The Darkest Hour (Before the Dawn)

By Erin Klingler <>

Rated PG-13

Submitted October 2000

Summary: In this thrilling and enthralling story, Lois and Clark discover that finding some quality time together isn't as easy as it might seem when old enemies resurface to turn their idyllic weekend away into the vacation from hell. Can Clark save Lois and himself from the hands of a madman?

I've taken some liberty with the show's chronological timeline, setting this story toward the end of the second season after Lois & Clark have started dating, most likely somewhere between 'Whine Whine Whine' and 'And the Answer Is.' So please bear with me if this story, its character appearances—Dr. Klein in particular <g>—and the holiday season and year (1999) don't quite fall into step with the chronological time-line of the episodes. :)

Many, many thanks go out to my brilliant A-plot helper, Carol Malo, who got me started on this story and gave me the confidence to tackle something this involved, and to my Tuesday IRC buddies (/me waves <g>), who encouraged me to finish this, as well as helped me out with all sorts of plot points. Also, thanks so much to all the members of the fanfic list, for without their words of encouragement and merciless nagging for the next installments of this story <g>, I'd have given up on this monstrosity long ago. And last, but certainly not least, a *huge* thank you goes out to Wendy Richards, who unselfishly took time out of her busy schedule to read each and every installment of this story as I went, and pointed out plot holes, suggested ways to tighten things up, and offered brilliant suggestions along the way. Wendy, there's no way I could've done this without you. You're the best. ;)

As always, comments and suggestions—good or bad, public or private—are welcome.


"Well, if that's how you feel about it, maybe I should just quit!" Lois yelled at Perry, eliciting a surprised look from him as well as causing more than a few heads in the newsroom to turn their direction.

Lois' eyes filled with tears of frustration. But before the tears could fall, she turned and yanked her overcoat from the back of her chair, nearly causing it to topple from the force, and stormed to the elevator, causing a shocked newsroom staff to part like the Red Sea before her.

They were used to seeing Lois' famous tantrums, but hearing her threaten to quit was something they hadn't heard before. A sea of stunned faces turned to watch her dramatic exit, but no one was more shocked than the dark-haired young man who stood stock-still beside her desk, too stunned to move.

When the elevator doors closed behind her, the newsroom slowly returned to its normal hustle and bustle, but Clark remained still. Lois quit? That was a new one. He turned shocked eyes to his Editor in Chief, who was standing beside him, looking just as shell-shocked.

Perry was the first to speak. "I sincerely hope she didn't mean that."

Clark jarred himself out of his reverie and shook his head. "No, I'm sure she didn't. I think she just needs to blow off some steam."

"I hope you're right," Perry answered, though he didn't sound entirely convinced.

Clark shifted his feet anxiously and gestured to the elevator. "Is it okay if…?"

Perry nodded before Clark even finished. "Yeah, go catch up with her. Maybe you can talk some sense into her. Heaven knows I've never been able to." With a resigned sigh and a slight shake of his head, he turned and headed for his office.

Clark hurried into the elevator and quickly hit the lobby button, but it seemed to take forever to reach the lobby. *The stairs would've been faster,* he thought. *I could've used some super-speed. At this rate, I'll never catch up to her.*

He silently willed the elevator to hurry and, after what seemed like an eternity, the doors finally opened and he rushed out into the lobby and pushed through the revolving doors. When he reached the snowy sidewalk, he stopped and tried to see which direction Lois had gone. The sidewalks were crowded, but he finally spotted Lois halfway down the block. He could tell from her gait that she was still angry.

Setting his mouth in a firm line, he started to jog after her, doing his best to maneuver through the pre-Christmas crowds. When he was within a few feet of her, he called out, "Lois, wait up!"

She heard him and rolled her eyes, not bothering to slow her stride. *Great. Just what I need. The ever-present Boy Scout coming to pry for information. Well, I'm not going to give it to him.*

When Clark fell into step with her, she muttered tonelessly, "Clark, leave me alone. I just want to be by myself right now."

"Uh-uh." Clark put a hand on her shoulder, causing her to stop and turn toward him. "You just threatened to quit up there. I'm not going to leave you alone until you tell me why."

Lois crossed her arms defiantly and glared at him, her breath forming little clouds in the cold air before her as she tried to catch her breath. "What do you mean, 'tell you why'?" she asked. "You were there! You heard what Perry said!"

"Yes, Perry killed our story," Clark answered. "What's the big deal? It's not like he's never done it before."

"How can you pretend that it's no big deal?" Lois demanded, looking at him as if he were a traitor to the cause. "You've been working just as hard on this story as I have! Corrupt, government-funded vigilante groups and secret agencies are possibly the biggest thing we've ever had fall into our laps! With those tips we've gotten recently, we could follow through with all this and blow the veil of secrecy right off these guys! This isn't just news, this is huge. Pulitzer Prize material, even!"

Clark let out his breath and looked toward the heavens for strength. When he looked back at her, his calm, determined eyes met her angry, betrayed ones. "Lois, you're right that I've worked just as hard on this story as you have. So that should give me the right to tell you that I think Perry's right. The well has run dry. Yeah, there's a big story there, but face it, we're at a dead end. None of those tips have gotten us very far, and Perry has other stories for us to work on."

"But isn't it our job to expose these corrupted groups?" Lois continued, not about to give up. "What about Superman? Remember Bureau 39? Jason Trask was all bent on killing Superman with Kryptonite! As Superman's friends, isn't it our job to help him by exposing these people?"

Clark looked at her strangely. "Is this what this is all about? Saving Superman?"

"No! No, this isn't just about Superman!" Lois said, throwing her gloved hands up in the air in exasperation. "Can't you see the big picture? Anyone can fall victim to these kinds of groups, and that's what makes them so dangerous! All their ridiculous agendas and paranoid delusions…they need to be stopped. And that's where we come in! Or came in…" Her voice trailed off, and she blinked back the tears that once again threatened to fall.

Clark let out a deep breath and silently scolded himself for pushing her to an even more emotional state. "Come on, Lois," he said, slipping a sympathetic arm around her shoulders. "I think we need to talk."

He led the way through the crowds to Margene's, the quaint little café down the street where they'd spent many lunch hours as of late. When they reached the building, Clark held the wreath-adorned front door of the café open for Lois as she went inside and headed for a quiet booth in the back corner. As soon as they sat down, a waitress appeared at their table, and Clark quickly ordered them hot chocolate and pastries.

When the waitress left to fill their order, Clark turned his attention to Lois. He reached across the small table and took her hand. "Lois," he began, his voice quiet and reasoning. "I understand where you're coming from. Really, I do. The great thing about being a journalist is that we can make the world a better place by exposing the injustices in it. But we can't change everything. Some things are just out of our reach, and Perry sees that with this story. So, my question is this. Is this story really worth risking your career over? Would you really quit your job at the Planet over a difference of opinion with Perry?"

As Lois listened to Clark's reasoning, she realized he was right. She'd acted stubbornly and impulsively. Again. Finally, she shook her head. "No, I guess I wouldn't," she said quietly. A tear escaped, and she reached up to quickly wipe it away, embarrassed to let Clark see her cry.

Clark's heart went out to her. Nothing tore him up as much as Lois crying. "Come on, Lois," he prompted. "Tell me what's really bothering you. There's got to be more to this than just having your story killed."

Lois laughed a little through her tears. "How do you do it, Clark?" she asked, eliciting a confused look from Clark. "You always seem to understand my moods better than anybody ever has. Sometimes I think you know me better than I even know myself."

Clark laughed with her, but didn't say anything as he waited for her to continue. Finally, she did. "You're right, Clark. There *is* more to this, and I feel bad about taking things out on Perry. He didn't deserve to be yelled at like that. He was just doing his job, deciding which stories were best for us to pursue. It's just that his killing our story just happened to be the thing that set me off. Not that I don't feel strongly about this story, because I do," she continued rambling as Clark patiently waited for her to get to the point. "But with everything going on, it's all just getting to be too much for me."

"What is, Lois?"

Lois' eyes widened. "You're kidding, right? You mean to tell me none of this has affected you? Not in the least?"

Clark chuckled. "I'm afraid you've lost me, Lois. What are you talking about?"

"Work!" she exclaimed emphatically, tossing her hands up in the air. "The never-ending pressure! We've been going non-stop for weeks, working twelve-hour days with no end in sight. Crime is picking up around the city like it always does around the holidays, which means Superman is busier, which makes *us* busier since Perry wants us to cover those stories."

"But Lois, this is *you*!" Clark exclaimed, surprised at her explanation. "'Mad Dog Lane,' never let anybody beat you to a story. You *thrive* on pressure!"

Lois nodded vigorously. "That's exactly it, Clark! Everyone expects me to be some kind of non-feeling, super-human, machine of a reporter who never gets tired or burned out. But do you know what? I do! I try my best not to let it show, but sometimes it all gets too much for me and I snap."

She paused as their waitress arrived and set their steaming mugs of hot chocolate and warmed apple-turnovers before them, then left them alone. Lois picked up her spoon and stirred her steaming drink as she continued.

"And if our work load wasn't enough to make me crazy, my parents are pushing for this big family get-together on Christmas Day," she explained. "Lucy was supposed to be coming, but now she might not be able to, and mom and dad have been at each other's throats for weeks since they started planning this holiday thing. Then to top it all off, I haven't had a good night's sleep in *forever*, and it's been even longer than that since we've been able to spend time together. You know…as a couple." She looked up from her hot chocolate and smiled shyly at Clark. "I mean, how good can all that be on the beginnings of a relationship?"

Clark smiled understandingly and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "I know. You have no idea how many times I've wished we could just slip away and go someplace where we could have some time to ourselves," he replied truthfully, though he did feel a slight twinge of guilt about evading her earlier question about the long hours. Of course they hadn't affected him. But how could he tell *her* that? It was just another of the increasingly frustrating things about keeping his other identity a secret from her.

Lois lifted her mug to her lips and took a cautious sip, then sat back wearily in her seat. "I guess the bottom line is…I'm tired, Clark. I'm just tired."

"So take a vacation," Clark suggested matter-of-factly as he took a bite of his pastry.

"I already arranged to have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off."

Clark laughed. "Lois, like you just said, that's not a vacation. You need to take a *real* vacation. Go someplace where nobody knows where you are. You could sleep in until noon, do things at your own pace…stuff like that."

Lois grinned. "I have to admit, that does sound nice."

"So why don't you?"

"Clark, it's not that easy."

"It *is* that easy!" Clark insisted. "You just walk into Perry's office and say, 'Perry, I'm using some vacation days. I'll see you in a week.'"

Lois burst out laughing. "Yeah, just before I hear Perry bellow a big fat 'No!'" She shook her head. "It's not going to happen, Clark. Perry has us booked up until this time next year."

Clark took her hand once again and caught her eye. His voice was gentler when he spoke. "Lois, you just threatened to quit. I think Perry would rather give you some days off than lose you altogether."

Lois looked back into Clark's intent gaze for a long moment, then she smiled wryly. "You're right. Maybe some good will come from that outburst yet."

Clark squeezed her hand and laughed. "See? Now you're thinking."

Lois laughed a little, too. Then she glanced at her watch and was surprised to see how long they'd been gone. "I guess we'd better get back."

After they finished their hot chocolate and pastries, Clark pulled a few dollars out of his wallet, set them on the table, then headed out with Lois.

As they walked slowly back to the Planet, Lois gave a heavy sigh. "You know, Clark, sometimes I wonder why I do this," she confided. "The long hours, getting hung up on when trying to get a quote, the deadlines… It all seems pretty thankless at times."

Clark laughed and slipped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close as they walked. "Well, for starters, *we* do this because we like the challenge of digging in and discovering the truth. And then there's the feeling we get every time we nail a big story or send some criminal to jail. That makes it all worth it, doesn't it?"

Lois smiled in spite of herself and slid her arm around his waist. "Yeah, I guess you're right. It does make up for the rest."

They walked together in silence for a short distance, then Lois looked up at him and gave him a little nudge with her elbow. "Thanks, Clark."

Clark turned to her in surprise. "For what?"

"For cheering me up. And for caring enough to come after me when I stormed out of the newsroom."

"Anytime," Clark smiled warmly. Then he laughed. "I have to say, though, you really shocked everybody when you threatened to quit and then stormed out. I don't think I've ever heard that place go so quiet!"

They laughed together as they went through the revolving doors of the Planet, unaware of the pair of eyes focused on their every move from a building's windows high above the street.

"They just went into the building, sir," the burly, dark-haired man reported, speaking slowly and clearly into his headset as he took the binoculars away from his eyes. "What do you want me to do?"

His boss' hoarse voice drifted through his earpiece. "Stay there. Our eyes inside can take over. But every time they leave the building, I want a full report of where they go and what they do. Every single move. Understood?"

The burly man nodded, even though his boss couldn't see him. "Understood."


The newsroom was even more chaotic than usual when Lois and Clark stepped off the elevator a few minutes later. Lois looked around at the people hurrying past, their voices raised to a frenzied level as they rushed into the elevators or answered the insistently ringing phones.

"What's going on?" Lois asked as she watched everyone scurrying around. "Did we miss something?"

As if in answer to her question, Perry thundered out of his office as soon as hespotted them. "Lois, Clark! There's a hostage situation at the bank on 5th and Fairview. I want you two down there, pronto!"

Clark was immediately on alert. "What? When did this happen?" he shouted back at Perry above the din of the bustling newsroom.

"Just a few minutes ago!" Perry called. "Simmons picked it up on the police scanner." Perry started to turn around to head back into his office, but suddenly he paused and glanced pointedly at Lois. "Or should I be sending somebody else?"

Lois caught his meaning and shook her head. "No, that's okay. We're on it, Chief."

Perry's answering smile made it clear that he was glad Lois was still part of the team. "Great! But I want you in my office when you get back, understand? Now get!"

"We're already gone," Lois answered, then whirled around to face Clark. "Come on, Clark, let's grab a cab."

But when Lois reached for his arm, Clark balked. "Um, Lois, why don't you go on without me and I'll catch up with you in a minute?" he suggested as he shifted his feet anxiously and reached for the knot of his tie. "I just remembered that I left something at the café."

Lois looked at him strangely. "Left something at the café? Clark, what are you talking about? You didn't leave anything, I'm sure of it."

But Clark continued to fidget as he backed quickly toward the Planet's back stairwell. "Don't worry, Lois, I'll just be a minute behind you."

"But, Clark!" she exclaimed, a hand on her hip and an indignant, confused expression on her face. But Clark ignored her as he spun around and rushed for the stairs.

As she watched the stairwell door close behind her partner, Lois rolled her eyes and turned to the elevator. *What was that all about?* she grumbled to herself. His disappearing acts never ceased to irritate her, especially since they always seemed to come at the most inopportune times. Like hostage situations. And natural disasters. Even times when she wanted to open up and talk.

As the elevator doors opened, she stepped inside and punched the lobby button. *What's more important?* she muttered to herself. *A hostage situation with lives being threatened, or the package of Dentyne that fell out of his coat pocket at the café?*

When the elevator doors opened onto the bustling lobby, she hurried out to the street and hailed a cab. As they drove, she continued to fume as she thought about Clark running out on her. She hated it when he did that! It would be one thing if he had somewhere important to go, like to see a relative who had just taken ill, or to his apartment if he'd found out it was on fire. But having a sudden craving for yogurt? Or suddenly remembering to return a video? Those were all important enough reasons to ditch her?

But even as she rode silently in the cab, she knew her anger would soon fade and she'd forgive him, just as she always did. All it would take would be a flash of that heart-stopping smile, or a soul-searching kiss when they had a moment alone, or how he'd take her in his arms, making her feel both safe and loved at the same time. At times like these, she knew there wasn't anything she wouldn't forgive him for.

The cab suddenly pulled to a stop, and Lois realized with a start that they'd arrived. Tossing some money at the driver, Lois grabbed her attaché and hurried out of the cab to the chaotic crowd that was gathered behind the police barriers. Quickly, she forced Clark out of her mind. After all, she did have a job to do.


As soon as Clark threw open the back door of the Planet's stairwell and rushed out into the deserted alley, he spun into the suit and rocketed into the air. He shook his head angrily as he flew in the direction of the hostage crisis.

*What in the world is the matter with you?* he scolded himself. *You should've picked up on this situation long before Perry had to tell you about it! What were you thinking?!*

But even as he asked himself, he already knew the answer. He'd been so intent on listening to Lois and enjoying being with her that he hadn't even heard about the hostage situation. And that was inexcusable.

Not that Lois wasn't worth listening to, because she was. She meant more to him than she might ever know. She was what he'd always known in his heart that he'd wanted. And now that he finally was on his way to fulfilling his lifelong dream of having someone to love, he couldn't be happier. But he still knew that if anything happened to those people in the bank because of his sloppiness he'd never forgive himself.

That was the downside to having the powers he possessed. Rarely was he able to focus exclusively on one thing at a time. When he was Clark, his superhearing was always subconsciously tuned into any potential cries for help, and when he was Superman, he was often wondering about the people or situation he'd just had to flee from to answer the calls for help. Juggling the two was fulfilling at times, but other times it was just downright frustrating, to say the least.

And it was only getting more complicated now that he had a budding romance thrown into the mix. It was getting harder to pretend that he didn't have the feelings for Lois that he did whenever he saw her as Superman.

As he neared the corner of 5th and Fairview, he forced himself to push his thoughts of Lois out of his mind and concentrate on the task at hand instead. He was going to have to be ready for anything if he was going to help those people.

Luckily, the situation wasn't as difficult as it could have been. It was only a matter of minutes before he was escorting the flustered bank robber out of the building by the scruff of his jacket, and, instantly, a roar of approval went up from the waiting crowd of reporters and on-lookers as the police took the man into custody. The sound of clicking camera shutters and news cameramen calling out, "Superman! Over here!" suddenly filled the air, and Clark couldn't help feeling overwhelmed by the attention.

He quickly held up a hand to quiet the crowd. "I can answer your questions in a few minutes, but first we have some hostages to attend to." Then, without waiting for a response, he joined the officers who were going into the bank to see if everyone was okay.

As he did, he suddenly caught sight of a familiar brown-haired reporter pressing through the crowd to the front of the barricade with her hand raised. A moment later, he could see Lois' smiling face.

"Superman!" she cried out through the shouts of the other reporters.

Anxiously, Clark stiffened further into his traditional Superman pose and gave her a slight, awkward wave. "Hi, Lois," he replied before hurrying into the building. Once safely inside, he closed his eyes momentarily.

Great. As if the situation weren't tough enough as it was, Lois was out there waiting to interview him. How was he supposed to handle that? Surely any interview more than a few minutes would reveal more about him than he was willing to reveal. How could he pretend to be somebody else under the scrutiny of those deep, soulful brown eyes? Surely she'd see right through him. Ever since they'd officially started dating a few weeks ago, he'd made sure to make himself scarce whenever he was around her as Superman. It was just too hard to hide his feelings for her now that they were officially a couple. Was he just supposed to pretend he didn't love her? That they hadn't spent an intense evening kissing or making out the night before? How was he supposed to hide that? He was afraid that it was only a matter of time before his emotions betrayed him…to her or to somebody else. The whole situation was just too dangerous, and should be avoided at all costs.

But the answer was, he couldn't.

So instead, he avoided her as best he could whenever he was in the Superman suit. It was just too difficult to deal with.

Hoping that Lois would be gone by the time he came out, Clark took his time inside with the police as they made sure the people that had been held hostage were okay, and that the police were able to get thorough statements from everyone.

But when he exited the building half an hour later, he saw that, much to his disappointment, Lois was still there waiting for him. She was talking to one of the officers, but he could tell from her stance and her nearly motionless pen that she wasn't paying very close attention. Suddenly, she looked up and caught his eye.

Knowing he couldn't avoid her any longer, he sighed and went over to her. Responding to her friendly smile with a tight-lipped one of his own, he crossed his arms across his chest and answered her questions as quickly as he could, doing his best to remain aloof yet professional.

In response to her question about the condition of the hostages, he glanced back at the building where the police were getting the hostages on their way. When he turned back to her, he noticed that Lois was looking at him strangely, her pen poised motionlessly above her note pad.

"Superman, are you okay?" she asked in concern.

Clark froze. With his heart hammering so loudly that he was sure she could hear it, he heard himself stammer in a very un-Superman-like fashion, "Y-yeah, I'm fine. Why?"

She studied him for a long moment, her eyebrows knitting together. "You seem, I don't know, distracted or something. Is everything okay?"

He nodded, though more nervously than he'd intended. "Yes, Lois, I'm fine. But you're right. I do have something I need to do. If you don't have any more questions for me…?" he finished pointedly.

Lois' face fell, and immediately Clark felt horrible. He hadn't meant to sound so rude. After all, she and Superman were supposed to be friends. But he also knew that if he didn't get out of there now, things could quickly go sour.

"I'm sorry, Lois, but I really do have to go." Then, without so much as a 'goodbye,' he turned and rocketed into the sky.

"Great," Lois grumbled, rolling her eyes and shoving her notepad angrily into her attaché. "And the day goes from bad to worse." Turning on her heels, she stalked away from the cordoned-off area and hailed a cab to take her back to the Planet.

When one pulled up next to her, she opened the door and climbed in, completely unaware of the black Lexus parked across the street, with its darkly-tinted windows shielding onlookers' views from the spying eyes inside.

"Do we follow her?" the burly, blond-haired driver asked, glancing over his shoulder at the dark-haired man in the back seat.

The man deliberated for a moment, then nodded. "Those are the boss's orders." Then, under his breath he muttered, "Though I have no idea what this is supposed to accomplish. I swear, whoever stole that man's body from the coroner's office and paid to have him brought back to life must've been as psychotic as *he* is. If we both didn't want to have Superman eliminated, I'd be out of here in a heartbeat. I have my own agenda to deal with."

The driver turned and looked at him in surprise. "Sir?"

Garrison waved his hand at the younger man, dismissing his last words. "Forget it. Let's just go. But be sure she doesn't spot us."

"Yes sir."

With an air of caution, the black Lexus pulled inconspicuously out into the street.


As Clark walked up the front steps of Lois' apartment building later that night, he couldn't help feeling horrible for the way he'd treated Lois when he was dressed as Superman earlier that day. But he didn't know what else he could've done. If he'd hung around and talked to her, he doubted that he could have kept her from picking up on his mannerisms and the way he felt about her.

With a sigh, he realized he couldn't keep his other identity a secret for much longer, nor did he want to. He knew he could trust her with his secret, and he was sure it would only succeed in strengthening their relationship. But if he was going to tell her, it was going to have to be soon, or she'd end up figuring it out for herself. And he definitely didn't like that idea. He knew she'd most likely get emotional either way, but at least if he told her on his own terms, she couldn't accuse him of not coming clean. His taking the initiative would have to mean something. But if she were to find out on her own…well, he didn't like to think about the consequences.

Walking up the last few stairs and turning down the hallway toward Lois' apartment, Clark wondered what kind of a mood Lois was going to be in tonight. He hadn't seen much of her that afternoon, since she'd been busy interviewing various people from the bank scene and gathering information, but it hadn't taken a psychic to see that she wasn't in the best of moods. Unlike that morning, however, she'd done a good job of keeping her cool and not blowing up at anybody.

Not that that was necessarily a good thing, Clark realized. An afternoon's worth of Lois' pent-up anger was sure to surface sooner or later, and Clark suspected he might be in for an evening of trying to calm her bouts of emotional release. He didn't mind; after all, that's what being in a loving relationship was all about—being there for the other person, through good times and bad. But he knew he'd have to be careful not to say the wrong thing and make it worse. Dealing with an angry Lois Lane was a lot like trying to deactivate a time bomb. It took skill, nerves of steel, and a steady hand.

Stopping in front of Lois' door, he knocked three times and waited. Almost immediately, he heard the sound of loud footsteps, then the apartment door was yanked open by an obviously angry Lois Lane. One look at her flushed cheeks and flashing eyes, and he knew he was in for an interesting evening.

"Come in only if you have a death wish," she said angrily before turning from the open door and heading into the kitchen where she had tea brewing.

Clark sighed. Yep. Interesting evening.

Stepping in, he closed the door and cautiously followed her into the kitchen. He watched her slam some items around for a few moments before asking carefully, "Can I help?"

"Only if you can convince Perry to stop treating me like a five-year-old," she snapped as she jerked open the cupboard and pulled out a ceramic mug.

Clark leaned up against the counter and slid his hands into his pants pockets. "So what happened? Or should I ask?"

His question was all it took to send Lois into a full-scale, trademark, Lois Lane tantrum. "Oh, you can ask," she stormed, turning to him briefly before whirling back around to the whistling tea kettle, her dark hair tossing about wildly. "Anyone in the newsroom could've told you how Perry was treating me. He spent all afternoon walking on eggshells around me, and then as soon as I sent him that article we finished up, he assigned me some story about a charity event at the Lexor hotel. A charity event! Can you believe that?! Isn't that an article for the society columnist? I'm an investigative reporter, not some gossip columnist! It felt like an insult, coming from Perry. It was like he was afraid to push any of my buttons or something."

"Well, you did threaten to quit, Lois," Clark pointed out diplomatically. "Maybe he realizes he's been pushing you too hard and wanted to give you something easier to work on."

"Easier? If he wanted to make my job easier, he'd lighten our load, or tell me to cut out early for a change. Not assign me some fluff piece that would only undermine my credibility." Lois grabbed a soapy sponge from the sink and scrubbed at a dirty spot on the mug furiously. "And, as if I didn't have a bad enough day as it was, I tried to interview Superman after that hostage situation today, and he actually gave me the cold shoulder! Can you believe that? So much for us being friends!" No longer interested in the tea, Lois slammed the coffee mug down onto the counter with a crash.

Clark cringed. The fact that Lois was angry enough to start breaking things was *not* a good sign. And it didn't make him feel any better knowing that his actions as Superman were partly to blame for her bad day. He knew he had to smooth things over.

Taking her by the shoulders, he forced her to meet his steady gaze. "Lois, I think the first thing you need to do is calm down," he insisted. Then he gave her a quick smile. "Besides, you're too dangerous when you're angry."

Her angry frown slowly melted into a slight grin. Seeing he'd gotten through to her, Clark let his hands slide down her shoulders and he grasped one of her hands in his. "Come on. Let's go sit on the couch."

Leading her into the front room, he sat down on the couch and pulled her down next to him. "Now turn and put your feet up," he directed, sounding very much like a parent talking to a young child. When she did so reluctantly, he smiled and reached for one of the throw pillows, laying it on his lap. "Now lie back."

She did as she was told, but she rolled her eyes at him just the same. "Clark, this is stupid," she protested. "Just lying down on the couch isn't going to make me relax."

He smiled gently. "Just trust me on this one, Lois. Now close your eyes."

Lois let out a rebellious sigh, but did as she was told. A few moments later, she peered up at Clark through one partially opened lid. "And now I'm supposed to feel better?"

Clark laughed. "See, Lois? That's your problem. You've never learned to relax! You're always on the go, rushing around from one thing to the next. It's going to be the death of you! So I'm going to do my good deed and teach you how to just kick back and relax, even if I have to hold you down myself."

"Mmmm, is that a promise?" Lois asked flirtatiously.

Clark laughed again. "See what I mean?" he scolded through his laughter. "You can't relax, sit still, or stop talking for even ten seconds!"

"Okay, okay," Lois grumbled good-naturedly, closing her eyes again. She lay still for a long minute, trying to relax like Clark wanted her to. But she felt funny just lying there doing nothing. She was just about to sit up and quit trying when Clark put his hand on her head, making her jump.

Clark chuckled softly as he started to run his fingers through her silky dark hair. "Relax, Lois. You're all wound up. Just lie back for a few minutes."

Lois sighed dreamily. "Mmmm, I love that," she murmured as he continued to run his fingers through her hair.

She could hear Clark smile as he responded. "I know."

As Clark continued to stroke her hair, Lois couldn't help falling into a relaxed, blissful state. She was able to forget Perry, Superman's rude behavior, even about her joke of an assignment. In fact, she was very nearly asleep when Clark removed his hand from her hair, and his voice drifted through her sleepy haze.

"What?" she murmured sleepily.

"I was just asking if you were still awake. I guess that answers my question."

Lois smiled softly. "You're the one who insisted I relax. Now you're giving me a hard time because I am?"

"Not at all," Clark told her with a smile. "I'm just glad to see that you can relax after all. How do you feel?"

"Better." She opened her eyes and looked gratefully up into Clark's face. "You always know just what I need."

Clark lifted his hand to trace a finger across her cheek and then tuck a strand of hair tenderly behind her ear. "Not always," he admitted. "But this time it was obvious." They were both quiet for a minute as Clark continued to stroke her face lightly.

"You know, Lois," Clark said softly a minute later, "times like these make me realize just how few and far between our time alone together has been."

Lois sighed deeply. "I know," she replied, tipping her head back so she could stare up into his beautiful brown eyes. Feeling closer to him than she had in days, she reached up to finger his shirt lightly. "Like I said this morning, it's hard to start off a relationship with so little free time."

"Maybe we should just make a conscious effort to *make* time," Clark suggested.

Lois smiled dreamily. "I'd love to. In fact, Perry offered to give me some time off, just like you said."

Clark clapped her gently on the shoulder. "See? I told you he would! He'd rather give you a few days off than lose you entirely. So what did he say?"

"Well, he corralled me into his office this afternoon when I got back from that hostage situation, and practically *demanded* that we have a little talk." Lois looked up at Clark and grinned. "We talked about what happened this morning, and I told him I hadn't really been serious about quitting, that I'd just lost my temper because of all the pressure I've been under lately. He was really great about it, and that's when he suggested I take a few days off."

"And what did you tell him?"

"I told him I was going to take him up on that, but that I'd have to get back to him about when. It's kind of hard to plan a vacation when you have no idea what you want to do or where you want to go."

"It's not that hard, Lois," Clark chuckled. "Just pick somewhere and go there. Even hang around here, if that's what you want. Do anything but work."

Lois rubbed his arm lightly. "Actually, I was kind of hoping we could do something together."

"I'd love that," Clark said sincerely. "What did you have in mind?"

Lois sighed. "Honestly, I don't have a clue. Any suggestions?"

Clark thought for a minute. "You could spend Christmas with me and my folks in Smallville. I know they'd love to have you as much as I would. And we could take long walks, spend quiet evenings sipping hot apple cider and eating homemade apple pie… It'd be great."

"That *does* sound great," Lois admitted. "But you're forgetting that my parents want me to spend Christmas Day with them and Lucy."

Clark's hopeful expression fell. "Oh, that's right. I forgot about that."

Lois sat up and leaned her head against Clark's shoulder. Automatically, he slipped his arm around her shoulders, and she reached for his hand, entwining her fingers with his. "It's just been so long since we've had time for each other," she said wistfully.

Tipping his head to rest it on Lois', Clark brushed his cheek against her hair, enjoying its softness and sweet floral scent. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Lois was right. It *had* been a long time since they'd had time to be alone together.

"Well, Christmas is out, but how about New Year's?" he asked. "We could spend the day together, maybe drive up to the mountains or something."

Lois smiled dreamily. "Mmmm, a whole day alone together, surrounded by nothing but trees and mountains. It sounds wonderful, actually."

"Then why don't we do it?"

"I don't know if I can. I think it's my turn for holiday rotation. If I'm scheduled to work and ask Perry for that day off, he might have a hard time finding somebody else to fill in, since so many people have holiday plans."

Clark shook his head and chuckled softly. "Good grief, this is like negotiating a nuclear treaty."

Lois laughed, too. "Well, maybe not that bad. But you're not far off." They continued to rattle off suggestions for several minutes, but each of them was met with either personal or work conflicts.

Finally, Lois sighed in discouragement and let her head slump against Clark's shoulder. "Clark, have you ever thought that maybe this whole thing between us just isn't meant to be?"

Clark stiffened. "Lois, you're not serious, are you?"

She sat up beside him and shrugged. "Well, think about it, Clark. How many times in the past few weeks have we had time to spend alone together? I think this is the first time this month. Maybe someone's trying to tell us something."

Clark shook his head adamantly. "Lois, I think all we're finding out is that the holidays are a crazy time for a relationship. Nothing more." He reached out to tip her chin up, forcing her to look at him. When she did, his eyes searched hers intently. "Lois, I want nothing more than to have this relationship work. And if that means making some time in a hectic schedule, then that's what we have to do. I'm not about to give up on us. You're too important to me."

Lois felt tears spring to her eyes. "You really mean that?"

Clark nodded seriously. "Yes, I do. What do I need to do to prove it to you?"

Lois' solemn expression quickly changed and she smiled at him mischievously. "Well, I guess you could prove it to me with a really *great* kiss."

"I think I can handle that," Clark replied, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. He lowered his head to hers, but paused when his lips were only a breath away from hers. "Before I do this, I want to make sure I have the rules straight. Do I only get one kiss to prove myself, or can this be settled over a series of long, drawn out kisses?"

Lois giggled. "Mmmm, why don't we see how great your first kiss is, and then go from there?"

Clark grinned. "That sounds good to me."


Later that night, after Clark had gone home, Lois slipped on her favorite silky nightgown and went through her apartment, turning off lights and making sure doors and windows were locked. As she thought about the evening, a smile slowly worked its way across her face.

When she'd gotten home from work, she'd been ready to explode. But then Clark had shown up and managed to magically soothe her frazzled nerves.

There was definitely something about Clark's manner that had a calming influence on her, and his seemingly endless supply of patience never ceased to amaze her. She wouldn't have thought in a million years that, when she'd first met him that day in Perry's office, that he'd be so perfect for her, their personalities so evenly meshed. And never, ever, did she think that she'd find herself wanting to settle into a serious relationship with a man.

But Clark wasn't just any man. He was an extraordinary man. And it was still tough sometimes for her to imagine why he put up with her stubbornness, as well as her fiery temper and mood swings that seemed to change by the minute. But she was glad he did. If anyone could change her mind about trusting men in a relationship, she knew it would be Clark.

Over the past couple of years as her partner—and more recently as even more than that—he kept proving to her time and time again that he was someone she could trust, someone who she could count on when she needed a friend.

Except for those times when he continued to disappear out of the blue.

Lois shook her head in frustration. Today had been no exception. Darting off to the café because he'd supposedly forgotten something just when something as newsworthy as a hostage situation needed their attention? Talk about strange priorities. But she knew she couldn't hold it against him. Just like the times before when she'd been angry at him for his rushing off, he'd always apologized when he returned. She doubted she'd ever like that about him, and she always got the feeling he wasn't being completely honest with her about his reason for leaving. But when she'd finally had it and confronted him about it in his apartment that night after the lawsuit, he told her he wasn't hiding, that he was ready to take the next step, if she was. The kiss that had followed had told her more than words could say about how much he cared about her, even loved her.

Loved her? The very thought made her stop and think. Yes, she was sure he loved her. Just as she loved him.

In the short time they'd been officially dating, she'd never actually gotten up the nerve to voice her feelings, but she knew with a certainty that that was how she felt. Even so, it was a scary thing to say out loud. What if she did, and then found out he didn't feel the same way about her?

No, she decided. That wouldn't be the case. The fact that he loved her was evident in his every action, softly spoken word and tender touch. She suspected he'd wanted to tell her for quite some time, but maybe it was because he knew that her fear of relationships made her a little skittish. She was sure it was just a matter of time before they felt comfortable enough to verbalize how they felt about each other. But in the meantime, she was content in knowing she loved this gentle man, and that he loved her. Verbalization or not.

Lois flipped off the front room light and walked back into her bedroom where she climbed under her covers and turned off the bedside lamp. Snuggling into her pillow, her thoughts once again drifted to Clark's strange disappearance that day. Clearly, she still had a lot to learn about Clark. It seemed like every day she was learning something new about him, or the way he acted in certain situations.

*But what's strange about that?* Lois asked herself. *Isn't that what being in a new relationship is all about? Learning new things about each other? As well as I think I know him, the fact remains that we've only been dating for a short time. Surely there will be things I'll continue to learn about him as we go.*

Lois rolled over and pulled the blankets more snugly around her. Well, whatever she still had to learn about Clark she knew she would learn in time. For now, she was tired of thinking. It had been a long day, and this was something she could think about later. So, with one last sigh, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.


When Lois stepped off the elevator at the Planet the next morning, she noticed that Clark was already at his desk. He seemed to sense her eyes on him because almost immediately, he looked up. When he did, their eyes met and a warm smile crossed his face.

When she reached her desk, he was waiting for her. "Feeling better this morning?" he asked, reaching out to rub her arms lightly.

She smiled as she set her attaché on her desk. "Much. Thanks to the time we were able to spend together last night."

Clark chuckled as he took her into his arms. "I have to admit, I didn't think we could cram that much kissing into such a short amount of time."

Lois flashed him a mischievous grin, "Well, when all you have is a short amount of time, you do what you've gotta do."

Clark leaned in to give her a sweet, tender kiss, drawing the attention of nearby colleagues. Noticing they were causing quite a scene, Lois giggled as Clark pulled away, his face reddening slightly. But he smiled sheepishly and whispered, "Hopefully we can continue this later when there are no prying eyes."

Lois grinned back. "Nice theory. I'd like to know how we're going to manage to get some free time later."

Just then Lois heard her name called and she smiled into Clark's laughing eyes. "See what I mean?"

Turning to see who was calling her, Lois spotted the newest Daily Planet researcher approaching. "Hey, Manny," she replied. "What's up?"

The athletic-looking young man in his mid-twenties stopped beside them. "Didn't mean to interrupt anything important," he hinted with a wry grin, "but here's the research you wanted on last week's jewel robbery, Lois, as well as a disk that contains some background information on the thief."

She took the handful of stuff from him and gave them a cursory glance. "Thanks, Manny."

Manny started to leave, but suddenly stopped and turned back to Clark. "Oh, hey, Clark. Are we still on for our game of basketball at lunch today?"

Clark grinned. "You bet. But be prepared for a sound whipping."

Manny laughed and pointed his pencil challengingly at Clark as he turned to leave. "We'll just see about that."

After Manny disappeared into the crowded newsroom, Lois turned to Clark. "Lunchtime basketball? I didn't know you guys were so chummy."

Clark nodded. "I helped show him around when he first started here a couple of months ago, and when we found out that we both liked to play basketball, we kind of set up a weekly lunchtime game at the park. It's a great way to blow off some steam after a busy morning."

"But it's December!" Lois exclaimed incredulously. "How are you supposed to play basketball in the snow?"

Clark laughed. "The snow's pretty much subsided for now, and the courts will be clear. Why is that so crazy?"

"I didn't say you were crazy, but now that you mention it…" Her voice trailed off and she smiled a little.

Clark grinned. "You should try it sometime, Lois. A little mid-day exercise might do you some good. It all comes down to that relaxing thing we talked about last night."

"Forget it," she said stubbornly. "Sweating in the middle of the day out on some basketball court isn't my idea of a good time."

"If you say so," Clark conceded. When Lois started to take off her coat, he quickly stopped her. "You might as well leave your coat on, Lois. Perry wants us to go down to the courthouse this morning to cover the hearing of that bank robber from yesterday."

"Oh yeah, the hostage situation where Superman gave me the brush off," Lois quipped, her face clouding over a bit as she rebuttoned her coat and reached for her attache.

Clark sighed. "Lois, I'm sure he didn't mean to give you the brush off. Maybe he really did have something on his mind, like he said."

"Who are you, Superman's PR man?" Lois shot back, her anger once again resurfacing. "I know what I saw, and I know how he treated me. It really hurt, Clark, and to be honest, I'm still angry about it. Something's going on with him, Clark, and I, for one, would like to know what it is." She hastily slung her attaché over her shoulder and headed for the elevator.

Clark sighed. "Well, it may not be long before you know, Lois," he said quietly to himself. "And if you're angry now, I can't wait to see you then." Shaking his head, he hurried to catch up with her.


The exercise and cool, brisk winter air was a refreshing change for Clark as he and Manny met in the park a few hours later for their game of one on one. Not only was he frustrated that he and Lois were having a tough time with work, but he couldn't help feeling horrible at the fact that Lois was angry at how he'd acted as Superman during their recent encounter.

So Clark took out all his pent-up frustrations on Manny as he dribbled down the half-court length toward the basket, giving Manny a quick fake, then rolling to his left and rushing to the basket to execute a perfect lay-up.

"Yes!" Clark exclaimed, raising his hands high above his head victoriously. "That's game!"

Manny laughed and shook his head. "Okay, I give. I know when I'm beat. But what's gotten into you today? You haven't played this possessed since we started playing."

Clark spun the ball on his finger and grinned cockily. "Maybe I was just tired of letting you win."

"Yeah, sure," Manny laughed again as he went over to the bench next to the court, picked up the sweatshirt he'd draped over the back of it and pulled it over his head. "I think it's more like you were sick of being creamed."

Clark smiled as he walked over to Manny and started to put his own sweatshirt on. "Either way, this has been fun. It's a great way to work off some job stress, especially with as busy as it has been around the Planet lately."

Manny bent over to tie a shoe. "Yeah, I noticed Perry has been working you and Lois pretty hard lately. How's she holding up?"

Clark's smile faded and he turned to sit down on the bench. "Not very well, I'm afraid," Clark admitted. "She's pretty stressed out, and I can't say that I blame her. And yesterday's dramatic exit from the newsroom certainly announced it to everyone."

Manny grimaced. "Yeah, I saw that. Lois can do dramatic better than anyone I know."

Clark laughed. "Don't I know it."

"So what's the story with you guys?" Manny asked as he finished tying his shoe and then turned to sit down beside Clark. "I take it from that kiss I saw in the newsroom this morning that you two are still happy together."

"Definitely," Clark grinned. "Things are going really great for us. But to be honest, we're both pretty frustrated at how little time we've been able to spend together lately. With the holidays and all the work Perry's been loading on us, it's been nearly impossible to do anything together. But after Lois threatened to quit yesterday, Perry offered to give her some time off, and I'd like to take some vacation time of my own so we can do something together. We've even talked about it, but we have no idea what we want to do."

"Hey, I have the perfect thing!" Manny exclaimed immediately. He turned and reached into his duffle bag, fished around for a second, then pulled his keys out. When he'd located one key in particular, he worked it off his key chain and handed it to Clark with a flourish. "Here you go. The perfect solution."

Clark's brow furrowed in confusion. "What is it?"

"It's the key to my cabin," Manny announced. "Well, it's not really *my* cabin. It's my brother's actually, but he lives on the west coast and has me look after it when he's not using it. It's this great little place in the mountains just north of Metropolis. It's part of a little mountain resort that has some surprisingly good restaurants, and even a decent theater group that performs a couple of times a week. The cabin's pretty secluded, but not far enough out of town to make it inconvenient. It'd be the perfect getaway for you and Lois! Trust me, she'd love it."

Clark stared at his friend in surprise. "Really? Your brother wouldn't mind if we used it?"

"Not a bit," Manny assured him. "As a matter of fact, you'd be doing me a favor. I haven't had a chance to get up there and air it out in several weeks."

"Great!" Clark exclaimed happily as he took the key. "I'm sure Lois will love it. But I'll definitely owe you one."

Manny smiled and shook his head. "Just go a little easier on me next time we play some one on one, will ya? I'm going to be sore tomorrow, thanks to you."

Clark laughed. "It's a deal." He stood up and threw on his sweatshirt and grabbed his duffle bag containing his change of clothes. "I'm going to head back to the Planet locker room and shower up. You coming?"

"Nah, go on ahead," Manny said, waving him on. "I've got a couple of quick errands to run before I get back to the grind."

"Okay, then I'll see you later. And thanks again for this!" Clark held up the key and smiled gratefully.


With one last wave, Clark jogged across the park lawn to the street, where Manny watched him carefully look both ways before running across. When Manny was certain Clark was out of earshot, he looked around to make sure he was alone, then reached into his bag, pulled out his cell phone and quickly punched in a number.

A few moments later, he spoke quietly into the phone. "Yeah, it's me. The cabin's a go. He doesn't suspect a thing."

When he hung up the phone and slipped it back into his bag, he turned once again to watch as Clark's still-jogging figure continued to disappear down the street.

Manny smiled and shook his head. "Some things are just too easy."


"Yes!" Trask exclaimed as he slapped the mouthpiece of his cell phone shut and spun around to face his colleague. "Manny did it! Kent fell for it hook, line and sinker. Before you know it, we'll have Lane and Kent walking right into our clutches."

Garrison looked up skeptically from where he sat in the recliner in the corner of the sparsely decorated log-cabin room, thumbing through a computer technology magazine. "Don't get so optimistic, Trask. There are still a hundred things that could go wrong with this plan. Like your little unexpected snitch, for example."

Trask dismissed Garrison's pessimism with a wave of his hand. "An unforeseen complication, but I took care of it," he assured him airily. "How could we have known that Les would suddenly develop a conscience about being involved in a plot to eliminate Superman, and rush to the Daily Planet to tell Lois Lane about it?"

"Well, it was lucky for us that we were able to have him killed before he leaked too much information to her," Garrison muttered. "Otherwise, your little snitch could've ruined everything."

"But he didn't," Trask replied. "According to Manny, Lane labored away at her so-called "vigilante groups" story for weeks before the well finally ran dry, and that joke of an editor, Perry White, had no choice but to pull her off the story. And it just happened to work to our advantage that dear, over-worked Lois Lane recently started to suffer an emotional breakdown, leaving us the perfect opportunity to have Manny convince Clark to take her to the cabin for some little romantic getaway." He chortled. "Little do they know that when they arrive, we'll be waiting for them."

Garrison shook his head negatively. "Unless something else goes wrong."

Trask's expression darkened. "Why so pessimistic, Garrison? We're finally about to trap Superman and make him tell us about his friends coming to take over planet Earth."

Garrison snorted sarcastically. "I can't believe that you're still holding firm to this insane 'alien invasion' theory! Come on, Trask! Stop being such a paranoid delusional… "

"Paranoid? Is that what you think I am?" Trask asked coldly. "You're just like everyone else in this country—too blind to see what's right in front of your face! What else would a super being like Superman be doing here? An accidental arrival who suddenly decides to fight for "truth, justice and the American way"? Come on! If you believe that, you're as brainwashed as the rest of them! A year ago I followed Superman's trail to Smallville, put my job on the line—not to mention my noble intention of saving the American way of life!—and found out about Kryptonite, the one thing that'll kill Superman. And how am I repaid? The American people turn on me, leave me in some pond to die! And for what? Because I'm trying to stop an alien invasion from swarming to Earth? From taking over the world and changing all those people's ways of life? I'm punished, practically banished from the government community!"

"Not bitter or anything, are you?" Garrison countered.

"You bet I'm bitter!" Trask snapped. "Superman almost killed me back in that pond in Smallville. Who knows what his people would do if they come in force?"

"Superman wasn't even *in* Smallville, Trask!" Garrison shouted, finally tired of hearing Trask's rantings.

Trask smirked. "Oh, really? Is that what you think?"

"What I think?! It's what I know!" Garrison shot back, not the least bit worried about being overheard by Trask's thugs standing outside the room. "The details were all in the files! Your men never once caught sight of the red cape or blue suit. He didn't almost kill you, Trask! It was *you* who almost got yourself killed! Did you think that pulling a gun on that reporter, Clark Kent, in some small pond in Smallville was going to lure Superman?"

Garrison turned and stalked to the window looking out onto the forest, then turned back and continued angrily. "You were shot because you almost killed some innocent reporter! If it weren't for some psychotic person with undoubtedly too much time and money on their hands to arrange to have your body stolen from the morgue and then have you brought back to life, you'd be six feet under right now! Consider yourself lucky, Trask. Whether or not this person believes in your 'alien invasion' theory, they agree with you on one thing, as I do. Superman needs to be eliminated. So let's just focus on that and be done with it. Then you can go your way, and I can go mine."

"Oh, that's right. You want to go back to your dank little hideout away from the watchful eyes of the FBI where you can spend your days hacking into whatever computer systems people pay you to," Trask shot back. "If you're such a disbeliever in the mission of Bureau 39, why did you get assigned to this position? I certainly didn't ask for you."

Garrison's lips curled into a disdainful frown. "Just lucky, I guess."

Trask simply shrugged. "Well, all that really matters is, your job is to help me kill Superman. Whether or not you agree with me on *why* we need to do that, it doesn't matter. All that matters is, I'm back, and I'm going to lure him here and find out by any means necessary when this invasion is going to take place. And then everyone who doubted me before will finally know that I was right. Then I'm going to dispose of him the way I should've done when I had the chance. He won't get away from me again."

Deciding it wasn't worth arguing about, Garrison shook his head and crossed the room toward the door. "Whatever you say, Trask. Now if you don't mind, I have some people to contact."

"Oh yeah?" Trask asked offhandedly. "The 'secret boss' you have?"

"Yes. Unlike you, I have sane people to answer to."

Trask let the insult roll off his back. "Answer to for what, exactly?"

Garrison paused with his hand on the doorknob. He turned back to Trask, his face steely and expression masked. "As you like to say, 'That's on a need to know basis, and…you don't.'" He smirked. "The reasons for why I'm here are none of your business. But like you said, in the long run, we're both after the same thing: to see that Superman is eliminated. That's all that matters." And with that, Garrison opened the door and left the room.

Trask's eyes flashed as he watched Garrison disappear into the hall. As soon as he was out of sight, he grumbled, "If he hadn't been directly assigned to this project and wasn't so highly connected, I'd get rid of him in a second."

Ever since that fateful day in Smallville when he'd been shot by that deputy, everything had changed. Politics had changed. The administration of Bureau 39 had changed.

But one thing hadn't changed. Superman, and the threat of an alien invasion along with him, needed to be taken care of. Whichever anonymous benefactor had decided to pay to use some mysterious, life-saving regeneration method to bring him back to life, he was grateful. Since the person didn't want their identity known, Trask had long since given up trying to find the source. He was just glad to be alive, to have another chance to validate himself as a man who could save the world from an oncoming force of destruction. A race of super beings sure to invade and rule the world. It was too bad Garrison didn't see the threat.

Trask shook his head as he walked over to the cabin window looking out on the darkening forest. In the past year or so that he'd been nursed back to health and had had Garrison assigned to be his second in command by somebody higher up (even *he* had never known everybody up the political Bureau 39 chain), Garrison had been something of an enigma to him.

He'd never been able to find out who'd assigned him, and hadn't been able to track down much of Garrison's past to give him a clue as to why he was being assigned to the project. It definitely wasn't because Garrison shared his views on Superman being the front man of an alien invasion, that was for sure. He'd made it clear how he felt about that theory. But he did indeed seem to want, as badly as *he* did, to eliminate Superman, and that was at least something.

But it didn't quell his suspicions about Garrison, and the agenda he was sure the man secretly held. Had he been sent to spy on him and his men as they worked toward disposing of the Superhero? If so, who was suspicious enough—or not confident enough in his abilities to follow through with the task—to plant Garrison in the mix? Who was it he mysteriously reported to? Was that person the one who'd brought Trask back to life, therefore staking his claim in the project?

But whatever answers there were, Trask had been unable to find them. So he'd continued to go about his business, putting up with Garrison's flippant remarks and rebellious ways. He was insubordinate, did things on his own schedule, often disappeared into that hole of a back room where he used his extensive set-up of computer equipment for hours at a time, and mouthed off to him in front of his men.

But as much as he'd like to be the one to do away with Garrison, he didn't dare. Obviously, Garrison reported to someone of importance, and the connections he brought to the project were invaluable, even if he was kept in the dark about how he came up with most of the information he acquired.

The bottom line was, though, that it didn't matter. As long as he got what he wanted—Superman—Garrison could follow his own agenda, whatever it may be. It was enough that Garrison was as eager to dispose of Superman as he was.

Turning away from the window, Trask decided to temporarily put his colleague's suspicious actions aside. Right now, he had other, more important things to worry about.

Taking a couple of steps toward the door, Trask called out for his men in the hall. "Guys, get in here! We've got a kidnapping to plan."


After grudgingly going through the information Manny had given her about the jewelry theft for over an hour, Lois finally leaned back in her chair and sighed. She hated these no-brainer stories. They weren't any challenge. Robbery occurs, police show up in response to silent alarm, jewel thief caught in the act. Where was the challenge in a story like that?

Bored and unable to stop procrastinating, Lois swiveled back and forth in her chair, finding herself wishing for some sort of catastrophe, some natural disaster that would give her an excuse to do something else. *Anything* else. But for once, Metropolis was quiet.

Spinning back to face her desk, the black disk sitting on top of the other research information Manny had given her suddenly caught her eye. Hadn't he said he'd downloaded some background information on the robber? Maybe there was something there she could use to get a more interesting angle.

Reaching for the disk, she slipped it into her computer and clicked on the file that appeared. Immediately, a series of strange characters flashed onto her screen, and soon her monitor was filled with a jumble of unreadable numbers and letters that flashed past her so quickly she could hardly make them out.

"What is *this*?" she asked in confusion. Leaning back in her chair, she yelled, "Hey, Jimmy!"

Jimmy hurried over to her. "Yeah, Lois?" When she gestured at her computer screen, he looked at the mess of characters and started to laugh. "Okay, Lois, what did you do to your computer this time?"

"I didn't do anything!" Lois protested indignantly. "I just put my disk in, opened the file, and this is what came up."

Jimmy's brow furrowed as he put a hand on her desk and leaned closer to her monitor. "Is there something wrong with your disk? It looks like whatever was on it really got fried."

Lois shrugged. "I don't know. It's the disk Manny gave me with a bunch of research on that jewelry theft story I'm working on. He said it contained some background information about the robber."

Jimmy reached out and hit the down key, shaking his head in confusion as he watched the characters scroll past. "I don't know what to tell you, Lois. It must've been a bad disk or something."

"Great," Lois muttered in a 'what else can go wrong' tone. "There goes any possible interesting angles I might have come up with. Let's just hope there wasn't something irreplaceable on this." She reached out and started to eject the disk, but Jimmy quickly stopped her.

"Wait, Lois. Before you pull it out, why don't we save the file on your hard drive? When I find a spare minute, I could go through it and see if I can salvage anything."

"Okay," Lois sighed. "I guess it's worth a shot. I'm not really getting anywhere on this story anyway." Just then someone called out for Jimmy, and Lois waved him away. "Go ahead. I'll save this file and have you look at it later."

Jimmy gave her a sympathetic smile. "Don't let me forget."

After Jimmy hurried away, Lois saved the file to her hard drive, then ejected the disk and looked at it for a moment, not sure what to do with it. If the disk was bad, she knew she should just throw it away. But maybe Jimmy could do more to restore the file if he actually had the disk. She didn't know how that worked.

After a minute of indecision, she finally opened her top desk drawer, tossed in the disk, and shut it once again.

"Hey, what are you doing?"

Lois jumped. She quickly looked up to see Clark standing beside her. "Sorry," he said with a quick smile. "I didn't mean to scare you. But you'll never guess what happened at lunch."

"You won your little basketball game," Lois guessed disinterestedly.

"Well, yeah, but that's not it." He sat down on the corner of her desk and beamed at her, obviously bursting with news. "Guess again."

Lois sighed and leaned back in her chair. "Clark, I'm really not in the mood for guessing games," she said wearily. "I can't find an angle on this jewel thief story, and the disk Manny gave me with the research information doesn't work. So whatever you're trying to tell me, just tell me."

"Well, Manny and I were talking after our game about vacation spots you might like, and he was telling me about this great cabin his brother has up in the hills north of Metropolis. There's this quaint little resort town just down the hill from it that has several restaurants, a great local theater group…it's the perfect place for a vacation."

Lois stared at him and crossed her arms accusingly, though the corners of her mouth twitched into a slow smile. "And how exactly did he know I was thinking about taking a vacation?"

Clark shifted his weight on the edge of her desk awkwardly. "Well, um, I might have mentioned something about it. Besides, everyone knows how stressed out you've been lately…"

"And how does everyone know I've been stressed?"

Clark started to laugh. "You're kidding, right? With the way you've been storming around lately? Everybody in the building has made a personal pact to stay clear of you. Besides, after you yelled at Perry yesterday and threatened to quit, word got around."

"Yeah, I guess it wouldn't exactly be a secret," Lois replied with a sheepish smile.

"So anyway," Clark continued, "I was also telling him how hard it has been for us to find some time to be alone lately, and…" he paused for dramatic effect, then pulled a key with a flourish from his pocket, "Tah-dah! It's all ours if we want it."

Lois looked from the key, to Clark in confusion. "What are you talking about?"

"The cabin!" he replied impatiently. "Manny's watching it for his out of state brother, and he says we'd be doing him a favor by getting up there and airing it out since he hasn't been up there in a while. So I was thinking we could go up there for New Year's weekend, since we were already thinking of spending New Year's Day together anyway. What do you say?"

Lois fought the tightness in her throat and the sudden urge to panic. "Spend the weekend at a cabin? Alone? Together? For a whole weekend?"

"Sure," Clark nodded, his smile fading into a puzzled frown. "What's wrong with that?"

Lois stared at Clark in disbelief. *What's wrong with that?! Is he kidding? How can he possibly ask that? Doesn't he realize what a huge step this would be in our relationship? This isn't just some small, unimportant detail like deciding to get Chinese takeout instead of Thai food. He's talking about being *intimate* with each other!*

She couldn't help feeling like Clark was being more than a little insensitive to suggest something like this, without at least discussing it with her first. Not that she hadn't considered being intimate with him. But this soon in their relationship?

Even the thought of taking this huge step was enough to send her into a panic. After all, if her past relationships were any indication—Claude was the first to come to mind—the minute her relationships turned intimate, they usually fell apart. Not that she could compare Claude to Clark, by any means. But other than a little making out at their apartments, she and Clark had never gotten very intimate with each other. Who knew how their relationship would change if they became intimate?

A nagging voice in the back of her mind suddenly started in, and she was helpless to stop it. 'I can't believe, after all this time you've known Clark, you really didn't know him at all. He's just like all the other men…he can hardly wait to jump into bed.'

But then the rational side of her brain took over and argued, *Come on, Lois, you *know* Clark! He's not like that!*

But immediately, the nagging voice argued back, 'Oh yeah? How well do you *really* know him? Where does he always run off to when you two are together? Why won't he ever give you a clear answer about where he's been? There are obviously a lot of things you don't know about him. How do you know he's not going to run off the minute you sleep with him? You may think that Clark's not like that, but believe me, *all* men are like that!'

Lois gave herself a mental shake and forced herself to quiet the nagging voices in her head. But the damage had already been done. She felt both pressured and panicked.

Turning back to Clark, she saw he was still sitting patiently, waiting for her response. She blushed slightly, and, feeling definitely uncomfortable, she glanced around to make sure no one was listening. When she was sure no one was, she leaned forward and whispered, "Um, Clark, this is all kind of sudden, don't you think?"

Clark's brows furrowed in confusion. "Sudden? What do you mean?"

"I don't know," Lois hedged, averting her gaze and suddenly appearing to be very interested in the pencil in her hand. "Some time together sounds great, but I don't know if this was exactly what I had in mind. Maybe we should think about this a little…"

"Think about it?" Clark asked, surprised. "Lois, what's there to think about? You need a vacation, and I figured you'd jump at the chance to get away."

"Oh, it's not that, Clark…"

"Then what, Lois? I guess I don't understand the problem."

Lois swallowed hard and tried to calm the anxious shake in her voice. "Well, um, don't get me wrong, Clark. There's nothing I'd like more than to spend some time alone with you. But this…it's just, this is a really big step, you know? The idea of you and me, spending a whole weekend, you know, alone…together. It's just a really big step, and I don't think I'm ready…"

Clark's confused expression instantly changed, and his eyebrows lifted in understanding. "Oh!" he said quickly, suddenly realizing what Lois was trying to say. She thought he'd arranged for them to have not only a romantic getaway, but an intimate one, as well!

Suddenly feeling horrible about unintentionally putting her in such an awkward position at this stage of their relationship, he started to stumble over his words.

"Oh, Lois, I'm so sorry!" he stammered. "I didn't mean, well… When I asked you to spend the weekend with me, I didn't mean that I wanted you to…you know, *spend the weekend* with me. I just thought it would be a great chance to get away. I mean, we can sleep in different rooms, maintain some privacy…"

"I know, Clark, I know," Lois replied quickly, though to Clark, she didn't sound convinced at all. She looked back down at her pencil and picked at the dull point. "I just think that maybe we should think a little bit about this before deciding, you know?"

"Sure, Lois, I understand," Clark hurried to assure her. "Take as much time as you'd like. In fact, why don't we—"

Perry's bellowing voice suddenly sounded in the newsroom, cutting Clark off before he could finish. "Lois! Clark! Where's that piece on the Christmas charities scandal I asked for?"

Lois and Clark looked over at their stocky editor, and Clark called back, "Almost done, Chief!" Then he turned back to Lois. "I guess we'll have to talk about this some more later."

Lois nodded and smiled, but Clark couldn't help noticing her smile seemed forced. "Sure," she said quietly. "We'll get the story finished and talk later."

As she turned back to her computer, Clark shook his head and walked back to his desk. *What are you doing?* he asked himself angrily. *You should've considered how this might sound to someone with Lois' past history with men. Now she obviously thinks you're pressuring her into moving your relationship forward into an intimacy she's not ready for, and if you're not careful she's going to bolt! Something like this could definitely set things back. Way to go, Clark!*

Sitting down heavily in his desk chair, he leaned back and glanced over at Lois. He watched as she picked up her phone and quickly punched in a number, then tapped her pencil habitually on her desk as she spoke to the person on the other end of the line.

She may have looked like her normal, tenacious self to any casual observer, but Clark knew differently. Her preoccupied smile and lack of animated hand gestures as she talked on the phone were dead giveaways to someone who knew her as well as he did. She was clearly spooked, and trying her hardest not to show it.

Sighing heavily, Clark slumped forward and put his head in his hands. *Terrific, Clark, look what you've done!*

*I only wanted to spend some time with her!* the other voice argued back uselessly. *I've been working toward this relationship for a long time. The last thing I'd want to do is ruin it by scaring her off.*

Shaking his head, he sat up and reached for the Christmas charity story notes. He had to talk to her, to smooth things over. But when he did approach the subject again, he knew it would have to be done carefully. After all, if he blew this, he could blow everything.

Suddenly, his superhearing picked up on an all-too-familiar sound: a cry for help. Looking around him and seeing that no one was paying attention to him, he quickly stood up and headed for the back staircase, his exit going unnoticed even by Lois.


When Clark slipped discreetly out the Daily Planet's back door, he saw that the snow had started to fall once again and was already beginning to cover the sidewalks and streets with a thick blanket of white.

He sighed. A snowstorm usually meant he was bound to be busy as Superman, which meant he might not have time to have that talk with Lois as soon as he wanted. Spinning into the suit, he rocketed into the sky toward the cry for help.

For the rest of the day, Superman was in high demand as the snow continued to fall and accumulate on the roads. He helped out at a couple of accidents, while preventing several others. He also chased down a bank robber as he tried to make a quick getaway, and then helped resolve a couple of parking lot disputes over parking spaces at malls.

By the time things had calmed down early that evening, Clark realized that it wouldn't make any sense to hurry back to the Planet. The paper would have already been put to bed, and surely Lois would've left for the day.

As he flew above Metropolis, he felt for the hundredth time like kicking himself for being so naive in his conversation earlier that day with Lois. If he'd thought for even a second, or put himself in Lois' shoes, he would've realized how delicate a topic his invitation might have been for her. Instead, in his excitement to spend some time alone with her, he'd foolishly rushed in, never even thinking about how his invitation might be misconstrued by her.

