By Sheila Harper <email@example.com>
Original Air Date: June 13, 1999
Summary: Their souls are still stuck in each other's body, and Superman's powers are starting to fade. Can Lois and Clark find a way to swap back before it's too late? (Part 3 of 3.) Episode 10 of S6.
PREVIOUSLY ON LOIS & CLARK:
"Dr. Trifyllis?" Lois called. "Your door was open. Are you still here?"
Clark followed her into the room, catching her hand. Something was wrong. He tipped his glasses down and began to scan the apartment. "Lois, wait," he said—
—when a white blaze of light seized them and held them rigidly in place. Then the light vanished, and they crumpled onto the floor.
"Wha-what happened?" Clark asked—
—and recoiled at the sound. High-pitched, unmistakably feminine … what had happened to him? Ignoring the pain in his head, he raised up on one elbow and looked down at himself. A suit dress? Nylons? He ran a disbelieving hand down his chest, over an all too familiar shape. Horrified, he lifted his gaze to his double's. "Lois?"
The image of himself nodded, and he groaned, "Oh God, not again,"
"Someone's searched his apartment—someone who didn't care who knew it, either." Lois dropped down on the couch next to Clark. "I couldn't tell if anything's missing, but Nick wasn't there, and I didn't see any bloodstains," she added.
Startled, he jerked around to look up at her. "I didn't think of that. God, if he'd been killed—"
"—we might be stuck like this. Forever."
The next morning, Clark put his foot through a second pair of nylons. "That's it," he said, standing up and throwing the cobwebby fabric into the trash. "No dresses, no pantyhose, and *no* heels." He pulled a brown jacket and slacks out of the closet. "Is this a work outfit?" he asked, holding it up so Lois could see it from the bathroom.
She wrinkled up her nose. "I guess." He waited for her to explain, and she continued, "It just … makes me look frumpy. Never mind. Wear either the white or rose shell with it."
He looked at her side of the closet helplessly. "Rose shell. That's a pink shirt, right?"
Clark bolted out of the ladies' room and hurried down the ramp to the pit, his blush clearly visible without the protective cover of Lois's usual makeup. Lois was waiting for him so they could go to the staff meeting. "You're blushing," she said, curious.
His cheeks burned redder. "Don't ask," he said.
"And when can I expect to see some copy on that school improvement press conference you covered yesterday, Lois?" Perry continued.
Clark was about to answer when Lois, who had returned to doodling on her notepad, absently said, "I'll have it on your desk in an hour."
Briefly closing his eyes in prayer, Clark leaped in with a further explanation. "Clark's proofing it for me before I send it to you, Perry." Under cover of the table, he poked Lois in the leg.
Lex flopped back in his chair. Not only did Dr. Trifyllis have the Zelig stone, but, based on those letters Enrico had dug up, he probably had the disk with the encrypted clone files that his brother had stolen, *and* he might be able to tie Lex to the murder through Enrico. The millionaire ground his teeth.
Alex's eyes blazed furiously. "Why don't you just take out a damned ad in The Planet while you're at it, Nick? God! Don't you get it? Those guys'll *kill* you if they find you!" He stormed across the small living room and looked out the front window for a minute, then turned back, his light gray eyes swimming with tears. "They already got Chris, Nicky. I don't want to lose you, too."
"Can you give us the owner's name?" Clark asked. He gave the burning wreckage a last look, then followed the patrolman.
"For what it's worth. The plates are registered to Nicholas Trifyllis, New Troy."
Clark suddenly stumbled, and Lois caught him. Their brown-eyed gazes locked; then as if with one mind, they turned to look into the ravine. Far below, the car continued to burn.
"Dead?" Lex Luthor bit back the anger he could feel pounding in the veins in his forehead, but the stress in his voice was audible as he continued, "Did you get the stone?"
"No, sir." Lindy Barrows' voice sounded calm, almost detached, over the phone line.
Rage, blind and uncontrolled, boiled up, stealing away his breath. Dimly, he remembered a time when setbacks were little more than an inconvenience, when his control was so absolute that even a personal defeat generated little more outward expression than an incautious snip of his pruning scissors. What was happening to him? He had begun to lose control of his newly regained empire, and now he was losing control of himself.
Lex took a long, slow breath. Shrieking at her would only drive her away, and then he wouldn't have the information he needed to deal with this new situation. "What happened?" he asked through clenched teeth.
"I located Trifyllis's car at a body shop," she reported. "I staked out the shop, but someone picked it up—apparently when I took a restroom break—because it was gone when I returned. The only address the owner had was in Metropolis, so that was a dead end. On the off-chance that Trifyllis was staying with a relative, I checked information, and found an address for an A. Trifyllis."
"Alex?" Lex broke in, interested.
"Maybe. I don't know. No one was home, and no cars were there. I intended to wait until they returned, but my scanner picked up a state police call on a car wreck. When they ran the plates, it was for Nick Trifyllis, so I went to the scene of the accident. They hadn't hauled the car or bodies out of the ravine, and police were everywhere, so I didn't have a chance to search either the bodies or the vehicle."
Her detached, impersonal report had quieted Lex's fury, and he was thinking again. "All right," he said. The encrypted clone files hadn't been in any of the zip disks Enrico had brought, so Nick Trifyllis had to have them. "Search the address you found. They probably left the Zelig stone, the device, and the files at home. If you *don't* find anything, pretend you're a girlfriend and get a look at the car and their effects."
"Yes, sir," she said and rang off.
Lex swiveled back to face the expanse of sky visible above his balcony. There was still hope.
Clark was silent as he and Lois walked back to their Jeep. Looking into the ravine, he had been so appalled by the end of his chances of returning to normal that he didn't feel his usual compassion for the frightened scientist who had died in the burning wreckage—just anger that the man hadn't first managed to undo the harm he had done. Lois finally had to drag him away, and he stumbled blindly away from the car wreck.
His gaze slid downward, past smoothly swelling breasts, down long, slender legs to small, neatly shod feet. He clenched one slim hand into a fist. He couldn't do this. In every way he defined himself, even during those frightening years when his powers were first appearing and he didn't know if he was even human or not, he had clung to one thing: he was a man. Dimly he remembered an echo of one of his earliest conversations with Lois:
<You … seem to have all the … parts of a man. >
<Well, I am a man, Lois. Just like you're a woman.>
And now that had been torn from him. Vulnerable to all the ills and injuries humans were prone to, stripped of his enormous speed and strength, banished—he cast a quick, aching glance upward—from the sky that had been his retreat and his joy: those were problems he had faced before and could deal with again. But not this. Dammit, he *wasn't* a woman!
Clark tripped on a half-buried root, and Lois shot one hand out to steady him. For a moment, he stared at her hand—*his* hand—grasping his arm. "Are you okay?" she asked.
His night-dark gaze lifted to hers, and he studied her face—his *own* face, which looked oddly backwards, a mirror image of his normal reflection—and slowly nodded. They split up to enter the Jeep, and he cast a couple of quick glances back at his wife.
He should have realized it earlier, but since he thought of his own body as being the "right one," it hadn't occurred to him that being trapped in his body was as distressing to Lois as being trapped in hers was to him. And yet, that was what she'd said: his body was too big and awkward, and she had to constantly think of how to control it. He opened the passenger door and stepped into the Jeep, his anger and despair fading into the background as concern for how Lois was handling Trifyllis's death came to the forefront.
She slammed the door closed and leaned her forehead against the steering wheel, her hands tightening on the plastic. At the ominous cracking sound, Clark asked, "Honey?"
Lois released the steering wheel and lifted her head, her eyes glittering with tears. "I can't do this," she whispered. "I have to control myself every single minute. I can't let myself get angry or upset or I could really hurt someone." She raised one hand and studied it, flexing and extending the fingers. "Clark, you've had a lifetime to learn to control yourself—not just your powers—so you can live among humans without hurting us. But I don't have that kind of control … and I'm afraid—"
She broke off what she was going to say as she blinked back tears. "This is a nightmare. I hurt you once when I was Ultra Woman—and I have even *less* control of *this* body. What if I—" Her voice cracked, and she stopped, her head lowered, her shoulders shaking.
"Oh, honey!" His heart breaking for her, he reached for her and pulled her head down to his shoulder. "It's okay, it's okay," he murmured, rubbing her back. "We can still get switched back. Nick probably left the machine at his brother's house. We can go there and find it. It'll be okay, sweetheart. Don't worry."
Lois lifted her head, her eyes tear-reddened. "Do you really think so?"
"I really do," he told her earnestly. The idea had come to him while he was comforting her, but the more he thought about it, the more sure he was that it was right. "He was *hours* ahead of us. He probably got in last night and stayed at his brother's place, and that's where the—the facilitator'll be."
Lois drove with her usual aggressive flair through Carsonville, frightening the locals off the streets while Clark shielded his eyes with one hand and prayed they didn't hit anyone. "What if the thingamajig *isn't* at Alex's place?" she finally asked, wisely choosing to slow down when a police car pulled in behind her.
"It will be," Clark told her.
"How do you know?"
An almost-smile quirked one corner of his mouth. "Because we'll get through this—like we always do. And because you make a lot better woman than I do."
She shook her head. "You shouldn't make bad jokes to keep my spirits up."
"Because—" she turned back to her driving— "you only do that when things are *really* bad."
Alex Trifyllis lived in a run-down apartment house in the low-rent district of Carsonville. "Are you sure this is the right place?" Lois asked, peering at the old building through the windshield.
Clark didn't even glance at his notes. "Apartment twelve."
"Be sure you lock up," she said and shut off the ignition, muttering, "This is the kind of place where we'll come back and find the Jeep jacked up and all four wheels, the spare, and both bumpers gone."
Ignoring her grumbling, he hopped out of the vehicle, strode across the sidewalk, and disappeared inside the building. Lois quickly locked the Jeep and dove into the apartment building after her husband.
Inside, the corridors were dimly lit and branched off oddly, but she didn't have any trouble locating Clark. There were some definite advantages to having super powers, she noticed, turning the corner and running up the stairs two at a time. By the time she reached the top, she had caught up to Clark, whose face was faintly flushed but who was breathing evenly. "Twelve?" she asked.
"Over there," he said, and they started down the hall.
At that moment, the door of apartment twelve opened, and a small, slender dark-haired woman in jeans and a casual top stepped out, turning back to close the door behind her. When the woman looked down the hall, Clark stopped abruptly, and Lois barely held back a gasp. Even in casual clothing, it was the woman from the police drawing; she was sure of it. "What are you doing in that apartment?" she demanded.
The woman stopped, a puzzled frown furrowing her face. "What are you talking about? My … boyfriend lives here."
It was Lois's turn to stop dead. Was she that mistaken? She glanced at Clark to see what he thought, but the sight of his face—*her* face—just reminded her why she thought she recognized the other woman. There was something indefinably Lois-like about both the drawing and the woman facing them.
"Alex Trifyllis?" Clark asked.
"Why, yes," the woman said. "Are you friends of his?"
"No," he said, "we're newspaper reporters—"
"—and we've come to interview him for a story we're doing," Lois broke in.
The woman stared at them for a moment. "Reporters? Oh, I know! You must be Lane and Kent. I've seen your pictures."
Clark lifted his eyebrows in surprise and glanced over his shoulder at Lois. "Pictures? Are you from Metropolis?"
Lois's look-alike laughed lightly. "No, but I read all the tabloids. That was some mess you went through trying to get married, wasn't it?"
