4 x Lex — Almost

By Louette McInnes (misc3309@cantua.canterbury.ac.nz)

Summary: Lex Luthor is out of prison, thanks to Bill Church, Jr., a lawyer, and a pile of bogus documents. Church's plan is for Luthor to roust Mindy from power at Intergang, but Luthor has plans of his own — some of them involving Lois Lane. To complicate matters, Clark must deal with an unbalanced Daily Planet employee who has developed an unhealthy obsession for him.

Lex is such a charming psychopath — cultured evil, distilled and refined, tragic in his one saving grace, his love for Lois. This is for all the Lexophiles among the FoLCs. And for John G, Laurie F, Debby S, and especially Patty M., who kept me honest in plot, spelling, and grammar.

The last scene is just for me. I've been trying to find a place to show my opinion of Dan Scardino for awhile.


Shortish, with blond, curly hair, Anne-Marie Wilson came into the storeroom while Clark was supposed to be looking for a box of pencils. He'd heard the fire alarm only a moment before and was sure he'd be able to change and go quickly. He hadn't seen Anne-Marie anywhere. Now he wished Lois hadn't been away on that interview. If she'd been with him, Anne-Marie wouldn't have followed him.

"Mr. Kent, can I help you find something?" Anne- Marie asked. She was always trying to be helpful. That was the problem. Clark thought she seemed to be a nice kid, just lonely. He had talked to her a few times, like he talked to everyone at the Planet. But now he really needed to get away.

"Oh, Anne-Marie. Could you just put this box on my desk?" he asked.

She smiled sweetly at him and took the box of pencils. Clark was gone by the time she had rushed back hoping to talk to him some more. He had been so kind when she had broken up with her boyfriend. And even though he was engaged to Lois Lane, Anne-Marie still had hope every time she heard them argue over a story or some bit of editing. And her heart still gave a little flutter every time he went past her desk. But she was hurt and angry now because it wasn't the first time he'd found some little errand and then disappeared when she thought they might be able to talk. She couldn't believe, after she thought he was so friendly, that he would treat her like this. *****

Bill Church Jr. didn't like jail. Luckily for him, he still had enough influence to get himself a lawyer and get out on bail. Hopefully the lawyers could delay his trial connected with the museum bombing for a very long time. The trouble was that Mindy, his young, blond step-mother, had already gotten a stranglehold on most of his resources and was proving difficult to dispose of. He had to keep re-assessing her ruthlessness and brains every time he came across another roadblock she'd set up, or found another source of revenue she had caused to disappear. She had him in a stranglehold. He'd fix her, though. Just wait! *****

Clark really did just need some supplies this time, just a refill for the new notepad Perry had handed out to all his reporters two weeks before.

"Now, listen up you lot. Mr. Stern, _and *I*_, don't want any more limp excuses for why you couldn't get a story in. I've had too many of 'em lately. The King didn't give excuses; he just got out there and performed. Why, in Vegas he gave so many shows in seven days that I don't know how he stayed on his feet, but he wasn't going to disappoint his public. Neither is the Planet. Here, one from Mr. Stern for each of you. Your name's even engraved on the stainless steel cover. So Jensen, in future, you can 'steel' a story, but no more of this 'stealing' a story from one of your associates. *Got that*?" Perry asked pointedly of one of the reporters. "And Johnson, if your dog can chew through this pad, I might just have to have both of you shot!"

The only problem with the pads was that they required refills of a certain size, and that was a nuisance to some people, but often a good excuse for Clark.

He noticed Anne-Marie near the stairs, so he grabbed Lois by the wrist as she came in and before she could sit down. He hoped this would forestall any problems with Anne-Marie.

"What's up? Where are we going?" Lois asked as he pulled her toward the storeroom.

"Just to get some note paper…but I don't want Anne- Marie following me here again. She just seems to know when I'm coming here. I'm tired of having to dodge her, or dislodge her from my desk. Jimmy helped a couple of times lately when she kept stopping at my desk every half hour to talk. He'd probably be willing to 'protect' me while I get some supplies, but I'd *much* rather be alone with you!"

"I should hope so!" Lois said, putting her hands on his chest. "After all, you *did* say you'd marry me." She moved a bit closer. "And I won't stand for you flirting with any other female !"

"Lois! You know I haven't done that!" he protested.

"I know," Lois said smiling at him and wrapping her arms about his neck. "I trust you completely, and I *have* been aware of Anne-Marie following you like a lost puppy. She's young and just has a little crush on you, and I can hardly fault her taste, now can I?" She gave him a quick kiss, thought better of it, and went back for a longer one.

Clark slid his arms around her waist to hold her and knew he'd never remember what supplies he'd actually come to get. Kissing Lois did seem to have that effect on him. A tiny part of him stood back and looked on in amazement -that he should ever be so lucky to learn what love meant and to be loved by Lois Lane.

Standing near the elevator, Anne-Marie had seen Lois and Clark heading toward the supply room. She had hoped to have a few minutes alone with Clark again, until he had taken Lois with him. She followed the pair anyway, peeking through the glass panel in the door. What she saw caused her face to turn red, first with embarrassment, and then with anger. Instead of arguing as she had hoped, Clark was giving in, letting himself be seduced by Lois Lane. She just knew that Clark couldn't love that woman, not really, not when she had heard him disagreeing with Lois any number of times over editing or what story to cover or how to cover it.

"I would never argue with you," Anne-Marie wanted to tell Clark. "You must realize that it's me, not Lois Lane, who really loves you. How could you do this? How could you be so polite and pleasant and friendly before and then give in to that woman? *She* doesn't really love you! You should be with *me*, kissing *me*. I wouldn't argue with you, or throw out flowers you sent me, or go flying off with Superman like she does. If we could just spend some time alone together, I know you'd see that I'm much better for you and I'd take much better care of you."

Anne-Marie couldn't see that it was Lois' strength of character and intelligence, her boldness and determination that had first irritated yet fascinated Clark. That strength and courage to argue with him, or with Perry, or anyone else for that matter when she felt something was important, that was one of the things he loved so much about Lois. The two reporters complemented each other rather than being carbon copies of each other. The old phrase "opposites attract" had taken on new meaning for Clark. He and Lois seemed outwardly different and this led to arguments. But she was the extra strength he needed at times, the added insight into a problem. It had been Lois who had seen through Bob Fences' charade. And Lois who had seen a way to save his parents after Mazic had kidnapped them, when Clark had been unable to find a way through the minefield of alternatives. Lois had had the courage to follow through with her risky plan.

Anne-Marie had also never seen the side of Lois that very few people were allowed to see — the part that really cared about people. That hidden soft center had finished him, especially when it had been turned on him as Superman. Not just the dazzled look in her eye when he wore the blue suit, although that had entranced him. No, it was the way she had cared about Superman as a person, an individual — not a freak or an alien, but a person who might have human feelings, and whose feelings could be hurt.

Clark, in turn, had tried to be the solid base Lois could depend on and trust. He had accepted her as she was and given her full credit for her intelligence and her brilliant reporting. His arguments and needling, especially when they first worked together, had annoyed her yet also told her that he respected her enough to argue. But he had also listened and been willing to learn from her, giving her the respect she deserved as a professional.

Together, Lois and Clark were stronger — as a reporting team, as a rescue team, and as two humans in need of love and understanding.


Lex Luthor was waiting. Outwardly patient and relaxed, he was enjoying the champagne that had been there when he checked into the hotel suite, in the hotel that used to be his. A tailored, grey suit had been brought for him at the prison, and he now wore a fresh carnation in the lapel. His veneer of civilization felt complete as he waited. Asabi, who had collected him from the prison gate, was in another room. Lex had been surprised when Jack Farrell had asked to see him. He had never done any legal work for Lex in the past. But- there were few interesting diversions in prison once Lex had established his position in the internal hierarchy of the place. A willingness to do one's own dirty work coupled with the ruthlessness and self interest of the true psychopath could take a person very far in prison society.

So Lex had agreed to see Farrell, and it had been a very worthwhile visit. Papers had soon been lodged showing that 'poor Lex, the trusting employer' had been framed by his assistant, Nigel, now conveniently dead at the hand of Paul Mazic. Mrs. Cox could no longer testify after a small accident in the prison hospital surgery. Tony Taylor was a slight threat, but she had sensibly kept her mouth shut so far and didn't know enough to really cause trouble.

So Lex had been released on bail and whisked away from the media circus waiting at the prison gate. He had tried, but hadn't caught a glimpse of Lois there. His face darkened at the thought of her engagement to her partner, Clark Kent. An engagement to Superman would have been preferable, bearable -just. A worthy opponent, Lex had called Superman early on in the game. But the game hadn't gone Lex's way. Losing once more to the Man of Steel would be painful, but Lex had known of Lois' fascination. What Lex couldn't abide was losing to an ordinary mortal, especially one he considered *very* ordinary.

"How *could* Lois have sunk to that?" he had asked himself time and time again as he sat in his prison cell. He couldn't, wouldn't believe the story he had wheedled out of Paul Mazic — that Clark Kent was Superman. Mazic was a nincompoop, and a lucky one to have taken out Nigel and still be alive himself. Lex had to admit that Kent and Superman looked alike, but their character (and Lex had always prided himself on judging character)had seemed too different. If Kent really were Superman, Lex couldn't imagine even him being stupid or idealistic enough not to have used that fact to get what he wanted from Lois Lane, and keep her from accepting Lex's proposal of marriage.

