago. You don't want to hear about it; I don't really want to talk about it. The bottom line is, *you* don't have to be alone anymore. And it seems to me you don't want to. So... I just wanted you to know that I'm on your side on this."

Lois looked at her for a long moment. "Thanks."

Cat nodded.

Lois smiled suddenly. "But I'm not telling you anything about him."

Cat laughed. "Not a single little juicy detail, huh?" She shook her head, still smiling. "You've got it bad, kid." She made to stand up. "Well, I'd better get back to work."

Lois nodded, then, "Cat?"

"Yeah?" The older woman paused.

"Does Perry really have a three times and you're out policy?"

Cat laughed. "Nah -- I made that up. If it were true, Ralph would've been canned a long time ago. He probably passed his third warning the first year he worked here; I think he's in the triple digits by now. The only reason Perry keeps him around is because every time he sends Ralph to sensitivity classes, he makes him pay a fee."

"I thought all those classes were free," Lois said. Certainly the self-defense classes she'd taken were free.

Cat laughed again. "They are. Perry puts Ralph's fees in the office kitty -- I think Ralph has single-handedly footed the bill for the last three Christmas parties."

As Lois laughed, Cat stood up, gave her a little wave, and walked off.

***

Lois was still sitting there, finishing up the last of her day's work and occasionally smiling over her conversation with Cat, when Clark walked through the stairwell door.

Her smile widened when she saw him, safe and sound. All that worrying for nothing! Whoever was behind those tests had *really* better hope Superman got to him or her first. Because if Lois Lane got there first...

Of course, if it was Luthor, he was safe from the wrath of Mad Dog Lane -- although not necessarily in a better place. Chances were good, in fact, that he *wasn't* in a better place.

Hotter, yes. Better, very likely not.

If it *was* Luthor, he was beyond their reach.

Well, if the frustration level went too high, she could always put up a nice big photo of him and throw darts at it.

Clark arrived at her desk, interrupting her musing.

"Everything okay?" she asked softly.

He perched on the edge of her desk, smiling cheerfully down at her. "Yep."

They were the only two left in the newsroom. The lights had dimmed to the night settings and the last of the day staff had gone shortly before Clark's arrival. The few people who worked overnight were in the small command center, immersed in getting up-to-date with the day's news.

Lois's desk lamp cast a circle of light that seemed to enclose the two of them, a private island of illumination in the vast and shadowy newsroom. Although there was no need to whisper, their voices were low and intimate, their conversation also wrapped inside the small border of lamplight.

She stood up and leaned a hip against the edge of her desk, eliminating the height difference between them. This close, she saw that he must have shaved properly at some point, because his cheeks and jaw were smooth.

She'd forgotten about that -- he'd mentioned he wanted to shave, but had discovered his powers were back only a short while before they'd heard the multiple car pile-up. "Did you somehow manage to shave before that accident?" she asked softly. "I never even thought about what people might say if they saw Superman --"

His hands came up to rest lightly on her waist. "No." He sounded somewhat distracted. "It was raining hard enough that visibility was pretty poor -- I doubt anyone noticed. Superman was too busy helping people to give any interviews..." He raised one hand and ran a fingertip along the open neckline of her shirt. "Have I told you yet how much I like this blouse?"

"No -" It came out as a breathless squeak as he bent his head and placed a string of nibbling kisses along the exposed skin. She shivered, struggling to remember what they were talking about. "...And?" The word was only slightly less breathy.

He pulled back, smiling impishly at her as he raised his head. "...And he flew off as soon as the last people were freed and the last vehicles moved."

But he'd taken the trouble of shaving before he'd come back to her. "Mmmmm..." she murmured. "So the smooth look is for me?" Running a fingertip along his jaw, she added, "Well, I liked your slightly scruffy look..." She dropped her voice to a throaty purr. "...Superman..." and smiled as he made a sort of low, growly rumble in reply, "...but this is even nicer..."

He captured her finger gently between his teeth, and she giggled. Smiling at him, she toyed with his tie, smoothing it, as she breathed, "So... Superman..." He made the same low rumbly sound again as she whispered the words, her breath brushing his skin. "...Everything in working order? Everything..." She leaned in close to him, lowering her voice to barely more than an exhalation. "...and everyone safe?"

"Yes." It came out in that soft, low growl. She shivered at the sound of it, and shivered again when his breath feathered over her face as he continued in a husky rumble, "Superman and the rescue guys got everyone out okay. There were no tests, no weird bullets or anything -- nothing unusual about it at all..." He trailed off, lifting one hand to cradle her jaw, threading his fingers into her hair, and kissed her.

It was a gentle but intense kiss, and when she responded, he ran his tongue along her lower lip. She gasped, promptly forgetting what she'd been about to say, and he immediately took the kiss deeper. The hand in her hair slipped to the nape of her neck and his other arm came tightly around her waist.

He was still sitting half perched and half leaning against the desk; with a groan, he wrapped both arms around her and tugged her more squarely in front of him, into the space between his long legs. Held snugly against him, she wrapped her own arms around his neck. Suddenly he rose to his feet, molding their bodies together, and slid a hand up to cradle the back of her head, holding her still as he fused his lips to hers. This time the kiss flared almost immediately into one of the most powerful and passionate she'd yet received from him.

By the time he lifted his head, they were both trembling. He didn't speak right away, but tipped his forehead against hers for a brief moment, then pulled back slightly. "I..." he whispered, and brushed her lips gently with his.

Lifting his mouth, he murmured, "...love..." and brushed her lips again, slightly more firmly.

Lifting his mouth once more, this time a mere hairsbreadth from hers, he breathed, "...you..." His breath was warm on her lips, and then he was kissing her again, a kiss that was deep and intense and hotter, if that was possible, than the previous one.

Once again, they were both trembling when it ended, and she was gasping for breath. He buried his face in her hair, still holding her tightly against him, and after a moment whispered unevenly, "Wow."

Tucked tight against his shoulder, she breathed in the scent of him before tipping her face into the angle of his neck and jaw, and echoed, "Yeah -- wow." His arms tightened reflexively and she felt a shiver convulse him, all along the length of where they were pressed against each other, as her breath brushed over his skin.

Intrigued, she blew gently over the same skin, and he shivered again. She began feathering kisses along his neck, up toward his ear, and he moaned her name in a voice so low and rough that it made *her* shiver. She reached his earlobe and took it gently between her teeth, and felt them both leave the floor.

Dimly, part of her recognized that they shouldn't be floating, but that part was barely making itself heard over the wholehearted participation of the rest of her and the tumultuous pounding of her heart. Without finesse, she pushed them both back down toward the floor, still toying gently with his earlobe. "We need to stay down -" she began, directly into his ear.

The effect on him was instantaneous. With a moan, he lifted her head, seeking her mouth, and kissed her again, fiercely, his hands beginning to roam up and down her back. She threaded her fingers into his hair, holding him there at her mouth, willingly giving him full access.

It wasn't until their heads bumped the light fixture that she realized they'd left the floor again. Clark lifted his mouth from hers, looking dazed, and stared at her, breathing roughly. Equally out of breath, she stared back for a moment, collecting her scattered thoughts, then laughed softly and whispered, "We're floating. I don't think we should be floating, flyboy."

"Yeah..." he managed, glancing down at the desks below them, and brought them back to the floor. He did it clumsily, because having called their gravitational issues to his attention, she'd felt free to thread her fingers into his hair and return to kissing him.

They ended up leaning against her desk again, almost in their original positions. His hands smoothed up and down her back and then along her sides, and she arched into him, making them both moan.

His big frame trembled against her as she let her own hands wander. When she stroked over his pectorals and across his chest, he said her name in that low, rough voice that set her trembling again.

He took her mouth again in several deep, passionate kisses. An eon later, and way too fast, he lifted his head, pulling back enough to allow them both to gasp for air. As they stared at each other, he drew in a deep breath, glanced around them as if just now remembering where they were, and then leaned forward and kissed her again, this time more gently.

"Wow," he finally murmured against her lips. He framed her face in his hands and kissed her again, the merest brush of his mouth that was somehow just as powerful as his earlier kisses. "I didn't expect that to get so out of control -- especially here. But I just couldn't help myself." He straightened up, looking around thoroughly and soberly. They were still alone in the newsroom. "We're lucky no one came in here."

She smiled softly at him. "Very lucky. And I can relate, Clark -- I couldn't help myself, either. But you're right -- this isn't the place for this, is it?"

"No. But I'm having a hard time convincing myself to stop at the moment." His arms had loosened somewhat and were back around her waist as they stood, still close together but in a less intimate embrace, slowly regaining their equilibriums. Eventually, he heaved a sigh. "Mmmm. I don't want to let go of you."

She laughed softly against him. She didn't feel like letting him go, either.

Finally, though, he pulled away further. "Are you ready to go?"

She frowned somewhat unconvincingly in thought, a smile struggling to stay suppressed. "Hmm. I don't know," she mused. "Go where?"

"Home, of course." He grinned at her.

"Well," she said, drawing it out, walking her fingers up his chest, "that depends. Whose home? And will there be more of this sort of..." Her own grin broadened as he caught her fingers and kissed them. "...togetherness... when we get there?"

He pulled her back tightly against him for a moment, and she felt the warmth and strength of him all along her own length. "Yes," he whispered, bending his head so that his lips were close to her ear.

She shivered deliciously as his warm breath gusted over her skin. "Then my vote is yes," she said unsteadily.

"My place?" Again it was whispered against her ear, and again she shivered.

"Uh... What was the question, again?"

Laughing, he pulled away from her, framed her face gently with his hands and dropped a quick kiss on her mouth. "Questions. Several of them," he said, still laughing, and repeated, "Are you ready to go? Home? To my place?"

"Oh, yeah. Now I remember," she rejoined teasingly. She stretched up and kissed him quickly. "Yes."

She kissed him again, another quick meeting of their mouths. "And yes."

The third kiss was much more lingering, and this one was full of promise. "And... definitely," she said huskily. "Your couches are more comfortable."

On their shared laughter, they collected their things and headed for the roof.

***

"Oh -- I've been meaning to ask you about something." Lois spoke as Clark leaned forward to set his empty hot chocolate cup on the coffee table.

The flight to his apartment and the familiar routines of getting comfortable had muted the more intense feelings between them. Still there, but simmering gently in the background. Later on, when the last of the day's commitments had been taken care of, they could turn up the heat again. But there was no hurry, and as they'd spent some time going through the work they'd brought home, they'd both savored the awareness that flowed between them.

Over pizza -- delivered by a regular Metropolis pizza deliveryman rather than by Superman express from some place farther away -- and soda, they'd worked companionably on the last of the day's assignments, only switching to super speed when the pizza was gone.

Now they were sitting on the couch together, finishing hot chocolate. Clark had turned on the evening news, low, but fortunately there was nothing that needed Superman's attention.

He sat back again and smiled at her. "What?"

"How do you do the suit?"

He frowned. "The suit? Superman's suit?"

She nodded. "Yes -- when you change into the suit, and when you change back... Do you stash an extra suit and extra clothes all over the city?"

"Oh." He laughed. "No."

"And in the summer," she continued. "You can't exactly wear it with shorts..."

Clark grinned at her. "Now that's a mental image."

She laughed. It *was* quite a mental image. "Seriously, Clark, what do you do? I can't figure it out."

He seemed surprised. "Didn't you and Mom talk about this when she was making your suit?"

"No." She grinned impishly at him. "We were too busy discussing your childhood."

"Oh, boy. Tell me Mom didn't show you my baby pictures." He buried his face in his hands in mock horror.

She waited until he looked up at her again, then gave him a wide-eyed, innocent look. "Martha didn't show me your baby pictures."

He snorted, looking at her skeptically, one eyebrow up. "Uh huh. Why don't I believe you?"

She lost the battle to keep a straight face. Laughing, she teased him, "But you were so *cute*, Clark! The photo of you in the cowboy boots, shorts, Snoopy t-shirt, and fireman's hat, carrying a sword, was priceless."

He laughed, too. "Hey, I was five. *I* thought it was a particularly elegant and sophisticated costume."

"And here you are, twenty-some years later, still running around in a pretty unique get-up," she said, giggling. "Some things never change."

He leaned toward her. "Ms. Lane, are you implying Superman's outfit isn't elegant and sophisticated?"

"Hey, if the suit fits," she shot at him, laughing even harder.

Growling, he wrapped her suddenly in his arms, tipping them both over sideways into the couch cushions. Her small shriek was cut off abruptly when he swooped in and kissed her soundly.

"Take it back," he murmured, lifting his lips from hers.

"Never." She was as breathless as she sounded. He was incredibly good at kissing.

"Take it back, or else," he murmured, and kissed her again.

"Or else what?" she whispered, and felt him smile against her mouth.

"Mmm. I might have to get tough." His voice was low and rough. He lifted his head, bringing his hands up to cradle her face, and she saw his love blazing from his eyes.

She tugged his head back down, giving him kiss for kiss. "What will you... Mmmmm," she moaned as he trailed small kisses along her jaw and neck. "What... Oh, Clark..."

He rolled above her, returning to her mouth and deepening the kiss, and she realized dimly that they must be floating, because she felt very little of his weight.

"What... were we talking about?" she asked with difficulty, reluctant to stop kissing Clark long enough to speak.

"Who cares?" he growled, and for a long time they said nothing more.

***

"So what do you do with the suit?" she asked a long time later. They were more-or-less sitting on the couch, tucked together, and she moved a little so that she could look at him.

He sat up a little more, too, and stole a quick kiss. "Well, I had some difficulty with it at first, you know."

He leaned back into the couch cushions and propped his feet on the coffee table, tucking his hands behind his head. "Deciding how it all worked took some time. The first week or two, in particular -- a lot of it was trial and error. Changing, for instance -- where should I change? How did I change quickly? Did I wear the suit or stash it somewhere? But then I'd have to make an excuse to go get it..."

She shifted to face him fully, propping an elbow on the back of the couch. "And...?"

One corner of his mouth quirked up. "I was not real comfortable with stashing the suit -- or my clothes -- somewhere. How secure was it? I mean, a roof was probably okay, but... You never really know -- a bird might... you know..." He paused, looking a little embarrassed.

She grinned impishly at him. Of course she knew what he meant. "No." She gave him a wide-eyed look. "What do you mean?"

"Lois!" He drew her name out in exasperation, but he was grinning, too.

"So, to avoid bird you-know-what," she teased him, "what do you do? I know you wear the suit sometimes," she added more seriously, "but not always."

His grin widened. "Mom helped me figure it out. She made me a pocket in the cape. It's way up high, just under where it attaches. It's on the inside, incorporated into the lining."

"Oh." Lois's cape had a pocket like that, too. "She did that with mine, too. I saw it, but I wasn't sure what it was for, and I forgot to ask her about it."

"Well, you put your clothes in there," he explained.

She frowned. "How?" It was a pretty small pocket. "Wouldn't it be bulky?"

He sat up. "Normally, yes. But you compress them down. He pressed his palms together at right angles in demonstration. "...You can, you know -- small and flat."

She frowned again. "Surely not the shoes?"

"Well, yeah -- that's a bit harder," he acknowledged. "I do leave those, sometimes. The Planet roof is safe."

"What about the suit, though?"

"Same thing. I compress it and put it in a pocket." He grinned. "The boots, too, believe it or not, since they're more like moccasins. The stuff she made the soles from -- it's silicone; it isn't damaged by compression."

"In a pocket... Like your coat pocket?" She wasn't sure if he was pulling her leg or not. She frowned at him. "You're kidding, right?"

He laughed and spread his hands in innocence. "Swear to God, Lois. I compress the suit and put it in a pocket, and when I'm wearing the suit, I compress my clothes and put them in the cape pocket."

"But... what about wrinkles?"

He laughed again. "That's the best part. Mom figured that out, too."

"What do you do?"

"Ice breath and heat vision." He said it as if it explained everything.

It didn't. "What?"

He leaned forward, smiling. "I asked her the same thing -- what about wrinkles? I reminded her that it would be bad enough to have wrinkles in the suit -- those would stretch out some -- but in my regular work clothes..."

"And?"

He laughed. "You know Mom. She listened to me patiently, and then without batting an eye, she told me to extract my clothes from the pocket, shake them out, ice them down, and then heat them up. And voila!" He threw his arms out grandly. "...Steam treatment!"

She began to laugh. He was certainly fast enough that he could do all that, in addition to actually changing his clothes, without being seen. "Your mom is brilliant."

***

They spent the rest of the week -- and the weekend -- getting precisely nowhere on the investigation. Jimmy had nothing new, Bill Henderson had nothing new, and none of Lois's contacts had anything new, either -- even Bobby Bigmouth. And that was so unusual that the man gave her a discount, after a fashion, by announcing that the next time she needed something from him, she didn't have to feed him.

"Even dessert, Lois. And coffee," Bobby had told her earnestly. He'd been genuinely upset that he couldn't give her any information, insisting that it had never happened before, and that it wouldn't happen again. When she'd pointed out that she already wasn't feeding him this time, anyway, since they were talking by phone, he'd hurried to clarify that she was to get genuine information for 'free' the next time, regardless.

Between her and Clark, who was part of the three-way call from his own desk, they managed to reassure Bobby that if he genuinely meant his generous offer, then they would graciously accept it, and that no, they weren't even remotely worried that he might be losing his 'edge.'

The conversation with Bobby had been a small island of shared humor between them in an otherwise drudgery-filled day, as they'd systematically checked with each of their sources, verifying information they already knew and getting precisely nothing new from any of them.

They took the time to speak to Perry one morning, telling him that Superman had mentioned that he would like to set up a charity.

"He said he'd like to... I don't know, copyright his name, or something along those lines," Lois said casually, as if she were repeating what Superman had told her, rather than advancing an idea she'd helped conceive. "You know it's just a matter of time before his image is mass merchandised; he said the proceeds could go to a charity designed to help people in need."

Perry listened thoughtfully before replying. "He's got quite a grasp on the American way of making money for someone who's been postulated to be an alien." In a pronounced drawl, he added, "Especially since he's only been around a short while..."

Clark shifted uncomfortably in his chair, but Lois immediately waved Perry's comment away dismissively. "Perry, you read the interview he gave us. He said he'd always been that way but had only recently been able to help. He didn't say anything about where he came from or how long he'd been here."