He wanted to talk to Lois, but what was he supposed to say? 'Lois, I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. So I have no problem waiting to take this next step in our relationship. I'm willing to wait for you as long as you need.' The mere thought almost made Clark want to laugh out loud.

Sure, it would be the truth. But with as anxious as Lois tended to be when it came to relationships—and intimacy, given her past history with men—it might have just the opposite effect and put even more pressure on her in a situation where there already was a lot of pressure. It might even send their relationship a step backward instead of forward. And that was definitely not what he wanted.

With a heavy sigh, Clark realized he wasn't ready to talk to her yet. Not until he knew what to say. And somehow the answer remained elusive.

As he flew through the darkening sky, Clark decided that he didn't really feel like going home to his apartment. It had been a very busy afternoon, not to mention his mind was still reeling over his conversation with Lois. He desperately needed to unwind, and maybe even talk things out with somebody.

With a smile, he quickly changed direction and headed for the perfect place. Smallville.


"Clark, how great to see you!" Martha greeted him warmly as he walked through the front door a short time later. "You're just in time! I have a roast coming out of the oven in a few minutes. You are staying for dinner, aren't you?"

Clark smiled as he walked over to his mom and gave her a warm hug. "Hi, Mom. Sure, dinner sounds great." He stepped out of his mom's embrace and glanced around. "Where's Dad?"

"Out in the barn feeding the livestock. Why don't you go on out and hurry him up?" she suggested. "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes, and I don't want it to get cold."

"Sure, Mom, no problem." Clark took a couple of steps toward the back door, but then paused momentarily before reaching out and grabbing one of the hot rolls cooling on a tray next to the sink and darting off with it, despite his mother's protests and shooing hands.

As he hurried through the back door, though, he could hear his mother muttering—with a smile in her voice—something about how things never changed. Clark smiled. Home was a wonderful place.

When he reached the barn, he found his father raking straw into the horses' stalls. "Hi, Dad."

Jonathan looked up in surprise at the unexpected sound of his son's voice. His face broke out into a broad smile and he straightened. "Clark! It's good to see you, son. How're things in the big city?"

Clark walked over to his dad and took the pitchfork from him. "Busy," he admitted as he took over for his father. "With all the fresh snow, I've been racing around as Superman all day."

"I'm not surprised," his father commiserated as he moved away to measure grain for the horses. "And how's Lois?" Clark hesitated, and his dad immediately picked up on it. "Uh-oh. Something's wrong between you and Lois."

Clark shook his head quickly. "No, nothing's wrong, really," he hedged.


Knowing he had a listening ear, Clark sighed and began to pour out the story of what had happened between him and Lois earlier that day, and how badly he felt about asking her to go away with him for the weekend because he felt like he was pressuring her for more in their relationship.

When Clark finished, Jonathan looked intently at his son. "Well, were you?" he asked pointedly.

Clark stilled his pitchfork and leaned on it as he spoke. "No, honestly I wasn't. Not that I wouldn't mind being…intimate…with Lois," he admitted, giving his dad a sheepish smile. "But I know our relationship isn't to that point yet. We've only been dating for a short time, and I don't want to rush things."

Clark was silent for a moment, and his eyes lowered to the straw below him. When he continued, his voice was hushed, almost reverent. "You know, Dad, I've waited a long time for Lois, even before I knew she was the one I was waiting for. But now that I've found her, I don't want to blow it by rushing her. You know what I mean?"

He raised his eyes to his father's, and was comforted by the look of understanding in his dad's gaze. Knowing his father understood, he rushed on. "When I asked Lois to go away with me for the weekend, I definitely didn't mean to imply anything like she thought I was implying. I just wanted to be with her, to have some time alone with her, without any phone calls or cries for help to interrupt us. I realize even more now than I did a year ago that she is the one I want to spend the rest of my life with, and if that means taking things at her pace, I'm willing to do that. I just don't want her panicking and feeling like I'm pressuring her into something she's not ready for."

Jonathan nodded as he dumped the buckets of grain into the horses' feed troughs. "Have you told her any of this?"

"Not yet," Clark replied as he resumed pitching straw into the stalls. "This happened just after lunch, and I got busy making all those rescues. But afterward, I wanted to go talk to her, but I had no idea what to say."

His dad smiled at him. "So you came here instead."

Clark grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, I guess I did."

Jonathan chuckled. "I can't say that I'm not glad to see you, but you really should be in Metropolis talking to Lois, not here talking to me. Not that I want you to feel like you can't come talk to me about these things whenever you need to," he rushed on. "But Lois is a smart woman, Clark. She'll understand if you just take the time to explain what you're feeling."

Clark nodded, though hesitantly. "Yeah, I know she is. But she's one with an awful lot of qualms about relationships. Things like this tend to scare her off more than other women, I think."

"All the more reason to talk to her," his dad insisted. "Trust me on this. You'll both feel better getting these things off your chests."

Clark tossed the last of the straw into the stall and shut the stall door. "You're right, as usual," Clark told his dad with a grin. "Maybe that's why I headed over. You always give me good advice."

Jonathan smiled back and clapped Clark on the shoulder as they walked out of the barn together. "Anytime, son. That's what I'm here for."


After finishing a wonderful dinner with his parents and taking a much needed break from the hustle and bustle of Metropolis, Clark hugged his parents, promised his dad he'd let him know how things went with Lois, then flew back to the city. With only a quick break to change out of the suit, he didn't take any time in getting to Lois', as much as he was tempted to.

When he knocked on her apartment door and then heard the sound of her approaching footsteps, he couldn't help the nervous, anxious feeling that threatened to overcome him. How was she feeling, now that some time had passed since their talk after lunch? Had she thought things through? Was she still uneasy about the idea of them getting away together? All these questions and more flooded through his mind as he listened to the sound of her door locks opening.

In the next moment, her door opened and his eyes immediately went to hers, looking for any sign of tension that could give him any indication as to how she was feeling. With a sinking feeling, he saw that the smile that greeted him didn't reach all the way into her eyes. *At least she hasn't slammed the door in my face. That's got to be a good sign,* Clark thought optimistically.

She opened her door further and gestured for him to come in. "I was wondering if something had happened to you when you didn't come back to the Planet this afternoon."

"I, uh, left to run a few errands and got sidetracked," he hedged. Quickly he changed the subject. "Lois, can we talk?"

"Sure," she answered casually, gesturing to the couch. But Clark couldn't help noticing that she looked as nervous as he felt. Following him over to the couch, she sat down tentatively next to him. "What do you want to talk about, Clark?"

Clark turned to face her and took a deep breath. "Lois, I feel horrible about the way we left things earlier this afternoon, and I wanted to apologize. I didn't mean to make you feel like I was pressuring you—"

"No, Clark, it's okay—"

"No, Lois, it's not," he quickly cut her off before she could finish. He reached out to take her hand in his and gave it a gentle squeeze. "This isn't something we've really talked about, and I want to assure you that I don't ever expect you to take a step in our relationship that you're not ready for. The last thing I'd want to do is make you uncomfortable, or pressure you into doing something you're not ready to do."

Lois was quiet for a minute as she listened, then dropped her eyes to look at their joined hands. "I know that, Clark," she replied quietly.

"But?" Clark asked, sensing there was one coming.

Lois sighed. "But I guess it's just the idea of what could happen between us if we're alone together for a weekend that's bothering me." She kept her eyes averted, nervous about voicing the concerns that had been running through her head since Clark had first mentioned their getting away.

Noticing her hesitancy, Clark lifted a hand to brush a strand of her dark hair out of her eyes, tucking it gently behind her ear and then tilting her chin up so she was forced to meet his intense gaze. "Come on, Lois. You can tell me anything. What's bothering you about it?"

After a minute, Lois began haltingly, "Well, it's just that, other than some intense kissing, we really haven't gotten…intimate…with each other, and I'm afraid of what might happen if we did."

Clark's brow furrowed in confusion. "I'm not sure what you mean, Lois…"

Lois grew impatient. "Clark, don't you see? Every intimate relationship I've ever had has ended up disastrously. What if the same thing happens to us? Not that I'm saying ours would end up that way if we, you know, slept together. I'm just saying that I can't seem to stop thinking about it."

"Lois, intimacy isn't something you need to worry about in our relationship," he insisted softly. "When I asked you to go away with me for a weekend, I never meant to imply that we should jump into bed with each other. I just thought it would be a great way to get us some time alone together, that's all. I *promise* you that's all I was thinking. Besides, I don't even know if *I'm* ready to take that step in our relationship just yet."

Lois smiled slowly and reached up to touch his cheek tenderly. "I know, Clark. It's just that your invitation got me thinking, you know? And when I did, I suffered a temporary panic attack."

"But you're over that now? And we're okay?" Clark asked, his eyes gazing intently into hers.

She nodded. "We're okay."

Clark breathed a huge sigh of relief. "You have no idea how glad I am to hear you say that," he admitted. "I was so worried about how to talk to you about this that I fl—"

Lois looked at him strangely as he stopped mid-word. "That you what?"

"Um," Clark stuttered, realizing how close he'd just come to telling her he flew to Smallville to talk to his dad. He mentally shook himself and tried again. "That I worried about it all afternoon while I was running errands," he finished lamely.

Lois seemed to accept that, though, and he gave an inward sigh of relief. *You'd better watch yourself, Clark!* he scolded. *One more false step like that and your relationship with Lois could be over for an entirely different reason.*

"Well, thanks for caring enough to worry about it, Clark," Lois said sincerely, giving his hand a squeeze. "It makes me feel better knowing that you care that much about how comfortable I feel in our relationship."

"I do care, Lois," he assured her. "And I want you to know that when and if the point comes in our relationship when we're considering intimacy, it'll be up to you to decide whether or not you're ready. If you're not, we'll wait. No pressure. Okay?"

She smiled gratefully. "Thanks, Clark, for being so understanding, and not giving up on me altogether when I have my little anxiety attacks."

Clark shook his head and lifted his hand to stroke her cheek tenderly. "I'm not giving up on us, Lois. You can count on that."

Lois smiled. "I'm glad to hear that."

Leaning down, Clark touched his lips gently to hers, his kiss light and tender at first. But as they continued to kiss, their kiss deepened, becoming something more passionate and intense. When they pulled away, they were both breathless.

Lois sighed as she snuggled into Clark's side. "This is so nice," she breathed, reaching up for the arm Clark had draped around her shoulder and lacing her fingers with his. Then, to Clark's utter surprise, she said, "You know, maybe I *could* handle a whole weekend of being alone together like this."

Clark stared at her. "What are you saying, Lois? That you *want* to spend a weekend at the cabin?"

"Well, it does sound like the perfect place to go," Lois admitted. "And everyone knows I could use a vacation."

Clark nodded, trying not to appear too eager. But inside he was ecstatic. Time alone with Lois, no interruptions…it was too good to be true!

"But on the other hand, we've only been dating for a couple of months. Maybe we're not ready for something like this yet…"

"Lois," Clark interrupted patiently. "Like I said before, spending a weekend together doesn't need to be a milestone in our relationship. We would just be two people who are spending some time together, getting to know each other better. Just think—no phones, no alarm clocks…we can go out to dinner, then go back to the cabin and sit and snuggle in front of the fireplace and talk until all hours of the night."

Lois sighed happily. "It sounds wonderful."

"And if it makes you feel any better, we can sleep in separate bedrooms," Clark continued. When Lois laughed, he straightened up and looked at her seriously. "No, Lois, I'm serious. I want to make sure you know there's no pressure. I don't want you to do anything you're not comfortable doing."

Lois met his intense gaze. "Okay, but what if there's only one bedroom?"

"Then you can have the bedroom and I'll take the couch or something," he insisted. Lois rolled her eyes, and Clark tightened his arm around her. "Come on, Lois, you'll see. This can work. And I promise, it'll be just what you need. What *we* need."

Lois tightened her fingers around Clark's. "I think you may be right."

Their gazes locked, and Clark leaned down to kiss her softly. When they pulled apart, Clark's lips curved into a slow smile. "This is going to be great."


"Hey, Manny!" Clark called across the lobby of the Daily Planet the next morning.

Manny turned around to see Clark hurrying to catch up to him and he slowed his steps and smiled. "Clark! Has anyone told you that you look entirely too cheerful in the morning?"

Clark laughed. "All too frequently. Hey, listen. Lois is excited about using the cabin. Thanks again for offering it to us."

"Oh, no sweat," Manny replied as they stepped into the waiting elevator. "I'm just glad I could help. When are you heading up there?"

Clark moved over to make room for a couple of other people who were trying to get in the elevator, then turned back to his friend. "We'd originally talked about going up over New Year's since it's a weekend, but then we thought it might work better to just extend our Christmas vacation for a couple of days and go up early in the week for a day or two. Is that a problem, though? Using it during the week?"

"Not at all," Manny said quickly. "In fact, the town's putting on a snow festival with ice sculpture contests, snow mazes, stuff like that. And I know that the theater group has a performance scheduled for that Monday night. Why don't you use my season theater pass and take Lois? The performers are supposed to be really good."

"That sounds great!" Clark exclaimed. "Are you sure you don't mind, though?"

Manny smiled and shook his head as the elevator stopped and they stepped into the newsroom. "I paid for the season pass. Someone might as well use it."

"Perfect." Clark clapped his friend on the shoulder as they started to part ways. "Remind me to make this up to you."

"Just go a little easier on me the next time we play ball!" Manny called after him. As he watched Clark walk energetically down the newsroom ramp, Manny's casual smile faded and his expression turned serious.

He walked over to his desk in the research section, sat down, picked up the phone and dialed. When he heard the voice on the other end, he sat down at his desk and lowered his voice. "Give me Garrison."

A minute later, Garrison's gruff voice came across the line. "Yeah."

"Garrison, it's me. It's all set. Kent's going to be using the cabin for a couple of days after Christmas. I even convinced him to take those theater tickets like you wanted. Everything's a go."

"Good," came Garrison's gruff reply. "Now get on up here. We've got some planning to do."

"But I just got here!" Manny exclaimed in surprise. "What am I supposed to tell everyone?"

"Who cares?" Garrison growled. "You found out when Kent and Lane are coming, that's what's important. So use any excuse you want, but get your butt out of there. I need you here. And make sure to bring the disk with you."

Manny nodded, eager to get back on his boss' good side. "Sure thing, Garrison. I'll be there in a couple of hours."


"So what have we got?" Perry asked from his seat at the head of the conference table. He looked at his reporting staff sitting around the table.

"There's the union strike," one of the reporters tossed out.

"Or how about the increase in crime around Metropolis during the holidays?" suggested another.

But Perry stood up and shook his head. "No, no, no," he said gruffly as he waved off their suggestions and started to pace around the room. "I don't think you guys get it! The Daily Planet is the number one newspaper in the world, and we're going on-line starting January first! We've got to have some big stories, something to start off this New Year with a bang! I don't want the on-line stories to read 'Big Wait at Check-Out Lines.'" He stopped pacing and turned back to the group. "Now everyone think! What can we use to start the year 2000 off with a bang? Lois? Clark?"

"Don't look at me," Lois told him. "Since you killed my 'Vigilante Groups' story, all I've got is 'Jewel Thief Caught' and 'Christmas Charity Fund Raiser a Success.'"

Clark gave her a look and nudged her under the table, but Lois nudged him back in protest. Sure, she understood why Perry had taken her off the story. But she didn't have to like it.

Perry nodded and turned to her partner. "Clark? What about you? Have you got anything?"

Clark turned away from Lois and looked at Perry. "Not much, Chief. I've been working on that senatorial scandal, but so far there's nothing new on that to lead off the year with."

Perry walked back to the head of the table and slapped his hands down on it firmly. "Come on, people! The Daily Planet going on-line is a monumental occasion, one that I don't want to underplay. And our first on-line issue is just a week and a half away! Our competition has already launched its on-line website, and if we don't start out with a bang, we'll just look like a cheap imitation! So in order to prove that we're the best, we need scandal! We need catastrophe! This is Metropolis, for crying out loud! Our stories are out there waiting for us. Go find 'em!"

His words sent everyone scrambling for the conference room door, and Perry went with them, leaving Lois and Clark alone in the room.

Lois closed her notebook and sighed. "He sure didn't beat around the bush, did he?"

"Nope, but I know how hard he's been pushing to get the paper on-line," Clark told her as he stood up. "It's been his pet project ever since the Star went on-line and started modernizing their paper. Since then, Perry's been pushing to get the paper ready to go on-line with a special daily edition."

"Perry pushing to modernize the paper," Lois said with a shake of her head. "Now I've seen everything."

"Yeah, me too," Clark chuckled. "But we won't have to worry much about it. In just a few short days, we'll be on vacation in the seclusion of the mountains, and we won't be hounded by Perry to come up with something out of this world."

"Maybe," Lois said as she followed Clark out of the room. "We still have to convince him to let us have those vacation days, and from the way he yelled at everyone just now about finding him some stories of major importance, I doubt he's going to be easily convinced."

Clark smiled smugly at her as they reached their desks. "I already convinced him."

Lois stopped dead in her tracks. "You did? You're kidding! How'd you manage that?"

"I just went into his office this morning and asked him," Clark told her, obviously very pleased with himself. "He didn't have any problem with giving you the extra time off, especially since that little spectacle of yours from a couple of days ago was still fresh in his mind. But it took a little fancy talking on my part to convince him to let me have the time off, too."

"But he did?"

Clark nodded. "Yep. And Manny said we could have the cabin whenever we want it, so how about we head up there on Sunday, the day after Christmas?"

"That'd be great, but unfortunately I'm going to be spending all Christmas Day with my parents and Lucy, which doesn't exactly leave me a lot of time to pack. Besides, aren't you going to be in Smallville with your folks on Christmas? You're not flying back on Christmas Day, are you?"

Clark opened his mouth to say that he could fly back whenever he wanted to, but he quickly stopped himself. Of course she meant 'flying back' as in 'on an airplane.' She didn't have any reason to think any differently.

"Oh, yeah, you're right," Clark fibbed. "Maybe we should leave first thing on Monday morning, instead. That way we can be there in plenty of time to see the sights. Manny said the resort's center down the hill has all sorts of activities going on, like ice sculptures and snow mazes."

"Really? That sounds like fun!" Lois exclaimed. She sidled up to Clark and slid her arms around his waist, tilting her face up to his with a smile. "I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to this now that we've talked about, well, you know."

Clark tightened his arms around her and smiled back at her. "I know. And I'm glad you're looking forward to it, because I am, too." Leaning down, he kissed her lightly.

"Hey, hey, hey! What's this?" Perry interrupted, causing them to jump apart guiltily. He walked over to them with a stack of papers in his hand. "You two will have plenty of time for that mushy stuff later, like during that vacation time I very generously approved. But for now, don't you think you two had better get to work? I want to see your stories on my desk in an hour, plus I want you to give me everything you have on those other stories you've started. I need to see what we may have coming up that I can lead off with on January first."

"Okay, Chief," Clark answered obediently.

Satisfied, Perry turned and headed for his office. When he was out of earshot, Lois turned to Clark. "He's got to be kidding! Everything we have? That'll take a good couple of hours to put together, not to mention the time it'll take to get our stories ready for him in an hour! We'll be lucky if we get a lunch break at all."

"You're right," Clark agreed seriously. Then he smiled. "But just keep reminding yourself that in a few days, we'll be outta here."

Lois laughed at his enthusiastic slang and nodded her head in agreement. "It's a deal. Now let's get to work."


The mid-day sunlight streamed through the tall forest trees, casting a myriad of shadows on the unpaved, dirt road as Manny slowed to a stop in front of the post and barbed wire gate stretched across the road. As he waited for the armed guard to reach him, Manny pulled his I.D. from his jacket pocket and rolled down his window.

When the guard stopped next to the driver's side window, Manny handed the large, burly man his I.D. and said, "Garrison's expecting me."

The man glanced at the picture on the I.D., looked at Manny, then back at the picture. "Look, I'm kind of in a hurry," Manny responded impatiently. "Can we kind of move this along?"

Unruffled, the guard studied the information on the card for another long moment before handing the card back to Manny. "Go down the road and park on the left. I'll get the gate." And with that, the man adjusted the rifle on his shoulder and walked around to the front of the car to unlatch the gate, then swung it open for Manny to drive through.

"Park on the left?" Manny grumbled to himself as he finished rolling up his window. "What am I, an outsider? It's not as if I haven't been here a hundred times already." In disgust, he stomped on the accelerator, causing his spinning tires to kick up the dust from the road and engulf the guard in a brown, dusty cloud. Manny glanced in his rearview mirror and smiled in satisfaction as he saw the man begin to cough and sputter. "Serves him right."

Manny slowed back down as the dirt road he was on began to twist in and out of the thick forest of trees as it led him up the slope of a mountain. When he reached the crest of the hill, the road swerved abruptly to the left and then started to descend toward the large log building set at the bottom of the hill next to a gently flowing creek.

Set down in the ravine a couple of miles from the nearest paved road, the cabin and its occupants were all but invisible from prying eyes. Trask had picked this location upon his reinstatement with Bureau 39, insistent that his skills as a survivalist would keep him obscure and protected from any outside intrusions as he went about fulfilling his mission of eliminating Superman.

Steering the car into the level dirt parking area on the left of the building, alongside the two four-wheel drive vehicles and an unmarked white van with tinted windows, Manny shifted his car into park and turned off the engine. Immediately, two large, formidable men dressed in camouflaged military uniforms appeared in the lodge doorway, but then they saw Manny and relaxed. They waved him in and led him through the lodge's front room, then through a large, functional kitchen, and finally down a long hallway that eventually led to Garrison's office at the back of the structure.

When they knocked and Garrison's deep voice responded, they opened the door and gestured for Manny to go in. When he did, they quickly closed the door behind him, leaving him alone with Garrison.

Manny clenched his fists in irritation. "Why do Trask's thugs always think I need an escort in this place?"

Garrison glanced up from his computer monitor and waved his hand at the doorway dismissively. "They're all just a bunch of brainless, brawny thugs who've never thought for themselves a day in their lives. Trask ordered that everyone except his immediate troops, and me, of course, be escorted around the place. Don't let them get to you." He finished typing in a few more keystrokes, then leaned back in his chair and looked intently at Manny. "So? Where's the disk?"

"Oh, yeah." Manny reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out the square piece of black plastic. "It's all set. The virus is installed, and everything is pretty much set to go."

Garrison took the disk Manny held out to him, then gave him a look. "Pretty much?"

"Yeah, well, I still want to run a couple of tests on it to make sure everything goes according to plan," Manny told him, shifting his feet anxiously, "but so far there haven't been any indications that the plan is anything but perfect. There's nothing to worry about."

"Nothing to worry about? That's a pretty cocky statement coming from someone who's about to be involved in the biggest virus scandal in history."

Manny grinned. "So I'm cocky. What's wrong with that?"

"Everything's wrong with that," Garrison scolded, temporarily forgetting the disk in his hand and glaring up at Manny. "If you look at all the criminals around the world who are behind bars, ninety-five percent of them are cocky, and didn't think they'd ever be caught. That arrogance is what *gets* you caught. And if you ever get caught, it'll be your funeral. Understand?"

The grin quickly faded from Manny's face. "Yeah, boss. I understand."

"Good." Garrison turned back to the computer and slid the disk into a slot on one of the three computers lining the wall.

The whirring sound of the computer as it started to read the disk filled the air, and a second later, the disk's files flashed onto the screen. Seeing the data before him, Garrison slowly leaned forward in his chair, his eyes widening in disbelief. "What is this?!"

Manny's heart leapt into his throat as he took a step closer to the monitor to see what his boss was looking at. "What's the matter?"

"This!" Garrison shouted, gesturing to the computer screen. "This disk contains information about some jewel thief and his conviction record! Where's the virus antidote?!"

Manny's face turned ashen and he gulped. "Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh?" Garrison echoed. "What do you mean, 'uh-oh?'"

"Um, I must have accidentally switched the disks by mistake," Manny said in a small voice as he straightened up.

"Switched the disks?!" Garrison roared, his eyes blazing. "With whose? Who has the virus antidote?"

"Lois Lane must have it. This disk was supposed to be included in the research I gave her for her story. I must have given her our disk, instead."

"So Lois Lane has the disk? You idiot! Do you have any idea what you've done?! That disk contains the patch for the Planet's virus! If she's looked at it, she could be on to our whole plan! We'd be done for!"

"Now, Garrison, calm down," Manny said, trying to soothe his raging boss. "The antidote is completely encrypted. Even if she did open it, there'd be nothing for her to see. All I have to do is go back to the Planet and switch the disks back. She always keeps her disks in her top desk drawer, so it's no problem to find it."

"Unless she's already taken it to the police!" Garrison shouted. He turned back to his computer and quickly shut it down, then stood up and grabbed his overcoat from the hook on the door.

"Where are you going?"

"To get the disk!"

"But I already said I'd go back and get it for you," Manny told him as he hurried over to the door.

But Garrison quickly pushed him aside. "Forget it! You've already jeopardized the plan. Do you think I'm just going to stay here while I give you the chance to run back and mess things up again? Forget it! I'm going myself. That's the only way I'm going to know the job is done right. Just stay here and make sure no one fools with my computer while I'm gone."

"But…it'll take you four hours to get there and back! You just want me to sit here for four hours?"

Garrison yanked open the door, but then paused and turned back to glare at him. "Just be glad I don't pull out my gun and shoot you right now. In a plan of this magnitude, there's no room for mistakes. Or for the people who make them," he finished pointedly. Then with one last, seething look, Garrison walked out and slammed the door behind him.

As Garrison's footsteps retreated, Manny breathed a quick sigh of relief. Garrison had been right. There was no room for mistakes. And he'd just been let off the hook.

Walking over to the chair Garrison had recently occupied, he sat down, leaned his head against the tall-backed chair and closed his eyes. He knew he might as well make himself comfortable. He had a few hours to kill.


"How's your story coming, Lois?" Clark asked as he walked over to her desk and perched on the corner of it.

"Just sending it to Perry now." A couple more clicks of her mouse, and the story was on its way to Perry's office. With a weary sigh, she leaned back in her chair and looked up at Clark. "How's yours?"

"All done."

"You mean we finally have a minute to breathe?" she asked, smiling tiredly. "I'm so hungry I could eat an entire four course meal."

Clark grinned. "Then how about some lunch? If we hurry, we can still catch the lunch special at Margene's."

"That sounds perfect."

Lois rolled her chair back from her desk and reached for her purse. When she stood up, Clark was holding her coat up for her. She smiled at him. "Always the perfect gentleman."

He flashed her his heart-stopping smile and helped her on with her coat. "Of course I am. So are you ready?"

She nodded as she slipped her arm through his. "Yep. But let's hurry and get out of here before Perry decides to slap another last-minute story on us."

Clark laughed as they walked arm and arm out of the newsroom. "You know, I wouldn't put it past him."

When they stepped out into the brisk December air, Lois tightened her overcoat around her more securely and looked up at the blanket of clouds overhead. "Looks like snow," she commented. "At least it would warm things up around here." She pulled her gloves from her pockets and started to put them on. As she did, she couldn't help noticing Clark's unbuttoned coat and lack of gloves. "Aren't you freezing?"

"Oh, um, not really," Clark stammered, suddenly looking uncomfortable. "I guess I spent so much time working out on the farm in Smallville in cold weather that it doesn't affect me much anymore."

"Mmm," Lois murmured distractedly as she reached for her scarf and wrapped it around her neck. "Acclimation and all that, huh?"

"Yeah, I guess," Clark replied. Then he quickly reached out and grabbed her arm, steering her around a couple of Christmas shoppers who had stopped to peer into a boutique window.

Lois smiled up at him. "Thanks. I guess I should watch where I'm going in this crowd."

It wasn't long before they reached Margene's and walked through the jingling, wreath-adorned front door of the café. Compared to the cold outside, the warmth of the café was a comforting change.

As the door swung shut behind them, Clark put his hand on the small of her back and steered her toward a vacant booth near the windows. They sat down, and Lois pulled off her gloves and shrugged out of her coat.

"A few minutes to relax," Lois smiled across the table at Clark. "I can hardly believe it."

"Well, believe it," Clark grinned back. "And just think…this is only the beginning. We can relax for three whole days once we get up to the cabin. Manny says they have some great restaurants in town. We could be doing this a couple of times a day."

"Mmmm," Lois replied happily. "Just the thought of a real, honest-to-goodness vacation—and one with you, even—" she grinned, "keeps me going through busy days like these." She reached for one of the menus on their table and flipped it open. "What are you going to order?"

When they'd placed their orders with the waitress and their food arrived, Lois didn't waste any time digging right in. It wasn't long before her food was gone.

Clark couldn't help laughing. "I can't believe you just ate all that. I guess you won't have any room for dessert now."

"Oh, dessert!" Lois exclaimed. "I could really go for some chocolate mousse."

Clark smiled and shook his head. "Lois, you never cease to amaze me."

Lois grinned sheepishly as she gave the waitress her dessert order and then sat back to wait for it. "What can I say? All that work this morning and putting off lunch for so long made me famished."

Clark opened his mouth to reply, but the sound of Lois' cell phone ringing interrupted him. Lois sighed. "I guess a whole lunch without interruptions would be too much to ask for." She reached into her purse and pulled out the phone. "Hello? Oh, hi Jimmy. What's up?"

As Clark scooped up the last of his lasagna, he glanced up at Lois as she listened to Jimmy. But a few seconds later, her face took on a strange, confused expression.

"He was looking for me? Did he say what he wanted?"

Instantly on alert, Clark's brow furrowed and he put down his fork. "What's wrong?" he mouthed.

She shook her head at him quickly, then listened for another minute. "And he just left when he saw you watching him? Where did he go?"

More than anything, Clark wanted to tune in his superhearing and listen in on her conversation, but he felt funny about doing that since he'd be invading her privacy. So he waited impatiently for her to finish.

The second she did, Clark started in on her. "Lois, what happened? What did Jimmy say?"

Lois' brows furrowed as she slid the phone back into her purse. "Jimmy said the newsroom pretty much died after we left since everybody else was taking a late lunch, so he sat down at his desk to eat lunch, too. But then he spotted some big guy with dark hair coming down the ramp, and he asked somebody where my desk was. When they told him, the guy went over to my desk and started rummaging through my drawers. He took something out and slipped it into his coat pocket, but then he saw Jimmy watching him and took off down the back stairs."

Clark stiffened in his seat. "Did the guards catch him?"

Lois shook her head. "Jimmy alerted the security guards downstairs, but nobody could find him. My guess is he ran out of a fire exit or something."

"What did he take?" Clark asked, concerned. "Did you leave anything valuable in your desk? Keys to your car or apartment? A wallet maybe?"

Lois shook her head adamantly. "I never put anything like that in my drawers. Only notebooks and pencils and stuff. Nothing of value."

"Well, it would have to be something small enough to fit into his coat pocket. Does that give you any clues?"

Lois frowned. "Not really."

The familiar feeling of dread that Clark got whenever somebody close to him might be in danger returned, and he knew it would be impossible to shrug it off. "Lois, maybe you should find somewhere else to stay tonight. Whoever this was, they wanted something of yours enough to walk into the Planet in broad daylight with co-workers around, and steal it. Are you sure you'd be safe in your apartment by yourself tonight? Maybe you should stay with me at my apartment."

Lois laughed. "Clark, I've lived by myself for a long time. I'll be fine. Don't worry."

"Lois, I can't help it. I *do* worry about you. You get yourself into more jams than anyone I've ever known."

She reached for his hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "And I've come through each of them relatively unscathed. I can handle it."

Clark felt torn. He wanted to protect her, to make sure she was safe. But on the other hand, he knew he couldn't force his protection on her. If his past attempts were any indication, he knew she wouldn't stand for it.

Finally he sighed in exasperation. "If you won't stay somewhere else, at least promise me you'll be extra careful for the next few days. Whoever was at the Planet wanted something of yours, and who knows if he'll show up again, or what he might do if he does."

"Clark, I promise," Lois assured him. She reached for the chocolate mousse the waitress had set in front of her while she was on the phone and took a bite. "Now, why don't we forget about this for a few minutes and finish dessert? Then we can figure it all out when we get back to the Planet."

Clark sighed. If only he could push the incident out of his mind so easily.


When they got back to the Planet, Clark didn't waste any time in grilling Jimmy for any other details he might have forgotten. He even talked to Perry, who had already been alerted to the situation by Jimmy, and got permission to spend some time talking to the security guards in the building to see if they'd noted anything out of the ordinary. But nobody had. Even Lois wasn't much help, since she couldn't seem to find out what had been taken.

Finally, with nothing left to go on, Clark gave up. He tried to persuade Lois again as the day came to a close to stay somewhere else for the night, but she firmly refused. Because of it, Clark spent a restless night as he kept his superhearing tuned in for any signs of trouble, and he flew over her apartment several times. But much to his relief, nothing happened.

The next day also passed uneventfully, with Clark and Lois spending the day catching up on the last minute stories that Perry assigned them, and by quitting time, Clark's feelings of anxiety for Lois had also passed. The following day, Christmas Eve, went by quickly, with Perry treating everyone to a catered lunch and a casual, festive atmosphere. Before Clark knew it, he and Lois were done for the day.

As they walked out of the Planet building together, Clark held Lois' attaché while she put her gloves on. "So is everything set for your family's Christmas gathering tomorrow?" he asked as they walked down the street to where she'd parked her Jeep.

Lois nodded as she finished with her gloves and took her attaché back from Clark. "Yes, as set as it's going to be, I guess," she answered with a sigh. "Lucy is able to come after all, and her flight's getting in tonight. But she's not coming alone. She's bringing her latest boyfriend with her, so that should be interesting."

Clark laughed. "I can imagine."

"How about you?" Lois asked, sliding her arm through Clark's and snuggling up next to him. "When does your flight leave for Smallville?"

Clark cringed. He hated having to tell little white lies to Lois. At the point they were in their relationship, it just made him feel guilty. He had to tell her about Superman. And soon.

"Um, tonight," he finally answered. "My parents and I are going to spend Christmas morning together. Then tomorrow night we'll probably go into town to see the Christmas tree and lights festival they have every year at the town square. There are always carolers and hot chocolate, and everybody gets to catch up on who's doing what."

Lois smiled wistfully. "Sounds like fun."

Clark heard the tone in her voice and turned to her. "Lois, you're still welcome to come, you know. I wouldn't want to intrude on your family time, but if you're really dreading spending the day with your family—"

"No, Clark, it's okay," Lois interrupted. "I told my folks I'd be there, and at least they're making an attempt to have everyone get together. That's at least something." They reached the car, and Lois stopped to look up at Clark and give him a quick smile. "But thanks for offering."

Clark smiled back, but Lois noticed his smile didn't reach all the way into his eyes. He sighed and reached out to pull her into a warm hug. "I just hate the thought of you being unhappy on Christmas, Lois."

Feeling tears gather in her eyes at the sincerity of his words, she slid her arms around his waist and hugged him back tightly. It was an incredible feeling to know that he cared so much about her, and about whether or not she was happy. He truly was an amazing person.

"I won't be unhappy, exactly," she reassured him. "I'd just rather be spending Christmas with you, that's all."

He hugged her a little tighter, and Lois knew that if he didn't stop being so darned sympathetic, he was going to make her cry right there in front of everybody. She gave his back a quick pat and pulled out of his embrace, careful to keep her emotions in check.

"Don't worry about me, Clark, I'll be fine. Besides, we're heading up to the lodge the day after Christmas, right?"

Clark nodded. "If it's all right with you, I thought we'd leave around nine. That should get us up there around eleven, and we can unpack and look around a little before lunch."

"I can hardly wait," Lois told him with a smile. "At least I have that to look forward to." At the return of Clark's sympathetic look, Lois groaned and rolled her eyes. "Clark, quit worrying about me! I'm going to be fine."

She unlocked the doors of her Jeep and then went around to the driver's side to climb in while Clark got in the passenger side. Feeling she'd gotten her emotions back under control, she turned to Clark once they were in the car and grinned. "I seem to be telling you a lot lately not to worry about me."

Clark laughed. "How true. But if I'm always having to say that, don't you think that means something?"

She started the car and flashed him a teasing smile. "Um, maybe that you worry too much?"

Clark laughed again as he shook his head. "I give up," he muttered as they drove away.

As they did, neither of them noticed the dark-haired man listening in on their conversation from the back seat of the black Lexus parked in front of them. He watched the silver Jeep pull out into traffic, then rolled up his window. Turning to Manny sitting beside him, Garrison said, "Sounds like they'll be at the cabin early. We'd better go make sure everything's set for their arrival."

Manny nodded, clearly relieved to be back on his boss' good side now that the disk was back in their possession. "I'll go there tonight and get started."

Garrison gave him a quick nod. "You do that." Then he straightened and waved his hand at the burly, blond-haired driver in the front seat. "Let's go. Trask will want to hear about this."


Lois grabbed the dinner dishes from her mom and gave her a tired smile. "Why don't you go and sit down, Mom? I can do the dishes."

Ms. Lane smiled at her daughter. "Thanks, sweetie. Actually, I wouldn't mind stepping outside for a minute to get some fresh air."

Lois watched as her mom turned and crossed through the family room, complete with lighted and blinking Christmas tree, and headed out onto the back patio of the condo, shutting the door behind her.

"I can't say that I blame you, Mom," she muttered as she set the dinner dishes in the kitchen sink. "This day hasn't exactly been relaxing."

*Relaxing. Yeah, right,* Lois thought as she turned on the hot water. *I know things are bad when I'm using the excuse of doing the dishes to get a moment to myself. At least I'm assured of a few minutes of peace this way. I mean, who in their right mind is going to come in and offer to help?*

Actually, the day had started off pretty well, Lois considered as she started to rinse the dishes and put them in the dishwasher. Lucy and her new boyfriend, who seemed to be very charming, were happy and joking around, which seemed to set the tone of the morning as they all sat around the tree, talking and laughing and opening gifts. In fact, Lois couldn't remember enjoying a holiday with her family more.

But then the inevitable happened. Her dad said something that her mom misconstrued, and they started to argue. That sent them into a full-blown argument, and Lucy and her boyfriend conveniently disappeared for a quick walk around the block, which had turned into an hour before they had reappeared. Lois had done her best to stick around while they were gone and had tried to get her parents to smooth things over, hopefully salvaging what was left of their Christmas gathering.

Things had calmed down a little since then after her father offered an apology and her mother grudgingly accepted. At least they were speaking again. But the energy Lois had spent trying to stay upbeat was definitely wearing on her, and she welcomed the few minutes alone, even if it meant doing a sink full of dishes.

She was just adding the soap to the dishwasher when the phone rang. Wiping her hands on a dishtowel, she hurried to answer it. "Lane residence," she said, more politely than she felt.

"Lois? Is that you?"

Lois' face immediately broke out into a big smile. "Clark! You have *no* idea how glad I am to hear your voice!"

His deep laughter came across the line. "Uh-oh. That bad, huh?"

"You have no idea," she said dramatically as she pushed the 'start' button on the dishwasher and then turned away from the kitchen. "Just a second, Clark. Let me get into one of the bedrooms where I can have some privacy."

She crossed through the family room where Lucy and her boyfriend were now sitting and talking amiably with her father, and she hurried past them and up the stairs, quickly ducking into the nearest bedroom and shutting the door behind her. "Okay, whew!" she breathed as she sat down on the bed. "I've escaped. And I'm telling you, 'escaped' is definitely the right word to use."

"Dare I ask how things have been going?"

"I'm sure you could guess. Let's just say that I'll be glad to get out of here in an hour or two, and go back to my apartment for some peace and quiet." She went on to tell him about everything that had happened, then grilled him for details about how things were going for him in Smallville.

"Well, we're just about to head downtown," he told her. "But I wanted to check in with you first, and let you know I've been thinking about you and wishing you were here."

Lois smiled happily as she lay back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. "I wish I were, too." Then, in the background, she heard Clark's mom telling him they were ready to leave. "Clark, I'll let you go," Lois told him quickly. "I'm going to make one more appearance downstairs, then I'm going to head back to my apartment. You have fun tonight."

She could hear Clark's sigh through the phone. "Lois, are you sure you'll be okay? I hate the thought of you sitting alone at your apartment tonight."

Lois laughed. "Believe me, sitting alone tonight after a day like I've had sounds wonderful."

"Okay," Clark said doubtfully. "But at least we'll see each other tomorrow. We'll spend the day wandering around enjoying the resort's festivities."

Lois smiled dreamily. "I can hardly wait."


"I'm surprised there isn't more snow," Lois commented the next day as she looked out the window and saw that only patches here and there remained.

"Yeah, me too," Clark agreed, taking his eyes off the road momentarily to look around at the landscape. "But most of the snow has melted in Metropolis. It must've melted up here, too."

"I hope the lack of snow hasn't slowed the festival."

"Even if it has, it's not going to stop us from having a great time these next few days." He turned to her and smiled, then reached out to give her hand a quick squeeze.

Lois smiled back. "Not a chance."

Putting his hand back on the steering wheel, Clark refocused his attention on the windy road in front of them. "So how far are we?"

Lois consulted the unfolded map on her lap. "Well, according to this, we should be coming up on River Falls in a few minutes. Then we're supposed to take a left at the gas station."

"And that'll take us to the cabin?"

Lois nodded. "That's what Manny's directions say."

They continued to follow the road up the mountain, and soon they saw a sign announcing River Falls.

"What a great place!" Lois exclaimed as she strained to see the small town down the hill and off to the right. "I can't see much of it through all the trees, but it looks like it's made up of log cabin buildings and stores. I can hardly wait to go exploring!"

Clark smiled at Lois' enthusiasm. "Me, neither. Why don't we hurry with our unpacking when we get to the cabin, and then head right back out? We can find somewhere to have lunch, then walk around and check things out."

Lois agreed, and they eagerly watched for the cabin after they turned left off the main road. About two miles up the wooded and deserted dirt road, they caught a glimpse of a brown structure up ahead, mostly hidden by trees and foliage.

"Clark, slow down, I think that's it!" Lois exclaimed as she reached out and grabbed his arm. As the Jeep slowed, Lois leaned forward in her seat and squinted to see the black numbers above the log cabin's front door. She quickly glanced down at the paper in her hand to verify the address, then exclaimed, "Yes, this is it!"

Clark turned the Jeep down the long, narrow drive leading to the cabin and moments later, pulled to a stop. They climbed out stiffly and walked around the front of the car to stand beside each other. It was quiet for a moment as they studied the cabin's view-encompassing windows, high-pitched roof and tall stone chimney.

"Pretty place, but, boy, Manny wasn't kidding when he said it was secluded," Lois said. "There's not another place around for miles."

"That doesn't bother you, does it?" Clark asked with concern as he turned to look at Lois.

"No, it doesn't bother me," Lois told him with a shake of her head. "It's just that it's going to take a little getting used to after being in Metropolis. Besides, isn't the idea to 'get away from it all?'"

Clark laughed as he reached for her hand. "It definitely is. Now come on. Let's check out the inside."

As they walked hand in hand up the cabin's needle-covered front path, the two men in the distance, hidden by the brush dotting the mountainside, lowered their binoculars.

"Should we head back and let Trask know they've arrived?" the first man asked quietly.

The other nodded. "Trask's been planning this for a long time. He'll be anxious to hear."

As soon as Lois and Clark went inside the cabin and closed the door, the two men stood up and disappeared into the woods.


"What do you mean, you want me to slip Kryptonite in Kent's pocket?" Garrison demanded when he met with Trask a short time later in the lodge. "Have you finally flipped out for good, Trask? What good would it do to target Kent? Superman's not going to come anywhere near him when he finds out he's got Kryptonite in his pocket!"

Trask clicked his tongue beratingly as he shrugged into his camouflage jacket and strapped the weapons belt around his waist. "Oh, ye of little faith," he mocked as he walked toward Garrison, shaking his head.

Just then, one of Trask's men appeared in the cabin's front doorway. "Anything else you need taken to the truck?"

Trask shook his head. "We've got everything. Just tell the men that I want everybody in position at the cabin tonight. If anyone's not there, they won't live to see tomorrow. Got it?"

The man nodded obediently, then backed out and shut the door, leaving Trask and Garrison alone again.

When they were, Trask turned back to Garrison. "Don't you get it?" he asked impatiently. "Kent *is* Superman! Why do you think I went to all this trouble to get your guy Manny at the Planet to arrange this little 'romantic getaway' for Lane and Kent? Out of the goodness of my heart? No! I'm luring him here so I can take him hostage and force him to give me the exact information I need to make it known to the world that I was right all along, that alien invaders are soon going to be landing here, bent on taking over the world."

Garrison stared wordlessly at Trask, his expression reflecting his confusion. *Kent was Superman? Could Trask be right about this?* he asked himself as he tried to digest the information just thrown at him. *Could Clark Kent, Daily Planet reporter and seemingly normal guy, really be the Superhero in disguise?*

It seemed so highly unlikely, so completely unbelievable. But if Trask was so certain, surely he had some little piece of information that could back up his claims. And he wasn't about to believe the paranoid madman without it.

"So where's your proof, Trask?" Garrison demanded, his eyes narrowing. "I'm not going to believe something like this from you without proof."

"What kind of proof do you need, Garrison? A signed affidavit?" Trask shook his head as he strolled over to his briefcase lying open on the table. "If you must know, Kent told me himself when he and I had our little run-in in Smallville about a year ago. We were fighting in that pond, and I had just pulled my gun on him and was about to kill him when that small-town sheriff got to me first."

Garrison started to laugh. "Trask, you're crazy! This makes no sense whatsoever. If he'd supposedly told you he was Superman, then why in the world would you think a bullet would kill him? Or that you could win a hand-to-hand combat with him?"

But Trask just smiled patiently and turned to his briefcase. Slowly, he picked up a long syringe and a small medicine jar containing a strange, greenish liquid. "Because," he began smugly, "it was during our little confrontation that I found out I was right all along about the effects of that meteorite found in that farmer's field. That particular piece of green rock, which I believe came from his home planet, was harmless to humans, but it had an entirely different effect on Superman, just as I thought it would."

Garrison stared at Trask, his expression still skeptical. "And what effect was that?"

"It would kill him," Trask stated simply. "Or, if it was administered in a limited exposure situation, like if you were to inject it into him in an extremely diluted, liquefied form," he continued, holding up the syringe and glass jar, "it would render him virtually powerless."

Trask fell silent as his words hung heavily in the air, and he could tell from Garrison's expression that he was mulling over his explanation. Finally, Garrison nodded seriously and walked toward him, taking the jar of greenish liquid from Trask's hand and holding it up to the overhead light. He sloshed the liquid around for a minute, squinting at it thoughtfully.

"And just how do you plan to inject him with it if his skin's invulnerable?" Garrison asked, handing the jar back to Trask.

"Simple. That's where this little piece of Kryptonite comes in." Trask unsnapped a leather pocket in his weapon belt and pulled out the silver dollar-sized chunk of glowing green rock. "You plant this on Kent, and the effects will immediately start to weaken him. My bet is he'll run back to the cabin, not knowing he's carrying the source of his discomfort with him. Then, after we've given it enough time to work its magic, we'll go bursting in there and take him. He'll be powerless to resist."

Garrison nodded slowly as the plan began to sink in. "And Ms. Lane?"

Trask waved his hand dismissively. "She won't be a problem. With Kent powerless, my men will easily be able to handle her."

"Why not just do away with her?"

"Because we need leverage!" Trask snapped. "You don't honestly think Kent's going to divulge his army's information that easily, do you? We can use Lois Lane as our bartering tactic, and make it simple for him. Either he tells us what we want to know, or his girlfriend dies."

Garrison licked his lips thoughtfully. "And then you're going to kill him after you're done interrogating him, right?"

Trask nodded. "That's the plan. He'll be powerless, thanks to this fancy little diluted version of Kryptonite that I arranged to have concocted. So it'll just be a matter of planting a bullet in him like I was going to do in Smallville."

Garrison walked across the room to the windows and stared out of them unseeingly as he considered Trask's plan.

*Trask might actually have something here,* he deliberated. *Clearly, the man has thought this out down to the very last detail.* And this was the main reason he'd been put in Trask's group in the first place: to see to it that Superman was eliminated. It seemed all he had to do was follow Trask's plan, and the dirty work would be done for him. Then he could get on with his own plans, without the worries of the superhero intervening. Now that he knew exactly what Trask was planning, it would be his job to make sure everything went according to plan.

"Okay, I'm in," Garrison said finally, turning back to Trask. "Where and when do you want me to do this?"


"I can't believe this place!" Lois exclaimed as she and Clark walked into the cabin and looked around in awe.

The great room that greeted them had high, angled ceilings and a giant stone fireplace, with surrounding sofa, loveseat and overstuffed recliner that took up most of the wall to their left. Along the back wall was a bold, knotty-pine staircase, which led to a large loft overlooking the room, and a moderately-sized but comfortable kitchen sat off to the right, separated from the great room by a row of cabinets and an eating bar with stools pushed underneath it.

"Yeah, I had no idea the place would be this great," Clark admitted, clearly impressed by their surroundings. "Manny made it sound like just some nice, old cabin that needed some attention. But this…" he made a sweeping gesture at the room, "it's incredible."

"Let's go see what's upstairs," Lois suggested, taking his hand and pulling him with her.

Clark laughed. "You're not excited or anything, are you?"

Lois grinned over her shoulder at him as they started up the stairs. "What, are you kidding? I haven't had a vacation in ages, and from the looks of this place, it's going to be an amazing three days."

Clark grinned back and shook his head, surprised by Lois' enthusiasm after her initial opposite reaction to his suggestion to get away. "I'm sure it will be, Lois."

When they got upstairs, they 'oohed' over the pool table in the rec room, then continued down to the end of the hall where they found a large master suite with incredible floor to ceiling windows along one wall, overlooking the woods behind the cabin and the rising mountains in the distance.

"Oh, Clark, what an amazing view!" Lois exclaimed. "You've got to see this."

"I can see it from here," Clark replied from the other side of the room. "But that's nothing. Check this out."

Lois turned to see Clark standing in the doorway of the adjoining bathroom, and she hurried over. When he moved aside, her jaw dropped. The bathroom was easily the size of her bedroom at her apartment, with marble floors and countertops, a double sink, and a jetted tub in addition to a separate shower.

"Wow!" she said, crossing the bathroom to sit on the edge of the jetted tub and stroke the smooth, sleek surface. She closed her eyes and sighed dreamily. "I could soak in this thing for *hours.*"

Clark's throat suddenly constricted and his heart rate doubled. The image of Lois lying naked in the tub suddenly sprung to mind, and he was helpless to stop the onrush of hormones that flooded through him. He gave himself a mental shake and reminded himself that he'd promised this getaway wasn't supposed to be that way. He'd promised.

"Maybe I'll do that tonight after we get back from the theater," Lois continued, totally oblivious to Clark's struggle to regain his control. "We're still going to the performance tonight, aren't we?" She glanced up at Clark for confirmation, and it was then that she noticed the aroused look in his eyes.

A blush quickly spread across her cheeks, and she opened her mouth to apologize,but then she immediately shut it again. What did she have to apologize for? All she'd said was that she wanted to soak in the tub. What was wrong with that? But clearly it had sparked something inside of Clark, and though she felt bad for making Clark uncomfortable, she also couldn't help but feel a rush of satisfaction at his reaction.

True, he'd told her a few days ago at her apartment that he didn't know if he was ready to take their relationship to the next level. But his reaction told her that he had indeed thought about being intimate with her, and was aroused by her. If he weren't, his reaction wouldn't have been so noticeable.

Seeing that he'd made her uncomfortable by his reaction, Clark suddenly cleared his throat and turned his attention to her question. "Yeah, I'd still like to go to the performance tonight. That is, if that's okay with you."

"Yes…yes, I'd love to," Lois quickly responded, trying to reduce the tension hovering in the room. "But first, we should probably get the things from the car and unpack a little."

"Good idea," he stated matter-of-factly, trying to restore the casual feeling between them. "And I'll tell you what. Since this appears to be the only bedroom, why don't you take it, and I'll sleep on the couch."

Lois stood up quickly and followed him out of the room. "But that hardly seems fair," she argued. "I know you're nice and everything, Clark, but I don't think I could sleep in that great big bed knowing that you've been relegated to the couch for the next three nights."

"Well, then maybe we could work out a system," Clark suggested as they walked down the stairs and over to the front door.

Lois grinned, remembering a similar situation not so long ago. "Like alternating nights? Or sharing?"

Clark remembered his words from that night in the Lexor hotel and laughed along with her. "Exactly." But then Clark's smile faded, and he quickly hurried to clarify. "Not that I mean I think we should share. I just meant that we could work something out. I mean—"

"Clark, relax," Lois said, putting a hand on his chest. She looked over at the couch for a second, then looked back up at him. "Listen, can we talk for a minute? I think we need to clear the air about this."

He nodded wordlessly and followed her over to the couch, where they sat down next to each other. Turning to face Clark, Lois pulled one of her legs up underneath her and then reached for Clark's hands, taking them in her own. She stared down at their joined hands for a minute and licked her lips nervously. What she had to say was not going to be easy, but obviously it needed to be said.

"Clark, we've only been here ten minutes and already we've had two awkward moments," she began with more boldness than she felt. "I think that maybe we should get a few things out in the open about us being alone here together."

Clark bowed his head in agreement. "I know, Lois, and I'm sorry if I've made you feel uncomfortable—"

"Wait, Clark, stop right there," Lois insisted. "See? This is exactly what I'm talking about. I don't want to spend the next three days listening to you apologize for something that you're worried I might misconstrue."

"I know," he said again. "It's just that you mean so much to me, and it's so important for me to see that our relationship works. That's why I'm prepared to let you set the pace and not pressure you. I know how skittish you are about intimacy—"

Lois cut him off again. "Clark, I'm not skittish about intimacy," she began, but then stopped and shrugged in resignation. "Well, okay, maybe I am. But it doesn't have anything to do with you personally. It's just that I haven't had the best of luck when it comes to getting intimate with men. First there was Claude, and I don't need to tell you how *that* turned out." She rolled her eyes in disgust. "And then there was Lex. Not that we ever…well…slept together. But it still really shook my confidence to be that involved with him. I guess I just have this nagging little fear that being intimate with someone I care about will ruin things. After all, I'm batting a hundred here." She smiled sheepishly.

"Lois, I—"

"No, Clark, let me finish," she hurried on, scooting closer to him. "The truth is, I wouldn't *mind* being intimate with you." She smiled mischievously and put her hand on his thigh, giving his muscles a gentle squeeze and sending Clark's hormones spiraling at her bold touch. "It's just that I need time to get over these feelings of insecurity before I feel ready to take such a big step."

Clark nodded understandingly and reached for her hand. "Lois, you know how I feel about you, and I can promise you I'm not one of those guys who's going to leave after taking that step in our relationship. My feelings for you are real, Lois. I'm here to stay."

"I know," Lois smiled, blinking quickly to keep the tears caused by his sweet sincerity from falling. "I just want it to be a decision we make together when we both feel ready."

Clark smiled softly as he gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "That sounds fair."

Lois smiled back. "Great. So you can stop tiptoeing around me, and just say what you feel. If I'm uncomfortable with something, I'll tell you, and we can talk things out. Okay?"

Clark nodded. "Okay."

"Good," Lois said, giving Clark's thigh a final pat before pulling her hand away. "Now that that's settled, we can get on with things. Like getting our suitcases out of the car and then going out for some lunch. I don't know about you, but I'm starving."

After they'd retrieved their bags from the car and brought them inside, Lois set her suitcase down by the couch. "I can't believe how heavy that thing is," she said with a sheepish smile. "You'd think I'd packed for a week instead of three days."

Clark laughed. "Here. Let me take that upstairs for you."

As Clark went upstairs and disappeared into the bedroom, Lois decided to check out the kitchen. She walked in and flipped on the light, then walked over to the wall of cabinets and opened one. She was surprised to see it wasn't empty.

"Hey, Clark! Come and look at this!" she called out, hoping he could hear her upstairs. A minute later he appeared, and she smiled at him over her shoulder. "The cupboards are even stocked. How about that?"

Clark opened the other cupboards, all of them revealing canned food, spices, and non-perishable items. "This is great! It looks like we have everything except milk, bread and eggs, and we can pick those up when we go into town." He walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her from behind, pressing his cheek against her hair. "Oh, and we'll need to get an onion, a green pepper, some tomatoes and cheddar cheese…"

Lois giggled. "It sounds like you're making quite a shopping list. What do you have in mind?"

Clark smiled slowly. "Well, if you must know, I'm planning on whipping you up one *amazing* omelet tomorrow morning."

"Wow, really?" Lois asked with a pleased smile as she turned in his arms and wrapped her arms around his neck. "That sounds great! I can't wait."

As they stood in each other's arms, Lois couldn't help noticing the happy sparkle in Clark's eyes. Unable to stop herself, she continued to take in the features of the man so near her: the warm brown eyes, the adorable grin twitching at the corners of his mouth, the firm, chiseled jaw, his strong cheekbones and smooth, olive-colored skin.

Her stomach did a series of flips as she realized what she really had standing in front of her. Here was this incredibly handsome man who was also sweet, kind, and considerate, who dealt patiently with her unpredictable temper and dramatic mood swings, and still loved her in spite of them. It made her realize how lucky she was that he was standing in front of her, so willing to love her unconditionally, to be there for her whenever she needed him.

"You know what else sounds great?" she asked, giving him a soft smile.



Before Clark knew what was happening, Lois stood on her tiptoes and pulled him in for a kiss that was filled with such passion that it took him by surprise. He tightened his arms around her waist and returned her kiss, the feelings between them deepening as their kiss became even more intense. When they finally pulled apart, Lois' cheeks were flushed and they were both breathless.

"Wow," Clark murmured breathlessly. "What was that for?"

Lois smiled up at Clark tenderly. "That's for being so good to me."

Clark tightened his grip around her even more, pulling her tightly to him. "Well, if that's what I get for offering to make you an omelet, what do I get if I make you something even better?" A mischievous grin tugged at the corners of his mouth.

Lois giggled. "That's for me to know and you to find out." She dropped her arms from Clark's neck and took his hand, lacing her fingers through his. "Come on. Let's go get some lunch."


The town was exactly what Lois had pictured: smaller wood and log buildings that housed stores, shops and restaurants, all built around a central park where the snow festival was taking place. There were dozens of cabins and houses built a short distance from the town square, and a ski hill rose up in the not-so-far distance. The sidewalks and streets were filled with tourists and residents, all talking and laughing as they enjoyed the festivities going on in the park across the street and also taking advantage of the after-Christmas specials going on in the shops around them.

As Lois and Clark wandered along the bustling sidewalks, looking in the shops' festively decorated windows and enjoying the atmosphere, they came across the civic auditorium at the far end of the square. A brightly colored poster hung in the front windows, announcing the local theater group's performance for that evening.

A small restaurant sat next door to it, so they decided to have lunch there before wandering through the park and seeing the snow festivities. The rest of the afternoon went by in a happy blur as Lois and Clark immersed themselves in the small-town activities, and by the time dusk started to fall, they decided to get some Chinese take-out and head back to the cabin.

"What an amazing day!" Lois exclaimed as they walked in the front door of the cabin and shrugged out of their coats. "I can't remember the last time I had so much fun."

Clark grinned. "Me, too. They sure know how to put on a festival."

Lois hung her coat up on the rack beside the door and turned to smile teasingly at Clark as he walked over to the eating bar and set down the bag of groceries. "Did they outdo Smallville's Christmas festival?"

"Close, but not quite." Clark put the milk and produce into the fridge, then turned to Lois. "So where should we eat? Here in the kitchen?"

"Uh-uh," Lois told him with a quick shake of her head. "In front of a roaring fire. We can turn off the lights and eat by firelight. Doesn't that sound great?"

"Feeling romantic, are you?" Clark teased, a wicked smile crossing his face.

"Mmmm, maybe," Lois replied evasively as she sauntered up to him and rested her hands on his chest flirtatiously. But then her smile widened and she said, "Or maybe it's just that a roaring fire sounds great after being out in the cold all afternoon."

Clark laughed. "So much for romance."

"Well, there might still be a little of that, too," Lois assured him, tilting her face up to his and reaching up to touch her lips softly to his. "Now be a gentlemen and go out and grab a couple of logs from that woodpile I saw outside. I'll get the food out."

Clark smiled as he leaned down to give her one more quick kiss. "Yes, ma'am."

While Clark was outside, Lois grabbed a quilt from the couch and laid it out on the floor in front of the fireplace, then set the food containers out on it, along with a couple of cans of soda they'd picked up at the store. Clark reappeared a moment later, and Lois couldn't help but notice how adorable he looked in his flannel shirt and jeans, carrying a couple of logs under his arm. Unable to help herself, she smiled.

"What?" Clark asked defensively as he walked toward her and the fireplace with the wood.

"Nothing," Lois quickly said, unsuccessfully trying to hide her smile. "It's just that I've never seen you look so rugged before, so 'woodsy.' It's pretty sexy, actually."

Clark's eyebrows went up in surprise and he grinned broadly. "Oh, really?"

"Yes, really," Lois nodded, still smiling. "Now hurry up and get that fire going. It's still a little chilly in here."

Dinner went all too quickly as they talked and laughed as they ate, enjoying the quiet of the cabin and the easy companionship they shared. Afterward, Clark leaned back against the couch with his legs stretched out toward the crackling fire, and Lois stretched out beside him, with her head pillowed on his lap. She stared up at him in companionable silence, enjoying watching the flickering firelight dance across his handsome features as he ran his hand lightly through her hair.

"Mmmm, can we just stay like this forever?" Lois murmured happily. "With a roaring fire to lie in front of, in a secluded cabin with no phones or TV…"

"And no one to bother us," Clark finished, his voice soft and husky. "It's pretty great, isn't it?"

Lois sighed contentedly and closed her eyes. "Perfect is more like it." A minute later, Clark's soft laughter reached her ears. Quickly she opened her eyes to look up at him. "What?"

He shook his head slowly and smiled. "I just can't ever remember seeing you this relaxed, this happy. Seeing you happy makes *me* happy."

Lois smiled up at him, then casually reached out for his arm and pulled it towards her so she could see his watch. Turning it to reflect the firelight, she noticed that it was almost six. She groaned. "The performance starts in about an hour, so I guess if we're going to make it, we'd better start to get ready."

Clark groaned, too. "It's too bad the performance isn't tomorrow night. I've been really enjoying myself just sitting here with you."

"Me, too," Lois admitted with a smile as she sat up next to him. "But we still have two more nights to look forward to. That gives us lots of time to continue what we're doing. Plus maybe do a little more." Then, to demonstrate what she meant, she leaned toward him and kissed him invitingly.

Clark responded to her kiss, lifting his hand up to rest it tenderly on her cheek, then running it lightly down her neck and across her collarbone. Lois' quick intake of breath startled Clark, and immediately he stopped, worried that he'd crossed the line into an area where Lois wasn't comfortable. He started to pull back, but Lois hurried to reassure him.

"No, Clark, it's okay," she whispered, quickly capturing his hand and pressing it in place. "I didn't mean I wanted you to stop. I liked it."