Lex had seen a good dose of pheromone perfume make Lois believe she was in love with Clark Kent once before. Maybe, Lex consoled himself, Kent had managed to get some more from somewhere. He couldn't imagine any other reason why Lois would marry Kent. Lex had tried to find the formula, or a sample of the pheromone, but Miranda had destroyed everything before she left her laboratory, rather than let any fall into his hands.

Superman's relationship with Lois was another mystery. He did take care of Lois, but he hadn't cared enough to offer whatever it would take to keep her from accepting Lex. And Lex felt confident that Lois was too good an investigative reporter to have been working beside Superman and not realize it.

There was another reason why Lex wouldn't believe Mazic's tale. After the story from Smallville had broken, where Jason Trask had set out to find a rock that might kill Superman, Lex had investigated carefully. He knew Trask had gone after Kent, so he had investigated the reporter as thoroughly as he could. Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary, and there had been no real reports of any special strength or anything else when Kent was a child.

In addition, Lex had talked of the incident to Lois at one stage, hoping she could tell him more than had been printed. She had talked of the trip and her original dislike of the country. She had also mentioned Kent's allergic reaction. When Lex had mentioned Trask going after Kent, Lois had just plain laughed and said she didn't think Superman would be likely to get a paper cut. Lex had to agree that bleeding from a paper cut wasn't what he would expect from a superhero, either.

Maybe, thought Lex, being an alien made a difference in Superman's physical needs. He consoled himself with the thought that if Superman had rejected Lois, maybe she had accepted Clark Kent as a way to stay close to Superman through his friend, find out his secrets, make him jealous. Her acceptance certainly upset Lex. He had a score to settle with Kent anyway. Kent had been one of the prime movers in the investigation that brought Lex down. The thought of ruining Kent as a reporter and also taking Lois away from him brought a pleased smile to Lex's face. "What an entertaining little scheme to amuse me," Lex thought.

A knock on the door interrupted his pleasant thoughts about the ruin of one Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet. Eager to start a fitting revenge, Lex stood to greet his benefactor as Asabi answered the door. Lex hadn't known who to expect, and his welcoming smile fell from his face and his mouth dropped open in amazement as Bill Church Jr. walked into the hotel suite.

Lex recovered quickly — he always rebounded fast and produced some of his most inspired ideas when under pressure. He still remembered his own feeling of power at the consternation on a certain superhero's face early in their acquaintance. Superman had fired a bullet at Lex's heart. Lex had been certain he would die, but Superman had stopped the bullet inches short of its target as a demonstration of his superspeed. Lex had recovered quickly and asked somewhat disdainfully "Does that conclude your demonstration?" He also had one of his flashes of brilliant insight into another's character. Superman had a weakness, and that would possibly let Lex defeat the Man of Steel, and that weakness was the superhero's morality, his caring for other people.

Lex knew his own strength lay in a total disregard for other humans and what mattered to them. Of all the billions of people on earth, only Lois Lane had ever brought out any weakness in Lex Luthor.

"Do have some champagne!" Lex invited Bill Church Jr. "You've ordered an excellent vintage and we should enjoy it. *I* certainly intend to."

"Why not," answered Church, "if we're going to be working together."

"Yes…" Lex looked thoughtful as he poured champagne into Church's glass. "If you don't mind my getting to the point, what do you want and why should I help you?" Lex took a sip of his drink and continued, "You wouldn't go to all the trouble to get me out of prison without having some purpose in mind." He held his glass up to watch the bubbles sparkle in the pale golden liquid, then turned his full attention on Church.

Bill Jr. sat casually on the arm of the overstuffed sofa and sized up his former opponent and possible ally. He knew that most of the rest of the world had been taken in by Lex's deceptions in the past. He could admire that cleverness but was determined not to be taken in by Lex's seeming forthrightness now.

"We have a mutual problem — actually, several mutual problems," he started to explain. "Intergang.."

"Tried to kill me," Lex cut in coldly, "and stole my kryptonite. I nearly *had* Superman, and you ruined it."

Bill Jr. looked in Lex's eyes, than sat back and re- assessed his situation. He had seen that look only a few times before — always in the eyes of cold-blooded killers for hire, always when they were annoyed. A chill ran up his back at the realization of what kind of creature he was dealing with.

"Nigel sold to the highest bidder, and that was Mazic. And_he got what he asked for." Church told Lex the truth.

"Yes, poor Nigel," lamented Lex. "I never could get him interested in ancient history. Here's to Darius III of Persia," he said, holding up his glass in a toast. "If Nigel had found him more interesting and had the patience to learn how he came to power, Nigel might still be alive today." He paused and smiled brightly, "but then, I wouldn't be here to propose this toast!" and he graciously made a slight bow in Church's direction. "So what are these mutual problems? Superman, I assume, is one of them?" he asked.

"Exactly," replied Church. "I thought I had dealt with him -twice, in fact, but he has this annoying habit of cropping up again, or having someone like your Lois Lane help him out."

"Ah, Lois!" Lex said with a bittersweet smile. He stared for a moment into the rising bubbles in his glass as he turned the stem slowly in his hand. He looked up, directly at Bill Jr., with a cold and serious expression. "Not one hair on her head is to be hurt. Is that clear?!"

"Sure, no problem," Bill Jr. waved his hand casually in the air. He knew he could take care of Lois Lane once he'd gotten rid of Mindy and had Luthor safely back in prison, or better, really dead this time. "The other problem is my new step-mother."

Lex gave him a lazy, Cheshire cat smile and said, "So I've heard. A very smart 'dumb blond'. What help do you think I could possibly be, and why should I give you any help at all?"

"Because," said Bill Jr. returning Lex's smile, "those documents that got you an appeal might just turn out to be false."

"I don't tolerate threats," Lex responded.

"Oh, that's just insurance. I think the positive aspects will interest you more."

"Do continue," prompted Lex.

"I'm looking here at sharing out Metropolis — equally, of course," he hastened to add, seeing Lex's expression, "and for someone of your undoubted talent in 'business' of all kinds, but your now limited resources, you could have a very bright future with our organization.

"My dear step-mother is proving difficult to remove. She would never trust anyone too closely connected with me. *You*, however, are supposed to be my enemy because of that little deal we had arranged with Nigel, before he changed his mind."

"And my enemy's enemy is my friend," concluded Lex.

"Exactly! You just have to charm her. Then we can get enough information to set her up for a fall." Bill Jr. wanted to see Mindy look as stupid as he had felt when the cops arrested him for the bomb that Lois Lane had somehow found and disarmed at the museum . How lucky for everyone else and how unlucky for him that she had dropped her purse beside that particular table. He still wondered if that had been part of Mindy's engineering, too. It just seemed too coincidental.

Bill Jr. knew that Lex had the reputation of being an incredibly charming man. He couldn't see it himself, but he did know that at least 4 women had jeopardized their careers or lost their lives because they did what Lex wanted them to do. Bill just didn't want Mindy *that* charmed unless he could sink both Lex and Mindy together — the ideal solution to regaining control of Intergang for himself. *****

"Lois, you don't believe Lex was really Nigel's dupe?" Perry White asked his best investigative reporter as she sat in his office. She had been too close to the story when Lex was first charged, and Perry had only just been in time to help stop her wedding to Lex Luthor. He thought she was well and truly over that, but she had been shaken up again when Lex had reappeared from the dead to try and regain his power *and* Lois.

"I've learned a lot about Lex since then, Perry," Lois told her boss, "and I just can't see how I could have been so blind in the first place. Well…maybe I can. I was blind about a lot of things then and yet I had the arrogance to think I was such a clever investigator."

"We were all fooled by him."

"No. Clark always knew, but I wouldn't listen to him."

"*What* aren't you listening to me about *this* time?" Clark asked as he casually strolled into Perry's office. He leaned against the door frame, hands in his pockets, smiling at his partner.

"Lex is out on bail, pending an appeal based on some documents that claim to show Nigel was responsible for all the criminal activity, and that he framed Lex," Lois informed him.

Clark's smile vanished as he straightened up and looked to Perry for confirmation.

"That's our lead story tonight," Perry told him. "I sent Myerson to cover the release. I didn't want Lois anywhere near him without you there as well."

"Thanks, Chief!"

"What?!" demanded Lois indignantly. "I handled it last time!"

"Yes, I know. But there wasn't going to be much happening except maybe a photo or two and I wanted that story of yours on the real estate deal finished for tonight, thank you!. I'm quite happy for you to investigate Lex's claims, but I'd rather you and Clark worked together after Lex held you prisoner before. I'm sure your fiance feels the same." he said, looking at Clark.

"Yes," Clark confirmed, "but I doubt if that would stop her." He looked at her with a somewhat worried expression.

"Well, how about the two of you get out of my office to sort out how you're going to go after Luthor. Then maybe I can get this paper to bed," Perry told them as he escorted them out of the office and shut his door. As soon as his back was turned, though, he smiled, knowing that his best team wouldn't rest until Luthor was safely back in prison. *****

Lois and Clark settled down to work in the golden glow of a summer evening at his apartment after a somewhat less than intimate dinner at her Uncle Mike's busy new restaurant. His business had expanded after his brush with Intergang and the expose she and Clark had done on corruption in the police force. Lois had given the kangaroo steaks a miss, despite her uncle's assurances that it was very lean and much healthier than beef. Clark had offered her a bite of his, but she couldn't quite bring herself to try it — she kept having images crop up of Winnie the Pooh and Roo. Instead she had opted for the New Zealand crayfish her uncle recommended. She remembered the stories he had told her as a child of visiting that country during his career in the Marines. He had spent a month travelling there, catching his own dinner — salmon, trout, crayfish, even deer. He had gone out with some deer cullers, whose job had been to reduce the exploding population of introduced wild deer before they destroyed the native forests. It had given her a new slant on Bambi and the hunters, and made her realize how important the viewpoint you were looking from, or a story was written from, could be.

