There's No Place Like Home

By ML Thompson <thomplaw@tbaytel.net>

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: August 2008

Summary: From coworkers to partners to friends to lovers. But will it happen the same way every time? As Lois and Clark desperately try to find a way to correct the past, they discover there's a thin line between love and hate.

POINT OF ORDER: This story contains a lot of italics. Since only text stories are allowed on the archives, these italicized sections are marked by ** at both the beginning and the end. These italicized sections mark memories of the past. However, if you wish to read the story with the italics actually in italics, go to:

[http://www.thompsonlawoffice.ca/There's_No_Place_Like_Home.htm]

This is a fanfic based on the television show, Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. No copyright infringement is intended. I'm borrowing these characters for a little fun and not for any profit. For a complete disclaimer, go to: http://www.thompsonlawoffice.ca/Disclaimer.htm. When including information from various episodes, I often relied on the scripts -- which sometimes had different wording or additional dialogue in them, which I found helpful.

My thanks, as usual, go out to Gerry and Carol for their ideas and beta reading skills while I was writing this story. Because of their input, I figured out where this story was going to go and how to get there. And then they stuck by me, through thick and thin, throughout this monstrosity. Cheering and challenging me to make this a better story. All I can say is... thanks, guys. And my thanks to Jeanne Pare for being willing to take on this monstrosity for the purpose of editing it for the archives.

Finally, my thanks to the people on the Fanfic Message boards for answering so many unrelated questions and then giving feedback that allowed me to tie up a lot of the loose ends.

If you wish to see a poster for this story, you can find one at: http://www.thompsonlawoffice.ca/There's%20No%20Place%20Like%20Home%204.jpg

***

Chapter One

"Then we realized that the problem was with the flux facilitator. The calibrator was off by a few nanoseconds. I can tell you, it took our research in a completely new direction. But you probably don't want to know about all of that. Bottom line: we fixed it and... presto! It worked! Or at least... we think it worked. All of our research indicates it does. All that's left now is to conduct the final tests!" Dr. Klein explained enthusiastically to the two reporters who had been listening to his discourse. He finally stopped, waiting with baited breath for their response.

Lois and Clark shared a look, each silently asking the pertinent question -- did the other have even the foggiest idea what the good doctor was talking about? After a moment of non-verbal communication, Clark was the one to speak.

"Dr. Klein," he began slowly, "you'll have to forgive us, but..."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Lois said, when Clark took too long to get to the point.

Clark glanced indulgently at his wife. She was still the spitfire he had fallen in love with. He doubted she would ever change. He certainly hoped not. Her edges might have become softer over the years, but she was still... Lois. As impatient as always. He smiled.

"Oh, didn't I say?" Dr. Klein said, obviously thinking he'd been all too clear.

"If you did, I didn't hear it," Lois said, but there was no sting to her words.

During the preceding years, Lois and Clark's relationship with Dr. Klein had altered. Friends was probably too strong a word since they never got together for purely social functions. But business acquaintances wasn't a full summary of their relationship either. Allies in their shared fight against all the evil the world had to offer was probably the best description -- even if it was a little wordy.

The change had taken place when Lois had discovered that she was pregnant, much to everyone's surprise. After Dr. Klein had told them they couldn't get pregnant, they had, understandably, dispensed with taking precautions -- with unexpected results. Lois had become pregnant.

After long discussions about how they should handle the situation, they'd turned to Dr. Klein -- deciding that, for Lois' sake, and the baby's, they would have to trust Dr. Klein with Clark's secret.

The man had barely batted an eyelash, taking it completely in stride. And although he didn't say it, Lois and Clark came to the conclusion that he'd suspected as much for quite some time. The fact that he hadn't said anything, not even to them, had been a tremendous source of comfort. And his care of Lois, and now of their child, had been a godsend.

So when he had called them this evening, telling them that he needed to see them immediately, Clark had flown their daughter, Victoria, out to spend the night with Martha and Jonathan, and Lois and Clark had answered his summons. But after listening to a bunch of scientific gobbledygook for the past ten minutes, both were seriously rethinking that decision.

"Uhh..." Klein said, searching for a new way to convey his thoughts. Suddenly, his face lit up. He turned away from them, searching the counters behind him until he found what he was looking for -- a small, black device about the size of a cell phone. "This was brought to Star Labs after... Well, you two remember President John Doe, don't you? Oh, of course you do. You two are the ones who stopped him from blowing up the world.

"Well, anyway, after he was arrested, this was found when his suite was searched." Klein held up the item. "No one could figure out what it was for, so it was brought here. Now it took some time to get it working, but we discovered that it is..."

"We know what..." Clark began before being interrupted by his wife elbowing him in the ribs and speaking over him.

"What is it, Dr. Klein?" Lois asked, ignoring the confused look her husband sent her way.

"A time travel device," Klein said proudly. "Now, I know what you're thinking..."

"Oh, I don't think you do," Clark muttered.

"You're thinking that time travel isn't possible," Klein said. "After all, there is the issue of paradoxes. For example, if a man went back in time and killed his great-grandfather, then how would the man ever be born? And if he'd never been born, how could he go back to kill his great-grandfather? It's paradoxes like that that cause most people to dismiss the whole idea of time travel in the first place. But I assure you, this contraption makes all of us who have been working with it believe that time travel is quite possible -- even within our reach.

"And..." he continued, pausing for effect, "we've also discovered that this little machine can do something else that's quite remarkable. It can enable a person, at least in theory, to travel between dimensions."

"So why are we here?" Lois said, ignoring the looks Clark continued to send her way. He seemed to be asking why they weren't telling Klein that they were already familiar with the abilities of that little black box. Still, what did he expect her to do? It wasn't as if she could fill him in while the good doctor was in the room.

"Oh, yes! Did I forget to mention? Well, we've sent some inanimate objects and even a couple of lab rats both forward and backward in time, and into various dimensions. Or, well, only one other dimension really since we can't figure out yet how to change dimensions. But we're at the point now where we need someone to make the trip. After all, the lab rats can't reset the controls to come home -- so we can't send them to a different dimension... or rather, we can't get them back when we do."

"So what does that have to do with us?" Clark asked, giving up on getting an answer out of his wife, but going along with her silent demand not to tell Dr. Klein what they already knew.

"Didn't I say?" Klein said. "Oh, how clumsy of me. Well, we thought that maybe Superman might be willing to take the primary voyage?"

"So you want to use Cl... Superman as a guinea pig?" Lois asked.

"I assure you, Lois. It's perfectly safe."

"If it's so safe, why do you need Superman?" Lois responded skeptically.

"Oh, dear. I'm really not explaining myself well, am I?" Klein said, looking distressed. "It's not the machine we're concerned about. It's what might be waiting for us on the other side."

Lois and Clark looked at each other in confusion.

"Well, none of us here are exactly... musclemen. I guess we could ask for a volunteer from the army to go... Just in case there's trouble. Or maybe hire some muscle. But really! Is that the impression we want to make on first contact? Of course not. What we need is someone who can handle himself if there is trouble, but isn't going to go looking for it... if you know what I mean."

When Lois and Clark just continued to stare at him, Dr. Klein continued. "So... how about it? Are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime?"

"I think we need a chance to talk it over," Lois said immediately, looking over at Clark.

He had his head cocked to the side, silently studying her, his eyes brimming over with questions he had the good sense not to ask.

***

"Okay, so out with it," Clark said as he and Lois buckled themselves into the jeep.

Lois turned the key in the ignition and the engine purred to life before she looked over at her husband. "I've got a bad feeling about this," she said soberly.

"I can't say that the idea of taking a trip into an alternate dimension using something that they don't completely understand is leaving me with a warm fuzzy feeling either."

"No. That's not what I mean. If it were just us... Well, it would be kinda fun to see what the future is like or take a trip into the past or... Oh, Clark! We could even take a trip to see how Alt-Clark is doing! I've been worried about him. I mean, did he find his Lois? Mr. Wells sort of hinted that he might. But... well, I'd love to see for myself." She pulled the jeep out into the street.

"Then... what's the problem?"

Lois let out a breath. "It's just... Well, this technology... It's not supposed to be here. In this time, I mean. It's future technology."

"And if people get hold of it now, it might have devastating effects on the future."

"Or the past. Think about it, Clark. Tempus tried once to go into the past to kill you as a baby. If people in this time find out about this technology, what's to stop one of them from coming up with the same idea?"

"Isn't that going to be a problem, no matter when that machine is invented?"

"Maybe. And to a degree, it obviously is. Otherwise, we wouldn't have Tempus. But this is different. Most people in the future... Well, they won't want to make serious changes to ancient history because of the possible implications for the present day. Tempus is the exception. Now, there might be others who don't particularly like Utopia, but I don't think most of them are going to want to follow in Tempus' footsteps. After all, if they kill Superman, they could inadvertently be preventing you from saving someone who saved someone who saved one of their ancestors -- causing them never to be born. And even if that's not true, there is the asteroid problem."

Clark's eyebrows rose. "The asteroid problem?"

"Nightfall," she said as if that should explain everything. When it didn't, she let out a breath. "Think about it, Clark. If you had been killed as a baby, the world would have been destroyed by Nightfall. And even if some people did manage to survive, there wouldn't be many. No, no one in the future is going to seriously contemplate killing Superman as a baby. And if they did, they likely would never be born in which case..."

"How could they go back and kill me as a baby," Clark concluded.

"Exactly!" Lois exclaimed. "Although... that still doesn't explain Tempus. I mean, surely he's thought about these things."

"I've got my own theories on Tempus," Clark said.

When he paused, Lois looked over at him expectantly.

"Well, I'm not sure that Tempus is very bright," Clark continued. "Either that, or he's more interested in having fun than he is in actually destroying Utopia."

"Okay, now you've lost me."

"Well, personally, I'd probably go with the 'not very bright for a villain' option. But the other one... From what we know of Tempus, he finds Utopia dull. I sometimes wonder if the reason he keeps coming back, coming up with weird and bizarre ways to kill us is because he enjoys watching us figure out how to stop him." Clark glanced over at his wife. "To relieve the boredom."

"Clark, Tempus was going to blow up the whole world! Are you seriously trying to tell me that he was simply wanting to relieve his boredom?"

"Lois, think about it. If he had blown up the whole world, how would his parents ever been born? And if his parents had never been born, how could he blow up the whole world? And why come back to the time of Superman? He could have gone back... another fifty years, before there was a Superman and established world domination then. We wouldn't even know he'd done it. His altered history would seem... right to us. So why confront Superman directly? Because he's having fun."

Lois was silent for a moment as she let that thought digest. "God, I hate being someone's choice of after dinner entertainment," she finally muttered.

Clark barked out a laugh. "Kinda cheapens it somehow, doesn't it? Still, I'm not exactly sure why you think that those things wouldn't be problems now."

"Think about it, Clark. Oh, the asteroid thing might still be a problem. But a villain wouldn't have to go that far back. He could have a full itinerary of every place that Superman has ever been and set a trap. Or more than one. They could know that you'd be helping out at a particular earthquake, and plant some kryptonite at the epicenter. Or that you were going to dive into a particular volcano on a particular day to stop it from erupting and put kryptonite at the entrance so that you'd encounter it the moment before entering the volcano.

"Part of the problem for even kryptonite bearing criminals is that they don't ever know for sure where Superman is going to be -- unless it's somewhere like a charity event where you aren't going to be in immediate danger if you suddenly find yourself powerless. After all, if you lose your powers at the latest Daughters of Metropolis luncheon, it's not as if anything much is going to happen -- except that Superman will have to catch a cab home instead of flying.

"Besides all that, it wouldn't be too hard for a criminal with a time travel device to find some kryptonite. They could just go back in time and steal it from some other criminal who failed when they tried to use it against you. They could even go back in time and find the piece under Wayne Irig's tree."

Clark let out a long, slow breath. "So this technology can't be invented until..."

"...the world is a kinder, gentler place."

"So what are you suggesting? That we talk to Dr. Klein?"

"No!"

The immediacy and strength of Lois' refusal caught Clark off guard and he looked at his wife, eyebrows raised.

"Think about it, Clark. I trust Dr. Klein, but he's still a scientist. That's why I didn't want to let him know what we knew about time travel or other dimensions. If he knew for sure that such things were possible, he'd never quit trying to get there."

"But according to him, this machine proves that such things are possible."

"But didn't Einstein theoretically prove that time travel is possible? This is the same thing. Right now they know, theoretically, that such things are possible. But that's not the same thing as going to other times or other dimensions. It takes the 'knowing' to a whole new level. And from what he said, I get the impression that although they got that time travel thingy to work, they still aren't completely sure 'how' it works."

"So what are you suggesting?"

"We've got to steal it, Clark."

"Steal it?"

"Of course. After all... Oh no!"

"What?"

"I just thought of another problem." She glanced over at Clark. "If Star Labs manages to get that thing to go to other dimensions, suddenly Tempus' comments about Clark and Superman being the same person and one of you being from another dimension don't sound quite so crazy."

Clark didn't respond. He simply stared out the window in front of him. She was right. This could have serious implications for the future -- not to mention what it could do to his life, to their lives, to their daughter. Still... she was suggesting that they break into Star Labs and steal something. Could he really be party to something like that?

***

It was well after midnight when Clark and Lois landed on the roof to Star Labs. Clark wasn't entirely sure how he'd been talked into this. As he'd pointed out to Lois -- persuasively, too, he thought -- there was a difference between stealing evidence from a bad guy to write a story and stealing something from one of the good guys. In fact, if he thought about it now, he was pretty sure she'd agreed with his reasoning. And no matter how much he wanted to keep his identity a secret or avoid messing up the future, he wasn't comfortable with the whole concept of stealing.

So what exactly were they doing there, dressed completely in black? Okay, so he knew why they were in black. After all, as Lois had pointed out, the red and blue of the Superman suit was a little too obvious for a clandestine mission. Whereas, dressed all in black, with caps pulled down over their eyes and Lois with that wig... no one was likely to be able to get a definitive look at the 'thieves' in the event that they were seen. On the other hand, how many thieves were likely to enter from the roof of Star Labs?

"Lois," he said slowly as he set her down, "I'm not sure this is a good idea."

"Sure it is, Clark," Lois said, turning immediately to the door to the stairway.

"No, Lois," Clark said seriously, catching her arm. "This just... doesn't feel right."

She turned back then, caught by something in Clark's tone of voice that let her know that he was having serious moral questions about their current course of action. She studied his eyes for a long moment before speaking again.

"Think of it this way, Clark. That time travel device doesn't belong to them. We're just taking it away from someone who has no right to it in the first place."

"We don't have any right to have it either," Clark pointed out.

"True. But then, we're just... holding on to it until the next time someone from the future shows up. Then we'll turn it over to them to take it back to whomever it does belong to."

Clark thought about her words. Put that way, it did make sense. He nodded. "Okay," he said. "Let's do this."

"Wait!" she said as he began to turn away. She turned him back around, making sure she had eye contact before speaking again. "Are you really okay with this?" she asked, searching his eyes intently.

A grin crept slowly onto his face. "What happened to the Lois who would steamroll over everyone and everything to get her way?" he asked teasingly.

"She left the building when she started sleeping next to the guy who obsesses for days if he thinks he's done something wrong," she instantly replied. "The last time we crossed the street on a red light, you spent half the night obsessing about how irresponsible that was. And I lost a good night's sleep as a result. Now... are you sure? Because I guess we could go the other route -- tell Dr. Klein that he has to stop working on time travel."

Clark shook his head. "No, you're right. The only way we'd be able to convince Dr. Klein to turn the device over to us is to tell him everything. And even then, we'd just be asking him to do what we're doing anyway -- to steal it. After all, it isn't his property either. It belongs to Star Labs." He let out a breath. "So we take the device back and we put it in safe keeping until someone shows up to take it back to the future. After all, if they keep working on it..." He shrugged. "Besides, I don't feel comfortable telling Dr. Klein that he has to stop working on time travel. For all we know, he's the one who invented it."

She continued to search his eyes for a moment more before seeming reassured. Finally, she nodded, apparently having found what she was looking for in his gaze.

Together, they walked to the door leading down from the roof before stopping.

"Are you sure this is the best way in?" Lois asked. "I mean, couldn't we just fly through a window or something?"

"This is the best way. None of the windows open so we'd have to break one. And for that to be a more effective way to get in, we'd have to go through one of the windows on the upper floors. After all, security is heavier on the lower floors -- given that that's where they would expect someone to break in."

"And going through an upper story window would immediately point to Superman being the thief," Lois added. "Okay. So why don't you..." She made an obscure gesture with her hands.

Clark smiled and nodded before removing his glasses and sticking them in his pocket -- better to leave them off for this task -- and then he stared intently, first at the door and then at the floor beneath them.

"Okay, I think I have a plan. They've got the device stored in the safe on the tenth floor. I can't see into the safe. I guess it's got some sort of lead lining. But there is a note to someone named Clyde on Dr. Klein's desk telling him to return the device to the safe. And the device isn't on the desk, so I would assume that Clyde did what he was told." He looked briefly at Lois. "If it isn't there, I guess we'll have to rethink this plan, but for now..." He shrugged and returned his gaze to the floor. "There's no one in the room where the safe is located. The safe is locked, but that shouldn't be a problem. But... Uhh... maybe it would be better if you let me do this alone."

"No way, flyboy. We're partners, remember?"

He sighed. He'd expected that. Still, he felt that he had to make at least a token effort. He picked her up in his arms.

"What about security getting into the building?"

Clark shot a quick blast of heat vision through the wall beside the door. Then, reaching over, he carefully closed the hole by pushing the concrete together with his fingers, running his finger across it to smooth it out.

"Won't that give away who broke in?"

Clark shook his head. "It'll just look as if a wire shorted out. It will probably short out the whole system for a moment so..."

He shifted into superspeed. The next thing she knew they were standing in a small room with a large safe covering one wall.

"Okay," Lois said. "Do you want to tell me what just happened?"

"The security system did short our for a moment, but... Well, the back up system came on quicker than I thought. So I just floated us down the center of the stairwell and then checked to make sure the camera was turned the other way. Then..." He shrugged.

"You floated and checked?" Lois asked in disbelief. "Could have fooled me."

Clark laughed. "After we leave though -- maybe a few hours later so that they don't connect it with the system shorting out for a moment -- I'm thinking that I should break a window on the first floor -- just so that they think that's how the thieves got in when they discover that the time travel device is missing. Maybe even leave a few muddy footprints -- in a different size shoe from mine -- just inside the window. Piece of cake," he said with a grin.

"It's a good thing that you didn't choose a profession as a cat burglar," she said. "I'm not sure even I'd be able to catch you. So has anyone figured out that we're here?"

He looked around and listened intently before responding. "No. Security knows that the system went down for a moment, but since it's working fine now, they aren't particularly worried. They're talking about calling in the specialist in the morning to see what went wrong, but... No. They have no idea we're here. Now..." He turned his attention to the safe. Slowly, he turned the large combination lock, listening intently as the tumblers fell into place.

A loud 'click' sounding in the quiet room caused Lois to jump slightly. Giving her a grin, he pulled the handle, opening the door.

The pain hit him almost instantly. He stumbled, pushing the door further open as he fell against it.

"Clark!"

He heard Lois' gasp coming from somewhere, but her voice was distant, obstructed by a wall of pain. "The device," he gasped when he felt her trying to pull his body away from where it was blocking the door from closing. She was obviously trying to get it closed up again. Still, if they did that... If they left without the device now, this whole trip would have been for nothing. "Get the device."

"Not worth it," he heard her say.

"The device, Lois," he repeated. "You get the device and I'll..." He forced himself onto his hands and knees.

***

Realizing what he was trying to tell her, Lois leapt over his body and into the safe, searching frantically to find the time travel device as quickly as possible. He was too heavy for her to drag him far enough away from the door to allow her to close it. So while he worked on that, the least she could do was find the device.

But... where was it? She scanned the shelves, pushing things aside in her frantic attempt to find it. She wasn't entirely sure why they hadn't thought about the fact that Dr. Klein kept a small amount of kryptonite at Star Labs or why they hadn't wondered why there was lead shielding on the safe. She glanced back at her husband who was still struggling to get out of the doorway. Well, damn this. If she couldn't find the device by the time he had cleared the doorway, then device or not, she was closing the door.

"Come on. Come on," she muttered as she continued to look.

There! Finally!

She grabbed the small black box and turned back to Clark just as he crawled back far enough for her to push her way out of the safe and slam the door, spinning the handle to ensure that it was locked just as alarms began to sound.

Okay, so what now?

"Can you move?" she asked Clark, quickly moving to his side.

He shook his head, collapsing back onto the floor.

"So I guess flying us out of here is out of the question?" she asked rhetorically as she looked around the room, hoping desperately to find an alternative.

The sound of feet running down the hallway caused Lois to spring to her feet. She rushed to the door, locking it only moments before someone tried to open it.

"Where's the key?"

The man's voice was all too clear. Somehow, the guards knew that this was where their culprits were. She looked around again in desperation before her eyes landed on the black box.

No. No. Absolutely not.

She scanned the room again, determined to find an alternative.

"Right here!"

She heard a shuffle of keys and then the sound of a key in a lock. She glanced over at Clark. The sweat on his face, slicking back his hair. The absence of his glasses -- where were they anyway? Had he even brought them with him?

No. He couldn't be found here. Superman could not be caught breaking and entering. And right now, he definitely looked more Superman than Clark.

But what to do? Clark appeared to have passed out now, so dragging him somewhere to hide wasn't an option -- not in the time they had left.

She looked back at the black box in her hand.

At that moment, she saw the door handle began to move. There was no time left. Without worrying about the possible repercussions, she rushed over to Clark. Grabbing onto him, she flipped on the power and pushed a button on the black box. A time window appeared. Unable to pull Clark through the window, she grabbed the window, pulling it down around them.

She let out a breath of relief when the room around them began to fade just as men with guns stormed into the room.

***

Chapter Two

Slowly, Clark regained consciousness to the sound of Lois' voice in his ear, telling him to wake up. "Lois," he breathed. Without opening his eyes, he rolled towards his wife. He wasn't ready to get up yet. Maybe he could convince her that it was too early. Maybe he could even convince her to come back to bed -- perhaps find a more... interesting activity to engage in.

"Clark!" Lois said, throwing her arms around him. "Oh, thank God. I've been trying to wake you for the last ten minutes."

"Huh?" Clark asked, blinking slightly as full consciousness returned. Where were they? He glanced around at the room. Star Labs? What were they doing at Star Labs? Or... Wait! They'd been in Star Labs when... But why was it light out now? How long had he been unconscious? She'd mentioned something about ten minutes. But... surely that wasn't enough time for it to be light outside. "Lois?" he asked, moving onto his knees. He pulled in a sharp breath. Oh, right. Kryptonite.

"Are you all right?" she asked.

"Yeah. What happened?"

"Don't you remember? We were just about to get caught when..." She held up the time travel device.

"You sent us somewhere?" He glanced around. "Or some when."

"Yeah. I'm not sure where exactly we are -- or when we are. But at least we seem to be alone."

Clark nodded. "So then... what's the plan now?"

"We get out of here and then... There seems to be a return button on here."

"So if we get out of Star Labs, we can just press the button and we should return to our own time... or our own dimension, I suppose."

"Right. And since we stayed in the same place when we leapt last time, we should be able to control where we end up this time -- preferably somewhere a long way from Star Labs."

Clark nodded, struggling to rise to his feet as Lois did the same.

"Are you sure you're all right?" Lois asked.

"Just winded."

"What about your powers?"

Clark concentrated for a moment. His hearing. His x-ray vision. His ability to fly. Nope. Although all of them felt as if they were just on the verge of returning, as if were he to concentrate just a little bit harder, they would come back. "Not yet. But I don't think it will be long. I wasn't exposed for very long, after all."

She leaned over, helping him to his feet. "Well, I don't think that we can afford to wait around. So we'll just have to do the sneaking out thing the old fashioned way."

Clark nodded while reaching into his pocket to withdraw his glasses. Without his powers, he felt particularly exposed without them. "Okay, so let's..."

His voice was cut off by the door being thrown open and a man in a lab coat entering the room. They stared at each other in stunned silence for a moment. Suddenly, the man moved, rushing for a buzzer by the door.

"No! Wait!" Lois yelled, but it was too late. An alarm sounded through the building.

***

"Just listen to us, please," Clark said as he and Lois were escorted, rather forcefully, by two bulky security guards to a secure area to await the police. "Our names are Clark Kent and Lois Lane -- from the Daily Planet. If you'd just call Dr. Klein, I'm sure he'll vouch for us."

One of the lab geeks standing nearby smirked. "Good try. But everyone knows that Bernard Klein works for Lex Labs."

"But... but..." Clark's voice trailed off as a door closed, shutting the two of them alone inside a small room.

Clark looked over at his wife who was already checking out their surroundings. There was a small table and four chairs. Cabinets which, judging by Lois' attempts to open them, were locked. And a window looking out over the grounds of Star Labs.

"I guess that was stupid," Clark said. "Without knowing where or when we are, I should have known that it wasn't likely that Dr. Klein worked here. Or that he would even know us if he had."

"It was worth a shot," Lois responded, giving up her exploration of the room to look out the window. "Are your powers back yet?" She turned towards him.

He concentrated. "Sort of." He shrugged. "They flicker a bit. And I can..." He floated up off the floor -- slightly shaky, but still floating. "But making decent time with the flying... Probably not going to happen. Why? What did you have in mind?"

She turned back towards the window, looking out. "There's a drain pipe running down the side of the building, next to the window. If you have enough strength to break the glass and can float us out of here, they'll assume we climbed down the drain pipe." She looked expectantly at Clark.

"But they took the time travel device."

Lois let out a breath. "So I guess, if we want to go home, we have to stay around long enough to get the device back."

"If we want to go home...?"

"I want to go home," Lois said. "I mean, it might be interesting to explore this time... or this dimension, but..."

"Vicky."

Lois nodded. Was Vicky in this time? Was she born yet? Was she an old lady, wondering what had happened to her parents when she was just an infant? Did she even remember what her parents' voices sounded like, or know how much they loved her?

Normally, Lois would love to explore another dimension, or another time. But until she could be certain that she could get back to her daughter after this was all over, she'd never be able to enjoy it. It was funny how motherhood did something to one's priorities.

Clark came over, giving her a hug. Tears welled up in Lois' eyes. "We'll get back. I promise." He pulled back to look in her eyes. "We're Lane and Kent after all."

She slowly smiled, pushing back her anxieties and her tears. "You've got a point there," she said. In spite of the words, her voice trembled. "So... when or where do you think we are?" she asked, finally regaining control.

Clark released her, taking a seat at the table. She joined him there. "Well, that man said that Dr. Klein worked for Lex Labs."

"So since Lex Labs closed shortly after Lex's death, we are either in an alternate dimension, or we're in the past."

"Or we're in the future... A future in which someone revived Lex Labs."

"But who would do that? I mean, around Metropolis, his name has become synonymous with evil."

"One of his children?"

"Lex only had two children. And I don't think either of them are in a position to resurrect Lex Labs."

"Maybe not. Given Luthor's billionaire playboy status, I don't think we can say for sure how many children he had." When Lois flinched, Clark spoke again. "Sorry," he said softly, knowing what a sensitive subject this was for her.

"It's not your fault that I was an idiot."

"Lois..."

"Okay, so we're exactly no further ahead now than when we first arrived," Lois said, wanting to get off the current topic. "Oh! What about Dr. Klein? In our dimension, did he ever work for Lex Labs?"

Clark thought about that for a moment before shrugging. "Whenever I think of Dr. Klein, I think of him working for Star Labs. But..." His voice trailed off.

"So we could be in our past," Lois said in frustration. "Or our future. Or an alternate dimension."

"If we're in the future, I don't think we can be very far in the future." When Lois looked at him, he continued. "It's just... Well, while they were bringing us here, I was looking around. I didn't see any unfamiliar technology. Wait..." He suddenly went silent, his head cocked to the side.

"What do you hear?"

"A radio. Maybe they will say the date."

"Along with the year? Clark, how many people need to be told the year on a daily basis?"

"Well, maybe... They're playing 'Fools Rush In' by Elvis Presley."

"Well, at least we know that we're not in Mediaeval times."

Clark rolled his eyes.

"Oh!" Lois said suddenly. "Is your x-ray vision back?"

"I think... Yeah. Still a little fuzzy, but... why?"

"Look for a newspaper."

Clark pushed his chair back so that he could get a clear view of the floor, searching the building for a paper.

"No, wait!" Lois said. "Even if you find a paper, we won't be sure that it isn't an old paper. Why don't you..." She got up, walking over to the window. "If things are still the same here... Yes!"

"What?"

"Over there," she said, pointing out the window to a Daily Planet newspaper dispenser situated across from the entrance to Star Labs.

"Trust you to know where every Daily Planet newspaper dispenser is in this city," Clark said with a grin.

"Can I help it if I like to take a look when my name is on the by-line? But that's hardly the point. Can you see that far?"

"I think so," Clark said, staring intently at his target for a long moment. "May 18, 1992. And you'll be pleased to know your name is on the byline."

"Yes!" Lois exclaimed. "Not about that!" Lois continued at the amused look her husband gave her. "So now we know that we're in the past. Now... the only question is... Is this our past or the past in a different dimension."

"Well, if it's any help, it seems to be a story about a family values politician caught in a compromising situation with a young boy in a public washroom. Ring any bells?"

"Senator Parker. Yeah, I remember that story. But that doesn't really answer the question. After all, that story could have happened in hundreds of different dimensions."

"I bet that thought would make Mrs. Parker happy."

Lois rolled her eyes.

Clark pushed his glasses up his nose. "Anyway, to tell you the truth, I really don't care if we're in our past or the past in another dimension. I just want to get out of here and get home."

Lois rubbed his arm lightly. "I'm with you on that one, farmboy. I'm sure this is a nice place to visit..."

"...but I wouldn't want to live here."

"May nineteen ninety-two, huh? I remember that time. If I recall correctly there was a breach in Star Labs security about that time."

"What happened?"

She shrugged. "Not exactly sure. I always suspected an inside job, but... I could never break down the roadblocks they set in my path. You know, now that I think about it, Clark, I don't think we're in an alternate universe."

"Why's that?"

Lois shrugged. "I just pushed one button on the time travel device. So when we leapt... would we have gone both to an alternate universe and into that universe's past at the same time?"

"I don't know, Lois. Maybe universes move at varying rates of speed. But maybe..." His voice trailed off and he cocked his head to the side when something else beyond the walls to their 'prison' caught his attention.

"What?" Lois asked.

Clark pulled down his glasses and peered at the door. "Dr. Hamilton."

"He's here?"

Clark nodded. "It seems he's found our time travel device and is trying to convince the guard to let him come in here to talk to us."

"Great!" Lois exclaimed sarcastically. "That's just what we need -- to have Star Labs begin researching time travel even earlier!"

"Well, he doesn't seem to know what it is -- just that it's technology he isn't familiar with. That's why he wants to talk to us. The chief of security is arguing that they should wait for the police."

"So...?" Lois demanded when Clark quit talking. "What's happening now?"

"It seems we have a guest," Clark replied, rising to his feet as the door swung open.

"Maybe I should put on the coffee," Lois muttered under her breath as Dr. Hamilton entered the room.

"Dr. Hamilton," Clark said.

"You know my name?"

"Uhh..." Clark glanced helplessly at Lois.

"Of course we know who you are!" Lois exclaimed. "Who wouldn't?"

The comment caused Dr. Hamilton to beam. "Oh. Well. I... Well, I guess..." He cleared his throat embarrassedly. "I guess I didn't realize that I was that well known -- other than in scientific circles."

"Oh, but you are. Who wouldn't know such a brilliant scientist?" Lois said, trying to inject as much awe into her voice as she thought she could get away with. She knew she'd overdone it by the look Clark shot in her direction.

"So what can we do for you, Dr. Hamilton?"

"Oh. Right. Well..." He gestured Lois and Clark back to the table. When they were seated, he placed the time travel device between them. "Can you tell me what this is?"

"I'm afraid..." Clark began only to be interrupted by his wife.

"It's a hologram generator."

Both Hamilton and Clark's eyebrows rose. Fortunately, the doctor's eyes were focused on Lois and so he missed the bafflement on Clark's face.

"Really?" Hamilton asked.

Lois nodded firmly. "It's really quite remarkable, too. In fact, unless you touch the hologram, you can't tell the difference between it and the real thing. It will even recreate a person's voice so that it sounds as if the hologram is talking."

"Really?" Hamilton said, leaning forward in his chair. "Could you show me how it works?" He pushed the time travel device across the table towards her.

"Certainly. In fact... Oh, I've got it! Why don't I make it generate a hologram of you?"

"You can do that?"

"Of course." She picked up the device, turning it on before suddenly pausing.

"What?" asked Dr. Hamilton.

"I'm not going to be able to do it."

"Why not?"

"I need a calculator... to calculate the proper commands to enter into the holographic imaging chamber."

"Oh, that's no problem! I can get you a calculator," Hamilton said, jumping to his feet and practically running to the door in his enthusiasm. He pounded on it twice and it opened, allowing Hamilton to leave the room. The security guard closed the door immediately.

"Lois, what..."

"Break the window. Get us out of here, Clark," Lois said, springing to her feet and darting to the window, the time travel device grasped firmly in her hand.

Understanding suddenly lit up Clark's face.

A moment later, the security guard was struggling to unlock the door following the loud sound of broken glass coming from within the room. When he finally succeeded, the room was empty except for shards of glass and a cold breeze coming in through the broken window. He sounded the alarm, but it was already too late. The intruders were gone.

***

"Okay, so why tell him it was a holograph generator?" Clark asked as he set Lois down in an alley at the edge of Centennial Park.

Lois shrugged as they exited the alley. "I had to tell him it was something. And since in a couple of years, Dr. Jefferson Cole, who also works for Star Labs, will invent exactly what I describe, I figured that telling him that it was a holograph generator wouldn't cause any big disruptions in time -- in the event that we are in our past."

"Good thinking," Clark said, automatically reaching for Lois' hand as they began to stroll through the park.

"So why did you bring us here?"

"Well, I thought we could use one of the patches of trees in the park, to cover both our disappearance from this time or dimension as well as our arrival home. Unless... do you want to do a little exploring first? Try to figure out where we are?"

Lois shook her head. "I mean, as much fun as it might be... I just want to go home. Dealing with Dr. Hamilton, I realized how careful we have to be here -- especially if this is our past."

"And you don't want to risk changing anything."

"Do you?"

Clark shook his head. "I've got the woman I love as my wife. And I've got the cutest daughter in the world. Trust me on this, Lois. There is not a thing about my past I want to change."

"Not even my accepting Lex's proposal?"

Clark stopped, turning Lois towards him. "I'd love to spare you that pain -- to spare both of us that pain. But no, not even that. Who knows what other changes might result if that was changed? Would I have worked as hard at bringing Luthor down if you hadn't been engaged to him? I don't know. Maybe he'd still be running Metropolis even now." He gave her a quick kiss. "So... let's go home."

She smiled, dragging him towards a nearby clump of trees. "Let's go home," she echoed. "After all, I'm sure I can think up some far more interesting form of 'entertainment' to keep us busy the rest of the night -- especially since Vicky is spending the night at your parents." Lois wiggled her eyebrows at him for emphasis.

"Oooo, you're making me weak. And after that exposure to kryptonite, I'm not sure how much I can take."

Lois smiled. "Don't worry. I'll be gentle." She reached up, wrapping her arms around his neck.

Feeling the hard casing of the time travel device in one of her hands, he glanced at it. "You sure you know what you're doing."

She smiled. "There's a button marked 'return.' I can't think what else it would be for so..." She kissed him at the same moment as she hit the button and, when the time window appeared, without releasing him from the kiss, pushed him back towards the window so that, together, they tumbled through to the other side.

Neither of them noticed anything around them -- although in less than a minute, still kissing, Clark was flying them through the air to the open window in the master bedroom of their brownstone.

"Eeeekkkk!"

A woman's scream caused Lois and Clark to scramble apart only a moment after tumbling onto their bed, arms and legs entangled, frantically pulling at each other's clothing. Only... it wasn't their bed! It wasn't their bedroom furniture. It wasn't their room.

Clark was the one who noticed it first. Without waiting for an explanation -- he must have accidentally flown them through the wrong window -- he had Lois in his arms and out of there just as the room's other occupant fainted.

Both were breathing heavily when he set them down in a nearby alley.

"Do you think she got a look at your face?" Lois asked. "Or realized you were moving at speeds reserved solely for Superman?"

"I... I don't know. But how..." He lowered his glasses and looked around, taking in their surroundings fully for the first time. It was dark. Probably about the same time that they had disappeared from here -- or was it here -- only a few hours ago. Well after midnight then.

"What happened, Clark?" Lois asked, her voice a little shaky.

"I don't know. I mean, at first I just assumed that I'd flown us through the wrong window, but now... I'm not so sure."

They cautiously snuck up to the entrance of the alley. "That's the Parker's minivan," Lois said, pointing at a driveway down the street.

"And there's Jenny Richard's bike. She left it behind her father's car again," Clark said.

"I recognize those curtains as belonging to Bertha Avery. But..." Her gaze traveled to their own window.

"...those aren't our curtains," Clark finished for her.

"Okay, okay," Lois said, starting to pace. "So what we're saying is that everything is normal except for some reason..."

"...we don't live here anymore."

"But how is that possible? We didn't do anything. We weren't even in a time, assuming of course that we were in our own past, where we knew each other! It was 1992, for crying out loud! We didn't meet until 1993. How could anything we did when we were there have changed things? Wait! Maybe for some reason Veda Doodsen never sold the brownstone. After all, we were talking to Dr. Hamilton and... I don't know. Maybe Veda started working on a holograph generator instead of her youth machine and never went to jail for experimenting on people and..."

"It wasn't Veda Doodsen," Clark said. "In that house... I didn't get a good look at the woman we scared half to death, but it wasn't Veda Doodsen."

"So... what's happened, Clark? And how do we make it right when we don't even know what happened?"

"I don't know," Clark said. "But something tells me that we should do our thinking somewhere else."

"Why do..." Lois never got a chance to voice her question before it was answered for her in the form of a police car pulling to a stop in front of their brownstone. The current occupant had obviously called the police following their encounter.

Clark spun into Superman.

"Wait!" Lois said.

"What?"

"We need to be sure."

They waited until an unknown woman answered the door to their brownstone and a moment later, only a rush of air and a sonic boom was left in their wake.

"Where are we going?" Lois asked as they soared through the air.

"My folks place. If anyone can tell us what's going on, it's them."

Lois nodded slowly.

"You know, Lois. This doesn't have to be bad," Clark said. "I mean, maybe our house now is even nicer."

The look he got in return told him just how much Lois believed that idea. On the other hand, she wasn't the only one with a sinking feeling in her gut.

***

Lois and Clark landed behind the old farmhouse and, without Clark changing out of the suit, they jogged towards the house.

"I really hate waking them up," Lois said, even though she knew that was exactly what she intended to do. During the majority of the flight, she'd been lost in thought -- thoughts that she was pretty sure Clark shared. Right now, more than anything, she needed to see her daughter. She refused to think about the reason -- scared that if she as much as admitted her silent fears, they would turn out to be true.

They burst through the front door, Lois slightly ahead of Clark as they jogged up the stairs to Clark's old bedroom. Without pausing, they rushed through the door before coming to a complete stop, staring at the bed in utter silence. The empty bed.

After a moment, Lois turned. "Vicky?" she yelled, darting back out of the bedroom. Maybe she was wrong. She had to be wrong. Vicky was just sleeping on the couch or had gone out to the hayloft or... No, there was no 'or'! There couldn't be. "Vicky!" she yelled again when she got down to the living room. "Vicky!"

"What's going on?" Martha asked, rushing out of the bedroom, Jonathan following closely behind her.

Of course! She'd probably had a nightmare and gone to sleep with her grandparents. Without even acknowledging the older couple, she rushed back up the stairs and into their bedroom. "Vicky?" she yelled, coming to a complete stop when there was no one in the bed.

She hesitated only a second before turning around, running back down the stairs to where Martha and Jonathan were looking slightly stunned.

"Where is she?" Lois demanded.

"Where's who?" Martha asked in return.

"Vicky! Where is she?" Lois demanded a second time.

"I don't..." Martha's voice trailed off as she looked to her baffled husband.

"She's not here, Lois," Clark said softly, coming up behind Lois, his hands on her shoulders.

"But..." Lois looked around at the people in the room. Suddenly, she was struck with a new thought. "Did she go to spend the night with Cathy? I know she likes to visit Cathy when she comes here. So... is that where she is?" Then she stared expectantly at Martha, her heart in her throat. That had to be the answer. It just... had to be.

"Uhh..." Martha glanced at her husband before looking back at Lois. Then her gaze shifted to her son. "Clark, maybe you should tell us what's going on here. What are you wearing? And... who's she?" She pointed at Lois on the last question.

All the air seemed to leave Lois' lungs on the final question. "Clark?" she whimpered. In response, Clark wrapped his arms around her from behind. She instantly turned, burying her face in his strong shoulder, praying that in a moment, she'd wake and this whole nightmare would be behind her.

***

Chapter Three

Martha brought a cup of steaming liquid over to the distraught, young woman currently sitting at her kitchen table. She still hadn't managed to get any answers out of her son as to the young woman's identity. Nor was she certain why her son was dressed in a flashy pair of tights and a cape. Really! A cape! Maybe it was some sort of Halloween costume... at this time of year! Or maybe he'd been at a costume ball or... well, or something.

Of course, once she'd pointed out what he was wearing he'd done something she'd never seen before. After getting the young woman settled at the table, he'd spun so fast that he became nothing more than a swirl of colors and then... he'd stood in front of her, dressed in black jeans and a black top, his glasses once again firmly in place. Fortunately, the young woman seated at the table, staring blankly at her hands, didn't seem to have noticed. She'd have to take Clark aside later and warn him about using his powers in front of strangers.

Although... Glancing between the young woman and her son, Martha couldn't help but feel that they were hardly strangers -- that Clark knew her quite well, in fact.

"Here," Martha said gently, handing the tea to the woman. "You look like you could use it."

The woman looked up as if not really seeing her for a moment, before reaching automatically for the tea. She wrapped her hands around it, as if trying to soak up the warmth coming from the cup, but didn't raise it to her lips.

"It's Lois, isn't it?" Martha said, taking a seat beside her. "At least, I think that's what Clark called you."

The young woman just stared back at her. Her mouth moved slightly, as if she was trying to answer, before she seemed to give up.

"It will be okay, Lois," Clark said, taking a seat beside the woman and reaching up to untangle one of her hands from the stranglehold it had on the cup.

She turned to him then, fire flashing in her eyes for the first time since she'd collapsed against Clark in the living room. "How can you say that?" she demanded. "I've just lost..." Her eyes darted towards the stairway, up which their daughter should have been, and then towards Martha and Jonathan. "...everything I've ever cared about."

"Not everything," Clark responded firmly, raising her hand to his face. "You haven't lost me."

"No? So... how long before I do? If we changed the past how long before our memories change to match... whatever has happened here? How does this work, Clark? Because I can't see our memories remaining intact when everything else has changed? So how long? How long before... I lose you, too?" Her voice on the final words was not much more than a strangled whisper. Her hand slipped out of Clark's and she began gently tracing the line of his jaw as if to memorize it. "How long before I lose you, too?" she repeated, her voice breaking and tears slipping unheeded down her cheeks.

Martha glanced at her son, who had gone pale as something the woman had said seemed to slice through his heart.

"Okay, I think it's about time someone filled us in here," Martha said, determinedly taking control of the rapidly deteriorating situation.

Clark looked over at her, his eyes so full of pain that Martha had to stop herself from gasping.

"Mom... Dad... This is Lois Lane..." He paused slightly. "...Kent. Your daughter-in-law. My wife. And the mother of my child."

***

"Okay, so let me get this straight," Jonathan said after they finished filling his parents in on the remarkable details of their day. "This morning when you woke up, you two were married, were living in a particular brownstone and you had a daughter..."

"Vicky," Clark filled in.

"Then you stole this thing from Star Labs..." He pointed at the device lying between them on the table and shot a reproving look at Clark.

"It wasn't really stealing, Dad," Clark jumped in. "We were just taking it to hold onto it for the person or people who do own it."

"People from the future," Jonathan clarified.

"Right. We weren't planning to keep it. We just wanted to make sure that future technology didn't end up in the wrong hands."

"So you stole it," Jonathan repeated, obviously not satisfied with his son's excuse for stealing.

"I think we're getting a little off track here," Martha said. "So you woke up this morning with all that and then, you used the device and... went into the past?"

"Well, we don't know if it was our past or..." Clark began.

"It had to be our past, Clark," Lois said, interrupting him. "Given..." She again swept her hand vaguely around the room. "How else do you explain it?"

"I suppose. But let's not write off the possibility that this is an alternate reality."

"If it is an alternate reality, then there has to be an alternate version of us," Lois said. "So... I guess that's one thing we will need to check out. If there isn't... then I guess the most obvious conclusion is that this is our reality... after we changed the past."

"Either way," Jonathan continued, "when you got back, everything had changed."

"Right. So..."

"Wait! Clark, what if, for some reason, we didn't jump back to our own time? What if we are still in the past?"

Hope shone in Clark's eyes. "Then, it would make sense that Mom and Dad wouldn't know who you are! We wouldn't have even met yet."

"And we wouldn't have had Vicky. And all we'd have to do is figure out how to get back to our own time. That's just got to be it!" Her eyes turned to Martha and Jonathan. "What's the date?"

"Uhh..." Jonathan looked at his wife. "May..."

"Well, it would be the nineteenth now."

"The year," Lois demanded impatiently. "What's the year?"

"Two thousand and one."

Lois' heart dropped. "But... But..." She looked at Clark for help.

"I take it that isn't the past to you," Martha said quietly, reaching out to lay her hand over the one the distressed young woman had laying on the table.

"No," Clark said slowly. "It's very much our present." He quickly pushed past the depression that was threatening to encompass him. "So what we need to do is to concentrate on getting it back?"

Lois gave him a quick nod, quite obviously pulling herself together.

"Couldn't you just go into the past again and... fix whatever you changed?" Jonathan asked.

"But we didn't change anything," Clark objected.

"We must have changed something," Lois said. "What we need to do is to figure out 'what' we changed."

"And then what? It's not as if we can go back to the exact same moment. That would just leave four of us there instead of two."

"We'll figure something out," Martha said resolutely, giving Lois' hand a squeeze. "Because I'm not losing my daughter-in-law."

Lois gave Martha a grateful smile.

"Okay," Jonathan said determinedly. "So where do we start?"

"Okay," Lois said, pushing aside her feelings of self-pity to concentrate on the problem, "the first thing we need to do is to find out if there are alternate versions of ourselves here. So... Martha, why don't you try giving Clark a call. Given the hour, he's bound to be home. If he's not there, you can leave a message."

Martha immediately got up to do as requested. A moment later she returned. "Not home, but I left the message for him to call, like you suggested."

Lois let out a breath. She had suspected that. This was their reality. She just knew it. "Okay, so what we need to do next is to figure out what changed and why. Then we figure out how to go back and fix it. So... Martha... Jonathan... we're going to need you to tell us what your memories are of the last seven years. And then, Clark, we're going to have to go back to Metropolis to fill in the remaining pieces."

Lois took a breath before continuing. "So, Martha, I take it from your reaction to seeing Clark in the suit..."

"Suit?" she asked.

"The spandex thingy with a cape," Lois clarified. "...that there is no Superman here?"

"What's a Superman?" Jonathan asked.

"I thought so," Lois said even as Clark spoke.

"There's no Superman?" he asked in disbelief.

"What's a Superman?" Martha asked, repeating her husband's question.

"Clark went public with his powers seven years ago..." When both Martha and Jonathan looked horrified, Lois rushed to continue. "Not as Clark. No one knows that Clark is Superman. You invented the suit. You said that when he wore it, no one would be looking at his face." She actually smiled at the way Martha's eyebrows rose. "And you were right." She looked over at her husband, running her eyes down his body to emphasize her point.

"I'm the one who invented the cape?" Martha asked in disbelief.

"Yeah, Mom. That was all you."

"But why would I..." Martha's voice trailed off. "On the other hand, I bet it looks really good when you're flying."

Clark smiled. "That's what you said at the time, too."

"Anyway, for some reason, I guess that never happened."

"When was this supposed to have happened?" Martha asked.

"Shortly after Clark came to work at the Planet."

"The Planet?" asked Jonathan, looking at his wife for a moment before looking back at Lois. "Do you mean the Daily Planet?"

Lois felt a tension rising in her chest. What had happened to the Daily Planet? What if because of their changes to the past, Lex had succeeded in destroying the Daily Planet? "What happened to the Planet?" she asked cautiously, bracing herself for the worst.

"Clark doesn't work for the Daily Planet," Martha explained. "He never has. When he moved to Metropolis, he went to work for The Star."

It took a moment for the information to sink in. Lois and Clark looked at each other in silence for a long moment before Clark turned back to his mother.

"But when I went to Metropolis... I had an interview lined up with Perry White -- the editor of The Daily Planet."

"You may have," Jonathan said. "I really can't remember all that well. I know you said you had an interview lined up with someone, but... I'm sorry, son. I can't remember who. Do you, Martha?"

Martha shook her head. "But I don't remember you mentioning anyone at the Daily Planet. You called us later that night to say that you had gotten a job at The Star. Although, I do remember you sounding a little down."

"Did I say why?"

"No, but I remember thinking it had something to do with a woman."

Clark leaned forward in his chair. "Did I say anything else?"

Martha and Jonathan looked at each other before shaking their heads.

"I just remember that I said I'd send you some money to tide you over until you got your first paycheque," Jonathan said.

"Do you remember anything else? Anything at all?"

"Yes," Martha said as something else popped into her mind. "I remember you saying something about saving someone. But I can't remember the details. And your dad warned you about using your powers in the big city."

"That must have been the bus I stopped," Clark said. "I'll fill you in later," he said to Lois when she looked at him expectantly. "But I was on my way to my interview with Perry White when I stopped the bus, so... What could have happened after that to stop my interview?"

"Clark, we don't know that anything happened to stop the interview," Lois said. "After all, if you recall correctly, you didn't get the job when you first went to see Perry. He turned you down."

"And if I was feeling down about a woman... Well, that certainly suggests to me that we at least met," Clark added. "Which certainly suggests that I went to the Daily Planet. So whatever changed, it must have been after that."

Lois nodded. It made sense after all. But that still didn't tell them 'what' had changed. So how did they find out?

"I think it's time for us to head back to Metropolis," Lois said, moving towards the door.

"Wait!" Martha said, stopping both Lois and Clark in their tracks. "It's..." She glanced at the clock. "...almost three a.m. Don't you think you should get some sleep first? You can head back first thing in the morning."

"No time," Lois said, picking up her jacket and slipping it on.

"Lois," Clark said, coming up behind her. His hands landed on her shoulders and he turned her towards him. "Mom has a point. We've been up for... well, at least twenty hours now -- and that doesn't include the time we spent in the past. I know I'm only running on half-cylinders at the moment. We really do need some sleep if we're going to be thinking clearly enough to figure this out."

"But..." She looked at Clark.

"We'll get up at seven. But we need a few hours."

She felt tears spring to her eyes, but still she nodded. He was right. They were going to both need every ounce of brainpower they possessed before all this was over. And to do that, they needed to recharge.

"Okay," Martha said. "Lois, you can take Clark's room. Clark, you'll be sleeping..."

Lois grasped Clark's arm.

"...on the couch."

"Your mom turned the guest bedroom into an artist studio," Jonathan explained, misinterpreting the look he saw on his son's face.

"Clark..." Lois said, her eyes finding his. She couldn't be separated from him -- not now.

"Mom," Clark said firmly. "We're married. We've been married for about..."

"Oh, right!" Martha said, finally cluing into the problem. "I forgot. So... I guess you'll be staying in Clark's room? I should warn you, it only has a single bed, but... You're welcome to share it."

Relief instantly broke through the very tense atmosphere that had descended on the room.

"Thanks, Martha," Lois said quietly.

"It's okay, honey," Martha said. "I hate to sleep apart from Jonathan, too. So... Why don't you two head on upstairs? We'll make sure there is a good breakfast ready for you in the morning."

"You don't have to..."

"Yes. We do. And we'll do whatever else is needed to help straighten out this mess."

Lois came over and shocked the older woman slightly by giving her an intense hug. "Thank you, Martha," Lois whispered.

Martha smiled at her when the younger woman finally stepped away. "Oh, it's my pleasure." She looked at Lois for a moment before adding, "You know, I've been so worried that Clark would never find someone who would understand him, accept him for who he is. He's had to hide so much, never being able to let people know what he can do." Her voice wobbled slightly. "I'm so happy he finally has you." She sniffed slightly. "You know, this is so nice -- more than thirty years and you're the first woman I've ever been able to talk to about my boy."

Lois gave a watery laugh. "That's what you said last time, too."

"Then I guess I must have meant it," Martha responded.

***

Going to Clark's room was bittersweet for Lois. Sweet because they wouldn't be separated, but bitter because of how different the room was in this altered version of reality. It still looked much like it had the first time Lois had been to Smallville. Trophies, pictures of childhood friends, various models and other childhood treasures. The quilt on the top of the bed was even made up of squares containing pictures of various sailboats -- just like it had been during that first visit.

But in Lois' reality, that was not what the room should have looked like now. The blues in the quilt should have been pink, with various dolls replacing the pictures of sailboats. The trophies and models should have been gone, replaced by a wide variety of stuffed animals. In short, the room should have looked as if it belonged to a little girl. And the guest bedroom should have been converted back into a guest bedroom -- complete with a comfortable double bed instead of the super single that graced this room.

"It's hard, isn't it?" Clark said, coming up behind her.

"I just miss her so much, Clark," Lois said softly.

"I do, too. But we'll get her back."

Lois nodded firmly, refusing to let herself give into these feelings lest they consume her.

"Come on. Let's get some sleep and..." Clark slipped past Lois, walking over to the desk to begin removing his shirt. "...then we'll be well rested to solve this when we wake up in the morning."

Although he couldn't see her, Lois shook her head. There was something she needed now -- more than sleep. She slowly came up behind Clark, running her hands slowly over the oh so familiar muscles of his well-sculpted back. How long before she no longer remembered what he looked like without his shirt on? How long before she could no longer trace every muscle in her mind or remember how they felt, flexing and moving beneath her hands as they made love?

"Lois?" Clark said, jerking around to face her. "What..."

"Make love to me, Clark," she whispered, meeting his eyes, even as her hands began to trail down his chest.

"As much as I'd love to, we really do need..."

His words were cut off by Lois' fingers on his lips.

"What I need more than anything right now," Lois whispered, "is to be with my husband."

Clark was silent for a long moment -- two different needs warring within him. They needed sleep, but she was right. They needed each other, too.

"Make love to me," she whispered again, her hands drifting down his chest to begin slowly pulling at the buckle on his belt.

He let out a breath, finally giving in. His hands came up to cup her face as his lips descended on hers. There was nothing rushed about the kiss. It was incredibly intense, and incredibly sad, as if each participant were trying to memorize the feel, the taste and the sounds of the other -- to imprint them on their souls in a way that would never allow them to be erased.

Their exploration of each other's bodies was much the same. Touches were given and received with the same intensity. No words were spoken as they sought both forgetfulness and remembrance in each other's arms. Tears flowed freely, but were never mentioned. No promises were given -- they were simply understood. They concentrated on each other and in that moment, they found forever.

"Be here when I wake up, Clark," Lois whispered when they finally settled down to get some much-needed sleep.

"I will, Lois," Clark whispered back, understanding her fear because he shared it. "I swear I will."

***

Chapter Four

***

As Lois and Clark flew through the air to Metropolis the next morning, Lois' thoughts were racing. Martha and Jonathan had woken them shortly after seven. It had taken Lois a few moments to remember where they were. But once she had, she'd been relieved to realize that she still remembered being married to Clark. She still remembered their life together. She still remembered her daughter. In fact, at the moment, she was systematically searching her memories, trying to ensure that they were all still intact.

And so far, they seemed to be. On the other hand, how was she to know if her memories did alter? If they had changed their past -- which seemed the most likely explanation -- surely their memories of the past would change, too. Would they all go at once, or would they change so slowly that she wouldn't even notice until it was too late. When she got a moment, she was going to write down everything she remembered about her life -- in hopes that should she lose her memories, she'd be able to read about them and remember how important it was to get her life back. Because no matter what she might learn about her life in this altered reality -- and to tell the truth, she currently knew less about her life than she did about Clark's -- she knew it couldn't be anywhere near as good as the life she'd had before she and Clark had inadvertently messed up the past.

And given the way Martha and Jonathan had welcomed her into their family -- even after she'd invaded their house like a mad-woman -- she knew they must believe that Clark would be better off with her in his life. Their reaction to her had told her something else, as well.

Clark was definitely not involved with anyone else.

That, at least, was a relief. After all, the mere thought of Clark with anyone but her still had the power to bring out every ounce of jealousy she possessed. Now she could only hope that she was as lucky. If she found out that she was married or something... She shivered. That was a very real possibility. After all, if Clark had never come to work at the Daily Planet, what would have stopped her from marrying Lex, or... perhaps it would be more accurate to ask 'who' would have stopped her? After all, it had been thoughts of Clark that had finally prevented her from saying 'I do' at her wedding to Lex Luthor.

She pushed the thought out of her mind, refusing even to think like that. No. No matter what the situation was in this altered reality, she was Clark's wife. And that was the very first thing she planned to write down on her list of things never to forget.

She turned her mind to the present when Metropolis appeared on the horizon.

"Are you sure we should be flying into Metropolis?" she asked. When Clark looked at her curiously, she went on to explain. "It's just... there's no Superman in this reality. Do you really want to risk being spotted?"

"That's why I'm not in the suit. But in these black outfits... and given how dark it still is, I think we should be okay. If anyone does see us, they're more likely to think they've seen a UFO than a flying man. Besides, I'll come in high and drop down onto my balcony at the last second."

Lois nodded. "It's a good thing we went to see Martha and Jonathan. Otherwise, we wouldn't even know you still live at 344 Clinton Ave. I just wish they knew where I lived."

"We'll figure it out, Lois."

"It's interesting... their comment about you sort of pulling away from them more in recent years," Lois continued, thinking about their conversation with Martha and Jonathan over breakfast.

"Yeah. They sounded kinda sad about that."

"I wonder what happened."

"Probably tied in with the rest of... whatever we did to the past -- always assuming that it is our past we're talking about here. For some reason, it sounds as if I didn't want to confide in them about what was going on in my life." He gave his head a shake. "I find that a little hard to imagine."

"Me, too. Anyway, I was thinking that after we check out your apartment, maybe we should make our way over to my old apartment -- maybe I still live there."

"Sounds like a plan. Any idea where we should go from there?"

Lois let out a breath. "I think the place to start is the Daily Planet. If nothing else, we could use their resources to find out what's happened in the world -- to determine what's different. And since I worked for the Daily Planet in 1992, before we did... whatever to the past, I think there's a good chance that I still work there."

"Hold on."

She held her breath when she suddenly found herself dropping through the sky onto Clark's balcony.

"Quite a ride," she said as he set her down. "Anyone home?" she asked. Given the time, surely if this were an alternate reality, this Clark wouldn't have left for work yet. On the other hand, it was a Saturday. But even then, he should be home.

Clark shook his head.

Lois let out a breath. It was seeming more and more likely that this reality... was their new reality. That very thought made her feel physically ill.

Clark had turned towards the door into the apartment when Lois grabbed onto Clark's arm. "Wait!" He stopped, looking back at her. "Promise me that no matter what we find..." Her voice trailed off.

"What is it, Lois?" Clark said softly when she couldn't seem to continue.

"It's just... Promise me that no matter what we find, I'm still your wife."

He immediately took her hands in his, looking intently into her eyes. "You will always be my wife."

"But what if..."

"What if...?"

"I just keep wondering... Clark, if we did change the past... if you and I had never become friends... if you never came to work for the Planet, do you think I might have... I mean, what if I married... someone else?"

When Clark pulled in a sharp breath, she looked up at him. "Clark, promise me that no matter what we find, I'll still be your wife. Promise me that you won't go all noble on me and decide you have to give me up or can't touch me or make love to me."

Without speaking, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her. "You're my wife," he breathed into her hair when he finally ended the kiss. "Nothing and no one will ever change that."

Tears formed in her eyes. Tears which she refused to cry. She wouldn't. Not now. There was too much to do.

"So..." she said quickly. "Let's go in and see if there's anything in your apartment that will help us get a grip on what happened."

***

Clark's apartment didn't appear to have changed much from when he'd lived there for the final year before they'd married. The furniture was the same and in the same locations. Most ornaments and knick-knacks occupied the same spots. Even the smell was the same.

Granted, there were differences, too. For example, when they'd been engaged, there had been a framed picture of her on his nightstand. That was no longer there. No picture of her and Clark at the Kerth awards in his living room. In fact, there were no indications that she spent time at his apartment. No extra toothbrush that she had kept in his washroom -- for those occasions where she'd fallen asleep at his apartment. No cream soda in the fridge. No sweater that she'd carelessly left behind in his closet. No signs, in fact, that she'd ever even been there.

While Clark took the opportunity to change into his dress clothes. Lois carried the small pack containing some sandwiches Martha had given them -- to ensure they wouldn't get so busy they'd forget to eat lunch -- as well as some of Martha's delicious fudge brownies, into the kitchen. Lois hadn't tasted them, yet. But judging by the smell, she figured -- or at least she hoped -- that Martha's brownies were one of the things they hadn't managed to mess up by their trip into the past.

Setting the pack on the kitchen table, she walked over to the answering machine. "One message," she said before hitting the play button. Martha's message from the previous night came over the air.

"Guess if there is an alternate version of me, he didn't come home last night," Clark said from the bedroom.

"There's no alternate version of you, Clark," Lois said in resignation. "This is our reality. We've just... changed it." After all, she was almost certain she had not hit the alternate reality button when she'd used the device to escape from Star Labs. That meant they'd gone into the past. And hitting return... this was their new reality now. Even the date was correct. Still, they'd asked Martha and Jonathan to contact them immediately if they heard from Clark... or alternate Clark... or whatever. Still, Lois knew that such a call would never come.

This was their reality. And unless they found a way to change it, this was what she was stuck with now. No Clark. No Vicky. No Martha or Jonathan. And soon... probably no memories of any of them.

And that reminded her...

She quickly grabbed a pen and a pad of paper, making a quick list of things she needed to remember. Done, she tore the paper from the notepad and stuck it in her pocket.

Depressed, she turned her attention back to the pack she'd placed on the kitchen table. After pulling out the sandwiches and Martha's brownies, she pulled out one final item. The time travel device. Now... the only question was where to put it. Somewhere safe. After all, nothing could be worse than figuring out how to fix this mess and then be unable to locate the device.

She glanced around at the apartment when she was suddenly struck by a thought. Maybe... She walked into the bedroom and opened his cupboard.

"What is it?" Clark asked as he did up the buttons on his shirt.

"Just because you don't have the suits to hide doesn't mean that there's nothing in here." She reached up, pulling on the tie rack. When nothing happened, she sighed. "Well, it was worth a shot."

"Wait!" Clark said, reaching over as she went to shut the door. He jiggled the tie rack for a moment until something clicked. He glanced over at Lois, eyebrows raised.

"How did you know... Oh, wait. X-ray vision, right?"

He nodded, even as he slowly opened the door to the hidden closet. "It's just a little stiff. I guess I don't use it much."

As soon as it was open, Lois ducked under her husband's arm, earning her an indulgent smile from the other half of the Lane and Kent team. Her heart fell when she saw what was inside. A few scraps of paper, a dried flower, a few other odds and ends. Nothing that would tell them what was going on. She picked up one of the scraps of paper. It was obviously torn out of a reporter's notebook.

"'Seven o'clock -- Centennial Park.'" She turned towards Clark. "Why would you have kept this?"

"Wait!" He grabbed the paper, looking at it with a fascination that couldn't be explained by the contents of the words on the page. "Lois, it's your handwriting."

"What!" she exclaimed, grabbing it back from him. He was right. The significance of that fact had completely eluded her. But... What did it mean? Maybe nothing -- but then again, why would he have kept it if it didn't mean anything?

Her eyes swept the small space with new interest. She spotted an item wrapped in tissue paper and picked it up, unwrapping it carefully. It appeared to be a picture frame. She turned it over and then glanced up at Clark in shock. It was the picture that had, in her reality, found a home on his nightstand during their engagement. It was a picture of her.

Her heart was racing, but she tried to remain calm. It might not mean what it seemed to mean. After all, Martha and Jonathan had never met her. But... so what did it mean? How did the pieces fit together? She glanced over at Clark and saw that he was looking at the collection of papers.

"Anything?" she asked.

"Just more of the same. Insignificant notes, but they're all in your handwriting. But I did find this..."

He handed her a picture of her, obviously taken from a newspaper. It wasn't a bad picture. At least she was dressed up and appeared to be smiling. But what made the picture really unusual was that it was, quite obviously, not the whole picture. Someone or something had been very carefully cut out of it.

"Let me see the notes, too." When he handed them to her, she flipped through them quickly. He was right. None of them really said anything. One had the name of a Chinese restaurant at the edge of town. Another simply a time. One was a small card saying, 'Congratulations.' Another appeared to be a hastily scribbled note saying, 'Thanks. But I don't think this is a good idea.' None of them were addressed to Clark. None of them had her name or even her initials on it. But they did have one thing in common. They were all in her handwriting. So... She looked back at Clark. "What does it mean?"

"I think that's what we have to find out." Clark stepped back from the secret compartment and waited while Lois put the time travel device on one of the shelves. When she also moved back, he closed the door.

"Clark, I've been thinking," she said softly. "I mean..." She turned to look at him. "Why did you invent Superman?"

"You know why. So that I could help while still maintaining a private life."

"Okay, but you didn't invent Superman until you moved to Metropolis. So... why did it take you so long?" She thought she knew the answer, but needed to hear him say it.

Clark shrugged. "Well, for one thing, I really didn't think of it. And for another... any other place I lived... Well, if people started to suspect there was something unusual going on, I could just move away."

"But when you moved to Metropolis, you wanted to stay?"

"It was my dream job and... Well, there was this woman..." He wiggled his eyebrows at her.

"Whereas in this altered version of reality, you didn't get a job at the Planet..."

"So I wasn't working at my dream job, and... maybe I never met the right woman. Maybe I never met you."

"But those notes... that picture... They say differently. And... Clark, I remember when that picture was taken -- at least in our version of reality. Remember that big promotional thing Perry did? I think that was around the beginning of your third year at the Planet."

"Yeah. 'The Hottest Team In Town' campaign. I never felt comfortable with that. After all, a lot of what we do is undercover. I always felt it seriously compromised our ability to be anonymous."

"I agree. But I remember that we spent the entire day getting pictures taken. Clark, that was one of those pictures." She gestured towards the secret closet, indicating the picture kept inside.

"I remember. When the proofs came back, I loved that one in particular. Although... has anyone ever told you that you are incapable of taking a bad picture? Of course, with such great raw material to work with..." He drew in a breath through his teeth.

She gave him a swat. "Keep your mind on track, farmboy. What I was getting at is that at least we know from this that I was still alive in... What would it have been? 1995!"

"You thought you were dead?"

"It was one possibility. But that's not the point. Clark, I should have been killed when Lex planted an explosive in the colonist launch back in 1993. And I would have been if not for Superman. So... what happened? How did I survive until at least 1995 without a Superman?" Suddenly, a slightly confused expression crossed her face.

"What?"

She shook her head. "Nothing."

"Lo-is."

She looked up then, meeting his eyes. "Really, Clark. It's nothing. It doesn't matter." She broke away from him then, turning towards the kitchen. "So since there's not much here..."

"Lois," Clark said again, coming up and placing his hands on her shoulders, slowly turning her around to look at him. "What is it?" he asked again.

"It was just... a thought." She shrugged, trying to look unconcerned. "Like I said, it's nothing."

"It's not nothing. At least give me enough credit to know the difference between something and nothing after living with you all these years."

She let out a breath. "It's just... I've got these two memories stuck in my head."

"What memories?"

"Well, it's confusing. It's almost as if they're both real."

"Memories of what?"

She let out a breath. "Memories of what happened on the shuttle."

Clark crinkled his forehead as he tried to understand what she was telling him. It was significant. He knew it was. But what... Finally he shrugged his shoulders. "I give up. You have two memories of what happened on the shuttle..."

"Conflicting memories," Lois told him.

His expression instantly cleared as what she had said sunk in and then... he suddenly understood her horror.

"It's starting, isn't it?" Lois said, her voice slightly wobbly. "The memory replacement thing."

"Not necessarily, Lois. I mean, okay so you have a new memory. But you still have the old one too, right? The one where Superman busts into the shuttle and eats the bomb."

She nodded.

"Okay, so what's the other one?" he said, leading her over to the couch.

She waited until they were both seated. "I don't want to talk about it. If we talk about it, it will just make it more real."

"Or it might give us the hint we need to get things straightened out. Lois, ignoring these memories won't make them go away."

She stared at him, thinking through his comment before giving a slight nod and filling him in on her new memory.

***

Lois glanced around her environment, taking mental notes on everything she could see. Things that might fill in the color, the texture and the feel for the sake of her readers. Perry always said she couldn't do emotion. Well, ha! She was about to prove him wrong. After all, what was the inside scoop on the launch of the final module of the space station but emotions?

She caught sight of something stuck to one of the panels. A clock, counting down. Was it counting down to the launch? She checked her watch. No. That couldn't be right. The times were different. Besides, the clock didn't seem to be part of the panel itself.

Quickly unstrapping herself, she got up and rushed over to the device. She gasped. A bomb!

"A bomb!" she yelled the second her tongue caught up with her brain. But there was no one to hear her cry. She rushed for the door, pulling on the handle. But it had been secured from the outside. "Help! There's a bomb," she yelled, pounding on the door as hard as she could.

***

"Hey, I remember something, too," Clark said, interrupting her recitation. "You're right. It's strange. It's as if I have two memories of the same event. In one, I'm watching the shuttle launch from my folks place and in the other..."

"In the other...?"

"I'd been assigned the task of covering the colonist launch for The Star. I was in the bleachers, waiting to watch the lift-off when I heard you yelling about a bomb. Well, actually, that isn't exactly true." When she raised her eyebrows, he continued. "I saw you sneaking onto the shuttle. I was taking a look -- using my telescopic vision to watch the passengers enter the shuttle. I have to admit, I was impressed. I even remember looking down at the press release to see if you were listed among the colonists. When I realized you weren't... That you were a stowaway, I had a flash back to the days when people would sneak onto ships, stowing away among the cargo to get free passage to America." He shook his head. "I remember wondering how you'd done it."

"So you knew who I was?"

He nodded. "Although, I don't remember meeting you. Anyway, my internal thoughts were interrupted when I saw you rushing for the shuttle door, yelling that there was a bomb."

"And let me guess," Lois interrupted, rubbing his arm affectionately. "You came rushing to the rescue."

"Well, I didn't exactly ramble casually over," he said.

***

Moving quickly through the crowd of reporters, Clark disappeared behind the bleachers before shifting into superspeed, covering the distance between the onlookers' stand and the shuttle faster than the human eye could follow. He came to a halt when he realized that men were still locking down the shuttle, preparing it for take-off. If he did something 'super' now, his secret would be out. Not that it mattered if it came down to a choice between saving her life and keeping his secret, but still... maybe there was another option.

"Wait!" he yelled, rushing up to the men securing the shuttle doors.

"Who are you?" a man responded even as men in security uniforms began closing in around him.

"There's..." He hesitated. There were less than five minutes on the bomb. But how could he explain knowing about it? "...an unauthorized person inside the shuttle. Her name is Lois Lane. She's a reporter for the Daily Planet."

"No one could have gotten past our security," the security man who had joined them said.

"I did," Clark said, not adding that he had a bit of an advantage. "And a source of mine said something about a bomb."

"A bomb?"

"I guess Dr. Baines must have planted a bomb, too," he said, improvising wildly. "In case her plan to sabotage the shuttle by using coolants to freeze the ion particles went awry."

"You're sure about this?"

"Yes. Can't you delay the shuttle for thirty minutes while you send people in to check it out?"

"Well, we haven't fired the boosters yet, so I guess there's no harm in..."

"Please hurry. I have reason to believe that the bomb is set to go off in a few minutes."

"Do you know where it is?"

"The Primary Control Conduit Cabinet."

"The P Triple C?"

Clark nodded. He let out a sigh of relief when the security guard moved into action. Still, Clark continued to watch, his heart in his throat, as the security guards fought against the clock to reopen the doors and get inside.

***

"I remember when the door suddenly came open. I don't think I've ever been so relieved in my entire life," Lois said, picking up where Clark's story left off.

***

"A bomb," Lois said, pointing to a small device on the panel when the room was suddenly flooded by men in fire resistant suits.

They didn't hesitate, almost if they were expecting to find a bomb when they opened the door.

"Ms. Lane, I assume," said a security guard following the others into the room. "You'll have to come with me."

Lois nodded but remained rooted to the spot as she watched the men fight the clock to dismantle the bomb in time.

"Ms. Lane, it's not safe for you to be here," the guard said.

Lois nodded, but still didn't move -- completely transfixed by the slow descent of the numbers. Twenty-seven. Twenty-six. Twenty-five. Twenty-four.

***

"I can remember wondering what was taking you so long to get out of there," Clark said. "I'm not sure I'd ever been so tense in my entire life."

Clark's thoughts drifted back to that moment.

***

If she didn't move soon, he'd have no choice but to act -- regardless of what it did to his secret. The bomb was still counting down as people began flooding from the shuttle. Still, Lois Lane remained inside.

Ten. Nine. Eight.

Clark prepared to move. He couldn't stand by. He couldn't let her die.

Seven. Six.

Someone appeared to be trying to pull a resistant Lois Lane towards the door.

Five. Four.

Breaths were held as everyone froze, waiting for three. It never came. It was as if everyone took their next breath in unison. And then a cheer went up from the crowd, Lois cheering loudest of all.

***

"It was one of the sweetest sounds I have ever heard," Clark said softly. "I remember realizing that I was actually sweating. But it wasn't as if I hadn't seen people in life threatening situations before. So I found myself wondering what was happening to me. Of course, I didn't have a lot of time to worry about it."

***

"Mr. Kent, would you mind coming with me?" the security guard he'd convinced to reopen the shuttle said.

"Is there a problem?"

"We found the bomb. It's been dismantled. And we found Lois Lane. There are a few questions we'll need you to answer."

Clark nodded. He should have expected that. Still, he knew he was on pretty solid ground. Reporters didn't reveal their sources. As for how he got into the secured location, he would simply point out that there was a large tear in the perimeter fence. He just wouldn't mention that he was the one who had made the hole. And since he had closed it up slightly behind him, security could be forgiven for not noticing it. At least, that was the hope.

***

"They took me away, too," Lois said. "I had a story to file and I can remember... It seemed to take hours -- convincing law enforcement officials that I was the one who discovered the bomb, not the one who set it. And I remember something else," she said slowly, her eyes drifting back to Clark.

When she'd first seen men storming the room, she'd thought someone had heard her yelling. But it seemed they had known before then. In fact, when she was finally told she was free to join the other reporters who were still milling around, waiting for EPRAD's official statement, she had only one person on her mind. Kent. One thing she'd discovered during her 'interrogation' was that Kent had seen her slipping onto the shuttle and had reported her to the authorities.

She spotted him talking to one of the officials, his notepad out as he copiously took notes between questions.

She waited for him to finish before storming over.

"Kent!"

He turned around at the sound of his name. Some part of her mind realized that his face softened as she approached as if he were glad to see that she was all right. She pushed that thought to the back of her mind immediately. She had a bone to pick with Mr. Kent!

"How dare you?" she spat when she was finally close enough.

"Excuse me?" he said, his relief turning to confusion.

"You turned me in!"

"I..."

"I don't know how you found out I was there. But they told me it was you. You were so jealous that I got the story about the Messenger Explosion and you didn't, that when you found out that I'd found a way onto the shuttle, you reported me to keep me from getting this story."

"Excuse me? I thought I saved your life?"

"You just got lucky," Lois said, pushing her small question about the meaning of his response to the back of her mind. They had come looking for her. She had pointed out the bomb. Or had she? "Luck. There is no way you could have known about the bomb. You were just jealous that I was about to get the story of a lifetime and you turned me in."

"I swear. That's not what happened," Kent insisted. "You have it all wrong. I never would have betrayed you if your life hadn't been in danger."

She fumed. He wasn't even willing to apologize. She stepped closer, poking him in the chest with her finger. "In the future, Kent, just stay the hell away from me," she hissed before turning and walking away.**

***

Chapter Five

"I guess you'd concede now that... we are in our future," Lois said hesitantly, desperately hoping he'd object. "A future that we ruined by something we did to the past."

Clark ran a hand through his hair, messing it. "It really is the only thing that makes any sense. After all, how would we be getting these memories if they weren't... ours?"

Lois cringed. She had so hoped she was wrong -- that this was an alternate reality. The idea that they had destroyed their reality -- one in which they were married and had a daughter -- was almost too horrible to actually believe. But it was true. There was no Vicky. No marriage. And definitely a new set of memories.

"Okay, so we had obviously met by then," Clark said slowly, pulling her away from her depressing thoughts. "Even if I wasn't working for the Planet. I mean, I could have known who you were without us meeting. After all, you were something of a..."

Her eyebrows rose as he searched for the right word.

"...legend in the news business, especially around Metropolis. I didn't know what you looked like before coming to the city. But I certainly knew your name. But you wouldn't have known who I was."

"Yeah, but I can remember thinking that I really didn't like you."

"You thought that in our reality, too."

"No, I didn't," Lois objected.

Clark raised his eyebrows but didn't respond.

"Okay, so I wasn't exactly happy that Perry had decided that my 'investigative team' was going to be made up of the office grunt and an inexperienced farmboy -- I was investigating the space program, for crying out loud. Or that I was pleased that he was partnering me up with anyone. But that didn't mean I didn't like you."

"Okay, so you liked me."

"Well, the least you could do is to say it as if you believe it."

"Lois..." Clark said, pulling her over so that she was leaning against him, his arm around her shoulder. "That was then. I know you like me now."

She gave him a slight smile, but Clark realized immediately that it didn't touch her eyes.

"Okay, Lois. What's going on?"

"It's just... Clark, I hated you."

His eyebrows rose.

"No, I don't mean in our reality. But in this one... I honestly hated you, Clark. How can that be?" She searched his eyes, as if trying to find the answer there. "Oh, Clark. This has disaster written all over it. Not only don't you work for the Planet but whatever has changed has caused us to hate each other."

"Not exactly."

"What do you mean, 'not exactly?' I know what I felt, Clark."

"And I know what 'I' felt."

Her mouth was open to respond, but closed again when it sank in what he was saying. Her hand came up tentatively, smoothing out his hair. "I'm sorry, Clark," she whispered. And she was. She knew that, at that moment, she had honestly hated Clark Kent. And if he was saying what she thought he was saying, it must have hurt him so much to know how she felt.

"Hey, Lois, it's not your fault or... well, actually, it is. But it's not just your fault. It's our fault. We're the ones who changed the past. But, Lois, we're going to get this all straightened out. And then we can go back to you thinking I'm the greatest thing since canned beer."

"Actually, I think you're even better than canned beer." She lowered her eyes, looking at him through her eyelashes.

"Ahh... honey. That's probably the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me."

An involuntary grin crept onto her face. "Yeah, well, don't get too cocky there, flyboy. After all, I don't particularly like canned beer." She shrugged her shoulders. "I'm more of a bottled beer sort of gal."

Clark laughed, a full, deep-throated laugh -- one that told her she'd managed to genuinely amuse him. Lois smiled fully at the sound. It did her heart such good every time she heard his laugh. It seemed to reach inside her, infecting her with its unfettered delight, healing the pain inside her -- and in this case, the fear. She couldn't imagine hating him the way she seemed to remember.

He might not believe her, but in their reality, she'd never disliked him. At times, she'd found him annoying. But she'd always sort of liked him, too. But more than anything, he'd scared her. Her caustic comments and dismissive attitude had been more of a self-defense technique than anything else. She'd seen the way he sometimes looked at her. And the slight flip her heart would do as a result told her exactly how easy it would be for her to let things get out of her control.

She'd been right, too. Because she hadn't been in control -- not since the moment she'd finally recognized her feelings for him. Before she'd met Clark, she'd been strong and independent, needing no one. Since then she'd been one half of a conciliation of two. What she hadn't been right about was that, for once in her life, not being in control hadn't been a federal disaster.

But that was what scared her so much about this new memory. Because what she'd honestly felt as she'd looked back had been hate. But why? What could possibly make her hate Clark?

She sighed.

"What are you thinking?"

She shrugged. "It's just... scary." She gave her head a shake. This wasn't helping them get to the bottom of things. "But I guess that answers how I survived the shuttle disaster. And since I obviously didn't say it then -- thanks."

Clark smiled. "It was my pleasure."

"Still, it's hard to believe."

"What?"

"Well, I've been saved a lot by Superman over the years. Now, this was the first time, but..."

"Actually, that wasn't the first time."

"What do you mean?"

"The warehouse. About twenty-four hours before..." His voice trailed off.

"What?"

"Well, I'm just wondering why you weren't killed in the warehouse. Dr. Baines meant to kill you. And I always thought you would have died then if I hadn't..."

"What?" Lois asked when he stopped speaking.

"I'm getting another one of those memories -- one that contradicts another memory."

"What is it?"

"Okay, instead of finding you and Jimmy because you didn't show up for a staff meeting, I remember that I was interviewing Dr. Baines for The Star when I realized you were in trouble."

"So what happened?"

Clark let out a slow breath, gathering his thoughts before beginning what was still a somewhat hazy memory. "I was working for the Star. I had been partnered with Brian Cagle. He was a lot older than I was and so, for the most part, I was following his lead. Anyway, we had been sent to get EPRAD's official position on the explosion of Commander Laderman's shuttle. In fact, we were in the middle of interviewing Dr. Baines when..."

***

"So you're sure there was no sabotage?" Clark asked.

"Well, we can't be sure of anything until they've finished examining the wreckage," Dr. Baines responded. "But I can't see how it could be sabotage. The security around here is state of the art. No one gets in without a thorough security check."

"What about someone on the inside?" Cagle asked.

"Impossible. We're like a family here. Trust me. The Messenger had a horrible accident but it wasn't the result of sabotage."

"What about Lex Luthor?" Clark asked. While preparing for this interview, Clark had discovered that Baines had been photographed with Luthor a couple of times during the past year. Once she'd even been listed as his 'date.' And given Luthor's interest in a space program of his own, Clark had been suspicious. Cagle seemed to dismiss his suspicions, but Clark still wanted to know how she'd respond to the name.

***

"Wait a minute," Lois said. "In our reality, you never told me your suspicions about Lex during the messenger investigation. How come you told Cagle?"

Clark shrugged. "I had no proof. And unlike you, Cagle had no personal involvement with Luthor." He hesitated momentarily. "At least, I don't think he was Luthor's type."

Lois rolled her eyes and gave him a swat.

"And without proof, I figured you'd just write off my suspicions as jealousy -- given the argument we had when you told me about your 'interview' with Luthor."

Lois shifted uncomfortably.

"Hey, it's okay," Clark said, reaching over to give her hand a squeeze. "Why don't I just get on with my story?"

At Lois' nod, he continued.

"Lex Luthor?" Dr. Baine's eyes darted between Cagle and Clark. "What does Lex Luthor have to do with this?"

"It's an angle we're working on," Clark said dismissively. "So do you know Mr. Luthor?"

"Everyone in the city knows who Mr. Luthor is," Baines responded.

"But... do you know him personally?"

"Can't say that I do. I think I might have been introduced to him at a party we were both attending once, but... no. What would make you think I do?"

Clark lowered his glasses slightly, watching in satisfaction as the pulse in her throat jumped as her heart rate sped up. Baines was their link to Luthor. Now... how to prove it?

"It's just that you attended a function as his escort about a year ago," Cagle said. Although not blessed with Clark's powers, he had obviously seen something in the woman's demeanor or heard something in her comments that now had him wondering about a possible Luthor connection.

"Oh, that. Right. I'd forgotten about that. It was nothing. A charity for raising money to allow intercity kids to get exposure to the space program. It was strictly business." Suddenly, her cell phone rang. "Excuse me," she said, sounding somewhat relieved.

"She's lying. I've seen pictures of her with Luthor on more than one occasion," Cagle whispered when Baines stepped away to answer her call. "I think you actually might be on to something here, rookie."

Clark wasn't listening. His hearing was tuned into the phone conversation taking place a short distance away.

"We got a problem," said the man on the other end of the line.

"Can it wait? I'm sort of in the middle of something here."

"There are a couple of reporters snooping around the hanger where we put the damaged shuttle. What do you want me to do?"

Clark quickly lowered his glasses and glanced around, quickly finding the hanger in question and then spotting the reporters. His heart rate leapt when he realized that one of them was none other than Lois Lane.

Baines looked back at Clark and Cagle. "I'll be there in a moment," she said before quickly hanging up the phone and rejoining them. "Now, is that all?" she asked. "There's a problem I have to deal with."

"No, actually," Cagle said. "We have a few more questions we need to ask you."

Baines looked annoyed, as if angry that they weren't taking the hint. "Fine. Why don't you have a seat in our waiting area? But I should warn you, this could take a while."

"That's fine," Cagle responded, seeming to enjoy her obvious irritation and together Clark and Cagle watched Baines stroll quickly away. "So what's your take on this? I mean, it's one thing to suspect Luthor, it's something else altogether making such an accusation," Cagle said when Baines was out of earshot.

"I've got to find a bathroom," Clark responded, leaving Cagle standing alone before he had a chance to stop him.

Once he was out of Cagle's sight, Clark lowered his glasses, looking through various buildings until he could again see into the mostly deserted warehouse.

"Take pictures of everything you can," Clark heard Lane's whisper as the young man with her raised his camera to do as instructed, snapping off pictures as fast as he could. It was the same young man who directed him towards Perry White's office when he'd gone for his interview at the Daily Planet. He struggled to remember if the young man had said his name. Jimmy. That was it. He didn't think he'd mentioned a last name.

***

"Wait!" Lois said, snapping Clark out of his story. "So you'd met Perry White and Jimmy by then."

"It seems so," Clark responded.

"And you went to the interview with Perry. So... what happened?"

Clark shrugged.

"By the way, why do you keep referring to me as 'Lane?' You never did before -- not even when you were first hired."

Again, Clark shrugged. "I don't know. I mean, that's just the way I remember it."

"So maybe at that point, we'd never actually met? Or maybe we did meet, but just not in a way that was conducive to you calling me by my first name."

"What does that mean?"

"I'm not exactly sure." She let out a breath. "Okay, so what happened then?"

He took a moment to think back once again. He'd been looking into the warehouse, listening to what was going on, but most of all... he'd been watching Lois.

***

"We'll have them analyzed later," Lane said as Jimmy continued snapping pictures.

She wandered around to the far side of the shuttle. Contrary to what Baines had told him and Cagel, the left side of this shuttle was blown out. And no one even appeared to be around, doing any sort of analysis on it. Clark jumped when he heard a scuffle of some kind. He'd been so focused on Lane that he'd missed an attack on the young man with her. He quickly turned his attention to Jimmy, relieved to realize that he was just unconscious, but otherwise, appeared uninjured.

He had to get a move on. He had to get into that warehouse now.

Resuming his path towards the warehouse, he continued to watch and listen to what was going on inside.

"Shh..." Lane said assuming the noise from the other side of the shuttle had been caused by her young colleague. "We can't risk anyone finding us."

"Too late," Dr. Baines responded.

Lane spun around to discover Dr. Baines standing there holding a gun. Clark's heart leapt into his throat. His pace increased and his muscles tensed, ready to invoke superspeed if Baines fired that gun. Even if he had to expose his secret -- and in front of one of the best reporters in the business -- there was no way he could stand by and let Lane die. There was something about her...

Now was not the time to think about that. What mattered now was finding a way to save her.

"You're little friend is already taken care of," Baines said.

Lane's eyes focused on the gun, seeming to weigh her chances against it.

"I wouldn't try it," Baines said. "It's Lois Lane, isn't it?"

"That's right. And you're Dr. Baines. I knew you were in on this," Lane said, although Clark found himself thinking that she was completely caught off guard by this turn of events.

Clark opened the door, stepped into the warehouse, closed the door and darted out of sight faster than the human eye could follow. By the time he came to a stop, Lane was tied up on the floor in the middle of the building. Jimmy was lying unconscious a few feet away. From his position, Clark took stock of the situation, trying to think of a way to get them out of their predicament without giving away his secret.

His quest was interrupted by the sound of Lane's voice.

"Jimmy! Wake up!" Lane said, struggling against the chains binding her. Jimmy didn't react. "I ask Perry for a task force and what do I get? Jimmy." She looked in frustration at Jimmy for a moment before sighing. "Come on, Jimmy. I'll take back every rude thing I've thought about you in the last ten minutes if you'd just wake up now." Still, there was no response from Jimmy.

"Baines has to kill us now," Lane muttered in frustration. "Don't know why she hasn't done it already."

'Not going to happen,' Clark thought as he snuck between various pieces of equipment, determined to keep out of sight.

Lane glanced at Jimmy again. "Come on, Jimmy." She let out a breath when he still didn't move. "Oh, god. This is really it this time, isn't it? Why do I do things like this? Why do I always have to jump into the deep end without checking the water level." Her tone of voice changed from wistful to something more determined. "Because it's the only way I know how to do it. To get the job done. To get the respect that I want. That I deserve."

Clark's heart broke. Didn't she know that, in spite of her youth, she was fast becoming one of the most respected journalists in the business?

"But now it's going to get you killed," Lane said, looking over at Jimmy who was still unconscious. "And I'm so sorry." She sniffed. "I'm such a fraud. I mean, I've only ever had three rules for myself and I've broken every one of them. I always seem to get involved in my stories. I don't always get there first. And I even slept with someone I worked with." She looked meditatively at Jimmy. "Given my reputation in the newsroom -- the Ice Queen -- you probably find that surprising, don't you? On the other hand, maybe you've heard the rumors. I'm sure the office grapevine is still as active as ever -- in spite of the fact that it was several years ago."

She sighed. "His name was Claude. He was French."

Clark's movement stopped, suddenly caught up in the story spilling from her lips -- as if she'd been waiting years to tell her side of the story. Clark was completely captivated, even though he knew he shouldn't be listening.

"I guess I must have been in love -- or thought I was. I was only twenty-one, working on my first big scoop: this perfectly ordinary middle-aged couple -- gunrunners. One night, I told Claude about it and when I woke up the next morning he was gone." When she continued, there was anger in her voice, "So was my story. He even won an award for it. Didn't even thank me for my... input."

Anger caused Clark's blood to boil. How could anyone do something like that? Take an impressionable young woman and... He had to consciously stop his hands from turning the beam he was standing behind to dust.

"And now I'm going to die. And I'm never going to have a chance to even find out if there is a decent guy left in the world."

'That's not going to happen," Clark said, reminding himself again that he needed to keep moving, not listen to the way this woman was pouring out her heart thinking that no one could hear her. After all, he knew without a doubt that there was no way she'd be saying any of this if he were here -- not after the way she'd responded to him when he'd gone for his interview at the Daily Planet.

***

"So we did meet when you came to the Planet! But... what did you mean when you said, 'the way I responded to you?'"

He struggled to remember before shaking his head in frustration.

"I mean, I know I was dismissive of you when you first interviewed, but..."

"I get the feeling it's something more than that. But..." He shrugged helplessly.

Lois let out a breath of frustration. "Okay, well, go on. Maybe it will trigger something else."

"Okay, let's see. Where was I? Oh, right. I was listening to your monologue, having almost forgotten that I was there to rescue you..."

***

Dr. Baines suddenly reentered the room. "I hope you'll forgive the accommodations," she said, "but then again, I've never been much of a hostess."

Clark jumped slightly. He'd been so engrossed in Lois' story that he hadn't even heard Dr. Baines approach. Damn! What was wrong with him? He had let the situation get worse, eavesdropping on words he had no right to hear, instead of taking action. Now what did he do?

If Baines decided to use her gun now, he'd have no choice but to give away his secret to save Lane... and Jimmy, too, of course. Why couldn't he have been less curious and more wise?

He watched, ready to spring into action, as Baines opened a valve in the rocket booster, allowing a substance to leak out. Then she opened a second valve and two liquids began a slow but sure course towards each other.

"Sorry you won't be around to enjoy the rest of the evening," Baines said. "But accidents do happen."

"Accidents?" Lane asked.

"Yes," Baines said. "You see, while dissecting the orbital maneuvering systems, the monomethyl hydrozene leaked and mixed with the nitrogen tetroxide... Unfortunately, the blast killed a couple of nosy reporters who didn't bother to read the signs." She pointed to the 'No Trespassing' sign on the wall.

"Answer one question," Lane said. "Why?"

Clark shook his head with an equal mixture of admiration and disbelief. Even with death looking over her shoulder, she couldn't stop being a reporter.

"It's very simple, Lois. Profit. Outer space is no different from any new frontier. It will belong to those who get there first and seize the high ground."

The two liquids were getting closer to one another with each passing second.

As Baines left the warehouse, Clark could see Lane pulling frantically on the chains binding her. He shot a quick blast of heat vision at the chain, snapping it easily.

Lane looked shocked to find herself suddenly free. Then she moved, rushing over to Jimmy.

"Jimmy! Come on! You've got to wake up! We've got to get out of here," Lois said, all the while trying to pull the young man to his feet.

Clark looked back at the liquids. They were inching ever closer. He tensed. Maybe he should go out there, help her. On the other hand, if he did that... Would he actually slow her down? After all, he knew how she felt about him, how reluctant she would be to let him help her, how suspicious.

***

"Why would I be reluctant to let you help me?"

Clark shrugged. "I don't know. That was just how I felt. Lois, the more I think about this, the more I think that at least part of this is the result of something that happened between us."

"What? Or why? We didn't even meet our past selves when we went to 1992. So... how could any of this be happening?"

"I have no idea."

Lois let out a slow breath. "Okay, well, tell me the rest of what you remember. Maybe it will give us another clue."

***

*

"Wake up, Jimmy!" Lane yelled, grabbing Jimmy's shoulders to drag him out of there.

Panicking, Clark quickly shot a blast of freezing breath at Jimmy. Much to Clark's relief, Jimmy woke. Clark's eyes darted between the liquid and Lane and Jimmy as Jimmy scrambled to his feet.

"Come on!" Lane yelled, finally getting an arm around the young man and dragging him as fast as possible towards the door.

She had just stepped over the threshold when Clark realized they were out of time. If the explosion were large, they'd be killed by shrapnel from the exploding building. At superspeed, he rushed to the door. Opening it, he gave Lane and Jimmy a push with his superbreath, sending them through the air and into a mud puddle where the water would hopefully keep them from being hurt by burning shrapnel.

The building exploded.

Clark stood there for a second more to be sure they were okay before dashing back through the explosion to exit on the far side of the building.

***

"Do you remember anything else?" Lois asked when Clark finally finished his story.

Clark shook his head. "That's all."

"So we still don't know what went wrong." She let out a breath. "I think we need to get out of here -- try to find some more information. Because right now, we don't know nearly enough to fix... whatever we did."

"So what's next?"

"I think we see if I still live on Carter Ave. After all, I can't go into the newsroom like this." She gestured to her black clothing. "I look more like a cat burglar than a reporter. After that, I think we should head for the Planet. Maybe doing a bit of research into stories we've written will prompt some more of these weird double memories. And as much as I hate them, I think they are our best chance of figuring out how to fix this."

"Are you sure we should be going to the Planet?" Clark asked.

"Sure. Why? Do you have a better plan?"

"Not exactly, but... Well, I wonder if it would raise too may questions if we go to the Planet. After all, I work for The Star. Maybe we should just work here -- or at your apartment." With that, he pulled his glasses down his nose, looking around the apartment. When he didn't find what he was looking for, he gave the place another sweep.

"What?" Lois asked as Clark pushed his glasses back up his nose.

"I can't find my computer. I got my first laptop when the Planet was destroyed -- with the idea of writing my novel. So I should at least have a laptop."

"Unless for some reason in this new reality, you never planned to write a novel?"

"Yeah. I suppose."

"So... we go to my apartment. If I still live there and if I have a computer, we work from there. Otherwise..."

"...The Daily Planet," he concluded.

"The Daily Planet," she echoed.

"Sounds like a plan." Clark rose to his feet, searching around for something.

"What are you looking for?" Lois asked, observing his mounting frustration.

"My wallet."

"We left our identification back at the brownstone -- before we went to Star Labs, remember. We didn't want to risk leaving something behind that could identify us as the thieves."

"I remember. Still, I must have a wallet in this altered reality."

"Did you check the place you used to keep it? Knowing you, it will be right where you left it then. Has anyone ever told you you're not very creative?"

Clark smiled. "That's not what you thought last night."

Lois blushed. "Yeah, well you were more inspired than normal last night."

Clark laughed, going to check the drawer in the kitchen where he had always kept his wallet.

"Is it there?"

Clark shook his head, lowering his glasses to do a quick search of the apartment. "I can't see it anywhere."

Lois let out a breath. "Well, we can walk to my apartment. I'm sure my purse will be there."

Clark looked around the apartment one last time before nodding. What else was there to do?

***

Both Lois and Clark grew increasingly nervous the closer they got to Lois' apartment building. Neither said anything to the other, but their hands subconsciously reached for one another as they walked up the steps to the building.

They never shared their fears. And it wasn't that either of them particularly cared where she lived. But if she lived there, a number of their fears would be put to rest.

Clark's main fear was that, due to a lack of Superman, he might have been too late to save her during one of her more adventurous moments -- which would mean... what? Would she suddenly vanish off the face of the planet? Did it take a while for the changes they had made to the past to catch up with them physically the same way that it was taking a while for their memories to catch up with them mentally?

Lois was more concerned about another possibility -- one that would also be alleviated if she discovered that she still lived on Carter Ave. Why hadn't she thought about this possibility last night? Surely, even if they didn't know who she was, Martha and Jonathan could have told her about Lex -- was he dead, had he gone to jail and probably most importantly of all, was he married?

But none of those questions had crossed her mind and so, as she walked up the steps that had once been so familiar, she grasped Clark's hand, praying that her fears would be laid to rest -- that she would find her apartment essentially intact. That she was still living there. And, thus, that she wasn't Mrs. Lex Luthor.

"Wait a minute, Clark." She pulled him to a halt on the top step of the building.

"What?"

"I just remembered... Even if I live here, I don't have my keys."

"Okay, so why don't we go see Mr. Tracewski?"

"And say what?"

"Just tell him you lost your key."

"And if I don't live here?"

"Then you'll look like an idiot, I guess," Clark said, the corners of his mouth twitching.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Okay, well here goes nothing." With that, she pulled open the door to the building and stepped inside.

They stopped in front of the door to Tracewski's apartment and, after taking a deep breath, she knocked. It was answered almost immediately by a young girl, about the age of ten.

"Who are you?" Lois asked.

"Who are you?" the girl replied.

"Don't use that tone with me, young lady," Lois snapped back automatically.

"Whatever," the girl said as she started to close the door.

"Wait!"

The girl paused, looking at Lois expectantly.

"I'm looking for Mr. Tracewski."

"He doesn't live here." The girl began closing the door again.

"Wait! Where does he... I'm looking for the building's super."

"That'd be my mom." The girl turned. "Mom!" she called before walking away, leaving Lois and Clark standing in the doorway.

"Oh, god. This doesn't look good," Lois said.

"Now, we don't know anything yet, Lois," Clark responded, squeezing her hand a little bit tighter as if to prevent her from suddenly disappearing.

"Yet being the operative word. Clark, she doesn't know me. How can that mean anything except that I don't live here anymore?"

"Maybe they just moved in. Maybe she normally lives with her father and is just visiting. And anyway, even if you don't live here... it doesn't mean anything."

"It doesn't mean anything," Lois repeated, taking deep breaths to control her pounding heart.

"Can I help you?" asked a woman in her late thirties from the doorway of what should have been Mr. Tracewki's apartment.

"Uhh... yes," Lois said, trying not to sound as unnerved as she felt. "I seem to have misplaced my keys."

"Your keys?"

"Yes. The keys to my apartment. I'm wondering if you have a spare."

"And your name is...?"

