Smallville 39

By Kaethel <>

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: November 2001

Summary: In this alternate beginnings story, Lois Lane finds that all her clues in her new assignment lead to a small town in Kansas…and a handsome stranger for whom she seems to have a more than passing attraction.

The idea for this premise had been lurking on my hard drive for almost as long as I started writing fanfic, but it's only a few months ago that I began to really work on it, with the determination to wrap it up this year — and amazingly enough, in this case, strong will worked! ;) So here it is, and I hope you'll like it. :)

A couple of disclaimers, first: I wanted to apologise for taking a few liberties with the geography of Kansas. Since I've never been there, I mostly went with my imagination as for what the scenery could look like — and my imagination can go pretty wild, sometimes. <bg> In that regard, I'd like to thank Jeff Brodgen for providing me with some extremely helpful information about Kansas, telling me when the previously mentioned imagination had gone too far <g>, and reassuring me that I wasn't that far off from the actual looks of Smallville. :)

I couldn't have completed this story without the help of several wonderful people, who supported me throughout the writing process, never let me give up even when I thought I'd never finish it, and provided me with always more encouragement. So I'd like to express my gratitude to Elena, who saw a very rough outline of this fanfic when we met last spring, and motivated me to keep working on it. Thanks also to all the FoLCs who answered my various queries on the list and on irc, whose nagging made me want to write faster than my usual snail-rhythm <g>, to Dia, who attracted my attention on some typos I'd missed, and to the people on the boards for their hilarious and so supportive comments. :) Also special thanks to Tracey's brother, Tim, for teaching me some of the funniest expressions ever and allowing me to use one of them in my story. :)

An enormous thank you to my terrific beta-readers. Tracey and JoMarch helped a great deal with the beginning of this story, and even though their crazy schedule didn't allow them to beta-read the whole monster, they kept encouraging me beyond the call of duty. LabRat and Wendy Richards provided me with the most helpful suggestions, helped me through more sticky plot problems than I could ever remember, brainstormed with me for countless hours when I was stuck, and edited the whole story, for which I'm grateful beyond words. You guys are the best. :)

And of course, many, *many* thanks to my Archive editor Tricia Walpole for catching my typos and being so supportive. :)

For those who may not know the names, Mario Andretti was a successful Formula One racing driver of the eighties. David Vincent was the lead character in the TV show, The Invaders. A man dedicated to proving that the world was being infiltrated by aliens.

All usual disclaimers apply: Lois, Clark, and all related characters are property of DC Comics and Warner Bros, and a few lines of dialogue belong to the script writers of Strange Visitor. The rest is copyrighted with the author.

Now, all I wanted to add was a little hint as for where this story is going, and that with the help of a simple equation: (Tension + Growly Clark + Angry Lois ) x Sexual Tension = Smoochies Potential. I'll let you discover where this is going. <vbg>

Feedback is, of course, very welcome. :)


~ Metropolis, New Troy ~

George Thompson checked his watch for the fifth time in a few minutes and let out an annoyed sigh. He'd always hated waiting, and he thought he'd made that clear to Trask the last time he'd seen him. The head of Bureau 39 was under *his* command; technically, he was under him in the hierarchy, at least according to the papers back in D.C. Yet every time they met, Trask bossed him around as if he didn't care at all about whatever orders Thompson or anyone in Washington gave him.

The creation of Bureau 39 had looked like a good idea at the time. He'd supported it so enthusiastically that Everett, the head of the F.B.I., had placed him in charge of the newborn secret department. Sometimes he wondered what had gone through his head when he'd accepted the assignment — it hadn't turned out to be as easy as he'd expected, especially since Trask had arrived on the scene. But the Secretary of the Interior had insisted that his young protege be hired for the job, and no-one had found a sufficiently good reason to contradict Lloyd Tempus's will.

This Lloyd Tempus was another weird fish. No-one knew where he came from nor how he'd attained his high position in the American government. And no-one was apparently interested in finding out what background he had — he could be a criminal mastermind, for all people knew. But Tempus kept working on higher ambitions, his latest challenge being to run for the upcoming presidential election. What was frightening was that no politician had objected to his candidacy, and he'd already obtained the support of many well-respected political figures.

Thompson shuddered. The mere thought that this man could someday become president of one of the most powerful nations on earth scared him to the core. He'd never been able to make up his mind on what it was about this man that disturbed him the most. Was it his too-smooth exterior? Or perhaps the wicked gleam in his eyes when he gave out orders, almost as if revelling in his authority? There was something definitely wrong about him, although Thompson had never been able to put his finger on it.

And lately, Trask had been taking a little too much initiative and blaming it on Tempus, which just confirmed Thompson's opinion of the Secretary of the Interior. He wondered what the head of Bureau 39 wanted of him tonight. The clandestine nature of the meeting place was making him nervous, because with Trask, it generally meant trouble and difficult moments of stress.

Why the hell had he chosen the docks at the far end of Suicide Slum, of all places, to meet him? His office at the F.B.I. would have been just as deserted…in a less unsettling way. Thompson darted a quick look about him — not a soul lived around here. Various warehouses and deserted cargo ships pitted with rust were anchored in the quiet, dark waters of the harbour. The surroundings were making him nervous, and didn't fit with his classic business suit — he'd already received a couple of curious stares from the homeless people living a couple of bl…cartons away, and the resident prostitutes patrolling the streets had made him more than one offer for their…services.

"Next time, *I* will specify the place and time of our meeting," he muttered under his breath.

"You will?" a voice behind him answered, causing Thompson to swivel around, startled. "How sweet of you to volunteer to set everything up. But we won't need that any more."

"Trask! Don't sneak up on me like that! Do you know how dangerous it is for a man with high blood pressure?"

"Yeah," Trask snorted sarcastically, thrusting his hands into his pockets and taking a few steps to circle around Thompson, quite in the same way that a hawk would approach its prey before the final attack. "You certainly don't need that."

"And what do you mean, we won't need that any more?"

"I can promise you, Thompson, that I won't ask you to meet around here ever again. From now on, I'll deal directly with Lloyd Tempus. It'll be better for us all, and particularly for our duty to this country, as he's more devoted to our cause than you'll ever be."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Thompson demanded, anger and nervousness mingling in his mind as he watched Trask behave so off-handedly.

"Just that you're about to hand in your notice as our go- between with the F.B.I."

"I'm about to…what?"

"You heard me, Thompson. Your career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation is over. Ending now."

"Trask, you're crazy! Your mission —"

"My mission is to identify alien threats to the security of this country," Trask cut him off coldly.

Thompson chuckled nervously. "Alien threats? Come on, Trask, you and I both know that none of the cases that have been reported to us have been proven. The little green men haven't invaded the world and I'm afraid they probably have better things to do than care about us."

"You're wrong, Thompson. They're already here, and I'm about to get the proof. And the invasion is only starting. They dispatch an advance guard at first, to test the waters — then if we don't offer any resistance, they send the others."

Thompson shrugged unenthusiastically. "So what's your plan? Catch the aliens and dissect them?"

"I don't want to study them. I want to kill them before they kill us." Trask's words only spoke of hatred, and Thompson knew that he wouldn't hesitate to carry out his threat.

"Trask, your reckless freelancing is jeopardising the integrity of the entire Bureau 39 operation. Remember it was originally created to take care of the unclassified files sleeping in the drawers of the F.B.I.'s office — not to be the God and judge of whoever you think has landed on earth in a flying saucer," Thompson shot back, tired of the man's obsession and worried about its possible consequences on the whole purpose of the F.B.I.'s creation.

"You don't know *anything* about Bureau 39," Trask spat out harshly. "You sit with those gutless paper pushers in Washington who are too stupid to know we're even in a war, let alone how to fight it!"

"That's more of your insane paranoia…"

"Open your eyes!" Trask yelled in reply. " They're coming after us. A few people will die in the struggle, yes, but we either draw the line or we capitulate. I will *never* submit."

Thompson sighed and shook his head. There was nothing more he could say to convince Trask to stop taking the operation so personally. He would have to see that the man turned over command and control of all his military assets, before it was too late. Taking a reasonable tone, he tried using conviction again. "The Smallville operation *has* to come to an end. It's been taking too much time and money, without much result," he added when Trask raised a challenging and totally careless eyebrow. "Besides, an 'environmental mission'," he continued, mimicking imaginary quotation marks, "isn't supposed to use military means, and I'm surprised the inhabitants of this Kansas community haven't figured out something's not right yet."

"You're underestimating the weight that the words 'government' and 'military orders' have on people, Thompson. Besides, the Smallville operation isn't under your authority any more."

"Shall I remind you, Trask, that I'm still in charge of Bureau 39 and that you're therefore under *my* authority?"

Trask glared at him. Thompson had visibly no clue who he was talking to, and he'd make sure he finally understood who was the boss from now on. Good thing that Tempus was dealing directly with him and avoiding go-betweens like this idiot from Washington. And from now on, Thompson would stop being a threat to the Bureau — it was an essential point, especially considering how the Smallville operation was turning out.

The very recent discovery of a capsule in the Kent garden confirmed what he'd suspected all these years — the aliens had been around for a while, and they were hiding among humans. They'd probably brainwashed some earthlings so that they helped them to fake integration…before they struck at the world with their incommensurate powers and reduced the largest of the world's nations to slavery.

And Thompson, just like every one of his colleagues back in Washington, failed to see that. The only person who understood the importance of the danger that the aliens' invasion represented was Lloyd Tempus, who fortunately had enough sensibility and determination to realise that the fight had just begun, and that individuals of Thompson's ilk were to be disposed of before they went over to the enemy.

He'd warned him that people would die in the struggle, and he hadn't been kidding — he was ready to sacrifice whoever would protect the aliens by their words or actions, and Thompson was fitting the bill. Tempus had been right to warn him about the man, and the sooner he was out of the picture, the safer for the mission he was in charge of.

Reaching inside his military jacket pocket, Trask withdrew his gun in one swift move and pulled the trigger a fraction of second later, a smug grin playing about his lips as Thompson gasped in horror and fell to the ground.

Lloyd Tempus would be satisfied.

"You have no authority," Trask said, throwing one last despising look at Thompson's lifeless body before strolling off into the night.


Barely a few feet away, hidden in the shadows, behind a stack of crates of various sizes, a young, dark-haired woman was reduced to a heap of trembling limbs as the shot resonated over and over in her head. Whatever they said, witnessing murders would never be an activity she'd get used to. She'd have to build herself a thicker skin if she wanted to succeed as a reporter, but she sincerely hoped that assassinations wouldn't be an everyday occurrence.

She hadn't seen it coming, despite her awareness that the case she was on might be a lot more dangerous than she'd first suspected. When Trask and Thompson had started to argue, she'd scribbled frantic notes on her pad and held her breath in excitement, knowing that the past few weeks of research were finally coming to a concrete result. She now had enough information to be sure that the investigation she'd embarked upon wouldn't end up in a cul- de-sac.

Finally, after all this time looking for *the* big break that would start her journalism career, she was on her way to breaking a major story that could earn her her first award and launch her profession with a chance that was rarely given to mere students like her. With a bit of luck, it might net her a job with one of the biggest newspapers in the country, maybe even the Daily Planet. She would just have to be careful and bring her future editor not only a scoop, but above all, a well written report rendering the truth about Jason Trask and his Machiavellian plans and backing it up with facts.

One of the things she'd been learning for the past month she'd spent in journalism school was that you couldn't rely on your editor to run your story if it couldn't stand against the demands of attorneys. It had looked like a trivial detail at first, but given an example of what a lawsuit could engender, she understood the need for precaution. Especially when attacking such powerful and influential men as military and government agents.

If she was skilful enough, she could prove the link with Lloyd Tempus and expose the man as one more crooked politician. Either the guy was nuts, or he was trying to muddle things up for anyone who was attempting to figure him out. It seemed so farfetched for a man in Tempus's position to stoop to a U.F.O. obsession, but if Trask was telling the truth, then the Secretary was involved in this much more deeply than even Thompson had imagined.

She'd felt the thrilling tingle of an upcoming scoop for the past few weeks, ever since she'd interviewed that former member of Bureau 39. She'd been visiting the Daily Planet premises with her journalism class when her first real scoop had literally landed in her lap, breaking the boredom of her afternoon. And here she was tonight, clad in dark, form-fitting clothes, and her shoulder-length hair safely tucked under a black baseball cap, having just obtained the last piece of information that she needed before throwing herself into this story. Eventually, after all the time she'd spent gathering little hints here and there, spying on conversations and trailing after hunches that didn't pan out, she was getting a real, serious lead.

She was well aware that many obstacles would loom up in her path, starting with the half guilt trip she'd made after her visit at the Planet. Her friend Linda hadn't helped much that time, lecturing her that what she was doing was like stealing a story from a Planet reporter — whoever this lead had been destined for — and that it wasn't fair. She'd argued that Burton Newcomb had willingly given her the information — all right, he'd probably thought she was a reporter for the paper, and she hadn't set him straight. She remembered *exactly* what had happened and how, and she wasn't about to give up her scoop for some pesky detail like the fact she wasn't a qualified reporter…*yet*.


~ Daily Planet, three weeks earlier ~

"And right over here, we've got the editor's office. Perry White has kindly agreed to meet us today, despite a full schedule and the demanding deadlines required at a newspaper as influential as the Daily Planet," the professor explained for the benefit of his rapt audience…

Rapt, except for one student, who was following loosely behind her classmates and looking bored.

Lois Lane hated conventional visits — it seemed like the usual atmosphere reigning in the Planet's premises was somewhat altered by the group's arrival, and she knew from experience that none of it was natural. The reporters in the newsroom were calmly sitting at their desks, and although most of them were apparently concentrating on their computers or notepads, the discreet glances thrown in the direction of the group of future journalists having their first brush with the career they were taking up weren't lost on Lois.

Ha! As if an editor-in-chief would let his employees yawn their heads off if just for a few seconds! Under normal circumstances, he'd probably be standing at the entrance of his office, surveying the Bullpen with an eagle eye and barking at anyone who dared take an unnecessary break. Heck, the trip to the coffee machine and back might even be timed. All right, so maybe Mr White wasn't as much of a slave driver as she imagined, but it certainly took a lot of work and determination from the entire Planet team to always be on top and beat the other newspapers in town.

The Planet had the best reporters around — Myerson, Ferns, and more recently, the hot team composed of Billy Norcross and Serena Judd. Professor Zulawski had waffled on about them as their group had passed by the desks of those famous journalists. Okay, so they'd obtained a smashing interview with President Presley last year, and they'd also uncovered the biggest drug ring since the one exposed by Perry White himself some fifteen years earlier. But apart from that, she supposed they were pretty normal people.

She wished she could have met them today, though. She was curious about who they were exactly, and her teacher's praise wasn't telling her anything concrete about them — apart from the fact that they were the best around and wouldn't ever be beaten by any of the newcomers in the journalism business.

Wait till *she* came along, she'd thought resentfully as Mr Zulawski had moved on to the next *wonderful* feature he wanted to show them around here. Lois had barely been able to hold back a snort of disdain.

She let the group follow the steps of her groupie of a teacher while she progressively slowed her walk in hope of sneaking out of Zulwaski's sight. It didn't take her more than a minute to find a pillar to hide behind, and she heard the gallop of her fellow students lessen as they disappeared into the conference room, where Mr White would presumably give them a fascinating speech about the values required in a reporter.

Left on her own, Lois started to wander around the newsroom, observing that the activity was settling back into its daily routine now that the journalism students were out of earshot. White had probably given them a meaningful glare, for the reporters were milling about the Bullpen, exchanging impressively big folders and typing frantically on their keyboards. And more importantly, they seemed completely oblivious to her presence, which allowed her to go snooping around.

She stayed in her semi-hiding place for a few more minutes, enjoying the sight of a newsroom where the journalists were *really* at work and not putting on a show for the benefit of their hopeful successors. A guy about her age was distributing doughnuts, a severe looking woman was frowning as she took notes on the phone, a fat and bald old man was thoughtfully caressing his beard as he conversed with the…bimbo sitting in front of him — a source, possibly?

Lois sighed happily. This was what she'd always hoped a newsroom would be like, with mute TV screens in the background broadcasting various bulletins and the odour of fresh coffee filling her nostrils. Doughnut Guy passed close by and she was tempted to reach for one of the pastries, but she held back for fear of being discovered and thrown out of the newspaper premises — or worse, being forced to rejoin her group.

She carefully made her way back to the area situated to one side of the Bullpen, opposite the conference room, and navigated between the cubicles sitting close to the ramp leading to the elevators. Her eyes fell on the mythical name of Serena Judd, and she felt herself attracted to the famous reporter's working place, to the point where she sat in the woman's chair and let her mind wander to her wildest dreams.

She could have a legitimate seat here a few years from now. She'd work as hard as she could to achieve this goal, in any case, and maybe someday she'd get the chance to be as skilful as the woman whose desk she was sitting at. She chuckled as she imagined what it would be like to be bellowed at by Perry White when she was too late for the evening edition…and also how proud she'd feel when she'd bring him her first major scoop. Would he express some gratitude before he sent her back to work, reminding her that reporters were only as good as their next story?

Whatever the answer was, she knew she'd love it, and she'd give anything right now to get to such a position earlier than expected.

"Ms Judd?" A male voice snapped her out of her reverie and she looked up into the terrified eyes of a man whose trembling fingers were nervously fiddling together.


"Ms Judd," the man spoke up again without giving her time to reply. "My name's Burton Newcomb," he continued, extending his hand out to her in an automatic but distracted greeting, "and I used to work for a secret section of the F.B.I. I've now resigned from my position because the man who's been thrust to the head of Bureau 39 is too much of a madman to lead the organisation to anything but a tragic end, but I want you to investigate this and bring them down before they can harm people. There's too much at stake in this case, too many top people involved, and no-one I can trust this with. You're my last hope, Ms Judd."

"Huh?" was all that Lois could think of as a reply. Either this guy was a complete nutcase, or…or she could just be living that one important minute of her life where the scoop of the century was falling into her lap.

/Into *Serena Judd*'s lap,/ the voice of her conscience rectified.

Serena's desk, Lois's lap, she mentally replied, effectively shutting off the annoying thought. Therein lay the big difference.

"Tell me you're going take care of this," Newcomb pleaded in a whisper, and Lois found herself nodding, accepting a story about which she had no idea what was involved, nor whether it wasn't a bit out of her league.


~ Suicide Slum, present time ~

/A *bit* out of her league./

Lois remembered her exact thought as she crouched deeper into the darkness provided by the moonless night and struggled to regain control of her fear, which wasn't easy when the cadaver of George Thompson was lying a few feet away and the man's murderer might still be around.

A murderer who might well be the same as the one who'd killed Burton Newcomb the previous week, therefore effectively silencing Lois's main source before he could reveal more to her.

The fact that Newcomb had taken her for Serena Judd had seemed like a divine benediction at the time, but right now she dearly wished she hadn't been sitting at the senior reporter's desk to hear what the older man had to say. He'd been right when he'd clarified that some top people were involved, and his recommendation not to trust anyone proved itself justified as well.

One look at Trask had sent a flash of a memory through her head, and she'd immediately recognised the man whom she'd seen involved in a deep conversation with the police chief a week earlier, while she'd been giving her statements for the murder of Newcomb. How could she confide in men who were in league with a murderer? Policeman or not, Inspector Richard Preston had looked very friendly around Trask, and that gave Lois a valid reason not to trust him with anything. She was definitely on her own.

And now Thompson had inadvertently revealed to her prying ears that the Secretary of the Interior was involved, too. Good grief, but Lloyd Tempus had looked like an honest man to her — well, as honest as politicians could get, anyway. Learning that he was turning out to be worse than his fellow members of the government was leaving her completely stunned, especially when she'd been tempted to give him her vote for the next presidential run.

She listened intently, trying to determine if Trask was still around. She assumed that an assassin rarely stayed around the scene of his crime, but one could never be too careful. When she was finally sure that the area was safe — or as safe as Suicide Slum could get — she released the breath she'd been holding and retrieved her backpack, struggling with the zipper for a few seconds before snatching her wallet from an inside pocket.

She peered through the darkness and palmed the few bills there, a despondent sigh on her lips. She'd have to dig into her college account, and the prospect didn't particularly appeal to her. On the other hand, her father had told her it was a personal reserve to help her pursue her studies, and if her intuition was right, this investigation *was* part of the process. She'd certainly learn a lot by doing this, and it would be an excellent experience for her resume.

There was a grinding sound behind her and she froze, crouching in the darkness and inwardly muttering at the hammering sound of her heartbeat that surely wouldn't go unnoticed, were someone getting closer to her. She got the shaking of her limbs under control and slowly turned around, as silently as she could, jerking when the startling, grating whisper reached her ears again. A low meowing followed and a grey, tousled cat jumped off a crate, creating the same noise that had frightened her earlier before trotting away, oblivious to her sigh of relief. Lois scolded herself; her investigation didn't look hopeful if a poor, harmless cat was enough to frighten her. Being stressed with a murder was one thing, but she couldn't let a stupid feline stress her out.

Being in such a neighbourhood at night wasn't exactly doing the best for her tranquillity, though. The seedy, narrow streets of Suicide Slum attracted darkness as much as criminality, and she didn't want to be found by any of the resident dealers and junkies who stayed hidden during the day and invaded the streets after sunset. So far, the only passers-by she'd seen, apart from Trask and Thompson, were homeless people in search of something to eat, drug addicts in search of their next fix, and prostitutes in search of clients, so it didn't mean she had to panic.


All she needed to do was hug the walls and stay hidden as much as she could until she reached the old station on Lincoln Avenue. From there, she could catch one of the suburban trains back to her apartment. It was simple enough, wasn't it?

Yes. Sure. Simple. Uh-huh. Didn't mean that she had to like it. She shuddered, resisting her fear, and after a quick but careful check of her clothes to make sure that she was still fading into the decor like a chameleon, she got to her feet and started towards her goal.


It was with a sigh of relief that Lois plopped herself into the slashed leather seat at the end of the railway wagon, taking off her cap and letting her dark hair fall onto her shoulders. The tiredness of the day was making itself felt, and the stress she'd suffered while staking out the depths of Suicide Slum for a good part of the night was starting to catch up with her.

Her heart was still beating strongly against her chest, reminding her of the major risks she'd taken by going to that same place after what had happened barely a week earlier. Some experiences were hard to forget, especially when your life had been already endangered a very short time ago, and in circumstances that were way too similar.

She could still hear the ragged breathing of her pursuer as she'd run through the darkened, seedy streets of downtown Metropolis, darting through alleys in hope of shaking him off. The adrenaline of the moment had given her the necessary stamina to pull through, but it had been close, and if she hadn't found a tiny, shadowed corner to hide in, she certainly wouldn't still be here to remember the moment.

The attack had come unexpectedly, her aggressor coming out of nowhere, tearing her out of the shock of discovering the lifeless body of Burton Newcomb. The older man had been her most reliable source since their first impromptu encounter in the Daily Planet's premises, and he'd been of invaluable help, providing her with small clues he found while snooping around F.B.I. offices where he still had access. By being less than careful with his investigations, he'd brought down his own ruination on himself. He'd spent so much energy trying to make up for mistakes he felt responsible for, intent on telling her everything he knew to try and uncover the madness that had taken over the government's creation.

Even though she hadn't had the time to really know him, she'd come to appreciate his qualities and rely on him, even if struggling to figure out the truth among the snippets of information he dropped into her lap was sometimes too much of a frustration. She'd been lucky to cross paths with him, and she wouldn't have reached this point in her investigation without him. Even dead, he'd managed to be helpful — good thing he'd left his personal notes at his office, warning her of tonight's rendezvous between Thompson and Trask.

It had been such a shock to find him lying face down in a pool of blood in the deserted alley. He'd called her only two hours before, asking her to meet him there because he'd found out something of the utmost importance about Bureau 39. He'd sounded slightly more excited than his usual calm attitude, and promised her that the information was very much worth it. But he'd never had the occasion to tell her.

She must have arrived right after his murder because his attacker hadn't yet had time to dispose of the corpse when she reached their usual meeting place. Being closely followed and running away through the dark night had made her aware of the danger lurking if she probed too deeply into this investigation. Burton Newcomb had paid the hard price for knowing too much, and she didn't want to end up like he had.

The first hours after she'd escaped the murderer had been a nightmare filled with cops and questions coming from all sides, and then she'd been sent home to face alone the consequences of what she'd almost witnessed, and what she'd miraculously escaped. Not that her statement would help any, considering she hadn't been able to give much of a description of her pursuer. Mere information like he'd been of average build and the clothes he'd been wearing was far from being enough when it came to identifying any suspect the police might arrest.

And anyway, she had no doubt that the murder was closely linked to her current investigation. At first, she'd tried to keep a cool head about the events of that night, and let the police take care of everything. Her interview with Inspector Preston, after she'd found Newcomb's body and escaped what she was convinced was a life-threatening situation, had somewhat reassured her that the police would try their hardest to bring down the murderer of her source.

But seeing Trask's face tonight had made a memory resurface. The resemblance was unmistakable — too much to be a simple coincidence. She's seen that man before, and she remembered where: at the police station, and deeply involved in what looked like a very friendly conversation with Inspector Preston.

She shuddered. How could she trust the police chief when he entertained an apparently close relationship with a murderer?

Maybe it was Trask himself who'd taken care of the problem that might have been posed by whatever her source knew. The fact that she'd sat a few feet away from a criminal like Jason Trask in an environment that was supposedly dedicated to honesty and justice made her shudder, and she renewed her decision not to go to the police tonight.

Whatever she might risk if she didn't immediately testify for the murder of a government agent like Thompson, it wasn't worth the much bigger menace of giving out what she knew within earshot of Inspector Preston, who could simply report it to his friend Trask and make sure Lois Lane was disposed of.

However, it wouldn't prevent her from investigating. She'd promised herself that she'd get to the bottom of this and bring Newcomb's murderer to justice if it was the last thing she did. And the best way to start was to use the helpful information that her source had provided her with, together with the revelations she'd just had tonight.

The soft motion of the train rocked her into a drowsy state, and she leaned against the window, watching the large suburb blocks quickly passing by. Rows of identical walls loomed over the railways, darkened by too much rain and pollution, dotted with dirty windows through which naked bulbs provided a faint glow, which was absorbed by old, torn wallpaper. Students, single mothers or lonely old people lived there, some drowning their loneliness in alcohol and drugs, others looking out into the street, in search for an escape from their boredom.

The southern districts of Metropolis contrasted very much with the rest of the city. Lois was born in the north, in one of those privileged suburbs where attorneys, doctors and arrogant actors rubbed shoulders, keeping to themselves. Only two days ago, she'd stayed at her father's villa up there on the hills surrounding Riverside — a large house lost in a forest of pine trees, where mingled aromas of undergrowth and resin made you forget that you were only a few miles away from one of the biggest American cities.

Sam Lane's house certainly seemed far away from her apartment building. After her parents' divorce, she and Lucy had mostly stayed with Ellen Lane, even though the roles of mother and daughters had soon been inverted. Lois now knew more than she'd ever wanted to about the devastating effects of alcohol. She couldn't remember how many times she'd had to drag her drunken mother to the bedroom and listen over and over to the same story of how her father had abandoned her, leaving her miserable and lonely.

The social services had threatened Mrs. Lane with the possibility that her children could be taken away from her unless she agreed to undergo treatment for alcoholism. The cure had lasted a few months during which Lucy and Lois had stayed at their father's house and been basically on their own the whole time.

Lucy had reacted rather badly to the situation; she'd rebelled against any authority, refusing to let any adult demand anything from her, because as she said, no-one had ever given her anything. Soon enough, she'd left school and looked for a job, whether it was as a waitress in a bar, or as a saleswoman in some fashionable clothes shop. That was how a casting director had noticed her, and after a few tries, she'd landed herself a contract with the producer of a new show on local TV.

Now she was Alicia Dikers, rebellious teenager, for about fifteen million potential viewers. She had her own place near the studios where the series was shot five days a week, and Lois barely saw her any more. Lack of time, her sister said. But Lois supposed that Lucy wasn't unhappy to have cut almost all ties with her childhood, and even at seventeen, she'd become very independent for a girl of her age.

Lois, on the other hand, had continued her studies, always driving herself onward to realising her aim of becoming a reporter someday. She didn't exactly know why the profession had appealed so much to her for so long, but it was nothing short of a vocation in her case. Despite her father's scepticism and her mother's lack of interest, she'd kept on working in the hope of reaching her dream, and she'd now entered the Metropolis School of Journalism. Not that Sam Lane exactly approved her choice — he kept reminding her, every time she saw him, that she would be better off studying something more 'appropriate for a woman', like he always said.

Lois shook her head as she heard her father's irksome words in her mind. She'd given up on fighting with him on the topic — it was useless when he was so stubborn, anyway. And what mattered was that he hadn't forced her to follow his 'friendly advice', and kept paying for college, whatever she did, as long as she brought a diploma back home at some point. He didn't really care about the rest of it, and despite her bitterness towards her father, Lois had to admit she was mostly happy with the situation.

She was stirred back to the present by a group of boisterous students sitting a couple of carriages away. They'd boarded the train at the previous station, and were now messing around in a lively uproar…which was making a terrible racket as far as she was concerned!

She growled inwardly, eyeing the four guys warily; somehow, she knew that she was in trouble even before they nudged one of them, shoving him towards her. She rolled her eyes as the peroxide blonde approached her, chewing his gum in a way she thought of as particularly vulgar, though she suspected he himself viewed it as cool.

She ignored him, staring out the window until he plopped himself beside her, propping his feet on the leather seat opposite and putting a possessive arm around her. She shrugged out of the unwelcome intimate gesture, glaring at the object of her annoyance, who responded with the most stupid expression she'd ever seen.

"Hey! Whatcha doin' all alone?" He grinned broadly at her, probably expecting her to be scared or flattered.

Whatever he was waiting for didn't come, however, because after gratifying him with a raised eyebrow, Lois grabbed her backpack and got up, striding over the stretched out legs of the annoyance and intent on reaching the other end of the carriage. She hoped the jerk would leave his little game at that. Waste of time! The guy's buddies only snickered as she passed by them. The neglected student didn't seem to take her rejection too well, and he followed her to her new seat despite the harsh stare she threw at him.

She knew the type. Showing off in front of their friends — and what better way to show off than playing big macho-man with a girl? — but not much courage once they found themselves in a critical situation. She generally preferred to ignore them; she knew that they tired pretty quickly when their victim didn't respond to their provocations or didn't look afraid of them.

"What ya tryin' to do here?" he drawled, standing beside her and looking down at her in a very superior manner.

She simply glared, urging him without words to drop it, but he visibly wouldn't take no for an answer — in such a case, putting him in the picture might be helpful to him, she supposed.

He reached a hand to touch her chin, forcing her to look at him. "Don't play hard to get, babe! Ain't that every woman's fantasy to — ow!"

The macho-wannabe clutched at his groin, wounded in his flesh and pride, and a little self-satisfied grin spread on Lois's face as she savoured her victory.

"Don't *ever* call me babe," she snarled, silently thanking the judicious use of her knee.

She shook her head, amazed by the blond guy's quick defeat. She didn't regret the self-defence classes that she'd taken in her last year of high school — they were turning out to be useful, after all.

Throwing a quick glance outside informed her that her station was coming next. Gathering her stuff, she ignored the young man's faint whines and his friends' laughter and provocative whistles. She made a quick exit, throwing a smirk over her shoulder, and jumped off the train when it stopped in a deafening screech of brakes.


Lois let herself into her darkened apartment, sighing in frustration when the lamp sitting on the coffee table near the couch was switched on and her roommate's interrogative gaze settled on her.

"Where've you been all night?"

Kicking off her shoes and dropping her backpack and cap onto a nearby chair, Lois padded barefoot through the living room, ignoring Linda's question. She knew that her friend would want to know what had held her up for so long when she'd said she just had something to do before going home. She checked her watch — okay, so 1am was probably a tad later than Linda had expected her to be, but was that reason enough for her to be demanding explanations from her?

Sometimes, she had a motherly attitude that aggravated Lois to no end. Like when she stared at her without saying a word, waiting for her to speak up first, just like she was right now.

"Lois, you didn't answer my question," Linda whined after a while.

"No, I didn't. Look, Linda, maybe this will be news to you, but I happen to have a life."

Sitting up straight, Linda patted the sofa, urging Lois to sit by her side. Lois complied with a sigh, knowing she wouldn't get away with silence this time.

"Come on, spill it!" Linda said excitedly. "What's his name?"

"Excuse me?"

"His name! Your secret boyfriend!"

"My sec…oh! My secret boyfriend! Of course…" Sometimes Linda's nosiness was a very big help. Especially now. "Well…he's…"

"Yes?" Linda prompted, her eyes twinkling with eagerness.

"Spike!" she exclaimed, sudden inspiration striking.

"Sp…Spike?" Linda enquired with a raised eyebrow.

"Spike," Lois confirmed with a decisive nod of her head.

"Spike who?"

"What do you mean, Spike who?"

"What do you mean, what do I mean, Spike who? Spike…*something*! Like Linda King or Lois Lane! That guy must have a last name, right?"

"Oh! Uh…Spike. Just Spike. I think it's a nickname, actually."

"Bet it is."


"Never mind. Anyway, is that why you're…um…'dressed to kill'?" She drew imaginary quotation marks in the air, showing her disapproval of Lois's choice of clothes. "I'm sorry, honey, but last time I checked In Style Magazine, black jeans and sweater along with trainers weren't exactly *sexy*."

Lois rolled her eyes and slumped deeper into the sofa's cushions. "*Spike* likes me that way."

"Guess I could expect pretty much anything from a guy named Spike," Linda remarked scornfully. "But didn't you have your eye on Paul?"

"Ah yeah…Paul." Lois softened at the mention of the university paper's editor, whom she'd had a crush on for the past few weeks. Not that the older student looked remotely interested, but she hadn't stopped hoping that someday he'd see more than a freshman in her.

"Unless you decided to give up?"

"Dunno," Lois replied honestly. "And I can't spend the rest of my life waiting for him, anyway. I have —"

"Better things to do," Linda completed the well-known refrain. "I know. Lois, you can't spend your time working; someday, you'll understand that you need to go home to someone. And not some guy named Spike, if you get my drift."

"Maybe *you* do, Linda. Doesn't mean it's the same for me." She got up and disappeared into the bedroom, hoping that her friend would leave her alone and not press her with more questions, although knowing Linda, she knew it was hopeless.

And sure enough, she'd barely retrieved her large leather bag before Linda had joined her.

"What are you doing?"

Lois stated the obvious. "Packing," she said as she put a pile of t-shirts into her luggage.

Linda looked completely taken aback, and she walked through the room, sitting on Lois's bed and looking up at her pleadingly. "Hey, I'm sorry, Lois. I didn't mean to upset you."

"Upset me? You didn't upset me."

"If I hadn't, you wouldn't be packing," Linda remarked softly.

"Oh! No, it has nothing to do with our conversation!" Lois hurried to reassure her, scolding herself for her thoughtlessness.

"If that's the case, then why are you packing?"

Of course, it meant that her friend's nosy character was back with a vengeance. "Just taking a few days off," she said airily.

"It's not about me, is it?"

"No, Linda, I promise it has nothing to do with you."

"Okay." The blond girl remained silent for a moment, watching Lois carefully fold several pairs of jeans and arrange them into her bag. "Is it about Spike?" she asked suddenly, drawing an exasperated sigh from Lois.

"Yeah," Lois said after a small hesitation. She supposed it was better to let Linda believe she would be off on a hot weekend with some guy, rather than have her on her back, telling her that what she was doing was reckless.

"Planning a romantic weekend in a faraway place?"


"Isn't it a bit…" Linda trailed off, as if unsure of Lois's reaction if she finished her thought.

"A bit what?"

"Well, the first thing that jumps to mind would be 'insane', but since you're a friend and I don't want to hurt your feelings, I'll go for 'premature'."

"God, Linda, I'm a big girl, I can take care of myself!"

"All right!" Linda raised her hands in surrender and got up. "But don't tell me I didn't warn you," she said before leaving Lois to her packing.


Lois shook her head after Linda's retreating form; they'd been sharing an apartment since Lois had left her mother's house a few months before entering journalism school, and sometimes it was difficult for the young woman to cope with her friend's natural curiosity. Linda always needed to know every single detail about everyone else's life; she was a real gossip, one that couldn't be stopped even by irrelevant details such as respect towards her friends' privacy.

Being close to Linda sometimes took a lot out of Lois, who'd always carefully guarded her private life. Her roommate often used that special bond that existed between best friends in order to convince Lois to pour her heart out to her, and sometimes, Lois didn't have much choice but comply. She generally regretted her confidences as soon as she'd made them — it had never made her feel comfortable to know that someone else knew about her secrets, as little as they usually were. There was this fear, anchored deep within her, that any information could be used against her. That any secret was dangerous if it fell into another's hands. Even a friend's.

Lois had always been a secretive person — back when she was a kid, she would listen to her sister's confidences, but she'd never reciprocated. She kept her emotions to herself, enveloping the pain of a not so happy childhood into a cocoon; it allowed her to ignore their existence, even if it was just an illusion from which she sometimes had to wake. She was a loner — being left alone for a few moments were the most precious of treasures for her, and she sometimes missed an independence that she'd never really had.

Fortunately, despite her annoying nosiness, Linda was mostly okay to live with. True, their respective scholarships had only provided enough money to rent a two roomed apartment, which meant they had to share the bedroom; therefore, any intimate relationship was complicated, and even more so since Linda had the distasteful habit of bringing her — rather numerous — conquests back home.

Lois had known when she'd agreed to live with her friend that her promiscuity would soon become a problem. Several times already she'd returned home to find a note on the coffee table asking her to sleep on the sofa because the bedroom was…occupied. Linda had, of course, apologised and offered compensation in the shape of a box of chocolates or some other sweet delicacy. But it didn't change the situation any.

Lois didn't feel she had the right to complain, though. Her father had suggested that she come and live with him in his villa — it was further away from campus, but he'd even hinted that he'd buy her a car. She'd declined the offer, aware of what living with Sam Lane implied: she'd have to become his little servant so that the mad scientist could spend the entire day locked up in his lab and only emerge when dinner was ready.

That was how he'd always behaved with his wife; that was what Lois and Lucy had always been used to seeing, as kids. Sam Lane had no sense of family; he had no idea what kind of responsibilities went with marriage and children. And living with him would only make Lois relive what she'd been escaping since she'd reached eighteen.

She preferred to accept the disadvantages of sharing a place with another student, knowing it was much more bearable. Not to mention she'd been rather lucky that one of her old high school friends wanted to be her roommate — at least, she'd had the assurance right from the start that Linda and she got along well, and the cohabitation wasn't too difficult.

Returning her attention to the task at hand, Lois finished packing and zipped her travel bag closed. She sat on the edge of the bed and reached for the phone, fiddling with the cord as she waited for the airline to give her the details of the earliest flight to Wichita. She didn't know how often planes flew into Kansas and she was almost afraid to find out. Another thing she wasn't eager to learn about was how much she would have to dig into her college account for the trip.

Booking her flight was easier than she'd imagined, and a few minutes later, she was able to relax a little and plan a few hours sleep. She snuck her head into the living room, throwing an interrogative glance at Linda; her friend was sprawled on the sofa, a bowl of popcorn on her lap as she watched a series of commercials with a fascinated expression.

"Pretenders concert in five minutes," Linda explained without even bothering to turn her head towards Lois. "When's Spike picking you up?"

"Huh? Oh! He's not. We decided to meet at his place. Tomorrow morning. Early."

"Darn, does that mean I won't get to meet him?"

Lois rolled her eyes and turned away, closing the bedroom door behind her and ignoring Linda's exasperating giggles. She was too tired to bear her friend's teasing, and she needed to rest a bit if she wanted to make the most of her trip to Kansas. She checked her large purse, making sure that her notepad was safely tucked inside it. It was only after the excitement of getting ready for the trip had calmed down that she realised the sheer madness of her project. She didn't have a lot of elements yet, and there was a risk that none of her leads would pan out, making the entire adventure useless. A waste of time and money.

The thought made her grimace, and she quickly pushed it to the back of her mind; she needed to remain optimistic about it, and not let any lack of confidence spoil her chances. After all, she wasn't jumping into this unprepared: she'd already led similar investigations, although on a less grand scale, for her high school's newspaper. But proving Josh Amaury's guilt in the corruption of the inter-campus football championship wasn't cast in the same mould as attacking a powerful man planning to run for president of the United States, and a secret agency which happened to be a department of the F.B.I.

She sighed, checking her alarm clock for the umpteenth time before switching off the bedside lamp. She would have all the time she wanted to think about how crazy this was during the three-hour flight to Wichita. Once it was too late to go back, she could wonder if it was a good idea, but now was not the time to ask herself a hundred questions that would just compromise any result she might have.

As the first whistles and screams of the concert reached her ears through the bedroom door, Lois drifted into a restless sleep populated with gun shots and journalism awards.


~ Smallville, Kansas ~

"So, which one? I know the dark blue has a really low-cut cleavage, but I kinda like the spaghetti straps…but well, the black looks nice, too. What do you think, Clark?" Lana Lang held the two outfits in front of her, staring at her image in the shop's mirror and cocking her head in extreme concentration.

Clark Kent sat on a nearby bench, observing his girlfriend revel in the purchase of a dress and wondering what on earth he was doing here. He'd agreed to accompany Lana in her search for the perfect clothing to wear to Maddie's party a couple of weeks from now, but he hadn't expected her to spend so much time hesitating over what was just a minor detail as far as he was concerned. But he'd promised Lana he'd help her, and knowing that she was happy just because he was accompanying her on her hunt made it more bearable for him to stay immobile on the uncomfortable wooden chair supplied by one of the saleswomen.

The few ceiling fans whispering over his head were only blowing more hot air through the crowded shop, and little pearls of sweat had appeared on Lana's pale neck. September was incredibly warm this year, and winter seemed a long time coming. Clark had already heard some of the old farmers complain about the dryness of the weather and how it was compromising next year's harvest.

Of course, some farmers had other things to worry about. Since the arrival of the government people, the Irigs' estate was threatened by something much more dangerous than lack of rain, and last time that Clark had visited Wayne, he'd learned the shocking news of the Environment Agency's ploughing over the Kent fields. To find illegal pesticides, they said. As they'd argued, Irig had been exploiting that land for almost eight years, so they were naturally part of the investigation, since they'd never really been in a fallow state.

Bile had risen in Clark's throat as he'd imagined the possible effect of such a search on what were, in fact, the only remaining ruins of his childhood. It was probably for the best that Wayne had held him back from running to the old fields and putting himself between the powerful machines and his parents' estate, but it still hurt to know that the last of his memories were at risk of being destroyed. And even if the farmhouse had belonged to him since his eighteenth birthday, there was nothing he could do against the government's orders. His opinion simply didn't matter, and whether he was happy or not with the situation didn't have any influence on the outcome.

Even Lana's father's attempts at negotiating had failed. The operation included all of Franklin County's fields, which were meticulously 'cleaned', one by one, without anyone really knowing what had triggered such enthusiasm in the state of Kansas for environmental problems. The workers hired for the task came from a government agency, and no- one in Smallville really had any idea about the results of the analysis of the geological samples taken from the neighbourhood.

Every single day, Clark hoped that they would leave and declare their investigation over, but their mission seemed to drag on, and fear always gripped at his heart whenever he passed by the old farmhouse on his way to Wayne's place. It wasn't until he recognised the familiar wooden beams supporting the stone construction that had seen generations of Kent farmers that he let himself breathe in relief.

"Clark? Yoohoo, Clark!"

Lana's annoyed voice broke through his thoughts, bringing him back to the unpleasantly clogged atmosphere of the shop. He raised an interrogative face towards her, looking bewildered as she presented him with the two dresses that she'd been alternatively holding in front of her to contemplate her silhouette for the past ten minutes.

"You didn't tell me which one you preferred," she whined.

"Oh! Oh…I'm sorry, Lana, I was…miles away."

"So I see. So, which one?"

"Black," he offered tentatively. "I think?"

"Yeah…" Lana replied pensively, turning back to the mirror. "Yeah, the black is kind of sexy…in a classic kind of way. But I think I'm gonna go for the blue."

Clark rolled his eyes, wondering why on earth she'd asked for his opinion if she'd already made her choice.

"It fits better with my hair colour," she explained when she saw his startled reaction. "Don't you think?"

"Sure! Can we go now?"

Lana laughed at his eagerness, a crystal sound that made him relax a little, filling his heart with tenderness for her, and she patted his jaw before dropping a soft peck on his lips. "Sorry, I know I promised we wouldn't spend the entire morning in stores. So give me just the time to pay for this and we can go have that picnic you promised me in the park. Okay?"

She smiled sweetly at him before trotting away to the checkout counter, and he found himself looking forward to their lunch together. It had been a long time since he and Lana had spent some time together, *alone*, and it was probably as much his fault as hers. There was always something — or someone — getting in the way, and it was why he'd let his girlfriend persuade him to go shopping with her this morning.

It was part of bonding, she'd explained when he'd looked doubtful at her offer. Sure. Spending an hour and a half in a store, with dozens of people around them, and old rock standards playing in the background, was close to his idea of a romantic time with Lana. Not! But the picnic in the park would make up for it, he hoped.

There was something strange about his relationship with Lana Lang, though. He'd never been quite able to put his finger on it, but there was some kind of inexplicable awkwardness that settled between them whenever they were alone in a — supposedly — romantic setting. As if they were afraid of each other. Or strangers to each other. They'd been friends for as long as they'd known how to talk; heck, they'd practically grown up together. The Langs, along with the Irigs, had helped Clark a great deal when he'd had to go from one foster home to another, after his parents' tragic death. They'd given him all the support he needed, and Frank Lang had encouraged him greatly to apply for a scholarship to the university.

And all along, Lana had been there, helping him as much as she could, being the shoulder he could cry on whenever the weight of a rather lonely childhood was too much for him to bear, or when he'd started becoming aware of his differences. She'd become his confidant, and he knew he could trust her completely. And yet…

Yet, as years passed, he found himself increasingly unable to share his deepest emotions with her. Oh, he still considered her his best friend — probably the best he could ever have dreamt of. But their evolving relationship was scaring him and holding him back. How he could think that they were going too fast when they'd known each other for almost as long as they were born still puzzled him, but it was a state of things that he couldn't change. But the transition from *just* friends to dating had been incredibly smooth between them; their first teenage emotions had been experienced with each other, and it had been so natural for him, one evening, to take Lana's hand in his on their way home.

They'd often walked hand in hand back when they were kids, without it having any kind of special significance — unless you counted Lana's decisiveness regarding their future when they were four: they would marry and have five children, two dogs and three cats, and Clark supposed he had agreed to her early plans.

But that time, feeling Lana's fingers lace with his had held something both thrilling and scary for them. They hadn't spoken a word during their walk, nor had shared a look, and the silence surrounding them had uncomfortably stretched, the beating of their hearts getting faster as they'd reached the old wooden gate at the entrance of the Langs' family house.

Lana had taken charge, then — Clark knew that if it had just depended on him, his first reaction would have been to run away. But the blond storm that had been part of his entire life hadn't given him much of a choice, and she'd kissed him impetuously, leaving him disorientated and dizzy when she'd run to the door, throwing a mischievous giggle over her shoulder.

And Clark had realised that being fourteen was far from easy.

That night, he'd gone back to the foster home with the clear feeling that something had changed in his life, although unable to determine if it was for the best or the worst. The unexpected kiss had thrown him off balance, disturbing his entire world and projecting him into unfamiliar surroundings. What he'd known with his childhood friend was gone; the rapport of closeness and trust present between them for so long had shifted, and Lana was becoming something else in his eyes: suddenly, she wasn't the intrepid kid who climbed trees and played hide and seek with him on an almost daily basis, but she was turning into a bundle of fresh scents and warm curves.

A girl.

As in the opposite of what *he* was.

She was awaking his senses, calling to primal instincts that he didn't know he possessed, and she was intriguing…mysterious…scary.

Five years had passed since that spring evening, and Clark still couldn't decide if letting Lana kiss him had been a good idea. He was happy with her, *that* he couldn't deny. She gave him everything he could ever dream of, and he enjoyed the stability of their relationship. But there were moments when he couldn't help but think that something was missing, that whatever happiness he was living now was only a lulling impression that would erode as time passed by.

Surprisingly enough, not much had changed since the first few months they'd spent together as a couple. They'd continued to spend time together, with the only difference being some — almost chaste — kisses shared every now and then. They still went to the movies, took part in the harvesting during summer, and hung out to the local country cafe pretty much every Saturday night with a group of friends.

Once, during their last year of high school, Lana had suggested that they move in together upon entering the university. She'd argued that it was a milestone in their life, and maybe the sign for them to go further in their relationship. Clark, though, had been scared by the idea. He didn't know what had triggered such a strong reaction from him towards what was, after all, a sensible suggestion, but he'd shut himself off Lana, not even bothering to explain what had upset him. A major fight had ensued, and they'd spent a few weeks thoroughly ignoring each other, to the point of going to the prom with other dates.

Things had calmed down as summer had come, and they'd talked, clearing the air between them and deciding to start on a new basis. Lana had never mentioned her idea again, and Clark had been grateful to her for not pressuring him into something he wasn't ready for. But deep down, he was thoroughly confused by his own feelings on the topic. There was no logical reason holding him back from fully enjoying his relationship with Lana, yet he couldn't bring himself to imagine sharing an apartment — let alone a bed — with her.