"We really need to get a copy of the papers the lawyer lodged to appeal for a new trial," Lois said thoughtfully as she looked around at all their previous research spread on the dining table, coffee table and even the floor. "There are still people who will want to see Lex proved innocent, people who still think he did a lot of good for Metropolis. I think we can expect to see stories in some of the papers that are slanted in his favor and present him as almost a saint. Look how, when we all thought he was dead, some people complained about you letting him fall to his death. And that was even before Ari Carlin started sneaking messages into her column. We have to be ready to give the other view of him again and make it stick."

"Lois, you know I would have saved him from that fall if I could have?" Clark asked quietly.

"I know! And I believe you. I doubt if I could have been as generous as that, knowing all that I know now. He nearly killed you, Clark!"

Clark reached across the dining table to take her hand. "But he didn't. And you didn't say yes to marrying him." Still looking at her, he rose from his chair and went around the table, careful not to disturb all their research. He pulled her to her feet and took her other hand in his. "We talked all this out before. I should have told you more of what I knew about Lex, and not been so sure of my own invulnerability. *I* underestimated him then, but I won't do it again." he assured Lois.

Lois turned her left hand slightly to look at the ring on her finger. "Lois Lane Kent — that's what stopped me from saying yes." She looked up at Clark. "I told you I kept thinking about you that day — Clark, not Superman. But I didn't tell you the exact instant I realized I couldn't say yes to Lex. I was standing in front of the mirror after I got dressed, and I kept trying out versions of what I thought would be my new name. Nothing sounded right until I said…Lois Lane Kent."

"Lane and Kent. They belong together." Clark said very softly, and ever so slowly bent to kiss her, gently, as for their first real kiss. This time, there was no hesitation in Lois' response and the tidal wave of emotion swept both of them along together. The last glimmer of sunset had faded before either one became aware of their surroundings. Clark held Lois for a moment more of total peace, then whispered, "If you let me go to find the lights, I'll let you go to find some coffee. Then — it's back to work, woman!"

"Slave-driver!" Lois said as she thumped Clark on the shoulder and headed for the kitchen area.

Clark had turned on the lights and started to look at one of the piles of papers when someone knocked on his door. Thinking it might be Jimmy or a messenger from the newspaper with a copy of the documents relating to Lex's release, he trotted up the steps and opened the door. To his surprise, Anne-Marie stood uncertainly at the door holding some papers.

"Anne-Marie! What are you doing out so late?"

The girl stepped inside the door, clutching her papers, and explained, "I had this story I was working on, and I wondered if you could help me with it."

"It's a bit late, don't you think? It's nearly ten o'clock. And I'm really busy trying to sort out this new development with Lex Luthor." He waved a hand toward all the papers spread around the apartment. "Could your story wait until tomorrow?"

Lois walked to the foot of the steps carrying two mugs of coffee. "Oh, I thought it was Jimmy with the papers on Lex's release."

"Anne-Marie wanted some help on a piece she's writing."

The girl looked embarrassed and backed out the door. "I can get some help another time." She said as she almost ran down the steps outside the apartment and off into the dark before Clark could think of what to say. *****

Sobbing with disappointment and anger, Anne-Marie fumbled with the key of her car and finally managed to get the door open and get in. It had taken her days to get up the courage to find out where Clark lived, and days longer to think of an excuse and gather the courage to go to his apartment. She had sat in her car for an hour before she found the nerve to go to his door. Now it was all ruined, all for nothing, and she'd have to think of another excuse to see him. All because of Lois Lane. All because he couldn't see Anne-Marie would be better for him. He hadn't looked at all pleased to see her. Her face burned with embarrassment at the thought.

She doubted that he and Lois had really been working, but she was afraid to let herself think about what else they might have been doing. That just made her angry. She couldn't admit to herself that the anger was due to jealousy.

"He should have asked me in and offered to help with my story, then maybe Lois would have left. Maybe he would have even told her to go so he could spend time with me. *That's* what he should have done; I'm sure that's what he really wanted to do." Anne-Marie thought to herself. Yet she knew she would forgive him for not being strong enough to send Lois away.

Anne-Marie's wishful daydreams were beginning to take over from reality. *****

Mindy arrived a full ten minutes early at the door of the hotel suite where Lex Luthor was staying. She rang the bell, hoping to catch him off guard. Most people expected her to be late — 'dumb blonds' weren't supposed to be organized enough to get places on time. She'd found this trick useful in the past, and could always explain it away by acting confused about the time she was supposed to arrive. The smartest men still fell for that line.

As the door opened, she heard the sound of steel on steel. She stepped in carefully and just stood watching. Two figures in black-wired fencing masks and fitted white jackets and pants were engaged in a duel with fencing foils, thin, flexible and wicked. The usual protective rubber tips were missing from the ends of the thin blades. She watched as first one figure attacked, then the other, lunging forward to feint an attack, then flicking quickly with the tip to avoid his opponent's parry, and make the real attack. Neither one seemed to have noticed her arrival.

The pace of the attacks, parries and ripostes, the lunges and recoveries, increased, but neither fencer was able to score a clear hit. At last, one of the figures made a slashing attack on his opponent's arm. Only the doubled kevlar sleeve saved the man from a serious wound, and he dropped the foil from shock and pain.

"Monsieur Luthor!" he protested, as he grabbed his fore arm with his other hand, "That is an illegal hit! You are 'off' target, and that is a sabre move. You gain no points for that!"

"Ah…but Pierre," Lex said cheerfully, placing the point of his foil over Pierre's heart, "sometimes it's not a game, in which case, you are dead — and I win. Rules are only good when they work *for* you, and that is not always the case in the real world. You have learned a valuable lesson, my friend. Thank you for the bout! Perhaps we could try sabres tomorrow at eleven? And now, if you'll excuse me, I should have a guest arriving."

Both men slipped their masks off and tucked them under their right arms, which in Lex's case still held his foil, now point downward to the floor, They shook hands in the traditional left-handed manner to finish the bout, and Pierre headed for the door. As he turned to watch Pierre collect his bag of fencing gear and leave, Lex noticed Mindy standing beside the door.

"The lovely Mrs. Church — welcome. Asabi, please get Mrs. Church something to drink." He walked over to shake hands with Mindy, then said, "please excuse me for a few moments to get cleaned up and changed. I should apologize for not being ready on time. I'm afraid I missed my fencing practice while I was in prison, and I was enjoying it so much that I ran a bit later than I intended."

"Ohhh," said Mindy vacuously, "those points look so sharp. Aren't you afraid? They would make such a nasty cut!"

"I do wear protective clothing, but where would the thrill be if there was no danger?" Lex's tone was light, and he smiled his most charming smile at the young and wide eyed Mrs. Church. He had to agree with Bill Jr. that Mindy was an interesting challenge, at least. Not as attractive as Lois, certainly, but not as dumb as Bill Jr. had first assumed, and not a very good actress, either. *****

Fifteen minutes later, after a quick shower and change, Lex was offering to use his business acumen and connections to help Mindy.

"I still have friends and influence, and I would be happy to use what I have to help you, ah, improve your profit margin," Lex put it delicately.

"Well-ll," Mindy hesitated as if unable to think very quickly. "I *do* need help. I'm not very good with business," she lied smoothly, batting her eyelashes at Lex.

"Mindy — may I call you Mindy?" he asked in his most polite and charming manner.

"Why, of course!" she gushed in reply, in a sickly sweet voice.

"Then let's be frank, Mindy. Anyone who could outwit Bill Church and his son is no fool. You are, however, new to Metropolis and my connections would be useful. I, having lost my material resources, need financial backing to start again. I also have a score to settle with your step-son and husband after they tried to have me killed. *You* need to keep them out of the picture so they won't interfere with your running of Intergang. And — it would be stupid of me to try to set up a competing operation to yours. It seems to me that a collaboration could be," he paused and looked Mindy carefully up and down, "much more pleasant and mutually beneficial for us both." Lex finished with a smile and a small bow of the head.

As Lex had talked, Mindy's expression changed, became less vacuous. When he had finished, she looked at him and raised one eyebrow. She knew she could never trust him, but thought she could use him to eliminate her stepson. She raised her glass, smiled at Lex in return, and proposed a toast. "Here's to our mutual benefit." *****

Lex threw the phone across the room, hard, in his anger. The phone was undamaged, but the vase in the path of its trajectory now lay smashed on the floor.

Asabi started to clear up the mess. He knew that if Lois Lane kept refusing his master's calls, either more phones or more vases would suffer. *****

"*More* flowers from Luthor?" Clark asked rather sarcastically as he saw a delivery boy emerge from the elevator with a large bunch of red roses.

