Second Thoughts

By Wendy Richards <>

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: November 2001

Summary: What might have happened if Lois actually considered what Lex Luthor was really like before accepting his marriage proposal? In typical Wendy fashion, this story is filled with angst and smoochies.

This is a Season 1 story, set early in "Barbarians at the Planet." Lex has asked Lois to marry him, and the story begins the evening after the proposal. In *this* story, however, Lex did not buy the Daily Planet the day after his proposal; while I am using some aspects of the BatB A-plot in this story, I've slowed things down somewhat.

Grateful thanks are owed to several people: to all who commented, nagged, yelled and waved disembowelling shears on Zoom's boards and IRC, and especially to the members of the STPWFIGSW* <bg>. Thanks, too, to IRCers and others waiting to read this in one piece, who kept asking when this story would be finished; your nagging helped to ensure that it *got* finished! I'm indebted also to Laurie, who actually *volunteered* to edit this monster of a story! And most important, thanks to my beta-readers: Pam, for her help with part of the story; Anne, for encouragement and lovely feedback throughout, and Yvonne and Helene, who stuck with this monster all the way through and provided comprehensive comments, suggestions, corrections, TTT- interventions and all-round support. You two are fantastic!

All characters in this story are the property of DC Comics and/or Warner Bros, and no infringement of their or anyone else's rights is intended by the writing and distribution of this story.


"So, Lois, why exactly are you considering marrying Lex Luthor?"

That question had been eating Clark up inside for the last couple of days, ever since Lois had told him — just when he'd been about to tell her *his* feelings for her, and ask her out — that Luthor had proposed to her. And that she was thinking about it.

He'd reacted badly, he was aware of that. And because his hackles had instantly risen, Lois had jumped to the — not illogical — conclusion that he was jealous, and had frozen him out, rejecting his protests.

Of course he was jealous; he'd be jealous if Lois was seeing anyone other than him. But this was more than just jealousy, as he'd tried to explain to her a couple of times already, without success. It was his hatred of Lex Luthor as a result of the man's criminal activities. And, he had to confess, his anger at Lois for not seeing through the man's public facade. But again, every time he'd tried to tell Lois this over the past few weeks, he'd lost his cool, ended up unintentionally insulting her intelligence, and had been vulnerable to her charge of jealousy. And on each occasion she'd got angry with him and stormed off.

Now, however, they were stuck in her Jeep in a deserted underground car park, watching for a drugs handover one of Bobby Bigmouth's friends had tipped them off about. They'd been there almost two hours and seen nothing, and the near- silence inside the Jeep was getting oppressive. Plus, he was acutely aware of his companion every single second, and the silence was only making matters worse. Even the sound of her breathing was sending signals to all of his nerve endings. Hence Clark's question; apart from distracting himself before things got embarrassing, if he was ever going to get a chance to have a reasonable conversation with her in a situation where neither of them could afford to lose their temper and storm off, this was it.

She glanced quickly at him and then away again. "Why is it any of your business what I do in my personal life, Clark?"

Her tone was dismissive, and her body language reeked of 'get lost.' But Clark wasn't going to give up that easily.

In a carefully reasoned tone, he answered, "Because you're my best friend and I care about you? And I thought you felt the same way about me."

She looked at him again, this time apparently cautiously, as if debating whether to trust him not to go off on a rant again. "Clark, of course I do. You know that."

"Yeah, Lois, but it's kind of hard to remember that when we've barely talked these last few weeks. And I know a lot of that's my fault — I've lost my temper and said things I shouldn't have. But I'd like to make up for it now. You're seeing Lex Luthor, and I have to respect that," he said, aware that he was lying through his teeth — he would *never* respect Lois's choice in this case, even if he wasn't being eaten up inside by seething jealousy and a desperate yearning for something he couldn't have. "I'd just like it if you'd give me a chance to understand what you see in him, that's all."

"And you won't start flinging insults?" she asked warily.

He held his left hand up, three fingers aloft. "Scout's honour."

She grinned. "I always knew you were a boy-scout, Kent!"

"See, that means I'm one of life's good guys," he teased.

Lois seemed to relax then, settling back into her seat but with her body turned so that she was facing him. "I never doubted that, Clark," she told him softly. "And the last thing I want is to lose your friendship. It's… important to me."

"It's important to me too." His voice husky, he reached out to trail the back of one finger down her cheek, a daring gesture for him. Lois was the one who usually initiated physical contact between them, and then it was usually a pat on the chest, a hand on his shoulder as he was sitting, a hand through his arm as they walked sometimes — in response to which he occasionally got away with putting his arm loosely around her shoulders instead. She flirted with him continually. He was well aware of it, just as he was aware of the limits which were imposed on him in her little games with him; unfair they might be, but he had always respected them because he knew that, should he ever step over the line and actually respond to what sometimes looked like an apparent invitation on Lois's part, he'd lose the close friendship they had and any hope of more.

Now, though, he was the one initiating physical contact, and he could be in danger of stepping over Lois's invisible line… but he was fairly sure that, at this moment, she wouldn't object. She couldn't know just how much touching her meant to him, anyway.

She caught his hand as he drew it away, and curled her fingers about his. Nothing was said, but in that moment their friendship was rebuilt and reinforced.

"So," Clark said casually, as if nothing at all of any importance had happened, "what about Lex?" He forced himself to use the man's first name.

"Oh, Clark…" She half-smiled, then shrugged. "Oh, there are all sorts of things I like about him. And before you ask, his money *isn't* one of them! He's elegant, charming, sophisticated… he always knows the best places to go, for dinner, the theatre, the opera, shopping… And he's very, *very* intelligent — it's wonderful having a discussion with him, because he's very knowledgeable about almost every subject under the sun. We can talk and argue for hours — it's so stimulating. And he's witty, and I really enjoy his company." Her tone was light and apparently happy, but to Clark there was something of a false note to her gaiety.

Choosing his words carefully, Clark said, "That sounds to me like a description of an entertaining friend, Lois. I mean, you do a lot of that with me — how many times have we sat in my apartment with a pizza and a couple of beers and argued almost until dawn? But with a guy you're thinking of marrying, there should be more than that. Actually," he added, warming to his theme, "even for someone you consider a close friend, there should be more than that."

"Like what?" She gave him a semi-belligerent look. "I'm not going to tell you about my sex life, if that's what you're asking! *And* I don't sleep with my close friends — *you* should know that!"

Sex life? Clark shuddered inwardly, revolted at the thought that she might actually be sleeping with the man. And he ignored her jibe about not sleeping with him; that wasn't what he'd meant and he knew she was well aware of it. Instead he shook his head, careful to maintain the outward appearance he wanted to project. "I meant that a close friend should be someone you can confide in, no matter what the circumstances. And a lover should, too. Yet you didn't mention anything about how well he understands you, how sympathetic he is, how supportive he is of your ambitions as a reporter and as a person… that's kind of the minimum I'd expect from someone I was thinking about marrying."

She sighed. "Clark, I thought you were going to respect my choices, not start being insulting again!"

He quickly reached out and laid a hand on her arm. "That's not my intention, Lois, honestly! I just care about you, as your friend, and I want… I want to understand your relationship with Lex." He had to swallow back his revulsion as he said the man's first name. "So… he understands you?"

At that, Lois looked defensive. "Of course he understands me! And he's very supportive of my career." She hesitated, seeming momentarily unsure, and Clark raised an eyebrow enquiringly. "It's just that… oh, he wants me to think about quitting the Planet and going to work for LNN."

"Quit the Planet?" Clark stared at her in horror. "You're kidding!"

"I've told him no," she said quickly. "But you have to admit that from his perspective it makes sense. After all, I am the top reporter in Metropolis, and he owns a TV news company! Of course he wants me working for his company."

Clark grinned momentarily at Lois's lack of modesty; but he was used to that, and anyway he agreed with her assessment. "Of course, it's your decision," he said soberly. "But I'd hate to lose you as my partner."

"You could come with me…" she suggested hesitantly.

But Clark shook his head. "Come on, Lois, you know I'd never do that. I… couldn't work for Lex Luthor."

"Why?" Now she was in reporter-mode. "I know you don't like him. Is it all jealousy, or is there more to it? Those things you've been saying…"

"I don't trust him," Clark said bluntly. "I realise you don't agree with me, but I… suspect… that he's not what he seems. And if I had any evidence, I'd give it to you!"

Lois shook her head slowly. "Clark, it's not like you to judge someone without proof! But… even though I'd like to believe you, I can't. Not without more than that."

"Promise me one thing," he said urgently, seeing an opportunity to get his point across.


"Before you make your mind up… talk to Superman. About Luthor," he added quickly, before Lois could jump to any conclusions about his suggestion. "It's not for me to tell you what he knows, but I think you might find his views… interesting."

"Okay," she said slowly, sounding hesitant and maybe even a little reluctant. But she *had* agreed.

Progress, Clark thought. At least, if she took his advice and spoke to Superman — and he would make sure that she did — she'd get the word of someone she seemed to trust implicitly, rather than the opinion of someone she considered to be just jealous.

Lois turned away and resumed scanning the car park area. Clark knew that it was pointless, since he'd have heard anyone coming long before they got there, but he played along. The place was still deserted, and it was now almost three am. Their informant had thought that the exchange was likely to take place at around 2.30.

He couldn't resist persisting with one more question, even knowing that the answer could hurt him. If he wasn't invulnerable, he supposed that the issue of Lois's involvement with Luthor would feel like a painful scab which he couldn't seem to stop himself picking at; or so he vaguely remembered from the years when he was very young and he used to get skinned knees. And, at least, he'd heard friends make that analogy about things affecting them, and he guessed it was somehow apt in this situation.

"Lois, the other thing you haven't mentioned is how you feel about him. I mean, if you're thinking of marrying someone, wouldn't it kind of be natural to say that you love him? But you didn't say that. And…" He took a deep breath and blew it out quickly. "And you didn't say anything about finding him attractive. Does he turn you on, Lois?"

She stared at him, looking stunned; he wasn't sure whether it was because she thought his questions were outrageous, or because she didn't know the answers.

"*Does* he?" Clark asked again.

"I… uh… I mean, I guess… sure," she stammered.

"That doesn't sound at all convincing to me," he said confidently. "Come on, let's look at it another way. What do you feel when he kisses you?"

"Clark…!" she protested.

"It's a legitimate question!" he insisted, moving closer to her on a sudden, uncontrollable impulse. "And okay, maybe it's none of my business, but you really don't act like someone who's in love with the guy. You're flattered by his interest in you, yes, but you don't act like you can't wait to be alone with him."

"It's not all about sex, Clark!" Lois snapped, now losing her cool.

"No, it's not," he agreed. "But at least some of it has to be!"

He hesitated, now understanding the impulse which had spurred him to move closer to her. He couldn't, surely…? But on the other hand…

He caught his breath. She was so close, and the unique scent of her fragrance was almost making him lose his head. But if he messed up here… and yet, this would be the perfect opportunity to prove to her that she was misleading herself.

Clark decided in that instant to go for it, to act on the wild thought which had leapt into his brain and refused to leave. Looking intently at her, he began, "Lois, when he kisses you, do you feel like…" He shifted closer again, knowing that she might well slap his face and refuse to have anything further to do with him after this, but unable to stop himself. "Do you feel anything like this?" he whispered.

Before she could say another word, he slid his hand along her jaw and into her hair, tugging her face closer, and lowered his mouth to hers.

He'd kissed Lois before and *he'd* certainly felt a spark — more than a spark. And he was pretty sure it had been mutual, remembering the dazed look on her face after his kiss on their honeymoon assignment. So he wanted to force her to recognise that spark between them now. If she could tell him that she felt that, and more, with Lex Luthor, then he'd leave her alone and he wouldn't raise the subject again, at least in his guise as Clark.

She uttered a protest, which was lost against his lips. Clark paused momentarily to see whether she would push him away, but she remained perfectly still. He moved closer then, opening his mouth over hers and kissing her the way he'd dreamed of doing. The way he'd never imagined himself *actually* doing… but he was doing it… he was kissing her…

…and he must be crazy to be doing this! What if she slapped his face? But… but it felt so good and all he wanted was one more moment…

<Get a grip here, Clark!> he tried to tell himself; but his impulses were over-riding any belated instructions coming from his brain. She tasted too good… and if she *was* considering marrying *Luthor*, then he wasn't only going to lose all hope of a relationship with her, he'd be losing *Lois* as well. There was just no way that they could even stay friends if she married him.

Her lips parted, and he heard her emit a soft moan. Then her arms came around him and she began to kiss him back, even more passionately than his dreams had ever envisaged her doing. Disbelieving, but too delighted that this was happening to question it in any way, he drew her closer still and deepened the kiss. Raking one hand through his hair, she kissed him back with equal enthusiasm.

Then suddenly, gasping for breath, Lois pulled away.

*** She stared at Clark in panicked disbelief. What had just happened there?

How had they managed to go from a calm, rational conversation about her relationship with Lex — even if she had thought Clark was being somewhat intrusive — to *this*?

Kissing Clark had not been in her plan of action for the near future. In fact, it hadn't been anywhere near it!

She was dating Lex. She was considering Lex's proposal, for heaven's sake! How could she have let this happen?

But she'd not only let it happen, she reminded herself, embarrassed. She'd actively participated! She'd welcomed his kiss, and kissed him back with a degree of enthusiasm which made her cringe.

What must he think of her? Engaged — well, almost engaged — to another man, and kissing her *partner* with reckless abandon in the middle of a stake-out?

It would be something if Clark had done it because he really wanted to — because he was attracted to her himself and was trying to persuade her that she felt the same way. If, say, he'd just got desperate because he knew she was considering Lex's proposal.

But he hadn't. At least, she didn't think he had. What had he said to her before the kiss?

<Lois, when he kisses you, do you feel anything like this?>

He'd only been trying to make a point; that was obvious. It would have been half-excusable if he was actually interested in her himself, beyond the typically-male attraction to anything female and beyond passable-looking. But she didn't really think Clark did feel anything for her. If he'd really wanted to kiss her, after all, wouldn't he have done something about it long before?

No; he'd just been arguing that, since she hadn't *said* she found Lex attractive, she obviously wasn't sexually attracted to him. Maybe, she thought angrily, he'd even been trying to suggest that Lex wasn't attracted to *her*, that their relationship was somehow sexless, devoid of anything beyond friendship and mutual interests. Not, Lois mused, that there was anything wrong with that — when she considered the number of marriages breaking up every year, which had supposedly been love matches, the idea of a marriage based on mutual liking and admiration had its appeal.

But anyway, that was irrelevant. She *did* find Lex attractive, of course she did!

The sensible thing to have done, if she really wanted to prove to Clark that he was wasting his time, would be to have remained completely still, not respond in any way, until he realised what was happening and let her go.

But she hadn't. She'd completely lost all sense of reason and kissed him back.

And now, no doubt, he'd be triumphant, pointing out that she couldn't possibly contemplate marrying another man when she'd just responded to him like that. Typical macho male posturing.

<Clark's not a macho male…> her inner voice pointed out tentatively.

No? she answered back. He'd done enough posturing recently to give the lie to that one! Ever since she'd started dating Lex, he'd been behaving as if his personal territory had been invaded. Suddenly he no longer had first call over Lois's free time. He was clearly too possessive where she was concerned; taking friendship too far, it seemed. He couldn't accept that their friendship did *not* mean that he had exclusive rights over her company. And thus, he couldn't get used to the fact that if she was going somewhere it would be *Lex* who would be her escort. If she wanted to see a movie, he'd take her to the premiere; a video and pizza round at Clark's place hardly matched up to that!

But she *liked* pizza and movie evenings round at Clark's place…

But that wasn't the point here, and Clark knew it. He knew that he couldn't compete with Lex in so many material ways, so instead he was trying to compete in the most basic way there was: sex. And it was all so petty! Clark wasn't interested in her in that way — if he was, he'd have done something about it long ago. He was just being a dog in the manger. He didn't like Lex, and so didn't want him to have Lois. As if she was just some object they were fighting over! She'd thought better of Clark, but now he'd proved himself to be just as bad as any other man she'd known. He was full of it.

Well, she'd show him it hadn't worked.

Very much on her dignity, Lois shifted back to her own seat, then gave her partner a cool look.

"So, just what was that all about?"

He blinked, and she realised that, while she'd been gathering her composure, he'd been staring at her with a goofy grin on his face. The grin disappeared, and instead he looked confused. "Huh…? Lois?"

"That he-man act!" she said contemptuously. "Just what were you trying to prove?"

He seemed to struggle for words; then finally he said, "Lois… I just wanted to show you… I mean, that was pretty spectacular, wasn't it?" His tone was uncertain, almost belying his words.

She had the upper hand here, and that gave her far more confidence. Smiling at him in a deliberately superior manner, she said, "I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Clark. You'll have to admit that I'm good at kissing. It's one of the things Lex loves most about me." She was exaggerating, of course, and her supercilious air was just an act, but Clark couldn't be allowed to know that.

"I… um…" He was still lost for words. Then he protested, "But you kissed me back!"

"I did, didn't I? Well, Clark, you're right — it *was* enjoyable. Actually, you're not a bad kisser yourself. It was certainly fun, I'll grant you that. And you've helped me a lot, you know, in relation to making my mind up about Lex."

Now he looked happier. "I have? Well, that's what I was hoping…"

"Yes. Now I know that I'd be doing the right thing if I said I'd marry him," she said brightly. "After all, you just kissed me and I liked it, but I wasn't in any danger of getting carried away."

Liar, her inner voice hissed.

"So I know that there's nothing to worry about. I've had my final fling, if you could call it that, and I'm reassured." She smiled then, and turned to look out the windows and around at the still-deserted car park. "Well, looks like this tip was a bust. There's no point staying here any longer. Want a ride home?"

*** Well, that had backfired spectacularly, Clark thought miserably as he climbed out of Lois's jeep about fifteen minutes later. So much for hoping that he could show Lois how much more he cared about her than Luthor did; so much for hoping that he could persuade her with kisses that she had to be with him instead.

It had been sheer impulse which had led him to give in to the overwhelming desire to kiss her. Okay, he'd considered it for all of half a minute before doing it, but he was well aware that if he'd really taken the time to think the idea through logically he'd have known it was a stupid idea. Lois wasn't the kind of woman who would appreciate what was quite simply caveman tactics.

But she'd kissed him back…

Was he being foolish to think that a woman couldn't be in love with one man if she responded passionately to another?

But then, what did he know about it? When it came to experience of the sexual or even romantic kind, he was way behind the vast majority of people his age. And that included Lois, he knew; after all, she'd told him in the very first week of their acquaintance that she'd slept with someone who used to work at the Planet. Whereas his own experience had never gone a great deal beyond kissing.

He *did* know enough about women to be aware that Lois had been at least a little bit aroused by his kisses. Maybe more than a little. She'd certainly been enthusiastic in her response. Until, probably, she'd realised just what she was doing. But then, he suspected, sexual response wasn't necessarily the same thing as love.

After all, how could he be sure that she didn't love Lex Luthor?

Okay, her recitation of the things she saw in Luthor hadn't mentioned love. And her final comment on the subject of their kisses had seemed to suggest that she'd been unsure whether to accept Luthor's proposal or not. But she hadn't actually said that she wasn't in love with him.

She hadn't said that she was, either…

But it was entirely possible that she *was* in love with the man, or at least thought she was.

And if that was true, did Clark have any right at all to interfere?

After all, what business of his was it who she married? It wasn't Lois's fault that he was in love with her. And she was under no obligation to love him back. Even if he could fool himself into thinking that maybe the reason she started dating Luthor was because *he*, Clark, had never told her his feelings for her, he had to accept that Lois herself had never shown any signs of reciprocation. And no, enjoying his kisses was not the same thing.

But then he reminded himself that there were perfectly good reasons why Lois shouldn't marry Lex Luthor, and they had nothing to do with the fact that Clark himself was head over heels in love with her. They had everything to do with the fact that Lex Luthor was one of the most evil men alive, from what Clark knew.

So far, though, Lois had shown herself unwilling to listen to his warnings in that direction. But maybe, he wondered, remembering the promise he'd extracted from her that she would talk to Superman about Luthor, perhaps he could get through to her as Superman where Clark didn't seem able to make any progress.

Walking swiftly out onto his balcony, changing clothes as he went, Clark tried to reassure himself that all was not yet lost. If he could persuade Lois of the truth in the guise of his alter ego, then at least she would be spared the appalling discovery, some day, that she was married to a cold-blooded murderer.

*** She'd lied to Clark.

Getting ready for bed, Lois forced herself to face the unpalatable truth. She'd lied to her best friend — and worse still, she'd tried to lie to herself.

Clark's kisses had moved her far more than anything she'd ever experienced before.

And Lex had never kissed her like that. Never.

But maybe, she told herself, Lex was simply being considerate. After all, she'd made it clear, the first few times she'd been alone with him, that she wasn't easy, that she wasn't prepared to go to bed with him just because he expected it. And he'd taken that on board. So perhaps he was keeping the physical side of their relationship light because he was being considerate of her wishes. So if he hadn't tried to kiss her beyond a light peck on the cheek or forehead, or a very gentle brush of his lips across hers, then she probably had herself to blame for not indicating that she would be happy with more.

Lex clearly thought that she was shy, a little skittish, when it came to any kind of physical intimacy. But if she was considering marrying him, then it was really about time that she relaxed and encouraged him to be more romantic, more amorous. After all, once they married she'd be sharing his bed every night.

She shivered slightly, and hurried to find a warmer nightgown than the one she'd been about to put on. The temperature had suddenly dropped.

Clark had pushed her very hard about whether or not she was in love with Lex. And whether he loved her.

*Did* she love Lex?

He loved her, of course he did. Though, now that she thought about it, she couldn't actually remember him ever saying so, except just once, on the night he'd proposed. He called her 'my love', and 'my sweet' and 'darling', but had only actually said the words 'I love you' that one time.

Perhaps he thought he didn't need to say them more frequently, that Lois would understand without any need for him to articulate the words. Or perhaps he was waiting for her to say the words — after all, she hadn't reciprocated his declaration, had she?

Did *she* love *him*?

She caught herself thinking the words and mentally gave herself a shake. What was she going on about 'love' for anyway? Love was such a destructive emotion. She'd never known a circumstance in which it wasn't, not in her own life nor in that of those close to her.

Her mother had loved her father — and still did, despite the divorce and their constant arguments and sniping. Yet her father had been unfaithful almost from the start. Sam Lane had no respect for his ex-wife, and hadn't even when they'd been married to each other.

And if her father had loved her, when she'd been growing up, he hadn't showed it. Lois had stopped expecting her parents to behave like other kids' parents by the time she was about twelve. Other kids' parents loved them; she and Lucy, she'd become increasingly convinced, were simply inconveniences.

But that wasn't the worst. No, that was reserved for her humiliation at the hands of Claude Laroche. She had, as she'd allowed herself to imagine, fallen completely in love with him. And he'd claimed to love her, too, whispering sweet nothings to her all day long, whisking her out for romantic dinners, followed by blissful kissing sessions in his apartment. And, finally, after a couple of weeks of being thoroughly romanced, she'd succumbed. She had eagerly jumped into his bed and made love with him, anticipating all sorts of blissful, forbidden ecstasy.

Only it hadn't been blissful. He'd taken his own pleasure without satisfying her, then fallen asleep, snoring loudly. And in the morning, he'd been gone… and her story notes had vanished too.

And, of course, the story had appeared under Claude's byline in the following afternoon's edition, and by mid- afternoon the story was circulating that Lane was frigid and a complete waste of time in bed, despite the fact that she'd been begging for it.

And Lois had choked back the tears and vowed never, *never* to let another man take her for a ride like that again.

The love she'd thought she'd felt for Claude certainly hadn't survived her full discovery of his betrayal. But it had hurt. She'd spent several evenings weeping in bed, crying for the loss of the love she'd thought she'd found, and for the loss of her pride. And it was then that she'd decided that love was a luxury she couldn't afford.

So why was she even pausing to wonder whether she loved Lex, or he loved her?

It was far better, really, that they didn't love each other. They certainly had mutual respect, liking and admiration, which was a far better basis for a lasting relationship. Much more sensible than a situation in which emotions could run out of control, leaving one or both of them ripped apart and devastated.

Climbing into bed, she wondered why she hadn't simply told Clark this, instead of hesitating, when he'd asked whether she loved Lex. Her hesitation had made him believe that he could put on that stupid macho act to 'prove' to her that she couldn't be in love with one man if she could feel pleasure in kissing another one.

But then, she knew why she hadn't told Clark her feelings about love. Clark was such a naive, optimistic guy most of the time, and she knew that he'd simply refuse to accept her words. He'd insist that, just because she'd met the wrong man in Claude, it was no reason to believe that there wasn't someone out there she could love and could trust.

And she didn't want Clark persuading her to let down her guard. Because, she somehow knew instinctively, if anyone could make her believe in the existence of happy-ever- after, it was Clark. He so obviously believed in it, and he could be very persuasive when he put himself out to do so.

So she had to stop allowing Clark to talk to her about Lex, and at the same time she needed to start making some things clear to Lex about her willingness to be more… affectionate with him.

*** "Can we talk, Lois?"

Clark set down a mug of coffee and a deftly-acquired chocolate doughnut — the last in the box — on his partner's desk and waited, almost holding his breath. He'd been doing a lot of thinking since the early hours of the morning, and he'd decided that his best course of action was to apologise for his behaviour. Grovel, if necessary.

Kissing her like that had been out of order. In fact, Lois would have been within her rights to call it sexual harassment, though he didn't think she would. They were friends, after all, and it was in that context that they'd been having the discussion. Nevertheless, he'd taken advantage of her and kissed her, and even though she'd responded at the time it was clear that she'd been angry with him afterwards.

He still didn't know what to make of her final comment on the matter, the suggestion that his kisses had helped her to decide that she *did* want to marry Luthor. He had a suspicion — which he hoped was correct — that she'd said that only to punish him, that it was in some way getting back at him for his presumption.

So, although he still thought that her response to him meant more about her feelings than she was admitting, he had come to the conclusion that if he was going to keep her friendship, and thus stand some sort of chance of talking her out of accepting Luthor's proposal, he needed to undo any damage he'd done last night. Keeping her out of Luthor's clutches was the most important thing in all this; somehow getting Lois to admit that she was attracted to *him* would be nice, but he could live without that for now so long as she didn't agree to marry Luthor.

The thought of Lois as Lex Luthor's wife was enough to chill him to the bone.

Lois turned and looked at him out of the corner of her eye, then stared down at his peace-offerings, clearly avoiding his gaze. "What's it about, Clark? I'm pretty busy," she said dismissively.

He sighed inwardly. So she was playing it like this, was she? "Lois," he said persuasively, edging around so that he was in her line of vision. "We need to talk. I mean, either we tiptoe around each other pretending last night didn't happen, or we clear the air. And I'd rather clear the air, personally. Like I told you last night, you're my best friend. I don't want to lose you. So if you want me to apologise, then I apologise."

She gave him a wary look; clearly she had been hoping to avoid any discussion of their late-night emotional encounter. "I accept your apology. Now, I'm kind of busy…"

"Lois, please," Clark said, emphasising the 'please'. "Can we talk properly about this? Come on — five minutes, that's all I'm asking."

She sighed, then shrugged. "If you insist…" Getting to her feet, she said, "Actually, you can walk with me down to the morgue — there's something I need to look up."

He followed her across the newsroom, not failing to notice that she took the coffee and doughnut with her. So she'd accepted that part of his peace-offering, at least, he thought, smiling. Once they entered the elevator and the doors had slid closed, though, Lois surprised him by hitting the emergency stop button.

"Okay, Clark, you wanted to talk about last night," she said, turning to him; to his dismay, her expression was distinctly cool.

"I just wanted to — " he began, but she cut him off.

"I know you apologised, and I'm glad you did," she told him. "It makes me feel a little better about you today. Because I have to tell you that I did *not* appreciate that macho display you pulled last night! I don't know what the heck you thought you were doing, but I do *not* like being mauled, Clark!"

*Mauled*, he thought, sickened, recoiling from the word. He hadn't mauled her! He'd kissed her — and she'd certainly kissed him back! With enthusiasm, too, until she'd remembered where she was and exactly who she was dating, he'd guessed. And now she was trying to cover up her reactions by accusing him of *mauling* her. Well, that wasn't fair, even if she did need to persuade herself that it was true in order to satisfy her conscience.

"Lois, I did not 'maul' you," he protested, quietly but firmly. "I kissed you. And I realise that you'd given me no encouragement whatsoever to do anything like that, and that's why I apologised. But I swear to you, if you'd pushed me away, or told me to stop, I would have. Immediately."

That had been the wrong thing to say, he realised almost instantly as she glared at him. It probably wasn't sensible to remind a woman, after the event, of how she'd responded to a man's advances, when she was clearly ashamed of it and when she was dating another man, into the bargain!

Lois ignored his protest. Instead, she gave him a direct look. "Clark, you said last night that you didn't want to lose my friendship. Well, the same goes for me. You *are* a good friend, and I… I do care about you. I want us to stay friends. But that has to be on one condition."

He ran a hand through his hair, at the same time betting himself silently that he knew what the condition was. "Yes?"

"My love-life is none of your business, okay? If I run off tomorrow and elope with a mass murderer, I don't want you to lift a finger to try to stop me! It's *not* your business, Clark! If I want to marry Lex Luthor, I'll marry him, whatever you think about it or him. I appreciate that you care about me. I *like* it that you care. But I don't like it when you get jealous. You have no *right* to get jealous over me, and Lex Luthor has never done anything against you. So is that understood?" she finished, jamming her doughnut in her mouth and jabbing at his chest with a finger.

Clark swallowed; it gave him no pleasure at all to know that he'd been right about her stipulation. And he wasn't at all happy about her demands, either. Sighing heavily, he shook his head. "Lois, come on! Do you really expect me to say nothing at all? You know I care about you! That's why I have to tell you what I think. If I didn't care, then I *would* just act like it was none of my business!"

"It *is* none of your business!" Lois retorted. "And I'm telling you to butt out!"

"I can't do that," Clark said heavily. "Not when I think you're making a mistake."

"So what if I am? And anyway, Clark, don't you think that's incredibly patronising of you? You're saying that you know better than me, that I can't be trusted to make my own decisions. Well, newsflash, buster — I've been running my own life for a lot longer than I've known you! And I've done pretty well at it, too, even without your superior advice!"

Inwardly, Clark considered that to be very debatable; hadn't Lois told him, during his very first week at the Planet, about a misjudgement she'd made in a previous relationship? But he knew that no good would come of raising that right now. It would probably only make her reject his friendship completely. And that was the last thing he wanted.

So instead he sighed again, running his hand through his hair. "Okay," he said at last, very reluctantly. "If that's the condition you want to put on our friendship, Lois, then there's not a lot I can do about it. I don't want to lose you. But I don't want you to be unhappy, either," he told her, grimacing. "And I can't stop thinking that Lex Luthor isn't right for you."

"You're not the arbiter of what will or won't make me happy!" she objected, but her tone was less harsh than it had been. "And you have no idea whether Lex is right for me or not. I make my own decisions, Clark. And if you can't accept that…"

"I can accept it; of course I can," Clark quickly protested. Not that he really meant it; he could never accept that he was wrong about Luthor, and he would never reconcile himself to the prospect of Lois marrying that man. He would continue to do everything he could to prevent that happening; he'd just have to be more careful about the means he chose in order to try to achieve that end. After all, the mark of a true friend was that he did not stand by and watch his friend destroy herself. But there was no point arguing this further with Lois right now. She was determined not to listen, and if he persisted the only thing he might succeed in doing would be to make her reject his friendship altogether.

And, of course, he reminded himself, Lois had promised to ask Superman about Luthor. Naturally, he would make sure that Superman sought Lois out and told her everything he knew and suspected about Luthor, and the sooner the better. After all, he was well aware that Lois was far more likely to listen to his Spandex-clad alter ego than to her partner and best friend, he reminded himself wryly.

He met her gaze again; she was watching him with a half- defensive, half-challenging expression. Obviously his actions last night had put some degree of constraint on their relationship, and he needed to mend his fences there. Giving her a rueful, apologetic smile, he added, "And I apologise again for last night. That won't happen again."

"It better not," she grunted, then released the elevator. It travelled down to the morgue floor, then stopped; Lois exited, but turned to block Clark's passage.

"I've got work to do," she announced, then hit the door- close button. He could only watch her walk away as the doors glided to a close in front of him.

*** It had been so tempting to yell at Clark when he'd started in on her about Lex again. But she'd bitten her tongue, reminding herself that, however irritating he might be at the moment, he was someone she cared about, and who cared about her. Despite their inauspicious beginnings, over the past six months or so Clark had become a vitally important part of her life. And she didn't want to lose him over a stupid argument because he was jealous about her relationship with Lex.

Clark would get over it; of course he would. It was only because, as far as Lois could tell, he didn't seem to have any other women in his life. As long as she'd known him, she'd never seen him with a girlfriend or heard him talk about being attracted to or interested in anyone. He seemed to spend most of his free time with Lois herself, unless he was going to a ballgame or the movies with Jimmy.

There had been that thing with Cat right when Clark had first arrived — everyone, including Lois herself, had been convinced that Clark had spent the night with the gossip columnist, an impression which Cat herself had gone out of her way to foster. Clark had protested his innocence at the time and Lois hadn't listened, but he'd reasserted it a few months later when they'd been on that undercover assignment at the Lexor, and she'd found his quiet statement utterly convincing. It had been clear from his manner that he'd never been remotely interested in Cat.

Of course, there was that sheriff, Rachel whatever-her- name-was, in Smallville, who clearly had a crush on Clark; but if Clark had been interested in her, he wouldn't have moved to Metropolis. There was no doubt about that. And there had been Linda King, only a few weeks ago; she'd been very interested in Clark, Lois remembered, her hackles rising at the memory of the way that woman had brazenly pursued her partner. She'd had no shame whatsoever; but then, that was nothing new for Linda King.

Had Clark shown any interest in her? At the time, Lois had strongly suspected that he had, but then she hadn't known that he was in cahoots with Perry over his undercover operation. He'd 'resigned' from the Planet to take up a job with the Metropolis Star, to work as Linda's partner. When that had happened, Lois had been convinced that Clark had been seduced by that woman's too-obvious flaunting of herself, and she'd been contemptuous of what she saw as her ex-partner's typically-male reactions to a flirt.

But then, Clark hadn't really abandoned *her*, or the Planet. It had all been a ruse, to find out what was really going on at the Star. So did that mean he hadn't really been interested in Linda? He'd certainly gone off with her unhesitatingly that night when the two of *them* had been eating together at the Press Club; it hadn't taken much persuasion from Linda to make him leave Lois without a backward glance. But then later, when Linda had announced her intention to head off for Hollywood, Clark hadn't seemed at all troubled or despondent. He'd certainly shown no inclination to go with her, although there had been open invitation in Linda's behaviour towards him.

So, it seemed he hadn't really been attracted to Linda.

Lois sat down at one of the microfiches in the morgue, but didn't instantly begin to focus on her work. Instead, she continued to puzzle through her partner's behaviour. She'd known him for almost a year, and, as she'd just reasoned, he hadn't had a girlfriend in that time. And his parents had never mentioned anyone in the recent past; she knew that Clark had taken Rachel to his high-school prom, and that there'd been somebody called Lana in his past as well; but both of those had been in his school or college days. Clark was in his late twenties now — twenty-eight, she thought — and most men she knew of that age were married, or living with someone, or otherwise in a serious relationship, with at least one other serious relationship behind them. Unless they were gay or something… and she was pretty sure that Clark wasn't gay.

So he felt possessive about her, because she'd been the only woman in his life over the past year. That was, no doubt, why he resented her getting involved with another man, she told herself.

<But what about that kiss?> a tiny voice objected. <That suggests it's more than just a dog-in-the-manger attitude, doesn't it?>

Was it possible that Clark might actually be attracted to *her*?

But then, she admitted to herself, she'd always known that. He'd made it very clear by his behaviour that very first evening they'd worked late together, when they'd been talking casually over the Chinese food he'd bought. The way he'd looked at her, admiration clear in his eyes, had screamed his attraction to her loudly. And something about his expression had even made her own heart skip a beat for a moment, before she'd remembered that men were trouble, and men she worked with even bigger trouble. Definitely forbidden territory. And anyway, she'd reminded herself that he was just a hack from the back of beyond, foisted on her against her will, and certainly not anyone really worth her notice.

Well, she'd been wrong about that; Clark was definitely more than just a hack from nowhere, and he was worth her notice. He'd become a very good friend, and someone she now couldn't imagine her life without.

But was he still attracted to her? Hadn't that initial interest died away once he'd got to know her? After all, he'd never tried again to pursue her; he'd never asked her out or given any other sign of interest, apart from his participation in their everyday, harmless flirting with each other. That meant nothing; they both knew that.

That kiss last night, though… Was it simply a dog-in-the- manger attempt to convince her that she couldn't want to marry Lex if she could kiss another man and enjoy it? Or had it meant something more? Was Clark *really* interested in her as more than a friend, or was his interest in her merely a habit that he didn't want to break?

She supposed, thinking about it, that it was possible that he might have a crush on her. But in that case she certainly didn't want to encourage it. She liked Clark too much for that. After all, her experience of relationships was that, when they went bad, they went *very* bad. She'd lose Clark as a friend too, and that wasn't worth risking.

Before Clark, she had never had a real friend. Oh, she'd had plenty of acquaintances; people she'd been to school or college with, for instance, casual acquaintances through her career. But none of them had been a *friend*. In fact, she'd have to admit that, before Clark had come into her life, she hadn't even known what the concept of friendship was all about.

She'd never had someone in her life who was always there, no matter what. Who would come when she called him, no matter what time of the day or night. Who was always there on the other end of the phone when she needed to talk. Who cheered her up when she was down, and laughed with her when she was happy. Who supported her even when he thought she was wrong, and picked up the pieces when things fell apart — and who almost never said, 'I told you so'.

Clark had become her best friend — her *only* friend. She knew that she could talk to him about anything in the world, and that he'd listen and never judge. She could ask him to do almost anything for her, and she knew that if it was within his power he would do it. He was fiercely loyal, and completely dependable. Through him, she'd slowly been regaining her faith in human nature.

She *couldn't* lose Clark's friendship! No matter what else happened, that was essential. Which was another reason why it would be crazy to encourage Clark in any way to see her as more than a friend. Because all of her relationships turned to federal disasters; she seemed to have a unique talent of taking something which should be good and precious and turning it to ashes. And if that happened to her relationship with Clark, she simply couldn't bear it.

So, all in all, it was just as well that she was considering marrying Lex. That way, she'd be out of Clark's reach as a romantic or sexual interest, and he'd get used to that soon enough. And he'd still be her friend, and her partner — after all, being married to Lex, if she did marry him, didn't mean that she couldn't carry on working at the Planet. That would be one of her conditions, she thought.

And then she made herself turn to the research which had brought her down to the morgue, deliberately refusing to acknowledge the memory of just how much *she* had enjoyed Clark's kisses last night… and how much she'd like him to do it again.


Clark emerged from the elevator back on the newsroom floor to see several of his colleagues standing together, talking agitatedly. Jimmy, Eduardo, Ralph, Cat, Jack and a few others, comprising a group most of whose members would not normally give at least one other member the time of day as a rule. Something was seriously wrong, in that case, he thought as he strolled over to join them.

"What's up?" he enquired.

"Hey, CK! You mean you don't know?" Jimmy exclaimed, sounding incredulous.

"Haven't you opened your special delivery yet?" Jack drawled, sounding even more boredly cynical than ever.

"The Planet's in even bigger trouble than we thought," Cat said seriously, no sign of her usual flirtatious nature in evidence now.

Clark frowned. They'd all been aware that the Planet was going through a bit of a bad patch; sales had been dropping for the past couple of months and advertising revenues were beginning to follow suit. But no-one had really taken it all too seriously — after all, things were bound to pick up, had been the conventional wisdom around the newsroom. All they needed were a couple of big scoops, and they were bound to get those, weren't they? After all, they had Lois Lane, a three-time Kerth winner, and Lois was partnered with Clark Kent, with whom she'd been nominated for a Merriweather. And Eduardo Friaz was a good, solid journalist with a long-standing reputation for good reporting — and Cat's Corner was essential reading for most of Metropolis. And Perry White was the most respected newspaper editor in New Troy, if not in the entire country. So how could a paper like the Daily Planet really be in trouble?

But now it looked as if their optimism had been misplaced, Clark thought as he read the letter Jimmy was waving under his nose. The figures weren't looking good at all, and the accountants were getting increasingly nervous, it seemed. The letter warned of cutbacks at every level, from a freeze on overtime for all staff and a ban on expenses to the possibility of short-time and even layoffs.

"Layoffs?" Clark exclaimed in disbelief.

"Yeah, and you know who's going to be first in the firing- line," Jack muttered belligerently.

Feeling desperately sorry for the teenager he had taken responsibility for, and helped to get his job at the Planet, Clark grimaced. "Maybe not. I mean, if they really need to make savings…"

"Cutting my job won't help much. I know," Jack said flatly. "But a gofer's a luxury at this sort of time. And we all know the rule is last hired, first fired. That's me, all right."

It occurred to Clark that, if layoffs were needed among reporters, then according to the rule Jack had just quoted he would be in the firing-line. His heart sank; this was his dream job. He'd so much enjoyed this last year, working at the Planet, being Lois Lane's partner, and he hated the thought of losing it all at the stroke of an accountant's pen.

"It's not looking good," Eduardo said glumly. "I've been at the Planet through bad times before, but they never sent out a letter like this to all employees before. My guess is we have to expect layoffs."

Clark noticed that Jimmy was also looking worried, and he discreetly reached out to squeeze his friend's arm supportively. Ralph, who appeared to have been waiting for an audience, then said, "Well, if reporters are in the line of fire it'll be you first, Kent."

Clark gave Ralph an irritable glare, then deliberately looked away to re-read the letter. It sounded even worse on second reading, and he felt even more despondent. The sombre comments being made by the others around him certainly didn't help.

"Hey, what's going on here?" A sharp female voice penetrated Clark's thoughts, and he looked up to see that Lois had joined the group. Without a word, he handed her the letter and watched as she read it.

"No way!" she expostulated. "They can't do this!"

"Newsflash, Lois, they're doing it," Jack drawled, again cynical. "Guess I might as well quit now and save them the trouble of printing the pink slip."

Clark could almost imagine Lois's private thoughts at that; she made no secret of the fact that she didn't like Jack. But she shook her head immediately. "No-one's quitting! No- one's even going to get laid off if we can help it!"

"Face facts, Lois — what can we do?" Cat said, almost rhetorically. "We said sales would go back up — they haven't. The advertisers aren't going to come running back without a good reason. And has anyone got a scoop hidden up their sleeve?"

"We're bound to get a good story sooner or later," Lois retorted. "But anyway, that's not the most important thing here. Has anyone called the union? We need a meeting, preferably today!"

"Union?" That was Jack.

"The Newspaper Guild," Lois answered impatiently. "If you're not a member, you should be."

"That's only for reporters, isn't it?" Jimmy objected.

"Yeah, and since when have unions done any good for anyone?" Jack demanded.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Read the newspaper, Jack! What about in Philadelphia last month, when the Daily News was going to lay off more than a dozen employees? The union saved all but two of those jobs."

"Yeah, and if that was here I can guess whose job wouldn't get saved," Jack muttered, then turned and walked away.

"Defeatist!" Lois snapped, then turned back to the remainder of the group. "Okay, so has anyone called the union office?"

Silence greeted her question, so she muttered something inaudible — Clark heard "incompetent idiots" and grinned briefly — and stalked off to her desk.


Lois replaced the telephone receiver and grabbed her copy of the suits' letter, preparatory to faxing it to the union office. As she began to move away from her desk, however, Jimmy stopped her.

"Lois, I was wondering… well, is it fair to the Chief, bringing the union in behind his back?"

Lois frowned at him, surprised at the question. "Jimmy, first off, this isn't an attack on Perry. Do you really imagine for one minute that he wants to lay off anyone here? Or even cut our expenses — he's the editor, for heaven's sake! He knows we need all that stuff to get stories! It's the suits upstairs we need to deal with. And if you think that Perry isn't just as furious with them as we are, then you don't know him!" She paused, then added, "He's in the union too, you know. And my guess is the only thing that's stopped him calling them in is that he's under a lot of pressure from above."

Jimmy took a step backwards. "I guess so, Lois," he said doubtfully. He half-turned, then noticed Clark standing behind him. Lois thought Clark's expression was more depressed than she'd ever noticed him look before, and she frowned, wondering what was wrong. It couldn't be all of this stuff; Clark was a pretty resilient, optimistic guy and he knew they'd get through it and get the Planet back on top. Could it be that she'd been right in her guess, that he did have a crush on her and was having to resign himself to her relationship with Lex?

"Oh, hey, CK," Jimmy said awkwardly. "You know, you don't want to pay any attention to Ralph. He doesn't know what he's talking about."

"Ralph?" Lois looked from one to the other.

Clark shrugged.

Jimmy burst into speech. "Oh, he was just being a jerk, as usual. Jack said that 'last hired, first fired' meant he'd be out of a job, and Ralph said that would apply to Clark too."

Trust Ralph, Lois thought. Insensitive through and through. She waved Jimmy away, then turned to look at Clark. He was avoiding her gaze, but he definitely looked uncomfortable, to say the least. She went to him and patted his arm. "Come on, Clark, you know better than to listen to Ralph!" she said, she hoped encouragingly.

He shrugged. "He's right. I was the last reporter hired."

"Yeah, but you're also one of the best the Planet's got, and Perry knows it!" Lois replied bracingly. "Last hired, first fired might mean something when you're looking at distribution workers, or gofers like Jack, but not reporters!"

Only after she'd said it did Lois realise that Clark might be upset at her reference to Jack; after all, he'd sponsored the young ex-petty thief and got him his job at the Planet. But still, she decided with a mental shrug, she neither liked nor trusted the teenager and Clark was well aware of that fact. He'd just have to accept it. And anyway, her concern was — quite rightly — for Clark himself, not for some unqualified and untalented hanger-on.

"I don't know," Clark said despondently, shoving his hands into his trouser pockets. "I mean, sure, I've done some good work, but so have others. And who's to say that the work I've done isn't good just because I've been working with you — the Planet's multiple-award-winning reporter?"

This was a Clark she'd never seen before, Lois thought, worried about her partner. He was normally such an optimistic guy, cheerful and smiling and generally encouraging other people — including herself — to look on the positive side. Oh, sure, he had his occasional moment of feeling down, but it rarely lasted long, and never made him sound so depressed. This wasn't good.

"Clark, you are *not* going to get laid off!" she said firmly. "Apart from anything else, Perry wouldn't allow it. And if I discovered that he was even considering it, I'd be in his office making darned sure that he changed his mind! So stop thinking like that," she instructed, jabbing a finger into his chest.

He smiled, reluctantly, it seemed, and reached up to catch her finger in his large hand. "Thanks, Lois. I guess I needed that."

For a moment, Lois felt herself drawn to her partner; his smile, even though it wasn't the mega-watt smile she'd seen so many times, warmed her, and his hand holding hers made her want to…

But that was crazy! She was dating Lex, and considering marrying Lex. And anyway, she'd already determined that getting involved with another co-worker was not a good idea. Clark was a friend, and she needed to keep him that way.

So she drew her hand from his and gestured towards the fax machine. "I need to send this," she told him, indicating the letter in her hand. "And then we need to figure out what's going on here."

"Going on?" Now Clark was looking puzzled, which was fine if she'd managed to distract him from thoughts of her.

She waved at him to follow her, which he did, standing beside her as she fed the letter through the fax machine. Then she turned to him again. "Don't you think this is all too much of a coincidence, Clark?"

"What is?" His expression showed his complete confusion, and she tutted impatiently.

"Oh, come on!" she exclaimed impatiently. "Why are sales down so suddenly? And why have half our advertisers decamped? Things just don't happen that quickly in this industry. Don't you remember the last time this happened?"

"When Preston Carpenter of the Star was behind it all," he said, his tone revealing that the penny had dropped. "You think one of our competitors is trying to destroy the Planet?"

That made Lois sigh. "I just don't know — *yet*," she stressed. "But I'll bet on any stakes you want to name that this isn't a coincidence."

Clark raised an eyebrow and gave her a quirky grin. "I take it this is the famous Lane gut instinct kicking in? In that case, I think I'll pass on the bet."

She gave his arm a good-natured thump before heading back to her desk, leaving him to follow her.


By the end of the working day, Lois was feeling exhausted and in no mood to spend the evening in any way other than vegetating in front of the TV. But she knew she couldn't do that; not tonight. She had to go to see Lex; not only because she was keeping him waiting for the answer to his proposal, but also because she needed to find out some things for herself about their relationship.

So she showered, changed and drove over to Lex's penthouse suite on the top floor of the LexCorp building, trying, on the way, to shake off the atmosphere which had pervaded the Planet newsroom for the entire day and which had, in spite of her efforts, succeeded even in making her feel despondent about the newspaper's future.

Not long after she'd faxed the letter to the Newspaper Guild regional office, Perry had emerged from his office and addressed staff. And, for the first time in Lois's memory of him, the editor had seemed genuinely worried about the paper's future. That was very troubling. Even when Preston Carpenter had been manipulating accidents so as to get major scoops before the Planet, while Perry had been irritable and had urged reporters to get out there and get better news stories, he had never shown any serious sign of concern. But now… this was different.

So her idea of looking into what was behind the sudden loss of market share had had to be shelved for the time being, as she and Clark had spent the day in and out of the newsroom, hunting down big stories. But again, this had been a slow news day, their biggest scoop being a jewellery store robbery in which the thieves only managed to get away with some zirconia necklaces — not diamonds, but synthetic substitutes.

There hadn't even been a Superman sighting all day — not that Superman sightings were such big news now that the hero had been around for almost a year, but at least it would have been something decent to write about. And research showed that a front-page picture of Superman still had the 'Princess Diana effect' — it would sell more copies than a rival publication without such a front-page picture.

If only she knew how to contact Superman, Lois had thought wryly, she would have been tempted to ask him to fake some sort of rescue just to give them a story! Clark, of course, did seem to know how to get in touch with the Super-hero, but she was well aware that Clark's over-developed sense of ethics would never allow him to ask Superman to do anything of the kind. And that was a pity…

*Somehow*, they had to get a really big story. Something no other news organisation had a chance of scooping them on… As she parked her car in the private parking area behind the LexCorp building, she wondered whether she could finally talk Lex into giving her that exclusive interview she'd wanted and never managed to get from him. That would help.

But first, she had something else to discuss with Lex: their relationship, and her reaction to his proposal. Her resolve in the small hours of that morning to find out whether she was attracted to Lex had by now grown stronger, helped by her exchange with Clark in the elevator that morning.

"Lois! My dear!" Lex met her as she exited the elevator outside his penthouse apartment, greeting her with a charming smile and a kiss on the cheek. "Come on in — I've had Nigel arrange a light supper for us, since you said you didn't feel like eating out tonight."

She moved closer to him as he looped an arm around her shoulders, walking with him into the luxurious sitting-room of the apartment. Inside, a maid took her coat and Lex immediately offered her a drink. "Wine? I have a delicious Pouilly here, which was just flown in from France last week."

"I'm driving, Lex," Lois demurred. "I really shouldn't drink."

"Nonsense! If it's a problem, then Nigel will drive you home. In your car, if you like, so that you'll have it for the morning. Though, you know, if you would just accept my proposal then you'd never have to worry about such things again. You'd never even have to drive yourself again, if you so wished."

Yes, marrying Lex would certainly mean that she'd live in the lap of luxury, Lois knew. But that was not a good reason for marrying anyone, and it certainly wasn't a reason she personally found acceptable for marriage. There had to be mutual respect and liking.

So exactly what was there between herself and Lex? She'd asked herself that question only that morning, but hadn't really come up with satisfying answers. She'd meant to save the discussion about their relationship until later in the evening, but perhaps now was the right time, since he'd already brought up the subject of his proposal.

Sitting beside Lex on the deep sofa, Lois turned to him. "Lex, why do you want to marry me?"

He blinked. "Well, isn't it enough that you're beautiful and intelligent and charming? And that I find you stimulating company, as well as very attractive?"

Well, that was close to her own reasoning, Lois thought. She too found Lex intelligent and charming, and he was handsome. Always well-dressed, his clothing perfectly cut and just right for any occasion.

An image of another man looking breathtakingly handsome in jeans and a black T-shirt flitted into her mind then, but she batted it away.

Lex was all those qualities she'd outlined for herself the previous evening. And he clearly thought the same about her. But he had said that he found her attractive…

"Lex," she began, a little awkwardly. "You say you find me attractive."

He inclined his head, smiling slightly, as if he was wondering why she was asking the question and was being polite. "Naturally, Lois."

"Well, I suppose I was just wondering why… why you haven't tried to… well, take things any further than just light kissing."

That made him frown. "Didn't it occur to you that I was trying to respect your choices? That I would not want to push you into something you might not be ready for? If you're saying I was wrong, Lois, well, then, let's adjourn to my bedroom," he finished, a little tartly.

Lois gasped. "I didn't mean -" she began, then halted. "I suppose I did, really. But… well, there's more to it than just…"

"Just sex?" Lex finished for her, his tone now smooth. He smiled at her, and she realised that his earlier comment hadn't been serious. "I should hope so!"

"Yes, but… well, if we're considering marriage, then we should at least be considering the… the physical side of things!" Lois protested.

Lex reached out and laid his palm against her cheek. "Oh, I don't foresee any problems in that direction, my sweet." Turning away from her then, he gestured at someone she was unable to see. "Shall we eat now? We can return to this subject later, if you really insist; but I wish you'd take my word for it that it's not going to be an issue with us."

Lois couldn't see why Lex was so confident, however. Okay, he was obviously attracted to her and saw no potential problems with their sex life, but how could he possibly know how she felt, or whether she would find their sex life satisfying?

<Unless> a tiny voice suggested, <he doesn't think it's important that *you* find it satisfying?>

But she refused to listen to that. Which, she knew, was not at all sensible or rational; after all, her previous experiences with sex had involved men who were not at all interested in her enjoyment. And that had certainly coloured her view of sex and relationships ever since.

So why was she reluctant to consider that Lex might be no different? she asked herself as she allowed him to lead her into the dining-room where, despite his promise of a light supper, she was well aware that they would be served a four-course meal. That was a question she needed to think about another time; there was no way that she could focus on it while she was actually with Lex, as he tended to demand his companion's entire attention at all times.

Just as he was doing now, asking her what she thought of the consomm‚ and wanting to know whether she was happy with the Pouilly or would prefer a different wine. Actually, she thought the consomm‚ was a little over-fishy, but then Lex liked fish. And, while the Pouilly was delicious, crisp and dry, for some reason she had a sudden longing for beer and pizza.

But that was being silly. She could have pizza any night — and, in fact, had eaten greasy, cold pizzas on far too many occasions when pulling an all-nighter at the Planet or on stakeout.

"Since I know you don't want to eat a heavy meal, I asked Chef Andre to prepare a grilled chicken Caesar salad for you, my dear," Lex said smoothly as their soup-bowls were removed. "I hope you won't mind that I'll be having Chateaubriand."

Assuring him that of course she didn't mind in the least, Lois reflected on the lifestyle Lex clearly took for granted; among other things, the ability to order whatever he wanted at mealtimes, without the usual reliance on whatever happened to be in the refrigerator or the amount of time available for cooking — or cooking ability, come to that. He had an army of servants at his beck and call and, while Lois had always found the idea of having domestic servants a little… well, feudal, she couldn't deny that it had its attractions now that she was exposed to it.

She had no further opportunity for reflection, since Lex claimed her attention throughout the meal, and over coffee afterwards when he insisted on asking her opinion of a new work of art he'd just purchased. It was a modernist statue and, while Lois was mildly interested in art, abstracts didn't do a lot for her. Clearly Lex admired it, though… or perhaps he thought of it merely as an investment, since he continually referred to the sculptor as 'the next Damian Hurst'. Despite her best efforts, she ended up yawning before she'd finished her coffee.

"Tired, Lois?" Lex asked, concerned. "You're not working too hard, I hope? But weren't you on a stakeout last night? You really should make sure that you don't overdo it."

Of course, she remembered; she'd told him about the stakeout the previous afternoon, in order to explain why she hadn't been able to have dinner with him. "It's not the stakeout that's made me tired, Lex," she explained. "Things have just been a bit rough at work today, and it got worse today."

"Oh?" He gave her an enquiring look. "What happened?"

About to tell him, Lois was struck with a sudden caution. Lex, after all, was owner of LNN, which — even though it was television-based and not print — was still a rival news organisation. And it wouldn't do the Planet any good at all for the news that it was in difficulties to get out. So she smiled and shook her head. "Nothing interesting. It just made the day a little tiring, that's all."

"You know, my sweet, if you marry me you'll never need to work another day in your life," Lex said with another of his charming smiles. "You can leave all that stress and hassle behind you."

"Lex, you know I'm a reporter," Lois answered instantly. "And that I love my job. No matter how much money I had, I'd still want to carry on writing about the news."

"I guess I can understand that," he agreed. "But why the Planet? You could come and work for LNN — I already offered you that. And you'd come in at a much senior level to where you are now. Did you think about that at all?"

Lois shook her head. "I did think about it, but I couldn't do it, Lex. I belong at the Planet. And anyway, Clark would never move to LNN."

Lex frowned. "Clark Kent? What does he have to do with it?" Lois fancied that his tone had grown sharper, but when she looked quickly at Lex his expression was urbane.

Was he jealous of her relationship with her partner?

But that would be crazy. Lex knew, surely, that she and Clark were just friends. Now, if it was Superman, that would be a different matter entirely, and so far she'd avoided even mentioning Superman in Lex's company.

"He's my partner," she said quickly. "We're a team. We work well together, and I wouldn't want to work with anyone else."

"I see," Lex said, his tone giving nothing away. "But, Lois, do you really need a partner? Before Clark Kent arrived, you were the best reporter in the city. And you'd still be the best if you went back to working alone."

But she didn't want to go back to working alone…

She might have resented being teamed up with Clark in the beginning, but now she couldn't imagine working without him. She couldn't imagine not having him around in her life at all… it was unthinkable. And the realisation of just how unthinkable it was scared her.

It was time to change the subject. Placing her coffee-cup on the low table, she turned and studied her companion out of the corner of her eye. He was sitting back in his corner of the sofa, looking perfectly relaxed even though he was still dressed in his formal business suit; his tie was still perfectly in place. Not a hair had shifted from his perfect coiffure.

Lex was a very good-looking man. And, for his age, which she estimated to be somewhere in his forties — not that he'd ever told her how old he was — he was extremely youthful in appearance. It would be amazing if any woman wasn't physically attracted to him.

But was she?

Lex was so different from any other man she'd dated. She couldn't quite imagine curling up in his arms on the sofa, nor running her fingers lazily through his dark, curly hair. And as for kissing him… well, so far all they'd exchanged had been brief, platonic salutes on the cheek, and one very short closed-mouth kiss on the lips.

So it was time to find out more, she decided. Meeting his now-curious gaze, Lois said boldly, "Kiss me, Lex."

*** It was a quiet night over Metropolis, which gave Clark time to think.

Too much time to think.

His job at the Planet could be at risk. Oh, he knew that Lois had attempted, in her own way, to reassure him on that score, but if the paper was really in such bad shape then jobs would be lost. And the fair rule for layoffs was last hired, first fired. Which meant that if reporting jobs went, of course he would be first.

Lois was right; they had to figure out why this was happening. It all seemed too weird; one minute the Planet was one of the most respected newspapers in the world, and one whose sales outranked its rivals in Metropolis by large numbers, and the next it was heading for bankruptcy? Something had to be going on.

But in the meantime they had to do something to help stem the decline. And the continuing lack of good stories wasn't helping at all. That afternoon, he'd been sorely tempted to stage something as Superman just to produce a story; although he couldn't justify using his alter ego in that way, he'd actually hoped for some sort of real emergency where he'd have to help out, which would give him a big front-page story. Even better if Lois could somehow have been there; a good Lane and Kent Superman splash would have helped sales, for at least one issue.

Superman hadn't been required all day, however. And the last big rescue he'd done as Superman had been witnessed by live TV cameras, which meant that there was virtually nothing left for the print media to report. Oh, well, he thought with a sigh, perhaps if he was fortunate — or someone else was unfortunate, he reminded himself guiltily — something would happen tomorrow.

But the Planet's future wasn't what was most bothering him tonight. It was Lois, and her possible future plans, which was eating away inside him.

He knew that she was with Luthor tonight. She hadn't told him her plans, but he'd happened to be flying over her apartment when she'd emerged, dressed smartly, and got into her Jeep. He simply hadn't been able to prevent himself following her, and he'd felt sick inside when he realised where she was going.

To see Lex Luthor.

And, if her behaviour that morning was anything to go by, she intended to tell Luthor that she'd marry him.

There was a world of difference between an engagement and a marriage, he told himself. And even if she did accept Luthor's proposal, he had time to persuade her to change her mind. Okay, that thing with kissing her hadn't worked, but there were other things he could try. He still intended to tell her, as Superman, what he suspected about Luthor's criminal behaviour. That might help change her mind.

And if it didn't? he asked himself gloomily. What could he do then?

There was always Superman, he thought then. He knew very well that Lois still had a crush on his alter ego; that was another reason why her apparent interest in Lex Luthor had come completely out of the blue to him. Only a matter of weeks ago she'd still been batting her eyes at him whenever he was in the Superman costume, and he was pretty sure that nothing had changed.

So did he mean that he'd be willing to court her as Superman?

Coming to a halt in mid-air, Clark pondered the logic of the direction his thoughts had just taken. Would he really consider courting Lois as Superman, in order to entice her away from Lex?

But that was crazy. Being with her as Superman would simply be impossible; he was already finding that balancing two apparently separate lives was darned difficult on occasion. How could he possibly manage to cope if he complicated things still further, being Lois's partner and friend as Clark and her lover as Superman? It couldn't be done. And even apart from that, he could never put her safety at risk by openly identifying her with Superman.

And anyway, he wanted her as Clark, not as Superman…

<So tell her you're Clark> a little voice tempted him.

Tell Lois that he was both Clark and Superman, letting her see that if she accepted Clark she could also have the Super-hero she admired. And tell her that he loved her. That would probably do it, he reflected wryly. She'd walk away from Lex Luthor in a second, more than likely.

But if it worked, he thought slowly, what would that say about Lois herself? Did he really want to find out if she was that shallow?

But did he really want to see her marry Lex Luthor, if he could prevent it?