Lois rolled her eyes. Clark enjoyed collecting the crazy articles about them, but the so-called news stories still left her feeling unclean. "Just makes you appreciate it more when you finally get there," she said with a fake jocularity that was intended to be a conversation-stopper.
The other woman, however, seemed unconscious of the intended meaning. "Oh, and everything worked out okay with your baby, didn't it?"
"What?" Lois and Clark asked at the same time, moving closer to her, flanking her on either side. "What about her?" he continued, his voice urgent.
The woman looked back and forth from one face to the other. "I mean, you got her back from Social Services okay, didn't you? The papers never said … " Her voice trailed off.
Lois blinked, finally making the connection. "Oh, the court case last fall." Then, because she couldn't stand misinformation being spread, she continued, "It never was a case of getting her *back*—"
This time, it was Clark's turn to interrupt. "—it came out fine. What did you say your name was?"
"Li-Lindsey," she said. "Lindsey Bailey. But if you want to talk to Alex, you came at the wrong time. He's gone."
"Do you know where?" Lois asked.
Lindsey shook her head. "No, I stopped by to meet him for lunch, but he wasn't home."
Clark caught Lois's gaze from behind Lindsey's head and quickly drew one finger across his throat in a cut-it-short gesture. "Thank you, Ms. Bailey," he said.
"You've been very helpful, but we've taken enough of your time," Lois added.
Obviously dismissed, Lindsey started down the hall, but when Lois and Clark didn't follow, she stopped and asked, "Aren't you coming? He isn't home."
"I know, but we're—" Clark looked toward Lois, his eyes pleading for help.
"We're—uh—leaving him a note," Lois finished, and Clark dug a notebook and pen out of his purse and held them up for Lindsey to see. "Bye," Lois added.
"Yeah, well … bye," Lindsey said and slowly turned away and started downstairs.
Lois lowered her glasses on her nose and watched the woman drive off in an economy car that had been parked down the street. She zoomed in on the plates, then wrote the number down on the notebook Clark was holding. She tore off the page, folded it, and tucked it into the breast pocket of her suit jacket. "Just in case," she said.
He nodded and pulled the cell phone out of her purse.
"What're you doing?" Lois asked as he punched in a short number.
"Turning in that plate number to the police and reporting that we may have seen a woman wanted in connection with a murder in Metropolis."
Lois was relieved. She hadn't been sure how well her intuition would work in a different brain. "You didn't trust her either?"
"Not as far as I could throw her—and that's not very far now," he said, a faint smile lifting the corners of his mouth.
The woman kept an eye on the rear-view mirror as she drove her economy car away from the curb. But no one appeared on the sidewalk to try to stop her; no police car suddenly pulled in behind her with flashing lights and siren. It looked like they'd bought her story.
She let herself relax a little. *That* was an unexpected meeting. What were Lane and Kent doing in upstate New York instead of Metropolis? And were they really interested in Alex Trifyllis, or were they after Nick, as she was? Good thing she'd completed her search before they arrived. Speaking of which …
She flipped open her small cell phone and dialed the number with her thumb. "Hello. Mr. Luthor? … Yes, sir, it's Lindy Barrows … "
Super powers were useful for the odd bit of breaking-and-entering, too, Lois thought with satisfaction as she watched the tumblers line up. It had hardly taken her longer than using a key would have, and she opened the door and let Clark walk in first. "That's a handy talent, too," she said as she followed him in and closed the door behind them.
He grunted absent agreement. "Keep an ear out in case Alex comes back."
"Got it." She turned to face the room and gasped. "What a pig sty! You don't think he lives this way, do you?"
Clark shrugged. "Maybe that woman ransacked it."
"Is that what you think she was doing here?"
"Looking for something? Sure. Maybe those files that Chris Trifyllis was going to send to Alex."
Lois shook her head, surveying the room in disgust. "Well, what does the thing look like?"
"Gendell said it looked kinda like a camcorder—one of the bigger ones because Nick balanced it on his shoulder." He moved toward one of the back rooms. "You check the living room and kitchen," he suggested. "I'll get started on the bedrooms."
"Okay." Lois prowled through the front room, examining everything with x-ray vision, just to make sure the device wasn't hidden inside or under the furniture. But as she continued to scan every inch of the living room without seeing the device, she felt a sinking sensation in her belly. She turned to the eat-in kitchen and hesitated, afraid to look and find confirmation that the device wasn't in the messy apartment. What were she and Clark going to do if it wasn't here?
Lois had checked the kitchen, living room, bathroom, linen and hall closets, and stacks of clothes in the hallway when Clark finally emerged from the second bedroom. "No luck?" she asked, though his set, frustrated expression was answer enough.
He shook his head. "I can't think where … That woman didn't have anything with her, did she?"
"Just a purse, and it wouldn't have held a compact camcorder, much less what you described."
Clark shoved one hand into his slacks' pocket and carelessly raked the other hand through his hair. He sighed and shrugged in frustration. "I don't know where to look next."
Lois blinked away tears as she watched her husband's familiar gesture—made almost unrecognizable when performed by her body. "I think we need to find out who was in that car."
He lifted his gaze from where he had been contemplating his shoes. "Okay."
"The ambulance just left with the bodies," the helpful young trooper said. He was directing the towing operations now that the car had been examined.
"Bodies?" Lois perked up, but Clark felt a heavy, sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. He'd hoped one or the other of the brothers had survived, but that chance seemed to be disappearing.
"Yes, Mr. Kent. We pulled two of them out of the wreckage."
"Were you able to ID them?" Lois continued.
The officer shook his head. "No, they were pretty much—" He glanced at Clark and moderated whatever he was going to say— "in pretty bad shape. It'll probably take dental records or DNA tests to be sure."
"That only works if you have something to compare with," Clark said. "Did you find anything besides the car registration that showed who they might be?"
The trooper seemed a little surprised by "Lois's" knowledgeable, business-like attitude. "Actually, ma'am, we did. There were a couple of suitcases in the trunk, and they weren't too damaged. The contents indicated that our John Does are probably … " He glanced at his notes then continued, "Nick and Alex Trifyllis." The state patrolman suddenly seemed to realize what he'd said, and, flustered, he stammered, "That—that isn't for public release yet. The captain doesn't like unconfirmed information getting out."
Clark briefly closed his eyes. *Both of them.* A muscle in his jaw flexed as he clenched his teeth, getting himself under control. "Was there anything in with the luggage?" he asked, his voice hoarse with strain. "Electronic equipment, video camera, laptop computer?"
"I don't know," the officer responded, belatedly becoming cautious. "Why?"
Lois jumped in. "The man we're looking for is a real hacker, and he'd have had a computer with him—even on an overnight trip."
The trooper shrugged and shook his head in an I-don't-know gesture, and Clark thanked him before he and Lois returned to their Jeep. "Now where?" he asked.
She took a deep breath. "Home."
Lois glanced over at Clark, who had been staring out the window for the past hour. Hiding, she thought. Well, she hadn't exactly been eager to talk, either—but that was because she'd been thinking through the ramifications of what had happened. "You're going to have to be silent a lot longer than that before you can go for the Guiness record," she said.
He slowly turned to face her. "What?"
"You can't avoid this forever, Clark."
He looked away. "There isn't anything to talk about."
"Isn't there?" she challenged him.
"Trifyllis is dead; his soul exchanger has vanished; and we're stuck. What else is there to say?" He sounded resigned, but she saw a flicker in his dark eyes that told her he wasn't as calm as he pretended to be.
She drove down the freeway thoughtfully, casting brief glances at her husband. As hard as it was to look at him and see her own body, it was much worse to glance in the rear-view mirror and see Clark's reflection instead of her own. "How about how hard it is to answer to your name instead of mine. And how much I hate not being able to call you by name." She frowned. "I thought that it was hard to be in a super-powered body. Worse to be in a male one. But that isn't the worst part."
He glanced at her, his expression concerned. "What is?"
"Losing my *self.* I have to pretend to be someone else all the time. It's like I lost my history and my name—everything that makes me *me.*"
Clark's faint smile contained more than a touch of irony, and as she reviewed what she'd said, she suddenly understood. "That's nothing new for you, is it? Hiding your real self, pretending not to be who you really are … "
"Except with you."
"And your parents."
He dipped his head in acknowledgment, then said, "I'm sorry, honey. Instead of sulking in my corner, I should have realized that *you* needed to talk about it."
"And you don't? Clark, even though you couldn't let anyone else know that you're really Superman, and you've had to pretend to be vulnerable and everything else, at least you could still be *Clark.* Now you won't be Clark or Superman—or even a man."
His hands fisted in his lap. "I know." He looked out his side window again, then turned back to face her. "And you won't be Lois or a woman—or even human." The sarcasm in his voice betrayed the raw nerve she had hit. "Does it help to hear me say that?" he demanded.
Lois bit her lip. Face set, she stared down the freeway in front of them. "Maybe not. But it makes me realize what I'm—*we're*—going to have to deal with." She took a deep breath. "I think we should tell your parents."
"What? Are you crazy?" he exploded. "Let someone else know that—? No."
"I'm not talking about 'someone else,' Clark. I'm talking about your parents." She glanced over at him and saw his jaw set mulishly. "Do you honestly think we can keep it from them? It'd be like my parents and hiding the fact that you're Superman. Is that the kind of relationship that you want with your parents?"
His voice was low. "No." Clark was silent for so long that she would have thought he was ignoring the problem again, except for the way that his fists clenched again and again. At last he whispered, "I can't … It's too—" His voice dropped off, but her super hearing picked up his nearly inaudible, "embarrassing."
Embarrassing to be a woman? She started to fire up angrily, but then she remembered how embarrassed he had been when he was shrinking, and how hard it had been for him to share that with her. She sighed. "Besides, if we told them, that'd be at least one more place where we could be ourselves."
"All right," he said at last. "We'll tell them when we get back."
Lois nodded and turned back to her driving, but she didn't feel her usual triumph over forcing Clark to concede the rightness of her position. It had finally occurred to her that his acquiescence meant that he had given up hope of getting changed back.
"Mr. Luthor? It's Lindy Barrows."
"Yes, Ms. Barrows," he said, putting the phone on speaker.
"I need to have you send one of your lawyers to Carsonville, New York."
He straightened abruptly. "A *lawyer*? Why?"
"The state police picked me up for questioning in the murder of Chris Trifyllis." Her voice was calm and steady, but he thought he detected an underlying bit of stress.
Lex sank against his chair, thinking. "The New York police? Why?"
"Apparently someone called in my rental car plate and reported that I matched a police drawing of one of the people who were seen leaving Chris Trifyllis's house."
He hissed angrily. "Lois Lane and Clark Kent." He should have realized when she mentioned meeting them earlier that they'd try to wreck his plans.
"I don't know how they would have managed it. They never saw me go to my car."
That wasn't a problem for a man with super vision. With Nick Trifyllis dead in a car wreck and no trace of his soul-switching device, Lex's dream of taking over Superman's body was fading, but it also meant that there would be no witness to pick Lindy Barrows out of a line-up. He could still keep using her, and he didn't have so many operatives that he could afford to waste them. "I'll get a lawyer up there."
"Martha! The kids are home!" Jonathan called as Lois and Clark unlocked their front door and walked into the house on Hyperion. Lois eagerly took Laura from Jonathan's arms. "How's M—my little girl?" she asked, cuddling the baby close.