"Now, now!" Lois chastened him. "Just because you're a poorly paid reporter who can't afford to send your fiance flowers at work every day is no reason to get jealous, is it Perry?" Lois looked at her boss, with a very sweet smile and continued, "Of course, your boss might consider giving you a raise so you could send your partner and fiance the occasional small bouquet to make sure his best reporting team stays on good terms." She looked expectantly at her boss.

Perry smiled back just as sweetly, "His boss *would* consider a raise, if the reporting team managed to put Luthor away again and the paper's circulation went up. Besides, Clark's partner is marrying him for love, not money!"

"On what the Planet pays us, neither of us are marrying for money!" Lois said sourly.

"Love makes the world go 'round," said Perry cheerfully as he walked away.

Clark, who had continued sitting at his desk and playing with a pencil during this exchange, finally spoke, "Luthor really does worry me, Lois. He's obsessed, and I think it was that pheromone perfume. I told you he said Miranda sprayed him before you had dinner with him that day. If she used the 100% solution, he said the effect would be permanent. Okay, it means he really had some attraction to you. It may also mean he could turn dangerous, even more dangerous than he is now, if he can't have you. That's why she called it Revenge, remember?"

Lois got up from her chair and walked over to Clark's desk. She leaned on the edge of his desk, laid a hand on his shoulder and said gently, "I know the flowers upset you, but *you* know that money and power aren't what matter to me. Lex may have dazzled me with them once, but not enough to make me marry him even then. And- I learn from my mistakes. I didn't give up my crush on Superman and fall in love with Clark because of material things."

"That's for sure! Nice try with Perry on the salary, though, even if it didn't work." Clark tried to lighten the mood of the conversation. "Does this mean you're buying dinner tonight, what with your larger salary due to your — seniority — at the Planet?" He gave Lois a big grin, then ducked quickly as she swatted a hand at his head.

"Only if we do a complete role reversal. You agree to come up and 'see my etchings' and have coffee, tea, or me afterward," Lois said with a mischievous smile, sliding her hand from his shoulder along his collar to the knot on his tie, which she loosened slightly, and then whispered softly in his ear, "and if you agree to help me carry this latest batch of flowers to the hospital to join the last 4 batches Luthor sent."

"Now how could I refuse a proposition like that?" Clark asked, smiling up at his fiance.

They packed up and delivered the flowers, and continued on to the Sawatdee for some Thai food, Lois insisting that this would guarantee Clark would be a 'red hot lover' that night. Clark played along with Lois' teasing over the role reversal and said the spicy food would certainly make him red hot, but the effect was more likely to keep him beside the kitchen water tap than anywhere else in her apartment.

Clark had barely shut the door after following Lois into her living room when she grabbed his tie, using it to pull him to her, and planted her mouth firmly on his for a long kiss. When she finally released him, he said, "I think I like this role reversal idea! Now, I know I'm supposed to thank you for the dinner, but I'm not sure what comes next. Do I chase you around the room or do you chase me?" He was smiling and still had his arms around Lois.

"We're engaged. The chasing part is over. Now we just get to make out," she answered flippantly with a smile and started backing him toward the sofa. Nearing the sofa, he tripped on the carpet and they both landed together, laughing. Looking into her eyes, Clark felt just as bewitched and dazzled as he had the first time they had really looked at each other on their first assignment, trying to piece together Dr. Platt's notes. Neither one was laughing now, and Lois felt mesmerized as she stared at Clark. Slowly both moved until their lips met and let loose all the tension that had been drawing them together.

Lois had felt like this on their first date, and been terrified of where it would lead. She had slammed the door then rather than trust herself. Now she knew that both calm safety and wild, hot excitement were where it led.

Her passionate nature didn't scare her any more, not with Clark, who had taught her, at last, to trust someone and be able to let her emotional defenses down. She knew he wouldn't, like other men in her past, try to push her past what she felt comfortable with, because she knew her happiness meant more to him than his own. Having committed herself emotionally, Lois was prepared to commit her entire self. She had told Clark that in the week after Jaxon, Luthor's son, had tricked them into his virtual world.

"Lois, you mean more to me than_anything_in this world," he had told her then. They had been snuggled close together on her sofa, much as now. He had gently pushed a stray strand of hair out of her face, then continued. "I know Mom gave you the locket with the tiny chip of kryptonite to try and protect you, bring me closer to earth normal — when we finally decide to make love. But I *am* different from other people. I can't escape that." He had paused, so serious, so concerned, afraid to hurt her by the least rejection, but having learned to try and talk out their problems. "What you do to me is *so* beyond anything I've ever felt before, I just…can't be absolutely sure what would happen if we did make love.

You know some people have tried to speculate — all kinds of crazy ideas have surfaced in some of the media. Sometimes I wish that writer, Larry Niven, had never published that article he wrote! I'm just glad 'All the Myriad Ways' is out of print at the moment."

"Clark, he's a science *fiction* writer!"

"Yes, he's also a scientist who has worked on the space program. He's not an idiot. Besides, I'd considered some of those same problems before, myself. *And*_ then there are all kinds of suggestions people have been making for getting around any problems." He managed a smile, reflecting back the one she had flashed at him. "But the truth is, I just_don't_know. Whether you would be safe, whether we could conceive a child, whether we could *prevent* you from getting pregnant, whether having a child could endanger you during pregnancy. It makes me crazy just thinking about what could happen."

"I made my choice when I asked you to marry me," she had reminded him. "And you told me, when the Lakes held us prisoner, that taking risks was what we were all about."

Clark had kissed her so tenderly, then, and laid his hand along her cheek. "And it is. But you were right when I first asked you to marry me — about time to consider things, time to weigh up *all* the risks, because even *I* don't know what they might be for you. I can wait. I think we should wait, until we both make that final step of commitment." Both of them were thinking of Lois' last minute inability to say 'yes' to Lex at the altar. "It just keeps things from getting even more complicated, more crazy."

Lois knew Clark had some fairly strong ideas about honor, love, commitment and responsibility. It was partly what made him the kind of man he was. He was afraid for her, afraid of himself and his own alien biology. So he was willing to wait just a little longer and give her a bolt hole, a final last minute chance of escape from any risks due to that strange, Kryptonian biology — because he truly loved her. She had read the same scary speculations in the media, had thought long and hard about it. But she knew he had waited two years for her to notice him, Clark, not the guy in the red and blue suit. She knew how much he worried about her. So she had told him that if waiting till the wedding took some of the pressure off, then after all his waiting for her, she could certainly wait for him this time. *****

Anne-Marie was inordinately pleased with herself and the events of the day. As she was going past his desk on the way down to research, she had heard Clark complain about the flowers that kept arriving for Lois Lane. She had also managed to get Clark's apartment key from his jacket that day long enough to get a copy made, and she was sure he was alone tonight. She had followed him and Lois Lane to the latter's apartment. It had been agony waiting to see if he would come out again, and she hadn't taken her eyes off the front door of the apartment building the whole time to be sure he didn't slip past her, but then came pure relief and joy when he emerged only an hour later. She had followed him home and although it was late, she still intended, at last, to have a talk with him alone, let him know how she felt. Her daydreams of his response set her heart beating wildly. Reality had little hold on her imagination.

The key turned silently in the lock, and Anne-Marie let herself into Clark's apartment. She had waited until the lights went out so the setting would be more romantic. An old 50's love song was still playing somewhere in the apartment. Tiptoeing down the stairs, she silently made her way across the room. Clark was lying on his back on the sofa and seemed to be sound asleep. It was so dark she could barely see him, but Anne-Marie decided to wake him with a kiss. He moved slightly as she glided across the room, and whispered something in his sleep. Hoping he was dreaming about her, she knelt down by the side of the sofa, then leaned over to kiss him lightly on the lips. He smiled in his sleep, and she thought her heart would stop. He whispered softly again, and she leaned closer to hear, at the same time wrapping her arms about his neck.


Anne-Marie stiffened in anger, and Clark's eyes came open. He looked puzzled, then shocked.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded, trying to sit up and at the same time back away somehow. "How did you get into my apartment?"

"I want to be with you, to take care of you. You need me. You have to know that."

Clark took Anne-Marie's wrists and gently but surely disengaged her arms from around his neck, at the same time sliding away from her.

"Anne-Marie, you have to go home. You shouldn't be here." He kept moving away from her and turned on a light. "I'll call you a cab. I think you're a bit — confused."

"No!" she pleaded. All her thoughts came out in a jumble. "You're so nice at the office. You're always kind to me. You argue with Miss Lane, and she argues with you. You can't love her. And she's too busy with her stories to really look after you. So you need someone to look after you. You need me! I know you love me, you just don't realize it yet." And she threw herself at him to try and wrap her arms around him again.

Clark held a hand in front of him, trying to keep away from Anne-Marie. He had some experience keeping girls at bay, as Superman, and trying to keep Cat under control in the office as Clark, but not in the middle of the night, in his own apartment. He held her by the wrists as gently as he could but still keeping her at arm's length.

" Sure, I've talked to you, but no more than I've talked to anyone else at the Planet. You're a nice girl, Anne-Marie, but I'm *not* in love with you, I barely know you! Lois is my fiance, and I love her — very much. Now, please, just go home, and we'll pretend this didn't happen."

At those last words, the girl pulled her wrists out of his grasp and ran up the stairs crying. "How can you say you don't love me? After you've been so nice at work and we've been alone together in the supply room? You can't treat me like this! I won't let you!" Then she ran out the door.