It wouldn't come to that, he told himself firmly. He would talk to her, as Superman, and convince her that her boyfriend was a crook. Even Lois was bound to listen to Superman. Then she'd dump Luthor, and everything would get back to normal.

<Even if you can't forget about that kiss…>


<Kiss me, Lex>

Lois's words seemed to reverberate around the suddenly- silent room, and she cringed inside. Had she just made a complete fool of herself?

But then, as she was ducking her head so that Lex couldn't see her flaming face, she saw an arrested look come over her companion's features. "If that's your wish, my sweet…" he drawled, and slid closer to her.

She waited for the same sense of anticipation that she'd felt the previous night, when Clark had moved closer to her in the confined interior of the Jeep and she'd known that he was going to kiss her. Instead, she felt nervous, her heart thumping as she wondered, with almost a sense of panic, whether she'd just made a terrible mistake.

Lex's face blotted out the light as his lips brushed over hers in a dry sweep. She felt nothing except a distant surprise that his kiss was so… innocuous. Completely tame and passionless.

Was *this* what it would be like if they married?

Was Lex really so uninterested in sex? But that was hard to believe; after all, she knew he'd had lovers. She was pretty sure that he'd been intimate with Miranda at some point — she'd noticed the perfumer giving Lex that lover- scorned kind of glare a couple of times. And she'd noticed Lex checking out attractive women many times — to say nothing of the very determined, and sexual, way he'd pursued her when they'd first met.

But before she could say anything, his mouth descended again. This time, his lips were moist, and parted; he ground his mouth against hers, his tongue pressing forward and invading her mouth. He tasted of rich wine and the cigars she wished he'd give up. Without waiting for her to participate, Lex continued kissing her, his tongue urgent and rapacious; to her appalled horror, Lois realised that the only emotion she was feeling was revulsion.

She tore her mouth from his and leaned back, breathing heavily. As she did so, the memory of another kiss floated tantalisingly in the forefront of her mind. Feeling slightly sick, she pushed it away. She was with *Lex*, the man she was contemplating marrying!

Lex tilted his head to one side and looked at her consideringly. "You didn't like that much, did you, Lois?"

Embarrassed, she avoided his gaze.

"Come, now, you can tell me the truth. Not that I need you to say it — of course I know that you didn't enjoy it!" He gave her a smile which, if she was feeling unkind, she might have characterised as patronising; then she wondered what had got into her to make her so cynical tonight. "Lois, my sweet, you really have to learn not to rush these things," Lex added. "I assure you that we'll be just perfect together physically, but it's so… so uncouth just to jump into bed at the first opportunity. Let me woo you." He smiled again, a warm, self-deprecating smile of the type Lois really did find attractive in him.

"I guess you're right, Lex," she said slowly, trying to ignore the part of her which was really not at all sure that she believed him.

"And now," he said, getting to his feet. "I think it's time that Nigel took you home."


He hadn't been able to stop himself hanging around the vicinity of Lois's apartment. It was stupid of him — and if Lois ever found out, she'd accuse him of stalking her or something worse — but he just hadn't been able to help it. Wondering what she was doing, what time she'd get home, and whether *he* would be bringing her home; whether she'd invite *him* in, and how long she'd allow him to stay.

Or whether she would come home at all…

His gut tightened at that thought. Lois, with that monster… Luthor kissing her, touching her, removing her clothes… Clark stifled a scream of protest and resolved yet again to detach her from Luthor by any means possible. He would talk to her as Superman as soon as he could.

And there was more he could do, he realised, cursing himself for not having done it seriously sooner. He was convinced that Luthor was a criminal. And yet, apart from a few initial enquiries and a bit of research, he'd done nothing to prove it. Superman's word might be enough for Lois, but it wouldn't be enough for the police or for a court. And yet Luthor needed to be brought to justice. The longer Clark left him untouched, the more evil he would do. His failure to do anything about Luthor was almost criminally negligent, Clark told himself angrily. First thing tomorrow, he'd start investigating. It wouldn't be easy, given Luthor's habit of covering his tracks extremely thoroughly; but then, Clark had some advantages over the head of LexCorp. Such as a number of super-human powers…

The sound of a car approaching pulled Clark from his thoughts; it wasn't just any car, but Lois's Jeep, a sound he'd know anywhere. Using his Super-vision, he peered down through the clouds and the darkness to see the Jeep just pulling up outside Lois's apartment building. But she wasn't driving; a man was at the wheel.

Clark's gut churned again; *he* was with her… But then the driver's door opened and a much older man, with white hair and a goatee beard, emerged. This was a man he'd seen with Lex Luthor a couple of times, and he thought the man's name was Nigel. Luthor's personal assistant, or something like that.

He watched as Nigel escorted Lois to the door of her apartment, noticing that he entered first and, apparently, checked to ensure that all was well before allowing Lois to go in. At least Luthor was concerned for Lois's safety, Clark grudgingly accepted.

Nigel then left, walking back out of the building and climbing into another car which had glided silently up to collect him. Clark focused his attention back to Lois, who had dropped her coat on a chair and was in the kitchen pouring herself a drink.

Milk. One of Lois's versions of comfort food. He wondered what had happened to upset her, and considered flying down to find out. After all, he justified it to himself, he'd planned to talk to her anyway. And this was a good opportunity, wasn't it?

He was floating down, almost at her window, when it occurred to him that it was actually pretty late and that maybe tonight wasn't the best time for this conversation. It was close to midnight, and Lois looked tired; she was clearly getting things ready for the morning, preparatory to going to bed. If he went to talk to her now, he'd keep her up and that wouldn't be fair to her. Just because he didn't need sleep didn't meant that he should deprive her of her rest.

Part of him so badly wanted to be with her now, to hear her voice, inhale her scent, and bask in the warmth of her company; to purge from her mind the memory of another man's company this evening, and to ensure that her dreams were of *him* and not of Luthor. But this wasn't the reason why he needed to talk to her. They had something serious to discuss, and that would require a time at which she was not already tired.

And, as he turned to leave, another idea came to him; a good excuse to approach her in the first place, which would also do the Planet — and therefore his job as Clark Kent — some good.

He — Superman — could offer Lois an exclusive interview. She'd interviewed him before, of course, but this would be different: longer, more in-depth — he could cope with that — and alone. In her apartment, if she'd agree. That would be bound to help the Planet's sales. And then he could turn the conversation around to Luthor, and tell her everything he knew and suspected about her boyfriend's criminal activities.

Yes, he would do that. Tomorrow.

He turned around and flew home.


Lex Luthor inhaled deeply on his cigar as he heard footsteps entering the room. "She's safely home, Nigel?"

The older man appeared to show no surprise that his employer knew who was present without turning around. "In her apartment, tucked up in bed, I should imagine."

"Her lonely bed," Lex mused aloud. "But not, I think, her virginal bed. Which is altogether preferable, don't you think, Nigel? Breaking in a virgin is rarely worth the effort, don't you agree?" he said, turning to face his companion.

"I wouldn't know, sir," the older man drawled, in a soft voice which held a note of sardonic cynicism.

Lex smiled, amused. "Ah yes, women hold no interest whatsoever for you, Nigel. I wonder, do you ever feel any curiosity about what you're missing?"

"Never, sir."

"There have been times when I might have been inclined to agree with you, Nigel," Lex observed, pausing to bring his cigar to his lips again. "However, society does have certain expectations, and it is undeniably pleasant to have a beautiful woman on one's arm at times. And Lois Lane is beyond doubt beautiful."

"Ah, but is she a wise choice, sir?" Nigel queried softly. "After all, she is a journalist, and one who has made it her career to expose those with things to hide."

Lex took his time answering; then he strolled to the large picture window at the end of the room and gazed out over the dark city. Then he spoke casually, half-turning to give his employee a satisfied smile. "Yes, she is a journalist. But thus far she hasn't been remotely suspicious. In fact, she appears to believe my press releases, which is, I must concede, a considerable coup for the public relations department, since I know my dear Lois to be remarkably cynical as a rule. Where I am concerned, however, she is unquestioning."

"Yes," Nigel replied. "And also smitten, perhaps? Though she did not enjoy your lovemaking."

Lex swept that away with a casual wave of his hand. "That was a lesson. Oh, when the time comes I don't doubt that there'll be pleasure in our marriage bed. For her too, as long as she learns to please me."

Nigel raised an eyebrow, clearly suppressing a shudder, but didn't comment.

"But kissing, *romance* — " Lex emphasised the word, drawling it sardonically " — is just too tedious. Therefore, she had to be persuaded to drop the subject, at least for now."

"I shouldn't have thought that obedience was one of Miss Lane's strong points," Nigel observed.

"That's *Ms* Lane, Nigel; do wake up to the 1990s," Lex remarked, strolling over to an ashtray to extinguish his cigar. "No, I don't believe it is," he added. "Subtle persuasion will do for the moment; I believe my skills are up to the task. Once we are married, however, that will change; I'll control that irritating independent streak of hers."

"Ah. But you love her." Now Nigel sounded mildly curious.

"What is love?" Lex enquired idly, of no-one in particular. "Oh, in my own way I do love Lois, certainly in a way I have never felt about anyone before now. But I've never believed in all this 'the world's lost for love' kind of emotion — it's so sentimental, don't you think?" he added with a sardonic smile.

"But I can play the game of love easily enough. And that will get me Lois; that, together with the appeal of being married to the third-richest man in the world, of course," he suggested smoothly.

"And the remainder of your plan, sir?" Nigel queried.

"I believe we can set things in motion now for Phase Two now," his employer said, moving across the room. "The shareholders must be sufficiently worried about declining sales and advertising revenue to consider a reasonable offer."

"Reasonable, sir?" Nigel asked, a faint smile on his lips.

"Oh, say sixty cents on the dollar. No more than sixty- three."

"Of course." Nigel smiled again, this time with an air of cool triumph. "The Planet will be in our hands within the week."

"Which will make it more difficult for Lois to escape me," Lex added smoothly. "Oh, and one more thing, Nigel: I think it's time that Clark Kent was taken out of the way."

"As you wish." Nigel nodded briefly. "You wish his death to look like an accident?"

"No, no." Lex waved a hand dismissively. "Killing him would be a mistake. Lois is too fond of him, and were he to die she would be too upset — while she might well look to me for comfort in such a circumstance, she would also grieve for him, and that would get in the way of my ambitions. No, it would be better were he to abandon her. Do we own newspapers in any other cities? Somewhere like San Francisco or DC would do very well. If not, acquire one. And make Kent an offer he can't refuse."

"That can be arranged." Nigel crossed the room then to open the door for his employer, who was obviously retiring for the night. "Will you be wanting anything else, sir?" he asked calmly.

Lex turned and regarded his secretary and accomplice with a half-smile. "Not tonight, Nigel."


Feeling not at all the wiser about the virtues of marrying Lex, Lois prepared for bed. The kiss, she thought, had definitely been a mistake. She'd obviously pushed too hard, and his response had been to show her clearly that he wouldn't be forced into anything he didn't want. He was Lex Luthor, after all, Lois reminded herself wryly: the boss of a multi-billion-dollar empire and used to being in a position of command. And since his previous romantic relationships, from what she'd seen, had never lasted all that long, she suspected that he simply wasn't accustomed to the notion of equality in any kind of relationship.

That could be a problem, she mused as she slid between the covers. After all, there was no way at all that she would take a subordinate position in any relationship. And if Lex was expecting that of her, then he'd be in for a disappointment.

Maybe that was something else they needed to discuss…

Lex had been urging her to consider going away for a weekend with him, and now she decided that it was probably a very good idea. It would give them an opportunity to get to know each other better, and that had to help her make up her mind about whether or not she wanted to marry him. It might also, she acknowledged with a tiny shiver, lead to an intimate relationship… But if she was seriously thinking about marrying the guy, then she could hardly avoid intimacy. And it might actually help her to feel less… skittish at the thought of marriage.


She could think about that in the morning.

And she could also find a way to make herself forget just how much more pleasurable Clark's kiss had been; how he had made her feel things she hadn't even begun to feel in Lex's arms. She had to ignore that; not make any comparison. After all, it wasn't Clark she was considering marrying. And it wasn't sensible to think of Clark as anything other than a friend. That was all he was, and all he could be.

*** At the end of a long day, Clark had to admit that he wasn't much further forward. It didn't help that he was having to keep what he was doing secret; much as it would have been very useful to get Jimmy doing some research for him, he couldn't take the risk that Jimmy might let something slip to Lois. His young friend didn't like Lex Luthor much, that was clear, but at the same time Clark didn't want to have to rely on Jimmy's discretion. Which was a shame since, for all his Super-powers, he didn't have Jimmy's skills at digging out information which his target did not want to have discovered.

And anyway, he was having to confine his searches to times when a certain person couldn't see what he was up to. Just when he most wanted Lois to leave him alone and give him some space, she was barely away from his desk. Admittedly, they did have a couple of ongoing investigations to work on — nothing earth-shattering, but the Planet needed all it could get at the moment. But she also wanted to talk about what they were going to do in order to find out what was behind the sudden slump in the Planet's fortunes. So they'd spent an hour or so planning and debating that, an activity Clark normally loved doing with Lois.

Working with Lois was one of Clark's secret pleasures; secret in the sense that he knew he couldn't afford to let her see just how much it meant to him. Sitting next to her, or standing behind her watching as she typed something, and putting their heads together over a big story was something he loved. Her brain was like quicksilver sometimes, lightning-fast and darting from one thought to another in a way which might have seemed bizarre to some people but, to Lois, made perfect sense. And he'd lost count of the number of times her leaps of logic had actually solved an investigation for them.

But Lois being around so much today had left him little privacy, and almost no time, to investigate Lex Luthor. Then there'd also been the union meeting at lunchtime, downstairs in the staff-room. As members of the reporters' union — clerical and technical staff were having separate meetings with their own unions — had filed out of the newsroom on their way to the meeting, Clark had noticed Perry standing at the door to his office, watching silently. Jimmy had approached and said something Clark hadn't been able to hear, but his boss's response had been audible.

"Go, son. If I could, I'd be down there with you," Perry had said quietly, but Clark had heard the stifled anger in the editor's voice. Perry, too, hated to see the newspaper he loved in such a state.

Not that the union had offered much in the way of hope. The regional officials reported a meeting they'd had with the Planet's owners, and confirmed that the paper was indeed in trouble. It seemed that there was little hope of avoiding layoffs in the near future.

"We tried to get a guarantee of no layoffs among journalistic staff, but they couldn't even promise that," the official had said. "But we are in discussions about the way any layoffs will be handled, as well as the number, and we'll be available to negotiate fair severance packages."

Fair severance packages, Clark had repeated to himself, his lip curling. He hadn't been at the Planet long enough to qualify for anything of that nature. At best, he might get a month's salary in lieu of notice.

He'd felt a gentle hand on his arm then, and had looked down to see Lois shaking her head at him. "Stop panicking, Clark!" she'd hissed. "You're a *news* reporter, for heaven's sake! The Planet *needs* us to write the stories that sell papers! If they have to get rid of reporters, Perry will start with Features, or Travel! Not half of his best team!"

He'd shrugged. Maybe she was right, but on the other hand he was well aware that he *was* the newest hire and that Lois had been the best darned investigative reporter in town — Perry's words — long before he'd been taken on. She didn't need him to be good at her job. And the paper could certainly survive without him; Clark was sure that Perry knew that.

So the meeting hadn't done a lot to reassure him that his position at the paper was secure. It was beginning to look very much as if his brief period of employment at the Planet was coming to an end. This was the job he'd dreamed of ever since, as a student on his journalism course, he'd read the Daily Planet every day and admired Perry White's work from afar. The chances of his staying beyond the end of the week were looking pretty remote. He felt angry inside, and bitter; this was the best reporting job he'd had in his entire career so far, and he'd been doing a great job, of that he was sure. He and Lois had even been nominated for a Merriwether Award only a couple of months ago! He felt sure that, as a team, they'd have also picked up a Kerth nomination when they were announced in the autumn. Instead, he wouldn't even be here.

Life was just so unfair sometimes.

The fear of layoff, together with Lois's continual presence throughout the afternoon — he suspected that she was feeling sorry for him and wanted to make him feel needed — meant that it was now after seven pm and all he had to show for his day's work on the issue which mattered was a couple of scribbled notes of things he needed to check out further.

He wasn't doing any good by just sitting brooding at his desk, he told himself suddenly. If he wasn't getting anywhere, he might as well go home. And then, he castigated himself, he should start using his *brains* instead of his emotions! He had all those Super-powers; well, it was about time that he started using them to find out what Luthor was up to.

<Spying?> he caught himself thinking, experiencing a brief feeling of guilt; he did *not* use his powers to spy on people!

But of course that wasn't true. He frequently did, in the course of his daily work with Lois. Why should this be any different? And anyway, where Lex Luthor was concerned almost any tactics were justified, he insisted to himself.

It was time he stopped playing at investigating the man. But first, he reminded himself as he stepped into the stairwell and headed upwards, there was something else he needed to do. It was time to go to see Lois, in the guise of his alter ego.

*** Lois checked her reflection once more in the mirror. She didn't really want to go out, but Lex had called shortly after she got home from work and suggested a trip to the first night of a new musical in town. And it was one she wanted to see, too, so it had been too tempting an offer to refuse.

Of course, seeing any kind of show or concert with Lex was a pleasurable experience. No queuing for tickets. No standing in line to get to their seats. And no peering over other people's heads, or wishing that others around them would keep their voices down or stop otherwise making distracting noises.

No; when she went somewhere with Lex, they had a private box and a special escort directly to it five minutes before curtain-up. And the box was secluded, well away from anyone else who might spoil their enjoyment of the occasion. And their view of the stage, or the orchestra, or whatever, was unimpeded.

It briefly occurred to her that Clark would probably call her a snob if he knew what she was thinking. But then, she told herself, why did it really matter what Clark thought? He was her *friend*. He wasn't her conscience!

As she re-adjusted the gold chain she'd put around her neck, she heard a light tapping sound; a sound which had become quite familiar to her over the past few months.

Superman was here!

But why…?

Never mind; she'd never questioned his visits before now! Although, she thought wistfully as she hurried out of the bedroom and into the living-room, it was a pity that he'd come now, just when she had to go out. Nigel was due to pick her up in less than ten minutes.

And there was another reason why his presence here, now, was… difficult.

Lois had tumbled head-first in love with Superman the instant she'd seen him. And there'd been times over the past year when she'd thought he might return her feelings for him; something in the way he looked at her when he thought no-one else could see, and perhaps something in the way he touched her just occasionally.

But he'd never, ever followed through; never given her any reason to hope that he might be prepared to return her love. Apart from that one time when he'd been affected by the full-strength love pheromone compound, but that hadn't lasted.

So she'd given up on her dreams that she might one day be more to Superman than just a friend. Instead, she'd allowed Lex to date her, and although he wasn't her first choice, she'd told herself to consider his proposal seriously. After all, there was no point sighing for the moon. Superman was unattainable. He would always be her friend, she believed, but never her lover.

And now, just as she was setting off for another date with Lex, the man she would probably marry, Superman had turned up again. Great — just the thing her already weak resolve didn't need.

And yet she wanted to see him — *needed* to see him.

She refused to consider just why she wanted to see Superman; whether she had thoughts of some sort of last- ditch attempt to persuade him to love her back, or whether she wanted to say a kind of silent farewell to her hopes where he was concerned. Either way, she was determined to have a stolen five minutes with him now, before Nigel came.

She opened the window to allow him entry; in under a second he was standing in her living-room, smiling at her.

"Superman! This is a surprise!"

"Hi, Lois," he began, then frowned. "You're all dressed up — you're going out?"

She nodded. "To the theatre."

He gave her a wry smile. "That's a shame. I… was hoping we could talk."

"I have five minutes," she told him quickly, eagerly. His other visits had never been longer than that, in any case.

But he shook his head. "Actually, for what I wanted to discuss I guess we'd need at least an hour. I suppose I should have checked first, to see if you were free."

At least an hour…? Lois stared at him, baffled momentarily as to what Superman would want to discuss which would take that long. And then a memory came back to her; Clark in the Jeep the night of the stake-out, asking her to talk to Superman about Lex Luthor before committing herself to marrying him.

"Clark asked you to come, didn't he?" she said accusingly.

His hesitation gave her all the answer she needed. She began to turn away, feeling hurt and betrayed by her visitor. How could he allow Clark to use him like that? Didn't he realise that it felt as if he was turning against her?

And as for Clark…! He'd promised her to butt out of her personal life. Well, she would have a few strong words for him in the morning! If he thought that sending his bigger and stronger friend over here in his place, to do his dirty work for him, counted as butting out, then he had another think coming!

"Yes, Clark did ask me to talk to you," Superman said quietly. "But I wanted to talk to you too."

"Well, I *don't* want to talk to *you*!" she retorted, although she knew it wasn't true. Beneath her hurt at his defection to Clark's side, she really did want to hear Superman's opinion of Lex. She thought it might actually help her to understand why *she'd* been feeling a bit… uneasy about her determined suitor all day.

Or was it just that she'd hoped that Superman had come because *he* wanted to see her, and not because he was doing Clark a favour? And that if she listened to him, he might relax and become more sympathetic?

"Well, there was something I wanted to suggest to you," he said, in meek tones which didn't fool Lois for an instant. "But if you're not interested…?"

"What?" she asked quickly, almost rudely.

"Well, Clark's told me about the problems the Planet's been having," Superman explained. "And it occurred to me that maybe I could help, in some small way."

"How?" Lois asked, her mind whirling. Arrange for her to be at the scene of a spectacular rescue job? But how could he do that? Surely he'd be too focused on getting to where he was needed to waste time picking up a reporter?

He answered her question with another one. "You've wanted an in-depth, no-holds-barred interview with me for some time, haven't you?"

Barely able to believe what he was suggesting, she said, "Sure! Well, you're pretty newsworthy, Superman. Even after all these months."

He smiled slightly. "Okay. Well, you've got it. I was going to suggest this evening, but since you have other plans…?" He let the suggestion trail off.

Lois was torn. She desperately wanted this interview, but Nigel would be here any minute now to pick her up. She *could* probably call Lex and tell him that something had come up at work — he'd understand, or at least she hoped he would. On the other hand, she didn't really want to tell him *what* had come up. It wasn't that she thought he'd disapprove; Lex admired Superman just as everyone else in the city did. But if this was going to be an exclusive with all the impact it deserved, then no-one could know about it until Perry was ready to run the advertising campaign. And… well, she just didn't know how Lex would feel about apparently coming second to her job again. So far he hadn't seemed to mind too much; he'd been charmingly indulgent, but she'd suspected that he could change his attitude very quickly if it happened frequently.

Though that could present problems, if she was serious about Lex… he would have to accept that her job was important to her, if they were going to be together. Just as his work, his business empire, was important to him. But that was a confrontation she didn't want to have right now.

Lois grimaced. All things considered, it was probably better if she went ahead with her date.

"I'm sorry, Superman," she said with genuine regret. "I have to go. But can we do this tomorrow? At the Planet, maybe?"

"I'd prefer to do it somewhere more private," he said quickly. "How about I call you and arrange to meet you here some time during the day?"

"Sure," she agreed, relieved that he wasn't withdrawing the offer. "And in-depth? No-holds-barred?"

He hesitated. "Well, not entirely. Let's just say… there may be a couple of questions I'm not prepared to answer. But then, you might not ask them. So let's just wait and see."

So he was already putting preconditions on it. Still, Lois thought, she was getting something that no-one else had managed to get in the year since Superman had showed up. Oh, several reporters — herself included — had had brief five-minute interviews, mostly about whichever emergency Superman had just been dealing with. But this was different: an hour alone with him, to ask him about anything she wanted.

This was a fantastic opportunity! And if he did show reluctance to answer some of her questions, she could always try to persuade him. He had *no* idea just how persuasive she could be if she tried.

But right now, Nigel was due any minute. And, for some reason she couldn't really explain even to herself, Lois didn't want him to see Superman here. So she smiled widely at Superman and said, "Okay, let's discuss it tomorrow, yes? You need my phone number?"

He smiled warmly in response. "I think I can find it, Lois. And now I guess I'd better go and let you get on with your evening."

She watched him turn to leave, and once more wished fervently that she wasn't going out, that she could spend the evening with him instead. Shivering faintly, she closed the window behind him, thinking that she needed to turn down her air-conditioning.


<Damn!> Clark thought as he flew away from Lois's apartment. Of course he should have expected that she had a date with the monster. And of course he should have somehow contacted her as Superman earlier, to try to pre-empt her going out tonight.

One more day before he could confront her with the truth about her boyfriend.

She hadn't looked too pleased when she'd realised what he wanted to talk to her about. For a moment, he'd thought she was about to tell him to leave. She'd certainly spoken to him more harshly than she'd ever done before to Superman.

But she had promised him, as Clark, that she'd talk to Superman about Luthor. And Lois normally tended to keep her promises, so he had every intention of holding her to this one. Oh, he'd give her the interview she wanted; it would be a good way of sweetening her up, apart from helping out the Planet. But then he *would* talk to her about Luthor, for as long as it took to make her see that the man was a villain and not to be trusted.


Sighing, regretting the need to delay again and the loss of what could have been a couple of hours in Lois's company, he took off to patrol the city.


The following day, all Lois could think about was Superman: wondering when he would call her, deciding what questions she wanted to ask him… and once again allowing herself to dream that he cared about her, that he might want to move their relationship forward to more than just friends. After all, she rationalised, he clearly didn't want her to marry Lex. Why else would he have agreed to talk to her about him? Surely he wouldn't simply have agreed as a favour to Clark? There had to be more to it, she felt sure.

So maybe, just maybe, there was hope for her yet…

And in the meantime, she had to concentrate on work, or at least give the impression that she was interested in the latest tedious machinations of the city council. She had no intention of telling anyone about her interview with Superman until she had it in the bag. Not even Clark; for all she knew, he'd want to come along, and this was definitely going to be one-on-one.

After several false starts — telephone calls which turned out not to be Superman — he finally phoned shortly before lunchtime. He seemed to be speaking quietly, almost furtively, as if he was worried about being overheard. In a very brief conversation, he arranged a meeting for later that afternoon, at her apartment.

Happy to have that organised, Lois then began to apply herself to their assignment. Looking for Clark a few minutes later, she spotted him at his desk, but on the phone. She needed to speak to him, so she went straight over and stood directly in his line of vision, in order to encourage him to finish his conversation quickly.

He glanced up at her, then waved her away. She ignored him.

The phone conversation seemed rather strange, at least at Clark's end of it. Her partner wasn't saying all that much, and he looked somewhat shell-shocked. All he was saying was the occasional "Yes", and "I understand", and "it's very flattering".

Finally, he sounded as if the conversation was winding to a halt. She heard Clark say, "So can I have a couple of days to think it over?"

The answer was clearly in the negative, for he responded with, "I see. Well, okay, I'll get back to you by the end of the day, then. And thank you."

Clark at last replaced the receiver and looked up at Lois. "I would have come straight over to you when I'd finished," he said, sounding mildly irritated.

"Well, I needed to talk to you. And I didn't see any point in going back to my desk, because then someone else might have distracted you before I could get to you again," she insisted.

Clark rolled his eyes. "Okay, so what did you want?"

"Who were you talking to?" she countered first.

Clark sighed. "Lois, have you ever heard of the concept of a private conversation?"

She'd been about to let it go, being only mildly interested, but his reply whetted her curiosity further. "I thought we were friends!" she pointed out coolly. "And friends talk to each other about things… that *is* what you've been telling me lately, anyway."

He grimaced. "Actually, Lois, I was going to talk to you about it. But let's deal with whatever you wanted first, okay?"

She explained her query, and they spent several minutes discussing it. Then Clark raked a hand through his hair and faced her. "This phone call… I don't want to discuss it here, so how about we go across to the deli for a sandwich?"

Lois agreed, now very curious about the phone call. Clark was certainly acting very strangely; secretively, in fact. Once seated across from him in the deli, their sandwiches in front of them, she eyeballed him. "Well? What's going on?"

He looked at her with a completely baffled expression. "I really don't know, Lois. That call… well, it was from the San Francisco Examiner."

Lois blinked. "Why were they calling *you*?" she asked bluntly.

"They were offering me a *job*, Lois," Clark answered, sounding a little tetchy.

"You?? A *job*?" Lois stared at him incredulously, a reaction which turned very quickly to panic. He wasn't going to accept, was he? He couldn't! Suddenly, she became aware of just how badly she didn't want to lose Clark.

"Yes, me. They offered me a job," he repeated, now clearly irritated. "Why — do you think I'm not good enough to work on a paper like the Examiner?"

Lois stared at him. "Of course I don't! You work at the Planet! And that's the best — "

"I know," he interrupted. "But I work with you there — as your partner. You think I'm not good enough to make it without you?"

"Of course I don't!" she exclaimed immediately, stifling the instinctive reaction that she *did* think she was the better half of their partnership and that if anyone was being headhunted it should have been her. "Clark, you know I think you're a great reporter. Let's forget that and tell me more about the offer. You're not going to take it, of course?"

He sighed. "Lois, I'm really not sure. I… I think I should consider it."

"Consider it? Why?" she demanded. "You have a job here — a *good* job! And you have a reputation in Metropolis. Nobody's heard of you in San Francisco," she pointed out baldly.

"Oh, thank you very much, Lois!" Clark almost snapped. "The Daily Planet does sell out there too, you know! And a couple of my articles about Superman were syndicated, in case you've forgotten."

She'd offended him, Lois realised belatedly. Reaching across the table to grab his hand, she said quickly, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to… to suggest that you're not talented enough. I *know* you are! I just don't want you to quit the Planet."

He studied her for a few moments, then said, "Lois, I may not have a choice soon. You know the way things are going. You heard the union guy yesterday!"

"Clark, you're not going to get laid off!" Lois insisted. "And I'd really like you not to go, because you're my partner and I've kind of got used to working with you, you know."

"Would it kill you to say that you like working with me?" Clark asked, almost wistfully, before adding quickly, "I love working with you, Lois. It's one of the things I like most about this job. But… well, maybe you could come with me?"

Leave the Planet? Leave Metropolis? Lois stared at Clark in amazement, barely able to believe that he was suggesting it. Besides the Planet, she had no wish to leave Metropolis. Apart from anything else, she was dating Lex! And…

And Superman was based in Metropolis. If she moved to San Francisco, she'd never see him again. She couldn't see him flying out for occasional late-night visits, somehow.

"Clark, I can't quit the Planet," she said impatiently. "And neither can you."

"Lois, I might not have a job in a week! I have to consider my options! And, you know, if things get much worse you might not have a job either."

"That's nonsense," she said quickly. "And it's a crazy idea that I should go with you."

"It wasn't crazy when you were trying to suggest that I move to LNN with you! Why is it okay for you to leave and me not?"

"I wasn't really serious!" Lois threw back at him. "I wouldn't have gone. The Planet's in my blood — you know that! And, Clark, you can't quit the Planet just because it's going through a bad patch! What about loyalty to Perry? Loyalty to your *partner*?"

Clark blew out a long breath. "Okay, Lois, if that's how you feel, I'll tell them no," he said at last. "I'm not going anywhere."

Lois smiled brightly at him. "You won't regret it, Clark. And don't worry; I won't tell Perry."

Clark shrugged, then picked up his sandwich.


Finally, it was time for his appointment with Lois. She'd left the newsroom twenty minutes ago, telling a couple of people that she had 'things to do' — neatly giving the impression that it wasn't work, Clark thought. It seemed that it was okay for Lois to hold out on her partner, but not for him…

He smiled wryly and headed for the stairwell. He'd covered his bases by letting it be understood that he had a dental check-up, and that he wouldn't be back today. On the way to Lois's apartment, though, for once he wasn't thinking about his partner.

He'd called the Examiner back a short while ago and declined their offer. And, while part of him was very glad he'd turned it down — he really didn't want to leave Lois — he was still unsure about whether he'd done the right thing. What if he *was* next in line for layoff?

Well, if he was, he decided, then he'd just have to take his resume and cuttings file around every news organisation in Metropolis — except one, of course. It was as simple as that. After all, Superman belonged in Metropolis… and so did Clark Kent.


Lois was pacing the floor in her apartment, counting the seconds until the moment Superman was due. Her date with Lex last night had almost been a disaster; she hadn't been able to concentrate on her companion at all, because her mind had been filled with thoughts of Superman. How he'd looked standing in her apartment. The sound of his voice, occasionally laced with humour. Those beautiful liquid brown eyes. That stunning, muscular body. And the fact that she was going to be seeing him again today.

Lex had noticed her abstraction, and had even questioned it; thankfully, she'd been able to pull herself together and at least try to pay him some attention. Probably not convincingly enough, though, because when he'd taken her home he'd given her a quizzical look and told her to get a good night's sleep, before dropping a kiss on her cheek.

Was it right that she was spending more time thinking about Superman than about the man she was considering marrying?

Come to that, she thought wryly, why was it that the thought of Clark leaving town bothered her more than if Lex had told her the same?

<That's *different*!> she told herself firmly. She wasn't considering marrying Lex because she loved him, after all. She'd already had that debate with herself. Lex was a suitable companion, someone she felt comfortable with and would make a good husband. The fact that she didn't love him, nor he her, was a bonus. People fell out of love, after all.

And love itself was usually a lie.

A sound outside alerted her to Superman's arrival. She beckoned him in then, flustered, offered him drinks, something to eat and some ice-cream. He grinned as she blushed, then he rejected all of her offers and took a seat on one of the love-seats. She sat opposite.

"So, the interview?" she asked him. "Or do I have to listen to you tell me what you think of Lex first?"

He smiled. "The interview, I think. Then, if you get mad at me after, you can tell me to leave without losing your exclusive!"

She smiled in return, then busied herself preparing her notebook, pen and tape recorder. Then, facing him again, she began. "Superman, you've been here on Earth a little under a year. Would you say that anything's changed for the better since you've been here?"

"Well, I suppose that would presume that I know much about how it was before," he teased gently. "I don't know, Lois; I'm not really sure I can answer that. I think that maybe criminals think a little more carefully before acting, because they know there's more of a chance they'll be caught. And if that's the case, then I'm pleased." He paused briefly, then added, "Well, you're a news reporter, Lois. You'd know if crime statistics are down."

"I wasn't really thinking of crime," Lois explained. "It was more… well, the values you stand for, Superman, the reason people admire and respect you so much. I wondered if you thought more people were taking those values to heart."

"I don't really know," he said doubtfully. "But I guess I'd like to believe that, if they were, it's because they believe those are values worth holding, and not just because I hold them." Again, he smiled, this time a little ruefully. "I'm sorry, I don't think I'm being a very good interviewee, am I?"

Lois smiled back at him. "It's fine. Another question: what's been the toughest rescue or Super feat you've had to do so far?"

"I suppose that'd have to be the Nightfall Asteroid," he said thoughtfully. "It took me a couple of attempts, as you know, and the first attempt actually took me out of commission for a day or so."

"It weakened you that much?" Lois stared at him, aghast. She'd never known that there was anything which could affect Superman.

He inclined his head. "Well, it was pretty big," he said apologetically. "And I'd never flown that far into space before. But the other thing which made it so tough was that it was so important. Literally, the fate of the world was resting on my shoulders. If I messed up, chances were that everyone on this planet would die."

"But you came through for us," Lois reminded him. "And you know the whole world was grateful."

That made him smile. "But I don't do it for gratitude; you have to know that, Lois. I do it because… well, because I can, and I can't stand by and do nothing when people need help."

"But what about when you need help?" she asked him then. "I mean, for example, there was that time that the nuclear power plant was leaking and causing the heatwave, and everyone was blaming you. The city council even got an injunction against you!"

"And you seemed to be the only person who believed in me," he added softly. "Don't think I've forgotten that, Lois."

"How could I not?" she protested. "But that's not important now. What I want to know is, how did you feel when an entire city turned against you like that? I mean, only a day or two earlier you were the best thing that had even happened to them!"

So she listened as he talked about feelings of shock and dismay, of wondering and worrying whether he really had been the cause of the heatwave, of sadness and resignation when it appeared as if he'd have to leave Metropolis.

He answered questions for almost an hour with no sign of reluctance, and Lois was inwardly delighted, knowing that this would be a great scoop. Then, beginning to wind up, she said, "Tell me something about how you came to Earth, Superman. You've said that you're from a planet called Krypton — where is that, what's it like, and how did you get from there to here?"

He seemed to hesitate this time. Then he said slowly, "I'm really not sure where Krypton is — or was — in relation to Earth."


"Yeah. As far as I'm aware, it no longer exists. I believe it exploded not long after I left."

"And how do you know that? Are there other Kryptonians on Earth?"

He looked surprised at that. "Not as far as I know! I… uh, my family left a recording device for me in my spaceship. It recorded Krypton's last moments."

"Your *family*? You left them behind?"

"I had no choice. It had already been decided for me," he said abruptly.

Guessing that this was a touchy subject for him — after all, he'd been sent away from his entire family, who were no doubt all dead now — Lois changed the subject. "So, you came here in a spaceship? When was that?"

He stiffened. "That's one of the questions I don't want to answer, Lois."

Why not? she wondered. Surely it was a simple enough question! He'd appeared in Metropolis a little under a year ago. Hadn't he just arrived on Earth then, or just before it? If not, then where had he been hiding? What had he been doing? And why didn't he want to tell her how long he'd been here?

"I realise that by not answering your question I'm just making you wonder what I've got to hide. But I can't help that," he told her. "It's just not something I'm prepared to discuss. You've got enough for your story anyway, without it, haven't you?"

He actually looked concerned, Lois noticed. "Oh, sure. It'll be a great interview."

"Front-page stuff, huh?" he suggested, grinning.

"I hope so! After all, it's not every day a reporter gets an in-dept interview with Superman! You're more reclusive than Lex Luthor, you know," she teased. But as she saw the shadow flitting across his face, she regretted mentioning Lex's name.

But he smiled — with some effort, it seemed — and said, "I hope so, too. Clark's… uh, told me about the trouble the Planet's in. It's a great newspaper, and I'm sorry to see it having problems. I can't… um, officially do anything to help, but I thought an interview might at least give you an edge, for one day anyway."

"I understand," Lois replied. "It would help, too, if either Clark or I were ever on the spot when you're at an emergency. It's not good when we get scooped."

"But the Star scooping you was a set-up, wasn't it?"

"Yes, but… oh, I don't know. A couple of papers have been beating us to big stories lately. I don't know if there's anything behind it, but the Planet's shareholders and advertisers are very unhappy. They're putting a lot of pressure on Perry."

"Yes, so I heard." Now he was looking uncomfortable again. "Lois, if you're finished with the interview, perhaps we could…?"

"Oh. Okay." Very reluctantly, Lois agreed to change the subject. Not that she was really sure just why she was so disinclined to hear whatever Superman had to say on the subject of her boyfriend. She knew Superman, after all, and she knew he wouldn't traduce anyone unfairly.

Which meant that he probably knew some stuff about Lex which she wouldn't like. In that case, she thought, she should hear it, shouldn't she? After all, if she was considering marrying the man then she needed to know if there was anything important which wasn't to his credit.

So she waved a hand lightly in Superman's direction. "Go ahead, then. Talk to me. Tell me what you and Clark think is so important that I hear."


Clark paused and took a deep breath, exhaling loudly. He was finally getting the opportunity to tell Lois exactly why he didn't trust Lex Luthor, and he didn't want to blow this opportunity. The last time he'd tried it, he'd really made a stupid tactical error, after all, and there was no way that she'd even consider listening to Clark on the subject again.

But this was him as Superman, and he well knew that Lois respected Superman; more than respected him, of course, but he tried to ignore that fact if he could. Superman could succeed where Clark had failed, but it was already clear that Lois was only listening to him on sufferance. Her expression when he'd brought the subject up, both now and the previous evening, made that more than obvious.

"Okay, Lois," he said finally. "I know that Lex Luthor is a friend of yours. But I have to tell you that he's the one person in Metropolis I would call my enemy."

"That sounds a bit extreme, Superman," she said quickly. "I mean, I'm sure you have your reasons, but it doesn't sound like you. You always seem to make a virtue out of thinking the best of people." Now she was giving him a puzzled look.

"You're suggesting that I'm letting some kind of prejudice interfere with my judgement, I think," Clark replied, deliberately keeping his tone level. "Or that I'm allowing someone else to influence me, maybe? I assure you, Lois, the opinion I've formed about Lex Luthor is entirely based on my own experience of him. I wouldn't attempt to make a judgement about him otherwise."

Lois looked down at her hands; Clark guessed that she was avoiding his gaze. Then she said, "Well, you can't say something like that and not give me reasons! So, what's he done that's so terrible?"

"He's not the upstanding businessman he pretends to be, Lois. If my reading of him is correct, then he's a criminal and a murderer."

"If your reading of him is *correct*?" Lois echoed incredulously. "You mean that this is just guesswork on your part? I'm appalled, Superman! You of all people, condemning someone with no evidence!"

"Lois, of course I don't have hard proof," Clark said firmly. "If I did, don't you think I'd have gone to the police? The reason Lex Luthor's crimes have gone undetected for so long is that he covers his tracks extremely well. If I had real evidence, I'd have done something about him long before now, you can trust me on that!"

"Okay, so what do you *think* he's done?" Lois demanded suspiciously; Clark thought he could even detect a sardonic note in her voice. He wondered just why she was so reluctant to believe even Superman about her boyfriend's murky activities; could it be that she was genuinely in love with Luthor?

If she was, he told himself grimly, all the more reason to convince her that the guy was a fraud, and far worse besides.

He inhaled deeply, then began to outline the list of things he believed Luthor to be responsible for. "First, I believe that he was behind the Messenger explosion, and the murders of Commander Latterman, Antoinette Baines and Dr Platt. I'm pretty sure that he funded Mentamide 5 and Miranda's pheromone compound. And — "

"Wait a minute," Lois interrupted. "Funding something's not evidence of anything! Lex probably had no idea what Miranda and the Mentamide guy were up to!"

"Maybe," Clark agreed. "I admit, I can't prove anything. But I do know that he was testing me not long after I first came to Metropolis."

"*Testing* you?" She frowned at him. "What do you mean?"

"Setting up emergencies I'd have to respond to — like threatened suicides, bomb threats and so on. Do you remember that bomb at the museum? You were there — you saw the police had no idea what was going on. I figured out eventually that everyone involved with those incidents were connected in some way to Lex Luthor. I worked out that he was trying to work out how fast I was, how strong I was, whether I could be hurt… you get the idea. And so I confronted him."

"And what happened?"

"He didn't deny it," Clark said. "And no, he didn't admit it either. He just said 'Let the games begin' when I said I wanted the tests to stop."

Lois looked thoughtful at that, but said nothing. Clark was beginning to think that, if he said more, he was in danger of overplaying his hand. Lois hadn't exactly hung on his every word; in fact, she'd been more sceptical than he'd ever known her where Superman was concerned. Except with his last comment. If he dropped the subject now, it was possible that at least he'd have given her something to think about.

"I should go now," he told her.

She blinked, looking surprised. "Must you?"

Why? he wondered, a touch cynically. Was she hoping that, now that the business necessitating his presence was over and done with, he'd stay and 'talk'? He was pretty sure that, despite her relationship with Lex Luthor, her Superman crush was still well and truly in place. But only a few minutes ago he'd wondered whether she was actually in love with Luthor. Surely she couldn't be in love with one man and have a crush on another?

Unless she somehow viewed Superman as her personal property, regardless of whoever else she was involved with? But he wasn't sure about that. She had occasionally seemed just a little possessive about Superman, but their relationship had become more two-way over the year. After all, as he'd reminded her, she had saved him when the city had wanted to order him to leave, and she'd supported him through the clone incident. She'd been concerned for him when he'd had to fly off to deal with Nightfall, too. No, he didn't think that her attitude towards Superman was entirely selfish. She'd been a good friend, without ever really asking for more in return than the occasional affectionate gesture.

Perhaps she did still have a crush on the Super-hero, and perhaps she'd even hoped that he might stay longer so that she could have more time with him. But he doubted that she'd planned to manoeuvre him into anything.

"Yes, I need to get going," he repeated. "Thanks for your time, Lois — I hope the interview helps." He deliberately didn't refer again to his comments about Luthor, since he didn't think it would help. However, he was sincerely hoping that what he'd said would filter through, somehow, and make her re-evaluate her opinion of the man she was dating.

He hoped, anyway.


Instead of immediately trying to assemble her notes and the tape-recording into order and working on an outline draft of her story once Superman left, Lois sat for several minutes simply staring into the middle distance. *This* was why she'd really been reluctant to listen to Clark about Lex; this was why she'd tried to deter Superman from talking to her.

All along, somehow, she'd known that she would hear things which didn't reflect well on her boyfriend. And was any of it really a surprise?

She had to admit that it wasn't. Not really.

Sure, as she'd suggested to Superman, several of the things he'd mentioned could have perfectly innocent explanations. It was entirely possible that Lex had known nothing whatsoever about what Miranda had been up to, nor what whichever scientist in his — indirect — employ had been doing with the 'intelligence' formula he'd invented. Lex could be the upstanding, honest and respectable businessman he appeared to be.

Or, if Superman was right, he was a dishonest fraud who was also responsible for murder.

She'd given Superman the impression that she didn't believe him. Now, several minutes after the Super-hero had left, she still wasn't sure why she'd done that. She'd actually appeared to choose her boyfriend — Lex — over Superman, the man she'd trusted and admired… yes, and loved, ever since he'd first made his appearance.

She rewound the cassette in her miniature recorder; having forgotten to switch it off when they'd ended the interview, she now had a record of what Superman had said to her about Lex. Listening again to the Super-hero's description of the 'tests' to which he'd been subjected, her blood ran cold. People could have been *killed* if Superman hadn't been as fast, or as dedicated, as he was! She remembered the sudden spate of suicide jumpers, and also remembered being stunned and impressed by the speed at which Superman managed to get from one incident to another, saving the lives of both individuals involved.

And, yes, she remembered Clark commenting that all three people involved had worked for Lex Luthor; and her dismissive response to his suggestion that this represented a connection worth looking into.

People could have been *killed*. If not the jumpers, then anyone in the vicinity of the museum, had the area not been cleared so quickly. If Superman hadn't been fully invulnerable, *he* could have been hurt.

*She* had been hurt… Superficially, but hurt nonetheless.

And Lex, most probably, had been behind all this…

He hadn't admitted it, Superman had said. She listened to that section of the tape again.

"He didn't deny it. And no, he didn't admit it either. He just said 'Let the games begin' when I said I wanted the tests to stop."

That was as good as an admission, Lois knew; she'd certainly have seen it that way had she been present. And people like Luthor would never say anything more incriminating if they could avoid it. Nor was there much likelihood that there would be hard evidence out there of his culpability, in respect of this or of anything else. No-one got to the kind of position Luthor occupied without knowing how to hide the skeletons so that they'd never be found.

No doubt he had been surrounding himself for years with minions who would do his dirty work for him — like Mrs Cox and that creepy St John, she realised with a sudden flash of inspiration. And if anyone ever got too close in their suspicions, one of the minions would be sacrificed. Either there would be a discreet faked suicide — like Dr Platt? she suddenly wondered — or an 'accidental' death, with enough evidence left behind in either case to incriminate the deceased.

Or perhaps the minion would take the fall for Lex, confessing according to a pre-arranged script and serving the appropriate prison sentence, in the security that they would be 'looked after' on release.

Under no circumstances would Lex himself ever be smeared with any kind of criminal reputation. That was what he paid others for.

Superman was right.

And she'd allowed herself to be fooled, taken in by the fa‡ade Lex presented of a charming, suave and civic-minded businessman. A philanthropist — one of the things she'd most admired about him, she remembered bitterly. Had she really been blinded by his charm? Had she allowed his wealth and power to seduce her into taking him exactly at face value, instead of looking beneath the surface and asking the questions she should have been asking about someone in his position?

Why had she been so na‹ve? Why had she been so unquestioning? — even worse, so adamant to Clark that Lex was a fine, upstanding member of the community and not the evil monster Clark seemed to think he was? Why hadn't she *listened* to Clark?

She'd been attracted to all the superficial things about Lex — and yet she'd claimed, when Clark had challenged her, that it had been nothing like that! His money had been a factor, though not in the way most people would have assumed. The fact that he was wealthy simply meant that they would enjoy a comfortable standard of living, and she could continue to do her job without any financial worries. And, of course, that he always looked extremely presentable — no sloppy jeans and ripped T-shirts, no messy apartments, and definitely no unsightly stubble. His suits fit perfectly, and looked like the bespoke garments they were. His sophistication had been a factor, of course; she was so fed up with men who'd simply never heard of her favourite authors or film directors, and wouldn't know a Van Gogh from a Matisse or a Klee. Lex had been such a refreshing change.

She had been focusing on the superficial. His intelligence, his wit, his charm, his sophistication… and, she had to admit, his power and influence. *That*, probably more than anything else, was what had attracted her to him. But the superficial stuff had all been part of the package too.

She'd been stupid. Na‹ve. A fool. And a stubborn, blinkered idiot who didn't deserve to be an award-winning reporter.

She simply hadn't wanted to accept that Clark might have been right in warning her off Lex, she recognised uncomfortably, Clark had been right all along, though she was more inclined to believe that Clark's negativity about Lex had far more to do with jealousy than any real suspicions of his criminality. Unless, of course, Superman had told Clark about all this long ago…

But why Clark and not her?

That, she recognised with a sigh, probably had something to do with why she hadn't told Superman that she believed him. He'd clearly told Clark about his suspicions before now, and hadn't told her. And Clark, who somehow seemed to be closer to Superman than she herself was, hadn't told her how it was that he knew things about Lex that she didn't, instead asking his friend Superman to talk to her.

And just how close was Clark to Superman anyway? Was Superman going to go straight over to Clark's place to tell him all about their discussion?

Typical men, always sticking together, she thought angrily, getting up and marching into the kitchen for some comfort food. The interview could wait a little while; as long as she told Perry that it was coming, and got it to him by around eight or nine o'clock, she had plenty of time. And she wasn't going anywhere tonight, which in the circumstances was just as well.

She needed to work out what she intended to do about Lex. Obviously now she couldn't possibly marry him. Even the idea of dating him any more made her blood run cold. And she'd allowed him to kiss her — no, she'd actually *demanded* that he kiss her, she remembered with a shudder of revulsion.

And she *had* found his kiss unpleasant. It was a relief now to know that she didn't need to feel guilty about that any more.

There was no way that she could spend any more time with the man. He revolted her now. But if she suddenly stopped seeing him, wouldn't he be suspicious? He was likely to wonder why she'd suddenly gone off him. Lex, she thought, was someone who wouldn't take rejection easily.

She could just stop seeing him, sure. She could tell him that she'd thought over his proposal and that she'd decided that they really wouldn't suit. But, as she began to rehearse the kind of speech she'd need to make, another idea came to her.

If Lex was as much of a criminal as Superman had suggested, then surely he needed to be exposed. And who better to expose him than someone who was close to him?

Which meant that she was in a perfect position to investigate him and get proof that he was everything Superman had claimed. As long as she kept dating him, that was…

So she needed to carry on seeing him for the time being, give the impression that she was considering his proposal seriously. And, if it came to it, she might even need to accept it; to become engaged to him. All in the interests of an undercover investigation, of course.

Should she tell Clark? But immediately she asked herself the question, she answered it in the negative. If her guess was right, Clark had been holding out on her with what he knew about Lex, and also in relation to Superman. He clearly knew Superman a lot better than he was letting on, and he'd never told her exactly how it was that he managed to contact the Super-hero whenever he wanted. And Clark *was* jealous of Lex, for whatever reason.

So she didn't want to let Clark in on this. Apart from anything else, it would mean admitting to him that he'd been right all along, and Lois hated allowing anyone the opportunity to say 'I told you so'. She didn't need Clark, anyway! She'd won Kerth awards long before he'd ever come along, and she'd still be winning awards even after he'd decided that he'd had enough of the big city and went back to Smallville to marry his sheriff friend.

Should she tell *Superman*? Now there was a thought; he could even help her, and at the very least he could be aware of her safety. But then she thought better of the idea. Superman was bound to think she shouldn't do it. He'd say that it was too dangerous and that she shouldn't put herself at so much risk. Which was crazy — she'd been getting into risky situations long before Superman had arrived in town, and getting out of them safely, as well. No; Superman would only want to rain on her parade.

No, she would get the scoop and expose Lex Luthor all on her own. Just as she always had.

*** "Great work, Lois!"

"How'd you pull that one off?"

"That was quite a scoop you managed to score… somehow! No doubt you're Perry's blue-eyed girl all over again." That last was Cat Grant; Lois deliberately turned away from the gossip columnist as she made her way to her desk. She was well aware that her Superman interview in that morning's paper had made a lot of waves. It had been examined in depth on LNN's breakfast news briefing, and as she'd been driving to work she'd passed several news-stands on which copies of the Planet were selling like wildfire.

Perry had been delighted when she'd let him know that she had the interview, and his response to the finished product had been ecstatic. At last, she'd been able to hear in the subtext of his response, the Planet had a major jump on its competitors. No other paper, or news organisation, had come anywhere close to an interview with Superman of this nature: wide-ranging, in-depth and open.

Not that Superman had been open with her about everything. She still hadn't forgotten his refusal to tell her how long he'd been on Earth, and his very astute comment that he was well aware that his avoidance of the question would only make her wonder all the more about the question. Despite that, it was clear that he'd rather cope with her speculation than defuse it by answering. Which meant that there was certainly a mystery there which would be worth looking into.

Yes, it was a great interview. And she'd even managed to keep some material back to run in the weekend supplement, which had been performing poorly lately. All round, this had been very good for the Planet. Perry had called her at home early this morning to tell her that, apart from all the secondary coverage her story was getting, he'd had several requests for syndication. That should please the shareholders, Lois had thought gleefully.

Clark greeted her with a grin and a warm, "Congratulations!" as he brought her a coffee and doughnut. But she was still annoyed with him for holding out on her in respect of Superman, and for what she'd learned about Lex. Her conscience stabbed her, reminding her that it was hardly Clark's fault if Lex was a fraud and a criminal. But she rejected that, arguing that it was Clark who had asked Superman to talk to her about Lex. Clark had known what she would hear, and hadn't cared that she might be hurt.

So she simply acknowledged him with a brief nod before turning to her computer screen to deal with her email. She would eventually, perhaps, tell him that she'd accepted Superman's word on Lex, but not yet. In the meantime, it might just be interesting to see what other lengths he might go to in order to persuade her not to marry the guy, without actually breaking his promise to her.

Oh yes, this could be very interesting…

*** Clark was pleased at the effect his interview with Lois had had; he'd noticed Perry's happier expression this morning, as well as the fact that all the city's media were discussing the exclusive. It should certainly do the Planet some good.

What he didn't know, though, was whether his words to Lois about Lex Luthor were having any effect at all. She hadn't said anything to him this morning; actually, so far she'd barely acknowledged him. That could be simply because she was busy; alternately, he realised, she could be angry with him for having forced the issue. After all, as she no doubt saw it, Superman wouldn't have gone to see her and insisted on talking about Luthor had he — *Clark* — not arranged it.

So was she annoyed with him for having forced her to see the truth? Or had she simply not believed Superman at all, and was bearing a grudge because she thought that he was still pushing a jealous agenda?

He couldn't tell, and unless Lois decided to enlighten him he wouldn't find out.

Though Lois keeping her distance had some benefits right now, he reminded himself. He could spend more time investigating Luthor without worrying that she'd be coming over to see what he was doing all the time.

Not that he was getting very far today either. Luthor knew how to cover his tracks all right…

"Clark, we have work to do."

Startled, he spun around to face the owner of that voice, hoping that Lois hadn't seen what was on his computer screen before he'd changed windows. "We do?" he queried. As far as he knew, Perry had given them separate assignments for the day. But if Lois was now talking to him, he wasn't going to pass up on the opportunity to capitalise on that, just to spend some time with her.

"You know we do!" Lois sounded impatient. "We have to find out what's behind the Planet's troubles! And we haven't exactly got very far with it."

She was right. And this was important — more important than trying to bring Lex Luthor down simply because Clark didn't like the fact that Luthor wanted to marry Lois. "Sure," he said at once. Glancing at his watch, he added, "Want me to go and get some sandwiches so we can work over lunch?"

Lois nodded, all businesslike now. "Sounds like a good idea."

He was back in under five minutes, shrugging off her look of surprise with one of his usual excuses. "I jogged, and I guess I was lucky with timing — no queue."

A few minutes later, her mouth full of sandwich, Lois said, "So, okay. We've got the latest sales figures here, and they don't look good. And advertising sales are definitely down."

Clark nodded; he'd scanned the paperwork Lois had dug up and the situation appeared to be every bit as bleak as the union official and Perry had outlined. "So what's happening?" he asked rhetorically, baffled. "I mean, it's not as if we've been doing anything different over the last month. We're still putting out the same paper as we've always been, with the same sort of stories and the same editorial position on issues. So why are we suddenly hitting a slide, and our opponents aren't?"

"Yeah, I mean we could explain it — or some of it — if our opponents were running some sort of promotion, or they were continually beating us to the big scoops. But none of that's happening."

"So just what is going on?" Clark repeated, frowning. "And why isn't Perry asking these questions too?"

"Maybe he is," Lois said thoughtfully. "But don't forget that he's under pressure from above to do something about it. He probably hasn't had time to do more than fire- fight."

"I guess," Clark answered. "Maybe we should talk to him."

But Lois shook her head. "I'd prefer to have something concrete to talk to him about first. If he knew we were working on this, he'd insist that we drop it and spend time on work that's actually going to end up in the paper."

Clark nodded, seeing the truth in Lois's comment. "Okay. So we need to talk to the advertisers who've pulled out, don't we?"

"Yes, and we should talk to the distributors too. Find out if they have any idea why sales are down."

"I just can't imagine that no-one upstairs has already done this," Clark said slowly. "I mean, of course we have to do it, but it seems pretty much the obvious thing to do in this situation. Someone in management has to have done it."

"You clearly have more confidence in management's competence than I do," Lois said dryly. "Okay, you take the advertisers; I'll take the distributors. And we'll talk again later today or tomorrow." Collecting her things, she prepared to return to her own desk.

"Wait a minute." Clark laid his hand on her arm, detaining her. He'd been wondering ever since last night just what Lois had really thought of what he'd told her about Lex Luthor. She'd said nothing at all to him about the conversation; without his inside information, he'd never have known that she and Superman had talked about anything other than the interview.

But would it be sensible to ask her about it? She'd already made it very clear that she wanted him — Clark — to butt out of her relationship with Luthor. And her dismissive attitude to him earlier that morning *had* made him suspect that she was irritated with him, probably because he'd 'sent' Superman to talk to her. Was it really worth risking her wrath again?

Sure, he kept telling himself that a true friend would tell her the truth even when she didn't want to hear. But what was the point in being a true friend if she responded by cutting herself off from him entirely? And he had a strong suspicion that she might just do that if he pushed too hard.

But there were more subtle ways of finding out what he needed to know, he'd realised eventually. Now, as she gave him a curious and mildly irritated look — when Lois decided that a conversation was over, she did not appreciate being delayed! — he gave her a wide smile.

"I was just thinking we haven't spent much time together lately," he said, deliberately keeping his tone light. "I mean, you've been busy… dating…" He waved his free hand in an idle gesture. "Anyway, how about pizza and a movie tonight? Either a video at my place, or we could see what's showing at the theatre."

If she really had taken Superman's advice about Luthor seriously, then she wouldn't be seeing *him* tonight, Clark reasoned. He leaned back in his chair, waiting for her answer, trying to keep his expression casual.

But, although she smiled briefly at him, she quickly began to shake her head. "Sorry, Clark, I'm seeing Lex tonight. Take a rain check, okay?"

His heart sank.

He was nodding reluctantly when she frowned and glared at him. "Wait a minute… You were hoping I'd have dumped him, weren't you? You got your precious *friend* — who I never knew was such a *close* friend of yours, by the way — to come to me with a load of innuendo and flimsy accusations, and you thought I'd swallow it all and dump Lex, didn't you?"

She was keeping her voice low, but she was furious; that was obvious. And what was even more obvious was that his trump card had been utterly useless. Lois hadn't believed anything he'd told her as Superman. She evidently had more faith in her scum of a boyfriend than in Superman — which said a lot about her loyalty, he thought bleakly. His efforts to convince her had been a complete waste of time.

Maybe he should have played more obviously to her secret fantasies, he mused grimly. He could have just kissed her, swept her off her feet, as Superman — then asked her to dump Luthor for him. The head of LexCorp would have been forgotten in seconds, he was sure.

But that was a crazy idea. He didn't want to win Lois that way, apart from anything else. It would be too disillusioning if he discovered that she was only too willing to become Superman's plaything, while rejecting Clark as anything more than a friend.

<But you want to stop her marrying Luthor!> a little voice pointed out.

That was true. But using Superman like that would be a last resort. He couldn't imagine easily respecting Lois again if such a tactic worked.

Sighing deeply, he realised that she was still glaring at him, waiting for her answer. Okay. If she wanted it, she'd get it. "I don't know what your problem is, Lois," he said coolly. "If you remember, you promised me that you'd talk to Superman about your boyfriend. And, yes, I asked Superman to tell you what he knows. That's all. And what you do — or don't do — about whatever it is he told you is up to you. I said I wouldn't talk to you about Lex Luthor again, and I didn't. You're the one who brought up the subject now. And, if you don't mind, I'd really rather not discuss him."

That had shaken her, he realised with a small amount of satisfaction. Feeling guilty about his dual identity in these circumstances, he allowed his body to relax and gave her a wry smile. "I don't want to fight with you, Lois. I just want to be your friend," he said semi-apologetically.

She nodded, seemed about to say something, but then gave him a faint smile instead before turning to return to her desk.

*** Was she misjudging Clark?

Slowly sinking back into her chair, Lois couldn't get that question out of her head. Was it possible that Clark hadn't been acting out of some irrational jealousy of Lex, some stupid macho notion that another man was stealing his friend away from him? From what he'd just said — and she believed him — it seemed that he really hadn't been conspiring with Superman to persuade her to dump Lex. Oh, sure, he'd asked Superman to talk to her, but perhaps that really was all he'd done. It certainly didn't sound as if the two of them had got together to decide how to handle her.

And there was something she'd been forgetting in all this, something very important about Clark.

He *cared* about her. He didn't just see her as a convenient companion whenever he didn't want to spend an evening alone, or as someone he could unburden to whenever he felt the need to confide some deep personal problem. Come to that, Clark had almost never confided in her; if anything, that aspect of their friendship had been mostly the other way around.

Clark *cared* about her. She knew that; she'd known it for almost as long as she'd known him. He'd do just about anything for her, because that was the kind of person — the kind of *friend* — he was.