"Lois Lane."

The woman's eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure what kind of game you're playing here, but there is no one by that name living in this apartment building." She began to close the door.

"Wait!" Lois said, getting her foot in the door before it could slam shut. She winced slightly from the pain caused by the closing door. Still, it accomplished the task. The woman opened the door once again. "Can you at least tell me when I moved out?"

The woman's eyebrows rose. "I'm not sure what you think you're doing. But I've never laid eyes on you in my life. Now, you can leave quietly or I can call the cops." With that, the super closed the door. This time Lois didn't try to stop her.

***

Chapter Six

Neither Lois nor Clark said a word as they left the apartment building. Once on the sidewalk, Clark turned around, his hand going to his glasses. He pulled them down far enough to stare over top, slowly scanning the building from top to bottom.

"Well?" Lois asked when he finally pushed his glasses back up his nose.

"She's right. You don't live here."

Lois let out a breath as dread crept into her stomach. She didn't need confirmation to know what had happened. She had married Lex Luthor. It was the only thing that made sense.

"Wait here," Clark said, pulling her out of her depressing thoughts.

He rushed across the street to a newspaper dispenser and began searching his pockets. In spite of his instructions, she joined him, reaching into her own jacket pocket to pull out some change. She didn't know why he wanted a paper, but it was obviously important to him. Still, if he expected to find loose change in a jacket he'd just removed from his closet, he was going to be disappointed. After all, if there was one thing Lois knew about Clark, it was that he was always compulsively neat. Loose change went in the loose change jar on the counter. She, on the other hand, was not nearly so meticulous.

"Here," she said, handing him some change.

"Thanks." He went to put it in the dispenser before hesitating.

"What?"

"Well, it's just... considering the fact that this reality is different, do you really think we should be using change from our old reality? After all, the economy relies on the fact that the government doesn't just print money because it feels like it. Otherwise, it could just print up enough money to pay off the national debt. But that would destroy the economy by making the dollar worthless. It can only print what it can substantiate and if we go adding money to the economy..."

Lois rolled her eyes, reaching into his hand to withdraw the change as he continued to explain economics to her. Without waiting for him to finish, she pushed past him, putting the correct change into the dispenser.

"Lois!" he exclaimed.

"Clark, a little bit of loose change isn't going to cause the world's economy to come crashing down around our feet." She reached in, removing a paper. "So what are we looking for?" she asked, flipping open the paper. The headline from the Associated Press read: 'President Garner Reveals Tax Plan.' Not exactly earth shattering news.

"I was just..." He stopped Lois when she turned to page three. "There!" he said, letting out a sigh of relief.

"What?" she asked before realizing what he was pointing at. 'Allegations of Corrupt Jury Puts Dragon Trial In Doubt,' she read. "So? I was working on this yesterday. The D.A.'s office finally got enough evidence together against Dragon, one of the most feared and ruthless cut throats in Metropolis, to bring him to trial. But there are indications that the jury is being either bribed or threatened to return a not guilty verdict. I still don't have enough proof for a mistrial, but..." She sighed. "Anyway, I guess that means some things are still the same in this reality, but why were you so anxious to..."

He pointed to the byline.

"Lois Lane?" she asked, still not understanding his relief. "Just because I kept my last name for professional reasons doesn't mean I didn't..."

"You're not dead," he said interrupting her. "You're not dead," he repeated, pulling her into his arms, not caring that he was crinkling the paper.

"I'm not dead," she assured him, half bewildered, half amused. At least she was amused until she realized that he was actually trembling. "Hey, I'm not dead," she assured him, pulling back far enough to cup his face with her hands. "I'm not dead."

He closed his eyes, resting his forehead against hers.

She gave him a moment to regain his composure. "You really thought I was dead?" she asked.

"I just thought... with no Superman around..." His voice trailed off, as if even now he couldn't stomach the thought of putting his fears into words.

"I was pretty good at taking care of myself before Superman came along. Besides," she said, a twinkle coming into her eyes, "I think we've already established that I have had a Superman around -- regardless of whether I knew it or not."

He gave her a somewhat wobbly smile, obviously appreciating her attempt to lighten the mood.

"Hey, I'm okay," she said, wrapping her arms back around him when she realized how shaken he still was. "I'm right here and I'm not going anywhere." God, she hoped she was telling the truth. In response to that thought, she tightened her hold on him and closed her eyes, sending a brief prayer heavenwards on the off chance that someone was listening. When she finally felt him relax against her, she released him.

"So... the Daily Planet?" she asked, bending down to pick up the paper. She didn't share her fears. After all, he didn't need to know about Lex before it was absolutely unavoidable.

"The Daily Planet," he agreed.

"Good," she said, turning from him. Sticking her fingers in her mouth, she let out an ear-shattering whistle when she spotted a cab speeding down the street. It came to a screeching halt. Lois took off across the street to climb in before anyone else could claim it. Clark followed suit, only realizing the problem when they were already on their way.

Money. They didn't have any money. In vain, he patted his pockets. They'd expected to be able to get money at Lois' apartment -- but she didn't live there.

"We'll bill it to the Planet," Lois whispered, obviously picking up on the meaning of his frantic search of pockets.

He relaxed back into the seat of the cab. Right. They could always bill it to the Planet. They would pay Perry back later -- assuming, of course, that when they found a way to correct whatever they had done to change the past they had actually ended up taking a cab to the Planet. He gave his head a shake, not quite able to get his mind around the entire time-travel, correcting the past concept.

***

Clark got out of the cab and offered Lois a hand. The first exclamation of surprise came from the man who worked the coffee stand just outside the front entrance. It was soft, said under the man's breath.

"What the hell?"

At first, Clark wasn't sure the comment had been directed at him and Lois -- until he realized that the man was watching them intently as they walked towards the Daily Planet.

It got worse once they stepped into the lobby. The average person might have simply noticed that the further they got into the lobby, the quieter things seemed to get. But Clark heard the muffled, under the breath comments taking place around them.

"What's he doing here?"

"What's she doing with him?"

"I can't believe he has the nerve to show his face around here."

He kept his eyes straight ahead as they walked towards the elevators. It hurt to hear such comments from people he considered friends. He knew about their lives, their families. He'd played basketball with them, conversed with them at parties or shared a laugh around the water cooler. So to hear them now, to see the looks of hostility being shot in his direction, left him feeling oddly exposed.

As they stopped in front of the elevators, Lois leaned closer to him, hissing under her breath. "Are people watching us?" she asked.

He didn't respond. He would tell her about it, but not here. Not while they were very definitely the subject of intense scrutiny. He kept his eyes fixed on the elevator doors until they opened. Keeping his head down, he stepped through the doors and was relieved when, although there were others waiting for the elevator, he and Lois were left to ride up alone.

"Okay, so what was that all about?" Lois asked once the elevator doors closed.

He let out a breath, stepping forward to push the number for the newsroom.

She darted past him to push a different number on the elevator. "Before we go to the newsroom, I want to stop by the lockers and get a change of clothing." She turned to look at him. "Okay, so what did you hear?"

"Hear?"

She rolled her eyes. "Clark, you look as if your best friend just died. What happened out there?"

"Those people hate me, Lois."

"I'm sure they don't hate you. You don't even work here. They couldn't know you well enough to hate you." At his raised eyebrows, she continued quickly. "I didn't mean it like that. After all, we both know that if they knew you, they'd love you."

"They hate me."

"What exactly did they say? Did they say, 'We hate Clark Kent?'"

"No, not exactly. I guess they were mostly surprised to see me here -- especially with you."

"That's because you work for another paper, Clark. Anyone from another paper is bound to be treated with some skepticism. And given how competitive I am, they were probably just thinking that it was unusual for me to be seen with someone from a different paper."

"One of them commented that they were surprised that I had the nerve to show my face around here."

Lois regarded him steadily. "Okay, I admit that doesn't sound good. But let's not jump to any conclusions." She reached out taking his hand. "We'll get this sorted out. And when we do, they'll all love you again, Clark -- just like I do."

She leaned towards him and he met her kiss half-way. Clark jumped back when the elevator door dinged.

When Lois looked bemused, he shrugged sheepishly.

"I just think... If people are surprised that you'd be with me, we probably don't want them to see us... Well, you know."

Lois grinned. "Of course, that really would get them talking." She sashayed towards him seductively. She laughed when he quickly ducked out of the elevator.

***

Lois stared at her locker in frustration. She'd programmed Clark's birth date into her lock when they'd installed the new security lockers. So... what number would she have used in a reality where she wasn't even friends with Clark?

She tried punching in her birth date, her parents' birth dates, Lucy's birth date and the date she'd started working for the Daily Planet. She even tried Perry and Jimmy's birth dates. Nothing. Not even the slightest hint that she was on the right track.

She glanced back at the door. Maybe she should get Clark in here. After all, he could type in numbers at a speed that would soon give her a solution. On the other hand, she wasn't sure that was such a good idea. This was the women's locker room, after all. And it wasn't exactly... empty. After what had taken place when they'd first entered the Daily Planet, she wasn't sure she wanted to give anyone a reason to throw Clark out.

Still, even if Clark were wrong and people didn't hate him, they would need to explain his presence in the newsroom. She wasn't entirely sure how to do that. He worked for the competition, after all. Still, it had to be done. They needed the Planet's resources if they were going to figure this out.

She glanced down at her hand, seeing her wedding rings. Damn! Well, there was no way she was going to be able to explain those. She wondered briefly why she still had them. She wasn't entirely sure how this whole leaping into their altered future worked. They'd been together when they'd leapt back to the future, so maybe they, together with their clothes and rings, stayed intact while the rest of the world changed around them. She just didn't know. Just thinking about how this worked gave her a headache. Still, it made her wonder briefly what happened to her self who had been in this time. Had she just disappeared so that she could reappear with Clark? Was Lex even now wondering where his wife had literally disappeared to last night?

She gave her head a shake. Did it really matter? Probably not -- provided they figured out how to correct the problem so she could get her life back. Unfortunately, until that happened, her wedding rings would have to remain in her pocket. After all, if she were married to Lex, her wedding set was likely much different. Much bigger. Much gaudier. She'd have to remember to tell Clark to remove his, too, since they knew for sure that he wasn't married.

She turned her attention back to the lock. Okay, so what could the number be? Suddenly, a horrible idea struck her. She held her breath as she typed a number into the keypad and let out a breath of relief when it didn't work. Okay, so the fact that it wasn't Lex's birth date didn't mean anything. On the other hand, it would definitely have meant something if it was. But maybe... She held her breath again as she typed in the date of her almost wedding to Lex. No. Okay, good.

Or... not good. After all, she still didn't know the number of her lock.

Well, damn. She didn't have time for this. It appeared that black was the order of the day -- at least until she could figure out her locker number or where she lived. On the other hand, she was pretty certain she knew where she lived. And regardless of how gorgeous the view might be from that particular penthouse, if she was right, she had no intention of going there -- not even if it meant she'd be wearing black for the entire time it took to sort out this mess. Besides, black would match her mood if her fears were proven to be correct.

In the meantime, she had work to do. Giving her locker one final disgusted glance, she turned towards the door.

***

The door to Perry's office was open. A regular occurrence in the newsroom. To the outside observer, and even to most of the newsroom staff, that door symbolized the willingness of their editor to be available to his reporters. To offer a word of advice. To give direction or encouragement.

And all that was true enough. But what was known only to the man behind the desk, and maybe suspected by those who knew him best, was that the real reason Perry kept his door open was that he thrived on the energy produced by his busy newsroom. He loved the frantic hustle and bustle. The noise. The smells. The vigor. In fact, he often found it difficult to work without it.

So it was not surprising that when something happened in his newsroom, he would notice. At first, he wasn't entirely sure what had changed -- until he realized that there was not so much as a whisper coming from the adjoining room.

He rose to his feet, walking to the doorway. Everyone seemed to have stopped whatever they were doing and were all staring in the same direction. He quickly followed their gaze.

"What the heck?" he asked under his breath.

Okay, so maybe he hadn't expected Lois to be in today -- she had the weekend off, after all. And it wasn't exactly usual for her to be dressed so casually in the newsroom -- unless she was coming off a successful all-night stakeout and had to write up the story. But why...

His thoughts trailed off when he caught sight of the man following Lois down the ramp. He quickly stepped forward, blocking Lois' path.

"What in Elvis' name is 'that man' doing in my newsroom?" he demanded, fighting the urge to use a more descriptive term -- something that would undoubtedly get censored if it were to be used on television -- to describe Kent.

For an instant, he thought he saw shock on Lois' face. But that simply wasn't possible. Lois knew exactly how he felt about Kent -- she felt much the same herself, after all. And Kent's face... For some inexplicable reason, Kent's footsteps faltered and he actually looked... hurt. What the hell?

"Why don't we talk in your office?" Lois said, glancing around at all the interested faces watching them.

"That man is not coming into my office," Perry responded immediately.

Lois bit her lower lip, looking as if she was about to object. Before she could, Kent spoke.

"I'll just wait at your desk, Lois," he said softly before walking away.

Perry watched him walk past before turning to Lois. "When did you and Kent start being on a first name basis?" he asked.

Lois seemed to have problems tearing her eyes away from Kent's slumped shoulders as he headed straight for her desk.

Perry's eyes returned to Kent momentarily. How had he known where Lois' desk was located? Had he been here before? One thing was certain. Lois had a heck of a lot of explaining to do.

"Your office," Lois said without responding and for a moment, Perry almost thought she sounded annoyed at him. But really... what had she expected bringing that slime-ball into his newsroom?

***

Lois wasn't entirely certain she'd ever been more furious with Perry in her entire life. Watching her husband walk away, she'd been able to feel his pain. Probably more than any of the other things he'd undoubtedly heard or seen since coming into the Planet, Perry's attitude had hurt him most of all.

She stomped into Perry's office and then turned, waiting for him to come in and close the door.

"I trust you have one hell of a good explanation for this," Perry said. "You're the last person I'd expect to be ignoring my order not to fraternize with the enemy! Hell, I should be handing you your pink slip right now! So... Give me one good reason why I shouldn't?"

Lois' own fury was suddenly replaced by confusion. What was he talking about? Sure, Perry didn't allow his reporters to give stories to Star employees. But never had he as much as hinted that his reporters shouldn't be friendly with reporters from other papers. In fact, before Clark had come along, Perry had been known to encourage her to go to conferences and other events where reporters socialized -- she suspected in hopes that she'd find something beyond work that might interest her.

Suddenly, she had a flash of something. Perry, standing in the conference room, his eyes flaming as he told his people that as of that moment, any reporter caught socializing with anyone from The Star would find themselves unemployed.

"Are you just going to stand there all day, or are you going to answer me?" Perry demanded.

She quickly brought her mind back to the present. "He's helping me with a story, Perry."

"What!" Perry demanded. He spun around, storming towards the door to his office.

"Wait!" Lois said, jumping to her feet and grabbing his arm to stop him. "Where are you going?"

"To throw out the trash!"

"No!" Desperation took over. She had to win this argument. But how could she when she didn't even understand the topic of discussion?

"What do you mean, 'No'? This is my newsroom. And I will not have that man here. We'll talk about what we're going to do with you later. I'm thinking dog shows for a start!"

"Perry, please!" she begged.

Something in her tone seemed to confuse him. He stopped, studying her for a moment. "Maybe you'd better start talking." The anger had disappeared from his voice as concern seemed to take over.

Okay, so at least that was good. He obviously still thought of her as a daughter in this skewed version of reality. She could make use of that. She let go of his arm, sinking slowly onto the couch.

He walked over, taking a seat next to her -- finally really ready to hear what she had to say. Only problem was that she had no idea what that should be. Suddenly, what Clark had overheard when they'd entered the building popped into her mind. 'What is she doing with him?' She quickly composed her thoughts. She couldn't be certain of course. But she was only going to get one chance at this.

"You know how I feel about Cl... Kent," she said. "You know I wouldn't have brought him here if I didn't have a good reason." She glanced up at him and was relieved when she realized that he was nodding knowingly.

"Okay," Perry said slowly, "then tell me what this good reason is."

Lois let out a breath, looking into his eyes beseechingly. "I can't, Perry."

"You can't?" There was a touch of warning in Perry's voice.

"I wish I could. You would be so much help." But if she told him the truth, he'd be packing her off to an asylum so fast it would make her head spin. "I'm sorry. I can't."

"And this is for a story?"

Lois hesitated. If she said yes, he would be well within his rights to demand an explanation. "Not exactly. But we do need to use the Planet's resources."

Perry's eyebrows rose.

"This is my life, Perry," Lois instantly pleaded. "I can't tell you what's going on. But if I can't get to the bottom of this, I'll lose everything." She didn't have to fake the tears that appeared in her eyes on that last statement. "Please. Just trust me?" The final statement was both a question and a desperate plea.

She bit her lower lip, waiting while Perry studied her in silence for a long moment.

"And you need Kent to do this?" he finally asked.

She nodded.

He seemed to study her forever before letting out a breath. "Okay, fine. But I'm making you responsible for Kent. Don't leave him alone anywhere where he could do any damage."

"He won't, Perry. He needs to get to the bottom of this just as much as I do."

She could almost see the wheels turning in Perry's mind as he tried to work out a plausible scenario that would fit with what he was being told. Not that she had any fear that he would somehow stumble on the truth. After all, who could possibly guess that she was trying to fix whatever had gone so terribly wrong in her past?

"Okay. Then git. I don't want that man in my newsroom one minute longer than absolutely necessary."

"Thanks, Perry," Lois said, rising to her feet.

She was at the door to Perry's office when his voice stopped her.

"Just be careful, honey," he said, glancing out his office window to where Kent was sitting quietly at her desk. Her eyes followed his. "Don't trust him. He'll turn on you faster than a prom boy in the back seat of his father's Chevy if he thinks it will benefit him. Just keep in mind what he's done to you in the past."

Lois fought the desire to ask what he'd done in the past. It would raise too many questions. "Don't worry, Perry. I'll be okay."

As she exited the newsroom, she tried to ignore the eyes that were on her. Obviously, everyone was wondering about the outcome of her meeting with Perry and were waiting to find out for themselves what would happen to either her or Clark now that it was over.

"Hey! Back to work, everyone!" Perry yelled behind her. "This is a newsroom, not Masterpiece Theater!"

Lois let out a breath of relief when the normal din of the newsroom quickly returned.

***

Lois sat down on the corner of her desk and glanced around, making sure that no one was too close before whispering to her husband, "I suppose you heard all of that."

Clark nodded glumly.

Lois automatically reached towards him, intending to rub his arm, but pulled back at the last moment, looking apologetically at Clark.

Clark gave her a sad smile. "It's just... I've never heard Perry talk like that about anyone." He paused. "Except maybe Luthor."

"That's because Lex attacked the Daily Planet."

"So what did I do that could make him hate me as badly as Luthor?" Clark asked.

Lois started to reach out towards him again, before catching sight of Ralph. He was watching them intently. Her hand dropped once again. "Let's go into the conference room," she said, rising from the corner of her desk.

***

Clark shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Jimmy hadn't taken his eyes off him since being summoned to the conference room. Clark was almost certain he wouldn't have even come except out of respect for... or maybe fear of Lois. Still, the look in the younger man's eyes said it all. He didn't like that Clark was in the newsroom. And he liked it even less that he was being forced to help him.

"Jimmy! Did you hear what I said?" Lois demanded when Jimmy just continued to stand there, staring at Clark.

Jimmy's eyes finally left him to settle on Lois.

"So? Git!" Lois said, gesturing towards the door.

She'd asked Jimmy to set up a couple of computers for their use in the conference room.

Jimmy hesitated a moment before reluctantly turning to do as commanded.

"And get a move on it!" Lois said as he left the room.

"Look, Lois," Clark said when the door was closed behind his 'friend,' "maybe I should leave. I could try checking out The Star while you see what you can find here."

"We do this together," Lois said with determination. "If we can't find what we need here, we go to The Star. I'm sure I won't be any more welcomed there than you are here."

"But the people at The Star... They aren't your friends. They aren't people you care deeply about. I just think..."

Lois reached out, taking his hand. "I know how hard this is for you, Clark. But we will figure it out. Besides, I don't think we should separate. It just... scares me a bit."

Clark stared at her for a moment before nodding.

"I just thought of something else we need to tell Jimmy," Lois said. "We should get him to link us up to The Star -- so that we can access any articles you've written for them. I don't know if they're on line yet, so he might have to get creative." With that, Lois strode towards the door.

"You can tell him when he gets back," Clark said, but he was talking to himself.

He lowered his glasses and watched his wife walk across the newsroom to where Jimmy was pilfering the necessary items. She hadn't left to tell Jimmy about some additional access they were going to need. No, the look on Lois' face told him that Lois had something to say to their younger friend.

Still, he didn't listen in. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what she might have to say. Besides, he'd learned enough over the years to know there were certain times when he'd better honor his wife's privacy -- or face her wrath. Instinct told him this was one of those times.

***

Chapter Seven

"Do you want to tell me what that was all about in there?" Lois said, causing Jimmy to look up from where he was unhooking the computer cables.

"You know full well what that was about! How could you bring him in here after what he did to Perry?"

Lois remained silent for a moment, desperately hoping that Jimmy would elaborate. When he didn't, she let out a breath. Although she knew, without any doubt, that Clark would never hurt Perry -- at least deliberately -- no matter how they had changed the past, it was obvious that people here didn't know that. And right now, she couldn't exactly correct the impression -- especially without knowing what had happened.

But that didn't mean she could stand the way their colleagues were making Clark feel. Watching people hurt her husband brought out every protective instinct she possessed. The Man of Steel might be invulnerable, but Clark Kent was not. She knew that better than most. He had one of the gentlest, most sensitive hearts she'd ever known. And to watch it being broken was more than she could bear.

Still, how could she explain any of that to Jimmy?

She let out a breath. "Okay, fair enough," Lois said finally. "I get it. You don't like him."

"Do you?" Jimmy asked incredulously.

Lois ignored his question, deciding to believe it was rhetorical. "Perry has approved his being here. And I really do need his help. So can't you just put your feelings on the back burner for now?" When he just continued to look at her, she continued. "Please, Jimmy. It's really important. Do it for me?"

Jimmy shifted a bit uncomfortably.

"Jimmy?"

"I'll try," Jimmy finally conceded.

Lois hesitated for a moment before nodding. It was probably the best she was going to get. "By the way, I wanted to ask you something."

"What?"

"Do you know the combination to my locker? I need to get in there."

"No. Don't you know it?"

"I seem to have forgotten it. Any ideas on how I might figure it out?"

Jimmy shrugged.

"Well, it was worth a shot. Okay, so how about you..."

"So what's this I hear about you having brought Kent in here?" asked a smooth male voice with a French accent.

The voice seemed familiar, but she couldn't immediately place it. She turned around and had to fight back a gasp. He was older than she remembered, but there was no mistaking the man standing there, casually leaning against Jimmy's desk. "Claude," she said, "where did you come from?"

"I was out on a story," Claude replied. "So what exactly are you and Kent doing in the conference room, cherie? You wouldn't be showing him the road to paradise, now would you? I'd be broken hearted if I thought you were sharing our secrets with another."

Lois felt heat rise up her face and into her hairline as her mind took her back to that night shortly after she'd first started working for the Daily Planet. She and Claude had been working late in the conference room when it had happened. It had been ages before she'd been able to enter the conference room without thinking about it. In fact, during the months that followed, before Claude had transferred to the Daily Planet's Paris bureau, every time she and Claude had been in there, alone or with a crowd, he'd been sure to remind her. Sometimes with a crude word in her ear. Sometimes with a wink or a pointed look at the table. Even after they'd broken up.

He stepped closer and she found herself taking an involuntary step back. "Don't you miss those times, cherie?" he asked, keeping his voice low and seductive. "Why do we not enjoy each other like that anymore?"

She let out a breath of relief. From his comments, even in this skewed reality it seemed they were no longer lovers -- not that she could even imagine forgiving him for sneaking out of her bed and stealing her story. Still, a lot could have happened -- had obviously happened -- since she had changed the past.

But... what was Claude doing back here? When had he come back? This was something she definitely did not need to deal with right now -- any more than she had needed it when Claude had returned to work at the Planet. Two disasters had befallen her within days of each other. First, she'd met Clark Kent and then Claude had been called back from Paris to fill the current gap in the newsroom.

Or... wait! Meeting Clark hadn't been a disaster. So what...

Suddenly, it hit her. Those double memories. Of course. Clark hadn't been hired, so Perry had obviously raided the Paris office to bring Claude back to fill the gap in the newsroom. Given that Claude had previously worked the city beat in Metropolis, he appeared to be the obvious choice. He must have been here ever since.

She finally chanced a look at Jimmy. He was completely ignoring Claude. Okay, good. It seemed that maybe, just maybe, he'd heard enough of Claude's innuendo filled comments over the years that he didn't even react to them. Then that was how she would treat them, too.

"Give it a rest, Claude," Lois said, trying to sound bored. "Jimmy, how long before we can have those computers?"

"It'll be a few more minutes."

"Good."

Ignoring Claude, she turned back towards the conference room. She was glad when he didn't make any further comments, simply allowing her to walk away. Until they got this matter sorted out, she would simply pretend that Claude did not exist.

***

"So that's Claude," Clark said, looking over the top of his glasses. "Wonder if anyone would object if I just used a little bit of heat vision to set his shoes on fire?"

Lois gave him a swat. "Forget about Claude. He's not important. We've got to quit delaying and get to work. So... any luck finding it?"

He turned his attention to the computer screen. "No. It doesn't seem to be here."

Lois nodded. "Okay, then -- what we know so far is that you must have come to the Planet when you first arrived in Metropolis. After all, you knew who Jimmy and I were by the time you rescued us in the warehouse at EPRAD. But if the article about the razing of the old theater on Forty-Second Street isn't there, then you never returned after that initial interview. But..."

"Wait!"

"What? Did you find something?" Lois leaned over his shoulder to stare at the screen. "Woman Killed In Destruction of Theater," she read. "What...?"

"Beatrice," Clark said, continuing to read the article. His name was not on the byline, but he still devoured every word. "I can't believe it. Not that great old woman."

"She's the one you interviewed, isn't she?" Lois said, continuing to read the story. "But why would she have died?"

"In our reality when I went to the theater, looking for the story, they were just starting up the wrecking ball. I heard something coming from inside the theater. A woman's voice. So I took a peek inside. Beatrice was up on the stage, reciting from The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. I guess she snuck past the barriers unnoticed. Anyway, I quickly blew the belt out on the wrecking ball so that they wouldn't start demolition while she was still inside the building. I went inside and she and I started talking. I made sure that she was out of the theater before the demolition began. And the rest, as they say, is history... or was history... or... isn't history." A slightly confused look crossed Clark's brow as he struggled with that thought for a moment.

"So you must not have gone to Forty-Second Street that morning and because you didn't, you weren't there to rescue her. As a result, she was still inside when they began demolition. But... Can you remember why you didn't go?"

Clark concentrated for a minute before shaking his head.

"Okay, so we keep going," Lois said, trying to sound upbeat. Why didn't they have just a little bit more control over these memories? It seemed that for a memory to return, there had to be some sort of trigger, some reminder -- whether it be Claude showing up unexpectedly or Perry's reaction to her bringing Clark into the newsroom. And if that was the case... "Let's take a look at the stories we each did about the Space Program. It might trigger something else. Something that we hadn't thought of before."

Clark nodded, turning back to the screen as Lois took a seat at the second computer.

"Why don't you look at your stories for The Star? I'll look at mine for the Planet. Then we'll compare notes."

***

"Yes!" Lois exclaimed, punching her fist into the air in triumph, before realizing what she'd just done and looking over at Clark sheepishly. "I just meant..." Her voice trailed off. It had been more than obvious what she had meant.

Clark smiled. "It's okay, Lois. I'd expect you to be excited. After all, we both know how much you enjoy getting the scoop."

"But why didn't you get the EPRAD story, too, Clark?" she asked. "After all, we've already established that you were in that warehouse."

"Think about it, Lois. How would I have ever been able to explain being there?"

Lois bit her lip, nodding slowly. The warehouse had been demolished. There was no way he could have survived if he had been in there, listening to her conversation with Baines. And if he had admitted to being there, it would have begged the obvious question: why hadn't he been killed during the explosion.

So keeping his peace and letting her get the story really had been his only option. Suddenly, her victory at getting the scoop didn't seem quite so sweet.

"So let's just see what comes next," Clark said, seeing her expression change.

Lois nodded and they both returned to their research.

Clark was the one who found something next. A story in The Star about the invisible Robin Hood. A story with Clark's sole byline. There was no such matching story under Lois' byline in the Daily Planet.

"I remember that story," Lois said.

"I should hope so. After all, it was our story."

"No, I remember what happened in this reality. The news media was full of stories about some invisible Robin Hood. Jimmy tried to convince me to follow up on it. Morris' wife even stopped by the Planet. She'd heard a lecture I'd given at her women's group: 'The Weaker Sex: Fact or Fiction.'"

"I'd have loved to hear that lecture. Actually, I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall the day you were given the topic for that lecture."

Lois swatted him. "Anyway, I completely brushed her off when she claimed to be the invisible man's wife. After all, as I told Jimmy over and over again during that time, 'There's no such thing as..."

"...an invisible man,'" Clark completed for her before smiling.

Lois met his smile with one of her own. "Anyway, when you broke the story... I think that's when I started to realize that, no matter what I thought of you at the time, you were competition. I swore right then that you would never beat me to another story."

"And did I?"

Lois thought for a moment before shrugging. "I imagine you did," she admitted, realizing from Clark's smile that he took her admission as a compliment. "But I can't remember at the moment."

Clark nodded. "Okay, so let's keep going. Or... wait! I, too, remember something about that story."

"What?"

"It was the first time I met Dr. Klein."

She crinkled her eyebrows.

"I took the material I found at Helene Morris' house to Star Labs and he was the one who examined it. But in our reality, I took it to Dr. Hamilton."

"So that's changed," Lois said before yelling, "Jimmy!"

"What?"

"Well, since we ran into Hamilton in 1992, there might be something there."

Clark nodded.

"Jimmy," Clark said when the young man appeared in the doorway, "find out everything you can about Dr. Emile Hamilton since 1992." It was only after he'd spoken that he realized that he probably should have let Lois make the request.

Jimmy simply nodded and left.

"What did you say to him?" Clark asked once they were again alone. "I mean, he wasn't exactly friendly, but..."

Lois shrugged. "Okay, so while we wait for that, let's see what else we can find."

The first headline they found had Lois' name on the byline: 'Fighter Tommy Garrison Surgically Enhanced." She and Clark stared at the headline or a moment, but when nothing of particular interest came to them about the story, they quickly moved on.

Lois studied her next headline for a long moment. There was nothing different about the headline itself -- except that only her byline was attached to it. But there was something there. She could feel it pulling at the edges of her brain.

'Arson Runs Rampant In Riverview.'

"Too much alliteration," Lois mumbled under her breath.

"What?" asked Clark, looking up from where he was studying his computer.

"Clark, have you found any stories about the Toaster fires yet?"

"I was just getting there," he said. "Firefighters Fight Futile," he read off his screen.

"And I thought the Daily Planet's headline was bad," she said. "Is your name on that story?"

He glanced back. "Yeah. Why?"

"Because there's something there," she said. "I just can't quite put my finger on it."

"I think I might remember something," Clark said.

"So... don't keep me waiting! What is it?"

"I can remember how frustrated I was. I kept thinking how much more I could help if people knew what I could do."

"But that didn't stop you." It wasn't a question.

He shook his head. "I did what I could to help the firefighters, but... It never felt as if it were quite enough."

"But even as Superman you felt that way, didn't you? I can remember seeing Superman on the news and he looked as if he were about at his wit's end."

Clark nodded. "Luthor was certainly enjoying it, too. I can remember him, in our reality, taking the opportunity to knock Superman's abilities to the press -- subtly, of course."

"Of course. But... do you remember anything else from this reality?"

"Yeah. There was talk that organized crime was somehow involved in the fires. I decided to go down and check it out."

"I remember now," Lois said, beginning her recitation about this altered case.

***

"What the hell is 'he' doing here?" Lois wondered under her breath. And that disguise! Please! As if anyone who knew him would be fooled by that fake beard or that black toque. I mean, it would be like taking off his glasses and styling his hair differently and expecting people not to recognize him. Who exactly did he think he was, anyway? Popeye the Sailor Man? She ducked back into a hallway, out of sight, wondering how she could avoid being seen.

"Five minutes!" someone yelled backstage.

She glanced around the entrance way, looking again at Kent when she heard him raise his voice. He appeared to be in some sort of disagreement with the bartender.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Kent said, causing a number of heads to turn in his direction.

From his exaggerated movements, it was obvious that he was drunk. She rolled her eyes in disgust. Drinking on the job. He really was just some unscrupulous hack. Getting the invisible Robin Hood story must have just been a fluke.

She watched as Toni Taylor stepped towards him. Lois smiled. He'd be out of there faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, leaving her to find the story. Satisfied, she turned to walk backstage when the sound of the doors to the Metro Club swinging open startled her.

She looked back just in time to see four figures, dressed in metallic outfits and matching hoods and masks burst in. Her first impression was that they looked a little like asbestos cat burglars. In their hands were some sort of weapons.

"Johnny, you're a dead man!" one of the cat burglars shouted. The words still hung in the air when a stream of fire was discharged from the end of the weapon in the man's hands.

Lois took an automatic step forward, as if instinct told her to push Johnny Taylor out of the line of fire. She gasped when Kent seemed to get there first. Leaping over a table with the ease of a gymnast rather than the drunken fool he'd appeared to be moments before, he tackled Johnny to the ground. Lois gasped when the fire hit Kent's back, setting the back of his coat on fire.

But without more than a quick shrug to divest himself of the garment, Kent rose, turning to examine the rest of the club. While Lois watched, transfixed by Kent's apparent control of the situation, Kent spotted Toni trapped behind the bar. With a leap Lois wouldn't have believed had she not seen it with her own eyes, Kent vaulted the bar, picked Toni up and carried her to safety.

"Out! Everyone!" Kent yelled, as he set Toni down on her feet. Suddenly, Kent spotted Lois.

For a moment, he looked startled and then, without missing much more than a beat, he rushed forward, pushing her and Toni from the room.

The move forced her into action. He was right. The fire was quickly getting out of hand. They had to get out of there now. It wasn't until they were outside that she realized that Kent hadn't followed.

Turning, she rushed back into the building. She wasn't entirely sure why. But if he was still in there...

She ground to a halt when she spotted him just inside the entrance, staring back into the room. She was about to yell at him that he had to get out of there when she realized the place was no longer on fire. Smoke and fire damage could be seen all over the room, proving that she'd not been crazy in believing that the fire was extensive, but... there was no fire.

"How..." Lois began, before falling silent when Kent began to speak.

"I think we've just been introduced to the Toasters," Kent said, pointing to the burn pattern on the far wall.

***

"Okay," Lois said slowly. "So obviously we were both working on the same story. Clark, I have to tell you, I've got a bad feeling about this."

Clark nodded slowly. So did he. They'd had enough problems working on that story as partners. But if they'd been working for different papers... He hardly dared to speculate. However, he didn't have to since Lois had already picked up the tale again.

***

Clark Kent was definitely an enigma, Lois Lane decided as she worked with the other employees of the Metro Club to get things cleaned up. That leap over the bar had been almost super-human. Adrenalin, obviously. Still... there was something... not quite right about Kent. One minute he'd been acting like some sort of drunken fool; the next he'd taken charge, moving like some sort of super man. Obviously, he had been acting earlier. It figured, she guessed. After all, he had 'innocent' down to an art form.

*

***

"What does that mean?" Clark asked.

Lois merely shrugged and returned to her tale.

***

*

Not that it particularly mattered to her what the deal was with Kent, of course. The only thing that mattered about Kent at the moment was that she'd managed to lose him when the police had questioned him about the fire. Now, she only needed to get the story before he had a chance to return -- assuming he even did. Hopefully, he would think he already had the story -- that someone was challenging the Metro Club for control of the Riverview Area. But there was more to this story. She could almost smell it. And she was the one who was in place to get it.

Her thoughts were interrupted when she saw Toni and her gang disappearing into their inner sanctum. After quickly pouring some drinks and putting them on a tray, she turned towards the room. She had just arrived at the door when a man stopped her.

"Beat it," he said, before closing the door in her face.

She looked around, making sure no one was watching her. Then she slipped through a doorway backstage. When she'd been in Johnny's inner sanctum the day before, serving drinks, Johnny had shot into the wall a number of times. Maybe, just maybe... She moved a few dishes that were piled on one of the shelves and smiled. Bingo. The bullet holes allowed her to see and hear into the room where Johnny and his thugs were meeting.

"First thing we gotta do is find out who these guys are and arrange a little payback," Johnny said.

"I don't think so," his sister, Toni, responded.

Lois already knew that Toni wasn't happy with the way Johnny was running the gang. Still, when she'd stood up to him the day before, he'd shot up the room. So who knew what would happen now?

"Hey, I'm talking here," Johnny said.

"Not any more," Toni said. "Your days of speaking for this organization are through. As of now, you're out."

"Says who? You?" Johnny said, laughing as he pulled out his gun.

Suddenly, everyone else in the room was also holding a gun -- all of them pointed directly at Johnny. Johnny looked startled for a moment before lowering his gun.

"Get him out of here," Toni said.

Lois gasped. She'd just witnessed Johnny Taylor being replaced as the head of the Metro Gang -- and by a woman, too. Oh, this was going to make one great story. But why? What was Toni planning?

"I know some of you want to go back to the way things were when my father was alive," Toni said. "But that's not going to happen. We've got an opportunity to move our organization to the next level. Out of the back room and into the boardroom. If any of you disagree, you can always join Johnny in retirement. Any questions?"

When none was forthcoming, Lois quickly moved the dishes back in front of the bullet holes. She had to get out there -- and write the story. She smiled. At least she'd scooped Kent. But then, that was to be expected.

*

***

"Oh, honey, I love you," Clark said, laughingly pulling her out of her story.

"What?" Lois asked, surprised.

"Your excitement over scooping me on the story."

"I was just telling you what I thought back then."

He laughed again, pulling her into his arms. In spite of the awkwardness caused by the chairs, she came willingly enough, although she was still acting slightly prickly after his accusation.

"Sure you were," he said, smiling at her. "And the pride I heard in your voice when you were telling me about it... I suppose that was just my imagination."

"Absolutely," she said defensively, although the corners of her mouth twitched slightly on the word.

"Have I told you lately how much I love you?" he asked.

"I'd prefer if you showed me instead," she said, moving closer until her lips were on his. His response was quite enthusiastic.

In fact, both were so caught up in the kiss that they failed to hear anyone coming. The conference room door opened with a crash.

Lois leapt out of her chair and spun towards the open door.

Jimmy!

"We were just... I was just... It wasn't..." Lois hesitated as an awkward silence descended on the room. Deciding that a diversion was her only remaining maneuver since she was never going to be able to explain away what Jimmy had obviously seen, she changed tactics. "So what do you have for us, Jimmy?"

***

Chapter Eight

"I have information you asked for about Dr. Hamilton," Jimmy said.

"Thanks, Jimmy," she responded, not quite able to meet his eyes as she took the file.

But why was she feeling guilty about this? Clark was her husband, for crying out loud! She had every right to kiss her husband -- even if Jimmy didn't know all that.

"Anything else?" Jimmy asked, his tone an accusation.

"Not at the moment," Lois said. "Thanks, Jimmy."

Jimmy simply grunted as he turned around and walked from the room, not bothering to shut the door behind him.

Lois stepped forward and slowly closed it before turning around to look at Clark.

"You're feeling guilty, aren't you?" Clark said.

"Yes. But, in heaven's name, I don't have the foggiest idea why."

"Well, it could just be the way Jimmy was looking at you."

"It was more than that, Clark. I felt as if I had just been caught committing treason."

"Treason?"

"Yes, Clark. Treason. I can't explain it, but it's almost as if..." Her voice trailed off.

"You're feeling two different things," Clark completed for her.

"Exactly!" she responded. "Part of me knows that you're my husband and yet another part..."

"...thinks of me as the enemy."

The expression she shot him was one full of agony. "Not exactly, but... Oh, god, I don't know how to describe it. I just know that I hate feeling guilty about getting caught kissing my husband. And what if Jimmy tells people what he saw? What if he tells Perry?" She felt panic begin to rise in her chest.

"Lois, calm down. You know that Jimmy would never do that. He's far too loyal to you."

"He was in our reality."

"And he has a bit of a crush on you."

"You know that?" she asked, suddenly distracted out of her panic. She'd never told Clark about Jimmy's awkward confession when they'd been tied to Larry Smiley's lightning rod. So how did Clark know that Jimmy had a crush on her?

Clark chuckled. "Lois, I don't think there's anyone at the Planet who doesn't have a bit of a crush on you. On the other hand, I might be a little bit biased."

Moisture clouded her vision as her guilt began to melt to be replaced with a feeling of adoration. "You, Clark Kent, are a romantic fool."

"I hope that's a good thing."

She smiled. "Trust me. It is. So... Wait!"

"What?"

"Well... Jimmy. What if in this reality, he and I... It would certainly explain why I felt so guilty when he caught us."

"You and Jimmy?" Clark asked skeptically.

They both thought about that possibility for a moment.

"Nah," the both said in unison.

"Okay, so let's get back to work," Lois said. "The sooner we get this straightened out, the sooner I can go back to kissing my husband without feeling guilty about it." She forced herself to push away any lingering feelings of guilt. She was not about to accept the emotions that this new reality seemed to be forcing on her. She was in love with her husband. Deeply, madly, passionately. And no... mistake in the past was going to change that. And besides, with the two of them working together, it wouldn't be long now before they had everything fixed. "So which should we do first? Do you want to finish figuring out what happened with our investigations of the Metro Gang? Or do you want to look at this file about Dr. Hamilton?"

"Let's finish up with what we remember about the Metro Gang -- to be sure that we don't forget again. After all, when you were talking, I remembered some things too."

"Really?"

He nodded before beginning. "I hadn't been planning to go back to the Metro Club," he began. "I figured that if the Toasters had hit them, then that indicated that they were victims as much as everyone else in the area."

"So what changed your mind?"

"Your article. When I saw what you had that I didn't -- that Toni had taken over -- I got worried."

"Worried? Oh, because you were afraid of being scooped."

"No. I was worried about you. The Metro Gang were mobsters, honey! I wasn't about to let you investigate them alone."

Lois looked down, silently chewing on her lower lip. She knew what he was telling her. His concern for her. His feelings, even. And yet, she also knew that she had not returned his feelings. Not at all. In fact, from her recollection, she'd pretty much despised him.

Clark didn't seem to notice Lois' distraction as he continued with his thought. "So when Toni Taylor called and said she wanted to see me, I returned to the Metro Club."

***

Things at the Metro Club were looking better than they had the day before. In fact, with a few more hours of work, it would be hard to tell that the place had ever been hit by the Toasters. If not for the fact that the work wasn't quite finished, and for Clark's super-nose, he might have been fooled himself. Not that the smells from the fire weren't being covered up by the noxious paint fumes even as he stood there.

He spotted Toni sitting by the bar talking intently to a man. By the look on her face, and the intensity of her posture, it was obvious this was an important conversation. Clark quickly activated his super hearing.

"Since when is Metro business frontpage news?" Toni asked.

"Since the Toasters declared war on us," the man responded.

"I don't mean that. I mean information that could only have come from our meeting -- that I'm the new head of the Metros."

Uh oh... So Toni Taylor had read Lane's story.

"Could Johnny have leaked it?" Toni asked.

"Uh uh. We put him on a plane, just like you said."

"Then it's someone else. Find him. Fast. We can't afford this kind of exposure."

The bartender from the previous night approached the duo cautiously. He waited until Toni looked up at him before speaking. "It's the guy from last night," the bartender said, gesturing towards Clark. "You said you wanted to see him?"

Toni looked towards the door and Clark smiled in her direction. "Send him over," Toni said before turning and dismissing her companion. As Clark walked towards her, he noticed that her eyes didn't stay on his face. Was she checking him out?

***

"Yeah. Yeah. Okay, I get it. You got a job as a bartender and Toni had the hots for you. Why don't you just move on with your story?"

"Are you jealous?" Clark asked, obviously amused.

"Of Toni Taylor? Please! Not then. Not now. It's just that I already know all that. Let's get to the parts that are different."

Clark nodded before jumping ahead in the story. "It was early evening and I had just come back from renting a tux and removing my beard -- after all, Toni had instructed me to get some new clothes and a shave -- when you approached the bar and asked for a soda."

***

*

"Coming right up," Clark said.

At the sound of his voice, Lane looked up at him in surprise.

"What are you doing here?" she blurted out, looking afterwards as if she wished for all the world that she could take the words back.

"My job," Clark answered. "You're looking at the Metro Club's newest bartender."

"Charlie!" Toni said, coming up to the bar.

"Charlie?" Lane echoed.

"I hardly recognized you," Toni said.

"Join the club," Lane breathed only loud enough for Clark to hear.

"Just getting to know the help," Clark responded.

"Not too well, I hope," Toni said, giving Lane a dirty look.

"Beat it, kid. I gotta go to work," Clark said, giving Lane a swat on the butt to dismiss her, determined to stay in character. Still, from the look she gave him in return, the way her eyes smoldered with anger, he had no doubt that she hadn't appreciated his action.

***

"Hadn't appreciated it?" Lois asked. "Clark, I was completely infuriated. Although I'd certainly disagree with you about having 'smoldering' eyes. Who even thinks like that?"

"You were infuriated? In our reality or this one?"

"Both. But in this one, it just confirmed what a scumbag you actually were. But skip ahead -- to when we got caught in the closet. Or did we? I can't remember. But something tells me it's important. Do you remember?"

He nodded before continuing with his story.

***

Clark's eyebrows rose when he saw Lex Luthor enter the club and join Toni at one of the tables. Following the story about the space station, Clark had been keeping an eye on Luthor. But so far, he'd not found any evidence to indicate that Luthor was anything but the philanthropist he portrayed himself to be. But if he was meeting with the new leader of the Metro Club, something was going on. Something had to be. After all, wasn't Luthor currently buying up real estate in Riverview for some big redevelopment project he had planned?

He tuned in his superhearing to eavesdrop on the conversation. But before he could hear what they were talking about, a drum roll caused him to flinch and cover his ears. That had actually managed to hurt!

"Ladies and Gentlemen," an announcer said, "the Metro Club proudly presents Miss Lola Dane."

*

***

"Skip ahead, Clark," Lois demanded. "Luthor showed up. I sang 'I've Got a Crush on You' and... what happened next?"

"Well, for a moment I didn't make the connection that you knew Luthor. After all, for all I knew, you and Luthor had never met. But then I saw you falter when you spotted him in the crowd. Nice recovery, by the way. That was when I remembered seeing you dancing with him at the White Orchid Ball. So I realized that he knew who you were. And he was meeting with Toni Taylor. So as soon as your number was over, I rushed back stage."

***

"Ms. Lane," Clark said, causing Lane to spin towards him.

"It's Ms. Dane," she hissed at him.

"Sorry... I..." His voice trailed off as he took in the image of her in that evening dress. He couldn't help but slowly run his eyes down her body to take in the full picture.

"What?"

Clark was jolted back to the world around him by the sound of her voice. What was it about this woman that flustered him whenever he was in her presence? So... what had he wanted to say again? You look beautiful? Well, she did. But he didn't think she'd exactly appreciate the compliment. I never realized how sexy you were? And she was, too. Soft. Seductive.

***

Clark smiled when his wife stroked his cheek. After taking a moment to lean over and give her a kiss, he returned to his story.

***

"What?" she demanded again, more impatiently this time.

"Uhh..."

Lane began to walk away when he suddenly remembered what he had wanted to say. But did he dare say it out there? He grabbed her arm, pulling her into a supply closet.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Kent?"

"Luthor! Didn't you see him?"

"Of course I saw him."

"Get out of here now. Don't even stop to get your things."

"What are you trying to do? Scare me off this story. Lex Luthor is a friend of mine. He would never do anything to hurt me and he's way too smart to let anything slip."

"I don't trust him."

"Well, I don't trust you, so I guess we're even."

"What is he doing here anyway?"

"If I knew, do you think I'd tell you? Now if you don't mind, I've got to get ready for my next number."

She broke Clark's hold on her and turned towards the door when it suddenly flew open, revealing that Toni was standing in the doorway.

"Interesting place for a bartender," Toni said. "Run out of olives?"

***

"You didn't," Lois said, interrupting Clark's story when it suddenly occurred to her what must have come next. He'd done the same thing as he'd done in their reality.

Clark cringed. "I'm afraid so."

'Clark, it was bad enough when we were on the same team. But to turn me in when we were working for different papers..." Lois fell silent as she suddenly remembered for herself what happened next.

***

"Here she is," Kent said, holding onto Lois. "Your leak. Lois Lane, reporter for the Daily Planet."

Lois was furious. He'd been warning her to get out before Lex could betray her and now he was doing the exact same thing. How dare he? For all he knew, Toni was mentally fitting her for concrete shoes even now.

***

"But if I recall correctly," Clark said slowly, searching this new memory. "This time, you didn't exactly go quietly."

Lois nodded slowly as she too recalled the altered events.

***

"Traitor!" Lois exclaimed, as she attempted to jerk her arm out of Kent's grasp.

"Guess I'll have to find another singer," Toni said. "Good work."

"Maybe you should find another bartender, too," Lois responded. "Allow me to introduce you to Clark Kent, reporter for The Metropolis Star."

***

"I can't believe you did that," Clark said, bringing both of them back to the present.

"I can't believe 'you' did that," Lois responded. "What else was I supposed to do? You were kicking me out of the game. There was no way I could let you get away with that."

"I would have given you any information I got. We were a team."

"No we weren't, Clark! That's the whole point, isn't it?"

Clark let out a breath. She was right. They weren't a team. Not in this reality. In this new reality, they were rivals.

"Besides, that was, at least in my mind, the second time you had turned me in. I had to answer back. I had to let you know that you couldn't do that to me and walk away scot free."

"The second time?"

"The first time was when you told officials that I had snuck onto the shuttle. But I told you that later that same evening," she said, thinking back once again. "I phoned Jimmy and told him I needed your address.'"

***

"Clark Kent?" Jimmy asked.

"Yeah -- he works for the Metropolis Star."

"Can you hold for a minute?"

"Sure."

She waited impatiently in the phone booth across from the Metropolis Club, brushing the rotting vegetables out of her evening dress. She was never going to get this dress clean again.

Still, Kent had taken the worst of it. When one of the Metro Gang's thugs had grabbed her to toss her over his shoulder, not exactly caring where his hands landed, Kent had put up quite a struggle. She'd seen them land several blows to his face and torso. He'd only quit struggling when she'd been tossed into the dumpster. It was almost as if he hadn't been concerned about himself -- that his struggle had been because he believed that she was in danger.

She quickly pushed that thought from her mind. He'd been just as scared as she had. It really was a wonder that they were both still alive. Although, really, it wasn't as if either of them had anything solid linking the Metro Gang to the Toasters. In fact, all of the evidence seemed to go in the opposite direction.

Not that Toni Taylor would have known that. Or would she? After all, if either of them had the evidence they needed, they'd have left in order to write up the story.

So really, it wasn't exactly surprising that they had both been allowed to walk away, relatively unscathed. On the other hand, these were mobsters. And traditionally, mobsters were not known for being exactly appreciative of having people snoop into their business.

"So why do you need this?" Jimmy asked curiously, bringing Lois' mind back to the person on the other end of the line.

"Kent blew my cover. Metro Gang now knows who I am," Lois said.

"What? Is he working with them or something? Does he have any idea how dangerous that was? You are all right, aren't you? We aren't going to be pulling you out of Hobb's Bay in the morning, are we?"

"I'm fine, Jimmy. I wouldn't say the same for Kent when I get through with him."

Jimmy chuckled. "Okay, I got the address. You got a pen."

"I'll remember it."

"Okay, it's 377 Clinton Avenue."

"Got it. Thanks, Jimmy."

"No problem. And don't worry. If Kent's body turns up somewhere tomorrow morning, I'll deny this conversation ever happened."

Lois smiled for the first time since Kent had gotten them kicked out of the club. For heaven's sake, why couldn't he have faked them sharing a moment of passion? She shivered suddenly. What was she thinking? A moment of passion with that slimy pig?

No! Never! The man might be... okay looking -- if you liked that sort of guy, which she most definitely did not. But even if she had, he was a complete snake. He'd do anything to make sure she couldn't get the story -- even endanger her life. There was no way she could ever be attracted to a creep like that.

***

"Wait a minute!" Clark exclaimed suddenly. "I remember what happened next."

***

Clark pounded his fists down on the counter-top in his kitchen, only remembering at the last moment to temper his strength enough to prevent him from putting his fists through the surface. How could he have been so stupid? Blowing her cover, the very thing he'd been afraid that Luthor would do. And as a result, getting them both forcefully thrown out of there. He was only lucky that they hadn't been fitted for cement shoes. He should have pretended they were sharing a moment of passion or something.

Not that Lane would have liked him any better if he'd done that. But their covers wouldn't have been blown. And... he'd have at least gotten that one moment, that one kiss, to relish. Because it was obvious to him now that he had one heck of a crush on Lois Lane. The fact that she couldn't stand him seemed to have no effect on his feelings. Watching her sing, seeing her body move seductively to the music... For a moment there, he'd actually forgotten why they were there. All he'd wanted was for her to be singing those very tantalizing words to him instead of to Lex Luthor.

***

"Wait a minute!" Lois exclaimed. "I wasn't singing those words to Lex."

"No?" he asked skeptically. "That's not how it looked to me -- once you got over the shock of seeing him, of course."

"It was just a song, Clark. A song. Do you understand that?"

He raised his eyebrows.

She rolled her eyes in response. "Okay, so get on with your story," she finally said.

***

An insistent pounding on the door startled him out of his thoughts. He slipped his glasses down his nose and stared in disbelief as the door faded away and he saw Lois Lane standing outside. What could she possibly want?

Quickly, he bounded up the steps and opened the door.

"Are you insane?" she asked from outside his door.

"What?"

"I think it was a fairly straight forward question, Kent." She folded her arms across her chest. "We could both have been killed. Did you even think of that?"

Clark rolled his eyes, turning and walking back into his apartment. He was not about to stand on his doorstep and have a screaming match. If she wanted to continue yelling at him, then she could come inside.

Although, why he was not just closing his door on her, he wasn't entirely certain. Maybe it was because he suspected she'd just yell at him through the door. Or... much more likely, it was because he liked the way his heart raced when she was anywhere in the vicinity -- even if she was yelling at him.

As expected, she followed, slamming the door closed behind her.

"You rotten, back-stabbing piece of slime. You know, Kent, some people might be fooled by that innocent, boyish exterior. But not me. I know better."

"Would you like some tea, Ms. Lane. It's a calming herbal blend. I learned it from a medicine man in Fiji. The secret is the fresh mint."

"I don't suppose you care, but you've completely blown the story. For both of us."

"I don't suppose you care, but I really liked your song."

"What!" she exclaimed.

"You have a really great singing voice."

"What is this? You think I'm going to forget that you betrayed me by tossing out a few disposable compliments that you don't even mean my way? You really are an arrogant jerk, Kent."

"I do mean them, Lane," Clark responded, emphasizing her last name the way she had his.

"Yeah, sure. Well, okay then," Lane said sarcastically. "No problem. I'll forget all about how close you came to getting us both killed -- after all, you liked my singing."

Clark obviously infuriated her when he smiled in response.

"What are you smiling about?" Lane demanded immediately. "Don't you even recognize sarcasm when you hear it?"

"Hey, I took the brunt of the abuse they were handing out. And that wasn't because of my actions. You betrayed me too, Lane."

***

"So you're calling me 'Lane' now," Lois said, interrupting Clark's story. "Whatever happened to 'Ms. Lane?'"

"You're calling me Kent," he responded. "Now, are you going to let me get on with the story, or do you want to do it?"

"I'll do it," Lois said before proceeding to do just that.

***

"Of course I betrayed you," she said in disbelief. "That's the second time you've turned me in. Next time all I need to do is to find a way to betray you first -- and then at least we'll be even. The fact that you got beaten up worse than I did is..." Her voice trailed off in confusion. He didn't look beaten up. And she'd seen some of those blows he'd suffered. Her defiant expression turned thoughtful as she studied his face. Not a scratch that she could see. No bruises. No bloody lip. Nothing.

"How come you're not beaten up?" she suddenly blurted out, unable to help herself.

"What?" he asked, but there was something in his expression... fear? ...that told her she was onto something important.

"Your face. You don't have a scratch on you." She knew she was making it sound like an accusation. But... there was something wrong with this picture.

"Uhh... well, they didn't hit me in the face," he responded.

"Really?"

Without thinking it through, she stepped forward, and with lightning speed, grabbed the edges of his shirt and tore it open. Buttons popped off in all sorts of directions and she was suddenly staring at the most amazing chest she'd ever seen. Hard pecks. Washboard abs. Was that really a six pack? God, he looked like he'd been carved out of a piece of flawless marble. Without her realizing what she was doing, her eyes took a slow path down his chest, taking in every detail. Her mouth went dry and she had to mentally command her mouth to close.

"What are you doing?" Kent demanded.

"I'm... I'm... Uhh..." She blinked, forcing her mind off his muscles. After all, he was a creep. Now, why had she done that again? Oh, right. "Then why aren't there any bruises on your chest either?" She watched as Kent stepped back, pulling on the edges of his shirt uncomfortably.

"I don't bruise easily. You almost sound disappointed. I was trying to protect you, if you must know."

"Right!" Lois said, regaining her balance. "Like you weren't just as terrified as I was that they were looking for a couple of pairs of cement shoes."

"What was I supposed to do, Lane? She knew there was a leak. When she caught us together, I didn't have much choice. If you'd just kept your mouth shut, I would have shared whatever information I found with you."

"Yeah, right," she said on a half-snort. "And I suppose you've got a bridge in Brooklyn you'd like to sell me, too. Or maybe you prefer selling swamp land in Florida."

"If you're so smart, what would you have done?" he demanded, frustration rising in his voice.

"I'd have faked that we were sharing a moment of passion! Don't you have the least bit of imagination? Or don't you know what it is to have a 'moment of passion?' Not that I'd expect you to. After all, who would sleep with you?"

With her final words, something inside him snapped. He stormed in her direction, grabbing her shoulders and, before she could stop him, his lips claimed hers. He'd planned to pull back immediately, to ask her if that was what she meant -- along with some witty comment about 'faking it.' But then his lips were on hers and, after a moment of shock, he realized that she was responding, fisting her hands in his shirt as her lips began to move under his.

Oh, yes. Without his consciously commanding them to do it, Clark's hands left her shoulders, slipping down to wrap around her, pulling her to him. He groaned when, even as their kiss deepened, he felt her hands inside the open edges of his torn shirt.**

***

Chapter Nine

"Oh, no," Clark groaned. "I assaulted you."

"Hey, I assaulted you first. I tore your shirt open."

"Still..."

Her fingers on his lips ended what he'd been about to say. "It was just a kiss, Clark."

"Yeah, but what a kiss," Clark said, thinking back once again.

"What a kiss," Lois echoed as she remembered that moment.

***

There was nothing subtle about the kiss. It was passionate, powerful and demanding a response. How dare he... The thought trailed off when she realized that he was not the only one kissing. She was kissing him with the same desperate hunger that he was showing her. Searching out his mouth. Responding to his taste. Needing more. Damn, the man knew how to kiss!

As her hands slid up the hard muscles of his chest, she felt his hands slip lower, over the rounded curves of her buttocks before pulling her closer. Her form fitting evening dress did nothing to prevent her from feeling every inch of his body, pressing hard against her as her hands tangled in his hair.

What the hell did she think she was doing? She jumped back, breathing heavily.

They stood there staring at each other in disbelief for a long moment, both panting for breath, and then her hand, as if acting of its own volition, came up, slapping him hard across the cheek. Barely registering the sting in her hand, she found herself racing towards the door as fast as her trembling legs would carry her. She didn't look back until she was several blocks away from his apartment.

Finally, her pace slowed and then stopped. She stood on the sidewalk, bent over slightly as she steadied herself against a nearby building, shaking her still stinging hand.

"What the hell was that?" she asked herself in disbelief. In spite of the fact that he was an arrogant bastard, in spite of the fact that he'd betrayed her more than once, in spite of the fact that she hated him, and every man who was exactly like him, never had she experienced quite that intense a loss of control or that much desire.

Damn, Lucy was right. She needed to date more. Obviously, it had just been too long since she'd been with a man. Otherwise, there was no way he would have been able to get to her like that. In fact, he was probably sitting in his apartment, gloating over the way he'd forced her to respond.

Well, never again. She'd find a way to get even with Clark Kent if it was the last thing she ever did.

***

"I get the feeling that you really didn't like me," Clark said wistfully. "And let me tell you, I wasn't sitting in my apartment gloating. I was pretty much wrecked."

Lois' eyes met his, silently apologizing when she saw the slightly lost look in his eyes. She cleared her throat. This wasn't getting Vicky back. "Okay, so... what's next?"

Right. "Uhh... Well, I guess the obvious question is whether we managed to stop the Toasters."

"Right," Lois said, trying to focus her thoughts back on the subject at hand. "I can't seem to remember what happened then. So why don't we take a look, see what stories we eventually posted about the Toasters?"

Clark nodded and the room fell silent as they turned their attention back to their respective computers.

"Yes!" Lois said a moment later before looking over at Clark.

"I take it you got the story?"

She nodded. "What about you?"

He shook his head. "I got the story of the capture of the Toasters, but nothing about Toni Taylor. So do you remember how you got the story? After all, things didn't unfold exactly as they did in our reality."

"If I recall correctly, after I left your apartment, I decided to go back to the Metro Club. I thought maybe I could sneak in, take a look around. You know, see if there was any compromising paperwork lying around."

"Lo-is," Clark groaned.

"Don't worry, Clark. I didn't actually get around to breaking in. Toni Taylor was just leaving so I followed her."

"Her meeting with the Toasters?"

Lois nodded. "The only thing I can't quite figure out is how the Toasters were caught without Superman."

"Oh, right," Clark said. "I remember that. I was taking an early morning flight... back from the Arctic," Clark added, causing Lois to smile knowingly at him. "Anyway, I spotted the Toasters and... I sort of darted a blast of freezing breath in their direction. It held them until the police arrived."

"I remember now," Lois said. "The police concluded that their weapons had malfunctioned or something. Freezing them instead of burning them."

"Okay, so where does that leave us?" Clark asked, leaning back in his chair.

Lois let out a breath. "I don't know. I mean, we know a little bit more about our relationship, but it still doesn't answer what originally happened when you came to the Planet -- or how we fix it. It also doesn't explain what Perry, or even Jimmy really, have against you."

Clark let out a breath. "One thing I still don't understand. In our reality, I would never have had the nerve to kiss you like that. So what would cause me to do it when we weren't even friends?"

"It's simple, Clark. It's all about consequences."

"I don't understand."

"In our reality, you had to work with me the next day. We were partners and friends. You were trying to gain my trust. And I suspect you had hopes that if you played your cards right, someday we might become more than partners."

"So...?"

"Well, in this reality, we didn't work together. We weren't friends."

"So this was the only chance I had? The big, dramatic gesture."

"Something like that."

Clark thought about that for a moment before nodding. Lois had serious trust issues when they had first met. He hadn't wanted to do anything to destroy her trust in him -- or to destroy the friendship that was slowly beginning to develop. She was right. It was all about consequences. Taking big risks were all that he had in this reality. Still, he had to wonder how it would all sort itself out. After all, they knew from his folks that he hadn't married Lois in this altered reality.

So where did that leave them?

"Clark, are you still with me?"

He shook off the funk he was suddenly feeling. "Yeah. So... what's next?"

"Well, we still have to take a look at that file Jimmy brought us about Dr. Hamilton."

Clark nodded, reaching across the table to pick up the file.

Lois leaned back in her chair, simply watching as he sped-read through it. "So?" she asked once he had finished.

"Apparently, Dr. Hamilton left Star Labs in order to work on creating a hologram generator machine."

Lois' eyebrows rose. "Okay, I guess that makes sense. Anything else? Does that mean he never resurrected Bonnie and Clyde and friends?"

"No. Apparently, he did that too -- after he decided that a hologram generator device was not possible. But creating the hologram generator was the reason he left Star Labs earlier than normal."

"So then Jefferson Cole was still the one to invent the hologram generator?"

"I don't know. Maybe, but there's nothing in this file that tells us if such a device was ever invented in this altered reality. It only tells us that Dr. Hamilton didn't create it."

Lois let out a breath. "I don't suppose it matters. After all, either way, it doesn't tell us why you didn't get the job at the Planet."

Clark shook his head.

"So... we keep at it."

"After lunch," Clark said.

"Clark..."

"I need a break, Lois. I suspect you do too. And we still have those sandwiches Mom made us back at my apartment."

Lois nodded. He was right. She wasn't all that hungry. But it had been a pretty intense few hours. A break to clear their heads would do them good.

Besides... She glanced at Clark, remembering the sad look in Clark's eyes when she'd told him how she'd felt about him after their first kiss -- or what had been their first kiss in this altered reality. Maybe it was time to remind him that she didn't really hate him. Besides, she realized suddenly, she needed to remind herself that she didn't really hate him. And a little physical exercise might help clear their minds, because something told her they still had a lot of work to do if they were going to get this mess straightened out. A brief trip back to his apartment seemed like just what the doctor ordered.

***

Lois had been having problems concentrating since they'd returned from their 'lunch' break. The sandwiches from Martha had remained untouched. So had the brownies. They had been much too busy with other, more pleasurable, pursuits.

Oh yeah. She sighed. Their lunchtime activities had definitely displaced the odd feelings of disdain she'd felt for Clark when they'd been remembering their altered past. She'd definitely have to keep that 'remedy' in mind during the rest of their investigation.

Ironically, the best part of their 'lunch break' had been when Clark had carefully kissed the stretch marks on her stomach -- a byproduct of giving birth. At first, she'd been confused by his careful attention to that detail of her body. It was the one difference in her body in recent years -- and not one she particularly appreciated. But she did now. Boy, did she ever. She would never complain about them again.

When she'd questioned him about the unusual behavior, he'd pointed out that it proved she'd still given birth to Vicky. But how was that possible? How had her body remained the same when it was quite obvious that Vicky was gone?

It was an important piece of the puzzle that was this new reality, but still, she couldn't find a way to put the pieces together. Were they in an alternate reality? That didn't seem likely, given that they were getting these altered memories. Still, how did it all fit together?

But now Lois was having problems keeping her mind on her research as she kept looking across at Clark, lost in the new memories they had created over the lunch hour. In fact, she was feeling so languid that she hadn't even cared that Clark was the one who had scooped the next big story. After all, who cared about smart kids? Not that Perry had felt that way at the time.

He had been livid. Perry had definitely reminded them that The Star was nothing more than an annoying little puppy, snapping at their heels. And although the quality of writing had not improved, it seemed that they had one new reporter who was beginning to get the stories.

For a moment, Lois had wondered if that was what Perry had against Clark. But as quickly as the thought had come, she dismissed the notion. Perry wasn't petty. He wouldn't hold it against Clark that he had scooped the Daily Planet. He'd be mad at his reporters for allowing it to happen.

Besides, in this reality, the smart kids hadn't been her story. Clark was the one who had been all gung-ho to pursue the story about the smart kids in their reality. So the fact that in this reality Eduardo had pursued the story for the Daily Planet didn't surprise Lois. Nor did the fact that Clark had scooped Eduardo. Eduardo was a decent enough reporter, but he didn't have enough imagination to get a story like that one.

Besides, it was difficult to feel too bad when she discovered that she had broken the story about the leak at the Lexcor Nuclear Facility. It had been causing a heat wave in Metropolis that seemed to have all the scientists stumped. It wasn't until she had come up with the idea of comparing areas where the heat was greatest that she'd discovered the leak.

She scrolled down, looking for the next story on her computer and instantly groaned when she saw the headline. 'Couple Reunited! Love Wins Out!'

"What's wrong?" Clark asked, looking up from his research.

When she simply pointed at the screen, he rose from his seat and came over.

"The pheromone incident," Clark said. "I wonder how that played out?"

"I remember how it played out," Lois said, burying her head in her hands.

"Lois?"

She looked up at him. "Well, the newsroom was being used as a backdrop for a photo shoot to advertise some new perfume. Miranda showed up and sprayed half the newsroom so that everyone fell loony-tunes in love, and you weren't there for me to throw myself at so..."

"So...?" Clark said. "Oh, no. Don't tell me you threw yourself at someone like Ralph, did you?"

"Clark! There has to be a little bit of animal magnetism there in the first place for it to have any effect! And you think I'd throw myself at Ralph?"

"Luthor," he said, his face going pale.

"No. Not Lex, either. Although..." Her voice became much more contemplative. "...since I didn't fall for him in either reality when I was under the influence of the pheromone spray, what does that tell you?" She looked at Clark before burying her head in her hands once again. "I was such a fool, Clark. How could I have ever agreed to marry him?"

"Hey, hey, hey," Clark said, taking a seat beside her and rubbing his hand reassuringly over her back. "You didn't marry him. That's the important thing."

"Didn't I?" she asked, raising her head once again. "Can you promise me that, Clark? In our reality, I didn't marry him because I kept thinking about you. What happened here? What if I'm Mrs. Lex Luthor? Didn't that thought even occur to you?" She hadn't meant to tell him quite that bluntly, but... well, it was out there now. If he was completely disgusted with her for marrying Lex, it wasn't as if there was anything she could do to stop it. Still, she had to bite her lower lip to keep her chin from trembling.

Clark sat there for a moment. "How long have you been worrying about this?" he asked. "Oh, wait. I know. You mentioned the possibility that you might be married first thing this morning, but... Have you been worrying about this all day?" At her look, he continued. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I didn't want it to be true, Clark."

Clark jumped to his feet and marched towards the door.

"Where are you going?" Lois asked.

But he simply opened the door and bellowed Jimmy's name.

"What are you doing, Clark?" Lois hissed.

"We're finding out if you married Luthor."

"What are you going to say to Jimmy?"

He simply held up a finger to silence her as Jimmy appeared in the doorway, not seeming exactly happy about being summoned -- especially by Clark. Still, Clark ignored the look he was given and simply gestured the younger man into the room.

"We need to see a copy of Lex Luthor's marriage certificate," he told Jimmy.

Lois' eyebrows rose. Clever. He hadn't said anything about her -- just Luthor.

"Yeah. Sure." Jimmy walked over to Clark's computer, sitting down.

Lois instantly tensed. She was right. Obviously, she was right. She had married Lex. After all, Jimmy hadn't batted an eye at Clark's request for Lex's marriage certificate. So he was obviously married. And what did that mean for her and Clark?

After a few short minutes of tense silence, Jimmy lifted his head from the screen. "Is that all?"

Neither Lois nor Clark responded verbally. Instead, both rushed over and began reading over Jimmy's shoulder.

"Patricia Letinski? Who's Patricia Letinski?" Lois asked.

"Mrs. Lex Luthor," Jimmy responded.

"So I didn't marry Lex," Lois breathed in relief, not realizing the significance of what she'd said until she saw the look Jimmy gave her in response.

Clark quickly made his way over to the conference room door, closing it.

"You thought you were married to Luthor?" Jimmy asked. "Why would you think something like that?"

"Well, I thought... maybe for a short time... I mean, I knew I wouldn't have stayed married to him... obviously... but I wondered..." Her voice trailed off in frustration.

"What we're about to tell you can't go beyond this room?" Clark began.

"Clark..." Lois interrupted only to be again stopped by her husband. In spite of her gaff, she didn't think telling Jimmy was a good idea. Still, she complied with his request -- hoping he had some magic wand that could undo her mistake.

"Lois is having some..." Clark looked over at Lois', obviously trying to find the right word. "...gaps in her memory."

"What..."

"We can't tell you why," Clark said immediately. "But it's all part of what we're working on."

"But if she's having problems with her memory, Perry and I should be helping her. Not you."

"It has to be Clark," Lois said. "Sorry, Jimmy. I know this bothers you, but... Please. Just hear him out." Clark was obviously improvising wildly. Still, after her stupid utterance, they had to tell the kid something. And problems with her memory was certainly better than the truth -- that they had gone into the past and, as a result, had changed the present from a place where she was Clark's wife to one where she was Clark's enemy. "But... please. Promise me you won't tell anyone about this."

Jimmy hesitated for a moment and then nodded. "So you really thought you'd married Luthor?" Jimmy asked.

"Well..." Lois said, shrugging her shoulders slightly.

"You do mean 'the' Lex Luthor? I mean, I've got the right Lex Luthor, right?" Jimmy asked. "The billionaire? Rags to riches? The most illusive bachelor in the history of Metropolis? Playboy extraordinaire? You thought he was your husband? Are you okay, Lois? I mean, this sounds like more than just problems with your memory. What would ever make you think you were married to Lex? He always went for the really hot chicks."

Lois bristled and Clark had to fight back a laugh.

"Well, it could have happened," Lois pouted.

"He married a princess from Latislan who, by all reports, came with a huge dowry," Jimmy continued. "And... man, was she hot. Wait! Is that why you asked me about your locker number? Because of these... problems with your memory?"

Lois nodded. "Also... do you have any idea where I live? I keep thinking that I still live on Carter Ave."

"You haven't lived on Carter for ages. You live on Regina Street now. You need the address?"

"Yes, Jimmy. Thank you."

"No problem except..." He looked at Clark before looking back at Lois. "Can I talk to you alone?"

"It's not..." Lois began before feeling Clark's hand lightly touch her arm.

"I need a bathroom break anyway," Clark said, walking towards the door to the conference room.

***

Jimmy made sure that Clark was long gone before turning to Lois.

"So what is it, Jimmy?"

"It's just..." He shifted uncomfortably. "What I saw earlier... With you and Kent..."

Lois let out a breath. "Look, Jimmy, I know you think I'm a traitor, but..."

"I just think with these memory problems you're having, you don't remember who Kent is."

"Oh? So who do you think Kent is?" she asked, hoping he'd give her some clue as to all this anti-Clark sentiment.

"He's a no-good, back-stabbing, scum-bag who can't be trusted as far as you can throw him."

Lois sighed. Not exactly the most helpful response. "Okay, Jimmy, I know you don't understand this. And believe me, I wish you hadn't... seen what you saw. But trust me. I know exactly who Clark Kent is."

"Then how could you..."

"You're just going to have to trust me on this. No matter what you may think, Clark is a good man."

She knew she'd made a mistake almost immediately. The look on Jimmy's face told her that he was now certain her 'memory problems' were about Clark. And although he was right, she didn't have a clue what Clark might have 'done' in this reality, she believed in Clark. She knew it had to be something like her impressions -- thinking that Clark had turned her over to EPRAD authorities when he'd just been trying to save her life.

"Okay, so we aren't going to agree on this," Lois quickly said. "But... Please. Trust me. I know what I'm doing. But, Jimmy, there's one thing I'm not quite clear on." She bit her lip as she considered how to ask this question. Still, it could help them shortcut all of this research so... "When Cla... Kent came to interview for the Daily Planet, what happened?"

"He interviewed for the Planet?" Jimmy asked in return.

***

"What did Jimmy want?" Clark asked a few minutes later.

"Didn't you listen?" When Clark's eyebrows rose, she instantly rebuked herself. "I'm sorry, Clark. It's just..." She ran her hand over the tired muscles in her neck. "I just want to get this all straightened out so that things get back to normal. To get back to Vicky. Why can't we just click our heels together and chant 'There's no place like home' three times?"

He came up behind her, taking over her back massage. "Well, in theory that would get us back to Kansas. Do you want to try it?"

His comment actually managed to bring a small smile to her lips. She tilted her head back and he automatically leaned over to press a soft kiss to her lips.

"Okay, so where were we?"

"Oh, right. I just asked Jimmy what happened when you interviewed here. Thanks for covering for my gaff, by the way."

"You're welcome."

"Still, I think we have to be careful. I don't think we should let Jimmy know anything more than we have to."

"I agree. So what did Jimmy say when you asked him about my interview?"

"Sorry. We struck out there. He didn't even know that you interviewed here."

"Well, honestly, we don't actually know that I did interview here. I could have been..." He struggled for a moment. "...interrupted by some disaster that we caused by our trip into the past before I ever made it to the interview."

"I know. Still, Jimmy says that Perry keeps a file on interviewees -- in case he's looking for someone in the future. Jimmy says he'll 'borrow' it for me."

"Steal it, you mean."

"Semantics," Lois responded with a shrug. "Besides, I'll put it back -- just as soon as we read his notes on you."

"Assuming there are notes on me. Okay, so what do we do in the meantime?"

"Well, first, I have a question for you. Don't think I'm not grateful, but... Well, in our reality, I almost married Lex. But Jimmy seemed shocked that I could have even considered myself a contender. I'm just wondering..."

"What was different here?"

She nodded.

"I don't know. But I've always wondered to what extent Luthor's interest in you was due to Superman."

Understanding suddenly crossed Lois' face. "So he might have been interested in me here -- like he was before Superman came on the scene. Might have even dated me or wanted to sleep with me. After all, he did have a reputation for dating a lot of women. But the reason he asked me to marry him was because I brought my own dowry -- of a sort -- in that the tabloids had dubbed me 'Superman's girlfriend.'"

"Are you okay?" Clark asked.

"What? Oh, you think I'm going to be upset because Lex wouldn't have considered me suitable marriage material without Superman being in the picture. No, Clark. Trust me. I'm actually grateful."

"Really?"

"How could you even doubt it?" she asked, running her hand over his cheek. "I was so scared that without thoughts of you on my wedding... or almost wedding day, I might have actually married him." She was suddenly struck by another thought. She obviously hadn't married Lex, but... did that mean she wasn't married? Damn! Why hadn't she thought to ask Jimmy about that?

On the other hand, surely Jimmy would have said something if she had been married to someone else. Of course, then again, he might not. After all, she'd qualified her response by saying she knew she would have never stayed married to Lex. On the other hand, surely he would have said something when she asked about her address. Or would he? This was Jimmy, after all.

Still, she really didn't want to go back and ask Jimmy now if she was married. After all, Jimmy knew too much as it was. Besides, nothing could have been worse than her marrying Lex. If she was married to someone else... like Dan, for instance...

"Lois, did you hear what I said?" Clark asked.

"Hmm? Oh... what?"

"I asked where were we in our research?"

"Umm... right." She quickly pushed her concerns about her marital status to the back of her mind. It didn't really matter, anyway. Because they were going to get this all straightened out. "Well, we had gotten as far as the pheromone incident, so I suggest we continue. I know that the farther we get from the moment we made the change, the less likely we're going to jog a memory that will tell us what went wrong so that we can correct it. Still, I don't really see any other options."

Clark nodded. "So... you were about to tell me who you seduced when you were under the pheromone compound."

"Right." She shifted uncomfortably.

He reached out, taking your hand. "You don't have to be worried about telling me. I know I wasn't working at the Daily Planet in this reality so... I'm not going to be mad or anything. I know you couldn't help what happened."

Lois looked at him. "It's just... Well, you know that you weren't working at the Planet. And... well, you know. I mean, it's just..." Her voice trailed off.

"Lois, you're really starting to scare me here. What happened? Did someone hurt you?"

"Not exactly. It's just... this would be so much easier if..." She took a deep breath. "Okay, well, I guess I should start at the beginning. As far as I can remember, I hadn't seen you... well, except across a room full of reporters... since we shared that kiss."

"I can remember thinking afterwards, when you ran off like that, that I'd made a big mistake -- but what does that have to do with anything?"

"Well, even though I hadn't seen you, I hadn't stopped thinking about that kiss. Or how I could have responded."

"So...?"

"Anyway, I was sitting at my desk working, when suddenly, I can remember this warm feeling and suddenly, I felt unexpectedly free -- like I could do or be anything. No limitations. No restrictions."

"No inhibitions," Clark supplied.

"Anyway, I looked up and Richie was sitting on the corner of my desk, watching me."

"Well, I guess I realized Richie was attracted to you when he bid a hundred dollars for a date with you at the charity auction when I..." His voice trailed off.

"Had broken up with me 'for my own good'?" Lois said, completing his thought.

Clark shrugged sheepishly.

"Anyway," Lois continued, not wanting to get side-tracked, "Richie was sitting on the corner of my desk."

"And I guess he's... okay looking."

"He's cute," Lois corrected.

"Okay, so you were attracted to him and he was attracted to you... And you were both obviously without your inhibitions..."

Lois took a deep breath. In spite of Clark's reassurances that he was okay with this, it was obviously bothering him. Maybe the best way to approach this was just to tell the story as quickly as possible and be done with it.

***

"Hey, gorgeous."

Lois looked up from her computer screen to see Richie seated on the corner of her desk, leaning towards her with a smile.

"Wanta get out of here? Play a little hooky and..." He shrugged. "Maybe see what other trouble we can get into?" He wiggled his eyebrows at her suggestively.

Lois turned around so that she was facing him to find that he was running his eyes hungrily over her body. Was he drooling? She glared at him until he finally rose from her desk, backing away ever so slowly as if suddenly afraid for his safety.

"My love," he said, pleading for one last chance. "Would you consider running away with me to Paris? I can promise you days filled with adventure and nights filled with passion."

"What would ever make you think I'd be interested in you? Please! I'd rather sleep with a rat! At least I'd understand when he made squeaking sounds. Nor would I be bothered by his beady little eyes when he mentally undressed me. And the drooling... What's with the drooling? You got any relatives in the canine family?"

***

"Ouch," Clark said, interrupting her story.

"No inhibitions, remember."

"You give guys enough problems when you have inhibitions," Clark responded, suddenly looking very much relieved. "So I take it you and Richie didn't..."

She shook her head. "I guess there wasn't even a eensy weensy, microscopic part of me that was attracted to him."

Clark laughed.

"It wasn't funny. Richie couldn't look me in the eye for the next year. He'd purposely cross the floor to the other side of the newsroom whenever he saw me coming."

"Is that what had you so uncomfortable when you first started to tell me this story?"

"No, not exactly. After all, Rich wasn't the only guy who approached me that day."

"Oh? Who else was there?"

"Claude," Lois said, looking through her eyelashes at her husband before focusing on the table in front of her. "I guess Claude was affected by the pheromone compound, too." She grimaced. "Not that he ever needed to be affected by anything to want to have sex with me."

Clark drew in a sharp breath. A previous lover. Obviously, unlike Richie, Lois felt some sort of animal magnetism with Claude.

***

Chapter Ten "Anyway," Lois rushed to continue when she saw the steam begin to rise off her husband, "after my run in with Rich, I decided to get out of the newsroom. Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to play hooky. I had just turned off my computer and risen to my feet when..."

***

Two arms grabbed her from behind as their owner spun her into his arms. A moment later, she found herself being forced up onto her desk, Claude's lips descending on hers even as his hands began taking liberties, running up her legs, pushing them apart so that he could insert his body between them. He began pressing himself against her as her skirt pushed further up on her legs.

***

"Okay, look," Clark said, interrupting her. "I really don't need all these details. Why don't we just..."

"Wait! It gets better," Lois said before continuing with her story.

***

Shock had stopped her from reacting when he'd grabbed her and kissed her. She'd been too stunned to react when he set her on the desk and moved between her legs. But as one of his hands slid up the inside of her leg, she came back to her senses. She didn't want this.

A quick left hook proved that Lois Lane had learned a thing or two from hanging around the fighting clubs her father had worked at while she'd been growing up. As Claude stumbled back far enough to free Lois' legs, he discovered that her legs were for more than feeling up. With a round house kick to a particularly sensitive part of Claude's anatomy, the man was left rolling on the floor as Lois calmly grabbed her coat and walked out of the Daily Planet.

***

"I love you," Clark said, reaching over to pull his wife to him. She moved out of her chair to settle in his lap as she looked nervously at the door. "Don't worry. Jimmy's nowhere around. What I don't understand is... Well, you were involved with Claude before. So there had to be some animal magnetism between you."

"Itch. Scratched. After all, Lex wasn't attracted to Miranda when under the pheromone compound, but rumor had it they had once been lovers." She shrugged. "I guess he wasn't what I wanted that particular day."

"Okay. But I still don't see why you were so embarrassed to tell me that."

"Do you... well, do you remember anything about that day?"

Clark cocked his head to the side. "Why would I remember any..." His voice trailed off as memories began flooding through his mind. "I remember," Clark whispered.

***

Clark tossed his jacket over the back of the chair and shuffled towards the kitchen. It had been a long, frustrating day. Oh, he'd been busy enough. But it didn't seem anything the least bit interesting was going on in the entire city.

Or maybe it was just this job. Working for The Star wasn't exactly everything he'd thought working for a big city paper would be. Of course, The Star was not the Daily Planet. On the other hand, considering what had happened when he'd gone for his interview with Perry White, it was obvious he was not likely ever to work for the Daily Planet.

And regardless of how he might feel about Lois Lane, that was just another thing that wasn't about to happen -- not after his ill-advised impulse to kiss her. Even when they were at the same press conferences, she seemed to go out of her way to avoid looking at him. Not that she was unaware of him. He often heard her heart rate increase when she realized he was in a room. But he suspected that it was more a fear... or maybe an anger reaction than some sort of attraction.

Maybe it was time for him to pack his bags and move on.

***

"Wait a minute," Lois said. "You just remembered having an interview with Perry. Do you remember anything else?"

Clark thought about that for a moment before shaking his head.

"Okay, well, go on -- see if it jogs any other memories."

Clark nodded.

***

He filled a cup with water and had just lowered his glasses to heat it when he heard a knock on the door. He wondered who it could be. After all, he hadn't really worked to make friends at The Star. Oh, he was friendly enough. But for some reason, his heart wasn't really in it. Besides, it was just too dangerous to let people get too close.

Setting down the coffee cup, he galloped up the steps to the door and opened it.

"Lane," he said softly, blinking a couple of times to be sure his eyes weren't playing tricks on him.

"Kent," she responded, her voice soft, her eyes...

No. He must be mistaken about what he was seeing in her eyes. "Uhh... Do you want to come in?"

"Oh, yes," Lane said, almost panting on the words, drawing his attention down to the cleavage which could been seen between the folds of her white blouse -- which appeared to have been unbuttoned to provide him with that particular view.

No. No, not him. Obviously not him. Never him. He wasn't supposed to be enjoying the view. It was simply an accident that he was seeing so much skin. He jerked his eyes back up to her face as he stepped backwards into his apartment, tripping down the steps. A moment later, he was lying stunned on his back at the bottom of the stairs.

"My darling," Lane gasped, rushing down the steps and dropping to her knees next to him. "Are you all right?"

"I'm... My darling?" he asked.

"Oh, I've been so stupid, my darling. I didn't realize before how much I need you. Please forgive me."

Before her words could even penetrate, she was planting kisses all over his face.

This was a dream. It had to be. A dream come true. Still, as her lips finally found his, it occurred to him that this was far too real to be a dream. Her tongue darted out, demanding entrance to his mouth. And almost instantly, the rush of blood away from his head made thinking about anything but the way she tasted, the way she smelled, the way she was currently running her hand over his chest, impossible.

His hand, of its own volition, found its way into her hair as he deepened the kiss and her resulting moan of satisfaction made thinking even more difficult.

But then... why was he even bothering to think? Why question a miracle? She was here. She was in his arms. She was kissing him as if she never planned to stop. What more did he need to know?

He slid his free arm around her, pulling her closer. She quickly complied. Her soft body molded itself to his and their legs entangled. He could feel every curve, every shift of her body. And his body responded in kind. Her scent was getting stronger now, filling the air around him with an intoxicating aroma.

He ran a hand up her side. She moaned encouragingly when it brushed against the side of her breast.

Suddenly, the fact that she was here didn't seem nearly so miraculous. It almost seemed like fate. She must have been as tortured by that kiss as he had been. She obviously wanted him as badly as he wanted her. Just because he hadn't realized it, didn't mean anything -- except that he didn't understand women. In particular, one individual woman. But he knew that already. Certainly, it was no reason to stop what was quickly turning into the best day in his entire life.

He rolled over, pinning her beneath him on the floor so that he could attack her mouth with new purpose and give his hand more freedom. His hand hovered over her breast as a moment of doubt encompassed him. She pushed herself up into his hand.

Oh, god.

Yes.

He quickly undid a couple additional buttons on her blouse, and slipped his hand inside the material, returning it to its previous location. The resulting growl that rose in the back of her throat was almost his undoing. She wanted him.

As if to prove that fact, her hands ran down his chest, leaving a trail of open buttons in their wake. Her hands slipped inside his shirt, running slowly over the muscles of his chest and leaving him breathless when they ran across his stomach.

***

"So you had no idea that I was under the influence of the pheromone compound?" Lois asked, bringing him out of his story.

Clark shook his head. "None whatsoever. I mean, I was surprised by what was happening. But I didn't know you well enough to realize that anything was wrong. All I knew was that this was all of my wildest dreams come true."

***

This time, she rolled them over and her mouth left his to begin trailing kisses across his chest, interspersed with light nibbles that came close to driving Clark out of his mind. Had anything ever felt this good? Could anything ever feel any better? Not even flying came close to the bliss he was experiencing at this moment. He buried his hands in her hair, playing with it as her oral exploration of his chest continued.

It wasn't until he felt her begin pulling at the buckle of his belt that doubt again crept into his mind.

This wasn't right. It just... wasn't. Not that he didn't want it. Currently, his entire body was sending loud and clear messages, not only to him, but, he had no doubt, to the woman kissing him how much he wanted it. But... they were moving too fast. They should try talking. Try dating. He didn't want a one nightstand with her. And yet, if they kept going... Not that this would be a one nightstand. It never could be for him. He was already half in love with her. He knew that. But... Did she feel the same way?

He couldn't stand the thought of ruining his future with her by moving too fast.

Her hands had finally managed to undo the buckle on his belt and, an instant later, the button and zipper on his trousers were undone. Her hand was just about to slip inside when what was happening finally penetrated his brain.

"Wait," he said, scrambling out from under her to sit back on the floor, just out of her reach.

She looked up at him, hurt and confusion in her eyes and he suddenly wished that he hadn't stopped them. The last thing in the world he wanted to do was to hurt her, to make her think that he was in any way not receptive to what she seemed to want. He just wanted more.

"What's wrong, my darling?" she asked. "Don't you want me?" Her voice on the final question sounded so lost, so forlorn, that he instantly needed to correct her impression.

Moving over to where she was, he pulled her up so that she was cradled in his lap. "I want you. You have no idea how badly I want you. I just... can we go slow?"

She looked up at him and a slow, sexy smile crawled across her face. "I like slow," she said, reaching up to where his tie was still hanging around his neck. She pulled the tie to bring his face down to hers. "I like slow very much," she said, before kissing him once again.

He groaned, getting lost for a moment more in her intoxicating kisses. But when she began pulling his tie apart, he moved back once again -- this time not releasing her lest she get the wrong impression.

"Look," he said, "why don't we get up off this floor? Maybe find somewhere a little more comfortable and then... We can talk."

She smiled at him, rising off his lap. He let out a breath of relief. In spite of how much he enjoyed holding her, it was definitely making it difficult for him to think.

He watched while she seemed to take in his apartment before looking back at him. "Where's your bathroom?" she asked. "I would like to... freshen up a little."

He pointed in the appropriate direction, watching as she glided towards it. Once she was gone, he rose to his feet, glad to have a moment to regain his composure. Once he had calmed slightly, he plopped down on the couch as he tried to work out what to say. All of this was so unexpected. So amazingly unexpected. He was glad to have a moment to let it settle in. They had so much to talk about. But where to start?

A date. Yes. When she came out, he would ask her for a date. Maybe he'd take her to Paris or Hong Kong or that amazing little place he'd discovered in the Philippines. He'd have to tell her everything, of course. It was a little scary. But if her actions were any indication, and she loved him the way that he loved her, she'd be able to accept it.

Yes. That was where he should start. He'd tell her everything and then... the world would be their playground. A different country for dinner every night. Frolicking in the waves off Australia. Moonlight flights across the pyramids of Egypt. Watching the northern lights play from the mountain tops of Yukon. Seeing the sun set across the Pacific Ocean and then watching it rise again a few hours later on the Atlantic. Swimming with the porpoises off the coast of Florida. Carousing in the clouds, high overhead, as they drifted together above all the beautiful places the world had to offer.

And she would tell him everything about her. He wanted to know it all. What was her favorite color? Who were her friends growing up? Had she been happy as a child? Did she have a close relationship with her family? What were her hopes and dreams and fears? What made her happy or sad? Yes, he wanted to know everything.

And then... then it would be time for them to complete what they had started here tonight. And he would ask her to marry him. And she would accept. And they would have children and grandchildren. And together, they would grow old. Suddenly, he had visions of them together on the old porch swing at his parents' home in Kansas, watching the sunset while their grandchildren played in the yard in front of them.

But... where was she? The door to the bathroom was just inside his bedroom, so he rose to his feet to check on her.

When he realized the bathroom door was open and the light turned off, he was confused.

"Hey, Lane? Where are you?" he asked.

"Over here."

He turned slowly and then stood, open mouth, when he saw her, stretched out across his bed wearing... nothing more than one of his dress shirts. Only a couple of buttons had been done up, giving him an all too tempting glimpse of what lay beneath the white folds.

"You said you wanted to go somewhere more comfortable," she purred before stretching.

All his blood again rushed south as he saw the material at her leg stretch dangerously high. It was the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen in his life. Sunsets and northern lights and man-made wonders had nothing on Lois Lane.

"So... what are you doing standing all the way over there?" she asked. "Come to me, my darling."

And suddenly all of his good intentions were lost as a wave of desire crashed across him and, as if in a daze, he found himself being pulled towards her by some unseen force -- desperate for the glimpse of heaven she was offering.

***

"Do you remember what happened then?" Clark asked.

Lois nodded. "Two of the most incredible days of love making I'd ever known. Followed by..."

"...sheer hell."

"Wait a minute!" Lois suddenly said. "What am I thinking? That's not what happened."

Clark blinked a couple of times. She was right. That wasn't what had happened. "Must just be fanciful thinking," Clark said. "Either that or in this altered reality, we have both rewritten that particular episode so many times in our imagination that it's hard to remember what actually happened. But, boy, was I ever tempted."

Lois leaned over, giving him a quick kiss. She suspected his second explanation was probably right. At least, she could see this particular incident as fueling more than enough fantasies. She rose from his lap and took a seat on a chair next to him. "I remember what happened next."

***

It was really going to happen. Kent had seemed somewhat skittish out in the living room. But now there was nothing holding him back. Clothing had disappeared so fast she was tempted to think he was moving in a blur. And... what his lips were doing as they blazed a path down her body was sheer heaven. It felt as if every part of her was on fire. And it was all because of him.

Her love.

The man she was destined to meet.

After allowing him to continue for another moment, Lois reached down, pulling his head back up to hers while shifting beneath him to move him between her legs. She needed more. And she needed it now. She stared into his eyes for a long moment and then...

"Wait! Wait! Wait!" Kent panted, pulling back as he tried to catch his breath.

***

"What caused you to pull away?" Lois asked, looking over at him.

"It was something in your eyes. You looked... unfocused. Stoned. Of course, I was fairly confident you hadn't been drinking -- I would have smelled it on you -- but... it suddenly occurred to me that something was... off."

"What a time to realize that," Lois said, almost as frustrated as she'd felt during that time -- or would have felt if any of these memories were real. She gave her head a quick shake as she picked up the story again.

***

"What's wrong?" Lois asked, suddenly feeling very much bereft at the loss of her lover.

"It's just... I can't believe I'm going to do this, but... We can't do this, Lane," Kent said. "Not now. Not like this."

"Why not?" Lois asked, grabbing the blanket to cover herself. She suddenly felt oddly exposed.

"You're not... yourself. Are you on drugs or something?"

"Don't be ridiculous! I'm in love. Ever heard of that before, Kent? And I thought you felt the same way. If you don't, just say so. Don't make up stories about me being on drugs."

Kent suddenly looked a little lost. "I love you, too. I love you so much."

She smiled, pushing him back on the bed, her lips seeking out his even as she crawled on top of him, straddling him. He loved her. He really loved her.

"No!" he said, slipping out from under her. Keeping his hands on her shoulders to hold her away from him, he continued. "I just... Look, this just doesn't feel right. Can't we just slow this down a bit? Try dating? Please?"

Lois' heart dropped. If he didn't want her, he could have simply told her. She wasn't an unreasonable person. She would have listened. But he'd acted as enthusiastic as she was, leading her to believe he felt about her the way she felt about him -- only to make it clear that he didn't at the last possible moment. Was this some kind of joke to him? She loved him so much, wanted him so desperately. He obviously didn't feel the same -- in spite of his words. But then, why should she think he was any different from other men? The word 'love' came easy to them. The emotions behind the word were an entirely different matter.

Tears stung at the corners of her eyes as she crawled off the bed, being sure to keep the blanket around her as she searched for her clothing. When she finally located them, she fumbled her way into the bathroom to get dressed.

"Lane?"

She heard his quiet, almost hurt voice calling to her from outside the door, but she ignored him. She was too humiliated, too heart-broken. He didn't want her. He didn't love her. And could he have picked a worse time to tell her?

***

"What's the next thing you remember?" Clark asked when she fell silent.

Lois let out a long slow breath before proceeding to answer his question.

***

Lois woke up in bed with a pounding headache. She felt as if she'd been hit by a mac truck. Or... a hangover? But how...

The last thing she remembered clearly was being at the Daily Planet, working on a rewrite of the fruit fly infestation story. And then... Everything was fuzzy. She gave her head a shake to clear the cobwebs and immediately regretted it.

She hadn't felt this bad since Lucy had insisted that she wanted a highball party for her twenty-first birthday. Had someone slipped something in her coffee?

Well, lying here in pain wasn't doing her any good in sorting all of this out. Moving carefully, she crawled out of bed. The first order of the day was two aspirin and a hot shower to try to wash some of the grime out of her mind.

Stumbling towards the door to her bedroom, she spotted a newspaper, lying face down on her desk. She hesitated for a moment, wondering what had happened in the world while she'd been out of it, but a full bladder and a splitting headache won out. She stumbled into the bathroom for her aspirin and shower.

The news could wait until she felt human again. She was just about to walk through the bathroom door when she had a flash of naked skin pressed against naked skin.

What?

She attempted to focus on that thought, but it evaded her.

As she stepped into the bathroom, she had another flash. Getting dressed in an unfamiliar bathroom. She raised her hands to her face, covering it.

What had she done?

She attempted to push the thought from her mind. It couldn't possibly be as bad as it seemed. After relieving her bladder, she disrobed, adjusted the water temperature, turning it up as hot as she could possibly stand, and stepped into the shower. She closed her eyes, looking up into the water as it pounded down on her.

The shower and aspirin seemed to work and she felt somewhat more rejuvenated when she emerged from the bathroom sometime later. While still towel drying her hair, she stumbled into her bedroom. Seeing the newspaper lying there, she walked towards it.

She had just reached her desk when she had a sudden flash of another desk. Claude was pushing her up against it, kissing her while his hands slid up her legs.

Oh, god. What had happened? Had Claude drugged her and... what? Why couldn't she remember? She knew he wasn't happy that she hadn't been willing to resume their affair when he'd returned from Paris. But he wouldn't... would he?

Still, something had definitely happened. And the more she thought about it, the more it seemed Claude was responsible. If not, he'd certainly timed his move perfectly to take advantage of the situation. On the other hand, attacking her in the middle of the newsroom, with everyone around to witness it, seemed a little crude -- even for Claude. So what...

"We can't do this, Lane. Not now. Not like this."

It wasn't Claude's voice ringing in her ears. But the voice was familiar.

"You're not... yourself. Are you on drugs or something?"

What did it mean? What exactly had happened since yesterday afternoon? When no further memories came, she stepped forward, picking up the paper. Her eyes instantly widened.

The first thing she saw was the little hearts replacing 'A's in the Daily Planet. The second thing she noticed was the headline. 'Couple Reunited! Love Wins Out!'

What the hell?

Knowing that headlines could be misleading, she moved back to the bed and took a seat while concentrating on the story in front of her. Her eyebrows rose as she read about a man and woman meeting on a train and falling in love, only to lose contact with each other when the trip was over. Then, thirty years later, they see each other while riding the same train and realize they're still in love.

Right.

Okay.

Had Perry lost his mind?

Maybe she wasn't the only one who had been affected by... whatever had happened to her.

It was the only thing that made any sense.