Clark left his hand where it was, but he sighed as he tipped his head forward so their foreheads touched. "I'm sorry, Lois," he whispered huskily. "This is just all so new. I have to admit, I'm pretty inexperienced at all this, and I don't want to do something wrong, or move too fast—"

Lois quickly raised her hand and put a finger to his lips, silencing his words. "Clark, it's okay. I haven't had a ton of experience, either, and we can both say we haven't had a lot of experience with each other. So let's just do what feels comfortable. Then we can go from there."

"Okay," Clark agreed hesitantly, knowing that he wasn't about to tell her that he hadn't actually had *any* experience at all. That was something they could talk about later when the time came. "But—"

"No more 'buts,'" Lois told him firmly. Then she smiled softly. "Now just shut up and kiss me."

Clark smiled back and leaned forward to kiss her obediently, deciding to simply put his fears aside and do what came naturally. As their kiss deepened, Lois wrapped her arms around his neck and tried to scoot closer to find a more comfortable position. Sensing she was uncomfortable, Clark reached out for her, encircling her tiny waist with his strong arms, and pulled her onto his lap in one fluid motion. He was a little surprised by his own bold move, but when Lois leaned up against him and kissed him even more deeply, he knew he'd done the right thing.

Lois parted her lips slightly, inviting Clark to further their kiss, and soon their tongues were entwined as they began to explore every inch of each other's mouths. Lois groaned softly, sending Clark's already sensitive and careful balance into a precarious state. Falling back on her advice to do what felt natural, he moved his hands from the small of her back, and carefully and tentatively slid his hands underneath the back of her loose sweater, pressing them against the bare skin of her lower back, then around to her sides, gently touching and kneading her skin as he went.

Lois moaned again, then slid her own hands out from behind his neck to trail them slowly down his chest, pausing briefly at the buttons at his chest before unbuttoning first one button, then another. Clark was so immersed in their intimate foreplay, so overwhelmed with the new rush of sensations and deep emotions that were washing over him, that something didn't dawn on him until Lois had her hand on the fabric of his shirt and was beginning to slide her hand underneath. Then it hit him.

The suit! He was wearing the suit underneath his clothes as he always did! If he let her slip her hand underneath his shirt, she'd be expecting to feel the bare skin of his chest, and when she didn't, he would suddenly have a whole new world of problems to deal with!

In one desperate motion, he pulled his hands out from underneath her sweater and reached around to still her hand on his chest, praying that he'd made it in time. His sudden movement startled Lois, and she pulled back in surprise, looking into his eyes and noticing that they were as clouded over by arousal as she was sure hers were.'

"What?" she asked breathlessly. "Is something wrong? Did I go too far?"

Clark tried desperately to catch his breath, too, yet not alert her to the sudden problem with their foreplay. "No!" he said, a little too forcefully. To cover up his anxiety, he rushed on. "No, Lois, you didn't go too far. It's just…well…"

His mind searched frantically for something to say, some reason he could give her for stopping so suddenly that wouldn't hurt her feelings, something that wouldn't give away his *real* reason for stopping.

Then it hit him. He was planning on telling her about his inexperience sooner or later, so why not use it to his advantage now? Maybe it wasn't the best time to broach the subject, but given the alternative—the truth about his other identity—it seemed like the only option he had.

Looking into her worried and anxious eyes, he took a deep breath before beginning. "Lois, remember how I told you a few minutes ago that I was a little inexperienced?" She nodded silently, so he continued, his voice quiet and halting. "Well, the truth of the matter is, that's a little exaggerated. In fact, if you get right down to it, I guess you could say, well, I haven't had…*any* experience at all."

Lois stared back at him blankly for a long minute before she suddenly realized what he was saying. Her eyes widened. "By not having 'any' experience, do you mean…?"

Clark held his breath. Was her reaction a good thing or a bad thing? He couldn't tell. So he finally nodded slowly, his eyes continuing to search hers. "Yes, I mean…I haven't really…gone…this far with anyone before, and I'm afraid that if we keep going, I might not…"

'Say it, Clark!' the little voice in his head screamed. 'You wouldn't be lying! It would be the truth! And besides, it would justify your panicked reaction.'

He agreed with the voice and did his best to continue, though he felt his face turn a bright shade of red. This wasn't a conversation he'd ever had with anyone before, and he felt naked, exposed.

"Well," he tried again, fumbling for the words, "the truth is, I don't know if I could stop once we got past a certain point."

Lois stared back at him unblinkingly, and when she continued to remain silent, he wished a crack would open up in the floor and swallow him whole. "Lois?" he said, squirming with embarrassment. "Are you okay? I didn't mean to throw this at you so suddenly, but we'd talked about making a decision about our intimacy mutually, and I thought this was something you needed to know. But if my being a v—well, an inexperienced sexual partner—upsets you, then I apologize for not discussing this with you sooner—"

Before he could finish, Lois sat up a little straighter on his lap and shook her head. "No, Clark, *I'm* the one who should apologize," she said firmly. "I didn't mean to look so freaked out. This is just…a surprise, I guess. I knew you were a real gentleman, but I had no idea you'd never…been…with anyone." She paused, hoping she hadn't said the wrong thing. But then she smiled softly and slid her arms around Clark's neck, fingering the ends of his hair at the back of his head. "Clark, to tell you the truth, I'm flattered by the idea that you waited for me, or…well, maybe not waited for *me* necessarily—"

"No, Lois, you were right the first time," Clark interrupted, putting his hands gently on her shoulders and forcing her to meet his eyes. "I *did* wait for you. I've had girlfriends before, and I've had the opportunities to…well, you know. But it just never felt right. Then I met you, and I knew right then the reason *why* I've been waiting all this time. You are the only person for me, Lois, and I sincerely hope I don't scare you off by saying that. But I've been in love with you for a long time, and now that we're finally a couple, that just makes the stakes in our relationship so much higher, why I *need* to make our relationship work out. I love you, Lois. You are who I've been waiting for, and I don't want to lose you."

Tears filled Lois' eyes as Clark finished, and immediately he worried that he'd said too much, really scared her this time. But Lois saw the anxiety in his eyes and she shook her head quickly as she reached up to wipe away an escaped tear.

"Clark, that's the most beautiful thing I've ever heard," she said as she smiled happily through her tears. "To know that you feel that strongly about me…about us…that you love me. You can't believe how great that makes me feel. And even though I've never said it out loud before, I want you to know that I love you, too."

Clark let his breath out in a rush, and a happy, blissful smile lit up his face. He reached up and cupped her face in his hands, and he slowly rubbed his thumbs along her cheeks. "Lois, you have no idea how long I've waited, how many nights I've prayed, that I'd one day hear you say that," Clark told her, his voice choked with emotion. "You are so special to me, and it means everything to me to hear that you feel the same way."

Clark reached up to brush at a single tear that trailed down her cheek, then leaned forward and kissed her sweetly. When they pulled apart, Clark smiled at her tenderly. "On that note, we should probably get changed for the theater."

Lois smiled back and nodded. She slid off Clark's lap, and he got to his feet and helped her up. When she was standing beside him, she let her hand linger in his for a moment longer than necessary, not wanting to let the magic of the moment fade. But she knew that they were going to have to hurry if they were going to make the performance, and it wasn't like they wouldn't be together. The magical evening didn't have to end there. They were going to be out enjoying themselves, totally uninterrupted, for the rest of the evening, and then…well, who knew what might happen when they returned to the cabin? The night was all theirs to do with it whatever they decided felt right.

Finally, Lois gave Clark's hand a squeeze and released it. "I guess we should get dressed. I'll, um, just go upstairs and change. Do you want me to holler down when I'm done so you can use the bathroom?"

Clark nodded. "That'd be great. I'll change down here in the meantime."

Lois went upstairs and took her dress out of the closet where she'd hung it when they'd first arrived. Carrying it into the bathroom, she shut the door behind her and started to undress. When she slid the dress over her head and pulled it over her bare skin, she couldn't help shivering beneath the smooth rayon fabric. She'd chosen her favorite navy blue rayon dress with short sleeves, a scooping neckline, and a pretty, full skirt that just brushed the top of her knees.

As she zipped herself up and turned to look in the mirror, she was pleased with what she saw. The style complimented her tiny waist, and the revealing neckline showed off just a hint of cleavage. It was both sexy and dressy, without being overly so. Just perfect for such an occasion.

She reached into her makeup bag and quickly went about applying the makeup that had somehow vanished during her and Clark's afternoon outdoors. Then she turned her attention to her hair, brushing it until it gleamed. When she was done, she gave herself one final glance before leaving the bathroom. On her way out of the bedroom, she slipped on her navy blue heels and grabbed the simple pearl earrings she'd decided to wear, then headed downstairs.

"Clark, the bathroom's all yours," she called out as she walked down the stairs while putting the earrings in her earlobes.

A low whistle greeted her, and she looked down to see that Clark was staring at her in admiration from the bottom of the stairs. "Lois, you look incredible!"

Her heart started to beat crazily. "I do?" she asked as she reached the bottom of the stairs and looked up at him shyly. Then she glanced down at her dress. "I don't look overdressed, do I? You said semi-formal, so I don't want to be overdressed…"

Clark put his hands on her shoulders to stop her babbling. "Lois, believe me, you look amazing. What you're wearing is just perfect."

Lois finished putting the second earring in her ear and then pulled away from Clark so she could better see what he had chosen to wear. He had on a charcoal sports jacket, white collared shirt, tan Dockers, and a bold-print tie. She smiled. "You look pretty great yourself, Clark."

"Thank you," he accepted humbly. "Let me just hurry upstairs to finish getting ready, and I'll be down in a minute. Then we can get out of here."

Lois wandered over to the couch and lowered herself onto it, content to relax in front of the still-flickering fire until Clark was ready. It had been so long since she'd just been able to take her time, to enjoy herself without interruptions. With the warm fire heating her stockinged legs, she sighed happily. She had to admit, Clark had picked the perfect vacation. She was going to owe him big-time for this one.

As she waited, she couldn't help reflecting on the conversation still fresh in her mind. Clark's telling her of his inexperience had been a shock. But it had also been incredibly flattering. Even more than that, though, it made her realize that it meant something even more to her, something that no other assurance of words could offer. Clark's sexual experience—or lack of it, in this case—only succeeded in proving to her that he was definitely a forever kind of guy, not someone who was going to run out on her after things became intimate between them. If he had been a 'love 'em and leave 'em' kind of a guy, he wouldn't have waited all these years for the right person to share such an intimate and personal thing with.

She realized once and for all that she could trust him to stick with her through anything that might come their way, and that little piece of assurance meant more to her than anything else he could have offered her.

Just then she heard the sound of Clark's footsteps on the stairs, and she quickly stood up and turned to smile at him. He returned her smile readily as he closed the distance between them, tightening the knot in his tie. They crossed to the front door where Clark helped her on with her overcoat, then put on his own.

As he opened the front door, he offered her his elbow and smiled down at her. "Ready to go?"

"You bet," Lois responded, looping her arm through his.

The drive into town went quickly, and before long they'd pulled into a curb-side parking space a couple of blocks from the theater and joined the crowds going into the auditorium.

While they waited in line to show the usher their tickets, Clark tried to be inconspicuous as he watched Lois taking in all the activity going on around them. As he did, his heart filled with an entirely new love for this woman who had so long ago captured his heart.

She looked so incredibly beautiful, with the lobby lights glinting off her dark hair and her creamy skin evident beneath the open throat of her coat, that it almost took his breath away. And what made everything even more amazing was the fact that Lois had finally voiced her love for him. He'd been waiting for so long to hear those words, and hearing them now made his life absolutely perfect. It was also a relief to finally get the details of his inexperience off his chest, especially after all their talk of late about intimacy in their relationship, even if the reason for his sudden rationale of why to tell her was not quite as selfless as he'd planned. But what did it matter? She'd accepted it without question, and the conversation that had followed had simply made the night one to remember. Without a doubt, he knew that tonight was definitely a turning point in their relationship.

But not *everything* was perfect. There was still the issue of telling her about Superman…

*But things suddenly feel so different between us,* Clark rationalized. *She took the conversation of my inexperience in stride, and it made us closer. Surely my telling her about being, well, who I am, would only succeed in strengthening our relationship that much more.*

'Yeah, right,' the nagging voice in his head chimed in. 'Telling Lois about your virginity is one thing. Telling her that you've been outright lying to her for the past two years is not going to be as easily accepted, and you know it.'

Clark sighed. The voice was right. The two things were entirely different matters, and her reaction would undoubtedly be completely different. But regardless of her reaction to the news, he had to tell her. As far as they'd come in their relationship, with the two of them divulging the things they had divulged to each other, he knew he couldn't expect her not to get mad about being deceived about this for so long.

Yes, she would probably be mad. But now that he knew she loved him, he was sure they could work through any complications that might arise in their relationship. After all, wasn't that what his dad always told him? That love could conquer all? Well, he was sure he'd soon find out…when and how he finally decided on a way to break it to her.

The usher finally showed them to their seats, and Clark helped Lois get settled before sitting down next to her. As the lights dimmed and a hush fell over the crowd, Clark wrapped his arm around Lois' shoulders and pulled her close. Lois melted against him and let her head fall contentedly onto his shoulder. In the darkness of the theater, Lois sighed happily.


"What a great performance!" Lois raved as she and Clark walked out of the theater and into the cold night air almost two hours later. "For such a small group of performers, they sure had a lot of talent! Maybe Perry could send one of the entertainment reporters up here to do a piece on them. They were fabulous."

"Yes, they were," Clark agreed, his steps slowing as he waited for Lois to button up her coat. When she finished buttoning, he smiled at her and offered her his arm. "Ready to go?"

She nodded as she returned his smile with one of her own, then slid her arm through his. "What do you think about seeing if one of the restaurants are still open? We could grab some hot chocolate or something."

"Great idea," Clark suggested as they started down the near-empty sidewalk. "I think there was one not far from where we parked the car. Why don't we head that direction?"


Lois tightened her arm on Clark's as they walked along the darkened streets, with most of the tourists and town's residents already at home for the evening. She let her breath out slowly and watched as it formed into a little cloud in front of her face.

"It's cold out tonight," Clark observed casually. They turned the corner of the block and headed down the nearly deserted street where they'd parked the car. "Are you sure you won't freeze before we get to the restaurant?"

Lois laughed softly. "I'm not made of glass, you know, Clark. I've lived in Metropolis all my life, and there are lots of days in the winter that are easily as cold as this. Besides, look at you! You're only wearing that sports jacket. You should be the one freezing."

Clark simply shrugged. "I guess winters in Smallville have—"

"I know, I know. Winters in Smallville have acclimated you," Lois finished for him with a smile.

They were just walking past the front door of a closed hardware store when they suddenly heard the jingling sound of the store's door opening. They barely had time to look over to see a man dressed in a long, dark trench coat and a dark wool cap before he came rushing out and barreled into them.

Caught unprepared, Lois was nearly knocked to the ground as she and Clark were separated. "Hey, watch it!" she exclaimed, grabbing at Clark's arm to try to remain upright. "Didn't anybody ever teach you to watch where you're going?!"

"Hey, are you okay?" Clark asked, reaching out to grab the falling man. They were a tangle of arms and legs for a moment, and Lois took a step back, trying to avoid the confusion as they separated.

"Sorry," the man mumbled, then turned and rushed away without a backward glance.

Lois whirled around and watched the man disappear quickly down the street. "You could at least make sure we're okay!" Lois yelled after him indignantly. When she saw him duck into a dark alley behind one of the buildings, she slowly shook her head and turned back to Clark. "Can you believe the nerve of that guy?"

But when she looked at Clark, her heart immediately leapt into her throat. He was doubled over in pain, with his teeth gritted together and his face twisted in agony.

"Clark!" she exclaimed, suddenly fearing that the man had somehow hurt Clark during the commotion. She quickly bent over to try to look into his distraught face, sliding one arm across his back and putting her other hand on his shoulder. "Clark, what's wrong? Did that man hurt you? What happened?"

Through the fogginess in his mind, Clark quickly sorted out his symptoms in his head. It didn't take him more than a moment or two to figure out what was wrong. Kryptonite. Only Kryptonite could make him feel like this. But where? And how?

Clark grimaced in pain, the hammering in his temples and the roaring in his head nearly blocking out the sound of Lois' concerned voice. *I have to get out of here,* he realized quickly. *I don't know where the Kryptonite is, but there's no doubt it's nearby.*

Gathering all his strength and willpower, he clenched his teeth together and tried to straighten up, but the searing pain coursing through him quickly changed his mind, and he immediately doubled back over.

"Clark!" Lois cried, barely able to keep the panic she felt at seeing Clark on the verge of collapse from taking over her. "Clark, you have to tell me what's wrong!"

Knowing from Lois' tone that she was bordering on hysteria, Clark opened his mouth to try to reassure her, but just then another wave of pain flooded through him, and he went down on his knees, groaning against the searing pain.

Lois tightened her arms around him as she struggled to keep him upright, but she knew she was no match for Clark's husky, muscular frame. She squatted down next to him, her face creased with worry.

"Lois, I have to get out of here," Clark managed to force out between gasps, becoming more desperate as he felt his strength continue to ebb away. "Please, help me…"

Lois quickly looked around the deserted street, hoping she could find somebody who could help them, but the late hour and cold weather had driven everybody indoors. Feeling even more panicked, Lois turned back to Clark and tugged at his slumped form, trying to urge him to his feet. "Come on, Clark. Can you stand up? We've got to get you to the hospital. I remember seeing signs for one further down the mountain…"

But Clark quickly shook his head, even though it made the world spin crazily around him. "No, Lois, I can't go…to the hospital," he choked out as he struggled to his feet. "Just get me back to the cabin. We can figure out what to do from there."

"But Clark!" Lois argued, her eyes filled with worry. "You need help! I'm not a doctor, I don't know what to do—"

"No, Lois, no hospital!" he shouted back adamantly, unable to stop the harsh tone from entering his voice. "They won't be able to do anything for me there!" He looked up at Lois, clearly able to see the confused and panicked expression on her face, even through the haze filming his vision. He immediately felt bad for snapping at her, but he was in too much pain to offer any consolation. But his voice was softer when he spoke again, "Let's just get back to the cabin, okay?"

Lois glanced once more at the darkened, deserted street around them, then turned back to Clark, clearly uncertain and unhappy with his decision. "Fine, if that's what you want to do," she conceded, sliding her arm around Clark's waist and helping him toward the car, shouldering his weight as best she could as he slumped against her and struggled to remain upright.

Against her better judgment, Lois helped him into the passenger seat of the Jeep, quickly climbed behind the wheel and sped away toward the cabin. She did her best to keep her eyes on the darkened road in front of her as she darted through town and out onto the highway, but she kept glancing over at Clark, noticing with ever-increasing concern that, instead of getting better as they neared the cabin, he seemed to grow increasingly worse. His normally olive-colored complexion was ashen white, and his face was creased with pain. He continued to cry out in pain as they drove, with his weight slumping against the passenger door.

When they finally pulled up in front of the cabin, Lois had never been so glad to see anything in her life. She threw the Jeep into park and turned off the engine before rushing around to his side and opening his door. He slumped out against her, nearly collapsing onto the cold, frozen ground. Through tear-filled, panicked eyes, Lois struggled to keep him standing, then half-dragged, half-walked him to the front door of the cabin and hurried inside.

She helped him to the floor in front of the fireplace, where he immediately collapsed with an anguished cry of pain. Lois quickly dropped to her knees beside him, the tears that she'd been struggling to fend off for the past few minutes finally coursing down her cheeks.

"Clark, you have to tell me what to do!" she cried, her panic finally turning to helpless sobs as she grabbed desperately at his suit lapels. "I don't know what's wrong, or what I need to do! Please…"

Clark shook his head, and reached out blindly for her hand, hoping to give it a comforting squeeze. But the pain was too much for him, and he let out another anguished cry.

*I don't understand what's happening,* he thought. *If there really was Kryptonite back there, I shouldn't still be feeling like this! We're far enough away from town that I should be returning to normal.* But he knew from the pain jolting through him that he was far from being out of danger. In fact, he felt even worse than he had in town a few minutes before.

With her heart wrenching in her chest, Lois reached out and brushed the hair back off his forehead, noticing with a start how hot his skin felt beneath her hand, and the damp perspiration that covered his forehead. Not knowing what else to do for him, Lois let go of his hand and ran for the kitchen, grabbing a dishtowel and soaking it with cold water from the faucet before hurrying back to him. She grabbed for his jacket sleeve and tried to tug it off his arm.

"Clark, let's at least get your coat off and have you lie down with this cold cloth on your head while I try to figure out what to do," she sniffed, trying to regain some of the control she'd lost moments before. "But you're going to have to help me…"

In spite of the pounding in his head and the ache attacking every muscle in his body, Clark did his best to raise himself off the floor a fraction of an inch as she tugged on his jacket, finally succeeding in pulling it off him. Without a second thought, Lois tossed his jacket onto the hardwood floor behind her, and was surprised to hear a strange thud as she did.

She turned back to Clark as he lay back on the floor and put the cold towel to his head. "Clark, what's in your jacket pocket?"

"What?" he asked weakly, his voice barely a strangled whisper. "I didn't put anything in my pocket. Why?"

Suddenly wondering if the 'thud' had something to do with Clark's worsening condition, Lois leaned over and grabbed the hem of the jacket. Succeeding in pulling it toward her, she quickly shoved her hand in the first pocket and found it empty. Then she turned the coat over and slipped her hand into the other pocket. Immediately, she felt the surface of something hard. Grasping the object, she pulled it out, and when she saw what it was, she gasped in shock.

The iridescent green glow of the rock in her hand was something she knew she'd never forget. She'd only seen it once before, when Arianna Carlin had molded a bullet out of it and shot it into Superman's body. When she'd awoken from her drugged sleep, she'd found Superman crumpled on the floor of Lex's penthouse, grabbing at his shoulder and grimacing in pain. She'd never forget how she'd had to fish that Kryptonite bullet out of his shoulder, with Superman grabbing onto her hand for all he was worth as she worked it free from his skin and pulled the glowing bullet from his body. Moments after she'd removed it, he'd been able to scramble to his feet in his weakened condition and hurry after Lex's evil ex-wife.

And even though it had been almost a year, she'd never forgotten the shock of seeing Superman writhing on the floor, grimacing in pain…much like Clark was now.

Something clicked in Lois' head, and her mouth opened in shocked silence. It couldn't be! Kryptonite was supposed to be harmless to humans. If this was the reason Clark was suddenly so sick, that could only mean…

Her face went white. Turning to look once again at Clark's grimacing form, it was like watching the events in Lex Luthor's penthouse all over again. Except this time it was Clark writhing on the ground.

Her mind started to whirl frantically, searching for a solution to the questions suddenly forming in her mind. Could it be? Clark? And Superman? Were they…could they be…?

As her foggy, panicked mind struggled to reason, Clark lifted his head off the floor just enough to see what she was doing. The instant he saw the glowing, green rock in her hand, it all made sense. No wonder he hadn't been getting any better! It had been in his pocket the whole time, continuing to work its deadly powers. The man they'd run into must've planted it on him during the confusion!

Not stopping to worry about the fact that some yet unknown enemy must've made the connection that he was Superman, he clenched his teeth as another searing pain tore through him. "Lois, you've got to get that out of here!" he told her desperately, fearing that he didn't have much time to act before it would be too late. "Take it outside, get rid of it!"

Jumping to her feet, Lois clenched the rock in her hand, ran to the door, yanked it open, then hurtled the Kryptonite chunk as far as she could into the inky blackness of the woods. Then she turned back to Clark, already noticing a change in his appearance. He was still deathly pale and his face was dotted with perspiration, but he no longer appeared to be in agonizing pain.

Hurrying over to him, Lois knelt down shakily next to him and cautiously touched his shoulder. "Clark, are you okay?"

He swallowed noisily and shut his eyes for a long moment, trying to stem the diminishing ache still numbing his body. "I…I don't know," Clark answered weakly, lifting his hand with great effort to press it over hers. "I think I will be. I just need some time…"

It was quiet for what seemed like an eternity as Lois sat motionless at Clark's side, her mind still churning and searching for answers. There was no denying what she'd just witnessed. Clark's agonizing pain…the glowing rock she'd found in his pocket…his strangled voice telling her to get rid of it…and when she had, his pain slowly diminishing. All the signs were there. It didn't take a genius to piece together the facts. Being a part of what had just happened, Lois knew she couldn't reason this all away. The events spoke for themselves.

Clark was Superman.

In a state of shock, Lois slowly pulled her hand out from underneath Clark's and leaned heavily back against the couch.

So Clark was Superman. In all this time, the thought had never even once crossed her mind. She'd always thought of the two men as totally separate people, and why shouldn't she have? Who would've thought that her patient, quiet partner could be the strongest man in the world, the superhero everyone worshipped, and turned to for help amidst the world's greatest disasters. Certainly not her, and she knew him probably better than anyone in Metropolis! And maybe even everywhere else, for that matter!

The more she thought about it, the angrier she got. Here they were, in a serious, committed relationship—even talking about intimacy, for crying out loud! And he obviously didn't even think something of this magnitude was worth telling her about! Years of mistrust and betrayal on the part of the men in her life suddenly came flooding back, and the pain she felt at each of the distressing times stabbed at her with such emotional pain that she silently cursed herself for ever trusting a man. She thought, with all her heart, that she could trust Clark after all they'd talked about and been through together as partners in work, and as partners in what she thought was a serious relationship. But clearly she was the partner being left out of an important part of this man's life, and the lack of trust he'd showed by not thinking enough of her to tell her about it made her hurt clear to her soul. He'd said he loved her. But actions spoke so much louder than words.

Tears pricked at the back of her eyes, and she knew she'd been a fool to ever give her heart to a man—even if it was someone like Clark, who she'd thought she could trust. But instead he'd betrayed her, lied to her, and showed her that he didn't think her worthy of his most intimate secret.

Feeling as if someone had just ripped her heart out and sent it through a meat grinder, Lois clutched at her aching stomach and struggled to her feet, unable to sit beside Clark for a moment longer. With hot tears of anger and hurt sliding down her cheeks, she hurried across the room to the front door of the cabin. Now that she knew Clark was going to be okay, she couldn't stand to be in the same room with him a minute longer.

Seeing her stand up and rush across the room, Clark closed his eyes and groaned inwardly. *Terrific,* he cursed silently. *Now she knows. This is exactly why you should've told her sooner, so that something like this wouldn't happen! After all this time, after how far you've both come in this relationship, everything is suddenly in jeopardy.*

He saw her reach for the doorknob, and he knew if he didn't do something, he was going to lose her. Maybe even for good.

He gingerly raised himself up on one elbow. "Lois," he called, trying to summon enough energy to be heard. "Lois, where are you going?"

Letting go of the doorknob, she spun around to face Clark. "I'm going out!" she snapped, her anger finally boiling to the surface.

"Lois," he began again, trying to push himself up on weakened arms into a sitting position. "Please, don't go. We should talk—"

"Talk?!" Lois echoed furiously, her cheeks flushing with anger. "Like you talked to me about this when we first met? Or how you explained everything when we started dating? Or how about when we were getting intimate in front of the fire earlier this evening? I can't believe you, Clark! After everything we've meant to each other, you never even thought that something as important as being Superman would be worth bringing into the conversation?"

"It's not exactly something that just pops up in a conversation, Lois," Clark reasoned in his weakened voice.

"Oh, that's the perfect reason not to tell me!" Lois continued to fume. "Something like that *would* be much too difficult to discuss, so why bother telling me at all?" She flipped her hair back over her shoulder and glared furiously at him. "You're really a piece of work, Clark, you know that? I finally let you work your way into my heart, finally deciding you were the one and only man I've ever been able to trust, and this is how you repay me? By betraying my trust? By lying to me for the past two years? Did you think this was going to win me over, Clark? If so, let me tell you, you were wrong!" Knowing she'd reached her boiling point, Lois whirled around and reached for the doorknob.

Clark reached out for the couch and climbed weakly to his feet, swaying precariously as he did. "Lois, please, if you'd just let me explain—"

"No, Clark!" Lois yelled, whirling back around to face him. "Forget it! I'm too mad to talk about this right now. As a matter of fact, maybe you'd better consider yourself lucky if I ever talk to you *again*! Now, if you don't mind, I'm going out to get some air. Alone!"

"No, Lois, you can't!" Clark pleaded desperately. "It may not be safe! Whoever that man was who put the chunk of Kryptonite in my pocket…he knew I was Superman! Who knows what he's still planning to do? If you go out there…"

But Lois wasn't listening. She grabbed the doorknob and yanked the door open furiously. "Nice try, Clark," she snapped, giving him one last seething glance over her shoulder, "but you should be thankful I'm going. With as angry as I am right now, who knows what *I* might do to you if I stuck around!" And with that, Lois stormed through the open door and slammed it shut behind her.

In the silence that followed, Clark closed his eyes and cursed under his breath. *How could you have been so stupid?* he berated himself as he let his shaking legs lower him to the couch. *You should've told her ages ago, and not have kept putting it off, waiting for 'the right moment.' And look what's happened because of it!*

Clark put his still-throbbing head into his hands and tried to regain his equilibrium, knowing that, as much as he wanted to, there was no way he was going to chase her down in his condition. Maybe he'd be able to if he just rested for a minute…


Meanwhile, Lois stormed down the front steps of the cabin, not even bothering to button her coat to shield herself from the bitter cold of the winter night. It felt good to have another pain to focus on, to overshadow the seemingly all-encompassing pain that was crushing her heart.

With tears rolling down her cheeks, she stumbled blindly down the path leading away from the cabin and ran into the woods, guided only by the moonlight reflecting off the patchy mounds of snow around her. She didn't know where she was going, but she knew she just needed to be by herself for a while.

*What am I supposed to do about our little planned vacation?* Lois asked herself. *Am I supposed to pack up and leave?* She slowed her steps as her side started to ache and the tears continued to flow. Never before had she felt so betrayed, so hurt. Not by her father, and not even by Claude, who she should've seen for what he was, anyway.

But Clark? She'd always felt solid and secure around Clark. He'd taken great care to gain her trust and her friendship when he'd come to work at the Planet, and she'd finally warmed up to him over time. And then their friendship had become so much more. So why hadn't he told her? Why hadn't he felt he could trust her?

The memories of all the times he'd come to her apartment as Superman, pretending to be a completely different person, suddenly flooded her mind. Obviously, he'd had plenty of opportunities to tell her who he really was, but he never had. The fact that he could've told her and never did, leaving her out in the cold about such a huge part of his life, made her feel miserable and alone. She'd opened her heart to him, and he'd refused to do the same. That made her feel the worst of all.

Her steps slowed as hot tears continued to blur her vision, and she wandered over to one of the large trees along the path. Leaning up against it, she forced herself to take a couple of deep breaths to steady herself as she fished a tissue out of her coat pocket.

*What am I going to do?* she thought hopelessly as she looked up into the darkened sky. *I don't want to break up with Clark. I told him the truth earlier. I really do love him. But what if this is just the first sign of things to come? Will he always be keeping secrets from me? Will he not think it's necessary to tell me things? How am I supposed to trust him to be honest with me about anything in our relationship after something like this?*

She lifted her arm and roughly wiped the tears from her cheeks. Obviously, there were no easy answers. This was something she was going to have to come to terms with, and decide if she could possibly forgive him. To be honest, she wasn't sure she could. At least not right now.

As she struggled to come to terms with her feelings, something else dawned on her. The Kryptonite.

Somebody had purposely planted the Kryptonite on Clark, and that could only mean one thing. Somebody out there—besides her, anyway—had made the connection that Clark was Superman, and was taking action. But surely whoever it was wasn't just planning to slip the Kryptonite into his pocket and hope it did Clark in. Wouldn't whoever it was be planning on following things up?

*If so, Clark could be in a world of trouble,* she realized. *But on the other hand, it would serve him right.*

But as soon as the thought ran through her head, she immediately felt a rush of guilt, which in turn made her feel guilty for feeling guilty. *I shouldn't be feeling guilty!* she told herself. *He's the one who's been lying to me for all this time!* But in spite of her rationalization, she *did* feel bad. Clark was her best friend, and no matter how rottenly he'd treated her, she didn't want to see him hurt.

A slight breeze kicked up, and Lois shivered and pulled her coat more tightly around her. It wasn't until then that she realized how cold she was getting. Her cheeks felt stiff from her tears, and her legs were starting to numb since she was still wearing the knee-length dress from the theater.

With a sigh, she pushed off from the tree and decided she'd better head back, even though she didn't feel like she'd resolved anything. *At least I've blown off some steam,* she thought. *Maybe after a good night's sleep I'll be thinking more clearly, and then I can decide what I need to do about everything.*

She shook her head as she turned back down the path and started to head back to the cabin. As wonderful as the day had begun, it sure had ended miserably.

Lois had only gone a few steps when she suddenly heard a twig snap somewhere off to her left. She immediately froze in her steps, her heart hammering uncontrollably. Holding her breath, she looked around, searching the darkness for the source of the noise.

*An animal?* she wondered. *Surely not this close to an inhabited cabin. Maybe it was just my imagination,* she rationalized. For another long moment she remained still, straining her ears for any other sounds, but the woods were silent.

Too silent.

Something wasn't right. Even without her reporter instincts, she could've picked up on that. And she wasn't about to stick around to find out what.

With a sudden rush of adrenaline, Lois started toward the cabin at a half-walk, half-run. Angry with Clark or not, the cabin suddenly seemed like the place to be. Her fast pace quickly brought her to within sight of the cabin, and the lights of the cabin shining through the tall trees ahead were warm and welcoming. She'd never been so glad to see anything in her life.

But as she got closer to the cabin, she realized they weren't alone. Several vehicles were parked a short distance away, and several darkly clad figures were silently approaching the cabin's front door.

*Clark!* Lois gasped inwardly when she realized the danger at hand. In his weakened condition, there was no way he would be able to protect himself! She stopped short and quickly ducked behind a tree, hoping that she hadn't been detected. *If only there's some way I could warn him,* she wished silently. But she didn't know how she possibly could.

She was just deciding whether or not she could make it the two or so miles back into town to get help when a sudden noise behind her caused her to jump. Then, before she knew what was happening, she was suddenly grabbed from behind, and a large, strong hand clamped over her mouth, preventing her screams from sounding in the silent night air.


Back at the cabin, Clark lifted his head from his hands and sat up straighter on the couch with a heavy sigh. *What am I going to do?* he asked himself in misery. *How am I possibly going to convince Lois that I didn't want to lie to her all this time, that I'd been planning on telling her the truth? She's probably the most stubborn person I've ever known, and with all the hurt and betrayal she's suffered from men in her life, this certainly isn't going to score me any points. Not to mention she's out there all by herself…*

Clark sat back against the couch cushion for some time, listening to his body. His head wasn't throbbing like it had been a few minutes before, but he could still tell that the after-effects of the Kryptonite were still there. His limbs felt heavy and shaky, and his chest hurt, as if something was lying on it heavily. But at least he felt better than he had. That was a good sign.

Putting his hands on the couch, Clark pushed himself up cautiously, waiting to feel the stabbing pains needle through him. But they didn't come. With a sigh of relief, he slowly straightened up the rest of the way. *I'm not anywhere near a hundred percent, but at least I think I can make it out of here to look for Lois. Not only do we have a lot to talk about—*if* she'll even listen to me—but I don't want her out there in the woods alone after what just happened in town. It's not safe.*

So, with slow but determined steps, Clark made his way across the room and had almost reached the front door when it suddenly banged open and two large, muscular men dressed in camouflaged military uniforms appeared in the doorway. Clark jumped back in surprise, nearly tripping over the edge of the rug in the entryway. He stood poised to defend himself as the two men stepped toward him, but Clark realized what a bad situation he was in.

Because of the prolonged exposure to the Kryptonite, he knew there was no way he could overpower these men without the use of his superpowers, and he doubted he even had the strength to try to outrun them. It made him feel completely and utterly helpless.

Clark turned to run as the men suddenly lunged toward him, but the men had the advantage of speed and strength, and were quickly on top of him. They grabbed him from behind and forced him roughly to the ground. Clark hit the ground with a thud, causing him to grimace in pain from the shock of hitting the hard wood floor and the weight of the two men on top of him.

Clark fought for all he was worth, but within moments, he knew he was fighting a losing battle. He was just too weak, and the men were just too strong. Moments later they had his arms pinned behind his back and quickly secured his wrists with rope, causing Clark to wince as its roughness bit into his sensitive skin.

"Get him up," the one man said gruffly as the other grabbed Clark by his wrists and hauled him roughly to his feet.

Clark swayed precariously as they stood him up, and for a second he watched dizzily as the room spun around him. His head was just beginning to clear when the men each took one of his arms and half-walked, half-dragged him from the cabin. Clark continued to fight them as they hauled him outside, but they only held onto him more tightly, forcing Clark's aching arms to rethink his efforts.

*At least Lois isn't here,* Clark thought as they pulled him along with them down the cabin's front porch steps. *I don't think I've ever been so glad to have a fight with someone in my life. If she hadn't gotten mad and stormed out, she would've been here, too, and who knows what they might've done to her without me to protect her?*

They'd just reached the bottom of the steps when a man's husky form stepped out in front of them from the shadows, his chest shoved out proudly, hands joined behind his back and an all-too-familiar arrogant smirk on his face. Clark's jaw dropped. Trask!

"Well, well. Clark Kent. How wonderful to see you again."

"I wish I could say the same," Clark said from behind clenched teeth, trying once again to jerk himself free of the hands that held him. "I thought you were dead."

Trask's smirk broadened, and he nodded as he turned to take a step to his right. "I was, Kent. But someone took it upon themselves to change that."

Clark snorted. "You can't reverse death, Trask!"

"Ah, but apparently you can if you have the right technology," Trask announced as he continued to pace. "Look at Lex Luthor. Everyone thought he was dead, but he's very much alive. And now look at me." He held his arms out for bodily inspection.

"Somebody must've made a mistake reviving you, Trask," Clark said, shaking his head. "Somebody with a very sick sense of humor."

"Or somebody who believed in my mission." Trask stopped pacing and turned to take a menacing step toward Clark. "You still haven't fooled everyone with that innocent, mild-mannered exterior, Kent. I know why you're here, and I plan to get the truth out of you yet…if you know what I mean." He raised his eyebrows in silent communication, and Clark cringed.

He glanced around at the two men restraining him, but from their blank, expressionless stares, Clark could tell Trask hadn't let them in on the secret. But somehow he didn't think it was going to make a big difference in what happened to him.

Clark shook his head. "I see you haven't changed a bit, Trask," he scoffed, trying to keep his response carefully worded to not clue in the others around them. "You're still as paranoid as ever. You can do with me whatever you like, but you won't find out anything because there's nothing to tell."

"Oh really?" Trask inquired with a raised eyebrow. "Why don't you let me be the judge of that? Besides, I have the perfect incentive to get you to talk." He turned toward the darkened woods, and Clark followed his gaze.

A moment later, they spotted two shadows emerging from the darkness. One was that of a large, burly man with dark clothes and a dark ski cap, and with him was a smaller figure, being half-walked, half-dragged toward the clearing.

Clark's heart sank. He knew before he even saw her that it was Lois.

As they drew closer, he could hear her muffled cries coming from behind the hand clamped over her mouth, and he watched helplessly as she struggled to free herself from the man's strong arms wrapped around her, immobilizing her.

"Why, if it isn't the beautiful and talented Lois Lane," Trask mocked, his smug smile turning her direction. "What's the matter? Nothing to say?"

Clark watched as Lois' eyes widened in shock at seeing the man standing before her. Clearly, she felt the same feeling of dread and disbelief at seeing Trask alive as Clark did. But when Trask took a couple of menacing steps toward her, the shocked look in her eyes quickly changed to fear, and she began to struggle in her captor's arms, her muffled, fearful cries audible even to Clark's non-super hearing.

Suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of panic and desperation, Clark knew he had to do something. Powers or no powers, he wasn't about to let Trask hurt her. "Let her go, Trask!" he yelled from behind clenched teeth, jerking against the arms that held him. "You have me already! You don't need her!"

Trask clicked his tongue and shook his head slowly. "Why, Clark, I'm hurt that you think so little of my taste."

Clark watched in horror as Trask walked over to Lois and stopped mere inches away from her, an arrogant and smug smile on his face. "I'd be crazy to pass up a chance to let the beautiful, spirited Lois Lane slip out of my hands. She's quite a catch, if you ask me." Then he reached out and trailed a suggestive finger down her cheek and neck, then moved even lower.

Lois immediately started to struggle harder, her muffled cries proving just how desperate and afraid she was of exactly what this madman had in mind.

"Trask, no!" Clark yelled, the anger inside of him reaching a boiling point as he watched Lois struggle against Trask's suggestive touch. "I swear, if you lay one hand on her, I'll…"

Trask spun around to face Clark as he struggled uselessly against his captors. "You'll what?" Trask asked gruffly. "Someone in your position isn't capable of following through on such empty threats. And to make sure you can't…" His voice trailed off as he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the syringe filled with its glowing green contents.

Before Clark's mind could register what was happening, Trask uncapped the syringe and took another step toward him, then jabbed the needle into Clark's shoulder.

Clark yelled out as the syringe's contents immediately sent a burst of searing, almost overwhelming pain coursing through him, just as the chunk of Kryptonite had not long before. Instantly, his vision started to blur and the scenery started to spin crazily around him, causing him to sway precariously against his captors.

"Trask," Clark gasped, struggling to speak against the pain. "You won't get away with this…"

"Oh, really?" Trask taunted, becoming three figures in Clark's blurry vision, then molding back into two, and then one. "We'll see about that." He turned to the men holding Clark and gestured with his head toward the van behind them. "Get him out of here."

"Clark!" Lois yelled out desperately from behind her captor's hand as she watched the men struggle to hold Clark's wilting body upright as they started toward the open doors of the unmarked van.

*Lois, do something!* she screamed inwardly, fighting the panic threatening to overcome her. *You've got to try to help Clark! If they take him, what do you think Trask's going to do to him?* Knowing Trask's demented mind and paranoid agenda, she was sure Clark would be tortured ruthlessly by the madman.

Before she could decide what to do, Trask turned to her captor. "Bring Ms. Lane with us," he directed, signaling the man to put her in the truck parked alongside the van.

"Yes sir." The man lowered his hand from her mouth and loosened his grip on her in order to better secure her, and Lois quickly took advantage of it.

Knowing this might be her only chance to escape, she lifted her right leg up in desperation and brought the low spike of her heel down onto her captor's toe, causing him to yell out in pain. Then a quick elbow to his stomach, and her arms were suddenly free.

Through a haze, Clark watched Lois fight, but he realized in a panic that there was no way she was going to escape with so many men around. He quickly turned to see the other men running at her with their guns drawn in warning, but Lois continued to fight to escape.

One of Trask's men went down with a swift kick from Lois to the groin, but the next one squared off with her, and Clark immediately spotted the filtering moonlight reflecting off something shiny and silver. A moment later, he saw that the man held a knife with a long, serrated hunting blade.

Fear's cold fingers ripped at his heart, and he knew that this man wasn't about to let her get away. Even if it meant resorting to drastic measures.

Lois stood poised a few steps away from the man, seeing the knife he held menacingly in his hands, but knowing she didn't have much choice but to fight. She had no doubt that Trask and his men would kill them after they'd gotten what they wanted, or decided that she and Clark had outlived their usefulness.

When the man took a slow but determined step toward her, Lois made her move. In one fluid motion, she shifted her weight to her back leg, then brought up her other leg and went to kick the knife out of the man's hand. But the man correctly anticipated her move and, with a quick, skillful move of his hand, the steel blade bit into the flesh of her thigh.

"No!" Clark cried out helplessly as he watched in horror as Lois immediately cried out in pain and bent over to grab her leg.

Lois heard Clark's cry, but was too preoccupied by the sudden burning pain in her thigh to look his direction. She pressed her hand against leg, and when she withdrew it, she saw that it was sticky with blood. Staring numbly at the dark red substance covering her hand, she didn't notice the man coming at her again, this time succeeding in getting close enough to her to grab her bodily and slip a liquid-soaked cloth over her mouth and nose.

She immediately smelled the odd odor coming from the cloth and struggled desperately to jerk her head free of the cloth. But the man held firm, and moments later, the figures in front her started to blur and her mind went fuzzy. She heard Clark screaming her name, but her will to struggle was quickly diminished as the drug invaded her system.

Finally, unable to fight it a moment longer, her body went limp and everything went black.


Clark slumped against the inner wall of the van as they bumped and swerved their way through the blackness of the night, his head pounding and ears ringing. The two men riding in the back with him had made certain his hands were bound tightly with rope, though Clark didn't think it would've mattered if he was tied up or not. Whatever Trask had injected him with had left him feeling weak, as weak as he'd felt when the Kryptonite had been slipped into his pocket. It made him wonder if whatever had been in the syringe was some diluted version of Kryptonite, since the symptoms he was feeling were very much the same.

Leaning his head back against the van, Clark found himself unable to stop worrying about Lois. She'd been taken, unconscious, to one of the trucks and laid across the front seat, and that was the last he'd seen of her before being shoved roughly into the van.

It seemed like an eternity before the van finally lurched to a stop and the side door was thrown open. The two men scrambled to their feet and roughly pulled him from the vehicle. Out in the night air once again, Clark looked around at his surroundings, surprised to see that they were in front of a large, formidable-looking lodge in the middle of nowhere. He heard the gurgling of a creek nearby, but without his super vision, he couldn't make it out.

The sound of tires on gravel alerted him that other vehicles were arriving, and he turned to see that two trucks and another van were pulling up next to the one he'd just gotten out of.

Trask jumped out of the first truck and gestured at his men. "Get him inside! I want him taken downstairs and secured immediately."

The two men holding Clark pulled him up the path leading to the lodge, but Clark hung back, hoping to find out if Lois was still with them. Over his shoulder, his intense gaze searched the activity, and finally he spotted one of Trask's men pulling Lois out of the truck and arranging her limp body over his shoulder.

"Lois!" he shouted, struggling to break free from the men.

He was very nearly able to wrench himself free, but Trask saw the struggle going on and waved another of his men to help out. "Fredrickson! Get over there and help them. I don't want him getting away!"

With the help of the third man, Clark was quickly brought back under control and taken into the lodge. They wound their way through several sterile-looking hallways before coming to a set of steep, dark stairs that led down into the basement. When they reached the large, metal door at the bottom, one of the men pulled out a key, unlocked the door and swung it open, then shoved Clark roughly inside. Before he could turn around, the door was slammed shut behind him, the noise echoing in the cement room. Then he was alone.

Looking around, Clark saw that he was in a long, narrow room with cement walls and floors. A small, rectangular window sat up high in the far corner of the room, and a single, bare overhead light bulb dimly lit the cold, dark space. Several metal support beams spaced about ten feet apart lined the center of the room, and a carefully constructed jail cell was built into the near right-hand corner.

Before he could consider the small window as a means of escape, he heard a key being inserted into the metal door's lock, and he quickly turned around in time to see the door swing open. Trask stood in the doorway, flanked by two of his thugs, and Clark was immediately on alert.

"Where's Lois?" he demanded. "What have you done with her?"

"I haven't done anything with her, Kent. Not yet, anyway. If you cooperate and tell me what I want to know, she'll live. If not…" He pulled out his gun and cocked it.

When Trask felt like he'd made his point, he nodded at the two men. Immediately, they hurried forward and grabbed Clark, dragging him to one of the metal support beams near the center of the room. They hastily untied his hands, then retied them around the pole behind him.

Trask took a couple of steps toward Clark, never taking his eyes off him as he gestured for his men to leave. "You two, get on out of here. But don't go far. If Kent here refuses to talk, I may need your…expertise."

The men smirked, clearly enjoying the idea of using their brawn in such a manner. But they quickly and obediently disappeared out of the room, clicking the metal door shut behind them.

When he and Clark were alone, Trask smirked arrogantly. "So, Kent. Let's have a little chat, shall we?"


Two long hours later, Trask emerged from the room, followed by his tired men. He shut the large metal door and carefully locked it before starting up the basement stairs. He glanced over his shoulder at the men behind him. "You guys take a break. But tell Fredrickson and Myers that I want Ms. Lane taken down and put in the cell, whether she's regained consciousness or not. We'll see if we can use her to get what we want out of Kent."

"What about Kent?"

"Leave him tied to that pole. I don't want them in the same cell together for now."

The men nodded as they reached the top of the stairs, then hurried away to find Fredrickson and Myers. Trask headed the opposite direction and walked into the kitchen where Garrison was leaning back against the counter, popping a handful of nuts into his mouth. "So what did you get out of him?"

"It's a work in progress," Trask answered irritably as he fixed Garrison with a pointed stare. "So? Did you get it?"

Garrison nodded as he popped the rest of the nuts into his mouth and fished a cloth-covered object from his pocket. "It's a good thing Lane doesn't have a very strong arm, or else I could've been hunting all over those woods looking for this thing."

Trask took the object from him and slowly removed the cloth. The translucent rock filled the room with its eerie green glow, throwing a cast of green light across the two men's faces as they stared at it for a moment.

Finally, Garrison broke the silence. "So what are you going to do with them?"

Trask hastily covered the chunk of Kryptonite back up and slipped it into his pocket. "I'm going to continue to interrogate Kent. After all, isn't that what I brought him here for? He's going to tell me what I want to know, or else." To illustrate his point, he patted the gun at his side.

Garrison smirked in satisfaction. "Fine by me."

Just then they were interrupted by the arrival of one of Trask's men. "Lane's been taken downstairs as you requested. She's still out."

"Understood," Trask responded. "I'll be down to check on her in a minute."

After the man left, Garrison pushed off from the counter. "Well, I'll leave you to your little interrogation, though I'm sure the reason he's not talking is because there's nothing for him to tell. But when you've finally decided he's outlived his usefulness, call me. I've been waiting to see the demise of Superman for a very long time."


When Lois' consciousness started to return, she found herself feeling both dizzy and sick to her stomach. She opened her heavy eyelids experimentally, but the dim light overhead stabbed into her head like a thousand pins and needles, so she quickly closed them again. She tried to bring her hand up to her throbbing forehead to further shield them from the light, but her limbs felt too heavy, and she was unable to make her body respond to her commands.

She continued to lie still for several minutes, struggling to control the nausea churning within her and the rushing, roaring sound in her head. What had happened? Where was she? She struggled to wade through the muddy recesses in her mind in search of the answers, but the fuzzy haze prevented her from getting any.

When her head finally started to clear and the roaring sound slowly began to fade, a new sound replaced it, a soft, gentle voice that sounded warmly familiar.

"Lois? Lois, can you hear me?" came the voice, sounding as if it was coming from the end of a long, dark tunnel.

More slowly this time, Lois opened her eyes again. The dim light coming from somewhere nearby still made them ache, but at least the throbbing in her head wasn't as excruciating as it had been minutes before. She turned her head cautiously to see where she was and saw that she was lying on a cot in a small, windowless jail cell with cement walls on two sides.

Suddenly, in a flood of hazy memories, the whole event came rushing back to her. Trask! Trask and his men had been at the cabin. A foggy image of Clark being dragged roughly out of the cabin came to her, and then other images started to appear. There'd been a struggle, she'd been captured…Clark had been injected with something in a needle. She remembered him crying out in pain, and knew he must've felt completely helpless to do anything to stop the events from unfolding around him.

Feeling chilled, she wrapped her arms around herself and realized in a haze that somehow she was no longer wearing her coat. Slowly and cautiously, she started to push herself upright. But suddenly an all-encompassing, burning pain in her thigh caused her to cry out in pain.

Straining her sensitive eyes against the light, she reached down and pulled up the hem of her battered dress, immediately spotting the large, white gauze pad taped to the front of her thigh with a dark red pool of her blood soaked through it. The memory of the man slashing at her thigh with a hunting knife quickly came flooding to the forefront of her mind, accompanied by the sound of Clark's panicked voice yelling her name over and over again as the drug-soaked cloth was pressed over her nose and she'd started to lose consciousness…

Clark! What had happened to Clark?

Gritting her teeth against the dizzying pain in her head and the searing pain in her thigh, she sat up the rest of the way and searched the dimly lit room for Clark. She was sure it had been his voice she'd heard moments before.

Through blurred vision, Lois scanned the area outside of her cell and finally made out Clark's form across the room. He wasn't moving around, so she guessed he was probably restrained in some way. But at least he was alive! Letting her breath out in a rush, Lois said a quick, silent prayer of thanks.

"Lois, are you okay?" she heard him ask, his voice thick with concern.

He strained against the ropes that kept his arms tied around the steel post behind him, knowing that if he could just work himself free, he could get to her and help her.

She nodded groggily. "Yeah, I think so." She put her hands on the cot and started to push herself up, but Clark quickly protested.

"No, Lois, don't stand up!" he told her, seeing how shaky she still was. "Just take it easy for a few minutes."

Ignoring his warning, Lois stood up and took two shaky steps before she suddenly realized she should've listened to Clark. The room began to spin crazily around her, and the roaring sound in her head came rushing back. Her legs started to give out, and she made a desperate grab for the steel bars in front of her, holding tightly to them as she let herself sink back to the ground. Once she felt the cold cement floor against her legs, she leaned her forehead heavily against the cool bars and closed her eyes to the spinning room around her.

Through her haziness, she heard Clark's muttered curse word, and she knew he hated not being able to get to her. She forced herself to take several deep breaths and tried to focus on pushing her pain and nausea aside. When she started to feel a little better, she opened her eyes again and looked drowsily over at Clark's figure.

Now that she was closer to him, she could see that he was sitting across the room on the cold, cement floor, with his hands tied behind his back and around one of the large metal support beams. His shirt was untucked from his pants and covered with dirt, his glasses sat skewed on his face, and a large, ugly, bluish-purple bruise was starting to form on his left cheek.

Her stomach lurched at the sight of it, and she wondered just how much he'd been through while she'd been unconscious. She swallowed noisily and stared into the extremely worried, soulful brown eyes that stared back at her.

"Are you okay?" he asked again anxiously, twisting his hands in the ropes. "It was a long time before they brought you down here and put you in that cell. I was so scared…I didn't know what they were doing to you."

Her forehead still resting against the bars, Lois stared at Clark for a long minute. It was apparent from the pained, weary look in his eyes that he'd been treated roughly, and that he was hurting. But he seemed to be trying extremely hard to mask his own pain in his concern for her, and that touched her deeply.

"What happened?" she asked quietly, finally finding her voice. "I recognized Trask, but who were the guys with him?"

"Probably just some hired muscle," Clark told her with a troubled sigh. "I got the impression they didn't have much to do with intelligence. I've spent the last few hours trying to convince Trask that there *is* no alien invasion, but obviously he doesn't believe me. And he's starting to lose his patience."

"Yeah, I can tell from that bruise on your face," Lois grimaced sympathetically. "How are you feeling? Are you surviving?"

Clark's eyes clouded over, but he responded quietly, "I'll be okay."

Lois raised an eyebrow and gave him an 'I don't believe you' look, and Clark sighed heavily. "Actually, I've been better. Physically I'm not hurt all that badly, other than the bruise and some sore ribs from being punched so many times by Trask's thugs. But the biggest thing is," he paused and looked around to make sure no one was listening, then whispered, "I don't have any powers. I don't think the initial exposure to that chunk of Kryptonite would've left me without powers for this long, so I think that whatever was in that syringe they injected me with must've been some diluted, liquefied version of Kryptonite, because I don't have *any* powers. Not one."

Lois' face clouded with concern. "Are they going to come back?"

Clark's lips tightened into a thin line and he shrugged. "I don't know. I'm hopeful that they will. In the past, whenever I've been exposed to Kryptonite, it's just been a matter of time before my powers are restored to full strength."

"But this time it could be inside you, if you're right about the injection," Lois pointed out.

"I don't think it'll matter. My body has always managed to fight it off, and the fact that I don't feelsick should be a good sign. It must be diluted enough not to kill me. Trask just wants me powerless so he can hold me here to interrogate me. I'm sure it's just a matter of time before I'm back to normal."

Lois' eyes flashed momentarily. "Normal? Yeah, right."

Clark's defenses went up. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well, up until a few hours ago, I thought you were the normal, though really great guy, that I knew and loved," she told him in a harsh whisper. "But suddenly everything is different, and I don't know how to feel about that."

Clark's lips stretched into a frown. "Angry, I suppose."

"Yes, I'm angry," Lois shot back. "But it also hurts to think you didn't trust me enough to tell me this about you."

"Lois, it's not that I didn't trust you," Clark hurried to explain. "Actually, I've been wanting to tell you for a long time. I just wasn't sure how to go about it, so I kept waiting for the perfect opportunity—"

"The perfect opportunity?" Lois echoed, her voice rising. "Like you collapsing in my arms after a date, scaring me half to death and making me think I was going to lose you? Yeah, that's *exactly* how I would've preferred to find out about this!"

Clark's eyes flashed. "Look, Lois, I know you're mad, and you have every right to be. But we've got bigger problems to deal with right now! Who knows what Trask's going to do to us when he runs out of patience? So can we please just put this conversation on hold for a while, at least until we can find a way to get out of here?"

Angrily, Lois realized Clark was right. They had a lot to deal with in their relationship, but this was hardly the time, or the place. Finally, she nodded. "Fine. We can deal with this later. Besides, all this arguing is making my head hurt."

They were quiet for a few minutes as they deliberated over the seriousness of their situation. Finally, Lois spoke up. "You know, this is so ironic."

Clark raised an eyebrow at her. "What is?"

"Remember our story? The one Perry killed, about the corrupt, government-funded vigilante groups? Look where it's gotten us. Perry killed our story because we didn't have enough evidence, and here we are, a victim of just one of those vigilante groups. And not just *any* vigilante group. *The* vigilante group. Bureau 39. Don't you think that's ironic? Maybe if Perry had let us stay on the story like I wanted us to, we could've found out that Bureau 39 was still operational, and that Trask was up to his usual delusional plans. Then we wouldn't be in this mess."

"But how were we supposed to know Trask was still alive?" Clark asked seriously. "And we had nothing in the information we'd gathered to indicate that Bureau 39 was still a threat. Or that Trask was."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Lois admitted. Then she attempted a strained smile in Clark's direction. "At least Perry couldn't say we don't have any new leads. The story's no longer dead."

Clark nodded solemnly. "You're right about that."

Lois' smile faded and she sighed heavily. Letting go of the bars, she sat back a little, suddenly feeling very worn out. "I know we should be putting our heads together to figure a way out of this, but before we do, I think I'll just lie down for a few minutes," she told Clark quietly as she lowered herself carefully to the floor, gritting her teeth against the shooting pains in her thigh. "My mind is still too fuzzy to be creative."

"Lois, why don't you get back up on the cot?" Clark suggested, his concern for her mounting once again. "At least there you'd be up off the cold cement floor."

Lois shook her head slightly and pressed her cheek against the cool floor, relieved at how the cement made her hot cheeks and throbbing head feel better. "No, the cold floor feels good. I'll be okay here."

Clark's brow furrowed. The cold floor felt good? That could only mean she was feeling warm, which didn't bode well for her health. It was freezing in the room.

A moment later, Lois' quiet, muffled voice reached his ears. "Hey, I just realized something. You've been avoiding me as Superman for the past several weeks since we've been going out, haven't you? I kept thinking there was something funny about the way you acted when I was interviewing Sup—um, *you*—during that hostage situation at the Bank of Metropolis. You were trying not to let on that it was really you, weren't you?"

Clark nodded apologetically. "Yeah, I was. I'm sorry, Lois, but I knew that if I spent too much time around you as Superman, there would be no way I could hide the way I felt—still feel—about you. You were bound to find me out sooner or later, and I wanted to tell you this on my own terms, not have you find out about me like this…"

Lois sighed. "I know, Clark. I know."

It was quiet for several minutes as they were lost in their own thoughts. Clark turned his hands in the ropes and tugged slightly, encouraged when he felt them give a little. Maybe his efforts hadn't been totally wasted. If he could just have another few minutes, he might be able to work himself free. He didn't know what he'd do then, but at least he'd have one less problem to deal with.

Clark looked up and glanced over at Lois' still form, suddenly realizing how quiet she'd been for the past few minutes. His heart quickly started to pound. "Lois?"


He let his breath out in a sigh of relief. "I just thought… Were you asleep?"

"Nope. Just thinking."

"About what?"

There was a smile in her voice when she answered, "About that great omelet you were going to make for me this morning."

Clark couldn't help grinning. "Yeah, it *was* going to be great. Are you hungry?"

Lois sat up slowly. "Maybe a little," she admitted. "How about you?" But as soon as the words were out of her mouth, her smile faded. "Oh, yeah. I guess you don't actually get hungry, do you? I forgot."

Clark cringed. So much for putting the 'super' talk on hold.

Lois saw the expression on Clark's face and immediately regretted bringing up the subject. "Never mind. Forget I said anything." She glanced down at her watch, then leaned her head against the cell bars with a sigh.

"What time is it?" Clark asked quietly.

"Almost two AM."

Clark sighed, too, as he shook his head and stared up at the ceiling. "I knew this all had to be too good to be true," Clark muttered.

Lois looked at him in confusion. "What was?"

"This," Clark said, gesturing to their surroundings. "This whole vacation! Remember what we were planning? No interruptions, time alone… But look what happened! We've been stalked, kidnapped…you're injured, my powers have been taken away, and other than trying to work myself free of these ropes for the past half hour, I'm totally helpless to get us out of here. What kind of a vacation is this?"

"A vacation of mine," Lois said jokingly, a sardonic smile crossing her face. "But what are you complaining about? We're alone together, aren't we? Wasn't that what you wanted?"

Clark let a grin escape and he chuckled. "Yeah, but this isn't exactly what I had in mind."

Lois' response was cut off by the sound of footsteps on the stairs, and then the heavy metal door suddenly banged open. Clark stiffened when he saw Trask standing in the doorway.

"Well, well, Ms. Lane. How nice to see you up and about," he said with sarcastic cheerfulness.

"No thanks to you and your drug-wielding thugs," Lois quipped with a spark of her usual spirit.

"Lo-is," Clark warned, trying to silence her.

"What?!" Lois exclaimed, turning to Clark. "I'm not going to be nice to this lunatic! He kidnapped us and is holding us here against our will. What are we supposed to do? Thank him?!"

Clark gave her another stern glance, but Trask stepped forward, and they both turned their attention to him. "No, I don't expect you to thank me," Trask told them. "But I expect the American people will thank me when I get rid of the menace to their way of life—Superman." He turned to Clark and took several steps toward him, stopping just short of him. "When I tell the world of their impending doom, believe me, they'll thank me."

"Trask," Clark groaned, rolling his eyes and tilting his head toward the ceiling. "When are you going to get past this paranoia that I'm some front man for an alien invasion? I told you, you're wrong!"

"And I say I'm right!" Trask shouted back, his eyes locking with Clark's in a silent battle of wills. A minute later, Trask backed slowly away. "But if you're not going to tell me what I need to know, maybe I'll just have to find somebody who will."

With determination, Trask turned on his heel and strode purposefully toward Lois' cell. Fear gripped at Clark's heart as he watched Trask pull a key from his pocket and insert it into the cell's lock.

"Trask, no!" Clark yelled as he watched Lois' eyes widen in fear at Trask's approach. "Leave her alone! She doesn't know anything!"

Trask smirked at Clark. "We'll just have to see about that, won't we?"

Two of Trask's men suddenly appeared in the doorway, and Trask glared at them. "What took you two so long? Get in here. I want Ms. Lane taken upstairs immediately. Since Kent here is so resistant to tell me what I need to know, maybe we can manage to get the information out of his pretty girlfriend."