It wasn't that he didn't find her attractive — boy, he'd have to be gay not to physically want her! And he liked her. A lot. But maybe that was it; even after five years spent at her side, as her boyfriend, he still had no idea if he was in love or not. Very early on, he'd had very firm views on love and what it should imply, but never in his life had he experienced that strong feeling of connection that he was longing for. He'd tried to resign himself to the idea that such a sensation didn't exist, but it had never prevented him from carrying on hoping that someday, somehow, he would know for sure that he was making the right choice. And as long as uncertainty remained in his heart, he couldn't throw himself into something that might hurt a woman he deeply cared for.


~ Metropolis, New Troy ~

There were times in your life when things went just the way you wanted, and those moments were to savour as best as you could, Tempus mused as he settled into his large leather armchair and reached for his glass of good burgundy. He'd only just returned from a political meeting in D.C., which had gathered three thousand people who'd drunk in his words and would have sworn to vote for him if he'd asked them to. The idea had actually a certain appeal — he could ask his closest associates to swear an oath of faith and loyalty to his person. But he didn't need *that* to make them bend under the least of his will, as he'd proven over the past few days.

Still, it was nice to be back home, in good old Metropolis, where he controlled pretty much everything he wanted to. Even if he could only stay here for a very short time and would have to go supervise the Smallville operation on site. But for now, he could relax for a few hours in the city which he'd decided to make his home. Making the government accept that the Secretary of the Interior didn't spend most of his time in D.C. hadn't been too hard, and even when he was away Mayor Randolph was there to ensure that everything went smoothly. Over the years, Tempus had managed to place his men in Metropolis's strategic places, such as City Hall or the city's police, ensuring that he could keep an eye on everything happening in his city.

And lately, his plans were succeeding marvellously, giving him even more confidence for the future. He'd taken enough precautions this time so that nothing could get in his way, starting with a trip back to the previous century and the disposal of a not so dead sci-fi writer who'd had the annoying habit of torpedoing his plans every chance he got. But H.G. Wells wouldn't be a problem in this dimension — little Herb hadn't made it to his teen years, which ensured that he hadn't had time to invent his prehistoric time machine.

Life was really smooth in this dimension, especially when no Superman was around to play havoc on any form of villainy. So far, there was no sign of the red-caped crusader; the poor thing was having way too much of a hard time in his personal life to think about making boots and tights fashionable. The morals-dripping-blue-spandex-clad boy he'd had the unlucky occasion to run into in the other dimension was just a kid who was more preoccupied with farming chores than saving the world, and it was perfect as far as Tempus was concerned.

But it didn't mean that he should rest on his laurels, though and if he wanted his entire life to be blissful, disposing of any possible obstacle *before* they loomed up in his path was essential. The long hours of Utopian history that he'd bore through as a child were finally proving themselves worthy of his time. 'Know thy enemy' was becoming his motto, and he was even extending it to a much safer '*Control* thy enemy'.

Amazingly enough, Bureau 39 had been left out of the classes back in Utopia. The founder of the so-called idealistic world had probably preferred to leave unknown the existence of a governmental organisation whose goal was to neutralise a superhero whose ideals were clashing with some people's dream of power. Who knew, it could have given some interesting ideas to Utopians like Tempus…

He'd browsed through many history books back when he'd been a prisoner of that nightmarish world that people called Utopia, and never had this governmental secret agency been mentioned. It was only when he'd retrieved old newspaper clippings from the mid 1990s that he'd heard of its existence; Lane and Kent had probably been careful to hide it for fear of seeing it resurface.

Tempus held back a disgusted grimace; they really had no idea what consequences the sickening do-gooder's actions had had on the world. And Wells had had the gall to tell them that Utopia was a wonderful, ideal society! Now that Tempus had discovered the 20th century, though, he didn't want to go back to the boring future in which he was born. The 1980s US was everything he could wish for: guns, violence, corrupted politicians, and mud-wrestling.

Who could dream of a better world?

It all depended on one thing, though: as long as Kent didn't decide to use those stupid powers of his for the greater good or whatever sick name they called it, Tempus's hobbies were safe. But like he'd learned the last time he'd dealt with H.G. Wells and his idols, Lois Lane was as much of a key to the superhero society as Clark Kent.

Tempus had thought that kidnapping Clark as a baby would make his plan infallible, yet Lois had managed to prevent him from killing her future husband. He had to admit that he'd been fairly impressed by her skills at fighting, though — she'd probably be a champion in those wrestling competitions he enjoyed so much. Maybe one day he'd get around to arranging that. Lois had such nice, long and silky legs — covered in mud, she would be one of the hottest babes of the clubs where he hung out…

But back to the point, his knowledge of her character made him aware of the danger that Lois Lane represented, and that he would have to get rid of both Lois *and* Clark if he wanted to preserve the power he'd acquired in this dimension.

His business company was the realisation he was the most proud of. He made millions out of speculation based on what he knew of the future, and entirely controlled the world's economy. And every place in the world wore the mark of his influence, thanks to the brand he'd created, and whose name was always a sweet caress to his ear: Utopia.

Tempus sighed happily as he thought about the name of the corporation he'd founded a couple of years earlier, back when he'd only begun his meteoric ascension into Metropolitan high society. He'd found it highly ironic to use something he'd dreaded all his life as a designation for his own creation here in this universe. A creation the secret goal of which was to control the world and destroy Superman. It might look like a petty means of revenge to the onlooker — had such a person existed — but to him, it was making up for the years of vexation he'd had to bear back in the future.

Fortunately, he was on his way to make sure that none of it ever happened, and it was with a welcoming smile that he greeted the arrival of the individual who'd been helping him in his quest and with whom he'd have to plan the final developments of a long thought-out operation. A dark-haired man sheathed in military clothing entered the room, his ranger shoes clicking against the elegant marble flooring.

"Jason Trask, I presume?"

The man answered with a decisive nod of his head and saluted Tempus, which awarded him a raised eyebrow and a gesture for him to take place in front of him.

So, this was the man with whom he'd been having dealings with for the past few weeks. Their contacts had only been brief phone conversations so far, for security as well as practicality, Trask spending most of his time on the mission he'd been assigned in Smallville and Tempus taking care of the federal authorisation here in Metropolis and in the US capital.

Funny how Tempus had imagined Trask to be much more impressive than that — the man didn't look much more threatening than an ant, as it was. Nodding his head nonchalantly, he cleared his throat and proceeded to question the head of Bureau 39 on the results of the search for 'meteorites' he'd ordered him to undertake.

"The teams have combed most of Franklin County, and more particularly the northern area of Smallville," Trask explained. "And we've found that green rock in several places. Our geological expert is analysing them, and the report I received from Bureau 39's special agency seems to confirm its alien origins, and its high radioactivity. However, we've come across a strange fact."

"You did?"

"Yes. The radiation produced by this meteorite seems totally harmless to humans. None of the workers on site has suffered from their contact with it so far, and our analysis seems to lean toward the possibility that this rock is totally non-toxic."

"Oh, but I have the strong conviction that the mineral in question might help us in the eventuality of an alien threat. Remember, Trask, it being safe for humans doesn't mean the physical reaction would be the same in the case of an extraterrestrial."

Trask nodded his head, looking only half-convinced, but Tempus knew what he was talking about, and right now, the main thing was that the military kept following his plan without asking too many questions or offering annoying suggestions.

"What about that pencil pusher in Washington?" Tempus asked, abruptly changing the topic of a matter he considered closed for now.

"Thompson? Liquidated."


"But I have bigger news!" Trask said excitedly.

"Oh?" Tempus faked surprise as Trask animatedly told him about his most recent discovery, which confirmed the presence of extraterrestrials in the Smallville area. It was nothing new to the rebellious Utopian, but the military's enthusiasm was rewarding, as well as encouraging, regarding his faith in Tempus. It was so easy to fool those behind the times people that Tempus's activities were almost becoming boring to him.

"So your intuition didn't fail when you advised me to order the teams to check out the old Kent farmhouse," Trask finished with a smile matching that of a child who'd just unwrapped his dream present under the Christmas tree. If that was all it took to make the man happy, it was fairly easy, then.

"Of course my intuition didn't fail!" Tempus exclaimed, frowning warningly. "It never does!"

"Makes you wonder what the Kents had to hide, though," Trask added, perplexed.

His deduction skills mildly impressed Tempus, who already knew everything there was to know about the Kent family — more than he needed, actually. The fact that the old Jonathan Kent had decided to hide his son's spaceship six feet under because he'd had the visit of F.B.I. agents held absolutely no secret for him. But he supposed that what was history to him was a major scoop for the 20th century head of Bureau 39.

"Have you investigated their family?" Tempus enquired innocently, already knowing the answer.

"Yes. The parents had a lethal car accident in 1976. They had an only child, who was raised alternatively in foster homes and by neighbours. As for the parents' estate, it has been exploited by another farmer since the Kents' death, but the farmhouse has been abandoned since then."

Tempus chuckled inwardly. The differences he could create in this dimension compared with the other one were amazing. Travelling back through time gave him a major advantage, and he enjoyed observing the ripples of the least of his actions. It had been almost too easy to hire the services of an unscrupulous truck driver who, when paid enough of a fee and given a guarantee not to be charged with second- degree murder, had agreed to provoke the lethal accident.

Sabotaging the brakes and steering of Jonathan Kent's car had been an added bonus to make sure that the nauseatingly positive influence of Superman's parents was eliminated. It had ensured that the orphan superhero was raised in shyness and insecurities. This Clark Kent would never get the stupid idea of putting on a pair of tights…at least as long as Lois Lane wasn't around to suggest he bring a change of clothes to work.

"I do wonder what the symbol on the craft means, though," Trask mused aloud, bringing Tempus back to the dimension he now lived in. "It looks like some sort of weird-shaped S."

"It does?"

"Yes. Don't know what it stands for, though."

"I'm not sure that it matters much, Trask. What we need to ensure right now is that the aliens are found and neutralised. And thanks to your…*super* discoveries, we might just achieve that. You're going back to Kansas, and I'm coming along," he announced, ignoring the gasp of surprise and obvious disapproval that followed his statement. "The jet should be ready in an hour. Don't forget your mission will have a crucial importance for future generations of humans, Trask," he finished with a knowing grin.


~ Smallville, Kansas ~

The Kansas sun was hotter than Lois would have imagined, and she squirmed uncomfortably as she got out of the bus that had deposited her on what was supposedly Smallville's main plaza, where a glaring heat was spreading its torpor over the little town, paralysing it into sleep.

The old bus drove off with a deafening roar of rusty metal and a dizzying smell of diesel that probably held the power to pollute half of Metropolis, leaving Lois standing on the deserted sidewalk facing rows of ancient houses whose blinds had been closed to protect their inhabitants from the almost unbearable heat. And there was no tree under which she could have found a piece of shadow, no autumn breeze to lift the weight of the unexpectedly high temperature.


"Great…" Lois muttered through gritted teeth as she took hold of her heavy suitcase and dragged it towards what looked vaguely like a thoroughfare. Well, it was wide enough to be bustling with vehicles, anyway…whether that was useful at all was another matter entirely. Sure, there were cars, but they were all parked, and there was no sign of a living soul as far as she could see. The few shops lining the street were closed for lunch, and the fact that her stomach was growling loudly didn't do anything to change the situation.

She sighed, wondering how on earth she'd landed here, and cursing the leads that had brought her to this Mid Western ghost town. How could there be something to investigate, here? What could attract someone like Jason Trask to such a boring place?

Smallville was even worse than she'd imagined. It was where the reputation of peace and quiet generally attributed to the country really took on a literal meaning.

A place where all civilisation disappeared, where the world ended.

The gate to Hell.

She closed her eyes, wishing she'd never taken the plane to Wichita and had simply stayed in Metropolis. The day had seemed to start well, though: she'd managed to sneak out of the apartment before she'd had to face more of Linda's embarrassing questions, and found a cab to the airport in mere minutes. She hadn't even had to put up with some other traveller sitting next to her in the plane — though it wasn't surprising, when you thought about the destination.

At least Wichita had looked like a pleasant city. Well, what she'd seen of it through the bus's dirty windows, anyway. But it had seemed more lively than…than *this*. Smallville should be renamed 'Deadville', she decided in a spirit of revenge as she set off in the direction of what looked like a *hive* of activity.



As if three cats fighting for a piece of abandoned meat could be thus qualified. She snorted, passing by the oblivious pets and pushing sticky strands of hair off her forehead.

She felt so dirty and sweaty, and there was no sign of a hotel anywhere around. It was only now that she realised she could have checked before leaving Metropolis, but her departure had been so precipitous that she hadn't thought about such a trivial detail. She'd figured that any city had such an establishment, anyway.


As if Smallville was 'any city'.

Or a city at all, for that matter.

She strolled through a labyrinth of streets, the occasional tweaking of a bird piercing the heavy silence around her. Beads of perspiration were rolling down her neck and back, leaving her with a ticklish sensation and a shudder. It was only after a few minutes of idle searching that she finally heard a few voices on her right, and she discovered the wide-open door to what vaguely looked like a bar.

A couple of old men in faded blue-jeans and denim shirts whose collars were open over tufts of black chest hair were sitting on high barstools, sipping beers and talking conversationally, while a middle-aged woman was busying herself behind a wooden counter polished by the years, serving drinks and receiving large tips. At the far end of the single room, an electrical fan was propped on a shelf, its lazy, circular movements and slow whooshing sound punctuating the soft humming of the refrigerators hidden in the cellar, and the faint resonance of an old Emmylou Harris song.

The men's chat stopped abruptly as Lois entered the room, and she found herself transported back into a bad western. The only detail missing from the scene was the faint creaking of the ranch-doors and an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. She growled inwardly, making her way through the clutter of tables and chairs and ignoring the embarrassment of being stared at as if she came from another planet.

She sat in a far booth, grimacing at the pain in the muscles of her arm as she finally put down her luggage. Her palm was sweaty and her fingers were swollen and red. And she was exhausted.

The woman approached her, and Lois pasted a tired smile on her face as she greeted her and asked her to place her order.

"New in town?" she asked as she placed a plate of scrambled eggs and a glass of water in front of Lois, a few moments later.

"Does it show that much?"

The woman laughed at Lois's worried tone before giving her a reassuring glance. "It's just that it's the first time I've seen you here, and the bar doesn't get many new faces, that's all. Not to mention that my average customers don't carry such a bulky luggage with them."

"Oh. I guess that explains the…um…welcoming committee?"

"Don't mind the guys. They're here every single day, even on weekends, so each visitor is a distraction to them."

"I see." She bent to the side to catch sight of the four men who'd now returned to their conversation, but were throwing curious glances towards her every now and then.

"I'm Maisie," the blond woman introduced herself, extending a friendly hand towards Lois.

"I'm Lo…Julia. Julia Lewis."

She didn't know why she'd given a fake name, nor why she'd chosen her grandmother's, of all possibilities. Maybe the strange sensation of being in unfamiliar surroundings and examined as if she'd grown a second head hadn't helped in making her trust Maisie and her bar. But suddenly, the idea of not revealing her true identity gave her a sense of security. Maybe the seriousness of what she was investigating had something to do with it.

It could also be an essential protection for any sources she might find here. Being close to Lois Lane was dangerous at the moment, and could get them in even more jeopardy if she discovered in Smallville even more than she'd bargained for.

Besides, Julia Lewis probably had more chance of staying alive for the length of her investigation, whereas Lois Lane might just end up like Burton Newcomb. She didn't even have the reassurance of knowing that Newcomb's murderer hadn't seen her face during the pursuit through Suicide Slum's narrow streets. Her caution had been rewarded so far, but she'd stayed on her guard and didn't plan to stop watching her back until she was sure that whoever had anything to do with Newcomb's assassination was put behind bars.

It was strange how her life had changed so much in the space of a few weeks, throwing her into a world populated with nightmares and bad guys, when all she'd had to worry about until then had been whether she had enough ink in her pen to enable her to take notes in her political science class. There was no real difference in her when she woke up in the morning, nor when she turned in for the night, she supposed, but something in her mind had switched, as if she'd suddenly become aware of what it meant to stay alive.

The first day after Newcomb's murder, she'd lain low, avoiding the least trip outside her apartment for fear that her pursuer was lurking in the shadows, waiting for her to let down her guard. Fortunately, this stage hadn't lasted, and she'd soon realised that paranoia wouldn't lead her anywhere. Besides, since the police had been confident enough to let her go home without a bodyguard, it certainly meant there was no risk.

Or it had meant that until she'd found out the previous night that whoever she talked to could be in league with people like Jason Trask — even the chief of the Metropolis police, who seemed to keep too close a contact with the head of Bureau 39 for Lois's peace of mind.

She supposed that remaining careful and avoiding snooping into dirty business would be better to keep her safe…but had such a trivial matter ever stopped her before?

Maisie cleared her throat, bringing Lois back to the present with a small jolt, and the young woman realised that she'd probably been silent for a few minutes.

"Everything all right, Miss?" the bar's owner enquired, her face showing only concern and a genuine will to help.

"Yes! Sure. Sorry, I was just thinking."

"Tired by a long trip, huh?" Maisie suggested sympathetically. "Where are you from?"

Small town nosiness, Lois snorted inwardly. She should have known that it was unavoidable. "Metropolis. New Troy," she clarified immediately.

"Oh, I know where Metropolis is," Maisie laughed. "My ex- husband moved to New Troy a few years back. Not that I've seen him come back here since then, but hey, he could be dead and I wouldn't know, considering how often he gives me news. Let alone show himself back in the neighbourhood! Which is a shame, considering how beautiful it is, around here. And not polluted like New Troy certainly is!" Maisie added with a hint of pride in her voice.

"I've heard that the area was being dug up for environmental reasons, though," Lois said, taking advantage of the countrywoman's forwardness to subtly shift the topic to what held her interest.

Maisie's friendly smile faltered, replaced by a grimace denoting her disapproval of the government operation. "Bet you it's just a political manoeuvre, though. Not that I know much about this business, but the suits in Topeka sent those scientists with a special warrant coming from way higher, they said. At least, that's what Wayne told me."


"Wayne Irig. He's one of the farmers whose land is being turned over. Actually, it looks like he's in those men's sights, if I go by the way they've been treating him."


"A shame. A *real* shame, when you think they claim to be federal agents. Especially when you know that never in his life would Wayne use the pesticides they accuse him of spreading over his fields! He and Elisa have always been strong defendants of organically grown produce. They've been selling their fruit and honey for years, now, and they're famous the whole county over for the quality of their products!"

"I see," Lois said thoughtfully, filing Maisie's pieces of information to the back of her mind for eventual future use. "And where could I meet Mr Irig?"

"Oh, his farm is easy to spot. It's about a mile outside Smallville, in the direction of Wichita. You follow the river until you reach a narrow dirt track on the left, and once you've passed by the old Kent house, it's the next farm right after the turn."

"Thanks." Lois smiled warmly in gratitude. "I might give him a visit. I'm…interested in typical farm products," she lied, improvising an excuse and using Maisie's information for fear that the older woman queried her motives.

"Then I'm sure you'll find what you're looking for, Julia. May I call you Julia?"


"It's just that you're young enough to be my daughter," Maisie clarified with a wink. "Anyway, I should go back to serving drinks, I suppose."

"Wait! You don't happen to know of a hotel where I could stay, do you?" Lois enquired before the woman could return to her counter.

"Here in Smallville?"

Maisie looked taken aback by the request, as if Lois had just voiced the stupidest idea she'd ever heard — probably because it was extremely rare that someone stayed here willingly.

"There's a motel in the west of the city. Once you've taken the bridge over the river, you'll get there pretty quickly. It's on the right side of the road, nestled at the foot of the hills. Very easy to find, you can't miss it!"


In fact for a motel, the Paradisio was a longish single- floor house at the far end of a dusty esplanade burnt by the sun. The proximity of the forest-covered hills wasn't providing any shadow to shelter the building, whose white walls were reverberating a blinding luminosity. Most of the rooms looked unoccupied, if you went by the tightly closed blinds hiding the windows. The door to the reception area was hidden by a beaded curtain, which clinked together when Lois pushed it out of her way and peered inside.

The sight of an empty reception desk greeted her, and she pressed her index finger on what looked like a buzzer while hoping that whoever was in charge of the motel hadn't left for the day, too bored with the lack of customers. A swift look around informed her that a young man was slouched in a rattan couch, and she cleared her throat in hope of attracting his attention.

The man opened a wary eye and stared at her for a long minute, probably wondering who dared bother him during his afternoon nap. He finally seemed to regain enough awareness to realise that he was supposed to be behind the counter and show his new customer to her room, because he stumbled to his feet and dragged himself to Lois with a tired sigh.

He looked her up and down and she squirmed. She'd never enjoyed being undressed by a man's gaze, but this one was making her particularly uncomfortable. She assumed that he wasn't *that* much older than she was — he might be in his mid-twenties…his thirties at most. But the attention he seemed to pay to every detail of her body as he leaned against the counter, added to the appreciative twinkle in his eyes, was making her want to cover herself and scamper away.

Taking a grip on her discomfort, she scowled at him with a discouraging glare of her own. "Excuse me, sir, but I came here to check in, not to be checked out," she threw at him, holding back a satisfied smile when he snapped out of whatever fantasy he'd been lost in and lowered his eyes, suddenly finding another object of fascination in the data displayed on the register opened in front of him.

She gave him her fake name, feeling lucky that he didn't dare ask for an ID, and she silently thanked Linda for the lesson on how to intimidate a guy, which her friend had displayed for her benefit a few months back. It did seem to work, and after having paid her deposit, she was handed the keys to her room.

The bedroom she'd rented was sparsely furnished, and she made a face when a quick survey determined that the motel had found its supply at Costmart, probably the Blue Light Special. The chipboard of the tiny dresser sitting by the single bed was glaring at the brightly coloured comforter, lending credibility to bad taste. It was with a slight pinch of worry that she entered the bathroom adjacent to her room, and she sighed in relief. It was small and rather spartan, but clean.

However, the rustic charm which so many people talked about back in cities of the size of Metropolis was the big absentee. The bare walls weren't even decorated with typical paintings of the local scenery — although, to be fair, and considering the taste of whoever had designed this motel, she was glad not to find herself face to face with an elk's head or anything of the kind.

The good side was that a modern air conditioner was buzzing in a corner of the room, bringing some refreshing air to the cloggy afternoon.

Luckily, she hadn't been asked how many days she planned on staying. She sincerely hoped that any lead she might find here would pan out within the weekend so that she could fly back to Metropolis as soon as possible, but no-one could tell if that was achievable.

At least, she had something to begin with. Maisie had been incredibly helpful, and the information she'd shared would be very useful for Lois to start her investigation. She now knew that at least part of the Smallville population didn't approve of the recent environmental operation, nor exactly knew what it was all about — at least, she hadn't met anyone who didn't mind the government intervention so far. Despite the official dimension of the procedure, Maisie had seemed to express some doubts about its legitimacy, and Wayne Irig might just confirm the barmaid's opinion on the matter.

Settling in her room fortunately didn't take too much time. She took a refreshing shower before changing into a pair of light slacks and a camisole top, clothing that was more appropriate to the amazing September heat. After having carefully locked her door, she set off on the road leading to the few farms scattered around Smallville.


Sheltered in a secluded cabin in the hills overhanging Smallville, Tempus drummed his fingers on the hard wood of his improvised desk. He frowned disapprovingly. The day had begun wonderfully, but his mood was progressively reversing paths as he realised the stupidity of the men he'd hired to look after his various business while he was away, whether it was for political reasons or for…special missions.

He shouldn't have trusted Randolph and the special detectives he'd hired to make sure Lois Lane wasn't sticking her nose into anything nasty. He'd been wary of her for a while, but certain that fate wouldn't help her case this time. After Trask had taken care of that snitch, Burton Newcomb, Inspector Preston had reassured him that the police investigation would be quickly closed, and that Ms Lane's statements couldn't possibly link Newcomb's murder back to him.

He'd still been careful enough to organise a close surveillance of Lois Lane, but he couldn't believe he'd trusted if just for a second this moron of a of man to take care of her case. His surprise and disappointment had been great when he'd learnt a few minutes earlier, thanks to a phone call placed to the Mayor Randolph's personal office, that Lois Lane had literally vanished from Metropolis. Of course she'd waited until he wasn't around to slip out of his reach, and now she was God knew where doing God knew what with God knew who.

Tempus could only hope that it didn't involve Kansas, an investigation, and a budding superhero.

Sure, right after she'd found Newcomb's body, Lois had looked too frightened to try anything funny, but right now, Tempus almost wished he'd let Trask have his way and dispose of the girl. On the other hand, keeping Lois Lane around was fun. She was very distracting and provided good entertainment. It was highly amusing for him to watch her grow up and fight with her own demons, and it also allowed him to control her evolution, were she ever to decide she needed a super guy. However, she was now proving to be as much of a pain as her alternate universe counterpart, and he would have to see that she didn't cause too much trouble to his diabolic plans.

Randolph had been lucky to have escaped a death sentence after the way he'd failed, and Tempus wouldn't tolerate another letdown from someone who was technically inferior to him. And he had the power to break the man, if his plans were compromised again by Randolph's lack of intelligence.

Meanwhile, he had to fix the damage caused by his henchman's high display of stupidity. It had been difficult for him to admit he'd been wrong, but he'd quickly put it behind him and formulated a second plan, which involved a closer surveillance of the pesky woman.

No-one had any idea where Lois Lane had spent the previous evening — Randolph's incompetent detective had thought it was clever to grab a bite while the sneaky girl he was supposed to *continually* observe was attending one of her classes in the late afternoon. It should have been obvious to him that with her usual luck, she'd quietly slip out while no-one was there to follow her. No-one had seen her again since. The new detective that Randolph had assigned to the front of Lois's building had confirmed that the apartment she shared with her inane roommate seemed empty, although Ms Lane was still nowhere to be found.

Tempus had then ordered Randolph to check all airports and train stations, barely containing his fury, and -

The phone interrupted his dark musings, and he picked it up, grunting an irritated "Hello?" into the receiver and tensing as he heard the first hints of nervousness in Randolph's voice.

He could sense the Mayor's caution as Randolph dropped the news of Lois's departure on a flight for Wichita, and despite the fury he ought to be feeling towards the man who'd let the annoying girl slip out of his sight, it pleased Tempus to be feared by his employees. It almost made him feel like the famous Lex Luthor, whom he'd always admired since he'd found his biography in his history books.

Luthor was a genius of a business man, and in his mind, Tempus placed him right after the great Jesse James. The twentieth century's biggest villain had missed the advantages offered by a technology that Tempus could have provided to him, but the idea of a kryptonite cage sure was ingenious, for example.

However, contrary to Luthor, Tempus wouldn't fail. His plan was infallible, and even when an obstacle like Lois Lane's mysterious disappearance threatened his cause, a replacement scheme was immediately triggered.

Okay, so Ms Lane had decided to give them the slip while they weren't looking, and the destination of the flight she'd booked and taken this morning left him with little doubt as to her aim. Wichita was, after all, the airport situated closest to Smallville, and unless Lois had discovered a sudden and unexpected taste for the country life, he doubted her trip had a relaxing goal.

All he needed to know now was where she'd decided to stay, and he was sure it wouldn't take much time for him to figure out where the devious woman was hiding. Taking care of her then wouldn't be much more difficult either, and he trusted Trask to find something innovative and amusing. If Lois couldn't help but stick her nose into what was none of her business, then she should at least make an effort to be useful to his plans.


"Thanks for agreeing to do this for me, Clark," Wayne Irig said warmly as he guided the young man to the barn.

Clark had promised to help him repair the damage caused by the last storm, and he let out a surprised whistle as Wayne gestured towards the roof and the western wall, from which several planks had been ripped off. The wind hadn't been clement, and even if it had withstood bad weather until now, the old construction had seriously suffered this time.

Clark stood at the entrance of the barn, surveying the interior with a critical eagle eye, looking out for any critical fissures endangering the building's stability. Fortunately, apart from the obvious holes left by the mini- tornado that had swept down the county a few weeks earlier, the basic structure seemed intact.

"I guess that nailing down a few planks will prevent any rain soaking the hay once I bring it under cover. What do you think?"

Clark nodded silently and reached up a hand to fondly stroke the edge of the plank bordering the door. The wood was cracked by too many years of downpour and sun, and the rails squealed when the door slid to the side, letting a flow of light dissipate the darkness surrounding the room.

His father and Wayne had built that barn together, some twenty years ago. Before he'd arrived in his parents' life. And it was one of the rare things linking him to who Jonathan Kent had been. Touching the raw material that his Dad had used to erect the sheds around the Kent and Irig estates was helping him not to forget the life of hard labour of a man he hadn't had enough time to get to know.

Wayne frequently talked about Clark's father, who had been like a brother to him. Their friendship had lasted thirty long years, during which they'd shared joys and sad events, kids' secrets and adults' concerns. Clark still remembered the many times during the first few years of his childhood, when both families gathered to celebrate anything that was worth a dinner outside, lit by the old forged iron lamp hanging over the Kent farmhouse porch. Whether it was the end of the harvest or a birthday didn't matter — all they cared about was being together.

After the accident, Wayne and Elisa had taken charge of the Kent land, preventing the farm from being destroyed or sold until Clark reached his maturity and was able to take any decision he might want to regarding his folks' house. They'd also been like surrogate parents to him, and as he'd grown up, Clark had realised that the friendship that had united his father and this man was one of the rare kinds in life. One where death didn't manage to break the indestructible care and respect that had existed between the two men.

And whenever Clark looked into Wayne Irig's eyes, he saw the gentleness and love of his father reflected in the soft grey. It was something he had to tightly hang onto, because it was one of the rare things he had left. That, and a few scattered memories lying around both families' lands, where he'd spent the too short years of his childhood.

As if feeling the nostalgia of his thoughts, Wayne reached out to touch the young man's shoulder in a comforting gesture. "I'll go get the tools in the shed, be right back," he said softly, leaving Clark to the memories attached to the building, which resurfaced every single time he was around, but even more strongly this autumn afternoon.

His departure barely registered at the borders of Clark's mind as he took a few steps inside, remembering. This barn had witnessed one of his first intimate moments with Lana, as her boyfriend. It had happened a few days after their first kiss, and he hadn't foreseen the young girl's intentions as she'd dragged him towards the darkened and deserted place. The afternoon had been hot and moist, and being together in the shed, lying on fresh bales of hay and letting the warm breeze wash over them had seemed natural to Clark.

That, of course, hadn't been Lana's real plan.

He should have known that she wouldn't be content with just relaxing there, in the shadows of the Irig barn, but she'd still taken him by surprise, letting their playful kisses escalate into more than he was ready for. Before he knew it, his new girlfriend was tugging at his t-shirt and pressing her slender body tight against his.

It had been the first time that he'd become aware of his reluctance to go very far with Lana. Uncertainty had started to eat at him, and hadn't left him since. It had of course been worse since her offer to live together after their last year of high school, but the roots of his awkwardness with Lana had begun here, in this barn, where he'd had to pull away from her without being able to give much of an explanation, four years earlier.

It was strange for him to find himself here again, this afternoon, a mere couple of hours after having spent yet another unsettling moment with Lana. Lunch with her in the park hadn't gone as he'd expected, that was for sure. Everything had started off wonderfully, their friendly banter to the time, so many years before, when things weren't so complicated between them. They'd evoked childhood memories, laughing together at the recollection of the many times when they'd got into mischief and done their best to avoid their parents' severe scolding.

But moving on to the topic of their projects had been a mistake. As ever, what had started as a fairly innocent discussion about professional careers had turned towards their personal life, and Lana had quickly got upset again at Clark's reluctance to jump forward and take the final step.

She didn't understand. She would never understand, and as long as she pushed him towards something he didn't want to think about, nothing could happen. The more she pressured him into intimacy, the more he was shying away from her, and he didn't even want to. It was a natural, unavoidable reaction from him, like a protection he couldn't get rid of, something that was anchored deep within him and was throwing him completely off balance.

He could conceive how confusing it was for Lana, and how rejected she must feel if after five years of steady dating, her boyfriend still refused to talk about intimacy, or worse, did his best to avoid any situation that could lead them to that point. Lana had become, after all, a beautiful, attractive young woman, and he assumed that she was expecting more from their relationship than a few chaste kisses every now and then.

After their fight ensuing from her insistence that they move in together, Clark had thought that she'd finally started to see things from his point of view, but today's lunch had proved him wrong. It had taken all of his skills of persuasion to calm her down and reassure her that it had nothing to do with her; but what could he tell her exactly? He didn't know what was holding him back, when he cared so deeply for her and had no intention of dating anyone else.

He'd even considered the possibility of a subconscious fear of physically hurting her because of his differences, and had hung onto the thought for a few seconds, almost wishing it was the problem. But deep down, he knew he couldn't lie to himself, and his powers or whatever he could call his extra-human abilities had little to do with his relationship with Lana. At least, their presence wasn't involved in his lack of enthusiasm.

Lana's attitude towards them, however, had always disturbed him. When he'd first started to develop his strength and noticed with a certain amount of embarrassment that lifting a couch with one hand wasn't exactly 'normal', Lana had been the first person he'd talked to. Her initial reaction had been to mock him, and she visibly hadn't taken him seriously — which was to be expected, he supposed. But when he'd proved it, her laughter had stopped short, and her stubborn silence had scared him.

She'd looked…frightened, and his main concern had been that she would run away and never want to see him again. His abilities had never been a source of pride for him, on the contrary leaving him rather self-conscious about differences that he didn't want or need, and Lana's lack of response hadn't helped him in building some confidence. He'd never been worried about her repeating his revelation to anyone — he trusted her and when he'd voiced his wish that it stayed a secret, she'd immediately shown him that she understood his reasons. However, what had come next hadn't thrilled him at all.

Lana had been obviously not interested in hearing anything more about whatever he could do, and she'd made it clear that she was opposed to any display of his powers in front of anyone. Her initial fear, as she'd explained to him later that day, was born from a worry that Clark would be locked away and his every cell analysed by scientists, were his abilities to ever be discovered.

Her concern had actually bordered on obsession since then, and as a result, Clark had avoided the topic altogether to circumvent the argument that usually came from it. And he knew that her refusal to see the truth about him played a major role in the constant feeling of general discomfort that he automatically sensed around Lana. Yet he understood why she wanted to fake ignorance, why she seemed to reject something that she hadn't asked for and had been unceremoniously dropped onto her.

The shock of his own discovery had been too strong for him to think about what it would mean for Lana to know, back then, and he now regretted his bluntness. He'd relied on her to reassure him when she couldn't. He'd wanted her to tell him that he wasn't a freak when he indeed was one.

Sighing deeply, he chased away memories that he didn't want to face, and he turned towards Wayne, who'd come back with the tools necessary to his work and had stayed in the doorway, immobile, respecting the silent grief of a boy he'd loved like a son.

Wayne didn't say a word — there was no need. After an almost imperceptible but encouraging nod, he walked away, though not quickly enough to prevent Clark from catching the glint of hidden tears in his eyes.

The old man had seen Clark grow up, witnessed his progress, his first words, his first steps, his first sorrows. The day of the accident, he'd been there, too, working in his fields and oblivious to the drama taking place a mere few feet away from him, down the road.

Just a truck.

A bloody *stupid* truck, one of the kind that travelled on a daily basis on those country roads, and in one dreadful second, everything was over.

Clark had recognised the sound of his father's car — at that time, he hadn't been aware of his enhanced senses, but they'd been there nonetheless, and he'd dropped the polished stones he'd been playing with to run and meet his parents, just like he usually did when they came back from a day in town.

That day of September 1976, they'd been coming back from a weekend they'd spent at his grandmother's bedside — the old woman was gravely ill and had required her son's presence. Martha hadn't wanted Clark to come with them; a few nights before the trip, the ten-year-old that he was had heard his mother argue that he was too young to be confronted the difficult truth of aging, life and death. Little did she know that her son would have to face it in a much more harsh way only a few days after.

Clark had wondered many times if it would have changed anything, had he accompanied his parents to Kansas City. Maybe something would have happened to alter the events he'd lived. Maybe they would have stayed longer in the city, and the truck wouldn't have loomed up in the way of Jonathan Kent's car. Maybe he'd have managed to avert the accident.

Maybe he'd have died in the crash and wouldn't be there, some nine years later, asking himself the same dozens of questions that had been rotting in his mind since that evening.

The image of his father waving at him through the windshield would stay engraved on his heart for the rest of his life. The same memory had been haunting him almost every night since the accident. For a long time, he'd wondered if he was responsible for his dad's lack of attention. If he hadn't been there, waiting on the path leading to the farmhouse, eager to see his folks again and tell them about the kite that Uncle Wayne had helped him to build, Jonathan would have kept his eyes on the road and he might have avoided a truck driving at a tremendous speed.

Wayne and Elisa had told him, over and over, that it wasn't his fault, that the truck driver had lost control, and Clark knew it was the truth. He'd seen the vehicle swerve dangerously from the right to the left, and the crash had been unavoidable. For a fraction of a second, he'd stayed rooted to the spot, watching the scene unfold in front of him without being able to do anything to stop it, and then he'd run, run faster than he ever had, screaming at the top of his lungs, his anguished cries covering the deafening sound of screeching tires and…

…and then, a loud bang had resonated through his ears, turning the evening into a nightmare.

The impact had been followed by an incredible silence that had lasted only a few seconds, but that had seemed like eternity to him. His blood had turned ice cold, a long chill coursing through him as the quietness around had spread the dark blanket of death over the fields where the corn's ears were gently shaken by the breeze, and that his father wouldn't plough ever again. Over the expanses of pasture where his parents wouldn't ever take him for an improvised picnic again.

Suddenly, something had set him into motion again, steering him out of his trance and triggering his mindless run. He'd called his parents, pleading for them to answer, sensing the unusual atmosphere surrounding the accident scene, seeing the thin film of troubled smoke stretching its threatening tendrils over the heated asphalt.

There had been a small spark, he didn't know why nor how, then everything had happened so fast. Too fast. Flames had devoured the two impacted cars, consuming the lives of his loved ones, challenging his cries. Before he'd reached them, though, a ball of fire was exploding, sending carbonised fragments and burning ashes around him, the blazing blow pushing him a few feet away with a thunderous roar.

He didn't remember much of what had happened afterwards. There was some sparse recollection of images, like Elisa pulling him into her embrace and steering him away from the burning wrecks, dragging him back to her house and unable to comfort him; then Wayne coming back from the crash scene, keeping his head low and apologising incessantly for confirming their worst fears. And of course, the funeral that had taken place a few days later, closing the book of the first part of his life, and yet leaving him with too much remorse to grieve properly.

Clark blinked back the tears that threatened to overwhelm him, like each time he thought back about that painful time in his life. Being here in Smallville, where he'd grown up peacefully during the first ten years of his existence, and which was now inevitably connected to the memory of that autumn evening where his parents had met their death.

He often wondered if he shouldn't move out of the county, leave everything behind and start afresh somewhere else, but he knew that running away from his memories wouldn't erase them. They'd pursue him, wherever he went. Maybe his surroundings would stop reminding him of his parents and that dreadful September day, but he also feared to forget what were, in fact, his only roots.

Being here was reassuring to him; he was living among people he'd known for as long as his folks had adopted him, and the inhabitants of Smallville were as close to a family as he'd ever got. The enclosed world in which he moved gave him the feeling of belonging somewhat, even if deep down, he was aware that this was only a fake impression. He frequently felt lonely despite these people's support. No- one would ever take the place that his parents held in his heart, and that knowledge was getting harder and harder for him to bear, because it meant that he was turned towards his past and didn't place any hope in his future.

Taking hold of the tools that Wayne had deposited on the workbench at the back of the shed, Clark chased away his melancholic thoughts and concentrated on the task at end. He wanted to finish repairing the barn before the evening; the weather had been sunny since the passage of the storm, but there was something in the air telling him that the respite wouldn't last. The building might have resisted the last time, but it had been weakened nevertheless, and he didn't want to take the chance of testing its wind- resistance any further.


The landscape around Smallville was pretty okay to watch, Lois admitted grudgingly as she walked along the track leading to the gate of the Irig farmhouse. The path she followed was sandy, dotted with tufts of wild grass spread irregularly on it, and dandelions raising their thin petals towards the sun. The corn growing in the fields spanning the small path was rocked by a gentle breeze that brought some freshness to the hot mid-afternoon, and all in all, was offering the sight of some beautiful scenery.

Maybe the countryside wasn't all that bad. Sure, it seemed far from every essential element of civilisation to which Lois had always been used to, but there was a sense of freedom and respite that was missing in a big city like Metropolis. The people she'd met so far weren't slaves to their work, they took the time to relax and chat, they were open and friendly, and they didn't live to the same insane rhythm she'd known for all her life.

It would of course drive her crazy, were she forced to settle here permanently; she'd miss Metropolis's agitation way too much, and even if a couple of days in Kansas weren't as unbearable as she'd figured, it was only good for a short holiday as far as she was concerned. Or a tiny bit of investigation to keep her busy, in her case.

The sound of a noisy engine made her frown and she spotted an impressive mechanical shovel working a few feet off the side of the track, excavating the fields spread right beside a large farm looking anything but inhabited. She screwed up her eyes, shading them with one hand to make out the faces of the men busying themselves there. She was sure that these were part of the environmental mission — Maisie had informed her that they were around the Irig farm, after all — and she knew that she had to come closer to the scene to see exactly what the mission involved.

But a wooden barrier discoloured by the sun and scrubbed by the wind had been erected with dangerous-looking barbed wire affixed to the top, making it impossible to jump over it.

Retracing her steps, she circled the restricted area until she came as close as possible to the working people. She'd barely had time to determine the best position when a uniformed man scooted towards her rapidly, gesturing for her to go away. She faked unconcern, pasting a naive- looking smile on her face as he approached her.

"You! Get away from here!" the man warned threateningly without any preamble, ignoring Lois's raised eyebrows as he kept his hand firmly on the stock of his gun.

"Why?" Lois challenged, taking a provocative step closer to the barrier.

If the man was taken aback by her bullishness, his attitude didn't betray it. "Haven't you seen the placards? This is a military area, here. Restricted, and certainly not a place for teenage girls to play."

Lois's hands fisted in anger, and she gritted her teeth to keep herself from lashing out at the man. She supposed this pit bull had orders from the hierarchy, but did he have to sound so damned patronising? Fuming, but knowing that insisting again would only get her into trouble and blow her chances of ever finding out what the operation was about, she turned away, rolling her eyes as she heard the uniformed man announce into his walkie-talkie that it was 'just another of them pesky kids poking around'.

Well, they were visibly underestimating her, but the war wasn't over. And if anything, the security measures only intrigued her further; it looked unlikely for an environmental operation to be so closely protected, especially by people who wore khaki suits and were apparently part of the US armed forces. It seemed a bit too much for supposedly cleaning up an area contaminated by pesticides, especially when the workers didn't have any special equipment or clothing that could have hinted at the presence of a dangerous substance.

Everything seemed to confirm the theory that whatever they were doing wasn't as legal as they claimed it to be, and she would prove it. The outlines of a plan were already forming in her mind as she walked away and towards the Irig farm. The night was always an ally to spy on suspicious individuals and explore forbidden places, and she dared to hope that the government people hadn't ordered their men to work after dusk.

She assumed that a few security guards would be here to prevent the curious from snooping around the place, and considering how the guy who'd shoved her away had been fingering his gun, it would be better for her to be *extremely* careful. Not that she thought they'd shoot a 'kid', like they seemed to be convinced she was, but one could never be too cautious. A bullet could go off way too quickly and unexpectedly, and do irreversible damage.

Lois arrived at the large gate enclosing the Irig residence within a few minutes. There was no bell in sight, so she pushed the high wooden door and peered inside, sighing as she noticed that no-one was around. Taking a few steps through the small, tidy garden in front of the farm, where daffodils and daisies were cohabiting, she easily reached the other side of the building and spotted the large sheds and stables adjacent to the main house, whose wide shadow was slowly stretching over the backyard as the softer shades of the late afternoon appeased the heat of a too- bright sun.

But no-one was in sight. Not even a guard dog, although Lois wasn't complaining about that. Weren't country people supposed to work at farm chores at this time of the day? Rolling the haystacks, milking the cows, or whatever farmers were supposed to do?

A repetitive, regular shushing sound was coming from one of the barns, and she silently edged herself closer. The door was slightly ajar, and she bent over, sneaking a look inside, in search for the origin of the noise.

She held back a gasp as her eyes fell on the hard planes of a chest. A man's chest. A very *naked* chest. A guy about her age was energetically brushing a piece of sandpaper on a plank; lost in the cloud of dust his work was producing, the sight of him seemed almost surreal. A few rays of light were filtering from a hole in the roof, reflecting a game of shadows on his skin and stressing the natural tan of someone who'd spent most of his life outdoors.

She steered her gaze away from the fascinating sight, grateful for the apparent concentration of the man, and took advantage of the discretion of her spot to observe his face. His features were regular, the ridge of his chin was sharp and frank, and a small lock of dark hair was falling over his forehead.

And he was handsome.

Incredibly handsome.

She swallowed and took great care in staying hidden at the entrance of the barn, hoping with all her heart that the man wouldn't look up at her, because right now, she was glued to the floor and didn't think she could voice a word, were she requested to talk.

Lois had never been much impressed by men before. After the period of her life during which boys were pesky beings whose only goal was to ruin her entire life, she'd started to simply consider them as a compelling aspect of the world, with which she would have to cope. She enjoyed their company, she'd even had a few crushes on some of her classmates, and an occasional boyfriend in high school, but it had never gone beyond mild interest.

In any case, she'd never been one to get starry-eyed over a man. She left such humiliating behaviour to Linda, who admitted herself that her greatest weakness was men and her love for them. Lois held back a chuckle as she recalled the number of times her friend had pretended to have fallen in love with 'the right one' this time, only to mouth off about the guy in question a mere few days later.

In Linda's opinion, men could be the sweetest creation one day, and ugly pigs the next, whereas to Lois, they *always* were creatures whom she had a great deal of difficulty understanding.

She'd never had any serious relationships, though — some harmless flirting, which generally ended in disaster, when it wasn't the humiliation she'd had to face with Mike's petty revenge after she'd refused to go too far with him. The guy had no sense of honour, and to make up for it, he'd tried to ruin hers, inventing the fascinating story of Lois Lane in his father's car. Yuck. Mike had turned out to be an out-and-out compulsive liar who was better avoided at all costs…

…just like any other man she'd encountered, Lois was forced to notice with a despondent sigh, returning her attention to the Greek God standing a few feet away from her, oblivious to the sudden fascination he'd generated in his observant.

He'd turned away from his workbench and was now focusing his entire concentration on the fixing of a smoothly planed plank to the damaged wall at the far end of the shed…and he was offering her the view of the hard planes of his back, his muscles flexing under the exertion as he accomplished his job with a dexterity that amazed her. When he seemed satisfied with his task, he took a few steps backwards and admired the result, cocking his head to the side, as if looking for any flaw in his carpentry.

She was suddenly aware of the hammer of her heartbeat against her breasts, and she shook herself, forcing the unwelcome sense of loss out of her mind as she willed her mind to concentrate on anything other than the sight that had greeted her upon looking into the barn.

It was right then that the man turned around, as if warned of her presence by some sixth sense, and flashed her a look of surprise that made her want to shy away. She was struck by the sheer honesty she perceived in his gaze, and as their eyes locked, she let herself drown in the unfamiliar sensation of belonging invading her.

"Looking for something?"

The gruff voice behind her back startled her, and she swivelled around, coming face to face with a much older man whose grey eyes reflected gentleness behind a rough exterior.

She shook herself out of her trance-like attitude and pasted a smile on her dumbstruck face, chasing away the last reminders of her encounter with the young country worker.

"Wayne Irig?" At his nod, she extended her hand to him. "Hi, I'm Julia Lewis," she introduced herself, quickly gathering herself and putting her fascination for Barn-guy, as she immediately nicknamed him, to the back of her mind.

Irig frowned and greeted her warily.

"I'm new in town," she explained when her host made no effort to talk to her. "And…I happened to drop by Maisie's bar, and she told me that you were selling typical farm stuff."

Irig's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline, or what was left of it. "Stuff?"

"Yes. Uh…vegetables and fruit and honey. That sort of thing," she added awkwardly, cursing her total lack of knowledge of country matters.

"Oh! Yes, that's right," the man replied, his face finally brightening up. "Elisa — my wife — will show you what we've got. You're from the big city?" he enquired as he set off towards the house, motioning for her to follow him.

Lois sighed, realising that she really didn't fit into this state and that it seemed downright evident to everyone around here; it augured of nothing good regarding her cover, unless she used it to her advantage. "Is it that obvious?" she asked grudgingly.

Irig laughed at the barely hidden concern in her voice and cocked his head to the side as he gave her a once-over. "Sort of."

"I'm from Metropolis," Lois clarified as she entered the house behind the farmer and was guided through a labyrinth of rustic rooms furnished with expensive-looking mahogany dressers and bookshelves.

"And don't you feel lost, here in Kansas?"

Lois grimaced inwardly but knew better than telling the truth to a man who was very probably a big defender of his state and what it stood for. "No, it's all right," she lied. "And since I'm going to live here, I'd better get used to it anyway."