Perry leaned back in his chair, an expression of polite interest on his face, but said nothing. She had the idea that he was humoring her, but she suppressed it. If anything, he was probably wondering if she had some sort of news angle she was going to present along with Superman's idea.

"Anyway," she continued blithely, "you don't have to be here in the U.S. very long at all to see how we mass merchandise everything... All you'd have to do would be to go to some fast food place, for instance -- they've always got ads for their latest free toys on their menu boards, and the toys are always promoting something."

Perry's eyebrow shot up. "Superman eats fast food?"

Lois felt more than heard Clark's smothered laugher.

"Perry, that's just an example," she said, exasperated. "I don't know what he does for meals."

<Yes, you do.>

She resisted the impulse to smack Clark. "I don't even know if he *needs* to eat," she added for good measure.

<You do too,> filtered through her mind.

<Hush,> she thought back at him, struggling to maintain her innocent expression.

"Well, I think Superman's best bet is Franklin Stern," Perry said impassively.

"The Daily Planet's owner?" Clark asked, surprised.

"Yes. And a well-known philanthropist, as I'm sure you know. Not a flashy one like Lex Luthor," he added. "Stern's the real thing."

The editor leaned forward and opened his center desk drawer, extracted a business card, and handed it to Lois. "More importantly, his son's a lawyer. A corporate lawyer, and a good one. He's a good man. Between Franklin and his son, they can help Superman set it up."

"Thanks, Perry." Lois took the card. "We'll tell Superman the next time we see him."

As they left Perry's office, Lois suddenly thought of something. "Clark, I was just thinking," she said softly. "Could someone decide to... sue Superman, or his charity? I mean... right now, regardless of what that interview said, a lot of people do think he's an alien. I think they think he sits on a cloud 'til he's needed. But if he's linked to some sort of income... money from licensing his likeness, for instance... Doesn't that make him a target for legal action from somebody?"

He pulled her chair out for her, then dropped into her visitor's chair. "See, Lois, that's where you're brilliant and sometimes don't even know it," he said very softly. "There are laws that limit that kind of thing. I did a little research into it -- I thought it would be best not to involve Jimmy this time -" When she nodded her agreement, he continued, "There's not a lot of information out there, but there are laws in most states referred to as 'charitable immunity' laws that help protect charities from frivolous lawsuits."

In a more normal voice, he continued, "Obviously, even charities have to follow employment and workplace safety practices and stuff like that. And an employee of a charity wouldn't be exempt from prosecution for some sort of criminal activity. But that's why Superman's going through a lawyer -- to make sure it's all set up correctly." He grinned. "And as far as income goes -- I'm sure that with Mr. Stern Junior's help, Superman will make sure that he personally owns nothing -- except his name, which he licenses with the proviso that all proceeds are donated to the charity."

She grinned back at him.

"Superman has a charity? Cool!" Jimmy exclaimed, walking by. He stopped, leaning against the side of Clark's desk. "What's it called?"

"Well..." Lois hesitated. "He doesn't have one yet, but he's working on setting one up, I heard. I gather the first step is to copyright his name."

"Piece of cake," Jimmy said.

She glanced at Clark, who smiled and shook his head. <No clue, Lois.>

"I'm glad you think so, Jimmy, but why?" <Maybe Jimmy knows how to hack into the country's citizenship information, or something.>

Clark grinned at her. <Actually, he probably does.>

Jimmy laughed. "It'll be easy, you guys, because the state and federal governments are watching out for Superman. Like what happened with that guy who bought up every remotely Superman-related domain name. They busted him big-time."

"Every what?"

"Domain name," Jimmy repeated. "You know -- website address."

Clark frowned. "Why would he buy every possible... Oh. So he could turn around and sell them to someone representing Superman, but at a profit? <Is that even legal, Lois?>

<I don't know. It shouldn't be, anyway.> "Can someone who doesn't own a name even do that, Jimmy? If it's not their name, I mean," Lois added. "Although, I guess if the name isn't copyrighted..." She trailed off.

"Well, yeah, people have done that with, like, celebrity names," Jimmy conceded. "But that's not what this guy was doing."

"Okay... So what happened with this guy?" Clark asked curiously.

"Yeah -- how would being the owner of those domain thingies be illegal?" Lois added.

"Well, not illegal," Jimmy began.

"But you said he was... busted," Clark reminded him.

"Yeah -- like I said, he bought 'em up," Jimmy explained, perching on the edge of the desk. "That's not illegal, actually -- but it's... way unethical. See, if he owns certain domain names, then nobody else can use 'em, right?"

They nodded.

"So then he can do anything he wants with 'em -- like... Like... you know," he glanced around self-consciously and lowered his voice. "Like a porn site."

"What?" Clark didn't just sound shocked, he sounded angry.

Lois put a hand on Clark's arm, and he asked more calmly, "He was going to link Superman's name with --"

Jimmy nodded at Clark. "Yeah, CK, that was my reaction when I heard about the guy, too. I mean, Superman is good, and this guy was going to... Well, associate his good name with... with garbage."

"But something happened to stop him?" Lois prompted. She felt Clark's tense muscles relax under her hand, and she squeezed gently.

Jimmy laughed. "Oh, yeah. ICANN -- that's the, uh... Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers -- they're the people in charge of this stuff -- they forced the guy to give up every one of 'em, and then the feds stepped in and shut down the sites he already had up and running. Then ICANN marked 'em all -- all the domain names -- as off limits. Reserved, like .gov addresses are. Although, of course, it's not really the same thing," he added.

Lois glanced at Clark with a grin. Once Jimmy got going on computers and the Internet and all that stuff... <What's a dotgov address?>

<I don't know. Something to do with the Internet, apparently.> Clark grinned back. "What's a dotgov, Jim?"

<It must stand for something... Department Of The... What's something Internet-related that starts with a G, Clark?> She shot Clark an impish smile, then demanded, "Speak English, Jimmy." <Doesn't Jimmy call his hacker buddies 'computer geeks?'>

Clark's cough sounded a lot like smothered laughter. <Umm...>

Jimmy was already explaining. "Sorry. It's the top-level domain for government websites. The URLs -- the website addresses," he added. "They all end in a period -- the dot -- and G-O-V -- gov, for government. Commercial sites use .com. Educational sites use .edu. And --"

Aha. "We get it, Jimmy," Lois said hurriedly.

"Okay. Well, anyway, so the feds put a block on 'em all. Only Superman owns the name -- and *all* variations of it. Regardless of how it ends -- .com, .edu, .gov, you name it..."

Lois sat up straighter. "Wait -- Jimmy, when did this happen? How come we haven't heard about it?" She glanced at Clark, who was nodding.

"Yeah -- this is quite a story, Jim. Why haven't we heard anything about it? When did this happen?"

"Uh, just a coupla' days ago. But, well, it's not... *news* news, you know?" Jimmy said. "I mean, it's... well, it's geek news. It was on the boards, but --"

"What boards?" Lois interrupted.

"Oh, you know -" Jimmy waved a hand. "The electronic bulletin boards -- on the Internet. Message boards. Where the geeks hang out. You know, where the -" He hesitated, glanced around, and lowered his voice. "Where the hackers and crackers hang out, you guys."

"But why isn't this news? Why haven't we heard about it?" Lois insisted. "Why hasn't the word gone out? What's so secret about it --"

"It only just showed up on the boards last night. And it's not that it's a secret, Lois," Jimmy said earnestly. "I mean, whoever wants to know about it, that's okay. It's just that it's... you know, technical stuff. The hows and the whys of the Internet don't really interest people, you know? Regular people, I mean."

"But it's a great story, Jimmy. Right, Clark?" She looked at Clark again, who nodded.

"Yeah. It makes a great human interest story, Jim."

"Well... you guys could tell it," Jimmy said dubiously. "I mean, if you think Perry'd print it..." He paused, thinking. "I guess maybe it would be interesting if it's about Superman. People like reading about Superman..."

"How is this ICANN place blocking all these potential domain name variations?" Lois asked briskly.

Jimmy blinked. "Oh -- they're all in a central databank -- there are whole teams of guys who program all possible variations in. If you try to register any of them, the system notifies you that the name's unavailable." He looked back and forth between them. "You guys really think people want to read this kind of stuff?"

"Of course they do, Jimmy," Lois said. "It's about Superman. People'd read a three page article on how he brushes his teeth if we printed it." She ignored Clark's snort of laughter.

"Well, you know, if his technique really works to prevent cavities," Jimmy began seriously, and she was unable to suppress her own laughter.

"What?" Jimmy asked, and she waved a hand at Clark. <You tell him, partner.>

"Jimmy, what Lois means is that yes, what you're telling us is, indeed, newsworthy news," Clark said, chuckling.

"Oh... okay." He glanced back and forth between them, then grinned. "No toothbrushing article, huh?"

Lois, still laughing, managed, "Nope. Sorry."

"But we'll let you know if we ever write it, Jim," Clark added, still grinning.

"But anyway, seriously... can you get us to one of those sites, Jimmy?" Lois asked. "Now?" She gestured at her computer monitor, then shifted back from her desk as Jimmy straightened up and came around to her side.

"Sure." Within minutes, his fingers were flying over the keys. "Here... this is a good site, although it's a bit technical... No, maybe..." He typed some more. "Here, this is where I get most of my..." he trailed off, reading.

Lois waited patiently -- at least for a count of five -- and then prompted him again. "Jimmy?"

"Huh? Oh -- here, I found it." He tapped the monitor's screen as they leaned in closer. "What I told you..." He paused again, reading.

Lois opened her mouth to prompt him again, but he continued before she could say anything.

"Yeah, here it is..." He looked around at them, grinning. "*And*..." He paused dramatically. "There's some new information. The ICAAN has created a whole *new* top level domain especially for him -- for Superman -- .sup. Cool, huh?"

It was cool.

"Wow." Lois shot a grin at Clark. <Your very own top-level domain.>

"Yeah, Jim -- very cool." Clark gave her a barely perceptible wink. <Nah, it's *Superman's* very own top-level domain. I'm just a reporter.>

This time it was her turn to smother a laugh with a cough.

"So, anyway," Jimmy continued, oblivious to their interplay, "It sounds to me like that whole copyright thing's already done. So setting up his own charity oughta go nice and smooth for Superman. And that's good, you know?" he added earnestly. "Because he's one of the good guys."

Lois smiled at Clark before turning to the young man. "Yeah Jimmy, I know." She slipped her hand down Clark's arm, and he turned his hand to catch hers when she reached his fingers.

"Jimmy!" Perry's bellow rang out across the newsroom.

"Coming, Chief!" Jimmy called, straightening up. "Gotta go, guys. If you see the big guy, tell him..."

"Jimmy!"

"On it, Chief," Jimmy called, beginning to move away from them. He tossed rapidly over his shoulder at them, "...tell him the city's on his side, and... and to ignore any idiot who says any different!"

Lois glanced at Clark again with a soft smile. "We'll tell him," she said to Jimmy's back as he broke into a jog.

***

Around and under the normal newsroom activity, there was a sort of muted excitement growing slowly through the week. The Daily Planet was gearing up to host the annual newspaperman's convention -- the one sponsored by ASNE, who had also sponsored the contest Lois had won in high school, the prize being the coveted Daily Planet internship.

The convention was held in a different city each year. Last year, it had been in New York, hosted by the New York Times. Next year, it would be in Salt Lake City, hosted by the Salt Lake Tribune. But this year, it was in Metropolis, and the Daily Planet was the host.

Regardless of where the convention was held, it always started on Thursday night with a ball. The theme was entirely up to the hosting newspaper and varied from year to year -- it was often black tie or a masquerade. One year, Lois had heard, there'd even been a hoedown.

This year, though, it was another black tie.

The convention always ran through Saturday afternoon, ending with a dinner and awards.

Lois had been to several ASNE conventions over the years. There were always gifts for the attendees, such as tote bags, pens, tins of mints or chocolates, and badge holders, all with either the ASNE logo or the hosting newspaper's. And the trend for the last several conventions had been to feature unique items that reflected the flavor of the hosting city, or the hosting newspaper -- or both.

Last year, the New York Times theme had been apples. Lois had a brushed gold metal apple bookmark that slipped over the page like a paper clip, and red velour flocked apple -- complete with stem and silk leaf -- that opened to reveal a satin-lined interior and a gold apple-shaped key fob.

For many attendees, these host-city-specific gifts were the big draw -- an opportunity to add to their own collections. But apparently, the very uniqueness of the items made them appealing to a wider population of collectors, people who had nothing to do with ASNE or newspapers but who collected limited-edition... stuff. According to Jimmy, several of the New York ASNE convention items had shown up for sale on eBay, an up-and-coming Internet auction site for collectors, over the past year.

This year, the Planet would be giving out small crystal paperweights in Daily Planet blue, with frosted continents and smooth oceans. Slightly larger than a golf ball, each paperweight came with a cherry wood base and a blue velour drawstring bag.

There were also the more common convention giveaways, including jotters -- small notebooks with pens and inside pockets. This year, they were red leather with the ASNE logo in white. There were red pens with the ASNE logo in gold and blue pens with the Daily Planet logo. And there were globe-shaped badge holders, also imprinted with the Planet's logo.

But the best was the small Limoge-type box shaped like a globe -- and inside it, a tiny Daily Planet globe, complete with ring, and a tiny ceramic newspaper that actually said 'Daily Planet' on it.

Lois knew because she'd peeked.

The boxes had arrived later than the other items, so she hadn't seen them right away. Apparently, the convention committee wanted to keep them a secret until the actual event. But a comment Perry had made regarding their arrival had prompted Lois's steady super vision search until she found them inside boxes in a corner of Perry's office.

She had no intention of spoiling the surprise for anyone else, but she had always had a driving desire to *know* things, and one of the quickest ways to guarantee the appearance of Mad Dog Lane was to present Lois with a mystery or some type of intrigue.

"I'll have to remember to use lead foil gift wrap for your birthday and Christmas gifts," Clark had teased her.

"Yeah? I'll have you know that a talent for peeking is a handy thing to have in a partner," she'd teased him back. "If a convention host ever makes the opening ball one of those murder mystery games, for instance -- just stick with me, Kent, and we'll win first prize."

Clark's hearty laughter had come close to making her float.

***

"Clark!" Lois called as she caught sight of the news alert scrolling across the bottom of the TV screen. "Look at this!"

It was the night before the convention's opening ball, and they were at her place, working on a story. He was in her kitchen, refilling the coffee maker, while she sorted through some of the paperwork they still had to go through.

"Partial collapse of a train tunnel in Pakistan," Lois read aloud. They'd turned on LNN earlier, volume almost off, and now she grabbed the remote and turned it up.

Clark was beside her instantly.

"...Relatively minor amount of damage from this quake, Julie," a male voice was explaining, "as this area is sparsely populated. The most extensive damage seems to be the partial collapse of the Khojak Tunnel..." The two anchors at the LNN desk nodded, faces composed into listening expressions as they stared into the camera. An inset view in the corner of the screen showed a slightly rumpled man with a microphone, standing in front of what appeared to be the tunnel entrance. Officials in unfamiliar uniforms and people dressed in simpler clothing moved among spills of rubble near the elaborate, castle-like facade. "There are -" The sound fizzled and the inset picture went blank.

After only a brief moment of silence, the male anchor glanced at some papers in front of him, then looked earnestly into the camera and began, "This is a railway tunnel in the Khojak Pass in Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border." The inset picture now showed, much like a slide show, a series of maps: world view, then Asia, and finally a highlighted area just northwest of India. "It was built in the late 1800s -" He was interrupted by a short burst of static, and the picture changed back to the on-scene reporter.

"...train in the tunnel, which was carrying approximately one hundred passengers. The Shelabagh end of the tunnel was affected, although local sources say only the last few train cars are involved."

"Are there people trapped, Jerod?" the female anchor asked.

The reporter at the scene, looking to his left, touched his earpiece and nodded, then turned to face the camera and after a slight delay, replied, "Yes, Julie -- according to Pakistan Railway, approximately thirty to forty people in five train cars..."

The picture fizzled out again.

"Jerod?" the male anchor asked.

"We appear to have lost Jerod temporarily," the female anchor -- Julie -- said briskly. She glanced at papers on the desk in front of her before looking into the camera again. "The Khojak Tunnel, built in 1891, is three miles long. Pakistan Railway runs combination freight and passenger trains through this tunnel, which stretches between the towns of Sanzala and Shelabagh." She glanced at the papers again before continuing, "The passenger cars, which include sleeper, dining, and coach cars, are at the end of the train. Several of these cars are under the collapsed section of the tunnel..."

Clark was already standing up, tugging at his shirt. "I have to go."

"Yes." She stood as he spun into the suit.

"I don't know how long this'll take..." Clark began, but she interrupted him gently.

"Go, Clark. I'll cover for you if I have to."

"Love you," he said, kissing her quickly, and was gone.

***

Lois watched LNN for a while, although coverage of the tunnel collapse was intermittent. She saw Superman arrive on the scene, and that development was good for repeated short periods of coverage for an hour or two, although the tunnel collapse was competing with strong storms over the Rockies, the political climate in Ethiopia, and the recent midterm electoral results.

Eventually, she went to bed, knowing that Clark would let her know when he returned.

When her phone rang late in the night, she wasn't surprised to hear Clark's voice, nor was she surprised when he told her he was still in Pakistan.

"I'm taking advantage of a small break in rescue efforts while they finish shoring up an area that's too large for me to hold up on my own," he explained.

"Where are you?" she asked, voice husky from sleep.

His own voice softened. "I'm in a cafe in Quetta. I don't know how long this will take, honey. I might not be back in time for tomorrow night..."

She looked at the clock. It was already tomorrow.

Clark was continuing, "At least, it looks like it'll take me another twelve hours or so. I have to go more slowly than..."

"Than if there were no survivors?"

"Yes. There's a lot of hope that there are. From what I can see, the train cars are only partially collapsed, so it's looking more promising than I'd originally thought."

"Never mind the convention right now, Clark. Those people in Pakistan need you. You represent hope. I'll meet you at the convention, and if you're late, don't worry. I'll cover for you."

He laughed softly. "I have no doubt you'll cover for me -- much better than I could ever cover for myself." He sighed. "I guess I better get going -- they've got a lot of willing volunteers, men whose grandfathers helped build that tunnel. They told Superman to give them about an hour, and it's been just about that now."

"Okay," she said softly, and with a quick "I love you," he hung up.