And so Clark was unlikely to have too many selfish motives in trying to persuade her to think again about Lex. Okay, Clark didn't like the man, and it was still possible that some of his feelings stemmed from jealousy. He'd never completely denied it, after all. But what if she'd been dating someone decent, someone who wasn't probably a criminal? Would he still be as anxious to interfere?

Maybe… or maybe not. Maybe he would simply be happy for her.

As she would be if he was the one dating someone who made him happy.

Of course she would! she protested silently, ferociously, as an image of Linda King flirting with Clark entered her head. Linda King simply wasn't right for him, that was the only reason she'd hated to see her pursuing Clark.

Anyway, she told herself firmly, she'd keep an eye on Clark for a bit; see how he behaved over the next couple of days. If she concluded that she was right about his motives, then she could tell him what she'd decided to do about Lex, and get him to help her. And she knew that, with Clark helping her, they'd make more progress. They were a team; they worked well together and he was a great partner. So much so that she'd almost lost the knack of getting to the facts on her own. It wasn't that she couldn't; it was just that she'd become so used to relying on Clark for those painstakingly detailed aspects of investigations which she always found tedious. And he was great to bounce ideas off; together, they came up with more ideas than either of them could alone.

So telling Clark would be a good idea. Once she was sure that he'd work with her for the right motives.

For now, she had some distributors to call.

*** She was seeing Luthor tonight. It hadn't worked after all.

Unable to concentrate on anything at home in his apartment, Clark eventually found himself wandering aimlessly out onto his balcony. After a few moments, he simply launched himself into the air. Maybe a nightcap with his parents would help him to forget Lois, just for a little while…

*** Dinner in New York had been nice, although the company was regrettable, and now the flight back in Lex's private jet should have been an incredibly romantic experience, Lois knew. It would have been, with almost anyone else. And, hard as she tried to behave as if nothing had changed, she couldn't get two things out of her mind.

One was what Superman had told her about Lex's activities, and her response to that information. If Superman was correct — and she didn't doubt that he sincerely believed Lex to be every bit as bad as he'd painted the man — then, as she'd already decided, Lex was the kind of person she would never want to be associated with. If not for her strong desire, now, to see him brought to justice, she wouldn't come within a mile of him.

Theft, blackmail, graft and even murder… the Lex Luthor Superman had described would stop at none of these. This made him an incredibly dangerous man. And if Lex for one moment thought that she suspected him of such crimes, would he hesitate to have her killed? She doubted very much that the fact that he'd asked her to marry him would give him even a second's pause. No; he'd give the order for her death as casually as he'd order dinner.

She could even guess just who he might ask to ensure that the order was carried out, too.

Nigel St John. Lois had never liked the Englishman who acted as some sort of major-domo and valet and personal assistant combined. He was… creepy. And the way he smiled at her was definitely false. He didn't like her; that much was certain. Killing her, she suspected, would be a minor detail for Nigel.

So being with Lex right now was actually leaving her shaky inside. He was being utterly charming, as usual, but she couldn't take anything he said at face value any more; she was continually speculating at what was underneath the facade. And on just how she was going to expose him. For that, she was determined, she was going to do.

And then the other thing which wouldn't leave her thoughts was Clark. Clark, and how he'd looked in the newsroom earlier when she'd rejected his invitation and told him that she was seeing Lex tonight. He'd covered up his reaction reasonably quickly, and had then distracted her by getting impatient with her. But she remembered the immediate look of acute dismay in his eyes.

Disappointment that he wouldn't get to spend the evening with her… or concern that she'd be with a man he believed to be dangerous?

And hadn't she come to the conclusion earlier that Clark's persistence on the subject of Lex was because he cared about her? Which would explain why he didn't want her anywhere near a man he was fully convinced was a criminal.

<Why didn't he tell me?> she demanded silently.

<Would you have listened?> she answered herself immediately.

<Maybe… not> she conceded slowly. It had been far easier to believe that Clark was suffering from a crazy attack of jealousy.

But jealousy of *what*? she asked herself again. After all, Clark wasn't romantically interested in her. She was certain enough of that.

<Oh yeah? Then why did he kiss you?>

She shook her head angrily. She knew why Clark had kissed her: to prove a point. To force her to recognise that troublesome little degree of physical attraction, *chemistry*, which was there between them. She'd known it was there. She'd recognised it for what it was on the first night they'd worked late together and she'd looked up to find his gaze intent on her. He'd backed off as soon as she'd made her position clear, though, and they'd never referred to it again. But the couple of times they'd kissed, mainly as part of the cover for an investigation, it had flared up again… and each time both of them had been careful not to refer to it or question it.

It wasn't important. And it certainly had never been worth risking a friendship over. He'd known that as well as she did, she was sure of that.

But when it had suited Clark, he'd clearly decided to try to use it to his advantage. That was all; that was why he'd kissed her. It wasn't as if he wanted her in his life as a girlfriend or anything — if that *was* what he'd wanted, he'd have told her so before now, wouldn't he? She'd already been through this line of reasoning and knew the answer.

"Lois?" Lex's concerned, vaguely irritated voice cut through her musings. "You're not with me here, are you?"

<Uh-oh…> "I'm sorry, Lex," she said apologetically, turning to smile at him. "I was just enjoying the view… the night sky, the lights below… and I guess maybe I drank too much at dinner…"

"Ah." Now he was smoothly patronising. "Falling asleep on me, hmmm? Hardly flattering, my dear! But I'll forgive you." How had she ever thought him charming and sophisticated?

But she forced herself to smile at him. "I'm sorry. It's just been a long day, that's all. I *have* enjoyed this evening, really."

"My poor Lois." He shifted closer to her, sliding his arm around her shoulders and tugging her towards him. "Why don't you lay your head against me? It'd be far more comfortable than that window. We have half an hour or so before we land."

"Oh, it's okay," she said lightly. "I'm wide awake now." She straightened, moving out of his arms; at the same time she gave him a brilliant smile as cover. "Talk to me, Lex. What brilliant business deal have you pulled off today?"

"What makes you think I did?" he enquired.

"Lex! Are there ever days when you don't do something brilliant?" she teased, thinking that she'd deserve an Oscar after this evening. But she needed to get him talking about his business dealings, in an atmosphere which wouldn't make him suspicious.

But he shook his head lightly. "Let's not talk about work now, Lois. It's a beautiful evening. We've just had a romantic dinner at Chez Pierre's. And I am with the most beautiful woman in the world." He shifted so that he was facing her, and his arm crept around her shoulders again. "Lois, my sweet, you've had several days to think about it. Do you have an answer for me yet?"

His proposal. He wanted a decision from her. Lois stilled, telling herself to smile and act as if she was still flattered by him. She now knew, of course, that she had no intention of marrying him, but if she told him that now it would be the end of any attempt at investigating him.

So, instead, she smiled shyly. "Oh, Lex… it's not that simple. I'm flattered, you know I am, but there's a lot to think about."

"Surely not?" he questioned, still smiling; the smile, she noticed, now didn't meet his eyes. "It's a straightforward enough decision. If you don't feel that you could live with me as my wife, then the answer's no. So if you're telling me 'no', then tell me now and we'll say our goodbyes."

She couldn't do that! If she wasn't seeing Lex any more, then she wouldn't have the kind of access she needed in order to be able to probe into his background and activities. Lois took a deep breath, knowing what she had to do. All for the sake of the story, she reminded herself firmly.

Taking a deep breath, she gave him a brilliant smile, as radiant as it was false. "Yes, Lex, I'll marry you."

He stilled for a moment, then leaned towards her. "You've made me the happiest man alive, my dear," he said in a silky voice, then his face blotted out the view as his wet lips closed over her mouth.

*** Clark was in the newsroom early the following morning; he still had several names to tick off on the list of ex- Planet advertisers he was supposed to call. A number of things had intervened the previous day which had prevented him getting through to everyone, and he was determined that Lois wasn't going to be able to accuse him of slacking.

Half an hour later, he had a pattern. The last five people he'd spoken to had told him that they'd been made an offer they couldn't refuse if they switched their advertising away from the Planet for at least a month. The weird thing was that the offers didn't seem to have come from the same identifiable source. A couple of advertisers had gone to the Star, but others had been enticed to different papers.

An intermediary, perhaps? Acting for someone who wanted to do the Planet harm?

But who?

He was still sitting at his desk, head resting on his hands, thinking deeply, when Lois emerged from the elevator and strode purposefully down the ramp. As ever, his spirits rose at the sight of her. Then he remembered where she'd been last night, and he sighed again.

He'd spent an hour at his parents' home, pacing back and forth as he tried to explain his feelings about Lois dating Lex Luthor. It *wasn't* just that he was jealous, he'd insisted, ignoring his mother's knowing looks. With everything he knew or suspected about the man, the thought of Lois in Luthor's clutches made Clark's blood run cold. *That* was why it bothered him. And that was why he had to find a way to convince her to drop the man.

And yet he'd played his trump card, and it hadn't worked.

<Not quite your trump card, Kent> the voice of temptation reminded him. <You didn't play Superman the Lover yet…>

<And I *won't*!> he insisted furiously, silently.

He watched her surreptitiously as she collected a coffee for herself; then something caught his attention. As if in slow motion, he peered over the top of his glasses, using his Super-vision to get a closer look.

On the third finger of her left hand, there was a ring. A gold band with a very ostentatious solitaire diamond on it.

An engagement ring.

And there was only one person who could have put that there.

It was the end of all his hopes, everything he'd dreamed of ever since meeting Lois. Oh, he'd known how unlikely it was that he could win her for himself, but seeing her engaged to someone else made him feel as if a cold, hard shard of ice-coated Kryptonite had been rammed into his heart.

Nothing could be the same again for Lois and himself. It wouldn't have been so bad if she was going to marry someone he could like or even respect; but Lex Luthor was an entirely different matter. How could he even continue to be Lois's friend, when she was marrying the one man in the world he utterly loathed? And if she hadn't even trusted Superman when he'd tried to tell her what a monster Luthor was, what did it say about her loyalty to her friends?

It was all over; all his illusions, his dreams, shattered into tiny pieces.

Feeling as if his heart was breaking in two, Clark got up and walked stiffly, quickly, towards the men's room, intent on getting out of sight before anyone — most of all Lois — could see the pain he knew was burned deep on his face.


Having got her coffee, Lois looked around for Clark. She'd spent most of the night awake, thinking, since her impulsive, but necessary, acceptance of Lex's proposal the evening before. It had taken just about every ounce of acting ability she had to remain calm and smiling, pretend she wasn't revolted by his kiss, and to put on a pretence of happiness during the remainder of the flight. And even then, in the circumstances, she hadn't been able to plead tiredness and go straight home. Lex had insisted that she should come up to the penthouse so that he could give her the ring he'd had specially made for her, and to toast their engagement.

Champagne had never tasted so vile.

And then he'd accompanied her home in the limousine chauffeured by Nigel, and then walked up to her apartment with her. For a horrible moment, Lois had thought that Lex believed that their engagement gave him licence to take their relationship further, and had been about to plead a headache and an early appointment the next morning. But, to her relief, he'd simply stepped inside, kissed her again and left immediately.

And she'd been awake most of the night.

It hadn't taken her long to come to the conclusion that she needed to tell Clark the truth about this phoney engagement. He was her partner, after all; but it was more than that. The previous day, she'd finally recognised just what was behind his objection to her dating Lex. He was concerned about her; he cared about her safety. And he genuinely believed that she was in danger.

She didn't actually disagree with that assessment now. And, of course, given her true motive for accepting Lex's proposal, she was in even greater danger: if Lex ever found out what she was up to, she didn't rate her chances of making it to her twenty-eighth birthday.

And Clark was more than just her partner. He was her best friend. Okay, their friendship had been through something of a rough patch, but she knew he was still her friend and would remain so through thick or thin. Clark wasn't the kind of person to blow hot and cold. Once he adopted someone as his friend, he was a friend for life. Of that she was sure. And, being his friend too, she was aware that he'd probably be hurt, as well as worried, that she'd got engaged to someone he neither liked nor trusted. And she didn't want that.

If Clark knew, then he could help her. Okay, knowing Clark he'd probably start by telling her that she was crazy and that she needed to get out of this situation immediately. But she'd talk him around. She always could. And then he'd see the sense in her actions: it gave her the perfect cover to investigate Lex from the inside.

And she wanted Clark involved. For all his fussing — and she did secretly love it that he cared about her and wanted to protect her — she valued him as a partner and as a great reporter in his own right. If she was able to brainstorm with him over this, she just knew that it would make her whole job much easier.

So she'd left her apartment early and driven straight over to Clark's place, intending to have breakfast with him and fill him in on developments. Only he hadn't been there; of all the days her partner could have decided to get into work early, he'd had to choose this one!

But here he was now… only he'd disappeared, she noticed. Funny; she could have sworn he was at his desk just a minute ago. But then she spotted him emerging from the men's room, so she went over to the ramp to wait for him.

His greeting was curt. "Morning, Lois."

"We need to talk," she said immediately. "There's something I have to tell you."

His gaze flickered from her face to her hand and back again. "You don't have to tell me anything," he said coldly. He began to turn away, but then turned back to her, a viciously angry look on his face. "What was it, Lois? Found you just couldn't resist the lure of being married to a billionaire, was that it?"

Before she could even catch her breath, let alone respond, he'd stalked off, anger radiating from every muscle of his body.

*** So much for letting Clark in on what she was really doing! And so much for him being her best friend, too, Lois snarled internally as she stormed back to her desk.

How could he jump to conclusions like that? And how could he accuse her of something that horrible?

He was supposed to be her *friend*! He'd known her all this time, and he could still believe her capable of marrying someone for his *money*?

That hurt. That *really* hurt, that Clark could think something like that of her. From anyone else, it wouldn't have mattered so much. She could have shrugged it off. But from Clark… for him to think so badly of her was incredibly painful. He might as well have slapped her hard; it wouldn't have hurt any less, or shocked her more.

Her best friend; the one person in the world she'd trusted, confided in, actually admitted that she needed him in her life… and he'd betrayed her so completely with that harsh and unfair accusation.

He could have *asked* her, couldn't he? After all, she'd been just about to tell him all about the fake engagement.

Well, she could forget any idea of letting Clark in on what she was really up to with Lex. If his opinion of her was so low that he could believe she was mercenary, then she didn't want him anywhere near this investigation. She could manage without him. It wasn't as if she'd never produced great stories before she'd had a partner anyway. And there was something else… ever since she'd been working with Clark, she hadn't won a single award. And yet in the years before Clark she'd won three Kerth awards. What did that tell her?

She didn't need Clark. As a partner, or even as a friend if that was what he thought of her.

As she leaned forward to tilt her monitor into a better position, the over-large, showy diamond caught her eye. Grimacing, she twisted it until it was on the palm-side of her hand. Since she couldn't risk taking the ring off, that minor rebellion would have to do for now. Trust Lex to go overboard, as usual. It galled her to have to wear the ring, but she was telling herself to regard it as simply a disguise, like one of the many others she'd worn in the course of her work over the years.

She was disappointed in Clark. Finally, she allowed herself to admit that. She'd wanted to work with him on this, almost the biggest story she'd ever taken on. Bouncing ideas off Clark had become so much of a habit this past year, she'd almost forgotten how to rationalise and argue things out on her own. It would have been good to have him with her.

*And* she'd wanted — only now did she realise how much — to have his undemanding, unconditional friendship back. Sure, they'd made up that night in the Jeep, but then things had got difficult again after he'd kissed her. And they'd fought again the next morning — over Lex again. So she'd assumed that once Clark knew the truth things would be back to normal between them.

Only he hadn't given her a chance to tell him the truth.

Well, that was his problem, and now he'd have to live with it. *She* had no intention of telling him anything!


"Ah, Nigel. What news do you have for me?" The sole occupant of the room swung around to face the intruder.

"You''ll be pleased to know that Operation Invasion has just moved into phase two," Nigel reported smoothly, passing a manila folder to his employer. "Should you wish to make an announcement later today, I can put the arrangements in place."

"Yes, I believe I'll do that, Nigel," Lex answered, a broad smile of satisfaction curving across his face. Reaching along his large desk, he selected a cigar and waited for his assistant to light it before continuing. "Any news from our young friend?"

"Ah. Well, it seems that Mr Kent was not very happy with Ms Lane this morning. They exchanged angry words before Mr Kent apparently… ah, *stormed off* back to his own desk, as our snitch put it." Nigel smiled himself, remembering the glee with which their informer had relayed the information.

"And I don't suppose our snitch could tell us what exactly my fianc‚e and her partner were discussing?" Lex enquired, looking hopeful.

"Well, apparently Mr Kent did look rather pointedly at Ms Lane's hand, so I think we can draw our own conclusions, sir."

"Excellent." Lex took a long draw of his cigar and then leaned back in his seat, blowing smoke rings. "I have to admit that I was considerably irritated when Kent turned down the job offer, but if my engagement to the lovely Lois succeeds in driving a wedge between them…" He smiled. "Then we don't need to worry about a nobody like Kent."

"I can always ensure that the offer is renewed, sir," Nigel suggested. "It's entirely possible that Mr Kent will want to reconsider… especially after your little announcement."

"Yes, that may be sensible. I'll consider it," Luthor said thoughtfully. "There may be other ways of removing him which won't be as costly, and which may be more permanent — especially now, if my lovely Lois has fallen out with him."

"If you wish, I can investigate some options, sir," Nigel murmured. "I understand that Mr Kent's family lives in Kansas…?"

"I like that idea," Lex mused aloud. "Yes. Find out everything you can about Kent's bucolic background. I want to know how much his parents owe, what their primary source of income is, their medical records — even what they eat for breakfast."

"Yes, of course," Nigel answered, silently stifling the urge to retort that he already knew, far better than his employer, how to suck eggs. The British secret service knew how to train spies, and he'd had about the best training and practical experience available anywhere in the world.

And now, he was reduced to taking orders from someone who wouldn't have the first idea about how to conduct a reconnaissance mission.

Although, he conceded, working for Lex Luthor had its advantages in many other respects; and although his relationship with his employer had the superficial appearance of formality, with himself as the subordinate, in reality it was frequently a relationship of equals.

It was also a relationship from which Nigel derived a great deal of enjoyment, most of the time. Now, however, he was finding certain aspects of his job, and his relationship with his employer, somewhat irksome. Not least his employer's insistence on making a fool of himself over a woman — and not just any woman, but Lois Lane.

Not only was she only passably attractive, whereas someone with the wealth and power of Lex Luthor could attract super-models or Hollywood superstars if he saw fit; but she was also potentially dangerous. She was a reporter, of all things! And an award-winning investigative reporter, at that. And if Lex imagined that the nosey Ms Lane was going to give up her job, or her desire to ferret out information which others would prefer to have kept hidden, then he quite definitely had another think coming.

But then, that was Lex Luthor's look-out; and if Ms Lane did become troublesome, as Nigel suspected that she might, then he already had his escape plan ready. He had plenty of hard cash salted away in a couple of South American and African states in which the criminal justice system wasn't as efficient as either the North American or British governments'. And his flight plan would take bare minutes to put into effect.

After all, friendship and loyalty did have its limits, and it was every man for himself in times of trouble.

*** "Uh, attention everyone."

Lois's head snapped up. That was Perry, and by his tone it didn't sound as if this was good news.

"I guess everyone knows by now that the Planet's going through a rough patch. I'm sure it won't last and that we'll be back on our feet as the best darned newspaper in Metropolis very soon. But until then I'm sorry to tell you all that we have to tighten our belts a little, and that means layoffs. I hate doing this," he continued, his voice tight. "Letting people go isn't a pleasant task. But I have my orders from above, and there's nothing I can do about it."

"So who's on the list, Chief?" Cat demanded, sounding tense. "Do we still have jobs?"

"I've had to accept a couple of layoffs in the newsroom, yes," Perry answered, sounding very unhappy. "I'd like some time to talk to the people concerned before any general announcement is made. I think that's fair."

He disappeared back into his office, and less than a minute later Lois saw one of the travel writers go in. Everyone in the newsroom seemed to watch the poor guy, and it seemed as if a collective breath was held until he came out again. The writer's face was pale, and he headed straight for the men's room.

Lois almost turned to Clark, to share her shock at these latest developments with her partner, but then she remembered the way he'd spoken to her and so she resolutely dismissed the thought. Then she saw Jack, Clark's young protege, heading for Perry's office as well. So he'd been right, she thought. Jack had said he'd be one of the first to go.

For the first time, she felt sorry for the young man.

But this was dreadful. She'd been at the Planet for over four years now, not counting her time as an intern, and she'd never seen layoffs before. And in the *newsroom*? What on earth had Perry been thinking of to agree to that?

As soon as Jack emerged, she marched straight over to Perry's office, not caring if anyone who saw her imagined that she was also on the layoff list. She was going to tell the editor exactly what she thought of what was going on. Let him take that message back to the suits upstairs!

"Perry! How could you agree to this?!" she shot at him, barely waiting until she'd closed the door behind her.

He swung around to look at her, and she saw a tired old man with lines of strain on his face and black-rimmed eyes. "I had no choice," he said bluntly. "Anyway, Lois, what does it matter to you? You don't even like Jack, so why should you care?"

"It's the principle of the thing!" she shot back. "Layoffs in the newsroom?"

"I had no choice," Perry repeated. He sighed, then added, more quietly, "I only just managed to save Jimmy's job as it is. This time."

Jimmy! That drew Lois up short; she was well aware that the editor regarded Jimmy almost as a third son, even if he didn't necessarily let the younger man see that fact.

"It's bad, Lois," Perry added. "I'll level with you. I've never known it as bad as this. The paper could go under."

Lois felt the blood drain from her face, and she sat down slowly. She'd known it was bad, but not *this* bad! "So… more layoffs could be coming?"

"Make that 'will', Lois," he answered heavily. "And now just gophers and admin staff. The next round will include reporters. And just so you know… well, they're talking about last hired, first fired."

The implication of that wasn't lost on Lois. So Clark's fears hadn't been groundless after all! If only she'd known… She could have encouraged him to take that job in San Francisco. At least he'd have had a job!

Her anger with him dissipated, to be replaced by cold fear. She *couldn't* lose her partner!

"If Clark goes, I'll quit," she said baldly. "You can tell that to the suits!"

"Lois, right now I'm not sure they'd care a whole lot," Perry replied, sounding very, very tired. "The way they see it, even you and Clark haven't brought in any award-winning stuff recently. Okay, they were pleased with your Superman interview yesterday — though that had your byline and not Clark's, which I have to tell you didn't look good for him — but you can't exactly write an in-depth Superman interview every week. We need stuff which is ongoing, which will encourage repeat sales — and that wasn't it."

"I did keep some stuff back for the Saturday edition," Lois muttered defensively.

"That's not the point, honey, and you know it." Perry sighed heavily and leaned forward, resting his head in his hands. "We're in trouble, Lois. And I'm darned if I can see where this came from all of a sudden. But I'll promise you one thing," he added abruptly, now sounding like the Perry Lois knew and loved. "No newspaper I've ever worked for has ever gone under, and the Planet's not going to be the first. The Planet will go bust over my dead body."

"That's the spirit, Chief!" Lois said encouragingly, relieved to see the editor sounding more upbeat again. She really had no idea how to handle other people's despondency; Clark was far better at all that touchy-feely stuff.

<I'm not thinking about Clark>

But Clark could lose his job if things didn't improve at the Planet, and no matter how furious she was with him, she didn't want him to be laid off. She couldn't contemplate the thought of working at the Planet without him as her partner. Lex had suggested, only a couple of days ago, that she didn't need a partner, and while this was a sentiment she used to embrace strongly, she'd just got accustomed to working with Clark.

And it was more than that. He'd asked her only two days earlier whether it would kill her to admit that she enjoyed working with him. She hadn't answered him — which had been mean of her, she acknowledged — but she *did* like working with him.

She should have told him so.

Not that she was going to now. Not after what he'd accused her of this morning. He might as well have come right out and accused her of being a gold-digger in front of the entire newsroom.

She sighed as she left Perry's office. She'd half-thought of telling Perry about the Lex investigation and the truth behind her supposed 'engagement' — which, to her surprise, didn't seem to have filtered around the newsroom yet. Clearly Clark hadn't told anyone else, and that gaudy diamond wasn't so eye-catching now that she'd turned the ring around the other way. But with Perry so preoccupied with the Planet's troubles, she didn't think the time was right to bother him about something like that. If it came off and she got an exclusive out of it, great. If not, and she had to break off the engagement without getting anything, well… It would just be a broken engagement, no more.

Except… Well, she'd have to face the question of whether Lex could really threaten her safety, or her life, if it came to it. Maybe then she'd take Superman into her confidence.

Now, it was even more imperative that she and Clark get some answers to the mystery of what was going wrong with the Planet's sales. But that meant that she had to work with Clark, after he'd accused her of being a blatant fortune-hunter.

She could do that. Just as long as it was understood that neither Lex Luthor's name, nor her supposed engagement to the man, would be mentioned. She would make that clear. And, at the same time, she wouldn't tell Clark what Perry had told her about last-hired, first-fired. There was no point upsetting him about something that might not happen. After all, she intended to do her very best to ensure that it wouldn't happen.

*** This was turning out to be one of the worst days of Clark's life.

First, he'd seen that appallingly showy ring on Lois's finger, and all his hopes and dreams had come crashing around his feet. She was marrying Lex Luthor. She hadn't actually said that he was her fianc‚, but he was pretty sure that she hadn't been seeing anyone else. And anyway, no-one else could have afforded something that ostentatious. There had to be at least tens of thousands of dollars'-worth of diamond on that gold band.

As he brooded on the subject over the following couple of hours, he reflected that the ring was pretentious, a gaudy, over-the-top symbol of ownership. By giving her that, Luthor was stamping his brand on Lois. From all he knew of his partner, Clark couldn't imagine that she would have chosen something like that. Her tastes ran to simpler adornments, from what he'd noticed over the past year. She would have chosen something discreet, simple and restrained, he thought.

She was marrying Lex Luthor. After everything he'd done to try to persuade her what a mistake that would be, what a dangerous, callous man Luthor was, she'd still accepted his proposal. That certainly showed how much she trusted him, didn't it?

Even worse, it showed how little she trusted Superman.

And yet he could have sworn that she still had a crush on his alter ego. He'd have bet just about anything on the proposition that she would have taken Superman's word on the subject of her boyfriend. But, despite what Superman had told her, she'd still accepted Luthor's proposal. She was marrying a man Clark thought of as the most evil individual he knew.

She was getting into bed with the devil.

And, what was more painful still, she was rejecting him.

Oh, he knew that his feelings shouldn't be the most important issue right now. What *was* important was to stop Lois making the biggest mistake of her life, ending up married to the greatest criminal never to have been found out. But he couldn't separate the objective need to wake Lois up to the reality of the situation from his own pain at the loss of the only woman he'd loved, the only woman he'd dreamed about night after night; the only woman he'd ever even contemplated sharing *everything* with.

He'd lost her. And yet he'd never even had her… not that that made it any easier to bear.

After seeing that ring on her finger this morning, he felt as if his heart had been ripped out and shredded into little pieces. Red-hot branding irons, assuming he wasn't invulnerable, couldn't have hurt as much as the searing pain he'd experienced on seeing that over-large and tasteless diamond, and understanding its significance.

The pain he was feeling was bad enough; almost enough to make him plead illness so he didn't have to stay in the newsroom where he could see her every time he turned around; hear her voice every time she spoke; sense her breathing and even her heartbeat. There were times when his Super senses were a truly painful burden. But he had work to do, and this was a difficult time for the Planet. He had to put his personal feelings aside and get on with his job. And anyway, he was going to have to carry on working with Lois, knowing that she was now beyond his reach, so he had to get used to it some time.

And that had been the next bad thing about today. Perry had announced layoffs just a short while ago. More layoffs, and this time in the newsroom, which meant that things were very serious. A newspaper could survive with fewer clerical staff, perhaps with fewer drivers or print workers, but its reporters were the key people at the core of the production process. Without journalists, there was no paper.

And two members of newsroom staff were losing their jobs.

Jack was no surprise, really; the young man was little more than a gofer and had expected to be first on the list. That didn't make it any easier: Clark had vouched for Jack and helped him get the job, and he knew how hard it would be for the youngster to get another job. He just hoped that his protege wasn't likely to end up homeless again. At least he could keep an eye on Jack, lend him money if he needed it, offer a character reference and so on.

The other layoff was more worrying, from the point of view of the security of other newsroom staff. Peter from Travel had been at the Planet a couple of years, certainly longer than Clark, and had seen his position as secure. Now, he was facing unemployment.

How safe was Clark's own job? Despite everything Lois had said, he was well aware that he was the newest member of the reporting team, and if the Planet was in as bad a state as it seemed there was little hope that he could survive.

He should have taken that job in San Francisco after all…

Lois had talked him out of it, and if he was honest with himself he hadn't really wanted to go anyway. But would he really want to stay at the Planet — stay in *Metropolis* — with Lois married to Lex Luthor?

It was too late to call and tell the Examiner that he'd changed his mind, he knew. They'd been very clear that they could only hold the job open for a few hours, and he'd given them an unequivocal no. But maybe there'd be other opportunities… he should probably brush up his resume and send it out to a few places.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lois emerging from Perry's office, looking shaken. He'd been vaguely aware of her marching in, and now he wished that he'd paid more attention; by her appearance, the conversation might have been worth listening to. He stifled the twinge of guilt he felt at the thought of listening in on someone else's conversation; sometimes eavesdropping could just about be justified, he told himself.

<Mom would box your ears if she heard you say that> the voice of his conscience pointed out.

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and again his gaze alighted on Lois.

Lois. He'd been unforgivably rude to her earlier.

He'd accused her of being a fortune-hunter, of accepting Luthor's proposal only because the man was a billionaire a couple of times over. And yet he knew that Lois wasn't motivated by money. He'd always known that; the thought hadn't crossed his mind for more than one second when she'd first started seeing Luthor. That night in her car, when he'd tried to talk rationally about her interest in the man, she'd made it clear that money wasn't the attraction for her, and he'd believed her instinctively.

So why had he thrown that crass, insulting accusation at her?

He'd been hurt, sure. But that was no excuse.

And he'd hurt her. That had been obvious from the way she'd flinched at his words, looking away briefly before turning back to him, hurt, anger and confusion vivid on her face. And he'd walked away without even giving her a chance to defend herself.

Just what had that told her about what he thought of her?

Even if he had decided that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, for them to carry on being friends, that was no excuse for his behaviour. No matter how upset he felt — even how betrayed he felt — at Lois's rejection of himself in favour of Luthor, he'd been wrong to accuse her of being a fortune-hunter. Lois had clearly chosen not to believe him or Superman about Luthor's activities, but that didn't mean that she was solely attracted by his money.

He needed to apologise. No; he needed to grovel. And the sooner the better.

And then he noticed that she was coming over to him, a file under one arm. Here was his chance. He got to his feet as she approached, and quickly said, "Lois, about what I said earlier — "

But she cut him off, her voice cool and dismissive. "No, Clark. I've come to the conclusion that what you said yesterday was right."

"Huh?" He stared at her blankly, wishing that she'd just shut up and let him apologise.

"You said we shouldn't discuss Lex. And that's the way I want it. Now, we've got work to do, so can we get on with it?"

Dismayed, he continued to stare at her; but she gave him an impatient look. "What's happening to the Planet, Clark! We need to get moving on this, while there still *is* a Planet to save!"

"You're kidding!" he exclaimed, shocked. "Things are that bad?"

"I just talked to Perry," she told him, pulling up a chair. "You better believe they're that bad."

And he'd been selfish enough just to worry about his own job. Everyone at the Planet would be out on the street if the paper went under. "I talked to the advertisers," he told her. "There's something weird going on there, but I haven't been able to figure out what yet."

"What did you get?" she asked immediately.

He told her, adding that he was still working on trying to find out the nature of the deals the advertisers had been offered and what they had in common.

"Well, they were all given special deals, isn't that enough?" Lois said impatiently.

"Yeah, but who from? It's not as if it's the Star or some other competitor just buying them all up."

"Yeah, I know," she said, more slowly this time. "Someone wants to see the Planet fail, and is sinking a lot of money into it. *And* covering their tracks pretty darned well."

"What did you find out about the distributors?" Clark asked.

Looking frustrated, Lois said, "Nothing. Just that over the last month returns have been getting higher and higher. And even though the print runs are smaller now, they're still bringing back more unsold copies than they ever have."

"So we need to talk to the sellers," Clark suggested. "Newsstands, supermarkets, stores… we need to get out there and start asking questions."

"Yeah, that sounds like a plan," Lois agreed. "I can grab an hour this afternoon — how about you?"

Before Clark could answer, someone called loudly from the other side of the newsroom. "Ladies and gentlemen, pardon the interruption, but I have an announcement to make."

*** Lois's head shot up. She knew that voice.

*Just what was her fianc‚ doing here?!*

"Lex?" she said involuntarily, rising from her seat and turning to face the man in the highly-expensive suit who was standing on the gallery just above the bullpen, facing the newsroom, Nigel St John and a couple of other men with him.

Clark also stood, and she could almost feel the atmosphere become tense. A sidelong glance at her partner revealed that his expression was cold, angry. Thus reminded of what he'd accused her of earlier, she deliberately took a couple of steps away from Clark.

"Just what in tarnation is going on here?" Perry had emerged from his office and was looking around in disapproval at the still newsroom. Everyone, it seemed, had downed tools and was staring up at Lex Luthor.

"Perry! Do pardon this intrusion," Lex said smoothly. Perry did a double-take and turned to look at him.

"Lex? Did you want something? Ah… now, I don't want to be rude, but this is a working newsroom and — "

"Perry, Perry!" Lex interrupted, a note to his voice which Lois recognised. This was Lex's cajoling tone, the one he used when he wanted to say, 'be quiet and let me tell you what's best for you'. Oh, she knew that one well. And it galled her to realise that she'd actually fallen for it a couple of times.

No more. She knew Lex Luthor for who he was now, thanks to Superman making her open her eyes and see exactly what was in front of her.

"Perry, I'm here to bring good news! I heard about the problems the Planet's been experiencing, and I want to help in any way I can."

Perry looked taken aback, Lois could see. "Ah… that's very thoughtful of you, Lex, but I'm not sure — "

Lex was holding up his hand. "Please, Perry, let me finish. As I was saying, I'd like to help. And that's why I've just bought a majority share. The Daily Planet belongs to me now, and it's business as usual."

Lois's breath caught. Lex owned the Planet? Suddenly it seemed as if he was developing a strangle-hold on her, gradually taking over her life. Appalled, she caught sight of Perry and noticed that he'd gone pale. So Perry, too, didn't like Lex? She'd been so stupid…

Then an indrawn breath behind her made her turn. Clark was looking at her… and the expression in his eyes was accusatory. His entire stance, the look on his face, radiated a feeling of betrayal.

He thought she'd known about this!

She turned to him, about to insist that she'd known nothing about it and, going back on her earlier resolve, to tell him that there was more to her engagement than he believed, that she'd tell him everything later and that she wanted him to trust her for now. She opened her mouth to speak…

…but heard her name called in a commanding tone.

"Lois! Come here, my love." Lex, now descending the stairs into the bullpen, was extending his hand towards her. "You see, Perry, I couldn't possibly allow my fianc‚e to be unhappy. And I know just how much Lois loves the Daily Planet. So the obvious solution, once I knew what was happening, was to buy it and thus ensure its survival."

"Did you say 'fianc‚e'?" Perry questioned, sounding incredulous. Lois reached his side at that moment, but Lex immediately extended his hand again and she had no choice but to take it.

"Yes; Lois graciously agreed last night to become my wife. But hasn't she told you?" Lex turned to give her a surprised look. "Lois? You are wearing your ring, aren't you?"

She gave the ring a surreptitious twist before raising her hand to allow Lex — and interested observers — to see the brilliantly-sparkling diamond. Lois heard a sharp intake of breath and looked around to see Cat, eyebrows angled sharply, staring in amazement.

But then her shoulders were grasped firmly and she was pulled closer to her fianc‚. Slowly, deliberately, Lex kissed her in full view of the newsroom staff; not a brief peck on the lips, but a longer kiss as between lovers. And yet, oddly, she didn't sense that there was any passion in it from Lex's side, she thought as she did her best to participate so as not to make him suspicious. And if she didn't know better, she'd have thought that this was all for show.

For show? she wondered as he released her. But what would he have to gain from that? Oh, he might well want to show her off as his possession, but the ring on her finger certainly did that. Unless he wanted a more powerful demonstration of ownership… and he had turned her so that most people would have had a very good view of the kiss.

Then, as she moved away from Lex again, her gaze fell on Clark. He was now sitting at his desk again, but he was watching her and his eyes seemed to burn into her. She'd never seen him look so forbidding, so disapproving.

And she remembered having mentioned Clark to Lex, that he was her partner and that… oh, good grief, she'd told Lex that she couldn't work without Clark. And he'd pointed out that she'd worked alone before Clark had arrived at the Planet, and if she was remembering it correctly, Lex's eyes had narrowed right then as if he wasn't happy about something.

Was it possible that Lex saw Clark as a threat, and that the kiss had been a deliberate message to her partner?

That was very possible, Lois thought. And it was yet another reason why not telling Clark what she was really up to was probably the right thing. If Lex thought that she and Clark were too close, who knew what he might do? She didn't trust him an inch where she herself was concerned, despite his avowal that all he wanted was to make her happy.

And now, Lex owned the Planet. And heaven only knew what he intended to do with it.


He was working for Lex Luthor.

Taking orders from a man he despised, a man he regarded as the embodiment of all that was evil.

Worse, being *paid* by a man he believed to be an unreconstructed murderer.

And who knew what Luthor might start interfering in? Would there be any such thing as editorial independence any more? Stupid question, he thought cynically. Of course not. And he couldn't see how Perry would put up with that.

And Lois. How could she? Not content with actually marrying the man, she'd encouraged him to destroy the greatest newspaper in Metropolis. Didn't she know what Luthor would do to a great paper like the Planet? Clearly not, he conceded with a sigh. If she really understood what Luthor was capable of, she'd never have got engaged to him. He knew Lois too well to believe that she might actually condone Luthor's activities. But she was a great investigative reporter: why was she so unable to see for herself just what the man was?

Why hadn't she listened to Superman? What else could he have said to convince her? He'd failed badly; but the worst thing about that was that he just couldn't see what else he could have done… other than take the course he'd already ruled out several times over.

He would *not* court Lois as Superman.

There was an annoying sound. Luthor was speaking again. "I know the Planet is in a very precarious financial state right now. But I intend to rectify that. And as a sign of my good faith, I undertake that there will be no layoffs."

"Hey!" That was Jack, pushing past several people to stand right in front of Luthor, his expression and voice belligerent. "Does that mean I get my job back?"

Clark watched as Luthor looked Jack up and down before turning to Perry. "Who is this?"

"Jack Collins. He's the newsroom general assistant."

Luthor seemed to consider for a moment, then said, "If you feel that his services are necessary, Perry, then reinstate him. I meant what I said."

Lois touched Luthor's arm and said clearly, "Thank you, Lex," reaching up to kiss his cheek. Clark turned away, sickened.

He should definitely have taken the job in San Francisco.


"Oh, very well done, sir." Nigel smirked as he and Lex were driven away from the Planet building shortly afterwards.

"Yes, I thought so." Lex smiled appreciatively. "Rehiring the young nobody was a master-stroke, I thought."

"Absolutely. The typical act of a benevolent employer. I'm sure Ms Lane can't help but be impressed."

"Yes," Lex murmured thoughtfully. "But, Nigel, I thought you told me that our informant assured us that she and her partner weren't speaking? They were thick as thieves when we arrived. Which is not what I wanted to see," he added, a harsh note in his voice.

"Ah, but I think Mr Kent is not a happy reporter now, sir. Did you happen to notice the expression on his face when you… ah, *kissed* Ms Lane?"

"I did." Now Lex was sounding satisfied again. "That was certainly effective. But, Nigel, Mr Kent's presence in the vicinity of my fianc‚e continues to irritate me. See to it."

Noting the steel in his employer's voice, Nigel nodded briefly. "Consider the problem dealt with."

*** "I just don't know what to do, Mom." Clark took a gulp of coffee and leaned against the kitchen counter, hair flopping over his forehead as he frowned despondently.

"Well, what are your options? You *could* leave and get another job, but do you really want to do that? You always said the Planet's the paper you really wanted to work for." Martha rested her chin on her hands, facing her son.

"I know, but now *Luthor* owns it. I can't work for him!"

"Well, if he's really as bad as you say he is, Clark, I can understand that," Jonathan said, nodding. "But, on the other hand, just quitting…"

"…feels like you'd be running away," Martha finished for her husband. Clark had spent too many years running away, in her opinion. While she knew that Jonathan's fear was always that someone would find out Clark's secret, *her* real fear was that their son would never find somewhere — some*one* — to belong to. Smallville was where he'd grown up, but it was no longer his home; she knew that. Although he loved the place and would always visit, Clark had outgrown Smallville years ago.

"Yeah, but what is there to stay for? I *won't* do Luthor's bidding!" Clark insisted.

"No, but you do Perry White's bidding, don't you? And unless Luthor's replaced him as editor…?" Martha prompted.

"Yes, Clark, if you left now you'd be letting your editor down. You did say that he didn't look any more pleased about the Luthor buy-out than you were? My guess is he could use some support," Jonathan said thoughtfully. "You know that he won't put up with any interference in his newsroom."

"That's true," Clark conceded.

"And then there's Lois," Martha pointed out, deliberately going for the jugular.

Clark stiffened. "What about Lois? She's made her choice."

"Yes, and you know it's the wrong choice. Lois isn't stupid, Clark," Martha continued. "You know that even better than I do. And sooner or later that young woman is going to realise just what her fianc‚ is. She's going to work out that she's made a big mistake, and that's when she's going to need her friends. Because, if my guess is right, it's not going to be easy for her to extricate herself from that relationship."

That had an impact, Martha could see. Clark looked concerned, biting his lip as he considered her argument. Then he nodded. "You're right, Mom. I can't leave her. And I can't give up trying to convince her that Luthor's evil."

"And there's another reason, Clark," Jonathan interjected. "If Luthor is as dangerous as you say he is, what's to say Lois herself isn't in danger?"

Clark stared down at his feet. "She probably is, Dad. That scares me rigid sometimes. I don't know which is worse — the way I feel when I see her with him, or how afraid I get that he's going to hurt her somehow."

"Well, that's why you have to stay around, Clark. No-one else can protect her the way you can."

"Yeah, but Superman can't be everywhere at once," he pointed out glumly. "And it scares me to think that one of these days I'm going to be just too late."

"Don't borrow trouble, son," Jonathan pointed out. "You do what you can. That's all you can ever do."

"Yeah, I guess." Clark seemed to be about to take his leave, so Martha got up and went over to give him a hug.

"I'm glad you came by. You take care, you hear?"

"Thanks, Mom," he said softly. "I love you guys, you know that."

"We know. And we love you too," she said, laughing.

As he released her, something fell out of her pocket; Clark bent to pick it up. Martha realised what the piece of paper was just as her son glanced at it. She held out her hand for it, but he was staring down at the page, rigid with shock.

"What's this? And why didn't you tell me?" That was his firm, commanding Superman voice; it still felt very strange to Martha to hear her son, her mild-mannered Clark, speaking like that.

"Oh, that… well, it just arrived this afternoon. We haven't even had time to think about it yet," Jonathan hedged.

"The bank's calling in your loan," Clark said slowly. "And you didn't think to tell me?"

They had been going to tell him, of course, but then he'd arrived at the farm so worked up about Lois's engagement and Luthor's purchase of the Planet that they'd exchanged glances and mutually agreed, silently, not to mention it.

"Wait a minute — don't you bank with the Mercantile Bank in Smallville?" Clark asked, puzzled.

"Yeah, but it seems the bank sold on some of its loans, and ours was one of them," Jonathan explained. "We were just unlucky, I guess."

Martha could almost see the cogs in Clark's brain working overtime. He read the letter one more time, then said, "Mind if I take this with me? I'd like to do some digging, find out more about this United Citizens' Bank. And… Dad, Mom, you have to let me help you guys. I have some savings…"

"We can't take your money, Clark!" Martha was only just ahead of Jonathan in making her objection.

"You guys helped me when I first moved to Metropolis. I owe you, remember?" Clark pointed out. "And anyway, I want to. I'll transfer the money first thing tomorrow. It won't come near to paying off the loan, but it'll help."

"Well, if you're sure…" Jonathan said doubtfully. "We can pay you back as soon as harvest's done, you know that. And we're very grateful."

Martha nodded, then added, "So what makes you think there's anything wrong at the bank?"

"I'm not sure," he said slowly. "It's just… well, it might be all above board, but I want to check this out anyway. If I find anything suspicious, I'll let you know."

After hugging both his parents, Clark spun into his suit and left. Martha went straight into Jonathan's arms and sighed. "I really hope things work out for him with Lois."

"If she's good enough for him, it will," Jonathan said firmly. "And if she can't see the difference between a snake like Luthor and someone like Clark, then she doesn't deserve him."


Lois barely slept that night, and the following morning her eyelids felt like sandpaper and she had a splitting headache. That, though, was a minor irritation compared to what was going on in her life right now.

She hadn't expected Lex to buy the Planet. In fact, probably stupidly, she simply hadn't connected those two parts of her life at all. And yet now it wouldn't surprise her to learn that Lex was behind the sudden slump in sales the paper had been experiencing. Though maybe she was reaching, she told herself as she drank some coffee before leaving for work. Lex was guilty of a lot of things, if Superman was right, but why would he want to destroy a newspaper? It wasn't as if the Planet had ever run any kind of campaign against him. He had no reason to attack it.

But why buy it? That one still didn't make a lot of sense.

She couldn't accept Lex's own explanation, which he'd given her over drinks last night; she'd pleaded tiredness and hadn't stayed for dinner. According to her fianc‚, he'd bought the Planet for her. Well, also because the Planet was a great newspaper and it would be a shame to see it go under, he'd added immediately. But, first and foremost, he'd bought the Planet because Lois loved it.

And she didn't believe a word of that. It was strange, she'd thought as she'd prepared for bed that night. Now that Superman had forced her to open her eyes where Lex was concerned, she was suspicious of everything he said to her. She was continually looking out for hidden meanings, ulterior motives and signs of criminal intent.

And yet so far she was finding nothing, beyond circumstantial stuff like his coincidental purchase of the Planet. It was frustrating, and the frustration was made worse by having to pretend to be happy about an engagement which she hated. Just looking at the ring made her feel dirty… almost as if she'd been bought. And when he embraced her or, even worse, kissed her, she had to work very hard to control her revulsion.

At least she no longer felt guilty for hating his kisses…

But she was beginning to feel hemmed in. He controlled her social life, and now he owned the paper she worked for. It was going to be very difficult to extricate herself when the time came; she just hoped that she'd be able to find enough evidence by then to go straight to Inspector Henderson and have Lex arrested.

Even though Lex had left after less than an hour the previous afternoon, the atmosphere at the Planet had been very subdued for the remainder of the day. That just showed, Lois realised, how widely disliked and distrusted Lex Luthor was. After all, until he'd bought the Planet there had been a strong possibility of the paper going under. There would certainly have been more layoffs. Now, the paper's future was secure and all layoffs, actual or planned, had been cancelled. That should have been cause for sighs of relief and expressions of joy all round.

Instead, many people had acted as if things had got much worse.

How stupid, how *blind* she'd been not to have seen how Lex Luthor was generally regarded! And it wasn't as if Clark hadn't tried, whatever his true motives had been.

Perry had stayed in his office for at least half an hour after Lex had left following their private discussion. When the editor had finally emerged, he'd looked grey and tired. If Lois had thought he'd looked bad earlier, after announcing the layoffs, he'd looked far worse then. So Perry was obviously not at all happy with his new boss.

She'd seen Clark go into the editor's office a little later; when he'd emerged, he'd simply gone back to his desk without even looking at Lois. But then, he thought she'd sold them all out, so why would he talk to her?

He should know her better than that! But then, given what he'd already accused her of, it was clear that he didn't have any compunction about leaping to conclusions and judging her badly. So much for his famous sense of fair play!

Jimmy and several others had kept their distance from her for the rest of the afternoon, apart from Cat who'd come over and interviewed her — *interviewed* her formally, as if she was some society figure instead of a colleague! — about her engagement to Lex. They were all walking on eggshells around her, as if scared that she'd tell tales to the boss if they stepped out of line.

And a couple of others had been fawning, suspiciously over- friendly, paying Lex exaggerated compliments and digging for information. She'd cut them short, pleading pressure of work, and in the end had left early.

Today, she'd have to go through all of that again. Unless she did something about it…

Well, since it was so clear that Perry didn't trust Lex any further than he could throw him, maybe she should tell Perry the truth about her 'engagement', and that she was actually investigating Lex. That was a good thought. At least then she wouldn't feel that she had to play the farce of a blissfully-happy engaged woman all the time. She suspected, too, that Perry might be quite pleased to hear that it was all a pretence. And maybe she could tell Jimmy too. His research and computer skills were getting better all the time, and he could probably help her.

But if she told Perry and Jimmy, she'd have to tell Clark. There was no way she could avoid it.

<Is that a problem? You were going to tell him yesterday> a little voice pointed out.

She'd been going to tell him, until he'd made that crass, insulting accusation. And she wanted *him* to admit that he'd been wrong. Why should she make the effort to persuade him?

<But he's still your best friend, despite that. And didn't you see the way he looked when Lex appeared yesterday? He's hurting! He thinks you rejected his advice. And *that's* why he said that horrible thing, why he looked at you as if you'd betrayed him! And what's worse, he thinks you knew all along that Lex was buying the Planet and didn't tell him!>

That was true, Lois conceded. She'd have to think about it on the way into work.

*** Clark left for work with considerably less enthusiasm than was his normal habit. Working at the Planet just wasn't the same now Lex Luthor was his boss. But, he reminded himself, he still had important work to do. He was very sure that Lois would no longer be interested in figuring out just what was behind the Planet's downturn; not now that her fianc‚ was in charge. But he had every intention of continuing that investigation.

And Perry needed his support. The editor had been in a very depressed state yesterday; so much so that he'd actually confided to Clark that he'd harboured suspicions about Luthor for several years now, but had never had any kind of leads to take things any further. Now his star reporter was engaged to the man, he was feeling very isolated. Clark had spent some time with Perry, telling him of his own suspicions and assuring him that they'd do everything they could to get to the real facts about Luthor. And to make Lois face the real truth about her fianc‚, too.

So he also had to get on with his investigations on that score, too; though he'd have to be extra careful now. And he had to find out about that bank which had bought his parents' loan; he had a horrible suspicion that Luthor was behind that. It wasn't just gut instinct — after all, why would Luthor want to bankrupt his parents? But he seemed to remember a small news item a couple of months back, which reported that LexBank had taken over a couple of small co- operative banks and loan companies, including the United Citizens' Bank. And if that was the case, then his parents' loan was now owned by Lex Luthor.

For all that he had no idea why Luthor would have any specific interest in seeing his parents lose their farm, he couldn't help being afraid that there was something sinister going on here.

He stepped out to cross the road which would take him to the subway station, still deep in thought. Then suddenly, his peripheral vision caught sight of a fast-approaching object; he spun around, just in time to see a car racing towards him. There was no indication whatsoever that the driver was going to stop, and he'd been so abstracted that he hadn't heard it coming.

In one lightning-swift movement, he was back on the kerb. The car roared past, screeching to a halt a little further down the road. Lowering his glasses, Clark could see the driver — a man he knew he'd recognise again — look behind; then the car revved again and drove off at high speed.

For half a second, Clark contemplated chasing after it — on foot or flying, he could catch up with the vehicle easily. But then, how could he explain being able to do that? And anyway, it didn't justify him risking discovery by using his powers as Clark. It was just an almost hit and run — which was bad, but not in any way sinister.

Wasn't it?

It didn't make sense if it was anything else. Why would someone want to kill him? And in broad daylight, too, even if this was a fairly quiet street.

He didn't have any enemies that he knew of — at least, not as Clark. Superman had plenty, but none of them knew that he was Clark, nor would they have assumed that a Super- powered man could be disposed of so easily. So this just didn't make sense. Unless there was someone out there who did want Clark dead…

He shook his head, unable to understand what it could have been about. But he did need to report it, he supposed; even if it was nothing more sinister than a hit and run, someone could have been hurt. If it hadn't been him, able to run at faster than human speed, someone *would* have been badly injured, even killed. And he did have the licence plate number, and a very good description of the driver. So he'd have to make a detour to the precinct on his way into work; a nuisance, since he hadn't wanted to be late.


Arriving in the newsroom, Lois made straight for Perry's office, ready to tell him what was going on. But as she pushed open the door, she realised that the man seated behind the desk was not the Planet's editor. It was, instead, her fianc‚.

"Lex! What are you doing here?" she exclaimed, as he got to his feet and came towards her. She remained still while he pressed a light kiss on her lips.

"I have some bad news for you," he said, his voice sombre. Waving her into a seat, he continued, "I'm afraid that Perry had a heart attack last night. He — "

"What?" Lois interrupted, horrified. "Perry? Is he… is he okay? He's not…"

"He's not dead, no," Lex quickly assured her. "But he is in a serious condition. He's in the hospital at the moment, and probably will be for a couple of weeks. And even after that, he won't be fit to return to work for some time."

"Oh no," Lois whispered. "Poor Perry! And poor Alice…"

"He has full sick benefits, and the Planet — or rather, LexCorp — will ensure that all his medical expenses, including a nursing home if he needs it, are met, Lois. He won't have to worry about a thing."

"He'll worry about the Planet," she said quickly. Of course he would. It was no doubt worrying about the Planet which had caused Perry's heart attack. Finding out that it had been taken over by Lex had probably been the last straw.

"I've already assured him that the Planet's in safe hands," Lex said smoothly. "So we all have to pull together to make sure that he has nothing to worry about."

"I guess…" Lois said, still feeling shaken. "We need an acting editor…"

"And we have one," Lex cut across her smoothly. "You'll do an excellent job."

"*Me*?" She stared at him. "But… I don't have any editorial experience! I'm a reporter, Lex!"

"We all need to pull together," he reminded her. "You're the person I'd trust most to do a good job. I have every confidence in you, my love."

She shuddered inwardly at the endearment, which sounded very false to her. But there were more important things to deal with right now — like the fact that she suddenly seemed to have taken over the editor's chair.

She wasn't an editor! She was a reporter! Okay, it wasn't as if she didn't have any idea of what was involved in editing a newspaper; she'd spent enough time around Perry White and the sub-editors during her internship to have a good idea of the role. But that still didn't mean either that she was the most suitable, or that she actually *wanted* to do it.

There were at least half a dozen people in the newsroom with more experience than she had, and a couple of them would probably make as good a job as she would of the editorship. They would probably also have more authority over the staff; much as she hated to admit it, her gender and her relative youth would count against her in a managerial role.

And anyway, she wanted to be out pounding the beat as a reporter!

But Lex had chosen her… Suddenly she wondered why. Was it just because she was his fianc‚e? Or worse, did he assume that she'd be malleable?

In that instant, she determined that, if she had to do the job, she would be as implacable as Perry in refusing to be influenced or intimidated in any way. She would hold a firm and independent editorial line.

For Perry. A lead-like lump settled itself in her stomach as she accepted that she was going to have to take on the role of acting editor. Perry needed her to keep the Planet going. If she took the job, she'd be able to reassure him — or at least reassure Alice — that things were running smoothly. After all, it was no doubt worrying about the Planet which had brought on his heart attack in the first place — with the added shock yesterday of having it bought out by someone whom, Lois had only realised for the first time yesterday, Perry really did not like or trust at all. And he'd learned that Lex Luthor was not only his new boss, but was engaged to his star reporter.

So it was probably her so-called fianc‚'s fault that Perry was seriously ill. She took a shuddering breath; then realised that Lex was talking to her.

"Come on, we need to make an announcement," Lex was saying; numbly, she followed him out into the newsroom.

She stood beside Lex as he called for silence and then informed everyone of Perry's heart attack; then she had to struggle to stay silent as he managed to offend everyone present by announcing that any flowers, get-well tokens and messages and so on would be sent from his office, and that he didn't want anyone bothering Alice White. Many of the newsroom staff had known both Perry and Alice for years, and considered the editor's wife a friend. Lois saw several angry faces at that statement; she was annoyed herself, too, since she'd already planned to try to visit Perry later that day.

Then he went on to say that he'd decided to appoint Lois as acting editor. Lois could almost feel the temperature drop in sections of the newsroom, and she could imagine the thoughts of some of her colleagues: that she'd only got the job because she was engaged to the boss; and worse, probably: that she'd be reporting back to Lex about every little misdemeanour.

Clark in particular looked practically disgusted, and Jimmy refused to meet her gaze. Although she knew that she'd probably have felt the same way if she'd been watching the fianc‚e of her new boss get handed the editorship on a plate, she couldn't help feeling resentful. Clark had been her partner for almost a year. Jimmy had worked with her for more than three years. Didn't they believe that she knew enough about the newspaper business to do the job? She'd been at the Planet four years — five, if she counted her internship — and she was passionate about reporting and newspapers. There wasn't a thing about Perry's job she didn't understand.

Finally, Lex was finished; he escorted Lois back into the office and told her that he intended to spend a couple of hours working in one of the executive offices upstairs, and that he'd come down to see her again before he left. She gave a silent sigh of relief when he turned and left Perry's office.

Editor of the Planet.

How on earth was she going to do that job and at the same time carry on with all her current investigations — especially the one into why the Planet had got into this mess in the first place? The short answer was that it was highly unlikely she'd be able to do anything of the kind. The long answer was that she might be able to, if she stayed late into the night… but Lex would probably demand her company after hours in any case, and that was what she was supposed to want, since she was supposed to be trying to prove that he was a criminal!

She raked one hand frustratedly through her head and began searching Perry's desk for his forward plans. She had a newspaper to get out!


Clark was trying to concentrate on work, but it wasn't easy. Too many thoughts were running through his head, distracting him. First, there was Perry's heart attack; he was very worried about his boss. Perry had taken a chance on him almost a year ago, and he was well aware of how much he owed to the Planet's editor in chief. Like other Planet staff, he was also seething at Luthor's insistence that none of them were to contact Alice White. Well, he had no intention of obeying that dictatorial command!

He was also worried about his parents. That was a huge loan, and if they had to pay it all off at once they'd be bankrupt. He'd already made arrangements to transfer as much as he could afford to their account; that included money he didn't actually have, since he'd borrowed up to his overdraft limit to lend them as much as he could. At least there was one benefit to Lex Luthor buying the Planet, he thought resignedly. It now seemed unlikely that he'd be laid off.

But the downside was that he had to live with Luthor as his boss. If he hadn't needed to lend his parents as much money as he could afford, he could have quit and looked for another job. Given the current situation, with Lois's engagement added into the mix, he wouldn't have stayed at the Planet if he'd had any other choice.

But he didn't. He needed the steady pay-cheque, unless he was thinking of quitting and leaving Metropolis altogether. He could go back to live on the farm, of course, though that wasn't really an option either — not now he'd taken out the loan. The bank was agreeing to it on the basis of his regular salary giving him the means to repay it, so he was tied to the Planet and a regular income.

He was just going to have to get used to the idea of Lex Luthor as a boss… for the time being, at any rate.

In relation to his parents' situation, he'd been doing some digging around for information about the United Citizens' Bank, and had asked Jimmy to help. That wasn't proving too difficult, up to a point: Lex Luthor did indeed own the bank, and it seemed that a number of loans had recently been called in. So there wasn't necessarily anything sinister going on… but Clark still felt suspicious. Not that there was any reason why Luthor should interest himself in what, to him, would be a small loan held by a couple of Mid-West farmers, but… He just couldn't rid himself of the nagging thought that there was something going on here.

In normal circumstances, he'd already have confided in Lois. But these weren't normal circumstances, and Lois was the last person he could talk to. She was *engaged* to the man his suspicions were centring around, after all.

And then there was the apparent hit and run that morning. He'd ended up talking to Inspector Henderson, who'd recognised him as soon as he'd got to the precinct; Henderson had run the car's licence plate through the computer and come up with a car which had been stolen the previous night. No surprise there. Clark had — being careful not to do it too quickly — done a sketch of the car's driver, and Henderson was going to check the criminal records. Not that there was any real reason to suspect anything other than that he might be a known car thief… but still, it had been a weird experience. Clark hadn't been shaken up by it exactly; after all, he was invulnerable and he knew very well that he wouldn't have been hurt. But again, just like his parents' loan, he couldn't shift the niggling doubt in his mind; the thought that there might have been more to it than an anonymous hit and run.

He sighed again. There was also his investigation into Lex Luthor, which was now of even greater importance if he was to prove the man's culpability before Lois actually made the huge mistake of marrying him. It might not be a bad idea to involve Jimmy in that, Clark thought, considering the idea. It was pretty clear that Jimmy wasn't enamoured by the paper's new owner either. He'd already been thinking that Jimmy's particular skills could be useful here, so why not tell him what was going on?

Later. Maybe over lunch, Clark thought. They'd have to talk away from the Planet in any case.

With new resolve, he bent to apply himself to his current story again. Then what little attention he was giving to his work shattered as the editor's door opened and Lois emerged. Lois; the Planet's new — well, acting — editor.

That was just one more shock he'd been trying to deal with today. Lois, in charge of the paper… no longer his partner, no longer the person he investigated with, carried out interviews with, wrote up articles with, kidded around with… Though it was probably no bad thing, he'd been trying to tell himself. After all, he'd already realised that their friendship would never be the same again.

He watched in silence as she made what he presumed was supposed to be a motivational speech. Unfortunately, she was hesitant and uncertain, seeming very nervous, and Clark could tell, from murmurs around the newsroom, that it wasn't coming across well. She gave up trying after a couple of minutes, instead giving out assignments. That wasn't received very much better; several people had reasons why they preferred to work on a story other than the one she was giving them, and a few mini-arguments broke out before Lois seemed to snap. Asserting her authority, she reminded them all that she was acting editor and told them they'd do what they were told.

Then she spun on her heel and went back into Perry's — no, her — office.

For several minutes afterwards, Clark sat staring into the middle distance. It was clear that Lois was very uncomfortable in her new role; what was equally clear was that a sizeable portion of the newsroom staff were equally unhappy at her appointment as acting editor. He was pretty sure that most people thought she'd only been given the job by Luthor because she was his fianc‚e; his own view was that that was probably true. However, much though he didn't want to give Lex Luthor credit for anything, Lois was far and away the best choice for an internal appointment.