Martha walked in, wiping her hands on a towel. "Hi, honey," she said, reaching up to give Lois a kiss. She opened her arms to give Clark a hug. "Hi, Lois."
Clark held back a second, not wanting to get too close to his mother in case she guessed their secret—then understanding exactly what Lois meant when she said it would ruin his relationship with them. The emotions of childhood came back to him with a rush, when a hug from his mom would make the hurt bearable at least. He walked into her embrace and put his arms around her, burying his face against her shoulder. "Mom," he whispered—and saw Lois's head snap around even as Martha drew back to look at his face.
"We have something to tell you," he said.
He and Lois sat side-by-side on the couch with Laura playing at their feet while his parents watched from the chairs on the other side of the coffee table. Clark reached for Lois's hand, seeking comfort and courage. Jonathan waited patiently, but Martha was perched on the edge of her chair, her eyes bright with excitement. "Are you … ?"
Clark gave Lois a sideways glance, then looked back at his mother. "Are we … ?"
Martha raised her eyebrows and smiled. "Expecting?"
He choked, and Lois shook her head and laughed. "No, thank God, although … " she waited until Clark looked at her curiously, "it might be interesting."
"Don't even think it," he said, appalled, then turned toward his parents. "Lois and I were in an accident a couple of days ago."
"Lois and … you?" Jonathan repeated.
"Yeah." Clark glanced at his wife again. "I'm … Clark, and this is Lois. We were hit by a ray that … exchanged our bodies."
Martha had one hand to her mouth, and Jonathan was frowning behind his glasses. "Lois?" he asked tentatively.
Lois nodded. "He's right, Jonathan." She squeezed Clark's hand. "It's been a pretty horrible few days."
"But … how did this happen? Why haven't you gotten changed back?" Martha asked, bewildered.
Clark bent over to pick up Laura and kept his head down, blowing kisses with his daughter while Lois gave a short but complete account of what had happened during the past few days. But when his mother asked, "And how are you dealing with it?" he stood up and announced, "Laura needs to be changed," and fled upstairs.
He had Laura in a clean diaper and was fastening her clothes back when his father said from the doorway, "Running away isn't gonna solve anything, Clark."
"And what good is talking gonna do?" His father's gaze shied away for a moment, and Clark half-laughed. "I can't look at myself in the mirror, either. Dad, I don't know how to *be* a woman," he added passionately. "What's worse, I don't know how to be Lois. Most of the time, it's all I can do just to be *me*."
Jonathan walked into the room and held out his arms for his granddaughter. "Then you'll just have to be the best *person* you know how to be, won't you?"
"So, what's the men's room like?" Martha asked.
Lois gaped at her for a moment, then laughed. Trust her mother-in-law to find the quickest way to lighten an intense discussion. "Don't tell Clark, but I don't know," she admitted. "So far, I've just ducked out and flown home when it was necessary." At Martha's giggle, she continued, "Well, I don't have the aim part down very well, and I didn't want to answer any questions about why Clark was suddenly using a stall every time. Besides," she said sheepishly, "that's more than I want to know about the guys who work there."
At that, Martha's giggle became a guffaw. "That also explains the beard." She studied Lois for a moment. "Clark never could grow a decent beard, honey. You're just going to look scruffy if you don't shave."
"I know, but I can't aim my heat-vision to shave, and I don't want to burn the house down while I'm practicing."
"I'd almost forgotten … Clark nearly did that when he was learning to shave."
"Yeah, he told me," Lois said. "But I also got some first-hand experience. You should see the burns on our bathroom wall."
Martha giggled again, and thinking it over, Lois decided that it was kind of funny. "You might think about taking a mirror out and practicing in the ocean," her mother-in-law suggested. "At least you wouldn't burn something up out there."
"Fish beware?" Smiling, Lois looked upstairs, wondering what was keeping Clark and Jonathan so long. She was almost tempted to lower her glasses and take a real look, but she decided that was at least one invasion of privacy that she could avoid.
Martha must have noticed her preoccupation because she said, "I already gave Laura a bath. They may be putting her to bed."
Putting her to bed. Their bedtime ritual always included breastfeeding. Lois's smile vanished, and, concerned, Martha reached for her hand. "What is it, Lois?"
She shook her head, her eyes blurring with tears. "Nothing. It's just—nothing." Blinking the tears away, she forced a smile. "Really, it's nothing."
Martha gave her a look of exasperation. "Honey, you aren't as good at hiding when you're upset as Clark and Jonathan are—and they haven't been able to fool me for longer than you've been alive. What's the matter? Is something wrong with Laura?"
The tears came flooding back. Lois didn't think about how odd it must seem to Martha to see her "son" crying. She just buried her face against the tiny woman's shoulder and let the tears fall. "I'm jealous, Martha," she whispered. "Clark's been—he's been nursing Laura since we got switched, and that was my special thing with her, and now he's doing it and I can't anymore, and I must be the meanest, most horrible person in the world for feeling like this … But I'm angry and—and jealous … and it hurts."
Her mother-in-law patted her back as she must have done with Clark so many times and murmured, "Shh, shh, oh, sweetie, it's okay. You're not a bad person, honey." She continued to whisper soothing nonsense to her son's wife.
After a moment, Lois calmed down and raised her head. She swiped at her eyes and sniffed. "I'm sorry," she said hoarsely. "I didn't mean to dump all that on you."
Martha squeezed her shoulder. "It's okay, honey. That's what family is for." She hesitated, then said, "For what it's worth, Clark's probably feeling the same way about the flying … because that's always been *his* special thing."
Lois looked at her in astonishment, and Martha added, "You know, Lois, you kids really should talk."
"Here you go," Lois said and handed Laura to Clark, then went across the room to put up the books she had read to their daughter. When she turned back, Clark was in the rocker with Laura sitting on his lap, tugging at his T-shirt. But he made no move to unfasten his clothes, and it occurred to her to wonder if he were embarrassed to feed Laura in front of her. Martha was right: they were both worried and upset and afraid to hurt the other by sharing how they felt … She sighed. But it wouldn't do any good to force him to do something that made him uncomfortable. "I'll go close up the house," she said.
She returned a few minutes later, successfully resisting the temptation to putter around downstairs until Clark was done. Without Nick Trifyllis or his machine, it would probably take months—at best—before Dr. Klein could duplicate the results, which meant she and Clark had better start treating each other's bodies like their own instead of like temporary loaners. And that meant they had to deal with some issues that they had both been avoiding.
He looked calm, even serene, with the baby suckling contentedly in his arms, but he had given Lois a quick, nervous glance when she entered the room, and he had drawn his shirt down a bit, covering himself a little more. From the door, she could hear the swift thump of his heartbeat, and she half-smiled, suddenly realizing how many times the sound must have given her away to Clark. She sat next to the rocker on the cushioned bench-top of Laura's toy chest and slid one large finger into her daughter's small hand, but she didn't say anything until Laura's fist relaxed in sleep. "Can I burp her?" she whispered.
His dark eyes searched hers, and he nodded. She carefully took the baby from his arms and lifted her daughter to her shoulder, bouncing Laura slightly and rubbing her small back until a bubble of air slipped out with a soft "bur-rup."
She laid Laura down in the crib and covered her with a light blanket, then stood for a moment, looking down at their baby. "She does better when we're both here."
"So do we," he said. "Maybe that's why."
Lois turned and held her hand out to Clark. "C'mon, we need to talk."
In the darkness above the city, Lois and Clark drifted side-by-side, joined by the unbreakable grip on his slender wrist and forearm that he had always used on her. She looked down, and he asked, "Is she okay?"
"Her breathing hasn't changed." Her enhanced vision pierced the rooftop far below them. "And she's still sleeping."
"Okay." He relaxed, letting the peace that he always found in flight soak into his soul. "Thank you for this," he said after a moment.
"Your mom reminded me that you probably missed it," Lois said.
"I have. Like you've missed … " He hesitated and looked away.
She took a deep breath. "I can't do anything about that."
"Do you want me to wean her?"
"Do you dislike it that much?"
"No," he said, "it's just … I thought it might be easier on you if you didn't have to see me doing what you can't. I mean," he added helplessly, "it's your body."
"That's just it, Clark. It isn't. Not any more. And the sooner we get used to that, the better." She dashed a sparkle of tears from her eyes. "Let's go home."
In their bedroom, the bedside lamp glowed softly while Lois lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.
Clark slid under the covers and lay on his side facing her, one hand supporting his head. "If we're stuck like this, then what're we gonna do about … you know?"
"I don't know." She rolled over to face him. "I can't even sleep with my head on your chest. You're not shaped right, and it just doesn't feel like *you.*"
"I know." He swallowed hard. "I miss holding you, but when I do … it isn't you." He studied his slim hand resting on her strong forearm, then looked up. "But, Lois … it doesn't matter what the outside looks like. I still love you."
Her eyes flooded, and Lois closed them against the tears. She felt the soft brush of his mouth against hers, and she nearly sobbed aloud, her lips parting under the gentle pressure of his. "I love *you*," she whispered.
The sound of running water awakened Clark, and blinking sleepily, he lifted his head to look in the bathroom. The light showed through a one-inch crack in the door, and he saw a figure moving there. "Lois?" he called.
"Yeah, I'm home," she said.
He listened for a moment. That was water running into the sink, not the shower. He crawled out of bed and stumbled across the dark room to the bathroom door. "Honey … ?"
She jerked around guiltily, holding the razor she normally used on her legs. Clark stared at the shaving foam on her face, and his mouth dropped open. "What're you—? How—?" he stammered, then grasped her forearm. "Lois, what's happened to your aura?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. I went out to the ocean to practice with my heat vision—you know, to see if I could aim it to shave—and I finally managed to hit myself with it, except … Clark, it felt hot on my skin, and that didn't seem right. At least, I don't remember you ever saying that it felt like it was burning you, so I quit, and—"
"Lemme see," he said urgently, grabbing a towel and wiping the shaving creme off her face. Her skin looked red, but it wasn't blistered. He ducked his head against her bare shoulder. "Thank God," he murmured. "It's only first degree—like a sunburn."
"But it shouldn't've done that, should it?" she said quietly.
Clark shook his head, studying her face. "Are you losing any other powers? Flying? Strength?"
"I don't think so. And the razor still doesn't work on my beard." She held it up, and he saw the pits on the blade.
His brows drew together as he considered that. "That means at least part of your aura's still there. Maybe it's just failing against super-powers."
"Clark … "
"You don't think … ? Does this mean my … soul is destroying your body?" Lois said in a small voice.
He took as much of her in his arms as he could reach. "I don't think so, honey. You're not feeling sick or weak, are you?" When she shook her head, he continued, "Well, see? You're not hurting my body. And I don't feel hot or sick, so I don't think I'm hurting yours." He considered. "Except … "
She had started to wipe the remaining traces of shaving creme off her face, but she stopped at that. "Except?"
"I feel kinda … I don't know, blah? Tired, maybe?"
Lois grinned. "Uh-oh. Treadmill for you tomorrow, sweetheart. That's how I get when I don't work out for a few days."
Clark looked at her in astonishment. "Lois, you're on the run all day long. What do *you* need exercise for?"
She laughed. "You don't know how great it is to hear you say that. I guess some good comes out of the worst situation."