She was about to put the paper down when something else caught her attention. She suddenly gasped. The date on the top of the paper. Where had yesterday gone? And why didn't she have any memory of it?

Suddenly, she had memories of being curled up on her couch, wrapped in a blanket, digging ice cream out of a carton with a spoon while tears rolled down her cheeks. Had that really been what she'd done yesterday?

So what had happened to cause her so much distress?

"We can't do this, Lane. Not now. Not like this."

She concentrated on the voice again, trying to identify it, before letting out a breath of frustration. Well, something had happened. That much was obvious. And she wasn't going to figure it out sitting there. There was only one thing to do. Return to the scene of the crime. The Daily Planet newsroom. And if Claude was behind it, she was going to give him the Bobbit treatment.

She tossed the paper on her bed and stepped towards her closet. She was just about to pull out a suit when she had another flash. She froze.

Kent falling backwards down the steps into his apartment. Rushing down, kissing his face, kissing his lips, kissing his chest, running her hands over his body, undoing his trousers.

Oh, no. She hadn't. Anybody would be better than Kent.

She should have known! The guy was an absolute pig. Of course he would take advantage of her when...

"We can't do this, Lane. Not now. Not like this."

A blush suddenly infused her cheeks with heat. Wait a minute. How had she gotten to his apartment from the Daily Planet?

No. Suddenly, everything that had happened at Kent's apartment came flooding back -- from her arrival to his rejection. Every titillating, hot, steamy and most of all, embarrassing memory.

No.

Please no.

Surely she hadn't really thrown herself at Clark Kent. But try as she might, she couldn't deny the memories. Kent wasn't the pursuer in this horror story. She was.

What had she done? And more importantly, what could have possibly possessed her to do such a thing?**

***

Chapter Eleven

"Tell me what you really thought, Lois," Clark said, finally pulling Lois out of her story.

She reached over, gently stroking his cheek although she didn't respond verbally. What was there to say, after all? She'd been incredibly embarrassed by her behavior. At first, she'd hoped that it was somehow all Kent's fault, but even she hadn't been able to hold on to that delusion for long. She'd gone to his apartment. She'd basically attacked him. He was the one who had finally stopped it. Still, why had it taken him so long?

Oh, of course she understood now. He'd stopped them as soon as he'd realized she was not herself. Back then... she'd wondered if he'd let it gone on so long to prove that he could have had her -- to humiliate her.

"Anyway," Lois finally said, pushing that thought to the back of her mind, "I went back to the Daily Planet. It seemed almost everyone had been affected by this... whatever it was. So we had the coffee and water tested to see if there were any traces of drugs. We even sent in a couple of stale donuts out for testing, in case the 'love potion' we'd all been exposed to came from outside the newsroom. Then we went through all the photos from the photo shoot, looking to see if they showed anyone doing anything unusual. That was how we finally found Miranda."

"I remember reading the story the following day," Clark said. "I was devastated when I realized that you must have been under the influence of that compound when you came to my apartment -- until I read the part where it said that the stuff only worked if a person was already attracted to someone. Then, it just over-rode one's normal restraints. Suddenly, all thoughts of leaving Metropolis were gone. After all, I unexpectedly had a chance with you."

"Not that it did us any good," Lois said. At Clark's raised eyebrows, she continued. "Your parents don't even know who I am."

Clark nodded slowly.

"Okay, so what's next?" Lois asked.

"Right," Clark responded, trying to get his mind back on track. "Let's see... Well, didn't the Nightfall asteroid appear about that time?"

Lois' eyes widened. "So... how did the Earth survive Nightfall without Superman?"

They both immediately went to their respective computers. Clark found it first, with a little help from superspeed. "Nightfall Cometh," he read off the screen before him.

"Okay, so does it say how it 'go-eth'? Oh, wait. I might have something here." She looked at her own screen. Under the flashy headline of 'Earth Saved,' she began to read the following: "Scientists are baffled this morning by the Nightfall asteroid's unexplained change of trajectory. While it had been on a collision course with Earth, it seems to have suddenly altered its course. Scientists had no explanation, although some speculate that it may have been diverted by an unknown gravitational force or that it collided with another celestial body. Some are even theorizing about a possible black hole or illusive black matter. Ministers and other religious leaders, however, have a different explanation. They are attributing the 'miracle' to divine intervention." She looked up at Clark. "Seems to me it must have had a little super help."

"Diverting it off course," Clark said contemplatively. "I wonder why no one thought of that possibility in our reality? And I just went along with their plan to try to pulverize it." He shook his head in disbelief. "I bet pushing it off course didn't knock me out and give me amnesia."

"But how would you have had enough time to push it off course in this reality? I mean, in our reality didn't the scientists hook you up with air tanks? Do you think you might have gone to one of them to get help? Dr. Klein maybe? After all, we've already established that you knew him."

Clark shook his head. "I doubt it. All I would have needed would be to rent some oxygen tanks from a scuba place. And then go up there and see what I could do." He glanced at the paper still up on her screen. "Oh, wait. Get a load of this. 'There are even those, less stable, members of our society claiming that only aliens could have saved the Earth.'"

"What do you know? The nut cases were right."

Clark smiled.

Lois returned his smile. "Okay, so we solved the asteroid question. What's next?"

"I think I might have something here. At least, looking at this next headline is... Well, it sort of has me thinking that there is more here than meets the eye."

Lois got up and came to look over his shoulder. "'Vincent Winninger Murdered.' Right. The story where I witnessed Dr. Winninger get shot. I originally thought he had been murdered by his roommate but it turned out that the murderer was Mr. Makeup. Oh, what was his name again?"

"Sebastian Finn. But then you wrote that story that all but told Finn that you had been a witness. Oh, I remember now," Clark said before beginning his story.

***

Clark had wandered the darkened streets of Metropolis for hours and yet he barely noticed the people around him. For the past week, he'd been doing much the same thing. When he'd first heard the press conference about the Nightfall asteroid, he'd decided he needed more information. As a result, he'd found himself over-hearing, from several thousand feet in the air, a frantic conversation between scientific and military experts on how to stop it.

When he'd heard that their only real option was a nuclear one, he'd immediately found himself concerned about fall-out. Besides, there was always the question of how accurate such devices would be in the vacuum of space. So he'd undertaken to see what he could do about the problem. That the world was attributing his 'stunt' to a scientific unknown or divine intervention suited Clark just fine. At least they wouldn't be looking for a flying man.

But the incident had scared him. He'd barely made it back to Earth without running out of oxygen. But worse than that, he'd almost lost everyone and everything that was precious to him. What would have happened to him then, he really didn't know. Would he have been the only survivor on a devastated Earth? The thought was too horrible to contemplate.

Tomorrow couldn't always be counted on. And that thought, of course, brought him to the subject of Lois Lane.

He had nothing to lose, after all. Except his pride.

But maybe, just maybe, if she was as attracted to him as her behavior while under the influence of the pheromone compound seemed to indicate, she'd be willing to go out on a date with him.

What could be the harm in at least asking?

He looked up, only realizing then, that his wandering had brought him to Lane's apartment building -- as it had every night this week. Only this time, he didn't continue to walk. He stopped, staring at the building as he tried to work up the nerve to go inside.

He'd looked Lane's name up in the phone book following the pheromone incident, but hadn't worked up the nerve to call her. But her address had been emblazoned into his memory ever since.

Before he had time to work up the courage necessary to appear at the door of her apartment, or had chickened out and disappeared back the way he had come, a taxi pulled up in front of the building and the woman he'd been thinking about only moments before appeared on the sidewalk.

He didn't give himself time to talk himself out of it. Instead he strode across the street.

"Lane," he yelled.

She stopped at the sound of her name being called, turning around on the steps to her building to see who was addressing her.

***

"Oh, god, I can remember that moment," Lois said, interrupting him. "I wanted to run into my apartment, lock all the doors and hide out in my darkened bedroom until you went away. All I could think about was how humiliated I felt after the whole pheromone incident."

"Well, that's certainly encouraging. Just as well I didn't know that at the time. I might never have had the courage to approach you."

"Well, go on with your story," Lois said.

With one final nod, Clark did.

***

Clark practically tripped over the man in the wheelchair in his rush to reach the apartment before she disappeared inside. "Sorry," he mumbled as he raced towards his destination.

"Kent," she said when he finally came to a stop at the bottom of the steps. "What are you doing here?"

Her tone was definitely not encouraging. "I just came... I wanted to know..." He hesitated, trying to get his thoughts in order.

"Wanted to know what? Come on, Kent. I don't have all day."

"Would you go out with me?" he blurted out.

She looked at him, stunned. "Okay, Kent. I think you've got the wrong idea here," she finally said. "Just because I practically attacked you when I came to your apartment the other day..."

He didn't bother telling her that she did attack him. There was no 'practically' about it.

"...doesn't mean I'm 'ever' going to sleep with you. In case you haven't figured it out, let me spell it out for you. That wasn't me the other day. That was the pheromone compound talking. And I have no intention of ever, and trust me I do mean 'ever,' sleeping with you. So if this is some pathetic attempt to get into my pants, you can just..."

Clark wasn't entirely certain what alerted him to the danger. Did he hear a gun being cocked? Did he catch a flash of light off a gun barrel? But before she could finish her tirade, he leapt up the few stairs between them and tackled her, taking her to the ground. He spun around as a gun began firing, catching the bullets before they could do any damage.

"What the hell do you think you're doing, Kent?"

Lane began pounding on his back as he looked for the gunman. But although the wheelchair was still sitting on the sidewalk, the man who had occupied it was gone.

"Someone tried to kill you," Clark said.

"Yeah! You!"

"No..." He turned towards her. "Someone shot at you."

Just then there was another loud bang and Clark spun around just in time to see a motorcycle backfire.

"Shot at me, huh?" Lois asked skeptically. "Can't you even tell the difference between a gunshot and a motorcycle backfiring?"

"No, really. Someone shot at you."

"Really? Then mind telling me where the bullet holes are?"

He suddenly stuck his hands behind his back.

"What's in your hands?" she asked, obviously having noticed his gesture.

He crushed the bullets he was holding, allowing the dust of the crushed bullets to trickle out between his fingers. "Nothing."

"Let me see."

He opened them, revealing his now empty hands.

"Hmph," she said, turning and marching up the stairs to the building.

"Lane, listen to me," Clark said. "I'm telling the truth here. Someone tried to kill you. I don't think you should be alone right now."

She turned back towards him. "So... what are you suggesting? That someone should... Oh, I don't know...stay the night with me?"

"That would probably be a very good idea."

"And I suppose you would be willing to do that?"

"I could."

Lois snorted. "Goodnight, Kent. Nice try, but I've heard better pick-up lines from the gorillas at the zoo."

Turning, she entered the building without so much as a backward glance.

Clark stared after her. She thought he was lying. She thought that his willingness to spend the night at her place was just a cheep pick-up line. Dejected he turned and took in his environment. Well, regardless of what she thought, it hadn't been a line. And no matter what she said, he had no intention of leaving her alone tonight -- not with someone trying to kill her.

He spotted a park bench across the street. She might not want him in her apartment, but she couldn't object to him sitting outside. Besides, unless she was threatened again, she would never even know.

Giving a decisive nod to indicate his satisfaction with his plan, he crossed the street and took a seat.

***

"I remember looking out the window and seeing you there, watching everyone going past the building and... being confused, I guess. I'd been so sure that you were giving me a line to get me to invite you in. I mean, you'd been honorable enough when you realized I was drugged -- or at least, you hadn't actually... let me consummate the deal... although I wasn't all that sure about when you realized I was drugged. But that line about letting you spend the night..." Her voice trailed off and she shrugged. "I guess I had second thoughts when I saw you sitting on that park bench, quite obviously guarding the building.

"Of course, it also crossed through my mind that you might be stalking me and that maybe I should call the police. But..." She shrugged.

"Ouch."

She leaned forward, giving him a kiss. "Of course, that desire to call the police changed the next morning."

"I don't really..."

"Clark! It wasn't all the different than what happened in our reality."

***

Lois was stunned when Mr. Traceski turned on her, grabbing her around the neck. She struggled, but wasn't strong enough to prevent him from tightening his grip. She kicked out behind her, but to no avail.

"No!" she cried out a moment before all oxygen was cut off. She grabbed at his powerful forearm, scratching at it in a desperate bid for freedom.

Just before she lost consciousness, she heard the sound of the door banging open and saw Kent stood in the doorway.

***

"I remember what happened then," Clark said, interrupting her. "I took one look at your limp body and attacked."

"I thought you told him to let go and he did, before rushing from the room."

Clark shook his head. "I did that in our reality because I'd learned over the preceding months the effect my 'Superman voice' had on people, even when I wasn't wearing the suit. In this reality, I didn't have that experience."

"So did you let him live?" Lois asked, only half joking.

"As soon as I attacked, he threw you at me -- or at least as well as he was able. The choices were to get him, or to grab you. I chose you."

Lois smiled. "You always do."

He rolled his eyes. "Anyway, you weren't breathing, but I could still hear your heart. It was weak, but it was still beating. So I started to administer mouth to mouth. That's when you started to come to."

***

She coughed and sputtered before sucking breath into her burning lungs.

"Oh, thank God, Lane," he whispered, pulling her into his arms.

"Kent," she breathed. "I couldn't breathe. I can't believe that nice Mr. Tracewski..."

"No it wasn't Mr. Tracewski. It must have been someone else. I saw the real Mr. Tracewski leave."

"He tried to kill me..."

"I'll find him," Kent said, moving as if he would release her.

"No!" Lois said, holding onto him. "Please. Don't leave me."

***

"I felt safe with you there." Her eyebrows crinkled together. "I don't know why... I just did. It completely confused me -- how right it felt. And I needed a moment to compose myself," Lois explained. "I was so glad when you said..."

***

"I won't," He settled down on the floor again, holding her tightly in his arms. "I'm here. I'm right here."

She stayed where she was for a long time, trying to get her trembling under control. It had been a while since she'd come that close to being killed. The guy, whoever he was, knew what he was doing. Even with her martial arts training, she'd been helpless.

As her trembling began to calm, and she became more aware of the man holding her, she started to feel uncomfortable. Without looking at him, she removed herself from his arms, rising from the floor.

"Well, thanks for your help," she said uncomfortably. "But I'm sure you have to get to work, and I've got things to do to get ready." She walked to the door, opening it in obvious invitation for him to leave.

"Can I at least see that you get safely to work?" he asked, even as he moved towards the door.

"I'm sure I'll be fine," she said, wishing he would just go.

She couldn't quite look him in the eye. She knew she was hurting him with her casual dismissal. But what else could she do? Okay, so he had saved her life. And okay, maybe she had been having some pretty... erotic dreams about him since the whole pheromone incident...

***

"You were having dreams?" Clark said, definitely sounding intrigued.

Lois rolled her eyes and continued.

***

...but Clark Kent was still the arrogant jerk who had turned her over to EPRAD authorities, who had blown her cover with Toni Taylor, not to mention what he had done to her the previous year. Okay, so maybe he also had the power to confuse her. His honorable behavior in turning her down when he realized she was drugged... assuming, of course, that he hadn't taken it as far as he had just to humiliate her. And she couldn't say she was sure exactly when he had realized she wasn't herself. Personally, she would have known the moment she began kissing him. And now... he had saved her life, but...

***

"Wait!" Clark said, interrupting Lois' story. "What did you mean by what I'd done the previous year?"

Lois thought about that for a moment before shaking her head. "I don't know. I just know... I was furious with you about it."

"If this has something to do with the previous year..."

"Yes?" Lois asked.

"I'm just wondering... What about talking to Jimmy? I mean, we wouldn't have to tell him what was going on. I'm sure you could... do a little probing without giving anything away."

Lois clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth for a moment before responding. "That wouldn't work, Clark. I mean, Jimmy only started working for the Planet about a month before you did. He wouldn't know what might have happened the previous year. And probing for information like that... when he wouldn't know anyway... I think it might just make him more suspicious than he already seems to be."

Clark let out a breath before nodding and Lois returned to her story.

***

"I'll just... walk you to the doors of the Planet and then leave. Please." Kent was desperately trying to make eye contact.

She avoided his gaze. "I'll call a cab. I'm sure I'll be fine."

Kent let out a breath before nodding, obviously recognizing defeat. "If you have any more problems, please call me. I can be here really fast."

She nodded, although more to get him to leave than because she had any intention of accepting his offer.

He stepped through the doorway before turning back to address her one final time. "I'm not the enemy, Lane. We might work for different papers, but this is journalism, not war."

She slowly closed the door on him, before leaning up against it. Using the door to support her weight, she sunk to the floor.

"That's the problem," she said softly. "You think there's a difference."

***

"Hey, it's okay," Clark said, reaching over to rub her neck when he saw the tears that had appeared in her eyes.

"No, Clark. It's not. I really believe that you... believed that you were the enemy."

"Hey, keep your tenses right," Clark said, only half joking. He knew how she was feeling. It seemed that the longer they were in this screwed-up reality, the harder it became to keep things straight in his own mind. She was obviously having the same problem.

"Okay, so what happened next?" he asked. "Oh, I remember. Even though I knew you didn't want me to, I kept watch you until you were at the Daily Planet. I was even late for work myself as a result."

"It's funny. Because I suspected you were keeping an eye on me. But I couldn't spot you anywhere."

"You didn't look up."

She smiled at him. "Anyway, the next time I saw you was at Barbara Trevino's press conference. I was aware of you almost the instant you arrived."

"I thought your heart rate sped up a little, but I wasn't sure that was due to me."

"Oh, it was most certainly due to you."

"Well, when you wouldn't look in my direction..." He shrugged.

"Anyway," Lois said, "that was when the press conference began."

"And you asked your... rather unusual questions about the ozone layer and increased male potency."

Lois shrugged. "Well, I had to do something to try to provoke her. And it worked too, didn't it?"

"Well, if you mean that it got Finn to lure you up to the roof of a building so that he could kill you, I guess so."

"Boy, was I surprised when you busted through the door to the roof and tackled Finn. I guess that's another one I owe you."

Clark leaned closer. "Feel free to give me a down payment now."

Smiling, Lois leaned in, giving him a brief kiss.

"Hey!" Clark objected when she pulled back.

"Sorry, honey. We've got work to do."

Clark sighed. "Well, I guess that wraps up the differences in the story about Trevino so what's..."

"Well, that's not quite all that happened. After Trevino called and threatened me directly, I left the Daily Planet and hailed a cab. I don't think I'd ever been so scared in my entire life. I mean, usually when I'm in danger, it's sort of an immediate danger. I don't have time to think. I'm in a shuttle that's about to explode. I'm in the process of being strangled." She gave him a quick grin. "But because I'm already in the thick of it, I don't have time to think about it. I just... react. But this time was different. She gave me time to think."

***

Lois watched through the rear-view window, taking note of the cars around them. Behind them. Following them? It was hard to tell in the dark. What if they were being followed? What if they weren't, and Trevino was, at this very moment, staked out outside her apartment building, waiting for her to come home?

"Driver," Lois said immediately. "I want to change my destination."

"Where to?"

Lois hesitated. Where indeed? She could go to Perry's. Yes, that's what she would do. Perry was still at the Planet, but surely Alice was home by now. Alice would let her stay there. She quickly gave the address and begin watching the surrounding traffic once again as the driver made a right turn to change directions.

But what if she was being followed? Would Alice be able to help her fight off Trevino? Or would Lois just be putting the other woman in danger, too?

"Wait a minute," she said. "I changed my mind." She would go to Jimmy's. Yes. That was better. Jimmy would let her crash on his couch or something. She quickly gave the address.

The driver made a disgusted noise, but immediately complied with her request, turning the car around to head back the way they had come.

What was she thinking? Jimmy? He couldn't fight his way out of a paper bag. If she was being followed, she wanted a big strong man available to back her up -- not Jimmy. He'd probably run in the opposite direction at the first sign of trouble. But where was she to find a big strong man?

"Driver, take me to 377 Clinton Ave," she suddenly said. Well, he had said to call if she needed him.

Damn! What was she thinking? She couldn't go to Kent! She just... couldn't! There were at least a million reasons she couldn't go to him. Even if he were willing to risk his life to help her fight off... whomever might be following her, he would probably want something in return. Something she was most definitely not prepared to give him. After all, she knew this man. He just wasn't the type to do something like this for free.

***

"What's that supposed to mean?" Clark asked, sounding slightly indignant.

Lois blinked... suddenly brought unexpectedly out of her story. It was only then she realized the underlying distrust of him that she knew he must have heard in her voice. "Honey, please," she said, reaching over to take hold of his hand. "I know you're not like that. Really, I do." She held her breath then, slightly afraid that he wouldn't believe her.

He let out a breath, using his free hand to run it through his hair. "I know, Lois. Really... I do. It's just..."

"...hard," Lois completed for him. "But please, Clark, I can't..." Her voice trailed off as tears threatened. She knew what she had believed back then. The type of man she'd honestly believed him to be. What if he couldn't handle hearing about it? What if she lost him because of it?

"Oh, honey, you're not going to lose me," Clark said immediately as if reading her mind.

She closed her eyes, steadying herself. How was it that she could have suspected a man as honorable as Clark of such nefarious motives?

"Come on, honey," Clark prompted after a moment, gently stroking her hand. "What happened next?"

"I'm not sure..."

"You're not going to lose me, Lois," Clark repeated. "But please, we have to keep going. Otherwise..."

"...how are we ever going to get Vicky back?" Lois completed for him. She closed her eyes and nodded. As painful as this was for both of them, the only way they had a chance of working this out was to be completely honest with each other -- no matter how much it might hurt. And they could survive this. They could survive anything. With a brief prayer that she was right, she continued with her story.

***

So... where should she go? She needed a big, strong man. The problem was she didn't know any other big, strong men. How pathetic was that?

So the choices were to accept Kent's assistance, and potentially spend the night fighting off his advances, or try to come up with another solution.**

***

Chapter Twelve

Clark was slowly nodding when she finished. "I remember how surprised I was when you showed up on my doorstep looking like a frightened kitten."

"I've never looked like a frightened kitten," Lois objected, hoping to lighten the mood of their former discussion.

Clark smiled, appreciating her efforts, before picking up the story himself.

***

"Lane?" Clark asked curiously. "What are you doing here?"

She glanced over her shoulder nervously.

"Come in," Clark said immediately before pulling her into the apartment and closing the door. Something had obviously happened. Something that had frightened her very badly. "What happened?"

Lois opened her mouth, looking as if she was about to respond, before closing it again.

***

"I can remember suddenly realizing that I couldn't tell you. There was no way I could risk you stealing my story," Lois said.

"I would never steal your story."

"I know that... now. Back then..."

***

"This was a mistake," Lois said, suddenly turning back towards the door. What exactly was she doing here? He was the enemy. Hadn't she only reminded herself of that fact just this morning? She grabbed the door handle.

"No!" Clark's hand reached over her head to shut the door. "No," he said again, much more gently. "You don't have to tell me anything except... Are you okay?"

She turned towards him, studying his eyes. There was something about his eyes. Something that always looked so sincere.

No. No, it was just a ploy. It was the look men learned to make women trust them. On the other hand, what other choice did she have? After all, he'd already saved her life twice today. And after seeing the ease with which he had defeated Finn, she felt safe here. Or... well, at least she felt safe physically. What he would do to her emotionally if she gave him half a chance... she didn't even dare speculate on that one.

"I'm wondering..." Her eyes flicked to his large, comfortable sofa.

"Do you want to sit down?" he asked.

"No! No, I was wondering..." Why couldn't he just realize that she was scared? That she was looking for a safe place to crash for the night. Was he really going to force her to say it?

"Something happened, didn't it? You're scared of something."

She nodded nervously.

"Look," he said, "I'd feel a lot better if you stayed on my couch tonight."

She instantly relaxed as tears gathered in her eyes. "Thank you," she whispered, not sure why he would do this for her. He had even avoided the phrase 'stay here for the night' as if wanting to assure her up front that he was not asking her to share his bed.

"Hey," he said, stepping forward and pulling her into his arms, as if it were an automatic response to seeing a female in distress. "It's okay."

She closed her eyes, leaning into the comfort of his embrace, wondering why she believed him. It made no sense. Here she was, once again in the lion's den, and feeling... safe.**

***

Lois jerked awake, as she had almost every night since the pheromone incident, waking in a sweat after another of those annoying dreams. It took a moment for her breathing to calm, but by the time it had, she realized that she was not in her bed or even her apartment.

Was she still dreaming?

Suddenly, the events of the previous night rushed in to fill the gap in her memory.

Right.

She was at Kent's apartment.

Which meant... Her eyes drifted to the bedroom door....the man she'd been dreaming about only moments before, the man who had been provoking such wonderful sensations in her was only a few feet away, through that open doorway. Scantily dressed, no doubt. Unless... Maybe he slept in the nude. Images from the time she'd been under the influence of the pheromone compound cascaded through her mind before she could stop them, adding to the sweat accumulation from the dream. All she'd have to do would be to get off this couch and make her way to the door. She could climb into his bed, allowing her hands and lips to wake him in a way that would undoubtedly bring all his fantasies to life. She could...

No! No, she couldn't.

Not now.

Not ever.

"He's the enemy," she told herself again, lying down and rolling over.

And he was too. She took a moment, reminding herself of his betrayal at EPRAD. Reliving the moment he'd turned her over to Toni Taylor. Remembering how he'd tried to talk his way into her bed by claiming that someone had shot at her.

No, he was definitely not to be trusted with her heart.

On the other hand... she was somewhat confused that he hadn't tried anything when she'd arrived at his apartment. In fact, other than offering her the bed, he'd simply retrieved a blanket and pillow for her and told her to make herself at home.

Kent was definitely... a contradiction. A dangerous contradiction. After all, she knew him. She knew he would do anything to keep her from getting a story. She wasn't entirely sure that he hadn't known the moment she'd arrived at his apartment when she'd been under the influence of the pheromone spray that she wasn't herself. And then there was that whole thing that had happened last year...

No. Getting involved with Kent was definitely not an option.

So... why had she chosen to come to Kent's apartment in the first place? To tell the truth, she wasn't exactly sure. There had just been something about that decision that had felt... right. Almost as if she knew this was where she was meant to spend the night -- that this was where she would be safe.

Okay, now she was officially losing her mind. She'd panicked and.. and what? What exactly did she think she was doing sleeping on Kent's couch?

She looked at the clock on the wall. Three a.m.

Slowly, she rose from the couch and quietly pulled her slacks back on. It was time to get out of here, before she gave him a chance to hurt her again. And if she stayed here any longer, she just might make that possible.

Besides, she now felt calmer about Trevino's phone call. It had obviously been meant to scare her. And it had worked. But surely Trevino wouldn't try anything. After all, Finn had been her hit man. Trying something herself... Nah. She wouldn't take the chance.

Besides, right now they had no way to connect Trevino with Finn's attempted murder of her. And so, unless Finn talked, Trevino would undoubtedly walk away scot-free.

Lois had simply panicked -- and as a result had leapt from the frying pan into the fire. Well, time to correct that.

She snuck over to the doorway to his room and took a quick peak inside. Satisfied that he was sleeping soundly, she turned her attention to the phone. She dialed a familiar number and then, glancing nervously at the door to the bedroom once again, waited for the phone to be answered.

"Yes, I need a taxi at 377 Clinton Ave immediately."

After hanging up the phone, she stepped towards the drawers in his kitchen, searching around for a moment to find what she needed. A pen and some paper. Moving the paper over to the desk, she quickly wrote a note.

She reread it a couple of times before declaring it to be adequate.

'Thanks. But I don't think this is a good idea.'

***

"I'd spent most of the night dreaming that when you would wake up in the morning, we'd talk. I was devastated when I found your note," Clark said on a sigh. "So... where did you go?"

"I made a quick trip back to my place to shower and change and then I went into the Daily Planet. Perry found me asleep on his couch when he came in later that morning."

Clark nodded, although he still couldn't quite shake the depression he'd felt upon finding that note. It had seemed so curt. So final.

"Hey," Lois said, reaching over to place her hand on his arm. "That's not what really happened. You know that, right? This is just some... screwed up reality."

"I know that. It's just..." He gave her a sad smile.

"I know." She sighed. "Still... I'm having some problems, given the way I felt about you in this reality, believing that I chose to spend the night at your apartment."

"Well, you said you felt safe there."

"But that's just it, Clark. Why would I have felt safe at your apartment? I mean, I know I did in our reality, but in this one..." She raised an eyebrow. "It isn't logical."

Clark thought about what she was saying for a moment. She was right. "Well... you spent the night at my apartment in our reality..."

"But in our reality, you and I were friends. I trusted you by then. In this reality... I just don't get it. Funny thing is even when I think about it now, it just felt like the right thing to do."

"Sorry, honey. I don't know what to tell you. I don't understand it, either. On the other hand, I'm glad you didn't stay at your apartment that night... in either reality." He reached over, gently massaging her neck. "So... who eventually caught Trevino?"

"Oh, right. Superman did it in our reality, didn't he?" She thought about that for a moment. "Well, after Jimmy came into the storage room, Trevino ran out, only to be caught by security in the lobby when she tried to escape."

Clark nodded. Well, that was that.

"This is just so frustrating," Lois said. "It's mid-afternoon, and we still don't know what we did wrong when we went into the past -- or how to fix it."

"Come on, honey. We'll figure it out. We just have to keep going." He turned back towards his computer, scrolling through his articles, as if hoping to inspire her, while desperately searching for inspiration himself. "Wait!" he said suddenly, scrolling back to the headline that had captured his attention.

"What?"

"It's just... This headline... I've never seen this headline before."

Lois got out of her seat, coming to stand behind him. "Miraculous Energy Source Found In Kansas," she read before looking at Clark's name on the byline. "What's that all about?"

"A miraculous new source of energy was found today on a small farm outside of Smallville, Kansas," he read.

"What?"

Lois hunkered down over his shoulder, silently following as he continued to read.

"Experts claim that the crystal, which appears not to be native to the planet, emits a high frequency radiation which they believe can be converted into a source of cheap energy. Experts claim that the radiation is not of a type that is harmful to humans.

"The green crystal, which emits some sort of internal glow, was found by a local farmer named Wayne Irig." She stood up. "But, Clark, the whole incident with the kryptonite should have happened weeks ago."

"In our reality, it did. But in this reality... Wayne said he sent a piece away to be analyzed at a lab in Metropolis. That was when it came to the attention of Jason Trask. But without Superman, Trask wouldn't have been particularly interested in the discovery of some strange crystal. Certainly not interested enough to risk the possible consequences of kidnapping Wayne and digging up his land. So that means..."

"...that the crystal was analyzed and instead of seeing a weapon..."

"...it was hailed as a source of cheap energy."

"So how did you get the story, Clark? And what happened? Were you exposed to it? Clark, what if this cheap energy source is reproduced somehow? Kryptonite in every home. We've got to do something about this!"

"Okay, slow down, Lois. Let me think, see what I can remember." He took a deep breath and thought back. "I remember getting a call from my parents. That's what alerted me to the story."

"Did you fly out to Smallville?"

Clark shook his head. "There was no need. They called to tell me that Wayne had found some crystal that was being hailed as the best thing since the discovery of oil. They thought The Star might be interested in the story. But since the rock was at Star Labs, I went there instead of going back to Smallville."

***

Clark had been pleased to discover that Dr. Klein was the one who was running the tests on this new find. He'd met the good doctor a few times since that original meeting, and always found him to be both competent and helpful. He placed a quick call to Star Labs, leaving a message for Dr. Klein and then called Wayne Irig to find out what he knew.

A few minutes later, Dr. Klein called back, confirming what Irig had already told him. The unusual crystal seemed, from initial tests, to be potent enough that, with time, Dr. Klein believed it could be used to provide cheap power -- provided that enough of it could be found. And yet, all the tests they'd run so far, indicated that there was no risk to humans.

Dr. Klein was almost beside himself with this discovery. There would, of course, be the costs of set up and delivery of the power, but otherwise... it was the next best thing to free electricity. The possibilities were staggering.

They were already hoping that, should the final tests go as expected, they would be able to convince the people of Smallville to let them explore the area for larger deposits of the substance.

Dr. Klein rambled on for quite some time about the possibilities this presented for America, for the developed world, for third world countries. He even raised the possibility that this stuff could be used to power cars. Just one microscopic piece of such a crystal could, according to Dr. Klein, provide power for the life of the car. And, when that car was no longer usable, be installed in the next car. And so on. No more need for fossil fuels. The possibilities were endless.

And not only for the world. If there was a deposit or supply of this stuff in Smallville, it could take struggling farmers and make them instant millionaires -- much like the discovery of oil had done for many farmers in Texas years before.

Fifteen minutes later, Clark had a story on his editor's desk that had the man shouting for follow-ups. When Clark assured him that he had a meeting with Dr. Klein the following day, his editor was ecstatic.

***

"I remember actually going home feeling pretty good about myself that night," Clark told his wife. "I kept thinking about the possibilities. Free power. What could the world do with that?" He shrugged. "Of course, I wasn't so naive as to believe that big oil companies and rich businessmen were going to let this go unchallenged, but... Still... the possibilities were staggering."

"So what happened?" Lois asked, practically hanging off the edge of her seat.

Clark sighed. "About what you'd expect I guess. First thing the next morning, I was waiting, bright eyed and bushy tailed, at Star Labs -- looking forward to getting a look at this modern miracle myself. I had a hundred questions -- everything you could think of from other uses for the crystal, how much, theoretically, would be required for all the Earth's current and future energy needs to how long it would take to start supplying this energy."

"So when you went to Dr. Klein's lab..." Lois prompted.

***

Dr. Klein greeted Clark in the lobby. The man himself looked as if he hadn't slept in quite some time, but his eyes were practically dancing. It seemed he was exceedingly eager to share this exciting news with the world because he didn't stop talking about it, extolling its virtues and possibilities as they rode up in the elevator towards Dr. Klein's lab.

"I assume you'd like to see it," Klein said as they walked down the hall.

"Of course," Clark said. "I was even hoping to get a couple of pictures." He held up the camera he had brought.

"Of course. Of course. Right this way."

As Clark followed behind the doctor, he felt a strange sensation in his stomach. Almost the way he imagined it felt to have food poisoning or an upset stomach. But he didn't feel those things, so what was going on? Sweat appeared on his brow and he suddenly felt incredibly warm. Still, he kept following the doctor. He'd just take his pictures and ask the questions he needed for his follow-up and then, after he wrote the story, if he wasn't feeling better, maybe he'd take a sick day.

Clark was barely listening when Dr. Klein finally stopped at the door to one of the labs and pulled it open.

As he stepped inside after the doctor, he felt a wave of pain flow through him like nothing he had ever known and then... Everything went black.

***

"So what happened then?" Lois asked, visibly checking Clark, as if trying to assure herself that he was all right.

***

Clark was disoriented when he regained consciousness. Where was he? The room was unfamiliar and what was Dr. Klein doing? Holding his wrist while looking at his watch? What was that all about?

He jerked his arm away.

"Oh, you're awake," Dr. Klein said, sounding relieved. "I was so worried. When you passed out in the lab... I didn't know what was going on."

Well, that made two of them.

"At first, I didn't know it was the S-126."

"S-126?"

"Well, that's affectionately what we're calling it. Smallvillium is the name we've given the crystal since it was found in Smallville, Kansas. But the element that makes this crystal so different is Element 126. But why did you go into the lab in the first place if you knew it was in there?"

"What are you talking about, Dr. Klein? What happened?"

"You don't know?"

"Know what?"

"About how your metabolism reacts to S-126?"

Metabolism? Clark felt a sense of unreality come over him. What exactly was Dr. Klein talking about? And, more importantly, what did he know?

"Unfortunately, since we didn't know that it was the crystal that was affecting you, we didn't move you immediately. I'm afraid as a result you got quite a strong dose. And then, well, given your dense molecular structure, even when I did figure out that you were having some sort of reaction to the crystal, we had quite a time getting you out of there."

Oh, no. This really wasn't sounding good.

"What exactly are you trying to say, Dr. Klein?" Clark asked cautiously.

"Don't you know? Well, Mr. Kent, I took a sample of your blood to try to figure out what was wrong. You're not human."

***

"Damn," Lois breathed.

"That was pretty much how I felt. Not only had Dr. Klein just told me that he'd taken a blood sample -- which should have been impossible since I'm invulnerable. And not only had he figured out my secret. But it was the first time I'd ever had proof that I wasn't human. Until then, I'd thought it was far more likely, given how human I look, that I was some sort of Russian experiment. But to find out I wasn't human..."

"Didn't you know before... Oh, of course. Since Trask didn't come after you..."

"...I never found the globe which, even before it told me why I'd been sent here, it told me where I'd come from. I guess I must have gone pale or something because..."

***

"Mr. Kent? Are you okay?"

"Uhh... yeah," Clark answered, feeling everything except okay. At least they were alone, but... how many others had seen the results of the blood test and knew what he was? And what had happened to his powers? None of them seemed to be working. It was definitely time to take evasive action. He could worry about the rest later. "What are you talking about? I'm not human. That's crazy. Don't I look human to you?"

"Well, actually, you do. That's one of the things that I wanted to ask you. I mean, I suspect that our two species must have evolved along similar lines or from the same source. So is that why you were sent here -- to find out if it was time to reunite our two great civilizations? I assume your people must be further along technologically if you were able to come here. Is that because your people didn't get slowed down by the lack of scientific advancement we had during the dark ages? I've always wondered where we might be, what advancements we might have already made, if not for that period in our history..."

"Dr. Klein!" Clark interrupted. Once he had a little room to think, he paused. Now what? "So... who all have you shared this crazy theory with?" he asked, trying to sound casual.

"Shared...? Oh, you want to know who else knows you're an alien?"

"I don't know what you think you're trying to do, but... I'm not an alien." Clark tried to get up, the instinct to flee very strong now, but found that he was unable to do so. He collapsed back onto the couch.

"Easy there," Klein said, studying Clark even closer.

Clark shifted uncomfortably under the doctor's steady gaze.

"So why exactly don't you want anyone to know that you're an alien?" Klein asked suddenly sounding nothing like the eager puppy who had had so many questions only moments before. "And why are you hiding out, pretending to be a reporter? Are you studying us, preparing to take a status report back to your people? It seems to me that the right thing to do in a situation like this would be to introduce yourself to our leaders not hide amongst us. That is, if you have no improper intentions."

This was getting worse by the minute. Now Dr. Klein thought he was... what? Some sort of scout for an alien invasion?

No. This was not good at all. In fact, there was only one thing Clark could think to do. It was the only chance he had to ever get out of there. After all, without his powers, he really was in danger of being taken away and put in a lab somewhere -- maybe even here -- and dissected like a frog, just like his father had always feared. The truth. The only chance he had now was to tell Dr. Klein the truth and hope that it was enough.

"Okay," Clark said, resigned. "I'm not some sort of alien, checking out how you live to send a report back to my superiors. And I'm not 'pretending' to be a reporter. I have no idea who my people -- as you put it -- are or why I was sent here. In fact, until today, I didn't know I wasn't human. I thought the most plausible theory was that I was some sort of Russian experiment."

Clark let out a breath. "Twenty-seven years ago, my folks... my adopted parents here on Earth spotted what they believed to be a meteor land in a farmer's field. They were curious, so they stopped the truck to check it out. Anyway, they found a tiny spacecraft, half buried in the mud. When they opened it up, they found me. That's all I know," Clark said when Dr. Klein looked as if he was about to ask more questions. "Keep in mind that this was at the height of the cold war. So they figured..." Clark shrugged. "...I was probably some sort of Russian experiment. For years I worried that I was some sort of sleeper agent and that one day they were going to pop the memory capsule in my brain, or whatever, and I was going to become some sort of Russian soldier."

"But you don't believe that now."

"No. Not after what you just told me. I'm still not sure what to think, but..."

"No, that's not what I mean. You said that you worried for years... But not that you always worried. Why?"

Clark hesitated. Dr. Klein didn't know about the powers, and since at the moment, he didn't have the powers, maybe he could just leave that part out. But... No. Right now, Dr. Klein held his life, his secret in his hands... Or did he? "First, answer me a question. How many other people know what you told me?"**

***

Chapter Thirteen

***

"No one," Dr. Klein responded immediately. "As soon as I realized what I was looking at I destroyed the tests. I wanted to talk to you first."

"So you're still considering telling people?"

"Mr. Kent, I'd like to take this moment to point out that this room has surveillance cameras. If you do anything to me, your secret might still be safe, but you won't walk out of here free."

Clark crinkled his eyebrows, his eyes going to the camera hanging in the far corner. What was Dr. Klein saying? "I would never hurt you," Clark burst out. "What would ever give you that idea?"

"I don't have any ideas, Mr. Kent. Not yet. But that's why I wanted to talk to you first. To find out what your intentions are. But I warn you, Mr. Kent, that if I'm not satisfied with the answers..."

"Okay. Okay. I get it." Clark took a deep breath. Full disclosure. It was the only chance he had. And looking into Dr. Klein's eyes right now, he realized that the man was as sharp as a whip. He might tend to blunder around most of the time like an absent-minded professor, but behind all that, was a sharp mind. So... full disclosure. "So... where were we? You wanted to know why I quit worrying so much about being some sort of Russian spy?"

Dr. Klein nodded.

"Well, because I realized that... there were other ways I was different."

"How so? Other than your blood, and your dense molecular structure, I didn't see any differences."

Clark immediately looked down at his body. From the way Dr. Klein was talking, he almost expected so see himself lying there naked. Suddenly, all the images about being dissected like a frog on some scientist's table came flooding back.

He looked back at Dr. Klein who now seemed to be blushing from where his shirt was open at his neck to the top of his not-so-hairy head. "No. No. I didn't mean... I mean, I haven't. You just... Well, you look human enough to me. Or are you saying..."

"No. No. Nothing like that," Clark responded feeling heat rising in his cheeks as well.

"Oh, well. Not that I..."

"Me either..."

"Good. Good. So... what were you about to say?"

What had he been about to say? Oh, right. The powers. Except... "Dr. Klein, what I'm about to tell you... Well, it's going to be a little hard to believe. And at the moment... After my exposure to... that rock, I guess... I can't exactly prove it."

"So that crystal did something to you? Besides almost killing you, that is?"

"I almost died?" Clark said, distracted by this new revelation. "I didn't even know I could die."

Dr. Klein nodded. "We almost lost you before we could get you out of that room."

"Then why not just take the rock out of the room?"

Dr. Klein blinked. "Actually, that never occurred to me. Sort of a case of how to untie the Gregorian knot, huh? Never even occurred to me to search for another method. Although, even if I had, I'm not sure I'd have wanted to do that."

"Why not?"

"Witnesses, my boy. No one knew that was what was affecting you. Even I wasn't sure. Moving you was more of a precaution. After all, we've just started testing on the S-126. For all I knew, you had a reaction to it because you had brown eyes or hair or... Well, at the time, I really didn't know what to think. Anyway, as you were saying, that rock did something to you."

"Right," Clark said. "Well, before I encountered that rock... I sort of had these unusual powers."

"What type of powers?"

"I was very strong. As in superhuman strong. And fast. As in able to outrun a locomotive fast. And... I could fly."

Dr. Klein looked at Clark for a long moment before his expression suddenly cleared. "As in able to fly out into space fly and push an asteroid off course strong?"

"Something like that," Clark said, finally able to rise to sit on the couch.

Dr. Klein nodded as if all his questions had suddenly been answered. He rose to his feet. "Well, my boy, you just sit here for a minute and recover. I've got some tests to check on. I'll meet you in my office in ten minutes." He walked to the door.

"Wait, Dr. Klein?"

"Yes?" Klein said, turning back towards him.

"So... what are you going to do?"

"I told you I had some tests to..."

"No. About me?"

"About you?" Klein looked confused.

"Are you going to tell people?"

"Of course not!" Klein said indignantly. "Haven't you ever heard of doctor patient confidentiality?"

***

"So he kept your secret?" Lois said, letting out a breath of relief. "What made him decide that?"

"I asked him when we met again a few minutes later. He said that since everyone on Earth now owed me their lives, he didn't think there was any point in destroying mine."

"Have I ever told you that I love that man."

Clark smiled. "Careful. I might get jealous. But... well, that brings up a possibility."

"What?"

"It's just... obviously I trust Dr. Klein in this reality. What if we went to him, told him that we changed the past and asked for his help?"

Lois chewed on her lower lip for a moment before responding. "I'm not sure that's a good idea. At least not yet. There are too many things about this altered reality that we don't yet know. What if Dr. Klein did betray you and we just can't remember it yet? Clark, as much as I hate to say this, before we involve anyone else, I think we need to know more. I feel like I'm wandering around in the dark in this reality."

Clark nodded slowly. He, too, felt as if he were slugging his way through this reality without a road map. Things were obviously quite different. Maybe they should wait until they understood what was going on a little better.

"Still..." Lois said slowly. "...I'm concerned that maybe we're going about this search all wrong."

"How so?"

"Well, the further we go, the further away we get from the moment when we changed the past, the less likely we are to get the answers we need."

"So what are you suggesting?"

"That we go back... starting in May of 1992... and see if we can find anything that happened during that year before you came to the Planet that might jog our memories."

Clark nodded. "Good idea. So, I'll look in The Star."

"And I'll look in the Daily Planet. If you see anything that stirs up a memory, let me know."

With that they began their search of the year before Clark had come to the Planet -- expanding their search from the two major Metropolis papers to other more specialized papers. An hour later, they both stopped, exhausted and disappointed.

"Nothing!" Lois said in frustration. "How is that possible? How could we find nothing that jogs our memories about changes to that preceding year?"

"Maybe whatever... happened wasn't reported."

Lois leaned her head back, resting it on the back of the chair as she stared at the ceiling. "So we keep going forward," she said at last.

"We keep going forward," Clark confirmed.

"So what happened next?" Lois asked, feeling discouraged. It might be interesting to learn how things were different in this altered reality, but what she really wanted was to solve the mystery so that they could get back to Vicky. Was that really too much to ask?

"Well, let's see..." Clark said. "After I felt a bit stronger, I met with Dr. Klein in his office and he brought up an obvious problem. The kryptonite. Of course, he was still calling it S-126. As he put it, my reaction to it proved that the crystal wasn't completely benign -- and as Dr. Klein pointed out, we had no way of knowing if I was the only alien on Earth or if others had been sent here for whatever reason as well. [see 'Northern Lights' by Gerry Anklewicz at http://www.lcfanfic.com/stories/2005/northern.txt <g>]

"He was planning, as well, once he realized that I was vulnerable to the kryptonite... uhh, S-126 to cancel the tests."

"Good!"

"I told him not to do it."

"What?" Lois exclaimed.

"Lois, free electricity. Something that wouldn't damage the environment and yet would produce electricity. How could I deny the world such a discovery? So I told him to go ahead with the tests and..." He shrugged.

Lois looked puzzled for a moment. "I know about this," she finally said. "After your article came out, there was quite a buzz. As you said, free... or almost free power. I think everyone in the world was talking. So Perry put me on the story."

"And...?"

Lois let out a slow breath, gathering her thoughts before proceeding.

***

Okay, so it was a big story. She understood that. Still, it was a science story. And science stories tended to be dry, boring and not the least bit interesting to investigate. Give her a good, old fashioned murder any day of the week. After all, as everyone in the news business knew: if it bleeds it leads. Still, she left for Star Labs and her appointment with Dr. Klein. She was just getting out of her taxi when she saw Kent step out the front door.

She dashed to the side of the building, attempting to stay out of his line of sight. She hoped her note had made it clear enough -- that although she appreciated his assistance, this didn't mean they could be friends. Because when it came down to the crunch, she just didn't trust him. She couldn't.

He stumbled slightly before regaining his balance. Was he sick? She watched his careful steps as he staggered to the taxi she had just vacated. Once the door was closed and the taxi moved away from the curb, she abandoned her hiding place, watching the taxi and wondering about his pale face, uncertain steps and trembling hands...

***

"Hey, you were worried about me?" Clark said, interrupting her.

"I was not."

Clark's eyebrows rose.

"Okay, so maybe a little. After all, you'd saved my life -- both times Mr. Makeup attacked me. And you gave me a place to crash. Don't read any more into it than that, lover boy."

Clark smiled and Lois returned to her story.

***

Lois entered Star Labs, walking up to the front desk. "I've got an appointment with Dr. Klein."

"Just have a seat please. Dr. Klein will be down shortly. He called and said something had come up and he'd be a few minutes."

Lois nodded and took a seat, picking up a copy of The Star lying on the coffee table in order to peruse Kent's story once again. How he had stumbled across this, she'd never know. But if it were true... Well, it was sort of an exciting thought. Pennies on the dollar for electricity. No more feeling as if she'd just been robed when she filled up her gas tank or opened her electric bill. In her mind, she began thinking what she might do with all that extra money.

"Ms. Lane?"

Lois instantly rose to her feet, her eyes taking in the older gentleman in the white lab coat standing in front of her. "Dr. Klein?" she asked.

He nodded and she immediately stuck out her hand.

"Thanks for waiting for me," he said, taking the offered hand and shaking it briefly.

"Thank you for seeing me."

"Right. Right," he said distractedly. "Now... what were you here to talk to me about again?"

"This miracle source of electricity," Lois said. Surely there wasn't anything else as exciting going on at Star Labs today -- at least not if the Star's story was accurate.

"Right. S-126."

"S-126?"

"That's what we're affectionately calling it. The official name of the crystal is Smallvillium since it was found in Smallville, Kansas. But the element that is new is Element 126. So..."

"S-126," Lois said, watching Dr. Klein closely.

Something was wrong. Oh, he hadn't said it. But something was definitely bothering him. His comments seemed rehearsed -- as if he were saying them by rote.

"Well," he said, "why don't we go to my office? I imagine you have a few questions."

Lois' mind was drifting a few minutes later as Dr. Klein proceeded to answer her latest question. She took copious notes, but she couldn't seem to get really excited about what she was being told.

Suddenly, she realized the problem. They were talking, arguably, about one of the biggest advances in recent science and Dr. Klein didn't look or sound excited.

As soon as she had the thought, she knew she was right. She continued to watch as he methodically answered her questions, but at this point, she was watching more to take note of her rather remarkable discovery about Dr. Klein than anything else.

"Dr. Klein," she finally said, "this sounds like one of the biggest discoveries in the past century."

"Oh, it is. It is," he assured her.

"Then why don't you sound excited about it? You almost sound... I don't know. Depressed maybe?"

"Oh, I assure you, Ms. Lane. I'm excited. Quite excited." He seemed to be trying to inject some excitement into his voice, but her first thought was that he should never try acting because he wasn't very good at it.

"Oh, fine," she responded, instead of pointing out her observation. "I was wondering... Could I see it?"

"What?" Klein almost looked horrified by the suggestion.

"I'd like to get a picture of it to go with my story. Maybe with you in it, too," she added to sweeten the offer.

"Oh, no. No. Not possible. Too dangerous."

"But Mr. Kent's article was very clear that there was nothing dangerous about S-126. That was one of the great things about it. A source of nuclear power without any of the hazards."

"Oh, it is, I assure you. But... What I meant to say was that we're not set up to show it to the public at the moment. We're running tests and... Yes! That's it. The tests we're running are too dangerous."

His genuine excitement when he seemed to find a rational explanation for not allowing her to see the crystal made her even more suspicious.

"Anyway," Dr. Klein said, rising quickly to his feet. "That's really all the time I have. I'll have my assistant see you out. Clyde?" he called into the other room.

A young man immediately appeared in the doorway. "Yes, Dr. Klein?"

"Would you show Ms. Lane out?" he asked. When Clyde nodded, Dr. Klein quickly said his good-byes and stepped past her out of his office, leaving Lois with the distinct impression that he was fleeing the scene of the crime. She felt an instant impulse to tackle him, fighting it back just in time.

***

"So he had just finished his... episode with me before he saw you," Clark said. "That must be what distracted him."

Lois nodded. Knowing what had just happened before she'd arrived, made her interview with the doctor make sense to her now. At the time, it had been anything but clear.

***

What was he hiding? And why was she being given the bum's rush? Maybe a little illicit trip back here tonight was just what the 'doctor' ordered? She looked around at all the security measures as she was led down the hall -- or maybe not. Maybe this would take a lot more thinking.

Clyde led her through the front door and then, just when she thought he was about to turn to go inside, he suddenly grabbed her arm, leading her over to the side of the building. It flashed through her mind to fight back. Maybe when Dr. Klein had said to 'show her out' what he'd really been saying was 'to get rid of her.' But as quickly as the idea to pull away came, she dismissed it. Not because she couldn't take Clyde. She was sure she could. But if she did that, she'd never know what he might say before he tried to do the dastardly deed. That would be the time to fight back -- when she knew more.

He pulled her to a stop outside the security camera's view and looked nervously around before turning to her. "Ms. Lane," he said, "do you protect your sources?" he asked.

***

"Here it is!" Lois said excitedly.

"What?"

"The story," Lois responded, pointing to her screen. "Electrical Miracle Not Quite a Miracle?"

Clark got up from in front of his computer and came over to look over her shoulder while she read.

"A source inside Star Labs claims that Smallvillium, the miraculous source of safe energy that the world became aware of yesterday, might not be as safe as officials are claiming. Apparently, an unnamed individual collapsed and almost died when coming into contact with the substance, benignly known as S-126."

Lois looked back over her shoulder at her husband. "You know, as soon as he told me what had happened, I thought about you -- and how you had looked coming out of the building. I expected to see a similar article in The Star the next morning. In fact, I can remember thinking that since you appeared to be the 'unnamed individual' -- at least if your appearance coming out of Star Labs was any indication -- that your story would be better than mine. You'd have all the gory details.

"I was very surprised when no such article appeared. Of course, in the days that followed, I tried to get more information. I just knew there was more to the story than they were telling us. And yet no other publication even hinted at any problems. I was furious when Perry finally took me off the story."

"So you were trying to protect me even when you didn't know that you were protecting me?" Clark said with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Hey, don't get any ideas," Lois instantly responded. "I was just trying to get the story. After all, The Star wasn't telling us the truth."

"Okay, so why don't we see what comes next?" Clark said.

"Right."

They were both silent for a moment as they scrolled through their respective screens.

"Hey, I got the Ladderman story," Clark said after a moment.

"Eugene Ladderman?" Lois asked, jumping up from her computer to look at his. "How did you get that? Ladderman was my story? I hid him at my apartment when he was on the lam."

Clark shrugged. "I guess I scooped you," he said playfully.

"Hmph," she responded, reaching over his shoulder to take control of his mouse. She scrolled quickly through the story. "Well, it's all there. I guess you're right. You got the story." She almost sounded disbelieving. "But then I was a little distracted at the time. I was still thinking about how to get the S-126 story. So maybe I wasn't on the top of my game."

Clark rolled his eyes and smiled. She would always be Lois, and to tell the truth, he wouldn't have her any other way. "I think that was about the time that Carpenter purchased The Metropolis Star," Clark said after a moment.

"Preston Carpenter? What about Linda? Did she come to work for The Star, too?"

"Yeah. We became partners."

Lois instantly bristled.

"She's not worth it, honey," Clark said soothingly, reaching over to take his wife's hand. He stroked the back of it with his thumb, attempting to relax it from the fist she'd curled it into. "This isn't reality. And besides, just because we were partners at work doesn't mean that we were partners in any other sense of the word. I was in love with you, remember?"

"And I was completely hostile to you," she shot back. "Are you honestly trying to tell me that in that situation you would be completely immune to her 'charms'?" Lois managed to make the last word sound like a curse.

"Let's just not jump to any conclusions, okay. We'll deal with it if it happens. Because whatever we might learn in this reality, you're the one I'm going home with tonight."

Lois finally relaxed. "Okay, so I guess the place to start is to look for our story... or the story since we don't know which one of us might have written it, about Carpenter's fall from grace. What was the headline again?"

"New Age Kane Nipped in Bud," Clark said, already scrolling through the stories on his computer.

"Ha ha. Cute." Even as Lois spoke, she began looking for the same story on her computer. "Nothing," she said after a moment. "My next big story is about cloning. Apparently, Dr. Fabian Leek was getting hair samples from important or powerful men and women and cloning them. Politicians. Military men. Brilliant scientists. The clones only lived a short period, but they were causing all sorts of havoc while they were alive, passing bills, making military decisions -- that sort of thing. Nothing about cloning Superman, though."

"That's probably because there wasn't a Superman to clone," Clark said. "But I just noticed something else."

"What?"

"Well, not only isn't there a story here about Carpenter's fall from grace. There are none of the stories leading up to it. No elevator crash. No fire in an apartment building. So what happened? There is no way anything we did to the past could have changed Carpenter's dreams of controlling the world."

"Maybe not, but what if..."

"What if what?"

"Well, it's just theory. But when you and I were partners, we were unbeatable."

"Granted. But what... Oh, I get it. When our Carpenter took over The Star, it hadn't scooped us in all the time I had been working here."

"But with you at The Star -- especially after your two big scoops -- kryptonite energy and Eugene Ladderman -- maybe Carpenter was content to see what he could do legitimately, rather than take the risk of doing things illegally."

"Maybe that's even why he hired Linda," Clark continued. "After all, she had quite a reputation at The Washington Post before coming to work for The Star."

"Yeah, I'll bet," Lois mumbled. "Question is: what type of reputation?"

Clark sighed, turning his attention back to his computer.

"Oh, wait!" Lois said. "I think I'm remembering something about that time."

"What?"

Lois waved him off as she struggled to get a grasp onto the illusive memory. "I'd just had another fight with Perry about the S-126 story. He told me that if I could come up with a new approach, he'd 'consider' putting me back on it. So I went to the Press Club, hoping a change of scenery would stimulate me. As I ate dinner, I was scribbling ideas in my notebook -- not exactly good ideas, but... I was hoping to stimulate something. That's when I heard you."

"Me?"

"Yeah. And Linda."

***

What was 'she' doing here? Lois looked up from her supper at the sound of a laughing couple entering the Press Club. Lois had thought Linda King was still in Washington, sleeping with politicians in order to get the inside scoop on the Washington scene.

Her eyebrows rose when she realized exactly who Linda was with. No. This was all of her worst nightmares come true. God, if they both realized they knew her... She could just imagine Kent's laughter as Linda told him about her and Paul, followed by Linda's laughter when Kent told her that she had thrown herself at him, too. He'd probably even conveniently leave out the part where she was stoned on that damnable pheromone compound at the time.

Oh, yeah. They would have a good laugh over that one. Having her naked in his bed when he finally told her that he wasn't interested.

Men were such pigs.

Not that Linda was any better. But then, being willing to do anything to get a story did have its advantages -- if one didn't have to look at herself in the mirror the next morning.

For all Lois knew, Linda and Clark had been together in this from the start. Yes. Things were starting to come together now. Linda had probably even been the woman with Clark when he pulled that little stunt that caused her so many problems.

***

"What?" Clark said, interrupting her. "What stunt are you talking about? And what woman?"

"I don't know, Clark. That's just how I remember my thoughts at the time. Anyway, I suddenly wanted to be anywhere but there. After all, even if you hadn't been working together to 'pull that little stunt,' I didn't particularly want to have you both realize you knew me and start swapping stories. So I raised my newspaper to cover my face as you passed. It didn't work."

"I remember," Clark said, picking up the story for Lois.

***

"Lois Lane? Is that you?" Linda said, stopping right in front of her table.

Lane's smile looked strained and her eyes were hostile as she lowered the newspaper. What Clark didn't know was if that look were meant for Linda or for him. He had hoped they'd at least gotten past the blatant hostility phase with her spending the night -- or at least part of it -- at his apartment. But the look he got when Lane's eyes briefly met his indicated otherwise.

"Linda King," Lane said. "What rock did you crawl out from under?"

"You two know each other?" Kent asked. Maybe the look hadn't been directed at him, after all.

"Oh, yes. Lois and I know each other quite well. We were roommates in college. Still as personable as ever, I see, Lois, and..." Linda looked pointedly at the table as if searching for some invisible dinner companion. "...still eating alone. Lois always did have problems attracting men."

Clark cringed at the phony sympathy he could hear in Linda's voice, as she pretended to confide in Clark in a voice loud enough for Lane to hear.

"At least I have taste," Lane responded, looking pointedly at Kent.

Clark crinkled his eyebrows. Had that comment been a dismissal of Linda's taste... or his?

"Ahh... so you and Clark know each other, do you?" Linda said. "We'll have to talk," she added to Clark even as she slipped an arm through his.

Clark shifted slightly, uncomfortable with the impression Linda was obviously trying to give Lane. He'd just asked Linda if she would like to have dinner here because they had recently been made partners and he'd found out that her things weren't due to arrive from Washington until next week. Knowing she was living at a motel, and remembering what that was like, he'd suggested grabbing some dinner together.

"Anyway, since we don't want to keep you from your..." Linda glanced at the table. "...notepad, I guess we should find our own table," Linda said, pulling a reluctant Clark along with her as she followed the path the hostess had taken some time before.

***

"Lois, were you jealous?" Clark asked.

She opened her mouth to deny his accusation before looking into his eyes. She instantly closed her mouth. He wasn't just teasing her. He honestly wanted to know.

"I don't know exactly what I was," she admitted, trying to think back. "I guess part of me was. I mean, you'd made it fairly clear that you were interested. But I guess I figured you were just interested in sleeping with me -- wishing you'd finished what we'd started during the time I was under the influence of the pheromone compound. Still, it had been... kind of flattering. And then to see you with Linda..."

Clark nodded.

"Anyway, for some reason, I no longer found the Press Club inspiring. And given the way you two kept looking in my direction, I knew you were talking about me."

"I wasn't talking. She was."

"What did she say?" Lois asked, cringing slightly.

"She just told me about your friendship and how it ended when Paul chose her instead of you."

"I'm sure she didn't put it quite that... diplomatically."

"Okay, so maybe not. But it doesn't matter, Lois."

'What did she say?"

Clark let out a breath. "Okay, so she kind of said that you chased him shamelessly until he finally... gave in. And then, the next morning, got all bent out of shape when he told you it was a mistake and then blamed her when he started pursuing her instead."

"Why that no good, lying..."

"Lois, it doesn't matter." He leaned over, kissing her until he felt her relax. "It doesn't matter," he said again.

Taking his words at face value, she finally nodded. "Okay, so... I guess seeing you and Linda together got me thinking. Lex had been pursuing me on and off since the White Orchard Ball. I'd gone out with him a few times. I always knew it wasn't serious, but we had fun together. He was good company. Anyway, he'd called me a few days before and I hadn't returned his call so when I got home, I did."

It was Clark's turn to tense.

"What happened at the Press Club made me realize that I needed a life. All I'd been doing since the pheromone incident was thinking about what had almost happened -- and what it might have been like if you hadn't stopped us."

"That's all I'd been thinking about, too."

"But I desperately wanted to stop thinking about it. Lex seemed a way to do it. Besides, I still hadn't come up with a way to find out what the problem was with S-126. And so, with everything... I just wanted to have a little fun and relax. Lex seemed like a good way to do both."

***

Chapter Fourteen

***

"I was pleasantly surprised to get your call," Luthor said as they sipped champagne in the back of his darkened limo on the way to the opera. It was opening night and he'd told her that she seemed like the perfect companion for the evening. She'd been flattered. "I thought you'd tired of me."

"Not at all, Lex," she assured him. "I've just been rather... I don't know. Frustrated lately, I guess. I wasn't sure I'd be very good company."

"Nothing's wrong, I trust?"

She looked over at him, smiling when she saw the concern in his eyes. "Nothing important. It's just a story that I can't quite get a handle on."

"Anything I can help with?"

"I doubt it."

"Come on. Try me. Even if I can't help, I'm sure it will do you some good to get it off your chest. And then you'll be in a better frame of mind to enjoy the opera."

She hesitated for a moment before acquiescing. "Well, okay. It's this S-126. You know, the miracle source for electricity."

"Yes, I read your article. I think it was the only one I've read that wasn't... fully supportive of this project."

She looked over at him. "So... what do you think? I mean, you don't sound too... excited. Most times, all I have to do is mention S-126 and people begin chattering excitedly."

"Well, they hear 'free power' and they get excited," Luthor said. "And I suppose that's understandable."

"But...?"

"It's just that in my experience, when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. But what's the problem?"

"My editor took me off the story. I know there's something there, something they're not telling us, and yet I can't figure out how to get to the bottom of it."

"Uhh... Well, that is a problem," Luthor said thoughtfully.

"Any suggestions?"

"Not a one," Luthor responded, giving her a smile. "Guess you were right. I wasn't much help. Maybe that's why I'm not a reporter."

Lois laughed. "It's okay. And you were right. I feel much better for having talked about it."

After that, the conversation turned to other, more pleasant matters and in no time at all, they found themselves at the opera. Getting through the crowd of photographers there to cover opening night was not exactly one of Lois' most pleasant moments of the evening. She was used to covering the news. Being covered was not nearly so much fun -- as Lex had playfully whispered into her ear as they had emerged from the limo.

Still, by the time the curtains went up and the opera began, she was thoroughly enjoying herself. She wasn't thinking about Kent or Linda or anything else unpleasant. She was enjoying a great view from Lex's private box of a beautiful opera with a charming companion. Nope. There was nothing else she'd rather be doing and no one else she'd rather be doing it with. Not her. She was perfectly content right where she was.

***

"Me thinks thou doest protest too much," Clark said, bringing her out of her story.

She swept a strand of hair back over her ear and Clark was fairly certain the faint blush of pink was staining her cheeks.

"Okay, so maybe it wasn't quite as ideal as I was trying to portray it. It's just... thinking about you with Linda..." She shrugged uncomfortably.

"So you were trying to make me jealous?"

"Maybe. Just a little."

"Well, you don't have to try. I was jealous. I saw your picture in the society section of The Star the next morning -- you and Luthor getting out of the limo together. He was leaning over, whispering something in your ear, and you were smiling. And, trust me, I was jealous. So... why not tell me how it really went?"

***

Lois was bored out of her mind. She hated the opera. She had always hated the opera. Why had she even agreed to come tonight? She should have simply told Lex how she felt and, if he insisted he wanted to go, had him invite another companion. After all, really, she should be home, trying to put together a plan that would get her the real story about S-126.

Kent. He was responsible for this. Flaunting his... whatever Linda was to him -- Lois could think of a number of names, none of which were fit for polite company -- in front of her. He'd probably deliberately provoked her to get her to back off the S-126 story.

Okay, so she was being ridiculous now. He didn't even know she was still looking for the story. Still, how could he be with Linda?

Not that Lois cared of course. No. It didn't bother her at all, but if she was ever talking to him again, she was going to have to insist that he raise his standards.

But why wasn't he going after the real S-126 story? After all, she'd seen him stumble out of Star Labs looking weak and pale. She'd been so certain that he was the one who'd had the adverse reaction to the crystal when Clyde had told her about it.

Maybe she had been wrong.

No. No. She wasn't wrong. If her instincts told her there was something there, then there was something there. She hadn't won three Kerth awards by not having good instincts. And somehow Kent was right in the middle of it. But if that was true, why hadn't he printed the story?

She growled in frustration.

"Are you okay?"

Lex's voice in her ear made her jump. "Uhh... yeah. Just a tickle in my throat." She growled again, as if trying to clear the blockage.

"Here," Luthor said, placing another glass of champagne in her hand.

She smiled at him and took a sip. Great! Just what she needed. More champagne. Still, maybe if she got drunk enough, she'd pass out. And then she would have the perfect excuse not to watch the end of the opera.

She set the glass down. No. Probably not a good idea. After all, passing out would attract the attention of the press corps and that was not exactly the type of attention she was looking for from that particular crowd.

***

"What?" Lois demanded, interrupting her story when she heard Clark laugh.

"Was the whole evening like that?" Clark asked.

"Pretty much. Okay, so maybe I'm exaggerating how much I wanted to get drunk and pass out, but... yeah. Pretty much."

"You're not just trying to get me to feel better, are you?"

She shook her head. "No. Trust me. It was really that bad."

"But I thought you loved the opera. You went with Luthor all the time."

"But have I gone once, or even suggested that we go, since Lex died? Have you ever heard me listening to it on the radio or watching it on television?"

"No, I guess not, but... Why did you go if you didn't like it?"

"Because Lex liked it. And I... I guess I thought it sounded... sophisticated or something to say I had spent the evening at the opera. But trust me, a glass of wine, some popcorn and a good Mel Gibson video while snuggled up with you in our living room after we've put Vicky to bed is a much more enjoyable evening to me."

"Well, good. 'Cause I can always manage that."

She gave him a smile. It wobbled somewhat at the mention of Vicky. After all, right now they couldn't put Vicky to bed. Would they ever be able to again? "So what's next?" she asked, turning back to her computer screen, determined not to let that question overwhelm her. "Oh, right," she said a moment later. "The terrorists who held us hostage at the Daily Planet while they tried to find Dragonetti's safe."

"Hey, it seems I got that story, too."

"How is that possible? I would have thought that since it happened at the Daily Planet, it would have been our exclusive."

Clark thought for a moment before remembering how that came about.

***

Clark cleared off his desk and picked up his jacket. Seeing a picture of Lane with that snake Luthor in the morning paper had left him in a funk. Still, he glanced at where the morning's paper was sitting on the corner of his desk. After hesitating a moment, he quickly picked it up, opening it to the society page and hastily tearing out the picture of Lane and Luthor. Before he could change his mind, he folded it and put it in his inside jacket pocket. He could cut out the picture of Luthor later. But... it was the only picture he had of Lane. Tossing the rest of the paper in his trashcan, he turned towards the door. He really was the world's worst fool.

Maybe he'd take a nice long walk. Maybe that would clear his mind. Usually, he'd go flying. And although his powers had come back a couple of days ago, he just didn't feel up to flying tonight.

It was funny how he'd been almost disappointed when his powers had come back. To have these powers and not be able to use them... Maybe it would be better not to have them at all. Not that he didn't help when he could. But there were just so many times when he knew he could do so much more, but he couldn't. Not without jeopardizing his normal life.

"Clark?"

Clark turned back when he heard someone call his name in time to see Linda coming towards him. He sighed. He really didn't have time for this right now. He wanted to get out of there -- go somewhere to lick his wounds.

"Do you want to grab some dinner?" she asked.

"Sorry, Linda. But I've got plans tonight." He hated lying, but the truth would hurt her. She just wasn't the right woman.

***

"Now for that, you deserve a kiss," Lois said, leaning in to do precisely that.

"Mmm. Well, if that's the reward, I'll have to be sure to turn Linda down more often in the future."

Lois smiled. "You do that. I promise... I can make it worth the effort."

***

From the other side of the street, Clark looked at the front doors to the Daily Planet. How he wished his interview with Perry White had gone differently that day. Working there, working with Lane... He was certain they would be involved by now. Dating, certainly. Engaged, possibly. Married... Well, probably not yet. But still...

Or maybe it would take a little longer. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he suspected that Lane would have been one tough nut to crack. He'd overheard her that day in the warehouse, talking about her three rules. No. If he were working at the Daily Planet, he would have to gain her trust, become her friend. Maybe by now, though, he'd be her best friend. What he wouldn't give for that.

He sighed.

Stopping at the newsstand across the street, he watched the front door for a moment. If wishing could make it happen, Lane would appear any moment.

On the other hand, she probably wasn't even there. After all, it was late. And a Saturday night. No, there were not likely many people in the newsroom right now.

Still, he couldn't resist a quick peek. Pulling down his glasses, he looked to the floor where the newsroom was located -- and his heart dropped. Luthor was there. And Lane... He had to make a conscious effort to keep his feet touching the ground when he saw her in that sexy black dress. My goodness. It was almost illegal.

"Lois, our dinner reservations are in thirty minutes."

Clark cringed at the sound of Luthor's voice.

"Well, how was I to know that one of my sources would get arrested tonight?" Lane responded impatiently. "I have to rewrite my lead."

***

"Wait a minute," Clark said. "I thought the night the terrorists invaded the Planet was the night you were supposed to go see Madam Butterfly. So why did you end up going the previous evening?"

"I guess my call made Lex decide to take in the opening night performance. So in this reality, we decided to go out for dinner that night. Anyway, go on."

***

Clark fought back a grin at hearing the annoyance in Lane's voice. Still, he shouldn't be standing there, watching and listening. Not only because he had no right to do so, but because it wasn't doing his heart any good to see her preparing to go out on a date with Luthor.

"You gonna buy something?" the man behind the stand asked.

"Huh? Oh right... uh..." Clark directed his attention to the various papers and magazines. Did he want something to read? He wasn't sure. On the other hand, the Sports Illustrated looked interesting. He picked it up and began flipping through it, unsure, when a new sound cut into his hearing. Gunfire.

He spun around, looking over his glasses. It only took a few moments for him to find the source of the sound. The newsroom in the Daily Planet. Since the last time he'd looked, the newsroom had been invaded by men and women with guns. He began striding purposely across the street.

"Hey, you gonna pay for that?"

"Oh, right." He quickly returned, placing the magazine back on the stand before turning to face the newsroom once again. Maybe rushing in wasn't the best course of action. How was he going to be able to help without giving away his secret to a roomful of reporters?

Still, how could he stand by and do nothing?

He turned back towards the newsstand proprietor. "Do you have a phone?" he asked.

"Does it look like I'm in the phone business?" the man responded, gesturing to the magazine racks.

"Right," Clark said, looking again around his environment. A little ways away was a phone booth.

He rushed over, searching his pockets for change. Finding what he needed, he stuck it in the phone and placed a call to 9-1-1. Once that call was finished, he paced in front of the Planet, glasses resting part way down his nose, trying to figure out what to do next.

"In case any of you feel the need to contact the authorities," the lead terrorist said, "you can tell them I'm holding a small but dirty nuclear device and if I catch as much of a glimpse of police blue, the gene pool of Metropolis will pay the price."

Just then, Clark saw the police begin to arrive. He immediately rushed over to fill them in.

Once he was satisfied that they understood the situation, he turned his attention back to the newsroom. He had to be able to do something. Or at least be in a better position in case Lane was in danger. Because no matter what it might mean to him personally, there was no way she was going to die tonight.**

***

Clark watched the proceedings from inside the Daily Planet's storage room. He just needed to wait for the right moment. The time had to come when the leader put that nuclear device down and then... He was certain he could get to it before anyone would be any the wiser. After that, he could begin taking out the terrorists -- one by one.

The telephone rang, causing Clark to jump in surprise.

"I thought these were disconnected," the leader of the terrorists said. "You!" He pointed directly at Lane. "Get it. And I'm warning you, no heroics."

Clark tensed as Lane rose to her feet and zeroed in on the phone, ready to spring into action if she did anything stupid. A very real possibility -- at least in his mind.

"Lois Lane," she said into the phone, keeping her eyes on the terrorist. Clark could almost see the wheels turning in her mind as she tried to find a way to take advantage of this contact with the outside world. Her eyebrows suddenly rose and she removed the phone from her ear, holding it out to the terrorist. "It's for you," she informed him.

The police. It had to be. That analysis was confirmed a moment later when Clark could hear, without the aid of superhearing, the terrorist yelling into the phone about nuclear bombs and hostages.

"So what now?" asked a beautiful woman terrorist when he finally slammed down the phone.

"Nothing changes. We get Dragonetti's treasure and get out of here."

"Look. It's not worth it," the woman responded. "This was supposed to be a straight forward job. Willie promised no one would be here. And now not only do we have them..." She gestured to their hostages. "...but we also have the police outside. We can't even locate Dragonetti's safe. I say we cut our losses and get out now while we still can."

The leader chewed on his lower lip for a moment before nodding. "Okay, you tie them up. We've got our hostage right here." With that, he grabbed Lois, subduing her struggling form quite easily when she noticed the nuclear device in his hand.

Things moved quickly after that as the terrorists, together with their hostage, rushed up the stairway for the roof. Clark took out the lights, allowing him to sneak up behind them, taking out the last one on the stairs, one at a time until... only the leader and Lois were left. Lois was slowly being dragged towards the helicopter on the roof.

***

"I remember what happened then," Lois said, taking over the story for Clark.

***

The terrorists seemed to be disappearing one by one. How, Lois had no idea. The police probably. But she hadn't seen any of them. Still, by the time she arrived on the roof, the only one with her was the lead terrorist. The others, by all appearances, had gotten lost in the dark.

Seeing the helicopter on the roof, she knew the time had come to make her move. If they got her in that helicopter and took off, she was dead. Given her previous acquiescence, the lead terrorist was not prepared for her quick movements when she spun out of his grasp and took off at full speed across the roof. Suddenly, she was tackled from behind. Losing her footing, she watched in horror as she flew towards the edge of the roof. She grabbed onto a small railing that ran around the edge and held on for dear life as the rest of her body flew over the side, the terrorist still hanging onto her.

She felt him grabbing at her clothing and then... nothing but his scream was left as he lost his grip. She cringed when she heard him hit the pavement below and waited for the blast that was sure to follow.

When nothing happened, she let out a breath of relief and then... in spite of her best efforts, she felt her hand, which was getting increasingly slippery, begin to slide off the railing. She closed her eyes and tightened her grip, only to feel it continue to slip and then... a scream escape her lips as she let go and began to fall.

A strong grip was suddenly holding her wrist. She looked up in surprise and into the eyes of... Clark Kent? Where had he come from?

Oh, what the hell. She didn't care. "Don't let go," she begged.

"Never," he responded, pulling back slightly from where he appeared to be off balance as he hung onto her arm over the side of the roof. Still, he must have been balanced, because he managed to pull her back up easily enough, over the side onto the roof and... into his arms.

She held onto him as tightly as he was hanging onto her as she allowed the adrenalin to drain from her body. "That's the third time you've saved my life, Kent," she said into his chest. "Thank you."

"Lane," he whispered, pulling back far enough to look in her eyes. And then his eyes drifted lower, to her mouth.

She found herself moistening her lips and then, they were kissing. Her arms slid up his chest to wrap around his neck as the kiss deepened. She wasn't entirely sure why she was doing this. A result of the adrenalin rush, no doubt. She was just proving that she was alive. It didn't mean anything.

Damn! It might not mean anything, but it did feel good. In fact, she was fairly certain she could kiss this man forever. And at the moment, that sounded like a really great thing to try.

"Lois?"

The sound of Lex's voice caused Lois to jump back, almost causing her to lose her balance once again. Kent's arm quickly darted out, steadying her. She looked into his disappointed eyes once more, before hearing Lex call her name a second time. It almost felt as if she were moving in slow motion as she turned towards Lex. He was there almost immediately. And suddenly, she found herself being pulled into a different man's arms before she could object.

"The police will undoubtedly have some questions," Luthor said, keeping his arm around her as he led her back inside -- barely letting her feet keep up with the quick pace he was setting. "And afterwards... I'd like to see you home."

Lois looked back over her shoulder to see Kent standing there, watching them leave. In his hand was the nuclear device the terrorist had been holding when he'd plunged to his death. Or... no that wasn't right. Kent couldn't possibly have caught the bomb. It had gone over the edge of the roof with the terrorist. Or... had it. Obviously not.

Okay, well, that explained why there was no explosion. The terrorist must have dropped the device on the roof before going over the edge.

***

"Well, that didn't tell us anything particularly useful," Lois concluded. "But tell me something. Did the terrorist drop the bomb on the roof? Or did you fly down and catch it?"

"I caught it. Unfortunately, by the time I did, it was too later to save the terrorist. You, on the other hand, my heart almost stopped when I saw you fall. I knew there was no choice. Fortunately, your eyes were closed, so you didn't realize that I actually flew you back to the roof."

"You sneaky devil. What would you have done if my eyes had been open?"

"What do you think?" he asked in response.

She smiled, leaning forward to give him a kiss.

"So I guess we look for the next story?" Clark asked when the kiss broke.

"Yeah."

Lois and Clark scrolled through their computers for a moment more before Lois broke the silence once again. "Hey, I got it."

"Got what?"

"The story on S-126."

"Really?" Clark got up, coming over to read her screen.

They read in silence for a few moments before Lois spoke. "What the hell is this?"

"At least ten percent of the population would suffer serious, and most likely deadly, side effects from exposure to this miracle substance," Clark read. "The damage can be done in a matter of minutes."

"Is this true?"

Clark shrugged. "I suppose it might be. Trask is the one who originally had it tested in our reality, and he maintained that it wasn't harmful to humans."

"Do we really trust Trask?"

"No. But you'd think Dr. Klein would have noticed some problem with all the testing he's done on kryptonite over the years -- looking for a vaccination."

"True. But then... where did this story come from?"

"It has your name on it."

"Which means I obviously felt I had enough evidence to go to print -- and I convinced Perry that the story was legit. Still..." She gave her head a shake, even as she began scrolling absently on her computer. She halted when she came to another article with her name on it. "Take a look at this one," she said after reading for a moment.

"What does it say?"

"Apparently, sponsors began pulling out of the development for an S-126 power source when seven dead bodies were dragged out of Hobbs Bay with apparent S-126 poisoning."

"There's something wrong here. Even if kryptonite does affect some people, I can't imagine that so many people could be affected so quickly. And I've never heard of anyone, not even the bad guys, being affected. Surely we would have heard something."

"I agree."

"Do you remember anything about that investigation?"

Lois shook her head, before hesitating. "I remember getting a phone call from Lex -- saying he had a name of a man for me to check out. But why would Lex..." Her voice trailed off. "Lex owned Metropolis Electric."

"And from what I remember, Metropolis Electric was making huge profits around that time. I wrote a story about it -- which Luthor cut when he took over the Daily Planet. The development of a cheap source of power would seriously undermine those profits."

"Why that no good, scum-sucking, slime of a bottom-feeder!" Lois exclaimed.

Clark smiled. His wife certainly did have a way with words.

"He used me," Lois continued. "He fed me a source and I swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. When I get through with him..." She didn't bother voicing the remainder of her threat although images of castrating the man in question flitted through her mind.

"So what's happening in this altered reality with the development of kryptonite as a power source now?" Clark asked, bringing her out of those pleasant thoughts.

Right. This was important. After all, they didn't want Clark accidentally running into kryptonite while they were in this altered reality. Lois scrolled further on though her stories, looking for more information. After a moment of unsuccessful searching, she sighed in frustration.

"Let me see if I have anything," Clark said, scrolling through the stories on his computer before one finally caught his eye.

"What? What did you find?" Lois asked when she saw the look on his face.

When he didn't answer, she rose to her feet to come over to his computer. Leaning over his shoulder, she read his screen.

'Perry White Takes Bribes; News Stories Fabricated," by Clark Kent and Linda King.

"No way," Lois said. "I don't believe it. Here... move over." Without waiting for his response, she pushed onto his chair next to him and began scrolling through the article as fast as she could read. "Oh, god," she breathed as she reached the end. "I think we might have just found the reason Perry dislikes you."

***

Chapter Fifteen

Lois looked over at Clark when he didn't respond. He was staring at the article, but she could tell he wasn't reading. He was just staring blankly at the screen.

"Clark?" she asked.

He didn't respond.

"Clark!" she said a bit louder this time.

"Hmm?" he asked, finally looking at her, a slightly lost expression in his eyes.

Worried now, she reached over, softly touching his cheek. "Are you all right?"

"Me? How can you even ask me that." He sprang to his feet and began pacing. "The things I wrote in that article. The things I said about Perry. No wonder everyone hates me."

"Hey!" Lois jumped to her feet, placing herself directly in front of her husband, forcing his pacing to come to a halt. "You didn't do anything! This is some sort of screwed up, altered reality. Okay, so maybe we're the ones who screwed it up. But this isn't real. None of this is real. Perry thinks of you as a son. And we're going to straighten it all out."

"But, Lois..." He pointed at the screen. "How could I have accused Perry of something like that? We both know that Perry would never do such a thing."

"Yes, we do. That's how I know that you would never write such garbage."

"But..."

Her hands came up to cup his cheeks. "Don't do this, Clark. We will get this all straightened out and then this will never have happened. Say, 'Yes, dear. I understand, dear.'"

"But, Lois..."

"No! It's 'Yes, dear. I understand, dear.'"

Clark's lips gave a small twitch, causing Lois to believe she was finally getting through to him.

"Yes, dear," he finally responded obediently. "I understand, dear."

"Good!" she declared. "Now..." She glanced back at the computer screen. "Before we start on figuring out what happened to cause that article to get written..." She deliberately avoided saying who had written it. "...I think we both need a break. So how about it, flyboy? Care to take your wife to the Fudge Castle for the Chocolate Lover's Supreme? Or do you want to watch your wife suffer from chocolate withdrawal instead? In case you didn't know, she tends to get really cranky when she doesn't get her regular supply of chocolate."

Clark seemed to relax, if only slightly. "I recall reading that somewhere when I was studying Lois Lane 101."

"Then, what are we waiting for?" she asked, turning towards the door. It might seem a frivolous waste of time, but chocolate always made her think better. And right now, Clark was too distracted to think.

"Wait!"

"What?" Lois asked impatiently.

"Lois, we don't have time for..."

"We've been going at this for hours, Clark. I need a break. And I know you do. Besides, I'm hungry. Lunch was great. But it wasn't exactly... filling." The final word was said giving him a wink. The aborted attempt at a smile he gave her in return strengthened her resolve to get him away from the Daily Planet for a time. If memories of their lunch hour activities couldn't make him smile, then something definitely needed to be done. "We'll be quick, but right now, we're getting out of here."

Clark let out a breath. "Okay, but...What do we do for money?"

Lois opened her mouth and then closed it again. A moment later, she walked towards the door, mumbling under her breath. "I can't believe I'm about to do this." Then, opening the door to the conference room, she bellowed a single word. "Jimmy!"

***

Clark watched in amusement as his wife dug into her dessert with gusto. The Chocolate Lover's Supreme. Chocolate ice cream, covered with three different types of chocolate sauce. Of course, none of the three were white chocolate -- which Lois often referred to as blasphemous. An imposter, merely posing as chocolate with the hopes of luring in the uninformed. Then the whole thing was topped off with chocolate sprinkles and a piece of chocolate fudge on the side.

The original creation came with a cherry on top -- which Lois always removed immediately and handed to Clark for disposal. Then, very carefully, she used her spoon to remove whatever chocolate had been defiled -- as she put it -- from contact with the cherry juice before eating. Today had certainly been no different.

The ritual always amused Clark. And it was much more fun to watch than it was to eat his own dessert.

"What?" Lois asked, looking up suddenly.

Clark just smiled and shook his head.

Lois rolled her eyes in response before returning to her food, this time, however, not quite as intently -- given that the initial chocolate rush was finally kicking in and calming her.

"I still can't believe we're borrowing money from Jimmy," Clark said.

Lois looked up at him. "Yeah. I'm not sure he really believed it was happening either. You know, if I play my cards right, I bet I can convince him that he's really the one who owes me forty bucks."

"Lo-is."

"All right. All right," Lois said, raising her hands in surrender. "So what are you? The honesty police. Don't you know when I'm joking, yet? I mean, I just like a challenge and I thought... On the other hand, convincing Jimmy that black is white is a little on the under-side of challenges."

Clark smiled, recognizing what she was doing -- trying to distract him from what they'd discovered mere minutes before. But how could he forget? He'd publicly accused Perry of subverting the truth for money. How could he have possibly done that? His smile faded and a small frown pulled down at the corners of his lips.

"You know," Lois said. "I remembered something else while we were walking over here."

Clark again met his wife's eyes. There was something in her tone that told him whatever she was about to tell him was on the same level as what she'd done before -- something she was telling him to get his mind off Perry. "What?" he asked, knowing that was the proper thing to say, but doubting that she'd be able to distract him.

"Well, after our escapade with the terrorists at the Planet, when Lex took me home..."

She paused and he leaned forward in his chair, not realizing that she had succeeded in doing exactly what she had set out to do -- distract him.

"Anyway," she said, "Lex walked me to my apartment. He was talking, but I wasn't particularly listening. I was... sort of thinking about something."

"What?"

***

That was the third time Kent had saved her life. Although, where had he come from? How had he managed to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time? Oh, he'd told the police that he'd just happened to overhear the terrorists talking as they were approaching the building and had snuck into the building, trying to get the story, during the confusion that had taken place when the police had been emptying out the building. But... there was something about the way he'd saved her. She had been certain she'd fallen a lot further than she had before she'd felt his hand grabbing her wrist. How far did one fall during a scream?

She rotated her shoulder slightly, wondering why it didn't hurt. When he'd grabbed her, shouldn't it have practically torn her arm out of its socket? So why didn't it throb, even a little?

"Did you hear what I said?" Lex asked as they neared the door of her apartment.

"Hmm?"

"I just said that I'd ask around about, see if anyone has heard anything about S-126 and call if I find anything."

"Fine," Lois said, returning to her previous thoughts. What was it about Kent? That was the third time they'd kissed. She wasn't attracted to him, so why did it keep happening? What was it about him that seemed to... make sense to her?

Although, to be honest, a large part of him made no sense whatsoever. It was a contradiction. A paradox she couldn't solve. On the one hand, he had betrayed her twice -- proving he couldn't be trusted. On the other, he'd saved her life three times -- proving he could. He hadn't taken advantage of the situation when she'd been under the influence of the pheromone compound -- always assuming, of course, that he hadn't realized she was under the influence of the pheromone spray until he'd stopped them. Of course, he hadn't tried to take advantage of her when she'd gone to his place when she'd been afraid that Trevino was trying to kill her. And yet, what he'd done to her last year had been... unforgivable.

"Well, I guess this is where I say goodnight," Luthor said, pulling her out of her thoughts.

"Oh. Right."

"You seem quite distracted tonight, my dear. Is everything all right?"

She jerked instantly out of her thoughts. She was here with Lex and she was thinking about Kent. How rude was that? "Oh, yeah. Fine. I guess I'm still sort of in shock. You know... almost getting killed."

He nodded before leaning over to kiss her.

Why she tuned her head at the last possible moment so that his kiss landed on her cheek instead of her lips, she had no idea. He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment.

"This wouldn't have something to do with the guy I saw you kissing on the roof of the Planet, would it?" Lex asked.

"What? Him? No. Of course not. I was just... that was just... I mean, I was just grateful that he'd rescued me."

"Hmm," Lex said, looking at her until she was forced to look down. "Goodnight, my dear," he said, not commenting further. "I'll be in touch."

Without watching him walk away, Lois turned her attention to the locks on her door, desperate to get inside where she could put her thoughts of Kent into some sort of perspective.

***

"Wait a minute," Lois said, interrupting her own story. "Why didn't Lex seem to particularly care that he'd seen me kissing you?"

Clark shrugged, not sure what she was getting at.

"Something just occurred to me."

"What?"

"Well, in our reality, Lex asked me out... sort of on a random basis. No real pattern to it."

"And that's different here?"

She thought about it for a moment before nodding. "Here... the only times I can remember him asking me out were when I was pursuing a story that might have interested him. I mean, during our first date, he asked about the story I was working on at EPRAD. Why that no good, dirty..." Her voice trailed off in disgust. "I guess with no Superman around, the only use Lex really had for me was as a source of inside information -- to let him know if I was getting too close to his dirty dealings. Or maybe so that I'd be less inclined to think he was involved in the event that I did come across something that might raise some questions. No wonder he didn't particularly care if I was kissing someone else. To him I was nothing more than a useful tool to use on occasion. In our reality, I can remember his irritation when I kissed Superman. Here... nothing." She gave her head a shake to clear it.

"So what happened when you got inside your apartment?" Clark asked.

Lois gave him a smile, reaching over to run a random pattern on the back of his hand. "Curious what I thought about you, are you, flyboy?"

***

Lois closed the door and removed her coat before plopping down on the couch, her thoughts filled with Kent. What was it about him? Why did she feel such an unrealistic pull in his direction? It seemed that all he had to do was to come within ten feet of her and all her good sense when it came to men flew out the window.

***

Clark's bark of laughter pulled her out of her story.

"Hey! You want to hear this or not?"

"Sorry," Clark said contritely.

Lois gave him one final, stern gaze before resuming her story.

***

Maybe her initial impression of him had been wrong. Maybe she shouldn't have dismissed his claims of innocence so lightly. Maybe she at least owed him the chance to tell his side of the story.

***

"Wait! My claims of innocence? My side of the story?"

"I don't know what it means, Clark. Trust me, I'd tell you if I did.

He nodded. "I know you would."

***

She rose from the couch. She would have to think about this some more. But maybe, when things calmed down a bit, she'd go see Mr. Kent and maybe... just maybe...

She didn't allow herself to complete her thought -- except to say that Kent was a puzzle she was suddenly determined to figure out. Something told her it was important. And it wasn't just the way he could make her feel when he kissed her, either -- regardless of how that little voice in the back of her mind taunted her.

With that decided, she ambled towards her bedroom. Seven a.m. always came too soon.

***

"Okay, so it looks as if there's some hope here," Clark said. "But still... if that's the case..."

"...why don't your parents know who I am?" Lois concluded. She glanced down at her half-eaten ice cream, before pushing the remainder over to Clark.

Understanding the unspoken message, Clark immediately picked up his spoon. Her chocolate craving was satisfied for now. Time for him to finish up so that they could get back to the Planet and continue with their research.

***

Going into the Daily Planet was no different this time than it had been the first time -- with the exception that it was different people staring at him, different people whispering about him under their breath. Or, at least it was no different until he got into the newsroom.

"Clark Kent?"

There was something about the way the feminine voice spoke his name, the way the soft growl seemed to roll off the owner's tongue that caught Clark's attention. He turned in time to see Cat slinking towards him, like a tigress on the prowl.

"I wouldn't have expected to see you here," she said, her eyes running down his body appraisingly.

"Hi, Cat," he said, suddenly feeling like the deer trying to avoid the large, ravenous lioness.

"Clark and I have work to do," his wife said immediately, grabbing Clark's sleeve and pulling him towards the conference room.

"I think you're supposed to call me 'Kent,'" Clark said when they were far enough away that he was certain Cat wouldn't overhear.

Lois cringed before glancing back over her shoulder to look briefly at Cat who was watching them speculatively.

"Damn," Lois whispered. "She knows something's going on."

"Okay, well, let's not worry about it now. If we can get things straightened out, it won't matter anyway."

"So what's she doing here? She left right after the Daily Planet was destroyed."

"Maybe it wasn't destroyed in this version of reality," Clark said. "After all, it seems Luthor wasn't trying to woo you away from it."

Lois nodded, letting go of his sleeve. The rest of the trip to the conference room was made in silence.

Once they were back behind closed doors, Lois looked reflectively at Clark. "Are you okay to do this?"

He took a deep breath, taking a look at the headline still on his screen, before nodding.

"Okay, well starting at the beginning has worked for us so far so let's try that again. What do you remember?"

Clark took one final deep, cleansing breath before beginning. "I think it all started when Luthor took you home after the terrorist incident at the Daily Planet..."

***

Clark watched as Luthor led Lane back towards the stairs. There was something about that guy Clark didn't trust. And it wasn't that he currently had his arm around the woman Clark was coming to believe he loved. No. He hadn't trusted Luthor even before he'd realized that he was dating Lane. Okay, so maybe he hadn't liked seeing Luthor dance with Lane at the White Orchard Ball. But that wasn't the reason either. No, this was something deeper than that.

He turned to gaze out over the city. Reporter's instinct, perhaps? But something about the arrogance in Luthor's stance, the smooth way he charmed the public, the way he flaunted his 'good deeds' told Clark that the man was dirty. Clark very much doubted that the man had ever done one good deed in his life where he hadn't been able to take credit.

Even dropping a couple of bucks into a beggar's dish would not be done without a news camera, business associate or woman he wanted to impress in the vicinity. And then, it wouldn't be a couple of bucks -- after all, who would notice a couple of bucks? No, it would be a couple of hundred bucks. A couple of thousand even.

No. Something about that man screamed that he was dirty -- and one of the biggest frauds Metropolis had ever seen.

"Mr. Kent?" A man's voice coming from the direction of the staircase pulled Clark out of his thoughts.

"Yes?" Clark asked, turning to see the police officer standing in the doorway.

"I was told you were up here. We need to get your statement."

"Oh, right," Clark said, pushing thoughts about Luthor out of his mind for the moment. Right now he had to figure out how to tell the officers what he knew without giving away anything else in the process. On the other hand, he had done a lot of that over the years, so he wasn't too worried.

Clark gave one final look at the place where he'd almost lost Lane before following the police officer off the roof.

***

"So how does that relate to..." Lois gestured to the headline on the monitor.

"I'm getting to that," Clark said. "But you're going to have to let me find my own way there. Because I'm putting the pieces together as I go."

Lois nodded. She knew what that was like.

***

The next morning, Clark walked into The Star's newsroom and looked around. His eyes landed on his target: Linda King.

***

"I can already tell this is trouble," Lois said.

"Lo-is," Clark growled.

"Okay, okay. I'm just saying."

***

Clark hesitated for a moment. He was about to suggest an investigation into the most respected businessman in the city. Man of the Year for the past several years. Keys to the City. Honorary degrees in business from Metropolis University as well as Harvard, Princeton and Yale. A self-made man who had worked his way up from nothing. No family fortune to aid his efforts. He was in every sense proof that the American Dream still lived.

In addition, he was considered the biggest humanitarian in the city. He had created and was the sole source of funding for the Luthor House for Homeless Children, Luthor Hospital, Luthor Foundation for the Arts, Luthor Center for the Blind as well as dozens of other charitable organizations. He was on the board of directors for dozens of local charities and had received highest honors from the Red Cross Society, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Alzheimer's Society, the MS Society and the Autistic Society and was known for being a big supporter of research into breast cancer. He had even been honored by the Daughters of Metropolis.

He funded hundreds of scholarships every year for well-deserving young men and women. He also funded a number of apprenticeship programs. In fact, the list of honors he had received and good works he was involved in were endless. Clark knew. He had read about all of them.

Linda was going to think he was crazy. Still... he knew he was right. Taking a deep breath, he set out towards Linda. Well, nothing ventured and all that.

Linda looked up as he approached, giving him a welcoming smile.

"Hey, Clark. What's with the serious look?" Linda asked when Clark arrived at her desk.

Clark took a seat on the edge. "You believe in reporter's instinct, don't you?"

"Of course. I think it comes from doing this long enough, learning to read people. Why?"

"I need your help. There's a businessman in town that I think is dirty. When I originally started working for the Star, investigating the explosion of the messenger, a couple of things happened that made me think he was involved."

"Dr. Baines had a partner?"

Clark nodded.

"Why didn't I ever read about it?"

"Because I couldn't prove it. This guy is slick, but... I want to investigate him. I'm sure he's dirty."

"Do you have anything except your suspicions?"

Clark shook his head.

"Carpenter is never going to approve an investigation based on that."

"I know so... Are you up for a little unpaid overtime?"

The way she smiled at him in response had him shifting uncomfortable. What exactly was he letting himself in for here?

"So what did you have in mind, sailor?"

***

Lois was biting her lip, trying very hard not to respond. The only good thing she could see about this story so far was that Clark didn't seem particularly pleased with Linda's attention. Still, her heart was in her throat as he continued to tell his story.

***

"So who is this target of the latest Kent and King exclusive?" Linda asked when Clark didn't respond to her last comment.

"Luthor," Clark responded, cringing slightly when her eyebrows shot into her hairline.

"Lex Luthor?" she asked when she appeared to recover the power of speech.

Clark nodded.

Linda looked at him for a long, steady moment. "Are you sure about this?"

"No."

For a moment, he thought she was going to tell him he was nuts, that he'd lost his mind. Then, finally, she shrugged.

"So where do you want to start?" she asked.

***

"Well, of course, any plans to begin our investigation of Luthor had to wait until the work day was over. We decided to grab a bite to eat that evening and plan our strategy. Not that we came up with much. I had already researched all of the public information on Luthor the previous night."

When Lois' eyebrows rose, he explained.

"I was sort of motivated, I guess. So I spent the entire night reading everything I could find, backdated newspaper articles, public records, even all five of his unauthorized biographies." He shrugged. "I guess the ability to super speed-read does have some advantages, even when you're not 'officially' using your powers. Anyway, since I hadn't found anything in the public domain, Linda suggested that we do some leg work."

"I'll just bet she did," Lois mumbled.

Clark ignored her comment. "We decided to talk to former employees, people who'd had business dealings with him, maybe even see if we could talk to Luthor himself. We certainly found a number of people who were not particularly... fans. But no one seemed to have anything solid. That was when we got our big break.

"We had gone to Lex Towers to try to get an interview with Luthor. We were trying to persuade his personal assistant to set up an appointment for us when..."

***

"Mr. Luthor never gives one on one interviews to the press," Mrs. Cox informed them.