But she wasn't doing herself any favours by her tentative beginning just now. Of course her promotion would have been a shock to her, as would the news of Perry's heart attack, but given that she'd just been promoted from the newsroom she needed to be more assertive, more openly confident.

Just then, his Super-hearing kicked in and he caught a conversation — rather, a rant — between three reporters on the other side of the newsroom. One, a long-serving journalist by the name of Maurice Williams, was insisting that, since he'd been at the Planet as a reporter longer than anyone other than Perry White, he should have been made acting editor. Clark thought wryly that if Maurice was put in charge, the paper would be bankrupt in days.

But they were also griping about Lois; remarks were exchanged along the lines of 'so that's what sleeping with the boss gets you', and 'I didn't think the casting couch existed any more'. Infuriated, Clark was barely able to restrain himself from going over and giving his colleagues a piece of his mind; the only thing which stopped him was the reminder that he'd give himself away if he did. There was no way that any normal person could have overheard that conversation.

Lois was not like that! Anyone who knew her had to know that she'd never use her body for personal advancement.

<But you accused her of marrying Luthor for his money. You think that's any better?>

No, Clark thought grimly; he didn't. He'd stepped way, *way* over the line with that one. He still wanted to apologise, even if he was still smarting over the fact that not only had Lois ignored his advice about Luthor but she'd also failed to tell him that her *fianc‚* had bought the Planet.

Regardless of that, he owed her an apology — if he could find the right moment to offer it. And he suspected that right now wasn't that time; he was still too torn apart by conflicting emotions, including that agonising sense of betrayal which, even after a night of broken sleep, still hadn't gone away. He was still angry with her, still felt as if she'd betrayed their friendship, despite his awareness that he'd gone too far himself. No; any conversation about Lex Luthor which he initiated right at this moment would only end in one or both of them losing their tempers.

Deliberately tuning out of the conversation, Clark tried to refocus on his work. But he couldn't rid from his mind the image of Lois standing next to Luthor as he'd announced the news of Perry's heart attack and Lois's acting position. She'd looked upset.

What was he thinking? Of course she was upset! Perry had told Clark once that Lois was like a daughter to him. Clark had met Lois's father, and he was very sure that she couldn't have been closer to Perry if he was her real father.

Of course she was upset. And instead of having time to get used to the news, or being able to go over to the hospital to be with Alice, she was having to take over the reins of the Planet, a task she no doubt already knew was making her unpopular. He slid his glasses a little way down his nose and gazed into the editor's office. Lois was at the desk, but instead of working she was sitting, slumped in her chair, with her head in the palm of one hand.

In the next second, Clark was on his feet and headed towards the office.

*** Lois hesitated when she heard the tap on the door, reluctant to talk to anyone right now. But she knew she couldn't ignore it; she was running the paper, which meant that she had to be available to the staff. This could be important… or it could simply be an aggrieved reporter wanting to sound off. Perry handled both sorts of interruptions a dozen times a day.

"Come in," she called, though without a great deal of enthusiasm.

Turning to see who the intruder was, she was severely taken aback to see Clark. She really didn't feel like dealing with him right now, especially after yesterday; she just hoped that he hadn't come to accuse her of using her relationship with Lex to get this job. After what he'd accused her of the previous day, anything was possible.

"Lois? Can I talk to you for a minute?" To Lois's surprise, he sounded hesitant.

Not meeting his gaze, she said, "What is it? You want to tell me that you're not happy with your assignments either?"

He closed the door firmly behind him, then advanced closer. "No." That surprised her, and made her turn to look at him again. "Lois, I think you'll do a great job as acting editor. That's not why I'm here."

She blinked. The certainty in his voice surprised her almost more than the words did. He did? Then why…? Why had he looked at her earlier as if he was furious?

Probably because he assumed that she'd begged Lex for the job, she thought cynically.

"Then what do you want, Clark?"

He sighed, again looking uncertain, as if he wasn't sure how to put what he wanted to say into words. "It's… Perry. I know how you must be feeling, Lois, and I wanted to say… I'm sorry. We're all praying that he'll be okay."

She stared at him in silence for a moment. Yes; of all the people she knew, Clark *would* understand exactly what Perry meant to her. He'd met her father, and he'd seen exactly the nature of the relationship between them. He'd never mentioned it since, but she was aware that Clark understood what it had been like. And he had obviously seen how important Perry was to her.

Suddenly, all the grief and worry she'd been holding back came to the fore. A great, gushing sob escaped her, and she pressed her hand against her mouth.

"Lois! Lois, don't," Clark said quickly. "Don't try to stop it. Oh, come here…" And suddenly he was pulling her out of the chair, up and into his arms. He cradled her against his strong, solid body, one big hand stroking her hair as he encouraged her to cry hot tears of devastation for the man who'd been more of a father to her than her own could ever be.

She slid her arms up and around his neck, leaning her head against his shoulder, at last giving in to the pain she'd been bottling up inside all morning. Right at this moment, it didn't matter that she was still angry with Clark, that she felt betrayed by his attitude and assumptions. He was offering the comfort she so badly needed. The comfort which the man who was supposed to be her loving fianc‚ hadn't even considered she might want.

But then, her fianc‚ was Lex Luthor, and she'd already recognised that he didn't care about anyone but himself. He might profess to be fond of her — he'd even once declared that he loved her — but he simply had no idea of what made her tick. Nor did he really show any interest in finding out, it seemed. Perry's heart attack was a mere inconvenience, as far as Lex was concerned, despite his false sympathy when he'd told her about it. False, because it hadn't lasted. A moment later, he'd been all businesslike.

If she'd still been deceiving herself about Lex's true nature, then this morning should have given her a clear wake-up call, Lois recognised cynically as she began to pull herself together.

She drew away from Clark, giving him an awkward smile. "Thanks. I needed that."

He shook his head. "No thanks needed. I… knew you'd be upset. And then you had to deal with that mob out there." He nodded his head in the direction of the newsroom. "They weren't exactly considerate."

"They think I can't do the job," Lois muttered.

"You'll do it *far* better than any of them could!" Clark retorted immediately, his tone confident. "I hate to admit it, but your fianc‚ made the best possible decision when he put you in charge."

Her fianc‚.

The look on Clark's face revealed his feelings clearly. She'd expected him to look disgusted, but instead he looked hurt. And that, in a way, spoke to her more clearly than anything else could have. By not telling Clark the truth about her relationship with Lex, she was hurting her best friend. And, in doing so, she was also hurting herself. It was time to admit it: she missed this closeness with Clark, this feeling that she could talk to him about anything and he'd understand; the knowledge that if ever she was in danger, or in pain, or just needed a friend, he would be there for her.

Suddenly his accusation yesterday didn't seem so important after all. He'd only been reacting to what he thought had happened: the declaration of her intention to marry Lex Luthor. And it was only her pride which had prevented her from telling him the truth.

Pride just wasn't important when it came to something like this. She needed Clark. He was her friend, and she needed him.

She raised her gaze to his again. "Clark, about Lex…" she began.

But he grimaced and held up a hand. "Please, Lois, I don't want to talk about it. We'll only end up fighting again, and I don't want that."

"But — "

"No," he said implacably, and with that, he turned on his heel and left the office.

<Damn you, Kent!> Lois thought angrily, subsiding into her chair again as she fought against the hurt of his second rejection in as many days.

How could he change so abruptly? Barely a minute ago, he'd been holding her in his arms, comforting her as no-one else could or would have; the only person who'd understood how upset she was about Perry. And then, in the blink of an eye, he'd changed into this implacable, stubborn *idiot* who wouldn't let her explain! She swallowed back bitter tears as the magnitude of what she saw as Clark's betrayal sank in. He was supposed to be her *friend*, and he could treat her like this?

But anyway, she reflected, she shouldn't have to explain anything to him! If he really knew her as well as he thought he did, he'd have figured it out for himself. He'd know that she wouldn't get engaged to Lex after what he knew Superman must have told her, and he'd *certainly* know that money would have had nothing to do with it in any case.

Let him stew a little longer, she thought furiously.


"I thought you told me that Mr Kent had been dealt with." Lex Luthor's tone was dangerous as he sat upright at his desk and regarded Nigel coolly. "And yet I have just seen him, large as life, in the Daily Planet newsroom. Glaring at me, what's more. I want him removed, Nigel! And I don't want to have to say it again."

"Yes, I know, sir. It was all set up for this morning, but regrettably the driver who was supposed to have done the job seems to have failed. He has been… dealt with," Nigel said smoothly. "And I am working on something more reliable — but of course we don't want any hint of foul play, so we need to be careful."

Lex made an impatient gesture. "Just see to it. Oh, and the matter of that loan you told me about?"

"The Kents haven't the faintest hope of getting the money in time," Nigel said with a smirk. "And when they default, we gain possession of their farm. Not that Mr Kent will know anything about it if he is out of the way by then, of course…"

"Yes, that's true," Lex agreed. "I admit, I would like him to experience that particular anguish — he does appear to be a very dutiful son. Yes, it may be sensible to delay any further plans for his demise for the time being. Next time, though, don't fail!"


"Lois Lane." Irritated by yet another interruption, Lois's greeting to her latest telephone caller was curt.

There was a pause. Then the male caller said, surprised, "I asked for the editor of the Daily Planet. Perry White? Are you his secretary?"

"That's all I need," Lois muttered under her breath. "No. Perry White is temporarily absent. I'm Lois Lane, acting editor."

"Oh! Well, in that case, Ms Lane, I'm Philip Marshall, a loans advisor at the First Bank of Metropolis. One of your newspaper's employees has applied for a loan, and we need an employer's reference."

Taken aback, Lois pointed out, "Personnel deals with that kind of thing. Let me put you through — "

"No, Ms Lane, I've already got what I need from your personnel department. I need a reference from you because this application is for a larger loan than we'd normally consider."

"Oh. What's the staff member's name, then?" she asked. pulling over a pad to make notes if she was going to have to look up someone's file.

"Ah… Mr Kent. Clark Kent," the dry voice announced.

*Clark*? Clark was borrowing a large amount of money?

Lois sagged back in her chair, trying to absorb that information. Was Clark in some sort of financial trouble? But why hadn't he told her?

<Oh, be honest, Lois> she told herself. <When have you ever encouraged Clark to confide in you? It's all been one-way, hasn't it? *You* confide in him, but you've never really returned the favour. And anyway, the way things have been lately, did you really expect him to tell you what's going on?>

Trying to drag her attention back to the phone conversation, she asked, "What exactly do you need to know?"

The bank employee asked her several questions about Clark's position at the Planet, his career and promotion prospects, and his reliability as an employee. Lois gave him as glowing a reference as she could, but when she replaced the receiver she sat staring into space for a long time.

Clark was borrowing a lot of money. Which meant that he was in some sort of big financial trouble. The bank guy hadn't told her how much he was borrowing, but she could hazard a guess, and since she knew exactly what Clark earned, she also knew that paying it off would be very tough for him.

She could arrange for him to get a pay rise, maybe… but then if Lex was going to keep a close eye on her decisions, that might attract attention she didn't want. She hadn't missed the way he'd insisted that she didn't need a partner, that night she'd talked about working with Clark. Maybe if she gave Clark more responsibility, that would make an increase seem more natural…

But no. Subtle wasn't her forte. She'd always worked best by confronting things head on, and there were better ways to help Clark than manoeuvring things so that he had a little extra cash. She needed to talk to her temporary ex- partner.

It didn't even occur to her that she hadn't hesitated for a second; regardless of whatever else was going on, Clark was her friend, she cared about him, and she was going to help him.

Abruptly, she got up and went through to the newsroom. Clark wasn't at his desk. So she went over to Eduardo, who was at the desk opposite Clark's, and asked him where Clark was.

"He went out on a story about an hour ago," Eduardo told her. "Dunno what it was, but he said it would take him at least a couple of hours, and that he was going straight home after. He said that if you asked, he's going to email in the copy from home."

Lois merely nodded, then made a brief tour of the bullpen to check on everyone's progress with their assignments. It was time that she started to review what she had for the next day's paper.

A couple of hours later, she leaned back wearily, stretching her aching back and shoulders. The paper was coming together; she had almost all the stories in and had been through them all with the metaphorical blue pencil — she preferred to edit on screen, rather than on the paper copy, which was Perry's practice. She already knew that she was going to have to work late; Eduardo, who was writing a piece on the arrest of a man suspected of multiple rapes in the city over the past year, had told her that he was waiting for an important announcement from the police, which was unlikely to come until around eight o'clock. So she'd have to stay at least long enough to get the final version of that story, which she was slating for the front page.

She looked at her watch; it was six-thirty. Getting to her feet, she made her decision. She could spare half an hour or so away from the Planet.

A little over ten minutes later, Lois had parked her Jeep outside Clark's apartment and was about to knock on his door. She hesitated as the memory of his abrupt departure earlier returned to her, along with her hurt at his accusation of the previous day. But then she reminded herself that that wasn't what was important here. Although it wasn't her fault if Clark had refused to let her tell him the truth about what she was doing with Lex, Clark was still her friend and she wasn't going to let him get himself into big trouble without trying to help.

She knocked smartly on the door.


Out of habit, Clark peered over his glasses on his way to answer the door; his X-ray vision showed him that it was Lois on the other side. What was she doing here? Very taken aback, he threw the door open and greeted her.

"Hi, Clark," she answered, not waiting to be invited in; she marched over the threshold and down into the living area of his open-plan apartment. "I want to talk to you."

About what? he instantly asked himself; in present circumstances, what on earth could they have to talk about? Something to do with the paper, maybe, he thought; but then, why would she come over here? Why not just phone him? Especially after the awkwardness with which their earlier conversation had ended…

Maybe she was wondering where he'd been for the last couple of hours. Sure, he'd told Eduardo that he was going out on a story, but that was only part of the truth. He'd seen a news report of a major pile-up over on the other side of the city and had flown straight over to help out as Superman. Of course, Clark had then written the story and filed it from his apartment about half an hour ago.

Remembering his manners, he offered her a drink; she shook her head in refusal. He could tell that she felt the constraint between them just as much as he did. It was painful, being with Lois like this.

She swallowed visibly before saying, "I can't stay long. But this is important. Clark, I know you're in some kind of trouble and I want to help."

"Trouble?" he repeated, frowning, instantly forgetting his thoughts of regret over the mess he'd made of their friendship. What had made her think that? And how could she know about — about *what*? She couldn't have heard about the hit and run, could she? But Inspector Henderson had called him back late that afternoon, telling him that the car had been found abandoned near Suicide Slum and a man matching Clark's description of the driver had been discovered dead nearby with a syringe in his hand; the initial hypothesis about cause of death was a contaminated batch of heroin, the drug in the syringe. Since no apparent motive could be found, both Henderson and Clark had continued to assume that the near-accident that morning had been just that; a near-miss by an out-of-control, drug- crazed driver.

"Yes, trouble," she repeated. "Clark, I know about the loan!" she pointed out impatiently.

"You do?" He stared at her, disbelieving. "How? And…" <and anyway, what business is it of yours?> he was about to continue, but stopped himself just in time. He really didn't want to fight with Lois about yet another thing. Not now. Not when she seemed to be making an overture of friendship he'd neither expected nor deserved.

"The bank called for a reference," she said wryly. "They wanted to speak to Perry, but of course…"

"Yeah." Clark blew out a breath as he spoke. "I… uh, hope you gave me a good one? I… really need this loan."

"Of course I did," she assured him quickly. "But, Clark, that's not the point. What's going on? What do you need that kind of money for?"

He turned away. "Lois, I… it's personal, okay?" he finished.

"Clark!" Her tone was sharp. "Look, whatever else is going on with us at the moment, we're friends, right? And friends help each other! Talk to me, please!"

He sighed. What difference would it make if she knew? And he was truly touched that she cared. "Okay," he said, turning back to her. "It's for my parents, Lois. The bank's calling in their loan, and they can't afford to pay it all back now. I need to help them out."

"Calling in their loan?" She stared at him, amazed. "But your parents are good customers, aren't they? They've never defaulted on anything?"

"No. They've always made payments on time. But… their bank sold their loan on to another lender, and that's the one calling it in."

"Sounds a pretty strange thing to do," Lois commented, then added more briskly, "How much do they need?"

He named the sum, and saw her eyes widen. "See why I needed the loan?" he asked, semi-rhetorically. "And even that's not enough. It still leaves over ten grand outstanding, and I don't know what's going to happen if we can't pay that off." He was very worried, as, he knew, were his parents. He'd talked to them earlier, telling them how much he'd be able to wire them as soon as his loan application was approved, but there'd been an unspoken current to the conversation, concerning what might happen if they couldn't pay off the loan in full.

Then he noticed that Lois was sitting on his couch and digging through her purse. A moment later, she'd produced her cheque-book and was writing.

"Lois, no!" he exclaimed. "I can't take your money!"

She glanced briefly up at him. "It's not for you; it's for your parents. And anyway," she added, before he could protest again, "what would you do if I was in financial trouble?"

He let out a sharp breath. "Write you a cheque for as much as I could afford," he admitted immediately.

"Exactly," she pronounced. "That's what friends do, Clark! And I can afford it. Remember the bachelor auction? I had all that money saved, and I've saved more since then. First thing tomorrow, I'll have the funds transferred across to my chequeing account to cover this," she finished, ripping the cheque from her book and holding it out to him.

"But… you were going to use that for a vacation…"

She shrugged. "Your need is greater than mine. And anyway, I know your folks will pay me back when they can."

"Of course," he replied instantly. "They're looking for another loan, but they couldn't have got one arranged by the deadline. Once they've got it, they'll pay me — us — back." With those words, he knew he'd accepted Lois's very generous gift.

Taking the cheque and carefully placing it in his top shirt pocket, he added, "I don't know how to thank you."

She shook her head, ducking away from his gaze. "Clark, whatever else, we're still friends. We… might have a few issues to resolve at the moment, but nothing changes that. *I* don't want to lose that."

"Me neither," he confessed. In that moment, he wanted to rush over to her and beg her forgiveness for his cruel remark and for interfering in her life; he also desperately wanted to plead with her not to marry Luthor. But he didn't know how she'd take it if he did… Well, he did. She'd tell him to butt out and mind his own business. Everything about her posture, the way she was looking at him but avoiding his gaze, screamed that. She'd told him only yesterday that she didn't want to talk to him about Luthor.

So instead he just thanked her again, wishing that he could find words to express just how much her generosity meant. Neither he nor his parents had actually put their fear into words, but they'd all known the possible consequence of failing to pay off the loan: they could lose the farm. Now that wouldn't happen.

"So who do your parents bank with?" Lois asked curiously. "I mean, Clark, we should consider writing about this. Small farmers, the backbone of American society, being treated this way by big business?"

Clark shrugged. "I really don't know what went on. My folks' bank sold their loan, apparently — to the United Citizens' Bank. I guess maybe the Mercantile Bank needed to raise some money."

"Well, whatever the reason, this is appalling treatment, and we should expose it!" she insisted. "Why don't you write a piece tomorrow?"

"Yeah, I can do that." He was pleased to be asked; it gave him a legitimate reason to continue checking out the extent of Lex Luthor's role in his new bank.

"Anyway, I need to go," Lois said hurriedly.

Clark frowned. "Are you sure? I mean, I was just going to get something to eat — why don't you stay?"

She grimaced. "Much as I'd love to stay and sample your cooking, Clark, I have a paper to get out. It'll just have to be takeout pizza at the Planet for me."

Clark bit his lip, hesitating; then he offered, "Want me to come back in to help?"

But she shook her head. "I can manage. I know what needs to be done and it'd be quicker on my own than trying to explain things to someone else."

He wasn't 'someone else', Clark thought silently; he was her *partner*! Or at least, he had been until Lex Luthor had made Lois acting editor.

But that wasn't her fault, he conceded. "Okay. Just don't work too late, huh?"

She gave him a half-smile; he could see the awkwardness in her expression, and was as aware as she clearly was of its cause. "I'll try."

He saw her to the door, grateful that she'd come over, but still depressed because they hadn't yet managed to clear the air about the damage to their friendship. The barriers were still there, no matter that Lois had just done something incredibly generous for his family. They were there in the awkwardness and distance between them, the way they'd avoided each other's gazes almost throughout the conversation, the way a certain name and a change in Lois's status had gone unmentioned — deliberately.

Which made him think of something else. Of course Lois could afford to give him the cheque; she was marrying Lex Luthor! Money was never again going to be a problem for her. Of course she could write him a cheque for over ten grand and not notice the difference to her financial status!

The horrible thought occurred to him that she might actually have borrowed the money from Lex Luthor to give him. That almost made him contemplate ripping up the cheque; but he rejected that notion. He was pretty sure that he knew Lois well enough to know that she wouldn't tap her fianc‚ for money at this stage in their relationship — and he was fairly sure that she wouldn't then pass it on to him, knowing his feelings about Luthor.

And anyway, he told himself, even if the money was Luthor's — which it was highly unlikely to be — wouldn't that be the perfect irony? Paying off Lex Luthor with money contributed by Luthor himself.

The most important thing was that his parents no longer had to worry about losing the farm.


"You said you had something to report?"

Considerably overdressed for the time of year in a hat pulled low over his face and an overcoat with the collar raised, Nigel St John almost disappeared into the shadows as he faced his informant. Not allowing people to see him properly was second nature to him.

"Yeah. You wanted to know if Lane did anything… you know."

"Well?" Nigel prompted.

"She went out about an hour ago. I followed her, and she went over to Kent's place. She was there for about half an hour. Then she went back to the Planet."

Nigel nodded. "And what was she doing there?"

His informant shrugged. "How should I know? Hey, you asked me to report to you if something like this happened, and I've reported to you. You going to pay me or what?"

Nigel threw an envelope on the ground. "There. And next time, show more initiative! I want more details."

"Yeah, yeah," the informant muttered, bending to grab the envelope.

As the running steps of the departing figure echoed down the alley, Nigel withdrew from the shadows and made his way back to his car, ruminating cynically on the poor calibre of spies these days.


Not long after Lois left, Clark grabbed his jacket and headed out of the apartment. He'd already decided that he was going to ignore Luthor's edict, and so he was on his way to visit Alice at the hospital. He knew that there was little chance of getting to see Perry — well, at least not in the conventional sense. If the man had been admitted that morning following a heart attack, he would no doubt be in intensive care, or at the very least in a cardiology ward, and visiting would be restricted. But Alice would probably welcome a little support and sympathy.

He had every intention of flying over the hospital a little later, too, when he went patrolling, to check on his editor. It wasn't just that he was desperately concerned about Perry, although that was certainly true. It was that, somehow, he needed reassurance that Perry would be okay and would be coming back to the Planet. There had been too many changes lately. Sure, Lois would be a good acting editor, but she wasn't Perry White; and she was engaged to Lex Luthor, something he just couldn't forget.

Even under Lex Luthor's ownership, the Planet would still be the newspaper he loved with Perry White at the helm. With Perry absent and Lois in charge, it wasn't the same at all. He missed his partner, for one thing, although given that they weren't getting along at the moment it was probably just as well that they weren't working together. Aside from that, Lois's status as editor was yet another reminder of how much things had changed.

It was all Lex Luthor's fault, he thought grimly as he rode the subway out to the hospital, having decided to travel by human means. Luthor had pursued Lois and somehow managed to dazzle her to such an extent that she'd ignored all good sense and the advice of people who loved her, and agreed to marry the man. And then he'd muscled in on her work territory, buying up the Planet. *And* Clark was pretty sure that Luthor's ownership of the Planet had been the last straw which had caused Perry's heart attack. He'd seen Perry's face the previous day when Luthor had announced his purchase.

Typical Luthor, invading where he wasn't wanted, trampling on people's feelings and reshaping everything in his own image. Well, he wasn't going to succeed with the Daily Planet! If Clark had anything to do with it, that newspaper would never become a tame Luthor organ.

It would be reassuring to think that Lois felt the same way, he thought.

Then he brought his thoughts to a swift halt. Lois had always been an assertive, questioning journalist. Surely he was misjudging her to think that she'd allow personal feelings to get in the way of her objectivity as editor? Okay, maybe she wouldn't exactly be predisposed to run stories which alleged that her fianc‚ was a villain, but she wouldn't insist on puff pieces, or on ignoring anything critical of the man. That was simply not Lois at all.

He was sure of that. What he wasn't sure of was how she could have ignored her sense of objectivity and healthy scepticism and got engaged to the man.

*And* then she hadn't told anyone that he'd bought the Planet, thus ensuring that everyone had got a horrible shock.

But… He stopped again abruptly and thought back to that moment when Luthor had announced his ownership. With a start, he realised that Lois had been as surprised, if not shaken, as anyone else.

She *hadn't* known. He'd misjudged her there. Just like he'd misjudged her, he knew, when he'd accused her of marrying Luthor for his money.

He sighed. Whatever her reasons, she was still marrying him. And that put her out of his reach, as far as he was concerned — not just as a potential girlfriend, but even as a friend. He could never be friends with Lex Luthor's wife. Until she actually married the man, he'd keep on hoping, and he'd be there for her if she wanted him — just like she'd been there for him when she'd found out about the loan — but once she was married, that would be it. Their friendship would be history.

And he doubted that he'd stay in Metropolis once Lois was wearing Luthor's wedding ring.

But he had to think positive. If he could only find a way to convince Lois, or find some hard evidence of Luthor's criminality…

…or, he conceded, if the worst came to the worst, he could play his trump card after all.

He'd so far rejected, every time it had occurred to him, the idea of using Superman to woo Lois away from Luthor. It would simply be too humiliating, too much of a disillusionment, if it actually worked; he didn't like to think about what it would reveal of her character. But, he told himself now, if he did court Lois as Superman it wouldn't be with the serious intention of starting a relationship with her. It would be for the sole purpose of getting her to reject Luthor. He didn't have to continue anything he started for that purpose; not once he'd achieved his aim.

And, if there came a time when this was his only option left, he decided now to use it. He couldn't allow Lois to actually marry the man.

Thus resolved, he strode into Metropolis General Hospital and asked for Perry White. He was directed to the cardiac unit, and quickly made his way there.

Alice White saw him as he approached; getting to her feet, she called his name. "Clark!"

He hurried to her side. She looked pale and anxious, and he bent to kiss her cheek lightly. "How are you doing, Alice?" he asked gently.

She gave a helpless shrug. "Oh, I'm okay," she said unconvincingly.

"Alice," Clark said quietly. She almost crumpled beside him, and he quickly reached for her and helped her back to her chair. "Tell me the truth," he prompted. "And how's Perry?"

With his gentle encouragement, Alice told him everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours. "Perry came home last night — late as usual — and I couldn't believe how awful he looked. He's been pretty stressed for the last week or so, because the paper was in financial trouble, but this was different. He looked so bad I thought the Planet must have gone under or something like that. He said it was worse than that — Lex Luthor had taken it over."

"I knew he hated the idea of working for Luthor," Clark replied. "So do most of us."

"Yeah. He said he'd almost have preferred the paper to close than work for someone like Luthor. The man wasted no time, Clark — he called Perry minutes after the evening edition hit the streets, and said he didn't want to see any more editorials arguing for more business regulation. Perry was furious. Then this morning, early, he woke up with awful chest pains. He was clutching at himself, Clark, and I… I was sure he was going to die!"

Clark slid his arm around Alice's shoulders, hugging her lightly. "But you got him here. What did the doctors say?"

She sighed. "Oh, it was a heart attack, all right. They were working on him for ages, to begin with, and then he was in ICU for a while. I saw him when they took him up there first — he was conscious, and you know what the first thing on his mind was?"

Clark could guess. "The paper?"

She nodded. "He wanted me to call the newsroom — he even had a contingency plan all worked out that he wanted me to tell whoever I spoke to. I never told him that it was Luthor who picked up the phone. But he's been asking who's in charge."

"Lois," Clark answered. "Luthor chose her — and I don't think he knows how good a choice it is. Lois is a good journalist. She won't let Luthor interfere."

"But she's engaged to him." Alice's voice was hard. "That's something Perry just couldn't understand."

"I don't either," Clark couldn't help saying. "But… how is Perry now? They moved him out of ICU?"

"Yes, they brought him up here in the early afternoon. They say he's doing well, but he's just so pale, and he looks so frail. It scares me," she finished quietly. "And he's not going to get well unless he stops worrying about the paper."

"You can tell him it's in good hands," Clark said, with more confidence than he felt. Oh, he knew Lois would be a good editor, but what if Luthor did exert pressure on her? And what if the decline in sales didn't reverse? He was still very sure that there was something odd going on there, but what with everything that had happened in the last couple of days he hadn't had a chance to find out any more.

Alice nodded. "They let me in for ten minutes every hour. Sometimes he's asleep, but when he's awake I'll tell him."

"And are you okay? Is there anything I can do for you?"

She shook her head. "Just you coming here helped, Clark. It's been… well, it's surprised me that no-one else from the Planet has been anywhere near, or even called. After everything Perry's done for that paper — it's like nobody cares!" she exclaimed, clearly upset.

Clark cursed Lex Luthor even more ferociously. Just what the man had thought he stood to gain from this piece of pettiness, he had no idea. "Blame Mr Luthor for that," he said savagely, in a low tone. "He instructed us all to stay away and not bother you."

Alice gave him a sharp look. "Luthor? I should have guessed." Her expression became fierce. "I blame him, you know."

"For Perry's heart attack? Me too," Clark acknowledged. "It was the last straw, him taking over the Planet."

A nurse approached then, beckoning to Alice. She looked away, then back at Clark. "I can see Perry again now. Thanks for coming in, Clark — I appreciate it."

"Give him my best wishes, okay?"

She nodded, then followed the nurse. After a moment, Clark turned to leave.


Almost three hours after she'd left Clark's place, Lois groaned and leaned back in the editor's chair, stifling a grunt of pain as her back muscles protested at their misuse. The paper was almost ready to go to print, and she was exhausted. The remains of a pizza lay, cold, in a cardboard box at the side of the desk; it hadn't been particularly appetising, but it had represented a source of energy. All the same, she'd wished when she'd taken her first bite that she had taken Clark up on his offer to help, after all; she could have sent him out to get some of that delicious Chinese takeout only he seemed to know where to find.

Lex had called, not long before seven, wanting to know what time she'd be finished and offering to send a car over for her. He hadn't been especially pleased to discover that she had to work late, and she'd heard an impatient note enter his voice at that moment. She'd reminded him that it had been his decision to make her acting editor, and had — gritting her teeth — teased him that he only had himself to blame.

"Should I hire another acting editor?" he'd asked, ostensibly teasing, but she'd heard the irritation in his voice.

"Now what do you think that would do for my reputation?" she'd retorted. "Lex, it'll be like this for a few days until I get used to the job and prove to people that I can do it. You know what it's like right now — there's lots of people just waiting for me to take a tumble. I have to show them that it's not going to happen."

"If there's anyone on the staff who doesn't give you their full support, fire them," he'd replied coldly. "You don't need disloyal employees, Lois."

"I can handle it, Lex," she'd insisted, getting irritated herself.

"Oh, my independent Lois!" he'd said, laughing. "All right, I'll back off. I know how much this means to you, sweetheart. Seriously, though, you need to assert your authority. Just because you used to be part of the newsroom doesn't mean that they can expect to get around you. And, if you'll take my advice, you'll watch that ex-partner of yours too."

<Ex-partner…> Somehow, the term had sounded so final. And yet she and Clark weren't partners at the moment, so it was an accurate description. It was just that… it hurt somewhere deep within Lois when she heard Lex describe Clark that way.

She'd counted to three before answering, a falsely-light note in her voice. "Clark? Why would he be a problem?"

"Oh, come, Lois! You know he's never liked me. Frankly, I think he's jealous. And I suspect that he'll be jealous of your promotion too — a somewhat ambitious man, Kent. My advice is to be very careful around him."

She'd ended the conversation shortly afterwards, and she'd had the strangest urge to disinfect the telephone. The conversation, and the patronising attitude Lex adopted towards her, served as yet another stab to her conscience for having taken so long to see through Lex Luthor.

But at least she was no longer fooled. And she was on her way to finding out the truth about him.

Lex… The phone conversation reminded her that she hadn't managed to make any progress so far towards proving the truth about him. She pulled a legal pad towards her and started jotting down what she suspected so far.

He was responsible for the Messenger sabotage and the bomb on its successor; that was what Superman believed, at any rate. Well, there was certainly motive there. At the time, Lex had been promoting his own space station, as an alternative to Prometheus, so he'd stood to gain in a big way if Prometheus had failed.

Did that mean that he had also been behind the murders? Commander Latterman, Samuel Platt, Antoinette Baines? Those had been cold-blooded executions, Lois had felt at the time. She shivered, once again made aware of what Lex Luthor was capable of.

Naturally, he wouldn't actually have done any of the killing himself. He'd simply have given someone the order to ensure that it happened. Nigel, no doubt, would have found someone to do it… or perhaps even done it himself. She had little difficulty believing that Nigel St John could kill.

That was just the start. Superman had told her that Lex had been 'testing' him; there had been the suicide attempts, for example. Now, that was something she could look into; just who were the people Superman had rescued? They were all, in one way or another, employees of Lex Luthor. Did any of them have a closer connection with Lex? Were they connected in some way? She could also dig out the police report on the explosion at the museum, though she didn't remember there being anything at all useful in it.

Mentamide 5. Well, the chances of actually pinning that to Lex had to be very slim. Given that he'd ultimately almost been a victim of the formula, who was likely to believe that he was behind it?

She brushed her hair back from her face wearily and continued. The heatwave. That had been caused by a leak at Luthor's nuclear power plant. Thanks to Superman, the plant had been shut down. Pausing, Lois thought back to that moment. She'd been there, and she'd seen the reactions when the possibility of a leak had been mentioned. Luthor had insisted that the plant was safe, and also that it had been too late to shut it down. His expression when Superman had done it anyway had been… frustrated and angry. Not sickly-grey, as the mayor's had. Not relieved, as might have been expected of the owner of a nuclear power plant which had sprung a leak.

Was it possible that Lex had known all along what was causing the heatwave and that he'd *wanted* Superman to be blamed? Was it possible that *he* had *deliberately* caused it?

It fitted. It certainly matched the profile of a Lex Luthor who'd seemed to want to attack Superman in some way — those tests Superman had mentioned could equally have been a way of showing the Super-hero that he couldn't possibly stop everything bad in the city. Or it could have been a means of finding out whether Superman could be harmed. Either way, Luthor had had some success: Superman had actually disappeared for a day or so. Yes, Lois thought grimly, she could certainly believe that Lex would love to see Superman gone from Metropolis. And he probably didn't care very much how that was achieved; it was just as well nothing could hurt Superman, Lois mused.

Lex never did anything for sentimental reasons. There was always an ulterior motive; either hard-headed business, manipulation of his public image, or, she assumed, some murky criminal purpose. Which brought Lois to two questions.

The first was why he'd wanted to marry her. He'd told her that he loved her; but she really wasn't sure that she believed it. He was certainly attentive, and he would have been willing to shower her with gifts if she'd allowed him to. But while he was unfailingly courteous, he wasn't exactly loverlike. And in any case, Lex Luthor did not seem like the kind of man for whom the world was well lost for love.

Therefore he had to have some other reason for wanting to marry her; something to gain, perhaps. A trophy wife? But there were hundreds; no, *thousands* of women more beautiful and more malleable than herself. Why marry her when he could have a model, a socialite, perhaps even a princess from one of the minor European royal houses?

She'd reasoned before that perhaps he'd chosen her because he admired her intelligence and her independent mind; and yet she was now pretty sure that her independence and feminism were aspects of her personality which he'd be only too happy to change.

There had to be something he wanted, so far as she was concerned. And she was pretty sure that it wasn't her body, and it wasn't her love. So that remained an unanswered question.

Second, there was the question of just why he'd bought the Planet. She absolutely did not believe that he'd done it just for her. Nor could she accept that he'd simply not wanted to see a great paper like the Planet go under, and had decided out of the goodness of his heart to save it. That kind of altruism just didn't fit with the profile she was assembling of Lex's true nature.

So why had he wanted the Planet? It probably meshed quite well with his empire, she considered; he did, after all, own LNN, and there was no reason why a high-profile newspaper shouldn't fit well with a TV news network. And his own newspaper could be very useful to a high-profile businessman like Lex Luthor. Was it possible that he thought he could control content? Ensure that all coverage of himself and his activities was positive? Did he really think that he could interfere in the day-to-day content of the Planet?

She stilled. Perry was recovering from a heart attack, and she was temporary editor. She was also Lex's fianc‚e. So why wouldn't he assume that he'd be able to veto certain types of content if he wanted? After all, he no doubt considered that she'd be far easier to control than Perry. Even if Perry hadn't had a heart attack, she thought, it was entirely possible that Lex would have imagined he could get his own way. After all, it might be seen as career suicide for the editor of a newspaper to sanction the running of a story highly critical of the paper's owner.

For instance, when had the London Times run coverage critical of Rupert Murdoch?

So maybe that was why he'd done it. He'd have done the same had the Star been Metropolis's primary newspaper. The fact that Lois herself worked at the Planet had probably had nothing to do with Lex's decision…

…or had it?

It was a bit of a coincidence, surely, that Lex now owned the newspaper where she worked, when only a few days earlier he'd been trying to persuade her to come and work for LNN. Could this possibly be an attempt to control *her*? To take over her life, perhaps to place her in a situation where she was never free from his influence?

If so, that was frightening!

She pushed that aside and turned back to her list. But her thoughts kept coming back to the possibility that Lex was trying to supervise or control her activities, and then she remembered their telephone conversation.

Lex had warned her to be cautious around Clark, and had made his dislike of her partner clear.

He didn't like Clark… and, to be more precise, he didn't like her being around Clark. In fact, that conversation wasn't the first time that she'd noticed Lex's hostility to her partner; there had been that evening in his penthouse. Then, Lex had also tried to persuade her to spend less time with Clark; he'd told her that she didn't need a partner. It could be a straightforward case of jealousy, Lois told herself. Men were notoriously possessive of their women; they hated to see another man encroaching on their territory.

But what if it was more? What if Lex was trying to wean her away from her friends, starting with the one who meant most to her?

And in that case, what else might he do? If, say, he saw that his hints weren't working?

He could arrange for Clark to lose his job… but Lex had promised no more layoffs, Lois remembered, relieved.

But what if he arranged for Clark to be offered another job, a better one?

She froze momentarily, remembering two days earlier when Clark had told her about the offer from the San Francisco Examiner. Was it possible that Lex might have had something to do with that? She'd have to check it out; if Lex owned a stake in the Examiner, that would confirm her suspicion. The timing of the offer was hugely convenient; the Planet was in trouble, and Clark had been worried about losing his job. And only a very short time before, Lex had been telling her that she didn't need a partner.

Oh, very convenient.

But Clark had turned it down.

Did that mean that Lex would try again? What else could he do to get Clark out of the way?

Her blood chilled momentarily. Kill him?

Her chest tightened and her throat went dry. No!

But, she argued with herself, surely that would be excessive, even for Lex. Oh, it wasn't as if her fianc‚ couldn't find a way of having Clark killed without it being traced back to him, but killing a man just because she was friendly with him…?

No. She was being over-dramatic. Probably because she was tired, and it was late, and there was hardly anyone else around. Lex would have no reason to want Clark dead.

No, he'd be more subtle than that.


Wasn't that one of the small banks which had recently been bought out by LexBank?

It didn't take her long to confirm it; a quick search through the Planet's electronic archive found her the article. So Lex owned the bank which had bought the Kents' loan and had suddenly foreclosed. Yet another convenient coincidence… which Lois didn't believe was a convenience at all.

Lex *was* attacking Clark.

Not that she was entirely sure why practically bankrupting Clark's parents should further Lex's aims; if what he wanted was to get Clark out of her orbit, then something like this wouldn't get him very far. Unless he'd thought that Clark would be so wrapped up in trying to help his parents out of the financial trouble they would have been in if she hadn't been able to help out, that he wouldn't have time to spend with Lois?

Or maybe he'd simply wanted to cause Clark pain.

Or perhaps there was another job offer around the corner, carrying a higher salary, which Clark might feel obliged to take in order to help his parents.

Any of those options would lead to Clark being in her company less frequently.

She paused. Did Lex know how much time she spent with Clark? What if he was having her watched? What if… what if he knew that she'd been over to his apartment this evening?

He probably did, she reflected slowly. That phone call, not too long after she'd got back, and the a propos of nothing mention of Clark. He knew that she'd visited her partner. And for all she knew, that could mean that he'd increase his efforts to get Clark out of the way.

She bit her lip. There was absolutely no way that she could allow that to happen. It would devastate her if anything happened to Clark! As she'd told him only a few hours earlier, in his apartment, no matter what problems they were having at the moment, they were still best friends. He was still the most special person in her life. She cared about him… *loved* him, as the dearest friend she'd ever had.

She needed him.

And the thought that Lex might be trying to get him out of the way chilled her to the bone. There was no way that she could let that happen.

She was going to have to be very careful about how much attention she paid to Clark at work. And she'd have to avoid him outside the newsroom, too. Otherwise she might just encourage Lex to believe that he did need to dispose of Clark.


He really needed to start getting somewhere in a hurry with the Luthor investigation, Clark thought as he set out on patrol that night. Quite apart from all the other reasons why it was essential to ensure that Luthor was exposed for the criminal that he was, he had to get Lois away from the man. The sooner the better.

But even with everything he'd managed to put together so far, he really didn't have a starting point. He was convinced of Luthor's involvement in so many things: the Messenger explosion and associated murders, the Mentamide 5 formula, probably the pheromone compound, more than likely the winter heatwave, and other minor incidents over the past year. He also suspected, with hindsight, that there was almost certainly someone else behind the Toasters; given that Luthor had been at the club with Toni Taylor, it was more than likely that Toni had been taking orders from him.

He wondered why he hadn't thought to look into Luthor's purchase of the Planet before now. The man had to have got it at some sort of knockdown price, for one thing; that was worth finding out about. And furthermore, why had he bought the paper? Certainly not out of altruism; that went without saying.

To control what appeared in print about him? To influence his media image? After all, Perry White was probably the one editor in either TV or print media not to be intimidated by Lex Luthor or his business empire.

Or, maybe more sinister; to control Lois?

Well, Luthor had certainly struck lucky, being able to buy the Planet at what was no doubt fire-sale prices.

Wait a minute… lucky?

What if it wasn't mere coincidence? What if Luthor himself was responsible for the Planet's bad fortunes of late?

That was entirely possible, Clark realised. And in fact it was so likely that he could curse himself for not seeing it sooner. He'd have to look into this new possibility as soon as possible — and make sure that Lois had no idea what he was doing. There was no way that she'd support him using Planet time and resources to prove her fianc‚ guilty, and it would only serve to drive a further wedge between them. After her generosity and caring that evening, he was very sure that there was hope for their friendship; he wasn't about to risk yet another fight.

*** "Alice!"

Perry's wife turned to look at Lois; to Lois's surprise, her expression was cool. "Hello."

Maybe Alice was angry that she hadn't called or come over the previous day. "I meant to come over last night, but by the time I'd put the paper to bed it was too late. It was too late to call you, either," she said apologetically. "I brought this." She indicated the copy of the morning paper under her arm. "I thought maybe you could reassure Perry that the paper's doing okay. We all miss him, but at least… well, the Planet's still there."

Alice nodded. "He's been worried sick about that darned paper! I can't get him to relax, and his blood-pressure is staying high." Lois could see the lines of worry and the signs of a sleepless night around Alice's face.

She sank onto a chair beside the other woman. "How is he, Alice? Really?"

Alice seemed to soften. "A lot better than yesterday. It wasn't a life-threatening attack, though it sure seemed that way this time yesterday! He's doing okay — or at least, he would be if he wasn't thinking about that wretched paper the whole time!"

"But you can tell him it's in good hands," Lois suggested quietly. "At least… well, I'm acting editor, so I guess it's a question of how much Perry trusts me."

Alice gave her a hard stare. "You're engaged to Lex Luthor."

<Oh, what a tangled web we weave…> Lois inhaled sharply and gave Alice an assessing look. "There's something — "

"Wait a minute," Alice interrupted her. "That's the nurse coming to tell me I can see Perry now."

"Oh." Disappointed, Lois gathered her things together. "I'll get going, then."

"No, don't," Alice said quickly. "Come in with me. I think Perry'd feel a lot better hearing about the paper from you. If you can reassure him that things are running smoothly, then he might actually be able to relax and get better."

Seeing Perry would set her mind at rest too, Lois thought as she got to her feet and followed Alice. Entering a small room a few moments later, Lois had to stifle an exclamation of horror on seeing her editor. Even propped up in bed, he looked grey and old, and dwarfed somehow by the machinery to which he was hooked up. But he turned as she and Alice came in, and his face lit up.

"Lois! Aw, honey, you're a sight for sore eyes." He paused to greet Alice with a kiss, then turned back to Lois. "How's the Planet doing? I heard Lu… uh, Lex made you acting editor."

His hesitation on Lex's name didn't escape Lois, and she grimaced inwardly. "Yeah, I'm in charge, and I'm trying really hard to remember everything you taught me. I brought you the morning edition so you can see for yourself that I haven't run it into the ground just yet, Chief." She forced herself to grin at him as if his physical state wasn't worrying her in the slightest.

He accepted the paper from her, but laid it down to continue studying her instead. "*Is* everything okay? I'm not gonna interfere with you doin' your job, honey, but… well, I know Lex Luthor's your fianc‚ and all, but I hope he's not trying to meddle in the paper." Perry was frowning as he spoke.

"Chief, there's something I need to tell you," Lois said quickly. "This — " she glanced down at her ring and fiddled with it " — it's not real. Well, the ring is, but the engagement isn't. I'm investigating Lex, trying to prove that he's not what he pretends to be. And the only way I could stay close enough to him was to say I'd marry him when he proposed. So that's all it is. And yes, I have every intention of keeping him out of the paper too."

Perry reached out for her hand. "Aw, darlin', I have to tell you that's a heck of a weight off my mind! The thought of you married to that man…!"

Feeling guilty again, Lois said quickly, "I know. I was going to tell you, Chief. There wasn't a chance to do it the day Lex bought the paper, but I was going to talk to you first thing yesterday. Only I came in and found out you were sick."

"Well, I'm just glad to know that you're not really marrying him. Though I guess I should have known you're smarter than that, darlin'. Clark knows, I hope?"

She answered hurriedly, "Not yet, but I'm going to tell him. I could use his help." And she should already have told him; she was very much aware of that. It was all very well protesting to herself that she hadn't had an opportunity; while it was true that Clark had stopped her the previous morning in her office, she could have told him last evening. They'd been in his apartment, with no ringing phones, no possibility of interruption. She could easily have stayed for another twenty minutes and told him the truth. The paper would have waited for that long.

But she hadn't told him.

She was well aware that her failure to tell Clark the truth was causing him some distress. She could see it in his expression every time he looked at her. He was her best friend; he cared deeply for her, and he loathed Lex Luthor. Not only could he not bear the thought of her married to a man he hated, but she was fairly sure that he was also worried about what might happen to her if she did marry Lex. So she should have told him.

So why hadn't she? As she said her farewells to Perry and Alice — a more friendly Alice, now that the Whites knew the truth about her relationship with Lex — and left the hospital, Lois tried to understand her own motives. She knew that Clark's help would be invaluable. And she also knew how much her engagement bothered him.

<His accusation bothered me!> an instinctive voice retorted.

She shook her head in disbelief. She was still punishing her best friend for a remark which, although it had hurt badly at the time, she was well aware that he couldn't possibly have meant. Clark knew her better than that. And *she* knew *Clark* better than that. The man who'd come to comfort her, who'd held her in his arms, the previous morning did not think she was a gold-digger. That had been her best friend at his most caring. She'd really needed his arms around her at that moment — and that was something Clark always seemed to understand, better than anyone else she knew. Even when he was hurting himself, he somehow managed to put his pain aside and concentrate on comforting her.

She doubted that she'd have been able to cope yesterday morning if it hadn't been for Clark.

They needed to talk, and the sooner the better, she resolved. But then she was reminded of something else: her fianc‚'s attitude to her partner. She was pretty sure that Lex was having her watched, and therefore if she spent any significant amount of time alone with Clark — either in her office, or going out for lunch, as she'd been considering — then Lex would know, and it might well persuade him to act more decisively against Clark.

She'd have to bide her time, she resolved. As soon as it was safe to do so, she'd get Clark alone and tell him what was really going on.


It was much easier to find time to investigate UCB when he was actually working on it as part of a legitimate story, Clark thought. That was something else for which he had cause to be grateful to Lois.

His parents were still overwhelmed with disbelief and gratitude about the money she'd given them. At first, they hadn't wanted to accept it, feeling that they simply couldn't take so much money from someone they didn't know all that well, but Clark had managed to convince them that Lois had meant them to accept it. He understood her motives very well himself; after all, as she'd told him very clearly, they both knew what he would have done in a similar situation. And, as she'd reminded him, they were friends…

Friends. But friends who weren't exactly speaking at the moment. He needed to do something about that very soon. Okay, so he didn't like the man she was planning to marry. So he thought the man she was planning to marry was the biggest criminal ever to walk this earth. That didn't mean that he should walk away from his best friend! It wasn't fair to abandon her, which — even if he hadn't intended it — was probably the impression he'd given.

And as for his crazy idea last night to court her as Superman, merely to get her away from Lex… well, 'crazy' was quite definitely what described it. If things were looking really desperate, then perhaps a better way would be to tell her the truth: that Superman was *him*, and see whether that would make a difference. Although, of course, apparently she hadn't listened to Superman's warning… Regardless, using his Superman persona as a lever was out of the question.

He'd have to find an opportunity soon to have a proper talk with Lois. Maybe this time, if they both remained calm, he could get through to her.

And in the meantime, he had things to find out.

Half an hour later, Clark was sitting staring into the middle distance, his insides churning. Yes, UCB had bought up several loans from the Smallville Mercantile Bank. But, from what he'd been able to ascertain, the Kents' loan was the only one which had been foreclosed.

As he'd half-suspected, his parents had been targeted; and they'd damned nearly been bankrupted.

Lex Luthor was behind this. He had to be.

If Luthor had been standing in front of him right at that moment, Clark would have had to restrain himself from tearing the man limb from limb, and then barbequing him with his heat vision. Luthor had no business hurting his parents! If the man had a problem with him, then he should take it up with *him*. But then, Luthor was a devious so- and-so, and the direct route was probably just too straightforward for someone like him.

How on earth could Lois even contemplate marrying Luthor?

Just then, Clark's attention was caught by an emergency news report on the TV screens. There was a massive pile-up on the turnpike, about five miles away, with several people trapped in their cars; and the traffic build-up was making it difficult for the emergency vehicles to get to the site. He needed to go.

A couple of seconds later, he was Super-speeding up the stairwell on his way to the roof.


"Inspector Henderson for you, Ms Lane."

"Thanks, Patti," Lois said absently to the switchboard operator, wondering why Henderson was calling her. She didn't have any outstanding cases in which he was involved. "Morning, Henderson. What can I do for you?"

The police officer's dry tones would have been instantly recognisable even if she hadn't already known it was him. "Never a *good* morning with you, is it, Lane? Actually, I was looking for Kent. Your partner. But he doesn't seem to be around."

Lois leaned forward and then turned to look out of the open door. "No, he's not. I don't know where he is, if that's what you want to know."

"You can give him a message for me. Tell him that we have a witness who says the driver was seen talking to someone we're told is called Nigel St John early yesterday morning. But I'm giving him the information as a professional courtesy. It's not for printing."

Nigel! What was Clark doing investigating Nigel St John? "What's this about, Henderson?" she demanded quickly. "What's St John got to do with anything?"

Sharp — and non-committal — as ever, Henderson retorted, "You know Nigel St John?"

"Uh-uh," she answered immediately. "Fair trade. You tell me what you know, and I'll tell you what I know."

"Done," Henderson agreed. "Go ahead, then. You first."

Lois made a grumble of protest, but she knew Inspector Henderson enough to be confident that he'd keep his end of the bargain. "Nigel St John works for Lex Luthor. He's some sort of personal assistant, but I think there's more to his role than that. He's English…"

"…and ex-British Secret Service, from what we can find out," Henderson added dryly, causing Lois to sit upright in her chair in amazement. Nigel was a former spy?

"Ex?" she queried. "He's not still working for the British government?"

"Oh, no. Dishonourable discharge, apparently, but no-one in London's talking. And you say he's working for Luthor?" Henderson paused, then added quickly, sardonically, "Oh, that's right. I heard you were engaged to Mr Luthor."

There hadn't been a formal public announcement yet. Lex had been talking about throwing a gala party to make the announcement, but they hadn't had time to discuss it, which suited Lois very well. But clearly word was spreading on the grapevine. And Henderson's tone of voice made it clear that he was beginning to regret his confidence.

"I may be engaged to him, Henderson, but that doesn't mean that I share every detail of my job with him. This conversation will go no further than Clark; you have my word on that."

"Okay. I appreciate that. And thanks for the information about St John; we hadn't been able to locate him so far."

"Your turn. What's this about a driver? And what does it have to do with Nigel St John?"

Lois listened in shock as Henderson told her that her partner had been almost mown down by a hit-and-run driver the previous morning. Clark, it seemed, had been inclined to consider it an accident, and he'd reported it to the police in the same spirit. Henderson himself hadn't had any reason to consider it anything other than an accident, especially when the driver had been found and identified and Clark hadn't recognised the name.

But Lois knew very well that this had been anything but an accident. "He's trying to kill Clark," she whispered, feeling as if a cold hand was closing around her throat.

"What? Who's trying to kill who? What did you say, Lois?" Henderson's voice was sharp.

Lois swallowed, with difficulty. She should have been more careful. For a cop, Henderson was too smart for his own good. But, on the other hand, there was something she could tell him, and it might help…

"Henderson, this is just between you and me, right?"

He paused, then said, "If you're telling me it's important, Lois. But if we're talking attempted homicide here…"

"Henderson. I think someone's trying to kill Clark," she said abruptly. "And no, I can't prove it. Nor can I tell you who it is — yet. But take it from me, what happened yesterday wasn't an accident."

"This is a pretty serious allegation, Lane — even if you're not telling me who you're making it against," Henderson warned. "And if you are telling me that Kent's life is in danger, you've got to give me more than this! I don't have anything to go on here. I presume you *do* want me to make sure that he's not killed? And to catch the guy who's behind it?"

"Yes," Lois whispered. Of *course* she did! "But I can't tell you any more right now, Henderson. I… I promise you, as soon as I get more proof, I'll get right on the phone to you. But I don't have any hard evidence now, and if he — the man I'm thinking of — found out that anyone suspected, I'm afraid that he'd try again and make sure he succeeded this time!"

"Okay, okay," Henderson said quickly, calmly. "I'll do what I can, Lois. I can't assign a bodyguard to Kent, you know that. But I'll keep my eyes and ears open. If your man is hiring guys, I'll probably hear about it."

"Thanks, Henderson," Lois said weakly, then ended the conversation.

*Lex had tried to kill Clark!*

She looked down and noticed that her hands were still shaking. What had made Lex decide that Clark was such a problem that he wanted him out of the way? What had *she* done to make him think that Clark was some sort of obstacle?

Lex had paid someone to try to kill Clark.

Suddenly she felt very cold, and very scared. Because of her, her fianc‚ — the man she was investigating — was trying to have her best friend killed. It had to be because of her; she couldn't think of any other reason why Lex would want Clark out of the way.

She'd defended her partner to Lex. She'd insisted that she couldn't work at LNN without Clark. She'd talked him out of taking the San Francisco job — and knowing Lex, he'd probably worked out that she'd had a role in Clark's decision there. She worked with Clark every day, spent a lot of time alone with him — or had done so, until she'd been made acting editor. And she was very sure that Lex knew she'd been over to Clark's apartment the previous evening.

Lex wasn't happy that she was so close to Clark. He saw Clark as some sort of threat, either to his relationship with her, or to his criminal acts — who knew?

She took a shuddering breath. If her guess was right and she was being watched, then she wouldn't be able to exchange more than a couple of words with Clark without it getting back to Lex… and without Lex interpreting it as in some way threatening to him.

She *couldn't* risk Clark's life!

Clark was her best friend. She'd never had a friend like him before, and she couldn't lose him. She just couldn't imagine her life without him in it. And she couldn't imagine the Planet without him around. Not to mention that he was such a great guy, so kind and caring, so loving to his parents… if he was killed and it was because of his friendship with her, she'd never be able to forgive herself.

She couldn't let that happen.

If she was going to save Clark's life — or at least, not hasten Lex's next attempt on it — she was going to have to tread very carefully. She would have to keep her distance from Clark in a very obvious manner; she might even have to be curt with him publicly, if not actually stage some sort of editor-reporter argument. And it meant that there was no way that she was going to be able to tell him the truth for the time being — unless she did it in writing and slipped him the letter surreptitiously. There was no way that she was going to use the Planet's internal email system for something like that; for all she knew, Lex was having all correspondence monitored.

But a letter was so impersonal, especially over something like this… and yet it might be the only option open to her. She'd think about it. If she hadn't managed to find an opportunity to talk to Clark in secret by the end of the day, she'd write to him.

And there was something else she could do, she realised suddenly. If she couldn't tell the police the truth about what she suspected, she could certainly tell Superman. He'd help her. He could protect Clark. She was sure he'd do it — he and Clark were friends, after all. She'd have to try to get hold of Superman as soon as possible — though that would have to be done secretly, too. Somehow, she couldn't quite see Lex being pleased at the idea of her talking privately with Superman.

One other thing she would have to ensure was that no-one found out about the loan she'd given Clark. If she was right in her guess that Lex was behind the Kents' financial problems in the first place, he'd be furious. He'd -

"Stop the presses!"

Her head shot up, and she stifled the sarcastic retort which she automatically wanted to make, at the same time gritting her teeth in an attempt to stop her stomach churning. Her fianc‚ stood just inside the door of her office, grinning charmingly at her — at least, it would be a charming grin, if she didn't now find him so repulsive.

"No-one says that around a newsroom, Lex," she made herself say lightly, forcing a smile.

He shrugged. "I couldn't resist the temptation. And how is my favourite editor this morning?"

She got up, since he seemed to expect it, and allowed him to take her by the shoulders; she remained still as he dropped a kiss on her lips. "I'm fine, Lex; just busy. I guess I never knew what was involved in running a paper before."

"If it's too much for you, just say. I can get an assistant in to help you within minutes."

<No!> She recoiled from that thought. It was bad enough that she was sure she was being watched. If Lex employed an assistant for her, she'd never be able to do anything without her every move being reported to him. "I can manage," she assured him. "It's just a lot to get used to."

"Well, tonight you're taking the evening off," he announced. "You're looking tired as it is. I'll send a car to pick you up at seven, and we can have dinner together in my apartment."

Lois was about to protest, until she realised that this could actually be the opportunity she needed. If she could get just ten minutes alone in his office…

Lex was speaking again. "So how are things in the newsroom? I think I ought to make the obligatory owner's circuit, don't you think?"

Lois didn't think. In her opinion, the newsroom would run a lot more smoothly if Lex stayed well away from it. "Things are fine, Lex," she said placatingly. "Everyone's very busy. I think it'd be better if we left them to it."

"Oh, I won't distract them," he said smoothly. "By the way, I noticed that Kent wasn't at his desk when I came in. Where is he?"

Lois realised that she had no idea where Clark was. And if she said that he was out on a story, she'd look a complete imbecile if he emerged from the men's room. "I'm not sure," she said lightly. "But you know reporters, Lex; he could be anywhere."

"You're his editor. He's supposed to let you know his whereabouts." Now Lex's tone was sharp, critical; Lois realised that she'd made a tactical error in defending Clark. But if she'd said that she had no idea where Clark was, and even worse, that he made something of a habit of disappearing, Lex would fire him in an instant.

As they walked out into the bullpen, Clark stepped out of the elevator and headed towards his desk. Lex stopped him, his tone sardonic. "Kent. So glad you could join us this morning. Mind telling us where you've been?"

Clark hesitated, looking taken aback. Addressing his response to Lois, he said, "There was a pile-up on the turnpike — I saw a newsflash. So I got over there and got the story, including a short interview with Superman. You'll have it for the afternoon edition."

There was something very odd about those disappearances of Clark's, Lois thought. And so many times, when he disappeared he seemed to come back with a good story. But, well aware of Lex's disapproving stance beside her, she didn't dare praise her friend, or simply drop the subject with an instruction to get the story written, as Perry might have done. She had to make this look convincing, much as she hated doing it. She just hoped that Clark would forgive her, later…

"I'm the editor here, Clark," she reminded him sharply. "I'm the one who assigns writers to stories. If you'd asked me, I would have sent Robinson to the pile-up — that's bread-and-butter stuff. You have more important stories to work on. So in future you'll take your instructions from me, understood?"

He blinked. Then his gaze slid very subtly from her to Lex, and then back to her. Almost insolently, he inclined his head and said, "Whatever you say, Ms Lane." Then he turned sharply and went back to his desk.

Lois felt sick. She was very well aware that she'd offended Clark badly by treating him like that. And she was pretty sure what conclusions he'd drawn, too; his sideways glance at Lex had made that very clear. He thought she was becoming Luthor's puppet.

He should know her better than that; but then, she wasn't giving him much reason to assume differently.

She swallowed the bile which was gathering in her throat and followed Lex across the newsroom. She'd had to do it. It was the only way to convince Lex that Clark wasn't worth the effort of killing or otherwise harming. If Lex thought that she and Clark were fighting, maybe he'd leave her friend alone.

*** Still stunned by Lois's attitude, Clark resumed his seat at his desk; noting that Lois and her fianc‚ seemed to be making a tour of the newsroom, he very swiftly hid all traces of his investigations concerning UCB and his parents' loan. He had no wish for Lex Luthor to discover what he was doing there.

He could barely reconcile this sarcastic, supercilious Lois with the Lois who'd sat in his apartment the previous evening and written him a cheque for an amount larger than he'd ever seen on a cheque before. What had changed?

But he knew what had changed, he thought grimly, his gaze falling briefly on the man with Lois; the man in the expensive suit who was taking every opportunity to touch Lois as they proceeded around the bullpen. Lex Luthor. It was because *he'd* been with Lois that she'd spoken in the way she had. For some reason, she'd been trying to impress her fianc‚.

Trying to prove to him that she was competent enough to run a newsroom?

But that didn't quite add up either, Clark thought, puzzled. After her initial bout of nervousness, Lois had managed to keep things running very smoothly the previous day, and both editions had been on time and of the usual high standard. Her manner with staff had been friendly and professional; there had been no pulling rank or throwing her weight around.

She didn't need to pull stunts like that in order to run the newsroom. So what had that display been in aid of?