"Oh, you're settling here with your family?"

"No…no family."

"You seem a bit young to be on your own," Irig remarked, eyeing her suspiciously.

"I've been living on my own for a while and have no problem with it," she replied airily, suppressing her annoyance at the farmer's curiosity. She admitted that it was natural of him to be enquiring about a newcomer who arrived on his doorstep, but she was angry with herself for not planning her whole cover story in advance.

It seemed to her that she still had a lot to learn if she wanted to succeed in her journalistic career. She'd been lucky until now that no-one had figured her out, and her rapid thinking had allowed her to fill in the weaknesses of her initial plan — assuming you could call it a plan. She was increasingly convinced that using a fake name had been one of her best ideas so far. Not only did it make her feel more secure, but it also ensured that none of the people involved in the case that she was investigating risked figuring out her real identity, or linking her to her former source, Burton Newcomb, whose death had been plastered all over the national papers before being reduced to a short news item, at the instigation no doubt of Trask — that guy seemed to have friends in high places and a certain knowledge on how to use their influence to his own advantage.

But even without the possible mention of her name in relation to Newcomb's murder, extreme caution was a better plan when, as her former source had so insistently warned her, she couldn't trust anyone. Even if the fear following the tragic night of Newcomb's death had somewhat lessened, the fact still remained that she didn't know whether her pursuer had seen her face or even held information about her, and she didn't want to take any unnecessary risks. There was enough danger in this case as it was, without her purposely getting into trouble.

When Lois and her host reached a wide and brightly sunlit patio, the friendly smile of a short but strong-looking woman greeted her. She stood up from the rocking-chair where she'd been reading a book and extended her hand out to Lois, introducing herself as Elisa Irig before ushering her guest into a cosy-furnished kitchen and waving her husband away.

Antique furniture adorned the room, giving it the atmosphere of a typical country home, a place where Lois could imagine ancestors organising yearly gatherings to tell old stories about the past and exchange memories around a feast of traditional Kansas food.

Ms Irig gestured for Lois to sit on a small wooden bench spanning the impressively long table of polished oak, burnished to a dark patina over the years, and presented her with various farm goods labelled with the proud emblem of the family which, she clarified, had been adorning the farm's production for over a century.

Lois faked interest in what her hostess was explaining while thinking hard about a way to steer the conversation to the problem of the environmental operation. She didn't have to wait too long, though, because Ms Irig mentioned the pesticides accusation to defend organic farming methods.

"Yeah, I think I saw those people on my way here," Lois said, eagerly jumping on the opportunity she was offered. "They didn't look very friendly," she added, testing the waters and watching for Ms Irig's reaction.

She needn't have worried, because the elder woman jumped on the bandwagon with an exasperated roll of her eyes. "Tell me about it! They've been around here for three weeks, first ploughing Shuster's field then moving on to our land before attacking the Kent farmhouse. I don't understand what's leading them to such a meticulous search for chemicals. They *must* know Smallville's economy depends on agriculture! Who's more concerned about quality than us? Everything around here is grown organically and we've had a clean bill of health from the US department of agriculture for years! It's our entire reputation that is at stake, here!"

"Maybe they want to check that clean bill of health is warranted?" Lois ventured cautiously.

"But does it justify the secrecy around their research or their insistence when they already have proof just by analysing our products? Besides, it doesn't make sense considering the Kent fields haven't been intensely farmed for over nine years now. My husband has been keeping them up so that they don't fall into disuse, until Clark decides what he wants to do with them, but there's nothing justifying the use of pesticides on *that* land at least. Common sense should tell them that. And there's even less sense in letting them get away with it if you ask me. They're just looking for trouble, that's what I think," she finished with a pointed nod towards the general direction of the track Lois had followed to get here. "Oh, listen to me rattling on!" Elisa said with a chuckle contrasting with the earlier seriousness of her explanation. "Wayne says I just can't talk about this without dropping into lecture mode. I suppose too many years of being a guest lecturer at the university got to be a habit. I'm sorry."

"Clark?" Lois enquired, ignoring the woman's apology to concentrate on what Ms Irig had revealed about what she assumed was the abandoned farmhouse she'd walked past on her way here.

"Clark Kent," Elisa clarified. "He's the only Kent heir, so he'll have to decide what he wants to do with his parents' farm. I admit I hope he won't put it up for sale, because it meant so much to his folks, but it'll have to be his decision. Anyway," Ms Irig suddenly exclaimed, losing the disgruntled tone she'd used while talking about the environmental operation and replacing it with a more cheerful voice, "Enough chit-chat about our problems before I bore you to death."

"Oh, no! It's not boring, Ms Irig, quite the contrary! Since I'm going to live around here, it's interesting to me," Lois protested, laying her last card on the table and quietly praying for her cover to work. She held her breath as the older woman eyed her silently for a second, and released a sigh of relief when her welcoming smile returned.

"I admit it's pretty rare for young women like you to voluntarily settle in Smallville," she finally explained. "Our area is suffering from rural exodus; young people are attracted to bigger cities like Wichita or even Kansas City, when they don't have the straight intention to move to a more urban state. It's in the order of things," she conceded grudgingly.

Lois bit her lip to prevent herself from arguing that farm life couldn't attract anyone in their right mind — she knew it wouldn't help her case to attack Ms Irig on what was visibly a passion to which she'd sacrificed her entire existence.

"But don't worry," her hostess added instantly, probably interpreting Lois's concerned look as a fear of finding herself alone in the area. "There are still many young people around here, and even if our university is a very small one, the heart of the city still lives thanks to it. Are you a student, too?"

"I…uh…yes. Sure."

"And have you already visited the campus? It's been recently renovated, and I have to say that the city did a great job to encourage younger people to stay around."

"No, I haven't had a chance to see the university. Yet."

"Oh, I'm sure my neighbours will ensure that you're integrated just fine. They'll probably fight over who's gonna be lucky enough to show you around the dorms." Elisa laughed. "Speaking of which, they're coming over tonight, so why don't you stay for dinner? It would give you an occasion to get to know some of your new classmates."

Lois gasped, taken aback by the unexpected invitation. This woman barely knew her, and yet she was opening her house and arms to her as if she was a family friend. It wasn't something she was used to, and even if it made her feel very welcome, she was embarrassed by these people's hospitality, especially when she'd been mentally despising their way of life since her arrival and lying to them about who she was.

"I…I don't want to impose on you and your guests, Ms Irig," she protested politely.

But Elisa Irig wouldn't hear any of it. "Nonsense! The more the merrier has always been my motto, and since you're new around here, I figure that staying on your own won't help you to get some friends. I know how it goes, Julia — may I call you Julia?" At Lois's nod, she went on. "When I first arrived in Smallville — I was sixteen years old when my parents had moved from Alabama — I didn't know *anyone* around here. Fortunately, our new neighbours opened their arms out to me, particularly Wayne's parents. It was much easier for me to get used to the Kansas way of life."

"Well, I'm —"

"I'm done with the barn, Elisa!" a voice interrupted Lois a mere second before its owner burst into the kitchen. "D'you know where Wayne disap —"

The *chest*, aka Barn-guy, had just entered the room, and was staring at her with a frown before shifting his eyes to Elisa Irig in a question.

"Clark, this is Julia Lewis," Ms Irig introduced Lois to the newcomer, who apparently turned out to be the famous Clark that she'd mentioned earlier while chatting about the environmental operation's damages. "Julia, this is Clark Kent."

Lois tremblingly extended her hand out to Clark in greeting, feeling self-conscious as he initially made no move to return her gesture. His eyes were fixed on her in a way that was starting to make her uncomfortable, reminding her of the earlier silent exchange which had taken place between them outside until Wayne had interrupted the magical but oh so scary moment. It was only when Ms Irig nudged Clark's elbow that he came out of his visibly transfixed attitude and smiled at her. "Nice to meet you, Ms Lewis."

"Julia," she corrected him as he shook her hand. The contact of his skin on hers made her shiver, and she blocked out the sudden and unexpected series of wild fantasies forming in her mind, rejecting them as unwelcome and irrelevant. Life couldn't be summarised by a nice chest and a dazzling smile, and she wouldn't fall for that one.

Not ever, she added determinedly when her heart emitted the beginning of a protest.

It took her a few seconds before she realised that Clark Kent had let go of her hand; her fingers were still tingling from the softness of his touch, and she shook herself out of the daze it had left her in.

Elisa Irig cleared her throat, reminding Lois of her surroundings, and she steered her gaze away from the young man, scolding herself for getting so blatantly goo-goo eyed over someone she didn't know from Adam. All right, so he was…nicely shaped, and his attire did attract the eye, considering he was wearing nothing more than a pair of dark blue shorts covered in wood dust. But she forced herself to get a grip and ignore the effect that the sight of Clark Kent had on her.

"Since Julia is new in town, I was just telling her that she should stay with us for dinner," Ms Irig explained to Clark, "but she's afraid it would be trouble."

"Oh not at all!" Clark exclaimed, the friendliness genuine in his gaze. "The gang will be happy to meet you, too, and besides, I can smell Elisa's homemade caramel apples, and you *can't* miss that," he added with a conspiratorial wink towards the cook.

Ms Irig laughed warmly and pulled Clark into a half-hug, dropping a tender kiss on his forehead and ruffling his hair in an almost motherly gesture. "This bandit would do *anything* to be on my good side," she explained to Lois.

"If your good side involves caramel apples, Elisa, then yes, I guess you're right," Clark chuckled in reply.

Lois observed them silently, noticing the bond between them and feeling envious of the relationship that Clark seemed to experience with this woman. It was too much of a reminder of what she hadn't ever had the chance to have with her own mother, and even though she'd understood from her previous conversation with her host that Clark Kent wasn't Elisa Irig's son, she couldn't help but notice their rapport of teasing affection.

Clark Kent spoke of mystery to her, and it made her eager to know more about who he really was. There was something about him that attracted her, although she couldn't quite put her finger on the reason for her sudden fascination with this apparently ordinary man. Elisa Irig had only said a couple of words about him, yet it had been enough to arouse her curiosity, and she now regretted her initial refusal of the invitation she'd been offered.

"So, Julia, you're staying?" her host enquired, as if reading her thoughts.

"I…" Lois hesitated, but she knew her decision was taken when her eyes shifted to Clark's face. "Yes," she finally accepted. "And thank you for making me feel so welcome, Ms Irig."

The woman's smile broadened in reply before she ushered them out of her kitchen, ordering Clark to show their guest around the farm while she was putting the final touches to dinner.


"If you can wait here, I'll be just a minute," Clark told Julia when they passed by the foot of the stairs. "Just want to change into something more…uh…well, cleaner, anyway," he added when she raised a surprised eyebrow at him.

He didn't wait for her reply as he trotted up to the room which had become his whenever he stayed at the Irig farmhouse, and it was only when he had closed the door behind him that he breathed a sigh of relief and let himself relax.

He had no idea what had suddenly scared him so much about this woman that he'd had to practically run out of her sight. He felt so conflicted about her, and yet he'd only known her for a couple of minutes, if he excluded the blissful but oh so short moment when he'd lost himself in the depth of her eyes, back in the barn.

He couldn't let her have such an effect on him, not when he had no idea who she was. She could be a mass murderer, or a total sociopath, or…he sighed and raked his hand through his hair. Of course she was nothing of the kind. She was just a girl of his age who'd landed in his life and was already engendering a great deal of trouble in his mind.

None of this was her fault, and he took a deep, calming breath, as he tried putting things into perspective.

Okay, so she was attractive, *extremely* attractive. Her hair looked soft and he was longing to thread his fingers in its silky length. Her skin was pale, the tendrils of dark curls brushing her nape urging him to stroke a feather-like caress across her neck. Her face spoke of determination mingling with the spark of innocence, and her eyes…

Her eyes were a trap into which he'd already fallen.

He sighed, putting the memory of her face to the back of his mind as he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror adorning the wardrobe in a corner of the room. He'd been right to get upstairs, even if his first motivation for running there had been to cover himself, as if her gaze was suddenly making him aware of his vulnerability. However, his working attire sure didn't put him at an advantage, since a thin but nonetheless visible film of dust was covering his skin from head to toe.

Spinning out of his shorts at superspeed, he zipped into the shower and was back in front of the mirror a mere minute later, dripping water on the carpeted floor. He grimaced as he imagined Elisa's reaction when she discovered that he'd yet again forgotten to dry his body before returning to the bedroom. She'd certainly be ticked, and he preferred not to try covering up his crime with the help of heat vision — last time, it had been hard enough trying to explain the hole he'd burnt in the carpet, and he didn't wish facing Elisa's wrath again.

He grinned as he remembered how her initial anger had quickly turned into uncontrollable laughter at his sheepish face. At first, he'd wanted to vow never to use his special gifts again, but curiosity had got the upper hand, and he'd started practising them when he was on his own, and preferably in remote places where he didn't risk hurting anyone.

And now, he occasionally employed some of the less dangerous ones, like speed or X-ray vision, leaving his super-human strength and heat vision for extremely scarce use. Taking a shower at superspeed, though, was always an exhilarating feeling for him. It was one of the rare occasions when the weight of his differences lessened a little and he could turn his abilities into an advantage of some kind.

He quickly got dressed into a pair of worn out jeans and a t-shirt that had seen the washing machine one time too many, if he went by the way it clung to his skin, and suddenly remembered that Julia was still waiting for him downstairs. He was unable to decide how he felt about that. He was eager to see her again, yet he couldn't help but wonder if he'd done the right thing in encouraging her to stay for dinner, going along with Elisa's invitation and turning down the young woman's polite refusal.

But he hadn't been able to consider the possibility of parting with her so fast, without finding out what was really going on in his mind. When Elisa had told him that Julia was staying permanently and she'd be one of his classmates, he'd wondered if he should be happy or run away from her as far as he could.

He wanted to get to know her, to discover what had originated the hurt he'd spotted in her gaze when she'd given him that brief look into her soul. He wanted her to share her fears with him so that he could soothe them. He wanted to tell her about his deepest secrets and feel the reassurance of her acceptance of him for who he was — a whole person. He wanted to take her in his arms and discover the world in her embrace…

Julia. The name was sheer sweetness as he let it roll on his tongue, yet it didn't seem appropriate to her. He shrugged — did her name matter any, when the mere thought of her was sending him into rapture?

He suddenly shook his head, pulling himself out of his daydream. He was getting carried away over nothing at all, and he needed to get a grip on his uncontrollable imagination. Besides, he wasn't free — not that he was *engaged* to Lana, but he was in a committed relationship nonetheless, which didn't give him any right to think about another woman in anything other than friendly terms.

On the other hand, it was the first time in his life that he'd felt that way about someone, and he let himself fantasise, if just for a moment, about giving in to his attraction. The possibilities would have made him float if he could have flown, and for the second time in five minutes, he had to steer himself back to reality.

Taking one last relaxing breath, he took hold of the door handle and quickly made his way back to the corridor, where his fascinating guest was awaiting him.


Lois watched Clark jog up the stairs in a daze, feeling an unwelcome sense of loss as he disappeared into a room whose door closed behind him, the slamming noise sending a jolt through her.

She tried to review the past few minutes in her head and found herself unable to remember anything but his face, his soft hair, his delicately tanned skin, and the extreme gentleness of his eyes. The rest of the world held little importance when his gaze spoke of an irrepressible kindness. A simple look and a couple of words exchanged had been enough to tell her that Clark Kent was as beautiful inside as outside, and she longed to know more about him.

She was also scared to find herself alone with him. The spark which had passed between them was still present in her mind, as if the seconds of this silent encounter had been immortalized, engraved on her heart for ever.

Was this what they called love at first sight?

No, no, it couldn't be. No. She'd always refused to believe in such a ridiculous thing, and she wouldn't start now. It was totally farfetched, just like the idea of love itself. Feelings in general, and particularly *this* one, were something she couldn't ever let herself trust. It was way too flimsy, even fleeting at times, quick to hit you, just as quickly gone…and when it *was* gone, you were left with nothing but pain.

She didn't want to fall in love. She had rejected the concept and what it meant years ago — ever since her own parents had divorced. Sure, when she was a kid she'd dreamt of a big wedding, with thousands of doves taking off into a clear blue sky and bells celebrating her union with a prince charming whose beauty equalled his intelligence. Her mother would have added wealth to the required criteria, she was sure.

But her parents' separation and the moments of doubt that had ensued had lessened her enthusiasm, to say the least. Love was inconstant; it could last for a few blissful years during which everything seemed possible and no obstacle was insurmountable, then routine intervened and toppled over all the values held in the vows exchanged on your wedding day.

The 'I love you's' became either insignificant, or disappeared altogether from the spouses' vocabulary. Hubby came home every now and then and grunted a protest if dinner wasn't ready, and his wife was too tired and stressed to think about whatever children they'd made the mistake of conceiving a few years earlier.

She'd witnessed this vicious circle of marriage when she was a kid, and she'd seen its devastating effects on her mother. Taking refuge in alcohol to forget about a fickle husband who didn't even have enough courage to tell the truth and preferred feeding his wife with a pack of lies and lame excuses, that had been her daily bread until she was twelve.

So no, love was definitely not something she wanted to consider, especially with a man she'd shared no more than a few words with. Okay, so somewhere in the recesses of her mind, it might be a possibility that she may eventually feel some kind of…strange, unexplainable, and totally ridiculous…attraction to Clark Kent.

No big deal.


Besides, she'd come to Kansas to investigate, not to become some kind of love-crazed teenager in the arms of a guy who'd barely got out of diapers. Uh-uh. Now was time to *really* focus all her energies on finding out what was going on, and keep a clear mind about her surroundings and the people she met was essential in this perspective.

She held on firmly to her decision as Clark Kent walked back down the stairs, clad in light blue jeans and a tight- fitting black t-shirt, whose cut off sleeves were showing off his impressively broad shoulders. She had to bite her cheek to keep her jaw from dropping to the floor at the sight — the guy looked even better when dressed than half- naked!

He seemed to have sensed her intent stare on him, because he stilled at the bottom of the stairs and looked down at himself, probably checking that his fly wasn't open or something. She shook her head reassuringly, and he shrugged, his lips curving into an hesitant smile.

"Sorry I took so much time," he apologised softly as he led the way outside.

"Don't worry about it, you were gone just a couple of minutes."

He looked surprised and checked his watch with a frown. "Oh?"

"Yeah." A thought suddenly struck her. "How did you manage to shower and get dressed so quickly?" Was it panic she saw in his gaze as she asked her question?

"I…uh…I guess I'm just fast," he offered rather lamely.

She stared at him for a few more seconds, wondering what his hesitation could hide, and why he seemed to wait for her to approve his excuse. Why was he looking for her support or her sanction regarding the time he'd spent under the shower? The thought of a warm stream rippling over his body and beads of water clinging to his skin was almost too much for her to bear, and she preferred putting the image to the far end of her mind.

She shook her head and followed him through the path spreading between the fields of sunflowers. They walked in silence for a while, letting the evening sun and a light, refreshing breeze wash over them.

"So…you were born here?" Lois asked when the peace between them stretched uncomfortably.

"You could say that," Clark replied airily. "Smallville is…where I belong."

He didn't sound too convinced, but she decided not to probe him further, seeing a sensitive topic behind his hesitant response.

"I grew up here," he added after a few seconds, and made a wide arm gesture to embrace the scenery. "These fields have been around me for as long as I can remember, and I guess I'd miss them if I left." He shrugged, and his smile turned sadder. "But I feel attracted to…more. Something new. Something I don't already know."


He cocked his head to the side, thinking about her word for a short moment. "I guess so. Maybe not in the sense of complete insanity, but something more like…discovery!"

Lois looked doubtful. "Not sure you'll find what you're looking for here, in the middle of…well…"

"In the middle of nowhere, you can say it." He chuckled at her self-consciousness. "Where are *you* from?"

"Metropolis. Big city, huge skyscrapers…art, music, theatre —"

"Crime, drugs, poverty," Clark interrupted her enumeration with a teasing wink.

"Point taken," Lois sighed. "But I still don't think I could ever get used to living here," she added, staring off into the immensity of the fields spreading as far as the eye could see, disappearing into the foggy film of vapour billowing near the horizon.

"But…Elisa said you were gonna live here," Clark protested, frowning in confusion.

Lois started and immediately stuttered the attempt of an explanation to correct her faux pas. "No! I mean yes. Well, I mean it's gonna be hard for me to…to get used to it."

"Why did you decide to move out of the big city?"

"I…it's complicated," she replied after a second of hesitation.

"And none of my business?" Clark offered softly.

"Well…that, too." She looked up at his discomfited face, and felt bad for keeping him at arm's length when he'd been so open and sympathetic to her.

Reaching out a tentative hand to cover his forearm, she came to a halt and turned towards him. "I'm sorry, Clark, it's just that I can't talk about it yet. Do you understand?" She pleaded with her eyes and voice for him not to shrug off her touch, and after a few moments, his expression relaxed into a kind nod.

They set off again, Clark pointing towards a shadowy area to one side of the track they'd been following. He trampled the high grass obstructing a tiny path, and she followed him until they reached the shore of a pond whose calm waters were shimmering under the sun. Above them, the leaves of a hundred-year-old cottonwood offered a restful atmosphere, and when Clark sat on the green carpet of lawn, motioning for her to imitate him, she willingly complied, resting her back against the large trunk behind her and sighing contentedly.

"This is very nice," she finally whispered, keeping her eyes closed and breathing in the aromas of the wild flowers mingling in the air.

"Changing your mind about the countryside?" Clark teased softly.

She let out a quiet giggle. "In your dreams, buster. But I guess I might be able to get used to it…after all," she growled, trying to keep serious but unable to hold back a cheerful smile.


It was almost six when Clark suggested they walked back to the farmhouse, and Lois realised that time had literally flown in his company. The hours they'd spent together had been filled mostly with small talk and long moments of comfortable silence during which they'd just sat near the pond, playing with blades of grass and listening to the trilling of birds above their heads.

Until this afternoon, if anyone had told Lois that she would enjoy spending several hours doing nothing, just lying in the grass in the middle of Kansas, with a farmboy she barely knew, she'd have laughed in their face and gone her way. Right now, though, everything seemed so normal to her, as if she'd done this all her life. She was relaxed, and she'd put all of her problems behind her; it even made her wonder if her prejudices against the countryside weren't unfair, after all.

Just as they were reaching the backyard, behind the farmhouse, Clark pointed in another direction and motioned for her to follow him to the stables. Lois held back a groan as the smell of horses reached her nose, and Clark laughed at her typical city-girl attitude, as he called it.

"Let me introduce you to Bella," he said when they reached a box at the far end of the shed.

A large mare slowly approached them, leaning her head over the door of her cubicle and staring at Lois with big, curious eyes. Lois took an unconscious step backwards, and Clark raised a surprised eyebrow at her. "Scared?"

"Never!" she firmly denied the accusation, planting herself firmly in front of the animal and reaching a trembling hand to stroke its nostrils.

"You *are* scared," Clark remarked after observing her for a few seconds.

She withdrew her hand and darted a wrathful look at him before suddenly sobering and giving in with a sigh. "All right," she admitted grudgingly.

"Bella's the nicest mare ever, Julia, and there's really nothing to fear with her. I've always known her — my Dad helped her mother give birth to her when I was barely two, and he decided that she'd be mine as soon as I was old enough to ride. She's an old lady, now, but she and I still take short, calm walks together. We used to take long rides in the forest, but that's getting a bit tough for her now, so we keep it easy," he finished sadly.

"Kind of your best friend, this old lady, huh?" Lois enquired softly, feeling how much Bella meant to Clark, and how much he must have experienced with her.

He shrugged hesitantly, avoiding her gaze and patting the mare's neck lightly. "Yeah. I guess you could say that. She's been there for me all along, after all."

Lois felt her companion's mood darken, and she frantically searched for something to cheer him up. She didn't like seeing him saddened, and she supposed that her question had made him wander down memory lane, on a path that wasn't very joyful for him.

"My father paid for riding lessons when I was a kid," she finally said, letting out a silent sigh of relief when Clark looked up at her with an apparently interested expression. "It gave him the feeling that he was actually doing something for his daughter," she added bitterly.

"I'm sorry," Clark replied, his eyes showing genuine concern.

"Don't worry about it," she reassured him, finding the courage to reach out a hand to Bella's muzzle again. The mare replied with a whicker and Lois's lips curved into a timid smile.

"So, why did you stop riding? Did your father decide to stop paying for your lessons?"

"Oh God, no! Dad would have been more than happy to keep paying for that."

"But?" Clark prompted, then held up his hands. "I don't mean to pry, though!"

"No, it's all right," she answered reassuringly. "One afternoon, our teacher had decided to take us all for a ride down by the beach. We were all ecstatic about it, and we kept singing and laughing on the bus leading us there. It was a real blast. The local riding club was part of the same large company as ours, so they loaned us a few horses, and we set off. I was with a friend of mine, Andrea, and she and I were…well…what you could call unruly kids.

"Anyway, we'd decided we were good enough to let the rest of our group go ahead while we had fun on our own. But with horses we barely knew and ground we weren't used to, it wasn't the best of ideas. Anyway, Andrea was even more rebellious than I was, and she launched her mount at full gallop, until she disappeared into the pinewood."

Lois took a deep, calming breath, remembering the events as if they'd happened only yesterday. "A minute later," she spoke up again when she felt the encouragement in Clark's gaze, "I heard a scream, and when I managed to catch up with her, she and her horse had gone over the cliff edge."

She heard her companion hesitate, fixing wide eyes onto her. "Was she…did she…"

"No. Fortunately, the drop was only something like fifteen feet or so, so she escaped serious head injuries. But her legs were broken and she couldn't move. I rode back to the beach for help, and luckily, Andrea recovered fully afterwards…"

"But you decided to stop riding altogether?"

"I just couldn't find the courage any more," she replied, lowering her eyes. "I kept imagining what could have happened if the cliff had been higher, or if Andrea had fallen badly and —"

"And it wasn't your fault, Julia! It was just —"

"*My* fault," Lois interrupted forcefully. "If I hadn't been so stupid, we wouldn't have left our group and —"

"And it was just bad luck!" Clark exclaimed. "Julia, you can't rebuild the world with 'if's. Believe me, I've tried it way too many times, and no matter how much you want it, it never happens."

"But I shouldn't —"

"You saved her, Julia. By going back to the beach very quickly and bringing help, you got Andrea to the hospital quickly enough. She owes you a lot."

Lois didn't answer, but gave him a grateful look. The accident had haunted her mind for years, and she'd never been able to put it behind her. But talking it out with a young man she barely knew and hearing his reassurance was helping her to an extent she'd never have imagined. And being here with him here and now suddenly seemed all that mattered to her.

Suddenly feeling a little bolder, she let her fingers graze the rough hair between Bella's eyes, her laughter meeting Clark's as the mare nodded her contentment.

"See, she's quite happy you're here," Clark remarked when Bella neighed softly and bent her head so that Lois could reach her hand in between her ears.

"Clark…would you…would you help me to ride again…someday?" Lois asked hesitantly, feeling self- conscious at her request and yet wanting so badly to experience the exhilarating sensation she'd known when she was on the back of a galloping horse. It was as close to flying as she would ever get, and the feeling of freedom that went with it was indescribable.

"Sure!" he exclaimed enthusiastically, turning towards her and looking encouragingly at her. "I'd love to."

Their fingers brushed where they'd been stroking Bella's muzzle, and their hands stilled, the contact of skin on skin making time stop around them. Their eyes locked, and Lois took an unconscious step closer to Clark, feeling the heat of his body so close to hers. A mere inch was separating them, and she was invaded with the desperate need to close the distance between them and let his quiet strength envelop her. She longed for his touch, and the tingling sensation of his fingertips lightly grazing hers was enough to send her over the edge of sanity.

He moved imperceptibly closer to her, and her eyelids fluttered closed, anticipating the delicate touch of his lips on hers, craving his kiss, and -


The screeching female voice resonated through the stables, and Lois's eyes flew open in time to see the raw panic on Clark's face. The moment was broken, then he was quickly retreating, putting a reasonable distance between them and pasting a broad smile on his face as he turned away from her to embrace the blond tornado who flung herself into his arms, locking her mouth to his in a deep kiss.

The woman squealed her delight as Clark released her reddened lips and hugged her tightly, oblivious to the lurching pain darting through Lois's entire body as she watched her illusions shatter entirely.

The man was absolutely perfect. Understanding, caring, gentle, compassionate, intelligent…handsome. Everything she'd ever dreamt of…

…and he was involved with someone else.

Yet he'd almost kissed her; she hadn't read the signs wrongly. Clark Kent had well and truly brought his mouth so close to hers that she had felt the minted scent of his breath. If the blonde girlfriend hadn't barged in, she'd be melting in his arms right now, and letting him heal the pain of lonely years with the soft caress of his lips.

Unable to decide if she was disappointed because he hadn't kissed her or because he'd proven himself willing to be unfaithful to his girlfriend, Lois put her disenchantment to the back of her mind. Taking a calming breath to keep regretful tears from spilling onto her face, she turned towards her rival, extending a polite but cool hand towards her and introducing herself.


It took Clark a moment to regain consciousness of his surroundings. The feel of Lana's arms around his waist was oppressive, and her possessive kiss stifled the air out of him. He wasn't used to such demonstrative displays of affection, and it astonished him to see Lana cling to him even after he'd released her. As if she was reasserting her ownership.

And, he thought, his heart sinking, she had every reason to do so.

He'd almost kissed Julia. If Lana hadn't burst in, he *would* have kissed her, and even as remorse invaded him, he couldn't bring himself to regret the magical spark that had passed between them.

A shiver coursed through him as he noticed the barely hidden hurt on Julia's face, and her attempt at putting on a brave face. He'd probably embarrassed her, and she certainly thought he was the lowest form of life she'd ever met. A man ready to kiss a woman without telling her that he wasn't exactly free beforehand.

After throwing a discreet but apologetic look at Julia, he returned his attention to Lana, searching for any sign of anger in her eyes, and finding none. What he saw there, among the faked — he knew — cheerfulness, was a gleam of insecurity which threatened to eat at her and needed to be soothed.

Only he didn't know how to reassure her, when he was so guilty in the first place. His arms tightened around her waist in a gesture that he willed comforting. But he tensed again as Lana, still holding onto him, darted an inquisitive look at Julia, as if daring her to say anything. For a terrifying second, Clark even feared that his girlfriend would jump on the newcomer like an enraged tigress, but she did nothing of the sort, coldly replying to Julia's introduction instead.

A frosty silence ensued before he suggested they all walked back to the house, where Elisa and Wayne were probably waiting for them. The revelation that Julia was staying with them for dinner earned him a wrathful look from Lana, but he ignored her frown and led the way back to the farm, wishing that his girlfriend would stop leaning onto his arm and pressing her side to his.

It was a relief when they entered the patio and found the rest of their friends sitting on the comfortable cushions of the white rattan furniture, sipping iced juice and engaged in amicable chatter. Lana didn't release his arm as he greeted Ethan, Rachel and Sera, though, and he started worrying when Ethan's feeble attempt at humour, asking Lana if she'd finally decided to buy Clark a leash, resulted in a snappish reply from the young woman.

The interrogative glance that Ethan threw at him was answered with a helpless shrug, and Lana was already dragging him to the couch, at the opposite corner of which Julia was standing. Clark noticed that the young woman looked a bit shy, and he tentatively smiled at her, faltering as she purposefully turned her gaze away from him.

Elisa Irig fortunately arrived at this moment, and introduced Julia Lewis to the rest of the gang, who welcomed her and helped her get over her anger at him, Clark hoped. She seemed deeply involved in a discussion with Sera, now, and it seemed like she'd let his presence slip her mind entirely. Which was probably a good thing, considering the circumstances…

…so why was he feeling so despondent about it?


Wayne Irig's frown was more pronounced than the wrinkles inflicted by the tests of time on his deeply lined face. His daily walk around the land that evening hadn't borne the same habitual routine that had been punctuating his nights for as long as he'd been old enough to take over his father's farm.

He didn't know what had led his steps to the ruined wall separating his fields from the Kent backyard — maybe it had been the constant worry haunting him since those military people had closed off the land and started excavating a portion of soil near the abandoned farmhouse. Not only had it looked like a complete lack of respect towards the memory of Jonathan and Martha, but he'd seen how much it was upsetting Clark to watch these soldiers destroy his parents' achievements and to feel so impotent against their federal authority.

Wayne had wanted to revolt against these administrative morons who thought they could dump their superior attitude onto the Smallville farmers and make them believe their research for pesticides was justified, when the county got its reputation from the high quality of its agricultural produce. As for the analysis of soil samples taken from the Kent backyard, Wayne simply didn't understand the interest of such an activity.

Or he hadn't understood it until tonight.

Tonight, everything seemed much clearer than it had ever been…and even more muddled as well. He'd approached the row of trees right beyond the border between the Kent and Irig lands. They'd been planted to protect the Kent farmhouse from the often vicious wind that came sweeping in from the fields and the west and he took advantage of their shelter now, as he lost himself in his thoughts. His only goal had been to go back in time and remember that night of May 1966 during which Jonathan and he had shared the biggest secret they'd ever been given. Neither of them had really understood what had brought the F.B.I.'s attention down on them. They only knew that somehow it was related to the unexpected arrival of Clark in their lives.

Wayne had known Jonathan and Martha for years; he'd even been Jonathan's confidant when the young couple had discovered that they couldn't have children, and reviewed their options to overcome their difficulties. Science didn't allow them to have kids artificially, and although the country's laboratories were working on a solution to sterility, the mid-sixties were far from offering hope for people in their situation.

As for adoption, it took so many years on a waiting list that Jonathan and Martha had simply lost hope.

So when a miraculous baby had landed — literally — in their lives, they'd done anything in their power to keep their new son, including letting Elisa and him in on their discovery. It had been a difficult secret to bear, but Wayne was glad to have been able to help Jonathan in concealing Clark's means of arrival from the authorities. No-one knew where the kid came from, but it didn't matter to his loving parents. They couldn't have said the same about the F.B.I., which would in all probability take their child away from them to do God knew what with him. Like Jonathan had bleakly said at the time, they could have locked Clark in a laboratory to analyse various samples, even going to the point of dissection if it could content their scientific hunger.

Burying the capsule…ship…whatever it was, had been the best solution, and up until now, Wayne was still convinced they'd made the right choice. Martha and Elisa had advised them to burn it so that no-one would ever find it, but Jonathan hadn't wanted to give in — the ship was part of his son, and he wouldn't destroy it. A discreet fight between Martha and Jonathan Kent had followed, but Wayne's childhood friend was too stubborn to give in, and after a heated discussion, they'd come to a compromise to take the minimum of risks while not reducing Clark's capsule to ashes.

But as had been proven tonight, Martha's fears had been well-founded, and Wayne now regretted not having tried harder to convince Jonathan not to be so sentimental. Now that the ship had disappeared and had fallen into the hands of government people — who admittedly were authorized to lead environmental operations and had nothing to do with the F.B.I. — Wayne would have to warn Clark so that the young man kept an eye out for any scientific crews looking for a test subject. With his abilities in the bargain it was even more important to keep his origins a secret, and Clark had fortunately understood that early in his life.

But he didn't know about the circumstances of his arrival in his parents' life, and Wayne couldn't imagine him reacting very well to the news that he'd landed in a capsule. Clark already had a hard enough time fitting in when he had to deal with strange gifts which he didn't understand, and revealing the mystery of his origins to him would only confuse him more.

Still. It was now essential to tell Clark everything, for his security. And Wayne was determined to have a private discussion with his surrogate son as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, he thought as he pushed open the door to the patio and heard the sound of laughter, Clark wasn't alone tonight, and among his friends, only Lana was aware of his abilities. Although from what Clark had confided in him, she never mentioned them, as if they scared her. He couldn't easily pull Clark into a corner and reveal the truth to him when he could be overheard, and he knew he needed to show him the place where his ship had been buried all these years. And as soon as dinner was over, he'd discreetly urge Clark to follow him to the border of his parents' land.

However, a worrying surprise greeted him upon rejoining his guests. He knew Lana, Ethan, Sera and Rachel, and he could even say he trusted them. But the newcomer whom he'd led to his wife's kitchen earlier looked suspicious to his cynical character, especially under the circumstances. He'd noticed how she'd been literally staring at Clark before he'd snuck up on her and interrupted her thorough observation of the young man. Wayne hoped that Clark hadn't been surreptitiously using his powers when he was working in the barn and that Ms — what was her name? — hadn't caught sight of something she wasn't supposed to discover.

He couldn't question her presence, here, however, and he hurried to his wife's side, who immediately understood his silent concern and explained that she'd invited Julia Lewis to stay with them for dinner, so that she got to meet her new classmates and didn't feel too isolated, newcomer that she was.

Wayne's eyes grew wide upon hearing the news, showing his disapproval at his wife's idea, but she waved him off. Julia was new in the area and would need the help and support from people her own age. Rachel, Lana, Clark, Ethan and Sera would ensure that she was appropriately integrated into the community of Smallville students.

Elisa didn't have any idea of what had happened outside, and he couldn't possibly tell her now. Not to mention he preferred to have his conversation with Clark before he told anyone else about the capsule's disappearance. He owed it to the young man to ensure that he was the first one aware of the situation; he already felt guilty enough about not revealing his origins to him before, even if the secret had been born from a desire to protect the young teenager after his parents' death.

Clark was an adult, now, and maybe it was time to give him all the necessary elements to understand his past. Being aware of his origins might also help him to ensure no-one used the mystery of his adoption against him. However, he was worried about Clark's reaction. He had accepted his state as a foundling because Martha and Jonathan had never hidden the fact that he wasn't their biological son. The circumstances of this new revelation, however, weren't the same at all. Explaining the possible reason for his extraordinary abilities might prove a little more difficult for Wayne, and much more painful to the young man.

As an adopted kid, Clark could always relate to those who had the same experience as he did. As a strangely gifted child, however, he had no-one to talk to, and learning that he'd come from a space capsule certainly wouldn't make him feel less alone.

Wayne sat beside his wife and accepted the refreshing glass that he was offered, putting his concerns to the back of his mind to be dealt with later in the evening, when he'd get a chance to be alone with Clark without raising the others' suspicions.


"So, where are you staying right now, Julia?" Rachel enquired, turning towards Lois. "Have you had time to find a place to rent, or even checked over the university's dorm rooms?"

"Not yet," Lois replied, squirming as she did each time the conversation switched back to her arrival in Smallville. Dinner had been fairly uneventful so far, and she'd enjoyed watching these young people interact and show what were probably the silliest aspects of their personalities.

"I'm at the Paradisio right now," she explained, hoping their interest would move to someone else soon. She was met with eight identical grimaces. "I know. But Maisie said it was the only motel around."

"I take it you've met Marty Stevens already?" Sera asked with a disgusted face.

"Marty Stevens?"

"Marty-Ewww-Stevens," Rachel clarified with a giggle.

"Guy about our age," Ethan explained with a smirk. "Only girl he's been able to approach so far is his mother, and even *she* avoids contact with him."

"Oh! Would that be the…the thing at the reception desk? Yeah, I had the…luck to be introduced to him. Sort of."

Rachel raised her eyebrows and put her glass down. "Sort of?"

"Well, I didn't exactly *say* anything to him, except for the moment when I made it clear that I was there to get a room *without* his presence being required. Good thing he didn't offer to accompany me to the door."

Sera turned towards Ethan. "See, this is exactly what I was talking about when I told you about his hitting on me at Maisie's the other day."

"Poor thing doesn't realise the closest he'll ever get to a girl is from behind his motel counter," Rachel interjected.

"Aw, come on, guys, he's not that bad," Clark interrupted, looking annoyed at his friends' mockeries. "Marty's a good guy! All right, so he's not the brightest bulb in the box, but he's nice and —"

"We forgot to warn you, Julia," Ethan cut him off. "Clark here is the boy scout of the gang. You'll never hear him mouth off about anyone, because he's convinced that there's good in everyone."

"Am not!" Clark protested vehemently, but chuckles from the others told Lois that much.

She turned towards him, regaining her seriousness. "Clark, if you lived for a week in Metropolis, you'd understand that this beautiful theory of yours doesn't work in our world," she said, bitterness creeping into her voice. "Believe me, I know." Her gaze locked with Clark's as she pronounced the words and a chill ran up her spine, forcing her to turn away.

"Is that why you left the city to live here?" Sera enquired, breaking a spell she had no idea existed in the first place and bringing Lois back to her surroundings.

"Uh…I…no. I just wanted to…live somewhere with more…space," she stuttered awkwardly. "And that's what Smallville offers. Space, that is."

"I see you've already got your welcoming skin mark," Sera remarked with a grin.

"Skin mark?" Lois looked down at herself, wondering what on earth the young woman was talking about and whether her sudden worry was founded.

"Sunburn," Ethan clarified, chuckling when Lois breathed in relief then grimaced as she spotted the reddish colour of her shoulders and cleavage. Her back was probably looking just as awful. "Not a permanent mark," the young man reassured her, "but you sure seem like you're just coming out of the oven."

"Yeah, it looks badly burnt," Wayne said sympathetically. "Does it hurt?"

"No, not really…"

"But you'd better apply some cream tonight before you go to sleep," Elisa advised. "I've got something that does wonders on sunburns. It's a herbal lotion, and it prevents you from peeling too much. It also soothes the pain. Do you want me to go fetch it now?"

"No, it's okay, Ms Ir — Elisa. I'll be fine."

"Still, you should have covered yourself with sunscreen."

"I didn't know I'd spend so much time outside," Lois replied defensively.

"You *always* spend time outside in the countryside," Sera said, rolling her eyes.

"Yeah, but Clark and I stayed in the shadowy area near a pond most of the time, so I didn't think I'd get sunburned at…all…" She faltered, interrupted by the distinctive noise of a fork brutally clanging against a plate, and as she looked towards the origin of the sound, she realised what a big goof she'd made.

"Oh, so Clark showed you around the neighbourhood? I thought you two had found enough stuff in the stables to occupy yourselves with." Lana Lang flashed her a sarcastic grin as she picked up her utensil and dug it into her food again, oblivious to the glacial atmosphere she'd cast on the table.

Lois flushed as six pair of eyes fixed alternatively on Lana, Clark and her, and she wished the floor would open up under her feet and swallow her entirely. A quick glance to her right informed her that Clark was probably having the same thoughts, if she went by the way he was looking down and squirming uncomfortably, although there seemed to be some annoyance creeping into his attitude, too.

Only Lana seemed completely relaxed and unmindful of the rest of the world — the little bitch was certainly deeply satisfied, and Lois couldn't exactly blame her.

Lana Lang had probably seen enough as she'd snuck up on them in the stables to realise that her boyfriend had been about to be kissed by another woman, and she was using every war tactic to shoo the intruder out of Clark's arms. So to speak.

Lois wouldn't feed the inquisitive glances of Clark's friends, not when she had nothing to be blamed for. If Clark wished to tell them what he'd almost done, then it was up to him, but *she* wouldn't stoop so low and make herself more ridiculous than she already was, she thought determinedly. If they wanted gossip, they sure wouldn't find it with her.

A few endless seconds ticked by, the silence around the table only punctuated by Lana's fork and knife grinding against her plate as she kept eating, until finally, *fortunately*, Elisa Irig cleared her throat, the disapproving sound making the guests lower their eyes and eventually start minding their own business. So much for thinking she was in for a calm, relaxing dinner…

Well, it was quiet. That was for sure.

"So, girls, have you been planning for the corn festival already?" Elisa enquired cheerfully, giving Lois a reassuring look which made the young woman inwardly sigh her relief.

"I'm not sure if I'll be around yet," Sera replied with a pout. "Mom planned to go visit her sister in Alabama that weekend, and she wants me to tag along," she whined plaintively.

"Bummer," Elisa sympathised. "Does that mean you won't take part in the Corn Queen Pageant this year?"

"Guess so," Sera answered regretfully.

"No need to feel sad, honey," Rachel jibed. "Lana wins it every year anyway."

Corn Queen Pageant?!

Okay, so she really *was* in the Twilight Zone, this time. What kind of women actually agreed to walk around in high heels on a stage while a row of voyeuristic men stared at them and marked them according to their appearance — and probably the size of their bras, Lois amended, disgusted with the thought. And *corn* Queen? What was that? Were they forced to wear some corn petals as a substitute for a skirt?

Lana, of course, was savouring her supremacy, probably thinking it was a privilege to be Miss Kansas Corn or something.

"Oh, but not necessarily!" Ethan interjected. "Lana will have a serious challenger this year — Julia is extremely pretty, too."

Had she heard that right? Was this guy suggesting that she took part in a stupid beauty contest? Her jaw could have dropped to the floor when she realised that no-one around the table contested Ethan's idea, Sera even supporting it and arguing that despite her petite stature, 'Julia' fitted most of the criteria to be elected.

Criteria? There were criteria?!?

"I'm not sure Julia's the type to take part in such activities," Lana chimed in sourly.

"Why, you're just worried for your crown, Lana, dear," Ethan mocked her.

"I'm not!" Lana denied the accusation. "I'm just pointing out that she hasn't said she wants to participate in the Corn Queen Pageant."

"Well, *she* is still here," Lois finally spoke up, raising a hand to stop the animated conversation of which she was the centre yet in which her opinion had been totally ignored. "And she's not sure she likes beauty contests."

That earned her a grateful smile from Clark Kent, who, she'd noticed, had been looking only mildly interested since the pageant had been mentioned. Maybe he was the least alien of those people, after all…


Wayne was looking more and more agitated, and it was a relief for Clark when Elisa Irig started to gather the plates, bringing the evening to an end. He knew, from the worried and insistent glances that his father's old friend had been throwing at him for the past two hours, that something was wrong, and he was getting impatient to find himself alone with him so as to know exactly the origin of the glint of fear he perceived in Wayne's eyes.

The farmer nodded at him before rising from his seat and walking out, and Clark hurriedly excused himself to Elisa and his companions before joining him under the faint glow of the porch lamp.

Wayne lit his pipe and Clark stood beside him silently, gazing at the clear, starlit sky as he waited for the man to talk.

"I love these dinners we all have together," he said after a while, trying as much as he could to hide his eagerness and concern.

"Yeah," Wayne answered pensively after a while, although Clark wasn't sure he'd heard his initial statement. His absent reply sounded more like an automatic response than anything else, and Clark fell back into a silence only broken by the familiar, nightly noises of the Kansas countryside.

Sneaking a glance at the older man confirmed his impression that Wayne was deeply lost in thought and wouldn't hear much of whatever small talk he might attempt. The farmer rarely shut himself off in such a definite way, and Clark frowned, feeling helpless. He'd noticed Wayne's almost squirming attitude throughout dinner, and although he suspected it hadn't been obvious to anyone else, he'd quickly realised that something was wrong.

Something, he imagined, that had a relation to some of their current concerns.

Wayne had looked even more agitated when Julia Lewis had broached the topic of the environmental operation just as they'd sat down at the dinner table and Elisa had remarked with a small smile that the young girl was very interested in it. He'd followed Wayne's lead when the man had tried to subtly change the conversation, steering it onto safer ground.

Of course, as it had turned out, the atmosphere around the table had altered dramatically after one of those safe conversations had been interrupted by Lana's little scene, Clark amended with a small sigh. She really knew how to pick her moments, he snorted belligerently, ignoring the little tug of his conscience that told him she had her reasons for being angry. Still. It was no excuse to make everyone embarrassed over something that should have remained a private matter.

Clark returned his attention to his companion, refusing to let Lana's spat distract him for now. Wayne was visibly worried about something important, and he was determined to find out what it was and help in any way he could.

And, he thought as a disturbing feeling made a shiver course down his spine, being in the dark was making him increasingly nervous. His father's best friend didn't make a habit of showing his concern, and yet tonight he hadn't been able to hide that something was bothering him a great deal.

His gestures seemed automatic, as if he wasn't aware of anything but his thoughts, and the knowledge was perturbing Clark.

"Wayne, is everything okay?" he finally asked, unable to hold back his growing worry any longer.

"No." The farmer's single-worded answer was followed by a glance that pricked Clark's curiosity even more, especially when Wayne Irig trotted down the small flight of stairs and walked into the darkened garden. Clark quickly caught up with him and bit his lip to hold back the flood of questions hurtling through his mind.

They walked in frosty silence for a few minutes, Wayne leading the way with a visible goal to his decisive steps. They arrived on the edge of the Kent land, the border between the two domains marked by the ruin of an ivy- covered wall across which Wayne strode until he reached the barbed wire installed there by the environment workers.

"Got something to show you," Wayne muttered through gritted teeth without looking over his shoulder. He followed the newly defined border for a few more feet before stopping short and putting a hand on Clark's chest to tell him they'd arrived at their destination. "Here," he confirmed.

Clark frowned but respectfully waited for his elder to speak up. His intuition that Wayne's concerns ran deep and might be even worse than he'd suspected, were being confirmed, but he let him gather his thoughts and ignored the streak of worry coursing through him as he stood still.

"I…have something to tell you, Clark," Wayne said, his tone deadly serious. "Something, something that Jonathan…your father wanted me to pass onto you, were anything to ever happen to him. He and I shared this secret ever since you arrived in your parents' life, and I know that your mom and dad wanted you to learn it when the time was right."

"And…is the time right? Now?" Clark enquired softly, doing his best to keep his emotions in check at Wayne's clue to a revelation.