Clark smiled at her. He wasn't completely unaware of the effect his smile seemed to have on the female members of the population. "Surely, there must be some exceptions."

Mrs. Cox merely raised an eyebrow. Suddenly, he felt somewhat foolish for thinking that a winning smile would be enough to get this woman to give him an interview with Luthor. If she was his personal assistant, she probably knew where all the bodies were buried. And no one would rise to the position of Luthor's personal assistant without being absolutely loyal.

"Mr. Luthor," Linda suddenly said.

Clark spun around to see Luthor crossing the room apparently on the way to his office.

"Yes?" Luthor said.

"These two reporters," Mrs. Cox said, emphasizing 'reporters', "were just leaving."

"Uhh..." Luthor said, slipping past Linda and Clark.

"Mr. Luthor," Linda said, "do you have a few moments for us?"

Luthor paused momentarily. "I hate to disappoint a beautiful woman, but as I'm sure my assistant told you, I don't give interviews."

While he spoke, Clark moved around next to him, bumping into him slightly.

Luthor turned to look at him.

"I'm sorry," Clark said, backing away.

"Anyway," Luthor said, turning his attention back to Linda, "I'm sorry I can't help you." Without waiting for her response, he turned towards his office.

Once he was gone, Linda and Clark turned back to Mrs. Cox.

"I assume you have nothing else you need to ask," Mrs. Cox said.

Linda and Clark, taking the hint, left the room.

"Is it done?" Linda asked as they stepped out into the hallway.

"I put it in his pocket," Clark responded.

"I know you weren't keen about doing that, Clark," Linda said.

"You were right. Luthor is a slippery customer. It's the only way. But... promise me if we don't find anything, we destroy the tape -- and never tell anyone what we might learn about Luthor's business deals."

***

"Is what done?" Lois asked. "What did you do?"

"Do you remember that pen Jimmy gave you to spy on Lenny Stoke in our version of reality?"

"Yeah."

"I slipped one similar to that in Luthor's pocket."

"So... how does any of this lead to Perry?"

"I'm getting to that... or at least I think I am. This is just what I remember when I think about that headline so..." He shrugged.

She nodded. She knew exactly how he felt. It would be so much easier if they could just remember what they wanted when they wanted. But unfortunately, they seemed to be unable to control how these memories came out. "Okay, so what do you remember next?"

"Well, we had to stay in Lex Towers since the pen only had a broadcasting range of about five hundred feet. So we got in the elevator and went down one floor and then found a place to wait. Of course, we sent the elevator down to the lobby in case Mrs. Cox was watching the numbers. We even hooked up a tape recorder so that we could be sure to have proof if we did get anything useful. By the time we got it set up, about ten minutes had passed. Luthor was on the phone with someone."

***

"Don't worry about it," Luthor said. "S-126 will not be a problem. The plan is already in motion." There was a pause. "The Daily Planet. No, I'm sure. So don't start selling off my shares of Metropolis Electric. Once I'm done with it, no one will want electricity produced by S-126." Another, longer pause. "Well, if you must know, it did cost me a lot of money. But then, I wouldn't have expected to buy off this particular customer without a lot of money." Another pause. "No, I don't think you need to know his name." One final pause. "The first story leading to the destruction of S-126 should be in the next edition of the Daily Planet."

Clark glanced up at the ceiling, x-raying it, so that he could watch the phone being replaced. He watched as Mrs. Cox walked into the opulent office before he heard her voice come over the receiver.

"Lex?"

"Yes, Mrs. Cox?"

"I have a few papers for you to sign."

"Very good. By the way, is my appointment with Perry White still on?"

"Seven o'clock as you requested. You're to meet him at the Press Club. I looked up the address, and it's on your way."

"And my other appointment?"

"It's on, too. I've already sent for the limo. And here's the cash you requested."

Clark continued to watch through the ceiling as Mrs. Cox handed Luthor an envelope.

"Oh, and I suppose you'll want this, too," Cox said, handing Luthor a second envelope.

Luthor looked inside each envelope before putting both in his inside jacket pocket. Clark quickly x-rayed the envelopes. In one was a large amount of cash. The second contained only a single piece of paper. A cheque, it seemed, made out to the Metropolis Literary Society in the amount of five thousand dollars.

"Thank you, Mrs. Cox. Efficient as always." Luthor withdrew the pen Clark had placed in his pocket, before looking at the papers Mrs. Cox had handed him. He seemed to examine the pen for a moment before attempting to write. "What the..."

"Lex?"

"This pen doesn't work."

"Let me take it for you. Here's another one."

Luthor handed her the transmitter and proceeded to sign the papers with the pen Mrs. Cox had provided.

"Well, if that's it," Luthor said, rising to his feet, "I'll be leaving now for my appointments."

"Will you need me any more this evening?"

"No, Mrs. Cox. That will be all."

A moment later, Mrs. Cox left Luthor who was putting on his jacket and straightening his tie.

***

"No. That's not possible," Lois said. "Perry would never agree to plant a phony story in the Daily Planet."

"I agree. But you have to remember that in this altered reality, I didn't know Perry. If I had..."

"I know, Clark," Lois responded, reaching over to lay a hand on his arm. "But surely that wasn't enough to go to print with this story."

Clark shook his head. "Once we realized Luthor was leaving the building for his meeting with Perry, we left Lex Towers, intent on beating Luthor to the Press Club. We did. When we saw Perry there with Alice... Or at least, I realize it was Alice now... we found a table that was situated close enough to Perry's to see what was going on, but far enough away to be inconspicuous."

***

They had just settled into their seats when they saw Luthor come through the door to the Press Club. He spoke to the hostess briefly and she pointed him in the appropriate direction. As he walked towards the table where Perry White was seated, Clark activated his superhearing.

"I wish he still had that pen," Linda said into his ear.

He cringed, turning down his hearing. He noticed that Luthor seemed to look in their direction briefly and for a moment, he thought they'd been spotted. But then Luthor looked away and continued towards Perry White's table while Linda continued to speak.

"The guy who sold it to me told me that in addition to being a transmitter, it could be used as an ordinary pen as well. I guess I should have tried it. Made sure it was working."

Clark fumbled for a bit, wishing he could make Linda stop talking. He couldn't superhear with her voice ringing in his ears. Still, Linda kept talking, providing a running commentary on what he himself could see.

Perry White stood up when Luthor approached. The two men shook hands and exchanged a few words before Luthor turned to the woman at the table, exchanging some words with her as well. Then Luthor pulled an envelope out of his pocket.

Finally, Linda stopped talking as she began snapping pictures. Clark breathed a sigh of relief and activated his hearing.

"As we discussed," Luthor said, handing White an envelope.

Clark quickly lowered his glasses. His eyebrows rose when he quickly counted the number of thousand dollar bills he could see inside. There were fifty.**

***

Chapter Sixteen

"Thank you, Lex," White responded. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate this."

"Nonsense. It's always nice doing business with you, Perry." He turned his attention back to the woman. "Alice, I'm not sure why you stay with this old bear, but he's a lucky man."

Clark rolled his eyes.

The two men shook hands one final time and then Luthor turned and began walking out of the club. Clark rose to follow.

"Wait," Linda said.

"What?"

"I think we need to get a look at what's inside that envelope."

Clark hesitated. She was right. He knew what was in there, but there was also no way he could say that. For the sake of the story, she needed to see it. Otherwise, it was just one man handing another an envelope. On the other hand, Luthor had mentioned two appointments, and been given two envelopes. No, Linda was right. The other envelope contained nothing more than a five thousand dollar donation to a local charity. This was the important contact.

"How exactly do you propose we get a look in that envelope?" Clark said, gesturing towards White as he took the envelope and stuck it in his inside jacket pocket.

"Watch a pro." She winked at him before picking up her water and rising to her feet.

Clark took one final look towards the departing Luthor before sighing and turning his attention back to Linda. She was just passing the White's table when she appeared to trip, spilling her water all over Perry.

"What the tarnations?" Perry White gasped, jumping to his feet.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Linda said, brushing frantically at the front of his jacket.

"I've got it. I've got it," White said, pushing her hands away.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Linda said again. "If there's anything I can do..."

"I think you've done quite enough." White gestured to a waitress who was already coming over with a handful of napkins.

Linda apologized again before backing away, until she was finally far enough from the table to be unobserved as she rejoined Clark.

"What do you think that accomplished?" Clark asked.

"Shh... Look."

Clark glanced again towards the White's table and his eyebrows rose as he watched Perry remove his suit jacket, laying it over the back of the booth, before again taking his seat.

"Now all we have to do is get into the booth behind them without them noticing and... when the time is right, we can get a look in that envelope and put it back without Perry White ever being any wiser."

Clark let out a breath. It just might work."

***

"Did it work?"

"Yep. It took a while, but we did get a look in the envelope and there was fifty thousand dollars in it. We even took a picture of it with Perry's jacket hanging over the back of the booth in the background."

"But that doesn't make any sense. Why would Lex give Perry fifty thousand dollars in cash?"

Clark's eyebrows rose.

"No way! There has to be another explanation. There is no way, no matter how much we screwed up the past, that Perry would take a bribe from Lex."

"I know. I know. But... well, without knowing Perry... what were Linda and I to think?"

"Still, that couldn't be enough for even The Star to go to print. All you had was circumstantial evidence and innuendo."

"It wasn't. First, other than your stories questioning the safety of S-126 when it first became news, there hadn't been any seriously negative stories about it posted in the Daily Planet."

"Of course not. I didn't have the evidence yet to run those stories."

"So how did you get the evidence?"

"Like I said, Lex called. He suggested I contact someone at Star Labs named Dr. Jefferson Cole."

"The same Jefferson Cole who tried to frame you for murder?"

Lois let out a breath. "That would be the one. Although, of course, he hadn't tried to frame me for murder -- at least not by that time. All I knew is that I had a scientist from Star Labs who was willing to give me information. And he did, too. Test results. Inter-office memos. Letters. It was very thorough. He said that these reports were being kept secret because the Directors at Star Labs knew they had a cash-cow on their hands. The idea was to keep the true test results secret until such time as they could develop an effective delivery method. Then they would sell the technology. By the time anyone realized there was a problem, the Directors would all be sipping pina coladas in some tropical paradise without an extradition treaty. "

"So after you got Cole's evidence, you ran the story?"

"I ran the story."

Clark nodded. "We got wind that the story was coming out from a friend Linda had inside the Daily Planet."

"Obviously not me."

Clark smiled. "Obviously not. Anyway, that's when Linda and I first went to Carpenter with what we had."

***

Carpenter looked at the notes he'd been handed before looking back at the two people in his office and then back at the notes.

"So... why haven't you written the story? This is big news. The most respected paper in the country is involved in a plot to undermine the greatest discovery since the wheel. The only thing wrong here is that the story isn't written," Carpenter said.

"Mr. Carpenter," Clark said, "all we really have at this time is supposition. Lex Luthor says he's going to get the Daily Planet to run a series of stories to undermine S-126 in order to ensure that his electric company's profits are not threatened. Then Luthor meets with the editor of the Daily Planet and gives him fifty thousand dollars in cash. The next day, a story about S-126 is to appear in the Planet."

"So what are you saying, Kent? Legitimate business deals are not conducted with large cash payments, passed along in restaurants in plain white envelopes."

"Granted, it looks bad. I agree. But there could be another explanation for the money. I think we have a duty to our readers to make sure we're right."

Carpenter nodded slowly. "So how do you propose getting proof?"

"We need to look into Perry White's finances."

Carpenter nodded. "Sounds like a plan. Why don't you let me see what I can do about that. I have a contact that might be able to help us out. In the meantime, I need the two of you down at City Hall. The mayor is about to give a press conference."

Linda and Clark rose to their feet, preparing to leave.

"Good work, you two," Carpenter said.

Clark nodded, but in the pit of his belly he had this sinking feeling. They were about to go to war with the Daily Planet, Lois Lane's paper. Some days it just wasn't worth getting out of bed.

As he was collecting his jacket, however, he discovered that not everyone was as upset by the impending fall of one of the Fourth Estate's great names as he was. His hearing picked up the sound of Carpenter's voice talking to a bulky man who seemed to follow Carpenter everywhere he went. Bodyguard was Clark's guess. Although in some ways, he seemed more like a Mr. Belvedere -- butler, chauffeur and personal assistant. Ahh... the life of the rich and famous.

Clark listened to the conversation as he and Linda walked to the elevator.

"Good news, Stark. It seems we're about to bring down Perry White. And with White's reputation demolished, the reputation of the Planet will crumble."

"And then The Star will be the only game in town," Stark completed for him. "Congratulations, Mr. Carpenter."

Clark felt ill. The only thing Carpenter cared about was power and profit -- no matter what it might do to the reputation of the Forth Estate or to all the employees of the Daily Planet. Still, if Perry White was taking money from Luthor to run phony news stories, this was news.

Still, as the elevator door closed behind Clark, he wondered, and not for the first time, if he was in the wrong business. His intention had been to get Lane to see the truth about Luthor -- or well... no. It wasn't about Lane. It was that Clark wanted to find out the truth about Luthor. And instead, he was about to destroy Perry White. Not that White didn't deserve it if he was doing what he appeared to be doing, but Clark didn't exactly feel good about this. This time, he feared, he may have bitten off more than he could chew.

***

"So if you didn't like the story, why did you write it?"

"Lois, you know as well as I do that this was big news." He hesitated. "If it were true, I mean. We both know Perry. He's as honest as the day is long. But then... I didn't know Perry -- except by reputation. And, by the way, that's really all I knew about Luthor, too. Unlike in reality, I didn't have the Superman perspective. All I knew was that both men seemed too good to be true. But keep in mind that I didn't run the story then. It wasn't until I saw Perry's bank records that I wrote the story."

"Tell me about that."

***

When Linda and Clark arrived back from the press conference, a pile of papers were waiting for them. Linda dug into them enthusiastically. Clark found he was more reticent. It was one thing to be digging around in Luthor's financial information, but Perry White's? And after the excitement he'd heard in Carpenter's voice at the idea, not of bringing down Luthor, although he would to some extent get caught in the crossfire, but of bringing down White, Clark was having serious second thoughts.

Still, it might not be what he'd been looking for, but it was what he'd found. With a heavy heart, he sat down and joined in the search.

At the end of their search, Linda was ecstatic. Clark, on the other hand, just felt tired.

"Let's go talk to Carpenter," she said, rising to her feet.

"Before we do that," Clark said. "I think we should call Perry White and ask for his reaction."

Linda sank back down in her chair. "We should probably see if we can get a reaction from Luthor, too."

Clark nodded. "Why don't you call Luthor? I'll call Mr. White."

A few minutes later, they were both putting their phones back in their cradles.

"Well?" Linda asked.

"I couldn't get through to him. What about you?"

"Apparently, Mr. Luthor does not take calls from the press either. And, according to Mrs. Cox, if I need a quote, the response is... no comment." She paused briefly. "I think it's time we talked to Carpenter."

Clark nodded.

"So we found three deposits, all in cash, all in the amount of fifty-thousand dollars," Linda was telling Carpenter a few minutes later.

"So then this isn't the first time Luthor has bought some free advertising," Carpenter said thoughtfully. "Were you able to link up those previous deposits with stories in the Daily Planet?"

"The first one was around the time of the Messenger explosion," Clark said softly.

"Didn't you have suspicions at that time that Luthor was involved in that?" Carpenter asked.

Clark nodded morosely. "Yes, sir. But I could never prove it."

"Seems the Daily Planet couldn't 'prove it' either -- at least their story stops with Baines. Is it possible that the reason they never looked past Baines was because White killed the story?"

"I suppose anything is possible, sir. But we really don't have any evidence..."

"Relax, Kent. I'm not going to run it. It does make you wonder, though."

Clark nodded. Carpenter was right. It did make him wonder.

"The second time was around the time that Clark broke the story about those smart kids who were holding Metropolis hostage."

"Luthor was involved in that, too, wasn't he?"

Linda nodded. "Clark's story mentioned that Luthor was the one who had funded Dr. Carlton's experiments and suggested that might have been the reason that the kids kidnapped Luthor."

"And the Daily Planet article?"

"In it, Luthor came out looking like something of a hero after Dr. Carlton's suicide. They reported that Luthor had made sure that all of Carlton's notes and samples were destroyed and had even agreed to pay off the charges the kids had put on his credit card."

"And that was when the second deposit was made to White's bank account?"

"Yes, sir."

"What about the third time?"

"The day before Lois Lane's first story about S-126. I guess he hasn't had a chance to deposit last night's payment yet."

"Okay, write me up the story."

"But, sir, we still don't know..."

"Be careful with your wording -- stick only with what we know. I think the implications once people connect the dots will be clear enough. In the meantime, I have an editorial to write about the criminal sin of selling out the truth when claiming to inform the American public."**

***

Clark stood outside the front door of the Daily Planet for a long time before he finally worked up the nerve to walk inside.

He wasn't entirely sure why he'd come. After all, he'd left a message for Perry White to call him back. He'd tried to stress the importance of returning the call -- even though he knew he wasn't on White's ten most popular people list. But there had been no return phone call.

Still, Clark had to give him one last chance. After all, maybe there was some sort of logical explanation for the deposits and the envelope full of cash. Clark didn't want his article to go to print without at least giving Mr. White a chance to respond.

He looked around the lobby, before walking over to the reception desk. "Would you inform Perry White that Clark Kent from the Metropolis Star would like to speak to him. It's very important."

The receptionist picked up the phone and placed the call.

"Who?"

Clark heard White's response.

"A Clark Kent from the Metropolis Star," the woman said, looking at Clark for confirmation that she'd gotten the name right.

Clark nodded.

"He says it's important."

"I'm not interested in anything Mr. Kent might have to say," White responded. "And if he ever sets foot in this building again, I want him forcibly removed."

"Tell him that it's in regards to a story coming out in the Star tomorrow morning."

"He's hung up, sir. And I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

Clark stood for a moment more before turning and leaving the building. It seemed Mr. White still hadn't forgotten what had happened at Clark's interview.

***

Lois and Clark sat in silence for a long moment. "So you tried to ask him about what you'd found?"

Clark nodded. "It just... didn't feel right. But all of the evidence seemed to point towards him being guilty."

"Something seems... odd here, Clark. After all, if this is the reason Perry and the rest of the Planet staff is so mad at you, why would Perry have been so hostile before the story even came out?"

Clark gestured helplessly.

"You know, it seems to me that I remember something else about that time," Lois finally said.

"What?"

"It must have happened the same day that you were working on Perry's bank accounts. I got a call from Henderson -- about a dead body that had turned up in Hobbs' Bay."

***

"What's so important, Henderson?" Lois asked as she raised the yellow tape blocking off the crime scene far enough that she could slip beneath it. "I'm supposed to be covering a press conference at City Hall."

"I think you might find this a little more interesting."

"One dead guy washes ashore? Henderson, this is Metropolis we're talking about. One dead drowning victim isn't going to even rate an honorable mention on the front page."

"How about nine dead bodies?"

"I thought you'd said..."

"When I called, only one had been found. But since then..." He led Lois around the edge of the building to where she could see nine full body bags sitting on the dock some distance away. Not a soul was near them.

"What happened?"

"We're not exactly sure, yet. But we do know where they all worked."

"Where?"

"Star Labs."

"What? All of them?"

Henderson nodded.

"Do you know how they died?"

"Not yet. But that's why I contacted you. I wanted to talk to you about your source inside Star Labs. You know, the one that gave you the information on S-126."

Lois began walking towards the dock. "You know that I'm not going to give you my source, Henderson."

"Wait!" Henderson said, grabbing her arm and pulling her back.

"What?"

"They're radioactive."

"What? The bodies?"

Henderson nodded.

"How?"

"That's what we're hoping your source can tell us. I have an officer who used to work for the military and had some experience with radiation burns. Anyway, when he saw the burns on the bodies, he got concerned, and got hold of a Geiger counter. We got everyone away from the bodies, but right now we're waiting for the experts before moving them."

Lois let out a breath. "Sorry, Henderson. I'd like to help, but..."

"I'm not asking you to tell us the name of your source..."

"I can't give you anything that might help you identify..."

"I'm asking you to give your source my name and number and ask him to call me." He let out a breath. "Lois, these men and women all worked for Star Labs. They all are radioactive. And yet, they were just dumped in the Bay. The first one was found by a kid who was fishing. I need someone who can tell me what the hell is going on. Normally, I'd just contact Star Labs, but if your story is correct..."

Lois bristled. "Of course my story is correct."

"Then I need someone from Star Labs I can trust -- someone who will not try to bury the issue for their boss -- if this case is connected to S-126."

"Okay, Henderson," Lois said, looking back at the bodies. "I'll try. He seemed serious about stopping Star Labs from getting away with this, but he still didn't want his name used. But I'll try. By the way, any estimates yet on when these people died?"

"Not yet. But according to the officer who made the original diagnosis, it couldn't have been very long. Otherwise, the nature of the burns might have been harder to recognize. But it certainly looks like someone was trying to hide what happened."

***

"My story was in the next morning's edition of the Daily Planet. Like you, I allowed people to 'connect the dots' on their own."

"So at the same time that the world is reading about how people are dying who work at the lab which is testing S-126, they're reading about how Perry White is taking bribes from Luthor to destroy the reputation of S-126."

"What a mess."

"That's an understatement."

"I remember coming into the Planet the next morning. It was like walking into a morgue."

***

Something was different. Something was... wrong. The normal din of morning conversation had dropped off and everyone spoke in whispers.

"Who died?" Lois asked, only half joking.

"Didn't you listen to the news this morning, Lois?" Cat asked.

"No, I went for a jog. So what happened?"

"People!" Perry bellowed, stepping into the newsroom. "Conference room! Five minutes."

Lois was shocked when he walked back into his office and closed the door. Not only was it unheard of for him, if there was a lack of noise in the newsroom, not to bellow at everyone to get back to work. But he had closed his door.

"Who died?" she asked, this time completely serious.

"Well, we can't be sure. But Perry isn't looking too healthy at the moment," Cat said.

"What?" Lois gasped, spinning around to face her often nemesis. "Perry's dying?"

"No! No, relax, Lois. I didn't mean it literally. But didn't you read King and Kent's article in the Metropolis Star this morning?"

"Why would I read the Metropolis Star?" Lois asked, not quite able to look Cat in the eye. Since Kent had started working there, she read it on a regular basis. Nothing personal, but it was always prudent to keep one's eye on the enemy.

"I suggest you might want to take a look at it," Cat said, walking away.

Lois watched her go before turning to look around the newsroom. There was often a copy of it somewhere -- along with copies of dozens of other publications. But today, in spite of Cat's comments, not a copy was anywhere to be seen.

"Jimmy," she yelled when the young man stumbled past looking ten years older than he had yesterday.

He stopped and looked at her.

"What's going on?"

"You haven't heard?"

"Why does everyone keep asking that? Would I be asking if I had heard?"

"Well, this morning's frontpage article in The Star..."

"Okay, everyone! Conference room now!" Perry bellowed.

Immediately, everyone began walking in that direction. Lois tailed along behind, trying to understand what was going on. Morning meetings were a regular occurrence. But there were always stragglers -- people needing an extra moment to talk to a source or grab a cup of coffee. People talked and laughed and were generally noisy as they gathered in the conference room.

This morning, there was no talk. No laughter. In fact, Lois felt as if she had joined a funeral procession as she took her seat at the table. Only, a funeral party was more fun. All the long faces, all the people who seemed unable to look Perry in the eyes. What the hell was going on?

"I suppose you've all seen this by now," Perry said, holding up a copy of the Metropolis Star, giving Lois her first look at the headline.

'Perry White Takes Bribes; News Stories Fabricated. By Clark Kent and Linda King.'

She stared at the words in shock, feeling as if she'd just stepped into the twilight zone. She had to force herself to concentrate as Perry continued to speak.

"Now, I want you to know that not a word of this drivel is true," Perry said.

"We all know that, Chief," Lois responded, only to look at the faces around her. Many were staring at the table or playing with their fingers. Obviously, a lot of them were not so sure. What exactly did that article say that could have provoked these people to think that the most honest man alive would do something like this?

"Anyway," Perry continued after giving her a brief smile that didn't touch his eyes, "I've been in with the suits upstairs all morning and I just called Alice..." Perry's voice broke.

Oh, no. God, no. This couldn't be happening. It just couldn't be. There had to be some mistake. This was some terrible dream.

Perry cleared his throat. "I'm sure this will all get sorted out in time, but until then..."

Lois' heart was breaking. He wouldn't. He couldn't. What would she do without him?

"...I'm stepping down as editor of the Daily Planet. You'll be informed later today of who your temporary editor will be until they can find someone permanent. In the meantime..."

"No!" Lois was instantly on her feet. "You can't do this, Perry. This is some sort of mistake or smear campaign. But we'll get to the bottom of it and in the meantime..."

"Lois!" Perry said, breaking into her tirade. "It's already been decided, darlin'. But in the meantime, you all need to keep working on your current assignments until my replacement arrives."

Then Perry stepped out of the room, pausing only briefly to lay a hand on her shoulder in silent thanks for her support and then he was gone.

Lois sank back into her chair as shock took over. No. This was so wrong. This simply could not be happening.

But when she finally looked up, through the windows of the conference room, she saw Perry carrying a box towards the elevators. Two security guards were flanking him. She watched until the elevator doors closed behind him and then burst into tears.**

***

Chapter Seventeen

Clark reached over to take her hand when he realized she was tearing up. "You okay?"

She sniffed. "Just dandy."

"Lois."

She gave him a wobbly smile. "I guess it just... it was hard remembering how lost I felt when Perry left."

"Are you okay to go on? Or do you want a break."

"I just want to get this over with."

"Okay, so what else do you remember?"

***

Lois took copious notes as she read carefully through the article in The Star for the second time. Right now, all of her other stories could wait. There were so many holes in this drivel, and she was going to point out every last one for tomorrow's edition of the Daily Planet. And then, she was really going to tear this story apart. She'd track down every source she had, leave no stone unturned. There was no way that hack, Kent, and his floozie, Linda, were going to get away with this libel.

And to think she'd almost been ready to concede that she may have been wrong about Kent. Well, no more. Never again. Clark Kent was nothing more than an unscrupulous hack. And she was going to prove it if it was the last thing she ever did.

Turning to her computer, she began to type, her fingers flying over the letters on the keyboard as the words just seemed to pour out of her. It didn't take long before she was sitting back, reading her article, making the odd change here and there.

Finally, it was perfect. There. Step one complete. She had just sent it to the printer when her attention was directed towards the elevators.

"Can I have everyone's attention please?"

She looked over to see a couple of the Directors of the Daily Planet, including Simon Truesdale, standing on the landing. Along with... What was Claude doing with them, dressed in the most professional suit she'd ever seen on him? He usually preferred a turtleneck or an open collar with a blazer. To Lois, it always gave her the impression of some sort of aging Casanova.

But today, he was wearing a matching suit and tie, his hair combed back into a professional style. He almost looked like...

"Now, as all of you know, Perry White has stepped down," Truesdale began. "We are all hopeful that the allegations made will be disproved soon, and that he will be able to return. But in the meantime, we have to carry on." He turned and gestured to Claude. Lois' eyes narrowed.

"You all know, Claude. We've appointed him interim editor until a suitable replacement can be found for Perry White. I trust you'll give him the same respect you showed Perry. And since he will have the same powers to fire people as Perry did, I expect you will. Claude?" Truesdale asked, stepping back to allow Claude to take over.

"Now I know that all of us were shocked and saddened by the events of this morning," Claude began. "And I know we're all hoping that Perry's name will be cleared and he'll be able to be reinstated soon. But this paper is not the greatest paper in the world because of Perry White. It is the greatest paper because of the things that it stands for. Truth. Justice. The American way. And it's going to continue to be the greatest paper in the world -- because we are all going to ensure that it is.

"Now, I'll be calling you all into my office..."

"You mean Perry's office, don't you? He's coming back, you know."

Lois looked over, shocked by Jimmy's outburst.

Claude hesitated for a moment, having to gather his thoughts again before continuing. "I'll be calling you all into my office over the course of the afternoon to give you any new assignments. For the time being, however, keep working on the assignments you have and we'll make any adjustments as we go along. Thank you."

With that he turned back to the men with him, shaking their hands and smiling. Lois narrowed her eyes. The sharks were already circling. She just hadn't expected that the sharks would be in her own waters. Still, she'd handled Claude since he'd come back to the Planet -- she would handle him now. Because if she had any say in the matter, Perry would be back at the helm again before the day was out.

***

"They made Claude acting editor?" Clark asked.

"He was a department head by then."

Clark's eyebrows rose.

"Clark, Claude has his faults. If anyone knows that, it's me. But he has always had a real talent for schmoozing all the right people. Damn, once upon a time, he even managed to charm me. It wasn't really much of a surprise that he was appointed temporary editor. Anyway, I saw him later in the day..."

***

"What do you mean, no?" Lois demanded, placing her palms on the surface of Perry's desk so that she could glare at Claude.

"I mean exactly that. We are not running your article. It's wildly biased and doesn't give any facts to support your conclusions."

"Then run it as an editorial."

"Lois, Lois, Lois," Claude said, shaking his head.

Lois narrowed her eyes at the patronizing tone in his voice.

"You're too close to the issue. Surely you must be able to see that, cherie. No, the Daily Planet will simply run a small dignified piece announcing that Perry has taken a leave of absence until all of this can be sorted out and stating that the Daily Planet is hoping to see his reputation restored as quickly as possible. It will need to be on the front page, of course. But we'll put it as a small announcement near the bottom.

"Now, what I need to know is what follow up you have done on the bodies pulled out of Hobbs Bay. Because since it's looking as if your initial conclusions about the connection between S-126 and the deaths were wrong, given that they were part of the whole smear campaign that Lex and Perry were mounting against S-126..."

"Smear campaign Lex and Perry were mounting against S-126?" Lois asked in disbelief. "You sound as if you believe the garbage in the Star."

"I'm fond of Perry," Claude said. "But let's just call a spade, a spade, shall we? Perry was not exactly the upright man we all believed him to be. Now, I hope I'm wrong, cherie. But in the meantime..."

"Quit calling me 'cherie!'" Lois demanded, feeling the fury building inside her. "You want him to be guilty, don't you? You think this is your 'big break' and you're going to do everything in your power to make sure that you take full advantage of it."

"I'd be a fool not to take full advantage of it. And, before you go getting all hot under the collar, just remember that taking 'full advantage' means making sure this paper continues to produce good stories. So really, isn't that why the Directors gave me this position?" Claude said. "And if they think that I'm doing a good job and Perry doesn't come back..."

"He's coming back," Lois said. "And the fact that you are acting as if he's dead and gone just shows what a small..." She hesitated and her gaze settled just below his belt. "...minded..." She looked back into his eyes. "...back-stabbing, unscrupulous lump of pond-scum that has ever crawled on its belly on the face of this planet you really are."

"Lois, has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are when you're angry? Your eyes take on such life and color... exquisite. How about helping me break in this office desk? Bet old Perry never offered you a deal like that."

"Claude, have you ever heard of sexual harassment? Maybe I should march upstairs and submit a claim."

Claude smiled. "You wouldn't do that, cherie. And we both know it. You know that no one ever wins such claims. And even if you could prove it, all anyone would remember afterwards... because they would most certainly remember... would be that you were involved in something unsavory. Win. Lose. It won't matter. And you're smart enough to know that."

The temperature of Lois' blood rose another degree, mainly because she knew he was right. It would no longer be, Lois Lane: Kerth Winner, it would be 'Lois Lane... wasn't she involved in some sort of sexual scandal?'

"Now, if you still intend to work here, I'd suggest you get to work on the real story behind the bodies dragged out of Hobbs Bay."

'If?' Lois held her tongue even as she began to steam.

"As for this story..." He held up the story she'd given him responding to Kent's claims, before dramatically dropping it into the trashcan.

After staring at Claude in defiance for a moment longer, she turned and stormed from the room, making her final feelings known by slamming the door as hard as she could behind her.**

***

Lois couldn't say that her heart was really in it when she spoke to Henderson about the dead bodies found in Hobbs Bay a short time later. Radiation poisoning, the autopsy said. But they still didn't know if it was S-126.

"Did you contact your source at Star Labs yet?" Henderson asked.

"My source... Oh, no. Sorry. I've sort of had other things on my mind today."

"Yeah. I heard. So how's Perry holding up?"

Lois was about to issue a simple, 'fine,' when she caught sight of the genuine concern in Henderson's eyes.

"I don't know, Bill. He's gone."

"Gone? As in..."

"They fired him. Oh, they are calling it a temporary leave of absence, but by the look on Perry's face when he told us, I think he believes it's over."

"Well, when you see him, tell him I'm sorry. This is obviously some sort of hatchet job. I've known Perry since you were wearing short pants -- so to speak. And he'd never do what The Star is accusing him of. I'm sure it will all get sorted out in the end."

Lois regarded him for a moment. She'd never realized that Henderson and Perry knew each other. "Trust me. I'm going to make sure it does."

A small grin crinkled the corners of Henderson's mouth for a moment. "I'm sure it will if you have anything to say about it. And knowing you... You'll have a lot to say about it."

Lois smiled for the first time since she'd seen the headline in The Star. "Thanks, Bill. I appreciate that. Anyway, I'll see what I can do about getting my source to contact you."

"'Preciate it, Lane," Henderson responded. "And don't lose faith, okay? The Daily Planet needs an honest man like Perry White at the helm. Heck the world needs that."

***

"After that, I went to see Dr. Klein."

"And..."

"Well, he maintained that none of the men who died had significant exposure to S-126. But he did confirm that at the moment the only radioactive substance they were working with at Star Labs was S-126.

"When I asked him where he thought these men had received exposure to radiation if it wasn't S-126, he had no idea. I can remember thinking that he seemed to be telling the truth, until I asked if anyone had ever been affected by S-126. He denied it, of course. But he sure shifted around in his chair a lot first. It left me with the same feeling I'd gotten during my first interview."

"He was just trying to cover for me."

"Obviously. But back then, I didn't know that. Anyway, after that, I tried calling some of the families of the people who had died. I spoke to several families. They told me that their loved ones had gone into work late one night, some big hush-hush meeting. They never returned home.

"I called Dr. Klein again and he denied knowledge of any such meeting, but told me he would ask around. After that, I typed up what I had and sent it to Claude before calling it a night."

"I can remember that day, too. Unlike you, Linda and I spent the day following up on the story. Or... well sort of."

***

"Clark Kent speaking."

"You're the one who wrote the story about Perry White, aren't you?"

The voice sounded as if it belonged to a young man. Clark tensed. "Yes," he said cautiously.

"If you want additional information, meet me by the fountain in Centennial Park in half an hour."

"How will I know you?"

"I do my research, Mr. Kent. I'll know you."

And with that, the phone line went dead.

Clark looked around until he spotted Linda working at her desk. A few minutes later, the two of them left the newsroom.

"So did this guy say what information he has?" Linda asked as they took a seat on one of the benches near the fountain.

Clark shook his head. "It was all rather... ominous. The guy sounded... not exactly stable. Maybe I should have come alone."

"Hey, it's our story. We work on it together."

Clark let out a breath. He was pretty sure he could protect Linda if need be.

"Kent?" a voice behind them asked.

Clark turned around to see a gangly young man. He didn't appear to be dangerous. In fact, 'geek' would be an apt description -- were one to judge a book by its cover.

"Yes," Clark said, rising to his feet to face the newcomer. "And this is my partner, Linda King. Are you the person who said he had some information for me about Perry White?"

The man looked around nervously. "You don't reveal your sources, right?"

"Of course not!" Linda gestured him to take a seat on the bench next to her. "So what did you have for us?" She smiled at him. The young man responded, almost as if it was the first time he'd ever been smiled at by a woman. And, in point of fact, it might have been.

The young man took the offered seat.

Clark chose to remain standing. He suddenly had a bad feeling about this.

"My name's Skippy... Or, well, that's what everyone calls me. My name's Skip Wallace. I work at the Daily Planet. That's why I don't want anyone to know my name. I don't want to lose my job. But this is too important for me to keep silent. I've been covering for Mr. White long enough."

"Covering how?" Linda asked.

"By not saying anything against Mr. White. Anyway, I read your story, and suddenly understood why Mr. White keeps turning down my stories ideas. They are important ideas, too. Things that could really change this country for the better. And yet, he turns them down without even hearing me out.

"Did you know that Mr. White can't even keep my name straight. He always calls me 'Chip.' There is no way someone like him should be running the greatest paper on the planet. He's part of what's wrong with this country. He thinks that just because he's got a bigger salary it makes him a better man."

Clark fought the urge to roll his eyes. Was this kid really quoting song lyrics to prove his point?

"Anyway, he was fired this morning. But people say there's still a chance he might be coming back. You've got to make sure that doesn't happen. You've got to make sure the world knows what kind of man he really is."

***

"You didn't really write a story based on what Skippy told you, did you?" Lois asked, interrupting him. "He was a Nazi."

"I wasn't going to. I thought it was garbage. And I'd pretty much managed to convince Linda that it wasn't relevant, as well."

"So what happened?"

"When we got back to The Star, someone else was waiting for us -- telling us pretty much the same story."

"Who?"

"Ralph. Okay, don't look at me like that. I didn't know who Ralph was. All I knew was that, unlike Skippy who... well, even without knowing about the Nazi affiliation, seemed a little intense, Ralph did appear to have some credibility. He'd been working as a reporter at the Planet for six years. I still had my reservations. I didn't want to write a story that talked about Perry White being a bad boss, but...

"Well, when I was gone for lunch, Linda was approached by Carpenter about follow-up stories. So she told him what we had. He insisted she write it up. She did."

"Part of Carpenter's continuing smear campaign," Lois said. "Why create stories that will allow you to scoop the competition when you can just destroy the competition?"

Clark nodded. "I guess once you've taken the first hit, anything goes. The story told about Perry's firing and then was padded with a couple stories about how the Daily Planet employees felt about their former editor. Anyway, after Linda had finished writing it up, she put both our names on the by-line. I didn't even find out about the story until it came out in the paper the next morning."

Lois' eyebrows rose.

"We were both pretty much running the rest of the day," Clark explained. "We never had a chance to talk. I guess she thought she was doing me a favor -- putting my name on another frontpage story. Because, of course, Carpenter wasn't going to put any story slandering Perry anyplace but the front page." He shrugged. "After I finished up for the day, I just went home. I didn't want to talk to anyone. Or to socialize. I guess I just felt... tired. Anyway, do you remember what happened next?"

"Yeah," Lois said softly as those memories began to come back to her.

***

Lois didn't knock on the door of Kent's apartment -- she pounded on it. When he didn't answer immediately, she pounded again. He was there. She'd seen a shadow moving around inside. She raised her fist to pound again when suddenly the door swung open.

"Lane?" Kent said, looking surprised to see her. "Do you want to come inside?"

It took Lois a moment to find her voice. She'd never been this infuriated in her entire life -- nor despised someone as much as she did Kent at the moment. She saw his face fall as he took in the anger in her eyes. Without speaking again, he simply walked back into his apartment.

She stepped through the door, slamming it as hard as she could. "You bastard! How could you have done that to Perry?"

"I didn't do anything to Mr. White. He did it to himself."

"I read that piece of trash you wrote about him. There is no way Perry would ever do the things you accused him of. Lex wouldn't either."

"Oh, really. You're so sure about that, are you? Well, then tell me, why did White take fifty thousand dollars in cash from Luthor the night before last? Because he did. I was there. I saw it with my own eyes. And I overheard a phone call where Luthor made it more than clear what that money was for."

"You're lying."

"Why would I lie?"

"How would I know why you do anything? For all I know, because it amuses you. Maybe you're just a bastard. Besides, even if Perry took money from Lex, he had to have a good reason."

"Well, how about he wanted some extra money and compromising a story or two seemed like a small price to pay?"

She wasn't entirely sure how he managed to stop her hand before it connected with his face.

"You don't know that! Did you hear Perry say that he'd compromise a story in exchange for the money?" she asked, snatching her arm back from where he continued to hold it.

"Well, no, but..."

"Did you see some sort of contract to that effect, or talk to someone who knew why Perry was taking the money -- assuming you even saw what you say you saw."

"Well, no, but..."

"You really don't have anything do you?"

"I have enough. And don't think I didn't try to talk to Mr. White about it before we went to print. He wouldn't return my calls."

"Give me one reason why he should?"

"Why do you care so much, anyway? This isn't about you. I didn't say you'd done anything wrong, did I?"

"Perry was fired this morning. He was the closest thing I have to family. You bastard! I will never forgive you for this."

In the back of her mind, she noted that during her last speech, Kent had gone quite pale.

"And to think that I was actually starting to think that I'd misjudged you. God, I'm such an idiot. You're not any better than the rest of the creeps out there. In fact, you're worse. You will do anything for a headline. You destroyed one of the most honorable men alive. Do you feel good now? Does it give you some kind of cheap thrill to know that you destroyed an innocent man?"

"Lois," he whispered. Although he said nothing more, the single word was an obvious plea.

It was the first time she'd ever heard him say her first name. And an involuntary shiver traveled down her spine. Tears suddenly sprang to her eyes. "Damn you, Kent. Damn you for making me care."

Without another word, she turned and walked out the door to his apartment, slamming it hard behind her. She didn't turn around, didn't look back. Her legs felt like jello, barely able to carry her away from his apartment. She wasn't sure why she suddenly felt so empty inside. All she knew is that it felt as if her heart had been ripped from her chest.**

***

Chapter Eighteen

Clark's eyes were shiny as he got out of his chair, kneeling down in front of her. "Come here," he said softly.

She immediately moved into his arms. She closed her eyes and simply allowed him to comfort her. The memory of her fight with Clark was almost as painful now as it had been then. Suddenly, she understood why Clark's parents had never heard of her. How could she have ever forgiven Clark after what he had done to Perry?

"Anyway," she said after a moment, finally pulling back. Clark rose to his feet and settled back into his chair. "...the next morning when I got up... Well, that's when I decided it was time to fight back. It seems I wasn't the only one..."

***

Lois Lane did not mope. She might have been fooled again by a handsome face and a slick talking tongue, but no one kept Lois Lane down. No. She'd spent enough time last night last night feeling sorry for herself. Clark Kent just wasn't worth it.

It was time for her to get on with what needed to be done. And so, with her head held high, she marched up the steps to Perry's house and knocked.

"Hi, Alice," she said when the door was answered, wondering what kind of reception she was going to receive. She'd never been very good at offering comfort and support. But the place to start her investigation was by talking to Perry -- if he was up to it.

Not only that, but it was awfully early for a social call. But Lois wanted to get started on this as soon as possible. And since she hadn't been able to sleep...

She was relieved when Alice gave her a warm smile. But a moment later, the words coming from Alice's lips confused her.

"We were sort of wondering how long it would take you to get here."

"You were expecting me?"

"We were counting on it. But Perry lost the bet. He was betting on you getting here first."

"First?"

"Yes. They're all in the kitchen. Let me take your jacket. Go on in. I'll be along in a minute."

They? What was Alice talking about? She watched for a moment as Alice stepped towards the closet to hang up her coat. But the sound of voices coming from further in the house soon caught her attention. Intrigued now, she began cautiously walking in the appropriate direction. Her eyes widened when, as she got closer, she heard laughter coming from the other side of the kitchen door.

She cautiously pushed open the door to the kitchen. Her eyes widened when she saw the people seated around the kitchen table.

"Hey, darlin'. About time you got here. I was starting to think you were at home moping or something," Perry said.

"Yeah, Lois," Jimmy said. "What took you so long? It's almost six thirty."

Huh?

"Let her alone," Cat said. "She was trying to make an entrance. She can't help it if she doesn't know how."

"Grab yourself a plate and dig in before these young bucks eat everything but the kitchen sink," Perry said, ending the ribbing.

Lois didn't follow his instructions immediately. Instead, she simply stood there, staring in disbelief at the sight that greeted her. Cat, Jimmy, Jack and Henderson had joined Perry and Alice and were now enjoying an old fashioned country breakfast. Pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, rolls, toast, fruit, coffee and juice adorned the table. Everyone seemed to be having the time of their lives.

"What's going on here?" Lois asked, feeling almost annoyed. They weren't supposed to be having fun. Didn't they realize how serious this situation was?

"Lighten up, Lois," Cat said. "You've got to try these rolls."

Alice walked in behind Lois.

"Alice, did you make these?" Cat asked.

"Just fresh this morning. Perry had a suspicion that we might be having company." Alice took Lois' arm and led her over to the table. Releasing Lois, Alice handed her a plate.

"Well, they're wonderful," Cat said around a mouth full.

"How can you guys act as if Perry getting fired is a reason for a party?" Lois demanded.

"Now just hold on a minute," Perry said. "What do you think is going on here?"

"It looks like a wake to me. The only thing missing is the rum."

"Wake hell! This is my war counsel. Now dig in and eat. No one talks strategy until they've had a big breakfast.

"But, Perry," Lois objected.

"Sit!" Perry commanded. "Eat."

Stunned, Lois sank into her chair even as Jack reached over and took her plate, piling it high with various items off the table before setting it back in front of her.**

***

"Okay," Perry said as Alice cleared the final dishes off the table. "So let's get started. He got up and grabbed a newspaper. Has everyone seen this?" he asked, tossing the morning edition of The Metropolis Star on the table.

Lois stared at the headline. 'Perry White: Planet's Dictator Toppled. By Linda King and Clark Kent.'

"What the hell?" Henderson said, picking up the paper.

Lois wasn't sure who had surprised her most by being at this morning meeting. Henderson or Cat. She'd had her fair share of run ins with both people over the years. To be sitting here, quite obviously on the same team, was a bit of a shock to her system. But both obviously thought enough of Perry to give up their free time to this investigation.

"Not much there in way of hard facts. It says, of course, that I've been let go," Perry continued. "Other than that, there are a couple of interviews with Daily Planet employees. Rats off a sinking ship."

"When I find out who did this," Jimmy said even as he read the unflattering interviews. "They are going to regret it."

"Hey!" Perry said. "None of that."

"This isn't about getting revenge, Jimmy," Henderson said. "This is about proving that Perry is innocent. There are always going to be those who try to capitalize on this situation. Finding out who they are isn't the priority here. Once Perry is reinstated, they'll be back on side as if nothing ever happened."

"But..." Jack began.

"No, buts," Perry said. "Bill's right. Reading that crap might be annoying, but it's not why we're here."

"I think it's Claude," Lois said, ignoring her boss.

"Claude?" Cat asked. "What makes you say that?"

"I wrote a story yesterday, pointing out all the flaws in The Star's story. He refused to run it. I think he sees this as his big break and I could see him giving an anonymous interview to The Star to drive the final nail in the coffin."

"I doubt that's the reason he didn't run the story," Perry said.

"Are you seriously defending Claude?" Lois asked in disbelief.

"Hell, darlin'. You probably pounded out some story that was high on emotion and light on facts. Do I have that about right?" He didn't wait for her to answer. "Even I wouldn't have run it."

"But, Perry..."

"No. I saw Claude's article about the firing in this morning's paper. It was brief and unemotional. I have no doubt that he's going to take full advantage of the opportunity. Hell, even if I get reinstated, if he does a decent job, he'd be a shoe in for an editing job at almost any paper in the country if he wanted it. But he's right. If the Daily Planet comes across as too emotional about this issue, it could hurt its reputation. Besides, this could help us."

"Help us?" Jimmy asked.

"Yes, help us. After all, if the Daily Planet appears to be neutral now, then when we get the facts to run the real story, it will be believed. So we leave the issue of who gave these anonymous interviews to the Star alone. They aren't the issue."

"I don't agree that this story is irrelevant," Cat said, pointing to the morning copy of the Star. "I think they do prove that The Star is out to get you. Any idea why?"

Perry shook his head slowly. "Carpenter and I have never even met. It could be Kent."

Lois looked down at her coffee cup.

"After all, we had a bit of a run-in when he first came to town. This could be some kind of revenge. But right now, I think we should push that aside and get to the facts. Now, let me start by filling you in on what happened yesterday morning with the suits upstairs. When I arrived at the Planet at about six, a few members of the Board of Directors were already there."

"Don't they usually saunter in at about nine?" Lois asked.

Perry nodded. "That's how I knew there was a problem -- although how they knew about it before I did, I have no idea."

"They must have gotten a tip," Henderson said. "Tell me, Perry. The men who were there, were they the ones who before yesterday you would have trusted the most -- or the least?"

"The least," Perry said. "But them being there was not the worst part. Apparently, they'd already searched my office -- including my safe. Once they found the envelope filled with fifty thousand dollars cash in my safe, I was pretty much toast."

Lois sat up straighter. "So you did take fifty thousand dollars from Lex?"

Perry nodded. "Dumbest thing I ever did."

Lois felt a sinking sensation in her chest. What if Kent's article were true?

"Perry and I were at the Press Club the night before last when Lex came in," Alice said, joining the rest at the kitchen table. "Perry had been phoning around, trying to raise money for the Metropolis Literacy Society. Lex was supposed to come by with a cheque. When he arrived, he gave us some story about how he was going to make his donation in cash because he wanted it to be anonymous. Then he handed Perry the envelope. We chatted for a minute or two and then he left."

"I didn't even count it. I figured it contained a few hundred bucks," Perry said, picking up from where his wife left off. "I just stuck it in my pocket. When I got back to the Daily Planet, I looked in the envelope. When I realized how much money he'd handed me, I put it in the safe. I figured I'd leave it there until I could give it to George. He's the director of the Metropolis Literary Society."

"Did you call George?" Henderson asked. "Tell him about the donation."

"It was late. I figured I'd give him a call the next day."

"There was something strange about the whole thing," Alice said. "Who makes a fifty thousand dollar donation to a charity without wanting a tax receipt?"

"Hell, honey. We've talked about this already. Fifty thousand dollars for Lex is the same as five dollars for anyone else. I admit, I hadn't expected quite so much from him, but obviously Lex thinks this is a worthy charity."

"Was Kent there?" Lois asked.

"If he was, I didn't see him," Perry answered. "Of course, I tried to tell the suits upstairs what had happened. Even told them to call Lex. But they couldn't get hold of him on such short notice. That's when they asked for my bank records. Of course, since I had nothing to hide, I called a friend who works at the bank and had them faxed over. Alice, honey, could you hand me those?" He pointed at some papers sitting on the kitchen counter.

Once Alice had given them to him, he tossed them on the table. "Three fifty thousand dollar payments -- just like the story said. Only problem is, I have no idea where they came from."

"Someone put a hundred and fifty thousand dollars into your bank account without telling you," Jack said. "Man, I wish someone would do that for me."

Perry's quick glare silenced the young man. "Anyway, I compared the bank statements the bank faxed over with the ones they had sent me over the past year," Perry continued. "Everything is the same -- except those three fifty-thousand dollar payments."

"Couldn't you take that to the Directors?" Jack asked.

Perry shook his head. "Who's going to believe my copy of bank records over the ones coming from the bank. They'd just say I had altered the records. Besides, I don't want to tip my hand until I know the whole story."

"I could try contacting a forensic accountant," Henderson said. "See if he can tear apart those bank records."

"Let's let Jimmy give it a shot, first," Perry said. "What do you say, son? You up to it."

"Just try to stop me," Jimmy responded.

"So this is some sort of set up," Lois said.

Perry nodded. "Has to be. Only problem is... who?"

"Well, who would want to get even with you?" Lois asked.

"Honey, you don't get to be editor and chief of the greatest newspaper in the world without making a few enemies along the way. It could be almost anyone."

"Or more than one," Henderson added.

"So where do we start?" Jack asked.

"Well, we start by you and Jimmy getting in to work," Perry said.

"But, Chief..." Jimmy said.

"I don't want you guys getting fired," Perry said. "And you both have to work today, don't you?"

They nodded. "Cat... Lois... what about the two of you?"

"Well, you know I don't usually put in an appearance until about noon on the best of days..." Cat said.

"...given that you ladies of the evening mostly work nights," Lois completed for her. But there was no heat behind the words.

"So I'm fine," Cat said.

"Lois?"

"I've got today off."

"I don't have to be in until noon," Henderson said. "So why don't we get started on mapping out some sort of strategy."

"Sounds like a plan," Perry said. "So you two..." He looked at Jimmy and Jack. "...git. We'll fill you in if we need anything else from you later." Then his gaze softened. "Thanks, boys. Your support means a lot to me."

"Hey, we just want to see you back at the Planet," Jimmy said.

"Not me," Jack said, grabbing one final roll from the platter still on the table. "I'm just here for the food."

Even Lois had to admit, hearing Perry's resulting laughter gave her hope. Maybe all was not lost, after all. She just had to find a way to put Clark Kent out of her mind for good.

***

"But you know, there is quite a difference between mapping out a strategy and actually winning the war," Lois said. "Not that we didn't get a lot accomplished that first day. We decided that since someone had obviously messed with Perry's records at the bank, we'd have Jimmy see if he could discover how they'd done it. After all, they had to have somehow messed with the computer records. Cat said she'd give him a hand with that."

"What about Henderson?"

"Oh, right. Well, the angle Henderson was to follow up on came about completely by accident."

"By accident?"

"Yeah."

***

"Hey, Lane," Henderson said as they settled into the living room to discuss what areas of investigation everyone would pursue. "I wanted to thank you for telling your source to contact me."

"What are you talking about? I forgot to call him yesterday."

"Well, he contacted me. Offered to examine the bodies in order to try to identify the source of the radiation."

"He did?"

"Yeah. He's coming by the morgue later this afternoon. I wonder how he knew I wanted to talk to him."

"Maybe he just read about it in the paper and decided to offer his assistance."

"Maybe. Or maybe he had another motive."

***

"I don't think we realized the significance of that conversation until later. Anyway, Henderson had to get into the station, so he said he would look into that -- given that the allegations were that Perry had taken the money in order to run the story about S-126."

"What about you and Perry?"

"Perry was going to contact his sources and see if they knew anything. He also wanted to contact a couple of the Planet's board members -- men he trusted. See what he could find out from them."

"And you?"

"Well, I was going to contact my sources. I was also in charge of talking to Lex about the fifty thousand dollar donation and..."

"And..."

She shifted uncomfortably.

"Lois?"

"I was sort of in charge of getting my hands on anything that you and Linda had."

"You were? I don't remember talking to you about it."

"That's because I didn't. Talk to you, I mean."

***

After putting out feelers to all the sources she could think of, Lois stared at the phone. She couldn't put this off any longer.

Taking a deep breath, Lois picked up the phone and placed a call to The Star. Why had this assignment been given to her? Oh, she knew why, of course. Who else on their team had her experience at acquiring this type of information?

Of course, when the idea had been raised, Henderson had said he wasn't listening. After all, it wasn't exactly legal. Everyone else had just assumed that she would be the one to do it.

The problem was that she hadn't been able to give a good reason as to why she didn't want to be assigned this particular task.

"Metropolis Star," came a woman's voice from the other end of the phone line.

"Yes. I need to speak to Clark Kent."

"One moment please."

Music came on the line as she was put on hold. She almost slammed down the phone. But no. She had to be sure.

"Clark Kent here."

Lois slammed down the phone, her heart pounding in her ears. Okay, one more call to make. She had to find out if Linda was working too.

***

"Once I found out that both of you were at work, I went over to search your apartments. I did Linda's first, hoping that I could find whatever evidence you had there. After all, I was desperate to avoid going back to your apartment, if I could." Seeing the look on his face, she reached over, touching his arm. "Sorry."

"Don't worry about me, Lois. I'm fine."

He wasn't. She could tell. She moved back to his lap, giving him a kiss. Maybe things would get better again. Although, how that was possible, she wasn't entirely certain. Still, there was nothing to do now but get on with the story.

"Anyway, a search of Linda's apartment turned up nothing. So I had no choice but to break into yours."

***

Lois' hands were trembling as she inserted her lock pick into the door to Kent's apartment. Still, it wasn't long before the door swung open. He really needed better locks. She'd have to mention that when...

No. No, she was never planning to talk to Kent again in her life. He would just have to live with his lousy locks.

She had just walked inside, closing the door behind her, when she was hit with the first memory. Walking over to him and pulling his shirt open. Buttons flying everywhere. That was when she'd had her first look at that astounding chest. No. It was just a chest. There was nothing astounding about it.

She took a step down the stairs into his apartment before coming to a halt when hit by her next memory. Their first kiss when he had stormed across the room, pulling her into his arms. The way her entire body had trembled at the first touch of his lips on hers. The way desire had coursed through her veins at having her body pressed up against his.

No! No! She wasn't doing this.

She stormed down the remaining steps into his living room, coming to a halt when her eyes focused on the spot on his carpet where they had made out when she was under the influence of the pheromone compound.

She quickly pulled her eyes away from the spot. Now, where would Kent keep any evidence he'd found on a story? Because the only thing she knew for certain was that she wanted to get out of this place as fast as possible.

It was sometime later when she began to think she was never going to find anything. This search had been sheer torture. The first time she'd entered Kent's bedroom, her eyes had been drawn to the bed. Images of them together on that bed had almost caused her to flee before finishing the search.

Only thoughts of how she couldn't let Perry down had kept her going, searching through his dresser and closet. She was just about to close the closet door when she was distracted by the number of ties he seemed to have. He even had a tie rack. She reached out, running her hand over one of the more outlandish ties, fascinated by the blinding pattern. Did he actually wear this one?

Hearing a noise, she turned quickly, terrified that Kent was home. In the process, she accidentally pulled down on the tie rack. She felt it move under her hand and a click sounded. She froze. Her heart was in her throat as she waited to be sure that the noise was coming from people outside the apartment, before looking back at the closet. A small crack could now be seen in the back of the closet. Stepping closer, she pushed on the wall, only to have it swing open, revealing a secret closet.

The shelves inside the secret room were almost completely empty. Still, there were some photos -- on top of which was a small cassette tape. Looking at the photos, she realized she'd hit pay dirt. Pictures of Lex handing an envelope to Perry. Pictures of the cash in the envelope -- how had they taken that? Given the location of the tape, she suspected it was related as well. Unfortunately, she had not brought her tape recorder. That meant 'borrowing' the tape and then returning it at a later date -- preferably before Kent realized it was missing. Or... sneaking back in again when she had a tape recorder. That way certainly made it less likely Kent would realize the tape was missing. On the other hand, it provided him with an opportunity to make the evidence disappear if he discovered that someone else was looking for the real story.

She hesitated for a second, considering her options, before sticking the tape in her pocket. The photos only showed what they already knew to be true, so they weren't important. Hopefully, if Kent did realize the tape was missing, he'd think he misplaced it.

She was about to close the closet up when a couple of small pieces of paper on the back of one of the shelves caught her eye. She reached over picking them up, her eyebrows rising when she realized what she was holding. One was a picture of her cut out of the paper. The other was the note she'd left Kent when she'd snuck out of his apartment in the middle of the night. She was about to crumple them up and stick them in her pocket for later disposal when she stopped.

If she took these, it would be as good as announcing to Kent that she had been in his apartment. Still... She bit her lower lip for a moment before placing them back in the closet and closing the door. No. Safer to pretend she'd never seen them.

***

"You know," Clark said, "I can remember coming back to my apartment that day and thinking it smelled of you. But I attributed it to you being in my apartment the night before." He shook his head. "At least if you had the tape, you now knew that Luthor was dirty."

Lois shifted in her seat. "Not exactly. I mean, I intended to listen to it as soon as I got back to my apartment, maybe make a copy of it, and then sneak it back into your apartment before you returned home for the night. But as I was half way down the block, I spotted you walking towards your apartment. So I knew that I wouldn't be able to put it back that night. And then, when I got home..."

***

Depression had gripped Lois by the time she was driving back to her apartment. She hadn't made nearly as much progress today as she would have liked. None of her sources had been of any help. Oh, they knew a lot of people with grudges against Perry.

Bobby had even heard a rumor that someone seemed to think that Claude would be easier to deal with than Perry had been. Lois had perked up at that piece of information. Unfortunately, not even Bobby had known who the mystery man was -- or if it had anything to do with the mess that Perry was now in. He'd promised, however, that he would nose around, see what he could find.

Other than that, all she had was a cassette tape that might or might not be related to the situation. And to get it, she'd had to spend the past hour searching Kent's apartment.

Finding that note and her picture in his closet... Why had he kept those?

The answer, of course, seemed fairly obvious. He had developed some sort of feelings for her. It was an impulsive, romantic gesture to keep things like that. Problem was that she had been starting to develop some of those same feelings for him -- until he had destroyed everything by launching his campaign against Perry. Damn him. How could he have done that?

Still, he had. And that meant that she had to forget about Clark Kent. And she would, too. Lois Lane had never yet failed to do what she set her mind to. So forgetting about Clark Kent would be easy enough.

Her foot had just landed on the first step of her apartment building when a limo drove up in front of the building. She watched as the driver came around, opening the door for Lex.

Lois narrowed her eyes as she watched him approach. After all, Lex was the one who had apparently given Perry a fifty thousand dollars bribe. Maybe he'd been setting Perry up. Almost as soon as the thought came, she dismissed it. Perry was innocent, so Lex had to be innocent, too. After all, Perry had been expecting Lex to drop by the Press Club to give him that donation.

"Hi, Lex," Lois said. "What are you doing here?"

"I've been trying to get hold of you since yesterday. When that story came out, I couldn't believe it. I just wanted you to know that not a word of it is true."

"I know that, Lex. I spoke to Perry."

"Of course you did," Luthor responded. "But I just wanted you to know that I had a lawyer draft an affidavit stating that the money I gave to Perry was a charitable donation for the Metropolis Literacy Society. I'm hoping that might help." He handed her an envelope.

"Yes. Thank you. This will help." She hesitated for a moment. She was tired. On the other hand, she really didn't feel like being alone. Besides, he'd driven all the way over. "Would you like to come up?"

He smiled. "Unless you'd rather go out. We could go to some nice cozy restaurant for supper..."

Lois hesitated. The best way to get rid of one idea -- Kent -- was to replace it with another. Maybe it was time to take her relationship with Lex to the next level. Maybe that would help her to forget about Kent.

"Why don't we just order in," she said. She shrugged slightly. "I'm not much of a cook, but I can do a mean take out."

Luthor's smile when he accepted was dazzling.

Yes. She'd been dating Lex on and off for months now. And he'd been the perfect gentleman. Still, maybe it was time to take the next step. As Lucy had always said the way to forget one man was to jump into bed with another. Not a philosophy Lois had ever subscribed to. On the other hand, desperate times and all that. Maybe her attraction to Kent was nothing more than repressed sexual tension. So maybe it was a time to get unrepressed.**

***

Chapter Nineteen

Lois jumped out of Clark's lap and was standing on the other side of the conference room before Clark even heard the door click open.

"Hi, Jimmy," Lois said somewhat breathlessly. "Did you want something?"

Jimmy looked between them curiously for a moment. "Uhh... yeah. I got that file you wanted, Lois."

"What fi... Oh, right. That file." Lois stepped forward and took the file.

"Lo... Lane?" Clark asked.

"The file about your initial interview with Perry," Lois said without thinking.

"Why would he need to see that?" Jimmy asked suspiciously. "You said you wanted to see it because of your memory gaps. But why couldn't he just fill you in on it?"

Lois froze. "Umm... Uhh..." She looked over at Clark as she sought an explanation. "Because I want to be sure that he's telling me the truth." She shot a quick look of apology in Clark's direction.

Still, Jimmy seemed to accept the answer. He nodded.

As Jimmy turned to leave the room, Clark stepped forward. "Look, Jimmy," he said softly. "I know you don't trust me. And I understand that. In your position, I wouldn't trust me, either. But I promise you, man to man, I won't do anything to hurt Lois."

Jimmy looked back at him for a long moment. Then, without saying a word, turned and left the room.

"Well, that went well," Lois said sarcastically.

"Go easy on him, Lois. Given what we've figured out, do you blame him?"

Lois let out a breath. "I guess not," she conceded.

"So what's in that file?" Clark asked.

Lois found that her hand trembled as she opened the file. This could be it. This could be their big break -- the information they needed to figure out what they'd done to screw up the past. And if they knew that, it might give them an idea of how to fix it. Which, in turn would mean that she wouldn't have to tell Clark what had transpired between her and Lex when he had come to her apartment.

She opened the file and stared inside, silently digesting what she saw.

"What?" Clark asked, rising from his chair and coming over to her. He had to pry the file from her hands in order to get a look at it himself.

He let out a frustrated breath. There was a copy of his resume. Perry's only note was written across it in black marker. Two words. 'No' and 'Never.' Both words were followed by multiple exclamation marks.

"I don't suppose that stirs up any memories," Lois said. In spite of the negative words, there was a small trace of hope in her voice, as if she were begging him to let that be enough to jog his memory.

Clark thought long and hard for a few moments before shaking his head.

"Damn," Lois whispered.

"Hey, it's okay. We'll figure it out. So let's just get back to work. Now, where were we?"

Lois swallowed hard, remembering where they were. She sank into a chair on the far side of the conference table. She needed a little distance from Clark if she were to continue.

***

Luthor followed Lois into her apartment. Once the door was closed, Lois turned to him, taking off her jacket. "I'll just order and then... if you don't mind. I'd like to change out of my work clothes. Maybe take a quick shower. Do you think you can entertain yourself for a few minutes?"

"I'll be fine. In fact, why don't you let me order? Before I made my first million, I was actually pretty good at take out."

Lois smiled. Somehow, she'd never pictured Lex ordering take-out before.

***

"Why am I getting a little uneasy about this story?" Clark said.

The look Lois gave him in return informed him he was right on track to be nervous. "Look," she said when the corners of his mouth turned down, "maybe we should just skip this part."

"No, Lois, it's okay." Clark reached a hand across the table, withdrawing it again when Lois seemed to shrink back into herself. Realizing how uncomfortable this was making her, gave him the courage to continue. "We don't know what might prompt the memory that will allow us to get this entire mess sorted out. Please. Go on. I'll be okay. We'll be okay. No matter what happened."

Lois looked at him for a long moment before nodding -- taking his reassurances at face value. He was glad she didn't question him further. Because right now, he was feeling anything but okay. Just the thought of her with Luthor...

On the other hand, by the look on her face, she felt the same way. Or at least she did now. She looked down at her hands, staring at them in concentration as she continued with her story.

***

Lois was startled when she walked back into the living room a short time later. Soft music was playing in the background. Candles had been set up and lit, giving the entire apartment a soft, romantic glow. The table was set and the delicious aroma of dinner filled the apartment. Lex had his back turned to her, his attention directed at opening a bottle of wine.

"Smells delicious, Lex," she said, walking over to him. "Did you slave over it all day?"

Luthor laughed, turning towards her as he finished taking the cork out of the bottle. "It seems Chez Luthor actually delivers."

"You called your chef?"

"Best take out around." His eyes darkened in appreciation as they roamed over her body.

She blushed slightly, looking down. She wasn't so out of touch with reality as to not realize that the short black dress she'd chosen showed off her body to perfection. Not that she considered herself beautiful compared to the women who appeared in fashion magazines, but she knew that men seemed to find her suitably attractive.

"So would you like to begin, my dear?" Luthor asked, setting down the wine bottle in order to pull out her chair.

As they ate dinner, Lois brought up the conversation she knew she had to have with Lex. "So what do you make of Kent's story?"

Luthor's eyes narrowed as he studied her. "I thought there were two reporters on the byline."

Lois looked down, wondering how she was expected to respond to that observation. He was right. There were two reporters on the byline -- but to her mind, only one person was truly responsible. Fortunately, Lex didn't make her answer that question.

"Well, I was floored when I read it. I have no idea where they came up with such an idea. I mean, I'd never do such a thing. But even if I were so inclined, I would never be so foolish as to believe that Perry White could ever be bought."

Lois nodded slowly. That was how she knew Luthor had to be innocent. Even if he were the type to bribe someone, he'd have to know that Perry was above such tactics. Still... "They made an allegation about overhearing a conversation you had about bribing Perry to get him to destroy the reputation of S-126." She kept her tone light.

"Well, assuming they were not just making it up, the only thing I can think of is that they overheard something and obviously misinterpreted it. Ms. King and Mr. Kent did come by my office the day I gave that donation to Perry. I can remember having a conversation with my secretary about meeting with Perry. And she gave me the money for the donation. Maybe they overheard that and jumped to the wrong conclusion."

"So why did you give him a donation in cash instead of a cheque?"

"I wanted the donation to be anonymous. The moment any charity sees my name on a cheque, they instantly use it to advertize that I support that particular charity. Since I really don't know much about the Metropolis Literary Society, I wasn't sure I wanted my name to be used in that manner."

"So why make a donation at all?"

"Because Perry called and asked me if I'd be willing to make a donation. So I did it out of respect for him."

Lois nodded slowly. It all made perfect sense.

"So..." Lex said, reaching over and taking her hand so that he could lightly kiss the back of it. "Why don't we leave this business to another day and just enjoy ourselves for the rest of the evening?"

Lois used her free hand to brush a strand of hair behind her ear before nodding slightly. It seemed Lex realized the reason she'd invited him over -- that she wanted to take their relationship further. And he had taken over the seduction. She was relieved about that -- mainly because she knew she would never have the nerve to push things further by herself.

***

"Lois?" Clark asked when Lois didn't continue.

"I..." She shook her head.

"It's okay, Lois," he said softly.

She met his eyes then, seeming to search them, before looking back down at the table. It was with a slow and halting voice that she continued. "Anyway, things progressed and we ended up seated on the sofa..."

Clark shifted uncomfortably. Maybe she was right. Maybe he didn't really need to know what happened next. "Lois, if you don't want to..."

"No. You're right, Clark. I think this might be important."

***

"Why don't we have our coffee in the living room?" Lois suggested. The words came out slightly more breathlessly than she had intended.

The look Lex gave her told her that he had noticed. "Yes, why don't we?" he asked in return, moving to his feet and stepping forward to take the tray with the coffee and condiments from her before letting her lead him into the living room.

She took a seat on the couch, folding her hands nervously in front of her. She felt her heart rate speed up when he set the coffee on the table and took a seat next to her. Without tending to the coffee, or giving her a chance to do the same, he turned towards her, using a hand on her cheek to turn her towards him in return. "You know how I feel about you, don't you?" he asked, even as his thumb gently stroked her cheek. "You know how much I respect you."

Did she? She wasn't entirely sure. "Of course I do, Lex," she responded because she felt it was expected. Besides, he certainly had been respectful in the past.

"Good. That's important to me," he said before leaning over to kiss her.

She responded. This was what she wanted after all. His kiss at first was gentle, undemanding -- until the moment he pulled her into his arms, pushing her back into the sofa. She felt his hand begin sliding up her leg as he deepened the kiss, slipping smoothly under the hem of her short black dress. She felt a moment of panic. It was too soon. She wasn't ready for this. She shifted slightly and his hand wandered back down the way it had come.

He moved back far enough to look in her eyes for a moment. "Relax, Lois," he said, sounding almost amused. "You're not in high school any more."

She blushed, looking somewhere over his shoulder. He was right. She wasn't in high school anymore.

He cocked his head to the side, seeming to study her before moving to kiss her again. She forced herself to kiss him back. After all, this was what she needed tonight. Lex was so charming. She wouldn't want to be doing this with anyone else. Certainly not... the man whose name she was not even going to think. He had no place in this nice romantic interlude.

She felt Lex's hand trace soft circles on the bare skin of her back. Yes. That felt good. This time when his hand slid under the edge of her dress, she didn't panic. No. This was good. This was what she wanted.

His lips left hers, trailing over her neck. Oh, yes. That felt good. She tilted her head back, giving him greater access. She allowed herself to get lost in the feelings he was creating in her.

Then she felt the hand on her back moving lower, playing with the zipper on the back of her dress. She tensed. The hand played with the zipper a moment more, but then left it to continue the light movements on the skin of her back.

She relaxed again. He looked up at her, his eyes dark and she could see... something there. Her first thought was that it was greed. A desire to possess. But that made no sense. Passion. Yes. That was what she was seeing. It had just been so long since she'd seen passion in a man's eyes... not since Kent had...

No. She wasn't going there. Not tonight. So... she was seeing passion in Luthor's eyes.

And passion was right. It should be there. After all, that was what she was feeling, too. Passion. The slight knot in her belly was nothing more than nervousness. After all, it was a long time since she had done this. Or at least a long time since she had done this without being under the influence of some sort of damnable pheromone compound.

She pulled him back down to her, kissing him with new enthusiasm. His hand slid up her leg again and she did not pull back. The hand at her back began playing with her zipper and she did not react. This was what she wanted, after all.

Then, with one smooth stroke, her zipper was down.

Lois was off the couch with lightning speed, barely keeping her dress up. Clutching it with one hand across her chest and breathing heavily, she stared at Lex.

"Do you want to tell me what's going on here?" Luthor said, moving into a seated position on the couch.

"I don't know what you mean. I..."

"You've been sending me signals all evening that you want this. So... what's going on? I would never have thought you were a tease."

He was angry. That much was obvious.

"I'm sorry. I just... I thought this was what I wanted, but..." Her voice trailed off. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..." Again, she could not find the words to complete her thought. To tell the truth, she wasn't sure why she'd jumped off the couch. It hadn't been a conscious decision.

Lex rose from the couch and walked over to the mirror hanging just inside the door to her apartment. She watched, feeling embarrassed, ashamed even as he ignored her to straighten his hair and tie. Finally, he turned towards her.

"I'm sorry, Lex," she said.

"You're sorry? Come on, Lois. You're a grown woman. And yet you act as if you're some blushing teenage virgin. Grow up. There's nothing worse than a woman who doesn't know what she wants." He picked up his jacket and put it on. "By the way," he continued casually, "I guess you'll be hearing about it soon enough, so there's no harm in telling you. I'm getting married."

"Huh?" She must have heard him wrong.

"She's Latislanian. Her father is an oil baron. He has controlling interest in a number of very rich oil reserves. This marriage will gain me access to those reserves."

"You're getting married as some sort of... way to conclude a business deal?"

"And what did you expect me to marry for? Love?" The expression on his face told her clearly that he thought her a fool. "I can get love anywhere. Oil reserves, on the other hand, are harder to come by. Besides, by all reports, she's very beautiful."

"You've never even met her?" Lois felt slightly sick to her stomach. "So... what was tonight about? One final 'one nightstand' before the big day? I wonder what she'd think if she found out about tonight."

His eyes narrowed. "Unlike you, she understands a woman's place. And if she doesn't, she will learn."

Lois felt her blood begin to boil. "And I suppose her father would see it the same way? Maybe I should give him a call."

Luthor moved closer to her, danger flashing in his eyes. "I wouldn't do that if I were you, my dear. It would just make things unpleasant for everyone."

"Oh, and why shouldn't I make things unpleasant for you?"

"Perry isn't the only one who can find himself unemployed. And by all accounts, Claude is just looking for an excuse to send you to the curb. I'm sure it wouldn't be too difficult to give him that excuse."

With that, he turned, walking out the door, not bothering to close it behind him.

Lois rushed to the door, slamming it shut, before standing in a daze, looking around at the soft candlelight and listening to the romantic music wafting through the small apartment. What the hell had just happened here?

***

"I guess Luthor doesn't like being turned down," Clark said when Lois fell silent.

"I guess not. It was the first time I'd ever seen him angry. Oh, he didn't get violent or anything. But his words... I guess he lost his temper because I'm certain he would have never told me all that otherwise. But it did give me a very different picture of Lex."

"Probably a good thing."

"Probably," she said softly. "There's one thing I wonder, though."

"What?"

"Well, in our reality, when Lex was under the influence of the pheromone compound, we had a date. It was after that that he became more serious in his pursuit of me. In this reality, we didn't have a date that night. Do you think that might have been part of the reason he wasn't as interested in me in this reality?"

"Possibly."

She gave her head a shake.

"What?" Clark asked.

"Well, I just felt like such a fool. I really had thought he liked me, liked spending time with me. How could I have been so stupid?"

"Luthor was a very smooth customer. You weren't the only one he fooled."

"No, but then after he left, I sort of..."

"What?"

Lois took a deep breath before continuing.

***

Lois felt dirty as she removed her black dress. She doubted she'd ever be able to wear this dress again without thinking about tonight. How could she have misjudged Lex so badly? She'd been prepared to sleep with him and he... God, how could a man do that? He was engaged. Whether it was some sort of bizarre arranged marriage or not, it was still his choice to marry the woman. And yet, that hadn't stopped him from wanting to sleep with her.

After slipping into a comfortable pair of sweats and an oversized sweatshirt -- as far from sexy as she could get -- she wandered back into the living room. The candles and soft music had been extinguished before she'd changed clothes and she'd turned up the lights to dispel the cozy atmosphere.

Her gaze settled on the couch. She wasn't sure she'd ever be able to sit on that couch again, either. On the other hand, why did she need a couch? It wasn't as if she ever had any intention of again 'relaxing' on a couch.

No. It could just sit there and look pretty. If she had company, they could make use of it. It wasn't as if she had any real use for it, anyway.

After all, if there was one thing she'd learned in the last couple of days, it was that her judgment sucked when it came to men. Well, never again. It might take Lois time to get some things through her thick skull, but she'd learned her lesson now. Men were bad news.

Work. Now that was something she could handle. So... She glanced around the apartment. Where had she put that cassette tape? It was still in the pocket of her jacket.

She pulled it out before going to find her mini-cassette recorder. She sat down at her kitchen table, pushing aside the dirty dishes. Placing a pad of paper and pen in front of her, she stuck the cassette she'd stolen from Kent's apartment into the recorder and pressed 'play.'

Lex's voice was loud and clear. "Don't worry about it. S-126 will not be a problem. The plan is already in motion." There was a pause. "The Daily Planet. No, I'm sure. So don't start selling off our shares of Metropolis Electric. Once I'm done with it, no one will want electricity produced by S-126." Another, longer pause. "Well, if you must know, it did cost me a lot of money. But then, I wouldn't have expected to buy off this particular customer without a lot of money." Another pause. "No, I don't think you need to know his name." One final pause. "The first story leading to the destruction of S-126 should be in the next edition of the Daily Planet."

Lois turned off the tape as her mind struggled to digest what she'd heard. What was it Lex had said about his upcoming marriage? Daughter of a rich oil baron? Metropolis Electric wasn't the only reason he had for wanting S-126 discredited. Oil would basically lose its value, too, if S-126 really did turn out to be the miracle source of power. No wonder Lex wanted it discredited.

But Lex had nothing to do with the discrediting of S-126. She'd done the research. She knew there were problems. She'd seen all the evidence for herself. Jefferson Cole had given it to her -- not Lex Luthor.

But Lex called her to tell her about Jefferson Cole. What had Henderson told her today? Cole had contacted him without any prompting by Lois. Why had he done that? Why had he offered his help in identifying the type of radiation that the dead people had been exposed to? Was he responding solely to his conscience? Or did he have other, more profitable, motives?

Okay, so if Cole had fed her incorrect information -- and that was still a very big question since Clyde had told her much the same thing -- at Lex's bidding, that still didn't provide them with a connection to Perry. After all, Perry wasn't the one who had been bluffed by Lex. She was.

God, she felt like such a fool.

She let out a breath. Well, it seemed that Kent might be half right. But only about Lex. And half right didn't justify the hatchet job he'd done on Perry.

Okay, well, first thing tomorrow, she was going to reevaluate all the evidence she'd obtained about S-126. And she was going to see what she could find out about Jefferson Cole. She jotted some notes down on the notepad. The added benefit of this endeavor was that it was the story that Claude had currently assigned her.

She looked down at the tape recorder, turning it on again.

"Lex?" A woman's voice was the next thing Lois heard.

"Yes, Mrs. Cox?"

"I have a few papers for you to sign."

"Very good. By the way, is my appointment with Perry White still on?"

"Seven o'clock as you requested. You're to meet him at the Press Club. I looked up the address, and it's on your way."

"And my other appointment?"

"It's on, too. I've already sent for the limo. And here's the cash you requested. Oh, and I suppose you'll want this, too."

"Thank you, Mrs. Cox. Efficient as always." There was a pause. "What the..."

"Lex?"

"This pen doesn't work."

"Let me take it for you. Here's another one."

"Well, if that's it, I'll be leaving now for my appointments."

"Will you need me any more this evening?"

"No, Mrs. Cox. That will be all."

Lois flicked off the tape when it was obvious there was nothing more. That couldn't really be it, could it? That couldn't be all Kent had on Perry. Lex had claimed that he would get the Daily Planet to destroy S-126's reputation. And then Lex had said he had an appointment with Perry. And... that was it -- the only connection they appeared to have.

Okay, so maybe it hadn't looked exactly kosher when he'd proceeded to give Perry fifty thousand dollars in cash. But it was nothing more than speculation to assume that the two incidents were connected.

Kent really was an unscrupulous hack. He saw a frontpage story and was too lazy to check his facts. Otherwise, he'd have found out that the money had been an innocent donation to a charity. But had he even bothered to investigate? Obviously not.

Well, unlike Kent, she'd find the truth -- especially now that she knew where to start.

***

"So what did you find when you started investigating?" Clark asked.

"About what you'd expect. First, Henderson, who was already suspicious, had looked into Cole's finances and discovered several fifty thousand dollar 'donations' to his bank account. Then I tracked down Cole's assistant. Wolcott."

"The same Wolcott who was his assistant in setting you up on that murder charge in our reality?"

Lois nodded.

"So what did you learn from him?"

***

That had to be Wolcott. Lois sipped slowly at her glass of wine as she watched the gawky young man with the scraggly beard make his way over to the bar. He fit the description she'd been given. Now the only question was how to get him to talk.

She reached into her purse, feeling briefly for her cassette recorder. Then she took a deep breath, turning it on before walking over to the bar.

"Red wine," she told the bartender, taking a seat next to the young man. When he looked in her direction, she flashed him a smile.

He seemed startled and she quickly turned her attention back to the bartender, waiting.

"Hi," the young man said.

She looked over at him. "Hi," she answered, giving him another smile.

"You come here often?" he asked.

She fought the desire to roll her eyes. She was here because she'd heard that he hung out here on his time off. So if she were a regular, he'd most certainly know. Still, she deliberately kept her voice friendly, approachable. "It's my first time, actually."

He smiled, moving to take the seat next to her. She turned towards him. "My name's Lois."

"I'm Wolcott."

Bingo. Okay, so now how to get him talking?

***

"So how did you do it?" Clark asked.

Lois smiled. "I guess I sort of goaded him into it. Kept telling him that I wasn't interested in some unemployed boy. So he had to inform me that he was Dr. Cole's special assistant. When I rolled my eyes. He proceeded to try to convince me how invaluable he was to Cole."

"And in the process, said some things he shouldn't have said?"

Lois nodded. "At which point, I turned on him..."

***

Chapter Twenty

"What's that?" Wolcott asked when Lois dug her tape recorder out of her purse. She placed it on the bar in front of her, still recording.

"My name's Lois Lane. I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet. And everything you told me right now... How do you think your employers would feel about what you said?"

"Hey!" He reached towards the tape recorder and she quickly snatched it back.

"You've got two choices. Now, the way I figure it, if I trick you into saying something, I can use your name in my article. On the other hand, if you give me information willingly, I have an obligation to protect you as a source."

Wolcott's mouth seemed to move for a moment without any noise coming out.

"Are you interested in becoming one of my sources?" she asked.

Looking defeated, he slowly nodded.

"Good. Then let me tell you what I need to know."

***

"That's my girl," Clark said, looking at Lois affectionately.

"Yeah, well, I guess even in this screwed up reality, I do have my moments. Anyway, after that, he was extremely helpful. I even managed to get him to go on tape -- promising him that I'd protect his identity. He confirmed that Cole was taking payments from Lex to feed me phony information about S-126. He even confirmed that Lex had paid Cole to confirm that the individuals pulled out of Hobbs Bay had been killed by exposure to S-126."

"Did he know how they had actually been killed?"

Lois shook her head. "But he did tell me something else interesting."

"What?"

"The evening Lex gave fifty thousand dollar to Perry, he had gone on to meet with Cole afterwards. Apparently, Cole had been hopping mad because Luthor hadn't shown up with his payment."

"A fifty thousand dollar payment?"

Lois nodded.

"So what are you saying? That Luthor gave the wrong envelope to the wrong man?"

"Well, you did say he was also carrying a cheque made payable to the Metropolis Literary Society for five thousand dollars."

"Uhh... I don't know, Lois. That doesn't seem like the type of mistake Luthor would make. Surely he would notice the bulky envelope when he handed it to Perry."

"Do you have a better explanation?"

"Maybe," Clark said, thinking hard.

"Well?"

Clark shook his head. "It's just on the tip of my tongue, but I can't quite make it come into focus. Why don't you tell me the rest of your story? Maybe it will come back to me while you're talking."

Lois nodded. "Okay, well, later that night, we all met up again at Perry's."

***

"How could Carpenter sanction a story based on such flimsy evidence?" Perry asked when Lois finished filling them in on what she'd stolen from Kent.

"Well, they also had your altered bank records," Henderson said.

"True, still..." Perry clicked his tongue against the top of his mouth thoughtfully. "No, there's something else going on here, something we haven't found yet."

"I do have something else that might help," Lois said before filling them in on what she'd found out from Wolcott.

"Well, that matches with what I found," Henderson said.

"Which is?" Cat asked.

"As I told Lois this morning, after finding out that Lois hadn't asked Cole to contact me, I got suspicious. So I did a bit of digging into his finances. He's had some major influxes of cash lately. What Lois doesn't know is that after she left the station today, I called an expert from Metropolis U. to look at Cole's analysis of the radiation that killed all those men pulled out of Hobbs Bay."

"And?" Lois asked, leaning forward in her chair.

"Well, he said the radiation didn't match S-126."

"Did he have an alternate theory?" Lois asked. "Because when I questioned Dr. Klein, he said S-126 is the only substance currently being tested at Star Labs that's radioactive."

"Oh, yeah. He had a theory."

"Where were they killed?" Perry asked.

"According to my expert, the most likely place is the Lexcorp Nuclear Power Plant."

"So what were a bunch of Star Labs employees doing to get themselves killed by radiation at the Lexcorp Nuclear Power Plant?" Lois asked.

Henderson shrugged. "Maybe they were murdered to convince the world of the dangers of S-126."

"Are you suggesting that Lex murdered a whole bunch of Star Labs employees just to discredit S-126?" Cat asked.

"Now, I didn't say that," Henderson responded immediately. "There is nothing to link Luthor to this particular incident. And I suspect that given enough time, Luthor will be kind enough to lead us to some sacrificial lamb who will take the fall for this."

"And Lex will walk away, free and clear," Perry said. "Why do I get the feeling that you aren't overly surprised by this?"

"I've been investigating Luthor for years," Henderson said. "But I've never even gotten close to him."

"Maybe this time will be different."

"Maybe," Henderson conceded, although his tone indicated just how little he believed that.

"Still, none of this exonerates Perry," Alice said.

"Jimmy, how did you make out with those bank records?" Perry asked.

"Not very well. The person who did this was good -- better than I am with a computer."

"So that's a dead end?"

"Not exactly. Computer geeks get to know each other over time. And even if they don't exactly know each other, they at least know about each other."

"And one such person works at the Bank of Metropolis?" Lois asked.

"Not exactly. But I checked in with some of my hacker buddies, trying to figure out whose work this might be. And they had a name." Jimmy gave a dramatic pause. "Eric Press!" When everyone just continued to look at him blankly, Jimmy continued. "He's like the Michael Jordan of hackers."

"Then we've got to talk to him," Lois said excitedly.

"Already done," Cat said, looking very much as if she'd just eaten the canary as she pulled a small cassette tape out of her purse.

"You?" Lois asked in disbelief.

"Lois, I can get any man to talk," Cat responded, her tone of voice conveying the method she'd used to get him to achieve her goal.

"So what did he have to say for himself?" Perry asked.

"Well, I pretended I was a computer geek groupie. It wasn't long before he was bragging to me about every hack job or computer trick he'd ever done. Soon he was spilling his guts about the job he'd done a couple days ago -- altering Perry's bank accounts. He even told me how he did it. When I left he was too hot and bothered to worry about what he'd told me."

"Once I had that information," Jimmy said. "I was able to emulate his style, back track his work and prove that the records were altered."

"Was Luthor the one who commissioned this?" Henderson asked.

Cat shook her head. "No. He claimed Preston Carpenter paid him for the work."

"I don't understand," Alice said. "I thought Luthor was behind this."

"Unless Carpenter and Luthor are working together," Jack said.

Perry shook his head. "I doubt it. Luthor and Carpenter have gone head-to-head too many times to trust each other enough to work together on something like this."

"So how does it all fit together?" Lois asked, only to be met by silence. "So what did you find, Perry?" she finally asked.

"I spent most of the day contacting sources. Nothing. Then I contacted a couple of friends I have on the Planet's board, trying to find out who had tipped them off about the story. They didn't know."

"That's where I came in," Jack said. "Perry called me and asked me to see what I could find on the other board members."

"I needed some leverage. And I figured with Jack's low profile, he could follow some of the board members, see if he could find any thing I could use."

"And did he?" Lois asked.

Jack smiled. "It seems Simon Truesdale had a sudden attack of conscience. He's now willing to confess that he received a phone call from Preston Carpenter, informing him of the story."

"So it was Carpenter..."

"Well, that's not exactly all he had to say. Apparently, after the story broke, he received a substantial cash inducement to hire Claude. And that money came from Luthor."

"Any particular reason for Truesdale's sudden attack of conscience?" Jimmy asked.

"It might be related to a certain video tape he's hoping his wife never receives."

"Poor woman," Perry said.

"Not after the divorce settlement," Jack said.

Lois gave Jack a swat across the back of his head. "Still, the pieces don't fit. If they aren't working together..." She gave her head a shake. "Well, at least we have what we need to get Perry cleared."

"So when are you coming back to work?" Cat asked. "Even I'm not sure how much longer I can stomach Claude as editor."

"I'm not," Perry said.

"What?" The question was gasped by every employee of the Daily Planet present.

"We don't show our hand until we get the whole story."

"So we need to find the connection between Lex and Carpenter," Lois said in frustration.

"Any ideas on how we do that?" Jack asked a completely silent room.

***

"Wait!" Clark said. "I think I remember what was evading me earlier."

"Is it relevant here?"

"I think so," Clark said. "I had to work that Saturday. Anyway, at one point I decided to go talk to Carpenter. I don't know why, but something just didn't feel right about this story. Maybe it was knowing how thrilled Carpenter was to bring down Perry. Maybe it was a result of the run-in I had with you. Anyway, for whatever reason, I felt as if I had missed something. I was just approaching the door to his office when..."

***

Clark stopped, hand raised to knock, when he heard voices coming from inside. Maybe now was not the best time to talk to Carpenter. He was about to leave when he stopped in his tracks.

"Congratulations, Preston. You did what you set out to do. It's only a matter of time now before the Daily Planet is ripe for takeover -- without White to guide it."

The voice penetrated through the barriers which normally prevented Clark from listening in on other people's conversations -- as if somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew this conversation was important.

"Yes, it was a stroke of good luck when Kent and King came to me with that story."

"Of course, you coming up with those phony bank accounts wasn't exactly luck."

Carpenter laughed. "Yes, that was a brilliant idea. After all, the very idea that Perry White could be bought... I knew there had to be some mistake as soon as I saw their evidence. But taking advantage of the situation is one of the reasons that I will win."

"You are a man of vision."

"No. I'm a man of action. Remember Charles Foster Kane?"

"Of course."

"My idol, although he was only a movie character. I have, however, devoted my time to becoming the genuine article."

"Aren't you already?"

"Not quite. You see, Kane not only reported the news, he made it. He set out an agenda for the country, then had his papers promote that agenda. And the country followed. Soon I'll have that kind of power. Soon.

"I was even able to use the opportunity to take a shot at Luthor. Not that it will bring LNN down. But it's just a matter of time before I manage that, too."

Clark backed slowly away from the door. He had been used. Lane had been right.

He turned, the elevators in his sights. He had to get out of there. He had to make this right.

A few minutes later, he was on the roof of Lex towers. What he'd overheard the last time he'd been at Luthor's penthouse had told him that Luthor was somehow manipulating the news at the Daily Planet. But if it wasn't Perry White, who was it?

No one was in Luthor's office at the moment. Clark x-rayed the building until he found what he was looking for. In the waste basket in the office adjoining Luthor's penthouse office was the transmitter that was disguised as a pen.

A quick check showed that the balcony door was unlocked. A moment and a rush of wind later, the pen was situated on a shelf near Luthor's desk. And Clark was attaching the speaker to the tape recorder. If Luthor hadn't been giving White a fifty thousand dollar bribe, what exactly had he been doing?

***

"But we already know why Lex gave Perry the money," Lois said.

"You did. I didn't. But that's not why I'm telling you this part of the story." Clark took a deep breath. "Anyway, I sat on that roof for hours before Luthor showed up. I guess that must have been during the time that he was at your place. He finally arrived with Nigel. I watched the activity through the roof, even as the tape recorder captured every word."

***

Clark had to admit, he didn't understand half of what Luthor and his assistant were talking about. Certainly nothing about Perry White or S-126.

Of course, Clark had found it interesting when Luthor mentioned having had his office swept for bugs. Obviously, he'd realized that someone had overheard a private conversation. Equally as obvious was that he hadn't, at the time, swept Mrs. Cox's office for bugs. If he had, he'd have found the pen. "Trying to save a few bucks, Luthor?" Clark quietly whispered. Well, hopefully that would be the man's downfall.

Still, it had been over an hour now since Luthor had returned to his penthouse. Clark sighed. How much longer before...

Suddenly Clark sat up a bit straighter.

"Congratulations on Perry White, by the way," Nigel said.

"Now... what makes you think I had anything to do with that?"

"When I found out that Perry White had been fired, I knew that you had to be involved," Nigel said.

Luthor chuckled. "Perry White has been a thorn in my side for years now. A man who can't be bought is of no use to me. I mean, I'd found a way around it, Nigel. I'd charmed Lois Lane enough to get inside information on the Planet's investigations when required. Still, to finally be rid of White..." Luthor held a cigar to his lips. "Life is sweet, Nigel. Life is sweet."

Nigel immediately stepped forward and held a flame to light his master's cigar. "So how'd you do it?"

"Well, it was actually something of a lucky happenstance. I knew Carpenter has been trying to bring down the Daily Planet." He looked at his employee. "It helps to keep informed, Nigel."

"Just so, sir. So how did you take advantage of that?"

"Two reporters from The Star showed up here, nosing around for an interview. I had a meeting with Perry later in the evening. When I saw the same two reporters there, I knew I was being followed. So I made an impulsive decision. Turned out it was the right one. A little more expensive than I would have liked, but..."

"How so, sir?"

"I had two envelopes on me. One was a cheque for five thousand dollars for Perry's pet charity. The second was a fifty thousand dollar cash payment for Jefferson Cole. I just gave Perry the fifty thousand dollars. As I suspected, the reporters stayed behind to find out what was in the envelope. I let Carpenter take it from there -- knowing that when he got the story, he'd find a way to juice it up for use against Perry."

"Brilliant, sir."

"It was, wasn't it. Sun Tzu said 'When the enemy gives you an opening, be swift as a hare and he will be unable to withstand you.' And now, as a result of my quick thinking, there's an editor in place at the Planet who has much more expensive tastes than Perry White."

"And what about Ms. Lane, sir?"

"It's only a matter of time, given the hostility between Lois and her new editor, before she's nothing more than a footnote in the history of the Daily Planet. So I ended my relationship with her tonight. I had planned something a little more... satisfying for our final date. Unfortunately, Lois was not inclined to cooperate. Not that it matters. After all, I have no further need for Lois Lane."

Clark sat back, staring up at the stars. He'd been used. First, by Carpenter. Now by Luthor. And yet, what did he do with this information? It wasn't as if Carpenter would ever agree to run this story. In fact, Clark had no doubt that Carpenter would find a way to bury it.

***

"Why didn't you come over with it right away. I mean, if you got it on Saturday night..." Lois asked.

"Well, it was late -- very late. And at first, I was too distressed about what I'd discovered. I'd been used, Lois. Not only by Carpenter on some crazy quest to become some sort of new-age Kane, but also by Luthor. I felt like a total fool. And coming to you like that..." He shook his head. "Besides, I knew that what I had on tape would hurt you, too. After all, Luthor's comments about you... I was sort of afraid that you'd blame me for bringing it to you. Anyway, by Sunday, I had finally worked up the nerve to talk to you about it."

"I remember," Lois said, reaching out to give his hand a squeeze.

***

Lois was as tired as she could ever remember being as she removed the keys to her apartment from her purse. And to think that tomorrow she was going to have to get up and go into work -- only to report to Claude.

Damn!

Why did Perry have to insist on getting the whole story before clearing his name? Surely he could come back now, and then they could work together to get the rest of the story. Okay, so maybe both Carpenter and Lex would scurry for cover if they discovered that Perry was on to them. But so what? The important thing here was to clear Perry and get rid of Claude.

"Lane?"

Lois jumped at the sound of a man saying her name. She spun around to confront the intruder standing in the hallway. Kent? She let out a breath. This was just what she didn't need right now. Where had he come from anyway? He'd appeared so silently that she hadn't had any warning. Well, he was keeping his distance so... maybe she could get rid of him quickly.

"What do you want?" she asked. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she noted that Kent seemed to flinch away from the anger in her voice. Well, too bad. She'd made her feelings about him all too clear a couple of nights ago. If he didn't have the good sense to stay away, that was his problem.

"Look. I know I'm probably the last person in the world you want to see right now..."

"You think?"

Ignoring the biting sarcasm in her words, he continued to speak. "...but we need to talk."

She rolled her eyes, turning towards her door to continue unlocking it. "Sorry, Kent. I think we've pretty much said all we have to say to each other." She stepped inside her apartment and had begun closing the door on her unwelcome guest when he continued.

"I've got the evidence you need to clear Perry White!"

She stopped and then, slowly opened the door again, just far enough to stand in the doorway, regarding him leerily. Was he just trying to find out how much she knew? "What makes you think that we don't already have the evidence necessary to clear Perry?"

"You don't have this."

"Okay, so what do you have?"

Kent looked around the hallway. "Can we talk inside?"

Lois stared at him for a long moment. As much as she might hate it, he was right. The hallway of her building probably was hardly the place for this conversation. Especially if he really did have information for her -- which, in her mind, was still a very large question. She hesitated for a moment more before, without inviting him in, turning and walking into her apartment, leaving the door open behind her.

As expected, he followed her through, closing the door softly behind him.

She turned, facing him just inside her apartment, arms folded across her chest.

"First, let me say that you were right and I was wrong. And I'm so sorry for..."

"Just tell me what you have, Kent. I don't have all night," she said, still not sure if he was on the level with her or not.

He shut his mouth before giving her a brief nod. "Okay, yesterday, I overheard a conversation where Preston Carpenter admitted to doctoring the numbers in Mr. White's bank account to make Linda and I believe that he had taken money from Luthor on various occasions," Clark said.

"Okay, fine. I already knew that but thanks for telling me," Lois said. "Now... if you don't mind... it's late."

"Wait! There's something else. After I heard the conversation, it made me wonder what Luthor was really up to. So I went back to Lex Towers and I bugged his penthouse office." Kent removed a small cassette tape from his pocket. "I think you might want to listen to this."

Lois fought the impulse to jump towards him and snatch the tape from his hand. Instead, she stepped slowly forward, holding out her hand casually. He placed it in her hand and for a moment skin contacted skin.

Lois had to fight the urge to jerk away at the spark of electricity that seemed to jump between them. Instead, she simply took the tape and stepped back again. "Thanks."

He looked as if he wanted to say something else, but after a moment, he turned back to the door. With his hand on the door, he turned to look at her one final time before simply nodding and stepping out the door. Without saying goodbye, she closed the door behind him, fighting to get the trembling in her limbs under control.

It took a few deep breaths but finally she was able to walk over to the kitchen table. Immediately removing her tape recorder from her purse, she inserted the tape.

A few minutes later, she was sitting at the table staring blankly into space. Kent wasn't the only one who had been a dupe. Lex had used her just as surely as he had used Kent. Still, now was not the time to get lost in self-pity.

Getting up, she made her way to the phone. A few minutes later, her feelings of depression were alleviated by Perry's yell of "Hot damn!" It was practically loud enough to wake the dead.

"So how did you get this, honey?" he finally asked.

"Well, actually..."

"Oh, hell. I don't care," Perry said. "Just tell me you're sure it's real."

Lois thought about that for a moment before realizing that she was. "Yes, Perry. It's real."

"Then I'll see you in the morning," Perry said excitedly before yelling his wife's name.