Clark found the key she had used still in the lock and hastily secured the door. Then, in sheer relief, went and sat on the sofa. His next reaction was to pick up the phone, and he had nearly dialed home to Smallville when he hesitated. Lois already knew something about the problem, and she had a right to know what had happened.

She sounded sleepy as she asked, "What's up?"

He described falling asleep on the sofa, and the late night visit, the key in the door, and his own frantic attempts to keep Anne-Marie at arms length. Instead of getting angry, Lois laughed at the description of his panic to somehow get Anne-Marie out the door without hurting her. After teasing him about the reaction most other men would have shown to such a state of affairs, Lois finally became serious. "She'll probably be too embarrassed to come to work tomorrow. But we should probably tell Perry, just to be safe. Now don't worry." Her tone suddenly changed again, back to a teasing one. " Are you sure it wasn't Cat in disguise? I *could*" she suggested, "come over and protect you from any other females who try to break in." He could hear her trying to muffle her laughter. "Really, Clark, I could. Protect you from *other* females, I mean." Protection from herself was not really part of her plan.

"No, that's okay, Lois. I'll be fine. Maybe we should just get some sleep so we can tackle more of the research on Luthor." Clark wasn't sure, after the hour they had spent together earlier (interrupted by only one emergency this time), and his all too vivid dreams when he fell asleep, just how much self-control he had left where Lois was concerned. *****

Clark was wakened early the next morning by a knock on his door. A policeman requested that Clark accompany him to the local station for questioning about the alleged rape of a young woman the previous night. Clark managed to call Lois, who arrived at the station shortly afterward with the Planet's lawyer. *****

Asabi looked hopefully at the phone when it rang, willing it to be Lois Lane. Two phones, a mirror, and another vase had already been sacrificed to Luthor's rage when his calls to her had been refused. If the woman would only talk to Mr. Luthor, even if she said she never wanted to see him again, Asabi thought it might help. At least maybe the carnage would stop if she talked to him.

Lex accepted the early morning call, which turned out to be from Bill Church Jr.

"I think I've got some news that might cheer you up, Lex," Church informed him in his casual, slightly nasal tone. "I hope you'll have some equally good news for me when we meet this afternoon."

Lex was in no mood for banter, annoyed at being disturbed in the middle of his breakfast. "Well, let's hear it, then."

"One of my contacts at the police station just called to say that a reporter named Clark Kent might be up on a rape charge later today."

"Only *might* be? Don't you know?" The annoyed edge was stronger in Lex's voice. Lex could think of nothing more to his liking- bring Kent down and alienate him from Lois at the same time. But he had to be sure of the charges against Kent, and if necessary, even help them along a little. Such inefficiency as Church tolerated in his employees was insufferable, especially about such important information. How was he expected to accomplish anything with such miserable help, he wondered.

"I thought you'd like to know, even if I couldn't confirm yet that he will be charged," Bill answered Lex's question.

"Where's Farrell? Send him down to see the girl." Lex demanded. "Who is she, anyway?" Lex was thinking quickly, his adrenaline rising to meet the challenge posed. "Even if the police don't charge him, she can bring a civil suit of some kind. Farrell *has* to get to her now, to guarantee at least that much trouble for Kent."

Church didn't like being pushed or directed in how to run his business. "On the other hand," he thought, "this could be another control on Lex, if my lawyer is handling the case. And…I have my own score to settle with those reporters. Hmm…" He excused himself from talking any longer to Lex, saying he would have Farrell at the police station within half an hour. *****

Dr. Margaret Akram sat down in her chair and looked at Henderson. The perplexed look on her face didn't really tell him anything. "So, Doc, do I have to charge Mr. Kent? with raping Anne-Marie Wilson?" It wasn't something he wanted to do, had never considered he would ever be asked to do, knowing the reporter. But some people could really surprise you. He'd been in the police force long enough to learn that.

"You could try it, I suppose, but other than the faintest of marks on her wrist, and that's consistent with the story Mr. Kent told as well as Anne-Marie's story, there's absolutely no evidence of her being raped. You're going to have a hard time proving rape when the girl is clearly a virgin."

"What?!" Henderson wasn't sure he heard the doctor correctly.

"She's a virgin. No semen, no marks, no damage to clothing. What kind of a case do *you* think that makes?" *****

"Mr. Church!" pleaded Jack Farrell, "From what I've been able to get out of that girl, even a civil suit has no chance of success. Are you sure you still want to do this? You could end up paying a lot for nothing."

"I'll be the judge of that, Farrell. Just make it big and messy. Some of the mud will stick, even to Mr. Clark Clean."

"Okay. It's *your* money." *****

Later that day, Bill Church Jr. and Lex Luthor were sitting in a limousine as it cruised slowly through the streets of the city. Looking like two ordinary businessmen in their tailored suits, Lex with a fresh flower in his lapel, they had exchanged pleasantries and were about to get down to business.

"So," said Bill Jr. "what have you come up with?"

"Tell me, who is the most loved, respected, popular person in the city? Dare I say it, the country? Who has been referred to as a 'national treasure'?" Lex asked.

"Who is the most loved, respected, popular person in the country, a 'national treasure'?" Bill Jr. repeated as he thought. "The President?" His answer received a scathing look. He took a sip of scotch and tried again. "Superman?"

"What do you think would happen to someone who was responsible for the death of a well known reporter, maybe two reporters" Lex's face darkened momentarily, "*and* a national treasure?" he finished, smiling brightly across at Church through the cigar smoke.

"Those prison uniforms don't do much for a woman, do they? You can plant the evidence, I take it?"

Lex paused to appreciate his cigar, slowly expelled the smoke, and answered, "A small private safe in her bedroom should do nicely. The small sacrifice of two of your 'moles' in her operation seems to have done its job in getting her to trust me."

"Getting rid of Superman and those two nosy reporters, Lane and Kent, at the same time would make our lives easier, and more profitable. Just one other little question," Bill Jr. said, brandishing his cigar through the air like a conductor. "How are you going to kill the two reporters and Superman?"

"My dear man, do you think I wouldn't have a plan? My previous plans were working fine. It was outside events and people that interfered, including you and your father. The plans, themselves, worked perfectly.

I only need a small piece of kryptonite this time. I assume you can manage that much?" Lex needled Bill Jr.

"No problem, whatever you want." he replied, already trying to calculate how soon and how fast he would be able to pull the plug on Luthor and shunt him back into prison.

"Tell me, who is the most loved, respected, popular person in the city? Dare I say it, the country? Who has been referred to as a 'national treasure'?" Lex asked Mindy later that same day. "And *please*, don't tell me it's the president."

"Superman. Why?" she asked.

As he fingered the carnation in his lapel, the one that held the miniature microphone, Lex thought he might actually regret getting rid of Mindy. Since he had started helping her with contacts and information, and helped find 'leverage' to use on some people who couldn't be bought, they had come to appreciate each other's skills at business, as well as a few other things. She was certainly smarter than her step-son, but she stood in the way of his plans.

"And what do you think would happen to someone who was responsible for the death of a well known reporter, maybe two reporters *and* a national treasure?"

"Killing Superman would do great things for *our* profits. I hope it would be bad news for my step-son."

"If you can get me just one ounce of kryptonite, you'll get rid of your step-son and Superman at the same time. I can promise you that," Lex assured her. They were having dinner on the balcony of her apartment overlooking Metropolis. "You know, the blue of that dress does remarkable things for your eyes." Lex reached across the table and gently brushed his hand over the back of Mindy's hand, all the while smiling his most charming smile. It had never failed him before, except in one case, and he hoped to fix that soon.

" My husband is living in very quiet seclusion since that last heart attack." Mindy smiled with complete assurance of her position on that front. "I *would* like to see my step- son living 'in security', and well looked after for the rest of his life, — if you know what I mean. But do you really think he'll be dumb enough to fall in the same trap twice?"

Lex just smiled in return — very confidently. "How did you get him to fall into the trap the first time?"

"Oh, I just said," and her tone changed to a more syrupy and breathless one, "'I'll do anything you say, Billy'."

"I think I can find a way to frame him."

"And how do I know you won't frame me as well?"

"You don't. That's part of what makes the game so interesting, keeps the brain cells stimulated. You weigh up the probabilities and make your gamble. Of course, you could lengthen your odds by a number of measures. Having Asabi in your pay, to watch me, would be one thing I would expect, since he is with me day and night." Lex not only expected it, he was certain Asabi was in her pay, and Bill Jr.'s as well. But Lex had a better hold than money could buy, and in fact Asabi's double pay was helping to fund Lex's very private plans for *all* the Churches.

He continued speaking, "You have all the money and power, my dear. Life is much more pleasant for me with you at the head of Intergang than with Bill Jr. there. Our interests lie in parallel directions right now." Lex had planned for that contingency, if necessary, and was willing to keep the parallel courses as long as required. Mindy had been impatient to take over Intergang, and was overconfident after her success with the father and son. Lex was sure he could outwit and outwait her — eventually.

Mindy reminded herself how useful Lex had been so far. Profits were up and his knowledge and contacts had allowed her to circumvent a number of problems. He was also far more pleasant to deal with than either her husband or son, very pleasant, in fact. As long as he stayed that way, she was tempted to keep him around.

"I'll see what I can do." Mindy promised. "A little kryptonite shouldn't be too hard to find. Would you like bullets, explosives, or poison for the reporters?"

Lex was smiling his Cheshire cat smile, "I always thought life should be a blast." *****

"A civil suit?!" Lois demanded in outrage, "What for? She should be sued for having you falsely arrested!"