"Not really. But something happened that makes it necessary for me to tell you. Your father was concerned that something like this would happen, and he wanted Elisa and me to look out for you."

Clark frowned, confused. "Look out for me? Why?"

Wayne raised his head towards the young man, his eyes gleaming in the darkness. "Because of your mysterious origins, Clark. Because of what might be an unexpected heritage for you."

"I…is this about my…abilities?"

"It could be. Come on," Wayne said, taking a few careful steps between the trees following the ruined wall, until they reached a portion of the estate where the ground had been recently ploughed by the environmental operation's workers. Pointing his finger towards a small heap a few feet away from where they were standing, he spoke up again, his voice trembling. "Over there, you see this hole they excavated?"


"There was something, here. Something that your father and I buried a few days after your parents found you."

"Wayne, are you telling me that you know how they found me?" Clark waited anxiously as the older man gave an imperceptible nod. The mystery of his arrival in his parents' life had disturbed him for as long as he'd been able to reflect on his status as an adopted child, and the thought was regularly invading his mind.

He'd often wondered where he came from and who his real parents were. His folks had never hidden from him the fact that he was an adopted child, but they'd died before he'd found the courage to ask for more information. He'd always been afraid to hurt them, were he ever to enquire as to the truth about his origins, but deep down, the question of his biological parents and their reason for abandoning him had always disturbed the peacefulness of his childhood.

Learning that he was adopted had already been very much of a shock to him, even though his folks had taken many precautions when dropping this news onto him.

He still remembered the day it had happened. He'd just turned five and was getting ready to enter Smallville's elementary school the following autumn. The prospect was making him feel older, and he'd harboured a strong pride at finally reaching this stage of life where people stopped considering him as a baby. Adulthood was already shaping itself in his young mind, and his maturity had probably enjoined his mother to take the step and reveal the truth about his birth. Or at least, what she had wanted to tell him.

A partial truth, that was what it had been, and what he'd had to hang onto until this moment.

But back then, it had been a huge revelation to him, and probably as much as he could take at his young age. When his mom had taken him on her lap and started to tell him the story of the gift he had been for his dad and her, he'd been quick to understand that he had other parents, somewhere out there, God knew where. Martha Kent hadn't given him any clue as to where or how he could find them, and he now assumed that it was because she really had no idea, even though there had always been a lingering doubt in his heart that she might have hidden it from him to — very naturally — protect the special bond linking Clark to his adoptive parents.

He'd read in a book somewhere that adopted kids were always more cocooned by their folks than others, because the fear of losing the child's love was automatically present in the minds of people who were raising a foundling. It was a fight between the connection of flesh and the connection of love, one where Clark had no trouble seeing who were, to him, his *real* parents, but one where Jonathan and Martha Kent could have felt some expected concerns.

But after the accident, on the many occasions when Clark had hinted to Elisa and Wayne Irig of his interest in his origins, they'd always been dismissive. Sometimes, they told him they didn't know anything more than he already did, other times, they changed the subject awkwardly, as quickly as possible, even though there was no more reason for them to hide it from him, had it been a matter of jealous parental love on the Kents' part.

And Wayne Irig's attitude this evening, as well as his earlier words revealing that Jonathan Kent had shared the secret of Clark's arrival with him until his son was ready to hear it confirmed his impression that all these years, his assumption had been wrong. His parents' reasons for hiding the circumstances of their discovery from him had been based on something other than what he'd always suspected.

Wayne cleared his throat, bringing Clark back to the present, and opened his mouth to talk again. "I'm aware that the secret of your…origins," he said, weighing the word he'd visibly chosen very deliberately, "has always been something you've questioned. Your insistence in trying to learn something from Elisa and me points to that," he added when Clark raised a surprised eyebrow at him. "But Jonathan and Martha had been very clear: they wanted us to wait before we told you. They were concerned that revealing the truth to you too soon might compromise the normal existence they wanted you to lead. I know it sounds like they were programming your life, taking the decisions for you, but they only did this to protect you."

Clark nodded, understanding the importance of what his father's best friend was telling him. Whatever revelation he was about to make had apparently weighed a lot in his parents' decisions and his upbringing, and he both dreaded and manifested eagerness at learning more from Wayne.

"It was in the middle of May when they found you," Wayne started his tale again. "May, 17th, 1966, to be more accurate. They were coming back from town when they reached the corner just after Edward Mills' farm; you might as well say that they'd almost got home."

Clark nodded again. He knew. It was at precisely that corner that the truck and his father's car had collided, some ten years later, taking both his parents' lives.

"There had been some meteorites falling over the county for the past few nights, and when they saw the shooting star fly across the sky right over Shuster's field, your mom was so excited that she asked your dad to pull in. She was sure that she'd find fragments of meteorite, and fascinated as she was with the unknown, it was an occasion that she couldn't miss."

Wayne averted his eyes from Clark's rapt expression and took a deep breath before he continued. "Thing is, it wasn't a meteorite."

"It…it wasn't?"

The older man shook his head, confirming his assessment. "It turned out to be some kind of capsule. And when your father opened it, they realised that it was in fact a crib. A crib where they found you."

Clark gasped, a series of wild thoughts tumbling through his mind as he processed Wayne's revelations, confusing what little he already knew and leaving him light-headed even as he tried to understand what his father's friend was getting at. There was something deep within him, an unknown emotion tugging at him as if trying to make him see the truth, and fear was making him step back, throwing an imaginary veil on his childhood as if to protect it.

"What was this capsule?" he finally heard himself ask Wayne, who'd become silent and was staring through the dark rows of trees, away from him.

"No-one knows," Wayne answered after a sigh. "I saw it when Jonathan asked me to help him bury it, and I'd never seen anything like that in my life before. It was ovoid, silver- coloured, with a strange red and yellow emblem on the front, and weird characters engraved on each side of the fuselage."


Wayne finally raised his head towards Clark, his gaze apologetic. "I'm sorry, Clark, I wish I knew more, but even your father had no idea what that…that thing could be."

Clark looked up through the break in the leaves to the stars twinkling above them. This was where he might have come from, and the thought scared him more than it thrilled him. It wasn't a question of *who* he was, but it was turning into the mystery of *what* he was, and he now understood what had pushed his parents to hide the existence of the capsule from him. The possibility had apparently been so dreadful to them that his Dad had felt the need to bury the secret of his son's arrival in a remote area of his land.

Clark lifted his gaze to the mount of dark soil that Wayne had indicated earlier and a renewed fear gripped at his heart as another revelation hit him. He swallowed hard. "Wayne, when you said that Dad and you had buried the capsule here, do you mean that…that you never moved it to another place?"

The farmer shook his head sadly. "No. But I now realise it would have been a smart move. God knows whose hands it fell into, and what they plan to do with it."

They drifted into silence again, gusts of warm wind blowing a gentle whisper around them as they sunk deep into their sombre thoughts. Wayne was right, Clark realised as his eyes fixed upon the empty hole a few feet ahead of them; the existence of the spaceship was too much of a clue for his out-of-this-world abilities, and he could only wish no- one in the environmental operation decided to question him about it, or worse, test him.

He couldn't reveal much about himself, considering what little he knew, and he didn't see any way for them to set a battery of tests. Would they try and force him to use his gifts? Would they torture him until he gave in and admitted to them? Did they suspect his invulnerability at all?

He sighed, realising his thoughts weren't leading him anywhere, and yet feeling helpless as more unanswered questions poured through his mind.

His gaze shifted to Wayne and crossed the older man's, who'd been looking at him intently.

"Come back home?" he asked in a low voice as he started to turn away.

Clark ran a hand through his hair. "No. I think I need to…"

Wayne reached out to squeeze Clark's shoulder with a firm grip, showing him he understood. "I'll see you later," he said softly before walking back in the direction of his farm.


Lois had expected to figure out these people's true state of mind very easily, but she'd obviously underestimated them. Under an open and naturally friendly exterior, they were hiding a mystery, a secret that she was longing to figure out.

She'd seen the patented looks that Wayne and Clark had been exchanging throughout dinner. They thought that no-one had seen their little game, but it hadn't gone unnoticed by her. She'd been keeping a close eye on Cl…on both of them, she quickly corrected herself. Because…because they were intriguing to her, and their evasive answers to her enquiries about the environmental operation had left her with the impression that they were hiding something from her.

The pearls of sweat appearing on Wayne Irig's forehead had been automatically followed by an impatient squirming and increasingly concerned looks from Clark Kent, as if he was afraid of something. He'd sneaked several discreet glances at his watch, which made Lois think that he'd been eager to see the dinner come to an end. And his hurried escape with Irig as soon as both men had been given the possibility had only confirmed her growing suspicions.

Something was up, and she would find out what it was.

Curious, she was about to rise from her seat to follow both men when a spark of laughter and a light pressure on her arm held her in place.

Rachel Harris dropped into the chair beside her. "So, Julia. How do you like your new fellow students?" she enquired cheerfully, making it impossible for Lois to bow out without looking very impolite.

"I…" Lois alternatively shifted her gaze from the door through which Clark and Wayne had just disappeared to the elation gleaming in her new friend's eyes. "It's…it's great," she finally answered, regretfully postponing her investigation to a more appropriate time. "You guys are so…so full of surprises!"

"Oh really?" Rachel looked taken aback at her appraisal. "I thought that we were more 'what you see is what you get' kind of people."

"That's what I thought, too, at first," Lois admitted in all honesty.

"What made you change your mind?" Rachel asked while reaching for the bowl of grapes sitting on the side of the table.

"Oh, just…talking with you all," she replied evasively, throwing another longing look at the open door beyond which the shadows of Clark and Wayne were stretching against the light projecting itself across the terrace's wooden floor.

They were still standing there, a mere few feet away, yet she couldn't hear what they were saying nor gauge their facial expressions. And when the only witness to their presence there vanished with their retreat from the house, Lois released a frustrated sigh at not being able to follow them discreetly. By the time she got rid of her unexpected companion, the two men would be too far away for her to track down.

Rachel popped a grape into her mouth and gave Lois a knowing look. "Get down to earth, girl," she warned with a small, sad smile.

"Huh?" Lois returned her attention to the woman sitting beside her and reviewed her words. "What do you mean?" she asked warily, cursing herself for her lack of attention.

"Clark and Lana," the young woman explained. "They're an item."

Lois let out a gasp of protest. "I —"

"Don't play innocent with me, Julia. I've been there," Rachel interrupted, sighing deeply. "But I'd be really surprised if those two didn't end up married someday."

Curiosity got the better of Lois, and she momentarily forgot about her investigation and suspicions towards Clark Kent to listen more carefully to what Rachel had to say. "Really?"

"I went out with Clark last year. Well, not for long, but I was his date for the prom. He and Lana had had some sort of a fight, and I guess he wanted to make her jealous by going there with someone else. Lana brought some stack of muscles, and they spent the entire evening staring at each other across the room, until Clark explained the whole thing to me and apologised for his behaviour."

Rachel's tone got sweeter and Lois realised that the girl's crush on Clark Kent was far from being over. "He was feeling very guilty about it, actually," she continued. "He knew he'd been using my attraction to him to make his girlfriend come back to him, and let's just say he didn't walk *me* home that night. Since then, they've been inseparable. Never one without the other."


Rachel shook her head, and Lois noticed an expression of disgust on her face. "Believe me, sometimes you could think they're Siamese twins. I've never seen them apart, if you don't count the usual little spats most couples have — although I still can't figure out for the life of me why they didn't move in together this year."

"They didn't?"

"Well, Ethan asked why once and the glare he got from Clark was enough to tell us this wasn't a topic he wanted to talk about. Don't know what's holding them back." She shrugged. "Although to be honest, I won't say I'm eager to see them tie the knot. Lana's nice, and she's a good friend, but…well…somehow, something doesn't fit."

"How do you mean?"

"She's so different from him it makes you wonder what can keep them together. But why are you asking all these questions, anyway?"

"Well, *you* broached the topic of Clark," Lois answered defensively. "I didn't ask anything."

Rachel chuckled. "Sure. But the way you were looking at him throughout dinner was enough to tell me you were dying to know who the hunk was," she whispered conspiratorially, winking at her before she got up and left the room to join Elisa in the patio, leaving a completely baffled and disorientated Lois staring into empty space.


Lois slowly approached the black and bleak mass of the Kent farmhouse profiling itself against the navy blue sky of a clear autumn night. A light breeze whispered in the trees at the side of the path, and she shivered at the desolate atmosphere surrounding the abandoned land, so different from the warm, cosy comfort she'd abandoned when she'd taken her leave from her hosts a few minutes earlier.

The building had already seemed dreary during the day, its closed blinds jealously guarding the secret of its history, attracting the visitor's eye when they were courageous enough to get close; but now it was reminiscent of a looming menace, the absence of any human presence making it even more frightening.

A dog barked somewhere up the road, startling Lois as she carefully stepped across the barbed wire and walked past the front door, reaching the first part of the soil that had been meticulously ploughed. The excavating machines were parked haphazardly a few feet away from her, their dark mass immobile and void of any soul, their motors slowly cooling off under their hoods after a day spent in the implacable heat of the Kansas sun.

She reached into her satchel and rummaged through it for a few seconds before she retrieved her flashlight with a small gasp of satisfaction. It had become a habit for her to carry it around wherever she went, kind of like the perfect attire for a reporter, the one thing you couldn't do without whenever you were on an investigation. Getting a firm grip on the miraculous object, she concentrated on her aim.

She'd seen the government men working around here a few hours earlier, and she needed to know exactly what kind of samples they'd taken, as well as how they could be getting any serious scientific work done by simply turning the whole land over, without any care. Surely if they were analysing the soil, roughly ploughing over the fields would destroy anything they hoped to get?

Unless they were looking for something else than the pesticides they claimed to be here for.

Something suddenly caught her awareness — a faint but perceptible spark against the dark monotony of the soil. She peered through the dimness, crouching to make her search more effective, scratching the ground with her nails. She was sure there had been a glow of some kind; even faint, she hadn't missed it.

Finally, her fingers groped at something solid and she dropped her flashlight to the ground, using both hands to dislodge the gleaming rock from where it was buried. It was covered in mud — the workers had in all likelihood sprayed water over the dry, cracked ground to make it easier for their tools to dig into the soil. Lois reached for her handkerchief and carefully wiped the dirt off the weird- looking rock before holding it in front of her for inspection.

What *was* this thing, she had no idea. But she'd never seen such a mineral…stone…whatever, before.

She weighed up her discovery, amazed that such a tiny piece of rock seemed so heavy, and noticed that its green gleam was spreading a dizzy light against the ground. It didn't look like any phosphorescent matter, though; even as she switched off her flashlight, it kept on shining, kind of like those glow necklaces that she and Lucy had often bought at fun fairs, only even brighter.

The green shade was lighter than that of an emerald, and yet it could easily pass for a gemstone. It wasn't what she would call beautiful, and yet it held a fascinating power that made it impossible for her to draw her eyes away from it. She held it up in front of her, watching the glow stroke over the skin of her fingers, knowing the sparkly colour was reflecting in her eyes.

The thought that this could be a hazardous material suddenly crossed her mind, and she abruptly dropped it to the ground, letting its irregular shape roll a few feet away from her. But she was positive that the workers she'd seen this afternoon hadn't been wearing any kind of protection — if this rock was in any way dangerous, they surely wouldn't be working so freely with the soil here.

A sudden murmur on her left startled her, and she scrambled to her feet in one swift move, her eyes frantically searching for a hiding place. She couldn't be found here. Trespassing on private property, and one that was now controlled by the military, to top it all, certainly wouldn't do. Not to mention that if this operation was important enough to have cost the life of her source, it would also be worth her own silence. At least as far as the authorities were concerned.

There was no shed nor barn which she could possibly reach before the men she'd just heard — guards, she had no doubt about that — turned around the corner of the house and spotted her standing there in the middle of -

The house!

She quietly ran towards the farm building, panic churning at her stomach as she held her breath for fear that the men would hear her. She looked anxiously for any place where she would be safe, and randomly pushed at the back door, letting out an involuntary gasp as it gave way under the insistent pressure of her hand. She let herself in, leaning against the old wooden frame as she closed it behind her, praying that she wouldn't be found and vainly straining to try and catch the guards' words as they passed close by.


"I'm tellin' ya, Wes, with Sullivan in their team, Detroit will bring the house down, this time!"

"Humph, sure, Hank. When pigs fly," Wes replied, snorting. "Lemme remind ya that Kurt Ellison is a major advantage for the L.A. team, so compared to a guy who won five major championships in the last season, your Sullivan really won't measure up."

"Aw, come on! Don't sell Detroit short, will ya? They still deserve the benefit of the doubt, especially in the beginning of the new season."

Wes Harrison shook his head ruefully, denying his colleague's argument as he swept the beam of his flashlight over the garden. This was a quiet, peaceful night, one that made him wish he was home rather than out in the Kansas country looking after some abandoned farm where the government had decided to mount an operation he knew nothing about.

He didn't enjoy this type of patrol very much, anyway, and even less since he'd been assigned to work under Jason Trask's orders. Thompson had been okay to deal with — he was so skittish about administrative procedures that he could almost have passed for honest. But since his department had been handed over to Trask, things had changed a lot.

His new boss hadn't a subordinate bone in him, and he had a tendency to easily get swept away by anger whenever things didn't go his way. This tended to irritate Wes, but he supposed that whatever the government was up to here in Kansas was none of his business. He was just asked to guard the place and doing his job correctly to earn his wage was the only thing that mattered.

Years of experience had taught him that the less he knew, the safer it was.

Hank's company made the task a bit less boring, he supposed — except for his colleague's tendency to argue on anything related to football. But their chats had the benefit of making time pass more quickly, and during nights like these, he tended to forget what dirty secrets his boss might be hiding.

His colleague suddenly put a hand on his chest, stopping their advance. A quick look at his Hank's face told Wes that he'd seen something unusual, and he immediately reached for the stock of his gun before nodding in his direction. The man pointed to the large excavation a few feet ahead of them, and after a careful check that no obvious danger was in sight, he jumped into the hole, emerging from it a few seconds later and handing him a metallic object.

"What the… A flashlight?" Wes enquired, putting his gun back into place before examining their discovery with a concerned frown. "What's a flashlight doing here?"

"No idea," Hank replied, swiftly climbing out of the hole and wiping the mud off his hands. "You've got yours, I've got mine, and I'm sure it wasn't there on our first round."

"So it can't have been left by last night's team," Wes mused aloud, completing his colleague's thought.

"Nope. Not a chance. It's not even regulation, anyway."

"Certainly an unusual place for it to be," Wes remarked, sweeping their surroundings with his own lamp. But there was nothing to be seen, except the trees and bushes bordering the small area of woods, and the impressively high wall of the farmhouse's western side. "Nothing," he informed his colleague when Hank raised an interrogative eyebrow at him.

Hank shrugged. "Bah, whoever dropped this in there has probably left long ago. Lemme see," he demanded, taking the flashlight from Wes and manipulating it to observe its every detail. "Give me your lamp," he ordered after a moment. "There's something engraved on the barrel."


"Yeah. Feels like it," Hank confirmed, running his fingers on the silver-coloured metal. "Here, let me." He directed the beam of his companion's flashlight towards their discovery and read out loud, "The light…guiding you to…darn, can't read the next word, is that a t or an f?"

"Truth and justice," Wes finished reading for him. "The light guiding you to truth and justice."

Hank snorted. "They actually *sell* flashlights with such inscriptions?"

"And find people to buy them, yeah. Apparently."

"Hang on, there's something else below. Here. From Linda to Lois, October 17th, 1984."

"Probably a dedication of some kind," Wes suggested, his tone portentous of his boredom with the subject. "Does it matter?"

"Dunno. I'll just ask the boss."

Wes rolled his eyes, exasperated. "C'mon, Hank, this looks like some girl lost it in here. Whatever the reason, I don't think there's anything to worry about. Nothing to justify disturbing Trask, anyway."

"Some girl? Well, if some girl came around here to snoop around, I don't want to be there when the boss finds out. He seemed to think it was important that the area was strictly restricted to the military."

"Whatever. Do you think that kids mind barbed wire? You know them, when they see something forbidden, they *have* to trespass. It's *biological*. Besides, this looks just like an ordinary flashlight to me, if you forget the stupid dedication on it. How could it matter?"

"It could matter if we didn't report about it and the boss found out. He'll be the one to decide whether it's important or not," Hank argued, setting off in the direction of the car to phone Trask.

Wes had to yield to the fact that nothing he said would convince Hank to change his decision. The guy had a sickening habit of reporting everything they saw to their boss, as if he was afraid of the guy — or revelled in playing the good, reliable henchman. He supposed Hank was right when it came to their safety, but he didn't like the state of inferiority it put them in. They were security guards, which shouldn't imply complete submission to their boss, even if they happened to be working for the F.B.I.

Trask, however, seemed to think otherwise, and so far, Hank wasn't showing any sign of rebellion. Heaving a frustrated sigh, Wes gave a last half-hearted sweep of his light around the yard before shrugging his shoulders and following his colleague.


Clark watched Wayne walk back to his farm and sighed deeply, unable to blank out what the older man had just taught him about his origins. If he'd been in the dark before tonight, he was now even more confused as to where he'd come from. His own puzzlement was overpowering what little facts his parents had been able to tell him about his origins, and obtaining answers to the questions that had been obsessing him since he was a child was only causing more confusion in him, without really giving him any further information.

He'd *landed* in Jonathan and Martha Kent's life. Literally! And in a *capsule*, to make it worse. A capsule that had now disappeared, probably dug out by one of these government people, who might just decide he was an alien and treat him as such. It sounded so farfetched to him, as if it came from a bad science-fiction movie. But his abilities were real. He had extraordinary strength for a man of his age — well, for a man at all, for that matter. He could set anything on fire by the simple act of looking at it, and he could see through just about anything he wanted.

This last gift had brought enough embarrassment to him in the space of a few years: poor Melanie Fishman had never understood what was making Clark blush every single time she passed him in the school's corridors, nor why her thirteen year-old classmate continually refused to look her in the eye, lowering his head and muttering a lame excuse to leave as soon as possible when she addressed him. He couldn't exactly admit to her that he'd accidentally seen through the wall of the girls' cloakroom and spotted her there, scantily dressed as she got ready for their sports class.

Discovering that he actually possessed all these strange abilities hadn't been easy for Clark — the teen years were already a distressing period of life where one was changing irremediably; with subhuman powers, it became a real nightmare, because you couldn't talk about it with anyone, you didn't understand what was going on in *your* own body, and you couldn't do anything about whatever was causing the strangeness to blossom in you.

Every time another gift manifested itself, Clark dreaded to discovering what else would make his life even more complicated than it already was. Confiding in Wayne, and later, in Lana, had helped him a bit, but it had also confirmed what he'd already assumed by himself: no normal human being was supposed to see through things, literally dart fire with their eyes, or lift the couch with their little finger.

He was alone. Very much alone. If Wayne had always done his best to reassure him and support him, Lana was acting as if there was nothing special about him, and yet she didn't make him feel normal either. He wanted to be treated like any other boy, true, but her attitude had always suggested more discomfort than a real acceptance of his unexplainable abilities.

Unexplainable. Unless you counted Wayne's story that he'd somehow landed from the sky in some flying saucer, as a baby.

An alien. Was that what he was? Or was he the result of some EPRAD experiment that had turned out wrong? Wayne had mentioned strangely shaped characters on each side of the ship that had cradled him — could he have meant Russian? Would Clark Kent be a product of the Cold War that his country and the USSR had been conducting against each other for the past forty years?

His fingers pinched the bridge of his nose and he closed his eyes tightly, chasing the unwelcome thought away from his mind. He felt tired, and he knew that he wouldn't sleep tonight. Not when the possibility that he might not be human was becoming more than plausible.

Opening his eyes again, he turned towards his parents' farmhouse.


This was the place that had sheltered him, protected him, *cocooned* him during ten blissful years. He'd felt safe, there, whether it was upstairs in his bedroom or curled up on the couch, cuddling with his Mom as she read him a bedtime story.

To him, the large building that had once been a lively house was still full of his childood laughter, his Mom's love and his Dad's sensibility. It didn't take much concentration from him to be carried back to the early years of his life, to the time when the delicious aromas of Martha Kent's homemade cinnamon doughnuts were filling the air, invading the entire house until they hit his nostrils and made him give up on anything he was doing to sit around the table with his parents and have his share of cookies and milk.

The memory faded as quickly as it had formed in his mind, reality floating back into focus. The house looked so desolate, now, as if it was a ruin. He hadn't set foot in it since the funeral, preferring to leave it exactly as it was back when his folks were alive. A sanctuary, that was what it was becoming, and as he spotted the bulldozers slaughtering what had once been his Mom's flowerbeds, tears of rage prickled at his eyes.

Those men had no idea how much the Kent land meant to him. To them, it was just another portion of soil to exploit and analyse. To him, it was his life that they were ripping to pieces without an ounce of consideration for his pain.

He wiped the back of his hand across his face, refusing to yield to the sorrow claiming him, and sniffled loudly, swallowing back the lump in his throat and shaking his tired body to give himself courage.

He threw another glance at the large shape of the abandoned house, as though almost saying goodbye, and was preparing to return to the Irig land when something unusual caught his eye. Growing still, he let his senses guide him, riveting his attention to the far side of the garden, to a spot right beyond the excavating machines. His ear perceived small grating sounds, and he used his enhanced vision to pierce through the darkness until the now familiar shape of Julia Lewis reached his eyes, rooting him to the spot.

Throughout dinner, her evasive responses to his friends' enquiries about her life had made him suspicious of how truthful her story was. She definitely looked like she was hiding something, and the thought had made him very uncomfortable; he'd even felt guilty at harbouring some qualms about her without having had a real chance to know her. The afternoon they'd spent together hadn't taught him anything about who she was, and he now remembered that she'd carefully kept the conversation centred on him and life in the countryside. And of course, her obvious nosiness where his farm was concerned hadn't helped in relaxing his caution.

The fact that it turned out he'd been right to be wary wasn't a relief at all — he'd never wished so much that he'd judged someone too quickly. He'd let himself hope that what looked phoney about her was just an appearance, but she really was a weird fish, and he was afraid to find out more about what had brought her here…and what she was doing in his parents' backyard at this time of the night.

She was actually snooping around in his parents' property without having sought out his approval first! As if it wasn't already bad enough that some government people were excavating his back yard, a girl about his age thought she had a right to dig into his life and -

He stopped dead in his tracks as he heard male voices coming from the front of the house, and he crouched in the shadows, praying that the guards wouldn't point their flashlights towards the wall separating the two tracts of farmlands. Now wasn't the time to be found near their research area, and the more discreet he was, the better.

Julia Lewis, however, would certainly pay for her curiosity, and despite his anger at her, he was concerned about what these people would do to her once they caught her — because there was no way on earth she could escape their surveillance. Even if she actually heard them coming, it would be too late for her to find a hiding place.

There was nothing he could do to help her that wouldn't reveal his presence, and he wouldn't jeopardise that…unless she was really in danger. His resolution wavered, and he carefully peered over the wall, frowning when he noticed that the young woman was nowhere to be seen.

The guards rounded the farmhouse and approached the area where she'd been standing only a minute earlier. As Clark used his special vision gifts to zoom in on them, he realised that they had found Julia's flashlight, along with a strange glowing rock, which one of them put into his uniform pocket as if it was the most natural thing to find, before they both walked away with decisive steps. At least Julia seemed to have escaped them, and so far, they didn't seem willing to be hanging around and look for her.

His thoughts returning to Julia, Clark wondered again how she'd managed to sneak out of the guards' view. It was totally puzzling. He listened carefully for any unexpected sound and finally caught her raging heartbeat only a few feet away from her previous position. His breath caught in his throat as he realised where the noise was coming from, and he briefly closed his eyes, wishing it wasn't true.

It couldn't…*she* couldn't!

Yet it was so.

Getting a hold on the bile rising in his throat, he X-rayed the walls of the house he hadn't visited for years. His nails dug into his palms, leaving a red mark when he opened his tightly fisted hands. They healed almost immediately, the skin fading back to its usual shade as the pink crevices disappeared.

He stifled a groan of fury.

Somehow, she'd managed to enter the house through the back door and wasn't content with staying in the cellar. Only a minute after the guards had left the back yard, she was advancing inside his abandoned childhood home, and she didn't look like she was seeking the exit.

Clark remained still and observed her progression, wondering to what extent her sickening curiosity would reach. The muscles of his entire body tensed increasingly as he realised that scruples wouldn't stop her en route. She was constantly pushing the limits he was mentally setting for her, and as she climbed the old stairs leading to the bedrooms, he decided he couldn't let her pierce through what was most private to him.

He felt a jolt of hesitation as he realised what he was about to do. He hadn't set foot on his parents' farmhouse since the few painful days that had followed the accident. At first it had been a matter of practicalities: the Irigs had wanted to keep him with them, but there'd been administrative complications, and he'd had to be placed in a foster home situated on the other side of town.

He came back to see his parents' best friends pretty much every day, but passing by the farm was always painful for him, even more so when the first effects of time had started to be noticeable. Wayne had understood Clark's concerns as he saw his folks' house fall into ruins, and he'd done what was necessary to keep it pretty much like it had been when Jonathan and Martha Kent had been taking care of it. But the blinds remained closed, the doors were locked, and no sign of life was filtering through the windows.

Clark's decision not to enter the farmhouse any more had been only half-conscious, but now that he was about to break his decision, it seemed much more important to him than it had ever been. However, despite his fear of penetrating into the abandoned house after all this time, he knew he couldn't walk away and let Julia Lewis snoop around and do nothing about it.

That thought firmly planted in his mind, he ran to the house at full speed and followed the path opened by the intruder, driven only by the anger boiling in his blood.


"What do you mean, someone entered the restricted area?" Tempus asked dangerously when Trask reported to him the phone call he'd just received. "What kind of someone?"

"I…you're not going to like it," Trask replied, hesitance entering in his voice for the first time since Tempus had contacted him.

"Indeed! And didn't you hire security guards, anyway? What are you paying them for?"

"Precisely, sir, they just called me to inform me of the incident."

"Incident? What incident?"

Trask sighed, but didn't beat around the bush any longer. "They found a flashlight."

"Oh?" Would he have underestimated Trask's caution, Tempus suddenly wondered? A flashlight didn't look so bad, and it could be a complete coincidence. Trask could be worrying over nothing at all, although it was reassuring that he didn't take anything too lightly.

However, there was one thing about the discovery that was bugging him. He'd just found Lois's track again, and his hunch that she'd gone to Smallville had been right. It would have been too much of a twist of fate that Lois Lane took an early flight to Wichita if she didn't have something nasty on her mind.

He knew her enough to be aware of her annoying habits to be ahead of anyone she got her teeth into, and he didn't plan on being the victim of her pitbull-like reporter techniques. He had the clear advantage of experience and knowledge, whereas Lois Lane was just a teenage girl who was jumping in headfirst. Clark hadn't had any positive influence on her yet, and her recklessness was bound to doom her.

And a completely insane and irresponsible Lois Lane would be the kind to snoop around what Tempus had come to call his kryptonite field, without worrying about covering her tracks. She was disappointing him, though — the Lois he'd met in the other dimension would never have committed such an amateurish mistake. It only confirmed what he'd thought all his life: the woman didn't deserve the admiration triggered in Utopia whenever her name was mentioned. What made her a role model to the citizens of his original world, he had absolutely no idea!

What irked him most was that he didn't know what she'd learned. Her presence in Smallville couldn't be a coincidence. He'd had the intuition that she would be a source of trouble for him as soon as Randolph had announced that he'd lost track of her in Metropolis, and even more when he'd learned that she'd booked a flight to Kansas, but he hadn't imagined that she'd get so close so quickly.

The sneaky woman hadn't even given him time to organise his line of defence!

He'd assumed that a younger, less assured version of the woman he'd known in the parallel dimension would be easier to deal with, and he'd been wrong. However, she made so many glaring mistakes that he was certain it wouldn't compromise his plans to neutralise Superman. He'd come too far to go back now, and the kryptonite found throughout the Smallville territory, and particularly around the Sector A comprised of the Shuster, Irig, and Kent lands, would ensure that the superhero never existed to wreck Tempus's plans by the creation of the nauseating Utopia.

Funny how the two dimensions he'd visited were so alike and so different at the same time. If Clark's background had dramatically changed, thanks to his brilliant intervention, some details of Superman's history were pretty similar: the spaceship had landed in the far end of Shuster's Field, a couple of miles down the road from Smallville, and the fragments of rock that had accompanied its landing on earth were scattered in a four mile radius around it. Time and nature's work had buried them under alluviums and soil, but the bulldozers used by Trask's teams had done a wonderful job of digging them out.

However, he needed to get rid of Lois Lane if he wanted to eliminate the threat represented by Superman. If what Trask was telling him was true, this was no amusement any more.

"Are you telling me," Tempus spoke up again, doing his best to keep his concerns in check as he glared at Trask, "that you do know the owner of the flashlight?"

"I —"

"Because let's face it," he interrupted his henchman without allowing him time to answer his question. "Someone who brings a flashlight while trespassing inside a military area *can't* be up to any good."

"It was just a girl, and under normal circumstances, I wouldn't even have mentioned it to you."

"But it wasn't just *a* girl, right?"


"Lois Lane?"

"Yes." Trask mumbled his reply so low that it was barely audible and waited for the explosion. He'd quickly understood that it was hatred that was driving Tempus, although he had no idea what could prompt such a strong emotion towards some insignificant teenage girl.

He'd worried for a few days after she'd unexpectedly turned up at the docks a mere minute after he'd eliminated Burton Newcomb, but it had quickly become obvious that she hadn't seen his face, and even though she'd managed to escape him when his first intuition had told him to shoot her down as a possibly annoying witness, his conversation with the police chief had confirmed that Lloyd Tempus had enough contacts to keep the men he hired safe from the country's justice system.

But that didn't explain the puzzling gleam of amusement and irritation that invaded Tempus's gaze whenever the young woman was mentioned. There was something there, which Trask couldn't put his finger on, but it was obvious that the Secretary was hiding some of his knowledge. As long as he offered him the protection he needed to achieve his god- appointed mission, Trask didn't really care, though. He still wished that Tempus had let him take care of Lois Lane before she became a problem, but it wasn't too late, and he supposed that the statesman had enough sense not to persist with what had turned out to be a flawed vision of the situation.

"Since you know she was there, I assume your guards caught her?" Tempus enquired, his warning tone calling Trask's attention again.


"No? What do you mean, no?" The Secretary's voice was turning thunderous.

"They found her flashlight probably some time after she'd left. The only reason why we know without the shadow of a doubt that it was Lois Lane is that her name was written on the barrel."

"You do know what this means, Trask, don't you?"

"I —"

"Yes, of course you do. First, I'm going to have to have words with your men. Were you aware that you'd hired a bunch of incompetents?"

"Well —"

"Don't bother, Trask," Tempus interrupted tiredly, heaving an exaggerated sigh. "I knew that letting anyone else take care of the details would be a mistake," he finished dramatically.

"*I* wanted to kill her before she became a problem," Trask argued defensively. "Only you wouldn't let me, for some reason you wouldn't tell me about. All right, she's just some reckless girl who seems to have a nose for trouble, but —"

Tempus gasped and slammed his hands on Trask's shoulders, his face turning extremely threatening. "*I* am the one making the decisions, here, Trask! *Always* remember that I'm your hierarchal superior, and unlike that wimp, Thompson, I *do* know what's necessary to keep the operation secure! Got it?"

Trask remained impassive, and Tempus hid a smile. A good little soldier, that was what the man was. How he loved the military! They were easy to handle, and usually, orders were respected when they were given with enough firmness. That was what Thompson had missed when controlling Trask, and that was what he, Tempus, had in spades.

"The little fox has managed to sneak her nose into our business," he continued out loud, more calmly. "So we have to see that she doesn't cause any more problems."

Releasing his death-grip on the man, he smiled secretively at him before speaking up again. "Let's see, Trask, if your brains have started working after all this time."

The soldier frowned and shrugged off Tempus's grip, visibly unwilling to let himself be directed, but Tempus was fast, and he grabbed his gun to jab it under the man's chin. "Remember we're in this *together*, Trask," he warned, bringing his face close enough to the other man's eyes so as to produce the essential, scaring effect. He wanted the military man to respect and fear him, and it was good to remind him of his inferior situation every now and then.

Jason Trask's eyes reflected no fear, but only determination. He was a strong character, one to be brought to heel before he became strong and confident enough to challenge him.

"Listen to me, Trask. I *know* from experience that Lois Lane isn't someone you can overlook as *some* girl. If she digs into what you're doing, it usually means trouble. And she'd be one to be an ally to the aliens," he added, lifting a meaningful eyebrow and knowing that his last comment would have a decisive influence on the soldier's next course of action.

It seemed to have the desired effect, since Trask's eyes lost their glint of rage and his posture relaxed. "So what's the plan?" he enquired flatly.

"There's only one motel in Smallville, from what I gather, and unless Ms Lane has formed some strong enough friendships around here — which I doubt if I go by my personal experience with her — then we'll find her there."

"All right. I'm sending two men to get rid of her."

"No!" Tempus held up his hand, stopping the other man's decision. "Think about it, Trask. If she's dead, how can we question her about what she knows?"

"Do we need to question her?" Trask asked impatiently.

"She might be useful for us to find the aliens' lair."

"Okay. That's a point." Trask waved his finger at him as he walked to the door. "But we're gonna have to deal with that alien threat as soon as possible. Don't forget I want to have a chat with Mr Kent about the presence of what looks like a space capsule in his backyard."



It had certainly been a close call, Lois thought as she pressed her ear against the door, straining to catch any noise outside her hiding place, and holding her breath for fear the security guards would have seen her and decided to hunt after her. If so, she would be in major trouble, because she didn't see any other way out of this house — she doubted the front door was open, and anyway, the moonlight was shining in a clear sky, providing enough light for her to be spotted if she took the risk of sneaking out that way. She was already very lucky that the back door hadn't offered much resistance to her panicky search for a refuge.

She'd have to stay hidden in here for a while, at least until the guards decided to continue their patrol somewhere else, provided they didn't realise that she was around and figured that the house was the place most likely to shelter her.

She shuddered. That had been dumb, simply dumb to stay around when she could have run to the woods and lost them without any problem there. She sighed softly — she hadn't had much of a choice, though. Seeking refuge in the shadows had been her best chance to stay unnoticed, she supposed.

The faint humming of voices was filtering through the door, but they fortunately didn't seem to be very close. The down side was that she couldn't make out the meaning of what the guards were saying, but she hoped it was some small talk and nothing related to her presence in this military area. With a bit of luck, they'd leave soon, allowing her to make a discreet exit.

Lois released a soft sigh of relief and blinked to get her eyes used to the darkness and become aware of her surroundings.

So, this was the Kent farmhouse, huh? It looked just as abandoned from the inside as from the outside, if not more. Well, if it looked like anything, actually, considering how little she could see. Good thing she'd thought about taking her flashlight along because she'd definitely nee -

She closed her eyes and growled ferociously as she realised that the essential tool in question was still lying where she'd left it when she'd heard the guards' approach, a few feet away from here, admittedly, but very unreachable as far as she was concerned. Why did she have to forget about it when she'd made a run for her hiding place? The damned thing was a gift, to top it all, and Linda would probably kill her when she learned that Lois had lost it.

If it had looked like a strange birthday present when her roommate had offered it to her a mere year previously, it had certainly fulfilled its flashlight-role, and all in all, Lois had appreciated the gesture. She certainly would be using it now, if it wasn't for the fact that she'd been too agitated by the sticky situation she found herself in to think about the insignificant object.

Out there in that hole, it wouldn't be much of a help for her to be guided 'by the light of truth and justice', like the inscription engraved on the barrel so proudly proclaimed. Lois shook her head, stifling another low whine as she remembered that Linda had had the *wonderful* idea to include both their names in the dedication. Wonderful indeed. Now, not only would the security guards find a stupid *flashlight* in an area where it wasn't supposed to be, but they'd also have the answer as to its owner given to them on a silver platter.

On a steel barrel, she could almost hear Linda's voice correct her lack of accuracy.

As if it mattered, now!

Another quick check told her that the voices were drifting away, and she mentally crossed her fingers. If they did find the flashlight tonight, she was a dead woman, and probably sooner than she'd have expected. Only it wouldn't be Linda who'd finish her off, but Trask, once he learned that the missing link in his plan was sneaking into his business and digging a little too close to the truth for his taste.

She knew she was close to uncovering the man's illegal activities, and possibly his guilt in at least two murder cases. Even if he seemed to benefit from the Kansas federal government's endorsement so far, she was pretty sure that the situation could be changed to a point where only Trask's demise would look less worrying to them than a major scandal, where it would get pointed out that the military organisation directed by Trask was endorsed by the country's official authorities. But that would happen only if she gathered enough evidence to prove that the environmental operation going on here didn't have anything to do with pesticides.

Her strange discovery of the green glowing rock was confusing matters even further, though. Whatever that was, it didn't look like anything she'd ever seen, yet the possibility that the workers were in fact searching for it wasn't that farfetched. If it was a precious mineral, maybe it could explain the military supervision and the precautions taken…but it didn't excuse the lack of information. They could be ripping the farmers from a precious source of wealth and covering their deeds with a pseudo-environmental operation. After all, no-one had sought out permission from the owners of the land.

Clark Kent.

Did he know anything about this that he wasn't letting on about? Somehow, she felt like there was something he was hiding, something that Wayne Irig seemed to be aware of as well, and that was related to the environmental operation. And whatever that was, she would dig it up to bring out the truth. That was what she was here for, after all.

Dinner at the Irigs hadn't taught her more than she already knew. What was going on around the Kent farm seemed to be a touchy subject, and the glances that Wayne and Clark had exchanged throughout the discussion had confirmed her intuition that they were indeed worried by something. Why they wouldn't let her in on it, she didn't know.

/Maybe the fact they barely know you?/ a little voice inside her head enquired annoyingly.

Okay, so she *did* know why, she conceded reluctantly. But still, they should have figured out by now that she was harmless…not that it was a word she liked being associated with her, but the point was, Wayne and Clark had certainly realised she wasn't on the side of the people who'd triggered the environmental cleanup. Their overboard caution whenever the topic was broached made her suspicious that they were hiding something from everyone else.

Apart from Elisa's strong opinion that any search for pesticides wasn't useful at all, nothing remotely interesting had been said on the subject. Even when Lois had carefully mentioned the possibility that the whole environmental operation might be a hoax, she'd only got mild head-shaking in reply…and a squirming on Clark's part, even if she was sure he'd wanted to hide his discomfort from everyone. So, once again, she had to rely on her intuition to investigate, since these farmers were apparently unwilling to help her.

Tired of staying immobile, Lois let her sense of touch guide her as she groped for the wall on her left. It was cold and solid, but it wasn't a partition like she'd expected it to be. Fumbling a bit more, her fingers wrapped themselves around the neck of a bottle, and she easily deduced that the place she'd entered was probably some kind of wine cellar.

Great. Just what she needed to pass the time until it was safe again to sneak her nose outside, she snorted. And if she couldn't escape the guards' attention, getting tipsy might be helpful when they found her and tried her for military treason or whatever they'd find to give her a death row sentence, it would make the ordeal more bearab -

What was she saying?

She would *not* give up right now! No situation was ever completely desperate, and there was always a way out. And here again, she *would* find a solution to escape without being seen. Right now, though, it was no use staying here and letting her mind wander into bleak thoughts — better to take advantage of her presence here to take a look around.

Taking a few tentative steps forward, she reached another door and carefully pushed it open, muttering a few chosen words when the next room offered only more darkness than the first one she'd explored.

Her right hand held her upright as she sunk deeper into the night enveloping the inside of the house, and she leaned against a wall to make sure she didn't get lost. When her fingers came in contact with some switch-shaped object, she let out a gasp of delight. *Finally* something was going right in her inves -


She caught herself in time before she put a definitive end to her young life by making a lethal mistake, which she'd probably have regretted for a long time. Or not so long, depending on what the guards outside would have done with her, had they seen a light inside the house.

She let out a curse against her stupidity as she continued to fumble her way along. If only she hadn't been distracted enough to leave her flashlight in the garden, she wouldn't be here, trying to peer through the thick darkness without much chance of finding anything other than cobwebs…

…and their inhabitants, she realised with a shudder. Spiders weren't her favourite kind of pets, and she sincerely hoped she wouldn't meet some of these in her explorations.

On the other hand, being here was a chance to snoop around and satisfy her curiosity regarding Clark Kent's obviously uncomfortable reaction when she'd asked him about his attachment to Smallville. His evasive response had aroused her interest, and the attention with which the Kent land was being searched convinced her that she might well find some of the answers to the questions that had brought her here to this house. However, she kind of needed her eyes to put her plan into execution.

Her gaze swept around the room, the darkness making her feel like she was enclosed in cotton wool and leaving her with a dizzy sensation of claustrophobia. She still managed to determine that the space around where she was moving might be large enough for her confidence to be strengthened. As a result, her steps became more assured, until her upper thigh knocked against a solid and pointed obstacle, the collision sending a sharp pain up her hip. Her mouth formed a silent 'ow' as she inwardly cursed against the piece of furniture whose corner had decided to get in her way, and she circled it, limping a little until the soreness in her leg subsided.

After a very slow progress where her vision gradually got used to the intense night reigning inside the house, she started to vaguely make out shapes, the moonlight sifting through the slits of the Venetian blinds providing an unpredicted but very welcome help.

She could finally distinguish the sheet-covered couch on her left side, and the sight made her shiver. Did Clark Kent even ever come here every now and then? Somehow, she'd expected the house to be more…lively, despite what its outward appearance predicted.

A drape of silence and immobility was enveloping the rooms, as if no-one had been in here for many years. The hammer of her racing heartbeat was the only sign of life around, and she wondered, not for the first time that night, what dreadful thing could have happened to the young man's parents to make it so painful for him to live in here. Her intuition was suggesting that Clark hadn't really ever been able to open up about this part of his life, preferring to bottle up his grief, locking it in this desolate and abandoned farmhouse.

Finding herself in these unfamiliar surroundings made her strangely aware of what his pain must have been like, and she let her senses take control again as she walked towards the shadow of a staircase. She needed to find out more about him and who he was, to understand what was driving this man to be so mysterious and…and so fascinating to her, she finally admitted.

She took hold of the railing and started on her climb, grimacing as the first of the old steps emitted a squeal of protest under the weight of her running shoes. She held her breath for an instant, but heard no noise coming from the outside. What had sounded so loud to her had probably gone amiss beyond the walls of the house — at least, she hoped so.

A shiver ran up her spine, and she wondered for the umpteenth time what she was doing here, and why she was doing it.

Her investigation.


No place nor moment to freak out because of some guards who were out there looking for the intruder she was and because of the…*deadly* atmosphere that had the power to scare the bejesus out of her, under normal circumstances.

Oh, God.

She was in an abandoned house that looked very inhabited somehow, yet wasn't, she couldn't see one inch ahead, and it would make a perfect setting for the shooting of a Wes Craven movie. It was good that she didn't believe in paranormal things like ghosts and banshees and…stuff.

She gulped, then took a big, calming breath, putting her fear at the back of her mind, to be dealt with at a later time. She continued her careful ascension, sighing in relief when she reached the top floor and set foot on the soft wool of a carpeted corridor.

She was once again plunged into complete blackness, and closed her eyes, too tired of straining against the night; she focused her entire concentration on touch. Her fingers finally groped for a metal handle, and a tentative, almost timid pressure opened a door on her left.

She slid herself inside the room, opening her eyes to find some soothing moonlight sieving through the blinds and making her inspection easier.

The grey light it provided gave the place a mixture of deathly quiet and menacing atmosphere, as if time had been suspended a long time ago and the outside world had no influence on the silence and dull, black and white shades reigning in the room.

Shaking off her continual feeling of discomfort, Lois concentrated on the furniture around her. A single bed was occupying most of the space, but there was a small desk leaning against a far wall that attracted her attention. It was cluttered as if its owner was still using it on a daily basis, and Lois allowed herself to rummage through the papers scattered there, bringing them close to the window to determine their interest.

Most of them were in fact a kid's drawings of various kinds, although many featured what looked like a colourful kite. The rest were school notebooks — probably Clark's when he was younger, she easily deduced. And no compromising document in sight. Nothing that seemed recent enough either.

She dropped the papers back onto the desk, looking around herself with a different view as she realised that she was probably snooping around Clark's bedroom. She approached a shelf on the other side of the window and reached for a small frame, bringing it close to her only source of light.

It was a picture of a young boy — maybe eight years old, not more — sitting between two adults. His parents, in all likelihood. They were looking at him as if he was the eighth marvel of the world, and there was only love reflecting in their gazes. Love, and happiness. Feelings that now looked like they'd remained stuck in a faraway time; the broad smile lighting Clark's face wasn't one he'd let her see, and she got the strong impression that the young man had left some of his taste for life here in this house, where it remained locked away from the rest of the world. Forever.

Guilt suddenly tugging at her conscience, she replaced the photograph where it belonged. Whatever was eating Clark inside it was none of her business, and her earlier suspicions were giving way to remorse as she became aware that her search of the house had only led her to dig into someone's private life without helping her with her investigation.