Lois couldn't help but smile as she hung up the phone. As she got ready for bed, she thought about the tape again. She would tell Perry where the tape came from in the morning. After all, even if there was no future for her and Kent, she at least owed him that much.

***

"So did you? Tell Perry, I mean?" Clark asked.

Lois nodded as she thought back to that time.

***

Lois cautiously knocked on the door to Perry's office, for once waiting to be invited before walking through.

"Hey, darlin', what's going on?"

She fiddled nervously with her hands. "I just... Well, I think you need to know where I got that tape of Lex."

"What did you do?"

"No. No. Not me. I mean... when I got home last night... Clark Kent was waiting for me."

Perry sprung to his feet. "You got the tape from Kent? Hell, honey, you should have told me this before. There's no way any evidence from that man can be trusted."

"I believe it's valid, Perry. I was skeptical, but... Well, I had an encounter with Lex that backs up what's on that tape."

Perry walked to the door, closing it quietly before turning back to Lois. "What happened?"

"Well, among other things. Lex indicated that I could lose my job, just like you had lost yours. It was a threat, Perry. I have no problems believing that he was at least partially responsible for setting you up."

Perry ran his hand through his hair, growling slightly under his breath. "Okay, well, that certainly backs up what was on the tape. But still... why would Kent do that? What's in it for him?"

"I think he felt as if he'd been used."

"Used? After what he did to you, how can you even say that? That man doesn't get used. He's a user."

***

"What I did to you?" Clark asked.

Lois shrugged. "I guess he could have been talking about you blowing my cover on a couple of stories."

"Is that what you think?"

Lois hesitated for a moment before shaking her head. "No, I think there's more there, but... I'm sorry. I just don't know what it is."

"So... what happened then?"

***

Lois didn't respond. After all, she couldn't deny that Perry had a point.

"And anyway... Why bring it to you? Why not write it up for his own paper -- or, if Carpenter wouldn't run it, take it somewhere else? He could do it as an anonymous source. Could probably even make some money from it. Why give it to us?

"No, that boy wants something. He's trying to ingratiate himself to us. The idea that he would do this out of some sort of late blooming sense of integrity... No. No. No. It doesn't make any sense. This tape is some sort of attempt to get us to let down our guard. Some sort of Trojan Horse. He wants us to trust him. Why? Nothing to our good, I can assure you.

"Besides... even if he was the sole of integrity, which we know he isn't, the damage he's done to my reputation can't be undone. People will remember the scandal, not the retraction."

***

Clark sighed. "Well, I guess we knew that Perry still doesn't like me so..."

"I like you."

Clark smiled.

"But I have to admit, Clark. He did make me wonder. I mean, you seemed interested in... starting something with me. And I guess I sort of found myself wondering if you gave me the tape as a way to... I don't know. Seduce me, or something. It would explain why you came to me instead of writing it up for another publication." She studied her fingernails, ashamed that she could ever have believed such a thing of this honorable man. "I'm sorry."

"Hey, it's okay," he said softly, rescuing one of her hands so that he could lightly stroke the tension out of it. "So do you remember what happened after I gave you the tape? How did Perry get his job back?"

Lois nodded. "Perry contacted one of the board members, one he trusted, and gave him a copy of our evidence. Perry was immediately reinstated. We ran the story. Of course, there wasn't enough against Claude to legitimately fire him. After all, all Lex had said was that Claude had more expensive tastes than Perry." She thought for a moment. "Our only real problem was that we didn't have any evidence of illegal conduct by either Lex or Carpenter. I mean, it's not illegal to lie to the public. Tabloids do it all the time. Nor is it illegal to pay someone to lie to the press.

"Of course, had the claims been true against Perry, Perry could probably have been charged -- fraud against an employer. But Carpenter owned The Star -- so there was no fraud. Perry could, of course, have sued both Lex and Carpenter, but... he decided it wasn't worth the effort. Both of them had deep pockets. And Perry didn't want to be tied up with lawyers for years and years. Besides, it would drag the issue out. And in the end, it would only make more people aware of the allegations -- not the verdict.

"But there was one final consequence of the story," Lois continued. "Carpenter was still running The Star, still looking for a way to destroy the Daily Planet. And that's why Perry called a meeting in the conference room..."

***

"All right, people. Listen up," Perry said, causing everyone crowded into the conference room to fall silent. "As of this moment, The Daily Planet and The Star are at war. Anyone caught fraternizing with the enemy better have their resume all polished up and ready to go, because you'll be fired and singing Heartbreak Hotel quicker than the King can tune his guitar. Do I make myself clear?"

There was a general muttering of acknowledgment around the room.

"Do I make myself clear?" Perry said again, this time louder.

His audience responded in kind.

"Good. Because I'm not fooling here, folks. Any Daily Planet employee caught as much as giving a Star employee a pen at a press conference is gone." With that final warning, Perry turned and stormed out of the room.

***

"I went by the Daily Planet later that day to try to apologize to Perry," Clark said.

"I remember. I was there when he threw you out."

"I saw you." He gave her a sad smile. "Do you remember anything else?"

Lois nodded. "A few days later, the manager of the Lexcorp Nuclear Plant committed suicide. His suicide note said that he'd killed himself because he could no longer live with the guilt of killing all those Star Labs employees."

"I remember that. He claimed that he'd killed them hoping that it would discredit S-126 -- afraid that if there was free power, he'd lose his job."

"So Henderson was right and Lex did give us a sacrificial lamb to take the fall for the Hobbs Bay deaths."

"Do you remember what happened to Jefferson Cole?"

Lois nodded. "Cole was fired from his job and discredited in the scientific community. But he didn't go to jail."

"Do you think that means he doesn't try to frame you for murder?"

Lois shrugged. "Who knows. But I also remember that Star Labs quit working with S-126. Apparently, they discovered that there wasn't enough of it in Smallville... and it hadn't been found anywhere else, to make converting it to a usable source of power financially feasible."

"So Luthor killed, or had killed, all those people to discredit S-126 and it was completely unnecessary?"

"Seems so. Anyway, if they decided that it wasn't practical to develop kryptonite into a power source, that might not be a bad thing."

"There is one final thing I remember about that time," Clark said.

"What?" Lois asked.

***

Clark had to try one final time. He fiddled with the zipper on his jacket as he waited on the street outside her apartment. He wasn't entirely sure what he was going to say. Not that he hadn't tried to find the right words, words that would get her to forgive him. She'd said when this whole thing had started that she was beginning to think that she might have misjudged him. And given the pain she'd seen in her eyes when she'd walked out of his apartment that night, he was almost convinced that she had feelings for him.

Surely if she had feelings for him, they could work past this. But... how did he get her to take that first step? What could he say that would reach her?

He saw a taxi pull up in front of her building and watched as Lane stepped out. He rushed across the street, his foot hitting the first step to her apartment building as her hand landed on the door handle.

"Lane," he said softly.

She stopped, but didn't turn towards him. He could hear her heartbeat speed up and knew she had heard him.

"Please, talk to me," Clark begged when she didn't move to enter her building. "I'm so sorry about everything. Please, give me another chance. I really think we could have something special if you'd just give me a chance."

For a moment, she rested her head against the doorframe. "I'm sorry. I can't," she whispered in a voice so soft that he knew he wasn't meant to hear her. Then, without as much as looking in his direction, she opened the door and stepped inside.

Clark closed his eyes as a tear slid slowly down his cheek. It was over. It was really over.**

***

"I could really do with some supper," Clark said, leaning back in his chair. It felt as if he'd just lived through the nine stages of hell -- all in the course of the last few hours. Judging by the strained expression on his wife's face, she felt the same. Reliving these hard times in their past... No, not their past. This past. This distorted version of the past, perhaps. But never their past. But it was starting to get difficult to keep things straight in his mind.

"Yeah. I could use a break, too," Lois said. "The last few hours have been a little..."

"Emotional?"

She gave him a tired smile. "Yeah. But once we eat, I think we have to keep going. I just can't stop worrying about Vicky."

Clark drew a deep breath at the mention of his daughter. She was right. For Vicky's sake, they had to keep going -- no matter how difficult it was. "Okay, why don't I fly back to my apartment and get the sandwiches Mom made for us?" He rose to his feet.

"Wait!"

"What?"

"There's no Superman in this reality."

"Oh, right. Well, don't worry, I can fly fast enough when I don't have a passenger to be almost..."

"...invisible, right. Just be sure you don't vaporize Martha's brownies on the way back."

Clark smiled, leaning over to give his wife a kiss before turning to leave the room.

***

When Clark returned, he found Lois still in the conference room, bent over her computer screen reading intently.

"Find something?" he asked as he set their supper on the table.

"Yeah. Take a look at this." She scrolled back to the beginning of the story so that he could see what she was referring to.

On the screen in front of him was what appeared to be a wedding photo. Mr. and Mrs. Lex Luthor. Luthor himself was looking as cocky as ever. The woman next to him, who didn't appear to be more than eighteen -- if that -- looked terrified.

"I remember something about this," she said softly.

"What?"

She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she struggled to get a grip on the memory. "I'm not sure."

"Wait a minute! Wasn't she the one who brought Luthor down?"

Lois' expression cleared. "Right. Of course. Yeah. Apparently she wasn't too thrilled with being Mrs. Lex Luthor. Started working with Henderson shortly after she and Lex got back from their honeymoon. If I recall correctly, Lex never even saw it coming."

Lois and Clark both shared a smile.

"Yeah, I remember the siege that took place at Lex Towers -- when the police tried to bring him in. It was the first time I'd seen you since that night at your apartment."

Lois nodded as she thought back.

***

Lois knew Kent had joined the crowd of press outside Lex Towers almost the instant he stepped out of the taxi. It had been almost two months since Perry had been reinstated, two months during which time she had thrown herself into her work, refusing to think about Kent.

But for some reason, that didn't stop the dreams. It didn't stop the cold emptiness that came to her when she woke in the middle of the night to find that she was alone.

What was she doing? She was supposed to be here to cover the fall of the House of Luthor -- not mooning over a man she could never have, never really trust. He was still the enemy. And in the last two months, Perry's stance had not wavered. Even if she personally might have been willing to forgive Kent, there was no point. She would not risk her job for a 'maybe' -- and a wobbly maybe at best. No man was worth that.

She pushed back the feeling of cold as she directed her eyes up towards the penthouse, as if by looking up she could see what was going on inside.

It was supposed to have been a quiet arrest. No crowds. No press. Just arrest Luthor quickly before the press was even aware it was happening. But Lex had taken hostages and soon the whole thing was out of control. And now... media circus was probably the best way to describe the situation. In fact, she might use that expression in her article.

In the corner of her eye, she could see Kent begin to shift from foot to foot, even as he stared intently up at the top floor of Lex Towers. If she hadn't known better, she could almost imagine that he was watching the action inside. His increased agitation was obvious, as if things weren't going well. And then... He took off, around the corner of the building.

"What?" she asked, taking a couple steps towards the alley where he had disappeared. Had he found another way in -- another way to get to the action inside?

"Look!" someone shouted.

Lois' attention was diverted from Kent's unusual disappearance by the sight of everyone looking at the penthouse balcony. Was that a man standing on the ledge? Seeing one of her colleagues using a pair of binoculars, she quickly stepped forward, swiping them from the startled man's hand to get a look at the balcony herself.

"Hey, Lane! What do you think you're doing?"

She stared upwards through the device. Yes. A man was definitely standing on the ledge surrounding the balcony, swinging his arms around.

The man whose binoculars she had stolen gave up to look back at the balcony, not wanting to miss the action, when the crowd suddenly gasped.

She pulled in a sharp breath, thinking the man was falling off the balcony, only to suddenly realize that although he was going over, he was falling onto the balcony, and into the clutches of the waiting police.

A gasp of relief or disappointment, Lois couldn't tell which, went up from the watching crowd. And suddenly, Kent was back, standing with the rest of the reporters, acting as if he'd been there the whole time. Where had he gone? What was he trying to hide?

She looked over at him and for a moment their eyes met. He looked startled and then... his face softened, looking as if it was about to relax into a friendly smile in her direction. She looked away.

No. The last thing she needed to do right now was to encourage him in any way. They were rivals, and that was the way it was going to stay. Perry was right. Being friends with someone from a competing paper was bad news. Especially Clark Kent.

"Ladies and Gentlemen."

Lois' attention was directed back to the front of the building by a police officer addressing the crowd.

"We now have Lex Luthor in custody," the officer said. "He did give us a bit of a problem, even threatened to commit suicide, jumping up on the balcony ledge. But he must have changed his mind because he jumped in the wrong direction and we were able to easily detain him."

Just then, cameras began to flash and reporters began to chatter excitedly as the doors of the building opened and Henderson and company escorted Lex Luthor out of the building.

Lois almost gasped at the change in Lex. He no longer looked like the calm self-assured man she knew. He looked half wild, yelling at the people directing him towards the waiting police car.

"God pushed me down onto that balcony. He saved me. You saw it. How can you not believe? I have God on my side. I am the new messiah."

Lois' eyebrows rose as she watched Lex forced into the back seat of the police car. Whatever had happened on that balcony, it had obviously caused Lex to lose his mind.

***

"You pushed him, didn't you? That's what you did when you went around the side of the building," Lois said.

Clark nodded. "He was about to jump. I couldn't let it happen."

Lois studied him for a moment before nodding. To Clark, a life was a life. And every life was precious -- even that of Lex Luthor.

"And here I thought you must have rushed around the building to relieve yourself."

"What?" Clark gasped.

She shrugged. "You seemed to be shifting around a lot before you left and yet were fine when you returned and so I just thought..."

"...that I slipped into an alley to relieve myself?"

Lois shrugged. "Well, hey, better that than me guessing the truth. I hate to think what I might have done with it."

END OF SEASON ONE

***

Chapter Twenty-One

"So tell me something," Lois asked. "Why did you continue to work for Preston Carpenter after that?"

Clark shrugged. "I considered quitting. But... who was to say that my next boss would be any better? I'd worked all over the world and... I guess I just know that most people have... flexible ethics."

"And I thought you were the one who always thought the best of people."

"I might think everyone has some good in them, but I'm not naive. But I can tell you that I started checking facts and sources all that much more carefully after that. I wasn't going to be used like that again. In fact..." His voice trailed off.

Lois suddenly realized that she'd lost Clark's attention. He had his head cocked to the side in that manner she knew so well -- the manner that said someone was in trouble.

"What?" she asked.

"Mugging," Clark said, jumping to his feet. "I've got to..."

Suddenly, his voice trailed off. She was shocked when he slumped back into his seat, looking dejected.

"Clark?"

"I can't go. There is no Superman." He ran a hand through his hair in irritation, obviously still bothered by the sounds he was hearing. "How do I do it?" he asked. "In this reality, how can I stand to sit idly by while people need my help?"

"I think we've already established that you still find ways to help. Can't you do that now?"

His eyes suddenly lit up and in a flash he was gone.

She leaned back in her chair and sighed. He'd be careful. She knew he would. But he was right. This screwed up reality needed a Superman, at least as much as hers ever had. Besides, she knew if they were here much longer... She'd already noticed him get fidgety several times today.

"We've really got to get this mess straightened out," she said to herself, turning her attention back to her computer screen. As she did, she reached into the bag Clark had brought back a few minutes earlier to withdraw a sandwich.

The next story she came across didn't spark any relevant memories. Apparently, Arianna Carlin had gone after the new Mrs. Luthor. Lois had managed to stop Arianna and get the story. A quick look at Clark's computer informed Lois there was no matching story in the Star.

"What are you smiling about?" Clark said as he reentered the room, carrying two cups of coffee.

"Nothing," Lois said immediately, scrolling down past the story quickly. She stopped on the next story and had to smile once again.

"Okay, so what's going on?" Clark asked, coming over to get a look at the headline. "Uhh... You got the Lenny Stokes story."

"I also got the Arianna Carlin story." She couldn't resist the playful dig.

Clark raised his coffee cup in tribute. "To paraphrase Churchillian rhetoric: across the havoc of war, I salute a great opponent."

Lois' eyes narrowed as she looked at him. A moment later, she was kneeling before him as her hands cupped his face. "We're not opponents, Clark. We're not rivals," she said intently. "You work at the Daily Planet. You're my partner, my best friend, my lover, my husband and the father of my child. We're partners, Clark -- in every sense of that word."

Clark blinked at her heartfelt outburst. "I just meant..."

"You're having the same problem I am, aren't you? Keeping things straight in your mind."

He let out a breath and nodded.

"Clark, we have to keep things straight. I can't be your enemy. I just can't."

He placed his coffee on the table and reached out taking her hands. "I could never be your enemy, Lois. No matter how messed up things are in this altered reality. You have to know that."

Lois closed her eyes for a moment, before nodding.

"So we keep working. We get Vicky back. We get our lives back," Clark said softly. "Okay, so you got the Lenny Stokes story. What's next?"

Lois rose to her feet, taking a seat again in front of her computer. She was about to scroll on when she suddenly stopped. "Wait! The Lenny Stokes story. That's when the Kerth nominations came out, isn't it?"

"Yeah."

"Well... I remember something about that."

"Is it relevant?"

"Maybe," Lois said before beginning her story.

***

Perry was on a rampage. Not an unusual state of affairs these days. But today's rampage was even more intense than normal. The Kerth nominations had come out and for the first time since she'd been eligible, Lois' name had not been on the list.

On the other hand, Clark Kent's name had been. Since the list had first been posted, she'd listened to comments about how that scum-bag didn't deserve it -- usually followed by comments about how she should have been nominated instead. At first, she'd found herself tending to agree. But as the days passed, it just got old. And constantly being reminded that she hadn't been nominated herself wasn't helping much either.

Besides, she'd read Kent's piece on the retirement home scandal. It was good, solid work -- heavy on facts and yet at the same time, conveying a lot of emotion. Not that anyone else at the Daily Planet would agree with her. Nor would she ever admit it to any of them.

Still, with the ceremony happening tonight, the rhetoric had gotten worse. How Kent couldn't tell a story if it jumped up and bit him. How he'd probably stolen the story and should be investigated. How, instead of getting a Kerth nomination, he should be thrown out of the reporter's guild for the falsehoods he'd written about Perry White.

"Tough break."

Lois looked up to see Ralph leaning across her desk.

"What is it?"

"About Kent getting the nomination," he said. "I suspect you'll be feeling a little depressed tonight. Isn't it the first time you haven't been invited to the ceremony?"

Lois was tempted to thank him for reminding her, but she held her tongue. Although, had Ralph been smart, he'd have recognized the warning in her eyes.

Instead, he leaned closer to her. "So... how about spending the evening with me?"

Had he actually wiggled his eyebrows at her on that last question? Disgusted, she rose to her feet. "I don't think so," she said, nauseated. It was definitely time to get out of here if Ralph was trying to take advantage of the situation.

"Hey, come on," he said as she walked away. "I know this great little place where they have mud wrestling. Beats out the Kerth ceremony for entertainment any day of the week. Hey, you might even like to be one of the contestants. I think you'd be great at it. They take walk-ins."

As Lois stepped into the elevator on her way out of the newsroom, she briefly pondered the ethics of Ralphicide.

By the time she arrived at her apartment, however, the depression Ralph had predicted was beginning to settle in. Was she losing her edge? Okay, so maybe she'd been the one to break the last two big stories, but not even to get a nod of recognition with a Kerth nomination...

She stepped over to the fridge, taking a carton of ice cream out of the freezer. After getting a spoon, she settled into a chair at her kitchen table. How had Kent managed to snag her nomination? What if he won? How had this travesty happened?

She stopped herself in mid-thought. Was she really petty enough to degrade his story just because he had received the nod instead of her? Everyone else at the Daily Planet seemed to feel he didn't deserve it. She knew that. After all, they'd spent the past few days telling her so.

But Kent had written a great article. He deserved that nomination. She knew that.

The real problem wasn't his nomination. The real problem was that in spite of all her efforts, in spite of throwing herself into her work for the past couple of months, all it had taken was seeing his name on the nomination list to bring back all her memories of him. Memories of his face. Memories of how it felt to kiss him. Memories of them rolling around on his bed, clothing absent. The sound of his voice. The way he smelled. The way he held her. The way his hands felt against her skin.

Well, ice cream wasn't helping. Getting up, she stuck it, spoon and all, back in the freezer. Maybe a walk would help. She grabbed a jacket, put on her shoes and ambled towards the door.

She could still remember his voice when he'd come to her apartment, begging her to give him a second chance. Or was that a first chance? But what had he expected of her? To risk her job, her career, everything that was important in her life for a relationship that didn't have a prayer of working?

She didn't trust him. It really was as simple as that. So, hormones aside, what chance was there for a relationship between them?

She passed a department store and stopped when she saw a television playing in the window. The local news, obviously. She was just about to move on when she stopped in her tracks. She recognized many of the people who could now be seen on the screen -- although seldom were they dressed so elegantly. Television coverage of the Kerth awards.

Her breath caught in her throat when she saw Kent. Damn! Who would have guessed he could look so good in a tux? Suddenly, thoughts of tearing that tux off him, slowly, piece by piece were running through her mind. A moment later, the scene changed to the newscaster. Lois' mouth snapped shut and she looked around self-consciously before moving on, images of Kent in a tux -- or out -- burned into her retinas.

How she ended up at the flower shop, she had no idea. Her mind had found a way to amuse itself during the trip. Not that she had any reason for being at a flower shop, but now that she was... She decided to stop and smell the flowers. It had been far too long since she'd done that.

She was just starting to relax, enjoying the tranquility that could be found surrounded by the sight and smell of the multi-colored flowers, when her eyes caught sight of a television playing silently behind the counter. A different newscast was playing. But it too was showing images of the Kerth awards.

How had this happened? Why wasn't she there? How on Earth had Kent gotten a nomination?

She was doing it again -- being petty. "He wrote a great story," she said to herself. "He deserves the nomination."

"Can I help you?"

Lois spun around to see a woman standing there, waiting for her response.

***

Clark was nodding slowly as she fell silent.

"What?" Lois asked.

"It's just... I was wondering how that came about."

"What came about?"

Clark leaned over, giving her a quick kiss before beginning his story.

***

Clark felt unaccountably depressed as he ambled up the steps to his apartment. He'd just won his first Kerth. He should be ecstatic.

Oh, he knew what the problem was, of course. He'd been so excited when looking forward to tonight. His first Kerth nomination. He hadn't expected to win, of course. But it wasn't the ceremony that had him excited. It was the dance he'd been told would follow -- and the prospect that Lane might be there and maybe, if he was really lucky, he'd get her to agree to dance with him.

He'd figured that maybe enough time had passed now that she wouldn't be quite so angry with him over the whole Perry/Luthor incident. He'd even deliberately avoided Linda's hints that she'd love to be his date, preferring to go alone -- just so that he could be sure he would be free when he finally had his chance to ask Lane to dance.

But Lane hadn't been there. He'd seen a contingent from the Daily Planet, of course. But the only person that mattered to Clark hadn't been there.

None of it seemed all that important if she wasn't part of it. It was crazy, he knew, but he kept wondering what it might be like if she had been his date. He could almost see her hanging on his arm decoratively, fawning appropriately and then just fading into the background during his big moment. She would have been beautiful, yet invisible.

He stopped half way up the steps to his apartment. Where had that idea come from? That wasn't Lane. She didn't hang on anyone's arm, she didn't fawn and he couldn't see her fading into the background in a room full of bathing suit models. And he wouldn't want her to. She was a powerhouse. And that was what he found so attractive.

He let out a breath. What did it matter what she would have been like as a date? It wasn't as if he was ever going to find out.

He arrived on the top step when something lying on the doorstep caught his eye. A flower? He bent over, picking it up.

Opening the door, he stepped inside and wandered into the kitchen. Placing the flower on the counter, he turned his attention to the accompanying card.

'Congratulations.'

He crinkled his eyebrows for a moment as he turned the card over in his hands. No name? Suddenly, he froze. It couldn't be. Or... maybe it could.

New excitement was in the air as he rushed to his secret closet, almost tearing the door off its hinges in his effort to open it. He grabbed the note Lane had left when she'd snuck out of his apartment in the middle of the night.

"Yes!" The writing matched. Suddenly, he had the feeling he'd been waiting to have when he won the Kerth. It was like standing on the top of the world.

***

"I really hate this," Lois said.

"What?"

"I was supposed to be at the Kerth ceremony with you. Not leaving flowers with unsigned notes on your doorstep."

"It was only one flower, honey. And one note."

"You know what I mean. How much longer before we get this straightened out?"

Clark left his seat, sitting down on the table next to her chair. "Do you want to quit for the night?"

"No!" she said emphatically. She glanced at the clock. It was getting late. "Look, let's just see how much further we can get. Then we can go back to my place."

"Why your place? You've never even seen it."

She shrugged. "Curiosity, maybe." She didn't mention that seeing her apartment might, at last, relieve the worst of her fears -- that she was married. But it was time to find out. "Maybe it will help jog some other memories. Besides, I'm really going to need a change of clothes for tomorrow."

Clark nodded. "Okay, so what's next?"

Lois scrolled through the articles on her computer, Clark watching. He knew he should be looking at his own computer, but he wanted to stay with Lois for the moment. She was right. These memories and the accompanying feeling that they were rivals were tearing him apart, too.

"Hey, I've got something," she said, looking up at him.

Clark took his eyes off her to look at her screen and together they read the next three headlines that had her byline on it.

'Scandal At Viologic,' by Lois Lane.

'Planet Informer Murdered. Reporter Linked,' by Lois Lane.

'Financier Tied To Attempt On Governor's Life,' by Lois Lane.

"The story where I thought I got my source murdered," Lois said softly.

"I remember this. Everyone was talking."

"I can imagine."

Clark looked at her sympathetically.

"It's okay, Clark. It isn't real, remember. Or... well, it was. Except then I had you with me to help me through it. Except..."

"What?" he asked when she didn't continue.

She held up her hand, trying to get a grip on the memory pulling at her brain.

"What?" Clark asked again.

"I can remember after I was fired... I was so depressed. I'd spent the entire evening on the phone, contacting all my sources. None of them would talk to me. I was the reporter who had gotten her source killed..."

***

He'd hung up? He'd actually hung up on her! Letting out a primitive yell, she flung the phone across the room. She felt somewhat better. Still, it wasn't enough. Her rolodex followed the phone, sending a shower of white cards all around the room.

Oh, yeah. That felt good. Spotting the papers on her desk, she rushed over, using her arms to sweep the desk clean, scattering papers all over the floor. Still not satiated, she kicked her wastebasket across the room.

Finally, she collapsed into a chair, feeling emotionally numb. Perry had fired her. Okay, so he'd called it a suspension, but she knew what that meant. He'd said he had no choice. Her source was dead. She could no longer prove the truth of her story about Viologic. And the Daily Planet lawyers were breathing down Perry's neck.

Still... how could Perry have done that to her? Didn't he know that the Daily Planet was all she had? Without it, who was she?

A knock on the door to her apartment brought her head up. Maybe all was not lost. Maybe one of her sources had come by with some good news.

She rushed for the door, throwing it open only to stare in shock at the man standing on the other side.

"Kent," she whispered, suddenly lost in a pair of soft brown eyes.

***

Chapter Twenty-Two

What was he doing here? Had he heard? Of course he'd heard. Every reporter in the city was undoubtedly talking about it. So what was he doing here? Wanting to take advantage of her vulnerable situation no doubt.

"I'm not going to sleep with you," she said. Had she thought it through, she might not have said it. But he hadn't given her time to prepare.

He looked dumbfound. "Uhh... Okay." He blinked. "Well, I'm glad we got that sorted out."

She stared at him in disbelief for a moment. Suddenly the absurdity of what she'd said hit her and one corner of her mouth twitched. She quickly turned her back to him, hoping to fight off the giggle that threatened to erupt.

"Lane, are you all right?" he asked from behind.

She wrapped her hands around her middle as her whole body shook with silent laughter. It wasn't that funny. It really wasn't. But she was so dreadfully tired and frustrated. Add to that the stress of the day and her own guilt over getting Stuart Hofferman killed.

"I'm so sorry," Kent said, stepping closer.

She laughed harder and a noise, something like a sob, escaped from the back of her throat.

"I didn't mean to make you cry. I'll just... go now. And... I'm sorry."

"No," Lois managed to get out, turning around to face him as she struggled to get the laughter under control.

"I... Wait a minute! Are you laughing?"

Lois burst out laughing again when she saw the incredulity on his face. The laughter soon turned to hiccoughs and then... tears welled up in her eyes. The following sob took her by surprise.

Kent was suddenly pulling her into his arms. The feel of the soft flannel shirt he was wearing felt good under her cheek. His arms holding her close felt comforting. A first sob was followed by a second and his arms tightened around her. He smelled so good, so familiar. It felt so right to be in his arms.

"I'm still not going to sleep with you," she mumbled against his chest.

She could feel him smile.

"Glad for the clarification," he said into her hair.

They stood that way for a moment more before Lois finally pulled back. She couldn't quite look him in the eye. How could she have done that? Shown vulnerability to the enemy. She cleared her throat and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "So I take it you heard about my suspension," she said, trying not to sound as embarrassed as she felt about her breakdown.

"Yes. I just wanted to know if there was anything I can do to help."

She snorted. "Right."

She looked up, startled when he took her by the arms, forcing her to look at him. "You are the best reporter in Metropolis. Your work is important to the people of this city. You're a brilliant, passionate journalist with a great head on your shoulders. Adversity's never stopped you before. Don't let it start now."

Tears welled up in Lois' eyes.

"So... what can I do?"

Very slowly, Lois' hand came up to Kent's chest. She could feel the light beating of his heart beneath the flannel. Her eyes rested on her hand for a moment, before she looked up into his eyes. "I think you just did it," she whispered.

His expression softened. "Lane..."

Lois immediately pulled back when she heard the longing in his voice. She cleared her throat, dispelling the intimate atmosphere that had descended around them. "Look, Kent... I do appreciate you coming by. I do. It meant..." She paused, making sure she had eye contact before continuing. "...a lot to me. But this is a problem I think I've got to work through for myself."

Kent let out a breath, before nodding. He opened his mouth as if he would say more and then seemed to change his mind.

She was grateful. He'd obviously realized that the last thing she needed right now was any more sympathy -- or worse, for him to use this moment to remind her of the strange connection between them. Just one more thing she couldn't deal with right now.

She was vulnerable. And right now, it wouldn't take much for him to convince her to go to bed with him -- proving the irony of her words to him. Surely he knew that.

Still, he walked to the door. Once he had it opened, he turned back to her. "If you think of anything I can do to help, please let me know."

She nodded, even as she knew that she would never take him up on that offer. Still, when the door closed behind him, she found herself wishing that she could. For some reason she couldn't explain, the walls she'd always kept around her heart didn't seem to exist when he was around. He could step through her defenses as if they were made of paper. He made her both vulnerable and powerful all in the same moment.

She was grateful to him that he hadn't tried to parlay her vulnerability into... something. It wouldn't have taken much, after all.

And yet... How was that possible, given what she knew about the man, given the havoc his actions had already inflicted in her life? No. No, she was not going to think about that now. She didn't have time. Right now, she had work to do.

Straightening her shoulders, she turned and walked into the kitchen. Time to quit thinking like a victim and start thinking like a reporter.

***

"I want to thank you for that," Lois said. "It was just the boost I needed. Once I'd got over feeling sorry for myself, I realized that I'd been duped. My source wasn't dead. He just wanted me to believe he was dead."

"And..." Clark pointed at the headline on the screen. "You obviously got the story."

She smiled.

"Anyway, I can remember," Clark continued, "when I walked home that night, I felt as if I was walking on air. You'd forgiven me. I mean, you hadn't said it. But..." He shrugged.

"Yeah. I guess I had. Not that I was prepared to risk my heart -- or take on Perry for something that could never be. In spite of your... honorable behavior in not taking advantage of... the situation, I wasn't sure I could trust you not to break my heart. But as far as the whole Perry debacle... I guess you bringing me the final piece of evidence we needed to clear Perry made the difference.

"Besides, I realized after listening to that tape that I'd been duped, too. Lex used me just as much... or maybe even more than he'd used you."

"But I don't get it," Clark said. "If you forgave me, then why aren't we together in this reality? Why have my parents never heard of you?"

Lois let out a breath. "Maybe it will make sense later. So what's next?"

They both turned their attention back to their computers.

"The Prankster," Lois said a moment later.

Clark looked over from his computer. "I suppose it makes sense that you got that story. After all, he was somewhat obsessed with you."

"Somewhat?" Lois shifted uncomfortably in her chair. "Anyway, I doubt there's anything there. So why don't we just..."

"Lois, what is it? You're remembering something, aren't you?"

"Nothing important, Clark. So why don't we just see..."

"Lo-is."

Lois let out a breath.

"Come on, Lois. Talk to me."

"Okay. Okay," Lois finally conceded. "It's just... Well, looking back I feel a little foolish."

"Foolish?"

Lois raised her eyebrows and then, taking a deep breath began her story.

***

The cocktail party was in full force. Modern paintings hung on the wall and modern sculptures littered the room. Tuxedo clad men and women wearing stunning gowns wandered around, sipping the champagne which was being served on silver trays, commenting on the various pieces of art.

Lois stopped in front of a large sculpture which appeared to be made of old car parts. The plaque adorning the front said: 'Mother and Daughter.'

"I know this is supposed to be art," Jimmy said after examining it for a moment. "But to me, it just looks like a big car wreck."

Lois looked over at him, disgusted.

"I don't see a mother or a daughter," Jack commented.

"You guys don't get it," Lois said. "You have to open your mind to the artist's inner feelings."

Perry, who had been carefully examining the sculpture from every possible angle finally spoke. "Hey! Wait a minute!" he exclaimed excitedly. "You know, if you tilt your head to the right and squint your eyes a little bit, you can just about make out Elvis' profile."

Having expected some great insight from her boss, Lois rolled her eyes, even as Jimmy and Jack attempted to see what Perry was seeing.

"I don't see it, Chief," Jack said.

"Oh, yeah, yeah," Perry continued. "Look... between these two hubcaps here and that upside down speedometer."

Jack and Jimmy moved over, looking carefully.

"Oh, yeah," Jimmy said. "Maybe the fat Elvis."

"Why do I even try," Lois said, watching her companions. "Art to you guys is prints of those poker playing dogs."

"Oh, I love those," Perry responded. "Did you ever see the one with the two dogs in the bar throwing darts?"

Lois shook her head, amused. These guys really were a hopeless cause.

Just then, a man came up behind Lois, carrying a large wrapped box.

"Lois Lane?" he asked.

"Yes?"

"This is for you." He handed her the box and walked away.

"Who's it from?" Jimmy asked.

"I have no idea," Lois said, carrying the box over to a nearby table. Removing the card from the top, she opened it, reading silently. 'Dear Lois, Please forgive me but my feelings for you run deep...' She quickly closed the card when it suddenly occurred to her who had sent the gift. "Look, maybe I'd best open this in private."

Jack instantly snatched the card out of her hand.

Lois froze as Jack danced away from her and began reading the card. If it was from who she thought, she was going to have a lot of explaining to do.

"Dear Lois," Jack said. "Please forgive me, but my feelings for you run deep and I'm too shy to tell you in person. But I want the world to know that whenever I think of you my heart sings." Jack gave a dramatic sigh, placing his hand over his heart as if truly moved.

"Who's it from?" Perry asked.

Lois held her breath as she waited for the name that she knew was coming. Kent.

***

"Wait a minute! You thought that stupid Pavarotti Jack-in-the-box was from me?" Clark asked in disbelief.

"Told you it was foolish," Lois said, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear. "Anyway, when Jack said it was from a secret admirer, I was relieved. I still thought it was from you, but at least you had the good sense to keep our business... our business."

"So what did you think when the singing Jack-in-the-box malfunctioned, practically bursting eardrums? Still, think it was from me?"

She shrugged slightly, avoiding looking at him.

"What about the diamond ring? Did you think that was from me, too?"

Again she shrugged.

"I'm surprised you ended up getting the story," Clark said.

"I almost didn't. I mean, Perry kept pushing me to investigate. I told him I didn't think my secret admirer was story material."

"So what changed your mind?"

Lois looked at him for a moment before speaking again.

***

Lois looked around nervously before knocking on the door. She'd been rehearsing what she was going to say all the way over. It had to stop. And she was going to make sure it did.

A moment later, the door opened and Kent stood in the doorway.

"Lane?" he asked. "What brings you by?" He looked excited to see her. Obviously he was hoping that the gifts had finally brought her around.

"As if you don't know," she said, walking into his apartment. With one final glance backwards to be sure no one had seen her arrive, she closed the door.

"Okay, I give. What exactly am I'm supposed to know?"

"The gifts, Kent. You've got to stop sending gifts to me at work. Do you have any idea how many problems you could cause me?" She began to pace. "Look, I know you think you've got feelings for me. But you just have to give it up. It's never going to work. You should know that better than anyone. I'm sure if you try, you can find some nice girl. You're an... okay looking guy. There must be someone desperate enough to..."

"Gee, thanks, Lane."

She let out a breath. "I just want the gifts to stop."

"I don't know what gifts you're talking about. I haven't sent you any gifts."

"Don't play games with me, Kent. It's not funny."

"I'm not trying to be funny. I didn't send you any gifts."

Lois opened her mouth before closing it again. Could she have been wrong? Oh, god, what if she was wrong? And suddenly, she knew she was. She could see it in his eyes. He had no idea what she was talking about.

"Okay, then," Lois said turning around and dashing out the door.

She heard him call her name but she didn't stop. How could she have made such a fool of herself? But if he wasn't her secret admirer, who was?

***

"So that's when I started working on the story. Or, well, I guess it was what happened after I left your place that got me working on the story. I had a car accident."

"You had a car accident?"

"I came around the corner and hit a strip of road that was slicked up with some sort of chemical."

"And because I wasn't with you, you couldn't get the car stopped."

She studied him for a moment. "You really did drag your foot along the street to stop the car, didn't you?"

He nodded.

She let out a breath. "You know, it still amazes me that I didn't make the connection between you and Superman sooner. I mean, there were just so many clues." She gave her head a shake.

"Wait a minute. In our reality, when you were afraid of the Prankster, you ended up spending the night at my place. But I have no recollection of it in this reality. So... what happened?"

"That's because I stayed with Perry," Lois said. "Coming to you... Well, there were all sorts of reasons I couldn't do that. I mean, I guess I knew that you would keep me safe. But between the fact that I was desperately trying not to have feelings for you and the fact that I had just completely humiliated myself in front of you..." She shrugged. "Anyway, like I said, I don't think there's anything more to this story that will help us sort out this mess. What about you? Did you find anything?"

"Maybe..." Clark gestured to his computer. "It seems I got the story about Baby Rage."

Lois glanced back at her computer, scrolling through it quickly. "I got a similar story. But... no mention of Intergang. Although there is an indication that someone might be behind the vandalism."

"Yeah. That's pretty much how my story goes, too. But then, we didn't nail Intergang with this story in our reality, either."

"True. But how did you get on to the Baby Rage story? I mean, I know I did because I was down at Uncle Mike's restaurant when Baby Rage tried to burn it down. Wait a minute! Superman stopped Baby Rage. So... what happened this time?"

"Well, I can remember being down on the Southside, trying to figure out why there had been a sudden decline in property prices," Clark said before beginning his story.

***

Clark looked in disbelief at the number of storefronts that had been boarded up. He'd been on this street only a couple of months before. Shops and restaurants had been popping up all over the place and excitement was in the air -- a belief that they were about to become one of the newest 'hot spots' in Metropolis.

This was quite a change. Spotting a quaint little bistro on the other side of the street, Clark walked towards it. Opening the door, he stepped inside and then did a double-take. Maybe he'd missed the closed sign. After all, it was the middle of the day and there was no one there.

"Hello?" he called.

A moment later, a man appeared. "Yes?"

"Are you open?"

The man looked shocked. "Oh, sorry. I've been working on a new creation in the back. Chocolate torte in raspberry sauce. And... well, you're the first customer I've had today. Please, let me show you to a table."

"Oh... uh... Okay," He had just eaten lunch, but... "I'm the first customer you've had today?"

"Yes, but please. I'm sure it's not a reflection of the food. Or... at least I hope not. I'll make you a deal. If it's no good, I won't even charge you."

"I'm sure it will be fine. Uh... you mentioned something about a chocolate torte in raspberry sauce?"

The man smiled. "Oh, good choice." He gestured around the restaurant. "I'll let you find a seat and be right back. Do you want anything to drink with that?"

"A glass of milk, please."

"One chocolate torte and one glass of milk coming up."

By the time Clark was settled in a booth, the man had returned. "Tell me, sir..."

"Mike," Mike corrected. "Sorry, but I'm a former Marine and... well, I was a sergeant. Being called 'sir' sort of sticks in my craw."

"Mike, I'm Clark. So tell me... I was down here a couple months ago and the neighborhood was really taking off. And yet now..."

"The neighborhood is going through some sort of... transition. Getting more... eclectic. Kinda like Saigon without the jets."

Clark raised his eyebrows.

"Anyway, try the torte. I want to know what you think of it."

Clark took a bite, his eyes widening. "This is good. I mean, this is really good."

Mike smiled. "Glad you like it."

Clark gestured Mike to a chair. "So what do you mean when you say that the neighborhood is going through a transition?"

Twenty minutes later, Clark had learned a lot -- about offers to sell, gang violence and what appeared to be organized vandalism. From there, Clark and Mike had found themselves talking about other subjects. Mike brought out two more pieces of torte and they were both laughing and eating when...

"Uncle Mike?"

Clark looked towards the door when he heard the woman calling to Mike. His mouth dropped open and he had to remind himself to close it. She had not yet spotted him, her eyes being focused on the man she'd called 'Uncle Mike.'

"Lois," Mike said, joining Lane just inside the door. His arm around Lane, he directed her back to where Clark was seated. "This is my niece," Mike said, "Lois Lane. And, Lois, this is..."

"You," Lane said in disbelief.

"Hi, Lane."

"You two know each other?" Mike asked.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Lois asked.

"Lois!" Mike said. "He's the first customer I've had all day. Don't scare him off."

Lane looked torn. "Sorry, Uncle Mike."

"So you're her uncle? Her real uncle?"

"As if you didn't know," Lane said. In spite of the harsh words, her tone suggested a question rather than an accusation.

"I didn't," Clark said, holding his hands out in a gesture of openness.

"Clark was just asking me about the number of businesses that have closed their doors around here," Mike said. "And, of course, enjoying a piece of chocolate torte."

Lane's eyes narrowed as she glanced towards the window onto the dilapidated street. "He was, was he?" she asked thoughtfully.

"Yeah."

"Uncle Mike, could I have a piece of torte?" Lane suddenly asked.

"Certainly," Mike said, taking the hint and going to the kitchen immediately.

Lane watched until he was gone, before turning back to Clark, dropping onto the chair across from him.

"Honestly, I didn't know he was your uncle."

She waved off his comment. "It's just... If anyone saw you here..."

"They'd what? Think you and I were involved?" He rolled his eyes. "You know something, Lane. You really know how to boost a guy's ego."

"I didn't mean it like that."

"Then what did you mean? Sounds to me as if the mere thought of someone thinking we are involved makes you ashamed."

"No, it's just..."

"Here's your torte," Mike said, setting another piece in front of Lane.

Lane suddenly looked frustrated, as if she really had wanted to explain to him why she was so paranoid about people getting the impression they were together.

"So what exactly were you telling Kent here -- about the decline of the street?" Lois asked her uncle.

Mike shrugged, joining the two of them at the table. "I've been approached with an offer to sell. From what I've heard a lot of others have, too. Most of them have already sold out. But I like this spot. I'm not going anywhere."

Clark raised his fork to take another bite of torte when a blob of raspberry sauce dribbled off and hit his tie. Quickly, he picked up a napkin, attempting to remove it. Great. Just the impression he was hoping to make on Lane -- as a man who didn't know how to feed himself.

"Better get some water on that," Lane said. Then, realizing what she'd said, brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "I just meant..."

"No, you're right," Clark responded, rising to his feet. "I'll just..." He gestured towards the bathrooms before walking in that direction.

"Remember," Lane called after him, "dab, don't wipe."

He turned back around and meeting her eyes, gave her an amused smile. She shrugged in return.

He felt like whistling as he turned back to the bathrooms. He sort of liked it when she fussed over him. It almost made him think she cared. Probably an illusion, because half the time she seemed ashamed at the mere thought that anyone might think they even knew each other.

Suddenly, his superhearing kicked in as Mike said...

"I like him. I think he likes you."

"Uncle Mike, don't," Lane pleaded.

"Why not? How long has it been since you dated anyone? And those showcase dates you used to go on with Luthor don't count."

"I'm not looking for a relationship. I've got to get settled in my job, first."

"And how many Kerths do you have to win before you feel... settled? Lois, you need a good man in your life. And not for the reasons you're thinking, so don't give me that look. I'm not trying to get you married off so that you'll settle down and stay in the kitchen. Although..." He glanced back towards his kitchen. "...I'm still not sure why you have such an aversion to the kitchen. But I know it's not your thing. And I know you'd never give up your job. But something tells me that a man like Clark wouldn't expect you to."

"Uncle Mike," Lane begged.

"I know," Mike said. "None of my business. But you're my niece; I worry about you. There's more to life than work. Spend some time in a war zone, and you'll know what I mean. Besides, I guess I figure that with Sam and Ellen the way they are... I just hate to see you all alone."

Lane reached a hand across the table to lay it on her uncle's arm. "I've got you. And Lucy." At her uncle's look, she continued. "I know you worry, but I'm fine. And Kent..." She glanced towards the doors to the bathroom. "I shouldn't like him, but I sort of do. It's just... complicated."

A slow smile spread across Clark's face. Had she really just told her uncle that she liked him -- or, well, sort of liked him? His smile faded slightly. Then why did she always act as if she was ashamed to be seen with him, as if she didn't want him around, didn't want him sending gifts... Of course, given everything that had happened... Really. She shouldn't like him at all. Before he had time to dwell on the paradox, something in the corner of his eye caught Clark's attention. A young man, in gang colors and wearing a black toque was setting a box in the doorway. Suddenly, the box burst into flame while the young man stood there, a satisfied grin on his face.

Clark darted outside and the kid ran. Clark looked around, making sure he was alone, before kicking the box out into the street where it could continue to burn harmlessly and then, using a discreet burst of superspeed, caught the kid just before Lane and her uncle appeared in the doorway.

"He was trying to burn your place down," Clark said, holding onto the still squirming kid.

***

"I remember what happened next," Lois said, taking over the story from Clark.

***

Lois glanced nervously at Kent as the two of them, together with Uncle Mike, walked up the steps to the police station. Although she didn't come to the police station on the southside very often, and hadn't for months now, it was entirely possible that someone here might recognize her and word of her being with Kent might get back to someone at the Planet.

She couldn't afford that. Since returning to work, Perry's position on fraternizing with Star employees had not slackened. If anything, it had gotten worse as time had gone on. The fact that Carpenter was still running the Star was obviously an irritant. So, Lois knew, was the fact that Kent still worked there. And given everything that had happened, Perry would certainly demand an explanation. She'd really rather not get into it. It would be... difficult.

Not that she was terribly worried about getting fired. If there was one thing she knew about Perry, he tended to be more bark than bite. Still, it was a fight she didn't need.

So as they stepped into the station, Lois hung back, trying to blend into the woodwork. Surely, Kent and her uncle could handle giving the information to the police.

She realized that Kent had noticed her attempt to be invisible and sent what she hoped was an apologetic smile his way. But still she continued to hang back, looking around the station from her discrete location, trying to see if she knew anyone in the vicinity.

Her eyebrows crinkled together as she took in the sight around her. What was this? A police station or a donut convention? No wonder it had taken so long for the police to show up and take the young man Kent had caught into custody. After all, they had to finish up the final takes for their donut commercial first.

A young blonde woman approached, looking very professional. Not a cop, obviously. A lawyer then? Lois expected the woman to move on past, and was surprised when she stopped directly in front of Uncle Mike.

"Which one of you is Mike Lane?" the woman asked. When Mike stepped forward, the woman held out her hand. "Mayson Drake, Deputy D.A."**

***

Chapter Twenty-Three

***

Lois was impressed that a woman as young and good looking as Drake was a deputy D.A. Drake addressed Mike, covering the basic information he had for her very competently. Then she turned to Kent.

"And you are?" Drake asked.

"Clark Kent. I was the one who caught the young man the police brought in."

Lois bristled slightly by the way Drake seemed to check Kent out while he was talking. Wait a minute! Was she actually playing with her hair? Well, so much for being professional! She was no longer even taking notes! Didn't Drake know she was there to get statements, not to flirt? And yet, Blondie didn't seem to know that as she moved closer to Kent, batting her eyelashes at him. Please!

When Blondie scribbled her home number on the back of a business card before handing it to Kent, telling him he should feel free to contact her day or night, Lois couldn't stand it any longer.

"Subtle," she mumbled under her breath.

The startled look Kent shot in Lois' direction made her shrink back further into the woodwork. Had she spoken louder than intended? No, no. Kent couldn't have heard her. She was just being paranoid.

Still, Lois was glad when Blondie finally decided that she had heard enough to press charges against the young man known as Baby Rage, and they could finally leave.

***

"You were jealous," Clark said when she finished.

"No I wasn't," Lois immediately objected. "I just... didn't like Mayson. I didn't in our reality and I don't in this one."

"And it had nothing whatsoever to do with me?"

"Nothing whatsoever."

"And calling her 'Blondie?'"

"Well, she's a blonde, isn't she?" Lois answered as innocently as possible.

When Clark raised his eyebrows, a grin quirked at the corners of her mouth. "Okay, so maybe there was a teensy-weensy part of me that was a tiny bit jealous."

Before Clark could respond, the door to the conference room opened. "Are you two still here?" Perry asked from the doorway.

Startled, Lois glanced up at the clock. It was almost eleven. "You're right, Chief," she said as she rose to her feet. "I guess the rest can wait until tomorrow."

"Hmph," Perry responded before looking sharply at Clark. After a moment, he turned, leaving the room without further comment.

Lois let out a breath. "Okay, well, I've been thinking," she said to Clark. "If I want to get into my apartment, I'm going to need my keys."

"And...?"

"Well, I want to have one more go at opening my locker."

"I thought you didn't know the number."

"I don't. But I've got an idea."

"Of course you do," Clark said affectionately.

Lois smiled.

"Tell you what, though," Clark continued. "Why don't I come with you? If your idea doesn't pan out, I'd be able to try every conceivable combination in a matter of seconds."

Lois nodded. "Good idea. At this time of night, the place should be empty. If my idea doesn't work, we can try your approach."

Clark nodded, getting up and grabbing his jacket. "Oh, and before we go check out your new apartment, why don't we stop by mine?"

"What for?"

"I'd like to pick up a change of clothes for tomorrow. It seems to me we pass Clinton on the way to Regina Street. At least, that should be the case unless something we did to the past changed the street names."

Lois gave him a swat as she moved to turn off her computer.

***

A few minutes later, Lois was pulling her spare keys from her locker, looking triumphant.

"So... what was the combination?"

"Well, before we mucked up the past, I use your birth date."

"And now..."

"I use your birth date." Giving him a smile, she turned and sashayed toward the locker room door, putting an extra little wiggle in her hips.

Clark stood there for a moment, staring after her in disbelief, before following. Well, he supposed that with a locker number like that, no one would guess her combination -- at least in this reality.

***

"I'll just be a minute," Clark said when he and Lois walked through the door to his apartment.

Lois hesitated on the top, lost in thought, even after Clark had jogged on down. There was something pulling at the edges of her brain.

She was still trying to piece it together when Clark returned.

"Ready to go?" he asked.

She waved him off as she continued to stare into the apartment.

"What?" Clark asked.

"I'm just..." She glanced back at the door and suddenly was again lost in memories.

***

They had to talk. This was crazy. She couldn't get involved with Kent. He had to know that. There was Perry's new rule, for one thing.

Not that Perry's rule would stop her if she believed there was a future with Kent.

But there wasn't. She knew that. She suspected Kent knew it too. Given that, he would certainly understand that, in spite of this weird connection that seemed to exist between them, there was no way she wanted to have to explain... anything to anyone. But that didn't mean she was 'ashamed' to be seen with him. It was just... easier this way.

She approached the door to his apartment and was just about to raise her hand to knock, when she caught sight of movement coming from inside. She looked through the window and froze.

Mayson Drake was inside. But that wasn't the worst part. The worst part was that she and Kent were kissing.

Tears stung at the corners of Lois' eyes as she hurried away. Obviously, she had been wrong. So had Uncle Mike. But then, what had she expected? Clark Kent had moved on. She should have known it would happen, should even be grateful. Maybe knowing that he was with someone else would keep this unrealistic, unhealthy pull she felt towards him at bay. Maybe in time she'd even stop fantasizing about him kissing her, holding her, making love to her. Maybe the next time she saw him this crazy sexual tension that seemed to fill the air whenever they were together would be gone.

Still, the mantra didn't help. For some inexplicable reason, she suddenly felt a little depressed -- as if she'd just lost something very precious to her, something that could have been wonderful.

***

"I also remember seeing you dancing with Mayson a day or so later."

"I saw you at that dance, too. I wanted to ask you. I just didn't know how."

She reached up, running the back of her fingers across his cheek. "It's just as well that you didn't. But when I saw you dancing with Mayson... I knew that it was over. You looked so happy."

Clark sighed. "Sometimes looks can be deceiving. So... are you ready to go?"

"Yeah, let's go take a look at this new apartment of mine. I wonder why I moved?"

***

The elevator trip up to the apartment had Lois and Clark looking at each other in disbelief. Did she really live there? And why had she moved? What if she opened the door to her apartment to find a husband waiting there? How would she explain Clark's presence to her husband? Or... more importantly, how would she explain her husband's presence to Clark?

The building was old, as was the elevator. They could see the floors between the slats as they rose. When they finally arrived on her floor, she looked around, searching for the number of her apartment. As there were only two, she found it easily enough.

"Could you just take a peek inside?" she asked nervously.

He pulled his glasses down his nose and did as she instructed.

"So...?"

"I think you should see for yourself."

"What's that supposed to mean?" she asked nervously.

"Just that... I think you should see it for yourself."

She stopped, grabbing his arm so that he looked over at her. "Just tell me... Is there any signs that I live with someone else?"

Clark's forehead knitted together. "Lois, you're not still wondering..."

"Just because I didn't marry Lex doesn't mean I didn't marry someone else." She wasn't quite able to meet his eyes.

"Lois, there's no sign of anyone else living in that apartment except you."

She let out a breath of relief, finally turning her attention to the door to her apartment. Still, her hand trembled slightly as she placed the key in the lock. Then, with all the care of someone handling a dangerous snake, Lois pushed open the door. Once it was fully open, she reached inside, flicking on the light, before stepping over the threshold.

"Wow!" she breathed softly.

"Wow!" Clark recited behind her.

It took a slight push from Clark to make her step further into the room. In spite of her misgivings about the building, the inside of the apartment was remarkable. Hardwood floors covered with several throw rugs. More an open concept than her previous apartment -- it took on something of the appearance of a large studio. One side had been made into a living room, with two comfortable couches placed strategically across from each other with a coffee table between them. They framed a fireplace. Only one thing was odd. The wallpaper on one wall seemed to run over onto the ceiling.

"I wonder what I was thinking when I did that," Lois said.

Intrigued, Clark walked into the living room, plopping himself down on one of the couches with a bounce. "Oh, yeah. Much better," he said, giving her a quick grin.

Lois blinked. There was something about that that was so familiar. But... what?

When nothing came, she continued to look around the apartment. In one corner was a kitchen nook, and the final space appeared to have been made into an office with... She stepped closer....a large punching bag. She tapped the bag with her hand. It seemed in this reality, she had found it necessary to have her own punching bag -- to work out her frustrations, no doubt. She suddenly had an image of herself, punching and kicking the bag with a ferocity that she hadn't felt in years -- not really since she and Clark had become friends.

Obviously, that was not the case here.

Leaving the boxing bag, she walked towards a door, through which she could see her double bed. She'd recognize that headboard anywhere. It seemed she hadn't changed everything when she'd moved. But it wasn't until she snuck a peek in her closet that she finally relaxed. No men's clothing! She closed her eyes, sighing in relief.

"Hey look at this?" Clark said, bringing her back into the main room. He had pushed open two wooden doors to reveal a large balcony. Following his lead, she walked to the balcony and looked outside. It seemed the building backed onto a park which, in the dead of night, showed no signs of life. In fact, it seemed quite dark and deserted.

"Great place for covert take-offs and landings," Clark said.

"Yeah," Lois responded, moving to stand on the balcony. What was it about that comment that was again pulling on the edges of her memories? Unable to bring it into focus, she sighed. Walking over to the railing surrounding the balcony, she stared out into the night. Suddenly, she shivered. She felt so cold. So alone.

The voice from behind was a welcome reminder that she was not.

"Hey, how about we check out what type of music you listen to in this reality?" Clark called.

Lois looked back at Clark to see him turning on her CD player. Soft, soulful music filled the room. She didn't recognize the song, but at the same time she did. A woman's voice suddenly filled the air, singing the heart-wrenching lyrics.

{*I always needed time on my own

I never thought I'd need you there when I cry

And the days feel like years when I'm alone

And the bed where you lie is made up on your side*}

{*When you walk away I count the steps that you take

Do you see how much I need you right now*}

{*When you're gone

The pieces of my heart are missing you

When you're gone

The face I came to know is missing too

When you're gone

The words I need to hear to always get me through the day and

make it ok

I miss you*}

{*I've never felt this way before

Everything that I do reminds me of you

And the clothes you left, they lie on the floor

And they smell just like you, I love the things that you do*}

No. Lois strode across the room, flicking off the CD with a sense of purpose that had Clark watching her, eyebrows raised. Suddenly, Lois felt a little foolish.

"Sorry, it's just... Well, I guess I just don't like that song very much." She looked at the CD case that was laying next to the player. "Avril Lavigne." She tossed the CD case aside. "Never heard of her." Turning, she looked at Clark. "Did you find it on the player? Or did you put it on?"

"It was on when I turned on the power."

Lois nodded slowly.

"What is it, Lois?" Clark asked.

She shook her head. "It's weird. It's like... I know this place. I have memories here. And at the same time, it's completely new, completely different."

Clark nodded, understanding what she meant. He was having some of the same feelings -- as if he knew this place. On the other hand, if he had been here before, even in this reality, it was likely at best a passing knowledge. Given that, he could only imagine what it was like for her.

He began casually opening cupboards and doors, stopping for a moment when he opened the door to the closet just inside the door. He pulled out an old Smallville Sweatshirt, turning and showing it to Lois.

"Guess you've been here before," Lois said half-heartedly.

"Guess so. Either that or you borrowed it for some reason." He quickly folded the sweatshirt back up and stuck it in the closet. "So... do you want to go back..." he asked. "Maybe spend the night at my apartment."

Lois shook her head, stepping up closer to him. "No. What I want... Clark, has it ever occurred to you that in this reality we aren't married?"

"All the time."

"No, I mean, have you thought about what that means?"

"What are you getting at, Lois? Are you thinking that I should go back to my apartment for the night? That we shouldn't be sleeping together?"

"No," she said with a slight growl in her voice as she sauntered ever closer. "That's not what I'm thinking at all." She slipped her arms around his neck. "I'm thinking about hot and steamy illicit sex. What are you thinking about?"

Clark gulped. "I'm thinking about pretty much the same thing," he said. And suddenly he could think of nothing else. His lips descended on hers.

The sweet taste of his kiss had Lois feeling lightheaded. She moaned as he pulled her closer, molding her body against his. Every nerve ending in her body felt as if it were on fire.

God, had she ever wanted Clark as much as she did right now?

It seemed as if he felt the same. His hands wound their way under her shirt, one of his hands running intimately up her body. She moaned, throwing her head back to push herself further into his hand even as she trusted him to catch her. He did. His lips left hers to trail hungrily up her neck, nibbling at her earlobe before working his way back down again.

Her leg slipped around his to pull them closer together. She buried her hands in his hair, running them through the dark, thick locks. It felt good, right between her fingers.

His lips came off her throat and he pulled back far enough to look into her eyes, breathing heavily. She gasped as she looked into his eyes, so dark they could almost be black. Fire leapt from them, sending a spark down her spine to spring to life in her belly.

He turned them, pushing her against the wall. Bringing his hand up, he began to pull open the buttons on her shirt. Once it hung open, he began working his way down her body until he was kneeling in front of her. She moaned, fisting her hands back into his hair as his lips trailed across her stomach.

"I want you," she whispered. "I want you so much it hurts."

He was standing in front of her an instant later. His mouth returned to hers immediately, seizing it with a new hunger. Bracing himself against the wall, his body came into intimate contact with hers until she could feel every shape and curve of his body. The rippling of his muscles, the pounding of his heart, the strength of his passion. She moaned, wrapping her arms around him and snaking her hands up under his shirt, wishing she knew a way to crawl inside his skin.

A moment later, she was in his arms as he strode towards the bedroom.

***

As Lois propped herself up on one arm to look at her sleeping lover, a slow smile crept across her face. Reaching out, she ran her finger lightly over his forehead and down the ridge of his nose before tracing his cheekbones and chin. He was so beautiful. The slight crinkle around the corners of his lips told her that her activities had not gone unnoticed. However, he didn't open his eyes. Instead, he relaxed quickly back into sleep.

As her mind relived the events of the past hour, she found herself wondering about the amount they had made love, and the intensity with which they had made love, since altering the past. Their sex life had always been good, wonderful even. In fact, Clark was the one who had taught her that making love could be as satisfying for a woman as it was for a man. Ironic when one considered that he'd been a virgin on their wedding night. Any of the other lovers she'd had, and admittedly, there hadn't been many, had much more experience than Clark. But with Clark... he put his entire heart and soul into every touch, every kiss. When he made love to her, he really was making love to her.

But still, making love wasn't something they did on a daily basis. Certainly not twice in one day after having made love the night before. After three plus years of marriage, their initial hunger had been somewhat satiated. Not that they loved each other less, but with their busy schedules at work and home, not to mention Superman's schedule and Vicky's schedule, sometimes cuddling up together in bed before getting a good night's sleep could be more satisfying than full blown sex. Knowing that the other was always there, could always be called upon for more, was often enough.

Part of it, at least for Lois, had been the result of knowing that she was loved so completely. She didn't need for him to touch her to feel he was making love to her these days. A loving word. The look of adoration in his eyes from across a room. Even a simple caress could leave her walking on clouds.

Not that she didn't enjoy making love with Clark anymore. In fact, she probably enjoyed it more. Their knowledge of each other's bodies, their comfort level in each other's presence and the feeling of freedom to express their desires to each other -- all of which could only come with years of marriage -- had made their love-making all that much more fulfilling -- even if it wasn't as frequent as in the early days of their marriage.

But tonight... There had been an intensity in their lovemaking. A need that had just had to be filled. Why? Why even now, did she have this desire to wake him up and start all over again?

It had to be connected with these memories they were having. The feelings of frustration she'd felt in sharing her various memories, and listening to his. The desire to be with him. The knowledge that she never would. The memories were so vivid, as were the feelings that had accompanied them. For some reason, those frustrations made her need for some sort of physical demonstration that he still loved her almost a physical pain.

So... what did it all mean? She wasn't sure. But she did wonder was how much more frustration it would take in this altered reality before something finally broke? How much more of this unresolved sexual tension could she handle before she finally gave in? And since in this reality, she knew they had not married, what would happen then?

"Hey, can't sleep?"

She glanced up from where she was watching her hand trace abstract patterns on his chest. Love well up inside her as she looked at him.

A slow smile slid onto his face as he read something in her expression -- another advantage of years of marriage. He knew what she was thinking these days almost before she did.

"Come here," he growled softly.

She didn't need a second invitation. This time their lovemaking was slow and deliberate as she explored his body with fresh eyes, as if seeing him for the first time.

***

Clark straightened out the kitchen at super speed after breakfast the following morning. When he finished, he looked at Lois who was still sitting at the table, intently studying a slightly crinkled piece of paper.

"What's that?" he asked, coming over to join her.

Without responding, she handed him the paper, leaning back in her chair and sighing.

He looked at the paper for a moment before beginning to read. "Things I need to remember. One. Clark Kent is my husband and I love him more than I thought it possible to love anyone. Whatever happens, don't let him get away." He glanced up at her before looking back at the paper. "Two. We have a beautiful little girl -- Vicky. She's the light of my life. Find a way back to her." He gestured to the paper. "Lois, what is this?"

"Things I don't want to forget."

"Have you? I mean, you do remember Vicky, right?" He looked slightly anxious.

She nodded. "But... what is going on here, Clark? I find myself remembering our past and... this past and... sometimes the lines seem to get a little blurry. I'm so afraid that..."

"Hey, hey, hey," Clark responded, dropping down to a crouch next to her chair. "We will figure this out, Lois. We will get her back."

She quickly forced back her tears. Now was not the time. There was still too much work to do. "Okay, so... Daily Planet?"

"Daily Planet," Clark responded.

***

Going into the Daily Planet was not nearly as earth-shattering for Clark as it had been the previous day. Oh, people still fell silent as he and Lois crossed the lobby. Same was true for the newsroom. But the muttered questions were absent. It seemed word had gotten around that he was, for some unknown reason, being allowed access to the Planet.

Once back in the conference room, they got to work immediately. It seemed that, although both of them had written a story about Ryan Wiley attempting to get control of a military satellite, Lois' story had more detail. Clark figured that made sense -- since she'd had the inside story on Ryan Wiley and Molly Flynn while Clark had not.

Lois had the next story -- Gangsters Rise and Fall In Metropolis.

"Wait a minute!" Clark said. "I don't get it. If there was no Superman, how did I manage to come back from the dead?"

"Don't you remember?" Lois asked before beginning her story.

***

Lois was frustrated. All dressed up, looking ready for an evening of gambling, she'd arrived at Johnny Hairdo's club. According to Bobby, Capone was leaning on Hairdo, demanding part of the action. The only problem was that without a password, she was having one hell of a time getting in. She'd tried every password she could think of, she'd even tried charming the doorman. Nothing had worked.

Suddenly, a car stopped outside the club and a good-looking older gentleman stepped out. Seeing her chance, she crossed the street.

"Excuse me," she said, causing the man to turn in her direction.

He looked her up and down, seeming to like what he saw. "Yes?" he asked.

"I assume you're going to Hairdo's club."

"Yes," he said, more cautiously now.

"Well, they changed the password since the last time I was here and I was wondering..."

The man's face lit up in a smile. "If I'd like to be your escort? Sure," he added to her nod. A minute later, she was wandering between slot machines and crap tables.

***

"Okay, we already know this part. Skip ahead to when Capone and friends made their appearance."

Lois nodded and skipped ahead in the story.

***

The door to the club burst open and Capone and friends crowded into the club, tommy guns at the ready. A short burst of gunfire filled the air. Bonnie and Clyde, who had apparently already been in the club, joined the gang.

"My apologies, ladies and gentlemen, for this little interruption," Capone began. "I just came by to announce that Georgie Hairdo has wisely decided to retire from the hospitality business." He took a drag on his cigar. "So from now on, this club belongs to Al Capone."

"Hey, Al," Dillinger said, looking directly at Lois, "how 'bout we make this little cutey our new head hostess."

Lois tried to ignore him, but still he stepped closer. "You know, I always was partial to a lady in red," Dillnger said, reaching out to run his hand down her cheek.

She turned her head and used her hand to deflect his touch.

"Hey, you might want to rethink your position," Dillinger said, reaching out and grabbing her.

"Hey!" Capone said. "Business before pleasure."

Looking disgusted, Dillinger stepped back, releasing Lois.

"Now... I'll be leaving my people in charge. So everyone... please enjoy the rest of your evening. Oh, and one final thing... The no-smoking rules for the club..." He took another puff on his cigar. "...consider them cancelled."

Capone gestured to Bonnie and Clyde who immediately moved to take over management while Capone prepared to leave.

Lois turned to make her escape when she felt Dillinger's hand on her arm, his grip painful. "Not so fast, doll. You're coming with us."

Lois looked around for Capone, hoping he would step in once again. But this time, he only smiled.

***

"Oh, god," Clark said. "I should have been there."

"No, Clark. It's not your fault. You couldn't have known I was going to be at that club or that Dillinger was going to take a fancy to me."

***

Chapter Twenty-Four

Clark let out a breath. "Okay, so what happened then?"

Lois chewed on her lower lip for a moment, before continuing.

***

Lois was forced through the door to a laboratory, Dillinger on her heels. Since Capone had wanted to dump the car, in case anyone had seen it, he didn't come in, leaving her alone with Romeo.

"Okay, doll. Let's see what you've got."

Lois took the invitation literally, kicking out at him. Her foot connected solidly against his chest and he stumbled back. Using the moment, she rushed for the door, grabbing onto the doorknob. However, she wasn't fast enough. He grabbed her from behind, lifting her still struggling body off the floor. She kicked back at him and scratched at his arms, but to no avail.

He responded to her attempts to escape by ramming her face first into the door. Undoubtedly hurting his arm in the process, but completely stunning her. She could hardly believe it when she actually saw stars -- just like in all those old cartoons.

"Okay, that's enough, bearcat," he breathed into her hair.

He turned around, tossing her onto the couch and was on top of her, tearing open her dress before she could regain her equilibrium. He was soon running his hand up her leg. He began to kiss her and she tasted blood as his teeth cut into her lip. It wasn't until she felt her nylons rip that she was again cognizant enough to realize exactly what was happening. His hand slid higher and she once again began to struggle.

A sudden opening of the door startled her. Momentarily distracted, Dillinger turned. Taking advantage of the situation, she slipped out from under him, dashing desperately for the door. Dillinger swore, rising to his feet just as she slipped past Capone.

"Let her go. We've got more important things to discuss than some dame," Capone said behind her.

Lois didn't take the time to find out whether Capone's orders had been followed. Instead, kicking off her high-heeled shoes, she kept running, hardly noticing the pain in her feet as she ran over stones and other rubbish on the sidewalk. Adrenalin and regular workouts kept her going until finally, dropping to her hands and knees on the pavement, she could go no longer.

At last, she looked back and let out a sigh of relief when she realized no one was following.

***

"Oh, thank god," Clark said softly. "When you started talking... I thought..." His voice trailed off.

"No, I wasn't raped. But it was close. Anyway, it was then that I realized that I was alone in a bad part of town with no purse and no money. But there was a payphone nearby, so I limped over and called 9-1-1 -- told them where Capone and his gang were hiding out. I guess Capone wasn't too concerned about me getting away because he didn't see women as much of a threat."

Clark reached over, giving her back a rub.

"Anyway, after I'd placed the phone call... Well, I really didn't feel like sticking around until the police showed up. I guess the adrenalin that had kept me going until then was starting to wear off. And I realized that my dress was pretty much a lost cause."

"I remember," Clark said, commencing his story.

***

"Lane?" Clark asked, taking in her appearance. Her nose and lip were bleeding. A large bruise was beginning to make itself known on her forehead and a large scratch ran down one cheek. Other scratches and bruises covered her arms. And as she stood there, she was holding her dress, such as it was, closed. "Come in," he said immediately stepping back to allow her to enter.

"I just... Your place was close and..." Her voice, normally so confident and in control, trembled and then broke completely.

"Hey, it's okay," Clark said, leaving her standing on the steps so that he could grab a blanket off his bed. A moment later, he had it wrapped around her.

***

"It's interesting, isn't it," Lois said, interrupting him. "How even in this screwed up version of reality, when I'm in trouble, I automatically turn to you. Even though I thought you were the enemy, I instinctively knew that if I came to you when I was in trouble, I'd be safe. It was as if, in some corner of my mind, you were my best friend."

"I'm glad," Clark said before continuing his story.

***

"Why don't you come in and have a seat? I'm going to get you something hot to drink."

Lane nodded, looking relieved about not having to explain as she began to hobble down the stairs into his apartment.

It was only then that Clark noticed her feet. She wasn't wearing shoes and the nylons on one foot had worn right through, leaving her foot bare. He instantly forgot about the hot drink, swinging her up into his arms to carry her to the couch.

His heart contracted when he heard her give a small sob before burying her face into his shirt.

"It's okay," he said automatically as he cradled her against him, although he found himself wondering if it really was. After all, there was one very logical explanation for her appearance. He could only hope he was wrong. Forcing himself not to panic, he set her gently down on the couch.

He was about to rise when, in a very small voice, she said, "Don't go."

Unable to resist her plea, he immediately sat down, pulling her back into his arms. She cried softly against him for a time. He responded by running his hands gently over her back and silently cursing whoever had done this to her.

It was a good time later before she began to calm. When she started to squirm in his arms, as if suddenly uncomfortable, he immediately released her.

"So how about I get you some hot chocolate?" he asked, rising to his feet. "It's cold out there. And if you've been running around..." He gestured towards her, not wanting to actually mention her ripped dress. "I figure you could use something hot. Or maybe you'd prefer some brandy or something." He didn't actually have brandy in the house, but if she wanted it, he'd make a super fast trip to get her some.

"Hot chocolate sounds good," she said without actually meeting his eyes.

He walked towards the kitchen. He just hoped that now that the breaking point had come and gone, she'd be willing to tell him what had happened. Because he had to know that she hadn't been violated in the way suggested by her torn clothing. He simply... had to know. Because if someone had raped her...

The mug he was holding crumbled in his hands.

"Is everything okay?" Lane asked from her spot on the couch -- obviously having heard the sound of breaking glass.

"Fine. I just broke a mug." He quickly dumped the remainder of the mug in the garbage, forcing himself to calm down enough to complete his task without further incident. He would know the situation soon enough. And then he'd help her deal with whatever had happened the best way he knew how.

"Thanks," she said when he finally returned with a mug of hot chocolate. She tasted it. "Mmm," she moaned appreciatively. "A friend in need is a friend indeed, but a friend with chocolate is better."

Clark smiled, crouching down in front of her.

She glanced at him over the rim of her mug. He was glad to see that some of the spark had returned to her eyes. "Sorry about..." She gestured to the wet spot on his t-shirt.

He glanced down to see what she was referring to before looking back at her. "Hey, any time a beautiful woman wants to cry on my chest, I'm not about to say no."

He'd meant it lightly, but by the serious look of contemplation on her face, he knew she was evaluating him. He only hoped he measured up to whatever standard she was judging him against.

"So do you want to tell me what happened?" he asked, remembering to keep his tone light.

She opened her mouth as if to respond, but then closed it again. "I can't."

He swallowed. It really had happened, hadn't it? That's why she couldn't talk about it. It was too painful to talk about -- especially to a man.

"I'm sorry, but... I was working on a story and... Well, you are the competition and..."

Clark let out a breath. Her reasons for not telling him was not because of what had happened, it was because she was concerned that he'd steal her story. "Lane, forget the story. I don't care about the story. It's just... your dress... Just tell me that you weren't..." His voice trailed off.

She looked at him for a moment, as if trying to fill in the remainder of his comment for herself. "Raped?" she finally asked.

He nodded, this time not quite able to look at her. She reached over, using her fingers to raise his chin.

"I wasn't raped, Kent," she said softly, as if understanding how important it was to him. "It was close, but no. I wasn't raped."

He closed his eyes and let out a breath of relief.

"Why do you care so much?" she finally asked, releasing his chin.

He struggled to find an answer. He loved her. He knew that in every fiber of his being. He'd known that single fact with absolute certainty when she'd been crying in his arms earlier. He would care about any woman getting raped, but her... He couldn't stand the thought of this strong and vibrant woman being abused in such a fashion.

But how to answer? He knew any declaration of love would be rejected.

"Isn't it enough to say that I care about you?" Clark answered.

She didn't look exactly satisfied, but still she nodded.

Clark cleared his throat and rose to his feet. "So what do you say I get you something to wear and then we can see what we can do about those injuries?"

"I have to call in the story. Is there somewhere..." She glanced around.

He immediately understood. She was looking for someway to make the call without him overhearing. He smiled. He'd known she was competitive, but this... She'd almost been raped. And still, she was after the story. He could hardly believe how much he loved her.

"Of course. Why don't I get you something to wear? Then you can take the phone into the bathroom to get dressed and make your call while you're in there." This plan would have the added benefit of giving him a chance to slip out and get some first aid supplies.

He walked over and picked up his cordless phone, handing it to her.

"Thanks, Kent," she said softly.

He nodded and left the room to collect a sweatshirt and his smallest pair of sweats.

***

"That wouldn't have happened to be a Smallville sweatshirt, would it?" Lois asked.

Clark thought about that for a moment before nodding.

"Damn!" Lois responded. "When you found that Smallville sweatshirt in my closet, for a moment I thought..."

"Me, too."

"Damn!" Lois repeated. She closed her eyes and let out a long, slow sigh. Why couldn't they get a break here? "Okay," she finally continued. "Go on with your story."

***

Lane looked adorable when she exited the bathroom in the too-large clothes. She had rolled up the legs of the sweats and was in the process of rolling up the sleeves of the shirt as she stepped back into the living room.

He watched as she hobbled over to the couch, sighing slightly as she sank onto it. She glanced up at him from under her eyelashes before looking back down. She seemed uncomfortable. Probably a little embarrassed for showing any sort of weakness in front of him.

Not that he thought less of her. No. In fact, he wasn't sure he'd ever admired her more. Attacked. Assaulted. Wounded. And still managing to escape and then calling in her story. Did she have any idea just how remarkable she was?

Still, it might be best if he just pretended he didn't realize her embarrassment and just got on with what needed to be done.

"How did you make out with your injuries?" he asked, carrying over some supplies. "Did you get them clean?" He'd heard the water running when she was in the bathroom.

"I think I got them cleaned out. But..." She shrugged.

"Here," he said, moving to his knees in front of her. "I've got an antiseptic." He gestured to her feet. "May I?"

***

"I remember this," Lois said, taking up the story from where he had left off.

***

She couldn't take her eyes off him as he gently picked up one foot after the other, gently applying the antiseptic cream. Whether it was the cream, or the sensuous picture he was presenting kneeling before her or even the way his hands felt on her feet... but she could hardly believe the heat beginning to rise in her as he gently tended to her injuries. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth.

From her feet, he moved on to her hands and arms. He said nothing. Nor did she. Choosing instead simply to watch him covertly through slitted eyes.

As he continued to tend to her wounds, she found herself marveling at the feelings he was creating in her. The touch of his hands was gentle and yet strong in way she couldn't quite explain. She couldn't believe how much she wanted him. Oh, she knew she shouldn't, of course. But there was a part of her that seemed drawn to him -- had always been drawn to him.

Without making a conscious decision to do so, she suddenly found herself fantasizing about his touching her for quite a different purpose. His hands wandering up her legs. His hands moving up her arms and pulling her close. His lips seeking places to explore. Slowly, gently, with ever increasing passion...

She pulled in a shaky breath.

"I'm sorry," Kent said. "Did I hurt you?"

She gave her head a shake.

His eyes searched hers, as if sensing the sudden change in her mood.

"Lane," he said softly.

The intensity in his voice, snapped her out of her revelry. "Uhh.." She pulled her arm out of where he was holding it. "I think I should probably get going," she said. "Thanks, but... I think I'm okay now. So... if I could just call a cab..."

He looked disappointed for a moment. And Lois felt an unexpected urge to retract her previous comments, to stay with him like he seemed to desire. But she fought off the impulse. It would be the wrong choice after all -- for both of them.

***

"Idiot! Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!" Lois exclaimed. "How could I have left, Clark?"

He reached over, taking her hand and gently massaged it. "I'm just glad you got through that story in one piece."

She gave him a soft smile. "Not half as glad as I am. Anyway, since I seem determined to be an idiot, I suppose we should see what happened next?"

Both Lois and Clark fell silent as they returned to their computers.

"Hey," Clark said a short time later. "I got the Atomic Space Rat story."

"You did?" Lois asked, continuing her search for the same story. She didn't have it. "So how did you get that story?"

"Superior reporting skills?" Clark suggested, laughing when his wife reached over to give him a swat.

"Okay, okay," she admitted. "So, flyboy. Did you get the next story, too?"

They both immediately went back to searching their computers, as if by finding a story first, they would have won the latest contest.

"Hey, take a look at this," Lois said a minute later.

Clark rose from his seat, coming to look at what she had found. His eyebrows rose when he saw the headline.

'Supermen in Metropolis?'

"What?" Clark asked, reaching over Lois' shoulder to steal her mouse so that he could skim the article. "Oh," he said a second later.

"Oh? What does 'oh' mean?"

"It's just... I think this is the story about Johnny Corbin. Not that it says his name in this first part. It just talks about some very advanced robot that broke down when trying to rob a jewelry store."

"Oh," Lois said, repeating Clark's first statement. Suddenly, she tilted her head to the side. "I seem to remember something about that story.

"So do I," Clark said.

Still, Lois was the one who got there first.

***

"Have you heard the news?" Claude asked, coming over to sit on the corner of her desk.

"What news?" Lois asked even as she pulled the file she'd been working on out from under him. She absolutely hated it when he sat on her desk. Not that he ever seemed to get the message.

"It's about your nemesis. It's all over the newsroom."

"Would you mind getting to the point, Claude?" Lois asked in disgust. "I've got work to do here." She gestured to her cluttered desk.

"Well, it seems Kent has been kidnapped. With any luck, he'll get himself killed and we'll never have to worry about him again."

Lois froze. Kidnapped. Killed. Dread trickled in. No. That wasn't possible. Surely Claude had the story wrong.

"Kent? You mean Clark Kent?"

"Do you know any other Kents? Of course Clark Kent -- reporter for The Star. Blew your cover a couple of times. Almost got Perry fired. You know, that Clark Kent."

Lois simply stared at him, her mind working overtime. "Do you have any other information?"

"Well, word is it has something to do with some story he was working on. Why?"

Lois shrugged, trying to look casual. "Just curious."

"Well, anyway," Claude said, rising to his feet. "Just thought you might find it amusing."

Amusing? She stared at his retreating back in horror. How could he think she would find the kidnapping and possible death of anyone amusing? But he already was walking away, unaware of the bomb he had just dropped on her.

A story Kent was working on. She'd seen him nosing around after the unusual robbery of an ATM machine earlier. The guy had simply reached through the steel to grab the cash. She'd seen the photo the ATM took of the perpetrator. It was a photo of Johnny Corbin -- her sister's latest boyfriend."

***

"Yeah, I remember that," Clark said. "Linda was off at a seminar, so I was working solo that week. I'd managed to discover that there were only two places in Metropolis that had dealings with robotics. Lex Corp and Star Labs.

"Anyway, the police report said that the robot was powered by uranium capsules so I figured that if I could track down the capsules, I might find out who was behind the 'superpowered' thief. What I didn't count on was that the culprits would run out of money for uranium capsules and would seek an alternate energy source. Anyway, I managed to track the records for Lexcorp on the computer..."

"Using a little superspeed to break the password, if I recall correctly."

Clark smiled. "That led me to an Emmet Vale. Unlike you, I didn't recognize the picture of Johnny Corbin. But the police managed to identify him quickly enough. I started asking around and... well, I guess I got too close because Corbin kidnapped me off the street. I knew immediately that they were using S-126 for something because I recognized the feeling from my encounter with it at Star Labs. I fought to get away from them, but..." He shrugged.

"I remember," Lois said before launching back into the story.

***

Johnny Corbin was the key. If Kent's kidnapping was related to a story he was working on, ten to one odds were that it was connected to Johnny Corbin. And that meant finding Lucy. If anyone would know how she could find Corbin, it was Lois' sister.

Lois grabbed her jacket and bounded up the steps to the elevator.

Ten minutes later, Lois entered the restaurant where her sister was working. Even if Lucy was mad at her for showing her Corbin's rap sheet, Lois was determined to get her sister to talk. Kent's life was at stake. And there was no way she was going to let him die.

She noted in the back of her mind that her sister looked shaken, but didn't pause to worry about it. Right now the important thing was to find Kent. She stormed over to her sister, grabbing her arm and leading her into the back.

"Where's Corbin?" she demanded.

"I don't know."

"Come on, Lucy. I don't have time for games. Corbin kidnapped Kent. Where did he take him?"

"Johnny kidnapped someone?" Lucy gasped.

"Yes. Now... tell me where Corbin took Kent?"

Her sister suddenly looked a little lost so Lois moved in for the kill.

"You know, your boyfriend is not just a criminal," she said.

"I know," Lucy said, causing Lois to hesitate. Had Lucy just agreed with her?

"He's not real," Lucy continued, looking close to tears. "I know." Lucy covered her face with her hands. "I know."

Lois' heart instantly softened. She pulled her sister into a hug. "Lucy, I'm sorry."

"I am, too," Lucy admitted. "You were right, Lois. I can't believe my intuition about men could be so far off."

"Yeah, well, it's sort of a family trait," Lois admitted.

"At least Lex Luthor was human. Johnny... I saw his chest. It was a piece of metal. It was hideous. They even branded him with a symbol."

"What kind of symbol?"

"He called it a Mobius strip."

"Doesn't that look like the symbol for infinity?"

"Yeah. Why?"

But Lois was no longer listening. She rushed for a phone, placing a call to the Planet. A minute later, she was getting the address for Infinity Laboratories from Jimmy.

"Lucy," she said, turning back to her sister. "I need your help. I can't ask anyone else. They'd ask too many questions about Kent and... Look, I just need your help."

"What do you need?" Lucy asked.

"Come on. I'll tell you on the way," Lois said, grabbing Lucy's arm and pulling her towards the door.

"By the way, sis," Lucy said when they stepped outside. "Who's Kent?"

"A guy who works for The Star."

Lucy's eyebrows rose. "You want me to help you rescue some guy who works at The Star? I thought Perry gave you specific instructions about not having any dealings with Star employees. I can understand why you'd be concerned, but... Why aren't we just calling the police? Is this personal?"

Lois felt rattled. "No! Of course not. But..."

"You're involved with someone from The Star, aren't you?" Lucy asked incredulously. "What happened to my 'career before anything' sister?"

"It's not like that," Lois responded, wondering how her sister would react if she knew exactly who Kent was. But obviously, and thankfully, her sister hadn't recognized the name. Otherwise, she'd have even more questions about Lois' need to help Kent than she currently did.

"No? Then why are you blushing?"**

***

Lois snuck around to the back of the laboratory, looking in windows. Her heart almost came to a stop when she saw Kent, bound and gagged, lying on the floor inside one of the rooms. It looked as if he'd put up quite a fight. He was bruised and bloody and... he wasn't moving.

But he wasn't dead. He couldn't be. She couldn't be too late. She just couldn't.

***

"I guess not needing me for a hostage meant that they weren't exactly concerned about keeping me alive," Clark said.

Lois nodded before continuing her story.

***

Lois ducked out of sight when she saw Johnny Corbin and friends. Pushing slightly on the window, she was relieved when it cracked open.

"Let me just check the S-126," one of the men was saying. "Perfect."

Lois peeked over the windowsill in time to see one of the men unbutton Corbin's shirt and open a panel in his metal chest to take a look at the green, glowing crystal inside. It appeared someone was using S-126 as a power source, after all. She pushed that thought to the back of her mind. Right now, she had to rescue Kent -- assuming she was not already too late.

"So am I ready to rock and roll, Doc?" Corbin asked as he did up his shirt.

"The only thing going to rock and roll around here is the patrons of the Tenth Street Jewelers when you pull your next heist. And with Kent here no longer nosing into our business, there'll be no one to stop you."

Corbin chuckled.

Lois tensed when she heard honking outside the laboratory. This had to work. It just had to. The alternative was too horrible to contemplate.

"Who's that?" the doctor asked.

Corbin immediately went to the door, pulling it open to look outside. The two men with him followed.

"Lucy?" Corbin asked. "What are you doing here?"

Lois didn't wait to hear more. She pushed the window fully open and hoisted herself over the window frame. She only had a limited amount of time and she was determined to make it count.

Rushing over to Kent, she dropped to her knees beside him, immediately tearing the tape from his mouth. His groan of pain was the most beautiful sound she'd ever heard. He was alive.

"Kent," she said. All she got was an incoherent mumble in reply. "Kent!" she said again, this time a bit louder, even as she looked towards the open door. When that didn't get the desired result, she tried a different approach. Grabbing his face, she kissed him.

Kent opened his eyes as far as he was able -- both eyes were swollen partially shut -- and stared at her. "You... you..."

She leaned close, worried that he was going to tell her that he was too hurt to move.

He cleared his dry throat and tried again. "You... kissed me?"

She rolled her eyes, before looking around. A large pair of scissors was sitting on a nearby table. Grabbing the scissors she cut his restraints. "Can you move?" she asked. "Cause we gotta get out of here -- fast."

Full understanding of what was happening suddenly seemed to come into his eyes. He nodded and began to move. She had to help him, but together they finally made it to the window. When he had trouble getting through, she simply pushed him out, cringing at his grunt of pain when he landed on the concrete below. Still, without pausing, she jumped out the window after him, closing it behind her.

It was only then that she heard the cry of, "He's gone. Your girlfriend was a distraction."

"No, Johnny!" Lois heard.

Lucy! No!

Lois rushed to the corner in time to see Lucy picking herself up from where she'd been tossed against Lois' jeep. It seemed Corbin had already gone back inside to look for Kent. She saw her sister hesitate for a moment before jumping back into the jeep. Lois breathed a sigh of relief. If she'd gotten her sister killed, Lois wasn't sure she'd ever be able to forgive herself.

Rushing back to Kent, she pulled him back to his feet. Corbin had just opened the window when Lucy screeched to a halt next to them.

"Let's go!" Lucy yelled.

Lois glanced back once to see Corbin looking out the window and then, both of them working together, she got Kent in the back of the jeep and her sister hit the gas, leaving Corbin behind.

"Oh, god, what have they done to you?" Lois asked when she finally got him lying across the back seat, his head in her lap.

"Where to?" Lucy asked.

"Hospital," Lois said.

"No!" Kent gasped. "No hospital. Can't go to the hospital. Just... take me home."

"Home? Clark, you're hurt. You've got to go to the hospital."

"No! I just..." He started struggling, trying to sit up -- as if he were physically trying to stop them from going to the hospital. "You don't understand. I can't go to the hospital."

Lois let out a breath, attempting to keep him in place, even while desperately trying not to hurt him further. Why was he so afraid to go the hospital? On the other hand, maybe he couldn't afford it. "Surely The Star has medical. If not, I can..."

"No hospital!" He managed to get his hand on the door handle and was attempting to open it.

Damn. She grabbed at his hand. "Okay. Okay. No hospital." He practically collapsed back into her arms, proving how much trying to prevent them from going to the hospital had taken out of him. "377 Clinton Street," Lois said to her sister as her hand began gently stroking the sweat and blood soaked hair off his face. Momentarily closing her eyes, she placed a tender kiss on his forehead. She just hoped she was making the right decision.

She caught Lucy's expression of puzzlement in the rearview mirror, but she ignored it as she continued gently to run her hand through Kent's hair. He closed his eyes, relaxing under her touch.**

***

"Do you want to tell me what's going on here?" Lucy asked once she and Lois had managed to get Kent onto the bed in his apartment.

"Shh," Lois responded, grabbing her sister's arm and pulling her outside.

Lucy looked at her sister, eyebrows raised, awaiting an explanation.

"Look, you can't tell anyone about this," Lois said.

"About what? What exactly is going on between you and Kent? Are you really willing to risk losing your job over this guy?"

Lois let out a breath. "I don't know what's going on between us, Lucy. I really don't. But there's just something about him..." Her voice trailed off, looking back towards the door of his apartment.

"Go on," Lucy said, seeming to understand what Lois herself did not. "Get back to him. Make sure he's okay. But I'm going to expect a full report later."

"Thanks, Lucy," she said, before turning back to the door to Kent's apartment.

Dismissing Lucy from her mind, Lois immediately returned to Kent's bedroom. He was partially lying on his bed, his feet still on the floor, his breathing labored. He was even still fully dressed, shoes and all. Maybe she shouldn't have listened to him about not going to the hospital. But she knew how he felt. She hated hospitals with a passion. Still, if he had internal bleeding...

Well, she'd just have to stay until she was certain he was going to be okay. Moving from her position by the door, she walked towards his bed. As she did, she spotted the picture of her from the newspaper lying on his nightstand. She pushed aside the implications of finding that photo there and took a seat on the side of his bed. He cracked open his eyes.

***

Chapter Twenty-Five

"Hey, Kent. You look like hell," Lois said softly, her hand automatically coming up to caress his face.

"You look beautiful," he responded. "You saved my life. Thank you."

She shrugged. "Just returning the favor." She gently removed his glasses, setting them on the nightstand.

With what looked like an attempt to smile around the cut on his lip, he responded. "Didn't want to owe me, huh?"

She smiled. "Something like that."

He struggled to rise. Failing miserably, he collapsed back on his bed.

"We've got to make you more comfortable," Lois said, turning her attention to his shoes. He watched as she undid and removed each shoe and sock in turn. Then she turned her attention back to him. "Come on," she said, wrapping her arms around him.

"Where are we going?" he asked, even as he struggled to help her raise him into a seated position on the edge of his bed.

"We need to check out your injuries," she said with a calm she wasn't exactly feeling.

"And how are you planning..." He stared at her in disbelief when she began unbuttoning his shirt. "What are you doing?" He made an insubstantial attempt to get her hands away from his shirt.

She batted his hands away, counting on him being too weak to resist. When he quit struggling, she continued with her mission. She had to see. Were there any open wounds on him? Any indication that he might have a punctured lung or internal bleeding? Best she know now. And given his apparent fear of hospitals, she didn't trust him to level with her about how he was feeling.

"It's either you let me take a look at your injuries, or I call 9-1-1 and have them send an ambulance."

When he quit struggling, she slipped the shirt off his shoulders. Her breath caught when she saw the multicolored bruises and cuts on his chest. They really had done a number on him. The multitude of colors was amazing -- in a horrifying sort of way. Instinctively, she ran her fingers very lightly over one of the first spots, suddenly lost in the feel of his chest under her fingertips.

"Lane," Kent said softly.

Lois quickly jerked away in confusion. "Sorry," she mumbled, taking his shirt off the bed and heading for the closet to hang it up. Anything... anything... to get some distance from him. What the hell had ever possessed her to do that?

Once she had regained her composure, she turned back around.

'Damn, girl!' Lois silently rebuked herself. 'Get it together. Regardless of any of the other reasons not to get involved with him, one does not seduce an injured man.'

Kent began relaxing back onto the bed, suddenly snapping Lois out of her embarrassment.

"No. No," she said, rushing back over to him. "We've still got to..." She knelt before him once again, pulling at the buckle on his trousers.

"Hey!" he exclaimed, although his voice was still feeble.

"Would you relax, Kent. It's not as if I haven't seen it before. I might have been drugged on the pheromone compound, but I'm not likely to forget what you look like naked." She almost smiled when he turned beat red -- turn about was fair play, after all. Only the realization that if he thought she was laughing at him, he might garner the strength to stop her kept the smile at bay. After all, if he really did decide to stop her... Well, she'd probably win the battle in his current state, but fighting her wouldn't do him any good.

As it was, she had to struggle with his hands for a moment before he seemed to give up.

"It's okay, Kent," she said softly, keeping her eyes on his as she undid his belt buckle, popped the button on his trousers and pulled down his zipper. "I'm not going to take advantage of you. I just need to know that you're all right."

He looked at her, seeming to relax.

"Look at it this way," she said, rising to her feet. "You treated my injuries the other day. I'm just returning the favor. Now... if I help you stand, can you get your trousers off or..."

"I can do it."

She regarded him for a moment before nodding. Best to let him try, at least. "Okay, well then..." She wrapped her arms around him, almost buckling under his weight as she pulled him to his feet. A moment later, he had kicked off his trousers and she was assisting him in climbing between the sheets on his bed.

"I'm going to go find that stuff you put on my cuts the other day," she said without meeting his eyes. "I'll be back in a minute."

With that she turned and left the room, only truly breathing again when he was no longer in sight. It seemed her memory of what he looked like naked had not failed her. Other than the cuts and bruises he was currently sporting, he was an absolutely gorgeous specimen of a man. And every part of her that was a woman knew it.

***

"Ooo, this is getting interesting," Clark said. "So tell me what happened then?" He wiggled his eyebrows at her.

"You don't remember?"

A grin crinkled his eyes. "Let's pretend I don't."

She met his grin. "Okay... well, you asked for it."

***

Realizing she was in trouble, Lois quickly grabbed her coat and fled the apartment. He was just going to have to take care of himself.

***

"Wait a minute! That's not what happened," Clark said.

"No?" Lois asked, looking as innocent as possible. "Well, maybe my memory is faulty. Why don't you tell me what happened next?"

Realizing he'd been taken, he squared his chin. "All right. I will."

***

Clark crinkled his eyebrows when Lois came back in carrying a phone along with the first aid supplies. "What?" he asked.

"I called the police, told them where they could find Corbin. I really don't know the story..." She shrugged. "But I thought you might... Although, I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention me. It would raise too many questions -- including the question of how you scooped me."

"You're giving me the phone to call in the story?" he asked in disbelief.

"I don't really know enough to have a story. I know you were kidnapped. I mean I called Jimmy and told him the police had Corbin's location. And I know that Corbin is some sort of cyborg. Other than that, all I have is you getting yourself beaten half to death -- and that's hardly a story."

Clark raised his eyebrows. She handed him the phone and started to leave the room when he called to her.

She turned back towards him.

He hesitated for a second before he made his decision. "Since you saved me, I suppose it's only right that you get the story, too. Oh, I'll call in my story. But then... I'll answer any questions you have."

She seemed suspicious for a moment before walking slowly closer, as if she was still trying to find the angle in his offer.

***

"Why did you do it?" Lois asked.

"I told you why. You had saved my life. In my opinion, that entitled you to the same information I had. After all, if you hadn't come in when you did, I wouldn't have been able to report any story because I'd have been dead."

"You know, that's your problem, Clark," Lois said. "You're too soft for this job."

Clark smiled. "I'm only too soft when it comes to you."

She rolled her eyes. "Please! Me. Puppies. Small children. And just about anyone else who needs your help." She gave him a grin. "You have no idea how much that confused me, though. Even after you'd told me everything, even after I'd heard you call in your story, so that I knew the information you'd given me was accurate, and even after I'd called in mine..."

***

Lois lay on the couch trying to make sense of the evening. Kent was still as much of a mystery now as he ever had been -- maybe even more so. Twice now, he'd betrayed her cover in an effort to prevent her from getting the story. So why had he given her this story? What was in it for him?

She would have thought it was some sort of attempt to get her into bed, but that didn't make sense either. After all, he was hardly in a position to demand anything of her. He hardly had the strength to stand.

Pushing back the blanket, she rose to her feet. Before she knew what was happening, she was standing in the doorway to his bedroom. She stared, transfixed, at his form, lit only by moonlight. He seemed to be resting comfortably now. She could see the gentle rise and fall of his chest.

Moving closer was not a conscious choice. She seemed drawn to him, quite definitely against her will. He was beautiful. Oh, yes, he did have a black eye -- although it didn't seem nearly as bad now as it had been earlier. Or... the dim lighting was keeping it from seeming as bad as it had in the light.

Earlier. Her mind took her back to treating his wounds earlier. Running her fingers over his chest and arms and legs as she'd gently applied the antiseptic cream. She hadn't dared look into his eyes. She hadn't wanted to see how it was affecting him. She hadn't wanted him to see how it was affecting her.

Her eyes ran over the white sheet covering his gorgeous body. That sheet... and his boxers the only things keeping him from being fully exposed to her wandering eyes. Until she'd met Kent, she wouldn't have believed she could be turned on just by the sight of a man's body. But Kent was... exceptional. Muscular but not grotesque. Every inch of his body was tuned and honed to perfection. His arms, his chest, his stomach... God, even his thighs turned her on. Even standing here now, thinking about the body hidden by that sheet, she knew her breathing was deeper and her temperature had risen.

Suddenly, he opened his eyes.

"Lane," he said softly.

A thrill traveled down her spine at the gravelly texture of his voice. She should have been embarrassed to have been caught watching him. She should be saying something about checking on him to make sure he was okay. She should be turning and leaving the room. But there was something in his eyes that kept her rooted to the ground beneath her feet. She watched as his eyes darkened and felt heat begin to rise in her belly. She licked her lips.

Slowly, he pulled back the covers of his bed in what was clearly an invitation. Climbing into bed with him wasn't a considered decision. Instinct was leading her on.

Once their lips met, the warmth that traveled through her body was almost intoxicating, clouding her mind to everything but desire. He'd almost died today. Perhaps she merely needed to know that they were both alive. Maybe that was what made her crawl closer, allowing his hands to settle on her waist, traveling gently up and down her sides as the kiss deepened.