She lay there, thinking of him and imagining his actions, and fell asleep to dream of Clark, tirelessly lifting rocks and boulders. Bracing walls and ceilings while the locals hurried to shore them up. Pushing carefully further into the collapse area and holding up train car roofs while emergency personnel removed people who were injured -- but alive. Carrying the victims gently but quickly to a hospital in the nearest large town, and returning at super speed for more.

***

He called again in the late afternoon, just as she was finishing her work for the day.

"It's looking good," he said. "We've got everybody out and accounted for, and Superman is just helping them shore it up now. I should be back in time for dancing."

"That's good," she said softly. "I'd like to dance with you."

She could hear the smile in his voice. "I'm afraid I might miss dinner, though."

"Or maybe not. There's always the opening ceremonies, you know. And the speeches. Perry'll probably tell an Elvis story or two."

He laughed, and she felt it as well as heard it. "That's true. And I can shower and change pretty quickly."

She giggled. "That's an understatement, fl- farmboy."

Oops. She'd almost forgotten she was still at work.

"So... what am I doing?" he asked softly.

"You're spending a tedious day researching things at the courthouse -- city records; you know how slow they are -- and verifying quotes from a couple of sources."

"Ah. Got it. I'll be suitably fed up with the speed at which the wheels of city hall turn." He paused for a moment, and she heard his sigh. "I have to go."

"Okay," she said softly.

"I *will* be there, Lois. I just... might be a little late..." He trailed off.

"I understand, Clark. I'll make an excuse." She hesitated, then said very softly, "I'll save all of my dances for you."

She felt the warmth of his love flow over her, and smiled as he said, equally softly, "I'll see you there, love," before hanging up.

She set the phone down, still smiling, and looked at the clock. Time to wrap up and head for home, to start getting ready for tonight.

She and Clark had both worked the weekend before, so as of now, they were off -- from Thursday night until the following Monday, for the convention as well as the weekend. She'd spent her lunch hour looking for a dress, suddenly unhappy with the choices her closet offered. She wanted something that would knock Clark's socks off, and after forty-five minutes of single-minded searching, she'd found it.

***

The Metropolis Convention Center was a large brick and glass building situated in the downtown shopping district, where most of the city's finest hotels -- including the five-star Lexor -- and upscale shops and restaurants were located.

At the door, a tuxedoed man she vaguely recognized from the Daily Planet's business offices handed her a tote bag filled with the various gifts and giveaways. "Welcome to the annual newspaperman's convention."

A second man, equally tuxedoed, handed her the small blue foil gift bag, tied with red and gold ribbons, that held the Limoge-style globe. He also checked her name off the guest list and gave her an ID badge. "You'll find a retractable badge holder inside your tote. Feel free to mingle or get a drink from the bar. You'll be at..." He consulted his list. "...table twelve."

The tables, placed to offer unobstructed views of the dais at one end of the room, were ringed around an open space in the center of the ballroom for the dancing that would follow the meal. Each table was covered with white linen and decked with gold tableware and red napkins -- ASNE colors. There were bouquets of red roses on each table, imprinted, incredibly, with the ASNE logo in gold. Daily Planet ceramic mugs filled with an assortment of hot chocolate, coffee, tiny cookies, and gourmet chocolates sat at each place.

There was a table on the dais for the committee members, and a podium for the convention speakers. Arrayed at the front edge of the table were the annual ASNE awards. They weren't as prestigious as a Kerth or a Pulitzer, of course, but they recognized excellence in the different aspects of journalism.

"Hi, Lois." She turned to see Perry standing behind her, looking distinguished in a tuxedo. "You look lovely, darlin'."

"Thank you, Perry. You look very nice, yourself." She was wearing a long black velvet sheath with tiny straps and an open back, and a matching long-sleeved bolero jacket embroidered with jet beads. The back panels of the jacket, cut like petals, were open down the center seam, allowing brief glimpses of the backless gown under it as she moved.

"Where's Clark?"

"He was unavoidably delayed," she said simply.

"Is he ill?" Perry questioned in concern.

"No -- no, Perry," she reassured him. "It was just a..." What should it be this time? A tip? A meeting with a source? "It was a quick last minute thing..."

'Quick' applied, at least loosely, didn't it? After all, Clark would have used his super speed to get -- quickly -- to the site of the collapse...

Perry nodded. "Oh -- a source. Is he meeting you here, then?"

She nodded. "I hope he gets here in time for dinner." That was the unadorned truth. She *did* hope he made it back in time for dinner. The convention center's catering service was highly rated, and it would be a shame if Clark missed the meal.

"Me, too," Perry replied, and turned as his name was called by a man Lois didn't recognize.

***

Clark certainly hadn't made it back before the opening speeches.

Lois rested her chin in her propped hand, trying to ignore the empty chair beside her. It wasn't that the speech wasn't interesting -- the speaker was the editor-in-chief of the New York Times, a charismatic man and an accomplished speaker, and the host of last year's convention. That was another tradition -- maybe old-fashioned, but somehow appealing -- that the editor-in-chief of the newspaper hosting the previous year's convention opened the ceremonies at the following year's convention, effectively handing off to the next editor-in-chief.

The bar had closed until after the ceremonies and meal, and waiters were beginning to top off water glasses and take orders for pre-dinner drinks. The ASNE award introductions would precede the meal, with Perry White announcing the nominees in the various categories. The winners would be announced on Saturday night, at the closing party.

Lois glanced at her watch; that meant Clark had roughly forty-five minutes or so before they actually started serving dinner.

Perry and his wife, Alice, were seated across from Lois -- and Clark, whenever he arrived. Hopefully, he would slip in any time now.

Lois knew Alice White quite well, having been invited to dinner parties at the Whites' house many times.

Hoping to see Clark, she looked toward the ballroom entrance now, in time to see Alice, who had excused herself to visit the ladies' room, reenter. She stopped to speak to an acquaintance at a table halfway down the room.

Still no Clark.

With an inward sigh, Lois turned back to the dais as the New York Times editor-in-chief wrapped up his comments, preparatory to inviting Perry onto the dais to make his own speech.

There was a sudden loud commotion at the back of the room. The crash of glass breaking sounded like several of the waiters might have simultaneously dropped entire trays of glasses. Lois turned to look toward the entrance as shouts of alarm sounded. Around her, she was aware of others also turning to look.

She wasn't sure what was going on at first. She could look through walls, of course, but usually didn't in a crowded place like this, unless she could be sure she wouldn't accidentally... look through people as well.

The guests at the tables near the door were leaping out of their chairs, and people further into the room were beginning to push their chairs back in shared alarm. Lois heard several sharp clicks she couldn't identify, and tried to zero in on the entrance. There were too many people between her and the door, however.

Several sudden gunshots temporarily silenced the room, and then a torrent of shrieks, screams, and cries of alarm filled the void. The people near the entrance swiftly surged away from the door, spilling into the open dance floor space like the rush of water from a spilled bucket.

Behind the panicked guests, Lois saw several men dressed in close-fitting black clothes, at least a dozen armed men in military-looking uniforms, and a man wearing a crisp gray suit who looked grossly out of place among the others except for the weapon he carried. The man in the gray suit moved rapidly into the room, flanked by the men in black. About half of the ones in uniforms fanned out toward the perimeters of the room.

"Everybody down on the floor!" the man in the gray suit yelled. He jerked his head at one of the uniformed men who had not moved out to the perimeters of the room with the others.

The armed man -- a soldier? -- called out, "Everyone away from the tables. Sit down on the floor in the open area -- hands where we can see 'em. Toss your cell phones toward the center of the room." He gestured with his gun at the open floor space in front of the dais. "Do what we say and you won't get hurt."

Lois, still scanning as well as she could among the still-milling crowd, allowed Perry to pull her down onto the floor with Jimmy and several other people she recognized from other departments at the Daily Planet, as well as another dozen or so people she'd never seen before in her life. Across the room, she saw Alice White at the far edge of a group of people, helping an older woman to sit on the floor before sinking down beside her.

This was an unexpected situation, but it probably wasn't the place for the debut of Kinetic. Logistics of changing into her disguise in the middle of a crowd aside, Lois shouldn't need to call any attention to herself; it was just a matter of time before Superman heard about this and came to the rescue. She didn't even have the suit with her, anyway; she certainly couldn't wear it under this particular outfit.

In some ways, it certainly seemed easier to maintain a secret second identity as a superhero if you were male.

Maybe she could speed things up, however. Clark should be on his way back by now.

<Clark?> She knew she and Clark could communicate via telepathy when they were happy, but he'd also managed to reach her those few other times. When they'd been in the conference room together after he'd told her his suspicions about someone testing him, for instance. And she'd definitely felt *something* when he'd been struck ill by... whatever it was at the bank robbery. It seemed to work, then, with other strong emotions. Such as fear...

Or anger. And she was certainly angry right now.

Whoever these guys were, they had no right to come storming in here, brandishing guns and terrorizing all these people.

Around the room, men and women were sitting down on the floor, some more slowly than others. The room wasn't silent; there were multiple voices raised in protest, and a woman in an electric blue dress was weeping noisily. Across the room, in the group where Alice White was sitting, a youngish man with thinning hair shouted, "Who are you? Who are these guys? You can't come in here and --"

Without looking in the direction of the shouter, the man in the gray suit raised his gun and shot into the air. Punctuated by screams from throughout the room, a fluorescent tube in one of the lighting fixtures exploded with a noise almost as loud as the gun had been. There were further cries of alarm from the people sitting under it as the glass fragments pelted them; many of them flung themselves flat on the floor in reaction.

The man in the gray suit shouted, "Shut up!" and raised his gun in the air again. There was a sudden, abrupt silence broken only by the now-quiet sobs of the woman in the blue dress.

In that sudden silence, the telltale sounds of a cell phone being dialed were startlingly loud. Instantly and without warning, the man in the gray suit whirled and shot into the group behind him. There was a sudden surge of alarmed cries and screams of fright which were cut off abruptly when the man shot into the ceiling again. In the sudden silence, a gurgling groan of pain tapered into a wet cough and then into silence.

Into that silence, the man in the gray suit asked icily, "Anybody else want to try that?" He jerked his head at the armed man standing closest to the group behind him. "Get the phone." He looked around at the other men with him. "Get all the phones."

Some of the uniformed men began to move into the groups of people huddled on the floor. "Purses and bags, too," the man in the gray suit added.

More cell phones were tossed into the open area as those guests who had ignored the first demand began to heed the second. Lois calmly slipped her own phone out of the evening bag she carried and into the pocket of the bolero, then tossed the bag out into the open space.

A young man in a military uniform moved into the group where the wounded man lay, stepping between the people huddled on the floor, who scrambled to move away from him. As the terrified men and women parted, Lois could see the person -- a man -- who had been shot. He was lying on his back on the floor next to a woman who was frantically patting at him; Lois recognized him as one of the event organizers. He had been handing out the tote bags at the door. As the soldier stooped and picked up the discarded cell phone, the woman looked up and said softly but clearly, "Please, can we get help for him...?"

Before the soldier could reply, the man in the gray suit pointed his gun directly at her. "Shut up!" he growled. She ceased speaking, staring back at him as tears ran silently down her face. The soldier moved out of the middle of the group and tossed the cell phone into the center of the floor with the others. Then he hesitated, looking at the man in the gray suit, who had moved up onto the dais with several of the other men and was rotating slowly in place, scanning over the huddled groups of people.

The soldier, a young Hispanic man, seemed to come to a decision. He removed the small pack he wore slung across his back by a strap that went over one shoulder and across his chest. Without speaking, he tossed the pack lightly into the group where the wounded man lay, and Lois could see the red cross on the pack -- a first aid kit, then -- as it landed at the woman's feet. She looked at it, tears still streaming down her face, and then back at the armed man. He inclined his head slightly and gestured at the pack, then at the wounded man, then placed one finger across his lips in the universal gesture to indicate silence. She nodded and reached for the pack.

Lois's attention was drawn again to the man in the gray suit when he snapped, "Juarez!"

Another of the soldiers, one of those standing watchfully on the dais with their guns cradled in their arms, moved forward.

"Where's our weapon?" the man in the gray suit demanded.

Without replying, Juarez moved to the table and set down his gun. He removed his pack, slung across his back like the medic's had been, and placed it on the head table. He unzipped the pack and removed a small metal box, set it on the table, picked up his gun again, and stepped back.

The man in the gray suit smiled coldly and nodded.

Apparently, this dull-silver box, then -- no larger than a baseball -- was a weapon. A bomb, maybe? Lois zeroed in it, and --

Nothing. She couldn't see into it.

This wasn't good. If she couldn't see into it, the box had to be made of -- or more likely lined with -- lead. She was almost sure that bombs didn't need to be inside lead-lined boxes. That led to a more ominous conclusion -- the box was intended to block something. To either block something out -- something like Superman's vision -- or to block something in.

Or both.

Lead was used to block radiation, wasn't it?

Abruptly, she remembered Clark's illness after the bank robbery. She'd discovered that several of his symptoms had mimicked radiation poisoning.

What if...

A chill flashed over her, raising goose bumps. What if the... thing, the substance, or whatever it was that had made Clark sick, was inside that box?

What if...

What if the goal wasn't to block Superman's seeing in, but to block something, like radiation, from getting out?

What if these men *wanted* Superman to come save the day?

She had to keep Clark away from here, at least until she figured out what these men wanted.

He hadn't replied to her first telepathic call. Hopefully, he was still too far away, and too busy, to hear her. That was good; if he was too far away to hear her, he was too far away to hear about this situation. And if he didn't hear about it, he wouldn't come flying in here -- and he would stay safe.

But she needed to find a way to stop these men before anyone else got hurt, including Superman.

She glanced at the dais; the man in gray was in a hushed discussion with the men nearest him. She tuned in briefly.

"You keep your men on the perimeter, and keep these people down and quiet. Howard, you and your men know what to do? I'll want backup here with me, too. We don't know its exact ETA, so stay alert..."

Standard leader-of-the-unit directions at this point. Was he talking about the arrival of reinforcements?

She and the others in this room might not be able to wait this out, then. She needed to find a way to summon help.

She felt the secret weight of her cell phone in the bolero's pocket. She thanked fate that she'd silenced and set it to vibrate earlier in the evening, in deference to the speeches that had been planned. Clark hadn't answered her attempt to contact him; she was going to have to resort to a more old fashioned means of summoning help.

And she needed to keep trying to reach Clark, to warn him to stay away.

She tried again. <*Clark!*>

No answer.

The next person on her list was Bill Henderson. She'd have to use her phone to contact him, of course, and then she'd try Clark again.

The group she was sitting with included several large men whose nametags announced they were from the Oregon Herald in Portland. She was sitting in a small huddle with Perry, Jimmy, and one of the newest sportswriters -- the man who was supposed to have introduced his sister to Jimmy, she recalled. Strange how the most mundane thoughts came to mind in tense situations like this.

She glanced around; none of the armed men was paying any attention to her particular group. Perry, Jimmy, and the sportswriter -- what was his name? Alan? Andy? No, Adam -- sat with their backs to her, watching the men on the dais.

She shifted closer to Perry, squeezing in between him and Jimmy. Her move put her squarely behind a very large, very fat man who sat awkwardly with his legs splayed out in front of him, wheezing slightly. Her slight form was almost completely hidden from the view of the man in gray by the much larger men around her. Shifting further toward Perry, she put her back toward the men with the guns.

She leaned forward against Perry, hoping it looked like she was seeking comfort. As he reflexively put his arms around her, she ducked her head down against his chest and removed her cell phone from her jacket pocket. Holding it low, she silently dialed emergency and brought the phone up to her ear. When the dispatcher answered, she began giving him the vital information in a soft whisper.

Suddenly, she heard Jimmy whisper, "Perry!" urgently. In the same moment, she felt Perry tighten his arms around her, cradling her against him and rocking. He had one hand curved around the back of her head like Clark held her, and he was murmuring in a voice just loud enough to be overheard, "It's okay, darlin'. Just do what they say and we'll be all right..."

In this position, with her head buried against him, her ear, hand, and cell phone were hidden by her hair and the loose fold of his suit coat. Hastily, she whispered, "I have to go!" and hit end, slipping the phone up her sleeve just before she felt Perry jerk as one of the armed men prodded him in the back.

"Here, now -- everybody's hands where we can see 'em," the man said. Lois lifted her head, trying to project fear, twisting her hands nervously in her lap for added effect. And to keep the cell phone hidden up her sleeve. It must have worked, because the man paused and said more softly, "Ma'am, just stay still and quiet, okay? We won't hurt you; it isn't you we're -- he's -- after."

She nodded, looking down as if in fear, and he moved on.

She looked up at Perry and Jimmy, and mouthed "thank you" at them. Keeping her fisted hands in her lap, she gave them a discreet thumbs-up.

They all turned as the man in the gray suit banged on the podium. There was a sudden low murmur of whispers and the rustle of clothing as people shifted around to face him. With a smile that reminded Lois of a snake about to strike, the man spoke. "Now that I have your attention..." He paused for effect. "I want Superman."

"Who are you?"

It was a question Lois would have asked, but an older, distinguished-looking man in a classic tuxedo had got it in first. Lois recognized him as the editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Gazette; he and Perry had been chatting earlier in the evening.

The man in the gray suit moved to the side of the podium, resting his right arm casually across the front corner of it. The gun, in his right hand, pointed toward the floor. Tucking his other hand in the pocket of his suit jacket, he looked like a college professor about to start his lecture. A crazed college professor with a strange glint in his eye and a gun in his hand.

"My name is Jason Trask," he said. "I represent the US government."

A murmur of voices arose, broken again by the editor of the San Francisco Gazette. "What agency? What do you want with Superman?"

At the mention of the superhero, Trask's manner changed abruptly. Straightening up to his full height, all traces of casualness gone, he pointed his gun directly at his questioner and barked, "Bureau 39. We're charged with protecting the American people from an alien threat."

The San Francisco Gazette editor, to his credit, held his ground, facing Trask with his head high. The only signs of his fear were his deathly pale face and the spasmodic clenching and unclenching of his fists. The two men stared at each other for long seconds, before Trask dropped the gun back to his side and began pacing agitatedly on the dais, spewing the usual 'alien threat' propaganda. There was a collective sort of sigh from the room as the San Francisco Gazette editor sank back against the woman sitting beside him.

Was this man, Trask, the one behind the Superman tests?