Her main reason for exploring the abandoned farm might not have been the story she was running after, but rather her own curiosity wherever Clark Kent was concerned. Ever since Elisa Irig had hinted at Clark's orphaned state, the image of the large, deserted house had been haunting Lois's mind. She'd wanted to find out what had happened to give such a bleak dimension to the abandoned building, and even though her nosiness hadn't explicitly satisfied her curiosity, it already made her feel like a voyeur to have entered this place.

There was nothing holding her back here, now; the security guards outside had certainly moved on and hopefully, they wouldn't be waiting for her when she got out, so she had no reason to stick around.

She turned towards the bedroom's door, ready to take the stairs and work her way through the living-room to the cellar, but the whisper of cloth brushing against the wall cut off all of her plans.

*Someone* was there.

A couple of feet ahead of her, blocking her path, she was sure.

And certainly very aware of her shape against the moonlit- blinds.

She held her breath, feeling all of her fears suddenly resurface and knowing she had absolutely no control over the situation. She shouldn't have been so optimistic as to think that the guards would be so stupid that they wouldn't realise she'd taken refuge inside the house.

She tensed and dug her teeth into her lower lip as she concentrated all of her thoughts to a means, *any* means, of escape. She doubted she'd be able to run to the door without being caught, and even if she did, she'd only tumble down the stairs and could end up with a broken leg. If she was lucky. No, the only solution was to attack them before they grabbed her, she decided, surreptitiously reaching her hand to the desk and groping for anything that might be of help.

Her fingers finally closed around what felt like a…pencil, maybe? She was running out of time anyway, and now wasn't the time to get picky.

Gathering what little courage she had left, she took a deep breath and spoke up in the direction of the noise she'd heard a few seconds earlier. "Who's there?" she blurted in a low, threatening voice, which she willed convincing enough. "I've got a…weapon!" she added firmly, for good measure.

Blood drained from her face when she perceived another movement ahead of her, and a human shape approached her slowly, without hesitation, until it was close enough for a familiar face to appear in the austere triangle of the glow sifting through the window behind her.

"Clark!" she exclaimed, her fingers relaxing their death- grip on the pencil she'd been holding in self-defence. "You can't sneak on people like that, you've got to…to give some kind of warning!"

He didn't answer her protest, but kept glaring at her instead, staying silent for a few more moments, and looking…

…not very friendly.

"What the *hell* do you think you're doing here?" he muttered through gritted teeth, his voice so low that she had a hard time catching his words.

"I —"

"You *what*?!" he spat out harshly, grabbing her forearm as if he was afraid she'd try to escape.

Which was a possibility she'd been considering, Lois admitted to herself grudgingly.

"I needed a place to hide. The security guards were coming and I didn't want them to find me within the restricted area. And I thought you were one of them and were here to catch me."

"Oh yeah? And don't you think they'd have a reason for keeping intruders out of the way?"

"I could say the same about you," Lois pointed out defensively, trying to struggle out of his grasp but realising he was incredibly strong and apparently not willing to let her go.

"Except *this*," she felt him wave his free hand around, "is *my* property," Clark sniped angrily. "*I* have a reason to be here. *I* have a *right* to be here."

"Well, if this is your home, maybe you should think of hiring domestic help," she sniped back sarcastically. "It's kinda dusty."

A charged silence ensued, and she searched for signs of a reaction on what she could make out of his face in the darkness. Nothing. Nothing was filtering from him. His expression was a mask that he wouldn't drop, and his grip on her arm tightened, making her grimace in pain.

She admitted that her nasty remark had gone too far; Clark's gaze was troubled, and the beads of light provided by the moon shed a suspicious glint in his eyes. She realised how unfair she'd been to him; mocking a place that visibly held so many memories for him, and where nothing seemed to have changed since it had been abandoned, had only been childish and certainly not reasonable.

But it had slipped out of her mouth, scathing words the only goal of which had been to hit where it hurt, and it had achieved its purpose perfectly. It was one of her habits to snipe such remarks when she felt weakened by an adversary. It was a simple defence mechanism that she frequently used against anyone who tried to annoy her, or put her in a vulnerable position.

This time, though, she'd crossed the boundaries to step into pure meanness, especially since Clark had a right to be angry with her in the first place. She'd trespassed into his property and snooped around his stuff without any respect for his privacy. Sure, reporters weren't supposed to have any scruple about doing that, but this time, she had no real justification for it, except her extreme curiosity towards this man.

She opened her mouth to voice the beginning of an apology, but he pre-empted her attempt at talking.

"Get out of here," he whispered intensely, shaking his head, and keeping a tight hold onto her arm, in contradiction to his words. "Get the hell out of here!" he yelled when she remained still.

She glared at him, refusing to give in to the violence of his words, and wrestled in his grip. No man had ever dared to treat her this way, and she wouldn't let him win. Even if she had been wrong to enter his farmhouse in the first place, it was no reason to let him manhandle her in such a callous way.

Boy, but was he strong — her struggle was almost bruising, and she grunted in frustration. "Let go of me!" she demanded, and was met with stony silence again. "You're hurting me!" she finally whined, gasping in relief when he released her as quickly as he'd seized her arm.

Her hand reached for the sore muscle, and she rubbed her arm, relieved when the pain quickly subsided. She looked up at Clark and was taken aback by the raw terror she perceived in his eyes. His gaze descended to where he'd been gripping her, and he looked extremely concentrated for a few seconds during which she didn't dare make any move. Then, as quickly as he'd sneaked up on her, he turned around and she heard his hurried retreat down the stairs, his presence vanishing into thin air, the phenomenon too fast for her to react, and leaving her limp and unable to think.


He'd hurt her.

He'd used his physical strength to hurt her, and if she hadn't told him she was in pain, he would have kept squeezing her arm, unaware of the consequences. The disturbing sound of cracking bones made itself heard in his mind, and he shuddered as he contemplated what had been avoided by the skin of his teeth.

He closed his eyes as he found himself outside, breathing in the night's pure scents, noticing that nothing in the air was marking a change. And yet, everything was so different, now. His abilities, instead of being used to help, had caused pain, and even though a quick X-ray check had informed him that there was no serious wound, it couldn't excuse what was an irreparable mistake.

How could he ever look her in the eye after what he'd done? How could he ever look *himself* in the eye? The weight of his responsibility was too much to bear, and he couldn't face it.

He'd been angry, so angry that a woman he barely knew had thought she could snoop around what was his home. His memories. His life.

A shudder ran through him as the fleeting image of the farmhouse's darkened rooms came back to him. The paradox between their present bleakness and the cosy atmosphere of days that had long since disappeared had hit him full blast upon seeing the sheet-covered furniture in the living room.

He had been concentrating on the woman upstairs and hadn't paid much attention to what his subconscious mind was recording as he passed by the old fireplace and the dusty kitchen counter. But the pictures it had triggered were flooding him now that his anger was spent; all of a sudden, a dozen scenes from his childhood had come back to him in the shape of a lively and painful dream where he travelled through the too short years he'd spent with his parents.

Christmas. He helping his Dad to carry the freshly cut tree back to the house. Mom bringing the large box containing all the decorations and letting him place the star on the very top of what he considered a real work of art. Then the next morning, his folks' smile when he darted downstairs to discover, eager and excited, the bright wrapping paper and knotted bows lying at the foot of the tree.

Or it was a normal, ordinary day. One where he would come back from school and spend the evening sitting on the porch, breathing in the familiar Kansas air and waiting for his father to come back from the fields before they all settled around to eat some of his mother's heart-warming cooking.

But the worst had come from walking into his bedroom and watching Julia Lewis standing there, probing into what was dearest to him. His books. His photographs. His drawings.

Everything that had ever mattered to him since his parents had died.

His rage upon seeing her touch his precious belongings had been stronger than any reasonable reaction, and he'd immediately wanted to drag her out of his parents' farmhouse, heedless of the means he'd have to use to convince her.

He'd thought she would understand, that she'd realise how much pain there was for him to see her lack of respect towards what was left of his parents' presence, and yet she'd reacted just as strongly as he had, and things had got carried away, until he'd reached the point of no return.

He'd completely lost control when she'd spoken so sarcastically to him, and being as strong as he was, ignoring realities he couldn't allow himself to forget for a mere moment could have dreadful consequences.

Just like it had happened tonight.

Sure, Julia Lewis was driving him to the brink of madness. Her presence was making him lose touch on any sensibility, and she evoked primal, irrepressible instincts deep within him. Her gaze, her voice, her touch was setting him on fire, and the emotions she'd made appear in his heart were contradictory. Once he'd wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her until he could breathe no more, and now all he could think about was how much of a snoop she was, and how much it had hurt him to see her there, in his bedroom, sliding her inquisitive gaze and fingers over everything that had ever truly mattered to him.

And the dream-girl he'd encountered earlier that day was becoming a monster who would sell her soul to uncover his secrets. She'd betrayed his trust, swept aside his hopes, and destroyed his dreams. Under the sweetest of exteriors, she'd managed to wreck havoc on his life within a few hours, and she probably wasn't even aware of it…

…unless she wasn't as innocent as she claimed to be.

The thought made him sick to the core, but he had to contemplate the possibility. Julia had been so dismissive of her motives for settling in Smallville, and now, her wary reactions whenever the topic shifted onto her sudden presence in the county made him suspicious of her real reasons for being here.

He had noticed how interested she'd been in the whole environmental mission thing, to a point that had made him uncomfortable. She'd behaved as if she knew a lot more about this than she was letting on, and at moments, it had seemed as if she was trying to pry more information from them.

Could she be a spy for the military force who'd invaded Smallville over the past few weeks? Was she looking for something when she'd been crouching in the back yard of his parents' farm, digging the soil where it had been excavated by the workers earlier that day? And what about the house in itself? What interest could it have for her?

Wayne's caution came back to him, and he shuddered as he imagined Julia Lewis having been sent to check on a guy who might actually be an alien from outer space, for all the government knew. Or wasn't supposed to know, but knew anyway, he corrected himself despondently. The disappearance of his spaceship, the existence of which he hadn't even been aware of until tonight, was casting more trouble onto him, and he couldn't help but think that Julia's presence on his land was related to the so-called environmental mission, whose goal was probably not to look for *pesticides*, after all.

He would have to find out, to know what her exact motives were and what was her goal, and he'd have to figure it out fast, before it was too late and his secret was revealed to the world.

That thought firmly planted in his mind, he threw a last look over his shoulder, spotting Julia slowly walk down the stairs and making her way to the back door, and he hurried back to the Irig farmhouse before she could catch up with him.


Lois didn't think she'd ever felt so numb in her life. She stood there, her improvised weapon still poised to defend herself against her attacker, immobile for several minutes after he'd left. She'd heard his steps move away down the stairs and even the closing of the cellar door behind him, but it hadn't really registered.

All she could think about was the look of pure fury that had been devouring his face, as well as the hatred she'd perceived in his voice when he'd demanded she leave his property. She'd been angry with him at first, because she hated being given orders, and even more when they were yelled at her; her automatic reaction when faced with such a situation was to yell back, possibly louder.

But it was different now. *Clark* was different. He had a pretty good reason to be mad at her, and she imagined that she'd only seen the tip of the iceberg when it came to his life story. His parents' death was still weighing on his shoulders, even after all these years — she didn't know when it had happened, but the farm's state of abandon, as well as what she'd found in his bedroom, made it close to a certainty that Clark Kent had spent his teenage years alone.

And now, left alone at the scene of their fight, she realised the impact of her actions on him. She'd betrayed his trust before having even earned it. His anger had been well deserved, and she couldn't blame him for considering her as the lowest form of life on earth. It was a bit late for her to become aware of how much she'd hurt him by rummaging through his past behind his back, and for the first time since she'd decided to take up a journalism career, she didn't manage to use her habitual excuse of doing a job where exposing the truth was more important than respecting someone's privacy.

Life hadn't been fair on Clark Kent, and he probably had more painful memories than sweet ones. His existence might even be a collection of ordeals and regrets, for all she knew, and yet she thought she could allow herself to snoop around the dearest thing he had, without any consideration for him.

Why had he left the farm in this state? Why wasn't he living there, exploiting his father's fields and making a living out of it? Maybe he didn't want to be farmer, though. She shook her head, realising that this was just one more thing she didn't know about him. She had no idea who he really was, after all; her fascination with him didn't make any sense, and she should be getting on with her life — and her investigation — instead of running after the past of a man who'd buried his memories in the depths of his soul.

She couldn't stay here in his old bedroom. He was right: she had to get out of this place and make amends for her mistakes.

Dropping the pencil back where it belonged, she felt her way back to the corridor and stepped carefully onto the stairs. The return journey proved to be harder than the climb up, and she held tightly onto the wooden guardrail, hoping dearly that the years of abandon hadn't challenged its solidity.

Finally, after a cautious descent made one step at a time, she reached the bottom of the stairs and finished her walk back to the wine cellar as fast as she could. She hoped that Clark was still around the farm. She needed to talk to him, let him know that she hadn't done what she had to hurt him, and maybe even to apologise.

She shuddered. Lois Lane hated apologising. To anyone. But this time she didn't have a whole lot of choice, and she didn't want to go back to Metropolis with any remorse.

However, when she finally reached the back yard and glanced around to make sure that no annoying security guard was in sight, she had to notice that Clark had left. She whispered his name, not daring to say it out loud, as much for any onlooker's benefit as for the guilt she felt, but it was lost to the wind.

Sighing despondently but forced to accept the truth of his departure, she hit the road back to her motel, determined to take advantage of her walk to calm down and think about the consequences of her restlessness.


"What were you doing, Clark, I was waiting for you!" Lana protested in a whiny tone as Clark came back to the Irig farm a few minutes later. "The guys had to leave because Rach didn't want to arrive home too late, and since she was the one driving, they couldn't hang around any longer," she explained as if to a little child, scowling at him with that look of irritation that had the power to irk him so much.

"Sorry," he mumbled half-heartedly, thrusting his hands into his jeans pockets and trotting up the few steps to the porch where Elisa and Wayne were enjoying the quiet evening breeze.

Lana didn't have any idea about what had happened, and it was unfair to blame her for Julia's nosiness. She was, after all, the complete antithesis of the new girl in town. Julia was a brunette and came from the big city; she seemed to concentrate on what was essential to her life rather than stoop to letting herself brood on superficial matters. Lana, on the other hand, was a tall blond woman who had a generous heart but also cared for appearances, maybe more than Clark would have wished. But she was also sweet and considerate, and he generally enjoyed her company.


There was something about her presence tonight that disturbed him. Maybe it was what had almost happened in the stables, the near-kiss with Julia, which she'd interrupted in the nick of time. He should be grateful to her for having saved their relationship, but he wasn't. If Lana had waited a couple of seconds more to storm into the shed, Clark knew he'd have kissed Julia. There had been something in the air around them, something about her eyes — maybe that twinkle of bravado that couldn't be challenged — that inexorably appealed to him, tugging him to her despite his best intentions.

Even now, after what she'd done to him, betraying his trust and trespassing in his parents' home, he still longed for the feel of her lips brushing on his, fantasising about it and imagining the emotions triggered by the blissful experience. He didn't understand his attraction — because it was nothing more than an attraction, he was sure.

It was there, like a lurching pain reappearing whenever she haunted his mind.

Every second of every minute since he'd first seen her.

His fascination with that woman was bordering on obsession. Every time he closed his eyes, her face came floating up from the recesses of his mind, ripping his soul apart and letting a cascade of emotions pour through his heart. When he looked up at Lana he almost expected to see Julia staring at him, opening a world of love for him.


Why was he associating Julia and love in the same sentence? It wasn't reasonable! It wasn't true!

It wasn't allowed.

He had no reason to be so impressed by a bitchy, immature girl who rolled over anything that got in her way and didn't respect anything. He had no reason to see her face everywhere he looked, perceive the spark of intelligence in her gaze, let the whisper of sensuality radiate from her skin and envelop him. She was transporting him to sensations he hadn't ever known, and the fact that he wanted to hate her didn't change anything he felt.

He ought to be feeling guilty for the wild run of his mind, he thought as he watched Lana hug the Irigs goodnight. He should forget that woman, erase her from his memory and get on with his life. He already didn't remember her name, he decided. Nor the pale, nearly alabaster skin of her arms. Nor the dark pink shade of her lips. Nor her mischievous grin when she was teasing him.

He sighed. This was getting him nowhere, and he should be concentrating on Lana's irritation instead of letting his mind wander to impossible fantasies. After all, Lana was perfect for him. Well, sort of. He didn't have much to complain about, and anyway, perfection was overrated. She was beautiful, delicate, sophisticated, maybe too much so. She had a strong personality and knew what she wanted in life, without being too pig-headed. She didn't always want to listen to him, and the topic of his abilities had become some sort of unspoken taboo between them, but she took life as it came and took pleasure in the sweet nothings of adolescent love.

With Lana, everything could be summarised in a carefree existence, where petty concerns of life were pushed to the back of one's mind, probably never to be dealt with. She didn't make things simpler than they were, but she ignored the problems until they caught up with her.

"Clark! Anybody there? Clark!"

He started as Lana waved her hand in front of him and brought him back to their surroundings. He frowned, wondering how long he'd been lost in his thoughts, and after he'd taken his leave of Wayne and Elisa, he requested the keys to his girlfriend's car.

"Are you sure you're in any condition to drive?" Lana asked with a doubtful frown.

"Sure! Why? I haven't drunk anything." And alcohol didn't seem to have much of an effect on him anyway, he mentally added, though reluctant to voice what he knew was part of a legacy he wasn't sure he willingly accepted.

"But you just spent the past ten minutes standing there, staring into space as if the rest of the world had entirely disappeared."

"I was just…thinking."

"So I see." She raised her eyebrows in a fashion that told him she was exasperated with him and wouldn't leave him alone until he gave her an explanation for his attitude. Still, she handed him the keys without offering too much resistance. He knew that her calm acceptance wouldn't last more than a few minutes though and that, once alone with him, she'd bombard him with her theories about his suddenly sombre behaviour.

And just as he expected, better than clockwork, he hadn't started the engine before she was turning towards him and throwing him a glare that told him more than enough about her annoyance. He ignored it, concentrating on the narrow road as he manoeuvred the car back to the main road.

What could he tell her, anyway? He was resolute not to share with her what Wayne had revealed about his possible origins; first, because he wasn't ready to talk about it with anyone until he'd processed the new piece of information himself, and second, because having a discussion with Lana about his abilities and what might be the beginning of an explanation for them was useless. She didn't want to hear about it, and he respected and even understood her reluctance.

She'd probably also want to give him a very deserved lecture on what she'd seen in the stables, and for which he didn't have any valid justification. He was too confused to talk about it, and if he needed to confide his thoughts about Julia, Lana certainly wouldn't be the right person to hear what he had to say on the matter.

And yet…

Yet she had every right to demand an explanation. She'd caught him practically cheating on her, and he felt terribly guilty that he might have hurt her even more than she'd let him in on. True, she'd shown a bit of a temper during dinner, and knowing Lana, she'd probably revelled in ruining the friendly atmosphere. Not because she was a mean person, but because she needed revenge against Julia Lewis and himself, and it had been the most disconcerting thing she could have done without making a scene in front of their friends.

He'd got the message pretty well, and knew he'd have to have a serious, meaningful talk about it with her. However, it didn't tell him what he should say. And this was precisely the heart of the problem, he realised with a jolt of despondency: he was always acting according to what his mind told him was best, and until today, he'd never let his emotions guide him. His life was a succession of decisions he'd been supposed to take, because it was what was expected of him, and not because it was right.

Or at least, it had been until Julia had appeared and turned him upside down. In the space of a few hours, he'd managed to almost kiss her even though he didn't know her at all, and hurt her in a moment of pure, unrestrained anger. Never had he run so high on emotion around a woman, and the new sensation was frightening and incredibly elating at the same time.

And he was afraid of what she was provoking in him, he realised with a small sigh. Whether it was passion or fury didn't matter, because his heart was constantly wavering back and forth between the conflicting feelings.

How could he explain to Lana that what she'd seen in the barn wasn't what she thought it was, when it was *precisely* what she thought it was?

And yet, a part of him wanted to spare her as much as himself, to remain in the safe haven of a committed relationship whose every term he knew by heart. What good would it do to tell his girlfriend that yes indeed, he would have kissed Julia Lewis if she hadn't barged in and interrupted them? What good would it do, apart from imprinting a scar on his friend's heart and leaving himself unfulfilled? It wasn't as if he could count on a relationship with Julia, anyway — not after what she'd done to him. Not ever.

His heart clenched despite his best will as he watched the hypothetical image of the city girl and himself as a couple vanish from his mind, and he realised his decision wasn't as irrevocable as he'd wished it to be. Whatever she'd done to him, she was still a part of him, now, and would be for as long as he lived. Whether he shoved her away or not didn't change that painful truth.

"Okay, is this where I ask you what's wrong?" Lana lashed out angrily when he made no effort to talk.

He sighed irritably, focusing on the road ahead as far as the headlights allowed him to and ignoring his girlfriend's question. How could he make her understand that talking *now* would only make things worse than they already were?

"Talk to me, Clark," she tried again after a few seconds. "Why are you shutting me off every time something doesn't go the way you want? I can't help you if you don't tell me what's bothering you."

"Not important," he replied through gritted teeth, aware that he wasn't fooling her any.

"Yeah. Sure. It has so little importance that you and Wayne sneaked out of dinner as soon as you could and we didn't see you come back until we had to leave."

"I just needed to be alone," he offered lamely, avoiding her inquisitive gaze.

"Alone? Alone like you were this afternoon?"


But she raised her hand, interrupting him. "Don't bother. You told me you needed to get back to the farm to repair Wayne's barn, fine! But then I find you with that…that…woman!"

Clark sighed. He knew this would come, but he had hoped she would wait until he'd brought some order into his thoughts. However, he should have known that Lana wouldn't care about giving him time. "I *did* repair the barn," he defended himself weakly.

"Yeah. And you went for a walk to the pond, then introduced that girl to your mare."

"Well, yes! That's what happened! I didn't know she'd be here when I left you in town, Lana. I had no idea she even existed!"

"Seems you made up for your ignorance pretty quickly, huh?" she muttered in reply. "You two looked like you were…*close*."

"Now is not the time to make a scene —"

"*I* am not making a scene, Clark!" she exploded, cutting him off in a refusal to hear his reasonable and calming words. "You're behaving like a kid with me, you never want to talk about our relationship and why we're *not* moving forward. *You* don't even want me to mention it!"

She did have a point, Clark had to admit. And she was right, he needed to stop closing his eyes on the reality of their relationship. But he was always reluctant to talk about it because he knew he couldn't give her a sensible reason why they shouldn't take the next step.

"*Five* years, Clark," she went on, oblivious to his sigh. "Five years and it's still too soon! You know, someday you're gonna have to stop looking at your past and start dealing with your future! Your childhood is *behind* you now, and I thought that growing up involved something more than a couple of kisses where couples are concerned. I'm just tired of waiting for you…" she finished, turning her head away from him and staring out the passenger window.

Lana felt a slight awkwardness at having voiced what had been on her mind for the past few months. She'd tried to shut down her concerns and live her relationship with Clark one day at a time, without thinking of any possible future they might have together, but seeing him with Julia earlier that day had thrown off her hopes. The desire she'd spotted in his eyes when he was looking at the city girl had never been exchanged between them.

They'd been a couple for the past five years, and they'd had more than one occasion to jump forward and go further than their too chaste, almost friendly kisses. Every time she tried to push them a little further, Clark broke off and found any excuse to leave. He didn't even realise how humiliating it was for her to perceive his lack of desire for her. She'd often asked him if he found her attractive, and he'd managed to reassure her convincingly enough. Until today.

As soon as they found themselves in a situation that could lead to sex, he backed off, telling her he wasn't ready yet. And as years went by, she ended up wondering if he would *ever* feel ready. They weren't kids any more, and she'd have thought that five years of involvement in a serious relationship would be more than enough foreplay.

This was getting ridiculous; when she looked at couples formed by people their own age she saw them move in together and even start planning their weddings, whereas she and Clark were at a virtual standstill. They'd been there for a while now and sometimes she even wondered if they weren't going backwards. Ever since their fight last year, which had resulted in a short but nonetheless meaningful break in their relationship, Clark had become even more skittish about intimacy.

"I…I don't know what to say," he murmured.

"I'm not asking for apologies, Clark! I don't want to hear how sorry you are! What I want to hear is whether you want *us* to work or not. If that's not the case and the first pretty face that comes along distracts you from our relationship, then…" She trailed off, unable to bring herself to finish her thought. She didn't want to lose Clark, and yet it was happening, little by little. Julia's arrival had only accelerated a process already well engaged.

Clark kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead, concentrating on the beam of the car's headlights as they challenged the darkness of the night. Something was preventing him from glancing towards the passenger seat. All of Lana's arguments were extremely justified, and despite his sincerity, he had to admit that things looked pretty muddled from her point of view. But he also knew that he had his reasons for waiting before taking the final step with her — the confusion thrown into his mind by his encounter with Julia only confirmed the rightness of his indecision.

"It's that girl," Lana murmured, running a hand through her loosened hair. "I just *know* it's her."

"It has *nothing* to do with her!" Clark protested forcefully, refusing to acknowledge the small part of his conscience that argued this was a half-lie.

All right, but it didn't have *everything* to do with her, he bickered. The state of his relationship with Lana didn't have anything to do with her; it was just the matter of his girlfriend pressuring him into something he wasn't ready for. And the more she pushed him, the more scared he became.

"You're falling for her."

"Don't be ridiculous!"

/You are!/ a voice in his head argued challengingly. He promptly told it to shut up and leave him alone.

"Clark, I know you. We've been hanging out together for as long as I can remember, and tonight, I've seen you look at her like I've always wished you'd look at me."

"I don't trust her," he replied, ignoring the pang of guilt that hit him when he realised that Lana was only voicing the truth. He heard her heave a half-hearted sigh of relief, but he couldn't share it; his real feelings were too confused.

"You did seem to trust her enough to be close to her earlier," she spoke up again a few seconds later, disabusing him on what he'd thought was a break in her jealousy crisis.


"I know! It had nothing to do with her."


Lana shut herself into silence for a few minutes, trying to relax as she processed the possible meaning of Clark's reactions. He wasn't behaving as usual, but his relentlessness when it came to the topic of Julia's role in the decay of their relationship was making her conviction waver. Maybe Clark was telling the truth and the young brunette wasn't responsible for the awkwardness settling between them tonight. It had been going on for some time, anyway, and what she'd interrupted in the stables had only been the trigger for more concerns.

But it didn't explain the sombreness of his attitude; it had started after dinner, she remembered, and had been particularly noticeable after he'd come back from his long walk with Wayne. Clark was right at least on the fact that Julia Lewis couldn't have much to do with this.

"Was it something I said?" she finally enquired, probing for the truth again. "Did I upset you? After all, *I* should be the one brooding, you know?"

"No, Lana, it's not about you. It's just me, I'm just…just tired. And worried. I don't like these government guys digging into my father's fields."

"Oh." Lana grimaced, suddenly feeling self-conscious. Clark never talked about his parents; he never even mentioned them, preferring to keep his emotions to himself when the painful memories of his folks were resurfacing.

He'd always been reserved about that particular part of his life, never letting her in on his sorrow. She wasn't comfortable with the topic herself, and she hadn't exactly made an effort to encourage him to talk about it. She had never been very good at comforting him, although she'd done her best to play the confidant when he seemed to be needing it. But what could she say to soothe the pain of a man who didn't have his parents to give him roots he visibly needed, and whose abilities were scaring her as much, if not more, than they did him?

"I don't see why they'd touch the house," she ventured awkwardly after another charged silence. "They have no reason to."

Clark nodded half-heartedly, holding back the thought that had been haunting him that those government officials might not have been very honest as to the aim of their mission. Julia Lewis had voiced that same opinion during dinner, and although he hadn't felt confident enough to approve, he agreed with her. If she hadn't shown so much interest in the topic, to the point of making him suspicious of her motives, he might have been able to confide in her about his own concerns, but now, he didn't know what to make of her insistent questions and not so subtle obsession with what was going on on his parents' land.

He was trying not to give in to paranoia, but the secret of his unusual gifts made him cautious, and he believed in what Wayne had always warned him about: if what he could do ever got out, there was a major risk that he would be regarded as a freak. Wayne had never used the word, of course, but the basic meaning was the same, and it was to be avoided at all costs.

Until tonight, he'd thought that there was absolutely nothing in his folks' house to testify to his capabilities, but what Wayne had told him about the capsule buried at the back of the yard was worrying him. Even if his parents had never witnessed him using any of his gifts, nor suspected that he would develop them, they'd known about the strange circumstances surrounding his arrival in their life, and had taken them seriously enough to hide what could be considered as U.F.O. To protect him.

What if they had put down this aspect of their lives in writing? A diary? A journal? He had no way of telling. It couldn't have been easy to wonder where their son had come from, and to know that no-one would ever be able to give them answers to the questions raised by this capsule and what it seemed to suggest.

He would have to make sure that no incriminating evidence of the uncertainty of his origins could be found in the house. But meanwhile, Julia Lewis was there, and he had no proof that she wasn't part of the governmental operation. Except maybe her age. But they could have hired someone like her to make him less cautious. Her obvious interest in the operation could confirm this theory, and he suddenly decided that he needed to check it out for himself.


Time was the essence when the search through his parents' fields was going so fast.

Taking an abrupt U-turn as the car was passing by the sign indicating the Smallville boundary, he set off in the direction of the Paradisio Motel, heedless of Lana's squeal of protest when their vehicle swerved dangerously.

"You're going the wrong way!" she exclaimed once she'd settled again in her seat. "And one more thing: you're not Mario Andretti!"

"I need to see something."

Lana raised her eyebrows in interrogation, and he knew he had to explain to her what he was planning to do if he wanted her to help.


She tensed, and he perceived a bit of hostility in her voice. "Julia? What's with her, again? Don't you think we should put the topic to rest now? Unless there's something else you want to tell me about her and your relat —"

"For the tenth time, Lana, Julia and I don't have a relationship! And considering what I now know about her, there's no way it could ever happen."

"Oh, really?"

"She's not what she seems."

"You think that's a scoop to me?"

He frowned at her in surprise. Did she know something about Julia that he wasn't aware of? "How do you mean?"

She threw him a glance from the corner of her eye, her fingers playing nervously with an errant strand of her hair. "Nothing. Just that I don't like her."

"I gathered that much," he muttered dryly. "If it helps, I do think there's something…not right about her, too," he added when she scowled at him, ignoring the immediate discomfort invading him upon voicing his concern. It almost seemed like a betrayal of Julia, and yet, deep down, he knew he had no reason to trust her after what she'd done.

"Go on," Lana instructed, looking suddenly more interested.

"I was near my folks' farm, tonight," Clark continued, putting the unexpected guilt to the back of his mind, "and she was there. I saw her in the garden, first, and then a few minutes later she was *in* the house."

"What was she doing there?"

"That's what I want to know."

"And you left her there?"

"No, I confronted her about it. She was snooping around my bedroom, looking at my personal stuff, and I just couldn't let her do that."

"Your bedroom?" She held up her hand, stopping his explanation. "Hang on a minute, how did you know she was there?"

"Well, I…uh…"

"You…?" she prompted impatiently, but he understood that she'd already guessed how he'd come to discover Julia wandering around his parents' farmhouse.

He pointed a finger at his eyes. "Looked through the wall," he muttered, lifting his gaze heavenwards when he heard her sigh.

"Look, Clark, I know we already talked about this, but you can't use this…this *thing*."

"There's no reason why I couldn't use my special vision, considering no-one was around, and anyway, how could it be detected?"

"You don't know anything about that," she replied quietly, although she didn't fool Clark with her fake calm. "For all you know, someone could invent a special technique to make X-rays or whatever it is that you're using *visible*."

"I'm not in the mood to discuss that," he said firmly, taking another turn and pulling the car into the motel's parking lot.

"Not in the mood," Lana muttered, repeating Clark's words with an exasperated shake of her head. "And what are we doing here now? A motel, Clark? Somehow, I'd have thought you'd have wanted something slightly more romantic for our first time."

He grunted his disapproval at her salacious hint and decided to ignore its hidden meaning. "She's still there."


"I couldn't drag her out," he explained defensively. "And it gives us enough time to see exactly what she has to hide. I don't know what she's here for but I get the feeling it has nothing to do with what she told us," Clark said tersely.

"You mean she fed us lies?"

"Could be."

"You still haven't told me why we're here." Lana argued, impatience reappearing in her tone.

"It's her motel."

"Her mot — Clark, just because she's snooping around your old farm, you want to do the same to her?"

"*Just* because? Lana, this is *my* life we're talking about! What game she's playing, I have no idea, but when I saw her, she was looking at some personal pictures of my folks and me, and I don't like that at all."

"Stop being paranoid. She simply has a crush on you," his girlfriend replied in a half-sigh, and he saw the inquisitive look she threw at him.

But he didn't want to think about that right now, let alone discuss it with Lana, and he ignored the hidden question in her words to concentrate on what was disturbing his peace. "She had no right to go there."

"And anyway, how are you going to get into her room? I suppose that's what you want to do, right?"

"Right. She must keep some documents in there. *If* she actually stays there, that is. As for how, well, I'll find a way when I get there," he finished with a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice.

"And meanwhile I just sit in the car and wait for you?" Lana retorted scornfully, clearly not approving his plan. "Because if that's all you think I'm good at —"

"Meanwhile," he interrupted her stubbornly, "you go try to convince Marty to tell us everything he knows about Julia Lewis."

Lana gaped, visibly taken aback. "Excuse me? *I* am supposed to go talk to that…that *lowest* form of life? And you want me to do it *willingly*, to top it all?"


"No, Clark! And that's a categorical no!"

"He could have some vital information."

"I am *not* talking to him! Not in this lifetime! And so…what?…you want me to flirt with him so that he's less reluctant to share what little he knows?"

Clark squirmed as he realised his arguments wouldn't have much value to Lana. And he couldn't blame her, but at the same time, while she was convincing Marty to give her the information, keep him distracted, he could break into Julia's room without having to fear being caught in the act. "Well," he hesitated. "Not *flirt*, no, but —"

"And why would you be doing the breaking and entering?" Lana continued, her voice heated. "Besides, unless you've forgotten, Clark, this is illegal!"

Clark only gritted his teeth in answer, feeling uncomfortable at a truth he'd tried to avoid. It was the only flaw in his plan, and anyway, he needed to know what the strange city girl was up to. If she knew anything about his origins, if she had anything to do with the disappearance of his capsule, then he needed to know and protect his loved ones before anything dreadful happened.

She was already searching through his farmhouse, and who knew what she'd found there? Who knew what kind of trouble she was after? He just couldn't take any chances, and finding every clue about her was the only way to figure out the extent of the danger she represented, he assumed.

"I thought you didn't want to stay in the car and wait for me," he finally grunted, feeling an uncomfortable sense of guilt hit him as Lana's jaw dropped and she glared at him. He hated being sarcastic with her, especially with the sole purpose of winning an argument, but this was too important, and he needed her help.

Lana rolled her eyes and let out an irritated breath, but held up her hands in surrender when she met his insistent and practically pleading gaze. "All right! Fine!" she gave in angrily. "I'll question Marty — but you'll owe me a lot on this one, because I really don't fancy that guy. And you'd better hurry because there are really better things to do than spending an evening investigating some girl who just dropped into our lives," she growled, slamming the door before Clark could reply.


Sometimes, Lana had a hard time understanding Clark. Strike that, she thought bitterly. Lately, she hadn't been able to get through to him at all, and if she went by the way things were turning out, it wouldn't improve any time soon.

But his behaviour tonight was really puzzling her. She'd known him upset before, but this time surpassed everything she'd ever seen; never had he looked so determined, and yet so insecure at the same time. This woman had turned his head upside down, that was for sure, and seeing her peeking into belongings that meant everything to him had made him completely lose his emotional balance.

She'd seen the gleam in his eyes when she'd stormed into the stables to find her boyfriend and this newcomer engrossed in each other. The heated gazes they'd been exchanging meant a lot more than the insignificant words coming out of their mouths. The way Clark had been looking at Julia was something she'd never seen before, but she'd recognised its meaning immediately, and her quick reaction was only a desperate attempt at reversing a process that was already well engaged.

Clark had seemed taken aback by the way she'd launched herself at him, and she now realised it hadn't been exactly subtle. Kind of like marking her territory. He hadn't confirmed her fears when she'd questioned him, but he hadn't denied any of her accusations either. He was attracted to Julia Lewis, even if he wouldn't say it out loud; maybe he wanted to spare her by hiding the truth from himself, but Lana already knew better than Clark did that what had almost happened in the stables meant a lot more than a fleeting moment of inattention on her boyfriend's part.

One thing she'd always known about Clark was that he wasn't a cheater, and he wouldn't be flirting with another woman if something serious wasn't going on. Her knowledge had always reassured her, but now, she almost wished that Clark was a womaniser, because it could hint at a passing flirtation. However, her boyfriend had never shown any real interest in other women, which made his attitude around the city girl even more worrying.

He was right when he claimed they knew nothing about Julia Lewis, though, and maybe his determination to find out more about her was justified. But it didn't make her any more enthusiastic about some kind of investigation in her motel room. Why couldn't it wait until morning? Why did Clark have to be so stubborn about it?

On the other hand, he had a point when he argued that this might be their only opportunity to find out more about Julia Lewis; he'd left her at the farmhouse, and considering she didn't have transport, it would be at least half an hour before she returned here to her motel, even if she went back to the Irig farmhouse and called a cab. Taxis weren't numerous in Smallville, and with a bit of luck, she'd have to wait, or even better, walk.

If they waited until morning, though, she could well consider herself in danger and clear off. It wouldn't be a bad thing in the sense that Clark would find himself out of her influence, but at the same time, Lana understood her boyfriend's determination to find out what had pushed the girl to be so curious about him. Maybe her closeness to him had only been born from a desire to earn his trust; maybe she'd expected him to confide in her about his abilities; maybe she already knew about those and would use them against him, or as a means to enrich herself by whatever means she could find…

Lana shook her head, clearing her mind of the unwelcome series of thoughts. She was getting as paranoid as Clark. After all, he wasn't using his gifts — at least not in public, and he understood the need for secrecy. Even Wayne agreed with her on that point, and Clark was clever enough to be aware of the danger if people ever found out about him.

Her knowledge wasn't enough to put her mind at rest, though, and she couldn't help but imagine the worst whenever he admitted guiltily that he had been using one of his weird abilities. He knew she didn't agree, he knew he shouldn't take such a big risk, and yet he seemed to forget about it whenever he thought she wasn't looking. She supposed she would be keen on testing such gifts if she had them, but she'd have enough common sense to realise that any display of them would lead scientific team to lock her in some lab and dissect her like a frog.

And she *didn't* want that to happen to Clark.

Oh, she knew what he thought of the issue. He was invulnerable, and no-one could ever keep him locked in some cell. But the fact that nothing had ever been able to hurt Clark didn't mean that the danger wasn't present, and she felt herself squirming every time he confessed to having used his abilities.

Besides, he had no idea how harmful they could be for the people around him, and she conceded that she had been afraid of them on a couple of occasions. She didn't want the darned things to raise a barrier between Clark and herself, and if her boyfriend started bending steel with his bare hands, how could she trust him to hold her in his arms without crushing her bones? How could she be entirely sure that he had complete control over his strength?

It wasn't that she didn't trust Clark, though, and it was true that he was probably the gentlest man she'd ever known. However, the memory of that day when he'd showed her his out-of-this-world abilities was still crystal-clear in her mind. She hadn't been able to believe her eyes when he'd burnt a hole in a piece of wood just by looking at it, and it had frightened her badly. What if someone was standing in the line of fire? They'd have been hit by a dart of heat, and yet the thought hadn't seemed to occur to Clark.

She'd never voiced the cause of her concerns to him, preferring to bottle them up and act as if the worrying capabilities didn't exist, and she'd made it clear to Clark that he couldn't use them. He could figure out for himself what it was that made her freak out whenever she found out he'd been using them, and she could try and live with a knowledge she'd rather ignore.

She shuddered, realising that his current plan certainly involved the use of his strength, or at least what he'd come to call his X-ray vision. And she hadn't even breathed a protest about the possibility before she'd left the car. Throwing a quick glance over her shoulder, she realised that Clark had already left the car and gone his way. Running after him and making recommendations wouldn't help much now, and she was better off out of his way when he was using his abilities, anyway.

But what was he expecting to find in Julia's motel room? Did he really think she'd keep compromising documents in a place where they could be found? As much as it irked Lana to admit it, Julia looked too clever to make such a careless mistake.

She still didn't like the idea of distracting Marty while Clark investigated; it might be useful to him, but she didn't have to find it pleasant. Marty was already too much of a leech without needing any extra encouragement. Her boyfriend would have to make it up to her if he wanted to fall back into a state of grace with her. She could eventually forgive his attitude once their lives settled back into their daily routine — in other words, when Julia Lewis disappeared from their scenery.

Although so far, that looked unlikely, since the girl pretended to be willing to settle in Smallville. With a bit of luck, though, the city girl would never get used to the country life, and she'd run back to Metropolis within a few weeks' time.

Keeping her annoyance in check, Lana pushed the screen door to the motel's lobby and got ready to face Marty's salacious grin and irritating innuendoes…

…and stopped short, her breath catching in her throat when she spotted the man lying on the tiled floor. A puddle of blood was spreading around his immobile form, swallowing the white tiles with its dark tentacles.

She held back a scream of horror as her mind immediately processed what was going on, and she turned away to run to the other side of the building and find Clark. She'd never needed his support so much as now, and she blanked out all other thoughts as she automatically put one foot in front of the other, only intent on her destination.

Clark would know what to do. He'd reassure her, and he'd take care of everything. Moreover, he'd show her that what she'd seen wasn't…what she thought it was. She didn't care if she was lying to herself — the only thing that mattered was to ensure that it was all a nightmare and the evening was still what it was supposed to be: a quiet, uneventful night out followed by a drive home. Tomorrow, she'd wake up and discover it had all been a dream, that there was no Julia Lewis, no motel, no dreadful discovery in the lobby.

Oh, God…

Intent on her run, she barely had time to see the arm grabbing her and the white cloth pressed to her nose. A soft whimper and panicked thought later, she was drifting into oblivion, unable to fight the sleep overcoming her limbs and making her eyelids flutter closed.


Clark rolled his eyes as Lana slammed the door and set off to cross the large gravelled esplanade spreading in front of the motel. She could be so stubborn sometimes, and yet he knew that she was right in her accusations, and that her insecurities were resurfacing because of his silly behaviour. What had got into him to get so close to that mysterious other woman without knowing anything about her? He usually wasn't the kind to fall for a pretty face and a sweet smile, and yet Julia had the power to make him weak in the knees with a simple look.

But it didn't matter any more, not when she could well be in cahoots with the government people who were excavating entire portions of soil in his parents' land, and who'd now taken possession of his capsule. Those guys might actually know more about himself than he did, and the thought made him dizzy with fear. Who knew what kind of use they'd make of their new knowledge? One truth was driving him: they visibly weren't around for the environmental operation they'd claimed to be organising. It would be too much of a coincidence, and now that he thought about it, he realised that none of their actions fitted in with the usual procedures.

Putting the disturbing thought to the back of his mind, he left the car and quickly circled the motel, using his X-ray vision to find any room that might look occupied. Tourists weren't frequent in Smallville, but there were still a couple of customers at the Paradisio — generally workers who stayed for a couple of weeks before moving onto their next job.

Strangely enough, none of the government guys had rented a room there; they had their own camp somewhere around the town, in another restricted area. After what Wayne had revealed tonight, though, maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea for him to search for it and take back what, after all, belonged to him in the first place.

Meanwhile, though, he needed to figure out if Julia Lewis was playing on their team, so to speak. She'd claimed to have booked a room at the Paradisio, but nothing to say she hadn't lied, even if she'd seemed aware of Marty's reputation. It didn't mean anything; she could well have heard about the guy and used her knowledge to make people less wary about her. He couldn't be sure of anything any more — like Lana said, she was turning his head upside down and he wasn't thinking straight when facing her. And he had to admit that his girlfriend was right at least on that point.

After a quick check to determine which bedrooms were currently occupied, Clark focused on the ones that looked empty of any customer, still careful to keep his peeking through the walls to the minimum, half-afraid of sneaking onto private scenes despite his initial precautions.

Fortunately, he quickly found the only room where personal belongings revealed that only a woman could be occupying it. After a last glance around him to be sure that no-one was observing him, he pushed the window open and climbed inside, noticing that something didn't look right.

Clothes were scattered all over the bed and on the floor, as if the contents of the luggage had been emptied in a rush. On the other side of the room, there was a small, square object that looked like a notepad, but when Clark bent down to take hold of it, he realised that several pages had been torn off, and the rest of the leaves were blank of any writing.

This wasn't right. Something had happened in this room to put it in this state of mess, and -

A barely audible whimper reached his ears and he froze into place, his blood turning cold as he immediately recognised the voice.


He held his breath, listening out for any other sound as he found himself unable to move his legs. All he could perceive was the dull roar of a diesel engine, and no more sign of life from his girlfriend.

Lana was in trouble, somewhere on the other side of the motel.

Dropping the pad and finally finding his strength again, he stumbled over the windowsill and ran as fast as he could, circling around the building in time to see a dark blue van disappear into the first sinuous miles of the road climbing up the hill overhanging the town. It was already too far for him to follow it; he was fast, but only on short distances, even if his ability to run had seemed to improve over the past year. It still wasn't enough for him to stop the vehicle that was taking his girlfriend away.

She was gone.

They'd taken her, and he hadn't been able to prevent it from happening.

Cursing against gifts that didn't even have the advantage of helping him in emergency situations, he watched the van's red lights fade into the night, feeling more impotent than ever.

For the second time in his life, he was too late in saving someone who mattered to him.


Clark's numbness didn't dissipate even after the ambulance drove off, its deafening siren screaming as it took a badly injured Marty Stevens to the small hospital on the other side of town. The discovery of the motel's manager lying unconscious on the floor had shocked him even more when he'd immediately linked it to Lana's kidnapping — because there was no doubt it was a kidnapping; the cloth he'd found in the parking lot had a strong smell of chloroform, confirming the evidence he already had that his girlfriend's departure hadn't been voluntary.

Who knew what would happen to her now that she was in the hands of those madmen who'd shot Marty! She was in great danger and he felt totally helpless; the van had taken the direction of the hill, but who knew where it could stop? For all he knew, it could be on its way to Wichita now, where dozens of similar vans were circulating every day. And he hadn't even had the presence of mind to zoom in on the licence plate!

As for the police, Sheriff Thorpe, when finally located at one of the seediest bars in town, hadn't wanted to hear anything about lending him his car. Clark had had to bite his lip not to tell the man that he was in better condition to drive than the policeman, but he knew that aggravating the man wouldn't help his case. Thorpe hated being disturbed during what he called his 'time off', and Clark was already lucky that the Sheriff had come to the motel at all. He knew from experience that demanding action from him was a risk; Thorpe was known for his short temper when things didn't go his way, and he could show bad will on a simple whim.

Fortunately, Clark had managed to convince Thorpe to call his men, and Richard Harris had taken charge as much as his position as the Sheriff's deputy had allowed him to. Alas, he didn't have the authority to launch an operation to follow the van that had taken Lana away from Smallville, but he could get things in gear faster. In his defence, Thorpe had probably never had to deal with a kidnapping — Smallville was a quiet community, where the major cases were fights between farmers over a piece of land, or the occasional drunken husband who had to be dragged back to his wife, although Thorpe was usually too busy filling his own glass to deal with anything of that kind.

And that knowledge didn't help in reassuring Clark about Lana's fate. Harris had promised him he'd do everything in his power to find her and bring her back alive and well, and there was nothing more he wished but to let himself be convinced that everything was fine.

He felt so guilty for dragging Lana to the Paradisio; she'd expressed her disapproval of his idea, but he hadn't wanted to listen, self-absorbed that he was. He'd been so intent on getting revenge against Julia Lewis — because Lana was right, it had been his major motivation for snooping around in her motel room, even if it could have brought in more information about the woman — that he hadn't wanted to pay attention to his girlfriend's opinion.

He supposed that he couldn't have known something would happen to her; the town was quiet and it was no problem for anyone to walk around at night — there was practically no risk of getting into trouble.

And he'd been just a few feet away! If he'd reacted faster, he might have been able to save her. But exactly like nine years before, he'd been frozen into place until it was too late. If he hadn't been so patronising with Lana about using his powers, he might have realised that they couldn't always help him to protect the people he cared for. They certainly hadn't been any good in saving his parents back then, and tonight, they'd failed him again.

Unable to stay idle any longer, Clark left the motel's lobby, where the smell of dried blood was teasing his nostrils and triggering renewed feelings of panic within him. What Lana's kidnappers had done to Marty did nothing to reassure him. The paramedics had claimed that Marty Stevens would pull through, but if Lana was hurt she wouldn't get any medical assistance until they found her.

They needed to concentrate their energies on finding her as soon as possible, and Harris's initiative in ordering the setting up of roadblocks around the county was their best chance.


He had to rely on chance to save Lana, when chance wasn't something that had ever been on his side throughout his entire existence. And with Thorpe's useless rambling slowing down the investigation, it didn't look likely to change right now.

The night's heavy air did little to soothe his spirits. The parking lot outside the motel didn't hold the usual calmness of a Kansas summer night; the red and blue lights of the Sheriff's car were blazing against the building's windows, and a yellow police line had been set around the lobby while Thorpe's men were gathering any clues that might have been left by the people who'd shot Marty.