"C.K., are you growing a beard or something?" Jimmy asked as Lois stirred two packets of creamer and three packets of sugar into the black brew euphemistically known to The Planet staffers as coffee. She took a sip and smiled. Substitutes were never as satisfying as full-sugar, full-fat.
She looked up and saw him apparently waiting for an answer. "I'm sorry, what was that, Jimmy?"
"I was just wondering if you were trying to grow a beard."
"No, I—" She stopped and touched her face gingerly, feeling the tenderness of the faint burn. At least this time she had a ready-made explanation. Constantly trying to come up with excuses for 'super' behaviors had gotten old in a hurry. "I got sunburned, and I can't shave for a few days."
Jimmy peered at her face. "Wow, that's a first for you, isn't it? I mean, you *never* get sunburned."
"No, not a first," Lois said, wondering if Clark ever *had* gotten a sunburn, "but the first time in a long time." She picked up her coffee and automatically headed toward her own desk. "Clark!" Perry poked his head out of his office. "What are you doin' with that jet sabotage story?"
She looked around for her husband—an instant before she realized Perry was talking to her. "Umm, calling STAR Labs to see what Dr. Klein discovered and … going through a stack of research, looks like," she added, noticing the pile of folders on Clark's desk.
"A'right," Perry growled. "I want the follow-up on that story before you go harin' off after your missin' witness. Speakin' of which, what did you two come up with yesterday?"
"Apparently, he was killed in a car wreck just before we got there." Clark's voice at her shoulder made her jump.
"Apparently?" Perry asked.
Lois picked up the story. "The bodies hadn't been ID'd yesterday, so we're checking with New York on it this morning—"
"—and then the MPD on Chris Trifyllis's murder—" Clark broke in.
"—and Owen Preece, to see what else he knows about the files that Chris apparently gave to his brother Nick—or Alex—both of whom are missing."
"Sounds like you have a busy afternoon planned," Perry said.
"Afternoon?" Lois asked.
"Afternoon. As in, after *you* get the jet story finished, and *you*—" he handed a folder to Clark— "investigate the group that's protestin' the school improvement project."
"But, Perry … " Lois began.
He turned around slowly. "You have a problem with my story assignments?"
Lois opened her mouth, then shut it with a snap. Clark didn't argue about assignments—darn him! "No, Perry."
"Good," the editor said. He waited, looking at both of them. "Don't you people have somethin' to do, or do I just pay you to stand around and shoot the breeze?"
They hurried toward their desks, bumping into each other as both of them made a dash for Lois's desk. "*My* chair," Clark whispered as he slid into it just in front of Lois.
"Oh, yeah." She straightened up, then paused, looking down at him curiously. "How'd you get there before me, anyway?"
He smirked at her, enjoying his moment of triumph. "Musical chairs champion three years running at the Smallville Junior High School carnival."
She rolled her eyes and started back to Clark's desk. "I should've known."
Beth waited just outside the door of Nick Trifyllis's apartment while his landlady looked in each room, calling, "Mr. Trifyllis! Yoo-hoo!" as she went. Unless he really was unconscious or injured in the bedrooms or bathroom, as she had told his landlady in order to get into his apartment, he definitely wasn't there.
"He's not here, but I don't see anything wrong," the heavy, fiftyish woman said when she returned to the front door, her eyes suspicious. "He's probably just at work."
Beth shook her head, although she didn't have the faintest idea whether he was at work or not—or even *where* he worked. "That's why I was checking here. He's been in danger ever since he saw his brother's killers," she said, repeating her earlier excuse. "I'm sorry for disturbing you."
Walking back to her car, she could feel the other woman's gaze boring into the back of her head. Frustration at getting no answer by phone and no response to repeated knocking at his door had driven her to get help from his landlady, but now she was afraid that she might have done something that Lex would find out about.
And she still hadn't found that person who might be willing to help her defeat Lex.
Clark stopped by his desk and bent down to brush a kiss across Lois's cheekbone. "I'm off to cover that protest," he told her.
She nodded and pointed to the phone receiver at her ear. "It's Dr. Klein—I'm on hold. Then I'll start through the research Courtney dug up—unless something else—" she made a loosening-the-tie motion— "comes up."
"You too," she called after him. He looked back and smiled, then strode up the ramp to the elevator.
Dr. Klein was still waiting for results on his tests and said he would call when he had anything, so Lois picked up the stack of research for the jet sabotage story and went to the conference room where she could spread out. Racing through the pages in each file at super speed, she was engrossed in her reading and didn't hear Jimmy approaching the conference room.
She jerked around, thankful that she had just been fanning through a stack of papers rather than moving papers and files at super speed. "Oh, Jimmy, hi! What d'you need?" she asked breathlessly.
Jimmy raised his eyebrows. Apparently he was starting to notice "Clark's" odd behavior. "Call on line one. And I've got that research on Asabi that you asked for," he told her, holding out a file.
"Asa—? Oh, yeah. Terrific! Thanks, Jimmy," she said, reaching for the file with one hand and the phone with the other.
He nodded and left the room as she said, "Hello … Clark Kent here."
"Mr. Kent, this is Officer Williams, with the New York State Police."
Clark stepped off the elevator, frowning thoughtfully. Before he started toward the ramp, Lois grabbed him by the arm and hustled him across the pit toward the conference room. "What is it?" he asked.
"We need to talk," she said, almost vibrating with tension or excitement.
At the conference room, he automatically reached for the door and held it open for her, and she entered ahead of him. He was closing the door when it suddenly occurred to him how it looked. He sighed. No matter how much he tried to remember to act like Lois, he kept doing what he always did.
He leaned against the wall, thrusting his hands into his pockets—but they just kept sliding down his thighs. Clark frowned. Why couldn't clothing manufacturers put pockets in women's slacks? He started to fold his arms over his chest, but the yielding softness against his hands flustered him, and he lowered his arms and gripped the back of a chair instead. "What's going on?" he asked.
"Clark, we're not giving up!" Lois announced, pacing restlessly along one side of the conference table, about to explode from the strain of holding in her news until they could get someplace private.
"What?" He shook his head, confused.
"Ever since we saw Nick Trifyllis's car in that ravine, we've given up. Even what we told Perry this morning was just … going through the motions."
"Okay … " He eyed her narrowly. He recognized that I-have-not-yet-begun-to-fight attitude of hers, and more often than not, it resulted in success, but … "I don't see what we can do that we haven't already done."
"We've been following a trail someone else left for us," she said, "and we've come up with exactly what they wanted: Nick is dead; the device is lost or destroyed; case closed, end of story."
"But the device wasn't at his house or at his lab —" Clark began, seeing her reasoning.
"—or at his brother's house or in the car *or* the ravine where the car went off the road."
"The state police were that thorough?" he asked, raising his eyebrows in surprise.
"No, but—" she glanced toward the door to make sure Perry wasn't about to burst in— "Superman was."
"I thought you were checking with Dr. Klein about the oil sample."
"He hasn't called back yet, but that New York trooper did."
"He remembered you asking about electronic equipment, and he wanted to let us know that they didn't find any. And that started me thinking."
"So you buzzed up to New York to check for yourself," he said with amusement.
"And examined the ravine and the car, and there's nothing that even looks like it could have been a piece of high tech equipment."
He began to pick up her excitement. "Then what did the police say about the bodies?"
"Ah hah!" She grinned. "According to the medical examiner, those bodies were long dead—like over 72 hours—before they went over that embankment. In fact, she thinks they might have come out of someone's morgue in the first place."
Clark hugged her and laughed. "He faked it. Thank God, he's still alive!"
Lois hugged him back, effortlessly lifting him off his feet. "Now all we have to do is find him."
Writing and editing an 800-word article on a protest demonstration was forty-five minutes' work for Clark. Writing it in Lois's style rather than his own nearly doubled the time, particularly when she was sitting next to him and kept reading aloud particularly interesting bits of information she discovered in the research for the jet sabotage story. When, for the sixth time, she said, "That's odd. Listen to this," he groaned out loud.
"Honey, *please*. I've gotta finish this story before I can think about that one."
She looked up from the stack of pages on her lap. "Oh. Do you want some help?"
His fingers flew over the keyboard. "I'm sending you what I've got so far. Could you check it over for me, please?" He added softly, "Make sure it sounds like you and not me, okay?"
Lois grinned as she got up to go to Clark's desk. "Do you mean you're giving me *permission* to edit your copy?"
He grinned back. "I'd say that it looks like *you're* giving *me* permission."
She rolled her eyes. "Cute, Kent." But he saw that she was grinning as she walked across the aisle to his desk. It was amazing, he thought, how different they both felt after they realized that Nick Trifyllis wasn't dead.
He had just received the edited article back from her when her phone rang. She picked up the receiver and absently said, "Hello," as she continued reading the jet sabotage research.
Out of the corner of his eye, Clark saw her perk up. "Oh, you did? Good!" She started to scribble notes on a pad, writing at super speed.
Troubled by her careless use of super powers, Clark got up from Lois's desk and strolled to his. Bending over, apparently reading her notes, he blocked the sight of her hand from the rest of the room. "Thanks, Dr. Klein," she said at last and hung up.
Looking over pages of transcription, she shook her head. "No wonder you don't bother with a tape recorder," she said softly.
He shrugged and stroked her right hand. "But I don't speed write in public, either."
Her eyes widened, and she looked around nervously. "Oops." She grimaced. "It's hard to remember to hold back."
He half-smiled. "I know.
"Thank you, sir," Lindy said, sitting in the visitor chair in front of Lex Luthor's desk. "The lawyer had my alibi worked out and ID in hand when he arrived, and I was out within thirty minutes."
"I pay them for results. I'm glad to hear that they're continuing to deliver." Lex leaned back in his chair and eyed the operative consideringly. "Are you ready for another assignment?"
"That's what you pay *me* for, Mr. Luthor."
He smiled, a terrifying shark's smile. "I appreciate willingness in my staff. Now that the Trifyllis brothers have been good enough to remove themselves from the picture, we only have one loose end left to trim off … "
Lois and Clark had gone back to the conference room, where they sorted information about the jet sabotage while Perry looked at Clark's story. Jimmy's three-way cross-referenced list hadn't turned up anything, so they compared the people who had the technical know-how with the ones who had physical access and the ones who were involved in lawsuits or corporate takeovers. After two hours, they had eliminated some possibilities, but while there were nearly three dozen people who had the skills, the opportunity, or the motive, no one appeared in all of the lists. "I think it's Luthor," Clark said. "He's getting back into the airline business in a big way, and destroying his competition by sabotage has been the way he's done business as long as I've known him."
"Clark, we can't write a story based on nothing but speculation. Perry'd stick us on dog show stories and high school graduations until Laura goes to school." At the mulish set of his jaw, she added, "And you know as well as I do that we never found any publishable evidence back then. What makes you think we'll find it now?"
Clark sighed and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. "All right. Back to Jimmy for some background info?" he suggested, lowering his hands.
Lois nodded. "I'll write up the stuff Dr. Klein gave me, which'll make Perry happy, but otherwise … " She shrugged.
"We're done until Jimmy gets us some more information," he said, then added, satisfied, "so it's time for *our* investigation."
"And I know just where to start."
"House of Astrology?" Clark read incredulously while Lois bit her lip to keep from laughing. He looked at the window display, at the dangling crystals, teak carvings, and a tall brass urn with a long tube extending from it.
"What is that thing?" Lois asked, pointing.
He glanced down at the urn. "A hookah. A water pipe," he explained.