Her breathing quickened. Her body felt as if it were on fire. As her own hands roamed over his chest, carefully exploring every muscle. His hands slipped under the edge of her shirt, finding the skin that lay beneath.

"Kent," she breathed, breaking his kiss long enough to sit up and pull off her blouse, tossing it to the side. She wanted nothing between his hands and her skin.

"What are we doing?" Kent asked.

"I was really hoping not to have to explain it to you," she responded teasingly, even as her lips found his again.

He seemed hesitant for only a moment more and then he managed, in spite of his injuries, to roll them over so that she was under him.

"Yes," she whispered staring up into his eyes.

A small whimper escaped from the back of his throat before he was kissing her again, this time with no restraint. Everything suddenly took on a dream-like quality. The removal of what remained of her clothing -- of his. The roaming of hands and lips. Touching. Exploring. Breathless gasps and tender endearments until nothing existed in the world except the two of them and this single, solitary moment in time.

***

"So what happened then?" Clark asked.

She swatted him. "You know full well what happened then."

His expression softened. "I remember," he said. He turned his chair so that he was facing her, reaching out to run his fingers down her cheek. "I lost my virginity."

Her hand came up, covering his hand to hold it against her. "And I learned the meaning of a new word."

"What word?"

"Wow."

Clark smiled.

"I can even remember how I woke up the next morning," Lois said before continuing with the story.

***

Lois wasn't sure she'd been ever woken up in such a satisfying manner. Gentle kisses were being planted all over her face. Kent. She knew the feel of his kiss. She knew his smell. It was as if everything about him was implanted on her soul -- a long buried memory simply waiting to be awakened. Yes, if there were a better way to wake up, she'd never experienced it.

She opened her eyes, a half-smile playing around her lips. "Good morning," she said softly.

"A very good morning," Kent agreed, smiling down at her.

He leaned in to kiss her, when she suddenly stopped him with a hand on his chest. "What happened to your face?" she asked.

"What are you talking about?" Kent asked, suddenly looking as if he was trying to hide from her. He quickly sat up, moving over to the edge of the bed.

Lois raised herself on her elbow, watching as he reached across to pick up his glasses. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. But... what?

"Your bruises... they're gone." She suddenly gasped, running her eyes down his back. "Everywhere. How is that possible?" She moved into a seated position.

Clark grabbed his trousers off the floor and pulled them on.

"Kent, talk to me. How is that possible?"

"I guess they weren't as bad as you thought they were," he responded. But the fact that he wasn't looking at her told her he wasn't telling the truth.

"Was this all some sort of trick? Did you have those thugs pretend to kidnap you and..."

"What?" He spun towards her. "No! How would that even be possible?"

"Then how is that..." She pointed to the unblemished skin of his chest. "...possible?"

"I healed. People heal."

"Not that fast."

"Then how do you explain it?"

Lois studied him for a moment. He knew the explanation. Everything in his stance told her he did. He was looking defensive, guilty even. "Fine!" she said, pulling the sheet out of the bed to wrap it around herself as she stormed towards the bathroom, snapping up various articles of clothing as she went. "If you feel like coming clean when I come out, I'll listen. Otherwise..." She didn't finish her threat.

***

"I don't think I've ever been so caught off guard in my life," Clark said. "It hadn't even occurred to me to worry about my bruises. The whole time you were in the bathroom, I debated telling you the truth. But... I guess I already knew that I couldn't."

"So... bottom line... You didn't trust me."

"There'd been so much history between us. I just... I needed more time to be sure."

'So... bottom line. You didn't trust me. You were willing to sleep with me..."

"I don't recall a whole lot of sleeping going on." He flinched when she glared at him. "Sorry," he said contritely.

"You were willing to sleep with me, but you didn't trust me enough to tell me the truth." The words were an accusation.

Clark took her hands in his. "Honey, keep in mind that none of this actually happened. This is just some sort of screwed up reality. And as soon as we figure out what we did to change things, we're going to change it back."

Lois closed her eyes. "You're right. I'm sorry. It just..."

"...seems so real?"

She nodded. "Still..."

***

Lois forced herself to calm down during her time in the bathroom. After all, not even she could figure out how all of this could have been some elaborate set up to get her into bed. First, he was right. There was no way he could know that she'd come after him. Second, any plan would have to involve her sister. And Lucy would never betray her like that. They'd always had their scuffles, but when it came to the outside world, it had always been them against the world.

Still, the bruises... If he had been using makeup to create the bruises, leading her to believe that Corbin and the Vale brothers had beaten him half to death, the obvious question was why? And yet the speed at which his bruises had healed, had he really been beaten, was not humanly possible.

Was he somehow... involved in a plot with Corbin and the Vale brothers to pretend... But why? What had he hoped to accomplish?

Okay, so he had some explaining to do. But by the time she got dressed, she was willing to listen. Maybe the bruising had been to fool the Vale Brothers. Maybe he'd realized they were after him and so he'd applied the make up... or gotten away from them long enough to make them believe... She gave her head a shake. There was an explanation. She just couldn't make sense of it without his help. So he would explain and then everything would be all right.

Well, not exactly everything. They would still have the issue of what to do. After all, Perry's stance had not softened. And there was no way she'd be able to explain getting involved with Kent to his satisfaction. She didn't even understand it herself, after all. Besides, there was her mother.

***

"You're mother?" Clark asked.

Lois simply shrugged, not understanding what that meant either, before returning to her story.

***

So whether there could be anything long term between them was still very much an open question. But after last night, she might be willing to try to find a solution.

But before they even tackled those problems, there was the question of Kent's supposed bruises.

She opened the door. The smell of coffee and frying bacon lured her to the kitchen. Kent was cooking breakfast?

Okay, she was impressed. She couldn't even cook decent oatmeal. It seemed Kent had gone all out. Pancakes, bacon and eggs, juice and coffee. Her stomach grumbled. She immediately told her stomach that it could wait. First, he had some explaining to do.

She leaned against the counter and watched him as he moved stuff to the table. He moved with the grace of a large cat. Involuntarily, her eyes drifted down to the way his trousers stretched across his posterior as he placed a jug of juice in the middle of the table. She quickly jerked her eyes away. Now was not the time.

"Well?" she asked simply, hoping to get her mind back on the issue at hand and off his gorgeous physique and the unwelcome effect it was suddenly having on her body.

"Why don't we have breakfast first?"

"Kent, this is your last chance to explain."

"Explain?"

Lois raised an eyebrow. He knew damn well what she was talking about.

He squirmed uncomfortably.

"Fine!" she said, storming directly for the door.

How he managed to get between her and the door, she had no idea. But a moment later, she was running into his chest, which was giving a very good impression of a brick wall. Tingling from every place she made contact, she quickly stepped back.

"Well?" she asked.

"Can't a guy heal quickly without getting the third degree?"

"Not that quickly. Come on, admit it, Kent. I know you used some sort of makeup to create the illusion you had bruises. What I can't figure out is why?"

"Okay, fine. I used some sort of makeup to create the bruises if that's what you want to believe. As to why... I'm weird that way."

She stared at him for a moment. "Fine!" she pushed past him.

"Don't go," he begged. "Please. Look, even as a kid, I healed quickly. I never knew why. If you want, we can call my folks. They'll verify what I'm telling you."

Lois studied him for a moment, her anger draining away. Maybe he was telling the truth. Maybe there was nothing nefarious going on here. Maybe she had leapt to conclusions. Maybe he was innocent... this time.

But... why had he looked so guilty when she'd first brought up the subject of his bruises in the first place? He was hiding something.

The instant she thought that, she knew that his guilt or innocence on this occasion wasn't the question. The question was why she had jumped to the conclusions she had. Her mind flashed back to Perry's comments about Kent when she'd told him about the tape of Lex, to the times Kent had blown her cover to prevent her from getting the story, even to what he'd done before they'd even met. She quickly pushed that last thought aside. She couldn't think about that.

***

"Before we'd even met? What does that mean?"

She shrugged before continuing her story.

***

Regardless of whether he was telling the truth or not, the problem was that she didn't really know him. And... as the events of this morning had proven oh so clearly, she didn't trust him either. Not really. Otherwise, she wouldn't be having all these doubts about whether or not he was telling her the truth, would she? Oh, she trusted him to keep her safe physically. But emotionally... she didn't trust him.

And was there any possibility for a relationship where there was no trust? She'd been hurt too many times to get involved with a man without trust. And if she was going to truly trust a man again, it wouldn't be Kent.

She reached out, laying a hand on his chest even as tears welled up in her eyes. She gave her head a slight shake. "Maybe I did jump to conclusions, Clark. And I am glad you're okay. But... I just don't think this..." She gestured between them. "...is going to work."

"What?" Kent gasped.

"I'm sorry. I just... can't do it."

"Lane, listen..."

"No, Kent. I'm sorry, but... I can't go through it again." She bent down, and picked up her shoes before fleeing Kent's apartment.

***

"I remember that moment," Clark said softly.

***

Clark stood inside his apartment for a moment in stunned silence before his anger, his frustration, began to bubble to the surface. She still believed he was the one who had set her up. He'd tried, for months afterwards, to find a way to clear his name. He hadn't even been in Metropolis at the time. He'd tried to tell her that, but she had refused to listen.

And in recent weeks, he'd started to think that maybe, just maybe, she had come to believe him. But her reactions this morning... they were too severe to be about just his bruises. She still thought he was guilty. Hadn't he proven to her by now that he could never do such a thing to anyone, let alone her?

In his frustration, he struck out, putting his fist through the drywall of his apartment.

***

"Clear your name? Hadn't been in Metropolis? Clark?"

Clark shrugged.

Lois let out a slow breath. "I just wish we could remember."

"So do I. But tell me something. Would it have helped if I had told you the whole story -- about my powers?" Clark asked. "Maybe I should have told you everything. But it had been drilled into me for so long not to tell that..."

"I know that, Clark," Lois responded, reaching over to stroke his arm. "In spite of my reaction earlier, I do know that. And I don't know. Maybe... It might have made a difference if you had been able to trust me enough to tell me the truth. I guess that was our problem. We might have been drawn to each other, but, unlike in our reality where you worked really hard to build up that trust between us, here neither of us could really trust the other. And..."

"...what is a relationship without trust?" Clark concluded.

"Of course, then came the matter of explaining things to Lucy."

"How did that go?"

***

Lois was in the midst of preparing for work, using more makeup than usual to cover her tear-swollen eyes -- an irony that was not lost on her -- when there was a knock at the door. Her heart leapt -- half of her hoping, although she knew she shouldn't, that Kent was standing outside her door. That he had come to fight for her. That he had the magic solution to her trust issues with him.

Her heart fell when she saw her sister standing where Kent should have been. Sighing, she opened the door and walked back into her bedroom to finish getting ready.

"So...?" Lucy said, plopping down on her bed. "I tried calling you several times last night. You never came home."

"I was taking care of Kent -- you know, making sure he didn't die of internal bleeding or something."

"Right," Lucy replied. "Just doing your usual Florence Nightingale act."

Lois glanced over as a result of her sister's deadpan tone.

"It doesn't matter."

"You're my sister. Of course it matters. I want to make sure he's not a slimeball like Johnny." Her sister's lips turned down for a moment at the mention of her former boyfriend turned cyborg. Then, without warning, her expression brightened again. "Besides, if you're willing to risk your job at the Daily Planet for a man, it must be serious."

"I'm not willing to risk my job. And that's why you've got to promise me you'll never say anything to anyone about..."

"Would you relax, Lois? Do you really think I don't know how to keep my mouth shut?"

Lois let out a breath. Just because she wasn't exactly happy at the moment didn't mean she should take it out on her sister. "Look, Luce, there's nothing between Kent and me. Okay, I thought maybe, for a minute, that there might be, but... It's not going to happen."

Lucy sprung to her feet. "Do you want me to go and beat him up?" she asked, beginning to dance around as if she were a prizefighter in the ring. "Cause I will. No way Kent is a better boxer than me."

Lois smiled at her sister's antics, realizing at once what her sister was trying to do. "I appreciate it. But it's probably not the safest thing to do."

"Why not?" Lucy said, continuing to shadow box. "I bet I could take him -- given how beaten up he was yesterday. Probably knock him out with a single good uppercut." She swung her fist to demonstrate the maneuver.

Lois' smile faded, remembering how quickly she'd jumped to crazy conclusions about Kent's bruises.

"What?"

"Nothing. Look, let's just forget about it. We both have horrible luck when it comes to men. Why don't we just leave it at that?"

Lucy sank back down onto the side of the bed. "Sorry about Kent, sis."

Lois smiled at her kid sister. "And I'm sorry about Corbin."

Their eyes met for a moment of understanding before Lois turned back to her task of preparing for work.

***

"Okay," Lois said slowly, "that was interesting. I wondered how long it would be before the sexual tension between us in this screwed up reality would result in our ending up in bed together. Maybe having that itch scratched allowed both of us to move on."

"Do you really believe that?"

"No. Not really. But, Clark, considering that we already know that we don't end up together in this altered reality, it might be for the best if we end this dancing around each other we seem to be doing. It can't have been easy on either of us."

Clark sighed.

"But regardless, none of this gets us any closer in finding a way to get Vicky back. So..."

"We keep going," Clark said turning back to his computer.

The next half hour was spent mostly in silence as they continued to peruse their stories. It seemed Lois had broken the story about the laser that shot information into people's eyes as well as breaking open the whole Harlan Black slave smuggling ring. Still, Lois neither gloated, nor did Clark begrudge her the victories. The memories of their ill-fated night together was still too fresh in both their minds to do anything but concentrate on their work.

"Wait a minute?" Lois said after a time. "Where's the story about Lex rising from the dead and breaking Vale out of prison?"

"Luthor never died, Lois. So if he's doing anything at the moment, he's working on his own plan to break out of prison."

"Hmph," Lois said.

"Hey, I got the story about Diana Stride being an assassin for Intergang."

Lois looked over at his screen. "Probably just as well. After all, if I recall correctly, Mayson's source required a little bit of superhelp to stay alive."

"Mayson," Clark replied thoughtfully.

"What?" Lois asked carefully, reminding herself that whatever he was remembering wasn't real -- no matter how it felt.

"Well, the reason I ended up getting the story about Diana Stride was because of my... friendship with Mayson."

"Okay, I can see that." Her voice remained slow, measured. He really hadn't said anything yet to get upset over.

"But..." He glanced at her before looking away. "...well, actually that was sort of the beginning of... me dating Mayson."

***

Chapter Twenty-Six

When he saw the expression on Lois' face, he quickly continued. "You'd made it very clear that it was over and..."

"I get it, Clark," Lois said in exasperation. "Doesn't mean I have to like it. I suppose you even ended up spending the weekend at that cabin with her. You weren't a virgin anymore so I guess that's understandable. It's okay. I get it. We weren't together. Will never get together. So I can hardly blame you for starting a relationship with Mayson. It's not as if you were cheating on me or..."

Lois' string of words was cut off by Clark's mouth on hers.

"Mmph," she mumbled against his lips before responding to his kiss.

When he felt her relax, he finally pulled back.

She slowly stroked his cheek. "Okay, so tell me about Mayson." Her voice was a lot calmer, but still slightly wary.

Clark pulled a bit of a face, but still he began, putting the pieces together for himself as he did so. "Okay, well, let's see. You know that I met her back when Baby Rage tried to burn down your uncle's restaurant. We spent time together around that time... mainly with her helping me get the Baby Rage story. After that, we sort of lost touch." He shrugged. "I never really pursued it. It wasn't until the Diana Stride investigation that I saw her again."

"Wait a minute! It seems to me I remember you two seeing each other during the investigation where the mad scientist flashed his knowledge transfer laser in my eyes."

"That was in our reality. In this one, I never worked on that story. You were the one attacked, after all. So I never had any contact with Mayson at that time."

Lois nodded. "I remember that she was the D.A. working on that case. In fact, I think I spent more time trying to find out what her relationship was with you than I did investigating the story. After all, I'd seen the two of you at your apartment kissing. And since a few weeks later, I had spent the night with you..." She shrugged.

Clark nodded slowly. "I guess that's understandable. Thing was, I didn't see or talk to her from the end of the south side investigation until the investigation of Diana Stride."

"So she never invited you for a weekend in some remote cabin?"

Clark lifted Lois' hand, giving it a quick kiss. "She never invited me to spend a weekend with her. Or... at least she didn't then."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I'm not sure."

"Then what are you sure of?"

Clark let out a breath as he attempted to think back. He knew Lois was upset. He was a little concerned about where this story was going to go himself. After all, even in their reality, he had found Mayson attractive. And he had enjoyed her company. And since in this reality, there was no Superman for Mayson to dislike... And given how heartbroken he'd been following Lois' rejection... He was worried that neither he nor Lois might be too happy finding out what was to come.

But they needed to know, so taking a deep breath, he began his story.

***

Linda and Clark left their boss' office. It seemed that a key member of Intergang had been arrested and was going to testify in exchange for a deal. The D.A. wasn't releasing details, calling him only Mr. X. But apparently, Intergang had been killing world leaders for decades, making the deaths look like accidents. Mr. X. was going to finger their number one assassin.

Carpenter was determined to get the full story before anyone else -- especially the Daily Planet. In fact, he'd been furious with the number of stories the Daily Planet had been getting recently.

"Well, Preston was certainly in a foul mood," Linda said as they walked back to their desks.

"Do you think he was serious about firing us if we let the Daily Planet get there first?"

Linda took a seat at her desk. "I doubt it. We're the only reporters here who can hold our own against the Daily Planet. He can't afford to fire us."

Clark nodded as he sat on the corner of her desk. "Still, I'd prefer not to test him on this. So... any ideas where to start?"

"Don't you have a contact inside the D.A.'s office. The woman who helped you on that story about Baby Rage?"

"Mayson Drake," Clark said, nodding slightly.

"Okay then," Linda said, picking up the phone and holding it out to him.

Clark hesitated for a moment. He didn't know Mayson well, but she'd made it quite clear during the short time they had spent together, that she was interested in more than a professional relationship.

Clark wasn't ready for anything like that. It had only been six weeks since he and Lane had spent the night together. Might she not still change her mind and give him a chance? Not that she'd taken any of his phone calls. In fact, he was pretty sure she was screening her calls these days.

Not that he could explain any of that to Linda. So, with a sigh, he took the phone, dialed in the number for the D.A.'s office and asked for Mayson Drake.

***

"So what happened when you met with Mayson?"

"Well, let's just say that Linda tends to think like you do."

"She stole Mayson's beeper?" Lois asked in disbelief.

Clark shrugged.

"Anyway, as we were leaving, Mayson made a comment about how we had sort of left things up in the air between us. So I sort of... ended up leaving her with the impression that I'd call."

Lois rolled her eyes. She'd watched Clark try to avoid giving Mayson a straight answer in their reality; she supposed she shouldn't expect it to be any different in this one. "Did you call her?"

"Well, not exactly. After we found Mr. X's hideout, and an attempt was made on his life by Diana Stride, Mayson had questions."

"Like she did with us?"

Clark nodded. "Anyway, I told her that we'd stolen her beeper."

"Wait a minute. In our reality, you told me that you'd support whatever I did. Why didn't you do that in this reality?"

"I did. Linda thought Mayson would take the information better coming from me. Seems she doesn't have your courage when it comes to taking responsibility for her actions."

"So she dumped the whole thing in your lap?"

Clark shrugged. "Anyway, it did give Mayson and me an opportunity to talk."

"And... What did she say?"

***

"I really thought better of you, Clark," Mayson said, looking down at her beeper.

"It was sort of an impulse decision, Mayson. I'm sorry."

"You know, what I should do is have you charged."

"I'd understand."

Mayson looked at him for a long moment. Finally, she shook her head. "What would be the point? After all, from what I hear, you actually managed to save Mr. X's life. But, Clark, I'm warning you... don't ever use me like that again."

Clark nodded.

Mayson rose to her feet before turning towards him. "Oh, and about that talk..."

"I'd understand if you weren't interested anymore," Clark said, almost hoping that was true. It would make things so much simpler.

"No, actually... I wanted to suggest... Well, I know this might sound a little forward but... I really like you."

"Thanks. I like you, too," Clark responded, resisting the urge to bolt from the room. He didn't want this.

"Good," Mayson said, obviously not noticing his discomfort. "That makes it easier. I have a cabin in the mountains. I'm going up for the weekend, leaving tomorrow after work... I was wondering if you'd like to join me. It's cold this time of year, but there's a fireplace and a wood-burning stove and... what do you say?"

Damn! He really wasn't ready for that. "Uhh... look, Mayson."

"Oh, god, I blew it didn't I. Too forward. I'm sorry. I wasn't trying..."

"No, no, no," Clark said, stepping in immediately when confronted by her distress. "I just... well, I just ended a relationship and I'm not really ready yet for..." His voice trailed off. What was he doing? Giving Mayson hope? How could he do that?

On the other hand, after feeling so rejected by Lane, Mayson's interest was flattering if nothing else. "Look... maybe in a couple of weeks... we could go out on a date or something... Why don't I call you when things calm down a bit?" He wasn't sure why he'd done that. Hadn't he just decided that he wasn't ready to move on?

Mayson looked as if he'd just handed her the world. "I'll look forward to it," she said, before turning and practically floating out of the newsroom, a smile on her face.

"So how did she take it?" Linda asked, coming over to join him when Mayson left.

"Better than you would have expected," Clark responded, still staring at the closed elevator doors, lost in thought.

"If it went okay, why do you look so serious?"

Clark shook his head. "It's nothing, Linda. So... what do you say that we get to work on that story about the attempt on Mr. X's life?"

***

"One thing I don't understand, Clark," Lois said as he finished his story.

"What?"

"Well, Linda... In our reality, she seemed interested in you. Why wasn't she in this reality?"

"In our reality, I was your partner and your date to Carpenter's shindig. You and I were friends, and maybe a little more. I don't think Linda's interest had anything to do with me. It was about driving you nuts."

"Well, she managed to accomplish that."

"I noticed," Clark said with a slight grin. "You were a little... intense."

Lois swatted him, but didn't contradict what he had said. "So anyway..." She gave him a look to quell his teasing. "...at a time when you and I should have been planning our first date, you were asking Mayson out?"

"Well, not exactly. Or... at least that's not how I think it went."

"Then what... Kyle Griffin," Lois said, interrupting herself.

"Kyle Griffin," Clark responded.

***

Lois had spent most of the day trying to track down Griffin, but without any luck. It wasn't fair. It really wasn't. She'd put Griffin, aka the Prankster, in jail twice now. And yet he was out again, this time with some kind of freezing weapon and an innate desire to humiliate her.

The lights at the Daily Planet suddenly began to blink off and on. Before she could figure out why, the phone rang.

"Lois Lane," she said into the phone.

"Lois! Great to talk to you again." Lois recognized Griffin's voice immediately. "I know you've been wondering where I was and I'd hate for you to be kept in the dark."

"You're controlling the lights at the Planet?" she asked, knowing immediately that he was.

"Oh, I'm pretty much in control of the whole darn city. Take a look outside."

Lois put down the phone and jogged to the window. Outside, in a building across from the Daily Planet, all the lights suddenly went out, only to light up again to say, "HI LO."

***

"I remember that," Clark interrupted. "The Prankster breaking out of prison was big news. And when I saw the building flashing 'Hi, Lo,' I knew it must be meant for you -- given his obsession with you. So I told Linda that I had a lead to follow up on and dashed over to the Daily Planet. Standing outside, I activated my superhearing and x-ray vision -- desperate to make sure you were all right."

***

She was safe. She was inside, on the phone, but most importantly, she was safe. He let out the breath he'd been holding since seeing that message.

"What do you want now, Griffin?" Lane said into the phone.

Griffin? She was actually talking to the man? That guy really was some sick, twisted psychopath.

"Well, since you're my favorite reporter," Griffin said. "I thought I'd let you in on an electrifying story. I've been able to access the computer banks at Metropolis Power and Light. Should be a real party when I shut down the airport. Talk about flying blind. Ta-tah."

Lane was suddenly listening to a dial tone.

The airport. Maybe he should get over there and see what he could... And what exactly could he do? Nothing. Not if he wanted to have any sort of normal life. Besides, he was certain that the airport must have a contingency plan in case of a power failure. Still, maybe he should go check it out -- just in case.

He saw Lane pick up her coat. "Corey, tell Perry I'm going to follow up on Metropolis Power and Light."

And suddenly, all thoughts of the airport fled his mind. Lane was actually planning on going to the very place Griffin was most likely to be. There was no way he was letting her go alone.**

"Why do you always do that?" Clark asked. "Dangle over the jaws of death."

"I really didn't think I was doing that. Yes, I was trying to find Griffin. But given his comments about the airport, I really thought that was where the danger was. It wasn't my fault that..."

***

"Griffin," Lois gasped in surprise when she turned to find Griffin standing in front of her with his light weapon pointed in her direction.

"I knew you'd come. Reporters are so predictable."

"What's this all about?"

"What's it about? It's about magic. It's about wonder. It's about power. Lots of power. But most of all, it's about revenge. I'm going to kidnap the President of the United States and then demand lots and lots of money to get him back. And I have the perfect weapon here to make sure his secret service won't be able to stop me."

"Griffin, if you give yourself up now, you'll still..."

"Yakety, yakety, yak. Now, there's only one thing that can go wrong with my plan. You. So I'm going to take care of that problem right now."

Suddenly, a brilliant light flashed in her eyes. The next thing she knew, she was tied to a huge boiler, and by the look of the dials, it was about to blow.

"Help!" she yelled, even as she began struggling against her bindings.

Where he came from, she wasn't exactly certain. But almost before she knew what was happening, Kent was there, untying her bonds.

"Kent..."

"Come on." Grabbing her hand, he practically dragged her to her feet.

She needed no further encouragement. Finding her legs, she ran for everything she was worth.

"Get down!" Kent suddenly yelled, pulling her to the ground and throwing his body on top of her just as the boiler exploded. She could feel the heat of the explosion everywhere that her body was not covered by his. And if that was what was happening to her...

She struggled to get out from under him the moment the explosion was over, desperate to find out if he was alive. He moved immediately, assuring her that he was. Still, he had to be hurt. Her hands searched his body, examining every inch of him.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

"Am I okay?" she asked in disbelief. "Are you?"

"I'm fine," he said dismissively. "But when I saw you tied to that boiler..."

"You saved my life." Her expression softened. "Again. Thank you. But how did you know..."

"I was here to figure out what was going on with the power in the city. I figured the Prankster had to be behind it. And instead I found you. What are you doing here?"

"Same as you, I guess." Picking herself off the ground and brushing herself off, she found that now that the danger had passed, she was not able to look him in the eye. "Well, I've still got a story to get. So I guess..."

"Wait!"

She stopped and looked at him.

He seemed to struggle to find the words. "I just... Well, Lane, it seems to me that the Prankster wants you dead. Please... Spend the night at my place."

Her eyebrows rose.

"I promise not to try anything. I just... I need to know that you're safe."

She gently touched his arm, immediately conscious of the electricity that seemed to leap between them. Sleeping together obviously had done nothing to dim the sexual tension lurking just below the surface -- in fact, it might have intensified it. And that was why... "I don't think that's a good idea, Kent. And... well, a friend has already offered me his couch."

He looked disappointed, but resigned as he nodded. "Just know that I'm here for you if you need me, okay?"

"I'll be fine, Kent," she responded before turning and walking away, forcing herself not to glance back at the soulful look she knew would be on his face. How was anyone supposed to resist those puppy-dog eyes?

***

"Clark, did you follow me that night?" Lois asked.

"What?"

Lois rolled her eyes. "You heard me. When I left there... Actually, even after I went to Jimmy's, I got the feeling you were watching me."

"Okay, so sue me. I was worried."

Lois smiled. "I love it that you worry." She let out a breath as she thought back once again.

***

Lois couldn't stand it anymore. The sound of the television blared throughout the apartment. Jimmy had said he needed the sound of the television to get to sleep. Well, surely he was asleep by now. And besides, that 976 infomercial about 'Girls, Girls, Girls,' was starting to make her suicidal. Or... homicidal would probably be more accurate. In fact, ten more minutes of listening to breathless girls and she was probably going to go on a killing spree -- of any man who believed that the breathless beauties on the show were the ones he was actually going to be talking to if he called that number and paid twenty-five dollars a minute. Please.

She rolled over, holding the pillow over her head to dim the noise.

"Okay, enough of this!" Lois finally said, pushing aside the blanket. She stormed over to the television, flicking it off.

Letting out a sigh, she plopped back onto the couch. She'd just curled up and closed her eyes when...

"What are you doing?" Jimmy yelled, startling Lois. "How could you turn that off? I'm doing you a favor by letting you stay here. But I don't suppose you care if I can't sleep. You're just going to expect me to be all bright eyed and bushy tailed tomorrow anyway. Running around, getting your research."

Huh? "It was a 976 infomercial, Jimmy!"

"It was my 976 infomercial. My apartment. My choice. If you don't like it, too bad! I told you I need the television on to sleep!" He walked over, flicking the television back on, before storming back into the bedroom.

Lois pulled her pillow back up over her head, trying to dull the noise enough to get to sleep.

***

"Jimmy apologized the next day. Apparently, that's just how he wakes up if there isn't any noise. He even went out and bought a pair of headphones. Said that would solve the problem. So the next night..."

***

The pounding brought Lois out of sleep and into a fighter's stance all in less than a second. It took her a moment to realize that someone was at the door.

"I'll get it," Jimmy said, rushing into the room.

She wrapped the blanket around her and glanced at the clock. It was almost midnight. What type of person burst in unannounced at this time of night?

"Hey, Jimmy. You're up," said a greasy haired kid, not much more, in Lois' opinion, than sixteen. He seemed to be followed by his little brother. "Mom and Dad are at it again. We need a place to kick it for a few hours. Oh, hey... Pizza." Without waiting for a response, the kids dashed to the remainder of the pizza Lois and Jimmy had for supper.

"Help yourself," Jimmy said as the two kids grabbed the last two pieces of pizza and began eating.

"Hey, anything good on television?" the older kid asked, taking a seat on the couch beside Lois and picking up the remote.

No. She was not going for a second night with no sleep. She glared at Jimmy who just shrugged in return. Well, fine! It wasn't as if she didn't have other options. Grabbing her coat and pulling on her boots, she stormed out the door.**

***

Lois wasn't entirely sure where she was going when she left Jimmy's. Oh, the thought did occur to her that a quick call to the police, complaining about the noise, might solve the problem. But for some reason, she didn't do it. Instead, she drove around the darkened streets of Metropolis with no particular destination in mind.

When she realized where she'd ended up, she wasn't particularly surprised. She'd been thinking about it... Or, more accurately, trying not to think about this option since he'd made the offer. Still, he'd promised not to try anything. And so... wasn't she safe enough?

Besides, he was her best friend -- maybe even something a little more. It was only natural that she was here.

Wait a minute! Where had that thought come from? He wasn't her best friend. She hadn't had a best friend for years -- ever since she'd grown up and realized that she couldn't count on anyone but herself.

Still, none of that stopped her from getting out of her jeep. She pushed aside the little voice in the back of her mind that told her this was a mistake. She ignored the voice that said he was not the one she was worried would try something. She walked up the steps, refusing to acknowledge that the real problem was what she might do. In fact, she ignored all the voices, screaming at her not to do this, when, at one o'clock in the morning, she found herself knocking on the door of his apartment.

***

Lois woke before the sun the next morning and glanced over at the man lying next to her in bed. What had she done?

Okay, so maybe last time was understandable. After all, he'd been injured and... it had just happened. No warning. No time to prepare. But coming over here last night... No, she couldn't claim innocence this time. She'd been in his arms the moment he'd opened the door. He hadn't stood a chance.

Not that he'd exactly fought her off. But she could hardly blame him for what had happened. Still, the second she'd kissed him, she'd been a goner. The sweet taste of his kiss had Lois feeling lightheaded. She had moaned as he pulled her closer, molding her body against his. Every nerve ending in her body felt as if it were on fire.

She wanted him. Had she ever wanted any man as much as she wanted Kent in that moment?

It seemed as if he felt the same. His hands wound their way under her shirt, one of his hands running intimately up her body. She moaned, throwing her head back to push herself further into his hand even as she trusted him to catch her. He did. His lips left hers to trail hungrily up her neck, nibbling at her earlobe before working his way back down again.

Her leg slipped around his to pull them closer together. She buried her hands in his hair, running them through the dark, thick locks. It felt good, right between her fingers.

His lips came off her throat and he pulled back far enough to look into her eyes, breathing heavily. She gasped as she looked into his eyes, so dark they could almost be black. Fire leapt from them, sending sparks down her spine to spring to life in her belly.

He turned them, pushing her against the wall. Bringing his hand up, he began to pull open the buttons on her shirt. Once it hung open, he began working his way down her body until he was kneeling in front of her. She moaned, fisting her hands back into his hair as his lips trailed across her stomach.

"I want you," she whispered. "I want you so much it hurts."

He was standing in front of her an instant later. His mouth returned to hers immediately, seizing it with a new hunger. Bracing himself against the wall, his body came into intimate contact with hers until she could feel every shape and curve of his body. The rippling of his muscles, the pounding of his heart, the strength of his passion. She moaned, wrapping her arms around him and snaking her hands up under his shirt, wishing she knew a way to crawl inside his skin.

A moment later, she was in his arms, kicking off her shoes, as he strode towards the bedroom.

***

"Wait a minute," Clark cut in. "Doesn't that sound an awful lot like..."

"...what happened between us last night," Lois concluded. "How is that possible? We hadn't even remembered this incident at the time?"

***

Chapter Twenty-Seven

They stared at each other for a moment in disbelief. It seemed neither of them had an explanation, so Lois cleared her throat and continued her story.

***

Still, regardless of how good it had been, it had been a mistake. One more in a long list when it came to this man. It seemed she couldn't resist him, but could she trust him? She already knew the answer to that question. No. Besides, there was Perry.

If she really trusted Kent, really believed he could be the one, she'd take on Perry. She'd even take on her mother -- although that certainly wouldn't be easy. But for a man who had betrayed her in the past as badly as Clark had... No. She couldn't risk her job or her family over someone like that.

She began to move, hoping to slip quietly out of bed when Kent woke.

"Morning," he said softly.

"Morning," she replied uncomfortably.

He raised himself on his elbows. "What's wrong, Lane?"

She attempted to smile at him. By the way his eyebrows crinkled together in response, she knew he wasn't fooled.

"I was just obsessing, I guess," she said with a shrug of her shoulders.

"About us?"

"No! No, of course not." Was that too definite? By the look he was giving her, she wondered if she might have given herself away. "I was just obsessing about my interview with the President."

"I heard about that. Carpenter was really ticked off that you were the only reporter in the city to get one. Congratulations."

"Yeah, well, tell him not to worry. Because of the Prankster, my interview has been cut back to five minutes." She finally met his eyes. "If you could only ask the President one question, what would it be?"

He thought about that for a moment before responding. "I guess I'd ask something most people wouldn't, but that everyone would find interesting like if he was a professional baseball player, what position would he play and why."

"Great question," Lois said, although personally she thought it was a little stupid. Who in their right mind would waste their five minutes with the President asking something like that? Still, she turned away from him, as if her problem had been solved, and quickly began getting dressed.

"Lane?" he asked when she rose to her feet and was taking her first steps towards the doorway.

She stopped, turning to look at him. "I've got to get to work." Without waiting for a response, she continued to the door. Once there, she sat down on the steps, pulling on her shoes.

"Lane?" he asked again, this time from the entranceway to his room.

She glanced up, seeing him standing there in nothing but his sleep shorts, his hair ruffled from a night of love-making, his skin looking... No! She quickly turned her attention back to her shoes.

"Talk to me, Lane," he begged.

"What's there to say, Kent? This was a mistake. It never should have happened. I shouldn't have come here. And... I'm sorry." She met his eyes then, letting him see how truly sorry she was. She'd used him. She hadn't meant to, but... That hardly mattered now. The damage had been done. "Look, I know..." Her voice trailed off.

"Anyway," she continued around the lump that was forming in her throat. "I know it wasn't fair coming here. So... don't worry. I'll stay away in the future." Her shoes were finally on. She rose to her feet. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I mean... I'm not saying the sex wasn't great, but... What then? We can't build a relationship on sex." She fought against the tears in her eyes. "I'm just going to go now." She began backing up the steps to his apartment, desperate to get out of there before he could say something that might change her mind.

"Wait!" Rushing up the steps, he got to her before she could open the door. "Don't do this. We can work through it. I know we can. We just have to talk and..."

"About what, Kent? It's not as if we can change the past. This whole thing was a mistake." She knew it. But she also knew that this weird connection between them was, even now, trying to pull her back into his bed. "But thanks for the place to sleep. You wouldn't believe what it was like staying at Jimmy's. Your bed is much more comfortable." She blushed as she remembered exactly how comfortable it had been. Best not to talk about beds anymore. "So..." She fumbled with the door handle behind her. "Thanks again. And... sorry. And... bye." On the final word, she fled from his apartment, not daring to look back.

***

"You know I think the reason I didn't fight harder to keep you that day was that I just kept thinking back to what you thought I'd done... Or what I'd done. And realized that it was pretty much hopeless."

"What I thought you'd done?"

Clark let out a frustrated breath. "I don't know what it means. I just know that it means something."

Lois nodded slowly. "So I guess you know the rest of the story," Lois continued.

"Like how Dr. Klein invented a contact lens that allowed the Secret Service to stop the Prankster?"

"Yeah. And how I ended up using your question during my interview with the President," Lois said before leaning over to give him a light kiss by way of saying thanks.

"Hey, no problem."

"But about that other thing..." Lois couldn't quite meet his eyes.

"The other thing?"

"You know, rushing off like that..."

"It's okay, Lois. I do understand, you know. You had no reason to trust me. And if I'd been thinking at all when you came over, I'd have known that you weren't ready for us to make love again. I wasn't exactly a saint in this story."

Lois smiled at him. "Well, no, 'saint' isn't the first word I'd use to describe you when I remember that night," she said.

He laughed in response.

"But seriously, Clark. None of that was your fault. I attacked you, remember? Still, I was almost grateful when Jimmy was accused of murdering Raul Borges a few days later."

"Grateful?"

She shrugged sheepishly. "It was sort of... all consuming. It didn't give me time to think."

"Throwing yourself into your work as if it would save you," Clark said sympathetically. "You wouldn't be my Lois if that wasn't one of your trademarks."

"But I wasn't 'your Lois,' Clark. And that was the problem. I needed something to keep from thinking about you -- and how badly I'd messed up. I'd never done something like that before -- sleeping with a guy I wasn't in a relationship with. I just couldn't resist you.. It really wasn't fair to you. And... I'm sorry."

"I know," Clark said softly.

"Of course, it didn't exactly help that Mayson Drake was prosecuting Jimmy's case. But I guess she wasn't so bad. After all, since she wasn't convinced that Jimmy was guilty, she gave me a couple of tips that allowed me to prove that a member of the Russian mafia killed Borges rather than Jimmy."

"And at least they didn't trick Superman into stealing a nuclear warhead for them."

Lois nodded. "So while I was throwing myself into my work, what were you doing?"

Clark shifted uncomfortably.

"Clark?"

He let out a breath. "I was trying to figure out how to get on with my life."

***

Clark glanced up, realizing that he'd arrived at his destination. Or... no. Not his destination. He had just been out for a walk. Lane wasn't returning his phone calls. Although why he expected her to, he wasn't sure. She'd been pretty definite that there would be no more late night visits.

Still, he hadn't meant to come here -- the District Attorney's offices -- a grand looking old building that these days was probably more decorative than functional.

He was about to turn away when Mayson Drake walked out the front doors. Too late. She'd spotted him.

"Clark?" she said, with a friendly wave before walking over to where he was standing. "You're the last person I expected to see here."

He planted a smile on his face. "Well, I was just out for a walk and..." He shrugged.

Her face lit up. "You ended up here," she said, glancing around. "Well, as long as you're here, why don't we grab some dinner?"

Clark hesitated. Maybe he shouldn't. On the other hand, why not? It wasn't as if she was asking him to marry him -- or even go away with him for a weekend at some deserted cabin. Besides, it was better than spending another evening at home obsessing about Lane. "Why don't we," he responded.

"Great! How about we take my car? I know this great little Vietnamese place over on Forth."

"Sounds good."

She began leading him towards a car parked on the side of the street. "I'm glad you stopped by, Clark. I really wasn't looking forward to going home and making supper after the day I had."

"Bad?"

"Busy. First, I suppose you heard about that whole mess with the Russian mafia trying to steal a nuclear warhead?"

He nodded.

"But the whole time I was working on that, I was also trying to work on a case I have about this new drug that I think is being used to smuggle people out of prison. It's called 'Resurrection.' Problem is, so far I can't figure out who's behind it. Or how exactly they're doing it." She clicked the remote on her car, unlocking the doors. "All I know is that they've got to have someone on the inside."

"Maybe I can help," Clark suggested, reaching past her to open her door.

"And get the story?"

Clark shrugged.

She took a seat in the car, sticking the key in the ignition and turning it. The engine turned over once but didn't start. "Actually, I might take you up on that. Given that they have to be getting some inside help, I'm not sure who to trust." She turned the key again.

Where the ticking was coming from, Clark wasn't entirely certain. Allowing his glasses to slip down his nose, he peered over the top.

Mayson's car!

"Bomb!" he yelled, pulling Mayson out of the car and throwing her to the ground, covering her with his body a moment before the explosion detonated, blowing Mayson's car to kingdom come.

"Mayson," he asked when he was certain the danger had passed.

"Clark," she breathed, looking past him to the burning remnants of her car. She looked back, meeting his eyes. "You saved my life," she said in wonder.

***

"I remember that," Lois said.

"How could you remember it?" Clark asked. "You weren't even there. Or... oh, you remember reading my story about it."

"No, Clark, I remember it."

***

Lois was late. She was supposed to meet with Mayson Drake half an hour ago to give her statement about the Russian mafia's attempt to steal the nuke. Unfortunately, she hadn't managed to get out of the newsroom as early as she'd hoped.

The sudden explosion rocked the street, sending her diving for the pavement. As she stared in horrified fascination at the burning wreckage, she noticed a couple rising from the sidewalk a few feet from the car. Her breath caught in her throat when she realized that one of the members of the couple was Kent. And the other... Mayson Drake.

She stared for a moment more, trying to come up with a perfectly innocent reason for the two of them to be together, when she saw Mayson pull Kent's head down to hers for a kiss.

She forced back the threatening tears. Kent was a free agent. He could kiss anyone he wanted. Still... the fact that he was on the prowl so soon after... Well, it just proved that he was just like every other man. Sex meant nothing to him. She had been just another conquest.

Well, that was just fine.

Really!

Fine!

If he wanted someone like Mayson Drake, he obviously wasn't serious about her anyway. Just as well she'd cut things off when she had, before her indiscretion had also managed to cause her problems with Perry... not to mention her mother.

***

"Wait a minute! Wasn't that about the time that Scardino came to town?" Clark asked suspiciously.

Lois looked down at the table. "I guess so."

"And... I take it you met him?"

She drew an abstract pattern on the conference room table.

"So... since Mayson wasn't killed, how exactly did you and... 'Just Call Me Daniel' meet?"

She looked at him for a moment, trying to decide whether to answer or deflect his question. Only remembering she had a daughter to get back, and not knowing what piece of information would allow her to do that, gave her the courage to continue. "Pretty much the same way we met Daniel in our reality, I guess. I snuck into Mayson's office -- looking for something that might help me figure out who had bombed her car. Dan was there." She shrugged.

"And...?"

Lois let out a breath. "He came to the newsroom later -- to talk to Perry. He claimed the bomb used to blow up Mayson's car was the same as the bomb that had killed his former partner. His bosses didn't know he was looking into the case -- had actually suggested that he was too close to be objective. So he'd taken some time off and... was hoping to work with me to get to the bottom of it."

"And I suppose he asked you out?"

"Yes."

"And you said...?"

"I said, no. I wasn't ready to date anyone. Unlike you... kissing Mayson! How could you?"

"She kissed me."

"Whatever. Of course, Dan didn't exactly take no for an answer..."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"That he was cute, and funny, and attentive and... I hadn't seen him kissing Mayson Drake. Besides, it's sort of hard to resist someone who sleeps outside on your fire escape to make sure you're safe and I needed some sort of distraction to help me forget about you." Lois let out a frustrated breath. "Can we just get past this? I really want to get home and forget any of this ever happened."

"I'm with you there. So... where do we go from here?"

"Let's see what other stories we have here..." Lois said as she began scrolling through her computer once again.

As if by silent agreement, neither pursued the issue of their respective 'love interests' any further -- even though it was obvious to both that Mayson had helped Clark get the Resurrection story just as Dan had helped Lois get the same story. In fact, when they moved on to the story about some military doctor who was attempting to create an army of assassins with the use of drugs pumped into them since they were children, it was almost a relief. Lois was the one who had broken the story -- which made sense since Jimmy was one of the victims.

Still, the subject couldn't be avoided forever -- as they discovered when they came across the next story -- this one written by Perry White.

'Billionaire Church Revealed As Head Of Intergang.'

***

It was relaxing, peaceful. For the first time since he'd first slept with Lois Lane, Clark wasn't in turmoil. After all, did anything really matter?

"So they hit more than just The Star's payroll?" Carpenter asked.

"I made some calls. Seems a lot of other businesses got hit this morning, too. Including the Daily Planet," Linda responded.

"So the Daily Planet knows about this story?" Carpenter demanded.

"Well, we don't know if they've realized they weren't the only business to get hit so..." Her voice trailed off when she observed the look on Carpenter's face.

"Okay, people. Listen up. The Daily Planet has been getting far too many stories lately. That's going to end now! I want my people all over this story. And since you and Kent were there when the robbers showed up, I assume you'll have the inside scoop really soon," Carpenter said.

"Oh, relax, boss," Clark said, waving his arm towards Carpenter. "Either we'll get the story or the Daily Planet will or the bad guys will get away." He shrugged. "The important thing is to stop and smell the roses."

Carpenter narrowed his eyes as he looked at Clark. "Are you stoned?" he asked.

"No, boss," Linda said immediately. "He just took too much of his allergy medicine this morning. Happens sometimes." She jumped to her feet, pulling Clark to his. "We're on it." She quickly escorted Clark from the room.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Linda hissed at her partner when they were out of the room.

"Linda, you've got to learn to take it easy. The payroll company will reissue our cheques. Bet we have them by the end of the day."

"Clark! Snap out of it! Carpenter has been itching to fire someone for the last few weeks. Don't tempt him. Not now."

"Sorry, Linda, but it's like... all of a sudden, I just don't care."

"What do you mean you don't care?"

Clark shrugged.

Linda let out a breath, sinking down into the chair behind her desk. "Okay, well, it sounds to me as if you're going through something. And... I know a doctor who's pretty good. She did wonders for my college roommate's sister." Linda picked up the phone on her desk. "Maybe if I give her a call, she'll be able to fit you in this afternoon."

***

"Well, while you weren't caring, we were having our own problems," Lois said. "Stern was threatening to sell the Daily Planet."

"To Carpenter?"

"Maybe. Not sure. The hold up seemed to have been about money. How much the Daily Planet was worth. Well, that and the fact that whoever this buyer was, Stern wasn't entirely certain about his... intentions for the paper. So I guess in this reality, it could have been Carpenter. Anyway, it seemed the rash of hold-ups of payroll cheques was a bid to keep the police busy while Intergang kidnapped Perry. I was there. I tried to fight, but..." She shrugged. "Perry managed to rip off one of the kidnapper's masks. I gave a description to a police artist and they made a sketch."

"So... how did it get resolved?"

"Bobby recognized the picture. It was Gene Newtrich. I tracked the kidnappers from Newtrich to Costmart. And from Costmart to Perry. What about you?"

"I was having... a somewhat different day. I mean, a couple of hours after I'd been exposed to the red kryptonite -- although, at the time I didn't know what it was -- it wore off. At that point, instead of not caring, I was worrying about not caring. Anyway, Linda was able to get me in to see Dr. Friskin on an emergency basis."

"So what did that do?"

"I guess she helped me realize that I had come to a crossroads. I had to deal with my feelings head on or they were going to overwhelm me. So... I came to the Daily Planet to find you. I needed to resolve things between us -- one way or another. And I figured that maybe... if we could just talk when our hormones weren't controlling our emotions..." He shrugged. "As I was climbing out of a taxi, I spotted you climbing into one. Knowing that the only way I could stop you was to move... faster than normal, I told the taxi driver to follow your cab, intending to talk to you when you stopped."

"I remember," Lois said softly.

***

"Lane!"

Lois spun around. What was Kent doing here? Was he following this story, too? But if that were so... how did he know about Perry's kidnapping? They hadn't even told Stern. In fact, almost no one at the Daily Planet knew. She almost walked away, but then she stopped. She needed to find out what he knew -- and whether that could help her find Perry.

"What is it, Kent?" she asked impatiently, trying to cover up for the butterflies that had for some reason suddenly taken up residence in her stomach. If he didn't know anything about Perry, she had to get going -- hopefully losing Kent somewhere in the process. "I've got things to do."

"I just wanted to ask you about us."

"Us?" she asked. Well, so much for him having information that could help her find Perry. Now all she needed to do was to find a way to lose him. Otherwise... Perry would kill her if she tipped Kent off to this story.

"You know... You and me. Is there any hope for us?"

"Uhh... Look, Kent, I really don't have time for this right now. I've got to..." She gestured towards the store.

"I'll come with you. We can talk on the way."

"Actually, Kent, I don't think that's a good idea. Like I said, I don't have time for this now. Now, if you don't mind..." She walked away from him, pleased when he didn't follow.

***

"I remember what happened then," Clark said, taking over the story.

***

Clark felt despondent as he watched her walk away. Surely if there was any hope for them at all, she'd have made time to talk to him -- or told him when she'd have time. Her attitude confirmed that she really didn't feel anything for him. He'd just been a notch in her garter belt.

The honking of a car horn wrenched him out of his thoughts. He stepped off the street as a van pulled to a stop directly in front of the building. He noticed that it looked a lot like the van that had robed The Star payroll earlier in the day and was about to investigate -- was it here to rob Costmart -- when...

...suddenly, things didn't seem quite as bleak. He just had to try harder, woo her, persuade her that he would not be easily cast aside. And he would be charming and irresistible and she would throw herself into his arms. And he would love her until the day they died. Except, they wouldn't die. Together, they would live forever.

His previous frown disappeared. Not worrying about getting caught -- getting caught hardly mattered when one was pursuing love -- he pulled his glasses down his nose and used his x-ray vision to find her. She was currently bent over, picking a lock. He took a moment to admire her perky derriere. Perfect...

***

"Perky derriere?" Lois asked, eyebrows raised.

Clark immediately pushed back his chair so that he was situated behind her. His eyes drifted down to the object in question. "Oh yeah," he said on a moan.

Lois giggled, swatting at him playfully. "Come on, Romeo. Get back to your story."

***

Less than a second later, Clark stood silently behind Lane while she worked intently on the elaborate lock on the elevator. He really had no idea what she was doing. On the other hand, did it really matter? They were together and he was in heaven.

Using his x-ray vision, he looked through the wall just above the lock. Spotting the wires operating the lock, he sent a small dart of heat vision into them, causing the doors of the elevator to open.

"Yes," he heard Lane mumble before stepping inside.

He silently followed her in. Since it was obvious that the elevator would next open on the other side, Lane didn't turn around, allowing him to stand directly behind her as the doors closed.

"Hey, gorgeous, come here often?" Clark whispered into her ear.

She practically jumped out of her skin, spinning around to face him. "What are you doing here?" she hissed.

"Following you. So... how about it? Wanna go out for dinner with me tonight?"

"Are you insane?"

The doors to the elevator suddenly opened, and Lane spun back around. "Stay here," she hissed. "Or better yet, go for back up. Go call the cops or something."

"Nah, I think I'll just tag along with you."

Lane bristled, but ignored him, intent in looking up and down the hall outside the elevator.

"So... about dinner tonight..."

"Shh," she hissed as she began to sneak down the hall, checking doors as she walked.

"What are we looking for?" Clark asked.

"Shh," she hissed again.

He shrugged and followed along behind.

Suddenly, one of the doors opened and Perry White stepped out, followed by a couple goons with guns.

"Lois! Run, honey, run!" Perry yelled.

Lane practically ran into Clark in her bid to do as her boss had instructed. The men pursued. Clark simply reached out a hand, grabbing one by the collar, leaving him flat on the back, and twisting the arm of the other, leaving him yelling out in pain as he dropped his gun.

By the time Bill Church and Gene Newtrich stepped into the hall, the muscle had been neutralized. Perry immediately spun around and grabbed Bill Church Jr., taking him quickly to his knees. When Newtrich tried to escape, Lane used a Tae Kwan Do move to take him out.

When the excitement finally passed, Perry turned and stared at Clark for a moment before turning his attention to Lane. "What's he doing here?" Perry asked.

"He followed me, Perry. I tried to lose him, but..."

"I just wanted to ask her out on a date," Clark said, before turning to Lois. "So... how about it? Will you go out with me?"

"No!" she said emphatically. "I'm not going out with you."

Clark's heart sank at the sound of finality in her voice. With a sigh, he turned and skulked back to the elevator. Still, his hearing continued to pick up every word of Lane's conversation with her boss as he road back up to the surface.

"What was that all about?" Perry asked suspiciously. "I can't believe you'd even consider dating Kent after what he did to you, to your mother!"

"Please, Perry. I'm not an idiot," Lane responded. "Besides, as you are well aware, Dan and I have been dating."

"Because you can't trust him, honey. He will hurt you. Just like he did before. Only if you're involved with him this time... Just don't give him that chance. I can't believe that you need me to remind you."

"You don't have to remind me. I'm not dating Kent. And I'm not going to. I just ran into him outside. I thought I'd lost him, but he followed me."

***

"So what do you think was causing your mood swings?" Lois asked. "I mean, I'm pretty sure that red kryptonite had to be involved but..."

"Uhh... well..." Clark said. "I overheard a couple of people talking when I left Costmart that the van parked out front was one of the high-end, S-126 vans. In fact, it looked like the same one that had been used to rob The Star earlier that day."

"S-126 vans?"

Clark nodded. "I looked through the hood of the van. I knew it couldn't be the stuff I'd encountered before -- after all, I wasn't passed out on the ground. That was when I saw the red rock. Apparently someone was using red kryptonite to power very expensive or specialized vehicles."

"So much for bringing free power to the masses."

"Exactly. Now only the very rich get free power. Anyway, after I left Costmart..."

***

Knowing he was in no shape to work at the moment, Clark returned to his apartment. By the time he arrived, the worst effects of his S-126 exposure had worn off, leaving him with a slight headache. Clark grabbed a wet washcloth and leaned back into the couch, placing the cloth over his eyes.

What a day!

Maybe just like green S-126 affected him physically, red S-126 affected him mentally. On the other hand, although they brought feelings to the surface, they were still his feelings. He knew that.

And those feelings told him he was in love with Lois Lane. On the other hand, he hadn't failed to notice the finality in Lane's voice when she'd turned him down, and he remembered all too clearly how she'd told her boss that she'd have to be an idiot to date him. And... she'd mentioned another man.

There was no going back. It was time for him to accept that and move on. But move on to what? Where did he go from here?

Just then, the phone rang. Reaching out a blind hand, he removed the phone from the cradle.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Clark. It's Mayson. I was just wondering what you're doing for dinner tomorrow night?"

***

"You know, you sort of scared me that day," Lois said. "I wish I'd known what the problem was. But your behavior... It was a little stalkerish. It made me realize just how little I knew about you -- in spite of this unexplained feeling I kept having whenever I was around you."

Clark nodded. "I did think of calling you to apologize, but... I guess I was fairly convinced by then that you wouldn't want to hear from me again -- not even to apologize. And I wasn't sure what I could say to explain my behavior. Anyway, that was when I started seriously dating Mayson. I was just so desperate to connect with someone. And so when she started asking me out..." He shrugged. "I guess I didn't have the strength to say no."

"And that was when I started seriously dating Dan. For much the same reason."

***

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Lunch ended up being a quiet affair. Both Lois and Clark were lost in their own thoughts. Thoughts they weren't overly anxious to share. Memories of the first couple of months following Clark's encounter with the red kryptonite.

Clark frowned down at his stake sandwich and fries as a particularly vivid memory hit him.

***

"So do you want to come in?"

Clark was about to turn down her offer, just as he had every other time she'd invited him in after a date, only to hesitate. How many times could he decline before she started to think something was wrong?

"I just don't want the evening to end," Mayson said, sounding as if his non-rejection had given her a small amount of hope that this time he wouldn't refuse.

He swallowed hard. They'd been dating, fairly regularly, for the last couple of months. And he enjoyed her company. But when it came to the end of the date... he hadn't been able to move things past a quick goodnight kiss at the door. In fact, in most cases, she had been the one to initiate those kisses.

Not that Mayson would have minded if he had taken things further. On more than one occasion, he'd seen the frustration in her eyes when he'd pull back and say goodnight. Exactly how long could he expect her to wait for him to deal with his demons? Surely it was only a matter of time before he'd frustrate her so much that she'd walk away.

And right now, he needed her. He knew that didn't sound particularly romantic, or even noble. But he just so desperately needed to connect with someone. And Mayson was nice. He liked her. He enjoyed her company. The only problem was she wasn't... He cut off the name before he even allowed himself to think it. It wasn't fair for him to be thinking about another woman while he was with Mayson.

And really, if he did go home tonight, wouldn't he just spend the rest of the night thinking about she whose name he would not think? Was that really what he wanted -- especially when a beautiful woman desired his company?

"Well, maybe for a little while," he said, trying to push his concerns aside. Just because Mayson had invited him in didn't mean that she was expecting... anything.

Mayson's resulting smile made him hesitate -- or maybe she was. Maybe going in was not such a good idea. Still, he was committed now.

"Great!" She opened the door to her apartment and he followed her inside.

'Come into my parlor,' said the spider to the fly. The saying echoed around in Clark's mind as he stepped over the threshold, closing the door softly behind him. He could hear his heart pounding in his ears.

"What did you say?" Clark asked when he realized the hammering in his ears had drowned out Mayson's words.

"I wanted to know if you'd like a glass of wine. I have a very nice merlot from France. I've been saving it for a special occasion."

"Sounds good," Clark responded, wondering suddenly just how 'special' she expected this occasion to be. Damn, what was wrong with him? With... someone else, all of this had been natural. In fact, with hindsight, maybe he'd been a little too eager to make love to... her. Jumping into bed with no thought about the consequences -- and he'd been paying for it ever since.

On the other hand, maybe that was the problem. Maybe his hesitancy was not about him having feelings for someone else. Maybe his knowledge that ending up in bed too soon could lead to disaster was holding him back. After all, he didn't have feelings for... anyone else. No. Obviously not. That would be ridiculous. He was over... anyone else. His hesitancy was just a consequence of having a previous disastrous experience. Nothing else.

"Why don't you make yourself comfortable?" Mayson said, gesturing to her living room even as she walked to the kitchen.

Clark nodded. As she disappeared into the kitchen, he plopped down onto the couch. Comfortable. Yes, definitely comfortable. That's what he was. Very, very comfortable. He looked down at his hands, watching them fiddle as if looking at foreign objects. He changed positions, laying his arm across the back of the couch. Yes. Much more comfortable.

"Why don't you see what's on television?" Mayson suggested from the other room.

Oh. Good idea. Reaching over, he picked up the remote and turned on the television, absently flipping through channels until he happened on one playing international news.

"Not exactly romantic," Mayson said, handing him a glass of wine as she took a seat next to him.

"Huh?"

She gestured to the television.

"Oh, if you want..."

"No. The news is fine. Guess that's one of the down sides to dating a reporter," she said, bumping against his shoulder to let him know she was teasing.

When she didn't move away again, he shifted uncomfortably.

"What's wrong, Clark?"

"Nothing."

She seemed to study him for a moment, but then turned her attention back to the television, obviously deciding not to pursue whatever was on her mind.

Okay, well, the appropriate move here would be for him to put his arm around her. He felt as uncomfortable as a teenager as he moved his arm onto the back of the couch, behind her shoulders. He had to fight the urge to yawn while he did so. That would be just too cliche.

"Mmm... This is nice," Mayson murmured, snuggling up against him.

Yes. This was nice. This was what he wanted, after all -- someone to snuggle up with in front of the television after a long day. And this was nice. Yes. Nice was definitely what this was.

His attention was directed to the television. A volcanic eruption near a small village on an island in the Pacific. He felt himself tense, wishing there was something he could do to help.

His attention shifted abruptly when Mayson began tracing an abstract pattern on his upper thigh.

***

Lois' thoughts were currently heading in a very different direction.

***

"I can't go out tonight, Dan. My mother is coming to town and she wants to have supper with Lucy and me."

"Great!" Dan said. "I'd love to meet your family."

Dread rose in Lois' chest. "Oh, you don't want to do that. Really. I don't expect it. And, trust me, I can think of lots of things you might want to do that would be much more fun. Having a root canal comes to mind. In fact, why don't I call a dentist and book one for you right now?" As she spoke, she picked up a phone book.

Dan laughed, taking the phone book out of her hands. "It'll be fun," he said, setting the book down. He took her hands, turning her until she was forced to meet his eyes. "I'd love to meet your family."

Oh, god. Did he have the faintest idea what he was saying? Dealing with her mother and Lucy in the same room would be bad enough. Her job at such meetings was to keep the peace. Having to deal with Dan, too... Just the thought sent chills down her spine.

Dan laughed. "Hey, lighten up. That's your problem, Lois. You take things too seriously. So... what time am I picking you up?"

***

"Do you want some fries?" Clark asked.

"Huh... Oh... Uhh... No." Absentmindedly, Lois picked a fry off his plate and dipped it in ketchup. Even before she'd finished eating it, she was again lost in thought.

***

Lois had gone through at least a dozen changes of clothes getting ready for tonight. Deciding what to wear on a date was always a nightmare. Deciding on what to wear when meeting her mother for supper was even worse. But trying to juggle the two together... now, that was best described as navigating shark infested waters in a leaky dingy during a thunderstorm. How was one expected to survive?

She had just made her choice when Dan picked her up to take her to the restaurant where they were to meet her mother and Lucy.

Ellen Lane was taking a sip of wine when Lois first spotted her at the table. Lois immediately took a steadying breath. Obviously, her mother had already started drinking.

"Oh, Lois, you made it," Ellen said. "I was thinking I'd been aband... abandoned by my daughters. After bringing you into the world, I would think the least you could do is to meet me once in a while for supper. I mean, it's not as if I came to town and expected to stay with you or anything. I got a hotel room. Is it really too much to expect my daughters to want to see me occasion... occasionally?"

"I'm only a few minutes late, Mother," Lois said in exasperation. "I wouldn't call that abandoning you."

"Well, at least you didn't do what Lucy did," Ellen said. "She called the restaurant and simply left a message that she wasn't going to make it. I mean, really, not to even tell me in person! Can you believe that ungrateful child?"

Lois sighed. She almost wished she had Lucy's chutzpah when dealing with their mother.

Still, maybe if Lucy had been there, things wouldn't have gone the way they did. Lucy could have taken her share of the burden in dealing with their mother. Or maybe things would have been different if Ellen Lane hadn't started drinking again because of that incident with Kent.

***

Lois hesitated in her thoughts. What incident with Clark? And how did her mother fit into it? Lois knew she should know. She could feel it pulling on the edges of her brain. But like most thoughts that won't come when one searches for them, it seemed the harder she concentrated, the more evasive the thought became.

Sighing, she allowed herself to get lost, once again, in the memory.

***

Or maybe if Ellen hadn't already started downing the wine when she thought she'd been 'abandoned.' Maybe if any of those things hadn't happened, things might have been different. As it was...

"Who... Who are you?" Ellen demanded, finally noticing the man with Lois.

"Mother, this is Dan Scardino. He's my..." She hesitated briefly, not entirely certain how to classify Dan.

"Boyfriend," Dan said, stepping forward to shake Ellen's hand.

Ellen didn't seem to notice the hand as she checked Dan up and down, an obviously disapproving frown on her face.

"Why don't we all sit down?" Lois said, taking her seat and encouraging Dan to join them.

"So Dan, is it?" Ellen said as Dan took his seat at the table. "What exactly is it... What do you do?"

"I work for the D.E.A. I'm one of their agents."

"Sounds like dangerous work. Do you really think you can afford to have a relationship in that line of work? Isn't that a little irre... irresponsible? After all, what happens if you have a wife and kids and then somethin' happens to you? I was aban... aban... My husband left me with two small kids and a mortgage -- and let me tell you, it wasn't easy. Now he didn't die, although that might have been easier..."

"Mother!"

"Well, it would have been," Ellen said unrepentant. "At least there would have been life insur... life insur... money to raise you and your sister. God knows I could have used it. Not that it would have helped in dealing with two young children... And God also knows that you and your sister weren't easy to raise. But at least there would have been money. Do you have life insurance, Dan?"

"It's part of the benefits the agency gives its employees," Dan answered. "So yes, Mrs. Lane, I do have life insurance."

Lois looked at the half empty glass of wine in front of her mother and for a moment was tempted to pick it up and down the contents. Only the knowledge of who her drinking companion would be kept that impulse at bay.

"So how much does a D.E.A. agent make?" Ellen continued.

"Mother!" Lois said again, turning about five shades of pink.

Fortunately, just then the waitress came over. Lois felt the weird impulse to hug the woman and beg her to stay... or better yet, to swap places.

"Can I get you anything to drink?" the waitress asked while handing Lois and Dan their menus.

"Just water," Lois said, eyeing her mother's wine warily. Just how much had her mother had before they arrived? The glasses must have been removed -- because her mother's gestures and speech patterns told Lois that she was already half smashed. Either that, or she'd been drinking before coming to the restaurant.

"I'll have a scotch and water," Dan said.

The waitress nodded and left, leaving Lois staring wistfully after her.

"So you drink?" Ellen asked Dan.

"Sometimes."

"And just how often is sometimes?" Ellen asked. "Because, you know I used to be an alcoholic. I know just how easy it is to drink too much. Fortunately, I got better. Now I know my limits."

Lois rolled her eyes.

"Of course, my daughter thinks I don't know... know my own limits," Ellen said, glaring disapprovingly at her daughter. She turned her attention back to Dan. "So... do you know your limits? Because I think my daughter has a right to know."

"I know my limits, Mrs. Lane."

"I hope so," Ellen responded as if not convinced. She turned to her daughter. "So do you really know this man? I thought I knew your father. He was a brilliant doctor and I was his loyal nurse. But it turned out I didn't know him at all."

"That's the point of dating, Mother. To get to know each other."

"Hmph," Ellen said, but whatever comment she might have wanted to make was interrupted by the waitress returning with their drinks and to take their orders.

The conversation continued much the same as Ellen ordered a bottle of wine for the table during the main course -- most of which she polished off herself. So Lois could hardly blame Dan for what happened during dessert. Whether he was joking or not, trying to lighten the mood, Lois was afterwards not exactly certain. Or had the normally laid-back man finally reached his limit? She could hardly blame him if the second option were true.

"So what are your intentions towards my daugh... daugh... Lois?" Ellen asked.

"Well, at the moment, my intention is to get your daughter into bed," Dan replied casually. "If that goes well... who knows."

The silence that followed his comment was deafening. If Lois hadn't been worried about making a scene, she probably would have crawled under the table.

Instead... "Okay, well..." Lois wiped her mouth with her napkin before placing it on the table. "This has been nice, but I think it's time..."

"And just what is that suppose... supposed to be, young man!" Ellen said. "Humor?"

Dan let out a breath. When he spoke again, he sounded much more conciliatory. "Look, Mrs. Lane..."

"I'd like to talk to my daughter alone, Mr. Scardino. I think you've worn out your welcome."

Lois rose to her feet. "If Dan goes, so do I."

Mother and daughter stared at each other for a moment in a silent battle of wills.

"I'll wait outside," Dan said softly, ending the confrontation.

"No, Dan, I'll come..."

"Talk to your mother," Dan said. Then, after a brief look at Ellen Lane, he leaned in, giving Lois a very chaste kiss on the cheek.

Lois watched as Dan went to pay the bill -- although she determined at that moment that she would pay him back. There was no way he should have to pay for this debacle. Finally, she turned back to her mother. "What?"

"Lois, sit down."

Lois simply raised her eyebrows.

"Okay, you want it straight up? Fine. I don't like that young man. And I forbid you to see him any more."

Lois snorted. It wasn't very lady-like, but she couldn't help it. The very idea of being 'forbidden' by her mother to do anything... Her mother hadn't been able to keep her from doing anything when Lois was a teenager. What made her think she could do so now?

"I hope you're planning to take a taxi back to your hotel," Lois said instead of responding to her mother's comment.

"I know what I'm talk... talk... saying," Ellen said. "That man cannot be trusted. He only wants one thing from you."

Lois fought the urge to roll her eyes again. "I know what I'm doing, Mother."

"I just hope you're not sleep... sleep... having sex with him."

"If I were, do you think he'd be talking about trying to get me into bed? Of course, I can't speak for what might happen after we leave here tonight. After all, I'm going to have to try to think of some way to make it up to him for..." She gestured towards her table where the disaster had occurred. "...this." She couldn't help it. She really couldn't. The opening had just been too good to resist.

"Lois Joanne Lane! How dare you..."

"I was just joking, Mother," Lois said, instantly contrite as she found herself taking the first steps in the dance her mother had forced her to practice since she was a child. Either she could apologize now, or apologize later. Apologizing now was easier. "And I'm sorry. Just so you know, Dan was joking, too. I'm sorry, but I have to go. He's waiting for me."

As she walked to the car, she found that she could only be grateful she wasn't trying to introduce her mother to Kent. After all, if this was how she responded to Dan, Lois figured her mother would likely kill Kent if Lois were ever foolish enough to show up with him. It was just as well that her mother would never know about that particular momentary insanity.

Still, when she got out to the car, Lois hesitated.

"What is it?" Dan asked.

"I just think..." She gestured to the door of the restaurant.

Dan nodded. "Go. Your mother needs you."

Lois sighed. Still, it was true. If she didn't make sure her mother got safely back to her hotel room and something happened... Lois knew she wouldn't be able to live with herself.

She leaned forward, giving Dan a quick kiss. "I'm sorry about... everything. I'll call you tomorrow."

"You better," Dan said with a grin.

***

"Clark, I think I might have just remembered something important?" Lois said, snapping Clark out of his thoughts.

"Hmm?" Clark responded.

"Well, apparently in this reality, my mother started drinking again."

"Oh, no," Clark said softly, giving her arm a sympathetic squeeze. "Any idea why? After all, that might help us figure out what we did to change the past?"

Lois let out a breath. "Well, it seems... Now, don't take this the wrong way but it seems it might somehow be connected to some incident concerning you."

"What? But in this reality I haven't even met your mother, have I? I mean, in our reality, I can remember meeting her after Luthor committed suicide. But in this one..." He gestured helplessly.

"I don't understand it either, Clark. But... I don't know. I just mentioned it because I was hoping it might trigger some memory for you."

Clark shook his head. "But..."

"But...?" she prompted when he didn't continue.

"Well, I'm just wondering if we could get some information from your mother. I'm sure that you could find a way to probe without... giving anything away."

Lois was shaking her head by the time Clark finished.

"What?"

"It's just... the memories I have of her... the way whatever happened affected her... I just don't think it's a good idea involving her in this. I think it might... I don't know... send her on a binge or something."

Clark wasn't entirely sure he understood. But then, he had no memory of Lois' mother in this reality. Nor did he remember what Ellen was like when she drank in his reality, so he'd have to rely on his wife for this. And if she didn't think approaching her mother was a good idea, he'd have to trust in her judgment.

Lois bit her lower lip and then looked up at him. "I suppose we should be getting back to the Planet," she said.

Clark nodded and stood up, automatically pulling out the back of her chair to allow her to rise as well. By the time they left the restaurant, Clark was again lost in thought.

***

Things had calmed down slightly since Clark had reached over, taking Mayson's hand, stopping its exploration. He hoped that Mayson read it as nothing more than a desire to hold her hand and so, to cushion the blow, he allowed his arm to slip off the back of the couch and around her shoulders before pulling her closer.

Seeming satisfied, she sighed softly, resting her head against his shoulder.

And so as they sat for a while, Clark began to relax. This really was nice. He looked over at the woman at his side. She raised her head to meet his eyes. She really was beautiful, and the softness in her eyes... Leaning in to kiss her was natural.

Their lips met in a sweet caress, which quickly turned to two. It was nice, pleasant. Her lips were soft. She tasted faintly of wine. Clark moved back in for a third kiss. Distracted, he didn't notice that her hand had escaped his grasp. When it landed on his thigh as she moved closer for a fourth kiss, her hand was a bit too high for Clark's comfort.

"Whoa!" Clark exclaimed, jumping off the couch before he could stop himself.

"What's wrong, Clark?" Mayson said, sounding hurt. "Is it me?"

"You?" he croaked out.

"It's just... Well, I keep getting the impression that you're not... interested in anything physical with me."

"We haven't been dating very long."

"Okay, fair enough." She rose from the couch. "But you seem... jumpy whenever anything seems to be heading in that direction. I just need to know if it's me. Is it that you don't find me attractive?"

"I find you attractive. Mayson, trust me. You're a beautiful woman."

"Then what is it?"

Clark was about to deny that there was any sort of issue. But by the look on her face, he knew it would do no good. Truth was, he wasn't comfortable when things between them got physical. And, unfortunately, she had noticed. He let out a breath. "You know, maybe this just isn't working."

"No, Clark. Don't do this. I'm not trying to force you into anything you're not comfortable with. I just need to understand. Is there something going on here that you don't want to tell me?"

"Like what?" he asked nervously.

"Like... maybe you're gay."

"What? No! That's not it at all!"

"Then what, Clark?"

He hesitated for a moment more. Finally, he made his decision. "Okay, I had a... bad experience. And maybe I'm just a little gun shy."

The look of relief on her face was obvious. "Okay, I can work with that."

"How?" he asked warily.

"We can take it slow. As long as it's not me."

"It's not you," he assured her again, not adding the final phrase that passed through his mind -- 'it's her.'**

***

Jimmy looked up as Lois returned to the newsroom, followed, of course, by that snake, Kent. They appeared to be walking a little too close in Jimmy's opinion. And after what he'd seen earlier, he had to admit, he was concerned. When Kent placed a hand on the small of Lois' back, almost as if he'd done the same thing every day for years, and Lois accepted without as much as a glance at Kent, every protective bone in Jimmy's body came to life.

Kent had promised not to hurt Lois. Jimmy didn't believe that for a second.

Besides, Lois didn't exactly look happy. She seemed depressed, lost in thought as they stepped into the conference room.

Rising from his seat, Jimmy found himself walking towards the conference room. He wasn't exactly sure what he hoped to achieve, but he had to know that Lois was all right.

When he arrived at the conference room, he realized that the door was open a crack -- obviously not on purpose.

"I know this is hard. But no matter what happens, just remember... I love you, sweetheart." Kent's low, intense grumble was clear enough.

"I love you, too," Lois responded. "It's just... our daughter."

"I know," Kent responded.

Stunned, Jimmy backed away from the door. Their daughter. What the hell did that mean?

He briefly glanced at the door to Perry's office. Whatever was going on here, it wasn't kosher. Maybe it was time to bring Perry in on what he'd heard and seen since Kent had come into the newsroom.

On the other hand, would he be betraying Lois if he did so?

He slowly made his way back to his desk, trying to figure out the right course of action.

***

"You want to know something kind of funny," Lois asked as she and Clark got settled in the conference room once again.

"What's that?"

"Well, I just remembered something -- a dream I had around this time."

***

Lois jerked awake to the sound of pouring rain. That dream had been so vivid, so real. She'd been walking in Centennial Park with Kent, arm in arm.

In the way of dreams, some of the conversation they'd had, although it had made sense to her at the time, was something of a blur now. But the moment he'd told her he loved her was still clear. She'd known he meant it. She could practically feel that love coming off him in waves.

A flash of lightning lit up the sky, followed by thunder and a moment later, rain was pouring down on them. At first, she'd suggested going back. But he had other plans. As the rain continued to fall, he'd dropped to his knee, pulled out a ring and asked her to marry him.

Getting out of bed, she stood at the window, looking out at the pouring rain. A night just like this one.

It was crazy, of course. After all, she would never even consider marrying Clark Kent still... the dream suddenly made her wish she could. She felt such love for him.

She turned away from the window, growling to herself as she did. What was she thinking? She was dating Dan. The dream proved nothing more than... she was seriously messed up in the head when it came to Kent. But that wouldn't last forever. It was a phase she was going through. And the sooner it ended, the better.

And as for thinking she loved Kent... impossible. Laughable really. Just the byproduct of some stupid dream. Not real at all. Nope. She knew herself better than that. And if there was one thing she knew with unquestionable certainty, it was that she absolutely did not love Clark Kent.

***

"That sounds a lot like..."

"...when you asked me to marry you -- or at least up until the part where I was trying to convince myself that I didn't love you."

"So did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Love me."

"You know I did. I just was... confused about Superman. I just needed time to..."

"No. I meant in this reality. Did you love me?"

She let out a breath as she thought back. "I don't know," she said after a moment. "In the dream I did. But in the cold light of day... I just don't know. I do know that I didn't want to love you." She gave a confused shrug. "But then, the dream... I mean maybe I'm mixing up memories. In fact, that's probably what's happening. Because it was about this time that in our reality that you did ask me to marry you, but... I don't know, Clark. It just seems like a dream somehow."

"It was a dream," Clark said, leaning in to kiss her lightly. "Not quite as good, of course, as the one where you asked me to marry you, but..."

"You know what I mean."

Clark nodded. "Okay, well, let's get back to work. Maybe our next memory we have will tell us how to get Vicky back."

END OF SEASON TWO

***

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Once they finally settled down and got back to work, both Lois and Clark found the depression of earlier lifting. For a while, they worked in relative silence, only briefly speaking to read various headlines, hoping something would further jog their memories.

'Church Group Patrols City,' by Clark Kent and Linda King.

'Churches Arrested: Bomber Confesses,' by Lois Lane.

'Love Fortress Linked To Organized Crime,' by Lois Lane.

"Wait a minute!," Lois finally said. "There's something about that story, but I can't..."

"I remember," Clark said before starting to tell his story.

***

Four bodies, all male, had been found in a shallow grave just outside Metropolis. Two bodies were I.D.'d and reportedly last seen at Love Fortress International -- Spencer Spencer's answer to the Playboy Mansion. The thing that made this case unusual was that all four of the bodies were headless. Linda was currently meeting with the coroner about cause of death -- although Clark suspected losing their heads might have had something to do with it.

Still, it had given him the chance to slip away. Love Fortress International was located on a small private island in the middle of nowhere. A tropical paradise according to the billings. And completely inaccessible to the press -- unless said member of the press could fly, of course.

One quick, covert flight later, Clark found himself on the grounds of the small island as the sun was beginning to set. Just a quick look around, and then he was out of here, hopefully with a better idea of what had caused those men to lose their heads... literally.

Spotting what appeared to be some sort of patrol, fully decked out in military gear and carrying submachine guns, he ducked back into the foliage. Wondering suddenly if the headless men had been involved in some sort of military game, Clark cautiously followed the men through the woods, being careful not to touch the ground. He wanted to be sure he didn't make any noise.

"I see them, Klavel," one of the men said.

"Keep your voice down," Klavel hissed while using a series of hand signals to instruct his men.

Clark looked in the direction they were heading. A small bonfire was burning in the distance. Were these men going to attack the young couple he could see cuddled together next to the fire? If so, there was no way Clark was going to stand by and allow that to happen. On the other hand, if this was just some sort of game, he didn't want to give himself away. After all, how could he explain being there?

The military men approached stealthily and Clark tensed in anticipation. He could tell that the couple weren't yet aware that they were being stalked as the man moved in to kiss the woman.

"On your feet!" Klavel said as three men shoved the barrels of their machine guns into the couple.

As the couple jumped apart and scrambled to their feet, Clark had to fight back a gasp.

Lane. And... an unusual flash of jealousy rose in his chest. Lane had been kissing... that man.

The man with Lane attacked, taking one of the armed men to the ground before freezing when he felt a barrel in his back. When things calmed, the man was slowly allowed to rise, once again, to his feet.

"What do you want?" Lane demanded.

Clark felt his body tense at the way Klavel ran his eyes up Lois' body in response. Given the way Lane's stance changed, he could tell she recognized the look as well. So did her companion.

"Hey!" her companion said, taking a determined step forward, causing Klavel to turn towards him.

"We don't need him. The boss only wants the babe," Klavel said.

Hearing Klavel's words, one of the men raised his gun and...

Clark shifted into superspeed and in less than a second, he caught the bullets before they impacted the chest of Lane's companion, pushed him to the ground, stunning him so that the military men wouldn't know they'd missed, and disappeared back into the darkness.

"Dan!" Lane yelled. The anguish in her voice was unmistakable.

"Come on, babe," Klavel said, grabbing her and pulling her away.

She struggled; she threatened; she swore; she begged them to let her check on Dan, but even someone as tenacious as Lane was unable to do much against men with guns.

He waited until the group were out of the camp before dashing over to check on Dan. He was unconscious, having hit his head during the fall, but otherwise unharmed.

Deciding Dan would be okay where he was for the time being, Clark turned, following through the woods in the direction Lane had been taken, looking for an opportunity to rescue her without being spotted.

***

"I remember this," Lois said quietly. "I was terrified. Seeing how quickly they'd killed Dan... Or at least, I thought they'd killed Dan. They seemed to want me alive, but shooting Dan told me just how ruthless these people were."

"What were you doing there with Dan in the first place?" Clark asked, careful to keep his tone neutral.

Lois shifted uneasily. "Well, Perry had noticed how much I'd been working and was afraid I was going to burn out. So when this opportunity came up to get away for a few days, he insisted that the travel editor was too busy, and assigned the story to me. Thing was..."

***

Lois juggled the large promotional basket and her briefcase with her keys as she unlocked the door to her apartment. Finally getting inside, she slammed the door closed with her foot and began walking towards her kitchen to put down her burden.

She was about half way there, when she heard a knock on the door. With a sigh, she turned back. She tried to look through the peephole, but was unable to do it while holding the large basket.

In frustration, she finally reached around and opened the door.

"Hey, good-looking," Dan said, stepping inside. He leaned in to kiss her and she turned her head, allowing him to kiss her on the cheek.

Then she turned back to the kitchen. Dropping her briefcase on the table, she began trying to stuff the promotional basket in the garbage can.

"What's that?" Dan asked.

"Promotional for some stupid tropical resort."

Dan's eyebrows rose. "Why are you getting promotional baskets for tropical resorts?"

"Actually, Perry got it. He tells me that the travel editor is too busy so he wants me to go and do a story about it. At least, that's what he said. Personally, I think this is just his way to get me to take a vacation."

"So what did you say?"

"What do you think? I told him I'm too busy."

Dan pulled the pamphlet out of the trashcan and opened it. "Hey, this looks pretty decent."

"Not you, too," Lois said, rolling her eyes as she walked into living room.

When she sat down on the couch, Dan leapt over the back of the couch, landing next to her with a bounce. She shook her head.

"What do you say we go together?"

"Where?"

"The resort! Come on. We've been talking about taking a vacation for a while now. So... why don't we take advantage of it?"

"You've been talking about taking a vacation. I'm too busy."

Dan turned towards her. "Are you scared to spend time alone with me?"

"I'm not afraid of anything," Lois said indignantly.

"Prove it. Go away with me."

Lois regarded him through narrowed eyes. "This wouldn't be some veiled attempt to get me into bed, would it?"

A small grin quirked at the corner of his mouth. "The idea never even crossed my mind." The grin morphed into a full fledged, roguish smile that told her he was lying -- and not even trying to hide it from her.

"Look, Dan, I'm serious about this. I'm really... not ready."

He took her hands, suddenly serious. "I just think we need some time together. Time to get to know each other better. So... what do you say? I know you might not be ready for us to make love. And I'll respect that. Let's just spend some time together, have some fun."

***

"So instead of necking with me on that beach, you were necking with Dan?"

Lois shifted uncomfortably. "We didn't build our own hut," she said, attempting to hold out an olive branch.

Clark closed his eyes. "And if Spencer's people hadn't shown up when they had..."

"Would I have slept with him?"

"I'm sorry. It's none of my business. It's just... In spite of everything that happened, when I look back on that day in our reality..." He shrugged. "It's a good memory for me."

"For me, too."

"Really? You didn't seem to be having much fun at the time."

"Oh, it had its moments." She touched his cheek gently. "It definitely had its moments. But as for Dan... I remember thinking that I wasn't ready . He was a good distraction. And, I admit, I did enjoy spending time with him. But, Clark, I wasn't about to jump into bed with him. Like I told him at the time, I wasn't ready for anything like that. How could I be? I couldn't stop thinking about you." She paused when he leaned in to give her a kiss. "Anyway, after the paramilitary men carted me away..."

***

Lois struggled against her restraints to no effect. Not only was she locked inside a cage in what had all the makings of a dungeon, but she was also shackled to the wall. Talk about overkill. Whoever was behind this certainly appeared to be serious.

The sound of the locks turning caused Lois to stop struggling. She could hardly believe her eyes when Kent was pushed into the room.

"What are you doing here?"

"Following a lead," Kent responded.

Klavel snorted. "You call passing out behind the medical lab 'following a lead.' Next time, maybe you should try staying awake. Hear it works better. Not that you'll have a next time." He pushed Kent towards the cell next to Lois, causing him to practically trip over his feet. Without giving Kent time to recover, Klavel pulled open the cell door and pushed him inside.

A few minutes later, Kent was trussed up, same as her, waiting for whatever would come next.

***

"So what happened?" Lois asked. "How did they end up catching you?"

Clark sighed as he thought back.

***

Lead was everywhere. It appeared that the secret corridors under the main mansion had been built as a fall-out shelter. Still, since this was where he'd seen them taking Lane, this was where he needed to be. He couldn't see her because of the lead. He also couldn't tell where she was by listening because of the way sound echoed around the tunnels. Still, he did have a few things going for him.

He zipped from room to room faster than the human eye could follow. And suddenly, he felt it. Clark sped into what appeared to be some sort of operating room and suddenly felt as if he'd slammed into a wall of pain. He collapsed to the floor, passing out almost immediately.

***

"They must have been using kryptonite as some sort of power source to operate their medical equipment," Clark said.

"Well, we know that Spencer Spencer somehow had access to kryptonite in our reality. So it makes sense that he might have had access to it in this one. So when you were brought into that cell, did you have any of your powers?"

Clark shook his head.

"Great! So how did we get out of there?"

***

"Oh, this is just great," Lois mumbled as soon as Klavel left the room.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Kent asked.

"What do you think it means?"

"I think it means that we're trapped in a cellar and for some reason you're blaming me."

"Well, if you hadn't decided to take a nap in some first aid station..."

"Take a nap? Did it ever occur to you that I could have fallen and seriously hurt myself?"

Lois' annoyance instantly fled. "You didn't, did you?" she asked, suddenly concerned. Was he hurt? They had killed Dan. And now they were going to kill Kent, too. She found herself blinking back tears at the thought of Kent's life being snuffed out as suddenly as Dan's had been.

"Oh, hey, it's okay. I'm okay."

"Okay," she said softly, pondering the word. "We're going to be killed any time now, but... hey, no problem. Everything's... okay."

He let out a breath. "They haven't killed us yet. So maybe they have something else in mind."

"That's what worries me."

After a long moment of silence, Kent spoke again. "Look, Lane, I was wondering if we could talk."

She felt panic begin to rise in her chest. There was no doubt in her mind what topic he wanted to pursue. Problem was, she'd never been very good at true confessions. Still, how did she stop him? She was, after all, a captive audience. He hardly needed her permission. "Nothing's stopping you," she said as casually as she was able, cursing the slight tremor she heard in her voice. Besides, a small part of her hoped that whatever he had to say, it would be enough to overcome all the barriers keeping them apart.

"It's just... I'm so completely in lo..."

The door banged open, cutting off whatever Kent had been about to say -- had he been about to say what she thought he'd been about to say?

"Lane, the boss wants to see you," Klavel said, stepping into the dungeon. In the corner of her eye, she could see Kent struggling against his bonds as she was forced from her cell.

"Don't worry. Boss wants to get a look at you, too," Klavel said, turning his attention to Kent.

A couple minutes later, they found themselves being escorted into a large office, grotesquely decorated in some sort of tactless imitation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Statues of naked men and women -- some in obviously provocative positions. Paintings of naked women feeding men grapes while reclining together on couches. Handmaidens wearing togas stood in the background, slowly waving large fans. Deep reds and dark woods and overstuffed... everything.

Lois blinked in surprise when a man entered the room in what appeared to be an ornately decorated box on wheels.

"Hi ya, toots. I'm Spencer Spencer. Welcome to my windowless lair."

"You're Spencer Spencer," she asked in disbelief. "I thought you'd be... taller." She quickly shook off her surprise. "I don't know what this is all about, but you might as well let us go. My editor knows where we are."

"Really? So it probably wouldn't concern you to learn that the pamphlet I sent about this resort was actually for another resort. I just had one of my men bring you to the wrong island."

Lois tensed. Dan was dead. No one knew where they were. And, if she was right, they were on Spencer Spencer's island -- where no one ever came except by invitation.

Spencer Spencer seemed to sense the feeling of defeat that washed over her and smiled in response. "You know, I was just gonna kill you for all that crap you wrote about me, but then I thought you might prefer an exciting career opportunity."

"What do you mean?" Lois asked.

"You can be my sex slave."

"Kill me."

Lois felt Kent tense, as if ready to spring in front of her if Spencer Spencer ordered one of his men to take her up on her invitation. She couldn't allow that. She'd been responsible for Dan's death today. She couldn't be responsible for Kent's, too. She glanced over at him, silently trying to warn him not to do anything stupid.

"I know, I know... the body," Spencer Spencer said, not appearing to notice the interplay between her and Kent. "Maybe I shouldn't hide it in a box. Maybe you imagine it worse than it is."

"Maybe."

"You couldn't imagine worse than this! My only chance with girls like you is shooting them up with cobra venom, and then it's iffy. Well, all that's about to change, thanks to modern medicine..." His attention shifted abruptly.

"So this is the specimen you thought I might be interested in seeing," Spencer said, turning from her to look at Kent.

Specimen? Lois glanced over at Kent.

"Bring him closer so I can get a look."

The men brought Kent closer. Then, without warning, they tore off his shirt. He struggled momentarily, but quit when the end of a gun barrel was stuck in his ribs. A moment later, they had his trousers off as well.

Lois tried not to stare, but it was difficult. He just had the most amazing body. Broad shoulders. Powerful arms. Rippling pecs. A washboard stomach. The really interesting parts were covered, but even with that, it was obvious that he was... not missing anything. She quickly jerked her eyes away, pushing back the memories his current lack of attire brought all too vividly to the forefront of her mind.

"So what do you think, toots?" Spencer Spencer asked, circling around Kent's half-naked form. "Think it might be more satisfying being my sex slave if I had his body?"

What? Suddenly, the pieces fell into place. The headless corps she'd heard about before she'd left Metropolis. It was insane. It was impossible, but... "The headless bodies... It was you."

Spencer Spencer rolled his eyes. "So what do you think? Think you'd find this body more satisfying?" He almost seemed to be salivating. "After all, how could any woman resist all these muscles?"

She looked down, studying the floor even as a blush rose in her cheeks.

Spencer Spencer obviously noticed her reaction. "Or maybe... you already have taken it around the block a few times."

She couldn't quite keep herself from shifting from foot to foot.

"Uhh... so it's true," Spencer Spencer said, sounding as if he'd just discovered the best kept secret in Metropolis. "But... don't the two of you work for different papers? Or, Lane, is this one of your not-so-famous fact-gathering techniques? Seduce the competition?"

Lois opened her mouth to respond, but Kent got there first.

"Enough!" he growled, his voice somehow deeper, more authoritative than Lois had ever heard. Her eyes snapped up to him in surprise. Even standing half-naked in the middle of the room, hands bound behind him, he looked imposing. Spencer Spencer must have noticed the change too because he backed his chair up a few feet.

" Oh, yeah. He's perfect," Spencer Spencer suddenly said. "Tell the doctor to scrub for surgery. I've found my new body." He turned his attention back to Kent. "Don't worry. I'll take good care of it." Then with a heated glance at Lois, added, "And I'll put it to good use, too."**

***

Lois looked around her cell in frustration. At least this time they hadn't shackled her. Still, if they were doing what she thought they were doing to Kent... It didn't really matter what they did to her.

She was already feeling distraught enough about Dan. She never should have let him dare her into bringing him on this assignment. He'd been caught in the middle and now he was dead.

As to what Kent was doing here... Okay, so she wasn't responsible for that. Still, if they killed him -- or almost worse, if they gave his body to that maniac, Spencer Spencer... No! She rushed the door to her cell, throwing her body against it. She yelled out in pain when the door didn't give.

***

"So I take it you didn't use your heat vision to weaken the locks?" Lois asked.

"I didn't have my powers when they captured me."

Lois nodded slowly as she thought back once again.

***

Nursing her shoulder, Lois wandered around her small cell. There had to be a way out. There was always a way out. It just required a little creative thinking.

She wandered over to where the shackles were affixed to the wall. Maybe if she could get these out of the wall, she could rig up some kind of lever that she could use to pry open the cell door. She grabbed onto one and tried to pull. No. She did the same with the other to the same effect.

She let out a breath, looking around the room again. There had to be something here she could use. Problem was... there was nothing else in the room.

She looked at the lock on the door again. If she had something, she could try picking the lock. She patted her empty pockets before looking down at herself. Her shoes. Would a heel work? She removed the shoe and tried using the heel to pick the lock. No. Okay, so what else? Buttons on her dress? Watch? Damn, why couldn't she wear glasses? Constant lock picking equipment within her reach.

Wait a minute! It couldn't be that easy.

A moment later, she was undoing the top buttons on her dress to reach inside. It took some maneuvering and quite a bit of cussing, but she finally managed to slip it out.

"Wonder Bra: Your not so secret weapon," she said, examining the underwire she was holding.

She doubted very much that they were talking about instant lock picking equipment when Wonder Bra created their slogan. Besides, she was far from certain that this was going to work.

Still, admiring her own ingenuity was not going to get her out of this cell in time to save Kent. She bent down in front of the lock and, using the wire, began to work.

A few minutes later, she'd tried everything she could think of. She'd doubled the wire over; she'd braided it. Anything she could think of to make it strong enough to move the tumblers in the lock, but to no avail.

Letting out a frustrated breath, she reached back into her dress, removing the second underwire. Braiding the two wires together the best she could, she tried again, but it was still too flexible. Next time she was going for steel underwires -- regardless of how uncomfortable it was.

Tears begin clouding her vision as she thought of Kent lying on some operating table, about to have his head surgically removed from his shoulders. She'd failed. She'd failed to save Dan. And now... she'd failed to save Kent. What was she good for if she couldn't even do that?

A sob rose in her throat. Kent. The only man who'd ever been truly able to excite her. Had he really been about to say what she thought he'd been about to say when Spenser Spenser's goons had shown up? He couldn't have been. Still, it had almost sounded as if he were about to tell her that.... Nah. He wouldn't have been about to say... that. There was no future there. There were simply too many barriers to overcome. Still, she couldn't stomach the thought that he wouldn't be out there somewhere. That she'd never again be able to look at his handsome face or see the spark in his eyes of... whatever it was she saw there when he looked at her. That... something that sent shock waves running through her entire being.

Suddenly, the future looked unexpectedly bleak and empty, day dragging into day with no hope, no color. Would she ever again know that tingle in her spine when being kissed by a man? She'd certainly never felt it with Dan. Would she ever again understand what it felt like to be totally consumed by passion?

She'd never even fulfilled her mission of understanding the mystery that was Clark Kent. And now, she never would. His life had been stolen from him. She dropped her head into her hands as the tears finally overwhelmed her.**

***

Chapter Thirty

***

Lois' head snapped up and she quickly dried her tears when she heard the door open. If someone was coming in here, there was a chance for her to talk or trick her way out of this cell. And then... she stared in disbelief as Dan entered the room.

"Are you a ghost?" she whispered, wondering if she'd finally lost her mind.

"Well, if this is heaven, the billing leaves a lot to be desired," Dan answered, rushing over to a key ring hanging on the far wall.

Lois rose to her feet. "What happened? I saw you shot."

"They must have missed."

"How could they have missed? They shot you point blank."

"Hey, you almost sound like you're complaining." Dan fumbled with the lock for a moment before opening her cell door.

"Trust me. I'm not," she said.

"Come on," Dan said, even as he pulled her to the door of the dungeon. "We've got to get out of here." After taking a covert peek up and down the hall, he rushed out.

"Wait! We have to find Kent."

"What?" Dan asked, turning around to discover that she wasn't following. "Come on, Lois. We've got to go. Now!"

"Not without Kent."

"Who's Kent?"

"He's a guy who works for the Metropolis Star. They're going to cut his head off."

"We can contact the police when we get out of here."

"How? Do you have a way off the island? Do you have access to a phone?"

"Well, no, but... You saw those guys. They've got some serious fire power. The only chance we have..."

"We're the only chance he's got. And I'm not leaving without him. You go ahead if you want. If you figure out a way to call the police, great! But I'm finding Kent. I'm not going to let him die." There was steel in her voice on the final sentence.

Dan let out a breath. "You're right. Okay... so... which way are we going?"

Lois looked in both directions before deciding on the direction opposite to the one Dan had chosen. If that way led to an exit, maybe the other way would lead to the operating room.

***

"I remember how amazed I was when you and Scardino showed up," Clark said. "I'd been struggling against the effects of the kryptonite, but I was sure I was a goner. So... thanks."

"Hey, that's what we do for each other," Lois said, leaning in to kiss him.

"Even in this screwed up reality, so it seems. But... do you remember what happened when we finally escaped?"

Lois nodded.

***

Lois saw Kent emerge from the bathroom, dressed in a pair of operating greens. They hadn't been able to locate his clothing. He looked weak and shaken. She began walking in his direction when Dan suddenly appeared in front of her.

"I got hold of Henderson. He's going to send choppers."

"Great," she said without much enthusiasm as she looked past Dan to where Kent was carefully lowering himself onto a couch.

Dan noticed her distracted expression. He turned to see the man sprawled across the couch, his arm over his eyes. "Did he say what happened?"

"I haven't had a chance to talk to him. I mean, he doesn't look beaten up or anything."

"Well, lying strapped to an operating table, about to have your head chopped off has to take a toll on a guy. And who knows, they might have given him some drugs or something to prepare him for the surgery."

"I suppose."

Dan looked back at Kent one more time. "Why don't we go check on him?" he asked.

"Yeah, I suppose." What she really wanted was some time to talk to Kent alone -- to find out what he'd been about to say when Spencer Spencer's goon had interrupted them. But getting that opportunity was looking less and less likely -- especially if those helicopters arrived soon. Besides, she must have misunderstood. He couldn't have been about to say what she thought he'd been about to say. It made absolutely no sense.

"Come on," Dan said, taking her hand as they walked together towards Kent.

Everything about this felt wrong. When Kent looked in their direction, Lois met his eyes. Almost instantly, he broke eye contact to focus on where her hand was joined to Dan's. Lois swallowed hard, having to force herself to continue putting one foot in front of another to keep pace with Dan.

Kent struggled, pulling himself into a seated position as they approached.

"I take it you must be Kent," Dan said.

"Clark Kent. And you are?"

"Dan Scardino." He stuck out his free hand. Kent grimaced as he rose from the couch so that the two men could shake hands.

"Well, thank you for the help," Kent said. "I was sure I was a goner."

"Hey, no problem, pal. Lois here wouldn't leave you behind."

Lois looked down, resisting the urge to squirm under the look she just knew Kent was giving her.

"She wouldn't, huh?" Kent asked.

"Yeah, if I were the jealous type, I'd be worried."

"You would, huh?"

"As if you have anything to be worried about, Dan," Lois said immediately. Kent's tone was just a little too knowing for her comfort.

"Anyway, the MPD choppers should be here soon. And Spencer and his goons are safely tied up like chickens in the operating room. So I guess all we have to do is wait." Dan plopped down into a chair, tugging on Lois' hand to pull her into his lap.