Neither Lois nor Clark had ever considered that Superman's testers might belong to the military. But if these men were legitimate, the military -- at least this covert agency Trask claimed to belong to -- probably had unlimited resources, including 'expendable' men who could commit a relatively minor crime -- mugging, bank robbery -- on cue. Such men were probably rewarded with the equivalent of combat pay, and reduced or no jail time. No doubt there would be 'technicalities' that would result in a mistrial or dismissal of charges.

And if this man -- these men -- were behind the Superman tests, then they'd apparently found something that could hurt Superman. She was almost positive that whatever it was that had hurt Clark that day was in that box on the table on the dais. And whatever it was had removed most of Clark's powers for the remainder of that day -- and most of the next. What would it do to him if he was exposed to it again?

She shuddered to think -- if Clark hadn't heard about that tunnel collapse before the convention...

She could never be thankful that such a tragedy had occurred, but she could be thankful that Clark had gone to help the victims and that by a sheer twist of fate he wasn't escorting her tonight, as they'd originally planned. He wasn't in immediate danger, and if she could keep him away...

Was there any way to warn him, though? She had no doubt that he would come when he heard that they'd all been taken hostage. She was equally sure that this situation would be on LNN shortly, if it wasn't already. And she couldn't have him zooming in to save the day until she knew exactly what weapon these men held. And more importantly, how to neutralize it.

<Clark?>

Her attention was drawn back to Trask as he laughed suddenly -- a triumphant laugh that had her looking up frantically, wondering if Clark had arrived without her hearing him. There was no sign of the superhero, but before she could even draw a breath of relief, Trask moved to the table on the dais and picked up the small metal box.

"This is Bureau 39's means of removing the alien threat, people!" He held up the box, which was slightly smaller than his hand, and then set it back on the table. He opened it and took out a chunk of glowing green rock roughly the size of a golf ball, holding it up so that everyone could see it.

In the same instant that Trask opened the box, Lois felt a wave of... malevolence... unlike anything she could ever remember feeling before. She gasped softly, trying not to alert anyone to her distress, but unable to prevent herself from wrapping her arms around her middle.

Was this what Clark had felt? The room was tipping, and her stomach felt like it wanted to turn inside out, and there was a sharp pain building behind her eyes. <*Clark*?> Over her eyes.

She dimly heard someone say, "Put that thing back and shut that box, Jase! Geez, man!"

"Yeah," someone else said. The voices seemed tinny and far away. "Anything that glows like that's gotta be radioactive, Jason! Close it up 'til we need it. I ain't takin' no chances it might mess up my innards, ya know?"

And the draining feeling of illness was gone again in the next instant, as she looked blearily at Trask in time to see him drop the rock casually back into the box and close the lid. Mixed with her relief was fear; was this green rock what Clark had been exposed to? Had it caused his temporary loss of powers?

And had it affected hers? She felt shaky, cold and sweaty, and her heart was pounding. But was that just the shock of the encounter? Or... She deliberately extended her hearing, expecting to pick up nothing.

<<...need to surround the building...>>

Oh!

Lifting her head slightly, she extended her sight, looking at the wall... through the wall... and saw men in black t-shirts holding radios, and heavily armed men in the protective gear of SWAT teams.

Okay. Good. Her powers were still there, it seemed. Some of them, anyway. She couldn't exactly test the strength or flying, but her special vision and hearing were working.

And it looked like the emergency dispatcher had heard her whispered message.

She straightened up from her instinctively hunched posture to see Perry looking at her in concern. Very softly, he whispered, "Are you all right, darlin'?"

She nodded. "Yeah," she breathed, "Just..." She scrambled for an explanation. "...just worried, and... and sick with how casually he shot that man..."

Perry's mouth was a grim line as he nodded. "We need help," he said, still whispering. "But how can... anyone help us?"

She knew he meant, how could Superman save them. No one but her -- and Clark -- knew that the rock actually did affect Superman, but Trask's rabid belief and his men's obvious fear of the green glowing rock were undoubtedly helping to convince their captives to believe in its power.

She tuned back in to Trask, who was pacing on the dais again. "You people don't seem to understand the threat here. There's this... *thing* in our midst. It's just waiting to take us over, take over our world and enslave us all!"

Without really thinking about it, she opened her mouth to defend Superman, but before she could say a word, someone else beat her to it.

"Superman is not evil! He's good! He's helped a lot of people! How can you even say -" The speaker, a young woman, was climbing to her feet.

"See? You're already infected!" Trask interrupted her, and in the same moment, he lifted his gun and shot her. Without a sound, the woman went down, as the room erupted in shouts and screams and cries of alarm.

"Damn it, Jase, what'd you do that for?" one of the men in black demanded.

"Shut up!" Trask barked at him.

He shot into the ceiling again, and in the abrupt silence, he barked, "Anybody else?"

Lois kept her mouth shut, hands fisted, and suddenly realized that Perry had a hand clamped tightly around her upper arm, hard enough to bruise if she hadn't been invulnerable.

He knew her so well!

But she didn't need Perry to stop her. While she burned to argue, to protest as that poor woman had, the thought of what could happen held her back. That could have been her. If she'd been the first to speak up -- if she'd been the one who was shot, and then exposed as invulnerable... She had a very good idea of what this madman would do. He'd probably expose her to the green rock again, and then kill her.

And she had to protect Clark! She couldn't -- wouldn't -- allow these men to harm him.

She looked back at the group where both the woman and the man Trask had shot earlier lay. As she watched, the soldier who'd tossed his first aid pack to the man's companion moved closer to the group.

The young medic hesitated, then, as before, seemed to come to a decision. Glancing at the dais, he moved slowly into the group. Again, people moved out of his way. Stooping to pick up the first aid pack, he straightened long enough to beckon to another young soldier standing on the far side of the same group. He pointed toward where the wounded woman lay, gestured again for silence, and then knelt on the floor at the wounded man's side.

The second young man nodded and moved carefully into the group, who parted in front of him. As he removed his pack and knelt by the wounded woman, Lois saw that it, too, had a red cross on it.

Trask either didn't notice the two medics or didn't care. He had resumed his pacing, and his agitation seemed to be growing. He was sweating profusely, and some of his men seemed to be growing uneasy with his constant motion. Several of them had moved closer to the dais; she wasn't sure what they were expecting, but the tension level seemed to have risen.

This maniac had to be stopped, but it looked like she might be on her own this time. And she had no idea how to resolve this without revealing herself or risking the lives of her friends and the people around her.

She still had her powers. Unless the green rock's effects weren't immediate? Clark had been able to fly after encountering it, after all. For a little while, anyway. She looked up at the ceiling, and then... yes, she could see through it. Good. She released the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.

It had to have been this rock that had affected Clark. There couldn't possibly be *two* entirely different individuals or groups, with *two* entirely different, effective means of harming Superman, could there? That was entirely *too* coincidental, even for someone who believed in coincidences -- which she did not. No, it had to be one and the same group. So this Trask guy was the person she and Clark had been seeking.

Now all she had to do was find a way to stop him. She looked carefully through the outer walls of the ballroom again. The SWAT team -- from the number of men, it might be more than one team -- were still moving around, and there was a command station being set up across the street. The street had apparently been blocked at both ends; there was no moving traffic on it, anyway.

Maybe she could cause some sort of diversion that would allow the SWAT teams to enter...

But what?

If only she could reach Clark! She hadn't realized how much she had come to depend on being able to bounce ideas off him.

And she still had to warn him. Because she had absolutely no doubt that if he had any idea what was happening, he would rush bravely into the conference center.

But in this case, that would do neither of them any good. He couldn't come in as Superman, not even at super speed. It only took an instant to open that box again, and if it was open both she and Clark would be vulnerable.

She would be unable to help him, and they would shoot him.

Kill him.

Even the thought of Clark being shot, falling helplessly like the people who'd been shot tonight...

Falling, to lie cold and still and unresponsive...

<Clark!> She shuddered violently. She *couldn't* let that happen.

She would even risk exposure if it meant she could save him. If she had to, she would draw the men's attention, draw their fire, to herself. But if they opened the box... She looked around, desperate. How... What could she do?

The man who had attempted to call for help on his cell phone suddenly coughed weakly.

Trask whirled and shot into the group without warning, narrowly missing his own man, the medic working on the wounded man. People screamed and flung themselves out of the line of fire, all except for the woman who had been sitting next to the injured man. At some point, she'd lifted the man's head into her lap, and now she bent over him, sobbing, as he gasped for breath.

The medic, who'd flinched and ducked instinctively, cursing, at the sound of the gunshot, straightened and shot a glare at Trask. He gestured a quick 'ok' to the second medic, who'd looked up in concern, before turning his attention to the people around the wounded man.

He appeared to be speaking -- Lois extended her hearing as he finished in a hoarse whisper, "...bullet hit you? Where? Move over here -- easy and quiet, okay? I'll get to you in a minute."

A middle-aged man, white with pain and with one hand clamped to his upper arm, scooted awkwardly toward the medic. Blood oozed between his fingers.

Trask resumed his pacing, ignoring the activity in the group into which he'd just shot.

Lois stared in horror, first at Trask and then back into the group on the floor as the medic bent over the first wounded man again.

All he'd done was cough -- and not even very loudly. And Trask had...

She was scared.

Scared for the people around her, scared for Clark.

She couldn't save them.

She couldn't save him.

The minute Clark showed up, Trask would open the box. And if he decided to open it beforehand, she'd be completely useless. She shut her eyes in despair.

More useless than she was now.

In her distress, she shifted onto her knees, and was startled to feel Perry's hand suddenly clasp one of hers, still fisted at her sides. Opening her eyes, she stared at him blankly for a moment. Focusing on him, she could clearly see his worry. "Stay down, Lois," he whispered.

Just as he began to speak, they were startled by a loud crash from the dais as Trask suddenly threw the podium over the front edge of the platform, cursing. As the people closest to the dais scrambled back, scooting and crawling, Trask began pacing again. Suddenly, he shouted, "Where is it?"

Two of Trask's men closed in on him, and the three stood in a small huddle. She listened in to their heated whispers only long enough to determine that they were trying to calm him down.

The man seemed to be losing it, and it was beginning to look like at least some of his men recognized that fact. In the two or three minutes since he'd sent the podium crashing off the dais, three more of the uniformed men had moved closer. All of them still held their guns across their chests, but not resting casually across their arms like before. Instead, their hands were far apart on their weapons; each man had one hand on the trigger and one hand supporting the barrel.

Desperately, forcing back a sudden urge to cry, she tried again. <*Clark*!>

The reply was instant and startled. <Lois?>

She sank down into a sitting position and shut her eyes, concentrating. <Clark, where are you?>

Trask was pacing again, and suddenly he shouted, "Where is it? What's taking it so long?"

<I'm over the Atlantic, still over international waters.> She could feel his confusion. <How is this possible, Lois? How are you reaching me? What's happening?>

Having made the breakthrough in reaching him, she was finding that she didn't need to concentrate to speak -- think -- to him. Keeping a wary eye on the group on the dais, she began to explain. <Clark, listen. This is very important. A madman calling himself Jason Trask has taken us all hostage. He's -->

<I'm coming!>

<*No*! No, Clark!> It was the equivalent of a shout. She felt his confusion, and rushed on. <No, Clark! You can't come here. He's looking for you. He's after you -- after Superman. He has some kind of weird glowing rock in a box. He opened it, and it made me feel... horrible. Pain, and... I think it must be the same stuff that affected you.>

<Lois!> His reply was frantic. <Are you all right?>

<Yes, yes!> She hastened to reassure him. <I'm fine, Clark. He closed the box almost immediately. I feel fine.> If he thought she was in danger he might well rush in here before she could stop him.

She felt his rush of relief. <I have to stop him, Lois.>

<Yes, but not like you usually do. He's -->

On the dais, Trask suddenly shouted, "Shut up!" She saw the man he'd been talking to, one of those in black, raise his hands in an I'm-backing-off gesture as Trask continued, "Where is this thing? Why hasn't it shown up? It came for the bombs! It came for the plane!"

She felt sick. Trask was talking about Clark. About Superman.

<He's insane, Clark...>

Perry shifted, tucking her slightly behind him. Beside him, Jimmy moved closer, so that both men were between her and the open space across which they watched the increasingly agitated Trask pace on the dais.

<I'm here, Lois! I can see you. I can see the men with guns -- > She could feel the steel resolve in his thoughts.

Frantically, trying to keep her breathing slow and even, she flung her thoughts at him hard and fast. <Where? Where are you? You *can't* come in here, Clark!> His strong need to protect the helpless meant he might very well just charge in here to save the day without really considering what Trask could do with that rock. Especially since up until now, Superman could, indeed, just swoop in without fear of injury and save the day. <Wherever you are, stop! Even if you come in at super speed, he'll have time to open that box.> She shut her eyes, bending her head. <*Please*, Clark.> She could feel tears pricking behind her eyes.

The reply felt softer, warmer and more gentle. <I'm above the convention center now, Lois. I'm watching. I won't come in until we discuss our options... Unless he tries to hurt you.> She felt his resolve, hard and determined. <I won't let that happen, Lois.>

She loosened her clenched fists. If she'd been vulnerable, she'd have drawn blood where her nails had been digging into her palms. <Please be careful.> Her breath hitched a bit, a sort of residual sob although she hadn't actually been crying. <He probably has people watching out for you, Clark.>

His answer came with an almost physical brush of reassurance, as if he'd stroked a hand over her hair. <I'm up too high to be seen at the moment.>

She drew a deep breath, trying to slow her racing heart. Clark was here, but he was safe at the moment. Now they needed to find a way to stop Trask. <I don't think his organization is real, Clark. Or at least, if it is... He's a maniac. How can he be in charge? We need to find out if he's legit.>

<There are police and SWAT team members here -- it looks like they're working to surround the building. I imagine that they'll be ready to move in another thirty minutes or so. If they can get to him before he hurts anyone... First he needs to be stopped -- then we can figure out whom he represents, if anyone.>

<He's... he's on the very edge, Clark. I don't dare call any attention to myself -- or to anyone else. He already shot two people earlier, and now he's beginning to shoot even more indiscriminately at anyone who disturbs him. He... He shot at a man who... The man... all he did was cough, Clark...>

She paused for a moment. She could almost feel Clark waiting for her to finish, which was uncanny. To be able to pick up cues like that without being face-to-face with the person to whom you were speaking... The telepathic ability must be strongly linked to their emotions, and now that they'd made the breakthrough to emotions other than happiness, it seemed they could also pick up the emotional nuances behind the thoughts, as well as the actual thoughts.

<Clark, even if the SWAT teams try to negotiate before they... I don't know, storm the place? ...Anyway, people are going to get hurt. We -- you and I -- have to come up with a way to neutralize this guy before anyone tries anything from outside.>

Calmer now, she lifted her head, opening her eyes and glancing around swiftly. On the dais, Trask was again in heated and hushed argument with the men around him. She could hear his men arguing with him that maybe Superman was busy elsewhere.

<Clark, I know you want to rush in here and take him out -- but you can't. That's what he wants you to do. We're going to have to do this a different way. You have to listen to me! If you come in, he'll open the box. And you know what will happen.>

<Lois, you know how fast I can move. I could...>

<No!> She could feel her heart rate accelerating again. < Clark, no matter how fast you move, the risk is too great.> She fought back tears. <Please, Clark.>

Again, she felt the warmth of his love settle over her. <All right, Lois. Tell me what you want me to do.>

She forced her clenched fists open again. <I think... I think he originally intended to leave that box open; it would incapacitate you the minute you arrived. One of the other guys with him got him to close it, though -- the rock glows, so they're worried about radiation. But we can't afford to have that box opened... and we also can't afford to have someone take it while we're trying to save the day.>

<Okay... Good point, honey. Any ideas on how to disarm him?>

<Um...> Could Trask's increasing instability work to her advantage? Would he become discomposed enough to move away from the drab little box on the table? Or would he --

<Can we... maybe distract him, somehow?>

"Where is it?" Trask shouted again. "Why hasn't it shown up yet?" He lifted his gun and aimed it out into the room. "I'm going to start shooting people! You hear that, alien?"

She had to think.

They needed some way to sidetrack this maniac.

She looked up and around her again, at the ceiling, the walls, the windows.

Trask fired a shot wildly into the room; people scrambled frantically in several directions as one of the wall sconces exploded.

"Geez, Jason! You're gonna hit one of us, man!" one of the men in black standing closest to Trask exclaimed.

<Lois?> Clark's alarm washed over her.

<I'm okay, Clark.>

"You need to calm down, Trask," an older man in a military uniform commanded.

"Or what?" Trask snarled.

The man -- he was one who'd almost caught her using her cell phone -- stepped directly into Trask's personal space and leaned in close. Several of the other men on the dais moved in close behind him. "Or I will *personally* disarm you and we will abort this mission," the man hissed.

The two men glared at each other, noses practically touching, while the whole room seemed to hold its collective breath. Then Trask backed up a step. "I just want the alien," he said, and resumed his pacing.

<Lois, while he's moving away from the box -- can we create some sort of diversion? What about... maybe the electricity? I could cut the main lines out here...>

Even as she listened to Clark, she watched Trask pick up the box; she tensed, then relaxed slightly as he put it down. He paced a few feet away, then suddenly whirled back and picked up the box again. He hefted it slightly in his hand, and she watched him warily. If he decided to open that box, she wouldn't be able to help Clark at all.

<Lois?>

Trask had put the box down again and was moving jerkily up and down the dais, never more than three feet or so from the table before he would whirl and stride back, scanning the ceiling as if he thought Superman would drop through it any minute. The men around him, however, seemed increasingly more concerned with watching him than with watching the crowd.

<I don't know... He's pretty hair-trigger, Clark. If the lights went out... He might shoot in the dark, and he's... He's desperate. I know you can see him right now, but you wouldn't be able to see him while you were cutting the wires. You'd have to time it just right or he would be close enough -- and fast enough -- to open that box.>

<How about the sprinkler system, then? If you hit it with your heat vision -- that's easy and discreet... And, I imagine, a fairly effective distraction.>

<He might grab for the box anyway. Watch him, Clark. See how close he's staying to it? What if, one of these times, he does open it? I won't be able to help you if he does...>

<I see him.> He paused. <I think you're right; he's on the very edge, and if he gets desperate enough...> He paused again, and she knew he was watching Trask closely. <I think we're running out of time, Lois. We have to find a way to distract him -- or lure him away from that box.>

Trask was within a foot of the table again; as she watched, he picked up the box, hefting it as before in his hand, and then set it down, turned, and paced away.