Well, Luthor had started it, Clark remembered. Lois had only spoken harshly to him after Luthor had already pulled him up on his absence. So for some reason Lois had wanted to impress her fianc‚ with some tough staff-management skills, and had chosen him to do it.

Last night she'd told him that he was still her best friend, despite all that had been happening, and that she didn't want that to change. So which Lois did he trust? The Lois who'd just chewed him up and spat him out in front of the newsroom, or the Lois who'd come to his apartment?

Clark leaned back in his chair and considered. He'd leapt to a conclusion about Lois a couple of days ago, and regretted it on more sober reflection. This time, he wasn't about to jump to any conclusions. If Lois said that they were still best friends, then he was going to believe that until she came right out and told him otherwise. Whatever it was that had just gone on here, he concluded, there was more to it than met the eye. He would wait until she could explain it to him.

His Super-hearing kicked in, and suddenly he was hearing Lois say, "Ralph, I've told you before. If you can't check your sources adequately before turning in a story, then I don't have a place for you here. Now take this away, do some *proper* research — and get acquainted with a dictionary while you're at it — and get it back to me by this afternoon."

Ralph's face revealed his fury, but Clark could tell that the reporter was too intimidated by the presence of the paper's owner to say anything. Lois then moved away, and he could hear her a few moments later praising another journalist who had a minor scoop for the morning edition.

"I don't think we should run that," Lex Luthor's crisp voice announced immediately.

Clark watched Lois turn on her heel to stare disbelievingly at her fianc‚. "Why not? And anyway, Lex, I'm the editor. It's my decision, you know that." The latter part of her response to Luthor was spoken quietly, no doubt so that others wouldn't hear.

"It's not really the kind of story I think the Planet should be associated with." Clearly Luthor wasn't too worried about his words being overheard.

"It's *exactly* the kind of story the Planet should be associated with!" Lois exclaimed. "Corruption in big business, small businesspeople getting trampled on — this is just the kind of thing we need to expose, and FastMart is no exception."

FastMart… Clark quickly entered the name of the supermarket chain into the Planet's financial database and came up with the answer he'd been expecting. Luthor Industries was the majority shareholder. So Lex Luthor was trying to stifle a news story critical of one of his businesses. Why was he not surprised, Clark thought dryly.

Still, Lois was standing up to the paper's owner, and he admired her for it. Of course, it was the right stance to take, but in the circumstances… It couldn't be easy to tell Lex Luthor to back off, he understood that.

And she was succeeding; although he didn't look at all happy, Luthor was holding up his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Quite right, Lois, you're the editor and it's your decision. I have every faith in you."

Clark had to look away as Luthor kissed Lois again; then he was pleased to hear the man say that he had to go. Lois went straight back into her office without looking at anyone.

He sighed and applied himself to his work again. He'd simply have to wait until he and Lois could talk properly.


"You're looking a trifle pensive, sir."

Lex, standing with hands clasped behind his back and gazing out of the large picture window in his penthouse office, glanced briefly at Nigel. "It appears that my lovely Lois isn't quite as malleable as I'd anticipated."

"Well, she is a reporter, sir. I believe I did…"

"You did point that fact out to me before, Nigel, yes. I had expected, however, that she would be willing to take her fianc‚'s advice. Apparently not. First, I learn that she has disobeyed my specific instructions and visited the hospital to visit Perry White. And then I discover that she is running a story full of scurrilous allegations about FastMart on the front page of tomorrow's Daily Planet."

"And are these scurrilous allegations true?" Nigel enquired smoothly.

"Oh, naturally they're true." Lex smiled. "At least we've had fair warning. Remind me to fire the FastMart CEO this evening and then issue a press release saying that Luthor Industries is appalled and shocked at his activities, of which it was completely unaware."

"Of course, sir. Should I arrange the usual pay-off?"

Lex nodded, moving to his desk and sifting through some papers. "Yes, do. I think the tragic suicide option is in order this time, don't you, Nigel? Full of remorse at everything he'd done, the people he'd betrayed and so on?"

"Yes, that can be arranged," Nigel replied. "And how are other matters at the Planet?"

Lex selected a cigar from the box on his desk and looked contemplative while he lit it. "Intriguing, Nigel. Intriguing. For instance, you informed me that my dear Lois was at Mr Kent's apartment last night, for around half an hour. And yet this morning she was positively snapping at him in the newsroom. An innocent bystander would assume that there was no love lost between them at all."

"But you are not an innocent bystander," Nigel prompted.

"No, indeed. Which is what makes me wonder… It's just possible that Ms Lane is playing an elaborate game with me where Kent is concerned. But I wonder why, since as far as I know I haven't given her any reason to believe that Mr Kent is a thorn in my side."

"So you suspect that this morning's discord is not what it appears?"

Lex took a long draw of his cigar. "It seems likely. And so it may be sensible to continue our plans to remove Mr Kent from my Lois's orbit. What — "

The phone rang, and he broke off abruptly. Nigel fell into his personal assistant mode and answered it; the call, Lex noted, appeared to be for his assistant. Nigel's responses — ranging from "Yes" and "I see" to "Indeed" — didn't tell him anything at all about the subject-matter of the call, so he simply had to wait.

"Bad news, I'm afraid, sir," Nigel said at length, replacing the receiver on the hook. "It seems that the Kents senior have contacted the bank to inform them that they will be bringing in a draft to cover the amount of the loan the day after tomorrow."

Lex stubbed out his cigar furiously. "How did this happen? You were to see that they could obtain no other credit!"

"They couldn't, sir. However, we omitted to cut off Mr Kent junior's access to credit. He borrowed a significant amount from his bank yesterday."

Lex's eyes narrowed. "He couldn't possibly have raised the entire amount. Not on his salary!"

"Yes, I have yet to ascertain how the remainder of the money is being acquired," Nigel explained.

Lex was silent for several moments, allowing himself to calm down. Then he said, in a more moderate tone, "Well, we must be prepared to lose some battles. Nevertheless, this now makes it imperative that Mr Kent is removed from the field as soon as possible."

Nigel inclined his head. "I will see to it that he is dealt with this afternoon. And now, sir, what of our arrangement with the Planet's opposition?"

"What of it?" Lex retorted.

"Well, I presume that, now that your fianc‚e is editing the Planet, you would want to call it off?"

Lex smiled broadly. "Now, what on earth gives you that idea, Nigel? No. The Planet is still to close. I need to detach Lois from her childlike attachment to that rag of a newspaper, and since she won't come to work for me of her own accord, she must be shown that she has no other option. Though she may come to that conclusion sooner rather than later," he added reflectively.

"Indeed, sir?"

"Oh, I simply ensured that she would lose some degree of whatever support she might have had from her colleagues and former equals," Lex murmured, amused. "It was child's play, really. They were so easy to manipulate — and Lois herself was so anxious to impress me with her management skills."

Nigel smiled in response. "I dare say it was an amusing spectacle."

"Oh, it was, Nigel. I'm going to enjoy this."


On his way to grab a coffee refill, Clark was surprised to see Ralph and his acolyte, Brad, emerging from Perry's — Lois's — office. He could've sworn that he'd seen Lois go up to the ladies' room a minute or so ago.

Now curious, he lowered his glasses surreptitiously and surveyed the office. What he saw made him sigh in disgust. He dumped his mug on the nearest surface and hurried to the editor's office and inside.

The card he'd seen was on the desk, affixed to a dead plant someone had probably forgotten to water. Printed in bold black on the home-made card, in a Gothic typeface, was the word BITCH!

He had to get rid of that before Lois saw it. She might be tough, but he knew only too well how insecure she was underneath. Something like this would hurt her, and she didn't deserve that, even if she was dumb enough not to see through Lex Luthor. And she was his friend, anyway.

Clark picked up the plant and card, preparing to crush them and dispose of them somewhere safe. But just as he'd got hold of them, he heard footsteps behind him. "Clark? Did you want something?"

It was Lois. Quickly shoving the offending items behind his back, he said, "Sorry — I was just looking for something. I'll get out of your way right now."

"Wait a minute," she said suspiciously. "What have you got behind your back?"

"Uh… nothing," he lied awkwardly.

"Clark! I know you're hiding something. What is it?" she demanded.

"Lois, please," he protested.

"If you don't show me, I'm going to come over there and find out for myself," she warned.

He sighed, resigned. Unless he crushed it now — and she'd want to know how he'd managed to mangle it beyond recognition — he was going to have to show her. Slowly, he drew his hand out from behind his back and showed her the token of Ralph's dislike.

She drew in a sharp breath, and he saw her pale; but it was only for a moment. Then she was shaking her head in disbelief. He had to admire her recovery powers; but then, this was Lois. She hated showing any kind of weakness. "I don't even have to ask you who did it," she said disgustedly.

He couldn't lie and tell her that he didn't know. "I saw them coming out and… I got suspicious."

"It obviously didn't occur to them that with my connections I could have them fired right now, if I wanted to," she said dryly, then seemed to regret it when she saw Clark's grimace. "Not that I would," she added quickly.

"I know," he said quietly, his gaze meeting hers, his eyes questioning.

But she didn't respond to his unspoken query. "You tried to prevent me from seeing it," she said softly. "That's sweet of you, Clark."

He shrugged. "I couldn't… and it's just not true."

"No?" She gave him a quizzical look, and he remembered their exchange in the newsroom earlier. "Clark, we need to talk. *Really* talk."

"Yeah, I know," he said, glad — *delighted* — that she was finally going to give him the opportunity to set things straight between them. He glanced towards the open door. "Should I close that?"

"No! No, not now… not here," she said quickly, with a note in her voice which was almost panicky. He shot her a concerned look. "It's… just not a good idea, Clark. But later — when I'm sure we're not…"

To his confusion, she trailed off. He was still trying to work out what she could have intended — not too busy? not too upset with each other? not… being watched? No, he was being paranoid — when she gestured to him to leave. A second impatient wave of her hand towards the door made it clear that she meant it.

"And give me that," she added, grabbing hold of the plant and card. A second later, they were in the trash can. "I want that Superman story in the next half-hour, you hear?" she called after him, more loudly than was necessary. In fact, Clark mused as he returned to his desk, she could have been heard halfway across the bullpen.

Was that what she'd intended? *Had* she been going to say that they were being watched?

It sounded like paranoia on his part, but on the other hand it could explain why she'd behaved so out of character with him and with others in the newsroom earlier. She was trying to create a certain impression.

But for whom?

The only possible answer was: Lex Luthor.

But why would Lois be afraid that her fianc‚ was spying on her?

There were too many things here which just didn't add up. As he called up the near-complete draft of his article on Superman's work at the pile-up, he resolved that no matter what happened he and Lois were going to have that talk by the end of the day. It was long past time that she told him what was going on, and he needed one last chance to persuade her of the truth about Lex Luthor.

*** Lois should have been putting the finishing touches to the evening edition before sending it down to be printed. But instead she was leaning back in her chair and gazing off into the middle distance.

She'd gone too far that morning, in the interests of keeping Lex satisfied and off her back. She'd known that she was treading a difficult path between ensuring that her fianc‚ believed that she was tough enough, especially on Clark, and keeping the respect of the newsroom staff. But clearly Ralph, at least, thought she'd been a tyrant.

Not that Ralph's opinion was necessarily representative; but on the other hand, who knew whether Ralph had simply been expressing what others were thinking?

She was going to have to do something to recover the situation, but it wasn't going to be easy. The last thing she wanted to do was to appear to be undergoing a complete volte-face as a result of intimidation. To be too nice too soon would look suspicious. Though what was surprising was that Clark didn't appear to be holding the way she'd spoken to *him* against her; even though she'd been pretty nasty to him, he'd still done his best to spare her hurt. Sure, he'd given her a look which told her that he was curious about what was going on, but he wasn't bearing a grudge. Unlike other people…

Oh, well, she'd just have to do what she could, she decided then, resolving not to worry about it any longer. There were more important things to do right now.

As she turned her attention back to the final layout, she suddenly remembered that she hadn't passed Inspector Henderson's message on to Clark. About to pick up her phone and call him, she hesitated; what if Lex had the phones bugged? Or her phone, at any rate?

And in any case, telling Clark about Henderson's message would entail telling him that Nigel St John had tried to have him killed, which would inexorably lead to his concluding that Lex was behind it — and it would be obvious that she was aware of that. *That* wasn't a discussion she wanted to have with Clark until they were able to talk freely and in full; this wasn't something she wanted to talk about in bits and pieces.

Now that she'd finally resolved to tell Clark everything, too, she was realising just how much she needed his input. She missed her partner — she missed her best friend! And even though they were each still showing that they cared about the other, in whatever small ways were open to them, she wanted more. She wanted Clark back as her confidant, constant companion and support. Not that she could have that; not fully, not at the moment. Even once Clark knew everything, they were still going to have to be careful because of Lex. But they could still find ways to support each other and work together. Finding out the truth about Lex would be so much easier when she and Clark were bouncing ideas off each other; it still amazed her just how good she and Clark were as a team. Lois Lane, who had never wanted a partner, had been completely converted to the benefits of partnership — but *only* with Clark Kent.

She needed Clark.

Later. She was going to have to find a way to talk to him later today, without Lex knowing.


"Clark Kent?"

The voice on the other end of the phone sounded muffled, as if the caller was covering the receiver with something. "Yes, I'm Clark Kent. And you are?"

"That's not important," the voice said. "I've heard you're interested in UCB buying up loans."

Clark sat up sharply, now very interested. "I might be," he said cagily. "What if I am?"

"I have information about what's behind it — or rather, *who*," his caller continued.

"Well, okay, you've got my attention," Clark said, more crisply. "So, what do you know?"

"Uh-uh. Not over the phone. I'll meet you."

"Where? And when?"

The caller gave directions to a location a couple of miles from the Planet; the exit to a subway station, in fact, where he would be waiting for Clark by a service elevator. Clark had twenty minutes to get over there; just the time it would take him to travel there by subway… assuming that he was going to go via the subway.

He took his own time getting there, making sure that he'd sent Lois anything she needed for the morning edition. It was late afternoon by now, and he had no idea how long this was going to take. Flying high over the subway station a couple of minutes before the appointed time, he spotted his informant lurking in the doorway by the elevator. The man seemed to be taking care to remain in the shadows, and surprisingly, was wearing a heavy trenchcoat with the collar turned up, and a low-brimmed hat.

In the middle of May? With temperatures edging up into the eighties?

Clark decided that this 'informant' needed to be treated with suspicion.

He also realised that he'd seen the man somewhere before. He couldn't place him, and in a way it was only an impression, since the way the man was dressed didn't make it at all easy for Clark to see him properly. It was something about his stance, his build, and the silvery-grey hair he could just about see… Yes, he was very sure that he'd seen this man somewhere else.

He dropped down discreetly in an alley, spun back into his own clothes, and seconds later was mingling with the crowds fighting their way in and out of the subway entrance. Edging over to the service elevator, he assumed a friendly but cautious demeanour, saying, "I'm Clark Kent."

The man turned slightly, and Clark caught a flash of grey steel. His hunch had been right; this was a trap. Without the slightest pause, his attacker fired, then immediately pushed through the doorway.

A normal man would have been dead instantly, Clark thought grimly as he caught the bullet in his hand before it embedded itself in his suit jacket. Crushing it — he wouldn't be able to use this as evidence when he couldn't explain how he came to have a slightly-dented bullet which, although fired at point-blank range, hadn't hit him — he hurried through the door after the would-be assassin.

The man was gone.

Clark stood, disbelieving, lowering his glasses and examining the service area beyond the 'Staff Only' door. There was a flight of stairs, leading both up and down, and a couple of other doors. But neither his Super-hearing nor his X-ray and telescopic vision could locate the man who'd just tried to kill him.


Nigel St John emerged from the hidden emergency door one of his contacts had told him about and instantly blended into the evening rush-hour crowd headed for the subway. His hat now lay crumpled in his pocket, and the trenchcoat was over his arm. He looked like any other businessman commuter. The only difference was the revolver which rested in the trenchcoat's other pocket; the standard-issue service revolver which, thanks to the disposable surgical gloves he'd been wearing, bore no fingerprints. The coat, and its contents, would be found abandoned in the river at some time in the near future.

He hadn't waited around to see Kent fall to the ground. Normally, what Nigel enjoyed most about the act of killing was seeing the recognition in his victim's eyes that he was about to die, particularly when death was unexpected. He hadn't had the time to wait for that terrified look with Kent, and in any case he'd had to hide in the shadows so that, other than confirming by the man's voice and general build that it was indeed Kent, he hadn't even looked at the reporter.

But Kent was dead. He knew his own skill well enough to know that his bullet would have pierced the man's heart, and that if Kent's death hadn't been instantaneous he would have bled to death very quickly.

One more obstacle removed. Nigel smiled in satisfaction as he considered the possibility of celebrating Kent's removal with his employer.


Inspector Henderson had gone home for the day, so Clark left the police precinct without reporting the attempt on his life. For some reason, he hadn't really wanted to bring any other officer into this; there were already going to be awkward questions about how he'd managed to dodge a bullet fired at point-blank range, and forensic police were going to be searching for a bullet they wouldn't find.

He'd talk to Henderson tomorrow, Clark thought, and headed back to the Planet. He was hoping that, with most of the newsroom staff having gone home and the smaller night staff not having arrived yet, they might be able to have that talk Lois had promised. There was so much he wanted to ask her about; he was now very convinced that there was something strange going on with her and Luthor. And if there was, he wanted to tell her about what had just happened.

He was very sure that the attempt on his life was linked to Luthor. He'd been lured there, after all, by the offer of information about UCB and 'someone' who might be behind the bank buying up loans. It might not stand up in court, but as far as Clark was concerned this stank of Luthor.

But, arriving back in the newsroom, Clark was disappointed to find Lois's office empty; not only empty, but in darkness. He looked inside, only to find her purse and jacket gone.

"Looking for Lane?" He turned to find a sub-editor watching him.

"Yeah — I was hoping to talk to her about something."

"You're out of luck. Her *fianc‚* — " the man emphasised the word " — sent a car for her about ten minutes ago. Barring emergencies, she's gone for the night."

Gone. And with Luthor, too. The sick feeling which had never been far away ever since Lois had started dating Lex Luthor returned again, and he spun on his heel and headed for the stairs, the Planet roof, and the free air above the city.

*** Lois accepted the champagne and forced a smile to her lips as Lex again toasted their engagement. "We'll have to start thinking about the wedding date, my sweet," he said cheerfully. "Of course, it all depends on whether you'd like to be married in the cathedral, and where you'd prefer to hold the reception. Chef Andre could do a magnificent job here, of course, but might you like to have the Lexor instead? Actually, it might not matter when we decide to have the wedding — I can simply buy out any existing bookings if necessary."

Trying not to react to his incredible arrogance, Lois said, "I was thinking about a long-ish engagement, Lex. Would that be a problem? It's just that if we're going to do this properly…"

"Lois, Lois! With my money and connections, we don't need to wait just to do things *properly*!" He laughed, leaning over to ruffle her hair. "I can fly you to Paris any day you like; I'll take you to Yves St Laurent, Gaultier, Chanel… any designer house you wish, to have your wedding gown made. A sufficient sum of money will ensure that we can have anything we want, *when* we want it."

Lois shuddered inwardly. It was a very good thing that she actually had no intention of marrying Lex; the kind of wedding he was envisaging was so far from what she saw as her ideal wedding that it was laughable. A wedding in the cathedral would involve hundreds, if not thousands, of guests; her preference would be for a small, quiet wedding restricted to immediate family and closest friends. Oh, a designer wedding dress might be lovely; but she'd rather people were interested in *her*, not what she was wearing!

"So there really is no need for a long engagement, my love," he said patronisingly. "I think a month or two is sufficient time to make all the arrangements, don't you? I'll get Mrs Cox to get onto it immediately. She'll let you know when you need to have fittings and so on. And she'll take care of the guest list, as well — she knows who I will wish to invite, and you can tell her your preferences. She can also take all the tedious details, such as the design of the invitations and the seating arrangements, out of our hands."

As he spoke, he refilled Lois's glass, even though she'd only taken a couple of sips. Then, moving around the large table and inviting her to sit down, he added, "We also need to talk about the house."

"House?" she queried, bemused.

"Yes, of course! Well, this apartment is all very well as a bachelor residence, but it won't do for my wife — and assuming that we have children, we'll need more space. So I've commissioned Metropolis's top architect, and I have a set of draft plans for us to consider."

How arrogantly presumptuous of him, Lois thought cynically. If she really was marrying him, she'd have been furious to have been left out of any consultation on the matter of where they were going to live, or on the question of getting their home designed. After all, if the architect had produced draft plans, Lex must have given him some parameters to work with.

However, she pushed aside her private thoughts and, putting on a show of enthusiasm, asked to see the plans. That occupied them up to and through dinner, which was a relief to Lois. As coffee was served, however, Lex leaned back in his chair and said, "We must go away for that weekend we discussed. I'll instruct Nigel to prepare my villa at the resort." He paused, then added, "I can clear my diary for the weekend after next. You'll be able to get away then too, won't you? I can bring someone in to oversee the Planet, after all."

Stalling, Lois said, "The resort?"

"Oh, it's a private, and *very* exclusive resort in Martha's Vineyard," Lex explained. "Only the super-rich have access to it. We'll be well looked after, and perfectly private, I assure you." He smiled, a hint of something predatory in his expression. "I think that might be the perfect time to… ah, get to know each other better. Don't you?"

Lois swallowed, thinking that she definitely needed to make progress in her investigation in the next week. Either that, or she would have to come down with some mysterious and very infectious ailment. There was no way on earth that she wanted to get to know Lex better in the way that he was clearly implying. However, she nodded, saying, "I think I should be able to get away. As long as things are running well at the Planet, of course."

"Perfect." Lex leaned towards her and kissed her. Lois remained perfectly still, letting him do what he wanted; a moment later, she felt his tongue probing at her lips. Keeping her eyes resolutely closed, she allowed him access, trying not to recoil.

How could she ever have considered Lex as a lover?

The whole idea was ludicrous now. Why hadn't she seen that the night Clark had tried to talk to her about it? And why had she been so stupid as to think that marrying without love, but for mutual liking and interests, would make for a congenial marriage? Even if she didn't believe that Lex was a criminal, the thought of going to bed with him would make her shudder. How could she have sex with someone who did *nothing* at all for her physically?

Going to bed with Clark would be far preferable.

Where had that thought come from? she asked herself, shocked. But then she remembered Clark's kisses, and how they'd thrilled her. She'd pressed herself against him, opened her mouth to him, melded her tongue with his, and all but begged him to carry on kissing her. She was so very attracted to her partner.

And she was completely repulsed by Lex!

Her mind idly began to play with the fantasy of becoming Clark's lover; it was one way of coping with Lex's increasingly passionate kiss. Clark wouldn't force himself on her, as Lex was doing here. He'd wait to make sure that she was comfortable with what was happening, and he'd ensure that she was with him every step of the way. His touch would set her on fire…

What was she thinking? she asked herself in amazement as Lex finally drew back. Making love with *Clark*?!

Oh, sure, he was her best friend and he was very special to her. And, yes, she found him attractive. But that was all the more reason why they shouldn't try to make anything more of the relationship.

As she'd discovered over the past couple of days, Clark's friendship was essential to her well-being. She needed him in her life. And it would just be too risky to get romantically or sexually involved with him; when it all fell apart, as it undoubtedly would, she'd lose the best thing that had ever happened to her: Clark's friendship.

It wouldn't be worth the risk.

"Lois? You look… stunned," Lex murmured, a purr of satisfaction in his voice. "Obviously you found that as satisfying as I did."

Lois choked back a gasp of disbelief. Did the man not know when his partner was neither enjoying nor participating in a kiss? But she simply smiled at him, then said, "Can we take our coffee through to your office? I love the view from that window just as it's getting dark."

"If you wish." Lex got to his feet, immediately going to pull Lois's chair out for her. Once they were in his office, she thought, all she had to do was get him out of the room for a couple of minutes so that she could search his desk. Not that she knew *how* she was going to get him out of the way, but she'd think of something.

Standing by the window, gazing out over the city, Lois had to endure another monologue from Lex about how much he enjoyed the fact that this was the tallest building in Metropolis. She felt as if she could recite the lines along with him now; that he liked the fact that everyone else, if they wanted to see him, had to look up.

But not Superman, she reflected with a sense of something approaching triumph. Superman, the one person in Metropolis who was stronger, more powerful and *higher* than Lex. And also someone else who strongly suspected that Lex was a criminal.

Thinking of Superman reminded Lois of her earlier determination to tell the Man of Steel what she was up to — and Clark, too. If possible, the two of them together — unless, she thought then, allowing the drone of Lex's voice to wash over her, they were likely to gang up against her if she talked to them together. They had to see that her pretence of being engaged to Lex was by far the best way to get close enough to get the proof they needed.

And right now, she needed Lex out of the way… Casting around for an excuse to get him to leave her alone in his study, she suddenly thought of something. Turning to him quickly, she asked, "Do you remember the first time you showed me the view from this window?"

"Naturally. That evening is indelibly engraved upon my memory, my darling, since it was the first time we met," he answered smoothly.

"Didn't someone take a photograph of us dancing?" she asked, faux-innocently. "I don't think I've ever seen that."

"I have a framed copy. It's in my private sitting-room," he said, confirming what she already knew. "Would you like to see it?"

"I'd love to! Would you mind getting it?"

He turned and moved towards his desk. "I'll send one of the staff for it."

"Oh, surely it'd be quicker to get it yourself?" Lois teased. "You'll have me thinking that you can't even walk a few yards down the hall!"

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh, well, if you put it that way…" Giving her a smile which told her that he was humouring her, he left the room, telling her that he'd be back in a couple of minutes.

"Bring some more wine, too," she called, hoping that this would delay him even longer.

Once the door closed behind him, she hurried to his desk and began examining the papers on top. LexCorp financial statements, letters awaiting signature, a Luthor Industries bid for a federal government contract, some phone messages and a proposal from LNN's management to expand its operation. At any other time, Lois would be avidly scanning the LNN document with a view to the scoop she could get for the Planet. But for now, she pushed it aside in disappointment. None of the items on top of the desk got her any further.

So she'd have to go through the drawers, she decided, bending down and pulling open the top drawer. She riffled through its contents before deciding that there was nothing helpful there, so she moved to the second one. Just as she was about to start looking through its contents too, a noise behind her startled her.

She gasped, clutching her chest, and whirled away from the drawer. Was it Lex? But it hadn't sounded like his footsteps, or the door opening. The noise had come from behind her… and so she turned to look at the window.

Superman was hovering outside, giving her an anxious look. Then he started gesticulating, indicating that she should get away from the desk. She frowned, shaking her head to tell him that she was fine. But he pointed towards the door and made frantic movements with his hand, still urging her away from the desk.

Finally, after a couple of seconds, the penny dropped. He was warning her that Lex was returning! She quickly slammed the drawer shut and almost ran back over to the window, waving Superman away. She didn't want Lex to see him there.

She just hoped that he'd be curious enough about what he'd just seen to come and see her at her apartment later. For now… now, it was time that she pleaded tiredness and an early start tomorrow and got Lex to send her home.


Clark flew straight upwards once Lois was safely away from Luthor's desk; hovering above the penthouse suite, he tried to make sense of what he'd seen.

He watched as Luthor stood beside Lois, showing her something; a closer look revealed it to be a framed photograph. Clark recognised the scene it depicted. That was the very first time in his life he'd experienced jealousy.

Lois had been dancing with Luthor and, as Clark had watched, he'd felt a sharp, bitter pang deep inside him, a feeling which at first he hadn't recognised. Then, as bile had begun to gather in his throat and he'd started to march over to the couple, he'd realised what he was feeling. Stupidly, he'd butted in; interrupted the dance and claimed Lois for his own partner. Even as he'd done it, he'd realised that it was a stupid thing to do, for all sorts of reasons, but he just hadn't been able to stop himself. Lois had been furious, pointing out that she'd actually been on the point of negotiating an exclusive interview, though Clark could have told her that an interview had been the last thing on Luthor's mind when he'd been dancing with her.

That had been a serious tactical error on his part. He should have waited and asked Lois to dance with him later in the evening. There would have been every chance that she'd have said yes, and they could have had a complete, enjoyable dance. Instead of which, he'd set her back up by acting like a possessive, lovesick idiot.

The past couldn't be changed, though, he reminded himself as he resumed watching the couple in the room below. It was the future which mattered; getting Lois to recognise that Lex Luthor was evil and that she couldn't marry him.

Although, he began to wonder, was it possible that she was already becoming aware of his true nature? He'd just seen her searching his desk, after all; and he knew that Lois Lane 'I'm in search of evidence for a big story here and no-one's going to stop me' determination which he'd seen on her face. Earlier that day, too, he'd been convinced that she thought she was being watched, he reminded himself.

None of that sounded like the path of true love running smoothly, he reflected, hope beginning to dawn.

He focused his Super-hearing, just in time to hear Lois do a very bad job of stifling a yawn and pleading tiredness. Luthor looked displeased, though he hid it quickly. "If this is all too much for you, Lois, I can hire you that assistant we discussed. I have just the man in mind, too — he's a Harvard MBA and is very interested in the newspaper business."

"Interested?" Lois queried, sounding sceptical. "But no experience? Lex, someone like that would be no use whatsoever to me! If I need help, I can delegate more," she said casually. "People like Friaz and Myerson have been around a long time; they know a lot about getting newspapers out, and I can give them more supervisory responsibility."

Well, she was certainly standing up to Luthor now, Clark reflected — in fact, just as she had when he'd tried to tell her not to run the FastMart story. And yet she'd treated some of her reporters like dirt, acting like a bully, for the sole purpose of impressing her fianc‚. Just what game was she playing?

But then Luthor said he'd have a car brought around to have Lois taken home. Clark inhaled deeply. He would follow her home, and this time they were going to have a proper talk.


Locking her apartment door behind her, Lois immediately hurried to the window, hoping that Superman would be curious enough to be on his way over. Her optimism was rewarded, for he immediately floated down and hovered in front of her.

"Lois? Can we talk?"

She leaned out of the window, towards him; something else had occurred to her on the way home. "Can you trace bugs?"

"Bugs?" He looked puzzled.

"Yeah — listening devices, hidden cameras. You know — bugs!"

"Oh!" Now he looked taken aback. "Sure. You mean you think your apartment's bugged?"

"I don't know," she hissed at him. "But I don't want to have this conversation here if it is."

"Hang on," he told her, brushing past her and stepping into her living-room. He stood perfectly still, intent on his task, whatever it was; Lois assumed that he was listening for sounds of high-frequency transmission. Then he moved, turning his head very slowly as he seemed to gaze around her apartment, no doubt looking through walls as well, she assumed. After about a minute, he smiled at her. "All clear."

It was a great relief to find that Lex hadn't invaded her privacy to the extent of bugging her apartment. Lois hadn't quite appreciated just how much the prospect had bothered her. It was bad enough knowing — or at least suspecting — that he was having her watched and possibly followed. But this would have been far, far worse.

"Thanks, Superman," she said, with heartfelt gratitude.

He gave her a concerned look. "You want to tell me just what you were up to back there?"

"It's a long story, and I hope you won't be offended, Superman, but I'd really rather tell the whole story to Clark. I don't mind if you want to stick around, but I really, *really* want to talk to Clark." Lois felt slightly guilty at brushing off Superman like this, particularly since she'd wanted him to come over and she was now going to ask him a favour.

But he nodded. "If that's what you'd prefer. Just remember that if ever you need me, all you have to do is call."

"I know, and I'm grateful, really." She smiled at him. "There is one thing I'll happily tell you. This — " she gestured towards the gaudy diamond on her finger " — isn't what it seems. Yes, I told Lex I'd marry him, but I'm only pretending to be his fianc‚e — I'm investigating him. What you told me that night really made me think, and I realised that I believed you. And Clark, too. I should have listened to Clark before. I have to tell him that, too," she added reflectively.

To her amazement, Superman looked as if she'd just told him that he'd had a death sentence reprieved. "I'm… very glad to hear that," he told her after a lengthy pause. "I hated to think of you getting married to someone like Lex Luthor."

"You and most of my friends!" Lois told him.

"But why didn't you tell anyone?" he demanded, now almost angry. "Lois, Luthor is ruthless! Didn't it occur to you that you were putting yourself into a dangerous situation? Why didn't you tell me? Or… or anyone?"

Or Clark, Lois finished silently, fairly sure that Superman was thinking of his friend. "I didn't tell you because I was afraid that you'd just try to talk me out of it. And as for anyone else, I had every intention of telling Clark what I was doing. Only, just as I was about to tell him, he… said something." She pulled a face, then explained, "He accused me of marrying Lex for his money."

Superman winced. Then, looking somewhat uncomfortable, he said, "You know, Lois, sometimes people say things in the heat of the moment which they don't mean. And maybe they'd do anything to take it back, but they just don't know how to… I mean, it's not easy to find the right opportunity…" He trailed off, still looking distinctly awkward.

Lois frowned at him, puzzled. "Have you been talking to Clark?"

"Uh… no, not really. I just… well, I thought maybe that could be how it was," he said quickly. "Anyway, I'm glad you had thought about telling someone. I just wish you'd done it sooner."

"I know, but it's been difficult, and this is why I need your help," she told him impatiently. "I need to talk to Clark. But I know Lex is having me watched — I'm sure he knew that I went over to Clark's apartment last night. And I'm afraid that he might be trying to kill Clark because he's my friend…" She swallowed suddenly, remembering what Henderson had told her about the hit-and-run. If Clark hadn't managed to get out of the way, he could be dead now.

"Anyway, I need to talk to Clark, and I don't want Lex to know about it. So I'm going to get a cab over to the Planet now — there's always work for the editor to do. But I don't want to call Clark to get him to meet me there, in case Lex has my phone tapped too. And I don't want anyone seeing Clark go into the Planet at the same time as I'm there. So could you go and get him and fly him over there for me?" she asked quickly.

"Of course," Superman said immediately. "Do you want me to fly you there?"

She shook her head. "I'd love it, but I think it's best if I'm seen arriving by cab, if anyone's watching."

Superman nodded. "Clark will be there by the time you get there."

*** Clark flew away from Lois's apartment, feeling happier than he had for a week or more. The feeling of sheer relief and joy which had come over him when Lois had told him that she wasn't really marrying Luthor had almost given him away, he was sure — but he didn't even care about that.

Lois wasn't marrying Luthor!

What was more, she knew Luthor was a criminal, and she too wanted to bring him down. Not only was that a relief, but it also meant that they could work together on it; partners again.

And he didn't have to worry about losing his best friend, even if she never was going to be any more than that. Although that thought reminded him that he still had to apologise for his crass accusation; it was clear from what she'd told him that she had been hurt by it. And — he cursed himself — that had been why she hadn't told him the truth about her 'engagement'. If he'd only thought before opening his mouth…

But that was done now, and couldn't be helped. Lois wanted to talk to him now, and he could apologise properly as soon as he saw her.

He hovered high overhead as she waited for her cab, then followed her to the Planet; although he couldn't see any reason why Luthor would want to harm her, he still felt better making sure that she was safe. Once she went through the Planet's entrance, he swooped down onto the roof and hurried down the stairs, changing clothes as he went. The newsroom was in near-darkness as he emerged, and he slipped quietly into the editor's office to wait for Lois.

Moments later, the door opened and Lois flicked on the light. She was looking tired but enthused, he noticed; he recognised that expression as one she got when they were working together and deeply engrossed in an investigation which had gripped both of them. Oh, he was so much looking forward to having his partner back!

"Clark!" she exclaimed softly. "I didn't realise you were here!"

"Well, Superman told me you were being watched. I though it'd be best to wait for you here, out of sight." He unfolded himself from Perry's sofa and stood in front of her, hands shoved deep in his jeans pockets. "Oh, and he told me to tell you that he's checked out the newsroom and this office. No bugs."

She nodded, looking relieved. "Thanks. Clark… We need to talk."

"I know." He shrugged slightly. "Superman told me what you'd told him." He'd decided that it'd be easier to handle it that way, rather than have her go over the same ground again and pretend to feel the same relief. "I… uh, I want to apologise, Lois. I should have done it days ago."

Lois grimaced. "Well… I guess I knew you didn't really think that about me. It… well, once I thought about it, I realised that you wouldn't have meant it. It's just… not you," she said awkwardly. "I did know that… And — if I hadn't refused to talk to you about Lex, you'd have apologised before, wouldn't you? I… uh, I realised that on the way over."

"Yeah — I tried to, as soon as you came back from talking to Perry. And again yesterday. I… well, I can imagine it hurt, and the last thing I wanted to do was hurt you, Lois."

"I know," she whispered. "I always knew that. And I should have talked to you about it. And… I need to apologise to you too. About earlier — the way I spoke to you — "

He gave her a wry smile. "That doesn't matter now," he said quickly. He gave her a brief grin, then added, "We need to talk about Luthor."

"Yeah. You were right all along, Clark. He is evil."

It was his turn to grimace. "Yeah. I…" He trailed off suddenly, his attention distracted by a sound outside. Engaging his Super-hearing, he listened for a moment, then gave Lois an urgent look.

"I need you to get out of here," he said swiftly. "Just leave, and walk straight to the elevator — you're going home, that's all anyone needs to know. Okay? And I'll see you over at your place very soon."

"What? Why…? Clark, what are you talking about?" she protested.

"I think I've found your spy," he told her abruptly, then waved her in the direction of the door. "I'll deal with him. And — is your window open?"

"Yes. Clark — "

"Go. I'll get Superman to fly me over, so no-one will see me arrive."

She nodded, then left the office, switching off the lights en route. Clark watched silently as she went straight over to the elevator, summoned it, and stepped inside as the doors opened immediately. Then he emerged silently and, taking advantage of the near-darkness in the newsroom, floated down into the bullpen and over towards the sound of the voice, which was now audible without benefits of Super- powers.

"…uh, and Lane's just left. Dunno where Kent is, but I guess he has to be still in the office." A pause. "Yeah, I'm sure it was Kent!" The words were hissed impatiently. "I know what he looks like!"

Was he speaking to the man who'd tried to kill him earlier? Clark wondered with a flash of insight. That would explain the fact that Jack had been asked to confirm that he'd really seen him. His would-be assassin would naturally think that Clark Kent was dead. Oh, well, he decided; it was his word against the assassin's that the bullet hadn't hit him. There'd been no witnesses to the attempted shooting. Had there been, then of course he'd have had to either play dead or come up with some more convincing means of surviving.

He'd deal with any fallout from his miraculous escape if and when he needed to. For now, he had a spy to deal with.

Clark bent down silently and, finding the phone lead, unplugged it. The newsroom spy's voice trailed off, then he jiggled the cradle a couple of times before punching in a series of numbers. Last-number redial should be *very* interesting, Clark thought; but just to be sure, he memorised the digits Jack was dialling.

Then he straightened and took a step closer. "You're wasting your time, Jack. I unplugged the phone."

The young newsroom gofer stared at him in shock, then tried to make a run for it. A tiny burst of Super-speed took Clark to the boy's side; he grabbed Jack's arm in a firm hold. "Not a chance. You and I are going to have a talk."

"Look, it's none of your business, man. Just butt out!"

"I don't think so," Clark said coolly. "Not when I've just heard you on the phone to someone telling them Lois's and my whereabouts." He sighed, then added, "Jack, I trusted you! I gave you a second chance and got you this job here — and you know I could easily have turned you over to the police. How could you do this?!"

Jack rolled his eyes. "Oh, now you're going to give me all that crap about how I owe you and I've let you down. Get real, man! I look out for number one, that's the way it is. So don't waste your time."

Angry and disappointed in the youth he'd gone out of his way to help, Clark snapped in response, "Well, I think you'll find that you've done yourself a disservice here. Once Lois hears about this, you'll be out of a job — and that'll be the least of your worries."

Jack shrugged. "I'll find another one. Or my *contact* will help me. You don't frighten me!" he added belligerently. "I've done nothing illegal, so what can you do?"

Furious, Clark gripped Jack tightly and shook him. "Who says I'd involve the police? I think you'll find that I don't need to," he said, glaring at the boy menacingly, knowing that he was intimidating Jack with his sheer physical size and strength. This wasn't something he liked doing, as a rule — especially not as Clark. It reeked of bullying tactics, which was something he'd never stood for. The thought flashed through his mind that his father would probably be ashamed of him for acting in this way; but, on the other hand, it was the most effective way of getting what he needed — stopping Jack spying on Lois — without having to use some other method, such as handing him over to the police. After all, Jack had no way of knowing that Clark wouldn't use physical violence on him.

"Oh yeah, beat me up, I'm so scared," Jack taunted, but Clark could hear the false bravado.

Clark pushed him into a chair, then loomed over him, ensuring that the boy couldn't get away. "Right; you're going to talk to me. Who asked you to spy on us? Who were you speaking to just now? And what are you getting out of it?"

"And what are you going to do if I don't tell you? Beat me up?"

"Who knows? But one thing I will do is tell the police that you're the one who burgled my apartment. You'll go to juvy hall and Danny will be taken into care — you want that?"

Jack paled. "Okay, okay!" he protested. "It's this guy — the same one who bought that Superman globe from me. He approached me again a week or so ago and told me that it was in my interests to report things to him. He said that if I didn't my brother would get hurt. And he pays me, so I figured I won both ways."

"Describe him," Clark said flatly.

Jack shrugged. "I dunno! I never see him properly. All I know is that he's maybe a little taller than average height, and he has a British accent. I'm pretty sure that he's an old guy, but that's all."

Faint recognition started to dawn in Clark's mind. "Grey hair and a wispy beard?" he suggested, guessing.

"Maybe. I'm not sure, but that might fit."

Lex Luthor's assistant, Clark felt sure. The man had been with Luthor that morning the magnate had announced his takeover of the Planet. And… with a sudden flash of certainty, he felt sure that it was the same man who'd tried to kill him earlier that evening.

And he'd have more evidence once he tried the number Jack had just dialled. Probably a private line or a cellphone, but Clark could get Inspector Henderson to check it out; especially if, as he suspected, Jack's contact was the same man who'd tried to kill him.

But first, there was the question of what to do with Jack. There was one thing Clark was very relieved about, and that was that his initial fear, a week or so ago, that Jack had figured out his secret seemed to be unfounded. It was clear that the youth believed that Superman had arrived and put out the lights before freeing all of the handcuffed partners and catching the gang members. But he did believe that Clark was a close friend of the Super-hero's.

"Well, if you don't give me your word that you'll stop spying on Lois, you'll go to jail and Danny will suffer anyway," Clark told him threateningly. "So I'd say you don't have a lot of choice."

"Oh yeah, either way I suffer, and so does Danny!" Jack said cynically. "That's a no-lose situation all right!"

"Look, here's what I'll do. You stop spying on Lois, and you get to keep your job and I don't go to the police. I'll also ask Superman to keep an eye on Danny and make sure that he's not hurt. I'll also be reporting your contact to the police — not just for this; he's been up to other things. I think you'll find he's going to be too busy to worry about you."

Jack hesitated. "I can't stop calling him. He'll know something's up." He paused, clearly thinking. "I guess I can give him false information. He'll never know the difference."

"What does he want to know about?"

Jack shrugged. "At first it was just what Lois is up to. Over the last few days he's been more interested in the way she behaves with you. Now my instructions are to get in touch immediately if she so much as speaks to you. And I have to follow her if she leaves here unexpectedly."

"So you followed her to my apartment last night," Clark concluded. "And reported that?"

Jack nodded.

"Right, do we have a deal?" Clark demanded, still making himself appear as intimidating as possible. It was working; Jack was cringing away from him. "And this time you better not let me down. I won't give you another chance."

Jack pulled a face, then nodded in what seemed like relief. "Okay. I'll tell him tomorrow that you two aren't talking — or better still, that you're fighting. That seems to please him."

Clark nodded briefly. "See that you do." He stepped back, still not entirely happy about trusting Jack again, but feeling that he had little choice. If he did follow through on his threat to have him sacked and then report him to the police, Jack could potentially cause further trouble for Lois.

After a moment, he turned and headed for the stairs. He needed to get over to Lois's apartment.


Nigel slammed his cellphone shut with a furious movement. That idiot hadn't called back, but that didn't matter. He'd already passed on the pertinent information.

Kent was still alive.

How could that be? He'd fired at point-blank range, directly at Kent's heart. The man should have been lying dead in a pool of blood.

How the hell could he be alive?

Telling Lex Luthor was not going to be a pleasant experience. Nigel straightened and resolved that informing his employer was not a priority for the moment. Instead, he was going to make very sure that Mr Clark Kent didn't survive until morning.

Collecting the tools of his trade, Nigel quietly left the building, making his way to 344 Clinton Street.

*** On the drive home, Lois remembered that she still hadn't told Clark that Nigel — and in effect Lex — was trying to kill him. Her throat went dry as she realised the possible implications of Clark having found Lex's spy; that could put him in even more danger if Lex realised. She should have stayed with him. If she was with Clark, even Lex wouldn't dare have him killed.

If Clark was killed because of his friendship with her, she'd never forgive herself…

Her fingers shaking, she inserted her keys in the locks of her apartment door and went inside. Snapping on the light, she stopped dead as she saw a familiar figure lounging against the windowsill.

"Clark!" She couldn't help herself; she ran to him. He stood and opened his arms to her, and she went into them, allowing herself to lean against him and holding him tightly. He must have had Superman fly him over, she realised; between them, they'd ensured that no-one could see Clark entering her apartment.

"Hey," he murmured soothingly. "What's wrong?"

"Oh… nothing," she muttered, pulling away and feeling a little embarrassed.

"Hey," he said again, looping his arm around her shoulders. "Something had you scared, Lois. If you don't want to tell me, that's okay, but if it's anything to do with Luthor you probably should."

"Well, it is, but it'll keep." Now that she'd recovered her composure, there was something more important to discuss. "Who's the spy? Someone in the newsroom?" The thought appalled her. Was one of the Planet's own employees reporting on her to Lex?

Clark nodded, releasing her and shoving his hands deep in his pockets, looking down at his shoes. He only did that when he was feeling uncomfortable about something, Lois thought; then felt surprised to realise that that she knew her friend so well. "Who is it?" she repeated softly.

"Jack," he muttered grimly, then raised his head and met her gaze. "Yes, I know, you told me I'd made a mistake in trusting him, and you were right."

"No, that's not fair!" Lois exclaimed immediately, unwilling to allow him to blame himself. "You didn't know he'd start selling us to Lex!"

"No," Clark conceded. "But maybe I shouldn't have been so willing to trust him."

Even though she'd argued against it at the time, Lois still wasn't going to accept that. His open, trusting nature was one of the things she liked most about Clark; in that way, he was a perfect counterfoil to herself, and together they tended to mitigate each other's worst excesses.

"You couldn't have known," she insisted. "So, what did you do?"

He sighed again. "There wasn't much I could have done. I threatened him a bit and told him not to do it again. I think I got through to him, but it'd be sensible to carry on acting as if he's still spying, I guess."

"Did he tell you he was reporting to Lex?"

Clark shook his head. "He says he doesn't know who he was reporting to. It's the same man who bought Superman's globe from him, but he never knew the guy's name. And he was always disguised whenever they met."

Disappointed, Lois pulled a face. "So it's a dead end."

"No," Clark said quickly. "From the little he said, I'm pretty sure that it's Luthor's assistant. You know the guy I mean — wispy beard, English accent, sixty-ish…?"

"Yeah. Nigel St John," Lois said. "I should have known. Clark, I didn't get a chance to tell you earlier — Nigel's trying to kill you! At least, I guess Lex is behind it, but Nigel's his hit-man."

He blinked, but instead of the shock she was expecting, he said, "I didn't realise you knew. You know about this evening, then?"

Lois gasped. "This evening?"

She listened, her heart in her mouth, as Clark told her about Nigel's latest attempt on his life. "But how are you alive? I mean, if Nigel shot at you at that kind of range… He's an ex-spy, Clark. Shooting people would be second nature to him!"

"Oh, I don't know… I mean, it was dark, and I guess he was being quick so that he could get away without being seen — and it was rush-hour too. So I suppose I was just lucky." Clark spoke quickly, and Lois noticed that he wasn't meeting her gaze; there was something about this he wasn't telling her.

But they had too much to talk about, so she decided to let it go for now. "I didn't know about that, no. But — I've been looking for an opportunity to tell you. Henderson called this morning…" Quickly, she filled him in on Nigel's suspected role in the attempted hit-and-run.

"I need to talk to Henderson," Clark said thoughtfully. "I would have, after this evening, but he must have been on an early shift. I'll go and see him in the morning and tell him what we know. Plus, I have the phone number Jack used to call him — I saw him try to redial it."

Lois nodded. "Clark, you have to be careful! If Jack was talking to Nigel back at the Planet, he'll know that he didn't kill you! And he'll try again…" She choked back something which felt suspiciously like a sob.

"Hey, hey!" Clark exclaimed, pulling her back into his arms. "I'm fine, Lois! And I promise, I'll be careful. I… uh, spoke to Superman after what happened earlier, and he said he'll look out for me. I'm not going to let anyone kill me!"

How was he going to stop it, if Nigel was determined? Lois shuddered inwardly, then pulled back from Clark's embrace. "There's only one way to stop it, Clark. We have to prove that Lex is a criminal, and get him behind bars. You could probably get Henderson to arrest Nigel now, on the basis of what we have, but I don't know… that might tell Lex that we're on to him…"

"No, only that I've found out more than I should have," Clark replied thoughtfully. "We don't have to involve you in this at all. Not at this stage."

"And if Nigel's arrested for trying to kill you, then Lex will have to be much more careful," Lois added. "No more 'accidents' — and he'll know you won't fall for any more phoney 'meetings' either."

"True," Clark agreed. "But you have to be careful too, Lois. I know it's tempting to say that Lex wouldn't hurt the woman he's asked to marry him, but if he finds out… He's ruthless, Lois. He'll get rid of anyone who stands in his way. I'm pretty sure he had Dr Baines killed."

"I think so too," Lois said. "And Samuel Platt… and no doubt lots more." She waved in the vague direction of her dining table. "We need to talk this through, find out what we know between us."


Two hours later, Clark brought them both yet another refill of — decaffeinated — coffee, as Lois stretched and yawned wearily.

"I should leave you to get some sleep," he said reluctantly. It was almost two in the morning and, while he didn't need to sleep, he was well aware that Lois did. And anyway, they'd about talked the subject of Lex Luthor to death. They'd shared everything each of them had, from definite knowledge to educated guesses to surmises to pure speculation. They'd agreed on the likelihood of Luthor's involvement in the Messenger explosion and other sabotage; that he was no doubt behind Mentamide 5 and also probably Miranda's secret backer; that it had probably been Luthor who had funded the development of the Superman clone and was the man the clone had referred to as his 'father'; and probably much more besides. Lois had even told Clark about Luthor's very weird offer to her at the time of the asteroid; that sounded seriously spooky to Clark, and he was amazed that Lois had had any more to do with the man afterwards. But, tactfully, he'd refrained from saying anything. It was obvious that she was thinking that herself.

Lois had also been the first to mention UCB and the possibility — no, probability — that Luthor had been trying to bankrupt his parents. Again, Clark had to admire her investigative skills and her ability to make connections between seemingly distinct events; although he'd worked that one out for himself, he hadn't thought the conclusion would have been all that obvious to anyone else. He just hoped that Luthor didn't find out where he'd got the money from to give his parents.

At one point, he'd again caught sight of the gaudy diamond on her ring finger, and had looked away, his mouth tightening. Lois hadn't commented on his reaction, but immediately she'd tugged the ring off her finger and put it on the dresser. "I hate it," she'd said as she'd rejoined him. "It's too big and it's ugly, and it's trying to say that he's bought me. I can't wait to throw it back in his face."

Unable to say anything, Clark had simply squeezed her arm and then resumed their discussion.

As yet, they had no hard proof of anything, but Clark felt much more confident about actually getting proof, now that he and Lois were working together again. They always had been much stronger, much better reporters, together than they were apart, in his view; though he wasn't entirely sure that Lois would agree with him there, of course, especially bearing in mind her three Kerth awards.

Despite the lack of evidence, they'd decided to concentrate their investigations in a couple of areas only. To begin with, since they were both very sure that Lex was behind the Planet's troubles, they would resume their enquiries in relation to the sales, advertising and distribution problems which they'd been looking into before Luthor had bought the newspaper. Clark had at first been puzzled by Lois's comment that things hadn't improved in the last couple of days. That seemed to suggest that Luthor might not be responsible, he'd said.

Lois had considered for a moment, before saying thoughtfully, "Not necessarily. It depends what he really wanted. I mean, if all he wanted was to pick up the Planet as cheaply as possible, then yeah, maybe things should start to get better — although he wouldn't call off his dogs all at once. If sales went back to previous levels immediately it would look too suspicious." She'd tapped her pencil against the edge of the table a few times before continuing. "But suppose he only bought the paper for the same reason he tried to destroy it? To get rid of a thorn in his side, and to undermine my other relationships? I mean, everyone knows how committed I am to my job, and to the Planet. I wouldn't go to work for LNN because I love the Planet so much — and you wouldn't come with me either."

"So he set out to destroy the Planet, so you wouldn't have that any more? So he'd have control over every aspect of your life," Clark had replied slowly, hating Lex Luthor even more with every word.

"And he tried to get you out of the way by offering you a job in San Francisco," Lois had added. "I checked that out — it seems that Lex bought a large share in the Examiner just the day before you were offered that job."

So he hadn't been offered a job because a newspaper on the other side of the country thought he was good enough to be headhunted. Clark had sighed inwardly; yet another offence to be chalked up to Lex Luthor's account, though this one was minor compared to some. Such as the attempt at bankrupting his parents, for the sole reason that it would hurt him. And such as trying to destroy Lois's life.

If it was the last thing he did, he would make sure that Lex Luthor paid the price for everything he'd done, Clark vowed grimly.

Now, in response to his suggestion that it was time he left, Lois caught his arm hurriedly. "Must you, Clark? I wanted to… and anyway, you can't be seen leaving here! Nigel could still be trying to kill you, too!" she finished, semi-coherently.

That brought him up short; of course, Lois had no idea that he was invulnerable, or that he could leave her apartment building without being seen. Perhaps sometime soon he might consider explaining that to her, he considered. It would certainly simplify his life considerably if he no longer had to make excuses to her for his abrupt departures, or for things he knew about but which he couldn't have discovered through any normal means.

Maybe. He'd have to think about it. After all, there was surely no longer any question in his mind about whether he could trust Lois! And with the position she was in at the moment, playing the role of Lex Luthor's fianc‚e, it was possible that knowing he was Superman could be a great help to her — could even save her life, if she got into serious trouble.

But not right now. It was too late; Lois needed to get to bed, and the kind of discussion he'd like to have would take longer than a couple of minutes. So he shrugged lightly and gave another excuse. "I'll be fine, Lois. I can get Superman to come and pick me up from behind your building — no-one will see me leave. And he said he'd keep an eye on things for me anyway."

"I wanted to talk," she said quietly.

"Lois, we've been talking for the past couple of hours!" He gave her a quizzical look. "Was there something else?"

"I wanted to talk about *us*," she told him, looking a little awkward. "Clark, things haven't been good between us for the last couple of weeks. I know it's my fault — I should have listened to you about Lex, I shouldn't have shut you out when I finally decided that he really was as bad as you always said, and — "

But he'd heard enough. "It wasn't all your fault, Lois!" he interrupted her to say. "I could have done a lot more. And… you were right, anyway, at least in part. You said I was jealous, and I was." He hesitated, then added carefully, "I felt like I was losing my best friend, and to a man I didn't like. Of course I was jealous." No, he thought; it was definitely not the right time to tell her the real reason for his jealousy. Apart from anything else, just because she *wasn't* going to marry Lex Luthor after all, that didn't mean that she'd be interested in him as a romantic partner.

"Lois, we *are* friends, and we always were," he reassured her. "I think we both proved that to each other yesterday. And today, even before we had this talk."

"Today? When I ripped up at you in front of the newsroom?" She stared at him, biting her lip.

"I knew why you did that," he told her immediately. "I figured it out almost on the spot — it was obvious that you were doing your best to impress Luthor with how well you handled the newsroom. I didn't know why, but I kind of started to put two and two together after we talked in your office. You were… scared of something making trouble for you. Or some*one*. And it wasn't difficult to work out who."

"Oh." She shrugged uncomfortably. "I wanted to tell you. When you were in Perry's office, trying to stop me seeing Ralph's little present… I would have then, Clark! It was only that I knew someone was watching me, reporting on me to Lex."

"It doesn't matter. Not now," he hastened to assure her. "Look, we could probably both stand here and argue all night about who was more to blame, but you want to know who I think is really to blame here, for all of this?"


"Lex Luthor," he told her grimly. "And Perry's heart attack is his fault too."

"Yeah, I figured that," Lois agreed. "If we'd been quicker, worked out what was going on sooner, maybe we could have stopped him buying the Planet…"

"Maybe, but who knows? The main thing is to prove that he's a criminal. And now that he's got you and me working together against him, he hasn't got a hope," Clark pointed out, with a deliberate grin.

"Absolutely!" Lois agreed, coming closer and patting Clark's chest in her familiar gesture. He couldn't help himself; he covered her hand with his, squeezing it briefly.

"You and me together, partner," he told her. Then, releasing her, he added, "Now, I really need to get going."

"No!" she exclaimed, to his amazement. "Clark, haven't you heard a word I said?" Now she was looking angry. "Nigel's trying to kill you! And thanks to Jack he knows you're still alive after his last attempt. He's getting desperate, Clark! He'd never have taken the risk of a shooting, and doing it himself, otherwise. He could be waiting at your apartment right now!"

She was actually terrified for him, Clark realised. The temptation was there again to tell her that he'd be perfectly fine, unless for some reason Nigel St John carried Kryptonite around with him — and where would he get that?! But now wasn't the time, even if he *was* ready to tell Lois his secret, which he was by no means sure he wanted to — yet.

Again, he attempted to explain that he'd be safe. "I can get Superman — "

"You're safe here," Lois insisted flatly. "Why do you need to go anywhere? Nigel doesn't know that you're here."

Then he understood. He needed to stay here for Lois, not for himself. She was terrified of what might happen to him, and she'd convinced herself that he'd be safe as long as he stayed under her roof. And he could understand that cold, paralysing fear for a friend's safety; it was exactly what he'd felt when Lois was being threatened by Sebastian Finn and Barbara Trevino. He hadn't felt able to let her out of his sight either.

Not that he could tell her that he understood… He pasted a relieved expression on his face, and said, "If you're sure, Lois, I would feel a lot better if I could stay here."

Her entire body relaxed, but she only said, in a light tone, "Sure. No problem." Then she glanced at her twin love-seats and added, "Well, you can't sleep on the couch." Then, after a pause, she said with a shrug, "You'll just have to share my bed."

Clark almost fell over; he had to take a step backwards to regain his balance. Then, as before, he realised from what she was desperately trying *not* to let him see that this was another way of reassuring herself that he was okay. If she could see him next to her, hear his breathing, then he was safe.

And that obviously meant more to her than any risk that he might take advantage of her sexually.

So he smiled. "Well, if you're sure, Lois. But… uh, no funny business, you hear?"

"What? Me?" But behind the protests, he could see reassurance in her eyes. And he was glad.

Sleeping with Lois was going to be sheer hell; being close to her, but unable to touch her, show her how much he loved her. But he could stand it, if it would stop her worrying.


As she sent Clark off to use the bathroom first, Lois started to have a few doubts about having suggested that he share her bed. Oh, she needed him to stay here; it was the one way she could ensure his safety, short of asking Superman to chaperone him for the night. And there was no way that he could sleep on one of her sofas. So there was only her bed… unless she was going to ask him to sleep on the floor.

But, on the other hand, it was such an intimate thing to do. It was a long time since she'd shared her bed with a man; not since Claude, in fact. And even though all they were going to do was *sleep*, it still felt… daunting.

Very daunting.

And what was Clark going to sleep in?

He was wearing a black T-shirt; she supposed that he could keep that on. But, unless he was wearing shorts under those jeans, he'd be sleeping in briefs… which seemed just a little too intimate for comfort.

Maybe she could make him sleep on top of the covers… she had a spare blanket which she wasn't using now because of the warmer weather. But it would be embarrassing to mention it — it might make him think that she didn't trust him…

As she was still thinking over the options, the door opened and Clark re-entered. He was still wearing the T-shirt and jeans which had been his apparel before, and he quietly asked if she had a blanket. "I can sleep on top of the covers," he explained.

She should have been pleased that he'd anticipated her apprehensions so well. But yet, as Lois went into the bathroom to get ready for bed herself, she was surprised to find herself feeling something very like… regret.


Sleeping on top of the covers was the only way he could cope with having Lois so close, Clark mused as he removed his jeans and laid them on the floor. He was very glad that he'd hidden his Superman suit before waiting for Lois in her apartment. Quickly, before she came back, he slid under the blanket she'd found for him, and tried not to look as if he was watching when she returned wearing a sloppy T-shirt… with the familiar stylised S-logo on it.

She scrambled quickly into bed, switching off the light immediately after. Quietly, he said, "Goodnight, Lois."

"Goodnight, Clark," she replied immediately, calmly.

He closed his eyes and tried to forget that he was only a few inches away from the woman he loved. Then he heard her turn over. A moment later, she whispered, "Clark?"

"Yeah?" Something in her voice made him turn to face her. In the dim light, he could see the anxiety on her face.

"I… I'm glad we're friends again."

He reached out and took her hand, which was resting on top of the covers. "We never stopped being friends." His voice was low and husky.

Her hand tightened around his. "Thanks. I've wanted to tell you about this for days…"

"And I should have known that there was something wrong. You didn't look like a happily engaged woman," Clark admitted.

"But you couldn't talk to me! I'd told you not to mention Lex!"

He grimaced, remembering that conversation. "Yes, but I don't think you really meant what you said then. I'm not sure I even believed that you did at the time. And anyway, you tried to talk about him, and I should have let you. Look," he added softly, "we both made mistakes. I think it's time we put them behind us and focused on what we need to do."

"Yeah." She fell silent again, and Clark assumed that she was going to sleep. But then, after a couple of minutes, she spoke again, her voice choked. "What really scares me is the thought that Lex might kill you before… before we get to him."

His heart twisted, and for a second or two the words were on his lips… <he can't kill me, because I'm Superman>.

But it wasn't the right time. Not now; not in the middle of this, and not when he had absolutely no idea how Lois was likely to react. He had his parents to think of too, after all.

So he just said firmly, "I'll be fine, Lois. I swear to you, nothing is going to happen to me."

Her whisper in response should have been inaudible to him, had he not the power of Super-hearing. "I wish I could believe that."