The men nodded, and Trask turned toward the door as one of his men came forward and walked into the cell. Clark strained for all he was worth against the ropes binding him, stretching them as far as they could be stretched. Then, with a few more desperate twists of his hands, the rope gave way and he yanked his right hand free.

With Trask's back turned and his men's attention on Lois, Clark quickly turned and untied his left hand, but not before Trask's thug hurried into the cell and grabbed Lois powerfully by her upper arm. He immediately dragged her off the ground and to her feet, causing her to cry out at the searing pain in her thigh that the sudden movement caused.

Hearing her cry out in pain ripped at his heart, and Clark struggled in desperation to free his other hand from the ropes. Finally, with one last yank, he freed his left hand and immediately sprung forward in an effort to protect Lois.

Trask and his other man seemed surprised to see Clark free, but an instant later the second man shook off his surprise and quickly intercepted Clark before he could reach the cell. He grabbed Clark and pushed him roughly up against the room's cement wall face first, pinning his arms behind his back so Clark couldn't move.

"Let her go!" Clark yelled loudly as he helplessly watched the man drag Lois across the room, with her limping severely behind him, grabbing at her thigh with her free hand. "Come on! It's me you want. Leave her alone!"

"You just keep quiet, pretty boy," the man holding Clark growled, raising Clark's arm behind his back and pushing it up toward his shoulder blades. Clark grimaced in pain at the man's hold move.

Through his own pain, Clark could hear Lois sobbing and pleading with the man who was pulling her out of the room to stop, saying, "I can't keep going…please, my leg…" and Clark felt as if someone was ripping his heart right out of his chest and stomping on it. Tears rolled unchecked down his own cheeks as he listened to Lois' pleading and begging for the man to stop.

When Clark heard their footsteps on the stairs, Trask paused in the doorway and signaled for his other man to join them, saying, "Just put him in the cell. I don't know how he got out of those ropes, but I'm not going to take any more chances. Make sure you lock it securely."

Nodding, the man watched Trask leave, then grabbed Clark by his shoulder while continuing to pull Clark's arm up toward his shoulder blades and shoved him roughly into the now-empty cell.

As soon as Clark was released, he made a grab for the man, but he felt the cold, hard butt of a gun come down hard against the back of his head. Clark slumped to the ground, helpless to stop the man from slamming the door shut and locking it securely. By the time the dizziness left him, the man was gone and he was alone in the room.

For the next couple of hours, Clark lay on the cot in the cell, willing his head to stop throbbing as he worried endlessly about what was happening to Lois.

Did Trask really think she knew something about this supposed 'alien invasion?' If he did, Clark was sure the man would stop at nothing to extract the information from her in whatever way he felt necessary. The all-too-painful reminders of Trask's determination to learn the "truth" were still evident in his tender cheek and sore ribs, and he doubted Trask would go any easier on Lois. In fact, with her being a woman, surrounded by all of Trask's thugs…

Clark shook his head. No, he couldn't even think it. It was just too horrifying to think about. But what was worse, he knew that Trask was capable of just such a nightmare. And that made Clark worry even more.

With his stomach tied up in knots, Clark stood up, unable to sit still a moment longer. Clutching his sore ribs, he started to pace the length of the small cell. He strained his ears for any sounds on the floor above, or for any voices or suggestion of Lois' whereabouts.

It seemed like an eternity before he finally heard footsteps on the stairs. A moment later, the door opened and Clark spun around to see Lois limping through the entrance with a large, muscular blond man with a perpetual scowl on his face.

"Lois!" Clark exclaimed in relief, letting his breath out in a rush as he hurried over to the cell door and clenched the bars tightly in his hands.

When the man saw Clark standing at the cell door, his scowl deepened and he pulled a gun from his belt. "Get back, or I'm not putting her in!"

Clark did as he was told, just glad to see that Lois was alive and apparently unharmed. But as she and the man reached the cell and the man unlocked the door, Clark's stomach tightened back up when he saw Lois' pallor, and the unusual lack of fire in her eyes. It became obvious to him that her condition was even worse than when she'd left.

The man unlocked the door and shoved Lois unfeelingly into the cell, then slammed the door shut behind her. Clark quickly reached out for her as she stumbled, and she collapsed gratefully into his arms, burying her head in his chest and sobbing.

"Clark," she cried into his shoulder as he wrapped his arms around her and held her close, stroking her hair and speaking in soft, soothing tones.

"It's okay, Lois. I'm here. I'm right here."

For several minutes Lois clung to him, grateful to be back in his comforting, familiar arms. Finally, her sobs subsided, and she slumped against Clark's chest, completely spent and exhausted. The throbbing in her head and leg made it difficult for her to think, and her eyes felt puffy from crying.

Clark continued to hold her even after her sobs quieted, but it wasn't until she reached down to put pressure on her thigh that Clark remembered she was hurt. Holding her at arm's length, Clark glanced down at her leg.

"Lois, I think I'd better take a look at that gash," he told her in a no-nonsense tone. "Come and sit down." He guided her to the cot and helped lower her down onto it. Carefully he sat down beside her and gently pulled up the hem of her dress to reveal her blood-spotted bandage. "I'm going to pull back some of this tape so I can see under your bandage. Okay?"

Looking up at her, he waited for her to nod tentatively before gingerly pulling back the tape and then the bandage. He held her thigh gently between his hands as he examined her injury, turning her leg slightly to the left and then to the right as he inspected it. Lois cringed as he did. Even the slightest of motions caused the pain to increase.

"So what happened up there?" Clark asked, trying to distract her as he continued to inspect her leg.

Lois jumped a little as Clark lightly touched the purpling discoloration of her skin around the cut. "They put me in a room upstairs and left me alone with Trask. He kept asking me all these questions about you, about your Kryptonian heritage and things like that. I refused to tell him anything, other than that he was crazy to think you were some advance man for some superhuman army coming to take over the world. He's really crazed, you know that? Nothing I said changed his mind. In fact, he kept asking me all these personal questions about how involved our relationship was, and if we'd been…intimate." Lois blushed slightly. "I got the impression he was worried that if you and I had kids, he'd suddenly have a whole new "threat" to deal with. Ow!"

Clark quickly pulled his hand away from her leg. "Sorry. I was just trying to see how deep this cut is. Actually, I'm kind of surprised to see that someone went to all the trouble to give you a few stitches."

"I have stitches?" Lois asked, her eyes widening as she quickly leaned forward to take a better look. But the sudden movement sent a fresh wave of pain through her, and she stopped quickly and closed her eyes, trying to stem the pain.

Clark reached out for her hand and gave it a sympathetic squeeze. A moment later, she opened her eyes and breathed an obvious sigh of relief when the throbbing diminished.

"Are you okay?" he asked quietly.

She nodded. "Yeah. Just remind me not to do that again." She smiled slightly, but Clark could tell it was forced, and his heart went out to her for trying to lighten their serious situation.

Turning his attention back to her leg, he said, "Yeah, you have a few stitches, which it looks like you definitely needed for this gash. They look pretty haphazard, but I guess they'll have to do until we can find a way to get out of here and get you to a doctor." He shook his head and looked up at her intently. "That guy definitely didn't hesitate to go after you with that knife. You really shouldn't have challenged him, Lois."

Lois leaned back heavily against the wall and closed her eyes tiredly. "I realize that now. Thanks."

Clark knew she was trying to make him smile, but he couldn't. He studied her for a moment, then averted his eyes and swallowed noisily. When he spoke, his voice was hesitant and fearful. "Lois, I need to ask you something."

She opened her eyes and met his gaze, waiting for him to go on. When he did, his voice was so soft that Lois had to strain to hear him. Avoiding her eyes, he asked in a choked whisper, "Did Trask or his men, um…do…anything to you?"

Lois stared at Clark in surprise, suddenly realizing the torment he must've been going through knowing that she was alone upstairs with Trask and his men, unable to protect her, and not knowing what was happening to her. He was so used to being able to protect everyone, especially the people he loved, that she couldn't imagine what a horrible ordeal he had suffered while he was downstairs, alone with his nightmarish fears about what they could be doing to her.

"Oh, Clark, I had no idea you were agonizing over this," she said, reaching out to put a hand on his forearm. "Why didn't you say something?"

Clark looked up to meet her gaze, and she saw that his eyes were shimmering with unshed tears. "Lois, it's all I've been able to think about. While you were up there, it was killing me to know that they could've been doing any number of things to you, and there was absolutely *nothing* I could do about it. I don't think I've ever felt so helpless in my entire life."

Lois felt tears in her eyes, too, and she gave his arm a reassuring squeeze. "Clark, nothing like that happened. Trask and his men weren't easy on me, by any means. His thugs hit me a couple of times, but I doubt I'll have bruises or anything. Other than that, they didn't touch me."

As she finished, Clark shook his head desolately. "Lois, you have no idea how sorry I am to have gotten you involved in this. I never meant for anything like this to happen."

"I know, Clark," Lois reassured him. "But you can't blame yourself. How could you have known this was all a set-up?"

Clark met Lois' gaze, and he saw in her eyes that she was being sincere. She really didn't blame him, and that meant more to him that he could ever express. He reached up and pressed his palm against her cheek, gently stroking her pale skin with his thumb. "Thank you, Lois."

She smiled back wearily and reached up to cover his hand with hers, closing her eyes at his touch. It was comforting to have him there with her, to not be in this alone. If she had been, she wasn't sure she'd be able to get herself through it. But even as it was, her leg throbbed and her head still hurt, and it was all she could think about to find a way out of this horrible place.

Dropping her hand from Clark's, Lois glanced around the long, rectangular room outside of their cell. "So how do you propose we get out of here?"

Clark sighed and set her leg down gently. Standing up, he walked over to the cell door and shook it experimentally. It didn't budge. "Well, the Kryptonite must still be affecting my powers because there's no way I'm getting through these bars," he stated matter-of-factly. "I think our best bet is just to sit tight and see if an opportunity presents itself."

Lois' face fell, and it made Clark feel horrible. "Don't worry, Lois. We'll find a way out of this. We always do."

She nodded sadly. "Yeah, I guess. I'm sorry if I don't sound very optimistic, Clark. I'm sure we'll find a way out sooner or later. I'm just not feeling that great, that's all."

"Then why don't you lie down and get some sleep?" he suggested, walking back over to her and squatting in front of her. "You do look awfully pale. Besides, it's almost dawn," he told her, nodding at the window in the far corner of the room that was starting to let in the first rays of morning light, "and neither of us have slept much since last night. We could both use the rest."

"But what about you?" Lois asked as he helped guide her into a lying position on the cot. "Where are you going to sleep?"

"Don't worry about me, Lois. I'll just doze here next to you." He scooted back into the corner next to the head of her cot, leaned his head back against the wall and reached up for her hand.

Lois rolled over onto her side and slid her hand into his, holding onto it tightly. Then she closed her eyes and let sleep come.


"Jimmy! Where are those photos I asked for?" Perry shouted, sending Jimmy scurrying for his desk.

"They're right here, Chief! Just a minute."

Jimmy sighed as he reached his desk and started thumbing through the stack of files and photos scattered around on top of his keyboard. Perry had been on a rampage since the day after Christmas when everybody had come back from the holiday break. He was completely obsessed with the upcoming deadline for the launching of the Planet's on-line New Year's Day issue, and he was on everyone's back to bring him the miracle story that would give the on-line issue a spectacular debut. But so far, nobody had found that story, which just meant everybody was working twice as hard to stay out of his doghouse.

"Riding you again, is he?"

Jimmy looked up to see Manny leaning against the desk, smiling at him. "Yeah, I guess you could say that," Jimmy admitted with a sigh as he glanced toward Perry's office. "Nothing I do is good enough for him lately. I wish I'd been as lucky as Lois and Clark to get a couple of extra days off. Boy, I sure envy them. A romantic getaway, spending time alone up in the mountains…how would it be?"

Manny's smile faded, but he recovered quickly. "Yeah, I'm sure they're having the time of their lives."

"Well, I'd better rush these over to Perry," Jimmy announced. "I'll catch you later."

Manny nodded and stepped back from the desk. "Yeah, I've got some work to do, too. See you later."

Jimmy grabbed the photos Perry was asking for, then hurried to the editor's office and walked in through the open door. He saw that Perry was on the phone, so he waited for him to finish. He couldn't help overhearing the urgency in Perry's voice as he finished his conversation.

"Yeah, we've got several big stories on the burner, and I assure you, we'll be ready to give this on-line issue a royal debut. Guaranteed. Yeah. Okay, I'll keep you posted."

Jimmy cocked an eyebrow at Perry as he hung up the phone. "We've got some big stories? When did this happen?"

Perry glowered at him from across his desk. "It didn't. I was just trying to cover the fact that, as of right now, we have squat!" He leaned back in his chair and rubbed at his temples as Jimmy handed him the photos he wanted. "What about that jewel theft piece Lois was working on?" Perry asked. "Did she say anything about it before she left? Like maybe it had some interesting twist we could use?"

"I don't know, Chief," Jimmy admitted. "I know she was working on it before she left, but she didn't seem very enthused about it."

"That's just great," Perry grumbled. "What am I supposed to lead off with? Jefferson's piece about the number of convicts who play shopping mall Santas?"

Jimmy grinned, but an immediate 'that wasn't supposed to be funny' look from Perry quickly made him stop. Jimmy started to leave the office when something suddenly came to him. He turned back to Perry thoughtfully.

"Hey, I just thought of something," he said, immediately drawing Perry's undivided attention. "Manny gave Lois a disk that had the jewel thief's rap sheet and background, but we couldn't open the file because the disk looked like it had gone bad. I told her I'd see if I could figure out a way to save some of the information from the disk, but I never found time to do it before she and Clark left on vacation. Do you want me to fool with it? Lois told me that you'd put her on the story because you thought there might be something there that could lead to a theft ring or something like that. If I could salvage some of the information on that disk, you could put another reporter on it and find out if there's a story there somewhere."

Perry thought for a minute and then nodded. "Sure, I guess it's worth a shot. What else have I got to go with? Let me know what you find out."

Jimmy nodded and took a couple of steps toward the door, just happy to be on the editor's good side for the moment. "You got it, Chief."

He hurried across the newsroom to Lois' desk and sat down in her chair, quickly switching on her computer. Then he opened her top desk drawer where he knew she kept her disks and thumbed through the notepads and other miscellaneous items within. He succeeded in finding a couple of disks, but neither was the right one.

Leaning back in her chair, he tried to decide what to do next. Then he suddenly remembered she'd also saved it onto her desktop. He sat up and reached for her mouse, then quickly scanned the folders on her desktop. Finally, he found the one he suspected it was and opened the file. Sure enough, the jumbled characters flashed onto the screen in front of him.

For the next half hour, he used everything he knew to fix it, but nothing seemed to help. Finally, with a sigh of resignation, he turned off Lois' computer. Whatever information had been in that file was long gone. Unless…

Pushing the chair back from Lois' desk, Jimmy decided to go see Manny. If Manny had gotten the information for Lois, maybe he still had a backup file of it somewhere. At least it was worth a shot.

Deciding to take the stairs instead of the elevator, Jimmy hurried down one flight of stairs to the research department and turned down the long row of floor to ceiling bookshelves jammed with research information that led to Manny's desk.

Manny's desk was just behind the wall of shelves and back in the corner, and as Jimmy weaved his way between bookshelves to reach it, he envied how Manny had been able to secure himself such a secluded spot where you didn't feel like the boss was constantly watching you.

Just as Jimmy reached the end of the shelves and started to turn the corner of Manny's little niche, he heard Manny's voice and realized his friend was on the phone. Judging from the hushed tones Manny was using, it was a personal conversation, so Jimmy stopped where he was, deciding to wait a minute so he didn't interrupt Manny's conversation. As he leaned up against the bookshelves and waited, Jimmy couldn't help overhearing Manny's end of the conversation.

"No, everything's set," Manny said quietly to the person on the other end of the phone line. "I just finished uploading the virus, and it's set to activate on midnight of New Year's. With all the Y2K hype, everyone will think it was their computers that failed, never suspecting it was a virus they contracted from accessing the Planet's first ever on-line issue. It's all just like you wanted."

Jimmy's eyes widened. A virus? Sent through the Planet's systems? Surely Manny had to be joking. Didn't he know how devastating a computer virus could be? Especially if the hundreds of thousands of people they were expecting to access the first on-line issue of the Planet had their systems infected by it.

Manny's voice reached his ears again, and Jimmy strained to listen. "Yeah. It's all done. No one suspects a thing. Okay. I've got a couple of errands to run, then I'll see you in a couple of hours."

As Jimmy heard him hang up the phone, he quickly moved back away from the end of the shelves and ducked into the entrance of another row of shelves, pressing himself up against the books as he heard Manny's footsteps approach and then pass by him down the aisle. When Jimmy was alone, he stepped out from behind the shelves, bewildered.

*Manny? Planting a virus?* Jimmy thought in confusion. *Just when you think you know a guy…*

In a state of shock, Jimmy left the way he came and headed back up the stairs to the newsroom floor. He had to do something, tell someone. With so many files on Manny's computer, he was sure it would take him days—maybe even weeks—to find whatever virus he'd planted. But with New Year's just a couple of days away, he knew he didn't have that kind of time.

Speeding up his step, he reached the newsroom and hurried into Perry's office. When he shut the door behind him, Perry looked up at him in surprise. "Is there something you needed, Jimmy?"

Jimmy nodded. "Perry, I think we have a serious problem."

Perry's eyebrows drew together, and he sat more upright in his chair. "A problem? What kind of problem?"

Jimmy hurried to explain about the phone conversation he'd just overheard downstairs, and when he finished, Perry's face deepened into a frown. "A virus? Are you sure you heard right?"

"Positive. I'm having a hard time believing it myself. But believe me, I know what I heard."

"That's just great!" Perry exclaimed, pushing his chair back from his desk and standing up. "The Daily Planet is getting ready to launch its first ever on-line issue in just a couple of days, and we have a potentially dangerous virus lurking on an employee's computer? This is definitely something I don't need! Can you get rid of it?"

"Well, I guess it would depend on what kind of virus it is," Jimmy said hesitantly. "But if it's something Manny and the person he was talking to created, none of the virus checkers would catch it since it would be brand new. It could take me days to find it, if I got lucky. And even if I did, I might not be able to figure out how to disable it. If you ask me, we should get some help with this. There's too much at stake."

Perry reached out to pick up the phone. "I agree. So let's see what the computer techs can do."

"Um, no offense, Perry, but I've seen those guys work. I could program rings around most of them. I don't see that they're going to be much help."

Perry nodded to show he understood, but continued to dial. "Yeah, maybe. But if we don't do something, we're going to be in a world of trouble."


Sunlight streamed in through the single window at the far end of the room, causing Lois to stir. She opened her eyes and blinked a couple of times, trying to bring her surroundings into focus. Everything seemed unfamiliar and out of place, and it took her a minute to finally remember where she was and what had happened.

Her arm stung from being asleep, and she pulled it toward her, clenching and unclenching her fist a few times to get the blood circulation flowing again. Lifting her head off the cot, she propped herself up on her elbow and looked around. Clark was still sitting on the floor at the head of her cot, his head slumped against the cot's framework and his eyes closed. The ugly bruise near his eye was darkening into a sickening purple, marring his otherwise rugged good looks.

Clark seemed to sense her watching him, and his eyelids fluttered open. He lifted his head to look around, seeming as momentarily disoriented as she'd been minutes before. His sleepy gaze swept around them, then finally fell on her. The corners of his mouth twitched and he smiled sleepily. "Hi," he murmured.

She smiled back and sat up a little more, reaching up to rub the back of her stiff neck. "Hi. How'd you sleep?"

"As well as you did, it looks like," he said. "Are you feeling any better?"

"A little. At least my head's not throbbing so much."

Clark smiled and reached out to give her hand a squeeze. "I'm glad to hear that."

"I am starving, though," she admitted. "And I, um, really need to go to the bathroom."

Clark opened his mouth to reply, but the large metal door suddenly swung open, silencing them both. Clark stiffened when he saw Trask standing in the doorway, but didn't stand up.

"Rise and shine!" Trask called out boldly, making them cringe. "I trust you both slept well."

He walked into the room with a dark-haired man who was carrying a tray of food. Lois eyed the food hungrily, and Trask smirked. "Not hungry, are you Ms. Lane?" He took an apple from the tray and tossed it into the air tauntingly. "From what we can tell, you two haven't eaten since your little take-out dinner last night."

Clark's eyes widened in surprise, and Trask grinned. "Don't act so surprised, Kent. Did you honestly think I wouldn't keep track of every step you made? Now, here's the deal." He tossed the apple up into the air tauntingly. "You tell me what I want to know, and you can eat. If you don't, well, all this food will just go to waste."

Clark let out an exasperated sigh. "Come on, Trask! How many times do I need to tell you, there's nothing to tell!"

"And how many times do I need to tell *you*, I don't believe you!" Trask's smirk changed into an irritated frown. "I want to know, and I want to know now!"

Clark started to argue, but Lois butted in with an exasperated groan. "Clark, it's no use arguing. He's never going to believe us."

"At least not until you tell me the truth," Trask insisted, taking the key out of his pocket and unlocking the cell door. He swung the door open and stalked into the cell, then grabbed Clark by the arm and hauled him up from his sitting position in the corner. "Why don't we just go upstairs and see if we can change your mind about what details you'd like to share, shall we?"

Lois sat up quickly, gritting her teeth against the stabbing pains in her thigh that the sudden movement caused. "Trask, don't do this!" she exclaimed, the sound of her voice echoing off the cement walls around them. "Can't you see that you're wasting your time? Why don't you just let us go?"

Trask turned back to her as he stepped outside the cell with Clark and swung the cell door shut with a clang. He gave Lois a pointed glare as he struggled to maintain his grasp on Clark's arm as Clark tried to wrench himself free. "I think you should be more worried about what's going to happen to you if you or your boyfriend here don't start indulging me with the details that I want," he snarled. "Why don't you just think about that for a while?"

He started to haul Clark toward the heavy metal door when Lois suddenly had an inspiration. "Hey, Trask! Don't I even get to go to the bathroom? You can't expect us to be willing to share any details with you if we're not even treated halfway decently!"

Clark twisted his head around to look at her in surprised confusion. She could tell from his expression that he knew she had something in mind, and that he didn't like it, whatever it was.

But Lois ignored his pleading 'don't you dare try anything stupid' look and watched as Trask stopped in his tracks andturned back. He seemed to deliberate seriously over her request for several moments, then he finally turned to his thug beside him. "Wait five minutes, then take her to the bathroom. But I want her brought right back down here and secured immediately afterward. Got it?"

The man nodded. "You got it."

Trask gave Clark's arm a quick jerk to get him moving again, and they headed out of the basement room. Clark gave her one last glance over his shoulder before he disappeared from view, and she knew that he was worried that she was about to do something stupid.

*It's not stupid to try to get out of here!* Lois argued silently. *What does he expect me to do? Just sit here and let them torture us until they realize we really don't know anything, and then kill us?!*

She shook her head at herself. Clark might not be able to use any super powers to get them free, but she wasn't about to stand by idly waiting for the inevitable. She'd been in life-threatening situations all too many times before when Clark wasn't even in the picture, and she'd managed to escape. If she was careful and creative enough, she could this time, as well.

Lois did her best to ignore the increasing pain in her leg as she stood up a few minutes later when the guard finally let her out of the cell as Trask had told him to do. When he opened the door and she stepped into the opening, he grabbed her arm and walked briskly toward the door, not bothering to slow his steps as he pulled her along with him.

As he hauled her up the stairs after him, it was all Lois could do to stop herself from crying out in pain as the burning in her leg increased to an almost unbearable level. But she clenched her eyes tightly shut momentarily against the pain and bit her lower lip as she limped along after him, refusing to give him the satisfaction of knowing how much his rough treatment was affecting her.

It seemed an unbearable eternity before they reached the top of the stairs, and he jerked her roughly down the hallway. They stopped halfway down the short hall and the man reached out to push one of the doors open. "You have two minutes," he instructed gruffly. "And don't even think of trying to escape. I'll be waiting right outside." Then he shoved her through the open doorway of the bathroom and pulled the door shut behind her.

This time Lois let the cry of pain escape as she quickly grabbed for the bathroom counter to stop herself from falling forward onto the tile floor. She heard the bathroom door shut behind her, and then the room fell silent.

Keeping a hand on the counter to steady herself until the pain dulled to a more manageable level, she glanced around the tiny, unimpressive room. There was a single-stall shower, a toilet, and a sink. But she was more interested in the fact that a medicine cabinet hung on the wall over the sink, and the vanity cabinet held three small drawers.

Peering cautiously at the bathroom door to make sure she wasn't being watched, she quietly opened the medicine cabinet. Disappointment set in when she saw that it held only a sample-sized tube of toothpaste and a couple of toothbrushes. She shut the cabinet door, then decided to use the toilet while she looked quietly through the drawers.

The first drawer revealed a couple of washcloths, a bottle of shampoo, and a couple of wrapped bars of soap. Shutting it noiselessly, she opened the second drawer, which held items just as useless for a means of escape. Her hopes were beginning to dwindle, but when she opened the third and last drawer, and saw what it contained, her heartbeat quickened. There were a few more toiletries, but what really caught her attention was the pair of tweezers and the shiny silver fingernail clippers near the front.

Picking them up, she turned them over in her hand, her excitement growing. She pulled out the attachments the clippers contained: a thick fingernail file, a sturdy but blunt pocket-sized knife blade, and something else that looked like a hook. She'd never known what that thing was supposed to be used for, but that didn't matter. Between the tweezers and the attachments on the clippers, she was sure she had the tools she needed to pick the cell lock!

She finished using the toilet, washed her hands, splashed some water on her face, then turned her attention to the tools. Lifting up the hem of her bedraggled dress, she tucked the clippers and tweezers into the top of her pantyhose, hoping the tiny bulge wouldn't be detected by the guard when he escorted her back down the stairs where she could hide them in her cell. Then she casually opened the door.

Immediately, the guard stepped in front of her. "It's about time. Let's go."

When they got back to the cell, the man pushed Lois inside, locked the door securely behind her, then left her alone. The rough treatment and the weight she'd been forced to put on her leg had been almost too much for her to bear, and she sank gratefully onto the cot.

A sharp jab against her upper thigh reminded her of her stolen tools, and she lifted the hem of her dress to pull the clippers and the tweezers out of the top of her pantyhose. Then she quickly sat down on the cot and slid them underneath the cot's thin pillow next to her, making sure the items were completely out of sight. That done, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wall.

Her stomach rumbled noisily, and Lois sighed. Why was it that her vacations always ended up *not* being vacations? This one had sounded so good, so perfect, when they'd planned it. A mountainous cabin in the seclusion of the woods, a few days alone with Clark…nothing could have sounded more perfect. She could just picture what she might've been doing right about now had this vacation really been going according to plan. She'd probably be eating a wonderful, quiet, and most-likely romantic, breakfast with Clark—maybe even snuggling in bed with him—or sitting in a hot Jacuzzi tub soaking her stress away.

But instead, here she was, locked in a cell in the basement of a madman, where she and Clark were subject to his ruthless interrogations. Thinking of the hundreds of other places she wished she could be, she looked around at the steel bars surrounding her and sighed. So much for the perfect vacation. But then, in her life, she should've known that not everything was as it seemed.

Not even Clark.

Two days ago, her life felt relatively normal, and she thought things were as they seemed: She was dating a great guy, enjoying the idea of being in love, anticipating a great vacation…but now all that had changed. In a matter of hours, everything had suddenly turned topsy-turvy in her life.

Clark—well, at least the man she *thought* was Clark—wasn't Clark. Suddenly, he was somebody she wasn't sure she really knew at all. He was no longer just the partner and best friend she'd worked with for the past two years. He was a superhero from a different planet, somebody who flew all over the world saving people from raging volcanoes and destructive earthquakes. He was somebody the entire world looked up to, even counted on in dire times of need. How well did she really know him? Her love, based on the idea that he was good old Clark—solid, stable, 'what you see is what you get'—suddenly made her question everything.

How *did* she feel about him now that she knew the two men were really one and the same? Could she deal with the fact that there were aspects of him that she didn't know about, didn't understand? Would she be able to accept in her mind—and in her heart—that the two men were one?

When she realized a couple of months ago that she was falling in love with Clark, her partner and best friend, she'd slowly let go of the idea of being in love with Superman. She'd finally started to see that he wasn't somebody she could have in her life romantically—he was just an untouchable superhero, someone who appeared to help in various respects, then disappeared again. He never stuck around long enough to let her get to know him…*really* know him. And those kind of brief encounters would've never been enough for her—or anyone else for that matter—to get to know him for the person he really was. And you couldn't truly love somebody you didn't know, could you?

And sure enough, she'd been right. She hadn't known him at all. Otherwise she would've been able to look beneath that costumed exterior and realize that he was really Clark Kent, the man she loved for his good heart, gentle kindness and longsuffering patience.

But now that she knew the two men were one and the same, she found herself struggling with the very same problem. How could you love somebody you didn't know? Especially when that somebody was someone you thought you knew only a couple of days before?

The events from the last twenty-four hours, however, couldn't be erased from her mind. She remembered Clark's agonized cries when she'd gotten hurt at the cabin during her fight to free herself, and how distressed he'd been when she'd finally regained consciousness in the cell. And how could she forget how distraught he'd been over thinking she might've been taken advantage of by the men who held her captive upstairs?

She had no doubts in her mind that he cared for her deeply, and loved her as much as he said he did. But why would his love for her change? She hadn't been the one pretending to be two entirely different people, hiding huge parts of herself from him and everyone else. But he had. Somehow that made things very different to sort out in her mind. She knew that her feelings for Clark hadn't really changed. They'd just become more complicated.

Suddenly, she shivered. Looking up, she saw that the morning sun was no longer shining through the single basement window, so she knew it must be rising into the sky and beginning to move over the house. She wrapped her arms around herself and rubbed her bare arms, realizing how chilled she suddenly felt. As she sat on the cot, she very gingerly drew her knees up to her chest and held them tightly to her. As she did, her stomach grumbled loudly.

She dropped her chin onto her knees and sat there, feeling completely and utterly miserable. She was hungry and tired, but most of all, she missed Clark and hoped he was okay.

Unable to stop feeling lonely and sorry for herself, a single tear escaped and slid down her cheek. A moment later, though, she reached up and brushed at it roughly, angry at herself for feeling so hopeless.

*Clark's going to be okay,* she told herself encouragingly. *Trask wouldn't dare kill him so soon after capturing him since he's so sure Clark holds the key to this "alien invasion" theory of his. Besides, you now have some tools to help you break out of here, so stop feeling so down. It'll only be a matter of finding the perfect time to escape, and you'll be out of here.*

But even her own pep talk didn't make her feel better. *I'll feel better after I get some rest,* she decided with more conviction than she felt.

So, forcing herself to move, she stretched her legs out on the cot next to her and gently massaged the burning muscles in her thigh in an effort to relieve the pain. Then she lay down slowly and pulled the thin blanket up over her to ward off the chill in the room.

She knew she might as well get comfortable. It could be a while before Clark was back.


"No sign of it?" Perry asked, leaning over the shoulder of the computer technician and scowling at the monitor in front of them.

The computer technician sat back in his chair and stared helplessly at the file directory on Manny's computer. "No, but that doesn't mean it's not here," he replied. Then he turned to Jimmy. "Did you overhear him saying anything about what the virus was supposed to do?"

The three men were so engrossed in their conversation that they didn't notice Manny stepping out of the elevator across the room and heading toward his cubicle where they were all gathered. But as Manny drew closer, he heard the voices coming from his tiny cubicle, and his steps slowed. Then his heart started to race when he overheard the word 'virus.'

*What's going on?* he asked himself anxiously as he took a couple of wary, silent steps closer to the voices. *Had somebody stumbled across the virus? Somebody must have, or else why would there be so many people in his cubicle?*

Stopping several steps away from the opening to his cubicle, he pressed himself up against the wall and listened. The next voice he heard was Jimmy's.

"All I heard was that it was going to be attached to the New Year's on-line issue of the Planet and would go off at midnight," Jimmy told the technician, unaware that they were being listened in on.

The computer tech sighed and sat back in the chair. "That's not much to go on, I'm afraid. There are too many files on his computer where it could be hidden. Without more information about where it is or what it does, there's not a whole lot I can do. It could take weeks to find it, and by then it would be too late. I suggest we call the authorities right away, while we still have a couple of days to deal with this."

Perry straightened up and nodded. "It doesn't sound like we have much choice."

Manny gulped and quickly looked around. He had to get out of there before anybody realized he was there. True, his cut of the money wouldn't be paid to him until the job was finished and the virus was unleashed, but he wasn't about to stick around and get caught. There was too much at stake.

He thought about his escape options and decided it would be too risky to cross back to the elevators; there were too many people around to spot him. So he moved away silently from the wall and hurried down the nearest aisle of shelving that led toward the back stairs.

It made him feel a little better knowing that everything related to the virus was encrypted, and would be virtually impossible for anybody to access without the virus decryption codes. But he sure wasn't about to stick around and find out. At this point, it was time to just cut his losses and get back up to Garrison at the cabin to tell him what had happened. It was not something he was looking forward to.

Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, he opened the door to the back stairs and slipped out unnoticed.


When Lois woke up a short time later, she opened her eyes experimentally and blinked a couple of times to clear her vision. She looked around at her bleak surroundings, then closed her eyes again with a weary sigh.

What were they going to do? If they didn't do something soon to get out of there, she had no doubt that Trask would kill them.

Feeling achy and stiff all over, she sat up slowly and drew the blanket around her shoulders, still feeling chilled. She reached up to rub her throbbing temples, and when she touched her face, she realized how warm her cheeks felt. Concerned, she turned her palms over and pressed the backside of her hand against them.

*Great,* she thought with a shake of her head. *I must be getting a fever. All the more reason to make sure we get out of here as quickly as possible.*

But before she could mull over an escape plan in her mind, the sound of footsteps on the stairs made her heart race. Then the heavy metal door banged open, and two of Trask's men appeared in the doorway, with Clark supported in between them.

With the blanket still around her shoulders, Lois quickly rose to her feet, ignoring her own aches and pains when she saw the ragged condition Clark was in. His face was alarmingly pale and his hair tousled, and the bruise on his cheek was darkening into a horrible deep purple. She hurried toward the cell door. "Clark! Are you okay?"

"Don't worry, Lois, I'm all right," he told her as the men unlocked the cell and shoved him roughly inside. He stumbled forward into the cell and nearly fell, but Lois quickly reached out and caught him, doing her best to support him as he regained his balance.

When he righted himself, Lois put her arms around him and nestled her face in his chest as she hugged him tightly, thankful that he was still alive, even if he wasn't in the best of conditions. Clark winced at the pressure of her arms tightening around him, and she quickly let him go.

"Oh, Clark, I'm sorry," she said in concern as she took a step backward to better see him. She reached up to gently touch the coloring skin along his jaw. "What did they do to you up there?"

"Whatever Trask told them to," he told her quietly, consciously trying to straighten up without flinching. "But honestly, I'm okay, Lois. I'm sure I look worse than I feel."

"Well, you're going to feel even worse if you don't start giving Trask whatever answers it is he's looking for," the gruff voice of one of the men interrupted as he swung the cell door shut with a clang. "I'm sure I'll be back for one of you before too long, so you might want to decide if whatever information he wants is really worth clamming up about before he decides to have another go at you."

Clark turned to glare at the man, and something in his look startled Lois. At first, she couldn't put her finger on what it was exactly, but then it came to her. It was the all-too-familiar menacing look that Superman often gave his captured criminals.

As Trask's men stepped back from the cell door and started to argue about whether or not Trask wanted them to stand guard, Lois found herself transfixed by Clark, unable to pull her eyes off his face.

Even though he was still wearing his glasses, she found herself able to connect Clark with Superman for the very first time, if only through something as simple as a look. *They really are the same person,* Lois thought in surprise, though she knew she shouldn't be surprised at all. After all, she'd been there to witness his reaction to the Kryptonite, and they'd already had several discussions about it. But somehow, seeing it for herself suddenly made it seem more real, more tangible. And it scared her all over again.

*Why haven't I been able to connect the two before this?* she couldn't help wondering. *Me, of all people, should've known enough to. I've flown in the arms of his superhero counterpart countless times, even kissed both of them on several different occasions. Shouldn't I have been able to tell by something as intimate as a kiss that they were one and the same person?*

Now that she was looking for it, she could clearly see the similarities between the two men in Clark's face. They were so obvious! She wanted to kick herself for not noticing the little telltale facial expressions and gestures that would've been impossible to fake, like the twitching muscle in his jaw when he was upset, as he was doing now. She'd seen that when he'd been dressed as Clark, as well as when he was Superman. And that steely, stern look. Could glasses really have hidden that? Apparently they had, because she'd been fooled along with the rest of the world for the last two years.

Clark seemed to sense her looking at him, and he turned back to find her staring at him intently. "Lois?" he asked, his brow furrowing in confusion. "What is it?"

"Oh, um, nothing," she muttered, embarrassed to be caught staring at him as if he were a specimen under a microscope. "I was just—"

Before she could finish her sentence, the basement door banged open again, and Lois quickly tore her gaze from Clark's and looked over her shoulder to see an unfamiliar, dark-haired, burly man walking into the room. He immediately caught Lois' attention with the air of confidence with which he walked, and from the way the men backed off from the cell as he approached. It was obvious to her that he was somebody in charge.

As he drew closer, he spoke to the men. "Trask wants you guys upstairs. He has something for you to do."

They nodded obediently, then turned to leave. As they were walking out the door, another man appeared, and instantly Clark stiffened. Lois felt him stiffen beside her, and she quickly turned to see what had upset him. Her eyes widened when she saw who had just come in.

"Manny!" Lois exclaimed, unable to hide her surprise.

He smirked at them as he walked up to the burly man, whose face deepened into an unhappy scowl when he saw him. "Manny, what are you doing here? You're supposed to be finishing up at the Planet."

"I have to talk to you about that, Garrison," Manny said uncomfortably.

Lois' ears tuned in to the burly man's name, and she filed it away in the back of her mind for future reference. Before she could think further about it, Manny continued.

"Did Trask get any information out of them?" Manny asked, nodding at Lois and Clark.

"About what?" Garrison snorted. "Superman being some advance man for an alien invasion? Give me a break. Let's just stick to the plan and our butts will be covered. Is everything on schedule at the Planet?"

"Um, that's something I need to talk to you about," Manny told him as he shifted his weight nervously from one foot to the other. Then he turned toward the room's door, and Garrison quickly followed.

"What's going on?" Garrison asked with concern as they stopped just before reaching the basement door. "Did you get the virus into the Daily Planet computers or not?"

Lois' ears immediately perked up, and she quickly glanced over at Clark, who caught her eye and raised his eyebrows curiously. With the pounding in her head, she wasn't sure if she was really hearing correctly. She quickly gestured to her ear, silently asking Clark if he was able to use any of his superhearing to tune into the conversation. But he shook his head immediately and gave his earlobe a quick tug, then raised his hands and gave a helpless shrug. In aggravation, Lois quickly waved her hand at him, gesturing for him to be quiet so they could try to overhear the conversation.

They both strained to hear Manny's quiet response. "Yeah, I already told you on the phone that I did," Manny told Garrison. "But somehow that kid Jimmy must've found out about the virus because when I went back to my cubicle after running some errands, I discovered it was overrun with people talking about how to find it. I was afraid that I was about to be found out, so I jumped ship."

"You jumped ship?!" Garrison's voice rose. "You mean to tell me you just up and left? Do you realize what's at stake here? If something fails with Project Y2K, well, you know what the boss is capable of! I swear, if you blow this—"

"No, no, nothing is blown," Manny quickly reassured him. "I got the virus planted, and when the Planet's on-line issue goes out at midnight on New Year's, it'll activate."

Garrison looked thoughtful for a moment. "So what loose ends did you leave?"

"Just some files on my hard drive," Manny told him, trying to downplay his actions as much as possible. "But if anyone finds them, no one will be able to read them. Everything is still encrypted. They'll never figure out what those files are."

"Good. Then let 'em look," Garrison said, sounding relieved. "As long as everything is still on track, we can go about our business."

Manny glanced over at Lois and Clark, who quickly tried to look as if they hadn't overheard. "So what about them?"

"Who cares," Garrison grumbled. "With them locked up, we don't need to worry about them doing any poking around."

"And what about Superman?" Manny asked.

Garrison smirked pointedly at Clark, then turned back to Manny. "Let's just say he's out of the picture. We don't have a thing to worry about."

They turned to leave the room, shutting the door with a loud 'bang' behind them. When the sound of Garrison's and Manny's retreating footsteps reached their ears, Lois breathed a sigh of relief that they were finally alone.

Turning to Clark, she tried to ignore her intensifying headache brought about by the level of concentration she'd had to use while listening in. "A virus at the Planet? What's it supposed to do?"

Clark shook his head, clearly as confused as Lois. "I have no idea. But if it's something set to go out with the first on-line issue of the Planet, that would mean hundreds of thousands of people's systems could be affected by it."

"Not to mention all the other systems that come into contact with those people's systems," Lois pointed out quietly as she reached up to rub one of her throbbing temples. "If it's a really destructive virus, it could wipe out the Planet's computers, as well as all the ones the Planet's systems are linked to—"

"Which include the systems of corporations around the world," Clark finished for her. "I know. And did you notice Manny called him 'Garrison'?"

Lois nodded slowly. "Do you think that's his first name or his last?"

"I don't know," Clark answered. "But it's not going to matter if we can't get out of here to tell anyone. And since I'm not back to my usual self, that may not be such an easy undertaking."'

His words suddenly made Lois remember her stolen tools, and she gave Clark's hand a soft squeeze before turning and limping slowly over to the cot. "I might be able to help with that."

Carefully lowering herself onto the cot, she moved the pillow to reveal the shiny silver objects she'd stashed there. Clark's brow creased and he stepped forward to take a closer look. "What is it?"

"Tweezers and clippers that I lifted from the bathroom drawer," Lois explained in a whisper just in case they were being listened to. She gave him a smile that reflected a hint of her usual spirit. "See? Instead of giving me one of those 'Lois, what insane things are you planning?' looks before you left, you should've trusted me. I thought that if I got out of here for a few minutes, I might be able to find something that could help us escape, and I did. I think I'll be able to use these to pick the cell lock."

Clark grinned and shook his head. She never ceased to amaze him. "Lois, you're brilliant. Have I ever told you that?"

She grinned back. "Not in the last couple of weeks. But thanks. I'm glad you noticed."

"Once we jimmy the lock, we can escape through that window," Clark thought out loud, glancing over at the small window in the far corner of the basement. "But we'll have to wait until after dark when Trask and his men are asleep. It'll be harder for them to see us in the dark. On the other hand, it'll be hard for *us* to see, too, so it may be risky. We could get really lose in those woods."

"I don't care," Lois told him as she leaned back against the wall, worn out from her show of enthusiasm. "Any place is better than here."

"I agree."

It was quiet in the cell as Lois reached for the pillow and set it back on top of the tools. Then she looked up to see Clark studying her seriously.

"How are *you* feeling, Lois?" he asked quietly as he turned and sat down carefully beside her. He took in the pallor to her cheeks and the dullness behind her eyes and reached out to wrap her more tightly in the blanket hanging around her shoulders. "You look a lot more pale than when I left."

Lois swallowed and looked away from his intense gaze. He could always tell from the look in her eyes when she wasn't being truthful with him. "I'll be okay," she answered quietly. "I'm just trying not to think about it."

Clark reached out and tipped her chin back up so she was forced to look at him again. His brow furrowed as he studied her, and he lifted his hand to press it against her cheek. His concern deepened when he realized how warm she felt. "Lois," he began, his voice reflected his concern.

"I know, I'm a little warm," she interjected. "But Clark, I'll be fine. Honestly, you worry too much." She forced a smile, hoping to reassure him, but she could tell from the worry in his eyes that he wasn't buying it.

"Well, at least you should rest for a while," he insisted, scooting over to the end of the cot and gesturing for her to lift her feet up. When she did, he reached out for her and gently guided her down so she was lying on the cot with her head pillowed on his lap.

She closed her eyes as he started to run his fingers through her hair soothingly. Opening one eye just enough to peer up at him, she asked quietly, "Who do you think Garrison was talking about when he mentioned 'the boss'?"

Clark let his breath out slowly. "I don't know, but it was obvious from their conversation that Garrison and Manny aren't in this by themselves. They made it sound like the whole thing's being orchestrated by someone else."


Clark shook his head. "I don't think so. Trask's clearly too preoccupied with his whole alien invasion garbage to deal with overseeing the planting of a virus. Besides, what would he stand to gain from it?"

Lois' brow wrinkled. "So who's behind it then?"

"I don't know, but this just gives us one more reason to try to get out of here as quickly as possible," Clark said matter-of-factly. "We need to get back to the Planet and figure out what's going on with this virus, and find someone who can help us stop it."

"It sounds like somebody's already trying, though," Lois reminded him. "Didn't Manny say there were people in his cubicle talking about it?"

"Yeah, but I'm willing to bet they could use all the help they could get. Any information we can give them might help them figure out how to find it and get it off the system."

"I guess you're right."

Clark trailed a finger down her cheek tenderly, then resumed stroking her hair. "So let's plan on getting out of here tonight after dark. We can wait it out until then. Then, when we feel the time's right, we'll pick the cell door's lock and go out through the window. Once we're out, we'll decide where to go from there."

Lois nodded. "It'll work. It has to." When Clark nodded at her with more reassurance than he felt, she closed her eyes and turned over slightly on the cot to get more comfortable, her head still resting heavily in his lap. Minutes later, Clark heard her breathing slow and deepen, indicating to him that she was finally asleep.

He stared down at her for a long time as he continued to run his fingers through her hair, the nearly overwhelming concern for her nagging at him more insistently as the minutes crept by. It was obvious to him that she wasn't doing well, and that being hungry, cold and hurt was finally starting to take its toll on her. But what worried him even more was the fever she was starting to run. He knew that a fever could mean an infection, and, judging from how haphazardly the nasty gash on her thigh had been attended to, he suspected it could be the cause. And if it was, he knew that she was going to need some antibiotics and immediate medical attention. Or maybe the fever was a reaction to medication she'd been given while she was unconscious, and she was starting to show a severe reaction toward it…

Quickly he shook his head, trying to push the thought out of his head. That was definitely a possibility he didn't want to consider.

Leaning his head back against the wall, he closed his own eyes wearily. It had been a long day, and Lois wasn't the only one who was starting to feel the effects of Trask's treatment. His own ribs ached and his cheek and jaw were sore from where he'd been punched during his interrogation sessions. His stomach rumbled from the unfamiliar pang of hunger, and he still felt the slow, dull ache from the effects of the Kryptonite in his system. He was definitely going to have to see Dr. Klein as soon after their escape as possible to see if he could counteract the effects of the injection. Surely Dr. Klein could figure out something that would help his system return to normal.

Lois stirred, and Clark opened his eyes and looked down at her. She seemed restless, uncomfortable. He moved his hand to her arm and rubbed it gently in an attempt to soothe her, then he breathed a sigh of relief when she seemed to quiet at his touch.

Fortunately, Trask and his men didn't reappear for several hours, so Clark spent his energy keeping a watchful eye on Lois the rest of the afternoon. He did his best not to let it show how truly worried he was about her when she finally awoke, and tried to keep her spirits up. But as the afternoon wore on, it became obvious that Lois' pain was increasing. She was clearly doing her best to mask it so he wouldn't worry, but as the time passed, the tears in her eyes and the pinched look of pain on her face gave her away. Finally, she gave in to the tears she'd been fighting back for hours and crumbled into Clark's arms, wetting his shirt with her tears.

He enveloped her in his arms and resorted to the age-old comfort of rocking as he did his best to console her, speaking quiet, soothing words of reassurance. His own heart ached for her as he desperately wished he had some medication to give her that would give her some relief. Finally, she fell asleep in his arms, and he thankfully rested his chin on the top of her head, grateful that she could escape for a while in sleep.

As he kept her firmly wrapped in his arms, he offered up a silent prayer for the night to hurry up and come. He didn't know just how much more of the pain she could bear.


Garrison pulled up to the guard gate and waited for the tall metal gates to be rolled back before driving through into the prison's parking lot. After finding a parking space and going through all the familiar visitor checks, he was led to a private visitor's room and left alone. He sat down in one of the chairs at the small rectangular table and waited.

It wasn't long before the door opened, and he quickly looked up to see a guard holding the door open for a tall, dark-haired man in a prison uniform. Even in the guarded setting, the man walked with an air of confidence, announcing to everyone around him that he was still a force to be reckoned with.

"Lex," Garrison greeted respectfully as he rose to his feet. "You're looking well."

"Thank you, Garrison," Lex replied, his familiar, arrogant smile not the least bit tamed down by the rigors of prison life. "I assume you have news for me?"

Garrison nodded. "I thought I should tell you that everything is going according to plan," he reported, intentionally leaving out the little trouble they'd run into at the Planet since he was confident it wouldn't affect their plans. "The virus has been planted, and I have the only copy of the antidote stored safely away. Once everything hits, we'll advertise that we've come up with an antidote for this "mysterious virus," and the orders for the software will start pouring in."

"And we'll become millionaires in the process," Lex concluded with a smug smile. "By the time I get out of here, I'll be well on my way back to reestablishing my financial empire. I'd say this is cause for celebration, don't you?"

Garrison smiled, pulled a couple of cigars out of his inside coat pocket, and handed one to Lex. "I'd say so."

Lex's eyes gleamed as he leaned forward to let Garrison light his cigar, then puffed on it deeply a couple of times before blowing out a cloud of smoke. "You know," he began as the smoke wafted between them, "ever since I first met you in South America during that investments fraud scheme, I knew a man with your computer talents would be perfect for the job."

"And I am," Garrison agreed, puffing on his own cigar. "But I couldn't have pulled off a scheme of this magnitude by myself."

"How true," Lex agreed arrogantly, putting his cigar back to his smirking lips. "You're the computer brains of this operation, but without my marketing and recruiting skills—not to mention my connections—this little plan would've gone nowhere. How else could I have gotten you into Bureau 39 as Trask's second in command?"

Garrison's jaw tightened. "Not that answering to that man is something I'd prefer to do," he grumbled. "All that 'alien invasion' garbage…he's so full of it."

Lex gave a little laugh. "Don't I know it. But you have to admit, it's the perfect arrangement for you and me both. For you, you have the assurance that the FBI won't be looking for you. Who would think to look amongst their own ranks for a notorious hacker and virus programmer such as yourself? You can put up with Trask and his delusional ideas while you see to it that the virus goes out on New Year's, causing that paper to be blamed for bringing down millions of computer systems around the world, and thus exacting my revenge on the newspaper and the people there who put me here in the first place."

He paused for a minute to take a long puff from his cigar before blowing out another cloud of smoke. "For me, not only do I get the satisfaction of getting my revenge, but I collect the millions of dollars that come from solving the world's computer problems with the convenient availability of our virus antidote software. And if that weren't enough, your being in Trask's ranks gives us the perfect opportunity to keep an eye on him to make sure he fulfills his own little personal vendetta against a certain man of steel, unknowingly preventing him from creating any resistance against the building of my future empire."

"The perfect plan," Garrison nodded.

Lex's eyes gleamed. "Precisely." Lex strolled over to the table and tapped his cigar's ashes into the ashtray. "Speaking of our boy in blue, any sign of him at Trask's place?"

Garrison smirked. "Only in *black* and blue," he replied, chuckling at his own joke. "You should see what Trask's men have done to him. He looks like the losing fighter after a ten round bout. That Kryptonite really did the trick. He's completely at our mercy."

"Ah, so Trask *did* succeed in luring him there after kidnapping Lois and Clark, did he?" Lex asked finally, sitting down in his chair. "Good. I knew that all the money I put into Gretchen's research for her 'Phoenix Project' would eventually pan out. Not only was she able to bring *me* back to life, but I was able to enlist the help of my medical contacts to have Trask brought back to life. I think he's been highly underestimated in his persistence and drive to kill Superman. Never underestimate the power of a good vendetta, I always say, especially when you've fallen victim to it once." Lex grinned at Garrison, then continued. "When you combine a man with Trask's military training, unwavering loyalty to his country, and, of course, his large dose of paranoia, you have the perfect person to use in one's pursuit of eliminating Superman. With all that Trask's gone through to complete his mission, I can't help but admire his tenacity."

Lex paused to take a puff from his cigar, then blew out the smoke slowly. As he did, a fleeting look of concern flashed across his face, and he turned to Garrison. "I take it my wishes were honored, though, and Lois wasn't hurt in the kidnapping attempt?"

Garrison swallowed the sudden lump in his throat when he remembered Lane's attempt to escape at the cabin, and how Trask's thug had slashed her leg with the knife before knocking her out with chloroform and throwing her into the truck. He remembered cringing when it had all happened, knowing that Lex had specifically ordered him to make sure she wasn't hurt. He'd even hastily given her some first aid once they got back to Trask's cabin and used his basic medical training to stitch up the gash. But all that didn't have to be brought to light. Some things were better left unsaid where Lex's potential wrath was concerned.

"No, Lane wasn't hurt," Garrison answered finally, waiting with bated breath to see if Lex would believe him.

Lex nodded in satisfaction. "Good. Because I still plan on changing her mind about me when I get out of here. I romanced her with my power and money before, and I plan to do it again."

Garrison put the cigar to his mouth and took another puff. "Well, with Kent out of the picture, I wouldn't doubt it's possible."

Lex leaned forward in surprise, his eyes widening. "Kent's out of the picture? What happened? Did Trask kill him?" When Garrison didn't answer right away, Lex got to his feet and paced around the small room, waving his cigar in the air as he continued to speak. "Not that I mind, you understand. Kent has always been a thorn in my side. But I thought Trask was going to keep him alive to use as leverage if Superman refused to answer his questions about the 'alien invasion.'"

Garrison continued to stare at Lex in confusion. What did Lex mean, 'keep him alive to use as leverage'? Didn't he know…? It only took a minute for Garrison to realize that Lex didn't know. He didn't know Kent was Superman! Garrison's eyes widened in shock. "Youreally don't know, do you?"

Lex pulled the cigar from his mouth and blew out a long, controlled cloud of smoke. "Know what?"

Garrison quickly realized what a hand he was holding. His mind whirled and churned as he thought of the importance of his recently acquired knowledge of Superman's true identity. As he leaned back in his chair, he studied Lex for a long minute. He'd known Lex for a long time. Maybe not worked side by side with him as others had, but he knew what the man was capable of. That was rule number one when involving yourself in a plot with Lex Luthor—you had to know who he was and what he was capable of doing. Then you had to take every precaution to safeguard your own interests, and your own well being.

*And doesn't this latest piece of information do just that?* he asked himself. He knew he had an ace in the hole, and he definitely wanted to make sure he held it until he absolutely needed it. Or wanted something.

Giving Lex a quick smile, he shook his head in feigned ignorance. "Nothing. It's not important. The important thing is, it looks like our plan is finally coming together. In just a matter of days, the money from the sales of our anti-virus software is going to start rolling in."

"Magnificent." Lex leaned forward and put his cigar out in the ashtray sitting on the table, then pushed his chair back and stood up. "But just so we're clear…I want you to make sure that Trask takes care of Superman. If he doesn't, *you* take care of him. We've come all this way, and we're so close I can taste it. I'm not about to see things fall apart before my eyes. Understood?"

Garrison nodded. "You're not the only one with a stake in this."

"Good. Then I'll be waiting to hear." Lex turned to the room's door and knocked twice to signal the guard that they were done. A minute later, Lex was escorted out of the room, but Garrison continued to sit in his chair for several minutes. As he thought about the conversation they'd just had, a slow smile crept across his face.

So Lex didn't know Kent was Superman. Interesting development.

That little piece of information definitely gave him the edge, and all he had to do was decide what he wanted to do with it. Suddenly, the possibilities seemed endless. For starters, a bigger chunk of Project Y2K's profits was in order. Then maybe they could talk about more of a fifty-fifty partnership in Lex's future empire. The possibilities made his head spin.

Pushing back from the table, Garrison stood up and walked out the door opposite the one exited by Lex. He hadn't known it when he arrived to see Lex, but his future suddenly seemed bright. Bright indeed.

He made his way through the prison's visitor check-out routines, then stepped out into the wintry sunshine with his hands shoved deeply into his pockets, whistling a cheerful tune.


"Are the technicians having any luck?" Perry asked as Jimmy walked through the door of his office.

Jimmy shook his head. "Not yet, but they're still searching through his computer files, looking through anything that might contain it."

"As long as they're on top of it, I guess that's what matters."

Just then a sudden commotion from the elevators caught Perry's attention, and both he and Jimmy walked out of the office to see what was going on. Several men in suits were coming out of the elevators with briefcases in hand and were making their way down the newsroom ramp.

"What's going on?" Jimmy asked in confusion.

"My bet is it's the FBI," Perry answered. "It sure didn't take them long to get here."

"I guess not."

A short, stocky man with a permanent scowl strode over to Perry with determined steps. "Are you Perry White?" When Perry nodded, he continued. "I'm Frank Robbins. I'm here to head the virus investigation."

"Virus investigation? That sounds so formal," Perry replied.

"A virus threat is not something we take lightly," Frank stated matter-of-factly, his scowl deepening. "A virus could even be considered a threat to national security, so my men and I are here to make surewe neutralize it."

"Um, Mr. Robbins," Perry objected haltingly, "with all due respect, we have no reason to believe that this virus is a threat to national security. We don't even know what it does."

"All the more reason to secure your systems and find this virus and destroy it."

Perry and Jimmy exchanged looks. Clearly, this man was a little over the top as far as his job was concerned.

"Oh, um, okay," Perry nodded hesitantly at the man, then waved over a passing newsroom staffer. "If you'll go with Simmons, here, he'll show you where the employee's workstation is."

Frank gave them a curt nod, then turned to follow Simmons. As soon as they were out of earshot, Jimmy turned and raised his eyebrows at Perry. "That man is *scary.*"

"Tell me about it," Perry agreed seriously. "But as long as he gets rid of that virus, I don't care how he acts. Let's just give him his space and let him do his job, got it, Jimmy?"

Jimmy nodded obediently. "Got it, Chief."


Clark glanced up at the waning daylight coming in through the high basement window in a mixture of relief and anxiety. On the one hand, he'd never felt so glad to see approaching darkness since he didn't know how much longer he could stand sitting around watching Lois' health dwindle. But on the other hand, he knew that everything with their escape had to go just right, or else. He didn't want to think of the consequences if things didn't.

Looking away from the window, he glanced down at Lois sleeping in his arms, her head tucked into the crook of his elbow. He was hurting, too, but at least the burning in his ribs was diminishing to a dull ache, and the heavy, tired, and overall weak feeling brought on by the Kryptonite in his system didn't seem as bad as it had before. Or maybe he was just becoming more accustomed to the feeling, he didn't know. But seeing Lois' condition worsening made his own pains pale by comparison since he knew he'd much rather be hurt himself than see someone he loved in so much pain.

His heart wrenching, he reached out to brush her bangs back off her forehead, worrying even further when he felt her hot, clammy skin, and noting how vividly her dark hair and eyebrows stood out against her pale skin.

"It won't be long, Lois," he murmured quietly as he gently stroked her cheek. "Just hold on for a while longer."

His voice caused her to stir, and a moment later her eyelids flickered open. She looked up at him, disoriented, then realized where she was and slowly sat up.

"Take it easy, Lois," Clark cautioned as he kept an arm around her to steady her. "Don't try to move too fast."

Lois closed her eyes and put a hand on Clark's knee to steady herself as the room around her swayed, then slowly came to a stop. When she reopened her eyes, she saw Clark watching her, his eyes filled with worry and concern. "How long was I asleep?" she asked, her voice sounding gravelly and unused to her own ears.

"A couple of hours," Clark told her in a low voice. He reached out to brush her hair away from her face. "How are you feeling?"

"Never better," she replied with a touch of sarcasm. "Have we had any more visits from Trask or his thugs?"

Clark shook his head. "Thankfully, no. It's been pretty quiet, and I'm glad since it gave you a chance to sleep."

Lois nodded sleepily, then turned to look at the dimming light outside the window. "Looks like it'll be dark soon."

"I can hardly wait," Clark agreed, his tone determined.

Lois looked back at him and reached out to carefully touch the purplish coloring along his jaw. "Ouch," she commiserated, cringing. "That doesn't look good. How are *you* doing?"

"I'm sure I look worse than I feel," Clark exaggerated, not wanting to affect her already fragile state by admitting his own aches and pains. "Besides, we'll be out of here before too long."

"And maybe we can finally put this nightmare behind us," Lois said with a sigh as she let her throbbing head fall against Clark's shoulder.

Knowing there wasn't much he could do for her besides comfort her, he slid his arm around her shoulders and rubbed his thumb lightly against her arm. They sat still for several minutes when suddenly they heard the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. Clark stiffened when the metal door was thrown open and Trask came stalking into the room toward the cell.

"So, Kent," he began, the familiar arrogant snarl on his face. "Are you and your girlfriend here ready to talk?"

Clark's lips drew into a firm line. "There's nothing to talk about."

"So you keep saying," Trask replied, his voice rising as he walked over to the cell and grabbed the cell's bars angrily in his hands. "But how much more of this do you think you can take, Kent? Without your powers, you're helpless to get out of here. You're completely at my mercy! And you might think you're strong enough despite the liquid Kryptonite in your system to continue resisting, but what about your little girlfriend here? Without food or water, she isn't going to last much longer," he said, nodding at Lois still leaning wearily against Clark's shoulder. "Why don't you just make it easier on all of us and tell me what I want to know?"

Clark finally lost what little control he had left and he began to yell. "Like I keep telling you, if there was anything to tell, don't you think I would've said something by now?!" he raged. "Do you think I enjoy sitting in this cell, watching Lois suffer from your inhumane treatment while you cling to some ridiculous idea that I'm some part of an alien invasion?"

The muscle in Trask's jaw flinched, and his eyes blazed with silent fury. "I've dealt with people like you before, people who will do anything to hold onto your secrets, no matter what the cost. But believe me, I *will* get this out of you, Kent! If it means I have to keep you and your girlfriend here until one of you dies, I *will* get it out of you."

With one more glaring, impatient look at them, he released the bars angrily and stalked to the basement door. Wrenching the door open, he then stopped in the open doorway and turned back to them. "Don't plan on any meals until I get what I want from you, Kent! Until you decide to talk, you can both starve away in here for all I care!" And with that, he turned and stormed out of the room, slamming the door with a loud clang behind him.

"I believe he means it, too," Lois said solemnly when they were alone again. "He's obviously not a sane man. I'd hate to think of what else he might do to us if we don't get out of here."

"Yeah, I know," Clark nodded. "But we *are* going to get out of here. That much I promise you." He shifted his shoulder slightly, causing her to look up at him. Her flushed cheeks and dull eyes made his heart ache, and his arm tightened protectively around her. "How are you holding up? Can you stick things out for a little while longer?"

"What choice do I have?" Lois said with a sigh as she lifted her head from Clark's shoulder. Straightening, she reached up to brush her bangs back from her hot forehead and stretched her back and shoulders slowly. "Besides, it should only be a couple of hours before it's dark and Trask's men have settled in for the night."

"Unless his men are on continual patrol around the cabin," Clark pointed out.