<Yes... But it has to be a distraction that won't let him open that box.> That box *had* to stay closed. She wouldn't be able to help either Clark or herself if Trask got it open even briefly.

It needed to be locked.

<Wait a minute, Clark...> She trailed off, thinking.

Maybe... <Clark, how easily does lead melt? What if... What if I sealed the box closed with my heat vision... or melted the lead around the green rock. Could I do that?>

<...Yes...> She felt a burst of something wash over her like sunshine after rain -- not joy, exactly -- more a mix of relief and happiness and admiration, seasoned with love. She closed her eyes as it enveloped her. If one of Clark's special smiles could be felt physically, this must be what it would feel like.

<Yes, Lois!> he repeated. <I don't remember the exact numbers, but lead is much softer than steel and I know it has a lower melting point. And I know I can melt steel, although it takes some time and a lot of concentration. So yes, I think you can seal the box relatively easily -- even if it's made of some other kind of metal -- aluminum, maybe -- and just lined with lead. You'll just need to be careful not to melt it enough so that the green rock is exposed.>

All she had to do was heat seal that box.

Or melt it enough so that Trask couldn't open it.

But not so much that the green rock was uncovered.

She had a sudden and almost crippling moment of self-doubt. She'd never tried something like this. Had never attempted to... deliberately and with precision melt something, on demand.

That didn't mean she *couldn't* do it, though.

Mad Dog Lane never backed down from a challenge.

It would have been nice to be able to practice a little, though. Melt a few lead-lined boxes, seal a few shut...

<Lois?>

Okay. Time to set this up. <Clark, can you find a way to warn the SWAT teams to hold off until I do this? We don't want them storming in here and making Trask dive for that box. But be careful; Trask may have someone watching for you. Can you see anyone who seems to be... I don't know... some sort of lookout?>

<Yes. No. That is, I haven't seen anyone obvious, like on the roof or anything, and I haven't heard any transmissions to the guys inside the convention center... say, from a plant on the SWAT teams, or something. And I can go high, go wide, and approach one of the police -- hopefully, Bill Henderson -- from the far side of the SWAT team's perimeter...>

<Wait -- can you land and approach as Clark? Say you have a message from Superman? You can tell Bill that Superman has been listening in and needs to stay out of sight.> If she was feeling his emotions, he was probably feeling hers. Right now, though, she didn't particularly care if she came across as scared, or begging. <Please, Clark? It's safer that way.>

Once again, a warmth blanketed her briefly. <Yes, honey. I'll approach Henderson as Clark. I might have to get creative to leave him again to go be Superman, though...>

She let her relief wash over them both. <Thank you, Clark.> She paused a moment, thinking. <What if you said you had to return Bill's answer to Superman?>

<Yeah -- I can say that Superman asked me to bring him a return message. And if Bill knows you're in there, I can explain my urgency to get back to Superman as worry for you. Thanks, honey. I think that will work. Let me go do that now.>

<Okay... And once the box is sealed, should I hit the sprinklers, too?>

<That's probably not a bad idea. Hang on a moment, okay?>

She waited, expanding her hearing to listen as Clark approached someone.

Yes, it was Henderson. Good. Bill was a good man, and he'd be willing to work with Superman on this.

She listened as Clark gave him Superman's message. She didn't watch, though -- she'd have to take her attention off Trask to do that. Bill immediately began barking orders, presumably into his radio, and merely grunted, "Be careful, Kent, and stay back," when Clark made his worried-for-my-partner exit.

<Okay -- I'm back up here, watching, honey. I thought of something else, though -- we still have to worry about the rest of this guy's men, too, Lois. What if they start shooting?>

She considered that briefly. <I don't know... Maybe not. They don't seem to be as... committed to this whole thing as Trask is. In fact, I wonder if they're just obeying orders, because... well, they're watching him more than they're watching us, Clark.>

<No way to know that for sure, though...>

Trask was still pacing and muttering, but now he was waving his gun around again, and pausing at the box more frequently. Even the men in black -- who had reacted more slowly to Trask's increasing agitation than had the uniformed men -- were watching him pretty closely now. And as she watched, several more of the uniformed men drifted nearer.

She and Clark needed to get this over with. <Clark, you watch them, okay? As soon as I melt the box closed, I'll hit the sprinklers. Then you come in, okay? Wait until the sprinklers go off.>

<Whenever you're ready, honey .>

She took a deep breath and moved slowly away from the protective shadow of Perry's body. She'd have to be extra careful, here, too, so that nobody shifted into her line of vision while she was aiming at that box.

Perry looked at her in concern as she moved, and she gave him a discreet thumbs-up. She couldn't very well tell him what she was going to do, so hopefully he'd just think she was shifting for a better view.

She looked toward the dais. Yes -- that worked. She was wide open -- she had a beautiful, clear shot all the way to the table.

She waited until Trask turned to move away from the box, then focused on it carefully, and began to slowly increase the heat of her gaze. She felt shaky inside -- she'd had no opportunity to practice this at all. What if she got it wrong and melted the box too much?

Concentrating on her task, she still managed to pick up Perry's movement just before he shifted into her line of vision. She shut her eyes quickly, struggling to get control of the heat. Oh, God, that was close! After a moment, she opened them again.

And met Perry's worried gaze. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but then closed it again.

He looked like he'd aged several years since they'd entered the convention center. He had to be worried about Alice, who was sitting within the fringes of the group into which Trask had shot.

And did Perry... know? Had he guessed her secret?

<Lois?>

She shut her eyes again, even though she knew Perry was still looking at her.

<Clark... I almost burned Perry, I think.>

<What happened?>

<He moved when I wasn't expecting it.>

<Are you okay?>

She couldn't prevent a small smile at that. It was so typical of Clark, to worry if *she* was okay after she'd inadvertently nearly hurt someone. <Yes, but I need to try again. I only got the metal a bit hot, I think. There's no way the box is sealed yet.>

<Well, I've bought us some time as far as the SWAT teams go.>

<How?>

<After I gave Bill Superman's message, he called in more reinforcements. He also got someone to start trying to verify this guy's legitimacy. As of right now, the SWAT teams are waiting for Superman's signal -->

She opened her eyes as she felt Perry take her hand. <Clark... hang on...> She looked at her editor inquiringly.

He looked her in the eye, then looked toward the dais. He squeezed her hand once -- and shifted slowly to one side, not releasing her hand.

Startled, she looked at him.

Without taking his eyes off the dais, he gave a barely perceptible nod.

He couldn't possibly know, could he? And how did she feel about that if he did? And how *could* he know, unless... She drew a quick breath. *Had* she burned him? Heart pounding, she began to look him over. It would be his shoulder, or side, or ear --

<Lois?>

<Um, Clark... I think...> Did she really need to tell him this right now? <I think I'm ready to try again.>

She stole another look at Perry, but he was gazing at the dais, not looking at her. But he hadn't let go of her hand, and as she looked at him, he squeezed it again, gently this time -- two squeezes with a pause between them. Some sort of signal?

<Okay, Lois. Take your time. I'll be quiet until you give me the word, so I don't distract you.>

<Okay.> She took another deep breath and focused carefully on the box.

She had just begun to cycle up the heat when Perry squeezed her hand hard -- hard enough to bruise if she hadn't been invulnerable. Quickly, she shut her eyes, concentrating on turning off the heat, and then opened them again in time to see one of the armed men crossing in front of the table, passing between her and the box.

Had Perry just warned her?

This was seriously nerve-wracking. She glanced at him again, but again, he wasn't looking at her. He was still watching the men on the dais.

Trask was still pacing restlessly, but he hadn't made another outburst since the older man had confronted him. Once again, he moved toward the table and reached out for the box, hesitating at the last minute.

And she almost felt her heart stop. She was positive -- almost positive -- that she'd managed to heat that box up at least a little. What would happen when this madman touched the little gray metal box and found it hot?

Time slowed and she held her breath.

She felt Perry's grip tighten on her hand even as she tightened hers, only just remembering in time to keep her grip light.

Trask looked out over the people huddled on the floor, looked at the ceiling, raised his gun, lowered it, and with a curse, moved away from the table and resumed his tight and jerky pacing.

And she, who could hold her breath for twenty minutes with ease, gasped for a breath she'd held for barely a minute, if that.

As Trask moved away from the table, Perry shook her hand a little, a gesture she easily interpreted as 'go!'

Okay. No more messing around with tentative little bursts of heat.

She focused carefully on the box again and cycled up her heat vision.

She had to do this fast.

She'd originally planned to hit the box in short bursts, timed as Trask was moving away from the table, but he'd come so close to picking it up...

But now she was seriously afraid that he would pick up the box -- try to pick it up -- before it was properly sealed. And if he even *touched* it, the game would be up. The box would be hot, and there would be no logical explanation for that -- other than that it was Superman's doing.

So she needed to do this all at once, as fast as possible. If he got hold of the box before she finished, and managed to open it, she would be out of luck and out of power.

Quickly, she traced a line around the cover of the box on the two sides she could see. The clean line where the cover met the box began to blur. She turned up the heat just slightly, and saw the box begin to sink lopsidedly as the metal heated up.

Her concentration was once again interrupted by the suddenly fierce grip Perry had on her hand. She immediately shut her eyes, powering down the heat, and then opened them to see one of the armed men crossing in front of her, directly between the dais and the group of people where she and Perry and Jimmy were sitting.

As the armed man moved on, allowing her a clear line of sight to the box, she zeroed in on it and looked it over. The box looked pretty sealed to her. It was slightly misshapen, and the two sides she could see were smooth. All traces of the gap where the box opened were gone.

She looked at Perry. He smiled very slightly and nodded, then let go of her hand and spread both of his slightly in a "what now?" sort of gesture.

She couldn't help it -- she smiled at him and winked, then glanced quickly at the ceiling.

<Clark... you ready?>

<Yes,> came his immediate reply. She felt the warmth of his appreciation as he added, <Good work, Lois. I don't think they'll be able to open it.>

Despite herself, she smiled. <Okay,> she thought at Clark, eyeing the sprinklers. <Here's step two...>

She looked quickly at Perry again, catching his eye for a brief moment, then deliberately looked up at the sprinklers again and fired a short, quick burst of heat at one halfway across the room.

The immediate deluge as the water burst from the sprinklers created instant chaos as the people on the floor shrieked and hurled themselves every which way in an effort to avoid the cold downpour.

There was an outraged shout from the dais, and Lois and Perry both turned in time to see Trask hurl himself at the table. He grabbed the misshapen lump that had once been the box -- and immediately dropped it, screaming and wringing his hand.

Lois smiled grimly. Apparently, the box was still too hot to touch.

At the same moment, he was trying to bring his gun up, and he fired one wild shot into the ceiling.

Simultaneously, there was a huge crash as Clark -- Superman -- came through the ceiling fast and grabbed Trask, hoisting him into the air and disarming him in the same instant. Then there were men coming in the windows and doors, shouting, "Police! Put down your weapons! Hands where we can see them!" The men who had been on the dais with Trask were throwing down their guns and dropping to the floor, hands in the air.

Within moments Trask was secured tightly, cuffed hand and foot with the plastic ties the SWAT teams carried. He lay ignored on the floor of the dais, almost frothing at the mouth in incoherent rage and hatred. His men were sitting with their backs to him and their hands behind their heads, unmoving, as the SWAT team members cuffed them one by one.

***

Bill Henderson, Superman, some of the SWAT team members, and several officials stood on the dais near the table as the last of the less seriously injured people were loaded into ambulances; the gunshot victims were already at the hospital. Lois and Perry had joined the group on the dais once the last of Trask's men had been removed.

Henderson and the SWAT team leader had moved to the table on the dais immediately upon entering the convention center, while Trask's men were still being secured and the convention guests were still getting to their feet. Lois hadn't been able to move away from the group she'd been sitting with fast enough to appropriate the metal box.

She was close enough to keep an eye on it, at least, but she'd feel safer if she and Clark had that box. Maybe Superman could convince Henderson to let them have it? Or maybe she could just hover near it, waiting for an opportunity, and just swipe the thing.

The convention guests who had been drenched but uninjured were being gently interviewed, prior to being released to their hotels, by members of the city's Crisis Response team.

Most of the officials surrounding the table had also been thoroughly drenched in the deluge from the sprinklers, as had Lois. Once the water was turned off, however, she had politely asked Superman if he could dry her off, "At least a little, please." He had graciously done so, and had then offered to dry the others. So while most of them were slightly rumpled and a little damp, at least they weren't uncomfortably wet.

"Get the box -- it's evidence," the SWAT team leader told one of his men.

The man, who looked like he was barely legal age, stepped forward and hesitantly reached for the misshapen mass on the table.

Lois gritted her teeth. Drat. That would make it much harder to steal the blasted thing.

Perry spoke suddenly. "What if it's too hot?"

The young man hesitated, pulling his hand back, and looked at his commander. "Um, sir...?"

Lois frowned, confused. Even if metal that had been heated to melting didn't normally cool very quickly, surely the water from the sprinklers would have speeded the process by now. She looked inquiringly at Perry, who smiled benignly back at her.

The SWAT team leader waved a hand in dismissal. "It's probably cooled off, Thompson."

Still the young man -- Thompson -- hesitated. "Uh, sir... I don't think that's what he meant."

The team leader cocked an eyebrow at Perry, who said in a pronounced drawl, "Whatever kind of rock that guy had in there, it melted the box, which according to Trask's men is lead-lined. Y'all know lead is the one thing that's supposed to protect a body from radiation. Well, this stuff, whatever it is..."

Henderson smothered a cough that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Lois glanced at him but he was looking, apparently seriously, at Perry.

Thompson chimed in. "...It melted the box, sir. I mean, even that... what's-it-called, uranium stuff ain't *that* hot. Is it?" He glanced around at the others, receiving a couple of shrugs and a head-shake or two, before returning his attention to his commander.

Lois looked at Cl- Superman, keeping her amusement hidden, as the team leader asked him, "That wasn't you, Superman?"

"No, sir," Superman said gravely -- and of course it hadn't been.

"Sir, there ain't no burn holes in the ceiling or walls," Thompson added earnestly, "and it happened before we came in. How could it be Superman? I'm tellin' you, that stuff melted the box."

The people standing closest to the table moved back several paces.

The young man, Thompson, thought the green rock -- Achilles-KS79, Trask had called it during one of his rants -- was what had melted the box.

And he seemed to be convincing everyone else.

"But Trask had it in there for a long time," the SWAT team leader argued.

"So it takes a while for the stuff to melt metal -- lead's a metal, right?" The speaker, one of the older men, looked around at his teammates for confirmation. They all nodded seriously.

"I don't want to be anywhere near it," a third SWAT team member, another very young-looking man, spoke up.

"Uh, sir... Can we get it out of here?" Thompson asked somewhat desperately.

Henderson coughed again. When Lois looked at him, he met her eyes impassively.

"How?" asked still another of the SWAT team members. "If it's so radioactive that it can melt lead, how do we contain it?"

"Bomb squad?" asked the older man.

Perry spoke. "What'll the bomb squad have that's better than lead?"

Everyone moved back even farther.

Lois didn't dare look at Superman, or she'd have trouble concealing her amusement. These people all thought the green rock was so radioactive that it had melted its box...

Wait a minute -- people were scared of radioactivity.

Suddenly, this whole thing wasn't just an amusing little interlude. In fact, Perry was a genius.

If the word got out -- and it most certainly would -- maybe people would be too afraid of this Achilles-KS79 stuff's supposed radioactivity to touch it. And if they were too afraid to touch it, she and Clark were much less likely to come into contact with it. No one would even want to store it or transport it, regardless of its effect on Superman.

Achilles-KS79 -- that must be some sort of chemical designation. Or some kind of rock designation. The KS79 part, anyway -- probably because no one knew where it came from to give it a real name. KS79 was the kind of lame not-really-a-name sort of name these things always seemed to end up with.

Maybe Trask had added the Achilles part -- after all, the rock was sort of a... Kryptonian Achilles' heel, wasn't it?

If this green rock could hurt Kryptonians, maybe it had come from Krypton. Clark's globe had said the planet was going to explode, hadn't it? Maybe the green rock was actually *part* of Krypton.

If it was part of the actual planet, that would make it a meteorite.

What would you call an escaped rock from Krypton, then? Kryptonium?

No -- that sounded almost as lame as KS79. Like something you had to memorize for chemistry class.

Maybe... If it was a meteor*ite*, maybe it should be called something like... kryptonite? That had a bit more zing to it -- and zing made better copy.

It might not be a bad idea to just... make *sure* the word got out. About how dangerous this stuff was. Give it a little boost, so to speak. If several newspaper reporters who'd been there, for instance, were to reproduce this discussion in the next edition of the Daily Planet...

In the meantime, though, they ought to get rid of this particular piece of Achilles-KS79. Kryptonite. Whatever.

And who was more trusted than...

"What about Superman?" she asked now, breaking into the discussion. "That stuff is still shielded by lead -- melted lead, yeah, but still lead. So Superman could dispose of it..." She looked at Superman. "Couldn't you?"

He inclined his head gravely. "Yes."

"But where can you dispose of it safely, Superman?" the older SWAT team member asked.

"I can leave the atmosphere with it, and launch it toward the sun," Superman offered solemnly.

"Wait -- you can't," the SWAT team leader said. "It's evidence."

"Hey, if it eats through lead, how you gonna store it?" the older team member asked. "Even if you put it in a couple'a layers of lead... it's too dangerous."

"Well... How do they store and transport stuff for nuclear reactors?" the SWAT team leader argued. "Don't they use some kind of special containment system? There's got to be something -- I *know* hazmat regulations include radioactive substances..."

"Yeah, but they store it in the special containers and then put *those* containers inside lead. And concrete. Or something. But this stuff -- we don't know what it is. There's no guarantee that the usual storage containers for seriously hazardous stuff will work -- I mean, whatever's in that box *melted* *lead*, sir." He looked around at his teammates again, who were nodding in agreement. "I don't want that stuff anywhere near me," he added.

"Yeah," Thompson chimed in. "That Trask guy's crazy; maybe this stuff made him that way."

"Oh, come on," the team leader said.

"Sir, even his own men are distancing themselves from him now," the other young SWAT team member spoke up. "One of 'em said the guy made perfect sense when this whole thing started, but you all heard him when they took him away."