He tightened his grasp on her hand, grimacing. "Get some sleep, Lois."

*** Lex Luthor had tried to destroy his parents. He'd caused Perry White to have a heart attack. He'd taken over the Daily Planet, the best newspaper in the world. He'd courted Lois, coming between her and her best friend. He'd made several attempts on Clark's own life. He had arranged the killings of many people. And, worst of all, he'd made Lois desperately scared.

Clark hovered, in his Superman suit, outside the penthouse floor of the LexCorp building. Lex Luthor sat there in his chair, leaning back and looking extremely self-satisfied, a fat cigar in his mouth.

Overcome with rage, Clark stared at the only human being he had ever hated. Almost without conscious thought, he focused his heat vision through the windows and at the tycoon, striking him directly in the chest. A few more seconds of concentrated heat, and Lex Luthor would be dead.

Fried. Barbecued to a crisp.

And then he wouldn't be able to cause any more harm to anyone; wouldn't frighten Lois any more.

Clark stared even more intently at his enemy, relishing in the knowledge that he was killing him. It was the right thing to do, he told himself. The man was pure evil…

Through the glass, he could see his enemy's face, frozen in a rictus of horror, Luthor's eyes fearful and angry, the mouth freeze-framed in what might have been either a yell of pain or a cry of fury. Smoke was rising from the billionaire's chest, and even through the thick plate-glass Clark could smell the nauseating stench of burning flesh.

And yet he still couldn't stop himself. Blind rage poured through him as every appalling act committed by Lex Luthor flashed through his mind. The man was evil incarnate. By killing him, Clark was making the country — probably the world — a safe place again. He was doing this for a greater good.

He was killing — *had* killed — a man.

Superman didn't kill! His own words from a few months ago came back to him.

<That's not how I work!>

He did not, could not, ki -


…Shaking, Clark sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes roughly. It was three in the morning and he was still in Lois's apartment, and she was fast asleep beside him. It had only been a dream.

No matter how much he hated Lex Luthor, how evil he thought the man was, he could never kill. Never.

Quickly, he glanced over at Lois again; his bad dream, and his sudden awakening and cry, hadn't disturbed her, he was relieved to see. There was no way that he could have explained this to her!

She was sleeping soundly, even more beautiful in repose. Her face turned towards him and her body curved, spoon- like, in his direction, her posture showed her unconscious trust in him. In *him*, Clark… but he was well aware of her even greater trust in Superman. Much of his moral stance as Superman came from Lois's guidance, whether she knew it or not. In the early days, she had been his moral compass; she'd set the tone for his behaviour and for the standards by which Superman lived.

No, even if Lois knew that he was Superman, he could never tell her that he'd dreamed of savagely murdering her fake fianc‚.

She was so beautiful, he thought; inside and out. It was a violation for Lex Luthor even to lay a finger on her. Watching her, he wanted to stroke her hair, press his lips to her forehead, hold her in his arms, kiss her thoroughly, to wipe out all of the painful memories of seeing Lex Luthor do all of those things to her.

There was one consolation which he could derive from her explanation tonight. If she had no intention of marrying Luthor, if she believed that the man was as much of a villain as he thought himself, then there was no way that Lois would be sleeping with him. That was one torture he didn't need to bear.

Even if he did have to live with the fact that he hated a man so much that the thought of killing him was almost too tempting.

He let his head fall back onto the pillow, and lay awake for some time before finally falling asleep again.

*** As the dawn light was pushing its way through the curtains and into the bedroom, Lois gradually came awake, conscious of a heavy weight lying over her waist. Puzzled, she opened one eye… and saw her partner lying next to her, fast asleep, face pressed into the pillow beside her. One of Clark's arms had come out from underneath the blanket and was tucked around her waist. He was very close to her; they must have rolled together during the night, she realised.

And yet she didn't find his nearness, or his hold on her, in any way threatening. In fact, quite the opposite; it was comforting. Being held more or less in his embrace like this reminded Lois of the morning Clark had saved her from Sebastian Finn in the guise of her landlord. She'd felt safe; protected. And deeply cared for.

Quite simply, Clark made her feel safe.

And to think that she'd actually risked losing Clark's friendship! Now, of course, she wished that she'd listened to him about Lex Luthor right from the start. She was just fortunate that Clark was such a loyal and good friend. He'd tried so hard to talk her out of dating, or considering marrying, Lex. And she'd ignored all his efforts, brushing his objections aside by alleging that they were based on nothing more than jealousy.

He'd tried so hard to make her listen, even enlisting Superman in his cause… and even more desperately, kissing her that night to try to prove to her that she didn't love Lex. Of course, Clark hadn't known that love wouldn't have been a part of any arrangement she might have had with Lex anyway; although he'd heard her cynical views on the subject, she was pretty sure that he'd never really believed that she meant it.

He'd kissed her… and, despite everything that had happened since, she still hadn't managed to get those moments in her Jeep out of her mind.

She studied her partner as he slept; she could only see half of his face because the other half was pressed into the pillow. For once, he wasn't wearing his glasses, and it seemed to her that his entire face was transformed without them. His dark hair had fallen low over his forehead, and his lower face bore traces of stubble. He seemed younger, more vulnerable… and still very handsome.

*Very* handsome.

Clark was quite simply the most attractive man she'd ever known — well, apart from Superman, of course, but then Superman was exceptional in so many ways. But Clark was also her best friend, and someone whom, the past few days had taught her, she needed in her life. His friendship was far more important to her than the possibility of some fleeting romantic relationship based on sexual attraction, which was bound to turn sour sooner or later.

All the same… As she lay watching him sleep, she yearned to reach out and touch him, to press her lips against that firm jaw — or against his own lips, and feel him respond. She wanted to move closer to him, to feel his arm wrap itself more strongly around her and pull her against his lean body. She wanted him to kiss her, just as he'd done that day in her Jeep; disturb and move her with his kisses as no other man ever had.

She wanted Clark to whisper that he loved her… just like she loved him.

Suddenly she sat up, shocked. She *loved* him? Loved Clark?

But of course she loved Clark, she told herself calmly. As a friend — as her very best friend. Like a brother, really.

<You wouldn't want to kiss your brother>

<Oh my god…!> She caught her breath, finally admitting the truth to herself.

She was in love with Clark.

Lois had absolutely no idea how it had happened, or when her partner had ceased to be just her best friend and become, in addition, the essential key to her happiness. But somehow it had; somehow, over the past year, Clark had managed to sneak in past all her defences, all her firmly- stated intentions never to fall in love again, never to allow herself to *need* a man. And she hadn't noticed, because he was just *Clark* — her friend, her partner, the one man she knew she could trust. The only man she'd allowed to get close to her, because he *was* Clark, the only real friend she'd ever had.

And now, she'd fallen in love with him.

Shaking, she pulled herself carefully out from under Clark's outstretched arm and, grabbing her robe, hurried into the bathroom. She needed time to think, and to prepare herself for when Clark awakened. She might have been foolish enough to fall in love with him, but it was clear that he only saw her as a very close friend — if he somehow worked out how she really felt about him, it would be just too embarrassing.

*** Clark blinked, then opened his eyes, puzzled by the unfamiliar surroundings. Then he remembered; he was in Lois's bedroom, sleeping on her bed! He became aware that he was actually taking up a considerable amount of the double bed — then realised that she was gone. He could hear the shower running in the bathroom.

He lay still for several seconds as the memory of his dream washed over him. The thought that he'd actually forgotten all of his values, everything Superman stood for, and killed a man — even if it was in a dream — haunted him. Dreams were a reflection of one's subconscious, he felt. And if, in his dreams, he was willing to kill, what might he do when awake?

But then he relaxed as he remembered something else. In his dreams, his normally-active conscience was stilled. In dreams, he could do things which, in reality, he would reject as soon as think of them. In his dreams, for example, he would haul Lois into his arms and kiss her senseless while telling her how much he loved her; he would go to her as Superman and spend the night making love with her, only telling her in the morning that he was Clark — and in his dreams, she would instantly forgive him his deception and declare her long-hidden love for him.

Dreams were not reality, and in reality he would not do any of these things — and that included using his powers to dispose of Lex Luthor. He would get rid of Luthor by legitimate means, working with Lois to prove the man guilty of all his crimes.

Lois… the shower had now stopped, he realised.

Hurriedly, before there was any chance of her coming back, he grabbed his glasses and put them on. Just as he'd shifted to a sitting position, the bedroom door was pushed open a little and Lois's head was visible in the crack.

"Bathroom's yours. I'll go and make coffee," she said, a little abruptly. He was initially tempted to interpret that as Lois regretting having asked him to stay and perhaps wishing that he'd just go, but then as he lowered his glasses and watched her through the wall of the bedroom, he realised that she was embarrassed. He supposed that it was kind of embarrassing to wake up and find yourself in bed with your best friend, regardless of whether anything had actually happened.

But they'd just managed to repair their fractured friendship last night, and Clark had no intention of allowing Lois to retreat from him again.

So he showered quickly and then joined her in the kitchen, bidding her a cheerful good morning. Not looking at him, Lois pushed a cup of coffee in his direction.

"Sleep well?" he asked cheerfully.

Then she looked at him. "Yeah, mostly. I… I'm glad you stayed, Clark," she surprised him by saying. "I meant it. I'm worried about you."

"Hey." He came closer, giving her a reassuring smile; then, wanting to be more supportive, he laid his hand on her arm. "I'm *fine*, Lois. And nothing's going to happen to me, okay?"

"How can you be so sure?" she threw back at him, clutching at his hand. "Nigel's already tried to kill you twice. And now that he knows he failed, he'll try again. Lex also tried to bankrupt your parents. How can you be so… so *blas‚* about all this?"

Clark sobered, covering her hand with his. "I'm not blas‚, Lois. I'm as angry as you are, trust me on that. But when it comes to attempts on my life, I'm being careful — "

"Nigel's a professional! He's an ex-spy! If he wants to kill you, he'll do it! I don't know how you managed to survive yesterday, but he won't give up, and I think he'll make damn sure he doesn't fail again! He has Lex on his back too, remember!"

Lois was getting very distressed, the pitch of her voice rising. And her main concern was his safety… Suddenly, Clark felt very guilty for allowing her to worry when there was no need.

He took a deep breath and said, "Lois, you *really* don't need to worry about me. There's something I have to — "

The phone rang suddenly; frustrated, he broke off his confession. Lois gave him an apologetic, questioning look, and he waved her towards it. Neither of them would be able to concentrate even if he asked her to ignore it, anyway. He'd tell her once she'd dealt with the call.

But it became apparent very quickly that there was some sort of crisis at the Planet, which she'd have to go and deal with. As soon as she replaced the receiver, he could see that she was already in work-mode. "I have to go, Clark," she said with a grimace. "Can we talk about this later?"

"Sure," he said immediately. "We have to talk anyway — we didn't decide what to do next about Luthor."

"I'll try to find an excuse for us to have lunch together or something," she offered. "I need to go now — Clark, please be careful!"

"I will," he promised, sighing inwardly. As he watched Lois collect her things, a glitter on the dresser caught his eye. Going over and picking up the ugly ring Luthor had given her, he held it out towards her. "You'll need this."

"Yeah." Her complete lack of enthusiasm pleased him. She took it from him and tried to put it on, but she was juggling so many different things that it wasn't an easy task. With a wry smile, Clark took the ring back and, grasping her left hand, slid it onto her finger.

"There you go."

Lois glanced down at the offensive stone. "Thanks."

Determined to make her smile again, he held her hand up between them and teased, "Don't go getting any ideas."

He was surprised to notice the flush which crept up over her face. "Don't worry," she said quickly. "Apart from anything else, I think you've got better taste than to give a girl something like this."

Clark grinned. "Better taste, and a smaller bank account!"

She ducked her head, and her hair fell forward, blocking his view. "It wouldn't matter to me if a guy spent ten bucks or ten thousand — not if I really wanted to marry him and I thought he really loved me and wanted nothing more than to be with me for the rest of his life," she said quietly.

<I want to be with you for the rest of my life. I love you> Clark thought silently. But this wasn't the time to tell her that, either. Instead, he released her hand, saying, "I know. I always knew money didn't matter to you."

She glanced up and gave him a quick smile. "Thanks. And… I guess I always knew that there had to be more to your attitude to Lex than jealousy — I mean, why would you be jealous? It didn't make sense. No, don't," she added, as Clark was about to protest — not that he even knew what he'd been planning to say. "We both made mistakes. And I guess I made most… but at least we're working together now."

No, now wasn't the time to tell her that he really had been jealous, he conceded, silently accompanying her towards the door. She needed to get to work — and he had things he needed to do, too. "None of that matters now. Go on, get to work. I'll see you later, okay?"

She hesitated, then suddenly leaned towards him, flinging one arm around his shoulder in an awkward hug. "Clark… just be careful, okay?"

He wrapped both arms around her, pulling her as close as he could without dislodging the paraphernalia she was carrying. "I'll be fine," he assured her softly. "Now go."

She was looking up at him, her brown eyes torn; on an irresistible impulse, which he regretted as soon as he'd done it, he lowered his head and brushed his lips very lightly over hers.

Lois stared at him, pulling away from his grasp; but instead of protesting, she reached up and touched her index finger briefly to his lips. "Thanks for being a friend," she whispered, then hurried through the door.


Clark held his breath as the door closed behind Lois. Had that kiss been a mistake… or not?

It had been so fleeting; no more than platonic, really. There was no reason for Lois to interpret it as anything other than platonic. And if that was what she had done, then he didn't have anything to worry about. Her touch, and her final words to him, suggested that she didn't see it as anything more than a friendly caress.

But, although they were close friends, they *didn't* exchange those sort of kisses. Even kisses on the cheek or forehead were pretty rare. And, while it wasn't as if they'd never kissed on the mouth, there was an odd history there. Their first 'proper' kiss had been a ruse, to fool Jason Trask. And then a later one had been another ruse, to fool a chambermaid. In between, he'd kissed Lois for real, a tender gesture to say goodbye.

And then he'd kissed her, overwhelmed her, in her Jeep while they'd been on a stakeout. And he suspected that she was still a little mad at him over that. Oh sure, he was pretty certain that she'd at least been affected by their kisses — she'd definitely responded to him! — but she hadn't wanted it and he thought she saw his actions as an invasion of her personal space.

So, given her reaction to those kisses, she could just as easily have slapped his face just now.

But she hadn't. And he should stop obsessing and get a move on, he told himself. He had a lot to do before going to the Planet.

Two minutes later, having washed the breakfast dishes and checked that Lois's apartment was properly secured, he was in the air and flying over to his apartment. He landed on the balcony and was about to walk through to the bedroom when he suddenly paused. Engaging his super-vision, he examined the bedroom, and then the rooms beyond, very carefully; then he took off again and a couple of seconds later hovered over the front entrance.

Yes, he was right, he decided after a quick study of the door. There had been someone in the apartment. Whoever it was had taken a great deal of care not to leave fingerprints; but in doing so, other prints had been wiped or smudged too. That in itself was suspicious, even if he hadn't already seen what had been done in the bedroom.

He flew upwards, and a second later Superman was on his way to see Inspector Henderson.


The problem she'd been called in for turned out not to be particularly important after all; Lois dealt with it in under ten minutes, then suggested to the supervisor who had phoned her that he could actually have resolved it himself. His expression as he left the editor's office convinced her that he was another of the small band of people within the Planet's operation who were just waiting for her to fail.

Well, that just wasn't going to happen, she resolved firmly. Being editor of the Daily Planet wasn't her ideal job, and it wasn't a role she was even enjoying all that much, apart from the satisfaction she got when she saw the printed newspaper and knew that *she* was responsible for its existence. She couldn't wait for Perry to get well and be back in the editor-in-chief's chair, so that she could get back into the newsroom again.

Perry… That reminded her of something else she wanted to do. She picked up the phone and dialled the number of Perry's floor at the hospital. Seconds later, she was speaking to the real editor of the Planet.

"Hey, honey! So, you got a problem you can't deal with?" he asked immediately, sounding anxious.

"No! And even if I did, I wouldn't be bothering you with it!" Lois exclaimed. "I just wanted to find out how you were."

"Aww, I'm okay," he insisted. "Bored stupid, fed up with lyin' in bed and not allowed to do anything more stimulatin' than watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. I reckon it's all some sort of punishment — did I ever print a bad story about this hospital, y'think?"

Perry was definitely on the mend, Lois thought. This was her boss in straining-at-the-leash mode. Smiling, she parried, "You just better hope that you didn't accuse your doctor of malpractice in print, huh?"

He chatted lightly with her for a couple of minutes, then returned to his first question. "You sure there's nothin' goin' on that you can't handle, honey? How're sales?"

The latest figures, for the previous day's editions, were on her desk; there was no improvement. There was still a day-on-day downward slide. She was going to have to take some action about that soon — even if it involved persuading Lex to underwrite a major publicity campaign, or some sort of marketing special offer.

But she had no intention of worrying Perry by telling him anything about any of that.

Instead, she told him about the background to one of the major stories in that morning's paper, a tale she was very sure would interest him. Incisive as ever, he interrupted her several times to ask her questions, and she finally ended the conversation feeling that her boss was definitely on the mend and could well be back at work within a few weeks.

As long as there was still a paper for him to come back to…


"Good morning, sir. Your newspaper."

"Thank you, Nigel. Now, you did tell me last night that our friend Kent was taken care of, didn't you?" Lex Luthor waited while a maid poured his coffee, then he waved her away with a careless gesture before fixing his assistant with a gimlet stare. "I have to have him out of the way. It's extremely distressing that my dear Lois appears to feel the need to pretend to me about her relationship with him, and I don't want her having any divided loyalties."

"I would be extremely surprised if he had escaped this time, sir. This was an old-style booby-trap with a sophisticated twist of my own devising, and I doubt very much that even one of my former colleagues could spot it." Nigel gave a thin smile. "Mr Kent may lead a charmed life, but I doubt very much that he is that fortunate."

"I'm glad to hear it. Though I am still baffled by his escape yesterday — I don't know how you managed to miss, Nigel," Lex added disapprovingly. "And now, what about our plans for today?"

"Well in hand," Nigel said smoothly. He had, in the end, decided to inform his employer about the inexplicable outcome to his earlier attempt to remove Kent. He knew Lex Luthor too well not to expect that his employer would find out from some other source; where Luthor was concerned, it was always better to give bad news in person — unless one wasn't planning on staying around for the news to filter through, of course. "We will have the desired result by late afternoon — just in time for the evening news bulletins."

"Excellent. I must remember to ensure that my sweet Lois is nowhere near the building, of course. Or perhaps I should be on hand to save her… Yes," Lex continued with a satisfied smile. "That would be an even better idea. My beautiful Lois does have a habit of being extremely grateful when someone saves her life."

Nigel smiled again, a wintry smile which didn't meet his eyes. "Very good, sir. I assume that we will have no further need of the boy now?"

"Correct, Nigel. You may arrange for his disposal, in that case." Draining one cup of coffee and gesturing for his assistant to pour another, Lex turned his attention to the morning newspaper. "Ah, the Daily Planet. A Metropolis institution. A shame that it won't be around for very much longer, hmmm?"

*** Unlike two mornings ago when he'd also gone to Henderson's precinct before starting work, every officer and civilian in sight stopped what they were doing to stare at him as Clark walked in. Though the Suit tended to have that effect on people, he mused wryly.

He was quickly shown into an interview room and was joined by the laconic detective. "So, what can I do for you, Superman? Or are you here to do us a favour?"

"A bit of both," Clark said. "I understand that Clark Kent reported a hit-and-run, which you suspect might have been a deliberate attempt on his life?" At Henderson's nod, he continued. "I don't think that Clark's had a chance to tell you about what happened yesterday evening." In a few brief sentences, he summarised Nigel St John's attempt to shoot him at the subway station, explaining that he understood Clark had considered himself fortunate that the bullet missed.

"I need to talk to Clark about that," Henderson said immediately, reaching for the phone. "I can't do anything without a statement from him."

"He's… not available right now," Clark said quickly. "I know he intends to come and talk to you later."

The inspector nodded, clearly not altogether happy. "You say he's convinced it was St John?"

"He recognised him. But he'll tell you all that later. That's not the main reason why I'm here."


"Clark's lying low at the moment — he didn't go home last night. And I said that I'd keep an eye on him, in case St John tries again. So this morning I flew over his apartment, and I noticed something I'd like you and some forensic officers to check out."

Henderson raised one eyebrow in long-suffering enquiry. "Okay, what now? A break-in?"

"A booby-trap, by the look of it. It's all set up so that Clark would get electrocuted, but it would look like an accident. I guess the intention was that Clark would come home and not notice the water on the floor, and then he'd turn on his bedside light and get fried."

"And it'd get recorded as another domestic accident," Henderson observed sardonically. "Okay, I'll get a team together. I suppose we'd be wasting our time dusting for prints?"

"You would," Clark confirmed. "I took a look. Anything that might have been there has been wiped clean — what I noticed was that he also wiped off other prints from normal use."

"Have you time to come over with us?" Henderson asked. "I don't want to risk any of my men's safety if it can be avoided."

"Sure," Clark agreed, resigning himself to being very late for work. If he could, he'd call Lois as himself and let her know what was going on.


Checking the news wires before morning conference, Lois came across one item which made her stop dead. Paulo Falconio, the chief executive of FastMart, had been found dead in his garage only a couple of hours earlier, apparently having committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The CEO of FastMart.

FastMart; the company about whom the Planet had run an unfavourable story that very morning.

Had he killed himself as a result of their story? If so, that was a horrible thing to come to terms with; her editorial decision had led directly to a man's death!

Then, almost as clearly as if he was in the room with her, she could hear Clark's voice telling her that it wasn't her fault. That the story was bound to come out sooner or later; that if the Planet hadn't run it, some other paper or news organisation would have. That Falconio didn't have to kill himself. Nobody made him do it; he'd had free choice…

*Nobody made him do it?*

Into Lois's mind flashed a picture of the previous morning in the newsroom; Lex following her around and getting in the way while she tried to talk to the staff, while she'd put on a farcical pretence of doing his bidding as his loyal fianc‚e. He'd objected to the FastMart story, which had irritated her at the time; it had seemed like over- zealous interference.

But was that all? Could it have been more?

Wasn't FastMart part of the Luthor Industries portfolio?

A few seconds' checking gave her the answer. Lois leaned back in her chair and allowed this new information to sink in. Could Lex have 'arranged' Falconio's death?

It was very possible. After all, what if the misdemeanours and irregularities Marcia and Tony had turned up actually originated above Falconio? What if Lex was behind it all? And he'd made Falconio take the blame?

Literally. By killing him so that he couldn't defend himself and incriminate Lex Luthor. By making it look like suicide, an admission of guilt on Falconio's part.

Something else to add to the long list of possible Lex Luthor crimes, Lois thought grimly, making a mental note to discuss it with Clark later and then resuming her scanning of the latest news wires.


Clark met Henderson and his team of forensic officers outside his apartment half an hour later. He had to wait while the officers examined the front door, dusting for what remained of any prints which had been wiped and otherwise checking for signs of forced entry. Henderson was getting more insistent about contacting Clark, mainly now to get permission to enter his apartment. In his guise as Superman, all Clark could do was assure the inspector that he had Clark's permission to do whatever was necessary to safeguard his friend's life. With obvious reluctance, Henderson accepted that and ordered his officers to break into the apartment.

"Uh… actually, I think Clark keeps a spare key outside," Clark pointed out, not wanting to have to explain to his landlord why he'd replaced a lock.

The key found, the officers went inside hesitantly, relying on Superman to warn them of hazards and to show them what they needed to examine. There were no traps in the living- room, but Clark had noticed that some pieces of furniture and other items had been moved — very slightly, but moved all the same. However, as Superman he couldn't possibly know Clark's apartment well enough to point that out. Which meant, of course, that he'd have to get away and then return as Clark as soon as he could manage.

He was, however, able to take them to the bedroom and show them the booby-trapped lamp with its artificially-frayed cord trailing in the spilt water, and the further tampering with the electric connection. It was clear that had anyone attempted to switch on the lamp, the resultant mini- explosion and fire would have destroyed any evidence of tampering. He allowed the officers to take photographs and other evidence before disconnecting the lamp from the mains and making it safe; then, once Henderson confirmed that they didn't need Superman any more, he took advantage of the opportunity to leave.

"I'll try to find Clark and send him over," he promised on his way out.


Lois laid down the news wires and checked her watch. Half an hour until the morning conference.

Then she glanced out through the door of her temporary office, which stood ajar. The newsroom seemed suspiciously quiet. People were keeping their heads down and apparently working extremely hard; there was none of the usual banter and chit-chat which normally characterised a morning in the bullpen.

Maybe they were all worried about Perry, she thought, realising that she'd never actually told everyone that she'd visited him and that he was doing okay. She'd intended to, but then Lex had arrived and interrupted her, making her behave in a completely different manner to her usual style — all in order to convince him that she was an obedient, unthreatening fianc‚e, but which would have won her no friends among the Planet staff.

She needed to do something about the impression she'd created then. The news conference would be a good opportunity, she considered; then she realised that some of the staff on the newsroom floor didn't attend the conference, and they probably needed to hear it too. No time like the present, she decided, and got to her feet.

Walking out to the newsroom, her gaze automatically sought out Clark's desk. It was empty.

And, since his jacket wasn't hanging on the back of his chair, and his chair was neatly pushed against the desk, it didn't look as if he'd arrived in yet. That surprised her, since she assumed that he'd left her apartment just after she had. Sure, he'd have had to go home and change, but he should have been here by now.

But then she calmed, remembering that he'd told her last night that he still needed to report the latest attempt on his life to Henderson. So he was probably down at the precinct giving a statement. And she was well aware of how long that could take; he probably wouldn't appear for at least another half-hour. He'd just make the news conference, she guessed.

Returning to the task at hand, Lois stood expectantly at the doorway to her office for several seconds, but no-one appeared to notice her. She considered how Perry had always managed to get everyone's attention; he'd bellowed, of course, but she didn't have his abilities in that direction. Though she did have one talent she suspected that Perry didn't possess…

She took a deep breath and stuck two fingers in her mouth. The resulting whistle brought the newsroom to a standstill, with everyone present staring at her in amazement.

"Thank you," she called, with a faint grin. "Right; I have a couple of things I want to say. First, I know that all of you will be as concerned about Perry's health as I am. So I want you to know that I saw him yesterday, and I spoke to him on the phone this morning. His heart attack wasn't as serious as we all thought, and he's out of intensive care. And, you won't be surprised to know, he's already bored stupid and desperate to know what's going on in the world — and especially at the Planet. Oh, and Lex Luthor's request not to bother him or Alice no longer holds. Anyone who wants to send cards or flowers or anything, please do — I know that both Perry and Alice will appreciate them very much. And he can have visitors, but it's a good idea to call the hospital first."

Lois paused, smiling, as cheers broke out at her news. She also noticed, though without any degree of surprise, that her mention of her fianc‚ drew scowls and cynical looks from a few people.

She held up her hand for silence then. "Okay. Second, I want to say that you guys — all of you; all of *us* as a team — have done a great job over the past couple of days. We may have had a horrible shock — " *shocks*, she thought silently " — but we've kept things running and put out four great editions of the Planet. I know that Perry's very pleased with what we've been doing so far, and so am I. I know that things aren't the same without Perry here, but we're doing really well."

"But are sales any better?" Eduardo asked, concerned.

"It's early days," Lois hedged. "We obviously have to win back all those readers who stopped buying the Planet, and we won't do that overnight. But I would be interested in any ideas anyone has for special features, articles, scoops and anything which will help us sell more papers."

There were nods and murmurs; everyone had heard that line before.

"Okay, guys, that's all I wanted to say for now," Lois finished. "Morning conference in twenty-five minutes, for those involved in that."

She returned to her office, but a moment later there was a tap on the door. To her amazement, Jack stood there, requesting entry.

She hadn't noticed Jack in the newsroom just now, and she realised that, if she'd given him any thought this morning, she'd have assumed that he'd taken a tactical decision to absent himself — probably permanently. It would have been a wise decision, she thought now, watching him and feeling the anger at what he'd done — and his betrayal of Clark, who'd helped him — sweep over her.

"Give me one reason why I shouldn't have Security walk you out of here right now," she said coldly.

"Maybe because you don't want the guy who's paying me to watch you to know that his spy isn't on your tail any more?" Jack suggested bluntly, simultaneously sounding defensive and aggressive. Bravado, she thought; then she reflected on his words and realised that he was right.

"Come in. And close the door," she instructed. He obeyed, and as he walked across the office Lois noticed that he'd lost the swagger which had characterised his behaviour in the month or so since Clark had got him the job at the Planet.

"So, what did you mean by that?" she asked him abruptly. "You haven't called your boss back and told him that we found you out?"

"You're kidding," Jack said flatly. "He'd kill me. And he'd probably kill Danny too, just to keep everything tidy."

Danny… Jack's brother, Clark had told her. And it seemed to be fear for his brother's safety, rather than the money, which had led Jack to agree to Nigel's demands. "So what did you tell him?"

Jack shrugged. "I called him back last night, after Clark caught me. I told him that Clark had gone home and that I'd followed you back to your apartment and you were alone."

"You followed me last night?" she demanded.

But Jack shook his head. "No way. Not after Clark caught me. But I told *him* that I did! Look, it's in my interest if he thinks I'm still doing what he's paying me to do. Then he won't do anything to Danny. And…" He paused, giving Lois a hard look. "If I keep giving him information — false information, if necessary — then he won't set someone else up to spy on you and Kent, will he?"

That was very true, Lois recognised… but could she trust Jack?

He continued, before she could answer. "I told Clark last night that I'd tell him you two were fighting."

"Well, he isn't here right now… but yeah, that would work," Lois said thoughtfully. "Okay, say I decide to trust you. What then? What do you want from me?"

"Don't fire me. Please," he said; Lois was surprised that there was actually a pleading note in his voice.

"Why not?" she asked, curiously. "Okay, if I did it might tip off your contact — but besides that?"

"I need the money," he said tightly.

"You were getting money, so I understand."

"I need a secure job. Please. I really need this." Now he was looking very scared, and far more like a vulnerable seventeen-year-old than his normal belligerent, I-don't- give-a-damn self. Right now, he actually reminded her very much of herself, growing up with an ever-distant and uncaring father and a mother who spent most of the time either in a drunken stupor or out with her friends. She'd had to be hard, and that had made her aggressive in her own defence — but also scared and vulnerable inside.

"Why?" she had to ask.

He shrugged, an element of desperation in the gesture. "Danny's in foster-care right now. He says it's okay, but we really want to be together. I want to take care of him — he's my brother! But I need to get a place. Right now, I'm sleeping at the YMCA, and saving every penny I can — I want to be able to put a deposit down on a decent apartment. If I can do that, then that'll prove to the welfare people that I can look after him properly."

That sobered Lois; again, she was reminded of herself. During her teenage years, she'd always had the fear, at the back of her mind, that one day her mother would go too far, and drink herself to death or into rehab, and she and Lucy would be taken into care — she hadn't remotely imagined that her father would want to take care of them. She knew that she'd have fought tooth and nail to keep Lucy with her, and to protect Lucy from *anything* which threatened to harm her, or to separate them.

Yes, she could understand Jack's feelings.

"No, I won't fire you," she said quietly. "You make sure that you keep your side of the bargain, though. And once the Planet's sales start to pick up, I'll think about sending you on a training course, so that you can pick up some real skills and maybe some qualifications." He was about to speak; to thank her, she guessed. But she cut across him. "But if I find that you've gone back on your word, then you're out on your ear. Clark will go to the police, and you can take your chances with your contact. Is that clear?"

"It's clear," he muttered. "And I mean it. I'll keep giving him information, but it won't be the truth."

"Okay." Lois waved him away, feeling a little more secure now that she understood Jack's motives for what he'd done. All the same, she intended to carry on being careful, so far as being seen with Clark was concerned.


It had been such a relief to tell him everything, last night, and to know that he forgave her for keeping the truth about her relationship with Lex from him. She needed his friendship so badly; she'd missed him so incredibly much! She hated it when she and Clark were at odds; the normal work routine just seemed so much less interesting when she couldn't look across at him and share a grin, rolling of eyes or a whole multitude of thoughts just in a simple gesture. They'd got so good at reading each other's expressions; he always seemed to know when she wanted a coffee, or needed him to come over and rub her neck and shoulders. They even seemed to have a kind of telepathy which caused each to know just when the other was looking in their direction, no matter what else they'd been doing.

Over the last couple of months, while their friendship hard first gone through a very rocky period and then, just a few days ago, almost shattered completely, she'd at first tried to tell herself that she didn't need Clark — she didn't need *anyone*! But she hadn't managed to convince herself. Clark was just too important to her; his undemanding and supportive friendship had become an indispensable part of her life now. Feeling the absence of that friendship had hurt — badly.

Oh, they'd never entirely stopped being friends — the past couple of days had shown that, on both sides. There was clearly deep affection on Clark's side too, and for that she was very grateful.

But going into Clark's arms, in her apartment, had felt so good; such a relief after having to pretend to be lover- like with Lex. When Clark's arms had closed around her, she'd felt that she could tell him anything; that all she needed to do was trust him and everything would be fine. Of course that wasn't true — Clark himself was still in danger. But nevertheless, that feeling of security had been immensely reassuring.

And she had her best friend back, and their friendship was stronger than ever. Now she knew just how it felt to be without Clark, now that she appreciated just how important he was to her, she had no intention of *ever* allowing any disagreement to cause a rift between them again. Not ever.

Waking up beside Clark had been even more reassuring… and more. Lois flushed as she remembered what she'd been thinking, even wishing, as she'd lain there, awake, with Clark's arm covering her.

And then her realisation that she'd fallen in love with him.

That was… a dangerous situation, she thought now, leaning back in her chair and closing her eyes. As she'd been reminding herself only about a week ago, love was risky. Very risky. She'd been hurt before because she'd trusted someone, persuaded herself that she loved them — believed their protestations of love for her.

Love was the quickest way she knew of to ruin any relationship.

So being in love with Clark was a recipe for disaster.

But only if he knew how she felt!

That was it, she determined. If Clark never knew her true feelings for him, then their friendship would be safe. She couldn't afford to let anything get in the way of that ever again.

But he'd kissed her that morning, she reminded herself. A real kiss, not a comforting peck on the cheek or on the forehead. He'd kissed her on the lips. Didn't that mean something? Why would he have done that?

<It was only a brief touch — brotherly, that's all it was!> she protested silently. But then she reminded herself that kissing — even a vaguely platonic brush of lips against lips — had never been part of their friendship. Oh, sure, they hugged, they patted each other on the shoulder, she touched his chest, he wrapped his arm around her shoulder or placed his hand in the small of her back sometimes when they were walking together. But they didn't kiss.

Except for that night in the Jeep… and for this morning.

But Clark didn't mean it! she protested. His kiss in the Jeep had only been to try to stop her accepting Lex's proposal, and this morning… Well, this morning maybe she just hadn't been as good at hiding her feelings as she'd thought. Maybe he'd looked down at her, seen the stupid way she was staring up at him, all goo-goo-eyed no doubt, and felt sorry for her, so he'd kissed her lightly just to be nice.

Regardless; whatever his motive had been, getting romantically involved with her best friend would be a huge mistake. So it just wasn't going to happen.

*** Arriving back at his apartment as himself, Clark was immediately accosted by Inspector Henderson, demanding to know where he'd been.

"I spent the night with a friend," Clark said, in a tone which suggested, he hoped, that it was all he intended to say on the subject.

Henderson glanced at his watch, but didn't comment. Since it was now almost ten am, Clark could imagine what the inspector was thinking. However, Henderson's next question was on a different subject. "Why didn't you report that attempted shooting last night?"

"I was going to, but you weren't on duty. I thought it could wait until you were back."

Henderson glared at him, but just said abruptly, "Okay, tell me about it now. And are you certain that it was St John?"

"As positive as I can be," Clark answered immediately. "He disguised his voice on the phone, but I saw his beard and got a glimpse of the lower part of his face. I recognised him from when he came to the Planet newsroom with Lex Luthor."

Henderson nodded. "Okay. I need a full statement from you, and then I can have him taken in for questioning. I also need you to tell my guys what's been moved here, if anything. And anything else you can think of. It's not going to be easy to take St John down, is my bet — and if it's really Luthor who wants you dead, I don't hold out any hope of being able to prove it." He shrugged, his expression sardonic. "I don't suppose you know of any reason why Lex Luthor might want you dead?"

"I can speculate," Clark answered cautiously. "I'm one of the few people who's not only suspicious of him, but hasn't been cautious enough to keep my feelings hidden."

"Yeah," Henderson drawled. "And you're also pretty close to Lois Lane… am I right?"

"We're friends. And partners."

"And she's engaged to Luthor. I'd think he might see you as a threat, all right." Henderson pulled a face. "Personally, I can't see why the hell Lane ever got engaged to that creep. She's far too smart to be taken in by him — but you better not tell her I said that."

"I won't," Clark agreed. "But… well, I guess maybe sometimes things aren't all they might seem." He said no more on the subject, but instead applied himself to the task of giving a preliminary statement and showing the forensic team what was needed.


It was morning conference time, and there was still no sign of Clark. Lois watched the staff file into the conference room, not focusing on them at all; more than half of her attention was on the elevators, from which she was hoping to see Clark emerge at any moment. He couldn't, surely, be any longer than this just giving a simple statement.

"Hey, Lois!" Jimmy's eager voice interrupted her anxious thoughts.


"Have you heard from CK?" he demanded.

"Not since — no," she amended quickly, remembering that they still needed to be utterly circumspect in public; who knew where Lex might have tentacles?

"Bummer," Jimmy muttered, adding quickly, "I just passed by his apartment on my way back from a delivery. There're at least three cop cars parked outside, and the place is all taped off — you know, with that 'Crime Scene' tape. Say, you think he's been hurt?"

Lois felt her insides turn to ice. Clark's apartment a crime scene? But… he was going to his apartment to change before he saw Henderson! Did that mean… oh, god, it couldn't mean that he'd been hurt, could it?

If Nigel had set another trap for Clark, or been lying in wait for him in his apartment… oh, god, Clark could be dead! She'd warned him last night: Nigel wouldn't fail again. He'd think it an affront to his skills that he'd failed the first time, and she was also very sure that Lex would be applying a lot of pressure to ensure that Clark was removed from the scene.

Angrily, she brushed Jimmy off, telling him to get inside and stop gossiping; inside, she was aching to get away from the Planet and drive straight over to Clark's apartment to find out what was going on and whether he was dead, as she feared. However, she had the news conference to get through first; she had no choice about that. If she ran out now, that could get reported back to Lex and… well, okay, even if he couldn't hurt Clark now, if Clark was dead, it could still cause problems she didn't want to have to deal with.

If Clark was dead… She closed her eyes briefly and shivered. That was an outcome she didn't even want to contemplate. He couldn't be dead — he *couldn't*! Life just couldn't be that cruel — she couldn't lose him *now*, just when she'd discovered how she really felt about him, and before she had a chance to tell him how she felt, could she? And Clark, too — he had so much potential, he was a brilliant reporter. He had so much to achieve. He couldn't be dead. She wouldn't let herself think that way.

No; she had to think positive, and think *logically* — there had to be lots of reasons why he wasn't at work yet. And a perfectly simple explanation as to what was going on at his apartment. Any minute now, he'd just stroll into the newsroom, looking completely bemused at the thought that anyone might have been worried about him. He'd have some silly reason why he was late, as always, and he'd smile at her and chase away her fears with some teasing remark…

He was safe. He had to be!

But he could be dead…

In a hurried movement, she picked up the phone in the conference room and dialled the number of Clark's apartment. However, all she heard was the sound of his recorded announcement. There were too many people around for her to risk leaving a message, and in any case she didn't especially want the police to hear whatever she might want to say. She'd have to get the conference over with, then get over there herself.

With a very heavy heart, Lois turned to her colleagues, took her seat at the head of the table, and began the morning's business.

*** "Y'know, Clark, I can't help thinking that it might be a good idea if you could play dead for a while," Henderson observed finally, as they sat in one of the interview rooms down at the precinct. Clark had travelled there in Henderson's car once the inspector had finished up at his apartment; the forensic team was still there, taking samples and photographs and putting together other evidence.

"I could," Clark agreed doubtfully. "But if you're taking St John in anyway, do I need to?"

"You know as well as I do that St John is only following orders," Henderson pointed out, a little impatiently. "If whoever is giving the orders knows that you're alive, then he'll only find someone else to do it for him. And, personally, my job would be made easier if I didn't have to look out for another assassin taking a shot at you. Plus," he added dryly, "if you were killed then I'd only have to put up with some hotshot newbie who thinks they know it all covering the crime beat."

Clark recognised the latter comment as a back-handed compliment, and he grinned briefly. "I'll try to spare you that." Nodding then, he added, "If you think it'll help, I'll play dead. But I have to let a couple of people know I'm okay."

Henderson frowned. "That's not advisable. We want this to look good. Okay," he added quickly, "I can understand if you need to tell your family. But they need to put on a good show of grieving, in case Luthor's watching them."

"I think they could handle that," Clark said calmly. "Leave it with me."

"Fine. And leave St John and Luthor to me, please! I don't want you getting in any more trouble." Henderson grimaced, then added, "I guess I'd better have a watch put on Lane too. Just because she's engaged to the guy, that doesn't necessarily mean that she's untouchable if he finds out that she's damaging his interests."

"Superman will watch out for Lois," Clark said quickly, knowing how his partner would feel about a police guard.

*** At last the conference was over, and Lois was free to return to her office and collect her car keys. Throughout the hour or so the meeting had lasted her thoughts had wandered from the topic at hand and focused on Clark.

He still hadn't shown up at work, and Jimmy reported that he'd been trying Clark's pager and home phone without success. She hadn't wanted him to call the police yet, to find out what was going on at Clark's apartment; that was a phone call she somehow needed to make herself. Especially as she was becoming more and more certain of what she was going to hear.

Was it really possible that her partner, her friend, the man she loved, was dead?

The thought that she might never see Clark again was agonisingly painful. At least twice during the meeting she'd had to fight back tears, either when someone had said something about Clark or when her thoughts had taken her to a particularly poignant memory.

If Clark was dead, how could she possibly come to work at the Planet every day, where everything around her reminded her of him? Sitting at her desk would bring back memories of him standing behind her, his hand on her shoulder, as he read her screen. Or she'd see him in her mind's eye, bringing her coffee and a doughnut, and the latest gossip. Looking at his desk would summon up pictures of him sitting there, intent on his work, or turned towards her and sharing a smile at something amusing.

Even at home she would imagine him, sitting with her as he had last night as they'd worked for hours on Lex Luthor; or this morning, as she'd woken up with him beside her…

…and then the brief kiss they'd shared as he'd left.

How could she have been so stupid, so short-sighted as to think that getting romantically involved with Clark would have been wrong? If she hadn't been so scared of getting hurt, she wouldn't have so many regrets about wasted time. Instead, while she'd still be devastated, at least she'd have the memory of having been in love with Clark, having been his girlfriend, not just his friend.

If Clark was dead, then it was too late to tell him how she really felt. It was too late to share more of those blazing, passionate kisses with him. And it was too late to find out whether they could be as close being in love with each other as they were as friends.

It was too late, full stop. If Clark was dead, she had a lifetime of nothing but regrets to look forward to.

Slowly, she trudged back to the editor's office, dreading what she was going to do next: collect her keys and drive over to Clark's apartment. The longer she left it, the longer she didn't have to have her worst fears confirmed. As long as she didn't go to his apartment, or speak to Henderson, then she could still hold onto the faint hope that Clark might be alive. No matter how slim a hope it was, it was still a possibility.

She needed Clark. She loved Clark, and for that reason she wasn't going to let go of that faint hope. How would she manage without him? How could she carry on turning up for work day after day without him there beside her? How could she keep up this *horrible* pretence with Lex without Clark there to support her and back her up? It was already intolerable, and only Clark being there for her last night at her apartment had given her the strength to continue with it.

If he was dead…

Again, she blinked back tears and forced herself to hold onto the thread of hope. Think positive. That was what she had to do. But it was so hard…

Clark had such a physical presence, in terms of his sheer size as much as his warm, friendly personality, that it was almost impossible to think of him as being dead. The images which wouldn't leave her mind, of her friend, the man she loved, lying lifeless, his dark eyes staring sightlessly upwards, a bullet through his head; or hacked to pieces with a knife; or having bled to death in some way; were horrifying. Lois, who almost never cried, was close to tears again as she pushed open the door of her office.

It vaguely registered somewhere in her brain that the blinds were closed, and that this seemed strange, since she didn't remember having shut them that morning.

She pushed the door closed behind her and threw her papers down on Perry's desk… then became aware that there was someone else in the room.

A tall someone else.

A tall, dark-haired someone else, dressed in dark jeans and a shirt, wearing glasses, who had got to his feet as she came in.

"CLARK!" she exclaimed, choking on his name as she ran to him in relief and delight.

He wrapped his arms around her, enfolding her against him, a grin breaking across his face as he took in her pleasure at seeing him. "What did I do to deserve this?" she heard him say, surprised, as she hugged him tightly.

She quickly pulled her arms back, reaching up to his face, cupping his jaw between her hands and simply staring at him. He was really here; she wasn't imagining it. He was solid and real beneath her hands; his arms were strong and firm around her. He was alive!

And suddenly, almost without conscious thought, she was straining upwards and kissing him.

He stilled for a moment, as if taken aback, but then his arms tightened around her and he began to return her kisses, at first tentatively, but then matching her desperate passion with his own. Standing on her tip-toes, Lois slid her arms up and around his neck, pressing closer still to Clark as lips melded and tongues tangled.

Finally, breathless, she had to pull away; if it wasn't for Clark's arms around her, Lois felt she wouldn't have had the energy to stand.

"Hey." His voice was soft. "I'm not complaining — that was wonderful! — but what was that all about?"

Lois stared up at her partner… her best friend, her mind reeling. Clark was alive… and she had another chance to find out whether the way she felt about him, the electricity which had always been present between them, was real. Did she want to take the chance this time, or was she going to play safe yet again?

She swallowed, then reached up to caress his cheek. "I thought you were…" She gulped. "Dead," she choked out then; as she spoke, the tears she'd been fighting throughout the meeting finally came.

"Oh, Lois…" she heard Clark murmur; then he was scooping her up and carrying her to the couch against the wall and sitting her down. "I'll be back," he added; she heard the sound of a lock being turned, and then through blurred eyes she saw him come back to her. He sat next to her, but immediately tugged her onto his lap, wrapping his arms tightly around her and pressing her head into his shoulder.

He let her cry her tears out; then, when she began to stir, he asked quietly, "What made you think I was dead? Did Henderson call?"

Lois shook her head, pulling a little way back so that she could look at Clark, then explained about her concern over his absence and Jimmy's comment about his apartment. "So that's why — I thought Nigel had really got you this time!"

"No, he hasn't," Clark said, "but he did try again — that's why the police were at my apartment." Lois listened in horror as he told her about the booby-trap and she realised just how narrow an escape Clark had had yet again.

"If you'd gone home last night…" she whispered, horrified.

"But I didn't, remember?" he pointed out, smiling lightly. "You made me stay at your place."

"Yeah, and it's just as well! Clark, if he'd killed you…" She trailed off, unable to put into words the thoughts she'd been having before finding Clark in her office. It wasn't that she didn't want him to know how much he mattered to her; she was afraid of rejection, she realised. It would hurt too much to find out that he didn't feel the same way about her.

His arms tightened around her once again. "Lois, he didn't. And he won't. I swear to you, you're going to be putting up with me for a long time to come."

"You don't know that, Clark!" Lois protested, almost shrilly. "Once Nigel knows that he didn't kill you this time, he'll try again — and if Lex thinks he's not doing a good job, someone else will try!"

"He won't know — at least, I hope he won't," Clark said, to Lois's confusion. "Henderson and I have agreed that I should play dead for now."

Lois stilled. That made sense, in a way; if Lex thought that Clark was dead, then he was safe for the time being. "So you want me to go out and announce to the staff that you've been found dead? And run an obit?"

Clark shook his head. "Not yet. And maybe you won't have to. For now, I'm just missing, okay? And if you talk to Luthor today, make sure you tell him I'm missing and that you're worried about me."

"I can do that," Lois agreed, now recovering her composure and becoming more matter-of-fact. She knew that the staff would be upset, especially after Perry's heart attack, but if it was going to help to keep Clark alive, then she'd do it in a heartbeat and take whatever flak came from her colleagues later when the truth came out.

Feeling foolish now that her fit of crying was over, she tried — without much success — to keep as much dignity as she could as she climbed off Clark's lap. He let her go, his expression saying little about his feelings.

"The thing is, even though I agreed to this with Henderson, I'm not convinced it'll work," he continued. "For all we know, Luthor's probably bought off officers throughout the MPD. And if he has, he probably already knows I'm not dead."

That was true, Lois agreed. But she could still see the sense in Henderson's suggestion, and she was going to do everything she could to help Clark. "If you're supposed to be dead, you took one heck of a risk coming here," she told him, now anxious.

"It's okay — no-one saw me come in," he explained quickly, getting to his feet and smiling. "I got Superman to drop me on the roof, and I came down the stairs. And I made sure no-one saw me sneak into your office."

"You better get Superman to get you out of here again," Lois suggested. "Through the window, I mean. You can't take the chance that someone could see you leave."

"You want rid of me already?" he teased. "I thought that I could stay here and work with you on Luthor… unless you object?"

"Of course I don't! But what if someone comes in and sees you?"

Clark grinned. "I can hide. Trust me!"

Oddly enough, she did. There was something about Clark… She'd known for some time that her partner seemed to have an unusual sixth sense for trouble, and he had proven himself time and time again to be good at getting himself — and frequently her, too — out of the way in the nick of time.

"Who else knows that you're okay?" she asked him then, again thinking of the risk he'd taken by coming to the Planet.

"Well, apart from Henderson and his officers — and my parents once I call them to let them know what's happening — just you." He shrugged lightly, giving her a wry smile.

"But why me? I mean, it's not that I'm not glad… very glad that you told me," she added quickly, ducking her head. "It's just that… well, surely the fewer people who know, the better? And with me engaged to Lex…"

"Lois, of course I was going to tell you," he said immediately, his voice intense. "There's no way I could let you think… I know how scared you were last night. You're my best friend, Lois — I couldn't *not* tell you!"

"Thanks," she said softly, still avoiding his gaze, though she knew he was watching her closely. She suppressed a guilty reminder of how long it had taken her to tell him the truth about her 'engagement' to Lex; time enough to apologise to him about that later.

"Lois, you have to tell me," he said suddenly, in a low voice. "What was all that about, before? Kissing me, I mean. I… I need to know, because I have to know if that's all it's going to be, or if I'm allowed to kiss you again without getting slapped down…"

She'd been trying to ignore the kisses. Not forget about them; kissing Clark had felt too good, too *perfect*, for her to be able to forget it. But she was embarrassed about the way she'd thrown herself at him. What had he thought of her? Had he just been humouring her?

But now, with his question, she knew for certain that he hadn't.

She dared to look up at Clark. He was watching her, his expression cautious… and hopeful.

"Would you… want me not to slap you down, then?" She took a small step in his direction.

"Yeah. I think your not slapping me down would be pretty great, actually," he assured her huskily, taking an equivalent step towards her.

"When would you like me to start… not slapping you down?" she asked him, knowing that she sounded coy, but not caring. She took another step closer.

"Um… right now would be good," he whispered, taking a final step so that he was right in front of her. She held her breath and waited for his lips to touch hers.

The brush of his mouth against hers was tentative this time, gently seeking and asking permission. She wound her arms around Clark's neck again, tugging his head down to hers, and parted her lips, inviting him to deepen the kiss. He needed no further encouragement, sliding his hands up to caress her face, holding her as if she was something precious to him.

*Was* she precious to Clark?

Was it possible that he cared about her… maybe even loved her… the way she did him?

Lois didn't know. But there was one thing she did know. She'd almost lost Clark several times over the last couple of days. For some reason, for which she was very, very thankful, he'd survived. She was incredibly lucky to have him still — alive, and as her friend. She wasn't going to waste this chance.

Murmuring deep in her throat, she wound her fingers into Clark's hair and kissed him again. Everything else could wait, including Lex; this was more important.

*** Two men walked up to the white-haired man emerging from the LexCorp building. "Mr St John, I assume?" one said briskly.

"And who is asking?" Nigel replied smoothly, giving the appearance of barely looking at the men; he was, however, studying them very closely. Not business associates of Luthor's, he was sure. Nor, he suspected, rivals. Their suits were just too obviously off the peg. No; his guess would be private detectives or possibly plain-clothes police. In which case, he was puzzled as to what they wanted with him.

Puzzled; but definitely on his guard. He'd taken great care to cover his tracks in everything he did for Luthor. He was pretty sure that none of the contract hits he'd arranged could be traced back to him; and it would be amazing if Kent had been able to recognise and ID him the previous evening. In any case, Kent was dead. And there was no way that the trap in Kent's apartment could be traced back to him either. Assuming that it had worked as it was intended, the lamp and its cable would have been destroyed. There would be nothing there to suggest that Kent's death was anything other than a tragic domestic accident.

There was, of course, young Jack at the Daily Planet; but Jack had no idea who his contact was. And he was also sure that Jack had never seen his face properly, so it would be very surprising if the boy could pick him out in a line-up. No, it couldn't be anything to do with Jack.

His guess was proved correct when one of the men flashed an official ID at him. MPD. "Detective Troso, and this is Sergeant Figuero. We'd like you to come down to the precinct to answer a few questions, Mr St John."

Nigel deliberately showed no reaction. "Is this a request, or am I being compelled to accompany you?" he enquired, one eyebrow raised.

"We'd prefer it if you come voluntarily, of course. But if you aren't inclined to do so, then we have a warrant for your arrest," the Latino officer said.

"Well, in that case…" Nigel gave them a sardonic, frosty smile. "I am always pleased to assist the Metropolis Police Department with their enquiries. But I would appreciate being told what I would be charged with, were you to use that warrant — and I must, of course, take a few minutes to make my apologies to my employer."

"I'm afraid not, Mr St John. You're being taken in for questioning for charges relating to attempted murder and a possible actual murder. We'd like you to come with us right now," Troso said crisply, and discreetly drew a gun.

Resigned, Nigel allowed himself to be escorted to the car. It wasn't a disaster; he didn't have to answer any questions, after all, and even if he was only being questioned, and not actually under arrest just yet, he had a right to a lawyer. Sheldon Bender would ensure that none of this nonsense would stick.

He'd be back home by evening, he thought smugly. And by that time, the Daily Planet would be a footnote in history — and he himself would have the perfect alibi.


He was dreaming. He had to be; he couldn't really be kissing Lois at her invitation, could he? And yet it felt real; more real than anything he'd ever experienced before in his life.

Lois was pressing her slim, gorgeous body against him, her hands entangled in his hair and holding his head prisoner so that he couldn't stop kissing her even if he wanted to; some chance of that, he thought dazedly!

He'd been completely shocked and overwhelmed — not to say delighted! — when she'd thrown herself at him and kissed him on finding him in her office. He hadn't been quite so delighted when he'd realised that she'd been afraid that he was dead; he'd never wanted to put her through that pain.

Which reminded him, he thought dazedly, he really ought to tell her…

Lois's tongue invaded his mouth again at that moment, and all rational thought left his brain once again.


"Nigel arrested?" Lex stared at Mrs Cox, the bearer of bad news, his face revealing little of his thoughts. "I take it you've alerted Bender?"

"He's on his way."

"And what exactly is Nigel being charged with?" Lex could have been asking what the time was.

"Apparently it has something to do with attempts on the life of a certain Clark Kent," Mrs Cox observed, straightening some folders on Lex's desk.

"Oh dear. What on earth has Nigel been getting up to? I am most disappointed in him," Lex commented, a faint smile curving about his lips. "We really cannot have our most trusted employees bringing the company into disrepute like this. I do hope that you've arranged for his employment to be terminated?"

"Oh, the usual arrangements are in place," Mrs Cox purred. "Just as soon as Sheldon Bender gives the word…"

"Indeed," Lex replied, idly reaching out his hand and trailing his fingers along Mrs Cox's long, slender thigh, left bare by the extremely short skirt she was wearing. "I would be grateful, though, if you would check that Nigel hasn't left any work outstanding. I am particularly concerned about a… project… which is to be executed a little later today."

"Consider it taken care of, Lex," Mrs Cox replied, sliding over to perch on the desk in front of her employer and throwing her head back to demonstrate her availability for any task he might want of her.

"Good, reliable staff, Mrs Cox. That really is all I ask for. Is that too much to expect?" Lex mused thoughtfully before turning his attention to the more interesting things arrayed in front of him on his desk.

*** "Mmmm… Clark, we need…" With great difficulty, Lois began to pull herself away from her best friend's arms. Kissing Clark was *wonderful*, so much better than she'd even dreamed; but they had to come back to real life, and right now real life contained a lot of problems they needed to deal with.

"…to talk. I know," Clark murmured, clearly with a great deal of reluctance. He loosened his hold on her, so that his hands were just cupping her shoulders, and took a step back.

"I'm not changing my mind or anything," she said quickly, knowing that *now*, as never before, honesty was needed between them. Honesty from her in particular, no matter how difficult it was. "I want this… whatever it is that's between us, Clark. I… realised when I thought you were dead that I'd been stupid — selfish and cowardly — to ignore what we could have had. And I don't want to make that mistake again."

The look on Clark's face made what it had cost her to say those words completely worthwhile. His entire expression lit up; he smiled broadly, and his eyes were warm and… yes, *loving*.

Clark loved her?

Well, she knew that he loved her as a friend. And she had admitted to herself that he was attracted to her. But the thought that he was in love with her was something new to contemplate.

It should have scared her.

It should have sent her running several miles in the opposite direction, made her deny her own feelings for him and made her determined not to take the risk that, this time, a man's love could be relied on.

But something had changed irrevocably for Lois. In a matter of a couple of short hours, she'd faced the prospect of losing Clark permanently; never having the chance to tell him how she really felt about him and finding out whether they could be more than friends. And he'd come back to her. Having found out how it felt to think that she'd lost him — even for the space of about an hour — she knew she never wanted to go through that experience again, and certainly not with the regrets she'd felt about what might have been.

She lifted one hand and stroked his face. "I love you, Clark," she told him, her voice shaky.

He blinked, and then his smile grew even wider. "Oh, Lois! I've loved you since the day we met, but I'd given up hope…" He made an inarticulate sound, then swept her back into his arms in one enormous hug, his lips pressing into her hair.

For the first time in her life, Lois felt utterly secure. This was her best friend telling her that he loved her, and she *knew* he'd never let her down. Why she hadn't understood that before was a mystery to her, but she was glad that she'd had that revelation at last.

She could trust Clark. Because he was *Clark*, and he was utterly trustworthy.

Lois, who'd carried around with her for years the conviction that no man could be trusted, had finally accepted that she loved the one man who could.

She melted against him, enjoying his kisses, being held in his arms, kissing him back with renewed fervour. But then, after several minutes of bliss, she forced herself to remember that this was a working day, that she had a paper to run, and — most important of all — they had a villain to unmask. So, reluctantly, she pulled away from Clark, about to apologise; but then she saw the regretful but determined look on his face, and she realised that he was thinking the same things as she was.

"Got to get to work," he muttered, letting her slip out of his arms. "Can you get Jimmy to start running some of this stuff through whatever magic tricks he uses? See if he can find any links between the promotions the Planet's competitors are running and any of Luthor's businesses — "

"— and whether any of the Planet shareholders were compromised before the take-over," Lois finished, regretting that the delicious, thrilling interlude they'd just shared was at an end, but understanding that they both needed to focus on business. "Yeah. I would've been on it already, but other things — "

"— came up. I know," Clark said softly; she could see regret and longing in his eyes too, but also the knowledge that they had other things to do. Still, they'd have plenty of time later for themselves, and to explore this new and wonderful love they'd discovered between them. "You go talk to Jimmy," he added, brushing one more brief, delicious, shivery kiss across her lips. "I'll hide in here and get on with checking a few other things."


He had plenty of work to do. But, as he sat at the far end of the editor's office and prepared to make more notes, Clark just wanted to throw himself out of the window and fly up above the city, doing loop-the-loops of delight.

Every dream, every fantasy he'd had since coming to Metropolis and meeting Lois had suddenly, amazingly, come true. Lois had kissed him, passionately, dizzyingly, of her own accord. Even more wonderfully, she'd told him that she loved him. Everything in his world was suddenly perfect — or it would be, he reminded himself, once they'd proven that Luthor was the criminal they knew him to be and he was behind bars.

And that, Clark told himself, had to be his first priority now. There would be plenty of time later for exploring this new and developing relationship with Lois. Neither of them was going anywhere, and he fully intended to prove to her that her trust in him was justified. He wouldn't let her down, unlike men in her past whom, he knew, had hurt her.

Which reminded him, he *had* to tell her now that he was Superman. Of course, he should have done it the previous evening, so that she'd have known she didn't need to worry about him — and, of course, if he had told her then she wouldn't have gone through the agony she'd clearly suffered over him this morning. He felt very guilty over having caused her pain — even if he couldn't regret the result.

Now wasn't exactly the time, though: it was the middle of a working day and Lois had a paper to get out. It would be selfish, not to mention thoughtless, of him to distract her to tell her the truth about himself. Maybe over a private lunch in her office, or better still, after work. They'd have plenty of time, and he could work up to it carefully, tactfully; he could explain just why he'd felt he had to keep it a secret at first, even from her, and how hard it had been even to think about telling her the truth once he realised that he could trust her. It *wasn't* that he didn't trust her, he'd make sure that she understood that. It had everything to do with protecting his parents, and also by extension protecting her.

She'd be angry, he thought; but if he handled it properly, she'd understand. And ultimately she might even be pleased -

<What was that??>

Clark froze, allowing the pen in his hand to fall unheeded to the desk. Something had triggered his Super-hearing, and he had no idea what it was. He concentrated, straining to focus on sounds beyond the newsroom; he pushed aside the chatter, the ringing of telephones and the patter of footsteps walking around inside the building. There had been something, a sound which was out of place in the normal routine of the Daily Planet.

Then he heard it again. It was a clicking, mechanical sound, similar to that of some sort of mechanism being engaged. But it didn't sound like any kind of mechanism which belonged in the newspaper building — and yet it was a noise he'd heard before.

Then, suddenly, he realised what it was. And in less than a second he had flung himself out of the window, changing into the Suit in mid-air and plummeting downwards to try to get to the bomb in the first-floor men's room before it exploded.