"I doubt it," Lois answered. "What do they have to patrol for? I can see posting a man or two, but we're in the middle of the woods. It's not like they'd have a ton of people nosing around."

Clark sighed. "I hope you're right."

"I have to be right," Lois told him solemnly. "It's our only hope."


For the next couple of hours, Lois tried not to think about how hungry and thirsty she was, or about the painful burning in her leg as she and Clark kept anxious eyes on the small basement window. Eagerly, they watched the daylight fade steadily until all they could see was blackness outside their dimly lit basement prison.

"How much longer do you think we should wait?" Lois asked in a hushed whisper.

Clark twisted his hands anxiously as he walked across the cell. "I don't know." Standing at the door of the cell for a moment, he wrapped an arm inconspicuously around his aching ribcage and stood stock still, straining to hear any possible sounds of approaching footsteps. Nothing.

"I hate this!" he suddenly exclaimed. He forced himself to drop his arm from his torso and turned to pace back across the cell toward Lois. "I can't hear a single thing. Do you have any idea how totally useless I feel?!"

Still sitting on the cot, Lois reached out to take his hand when he stopped near her, and gave it a sympathetic squeeze. "Clark, calm down. You're making me a basket case." She gave his hand a slight tug, attempting to pull him down beside her.

But he refused to be comforted. "No, Lois, I can't," he told her, pulling his hand out of hers and pacing back to the cell door. "Do you realize how much is riding on this? We're only going to get one chance at this, and if we fail…" His voice trailed off.

"Clark, we're not going to fail," she told him, forcing herself to keep her voice calm and steady. "We just need to be careful and watch for our opportunities." She watched him reach up to grab the bars of the cell door, and noticed his knuckles turning white as his grip on them tightened in silent anger and frustration.

When he spoke again, she had to strain to hear his voice. "I just can't help feeling so helpless," he said in a strangled whisper. "I'm so used to being able to rely on my powers to keep the people I love save. But now I'm faced with something I can't do anything about, and having to watch you suffer because of it. You have *no* idea how that eats at me. If I had my powers, I'd just bend these bars apart and fly us out of here, but I can't. I can't do *anything.* I feel totally and completely useless to do anything to help you—to help *us*—and it's tearing me apart."

From where she sat, Lois could see the tears glimmering in his eyes, and her heart immediately went out to him. With great effort, she put her hands on either side of her and pushed herself up from the cot, gritting her teeth against the pain as she made her way over to where Clark stood. When she reached him, she put a hand on his arm.

"Clark, listen to me," she said quietly, the firm pressure of her hand on his arm forcing him to look at her. "We're going to get out of here, with or without your powers. So there's no reason for you to feel guilty about what you don't have. I was getting myself out of bad situations long before I met you. It's not an impossible thing to do." She gave him a wry smile, which he returned hesitantly. But she could still see the haunted look in his eyes, so she tried again.

"Clark, the bottom line is, none of this is your fault. And feeling guilty and continuing to blame yourself—like I know you're doing—isn't going to help us escape. We need to stay focused. True, it would be much easier to get out of here if you had your powers, but you don't, so quit dwelling on it. The way I look at it is it's like when a person loses their sight. They have to learn to rely on their other senses, and that's kind of what *we're* going to need to do. We're both resourceful people, used to thinking on our feet and making things happen. Why should this situation be any different? We're a team, Clark. As long as we remember that and continue to work together, it really won't matter if you have super powers or not. We'll get out of here, and we'll get through this *together.*"

When she finished, Clark stared at her for a long minute. She was right—absolutely right. Powers or no powers, they'd worked together for a long time. They were a team. A great team. They'd managed to accomplish great things in the past when they'd worked together. Why couldn't they now?

Staring down into her intense gaze, so brave in spite of everything she'd been through, and so sure of what they had to do to free themselves, he was once again overcome by how much he loved her, and how lucky he was that he had her in his life.

Reaching out, he cupped her face in his hands and stroked his thumbs across her cheeks. "You'rean amazing woman, Lois Lane," he told her, his voice husky with emotion. "What would I ever do without you in my life?"

She smiled tiredly as she reached up to put her hands on his wrists. "Let's not find out."

He laughed softly. "It's a deal." Then his smile softened, and he looked at her lovingly. "I love you, Lois. No matter what happens, that'll never change."

"I know, Clark. And I love you, too. But the only thing that's going to happen is that we're going to get out of here and put *Trask* behind bars, once and for all. Then we can get on with our lives."

"You have *no* idea how great that sounds," he replied earnestly. His eyes continued to search hers for a long moment, then he lowered his face to hers and kissed her gently, telling her without words just how much he loved her.

When their kiss ended, Clark wrapped his arms around her tightly, nestling his face in her hair. Lois sighed and let her head fall against his chest, feeling immediately comforted by the solid, steady beating of his heart. She couldn't help marveling at how much comfort she was able to draw from him, from the feeling of being enveloped in his arms. She felt as if she could handle anything, as long as they remained together. It was an awesome feeling.

Long minutes passed before Clark finally released her. "I think you should get some rest," he told her in a no-nonsense tone, helping her over to the cot. "We're going to have a long night ahead of us."

She sighed as she sank down onto the cot. "I know. That's what I'm afraid of."


Lois and Clark spent the next couple of hours waiting anxiously for the time when they felt Trask and his thugs would be asleep, giving them their best chance to make their escape. Lois was tense, and she knew Clark was, too, since she felt him jump beside her every time they heard the smallest noise, whether it was the occasional creaking of the ceiling above, or the sound of a car door slamming outside.

It seemed like an eternity before the creaking above them and the comings and goings of vehicles outside slowly diminished, and then finally stopped altogether. When it had been a while since they'd heard anything, Lois turned to Clark hopefully.

"Do you think everyone's asleep?"

Clark continued to listen for a long minute, straining to hear even the smallest noise. When everything remained deathly quiet, he shrugged. "I don't know about asleep, but all the activity has definitely died down. This may be our best chance at getting away undetected. We'll need at least fifteen or twenty minutes head start since we'll be on foot. Once they discover we're missing, they'll no doubt come after us in force."

Lois nodded, her heart starting to pound. "Then I say we do it now." Turning to the cot's pillow, she slid her hand underneath it and grasped the cold metal tools, then stood up and limped over to the cell door. "Do me a favor and keep an ear out for the sound of anyone coming while I work on the lock."

Clark pushed himself to his feet, wrapping his arm automatically around his ribcage as he went to stand beside her. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?" he asked, watching her pull the fingernail file out of the clippers' housing and then slip both it and the tweezers into the keyhole and start feeling around with them in the hole. "Maybe you should let me try first."

"And just how many locks have you picked in your lifetime, Mr. Goody Two Shoes?" she asked pointedly, giving him the hint of a smile. "Your idea of breaking and entering has usually consisted of ripping a door off its hinges."

Clark gave a quiet laugh. "You have a point there. Okay. You give it a shot."

"Don't mind if I do." She continued to fumble around in the keyhole for a moment, her brow furrowed in concentration.

"So what exactly are you searching for?" Clark asked after a minute of watching her fumble with the tools in the keyhole.

"Well," she murmured, never looking up from her task. "I've got to raise the pins to the opening point with the tweezers, then use the pressure that the nail file causes to hold the pins in the open position until…" A sudden distinctive click sounded, and Lois looked up at Clark in satisfaction. "Voila! The lock opens." She straightened up and gave the door an experimental push, watching proudly as the door swung open.

Clark shook his head in amazement and grinned. "Someday you're going to have to teach me how to do that."

"Why? I think watching you rip doors from their hinges is much more exciting."

Clark chuckled. "Yeah, I guess both ways work." Then he sobered. *If* I ever get my powers back."

Lois gave his hand a quick squeeze. "You will. I'm sure of it. Now let's get out of here."

Clark hurried out of the cell and went over to the single, high window in the corner and reached up to flip the lock before sliding it open. "It's a good thing Trask doesn't have this window barred, or we'd be stuck."

"What about the screen?" Lois asked as she reached his side.

"No problem." He put his hands on the screen's frame and gave it a gentle push, causing it to pop out of the window casing.

"Shhh! Don't let anyone hear you!" Lois cautioned as he set the screen down on the ground outside the window, then put his hands on the sill and strained to pull himself up for a look outside.

In his weakened condition, he was only able to hold himself off the ground for a matter of moments before his weary arms gave out and he let himself drop back to the floor. Lois noted the way he grimaced and grabbed his ribcage as the landing jarred him. "Are you okay?" she whispered.

He nodded, though a bit breathlessly. "Yeah, but I don't think I'm going to be able to pull myself up through the window without causing a whole lot of commotion."

Lois thought for a minute. "What if I go first, and then help pull you up?" Clark raised his eyebrows at her in a 'you've got to be kidding' look, and her shoulders slumped. "Yeah, you're right. You weigh a lot more than I do. Never mind. Stupid suggestion."

"What we need is something to stand on," he mused, keeping his voice down and glancing around at the barren room.

"Hey, how about the cot?" Lois whispered in sudden inspiration. "I don't think it's bolted down."

Clark nodded. "Perfect!"

Together they tiptoed back to the cell. "You take that end and I'll take this end," Lois instructed quietly. "Just walk slowly. And *don't* make any noise."

Clark was silent as he lifted the foot of the cot and backed slowly out of the cell, watching as Lois cringed with the effort of carrying the other end. Quickly he looked over his shoulder to see how close they were, then turned back to her. "You're doing great, Lois, we're almost there," he encouraged quietly.

When they reached the window, Lois gratefully set the cot down beneath it and reached up to wipe her sweaty brow. Her legs felt shaky from the effort, and she forced herself to take a couple of deep breaths to maintain her control over the radiating pain in her thigh.

For a moment, Lois gave in to her sudden, nearly overwhelming feelings of discouragement and bent over to put her hands on her knees as she waited for her head to stop throbbing.

*How am I going to go running off into the darkness of the woods on uneven and steep terrain if I can't even make it across a room?* she asked herself in frustration as tears filled her eyes against her will.

A second later, she felt Clark's hand rest gently on her back. "Lois, I promise this will all be over soon," he said in a hoarse, choked voice. "Just please don't give up."

Wiping angrily at her tears, she straightened up and met Clark's gaze. She was haunted by the torment locked within the depths of his eyes, and she immediately scolded herself for making things worse. She knew Clark was already overwhelmed by his feelings of guilt over her condition, and breaking down in a moment of weakness wasn't going to make the situation any better.

Trying to force a more positive outward appearance, she brushed the hair back off her forehead and said with more force than she felt, "I'm not giving up. I just needed a second to compose myself. Now let's get out of here." And with that, she turned to the window and bit her lip as she stepped up onto the cot.

As she reached up for the windowsill just above her head, the cot's fabric shifted as Clark climbed up beside her and placed his hand gently on the small of her back. "Let me give you a boost so you can take a look outside and make sure no one's around."

Nodding, Lois looked down for Clark's cupped hands and placed her bent knee in them. She cringed as he lifted her up, but she tried to keep her mind focused on the task at hand. When she was level with the window, she peered out into the darkness, looking for any signs of activity.

"Do you see anyone?" Clark asked, gritting his teeth as he tried to keep her weight supported.

After a long moment, Lois shook her head. "No, I don't see anyone," she whispered. "There's a little bit of light coming from somewhere to the right, but I think it might be coming through the cabin windows, not a guard's flashlight or anything."

Clark breathed a sigh of relief and slowly set Lois back down on the cot beside him. "Good. It sounds like this might actually work, then," he whispered back. "Now what are we going to do once we get outside? I think we should figure this out before we get out there so we don't talk more than we have to."

"Well, I'm not going to be much help in figuring out where to go because I was unconscious when I got here," Lois reminded him. "Do you remember anything about where we are?"

Clark sighed. "Unfortunately, I was pretty out of it, too. But I know we drove for about ten minutes after we got in the car. And the roads were pretty bumpy, so I doubt we were on paved roads."

"Okay, so then let's think about this," Lois said logically. "Our best bet is to try to get to the town and find help. Manny's cabin—if that's whose it really was—is only a few minutes from town. Even if we're ten minutes further up the mountain, we couldn't be more than fifteen minutes or so from town. That couldn't take more than a few hours to hike to."

"*If* we're heading in the right direction," Clark pointed out solemnly. "We could be wandering aimlessly through the woods for a long time before finding the road leading down the mountain. And who knows how long each of us can handle that much walking in the condition we're in?"

"Well, let's not think about all that right now," Lois told him firmly. "First things first. We've got to get out of here, regardless of what happens to us after we do. We can deal with the other stuff later. Right now, I just want away from Trask and his thugs."

"Agreed," Clark nodded. "So once we get outside, we'll decide which way to go and get out of here as fast and as quietly as we can. You go out the window first, then I'll climb up after you."

Lois looked at him with concern, knowing his ailing body was as physically weak as her own. "But, are you sure you can…?"

Clark quickly cut her off with an impatient wave of his hand. "Just go, Lois. The longer we stand around here talking, the more we risk the chance of Trask showing up with his men. Let's just go."

Lois nodded, then put her knee once again into Clark's cupped hands and let him boost her up to the window. Trying to be as quiet as possible, she pulled up on the windowsill, trying to make Clark do as little as possible to support her as she climbed up through the window and out into the blackness of the night. Once her upper body cleared the opening, she rolled over onto her hip on the cold, hard dirt and pulled her legs out, biting her lower lip furiously as she tried to stem the pain in her thigh that all the awkward movements had caused.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she sat up, fighting the pain as she felt the cold, hard dirt beneath her. Forcing herself not to think about it, she quickly opened her eyes and took a quick look around at the quiet compound. Satisfied that no one seemed to be around to notice their escape attempt, she turned back to the window to help Clark.

"The coast is clear," she told him in a whisper as he peered up at her through the open window.

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she said, trying to suppress a grimace as she reached a hand through the window for him to grasp. "Come on, I don't know how much time we have before somebody sees us."

Clark nodded, but ignored her hand as he grasped the windowsill and scrambled up through the window. When his torso was out, he then took her hand and let her help pull him the rest of the way out. As he pulled his feet clear of the window, he crumpled to the ground in relief, his chest heaving from the effort. He struggled to catch his breath for a moment, unable to help feeling discouraged with himself.

*You've been able to fly around the world in minutes and have lifted rockets into orbit, but now you can barely climb out of a window,* he grumbled silently at himself. But as quickly as the discouraging thoughts came, he forced himself to push them out of his mind. *It doesn't matter what you can't do right now,* he told himself firmly. *The only thing you should be worrying about at the moment is getting Lois and yourself to safety. You can deal with the problem of how to get your powers back later.*

A second later, he felt Lois grabbing at his shirt and tugging him to his feet. "C'mon, Clark, let's go!" she whispered anxiously, her eyes darting nervously across the compound. "Are you okay? Can you stand up?"

Clark quickly nodded and scrambled to his feet. The world momentarily spun around him, and he held onto Lois for a minute to steady himself. Then when everything slowed down and came into focus, he turned to see Lois watching him with concern. "I'm okay," he told her. "I just got a little dizzy."

He tore his eyes away from Lois' and looked around, straining to see in the darkness with only the light filtering through the cabin windows. A second later, he pointed in the direction of the dirt road leading away from the compound. "Since I'm assuming that leads to the main road, I think we should head the same way. But we shouldn't stay too close to it, because when Trask and his men discover we're missing, the road will be the first place they'll look."

"Fine, but let's get going," Lois agreed, reaching out for Clark's hand and pulling him toward the woods beside the road. "We're going to need a good head start before they find out what happened and come after us."

Clark nodded and took one more anxious look around the compound to make sure they weren't being watched, then together they did their best to hurry across the compound and soon disappeared into the woods.


"Jimmy, what are you doing here at this hour?" Perry asked as he walked out of his office with his coat on and briefcase in hand.

Jimmy looked up from his computer tiredly and glanced at his watch, surprised to see that it was already eleven o'clock. "The computer guys said they could use an extra set of eyes to help go through the Planet's computer system," he told Perry. "Besides, not many people know the Planet's systems better than me."

Perry nodded and walked over to glance at the computer screen in front of Jimmy. "Have you found anything?"

Jimmy sighed. "Nothing yet. But there are a lot of places to look. It could take forever to find the virus Manny installed." He leaned back in his chair and rubbed a hand across his eyes tiredly.

"Are you sure you want to stick around here much longer? You look pretty tired," Perry noted. "Why don't you go home and get some sleep, and get back to this in the morning?"

"No, I'll be all right. I don't have anything to do tonight anyway, so I might as well stay and help."

Perry switched his briefcase to his other hand and shifted his feet. "I told Alice I was on my way home, but if you think I can help, I'll stay."

Jimmy grinned. "No, that's okay, Chief, you go on home. Unless you suddenly became computer literate, there's not much you could do."

Perry smiled sheepishly. "No, I guess there wouldn't be. Well, goodnight, son. If you guys find anything, let me know."

"Will do, Chief."

With a final nod, Perry headed for the elevators, and Jimmy turned back to his computer monitor. Settling back into his chair, he prepared for a long night ahead of him.


"So when are you going to give up on this idea that Kent has some details of an alien invasion to tell you about?" Garrison asked Trask snidely as he walked out of his computer room and spotted Trask at the end of the hall.

"Maybe he just needs a little more convincing," Trask growled, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the chunk of Kryptonite. With a resounding 'thunk,' he set the glowing rock on the table as if to make his point. "And if this doesn't work, then I think we need to consider the possibility that they're just not going to talk. And if that's the case, we'll simply need to eliminate them."

"But then you'll never find out about this "alien invasion" you think Kent is a part of," Garrison pointed out, his voice tinged with sarcasm.

Trask simply shrugged. "If he's not going to give me the details, then at least I can stop him from communicating with his people by killing him. Maybe if he quits communicating, they'll assume he's dead and call off the invasion."

Garrison rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right."

Just then the sound of footsteps thundering up the stairs startled them, and Trask spun around in time to see Fredrickson throw open the basement door, causing it to bang loudly against the wall. His face was deathly pale.

"What is it?" Trask demanded impatiently.

The man gulped, his grip tightening on the doorknob until his knuckles turned white. "I don't exactly know how to tell you this, sir, but they're gone."

Trask's brow furrowed in confusion. "What do you mean, 'they're gone?' They have to be there. I just saw them a couple of hours ago."

"Well, they're not there now."

Trask looked over at Garrison, and they both exchanged a startled, worried look. Then they leaped to their feet and made a quick dash for the basement door. Thundering down the stairs, they ran through the open metal door leading to the isolated basement room and stopped in shocked silence as they spotted the open cell door.

Slowly, Trask's shocked gaze shifted from the open cell door to the cot pushed up against the far wall beneath the window, where the window was open and the screen had been pushed out. And Lois and Clark were nowhere to be seen.

"Noooo!" Trask yelled, his angry voice echoing off the bare cement walls. With several running steps, he ran over to the window and leaped up onto the cot in one smooth motion, peering anxiously out the open window. In a burst of anger, he smacked his hands down on the open window's sill, unaware of the pain his action caused.

Whirling around, he gestured wildly to Fredrickson, who was cowering in the open doorway. "Wake the others! We've got to organize a search party and find them before they get too far away! And get on the radio and call in the choppers. We're going to need some overhead help!"

Fredrickson's eyes widened. "But it's after midnight!" he exclaimed incredulously. "They're not going to be happy about this…"

"I don't care if they're furious!" Trask hollered, jumping down from the cot and thundering toward Fredrickson. "Radio them and get them out here NOW!"

Fredrickson gave him a quick nod, eager for any excuse to get away from his enraged boss, and immediately disappeared up the stairs. When Fredrickson left, Garrison spoke up. "The choppers are a half hour's flight away. Kent and Lane could be anywhere by then, and we have no way of knowing how long ago they escaped."

"Then we'll just have to start searching for them by ground first!" Trask snapped in undisguised anger. "The choppers can join in the search when they get here. Kent is far too important to let escape. Besides, he and Lane can't get very far in the shape they're in."

Garrison hesitated. "I wouldn't be too sure about that. Whether he has Kryptonite in his system or not, Kent's tenacity and resourcefulness shouldn't be overlooked. Neither should Lane's."

Trask nodded. "All the more reason to get the men out there searching immediately, and call in that air support. Now."

With determined steps, Trask turned to go up the stairs, and Garrison followed. When they reached the main level, they were instantly surrounded by a barrage of activity. A dozen men were barreling out of their bunks and throwing on clothes and boots before rushing into the front area of the cabin to grab their guns, high frequency radios and high-powered flashlights.

"Let's go, let's go, let's go!" Trask yelled as the men stampeded past. "We don't have a second to spare. I want everyone assembled outside in two minutes, ready for instructions!"

Trask turned to Garrison. "I want as many vehicles as possible," he told him. "It's dark out there, and we're going to need all the light we can get from our headlights while we're searching. And make sure all the men are properly equipped with two-way radios. I want everyone in touch at all times."

Garrison's jaw tightened at being ordered around like one of Trask's pitbulls, but he knew that, considering the circumstances, it was better to follow orders. After all, he wanted the Man of Steel recaptured as badly as Trask did. There was simply too much at stake.

Nodding obediently, he grabbed his coat and headed out the door to oversee the gathering of the men in the compound.

It was only a matter of minutes before all the men were assembled outside, and Trask stalked back and forth in front of them. "Okay, men, listen up! Here's the situation," he began, his voice booming authoritatively through the stillness of the night. "Lane and Kent are out there somewhere, and I want them back in my custody before dawn. With their injuries, they couldn't have gotten far, so I want these woods gone over with a fine-tooth comb. We'll pair up and spread out, leaving no stone unturned. I expect everyone to radio in at twenty-minute intervals, telling me where you are and what you've found. If you find any tracks or signs that Lane and Kent have left behind, I want to know! Is that understood?"

"Yes sir!" came the resounding reply from the men.

Trask gave a curt nod. "Then let's get to it!"

His orders were immediately followed by a bustle of activity as the men obediently broke formation and scurried about the compound, gathering last minute items and scrambling into vehicles.


Trask turned to see Fredrickson bounding down the cabin's front steps and jogging over to him. "What's the status of the chopper?" Trask demanded.

"They could only spare one, but it should be on its way."

"Good," Trask replied, glancing down at his watch. "Let's just hope they hurry. I want Kent and Lane recaptured before they get too far away."

"I understand, sir. We're on it." And with that, he turned and hurried to the nearest jeep and climbed in.

Garrison approached Trask a minute later. "Everything's set."

Trask nodded briskly. "Okay, then," he said, his loud voice booming across the compound. "Let's move!"


Lois ducked under a tree branch that Clark held back for her, then cautiously stepped over several fallen twigs. She felt awkward and cumbersome hiking through the rough terrain in her dress shoes, though she was grateful she'd chosen to wear flats instead of high heels to the theater the night before. She hated to think how much more difficult the hiking would've been right now.

"How long have we been walking?" she asked, following a step behind Clark as they continued their hike through the darkened woods. Occasionally, the hoot of an owl or a rustle in the woods alerted them to the fact that they weren't alone, but so far there had been no indication that Trask's men were following them.

"About an hour," Clark answered, sounding out of breath as he concentrated on navigating the hilly terrain.

Lois' heart sank, and the discouragement that had been building over the course of their long trek through the woods seemed to peak. "An hour? That's it?" she asked, unable to keep the despair from her voice.

Clark turned to glance over his shoulder at her. "Sorry to break the news, but yeah."

Tears welled up in Lois' eyes, and she slowed her already painful, limping steps. She was tired, hurting and discouraged, and all she wanted to do right then and there was to collapse and give in to some good, old-fashioned self-pity.

Unable to force herself to continue, she turned away from Clark without a word and headed for a large fallen tree nearby. When she reached it, she dropped onto it unceremoniously and reached down to rub her aching thigh.

*What's the point of this, anyway?* she thought dismally. *These mountains go on for miles and miles. What are the odds of us actually heading in the right direction in the dark? And how are we possibly supposed to find help before Trask and his men find *us*?*

Moments later, Clark suddenly realized Lois was no longer behind him, and in a panic, he whirled around to see what had happened to her. When he spotted her a few yards away sitting on a fallen tree, he couldn't help breathing a sigh of relief.

Deciding he could use a break, too, he changed direction and walked wearily over to her as he struggled to slow his breathing. As much as he was trying not to show it, he was exhausted. He couldn't help wondering if the Kryptonite in his system affected more than just his powers since his energy level seemed to drop when his activity increased.

*That would make sense, though,* Clark reasoned as he dropped wearily onto the log next to Lois. *With my heart beating faster from the exercise, it's probably pumping the Kryptonite through my system faster.*

As he drew next to Lois, he could tell from her slumped shoulders and hanging head that she was discouraged and hurting.

"Come on, Lois, we can't quit now," Clark said quietly as he sat down beside her and reached out to rub her shoulder sympathetically.

She sniffled through her barely controlled tears and shook her head slowly. "What's the use," she muttered dismally. "We could be walking in circles in the dark, for all we know. It's the middle of the night, it's freezing, I'm tired, and my leg is throbbing…" Her voice trailed off, and the tears that had been forming in her eyes finally spilled over and began to course down her cheeks.

Clark's heart wrenched. He wasn't used to seeing Lois so discouraged, so close to completely giving up that it cut him clear to his soul. He knew he had to do something to keep her going, to give her the strength to go on. True, they both had been through a lot, much more than anybody should ever have to go through. But he also knew of the fire and spirit Lois had inside of her, and he knew that if only he could spark it, he could give her the strength to keep going.

"Lois, I know you're tired and hurting and discouraged," he began, lifting his hand to brush her hair back from her dirt and tear-streaked face. "But we're going to get through this. I promise."

"How can you promise that?" she asked, looking up at him with eyes filled with doubt. "We could be wandering around these mountains for hours, even days before finding help! And Trask's men have the advantage. They probably know these woods like the backs of their hands. The odds of us finding help before they find us are remote at best."

"Lois, I swear to you," Clark said forcefully, taking her hands in his firmly, "I am *not* going to let Trask's men capture us again. We've come too far and gone through too much to get to this point. I may not be able to see through the dark to check our direction, but I'm sure we're going in the right direction. I can feel it."

"You can *feel* it?" Lois echoed, a hint of her usual spirit returning in the form of biting sarcasm. "Is that one of those superpowers you didn't bother to tell me that you have? Intuition? Terrific. I feel *so* much better now. Thanks."

Clark closed his eyes and forced himself to count to ten. He quickly reminded himself that it was a good thing that he'd sparked some of Lois' fighting spirit. But on the other hand, he didn't appreciate her sarcasm and anger being directed at him, especially when he was already feeling guilty enough about her finding out about him and his powers in the way she had. He was doing his best to put his own failing health aside to keep her as comforted and protected as he could, and it angered him that she couldn't see that.

"It's pretty ironic, isn't it?" Lois went on, angrily brushing away the tears on her cheeks. "Here I am, in the middle of the mountains with you, *Superman*, and you can't get us out of here any easier than *I* could." She pushed up unsteadily from the log and took a couple of limping steps away before stopping and crossing her arms in front of her chest, staring off into the blackness of the woods around them. When she continued, her tone was bitter. "You know, I always thought having Superman for a boyfriend would be exciting…you know, having all those superpowers at your disposal. But a lot of good that's doing me now. You can't even get us out of a life or death situation when we need it the most. So much for your being 'super.'"

Finally finished ranting, she turned back to Clark. But when she saw the devastated, crestfallen expression on his face that her thoughtless words had caused, she immediately felt horrible.

"Oh, Clark," she said, limping back to where he sat, looking as if he'd been slapped. "I'm so sorry. You know I didn't mean that. I was lashing out, and you just happened to be on the receiving end of it. I know you'd get us out of here if you could."

She reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, but his expression had turned hard and cold, and he jerked his arm away and stood up. Taking a couple of steps away, he spoke, his voice cool and filled with hurt. "It doesn't matter. Let's just go." And with that, he started to walk away, his back stiff and his shoulders squared.

Lois stared after him in shock, tears once again forming in her eyes. This time, though, they were tears of remorse. *How could you have said such a horrible thing?* she scolded herself angrily. *It's obvious he already feels guilty enough about the situation we're in without you making it worse by taking things out on him. You're supposed to be supportive, a part of a team, not do everything in your power to push you apart!*

And what was worse, she didn't how she could possibly go about fixing the damage her words had just done.

Now feeling even worse emotionally than physically, she bit her lower lip as she turned and half-hopped, half-jogged after Clark, trying to close the distance between them. "Clark, slow down!" she called out in a loud whisper. "Come on, Clark, wait! Can't we at least talk about this?"

Clark suddenly stopped short and turned around, his eyes fiery and angry. "It doesn't sound like there's anything to talk about, Lois. Thanks for finally making me understand. Now that you know the truth about me, but realize I don't have any of my powers, I'm somehow damaged goods."

"Clark, that's not what I meant, and you know it," Lois began, the knife of her guilt penetrating deeper into her heart. "I didn't mean it at all. I was just angry!"

She was about to rush on with her apology, but suddenly Clark's face took on an all-too-familiar distant, distracted look. If she didn't know any better, she would say he was hearing something. But that couldn't be possible. He was still without his superhearing, and she didn't hear anything out of the ordinary. She looked at him curiously, her brow furrowing. "What is it?"

He held up a hand to silence her and continued to listen for a few seconds. Then suddenly she heard it, too. It was the unmistakable, rhythmic sounds of an approaching helicopter.

"Trask!" Lois gasped, her scared voice quivering audibly. "He must have discovered we were missing!"

Clark's eyes took on a panicked look, and he quickly glanced back at her and grabbed her hand. "Lois, run!"

Grabbing her thigh in an effort to stem the pain, she lurched forward after Clark in a loping, limping gait as they ran in the opposite direction of the approaching helicopter. Glancing back over her shoulder, she could make out the helicopter's brilliant searchlight darting among the trees behind them, and Lois knew it would only be a matter of seconds before it gave away their position.

Clark seemed to realize it, too, because his eyes darted around their surroundings frantically. A second later, he was tugging at her hand and pointing to his right. "This way!" he shouted, pulling her toward a denser gathering of trees and a shallow ravine.

Lois stumbled along after him, fighting to stay on her feet as they dodged rocks and jumped over fallen tree branches. They paused at the top of the shallow ravine, and Lois joined Clark in looking up frantically into the sky at the approaching helicopter. She couldn't help noticing the helicopter's darting searchlight looming even closer, and in the next moment, Lois could feel the wind from the helicopter's blades rush over her, and the trees around them started to sway.

Paralyzed with fear, she froze next to Clark as the helicopter's menacing searchlight suddenly illuminated the area just to the left of them. Her heart leapt into her throat and she tightened her grip on Clark's hand.

"Clark!" she yelled frantically.

Barely able to hear her voice over the noise of the helicopter's whirling blades, he quickly turned to her, his eyes mirroring her panic. "Quick! Down into the ravine!" he yelled over the rhythmic beating of the blades.

Before she was ready, she found herself being pulled along after him, sliding down the few feet of embankment into the shallow but empty ravine, causing a shower of loose dirt and rocks to fall down around them. They landed with a thump on the uneven ground at the bottom of the ravine, and Lois immediately gasped as prickles of white-hot pain seared through her leg, which nearly gave out from the impact. Frantically, she grabbed for Clark's arm to keep herself upright.

With the help of the adrenaline flooding through her, she forced her legs to remain beneath her and gave Clark's hand a jerk as she turned to her right, preparing to flee along the bed of the ravine. But Clark's hand nearly crushed hers as he pulled her back alongside him. Then he hastily threw his arm across her, shoving her backward and pressing her up against the wall of the dried ravine bed in an effort to shield them from the helicopter's approaching searchlight.

Lois stood, frozen with fear as the searchlight darted closer, approaching from behind. Glancing quickly to her left, she saw Clark flatten himself even further against the ravine's wall, his breathing coming hard and fast. She clenched her eyes tightly shut and quickly directed a prayer heavenward, hoping that at the angle at which the helicopter was approaching, the embankment of the ravine and the dense population of trees along the banks would shield them from the helicopter overhead.

Then, in a heart stopping flash, the helicopter's searchlight suddenly flooded over them, illuminating them and their surroundings with the brightness of the midday sun. Lois froze. For what seemed like an eternity, she was unable to move, unable to breathe.

But then things went dark again around them, and Lois let her breath out in a rush. Unclenching her eyes and looking skyward, she blinked several times to force her eyes to readjust to her dark surroundings and saw that the helicopter had flown over them and was continuing on ahead of them in its search.

As it resumed its course, the blade noise diminished, the trees around them slowly stopped swaying, and the air finally stilled. When the stillness of the night finally settled in around them, Lois could once again hear Clark's heavy breathing.

Almost afraid to trust her own voice, she whispered anxiously, "I don't think they saw us."

"Not this time," Clark agreed, obviously trying to control his labored breathing. "But they'll be circling back and continuing to look until they find us, so we'd better get out of here. Let's find a spot where it'll be easier to climb out and then search for cover."

With a quick nod, Lois bit the corner of her lip hard against the radiating pain in her leg and pushed off from the cold, dirt embankment. She started to turn away, but Clark quickly put a hand on her arm to stop her. She turned to look at him in concern. "What?"

Clark gestured for her to be quiet again, and her heart started to pound as she strained to hear whatever it was he was listening for. Seconds later, she heard it. Car doors slamming. Loud voices shouting out instructions.

With renewed fear gripping at her heart, she met Clark's worried gaze. There was no doubt about it. Trask's men were closing in.

"Let's go!" Clark urged. Grabbing Lois' hand, they ran together along the bottom of the ravine, away from the approaching men. They hadn't gone far when Clark spotted a section of the bank that had been washed away, and a fallen tree dipped down into the ravine. Clark pointed at it and shouted, "There! Come on, I'll help you up."

Lois hurried to the tree and quickly grabbed at the branches, using them, along with Clark's steadying hands, to help her scramble up the side of the embankment. Once again on solid ground, she turned back to offer Clark her hand. Seconds later, he was standing beside her on the bank.

The still-present sounds of Trask's men approaching made them look around frantically for the best means of escape. "Up the hill," Clark suddenly said, pointing to his right. "Maybe there's somewhere to hide up there."

"You've got to be kidding," Lois whispered in disbelief, staring at the steep incline and thinking of her aching body. "I can't make it up there!"

"Come on, Lois, it's steep, but it's not very far." Clark took her hand and gave it a quick, reassuring squeeze. "You can do it. Just follow me."

Though skeptical, Lois steeled herself and hurried after Clark. As they started to climb, the hard, frozen dirt soon turned rocky, and Lois found herself struggling to maintain her footing as she followed Clark up the incline.

In the darkness, she didn't see the single branch sticking up from between two of the rocks, and she let out a startled cry when it snared her foot. She shifted her weight onto her other foot to try to free herself, but the rocks she stood on suddenly gave way, causing her to lose her balance and teeter precariously on the unstable rock face.

The next thing she knew, she fell hard on her knees, wincing as the sharp edges of the rocks beneath her cut into her tender skin. Then, in one heart-stopping moment, she felt herself start to skid backwards down the steep slope. "Clark!" she cried out frantically.

Clark whirled around and saw her slither backward, his throat suddenly constricting in fear. "Lois!" He threw his arm out and made a grab for her hand, but missed. "Lois, hang on! I'm coming!"

Trying to maintain his footing on the loose rocks, he scrambled down the steep mountainside, praying that Lois could hold on until he got there. When he got close enough, he once again reached out his hand and breathed an inward sigh of relief when he felt her hand grasp his firmly. He held on as she righted herself, then pulled herself back up toward him where she was able to get better footing.

Just then the flicker of flashlights through the trees at the bottom of the hill caught their attention, and they heard shouts. Clark's eyes darted toward the approaching men. Turning his attention back to Lois, he tugged on her hand urgently. "Come on! Just a little bit further, Lois, I promise!"

Lois put what little energy she had left into scrambling the rest of the way up the incline, and was relieved when the ground began to level out near the top of the hill. Clark pulled her toward an overgrown thicket along the ridge about twenty yards away, and she did her best to follow.

As the underbrush thickened, they found themselves maneuvering around fallen branches and avoiding prickly branches and shrubs that reached out to grab them as they went past. But Clark kept leading them further into the dense foliage, and Lois didn't question him. She knew he was right to choose such a path; surely Trask's men wouldn't think to look for them in places where the terrain was so rough and unpleasant.

As they were moving deeper into the thicket, Lois suddenly felt a tug behind her, and she whirled around in a panic. But in a rush of relief, she saw that it was just that her dress had been snared by one of the outstretched branches of a nearby bush. Sliding her hand out of Clark's, she stopped and reached out to unhook the torn fabric of her dress from its grasp. As she did, she heard Clark cry out in surprise.

Quickly she turned back to see that he'd stumbled over a mostly hidden log beneath the underbrush, getting scratched up by the surrounding branches in the process. Then in the darkness, she saw him pause, then take two crawling steps to his right and peer intently into the darkness.

"Clark, what is it?" Lois asked in an exaggerated whisper. "What do you see?"

"I think it's a cave!" he replied in an excited whisper. "The mouth of it is really overgrown with bushes and shrubs, but it's there! If it's big enough for the both of us, we can hide in there, and Trask's men would probably never find us! Come on, let's check it out!"

Lois fought her way toward him through the snaring branches and came to a stop beside him where he was moving the dense foliage aside to get a better look. Suddenly, she saw it too, and her eyes lit up with hope. It was indeed the opening to a small cave, so overgrown with bushes and branches that the mouth of it was impossible to see unless you were looking for it.

Clark succeeded in parting the foliage without breaking the branches that would shield them from the searching eyes of Trask's men, and he gestured for Lois to go inside. She got down on her hands and knees to crawl inside the mouth of the cave while Clark held aside the brush for her.

She had to squint to see anything in the cave, and only the faintest of moon rays reflecting off the patchy snow outside gave them the chance to see their surroundings.

"It looks like an old mine shaft," Lois said in a hushed whisper as Clark scrambled in beside her. "Weren't there a bunch of small mine shafts operated in these mountains at the turn of the century? Maybe this is one of those shafts."

Clark turned back in the confined space and concentrated on replacing the branches and foliage shielding the cave's entrance. "I don't know, but it could be," he answered quietly. "The important thing is, we should be safe in here."

When the entrance was covered to his satisfaction, Clark breathed an audible sigh of relief and turned back to her in the near darkness. "I know I said we should keep moving to get as far away from Trask's cabin as possible, but I think our safest bet is to stay here for the night. The branches and underbrush covering the mouth of this cave, or mineshaft, or whatever it is, will keep us hidden from Trask's men, and I think we're safer to stay put here. At least until dawn, when we can see. Besides, I think we could both use the rest."

Lois nodded wearily. "I won't argue with that."

Clark swung around in the cramped space and leaned back against the cool, dirt wall. When he was situated, he put his hands on Lois' arms and gently guided her back against him until she was nestled in his embrace.

With a tired sigh, Lois leaned her head against his cheek and was immediately comforted by the soothing, familiar feel of his arms encompassing her. "Mmmm," she mumbled wearily. "I can hardly keep my eyes open. When we get back to Metropolis, I'm going to sleep for days."

She felt Clark's smile against her cheek. "Me too."

"*After* we get to the bottom of this virus thing and get Trask put behind bars, that is," she quickly amended. "Some things just can't wait."

"True. But for now, there's nothing to do but wait," Clark answered wearily. "So you just sleep. I'll keep an eye and an ear out for trouble."

"But shouldn't you get some sleep, too?"

Clark sighed. "I will. But first I want to make sure we're safe from Trask's men.When I'm sure they've passed us by, I'll sleep, too."

Lois brushed her bangs back off her sweaty forehead and looked up doubtfully into Clark's face, barely able to see him in only the faint strains of moonlight filtering through the overgrown entrance to the cave. His voice sounded so tired and strained, and what she was able to see of him in the dim lighting wasn't encouraging. His face was pale, and she'd never seen him look so completely worn out and exhausted before.

Lifting her hand to his cheek, she stroked it tenderly, her earlier fit of anger forgotten. "How are you holding up? You don't look that great."

Clark reached up to take his glasses off and rubbed the bridge of his nose tiredly. "No, I'm okay. It's just that my body's never been through anything like this before without my powers, and the Kryptonite seems to be affecting me the more active I get."

Lois' earlier feelings of guilt for her harsh words came flooding back. "Clark, about what I said earlier…"

"No, Lois, it's okay," Clark hurried to reassure her. "We were both tired and irritable, and we both said some things we shouldn't have…"

But Lois shook her head, quickly cutting him off. "No, Clark, it's not okay. I had no business lashing out at you like that, and I hope you know that I didn't mean a word of it. You're suffering from this whole ordeal as much as I am, and I shouldn't have taken my frustrations out on you."

She swallowed hard, then continued. "I know how hard this must be on you, especially since you're so used to relying on your powers to keep people safe. And I just want you to know, I don't blame you for any of this. We're a team. We'll get through this together. With or without your superpowers."

She could see Clark's relieved smile through the cave's darkness. "Thank you, Lois," he said quietly. "That means a lot to hear you say that, because I *have* been blaming myself for getting you into this mess. It just kills me to see you like this, hungry and cold and in so much pain. I'd do anything to get you out of it."

Lois felt tears spring to her eyes. "I know you would, Clark. And that's why—"

"Shhhh," Clark whispered, putting a finger to her lips. "Enough talking for now, Lois. You just lie down and get some sleep. Morning will be here before you know it, and we'll need to get an early start. We can talk more tomorrow after we're safe and sound in Metropolis. Believe me, Lois, everything's going to be all right. I promise."

The idea of being safely back in the city, accompanied by Clark's reassuring words, sent a calming feeling through Lois, and she suddenly found herself believing Clark. Somehow, everything *was* going to be all right.

With a tired sigh, she let Clark guide her head down onto his shoulder, and she nestled up against him, letting the warmth of his body shield her from the coolness of the damp cave. Then, finally giving in to her exhaustion, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.


The next morning, Clark found himself being pulled from his tense, dreamless sleep by unfamiliar sensations: a chill in the air, his aching body, and something digging into his lower back. He opened his eyes, and it only took him a second to realize where he was.

With a low groan, he shifted his position on the cold dirt floor to move away from the sharp rock jabbing him in the back, and as he did, he felt the weight on his right arm. Glancing down, he saw that Lois was still asleep, snuggled into the crook of his arm.

He smiled softly. In the few times he'd been lucky enough to have it happen, he loved seeing Lois asleep next to him. She always looked so peaceful and beautiful. One would never know from the angelic look she had on her face while sleeping that a tempered fire lay beneath that peaceful exterior. But to him, that only made her more appealing.

Now if only he was in a place where he could better enjoy it…

With a heavy sigh, he let his head fall back against the cold cave wall. True, they were one step closer to having their freedom than they had been the day before, but he knew they still weren't clear of their nightmarish situation. They had a long, physical, and nerve-wracking morning still ahead of them, and he couldn't wait until it was over. They'd already been through so much, and last night had been no exception. The physical exertion of their escape and then their desperate flight from Trask's helicopter and men had left him feeling drained, both emotionally and physically, and he knew Lois felt the same. Her bitter words from last night still rang in his ears: "I always thought having Superman for a boyfriend would be exciting…you know, having all those superpowers at your disposal. But a lot of good that's doing me now. You can't even get us out of a life or death situation when we need it the most. So much for your being 'super.'"

As soon as he'd heard those words and the bitter tone with which she'd spoken them, twenty years of fears and insecurities had suddenly come rushing back to him, and he'd literally felt sick to his stomach. Even now, several hours and a night's sleep later, his gut still hurt from their effect.

Ever since he was young and he'd realized just how different his powers made him from everyone else, he'd always wondered if he'd ever be able to find somebody to love…somebody who would love him in return for who he was, not for what he could do. Somebody who wouldn't be involved with him just because it would benefit that person to be in a relationship with him. He'd thought that that somebody was Lois. But hearing her biting sarcasm made him second-guess himself. And he hated second-guessing himself, especially when it was something as life-important as his love for Lois.

As he'd been falling asleep the night before, he'd tried his best to sort out his myriad of emotions and thoughts in spite of his sheer exhaustion. But when he'd finally fallen asleep after what seemed like hours later when he'd been sure Trask's men were long gone, he still hadn't been any closer to settling anything with himself. But at least then his mind had been clearer, and he'd been able to realize that Lois really hadn't meant what she'd said, just as she'd tried to reassure him before she'd fallen asleep. He knew she loved him for who he was, because she was in love with *him*, and told him she wanted to be with him, even before that awful night when Trask and his men had stepped in and changed their lives forever.

She hadn't taken the news of his being Superman very well at all, he realized. But he could hardly blame her for flying off the handle as she did when she'd stumbled across the truth the way she had. That was exactly why he'd wanted to tell her himself, so he could pick and choose the time and circumstances under which he could reveal his secret. Maybe she would've taken the news better then.

But none of that mattered anymore. At least she'd agreed to put the topic of his being Superman on hold while they were captive in Trask's stronghold, when surviving and escaping had been at the forefront of their minds. And now that they were on their way to being clear of all this, things were likely to change between them. There would just be so much to deal with.

Would Lois view him as Clark Kent, her partner at the Planet, her best friend, and the man in her life? Or would she view him as the Superhero she'd envisioned herself being swept off her feet by when he'd first made his appearance in Metropolis? Or would she view him as a mixture of both? And what did he *want* her to view him as? He realized he had as much sorting out of his feelings and emotions to do on the subject as she did. Surely, the next several weeks were going to be a very confusing and emotional time for them both.

Lois suddenly stirred in his arms, and he forced himself out of his thoughts and glanced down at her. Her eyes were still closed, but he noticed that the first signs of daylight coming from the cave's brush-covered entrance was starting to move across her face. Staring at her partially lit features, he suddenly felt warm amid the early morning chill in the air around him.

Asleep, Lois looked so perfect, so beautiful lying there in his arms. And as he sat there and continued to watch her, he couldn't help feeling that this was exactly how he wanted to wake up every morning for the rest of his life: with Lois asleep in his arms. He couldn't think of anything he'd love more.

Feeling an almost overwhelming protectiveness and tenderness, he reached up to trail a finger down her cheek lovingly. But when he touched her cheek, his soft smile quickly faded. He turned his hand over and pressed the back of it against her skin, and his chest tightened with concern. Her skin felt hot and damp beneath his hand, and he realized her fever was climbing.

Figuring her increasing fever was the result of her injury, he straightened a little, doing his best not to wake her. Then he carefully reached down to push aside the dirty fabric of her dress to reveal her hastily-bandaged thigh. But what he saw made his throat constrict and his heart pound.

The once-white bandage had been soaked through with blood, and tiny rivulets of blood had slithered down from beneath the soaked bandage to the top of her knee and had then dried there during the night. Clearly, their physically exerting escape of the previous night had forced the wound open, causing it to bleed to the point of soaking the bandage and seeping past to color the bare skin of her leg.

Staring at the blood-soaked bandage, tears filled Clark's eyes. No wonder she'd been so exhausted and in poor spirits. Not only was she hurting from her reopened wound, but she'd lost so much blood. He couldn't blame her for being so tired and ready to give up. How could she have possibly kept going in the condition she was in?

Wiping away the tears that escaped down his cheeks, he sat up abruptly and reached out to touch her shoulder. They'd slept long enough. He had to get her to a doctor.

"Lois," he spoke quietly, trying to rouse her by gently shaking her shoulder. "Lois, wake up. It's morning." Lois stirred again, but didn't open her eyes. Clark tried again. "Lois, come on. We've got to get moving."

This time Lois' eyelids flickered, then opened drowsily. "Mmmph," she muttered incoherently, her eyes glassy and her expression disoriented. A moment later, though, her gaze took in her surroundings and she seemed to reorient herself.

Trask. The cave. The long walk they had ahead of them that morning.

Lois let out a low moan. "I was hoping it had all been just a really bad dream," she said quietly as she took a long, slow breath of the cool mountain air in an effort to ease her hammering headache, "but I can see that it wasn't."

She reached up to rub her temples in slow, rhythmic circles, and Clark's hands tightened sympathetically on her shoulders. "Lois, I know you're not feeling well, but we've got to get moving so we can get you to a doctor. Are you up to it?"

Lois turned to look at him from beneath heavy lids as she continued to rub her temples. She noticed with some relief that the ugly bruise he'd suffered from his rough treatment the day before was starting to lighten up. "Yeah, I can make it," she told him with more certainty than she felt. "But what about you? It's not just me who needs to see a doctor. Surely there's somebody who can help you with your…condition."

"I don't know who," Clark answered. "But I do feel a little bit stronger this morning. Maybe my body is finally starting to fight off the Kryptonite."

"Or maybe you're just feeling better after a few hours of sleep."

Clark's hopeful expression sobered slightly. "Yeah, maybe."

Lois backed down, not wanting to discourage Clark. "Well, either way, you need to see Dr. Klein when we get back to Metropolis. But I definitely think you should go dressed as Superman. That is, unless you want him to know the truth about, well, you know."

Clark nodded. "Yeah, I know. But first things first. We need to find a road, flag down a ride, and get *you* to a hospital."

"But what about Dr. Klein? And Trask, and Garrison…and the computer virus?" Lois protested. "There's much more at stake here than some stitches and a big hospital bill." She made a face. "We need to alert the authorities to what we know."

Clark shook his head firmly. "That can all be done *after* we check you into a hospital, Lois. *Your* health should be our first priority. I know it's mine. I'm more worried about your fever and infection than anything else. And we can tell the authorities what we know about Trask, Garrison, and the computer virus *after* I know you're being taken care of. And I'm not going to take 'no' for an answer," he hastily added when Lois opened her mouth to argue.

Lois closed her mouth, stopping her further protests when she realized it was useless. Clark was just trying to protect her in the only way he could at the moment without his powers. She was sure there was a huge amount of underlying guilt beneath his words, and she didn't want to trivialize that.

Smiling softly, she reached up to cup his cheek with her hand. "Thanks, Clark…for caring that much. But honestly, we'll figure out a way to do it all as quickly as possible. I mean, we juggle twenty things at once at the Planet on a daily basis. We can do all of this, too."

Clark let his head fall forward, touching it gently to Lois' forehead. Then he closed his eyes and breathed deeply, telling himself she was right. They could do this. They had to. Besides, Lois was obviously putting every ounce of strength into being strong and optimistic, so he knew he had to be, too. For both of their sakes.

Putting his hands on either side of him on the cold cave floor, he slowly pushed himself up and scrambled to his feet. He did his best to stretch in the cave's close quarters, then offered his hands to Lois. "The sun's not up yet, but it's light enough that we can hopefully find our way to a road," he told her, trying to keep his voice upbeat. "If Trask's men are still out in force, which I suspect they are, we'll have a better chance at spotting them in daylight and getting past them. Do you feel up to it?"

Lois gave her thudding temples one last rub and nodded imperceptibly, though inwardly she knew she really didn't feel up to it at all. She felt both hot and cold at the same time, and though the pain in her thigh had been reduced to a dull ache after a few hours of rest, she knew the weariness and light-headedness she was feeling came from the amount of blood she'd lost the night before. Even now she could feel the blood-crusted bandage rubbing stiffly against her thigh. It was not only uncomfortable, but served as a dismal reminder of what they'd been through and what they still had ahead of them. She could hardly bear the thought of the psychically draining hike through the mountainous terrain that she knew they had ahead of them, even if it did mean they'd be one step closer to Metropolis…and freedom.

But Clark didn't need to know how she was really feeling. She knew he already felt guilty enough about not being able to use his powers to get them out of their situation, and he didn't need her to make him feel worse about it. So, biting her lip in determination to hide her aches and pains, she put her hands into Clark's and let him help her to her feet.

"Ready?" he asked after she steadied herself on her stiff legs.

Lois gave the dirt on the front of her dress a quick brush, then straightened and looked up at Clark in the dim light of the cave. She breathed a quiet sigh and nodded. "As ready as I'll ever be. Let's get out of here."

Clark smiled softly and reached out to wrap his hand around hers. When she looked up to meet his gaze, he tightened his fingers in a gentle squeeze, hoping to convey through his touch that he knew she was struggling, but that he'd be there for her in whatever way she needed him to be.

Lois squeezed his hand back, gratefully acknowledging his support. Then Clark took a step toward the cave's entrance and let her hand slip from his before turning his attention to the brush covering the mouth of the cave. Reaching through the prickly branches, he carefully moved them aside and cautiously peered out into the still woods, looking and listening for any sign of danger.

When he was finally convinced that it was safe to emerge, he stepped slowly through the brush and out of the cave, then turned and silently signaled for Lois to follow.

She stepped through as he held the branches and brush back for her, then straightened once she was outside. The cold morning air hit her in force, and she shivered involuntarily and wrapped her arms more tightly around herself.

Clark noticed, and reached out to rub his hands vigorously over her bare arms. "Better?" he asked. When she nodded, he dropped his arms and backed away, taking her hand and pulling her with him. "Let's get moving. Once we do, we'll warm up."

Lois nodded and looked around them at the woods. "Which way do we go?"

Clark joined her search for direction and sighed a moment later. "All I can do is guess," he admitted, "but I'd say we can't be too far from a road."

"What makes you say that?" Lois asked, a glimmer of hope in her eyes.

"Well, last night while you were asleep, I got to thinking. We heard Trask's men slamming their car doors after the helicopter showed up, so it only stands to reason that they were driving on a road, right? They wouldn't have just been off-roading through the woods aimlessly and happen to stop where they did. That's just too much of a coincidence. There *must* be a road nearby."

"Makes sense," Lois admitted. "So all we have to do is retrace our steps to where we heard Trask's men, and then we'll know if your theory is correct. But if it's not…"

Clark shook his head vigorously. "Let's not think about that. Besides, we can't say for sure that another direction is the right one, so I'd say this is our best bet."

Lois nodded and sighed. "Okay, then I guess that's what we should do." But as much as she knew they needed to get moving, she couldn't seem to make herself do so. Her head was still pounding, her stomach growled hungrily, and even though her leg was pretty much numb at the moment, she was certain the physical exertion of hiking would bring the unbearable pain rushing back.

Sensing her emotions, Clark reached out and pulled her into his arms. With her face nestled against his chest, he pressed his cheek against her head and lifted a hand to stroke her hair soothingly. "It'll be okay, Lois. We can't be that far from the road, so it won't be long before we'll be out of this nightmare. I promise."

Lois shut her eyes and buried her face deeper into Clark's chest, clutching at his shirt desperately as if she was afraid she'd fall if she let go. Superpowers or not, he was all she had right now to depend on, and she hoped that by being close to him, she could somehow receive some of his strength to keep her going.

Clark held her for another minute, then kissed the top of her head and pulled back. "Come on, Lois. Let's get going."

Taking a deep breath and forcing her weary and numb body to move, she set off after Clark in the direction they'd come the night before.

Clark was right to want to get moving. The sooner they found their way to a road, the better.


Trask slammed his two-way radio down on the table and shouted a couple of none too discreet swear words that echoed through the otherwise silent cabin. Garrison stopped his pacing and turned anxiously to Trask, noticing that the man's face was red with anger. "Don't tell me, let me guess. They haven't found any sign of Lane and Kent."

Trask looked over at Garrison and glared at him. Then a moment later, he picked up the two-way radio and hurled it across the room. It hit the wall with a sickening crash and shattered into a dozen pieces.

Garrison ducked to avoid a ricocheting piece of the radio, then straightened up angrily. "Hey, watch it!" he shouted at Trask. "You almost hit me with that!"

"Do you think I really care?" Trask raged, his face growing even redder. "All these years I've worked to get Superman in my hands, and now everything I've worked for is gone! Kent is out there, and Lane's with him. Unless we find them, they're going to go straight to the police, and everything will be *ruined*! So your well being couldn't be further down on my list of priorities right now."

Garrison stormed up to Trask and stopped with his face only inches from his. "Do you think you're the only one with something at stake here?!" he shouted, his eyes flashing angrily. "If we don't find them, it's going to be my neck, too! You have *no* idea who I'm involved with, and how mad my boss is going to be to hear that we failed! If I have to tell him Superman's alive, and that he can still interfere with what we have planned, you can count on the fact that I'm going to be floating face down in Hobb's Bay. Do you think that's what I want?!"

Garrison started to say more, but then suddenly seemed to realize that he may have just said too much. With his eyes still flashing from his tirade, he made a conscious effort to silence himself, gave Trask one last look, and then turned and stalked to the other side of the kitchen.

Trask stared after Garrison for a moment in stunned silence, the wheels in his brains churning. He'd been right after all. Garrison *had* been following his own agenda. What it was, he still didn't know, but it was something big enough to send the normally smug, confident man into a sheer panic.

In the stony silence that followed, Trask couldn't help thinking that whatever it was that Garrison was in on and hiding from him was obviously big. Big enough that he answered to obviously powerful people. And they needed Superman out of the way to make it work.

Suddenly, things became clear to Trask. Garrison wasn't just assigned to be his second in command at Bureau 39. He'd been planted to make sure Superman *was* taken out of the picture. And whoever had done that had to be pretty high up in the Government—high up enough to know of Bureau 39, and of Trask's plans to eliminate Superman. Someone who was willing to do whatever it took to get rid of Superman so that their own agenda would be met. And whatever the result of that agenda was, Trask suddenly knew one thing with a certainty.

He wanted in on it.

Feeling decidedly calmer, Trask walked over to the table and leaned up against it, crossing his arms and smiling smugly at Garrison. "So you need Superman out of the way to make things work, do you?" he began, his devious tone causing Garrison to suddenly give him his full attention. "What's the job? A theft? A hit? What?"

Garrison stared at Trask in disbelief. "You've got to be kidding, Trask. I wouldn't tell you what I was up to even if you could get your slimy little hands back on Superman."

Trask smiled smugly. "I think you underestimate my ability to pull a job together," he said. "Why don't you let me in on it? I'm sure I could make it worth your while."

"Hah!" Garrison scoffed, throwing his head back in false laughter. "You couldn't even follow through with your plans to incapacitate Superman long enough to drag the information out of him about his little alien friends. I knew you were delusional, Trask, but your thinking you can help with something as big as what I'm involved in is laughable! You must be even more delusional than I thought you were."

Trask's face hardened. Pushing himself away from the table, he stalked up to Garrison and shoved his finger in his chest. "You don't want to let me in on a piece of the action? Fine. But you'd better watch your back, Garrison. I like my men loyal. And the second I find out one of them isn't, they can count on one thing. They're finished." Then, with one last glare, Trask turned and stalked out of the room.

Garrison watched him leave, then rolled his eyes in the direction he'd gone. *A piece of the action? Yeah, right,* he thought. He had to be kidding. Here the man had failed at killing Superman—er, Kent, rather—the first time around, and now he'd failed again. What made him think he'd let him in on his Project Y2K? Lex would undoubtedly get a good, hearty laugh out of that one.

**If* I ever get around to telling him.*

Garrison cringed. If he didn't find and eliminate Kent, there was a very good possibility that he and Lane could prevent the virus from spreading globally through the Planet's systems. And then there was *no way* he was going to show up and face Lex to tell him what went wrong. He'd been right when he'd said that he'd be found floating face down in Hobb's Bay, because that's exactly where Lex would see to it that he ended up if Project Y2K failed.

Shaking off those disturbing images, Garrison shook his head and headed out of the cabin. There had to be a way to find Lane and Kent that Trask hadn't thought of. And if Trask wasn't able to find and stop them, *he* was going to.


Lois stopped walking and bent over, resting her hands on her knees and clenching her eyes shut tightly against the tears that threatened to fall. They'd been walking for about an hour, she guessed, and she was glad to finally see the sun beginning to climb into the sky. She kept telling herself they were making good progress, but after an hour of hiking, her optimism was beginning to fade.

She glanced up at Clark, who was ahead of her by a few paces, and tried to convince herself to keep going, to stay as optimistic as he was. But Lois was beginning to wonder if she was done. Both her body and spirits were failing, and there didn't seem to be an end in sight.

The physical activity had really gotten her blood pumping, which was helping to keep her from freezing in her thin dress, but it was also causing her thigh to burn, almost to the point of being unbearable. She felt nauseous from hunger and increasingly dizzy, and that, mixed with the unshakeable feeling of hopelessness sinking in, made it hard to stay focused on how they were ever going to find help. She fought to control the tears that had been threatening for a while now, and she honestly wasn't sure how much longer she could keep going.

Clark suddenly realized that Lois had stopped, and he turned. Seeing her bent over, breathing heavily and obviously in a lot of pain, his heart lurched, and he quickly made his way back to where she stood.

"Lois? Are you okay?"

Lois remained hunched over for a moment, then finally straightened slowly and painfully. "I don't know, Clark," she breathed despairingly, struggling to keep her tears in check. She knew if she lost it now, she might never recover enough to keep on going. "I just hurt all over. I don't think I can make it."

"Lois, you *are* going to make it," Clark answered immediately, his voice fierce with determination. "I'm not going on without you. Here, hold on to me," he told her in a no-nonsense tone. "I'll help support you." Without waiting for her response, Clark wrapped his arm firmly around her waist, then took hold of her arm and lifted it up around his neck and shoulders to help her hang on to him. Then he started walking slowly, giving her no choice but to follow.

Though Lois felt on the verge of quitting, she had to admit that it was easier on her ailing body to have Clark help support her, and a glimmer of hope returned. Maybe she *could* do this, even if it meant dragging her leg along after her as she walked alongside Clark, holding on to him as if her life depended on him. And she was beginning to realize that it did. She wasn't going to be getting out of there on her own.

They continued on that way for what seemed like an eternity, and Lois found it hard to keep from laying her head on Clark's shoulder and closing her eyes as they walked. The semi-darkness that her eyelids provided seemed to help ease the pounding in her head, so she found herself taking advantage of Clark's supporting arm by using it as a pillow from time to time.

She had just closed her eyes again and rested her head on Clark's shoulder when she suddenly felt the ground slope steeply under her feet, and she quickly opened her eyes to watch the terrain. She was surprised to see that they were nearing an empty riverbed that looked much like the one they'd hidden from the helicopter in the night before.

"Is this…?" she began.

Clark nodded. "Yeah, I think it's the same riverbed we crossed last night, though we're a lot further downstream than where we were last night. That must mean we're close." He surveyed the obstacle and finally spotted an area a short distance away where the banks were almost eroded away. "Let's cross over there where the banks are more shallow."

When they reached the spot, Clark saw that, even though the bank going down into the riverbed was more shallow, it was rocky and the footing looked treacherous. After deliberating for a moment, Clark decided it was still the easiest place to cross.

"Come on, Lois," he told her. "This is going to be a little tricky, but I'll hang onto you, okay?"

Lois nodded and forced herself to concentrate on her footing as they stepped carefully onto the loose soil and rocks along the bank. They were almost to the bottom when Lois suddenly stepped on a loose rock and it skittered out from beneath her.

With a startled cry, Lois felt her feet start to slip out from beneath her and she grabbed desperately for Clark, who had momentarily loosened his grip on her to steady himself on the unstable rocks. Her hands met with empty air, though, and in the next instant she felt herself falling.

Hearing her startled cry, Clark quickly made a grab for her, but it wasn't soon enough and Lois fell the few steps remaining into the bottom of the riverbed and landed with a thud on the cold, hard ground.

"Lois!" Clark exclaimed, rushing to her side. "I'm so sorry! Are you all right?" When he bent down next to her, he saw the tears brimming in her eyes and he felt like his heart was about to shatter into a million tiny, little pieces for not being there to prevent her from falling.