They pushed open the door to the tinkle of chimes and a waft of incense. Clark breathed deeply, closing his eyes. "It doesn't smell the same—nothing does right now—but I think it's amber." He wandered toward the teak carvings.
"You recognize the smell?" Lois asked.
"I like amber," he said, rubbing his thumb over a small teak carving, enjoying the feel of the smooth wood.
She shook her head and strolled toward the books she saw in the next room. A dark-haired man, head bowed submissively and palms pressed against each other, suddenly appeared from the back room to block her way. "How may Asabi serve you?" he asked. He glanced at his customers, a flicker of recognition in his eyes, but his expression remained closed.
"You could tell us what Lex Luthor is up to these days," Clark said.
"I cannot say," Asabi said smoothly. "I did not return to Mr. Luthor's service when he returned to the world … Since I do not have the information you want, perhaps you would be interested in a book or … a good luck charm." He gestured toward his books with one hand and toward the teak carvings with the other.
"I understand Nick Trifyllis got a book on astral projection from you," Lois said.
Asabi bowed his head, hesitating before he answered. "A regular customer."
"With an interest in soul transference?" she continued.
Something flashed in the older man's eyes, but he corrected her, "With an interest in helping slow learners. He has often spoken of his desire to help others."
"Did he ever tell you about his research? How he planned to help slow learners?" Clark asked.
"Certainly," Asabi said. "He hopes to share *understanding* from one mind to another." He shook his head. "Perhaps you should read his dissertation. He has often said that he has been interested in the subject from his student days."
Not by as much as a flicker of his eyelids did Clark show that he had already read Nick's dissertation. "His interest in psychic phenomena wasn't related to his research?"
Asabi shrugged. "Perhaps. But the technical details of his work are beyond my humble understanding." He extended his hands as if to say he had told them all he knew.
Clark gave Lois a quick glance and caught her looking back at him. He lifted his shoulders, and she nodded briefly. They had been reporters long enough to know when an interview was going nowhere, and right now was definitely time to look elsewhere.
" … we only have one loose end left to trim off … Owen Preece." Lex's voice on the recorder was more ominous for being so calm and unconcerned. Owen stared at the recorder, his expression both fascinated and appalled.
"Preece? Why him?" a woman's voice asked.
"Enrico said Preece was acting suspicious when he went through Trifyllis's files. And I don't want him to put two and two together about my request for information on what Trifyllis had been working on and his death," Lex's voice continued.
"Are you sure, sir? You don't think two deaths in the same department within a few days might make the police suspicious?" The woman's voice was as calm as if they were discussing meatloaf recipes.
"Make it look like an accident—no, better yet, a suicide," Lex said. "Leave a note confessing to Tryfillis's murder. That should put an end to the investigation into Chris Trifyllis's death."
Beth Luthor turned off the recorder. "Well?"
Owen slowly lifted his gaze, his face ashen. "Why did you play this for me, Mrs. Luthor?" he asked hoarsely.
She took a deep breath. It was now or never. "I need someone to help me bring Lex down. Someone that he can't buy. Someone that knows about computers, so we can get into his records. And that sounded like you."
"Why don't you just take this tape to the police?"
"He'd get out of it. He'd say the tape was a fake, and he'd hire enough experts to prove it. All that it would do is force me into the open, and I'd be dead before I could ever testify against him. He'd see to that." She knew she was pleading, but she couldn't stop herself. "Will you help me?"
He looked at her with disbelief. "Are you crazy? You just tell me that someone is going to kill me, and you want me to hang around and play policeman with you? How much good do you think I'd be to you *dead*?"
"I'll hide you," she told him earnestly. "But I need somone with your computer skills."
Owen nearly laughed in her face. "You're going to hide me from *him*?" He shook his head. "Thanks for letting me know what's going on, and I wish you luck, but I'm not going to risk my life to put your husband in jail." He stood up. "If you'll excuse me, I have some arrangements to make."
Lois frowned thoughtfully as she drove the Jeep toward the Planet. "I think you're right. Asabi knows more about Nick Trifyllis's process than he's letting on. But I'm not sure he knows where Nick is. He didn't react strongly enough to his name."
"Whether he knows anything or not, he's not gonna say anything," Clark said, "so we'd better start looking from a different angle."
She gave him a quick glance. "What d'you think? Backtrack the brother?"
He nodded. "He probably had the contacts to come up with the cadavers for the car wreck."
"As well as fake IDs and a hole to disappear into." At his nod, she continued, "But I'd better write up the information from Dr. Klein, or Perry'll take us off the payroll."
Clark rolled his eyes. "Why can't we ever get just one story at a time?" he complained. "Either it's so slow that we might as well shut off our computers and go home, or we've got stories burying us like an avalanche."
Lois smiled. "Maybe you should take it up with someone higher up."
"Perry? Nah, he'd give us more stories if he could."
"I was thinking of someone a little higher than that," she said, her thumb pointing upward.
"Oh." He grinned. "What makes you think I'd have any clout with heaven?"
"Pure heart?" she suggested.
He laughed. "I don't think the thoughts I have about you are usually considered … pure."
"But we're married, so that's allowed."
"Good thing." Clark gave her a wicked grin.
But his smile faded as he noticed that Lois had tilted her head to listen to something beyond his hearing. She swore softly and pulled over to the side of the street. "Honey, I've gotta go," she said.
He grasped her forearm. "Be careful," he told her urgently. "You aren't completely invulnerable now."
"I know." She leaned over and closed her eyes briefly as she kissed him. Then she straightened up and opened the door. "I'll be back later."
"Lois Lane and Clark Kent just left my shop. They were asking questions about Nick Trifyllis," Asabi said.
Lex turned away from the computer and picked up the receiver, shutting off the hands-free speaker function. "What do you think they were after? They were in New York. They must know he was killed in that car wreck."
"They were wanted to know about his research. One of them mentioned 'soul transference.'"
Lex frowned. "That wouldn't have been in his research notes. Were they looking for the stone?"
"They never mentioned it. However, I sensed a peculiar energy from them … "
Lex waited, but when Asabi said no more, he continued, "The stone was lost with Dr. Trifyllis's device, and they can't connect us with the Trifyllises' deaths in New York. Keep me informed if they return."
As he hung up, Lex scowled at the Daily Planet on his desk. Page three had an article by Clark Kent following up the initial story on the PanGaea jet that Superman rescued. Not only was Kent investigating some of the shootings Lex had ordered, but now he was also sniffing around the PanGaea jet and making noises about sabotage.
Luthor jabbed at a call button, and Enrico O'Reilly entered and shut the door behind him, but he waited across the room from Lex's desk. Luthor raised one eyebrow, and O'Reilly clenched his jaw, resisting. Eventually he moved forward to the visitor's side of his boss's desk.
Although Lex didn't actually smile, he relaxed at his aide's submission and said, "A loose end at SATAN leads back here. Offer him the usual severance package."
After Clark drove back to the Planet, he found Lois's notes from her conversation with Dr. Klein on his desk, and he began to read through them as he walked back to her desk. He smiled to himself. She had written a complete transcription of the conversation—which meant that he could write the story—if he had her notes and his own from before. He stopped a moment, then headed back to his own desk.
By the time Clark had finished a rough draft of the article and sent it back to his own computer, Jimmy had dropped another stack of folders on the desktop next to his keyboard. "Background on those names, Lois," he explained.
"Thanks, Jimmy," Clark said and watched his friend walk away. If he and Lois couldn't get switched back, there was a relationship that probably wouldn't survive. All the more reason to finish this story and get back to finding Nick Trifyllis. He set his jaw and, picking up the stack of folders, went to the conference room.
Lois strode into the Daily Planet newsroom, fiddling nervously with her tie, wishing she had worn a clip-on today because she wasn't sure she retied it right. She took advantage of that extra half foot of height to look for Clark, but he wasn't at his desk. Then it occurred to her that she was looking for her six-foot husband, not her five-and-a-half-foot self, and she checked her own desk. No luck. She lowered her glasses to peer over them and quickly eliminated Perry's office and the copy room but finally struck paydirt in the conference room.
"Hi, honey," she said, carefully closing the conference room door behind her.
Clark jerked around. "Oh, hi. Are you okay?"
She nodded. "I'm fine. I didn't have any trouble, but all I did was bring in another jet. Another PanGaea. With a frayed rudder control cable."
"Really? Accidentally frayed?" he asked, his eager interest apparent in his body language.
"I don't know. The outer edges were all dirty and greasy," she offered.
"Were they rusted or corroded?"
"I didn't look that closely." Her mouth twisted a little. "You'd've looked, wouldn't you?"
He stood up and grasped her upper arms, his expression earnest with his desire to reassure her. "Honey, don't worry about it. The investigators know what they're doing, and if someone cut the cable, they'll find it."
"I know. It's just … It's hard enough trying to control the powers *and* a body I'm not used to when I don't know the thousand and one things you've learned that make Superman so effective." She looked down into his troubled face and, taking a deep breath, straightened up. "I'm okay, honey. I just want to finish this plane sabotage story so we can get back to looking for Nick Trifyllis."
"All right." Clark turned back to the table. "I wrote up a rough draft of what you found out from Dr. Klein, and I just got started on the background info we asked Jimmy for." He gave her a rueful smile and held out the folders. "You wanna take a look and see if there's anything?"
"Cover me," she said, smiling faintly and nodding toward the door with her head.
He grinned and shook his head at her facetious comment but got up and kept an eye on the newsroom through a crack in the blinds. Behind him, Lois whipped through every page in the pile of folders, and three seconds later, she set them down. "I think we've got something."
Clark moved to stand beside her. "What is it?"
"These two." She pulled out two folders. "A pilot who was fired for insubordination and a mechanic for PanGaea Air. They both belong to something called … SATAN."
He lifted his eyebrows. "Satan?"
"Stop Air Traffic Accidents Now." She frowned. "Vicious acronym for such a harmless sounding organization."
"Maybe they aren't as harmless as they sound."
Beth drove numbly away from the LexCorp Information Technology Center. She still couldn't believe that Owen Preece had turned her down, that he hadn't seen how much safer he would be if he could put Lex in jail. That only left her with Nick Trifyllis—if he was still alive. And after what she'd heard in the conversation she had played for Owen, she wasn't sure any more. Maybe she should go back and collect the bugs she'd planted.
As she stopped at a traffic light, she glanced at the monitor sitting in the top of her open purse. The two lights were off—and if Nick didn't go back to his apartment or lab, they'd probably stay that way. But they weren't hurting anything where they were, she decided, and she couldn't afford to ignore any possible source of help. She would leave them where they were for a few weeks.
At Lois's computer, Clark had found a website for SATAN, and he was scrolling through it, frowning as he read. "It says that they originally organized to protest unsafe transportation practices, and … " He clicked on a link for an update on current activities. " … and it looks like they're urging a boycott of PanGaea Air."
Lois leaned over his shoulder. "Does it say why?"
He paged through several screens. "Yeah. Safety violations. Inadequate maintenance schedules. Forcing pilots to fly too many hours with too little down time between. That sounds familiar … " He paged through the folder lying open on his desk. "Here it is. That's what that pilot who got fired said PanGaea was doing."
She speed read through the pages in the file. "He claims that's *why* he was fired. He refused to fly when he had too many hours without time off. PanGaea says he was fired for insubordination."