"Lois, it's for you." Before she'd had a chance to finish her conversation with Jimmy, one of the reporters beckoned her over holding a telephone receiver. "The operator said it's Mr Luthor."

Lex. She grimaced; she didn't especially want to talk to him right now, particularly not after that passionate exchange with Clark and discovering that he loved her too. Last night, Lex had been putting pressure on her to push ahead with the wedding plans and to go away with him for a weekend, and she had no desire to do either of those things. But she knew she couldn't keep stalling him indefinitely…

"Hi, Lex," she said calmly, having taken the phone from her colleague. "I'm kind of busy right now, so I can't talk long — "

"Never mind work," he replied smoothly, cheerfully. "It's a beautiful day, the sun is shining and we're in love. Just drop everything and come for a picnic with me."

"A… picnic?" Lois echoed, taken aback.

"Yes! I've had the duty chef provide a hamper, and I picked out a very special vintage to share with you. I'm just on my way to the Planet now in the limo, and I'll pick you up at the entrance in under five minutes." The line went dead.

Lois sighed. The last thing she wanted right now was a picnic with Lex — or to be alone with Lex under any circumstances. She'd told him she was busy, but he just hadn't listened. And now she'd have to go down to the front entrance and tell him why she couldn't go with him, because if she didn't go down he'd come in and make a fuss…

Checking her watch, she realised that there wasn't time to tell Clark what was going on — but anyway, that didn't matter, since she had no intention of going anywhere with Lex. She'd be back in five minutes anyway.

But when she emerged into the lobby, she almost ran straight into someone wearing blue and red.

"Superman! What…?" She caught her breath suddenly, recognising the serious expression on his face.

"Evacuate the building — now!" he rapped at her, then rushed past and into the men's room at such a speed that she almost fell over. Blinking in shock, she ran to the emergency alarm and smashed it; the alarm sounded immediately, and she was greeted by several shocked faces among those who worked in the lobby.

"Out!" she yelled. "You heard Superman — go!"

People were pouring out of the stairwell when Superman re- emerged. He was carrying something, but he shot her a swift look and ordered, "OUT!" She obeyed, noticing that he wasn't far behind her, but as soon as he'd left the building he shot upwards at an incredible speed.

Frantically, she urged people to leave the building, eventually — though it was only a few seconds — running out with a group of workers. Her heart turned to ice as she thought of Clark, hiding up in her office… <please let him get out safely!> she pleaded silently. Surely pretending to be dead so that the police to get Nigel wasn't more important than saving his life in an explosion?

<Clark…!> she wailed silently, staring at the building as if willing him to come out to safety with her.

Then something exploded, loudly, and all she could see where Superman had been was smoke.

*** A bomb. As simple and as direct as that.

Clark didn't know why he hadn't expected something like this sooner; it was clear that someone — Luthor, he and Lois both believed — wanted to destroy the Planet, and how much more straightforward was it possible to get than just blowing it up?

The bomb had been in someone's coat pocket, and what Clark had heard had been its timing device beginning a two-minute countdown. If he hadn't realised the significance of what he'd heard, the bomb would have gone off and the Planet would have been badly damaged — possibly little more than a pile of rubble, judging by the amount of explosive in the bomb. And there was no way that lives wouldn't have been lost.


Would Luthor actually have killed his own fianc‚e?

Of course, Clark mused as the smoke began to clear, it was entirely possible that Luthor could have figured out that Lois was on to him, and he might have seen this as a clean and easy way to get her out of the way.

Looking down then, something caught his eye. A large and expensive car had drawn up outside the Planet, but in his haste to get the bomb out and away from the building he hadn't paid it any attention. But now he saw that Lex Luthor had emerged and was standing beside Lois. Gritting his teeth, Clark flew downwards and landed beside his partner.

"Superman! Is there something wrong? I was just asking Lois why all my staff are standing around outside the building," Luthor said, in a tone of voice which set Clark's teeth on edge.

"There was a bomb in the building," Clark said curtly. "Ms Lane, is anyone hurt?"

Lois shook her head. "Other than one twisted ankle because someone knocked the guy over in the stairwell, everyone's fine, from what I could tell. Are you okay?" she asked, sounding concerned.

"You know something like that can't hurt me," Clark answered quickly, before glancing down at the shredded jacket he held in his hands. He'd absorbed the blast between his palms, but some of the garment remained recognisable. "We need to inform the police, and — "

"We need to find out who's responsible for this!" Luthor thundered. "Someone just tried to destroy one of my businesses!"

"Someone just tried to blow up the Daily Planet!" Lois retorted, her tone cold. "That's what really matters here. People could have died! We almost lost the greatest newspaper in the world, and we're going to find out who did it."

"We?" Luthor queried.

Clark saw Lois hesitate, before she answered, "Me. And Clark, if I can find where the heck he is. And the police. And Superman, if he'll help." It occurred to him that she'd remembered just in time to refer to the fact that Clark was supposedly missing.

"Kent? He's not around, again?" Luthor responded. "Lois, I really think it's time you fired that waste of — "

"Lex!" The sharpness of Lois's tone surprised Clark. "Why can't you do something useful, like use your cellphone and call the police?"

Luthor blinked, clearly taken aback by Lois's failure to fawn over him. He clicked a finger and a lackey appeared by his side. "Call the police," Luthor said dismissively, waving the man away. Then he turned back to Superman. "What's that you're holding?"

"The remains of a jacket — the jacket in which the bomb was hidden," Clark said calmly. "Please, don't touch it!" he added sharply, as Luthor reached out for it. "You'll surely understand that I need to give it to the police so that their forensic officers can test it."

"Hey, that's my jacket!"

Jack had strolled up, and now stood in front of Superman, looking belligerent.

"I might have known…" Luthor muttered grimly. "Isn't this the juvenile delinquent that Kent managed to force Perry White to hire? So this is how he repays us!"

"Me?" Jack stared in disbelief.

"You. You planted a bomb which was intended to destroy the Daily Planet, and probably kill several of your colleagues and betters," Luthor said scornfully. "Superman, grab hold of this low-life. I want him arrested as soon as the police get here!"

"I didn't do anything!" Jack protested. "And anyway, think about it! If I had planted that bomb, would I have been anywhere near the building when it went off? I was up on the *newsroom* floor, for god's sake!"

"Yeah, that makes sense," Lois said slowly. "Lex, I think you're going to have to look elsewhere for your bomber."

"It was *in his jacket*, Lois! What more proof do you need?"

"It could easily have been planted, Lex. Superman, wasn't the jacket in the men's room? On the lobby level? Anyone could have put it there!"

Clark felt Jack staring intently at him, and he moved to one side. "What is it?"

"I don't know if Clark's told you anything…" Jack began. Clark nodded quickly. "Well," Jack continued, "that's my coat all right, but I didn't wear it into work today. Actually, I thought I'd lost it, or it'd been stolen at the YMCA or something. I haven't been able to find it for a couple of days."

Definitely a set-up, Clark agreed. He was pretty sure that, even despite the other things Jack had done — burglary, spying — the young man wouldn't contemplate something like this.

The sound of an approaching siren made him look up; the police were coming. He excused himself and went to meet the first patrol car.


Lois watched Lex as he joined Superman and talked to the police officers, trying to prevent her distaste from showing. Typical Luthor; he hadn't waited to be called, but had immediately gone to impose himself on the conversation. She supposed that, as owner of the Planet, he had a right to be involved; but it wasn't as if he'd even seen anything! As far as she knew, his car had pulled up some time after Superman had run out of the Planet building with the bomb. So what could he possibly have to tell the police?

His car had pulled up…

She stilled momentarily, remembering why she'd gone down to the lobby in the first place. To meet Lex, who'd wanted her to join him for a picnic.

And if she hadn't gone down, she'd have been on the newsroom floor.

And if Superman hadn't showed up — and she still didn't know how or why he'd been there — the bomb would have gone off and she'd have been trapped, possibly killed.

So… Lex's invitation to a picnic could have saved her life.

*Lex was behind the bomb*

Lois had no evidence, but she knew it was true. Her fianc‚ had tried to destroy the Daily Planet, the newspaper he himself owned.

She probably shouldn't be surprised, given that she and Clark had concluded only the previous evening that Luthor himself had to be behind the collapse in sales. But this…! Dozens of people could have been killed!

*Clark* could have been killed…


She looked around, to see Jimmy standing close by. "Yeah?"

"Have you heard anything from CK?" The young man was looking very worried. "I still couldn't get an answer at his apartment, and the police weren't answering any questions. I heard you tell Lu — Mr Luthor that you don't know where he is."

She hated to see Jimmy so worried; but she had to stick to what she and Clark had agreed. "No, I don't know where he is," she answered, reasoning that this wasn't entirely a lie; she had no idea whether Clark was still in her office. What had he done when he'd heard the alarm? Had he somehow made his way out of the building? Or was he still waiting upstairs for her? No, surely he wouldn't have risked his life like that?

Lois wanted to run straight back upstairs and find out, but she couldn't; as acting editor, she would have to wait to talk to the investigating officer, and anyway, despite the fact that Superman had found the bomb and let it explode harmlessly, the police hadn't yet declared the building safe for staff to go back in. Forensic officers were searching the men's room and the lobby area generally, and everyone had been asked to stay back. There was some talk of the possibility of another bomb, it seemed, and as she allowed her gaze to scan the area once more, Superman took off and flew slowly around the building before landing again and striding inside.

No, finding out what had happened to Clark would have to wait.

*** A couple of hours later, the police were finished with him and Clark could leave. Normally, he wouldn't stay around so long as Superman, but this was different. Not only was it the Daily Planet, but he was convinced that Luthor intended Jack to take the rap for the attempted bombing — had intended it all along, he was sure. So he'd stayed and offered his help in looking for clues.

Not that there were any; this had clearly been a very professional job. And that was hardly surprising, given the kind of resources which Luthor had at his beck and call. Besides Nigel St John, who could pull off something like this in his sleep, the guy had to have dozens of people who'd set up something like this for a few thousand dollars or in return for other favours.

So, somehow, he and Lois had to prove that Luthor was behind this. And that wouldn't be easy. At least he'd managed to persuade the police that Luthor's accusation of Jack was unlikely, and the teenager had been released after questioning.

He couldn't believe the extent of Luthor's callousness, though, Clark thought as he flew back towards the Planet, intending to sneak back into Lois's office via the window if at all possible. The man had arranged for a bomb to be planted in the Planet building, intending for it to go off in the middle of the day, when possibly dozens of his own employees would be killed! At least it seemed that Luthor hadn't intended Lois to be killed; Clark had worked out that Luthor had planned to sweep Lois off somewhere just shortly before the bomb exploded. He guessed that the very tight timing had been arranged so that Luthor could claim that he himself might have been caught in the blast. A very clever alibi.

Shame Luthor's car hadn't got stuck in traffic, Clark thought as he spun-changed in mid-air outside the window of Lois's empty office. If Superman hadn't been on the scene, then Luthor might have been just a little too close to that bomb for his comfort.

And there was one other reason why he was feeling even more angry with Lex Luthor right now. It was now mid-afternoon, and Lois was going to be up to her eyes in work trying to get the morning edition ready, thanks to the lost couple of hours. At least the first copies of the evening edition had already rolled off the presses before he'd discovered the bomb, so it wasn't as if they'd missed an edition as a result.

But Lois was going to be busy… very busy. And so any chance of him telling her about Superman before this evening was probably gone.


Finally allowed back into the Planet building, Lois was immediately immersed in trying to make up for lost time in preparing for the morning edition. At least they had their exclusive front-page story, she'd thought wryly as everyone settled down to work. Sure, the bomb would make the evening headlines on the radio and TV, but no-one else would have the inside story — no Planet employee would dare talk to any other news organisation. And, even better, Jimmy had been outside the building when the bomb had gone off in Superman's hands, and he'd had the presence of mind to take several photographs.

One was particularly dramatic, showing the Man of Steel almost enveloped in thick, dark smoke. That, on the front page in full colour, would sell papers, Lois knew. For once, they might actually be able to improve sales.

That thought made her pause. Had this happened at any other newspaper, her sceptical instincts would already have leapt into action, demanding to know whether it had all been a set-up, a stunt designed to create publicity and therefore sales for the paper. And yet in this case she knew that wasn't true. Or, at least, no-one on the editorial side would have done it.

But what about someone on the management side? On the board? Could someone have been cynical enough to plant a bomb in the knowledge that it would make a great story, and hoping that it would be detected before it actually destroyed the building and killed people?

But then she dismissed the thought. She'd already decided that the bomb had to have been planted on Lex's orders, and that he really had intended to destroy the Planet.

He wanted her under his complete control. That was what she had figured out a couple of days earlier. And it made her shiver inside; she felt cold again as she reconfirmed her thoughts. This was seriously scary. He wanted to control her completely. Only if all her existing support networks were destroyed or removed would she be fully under his influence. Getting Clark out of the way was one important aim, and letting the Planet go under was another — and if the Planet didn't collapse on its own, then Lex would be perfectly happy to help it on its way.

Well, the bomb hadn't worked… Lois frowned as she determined to be very cautious about any scoops which somehow landed in her lap in the next couple of days. She didn't want the Planet ruined through losing a law-suit over a supposed exclusive which just didn't stand up.

Sitting at her old desk, Lois wrote up the story of the bombing; it wasn't altogether straightforward because of the amount of information and speculation which had to be held back. She had to give the impression that there were no clues as to either perpetrator or motive; it was crucial that Lex should have no idea that she was anything other than completely taken in by him.

Clark would agree with that, she thought as she polished off the story; then she sighed as she wondered where he was. He hadn't been in her office when she'd returned, and she hadn't dared ask if anyone had seen him. He was playing dead, after all.

People in the newsroom were starting to ask questions about him, too; after all, while he had an occasional habit of going missing, it was very unusual for him to be absent for most of a day without explanation. In line with the story they'd agreed, Lois told anyone who asked that she was concerned for him and that she'd had Jimmy phoning around to try to find out what had happened to him. Some of her interrogators had clearly read between the lines and deduced that something serious could have happened to Clark.

Lex had asked her, en route to the precinct to give statements, what she'd meant when she'd said that Clark was missing, clearly trying to imply that her partner was unreliable. She'd told him about the police tape outside Clark's apartment, putting on what she felt was a very convincing act of being extremely worried. And, while pretending to look down to recover her composure, she'd caught a brief look of triumph flit across Lex's features. It had lasted less than a second, but it had been enough.

Her article finished, Lois hit the key which would send it into her editing queue, and returned to her office. As she closed the door, a figure emerged from the far corner.

"Clark!" she exclaimed, remembering in time to keep her voice low.

He smiled and came towards her, immediately hugging her. "Are you okay? I'm sorry I couldn't be down there with you…"

"It's okay," she told him quickly. "I know you have to do this. I was worried, though — I didn't know where you were…"

"Hiding," he said quickly, and she nodded. Of course he'd had to. She should have thought of that… but she'd been too busy worrying about him.

Pushing aside the memory of her fears, she added, "The message got through to the right quarter — Lex believes I think you might be dead."

Clark nodded. "Good. By the way, Lois, I think he's behind — "

"- the bomb. I know, I figured that too," she told him. "I don't know how we're going to prove it, but I darned well intend to try!"

"Nigel's been arrested," he surprised her by saying. "I spoke to Henderson a short while ago and he told me. They've charged him with attempted murder and possibly a couple of murder counts — they had to pretend to him that I'm dead, and Henderson thinks they may be able to get him for that hit-and-run driver's murder. He's got some smart lawyer down there with him and isn't saying anything at the moment."

"You think he'll snitch on Luthor?"

Clark shook his head regretfully. "I really don't see that happening, Lois. Not with his history — and I don't think Luthor got where he was without making very sure that none of his associates would squeal on him when it counted. My guess is that he either offs them before they get in a position where they could implicate him, or he offers them a deal where they serve the time and he rewards them when they get out. I guess Nigel's probably in the latter category."

"But given his age, if he goes down for murder — or even attempted murder — he could die in jail!" Lois protested. "Don't you think he'd take a deal under those circumstances?"

"I don't think so. I think he knows he's not going to be getting out of jail any time in the next few years anyway, so there's no deal which is going to tempt him. Henderson told me that if the State can't indict him for murder, he'll probably get extradited to the UK — the British want him on several charges." Clark dropped into one of the visitor's chairs, then added, "And anyway, my guess is that if Nigel did rat, Luthor'd have him killed before the end of the day."

"You're probably right," Lois conceded, sitting down behind the large editor's desk and running a hand wearily through her hair. "Clark, we've got to get to Luthor *somehow*! I don't know how much longer I can carry on with this charade."

He grimaced. "I'm not sure how much longer I can watch you do it, either. Every time I see that ring on your finger… And then when I see him with you I want to strangle him. Even more so now, after… well, what we talked about earlier." He gave her an embarrassed half-smile, and she knew that he was remembering their shared kisses. Just as she was…

She smiled back, and reached her hand out to him across the desk. He took it and squeezed gently. "I love you, Lois. And I want to be with you — I want us to be together, publicly. But we can't, as long as you're having to pretend…"

She hated being with Lex too; the pretence was really getting to her. He'd kissed her earlier, in his limo on the way back from the precinct. It had taken all her self- control not to pull away from him, gagging. How she could ever have found the man attractive just defeated her now. And he was still putting pressure on her to go away with him, a thought which repelled her.

But she couldn't tell Clark that; he'd insist that she cease the pretence immediately. It was obvious that he wasn't happy about it even now, but he saw the potential for bringing Luthor down, and she suspected that he probably thought she was safer as Lex's proposed fianc‚e than she'd be as his ex-fianc‚e or, worse still, a newspaper editor set on exposing him.

Clark took a deep breath then and smiled warmly at her. "We're going to bring him down, Lois. Like I said last night, what chance does he have with the two of us on his tail? We'll get him."

Before Lois could reply, there was a knock at the door. She shot Clark a quick, concerned glance, but he was already out of his chair and heading towards the rear of the office. "Yeah?" she called out.

The door opened slightly, and Jimmy's head appeared in the gap. "Lois, I've got some results from that digging around you had me do."

She looked enquiringly at Clark, fully prepared to talk to Jimmy out in the newsroom, no matter how strange it looked. But he nodded and indicated that she should bring Jimmy in. "Okay, come in and shut the door," she told the younger man, surprised at Clark's reaction. Hadn't he said that no- one else could know that he was okay?

Jimmy obeyed her instruction, and as soon as the door was closed Clark stepped out of the shadows and into the centre of the room, to Jimmy's shock. "CK!" he gasped.

"Yeah, I'm here," Clark said, then briefly explained about the pretence, without going into details as to who was behind the attempts on his life. "I'm trusting you not to tell anyone you've seen me, okay?"

"Uh, sure, CK!" Jimmy exclaimed immediately. "You guys know you can trust me, right?"

"We wouldn't have let you in here if we didn't," Clark told him. "So, you have something for us?"

Jimmy took a deep breath and began talking, at his usual excitable rate when he knew he'd found out something good. A couple of advertisers had finally told him the source of the special deals which had encouraged them to switch their advertising to rival newspapers; a marketing agency had contacted them and made them offers they couldn't refuse.

"What agency?" Lois asked sharply.

"AdMedia," Jimmy answered, looking down at his notes. "It's not been around very long — I guess this might have been them trying to make a name for themselves."

"I'm not so sure," Clark said thoughtfully. "Any idea who owns AdMedia?"

Jimmy shook his head. "But I guess I can find out."

"Do," Lois instructed. "Anything else?"

"Well, this is even better," Jimmy told them. "The distributor, right? Well, I can't tell you who my source is, because I swore on my grandmother's grave that I wouldn't — but someone was paying them money to deliver the Planet last, after all the other papers, and then to make sure that the copies were on the back of every newsstand, in the least visible position. Get that!"

Lois and Clark exchanged glances. "Well, that sure explains a lot!" Lois said, appalled. "Jimmy, that's great. But see if you can find out who's behind AdMedia. And who paid the distributor? Did your contact tell you?"

Jimmy shook his head. "Seems it was cash, in a brown envelope. And delivered by someone different each time."

"No chance of figuring that out, then, unless we can get someone else to talk. Who was taking the money? A manager? A supervisor?" Clark stood, hands in his pocket, looking thoughtful.

"The supervisor in charge of that part of the operation," Jimmy explained. "But my guy isn't even sure he knew where it was coming from. He just saw the chance to make a fast few thousand bucks, and took it. And if his boss finds out, he'll lose his job."

"That's what I was hoping," Clark said grimly. "I think I need to talk to the supervisor in charge, exert a little bit of pressure."

"Oh, definitely," Lois agreed. "Go on, Jimmy — let us know when you find out more."

Jimmy nodded, heading for the door. "Oh, and CK? I'm really glad you're okay."


Bender wasn't being his usual efficient self. Nigel had recognised that within five minutes of the attorney arriving at the precinct. That gave him one very salient piece of information: Lex was hanging him out to dry.

In a lesser person, Nigel thought, such a realisation would lead directly to feelings of betrayal. Nigel himself, being completely above any finer emotions, had no interest in concepts such as loyalty, friendship, or — heaven forbid! — love. Lex Luthor might have been his employer, a man whom he'd served faithfully for the past several years — and might also have been his occasional companion in some more private adventures — but there was no emotion of any sort in the relationship, as far as Nigel was concerned. It had been a convenience, no more. It had suited him every bit as much as it had his employer.

And, if Lex was cutting him loose, then he need feel no obligation to continue acting as a 'faithful servant' of Lex Luthor. Which meant, Nigel mused, that he was at liberty to do as he wished with a considerable amount of information of which he was in possession.

In crude terms, he knew where a large amount of the bodies were buried.

The question was: what did he intend to do with that knowledge?

He was well aware that the investigating officer, an Inspector Henderson, would be only too happy for his arrestee to offer to cut a deal. Henderson, he suspected, knew that he only had the second- or possibly third-in- command here, in custody. And, while he could probably manage to make a couple of charges stick — even one charge of murder, though Nigel doubted very much that he'd left any evidence at Kent's apartment — Henderson was no doubt well aware that Nigel knew about far more than the paltry offences with which he could be charged.

Which meant that all he needed to do was send Bender away and ask to talk to Henderson alone. He'd be offered a deal; he had no doubt about that. While the detective might not offer him his liberty, he was sure that something could be worked out which would involve much lesser charges and an end to any possibility of deportation to the good old United Kingdom. And circumstances might even come about whereby escape from custody was a possibility; after all, as a prisoner charged — or even convicted — of lesser crimes, he would be less well guarded.

So he could, to use the American expression, turn state's evidence.

On the other hand, he was well aware that such a course of action would be tantamount to suicide. He might as well put the gun-muzzle in his own mouth and pull the trigger. Lex Luthor would never allow anyone to live if they betrayed him in that manner — Lex, of course, while never loyal himself, did believe in loyalty among subordinates, and was very sensitive to any whiff of betrayal. To be traitorous to Lex Luthor, in his employer's eyes, was a far worse sin than any other.

And Lex, of course, had eyes everywhere. Nigel was not so stupid that he was unaware of that — and in any case, he'd been in charge of recruiting some of the eyes in question. In this case, if he were to ask to speak to Henderson alone, Bender would be making a call to Lex before Nigel was even in Henderson's office. Death would follow swiftly, and probably unavoidably. He might be a former spy, and therefore well used to evading any tricks his enemy might choose to use against him, but Nigel was aware that Lex had methods far more devious. A poisoned cup of coffee; a sniper's bullet; a throat cut in the dead of night; and in each case, the killer would either be untraceable, or found dead a little later. Nigel was well used to the stratagems, having used all of them himself on numerous occasions.

No; giving evidence against Lex was not the way to ensure that he got to enjoy the remainder of his days. But what of his other options? If he simply kept his counsel, allowed Bender to represent him in the man's obviously half-hearted manner, what then? He'd go to prison, or possibly be deported. And in either case, he was unlikely to be a free man again before his dotage, if even then. And even then, it was very possible that Lex Luthor wouldn't trust him to hold his peace; death might find him silently on some dark night in prison in any case.

After all, he knew too much. Far too much. People the like of Toni Taylor, after all, were minnows; Taylor knew a little, but it would have been her word against Luthor's in any case, and she couldn't shed any light on anything beyond her unimportant little business with the Toasters and her family gang. She would be released once her sentence was over, and would be helped to start again in another city. But she was no threat.

Nigel, however, was a very large and very real threat.

And this, most of all, was what Luthor's letting him hang out to dry implied. Not just that Lex was allowing him to take the fall, but that Lex would very soon have him killed.

That might suggest that he might as well start talking to Henderson now; he had nothing to lose, and he might actually manage to cause some trouble for Luthor before the fatal blow struck.

But then he cast another glance at Bender. The man was a fool. He wasn't the type to be a killer, but on the other hand it was perfectly possible that he had explicit orders from Lex Luthor and — being a mercenary shark, like most lawyers — would be prepared to carry them out as and when necessary. Who was to know that inside his briefcase there weren't vials of some poison or other? Or an arsenic pill which could be slipped into a drink?

All was not lost, however. Nigel smiled inwardly as he came to a decision. He got to his feet and sought permission to use the men's room, saying sardonically that he assumed that he got to use a cubicle unescorted.

A gesture from Henderson got a uniformed officer to escort Nigel into the men's room; he went ahead into a cubicle and there found paper and a pen, then paused for thought. Kent was dead, so he was of no use; what irony that he now considered Kent useful, now that the man had finally been removed! Lane was engaged to Luthor; not that Nigel would ever trust a woman with something of this importance.

Perry White.

The man was in hospital recovering from a heart attack, true; but he was an honest newspaperman. Admittedly, the sort of man Nigel would ordinarily despise, but that didn't matter now. He was a man who would search for the truth, and who probably had no love for Luthor.

Quickly, Nigel scribbled a few instructions, then folded the paper and wrote Perry White's name on the front. Then he pulled the signet ring he wore off his finger and twisted the device on the front; it came away, revealing a hollowed inside. Swiftly, he tipped the ring up and allowed the contents of the interior to fall into his mouth, then he flushed the toilet and emerged.

If he had to die, better that it be at a time of his own choosing, than suffer the indignity of being 'terminated' by some lackey of Lex Luthor. At the very least, he would have prevented his erstwhile employer having the pleasure of knowing that the deed had been done at his command.

Back in the corridor, Nigel deliberately brushed against a passer-by — not at random, either; he'd chosen his victim carefully. Not a detective, nor an experienced uniformed officer, he'd decided; possibly a rookie, or a civilian administrative assistant. Even better, a police reporter. And he was in luck; he actually recognised a reporter from the Daily Planet, and in a movement made barely visible through years of practice, he slipped the piece of paper in the reporter's pocket.

Moments later, back in the interview room with Henderson, Bender and another police officer, Nigel felt the deadly drug taking effect. He smiled in triumph as he felt himself slide forward and onto the floor.

<This time, Mr Luthor, the game will not be yours…>


"So we were being sabotaged!" Lois, clearly worked up, started pacing around the room.

"Well, we thought that," Clark reminded her. "We discussed it, remember?"

"But that was speculation. Having it proved feels so… so horrible, Clark! Someone actually paid people to ruin the Planet!"

"Yeah, and we know who, too," Clark pointed out dryly. "And that someone decided to hurry things along today."

Lois sighed. "Yeah. You know, all the time I was with him in his limo earlier — going to the precinct, and later when he insisted on driving me back, all I was thinking was 'what a hypocrite!' Clark…" She hesitated then, swallowing. "What if Superman hadn't been there? The Planet would be in ruins! And so many people could have been killed…"

"I know." Clark came to stand behind her, wrapping his arms around her and tugging her back against his body. "But Superman was there. And we're going to prove that Luthor was behind this. We're going to see him go down, Lois. I swear to you."

She was silent for a time, simply resting against him; then she twisted in his arms, turning to face him. Without speaking, she reached up and took his face between her hands, tugging his head down; then she kissed him. It was a warm, intimate, needy kiss, and for a long moment Clark simply gave himself up to responding, to giving Lois everything she needed of him in return.

Then, very reluctantly, he released her. "We have things to do," he said regretfully. "But later — "

Another knock on the door stopped him; Lois called out to ask who was there, and Jimmy answered.

"AdMedia's basically a shell," he said as soon as he was in the office.

"A shell?"

"Yeah. Not quite a dummy corporation, but it doesn't actually do anything. It was only set up about a month ago, and its directors are untraceable. Its office is a post office box number. There are no employees that I can find in any records. And I tried to contact its CEO. She's a secretary for Lex Communications."

"Luthor," Clark said coldly; another suspicion confirmed, he thought. Another missing piece of the jigsaw.

"Lex Luthor? Yeah, well, it looks to me like AdMedia is a front for Lex Communications all right," Jimmy agreed. "Not that I understand why LexCom would want to put the Planet out of business — they don't have a newspaper division!"

"We're still working on that one, Jimmy," Lois said. "We'll tell you everything once we can prove it."

Clark saw a longing look cross Jimmy's face, but the younger man nodded. "Sure, Lois. Okay, I'll leave you guys to it. Let me know if you need anything more." At the door, he turned back and added, "By the way, the guys out there keep asking me whether there's any news about you, CK. What do you want me to say?"

"Nothing," Lois said firmly. "If and when there's any kind of announcement to be made, I'll make it."

She closed the door behind Jimmy, then raised an eyebrow in Clark's direction. "He's got a point."

"I know." Clark sighed; he really hadn't thought through all the implications of playing dead. "I'm going to call Henderson; then we'll decide what to do. I guess if I really am supposed to be dead, you're going to need to run something in tomorrow's paper."

He crossed quickly to the desk and picked up the phone, tapping out the sequence of numbers Henderson had given him, which would take him either straight through to the detective or to Henderson's voicemail.

Henderson answered the phone himself, and the two had a conversation lasting approximately ten minutes. When he hung up, Clark sank into Lois's chair and grimaced at her. "St John's dead."

She stared back at him. "Nigel? But how? Killed? You think Lex was afraid that he might talk?"

Clark shook his head. "Killed himself. He had some kind of poison in his signet ring. They don't know what it was yet — Henderson hasn't had the test results. He had a lawyer with him — Sheldon Bender, who's apparently on a retainer for LexCorp. Bender's claiming that he knows nothing of what St John was up to and that he was just doing Lex Luthor a favour by representing Nigel. And Henderson says Bender was only alone with Nigel for about fifteen minutes."

"So no chance of Nigel turning state's evidence," Lois said regretfully.

"My guess is he knew Luthor would have him killed if he did," Clark suggested.

"Which means we're back where we started — we still have to get something incriminating on Lex," she said wearily. "And I know the AdMedia stuff Jimmy dug up is a breakthrough, but it's not enough. Lex could claim that it's nothing to do with him. It's all circumstantial." She sighed then, and added, "If only Superman had some hard evidence! All he has are impressions and informed guesses. Even the stuff Luthor said to him isn't good enough to even convince the police to question him, let alone get a conviction."

"Well, okay, we'll just have to start looking somewhere else," Clark mused aloud. "By the way, you probably heard me tell Henderson that I'm not going to pretend to be dead any more — he doesn't need that to get St John, not now. So in a while I'll sneak out of here and make an appearance in the newsroom, okay? And we can run a small item in tomorrow's edition about the booby-trap in my apartment. Maybe I can word it so that it might flush Luthor out, assuming that he still wants me dead."

Lois shot him an alarmed glance. "Clark, I'm not sure I could take another time like this morning. Thinking you were dead was… was horrible!"

Another stab of guilt hit him. He *had* to tell her, as soon as possible, just why she didn't need to worry! And he would. Taking a deep breath, he said quickly, "I'll be fine, Lois, trust me. And — there's something we need to talk about. Can we have dinner together tonight? Maybe at my place?"

But she had a distant expression on her face. "Huh? What did you say, Clark?"

"Dinner. Tonight. My place?" he repeated, wondering what was on her mind, but not surprised. This was his partner, after all, and when she had moments like this it usually meant that she was thinking deeply about something.

"No, not that," she said quickly, dismissively; Clark tried to smother the little pang which hit him at the idea that she didn't want to spend time with him.

"What, then?"

"You said something about looking somewhere else?"

"Oh, that. I was just — "

But she over-rode him. "I think I know where to start looking. Meet me at my place tonight, about nine — and wear something dark."


"Damn Nigel to hell!" Lex expostulated, stalking around his office in fury.

"I suspect he may already be there, Mr Luthor," Mrs Cox mused aloud, a faint smile hovering around her lips.

"Quite possibly," her employer agreed. "Why couldn't he just have pleaded guilty and served his sentence?"

"Why, Lex! Anyone would think that you cared!" his personal assistant suggested mockingly. "Anyone would think that you actually intended him to serve his sentence," she added more softly.

He raised an eyebrow sharply at her, but ignored her last remark. As for her first… was he cursed that he was surrounded by idiots? "Nigel was useful, no more. But then he grew careless." He sighed then. "If you must know, the reason his suicide irritates me is that it is so messy. He has no family; who is considered responsible for his body? Who must arrange a funeral? And who must take care of all the other issues contingent upon an untimely death?"

"Well, this *is* what you have personal assistants and lawyers for, Lex. And, if your contingency plan had been required… well, the same might have applied." She raised an eyebrow archly. "Leave all of that to me. I'll ensure that you're not troubled with it. And — since I assume that your impending marriage is on your mind — there is no reason why you should delay the wedding because of this unfortunate incident."

"True," Lex conceded. "And at least he saw to Kent's removal. But he left so much unfinished business. I cannot *believe* that he failed to destroy the Daily Planet!" he almost yelled suddenly, bringing his fist down hard on the surface of a desk.

"Well, Superman's arrival was extremely inconvenient — "

"*Inconvenient*! The wretched alien must have been hovering over the building! I was *furious* when I saw him with the bomb!" Lex drew several agitated breaths before forcing himself to calm down. "And the young idiot, Nigel's spy — he was supposed to have been killed. I want him disposed of, do you hear?"

"I'll take care of it, Lex. Unlike Nigel, I will not fail." Mrs Cox smiled again, in a self-satisfied manner; Lex made a mental note to send for her again later that evening. He might as well have some congenial company in his bed, since Lois wasn't inclined to advance that aspect of their relationship. And she'd told him that she'd be working late again. He really was going to have to insist that he came first in her life.

But first, there was still the problem of that wretched do- gooder. "Some weeks ago I put out a call for information about that nauseating freak. Why have I not had any responses?"

"Perhaps because this time no-one does know anything?" Mrs Cox suggested, her tone careful. "But don't forget your secret weapon. Perhaps it is time to make use of it?"

"Possibly," Lex mused aloud. "I would be more satisfied if we were able to conduct some tests as to its efficacy — but the do-gooder is not the easiest of people to locate. Although we could play to his weakness… Set up an emergency of some kind and be there to see if he comes."


Not long after commanding his presence at her apartment later that evening, Lois had sent Clark off to do his reappearing act, and then she'd resumed her acting editor- in-chief role, demanding stories from him for the morning edition. She'd had to do it; apart from anything else, she couldn't allow the rest of the staff to see him getting away with being absent most of the day and then being permitted to slack. But it meant that they were denied any further opportunity for private conversation.

And she'd told him that, much as she'd love to have dinner with him, it was unlikely that she'd be leaving the office before 8.30. She'd be having pizza sent in once again.

He silently resolved to bring her something a little more appetising, even if she was too busy to sit and eat it with him.

He'd just sent one story for editing when his Super-hearing kicked in. At first he was inclined to ignore it; after all, if he ran out now it would really look good to his colleagues! But after a few moments he realised that he had to go. There was a fire in a high school on the edge of the city, and although most of the kids had probably gone home, there were always extra-curricular activities going on. He couldn't leave this to the fire brigade who, according to the news report he'd heard, were actually stuck in traffic on their way there.

The old excuses being the best, Clark headed for the men's room; seconds later, he was speeding through the sky towards the school. It was only the work of a minute or two to extinguish the flames, once he'd ascertained that no-one was in immediate danger. All he needed to do was talk quickly to the senior firefighter, then he could be on his way back to the Planet.

He staggered.

Picking himself up, Clark caught his breath, then realised that he was in pain. Daggers of fire were shooting through his body. It was agony…

But what was causing it? He was *Superman*! He was invulnerable!

Then, as suddenly as it had hit him, the pain vanished. Clark tested his limbs and probed carefully along his nerve endings. He seemed okay.

Quickly, before anything else could happen, he took off — a little gingerly — and flew back towards the Planet. Once seated at his desk again, he replayed those few moments in his mind, trying to work out what could have caused the acute pain and sensation of debilitation.

Then he wondered why he was trying to kid himself. He knew of only one thing which could do that to him.


*** "It worked, Lex! He stumbled! And he looked as if he was in pain. It really does work!"

Lex smiled triumphantly at his assistant. "And how far from him were you at the time?"

"Oh, at least twenty feet. So it has a fairly good range."

"Hmmm. And how long did you have to expose the mineral before it took effect?"

"The effect was instantaneous, Lex. I lifted the lid on the little lead container, and he was under its influence immediately. I only held it open for about ten seconds — once I closed it, he seemed to recover very quickly. But I suspect that a longer exposure would be considerably harder to recover from."

"In that case, the hypothesis that this mineral can kill him may very well be true," Lex murmured, a broad smile on his lips. "Perhaps this has turned into a good day after all."

As he watched, Mrs Cox seemed to flinch. "What is it?" he asked her sharply.

"I have bad news, I'm afraid."


"Nigel failed again this morning. It seems that Mr Kent is alive and well."

"*What*???" Incandescent, Lex glared at his assistant.

"There was a report on the radio a short while ago, about a murder attempt on a reporter which had failed. No names were mentioned, but the circumstances were too close to be coincidence."

Lex whirled around, seized a paperweight, and flung it with force against the reinforced plate-glass window. "*Kill him*!!"

Mrs Cox took several steps backwards. "I'll look into it. But we have to be careful. With Nigel dead, we don't have a convenient scapegoat any more."

"All right, all right!" Lex conceded reluctantly. How he hated that interfering reporter! But Mrs Cox was right; it wasn't sensible to take risks, and anyway, he was agitated at the moment, which was never the most sensible moment to make serious decisions. He wanted Kent dead, but it had to look like an accident, or a murder which under no circumstances could be traced back anywhere near him. "Report to me in an hour with at least two viable termination strategies. I want him dead by tomorrow morning."


"Lois, where are we going?"

"I told you earlier!"

"You told me about Luthor building a complete replica of your apartment in the basement of LexCorp — and by the way, that was one *weird* thing to do, and didn't that give you even the faintest hint that you didn't want to get involved with this guy? — and — "

"Clark! I told you — yes, I admit that it should have, but I was stupid, okay? And just make the most of that admission, okay, because it's not something you're going to hear from me very often."

"If ever again…"

"I heard that!"

"Well, come on, it's true, isn't it? How often do you admit to being wrong, Lois?" Clark grinned at her as he spoke, and she was unable to resist grinning back.

"Okay, not often. But then, I'm not often wrong, am I?"

"Okay, Lois, I admit it. You're very rarely wrong!" Clark laughed, then returned to his earlier question. "So where are we going? You didn't tell me earlier — you just said I had to dress in black."

"It's obvious, Clark! We're going to search Lex's underground basement!"

"And why did I think that was what you had in mind?" Clark responded rhetorically. "Lois, okay, he was using it for some pretty kooky stuff a few months ago, but even if he's for some reason storing every single bit of proof we want down there, this could be *dangerous*, Lois! If he finds us there…"

"You're scared, Clark," Lois challenged.

"No, I'm not! I just don't want you getting hurt!" Clark protested. His conscience reminded him that he could of course tell Lois about his alter ego and that, as a result, their mission could be accomplished far more easily if she'd let him do whatever was necessary. But he sighed, looking out at his surroundings. They were a couple of minutes away from Luthor's headquarters, and Lois was in her best 'I'm an investigative reporter and I can't wait to do a bit of breaking and entering' mode. Even if he did confess, he couldn't see her agreeing to stay put in the car and let him go in without her. So the only thing which would be achieved by telling her the truth now would be possibly provoking an argument. Which he certainly didn't want.

He sighed again.

"I just don't want you getting hurt, Lois, that's all," he repeated quietly.

She removed one hand from the steering wheel and touched his face lightly. "I love it that you care, Clark."

"I love *you*," he pointed out. "And after today… I don't want to lose you, Lois."

She grimaced. "After today, I know what it feels like to think I've lost you, Clark. I don't want to go through that again either."

Clark sighed again. Actually, there wasn't anything else he could have done about what had happened that morning — well, except that if Lois had known about Superman she wouldn't have needed to worry. If he'd managed to tell her that morning… if only her dratted cellphone hadn't rung!

But he was *definitely* going to tell her later. Once they'd done whatever she wanted them to do in Luthor's underground bunker.

Now he came to think of it, he was pretty sure that he'd been there once. That time he'd recovered his globe, and he'd found all those lost works of art. That had been the basement of one of Lex Luthor's properties, he was sure. And he'd also been sure that there was more than just that room.

So Lois's hunch could well be right.

A couple of minutes later, they'd left the Jeep in a side- street and were making their way carefully around to the rear of the LexCorp building. "So how exactly are we going to get in?" Clark asked.

"Oh, stop fussing about details!" Lois hissed. "We'll find a way. Even if I have to make you climb through a ventilator shaft."

He looked her up and down and gave her a devilish grin. "Well, you might find that a bit easier than I would."

She allowed her gaze to dwell on him in the half-light provided by a distant street-lamp. "That's true. You may be slim, but you're pretty beefy all the same."

"*Beefy*?" Clark protested, at the same time stifling a laugh. "Am I supposed to feel complimented?"

"Well, I'm not complaining," she told him smugly, then pulled his face down for a thorough kiss. Clark wasn't at all reluctant to delay their planned activity in favour of spending more time kissing Lois, and he reciprocated enthusiastically — for all of the thirty seconds she allowed him.

He pulled a hard-done-by face at her as she released him. She waggled her finger in front of his face and grinned. "We have work to do, partner. Kissing will just have to keep."

"Why does no-one ever ask me what I want?" Clark mumbled, but in a good-natured tone, as he followed Lois to make a closer inspection of the building to find a way in.


Once inside, Lois looked cautiously around the section of the basement where they stood. It didn't seem familiar, but she assumed that the area she'd been shown before, including her reconstructed apartment, had probably been destroyed. This seemed more like a cellar instead of fully- fitted-out offices.

"We need to see whether there's a door anywhere," she hissed at Clark, who seemed to be gazing in an unfocused way around the cellar. He actually had his glasses raised and was rubbing his nose; this was a fine time for her partner to become abstracted, she thought in mild irritation. But then, watching him, she remembered their kisses again and found herself tingling in anticipation of more.

It seemed Clark hadn't been wool-gathering, for he indicated in the direction of a corner. "I think we should check this out first," he suggested, walking over to a large cabinet. Lois followed, realising that she hadn't even been able to see it in the poor light.

It was locked, of course. Lois was about to dig out her trusty lock-picking devices, but Clark gently pushed her out of the way and caught hold of one of the drawers. She wasn't quite clear what he did, but after a little shuffling and manipulation the drawer sprang open.

Lois's first reaction was that they'd stumbled on a treasure-trove. Near the front of the drawer was a file labelled Mentamide Experiment; she grabbed it and started skimming the contents while Clark held the flashlight they'd brought from the car. A few minutes later, she put it down, frustrated. Nothing in there tied Lex to anything illegal; the only information held in the file confirmed what they already know, that LexLabs had been involved in funding the research. That didn't prove that Lex knew anything about the illegal use of children, or the potentially dangerous consequences of the drug.

"Damn! And I thought we had him!" she muttered.

"Keep looking," Clark said, patting her back.

They resumed the search, flipping past files containing building records, permits, OSHA inspection reports and documentation on companies they knew Luthor no longer owned. A couple of files containing employee records looked interesting, but once they'd skimmed through them it was clear that there was nothing of value there. It mainly concerned records from some years back, and was all completely legitimate. Another file labelled as containing stocks and shares records was discarded for the same reason.

"Nothing!" Lois said disgustedly. "This is just an overflow file storage area!"

"Looks like it," Clark agreed. "But don't give up yet. Who knows what else might be here?"

Lois protested at what she saw as a waste of time, but Clark convinced her to keep looking for another ten minutes or so. Then, after wading through more files containing purchase orders for stationery, contract terms for private security on the Luthor empire's buildings and details of rental income on sublet property, Clark suddenly exclaimed softly.

"Take a look at this!"

'This' turned out to be a file labelled Prometheus Project. Lois grabbed it, feeling a sense of significance in the name alone; Lex's own space project had been called Space Station Luthor.

In the file were notes which referred to Antoinette Baines, explosive devices and alterations to certain aspects of wiring. Lois searched it closely for anything which tied the information specifically to Luthor, but found only vague references. Still, it was better than anything else they had so far. It matched all the evidence about the explosion of the Messenger and the attempt to sabotage its successor and kill all the occupants.

And it had been found in Lex Luthor's own basement.

Lois fumbled in her pocket for the small camera she brought with her just for this kind of thing; quickly, she took photos of each page of the file before replacing it in the drawer. A minute or two later, she turned up another intriguing file, labelled 'Bender'.

"Isn't that the name of one of Luthor's lawyers?" Clark asked curiously. "I think that's the name Henderson mentioned earlier — the guy who was representing St John."

"You could be right," Lois said absently as she opened the file. It soon became clear that its contents were payment records to Sheldon Bender, as well as old affidavits and contracts. Innocuous enough… but then she started to read some of the documents shoved in at the back.

A fax instructing Bender to put in place a complicated cover-up operation in the face of a police investigation into shady dealing. Another fax giving orders to Bender to alter some records so that it looked like the manager of a LexCorp subsidiary was responsible for several incidents of insider trading. And a copy of an agreement signed by both Luthor and Toni Taylor, guaranteeing that Taylor would get certain protections on her release from prison, in return for keeping her mouth shut about unspecified issues.

"This has to prove something!" Lois hissed at Clark. "He can't explain all this away. His signature is on half these documents!"

Clark grinned back at her; she hugged him impulsively, revelling in the kind of moment she loved. They'd found some key evidence which could help them break the investigation wide open.

His arms embraced her warmly, and she felt his lips on her hair. Sorely tempted to tilt her head up for his kiss, Lois resisted; they had a lot to do, and it wasn't sensible to stay too long in the cellar. Reluctantly, she drew away from him. "We might as well take a quick look around the rest of the room, just to check that there's nothing else useful here," she suggested.

Clark agreed, and they walked quietly around the cellar. There didn't seem to be any evidence of other hidden storage, although Clark kept pausing to stare intently at the walls. She had no idea what he was looking for, but decided to let him be; his instincts were usually pretty good, and if he found anything then she'd demand to know just how he'd done it.

As they walked past a wine-rack, Clark suddenly staggered. He emitted a low moan of pain, and then collapsed.

*** Stunned, Lois ran to her partner's side. He was lying flat on the floor, his glasses slightly askew, and as she shone the flashlight carefully on him he looked deathly pale. His breathing was shallow and he seemed to be in pain.

"Clark? Clark!" She shook him slightly, trying desperately to get a response out of him, to figure out what was wrong.

Slowly, weakly, his hand came up to cover hers. "Lois…" he whispered, sounding strained. "Get me out of here…"

"What's wrong? What happened? Have you had a heart attack or something?" she asked frantically, terrified that something really serious had happened to him.

"Not… that…" He struggled, not entirely successfully, to get to his feet; reluctantly, she helped him. Lois wasn't really sure whether Clark should be trying to get up, in his condition, but on the other hand she couldn't exactly just call an ambulance for him. They were trespassing on Lex Luthor's property, after all, and the consequences of being found there could be fatal.

She wrapped one arm firmly around his waist, dragging his arm around her shoulders. "Come on. Let's get out of here," she said encouragingly, then added, "What happened?"

He shook his head, and she realised that he needed to conserve his strength. They staggered across the length of the cellar, moving agonisingly slowly, but finally they made it to the trapdoor through which they'd gained entrance. Clark seemed to regain some of his strength as they reached it, and he was able to climb out with her assistance.

Outside, he leaned against the wall and breathed heavily. "Thanks, Lois," he said on a sigh, weakly patting her arm in a gesture of acknowledgement.

"Come on. We need to get you to the car. And to a hospital!" she added.

"No hospital," he insisted quickly as he leaned on her again to walk to the Jeep. "Can't… risk it."

"We don't have to tell anyone where we were!" she exclaimed impatiently. She was worried about him; in the street light, he still looked pale, and he was definitely weak. Besides which, a healthy adult male did not just keel over for no reason.

If Clark was sick — and that was a frightening prospect, given the way she felt about him — she needed to get him help. Urgently!

"Can't…" he protested as she opened the door of the Jeep for him. "There was… Kryptonite… in there," he explained, lines of strain showing on his face.


That was the meteorite Jason Trask had claimed to have. The one he'd claimed could kill Superman. The one she'd never even believed existed.

The one… which was harmless to humans.

And it had hurt Clark.

That meant Clark… was Kryptonian. He had to be!

But what did that mean? He was Superman's brother? Cousin?

Wait a minute…

He was sitting in the Jeep now, his head back against the headrest, looking exhausted. She scrambled into the driver's seat, then reached across and grabbed his glasses, brushing his hair upwards off his forehead in a swift motion.

She was looking at Superman.

*** This wasn't how he'd wanted Lois to find out, Clark thought weakly as he struggled against the overpowering feeling of malaise. At least the pain had almost gone now, he reflected; he just felt very, very tired. And Lois knew that he was Superman, and he didn't have the energy to explain it all to her.

She still hadn't said anything, and yet he knew that she was furious. Of course she was; why wouldn't she be? He'd been lying to her by omission for the past year. He'd used her belief that Clark and Superman were two different men in lots of ways, some of which he wasn't especially proud of. And he'd let her worry needlessly about himself, when if he'd told her that he was Superman she'd have known that he'd be perfectly all right.

Of course she was mad.

Then he heard her take a sharp indrawn breath. "That stuff must hurt you pretty badly," she commented, her tone almost detached. "I'm going to get you home. I need you fully recovered so I can kill you!"

"Yeah, I guessed you might feel that way," he murmured wryly, then coughed at the effort it had taken him to talk. He leaned back against the headrest again and closed his eyes.

Without a word, Lois started the engine and drove off.

He was beginning to feel better, Clark thought as he stretched his limbs experimentally. The pain had certainly receded. But he felt the way he imagined someone might feel after going fifteen rounds with a world heavyweight. Battered. Utterly exhausted. Aching all over — just no longer in excruciating pain.

"That stuff — Kryptonite — can it actually kill you?" Lois's question, voiced in a strained tone, jolted him out of his thoughts.

"I don't know for sure. But my guess is yes," he told her, still keeping his eyelids closed. The street-lights hurt his eyes. And anyway, he wasn't sure that he wanted to look at Lois, to see the expression of anger and betrayal which he knew would be on her face. "I'd need to be exposed to it for longer than a couple of minutes — I don't know how long. But over half an hour, an hour… yeah. I think it'd kill me."

Lois didn't answer, but he felt the Jeep's speed increase. He wasn't sure whether that was a good or a bad sign.


He'd deceived her. He'd been lying to her from the day they'd met. He'd played her for a fool by pretending to be two men. He'd let her moon over him as Superman, making a fool of herself by trying to get him to respond to her. And all the time, no doubt, he'd been laughing at her behind his back.

He'd let her worry about him *needlessly*! He knew how worried she'd been the previous evening, and he hadn't said a word. This morning, she'd thought he was *dead*! And all the time, he was Superman, and he was invulnerable.

Not invulnerable.

Kryptonite could kill him. And if she hadn't been able to get him out of that basement, he would have died.

She could have lost him after all.

He was so silent now — but then, so was she. But, from the occasional glimpses she got of his face as they passed street-lights, she could see that he was also very pale. His eyes were closed — from pain, or because he couldn't face looking at her? Maybe he expected that she'd be angry — after all, he had cause to be familiar with her temper.

She had every right to be angry! — but he was hurt. He could have died.

It was with a sense of relief that she rounded the corner onto Carter Avenue, a few blocks from her apartment building. The silence in the car was becoming almost oppressive, although Lois hadn't the faintest idea what she wanted to say to Clark. She was angry, certainly; but did she really have the right to be angry? A large part of her insisted that she did, for all the reasons she'd already outlined for herself. And yet another part of her pointed out that this was a *huge* secret. This wasn't the same as sharing everyday stuff. This secret could cost Clark everything.

Whether he was really Clark or Superman — which was a question she couldn't even begin to answer — he would lose every semblance of a normal life if it became commonly known that Superman was in reality — or masqueraded as — a reporter named Clark Kent. He'd be besieged by reporters and mobbed by fans. And every criminal in the city — no, the country! — would be doing their best to get him out of the way.

Which, now that she knew that Kryptonite really existed, wasn't an impossibility after all…

Or, as an alternative, some criminals would enjoy finding ways to control Superman. And Clark, with a convenient set of parents, as well as friends and co-workers at the Planet, would seem to be an easy target -

And since she and Clark were friends… and maybe more… *she* could be used to control Superman!

It was no wonder that he'd kept his identity secret from everyone.

But that still didn't mean that she had no right to be angry.

With a heavy sigh, she pulled into her usual parking space and cut the engine. That made Clark open his eyes; he turned his head towards her and seemed about to speak, but then he halted and made a surprised mutter. "Your place?"

"You aren't recovered from that stuff yet, are you?" she responded, unable to prevent the coolness from creeping into her voice.

He sighed. "No. It'll probably take until tomorrow some time, I guess."

"And Lex still wants you dead, I guess. So you'd better stay here again."

He shifted in his seat, in the manner of someone who'd been in the same position for far too long and was stiff and aching all over. "I don't want to put you to any trouble. Or put you at risk." He inhaled deeply, then added, "I can walk home from here. Goodnight, Lois."

"Just wait a minute, Clark Kent!" Lois exclaimed, frustrated both by his refusal to let her help him, and his apparent desire to get away from her as quickly as possible. "Apart from anything else, you have a *lot* of explaining to do! And don't think that you're going to get away with putting it off just because it's late and you've been hurt. You might look tired, but otherwise you seem pretty much fine to me. You're going to come inside and start *talking*!"

To her surprise, he actually gave her a grin at that; it was shaky, but definitely a Clark grin. Or should that be a Superman grin? Suddenly, she was no longer sure. "Yeah, I guess you have the right to demand that," he said softly. "And I know better than to expect any mercy from Mad Dog Lane!"

She gave him a sharp look, but he'd softened his remark with a wry smile and an expression in his eyes which told her that he was well aware that she wasn't really like that.

"Come on, let's get inside," she said quickly, not wanting to give herself time to dwell on that look. It reminded her far too much of the Clark she'd kissed very thoroughly, and exchanged vows of love with, in her office that afternoon. And she wasn't sure that she wanted to remember that Clark just yet. She needed to focus on the Clark who'd deceived her.

In her apartment, she made him sit down — he'd had to lean on both her and the rail walking up the steps into her building, and he still looked pale — while she went to make coffee. On her return, he was perched on the edge of her sofa, his head in his hands.

"Clark?" She shook him lightly. "Are you really okay?"

He raised his head and shook it slightly. "Physically, I'm getting there. My powers are gone, but if the last time's any guide they should come back some time tomorrow, maybe. I guess I…" He hesitated, grimaced, then added, "Well, I've really blown it with you, Lois, haven't I?"

Trust Clark to put her on the spot like that when she hadn't even made up her mind what she was feeling! It just wasn't fair of him, she thought in irritation; then she made herself see the pain in his eyes.

"I just don't know, Clark," she told him honestly, handing him his coffee and sitting down opposite him. "You lied to me. And I found out just when I thought I could trust you. Just when I'd decided that if there was any man on Earth I could trust, it was you."

He flinched.

"And it's not only the lies," she added, warming to her theme. "What did you think you were doing, Clark? I mean, coming on to me as Superman — you did that at least once, if not more. Coming to see me all the time as Superman, and then making snide remarks about Superman as Clark? What was that all supposed to achieve? And using Superman to help *you* by trying to talk me out of marrying Lex?"

At that, Clark looked annoyed. "You don't expect me to apologise for that, surely?" he demanded in a low voice. "You know what the man is — *now*. But you wouldn't believe me when I tried to tell you. I thought you might believe Superman — so I made you promise to talk to Superman about Luthor, and then went to see you in the Suit to make sure you did. And it worked, didn't it?"

"You made me so mad at you for manipulating me!" she threw back at him, but without much anger; he simply nodded in response.

"I knew that. And I knew that you'd be madder still if you knew that Superman was me. But I still had to do it, Lois."

"Yeah, I guess," she agreed. "But that doesn't alter anything else. And," she added, hurt now seeping into her voice, "what about the way you let me worry about you? Have you any *idea* how worried I was this morning? And over the last couple of days, once I knew that Lex was trying to kill you? And all the time you couldn't be killed!"

Without speaking, Clark raised one eyebrow at her. She flushed, understanding exactly the point he was conveying to her: he *could* be killed, and had come close to it this evening.

"Okay, okay, but apart from that," she pointed out crisply. "Do you have any idea what you put me through?"

Clark nodded. "I know. I realised as soon as you threw yourself at me earlier and told me you thought I was dead. And, I swear to you, I was furious at myself for letting you worry like that." He gave a helpless gesture.

"Look, Lois, there were reasons why I had to keep this secret from you. My parents… my life as Clark Kent… all that would be at risk if someone else knew — "

"You think I haven't figured that out?" she threw back at him immediately, interrupting him. "I've even worked out that I'd be at risk — like everyone else at the Planet — if criminals knew who Superman is, or guessed that I was close to Superman. But that's not the issue here, Clark! You had to know I'd never tell anyone. Not now. Okay, you know in the beginning I'd almost have sold my grandmother for a serious story on Superman. But once I got to know him — you — he stopped being just a story! He — you," she amended again; this was one heck of an adjustment to make in her thinking! " — became a *friend*. And I don't sell my friends for a front-page exclusive."

"I know that, Lois. And I know I can trust you," Clark said quickly. "Remember, I told you it was Kryptonite back there. I could have just made something up, couldn't I? Pretended that it was something else, like my parents and I did back in Smallville when we told you I had allergies. But I didn't. And anyway, you have to know that I trust you. I actually started to tell you all this earlier today!"

"You… what?" She stared at him in disbelief. "When?"

"This morning. Here. Right in this room. Remember when you got that phone call and you had to leave?"

She did remember. She nodded.

"What was happening before that?"

Lois thought back. Clark had been speaking… what had he been saying to her? It was something important, she remembered, or at least he'd sounded as if it was…

"You said I didn't need to worry. And you started to say something else…"

"I was about to tell you the truth about Superman," Clark told her, though she'd already guessed that from his reminder.

"Okay. Okay, so you were going to tell me this morning," she said, knowing that her tone was getting shrill but unable to do anything to prevent it. "And you've had *all day* since then, but you couldn't find just five minutes to let me in on the secret?"

"What do you expect, that I'd tell you at the Planet? In your office? When I knew you'd probably get mad, and anyone could come in at any moment?" Clark shook his head in rejection. "It just wasn't possible, Lois. If it hadn't been for that bomb, I'd have taken you off somewhere quiet for lunch and we could have talked. But that didn't happen. And do you remember me asking you to have dinner with me at my apartment tonight? I was going to tell you then. But you had other ideas about how we could spend this evening, didn't you? So I didn't have the chance!"

He was pretty convincing when he wanted to be, Lois decided. But then, that was hardly surprising, was it? Since for the past year he'd convinced her that he was two different men.

She blew out a sharp breath and got to her feet, beginning to pace around the room. Clark seemed about to speak, and by the look of his expression he was going to say something placating. She gave him just one look, and he thought better of it.

"It's not that I think you deliberately tried to hurt me or anything," she began abruptly after several circuits of the kitchen. "I think I know you well enough to know that's not true. But you did deceive me. And I have to alter *all* my impressions of you now, Clark! Everything I ever knew about you, and about Superman… none of it's really true — "

"It *is* true, Lois!" he interrupted passionately. "I never lied to you, apart from when I had to protect the secret of my identity. And even then, I tried to get around it with half-truths rather than lies. I'm still me, Lois! Clark Kent, from Smallville — I did grow up there, you know. And my parents really are Jonathan and Martha Kent — they found me as a baby and brought me up."

"You see, that's just it!" Lois retorted. "It's all so logical. Everything. When you present it like that, and explain it all… it just makes so much sense. But it *can't* make sense — not when I'm standing here wondering who the heck you are, Clark Kent! And trying to figure out just what was deceit and what was true!"

"Lois, just ask me anything and I'll answer it," he told her fiercely. "I swear to you, I will tell you the truth. I've wanted to tell you the truth for so long — you'll never know just how much of a relief it is that you know at last. Ask me, Lois. Ask me anything."

There was so much she wanted to know, so many things she wanted to ask so that she could even begin to understand this complex man she now knew to be Clark Kent. But she wasn't yet ready to let go of her anger. And hurt… allowing herself to examine her feelings for a moment, she admitted that a large part of her hurt came from the fact that Clark had kissed her, told her he loved her, before telling her the truth about himself.

Didn't he trust her to love him for himself? Had he believed that, if she'd known he was Superman, she'd have wanted him for the powers, and not for himself?

<Wouldn't you?>

She growled silently at her conscience, telling it to shut up. Then she faced Clark again, her expression taut. "All right then, Superman. Tell me this. Those times when you saved my life as Clark, and you made me think that you were such a brave hero as a result — you were never in any danger at all, were you? You're invulnerable! You couldn't have got hurt!"

He flinched, then took a deep breath. "Okay. I guess you think maybe I deserve that, and maybe I do. But, Lois, I had to do whatever was necessary to preserve my secret. You have to understand that! And anyway… Did I boast? Did I tell you over and over what risks I took for you?"

"You did remind me a couple of times that you'd saved my life," she pointed out.

"And why was that? To try to make you grateful? Or was there another reason?"

Lois sighed. "You wanted me not to take any more risks."

Clark threw out his hands. "Exactly!" Then he sighed and pulled an exasperated face. "Lois, why are we arguing? I admit that I should have told you earlier. And I told you that I wanted to tell you. You must know that I never wanted to hurt you, and that I trust you to keep this secret for me. So can't we just talk about this? Instead of sniping at each other?"

For once unable to say a word, Lois stared back at Clark. She didn't want to fight with him, but this was too big, too much of a shock, too much of a deceit, for her to shrug it all off immediately.

"Lois, none of this matters to me beside the fact that I love you. That I've always loved you, right from the day we met, and that today — this morning — was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me. I can't lose you over *this*! So, please, let's talk about it. Come and sit down?"