In an attempt to hide her tears from Clark, Lois averted her head and gave a quick nod as she reached down to brush at the dirt and leaves clinging to her knees. Clark began to help, but instantly froze when he saw the flash of red on the inside of her knee.

"Wait, Lois, stop!" he commanded forcefully, shocking Lois into submission. "You're bleeding. You must've cut yourself when you fell. Hold still and let me look."

Taking her knee gently between his hands, he immobilized her leg and searched for the source of the blood. But when his efforts revealed no freshly opened wound, his brow furrowed in confusion. Then, upon further inspection, he realized the blood wasn't the result of her fall; it was once again starting to trickle down her leg from where it escaped from beneath her dried, blood-encrusted bandage.

Muttering a tense swear word, he sat back on his heels and turned his attention to his shirt. Finding a tiny rip along one side, he started there and tore off a section of his shirttail. The fabric was dirty, but it would have to do.

"What are you doing?" Lois asked, her watery eyes widening as she watched him rip his shirt.

"I'm going to re-bandage your thigh and try to stop the bleeding," he told her matter-of-factly. With the section of torn shirt in his hand, he knelt down beside her and lifted the hem of her dirt-smattered dress. "Hold still while I take this old bandage off. This might hurt a bit."

Grasping the curling edges of the once-white adhesive tape, he looked up at Lois and met her gaze. "Ready?" he asked. When she nodded, he ripped.

Lois' sharp intake of breath made him flinch, but he hurried and ripped the bottom strip of adhesive tape off, as well.

"Ow!" Lois complained in teary protest. She grabbed her thigh just above the sticky tape residue and squeezed, helping to dull the burning pain.

"Sorry," Clark apologized, his eyes meeting hers briefly. "I'm sure that didn't feel good."

"It never does," Lois muttered.

She tried to inconspicuously reach up to wipe at the tears that had begun to slide down her cheeks, but Clark noticed. His heart ached for her as he carefully removed the blood-encrusted bandage to expose the wound. He cringed when he saw that the haphazard stitches had pulled loose, and that blood was flowing through the reopened gash and down past the purpling skin around the wound.

He muttered another swear word under his breath and had to consciously remind himself to stay in control, in spite of the infuriating feeling of knowing that he really *didn't* have *any* control of the situation. And that made him feel even worse.

"I'm going to tie this around your thigh, Lois, and I'm going to make it kind of tight," he announced as calmly as possible. "I just want to make sure it stops the bleeding and stays put."

Lois gave a teary-eyed nod. "Okay."

Clark carefully placed the piece of torn shirt over the gash, slid the ends under her leg and knotted them, then slowly pulled the ends tight. Lois jerked her leg involuntarily as the pressure sent new twinges of pain burning through her, and she closed her eyes against the pain.

She sensed Clark's worried eyes on her, but she was afraid that if she opened her eyes, she'd see the compassion in his expression and would no longer be able to keep from breaking down. She already felt as if she was on the verge of doing just that. She clenched her teeth tightly shut as she waited for the pain to recede, but after a long, silent minute, she began to wonder if it was ever going to.

"Lois?" came Clark's quiet voice.

Finally, she opened her eyes, causing the lidded tears to escape. Clark reached up to wipe one tear away, then another, and another. Clark's owntear-filled, soulful eyes were too much for her, and the hopelessness that she'd fought to keep in check for so long finally bubbled over.

"Clark, I can't keep on going, I just can't," she cried, finally starting to break down. "It's just all too much for me. I feel sick to my stomach, and my head's spinning like crazy…and my leg…" She broke off as the sobs overtook her body and she buried her face in her hands.

Instantly Clark was beside her, taking her in his arms and rocking her gently. "Shhh, Lois, it's okay. It's going to be okay," he soothed, tucking her head beneath his chin and pressing her face to his chest.

After a while, his quiet words, the warmth of his arms and the steady beating of his heart beneath her ear seemed to soothe her, and her sobs finally subsided. When she lay still and spent in his arms, Clark gave her shoulders a gentle rub.

"Lois, I don't think the road can be too much further," he began, choosing his words carefully since he knew she was already on the verge of giving up. "I know you think you can't go on, but we have to. And there's no way I'm going on without you."

Her composure started to collapse again. "Clark, I just can't—"

"Then I'll carry you," he interrupted, his voice more determined than Lois had ever heard it before.

"But how are you going to carry me, Clark?" Lois asked through her tears. "You can barely stand up yourself."

Clark's steely, determined gaze met her doubtful, weary one. "I'll manage," was all he said.

Bending over, he slid one hand around her back and the other under her knees and lifted. A low groan escaped his lips as he struggled to support her weight, and he took a couple of lurching steps forward. Lois wrapped her arms around his neck and tried to stay as still as possible so she wouldn't make his carrying her tougher on him that it already was.

Clark grimaced as he started to walk, carefully balancing Lois' weight in his arms. His lack of strength angered him, and it was all he could do not to let his anger boil to the surface. He'd carried Lois dozens of times before, and never had it been a problem. But now, when it had never been more important, with both their lives so much at risk, he could barely do it without the threat of dropping her.

As he struggled to scramble up the shallow embankment, he shook his head in silent frustration. But he forced himself to keep going. He had to. Help couldn't be far away, and he was going to find it. For Lois' sake as much as his own.


Clark hadn't gone far before he started to wonder just how much further he could carry Lois. His own strength was dwindling, he was out of breath, and his legs felt like they were ready to give out. But he gritted his teeth and made a conscious effort to keep going, knowing that he just had to be right. There had to be a road close by.

Just as he really began to wonder if his theory had been all wrong, he saw it. There, up ahead…a paved road. It was barely visible through the dense trees, but it was there!

"Lois!" he exclaimed, his energy level suddenly rebounding. "Look, I was right! There's the road up ahead!"

Lois started a little in his arms, and he realized then that she'd been asleep. She blinked groggily and looked up, almost in disbelief. But there it was, just like he thought it would be. Immediately, she felt her hopes began to brighten.

Knowing they'd finally found what they'd been looking for, Clark carefully set Lois down, but kept his arm around her to support her.

Lois clenched her jaw shut as all the blood rushed to her leg, making it throb painfully. "So what do we do now?" she asked, trying to keep all her weight on her other leg as she used Clark's supportive arm to balance herself. "Do we flag down a ride?"

Clark thought for a minute. "Yeah, we need to get back to Metropolis somehow. There's no hospital around here. But we don't want to be standing along the side of the road and happen to have Trask's men drive by and see us."

"No, that would *not* be a good thing," Lois deadpanned. "So…what? By the time we hear a car, verify that it's not one of Trask's guys, and rush down to the road to flag them down, the car would be gone."

"I know," Clark nodded. They were both silent a minute as they deliberated over their options. Clark took a couple of steps toward the road, supporting Lois as she limped along beside him. He looked up the road, and then down. Suddenly, something caught his eye.

A café!

Clark's heart began to pound in his chest. "Lois, do you see what I see?"

Lois looked where he was pointing and her eyes widened. "It looks like a little restaurant!" she exclaimed. "And there are a couple of cars out front. That means—"

"We can get help!" Clark practically shouted, delirious with relief. "Come on. You think you can make it there with my help? It's only about a quarter of a mile down the road."

Lois nodded as she started to cry, this time with sheer happiness that they were finally about to be free from their nightmare.


"What do you mean, you want to shut us down?!" Perry exclaimed incredulously, staring back at the man standing in front of him. He'd just barely walked into the Daily Planet as dawn was breaking, unable to stay away a moment longer knowing that the virus was still threatening the newspaper's future, but this was not the news he'd wanted to hear. Squaring his shoulders, he told the man vehemently, "We're a major metropolitan newspaper. We have a paper to put out. You can't just shut us down!"

"Look, we've been searching for that virus since yesterday, and we haven't seen hide nor hair of it. And since we can't find it, we'll need to shut your systems down, just to be safe," Frank Robbins explained. "We can't risk having your computers spread a potentially dangerous virus, especially if we don't know what it does."

Perry's eyes widened. "You can't just shut us down like that! We're the biggest newspaper in the world! Not only are people counting on us to report the news, but we'd stand to lose a lot of money. And not just from our paper subscriptions, but from our on-line advertisers who are set to go for our first on-line issue on New Year's Day!"

Mr. Robbins frowned. "I'm sorry, but we may have no choice. We'll let our computer guys work on this for a few more hours, but if they don't find anything…" His voice trailed off, and he shrugged, then turned and wordlessly left Perry's office.

When he was gone, Perry threw his hands up in exasperation and started pacing around his office like a caged tiger. "He's got to be kidding!" he ranted to Jimmy, who was still standing near the door looking shocked, as well as exhausted from the all-nighter he'd pulled the previous night at the Planet. "How can he shut us down? Doesn't he know how much we have riding on this on-line issue, not to mention all the hard copy subscribers that we have around the world?! This just can't happen!"

"Well, what can we do, Chief?" Jimmy asked helplessly. "They're the FBI. It's not like we can tell them 'no.'"

"Oh, I wish Lois and Clark were here," Perry grumbled, stalking back to his chair and throwing himself down into it.

Jimmy raised a confused eyebrow at Perry. "What could they do?"

"What could they do?!" Perry echoed, his eyes widening as he looked up at Jimmy. "This is Lois and Clark we're talking about! If they were here, they'd be out tracking down some information on Manny and finding out who he's working for, then drag the information out of him about how we can get rid of this virus."

Jimmy looked doubtful. "You really think they could do all that?"

"You're darned right they could!" Perry answered adamantly. "They're the greatest team since Woodward and Bernstein! They have a special knack for finding people who don't want to be found, for digging up dirt on people who are supposed to be squeaky clean. That's what they do! It's what they're best at. If anyone could find out how to get the Planet out of this mess, it would be them."

Perry pushed his chair back from his desk and started pacing furiously again from one end of his office to the other. "Oh, man. I'd give anything to have them back here right now."

"I'm sure if they knew what was happening, they'd like nothing better than to be here, too," Jimmy assured him.


Clark helped Lois skitter gingerly down the side of the mountain until she was standing on the paved road next to him. Then he peered cautiously up and down the road for signs of oncoming traffic.

"Is anybody coming?" Lois asked as she gripped Clark's arm tightly to balance herself as he leaned forward to get a better look.

He listened quietly for a minute in the still morning air, then shook his head. "My powers still aren't back, but I can't hear anyone coming. I think it's safe to hurry across. Let me carry you so we can get across quickly."

For once, Lois didn't argue. She wrapped her arms around his neck as Clark lifted her into his arms, trying to stifle an unintentional groan as he did. Then he checked the road once again before hurrying across, his steps not slowing until they reached the graveled parking lot of the café.

Though he'd only gone a short distance, Clark was out of breath from the exertion of hurrying across the road with Lois in his arms, and he set her down carefully near a little grove of trees along the side of the log building. As she steadied herself on his shoulder to take the weight off her aching leg, he leaned over a bit to stretch the stiffness out of his back and catch his breath.

Just then Lois squeezed his shoulder urgently. "Clark, look!" she exclaimed excitedly. "Next to that blue pickup over there…that's a state trooper's car! Do you know what that means? We're saved!"

Clark looked where she was pointing and saw that she was absolutely right. Never before had he been so happy to see a state trooper. He closed his eyes and heaved a thankful sigh of relief. Finally, they were going to be able to get out of there and get the help they need.

Beaming with relief, Lois gave his arm a quick, happy pat, then took two eager, limping steps toward the front of the café. But as Clark began to follow, his acute senses picked up the sound of an approaching vehicle. As if in slow motion, he turned to look over his shoulder and saw that a vehicle was turning into the café's parking lot.

In that instant, he felt as if his heart had stopped beating.

A jeep. Soldiers dressed in camouflage uniforms.

With his heart in his throat, he quickly lunged for Lois and grabbed desperately for her upper arm, nearly crushing it in his grip as he jerked her back and pulled her toward the café's nearby dumpster. He felt a momentary twinge as she cried out in pain, but he knew he had no choice. If he didn't get her hidden that very instant, they were going to alert Trask's men to their presence and be recaptured.

"Clark?!" Lois gasped, both startled and angered by his hasty action, which sent a fresh bout of excruciating pain searing through her leg. Tears sprang into her eyes as she grabbed desperately for her leg, hoping to squeeze it hard enough to take away the pain. But when Clark continued to drag her urgently along after him, she tried desperately to jerk away from his vice-like grip. "Clark, you're hurting me! What are you do—"

But before she could finish, Clark clamped his hand over her mouth and pulled her into a squat behind the low dumpster, then pointed toward the café's parking lot. It didn't take long for Lois to realize why Clark was in such an obvious panic.

Two of Trask's men had just driven into the parking lot in a jeep and pulled to a stop in front to the café. Clark's hand slid from Lois' mouth to her shoulder where his fingers tightened on her arm as they squatted next to each other in strained silence. Lois felt ready to jump out of her skin as she watched the man in the passenger seat lift the CB to his mouth and speak into it, obviously reporting back to Trask on the status of their search.

When the man finished talking, he replaced the CB, and both men climbed out of the jeep, looking around intently at their surroundings. Lois and Clark watched in silence, hardly able to breathe as the men circled the parking lot, glancing through the windows of the parked cars before finally walking toward the café and climbing the wooden steps leading to the front door.

Lois heard the bell on the door jingle as Trask's men went inside, and when she was certain they were out of earshot, she turned anxiously to Clark. "This is just great! What are we going to do? We haven't come all this way only to be caught again!"

Clark set his jaw in determination. "We are *not* going to be caught again," he said adamantly. He was silent for another minute as he deliberated over their options. "Okay, here's what we're going to do," he said finally. "We're going to sneak over to that state trooper's car and climb into the backseat. Trask's men already looked in the back of it, so I doubt they'll check it again. Then hopefully the trooper won't realize we're in there until after Trask's men are gone."

"But why should that matter?" Lois asked. "Surely they wouldn't mess with a state trooper if we're with him. Everything they've done is illegal. They'd all go to jail a long time for kidnapping."

Clark looked at her solemnly. "Do you really believe that? Obviously, Trask thinks he's above the law. Look how long he got away with his raid on Smallville! I wouldn't put it past him to barricade the road further down the mountain, or set a trap for the trooper. No, the best thing for us to do is to do this as quickly and as inconspicuously as possible."

After a few moments of considering what Clark had said, Lois nodded. "Okay, you're right. Just tell me when, and I'll do my best to hurry after you. Carrying me is the least inconspicuous thing you could do at this point."

Clark nodded in agreement. He glanced at the windows of the café and saw that Trask's men were still in full view, so he kept an eye on them and waited for the perfect opportunity. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lois grimace and reach down for her leg.

"Sorry I jerked you along like that," Clark whispered solemnly as he kept his eye on Trask's men as they continued to wander through the café, studying the occupants seated there. "I didn't mean to hurt you."

"I know," Lois told him. "But you did what you had to do."

Lois turned her gaze to the café and watched along with Clark for a moment. Finally, a break. They saw the driver gesture to his passenger to help him check the back, and Clark's hand tightened on her arm as they disappeared further into the café.

In an instant, Clark was on his feet, pulling Lois gently but urgently to her feet. "Come on, Lois! They're in the back. This is our chance!"

Lois nodded, bit her lip and got painfully to her feet. Clark grabbed her hand and made a quick dash for the trooper's car, and Lois did her best to ignore the surging pain as she hurried along after him.

As they neared the café's front doors, Clark whipped his head around and gave her hand a quick squeeze. "Lois, keep down! Don't let anyone see us."

With a surge of much needed adrenaline and her heart pumping furiously, Lois was able to force herself to hunch over and quicken her pace as she followed Clark, and it was only a few half-running, half-limping steps later when they reached the trooper's car.

They collapsed in a squat next to it, breathing heavily from their mad dash and their hearts beating furiously. "Did they see us?" Lois asked anxiously as she strained to see the café's front doors through the windows of the blue pickup truck parked next to them. "I can't tell, can you?"

Clark straightened a little from his squatting position and peered toward the front of the café. Then he shook his head. "I don't think so." He watched for another minute, then turned on his heels and gestured toward the trooper's back door. "Go on, get in."

Lois reached for the car's door handle, and for a split second the frightening thought occurred to her that maybe the car's doors were locked. But when she lifted up the handle, the door opened easily. She said a quick prayer of thanks, but not before she heard the bell on the café's door jingle. With her heart rebounding into her throat, she heard Clark's urgent plea from behind her.

"Hurry, Lois! Get in, get in!"

Throwing caution to the wind and willing her ailing body to move, she threw herself into the backseat and quickly rolled to the passenger side floor as Clark scrambled in after her. She watched him squeeze his considerably larger body into the cramped floor space between the front and back seats, then he pulled the door toward him without letting it click shut, for fear that the noise of a car door shutting might draw the attention of Trask's men.

Shaking and sweating, Lois tried to ignore her protesting lungs as she held her breath for what seemed an eternity, hardly daring to move or breathe. She huddled on the floor of the car in deathly silence until the sounds of feet crunching on gravel finally receded, and the sound of an engine starting reached her ears.

Clark heard it, too, and slowly and cautiously straightened up to peer out the back window. "It's them," he told Lois in a hushed whisper. "They're both in the jeep, the one guy's talking on the radio…they're backing out…"

Lois waited breathlessly as Clark continued to fill her in, and a minute later she heard the sound of the jeep's engine revving up and tires crunching on gravel.

"…and…they're gone."

Lois let out her breath in a rush, but her heart was still pounding. "Are you sure?"

Clark looked back out the window and watched as the jeep accelerated out of the café parking lot and sped away up the road. He nodded, more certainly this time. "Yeah, they're gone. But let's stay put for the time being in case some more of Trask's men are still lurking about."

Just then the bell on the café door jingled again, and Clark jumped. He whipped around to see who was coming, but then breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that it was the state trooper. He sat up straighter and slid onto the backseat of the car as the trooper walked up to his door, and the motion caught the man's attention. Instantly the trooper was on alert.

"Hey, what are you doing in my vehicle?" the trooper blurted, his tone harsh and commanding.

Clark quickly pushed open the door and climbed out, startling the trooper and causing him to reach for his holstered weapon. Clark immediately held up his hands in a gesture of surrender.

"Please, we need your help," Clark began, trying to reassure the officer. "My girlfriend and I were kidnapped. We escaped and made our way down the mountain, but she's badly hurt and in need of immediate medical attention."

Instantly the trooper dropped his hand from his holstered gun and hurried up to the car. Clark moved aside as the trooper stepped around the open car door and leaned into the back seat. He immediately spotted the blood on Lois' leg and helped her onto the seat. "Lie back, Miss, and let me take a look at your leg here…"

After asking several questions about Lois' injury, he directed Clark to get the first aid kit. Clark got it and handed it to the officer, who quickly opened it and set it on the seat next to him. As he pulled several items out of it and tended to Lois' thigh, he glanced back over his shoulder and met Clark's anxious gaze.

"This will have to do for now, but we need to get her to a hospital as soon as possible." He tightened the new bandage on Lois' leg and secured it with a clip. "How are *you* doing?" he asked, glancing again at Clark and taking in the bruises on his jaw and near his eye. "Any cuts or broken bones?"

"No, I'm okay. For the most part, anyway," Clark told him, looking past the officer to Lois and catching her eye. "I have some bruised ribs and am pretty tired, but other than that…"

The officer nodded, then turned back to Lois. "There. That'll hold you until we get you to a hospital."

"Thanks," Lois told him, her voice sounding tired and drained even to her own ears.

The officer picked up on it and studied her pallor with concern. Then he looked back at Clark and studied his ragged, weary appearance for a moment before backing out of the car and standing next to him. "How long has it been since you two have eaten?"

"A while," Clark admitted wearily.

The officer put his hand on Clark's shoulder sympathetically. "I'll tell you what. Why don't you climb in there next to your girlfriend, and I'll go and grab you guys some food. You can eat it on the way to the hospital."

Clark smiled gratefully as he slid in next to Lois and put his hand on her leg protectively. "That sounds wonderful."

"But what about Trask's men?" Lois' weary voice interrupted their exchange. "They could come back any second, and if they find us…"

The trooper hurried to reassure her. "Don't worry, Miss. I'll radio back to the station right now to let them know what's going on, and we'll have troopers up here in force within the hour searching the woods for the men who did this to you. The only thing you're going to need to worry about is getting better. Understand?"

Lois nodded slightly and attempted to smile, but suddenly even those simple gestures seemed too much to manage now that she was lying down and safe in the back of a police officer's car. Two days of trying to hide her wide range of emotions, her almost overwhelming injuries, and her hunger and lack of sleep were finally catching up with her, and it was all she could do to keep her eyes open. All she wanted to do was go to sleep, knowing that she was finally going to be safe.

Understanding what she was feeling, Clark reached out and swept his hand across her brow, brushing her dirty bangs back from her forehead before resting his palm against her cheek reassuringly. "We're going to be okay, Lois," he told her quietly. "You just rest and let us take care of everything."

Lois reached up to cover his hand with hers, wrapping her fingers around his hand and giving it a grateful squeeze. Then she closed her eyes, too tired to fight sleep a moment longer.

The trooper gave Clark's shoulder a reassuring squeeze, then shut the back door, climbed into the front seat and reached for his radio. In a matter of minutes, the officer had radioed in for backup, giving them the details that Clark fed to him from the back seat, then assured them he'd be back in a moment before hurrying into the café for the food.

Clark kept an eye out for Trask's men while the officer was inside and anxiously waited for his return. But it was only a few minutes before he was hurrying back to the car with two large, brown paper bags. "I wasn't sure what you liked, so I just got an assortment," he told Clark when he climbed into the front seat and handed the bags over the seat to him. "Help yourself to whatever looks good."

"I don't know how to thank you," Clark told him as he took the bags from him.

The officer smiled. "Don't worry about it."

As they rolled out of the parking lot, Clark opened the bags and immediately his stomach lurched hungrily as the smell of the hot food filled his nostrils. It seemed oddly strange to feel hungry, and he decided he didn't like the feeling of relying on food to keep up what little strength he had as a "normal" man. But, deciding he could dwell on that later, he reached out to give Lois' shoulder a gentle shake. "Lois, wake up. You need to eat something."

Clark's gentle prompting and the lingering smell of the fresh, hot food roused Lois from her sleep, and Clark helped her sit up. "Here, take this," he told her, handing her a styrofoam container and taking the lid off it to reveal a large helping of scrambled eggs and sausage.

Lois inhaled deeply and finally let herself realize just how hungry she was. She smiled at Clark as she took the fork he offered her. "Thanks," she murmured before hungrily scooping a mouthful of eggs into her mouth. She couldn't remember the last time food had tasted so good, and she quickly took another bite.

Clark watched her eat with mixed emotions. He was glad she was finally able to eat after going so long without food, but it also made his heart ache to know that his being Superman had led to the cause of her capture and hunger. *She's been through more than anybody should ever have to go through, and it's all been because of me.*

Before Clark could dive into a fresh bout of self-destructing guilt, the trooper finished reporting to the station and glanced over his shoulder at them. "The APB is out on this Trask fellow, and hopefully they'll have him and his men in custody soon," he reported. "Is there anyone else you'd like me to contact on our way back to Metropolis?"

Clark took the lid off another styrofoam container and reached for the other fork. "Yeah, could you contact Inspector Henderson of the Metropolis PD and tell him what's happened? And then could you have somebody get a message to Perry White at the Daily Planet? The virus is supposed to be in their computer system, and I'd like to warn them about it."

The officer nodded and reached again for his radio. "Sure, no problem."

By the time Clark had finished his tray of eggs and sausage and put the empty container back in the bag, the message had been relayed to Inspector Henderson and Perry, and they'd both responded that they already knew about the virus, and that the FBI was at the Planet trying to track it down and deactivate it. But Henderson would meet them at Metropolis General to talk to them further, and see if they knew anything that might help them with the virus.

"I guess all we can do now is wait," Clark said with a sigh. He turned to Lois to see that her own tray of food was near empty, and that her eyelids were once again getting droopy. "Do you want something else? A croissant or a piece of toast? There's more in here," he told her, motioning to the bag.

But Lois shook her head as she leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes. "No, thanks. I'm too tired to eat anything else. I just want to sleep."

Clark's heart ached for her as he saw just how worn out she was. Setting his own ails aside, he took the styrofoam container from her and guided her down onto his lap. "Go ahead and sleep, Lois," he told her quietly. "I'll wake you when we get to Metropolis."

Lois muttered something incoherent, and a moment later, Clark could tell she was fast asleep. He trailed his fingers through her hair and studied her as she slept, marveling in the fact that they were both still alive, and would soon be free to focus on the other aspects of their newly developing relationship.

Clark sighed and turned to look out the window at the passing scenery. There was just too much to think about, too much for his tired and weary mind to process. So, forcing himself to think of nothing for the first time in days, he leaned his head back against the seat and let his mind drift. Before he knew it, he was asleep.


The car slowed and then came to a halt, causing Clark to wake with a start. Glancing down, he saw that Lois was asleep on the seat next to him, and he racked his brain to try to figure out where they were and what they were doing in the car. But before he could put the pieces together, he heard his car door open, and the next thing he knew, hands were reaching in for him.

Immediately, his body tensed up and he jerked upright, preparing to defend himself and Lois against the person. He struggled to pull free from the reaching hands, but when his fuzzy mind cleared and his eyes began to focus, he saw that the trooper was standing over him, quickly pulling his hands back and holding them up reassuringly in front of him.

"Whoa, whoa, Mr. Kent, slow down. I was just trying to wake you. We're at Metropolis General. I radioed ahead and told the ER staff that we were coming, and what your condition was. They're on their way now."

Blinking a couple of times, Clark saw that they were indeed in front of the hospital's ER doors, and several people in medical smocks were coming out to meet them. Immediately, Clark relaxed as the white-coated physicians hurried up to them.

"Okay, but check Lois first," he said, brushing aside the hands of the doctor who was starting to look him over. He didn't want some overly thorough doctor checking him over and finding out more about him than he wanted them to know. "Please…she's worse off than I am."

"Don't worry, Mr. Kent," the doctor standing over him reassured him, "we're going to take care of you both."

Clark heard the other back passenger door open, and he turned to see that another doctor was leaning in to assess Lois' condition. She barely stirred as the doctor looked her over quickly, then turned to call for some help. Another doctor quickly joined them.

"Where do you hurt?" the doctor hovering over Clark asked, studying the still noticeable bruise on his cheek and trying to determine his condition.

Clark barely heard as he continued to watch the physicians assess Lois' injuries, straining to hear what they were saying.

"What?" he asked, momentarily glancing back at the doctor. "Oh, um, my ribs are a little sore, but other than that, I'm okay," he said dismissively before turning back to Lois. But his attention was quickly diverted when the doctor prodded his ribs, causing Clark to jump slightly and wince.

The doctor frowned. "I think you might have a broken rib or two," he told Clark. "We should get some x-rays to find out for sure."

"No!" Clark said abruptly, causing the doctor to jump. Realizing he'd been too forceful, Clark softened his tone and tried again. "No, I'm okay, really," he reassured the doctor as he brushed the man's hands aside and climbed stiffly out of the car. "I just want you guys to take care of Lois. She's not doing well."

"Mr. Kent, I know you're concerned about your girlfriend, but we need to take care of you, too," the doctor said firmly as he stood in Clark's path. "We have enough staff to help you both."

Clark saw the doctors lift Lois carefully out of the car and lay her on a gurney. Turning to the doctor in front of him, Clark's brow furrowed in a mixture of frustration and determination. "Look, I know that you're just trying to help me, and I appreciate it. But believe me, I'm fine. I just want to stay with my girlfriend."

The man stared at the determination in Clark's eyes, and knew he was fighting a losing battle. And as far as he could tell, this Mr. Kent really *was* okay. At least he wasn't in dire need of medical attention. Finally, the doctor nodded and stepped back so Clark could pass. "Just promise me that you'll let someone take a look at those ribs before you leave, okay?"

Not wanting to lie—or to explain the truth behind why he didn't want any doctors examining him—Clark nodded, though unconvincingly, and hurried past the doctor and around the back of the car. He took a few painful, running strides to catch up with Lois as she was wheeled toward the sliding glass doors, and when he got to her, he reached for her hand.

Just before they went into the ER, Clark turned to look for the state trooper. When he spotted him standing next to his car, he gave the man a quick wave of thanks, which was returned with a smile and a wave.

As they hurried into the hospital, Clark saw that a couple of officers were waiting for them. "Don't worry, Lois, everything's going to be okay now," he told her, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.

She opened her eyes at his touch and smiled wearily. "I know, Clark. But what about you?"

"What about me?"

They turned into one of the examination rooms and came to a stop. "You, your ribs," Lois said quietly, gesturing at the arm he was holding across his obviously sore chest. "Aren't you going to let them help you?"

Clark looked around quickly, waiting for the two doctors who'd wheeled Lois in to leave before responding. When they did, a young doctor came in to assess Lois' condition, then went across the room to get some items from a drawer. As he was preoccupied with gathering the things he needed, Clark lowered his voice so the doctor couldn't hear them and leaned in toward Lois.

"What are they going to do?" he whispered pointedly. "I can't let them x-ray me. It wouldn't take them long to realize that I'm not…you know."

"You look like everyone else, so who's to say your insides look any different?" Lois whispered back stubbornly.

"Maybe they do or maybe they don't," Clark argued. "But there's no way I'm going to take that chance."

Lois opened her mouth to argue, but the doctor suddenly reappeared beside them and Clark quickly straightened up and stepped back out of the young man's way, effectively ending their discussion. Lois glared at him to show that she wasn't pleased that he wouldn't even consider at least having *some* kind of treatment, but she did understand why he had his mind set against it.

As the young doctor directed her to hold a thermometer under her tongue and then proceeded to check her leg, Lois gave him the once over. He looked awfully young to be on staff in the ER. She watched him reach for a cotton swab and begin to douse it with hydrogen peroxide, but he ended up spilling much of the bottle.

*Great. Of all the doctors I have to get, I get some fumbling young guy who doesn't know what the heck he's doing,* she complained silently.

Trying to make herself relax as the doctor started to clean her gash, she glanced over at Clark, who was standing just a couple paces away. He was watching her anxiously, with his arm still pressed against his aching ribs, but clearly too preoccupied with her own well being to realize he was doing it.

Suddenly, she realized she felt sorry for Clark. It had to be hard to be different, to always be worrying about people finding out about who you were, and about having your chance at living some semblance of a normal life blown by even one simple oversight.

Looking over at him, she realized there was a lot she didn't know about Clark…about how it must've been growing up with his unique kind of peer pressure. It was hard enough trying to fit in with your peers, without knowing you were completely different from them, and were able to do things that they'd never dreamed of doing. And how must it have been to grow up, not ever really knowing who you were or where you came from?

The article that Clark had been pursuing about adoptees looking for their birth parents suddenly flashed into her mind. That story must've really hit close to home for Clark, though he obviously had a new factor in the mix. Not only would he have been trying desperately to research his past for any indications of who he was or where he came from, but he'd have to have been wondering also *why* it was he could do the things he could do. Such an intense and life altering line of research surely had to take its toll on a person, let alone someone who had to feel so alone in the universe, having such unique capabilities as his.

Suddenly, she felt guilty for all the times she'd carried on about Superman in front of Clark, putting the superhero on a pedestal while unknowingly shooting Clark down in the process. Although she'd always tried not to let it show, it had always hurt her throughout her own life when she'd overheard someone talking about her or criticizing her behind her back. And yet Clark had had to deal with that ever since Superman had made his first appearance in Metropolis. She couldn't imagine how difficult it must've been for him when someone would criticize the Superhero, or blame him for not getting to someone fast enough or for not being in the right place at the right time to ward off disaster. He must've hated having to pretend their criticism or harsh words didn't hurt as he heard them spoken right in front of him. And she realized she was just as guilty as everyone else, having contributed her fair share of Superman worship in the beginning, yet brushing her doting and devoted partner off at the same time. Surely her actions must've built a chasm of resentfulness in Clark toward the superhero who he'd created.

Tears of guilt at how she'd treated him filled her eyes, but before they could spill down her cheeks, she quickly wiped at them to prevent Clark from noticing. But, as intent on her as Clark was, he saw the tears shining in her eyes and immediately stepped forward and gave the doctor a threatening glare, clearly misinterpreting the cause of her emotional state.

"Hey, be careful!" he said protectively as the young doctor finished cleaning the wound and started removing the haphazard stitches. "Can't you see you're hurting her?"

"No, Clark, it's okay," she quickly intervened as the young doctor—clearly still an intern—took a step back, obviously worried by Clark's menacing look. She bit her tongue to keep from laughing at the frightened look on the young man's face, his hand and medical tool suspended nervously over the gash on her leg. But Clark didn't seem to hear her, so she squeezed his arm and tried again. "Clark!"

This time her voice caught his attention and he tore his eyes away from the young man's. When she saw that he had his attention, she gestured to the police officers standing out in the hall. "Why don't you go and give our statement to the police? I'll be fine in here until you get back."

Clark looked hesitant to leave her alone with the clearly inexperienced intern. "Are you sure? I can stay if you want, to make sure you're okay."

The intern looked offended and straightened up. "I'm more than qualified to take care of this patient."

Clark gave him his most intimidating superhero look. "But you see, that's just it. She's not *just* a patient. She's my *girlfriend*, and I love her. I want you to make sure she gets the best treatment available, or you'll have to answer to me. Got it?"

The intern gulped involuntarily. "Got it."

Clark glowered at him for another moment, making sure he'd gotten his point across, then turned back to Lois. "I'm going to call Perry before talking to the police," Clark told Lois. "I want to let him know we're back safely, since I'm sure he's worried."

"Tell him we're fine, and that I'll talk to him soon."

Clark nodded, then hurried out into the hall. Lois tried to hide her smile of amusement as the intern turned back to her and very carefully set back to work.

"Your boyfriend's pretty scary," the young man declared, trying to ease the tension as he reached for a shot of numbing medication on the tray beside him. "Is he always like that?"

This time Lois let her smile spread across her face. "Only when he thinks my well being is at stake."

But Lois' reply only served to make the young man more nervous, and he jabbed her a little too hard with the needle, making her jump. "Ow!"

The intern's face went ashen. "Sorry."

"How long have you been doing this?" Lois complained as he pulled the needle out, only to realize he hadn't given her the full dose, then shoved the needle back in her leg. She winced as he injected the rest of the medication into her thigh too quickly, making her leg to burn.

"This is actually my first week on duty in the ER," he admitted sheepishly. "But I'm highly qualified."

"Yeah, I bet you are," Lois grumbled, her patience starting to wear thin as she warily watched him reach for the needle to put new stitches in her leg.


When Clark got off the phone with Perry, he felt a whole new sense of urgency. He'd learned that they did already know about the virus, and that the FBI had been called in to help remove it, but as of yet, they'd been unsuccessful. Perry told him they were even threatening to shut down the Planet in order to prevent the potentially dangerous virus from spreading. Clark was rather surprised that, under the circumstances, Perry sounded as calm as he did. But he was sure that if he and Lois had actually been at the Planet, they'd have seen Perry pacing furiously around the newsroom and hollering at anyone who dared to go near him.

Perry had been extremely worried about them when Clark told him what they'd been through, and he sounded especially concerned about Lois' condition. Their editor had always had a soft spot for Lois, and Clark could tell he felt more like a father to her than a boss. He told Clark he'd be down to check on them shortly, and told Clark to pass along his love and concern for Lois.

After hanging up, Clark walked back down the hall to where Lois was being attended to, and he kept an eye on her through the room's window as he gave his statement to the police. He saw her jump as the young doctor stuck her with the needle yet again, and he clenched his fists.

*Where do they train these doctors?* he thought angrily. *As if she hasn't been through enough these past few days as it is, now she's being subjected to this fumbling idiot.*

A familiar voice brought Clark out of his thoughts, and he turned to see Inspector Henderson approaching. "Glad to see you're in one piece," the inspector said as he reached out to clasp Clark's hand. "How's Lois?"

Clark gestured across the hall, where he could see Lois glowering at the intern as he carelessly tried to put a stitch in her leg.

"No worse for the wear, I see. At least her temper is still intact," Henderson remarked dryly. "I got here as quickly as I could. You probably already told my men what happened, but I would appreciate hearing it straight from you. Where's this Trask character holed up?"

As Clark repeated much of what he'd told the others, as well as many of the other details he hadn't gotten to yet, Henderson nodded and jotted down all of the pertinent points in his notebook. When Clark finished, the inspector tucked his notebook back into his inside jacket pocket.

"Rest assured, we're going to give this our top priority and find Trask and his men ASAP. I don't care what this man thinks, no one is above the law." He waved to two of his officers he saw approaching, then continued. "I think we should also get the FBI involved with this one. If this 'Garrison' is really involved with planting the virus at the Planet, they're going to want to hear about what happened to you guys. I'm sure it's related."

Clark nodded. "As many people as it takes to track down Garrison, Trask and his men and put them behind bars, it's fine with me. There were times when I thought Lois and I weren't going to make it."

"Well, I'm glad you did," Henderson said sincerely, in spite of his deadpan expression. He glanced over at Lois again, and the corners of his mouth twitched. "Although I don't think that young man in there is going to last too much longer if you don't get in there and intervene."

Clark spun around just in time to see Lois grab the intern's smock roughly and glare at him. Clark grimaced. He'd been on the receiving end of that look a lot during his first year at the Planet, and it wasn't pretty. A wounded *and* angry Lois Lane wasn't going to be fun to reckon with. He decided he'd better get in there before Lois let the poor intern have it.

"I think I'd better go intervene before that intern considers looking for a new profession," he said, reaching out to shake the inspector's hand. "Thanks for your help."

"I'm going to give my men specific instructions that you two have protection 24/7 for the next couple of days until Garrison, Trask and his men are caught. We don't want to take any chances of them getting to you guys again."

"I'd appreciate that," Clark admitted, knowing Lois wouldn't like the idea of a guard following them around, but feeling better knowing that she'd be protected. "Be sure to keep us posted on what you find."

"Will do," the inspector replied.

With one last grateful smile at Henderson, Clark turned and hurried into Lois' room. When he stepped in, the intern looked both afraid and relieved to see him.

"What did Perry have to say?" Lois asked, thankful to have something to keep her mind off the needle in the intern's shaky fingers.

"Well, they're already aware of the virus, and the FBI is there searching for it," Clark filled in Lois. "But they told Perry that if they don't find it in the next few hours, they're going to shut down the Planet."

"What?!" Lois exclaimed loudly, sitting bolt upright and causing the intern to jump and stick her in the thigh with the needle. "OW!" she hollered, tears of pain filling her eyes.

Finally losing all patience, she tried to keep her tears in check as she directed an evil glare at the apologetic looking intern. "Can't you do this without making me hurt any worse than I do?! If you can't be that competent, could you at least numb me enough so that I can't feel every jab you make?!"

"I'm sorry, I—"

"I don't care if you're sorry! Just get me another doctor!" Lois demanded, yelling in spite of the fact that it was making her head start to pound again.



Taking one last look at his adamant patient, the ashen-faced intern set the needle down and stepped away. "Fine," he grumbled. "It's no skin off my nose." Then he turned and hurried out into the hall.

When he was gone, Lois let herself fall back onto the bed and covered her face with her arms, trying to shield her watering eyes from the bright lights above. All that shouting had made her head start to pound again, and the queasy feeling was working its way back into her stomach. She lay there for a long minute, trying to let the peace of the now quiet room seep into her and ease her pounding temples.

Just as she took a deep breath and let it out slowly, she felt Clark's hand on her shoulder and his soft voice reached her ears. "Lois, if you keep letting yourself get worked up like that, you're only going to make yourself worse."

"I know," she responded quietly. "I just feel bad enough without that bumbling idiot making things worse."

"Then why didn't you just tell me you wanted a different doctor? I would've gone and found you one."

With her arms still covering her eyes, Lois smiled in spite of herself. "I know. You certainly scared that intern enough to send him running for cover. I think that's what got him so nervous in the first place."

"Sorry," Clark apologized, but Lois could hear the smile in his voice. "I thought if I put the fear of God into him, he'd be more careful. I guess it kind of backfired, though."

Lois chuckled and moved her arms from her face so she could see Clark. "I'd say so."

As they both fell silent, Lois closed her eyes and relaxed on the bed, grateful for a few moments of peace to quiet her pounding head. A few minutes later, though, they heard heavy footsteps approaching and then turn into their room.

"Well, well, Lois Lane," the new arrival's jovial voice exclaimed, sounding strangely familiar to Lois, "I see you've done an extremely thorough job of terrorizing our newest intern."

Lois opened her eyes and was surprised to see the doctor's familiar smiling face looming over hers. "Dr. Meyers!" she exclaimed, her tired voice reflecting her enthusiasm. "I haven't seen you in years! How've you been?"

"I'm fine, but the question should be, how are you? You look like you've been through quite an ordeal." He stopped beside the bed and quickly looked over her chart before turning to smile at her again. "Still getting into trouble, are you?"

"Well, you know me," Lois smiled again, then turned to Clark, who was looking from one to the other. "Clark, this is Dr. Meyers. He was a good friend of my father's when I was growing up."

"Pleased to meet you," Clark said with a smile as he reached out to shake the man's hand. "As for your intern, Lois was this close—" he held up his thumb and forefinger a fraction of an inch apart, "to tearing him limb from limb."

"I'm not surprised. Lois isn't exactly the easiest person to get along with," Dr. Meyers said teasingly, giving Lois a wink when she playfully glared at him. Then he glanced back at Clark. "That's quite a shiner you have there, Clark. Has someone taken a look at that eye yet?"

"Oh, it's okay," Clark reassured him, reaching up to touch the tender skin around his eye. "I'll be fine. Right now I'm more concerned about Lois."

"Mmmm," Dr. Meyers murmured as he gently took Lois' leg in his hands and inspected it closely. "Yes, this is quite a nasty gash, Lois. What happened to you guys?"

As Lois related the story to him, he listened carefully as he went about cleaning the wound over again and giving her a new injection of pain medication into the area before stitching it.

When she finished, he nodded solemnly. "You really have been through a lot, Lois," he said, putting the final stitch in her leg and cutting the thread. "I'm just glad you came out of it alive, and I'm sure your parents will be, too. Have you called them yet?"

Lois shook her head. "Not yet."

"I'll take care of that," Dr. Meyers reassured her. "Besides, it'll be nice to hear your father's voice again. *After* he hears that you're okay."

Lois smiled as she took the hand he offered her and allowed him to help her sit up. Shifting uncomfortably on the edge of the bed, she glanced up at the clock on the wall. "So am I all finished? Can I go now?"

Dr. Meyers frowned and shook his head. "Not a chance, Lois. With this wound going untreated for as long as it has, you've lost a lot of blood, and infection has started in. Your fever is still a bit high, too, and although it's probably due to the infection, I'd like to keep you here for a day or two to keep tabs on it. And on top of that, you're dehydrated and suffering from exhaustion. I'd like to get you admitted and hooked up to an I.V. so we can pump some fluids and antibiotics into you."

"But I can't stay here!" she protested vehemently, ignoring Clark's hand slipping around hers and his 'don't you dare even think about it' look. "Yeah, I feel run down. But I'm sure it's nothing a good night's sleep won't fix! Clark and I have got to get down to the Planet. That virus I mentioned is still hidden within their computer system, and we've got to see what we can do to help. Can't I just get out of here and promise to take it easy for a couple of days?"

Dr. Meyers chuckled and glanced at Clark. "I don't think she has it in her, do you?"

Clark smiled, though his forehead was creased with concern. "Sounds like you know her as well as I do."

The doctor nodded, then smiled patiently at Lois. "She's been this stubborn ever since I've known her." Then his smile faded, and when he spoke again, his tone was serious. "Lois, I'm sure you think you're well enough to get out of here, but truthfully, the thing that concerns me the most is that this fever could be the beginning of something more serious. Or it could just be a post-injury infection. I don't know for sure, so I don't want to take any chances."

Clark gave her hand a squeeze and spoke up. "Lois, I have to agree. It definitely wouldn't hurt you to stay here for a day or so."

"But what about the virus?" Lois objected persistently. "In less than forty-eight hours, the virus will activate, and if we don't do something now to stop it, it's going to be too late! I can't just stay here and let that happen!"

"Lois," Clark said calmly, perching carefully beside her on the bed and giving her hand a squeeze. "I can go down to the Planet and see what can be done. Besides, what kind of computer experts are we to really do anything to help? Perry said the FBI and Jimmy were already doing everything that could be done."

"But—" Lois started to argue.

Clark silenced her with a stern look. "No buts, Lois. You need the medical attention *and* the rest, so you're staying here. No more arguments."

Knowing it was a lost cause, Lois sighed. All the arguing was making her tired, anyway. "Fine," she finally mumbled. "But don't expect me to like it."

Dr. Meyers chuckled. "I'd be disappointed in you if you did, Lois. Now just lie back and relax for a minute. I'm going to go call upstairs and let them know you're coming up."


A short time later, Lois was lying in a hospital bed on the fourth floor, half asleep and completely tired from being poked and prodded by the nurses during her admitting. She lifted her arm to run her hand tiredly through her hair, being careful not to pull the I.V. needle out of her arm.

The sound of the door opening made her open her eyes, and she was pleased to see that it was Clark coming into the room. He hurried to her side and leaned over her, gently pressing a lingering kiss to her forehead before sitting down in the chair next to her.

"How are you feeling?"

She smiled tiredly. "At least the nurses haven't missed my veins. If I have to get poked even one more time, I think I'm going to scream."

Clark smiled. "I don't blame you."

"So what about you? Are you going to head over to see Dr. Klein?"

"Yeah, I guess I should," Clark sighed. "I still worry a bit about Dr. Klein making the connection between me and Superman, though, since what happened to us has surely hit the news by now."

Lois reached for his hand. "I know you do. But right now you really don't have much choice. Besides, all you really need to tell him is that you—Superman—were exposed to a chunk of Kryptonite, then injected with a liquid form of it. If he makes the connection between you two, then so be it. I trust Dr. Klein. Don't you?"

Clark nodded. "Yeah, I do. I guess it's just the matter of having another person out there who knows my secret that bothers me. But I guess if that happens, it can't be helped."

"True. So go," Lois told him. "The world needs you. And *I* need you." She smiled tenderly and tightened her grip on his hand. "You need to get back to normal, and Dr. Klein's your best bet."

"I know." He looked down at their joined hands and gently traced his thumb over her knuckles. Then he met her gaze again. "Well, at least you're all checked in and being taken care of. And thanks to Inspector Henderson, you have a guard stationed right outside your door."

Lois rolled her eyes. "I have mixed emotions about that."

Clark reached out to tenderly push the bangs back from her forehead and smiled down at her softly. "I know you do. But Henderson promised to keep you safe until Trask and his men were in custody, so I think it's for the best right now."

"Yeah, I guess," Lois admitted.

Clark hesitated. "Are you sure you're going to be okay if I go?"

"Clark, I'll be fine. Just go already."

He studied her intently for a moment, trying to decide if she really meant it. Finally, he decided she did. "Okay, but promise me you'll just take it easy until I get back. Please?"

She nodded tiredly. "I promise. Actually, now that I'm lying here, I can hardly keep my eyes open. I just want to close my eyes and go to sleep."

Clark smiled softly. "Then I'll let you sleep. But I'll be back soon."

"Okay," Lois said wearily. "Call me as soon as you know anything."

"I will." He stood up slowly, then leaned over and kissed her gently, this time pressing his lips to hers in a lingering kiss that told her wordlessly how much he loved her, and how glad he was that she was going to be okay. When he stepped back, his gaze lingered on hers for a moment, then he straightened up. "Sleep well, Lois."

Half asleep, she attempted one last, tired smile. "See you soon, Clark."


After Clark left Lois' room, he slipped down the hospital stairs in order to avoid the posted guards in the lobby. He knew that having a cop tagging along with him to STAR Labs wouldn't work. How would he be able to change into the suit and see Dr. Klein if he was being guarded?

So as he went through the hospital's doors, he tried to keep as low a profile as possible as he hailed a cab. As they pulled away from the hospital, Clark directed the driver to his apartment, where he knew he could get some cash to pay for the ride and put on some clean clothes. When they arrived, Clark told the cabbie to wait and he quickly let himself into his apartment using his hidden spare key, got some cash for the cab, then quickly changed his clothes, making sure to put the suit on underneath, then hurried back out to the waiting cab.

Opening the back door and climbing in, he told the driver, "STAR Labs, please," and they arrived there minutes later. Climbing out, Clark quickly paid the cabbie, then slipped into a nearby alley where he changed at normal speed into the suit. Then he went in through STAR Lab's front doors, ignoring the surprised looks people shot his direction when they saw Superman crossing through the lobby with the ugly bruises still noticeable on his face.

Doctor Klein was equally startled by his appearance when he buzzed him through to his lab a few minutes later. "Superman! What happened?"

"I kind of, well…ran into a little trouble," Clark began, uncertain how to proceed without giving too much away.

"Yeah, I can see that," Dr. Klein nodded solemnly. "But I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It seems like you're always 'running into a little trouble." Dr. Klein's solemn mood changed and he grinned a little as he picked up a stack of papers from his desk and moved them to a nearby out basket. "So. Who tried to kill you, trap you, clone you, run you out of town, or take your powers away this time?"

Clark smiled. "It's a long story," he consented, leaving it at that since any more might give him away. "But the problem is, I was injected with a liquid form of Kryptonite, and not only did it succeed in taking away my powers, but I haven't felt very well since. I was hoping you could help me."

Dr. Klein's smile turned back into a concerned frown, and he shook his head. "If it's not one thing with you, it's another." He leaned back against the shelf and folded his arms across his chest. "Well, I guess the first place for us to start is to run some tests. If I could find out how the Kryptonite was affecting you on the cellular level, we could probably come up with something to neutralize the effect." He pushed off from the desk and crossed the room to the cabinet that held his medical equipment. Opening the cabinet doors, he suddenly stopped and turned back to the superhero.

"Actually, there might be some good that could come out of this," the doctor told him. "It could give us a chance to study your metabolism and learn more about how your body works for future reference. And then, with all our findings on file, we might even be able to come up with a cure for the effects of Kryptonite in the future."

Clark looked hopeful. "Can you do that?"

Dr. Klein shrugged. "I don't see why not. With all the data we would have, we should be able to tell exactly how Kryptonite affects you, and then we could research the possibilities of counteracting the effects."

"That would be *great*," Clark admitted. "Not only would I not have to suffer through an ordeal like this again, but I'd be that much more invulnerable to my enemies."

"It may take a while to develop, but I agree that it would definitely be worth pursuing," Dr. Klein agreed. "But let's focus on what we can do for you now." He directed Clark into a nearby examination room and gestured for him to climb up onto the examination table in the center of the room. "Do you know anything about how the serum was manufactured?"

Being as careful as possible not to reveal anything that might give away his identity, Clark explained how he'd been exposed to the Kryptonite rock to weaken his system, then injected with the Kryptonite serum.

Dr. Klein listened carefully, nodding in response to Clark's explanation. "Well, it'll probably take a series of extensive tests to figure out how your system is reacting to the Kryptonite at a cellular level. Are you feeling up to it? I want to make sure I'm thorough so we can figure this out."

Clark nodded. "Whatever it's going to take."

"Good. Then let's get started."

For the next three hours, Dr. Klein drew several viles of blood, ran every test that he thought significant, and carefully logged every little piece of data into his computer for future analysis.

As the time continued to drag on, Clark grew more and more anxious. He was worried about Lois and wanted to hear her voice, to know that she was okay and hear how she was doing. He considered phoning her, but as soon as the thought occurred to him, he immediately ruled out the possibility. It would definitely be too suspicious, since the word was out about what "Clark and Lois" had been through. It wouldn't take a genius to piece together the clues to the truth of what he and Lois had really been through. So Clark used every ounce of his will power to remain where he was and let Dr. Klein continue with his testing as he reassured himself that Lois would be fine under the careful watch of the doctors and police.

After what seemed like an eternity, Doctor Klein set down the last test tube and gestured for Clark to climb down off the examination table. "I can't imagine I would need any more information," he told Clark. "With all this data I've collected, I'm sure I can figure out what's happened and figure out how to counteract the Kryptonite's effect."

"How long do you think it'll be until you know something?" Clark asked anxiously.

"Well, it's going to take me a few hours to go through all this data," Dr. Klein surmised. "I'll drop my other projects and give this top priority, and I'm sure I can get several of my colleagues to do the same. Hopefully we'll at least have a better idea of what we're dealing with by this afternoon. Are you able to check back then?"

"You bet I will," Clark told him. "I can't thank you enough for this, Dr. Klein."

"Don't mention it," the doctor smiled and dismissed the superhero's gratitude with a quick wave of his hand. "Now get out of here and, well…do whatever it is you do, and I'll get to work on this right away. I'll see you back here in a few hours."

Clark thanked him again, then left Dr. Klein to his data and his microscope. Walking outside into the cold winter air, Clark breathed long and deep, surprised to discover how much a whiff of smog, gasoline and wet pavement soothed him. He never thought he'd miss the stale, sharp smells of the city, but after what he and Lois had been through the last few days, he doubted he'd want to visit the woods anytime soon.

After pausing for a moment, he glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then disappeared into an alley and changed back into his street clothes and went to hail a taxi. Now that Dr. Klein was working on a cure, he couldn't wait to get back to Lois.

Raising one hand to draw a cab driver's attention, and using the fingers on his other to let out a loud whistle, he signaled a nearby cab and climbed in. "Metropolis General, please. And step on it."


The sun was almost directly overhead when a jeep packed with five men pulled up in front of the cabin. The men climbed out hesitantly. No one spoke as they walked up the cabin's front path.

"Trask's not going to be happy about this," the driver finally mumbled as they started up the steps. "We've been looking for Lane and Kent since last night, and we've turned up nothing. When we tell Trask that we haven't found any sign of them—"

"What do you mean 'we'?" one of the other men objected. "*I'm* not telling him! You're the one he put in charge. *You* tell him."

The driver glared at the man. "No wonder you never made it into combat," he mumbled. "Fine, I'll tell him. I'm not afraid of him." His tone was stalwart and firm, but his steps slowed as he reached the front door, suggesting to the others that he wasn't as brave as he appeared to be.

As soon as they opened the front door, Trask stormed up to them, clearly not in the mood for bad news. "Where have you guys been? I've been trying to raise you on the radio for three hours!"

"Oh, um, well, we kind of left the radios in the car, sir. We had our hands full with the tracking equipment we were using to search for Lane and Kent."

Trask started to argue that nothing was more important than having a radio for keeping in touch, but decided there were more important things to deal with at the moment. "So? Did you find them?" Trask asked anxiously, a small muscle twitching in his jaw.

The driver swallowed the lump in his throat and steeled himself. "We've searched the entire mountain, but there's no sign of them."

"What?!" Trask thundered, causing all five men to step back nervously. "How can there possibly be no sign of them?! If you'd searched the entire mountain, you would've found them. There can't be that many places for them to hide!"

"They just aren't there, sir," one of the other men chimed in. "We've looked everywhere."

But Trask's face only grew redder as he heard the man's report. "They *have* to be there! Where else could they be? Now get back out there, and don't come back until you find them!"

The men stood frozen in disbelief, not wanting to return to the task they'd fruitlessly spent so many hours on. Finally, the driver spoke up. "It would just be a waste of time. Like we said, we've looked everywhere…"

Trask opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by a voice behind him. "Has anyone considered the possibility that Lane and Kent might be back in Metropolis?"

Trask whirled around to see Garrison coming into the room. "Impossible!" he declared vehemently. "There's no way they could've gotten past our surveillance team without us knowing."

"But just consider for a moment that they did," Garrison said slowly. "Would you be willing to let those two slip away just because you were arrogant enough to believe they couldn't get past your surveillance network? If I were you, I wouldn't risk it. Check Metropolis."

The five men stood quietly, watching Trask and waiting for him to make a decision. Trask contemplated Garrison's words for what seemed like an eternity, then finally nodded. "Fine. You three," he gestured at the three men nearest him, "head down to Metropolis and check out their apartments and the Planet. You other two stay here with me. I may need you if the other team turns up something here."

The men nodded, then went their separate ways, eager to get back in their commander's good graces. When they were alone, Trask turned to Garrison. "I hope you're wrong about this," he said. "If they've slipped past us and are now back in Metropolis, they've no doubt alerted the authorities and are being heavily guarded. They'll be looking for us, which would make it nearly impossible to get to them."

Garrison smirked. "Maybe for your men, but not for me. If we find out they *are* back in Metropolis, I'll head down there and personally take care of those two. It would be my pleasure."

Trask smiled. "You know what, Garrison? For once, I like the way you think."


Climbing out of the cab, Clark pulled a couple of bills from his pocket and handed them to the driver through the front window, then stepped back from the curb to avoid the spray of snow and slush flipped up by the cab's tires.

As the cab disappeared down the street, Clark turned and walked through the hospital's front entrance, making his way up to the fourth floor. When he opened the door to her room, he was surprised to see that Lois was sitting on the edge of the bed, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, with a set of crutches propped up against the bed next to her. He watched in disbelief as she struggled to bring her leg toward her enough to slip her sock on.

"What are you doing?" he asked incredulously.

"I called my mom and had her bring my clothes. I'm getting out of here."

Clark immediately started to object, but Lois quickly cut him off. "Clark, you need my help, and the Planet does, too. I'm already feeling a little better, so I'm not going to just sit here in this bed all day and wonder what's going on at the Planet. Besides, after being stuck with a dozen needles, hooked up to an I.V., and given what seemed like gallons of blood and antibiotics, there's really nothing more they can do for me here."

"Hmmm," Clark replied non-committaly. To his trained eye, she still looked exhausted, and he knew she was probably only feeling better because she was on high doses of pain medication. More than anything, he wanted her to stay, to get the rest and care she so desperately needed. But he knew it was—and always had been—useless to tell her what to do when she'd made her mind up about something. Trying a different approach, he asked, "So what does Dr. Meyers think about you leaving?"

"He's not thrilled, but he's going to let me go," she told him as she reached for one of her shoes. As she carefully slipped her foot into it and started to fumble with the laces, she looked up at him. "How did it go with Dr. Klein?"

Clark shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and took a couple of steps into the room, still clearly preoccupied with her own well being as he answered. "He ran some tests and thinks he can come up with something that'll counteract the Kryptonite in my system. I'm supposed to check back in a few hours…Are you sure you're well enough to get out of here?" he asked, running the two sentences together.

Lois sighed impatiently. "Clark, please, no lectures. I'm not in the mood."

"Lois, I'm not lecturing, I just think you're taking on too much too soon—"

"My sentiments exactly," Dr. Meyer's voice sounded from the door. Lois and Clark looked up to see him, and he continued. "Lois, let me tell you again that I'm not happy about your leaving. You'd be so much better off if you stayed here for a while and let your body recover."

"Lois, listen to him," Clark pleaded. "You're not well enough to throw yourself back into your regular routine. You've been through a lot—"

"I know I have, Clark!" she snapped irritably, then instantly regretted her outburst as it made her head ache. She closed her eyes momentarily and took a deep breath to regain control of her emotions. She couldn't let them see that she, herself, was doubting the wisdom of leaving when she still felt so exhausted, achy and weak. But there were more important things to worry about…like the Planet's survival. When she felt calmer, she opened her eyes to find Clark and Dr. Meyers watching her with concern.

She tried again, this time her voice was softer and more rational. "The FBI's threatening to shut down the Planet, and I can't let that happen. *We* can't let that happen, Clark. The Planet's like a second home to me, and we already nearly lost it once. I'm not about to let that happen again. Maybe something we've heard, or something we know about who is behind this may help them find the solution. If so, I can't justify sitting around doing nothing."

Clark sighed. Nothing he could say or do was going to make Lois change her mind, and he knew it. The only chance he had at helping her get better was to keep a constant eye on her and make sure she didn't overdo things.

Turning to Clark, Dr. Meyers pleaded, "Are you sure you can't talk her out of this?" When Clark raised his eyebrows at him in an 'are you kidding?' fashion, Dr. Meyers sighed. "Fine. You can go, Lois. But you have to keep up your doses of antibiotics. And though your leg's going to be okay, it's going to be really sore, so you'll need to stay off it as much as possible for the next few days. I'd suggest some crutches, and lots of rest."

"I know," Lois complained, rolling her eyes and feeling like a two year old being scolded.

But Dr. Meyers went on anyway. "I'll also need to see you back here in a few days to take out those stitches, understand? And Lois," he waited for her to look at him, "*please* promise me you won't overdo things." She nodded, but he turned to Clark for reassurance. "Can you promise me that you won't *let* her overdo things?"

Clark nodded in determination. "You can count on it."

Lois rolled her eyes again as she finished tying her shoe and then slowly and cautiously slid off the bed and reached for the crutches. "Great. I can get out of here, but not without the perpetual Boy Scout watching over me like a hawk. It hardly sounds like a fair compromise."

"Well, that's the best you're going to get, Lois," Dr. Meyers told her. "Take it or leave it."

"I'll take it," she grumbled, clearly not happy about her options. "Now if you two will leave me alone for two seconds, I'd like to use the bathroom before I go."

Giving her one last look of uncertainty, Dr. Meyers and Clark left, and Lois awkwardly tucked the crutches under her arms and hobbled across the room to the bathroom. When she was done, she put on the coat her mom had brought her, then opened the door to the hall, feeling proud of herself when she managed to pull it open without knocking herself down.

Hobbling out into the hall, she immediately spotted Clark leaning up against the wall opposite the door, waiting for her.

"Ready to go?" he asked, though his expression clearly showed his disapproval at her leaving.

She squared her shoulders and nodded. "As ready as I'll ever be." She moved a little further out into the hall to let the heavy door shut behind her, then put on a smile for Clark's benefit, trying not to let him see how tired and achy she still felt. "I'll tell you," she went on, forcing her tone to sound cheery, "drugs are a wonderful thing. My leg is so numb I won't have to worry about feeling it for a week."

Clark looked at her, and she instantly knew by the look in his eyes that he wasn't buying her cheery act for a second. Pushing off from the wall wordlessly, he closed the distance between them and stopped in front of her, pausing only a moment before reaching out to slide his hand around the back of her neck and gently massage the tight muscles there.

Knowing it was useless to continue with her act, Lois abandoned it and gave in to her tiredness. Closing her eyes, she leaned toward him and let her forehead fall against his strong chest, and he immediately wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly.

Sighing heavily, he dropped his head to hers and pressed a soft kiss into her hair. "Are you sure there isn't anything I could say to make you change your mind about staying?" he asked quietly. "I agree with Dr. Meyers that it would be so much better if you stayed here for a day or two. Your recovery would be faster."

But Lois shook her head slowly and pulled back to look into Clark's concerned face. "No, Clark, I'd really rather get out of here. I hate hospitals. Besides, we've got to get to the Planet to see what we can do to stop that virus, as well as finding Trask and Garrison."

Clark stiffened and his face clouded over. "See, Lois? This is exactly what I'm talking about! Just because Dr. Meyers agreed to let you go doesn't give you a license to run all over Metropolis taking down the bad guys. You're supposed to be getting better, not making yourself worse."

"Clark, like I told Dr. Meyers, I'm not going to overdo things," she insisted.

"You'd better believe you won't," he said matter-of-factly. "And I'm going to see to that."