"I don't think radioactivity makes you crazy," the team leader said skeptically.

"I don't care," Thompson said stubbornly. "I don't want that stuff anywhere near my coj-" He hesitated, glancing at Lois. "Pardon me, ma'am." He looked around at the others. "You know," he continued awkwardly. "I heard it can mess up your genes, or whatever, and me and my wife... Well, we're still planning on having kids some day."

Most of the men stepped back even farther. One or two were right at the edge of the dais, and if they weren't careful, they might fall off it altogether.

"Maybe Superman *should* get rid of it," Henderson said mildly.

Amid a chorus of agreement from the SWAT team members, Lois looked slightly incredulously at Bill. Catching her eye, he shrugged. "We don't really need it; the prosecution won't be focusing on some mythical possible harm to Superman. They'll be concerned with the actual harm done to this guy Trask's hostages. And with the whole hostage-taking thing."

The team leader was nodding thoughtfully as Henderson continued, "If this stuff presents an immediate and serious danger to the public, we're within our guidelines to remove it and destroy it. We don't preserve bombs planted in public buildings as evidence, you know."

"There you go, sir," said Thompson eagerly. Several of his teammates added their emphatic agreement to his statement.

The team leader sighed and said, "Okay, okay... I guess that makes sense. And I don't really want to be around it, either." He looked at Superman, who stood in his characteristic arms-folded stance. "Can you please remove and destroy this, Superman?"

"Yes, I can," Superman replied with a faint smile. Possibly only Lois noticed it. He stepped forward and gently picked up the box, then turned away from the table. As he strode toward the edge of the dais, the officials and SWAT team members fell back from him on both sides. Without further comment, Superman lifted into the air and within minutes, had disappeared through the hole in the ceiling.

***

Several hours later, Lois and Clark sat in Perry's office at the Planet, waiting while he went through their story one final time.

Superman had returned to the convention center briefly to report that the box and its contents had been successfully destroyed. He'd left again after gravely accepting the thanks of numerous people, including members of the SWAT team, Bill Henderson, the entire convention committee, Perry, Lois, and many of the guests still present.

Clark had arrived shortly after, and had taken Lois in his arms. She'd gone gladly, needing to reassure herself that he was okay. Temporarily lost in each other, they'd been aware of nothing else for several minutes.

As they'd finally separated, they'd both become aware that their interaction was also successfully projecting an impression of a Clark who, arriving late, had been blocked from entering and who had run the gamut of worry for his partner and his friends, relief that they were okay, and excitement at several good interviews from witnesses.

And Superman, Clark had announced, had found time to give him a quick but comprehensive interview, too.

Bill Henderson had taken his leave of them at the convention center.

The woman who had defended Superman and the man who had dialed the cell phone, while seriously injured, were both expected to live. The two medics' actions were credited with saving their lives, and Superman had treated both victims as his top priority, transporting them -- along with the third gunshot victim -- to the hospital as soon as Trask had been secured. The city's premier trauma hospital, Wayne Memorial Medical Center -- one of the top trauma centers in the nation -- was only a few blocks from the convention center.

Alice White was okay -- she'd been on the near fringes of the group Trask had shot into, but his shots had gone well over her head since he'd been aiming, more or less, for the center of the group. The woman she'd assisted to sit on the floor had been hospitalized overnight for observation after experiencing heart pains, as had at least half a dozen other people, including the very large man who had been sitting on the floor in front of Lois.

Some of the bullets Trask had fired had caused minor injuries to several people, as had the rain of glass from the broken light fixture. Those people had also been transported to the hospital, but were expected to be treated as outpatients and released to their hotels this same night.

Franklin Stern, the owner of the Daily Planet, had made several phone calls from the convention center, even as the police continued to remove Trask's men and take statements from the convention guests.

Within half an hour, Stern's personal secretary and her two assistants had arrived, and they'd proceeded to coordinate a whole army of people from Stern's own business offices to begin transporting the uninjured convention guests back to their hotels, liaise with the attendees who'd been hospitalized, and begin the process of cleaning up.

The secretary had also arranged, in a stunningly short period of time, a complete rescheduling of events for the next few days. Mr. Stern had then held a short press conference, standing near the dais with some of the damage visible behind him.

After a brief discussion with the editors of all the newspapers represented among the attendees, he had announced that the convention would go on as planned -- except that everything would be delayed one day. The interrupted ball would be held on Friday night and the Friday sessions would be held on Saturday, and the closing ceremonies would be held on Sunday.

Special arrangements would be made so that the injured and hospitalized guests could participate in the planned sessions via closed-circuit television if they wished. Additional options, such as -- for lack of a better term -- temporary leaves of absence from the hospital, were even being considered for the Sunday night ceremony in order to include the injured guests.

And with the full weight of Franklin Stern's considerable resources behind him, no one doubted that these arrangements were possible.

Friday would be a day of rest, recuperation, and relaxation for the convention attendees, Mr. Stern had added, and his secretary and her assistants would coordinate all arrangements for extended hotel stays and changes in travel plans.

Shortly after he finished speaking, Lois had overheard his secretary reporting to him that her two assistants had managed to obtain financial commitments from more than half of the newspapers represented. Between them, Stern Industries, the various newspapers, and a special ASNE 'in need' fund would cover all travel, housing, health care, and meal expenses related to the rescheduling.

Finally, the uninjured guests had been escorted back to their hotels with their convention gifts -- repackaged in Daily-Planet-blue and gold gift bags that the efficient secretary had apparently conjured out of thin air -- and vouchers for meals, courtesy of the Daily Planet.

It was entirely possible that the convention hosted by the Daily Planet might end up being remembered as much -- maybe even more -- for the recovery from Trask's attack, as for the attack itself.

At last, Perry and Mr. Stern had returned to the Daily Planet, disappearing into Perry's office while Lois and Clark wrapped up the story as fast as they could.

Perry had cleared the entire front page -- of the current edition -- for their eyewitness story, and was even now holding the day's printing run.

Changing a print run was next to impossible to do at this time of day; in fact, it was unheard of. For one thing, it was incredibly expensive to shut down the printing presses and wait for the new layout to be transmitted to them -- in effect, to stop the presses. But Perry had been instructed to do so by the man whose money paid those kinds of bills, Franklin Stern, himself.

"Pull in as many extra people as it takes to print the new run and get it out on time," the billionaire had said, "or within an hour of its usual time. If necessary, bring one of our backup printing presses on line and print two runs simultaneously, to speed things up."

So now Lois sat with Clark and watched Perry go through their story. Mr. Stern, well pleased with the work accomplished, had left about an hour ago.

Perry looked tired -- as, of course, he probably was. It had been an... eventful night.

He hadn't said anything to Lois about the lead-lined box. So did he know, or didn't he?

He had to know -- he'd given her those very distinct signals when she'd begun heat-sealing that box.

Remembering, she looked him over carefully again. Had she burned him? He'd shed his tuxedo jacket hours ago, and his shirt looked fine. But wait -- was that a red mark on the side of his neck? Just under the collar line and extending slightly above it? Was the area just scratched -- although the group they'd been sitting in hadn't been hit with flying debris, to her knowledge -- or was it a mild burn?

It was mostly under his shirt collar, but if he'd had his head tipped to one side as he'd shifted into her line of vision, there in the convention center, she could have burned an area that would be concealed when he sat or stood up straight. And in the tenseness of those moments when she'd been trying to seal the box, she hadn't used her special vision to look beneath the layers of tuxedo and shirt.

In fact, she hadn't noticed the mark earlier when he'd been sitting squarely behind his desk, talking to Mr. Stern. It was only now, as he leaned against one chair arm, going slowly through their story, that she could really see it. She used her special vision now to look through the shirt collar; there was an oblong patch of red skin, not very large, just under the material. It lay along the editor's neck in such a way that it could -- possibly -- have been caused by irritation of the shirt collar against his skin. Or... by a focused beam of heat from her eyes?

"Perry?"

"...Hmmm?" he replied abstractedly, not looking up from his reading.

How could she ask him about it, though? Did she even want to? Maybe it was better not to know. "Um..."

Clark looked at her inquiringly. He'd taken her hand earlier, and he still held it. Now he gave it a reassuring squeeze, and sent her a softer version of his super-powered smile.

She tucked a foot around the leg of the chair, just in case. <I think...> She hesitated, then continued, <I think Perry might know.>

<Know what?>

"Yes, Lois?" Perry had stopped reading and was giving her a mildly questioning look.

"Oh. Um... nothing, Perry. Just..." She hadn't really expected him to reply to her. She glanced at Clark. <I think he may know about me.>

Clark's expression didn't change, but he squeezed her hand gently. <Know your secret?>

<...Yes.>

"Just what, Lois?"

She looked at Perry. "Just..."

He looked back at her, no expression on his face other than mild inquiry. Nobody else could do that bland look as well as Perry. "Just... thanks," she said rather lamely. She felt Clark squeeze her hand a third time, and in a firmer voice, added, "For... for helping me tonight..." She trailed off for a moment, but other than a slight raising of one eyebrow, Perry said nothing. She sighed soundlessly. He wasn't going to help her out with this at all. "You know..." she continued awkwardly. She waved a hand, forgetting that Clark still held it. "...With the phone, and..."

She glanced again at Clark. <I don't know for sure, but...>

"You're welcome, honey." She looked back at Perry as he spoke, and he smiled at her. "But..." Looking back and forth between them, he drawled softly, "Seems to me that you..." He paused, looking her in the eye, before continuing, "...you and Superman... did all the work."

"Perry -" she began, unsure what she wanted to say.

He held up his hand, and she fell silent. "Why don't you kids take off?" he asked them blandly. "This looks good. I'll send it on, and then I'll get outta here too."

She and Clark looked at each other, then at Perry. "Um..." she began, but he waved her words away.

"Go on, you two. Go home. I'll see you tomorrow."

He picked up his phone, punched in an extension, and returned his attention to their story. "Harry. I've got the new lead story -- it's a go. I'm sending it down to you now. Get those presses running..."

***

<Are you all right, Lois?> They'd opted to walk back to Clark's place, knowing that they could fly if they changed their minds, but happy for now to just amble along together.

It was pretty late -- or maybe it would be more accurate to say it was pretty early, since it was now well after midnight. It was the time of night where, even in a city as big as Metropolis, the streets were almost deserted.

So they didn't really have to worry that someone might overhear them.

They were using telepathy anyway -- mostly, simply because they could. Having made the breakthrough, they were finding that they could turn the telepathy on and off without any more effort than it took to speak. And it felt... more intimate, somehow, to be conversing this way in an otherwise silent night.

<I'm okay, Clark.>

He glanced down at her as they walked along, and she felt compelled to repeat it. <Seriously, Clark -- I'm fine.> She paused for a moment, considering. <I feel...> She felt pretty good, actually. She looked up at him with a slight smile. <I feel good.>

He smiled down at her, covering the hand she had tucked into his arm with his own free hand. <And so you should -- you just saved a whole convention's worth of people.> He stopped, turning to face her. As her hand left his arm to rest on his chest, he framed her face with his hands and kissed her, gently and sweetly. "And you saved me," he whispered, his breath brushing her lips.

She moved in to him, hugging him close for a moment, and felt his arms go tightly around her. She rested her head against his chest, his heartbeat strong and steady under her ear. "I'm glad you're okay, Clark..." she said softly.

They stood that way for a few moments, and then she pulled back to look up at him. "Thank you for listening to me. For... for taking me seriously tonight, Clark."

He met her eyes solemnly. "You're welcome, Lois. I..." He smiled slightly. "My first -- and second -- instincts were to just zoom in there and save the day, just... automatically assuming I would be fast enough to avoid any complications. It's what I've -- what Superman has done before. But you made me stop and... really *think*. Stop and assess the situation in a way I'm just not used to doing."

He took her hand again, tucking it into his bent arm before covering it with his own, and they resumed walking. "You *really* made me think, Lois," he repeated, looking down at her again, and she watched the emotions play over his face. "Normally..."

He trailed off, and they walked along in silence for a few moments.

When he continued, his words were inside her head again, as if they were easier to express un-echoed in the stillness of the night. <Normally, Superman just sizes up the situation at a glance, then swoops in and... saves the day. Puts out the fire with his breath, disarms the criminals, stops the crime... Up until now, there's been no need to assess the risks to Superman -- to myself.>

He stopped walking again suddenly, drawing her abruptly into his arms and holding her tightly against him. She could feel his heart beating against hers. He dropped his head, resting his cheek alongside hers, and his thoughts spilled raggedly into her mind. <And then, with you in danger, Lois...> He made a noise in his throat, a mute sound of distress, and seemed unable to go on.

She pressed even closer against him, one hand coming up to stroke into his hair and the other arm tightly around him. <I'm okay, Clark. And I was just as worried for you.>

Something in the tone of her thoughts seemed to help him regain some composure, because he loosened his grasp enough to allow her to look up at him.

<With you in danger, Lois,> he repeated, <I hardly wanted to even take the time for a first assessment.> His thoughts were like stones, each one heavy with the anguish he'd felt. < Superman almost lost it for a few moments, Lois -- and that would have put us in more danger.>

He cupped her face again, staring into her eyes, and she looked straight into his soul. <So it is I who should be thanking you, Lois -- for saving me from rashly putting you in further danger. For saving me -- us -- from myself. You were the true superhero here tonight, Lois.>

She gave a choked laugh that was one step away from tears. <I was so scared, Clark.> She sent the words like a whisper into his mind.

He dropped his forehead against hers for a moment, a moment that was broken by the sound of a taxicab swishing past on the otherwise empty street.

It recalled them to the night around them. He offered her his arm again, and she tucked her hand into its former spot as they resumed walking. <I know you were scared, Lois... But no more scared than I.>

She nodded. She'd felt his fear tonight.

<I was...> she started, and paused to marshal her thoughts.

He put his free hand over hers again in a warm caress, and she was able to continue. <I've been scared a lot in my life, you know, what with... Well, with all the powers, for instance, and no one to talk to -- no one to help me figure it all out. But... well... I always had to get past that... to just get on with... whatever, you know?> She looked up at him again. When he nodded, she continued, <...If there's a way to be scared but to... not have time to be scared, at the same time...> She sighed. <I'm not sure I can explain it -->

He drew his arm from hers and draped it over her shoulders, tucking her against his side. <You're doing just fine, Lois.>

She slipped her own arm around his waist, under his tuxedo jacket where he was warm and solid. <But... tonight, I was more scared than I think I've ever been, Clark. I've usually been able to make quick decisions when I'm working on a story... quick decisions if my investigation takes me somewhere dangerous -- like... like with the fire alarm on the space shuttle. And even when...> She hesitated.

He tightened his arm in a half hug, and she went on. <Even when Claude attacked me. I wasn't... well, not... afraid -- not like this. I was afraid that... I knew that he couldn't really hurt me -- but I thought I'd have to expose my secret. Fortunately, Perry and Eduardo showed up in time. But tonight...> She drew a shaky breath, remembering. <...tonight was different.>

The breath hitched as she exhaled.

<I was afraid for... for the people I care about. Perry. Alice. Jimmy.> Her thoughts softened to the merest whisper of a touch inside his head. <And for you, Clark. I was... so afraid for you. I'd already seen what that green rock did to you. I was afraid it might... kill you. Or... that he would, as soon as you were vulnerable. And that...> She stopped, unable to go on past the lump in her throat, even thought they weren't actually speaking.

He tipped his cheek to rest it on her head for a moment, slowing almost to a halt. <I know, love,> his thoughts washed over her gently. <I felt it. I felt what you were feeling.>

<I wasn't really afraid for me,> she continued. <Not much, anyway... although I knew if Trask opened that box, I'd be affected. But even if I was affected, I was... anonymous. You know? He didn't know about me.>

She looked up at him, and when he nodded, she continued, <But you -- you were his target, Clark. He intended to kill you as soon as that stuff made you vulnerable. You'd have had no chance. And if he had opened that box, I'd have been unable to help you. To help anyone.>

<Not with super help, anyway,> he interjected. <You still would have come up with something, I think.> He paused for a beat. <In fact, you *did* come up with something else, Lois. You called 911, an extremely risky move under the circumstances, but the way you did it was very clever -- and very effective.>

She hadn't thought of that.

She considered it for a moment. <Maybe.> She smiled tentatively up at him. <Yes... I guess you're right. I did manage to call 911, didn't I?>

They had reached his building, and he stopped on the doorstep and turned to face her, taking both of her hands in his and bringing them to his lips. He kissed the backs of her fingers before bringing their joined hands to rest over his heart. She could feel the steady rhythm of his heartbeat against her palms.

"Do you really understand what you did tonight, Lois?" he asked very softly. "*You* saved all those people. You saved me. And you did it using your super powers, like I do every time I put on the suit. But you also used... *you*, Lois. You -- who you are, your brain, your wits. Your courage, your heart." The last was breathed onto her lips as he kissed her almost reverently, still holding her hands against his heart.

"Superman would have crashed in at super speed, gambling that he could get that box," he continued. "But you -- not I -- saw the danger in that approach." He smiled ruefully. "Yes, we worked together, ultimately -- but you were the one who figured out what would be safe, how I would react, what you had to do as far as preventing me from coming in... and you had the idea for melting the box. So instead of a 'helper' to my Superman -- giving me a convenient excuse to get away and go be Superman -- you're the one who actually solved this crisis. Not me. Not Superman."

She stared up at him as they stood just outside the door in the still night, digesting his words. "Yes," she said finally. "I think... I think I understand now, Clark." She stopped speaking, gazing up at him, searching his face, and saw everything he felt shining back at her. "I think I understand what you've been trying to tell me," she said after a moment. "What you've been trying to tell me for a while now."

"About who you are?" he asked softly. "That you're already a superhero?"

"Yes. You said... that I already chose to do this, when I decided I would grow up to fight dragons. You said it wasn't just super powers... and it wasn't just words as a reporter. That it was me; my brain, my abilities -- all of them, super and not."

"And do you believe that now?"

She smiled softly at him. "Yes. I think... I think this was the last little bit of growing up I needed to do, Clark. The last little bit of growing into... me."

And he had helped, with his support, his friendship, and his love. She'd been so lucky to find him. She smiled at that thought. And he thought that *he* was the lucky one. She stretched up and kissed him, trying to convey everything she felt.

He loosed her hands to slide his arms around her, pulling her against him as he responded to her kiss. She wreathed her arms around his neck, kissing him back freely and equally, deepening the kiss and shivering deliciously when he willingly followed her lead.