She hesitated. The anger, the hurt was still there… but at the same time, Clark was right. This was the man she loved, in whichever guise. And while she was nowhere near ready to move on from the way she was feeling now, she didn't want to lose Clark. She'd resolved earlier that this was one relationship she had no intention of mucking up, and that still held, despite this new knowledge.

She crossed to the other sofa and sat down opposite Clark.


Maybe he was getting somewhere with her, Clark thought wearily. Well, he hoped, anyway. If she understood just how much he loved her, if she believed him when he assured her that he never wanted to hurt her or treat her disparagingly, then surely she could get past this and resume the wonderful relationship they'd begun only that day?

He could understand Lois's reaction, in a way; after all, she'd told him some of her past history with men, and he was well aware that trust was a major issue with her. And this revelation had probably made her question any trust she had in him. That, he recognised wryly, would probably have happened even if he'd told her himself, but her accidental discovery would have made things worse.

But *she* had to understand his motives. He was protecting his family, after all, and he'd told her that. He might be in the wrong for not having told her last night, but he'd had no reason to tell her at any point before then. Especially not once she was seeing Lex Luthor!

He faced her, deliberately meeting her gaze… and saw tears glinting in her eyes.

"Lois." Softly, he said her name, extending his hand towards her. "Come here. Please."

After a couple of moments' hesitation, she took his hand in hers and came to sit next to him. He tightened his grasp of her hand and turned towards her.

"Lois, I know you're hurt that I didn't tell you. And you're probably imagining all sorts of reasons — telling yourself that I didn't trust you, or that I can't really have meant it when I told you I love you. But, please, believe me when I swear to you that I have never loved anyone the way I love you. I *need* you, Lois. And this is the only thing I have ever kept from you." He paused, watching her expression. The tears were still shimmering in her eyes, but she was gazing at him intently.

"I couldn't tell you because… oh, because of my parents, like I said, and because I wanted… *needed*… to be accepted as Clark Kent. Not as Superman. I wanted you to be my friend because you liked me; cared about me. Me. Not Superman. And I guess it was probably selfish of me, but I needed to know that."

Her hand clenched around his. "I thought you'd say something like that," she replied softly. "But, Clark, I understand it all. I really do. And I… what happened today was special to me too. What you don't understand is that realising everything you hadn't told me… it demeans what happened between us, Clark! It makes everything you said — telling me you love me — seem… I keep asking myself, how could you love me and yet deceive me like that? How could you let me worry about you like that? So… so it's not easy to convince myself that I can… I can trust you…"

His heart twisted as she trailed off in little more than a whisper. She was right; and yet, what else could he have done? His intentions had all been good.

Then he thought about what she'd said. She needed to be convinced that he loved her. With his free hand, he reached for her face, intending to cup her jaw and draw her closer to him so that he could kiss her.

But she obviously realised his intentions. Twisting away, and freeing her hand from his grasp, she said sharply, "No, Clark!"

He stared at her, aghast.

"That won't solve anything," she said, more quietly. "Clark, you have to give me time. I need to think about this. I need to decide what I want — not what you think is good for me."

He got the message; she was tired of him making decisions as to what was best for her and for them. It was time that he let her make her own choices, and — if she allowed him back into her life — that he involved her in decisions which affected both of them.

"Okay, Lois," he said resignedly. "I guess you're entitled to that. I'll get off home now," he added, getting to his feet.

But she grabbed his arm. "No! Clark, you can't! You were hurt — you could barely stand up on your own half an hour ago!"

He shook his head. "I'm fine now, trust me. Okay, I don't have any powers, but I'm fine. Just like any ordinary man, I guess."

Lois was still looking at him anxiously. "Clark, you don't understand! Nigel might be dead, but don't you think that Lex still wants you out of the way?"

"Probably," Clark conceded; then he remembered the incident earlier that day. It *had* been Kryptonite; he was now sure of it.

"What?" Lois asked sharply.

He told her about the fire he'd been called to, and his sudden attack of weakness. "Now that I think of it, that fire was kind of mysterious. It didn't look suspicious, but it was started by some papers in a trash can in an empty room catching fire and spreading to some curtains, and then it spread to the hall — but how did the fire start, if no- one was in the room?"

"You think it might have been deliberate? To get you there?"

"Makes sense to me," he agreed, nodding slowly.

"But why didn't the Kryptonite have more of an effect on you?" Lois's tears had now disappeared; this was his partner in action, the coolly efficient, intelligent Lois Lane.

"I'm not sure it was intended to," Clark said slowly. "What if it was just to see whether it had any effect at all on me?"

"So someone was watching to see whether it hurt you?"

"That's my guess."

"Then you can't go home, Clark!" Lois said immediately.

Then the incongruity of what they'd been discussing struck him. "Luthor doesn't know I'm Superman," he said slowly. "So whatever his minion was doing with Kryptonite, it won't have had anything to do with wanting me out of the way."

"Still," Lois said flatly. "I'm not letting you out of my sight, Clark Kent! You stayed here last night, and you can stay here tonight too."

That was a promising sign, wasn't it? Clark asked himself silently as he watched his partner's expression. If she was planning to tell him to get lost, why would she be concerned enough about him to want him to spend the night at her apartment again?

"If you insist, Lois," he said gently. "I'll sleep out here tonight, okay?"

"On what?" she asked sardonically. "Don't tell me that you'd be comfortable on either of those sofas!"

"I just don't want you to feel awkward around me…" he protested.

Lois shrugged. "I managed last night, Clark," she said, her tone cool again. "Anyway, you may say that you're okay, but you're still looking pale. It's late. Go to bed," she added abruptly.

She seemed to be blowing hot and cold, he thought ruefully, then amended that to lukewarm and cold. But at least she was still speaking to him! And, he reminded himself, she'd told him that their kisses and their declarations of love earlier were special to her too. That all meant that he should be hopeful. Give her time, he urged himself as he got to his feet.

Then he had to grab onto the back of the sofa as his legs threatened to give way.

*** Lois gasped in alarm as Clark staggered, and she hurried to wrap her arm around his waist. "I told you you weren't over it yet! Come on, lean on me."

Walking slowly, she helped him into the bedroom and stayed with him as he lowered himself onto the bed. Then, awkwardly, she asked, "Do you need any help getting…" She swallowed, then continued, "…getting into bed?"

He raised an eyebrow at her, but shook his head. "Thanks, but no. Uh… I'll sleep on top of the covers again, okay?"

"Well, whatever," Lois said uncomfortably, backing away from him. "Uhh… I'll be out in the other room. I want to see what's in the late news headlines."

"Yeah, tell me what they're saying about the Planet bomb," Clark said, bending to remove his shoes. "And has there been anything more about Falconio? You know, I mentioned to Henderson earlier that I had my doubts that it was suicide."

That surprised her. "You did? As Superman?" she added quickly, realising that this was more likely than that he'd have done it as himself. And anyway, although she knew that Clark had been with the detective that morning, they hadn't discussed her thoughts on Falconio's death until after he'd come into the Planet.

"Yeah. Well, I did spend kind of a lot of time with him. I… uh, told him that Clark was suspicious. I thought Henderson would take it better from Superman than from me… Anyway, he said he'd try to get a look at the file and see if he could put pressure on someone to look into it."

"Oh. Good." She was about to say something else, but then halted and simply stared at Clark. He'd removed his glasses, and for the first time she saw his unobscured face.

Although she'd worked it out an hour since, being confronted with the visual evidence was another huge shock to her system. That face was so familiar; the strong jaw, the warm brown eyes and mouth which smiled so readily.

There was just one thing which didn't fit…

She crossed back over to Clark, and quickly brushed his hair back from his forehead. Lying flat against his scalp, it was as close as she was going to get to the Superman look without whatever it was he used to slick it back.

Her partner was Superman. Okay, she'd already known it, but this… Seeing the evidence, so starkly obvious under her nose, seemed to heighten the sense of betrayal.

Choking back tears, she dropped her hand, whirled around, and strode for the door.

"Lois? Lois, come back!"

She ignored him; she just couldn't talk to him any more right now. She had a lot of thinking to do, and it was going to be easier without having to look at him all the time. She couldn't look at him now without remembering that he was one man where she'd thought there were two. Or without remembering the passionate kisses they'd shared in her office earlier that day. Without remembering that she'd told him she loved him…

He'd lied to her, deceived her, hurt her in a way she'd never thought possible… and yet she still loved him.

She needed to be alone. Closing the bedroom door over, refusing to look back at Clark as she did so, she returned to the living-room and turned on the television. She could watch the news and pretend that she wasn't aware that Clark/Superman was right next door, lying on her bed. And would still be there a little later, when she finally had to go to bed herself. She fervently hoped that he would have fallen asleep by that time.

The silence from the room next door told her that either he'd given up trying to get her to listen to him or that he'd succumbed to the weariness she'd seen in his face when she'd made him go to bed.

And she was almost managing to concentrate on one item of news — the story about the Planet bomb — when the phone rang.

Wondering who it could be at this time of night, since it was after eleven, Lois was tempted to let the answering machine take the call. After all, only Lex would call her this late, she thought, and she had no desire whatsoever to talk to him. But then she realised that it could be someone from the Planet. Reluctantly, she lifted the receiver and gave her name.

"Lois? Honey, I'm — "

"Perry?" A very unexpected caller, Lois thought. "Is something wrong?" Then she remembered; the bomb. Had he just seen it on the news? Was he calling her to complain that she hadn't told him? "I'm sorry I didn't tell you -" she began, but he cut in.

"Lois, this isn't about the bomb. Yeah, you should've told me, and I'll save that one up to rip up at you about another time. This is something else, and it's important."

Her boss sounded more like his old self, Lois recognised with a sense of relief; until that moment she hadn't realised how worried she'd been that he might not recover sufficiently to take over the reins at the Planet again any time soon. But this was Perry the newshound, well and truly on the trail of a story.

"What?" she demanded, intrigued.

"One of the crime reporters came to see me this evening — Martin. He had a note addressed to me. He doesn't know how he got it, but he found it in his jacket pocket when he got home from work."

"Huh?" But then something else occurred to Lois. "Perry, you're recovering from a heart attack! No-one should have taken any work anywhere near you!"

"Aw, Lois, you're as bad as Alice and those quack doctors!" he complained. "Anyway, Martin didn't know what this was. It was a folded piece of paper with my name on the front — he didn't know if it was business or personal. Anyway," he continued, so quickly that Lois suspected he was doing it deliberately to stop him interrupting, "turns out it's from Nigel St John."

"Nigel?" That was the last thing Lois would have expected. "*Nigel* sent you a note?"

"Sure did. I understand he killed himself?"

Lois confirmed that, itching to demand to know *now* what the note contained.

"Seems he wanted to get even with his boss before he departed this mortal coil," Perry drawled, sounding very pleased with himself. "So he gave me the details of a safety deposit box at a bank. Seems there's stuff in there about Luthor — St John called it his insurance. I don't know what it is, but St John's note suggested that it would do Luthor a lot of damage."

"If Nigel put it there, I'll bet it can!" Lois exclaimed, barely able to believe their good fortune. "So what do you want me to do, Perry? Give me the details and I'll get over to the bank right now!"

"Hold your horses, Lois! It's going on midnight — you think the bank's going to open for you now?" She could hear laughter in Perry's voice. "I just wanted to let you know now — you can get over there in the morning, okay?"

She was about to respond, but then a loud knock sounded at the door. "Hang on, Perry, let me see who this is," she said quickly. It might be the police, she considered; Henderson could be wondering where Clark was, or there might be news about the bombing.

Laying the receiver down on the table, she hurried to the door and looked through her spyhole. It was her fianc‚.

Lois's initial reaction was to ignore the knock and hope that Lex would go away. After all, it was very late, and for all he knew she could be in bed. Or at the Planet — although he'd probably have seen her Jeep parked outside. So he probably did know she was inside, she reminded herself, thinking quickly.

He knocked again then, calling out at the same time, "Lois? Lois, it's me!"

Okay, ignore it, she told herself. But then she remembered something else. Only moments before she'd been talking on the phone, and it was very possible that Lex might have heard her voice. If so, he'd know that she wasn't asleep. She sighed; she was going to have to let him in. But she'd need to get rid of him very quickly. He couldn't find out that Clark was here!

"Lex, it's late… what are you doing here?" she asked as she opened the door, deliberately making herself sound surprised and confused.

"Lois, my sweet, I called you earlier, several times, and couldn't get hold of you," he answered, a note of concern in his voice which made her hackles rise. "So I thought I should come over to check that you were all right." He walked past her and into the centre of the room. "So, where were you?" he enquired, apparently casually.

Lois shrugged. "I was working, Lex. The bomb delayed my schedule by a couple of hours and I had to work late to make it up. I got home around half an hour ago."

"So you were at the Planet all evening?" he persisted, watching her carefully.

She shivered mentally; was he still having her followed, despite Jack's defection? Did he actually know that she hadn't been at the Planet? Taking a chance, she decided to lie.

"Yes, Lex, I was," she told him, a deliberately puzzled smile lightening her expression.

"Liar!" he thundered furiously. "You lying bitch!"

In the same moment, he reached for her, grabbing her wrist and holding it in a bruising grip. His face was contorted with rage, and Lois saw for herself for the first time just how dangerous Lex Luthor could be. She shivered again, frantically thinking of a way to talk herself out of this.

"Lex! You're hurting me!" she protested. "Let me go!"

"No chance!" he retorted. "You're a liar, my Lois. I know *exactly* where you were tonight, and who you were with. So where's Kent now? He came here with you. Is he waiting for you in the bedroom? And all the time you were keeping me at arm's length — I should just have done what I wanted to you, you frigid bitch!" he muttered, spitting at her in his fury.

"Clark's not here," Lois lied quickly. "He went home. He went out the back way," she added, in case Lex had someone watching the apartment building. She desperately hoped that Clark was asleep; she couldn't bear to think of him hearing what was going on and making his presence known. Not only would it inflame Lex further, but Clark was vulnerable, and weak. He'd almost died tonight already, and if Luthor found him here…

At all costs, she had to prevent Lex from discovering that Clark was here.

"No matter. He'll die either way," Luthor declared confidently. "As for you… you deceitful whore, I trusted you! I offered you my hand in *marriage*, and all the time you were conspiring with that minion Kent against me! You'll regret this, Lois," he threw at her, shaking her as he spoke. He seemed completely unlike the suave, smooth and cultured Lex Luthor she'd known, and in that moment she completely understood why Clark called him evil.

"You could have been the wife of the third-richest man in the world!" Luthor continued to thunder at her. "And yet you chose to betray me. Did you really think that you'd get away with it? That you could ever get proof of anything against me?"

Lois had kept silent deliberately during Lex's rant, taking advantage of the time to think. She could fight back; she was pretty sure that she could overpower him, as long as he wasn't also trained in martial arts. She knew that he fenced, though, so it was possible that he'd acquired a number of self-defence skills. It wouldn't be inconceivable, knowing Lex. But he didn't know that she was a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do, and it might be a good idea to conceal that information as long as possible. As long as he thought that she was a weak and defenceless woman, he'd see no need to use more forceful techniques to restrain her.

She had to get him out of her apartment, which probably meant allowing him to take her with him as his prisoner. Remaining here with him was far too risky. If he found Clark now, her partner wouldn't have a hope of escaping. However upset she was with Clark right now, she didn't want him to die!

At the same time, she had no idea what Lex might try to do with her. It was clear that her cover was completely blown, and she had little confidence that he'd believe her if she tried to bluff her way out of it. But it was worth a try…

"Lex, you don't understand!" she protested anxiously. "It was Clark… he *insisted* that I go with him! He's never liked you… he keeps trying to persuade me that you're the root of all evil, and I always tell him he's wrong. Tonight he made me come with him, though I've no idea what he thought he'd find in your basement. And it was a *complete* waste of time! That's exactly what I told him when we got back here. And I told him to get out. Lex, you have to believe me! Take me back to the penthouse with you — I'll show you how much you mean to me!" she promised, swallowing back bile as she did so.

"Nice try, Lois," he told her, his lip curling. "You do lie very convincingly. But it's too late; I've seen through your pretence. Did you really think you could fool me again?"

In a sudden movement, he pushed her away from him; she stumbled against the table, jarring her elbow painfully in the process. "Lex…" she tried to protest, but he was shaking his head in rejection of anything she might say.

"You're finished, Lois Lane. And so is that pathetic newspaper of yours! If that pestiferous do-gooder hadn't destroyed my bomb today, the Daily Planet would already be a footnote in history. But there's still time for that — "

"You're completely without integrity, Lex!" she threw at him, her lip curling. It was too late to bluff her way out of this.

"Integrity?" he scoffed. "Personally, I'd rather have the money. And if you deny that you'd say the same, then you're a fool." He laughed shortly, then added, "Not that it matters. For you, my dear, time has just run out…"

He was reaching inside his jacket pocket as he spoke. When he withdrew his hand, it held a gun. She caught her breath in sudden fear, realising that Lex was deadly serious. He intended to kill her.

And she couldn't even yell 'Help, Superman!' — Superman was powerless, weak and probably asleep in her bedroom.

She positioned herself to kick out at Lex's arm, but as she did so she heard the safety catch click off. Her life flashed before her eyes as he aimed the gun at Lois and squeezed the trigger…

*** Despite his misery when Lois had walked out of the bedroom, and his anxiety to explain to her and make her understand the whole Superman thing, Clark had actually drifted off to an exhausted sleep only a minute or two after she'd left. He only realised it when he was woken abruptly by the sound of shouting in the other room.

Shaking his head to clear the last remnants of sleep, he tried to concentrate. Damn that Kryptonite anyway! Without his powers, it was so much more difficult to work out what was going on. Lois wasn't shouting, but the tone of her voice worried him all the same. And that other voice… yes, he recognised it.

Lex Luthor.

He sat up in one swift movement, instantly alert and worried. Luthor was dangerous. And Lois was alone with him…

But that was nothing to worry about, he forced himself to accept. As far as Luthor was concerned, Lois was his devoted fianc‚e. Luthor would have no reason to harm Lois… would he?

But he was shouting. That was definitely a raised, angry voice on Luthor's part.

Clark got to his feet hurriedly, grabbing his glasses and forcing himself to ignore the aching in his limbs. Lois was in trouble and she needed him. Then a loud crash and a muffled exclamation from Lois made him hurry to the door.

Peering through the crack, he heard Luthor admit to trying to blow up the Planet, and threatening Lois. About to rush to her defence, he froze in his tracks when he saw the gun in Luthor's hand.

Luthor was going to kill Lois! Right here, in her apartment!

Clark didn't even stop to think. He yanked open the door and ran straight out into the living-room, throwing himself between Lois and the gun.

The crack of the mechanism firing reverberated all around him as he pushed Lois aside. Then he felt a burning, agonising sensation, and he staggered sideways. As if in slow motion, he stared at Luthor, noticing the man's furious expression, at the same time reaching up to clap his other hand to the excruciating pain in his arm.

Through a haze of pain, he heard Lois call his name; she sounded frantic, but he couldn't get to her. It hurt too much…

Then a harsh voice intruded as he tried to fight his way through the pain, to remember what he was supposed to be doing.

"Kent! I knew the bitch was lying!"

Shaking his head, as if he could shake off the agony in his arm, Clark forced himself to concentrate on the speaker.

"I knew she was in cahoots with you! The lying… Well, neither of you is going to live to see another day! And that will show you that Lex Luthor will not be brought down by *amateurs*!"

Luthor was cocking the gun again, preparing to take aim a second time… to shoot whom? Him or Lois, Clark wondered frantically. Did he have time to throw himself over Lois so that Luthor couldn't get to her? He made himself ignore the pain in his arm, and prepared to hurl himself at Luthor. Even if it killed him, he'd make sure that Luthor couldn't hurt Lois…

"Drop the gun, Luthor!" a crisp voice ordered suddenly.

Luthor whirled around, but he didn't drop the gun, Clark saw. The newcomers, he realised in surprise, were police; uniformed and armed officers and Inspector Henderson. And, regardless of the fact of their target's identity, or the fact that he was carrying a gun, in under a second two of them had immobilised him. Handcuffs were snapped on, and the gun wrenched away from his grasp.

"You can't do this!" Luthor was protesting angrily. "I know my rights! I demand a lawyer! I'll sue the MPD and this entire state for every penny they've got!"

"Sue away," Henderson drawled laconically. "You won't get very far, Mr Luthor. Oh, and if you're expecting any help from your goons downstairs, I should tell you that they've already been taken into custody." He turned to his officers. "Take this piece of scum away. I'll deal with him later."

Luthor was bundled out the door, just as Clark became aware that Lois was standing next to him. "Are you hurt?" she asked anxiously, clutching at him. Before he had a chance to reply, she added agitatedly, "You're bleeding! He shot you!"

"Call an ambulance," Henderson instructed rapidly to one of the remaining officers, before coming over to where Clark stood, with Lois hovering and trying to examine his bleeding arm.

"It's just a scratch," Clark insisted. "The bullet just grazed me. Look! — it went into the wall, over there. I'm really not hurt."

"Oh yeah? So why's there all that blood, then?" Lois was close to tears, and he could see the fear on her face — fear for him, he realised, and he felt a rush of tenderness for her, despite the pain he was in. Silently, Clark wrapped his good arm around her shoulders and held her close to him. Holding onto her helped him ignore the weakness which threatened to engulf him again.

"Let me see," Henderson demanded. Mutely Clark extended his arm for inspection. Very carefully, the inspector probed at his arm, examining the area where bloody fabric was next to a dark red hole; Clark winced as cotton fibres close to his wound shifted and pulled. This vulnerability thing really hurt, he mused; he'd never again be insensitive to anyone who'd suffered any kind of injury.

"Yeah, just a flesh wound," Henderson agreed. "I'll bet it hurts, though. You should sit down, Kent. It'll be a few minutes before the ambulance gets here."

Clark allowed Lois to lead him to one of the sofas, not really caring what he did so long as she was beside him. Then he realised what Henderson had actually said. "I don't need an ambulance," he protested. "It's nothing. I can put a band-aid on it."

"No way!" Lois exclaimed.

At the same time, Henderson said firmly, "You need X-rays just to be sure that there's no other damage, and that wound needs a couple of stitches. Plus this is a gunshot wound, which I'm legally obliged to report and see that you get treated. So you'd better go to the emergency department. Lane, I'm trusting you to see that he gets there, right? Then I need you both to come down town to give a statement."

Henderson left the apartment then, and Lois turned to Clark. "Is this a problem?" she whispered. "I mean, could they find out who you are if you go to the hospital?"

He shook his head, regretting it immediately as he began to feel dizzy again. "I don't think so," he said cautiously, recognising that the inspector could return at any moment. "I mean, if all they do is X-ray my arm and put in some stitches, it'll be fine."

"That's good," Lois told him, sounding as if she really meant it. Then she turned, and Clark heard her say, "How did you know to come here?"

Henderson must have come back into the apartment, because he replied, "Perry White called me."


Clark saw Henderson walk to the other side of the room and pick up the telephone receiver, holding it in the air for a moment before replacing it.

"Oh! I left it off the hook!" Lois exclaimed. "So Perry heard it all…"

"Enough to know that there could be trouble. He made an emergency call straight through to my office, and I rounded up some guys and came right over."

"Nice one, Perry," Lois murmured softly. Clark squeezed her hand, and she wrapped her fingers around his and returned the pressure.

*** More than three hours later, Lois and Clark finally emerged from Henderson's precinct and climbed into a patrol car which was going to drive them home. Back to Lois's apartment, at her insistence; Clark had protested that, now that the threat of Luthor was finally out of the way, that he could return to his place. But she'd overruled him and, probably for some reason of his own, he'd chosen not to argue.

He was probably exhausted, like her; and, she realised as they rode in silence through the dark city streets, he wasn't used to normal human weariness. He was Superman; normally invulnerable and impervious to such frailties. And tonight he'd been exposed to Kryptonite and almost died, and then been hit — and injured — by a bullet. It would be no wonder if he was completely worn out.

They'd gone to the hospital, to begin with, where Clark had been treated. He'd come out of the treatment room with the sleeve of his cotton top cut off below the elbow and a bandage over part of his forearm. To Lois's relief, he'd looked considerably better than when she'd been sitting next to him in her apartment in the aftermath of the shooting.

"Painkillers," he'd told her with a wry smile.

"They work on you?" she'd asked, taken aback.

He'd shrugged. "It looks like it. Not that I've ever had reason to find out before…"

Since they were already at the hospital, they'd decided to visit Perry; Henderson could wait, Lois decided. It was thanks to Perry that Henderson and his team had turned up to arrest Luthor, and Lois had no doubt that Perry would be itching to find out what had happened.

They'd found him awake and arguing with the duty nurse, insisting that he was well enough to get dressed and call a cab to take him over to Lois's apartment. He had to find out whether she was okay, he'd been arguing, with little success. The relief on his face when he'd seen Lois in the doorway had made her very glad that she'd thought of visiting him.

Perry had explained again about the note from Nigel St John. Martin Williams had brought it to him late that evening, and Perry had been trying to contact Lois for over an hour before he actually got hold of her. He gave her the note, which gave in terse detail information about the 'insurance', in a bank deposit box.

"We should really give this to Henderson," Clark had said, much to Lois's disgust.

"Call yourself a reporter!" she'd said in disbelief. "This is our scoop! We call Henderson in once we've seen what's in there and written our story."

"He's got Luthor under arrest," Clark had pointed out. "This could be crucially important — if it links Luthor to murder, it could prevent him getting bail. And you know Henderson will give us the exclusive. He wouldn't have any of this stuff if it wasn't for us."

They'd still been arguing about the note on the way over to Henderson's precinct. Somehow, without even noticing that they were doing it, they'd slipped back into their old behavioural pattern as partners, arguing things out with each other until they reached a decision both were happy with. It hadn't been until they'd got out of the taxi that Lois realised what had happened. Even though she hadn't yet reconciled her hurt over Clark's deceit with her admiration for his courage in saving her life — which she knew she hadn't really thanked him for yet — it was comforting to know that underneath it all their partnership was as enduring as ever. Now, she was convinced that nothing could damage that.

What that said about their personal relationship, she wasn't sure…

…and she wasn't sure that she was ready to think about it, either.

Henderson had been busy. He'd not only rounded up Luthor's goons from outside Lois's apartment building, but had also obtained search warrants. All buildings which were Luthor's property were being searched, and Luthor himself was being interviewed.

The inspector had come out to brief Lois and Clark on events. "He's got his snake of a lawyer with him, and I'm not expecting much. But he knows we heard him threaten you, Lois, and we saw him aiming a gun at you, Clark — and we have the forensic evidence there. Lois, I need you to give a statement about his admission of bombing the Planet."

"There's more," Clark had interjected, as they'd agreed in the taxi. "We found some papers in the LexCorp basement — " Lois had handed over her camera, extracting a promise that they would get copies of the photographs " — and there's this." He'd given Henderson the note.

The laconic detective had shown what, for him, was excitement; a faint smile had hovered around his mouth and he'd excused himself. Half an hour later he'd returned, and had actually thanked the reporters. "We've got him. Murder, extortion, fraud, destruction of property, you name it. We're getting copies of St John's documents made — don't worry, you two will get a copy. They're pretty conclusive, but your photos are useful too. We've arrested his assistant, Mrs Cox — would you believe that we picked her up outside your apartment, Clark? She's singing like a canary. Luthor won't be getting out of custody this side of his sixtieth birthday, if even then."

"We need to get down to the Planet," had been Lois's instant reaction.

"No point," Henderson had countered. "Look, we're embargoing all of this until tomorrow mid-morning at the earliest, so you couldn't put anything in the morning edition. Okay, okay, I'd be asking you not to put anything in your morning edition — and if necessary, I'd get an injunction to stop you!" he'd added sharply. "The Planet's got the exclusive on the whole story. And that's apart from your own eyewitness accounts. So will you two *please* go home and get some sleep, so you'll be able to do your job properly tomorrow?"

Eventually, realising that she wasn't going to make any further progress that night, Lois had agreed to leave. It went very much against the grain for her to leave a breaking story, especially such a major scoop as this, but Clark had added to Henderson's persuasion by pointing out that the Planet had such a jump on everyone else that they could be writing their stories and putting together ten pages of a special issue, including a 'Luthor crime chronology', while the other news outlets were still absorbing the shock of Lex's arrest.

Now, getting out of the squad-car outside her apartment, Lois's thoughts shifted from the thought of the stories she'd instruct the newsroom staff to write and back to the events of a few hours earlier. Walking up to her apartment, Clark beside her, she found herself reliving those moments when she'd thought Lex was going to shoot her and she just didn't have time to defend herself… and even worse, when she'd seen Clark take the bullet meant for her.

At the time, she remembered, she hadn't even known where he'd been hit; just that he had been shot and he'd cried out in pain. She'd seen him reel sideways, but only when she'd taken in the fact that he hadn't fallen had she realised that he hadn't been killed. And yet at the same time there had been so much blood…

"Lois! You're shaking… are you okay?" Suddenly Clark's arm was around her, and he was shepherding her into her apartment. He'd taken her key from her and opened the door. Pushing her into a chair, he offered to get her a drink.

She shook her head. "I've had enough of drinks to last a lifetime. I just want to go to bed, Clark."

"I should go." He sounded awkward again.

But she shook her head in rejection. "I want you to stay, Clark," she said softly. "After everything that's happened… I don't want to be alone."

"Okay. I'll stay," he promised. "I'll… uh, I can wait out here until you're in bed, and then I'll…"

"Clark." Her quiet but insistent tone silenced him, and he came to stand in front of her.

"Lois? What do you want?"

"Clark…" She reached out and touched the bandage on his arm lightly. Again, the sound of gunfire reverberated in her head as she looked at him, and she winced, blinking back a tear. "You're hurt, Clark. And you were hurt earlier too… Are you going to be all right?"

"Lois, I'm *fine*!" he insisted, coming to sit next to her and taking her hands in his; she clutched at his hands, needing the comfort and reassurance it gave her. "It's just a scratch, and there's no other damage. Besides, I'm Superman. Once I get my invulnerability back, it'll be like this never happened."

"It will?" She looked at him enquiringly. "I don't know how it… you… work."

"Well, I'm still kind of figuring it out myself," he pointed out wryly. "But I guess it's like when I had that paper cut — remember? Once I got my powers back, it sealed itself up and my finger looked like it had never happened. I know that's the way it is with normal people too, but with me it's kind of quicker."

The reference to 'normal people' struck Lois as significant; did Clark think of himself as abnormal? she wondered, resolving to ask him some time. He was just the kind of person who might let something like that bother him. But now wasn't the time to discuss it, she thought. They'd talk about it soon; this was probably important.

"You got stitches, though," she pointed out. "If it heals more quickly than it should, will that cause a problem?"

He grinned at her. "That's why I insisted on steri-strips. They're supposed to fall off of their own accord in about a week, so I don't need to go back to get stitches out. All I need to do is keep some sort of bandage, or a band-aid, over this in the meantime. No-one will ever guess."

Her gaze met his in that moment, and he looked away after a moment, his expression suddenly uncomfortable. For the past few hours, they'd been focused on other things: Clark's injury, talking to Perry, dealing with things down at the precinct, gaining mutual enjoyment from the knowledge that they'd finally defeated Luthor.

Now, though, they were back at her apartment, and the memory of their earlier argument was hanging in the atmosphere between them. And so much more besides.

Lois was conscious that there was so much unsaid between them; after the past few hours when they'd been functioning as the close partners they were, all the harsh words she'd thrown at him and the pain she'd been feeling over his deceit came back to her.

She didn't want to lose him as a friend. She didn't want to lose the best chance at love she'd ever had.

But she wasn't sure how Clark felt now; after all, she realised, her behaviour had been akin to a rejection. He'd called her back, pleaded with her to listen to him, but she'd turned away and refused to talk to him. Maybe now he'd refuse to listen to her?

Silently, she got up and headed for the bedroom, assuming that he would follow. They both needed to sleep. It might be better to talk in the morning, she thought, aware at the same time that she was procrastinating.

Behind her, she heard Clark snapping off lights and locking up. Then he came to stand in the doorway.

"Lois, are you sure you want me here?"

His voice was soft, and he sounded a little uncertain; was he nervous too? she wondered. Well, she had given him a hard time earlier, but didn't he realise that she'd still been reacting to her discovery? And now she'd had time for it all to sink in, quite apart from everything else that had happened in the meantime.

She met his gaze briefly, nodding. They still had a lot to talk about, but none of that mattered right now. It had struck her as soon as they'd arrived back at her apartment just how close she'd come to losing Clark, and next to that nothing else was really important any more.

"Stay," she repeated, nervously fumbling with her hands. She wanted Clark to stay… and she needed him to hold her tonight. She needed to tell him that she still loved him, in whatever guise, and she desperately needed him to tell her that he loved her too.

Looking down at her hands, she noticed the ugly, over-large ring Lex had given her. "At least I don't need to wear this thing any more!" she exclaimed, grateful for something fairly neutral to fill the awkward silence. Pulling the ring off, she put it on her nightstand, in the absence of anything else to do with it. She supposed that she should give it back to Lex, or to his lawyer, at any rate.

Clark was watching her, his expression unreadable in the dim light. "I can't tell you how glad I am to see that off your finger," he said quietly. "I hated seeing it there. Not because of how I feel about you — well, not only that. Because I knew what Luthor was. And I couldn't bear to think of him having you, being able to touch you, kiss you… having you in his control. I hated to think of what he might do to you, Lois…"

"I can look after myself, Clark," she answered, but softly, reassuringly.

"He almost killed you tonight," he reminded her, a harsh edge of pain to his voice.

Lois took a shuddering breath, images of those horrible moments flooding her mind. "Clark… god, Clark!" She had to break off; she was close to tears.

In an instant, Clark was standing in front of her, his arms around her, holding her cradled against him. "Hush. It's over. You're okay. And I'm okay too. He can never harm either of us again, I swear it," he murmured, his lips against her hair.

She drew back a little and stared at him. Clark. Her partner; her friend. The man who'd been willing to put his life on the line to save her.

"You took a bullet for me!" Lois whispered. "You didn't have your powers!"

"I had to," Clark said hoarsely, his arms tightening around her. "I couldn't let him kill you!"

He'd been willing to die for her. That was the truth she'd been avoiding for the past four hours. That was why she'd found it so hard to look at him, to talk to him, out in the living-room; and it was why she hadn't wanted him to go home.

"But you could have died!" she exclaimed. He'd been without his powers. He'd been vulnerable. He'd been *hurt*! "You're Superman — the world needs you! Nobody needs me!"

She saw him flinch, as if her words hurt him. "*I* need you," he told her, his voice husky. "*I* need you, Lois. My life wouldn't be worth living if you weren't here to share it with me."

His words made her stare at him, gazing into his eyes as if to determine whether he really meant it. What she saw shook her to the core.

Clark loved her. Not just was in love with her, but *loved* her; deeply, and without hesitation. The fact that he'd risked his life for her should have told her that, and she knew that. That was one of the things which had scared her so much about what had happened tonight.

He'd spoken, and he was looking at her now, as if she was completely essential to his life and happiness. She'd never been loved like that before; had never imagined that it was possible that anyone could love her like that.

And now she realised that she really hadn't believed Clark earlier, not completely. If she had, she would never have doubted him over the Superman revelation.

"I'm sorry, Clark," she said quietly.

"Why?" He looked visibly taken aback. "What for?"

"For… giving you a hard time earlier over Superman. I did believe that you meant to tell me. And I never believed that you wanted to cause me pain — or that you tried to impress me as Clark, or anything else," she added wryly.

"I wasn't sure," he told her, grimacing. "I knew you were hurt — you had a *right* to be hurt, Lois! I know what I did. I know I made you think I was two separate guys, and that has to be hard to deal with. Especially since… well, I know how you felt about Superman, and I did use that knowledge a couple of times. I can't deny that."

"You said none of this matters beside the fact that you love me," she reminded him. "Do you still think that?"

Clark nodded, gazing intently at her. "Lois, I love you so much more than I could ever find words to tell you. If I couldn't see you every day, talk to you, hope for a future with you, I don't know…"

"I know, Clark," she whispered. "You showed me how you feel about me. You could have died for me. And… it scares me, Clark!"

"Why?" He looked alarmed. "Am I coming on too strong?"

Shaking her head, Lois bit her lip. "No-one's ever felt that way about me before. That's what scares me. What if I'm not worth it?" She wanted to bite the words back as soon as she'd said them; her secret vulnerabilities were something she never, ever spoke about. She was well aware that Clark knew about some of them, but this was a confession she hadn't intended to make. Men didn't like women who needed constant reassurance, she knew that. What if Clark felt that she was too high-maintenance for him?

But he reached out and gently pulled her into his arms. "Lois, you are so very worth it to me! And if you want, if you'll let me, I'll spend the rest of my life showing you just how much…"

Before she could respond, to tell him just how much his love meant to her and how much she loved him too, he lowered his head and caught her lips in a long, loving kiss. She wrapped her arms around his neck in order to get closer to him, deciding that maybe he didn't need to hear it after all. He seemed to understand just how she felt about him, judging by the way he was kissing her.

In fact, she concluded, talking was just a waste of good kissing time.


An alarm clock was buzzing insistently when Clark opened his eyes the following morning. What was more, it wasn't his alarm clock.

Then he became aware of the soft, warm body curled up against him, and he remembered where he was and what had happened the night before.

Lois had insisted that he should stay the night at her place, of course, but when they'd finally started to get ready for bed she'd told him that he didn't need to sleep on top of the covers.

He'd blinked at that, staring at her in surprise. Not that he had any objection to… well, apart from anything else, he hadn't been sure he had the energy for… But anyway, he hadn't expected Lois to want their relationship to advance *that* quickly. He'd soon had his explanation; Lois had blushed and shaken her head slightly.

"I don't mean *that* — I mean, not now, not… well, it's too soon. For me anyway," she'd managed to say. "I just mean… Clark, will you just hold me? Please?"

How could he resist her? "Of course," he'd told her, his voice thick with emotion. "I'd like that too, Lois. As for… anything else, I… well, I'd like to wait a while too. I — well, like you said, it *is* too soon. Let's just get used to being in love first, right?" After a moment, he'd added, "I mean, after all, you might decide you can't put up with my other job, and — "

"I know there's going to be times when you won't be around, or when you'll have to run out on me when we're supposed to be doing things together," she'd told him. "But at least I know why. And yeah, maybe sometimes it'll bother me. But you know the hours I work, Clark! Who else is going to put up with that?"

He'd had to kiss her again for that; then, eventually, he'd pulled away and gone to the bathroom in order to allow her to get undressed. Later, he'd slid into bed beside her, wearing his shorts and the now-torn top. Lois had been dressed in silk pyjamas; decently covered from top to toe she might have been, but the feel of the fabric against his skin, and the soft curves underneath it, had sent some pretty intimate pictures through his brain.

It was just as well that he'd been without his powers, and exhausted, last night, he thought now as he turned to look at the woman in his arms.

He did want to make love to her; right at this moment, he wanted it very badly indeed. But then, he reminded himself, he'd waited twenty-seven years to find the right woman. He could wait a little longer until they were both sure that this was what they wanted. As far as his relationship with Lois was concerned, he was planning for a lifetime commitment. A few weeks, a few months, maybe even a year or two before they became intimate was nothing compared to spending the rest of his life with her as the woman he loved.

Lois stirred, then blinked and opened her eyes. She stared up at him for a moment, then her lips curved into a beautiful smile.

"Good morning, Clark," she murmured.

Unable to resist, he leaned over and kissed her, a warm, loving kiss of exploration. Her lips parted under his, permitting him entry, and her tongue stroked his lazily as her arms came around his shoulders, pulling him closer.

"Mmmm," she murmured against his lips, breaking the kiss after a long interval. "I could let you wake me up like this every morning from now on."

"That could be arranged," he said softly, smiling down at her. "Either you leave your window open every night, or you'll have to move in with me."

"Or I give you a key," she countered, reaching up to kiss him lingeringly again. Pulling back, she added, "You can bring me breakfast every day, too. Those croissants you bring to the Planet some mornings — they're from France, aren't they?"

He grinned. "A little patisserie I know on the outskirts of Paris."

"Yeah, and that great Chinese food really did come from China, didn't it?"

"I'll tell you what — let me take you out to dinner tonight, and I'll take you anywhere in the world you want to go," Clark offered.

"Mmmm… I could get used to this!" she said.

"I'm kind of hoping you do…" Clark teased, then, because the sight of her in the blue silk pyjamas was too tempting, he bent to kiss her again.

A long time later, he reluctantly pulled away, gently tugging her arms from around her neck. "Lois… Lois, we have to get up," he told her, groaning as he did so, and trying, without much success, to pull away from her questing mouth. It wasn't as if he *wanted* to stop her kissing him, after all. "You have a paper to edit, and we have a lot of work to do to follow up from last night…" And anyway, he added silently, if he didn't get away from her right now then their discussion about not rushing into intimacy would be moot…

She let him go, lying back in the bed as he rolled out and to his feet and watching him with a wide smile on her face. "What's up?" he questioned.

"Oh, nothing. I just thought I'd take a minute or two to enjoy looking at you. I can think of several women at the Planet who'd be very jealous of me right now."

Clark grinned, then thought of something and decided that he couldn't resist. In a swift movement he tugged off his ruined shirt and dropped it on the floor. Her sharp intake of breath made him think despairingly of cold showers.

*** Breakfast was going to be a rushed affair, Lois thought as she poured the coffee, since it was late and she'd really wanted to be in the newsroom at least an hour earlier. Clark would have to go home and change, which she thought would delay them longer, but then he couldn't exactly go in wearing that ripped black top — not that she had any objection to the way he looked in it…

…and even less of an objection to the way he'd looked *out* of it!

Despite what she'd said to Clark the previous evening about wanting to wait — and she did, because the thought of intimacy with him scared her almost as much as getting romantically involved had done before that moment yesterday in her office — when he'd ripped off his shirt a few minutes earlier her mouth had gone dry and she'd almost forgotten all her resolve. She'd wanted to go to him and run her hands all over that broad, muscular chest; to have him hold her next to him, and feel her skin against his. She'd wanted him to rip off her own clothing and lay her down on the bed and come to join her, lying beside her… she'd wanted him to cover her body with kisses and caresses, to make her forget everything in the world except the two of them and the joy they could find in each other.

It was just as well that Clark had enough resolve for the two of them. He'd seen the way she was looking at him — that had been obvious, since he'd caught his breath and given her a burning look from brown eyes unobscured by glasses — but he'd smiled ruefully and told her that he was going to put on the coffee and let her take her shower.

Shaking her head as she waited for Clark to emerge from his shower — and trying not to let herself think about him *in* the shower — she wondered again how on earth she could have failed to notice just how mindblowingly attractive her partner was. How had she even spared Lex a second glance, next to Clark?

Okay, she'd been hung up on Superman, but that was hardly surprising, since she now knew that Superman had Clark's body, a little more obviously packaged. That thought made her grin.

And now, instead of feeling a gnawing jealousy every time some woman lusted over Superman in her hearing, she'd be secure in the knowledge that Clark was all hers. Lois smiled to herself as she imagined sharing private jokes with Clark related to his secret identity; it felt so good to be in on the secret, and even more so to know that he trusted her with the knowledge of who he was.

It had finally sunk in. Clark trusted her. And she would never betray that trust.

And, she realised, she was now part of a very, very small and exclusive group, which included his parents — and that gave her a great sense of belonging. The fact that she was one of a very small number who knew his secret, added to the fact that she was very sure that Clark saw their relationship as something long-term, made her feel, for the first time in her life, as if she was really valued for herself. Not for her work, or for the son she could have been for her father, or for the daughter her mother loved to nag and complain to — but for herself. Lois Lane.

Clark loved her — and somehow, she knew that Clark's love was unconditional.

And now, she finally trusted in that unconditional love, and trusted Clark not to let her down. If he asked her to marry him today, she knew that she'd have the courage to say yes. Not that she wanted their relationship to get that serious just yet; they needed time to get to know each other better, and to simply enjoy dating.

And perhaps to enjoy and savour more mornings like this one, even without complete intimacy.

Waking up in Clark's arms was such a wonderful feeling. Much as she'd loved his early-morning kisses, it was the feeling of being loved and protected, which she'd got from his arms around her, which was so special about this morning.

She'd never spent the night with a man before. Claude had left as soon as he'd got what he wanted — including her story — and sex with her first lover had been in stolen moments when they'd managed to be alone. But anyway, she couldn't imagine ever feeling the same way if she'd slept all night with him. With Clark, she'd found her perfect, super man after all. And she knew that would have been true even without his dual identity.

Hearing footsteps, she swiftly collected her thoughts and refocused on getting ready to leave; as Clark entered the kitchen, she pushed a mug of coffee across the counter to him. He bent and kissed her warmly, and when he drew back she noticed that he was looking very pleased with himself. "Guess what?" he demanded.

"I have no idea. You prefer my shower to yours?"

He laughed. "Lois, your shower is just about adequate! No," he added, smiling joyfully. "My powers are back! So I can fly home and get ready and be back before you even notice I'm gone," he added with a grin.

"Really? That was quick, wasn't it? Quicker than when we were in Smallville?"

"Yeah, it is. Especially since I was worse this time than then…" He trailed off, then added after a moment, "I wonder if repeated exposure changes how I react to it? Maybe my body gets used to it and recovers more quickly…"

Lois was getting alarmed at where that was going. "I hope you're not thinking of testing that hypothesis!" she exclaimed, a chill running through her. "I don't want to go through that again, Clark — do you know how worried I was about you?"

He looked contrite. "I know. And don't worry, I'm in no hurry to run into any of that stuff again any time soon. But, you know, that leaves us with a problem," he added reflectively. "Luthor has Kryptonite in his basement. And someone had Kryptonite yesterday and used it near me."

"Mrs Cox," Lois said immediately. "You heard Henderson last night? She was in this up to her neck. It's got to be her."

"Well, we need to check that out," Clark said thoughtfully. "But I can't go near that basement again."

"Do you trust Henderson?" Lois asked quickly. Even though she personally found the detective somewhat prickly, and she thought that he was too attached to procedures and rules most of the time, she thought he was reliable. "If you ask him, I think he'll keep this to himself."

Clark nodded. "Yeah. I think Superman should call on him later this morning."

Lois caught at his arm then, noticing what she hadn't seen before. "You're healed!"

He grinned. "Told you it would once my powers were back. There isn't even a mark."

"You better keep a band-aid over that for a week or so," she cautioned him, going to get her first-aid kit.

As she smoothed the bandage over his arm, he caught her gaze and smiled warmly. "Did I ever tell you just how terrific you are, Lois?"

Blushing slightly, she teased him, "Well, maybe not often enough."

"I mean it, though," he added more seriously. "It's been tough keeping this secret on my own. I know sometimes my excuses have been pretty terrible. And you've only just found out, and already you're helping me."

Unable to think of anything to say, Lois just reached up and kissed him.


Once at the Planet, Lois intended to see to her morning editorial duties, while Clark made a start on their joint work. To her surprise, he asked if he could work in her office. As soon as she'd seen him read through stacks of papers in seconds, and typing at super-speed, however, she could understand his request.

"Looks like there's even more advantages to this Superman thing than I realised!" she murmured, shaking her head slowly in amazement at his abilities.

He looked up and grinned at her. "If it helps Lane and Kent to keep ahead — and the Planet to get back on top — I don't mind a little bit of cheating."

"I love that about you," she told him, unable to resist leaning across the wide desk and kissing him.

That brief kiss turned into several long and very satisfying kisses, which lasted until Lois finally pulled back very reluctantly. "We have work to do," she complained. "Much as I'd love to forget it all and go back home and take up… well, sort of where we left off…"

"We can't," Clark agreed. "And you wouldn't really want to, Lois! Admit it!" He softened his words with a smile which told her exactly how much he loved her commitment to her work.

"You know me too well," she complained, sticking her tongue out at him. He leaned back in his seat and grinned.

"You know, I don't know you anything like as well as I thought I did," she added thoughtfully. "I think you owe me a *lot* of explanations."

He sobered. "I told you last night; ask me anything you want, and I'll answer you as honestly and as fully as I can. I promise you that, Lois. I have nothing to hide from you."

She reached across to touch his hand reassuringly. "I know that, Clark. I'm just giving you fair warning that tonight you are going to be subjected to the most in-depth interview you've ever faced, okay?"

He smiled back at her. "As long as it's an exclusive."

"Always," she whispered. The look he gave her in response was as intimate as a kiss.

By mid-morning, they were working on several stories related to the arrest and charging of Lex Luthor. Lois had taken the opportunity provided by the morning news conference to break the news — strictly embargoed — of Lex Luthor's arrest, and had informed everyone of the truth about her 'engagement' to their new owner. She'd been very gratified by the number of relieved looks when her colleagues realised that she'd never really been planning to marry Lex.

Jimmy and Jack had just been sent off with long lists of research to be done when Lois and Clark were interrupted by the arrival of Inspector Henderson.

"We're holding a press conference in an hour," he announced. "I'm giving you guys advance notice, though — I guess we owe it to you. Luthor's being charged with murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to murder, multiple counts of fraud, extortion, bribery, tax evasion and probably half a dozen other lesser charges. Our guys went through all his business premises and every building he owns with a fine tooth comb last night and this morning, and we've found plenty. We're looking for a search warrant for his lawyer's office too, and on the basis of that letter to Bender that you found I think we'll get it."

Henderson gave a sardonic smile and continued, "He's still denying everything and threatening to sue, but we have confessions from the Cox woman and several other underlings. And some of his criminal associates are queuing up to give statements rather than be caught up in the same rap sheets."

Lois, pencil at the ready, asked quickly, "So how much can we print?"

"Basically, everything that doesn't give away the evidence we want to use in court. Course, you two have your eyewitness accounts of what happened last night and that's fine, and I guess I can't stop you using those papers you found. I'd prefer that you didn't mention the confessions yet, though."

"But we get the exclusive on those later, yeah?" she demanded.

Henderson sighed. "Do I have a choice? I do have some other news for you, though," he added. "We checked out AdMedia, and when we put what you told us together with a couple of things one of the rats departing the sinking ship said, we've linked it directly back to Luthor. So he really was trying to sabotage his own paper after all."

"Well, that was obvious after he admitted to being behind the bomb!" Clark pointed out. "He managed to bring the share price right down, then picked it up at fire-sale prices. And then tried to close the paper down." He scowled, and Lois knew that it angered Clark very much that Lex was still effectively his employer.

"We'll have to find a way to get control of the paper from him, Clark," she said quickly. "I'll call the paper's lawyers today, and talk to Perry. There has to be a way; after all, how can it be legitimate for a managing director to wreck his own business? There must be a way to force him off the board or buy him out."

"One other thing," Henderson said. "I've managed to reopen the investigation into Falconio's death. The guys on that one are still convinced it was suicide, but I'm getting them to reconsider in the light of what we know about Luthor."

"That's great," Lois said, and meant it. "We have one heck of a paper to get out, Clark!"

"Yeah, and we have one heck of a lead on our rivals," he reminded her. "No-one's going to be buying any other newspaper this afternoon. You better make sure there's a bigger print run than normal!"

"Yeah, and I need to see if we can get additional advertising as well," she said, frowning.

"Delegate, Lois!" Clark said firmly. "You're needed on this. Get the head of advertising to do it — it's her job!"

Lois noticed that Henderson was looking mildly amused by this. "You sure seem to be getting used to this editor role, Lois," he observed with a grin. "Does this mean I've seen the last of you getting in the way on my beat?"

"Don't bet on it!" she retorted.

She was about to show the inspector out, when he hesitated. "I have a message for Superman," he said cautiously. "He said you two would know how to contact him."

Clark raised an enquiring eyebrow. "Is it about the Kryptonite?"

Henderson looked wary. "You know about that?"

"Henderson, Clark almost got killed because of it last year!" Lois said, rolling her eyes. "Of course we know. And Superman trusts us with the information."

"Okay. Well, tell him he was right. There was Kryptonite in that basement — and get this; there was a cage. The bars had been coated with the stuff."

"A *cage*?" Clark sounded horrified, and Lois stared at him, equally appalled.

"Yeah. I guess it's pretty obvious what he intended it for — though how he planned to get Superman into it beats me."

"It probably wouldn't have been that difficult," Clark said quietly; watching him, Lois could guess what he was thinking. It wouldn't have been difficult. All Lex would have needed to do was use someone as bait — herself, possibly.

"Tell him that I'm making sure that it's disposed of safely — and that no-one else finds out what the stuff is or what it can do," Henderson added. "He said he thought Mrs Cox might have a piece as well, and I'm having her apartment searched. If it's found, it'll be destroyed too."

"Thank you," Clark said soberly. "I know Superman will be very grateful."

Henderson shrugged. "I figure the MPD owes him several favours."

His hand on the door-handle, the detective turned to Lois again. "I never thought Luthor was your type, Lane. Actually, I always thought Clark was the kind of guy who could handle you. But then, that assumes that he'd want to." With a wink, he left the room, closing the door behind him.


That afternoon's edition of the Daily Planet, and the one the following morning, were the best-selling issues Lois had ever worked on. They even outsold by a considerable margin her exclusive story introducing Superman, after he'd saved the Prometheus transport vessel. Both Lois and Clark spent a considerable amount of their time, after the afternoon edition hit the streets, fending off requests for interviews and additional information. Those who wanted to know more would just have to read the follow-up stories in the next day's Planet, was the standard answer.

The distribution and other blockages were also removed; Lois had sent runners from the Planet's print division to check that their distributors and stockists were behaving as they should. That, combined with the increased sales, saw the Planet's share price increase the following morning when the stock market opened.

"I hate to think that Luthor's being made even *richer* because of our hard work!" Lois complained to Clark. Since he agreed, he just gave her a sympathetic smile. That was just one of many details which remained to be resolved.


A week later, Lois called Clark into her office to go through his latest article, a further follow-up on the police investigation into Lex Luthor's business and affairs. Luthor was still in custody and still threatening to sue everyone in sight, but due to the arrest a couple of days earlier of Sheldon Bender, he'd had to find a new lawyer. According to Inspector Henderson, this new lawyer was bluntly recommending that his client plead guilty to most of the charges. Henderson considered that to be an unlikely outcome, and Luthor was currently under suicide watch. The DA was determined to see that this particular notorious criminal stayed alive to face a jury.

Clark slid into a chair opposite Lois while she read the story. After a couple of minutes, she looked up and said, "Why is my name on the byline?"

"Because it is," he answered, shrugging. "This has been a Lane and Kent story all along, you know that."

"Clark, I can't take credit for something I didn't write!"

"It's not just a story. It's part of an ongoing series," he pointed out, reaching across and planting a kiss on her waiting lips. Then he halted, staring in disbelief at the doorway to the office.

"Well, seems like I'm not needed around this newsroom any more!" the newcomer drawled. "You're doing a darned fine job of editing, Lois."

"Perry!" Lois jumped to her feet and rushed to the editor- in-chief, who was standing in the doorway smiling broadly. "What are you doing here?"

"Aw, they finally let me out of that hospital room this morning, and I couldn't just sit around at home. So I thought I'd just wander in here and see how y'all are doing."

"It's great to see you, Chief," Clark said warmly. "I mean, to see you up and about again. We've missed you."

"Aw hell, I've missed this place too," Perry said. "Can't wait to get back in harness — uh, that is, if I'm still needed!" He gave Lois a pointed look; Clark grinned. Lois was doing a great job as editor; he was well aware that he couldn't have done it half so well himself. She knew just when to push people harder, to go that bit further for a great story, where he might have accepted their first attempt.

And yet, despite her ability for the job, she didn't enjoy it. He knew that she was itching to get back on the beat; every time he went out to meet a source or do an interview, she watched him leave with envy in her eyes. She worked longer hours than he liked, just so that she could *write* some stories as well as editing the paper. That meant, of course, that — Superman duties permitting — he stayed late with her, keeping her company and feeding her if he wasn't actually working with her. But he yearned for an evening when they could be together, alone, without the newspaper getting in the way.

They'd had that evening the day after Luthor's arrest, of course, though even that had been curtailed because of Lois's editorial responsibilities and the Planet's massive resurgence in popularity and sales. Still, he had some very pleasant memories of their dinner in Paris, during which he'd told Lois everything he knew himself about his origins and his powers. She'd not only understood exactly why he'd needed to become Superman in the first place, but had come up with some very useful ideas for better excuses for his absence, as well as making some suggestions for a more strategic role for Superman. After all, she'd pointed out, if the world started to become too dependent on Superman for minor emergencies, did that not mean that the emergency services might become too complacent? That governments could become less willing to sort out their problems themselves, if they always had Superman to call on for help? That had given him a lot of food for thought.

But that wasn't at all surprising; as he'd told Lois before saying goodnight, so much of what Superman had become was thanks to her. She'd been a very strong influence on Superman all along, even though she hadn't known it.

That had been a wonderful evening, but he wanted more like it.

Still, he could wait. They had the rest of their lives, after all. And he always got to see her home, and spend long, blissful minutes kissing her goodnight. He insisted on going home, although Lois would have been happy for him to sleep at her place; he didn't trust his self-control *that* much!

Lois smiled up at Perry now. "Oh, you're definitely needed, Chief! So when can you come back? Please?!" She gave him a — faked — desperate look.

Perry lowered himself into a chair. "Those idiot doctors insist that I have to take a month off to 'recuperate'. Recuperate! There's nothing wrong with me! It was only a minor attack! I feel fine," he growled irritably. "I could come back tomorrow!"

"Chief, if they say you need time…" Clark began, concerned.

"Oh, sure," Perry growled, waving a hand dismissively. "As if Alice would let me come back before some fool of a doctor told her I could! It was hard enough getting over here today — I told her I was just going for a walk!"

"Well, I'm certainly going to be relieved when you do come back and I can hand this job back to you!" Lois pointed out, grimacing. "And, Perry, if I ever ask you to let me have some editorial responsibilities ever again, just put me on the dog-show rota, will you?"

"Ah. So you don't have any desire to succeed me on a permanent basis just yet?" Perry answered, a twinkle in his eye. "Lois, honey, you're doing a great job. But I knew your heart wasn't in it. You're a newspaperwoman through and through, but I know you want to tell the stories, not edit them." He smiled then. "I won't be back for a few weeks yet. But in the meantime, if you want, I can call in a favour and get an old college friend of mine to take over. He's a professor of journalism now, but his summer vacation's just started and I know he's looking for something to do. If you want to get back to the newsroom and your partner — " at this, Perry grinned broadly, and Clark realised that the editor knew exactly what was going on between his star reporters " — then Mark could probably be here by tomorrow."

Lois gave Perry a shrewd look. "Is he good?"

"Oh, he's one of the best," Perry assured her. "Before he took up his academic post, he edited the Boston Times. You can look up some of the issues he edited, if you like."

"Mark Warner?" Clark queried sharply.

Perry nodded. Clark noticed that Lois looked impressed too, as well she might; Warner's reputation while at the helm of the Boston Times was excellent.

"Well, if you think he'd do it, Chief, I won't deny that I can't wait to get back on the beat," Lois admitted. "That'd be great."

But then she looked concerned. "Chief, won't there be a problem? I mean, the paper's owner would have to approve any change in editor, even temporary, and — "

Perry shook his head firmly. "Uh-uh. If you're thinking of Luthor, we don't have to worry about that spawn of a skunk any more. I've been having wall-to-wall conversations with the lawyers over the past week — when they told you they were dealing with it, they were working on it with me. We've launched a petition to the court to throw Luthor off the board on the grounds that he breached several of the Planet's articles of association, not to mention trying to blow the paper up. Just this morning Judge Woo granted an interim order banning Luthor from having any role in the paper's management. So I can appoint whoever I like as editor."

"That's great, Chief!" Clark exclaimed; he gripped Lois's hand and squeezed it, noticing that she was looking every bit as delighted. "But he still owns a majority of the shares…"

"We're working on that," Perry said, waving the objection away. "I'm in negotiations with Franklin Stern — he's been looking for a newspaper to buy for a while, and he likes the Planet. He doesn't always approve of everything we print, but he admires the paper's approach. He'd be willing to buy a controlling interest at the right price — and the lawyers are working on a way to force Luthor to sell. I reckon we'll have a new owner by July Fourth."

"Appropriate," Lois commented sardonically.

Perry got to his feet then. "I'd better get off home before Alice sends out a search-party," he complained. "Lois, I'll talk to Mark and get him to call you. You should be back out in the newsroom by the end of the week."

"I can't wait," she said, grinning.

"Mind you keep an eye on her for me, Kent," Perry said, winking at Clark. "Don't let her give you the runaround, no matter how besotted with her you are."

"What?" Lois glared at Perry indignantly, but he merely raised an eyebrow at her as he walked out of the office.

"Sometimes, if you weren't my boss, I'd…" Clark heard her mumble as she escorted Perry out through the newsroom.

Clark watched them go, delighted to see the editor on the mend and to know that he would be coming back to the Planet soon. This had been good news all round; Luthor no longer had even a token say in the Planet's affairs and would soon be off the board, even in the nominal capacity in which he was present at the moment given his current domicile. And he was getting his partner back.

He and Lois would finally get a chance to spend some quality time together. He leaned back against the door of the office, a smile curving across his face as he imagined just what they could do with some of that quality time. He would take Lois to this little island he knew in the south Pacific; they could go swimming, and walk on the sand, and eat fresh fruit and drink wine under a palm tree. If she wanted, he'd build them a shelter out of palm leaves and they could sleep under the tropical stars…

Lois came back towards him then, her expression going soft as she looked at him. Placing her hands on his chest, she pushed him backwards until they were both in the office again, and as wolf-whistles echoed around the newsroom, she slammed the door shut behind them.

She grabbed his tie, pulling him towards her. "So, you have to keep an eye on me, do you?"

"Well, I *could*… though that's not really the part of me I'd prefer to keep on you," he told her wolfishly.

"It isn't?" She raised an eyebrow at him, her expression challenging.

"Not really. This is so much more fun…" he whispered, lowering his head to slant his mouth over hers.

Lois wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her body against his and returning his kiss with interest. "Yeah, much more fun," she murmured against his mouth some minutes later.

Clark floated them discreetly across the room so that they could sit on the couch; lifting Lois to sit on his lap, he concentrated on showing her just how much fun kissing could be.

And one of these days, he reflected, they'd be doing a lot more than kissing; preferably, he thought, when she was wearing his ring. He'd buy her a ring far less ostentatious than the one Luthor had foisted on her but, as he'd told her, it would be given — and worn — with love.

One of these days… One of these days, he and Lois would be married. But for now he intended to make the most of moments like this, sharing private jokes and kisses and showing each other how much they were loved.

Just then, Lois pulled back a fraction from him. "I love you, Clark," she whispered.

Brushing his lips teasingly across the tip of her nose, he answered, "And I love you too, Lois. Always."