"I'm sure you will," Lois said, smiling slightly. "But enough of this. Let's get out of here and get to the Planet to see what we can do to help. I'm sure Jimmy can tell us everything we need to know. And we should probably talk some more with Henderson at the police station to see if he's found out anything about Trask and Garrison—"

"Lo-is," Clark scolded, a warning flickering in his eyes.

"Hey, I already promised I wouldn't overdo it, didn't I?" Lois said impatiently, tired of being treated like a child. "I'll just help for a while and see what I can dredge up on these guys, and if I start to feel like I'm overdoing it, I'll stop. Okay?"

"Okay," Clark nodded grudgingly. "But if you do start to overdo things, I'm taking you straight to your apartment for some rest—no questions or protests. Got it?"

Happy that she'd gotten her way, Lois smiled and nodded. "Got it. Now can we go? I want to grab a sandwich on the way to the Planet to eat while we're working."

Clark felt his hopes rise. Lois' returning appetite had to be a good sign. Sliding his arm around her shoulders, he carefully directed her on her crutches toward the nearest exit. "Sure, Lois. Let's go."


When Lois and Clark stepped out of the elevator and onto the newsroom floor, their eyes widened at the chaos that had overtaken the place. "What's going on?"

Two men in suits and overcoats rushed past them into the elevator, shouldering Lois and sending her stumbling, crutches and all, into Clark, who quickly caught her before she could fall.

"Hey, watch it!" Lois yelled, grabbing onto Clark for balance.

"Yeah, guys! Slow it down, would you?" Clark added with a scowl.

But the two men barely mumbled something resembling an apology before the elevator doors closed. When the men were gone, Clark helped Lois situate herself on her crutches. "Are you okay? They didn't hurt you, did they?"

"No," Lois grumbled, "but so much for the crutches getting me any special treatment."

"Lois, Clark!" a deep, familiar voice bellowed.

They turned to see Perry crossing the crowded newsroom floor and heading in their direction. When he reached them, they could see his expression was a mixture of concern and relief.

"Are you two okay?" he asked, taking in Clark's bruised face and Lois' crutches. "I tried reaching you at the hospital, but they told me you'd already left."

Clark frowned. "Yeah, well, as usual, I couldn't make Lois listen to reason, even if it meant obeying doctor's orders and staying at the hospital."

Perry turned to Lois, taking in the crutches, her sagging shoulders and the dark circles under her eyes, and immediately the protective, fatherly instincts he had for her kicked in. "Honey, are you sure you should be here? You look like you've been to Hell and back."

"Gee, thanks, Perry," Lois drawled, rolling her eyes at him. "But I'm fine, really. Like I keep telling Clark, there are more important things for me to do than sit in a hospital bed all day twiddling my thumbs." She paused and looked around the busy newsroom. "Have they found the virus yet?"

Perry shook his head. "You'd think with all the manpower the FBI sent over that they would've found something by now, but all they've pretty much done is turned this place into a three ring circus."

"Well, maybe we can do something to help," she told him hopefully. "Where's Jimmy?"

Perry jabbed a thumb in the direction of Jimmy's desk, where they saw him staring intently at his computer screen. "That boy's been unbelievable," Perry boasted proudly. "He's hardly left that computer in three days. He says he knows the Planet's computer system better than anybody, and he's convinced he can find the virus before the FBI does." Perry shook his head and smiled. "And I believe him. That boy sure knows his stuff. I couldn't be prouder if he were my own son."

Clark smiled. "That's great. Well, I guess we'll talk to you later, Chief. We'll go and see what we can do to help him."

Perry waved them on, and Clark kept a protective hand on the small of Lois' back as she made her way on her crutches down the steeply sloping ramp to the newsroom floor. He breathed an unconscious sigh of relief when she made it in one piece, and Lois gave him a quick glance, indicating she'd overheard.

"Clark, quit worrying, would you? I'm fine." But she gave him a quick smile to show him that she did care that was concerned for herbefore turning her attention to Jimmy.

He looked up as they approached. "Lois, Clark!" he exclaimed, obviously relieved to see them alive and well. "Man, you two look horrible. I heard what happened. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, Jimmy, we're fine. Just a little shaken up," Lois admitted as she propped her crutches against the desk and sat down in the chair that Clark quickly wheeled up for her. "Perry said you guys haven't found the virus yet."

"No, not yet," Jimmy sighed. "I've been in and out of several of the Planet's main systems searching executables, java applets…anything that might be hiding the virus, but there are so many of them that it could be impossible to search them all in time. Without knowing where the virus is or what to look for, it could take weeks to find and deactivate it."

"Manny said it was going to be transmitted through the New Year's on-line issue, so wouldn't that give you some clue where to look?" Lois asked.

Jimmy shook his head. "Just because it's involved with the on-line issue doesn't tell us where to look. We have multiple servers that'll be serving the website. It could be sitting anywhere on the network and activated in any number of ways. It could be set to go off at a certain time, or when a certain thing happens, like certain key combinations struck on a keyboard, a certain request from a network, or it could even be transmitted through the java scripts or executables on the website itself. There are just too many places it could be."

"What about Manny?" Clark asked, sitting on the corner of Jimmy's desk. "Has there been any sign of him?"

Jimmy shook his head. "No, and I doubt there will be. The FBI's been searching high and low for him, so I'm sure by now he knows he's been discovered. He'd be stupid to come out from wherever he's hiding."

"Well, I'm hoping that what we heard while Trask had us in his own little jail cell might help," Lois said hopefully.

Jimmy looked confused. "Trask? What does he have to do with the virus?"

"Manny made an appearance while we were there, and we overheard him talking about the virus to a man named Garrison, who we think is Trask's second in command," Clark explained. "Manny told him he'd gotten the virus installed, but said that when he was returning to his desk he found people at his computer talking about the virus, so he ran off."

Jimmy listened intently, nodding when Clark finished. "So that's how he found out we were onto him. I still can't believe he was behind all of this. I mean, I knew he was into the computer scene because we'd traded stories about hacking jobs we'd done, but I never would've thought he'd be capable of something like this."

"Yeah, sometimes you think you know a person, but then when you really get to know them, they turn out to be completely different," Lois said, not realizing the significance of her words until she felt Clark shift uncomfortably next to her. Quickly she looked up to meet his concerned gaze and gave him a little smile to put him at ease.

Oblivious to Clark's discomfort and then the unspoken communication between his two friends, Jimmy nodded solemnly. "Yeah, I guess you're right. Anyway, it sounds like Manny and Garrison are in this whole thing together, all right. They would've needed to get a job at the Planet in order to plant the virus, since they'd need to be inside the firewall to be in and out of the Planet's systems without suspicion." Jimmy paused. "Do you know who this Garrison guy is?"

Lois shook her head. "Not yet. But that's one of the reasons we're here. I'm going to do some research and find out all I can about him. Maybe something we find will help you in your search for this virus."

"It's worth a shot," Jimmy agreed. "Maybe knowing something about him or his MO would give us a better idea of where to look." Jimmy looked thoughtful for a minute. "When you overheard him and Manny talking, did they say anything else about the virus itself? Anything about where he'd installed it or how it worked?"

Clark shook his head. "No, nothing. Just that it was supposed to activate when the Planet's on-line issue goes out at midnight on New Year's."

They were all silent for a minute, but then Lois' face brightened. "Hey, I just thought of something!" she exclaimed, instantly drawing Clark and Jimmy's full attention. "When Garrison asked Manny what loose ends he'd left, Manny said he'd left some files on his hard drive."

"Hey, that's right!" Clark replied excitedly. "But wait. Didn't he say that they were encrypted or something? How hard would it be to decrypt a file?" He turned to Jimmy for an answer.

"Extremely difficult, even for an expert hacker," Jimmy admitted. "The FBI's already been through Manny's hard drive, and I haven't heard them say anything about finding any encrypted files. But that doesn't mean they're not there. It'll just take some more searching."

"What about any files he'd used and then deleted?" Lois asked. "Is there a way to find out if he'd gotten rid of something that might give us some more clues?"

"Actually, it is possible," Jimmy said thoughtfully. "If Manny had files on his computer and later erased it off his hard drive, then it's possible to run a recovery utility to try to recover the deleted files."

Lois stared at him blankly. "I have no idea what you just said."

Jimmy laughed. "That's okay. Half the time I don't know what you and Clark are talking about, either, when you're brainstorming leads."

Clark laughed, too. "I guess we're even then. But back to what you were saying. Has the FBI been trying to recover any of his deleted files?"

"I don't know. Probably not," Jimmy snorted in disgust. "For people in such a prestigious job, they sure do seem like a bunch of morons."

Clark laughed. "I doubt they'd know more about computers than you, anyway."

Jimmy laughed, too, knowing it wasn't really true, but enjoying the ego boost anyway. "So what are you suggesting that I do?"

"Well, why don't you just do a little looking of your own?" Lois chimed in.

"Not a bad idea, but the FBI won't let anyone anywhere *near* Manny's computer," Jimmy frowned.

Lois glanced around to make sure no one was listening, then leaned in closer to Jimmy. "I know, Jimmy, but you're a hacker. Couldn't you just break into his computer from here?"

"Well, sure," Jimmy replied easily. "It'd be a piece of cake. Besides, it's not like I'm having any luck finding anything where I'm looking."

"That's the spirit," Clark exclaimed, standing up and clapping Jimmy on the shoulder. "Just let us know if we can do anything to help."

"Will do. Right now, though," Jimmy said with a mischievous grin as he deliberately stretched his hands out in front of him and cracked his knuckles, "I've got a little hacking to do."

Clark smiled. "We'll leave you to it, then. Besides, I really should call my folks to let them know I'm okay, and warn them to keep their eyes open for Trask and his men. I wouldn't put it past Trask to head down there for a repeat of his last Smallville incident."

"I wouldn't either," Lois said seriously. "While you do that, I'll get started on digging up what I can on Garrison." Clark gave her a quick warning look, but she just rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Clark, relax. I already told you I wouldn't overdo it."

"Make sure you don't," Clark insisted sternly before he walked away, giving her a look she recognized as the one he used when staring down a criminal as Superman.

Lois shook her head in disgust as she watched him walk away. Why was it she'd never before realized how much Clark and Superman had in common? Even if she'd been able to ignore the physical similarities—his broad shoulders and muscular physique, his dark hair and olive-colored skin—how could she have not picked up on the many similarities in characteristics that were present in both men?

In Superman, she should've recognized Clark's compassion, his kind, gentle eyes, the way he looked at her in exasperation when she'd, once again, put herself in the path of danger. And in Clark, she should've been able to see the sense of fearlessness that came from invulnerability, the strong sense of ethics inherent in Superman, and the almost overwhelming urge to protect her, as well as others. But most of all, she knew she should've been able to look past the glasses—or lack thereof—into his eyes and see into the depths of his soul, recognizing him for who—and what—he really was: the only man she'd ever truly loved.

With a sigh of resignation, she adjusted her crutches under her arms and headed over to her desk. *You can focus on how blind you've been later,* she told herself. *But right now you have work to do.*


"Have you found anything yet?" Jimmy asked, coming over to see how she was coming along with her research.

Lois leaned back in her desk chair and stretched her arms out tiredly in front of her. "Not yet," she admitted, noticing how tired her voice sounded even to her own ears. "How about you?"

"Well, I did find the encryption program that Manny used by running that recovery utility," Jimmy told her. "It's a good thing I did, too, because it would've been nearly impossible to decrypt the virus without knowing what program he used to do it."

"That's great!" she exclaimed happily.

"Well, don't get too excited," he warned. "Even if we do find the virus, there's still the matter of decrypting it. And if we can't figure out what code phrase Manny used to encrypt it, we're not going to be able to get into the virus to make an antidote for it."

"An antidote?" Lois asked, furrowing her eyebrows.

Jimmy nodded. "Yeah, you know, to deactivate the virus. Most virus programmers will make one to counteract the virus, therefore keeping their own systems safe from the virus' effects."

"Makes sense," Lois agreed. "Can you make your own antidote?"

"Yeah, you can, but it could take days. And that's only *if* we're able to decrypt it. It would be much easier just to find the antidote that was already created for the virus."

"Great," Lois mumbled. "This whole virus thing is turning out to be even more complicated than I thought. I just figured you could find it and delete it."

Jimmy grinned. "Unfortunately, it's not that easy. And from the looks of it, Garrison and Manny have covered their tracks well. It may take a miracle to find everything we need to get rid of it."

"I'm not above wishing for one," Lois admitted with a heavy sigh.

Jimmy nodded in agreement. "Yeah, me neither. Anyway, I decided that if I didn't take a break soon, my brain was going to explode."

"I know what you mean. I'm having a tough time finding out much about Garrison, or how he and Trask tie in together. It may take a while longer before I dig up anything that might be helpful to us. But," she said, reaching for one of the papers piled beneath a stack of disks and research material. "I was able to pull up Manny's personnel file and his address is on here. He only lives a few blocks away. I think we should check it out."

Clark overheard this last part as he wandered over from where he'd been pouring himself and Lois a cup of coffee. He set her mug down on her desk and gave her a stern look. "Sorry, Lois, but you're not going to be checking out *anything* today."

Before she could reply, Jimmy asked dubiously, "You don't honestly think he'll be there, do you?"

Lois glared at Clark for thinking he could tell her what to do, then answered Jimmy. "No, I'm sure he *won't* be there. But that doesn't mean we can't do a little investigating ourselves, if you know what I mean. Surely he has some disks or papers lying around that might give us a clue about where the virus is."

Clark shook his head. "Lois, I'm sure the police and FBI have already been through his apartment days ago with a fine tooth comb. If there was anything to find, I'm sure they would've found it."

"Yeah, and they could've found the virus here at the Planet, but they haven't," Lois pointed out. "What's the harm in going over and checking it out? Maybe we'll find something the authorities overlooked the first time around."

"Yeah, maybe," Clark agreed. "But why don't you let Jimmy and me do that, Lois? The doctor told you to stay off that leg for a few days, and we don't want you overdoing things. Besides, Jimmy knows more about computer stuff than we do. Maybe he'll find something that we would overlook as being insignificant."

Jimmy raised his eyebrows hopefully. "I'm game. I could sure use a break from here anyway."

Lois opened her mouth to respond, but Clark quickly cut in. "Great, then let's go, Jimmy. Lois, you stay here while Jimmy and I check it out. We'll let you know if we find anything."

"But why can't I go with you?" she argued. "It was *my* idea."

He gave her his best Superman 'don't go there' look. "Lois, you *know* why. Dr. Meyers told you that you're supposed to stay off that leg as much as possible, and no, crutches don't count," he interrupted, knowing exactly what she was opening her mouth to say. Then he glanced at Jimmy and rolled his eyes as if to say, 'I can't believe what she tries to get away with.'

Jimmy grinned in amusement. Lois had obviously met her match in Clark. He looked over at Lois to see her pouting, but backing down.

"Fine," she grumbled. "You go and have all the fun while I stay here and do more research." She spit out the word as if it were poison. "Call me if you find anything."

Clark shook his head at her dramatics, then grabbed Jimmy's arm and pulled him after him. "Come on, Jimmy. I have a feeling that if we don't get out of here now, we might regret it later." Jimmy looked on in amusement as Clark simply grinned at the look of daggers shot at him by his partner, then headed for the elevator.


Lois leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes as she reached up to rub her temples tiredly. It had only been an hour or so since Clark and Jimmy had left, but in that time, she'd hunted for and researched any and all information she'd been able to find on Garrison, and she felt positively worn out. The strain on her eyes was causing a dull ache in her head, and her leg was starting to hurt again.

She glanced at her watch and breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that it was time to take one of her pills. Opening her desk drawer, she pulled out the bottle of prescription painkillers she'd picked up at the hospital pharmacy before checking out and struggled with the lid before finally opening it. Then she shook one of the pills out into her hand, popped it into her mouth, and finally chased it down with what little coffee remained in her mug. She made a face. There was nothing worse than cold coffee.

Just as she'd leaned forward and started rummaging through her pile of research again, her phone rang. Halfheartedly, she picked up the receiver and mumbled, "Lois Lane."

"Lois, it's Dr. Klein."

Instantly Lois sat up straighter in her seat, grimacing as her stiff and achy body punished her for doing so. "Dr. Klein! What can I do for you?"

Lois listened carefully as Dr. Klein explained he was trying to get a message to Superman, and could she and Clark tell him to get to STAR Labs as soon as possible?

"You bet I'll tell him," she told him. "He'll be there as soon as I can contact him." As soon as she hung up, she dialed Clark's cell phone number. Moments later, his voice came across the line.

"Clark, it's me," she said in a rush.

He picked up immediately on the urgency in her voice and quickly mistook it for trouble. "Lois? What is it? What's wrong?" he demanded, his voice filled with concern.

"Oh, no, everything's fine," she told him, quickly putting him at ease. "I'm just calling to let you know that Dr. Klein just called—"

Clark breathed an audible sigh of relief. "Lois, don't scare me like that," he scolded. "I thought something was wrong." He turned and looked for Jimmy, relieved when he saw that he was in the next room looking through Manny's computer disks, safely out of earshot. "So what did Dr. Klein say?"

"He asked if we could get a message to Superman. He said he needed to see him right away, and that he'd know what it was about. But he did sound excited, so I hope that means he has good news."

"I hope so," Clark breathed. "I'll head over there in a few minutes. We're still here at Manny's apartment."

"So what's going on over there?" Lois asked.

"We got a little flak from the police guarding the apartment, but we tracked down Henderson and got him to green light us checking out the place. But unfortunately we haven't found anything yet that looks like it'll be helpful."

"Figures," Lois mumbled. "When you talked to Henderson, did he have any news on Garrison, Trask, or his men?"

"Not yet," Clark admitted. "But they're still searching the mountains. Something's bound to turn up soon."

"Let's hope so." Lois tucked the phone between her ear and shoulder and stretched tiredly, wishing the pain medication would hurry up and kick in. The ache in her back was getting harder and harder to ignore.

Clark picked up on the pause in their conversation. "How are you holding up, Lois? Are you tired? Do you need to go home and get some rest?"

"No, I'm okay," she said, trying to keep the weariness out of her voice, though not being entirely successful. "I'm just trudging on with the Garrison research. I'll just keep working on it and wait to hear from you. Be sure to call me the second you're done at STAR Labs. I want to know everything that Dr. Klein says."

"I will. And Lois?"


"I love you."

A warm feeling started in her heart and spread outward from there, making her tingle all over. "I love you, too, Clark," she said with a soft smile. "I'll see you in a while."

After they exchanged goodbyes, Lois reached forward to hang up the phone, then sat back again in her chair, unable to keep the smile from spreading across her face. Suddenly, she didn't feel as weary as she had before talking to Clark. Maybe the medication was just kicking in, she rationalized, or maybe it was Clark's public declaration of love for her that made her feel so wonderful.

She picked up one of the papers on her desk, trying to force herself to get back to work, but somehow she couldn't get her mind back on task. Realizing how uncharacteristic this was for her, she smiled again and shook her head. If someone had told her that she, Lois Lane, could ever be so affected by those three little spoken words, she wouldn't have believed them. She'd have told them that those words were meaningful only in movies, or in romance novels where life was so drastically different, but not in real life.

But it didn't matter what she would've said back then. Right now she knew those three little words would never seem so insignificant again.


When Jimmy stepped off the elevator a short time later, he spotted Lois at her desk with a rather large stack of papers and binders in front of her. He noticed she'd rolled a nearby chair over to her desk and had her leg propped up on it, and was leaning back in her chair, reading through a packet of stapled papers. He couldn't help noticing how exhausted she looked.

Deciding she'd probably appreciate some coffee, he stopped at the coffee machine and poured her a steaming cup before heading over to her desk. She looked up in surprise when he set it down on the desk in front of her.

"Hey, Jimmy. Thanks," she said, gesturing to the cup of coffee.

"You looked like you could use it," he offered with a smile.

She smiled gratefully and took a sip. "Did you and Clark find anything over at Manny's?"

"Nothing to help us with the virus," Jimmy admitted. "He had a ton of computer equipment, but most of it had already been taken by the FBI. It didn't leave us many places to look for clues."

Lois put the mug down. "Well, I'll keep digging and see if I can find any more information on Garrison that might tell us where to look."

"Do you want me to do some of that research for you, Lois?" Jimmy offered sincerely. "You don't look like you're holding up too well, having to do all of this by yourself. Better yet, why don't you go home and get some sleep? I could tell Clark when he comes back where you went."

"No, that's okay, Jimmy, but thanks. I'm just going to stick it out here and wait for Clark. Besides, you have enough to do trying to track down that virus. Keep at it. I'm sure you're getting close."

"I hope so," Jimmy said with a sigh.

"Just hang in there. We're all tired and discouraged, but something's bound to turn up sooner or later."

Jimmy nodded. "Hopefully sooner rather than later. "Well, I guess I'll get back to it. Let me know what you find."

"I will."

Letting Lois get back to her research, Jimmy headed back to his own desk and sat down in front of his computer. *There has to be something here on Manny's hard drive that could give me a clue,* Jimmy thought stubbornly. *I just have to think like Manny to find out where it is. If I were hiding the virus, where would I hide it?*

Trying to remember what he and Manny had talked about when they'd swapped hacking stories, he sat up straighter in his chair and once again began to comb through Manny's hard drive.


"Manny, where are you?!" Garrison exclaimed when he heard Manny's voice on the other end of the line.

"Not at my apartment, that's for sure," Manny said, peering around the corner of the building to see that police cars were surrounding it and officers were busy going in and out of the building with his computer equipment and interviewing neighbors. "If I go in there, I'm as good as dead."

"Well, you'll be as good as dead if Project Y2K falls through! I just got word from a reliable source that somebody at the Planet has managed to recover several files from your computer! You'd better hope and pray those files aren't important ones!"

Manny's mouth dropped open, but no sounds came out. Finally, he found his voice. "Well, so they found some old files. Anything of importance was encrypted, so we're still home free."

"Are you sure about that?" Garrison growled. "If they found those, what's to say they haven't found out where you installed the virus? Or how to decrypt it, for that matter? Remember when you had the antidote with you at the Planet? Could there be a copy of it on your hard drive, or even floating around somewhere on their system? Think!"

Manny racked his brain furiously, sweat beads starting to form on his brow. "I…I don't think so. I don't know how."

"What about when you got the disks switched? Could someone have a copy of it on their hard drive?"

Manny's face paled. It was possible, he realized. Garrison caught his hesitation and yelled into the phone, "You'd better get over to the Planet and find out! Since you fouled up once before, I'm going to give you just one more chance to redeem yourself. Do whatever it takes to make sure that virus goes out as planned!"

"But…how am I supposed to do that?" Manny stammered. "The place is swarming with FBI."

"I don't care *how* you do it, just do it!" Garrison yelled.

Manny gulped. "Okay, okay. I'll see what I can do."

A sudden pounding on his door broke into their conversation, and Garrison looked over at the door angrily. "Just a minute!" he hollered, annoyed at the interruption.

"Garrison!" Trask's voice yelled. "Get out here!"

Garrison rolled his eyes. "Don't go anywhere, Manny, I'm not done with you yet," he grumbled into the phone. Pushing his chair back from his desk, he got to his feet and flung open the door. "What?!"

"I just got a radio from Metropolis. My men have spotted Lane and Kent, and they're back at the Planet," Trask told him, his jaw tightening in anger. "I'm sending my men in to take care of them once and for all."

Garrison laughed sarcastically. "*Your* men? Right. They're the ones who let them get away in the first place. Forget it. Lane and Kent are *mine.*"

Trask studied Garrison's steely, determined expression and then nodded. "Fine by me. But keep in touch. I want a blow by blow account."

Garrison nodded, then shut the door and put the phone back to his ear. "Manny? Forget it. I'm coming to Metropolis myself."

Thankful to be off the hook, Manny said a hasty goodbye. Garrison quickly shrugged into his coat and shoved the cell phone into his coat pocket. He was sick and tired of people who couldn't accomplish what they'd set out to do. First, Manny blew his cover, then Trask's men lost Lane and Kent, and now they'd let them slip back into Metropolis.

*How *did* they get past Trask's men?* he grumbled. *I know they're all a bunch of morons, but they'd been all over the mountain, combing through the brush and searching every inch of terrain. How'd they manage to slip past unnoticed?*

Garrison suddenly froze. What if Kent had gotten his powers back? That would certainly explain how they'd managed to get down off the mountain unseen. But if that were the case, and Kent *did* have his powers back, that would definitely make things a whole lot more complicated.

As quickly as the thought occurred to him, however, he dismissed it just as fast. *That's impossible,* he thought. *If he'd gotten his powers back, he and Lane would've been out of there long before they had, and Superman would've been back with the authorities. But there'd been no sign of him, so that could mean only one thing. Kent was still powerless.

Opening his desk drawer, Garrison reached in and pulled out his gun. He didn't know how they'd managed to escape, but one thing was certain. They had to be taken care of. They already knew too much.

Garrison smiled as he slid his gun into the waistband of his jeans and headed out the door. It looked like he was going to be able to pull this whole thing off after all.


"Come on, Clark, where are you?" Lois complained under her breath as she leaned back in her chair and sighed wearily. She glanced at her watch and wasn't surprised to see that it read six o'clock. It had already been a long day. She was tired and hungry, and more than anything, she wanted to go home and go to bed.

Since Jimmy had been so busy searching for the virus, she'd done all of the research on Garrison herself, and the man was turning out to have quite a history. From all that she was learning about him, she wondered if even Trask knew everything there was to know about him. She had no doubt that going through all the papers she'd printed out about him was going to take some time.

Looking again at her watch as if to confirm she'd read it correctly, she wondered what could be taking Clark so long. She couldn't help worrying that something had gone wrong at STAR Labs with Dr. Klein since Clark had already been gone a couple of hours. She thought about calling over there to see if everything was okay, but then decided against it.

*If I haven't heard from Clark, it must mean he's still busy with Dr. Klein. He promised he'd let me know what was going on as soon as he could, and he will. But in the meantime, make the best use of this time to work on tracking down information on Garrison. It's not like there's anything else you could be doing but waiting anyway.*

Turning back to the stack of papers on her desk, she heaved a weary sigh and forced herself to focus on finding out everything she could about Garrison. The Planet's livelihood depended on it.


A short time later, Lois heard the elevator bell yet again. Just as she'd done every time she'd heard it during the last hour, she looked up to see who the arriving person was. Each time it hadn't been the person she'd been hoping to see, but this time a familiar set of eyes met her own anxious ones.

"Clark!" she breathed with a sigh of relief. She couldn't help noticing the tired but happy expression on his face as he walked down the ramp. *That has to mean he has good news,* she thought hopefully.

When he reached her desk, she raised her eyebrows at him expectantly. "So? How did it go at STAR Labs?"

Clark sat down on the corner of her desk and smiled. "Great, actually." He looked around to make sure no one was listening, then leaned toward her and lowered his voice to a whisper. "Dr. Klein and his colleagues were able to isolate how exactly Kryptonite affects my system, and they came up with a vaccine that they feel confident will counteract the effect and return my system to normal. There are still so many factors and things that he hasn't determined, but he kept me there for a while to monitor my reaction. That's what took so long. But he kept testing the reaction of the vaccine and my body signs, and it seems that it's already starting to work!"

"Clark, that's wonderful!" Lois exclaimed with as much energy as she could muster in her exhausted state. "I'm so glad to hear you're going to be okay."

"It seems like I will be, yeah. My powers will probably come back gradually over the next few days, so even though I'm already starting to feel a little stronger, I'll still have to take it a little easy until I'm back to full strength. But it's definitely a relief to know that they *will* be back. And the really great news is that since this looks like it's working, Dr. Klein should be able to come up with a permanent vaccine for Kryptonite."

Lois nodded, realizing what a big deal that was. "No more worrying about what a criminal might be hiding in his pocket…"


"And what about knowing that you're…you know," Lois asked in code. "Do you think he's made the connection?"

Clark shook his head. "No, I don't think so. And as long as he doesn't see me as Clark with these bruises, he wouldn't have something to help him make the connection. So other than that, I'm home free."

"That's great!" Lois exclaimed, hoping to put some enthusiasm into her words. She realized she hadn't been entirely successful, though, when Clark's smile faded.

He studied Lois for a minute, taking in her pale skin and dull eyes. He frowned as he realized he didn't like what he saw. "Lois, you look exhausted. I take it you've been working too hard."

"No, I'm okay," Lois lied. "A little tired and hungry, but otherwise I'm holding up. Guess what I found while you were gone?" she asked, changing the subject.

"What?" he asked eagerly.

Lois rummaged through the stack of papers covering her desk and finally extracted the one she was looking for. With a flourish, she handed it to Clark.

"Richard Garrison," she announced. "A computer genius who worked for the government as a computer tech in the early eighties. He had a long history of not working well with others, and had received dozens of reprimands for practical jokes, as well as the irritating but not dangerous viruses he'd created and installed on coworkers' machines. Then in the late eighties, he apparently got tired of the rat race and went out on his own. Though nothing's been proven, he's suspected of hacking into some of the toughest computer systems in the world, as well as hiring out his computer skills to anyone who needs shady work done. The only thing anyone has ever been able to prove was his involvement in an investments fraud scheme in South America in the eighties, but he got out of that on a technicality."

"He sounds like our man," Clark agreed as he studied the picture for a moment, then handed the paper back to her. "But what would he be doing in Trask's outfit? That doesn't make any sense. What would a computer hacker be doing in a group like Bureau 39?"

"I don't know," Lois admitted truthfully. "Trask's sole mission in life seems to be trying to eliminate Superman so he can prevent his so called "alien invasion" from happening. But Garrison is more of a high-tech espionage type, and, judging from his attitude when we met him in the cell, he doesn't seem to buy into Trask's alien invasion theory. So, putting the two together in a group like Bureau 39 just doesn't make sense. Unless…"

Clark raised his eyebrows at her. "Unless?"

"Well, let's suppose this "boss" we heard Garrison mention has ties in the government, and has been planning this virus scheme for a long time. He'd have had a lot of time to pick and choose the men he wanted to run his scam, as well as pay off the government officials to see everything through. And what better insurance can you get for making sure your plan succeeds than by killing off the superhero who has been known to stop computer viruses in the past?"

Clark nodded, finally catching on to what she was saying. "So you're saying that this "boss" arranged to have Garrison planted in Trask's group to see to it that Superman was eliminated?"

"What other explanation could there be?" Lois asked, keeping her voice to a whisper. "It's no secret that Trask wants you dead. So what better place to plant someone with the same agenda to oversee the death of the superhero who stands between him and his plan's success?"

"Makes sense," Clark nodded again. "So what's our next move?"

"Well," Lois began, forcing herself to think. "The police are still trying to find Trask's cabin from what little description and location we had. Maybe when they find it, they'll find Trask and Garrison, and we can find out if we're right about all of this."

"But in the meantime…"

"Yeah, in the meantime, it's going to take Jimmy and the others every bit of their skills to try to find and deactivate the virus, and I hate having to sit here knowing there's nothing I can do to help."

"I know what you mean," Clark agreed solemnly.

They were quiet for a long minute as they contemplated the work that lay ahead of them. Lois glanced down at her watch. There wasn't much time. If they didn't find a way to get rid of the virus, there was no telling what kind of destruction was to follow. The Daily Planet—as well as millions of other large, computer-dependant companies around the world—could be destroyed.

Her head started to throb again, and she realized it was all too much for her to deal with right now. Trying to ward off the approaching headache, she leaned forward to rest her elbows on her desk and dropped her head into her hands, rubbing her temples tiredly with her fingers.

Clark's eyebrows furrowed as he watched Lois drop her head into her hands, and his chest tightened in concern. Reaching out, he pressed his hand to her cheek, then to her forehead, and realized how hot she was getting again. Immediately, he got to his feet.

"Okay, Lois, that's it. You're going home," he told her firmly as he pulled her chair away from her desk. When Lois started to protest, he cut her off. "Lois, you're exhausted, your fever is going back up, and you need to get some sleep. We're leaving. Now."

When he handed her crutches to her, Lois shook her head, but quickly regretted it as it made the pounding in her head increase. "Clark, I can't go," she said tearfully. "There's got to be something in all this research I dug up on Garrison that could help them with the virus. We don't know what the virus does, but I can imagine it's something pretty serious if he's gone to as much trouble as he has. Are you really willing to let that happen? And since Superman isn't…" she looked around her and then lowered her voice, "…you know, back to full strength, it's up to *us.* Compared to all that, a fever doesn't seem all that important."

Clark squatted down beside her chair so their faces were even, and he reached for her hand, desperate to convince her. "Lois, how can you say that?" he pleaded. "You are very important to me, and *your health* is very important to me. I can't let you keep going on like this when it's so obvious you're hurting. The authorities are on top of this, and so is Jimmy. Everyone around here is going full steam to make all this right. With so many people working on the problem, we'll find a way to stop this. But you're not going to be much help—to us or yourself—if you don't take care of yourself. Just a night's sleep, Lois. That's all I'm asking you to do. If anything happens, somebody will call us and let us know."

Lois stared into Clark's pleading eyes for what seemed like an eternity before Clark saw the look of resignation pass through hers. "Okay," she finally conceded.

Clark breathed an inward sigh of relief. "Good. Thank you, Lois."

He helped her to her feet, then held her coat for her. As she adjusted it on her shoulders, she turned to Clark, and he could see the concern in her eyes. "I hope you won't think any less of me for saying this," she began, "but I'm afraid to go back to my place…to be left alone. What happens if Trask and his men come looking for us? Our apartments are going to be the first place they'll look."

"That won't be a problem," he quickly assured her. "Henderson's already arranged to have a couple of officers standing guard outside my apartment, so we're both going to stay there tonight. And the officers on duty downstairs will be escorting us everywhere we need to go, so we don't have to worry about that, either. Let's just concentrate on getting you better, okay?"

Lois breathed a sigh of relief and nodded. Obviously, Clark had thought of everything, so at least she didn't have to worry about Garrison, Trask, or his men.

As Lois turned away from her desk, she adjusted the crutches under her arms, painfully aware of how sore the crutches were making her arms feel. Trying to ignore the soreness, she carefully maneuvered through the thinning crowds on the newsroom floor, and was relieved when they finally reached the elevator where she could lean wearily against the elevator wall.

When they reached the lobby, she readjusted the crutches under her sore arms and let Clark help guide her off the elevator and through the downstairs lobby where the officers were waiting to escort them to Clark's apartment.

The officers assisted them into the waiting squad car where Clark slipped his arm gently around her shoulders and pulled her close. Sighing contentedly, Lois laid her hand on his chest and nestled her face against his shoulder, welcoming the chance to close her eyes.

In the darkness behind her closed eyelids, she forced herself to forget about the virus, about Trask and Garrison, and about everything they'd put them through the past few days, and instead focus on how right it felt to be going home with Clark, to have his arm draped lovingly around her, to feel his lips pressing gentle kisses into her hair.

Unbuttoning a couple of the buttons at his chest, she slipped her hand beneath his shirt and fingered the smooth, silky fabric of the suit he was still wearing underneath. For some reason, it comforted her.

Right then, more than anything, she just wanted to have all the bad things go away, to have things back to normal so she could allow herself to really get to know Clark, to enjoy being with him and learn all that there still was to learn about him. And most of all, she wanted to revel in the feelings of exhilaration that came from being in love. But it was too soon. There were still too many things to worry about.

With a sigh of resignation, Lois relaxed as Clark began to stroke her hair. She could focus on the things that still needed done tomorrow. Right then she just wanted to forget it all and go to sleep.

With her eyes closed and Clark's attention on Lois as the squad car pulled away from the curb, neither of them noticed the black car with dark, tinted windows pulling out onto the darkened street behind them.


When they reached Clark's apartment, Clark glanced down at Lois hesitantly. Her head was slumped against his shoulder, her eyes were closed and she was snoring lightly. He smiled. He hated to wake her, but they couldn't stay in the car all night, either.

After a moment of deliberation, Clark finally decided the best course of action would be to just carry her in and put her in his bed for the night. Clark climbed out his side of the car, then hurried around to Lois' and leaned in. Doing his best not to wake her, he slid his arms around her and lifted her out, then carefully made his way up his apartment steps, where a waiting officer took Clark's key from him and unlocked the door.

"We'll be right outside all night," the officer whispered. "If you need anything, just holler."

"Thanks," Clark whispered back. Then he carried Lois inside and let the officer shut the door behind them.

Surprised that Lois hadn't woken up from the activity, he hurried into his bedroom and gently laid her down on the bed. He thought only for an instant about waking her to have her change into one of his T-shirts to sleep in, but decided against it. It wouldn't hurt her to sleep in her clothes for a night. Besides, he wasn't sure he could handle undressing her. It would undoubtedly arouse a whole new jumble of emotions that he didn't think he was ready to deal with just yet.

He walked over to his closet and took out one of his mom's crocheted afghans and covered Lois with it, being careful not to wake her. He straightened up and looked at her, lying so peacefully on his bed. Seeing her lying there sent a rush of warmth and love for her flowing through him.

He didn't know what he would've done if he'd lost her during their ordeal. He used to long for the time when he found the woman of his dreams, and now that he'd finally found her, he didn't think he'd be able to go on living if she didn't. He felt whole when he was with her, and that was a feeling he'd never in his life experienced before he met her.

True, his parents had showered him with love and were always there for him to make his life as perfect as they could. But no amount of love or effort on their part could've filled him with the joy he felt from being with Lois. She was the woman he'd been hoping for and dreaming about all his life, and now that they were together, he was going to dedicate himself to making sure nothing ever tore them apart.

With love for her filling his heart, he leaned down and kissed her forehead gently. She stirred, but didn't wake up. With a tender smile, he backed away. The next few weeks were going to be wonderful. He hadn't wanted her to find out about him the way she had, but now that it was out in the open between them, he felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders. He knew the truth was going to make them even closer, and their relationship was going to go in wonderful new directions. He could hardly wait to finally be totally and completely comfortable around her, no longer having to worry about making excuses before rushing off, or hiding the truth about himself from her. There was going to be so much more they could share and talk about, and the prospect of this new level of their relationship was enough to make him feel like he could fly, with or without his powers.

With one last glance at her sleeping form, he crossed over to his dresser and pulled out a T-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts before leaving the room. He slipped out of his clothes and into the new ones, then walked over to the couch and reached for the cordless phone. His parents were surely still worried about him after hearing that he was without powers and his captors still on the loose, so he wanted to call them to let them know he was okay.


Lois stirred. As she rolled over, she was surprised to discover that she was lying in a bed and covered with a soft afghan. She sat up a little and looked around. Blinking hard a couple of times to get her tired eyes to focus, she realized she was in Clark's bedroom.

*But where's Clark?* she wondered sleepily. She quieted her breathing and strained her ears to listen. A moment later she picked up the sound of his voice. It sounded like he was talking to somebody on the phone.

Able to relax now that she knew everything was okay, she lay back on the bed and closed her eyes, trying to fall back to sleep. But as tired as she was, her mind had had enough time to wake up, and now she couldn't shut it off. She kept thinking about everything she and Clark had been through since being set up at the cabin and captured by Trask and his men.

Even though their ordeal had only lasted a few days, it felt like a lifetime, and it surprised her how much she felt like she'd grown during that time. She'd learned a lot about herself and Clark, as well as what they'd been able to accomplish by working together, and by sticking together and being there for each other.

Looking back on everything they'd been through, she couldn't help noticing that Clark had an amazing amount of strength. Not the physical kind, though he clearly had that in abundance when his powers were intact. But it was his inner strength that had clearly shone through, that had helped them fight through each and every obstacle that had presented itself. He'd willingly put his own failing health aside to be there for her, to watch over her and protect her through the tough times they'd suffered through. But she was sure he'd suffered as much as she had. It had to have been hard for him, knowing that his powers were gone, and not knowing whether or not they would ever return. He was so used to using his powers to help people in trouble, yet when they'd been faced with their own life-threatening situation, he hadn't been able to rely on those powers to help. He'd had to rely on other things, like his courage and inner strength to get them to safety, and he had. But now that they were safe, it wouldn't be long before things were back to normal between them, and she wasn't sure what 'normal' was going to be.

Before the incident, she was certain she knew who Clark was. But ever since she'd found out the truth about his identity, she'd run through the gamut of emotions: anger, hurt, frustration, then finally reluctant acceptance. And even though she was no longer mad, she was still having a difficult time trying to piece the two men together in her mind.

Superman was so different from Clark. And Clark was so different from Superman. That's why he'd been so successful at hiding his true identity from her, from everyone. But were they really that different? She just didn't know what to think.

The one thing she'd learned first and foremost, though, through everything they'd been through these past few days, was that he loved her. He'd shown her through his actions as well as his words that he loved her so totally and completely that he was willing to put her well being above his own, that she mattered more to him than anything else.

And she couldn't help feeling a little overwhelmed by that.

She groaned softly and covered her face with her arms. Everything in their relationship was suddenly new all over again. How was she possibly going to figure it all out?

After a few more minutes, Lois gave up. She was just too awake now to sleep. Maybe she and Clark could talk, and help put her mind at ease.


"Yeah, Mom, we're fine," Clark spoke softly into the phone so he wouldn't wake Lois. "Lois is sleeping here tonight, and we have guards posted outside. We'll be perfectly safe. I'm just glad to hear you guys haven't had any trouble from Trask or his men. I was worried they might show up like last time."

Movement out of the corner of his eye made Clark start, and he quickly looked over to see Lois coming out of the bedroom on her crutches. Surprised to see her up, he turned his attention briefly back to his conversation.

"Mom, Dad, I've gotta go. Lois just woke up. Be sure to let me know if anything happens. Okay. I will. Love you, too. Bye."

Clark clicked the phone off, then set it down on the coffee table. "Lois, what are you doing up? You've only been asleep for about a half hour."

"I know," Lois admitted wearily, hobbling over to him and tucking her good leg up underneath her as she sat down next to him. "I woke up and then my brain started working, and now I've just got too much on my mind." She nodded at the phone. "Are your parents okay?"

Clark nodded. "Yeah, they're fine. They said to say hello. They've been really worried about you, so I was letting them know how you were doing."

"No sign of Trask or his men?"

"Nope, thank goodness."

Lois stared at him for a moment, realizing there was something different about him. Then it dawned on her. He wasn't wearing his glasses. He looked so different, yet so much the same. Why had she let herself be fooled by a pair of glasses for so long?

When she saw that Clark had noticed her staring, she smiled a little and explained, "You look different without your glasses on."

A smile played around the corners of his mouth. "I guess that's a good thing. Otherwise my disguisewould be blown."

She laughed softly, but Clark saw that her laughter didn't reach into her eyes. With a look of concern, he slid his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. Lois sank gratefully against him, letting her head fall tiredly against his shoulder, and her hand rest on the T-shirt covering his firm, muscled stomach.

Clark reached out to tuck a stray strand of dark hair behind her ear tenderly. "So what's on your mind?"

She glanced up into his warm eyes without lifting her head from his shoulder. "I keep thinking about you and me, and what's going to happen to our relationship now that I know about…you know."

He nodded. "What about us?" he prompted gently.

Lois sighed heavily and looked away. After a minute, she looked back up into Clark's tender brown eyes, seeing that he was waiting patiently for her to continue. "I'm not mad anymore about you not telling me," she began. "I think the fact that I was distracted by our situation had a lot to do with it. But the fact remains that I still feel like I don't know you, not for who you really are. I mean, how do I know if you're the partner and best friend that I fell in love with, or the superhero I used to be infatuated with? How do I figure that out?"

"Lois, *this* is who I am," he assured her, opening his arms wide for inspection. "I'm just a regular guy who works during the day, likes to kick back in the evening, do some cooking, go to ball games with his friends, and wants to someday get married and have a family. The fact that I came to Earth in a spaceship and developed super powers doesn't change the fact that I'm just a normal guy wanting to lead some semblance of a normal life. I think you'll find that I'm really not any different than the Clark you've known over the past couple of years."

"But the superpowers…"

"Yes, they're a special gift," Clark agreed. "And I definitely want to use them to help people in any way I can. But they don't change who I am. Not really. I guess you could kind of relate it to being a doctor. A doctor works during the day, but is then on call during certain times to help people in need. That's a lot like what I do."

"But doctors don't change into tights and fly around the city facing down criminals and being invincible," Lois pointed out with a wry smile.

"True," Clark laughed softly. "I guess the invincibility is an added bonus, and so is the flying. And since you seem to enjoy that so much, I'd say that's a perk you won't mind."

Lois smiled. That much was true. There was something incredible about flying high up over the city in the arms of such an incredible man. And now that she knew the superhero was the one and only love of her life, she was sure it would just be that much more special.

But their talk about flying only served to remind her how much things were different in her new perspective of Clark, and of the superhero, who she had thought were completely different men.

Sensing her hesitation, Clark sat up a little straighter and reached for her hand, lacing his fingers through hers. "Lois, let me tell you something. Remember that day just after I started working at the Planet when you asked me to go with Lex's ball with you? It was 'strictly business,' as you put it. Well, that night I flew home to have dinner with my folks, and they asked me about you. I don't think I did a very good job of hiding how I felt about you, even back then. They saw right through me when I told them it was 'business.' They knew I had fallen for you even before I'd realized it completely myself."

He smiled at the memory. "But after dinner when I was going to head back to the city, my dad walked me outside and we talked about things. I remember him saying that he was glad I'd finally found my niche, glad that I was happy in Metropolis. And I remember telling him how I still felt like I didn't fit in…no matter what I did, because I was so different. More than anything, I wanted to have a normal life: a family, kids, someone to love. But I really didn't think it would be possible. But then over the past two years, I could feel the bond between us growing, and I knew that *you* were that person I wanted to love, and who I wanted to be loved by. I knew that you were the only one there would ever be for me. I guess that's why, when you were so obsessed with me as Superman, I was so thrilled by your attention that I even encouraged it. But as we grew closer, I realized you were just dazzled by the superhero in tights, and not really in love with me, as a person. So I slowly started phasing out the attention I gave you while in the suit."

"If you wanted me to know who you really were, then why didn't you just come out and tell me the truth earlier?" Lois asked seriously.

Clark looked away, unable to meet her probing gaze. "I guess because I was afraid that things would change between us if you found out the truth. And I also wanted to be loved for who I really was, not just because I was some guy in tights who flew around the world saving people with my superpowers. I mean, look at how you acted when you thought Superman was someone else. You fell all over him, and completely ignored me! I didn't want a relationship with someone who couldn't love me for me, for who I really am deep down inside."

Seeing how much the way she'd treated him had hurt, Lois felt horrible. "Clark, I'm so sorry I made you feel like that," Lois said, her eyes glimmering with tears. "I never meant to. I guess I was just dazzled by the man in the suit with the superpowers. But if it's any consolation, the more I got to know you as a person, the more I realized you were what I wanted. You're kind, patient, loving, and stable. You're good for me, Clark. Everyone knows it. It just took me a little longer to figure that out, I guess." She smiled sheepishly. "I'm glad I finally came around when I did, though, or I would've missed the best thing that's ever happened to me."

Touched by her words, Clark smiled softly and leaned forward to kiss her lightly. Lois closed her eyes and returned his kiss, enjoying the sensation of his lips on hers. When they pulled apart, Clark lifted his hand to stroke her cheek.

"Lois, I know you have a lot of adjusting to do, so I *want* you to ask me questions, to get to know the things about me you don't know," he told her sincerely. "But as you figure those things out, I think you'll discover that you already know pretty much everything there is to know about me. I'm basically just the same old Clark you've always known."

Lois smiled slowly. "I guess I would like to know what you were doing all those times you ran out on me, or how you managed to get out of tight spots—as Superman *and* Clark. There must've been times you felt panicked, trying to be two people."

"I can't argue with that," Clark chuckled softly. "But I've grown accustomed to it over the past two years, and I've learned to deal with things as they come, and not worry so much about things. Except you of course," he grinned. "You seem to have a knack for putting yourself in danger."

"I guess that's one of the reasons it took me so long to see that your feelings for me were sincere," Lois admitted shyly. "I've never really thought of myself as the type of girl a guy would want to fall in love with."

Clark's eyes widened. "Why on Earth would you say that?"

"Come on, Clark, you can't be serious!" she scoffed. "Most men looking for romance avoid me like the plague. They're threatened by me! I pick locks, kick at knives in men's hands in an attempt to escape, take risks that no other woman would…"

Clark let his breath out in a rush and gave her an exasperated eye roll. "But Lois, don't you see? That's what I love most about you! Yes, you're independent, strong-willed and pig-headed," he grinned at her before continuing, "but that's what makes you so special…what makes you *you*! You're a beautiful, spirited, intelligent woman who has *so* much to offer. I don't know why you can't see that. You won my heart without even trying, by just being yourself, and you have me so completely wrapped around your finger that I would gladly jump off the nearest bridge if it meant proving my love to you."

"Even though you'd probably bounce," she smiled wryly.

He grinned. "Well, not today," he said truthfully. "But any other time when I have my powers, yeah, I probably would. But the point is, Lois, I love you. *You* are the one I want to spend the rest of my life with, the one I saved myself for." Clark paused. He seemed hesitant to continue, but he finally forced himself to. "Remember our talk at the cabin about my…sexual inexperience?"

Lois nodded, though it seemed like their talk had occurred ages ago. She waited patiently for Clark to continue. When he did, his eyes met hers and he spoke with an intensity that surprised her.

"My other identity is the main reason I've never been with anybody," Clark told her quietly, seriously. "I wanted to make sure the woman I finally shared *everything* with knew the truth about me, about who I am. I wanted that person to love me, totally and completely, for who I was. I just couldn't have that kind of relationship with anyone without them knowing the truth about me. But I know that you're that person, Lois, and I just didn't feel comfortable with being completely intimate with you until you knew the truth."

He paused to let his words sink in. Looking down at their joined hands, he gently traced the back of her hand with his thumb. Finally, he looked up into her eyes. "But now that you do know the truth, that doesn't mean I'm going to rush you into anything, Lois. If making you feel comfortable with this new aspect of our relationship means taking things slow, I'm fine with that. I just want you to know that I'll wait as long as it takes."

No longer able to hold back her happy tears, Lois started to cry. She reached out to wrap her arms around Clark's neck and buried her head in the hollow of his throat. "Thank you, Clark…for loving me that much. And I want you to know that I love you, too, even if I do tend to freak out from time to time."

Clark's soft laugh rumbled in her ears. "I know you do."

Lois remained still in his arms for several minutes, enjoying the feel of his arms wrapped securely around her. She sighed happily. "You make me feel safe and loved like no one ever has. I can't believe we were lucky enough to find each other."

Clark smiled. "I feel the same way." Tightening his arms around her, he nestled his face in her hair and breathed in her scent deeply. He hoped he would always be lucky enough to have this woman in his arms for him to love, and to be loved by. He was indeed a lucky man.

Reluctantly, Clark pulled out of their embrace and smiled at her gently. "As much as I hate to, I'm going to send you back to bed. We have a big day tomorrow, and I want to make sure you get the sleep you need."

"Now that you mention it, I am pretty tired," she admitted, trying to stifle a yawn.

"I know you are. You'd have to be after everything that happened today. Now come on," he urged, helping her stand up. "Let's get you back to bed."


Garrison watched eagerly from his vantage point two buildings away as the lights flicked off in Clark's apartment. He glanced down at his watch. It was late. He looked back up at the two police officers outside the apartment building, and was frustrated to see that they looked surprisingly alert.

"What ever happened to dozing off on the job?" he muttered to himself. He'd been hoping they'd slack off on their assignment as the evening wore on, but so far, no such luck.

He sighed. There was no way he was going to get to Lane and Kent while they were at his apartment. They were just too well guarded. *I'll just have to wait until tomorrow,* he thought. Surely an opportunity would present itself. And when it did, he would be there.

Still unnoticed by the officers, Garrison put his car into gear and drove off silently into the night.


The next morning, the sun streamed in through the window and fell across Lois' face, causing her eyelids to flutter open. Feeling disoriented, she blinked a couple of times in the brightness, trying to make her eyes adjust to the light. When they did, it took a few moments to realize that she was safe, and in Clark's bedroom. Alone.

It was strange. For years she'd woken up alone, but after the past few days of waking up and finding Clark either beside her or very nearby, it felt oddly unfamiliar not to have him next to her.

Lois rolled her eyes at her uncharacteristic feelings of dependence and stretched her arms slowly above her head. Hearing a noise out in the living room, she sat up, but grimaced when the movement sent a jolt of pain radiating through her leg. It had gotten stiff and sore during the night, and the sudden rush of blood flow to it made it ache and throb.

She closed her eyes against the pain and waited for several moments until the throbbing dissipated. When it finally did, she carefully slid off the edge of the bed and stood up, careful not to put any weight on it as she reached for her crutches. She adjusted the padded armrests under her arms and winced as they rubbed against the sore muscles there. She'd had no idea she'd be so sore from the crutches after only one day.

Trying to ignore her aches and pains, she tugged down the hem of the old T-shirt of Clark's she'd worn as pajamas the night before and hobbled out of the bedroom. As she maneuvered around the corner into the living room, she saw that Clark was lying on the couch, propped up on one elbow with only a corner of his blanket covering his legs as the rest lay puddled on the floor beside the couch. He looked up when he saw her, and a smile lit up his face.

"Hi," he greeted softly, his voice still sounding gravelly from sleep. He quickly sat up and kicked the rest of the blanket onto the floor, then patted the now cleared spot on the couch beside him, inviting her to join him. "How'd you sleep?"

"Pretty good," she admitted, turning sideways on her crutches so she could side step her way between the couch and the coffee table to sit down next to him. As soon as she did, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in for a gentle hug.

"I'm glad to hear it," he said, pressing a kiss into her hair as she let her head fall onto his shoulder.

She sighed contentedly as she snuggled into his side and let her hand rest in her favorite spot on his chest, comforted by the steady, rhythmic beating of his heart beneath her palm. A minute later, she looked up to meet his gaze. "How about you? Did you sleep at all out here on this old couch?"

He smiled. "It may be old, but it's still pretty comfortable. I did fine." Leaning back his head, he quickly lifted his hand to cover his yawn. "Besides, I can't complain. It was definitely better than sleeping on Trask's cement floor in that cell, or on the ground in the cave."

"I can't argue with that," Lois agreed.

Enjoying their closeness, Clark let his head rest against Lois'. He closed his eyes and soaked in the stillness of the morning as he tightened his arm around Lois' shoulders and pulled her even closer. There had been many times over the past few days when he'd wondered if he'd ever again have this luxury of just sitting and holding Lois in his arms, of having her near and breathing in the scent of the woman he loved. And now that he had that chance, he wasn't going to let the opportunity pass without savoring it to its fullest. If he'd learned only one thing from their ordeal, it was that life was too short, and too precious to taken for granted.

"It's so nice to just sit and relax, isn't it?"

Lois nodded, but then glanced up at the clock and sighed. "It is, but I guess we should get going."

Clark lifted his head from hers and looked at her suspiciously. "Going where?"

"The Planet," Lois told him as she straightened up reluctantly and reached for her crutches. "Since we haven't heard otherwise, the virus is still out there, and I'd like to be around to help in any way I can. Maybe if I do some more digging, I can find out some things about Garrison that'll help us find and deactivate the virus."

"I don't know, Lois," he objected as she pushed herself up awkwardly off the couch. "Jimmy's already said there's not much we can do. I really think it would be better if you stayed here and got some rest. One good night's sleep isn't going to miraculously make your health better."

Lois sighed. "Clark, I don't want to go through all this again. We both know I'd win this argument anyway." She flashed him a quick smile over her shoulder as she headed for the bathroom. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to wash up and get dressed. I'll be ready to go in about a half hour." And with that, she left the room, effectively bringing an end to their conversation.

True to her word, Lois was dressed and ready to leave for the Planet in a half hour, despite Clark's repeated attempts to convince her to stay there and rest. The best he'd been able to do was persuade her to sit down at the table for a quick piece of toast with jam and a glass of orange juice to chase down her pain medication.

As she finished the last bite of her breakfast and then wiped her hands on her napkin, she refused to even respond as he gave his argument one last ditch effort, leaving him to simply roll his eyes in frustration at her retreating back as she headed for the front door.

The cab ride only took a few minutes, and when they arrived at the Planet and stepped off the elevator into the newsroom, they were greeted with an eerie silence. There was only a half staff scheduled for New Year's Eve, but it wasn't the lack of usual hustling bodies that made the newsroom seem so strange. It was the silence with which everyone worked that Lois and Clark noticed the most.

Obviously, the virus hadn't yet been found, and the tension inside the Planet was mounting. Just a little more than twelve hours remained until the virus was set to go off, and still no one knew what havoc the virus was ready to cause.

As they walked down the ramp to the newsroom floor, Lois could see Perry pacing furiously in his office. "I'd say we avoid Perry like the plague today," she told Clark only half-jokingly.

Clark nodded in agreement. "He's going to be on a rampage, and it's only going to get worse if they don't find the virus soon."

So, being careful to avoid their editor, they went to their desks as discreetly as possible. They'd just reached Lois' desk when they heard Jimmy's voice behind them.

"Hey, guys. I didn't expect to see you two here today."

"Yeah, like I could stop her from coming in," Clark protested, but the sparkle in his eyes relayed that he was impressed, as always, by her spirit.

Lois reached out to give him a good-natured swat on his arm, and he playfully ducked out of the way. Smiling, he turned back to Jimmy. But his smile quickly turned into a concerned frown when he noticed the dark shadows under Jimmy's eyes.

"Hey, are you okay, Jimmy? You look like you haven't slept all night."

"I haven't," Jimmy admitted tiredly. "Not much, anyway. I was here all night helping the FBI guys go through files that are date stamped on or around the day that I overheard Manny on the phone saying he'd installed the virus."

Lois tucked the crutch back under her arm and then cocked an eyebrow at Jimmy. "What's a date stamp?"

"Every file has a date stamp that tells when it was created or modified," Jimmy explained patiently. "So the guys with the FBI are checking all those files uploaded to the system within that time frame, figuring that one of those has to be the virus. But if you ask me, it's a total and complete waste of time."

"How come?"

"Well, since the virus could be anywhere on the network, there could be *millions* of files to check."

"Which could take forever," Clark commiserated.

Jimmy nodded. "Exactly."

"Isn't there some other way to track down the virus?" Lois asked. "Something that wouldn't take as long?"

Jimmy was about to shake his head, but then he stopped. "Hey," he exclaimed slowly, then more enthusiastically, "*Hey!*"

Lois and Clark stared at him. "What?"

"The FTP log on Manny's hard drive!"

Lois and Clark looked confused. "What about it?"

"That's our answer! Don't you see? The FBI's going about this the wrong way! Instead of going through all those files by date stamps, they could significantly narrow down the amount of files to search if they had a log that showed all the files that were uploaded from his computer to the network."

"And there is one?" Lois asked, still uncertain about where Jimmy was going with this.

Jimmy nodded vigorously. "Of course! His FTP log! I could kick myself for not thinking of it before!" Seeing that Lois and Clark were only beginning to understand, he rushed on to explain further. "You see, if Manny had managed to get the password for the web server, he would've used FTP to dump the virus onto the Unix server. The FTP log on Manny's computer would tell us what files he dumped over to the Unix servers with FTP, on what date, where they went, and what the file names were!"

Feeling rejuvenated, Jimmy turned and rushed for his desk. Lois and Clark followed and watched over his shoulder as he sat down and started to type on his keyboard. "This could take a little time," he explained as he worked. "I'll need to do a search for a list of log files, and see if any of those are FTPs."

With a few more keystrokes and a click of his mouse, the computer started to search, and Jimmy leaned back in his chair to wait. Lois and Clark continued to stare at the screen anxiously, waiting to see what would happen next. After what seemed like an eternity, the computer finished searching, and Jimmy immediately leaned in for a closer look.

"There are a lot of logs here, but only a couple of FTPs," Jimmy said, more to himself than to Lois and Clark. He reached for his mouse and clicked on them one by one, searching each of the file's contents carefully.

When he opened yet another file, he suddenly straightened in his seat and his eyes widened. "Hey!" he exclaimed.

"What? What is it?" Lois asked eagerly.

"I think this is it!" Jimmy studied the file on the screen before him, then nodded. "Yeah, do you see this?" he asked, pointing to the information in the file. "This says he uploaded a file named 'Rabbit1' from an encrypted directory on his hard drive to the Planet's primary web server on December seventeenth. 'Rabbit1' was his hacker name! This has to be it!"

"Wait, wait," Clark interrupted. "An encrypted directory? What encrypted directory? I thought you said the FBI hadn't found any encrypted files on his computer."

"Well, maybe they weren't looking hard enough," Jimmy offered, "or maybe he deleted them after he transferred this file."

"No, he couldn't have, because when we heard him talking to Garrison, he said he'd left some encrypted files on his hard drive, didn't he, Clark?" Lois turned to look at Clark for confirmation, and he nodded.

"We can look into that later," Jimmy told them. "But for now, let's see if we can track down this file he transferred, and see what it is."

Lois and Clark watched as Jimmy minimized the FTP log and started to link up with the Unix server. Once he'd logged on, he started a new search for the file name 'Rabbit1.' Almost immediately, the computer found the file.

They all stared at the monitor in nervous anticipation for a moment, almost afraid to proceed for fear that they were wrong, that they hadn't found anything related to the virus. A minute later, though, Jimmy looked up at Clark, then Lois. "Well, here goes nothing."

He reached for the mouse and clicked on the file. They all waited with bated breaths as the computer opened the file. Then, in a heart stopping moment, a new window opened on the screen, and line after line of code suddenly filled the screen.

"YES!" he hollered, causing nearly the entire newsroom to look his direction.

"What?" Lois asked, too stunned to react. "Is this it? Is this the virus?"

"Yeah, I think it is!" he cried, jumping up from his chair and racing over to Perry's office, where he flung open the door and shouted for Perry. Perry quickly followed him out of the office, and joined them at Jimmy's desk. People started filing over, and in a matter of seconds, Jimmy and his desk were surrounded by bodies.

Jimmy excitedly explained to the crowd how he found the file, his voice growing more animated by the second. "Then when the FTP log told us what file name to look for, I just typed it in, and voila! Here it is!"

"Good thinking, Jimmy!" Perry exclaimed, thumping him on the shoulder enthusiastically. "I always knew you had it in you."

"You did?" Jimmy asked, looking at his boss in surprise.

"Of course I did! Those FBI guys have been here working on this thing for days, but it was *you* who finally managed to track this virus down. I'm so proud of you I can't see straight! I think this calls for a nice big bonus in your next paycheck, son."

Completely stunned, Jimmy looked up at Perry's expression to see if he was serious, and was shocked when he realized that he was. He glanced over at Lois, raising his eyebrows excitedly.

"Wow," Lois mouthed at him in response, giving him a quick wink.

"So now that you've found it, can we just delete it?" Perry asked.

Jimmy's smile faded. "Unfortunately not. Now we have to see if we can create an antidote for it. But we're running out of time. It's set to go off at midnight tonight, so that only gives us—" he glanced down at his watch, "—less than twelve hours. If we don't…"

"Let's not think about that," Lois said gravely.

"Right," Perry agreed. "Let's think positive."

"So what can Clark and I do to help?" Lois asked.

"There's really not much you can do. We'll just have to comb through this and see if we can create an antidote."

"Well, then, get to it, Jimmy!" Perry said encouragingly, once again thumping the young man on the shoulder. Then the editor turned to the crowd around him. "What are all you people standing around for?" he bellowed, sending staffers scattering back to their places. "Somebody get that Robinson guy down here, pronto! I want this virus checked out, and I mean now!"