And everything was reminding him that Lana was still missing.


She was fine.

She was lying in the back of a van, her back on the hard floor, and the discomfort of her position was increased by the bumps of whatever road they were taking. The vibrations of the engine were deafening in her ears, and her hands and feet were tied.

And she'd been kidnapped.

She had little recollection of what had happened. She remembered the drive from Wayne and Elisa's farmhouse, she remembered Clark's silence, she remembered his abrupt and firm decision to go to the Paradisio Motel, and his plan to enter Julia Lewis's bedroom while she was coaxing information from the manager. And then…everything was muddled.

And her head was throbbing, too. She grimaced and let out a whiny moan before opening her eyes carefully. She closed them tightly again immediately, instantly aware of her mistake as a soaring pain coursed through her, and the dizziness threatened to overcome her again. She took a deep breath and tried again, more slowly this time. Her sudden acute consciousness of her surroundings made her aware of the unpleasant smell around her. She wrinkled her nose in disgust, and tentatively moved, testing the tightness of her bonds.

A grunt beside her made her look up and she barely held back a shriek as a threatening visage bent over her, and the barrel of a rifle was pointed at her. She stared at the gun in raw terror, unable to steer her frightened eyes off it. She gritted her teeth to keep herself from shuddering, afraid that the tiniest of her moves would trigger a lethal shot.

Oh, God!

To think she'd always been intent on having the most normal of lives, that she just wished to be an ordinary woman… She wasn't the adventurous type at all — the sight of a hairy spider could scare her, so she really, *really* wasn't enjoying her current situation. It looked rather hopeless to her, and she wasn't in any position to negotiate with her kidnappers either — at least, it didn't seem likely that they'd accept any kind of deal.

Thinking rationally wasn't easy when a gun was pointed at you, Lana decided. She knew that Julia Lewis would only be trouble, and of course she'd been right. If Clark hadn't been so intent on snooping around her motel room as a means of revenge against her, she wouldn't be travelling in the back of a dirty van right now, with not many chances to pull through alive.

She loathed that woman for everything she was, and more than that even. If she hadn't appeared in their lives today, she'd be at home right now, enjoying a quiet night and already planning the rest of the weekend. She'd be trying on the new dress she'd bought in the morning.

And Clark would still be hers.

She sighed downheartedly. Life really wasn't going as planned, and she hated that. She hated the unexpected, she hated Julia Lewis, and she hated the back of this stupid van!

The vehicle stopped abruptly, the sudden pull of its brakes dragging her forward. She squealed a protest, pouting when it was utterly ignored by her captors, who seemed otherwise occupied. The man who'd threatened her earlier was holding himself near the back door, which was being opened by several people in military uniforms. Once again, guns were aimed at her, and she sat up, staring at them in silent disapproval and inwardly quite proud of her sudden courage.

It didn't seem to have any effect on the men standing in front of her, though, because they completely ignored her for while, until a short, strong military officer, who seemed to be the boss of everyone, according to the way he was addressing the others, came closer to her and undid the rope tying her ankles. This guy was her hero if he was freeing her…

…except she wasn't sure it was his intention. She'd barely had time to move her sore feet when he was grabbing her shoulder and unceremoniously tugging her towards the door of a wooden cabin, which she recognised as the old abandoned refuge hidden in the woods, close to the top of the hill sheltering Smallville. She knew the neighbourhood by heart, having spent her childhood playing around the forest, even though her mother had always forbidden her to go there. Right now, she was glad she'd ignored those warnings, although knowing where she was wasn't much of a help when she was ushered into the main room of the house and had no means to escape.

The men who'd taken part into her kidnapping had been waved away by their boss, whose grip on her hadn't lessened any, and she was now alone with him…or *almost* alone. Another man was sitting comfortably on a couch at the back of the room, and she gasped as she recognised him. He looked a bit different than on TV, but the resemblance was too obvious to be a coincidence.

Lloyd Tempus was in cahoots with the people who'd kidnapped her!

It was getting worse by the minute…if the Secretary of the Interior was involved, she assumed her kidnapping didn't have an ordinary reason, like the request of a ransom to her father — Tempus was known for his extreme wealth, so why would he ask the Langs for more money? And she could rack her brains all she could: if they planned on arresting her — and what for, anyway? — they wouldn't have used chloroform and rope. The other possible motives for her abduction were too scary to consider, and she simply refused to contemplate them. She wasn't a loser, and if she started thinking herself doomed, she didn't stand a chance.

"What's that?" Lloyd Tempus demanded, standing up from the sofa and approaching her carefully before glaring at the man who was holding her.

The guy seemed surprised at the Secretary's reaction, if she went by the instantaneous, upward move of his eyebrows. "Lois Lane," he replied with a shrug of his shoulders.

Tempus's frown, aimed alternatively at her and at her captor, was threatening to make her head spin, but the glint of anger appearing in his eyes was even more threatening. "*This*," he gestured at her, "is *Lois Lane*?"

"Yes," the other replied. "Isn't she?" he added, sudden worry creeping in his voice.

"Trask," Tempus said pensively, although Lana already felt the rage filter from his tone, "if this is Lois Lane, I'm Superman."

Trask blinked. "Super-who?"

"Never mind. But do you realise that you kidnapped the *wrong* woman?" he yelled, finally unable to contain his anger any longer. "This one is *blond*!"

"You didn't tell me I was supposed to bring back a brunette," Trask protested defensively. "Blonde, brunette, what does it matter, she could have dyed her hair for all you know! Don't expect me to remember every face of every woman I come across!"

"But wasn't it *obvious*? I said bring me Lois Lane, and you bring me…*this*! Who are you, anyway?" he enquired, focusing his attention on Lana.


"*Who* are you?" he demanded portentously when she hesitated. "You have a name, right? Even if it's not the right one," he added, glaring pointedly at Trask.

"L…Lana," she stuttered, lowering her eyes.

"You've got to admit the two names look alike," Trask remarked. "Lois, Lana…"

"Lana…" Tempus drawled, ignoring the other man's comment. "Lana Lang. How interesting!"

Lana Lang? How did he know her name? And more importantly, was it…a good thing?

"Yeah…" The Secretary's grin was making her increasingly uncomfortable. "The former girlfriend. Or you will be, soon enough."


Lana didn't have time to think about his remark, because Tempus was already turning back towards Trask, and before she had time to realise what was happening, she was freed from the military officer's grip as the Secretary seized him violently by the collar and started yelling.

She needn't hear more, and it could be her only chance. She couldn't miss it. Checking that neither of the two men paid any attention to her, she took a discreet step backwards and noticed that there wasn't even a careful look thrown at her.

This was good. Very good. At least, as good as the circumstances allowed it to be.

Taking a deep breath and her courage in both hands, she ran for the door and was out of the house, wind whistling her ears and trees passing by her eyes too quickly for her to see them.

She tightened her fists and refused to turn away as she heard shouts and shots behind her. Now wasn't the time to be scared and lose her guts. She knew what kind of fate was waiting for her if she surrendered. She wasn't the woman they wanted, but she was an annoying witness nonetheless. And she knew how bad guys dealt with annoying witnesses — she'd seen enough James Bond movies to realise that they wouldn't let her live happily ever after if they had anything to say about it.

But she would *not* let them have their way. Ever!

She never stopped running, even when the shouting behind her subsided and her ragged breathing was the only sound accompanying her escape. She knew these tracks by heart, and it had been easy to lose her pursuers by taking a few hidden short cuts concealed among the thick bushes. She didn't want to think herself victorious when there was still a risk of her being found, though.

Hiding wasn't an option either. If she gave them enough time to circle the area, they'd be quick to organise a search that wouldn't leave her much chance. So she preferred to keep running, ignoring the ache in her lungs and muscles as tiredness began to kick in, and knowing that each of her steps was bringing her closer to Smallville. If she kept her rhythm, she'd only need half an hour or so to reach the city, where she'd be safe. It seemed like forever to her when she was already having cramps, but her survival instinct was giving her stamina she'd never imagined she possessed, and she ignored the pain, concentrating all her energy on her goal and blanking out all superfluous thoughts.


Tiredness started to make itself felt when Lois reached her motel; the eventful day combined with the long walk back from the Kent farmhouse had taken more from her than she would have thought, and she longed to find a restful and well-deserved sleep. It would be easier to deal with the mess she'd made in the morning — *if* Clark ever agreed to let her get a word of apology in edgewise.

An apology.

She loathed the word with her entire being, and she was tempted to say stuff it after the way he'd behaved with her. He'd almost hurt her, for crying out loud! And the fury in his gaze was enough evidence that he probably would have, if she hadn't voiced her pain in time. The remorse and guilt-stricken look devouring his face a mere second after she'd let out her low whine was still present in her mind, and she realised that Clark had scared himself as much as he had her. At least he couldn't say he wasn't aware of what he'd done, and the fact that he'd had a reason to be angry didn't justify how low he'd stooped.

Okay. Okay, so she'd been wrong, *very* wrong, to snoop around his stuff, and she could understand where his rage had come from. And for that, she supposed she *did* owe him some kind of apology. Probably. Didn't mean she had to like it, right?

Her hand came up to cup her arm right where Clark had gripped her for the endless minutes of their mostly silent battle of wills, and she let out a depressed sigh. It hadn't been so much physically painful as it was emotionally draining. Seeing that she'd hurt Clark so deeply had nailed a dent in the rough exterior she usually presented, and she couldn't help the guilt from forming around her heart.

Whatever she liked to believe, she'd come to care for this man in the space of a day more than she ever had for anyone. Maybe it was that special bond they'd shared in the stables earlier this evening, and the unresolved tension between them after Lana had interrupted their sweet exchange. Lois could still feel the brush of his fingers against her skin, the heat of his gaze as it had locked with hers, and the thrill of anticipation that had coursed through her when he'd started to lean towards her.

He'd almost kissed her.

And if he had, she wouldn't have minded in the least.

Since when did Lois Lane fall for the first man who came along? The question sniped a scornful reproach through her, and she shuddered in response.

Since she'd met Clark Kent.

She wouldn't have let anyone else get so close to her. She wouldn't have let anyone else hold her interest despite his commitment to someone else, let alone forgive what she'd have otherwise considered as an act of high treachery. But as it was, she'd found herself totally unable to be on Lana Lang's side and sympathise with the deceived girlfriend. On the contrary, her only regret was that the woman had interrupted what would have been a blissful encounter.

She shook off the unwelcome thought, focusing her mind on the road ahead and the practical sides of her current investigation. She knew that getting all worked up over something that wasn't meant to be wouldn't get her anywhere, and she decided to consider Clark Kent as a mere footnote to her country visit from now on.

She had to update her notes to include what little she'd learned tonight. The environmental operation was as much of a mystery to the locals as it was to her, unless she counted Wayne Irig's puzzling attitude whenever it was mentioned. The old man probably knew more about it than he was letting on, but prying the information from him wouldn't be easy. It could be much more effective for her to keep the farmer in the background for now and work on her investigation without his input. And the first thing was to find out more about the green rock she'd found in the Kent backyard.

She'd gone back to the excavated hole after she'd stopped looking for Clark around the farm, but the rock had disappeared. The security guards had disposed of it, she was sure; and staying around might just dig her grave deeper than it already was — the government workers had already prepared a couple of holes if needed, she mused sombrely. Better safe than sorry, she supposed. She just hoped that Clark Kent wasn't in league with them. It would tear her apart to discover that someone she was so willing to trust turned out to be lying to the entire population of his town for the purpose of…

…of what, actually?

She still had no idea what was motivating the government to snoop around the neighbourhood and pretend that their only interest was the protection of the county's exceptional resources. Sure, she remembered Thompson's accusation that Trask was obsessed with aliens and U.F.O.s, but it was too farfetched to be true, and she was convinced that the F.B.I. agent had only used this argument as a figure of speech. Even Trask's reaction to the topic wasn't enough to make it a serious hunch.

But whatever was happening in Smallville had visibly nothing to do with the environment, and Lois was now convinced that her major lead was that green, glowing rock she'd found in the Kent backyard. This mineral, whatever it was, held the keys to her investigation, and she needed to find out more about it.

If only she'd thought about taking it with her when she'd been interrupted by the security guards' arrival!

On the other hand, it could have betrayed her presence when she'd taken advantage of the darkness to hide. But it meant that she now had to get her hands on it again and find a laboratory she could trust to have it analysed. Not that such a thing existed — the country was infested with corruption in every single one of its administrative divisions, and Burton Newcomb had insisted that Lois shouldn't trust anyone with any information she found.

What little she knew about Bureau 39 had remained a secret, and she knew she'd made the right decision when hiding it even from the police. Newcomb was right: she couldn't trust anyone, not even Clark Kent's pretty face. She wanted to believe that he was one of the good guys; her initial reaction to his anger upon seeing her in his childhood's bedroom had been to wonder if he had something to hide, but she now realised that her probing into his life had brought painful memories back to the surface. Clark Kent had a lot to hide, but it was nothing related to the so-called environmental operation. She was sure of that.

Lois finally reached the large parking lot outside the Paradisio but stopped in her tracks as she spotted the blazing lights of a police car. Usually, she wouldn't raise an eyebrow at something that was part of her scenery, but what was the sign of normality in Metropolis was a clue to something unusual in Smallville. Her frown deepened when she approached the building and noticed the yellow police line advertising a crime scene.


Trouble definitely had a way to find her, wherever she was. This time, she didn't know whether to sneak inside and find out what had happened, or run away from the avalanche of problems which would certainly tumble onto her. Not to mention she was better off avoiding the police; true, the Sheriff of Smallville might not have anything to do with the corrupt cops back in Metropolis. This was a quiet, ordinary community, not the place where all gangsters of the world gathered to ruin the life of Lois Lane. But this was also the place that Jason Trask and Bureau 39 had found interesting enough to search through. Surely, that had to mean something.

Her intention to retreat quietly until she could find out more about what had happened was forgotten when a moving shadow in a darker corner of the building caught her eye, and she immediately recognised Clark Kent. Forgetting about her resolution for caution, she quickly walked towards him, driven by an irrepressible need to see him and talk to him now. She also wanted to know what he was doing near her motel at this time of the night, and whether the police cars parked there were related to his presence.

Lois stopped a mere few feet away from Clark, struck by the lost, desperate expression that was so obvious on his face. She whispered his name but he didn't reply, as if he hadn't heard her at all, and it was only when she planted herself in front of him that he looked up at her.

"Is everything all right?" That was a stupid question, she realised only a second after the words were out of her mouth. The answer was so obvious that it was almost an insult to have asked, and as expected, Clark Kent simply glared at her without bothering to clarify his thoughts.

"Look, I know I'm probably the last person you want to talk to right now, but I need to know what's going on here."

"Miss?" An unknown voice at her side distracted her from her line of questioning, and she momentarily lifted her gaze away from Clark to observe the newcomer.


"Deputy Harris," the man corrected her, extending his hand towards her in friendly but firm greeting. "This is a crime scene, Miss, so I'm gonna have to ask you to leave."

"A crime scene?" Lois's reporting instincts immediately kicked in, and she had to bite her lip not to bombard the deputy with her questions.

"Please, Miss…"

"Miss La…Lewis," Lois introduced herself, catching herself just in time before she revealed her true identity. "Julia Lewis." The name still came unnaturally to her, and she shrugged off the annoying, cold shudder that ran down her back upon lying to a policeman.


No way! Lois Lane didn't owe anything to the Smallville police, and a good reporter didn't bother with guilty feelings when altering the truth. If it helped in clearing the mud around what she was investigating and bring her the scoop, a little white lie wouldn't ever stop her. It wasn't as if the information held any real importance, right?

She craned her head to check what Harris was writing on his notepad and pasted an innocent smile on her face when he glared at her in reply.

"And…may I ask what you're doing here?"

"I'm staying at the motel."

"Oh! Then the Sheriff will have a few questions for you."

"A few questions? What kind of questions? Because if it's about having an alibi, then I can tell you I was at the Irigs all evening. Clark Kent can corroborate that."

Harris let out a quiet chuckle that failed to hide the tension initiated by his current job. "Don't worry, Miss Lewis, it's the usual procedure. We're questioning all the motel's customers to find out if they've seen anything out of the ordinary."

Lois thrust her hands into her pants pockets and shrugged. "Can't see anything apart from a police car parked outside the motel, and a crime scene in Smallville. I definitely didn't expect that when I got here."

"When did you arrive?"

"This morning. From Metropolis."

"And what's a kid like you doing leaving Metropolis, wandering around out here in the middle of nowhere, all on your own?"

Lois bristled. Kid? /I am not a kid!/ she thought, but then something else occurred to her to get mad about instead before she could protest that slur. "Hey, hey, hey! Am I imagining things, or are you suggesting I'm a suspect?"

"Usual procedure, Miss Lewis. Nothing else," Harris replied matter-of-factly. "What I notice is that you arrived this morning from Metropolis, and that you still haven't given me a valid reason for your stay here."

"So what, because I'm sort of new, I'm suspect number one?" Lois argued challengingly, refusing to let herself be thrown off balance by Harris' gross accusations. "I don't even know what happened here!"

"Shooting *and* kidnapping," the deputy clarified dryly. "Not part of my daily diet here in Smallville. Usually."

"Hang on a minute!" Lois turned towards Clark, silently pleading with him to defend her and was stunned at the total lack of support she saw in his eyes. "I wasn't here! Ask Clark!"

"No need to get frantic, Miss Lewis, I haven't accused you of anything. But I'll ask you to stay at the police's disposal for further questioning," Harris said before turning away and disappearing back into the building.


Lois stared, open-mouthed, at Harris as he walked decisively back to the lobby door. Her mind was fuming with the unspoken anger rising in her throat for what was, to her, a major outrage. How dare this country do-gooder suspect her so blatantly on the sole evidence that the motel's crime coincided with her arrival? Did she have the face of someone who'd be lying? Okay, strike that, she thought, realising that she'd been hiding her true identity to all the people she'd met in Smallville.

But it didn't mean she was dishonest and would commit…what was it that he'd said had happened? A shooting and a kidnapping, right. If she was a bad guy, she wouldn't ever get the idea of perpetrating a crime in a tiny town lost in the middle of a state where there were more cows than people. In Metropolis, the case would get filed away in the drawer of a cabinet at the back end of a police precinct, whereas here in Smallville no-one would let it rest for the next hundred years.

Lois turned towards Clark, who'd remained stubbornly silent during her entire interview with Deputy Harris, and prepared to complain to him about his lack of support. But he didn't give her the time to speak a word before he was lashing out at her in the harsh way he'd adopted with her since he'd snuck up on her in his old bedroom.

"What are you doing here?" Clark demanded, his gaze reflecting his fury at Julia Lewis's constant intrusion. He'd observed her obfuscated responses to Deputy Harris and understood the man's suspicions, having harboured the same feelings ever since he'd found her in his farmhouse. And now that he'd heard the connection between the girl's arrival and Lana's kidnapping, it was harder for him to dismiss.

"You darn well know what I'm doing here, Clark!" she retorted belligerently, her challenging voice irking him even more. "I couldn't say the same about you."

"I don't owe you any explanation."

"Oh, really?" Julia replied, sarcasm dripping from her words. "So let me try to guess…you were around and thought you'd drop by to pay me a visit? No, hang on, you knew I wasn't here since you'd left me at your farmhouse." She snorted, a little sound of utter mockery that sent a shudder of annoyance through his spine. "I know why you're here, Clark. You were so angry with me for entering your farmhouse that you decided to take your revenge by snooping around my motel room during my absence. Am I hitting close?"

Unable to hold himself back any more, he grabbed her arm and roughly yanked her against the wall, oblivious to her cat-like struggle and irate whines. He pinned her to the cold pebbledash of the building, taking her by the shoulders and shaking her. "Now you tell me what the hell is going on, Julia. Because I'm sick of your little guessing games," he muttered, his eyes flashing rage at her.

She stared at him defiantly, her gaze unwavering. "What are you insinuating, exactly? That I have a gun and shot someone? Boy, Clark, I'm beginning to wonder what's happening in there!" she exclaimed, pushing a probing finger against his temple.

"Just tell me, Julia," he whispered, his face close to hers, so close he could feel her breath mingle with his, calling to him, enticing him in a dangerous game of seduction. "I *need* to know the truth."

"My God. Are you nuts?" She took advantage of his loosened grip to swiftly slip under his arm and escape him, leaving him dazed when she turned around to face him from a safer distance. "Clark, how could I have carried out such a crime when you know perfectly well that I wasn't *here*?"

"For all I know, you could have found a way to come back here at the same time as Lana and me."

"For all you know? Clark, don't be ridiculous! Why would I shoot…who was shot, anyway?"


"Okay, point taken, I could have a reason to shoot that guy."

"Julia, Lana was kidnapped," Clark finally murmured, turning away from her and leaning against the wall. The reality of the situation hit him even more when he said it out loud, and he ran a tired hand across his face.

Lois sobered immediately, struck by the raw terror she perceived in his voice. He suddenly sounded so different from the man who'd addressed her so harshly a few seconds earlier. So much more vulnerable. Her anger at his reaction dissipated almost instantly as she inched herself closer to him, reaching a timid hand to his arm, afraid he would shrug it off and reject her gesture of comfort.

Clark didn't have the heart to flinch away from Julia's touch as she approached him. He was emotionally drained and her touch was soothing him. "I'm sorry," she whispered, and he willed himself to believe in her sincerity.

He shrugged his shoulders, shaking his head in helplessness. "And I am, too," he said, fiddling with the edges of his t-shirt. "I shouldn't have accused you without any proof. I was just angry and I guess I needed a culprit."

"I was handy to have around?"

He nodded apologetically.

"Glad to be of service," she muttered, taking a step away from him.

His eyes darted to her body huddled against the wall as she hugged herself and kept her head lowered, and he sighed downheartedly. He kept making mistakes where Julia was concerned, and it hurt him to know he'd caused her more pain. He should have learned his lesson after what had happened in his parents' farmhouse and the remorse that had been eating at him when he'd realised he would have hurt her if she hadn't cried out.

He hadn't realised the extent of his strength and the danger it represented when he was running on high emotions. At least, he hadn't been aware of how easily he could harm people if he wasn't careful, and the image of the fear he'd seen in Julia's eyes when he'd gripped her arm so tightly was still haunting him. And yet he'd done it again, seizing her physically, as if his anger was pouring through and into his gesture.

Clark loathed any kind of violence, and he'd always rejected the concept. It wasn't part of who he was, and he knew surges of anger had to be controlled, especially for someone who possessed such a terrifying strength.

He could kill.

If he didn't keep his abilities under tight control, he could take the life out of someone without any effort, and without any conscious thought.

Clark shuddered, his gaze resting on Julia again as he took in the possible consequences of his thoughtless actions. She wasn't hurt, thank God, but twice in the space of a few hours he'd experienced a rush of fury that had invaded his entire body and blanked out his mind. He was *not* like any other man, and whether he liked the idea or not, it mattered very much, especially now.

Especially when he could have harmed her.

He reached a careful hand to her arm, right where he'd grasped her a minute earlier, and grimaced when she flinched away from his touch. She was afraid of him, and she had every right to be. There was nothing he could say to apologise, nothing that matched the fault he'd committed, not just once, but twice in the same evening.

As if sensing his thought, Julia raised her head, her gaze conveying a mixture of embarrassment and reassurance, but he found himself unable to accept her silent forgiveness.

"I'm fine, Clark," she finally murmured, breaking the heavy silence around them.

He didn't speak, his eyes darting from her face to her arm, and she nodded in confirmation of her words. He opened his mouth to reply, but no words came out. There was nothing he could say, nothing he could do to make up for his faults, and it tore him apart to see the flash of memory of his earlier actions scorch through him like a bolt of lightning every time he looked at her.

Had he intended to physically hurt her? His mind was screaming a resounding no, but his heart's response was lagging as he pondered the thought more honestly. He'd never consciously harm anyone, there was no denying that. But the way he'd gripped her arm and shoulders, trying to shake the truth out of her, was spreading a nagging doubt in his beliefs.

"I never meant to…" he started, voicing the thought out loud as if it'd help him take in its significance. He hadn't meant to hurt her. Never.

"I know," she replied quietly. "And you didn't hurt me, Clark," she added in an attempt to reassure him. "That's all that matters," she finished dully before turning around and walking to the motel's lobby, where Harris and Sheriff Thorpe were involved in a deep conversation about what to do next.

Clark briefly closed his eyes as she walked away, holding back a sob of frustration when the feeling of self-disgust resumed its icy grip around his heart.

It certainly wasn't *all* what mattered to him, and he wished he could go back in time and change his course of actions. His anger had blinded him so much that he hadn't been able to hold it in check, and the fact that it had seemed justified at the time didn't change any of the remorse eating at him.

Shaking off the unpleasant sensation, he followed Julia's lead numbly and tried to concentrate on the current situation. Focusing his attention on the two policemen, he realised they didn't seem in much of a hurry, and it made him nervous to see their relaxed attitude when Lana was missing and possibly in danger. But there wasn't much he could do right then, apart from waiting for the police to get a lead on the dark blue van and the direction it had taken. And of course, Thorpe had categorically refused to let Clark borrow his police truck to drive after the kidnappers' vehicle. As much as it did make sense, the young man wasn't in the mood to accept Thorpe's reasons under the pretext that they were sensible; however, Harris's words of comfort had helped him to calm down, and he'd realised that there was little he could do on his own.

Clark observed Julia from the corner of his eye. She was surveying the room with a mixture of fascination and concentration in her gaze, and she spent a few minutes staring at the traces of blood left after the paramedics had taken care of Marty.

He was about to ask her what was so intriguing about the crime scene, apart from its dramatic dimension, when Thorpe frowned severely at her. She didn't look impressed at all, and processed to hit the Sheriff with a dozen questions on the circumstances of the night's event. It puzzled Clark to see her so interested in what had happened when she claimed to have no connection whatsoever with it, but he let her do so, listening carefully in case Thorpe's small revelations taught him elements he'd missed earlier.

Julia seemed to get quickly bored with Thorpe's rambling and beating around the bush when he didn't wish to say more, and she passed by Clark again, grabbing his arm and dragging him towards the exit. He didn't have the heart to resist, and he let her tug him behind her, only pausing a second when they circled the building to enquire where she was taking him.

"We need to talk," was her only reply before she tugged him after her again until they reached the door to her room.


"As good a place as any."

"Look, Julia, I don't know what you're looking for, but —"

"Clark, believe it or not, I can't bear to see you pace around these guys in the lobby and imagine the worst. Don't look surprised that I actually care, it's insulting!" she added when his eyebrows disappeared into his hairline in genuine amazement.

Unable to find any valid argument to resist her, he followed her inside, but when she turned on the light, she gasped loudly and threw him an enraged look. "You could've been careful not to make a total mess when looking through my stuff," she muttered in a dry tone barely hiding her fury.

"Don't blame me, it was like that when I got here. I would've thought you'd be more intent on keeping your room clean, but hey, seems I was wrong."

"Stop humouring me, Clark," she replied, looking deadly serious. "I left this place in a perfect state, and I find it in complete disarray!"

"Hang on, do you mean you're not responsible for this?"

"No! And do you mean you're not either? Something's definitely not right, here," she added when Clark shook his head.

"Should I go get Harris?"

"Don't you think it'd be better that he forgets I even exist?" Lois grimaced, almost squirming as she remembered the Deputy's determination to suspect her. "I have *nothing* to do with this, I swear!" she added when she noticed Clark's uneasy expression.

"What I see is that your room has been ransacked. Not that burglars are totally uncommon here, but the Paradisio's never had such a problem. At least, that I know of."

"Isn't there a surveillance camera?"

Clark's eyebrows shot to his forehead.

"I take it that was a stupid question?"

"I don't think it ever occurred to Marty to install one."

Lois nodded, holding back the sarcastic comment that immediately came to her mind. In Metropolis, forgetting to put a security camera in any public building came under complete stupidity, and insurance companies usually refused to agree a policy that didn't involve such surveillance devices. But she assumed that everything worked differently in Smallville, Kansas. "So you think this," she enquired, changing the topic and waving a hand about the mess of clothes scattered the floor, "is related to everything else?"

Come to think of it, the idea wasn't that farfetched, Lois thought, ignoring the shiver running down her back. Back in Metropolis, she'd been afraid of being trapped by the knowledge she'd acquired over the past few weeks, and the hours she'd spent in Smallville and particularly at the Irigs' had almost been enough for her to forget about the danger she was in.

But if Trask had found out she was around — and since she'd been stupid enough to leave her flashlight in Kent's backyard for the security guards to find, she supposed that her presence hadn't remained a secret much longer — then she was in as much danger here as in her big city. Smallville being such a small town hadn't helped in keeping her under wraps; she'd thought that her secret identity guaranteed a certain safety, but she should have realised that strangers were about as usual as cultural events in this Kansas community.

It meant that Marty's shooting and Lana's kidnapping could well be her fault. And when she looked up at Clark's distressed face, she couldn't help but feel guilty for what was happening, and she wished she could bring some comfort and reassurance to him.

"What did Thorpe decide to do?"


"Lana, of course."

"Oh." Clark shrugged helplessly and after having removed the shirts and various pieces of clothing crowding the comforter, he sat on the edge of the bed. "Nothing."

"Nothing? What do you mean, nothing? How can he do nothing when someone's in danger?"

"He called his men for a meeting in his office, in Smallville."

Lois was increasingly puzzled with the Sheriff's line of decision. "What for?"

"To think of an action plan," Clark answered with the same monotone that had been characterising his replies since he'd stopped lashing out angrily at her.

Lois rolled her eyes. An action plan! Honestly, who needed to think of an action plan when what they needed most was to set off and search for the missing woman? Why did the Sheriff insist on losing himself in boring details that had no bearing on the critical reality of the situation?

Clark must have felt her anger rise, because he hurried to confirm her thoughts. "Yes, I know, but Harris is there to keep the ball rolling. Without him, I'm not even sure Thorpe would have come here to take statements."

"The guy who practically accused me of being a murderer? Guess I could've done without that one."

"Julia! Mr Harris is Rachel's father, and he's extremely competent. And you have to admit it wasn't hard to suspect you."

Lois threw him a tart look before replying in a very low voice. "Yeah, even *you* made that mistake."

Clark remained silent and immobile, deeply lost in his thoughts. His last fight with Lana was haunting his mind, and he wished it could have had another outcome, before…before she was taken away from him. The more minutes passed, the more he became frantic about his girlfriend's fate. Fear was gripping at his heart, draining the blood from his limbs and leaving his fingertips cold and paralysed.

He shut his eyes, trying to block the mental image of Lana lying on a cold, hard floor and suffering from the worst treatments from her captors. If only he had an idea whose hands she'd fallen into, but the only clue he had about the identity of her kidnappers was the state in which they'd left the motel's manager. And it wasn't very reassuring.

If only he had something, *anything* to hang onto, like a note left by her captors to tell him what they wanted in exchange of her freedom. Right now he was ready to move the earth and skies to help Lana out of the ordeal she was certainly living.

"She's alive, Clark."

Julia's voice abruptly pulled him back to the present, and he met her steady, determined gaze. She walked up to him and sat cross-legged beside him, laying a reassuring hand on his knee. His gaze lay on the pale skin of her fingers where they touched him, and he let his heart be warmed by the comfort brought by her gesture.

"She's alive, and we'll find her."

"How can you be so sure? They didn't hesitate to shoot Marty. What's to say they wouldn't do the same to her?"

"Thorpe told me you'd found a cloth soaked with chloroform?" she asked softly. "It means they'd planned the kidnapping and wanted her alive," she developed her thought when he nodded. "Or they'd have…" She trailed off when she saw the pain on Clark's face accentuate with her words.

She wanted to comfort him, not remind him of the crime scene they'd discovered. Even if she was still mad at him for even suggesting that she might be behind that, she knew his accusation had come from deep distress, and that he hadn't believed she could be guilty for what had happened, even if she knew she was responsible for it.

"And *I* sent her there," Clark went on, his panic now obvious. "I was so stubborn, so determined to get to the bottom of what you wanted, that I didn't even listen to her arguments. She didn't want to do this, Julia! *I* pushed her."

"And it's *not* your fault," Lois replied firmly. "You couldn't have known what would happen. Okay, it's not that I'm particularly happy you wanted to snoop around my room, but it doesn't mean you have anything to feel guilty for when it comes to Lana's kidnapping. And anyway, she's probably not the person they were looking for."

"What do you mean?"

"I…I guess they wanted me." She withdrew her hand from his knee and lowered her eyes, suddenly uncomfortable with the weight of his gaze on her. She knew she was the one they should have kidnapped, that Lana had nothing to do with a mess Lois had got herself into. Trask and his gang had been looking for her, and it was only because of her own carelessness that Lana was now in danger. However, if that was indeed the case, the fate of Clark's girlfriend was truly very uncertain. Who knew what they would do with her when they found out she wasn't the woman they were looking for?

"How do you know they wanted you?"

"I just know it, Clark, and as hard as it may seem to you, you'll just have to trust me on this one. Proof is in the mess they left my room in; it can't be a complete coincidence," she added when his eyes narrowed.

"Who are you exactly, Julia Lewis?" Clark suddenly enquired. "You've dropped into our lives, coming out of nowhere —"

"Metropolis," she corrected with an indulgent smile.

"All right, Metropolis. But I'm just wondering why your arrival coincides with this mess."

"You're not accusing me again, are you?" she asked warningly, scowling him.

He shook his head and looked apologetic. "No, of course not. And I'm sorry for what I said. I mean…I didn't want you to think that I didn't trust you at all, but —"

"It's okay, Clark. I know the circumstances were against me. Besides, we don't really know each other, you're right."

"But I'd love to know more about you."

She squirmed a little and looked away, suddenly uncomfortable with his probing questions, and started playing idly with the edge of a sweater crumpled on the bed beside her. On the one hand, she knew he had reasons to ask for details about her life and why she'd arrived in Smallville all of a sudden, with the pretence of wanting to settle here that looked less and less convincing to everyone around; but on the other hand, she was reluctant to talk about her real motives.

Could she really trust Clark Kent not to storm away once he knew she'd been lying to him since she'd met him? Wouldn't he be tempted to tell Lois Lane's story to Sheriff Thorpe at the risk of having her locked away while her identity was checked out? Also, and very selfishly so, she admitted, she didn't want to lose their dawning friendship into the bargain.

/Friendship?/ a little voice inside her head asked in irony. /*Just* friendship?/

She shut off the annoying thought, informing her enquiring mind that now was not the time to be a pain and confuse her more than she already was.

"Where you're from, what you were doing before you came down here, what are your dreams, your hopes, your joys and your fears," Clark continued, visibly not letting her silence destabilise him.

She shrugged. "Well…I don't know what else to add to what you already know. I mean, my life…" She trailed off and began playing with a strand of her hair. "My life isn't exactly interesting."

"Really? I doubt that. You're a city girl, Julia. You've been keen on reminding me and everyone else of that ever since you arrived in Smallville. I think I heard it a dozen times in only one day."

"And? Does that make a difference to you?"

"Not exactly. But I'm just curious. I've never gone to Metropolis, but I've always thought that I'd end up living there, someday. At least, that's how I'd like it to be."

"Dreaming of the big city, Kent?" Lois taunted him with a gentle smile.

"I guess you could say that. I'd love to feel the rush of existence that seems to happen only there."

"Aha! So you were actually lying when you kept telling me about the advantages of the country over a city like Metropolis, huh?"

"Not exactly. But as much as I love the place where I grew up and it holds a lot of my memories, I'd like to discover new scenery, new ways of life… Lana doesn't really understand that, and she doesn't like it when I talk about travelling the world."

"Wouldn't she want to tag along?"

"Lana? No way!" he exclaimed almost outraged. "She's too attached to the stability of her life to move out of Smallville."

"Ouch. Kind of girl who wants to marry some bureaucratic state employee and have 2.5 kids?"

For the first time in the evening, Clark gave her a slight smile. "Maybe not that bad, but she sure has her life planned ahead. Only the quiet elements of life, I should add."

Lois sighed, once again struck by the difference between Clark's country girlfriend and herself. She had no way to foresee her future when each day held a new life-bargaining challenge for her. She'd never been the kind to think of tomorrow before she actually got to it; why bother making plans when she knew they'd be ruined?

Now, she almost envied Lana Lang for her ability to lead an entirely normal existence. Because of her, Lana was now thrown off balance in a situation for which she was woefully unprepared. What she couldn't voice out loud was her own worries about the situation: Trask and his men wanted Lois Lane, and when he found out he didn't have the right woman, the easiest solution for him would be to get rid of Lana.

She hoped that Clark hadn't thought about that possibility; he was doing a very bad job of hiding his concern from her, even though he seemed intent on talking about anything but Lana's kidnapping while he respected Harris's and Thorpe's orders to stay put. Not that Lois approved the policemen's idea, but she supposed she was of more use staying here with Clark and helping him through this ordeal than getting herself in a major mess. Once she learned more about Lana Lang's kidnapping, then maybe she could take action, but for now, she had to be content with letting Clark Kent open up to her through small talk.

She wished she had some idea where the kidnappers had taken Lana, but according to Sheriff Thorpe the van had driven off on a road that could lead to Wichita, Wellington, or many other towns beyond the hills. Without any further information there wasn't anything they could do from Smallville, unless the roadblocks proved effective.

A knock on the door startled her, and she was surprised to see Wayne Irig standing there. She didn't have time to react, for Clark joined her on the threshold and Wayne immediately stepped in to envelop the young man into a hug.

Feeling somewhat embarrassed by the obvious show of affection between Clark and a man who seemed very much like a surrogate father to him, Lois attempted to busy herself tidying her room, blocking the rush of mortification passing through her as she noticed that even the drawer containing her bras and panties had been thoroughly inspected. Burglars really had no respect of people's privacy, she muttered inwardly, vowing to make them pay for it once she got her hands on them.

"Julia, you shouldn't touch anything!" Clark grabbed her hand and took the nightgown she'd been folding away from her grasp. "The Sheriff will want to take fingerprints."

"Are you kidding me, Clark? Your Sheriff seems as competent as a monkey."

"Am I?" The thunderous voice of Sheriff Thorpe interrupted her, and Lois swivelled around to find herself face to face with the monkey in question.

There was nothing more she wished right then but that earth opened up under her feet and swallowed her. Heat rose to her face, which she was sure now had an obvious shade of crimson, and she opened her mouth to talk but no words came out.

Darn, but she had a way to forget how to keep that big mouth of hers shut every now and then.

Thorpe's gaze remained unwavering as he glared at her, as if he was waiting for her to give an explanation which, she was sure, he would reject immediately. It wasn't worth bothering herself with an excuse that wouldn't be accepted, so she kept her head high, challenging the Sheriff to voice his thoughts out loud.

Clark felt the tension rise between Thorpe and Julia, and, afraid that the Sheriff would decide to focus on the insult rather than what was important at the moment, he attracted his attention by showing him the state of the room and explaining Julia's theories about the possible link between the mess left here and the chloroform cloth they'd found on the parking lot. It was clear that the kidnapping hadn't been improvised, but what could they want with someone like Lana Lang? Her one and only flaw was to date a guy whose origins were more than myster…

Wait a minute!

What if that was it? What if the government men who'd ploughed over his parents' land had decided to use his relationship with Lana to find out more about the son of people who'd buried a space capsule in their garden? Lana knew almost nothing about his lack of normality, but they may not hesitate to torture her to make her talk.

Sure, it contradicted Julia's hunch that the kidnappers had in fact wanted her, but the young city girl didn't have any clue as to the existence of the spaceship as far as he knew, and the element might well have changed her point of view, were she aware of it.

The thought made him shudder to the core, but it represented a definitely valid theory. Unfortunately, it wasn't one he could voice in front of Thorpe, Harris and Julia.

"We're going back to town," Deputy Harris suddenly announced as he finished taking another statement from Julia. "We've got an APB out on the kidnapper's van, and hopefully we'll soon get a call helping us to locate it. As for what happened to Marty, we've got a forensic team that should get here from Wichita tomorrow morning. Nothing much we can do tonight, anyway." Laying a comforting hand on Clark's shoulder, he added, "Don't worry, we're doing everything we can to find her."

Clark nodded, but deep in his mind, the seconds kept ticking and reminding him that time was the essence in the case of an abduction.


"You idiot!" Tempus yelled when Trask came back empty- handed and with a barely contrite expression on his face. "Not only are you unable to bring me the right woman, but you also have to let her go! I sincerely wonder what went through the F.B.I.'s head to hire you as the boss of Bureau 39! I thought it was supposed to be a *serious* organisation, not an amateur one!"

Trask remained silent and busied himself around the small desk furnishing the cabin's single room, an attitude that angered Tempus even further. The military officer had the irritating habit of putting on a the blandest mark possible whenever he was being reproached for something, and it was getting very tiring to be faced with a complete lack of acknowledgment, as if what he was saying didn't hold any importance for Trask.

Tempus sincerely wondered if what he'd heard about the man in the other dimension had been founded at all. Was it all a huge hoax and Superman's life had never been threatened by the man? It looked so unlikely that a terrifyingly stupid man like Trask could represent any menace to the Man of Steel! True, Tempus's information came from a different universe, but so far, he hadn't come across any noticeable difference in the protagonists of Superman's evolution through life.

But Jason Trask was one stubborn character, and Tempus had to wonder about his ability to run a serious mission involving the removal of Superman. On the other hand, he shouldn't be surprised that the man had failed and lost his life in the bargain, according to the nineties newspaper clippings he'd managed to gather in the other dimension.

Still. Trask had looked like a good bet as an assistant to his devilish plans, and so far he'd filled his mission perfectly. But the fault he'd just perpetrated made Tempus want to wrap his hands around the man's throat and squeeze for such an obvious show of brainlessness. Kidnapping Lana Lang instead of Lois Lane was already a gross mistake, but letting her escape was a lot worse!

"What were you thinking?" Tempus continued as Trask kept on rummaging through the papers he'd retrieved from the desk's drawers. "Or were you thinking at all? Okay, so taking Lana for the Lane woman might be excusable. Maybe. I can even understand that your men mixed them up, and if that reassures you any, I can testify that they're in competition for worst henchmen in the history of skulduggery as far as I'm concerned. But then Clark Kent never had much taste in women," he added as an afterthought.

"She's gone, not much we can do about it, now," Trask muttered, finally breaking his silence, although he still didn't look up at the Secretary.

"Indeed! And whose fault is that?"


Tempus choked at the military officer's audacity; never had any of the henchmen he'd hired dared accuse him of making *their* mistakes, and for the first time, the Utopian wished he was dealing with Randolph instead of this…this *jackass* who didn't show any respect towards his hierarchical superior. At least the Mayor of Metropolis obeyed him without discussing his orders, and took the blame when he was commanded to.

But Trask was getting harder and harder to control, and Tempus was beginning to understand the origins of Thompson's difficulties with the head of Bureau 39. The military man seemed keen on having things done *his* way, regardless of the orders he was given, and even if his freelancing was jeopardising the whole operation.

The situation was getting critical, now. Lois Lane's presence in Smallville hadn't been enough to worry him, but Lana Lang's escape was making their position awkward. If she managed to run back to Smallville and informed the police about the cabin and who she'd seen there, he was in definite trouble.

He still had the escape route of disappearing into another dimension, thanks to the time window he safely kept in his jacket pocket, but he didn't want to resort to such a drastic solution unless it became strictly necessary.

Come to think of it, the police of Smallville were as efficient as a girls' pony club, and it would take hours before they came here, if he went by Sheriff Thorpe's reputation. If needed, it might even be easy to bribe the man with some money so that he dismissed Lana Lang's claims and Lloyd Tempus was absolved of any accusation. Those would be filed as libel, and wouldn't it be highly ironic to sue Clark Kent's former girlfriend? The thought sure held a certain appeal.

But it all boiled down to the same situation: Lois Lane and Clark Kent had to be taken care of, because *they* had an irritating habit of digging out the most secret of truths whenever they got their teeth into a case. And Trask's lack of caution might just become a very handy trap. If Lana Lang talked about the cabin in front of Lois Lane, the young reporter-wannabe wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to uncover such a scoop by herself.

And he would be prepared for her arrival, Tempus thought grimly.

"All right," he finally spoke up, surprising himself at the calmness invading him. "It's still not over. We might have lost the battle, but we haven't lost the war."

"Forget it, Tempus," Trask replied tersely. "I told the men to make tracks. No use putting the whole Bureau 39 organisation in danger."

Tempus could only snarl in reply, but this time, held his anger in check. He didn't like Trask's initiatives, but this time, the military officer might be right that it was safer to deal with the problem with as few people involved as possible. Most of the men who worked for Bureau 39 had no idea what they were taking part in, and they didn't seem to care as long as a substantial income hit their bank account every month. It might be safer to get them away from the scene in case things became too critical.

They had enough kryptonite, now, anyway — the ploughing of the fields in the north of the county had provided a good source for the green, lethal rock, even though the crystal had turned out to be rarer than Tempus had first thought. Over the past few weeks only a few small chunks had been discovered. But if Clark were to appear anywhere around here, Tempus could count on it to protect himself and get rid of the budding superhero at the same time. He now had enough material to ensure the quick death of the annoying alien.

"Trask, you're staying here with me, though," he said again as he watched the military officer gather the last of the incriminating documents and file them in a suitcase, which he safely locked.

The head of Bureau 39 looked up at him in surprise, his reaction strengthening Tempus's determination. "Yes, you are. It'll just be you, me, and the precious green rock which will help us exterminate the alien, should it decide to climb up here."

Trask's eyes lit up at the mention of Superman, and Tempus hid a smile. If mentioning the alien threat was enough to manipulate the man, it would be extremely easy to get him to follow his orders. Unfortunately, Trask seemed to often forget about the real aim of the Smallville operation, and reminding him of the lurking menace represented by the Kryptonian creature was a handy diversion whenever the military officer decided to revolt against the Secretary's authority.

Right now, though, what mattered was to send the rest of the military team away from Smallville, and find a good place to wait for whoever would decide to take action. Tempus could only hope that Lois Lane would prove as reckless as her counterpart from the other dimension.

Oh yes…it would be fun to watch her demise and feel the pride of its responsibility.


Lana had been running with almost no pause for next to an hour, ignoring her cramped muscles and the wild beating of her heart. Her breathing was coming in ragged gasps, its spasmodic rhythm preventing her lungs from being correctly oxygenated. She knew she wouldn't hold on for much longer, but adrenaline kept her going, and each step was a victory over her extreme exhaustion.

Ahead of her, as she approached the dwindling line of the trees and emerged into clear ground, the trail forked and she hesitated only one second before taking the lane running down the side of Smallville. She would come out at the motel and with a bit of luck, Clark would still be there. She needed to see him now, make sure he was fine and reassure him that she was back in one piece.

She couldn't go to town right now. It was already two in the morning, and the city was fast asleep. She didn't want to take the risk of walking to the Irig farm all on her own either, and she was too tired to keep on running. Her parents' house was even further down the road than her friends' land, so her only chance was to reach the motel. In all logic, the people who'd kidnapped her wouldn't come back right where they'd committed their crime.

They'd apparently lost her trail pretty quickly, but she hadn't relaxed even after her own breathing was the only sound accompanying her run. Soon, she would be safe, out of their reach.

When the path emerged from the woods and the moon bathed the last few acres of meadow covering the bottom of the hill, Lana sped up, suddenly feeling even more vulnerable. If her pursuers were still behind her, she stood no chance — the distance of unprotected ground separating her from the motel whose neon sign she could already make out through the hazy fog of her gaze made her an easy target.

She tried to crouch and frantically looked around for some kind of cover among the foliage. In vain. There was nothing but the naked land, tufts of high grass growing among the rocky path as her feet flew down the steep portion of slope.

A strange sensation spread up her legs as she set foot on the asphalt of the road, that last obstacle separating her from her goal, and tears of relief prickled at her eyes as she reached the parking lot and recognised her car right where Clark had parked it a few hours earlier.

Everything seemed quiet and normal, as if her ordeal had never existed but in her imagination. The only witness that something was wrong was the lack of light filtering from the motel's lobby, and the white paper sheet tacked to the door and apologising to any potential customer for the manager's absence. No detail was given, but Lana felt a lump rise in her throat as the image of Marty Stevens came back to her. He was probably dead, and even though she'd never thought much of the guy, it pained her to imagine the scene that had taken place maybe a couple of minutes before she and Clark had arrived.

Nothing made sense in what had happened tonight. The men who'd wanted to hold her captive up there on the hill had made it clear that she wasn't the woman they were looking for. They'd even given a name to their prey, but she couldn't remember what it was. It had been obvious that her fate was in the hands of madmen who hadn't hesitated to shoot someone, and the fact that she wasn't the one they were looking for was no guarantee of her safety.

She'd probably have to move out of the country, take on a new identity and remain hidden for the rest of her life, and the thought didn't appeal at all. Under other circumstances, she would trust justice to be made, but it wouldn't be easy for any policeman to bring down a Federal Secretary like Lloyd Tempus. Whatever the charges were, she doubted the man would be caught off guard even in front of a court. *If* she wasn't considered completely crazy and locked away for throwing gross accusations at such a powerful and famous man.