Clark had been sitting at his desk at work when a messenger had delivered a notice of a civil action against him on the part of one Anne-Marie Wilson, alleging harassment and abrogation of her civil rights. Thinking the whole issue had been cleared up when the police refused to prosecute him, he was too stunned to do anything except show the letter to Lois.

"What's up, CK?" Jimmy had arrived to find out what the commotion was all about. Lois showed him the letter.

"Hey! She can't do that!"

"Well, she has." Clark said in a flat voice.

"I'll testify. So will half the office. If anybody was harassed, it was you."

"Thanks, Jimmy!"

"Boy, the number of times I had to rescue you when that girl wouldn't leave you alone! Hey, I better go write down the details, huh? Angela and Clive can help. I know I left them on watch when I was out, sometimes. Clive!" he called as he dashed off.

Clark managed to smile, grateful for the instant reaction on Jimmy's part. He looked up at Lois, who had been too angry to do anything but pace back and forth the last two minutes.

"I'm calling Constance Hunter. No, don't argue." Lois told her partner. "You *need* a lawyer. If she was honest enough to get Superman's approval, you should find her acceptable, too." She looked meaningfully at Clark as she said this. "Then we'd better sort out what the police knew when they decided not to prosecute, and anything else we can think of."

Clark had started to look anxious halfway through Lois' comments. As soon as she finished, he looked around, noticed several other people nearby, and excused himself, saying, "I_ think this has been a bit of a shock. Maybe I'll get some fresh air for a few minutes…want to come?"

"No, I'd better not. Calling Ms. Hunter is more important right now." she answered, then watched as he hurried out to whatever emergency he had heard.

"Where's Clark goin'," her boss asked as he emerged from his office. "And what's all this pacing for?"

"Here, read this."

"Judas Priest!! She can't do that!"

"She can and she is."

"Let me go call the lawyer! We'll see about this. Is that why Clark left? He didn't look very happy."

"He just went to get some fresh air. The shock, you know…" Lois was getting good at instant excuses. "Perry, I don't think the Planet's lawyer could act in a case between two employees. I'm going to call that lawyer that helped Superman. Having a woman for the defense might be a good idea. Jimmy's offered to testify that he and others actually used to help keep her from pestering Clark."

"Yeah, I noticed that right after Clark mentioned her showing up at his place late one night when the two of you were working on the Luthor files. Ya know, come to think of it, she seemed to hang around his desk a lot the day before the police questioned him about her. Said he'd sent her to get something when I found her goin' through his desk drawer. I didn't think much of it at the time, Lois."

"What time of day was that? Can you remember?"

"Well, let's see now. I'd just finished listening to the Elvis hour on the radio, so it would have been about 2 o'clock."

"He couldn't have sent her for anything. We were across town then covering that petrol station fire!"

"So- what was she doing? I can see the wheels starting to turn in that head of yours. Reporter mode just kicked in, huh? Take whatever time you need — I won't have the reputation of my one of my reporters tarnished."

"Thanks, Perry," Clark walked up behind him, looking better than he had a when he left.

"Sit!" Lois pointed at his desk with her pencil as she picked up a note pad to record what Perry had mentioned, and to jot down any other ideas they could come up with to investigate. She brought her chair over and got comfortable for a session of brain-storming.

"Let's look at what we've got," she started, "Then I'll call Ms. Hunter.

The police didn't charge you, so they figured they couldn't find enough evidence. That means a lack of physical evidence. And the time was very short, from when you left my place until you called me after she left. And you said she was there less than 5 minutes."

"Maybe someone saw her in the neighborhood and could pin down the time better," Clark suggested. So they assembled a list of people Clark thought might have been around at that time.

"We'll need the doctor's report on Anne-Marie's physical examination. Can Henderson give us that?" she pondered, and marked the need for a phone call or two.

"I had enough people helping me avoid her. We should make a list of who and when," Clark suggested. "Jimmy was getting that under way."

"What about her past?" asked Perry. "If she can tell a whopper like that with a straight face, maybe she's had some practice before. That could help in a civil case. Or maybe she just had a fight with her boyfriend and took it out on you rather than him? Does she have a boyfriend?"

"I'll investigate that, Chief. Clark can hardly be seen around town asking about her. Might add fuel to the fire, 'inflame the injury', in the mind of a jury." Lois suggested.

"*I* want to know how she got my key!" said Clark. "It was still in the door when she left, and it wasn't the one I sometimes keep under the mat."

"Perry said she was fishing for something in your desk that day. We were across town at the fire, but it was hot and you didn't wear your jacket. Could she have got the key, then?"

"The key was still in my pocket when I got home. So if she got it, she put it back. She *could* have copied it, I suppose."

"Jimmy!" Perry bellowed. He didn't expect to wait long — Jimmy knew the urgency from the tone and the decibel level.

"Yes, Chief?" Jimmy was slightly out of breath, but considered that preferable to being in trouble.

"Pick up an extra copy of Anne-Marie's photo from her employment file, and do the rounds of all the locksmiths. See if she had a copy of a key made at any of them. Clark, can you let Jimmy borrow your key for a little while?"

"Sure, Chief. Here, Jimmy, that's the extra one I found in the door after she left."

"Who's representing her, anyway?" asked Perry.

"Jack Farrell," Clark told him flatly. "The same lawyer who lodged Luthor's appeal."

"Makes you wonder, doesn't it?" Perry looked at Lois, then at Clark. "I mean, it seems far-fetched to imagine he's behind this. But Farrell won't be a cheap lawyer. Where's that girl gettin' the money? For that matter, where's Luthor gettin' the money? Or is someone else paying for his appeal? I *know* what that girl makes, and even on a contingency basis, Farrell'd be a fool to touch the case if the prosecutor wouldn't even put it in front of a grand jury."

"So we investigate Farrell, too. Tie in nicely with our investigation of Luthor," Clark said.

"Well," Lois broke in, "we've got enough to keep everybody busy for awhile. Clark and I have that appointment to see Lex today. You've been really patient, Chief, about letting us pick our own time to see him." Lois still had a strained look on her face, just talking about it. "We'll also try to see Ms. Hunter today, then I can start on Anne-Marie's background while Clark talks to Henderson and looks for anyone he can find around his neighborhood who might have seen her that night. Jimmy is looking at the key situation and rounding up statements from others in the office. Farrell can wait till we get that done. Now go!" She waved her hands as if shooing a flock of chickens.

That set everyone in motion. *****

Lex Luthor was waiting. Outwardly calm, his tension showed in the way he played with the flower in the lapel of his designer suit, and the way he wandered around the room, checking everything. He had to see both of them together. He had insisted on that when Kent had asked for an interview. "At least," he thought, "she's coming. She had to feel something, no matter what she said in front of Superman after Nigel double-crossed me. And if I can just destroy Kent in her eyes, maybe I still have a chance to win her back." He silently cursed Miranda and her perfume, for what she had done to him, yet at the same time knew his love for Lois had a real base even before Miranda intervened. Lois was the only person who had ever caused him to act against his own good.

At last the expected knock came, and Asabi ushered Lois in, followed by Clark Kent. Kent didn't matter, Lex could only look at Lois. Her hair was still in the shorter, softer style that made her look even younger. Her grey, tailored suit was of a less severe cut than she used to wear.

"Lois!" Lex smiled in delight just at the sight of her, and held out his hands in a welcome as he moved toward her. Instead of smiling back, she seemed to stiffen, and willingly took the hand Kent offered as he moved up beside her.

Lex glared at Kent, then, seeming almost to shake himself, smiled charmingly and invited them both to sit down.

"Do you *really* expect people to believe Nigel was behind everything?" Lois asked point blank, a cold look on her face.

"You saw him shoot me. Do you think he wouldn't try to frame me for his deeds?"

"I also saw you try to get the kryptonite. You can't tell me there was any good intended for that. Superman told me what you tried to do before with kryptonite." She couldn't bring herself to mention her planned wedding to Lex, afraid it would upset Clark and give some comfort to Luthor.

Lex noticed she was still gripping her partner's hand, and added that little observation into his assessment. If Superman had told her about the kryptonite cage, Lex knew he had probably told her much more of what he knew or suspected. Maybe he had told Kent, too. Lex trained all his attention on Kent. Despite the paper cut Lois had mentioned, despite the appearance of both Kent and Superman at the news conference refuting Diana Stride's claim that Kent and Superman were one person, despite his own assessment of their different personalities, Lex could find no other way to explain how Lois could prefer Kent to himself or Superman, unless — Kent really was the Man of Steel.

"Now I have a question." Lex wanted to shake up Lois and hoped it might cause her to let something slip, anything, anything, but his own emotions weren't completely under control. Lex had risen to his feet, on the attack now, his voice rising as he spoke, his rage and frustration turned loose as a tool to test the only idea that allowed him to make sense of Lois' engagement to Kent.

"*How* can you prefer, over me, who you once agreed to marry, or over Superman, who I've seen make you swoon more than once, this…this — hack reporter?!"

Lois rose to her feet to face him squarely, her voice colder than the wind off the Antarctic ice, freezing him immobile. "Because I *love* him, completely, and I could *never*, *ever* say that about you. And because Superman was an untouchable fantasy. But I *know* Clark really loves me, has nearly died for me. Does *that* answer your question?" and she stormed out of the room. Kent looked only once at Luthor before following her, and in his expression, Lex saw anger at Luthor for upsetting Lois conflicting with satisfaction at the answer Luthor had received.