Eventually, she tipped her head against him, catching her breath as he rested his cheek on her hair, also breathing heavily. After a few moments, he seemed to recall that they were still standing on the doorstep of his building, and he pulled away from her and opened the door, ushering her inside.

They made their way slowly to the elevator, hand in hand but without speaking. When the doors closed behind them, she stepped forward into his arms, stood on tiptoe, and kissed him.

He kissed her back, and he did it so well that they didn't notice that they'd arrived at the roof until the elevator doors slid closed again. Laughing, Clark hit the 'door open' button and they stepped out and headed for his front door.

Once they were inside his apartment, he closed the door and turned to look at her, both of them still standing on the landing at the top of the short flight of steps down into the main room.

"Do you know what I see when I look at you?" he asked her seriously.

She smiled softly and shook her head. "Mad Dog Lane?"

He shook his head, unsmiling, absolutely serious. "I see a woman, not only grown up and capable, respected at what she does, but a woman fulfilled as well. Able to use all of her unique talents -- those of brain and of body -- and self-confident with it. An equal to Superman, Lois. And an equal to me, Clark." He smiled sweetly at her. "I saw you like this long ago, but now --"

He turned her gently so that they both faced the mirror on the wall near the door, and stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. She looked back at him out of the mirror.

"I see someone who finally believes it, too," he finished simply.

***

"Will you stay here tonight?" he asked quietly. They were lying stretched out together on the couch. Lois lay tucked into the space between him and the back of the couch, her head resting on his chest as she listened to the steady beat of his heart, his arms wrapped around her.

She lifted her head to look at him. "Clark..."

"Not..." He hastened to reassure her. "I didn't mean... Not for anything... Well, just to sleep, Lois. I'm... I just want you close tonight. Seeing you trapped in that madman's presence... You can have my bed, and I'll sleep here on the couch..." He trailed off when she laid a finger across his lips.

"Clark," she said again, fighting a smile. It must be a Kryptonian thing, babbling, because he was as good at it as she was. Better, maybe.

"What I was going to say," she continued, "was that it isn't night anymore." She nodded toward the windows, where the thin light of early dawn could be seen. Looking back at him, she let her smile have full rein. "So, yes, I'd like to spend Mr. Stern's day of relaxation here with you, but couldn't we just sort of... hang out here where we are right now? I kinda like it..."

By the time she finished speaking, he was grinning up at her and placing small kisses on her finger where it still rested on his lips.

She stroked across his lower lip and up along his jaw before threading her fingers into his hair. She felt him shiver against her as her fingers stroked through the soft hair at the nape of his neck.

"You're a very persuasive woman, Ms. Lane," he said in a dark and smoky voice, and tugged her farther up his chest until he could reach her lips.

***

She said softly, "When I think of all the time we wasted slogging through Dr Platt's notes... Between us, we could have sped through them." They were still lying on the couch together; she had her head on his chest again, listening to his heartbeat. It was a sound she would never tire of hearing.

Now she lifted her head, folded her arms on his chest and propped her chin on them, and smiled up at him.

"Oh, I don't know..." He smiled back down at her, and brushed her hair gently behind one ear. "I don't think the time was wasted. We got to know each other over those notes." He tugged her upward until her mouth was within reach and kissed her.

She laughed softly. "If you say you fell in love with me over those notes..."

"Nope," he said with utter sincerity. "I was already in love with you by then, Lois. I told you once before -- I think I fell in love with you the moment I first saw you."

She pulled back to look at him, propping herself on one elbow as she lay between him and the back of the couch. He *had* said that before, but she hadn't thought he'd really meant it literally. "But I wasn't very nice to you, Clark."

"Lois..." He looked into her eyes. "You were... like a small island I saw once, in the middle of the Amazon River. It was like a sparkling jewel, all lush and green and just teeming with life -- in the middle of that wide, brown, muddy water. Beautiful, intriguing, but almost totally isolated. It was unreachable by ordinary means, because it was in one of the deepest and widest parts of the river where there are very strong currents."

He lifted one hand and stroked a finger softly down her cheek. "That was how I saw you. So isolated and alone, but so appealing... And I knew I wanted to get to know you better. To find a raft, build a bridge -- to somehow reach you. Because almost immediately upon meeting you, I could see flashes of whom you really were behind those protective walls... And I loved what I saw."

She was too moved to speak. With a tremulous smile, she leaned forward and kissed him sweetly.

They traded several soft kisses before he pulled away slightly. "Of course, it didn't hurt that you're an incredibly beautiful woman," he added with a grin.

She giggled, and suddenly he was kissing her again. And this time there was nothing light or teasing about it.

And as she kissed him back, she realized what was different about this kiss.

She -- the changes he'd helped bring about in her -- was the difference. There was no more hesitation; no more holding back. She'd faced the possibility that she could lose him -- really lose him, to death. She'd been reminded that neither she nor he were immortal.

And having faced that, the risks of offering him her heart paled in comparison.

He'd offered her the gift of his love, freely given. Not as some kind of favor or reward, and he demanded nothing in return. His love was without conditions -- and it was worth any risk of loss. She was finally free -- gloriously free -- to give her own love completely back to him. His love inspired her to make a complete commitment to him; to seek her future with this man. To pledge herself to him.

To this man.

Clark.

She could trust him.

With her life, and with her love.

With her heart.

She shifted again, pushing herself upright and sitting back on her heels alongside him in the narrow confines of the couch to face him. "Clark..."

He looked so good lying there, smiling up at her. She lost herself in simply admiring him for a few moments. She could have lost him tonight. If he'd rushed in despite her warnings... If Trask had opened that box...

His smile had faded as he gazed back at her, watching her emotions chase each other across her face. He, too, shifted so that he was sitting up, facing her.

"Lois?"

"Clark..." Her voice, husky with all she was feeling, was barely above a whisper. "I love you."

"And I love you." He searched her face. "I *love* you, Lois," he repeated, and it sounded like a vow.

She smiled at him. "I know." She reached out, and he grasped her hand firmly in his. "I do know it, Clark," she repeated.

She tightened her grip on his hand, and he meshed their fingers together. She raised their joined hands, palm to palm, and pressed them against her heart. It was time to tell him what she'd learned. What she knew; what she wanted.

She took a deep breath. "Clark... Will you marry me?"

He stared at her for a millisecond before she saw the wonder and joy bloom across his face.

"*Yes*." He smiled at her, a smile of such blinding love that she felt herself lose touch with gravity at the power of it. And even as she left the couch, before her super reflexes could engage, he was on his feet and lifting her to twirl her around.

As she laughed down at him, hands on his shoulders, he laughed back up at her. "Yes! Yes. YesYesYes!"

Finally, he stopped, letting her slide slowly down his body. She shivered at the feeling of him against her, and when she was standing on her own feet in front of him she kept her arms linked around his neck in case her legs wouldn't support her. Hands at her waist, he gazed down at her soberly, searching her eyes. "Are you sure, Lois? Really sure?"

And she smiled back at him with all her love shining from her eyes, and then laughed with joy as his feet helplessly left the floor, lifting both of them into the air. "Yes," she said simply, and then had nothing else to say for quite some time.

THE END

***

Epilogue:

Lois woke slowly, only gradually aware that she was alone in the bed.

"Clark?" she mumbled.

"Wake up, sleepyhead," he said in gentle amusement, and she opened her eyes to see him setting two mugs of coffee on the table beside the bed.

As she scootched into a sitting position, he sat down on the edge of the bed beside her, leaned forward to pick up one of the mugs and hand it to her, then kissed her slowly and sweetly over it as the fragrant steam wafted up around them. She didn't need the coffee to start her day, of course -- the caffeine didn't affect either of them. But this simple ritual was an appealing way to wake up, and the kisses were the best part of it.

The coffee was wonderful, but Clark's kisses were absolutely habit-forming.

She leaned against him, and they sat quietly together, sipping coffee, not talking -- just content to be close to each other, listening to each other's heartbeats as the city came awake around them.

They'd been married only a couple of months, but those months had been wonderful. That night at the convention center had been a turning point for her -- for them. That night, she'd finally let go of her insecurities -- let go of them all, and had felt free to love him unreservedly.

And ever since, it had been... like their unconstrained flight, the carefree and joyful dance in and among the clouds that night in the Kansas twilight.

This life dance -- the joyful rhythm of their time together -- was just as exciting, with its own swoops and dips and rolls, just as glorious as they rode the currents of their days.

Just as breathtaking; just as quiet.

Just as laughter-filled and just as solemn.

And their other dance -- their dance in the night -- it was just as exhilarating, the connection between them strong and deep and true. She hadn't known how it could be -- moving as one, slow and intense -- full of passion and heat, soaring toward rapture without flight. They were two souls perfectly in tandem -- two as one, their minds as entangled as their bodies. Clark with her and her with Clark, grounded only in their bodies -- their minds and hearts and souls in flight.

She was recalled from her musing as he stirred finally, dropping another light kiss on her mouth, before leaning down toward the end of the bed and picking up a folded newspaper he must have brought into the bedroom with him. Opening it, he laid it in her lap, and she saw that the story they'd submitted the previous night had been allotted the entire upper half of the front page.

"Good morning, Kinetic," he said softly, and she grinned at him.

CITY'S NEWEST SUPERHERO blared at her in big letters; underneath it, in smaller letters, was Metropolis: Meet Kinetic, Your Newest Superhero, by Lois Lane and Clark Kent.

Last night had been Kinetic's first appearance in Metropolis -- although it wasn't actually the first time she'd appeared as Kinetic.

For the past month or two, she had been doing small rescues -- in the disguise -- in places where cameras and media were not readily available.

Testing it all out.

Practicing, in a way.

Learning.

Testing it out, this move from actions unseen and subtle to those which were overt and colorful.

Practicing changing -- from regular clothing to the suit, and then from the suit back to regular clothing.

Practicing assessing each rescue situation -- with Clark high and unseen in the clouds, but ready to lend a hand or a suggestion if she needed it.

And learning how effortless it all was, after all.

Learning that the ability to quickly and accurately assess a rescue situation came as easily to her, the superhero, as it did when she, the reporter, was assessing a story.

And learning that once she made that jump from reporter to superhero, it was actually no jump at all. That it was merely a lateral move to tap into another natural talent.

If she'd needed any more reassurance to utterly and truly let go of any lingering insecurities, she had it in the ease in which she donned Kinetic's persona.

And that was the best part -- practicing her whole persona. She'd had quite a bit of fun with that.

After some discussion and a couple of sessions in a secluded mountain meadow with Clark, she'd begun taking off and landing with her arms out slightly from her sides, palms down and fingers splayed.

Clark had chuckled when she'd demonstrated it, but she'd grinned right back at him.

"It looks like I'm pushing air, doesn't it?" She'd assumed a lecturing pose, hands behind her back as she'd paced on empty air. "Well, I'm a tactile telekinetic, you know... I fly by displacing air."

She'd begun a rambling dissertation on nothing as he'd hovered nearby, arms crossed in Superman's classic pose, one eyebrow up as she went on and on, making it up as she went.

After listening to her tossing about random nonsense phrases like "...If we take the coefficient of Q minus entropy..." and "...factor in the tangent of X squared over pi" and "...approximate the curve as a straight-line" for several minutes, he'd finally growled and pounced on her. And then they'd chased each other all over the meadow, laughing uproariously, until finally collapsing together in the long grasses, where he'd kissed her until they were both genuinely breathless.

They'd shown up for dinner in Smallville only a little late, hand in hand, and Martha had shaken her head indulgently and instructed them to brush the grass out of their hair.

Once Kinetic began appearing, even though the rescues were in some of the most remote corners of the world, the word began getting out. Slowly, because at first, the only photos of her were distant and blurry -- hardly better than no photos at all -- and because the witness accounts were from those whose first language was not English.

There had been no interviews yet, no close-up photos -- just the growing rumors of her existence.

That was how she'd wanted it at first, while she kept Clark's expertise on tap and grew into the role. But finally, it was time to let the world see.

And so, the previous night, Kinetic had appeared in Metropolis.

Her debut was no small thing -- a commuter train had derailed when a switch failed to close on the main tracks that led north out of the city. The train, full to capacity on this Metropolis-to-Gotham route, had just reached full speed as it left Metropolis city limits, and the momentum with which the engine hit the open switch had driven almost every car off the tracks. Because the train had also been carrying some freight -- chemical transports among them -- the risk of fire among the crumpled, tipped, and broken cars had been very real.

Clark -- Superman -- had been battling a huge forest fire in Colorado, one that had threatened the dense outer suburbs of a city large enough that containing the fire required a miracle -- or super help. He'd been shown prominently on LNN, subduing the flames with his ice breath, but the fire was so large and it burned so hot that quenching it was very slow going even for Superman.

So the first frantic reports of the train disaster had repeated, over and over, how devastating this accident would be, how high the cost in lost lives, because Superman was unavailable to help.

When the news broke, with live footage from the LNN helicopter hovering overhead as the cameraman panned over the scene of the derailment, Lois had not hesitated.

Leaving the Planet had been almost anticlimactic.

As the news anchors had excitedly narrated the scene, she'd simply stood and strode up the ramp without speaking, did the usual pause-do-I-take-the-elevators thing on the landing, then ducked through the stairwell door. She could have even skipped that pause at the top of the ramp; Edmunds and Jenner and Peters, hurriedly preparing to head for the scene, had been making enough of a racket that they were drawing all eyes, and no one had paid her the slightest attention.

Indeed, she'd probably have commanded more attention if she'd stayed in the newsroom. Lois Lane did not ignore major news stories. Everybody knew that. And even though the consensus was that marriage had mellowed her, that same consensus readily admitted that Mad Dog Lane was by no means diluted -- just... better. In a slightly-less-intimidating sort of way.

As she'd hit the Planet's roof, she'd given Clark a quick telepathic explanation of what was happening.

She'd received his wholehearted encouragement, and an assurance that he would be back as soon as he could -- as Clark, unless she needed him as Superman.

And he had, in fact, with excellent timing, returned from his own super activities in time to put in an appearance -- as Clark -- at the scene.

It was a bit surreal -- Superman in reverse, with her changing out of her disguise and joining him, instead of the other way around. With her, not Clark, pretending to have been getting witness accounts at the fringes of the crowd.

Finally, they called in the story to the Planet, stopping in at the newsroom shortly after that to edit it, and then went home to their own private celebration of Kinetic's debut.

And now here it was -- front-page news.

"Ready to get going?" Clark asked now.

She nodded. "Let me get a quick shower." Unselfconsciously, she rose and headed toward the bathroom, tossing over her shoulder, "...It should be an interesting morning."

Clark, watching her appreciatively, laughed. "I suspect you're right."

She stepped through the bathroom door, poured on the speed, and joined him in the kitchen, fully dressed and ready to go, three minutes later.

***

Lois and Clark arrived at the Planet to find a buzz of excitement similar to that which had occurred after Superman's first appearance.

As they exited the elevator and moved toward the top of the ramp, they heard Perry's bellow from a knot of people at the four priority workstations under the bank of television screens, near the big central desk. "News, people! Get me news!"

After Superman's first appearance, Perry had had a police artist sitting at one of those same workstations, sketching the superhero from a semi-coherent description by an excited Jenner. It was entirely possible that the same man was here today, too, sketching Kinetic.

There'd also been people from Layout -- and Production -- working on several different mock-ups of the front page, even though that was usually done at the end of the day, after deadline, when those departments had received all of the material intended for the day's edition. At a quick glance, it looked like Perry had brought in people from the Layout and Production departments again today, too.

Lois grinned at Clark as they headed down the ramp. <Shades of Superman's debut, huh?>

He laughed softly as they turned toward their desks. Perry hadn't noticed them yet, so there was time to put away their things before joining the crowd.

Lois dumped her purse in her bottom drawer and straightened up as Jimmy appeared from the direction of the supply room, his arms full of paper and boxes of pencils most likely intended for the people at the priority workstations. "Man, isn't it exciting, you guys?" he exclaimed, stopping at their desks. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "LNN's been showing the rescue over and over."

"Morning, Jim," Clark said, simultaneously with Lois's "Good morning, Jimmy."

"Yeah." Barely acknowledging their greeting, Jimmy continued, "Did you guys see it? Did you see her?" He almost dropped his armload of supplies as he waved a hand at the bank of television screens, where a replay of the rescue was currently showing. "It's just -- she's just so... so awesome!" He sighed happily. "It's like..." He shook his head. "Man, I can't explain it, guys, but she's just... I mean, isn't she just awesome?" he repeated, dumping everything on Clark's desk where it backed up to Lois's.

"Jimmy..." she began.

"D'ya think Superman knows her?" Jimmy babbled on, attention riveted on the screen. "I heard he was somewhere in France or Utah or somewhere, saving somebody, or something like that, when she... So maybe he doesn't, but... Well, I mean, you guys know Superman, so if he knows her... Well, d'ya think maybe he could introduce me..."

He trailed off, gazing adoringly at the images on the screen. Kinetic was hovering over a tipped train car, carefully peeling back the metal on one side, as the rescue personnel stood ready to step in once the car was open.

<Oh, boy...> Lois glanced at Clark, rolling her eyes. <*France* or Utah? Clark, that forest fire was *all* *over* the news.>

He grinned at her. <Welcome to the Superhero fan club, sweetheart.>

She grinned back and stuck her tongue out at him.

Jimmy was still talking. "I mean, she's just... awesome, man..." He seemed unable to come up with any other adjective. "Did you guys see when she... Oh, man, and then when... And that outfit -" He whistled, sketching two vertical, opposing curves in the air as he continued, "Wow! Is she in good shape, or what?"

Lois willed herself not to blush, glancing under her eyelashes at Clark, who was laughing softly. <He's certainly right about that, sweetheart. Kinetic's got a great body.>

<Hush, Clark.> But she was grinning, too.

"Yeah, she's something, huh?" Adam said, pausing beside them on his way from somewhere with a stack of files. "Hey, do you guys think she's related to Superman?"

Lois opened her mouth to reply, but Jimmy was already answering. "Nah, Lois and Clark got to interview her, remember? She says she's tele- ...uh, tele-something. Not... well, Superman's supposed to be from another planet, isn't he? I think I remember hearing that somewhere. But she's... What was it that she has?" he asked, turning to Lois and Clark.