When the crowd dispersed, Lois smiled proudly at Jimmy. "Nice work, Jimmy. That was some great thinking. I think there's an investigative reporter in you yet."

"You think?" Jimmy asked, still smiling ear to ear from his boss'—and now Lois'—praise. He lowered his voice and did his best Perry imitation, "'There's going to be a big bonus in your next paycheck, son.' Not only did he offer to shell out some money—in front of witnesses, I might add—but he also called me 'son.' Can you believe it?"

"That's when you know you've hit the big time," Lois agreed with a smile. Then she turned to Clark. "Well, should we get to work? I'm sure we can find out more about Garrison, and how he could've gotten connected to Trask."

Clark nodded. "I'm sure we can find out if we dig deep enough."

They went to their desks to get started on their research, leaving Jimmy alone at his. But it wasn't long before a swarm of FBI agents poured into the newsroom and surrounded Jimmy, listening to a recap of how he'd found the virus. Then he was whisked off to their command center to help them get started on an antidote.

The morning wore on, and before Lois realized it, it was two o'clock, and her stomach was grumbling. Clark volunteered to go out to grab them something to eat and bring it back so Lois wouldn't have to go anywhere, and she gladly agreed. Just the idea of walking somewhere for lunch, aided by her crutches, made her body ache.

Before leaving, Clark asked Perry if he wanted him to get him anything, but their editor shook his head. He looked slightly green, and insisted he was too worried to eat. Clark nodded sympathetically and got into the elevator. As he punched the lobby button, he couldn't help feeling sorry for Perry. The Planet was everything to him. He remembered how unhappy the older man had been when he'd been forced to retire when the Planet was destroyed. He couldn't imagine how Perry was feeling, knowing that his and the Planet's future was uncertain.

He bought sandwiches from a deli down the street, then hurried back and ate lunch with Lois at her desk, pleased to see that the food seemed to reenergize her, and brought the sparkle back into her eyes. He also noticed that her cheeks even had a bit more of a healthy hue to them than they'd had yesterday, and it made his own spirits soar. She was on her way back to her old self, and nothing could make him happier—except maybe to have the virus threat eliminated so they could *finally* return their lives to normal.

After lunch, Lois and Clark went back to their research. But it was slow going, and Clark discovered that his heart really wasn't in it. He was too concerned about the virus, and unable to stop wondering if Jimmy and the FBI were having any luck creating an antidote.

By mid afternoon, the atmosphere around the Daily Planet was strained, and the people working on an antidote for the virus were becoming frantic as evening—and ultimately midnight—approached.

Clark could tell the strain was taking its toll on Lois. Her jaw muscles were clenched, and he saw her start to rub her temples more and more frequently. But when he saw her reach into her purse for her pain medication, he knew that was the last straw.

Pushing his chair back from his desk, he stood up and walked over to her. "Come on, Lois. There's nothing we can do for them right now, so let me take you back to my apartment. I'll make you some dinner, and you can get some rest."

"Clark, I can't leave," Lois told him, too tired to even try to keep the weariness out of her voice. "I know we can't do anything to help right now, but at least I know what's going on. If we're not here, we won't know."

Clark smiled patiently and pulled her chair—with her in it—away from her desk. "Don't worry. I'll tell Perry to keep us posted."

Lois stared hesitantly at the hand he held out to her. But after a moment, she realized it wouldn't do any good to argue. When Clark got his mind set on something, especially when it came to her well being, he wasn't going to back down. Besides, she did feel pretty tired, and one of Clark's home cooked meals and a nice warm bed did sound pretty nice, she had to admit. Finally, she nodded. "Okay. But only if we can come back before too long. I want to be here in case there's anything I can do to help."

Clark nodded diplomatically. "It's a deal." Just then his phone rang, and he looked at it, then back at her. "Give me two seconds," he said, holding up two fingers as he hurried to answer his phone.

"Clark Kent," he answered it. Then his eyes widened and he looked over at her. "Oh, Dr. Klein…sure, I can get in touch with Superman. Is there a problem?"

Lois was instantly on alert. 'What's the matter?' she mouthed at him.

He signaled for her to wait, then listened for another minute. "He'll be right over as soon as I can contact him. Okay…thanks. Bye."

"What did he say?" Lois asked the second Clark hung up the phone.

Clark walked back over to her and lowered his voice. "Dr. Klein says that their original dosage of the antidote they gave me was a little off. They underestimated the strength of Trask's serum, and they need to give me another injection before it's strong enough to get rid of all the Kryptonite left in my system. Even then, it may be a couple of days before I'm…you know, back to normal," he finished in a low whisper.

Lois nodded. "Okay, then you go on ahead. I'll just hang out here until you get back."

Clark suddenly remembered that he'd been about to take Lois back to his apartment, and he frowned. "No, I don't want you to stay here and wear yourself out. You need to get some rest." He thought for a minute. "Okay, here's what we'll do. I'm going to call Henderson and have him send an escort right over to go back with you to my apartment, and stay with you until I get there. I'll be there as soon as I can, okay?"

Lois knew she didn't have much choice as Clark rushed over to make the necessary phone calls. In a matter of minutes, it was all arranged with Inspector Henderson, who assured them one of his men would be right over to escort Lois back to Clark's apartment.

"It should only be a few minutes," Clark told her as he hung up the phone. "I'll just wait here with you until he gets here."

"Oh, Clark, don't be silly," Lois protested. "I'm in the Planet, surrounded by people. I'll be perfectly safe until he arrives. You go on ahead. I'll be fine."

But still Clark hesitated. He was clearly torn. But when Lois insisted again, he finally gave in. "Well, if you're sure…"

"Clark, I'm *sure*," she groaned, rolling her eyes dramatically. "There's a building full of people, not to mention several security guards downstairs. I'll be fine. Just go already."

"Okay. But *promise* me you won't go anywhere without an officer with you." He gave her his best stern Superman look.

"I promise!" she echoed in frustration. Then she grabbed his tie and pulled him down to her so she could give him a quick kiss, which he returned with feeling. "Now go," she said when they pulled apart. "I'll see you at your apartment in a little while."

Giving her one last kiss, Clark straightened up and headed for the elevator.

Lois watched him go, then turned off her monitor and straightened the piles of paper on her desk. When everything was stacked neatly, she glanced at her watch. Five minutes.

She sat back in her chair with a sigh. She hated waiting.

To keep herself from being bored, she decided to finish organizing the papers in her pile. When they were in order, she put them carefully into a manila folder and slid them into her desk drawer. She glanced at her watch again. Ten minutes.

Deciding to go wait down in the lobby, she stood up stiffly, grateful that she'd taken her pain medication not too long ago, and struggled to put her coat on. Then she reached for her crutches and hobbled to the elevator. When she got down to the main floor lobby, she again glanced at her watch. It had been fifteen minutes, and still there was no sign of her police escort.

Growing impatient, she went over to the newsstand and started to thumb through several of the magazines. When she didn't think she could stand it any longer, she pulled back her coat sleeve and saw that almost half an hour had passed.

*Forget this,* she grumbled to herself. *I'm a big girl. I can take care of myself. Besides, all I have to do is hail a cab and ask him to wait until I get safely into Clark's apartment. How hard is that? And when the cop comes and realizes I've left, he'll just go over to Clark's, knowing that's where I'll be.*

With her mind made up, she shoved the magazine she was holding back into its rack and headed for the door. She knew Clark wouldn't be happy with her for forging out on her own, but by then, she didn't really care. She was sick of waiting.

Going out into the cold evening air, she looked down the darkening street in search of a cab. When she spotted one a block away, she raised her arm to try to get the driver's attention, but nearly lost one of her crutches. She grabbed at it irritably, then grew even angrier when the cab driver went right past her.

"Hey!" she hollered after it. "Thanks for nothing!"

Turning to look for another, she spotted a crowd of people coming down the sidewalk toward her, and she had to do some fancy maneuvering to keep from being trampled. She pressed herself against the wall of the Planet, grumbling about inconsiderate people, when suddenly she felt a hand slip over her mouth and a viselike grip close around her upper arm. Before she could do anything, she was dragged, crutches and all, around the corner of the building and pulled into an alley behind the Planet.

When she'd regained her bearings, she looked over at her captor and her eyes widened. It was Garrison.

"Well, Ms. Lane, isn't this a coincidence. You're here, I'm here…the only one missing from this little party is that super boyfriend of yours." Then, with an air of arrogance, he pulled a gun from the waistband of his jeans and held it menacingly in front of her.

Trying to suppress the fear bubbling up within her, she jutted out her chin and looked at him coldly. "The authorities are already onto you and Trask, Garrison. You might as well give yourself up."

But Garrison just threw his head back and laughed. "Give myself up? You've gotta be kidding. I stand to make seven figures on this deal, and I'm not about to give that up. The only thing that stands between me and my money is the fact that you and Kent know too much."

"Too much about what?"

"Don't try to play dumb with me, Ms. Lane. It won't work. I know that someone is trying to deactivate my virus even as we speak. No doubt you and Kent had something to do with that. Would you like to share?"

Lois met his steely gaze with one of her own. "There's nothing to share, Garrison. We didn't have anything to do with that."

"Why don't I believe you? It just seems awfully coincidental that they didn't even find the virus until you and Kent showed back up. I think you overheard Manny and me talking, and gave them some little piece of information about the virus that helped them find it. What was it? The virus file name? The decryption code for the antidote? What?"

Lois' eyes widened. "There's an antidote?"

Garrison laughed condescendingly. "My dear Ms. Lane. For such a talented reporter, you're sure clueless when it comes to computers. Yes, there's an antidote. How else would I protect my own systems? I wouldn't be caught dead getting hurt by my own creation. That wouldn't be very smart now, would it?"

"So you and Trask have been in on this all along?"

"Trask?" Garrison scoffed, the mere notion repulsing him. "He's just a delusional man who shares my goal of offing your super boyfriend. He wants to kill Kent because of some crazy idea that Superman is a front man for some alien invasion. Me, I just want him dead so he can't interfere with my plans. Besides, let's just say that the little nest egg I stand to make off this will give me enough to buy my own little island and retire from such brainless work, somewhere where the government will never find me. The only loose ends I have are you and Kent." He sneered as he leveled the gun at her.

Lois forced herself to remain calm, but she couldn't stop her knees from shaking. She swallowed hard. "What makes you think we know anything that would be worth killing us for? We don't know anything, other than that you and Trask kidnapped us, and put us through three days of hell. There's nothing I'd like to see more than for your little virus to fail, and then watch you rot in prison."

He grinned, but there was no humor in it. "Very funny, Ms. Lane. But enough of the pleasantries. Tell me what you know. Do they have the antidote?"

"If they had the antidote, don't you think they would've used it by now?" Lois reasoned.

"Oh, so smug," Garrison snarled. "But you're still not telling me what I want to know, Ms. Lane. What is it you're hiding? If you know what's good for you, you'll tell me what I want to know. *Or else.*"

Lois steeled herself and forced herself to meet his gaze. "And if I don't?"

His face hardened and his expression turned cold. "Then I'll just have to kill you."

Lois stared into his eyes, and her knees started to shake. She could tell from his cold, hardened expression that he meant it. She struggled to control the shake that moved from her knees and started to spread through the rest of her, threatening to give away her cool appearance. "If I tell you, you'd just kill me anyway."

Garrison feigned surprise. "Ms. Lane, I'm insulted! What makes you think I'd do a thing like that?"

"Because you're as insane as Trask in getting what you want, and you'd kill anyone who stood in your way."

"You know what, Ms. Lane? You're right." He pressed the gun threateningly to her temple and cocked it.

Sensing it was now or never, Lois steeled herself to the pain she knew her actions were about to cause and acted quickly. Shifting her hips to the left, she slammed her elbow into Garrison's stomach, causing him to double over in pain. Then before he could recover, she quickly reached for the gun and tried to wrestle it from his hands. But Garrison was too strong for her, and he grabbed her by the shoulder and threw her across the alley and up against the alley's brick wall.

Enraged, Garrison leveled the gun at her and took aim. "You're going to wish you'd never done that!"

What happened next seemed to pass as if in slow motion. Lois watched in horror as his finger squeezed the trigger, and the sound of the bullet being fired thundered through the alley. In that instant, Lois knew it was over. There was nothing more she could do but wait for the bullet to end her life.

But suddenly, out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a figure rushing at her, trying to move into the path of the bullet. At almost the same time, she felt the heavy impact of the person's body crashing into hers, knocking her off her feet and out of the bullet's path.

She hit the ground hard, her head striking the frozen ground and making her mind go fuzzy. She struggled to remain conscious as she heard surprised shouts coming from the nearby street, and then the sound of an approaching police siren. Hearing the commotion, Garrison looked around in a panic, then quickly turned and fled down the alley.

With the sound of Garrison's retreating footsteps reaching her ears, Lois wanted to sigh with relief, but she quickly realized that it was all she could do to draw in one shallow breath after another. Her chest felt heavy and her lungs burned.

In a panic, she wondered if she'd been hit, in spite of the person's attempts to push her out of the bullet's path. That's when she remembered she wasn't alone. Turning to look to her right, she saw a figure of a man crouched over a short distance from her, holding his arm painfully across his chest. When she caught a glimpse of his face, she gasped.

It was Clark!

"Cl—Clark!" she gasped as she struggled for air. "What…how…"

He grimaced as he straightened up, then half crawled, half lurched over to where she was lying. When she saw his face hovering above hers, she tried again. "Clark…I can't…breathe…"

"Shhh, Lois, don't try to talk," he told her as he quickly moved his hands across her limbs and torso to make sure the bullet hadn't penetrated. When he realized she hadn't been hit, he closed his eyes and said a quick prayer of thanks. He'd managed to avert disaster. Barely.

"You're going to be okay, Lois, just lie still," he told her. "I think you just got the wind knocked out of you."

She nodded slowly and tried to breathe slowly and deeply. Moments later, she heard the sound of footsteps running toward her. Faces started to appear above her, and a policeman and several passersby were leaning over her, making sure she was okay.

With all the strangers suddenly surrounding her, she felt a feeling of panic start to edge in. Clark seemed to sense it, and he immediately started to wave off the growing crowd.

"Everyone back off!" he said, scowling and using his best Superman voice. "She's okay, she just needs some air!"

Miraculously, people started to back away, and he kneeled beside her, taking her hand firmly in his. "Lois, can you sit up?"

"I…I think so," she said uncertainly. Almost immediately, she felt Clark's strong arm slide beneath her back as he helped her to a sitting position. When she was sitting, he wrapped his arms protectively around her and drew her close. Lois closed her eyes and pressed her face into Clark's chest, clenching his shirt in her hands.

"You're okay, Lois. You're okay," he murmured over and over again as he stroked her back soothingly.

She tried to fight off the tears that were threatening to overcome her, not wanting to cry in front of the gathering crowd. Through the dull roar in her head, she heard the policeman next to her speak.

"Miss, can you tell me what happened?"

Shakily, she lifted her head from Clark's chest with barely checked tears brimming in her eyes, and started to give the officer the details.


A short time later, Lois sat on the leather couch in Perry's office and looked up to see Clark holding out a cup of hot tea.

"Here. This will help calm your nerves."

Trying to make her hands stop shaking, Lois took the mug with both hands and sipped the hot liquid slowly.

Clark sat down beside her and put his hand gently on her back. "How are you feeling?"

"Still a little shaky," she admitted. "Thanks for coming when you did."

He gave her a gentle smile and rubbed her shoulder lightly. "No problem." But then the tone of his voice changed and his features clouded. "Remind me, though, to give you a talking to later about how totally stupid that was of you to go out there unprotected—"

"I know, Clark, I know," she interrupted, her voice shaking with emotion. "Believe me, I think I learned my lesson."

Clark's voice softened. "I hope so."

They were quiet for a minute as Clark rubbed her back while she slowly sipped her hot tea and tried to calm her frazzled nerves. When she felt a little better, she turned to look at Clark, and he could see a hint of the usual fire returning to her eyes.

"Speaking of doing stupid things," she spat out. "What on *Earth* possessed you to throw yourself in front of that bullet when you didn't even know if you'd be killed by it?"

Clark reached up to gently brush her hair back from her forehead. "I knew my powers were starting to come back because I picked up on Garrison's voice a block away, so I figured I'd be okay. And even if I weren't, I couldn't have stood by and let something happen to you. Not after all we've been through."

Lois' anger faded and she smiled softly at Clark. "So are *you* okay?" she asked quietly. "Where did the bullet hit you?"

"Just below my ribs," he told her. "Luckily I had enough of my powers back. It bounced off, but I'll probably have a good bruise to show for it." He looked behind him through the windows along Perry's office wall to make sure no one was looking, then reached into his pocket and pulled out the flattened bullet. "What a little souvenir?

Lois smiled and shook her head. "No thanks." She was quiet for a moment, then she sighed heavily and leaned her head against Clark's shoulder. "Is this the way it's always going to be with us? One brush with death after another?"

"I hope not," Clark replied. Then a grin started to tug at the corners of his mouth. "But I have to admit, you do seem to have a certain flair for living dangerously."

Lois laughed a little, even though it still sounded shaky to her own ears. "I don't mean to. I guess danger just seems to find me." She lifted her head and took another sip of her tea. "You know, Clark, something about what Garrison said got me thinking. He seemed sure that we had access to the antidote. Why would he think that?"

Clark looked surprised. "I don't know. Is that what he wanted?"

Lois nodded. "He kept asking how much you and I knew, and if we'd told the FBI some little piece of information that led them to find the virus. But I kept telling him we didn't know anything. Obviously, he didn't believe me."

"Obviously not."

After another minute of silence, Lois asked, "Did they catch him?"

Clark sighed and shook his head. "He was long gone by the time the police arrived. But don't worry," he smiled slightly. "Now that Superman's almost back to full strength, he won't rest until he finds him."

"That's good to know."

A new voice entered the conversation. "Hey, Lois. Are you okay? Do you need anything?"

Lois looked up to see Jimmy looking at her with concern. "Thanks, Jimmy, but I'll be fine. I guess I'm getting used to this kind of thing."

"I'm not surprised, with how often it happens to you," Jimmy teased lightly, drawing an agreeing chuckle out of Clark. "Well, I guess I'll leave you two alone."

He started to leave the office, but Lois sat up and called him back. "Jimmy, are you sure there aren't any other files on Manny's computer that could be the antidote? Garrison seemed awfully persistent about wanting to know if we had it. Why would he be so persistent if hewas certain we didn't?"

"That's a good point, Lois. I don't know."

Lois nodded, and he left the office. Clark reached out to stroke her hair. "If you're feeling up to it, why don't we head back to my apartment? If you didn't need to rest before, you definitely need to now. After what just happened, I think some sleep is mandatory. I'll even make you some special tea that'll calm your nerves."

Lois smiled gratefully and gave his hand a squeeze. "That sounds nice."

Clark stood up, then helped Lois to her feet and handed her her crutches. As she hobbled through the newsroom, she was glad Clark was letting her take it slow since her knees where still shaking like crazy. But when she looked around at the bustle in the newsroom, she stopped. "Do you think we should stay? Maybe there's something we can do to help."

"Lois, Jimmy's already told you several times. Unless you're a computer expert, there's nothing we can do. Now let's just worry about you getting a little rest, and we'll come back here before midnight. Okay?"

Lois nodded and followed him out to the waiting squad car, which would escort them back to Clark's apartment. But even after Clark made her some tea to help soothe her ragged nerves, cooked her a light dinner, then forced her to go rest on his bed, she still wasn't able to relax. She kept looking at the clock on Clark's nightstand, watching the time pass. Nine o'clock. Nine-oh-five. Nine-ten. Nine-fifteen.

She sighed. It was going to be a long evening.


Garrison careened around the sharp corner in the mountain road, his car tires sending a spray of rocks and dirt into the air. His headlights flashed around the compound as he sped in, revealing a handful of men scrambling to get out of his way as he slammed the car to a stop in front of the cabin.

"Hey!" "What's going on?" came several angry shouts as he jumped out of the car and raced into the cabin in a rage, ignoring the men in the compound.

He was in no mood to be harassed. His plan to kill Lane and Kent had failed, and he didn't believe Lane when she'd told him they didn't have the virus antidote. An odd sense of doom loomed over him as he thought about how much his intricately devised plan was hanging by a thread.

He rushed into his computer room at the back of the cabin and started putting things in boxes. Now that the authorities were onto him, and Lane and Kent were alive and remained witnesses to so many crimes, he knew he couldn't stick around. He had to cut his losses.

He remained optimistic that the virus could still go off as planned, but he wasn't about to wait around to find out. The authorities were getting close to zeroing in on their position, and he planned to completely disappear within the hour.

Pulling the plugs on his computer equipment, he quickly started gathering everything up to take out to his car, but then he realized he'd better get the virus antidote and keep it on him. Hopefully the virus would still activate as planned, and if it did, he wanted to make sure his own systems were safeguarded.

He hit the 'eject' button on his floppy drive, but nothing came out. His brow furrowed. *I know it was in there before I left,* he thought. Confused, he lifted the keyboard to look underneath it, then bent down to look on the floor around his desk.

"It has to be here *somewhere*!" he said irritably as he opened the desk drawer and moved some papers. He became more frantic as his search of the other desk drawers turned up nothing. "Where *is* it?!"

Just then a voice sounded from the doorway. "Looking for this?"

Garrison's head jerked up and he saw Trask standing in the doorway, looking smug and holding up a computer disk up for Garrison to see.

Garrison blinked in surprise. "How did you get that?"

Trask smiled victoriously as he sauntered into the office and waved the disk around, clearly enjoying toying with Garrison. "You accuse me of being paranoid and delusional, Mr. Garrison. Fine. I can accept that. Not everyone sees eye to eye on what they believe. But you…you obviously underestimate me."

Not in the mood for Trask's arrogance, Garrison took two hasty steps toward Trask and attempted to snatch the disk out of the man's hand. But Trask pulled it quickly away out of his reach.

"Uh-uh, not so fast," he chided smugly. "See, you didn't think I was capable of figuring out what you were up to. But when you know something is up, it's really not that hard to do some research and get to the bottom of things.

"For example," he continued, pulling the disk away once again when Garrison made another grab for it. "I found out that this disk contains the antidote to a lethal computer virus. Plant that virus into a computer network such as the Daily Planet's where it could be uploaded onto a website accessed by millions of people, and within minutes it's spreading through computers all around the world, crashing systems and bringing multi-million dollar corporations to their knees."

"Trask, give me the disk," Garrison growled. But his barely contained anger only amused Trask further.

"Oh, but there's more," Trask went on, obviously enjoying his own theatrics. "Suddenly, when all those multi-million dollar corporations are in ruins, you and your dummy company ride in on your proverbial white horse with this handy little antidote to save the day, making millions of dollars in the process since you could ask whatever price you wanted for its sale. Brilliant, Garrison. Positively brilliant. But there's one more thing."

Garrison's eyes gleamed with anger. "And what's that?"

Trask's smile faded and his eyes locked with Garrison's. "I'm not letting you get away with it. Not without including me in on a piece of the action."

Garrison stared at Trask in disbelief. "You can't be serious."

"Oh, but I am, Mr. Garrison," Trask assured him, swaggering as he turned and walked toward the computer. He studied the computer system for a moment before turning back to Garrison. "I want in, or I go public with the information and tell everyone what you and your friends are planning."

Garrison laughed sarcastically. "Letting you in on the action would definitely not be wise. Just look at what you've done to your own beloved Bureau 39! You can't even kill Superman, your primary purpose. Your own men don't trust you to follow through with what you start. What does that tell me?" He shook his head and snorted in contempt. "Forget it, Trask."

"Okay. I can see you're a businessman," Trask said, knowing he was going to have to play his other hand. "How would you feel about a little blackmail?"

Garrison's eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about?"

Trask's arrogance returned, knowing he suddenly had the man's attention. He smiled and walked into the center of the room, then stopped and turned to face Garrison. Their eyes met in a silent battle of wills, and it was a good minute before Trask spoke.

Slowly and carefully, he pulled another disk out of his coat pocket. "What would a certain team of reporters at the Daily Planet—who you failed to eliminate, by the way—say about getting a disk containing information on how you'd created the virus, and then orchestrated a plan to install it on the Daily Planet's computer system and send it out over their first ever on-line issue, with the intent to cripple the world's computer systems? Oh, and I think you should know this also contains dozens of email exchanges between you and someone in the Metropolis State Penitentiary, giving a blow by blow account of how your plan was devised and carried out, naming an elite group of programmers, businessmen, and government officials who are all behind a little thing called 'Project Y2K,' and telling how you all stand to make millions from selling the antidote. And even though this person at the state pen wasn't named specifically, I bet it wouldn't take a genius to prove, with the right amount of digging, that Lex Luthor was masterminding the whole scheme in an attempt to rebuild his financial empire." He paused and smiled smugly at Garrison. "All that would be of utmost interest to someone like Lane and Kent, don't you think?"

Garrison's face grew ashen. "You wouldn't."

Trask smirked back. "I would." He paused. "*Unless* you agree to cut me in on the deal."

Garrison studied Trask for a minute, trying to decide how much of a threat the man really was. He decided to find out.

Reaching into the waistband of his jeans, he pulled out his gun and leveled it at Trask. "I'll tell you what, Trask. We can fix all this with a really simple deal. I won't let you in on the action, but I just might let you live if you hand over that disk."

Trask grinned confidently. "And let me go tell everyone what I know? Now that hardly sounds wise."

Garrison looked honestly worried for a moment, but then his confidence returned. "You can go blab to the press and authorities all you want," Garrison assured him as he waved his gun casually in the air. "Without proof, your claims are worth nothing. And there's no way anybody is going to find any trace of what we're doing. This goes much, much deeper than even you think it does. You'd never be able to stop us."

"Don't be so sure about that," Trask challenged, stepping closer in spite of the gun leveled at him.

Garrison threw his head back, and the sound of his loud laughter filled the room. "You're good, Trask. Very good. But not good enough to fool me into believing that you wouldn't be a liability to the project. Nice try, though." He took a step closer, pointing the gun menacingly at Trask and cocking it. "Now give me both of those disks. It sounds like I'm going to have to destroy whatever information you've dug up."

But Trask held his ground, jutting out his chin and meeting Garrison's gaze steadily. The two men squared off, and the silence seemed to echo in the room. Garrison's grip on his gun didn't waver, and he fingered the trigger, waiting for the delusional man in front of him to back down.

But when it became evident that he wasn't going to, Garrison could hear Luthor's voice echoing in his mind. The words were something Luthor had ingrained in him from the very first day they'd begun working together, and he could hear Luthor uttering those words as clearly as if he were standing there next to him.

*Never leave a witness.*

In that instant, Garrison's decision had been made for him. Staring back into Trask's steely gaze, Garrison leveled the gun at Trask and squeezed the trigger.

The sound of the bullet firing shattered the stillness, and Trask's face suddenly contorted in a look of both shock and pain. Garrison watched as the man slowly dropped to his knees, then slumped to the floor.

Unfeelingly, Garrison reached down for the disks still clenched in Trask's hand and pulled them away. "You should know, Trask, that I'll stop at nothing to get what I want. Nothing."

Trask blinked. Then, with lowering lids and shallowing breath, he whispered, "You'll never find the copy of the information disk."

Garrison's body stiffened. "Copy? What copy?"

Trask smirked weakly. "Like I said, you underestimate me." Then his lids lowered and his body went limp.

Realizing that Trask was dead, Garrison leapt to his feet. "Damnit!" he shouted, his voice resounding through the small room.

The sound of running footsteps approaching made him regain his composure, and he quickly started to gather up only what was absolutely necessary to keep himself from being linked to the virus. Then he shoved the disks into his coat pocket, grabbed his equipment, and pushed his way past Trask's gaping men in the hall.


By ten-forty five, Lois couldn't stand the wait any longer. She'd been lying around for what seemed like forever, and she hated feeling so useless. There was only one place she had to be right then, and that was at the Planet.

Getting off the bed, she headed into the living room where Clark was quietly watching TV and tapping his foot impatiently on the carpet. "Can't relax, either, huh?" she asked.

He looked at her and smiled sheepishly. "Unfortunately not. It's getting late. Should we head down to the Planet?"

She breathed a sigh of relief. "I thought you'd never ask."

Pulling on shoes and coats, they were out the door in a matter of minutes and surprisingly had no problem hailing a cab during the New Year's Eve rush of traffic. When they arrived at the Planet, the mood was a stressed and somber one.

They hurried over to Perry's office, where they found their editor pacing back and forth across the room. He looked up when they entered.

"I take it they haven't been successful in creating an antidote," Clark commiserated.

Perry shook his head. "Nope. And there's less than an hour until midnight."

Lois sighed. "Well, maybe there's something we can do. Clark, let's take one last look through those files of mine. Maybe we've missed something."

"Do you really think so?" Clark asked doubtfully.

Lois' mouth formed into a thin line. "Not really. But what else are we going to do? I can't just sit around here doing nothing."

"Okay, you two get at it," Perry interjected. "Let me know if you come across anything."

"Will do, Chief," Clark answered, trying to keep his voice upbeat. "Come on, Lois. Let's get to work."

Half an hour passed, and still Lois and Clark were coming up empty handed. With an anxious sigh, Lois looked up at the clock on the newsroom wall. Eleven forty-five.

Looking nervously around the newsroom, Lois spotted Jimmy sitting solemnly at his desk, staring at his computer screen.

Unable to sit still a moment longer, Lois pushed her chair back from her desk and stood up, then grabbed her crutches and made her way over to Jimmy's desk. Clark soon joined them.

"So what are you doing?" Lois asked as she watched Jimmy staring intently at the list of Manny's files on the screen in front of him.

Jimmy sat back in his chair and shook his head. "I've just been thinking about what you said, Lois. Garrison wouldn't have been so concerned if he was certain we didn't have the virus antidote. Why would he think that unless Manny had it here at one time? So if we do, and it's lurking somewhere here on his computer, where would it be?"

"The antidote would be on a disk, right?" Lois asked.

"Yeah," Jimmy nodded. "At least initially. But if Garrison was smart, he would've encrypted it, which would mean we'd need to find the password to decrypt it. But I don't think I have that much energy left."

"What would the file look like?"

"Well, without decrypting it, it would just be a bunch…of…jumbled characters…" His voice trailed off and then his eyes grew wide. Suddenly, he jumped to his feet and ran over to Lois' desk, crashing down in her chair and switching on her computer.

Startled, Lois and Clark followed him. "What are you doing?" Lois asked as she watched Jimmy shift impatiently in her chair as he waited for her screen to come on.

"The disk!" Jimmy exclaimed, looking over at her with his eyes shining with excitement. "The disk Manny gave you that had all the funny characters on it! Remember how we thought the file was corrupted? Well, now it makes perfect sense! It wasn't a corrupted file. It was an encrypted one!"

Lois stared at Jimmy in amazement. "You mean Manny switched disks on me without realizing it?"

"And gave you the virus antidote instead of the jewelry theft information!"

A crowd started to form around Jimmy as the newsroom staffers could see that the three of them were onto something. Even Perry drifted over from where he'd been talking to Agent Robinson over by the elevators.

Clark started to catch on. "Then that would explain that guy coming and stealing something from Lois' desk. I bet he was stealing back the disk!"

"I bet you're right," Lois agreed. "Didn't you say he took it from my desk drawer? That *is* where I keep my disks. But if he took the disk, aren't we out of luck?"

"We would be, except…" Jimmy paused as he reached for the mouse and clicked on a file, "…I saved a copy of the file onto your desktop." As the file opened to a series of jumbled characters, he leaned back cockily and gestured victoriouslyat the screen.

"All right Jimmy!" Clark exclaimed, followed by a roomful of resounding cheers and people reaching out to thump him on the shoulder.

"But wait!" Lois spoke up, interrupting the cheering crowd. "The file's encrypted, right? So how are you going to *decrypt* it?"

Smiles started to fade. "Good point," Clark mused.

Jimmy turned back to the screen and stared thoughtfully at the characters. "There's got to be a password or key or something," he said, more to himself than to anyone else.

"Try 'Rabbit1,'" Perry interjected from where he'd come to stand beside Lois' desk. "It worked before. Maybe it'll work again."

Jimmy nodded and leaned forward to type it in. But the words 'access denied' appeared on the screen. He typed in a couple of other code names he knew Manny had talked about using in the past, but those didn't work either.

Jimmy sighed. "Great. This is all I need. I've got to break a password for a file that we *hope* is the antidote, and we only have…" he glanced at his watch, "less than ten minutes."

Agent Robinson stepped forward. "Enough of this!" he exclaimed. "There's not enough time. We have to shut down the Planet's systems before it's too late!"

"Now, just hold on a cotton pickin' minute!" Perry argued. "If the Planet's livelihood is on the line, at least give this young man a chance! Two minutes. Just two minutes!"

All eyes were on the FBI agent as he deliberated. Under the pressure of an entire newsroom of people staring at him, he finally caved. "Fine. *Two* minutes. But if you don't have this resolved in two minutes, I'm pulling the plug."

"Okay, good," Jimmy nodded, turning back to the computer. "With only two minutes, I guess I'd better hurry."

As Jimmy's fingers paused over the keys, Clark suddenly spoke up. "What if the password was Garrison's choice instead of Manny's? After all, wouldn't it make sense that it would be Garrison's choice, since he designed and created the virus?"

Lois nodded. "That makes sense. But what?"

"You did the research on Garrison," Jimmy looked pointedly at Lois. "Was there anything in his MO that might tell us what password he might use?"

Lois shook her head. "I didn't pick up on anything, but then I'm not a computer person. I could easily have overlooked something. What would it be, some kind of alphanumeric code?"

"It could be anything," Jimmy said quickly. "A word, a phrase, whatever. You guys were with Garrison a bit over the past few days. Did he say *anything* that would indicate what code he might use? Come on guys, think!"

Lois started to shake her head, but then she suddenly stopped. "Hey, wait a minute! Project Y2K!" she exclaimed excitedly.

Jimmy and Clark both turned to look at her blankly. "What?"

"Project Y2K," she repeated, her words coming fast. "Didn't he and Manny call it 'Project Y2K' when we heard them talking?"

Clark's heart started to pound. "You're right, Lois, they did!"

"Try it, Jimmy," Perry demanded, gesturing to the keyboard. "We've only got a minute left. What have we got to lose?"

Jimmy leaned forward eagerly and typed in the phrase. He hit 'enter,' and they all waited anxiously to see what would happen. A few seconds later, the file blanked out, then string after string of code appeared in its place. Everyone let out a loud cheer.

Jimmy smiled, but he knew they weren't finished. "Okay. Okay, yeah, that was it. It decrypted it. But now let's see if it actually deactivates the virus."

Under everyone's watchful eyes, Jimmy logged onto the server with trembling fingers, opened the virus file, and applied the antidote. With his heart pounding, he watched anxiously for what seemed like an eternity. Then suddenly the words 'file deactivated' appeared on the screen.

Lois' eyes widened. "You did it! It worked!"

A loud roar erupted in the newsroom, and Jimmy jumped up from his chair, his arms raised high and victoriously above his head. "All right! Let's hear it, everyone! The virus is gone!"

The people around him began jumping up and down and cheering and hugging each other, thankful that they were no longer threatened with the looming fear of unemployment, and Jimmy was suddenly engulfed by people wanting to thump him on the shoulder or high five him. Perry's cheers could be heard over everyone else's.

"I think this calls for a celebration!" Perry bellowed. "What does everyone say to a round of champagne?"

An answering cheer went up from the people around him, and he quickly sent someone to his office for the bottles he'd initially been keeping for the New Year's Eve party they'd been planning before all this had happened. Within seconds, the sounds of corks popping and excited chatter filled the air as glasses of champagne were poured and passed around.

"Jimmy, you are going to be splattered all over the pages of this newspaper tomorrow morning!" Perry told him, a huge grin nearly splitting his face as he clapped the young man's shoulder. "If we hurry, we can slap an article together for the front page so everyone who has heard rumors about the virus will know that our on-line issue is no longer a threat. Everyone's going to know that you're the hero!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Jimmy saw Agent Robinson scowl at Perry, then turn and stalk to the elevators. *Good riddance,* Jimmy thought as he watched him go. Then he turned his attention back to the celebration.

Caught up in the moment, Lois jumped a little when she felt strong arms slip around her waist, and she turned to see Clark standing behind her, beaming broadly. He then leaned forward to whisper in her ear, "Jimmy may be the hero, but he couldn't have done it without your quick thinking. Nice job, Ms. Lane."

She smiled back at him. "Well, thank you, Mr. Kent." She clutched her crutches to her to avoid them being knocked away from her by the celebrating crowd, then turned in his arms. "But don't give me all the credit," she told him, tilting her face up to his. "We *are* a team, remember?"

His smile softened, and the love he had for her shone clearly in his eyes. "How could I ever forget?" he asked, his voice husky.

"Hey, everyone!" someone in the crowd shouted. "We have ten seconds until midnight!"

Instantly everyone turned and glanced up at the clock on the newsroom wall, and began to loudly count off the seconds until midnight. Lois slid her arm around Clark's waist and smiled happily as she counted out loud with the rest of the crowd.

The room rocked with the shouts of, "Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Happy New Year!"

The cheers that went up were deafening, but Lois grinned happily and started to sing along as the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" filled the air. Clark pulled her close and they sang together, laughing as they ended up mouthing the words to the song that they didn't know. But they cheered along with the rest of the crowd when the song ended, and everyone started kissing and hugging.

Clark's arm tightened around her, and she turned to smile up into his warm, brown eyes.

"Happy New Year, Lois."

"Happy New Year to you, too, Clark," she replied, feeling breathless as he looked down at her lips, then back up into her eyes.

As they continued to gaze into each other's eyes, the cheering, rowdy crowd around them seemed to fade into the background, and suddenly just the two of them existed. Slowly their faces moved closer together, and finally their lips met in a gentle, sweet kiss that reflected a love that had grown through the past few days of life-altering experiences, experiences that hadn't succeeded in tearing them apart, but instead had brought them closer together than they could've ever imagined.

Lois pulled back and looked into Clark's eyes. Without hesitation, she whispered, "I love you."

Clark's eyes filled with happy tears, and he wrapped his arms around her and hugged her tightly. He'd never imagined those words could sound so great.

With his cheek pressed against hers, she felt, rather than saw, him smile. His voice filled with emotion, he whispered back, "I love you, too. Now what do you say we head back to my apartment? I can't think of anything I'd like better than to go home, climb into bed, and fall asleep in your arms."

Lois grinned. "A quiet, uneventful evening, huh? That would be a switch after all we've been through, wouldn't it?"

A wicked gleam appeared in Clark's eyes. "Who said anything about the night being uneventful?"


The phone ringing early the next morning woke Clark from his deep, contented sleep, and he rolled over in bed, trying to force himself awake enough to find the phone in the darkness. His movement caused Lois to stir next to him, and he glanced down at her peacefully sleeping form, and suddenly a rush of almost overwhelming emotions encompassed him. The night had been magical.

When they'd gotten back to his apartment in the early hours of the morning, exhausted and eager to just go in and fall asleep, he'd made Lois a quick cup of tea before she turned in. But then they'd started talking, and, being in the quiet seclusion of his apartment, their closeness transferred from their conversation to several sweet interludes of loving kisses. One thing had led to the next, and almost before they knew what was happening, they were lying next to each other in bed, wrapped in each other's arms as they reveled in the passionate lovemaking that had taken place.

Now reaching out to brush back the cascade of hair curtaining Lois' face, his heart felt as if it were about to burst clear through his chest. Never had he thought making love to a woman could be so wonderful. He'd waited all his life for this occasion, and now that it had finally come, he knew he would treasure the memory for the rest of his life.

Shaking himself out of his reverie, he reached over Lois and felt for the phone on the nightstand. After a couple of clumsy attempts, he managed to pick up the receiver and hold it to his ear. "Hello?" his sleep-filled voice inquired.

Lois was pulled from her sleep, and she turned to look sleepily at Clark. He suddenly seemed wide awake as he listened to the person on the other end of the line. "Who is it?" she whispered.

He gestured for her to wait, then said into the phone, "Okay, thanks. We'll be ready to go in five minutes." He quickly reached over her and hung up the phone, causing her look of concern to deepen.

"What's wrong?"

Clark kicked his covers off and climbed out of bed. Lois couldn't help noticing how absolutely incredible his muscled body looked in the dim moonlight streaming in through the window. But she forced herself to push those thoughts aside as she watched him reach for a T-shirt and a pair of jeans.

"That was Inspector Henderson," he explained as he quickly pulled his clothes on. "He said he'd just been contacted by the state police, telling him they found Trask's cabin and have arrested several of his men. They want us to go with them right away and identify the men we saw."

Lois was instantly awake. She scrambled out of bed and reached for her own clothes. "Did they find Trask or Garrison?"

"They didn't say. But a state trooper will be by in five minutes to pick us up and drive us up there."


For Lois, the drive to the mountains was a traumatic one. She did her best to doze in the back seat of the trooper's car where she sat with Clark, but the whole trip brought back a flood of horrific memories that she wasn't sure she was ready to deal with. But Clark seemed to sense what she was going through, and he kept an arm around her during the lengthy drive.

It was still dark when they finally turned onto an all-too-familiar dirt road, and Lois couldn't ease the panic welling up inside of her at being back at Trask's cabin. Clark's hand tightened on hers as they came to a stop in the compound, and they looked around at the chaos in the woods.

A dozen police cars and several unmarked vehicles with their headlights helping to illuminate the compound were parked around lamp-lit cabin, and uniformed officers with flashlights were in the process of handcuffing and leading several of Trask's men to waiting police cars. Detectives in suits wandered about, taking pictures and inspecting the cabin and its surrounding area.

As the trooper came around and opened Lois' door for her, she forced herself to push her feelings of panic deep down into the recesses of her soul, and somehow was able to keep her expression devoid of emotion as she got out of the car. She stood next to the car staring up at Trask's cabin for what seemed like an eternity, trying to battle the conflicting emotions inside of her.

Suddenly, she was aware of Clark at her side. He gently slipped his arm around her shoulders. "Are you okay?" he asked quietly, knowing better than anyone the nightmarish memories she was sure to be reliving at that moment.

She straightened up and clutched her crutches tightly. Not trusting her voice, she merely nodded silently, then followed the officer into the cabin. Most of the rooms upstairs were unfamiliar to her, and she and Clark went down the hall where the room at the end seemed to be swarming with people. When Lois looked in, she gasped loudly.

The room was practically empty of furniture, which only succeeded in amplifying the scene of Trask's body lying in a crumpled heap in the middle of the floor. She found herself feeling a strange mixture of repulsion and relief as she continued to stare at the man's lifeless body. She had a complete lack of compassion toward Trask after all he'd put them through, but she would've never wished for his demise, either.

Seeing how shaken she looked, Clark ignored his own tightening gut and turned away from the scene, focusing his attention on her. With his returning powers, he was able to hear the rapid increase in her heartbeat and the shallowness of her breathing, and he knew this wasn't what she needed right now.

Slipping his arm around her, he gently led her away from the scene. They went back through the house, obediently following the officer to an all-too-familiar set of stairs. When they started down them, Lois found herself having to battle harder than ever to keep the memories of events from invading her mind. But the nightmarish flashes started to appear regardless: she saw herself kicking at the knife in the man's hand, only to feel the searing pain as the steel blade bit into her thigh; Clark's bruised and beaten body tied to the column in the middle of the basement room, unable to reach her to comfort her; the cold, hard floor her only ally against her throbbing, aching head…

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, they went through the metal door and into the basement room with its bare walls and now empty cell, which only served as a painful reminder of their past few nightmarish days. She felt her world start to slip and slide around her, and the many people in the room seemed to merge with her horrific images until she couldn't be certain what was real and what was a memory.

She heard the officers trying to ask her questions about the room and what they'd been through, but it was all she could do not to let the panic that was threatening to overtake her show as she saw the images flash through her mind over and over again. She thought she was tough enough to deal with the reality of what had happened to them, but suddenly she felt as if everything was happening all over again, and she couldn't stay there a moment longer.

The officer jotting down the details seemed to notice her panic, and he paused in mid sentence, his pen hovering above his notepad. "Are you okay, Ms. Lane?"

His words shook Lois out of her reverie, but even the fact that she was standing in a room surrounded by law enforcement didn't stop her panic.

She glanced quickly around the room, then muttered a quick, "Excuse me, but I think I need to get some fresh air" before turning and bolting for the stairs the best she could with her crutches. As she did, she caught Clark's startled look, but she didn't stop to acknowledge it in her attempt to escape.

Without pausing to consider how her fleeing up the stairs might look, Lois clumped awkwardly up to the main floor and pushed her way through the crowd of officers roaming about, not even caring that her hasty actions were causing them all to look at her strangely as she rushed past. She finally made it to the cabin's front room, threw open the front door, and hurried out into the cold dawn air.

Before she knew it, she'd crossed the compound and had moved even deeper into the woods fringing the property. But after several more yards, she had to stop. Her leg was burning, her arms hurt from using her crutches, and she was having difficulty catching her breath. She reached up to touch her cheeks and was surprised when she realized they were wet with tears. She couldn't even remember when she'd started crying.

Taking a couple of deep, shaky breaths, she tried to force herself to calm down. *Come on, Lois, what's gotten into you?* she scolded herself angrily. *What ever happened to 'Mad Dog Lane'? You're usually so tough, objective, able to handle anything. But instead of being strong, you make a scene by running out of there like the building was on fire.*

Trying to compose herself, she continued on, more slowly this time, until her breathing had slowed and she felt a little more calm. Seeing a large fallen tree off to her right, she hobbled over to it and sat down, content to sit in the early morning peace and prove to herself that she no longer had anything to run or hide from. She was safe now. But she knew that it was probably going to take her a while to get over the feeling of dread.

Staring off into the woods, she couldn't help thinking about how she and Clark had been prisoners in these woods only a few days ago, and what a horrible feeling it had been to wonder if they were ever going to survive. But through it all, there had been one stabilizing force, one factor that had been there throughout, keeping her from giving up hope.


She shook her head in silent amazement. She couldn't believe how great he'd been through the whole ordeal, always putting her needs before his own, even though he'd been hurting and surely having doubts and fears of his own. But as much he'd been through, he'd been there for her unconditionally. He'd held her when she was struggling physically as well as emotionally, he'd assured her that everything was going to be okay, and most of all, he hadn't let her give up, even when she wanted to. He was definitely one in a million.

But she knew that things were going to be very different from now on. Even though they'd just spent a wonderful, magical, memorable night together, she knew there was still so much she didn't know about him, so much she didn't understand—about him, about his background. And there were other things to consider. What would their relationship be like? Would they ever be able to have children? She had the strongest, most undeniable feeling that if things progressed as they were, he would ask her to marry him.

*Marry him.*

Lois gulped. That familiar feeling of panic started to work its way up from the recesses of her soul, but she quickly pushed it down. What was so scary about him wanting to marry her? She doubted she'd ever find another man who loved her as much as he did, and would move heaven and earth to keep her safe and happy. What more could one want out of a life partner than that?

But even when her stomach tied up in knots at the fear of the unknown, she knew she'd just have to take one look into Clark's warm, caring eyes, and she'd see all the love that he had for her gleaming brightly in them. No hiding, no reservations, no doubts.

He loved her.

She knew that now, more than ever, and despite the nagging thoughts going around in her head about all she didn't know about him, she knew his love for her was steadfast and solid, and would never change. He'd proven that through everything they'd been through…not only in the past few days, but through everything they'd been through together in the past couple of years. He was a one in a million person, and she knew she'd be crazy to let that slip by.

"There you are."

The voice behind her startled her, and she quickly spun around. But when she saw that it was Clark walking up to her, she relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," Clark told her as he sat down on the log next to her. He lifted his hand to her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Are you okay?" he asked, his serious, concerned eyes searching hers.

Lois nodded and turned back to stare off into the distance. "I just couldn't stand to be in there any longer with everything that's happened. It just brought back too many painful memories, and I don't think I'm ready to face them right now, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," Clark answered softly, sliding his arm around her shoulders and pulling her close. "It's all still a little too fresh in my mind, too." He was quiet for a minute. "Oh, I almost forgot. I just heard that the FBI figured out that when the virus was activated at midnight, that the millions of computers accessing the site would've been infected with the virus and their systems would've crashed. Systems could've been crashing all over the world. They think that Garrison was planning to sell the antidote through a shell company to everyone around the world and make millions."

"So that's what he was up to," Lois replied. "Well, at least that's one mystery solved. But something else is still bothering me."

"What's that?"

"Garrison's disappearance. Besides the fact that he should be in prison for what he did, doesn't it scare you to know that he knows your secret and is still out there somewhere, not knowing where or when he's going to strike next?"

Clark sighed. "Yeah, it does. But if I lived my life worrying about what each and every criminal around the world was up to and what he was planning, I wouldn't have time to lead any kind of a normal life. I have to just enjoy each day, and take things as they come."

"Carpe diem, hmm?"

Clark smiled. "Exactly."

Lois looked thoughtful again. "What about those encrypted files Manny said he'd left on his hard drive? What do you think they were?"

Clark shrugged. "We'll have to see if Jimmy can track them down and find out what they contain. Maybe they'll even tell us who Garrison's "boss" is, and who's really behind all of this."

"Maybe. I think it's definitely worth pursuing."

Clark nodded. "But the important thing is, we're safe now. And now that all this is over with, everything can get back to normal."

Lois sighed. "Back to normal. Yeah."

Clark's brow furrowed. "What's wrong?"

Lois debated about telling Clark what was on her mind, then finally decided to confide in him. "It's just…how can you think that everything's going to be "back to normal" after everything that's happened? You're not the same Clark that I thought I knew. And to tell you the truth, it's probably going to take me a while to adjust to that. There's still so much that I don't know about you."

"So just ask me when you want to know something," Clark insisted emphatically. "We can do this, Lois. We can make it work. I *want* you to talk to me, to tell me what's on your mind, and talk to me about anything that's bothering you. If we really love each other and are committed to making this work, we can deal with anything that comes along. And I promise, no more secrets."

Lois smiled and reached out for his hand. "Promise?"

"I promise," Clark smiled back softly, eagerly entwining his fingers with hers. As he tightened his fingers through hers, his heart began to race. Being with Lois, touching her, talking with her so openly…it was all more than he could have ever hoped for, more than he'd ever thought would be possible when he considered his chances at having that special person in his life. And he knew Lois was that person, the one he knew he would eventually spend the rest of his life with.

Giving in to the urge to kiss her, he leaned toward her and touched his lips to hers. Soon their kiss deepened into a soul-shattering kiss, and Lois closed her eyes, savoring the taste of his lips on hers, the feel of his hand on the back of her head, entwining in her hair as he pulled her even more deeply into their kiss.

When they finally pulled apart, Clark smiled tenderly into her eyes. The mood was interrupted, though, when the sound of car doors slamming in the distance brought them back to the present. With a wry smile, Clark leaned back on his hands and looked around them. "Hey, didn't we talk about spending New Year's together in the mountains?"

Lois laughed. "Sure, but this wasn't exactly how I pictured it."

"Oh yeah?" Clark grinned mischievously. "So tell me. How exactly *did* you picture it?"

"Oh, I don't know," Lois hedged, a mysterious smile creeping across her face. "A cozy fire, a nice soft rug on the floor in front of it, a little music and moonlight…"

"Mmmm," Clark murmured dreamily, his lips nearing hers. "That sounds perfect."

Lois closed her eyes as he kissed her again, reveling in the moment. Finally, they pulled apart. "So how are you feeling?" Lois asked, studying Clark's face intently.

Clark let out his breath. "Better," he admitted. "I'm not a hundred percent yet, but Dr. Klein's antidote seems to be working. He thinks in a few days I'll be completely back to normal."

"*A few days*?" Lois complained. "It takes you 'a few days' to go from no powers to full powers, but it'll take several days for me just to get rid of these crutches! It's not fair."

"It doesn't seem fair, does it?" he replied seriously, his heart going out to her. "But it does give me a good reason to make sure you take it easy, and give you a little extra pampering and one-on-one attention."

Lois smiled. "You never need an excuse to pamper me. I'll let you do it any time you want."

"Really?" he asked, surprised. "I've never thought of you as the 'wanting pampering' type."

"I can get used to it," she grinned.

"Well, then, I'll just have to take you up on that."

"Mmmm," Lois murmured, leaning closer to him. "See that you do. Maybe we could even, I don't know…do a little flying?"

The corners of Clark's mouth curved into a knowing smile. "I think that can be arranged."

Lois giggled and slipped her arm around Clark's neck, no longer afraid. No longer afraid of her relationship with Clark, of their surroundings, of what they'd been through. She knew that together, they could get through anything, and that was all she needed to know.

Tilting her head back, she parted her lips, inviting Clark to kiss her, and he gladly obliged. They forgot all about where they were, about what they were there for, and just decided to live in the moment.

Unnoticed by them, the sun began to rise in the distance, showering everything below with its peaceful morning glow and creating a new day—and a new millennium—for the world to enjoy. The darkness began to fade, and the dawn, bright and promising, slowly started to take its place.


The pre-dawn streets of Metropolis were quiet as Garrison walked along the darkened sidewalk, wearing an overcoat and sunglasses in spite of the fact that the sun hadn't yet risen. But after everything that had happened, he knew he had to be careful. He was a wanted man.

But he was a wanted man who would soon be counting his seven figure income while sailing on his boat around the world.

He smiled. Life was a beautiful thing.

The sound of a truck approaching startled him, and he moved off to the side and ducked into an alley as he waited for it to pass. His heart beat more quickly as the truck slowed and neared his position. But just as he was about to flee, he saw that it was a Daily Planet newspaper delivery truck, and it was just slowing to deposit a bundle of papers on the sidewalk.

Relaxing, Garrison waited for the delivery person to complete his task, then watched as the truck sped away. Garrison looked up and down the street to make sure he was alone, then stepped out from the alley and hurried over to the bundle of newspapers. Pulling out his pocketknife, he quickly slit the plastic strips holding the bundle together and took one of the papers. After all, he wanted a memento of his accomplishment.

He lifted his paper, preparing to bask in his glory by reading the headlines that told of the worldwide destruction his virus had caused. But instead, his smile quickly faded when he saw the headlines.

"Noooo!" he yelled in a mixture of rage and dismay as he studied the front page, his voice echoing through the empty, darkened street around him. "No, this can't be happening! I can't believe this!"

He closed his eyes in the hope that he'd been having a nightmare, then reopened them, hoping to see what he wanted to see. But still the words on the page remained the same. As bold as day, the headline leaped up at him:

Daily Planet Photographer Destroys Computer Virus

Underneath the headline was a picture of a young man, whose name was listed as Jimmy Olsen.

Garrison's grip tightened on the paper as he quickly scanned the article, his eyes widening in disbelief as he read about the young man's miraculous efforts to locate the virus, and then deactivate it by finding a copy of the antidote the programmer had mistakenly left behind. A small picture of himself stared up at him from the lower corner of the page, and he groaned in disgust. It wasn't even one of his better ones.

Unable to contain the anger boiling up inside of him, he clenched his jaw shut tightly and crumpled the newspaper in his hand, then threw it in disgust onto the sidewalk. Turning on his heel, he hurried down the street and around the corner of an old, deserted office building.

Making sure no one was watching, he ducked inside and took the back stairs two at a time until he reached the top floor. Then he hurried down the hall and into a room near the back where a cot, a single burner stove, a generator, and a wall full of computer equipment graced the room.

Sitting down in the chair in front of his computer, he quickly dialed up an internet connection and opened a blank email. Entering the email address he knew by heart, he then started to type in the body of the email:

"Project Y2K failed. Lane and Kent behind downfall. But second virus still pending, so all is not lost. Will be in contact soon."

He quickly clicked 'send,' then sat back in his chair, staring dismally at his computer screen. When he was finally able to shake himself from his reverie, he slowly pushed his chair back from his desk and walked over to the dirty, broken window overlooking the street.

Looking out at the darkened street below, he clenched his fists in anger. Lane and Kent were going to pay for his losing the seven figure paycheck he'd worked so hard for. He'd see to that if it was the last thing he ever did.


One week later:

The streets of Metropolis were bustling with morning commuters tromping their way through the blanket of new snow that had fallen the night before, and the air was filled with the familiar sounds of cab horns honking, people shouting, and newspaper vendors calling out the day's headlines in an effort to sell their morning papers.

As Lois walked down the street with Clark on their way to the Planet, she felt happier than she'd been in months. Everything in her life seemed to be falling into place. Her health was returning, and she was thrilled that she'd finally been able to get rid of her dreaded crutches, though her leg still ached and needed some special care from time to time, which Clark was perfectly willing to provide. She also found herself actually looking forward to her job, for a change, though she was certain that was because Perry had forced her and Clark to take the past week off. But most importantly of all, she was totally and completely in love with a wonderful man who, miraculously, was just as much in love with her.

Lois smiled. The least she could do was buy Perry some special gift for making them take some time off since the past seven days had been, without a doubt, the happiest seven days of her life.

She and Clark had spent every waking moment—not to mention a few memorable nights—together, reveling in their love for each other. Clark's powers had returned quickly, thanks to the injections he'd been given by Dr. Klein. And in that time, Clark continued to encourage Lois to ask him questions about himself, and worked at proving to her that this new aspect of their relationship—his other identity—wasn't anything they couldn't deal with.

And that seemed to be just what Lois had needed. She grew more and more comfortable with him every day they spent together, even though it had taken her a few times to get used to talking to him as Clark while he was in the suit after returning from the occasional Superman duty. But it hadn't taken her long before she'd been able to merge him and his other identity together in her mind, and she no longer did a double take when she saw him in the suit.

What Lois hadn't anticipated about the newest aspect of their relationship, though, was how quickly she'd gotten spoiled by having a 'Super' boyfriend. She loved lying on top of him as they snuggled on the couch in the evenings watching TV, and having him float them in the air as they relaxed. And she loved how Clark would fly off to Italy or China for some really incredible take out, eager to cater to her cravings and, at the same time, do a little showing off for her. And after years of hiding his abilities from her, he was more than happy to share with her what he could do.

And not only did their time together strengthen their relationship as far as their love for each other was concerned, but they found their friendship strengthening, as well. They spent long hours doing nothing but talking and laughing, and just hanging out with each other. In that short amount of time, Lois felt as if she'd finally gotten to know the real Clark Kent, who turned out to be a satisfying combination of the partner and friend she'd grown to love, and the fascinating superhero she'd been infatuated with. She now felt completely comfortable in their relationship, and she loved waking up every day feeling so totally and completely in love, knowing that somebody loved her just as much in return. It made her life feel absolutely perfect.

She only wished they could have another week off together. A wistful sigh escaped her lips.

"What?" Clark asked, turning to look at her curiously.

"I just wish we could have more time off to be together, that's all," Lois admitted a little sadly. "These past few days have just been so incredible. I'm going to miss just hanging out together, doing nothing but sitting around and talking."

Clark's heart soared, knowing that she was feeling the same way. "I know. I wouldn't trade the last week for anything. Perry was right. We needed that time off to recover from everything we've been through recently."

Lois smiled. "I can't help but wonder if he didn't have some other ulterior motives in mind, though," she confided. When Clark looked puzzled, she continued. "Us, Clark! You may not know it, but Perry's really a romantic at heart. I think he's been trying to pair us up together since you started working here. I think our ailing health was just a convenient means to an end for him to get us together."

Clark chuckled. "If he knew we'd be perfect for each other, why didn't he just say so a long time ago? We could've saved ourselves a lot of trouble."

"But then what fun would there have been in that?" Lois joked.

"I see your point." Clark pulled his hand from his overcoat pocket and reached for her mittened one. There was a comfortable silence as they slowly rounded the corner of the Daily Planet building and headed for the front doors.

Lois was glad he didn't mind walking slowly, since that's all she seemed to be able to do since she'd retired her crutches. She still walked with a slight limp, a harsh reminder of everything that had happened two weeks ago. But Dr. Meyers had assured her that the limp would go away in time as her leg healed, so she put up with it for the time being. Besides, she knew things could've been a whole lot worse, so she was definitely counting her blessings.

Clark noticed her glancing down at her leg, and he gave her hand a squeeze. "Your leg doesn't seem to be bothering you as much today. Is it feeling better?"

"Yeah, actually, it is," Lois admitted. Then she smiled. "Though a week of pampering and being forced to take things easy surely helped."

"I'd be happy to boss you around any time you'd like," Clark told her with an easy grin. "You just say the word."

"I'm glad to hear that," Lois said, removing her hand from his and sliding her arm around his waist. "And speaking of which," she lowered her voice. "Even though you've done a lot of showing off for me this week, you still haven't followed through with one promise."

He raised an eyebrow at her. "What promise is that?"

"You know…the one to take me—" she broke off and made a flying gesture with her hand.

He laughed. "Oh yes, that's right. You're not going to let me forget about that, are you?" he teased, his eyes alight with mischief.

She shook her head vigorously. "Not on your life! Besides, if I'm going to have to get to know everything about you, doesn't it make sense that I should get to experience some of the high points of your…other identity."

Clark smiled broadly. "I can't argue with that logic." Then he lowered his voice to a whisper again and leaned closer to her. "Though it sounds to me like just a convenient excuse to get me to take you flying."

"You know me too well." She grinned up at him. "So what do you say about, hmmm, maybe later tonight?"

Clark hedged. "I guess we could do that. Unless we're busy with, you know…other things."

It took her a moment to pick up on what he was implying since such a comment seemed so out of character for him. When she finally realized what he meant, Lois' jaw dropped open and she fought to control the blush she felt spreading across her cheeks. Then she started to laugh.

"Clark, I can't believe you said that!" she scolded. "What would your mother think of you saying such a thing to a lady?"

"A lady? Where?" Clark asked, pretending to look around.

"Oh, you're going to pay for that!" Thinking quickly, she bent over and grabbed a handful of snow and proceeded to try to stuff it down the collar of his suit jacket.

He laughed and dodged out of the way, his disguised super-quickness no match for her gimpy gait. She continued to pursue him with her handful of snow, and they weaved in and out of the crowds on the sidewalk, shouting and laughing like a couple of grade school kids.

People near them gave them sidelong glances of disapproval for behaving in such a fashion, but their looks were lost on the young couple as they continued to dart around in the snow on the way to the Daily Planet's front doors, before both managed to pelt each other with hastily made snowballs.

With the amount of traffic on the streets, no one noticed the black Lexus with its darkly tinted windows parked across the street from the Daily Planet, its occupant shaking his head in disgust as he watched the behavior of the two reporters through his rolled down window.

"You'd think they could behave more professionally," he grumbled disdainfully.

"What was that, sir?"

Garrison turned to see that his driver was glancing inquisitively in the rearview mirror at him. "Nothing," he said dismissively as he leaned back in his seat.

Giving the reporters one last glowering look, he saw that they were laughing and trying to shake the snow off themselves as they headed through the Planet's revolving door.

With a flick of his finger, Garrison rolled up his tinted window, making him all but invisible from the people outside. Then he turned to the driver.

"Since the boss sent you to pick me up, we'd better not keep him waiting. I can deal with those two reporters on my own time. Let's go."

And with that, the black Lexus pulled out into traffic and discreetly disappeared down the street.



…but stay tuned for part two ~~ The Darkest Hour (Beyond Tomorrow) ;)