Clark shook his head. "I don't know. I don't think that someone who refuses to fly when he isn't fit is the kind of person who would put 300 people at risk by sabotaging both of a jet's engines."
Her brows snapped together in a question. "What difference does it make whether it's one or both engines?"
"A plane can fly and land with one engine," he explained. "It would've stopped the flight, but they wouldn't have called Superman for help."
Lois reached for the phone and pressed one of her speed-dial numbers. She smiled and shook her head. "You know the oddest things … Yes, Dr. Klein?" She spoke with him for a few minutes, and when she hung up, she told her husband, "I wondered why the first oil sample didn't show any sign of tampering, but the second one did."
He guessed where she was headed. "The samples were taken from different engines?"
"Got it in one," she said, pointing her finger toward him. "One was sabotaged, and the other—the other suffered a mechanical breakdown. Too much wear with too little maintenance."
"Sounds like we should have a talk with this pilot," Clark suggested.
"And the mechanic," she added.
According to the name card above his mailbox, Tony Morales hadn't moved from his small apartment after he was fired by PanGaea. When he opened the door, Lois and Clark saw a smiling, athletic man in his mid-thirties, the kind of person, Clark thought, that he'd like to shoot hoops with. But as soon as they introduced themselves, the pilot's smile vanished and he lowered his eyes, thinking, apparently. After a moment, he looked up and opened the screen door. "I've been expecting something like this," he said. "You might as well come in."
His small apartment was as clean as Clark had kept his, and he was clean shaven and tidy in a short-sleeved Henley shirt and jeans, his brown hair neatly combed. He didn't look like most unemployed men that Clark had seen.
"What do you mean, you were expecting this?" Lois asked.
"Let's not fence, Mr. Kent. In a way, it's almost a relief."
Lois's surprised gaze flicked toward Clark, and he asked softly, "You didn't expect the other engine to give out, did you?"
Tony Morales shook his head. "*Never.* I wanted to let people know what was going on at PanGaea, so they'd be forced to clean up their act, but I *never* intended to hurt anyone."
"What about the frayed control cable today?" Lois asked.
He seemed ashamed to meet her eyes. "It should've been caught in pre-flight. That flight should never have gone out."
"After the last time, when the second engine failed because of shoddy safety procedures … and you *still* risked it?" Clark heard the judgmental tone in his voice and wished he could have taken it back. Nothing was guaranteed to shut up a source faster.
Morales was quiet for a long moment. "Superman saved the first one, so we—I thought … "
Clark noticed the slip, but he was too angry to take advantage of it. Lois gave him a quick, sidelong glance and picked up the interview. "He was your backup system," she stated. "Why did you tamper with a second plane?"
"Because no one was discussing PanGaea's safety violations. The only thing anyone was talking about was sabotage."
Clark's anger had vanished, and now he only felt tired. God save him from stupid, well-meaning people, he thought. If only Morales had come to them in the first place, they would have investigated his allegations—and probably nailed PanGaea for it. But he had taken the law into his own hands, and now he—and his accomplice—would pay for it with prison time.
Clark got out his notebook and pen. He had a story to write.
"He got the formula off the Internet," Lois repeated in disbelief as she and Clark walked to the Jeep after their interview.
"Yeah, but most people wouldn't have realized that the compound could be added to the lubricant in a jet engine. Or that the friction would increase the temperature enough to burn it off and hardly leave any residue. It's not exactly like putting up the directions for making a pipe bomb," Clark said. "He said 'we.' What d'you think?"
"It's the mechanic," she stated with certainty. "They're both in SATAN. Both have a motive, especially Morales, but the mechanic has the access."
"I'd've bet anything it was Luthor … but you're right. Next stop, Derek Chambers?" he asked, mentioning the mechanic by name.
"D'you have an address?" He nodded, and she opened the driver's side door of the Jeep. "All right. Let's get this story wrapped up."
"Not at work *or* home?" Lois asked in disgust as she rang the doorbell at Derek Chambers' house for the fourth time. "Why can't people be easy to find?"
Looking hard at the door, she reached for her glasses, and Clark grasped her wrist. "Lois, please. People have a right to private lives."
She rolled her eyes. "You and your rules. I bet Waldecker drove you nuts."
A half-smile quirked the corner of his mouth. "Resplendent Man? He never could understand that the powers were to be used to help people, not take advantage of them."
She sighed. "Okay. I get it. But I don't think we should wait to interview Chambers. We've broken the story, and we're still ahead of the police. If we wait, we'll risk losing the exclusive."
"You think?" He laughed. "Perry'd kill us if we did."
"*You.*" She bumped against his hip. "Then it's back to the Planet, I guess."
"How 'bout we write this one from home? That way we don't have to get someone to watch Laura," he said.
"Fine by me," Lois said as she started to step off Chambers' porch, but the arrested expression on Clark's face stopped her. "What is it?"
"I just realized how to find Nick Trifyllis." He dug through Lois's purse until he found the cell phone. "I hope we're not too late," he muttered, flipping through his notebook for the number for the lab where Nick worked.
On the other side of Derek Chambers' front door, Enrico O'Reilly stayed still, hardly daring to breathe. A pool of blood slowly spread across the floor from the gunshot wound in the back of the airline mechanic's head. O'Reilly watched the viscous red fluid inch toward his shoes, but he couldn't risk moving and making a noise that would alert those nosey reporters to his presence.
Besides, they seemed to think the computer geek's brother was still alive, and he wanted to find out what they knew and where they thought he was.
Superman shot through the window of the master bedroom at 348 Hyperion and spun into jeans and a dark T-shirt, rushing to get ready for the stakeout at the lab. Only then did Lois realize that her daughter was standing on unsteady legs, clinging to the bedspread with one hand, and grinning and squealing as she watched her 'father.' "Oh … super," Lois muttered and reached down to pick up Laura, wincing as she did so.
"Honey, is that you?" Clark called from the bathroom.
"Yeah," she sighed, turning her head to avoid smeary handprints on her glasses. They really needed to talk about this whole Daddy and Superman thing. But first, she needed to figure out how to clean and bandage the stinging bullet wound on her shoulder without Clark knowing about it.
The Jeep was parked halfway down the block from the lab complex so Lois and Clark had a clear view of the side entrance where deliveries were made. "I should let you handle my mother all the time," Lois said, her mouth pursed with a suppressed grin as she wrote her story on the notebook computer on her lap. "She didn't complain more than three times about your calling at the last minute."
Clark turned away from the window, where he had been watching the door to the lab complex. "Don't even think it. She just liked the idea that we trusted her enough to leave Laura with her while we were on an all-night stakeout."
"Oh god, you don't really think it'll be an all-nighter, do you?" she groaned. Clark's body didn't usually get tired like hers did, but with her aura fading, she wasn't sure if that was true any longer.
"I don't know." He looked back to watch the lab entrance. "The secretary said the people from the kennel were supposed to be there before six. If Trifyllis is with them, that'll be it. But if we have to follow them to him … I don't know how long it'll take, and I don't wanna risk losing him."
"Neither do I. But if it's a public shelter, they may not know anything about him. We could end out staking it out for days, waiting for him to show up and collect them."
Clark shook his head. "The secretary said it was some sorta private kennel. If he doesn't do something tonight, I'm betting they'll have an address for him."
"I hope so. Good thing you remembered what she said about his animals." She looked at their article for a moment, then saved what she'd written so far, closed the lid, and turned the computer off.
Clark smiled faintly. "Thank God for chatty secretaries." He looked over at Lois. "Aren't you gonna write any more?"
"I want to talk to you about something first."
"I recognize that tone," he said nervously.
"What?" She eyed him with amused exasperation. "Clark, even *I* don't recognize this tone. These days, I don't recognize *any* of my tones."
He grinned and looked back at the lab complex. "Okay, you don't have a tone. What d'you wanna talk about?"
His head jerked toward her, his expression concerned. "What about her?"
She hesitated. "When I got back from that shootout at the New Troy Mercantile Bank, Laura was in our room, and I … sort of … "
"Changed in front of her? I wondered." At her shame-faced nod, he shrugged. "It happens, honey. But she's pretty little still. She'll forget. You'll—*I'll* just have to be more careful so she doesn't see Superman up close any more."
That was as far as they'd gotten last time. "I don't think that'll be enough."
He frowned. "To keep her from recognizing that Daddy and Superman are the same person? Why not?"
"Honey, you know as well as I do that your Superman disguise is as situational as it is physical. Despite the obvious resemblance—" she smiled as she said it, since he didn't resemble Superman in any way at the moment— "no one guesses because Clark Kent's an ordinary man, and Superman's a super-powered alien."
"Yeah, but what does that have to do with Laura?"
"Because Daddy flies her around and super-speeds down the stairs after changing her when we're running late." She paused, then admitted to some of the responsibility, too. "And … Superman changes into Daddy in front of her. When she's seen Daddy do the same kind of things that Superman does, and the pictures of Superman look just like Daddy … You tell me."
He looked out the window at the lab complex. "You're right," he finally said. "And until she's old enough to understand how important it is not to tell anyone, she can't know." Clark sighed and looked at his slender hands. "I'm gonna miss floating when I'm watching football."
Lois smiled at his doleful tone, but she covered his hand with hers and hurried to reassure him. "Honey, I didn't mean you have to stop using your powers at home. Just in front of Laura. If she's asleep or out of the room or if you're doing something that doesn't show—" she adjusted her glasses— "there's no reason you have to stop being yourself. The last few days, I got a good look at how hard it is for you to hold back at work. I couldn't do it. And I can't imagine how you could pretend to be powerless at home all the time, either."
The relief on his face made her feel guilty for even bringing up the issue. "I'm glad." A tiny smile lifted one corner of his mouth. "I was starting to feel sorta like Samantha on 'Bewitched.'"
"Oh, no, Clark! I don't want to make you feel guilty for being who you are. Besides," she added in a small voice, "I don't think we could get everything done if you didn't use your powers."
"I know. I was afraid it'd put too much of a burden on you." He smiled, teasing her a little. "I guess I can learn to use pot holders when I cook. If I have to."
Her smile froze. If they didn't get changed back quickly, she was going to *have* to use pot holders. Thank God he just gave her a good excuse for it.
Clark turned his hand to clasp her larger one and lifted it to his lips for a brief kiss. "You know, we're talking like we're about to be changed back any minute."
She smiled, trying to raise his spirits. "Aren't we?" Her gaze sharpened suddenly, and she straightened up, feeling her heart begin to thud heavily with excitement. "Look over there."
He turned quickly. "That van? See if either Trifyllis is there," he said, pantomiming lowering a pair of glasses.
It only took a second to concentrate in the special way that let her look through objects. "Three men. Two of them look like the pictures Jimmy turned up."
She heard the quick surge of Clark's pulse. "Show time," he said. Lithe in jeans and sneakers, he got out of the Jeep and ran lightly across the street, using the van to shield his approach.
Lois ran after him and quickly caught him, even without super speed, then slowed to match his casual pace. She glanced at her watch. With any luck, the front door would still be unlocked and the helpful receptionist would be there.
She was. Clark went up to the front desk and said, "Hi, I'm … Lois Lane, and this is my partner, Clark Kent. I asked you about—"
"—about Dr. Trifyllis's dogs. I remember." 'Lois' may have been the one talking to her, but the young woman couldn't take her eyes off 'Clark'. "Weird story, if you ask me, but I guess you guys can't always be writing about the NIA. Anyway, you're barely in time. The people from the shelter are already here." Even as she chattered, she pressed a button on her panel, and a moment later, a security officer strolled into the lobby. "Hi, Carl. Could you please take Ms. Lane and Mr. Kent back to the kennels?"