She cringed slightly. Dan didn't realize what he was doing -- or did he? Flaunting their relationship in front of Kent. Still, it was entirely possible she was overreacting -- that Kent didn't even care. After all, according to courthouse gossip, he was still dating Mayson Drake. Not that Lois made a point of knowing that. Not at all. She never even gave such things a second thought.

After all, it was hardly Lois' fault that the reporter covering the courthouse beat always returned to the newsroom at about the same time every day -- or that she always went for coffee the moment she entered the newsroom -- or that Lois had discovered that that particular time of day was a good time for another cup of coffee -- or that the courthouse reporter liked to pass on courthouse gossip. Nope. It was not Lois' fault at all that she knew that Kent was still dating Mayson Drake.

Still, Lois quickly squirmed out of Dan's lap, taking a seat on the arm of the chair next to him. She ignored the look she knew he was giving her in response.

She watched in concern as Kent gingerly sat back down -- as if he were in pain. In fact, all of his movements were sluggish. He was obviously hurting. But... what had they done to him?

"Are you all right?" she asked softly.

He looked at Dan and then at her. "Just dandy," he said, his tone of voice telling her that he wasn't talking about whatever pain he was in so much as how it was affecting him to see her with Dan.

"Good," she responded, pretending she hadn't heard the underlying message. After all, what did he expect? Being with him was impossible. He knew that. And that was how she knew that he'd not been about to say... what she thought he'd been about to say.

Still, why was it that she always seemed to fall for the wrong sort of men?

***

"As I remember it, those were the most uncomfortable fifteen minutes of my life," Clark said.

"For me, too, trust me. I can remember being so confused that night..."

***

Lois took a sip of warm milk. Dan had left hours ago, and still she couldn't sleep. Oh, she knew what the problem was.

Kent.

It was all so confusing. The man she knew him to be and the man she saw every time she looked in his eyes were two completely different men.

On the one hand, he was the man who had almost ruined her life. He was the one who had sent her mother back to the bottle. He was the one who had blown her cover twice in attempts to prevent her from getting a story. He was the one who had written that story about Perry. By all rights, she should despise him -- not find herself thinking about him all the time.

Maybe it was because those events seemed to be contradicted by others. The time he'd not taken advantage of her when she was under the influence of the pheromone compound. The number of times he'd saved her life. The way he would hold her and comfort her. The way he always seemed to be there when she needed him. Even the gentle way he made love. Every touch, every kiss seemed to mean something to him.

No wonder she was confused. He almost seemed to be two completely different men. And it was compromising her ability to forget about him, to get on with her life.

Well, and then there was this strange connection she felt whenever he was around. It was as if... She struggled a while, trying to figure it out. If she believed in reincarnation, she'd be tempted to believe that he had been her best friend in another life. Maybe even more than that.

But did she even know him? No. It wasn't as if they'd ever really sat down and had a conversation. Either they were yelling at each other or they were falling into bed together. On the other hand, it almost felt as if she did know him. For example she could almost swear that his favorite color was blue -- although red and yellow were important to him, too. Or if she were getting him coffee -- although it seemed more natural to think of him getting coffee for her -- she just knew that he would want full caf, whole milk and three sugar.

Still, it was three o'clock in the morning, and she wasn't going to figure out the mystery that was Clark Kent tonight. She'd worry about it tomorrow.

***

Clark sighed. "The last thing I remember about that night was watching Scardino put his arm around you as he led you to one of the helicopters. I stood on the grass of the mansion, just watching the helicopter until you were finally out of sight."

Lois leaned over, wiping away his mournful expression with a kiss. "It seems to me that it was about this time that Patrick Sullivan showed up," she said, getting them back on track after the kiss ended.

"How did Dan take that?"

"Not well." She glanced at Clark. "Not that you can criticize Dan for that. You weren't exactly thrilled when Patrick showed up in our reality."

"I was just worried about you."

"Hmph! Right!"

"Lois, Sullivan tried to sacrifice you to his ancient gods! I was right to be worried."

"And you weren't the least bit jealous?" she asked, her tone of voice making it very clear what she thought of that possibility. As she spoke, she rose to her feet, sashaying over to stand behind her husband. Placing her hands on the table on either side of his body, trapping him, she leaned over to nip on his ear before whispering into it. "Not the least bit jealous that I was spending time with another man?"

A deep rumble of laughter rolled through his chest. "Okay, so I was jealous."

She immediately straightened up. "I thought so," she said, taking her seat once again, a satisfied smirk on her face.

"Well if you've made your point, can we get back to this investigation?"

"No. I just want to sit here for a minute and enjoy the memory of making my husband jealous." She giggled. "Okay, well, Patrick came to town, and for the first time, Dan had some competition."

"What about me? Wasn't I competition?"

"Dan didn't know about you. And I wasn't about to tell him. Although, I did wonder about his behavior after we rescued you from Spencer Spencer. He never said anything, but I did wonder if he sensed something." She shrugged. "Anyway, I guess the story about Patrick Sullivan went pretty much the same as it did when you and I investigated it -- with the role of Clark Kent being played by Dan Scardino."

"So he saved your life?"

Lois nodded. "He found out I had gone to Patrick's suite and came there looking for me."

***

Lois was exhausted as Dan escorted her back to her apartment. Being almost killed tended to take it out of a person. And now that the adrenalin that had kept her going throughout her encounter with Patrick was beginning to wear off, what had actually transpired tonight was beginning to sink in.

She'd been tied to a table, Shamus standing over her holding a knife in some sort of bizarre ritualistic Druid ceremony. She continued twisting on the table, attempting to get her hands and feet free of the bindings holding her. Still, she'd been convinced that she'd finally gone too far. She wasn't going to get out of this one alive.

Until she'd heard someone knock on the door.

"Help!" she yelled. "They're trying to kill me."

A hand was instantly clamped over her mouth. She'd bit down hard. Shamus yelled, jumping back.

"Help!" she yelled again. "They're craz..."

A piece of cloth shoved into her mouth cut off any further pleas for help. She choked slightly around the cloth. The only bright point was that she suddenly heard someone smashing through the door.

She looked towards the sound to see Dan stumbling into the room, his gun drawn. Keeping Patrick and Shamus in his sights, he spoke. "It's over."

"Not yet," Patrick responded. "Shamus!"

Shamus instantly raised the knife. A gunshot, perfectly executed, sent the knife spinning out of Shamus' hands. Shamus let out a cry of pain before fleeing the room.

Dan's gun moved to Patrick.

Lois was baffled when Patrick, instead of raising his hands or fleeing, placed the Mask of the Ancient Ones over his face.

"Get down on the floor!" Dan demanded, keeping the gun's sights leveled at Patrick.

"I don't think so!" Patrick said.

A green laser shot from Patrick's eyes.

Lois tried to yell a warning from around the cloth in her mouth, but it seemed Dan must have seen it coming because although his cry of pain told Lois that he'd been hit somewhere, he dove to the floor, firing his gun at the same moment.

And then the only sound that could be heard was Dan's heavy breathing. Lois turned her head to see Patrick lying on the floor, blood beginning to pool around his body. She quickly looked away.

Lois unlocked the door to her apartment, opening it slightly. She wanted nothing more than to climb into a tub of hot water and have a nice, relaxing bath. Her plan was to get rid of Dan as quickly as possible so that she could do exactly that. She turned towards Dan.

"Dan, I just want to say..."

Dan reached over her shoulder, pushing the door fully open, and stepped past her into her apartment. She hesitated for a moment before sighing and following him into the room herself.

"God, what a day!" Dan said, dropping down and sprawling out on the couch. He gestured her over.

She closed the door and took a couple steps towards him before stopping.

"What exactly happened back there?" he asked.

On his question, she covered the remaining distance between them, taking a seat beside him. He obviously needed to talk about what had happened. And given that he'd saved her life, surely she could give him that. Besides, she could probably benefit from talking things out, too.

He pulled her over to settle in the crook of his arm.

"I'm not exactly sure what happened," Lois said. "Before you got there, Patrick kept going on about how he had to sacrifice me so that the power of his Druid ancestors would be given to him. But I didn't expect that green laser thing."

"Who would? Still, when I heard you scream..."

"I didn't scream."

He raised his eyebrows, shifting positions slightly so that he could look at her.

"I yelled," she corrected.

He smiled as his hand came up to stroke her cheek.

She glanced down. "I couldn't believe how long the police kept us there."

"I killed a man, Lois. They had to make sure it was a righteous shooting. And I think that green laser thing caused them some problems."

"Well, until someone touched the mask Patrick was wearing and almost got killed from the electrical charge it let off."

"That certainly did help my case." He turned her face back to him, pulling her closer to kiss her lightly. He pulled back slightly before kissing her again, his lips slowly exploring hers.

Lois soon found herself responding to the slow, gentle kisses. In fact, it felt... good. She didn't exactly remember how they ended up sprawled across the couch, bodies entangled. But she became very aware of what was going on when Dan's hand slipped beneath her shirt.

"No, Dan," she said softly, breaking the kiss and removing his hand.

"What's wrong?" he asked, looking up at her with passion filled eyes.

"Nothing's wrong. It's just getting late." She squirmed off of him.

He let out an audible breath, struggling to rise into a seated position. "Let me guess. You're just not ready," he said sarcastically.

He was upset, angry even. That much was obvious. "Look, Dan, I..."

"I've heard it before, Lois. And let me tell you, it's starting to get a little old. It's not even about sex. It's about the fact that you back away at the first hint that things are starting to get serious." He picked up his jacket that had somehow ended up dumped in a pile on the floor. He carefully pulled it over the bandage covering the burn he had on his arm from Patrick's laser vision. "I saved your life tonight. And not without injury to myself."

"So... what's this?" She gestured to the couch. "Payment?"

"Don't be stupid! Of course not. But what do you expect from me before you'll be 'ready?' Sainthood?"

Lois practically snorted. Sainthood? Given the fact that she'd slept with Kent, sainthood didn't seem to be very high on her list of priorities. She sought for a way to answer Dan, unable to find any. How could she explain to Dan that she simply didn't want to be intimate with him?

Fortunately, no response was required. Dan already had his coat on and was walking to the door.

"Goodnight, Lois," he said coolly. Still, when she joined him at the door, he touched her cheek gently before turning and walking out.

She closed and locked the door behind him. Leaning against it, she closed her eyes for a moment before returning to the couch. She hated to admit it, but Dan had a point. She was holding back -- and not just from sleeping with him. No wonder he was frustrated. Even if she wasn't ready to make love -- and to be fair, they had been dating pretty steadily for about five months now -- she wasn't letting things go past a few kisses, sometimes not even that. Any show of intimacy seemed to make her uncomfortable.

And she knew why. The problem could be summed up in a single word.

Kent.

She growled in frustration. She had to forget about Kent. Dan was wrong. She didn't expect sainthood. But she did need a man she could trust. And that man wasn't Kent. But until she could find a way to force Kent out of her head, things were pretty much at a stalemate with Dan.

***

Once Lois finished her story, she looked down to find Clark was holding her hand. It wasn't a possessive move. It was more like... comfort. She gave him a shaky smile. Still, nothing was said and after a moment, Lois and Clark returned to their computers. It wasn't long before they came across another story that caught their attention. It was a small piece, buried in the middle of the paper. Lois's name was on the byline.

'Five Hundred And Thirty-One People Missing in Metropolis.'

"Including Michelle and Arnold Sitkowitz," Lois said, remembering.

"Your neighbors?"

Lois nodded. "You know, it's funny," Lois said. "I can remember Perry letting me run the story. I think he just wanted to get me to stop wasting my time on it. His exact comment was about how he was sure that my neighbors were nice people but he didn't think their disappearance was hard news."

"He didn't send you to Larry Smiley's resort?"

"The Smiley Institute of Love and Dependency?"

"Love and Commitment," Clark corrected with a roll of his eyes.

Lois shook her head. "Which makes me wonder... why did he send us there in our reality? Was it because he believed there was a story there or..."

"...did he just want us to go for counseling?"

Lois nodded.

"Could be the second, I guess. I think he was worried about us. After all, we weren't exactly getting along at the time. So anyway what did you do when he took you off the story?"

"What do you think? I took some time off."

"Huh?"

Lois let out a breath. "I'd promised Michelle's sister that I was going to get to the bottom of Michelle's disappearance. So when I discovered that a number of the missing couples had been to Smiley's Institute, I decided to check it out."

"So you went alone?"

"Not exactly."

"Why do I get the feeling I know what's coming next?"

"I needed a partner," Lois said. "It wasn't as if I could go for couples' counseling on my own. And who better than the guy I was currently dating. Besides, Dan was a D.E.A agent, so I figured he could take care of himself," Lois said in her own defense.

"But..." Clark paused and a confused expression settled on his face.

"What?"

"I'm just... remembering something, I think," he said slowly. "Mayson had dragged me to some art exhibit -- I think it was some big work thing she had to go to -- when..."

***

"I've been thinking," Mayson said as she wandered over to the next painting.

"Yeah, so have I. How do they get 'A day in the park' out of this." Clark tilted his head to the side as he examined the painting, trying to reconcile his images of a day in the park with the painting before him.

She gave his arm a smack. "No, Clark. I've been thinking about... well..."

"What?" He turned to look at her.

"It's just... We've been dating for almost six months now -- on and off and..."

"Yes," Clark replied, suddenly feeling a little nervous. Mayson had been extremely patient with his... patience. Was now the time she finally lowered the boom?

"I was just thinking. I mean, in all that time, we really haven't... I mean, you haven't..."

Unable to stand the tension a moment longer, he took her hands, pulling her around to look at him. If this was where she finally told him she didn't want to see him anymore, he wanted to just get it over with. "What is it, Mayson?"

"Well, I just think..."

He nodded, encouraging her to continue.

"I just think we have some issues in our relationship and..."

"...you think you deserve better," Clark completed for her. He couldn't blame her. How many other women would put up with a relationship where her boyfriend didn't seem inclined to move things beyond kissing? "I can't say I blame you, Mayson. I know you deserve better."

"No, Clark. I just... Well, there's this counselor -- Larry Smiley. I've heard great things about him and..."

"You want me to go to a counselor?"

"No, I want us to go to a counselor. Together. He does a weekend relationship seminar that's supposed to be really good. So... what do you think? It would mean getting away for the weekend -- which we could both use after working so hard the last couple of months. And..."

Clark was about to start shaking his head. He wasn't interested in counseling. He didn't need counseling. And relationship counseling with Mayson would just be... weird.

"...it would mean a lot to me."

He hesitated. She really had been understanding -- far more than he had any right to expect. And she asked so little in return. "Okay, Mayson. So when do we go?"

***

"Are you telling me that we're both about to end up at the same retreat, with our respective partners, for couples' counseling?" Lois asked nervously.

***

Chapter Thirty-One

***

Clark looked around as they strolled across the campground. Several times since agreeing to this little trip, he'd tried to back out. The problem, he'd been forced to admit more and more often over recent weeks, was that he didn't love Mayson -- knew that he would never love Mayson.

And Clark had never been able to understand people who could engage in casual intimacy. One might be tempted to laugh at that -- considering that he'd gone to bed with Lane when they hadn't even been dating. On the other hand, nothing that had happened between him and Lane had been casual. And, in spite of how things had ended, he didn't believe it had been casual for her either.

Still, none of that helped him deal with Mayson. He couldn't take things further between them, and yet at the same time, he enjoyed spending time with her. She was smart and funny. Well educated and able to hold her own in any discussion. Of course, her best asset was that she loved football. Many a pleasant afternoon or evening had been spent in sweats, drinking beer and eating pizza while watching a game. In fact, in many ways, he knew Mayson better than he'd ever known Lane. Mayson was a very welcome distraction to spending his spare time at home trying not to fantasize about what he could never have.

Those fantasies sometimes seemed so real -- floating with her above the city, having her tell him he wasn't alone anymore, even having her tell him she loved him. And without being able to spend time with Mayson, he felt as if he could get lost in those fantasies. Shouldn't his feelings for Lane begin to slacken over time? Yet he couldn't keep from feeling that they should be discussing marriage, not dating other people.

Was he using Mayson? He'd pondered that question several times in recent weeks. Maybe in some ways he was -- if one considered dating only as a means of determining lifetime compatibility. However, if it was a social convention designed to spend time with a person one liked, he wasn't. And certainly at first he had hoped that Mayson would eventually displace Lane in his heart. But at this point... maybe this was no longer fair to Mayson.

"You'll be the bobcats," their guide said, stopping in front of the doors to one of the cabins.

"Thank you," Mayson responded, practically skipping up the steps. Unlike Clark, she was obviously excited to be there. Letting out a breath, he followed, taking their luggage with him.

He stepped through the cabin door.

And froze.

There was only one, admittedly very large, bed.

"Oh, relax, Clark," Mayson said, obviously seeing the look on his face. "We're both adults."

Clark blinked. Right. They were both adults. Just because they were staying in a single room with a large double bed didn't mean that she would be expecting them to be intimate.

***

"And did she?" Lois asked. Then, before he could respond, she continued. "Okay. Okay. I know one step at a time. We've got to work through these memories chronologically for some reason -- and I don't imagine that she pulled you onto the bed and began ravaging you the moment you closed the door. Although... how she could resist, I'm not entirely sure. Probably just proves that she wasn't too bright."

"Lo-is," Clark growled.

"Okay," she said as her only acknowledgment of his rebuke. "Anyway, I remember being annoyed when Dan and I got to that first group session."

***

Lois fumed. They were late to their first class. Not that it particularly mattered. Lois believed in these type of programs almost as much as she believed in vampires, Sasquatch and time travel. Counseling. Getting in touch with one's feelings. Blaming one's parents for everything wrong in life. Please. Why didn't people just pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Still, being there early would have allowed her to get a feel for the place, do some snooping before they had to rush off to class. And that was the reason they were there, after all.

***

"You didn't believe in time travel?" Clark asked.

"Before we first met Herb, did you?"

Clark let out a breath. She had a point. "Do you think that means vampires and Sasquatch also exist?"

She swatted his arm.

"Anyway," he said, picking up on her story, "I remember how I first found out that you were there."

***

Clark sat cross-legged on the floor, looking, with the rest of the participants, at the man at the front. Larry Smiley.

"Harmonicity," Smiley said. "Now put away your Funk and Wagnalls, that ain't English. It's what I call a 'Larryism.'

"Harmonicity is a blend, if you will, of complimentary desires." Smiley turned to look at a large portrait of an older woman on the wall behind him. "And as my dear mama would tell ya, that's what nature meant marriage to be."

Clark swallowed hard. He thought this was a relationship seminar, not a marriage seminar. It would explain, however, why the cabin only had one bed. He chanced a quick look at Mayson, wondering suddenly if this was some kind of set up -- to get him thinking about marriage. Or was she as surprised by this as he was? She was looking at Smiley, not giving away her thoughts.

"How 'bout it, folks? We got harmonicity?" Smiley asked.

Clark's eyebrows rose when everyone around him began smiling and nodding enthusiastically. He'd always believed in self-help seminars and groups, but something was off here. These people were acting cultish. He suddenly smiled as he had a flash of how Lane would react to being here. He could almost see her smirk in his mind. Not that she would be caught dead coming to something like this.

"Well, heck," Smiley continued. "Then take hands! Smile on yourselves!"

Clark felt incredibly uncomfortable as everyone joined hands. Any moment now, he half expected people would be coming around with the purple kool-aid. A glance at Mayson told him that she was as ecstatic as everyone else appeared to be.

"Mama!" Smiley said, turning back to the portrait. "Darn if I can't feel it! I feel the harmony. I feel the love."

Clark's eyebrows rose. This guy most definitely had an Oedipus complex. It was as creepy as everything else about this place.

The sudden commotion coming from outside the door was a welcome relief. Like a door had been opened and a breath of fresh air had been let into the room.

"It's not like I did it on purpose," a man said.

"Of course not," a woman responded. "You're a man. Looking at a map would violate some sort of man-code."

Clark's head jerked up. He knew that voice.

"Would you relax? We're a few minutes late. It's not like the world's going to end."

The door opened and Clark froze as Lane swept into the room, bringing unexpected color and sanity to the loony-bin. She'd cut her hair. It looked good. Really good. His eyes drifted down the tantalizing line of her neck that the new haircut revealed, visions planting kisses along every inch of the surface dancing through his mind.

Then Scardino pushed past Lane to enter the room and Clark felt as if he'd been hit by a Mac truck.

"Sorry we're..." Lane's voice trailed off when her eyes met Clark's.

"...late," Dan completed for her since she suddenly appeared to have lost the power of speech.

"Male and Female Hawk," Smiley said. "And not a moment too soon." He gestured to the crowd gathered around, indicating that they should come further into the room. It seemed to take Dan's hand on her arm to finally allow her to break eye contact with Clark. Her eyes drifted for a moment to the woman sitting next to him before she looked away.

Had something happened that he hadn't heard about? This was a marriage seminar, after all. So had she and Scardino...? Had he known what it felt like to suffer from heart contractions, he'd have sworn that was what he was feeling now.

***

"I was thinking something very different when I spotted you," Lois said.

***

Of all the stupid luck. Kent was obviously onto this story, too. Although why he'd chosen to come here with Mayson instead of his own partner... Now that didn't make a lot of sense. On the other hand, having his own personal D.A. around might be handy once he broke the story. Not to mention what other things Ms. D.A. might be doing for him in one of those small cabins with the large beds.

No. Lois was definitely not going there. She didn't care what Kent did in that large double bed. She didn't. Not at all. Just as long as he stayed out of hers. After all, she had Dan now. She reached out and took Dan's hand. Not that Dan was going to be doing anything for her in the large double bed in their cabin. But if Kent wanted to believe that they were making wild monkey love all night, that was just fine with her. In fact, she might just get the urge to engage in a little spontaneous screaming tonight, just to let Kent know that she no longer cared about him, what he did or who he did it with.

Of course, Dan would certainly be surprised if she started to scream as if suddenly in the throws of ecstasy while he was sitting in a chair on the far side of the room reading a book. 'Yes! Yes! Yes! Harder! Harder! Harder!' She giggled -- only then realizing that for some reason the entire group had been sitting in silent meditation.

"Larry!" one of the women said, her hand going up. "Female Hawk is giggling."

Suddenly, everyone was looking at Lois.

"Female Hawk," Smiley said. "Honey, this is serious business. This is no time for giggling."

Lois suddenly spotted a nametag on one of the employees. 'Kathy.' Michelle's sister had said that Michelle had mentioned a Kathy.

"Female Hawk, did you hear what I said?" Smiley asked.

"Huh?" Lois looked back at Smiley.

"Here we speak what I call 'blunt speak,'" Smiley said. "And that's a... what?"

The woman who'd ratted on Lois raised her hand again.

"Yes?" Smiley asked, gesturing to the woman.

"A Larryism."

"Right you are, Female Lemur. And, Female Hawk, bluntly speaking, you need a change of attitude. Maybe you need a time out."

Lois looked around at the group. They were all staring back at her. Well, all except one. Kent had his head down and seemed to be trying not to laugh. His efforts affected her. She giggled again. At least one other person here seemed to appreciate the insanity of the situation.

"Oh, yes, Female Hawk. You definitely need a time out. Step outside and don't return 'til you're singin' with the choir."

Lois quickly rose to her feet. "Really?" she asked. "Do I have to? Shucks." She could see Kent's shoulders shaking in silent laughter and she had to fight to keep from joining him. Turning quickly, she rushed from the room, barely getting the door closed behind her before bursting into laughter. That had to be one of the most ludicrous experiences she'd ever had.

***

"What made you laugh?" Lois asked.

"Well, just before you came in, I was wondering how you'd react to Smiley's techniques. I kept thinking that you'd find it amusing, so when you laughed..." He shrugged. "After you left, Mayson jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow. I guess you weren't the only one who noticed I was laughing. But unlike you, I didn't get a time out. Guess I'm just more likeable."

Lois smacked his arm in retaliation. "Anyway, getting that time out gave me an opportunity to talk to Kathy and do some snooping around."

"Just like it did in our reality. Has it ever occurred to you that there are now two realities now where you got a time out? Do you think that signifies something?" Clark asked, grinning.

"I think it signifies that I have a problem with insanity," she responded immediately. Her grin then faded. "I was surprised, though, at how much Dan seemed to get into it."

"What do you mean?"

***

Lois was busy writing up her notes when she heard the door open. She looked up to see Dan enter the cabin. The slammed door made her eyebrows jump into her hairline. It was so out of character for Dan.

"What's up with you?" she asked.

"You didn't come back."

"What?"

"After your time out, you didn't come back."

"So?"

"Look. The only reason I agreed to come on this little undercover operation of yours was that I thought we might be able to benefit from some couple's counseling. And then... you walked out of the seminar and never came back."

"You've got to be kidding me," Lois responded.

"Are you telling me that you honestly don't think we have a problem?" Dan said. "It's been six months since we started dating, and still all I get from you is 'I'm not ready.'"

"Are you saying that the only reason you're here is because you think this is going to make me sleep with you?" she asked in disbelief. "And you expect that to change because of some nutcase who says things like 'harmonicity' and 'larryisms' and orders adults to take 'time outs?'"

"We've got a problem, Lois. And if you don't see that..."

"Don't you mean 'if I don't sleep with you...' Which, by the way, I don't see as a problem."

"I'm not just talking about our sleeping or not sleeping together. I go to kiss you -- and you turn your cheek to me as often as not." He let out a frustrated breath. "So I suppose that means you aren't planning to go to the one on one counseling I set up with Larry later today."

Lois was about to tell him he was crazy if he thought she was going to spill her guts to that nutcase, when she hesitated. "Oh." She thought for a moment more. "That's a great idea. Wouldn't miss it for the world," Lois suddenly said.

Dan narrowed his eyes. "Why do I get a bad feeling about this?"

"Relax. I've just got one or two questions I'd like to ask Smiley. Do you think that's his real name?"

Dan sighed. "Why do I get the feeling your 'questions' don't have anything to do with our relationship?"

***

"Now, that is interesting," Clark said. "Mayson dragged me to one of those sessions, too."

***

"Come in! Come in, Male and Female Bobcat!" Smiley said, gesturing Mayson and Clark into the log cottage. Bear skins lined the wall. Bookshelves were filled with leather bound books. A fire was burning in the fireplace.

"This is very cozy," Clark said nervously. At least during the group sessions, he could blend into the background. Now that he was front and center, he really didn't think this was a good idea.

"Well, don't just stand there like a bump on a log," Smiley said. "As my good mama would say, furniture is meant to be sat upon."

"Uhh... look. I'm not sure this is necessary," Clark said. "I think the group sessions are good enough."

"Male Bobcat, God is good -- but never dance in a small boat," Smiley said.

"Huh?"

"I think what Larry is trying to say is that it's better to get help now than to wait until it's too late," Mayson said. As she spoke, she tugged on Clark's arm, pulling him towards an overstuffed couch.

"The little lady has it right. As my good mama used to say, God helps those who help themselves."

With a sigh, Clark took a seat on the couch.

"Now, Female Bobcat. What do you think is the main barrier preventing the two of you from achieving harmonicity in your relationship?"

Clark watched Mayson shift uncomfortably. "Well, he doesn't seem to want to be intimate with me."

***

"Have I told you lately that I love you?" Lois said, giving her husband a kiss.

"What brought that on?"

"You not sleeping with Mayson."

"How could I? I was in love with you."

"It's interesting, though. Because Dan and my meeting with Smiley started off in much the same way."

***

Lois curiously studied the titles of the books lining the bookshelf. Most of them appeared to be counseling or self-help texts -- the type of book she avoided with a passion. If only she could spot a text on the idiot's guide to kidnapping, she'd be all set. After all, this guy was just crazy enough to be behind the disappearance of so many couples in Metropolis.

"Well, don't just stand there growing roots," Smiley said. "Come in and take a seat."

With a sigh, Lois joined Dan on the overstuffed couch.

"So, Male Hawk, what do you see as the main barrier to the two of you achieving harmonicity in your relationship?"

"Well, Lois seems to have some barriers in regards to intimacy and I can't seem to break through them."

"Oh great," Lois mumbled under her breath.

"So what do you think the reason is for these barriers?" Smiley asked.

"I don't have barriers! Just because I don't want..." She cut off her words. No. They were supposed to be married. So she couldn't exactly admit that they weren't sleeping together. Or that she had no desire to sleep with him. "I just don't think that a couple's relationship should be defined by what happens in the bedroom."

"I have no argument with you there, Female Hawk," Smiley said.

Lois let out a breath of relief. She really didn't want to talk about sex with either of these men.

"But problems in the bedroom are usually symptomatic of problems in other areas."

Oh, great.

"So let's get into it then. As my dear mama used to say, admitting you have a problem is half way to a solution."

Lois fought the urge to roll her eyes. Was this guy anything more than a cliche factory?

***

"So how did you deal with the sex problem?" Lois asked, looking over at her husband.

Clark rolled his eyes. "Well, Smiley had a... slightly unique approach."

***

"I have just the thing for you," Larry said, rising from his chair. He left the room for a moment, and when he returned he was holding a brown paper bag. "Reach in and take one."

Clark and Mayson both did as instructed, each pulling out, much to Clark's surprise, a fortune cookie.

"Okay, now what I want you to do is to read your fortune. And after the fortune, add the words: 'in bed.'"

Skeptically, Clark waited for Mayson to open her cookie.

"The next full moon brings enchanted evening... in bed."

"Well, now," Smiley said. "According to my calendar, the next full moon is tomorrow night."

Clark swallowed hard when he saw the look of ecstasy on Mayson's face.

"Go on, son. Read yours," Smiley said.

"Look, I..." Then, seeing the expectant looks on Mayson's and Smiley's faces, he opened his cookie. "You will soon take a pleasant and successful trip," Clark said.

"Add the final phrase," Smiley instructed.

Clark hesitated for a moment. "In bed," he said.

"Good!" Larry clapped his hands together. "Well, folks, I have another couple to see, but I think we're well on our way here to achieving... What?"

"Harmonicity," Mayson said enthusiastically.

"Right you are, Female Bobcat."

***

"What about you?" Clark asked.

"Well, we never actually got quite as far as the fortune cookies."

"Oh?"

***

"This is crazy," Lois said, rising to her feet. No way did she intend to discuss her parents' sex life with Smiley. Or with Dan for that matter.

"Female Hawk," Smiley said. "You're heading down a one way street."

"That's good then, because I'm only going one way." Having said her piece, she stormed towards the door.

"Does she always have such a problem listening?" she heard Smiley ask Dan as she slammed the door.

"I don't have a problem listening," Lois muttered to herself as she marched in the direction of her cabin. "I'm just choosing to ignore what you have to say."

She got half way to her cabin when she came to a sudden stop. "Damn!" she exclaimed. Dan had got her so side-tracked that she'd forgotten to question Smiley about Arnold and Michelle. She turned back around, but it was obviously too late. Dan was coming out of the cabin. There was no way she could slip the questions casually into the counseling session now.

***

"Wait a minute," Clark said. "Didn't Mayson and I run into you and Dan when we were leaving the session?"

Lois cringed. "Now that you mention it..."

***

Not exactly paying attention to where she was going, Lois plowed directly into a man's chest. And not just any chest. She knew this chest. She knew the way the muscles rippled when she moved her hands across its plains and valleys. She knew the sounds that emanated from that chest when its owner was in the throws of passion.

She quickly stepped back. "Sorry," she mumbled, not meeting his eyes. She didn't need to. She knew who was standing before her.

"Kent," Dan said pleasantly. "I thought I saw you earlier."

Oh, god. They weren't actually going to have a conversation, were they? Kent and Ms. D.A. and her and Dan. No. This was just all wrong. "I think Smiley's expecting us," Lois said, hoping to end this encounter now before this whole situation got any more awkward.

"Oh, he'll wait a minute," Dan said. "So who's this?" As he spoke, he looked at the woman beside Kent.

"Mayson Drake," Mayson responded, holding one hand out to Dan while slipping her other through the crook in Kent's arm.

"Dan Scardino," Dan replied.

Mayson's eyes turned towards Lois. "I didn't know you were married, Lois."

"Uhh..." Her eyes flicked to Kent. He was obviously listening.

"Oh, we're not married," Dan said. "Not yet, anyway. So I take it you two..."

Lois felt dread rising in her chest like waves pounding on the rocks. It hadn't even occurred to her to wonder if they were married. But in that one moment, it felt as if the storm was about to crash in around her, drowning her in its turbulent waters.

"No... well not yet," Mayson said.

And suddenly, the seas calmed. But... what did 'not yet' mean? It was the same thing Dan had said. Still... those words could mean almost anything.

"So are you enjoying the sessions?" Dan asked.

"Very much. Larry Smiley certainly gives you a lot to think about," Mayson said.

Lois fought the urge to roll her eyes. What did Smiley make Mayson think about? Harmonicity? Blunt speak? Larryisms?

"I like the new haircut."

Kent's softly spoken words caused Lois' eyes to finally connect with his.

And time froze.

"Well, I suppose we should..." Dan said, gesturing to the door to Smiley's cabin.

Lois quickly broke eye contact with Kent -- suddenly wondering how long they'd been staring at each other. She quickly shook herself free of whatever spell had overtaken her when her eyes had met Kent's. "It was nice seeing you. But Dan's right..." Without completing her thought, Lois slipped past the 'happy couple' on her way to the front door of the cabin. Suddenly, meeting with Smiley seemed the lesser of two evils.

***

"So what happened when you got back to your cabin? Did you sleep on air -- the way you did when we went to Smiley's retreat?"

"I never told Mayson I had... unique abilities. For some reason, I just had this feeling that if she knew, she wouldn't be nearly so accepting of me."

"Even in this reality?"

Clark nodded.

"You still didn't answer my question, Clark."

Clark shifted in his chair. "What question would that be?"

"What happened when you got back to your cabin?"

***

Chapter Thirty-Two

***

Clark had finished moving two chairs together when the door to the bathroom opened and Mayson reemerged. Suddenly, Clark had a very bad feeling about where this was going. She'd changed for bed, and although the outfit wasn't overtly sexual, it was obviously meant to entice. Trying to ignore any possible motivations she might have for her choice of sleeping apparel, Clark concentrated on shaking out the extra blanket he'd found in the closet.

"What are you doing?" Mayson asked, sashaying closer.

"Getting my bed set up," he said, gesturing to the chairs.

"That doesn't look very comfortable, Clark."

"Sure it is." As if to prove his point, Clark sat down in one of the chairs, resting his feet on the other. He pulled the blanket up around him. "See?"

Mayson took a seat on the side of the bed and watched for a moment as he struggled to look as if he was settling down for the night. A moment later, he'd managed to push the chairs too far apart and had fallen in between them.

"Clark, this is ridiculous," Mayson said. "Come share the bed. I'm not going to attack you."

She got up and pulled back the covers, climbing in. Clark watched her for a moment, before rising to his feet. She was right. He could trust her not to try anything. And it wasn't as if he would have problems fending her off if she did anyway. He was becoming quite an expert at dodging her advances.

Besides, he didn't want Mayson to think that he didn't trust her. That was important, too.

And the bed really did look comfortable.

***

"I don't think I slept at all that night," Clark said. "I was so close to my own edge that I had to partially float not to fall off."

"So I take it she didn't try anything?"

"She was a paragon of virtue. What about Dan?"

***

Dan had gone for a walk after their disastrous encounter with Smiley. Lois was actually glad for the reprieve. The last thing she had needed tonight was to fight over sleeping arrangements. She changed into a t-shirt and sweats -- no need to tempt the fates, or rather, Dan, by wearing anything that might be considered provocative. In fact, it might be best if she were already asleep when he arrived.

She climbed into bed and attempted to fall asleep as quickly as possible -- effectively keeping herself awake until Dan entered the cabin.

Although she didn't turn towards him, she could hear the sounds of him getting changed. She held her breath as he put out the lantern. She heard his soft footfalls as he approached, ever closer, until she knew he was standing next to the bed. She could practically feel him bend over to pick up the cover on the empty side of the bed.

"Don't even think about it," she said the moment she felt the cover move.

He sighed, but without a word, walked over to where she'd put out a pillow and blanket and made up a bed on the floor.**

***

Lois' early morning jog was invigorating. She hadn't slept well the previous night. Realizing that Kent was with Ms. D.A., doing only God knew what, had played havoc with her imagination. Did he touch Mayson the way he had touched her? Did he kiss her with the same amount of passion? Were the noises he made as intoxicating to the other woman as they had been to Lois?

The thought had crossed through her mind to invite Dan into her bed in an effort to drive away those images. Not that it had been more than a passing notion -- not even rising to the level of an actual idea. After all, she knew she'd never do it. She couldn't fake sex with Dan to get the pictures of Kent with Mayson out of her mind. In fact, she suspected that such action would only serve to remind her what her body still seemed to want. And that couldn't be found with Dan. He didn't have the power to make her blood boil in her veins. He couldn't make her helpless to do anything but follow her passions -- regardless of the consequences.

Hearing someone on the path ahead of her, she looked up. Her footsteps faltered when she realized who she was meeting. Another early morning jogger, or so it seemed. For some reason, he didn't appear either sweaty or out of breath. She slowed her pace, finally coming to a walk as they drew closer together.

"Morning, Kent," she said, not adding the obvious question about what he was doing up so early.

"Morning, Lane," he responded.

"Out for a morning jog, I see."

"Always good to get the cardiovascular system going first thing in the morning."

"Not that you'd need it after last night, I expect." Damn! Now why had she said that?

"No more than you would," he responded.

She bristled. "So you and Mayson must be getting pretty serious if you're here."

"Much like you and Dan."

She could feel so many underlying currents running between them that she was afraid the undertow might drag her under. "Well, Dan's a great guy. Attentive. Loving. Loyal."

"Sounds like my dog when I was seven," he mumble under his breath.

"What?" she demanded, an edge creeping into her tone.

"Sounds like a match made in heaven," he said louder.

Her eyes narrowed. Had she misunderstood him the first time?

"Mayson's pretty great, too," Kent went on to say.

"Well, if she's so great, maybe it's time you proposed."

"Maybe it is. I think she'd say yes."

Lois' heart dropped. He'd obviously been thinking about this. "Well, I guess I need to..." She gestured to the path in front of her, needing to get out of there before tears could well up in her eyes. "And you could probably use some more time jogging yourself. You'll never get your cardiovascular system going if you don't work up a good sweat."

"Yeah, I probably should..." He gestured to the path as well.

"Well, I'm glad we had a chance to clear the air."

"Me, too. It will be much easier this way."

"Right. Now that we're both happily involved with other people."

"Right."

"Well..."

"Well..."

And with those final words of wisdom, they both jogged off in opposite directions.

***

"I can remember being absolutely convinced that you and Mayson were completely in love," Lois said. "That you hardly even remembered what had happened between us."

"Me? I thought you and the wild one were well on your way to walking down the aisle. Although, I'm still not sure why I told you I thought Mayson would say yes if I proposed. It was just that listening to you tell me how great Dan was..." He shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't get it. Why were we playing these games with each other, Clark?"

Clark shook his head helplessly, having no wisdom to impart to her.

"Anyway, during the seminar that day, Kathy slipped me a note -- telling me to meet her at the mediation tree at midnight. She seemed ready to talk. So I dumped Dan and headed out at about quarter to twelve to wait for her. I sat on that park bench for about half an hour before finally spotting her up in that tree -- dead. By the way, how did you get there so quickly?"

"Uhh... well..." Clark said before backing slowly into his story.

***

Clark finished brushing his teeth before stepping back into the room he shared with Mayson. Since she was already in bed, he carefully crawled in his side. Personally, after last night, he'd have preferred to sleep on the floor. Only problem was that he had no idea how to explain that to Mayson without hurting her feelings.

He had just settled when she rolled in his direction. For a moment, he tensed. But then, realizing that she had just rolled onto her side and propped her head up on her hand, he forced himself to relax. She obviously wanted to talk to him.

"Clark, I've been doing some thinking about... well, things."

"And...?" he asked. "Have you come to any conclusions?"

"I think our problem is that we've sort of gotten into a rut."

"A rut?"

She nodded. "We've gotten so used to things being a certain way that neither of us know how to move things forward anymore."

As she spoke, her free hand moved to his chest. For a moment, he tensed, but when her hand did nothing more than lay passively on his chest, he began to relax. It wasn't as if she never touched him, after all.

"Anyway, that's the reason why I thought that maybe it would be helpful if I was just... spontaneous."

Not sure what she was getting at, he just continued to look at her. Until her hand slipped under the bottom of his t-shirt. He moved his hands, intending to stop her, when the sheet slipped down slightly and... Whoa! He stared in disbelief at a creamy shoulder and the bare curve of her breast and... He swallowed hard. He was so distracted that he hardly noticed that her hand was running over his stomach and pecks.

"Are you...?" he asked.

"Yes," she said, sliding the tips of her fingers beneath the waistband of his sleep shorts even as she leaned closer to kiss him.

"Whoa!" He pushed himself backwards, falling onto the floor of the cabin.

"Clark..."

"I'm sorry, Mayson," Clark said, scrambling to his feet and collecting his clothes at something just short of superspeed. "I can't do this."

A moment later, he was out of the cabin, pulling on his clothes as he fled.

***

"She was naked?" Lois asked.

Clark nodded.

"Oh, wow. So where did you go?"

"For a walk -- while I figured out what to do next. I should have talked to Mayson about where our relationship was going -- or maybe 'not going' would be a better way to say it -- before things got so out of hand. The worst part was that no matter where I walked in that camp, I could still hear Mayson softly crying. I felt like such a heel. That was when I found you, staring up into a tree. I looked up and..."

"Saw Kathy. According to the police she hung herself."

"But you didn't believe that."

Lois shook her head. "Not for a minute. Someone doesn't indicate that she wants to confess and then kill herself before she can."

"Yeah, I remember watching the police leave and Larry Smiley locking up the main cabin before realizing that I hadn't seen you for quite some time."

***

Where was Lane? Clark pushed his glasses down his nose and stared over the top of them. His eyebrows rose when he saw her snooping around the main cabin using nothing more than a flashlight. What was she doing?

Spotting an open window, he looked around. Everyone had already returned to their cabins. No one around to see him, he walked over to the window and silently slipped inside. Keeping his eyes on Lane, he watched as she pulled a sheet of paper out of her pocket and began searching the bookshelves as if to see which book the paper might match.

Huh?

He stepped closer. His concentration directed on figuring out what she was trying to do, he accidentally bumped into a coffee table.

Lane instantly spun around, her flashlight's beam landing on his startled face.

"What are you doing here?" she hissed.

"What are you doing here?" he responded.

"Just looking for something good to read." She quickly folded up the paper and moved to stick it in her pocket.

He had it out of her hand before she could complete her task. "What's this?" he asked, opening what was obviously a page torn out of an ancient manuscript. Even the writing appeared to be in some ancient language -- one even he couldn't read.

"Nothing."

He looked up at her. Her tone of voice sounded too innocent to be true.

She let out a breath. "Okay, fine. Kathy had it on her."

"So?"

She shrugged. "I was just curious to find out where she might have found it."

"Right," he said sarcastically. "Come on, Lane. What's really going on here?"

"Nothing. I was just... curious, that's all. But since there's nothing here, I'll just..." She snatched the paper out of his hand and began walking towards the door.

He quickly lowered his glasses and looked around the room. "Then I guess you wouldn't be interested in this..." He pulled open a door to a hidden room.

"How did you find that?" Lane asked, hurrying back over to beat him into the room.

"Just curious, huh?"

"Just curious," she responded, even as she began searching her new environment. "Kent, look at this," she said after a moment. "Smiley's got the files sorted into two piles: 'accepted' and 'rejected' candidates."

"Accepted and rejected for what?"

"Dan and I are in the rejected pile... Oh, great. You and Mayson are in the accepted pile."

"Is that a good thing... or a bad thing?"

"Well, I'd like to feel accepted." She picked up Clark and Mayson's file, flipping it open.

"Hey, what are you doing?" Clark demanded.

When he reached for the file, Lane turned her back on him, preventing him from retrieving it. He could have done so if he had really wanted to. However, he was distracted when he spotted something else much more interesting to him. He grabbed the file for Lane and Scardino and turned away, opening it quickly.

At first, Lane didn't seem to notice. She began reading what Smiley had written in his file about him and Mayson. "Couple displays great promise," she began sarcastically. "They have a solid foundation of mutual respect in spite of Kent's..." her voice trailed off.

Without thinking about what she might be seeing, he began to read from her file. "Couple is not compatible. Lane doesn't trust or respect her partner. This combined with a fear of any sort of intimacy..."

"...fear of any sort of intimacy," Lois finally completed from his file.

For a moment, both of them stood in silence. Then it sank in what the other had said and at almost the same moment, they grabbed for their own files.

"Fear of intimacy?" Lane asked in disbelief. "Just because I don't want to sleep with Dan doesn't mean..." Her voice trailed off and color rose in her cheeks as she seemed to realize that she'd spoken aloud. Suddenly, she looked over at him. "Don't look so smug," she said defensively. "According to that file, you have a fear of intimacy, too."

"I don't have a fear of intimacy," Clark objected. "I just don't want..."

"...to sleep with Mayson," Lane completed for him.

They stood there staring at each other in silence for a long moment, the tension in the air almost palpable. Who moved first, Clark didn't know. But suddenly, she was in his arms, and they were kissing. Wildly. Passionately. Bodies pressed intimately together. Hands roaming, seeking to be everywhere at once.

How had he lived without her all these months? Clark wasn't entirely certain. He also wasn't entirely sure how they remained standing as they sought out each other's mouths with a hunger that seemed to take both of them by surprise.

The sudden sound of the door crashing all the way opened caused them to jump apart, and in an instant they were standing on opposite sides of the room. Their breathing remained heavy as their eyes swung towards the man standing like a thundercloud in the entranceway.

"Dan," Lane breathed.

"Well, this certainly explains a lot," Dan said, his voice practically dripping with sarcasm. Without another word, he turned and walked out of the room.

"Dan," Lane called after him, before dashing for the door.

"Lane, wait!" Clark said. "We need to talk."

"I can't. I just... can't," she responded, not even looking back at him as she fled the room.

He was about to go after her when he hesitated. Mayson Drake was still in their cabin. He had to do something about Mayson before pursuing Lane. If only he weren't such a coward he would have made sure Mayson knew where they stood long before now.

***

"I remember what happened then," Lois said softly.

***

"Dan!" Lois yelled, running to catch up with him.

He stopped, staring up into the sky. She slowed her pace to a jog until she finally came to a stop behind him.

"It wasn't what it looked like," Lois said, realizing immediately how lame that sounded.

But the comment at least caused Dan to turn towards her. "It wasn't what it looked like?" Dan asked, disbelief clearly evident in his tone. "What it looked like was that my girlfriend was getting hot and heavy with another man in a way she's never gotten with me."

Lois cringed. Okay, so maybe it was sort of what it looked like. "I just meant..." What did she mean? How could she possibly explain that although Kent could get her blood boiling, what she wanted was someone she could trust -- did trust -- someone like Dan. She was silent for a moment, marshaling her words, before saying, slowly and firmly, "No, Dan. It wasn't what it looked like. Kent was out of... No, actually, we were both out of line. But there is nothing between us -- not now, not ever. He knows that and I know that."

"How long has this been going on?" he asked, the anger now gone from his voice to be replaced by a sad resigned tone.

"It hasn't," she said, meeting his eyes. "I mean, this is the first time... well, since I started dating you. And... it doesn't mean anything. It just sort of... happened."

Dan took a step forward, closing the distance between them. "You want to be with Kent, don't you?"

"No!" she responded immediately. "I want to be with you."

He raised his eyebrows.

"Okay, you're right. I have this strange... attraction to Kent. But there is no possibility of a future there." She reached up, laying a hand on Dan's chest. "But there might be the possibility of a future with you."

He searched her eyes for a long moment before shaking his head.

"Dan..." Lois said, tears forming in her eyes as he slowly began backing away.

Now what did she do? Maybe he was right. She certainly couldn't blame him for leaving. In fact, she wasn't entirely sure she'd be able to respect him if he didn't. Still... Damn Kent! This was all his fault. No. No it wasn't. He hadn't been the only one kissing.

She watched as Dan turned his back on her and, head down and shoulders slumped, began shuffling off in the direction of their cabin. The last thing she'd ever wanted to do was to hurt Dan. Yet that was exactly what she had done. In one stupid, impulsive moment, she had deeply hurt someone she truly cared about. They'd never made promises to each other. They'd never even said they'd be exclusive -- although they certainly had been for the last several months. Still, she had to find a way to make this right. She had just started to follow Dan when the sound of her name being called stopped her in her tracks.

"Lois?"

Lois spun around, eyebrows going up when she saw Jimmy approaching. Where had he come from?

***

"If I recall correctly," Lois said. "Jimmy was there to tell me that Perry and Alice had gone missing."

"I remember. I was watching you go. I heard everything. Oh, and then I saw you sneaking into the back of one of the trucks that was leaving the campground."

"So you followed?"

Clark shrugged. "It was obvious that a lot more was going on here than just a suicide -- that you were in pursuit of a story. And given your track record when it came to getting yourself into sticky situations.... Let's just say that I wasn't exactly surprised when I found you and Jimmy tied to that lightning rod during a thunderstorm. Of course, in this reality, I couldn't exactly fly up to untie you. I had to pretend to climb the tower like an ordinary guy."

"Of course, that would explain why I thought you'd been hit by lightning when you redirected that lightning strike."

"Huh?"

***

"How did you find us?" Lois hissed as he worked on the ropes binding her to the tower. He'd managed to get Jimmy unbound and now was working on her. She glanced around to see that Jimmy was now standing at the bottom of the tower, looking up at them -- far enough away as to not hear anything they might say if they kept their voices down.

"I..."

A sudden flash of light blinded Lois' vision. Lightning! They were tied to a lightning rod, after all. So surely... No. No, she was still alive. Although, she most definitely had felt something. On the other hand, Kent had quit speaking. She spun her head towards him. He was holding onto the tower with his hands. His feet were dangling in the air.

"Kent!" she exclaimed.

"What?"

"The lightning! It hit you."

"No, no." His feet landed back on the base of the tower.

"But then why...?"

"I just lost my footing for a moment, that's all. Besides, if I had been hit by lightning, do you really think either of us would be alive?"

He had a point there.

"Are you planning to keep her tied up until she is hit by lightning?" Jimmy asked from his position on the ground. He immediately returned to climb the ladder once again.

"Oh... uh... right," Kent said, returning to work on her bindings.

***

"I remember what happened next," Clark said.

***

As soon as the police arrived to arrest Smiley and his cronies, Clark discreetly flew back to the campground to find Mayson. They needed to talk.

However, that talk was not what was currently on Clark's mind. Lane had hardly been able to look at him after he'd rescued her from her latest misadventure. She'd issued a hasty 'thank you' and afterwards ignored him.

Okay, so he had to admit that she'd probably been focused on stopping Smiley and rescuing her boss and his wife. He'd kept to the background, not wanting to deal with Perry White unless Lane couldn't handle it -- discretely disabling Smiley's rain-maker. He thought, in the circumstances, his presence would have been too distracting -- giving Smiley the upper hand. Still, after what had transpired in Smiley's cabin earlier, Clark knew that he and Lane needed to talk. And he was going to make sure that this time they did.

Not that he was overly optimistic. He'd overheard her conversation with Scardino. He knew she didn't think there was a future for them. But he'd find a way to convince her otherwise. He had to.

But first, there was the little matter of dealing with Mayson -- a task he had put off for far too long. She wanted something from him that he just couldn't give. It was long past time that he told her that -- and they decided where they went from there. It simply wasn't fair for him to keep her hanging on just so that he could have a football buddy to hang out with and watch the games. Not that he was intending to phrase his comments to Mayson in quite that manner.

He took a deep breath before opening the cabin door and stepping inside.

He froze when he saw the state of the cabin. It looked as if the place had been torn apart.

"Mayson!" he called, dashing towards the bathroom when he didn't see her in the bed. Surely she hadn't been so upset that she had done this herself. Or had she? "Mayson!"

She wasn't in the bathroom. He spun around, only then seeing a foot sticking out on the floor on the far side of the bed.

"Mayson!" he yelled, racing over to where she was sprawled, naked, across the floor.**

***

Chapter Thirty-Three

**Clark dropped to his knees, quickly activating his superhearing. She was breathing. She had a pulse. Grabbing a blanket from the bed, he gently wrapped it around her body as he used his x-ray vision to check for injuries.

She groaned.

He closed his eyes, gathering her gently against him. "Mayson," he whispered.

Her eyes fluttered slightly before opening. "What..." Her voice cracked.

"Shh... Don't try to talk," Clark said, lifting her body to settle her on the much more comfortable surface of the bed.

"Water," she whispered.

He nodded, reaching for the pitcher of water on the nightstand. He poured her a glass and then carefully helped her move into a seated position. Her hands trembled slightly on the glass, but she finally managed to grasp it securely enough to take a drink.

Finally, she lowered the glass, allowing her body to relax against him.

"What happened?" he finally asked.

"Men in gas masks burst in here, talking about how we were part of the chosen few." She gave her head a shake. "I didn't understand it, but... When they tried to grab me, I fought them off. Or at least I tried. They were looking for you, too. Then there was this gas... I don't remember anything else. I don't know why they didn't take me. Maybe when they didn't find you..."

Clark let out a breath as he tightened his arms around her, burying his face in her hair. He'd been so concerned about Lane that he'd forgotten that his and Mayson's file were in the pile of accepted candidates for Larry Smiley's new dawn.

"Thank you for coming back, Clark" she whispered against him.

***

"So I take it you decided that then wasn't the time to break up with her?" Lois asked.

"How could I? I got her to the hospital, and sat in the waiting room for hours. Apparently, the gas had already pretty much left her system by the time we reached the hospital. She had a bad concussion, but..."

"You spent the night obsessing about everything you'd done wrong when it came to Mayson."

"Well..." Clark said with a slightly sheepish shrug of his shoulders.

"Clark, sometimes you are so predictable."

***

Clark awoke the next morning to the sound of his name, spoken softly by a woman.

"Lane," he whispered, opening his eyes.

"Clark?"

Mayson. Right. He blinked a couple of times, clearing the cobwebs from his mind. He was still sitting on a chair next to Mayson's bed. The look she was giving him told him that she was deep in thought about something.

"What?" he asked.

"I've been thinking, Clark. This isn't working, is it?"

"What are you talking about?" Damn. He was such an emotional coward when it came to the women in his life. He knew exactly what she was talking about. He should at least have the guts to acknowledge it. Still, he remained silent, making her spell it out.

"Our relationship. It's not going anywhere is it?"

"Anywhere?"

"I know you like me, Clark. We have a good time together. But other than that... I don't think you even see me as a girlfriend... let alone anything else."

Clark looked down at his hands.

She reached out to gently play with his hair. "I guess what I'm saying is that I deserve better."

That finally got his attention. "You do, Mayson."

She nodded. "And I'm going to find it. So... I guess I'm saying that it's over." There was a tremor in her voice on the final words.

He looked down, unable to meet her eyes. She wasn't doing this because of how she felt; she was doing it because she'd finally figured out how he felt. Or maybe she'd known all along. But until now, she'd held out hope that his feelings would change. "I'm sorry, Mayson," he said softly.

"So am I," she responded tearfully.

***

"So that's how your relationship with Mayson ended?" Lois asked.

He nodded. "I wish I had been honest with her from the beginning. She just made it too easy for me to just... let things be." He let out a breath. "So what about you? What happened to you after I left?"

***

Lois sat down on the floor next to the payphone and buried her head in her hands. She knew Dan was upset that she wasn't returning to the cabin, but she couldn't do anything about that. She'd had Jimmy call his cell phone and he'd passed on that Dan hadn't exactly sounded pleased.

But she couldn't deal with Dan now -- any more than she'd been able to deal with Kent earlier. That small amount of electricity from the lightning strike must have scrambled her brain or something. The noise, the weird sensation of images fading in and out. She just wanted to sit there, eyes closed, until the noise in her head calmed.

"Lois, darlin', are you all right?"

Lois cringed. "You don't have to shout, Perry. I'm not deaf."

"I'm not..." He immediately ended his thought, choosing instead to crouch down beside her. "Are you okay?"

"It's just... I guess I've got a headache."

"Okay, well, the cab's here to give you a ride home. I'll have Jimmy go with you."

"I can get home by myself," Lois said, rising to her feet. "I don't need a babysitter." She opened her eyes and instantly closed them again when she found herself staring at Perry's skull. No flesh. No face. Only skull. No. She was most certainly not opening her eyes again until this weird headache ended.

"Lois, are you sure you're okay?"

"She almost got hit by lightning, Chief."

Lois put her hands over her ears. Why did everyone insist on shouting? She focused inward, trying to ignore the outside world. She imagined she could hear the beating of her heart, the blood pumping though her veins. Finally, the sounds around her dimmed. She opened her eyes and found that she was standing in an open lot. No buildings. No people. But she could still hear Jimmy and Perry talking. What the hell was going on?

She snapped her eyes shut.

"I think she should go to the hospital," Alice said, informing Lois that she had joined the conversation.

"No! No hospitals." Lois wasn't sure if she was yelling or whispering. "It's just a headache. I need to go home and lie down."

"Okay, honey," Perry said gently.

She felt hands on her arms and, keeping her eyes closed, she allowed them to lead her through the building and out to where she could hear a waiting car revving its engines as if it were in some sort of competition to become a Learjet. Her hands went back over her ears as she allowed the people with her to get her settled in the car.

"Are you sure you don't want to go to a hospital?" Perry yelled.

"I'm sure. I just need to lie down."

The jet engines seemed to block out most other sounds as the car drove through the streets. She didn't watch. She didn't dare. She didn't want to see any more of those weird things that weren't really there, that were messing with her mind and her senses.

"We're there, Lois."

Jimmy's voice blasted in her ear, causing her to whimper. She lowered her head into her hands again, trying to block out the sound.

"Are you sure we shouldn't be taking her to the hospital?" the cabby asked.

"No! No! No hospital."

Jimmy sighed so loudly that it sounded like a hurricane in a wind barrel.

"Jimmy, would you quit that?" Lois said. "Just... help me get home."

She felt Jimmy pulling on her arm. She risked a quick look. When everything looked normal, she sighed, opening her eyes just enough to crawl out of the car.

She put one foot in front of another until, after what felt like forever, she found herself standing in front of the door to her apartment.

"Where are your keys?"

Startled by Jimmy's yell, it took her a moment to translate the meaning of his words. Keys. Closing her eyes, she rested her forehead against the door. "They're in my purse... back at the cabin." No. This couldn't be happening. All she wanted now was a dark, quiet place to curl up and get some rest until this pounding headache went away. She felt tears begin to accumulate in the corners of her eyes. It was all too much, too overwhelming. Turning, she allowed her body to slide down the wall until she was seated on the floor. She dropped her head into her hands, her will to keep going being overcome by this final hurdle. So close and yet so far.

Startled by the sound of the elevator opening, she automatically looked in the appropriate direction -- and then quickly looked away. Her landlord, Mr. Tracewski, was coming down the hall, jiggling his keys... Well, his keys and everything else since he was in his underwear. And what was worse, Jimmy seemed to have taken off all of his clothes as well. Or at least, everything except a pair of very holey briefs.

***

"So what are you saying?" Clark asked. "Were my powers transferred to you?"

Lois nodded. "Although, I certainly didn't know that at the time."

"But... how? I mean, I redirected the lightning strike in our reality and it didn't transfer my powers to you. So why would they in this one? Or maybe..."

"What?"

"Well, when I redirected the lightning as Superman, I was able to fly. This time, because you didn't know I could fly, I sort of just let my feet... dangle, I guess. As a result, I must have redirected a small amount of the current to you. Of course, when I realized you were okay, I had no reason to expect the consequences."

"You mean the fact that some of your powers were transferred to me?"

Clark nodded. "And I didn't feel any differently so..."

"All I knew was that I felt a little... unsteady. But I attributed that to being around you. And then afterwards... I had no idea what was happening to me."

***

'What the hell is going on here?' Lois wondered silently to herself, afraid to look in the direction of the nearly naked men.

"The young man say you forget keys," Mr. Tracewski said.

Lois slowly rose to her feet allowing Mr. Tracewski to open the door to her apartment. When he moved away, and Jimmy stepped forward to take her arm, she shied away from him. "I can take it from here, Jimmy," she said, refusing to look in his direction as she stepped into her apartment.

"But the chief said..."

"I'm fine, Jimmy. Thanks for getting me home. But I'm just going to take some aspirin and go to bed. So... thanks. Your job is done." With that, she closed the door, letting out a breath of relief. She had no idea why Jimmy had removed his clothes, but seeing that much of the kid was definitely more than she could stomach.

***

"You know, I'm starting to wonder if maybe you've always harbored some secret desire to see Jimmy naked," Clark said with a laugh.

"Bite your tongue!" Lois responded. "Anyway, the next morning..."

***

Lois woke after a restless night to the sound of an anvil pounding, quite obviously tearing up the street right outside her apartment. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and looked carefully around, letting out a breath of relief when she realized that everything looked pretty much normal -- except... everything seemed to be in the wrong places. The pictures on the wall were too low.

She sat up in bed and then yelped when her head hit something. Hard -- although she couldn't really say it had hurt. She looked up and then gasped when she realized she'd hit her head on the ceiling. With a crash, she dropped back to the bed.

What the hell?

It wasn't possible, but... She had been floating. She'd swear that she'd been floating!

Someone started pounding with the anvil again, reminding Lois what had woken her up. She jumped from bed and rushed to her window, throwing it open, prepared to yell at the construction workers outside. But... there was no one outside.

The anvil hammered again.

Or... wait! That sound wasn't an anvil, tearing up the street. Someone was pounding on her apartment door.

***

"So who was at the door?"

"Just Jimmy... checking up on me. Apparently, Perry sent him to make sure I was okay when I didn't come into work."

"Why didn't you go into work? Didn't your alarm clock wake you up?"

"Oh, right. Well, I must have reached over and hit the snooze button because..."

"...you pulverized your alarm clock." It wasn't a question.

She shrugged. "I didn't realize it at the time, but... yeah. I guess that's what happened. Anyway, when Jimmy came by, he also brought the stuff Dan had dropped off at the Daily Planet. From the sound of it, when Jimmy suggested that Dan bring it by my place, he got the impression that Dan wasn't very happy with me -- which is certainly understandable. Anyway, I got rid of Jimmy as quickly as possible. For some reason, every time I looked at him, his clothes would disappear."

Clark laughed.

"Yeah, well it wasn't funny at the time. After I got rid of Jimmy, I typed up my story about Smiley. I should have done it the night before, but..." She shrugged. "I have to tell you, I got a little bit freaked out when my keyboard started to smoke. But I did learn a few tricks along the way..."

***

Lois' vision flicked again and the computer screen in front of her disappeared. She'd come to the conclusion quite some time ago that whatever was going on with her was no ordinary headache. She had somehow gained some... unusual powers.

The ability to hear sounds a long way away had been easy enough to learn to control. All she'd had to do was to concentrate on a single sound and the others faded away. Not that she hadn't been caught off guard on a few occasions -- like when a jet had flown directly over her apartment and she immediately dove to the floor, convinced that she was about to have company.

Still, if that power was controllable, maybe the others were, too.

She stared at the spot where her keyboard had been. She let out a breath of relief when it suddenly reappeared. Okay, next step. Taking a deep breath, she focused on a spot past the keyboard, as if said item wasn't even there -- and gasped when it suddenly vanished. Reaching out, she touched the keyboard, confirming for herself that it was physically still there.

Yes. She was still in control. She tried the same technique with a few other items and found that soon she could make items appear and disappear at will.

Okay, so time to see if she could recreate the floating thing that had happened to her when she'd first woken up. She closed her eyes and held her breath as she thought 'float.' Opening her eyes again, she growled in frustration. It hadn't been a dream. It hadn't. She had been floating. So why couldn't she recreate it now? She closed her eyes and tried again, this time picturing herself rising above the chair. When she looked again, she still wasn't floating.

Well, that wasn't working. So what else? Well, her typing speed had certainly topped the charts. So... could she move that fast in other areas? She walked into the kitchen -- to where a number of mugs she had crushed this morning were located -- and began cleaning up the mess, moving slowly at first but then with ever increasing speed until the world around her seemed to slow down completely and, mere seconds later, she had everything cleaned up.

She stared in disbelief. Wow. Okay, well that could certainly come in handy in completing household chores. She began walking out of the kitchen when she hit her head on an open door of one of the cabinets she'd forgotten to close.

It hadn't hurt -- surprisingly -- but she turned and glared at it for a moment anyway, as if to tell it not to be so careless in the future, and then jumped back in shock when it suddenly caught on fire.

No. Oh, no, no, no, no, no. She rushed over to the cabinet, grabbing a tea towel to swat at the flames. When the towel caught on fire, she tossed it into the sink and turned her attention back to the door. She had to put it out. Automatically she blew on the flames, in hopes of extinguishing them and was shocked when not only did she managed to put out the blaze, but a small layer of frost covered not only the door, but also her entire kitchen cabinets.

Okay, so this was new. Some sort of heat vision when she glared at things. And some sort of freezing breath when she blew. Lost in thought, she turned back towards the table, absentmindedly reaching for her coffee. Her hand missed the cup, spilling the hot liquid.

She automatically jumped out of the way only to discover... She was floating about a foot off the floor. She dropped about six inches before she caught herself. Holding her breath, she hovered there for a long moment. Okay, now what? She could float. Obviously. But... she'd also managed to move a few feet back from the table.

"Oh my god," Lois whispered. "I can fly."

***

"Did you tell anyone you had these powers?" Clark asked.

Lois shrugged. "I started thinking and I remembered that lightning strike -- the one you said didn't hit us. That was when things had changed. So I decided..."

***

Lois knocked very gently on the door. She'd had too many bad experiences with this unusual strength not to be very, very gentle.

When Kent answered, for some reason her vision flickered and she found herself staring at a wide expanse of male chest -- a very tantalizing male chest. And unlike when she'd seen her landlord and Jimmy without clothes, this experience had a very different effect on her. She blinked and Kent was again clothed. She fought her immediate impulse to make his clothing disappear again. She was here for a reason -- to find out if he, too, had acquired these strange powers.

She had a moment of indecision. After all, until she knew what had happened to her, she could hardly go around telling everyone about it. Could she trust Kent to keep it quiet? She really wasn't sure. For all she knew, she'd become the subject of his very next frontpage story.

But he had been the only other person on that platform at the time. Was he having the same... experiences as her?

"Lane?" Kent asked when he saw who was standing outside his door.

"We need to talk," Lois said, walking past him into the apartment.

"I agree," Kent said.

Hope rose in her chest. Maybe he wanted to talk to her about his special powers, too. That would certainly be a relief. So instead of just blurting out the truth, she should let him take the lead, find out what he knew. "You first," she said.

"That kiss at Smiley's resort," Kent began.

Huh? Why did he want to talk about that? On the other hand, maybe he was trying to remind her of the connection that seemed to exist between them so that she wouldn't run out and write the story. It was where she would have started, after all. "What about it?"

Kent let out a breath, gesturing her further into the apartment. They were both settled on the couch before he continued. "It's just... I think we need to talk about it."

She silently gestured him to continue.

Seeming encouraged by her acquiescence, he took a deep breath and continued. "Look, Lane, before we can go on, I think we have to go back."

"Back?" she said, confused.

"There is obviously something between us, but until we deal with what happened in the past... what you think I did in the past, I just see us having these... hit and run encounters. I know you never wanted to talk about it before, but... as I told you at the time, it wasn't me."

She opened her mouth to respond, but at a gesture from him, closed it again. Where was he going with this? Because suddenly, she wasn't quite as certain that they were going in the same direction.

"I wasn't in Metropolis at the time."

She looked at him in confusion, trying to sort out in her mind what he was talking about. The past. Before they'd first met. The incident that had nearly destroyed her life.

Suddenly, everything fell into place. No. No, she didn't want to talk about this. She wasn't prepared to deal with it -- or everything that had happened as a result. Not while she was struggling to deal with these new powers.

"It doesn't matter," she said.

"It does to me," Kent said, scooting closer. "I was working for the Borneo Gazette covering a story about rival factions at the time. So you see..." he said. "I couldn't have been here. It wasn't me. I wasn't responsible for any of it."

She studied him for a long moment. Maybe he just needed a little push in the appropriate direction. "Well, not unless you can fly," she said.

"What?"

"Unless you can..." She made a wavy motion with her hands. "...you know... fly."**

***

Chapter Thirty-Four

Clark looked shocked before breaking into a grin. "Right. So... you believe me?"

She rose to her feet and began pacing around the room, lost in thought. He obviously hadn't developed these unusual powers. After all, she'd just given him the perfect opportunity to tell her what was happening to him. Yet, he'd thought she was joking. Still...

"Do you remember that lightning strike the other day?" Lois asked.

"What?" he asked, obviously shocked by the change of subject.

"I'm just wondering... Well, I got a bit of a jolt and... I was wondering if you felt it, too."

He shook his head.

"Nothing? Because I've been having some... unusual headaches since it happened."

"Unusual how?"

"Just... bad, I guess. Anything... unusual happening to you."

He shook his head again.

"Oh, okay. I guess it's just me then," she said. Surely that had been enough of a hint that if he had developed these powers he would have felt safe in opening up to her.

"You are okay, though. Aren't you?"

"Yeah, fine. So... what were you saying?"

"I was asking if you believe me -- about not being in Metropolis at the time of the incident."

She had to stop for a moment, directing her mind to the subject he seemed so determined to pursue -- and not the one she'd hoped he could answer. "I don't know, Kent. I just... don't know."

"But you said yourself that..."

"I know what I said. But if not you... then who? And why?"

"Lane..."

"Look, it was a mistake coming here." She rose to her feet. "I've got to go." She couldn't deal with this now -- not while she was still trying to get a grip on what had happened to her. In fact, she could hardly concentrate on what he was saying now that she knew he couldn't help her with what she needed to know.

***

"Clark, this incident... whatever it was... it seems to have happened before you came to Metropolis so..."

"...why don't we go back and see if we can find any news stories from the time I was working for the Borneo Gazette?" Clark completed for her. After all, in their previous search of the past, they hadn't looked at the Borneo Gazette -- searching instead papers from Metropolis.

Half an hour later, they were both looking at each other in frustration. They had found nothing, not the slightest hint about what might have happened. Well, except...

Lois sat back in her chair. "The story you wrote about rival factions... It was about the same time that we went to the past. I suspect that... whatever happened has something to do with our breaking into Star Labs in 1992. Maybe there was fall out from that, but..."

"...until we know what that fallout was..."

"...we're not going to be able to fix it." Lois growled. "There has to be an easier way to do this. I know! What if we just used the time machine to go back into the past and see for ourselves what happened after we left?"

"Lois, if we do that... Think about how easy it was to accidentally mess up our past the last time. If we go back there without knowing what exactly we're trying to fix..."

"...we could make things even worse," Lois admitted. "I know. I know. Still... Well, thinking about this logically, maybe we... or at least I was charged for breaking and entering, or something."

"But if that's the case, and there was some serious fall-out, why didn't our search of the papers in 1992 turn up anything? Besides, it wouldn't be the first... or the last time you've been caught breaking into some place you weren't supposed to be. What would make this time so different?"

Lois growled, running a hand through her hair in frustration.

Clark got out of his chair, crouching down before her and taking her hands in his. "We'll figure this out, honey. I know we will. We've just got to be very careful."

She stared at him for a long moment, searching his eyes for the assurance she needed that everything would, indeed, be all right, before nodding.

Clark released her hands, slowly rising to his feet. "So... we go on -- see what else we can learn." He sat down in his chair again. "Now where were we? You had just told me about coming to find out if I had developed some unusual powers."

"Right. Anyway, after I left your place, I needed to get away -- which I suddenly found much easier to do."

***

She had to get out of Metropolis. She just had to. Without conscious thought, she suddenly found herself floating high above the city, looking down at the sparkling lights.

Still, it wasn't enough. All it took was a thought for her to find herself hurtling through the night sky, chasing the dawn. Surely in the light of a new day, things would look brighter. In a matter of minutes, she found herself staring down at the Eiffel Tower as the first traces of dawn could be seen in the morning sky.

Suddenly, the dawn wasn't the only thing she wanted to see. There were the pyramids in Egypt and the great wall of China -- sights she'd wanted to see all her life. Her troubles were forgotten as she danced among the northern lights in the Yukon and swam with the dolphins off the coast of Florida.

In fact, when she finally collapsed into bed, she was so exhausted that for the first time in what seemed like forever, she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep the instant her head hit the pillow.

***

"So... Did I ever find out about any of this?" Clark asked.

Lois shook her head. "Or at least not at the time -- as far as I remember. But then, considering what happened next... that's not surprising."

***

When Lois woke the next morning, everything that had happened the previous couple of days came flooding back. After her initial hesitation and worry that something was seriously wrong with her, the idea of having all these remarkable powers had finally settled in -- along with all the possibilities.

But then, she'd spent most of the previous night flying around the Earth. After that, nothing seemed impossible.

Well, no point wasting time getting ready for work. Not when she had the skills at her disposal to be ready in a matter of seconds. She shifted into superspeed... only to discover that she couldn't.

She stopped. Oh no. She tried floating. No. She tried x-ray vision. Nada. Freezing breath. Nope.

***

"And so just as quickly as the powers had come, they were gone. I never said anything to anyone. Afterwards, I wasn't entirely sure that I hadn't just dreamed them."

Clark gave his head a shake. "The imperfect power transfer -- like what happened with Jessie when I was hit by lightning while rescuing a plane. It's just a good thing the powers didn't give out on you at thirty-thousand feet."

"Oh, you'd have rescued me," Lois said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

Clark couldn't help but smile.

"Anyway, I remember that evening..." Lois continued.

***

The knock on the door didn't come as a surprise. Dan had called her at work and they arranged to meet that evening. He said he was ready to talk. And she wanted to talk to him. She really did. She'd decided that she would just lay everything out there on the table and then... he could take it from there. If he still wanted to see her, wanted to see if they could have something in the future, she was all for it. If not... that was his call.

***

"This could be our big break," Clark said, interrupting her.

"How so?"

"Well, if you're going to tell Dan what happened between us..."

"...we might get enough information to figure out what happened." With new enthusiasm that she continued with her story.

***

Dan was a little early -- but then he didn't exactly follow a clock. It had often had the effect of driving her nuts.

Grabbing her dressing gown, she wrapped it around herself as she rushed for the door. Without checking the peephole, she threw open the door.

"Kent," she whispered when she saw the man standing outside.

"Can I come in?"

She stepped closer, looking up and down the hall before pulling him inside and closing the door. "What are you doing here?" she whispered. "I'm expecting Dan. And I don't want him thinking there's something more going on between us."

"Isn't there? Something going on between us, I mean."

"There can't be," Lois said. "You know that."

"How can you say that? I know you feel... whatever this is between us, too." To prove his point, shifting the file folder he was carrying, he pulled her into his arms and bent his head as if to kiss her.

"Don't. Please," she begged before his lips could touch hers. Her hand came up to his chest in protest, although she wasn't quite able to push him away. Her eyes remained focused on her hand as she spoke. "I don't need you to prove that there's this... thing between us. I feel it too. But this can't happen so let's just... let it be."

He pulled away, not kissing her. "What I know is that I'm being blamed for something I never did."

Lois closed her eyes. "Kent..."

"Just listen to me. For once, just really listen to me." He ran an agitated hand through his hair before looking back at her.

Their eyes met and the electricity that always seemed to be there once again jumped between them. She knew nothing he could say would make a relationship possible, but still... She desperately wished it could. "I'm listening," she said.

"I wasn't in Metropolis when it happened, Lane. I swear. I was working for the Borneo Gazette at the time."

"Then how do you explain..."

"I can't explain it."

"I saw you, Kent."

"But everyone saw you, too. You know it wasn't you so why can't you believe it wasn't me?"

"Because I know why me. What better way to interfere with my current investigations? Or even to get revenge for a past investigation. But you? Why you? Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me you can explain it."

Kent let out a breath. "I don't know why. What I do know is that I wasn't even in the country." He held out the file he'd been holding. "This is everything I have proving that I wasn't in the country. Check it out. Please."

She stared at the file for a long moment before nodding. "I'll look at it," she said softly. "Although, I'm not sure..."

"Just promise me you'll look at it."

"I promise," she whispered.

***

"That doesn't really give us anything new," Clark said. "Why can't we talk about what actually happened -- and how it almost ruined your life or for that matter, what made your mother start drinking again?"

Lois shook her head. "I don't know, but..." She shook her head again. "I do know that when Dan came by that evening... Well, things didn't go quite as planned."

***

"Dan?" Lois said when she opened the door and Dan just continued to lean on the doorframe, not entering her apartment.

"I almost didn't come," he said.

She let out a breath. "I understand that, but... I think we need to talk."

He stood there for a moment more, as if debating, before taking her up on her offer. He walked in, closing the door behind him. Then he stood there, just looking around the apartment as if he'd never seen the place before.

"Why don't we have a seat?" Lois said, gesturing to the living room.

Dan didn't sit. "What's your relationship with Kent?" he asked instead.

"Dan, I told you. There is no relationship. It was one kiss."

His eyebrows went up and he finally looked directly at her. "One kiss, huh?"

"One kiss," she confirmed.

"Then what was he doing at your apartment when I first arrived?"

Huh?

"I saw Kent leaving when I arrived," he said.

"Oh," she said, wondering why Dan hadn't come right in if he'd been outside anyway. After all, he was almost half an hour late now. If he had come in when Kent was there, he'd have actually been early. Damn! He'd probably been outside, stewing about what he'd seen. Great! Now, on top of everything else, she had to find a way to diffuse his anger at what he saw as her latest 'offence.'

"So what was Kent doing here?"

"Nothing. He just wanted to... talk."

"About?"

She let out a breath. "Look, why don't you sit down and..." Her voice trailed off when he began shaking his head.

"I'm sorry, Lois. I like you. I really do. And maybe..." He let out a breath. "If it had really just been a kiss, I might be able to get past it. But, Lois, if you think that's all it was, you're deluding yourself. God, you looked like you wanted nothing more than to find a way to climb inside his skin."

She looked down.

He stepped forward, touching her cheek, bringing her eyes back to his. He gave her a sad smile. "What I wouldn't have given to have you, just once, look at me the way you looked at him."

A small sob rose in the back of her throat.

"Goodbye, Lois," Dan said, leaning over and, very gently, touching his lips to hers.

There were tears in her eyes when he turned and walked to the door.

"I'm sorry, Dan," she said softly.

He turned around to look at her. "So am I."

"I wish..." She didn't finish her thought. After all, she wasn't sure what exactly she did wish.

"I know," he said.

For a moment, they stood there in silence. Finally, he opened the door.

"Take care, Lois," he said softly. "Just make sure he treats you right."

She watched in silence as he walked out, closing the door behind him. "Not gonna happen," she whispered sadly.

***

"I think that the reason I didn't fight harder to keep Dan was that he was right. You were the reason I couldn't... you know... with Dan. And I think some part of me knew, even if I didn't want to believe it, that that was never going to change. So... I let him go."

They returned to their computer and for a time, silence reigned in the conference room as they shared headlines.

'Newtrich Sister's Robbery Scheme Foiled,' by Lois Lane.

'Nuclear attack on Fostonia,' by Clark Kent and Linda King.

'Supermodel Terrorist Attack,' by Lois Lane.

"Hey," Clark said. "I've got one similar to that. 'Lisa Rockford Attempts Murder.'"

"So... how did you get that story? After all, it seems to me that I'm the one she tried to kill. And anyway, how did I survive a rocket launched through my window?"

Clark thought for a moment before telling her what he remembered.

***

War had raged between Fostonia and Tanzor since a rebel faction in Tanzor had launched a nuclear strike on the Fostonian capital. Given that Fostonia's capital had been devastated, Tanzor quickly gained the upper hand. The Fostonian Ambassador had called a press conference since their only hope now was to convince the world to intervene. Otherwise, the nation of Fostonia was likely to be overrun by their historic enemy within the next few weeks.

What made this especially relevant to Metropolis was that the war had started because Tanzor extremists had obtained missile launch codes to begin the war by kidnapping the President of Tanzor when he was in Metropolis on a peace mission. Clark still felt as if there had to have been something he could have done to stop it. Not that he had the foggiest idea what that was.

But to Clark, the importance of the subject, which he acknowledged was very important, paled in comparison to the possibility that Lane might also be at the press conference. He hadn't seen her since he'd provided her with that file almost a month before. Surely by now she'd had time to search the file and even conduct her own investigation to test the truth of his claims.

He didn't have to look to know that she'd entered the room. Was it her unique scent? Was it her heartbeat? Or was it just some indefinable connection between them? He didn't know. What he did know was that everything seemed more alive, more vibrant the moment she was there.

"Excuse me," Clark whispered to Linda before getting up and slipping between the crowd to get to the other side of the room.

He didn't look at her directly. Instead, he walked past her, bumping into her slightly as he slipped a note into her hand. She didn't comment, didn't turn to look. Instead, her hand simply closed around the note as she took her seat, waiting for the press conference to start.

He tried to concentrate on what the Ambassador was saying. He really did. But he couldn't help but continually glance over at Lane, wondering if she'd read his note. If only she knew exactly how good his hearing was, she could whisper her response.

***

"I remember that note," Lois said.

***

Lois waited until Jimmy was busy fussing with his camera before daring to open her hand. She found that there was a slight ringing in her ears as she discretely unfolded the piece of paper and read the simple message.

'I need to see you. Tonight?'

Taking a deep breath, she folded the note again and stuck it in her pocket. Tonight? Was she ready? Because she certainly knew what he wanted to talk to her about.

Still, although she'd read the file and done her own research, getting involved with Kent would cause all sorts of problems -- dealing with her mother and Perry being two of the biggest. Did she really want to do that? Relationships were hard enough even without all the strikes they already had against them. She had always been a relationship coward. She knew that. But she'd been burned so many times. And Kent... he had the power to destroy her. She'd always known that. Still...

Taking a deep breath, she opened her notebook and found a new page. On it, she wrote briefly. Then she folded the paper and, taking a quick glance in Kent's direction to be sure that he was watching, dropped the paper on the floor and covered it with her foot. He could retrieve it later. On the other hand, if someone else found it... It would mean nothing.

Because until she spoke to him, until she decided what she was going to do about... everything, she didn't want to inadvertently hurt either Perry or her mother. And contact with Kent... No. Best to figure things out first. Then she could make the decisions about how to deal with the two of them -- if it were even necessary.

***

"I can remember how anxious I was to retrieve that piece of paper," Clark said.

"Do you remember what it said?"

Clark nodded. "My place. Nine p.m." He considered that for a moment before voicing a sudden thought. "That must have been the beginning of those notes we found in my secret compartment."

"Yeah, but something doesn't make sense here. If this was the beginning of our relationship, why aren't we together now?"

"And why didn't my parents recognize your name?" Clark let out a breath. "Do you remember what happened that night?"

Lois nodded slowly as the memories came back to her.

***

The butterflies in Lois' stomach told her that nine o'clock was drawing closer. She'd put away the files that Jimmy had brought over about weird things in Metropolis, her notes on her investigation into the shooting of William Stockdale in an apparent car jacking and her notes on the threat of a bomb in the basement of Metropolis Trade Tower... All of that could wait until another day. And with Kent being from another paper...

She'd already gone through a half dozen clothing changes in the past half hour -- trying to find the perfect balance between enticing and casual, but also something that looked as if she'd just thrown it on. After all, she'd reviewed Kent's documents and had to admit that he'd presented a convincing case for not being in the country until shortly before he'd moved to Metropolis.

That meant... she had misjudged him. And if that were true... maybe, just maybe...

She hardly dared to hope. After all, there were still a lot of misunderstandings and petty grudges that needed to be aired and sorted through. And there was Perry -- and her mother. Still, after three years of fighting her attraction to this man, to finally have her heart and her mind pulling her in the same direction... She felt almost giddy.

She jumped when she heard his knock at the door at exactly one minute to nine. After checking her appearance one final time, she opened the door.

"Hi," Kent said.

"Hi," she responded, realizing that she sounded almost breathless. Never had she been so nervous in her entire life.

"May I come in?"

"Oh, right." Her cheeks flamed as she stepped back, allowing him to enter. How could she have forgotten to invite him in? "I'm nervous," she blurted out.

"So am I."

"Really?" she asked, feeling much more at ease at his admission.

He nodded. "I feel a little bit like a teenage boy on my first date."

"Is that what this is, Kent?" she asked.

"God, I hope so."

His eyes met hers and suddenly the atmosphere between them seemed energized. As they stood there, staring into each other's eyes, Lois unwittingly found herself swaying slightly towards him.

"Whoa," she said hastily, breaking eye contact and taking a couple steps back.

"Yeah," he agreed.

"What is this?" She gestured between them. "I mean, it's not just me, is it? You feel it, too."

"Trust me. It's not just you. Sometimes I feel as if..."

"What?"

"As if... we're supposed to be something to each other that we're not -- at least not yet. As if we should be making wedding plans or..."

"Talking about booking the church or..."

"...invitations or..."

"...catering..."

"...the band."

"Exactly. What is that?"

Clark slowly shook his head. "I don't know, but..." He hesitated slightly.

"But...?" she prompted.

"I think it's about time we found out."

She stared at him for a moment, before lowering her head and stepping into the living room to take a seat on the couch. She patted the spot next to her and he joined her there. "It's not that simple, Kent. And you know it."

He hesitated before nodding. "Still... did you look at that file?"

"Yes."

"So...?"

"Okay, so there is no way you could have been in Metropolis at the time. Well, unless you've somehow acquired the power of flight," she added, bumping his shoulder playfully as the memory -- or was it a memory -- of flying through the air flashed through her mind. "But..." Her voice trailed off when she saw the look of alarm that crossed his face. "What? What did I say?"

"Nothing. So... you believe me."

She studied him for a moment more before nodding. Then she gave a sheepish shrug of her shoulders. "But... I'm not sure how much of that is just that I want to believe you. I don't want to think that I could feel this way about you if... Well, you know."

"What way?" he asked, turning so that he was facing her on the couch. His arm automatically came to rest across the back of the couch, close enough for his fingers to draw gentle patterns on her shoulder. And unlike with Mayson, this move felt completely natural -- as if he'd been doing it for years.

She shivered slightly under his touch. "You know," she said, not quite able to meet his eyes.

"No, I don't know. How do you feel about me?" His free hand came up, gently caressing her cheek.

She automatically raised her hand, capturing the hand at her face and holding it there even as her gaze met his. Suddenly, she seemed to be falling into the bottomless pools that were his eyes.

"What way?" he whispered. "How do you feel about me, Lane."

The breath she took trembled. But the words, when she finally spoke them, came out crystal clear. "I'm in love with you." She was done protecting both of them from that one very simple, and extremely complicated, fact. And, damn, it felt good to finally say -- even if it was also the epitome of terrifying.

Kent closed his eyes, leaning forward until his forehead touched hers. "Thank God," he whispered as if in private prayer. "Because I've been in love with you for so long that..."

Her lips finding his cut him off. Right now, she didn't want to talk. She wanted to feel his love for her in a much more tangible way.

A few pleasurable moments went by while they exchanged unspoken vows. Hands wandered, gently exploring previously explored territory. But this time, gently, reverently. As if in awe of what they'd unexpectedly found. Hands slid under clothing. Finally, feeling lightheaded, Lois pulled back. "You know this isn't going to be easy," she said softly. "There's Perry. And my mother and..."

Her words were cut off this time by his lips finding hers. And for a moment, no one else existed in the entire world except the two of them. Problems and difficulties could wait for another day. Right now, it was just so good finally to be together -- body and soul.

She loved him. She knew that now -- perhaps had always known it. It was love that had sent her to his apartment when under the influence of the pheromone compound. It was love that had drawn her into his bed the night she'd almost lost him to Johnny Corbin and gang. It was love that had drawn her back again a second time. It was love that had prevented her from letting anything serious develop with Dan. And it was just so damn good to finally admit it. To him, yes. But to herself most of all.

She deepened the kiss, needing to get closer as his hands slid beneath the open edges of her blouse. And then...

In an instant, everything changed. Whether he heard the gun blast or something else alerted him, one moment Kent was sitting on the couch, kissing her. And the next, the sound of breaking glass disturbed the silence and Lois looked up to see Kent standing in the middle of her living room, holding a missile.

"What?"

"One moment."

And then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone. Had flown out the window. She jumped to her feet and rushed to the window just in time to see the missile explode high over the building and then... With a gust of air, he was again standing in her living room -- the guilt on his face obvious to anyone with the ability to see.

"You can fly," she whispered even as the world seemed to collapse around her. If he could fly, the way she'd been able to fly a month ago, he would have no problems being in Metropolis on the day in question even if he was working in Borneo.**

***

Chapter Thirty-Five

"What could possibly have possessed you, Clark?" Lois asked, giving him a smack across the side of his head.

"What are you talking about?" he asked, rubbing the imaginary hurt.

"You had to have known that I'd figure out you could fly eventually -- I mean, at least if you were as serious about me as some of your comments seemed to indicate."

"Of course I was serious about you. I just thought... hoped that maybe we could get to know each other better. And then, when you really knew me, maybe you would accept that I could never do what you thought I'd done. So finding out I could fly... Well, it would really be a non-issue."

"Well, as I recall, it wasn't a non-issue."

***

"I think you'd better go," Lois said, storming towards the door.

"Lane, please. Can't we talk about this?"

"What's to talk about?" Lois replied, furiously doing up her blouse. "I said that the only way you could have been in Metropolis was if you could fly. Oh, and guess what? You can. Just what type of fool do you take me for? God, I'm such a sucker. But, hey, in my own defense, I really couldn't have been expected to know that you could fly. How can you do that, by the way? Some sort of advanced experiment in human evolution? Or..." Lois hesitated. Maybe she was jumping to conclusions again. Maybe the same thing had happened to him that had happened to her -- only he was closer to the lightning strike, so maybe it had lasted longer with him. Maybe he'd only been able to fly since that incident at Smiley's resort. And if that were true, then what he was telling her about being out of the country could still be true. "...is this a recent development?" she asked, spinning towards him.

"I've been flying since I was eighteen."

And Lois' world again crumbled into tiny pieces.

"Listen, I don't know why I have these powers. But, Lane, please. You can't tell anyone."

"No?" she asked, quickly regaining her composure. "Oh, and why not? I can't think of a single reason why I wouldn't broadcast that information to the entire world. 'Man Defies Gravity.' Catchy headline, don't you think?"

"You'd ruin my life. My parents' lives. My friends' lives. Paparazzi would be going through my trash to see what I eat. I'd be mobbed everywhere by people wanting to see the flying man. I wouldn't be able to hold down a job. I wouldn't have a life."

She hesitated slightly. Would she really do that? Probably not. But at the same time, she had no intention of making him any promises at the moment. "They'd want to see the flying man who catches missiles, you mean. After all, that was pretty impressive, too. You could have had quite a career as a catcher for the Metropolis Mets."

"Lane..."

"I think it's time you left."

Her hand landed on the doorknob when someone unexpectedly knocked.

"Lois, are you okay?" Jimmy's voice from the other side of the door caused her to pause. "I just heard that someone saw Lisa Rockford fire a missile up here."

Lois looked between the door and Kent and back again. No. Jimmy couldn't find Kent here. Not now. Maybe if he had been telling the truth about everything... But now that she'd realized just how much of a fool she'd been... No.

"Come on, Lois. Are you okay?" Jimmy asked again, his voice sounding slightly frantic as he pounded again.

"Uhh... Just a minute!" Lois called before grabbing Kent's arm and pulling him behind the door. Then, after taking a deep breath and whispering a hostile, "Stay," to Kent, she opened the door.

"Oh, good. You're okay. I was just coming back because I'd remembered something weird I'd found in one of those files..."

Lois looked frantically between Jimmy and the other side of the open door, to where Kent was standing, wishing she had some way to warn Jimmy not to say anything.

"...when I heard that Lisa Rockford fired a missile at your window." He glanced around. "It seems that she missed. But you should probably call the police. Oh, and... Uhh... I'm not interrupting anything am I? You look a little... flushed."

"Lisa Rockford just fired a missile at me. Of course I'm flushed."

"Oh right. Anyway, I came back here to tell you that a couple of years ago there were a string of burglaries where the thieves all spoke German. Weird, hey?"

"Yeah, weird."

"So... are you going to call the police?"

"Why would I call the police?"

"Because Lisa Rockford just fired a missile at you!"

"Oh, right. Uhh... No. No. I think we should go down to the street and check things out ourselves first." She grabbed her jacket as she spoke, quickly pushing Jimmy out the door.

She stepped out of her apartment and then, at the last moment, when she was certain Jimmy was far enough away that he wouldn't hear her, she stepped back inside far enough to look at Kent. "Be gone when I get back," she hissed. Without waiting for his reply, she closed the door and followed Jimmy down the hall.

***

Lois sighed as she concluded her tale.

"Well, I guess that explains how we both got the story about the Nazis," Clark said softly.

"Thereby proving Perry's theory that getting close to someone from a rival paper can cause leaks."

Clark reached over and rubbed her shoulder.

She closed her eyes for a moment before shaking off his sympathy. "So... what's next?"

"Well, I can tell you that I lived in fear for quite a while after that."

"Fear?"

"Of you printing the story about a flying man. I searched the paper every day -- even told my folks that a reporter for the Daily Planet had seen me fly. I can't tell you how relieved I was that you didn't write the story."

"Oh, but I did write it." She shrugged. "I just didn't print it. I couldn't. It just seemed... I don't know. Like maybe it was nobody's business. After all, I didn't want everyone to know when I had your powers so..." She shrugged again.

"Thank you," Clark said, leaning over and giving her a kiss.

"Yeah, well, I think you owe me a little more than just a kiss," Lois said, wiggling her eyebrows at him. "After all, that story was worth a Pulitzer."

"Ooo, honey, now that's one debt I'll be more than happy to pay."

When he reached for her, however, she batted away his hands. "Later," she promised.

"I'm going to hold you to that. After all, never let it be said that Clark Kent doesn't pay his debts."

Lois smiled. "Still... I can remember thinking a lot about what happened. I mean, I'd just watched a man catch a missile, fly it out my window so that it would explode above my apartment building and then fly back in. Actually, I think I handled it pretty well... everything considered. The question was... how was it possible? Problem was the only one who could answer that question for me was the one man I was determined never to talk to again. But that didn't stop me from thinking about it a lot."

"Did you come to any conclusions?"

"None. Or at least none that I can remember right now."

Clark sighed. "Okay, well, let's keep looking."

Lois and Clark turned their attention back to their computers, searching for more headlines that might trigger memories.

'Virtual Reality Virtually Incredible,' by Clark Kent and Linda King.

"Wait a minute," Lois said when Clark read off the headline. "Does that mean that Jackson... or 'X' as he wanted to be called, didn't trap me in his virtual world?"

"Why would he? After all, I very much doubt that you and Luthor ever talked about having children -- and Jackson wanted the names of Luthor's children in order to get passwords."

"That's true. So... what else do we have?"

'Crime Wave Hits City,' by Lois Lane.

'Handyman Fails To Rebuild Intergang,' by Lois Lane.

'Never On Sunday,' by Clark Kent and Linda King.

'Trevanian Plot Against NIA Revealed,' by Lois Lane.

"Oh, you've got to see this one," Lois said after another moment.

Clark rolled his chair over beside Lois. His eyebrows rose when he read the headline.

'Luthor Leads Religious Revival In Prison,' by Lois Lane.

"That would have been about the time that our Luthor was inventing a clone to break out of prison," Clark said.

"I guess believing that he was prevented from jumping off that balcony by God did him some good."

"Maybe. On the other hand, when they were carting him out, he was claiming to be the new Messiah. Something tells me that his theology might be a little..."

"...twisted?"

Clark nodded.

"Probably, knowing Lex."

With a sigh, Lois and Clark returned to their computers.

'Death By Rocket Propelled Grenade,' by Clark Kent and Linda King.

'Mendenhall: Doctor Of Death,' by Lois Lane.

'Vibro Whamny Makes City Wacky,' by Lois Lane.

"I think it was about this time that Carpenter really went off the deep end," Clark said thoughtfully.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, think about it, Lois. How many of the last few stories did you get? And how many did I get? And even when I got a story, you seemed to get the better story." He pointed at two of their recent stories. "My story is about someone launching a rocket propelled grenade through someone's window. Yours is about the man who ordered it."

"So I take it Carpenter didn't like that."

Clark shook his head before commencing his story.

***

"Okay, people. Listen up!" Carpenter said to the crowd in the conference room. "Rules are changing. The Daily Planet has been scooping too many stories and that is going to stop right now or heads are going to roll! So from now on I want to know where every one of my reporters is at all times, day and night. You will all be issued a cell phone so that I can reach you if need be on any breaking story. And if you forget your cell phone... Well, let's just say that you might want to make sure your resume is up to date."

With that, Carpenter turned and stormed from the room.

"Oh, boy," Clark breathed.

Linda turned to look at him. "He's not a happy camper, is he?"

"Well, I might not trust his motives, but you can't really blame him for being angry. He's right. The Daily Planet has certainly been proving why it's called the Greatest Paper in the World."

Clark sighed as he gathered his notes together. He knew, at least in part, what the problem was. He'd been obsessing about Lane ever since that night when she'd discovered he could fly -- and it was affecting his work. It seemed she didn't have the same difficulty. Problems in her personal life seemed to make her more focused, more determined to get the story. Either that or she hadn't been nearly as devastated as he had been that night.

***

"How could you even think that?" Lois asked. "I don't think I've ever been as devastated as I was that night. It made everything that had happened with Claude seem like a day at the beach. I'd told you I loved you. I'd have been willing to take on Perry and even my mother to be with you. And then you turned out to be everything I'd been telling myself you weren't."

"I guess I knew that -- even then. After all, after that night, I went out of my way to avoid you. I think I figured that there was no hope of us ever getting together and that further contact would just be too painful for both of us."

Lois nodded slowly. "Anyway, go on with your story."

"Well, at first I thought Carpenter's strategy was working. We had a rash of stories." He scrolled through his computer screen, reading off headlines as he went.

'Crooks One, Cops Zero,' by Clark Kent and Linda King.

'Remarkable Rescue in Hotel Fire,' by Linda King.

"Why is only Linda's name on that story?" Lois asked.

"Well, I sort of became part of the story," Clark said. "Linda had received a phone call from Carpenter telling us to get over to the hotel. When we got there, the hotel was on fire. A woman was trapped inside and the fire department's ladders wouldn't reach her."

***

Clark clenched and unclenched his fists when he saw the fireman standing at the very top of the ladder, reaching out for the woman standing on a ledge while the building burned behind her. It was never going to work. But for some reason, the fireman couldn't give up.

Well, neither could Clark. He couldn't just stand there and do nothing while that woman either burned to death or leapt to her death. He just couldn't.

He slipped under the police barricade.

"Where are you going?" Linda asked, grabbing his arm.

"I have to help," Clark said, jerking his arm away and dashing towards the hotel.

"Hey! You can't go in there!" yelled a fireman just as Clark disappeared through the front door.

The smoke was blinding. It took Clark a moment to activate his x-ray vision in order to cut through the haze of the fire. Finally getting his bearings, he dashed towards the door marked as a stairway.

The smoke was even worse in there. Quickly inhaling, he managed to clear most of the smoke before dashing up the stairs. After all, he'd need an escape route once he reached the woman.

The floor was consumed with flames when he exited the stairwell. He had to duck, avoiding a burning beam a fraction of a second before it would have hit him. He turned towards the wall and x-rayed it, quickly finding the woman standing on the edge. Okay, well, at least she hadn't done anything stupid yet -- like jumping off. Still, it wasn't as if she'd survive these flames -- so maybe jumping off that ledge wasn't quite so stupid.

He looked around before using a small blast of freezing breath to damp down the worst of the flames before jogging towards the window. The floor gave out as he took a step and he had to float to keep from going through the collapsing floorboards.

Finally, reaching the window, he looked out.

"Miss?" he said.

The startled woman nearly lost her footing at the surprising sound of a voice behind her. Fortunately for Clark's secret, she managed to hang on.

"I think I've got a way through the flames," he said, reaching out a hand to her.

He knew people were shouting and staring from the ground below, having obviously noticed a man in the window, but he ignored them as he encouraged the woman to take his hand.

She hesitated for a moment before doing as he'd requested. He quickly helped her back in the window. He heard her gasp and looked around. He had to admit, it did look pretty bad.

"Here," he said, pulling off his jacket and putting it over her head.