Clark glanced at Lois. He was trying to maintain a serious expression, but the corners of his mouth were twitching. <Jimmy makes it sound like a disease.> "She's a tactile telekinetic," he told the young man dryly.

"I think that's where the name came from," Lois added equally dryly. She, on the other hand, was grinning openly. <Apparently it's a disease that's socially acceptable to young men.>

Clark turned away with a sudden coughing spell.

"Huh?" Jimmy blinked at her. "Oh, yeah, I guess... But anyway..."

"What's that -- telekinesis -- got to do with whether she's related to Superman or not?" Adam demanded.

"Well, see... " Jimmy began, but was interrupted by Diane, another of the sportswriters, who paused beside them.

"No, they're not related," she said authoritatively. "I read in the National Enquirer that they're dating."

Lois choked. That hit awfully close to home.

<Clark...?>

Lois looked worriedly at Clark, but Jimmy was already protesting, "Man, you can't believe anything you read in there, Diane."

Clark shook his head very slightly, acknowledging her unspoken question. <I think it's okay, Lois. We knew there'd be a certain amount of speculation about Superman and Kinetic.>

"Wait, I guess they can't be related. I don't think they've even met," Adam was saying. "LNN said that she said she's only just arrived --"

If LNN had said that, they were quoting Lois and Clark's own story.

"What, you don't think she'd date just *anybody*, do you?" Diane was arguing.

"Of course not," Jimmy said. "But she's not dating Superman. Didn't you read the newspaper today, Diane? She just got here. She said she's not Superman's partner."

"I'm talking about dating, Jimmy, not... not saving-the-world superhero partners -" Diane began scathingly.

"If they haven't even met, how can they be dating, Diane?" Adam asked.

"The Planet article didn't say they've never met," Diana persisted. "And the National Enquirer said --"

Adam interrupted her. "Hey, look at that! They've got some new video!" Both young men turned to look, as did Diane and Lois and Clark.

"Hey, turn that up!" Adam called across the room, and one of the people standing near the televisions reached up and turned up the sound.

Adam began to drift toward the TV, trailed by Diane, who was still arguing, "Even if they aren't dating right now, it's obvious that they're perfect for each other..."

Lois looked back at Clark with a conspiratorial grin. <Well, she's got that right, at least.>

Clark winked at her. <Yep. I'd say Kinetic is perfect for Superman.>

"This was taken from the roof of an office building near the scene of the derailment," one of the LNN anchors said, drawing their attention back to the TV screen.

A grainy, obviously amateur video, showing much the same thing as LNN's own clips, was playing on the TV. "This is the dramatic appearance and rescue of scores of rail commuters by what appears to be the city's newest superhero, Kinetic Girl," the LNN anchor's voice said as the camera shakily followed the black and pink form.

Lois choked, turning it into a cough at the last moment. "What -" she began indignantly.

<Lois...> Clark began warningly.

"What did they just call her?" she demanded. <Kinetic *Girl*, Clark?>

Jimmy looked at her curiously. "Uh... you guys talked to her," he said. "Didn't your article say that she said her name is Kinetic Girl...?" He trailed off, looking back at the TV screen.

"I think it's just Kinetic, Jim," Clark said mildly as Lois growled under her breath.

"Yeah..." Jimmy said, obviously distracted by the short video, which LNN was replaying again as the anchor kept talking about the rescue. "..that's what I said. Kinetic Girl." He sighed almost dreamily. "She's just great, isn't she? Do you think she's single?" Without waiting for a reply, he, too, drifted toward the TVs, leaving his forgotten armload of supplies where he'd dumped it on Clark's desk.

"Kinetic *Girl*?" Lois repeated again, this time aloud, but in a low and dangerous voice that probably only Clark could hear.

<Lois...>

Perry's bellow rang out again. "Awright, people! News! I want news!"

He shook a handful of newspapers -- some of their competitors' current editions -- in emphasis. "I want our headlines to be bigger and better than our competition's!" He flapped the papers again for emphasis. "Bigger! Better! This is the Daily Planet, folks, not the Hoboken Gazette!"

Grinning, Lois raised an eyebrow at Clark, who grinned back. Perry in full news-hunt-mode was a one-man show.

"Now let's get out there and get stories!" Perry continued. "And pictures! Pictures *and* stories! This newspaper is on the leading edge for Superman stories -- so let's get out there and make it happen with Kinetic Girl, too!"

Lois whirled to look at Clark, who looked startled, before she turned back to stare at Perry.

"Jimmy!" Perry had barely paused for breath before zeroing in on his next target. "Where's those pencils and paper, son?"

<Lois...>

She took a deep breath. <Even Perry, that bum! And he knows who Kinetic really is, Clark! I'm sure of it!> She clenched her fists and took a step toward the group still gathered at the central desk.

"Lois!" Clark suddenly exclaimed loudly, startling her. "Bobby!" Before she could react, he'd grabbed her hand and was towing her rapidly up the ramp in a very credible imitation of Mad Dog Lane, still talking. "...Bigmouth! Bobby Bigmouth!"

<Clark...>

"Lois! Clark!" Perry bellowed, catching sight of them, and Clark waved a hand dismissively at him in another uncannily Mad Dog Lane gesture.

"Later, Perry! Lois and I have..." He waved a hand again, apparently feeling that was enough of an explanation for their editor, who snorted but didn't challenge him.

<Clark...>

"C'mon, Lois! Now! We're late, and you know Bobby won't wait for very long," Clark continued loudly, not stopping, either literally or for breath.

<*Clark* -->

He tugged her through the stairwell door. As it shut behind her, she finally dug in her heels. He stopped and turned back to her, clearly expecting an explosion.

Instead, she leaned against the wall and began to laugh.

Clark blinked at her in confusion.

"Kinetic *Girl*," she gasped between gales of laugher. "Kinetic *Girl*!"

Glancing worriedly at the stairwell door as if expecting someone to burst through it at any time, Clark turned back to her. "Lois..."

When she only laughed harder, shaking her head, he scooped her up in his arms and zipped up the stairs to the roof.

She looped an arm around his neck and let him carry her, leaning her head on his shoulder, still laughing. When he stopped on the roof and the door had closed behind them, he looked down at her worriedly, still holding her in his arms.

"Lois, are you okay?"

She smiled sweetly at him, still chuckling, then took her arm from around his neck, bringing her other hand up to frame his face, and kissed him. "You can set me down, Clark," she told him, still grinning. "I'm not going to attack anyone."

He relinquished her slowly, letting her slide down his body and hugging her gently to him before releasing her. "I wasn't sure..." he began.

She stayed close to him, linking her arms loosely around his waist, and he tightened his own arms around her again. "Yeah, it took me a minute there," she admitted. "I really had to bite my tongue..."

She pulled back to look up at him. "And you, you bum. You didn't think I'd control myself." She swatted him playfully.

He laughed, bringing his hands up, pretending to ward her off. "Hey, I wasn't sure..." he protested.

She laughed again, shaking her head. "All that time and effort by all those women, all those years, for equality -- and when it comes down to it..." She giggled helplessly, not needing to finish the sentence. "So now here I am, the city's newest superhero... doer of great deeds..." She grinned up at him. "And I'll forever be known as Kinetic *Girl*."

He laughed, too, and tugged her gently back against him. She went gladly.

"Lois Lane," he whispered, enclosing her in his arms, his mouth by her ear. She shivered deliciously.

He raised his head, dropping a kiss on her hair. "Mad Dog Lane." She snuggled in tighter against him.

He slid one hand up to cradle her jaw, his thumb brushing gently against the corner of her mouth. "Dragon slayer," he breathed.

She shivered again, parting her lips. His mouth drew closer to hers, and she caught her breath in anticipation.

"Kinetic." He said it with a slow smile, drawing one from her in return, his mouth a hairsbreadth from hers. With a moan, she closed the distance between them.

"Kinetic *Girl*," he murmured against her lips in the briefest of caresses.

He lifted his mouth and pulled back far enough to gaze into her eyes, smiling again slowly when she made a brief sound of protest at the loss of his lips against hers.

"Whatever you're called by the rest of the world, you're still Lois, my beloved, to me," he said softly, and kissed her again, and this time it was everything she'd come to know in his kisses -- love and laughter, homecoming, the sweetness that was Clark -- and passion, pure and deep and true.

THE END

***

Author's Notes: (WARNING -- There are an awful lot of 'em!)

This story is dedicated to my own mom. While I didn't have a childhood at all like Lois's (mine was a completely normal and happy one), it was infused with the same warmth, security, love, and care that Lois's Mama (and Clark's parents) showed. And while I didn't grow up on an actual farm, some of the features of the Kents' farm come straight from my own childhood home.

--

I'm greatly indebted to Deborah Joy LeVine, who wrote the pilot episode of Lois and Clark/The New Adventures of Superman. I borrowed both dialogue and some of the basic story line -- including the Space Station Prometheus subplot -- and put my own spin on them.

--

Lois's mama's story of Princess Elizabeth is based on a real story: a children's book by Robert Munsch called The Paper Bag Princess. The story is much simpler than I may have implied, but the essence of the story is the same. Amazon has the book (and there's even a book about the book!), and there are some lovely reviews with all kinds of neat insights into the princess's character.

And she really is a lot like Lois.

--

ASNE -- the American Society of Newspaper Editors (http://www.asne.org/) -- is real. In addition to the sharing of ideas, information on awards, internships, and scholarships, and their yearly convention (usually in Washington, DC), they sponsor various projects, one of which is to reinvigorate high school journalism through the High School Journalism Program (http://www.highschooljournalism.org/students/).

--

Metropolis Coffee Company (http://metropoliscoffee.com/) is a real place. It's in Chicago, just a couple of blocks from Loyola University, and it's a pretty friendly place.

--

L0phtcrack -- spelled that way -- is a real program. It's (technically) an old 'security tool' that was written, I believe, in the late 1990's -- later than the original LnC timeline. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L0phtCrack) I used it in this story anyway; it's the kind of thing somebody like Jimmy would know about (and probably use).

--

At one point, I needed a lot of technological-sounding company names, and quickly drew a blank. Via Google, I found a 'random company name generator' (http://plambeck.org/cgi-bin/wordgen.cgi), and used several of the suggested names in Dr. Platt's list. NovaCo, however, was my daughter's contribution. I also used a second random name generator, Noemata (http://noemata.net/nbng/) to come up with... well, random names, when I needed them.

--

While I was writing the final chapters of TGND, I edited ML Thompson's story, Escape From New Krypton (http://www.lcfanfic.com/stories/2007/escapenk.txt) for the Archive. Something one of her characters said about lead-based paint recalled a small hitch in my own plot: namely, why didn't Clark look through the walls of Dr. Platt's apartment, even if Lois was reluctant to do so? Neither one of them expected what they found, so obviously, they were relying only on their enhanced hearing and not on their sight.

So I want to thank ML for that idea, which is incorporated into the Archive version of this story but not the one on the boards.

--

While I'm at it -- the 'spider dipped in ink' simile is not my own. I first read it in a romance novel by Betty Neels years ago. It appears to have originated in the late 1700s when it was used by a friend to describe the writing of an English theologian and writer by the name of Samuel Drew (his writing was compared to "traces of a spider dipped in ink and set to crawl on paper").

--

I relied heavily on The Encyclopaedia of Superman for information on the Kryptonian language.

Unfortunately, the site is no longer in existence, although you can use the Wayback Machine (http://www.archive.org/web/web.php) to get an idea of what it (http://theages.superman.ws/Encyclopaedia/) was like.

I took substantial liberties with the very limited glossary of known translations, broadening meanings and/or combining words to give a different meaning -- even adding the odd extra letter here and there to come up with Jor-El's comment to Lara and the blessings inscribed on the two ships. What I ended up with is more paraphrase than translation.

Jor-El basically told Lara, "A gift of Rao (God) you are forever, Lara, my beloved Star Lady." A sort of archaic way to say, "I'll love you forever." (And as good as I could get, short of making up entirely new words. And why didn't I, you ask? Can't say. I guess I wanted it to be realistic. <g>)

At the risk of boring you, gentle reader, the literal translations, with [ ] = words I've added, and ( ) = my paraphrase, are:

Rokyn = [a] gift of Rao (gift of God)

dau = is near to/like (you are)

amzeto orutoo = years [of] tomorrows (forever)

Laraa Bythgar El = Lara, [my] beloved star lady

Or: A gift of Rao (God) you are forever, Lara, my beloved Star Lady.

The blessings use roughly the same words (I took *huge* liberties with the word 'flez' which means -- sort of -- 'winged one'):

Rokyn = [a] gift of Rao (gift of God)

dau = may you

flezur/flyzar* = [be] winged/fly (live) *flezur = male, flyzar = female

amzeto orutoo = years [of] tomorrows (forever)

Or: Gift of Rao (God), may you live forever, Kal-El / Zara-El.

(By the way, 'Kal' = child and 'El' = star, so 'Kal-El' becomes 'child of the stars' or 'star child.')

--

I'm indebted to Neil Peart of Rush (http://www.rush.com) for these lyrics:

{*Somehow we find each other

Through all that masquerade

Somehow we found each other

Somehow we have stayed

In a state of grace*}

(From 'Ghost of a Chance' -- Rush, Sept. 1991) The words resonated in my mind when I was writing the section where Lois tells Clark she loves him. Jor-El and Lara sent the two babies separately to earth, and against all odds, they *did* manage to find each other -- and find love.

I'm also indebted to him (Neil) for the lines Clark quotes about the dragon -- they're from a song called 'Different Strings' (Jan. 1980) and they just really seemed to fit (especially the pointed words part!) when I needed a good dragon quote.

--

I looked at a *lot* of sites when I was researching DNA testing of siblings. Here is the clearest description of what is involved and how accurate it is: http://www.genexdiagnostics.com/special/sibship_genetics.php. It was harder to find information on when, exactly, this sort of testing (commercial, for the general public, rather than for forensics) became widely available, and when, exactly, you could test something other than blood. Several sites indicated that there wasn't much commercial testing -- if any -- before 1994. Most sites agree that the testing is still *very* expensive, and all commercial sites that I looked at 'recommend' that a parent's DNA be submitted along with the suspected siblings' samples.

I'd also like to specifically thank Maria for her comments on DNA testing and on photographic memory -- she not only helped me keep those ideas realistic in the story, she also gave me the idea for the scene where Clark's parents discuss (the mid-1990s) status of DNA testing.

--

I used TheHistoryOf (http://www.thehistoryof.net/)* and The Digital Journalist (http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0602/dunleavy.html) when I was researching digital cameras.

Did Jimmy use film and a darkroom, or did he have access to digital photography?

Well, the first professional digital camera (black and white images) was produced in 1990 for photojournalists. Kodak and Nikon produced the first of a long line of professional digital cameras -- the DCS (Kodak Digital Camera System) -- in 1991. By 1994, digital cameras were available (generally with high price and low resolution) to the consumer.

So my Jimmy relies on a film camera and the newspaper's darkroom -- most of the time. But the Daily Planet, being 'the best newspaper in the world,' most certainly owns whatever is the most cutting edge digital technology available. And sometimes Perry lets Jimmy use some of the digital equipment.

*I also used TheHistoryOf to research portable music players, tape recorders, and the spy gadgets Jimmy found for Lois.

--

Tech Faq (http://www.tech-faq.com/ringback-number.shtml) says this about ringback numbers (the little trick Lois used to manufacture an incoming phone call for herself): "A ringback number is a number that you call that will immediately ring the telephone from which it was called. In most instances you must call the ringback number, quickly hang up the phone for just a short moment and then let up on the switch; you will then go back off hook and hear a different tone. You may then hang up. You will be called back seconds later." It's actually a test to check if a new phone line routes calls correctly.

--

I found the white wine marinara sauce recipe Clark used at http://www.allrecipes.com. I needed a simple and quick (but elegant) homemade sauce, and I thought the addition of the white wine was a nice touch. The recipe itself (http://pasta.allrecipes.com/az/BestMarinaraSauceYet.asp) is called 'Best Marinara Sauce Yet.'

The hot chocolate 'recipe' that Clark used was created from multiple sources; I didn't find a recipe exactly like the one he uses, but I found several, from several sources, that were close.

--

As some of you may remember, my family and I were in Denver, Colorado, at the end of this summer (2006). The Jeppesen Terminal at DIA (Denver International Airport) does, indeed, have a fabric roof. According to the website (http://www.flydenver.com/diabiz/info/research/passenger.asp), it's made of "two translucent layers of Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric independently supported by cables held in tension." But hey, fabric is fabric.

The description of the Metropolis International Airport terminal interior is actually a reflection of our traverse through the terminals at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, from one end to the other, to catch our connecting flight. (http://www.flychicago.com/ohare/concessionsohare/TerminalMapsORD.shtm) We landed at Terminal 1 and had to go to Terminal 3; by the time we made it to our gate, we had passed at least seven (!) Starbucks Coffee shops. The last one was at the end of the concourse where our gate was. (And yes, I gave in to temptation and got a cup of coffee. We flew home the week before the international security scare that banned all liquids and carry-on luggage on all flights; I walked onto the plane with my laptop case over my shoulder, a duffel full of toiletries, cosmetics, and electronics in one hand, and a Starbucks Coffee cup in the other. Ah, the good old days...)

--

The cheeseburger conversation Lois overheard at the airport wasn't my own idea; it was inspired by something I read at a site (no link, since the site's uncensored) that collects snippets of overheard conversations.

--

For those of you who really know your comics: When I was writing the window-washers scene, I asked my husband for a building name. It wasn't until later, researching tactile telekinesis, that I discovered that there really is a Baxter Building in comics. I also learned that I'd put it in the wrong city -- and the wrong universe, as it was the headquarters for a Marvel, not DC, universe team called the Fantastic Four.

When I pointed this out to my husband, a longtime comics fan and collector, he just laughed. (I'll add that adamantium comes from that universe, too.)

--

When I needed a fairly unique hostess gift for Lois to take to Martha, I kind of blanked out after wine and flowers. So I looked for ideas at Red Envelope (http://www.redenvelope.com), which sells jewelry, house wares, and gourmet baskets like those that Ellen mentioned. (They gift wrap, on request, in their "signature red box with hand-tied ivory grosgrain ribbon ... with colorful tissue paper" inside. The gift message is tucked inside a red envelope.)

I thought the Circle of Friends votive candleholder was fitting, because many of the conversations at the Kent farmhouse seem to take place with them grouped together in a loose circle around the kitchen tabl