"You can die together, then," Lex said as he slumped down into a chair. *****

Clark caught up with Lois as the doors of the hotel elevator opened. He pulled her inside and into his arms.

"Are you okay?" he asked, looking searchingly at her face.

"How dare he ask me that!" she was still furious, but she slowly focussed on Clark's worried face. "I'm fine, but I ruined the interview, didn't I?" she said softly, looking like a child caught misbehaving, and expecting to be punished.

Clark, unable to explain his feelings, just reacted. He kissed her hard, full, passionately, letting his love and relief dissolve and carry away her anger at Lex and her frustration with herself. When he finally released her as the doors opened on the ground floor, she had a sparkle in her eye.

She checked her watch quickly, then said, "We've got a half hour to kill before we see your lawyer. Wanna neck?" as she took his arm and headed out of the building. *****

A week later, Constance Hunter, her client, and his fiance met with Anne-Marie Wilson and her lawyer, Jack Farrell.

Anne-Marie didn't want to look at Clark Kent. She had been on paid leave from the Planet, arranged by Mr. White so she could have some time to "calm down, get yourself together, and not have to be around anyone at work." Her reception at work the day after Clark's talk with the police had been mortifying, as people kept asking how she could say such things about him after she had made such a nuisance of herself around him. The time off, away from Clark, had allowed her to start to separate her fantasies from the real world again. If Mr. Farrell hadn't already talked her into bringing the civil suit, she would never have agreed to it then. But he had talked of injustice, and men leading young women on, and how they could sell her story later. He would take the case partly on a contingency basis, and partly because a 'benefactor' had offered to pay the costs so that "other young women wouldn't be treated so shabbily". He had made it almost sound like her civic duty. So she had agreed, and signed the necessary papers to proceed.

She missed part of what was going on, too absorbed in her own thoughts. Ms. Hunter, Clark's lawyer, was talking to her.

"…a hasty decision. You don't *have* to proceed, Anne-Marie. A court case could be very painful and embarrassing. You might want to reconsider once I tell you what we.."

"My client has every right to pursue this case," Farrell insisted.

"Please, Mr. Farrell, I want to hear what she has to say." Anne-Marie insisted.

On the fingers of her left hand, Constance Hunter counted off each point as she came to it. "The police didn't charge Mr. Kent because the public prosecutor felt he couldn't put forward a charge of rape with absolutely no physical evidence. You are, in fact, a virgin, aren't you?

You had a crush on one of your high school teachers, and you made some similar allegations then, but they were dismissed after a brief investigation.

A number of people at the Planet are willing to testify that you kept hanging around Mr. Kent, would follow him to the supply room or photocopy room. I have a list of specific dates.

You were seen searching Mr. Kent's desk and jacket the day of the incident. He had not sent you to do that since he was across town at the time, and had been for two hours.

A locksmith is prepared to testify that on the same day, you brought him a key to be duplicated — the same kind of key that you used to open Mr. Kent's door."

Anne-Marie looked up in panic at this last statement, but Constance Hunter showed no mercy and continued the catalog of information.

"Mr. Kent's landlord saw you outside his building at 11:15p.m. You ran back to your car at 11:20p.m., hardly enough time for what you allege happened.

And finally, Superman happened to be visiting Mr. Kent that night, and even if you didn't see him, that doesn't mean he couldn't see you with his X-ray vision. He is willing to testify in court as to what he saw."

The last statement seemed to send both Anne-Marie and her lawyer into a state of shock, and Farrell asked for a few moments alone with his client.

As they waited outside, Clark asked his lawyer, "What's this about Superman testifying?"

"Lois told me he was there, visiting you. She said he told her what happened. When I asked if he would testify, she said she was sure he would. Didn't he tell you?"

"No," replied Clark, looking in amazement at Lois, who was wearing a very smug smile.

Jack Farrell opened the door and invited them back in. "My client wishes to withdraw the civil suit." He was relieved, himself, although he had tried to talk her into continuing because of Church's orders.

A short time later, Lois and Clark were waiting in her car outside of the building that housed Farrell's offices.

Clark slipped his cell phone back into the inner pocket of his jacket, behind his note pad.

"I told Jimmy we'd watch Jack Farrell for awhile. And by the way, that was a brilliant move, telling Ms. Hunter that Superman had talked to you and told you he saw what happened when Anne-Marie came to my apartment." Clark complimented Lois.

"Superman *did* talk to me. He just had his glasses on at the time," she said nonchalantly. She had been waiting to spring this on him, and was delighted with the result. "Besides, if it had gone to a court case, you could have had a sudden attack of…well, we'd have thought of some excuse for you to leave so Superman could testify. And it would reinforce the idea that you and Superman are two different people. Everyone already thinks you're friends, anyway. Besides, who wouldn't believe Superman about what happened?"

"How did I ever manage without you knowing?"

"Not very well. Some of those excuses were…"

"Look!" Clark interrupted.

Jack Farrell emerged from the office block and headed down the street. He had, reluctantly, reported to Bill Church, Jr. Two minutes after that, Church had called back with some odd instructions, but a healthy bonus payment had been offered. So Farrell, still puzzled, was on his way to buy some fishing tackle for a trip with a 'friend' of Church's. He assumed the real business would be discussed on the boat, or wherever they were to go.

"Farrell's headed somewhere in a hurry," Clark pointed out the lawyer.

"Another massage, d'ya think?" asked Lois sarcastically. They had followed Farrell several times in the last few days, trying to find out why he had taken on Anne- Marie's case, who had put him up to it, and how Lex was involved. Bobby Bigmouth hadn't been much help. He had mentioned Intergang, but that didn't tell them whether Bill Jr. or Mindy was involved. Lex had been spending a lot of time with Mindy.

"Oh, right — the other male passion. Sport!" Lois said with disgust when Farrell, three blocks further on, went into a sporting equipment store- "Everything from reels to row boats" it advertised.

They waited for twenty minutes, but he didn't emerge.

"Want to do a little spying?" Lois asked.

"I've tried. With all the lead for fishing weights, it kinda looks like a case of bad TV reception. I can't really see *anyone* in there clearly except one person, probably the owner or cashier, who's up near the front."

"Maybe we should just go in and find him. Maybe he slipped out a back door?"

"Back doors on places like this are usually kept pretty well locked."

The two partners decided to look for Farrell, and entered the shop. What they took to be the cashier for the shop came from behind his counter just as Lois noticed some feet showing from behind a rack of fishing weights. Another man suddenly entered the shop, and both drew guns at the same time.

Clark pushed Lois to the floor behind him as the first shot just caught her on the arm, and he turned to face the men. He felt something strike the right side of his chest, and he slumped to the floor.

"Let's go!" one of the men yelled. "Those shots should have got Superman's attention. We've got one minute to clear out! If Superman arrives before then to rescue them, he'll get slowed down real fast as soon as he tries to pick up Kent. We can get another shot off then from outside. The bomb will do the rest."

Lois, who for once had the sense not to rush into things, made her way to Clark's side as soon as the door was closed.

"Okay, you can get up now. They've gone out."

He didn't seem to be moving very quickly, so she chided him, pulling on his arm, "Hurry! They must have a bomb in here somewhere. You have to find it or we have to get out."

Clark actually looked in pain, and she knelt beside him in sudden fear that turned to panic when she noticed some blood on his shirt. "What is it?"

"The bullet must be only coated with a thin layer of kryptonite. It's just a surface wound, I think. My notepad and phone got in the way, fortunately."

He struggled to get up, to get Lois and Jack Farrell, unconscious behind the rack, out of the shop.

"There's got to be other kryptonite here. I didn't notice anything, but all the lead could have acted as a shield. The door has a deadlock and no key. I can't force the door, and the windows all have steel bars on them." He was thinking desperately of how to protect Lois. Shoving Lois behind the sturdy counter, and the unconscious Farrell with her, he started pulling down sleeping bags and camping pads from the shelves above. They covered all three of them with as many as he could grab, then he tried to protect Lois by putting his own body between her and any blast.

He almost made it before the bomb went off, blowing debris everywhere, a wave of air pressure forcing objects to move and shattering them, then forcing the shattered bits along.

Lois' ears rang from the blast, and her arm was bleeding where the bullet had grazed her, but she struggled out from under Clark and the coverings to see a green mist. Sudden realization made her catch her breath, and she grabbed the first cloth she could find to put over her nose and mouth. The door, at least, had been blown off it's hinges. She had to get Clark out, fast.

Burrowing back under the bags and pads, she shook him and felt relief when he opened his eyes and seemed to recognize her.

"You've got to hold your breath. That bomb put green dust in the air. Can you move?" She was all business, not letting her inner panic show.

Together they dragged Farrell outside, and Lois helped Clark to her car. Lois realized the small amount of kryptonite on the bullet had weakened Clark, enough so that where the back of his jacket was ripped by shrapnel from the blast, she could see blood stains beginning to show.

"I'm getting you home, fast. We have to get this dust off. Don't talk, don't breathe. Just let me drive." *****

A few minutes later, Lois helped Clark down the stairs of his apartment and half dragged him to the shower. She turned on the water and held him so it would stream all over him, soaking both of them, starting to wash the dust from their hair and their clothes.