"What about you?"

"I'll be fine," he said, wrapping his arm around her waist so that he could keep her partially floating as they crossed the dangerous floor. Arriving at the stairwell, he opened the door to a rush of smoke.

Damn.

"Okay, wait here for a second," Clark said. Without waiting for her response, and counting on the limited vision she had with the his jacket over her head, he dashed back into the hotel room, grabbed a pillow case and... spotting a glass of water sitting on a nearby table, he poured the water onto the pillowcase and sped back to the woman.

"Put this over your mouth and nose." As she did so, he picked her up in his arms. "It will be easier if I carry you."

"But..."

Her voice trailed off as they began to move faster than humanly possible down the stairs. She coughed into his chest the entire way, preventing her from seeing how fast he was moving. A few moments later, he was opening the door at the bottom of the stairs and carrying her through the lobby to the front entrance.

There were gasps of relief and astonishment when the two of them emerged into the sunlight. As he set the woman down, he spotted Linda, along with a number of firemen rushing in his direction. He sighed. He really didn't want this story to be about him. But at this point, there was not much he could do to prevent that very scenario from playing out.

***

"I remember that story," Lois said softly. "I got there after you'd already rescued the woman. All I knew was some man had rushed into the building to rescue the woman. But I didn't know the details. So I was stunned when I saw The Star the next morning and realized it was you."

She gave her head a shake. "Anyway, while you were rescuing women, Perry was on the war path. The Star was out-hustling us on the streets. I'm not sure I've ever seen him so furious. I think part of it was because of the way Carpenter had already tried to destroy him, so to see him now trying to destroy the paper...."

Clark nodded slowly. "I think it was during the next story that I started to realize that something was not quite right. Linda got a call from Carpenter during our lunch break and moments later we heard sirens. We rushed out of the restaurant. An elevator cable had broken, and the car was dangling from the single remaining cable."

"What did you do?"

"What could I do?"

At Lois' raised eyebrows, Clark relented. "Okay, so I snuck into the elevator shaft and floated up to the top of the car. I managed to hold onto it, without being seen, until they got everyone out. Then I let go and the car crashed to the bottom of the shaft. I couldn't do anything else without giving away my secret. It damaged the shaft, but at least the people were safe. So... anyway, it got me thinking."

***

Clark leaned back in his chair and clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.

"Uh oh. I smell rubber burning," Linda said, coming over to take a seat on the edge of his desk. "So what's got you so lost in thought?"

"Have you seen this?" Clark held out the paper to the editorial page. "Carpenter has an editorial demanding stronger building codes in light of the elevator accident, calling for a criminal investigation into the manufacturers."

"So?"

"So he's a fast writer. It's in the same edition as our scoop on the elevator accident."

"Clark, you know Carpenter. You've been working for him for over almost two years now. He always has an opinion."

"Yeah, I suppose," Clark said, still not convinced.

"What?"

Clark let out a breath, tossing the paper on his desk. "It's probably nothing."

"Okay, well... I've got a hot date tonight so I'm out of here. Wish me luck." She wiggled her eyebrows at him.

"Good luck," Clark replied absentmindedly. He watched as she picked up her coat and walked to the door before returning to his previous musings. Something was going on. He just couldn't quite put his finger on what that was.

He sat there for a few more minutes before deciding to call it a night himself. He had just picked up his coat when he heard voices coming from Carpenter's office.

"Well done, Mr. Stark," Carpenter said. "Don't you love the news business?"

"This one wasn't easy."

"If they were easy, I wouldn't need your services, would I?"

"How many more?"

"As many as it takes to kill the Planet. Because then, Stark, I will control over eighty percent of what the American people read. And when you control what they read, you control what they think. And when you control what they think, you can really begin to make things happen."

Clark froze in his tracks. Suddenly, his previous suspicions that somehow this was all connected to Carpenter didn't seem quite so crazy. Not that he knew anything, but... Still, even if he did get to the bottom of it, it wasn't as if The Star would ever run it.

Maybe he should run his theory past Linda. Maybe they could... No. No, he couldn't do that. After all, if he was wrong, and if Carpenter realized that he and Linda were looking into a connection between the last few 'accidents' and Carpenter, Linda would lose her job. So would he, for that matter. But that was his choice. He wouldn't make that choice for Linda.

So who could help him find out... His thought trailed off as one person leapt to the forefront of his mind.**

***

Chapter Thirty-Six

"I remember how skeptical I was when you showed up on my doorstep with some wild story about Carpenter being behind the 'accidents,'" Lois said. "I was sure it was a scheme to get to me again."

"There was probably an element of that," Clark admitted.

Lois' eyebrows rose. "It's a good thing I didn't know that at the time. Or... well, I probably did. But you had something that I wanted."

"The story?"

Lois shook her head. "Answers. Clark, I was so confused -- especially after that story about you going into a burning building to rescue a woman you didn't even know. It made me wonder exactly what you had the power to do. I mean, I knew about the speed and the flying. I even knew that you'd caught a missile and then apparently flown out of my apartment to explode it. I even suspected you had freezing breath and laser vision. But... I just had so many questions."

"Are you saying that you didn't care about the Carpenter story?"

"When have you ever known me not to care about a story? Still, I probably agreed to help you at least as much because of my own questions."

He nodded slowly. "I can still remember us breaking into Carpenter's office," Clark said before beginning his story.

***

The best way to describe their trip to The Star was probably to say that it was full of awkward silence. For one thing, seeing Lane dressed as a man -- and knowing that when they got to The Star he was going to have to treat her like a man -- was not exactly comfortable for Clark. The moustache. The suit and tie. No, definitely not working for him. For another, other than her initial skepticism about his reasons for approaching her with this story, she'd hardly been able to look at him.

***

"I was so completely distracted by all the questions running through my mind. Like did you have heat vision? Or what about freezing breath? And why didn't you just put out the fire in that hotel if you had freezing breath?"

"Yeah, well... since I didn't know any of that, I thought you just couldn't stand to be around me. Anyway, then we got past security and onto the newsroom floor..."

***

Clark glanced around, but no one was paying any particular attention to them. On the other hand, a couple of people glanced in their direction. Clark acknowledged them with a nod. Lane had been right. If Lois Lane had walked into the newsroom, every single person would have been watching and whispering. But Clark with some man... Not of any particular interest -- particularly given how few people were actually there at that time of night.

Taking a deep breath, and acting as if he had every right to be doing what he was doing, Clark led them directly to Carpenter's office. Once inside, he closed and locked the door before turning on the light.

Lane marched straight for the computer, turning it on and taking a seat at Carpenter's desk.

Just then the doorknob on the office door jiggled. They turned to see a large shadow through the frosted glass. A quick x-ray of the door told him who it was. Carpenter's assistant!

"Damn!" Lane said, looking frantically around for a place to hide.

Clark looked around, too. There was a desk; Lane could hide under there. Unless, of course, the man decided to sit down at the desk. And without knowing what he was doing there...

Still, there was nothing else. He saw Lane make a dive for the floor to get under the desk when he made his decision.

"Eek!" Lane screeched when he wrapped an arm around her.

A second later, Clark had both of them floating on the ceiling."

***

"I remember that," Lois said. "One minute I was scrambling to get under the desk and the next... I'm lying on top of you as we floated on the ceiling."

***

It took Lois a moment to realize what had happened. "Kent, what are you..."

"Shh!" Kent hissed.

The door clicked open. Lois instantly quit struggling against Kent. This was insane. They were out in the open where all it would take was a quick look up to reveal, not only their location, but Kent's secret.

So it was with disbelief that Lois watched a man she didn't know walk across the office, pick up a file, and walk back out, locking the door behind him. Lois buried her face in Kent's shoulder and let out a breath of relief as Kent floated them both back to the floor. Once he released her, he quickly stepped away muttering a hasty apology.

"Why are you apologizing?" Lois asked, genuinely confused.

"Well, you know... Because..."

He wasn't looking directly at her -- more an over the shoulder look. And suddenly, Lois realized that he seemed to be blushing.

"Are you blushing?" she asked.

"I'm not blushing," he objected indignantly, quickly turning his attention back to the computer that was now blinking that a password was needed. "Looks as if we have a problem."

"Not..." Lois' voice trailed off as she looked back at the spot where they had been floating mere seconds before and then looked at Kent. Suddenly, she understood. It seemed Kent was having a slight physical reaction to the fact that she'd been lying on top of him. A small, satisfied smirk pulled at one corner of her mouth.

"I have no idea what the password might be," Kent said, obviously trying to redirect the conversation.

Okay, well, that was fair -- given the circumstances. Still, it was slightly gratifying to know that she could effect him so easily. Of course, she'd been so caught off balance that she hadn't had time to realize exactly how close she had been to Kent. If she had been... Okay, time to change the subject. "Password..." She took a seat on the desk next to Kent. "Well, what do we know about Carpenter? Try... 'The Star'"

Clark did before a new idea seemed to hit him. 'Kane,' he tried.

"Why Kane?"

"Carpenter has a Citizen Kane fixation."

"So he wants to be like William Randolph Hearst?"

"I guess so."

"'Give me the photos; I'll give you the war' -- that Hearst?"

Kent nodded.

"Sick."

"What about... 'Hearst?'" Kent typed 'Hearst' into the password box.

"Wait! You said his fixation is with the movie. What about... Rosebud?"

"Rosebud," Kent said at the same moment.

They grinned at each other before typing in the word.

"Great minds think alike," Lois said when the computer beeped that the password was accepted.

"Look! Here's the editorial that went with the hotel fire."

Lois reached over his shoulder, stealing the mouse so that she could scroll on down. "Here's the one on building inspections that ran with the elevator accident. Wait a minute!" For a moment she was silent before she began reading. "An eye for an eye is the only course this country can take after today's brutal assassination of Secretary Wallace at his hotel by Omir extremists..." She looked up at Kent. "Wallace isn't dead."

"Yet."

"Carpenter's willing to kill a member of the cabinet to sell a few papers?" Lois asked in disbelief.

"To drag us into a war," Kent corrected.

"Give me the photos; I'll give you the war," Lois breathed.

"We've got to stop him." Kent rose from the desk.

"Just a second." Lois took his place at the desk, slipping a floppy into the computer to copy what they had found. "We need evidence," she said to Kent's look.

"Just hurry."

"So where do you think he's going to do this?" Lane asked while the disk loaded.

"Aren't the Ambassador of Omir and Secretary Wallace supposed to be holding a press conference today?" Kent asked.

Lane smiled. "That would be the perfect opportunity for that sick bastard to kill Wallace. I say we let Inspector Henderson in on this little bit of news. Then we'll be there to get the exclusive."

"You'll get the exclusive."

"We."

Kent shook his head. "I don't want my name associated with it."

"But..."

"I work for the Metropolis Star. Even if Carpenter is willing to kill people to get a story, do you really think the board of directors is going to be too happy with the person who brought him down? I need a job, Lane. And no matter how much I help you, do you really think that White is going to hire me when I lose my job at The Star?"

Lois thought about what he said for a moment before shaking her head. He was right. Perry wouldn't even entertain the possibility of hiring Kent -- not even though he was the one who had realized what Carpenter was doing and had managed to bring him down.

"Isn't that file downloaded yet?" Kent asked, looking at the screen in frustration.

"Just about," Lois said, studying Kent. "Tell me something."

"What?" he asked calmly, obviously expecting some question about the story, or about his motivations in helping her.

"What powers do you have?"

He suddenly looked a little like a caged animal.

"We don't have time for this," he objected, looking again at the progress downloading the necessary file.

"I mean, you can fly... obviously. But I'm wondering what else you can do. Do you... I mean, can you see through things, for example?"

"What?"

Lois watched as Kent turned pale, almost choking on the single word. She shrugged her shoulders. "Just... for example. Or maybe you have freezing breath?"

"Have you been spying on me?" Kent asked indignantly.

"Please," Lois said, dismissing the idea with a wave of her hand. However, his response told her that she had been right on target. Whatever had happened to her for those couple of days had definitely been related to him. "So can your powers be transferred to other people?" she asked as casually as she was able.

"No! Of course not."

Lois was silent for a moment as she let his denial digest. Was it possible that he didn't know? Or was this just another lie? "Not even... say... with a lightning strike?"

She could see in her peripheral vision that he had rolled his eyes.

"What are you getting at? Do you want these powers so badly that you'd be willing to get struck with lightning to get them?"

"I was just curious," Lois said. A ding on the computer told her that the file had finished downloading. "There. Done." Lois pulled the disk from the computer and shut the computer down before looking at Kent again. "So... what are we waiting for? I thought you were in a hurry to get out of here."

***

"Why didn't you tell me about your experience with the powers?" Clark asked.

Lois shrugged. "Why would I?"

"I suppose. Still, I remember thinking that the interrogation was over when we left Carpenter's office," Clark said.

Lois laughed. "Hardly. After all, I still had a lot of questions."

"I remember," Clark said.

***

Clark kept his eyes focused out the front window of the jeep. Ever since they'd left the police station after giving their information to Inspector Henderson, Lane had been asking questions -- questions he'd rather not hear, let alone answer.

"So you don't know how you acquired these powers?" Lois asked as they drove through the darkened streets of Metropolis.

"No," Clark said, not sure how much he should tell her. So far she hadn't written the story about him. On the other hand, maybe she was waiting to get more information. The fact that she'd figured out the freezing breath and the x-ray vision certainly indicated she was conducting some sort of investigation -- although how she would have found that out was a mystery to him.

"You said you were eighteen when you started flying. Did something happen to you at that time that might have caused it? Get struck by lightning or something?"

"No," Clark answered abruptly, still not looking over at her.

"So what do you attribute these powers to?"

"I don't know."

"Come on, Kent. You must have some idea."

Clark shrugged.

"So you do know. You just don't want to tell me."

"I don't know why I have these powers, Lane." He knew he sounded exasperated, but he really didn't want to answer any more of her questions.

"Fine. Don't tell me. But don't think I don't know that you're hiding something, Kent," Lane said, obviously frustrated by his lack of information.

"Look, Lane, I don't know why I have these powers. And even if I did, why would I expose myself to you further than I already have? I can just see it splashed across the frontpage of the Daily Planet. No thanks!"

***

"So why didn't you know about your origins?" Lois asked. "Hadn't the globe told you about your parents?"

"Trask never appeared on the scene, so I never found the globe," Clark responded. "I mean, Dr. Klein had told me that my blood test proved that I was an alien, but that is really all I knew -- well, that and being found in a space ship. But I wasn't about to tell you that."

Lois nodded slowly before her mind went in a different direction. "When we arrived at your apartment and you got out of the jeep without even saying goodbye, I think that's when it really sank in that whatever you and I had was really over. I mean, up until then, even when I'd been rejecting you, it was always clear that you wanted to be with me. But when you got out of the car and wouldn't even look at me..." Lois shrugged. "Until then... I guess I still had this crazy hope... That probably explains what happened next."

"Oh, boy, why do I get a bad feeling about this?"

***

Lois stared at the invitation for a long moment. What exactly was she supposed to do with this? If she'd gone to a high school on the other side of the country, the answer would be easy enough. After all, although she'd always liked her friends in high school, she didn't really keep in touch with any of them. Oh, there were the obligatory Christmas cards -- although often she forgot to send them. And the invitations to weddings -- although she'd often been too busy to attend.

The problem was that she'd gone to high school right here in Metropolis. As a result, her failure to attend would be regarded as a down-right snub. After all, she had been President of their senior class and she'd been dating the quarterback. So it wasn't as if she had a low enough profile to fly under the radar. People would notice if she wasn't there.

But going to this thing was the last thing she wanted to do on a Saturday evening. Seeing fellow classmates who were now married with families -- and having to tell everyone one of them that there wasn't a man in her life only to have to pretend not to notice their looks of pity... Not exactly her idea of a fun evening.

"Hey, cool," Jimmy said, coming up behind her to read the invitation over her shoulder. "That'll be fun."

Lois looked over her shoulder at Jimmy. "I'm not going," she decided, tossing the invitation into the trash. Who cared what they thought of her? She wasn't about to waste an evening trying to justify her very existence.

"What are you doing, Lois?" Jimmy asked, grabbing the invitation out of the trash. "It'll be fun. I remember my five year reunion. We had such a blast. It was just like being in high school all over again -- except this time we didn't have to worry about the cops catching us drinking."

Lois rolled her eyes. "And what exactly makes you think I would consider that a good time?"

"Okay, so maybe getting smashed isn't exactly on your top ten priorities list, but... I'm sure you have some people you'd like to see again."

Lois thought about that for a moment before nodding. Yes. There were some classmates it might be fun to see. Joe Malloy. Peggy Barrish. Julie Keaton. And of course, it would be nice to see their significant others, Debbie, Les and Dick, again. Still... "I'd need a date and I don't..."

"You need a date to what?" Claude asked, coming over to join them. "Because I'm free."

"You don't even know what it is for," Lois said.

"I don't have to," Claude responded, reaching out to play with her hair.

She quickly jerked her head away.

Unperturbed, he continued. "For you, I'll always be available for a... date."

Lois narrowed her eyes at him. The way he'd paused before the final word. The emphasis he'd added made it more than obvious that he wasn't thinking about dinner and a movie. "I don't think so, Claude," she said dismissively before turning her attention to her rolodex. Surely she knew someone who would make a suitable date.

When Kent's image flashed through her mind, she quickly pushed it away.

So... who was there? Wait a minute!

She opened the drawer of her desk, pulling out a business card.

Jimmy leaned over her shoulder, reading off the name. "Dr. Maxwell Deter?" he asked.

"I met him when I was researching the Mendenhall story -- and then we ran into each other again when I was looking into Herkimer Johnson," Lois said. "Both times, he asked me out."

She picked up the phone.

"Come on, cherie," Claude said, taking the phone from her hand. "Why bother this man when you have me at your beck and call? If it's a date to your high school reunion that you need..." He picked up the invitation, looking at it. "...how better to make those catty women from your past jealous than to show up on my arm? And then afterwards..." He let his sentence trail off in a way Lois could only guess he meant to be tantalizing.

Her eyebrows rose. He was serious. He really thought he was sounding irresistible. How had she ever been taken in by that fake French charm? "Please, Claude," she said, taking the phone back. "I don't think so."

***

"So you went to your high school reunion with Maxwell Deter?" Clark asked.

Lois gave a sheepish shrug. "At least it was better than Claude."

Clark held his peace. Although the look on his face clearly indicated that he wasn't nearly as certain.

"So what happened?" he finally asked.

"Well..." Lois said, trying to think back. To that night. To those people. To the hotel ballroom decorated with signs and pictures, and as she remembered it, a large disco ball. Early 1980s splendor. "Things went pretty much the same as they did when we went. Annette was just as aggravating as I remember from our reality. Oh, one thing that was different was that I had to jump out of the way when that disco ball fell, not having a Superman to catch it for me." She leaned over, giving Clark a kiss. "Still that was the party where I discovered that Joe's wife, Debbie, and Peggy's husband, Les, had disappeared. Which led me to the story about Annette using some chemical formula to shrink people."

"Personally, I'm more interested in hearing the story about you and Deter."

Lois cringed. "Why did I think that would be the case?"

"You're stalling."

"I'm not stalling. I'm just... working up to telling the story," Lois responded.

"And the longer you stall, the worse I think it is."

"Well... the reunion went okay. It was afterwards... When we left the reunion..."

***

"Where are we going?" Lois asked as they wound their way through the streets of Metropolis.

"I thought maybe we'd go out for a nightcap," Max said.

"I don't think so," Lois said. "It's late. I think it's time for me to call it a night."

He hesitated for a moment before responding. "I understand. But before I take you home... Do you mind if we stop at my clinic for a minute? It's not much out of the way and I need to check my messages."

"No problem. So I take it you're always working, huh?"

"Pretty much. My patients don't always have their breakdowns between nine and five. But given how many stories you seem to get, I suspect you're much the same."

Lois chuckled. "Yeah, I suppose. That's probably a really good reason for us not to date. Both of us working all the time. We'd never even see each other."

Max looked over at her, startled. "I think it just means that we'd have to be creative, make the most of our time together."

Lois sighed. "Look, Max, I'm not sure that... Well, I guess I just don't see this as going anywhere -- long term. Still, thank you for coming with me tonight. I had a good time -- although what you got out of it is beyond me."

Max didn't look happy as he pulled the Cadillac convertible into the parking lot at the clinic. "Why don't you come in with me?" Max said. "I'm sure it will be more interesting than sitting out here."

"I'm fine here."

"Please. I just... Well, this isn't the greatest neighborhood and I'd feel so much better if you came in."

Lois was about to object that she could take care of herself when she suddenly shrugged. It probably didn't make much difference either way. But it seemed important to him. And he really had been great tonight.**

***

"Lois?"

Lois blinked. Where was she?

"You fell asleep," Max explained.

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"No problem. So... do you want to go home now? Or are you up for a nightcap, perhaps at my place."

Lois smiled shyly at him. "The nightcap sounds good," she said, thinking that just maybe a nightcap wasn't the only thing that sounded good. "And your place sounds even better."

***

"Are you telling me he gave you a hypnotic suggestion to get you to like him and then invited you back to his place for a 'nightcap'?" Clark asked in horror.

Lois shrugged. "That's the only explanation I can think of. I mean, one minute I was thinking that... well, that even though Max seemed like a nice guy, he really was not my type. And the next, I was madly in love with him -- and only him."

"So what happened when you got back to his place?" Clark asked warily.

***

The apartment was decorated to a man's taste. Large, overstuffed dark brown leather furniture. Solid looking maple coffee tables. On one wall was a wet bar. Abstract, yet somehow sexually stimulating photographs that seemed to show not much more than a shoulder or an elbow or an eyebrow hung on the walls. But one was left with the impression that if the entire collection were removed and put in order, they would reveal a naked woman.

The place was slightly cluttered, but in a decidedly clean way. No empty pizza boxes or dirty dishes. No, the mess was a clutter of magazines, newspapers and half read books. Two walls were made of glass, giving a magnificent view of the city lights.

Max flicked on the small light by the door and let the light coming in from the world beyond provide the remaining illumination.

She walked in and looked around before looking back at the man himself. She ducked her head slightly when she realized he was watching her. And the expression on his face, clearly illuminated by the light from the entranceway, was one she was familiar with. Apparently he wanted her as badly as she wanted him.

"Why don't I fix us those drinks?" he suggested, removing his coat and tossing it over the back of the couch.

Her heart pounded wildly as she watched him cross to the bar to fix their drinks. There was something so sexy about this man who could turn her on merely by the way he was putting ice into glasses.**

***

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Lois sashayed slowly in Max's direction, keeping her eyes on his hands even as her mind seemed to take on a life of its own as she imagined all the things he could do with those hands. He'd finished preparing the drinks by the time she arrived.

"Here," he said softly, handing her a drink as he stepped around the bar. Placing his hand on the small of her back in a way that made her shiver, he directed her back to the large couch, sitting down next to her.

Her leg seemed to tingle from where it brushed against his and suddenly, she wanted more than anything in the world to be kissed. She looked up at him, focusing on his lips and saw them twist upwards into a smile.

"Do you want me to kiss you?" he asked, setting down his glass before removing hers from her hand and doing the same with it.

She nodded slowly, never taking her eyes off his lips.

"Say it," he instructed.

She looked up into his eyes then, trying to read them. He almost seemed to be gloating in some sort of triumph she couldn't understand. She quickly looked back down, ashamed for having thrown herself at him. He probably thought she was like all the other women who had undoubtedly thrown themselves at this very desirable man over the years. After all, how could anyone possibly resist him?

"Hey, I'm sorry," he said, as if realizing that he'd pushed things too far. He reached over, tilting her head up and this time when she looked into his eyes, he didn't seem to be mocking her. She must have imagined it. "I just want to hear you say that you want me as much as I want you."

"I want you," she whispered.

"What do you want?"

Her gaze involuntarily drifted to his lips.

"Do you want me to kiss you?" he asked.

She nodded.

"Say it," he whispered.

She wet her lips, struggling against some unrecognizable force that seemed to be preventing her saying the words.

He sighed. "Maybe this wasn't such a good idea," he said, moving slightly, as if preparing to get up.

"I want you to kiss me," she said in desperation.

His smile almost looked triumphant as his lips descended on hers, hungrily, possessively, as if he had just won some sort of victory over her. She almost gagged when his tongue invaded her mouth, but fought back the impulse. She loved him. She wanted him. This was right.

His hands began to run up her legs, snaking under the edges of her dress -- and without thinking, she broke the kiss and slapped him across the face.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," she instantly gasped.

"It's okay. If you don't love..."

"I do," she objected. "I love only you."

He grinned again even as he leaned back in, his mouth claiming hers, his hands running roughly over her breasts. It hurt.

Her knee automatically came up, connecting solidly with a very sensitive location. He groaned loudly, rolling off her to lie in a heap on the floor, tenderly clutching his vitals.

"Oh, god," Lois gasped. "I didn't mean..." Her voice trailed off. She had no idea what she was doing. She loved this man so much, but when he kissed her, when he touched her, something inside her rebelled.

Tears stung at the corners of her eyes as she gathered up her wrap and her purse and slunk towards the door. "Maybe I should just..."

"No," he gasped, forcing himself to his knees. "No, wait."

"But..."

"It's okay. I'll drive you home."

***

Clark was laughing by the time Lois finished her story.

"Hey, it wasn't funny," Lois objected. But as Clark continued to laugh, a grin twitched at the corner of her mouth. "Okay, so looking back, I guess it was pretty funny. But at the time..."

***

Lois sat in a dejected heap on her own side of the car as Max directed them through the city towards her apartment. What had gotten into her?

It was Kent. It had to be. Maybe one of his powers was some sort of mind control -- a power that prevented her from responding appropriately to the man she truly loved. To Max. Even his name was like music. And he had wanted her. Maybe even, with time, if she were really lucky, might have come to love her as much as she loved him.

And she had blown it.

The car purred to a stop in front of her apartment building. She sat there for a moment, but when it was obvious that Max wasn't getting out to walk her to the door or even planning on leaning over to kiss her goodnight -- not that she could blame him for that -- she opened the door. After all, he was probably safer not to kiss her. She'd probably give him a black eye.

"I'll call you," he said.

She looked over at him hopefully. "Really?" she asked, wishing her voice didn't sound quite so desperate.

"I promise," he said, reaching over and picking up her hand to plant a kiss on her palm.

The second before his lips landed on her hand, she involuntarily jerked her hand away. "Sorry," she said immediately.

"It's okay."

"Will you... still call?" she asked in despair.

"Of course."

She wasn't sure that he meant it. In all likelihood, she'd never hear from him again, but still... Oh, how she hoped it were true.

"I will call," he said again.

Giving him a sad smile, she got out of the car and watched him drive off before turning towards her apartment building.

***

"So did he? Call, I mean," Clark asked.

"Well, not exactly."

"Not exactly?"

Lois shrugged. "Annette sent him a bottle of complementary shampoo."

"The one that caused me to shrink?"

Lois nodded. "Apparently, she didn't realize that Max and I weren't exactly dating. So when I finally tracked down Debby, Les and Dick, a small Max was there with them."

"So what happened?"

"Well, after I rescued them and Dr. Klein reversed the shrinking formula and got them back to their right size, I went over to Max's place to make sure he was all right. I think he must have decided that it was probably a good idea if I didn't exactly... like him anymore."

"Well, given everything he'd been through since meeting you, I guess I can understand that. Either you're beating him up or someone is shrinking him and locking him in a doll house."

"You don't have to sound quite so pleased about it," Lois responded.

"Sorry." He didn't even try to sound sorry.

"Hmph. Anyway..."

***

"Lois, wake up."

Lois opened her eyes and looked around in confusion.

"You must have fallen asleep," Max said.

"Uhh... okay," Lois said slowly. What was she doing here? Oh, right. She'd come by to make sure that Max was okay after the whole shrinking thing. Still, the sleep seemed to clog her mind, making the last few days not much more than a blur. "So... are you okay?"

"I'm fine. But you look as if you could use some sleep."

Lois yawned. "I guess you're right." She rose to her feet and began walking to the door. When she arrived, she turned towards Max, leaning closer as if to kiss him when she suddenly stopped. What was she doing?

And in an instant, the memories of the last time she'd been in his apartment came flooding back. "I love only you," she whispered.

"You shouldn't be able to remember that," he said without thinking.

Her instantaneous uppercut to his jaw caught him off guard. "And that's for brainwashing me, you creep," she said. "And if I ever find out about you trying something like that on any other woman, you'll realize that I can make your life much more painful than a fat lip."

***

"So you remembered everything?"

"Pretty much," Lois said. "When he decided he didn't want me, he removed the hypnotic suggestion to keep me from pursuing him -- probably was afraid for his life. But once the blinders were off, I realized what he'd done and..." She shrugged.

Clark laughed. "That's my girl." He sobered. "Still, it bothers me that he's still out there -- probably doing the same thing to some other woman."

"Oh, don't worry. After I realized what he'd done, I did a little research and..." She scrolled through the stories on her computer until finding the headline she was looking for.

'Dr. Maxwell Deter Jailed; Women Claim Rape By Hypnosis,' by Lois Lane.

"I'd told him I better not find out about him trying the same thing with any other women. So when I discovered that there had been other women..." She shrugged.

Clark gave her a smile before rising to his feet and stretching. "We've been at this a long time."

Lois glanced at the clock. He was right. It was almost seven.

"What do you think? Should I go get us some supper or do you want to take a break and go out?" Clark asked.

"Why don't you pick something up? I just want to get through this."

With a nod, Clark left the room as Lois turned her attention back to her computer. But she quickly found her thoughts drifting -- to Vicky. How could they have been so careless? Because of their stupidity, she'd ceased to exist. God, they didn't deserve to be her parents.

Tears quickly gathered in Lois' eyes.

"I went to..." Clark's voice trailed off when he entered the room to find his wife in tears. "Hey, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," Lois said, quickly brushing away her tears.

Clark quickly set the food on the table. "Hey, come on," he said, squatting down in front of her.

"I was just thinking about Vicky."

Clark nodded. He knew how she felt. "We'll get her back, Lois. We'll do whatever we have to do to get her back."

"We're horrible parents, Clark. We made her cease to exist. How many other parents do you know who make their own daughter just... cease to exist? Other than us, no one even remembers that she ever did exist. Perry doesn't have a god-daughter to spoil rotten. Jimmy isn't attracting girls by showing them how good he is with kids. No one even knows what they're missing except us. And what about your parents? They used to think she was the greatest thing that had ever happened to the world and now... Did we even tell them her name?"

"We don't know what happened," Clark insisted, grabbing onto her hands in an effort to stop her babbling. "And we're going to straighten it out."

She closed her eyes, struggling to pull herself together. He was right. The important thing right now was getting this whole mess straightened out. And they would. She gave him a nod to let him know she was okay.

It was then that she noticed the heavenly aromas emanating from the bamboo containers Clark had brought in with him.

"Our favorite little place in China?" she asked.

"But of course," Clark said. "It seems we didn't manage to mess that up -- judging by the smell." He opened one container and set it in front of his wife, handing her a pair of chopsticks.

When she picked up the chopsticks and just poked at her food, however, he realized that she was still not as together as she was pretending to be. Finally, she tossed the chopsticks on the table.

"I can't stop thinking about Vicky, Clark," she said.

"She's okay, honey."

"Is she? She doesn't even exist, Clark. So how can she be fine. I mean, we changed the past..."

"As long as we remember her, she's fine. We just have to... find our way back to her."

Lois got up, coming over to settle on her husband's knee. As she knew they would, his arms immediately pulled her close and she took comfort from his embrace. He was right. As long as they remembered, there was hope. And so far, their memories hadn't been affected -- at least, their new memories hadn't replaced the old -- or at least not yet. She laid her head on his shoulder, allowing herself to soak up his strength.

He held her for quite some time and she soon felt herself beginning to calm. She shifted more fully in his arms, realizing almost immediately that he was beginning to have a reaction to her proximity. She shifted again, this time her movements were deliberate, intentional.

"Oh, honey, you're killing me here."

Lois gave him a small grin before shifting again. Tormenting her husband was definitely helping her regain her balance. Getting her mind on other matters -- or rather, one other matter.

"If you don't watch it, you're going to find yourself in the supply closet again," Clark growled. "And you know how much you hate the hard surface of that old copy machine."

A partial giggle escaped from the back of Lois' throat as she swatted playfully at her husband.

Suddenly, his expression sobered.

"What?" she asked, noticing his change of expression.

"Come on," he said, rising to his feet, pulling her with him.

She quickly bent over, downing a couple of pieces of sweet and sour chicken before following him, surprised when he walked directly towards the supply closet. "Clark...?" she asked cautiously.

"Shhh," he responded, opening the door and gesturing her inside.

She stepped past him warily, watching him as he closed the door and turned the lock. "Look, I know I was teasing you back there, but we really don't have time for..."

He held up his hand and she fell silent.

"I just..." He said before stopping once again.

She waited impatiently for a minute. Just as she was about to ask again what was going on, he spoke.

"I've been in here, before," he said softly.

"Of course you've been in here before, Clark. You come here every time I run out of legal pads."

"No... I mean, I've been in here in this reality." He walked over to the window. "I remember. It was a Thursday evening and it was right after..." He fell silent as he spun back around to look at her.

***

He had to see her, had to talk to her. He'd been pacing in front of the Daily Planet for an hour now, and still there was no sign that she had any intention of leaving -- follow-up, apparently, on her story: 'Couples Reunited; Size Restored.' Although, given some of the conversations she'd been having with various women about someone named Dr. Maxwell Deter on the phone, he couldn't be entirely certain.

Not that it mattered. It was already after ten o'clock. He was supposed to give his answer by midnight. That meant... He desperately needed to talk to Lane now.

He scuffed his feet against the concrete. The newsroom was almost empty. If only he had a way past security, he might be able to get in there and talk to her. Oh, she might not want to see him at first, but he needed to see her. "Last chance," he whispered quietly to himself.

Frustrated, he decided to walk around the building. He was on the backside of the building when he first spotted it. An open window on what appeared to be the newsroom floor. Pulling his glasses down his nose he looked over the top, satisfying himself that the window opened into a deserted storage room.

After taking a quick look around, he flew up to the window, pushing it further open and stepping through.

So... What now? He looked through the door, spotting a couple of people other than Lane in the newsroom. Cat Grant was one. Clark had met Cat at a number of social functions over the years. She didn't seem to bear him the same animus many of her colleagues did. Normally, she'd just make cat like sounds, prowl around him for a little while, sniffing, and then move on to more fertile hunting grounds.

Still, he didn't want to be seen by Cat. After all, although she wasn't exactly hostile towards him, she did have a remarkable nose for gossip. She could smell a scandal the same way Lane could smell a story. No. Definitely not Cat Grant -- or as Linda called her, 'Never Say Can't Grant.'

Of course, Cat Grant was a day at the beach compared to the other individual, still seated at his desk, clear glass windows looking out into his newsroom. Perry White. If White caught him here, he'd be out on his butt so fast that he'd hardly have time to look in Lane's direction, let alone talk to her.

So how... His thought trailed off when he spotted a sheaf of writing paper -- and a box of pens. What if...

Grabbing a sheet of paper and pen, he quickly wrote his note and then, using a little blast of superspeed, he folded it up. Making sure no one was outside the door, or looking in Lane's direction, he opened the door far enough that were she to look in the appropriate direction, she would see him. Now all he needed to do was to get her to look in his direction. Piece of cake.

***

"I remember this," Lois said, taking over the story.

***

Lois sat at her desk, engrossed in writing up her notes. The list of Dr. Deter's former patients that Jimmy's hacking skills had netted her was turning out to be a gold mine. Not that it particularly pleased Lois. In fact, 'disgusted' was probably a far more apt description of what she was currently feeling.

Men were such pigs.

When she thought about how close she'd come to being another one of Deter's victims, it made her physically ill. Only the memory of him rolling around on the floor after she had kneed him in the groin seemed to keep her spirits up.

So she was taken completely by surprise when a paper airplane came in for a perfect landing across her notes. She looked up quickly for the pilot and then crinkled her eyebrows in confusion. Cat was sitting at her desk, primping herself in front of a handheld mirror. Perry was still in his office, his eyebrows furrowed as he worked his red pen on some copy.

She looked back at the airplane, only then noticing the writing on one of the wings.

'Storage room.'

She immediately looked in the appropriate direction, seeing the man hiding there.

Kent!

She looked back down at her notes. Maybe if she ignored him, he'd go away.

The second airplane's landing was as flawless as the first. It taunted her, demanding that she pay attention. She quickly looked around. Cat and Perry were still occupied. She grabbed the airplane, crushing it into a ball and dumping it in the trash. The third airplane was on her desk by the time she'd managed to dispose of the second.

With a growl, she jumped to her feet, storming in the direction of the storage room.

"What?" she demanded the moment she stepped inside the storage room, slamming the door behind her.

"I need to talk to you."

"So... talk," she said, folding her arms across her chest.

***

"I can remember how close I came to leaving at that point," Clark said.

"That's what I figured when you told me it was a mistake coming there and walked back towards the window. I think that's when I knew that whatever you'd come to talk to me about... Well, that it was important. And so I forced myself to calm down and really listen. But I still wasn't expecting what you told me."

***

"I'm not quite sure where to start," Clark said.

"Well, why not start at the beginning?"

Clark nodded. It was as good a place as any. "You asked how I developed these powers," he said, knowing immediately that he'd snagged her interest. "And at the time, I didn't know why I had these powers. But I do now." He let out a breath as he began pacing the length of the storage room.

It was only when he saw her take a seat on the windowsill and pat the spot next to her that he realized that his restlessness was driving her nuts. He sat down, fiddling nervously with his hands.

Seeming to realize that he was still uncomfortable, she turned on the massive ledge so that she could sit crosslegged on the sill, her back to the window frame. When he followed suit, she reached out and took his hands.

"Talk to me, Kent," she said softly.

He drew strength from the gentle contact of her hands in his, lightly rubbing the backs of her hands with his thumbs.

"Okay," he finally said, his eyes focused on their joined hands. "What I've known for years is that I'm adopted. I never knew who my real parents were. All I knew is that one night my adopted parents were driving near Schuster's field when they saw what they thought was a meteor shoot across the sky..."

Talking to her about all of this was easier than he'd expected. In fact, before he knew it, he'd told her all about the space craft he'd been found in, the strange government people who had come nosing around, how his parents and their neighbors had rallied together to get rid of the government agents, how slowly over the years, one after one, he'd developed these strange powers, how he'd learned that he wasn't human. He even told her about his encounters with both green and red S-126 and how it tore him apart inside to have to stand by and do nothing so many times when he knew that if only he could go public, he could do so much more.

Finally, he fell silent.

"So why are you telling me all this now?" she asked.

He took a deep breath. "Because today I finally learned where I came from."

"So... Where do you come from?"

"Another planet. The planet Krypton."

She studied him for a moment, thinking about his answer. "So that would make you... What? A Kryptonling... Kryptoning... Krypt...?"

"Kryptonian, I think."

"You think?"

He let go of her hands then, rising from their shared seat on the windowsill. "I still don't know everything. But I met someone today. Her name is Zara. And she said she's come to take me to my new home."

"Your new home?" Lois asked cautiously, unfolding her legs so that they were dangling over the edge of the windowsill as she continued to watch him.

Clark shrugged. "Apparently, I was sent to Earth when the planet Krypton was destroyed. Others also escaped and they established a new home."

"Really?" Lane asked, now sounding slightly skeptical.

Clark nodded. "They call it New Krypton. I'm apparently Lord Kal El. And they want me to return with them to take up my rightful place in society."

"And that would be to...?"

"Be their ruler." He paused, meeting Lane's eyes before continuing. "They want me to go back with them... forever. It I don't, there will be civil war. Anyway, I'm planning to say yes. I just..." He shrugged. "I guess I just wanted to say goodbye."

He stopped in front of where she was still seated on the windowsill. Moving ever so slowly, he raised his hands until they were cupping her cheeks. For a long moment he stared into her suspiciously moist eyes before leaning in and kissing her, attempting in that one moment to sear her onto his soul forever.

***

"I can remember that moment as if it were yesterday," Lois said softly. "I felt as if the world had just come to an end."

"Why? I mean, we weren't even together."

Lois raised her eyebrows, looking at him as if he were an idiot.

And maybe he was. "Okay, dumb question."

Lois sighed. "After you left, I spent the next few hours thinking about you leaving forever. Never seeing your face. Never hearing your voice. I'm not sure I'd ever felt quite so alone in my life."

***

Lois dug through her purse again. Damn. She was sure she'd brought her lock picking equipment. Frustrated, she looked at the door again. There had to be a way in there.

Well, he might be from Krypton, but he was also from Kansas so...

Spotting the mat sitting in front of the door, she picked up a corner and looked beneath it.

"Bingo," she said, picking up the key. Dropping the corner of the mat, she turned her attention to the door. A moment later, she was standing on the threshold of his darkened apartment. "Kent?" she called. Just because he hadn't answered the door didn't mean he was gone. It didn't.

He'd said that he was supposed to meet with this Zara person -- if that was her real name -- at midnight to give his answer. It was almost two. Surely he had to be back by now.

Unless, when he told her that he would go with her to this New Krypton, she'd insisted on going immediately.

No.

No.

That just wasn't possible. He'd have to come back at least to pack a bag.

Unless he'd done that before he'd left.

Or none of his clothes would be appropriate on his new planet.

"Kent?" she called again, stumbling down the steps into his apartment. Maybe he was asleep. That would certainly explain why he hadn't answered the door when she'd knocked. Maybe he was just a heavy sleeper. Yes. That had to be it. He was still here. He was just asleep.

She made a beeline to the door to his bedroom, prepared to call again, only to have his name die on her lips when she realized that the bedroom was also empty.

All the energy suddenly left her body and she slumped against the doorframe. She was too late. He was gone.

She allowed herself to slide down the doorframe to sit on the floor, still staring at the bed as images of some of the best moments of her life flooded into her mind -- moments spent with Kent in that bed. Unlike the rest of their relationship, the moments they'd spent in that bed had been moments of complete harmony -- as if in those brief instances in time nothing had stood between them. There had been no past, no lies, only truth.

He'd felt it, too. She knew he had. The file she'd seen at Smiley's resort all those months ago had certainly proven that he'd been as unable to move beyond it as she had. Even the fact that he'd come to her this evening, even with the way he thought she felt about him, just to say goodbye, told her as much.

That goodbye kiss had been the sweetest... and the saddest moment in her life.

How could she have just let him fly out the window after that kiss? Was that the last time she was ever going to see him? That thought was almost unbearable to her.

"You're an idiot, Lane," she said quietly to herself.

But how could she have done anything else? Given everything she knew about him, surely his leaving was for the best. Maybe now she could truly let go.

Why did that thought bring her no comfort? What she wouldn't give for one more chance to see him, to touch him, to have him touch her.

The unexpected sound of a door opening brought Lois scrambling to her feet.

Spinning around, she looked towards the front door to see a massive silhouette framed by the doorway.

"Kent," she whispered and a moment later, without conscious thought, she was hurling herself across the room and into his arms.

He caught her easily enough -- just as she'd trusted him to do. The feel of his solid form in her arms brought a moment of peace. But still, it wasn't enough. Pulling his head down, her lips found his in kiss after sweet kiss. Time seemed to stand still as they searched out the secrets of each other's mouths. The gentle exploring of lips and hands, as if seeking to be sure the other was really there.

"Lane," he whispered, finally breaking the kiss. His arm swept under her legs and a moment later she was being carried into his bedroom.

"Yes," she whispered when he gently laid her on the bed.

He stood above her for a moment, as if just drinking her in with his eyes. She reached for him and he moved closer. Placing a knee on the bed and his hands on either side of her body, he loomed over her, just watching, as if memorizing her features, memorizing the feelings flooding through him, the smells and the sounds of this single moment in time.

"Kent, please." The softly spoken words as her hands came up to caress the lines of his face seemed to give him permission to move.

And so slowly that it was almost painful to Lois, he came closer until his lips brushed across hers in a feather-like touch.

And as if that had been the turn of the lock, the damn seemed to burst inside for both of them. Too many long months of denying this connection between them. Too many nights of wishing, wanting, fantasizing and dreaming crashed together in this all too real moment.

Lois' hands began frantically working their way under the edges of his t-shirt, pushing it up until he had to pull back to pull it over his head and toss it carelessly aside.

His fingers trembled as he worked the buttons of her blouse. Finally getting it open, he pushed the fabric aside to plant kisses over every inch of bare skin he could find. Her hands ran through his hair as he laid a trail of kisses down her body. When he finally began working his way back up, she pushed him off her, rolling him over so that she could return the favor. For a moment, like him, she just stared, memorizing every curve and line of his body. And then, the feelings welled up in her again, refusing to be denied, and she pounced.

Her tears dropped onto his chest as she allowed her mouth and hands to explore every inch of him.

This was a goodbye. They both knew it. And so they kissed and touched and finally made love with an intensity designed to keep this single moment alive for them forever.

***

"Hey, it's okay," Clark said softly, reaching over and cupping his wife's face. He used the pads of his thumbs to wipe away the tears he found there. "This didn't really happen -- or at least it won't have when we get things sorted out."

She gave him a wobbly smile. "But, Clark, it did happen. Or at least... my feelings when you left with the New Kryptonians in our reality... they were the same. Only in our reality, I didn't have the courage to show you how much I loved you."

"You did show me," Clark corrected. "I knew."

"Yeah, maybe. But I just wish... Clark, in our reality I was so scared that if you and I were together... like that... that I'd lose you. I just wasn't able to break past those barriers -- not even when I thought I was losing you forever. So why was I so ready to make love to you in this reality?"

"Maybe because, in this reality, that was all we had. Our bodies could come together in a harmony that our minds could never achieve. In our reality, we had so much more. We were friends and partners -- as well as being in love. There was so much more to lose by becoming physical. In this reality... Well, obviously this connection between us..."

"The lure of the soulmate connection?"

Clark nodded. "Obviously, we had to connect on some level and this was the only avenue available to us."

Lois nodded slowly, supposing it made as much sense as anything. Wells had told them that they were destined to meet and fall in love lifetime after lifetime. In this reality, her mind would not allow her to connect with Clark on anything but the physical level -- so she'd grabbed onto that. Personally, she'd rather have it all. Without conscious thought, her hand grabbed onto that of her husband. But then, something else came to the forefront of her mind. "But, Clark, the curse!"

Clark shook his head, not immediately understanding what she was getting at.

"In our reality, we learned that Tempus cast a curse on us anytime we... you know... something horrible would happen to me. So..."

"How come you haven't been struck down by some horrible illness yet?"

Lois nodded.

Clark thought about that for a moment before rising to his feet. He left the conference room for a moment. When he returned, he had the dictionary off of Lois' desk and was leafing through it. "I thought so," he finally said, before looking up at his wife.

"What?"

"Well, when Wells interrupted our honeymoon, he said that the curse came into effect every time we would consummate. At the time, I thought he was just a little shy about saying 'have sex.' But what if he actually meant 'consummate?'"

"So?"

"Well, according to this..." He held up the dictionary. "...the definition of consummate is: 'to make a marriage actual by sexual intercourse' so..."

"...the curse would only come about if we were married and attempting to consummate," Lois completed. She gave her head a shake. "Tempus really was twisted. Premarital nookie is fine, but try to do it right and wait for marriage..."

"And you die."

She gave her head another shake. There was little point in worrying about any of that now. The curse had obviously not kicked in -- and Clark's explanation made as much sense as anything. "Or it could be... Well, we went into the ancient past and changed the curse. Maybe nothing we did to the more recent past changed what we did to ancient past." She growled. "Am I the only one getting a headache thinking about this?"

Clark laughed.

"Anyway, I guess the reasons why aren't all that important. After all, it's obvious that I wasn't struck down by some horrible illness. Anyway, getting back to the night you left for New Krypton. I remember what happened after we made love..."

***

"Do you really have to go?" Lois whispered into his chest. Dawn had broken some time ago and now, Kent fully dressed, she wrapped only in a sheet, stood in each other's arms, dragging out one final hug in the doorway of his apartment.

"If I don't, there will be civil war."

"But what's that to you?"

"They're my people, Lane. I have to go."

She pulled back far enough to look in his eyes. She searched them for a moment before realizing the decision was made. He would go. The only question remaining was whether she would let him go gracefully -- or fight it with everything she had. He seemed to be silently pleading with her to make it easy for him to do what he felt he needed to do.

"Go," she whispered, forcing the single word past her lips even as the lump in her throat grew painful.

He leaned in for one more kiss and she put her entire heart and soul into the exchange. And then, after one final look into each other's eyes, he disappeared in a rush of wind.

She slowly sank to the floor. "It's over," she whispered. "Everything is over. I never should have let him go." She buried her head in her hands and finally allowed her tears to flow freely.

END OF SEASON THREE

***

Chapter Thirty-Eight

"Let me give that a blast of heat vision," Clark said when they sat down to eat their cold supper. It was the first words either had spoken since deciding to come back to the conference room. Memories of their separation that day so long ago had left both of them in a funk. However, before he could warm up their dinners, some sort of commotion in the newsroom captured their attention.

Lois beat Clark to the conference room door and looked out.

"Why the Sam Hill did you bring that into my newsroom?" Perry demanded.

Lois stepped outside the door, closing in on the crowd that had gathered around Claude, trying to see for herself what was causing Perry such annoyance.

"Great shades of Elvis We don't even know if that stuff is safe!"

"Hey, you don't see my hair dropping out or anything, do you?" Claude asked in response. "Besides, I thought we could get some pictures. After all, the reporter covering the story at the time never did manage to get pictures." With that, he looked directly at Lois.

She had no idea what he was talking about. What she did know was that the barb was somehow directed at her reporting skills. And in no reality did Lois Lane let a challenge like that go unanswered. "Then it probably wasn't necessary to the story," she responded, her eyes still on Claude.

She heard Clark groan, but quickly dismissed his obvious objection to her getting into a fight with Claude. He probably wanted her to keep a low profile in this reality. Not to cause a stir. But no one slammed Lois Lane's reporting skills without a challenge. Clark should know her well enough by now to know that.

"Besides," Claude said, looking back at Perry. "It's being used in a lot of luxury cars these days, and I thought it might be interesting to do a follow-up."

"Hmph," Perry responded.

Finally, Lois managed to push her way through the crowd surrounding Claude to see for the first time what he was holding.

All the color drained from her face.

"Get that thing out of here!" she exclaimed, spinning around in time to see Clark stagger back into the conference room.

"What are you talking about? Your story about S-126..."

"Didn't say it was safe. Testing hadn't been completed. And I still have reason to suspect that some people don't react well to it." She spun towards Perry, directing her next comments at him. "Perry, we don't know enough about this stuff to have it in the newsroom. And the stuff being used in cars is red, not green. Maybe the reason for that is because the side-effects are different for red S-126."

"I agree," Perry growled. "Claude, get that stuff out of my newsroom... now!"

Claude glared at Lois for a moment. She met his gaze with a defiant expression of her own. She really didn't care what he thought of her. She just wanted to ensure that the green kryptonite was taken away from her husband -- and the faster the better.

It seemed to take forever for Claude to gather his coat and head out of the newsroom. At times, she'd wanted to grab him by the collar and force him to hurry. But it was imperative that he not connect her objections to having that rock in the newsroom to Clark. Still, she silently screamed at him when he seemed to do everything he could to take as long as possible. In spite of her desire to check on Clark, she waited and watched until she was certain Claude had boarded the elevator -- needing to be absolutely certain that he'd take the kryptonite with him -- before returning to the conference room.

"Clark?" she gasped when she saw him -- a lump on the floor. She quickly closed the door and rushed over to him, dropping to her knees next to him. "Clark," she whispered this time, gently stroking the sweat-soaked hair off his forehead.

Clark opened his eyes. "I'm okay," he whispered.

She let out a breath of complete exasperation. "Okay as in I'm not going to die?"

Clark grimaced. She knew him too well.

"So... how do you feel?" she asked, as she helped him move into a sitting position against the wall.

"I'm... better," he said, choosing his word carefully this time.

"Do you have your powers?" she asked, gently rubbing his arm.

He shook his head. "But we both know how this goes. I'll get them back, Lois. We just have to make sure that we don't get in over our heads before that happens."

"Well, knowing us..."

"It will be all right. So... Let's eat our supper..." He rose to his feet with her help, taking a seat again at the table. Picking up the chopsticks, he took a bite of Chinese food, grimacing when he realized that it was still cold -- but this time he didn't have the power to warm it up. Still, he forced himself to chew and then swallow.

Lois gave her head a slight shake. That was her husband, all right. Never having been forced to eat cold food in his entire life. She chuckled.

"What?"

"We could always stick it in the microwave," she suggested.

"It's okay." He forced himself to take another bite.

With a sigh, Lois picked up their plates and left the room. Walking to the coffee area, she stuck one plate and then the other in the microwave. Trust Clark not to be able to admit that he wanted his food hot when he didn't have his heat vision to warm it up. It would be like admitting defeat -- violating some ancient man-code.

A few minutes later, she was carrying two steaming plates of Chinese food back into the conference room. What would he ever do without her?

"Thanks," Clark said sheepishly as he dug into the food.

"You're welcome," Lois responded, taking a bite of food as she turned her attention back to her computer.

"Do you remember if I returned from New Krypton?" Clark asked.

Lois shook her head. "But you must have. Otherwise, wouldn't your parents have said something?"

"True. But we don't know if I returned as quickly as I did in our reality. After all, I wasn't sure I had something to return to."

"Oh god. I'm not sure how I would have dealt with a prolonged separation. I already felt like I was going crazy after only a matter of days. What would I have done after months or even years?"

"Okay, well before we jump to any conclusions, let's just see what the next few headlines are."

Nodding, Lois turned back to her computer. She glanced up a moment later. "Take a look at this."

Clark rolled his chair over to read the headline.

'Aliens Invade Small Town In Kansas,' by Lois Lane.

Lois breathed a sigh of relief. After all, if aliens had invaded Smallville in this reality too, Clark's return couldn't have been too far behind.

"Nor?" Clark asked.

"Must be. Anyway, I think I might remember something about that time."

***

Lois felt as if she was losing her mind. It seemed every other man reminded her of Kent. How many times could she run up to a man, thinking it was Kent, only to discover that it wasn't before she could legitimately claim to be insane?

She pulled out her keys as she ascended the steps to her apartment building. A man stepped out of the shadows. She stared at him for a moment before giving her head a shake.

"You're just an illusion. Not real. I'm here. You're not," she said to herself as she walked up the last few steps. She began to push open the door when a hand came to rest on her arm. She followed the hand up to see the face she'd thought never to see again.

"Oh, god," she whispered.

A moment later, she was being swept into Kent's arms. Kisses were planted all over her face and lips. She dropped her keys to bury her hands in his hair. "If this isn't real, I don't want to know," she said before kissing him back. If she'd finally gone insane, that was fine -- just as long as this illusion didn't end.

Hands and lips roamed wildly, both participants having forgotten they were in a public place.

"I don't have much time," Kent said between kisses.

"Why are you here?"

"Change of plans."

"Don't stop," she begged, kissing him deeply once again. "What about your people?" she asked when she finally came up for air.

"They're here, too."

"Smallville?" she asked.

He nodded before moving in to kiss her once again.

"Lord Kal El?"

A man's voice speaking very close nearby caused Lois to pull away from Kent slightly to look at the unwelcome intruder.

"Family friend?" the man asked, gesturing to Lois.

"Very friendly," Lois responded, wondering who the oddly dressed man was.

However, he ignored her to address Kent. "Sir, forgive me for reminding you how critical your presence is at the palace."

"Palace?"

"Temporary palace," Kent responded, looking slightly embarrassed by the admission. "It floats. Yes, Trey, I know."

"In that case, may I suggest you unhand your... friend... and return to your troops. And your bride."

The last word caught Lois' attention, causing every muscle in her entire body to go ridged.

"Bride?" she asked, pulling completely out of Kent's arms. "You're married?"

"Political marriage," Kent said hurriedly.

"You're married," Lois repeated. It figured. Damn him. He was... married. The word stuck in her throat even as tears welled up in her eyes. "Then what the hell are you doing kissing me?" Without waiting for a response, she turned, pushed open the door and fled inside, leaving Kent calling after her.

***

"It was odd," Clark said. "I can remember before that kiss... I pictured it almost exactly the way it happened -- well, except for you fleeing for the safety of your apartment."

Lois reached over, gently rubbing his arm.

"Still, I shouldn't have done it," Clark continued. "After all, I'm sure it convinced you that I was just the sort of man you originally thought I was."

Lois nodded. "Well, hearing that you were married was a bit of a blow." She paused. "It's interesting. When you returned from New Krypton in our reality, neither of us thought twice about the morality of kissing when you were, at least on paper, married."

"I suppose it was because I didn't think of myself as married to Zara. In my heart, you were my wife."

"And how many affairs have started because of that exact reasoning?" Lois asked in return.

"Touche," Clark said.

"Anyway, after that encounter, I really wasn't prepared for what came next."

***

His clothing gave him away before he even spoke. He was one of the Kryptonians. A Lieutenant Ching, or so he said.

In the day following her encounter with Kent, the army had attacked Smallville, hoping to drive out the Kryptonians -- only to be virtually slaughtered by no more than three of them. She had so many questions.

One question, of course, took precedence -- or at least it should have taken precedence. Was Kent responsible? He'd said he was returning to New Krypton to be their leader. So was he leading them in an invasion of Earth?

She'd asked herself the question at least a hundred times and still she had no answer. Okay, so he was cheating on his wife by kissing her, but did that make him capable of some diabolical plan to take over the Earth? Smallville was Kent's hometown. Quite a coincidence if Kent wasn't involved. On the other hand, the man she had fallen for would never do something like that. But then the man she'd fallen for would never cheat on his wife. She flinched again at the thought of Kent -- married to someone else. How could he do that after the night they'd spent together? Had it really meant nothing to him?

And how could he have kissed her like that when he was married to someone else?

Political marriage -- or so he'd said. What the hell did that have to do with anything? How could he even see that as an excuse? It had still been his decision to marry this woman. And it had also been his decision to kiss Lois in spite of his marital status.

She gave her head a shake. Kent's marital status was not the issue here. Earth was being invaded by superpowered aliens. That was what she should be focusing on.

So, if Kent was really the 'leader' of the Kryptonians, what was going on? Was this just the beginning? Would they use Smallville as a base from which to conquer the entire world?

Would Kent settle there with his wife? Introduce her to his family? Lois growled in frustration. The world was being invaded by superpowered aliens. So what was she doing focusing on Kent's marriage?

She forced her mind back to the subject at hand. The world had lived in fear, glued to televisions, grabbing on to every news publication offering any new information. Alien invasion. It had all the makings of a Hollywood horror movie.

She'd been wondering if she should try sneaking into Smallville. The dangers were great, but then so too were the possible rewards. This was the story of the century. To get the inside scoop was a virtual guarantee of a Kerth, perhaps even a Pulitzer.

And now, in front of her stood a man who could help her get that story -- was offering his assistance in getting the story.

"Why?"

"Lord Kal El feels someone should let the people of Earth know what's going on -- to keep them from panicking."

"Really?" she asked skeptically. "And why would he do that? Doesn't he want to conquer the world? Or is he just wanting someone to keep the population calm while he does that?"

Ching looked shocked. "Of course not, my lady! He's trying to prevent that very thing."

***

"I guess that explains how you got involved, and why we ended up working together to bring down Nor," Clark said.

Lois nodded. "Although, if I remember correctly, I wasn't exactly... thrilled by the deception that was used to smuggle me into the palace."

***

Kent opened the door to his chambers, standing aside to allow her to enter first. She hesitated momentarily, until, in the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Trey watching them curiously. Turning to Kent, she grabbed him by the front of his robe, kissing him hard as she pulled him suggestively into the bedchambers, closing the door behind them. If she was supposed to be a concubine, it seemed appropriate.

Once the door closed, however, she released Kent, not looking him in the eye as she checked out the room. Unable to stop herself, she found herself wandering over to the large bed, which was the focal point in the room.

The wedding bed? The bed he shared with the woman with the weird name? Sara... Or that wasn't quite right. No, it was... Bara or... well something like that. Did Kent do with Bara in this bed all the things Lois and Kent had done together?

"...here."

She turned towards Kent, realizing that she'd missed what he had been saying. She backed up automatically when she realized that he'd followed her over. "What... What did you say?"

"I said, I'm glad you're here."

"Yeah, well, just so you know, despite the kiss -- which was just to fool Trey, by the way -- and the outfit..." She gestured to her harem-girl's outfit. "...this is strictly business, Kent. Ching said you wanted to make sure the world knows what's going on. And this is the story of the century. So... I'm here to make sure the world learns the 'truth.'" She emphasized the last word, making sure he understood that she wasn't about to cover for him if he was trying to take over the world. "As for..." She gestured to the bed. "You can just forget about it. Unlike you, I don't do married men."

"I don't do married men, either," he dead-panned in an obvious attempt to lighten the mood.

She narrowed her eyes, staring at him until he began to shift uncomfortably under her scrutiny. Finally, satisfied that he'd understood her message, she gave a nod. "Okay, so what exactly is going on here?"

***

"If I recall correctly," Clark said slowly, "in spite of everything, you never revealed that Clark Kent was the one who fought Nor in that final duel."

Lois shook her head. "Since there was no Superman, I simply called you Lord Kal El."

"So you were protecting me."

She shrugged sheepishly. She supposed she had been. After all, her story could have been much more sensational if she had revealed that the leader of the New Kryptonians had actually been raised on Earth, the adopted son of an ordinary farming couple in Kansas. But she hadn't been able to do that -- she wasn't entirely certain why. She turned her mind back to the subject at hand. "Do you remember how you finally defeated him? After all, in our reality, Nor betrayed you after you'd won the challenge -- and was stopped when General Cash shot kryptonite gas into the street. But in this reality, no one but you -- well, and me -- knew about the effects of kryptonite on Kryptonians. And despite how angry I was with you at the time, I don't think I would have used kryptonite on you."

Clark nodded. "After I defeated Nor and his men showed up in violation of orders that all the troops remain in their barracks, Ching and his men showed up. They'd expected a last minute betrayal by Nor and were ready in case it happened. Nor's men backed down pretty quickly when confronted by Ching's superior numbers. Guess they only wanted an easy victory."

"Hmph," Lois said. "Anyway, I can't quite remember why you didn't go back to New Krypton with Zara after it was over."

"For pretty much the same reason that I didn't go back in our reality."

"Me?"

"You." He reached over, gently touching her cheek. "And although you hadn't let me touch you since finding out that I was married, I couldn't walk away. So I sent Zara back to New Krypton with Ching -- and I stayed here. I even managed to get my job back at The Star -- even though there was now a new editor since Carpenter was in jail. Although, I think my personal interview with Lord Kal-El before he 'left' for New Krypton helped pave the way. As I recall you, however, weren't exactly thrilled about my staying."

***

Clark took a deep breath to steady his frazzled nerves before knocking on the door of Lane's apartment. She'd been civil enough to him, even compassionate on occasion, during their battle against Nor. But she never seemed to forget his marriage to Zara. Her response to even the most inadvertent touch, to any affectionate word or even to the way he sometimes looked at her was always the same. 'You're married.' He was never certain if she was reminding him -- or herself.

So now that Zara was gone, it was time for him to explain. He never should have pulled her into his arms and kissed her when he returned to Earth. But he'd seen that scene in his head so many times -- it had felt natural, right. He just had to make Lane see that his marriage to Zara meant nothing. To get them back to that place where they had been the night he'd left for New Krypton.

His heart skipped a beat when the door opened and Lane stood before him.

"May I come in?" he asked softly.

The way she folded her arms across her chest even as she stepped back to allow him to enter was not encouraging. It was as if she were guarding herself against him.

When she didn't speak, he nodded slightly. At least she was listening. "I wanted to be the one to tell you that I was married."

Her eyebrows rose but she remained silent.

"It was for political purposes only. You were there at my trial. You know the marriage was never even consummated. She was in love with Lieutenant Ching. And I... am in love with you." When he saw some emotion across her face, he gained courage. "Zara's gone. She's not coming back. And I..." He took a subconscious step towards her, stopping immediately when she stepped back. "Lane, I love you -- and I know you love me. We can't ignore it. Please."

He stopped then, waiting for her to say something, anything.

"Yeah, I love you," she acknowledged softly.

His heart leapt for joy. She still loved him. He again stepped forward and again she matched his movement by stepping back.

She closed her eyes for a moment. "I'm sorry, Kent. I just... I can't do this anymore. One minute we're making love -- and it's wonderful. The next you're married and I'm wondering if you're trying to take over the world. Okay, so Zara's gone, but... I just can't keep doing this." She carefully stepped around him, reopening the door. "I just can't."

He stared at her in disbelief for a second. There was no anger in her -- only a sad resignation -- as if all the fight had gone out of her. But she was most definitely telling him to go.

With a sad nod, he turned towards the door. He stopped on the threshold for a moment, trying to think of something, anything he could say that might change her mind.

"Goodbye, Kent," she said softly.

He turned back towards her. "Lane..."

But she was already closing the door on him. His hand came up and landed on the door for a moment when it finally clicked closed. Then, with a sigh, he turned and left the building.

***

"The roller coaster ride we'd been on for three years was just getting to be too much for me," Lois said softly as Clark finished. "Moments of ecstasy followed by moments of agony. I just didn't think I could do it anymore."

He nodded slowly, understanding the sentiment. After all, it hadn't exactly been a picnic for him either.

She cleared her throat. "Anyway, we should keep going." She turned back to her computer.

He watched her for a moment before doing the same. Nothing he could say would make any of this better. The only thing they could do now was to figure out what they'd done to change the past and change it back. And the sooner, the better.

'Wedding Destroyer Caught Again,' by Lois Lane.

"I remember that story," Lois said. "The whole time I was investigating it, I kept thinking that I should be planning my own wedding. But I knew that was never going to happen. It was... depressing."

Clark reached over, rubbing her arm. Lois sighed before turning back to her computer.

'Fountain Of Youth Is Death Trap,' by Lois Lane.

"That was the story where Jimmy's friend came to the Daily Planet -- and died. We only realized afterwards that he had aged prematurely. Anyway, as in our reality, Jimmy started doing some research on his own and... got a little too close to the story."

"I remember that," Clark said. "News travels fast in our business."

***

Clark left The Star after work that night, feeling exceptionally perturbed. It was an interesting piece of gossip according to most of the employees at The Star. A gofer from the Daily Planet, Jimmy Olsen, had apparently gotten too close to a story and was now aging unnaturally. In fact, he was expected to be dead within a matter of days, if not hours.

Clark never liked hearing about people in trouble. It just wasn't part of his character to take pleasure in the problems of others. Still, there was something about the imminent death of Olsen that hit him even harder than normal. If he didn't know better, he'd almost be tempted to believe that Olsen was a close personal friend.

Clark roamed the streets of Metropolis for a long time before realizing where his wanderings had taken him. The Daily Planet. He lowered his glasses, searching the newsroom until he spotted Jimmy... or at least an old man he thought must be Jimmy... in Perry White's office. Lane was there, too. He couldn't help but listen when his superhearing picked up on their conversation.

"Jimmy?" Lois asked.

"Lois..." Jimmy answered, his voice subdued. "I guess I screwed up pretty royally, huh?"

"No, you didn't screw up." There was a lot of pain in her voice.

"All I remember is... I wanted the story. Guess now I am the story. I must look pretty awful to you, huh?"

"No..."

"I'm not me anymore."

"Jimmy, you're still you. The outside isn't what's important. That's not why people love you."

Damn. There had to be something Clark could do. One thing he knew he couldn't do was nothing. He couldn't let the kid die. He just couldn't.

But what? None of his superpowers could correct this.

"Don't worry, Jimmy," Lois said. "I'm sure we're going to get this sorted out. I've traced what happened to you back to Dr. Veda Doodsen. I'm going to pay her a visit this evening. I'll find a way to get you back to normal. I promise."

Outside the newsroom, Clark silently promised, too.

***

"So that's what made you do it," Lois said.

"What?"

"Risk your life to save Jimmy."

"I just seemed to know that I could survive that machine. And that my life force could save him. So..." He shrugged.

"You're a good man, Mr. Kent," Lois said, looking adoringly at her husband. "I just wish I could have told him what you'd done. He was too out of it by the time I managed to get him over to Doodsen's to realize you were the one helping him."

"You couldn't tell him, Lois. I didn't want you to. After all, how could you explain my ability to use some of my life force to help him without risking my secret?"

"I suppose... but..."

"No buts." He leaned over, giving his wife a kiss. "That's how I wanted it. Still, I remember how... painful it was to have contact with you at the time."

Lois nodded slowly as she, too, thought back.

"You weren't... mad or angry. You were just..." He struggled to find the right word. "Subdued, I guess. It was as if you didn't even have the energy to fight anymore."

"I didn't," she responded. "I just sort of... felt dead inside. If it hadn't been for the need to save Jimmy, I'd have probably let Dr. Doodsen get away with her 'experiments.'"

"You don't mean that."

She shrugged, not sure if she did or not. She just knew that she'd felt so tired, so horribly tired. She didn't even have the energy anymore to fight with Kent, to hate him, to... anything really. Every thing had just seemed so pointless. "So... what's next?" she asked before she could get lost completely in her own self-pity.

"Right."

They returned to their computers and a minute later the headline, 'Lois Lane Sentenced to Die,' screamed back at her from the computer monitor.

Clark looked over at her headline before looking back at the one he'd found. "This one's worse," he said, gesturing to his screen.

Lois looked over, reading off his headline. "'White Testifies; Lane Fries.' The time when I was convicted of murder and sent to death row. So... Did I die? Oh, wait. I couldn't have. After all, I'm still working at the paper."

"Did you figure that one out all by yourself? I always knew I had a smart wife." His eyes twinkled playfully.

She swatted his arm. "So what happened?"

"Well..." Clark said before telling what he remembered.

***

Clark glanced around, evaluating the prison's defenses. Dressed completely in black, he knew he would be virtually invisible to anyone without his special abilities. Still, with search lights methodically sweeping the area outside the prison, he had to remain vigilant. He watched for the right moment, carefully tracking and timing the guards' movements both inside and outside the prison. He knew where every camera was located and how to avoid being picked up by them. It was important that he not be seen.

Finally satisfied that his plan would work, he made his move. A moment later, he was standing inside the prison. He could hear the soft sounds of sleep coming from all around him. Still, now was not the time to dawdle. A few quick steps and he was standing outside Lane's cell. Not wanting to wake anyone, he quickly bent the bars back and slipped inside.

He knelt down beside her cot. "Lane," he whispered, lightly shaking her shoulder.

"What?" she gasped, coming awake in an instant.

"Shhh," he cautioned.

She looked around, trying to clear the sleep from her mind. It seemed to take a moment for her to figure out exactly what was going on. "What are you doing here?" she whispered.

"I'm getting you out of here," he said, gesturing to the bent bars. He reached out, taking her arm to help her into a seated position.

"Wait," she said, then fell silent for a moment as she evaluated the situation.

"Lane, if we're going to get out of here, we need to go now," Clark hissed.

"But... why are you doing this?"

"You want to talk about my motives now?"

"Seems as good a time as any."

"Trust me, there are a lot better times than this." When she didn't respond, he let out a breath. "You are the most stubborn woman I've ever met. Okay, fine. I'm not going to sit by and watch them kill an innocent woman." He stood up, offering her his hand. "Coming?" he asked.

She stared at him for a moment before slipping her hand into his.**

***

Chapter Thirty-Nine

"I remember," Lois said, taking over the story.

***

"Where are we?" Lois asked as Kent lowered them to the ground.

"Cuba." He carefully set her down on the sandy beach.

"What are we doing here?" She looked around, taking in the soft sand, the waves sweeping gently onto the shore and the warm moist air around her. It was so peaceful here.

"Cuba doesn't have an extradition treaty with the United States. I called ahead and arranged for us to stay in a small cottage on the beach. Some friends I met during my travels own it. It is very private. No one will know that we're here. It's got a great little..."

"Wait." She grabbed Kent's arm, pulling him to a stop. "So we're... what? Running away?" In spite of her efforts to sound accusatory, she knew the question came out as... merely curious.

"Well, not exactly. I mean, I can work anywhere in the world and fly back here at nights to make sure you have everything you need."

She hesitated for a moment. Wasn't that the exact definition of 'running away?' Still, maybe running away made sense. After all, here she could just... sleep. She closed her eyes. No. No. She couldn't do that. If she did, it wouldn't matter if they strapped her to the electric chair or not -- she'd already be dead. So no matter how tired she was, she had to keep fighting. She had to... "I have to go back."

"Back?"

"To Metropolis."

"Are you crazy? When they discover you're missing, they will tear the city apart looking for you."

"I'm not running away, Kent. I let you break me out of prison because I couldn't prove my innocence from inside, but I'm not running away." Even if every fiber in her being wished she could do exactly that. But run away from what? The law? Her feelings? Her life? Kent?

"Lane, they're planning to kill you," Kent said intensely, grabbing her arms so that he could look directly into her eyes. She got the impression that he was sorely tempted to shake some sense into her.

Maybe she should let him. She gave herself a shake. No. "People have tried to kill me before," she said, jerking her arms out of his. Turning and using her best Mad Dog Lane imitation, she stomped away from him -- or at least stomped as effectively as she could in the sand.

"Where are you going?" he called after her.

"To find the nearest airport!"

"Wait!" he exclaimed as he shifted into superspeed, appearing in front of her less than a second later.

She ran into his chest and he reached out to steady her. As soon as she had regained her balance, she jerked away from him.

"Okay. Okay," he said, holding out his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I'll fly you back in the morning..." Her resulting look had him rushing to continue. "This is as good a place as any to hide out for the night."

"And you'll take me back first thing in the morning," she clarified.

"First thing in the morning," he promised.**

***

Kent was right about one thing. The place was quaint. White stone walls kept the worst of the heat out. The large ceiling fan turning slowly over their heads did the rest. A couple large, overstuffed chairs made up the small living room. On a circular table in what had been set up to be the kitchen area of the same room, someone had placed large quantities of fruits, cheeses and breads... As well as a liberal supply of rum.

"A Cuban specialty," Kent said, pointing to the rum. "Supposedly the best in the world."

"All we need is some Cuban cigars and the picture would be perfect."

Kent laughed, and for the first time since he'd returned from New Krypton... or more accurately since she'd learned he was married, Lois actually felt something. Not that she wanted to, of course. But his laugh... it was impossible not to be affected by that sound.

"I'll take you to Havana sometime," Kent continued. "Seeing little old ladies sitting on street corners, smoking massive cigars is quite entertaining. Together with the buildings constructed in the heyday before Castro took over, the place is really remarkable. It even has its original cobblestone streets.

"Did you know that Hemingway is something of a cultural icon in Cuba?," he quickly continued. "It is said that he and Castro were good friends. You can still visit the building he used to stay in. It's this massive pink building with white trim. You can't miss it."

Lois narrowed her eyes as she continued to listen to him expound on the virtues of Cuba, telling her about all its wonders and charm. He was obviously nervous. Obviously trying to cover it by rambling on about something neither had a whole lot of interest in at the moment.

"And the people..." Kent continued. "Dirt poor, but incredibly friendly -- especially the children. I always try to carry candy for the children."

"So how is it that you were able to come here? You're an American. Or... well, sort of."

"Well, it helps when you can just drop in." He pointed to the air above his head.

Lois nodded, turning to take in the rest of the cottage -- and swallowed, suddenly understanding why he was nervous. "So where are you planning to sleep?" she asked, staring at the solitary bed she could see through an open archway. She just wished the question hadn't come out quite so breathless. After all, she couldn't do this again. And if that was why Kent had chosen this place...

Even though she wasn't looking at him, she could hear him swallow. Hard. "I'll be fine," he said.

She turned towards him, raising her eyebrows.

"I can sleep anywhere," Kent said, suddenly jumping up as if taking a seat, the only thing under him air. Then he dramatically stretched and leaned back, floating.

"Your life is so strange," she said. Even though she'd been in his arms in flight only this evening, the sight had the power to take her breath away.

"And getting stranger by the minute," he agreed.

She ignored the sensations running through her body at the remarkable sight. Sensations that told her things she'd rather not know. Sensations that told her that, regardless of how much their constant hit-and-run encounters were slowly killing her inside, standing here right now, she was sorely tempted to do it all over again. Ignoring those sensations, Lois picked up an apple and took a bite. "Mmmm," she moaned.

Kent suddenly lost a few feet.

She turned to look at him. "Having a problem keeping altitude there, Kent?"

"What? No!" he said.

A small grin quirked at the corner of her mouth. She still had it. The grin faded. But... did she still want to have it?

"Look, I think I'm going to take a brief walk," he said, getting his feet under him as he again landed on the floor. "I'll just let you..." He gestured to the bed.

She nodded thoughtfully as she watched him go. What was it with her? She knew he was the reason she'd been feeling so dead inside these past few weeks. And yet here she was once again, standing on the precipice, sorely tempted to jump off the cliff without a parachute.

With a sigh, she wandered over to the bed as she finished eating her apple. Running a hand over the beautiful, hand-crafted comforter, suddenly a very different image flooded through her mind. A grimy motel with a large double bed, a thread-bare blanket thrown over top. Naked, studying sheaves of paper, Kent in bed beside her. And feeling far more content than she did in this tropical paradise.

"Being a hard-bitten newswoman is sure more fun than it use to be," she said to herself.

Now where had that thought come from?

***

"Anyway, after I finished my apple, I had a shower and crawled into bed -- wondering the whole time where you had gone."

"I was waiting outside until you were asleep. I wasn't sure I trusted myself to stay too close."

Lois gently stroked his cheek. "Anyway, the next thing I knew..."

***

Lois jerked awake, looking up to see a man floating above her. The scream that escaped her lips was entirely involuntary. Coming abruptly awake, he fell -- on top of her.

"What are you doing?" she gasped, fighting to get out from under him.

"I fell. It was an accident," he said, struggling to get off of her.

"Falling from floating! It's not possible."

"Oh, I guess you're better at it than I am."

She paused, his words finally penetrating her brain. "Okay. Okay," she said, reaching out to touch his arms. "Let's just... calm down." She took a deep breath, trying to do exactly that. "I'm sorry. I overreacted."

He smiled. "I guess that's understandable. It's not everyday you wake up to discover a man floating over your bed."

"True," she said, meeting his smile. Whether it was the intimacy of the moment or the lateness of the hour... or whether it was her desperate need to feel alive again -- regardless of the consequences -- she found herself reaching for him in the darkness.

He moved in sync with her, leaning closer to touch his lips to hers. It was both incredibly sweet and incredibly painful feeling his lips moving softly against hers once again. Touching. Exploring. Feel...

Abruptly, he pulled back. "I'm sorry," he said, and in less than a second, he was standing on the far side of the room.

"There's nothing to be sorry for, Kent. I wanted it, too."

"That's not what I meant... Do you remember when you said you couldn't do this anymore?"

She nodded. She definitely remembered that. After all, wasn't that exactly what she'd been thinking earlier?

"Well, I can't do this anymore, either," Kent admitted. "It's tearing me apart. Here... In this room... We..." He took a deep breath before trying again. "If we..." He gestured to the bed. "What happens tomorrow? What happens when we get back to Metropolis?"

He didn't need to say more. She understood -- only too well. And she agreed. If they did this again, it still wouldn't change things between them tomorrow. They'd been through it once too often for either to have any illusions on that point. And she couldn't go through it again either. So why did she suddenly feel as if something in her had died all over again? "I'm sorry," she whispered, even as tears began to accumulate in the corners of her eyes.

He rushed back to the bed, sitting down next to her and picking up hands. "There's nothing to be sorry for. Just promise me... After we go back to Metropolis... After we get the charges against you dropped... Promise me you'll go out on a date with me."

"I'm not sure..."

"We don't have to be confined to Metropolis. If you don't want to handle questions about our relationship... We don't have to tell anyone. We can go anywhere in the world for dinner or a movie or just to walk on a beach. Just take some time to get to know me -- and let me get to know you. Please... say you'll go out with me."

She stared into his eyes for a long moment, seeing nothing but naked sincerity there. And maybe he was right. This dead feeling inside her... She couldn't keep living like this. And since he was the only one who seemed to have the power to make her feel alive... Maybe she had to see where this might really go -- not by sleeping with him, but by spending time with him, getting to know him. At the very least, it couldn't be any worse than it was right now. "I'll go out with you," she finally whispered.

As if he had been holding his breath, waiting for her response, his breath left him in a rush. "You will?" He sounded as if he hardly dared believe he'd heard her right.

"You're right. It's far past time that we at least got to know each other." She suddenly hesitated. "Just..."

"What?"

"No more..." She gestured to the bed. "At least until we figure out what's going on with us out of the bedroom." She held her breath as she waited for his reply. So much depended on it. After all, if this was just some ploy to establish some sort of long-term sexual relationship with her, she'd rather know now. On the other hand, if he was sincere about really taking the time to get to know her...

"Done," he said softy. "Now if you don't mind, I think there's a spot on the beach that's calling my name." He rose from the side of the bed.

"Wait! You don't have to..."

He smiled. "Yes, I do." He opened the cabin's door. "Goodnight, Lane."

She leaned back into the pillow as she watched him leave. She wasn't entirely sure if this was a good development or a bad one, but she could hardly believe how much she was suddenly looking forward to their first date. It was the first thing she'd actually been looking forward to in quite some time.

***

Clark unexpectedly laughed.

"What?"

"I was just remembering when I came over for that first date -- after we got the murder charges against you dropped."

When Lois crinkled her eyebrows, Clark continued.

***

Clark was more nervous than he had been when he'd gone on his first date as a teenager. He must have gone through at least a dozen changes of clothing -- trying to find the perfect suit. Too much was riding on this date to leave anything to chance.

He knocked on Lane's door, his mind already rehearsing what he was going to say when she opened it. And then, there she stood, looking absolutely stunning in that black dress. The natural flush in her cheeks when she saw him more beautiful than anything the most expensive makeup could produce. Her scent was heavenly and he immediately knew that she'd brought out the expensive perfume for the occasion.

And suddenly, all rational thought fled his mind and he just stood there like a teenage boy, mouth hanging open, gawking at the most heavenly creature he'd ever seen.

"Hi," she said shyly, ducking her head and pushing a strand of hair behind her ear.

All of Clark's protective instincts suddenly came to life. She looked so vulnerable standing there. He wanted to defend her against all the bad things that happened in the world.

"Why don't you come in?" Lane said, stepping back into the house.

Clark stepped forward, not entirely certain his feet were touching the floor, until he was finally inside her apartment. He closed the door behind him. "You look..." He swept an arm towards her, his voice trailing off when he was unable to find the words to express exactly how beautiful she was. A sunset. A mountaintop. A star-filled night. None of them did her justice.

"Thanks," she said, obviously understanding his admiration from the expression on his face since he still hadn't found the appropriate words. "You don't look too bad yourself." She snuck another peek at him from through her eyelashes.

"So should we..." He gestured to the door.

"Uhh... yeah. I... Oh, wait."

"What?"

She shifted slightly, looking embarrassed.

"What?" he asked again, much softer this time.

"I just..." She left him standing just inside the door and went into her room. When she returned, she was holding a piece of paper. She handed it to Clark.

He looked down at the paper and suddenly a grin was pulling at the corners of his mouth. He looked back at her. "Rules for Dating?" he asked.

She shrugged sheepishly. "Well, I have rules for work, so I just thought... I guess I just want us to be clear about things up front. And you might have other rules so..."

"Okay," Clark said, looking back at the paper. "No sex. Okay, well we agreed on that earlier so... Besides, you're right. I mean, I don't think either of us have any doubt that we're compatible in..." He gestured to the door to her room. "And that's not why I want to go out with you so... okay. Rule number two. Discretion." He looked up at her.

"It's just... Oh god, how do I say this without sounding horrible?" She let out a breath. "I just don't think we should tell anyone yet. About us." She reached out, touching his arm. "It's not that I'm ashamed to be seen with you or anything. It's really not. I just don't want to take on my mother or Perry or anyone else until... Well, until I know if there's a reason." She looked at him intently. "Do you understand?"

He nodded slowly. Given everything, he couldn't say he blamed her for that. She certainly had more than enough reason to be cautious. Besides, this benefited him, too. "Actually, I think that makes sense. At least for now. After all, if everyone knew, I'm sure you'd be getting grief from a lot of people -- considering everything. And right now, I'd rather have you focused on getting to know me. So fine... discretion."

"That means we don't tell anyone. Not our colleagues, our best friend, our family, or even our dogs."

"We don't have any dogs."

"You know what I mean."

He nodded before looking back at the paper. "No talking about work." He looked up at her. "But that cuts out a big part of our lives."

"I don't mean past stories or problems with colleagues or stuff like that. I mean current investigations. If at some point we do go public, I want to be able to tell Perry that I didn't do anything to compromise the Planet's ability to snag exclusives."

"Fair enough." He folded the paper in half. "So is that it?"

"Do you have any you want to add?"

A grin spread across Clark's face. "Just one. And it had to do with your no sex rule."

She looked confused so he continued.

"You've just got to stop looking so beautiful," he said. "I mean..." He gestured towards her.

"Oh, do you want me to change?" she asked, turning as if she would go to her room.

"No!" Clark said immediately, grabbing her arm. There was no way he intended to let her change a thing about her appearance tonight. "There's no point really. I mean, I'd think you were beautiful if you were wearing a potato sack."

The most gorgeous smile Clark had ever seen suddenly appeared on her face and his knees felt as if they would give out beneath him. He had never seen her smile like that. It seemed to light up her face and make her eyes dance. And he knew in that instant that he was indeed the luckiest man alive simply because that smile was directed at him.

"Got yaw," she said cheekily, turning and sashaying away from him to get her jacket, an extra little wiggle in her hips.

Clark rolled his eyes. Just like he had been joking, so had she. Only... she was right. She'd recognized his joke. He hadn't recognized hers. Score one for Lois Lane.

***

"That was a great date," Lois said dreamily. "I mean it wasn't the wildest or the most exciting -- or well, if you don't count the moonlight flight across the Atlantic or having dinner in Paris or the midnight stroll along the Seine River. But mostly it just seemed to... work. I don't think there was one moment of that date when I would have been anywhere else. But what I remember most is when you walked me to the door of my apartment at the end of the date."

***

Lois couldn't believe how much faster her heart was beating the closer she got to her apartment. It had been a perfect evening. For the first time in a long time, she actually felt alive, as if life was just bursting with possibilities. And it was all him.

She'd never realized exactly how engaging Kent could be. They'd talked about everything, conversation flowing from topic to topic with ease. Sometimes their views on topics would coincide, sometimes they disagreed. But even when they disagreed, there was no hostility. The debate, though lively, was always respectful. She'd enjoyed hearing his perspective. And she knew he'd respected hers.

After supper they'd gone for a walk, hand in hand, along the Seine River. She wasn't sure that she'd ever had a more romantic moment. And then, she'd cuddled safely in his arms as they'd flown, surrounded by nothing but the stars, both in the sky and reflecting off the ocean, back to Metropolis. It had been incredibly intimate. She'd lost count of the number of times she'd had to fight off the urge to plant light kisses along the base of his neck as she'd snuggled against him.

But now as the evening came to a close -- and they were coming to the door to her apartment -- she didn't want their time together to end. In fact, she was seriously wondering if rule number one was about to be broken. She had mixed feelings about that.

Sleeping with Kent, although wonderful, had taken so much out of her over the years. But would this be different? After all, they were in a 'relationship' now -- no matter how tenuous. Would that make this time different? She just wasn't sure. Still...

"Do you want to come in?" Lois asked, her voice slightly breathless.

His expression softened. "You know I want to," Kent whispered sending a chill down her spine to curl her toes. "But I'm not going to. I just don't think it's a good idea."

She felt both disappointment and relief. He was right. If they walked into her apartment right now, there was no way he'd be leaving again before the sun rose tomorrow morning.

His hand slipped beneath her hair to cup her cheek. He gave his head a slight shake, as if trying to believe that this was real. She knew how he felt. Her hand came up to cover his.

"Goodnight, Lane," he whispered before leaning in to brush his lips lightly across hers.

A small moan escaped from the back of her throat when he finally pulled away.

As if that noise had called him back, he kissed her one final time before allowing his hand to fall from her face. He seemed to have to force himself to take a step back. "I had a really good time tonight," he said.

"I did, too."

"Will you go out with me again?" The words seemed to burst out of him.

She blushed, ducking her head slightly. "I'd love to," she whispered, looking up at him through her eyelashes.

The smile that spread across his face reached in and touched her heart.

"Goodnight," he said, walking backwards down the hallway as if unwilling to take his eyes off her one moment before he had to.

She waited until he was gone before opening the door to her apartment. "Wow," she breathed when she finally got the door closed behind her.

***

"When I think of the various dates we had after that," Clark said. "There's one date that really stands out in my mind."

"Let me guess. The one where you told me to bring my swimsuit?"

Clark nodded.

***

When Kent had told her to bring her swimsuit, she hadn't been expecting anything like this. It gave the word 'picnic' a whole new meaning. A fresh seafood buffet in front of an open fire followed by a swim off a deserted beach somewhere in the South Pacific.

They'd relaxed on the beach and wrestled in the waves. And now... God, she felt as if she was living the famous scene in From Here To Eternity -- necking on the beach while the waves crashed gently around them. There had been no plan to recreate that scene; it had just sort of... happened. That was one of the reasons Lois was finding it so extremely erotic. Well, that and having his body pressed against hers, his lips and tongue probing her mouth, his hands....

Suddenly, Kent pulled back, breathing heavily as he looked into her eyes. She knew that look. He was quickly losing control.

"I think..." she said.

"Yeah," he responded, closing his eyes as he leaned in to rest his forehead against hers.

A rush of tenderness flooded through her. She wrapped her arms around him, holding him close for a moment before squirming to get out from under him. He'd been strong last time -- saying goodnight to her at the door of her apartment. She knew he needed her to be strong now.

She sat up as the waves lapped across her legs while he stayed down for a moment more. She reached over, gently rubbing his back while he struggled for control. Finally, he rolled onto his side, whispering a single word -- a word she'd become very well acquainted with since starting to date Kent.

"Wow."

***

"As I recall, rule number one was the hardest one to keep," Lois said.

"With an emphasis on hard."

Lois swatted him and he chuckled in response.

"But as I recall, we had a little problem with discretion, too."

"I remember," Lois said before proceeding to tell what she recalled.

***

Lois got up from her desk and stretched. It was already well past seven, and still no word from Grant Gendell about the proposed interview. Well, no point in waiting here all night -- especially since she was supposed to meet Kent at seven thirty.

With that thought, her mind immediately left the reclusive billionaire and settled firmly on Kent. The last few weeks had been... she hardly had words to describe it. Perfect was probably the closest she could come. They just seemed to... click. Okay, so there were still things in the past, things that had happened between them, that made her cautious. But that seemed to have no effect on how she felt about him.

She'd known she was in love with him for a long time. But things were different now. Now... she was free to revel in those feelings. And it was wonderful. She was alive again. In fact, she wasn't entirely certain she'd ever been this alive before.

And something else had changed, too. Regardless of what she'd told Max Deter, she'd discovered that the right man could get her out of the newsroom at a reasonable hour.

Smiling and grabbing her jacket, she trotted up the ramp to the elevator. A minute or so later, she was exiting the building.

She screeched when someone grabbed her from behind, pulling her into the alley. She spun in her attacker's arms, swinging out with her fist. Before it could connect, his hand came up and stopped it.

"You scared the hell out of me!" she exclaimed when she suddenly recognized her attacker.

"I have a feeling it'd take a lot more than that to scare you," Kent said with a laugh before lowering her mouth to hers.

"Mmmm," she moaned, wrapping her arms around his neck and giving herself over to the kiss.

Suddenly he pulled back, shocking her with his quick movements.

"Lois!"

She spun around at the sound of her name being called. Oh, god. Claude. "This isn't what it looks like," she said.**

***

Chapter Forty

"We were just..." Lois glanced back over her shoulder, trying to figure out exactly what they were just doing. Her eyebrows crinkled in confusion when Kent was nowhere to be seen.

"You were just... what?" Claude asked.

"I... uhh... nothing. What did you want, Claude?" Lois was still trying to get her heart rate back to normal. If Claude had seen Kent, it would be all over the newsroom within the hour. But... had he? It wasn't as if she could ask.

"You forgot your cell phone," Claude said. "Perry told me to bring it to you. Something about expecting a call from Gendell tonight?"

"Oh... uh... right," Lois said, taking the cell phone from him. How could she have forgotten that? Her mind was obviously too occupied with Kent.

"You're losing it, cherie," Claude said as if reading her mind. "You're much too tense. What you need is... some relaxation. How about I remind you how to relax?" He reached for her.

She stepped away. "Not in this lifetime."

Claude gave her a smile that made her skin crawl.

"Don't worry, cherie. I know you don't mean that. You just need to raise your standards in choosing your lovers. And I have no doubt you'll be begging me again soon. After all, you know I can pleasure you like no other man."

He gave her a wink before turning around and walking away, leaving her fretting behind him. She would have been seething, but right now, she had more important things on her mind. Claude's comment about raising her standards in choosing a lover. Did Claude's comment mean he'd seen Kent... or not? Or was he referring to Deter -- who would have been the last date Claude knew about.

And... had Kent overheard Claude's final comments? If so, would they change the way Kent felt about her? Would they make him think that she slept around a lot? She unconsciously began chewing on her lower lip nervously.

***

"Of course, it didn't change the way I felt about you. And it didn't make me think you slept around," Clark said immediately. "After all, I overheard your 'deathbed' confession -- back when you were stuck in the hanger at EPRAD shortly after we met -- so I already knew about Claude. Although, I have to admit, Claude's slimy innuendos did make me dislike Claude quite a bit more than I had before -- which is something I wouldn't have believed possible."

Lois rubbed his arm soothingly. "I can remember how long it seemed to take afterwards for me to really believe that he hadn't seen you," Lois said. "Even after I made you listen in on what Claude said after he went back into the newsroom, I was still terrified the next day when I went to the newsroom that everyone would know I'd been kissing you outside the Planet."

"And did they?"

Lois shook her head.

"You know, it's sort of funny. I was actually thinking of another occasion when we almost got caught."

***

'Ding.'

Kent was floating on the ceiling of the hallway outside the door to Lois' apartment before the elevator even opened. One minute he'd been kissing Lois goodnight, and loving it, the next the elevator had dinged and, after a quick look through the door and spotting Jimmy, Clark was floating on the ceiling. And Lois was staring up at him in disbelief.

Oh, no. Not a good idea. If the kid saw her looking up, he might too. A moment later, a gust of wind swept through the hallway and the door was closing on the stairwell.

"Hey, Lois?" Kent heard the kid say as he stopped on the roof.

"Jimmy!" Lois gasped. "What are you doing here?"

"You wanted some information on those deaths with the weird patches on their bodies. Anyway, I thought I'd stop by on my way home and drop off what I found."

Clark immediately quit listening. It was one of the rules, after all. Or... technically not. After all, eavesdropping to get inside information on each other's stories was not actually on the list of dating rules. Not talking about current investigations was. But he was certain Lois wouldn't see the distinction.

***

"I think that was about the same time as the fire," Lois said when Clark finished his story.

"Fire?" Clark asked.

Lois nodded. "After all, you couldn't very well expect all of our dates to be so... perfect."

***

She had meant it to be a quiet, romantic evening. She really had. She'd even managed to find a simple recipe that she'd been certain she actually understood. 'Full-proof,' the book had said. 'Impossible to mess up.' 'Cooking For Dummies.' After all, cooking was what women did for the men in their lives.

She should have known better.

A knock on the door brought her out of her thoughts. Sighing, she squared her shoulders before walking over to the door. Checking through the peephole first, she opened the door.

"Hi, Lane," Kent said pleasantly before suddenly taking note of her appearance. The way his nose twitched, she knew that wasn't the only thing he was noticing. "Lane?" he asked.

Sighing again, she gestured him inside.

"I tried to make supper," she said, looking towards the kitchen to see exactly what he was seeing. Even from the entrance way, the blackened walls and cupboards in the kitchen could be clearly seen -- well, those spots anyway that didn't have the chemicals from several fire extinguishers dripping off them. In fact, she was pretty certain by the time she'd gotten the fire out, and before the fire department arrived, she'd 'borrowed' every fire extinguisher in the apartment block.

"But... what..."

"Welcome to the world of Lois Lane's cooking," she responded.

"So..." he said when he finally recovered the power of speech, "...I take it we're ordering in tonight?"

In spite of the situation, in spite of the mess, in spite of the fact that her furniture, although not directly affected by the fire, was never going to smell right again, Lois burst out laughing.

"Uhh... and in the future, Lane," Kent continued, "how about you let me do the cooking?" As he spoke, he walked towards the kitchen. "I won't be able to get rid of the smell, but..." He shifted into superspeed and she stood in awe watching as the mess was quickly cleaned up, at least as well as could be expected.

***

"But your cooking attempts never got quite that out of control in our reality," Clark said.

"Well, in our reality, I wasn't desperately trying to impress you."

"You weren't?"

She leaned over, giving him a quick kiss. "No. I already had you by then. Although, in our reality, this was about the time that I started looking into taking cooking lessons -- so maybe there was an element of wanting to impress you in there somewhere."

Clark laughed. "Trust me, I've always been impressed. After all, you're the only person I know who can actually burn water."

She gave him a well-deserved smack. "That was only once. Besides, how was I to know that the water in the pot had all boiled away while I wasn't looking or that when I threw my notebook across the room after getting that extremely unhelpful call from Bobby it would land in the hot pot and catch on fire?"

Clark didn't dare respond to that. No need to remind her of her plaintive cry when he ran into the kitchen to see flames leaping out of the pot: 'But I was just boiling water.' So he smoothly changed the subject. "So how did Mr. Tracewski react to your accident?"

"Well, Mr. Tracewski... wasn't exactly impressed. In spite of your clean up job, the place still stank of smoke. Carpets had to be replaced to get rid of the smell. The tiles in the kitchen were pretty much a write-off. The damage to the cupboards was pretty extensive, too. And for some reason, Mr. Tracewski wasn't willing to do all that if I was still going to be living there. I guess having a reporter living there who had been broken into several times over the years, and had on one occasion even had a missile launched through her window was not exactly his idea of... the ideal tenant. So then with the fire... I guess that was just the final straw. He said his insurance had gone through the roof. So... although he couldn't force me to move, he made it pretty clear that he had no intention of getting around to fixing the damage if I was staying."

"Wait a minute! Is that why you moved? Because of a cooking accident?"

Lois nodded.

"Okay, well... wow," Clark said, fighting back a laugh. "I have to admit, even though we knew you moved, I'd have never guessed that your cooking was the reason."

"Well, when I thought about it, I guess I realized that moving could be a good thing. I figured maybe I could use an apartment with a little more... discrete entrance."

"So that's why your new place backs out onto a park -- so that there would be less chance of me being seen going in and out?" Clark asked.

Lois nodded. "I seem to remember suggesting, after Jimmy almost caught us, that we start using the window. You were afraid there was too much risk of someone seeing a flying man. But having you drop me off on a balcony looking out over a park... It seemed the perfect solution."

"Wow. So you were serious enough about us that you actually looked for an apartment that had a discrete fly-in entrance."

She shrugged. "Well, Sally down in accounting had mentioned that she was looking for someone to take over her lease. I knew a bit about the place and... It sounded perfect. So even if we hadn't been dating, I think I'd have been interested. But after the incident with Jimmy and then the fire..." She shrugged again.

"It seems to me that in our reality, Sally was looking for someone to take over the lease for her apartment, too."

"But we had just bought the brownstone."

"Besides, it wouldn't have been big enough for the two of us. But in this reality..."

"...it was perfect. And since my living room furniture stank of smoke, I decided that was an ideal time to replace it, too." She paused as a new idea struck her. "I think it was when you were helping me move that I gave you the picture of me that we found in your secret closet."

"I remember that. I was looking at it as I was helping you pack, bemoaning the fact that all I had was a newspaper picture of you, and you told me to keep it. I loved it, by the way. It gave me many hours of... pleasure. I found it a real... release."

Lois swatted him, although she couldn't quite keep the grin off her face.

"I guess this need for discretion explains all the cryptic notes we found in my closet, too," Clark continued.

Lois nodded. "You know, I can remember thinking that all this sneaking around was sort of sexy."

Clark smiled. "Well, at least we didn't have any problems with rule number three."

"The one where we weren't to talk about current inves