"Thank you," Clark said, ever polite.
"Sure," the receptionist said absently, her gaze on his six-foot spouse, adding, as they turned away, "Partner, huh? Some girls get all the luck."
"'Weird story'?" Lois asked softly as they followed the portly security officer to the back of the building.
Clark shrugged. "I told her we were doing a series on lab animals: where they come from, how they're treated, what happens to them."
She rolled her eyes and elbowed him. "Don't mention it to Perry or he'll give it to us on a slow news day."
He elbowed her back, grinning. "Beats covering dog shows."
Ahead of them, Carl opened a door at the end of the hall and held the door as he gestured them into the kennel. For the first time, Lois remembered to wait and let Clark enter in front of her. "Couple of reporters to see you, Andy," the security man announced and closed the door behind them.
A tech in a light green lab coat was in back with two other men in coveralls. "Be right with you," he hollered over several dozen dogs that started barking at the unexpected visitors. When he continued in a quieter voice, Lois could clearly hear him say, "You've got leashes and a cat carrier, right?"
"Nick Trifyllis?" Clark said, and one of the men froze. "We're Lane and Kent, from the Daily Planet, and we need to talk to you."
The small, thin man in coveralls studied them, his eyes sharp and penetrating. "You're Lane and Kent?" he asked.
Lois moved to stand by Clark. Driver's license photos rarely looked like the person, but still … "Yes. But you're not—are you Alex?"
"Where's Nick?" Clark added.
Lois didn't miss the swift flicker of Alex's eyes, and she faked a cough, bending down a little and covering her mouth with her fist as she scanned through the floors above, looking for Nick's lab.
"Nick? Alex? Who are you talking about?" the man countered.
The other man with him, a crew-cut blond who was as big as Lois, chimed in, "You must have the wrong people. We're here to pick up some animals."
Clark glanced up at Lois, and she looked at him hard, then lifted her gaze upward without moving her head. At his faint nod, she turned back to the men. "Are you sure you aren't Alex? You look like the picture of him."
Lois tried to listen for Alex's heartbeat, but she didn't have Clark's knack of sorting it out from other sounds. Alex smiled a little. "You know how pictures are. Catch 'em at the right angle, and it could be anybody."
"O-o-o-kay," Lois said. "Sorry to bother you. We'll wait outside and let you get on with … whatever you're doing." She took Clark by the arm. "C'mon."
Outside the kennel, with the door closed behind them, he asked, "Okay, so what'd you find?"
"Nick's in his lab."
"Does he have the facilitator?"
"I just took a quick look." It had taken everything she had to see into the lab three floors above.
"Let's get him." He clapped his hand on her shoulder, and she couldn't hold back a wince. Shocked, he jerked back. "What is it?"
"A scratch," she said, her hand cupped over her shoulder.
"Lemme see," he said, but she shook her head and turned away from him. "Lo-is. What happened?"
"A bullet graze at the bank holdup," she admitted.
His eyes were bleak; a muscle in his jaw flexed as he clenched his teeth; his breathing was uneven. "Let's go get Nick and get changed back."
Carl, the security officer, heard the side door open, and he turned down the hallway to see a smallish man with dark hair starting up the stairs. "Sir!" he called. "Can I see some ID?"
The man turned around and started back toward him. "Sure. I've got my badge in here somewhere." He felt in his pockets while the security officer waited. "Oh, here it is."
At his words, Carl looked down expectantly—and missed the swift headbutt that crumpled him to the floor.
The intruder looked down at the security man's larger form for a second, then grabbed him by the heels and dragged him into the shadows under the stairs. He dug in his pocket and found a small tablet, which he placed under his victim's tongue. Emerging from under the stairs, he glanced at his watch. He had thirty minutes.
Nick Trifyllis continued to copy his research onto yet another zip disk. Alex had said he could have fifteen minutes—no more—and it looked like it was going to take every minute of that. He stared at the screen. If only there was a way to get hold of some of the money Mr. Gendell had promised him. He was going to have to start all over again, and if Alex was right, it couldn't even be in his own field, so he would need some money to get started with.
Startled, he jumped. He remembered that voice, and he slumped lower in his chair as he groped for the cognitive facilitator he had brought with him. He didn't trust locks—on cars or houses—any more, so it was never more than a few feet away from him.
"It's Lois Lane and Clark Kent. From the Daily Planet. We need to talk with you."
Daily Planet? Was this a trick—or had he used his device on an innocent couple? He peeked around his monitor, his facilitator held in front of him like a gun. "What do you want?"
The woman continued, "We came to see you three days ago, and we were hit by some kind of ray that knocked us unconscious … Dr. Trifyllis, please. We need your help."
He remembered the dogs' and cat's misery, and there was something of that same distress in her voice. He peeked around the monitor again. The couple was standing at the door, holding hands.
Illogical though it might be, he couldn't imagine a pair of killers holding hands while they waited, and he emerged from behind the computer, facilitator clutched to his chest. "You aren't the people I saw leaving my brother's house." It was a statement rather than a plea for assurance.
The man, big, athletic, shook his head. "No. We were covering the murder for our paper, and we came over to interview you."
"Oh god, I'm … sorry," Nick said.
Three heads jerked toward the corner where a compact, dark-haired man emerged from behind a file cabinet, a .357 pistol held in his fist as if it had grown there.
Clark measured the distance from himself to the gun, calculating whether he could make it in a human-seeming leap, and just how he needed to grab the gunman's hand so a stray bullet wouldn't hit anyone else—
—when he suddenly realized that he not only didn't have super powers, but he didn't have a man's strength and reach. And if he knew his wife, she was running the same calculations through her head—but she was no longer invulnerable to bullets. He clutched her hand. "Don't," he muttered under his breath.
"Distract him," she whispered back.
"You'll get *hurt*."
She ignored that as completely as the gunman seemed to be ignoring them. "You're the computer geek's brother. I saw you driving to his house," he said to Nick, the pistol unwavering in his hand. "That must be the machine I've been looking for. The one with the white rock?"
Nick seemed confused, his hands sliding over the facilitator as if he were assuring himself that it was still there. "I'm sorry, what? White rock? Yes, that's what's in this device."
The small, dark-haired man gestured with his free hand. "Hand it over."
Clark exchanged one frantic glance with Lois. They *couldn't* lose the facilitator, not now. She pantomimed her eyes rolling up into her head, and Clark took her hint and let himself fall to the floor in a graceless heap.
The gunman jerked toward the sudden motion, the pistol switching instantly from Nick's midsection to Lois's. "What happened to her?"
"Low blood sugar," Lois said and squatted beside Clark's limp body, forcing herself not to flinch away from the weapon now aimed at her head. She looked over the top of her glasses at the pistol, a faint shimmer in the air the only sign that she was using her heat vision. The metal of the gun heated rapidly, and the gunman started to drop it, his finger clenching on the trigger when he let it go.
As if in slow motion, she saw the bullet begin to spiral through the barrel toward them, and she flung herself over Clark, wincing in anticipation of the pain just as a blaze of light caught them both. Distantly she thought she heard a dog barking—
—and everything went black.
Clark drifted toward consciousness. At the feel of Lois's body under his, he frowned, wondering how he could have been so tired that he fell asleep without rolling off her first. Then he realized that they were both fully dressed and his cheek was pressed against the floor, not a pillow, and memory came flooding back. The gun …
He jerked his head up and saw Lois lying beneath him—her dear, beautiful face; her slender, sexy body; her coffee-dark eyes opening and focusing on him—and he hugged her tight, his face buried in her dark cloud of hair. "Oh, sweetheart, we're back," he whispered.
Her arms tightened around him. "Are you okay?" she asked. "The bullet … "
"I'm sorry," a man's hesitant voice interrupted. "I was aiming at him—"
The speaker broke off and took a step back as Clark shot to his feet and turned to face him in one swift motion. Belatedly, Clark realized that his expression had been threatening, and he forced himself to relax. "Dr. Trifyllis? What about the man who shot at us?"
Nick nodded toward a couple of bodies lying on the floor nearby.
Eyebrows drawing together in a puzzled frown, Clark asked, "What happened?" He turned back and helped Lois to her feet.
"I—I was going to use the facilitator on him—to try to knock him unconscious. But he jerked away when he shot at you, and I got you two instead. So I tried again … only Lucky came in … and I got the two of them. I just switched them back."
They stared down at the large mixed-breed dog and the unconscious man. Clark jumped when he felt Lois's finger touch the bare skin of his side. Her mouth close to his ear, she murmured, "The bullet didn't miss."
He looked down and saw her finger poking through a hole in his T-shirt. Horrified, he met her gaze. "If Nick hadn't missed and switched us … "
She gave him a crooked smile and suggested, "Maybe we should get this gun-happy creep tied up before he wakes up."
Clark was securing the gunman's feet with duct tape when Alex and his large friend burst into the lab. "Nick!" Alex called. "What's the hold up?"
"This guy—" he pointed to the man Clark was tying up— "tried to steal my invention."
The burly blond pushed forward. "I toldja they were fakes," he said to Alex as he reached down and grabbed Clark's shoulder.
"No, no, not *him*," Nick said as Clark got to his feet, shrugging off the other man's hand. "The guy on the floor."
Alex stood back, trying to take in the situation. "So now there's three more people who know you didn't die in that car wreck." He swore. "You're never gonna get those killers off your trail if everyone knows you're still alive."
Lucky was beginning to stir, and Nick squatted down to rub his ears. "I think that's one of them," he said, nodding toward their attacker. "He said he saw me drive up to Chris's house."
Clark looked down at the gunman, then over at Nick. "You thought I was *this* little guy?"
Lois elbowed him. "Put him in a suit and glasses … at a distance … walking with someone who looks like me … it could happen." She bent down and started searching for the man's wallet.
Alex scooped up the gun that the man had dropped. "This is the guy that killed Chris?" He held the weapon in a hand that trembled, the muzzle wavering toward Lois and Nick as much as the gunman.
Clark stepped between Alex and the others. "Put the gun down, Trifyllis."
"He killed my brother," Alex choked out.
"Nick *thinks* he did," Clark said softly. "If he did, he'll pay for it. But are you gonna throw your life away on a guess?"
Alex hesitated. "Get outta the way."
"If you kill him," Clark continued, "you'll never be able to prove who sent him—and you'll be letting the person who ordered your brother's death go free. Is that what you want?"
Alex's face was tense and white, his eyes wide as he stared at the face of the man at his feet. "No," he said at last. His hand relaxed on the gun, and Clark grabbed it from him.
As calmly as if she hadn't had a gun pointed at her for the second time that evening, Lois held out a driver's license and an employee's ID card. "Enrico O'Reilly," she said. "He works for LexCorp."
"Do you think that was wise?" Lois asked. She and Clark were alone in the lab with O'Reilly tied at their feet while they waited for the police to arrive.
"To let 'em go so Nick can still pretend to be dead? I don't know." It was Clark's turn to use the laptop to work on their stories. They sat side-by-side on the examination table, their arms touching lightly, the underlying attraction between them sparking in the air like electricity. "But I know I couldn't promise that I—or even Superman—could keep him safe, so … " He pointed the toe of his basketball shoe at their prisoner. "I hope this guy is too busy defending himself against a murder charge to remember that Nick was here." He shrugged and pressed 'save' as he leaned over and nuzzled his wife's neck. "I'm just glad that we're back to normal."