"You've got to get all the dust off!" she said, as she helped him remove his jacket. The bullet had only made a surface wound, and once she had his shirt off, she could see that it was the deformed metal of the notepad that had caused the bleeding. The bullet had been slowed enough by hitting the phone's battery pack and the notepad so that it produced a horrendous bruise, and had smashed some of the phone and the metal plate of the notepad into Clark's skin, but hadn't really penetrated beyond the surface, itself. The blood still trickling out had been a blessing in disguise, washing out any of the kryptonite that had come off the bullet.

"Perry will kill me when he sees what I've done to his notepad," Clark commented, trying to get a smile out of Lois.

She just looked sternly at him, and stripping off her own soaked and dust covered jacket and skirt, she stuffed everything into a plastic rubbish bag. She left Clark, who was looking better, to remove the rest of his clothes and make sure all the dust was washed away. Disturbing the room as little as possible, she found the vacuum cleaner to try and remove any dust that might have come off their clothes on the way in. When she finished, the dust bag and its load went into her plastic bag, as well. By then, Clark was wrapped in a towel and sitting on the sofa. Lois took a turn in the shower to remove all the remaining dust from herself. Then, wrapped in a large towel, she took all the remaining clothes and put them in the plastic rubbish bag, and as far from Clark as she could get them.

Hair still dripping with water, she found Clark waiting in the kitchen. He had changed the towel for shorts by then.

"You have to get that shrapnel out of the cuts. It's the hospital, or I can try to do it."

"Turn down an excuse to have your hands all over me? Not likely!" he tried to joke, hoping to take some of the worry out of Lois' expression.

"Farmboys are tough, huh?" she retorted, but managed a little smile for him. "Have you got any first aid stuff? It's not something I'd think you'd have much normal use for."

"Normal is when I *do* need it." he grinned, "actually, I keep some for when my parents visit. Mom's pretty handy with things, but Dad! Here, that's what I keep on hand."

Ten minutes of concentrated work did as much repair as Lois could manage. With the kryptonite washed off, the repair would go quickly. A large bandage covered the bullet wound in the shoulder, and Lois just hoped she had got all the green rock out. Clark kissed her lightly on the forehead as she fussed over the last bit of tape.

"If I breathed in any dust, or the bullet left any kryptonite in the wound, we learned last time what to do. We just have to watch to see if things heal up fast. I can feel an improvement already, so I don't think there's anything to worry about. Now, how about you borrow one of my T-shirts for a dress before that towel slips any further. I can't concentrate on healing if I'm concentrating on watching that towel and it's battle with gravity."

Lois gave him one of her dazzling smiles, feeling confident that he would be okay, and went off to find a T-shirt. *****

Even as the two reporters had been ridding themselves of the deadly green, Lex Luthor sat in his hotel suite, mistakenly thinking all his plans had come to a successful conclusion. Mindy and Bill Jr. would soon be out of the way. In that, at least, he was correct. He had planted enough evidence on both of them to assure that. Superman would have taken a lungful of kryptonite. Shooting Kent with the kryptonite coated bullet had been a touch of genius, Lex told himself. Superman would rush to save his injured friend and be in the dust before he realized the danger, and hopefully too late to save Kent. If he got near Kent, that would weaken him further. In the very unlikely event that Lex had been wrong, and Kent was actually Superman, as Jason Mazic insisted, the kryptonite on the bullet would be added insurance of his destruction. Diana Stride's attempt to kill Superman had given him the inspiration. But her 'method' had been too slow, and not one Lex had the least inclination to try for himself. The bullet's soft, thin coating, unlike the lipstick, should deliver the kryptonite deep into Superman's body and allow it to penetrate directly into the circulatory system, killing him before anyone could remove it. Even if someone got the bullet out, the coating would stay behind deep in his body.

'Four down,' thought Lex, 'my dear Lois might survive, but only to see her two friends die in front of her.' Lex closed his eyes and savoured that thought with his brandy.

His reverie was shattered with the ringing of the phone, and his pleasant thoughts destroyed at the news that Superman had never shown up. Both Lane and Kent had survived. He was relieved that Lois was safe, as he had intended, when he used the small bombs to spread the kryptonite. He had assumed that Kent, badly wounded but still alive because of the relatively light calibre of the gun, would cause Superman to hurry to save him. Kent would also be chivalrous enough to try to protect Lois with his own body in his effort to save her, and the blast would finish what the bullet started. Neither, unfortunately, had actually killed Kent, although he had been shot high in the right chest, was clearly wounded and was obviously bleeding from both the bullet and the blast. "My only consolation now," Lex told himself, "is that at least I know Mazic was wrong. A human might survive a bullet wound like that, if the kryptonite inside his body wasn't harmful to him, but *Superman*, ahh…Superman — that bullet would have penetrated deep and dripped its poison into whatever color blood you have, sending its poison quickly through your whole system.

"What held up your arrival? What kept you away? Did you want Kent out of the way and separated from Lois, too? What made the game go your way again?

"Well, at least I can now take control of Intergang and use all its resources to get Kent and Superman next time." *****

At the same time, an envelope arrived on the desk of the district attorney. It contained some papers and the following tape:

Male voice: Who is the most loved, respected, popular person in the country, a 'national treasure'?

Female voice: Superman, why?

Male voice: Getting rid of Superman and those two nosy reporters, Lane and Kent, at the same time would make our lives a lot easier, and more profitable.

Female voice: My husband is living in very quiet seclusion since that last heart attack. I *would* like to see my step-son living in security and well looked after. I'll do anything you say, Billy.

Male voice: How are you going to kill the two reporters and Superman?

Female voice: A little kryptonite shouldn't be too hard to find. Would you like bullets, explosives, or poison for the reporters?

Male voice: No problem, whatever you want.

Female voice: I'll see what I can do.

"I think a search warrant is in order," said the district attorney. *****

A loud knock at the door announced an unwelcome visitor. Clark was inclined to ignore the summons, having ascertained who was there, but he knew the annoyance would not go away, and another loud knock confirmed his opinion.

"Well, if it isn't Inspector Gadget," Clark said sarcastically, as he opened the door. "When did you slink back into town?"

"Last night." Dan Scardino answered brightly as he stepped, without further invitation, into the apartment. "I tried calling Lois, but she wasn't home."

"We were working- late," Clark was starting to get annoyed.

"What, you didn't disappear on her?" He looked at the bandage on Clark's chest. "Still can't take care of yourself, either, I see."

"Why are you here?" Clark asked.

"I heard about the blast on my car radio, and that Lois was involved. She wasn't at her place, but I noticed her car outside when I was driving past."

"Oh, really! Thanks for your concern, but I'm taking care of her." Clark was definitely annoyed. Lois could hear it in his voice. She had come out of the bedroom area when she heard someone at the door, and had been quietly listening.

"I doubt that. Where is she?" He turned to scan the room just as Lois stepped into his line of vision, obviously wearing one of Clark's T-shirts. Clark started down the steps toward her, and was followed rapidly by Scardino.

"See, I was right, that *is* her car outside," he said as he gave Clark a slightly less than friendly slap on the shoulder above the bandage. Lois could see the pain in Clark's face, and she was afraid it wasn't all physical. She had seen Dan try to embarrass Clark before, or upset him. For him to just boldly walk into Clark's apartment and repeat that kind of behavior when Clark had just risked his own life and been injured protecting her made her blood begin to boil. "Why didn't I see before how arrogant Dan Scardino is? Did I really mistake that for confidence?"

"Are you all right, Lois? Why is your arm bandaged? I heard about a bomb."

"Yes, we're fine. We just needed some first aid and some peace and quiet," the last was said very pointedly.

Scardino settled himself on the sofa and smiled at them. "Good, we can have a quiet talk, maybe play a round of cards."

"No, Dan, we can't."

"Aw, c'mon! It's a great way to relax. And I won't ask Clark, here, to take any risks." he said smiling at Clark

"Dan, I told you before, I don't want to see you any more. Now please go."

"Lois, *he* can't take care of you! He can't even take care of himself…" Scardino waved a hand at the bandage on Clark's shoulder. That was the final straw as far as Lois was concerned.

"Get! Out! Now!" she said, but he didn't move, just smiled, which made her eyes blaze with anger. "What don't you understand about 'Get out'?" Lois bore down on Scardino, and the look on her face made him rise and retreat quickly up the steps to the door as she followed him. "You obviously hadn't heard. I asked Clark to marry me, and we're engaged." She used both hands to shove him on the chest, pushing him outside. "And as for not being able to take care of me, he just saved my life — that's how he got hurt. Now leave us alone!" And she slammed the door in his face.

Lois turned around, "Are you all right? Does it hurt? Did he start it bleeding again?" concern clear in her voice as she raced down the steps to throw her arms about her friend, her partner, her future husband.

"No, I've never been better," he answered smiling as he tightened his arms around her and just held her. Whatever chemicals were acting in his brain as the Kryptonian equivalent of human endorphins, Clark just knew that holding Lois did more to ease his pain than anything else in the world. He let Lois check the bandage on his chest, far too aware of her hands touching his skin. He felt her light touch carefully smooth the tape that held the bandage back into place, then her lips gently brush his shoulder above the bandage, where Scardino had hit him. His breathing stopped as her lips slowly worked their way up his shoulder, and his neck. She paused long enough to realize they had drifted a foot off the floor.

"Do I really affect you like that?" she asked laughing. "Just don't let me go."

"Never." he answered, as his lips met hers.