She didn't want to be alone. True, Clark wasn't as close to her as he had been during their childhood, but he was still her best friend, and her boyfriend despite his recent withdrawal. He'd always wanted to travel the world and she'd been expressing reluctance, but if he suggested they took their leave now, she was ready to take the next flight to Borneo or Kerguelen, as long as it was a remote place where Tempus and whoever was in on his not so legit business couldn't find them.

Fear swept all coherent thoughts from her as she tried the door handle and realised it was securely locked. Her eyes travelled along the building's wall and she sighed as the night bulbs suspended above each window revealed only closed blinds. She wanted to bury herself in the shadows; anyone who approached the motel could see her standing where she was, and she didn't want to take any risk after getting this far.

Her gaze darted around and she froze as she caught sight of a shapeless shadow moving fast. Another second and it would circle the building and face her. The crisp sound of shoes running on the gravel got louder as it approached and Lana shrunk into a corner of the door, knowing she stood no chance if she tried fleeing now. Her heart kept beating faster, hammering against her breasts, the rapid pulse almost physically painful in her throat.

If they caught her now, she stood no chance — there was no way she could escape their surveillance a second time, and anyway, they wouldn't give her the chance. They probably saw her as a disturbing witness, one that could betray Tempus's involvement and ruin his career. She was certainly on top of the list of people to eliminate.


The familiar voice both startled and soothed her, and she stepped out of the protective alcove offered by the door in time to see Clark run towards her and envelop her in the warmest embrace he'd ever given to her. She let out the breath she'd been holding, letting her body slightly relax against his, but he chose that moment to pull away, seizing her shoulders and flooding her with questions.

"Are you okay? Did they hurt you? How did you manage to get back here? Did they let you go? Who were they? What did they want?"

Clark's words were making her head spin, and she held onto his arms to steady herself while she waited for the dizzy sensation to leave her. She closed her eyes, regaining her mental and physical equilibrium and blocking out Clark's voice for just a moment more until she realised he sounded frantic.

"I'm okay," she finally murmured, a tired smile playing about her lips.

She'd done it. It had looked like a hopeless situation and yet she'd managed to pull through. Nothing was over, of course, but at least she wasn't completely alone to face this any more.

A quick look over Clark's shoulder confirmed that indeed she wasn't *alone*. She sighed; so much for thinking that her Clark was back. Sure enough, Julia Lewis was standing a few feet away from them, her eyes lowered as if she was embarrassed to see them together. Well, this woman had no right to have an opinion on Clark's relationship with her, Lana decided; joining her actions to her thoughts, she brought her boyfriend's head down to hers and kissed him.

The feel of his lips on hers soothed her fears and reminded her of the very first time she and Clark had kissed. She was once again taking the initiative and Clark was barely responding, but she'd figured a long time ago that he would never be an active participant. It was as if he was afraid of all intimacy, and she had yet to break through his barriers. However, the comfort of his arms around her and his mouth brushing softly against hers was enough right now.

Only a few seconds had passed before he pulled away, and Lana noticed the quick look of concern he threw behind him and which she knew was directed at their new companion. It seemed as if everything Julia thought suddenly mattered to him, as if he had to seek her permission even to kiss his own girlfriend. She sighed — some things would never be the same now that this woman had stepped into their lives.


Lois watched Lana and Clark's displays of affection for each other and held back the feeling of bitterness invading her heart. Why did it bother her to witness a kiss between a man and his legitimate girlfriend? Usually, her reaction was to turn away with a snort, knowing that whatever bliss these people were living was only an illusion that wouldn't last, but with Clark, everything was different.

Ever since he'd been so close to her the previous afternoon when they'd been interrupted by Lana, she had the sensation that something remained unfinished between them. On the other hand, maybe it was better this way; if Clark and she had really kissed before Lana had burst in, it would only have resulted in more complication and hurt for her.

Rachel was right. There was no point in lusting after Clark Kent — because it was lust, nothing more, she was sure — when he'd been involved with the same woman for the past five years, and when the woman in question was his childhood friend. They'd obviously shared a lot, and as a complete stranger, she stood no chance.

It still pained her to witness the scene unfolding in front of her, and watching Lana's fingers thread themselves into Clark's hair had sent a pang of jealousy through her. It was too easy for her to imagine doing the same, losing herself in Clark's arms and feeling the gentle pressure of his lips on hers. But it was another woman who had this luck.

Lois couldn't help but breathe in relief when they pulled away and Lana proceeded to fill them in on what had happened to her. She didn't have to fake her gasp of surprise when the young woman mentioned Lloyd Tempus, because even if she strongly suspected the politician's involvement, it still came as a shock to get confirmation of what she'd learned before leaving Metropolis.

"What would the Secretary of the Interior be doing here in Smallville?" Clark enquired, sounding extremely doubtful.

"Be involved in something illegal," Lois retorted automatically, chiming in, which earned her a hostile glare from Lana Lang.

"How would you know?" the young woman asked without removing her hands from Clark's forearms and remaining in his loose embrace, still.

"What else could it be? Do you really think he'd care about a tiny Kansas community if it wasn't for something extremely important?"

"Like what? Governmental corruption?"

"I was thinking of something more along the lines of military corruption, actually." Lois corrected Clark's assumption. "There has to be some correlation with how they're ploughing over the neighbourhood. What kind of environmental operation would be protected by the military?"

"That's a point." Wayne Irig had remained silent during the entire conversation, but his quiet voice aroused everyone's attention. "I think we ought to go back to town and warn Thorpe."

"Thorpe is impotent," Lois argued. "Maybe he's a friend of yours but as far as I can tell he doesn't care about what's happening."

"A friend?" Clark chuckled, relieving some of the tension of the atmosphere around them. "Julia, as much as it'll surprise you, I'll agree that Thorpe isn't the man to handle this. However, Rachel's Dad could well help us here."

"Do you *really* think we have time to go back to town? Lana saw them. While we're standing round here chatting they're probably packing up and getting away."

"So what do you suggest?"

"Well, our only chance is to try and catch them before they disappear into thin air."

"What does it matter if they vanish?" Lana growled. "They can go wherever they want as long as they don't go after me."

"It matters because I don't want Tempus to keep fooling everyone. If the guy's involved in something dirty, I want to expose it and not sweep it under the carpet."

Wayne and Clark exchanged a worried glance, which Lois interpreted as doubt for her plan. It was so typical, anyway; they were probably convinced she'd mess up completely. Well, she'd prove them wrong. She was more experienced than they'd ever be when it came to leading an investigation. Everything was a matter of relativity, after all; but here in Smallville, she was the best as far as she could see, and these people would have no choice but let her take care of the problem by herself.

She knew what would happen if the police got to Tempus before she did. If the camp hadn't been abandoned before the Sheriff reached it then the local press would be swarming all over it in short order. A mere journalism student like her wouldn't get the chance of the scoop, let alone sell her article to one of the big newspapers. Long before she got there the word would be out. The entire country would know every scrap and every detail of the story Burton Newcomb had given her before she could even get an interview with one of the protagonists.

She still had the advantage of knowing the link that existed between Thompson's death and this case, but when arrested Tempus might just have to spill the beans about what he'd been up to for the past few months, and there would go her scoop.

There was only one solution she could see, and she was willing to take the risk of dealing with the consequences of her decision. She hadn't gone this far to give up at the last moment; she hadn't spent the past fifteen hours or so in *Smallville*, of all places, to go back to Metropolis empty-handed.

"I'm taking care of it," she suddenly announced, holding back a snort of satisfaction when her three companions' jaws dropped simultaneously.

"How?" Wayne Irig asked, a mixture of doubt and slight worry playing in his eyes. "If there was anything to do, the police would have taken the necessary measures, and they have experience with this kind of thing."

"Har!" Lois retorted with a scowl. "The Smallville Police have about as much experience with crimes as I have with cows," she muttered resentfully.

"You don't even have a car," Wayne added, visibly still not taking her claim seriously, "and there's no way Lana's Pontiac will make it on this road."

"There's no way I'm letting you drive it, even!" the blonde woman added scornfully.

"Who said anything about a car? A vehicle would only make me more visible to those guys."

"Julia," Clark tried to reason her, "it'll take you at least an hour to reach the cabin on foot, and then what will you do? Throw yourself in the lion's jaws?"

"Oh ye of little faith," Lois retorted before turning on her heel and starting towards the hill without letting him time to reply.


"Go talk to her, Clark," Wayne said as they watched Julia Lewis cross the road and start up the abrupt slope of the hill without a glance back at them.

The girl was visibly crazy enough to do as she'd said, and he was certain she wouldn't stay alive for very much longer if she went on with her plan. However, Clark might have a chance to keep her from doing anything stupid; Wayne trusted the young man to use his out-of-this-world strength if it was required to talk Julia out of her idea and bring her back here safely.

"But —"

"I'll take care of Lana, Clark," Wayne tried to reassure the young man as he started to protest. "Just don't leave that girl on her own," he added, nodding towards Julia's quickly retreating form. "She's the kind to get herself into trouble, I'm afraid."

"Yeah, figured that much," Clark muttered, remembering Julia's tendency to snoop her nose into anything and everything. "But it's her responsibility," he argued vehemently. "I don't want to leave Lana on her own."

The young girl looked up at him with a tired smile, and she tightened her arms around him, pulling his lips into a soft kiss. "You're just running after her and bringing her back to reason, Clark," she whispered when she released him. "I'll be fine; Wayne's gonna take good care of me."

"But —"

"Julia might not have as much luck as I had. And only you can convince her not to go," she insisted, the hesitation that had been present in her voice as she'd first encouraged him progressively disappearing for a more decisive tone.

Clark sighed, but knew Lana was right. If he let Julia Lewis go to the cabin on her own and risk her life, he wouldn't ever forgive himself were something to happen to her, when he'd had the possibility to help her.

And Lana was fine. Wayne would take care of her and see that she got all the rest she needed after her endless run through the forest. He'd also call a doctor and have her examined for any wounds, and taken to the hospital if needed. And Clark had done a quick X-ray check on her — there were no apparent fractures, and she looked indeed like she wasn't harmed.

She'd had incredible luck, according to what she'd told them. If she hadn't run away from the cabin while Lloyd Tempus and her kidnapper were fighting, she might not be here to tell them about it. She'd had the right reflex and enough courage to pull through, but would Julia have so much luck? If those guys had let one prisoner escape already, they wouldn't let a second one out of their sight for even just a second, and this time, it was less than likely that anyone falling into their hands would make it out safely.

"The guy who kidnapped me, Trask," Lana continued, finally giving a name to her other captor, "is a complete madman, trust me."

"Would have figured that much," Clark muttered darkly, wondering how someone in their right mind could kidnap a young girl without any real reason to do so.

"I only know I wasn't the woman they were looking for, and I'd never heard of the one I was supposed to be."

"You really don't remember what name it was?" Clark insisted, remembering Lana's incomplete tale of exactly what had happened to her. There were major chunks of her evening that had gone completely forgotten, and she'd explained she was too preoccupied with the danger while she was running to care about details like what Tempus and his companion wanted.

But Clark also remembered Julia's theory that she was the one who should have been kidnapped, and he couldn't help but be extremely worried as to her fate, were she to fall into Tempus's hands.

"It wasn't Julia Lewis, was it?"

"Don't you think I'd remember that name?" Lana sniped irritably. "I'm sorry, Clark," she added more calmly. "If I did know, I'd tell you. Even if it was about Julia."

"It's okay," Wayne interrupted the exchange, laying a reassuring hand on Lana's shoulder. "You come with me, and if anything occurs to you that you'd forgotten to mention to us here, you'll tell Deputy Harris."

"Get her to the hospital first, Wayne," Clark argued.

"Clark, for the tenth time, I'm *fine*," Lana protested, sounding exasperated with him. "And if you're going after that woman — " she nodded towards the hill, " — I'd rather the police were warned as soon as possible, especially with you in the woods trying to convince Ms Lewis to stop being crazy. Who knows if those military men aren't still around looking for me?"

"I'm sure Clark will manage to bring her back," Wayne tried to reassure them both, but was rewarded with two doubtful faces.

"Ever tried to milk a steer?" Lana and Clark asked in unison.

"I'll bring her back," Clark finally said decisively. "Even if I have to drag her back to her motel and lock her in her room."

Giving Lana one last apologetic look, and reassured by her encouragement, he stepped out of her embrace and turned away, knowing he'd have to catch up with Julia before she got caught by the bad guys and was torn to pieces.


"He'll be all right," Wayne Irig murmured as Clark ran towards the slope.

Lana Lang shivered at the older man's words, wishing he was speaking the truth and yet unable to shake off the feeling of discomfort invading her since Clark had left them. When he'd kissed her, apparently in reassurance, it had hit her that it had seemed more like a goodbye than an innocuous show of affection, and she itched to run after him and prevent him from following Julia.

Deep down, she was aware that his apparent invulnerability would keep him safe, were he to have to follow this completely insane woman for a couple of miles before she agreed to be reasonable, although she doubted that word belonged in Julia's vocabulary.

Still. Seeing Clark walk away, his steps quick and decisive, was stirring a new sensation of loneliness within her, as if she was losing him. Maybe it was time to face the obvious, she realised with a sigh of resignation; Clark had been drifting away from her since their break-up the previous year, and Julia's arrival had only precipitated what she should have been expecting all along.

The way he was looking at her, the tenderness in his voice whenever he pronounced her name, the gentleness toning down his anger even when she wasn't behaving correctly towards him spoke of feelings he couldn't keep fighting for very long.


Wayne Irig's voice brought her back to the present, and she replied to him without taking her eyes off the shadow of her best friend as it became smaller and smaller, melting into the blackness of the woods. "I'm okay, Wayne."

"He'll be fine," he reassured her.

"I know."

"Come on, I promised him I'd take you to the hospital," he said, linking his arm through hers and tugging her towards her car. "He'll be back soon," he added as if he sensed her hesitation.

Lana sighed and regretfully steered her gaze away from the hill. "No. He won't," she murmured to herself.


"Julia, wait!"

Lois immediately recognised the voice calling after her, but she refused to slow her quick march up the hill. He should have stayed with his girlfriend instead of trying to spy on her again — because she knew that was his intention. Mr Kent wanted to make sure that she didn't snoop around what was none of her business, and he'd figured that the best way to ensure that was to stick close to her.

He'd follow her around like her grandmother's irritating poodle, except that instead of barking, he'd offer unasked for advice, which was even worse, she acknowledged with a scornful but suddenly more indulgent thought towards the annoying pet. She knew the type — just because they had testosterone running in their veins, men thought they could protect the so-called damsel in distress. Well, she had big news for him — she was *not* that kind of woman, and she never would be.

She heard Clark's hurried steps get closer, and she walked faster without a glance back at him, even when he finally caught up with her. Keeping her eyes fixed straight ahead, she continued her advance, refusing to acknowledge his presence at her side.

"Julia?" He repeated her name again, raising his voice in a question. "Julia!" This time he sounded more exasperated, but she still didn't give in and continued to utterly ignore him as she kept progressing through the edge of the forest at the top of the hill.

With a bit of luck, he'd get tired of it and leave her alone. She didn't need him on this mission, he'd only bring trouble, she knew it. He'd be constantly under her feet, challenging every decision she made and playing the voice of her conscience even though she wouldn't ask for it.

Confirmation that he was fed up with her lack of reaction though, came when he gently grabbed at her arm and planted himself in front of her, an angry expression on his face.

"What?" she spat out, crossing her arms when he glared at her.

"Are you gonna stay silent and sulk during the entire climb?" he demanded.

She raised a challenging eyebrow. "That would be assuming you're tagging along with me."

"I don't plan to, I'm only here to bring you back."

"Then you shouldn't have bothered."


"You should go back to Smallville, Clark. I never asked for a chaperon."

Clark had expected her to turn him down, but he'd thought he could still convince her. However, her voice left him in little doubt that she wouldn't ever come back with him willingly, and he hesitated.

He knew he should leave her to the fate she'd chosen, but something was telling him otherwise. Instinct was not only pushing him to stick with her and make sure she was safe, but also responded to the call of adventure. Her plan was dangerous, but she was right when she'd told them they needed to act fast if they wanted to catch Tempus.

It was crazy, he argued with himself, shutting off the wild thoughts he was having and which pulled him to her. Why should he stay with a woman who was ready to dangle over the jaws of death? He didn't owe her anything and even if he'd always had a tendency to want to protect his friends, it didn't count when it put *him* into danger.

Except he wasn't in danger. He could never be. He hadn't had a cut or a bruise since he was a baby, and he was strong enough to lift Elisa's dresser with his little finger. Even if Tempus and Trask attacked them, he didn't risk anything; with a bit of luck he could convince Julia to let him deal with the bad guys, and she would be safe.

"All right," he said, finally coming to a decision. "If you really have to be stubborn, I'm coming with you."

"No, you're not," she replied with a humourless chuckle.

"You need me, Julia."

"Excuse me? I don't need you, Kent. Nor anyone else, for that matter. Why didn't you stay with that girlfriend of yours, I'm sure she'll more than welcome your presence," she snorted ironically.

"Don't be unfair. Lana was very courageous and it's a miracle she managed to escape. I'm just not sure you'll get such luck if they catch you."

Lois rolled her eyes; the guy was exactly like she'd thought he would be, and it was irritating the hell out of her. "Oh, come on, Clark! You don't know *anything* about me, so please don't think you have any right to judge me or be so damned patronising!" She frowned defensively, pushing him out of her way before starting on her walk again.

"I'm not patronising! Well, I don't want to be," he amended more softly, falling in step with her. "I just don't want to take the risk of you getting hurt."

"Since when is it any of your business?" Lois demanded impatiently. "What if I *want* to get hurt? Do I have to ask for your permission, too?"

"Julia —"

"And *stop* it with that reasonable 'I-know-best' tone! I've had it, Clark, so drop it, go home, take care of Lana- girl, and forget you ever met me."

"You don't mean that."

She threw him a sour look. "Try me."

"Okay, maybe you do mean that," he nodded his head thoughtfully. "But look at it from my perspective."

"Give me *one* good reason to do that."

"I know my way around this hill," he argued. "If Lana managed to come back to the motel so fast, it's because both she and I know those tracks by heart and she could take all the right shortcuts. You're new around here, and you might get lost in the forest, wasting time as you try to find the right path leading to the old cabin. Especially in the dark, and as you can see, the sun won't rise for another couple of hours."

"I have an excellent sense of direction, and cats would envy my night vision."

"But this place has been my playground during my entire childhood."

"Look, Kent, I know you mean to help, but you're failing miserably, here. Since you don't seem to get a hint, I'll be less subtle: I do *not* need a Charles Ingalls wannabe getting in my way. Got it?"

"Fine!" he muttered, letting her walk a few feet ahead. All right, so she didn't want him around. For now. He supposed he could manage to convince her if he used the right arguments. "Have you thought of bringing a stick to chase the snakes away?" he called after her.

His lips curved upwards despite his determination not to mock her as she abruptly stopped her advance and her gaze swept the ground at her feet. He hadn't meant to scare her, but she'd been so pedantic and pretentious that he hadn't seen any other solution to convince her to let him accompany her.

She slowly turned her head towards him without moving her feet, and eyed him suspiciously. "S-snakes?"

He nodded.

"As in those long, slimy, worm-shaped things that attack people's legs and welcome them with their teeth?"

"Technically they're not slimy," he started correcting her, but stopped when he saw her harsh glare. "Basically, yes."

"You mean there are some of…those? Here?" she enquired, and he noticed the hint of a creeping worry in her gaze.

He shrugged. "I dunno."

"Don't they sleep at night?"

He shrugged again.

"I doubt you'd have played around here as a kid if there had been snakes," she finally argued, her voice recovering its initial firmness. "Don't think I'm that gullible," she snapped before turning away from him again and continuing her decisive march.

"I'm not afraid of snakes!" he replied, still not moving.

But she waved him off as she continued her fast progress through the grass-invaded path. "Neither am I," she said for his benefit, but he heard her add a 'theoretically' under her breath.

He watched her walk away with the determination of a bull, and shook his head, wondering what kind of attitude he should adopt in response to her stubbornness. She seemed determined to get herself into a *lot* of trouble, and that without benefiting from any of his help. He'd never met someone as stubborn as Julia Lewis; she was entirely dedicated to her goal, and would reach it regardless of the danger she incurred. He shook his head in a mixture of awe and irritation.

She was unbelievable, simply unbelievable.

It was as if she was convinced that she could lift entire mountains, and he could almost let himself believe it. If she was the one with his strange abilities, she'd certainly know how to use them, and even though he'd doubted her real motives earlier, and still wasn't sure what had brought her to Smallville, something within him was telling him that she was on the right side of truth and justice. Well, justice, anyway. Truth was harder to conceive where Julia was concerned, considering the mysteries she was making out of her arrival and her reasons to stick around.

And to snoop around his life. A tiny muscle in his jaw clenched as he remembered his angry reaction upon seeing her observe his belongings with sickening curiosity, and he quickly ushered the unwelcome thought out of his mind. She'd seemed to regret what she'd done, and realise how much pain she'd caused in him; she hadn't even looked like she resented his reaction, even though he still couldn't forgive himself for almost physically hurting her.

And she was compassionate. While Lana's fate had been uncertain and he had no idea whether she was alive or not, Julia had comforted him, reassured him as best she could, and simply been there for him when he needed someone to support him. He'd found himself willing to open up to her despite his earlier lack of trust in her, as if she'd restored something within him that had been broken for a long time.


He'd learned his lesson and remembered her advice, and he wouldn't give up just because she'd told him off. Now was time to show Julia Lewis that he was -

A surprised yelp interrupted his thoughts, and he raised his eyebrows as the young woman he'd been so intently observing slipped from his vision. A millisecond after her initial gasp, he was at her side, clutching at her forearms and softening her fall.

She grunted a protest and jerked herself out of his grasp, crawling a few inches away before she flopped over onto her back and gave him a wrathful look.

"You okay?" Clark enquired, ignoring the signal of an approaching rant flickering in her eyes.

"You!" she hissed. "Do you have a thing with my arms?"


"It's the *fourth* time in a few hours that you grab me as if I was a vulgar criminal. So what is it, this time? I don't have a right to trip against some stupid root? Got your name engraved on it?"

"Ju-lia!" he sighed, rolling his eyes and extending a hand towards her.

"And stop that," she muttered, ignoring the help he was offering and getting to her feet by herself.


"That thing you do with my name. Some kind of drawl that says as much as a lecture."

"The 'I-know-best' tone?" he asked, remembering her earlier reproach.

"That's it exactly," she confirmed.

"And I'm sorry for taking you by the arm again," he said softly, lowering his eyes. "Are you okay? Did I hurt you? You'd think I'd have learned my lesson, by now…"

"Hey, it's okay, don't worry," she reassured him, taking a step towards him and laying her hand on his arm in a comforting gesture. "I didn't mean to upset you. And I'm fine, honest. If you hadn't caught me I might have sprained my ankle," she added, her tentative smile turning thankful.

"Does it mean you're letting me come along?" Clark asked tentatively, doing his best puppy-dog face.

"You never give up, do you?"


Julia sighed, but he knew her answer before she voiced it. Her eyes had betrayed her change of heart, and it was with a certain amount of relief that he saw her nod. "All right," she grudgingly gave in. "But you'd better not try ruling my life," she warned, and he quickly understood that it wasn't a topic where Julia accepted jokes. She wanted to be in control, and he supposed he could let her have her way…as long as it didn't put her in danger.


They walked in companionable silence for a few minutes, Lois listening to the country night's unfamiliar noises and trying not to tense each time a bat flitted past her. She didn't even bother asking Clark what these dreadful animals were doing in her way — the look he gave her when she screeched upon her first encounter with those flying things was enough to tell her what his reaction would be, were she to growl out loud.

The guy was a total pain in the butt, after all. Just because he was born in the country, he thought he knew everything better that she did. Just because he happened to be right this one time didn't mean she had to accept it, she grunted inwardly. And all right, he'd sort of saved her from what would have been in all probability a bad sprain — how had he got there so fast, by the way? She'd thought he'd been staying at a distance since she'd told him off, and yet he'd managed to be at her side when she'd fallen. She put the small mystery to the back of her mind, blaming it on quick reflexes and country origins.

A strange shushing sound reached her ears, and Lois halted abruptly, letting out a gasp when Clark bumped into her back. She glowered at him for a second before concentrating again on the noise that had troubled her in the first place. It was there, a couple of feet to her right. The full moon was providing a soft glow bathing the hill, but it wasn't allowing her to see like in daylight, and she had to strain against the darkness surrounding them when her eyes carefully surveyed the area.

"What's wrong?" a surprised voice whispered in her ear.

She held up a hand, then pointed to the apparent origin of her concern. "Unidentified living presence at two."

"What?" His question testified to his complete confusion.

"Heard a noise over there," she translated, exasperated. "Will you shut up and let me see what it is?" she hissed.

"Oh!" He seemed to concentrate for a few moments before he passed her and set off to walk again, a chuckle on his lips.

Lois quickly caught up with him, still throwing a careful glance at the object of her concentration. "What was it?"

"Rabbit," he mumbled. "Nothing to fear, it doesn't bite," he added, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

"Very funny," Lois muttered resentfully, silently cursing her companion and the sheer madness that had made her accept his presence on this climb.

All right, so what she'd heard hadn't been a threat at all. But at least he couldn't blame her lack of caution. He'd got the proof that she wasn't a reckless person like he'd suggested earlier, and that she was careful of everything around her. And how could she have known what the noise was, anyway? She didn't have any experience with the animals populating the American countryside, let alone in Kansas! Did that make her any less of a person?

She continued to fume silently even as they neared the edge of the woods. The spreading wild grass invading the track disappeared, replaced with dried out moss in shades of light-green and yellow speckles that clung to the base of the trees. Thick roots ran across the path before them. A light breeze was blowing in the leaves high above them, and the moon's timid glow was partially sifting through the leaves, drawing small patches of light on the ground and making their progress easier.

"Weather's about to change," Clark suddenly remarked, stopping his advance and looking up towards the blanket of leaves.

"What, you do the weather forecast too now?"

He sighed and swivelled around, facing her with a stern expression. "Look, can we make peace now? I'm tired of all of this; it's not what I came here for."

"I didn't ask you to accompany me," Lois replied defensively. "In fact, I think I even advised you to stay at home and let me do the man's work."

"Julia…why do you always make it sound like everything you do is a war?"

She eyed him suspiciously, but his eyes only reflected genuine curiosity, so she bit back the sarcastic reply that had been burning her tongue. "Because where I come from, it's a matter of survival," she said seriously. "If you don't play with your guts, don't play at all. That's my motto."

He raised a surprised eyebrow. "Really?"

"Clark, you live in a cocoon."

"I don't think so."

"You do! Your friends appreciate and respect you, the Irigs consider you as their son…you have a girlfriend who loves you," she added, an unexpected tremor of hesitation appearing in her voice.

"So why do I feel so lonely?" he answered in a murmur, so low that she almost missed it.

She was surprised by the sadness she perceived in his whispered confession; when you saw Clark Kent interact with his friends, loneliness certainly wasn't something that came to your mind. However, she'd noticed this particular gleam of sorrow appearing in his eyes every now and then, and she'd understood that Clark was hiding a raw sensitivity behind a strong exterior.

The little glimpses she'd got of his past, despite Clark's determination to keep it secret, were beginning to explain the veil of melancholy darkening his face. He certainly hadn't benefited from a blissful childhood, despite what looked like good support from his friends and neighbours. But Lois knew better than most children how painful it was to grow up without your parents' presence. Hers weren't dead, true, but it hadn't made much of a difference to her.

On the other hand, Clark had regrets to live with; he had mentioned his folks only in passing, but she'd perceived the love that united him to them — it was stronger than death, and the softness of his voice when he'd talked about them was enough to tell her about the fond memories he kept buried in his heart.

She didn't know how to react to his admission — it didn't sound like a call for help, and yet she now realised how her behaviour must have made him feel. She'd been so aggressive with him when his only goal had been to help, and she felt bad for her continual rejection of him, now. He didn't inspire pity in her, but respect, and she'd been invariably trampling on him since their fight in his old bedroom, and it was probably time she made some amends for her attitude.

Releasing a deep sigh, she took a tentative step towards him. "Look, Clark," she started softly, lowering her eyes. "I'm sorry. I know I've been very harsh with you, even when I was the one in the wrong, and I apologise for being so thoughtless."

He remained silent, and she finally gazed up at him, wondering where she'd messed up again. She wasn't used to apologising, and she hated the sensation of self- deprecation that usually accompanied it. But this feeling wasn't present tonight; on the contrary, relief washed over her as soon as she'd let out the dreaded words, as if they'd been weighing on her conscience.

Now, if only Clark would say something…

But he was there, staring at her, gaping at her, even. And nothing was filtering from his expression, no clue as to his state of mind or whether he was thinking about forgiving her. His lack of reaction was making her nervous, and after a few seconds, she was unable to stay idle any more. "Clark? Is everything…okay?" she asked tentatively.

He nodded, and finally, a smile crept onto his face, quickly lighting his eyes. "Thank you, Julia," he spoke up at last. "Apology accepted. And…I'm sorry I reacted the way I did. It's probably going to be hard for you to trust me after the way I treated you, but I want you to know I never meant to hurt you. Will you forgive me, too?"

"You had a darn good reason to be mad," she conceded.

"*Nothing* can justify the way I behaved. And I swear to you I'm not a violent person, nor would I ever harm anyo — "

"Clark, stop it," she cut him off, holding up her hand. "I know you wouldn't, and you shouldn't torture yourself over what happened," she reassured him. He'd probably been obsessing about it for the past few hours, and she cursed herself for having missed it. She should have stopped his fretting much earlier, but they'd both been too engrossed in their worry for Lana Lang's fate to focus on much else. She'd thought he'd understood when she'd told him she was fine, and yet, she now realised that his enraged reaction had frightened Clark much more than it had her.

But she hadn't misread his attitude. It wasn't the adult who had sniped so angrily and gripped at her arm, but the child he'd left in the old bedroom, in his parents' farmhouse. And as the realisation hit her again, she looked up at his haunted eyes and felt a surge of protectiveness for the boy who'd never got a chance to grieve properly. She could only make a few wild guesses as to what had happened to Clark Kent's folks, but the fact that he'd grown up without their love was enough to make her feel a strong connection to him. And she was sure it was only the tip of the iceberg.

She briefly touched her hand to his arm. "I never thought you were the violent kind."

"But I —"

"No," she interrupted him again. "You were angry at me, and I guess…well, you had every right to be. I'd have reacted pretty much in the same way if our positions had been reversed."

He kept staring at her for a few more moments, as if seeking confirmation of her words, and she grinned broadly in reply, reassuring him in the same way he had her only minutes earlier.

"Come on, buster," she urged him, starting on her walk again. "We've still got a long way to go if we wanna reach the cabin before they leave and take all the incriminating evidence with them."


Julia was surprising him, she really was. He'd gone through every phase in his feelings for her, from unrestrained attraction to cold anger. And he'd only known her for a few hours. There was something about her personality appealing to him, making him want to stick around and get to know her better…and learn to love her, he admitted with an inward sigh.

As frightened and guilty as he was for feeling like this, there was something about Julia that talked to him in a way he'd never known, with Lana or with anyone else. Behind her cold facade hid a fragile woman whom he was longing to protect and cherish, and in the darkness of her gaze lay a sensitivity he wanted to discover. From what she'd told him, and from his gauging her reactions, he understood that she'd been taught by experience that trusting people and letting them see who she really was could be dangerous.

He was aware of how much it had cost her to apologise, and it made him appreciate her words even more. It certainly wasn't easy for her to admit her mistakes, even when she was in the wrong, as had been the case tonight. And then, she'd manage to ease some of the guilt eating at him, convincing him that his reactions had been natural and nothing to be ashamed of.

/But she doesn't know you *could* have hurt her./


She thought that following your emotions was fine, but it wasn't when your strength could harm someone. And if she were aware of his strange abilities, she probably wouldn't express reassurance. Maybe Lana was right, after all, and his gifts were really better left alone as much as possible.

He heaved a sigh, realising that his girlfriend's rejection of his capabilities might have a reasonable foundation. All these years, he'd been denying what he considered was an unfair fear of what he was, and suddenly, it hit him that he might have been hiding behind a mask all along.

He wished he could share this part of himself with Julia, and wondered if she would express the same reassurance to him, were she aware of his secret. But that was crazy, and he rejected the insane thought, pushing it to the back of his mind.

He was already considering the possibility of confiding in this woman about everything he was, and yet what did he know about her?

Nothing. Nothing at all.

She seemed to him to be multi-faceted, and every one of her words and gestures were a discovery to him. She was strong and vulnerable, courageous and insecure, more mature and sensual than women of her age, but with a childish charm that gave a dimension of innocence to her femininity.

He observed her as she pushed aside the branches obscuring the track ahead, oblivious to the high bracken cutting at her bare arms. He winced as the sharp leaves scraped her honeyed skin, marking it with reddish lines. He was itching to ask her to let him take the lead, but bit back the offer, aware that she'd take it as more evidence of his annoyingly protective — sexist, he was sure she would add — behaviour.

For now, he was content to maintain some peace between them. He'd already given her enough offence when insisting on accompanying her; if he pushed it and suggested he should be the one walking ahead, she'd certainly refuse to let him go any further with her.

He wished he'd thought about bringing his jacket along, though; it could have protected her a little, if she'd agreed to put it on…which was less than sure, of course. Fortunately, her legs were sheathed in a tight pair of jeans, therefore spared from the wild plants' aggressions.

A cold shiver ran down the back of his neck, and he stopped his progress, raising his eyes towards the dark sky of the forest. A second drop splashed on his arm, quickly followed by a third one, and Julia turned towards him with a question on her face. He extended his hands out in reply, feeling more cold rain roll onto his skin, and he grimaced.

"Oh, don't tell me we're gonna have a free shower, now," Julia growled.

"I'm afraid you'll have to bear with it. Told you the weather was changing — the breeze was becoming humid even as we started on our climb," he explained at her blank look.

"And it means we're gonna have rain because…?" she prompted.

"Because the humidity has to go somewhere."

"Somewhere? And it has to be *here*? Why not in…in…well, wherever it can go, I don't care! Anywhere but here, anyway!"

Clark chuckled at her vain exasperation against nature's forces. "You don't choose where the rain falls."

"Geez, thanks, Clark. That's something I did *not* know," she replied sarcastically, which made him smile even more broadly. "I was just illustrating a point, that's all," she added defensively, rubbing her hands on her arms as more droplets of rain attacked her.

"Seems like a storm's coming up. We'd better hurry," Clark remarked when thunder rolled in the distance; he set off again even as the rainfall became more insistent.

The humidity spreading through the atmosphere of the woods was liberating the scents and aromas of the late summer flowers, and the soil was perspiring with mist. The rising breeze was freshening the air around them, lifting the heavy heat which had been overwhelming the county over the past few days. The thunderstorm would be more than welcome, but Julia was right on at least one point: now was certainly not the right time, and he, too, wished that the rain could have waited a few more hours.

The ground under their feet was getting wetter, and soon enough, the dried out undergrowth would turn into impracticable mud. Still, so long as they could keep walking, it was better not to stop their advance towards the cabin. Who knew, maybe the rain would be a precious ally in their…their what?

It suddenly occurred to him that Julia had dragged him into the forest without telling him if she had a plan. Wayne had promised to warn Richard Harris, of course, but meanwhile, they would have to cope with the corrupted military force up there on the hill. Lana had explained that most of the soldiers up there were in the service of a certain Trask, who was tightly controlled by Lloyd Tempus.

But what could the two of them do against an army? Sure, he was strong, and he assumed that he could defend himself were they to meet trouble. But these people had guns, and he had no idea whether he was stronger than their bullets, nor if he could keep them away from Julia. He didn't want her to get hurt, but even if he followed her everywhere and didn't take his eyes off her, there was still the infinitesimal second where his attention could wander, bringing about dreadful consequences.

And he didn't want that to happen ever again. His abilities held the risk of making him too confident, but despite their existence, he hadn't been able to prevent his parents' death, nor Lana's kidnapping. In the latter case, the outcome had been happier, but pure luck had everything to do with it, and he hadn't been able to take a hand in fate.

He caught up with Julia, who was still completely ignoring the rain pouring around them. "I forgot to ask you," he said, finally voicing the concern that had been invading his thoughts. "What are we gonna do up there?"

She gave him a surprised glance. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that these guys have guns, and they're certainly more numerous than we are," Clark explained wryly.

"Doesn't mean they're as clever as we are."


"You're doing it again!" she warned with a raised eyebrow.

"Because it's crazy! We're only going to throw ourselves into the lion's jaws, here. Even assuming we manage to trespass into the military area, which is probably very well guarded, what then? Do we wait for them to catch us and finish us off?"

Julia sighed, and he felt another ranting lecture coming, but he wouldn't let her convince him this time. She was wrong, and she had to see that her plan was a suicide mission, and that he wouldn't let her do that. "We have to wait for Deputy Harris to join us, and he can take care of everything."

"Is it what you want to do in your life, Kent? Wait for Deputy Harris to save the day? How about you? Don't you want to be courageous and for once, *just* once, take your life into your hands?"

"I don't want to be a hero at all costs, if that's what you're getting at."

"That's not what I meant."

"Oh, then, please, do tell, Julia," he snapped angrily. She was exasperating him with her life lessons, and he wasn't in the mood to put up with her moods any more.

"First, I thought we said we weren't fighting any more," she started, throwing him a knowing look to which he couldn't help but reply with a little smile.

She was right; *he* had been the one to initiate their truce, and right now, it looked as if he was doing all he could to irritate her again. But she had to understand that he was only worried about her safety, anger seemed to be what it took to make her see reason.

"Clark," Julia spoke more softly, and he recognised her genuine attempt at soothing his concerns. "I have no suicidal wish, if that's what you're worrying about. I don't particularly enjoy dangerous situations, and dangling over the jaws of death isn't one of my daily habits."


"However," she added before he could reply with another word, "I don't need a bodyguard, or someone who wants to make the choices for me. Do you understand?"

"Yes, but —"

"And for the record," she interrupted him again, "I *do* have a plan."

"Great! Let's hear it, then."

"Not now," she answered decisively. "I'll tell you about it when it's completely formed," she explained when he gave her an interrogative look. She held up a hand just as he was about to protest. "And no, don't give me more of your patronising speeches, Kent. What I can tell you is that I know something's going on, that these people are into environmental research about as much as I'm a country girl, and that something at your farmhouse holds their interest, although I haven't been able to determine what it is."

Clark frowned, taken aback by her sudden revelations. "At the farmhouse? My parents' farmhouse? What, inside it?" he enquired as she confirmed what she'd just exposed.

"No, I don't think they've even explored the interior."

"Unlike you," Clark mumbled, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and ignoring the apologetic glance that she gave him.

"I found something in the back yard," she explained after a sigh. "It was in one of the holes they dug for their so- called cleaning of pesticides, but I'm telling you, it didn't look like a pesticide to me. Unless they've invented a glowing, green and solid one."

"Solid? Green? Glowing?" It sounded so much like what he'd seen in the hands of that security guard. The guy had taken the sample with him as he and his colleague had left the Kent land, and the rest of the evening's events had pushed the memory out of Clark's mind.

"Yeah. Some kind of crystal, in a way. I'd never seen something like that before, actually. It could well be a meteorite."

"A meteorite?" Clark tried not to let his voice falter as he heard Julia's description of her discovery, but it was hard to keep a clear head after what he'd learned about his possible origins tonight. Wayne had talked about a capsule, and even ventured the suggestion that he might be an alien fallen from the sky some eighteen years earlier, so the presence of a meteorite in his folks' back yard could well be related…

…or it could also be a complete coincidence. After all, hundreds of space rocks flew through the Earth's atmosphere every year, and they'd even found some large traces of meteorites in Arizona. Why would Kansas have been spared?

However, anything coming from outer space had always aroused his curiosity, and the mystery of his arrival on Earth was only amplifying his interest. And his concern as well. If it turned out that the glowing, green rock that Julia had found on his parents' land had anything to do with what he was, then it could be dangerous for anyone to find out about it. But according to what the young woman had told him, it was already too late to prevent government people from figuring it out, and if the disappearance of his capsule was anything to go by, the military might even know more about this than he did.

Also, Trask and Tempus probably still held his spaceship, and he wanted to bring it back with him. Whoever he was, *whatever* he was, the capsule that Jonathan Kent had buried in his garden shortly after his arrival was part of him, and he needed to have it if he ever wanted to find out about his origins. He almost wished he could convince Julia to go back to Smallville and let him deal with the military on his own, but he knew it was absolutely hopeless to even ask. She wouldn't understand, even if he explained the whole story to her, which he wasn't sure he wanted to do.

"I find it strange though," she continued, interrupting his furious thinking, "that they would make such a secret around the discovery of a meteorite. If everything was legal, the press would be there to cover the event, the scientific magazines would fight to get the best shot of the rock, samples would be sent to specialised laboratories and the complete analysis report would be published."

"So what are you planning to do?"

"Snoop around. I'm good at that."

"Figures," Clark mumbled with a nod of his head. "And what do you think we'll find up there? Answers to questions we haven't even raised?"

"Clark, I'm sure that something isn't right in this whole mess, and I'm determined to figure out what it is."

He observed her for a few seconds, a frown on his face. "You knew this before you turned up in Smallville, right?"

"Guess I can't hide anything from you," she replied after a moment's hesitation, slowing down her progress and sighing heavily. "You're mad?" she asked timidly.

He shrugged. "Dunno. Should I be?"

"No!" she said vehemently. "No. I wasn't even sure what I was looking for before I saw that rock," she explained more softly.

"So, what did you know — exactly — and what did you think you'd find here?" Clark enquired when she looked like she wouldn't give him any further information. "I think you owe me the truth here."

"I don't owe you anything," she sniped defensively. "Remember that, Kent."

"Fine…don't say anything…but don't be surprised if I build a dozen wild theories on your motives for being here. You could well be in cahoots with them."

"Clark!" she protested, putting her hands on her hips and gratifying him with an irritated expression. "Okay, fine," she gave in when he didn't make a move to correct his outrageous assumption. "If you really need to know, I'm *not* on their side at all. I happened to run onto this whole story back in Metropolis — and it was pure fluke that I did. My only aim has always been to dig out the truth, no matter how dirty it is, and that's what I'm gonna do right now."

"You're a cop?"

She stared at him as if he'd grown a second head. "Don't be ridiculous!"

"Then what's —"

His question was swallowed by an impressive blast of thunder, and the thin drizzle that had been falling for the past few minutes intensified into a violent and deafening shower of rain. A bleak light flashed through the forest, followed by another threatening roar above their heads, while a downpour beat down on them. A thick fog quickly gathered around the trees, making it increasingly difficult to follow the track.

"We should wait until it stops!" Clark shouted in Julia's ear, trying to overpower the loud noise of the storm around them.

"And waste more time? I think not!" she shouted back. "Where do you want us to take refuge, anyway? You'd think these stupid trees would be good for something, but no!"

"Jul —"

Another flash of lightning flared above them, and a loud crack resonated on their left. Clark only had time to grab Julia's waist and pull her away from the quickly approaching fall of the tree that had been struck by the thunderbolt. He tugged her to him a mere second before the log crashed onto the track a few feet ahead of them, right where she would have been walking if he hadn't reacted.

She squealed as he crushed her against him, and he responded by hugging her even closer to him, needing to feel her body pressed to his, to hear the hammer of her heartbeat against his, to know that she was well and alive.

When he finally loosened his embrace, his arms where aching from the tension coursing through his muscles, and a terrified shudder ran down his spine.

Julia's gaze was fixed on the trickle of smoke billowing around what little remained of the tree, and she kept her arms firmly wrapped around him, as if holding onto him for dear life.

Trickles of water were running down the pale skin of her face, and dark tendrils of hair clung to her forehead and cheeks. He reached up his hand and drew a light caress across her neck.

"Would you be developing a tendency to save my life?" she asked shakily, looking up at his strained face. But there was no humour in her eyes. She'd been afraid, *very* afraid, and for once, Julia Lewis wasn't hiding behind her tough barriers.

No explanation was needed, and he held her tighter, rocking their clasped bodies together and whispering soothing sounds into her ear. He wanted to reassure her, to tell her that everything would be all right and that she was safe, now, but he needed to get them both out of danger, first. If they stood where they were, another tree could fall onto them and he might not be able to protect them this time. And he didn't want to take the risk.

When he was sure that Julia was standing on her feet and wouldn't collapse as soon as he released her, he firmly took her hand in his and tugged her after him, giving her a look that urged her to trust him.


Lois had never been more grateful for the physical support Clark offered her. She hadn't seen nor heard anything coming, and if he hadn't instinctively tugged her to him, she wouldn't be here to be scared about what had almost happened.

He had saved her life, and she was reduced to a shivering form that would collapse if he wasn't there to hold her and keep her upright. She was strangely aware of him, at a level that both scared and exhilarated her. And when he grasped her hand and pulled her along with him, she didn't offer any resistance. It was a request for trust, and yet she didn't feel pressured or threatened.

Heedless of the torrents of rain, they followed a smaller, rocky path on the side of the track, and Clark took great care in keeping her from tripping on the slippery rocks obstructing their climb. They finally reached a small promontory and Lois discovered the entry to what looked like a cave.

Thunder clapped around them again, lightning flashing over the hill and brightening the blackened sky, where the moon and stars had disappeared behind a thick mantle of clouds.

Clark pulled her inside, and she tried to catch her breath as the downpour that had been soaking through her light clothes stopped at last. She let go of Clark's hand and energetically rubbed her arms in an attempt to warm up. But the night's cool air was assaulting her even more in the cave's humid atmosphere.

"Wait here," Clark said softly, walking to the back of their shelter and coming back with what looked like a hessian sack. He quickly ripped its seams and approached her to wrap the improvised blanket around her. "I know it's not much, but it'll keep you from freezing," he explained when she gave him an interrogative glance.

"Thank you," she said softly, sitting on the hard floor and tugging at the edge of the rough canvas. "How about you? You're dripping wet, too."

He looked down at himself as if noticing the state of his clothes for the first time, and shrugged. "It's okay, I'm used to the cold."

"Ah." She wasn't convinced, but he would probably be stubborn about it, and insist she didn't worry herself about his health, even though it was exactly what he was doing with her. "Is it part of your 'I'm living on a farm' argument?"

"How did you guess?" He grinned and sat next to her, reaching behind her back to rub a warming hand against her canvas-clad shoulders. "And you're soaked through every bit as much," he pointed out, cocking his head to the side and frowning pensively.

"If you're thinking about making me take my clothes off, Kent…" she started warningly, ignoring the thrill of excitement that ran through her at the thought of Clark warming her chilled body.

But he chuckled, shaking his head and taking his gaze and hand away from her. Why did he have to do that, she wondered almost regretfully. The closeness she'd felt with him from the moment he'd pulled her into his arms hadn't disappeared, and she didn't want him to break the connection between them.

Her wry comment had probably sounded very much like a warning, though, and she understood his immediate withdrawal, but it hadn't been what she'd intended at all. The words had been out of her mouth before she could think of their meaning and consequences, as if some defence mechanism had made her say them beyond conscious will. But she wasn't afraid of him, and she could even admit that she trusted him, despite the instability of the concept for her. She felt secure with him around, as if nothing in the world could hurt her, as if he would always be there to protect and cherish her…

She rejected the idea vehemently. This was utterly *ridiculous*! Lois Lane didn't need a man, as handsome and clever as this one was, to face the world! She didn't need anyone for anything, for that matter, and especially not Clark Kent. She'd always managed just fine on her own, even better than when she received some help from various friends and acquaintances, so why would it change, now, without any reason?

She wouldn't be fooled by a pair of tight buns and a dazzling smile, no way! Especially not an *involved* one. And anyway, she didn't need a man in her life — she'd found out long ago that the representatives of so-called dominant sex were better left out of any important matter, and she was determined to follow that rule throughout her existence. Her parents' marriage had shown her how an ostentatious wedding could degenerate into a nightmare after a mere few years, and she had no wish to turn into a younger Ellen Lane.

She could already hear Linda's sermon about how she wouldn't be able to continue to cope with the tough times when they came along if she remained on her own, or why the hell she didn't want to have kids like 'normal' people. But Linda didn't have the same kind of experiences as she did: she was moving in a rosy world, where the rich prince charming married the girl and they lived happily ever after. Words like 'deceit' and 'disappointment' were missing from her vocabulary, because she usually didn't wait long enough for a man to dump her before she took the initiative herself. She didn't blame her friend for her attitude, but it wasn't her choice to treat men the way they treated her. She preferred to ignore them rather than fool them, and she felt much better that way…

…if just incredibly lonely.

Lois sighed, wrapping her makeshift blanket tighter around herself, as if needing its warmth to make up for her solitude. Erasing the problem wasn't always the solution to it, and it was at times like these that she felt her good resolutions waver under the weight of her extreme loneliness.

Clark was a lot like her, though, despite what she'd assumed of him at first. She'd imagined that a guy with a girlfriend and a whole host of friends who seemed to care a great deal about him would be her complete opposite, but he was only hiding from childhood wounds that had never really healed. His first words to her had made him seem like an open, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy, but as always, she'd been fooled by appearances.

He was hurting, although she couldn't figure out what exactly was keeping him so shut off from everyone, even Lana Lang, Lois suspected. It just confirmed her opinion on relationships though — Clark was involved with a woman whom he probably didn't entirely trust, at least not enough to completely open up to her about what it was that kept troubling his thoughts.