"Mm-*mmm*, me, too," she sighed. "*And* that you got rid of that Zigfield rock-thing."
"The Zelig stone? Yeah." Nick had been reluctant to admit that something besides his invention had been responsible for the soul switching, but he finally gave in under the weight of Lois and Clark's questions. After a pointed reminder of what he had done to them, Nick had quickly given up the stone, and Clark had taken the first opportunity after the other men left to hurl the deadly thing into outer space. "It won't bother us any more."
"Good. I love you, Clark, but that doesn't mean I want to *be* you." She snuggled closer to him. "Speaking of being back in our own bodies … since Mother's set to watch Laura all night, how about we sneak off and play hooky after we file our stories?"
He grinned. "Go to that deserted island in the South Pacific?"
"Oooh, I have some fond memories of the palm tree on the beach," she whispered against his lips. "You leaned me up against it, and—"
His eager kiss cut off her words, and one of his hands slid into her hair, cupping the back of her head. "God, Lois," he murmured, breaking off the kiss and pressing his forehead to hers. "We're never gonna get this story finished at this rate."
"We can't have that," she replied, but her hands were sliding over his chest, teasing him.
On the floor, their prisoner began to squirm, drawing their attention. "I see he's decided to join the rest of the world," she continued.
Enrico's eyelids flew open. His gaze fastened on their faces, and his eyes widened in a look of horror then slammed shut, and he whimpered.
Clark raised his eyebrows and looked at Lois. "Maybe he *won't* remember Nick was here."
Beth parked down the street from the rooming house and, sliding a cassette tape into her pocket, locked her sporty little car. When she had seen that one of her bugs was picking up activity, she had bolted from the penthouse, risking a ticket as she sped across town to Nick Trifyllis's lab. Even so, she had arrived just in time to see the surviving Trifyllis brothers get into a van parked outside the lab complex. Before she could hail them, the van had roared into the street, leaving her no choice but to follow as best as she could.
She rubbed her damp palms against her slacks as she walked down the street. After Owen Preece's refusal, she couldn't afford to fail again. Once people knew that she was recruiting a team to work against Lex, *he* would know it, too.
The desk clerk just stared at her when she asked about her three "friends," so she used her snooping device to listen at each door until she heard someone say, "Nick" and "Alex." She slipped her tiny cassette tape into the personal recorder, thumbed up the volume, and rang the doorbell. Inside the room, she could hear a low-voiced, "Get outta sight," and a confused scrambling sound.
After a moment, a big, blond man who looked like a construction worker opened the door. "Yeah?"
"I'm Beth Luthor, and I have a proposition for your friends. I want their help to get the man who had their brother killed." She flicked the "play" button and Enrico O'Reilly's voice rang into the empty-appearing room: "One curious computer geek out of the way."
Nick and Alex Trifyllis emerged from an alcove, and she stopped the recording. "Interested?" she asked.
"I just missed Preece at work, Mr. Luthor, but he hasn't come home yet either," Lindy Barrows said into her cell phone.
"Hold a moment," Lex told her, muting the line as he switched to the incoming call.
"Mr. Luthor?" The president of the Lexor Industrial Bank didn't have to identify himself.
"Michael, what can I do for you?" Lex said, leaning back in his chair and drawing on his cigar.
"Mr. Luthor, we've had some kind of computer glitch … and $300,000 was mistakenly transferred from the LexCorp account to … Well, we're not exactly certain *where*."
Lex sat up. "A third of a million dollars vanishes, and you don't know *where*?"
"Not exactly. However, Owen Preece came in today and withdrew exactly $300,000 in cash from his personal account."
The bank president continued speaking, but Lex had quit listening. If anyone could arrange such a glitch, it was Preece: he had the access codes and the knowledge, and if he was using cash, he would be nearly impossible to trace. "I'll call you back," he said and switched back to Lindy Barrows. "Our bird has flown," he said. "Start looking for how he got out of the city."
Another incoming call flashed, and Lex switched to that line. "Yes?" he snapped.
By the time he hung up, his fury had been replaced by a satisfied smirk. His dream of taking over Clark Kent's body and powers may have burned up in a ravine in upstate New York, but the new weapon was functional, and there was a certain seductive appeal to killing that super thorn-in-his-side instead.
Blissfully content, Lois snuggled into her husband's arms, rubbing her cheek against the solid curve of his chest and looking up at the dusting of stars in the southern sky. A dozen yards away, the waves whispered onto the beach. "This is so much better," she sighed.
"Sand and all?" he asked, amusement in his voice. His hand strayed down her bare back to her waist, and he brushed a kiss across the top of her head.
"Yes—anything. It doesn't matter. I'm just glad we're back to normal. You handling the flight plans … "
"*You* giving Laura the house special *and* dealing with your mother when we stopped by … " he put in.
Lois grinned at Clark's teasing reference to breastfeeding, but she rolled her eyes at the mention of her mother. Dealing with Ellen Lane was one of those tasks she would as soon let Clark keep. "Perry sure was happy when we dropped by the Planet to file our stories, wasn't he?"
Laughter rumbled in his chest under her ear. "He was muttering something about radio ads and fireworks, I think."
"I heard 'Kerth' come up a few times while he was reading the plane sabotage story." Her smile faded, and she lifted her head to look at her husband's face. "But, Clark, what was he doing at the Planet that late at night? I thought he was going to cut back so he and Alice could spend more time together."
He shook his head. "He was. He did. But something must've come up. Maybe Alice went to visit the boys, and he's at loose ends without her. Or maybe he fell back into his old habits after that terrorist-hostage situation at the Lexor last month when he was sleeping at the Planet during the crisis, and he just hasn't stopped to realize what he's doing again."
She laid her head back on his chest. "I used to think that all people had to do was see what they *should* do and decide to do it and that was it. Never have to deal with that problem again. But the older I get, the more I realize that we just fight the same battles over and over."
His arms tightened around her. "That's because the battlefield keeps changing. You win the fight in one area, and then things change, and you gotta figure out how to make it work in different circumstances."
Lois was silent for a long moment, listening to the surge of the waves and to the steady thump of her husband's heart. "That's how it was with me being jealous of Superman," she said at last.
"What? How could you be—?" He stopped, biting back his question, then rephrased it. "What were you jealous of?"
"At first?" He nodded, and she continued, "Being left behind. Missing out on the action." She rolled on top of his warm, solid body and crossed her arms on his chest, resting her chin on the back of her hands so she could see his face. "I killed that dragon a long time ago … I thought. Until the last few weeks."
"When Superman's been so busy," he said softly.
"Yeah. It seemed like you were always taking off to do something brave or important and I was stuck at home washing spit-up rags or wiping baby food off the high chair or changing diapers. I thought … you were escaping from the ordinary, boring routine, and I was jealous."
"Honey—" he began, but she put a finger on his lips to shush him.
"Let me finish," she said. "Except … these past few days I realized *again*—" she half-smiled— "that being Superman also tears you away from things you want to do. Being with Laura and me. Doing the ordinary things that—that connect you to everyone else on this planet. All those things you wanted when you created Superman. And besides," she added in a low voice, "you don't feel very brave or heroic when you carry a dead baby out to its parents."
"Sweetheart," Clark whispered and gathered her close in his arms. "I wish you didn't have to go through that. You didn't even get to talk to me about it afterwards."
"No." She sniffled and shook her head. "I started to—and then someone called for Superman, and I had to go—like you've had to do a thousand times. I know it doesn't change anything, Clark. We'll be in the middle of an important conversation or fixing dinner together, and you'll still have to go. But I can't imagine being jealous of it any more." She managed a watery laugh. "Besides, I *hated* always having to play catch up at the Planet."
He lifted her up to kiss her, offering love and acceptance and comfort in his touch. "I learned a few things, too," he said, "about making you raise Laura alone when I'm gone so much as Superman."
"Oh, Clark, I'm sorry," Lois said, shame-faced. "I shouldn't have said that."
"No, honey, I'm glad you did. I needed to hear it—even if I did end up getting a first-hand look at what you were talking about."
He was silent for a moment, his warm brown eyes searching her face. "When I take care of Laura by myself, I use super speed to do a lot of chores or heat vision to warm her bottle—" At her expression, he broke off what he was saying, and a faint smile pulled at one corner of his mouth. "I know. No more folding laundry or putting groceries away at super speed in front of her." He sighed and then resumed what he had been saying. "Anyway … I hardly ever get tired, either, so I didn't realize how hard it is for you to juggle so many things when I'm off being Superman … or how tiring it is."
She smiled. "I've gotten pretty good at it, but it's nice having you recognize the effort."
"Yeah, but I think I can do more than just acknowledge it."
Lois lifted her eyebrows, waiting, and Clark continued, "I'm gonna start fixing extra meals on my days off. Stuff that can be stuck in the freezer, so all you have to do is pop it in the microwave and heat it up. And if Laura and I do the grocery shopping on the day I watch her each week, you won't have to run to the store after work as much."
She looked at him in surprise. "You've really been thinking about this."
He nodded and brushed a strand of hair away from her cheek. "And it's ridiculous for you to get stuck cleaning house if some emergency calls me away. Even with the townhouse and a nine-month-old in daycare, we make enough money to afford to have someone come in once a week to clean the downstairs and the bathrooms."
She was already shaking her head. "We can't do that, Clark. We can't risk having a stranger coming into our house. What if she saw something? What if she found the secret closet with your spare suits?"
"I can lock the secret closet. That's not a problem. And if the house cleaners come by when Laura and I go to the store, what're they gonna see?"
"I don't know." He seemed to have thought it through, but the whole idea still seemed too risky. "Let me think about that one, okay?"
"Okay." He cupped her jaw with one large hand, his thumb caressing her cheek, his eyes dark and serious. "Honey, I love you. I don't ever want you to feel like you're getting 'stuck' with something in our marriage."
Lois smiled and stroked the dark hair away from his forehead. "I love you, Clark Kent." She kissed him, slow and sweet, but when she lifted her head, her grin was impish. "But I hope you aren't too literal about my *not* getting stuck with things."
"Why's that?" he asked.
"Because I've gotten used to being stuck with you."
Clark laughed against her mouth and rolled them over so she sprawled on the sand under him. "Well … that's okay."
"Good. So let's take advantage of my mother being stuck babysitting." She pressed her hips against his, and he sighed with pleasure.
"Maybe we should let someone know we're gonna be late for work." His last word trailed off as Lois traced the edge of his ear with her tongue.
She laughed softly. "What d'you think I was doing at my computer while you were filing our stories?"
Under the graphic of a door knob with a "do-not-disturb" sign hanging from it was a short message: "All work and no play makes Lois and Clark a very dull couple. It doesn't do much for a marriage, either. So we're playing hooky this morning. See you after one."
Perry White read the message on his computer screen and started to laugh, but something stopped him. He stared at the words thoughtfully, then reached for the phone. "Hi, Alice. I'm takin' off early this afternoon … Yeah, about five … Wear somethin'—sexy … "
FADE TO BLACK
Characters in these episodes are copyrighted by DC Comics, December 3rd Production and Warner Brothers. No infringement is intended in any part by the Season 6 group, however, the ideas expressed in each episode are copyrighted (c) 1999 to the respective authors.