There was something not right about this guy, something that made him different from any other man she'd ever known. He could be friendly and open one second, then secretive and cautious of anything he revealed the next. She assumed he didn't entirely trust her, but that was fair enough, considering she hadn't told him the entire truth about herself.

She shivered, abandoning her train of thought as droplets of rain trickled down her back, and she momentarily let go of her canvas sack, getting up to wring her hair and try to get rid of the unpleasant feeling of cold invading her whole body. Clark was right: she'd probably catch a chill if she didn't get into something dry soon, and yet there wasn't much she could do about it right then.

As if confirming her fear a sneeze escaped her and shook her whole being with another freezing shudder. Damn that stupid Kansas! Too hot during the day, and now it was as cold as the North Pole…

Her miserable musing died as a pair of strong arms enveloped her and tugged her to Clark's chest. She was taken aback by his move, but held back her protest, understanding his intention to keep them both as warm as possible. Motioning for him to sit in what looked like an alcove carved in the rock, she grabbed the canvas and draped it over his shoulders. He helped her onto his lap, and they both tugged at the hessian to wrap it around their bodies.

Being held close to Clark wasn't as natural as she'd have thought, and it took her a few minutes to relax against his strong torso and let her head fall against his shoulder. His arms maintained her closely pressed to him, and the warmth of his skin seeped through her despite the wetness of their clothes. And this time, her shiver wasn't due to the cold.

She kept her face buried in his neck, grateful for the shelter it was offering her. It was a good thing he couldn't see her face, because it would have made her even more embarrassed to let him see how much his closeness was affecting her. She'd never felt so vulnerable and strong at the same time, and she wanted to forget about her usual concerns regarding men and probe the sensation further…although to which point, she didn't know.

She was confused, and being so close to the object of her thoughts wasn't helping any. How was she supposed to keep a clear head when the touch of his fingers suffused a gentle warmth across the skin of her back, when the softness of his hair was caressing her forehead, when his quiet breathing was punctuating the drumming of the droplets of rain falling through the permeable roof.

Fortunately, they'd settled in an area spared by the trickles of rain seeping through the rock, and they only had the cold to fight against. But the storm outside was still blazing, bolts of lightning sending flashes of light through the cavern, and thunder rumbling against the walls, making them tremble with the vibrations.

She raised her head from Clark's shoulder and let her gaze sweep a quick check around the cave. It looked solid…and a simple thunderstorm couldn't make it collapse, right?

Her companion must have sensed her concern, because he cupped his hand at her neck to pull her close to him again. "Don't worry, this cavern is the entrance to an ancient quarry. It's resisted too many tornadoes to give out on us now," he reassured her, his voice soft and soothing. "My Dad already knew of its existence when he was a kid. I remember the stories Wayne told me about the times they both spent here during their childhood," he added with a quiet chuckle.

She felt his pulse accelerate as he mentioned his father, and she held him tighter, trying to give him the strength she realised he needed. He responded by dropping his forehead against hers and closing his eyes.

"Do you…do you want to tell me about him?" she whispered after a few minutes of charged silence.

She felt him heave a deep sigh, and his body quivered against hers. For a second, she thought he would shy away from her, and that his barriers would crash down into place again, but he didn't push her away, reinforcing the physical contact between them with light, subconscious strokes on her forearms instead. The intimate gesture would have embarrassed her under normal circumstances, but she knew he needed her support, and she was ready to give him as much as she could.

"My father was a farmer," he started in a shaky voice. "He was the kind of guy who'd always lived in the fields and thought that nothing else in the world could make him happier. So when my grandparents retired, they moved to a house in town and their eldest boy inherited the farm. He'd just managed to convince Mom to marry him, and the estate was a pretty good start in life for them."

She sensed his half-smile and dared speaking up. "*Managed* to convince her?"

This time, he chuckled, and she breathed in relief. "Yeah. Mom was a little skittish about marriage, apparently, and Dad had to propose to her four times. Wayne told me that after each refusal, my father would spend two days and nights ploughing the fields, going home only to grab a sandwich before he left again. Wayne was his best friend, and yet Dad refused to talk to him until he'd calmed down."

"Why did your Mom turn him down?"

"I don't know." His voice faltered, and she regretted having asked her question.

It was hard for him to talk about his parents, and she'd only reminded him of what little he remembered. The fact that he always started his sentences with 'Wayne told me' hadn't gone unnoticed by her. He didn't even have the comfort of having his own memories, she realised, feeling a surge of protectiveness towards him.

He only had little snatches to hang onto, and what his father's best friend had told him over the years after his parents' death. He hadn't told her if he'd known them much, but she assumed they'd disappeared before he was old enough to remember much about them.

"It's okay," he reassured her, as if feeling her awkwardness. "It's been a long time."

"But it's still hurting," she replied, placing her hand on his heart and looking up into his eyes.

She felt his fingers close over hers, and he gave her a grateful nod of his head. Neither of them spoke for a few minutes, preferring to draw a silent comfort from each other. Lois wanted to help him, to lift the pain away from his chest and make him understand that he wasn't alone, but she knew that nothing she could say would ever make up for the loss of his parents.

Clark's hand stroked through her hair, and she let him pull her closer. A quick glance at his face told her that he'd closed his eyes and probably drifted into his memories. He was lost in his own world, a secret place where he'd certainly been taking refuge when he needed to be alone with what little childhood he'd had.

"Yeah, it still hurts." His murmur startled her, but she remained silent, letting him gather his thoughts. "I was ten when they had their accident," he continued, confirming her earlier assumption that he'd been too young to remember much about them. "I guess you could say that my main memory of them is from that day…"

"Clark, if this is too hard —"

"No." He cut her off, shaking his head but still keeping his eyes tightly shut. "I need to talk it out…" His eyelids fluttered opened and he looked at her hesitantly. "That is…if you're okay with it?"

She nodded reassuringly, urging him to go on, and moved by his thoughtfulness. Even when hurting, Clark Kent was putting her needs before his, and being careful not to impose his story onto her.

"It was around that time of the year," he started again, shifting his gaze away from hers. "They'd gone to Kansas City for the day, and I'd stayed here in Smallville, with Elisa and Wayne. You remember the drawings you saw in my bedroom?"

"The kite?"

"I had a real obsession with those, and that day, Wayne helped me build one. I'd been practicing all day when I heard Dad's car coming down the road, and I ran to the end of the track, because I was so eager to show him my new toy. I really had no idea," he added bitterly.

"You couldn't have known," Lois answered softly, sensing that the most difficult part of his tale was coming up.

"I saw the truck drive by the point where I was standing. Fast. Too fast. I didn't have time to see the driver, I just heard a loud crash and everything was over." The end of his sentence was quickly blurted out, and the hand that had been resting on her back lifted to his face to wipe at his eyes.

Lois reached out to brush her knuckles on his jaw, half afraid that he'd reject her intimate gesture. She didn't want him to feel uncomfortable around her, and she knew that his confession was probably leaving him very vulnerable. She'd never felt so intent on comforting someone, as if it was vital for her to be there for him, to respond to his needs.

She hugged him to her, letting him cry silently in her hair, aware that it was probably the first time he'd opened up about this in a long time, if ever. Why he had kept it bottled up for so long, and why he'd told *her*, whom he barely knew, she had no idea. But what mattered right now was that she was there, holding him, and the rest of the world faded.

He pulled away from her after a few minutes, his eyes still bright from the tears he was trying — and failing miserably — to hide from her. He leaned his forehead against hers, murmuring a "thank you" so low that she barely heard it, but the whisper already meant so much to her.


He'd told her everything, and despite the state of incredible vulnerability it was leaving him in, he felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from his chest. For the past eight years, that dreadful September day had remained bottled up in his heart, like a secret he didn't want to share with anyone.

So why had he told Julia Lewis about it?

He'd only known her for a few hours, had no idea who she really was, nor what she was doing in Smallville. She'd probed into his life and trespassed into his old farmhouse, hurtling into his life like a rocket and having the effect of a tornado in his emotions. She hadn't done anything to be worthy of his trust, and yet he'd completely opened up to her, without the ounce of a regret.

It had been harder than he'd thought to let his words reconstruct his parents' story — images and thoughts had been filling his mind for all those years, but talking them out was bringing it to a whole new level, as if finally letting the reality of their deaths strike him full force for the first time. He'd never managed to accept it, but tonight, held close to Julia's heart, feeling her comfort beyond the power of words, was soothing the soreness imprinted on his soul since the day of the accident.

He didn't want her to see him crying; he wasn't feeling particularly self-conscious about it, nor thought that men couldn't show their sorrow, but something within him was still holding him back, preventing him from letting his pent up tears overwhelm him.

Taking a calming breath, he lifted his head from her hair and let his forehead fall against hers, shivering when her fingers tenderly brushed at the wetness on his cheeks. Closing his eyes, he stopped thinking and let the sensations of sweetness wash over him, only half-aware of the uniqueness of the moment he was living.

Later, he would always wonder who, between Julia and himself, had taken the initiative. Later, he would always remember the quiver that had run through him in the very second of hesitation before the distance was closed between them. Later. But when he felt the first touch of her lips on his, past and future flew out of his mind, leaving him only aware of the woman in his arms and the thrills of pleasure running through his spine.

His hands roamed up her back, tangling in her still wet hair and pulling her closer, pushed by a primal need stronger than reason itself. Her kiss was sweet, mingling with the salt of his tears, and he drowned in her embrace. He was grateful for the support of her arms around him; the feel of her mouth against his was overwhelming, pushing him over an edge he hadn't even been aware existed, uncovering sensations he'd never suspected he possessed.

He wasn't in control of anything. All of his moves were born of instincts responding to the feel of Julia's lips and hands stroking him. His skin was tingling from everywhere she touched him, demanding more and wiping out his inhibitions. Kissing her was the most natural thing to do, and he relaxed against her, holding back a groan when she murmured his name.

His lips plundered hers with renewed energy, his mind blanking out her half-hearted protest until her fingers clawed into his shoulders and pushed him away. Pain shot through him when he felt her withdrawal, but she must have sensed his distress, because she closed her mouth over his in a brief kiss. Her gaze conveyed reassurance as she broke off, but his shuddery sigh probably told her it wasn't enough.

"Julia, I'm sor -"

"No you're not," she cut him off before he'd had time to complete his apology. "You're not," she explained when he gave her a blank look, "because I don't want to be the only one to have enjoyed this so much."

His eyebrows shot up, but her grin was contagious, and he found himself responding to it in kind. Her expression was a mixture of mischievousness and sensuality, and he found himself captivated by the gleam of desire shining in her eyes. Unable to hold himself, back, he bent forward to take her lips in another kiss, stealing a few more seconds of bliss.


It wasn't happening.

It couldn't be happening.

She couldn't be in Clark's arms, feeling the softness of his mouth brushing against hers, ripples of desire shooting through her and leaving her body limp, at his mercy. And yet each of her attempts at pulling away was getting more difficult, more painful for her and — she knew — for him. Something was passing between them, a feeling that was stronger than anything she'd experienced before, and reason held too little value to restrain her instincts.

She hadn't been expecting such a sensation to course through her spine when he'd joined his lips to hers. Their first kiss had been born of a mutual search for comfort, and it should have broken off as quickly as it had started…

And yet, she was melting in his embrace, Clark's arms wrapped tightly around her and keeping her from collapsing against him. The same dizzying awareness of him and only him that had invaded her earlier in the stables, or more recently, when he'd saved her from the tree's brutal fall, was overwhelming her senses, eating away at all consciousness until the only remaining thought she could perceive was the soft caress of his lips on hers, the gentle teasing of his tongue as he kissed her, and the fire of his touch on her skin.

She wanted him. She wanted him like she'd never wanted any other man before, and the revelation was too startling to her to engender the usual fear that she might wake up later to the harsh reality of the world. For once, there was no barrier between her desire and herself, there were no questions asked, no unanswered concerns. Clark was in her arms and the rest didn't matter.

He'd wakened a yearning deep within her, swallowing her inhibitions and making her surrender to the feel of his lips as they teased hers apart. She didn't offer any resistance to his affections, responding to them with an eagerness that sent her concerns ever farther from her mind. She'd tried to push him away, to regain some control over a situation that was rapidly getting out of hand, but the sincerity of his gaze had been enough to send reason to a forgotten oblivion.

And when he'd tried to apologise for what had been a mutual evolution of their closeness, she'd been afraid of his withdrawal. She hadn't wanted to hear it, and she'd responded with a feeble attempt at humour. Clark's reaction had surprised her — she'd expected him to shut himself off from her, or even to accuse her of being responsible for initiating something that both of them had started. But he'd done nothing of the kind. He hadn't tried to hide behind an accusation, letting her take all the blame for a kiss that had been anything but innocent. On the contrary, he'd started off by showing himself as the guilty party, and when she'd voiced her protest, he hadn't denied the connection that had sparked between them. She appreciated his honesty, and when he'd pulled her into another kiss, she'd proceeded to tell him without words that his reaction had meant a lot to her.

The canvas slid from her shoulders but the cold draught circulating around the cavern was useless to cool down the fire that Clark's hands were setting on her. Her wet clothes were clinging to her skin, spreading a welcome warmth through her where they connected with those of her partner, and she pushed him up against the rock behind him, shifting to a more comfortable position on his lap.

Her restless attitude pulled Clark back to a reality he'd lost touch of, and he broke off their kiss, gasping for breath and trying to ignore the lump in his throat as Lois unclasped her hands from his nape to run her palms down his chest. An irrepressible need to feel her touch his bare skin took hold of him, and biting his lip and clenching his fists did little to restrain his so far uninhibited desire.

From her vantage position, she was looking down at him with a predatory expression that he wouldn't have expected from her. It wasn't enough to make him shy away from her, and he knew that the same light was shining in his eyes, burning like a consuming flame between them and urging him to pounce. The more reasonable part of his mind that had been urging him to run away was evaporating in the heat of the moment.

Her name escaped his lips in a sigh that barely made it past his mouth before she was capturing it in another devastating kiss, and he was lost to the world. He shivered uncontrollably when her fingers found their way under his t-shirt and grazed the wet skin of his chest.

He found himself drowning deeper into the sensations she was evoking in him, and his mouth left hers with a regretful sigh, only to explore the warm patch of lightly burnt skin on her shoulder. The raindrops had somewhat soothed the scorches inflicted by the afternoon's sun, it seemed, and the tender kisses he dropped at the base of her neck fortunately didn't make her flinch. On the contrary, Julia tilted her head to the side, giving him better access.

Encouraged by her reaction, Clark's fingers tentatively reached up her forearm and trailed in timid circles on her shoulder until they came in contact with the thin strap of her camisole top. Julia didn't make a move to stop him, or offer a protest, when he carefully slid it down her arm, following the soft caress of his hand with a series of feather-like kisses.

Clark had almost wished that Julia would call a halt, sparing him the pain of pulling away when all he wanted was to push his limits further, to the point of no return, but she seemed as wrapped in the moment as he was, and wasn't showing any sign of reluctance. He needed a break, he needed to get away from her, and it was now or never. He knew that if he let her go any further, he would never be able to pull back.

Taking a deep, mental breath, he framed her face with his hands and after a regretful, last tug on her lips, he pushed her away from him. Her fingertips stilled on his waist beneath his t-shirt, but the simple contact was enough to make his breathing erratic and scatter his thoughts.

"Julia, I…" He trailed off, unable to bring himself to say the words that would blow off all his chances of finding out if what he was feeling was real. Her gaze held a concern that he interpreted as a fear of rejection, and he didn't want to turn her down when it had already torn him up to break off their encounter.

Why had he waited for so long before meeting Julia? He felt as if he'd lost the first eighteen years of his existence and hadn't really been alive until this very minute, and this woman was raising a hope he didn't know he possessed.


Lois knew right from the second Clark pulled back from her that he was shutting her off. She'd made a mistake in kissing him so thoroughly — it wasn't like Lois Lane to surrender to a man so easily, anyway, and she felt her face redden when she realised what she'd been doing, and where it would have led her if Clark hadn't stopped their embrace from spinning out of control.

He was looking at her with an unexpected mixture of regret and fear, and she realised he'd been as affected by their kisses as she had been. Each of his tender gestures had expressed a carefulness and respect she'd never known in men she'd dated before, and the least of his shy explorations was shooting ripples of pleasure through her, making her giddy with need.

She knew she could have given herself to him without any hesitation if he'd kept worshipping her this way, and for the first time in her life, she knew she wouldn't have regretted it. Not that Clark Kent was devoid of the noticeable flaws of his male counterparts, but the fear of getting hurt was overpowered by her need to feel the strength of his arms supporting her and the fire of his lips burning her.

The warmth of his body was still seeping through the skin of her fingertips where they'd stilled at his waist, and the gentle rise and fall of his ribcage as he breathed accompanied her return to a precarious quietness.

Forcing herself to move off his lap, Lois snapped out of the fascination of his gaze on her and blinked against the turmoil of light drawn by the storm outside the cavern. She couldn't help but let out a small sigh of loss and disorientation when he readjusted his soaked clothes and huddled in a corner of the alcove, hugging his knees to his chest and resting his head on them, facing away from her.

Taking advantage of the time and privacy he offered for her to gather herself, Lois took a quick look at her appearance to evaluate the damage. Her camisole top was crumpled, and she smoothed it back in place, bringing the spaghetti strap back onto her shoulder and holding back a shiver when her fingers brushed the patches of skin still ablaze from Clark's kisses.

The memory of their too fast encounter was quickly drifting away, like a dream that hadn't been meant to be, and she reluctantly let it go, resisting the part of her mind that so desperately wanted their kisses to be the beginning of something between them. It was impossible; she knew that, and wouldn't challenge Clark's decision, whatever it was. She only hoped he would be honest with her and not try to lure her into false hopes, she thought with a despondent sigh as she grabbed the canvas and wrapped it around her, wishing it would take away the chill coursing through her insides.

It was awkward to sit next to him after she'd been half- sprawled on him and smothered him with heated kisses and caresses. She longed to return to the warmth of his hands as they stroked their way up her back and tangled in her hair; she longed to feel his soft sighs of pleasure as they kissed; she longed to be with him again, and yet the few inches separating them seemed like an impassable obstacle.

He slowly turned towards her, hesitation playing in his gaze as he looked at her, and Lois lowered her eyes, finding herself unable to face him. It was already hard enough without him being the sweet guy who tried not to hurt her with rejection; if she had to lose him, she preferred it was now, before she fell too hard for him.

/Har, you're already head-over-heels in love with him./


No, she wasn't.

She was only *slightly* attracted to him. Sure, he was handsome, sweet, understanding, romantic and even vulnerable. It didn't mean he was perfect. Perfection was overrated anyway, and also extremely boring, when you thought about it.

/But he's perfect for *you*./

Lois shut off the stray thought as irrelevant, planting in her mind the firm reminder that Clark Kent wasn't available and hoping it would slow down the hammering rhythm of her heartbeat against her chest.

/He's a pretty good kisser, too./

She shut her eyes tightly and slowly massaged her temples in a circular move, trying to evacuate the tension spreading through her muscles as a part of her continued to bicker about a point that wasn't arguable. So why did she keep feeling the tickling sensation left by the tender brush of his lips on her? Why was her skin still burning from his touch?

Why were her numb fingers slowly taken away from her forehead and enveloped in the cocoon of Clark's larger hands?


"I'm fine," she replied, forcing the firmness into her voice and looking down at their entwined fingers. She knew she should bring this to a halt, but she couldn't bring herself to pull her hands out of his. Her moves were held back by an unknown force that kept her at his mercy. "I'll be fine," she added, more for her own benefit than for his.

She let him tug her close to his chest and rested her head on his shoulder, blocking out all thoughts of tomorrow. She'd always lived in the present, never expecting to be still alive on the next day; even before she found her vocation and started sticking her neck out into dangerous investigations, she'd never had any assurance about her future.

Dreams, yes.

Certainties, no.

Yet now she needed more than what the present second was offering; she wanted to be sure that Clark Kent would still be there when this was over and she returned to Metropolis. She wanted to know if she was just a passing fling for him, or if the sparks of passion exploding through her veins when he'd kissed her had been as real for him as they had for her.

And as she let herself be rocked by the rhythmic drumming of the rain on the woods-covered hill outside and the still violent blasts of light immediately followed by rumblings of thunder, she snuggled closer to her companion, revelling in the feel of his arm loosely wrapped around her and the soothing beating of his heart under her ear.


Clark heaved a sigh of relief when Julia didn't offer any resistance and leaned into him. Her tense body progressively relaxed, and his eyes drifted from her fragile form to sweep the alcove in which they'd taken refuge. He could feel the humidity invading the air, and for a second, was tempted to warm the woman in his arms in a not-so-ordinary way, but he rejected the thought. He didn't have a tight enough control on his heat-vision to use it on her, and a cold was better than burns provoked by his carelessness. Still, he didn't want her to catch pneumonia, and he pulled the hessian up to her throat.

She gave him a grateful look from beneath her lashes but still didn't say a word. Her silence was beginning to worry him; she'd claimed she was okay, and earlier on, she'd refused his apology on the basis that their kiss had been mutual and not only initiated by him, but there was still a tiny bit of concern claiming his attention.

Being with her felt right. More right than it had ever been with Lana. She was the person he'd been waiting for, the one he'd thought he'd never find, and for the first time in his life, he was afraid of losing himself in a relationship. When you wanted something so much that it hurt, your one fear was to see it slip through your fingers, and when Julia had pulled away from him, he'd needed a minute to collect his thoughts and shut off the sensation of panic tumbling over him and ripping his heart to pieces.

Now that his love was peacefully resting on his shoulder, though, a soothing sensation was replacing the fear, and he let his fingers aimlessly play with the edge of the canvas spread over her, interrupting his close observation of Julia's reaction in favour of a quick review of the night's events.

Lana's recommendation to take care of himself and be careful seemed so far away now, as if it had belonged to another world. He'd been supposed to run after Julia and bring her back to town before she made a big mistake and willingly threw herself into trouble, but the stubborn woman had managed to turn the tables around and convince him to go along with her plan. Not that she'd been exactly willing to have him follow her at first, but she hadn't had much choice; since he couldn't drag her back to Smallville, he would stick with her and do his best to protect her, were the bad guys to attempt to hurt her.

Julia Lewis didn't need protection. *He* did. Lana's jealous remarks the previous evening came back to him, and he sighed, realising she'd been right and he'd only been hiding the truth from himself. What was the point in burying his head in the sand when he'd been fascinated with this woman right from the first moment he'd seen her? The fact that it wasn't fair to Lana didn't change anything that he was feeling, and lying to himself and to his girlfriend wouldn't heal his wounds if he let go of the bliss he'd finally seized.

The pangs of guilt throbbing in his heart didn't lessen the feeling of completion he'd reached by holding against his chest.

It wasn't fair. It wasn't right. The woman resting peacefully in his arms should be Lana. His childhood friend. His high school sweetheart. A girl who thought he was committed to her, despite the ambiguous state of their relationship. They acted like a couple, but they weren't one, and had both realised it long ago, even though they'd been doing as much as they could to hide the truth from themselves.

It was time he stopped kidding himself; whatever he had hoped to get from his relationship with Lana, it wouldn't ever match what he was on the verge of reaching with Julia Lewis. Part of him wanted desperately to ignore his growing feelings for the city girl who'd dropped in on his life a mere twelve hours earlier, but staying with a woman he didn't *love* wasn't the kind of security he was looking for. For the first time in his life, he was afraid of plunging into the unknown, body and soul, to put his heart on the line and ignore the risks involved. But at the same time, he was unable to turn his back on Julia and pretend nothing had ever happened.

It was too late to go back.

He sighed softly as the despondency of his musing finally settled on him. It seemed as if time had stood still since they'd reached this remote cave to take refuge from the violent thunderstorm beating down on the hill, he thought as he craned his head out of the rocky alcove to take a look outside the cavern. Torrents of rain were rushing down the slopes, the wind was restlessly battling the leaves of the highest cottonwoods, and a thick fog had spread its white tentacles around every tree and plant of the forest.

Clark leaned his head against the rough wall behind him and held back a shiver of discomfort when a rivulet of moisture released by the porous rock face trickled down his neck and disappeared under his t-shirt.

The rain looked like it would never stop, pouring down on the soil in lithe curtains and drowning the tufts of summer-dried grass growing on the path they'd been taking only a few minutes earlier. It fell in waves pushed by a wind blowing in gusts and ricocheted into the numerous ponds forming in the potholes pockmarking the mud-covered track, splashes of water swirling in mini-tornadoes and soaking everything around them. Bright strokes of lightning were zinging through the night sky, spreading an instantaneous and grey light over the hill before darkness reasserted itself.

With a bit of luck, Kansas's capricious weather would slow down the military camp's departure. The violence of the storm made it impossible to stay out, even more so when the woods were such a target for lightning strikes.

They'd been lucky to find themselves near the abandoned quarry, Clark reflected as he remembered the way the impressive-looking cottonwood they'd been passing had been blown apart by the force of lightning and could have fallen onto Julia if he hadn't had quick enough reflexes. A brief, painful image of a blood-covered woman lying on the ground filled his mind, but he quickly shook it off, refusing to let his anxieties resurface.

A darting of his gaze down to the warm body snuggling up to him brought him back to the sweet reality. She was safe. And for as long as he lived, he would make sure nothing could harm her.

Funny how life threw curves at you and the most frustrating of events could turn into blissful happiness. Twenty-four hours earlier, he'd been convinced he'd spend most of his life feeling lonely, even if his relationship with Lana stood the test of time. And now he found himself in woods that had been his playground during most of his childhood, feeling the weight of his painful memories being heft off his shoulders for the first time in his life. Confiding in Julia had been natural, and no sensation of awkwardness had followed his revelations about the accident.

He should have opened up about his painful childhood story much earlier, but somehow he'd never been able to talk about it with any of his friends. Wayne and Elisa were too close to the problem, having lived the same nightmare as he had, that day in September 1976. Reliving the hours of disbelief and numbness that had followed the removal of the lifeless corpses from the car wreck with people who'd witnessed the same scene of horror wouldn't have helped in exorcising his demons.

And with Lana, he'd never been completely able to open up about the nightmares haunting him. She'd known his parents and taken part in the first few years of happiness in his childhood, and maybe that was why he felt somewhat reluctant to share the feelings of guilt and despair haunting his mind since the accident.

He'd always found it extremely difficult to talk about his feelings, especially when it reminded him he would have wished to tell his parents how much he loved them. It seemed pointless to rummage through regrets, and it was too late, now.

But confiding in Julia had eased some of the pain and sorrow he'd been carrying for most of his teenage years. He felt freed from the oppressing sensation heaving in his chest and imprisoning him in a circle of memories he hadn't made the effort to escape. The numbness of his limbs paralysing him every time he thought about the accident was being lifted from his body, leaving him tired but finally relaxed.

Closing his eyes, Clark let the fresh air circulating around the cavern envelop him, soothing the restlessness of his mind and pulling him into a half-conscious state where the only awareness of the outside world was the pounding of raindrops and muffled rumbling of thunder outside as the storm progressively calmed.


She was dozing. She couldn't allow herself to fall asleep, but she was inexorably pulled in the warm cocoon of a restful nap, and her resistance was only maintained here on that infinitesimal frontier between awareness and dreams. Invariably, a second of inattention was opening up the world of unconsciousness under her, and she felt herself fall inexorably towards its bottomless pit, until she mentally grabbed onto fleeing reality, whether it was the gentle breathing of her companion or the retreating sounds of the thunderstorm.

Her eyelids were heavy, a constant reminder of the tiredness claiming her, and the only thing keeping her awake was the discomfort of the chill running through her when gusts of cold air brushed her soaked clothes through the canvas protecting her. The hand she'd loosely wrapped around Clark's chest gripped the cotton cloth of his t- shirt as she struggled against the goosebumps spreading on her skin.

The outline of a thought formed at the border of her mind, and for a second she wondered how Clark managed to keep warm even though he wasn't protected by the hessian sack as much as she was. His bare arm was wrapped around her, on top of the canvas, and most of his skin was exposed to the cold, but he didn't seem to mind the discomfort at all, as if it didn't affect him.

She perceived a movement under her hand and her grip on the t-shirt she'd been holding on for dear life loosened a little, as if pushed by a mysterious force. A couple of seconds later, a gust of cold air hit her chest and swept away the protective warmth that snuggling against Clark had provided until now. He was pushing himself away from her and yet she couldn't feel any of his gestures apart from the slow, sliding movement of her hand as her arm was pulled upwards…until it fell off his chest and onto the cold, hard ground of the alcove.


The troubling thought abruptly tugged her back from the state of sleepiness she'd been encased in, and she warily opened her eyes, half-hoping she'd been dreaming and Clark was still peacefully lying beside her. But the hard floor of the alcove beside her was bare, as if her companion had never been there. A few feet ahead, she could see the archway of the cavern's entrance outlined against the lesser darkness outside.

And right beside her, a more shadowy part, as if the exact spot where Clark had been lying had drawn the shape of his body in a darker shade.

Lois instinctively looked up, feeling the tension rise in her throat as she realised something wasn't normal. The sight that greeted her a few feet above blew her first impression out of the water, and she swallowed loudly, thinking frantically and blinking repeatedly in the hope that the image formed by her exhausted mind would go away and the rules of logic would resume their preponderance.

Clark Kent was floating on a cushion of air.

She tentatively waved her hand under him, half-expecting to feel something solid that could explain the supernatural phenomenon.

In vain.

Now completely awake and unable to claim that she was dreaming, Lois shifted to a kneeling position and repeated her checking operation above Clark's body, shutting off the feeling of dizziness that took hold of her when her companion kept floating, as though carried by tiny waves of air that hefted him aloft.

Still nothing.

No nylon wire, no concealed mechanism that could have been hidden in the cavern and been used to scare or impress her.

Lois had seen many magicians operate this kind of illusion, but she'd never been close enough to determine what was real from what wasn't. However, as talented as people claimed guys like David Copperfield to be, she'd never believed for a second that something *magic* was involved in their shows. As far as she was concerned, it was all about distracting the credulous watcher and using the basic rules of physics to create a deception. Nothing more.

Still. If Clark was a new David Copperfield, he was darn good at it, she mused. Or maybe he'd been hypnotised, like this woman she'd once seen on TV who had then been suspended between two chairs, body stiff and rigid as a board, against all sense or reason or the laws of the universe. It looked impossible, but Lois had to face the truth now that she was confronted with Clark's…state.

He didn't seem like he was under any spell, though. A quick glance at his face confirmed that he looked peacefully asleep.

He wasn't dead, was he?!

No…his chest was still heaving with each of the breaths he took, and as she pressed her ear to his heart, she heard its strong and reassuring beating.

Unable to stay inactive any longer, Lois shook Clark's shoulder, tentatively at first, then more insistently when she noticed his lack of reaction. She called his name softly, afraid to startle him and wondering if he'd fall heavily back on the alcove's ground when he'd wake.

His eyelids fluttered open and he sighed her cover-name, his gaze locking with hers, the depth of his tender look melting all coherent thought and making her temporarily forget about the object of her puzzlement.

She could strike hypnosis from the list of possible explanations, though. He was conscious and yet there was still several dozen *empty* inches between his back and the floor.

"Clark…" she started, hesitating slightly when he didn't seem to mind his current situation. Was he even aware that he was challenging Sir Isaac Newton's laws? "Do you have something to tell me?"

His eyebrows rose abruptly, disappearing into his hairline, and he stared at her as if she'd grown as second head.

"You're kind of…uh…" Floating. She couldn't tell him he was floating, or he'd think she had gone nuts! With reason, too. Although to be fair, she wasn't the one lying on a cushion of air and nothing else.

Clark seemed completely confused, so she waved her hand under his back. As he craned his head to see what she was doing, the penny seemed to drop…and so did he. His body fell heavily onto the hard floor, and he gasped, his eyes growing wide as he seemed to finally realise what was bothering her.

"Floating," Lois finally completed her earlier remark in a whisper, flinching as Clark's already stunned expression turned to terror.

"I was…what?" he enquired faintly, his voice trembling.

"Floating," she repeated, forcing the calmness into her tone. "Don't look at me as if I'm fit for the asylum!" she added defensively when he kept staring at her. "I didn't imagine it, and you saw it, too! You were hovering a foot above the ground, and there was nothing holding you. I checked."

"Oh…my God. This is…but this is impossible!"


All at once, Clark decided he couldn't just sit there and listen to Julia's account of what she'd witnessed. He got up abruptly, ignoring her murmur of protest. It was completely crazy, he couldn't have been…levitating?!…he screamed inwardly as he started to pace around the cave.

/No-one would think you could be so strong either…/

His abilities. Of course. Did that mean that floating was part of the abnormalities of his physiology? Just like his invulnerability, his quick reflexes and incredible strength? Just like the fact he could see through pretty much everything and start a fire with his eyes?

Floating. It sounded so farfetched, so crazy, so…impossible! Besides, he hadn't discovered any other unexpected aptitude for a few years now. Admittedly, his gifts had appeared progressively through his teenage years, but there had been no surprises for some time, simply the steady advancement and growing strength of the abilities he already had to forebear.

Would it ever stop? He already felt alien enough without such an obvious difference appearing to remind him yet again that he wasn't like his peers. He flinched at his own choice of word, his conversation with Wayne flashing back through his mind.

He was probably an alien. Not one with green, cold skin like you saw on the sci-fi TV shows, but still an alien nonetheless. A freak.

And how could he explain to Julia the phenomenon she'd just witnessed without giving away his secret? Wayne's recommendation immediately came back to him, and he realised what a tricky situation he'd put himself in. Not that he could have known that he'd start floating without notice, but it didn't change the consequences of what had just happened.

Julia would expect a plausible reason for what she'd seen, and he couldn't give her one. Even the truth sounded completely out in left field, and if he was lucky enough that she didn't immediately send him to be dissected like a frog, she'd take him for a complete wacko. Two solutions, none of which were exactly satisfying.

From the corner of his eye, he noticed that she'd lowered her head and wasn't looking directly at him, although he was convinced that her mind was elaborating on a dozen scary theories to explain what she'd seen. Or maybe she'd already figured it out and was afraid of him…

Oh, God, no…don't let her be afraid of him!

He stopped pacing and took a careful step towards her, a sensation of relief washing over him when she didn't shy away and looked up at him instead. It wasn't fear that was shining in her eyes, nor horror. Only a pure, honest gaze, which he found himself willing to return.

"You had no idea, did you?" she asked quietly, breaking the silence that had settled between them since their mutual discovery.

He shook his head, unable to form his thoughts into words and still not trusting his voice to speak.

"Of course you didn't. Floating. That's not something exactly usual," she added, probably more to herself than for his benefit. She sharply cocked her head to the side, an amused smile playing about her lips. "Can you…can you do it again?"

"I don't know. I have no idea how I did it the first time around. I don't even know if it happened before."

"Didn't Lana mention anything to y…"

Lois trailed off when she saw his pained reaction to her question, and immediately regretted mentioning Clark's girlfriend. After what had happened between them, he probably didn't need a reminder that he was involved with someone else. Someone who trusted him and didn't have any idea of her boyfriend's attraction to another woman.

Returning her attention to the present, she gave Clark an encouraging nod and watched him wrinkle his forehead in concentration as he made another attempt at lifting himself off the floor.

After a few seconds of idle struggle, he shrugged apologetically at her. "Maybe it only works when I'm sleeping." He sounded…calm, for someone who'd just discovered he could do something that was completely impossible for anyone else.

Too calm.

Even calmer than she was.

Under normal circumstances, learning something like this would have made her either laugh in complete disbelief, or scream in fear at what was a definitive dent in what she'd always thought to be the limit between reality and science fiction. And yet she didn't feel panicked, as if nothing could surprise her where Clark was concerned. It looked almost natural, almost…normal, as paradoxical as it sounded. The slight sense of dizziness accompanying her discovery was pushed to the back of her mind as she concentrated on the man standing before her.

"Maybe it's not about thinking hard about it. Maybe you just have to believe in it and it'll happen." It was so strange for her to actually voice thoughts that would have seemed completely farfetched to her a few minutes earlier, and yet she couldn't help but observe Clark in complete fascination as he obeyed her.

When his feet left the ground and levitated a couple of inches off the floor, her tense face broke into a broad smile of awe and she let out a gasp of admiration at the supernatural feat. "You did it!" she exclaimed, excitement rushing through her as she realised what it meant. She'd found a boy-wonder! A guy who could fly!

"Do you think you could levitate higher and sort of…move in the air?" she asked, feeling too embarrassed to voice her thoughts.

"You mean like flying?"

She nodded, realising her question hadn't been exactly subtle, but grateful to Clark for not resenting her curiosity.

"I don't know. My other abilities developed progr…" Clark trailed off and clapped his hand to his mouth when he realised his goof. He'd given himself away without a second thought, and now it was too late to back-pedal and claim that Julia had heard him wrong.

"Other…abilities?" she pronounced carefully, raising a curious eyebrow at him and making him want to be swallowed by the earth and never have to face her questions.

But it was too late, now, and he supposed she couldn't be any more surprised by his other gifts than by the levitation, to which she'd reacted rather well already. At least, she hadn't screamed, and she was still treating him normally, apart from her insistence that he try floating again, this time willingly.

Gathering what little courage he had left, Clark proceeded to tell her everything about his strange gifts, although he still kept Wayne's revelations to himself, still unsure of what to do with them. Confiding in someone he barely knew about such a heavy secret felt very strange to him, but there was something about this woman that inspired trust, and he knew implicitly that she wouldn't betray him. She seemed to grasp the seriousness of his words and didn't interrupt him until he'd finished his account.

"So what you're telling me…basically…is that you have powers?" she asked when he fell silent.

She sounded so incredulous that Clark squirmed uncomfortably. "Um…I…yeah," he finally stuttered, lowering his eyes. "Powers?"

"Yes. From what you told me, not only do you fly, but you also have some kind of X-ray vision gizmo and you can burn things with your eyes, too. And you're very fast, according to what I saw earlier."

"What you saw earlier?"

"Clark, when you saved me from being crashed by the tree, I think that took supra-normal speed. Same for the root I tripped into, earlier. Well developed reflexes can't explain something like that."

"I…uh…okay." He lowered his eyes and brushed a hand through his hair in a self-conscious gesture. "That wasn't exactly subtle, huh?"

"You could say that."

"So you think I have special powers?"

"Uh-huh. Like a witch kind of thing."

"Hey, I'm not a witch!" he replied defensively. "Nor a sorcerer for that matter. I mean, I don't mix spells and stuff, and I don't plan on straddling a broomstick any time soon."

"Too bad," she replied with a playful wink that helped release the tension that had been paralysing him since she'd found out he could float. "Bet you'd look cute on a broomstick."

Clark shook his head and sat near her, finally allowing himself to relax. "You're unbelievable."

She laughed. "Unbelievable, moi?" she forced the outraged tone of her voice. "And that from a guy who can bend steel in his bare hands and spare the price of an airline ticket!"

"Point taken," Clark chuckled with her. "Still. You are, too."

She nudged his shoulder playfully. "But you like it."

"I do," he replied, seriousness replacing the teasing tone in his voice as he turned towards her and their eyes locked.

He started to lean towards her, ineluctably and despite his own will; the rosy shade of her lips was calling to him, and he was too weak to resist its inexorable pull. Their kiss conveyed an infinite tenderness and didn't collapse into the passion that had consumed them earlier, like sealing a sweet promise.

When he broke off, Julia grasped his hand in hers and lifted it to her mouth to graze a soft caress on his fingers, and Clark silently thanked the odds for her complete acceptance of him, despite what she called his powers.

"The rain's stopped," she commented quietly as she glanced towards the first pastel shades colouring the dawn.

"And the storm's gone," he completed, nodding his head. "We've probably missed Tempus, though," he added with a shrug.

"Oh no, we didn't!" Julia exclaimed vehemently, getting up without letting go of his hand and tugging him after her as she started on the path which they'd taken before they'd been interrupted by the weather.


But his protest was lost on her as she continued her climb, visibly determined to reach the cabin as fast as they could and not minding his opinion on the topic, and knowing he couldn't talk her out of her plan, Clark followed her, shaking his head in wonderment at her stubbornness and dogged determination to win.


A dozen minutes later, they reached a less steep section of the hill, and Julia gestured for Clark to keep quiet. Some twenty feet away, the dark shape of a building was profiled against the lightening sky, and the clearing seemed completely deserted.

Julia muttered a dark curse that made Clark raise his eyebrows in amusement despite the situation. It looked like they'd missed the bad guys' departure, but the disappointment couldn't dampen the lightness of his mood.

His companion, however, didn't seem to share his opinion, if he went by the way her fists clenched and unclenched repeatedly and the dark mutters escaping her mouth as she surveyed the area. "Come on," she finally said, decisiveness overtaking her visible anger. "With a bit of luck they've left some kind of clue inside."

"You're not serious, are you?"

But when she quickly walked towards the wooden cabin without replying to him, he realised his question had been useless. Of *course* she was serious! This woman was flirting with danger as if she considered it a hobby, and she didn't seem eager to watch her butt or think of a replacement plan, were hers to fail. Come to think of it, 'failure' might not belong in Julia Lewis's range of vocabulary.

Clark caught up with her in a matter of seconds, just as she was checking the door and pushing it open. He was about to mention his concern at the fact it wasn't locked, but she pressed her index finger to her lips, urging him to keep quiet.

She made a strange series of gestures, visibly trying to make him understand something and getting exasperated when he didn't catch the meaning of her pointing to her eyes. 'X-ray', she finally mouthed.

Nodding to her, and amazed at her rapid appropriation of his abilities, Clark swept his gaze over the cabin and was slightly relieved when he spotted no living presence. His enhanced hearing revealed no heartbeat apart from Julia's and his. "No-one," he said out loud, letting her on his findings.

She gestured for him to follow her as she carefully entered the house, and he obeyed, ignoring the shudder running down his back despite the apparent deserted state of the place. He couldn't help but have a bad feeling about what they were doing, as if there was something they'd overlooked and which would signal their downfall.

The single room was inundated with brightness as soon as Julia switched on the light, and they blinked to get used to the contrast with the darkness still prevailing outside.

The cabin was mostly empty, apart from a narrow and very uncomfortable-looking sofa in a corner, just under a dirty window, and a desk at the far end of the room. Julia immediately opened the three drawers, growling when the old wood cringed and resisted, and she let out another curse when the only items she found was a used staple and a couple of paperclips.

Clark turned towards the oblong-shaped and drape-covered object sitting next to the desk, and reached a trembling hand towards it, touching its solid structure through the piece of clothing protecting it from his view. There was a strange, intuitive sense of familiarity about it, and his heart started beating faster as he slowly removed the dustsheet, revealing the streamlined…ship.

A ship.

A silver-coloured ship. With an S-shaped red and yellow symbol adorning its prow. And what looked like a message written in an ancient language engraved on the sides.

/It was ovoid-shaped, silver-coloured, with a strange red and yellow emblem on the front, and weird characters engraved on each side of the fuselage./

Wayne's description came back to him, and the similarities were unmistakable. It couldn't be a coincidence, which meant that what he was looking at was in fact the capsule that his father and his best friend had buried at the border of the Kent estate some eighteen years ago.

*His* capsule.

Clark ran his hand on the cold metal, feeling a connection to the only object linking him to his past, and yet unable to shake off the frustration at not being able to decipher words that probably belonged to the language of his native people.

His fingers came in contact with a cavity in the fuselage, and the top of the ship opened with a clicking sound that made his entire body quiver in a mixture of impatience and apprehension. He carefully lifted the lid and gasped as the interior revealed walls covered in electronic equipment, in the middle of which a deep blue blanket recreated the cosy atmosphere of a baby's crib.

His gaze ran admiringly over the very advanced technology until it halted on a case protecting some kind of globe that was softly humming. He reached for the item and, having retrieved it, held it up in front of him, gaping when the patches of red covering half of its surface started glowing.

The weird sensation of connection he'd experienced when he'd discovered the capsule came back, much stronger this time, and a warmth suffused him, clouding his brain for a mere second before releasing his mind with the new knowledge of his origins.

"Krypton…" he whispered, his eyes never leaving the globe even after it stopped glowing.


Julia's voice abruptly brought him back to his current surroundings, and he realised her presence had completely faded from his consciousness since he'd found the ship. As if the vessel had exerted some kind of subliminal hold on him and projected him into the truth of his origins.

The young woman was looking at him with an expression of concern and amazement. As he watched, her eyes slid inevitably to fall on the capsule.

"Krypton, indeed!" a low voice exploded behind them.

They swivelled around, Clark instinctively putting a protective arm in front of Julia when he noticed the gun pointed at them.

Lana had been right. Lloyd Tempus, their own Secretary of the Interior, was threatening them and didn't look in any mood to haggle for their freedom. The man standing behind him looked equally dangerous, and his continual staring at him made Clark squirm uncomfortably.

"I see you got introduced to your real origins," Tempus snarled, nodding towards the ship with a smirk.

"Tell us, how does it feel to discover you're not a human being?" the other man added, a sadistic note entering his voice as he addressed him.


Julia's gasp made Clark turn his attention back to her, and her immobile stance worried him. She looked like she'd been struck by something and seemed completely paralysed…unable to move or speak anything beyond the word she'd hissed in a breath.


Lois saw Clark throw her a furtive glance, but she couldn't do anything to reassure him. Oh, she knew perfectly well what he was thinking, and she'd probably benefit, so to speak, from one of his lectures when they got out of here.

*If* they ever managed to escape, she corrected despondently.

Which, at the moment, didn't look exactly predictable.

She'd give anything right now to go back to Smallville and listen to Clark's advice, to let the police take care of the problem, even if it meant she wouldn't get her scoop, and even if it might mean that both Trask and Tempus could escape and not pay for Burton Newcomb's murder, among probable other crimes they'd perpetrated.

What was she thinking? There was no way on earth she could ever regret coming to this place, and she wouldn't give up now that she was so close to reaching her goal. If Lana Lang had managed to escape them, it would be a piece of cake for Lois Lane. Especially considering she had Clark Kent's support, and they could get help from his incredible gifts.



What? What had he called her? Her eyebrows disappeared into her hairline and she glared at Tempus, desperately trying to quieten the hammering sound of her heartbeat.

"Yes, Lois. Oh, after everything we've lived together, how can you fake ignorance?" Tempus whined, and for a second, she wondered if he had lost reason.

"Beg your pardon?"

He gave her a knowing look and let out a chuckle. "That's right, Clark Kent doesn't know who you really are…yet."

Lois saw Clark stare alternatively at her and at Tempus, and she shook her head vehemently, knowing she could only delay the inevitable. She should have told Clark her real name after he'd revealed his secrets to her, but she'd been too preoccupied with her scoop to think about it, and had assumed it could wait until her investigation was wrapped up.

And Tempus was ruining the trust Clark Kent had placed in her.

What was for sure was that she'd throttle that man once she'd get her hands on him — Secretary or not.

"Julia Lewis…is that right?" Tempus didn't wait for her answer to go on, and he looked directly at Clark, addressing him. "Yes, Clark, it'll come as a shock to you to meet Lois Lane, I know."


"Lois Lane! True, she's a completely anonymous person right now, but believe me, it won't last…well, unless I prevent it, that is."

Clark turned towards her, a question on his face, but she ignored it to be dealt with later. If Tempus's intention was to distract her from her reason for being here, she wouldn't let him succeed. She'd explain the truth to Clark once they were out of danger. "You're trapped, Tempus. Nothing you say will save your career, now, and you're going to be afforded long weeks of thinking about your downfall in a state prison cell."

"Oh, yes?"

Did he look surprised?

He apparently did, she noticed, and she held back her protest, realising it was exactly what the man was looking for.

"Have I done anything to displease you?"

"Illegal research at the expense of the county's farmers and under the cover of the military authority. Murder. Kidnapping. Shall I go on?"

"My, my, my…but I seem to rate fairly high in your opinion, Lois."

"L…Lois?" Clark was still staring at her, repeating her name as if his mind hadn't been able to process the conversation since Tempus had revealed her true identity.

The Secretary looked highly amused by his attitude, and, briefly turning to Clark, he spoke up. "Yes, isn't it sad how this woman can be lying through her teeth, hiding her true persona behind a disguise and pretending in everything she does?"

"Don't listen to him, Clark!" Lois interjected when she saw her friend's expression harden and his eyes fill with hurt.

"Don't worry, Clark," Tempus added, ignoring her vehement denial. "You were going to do the same to her, anyway."

"He's only trying to split us apart," she pleaded when Clark took a step backwards, distancing himself from her.

Tempus clapped his hands, visibly happy with his performance, and waved for Trask to join him in the centre of the room. The military man took a few steps forward and for the first time since he'd entered the house, Lois noticed the square metal box he was crushing against him, the lock of which he was nervously fiddling with.

"It's yours, Jason," Tempus said, aiming a hatred-filled look at Clark.

Trask didn't need any further encouragement, and after a quick smirk of acknowledgement, he lifted the lid of the box, revealing the dizzyingly green glow of the crystal that Lois had found in the Kent backyard.

A strangled gasp at her side diverted her attention back to Clark, and she watched in dawning horror as all colour drained from his face and he struggled to breathe. Pearls of sweat appeared on his forehead and bare arms, and his fingers quivered uncontrollably. His legs suddenly gave way, and he collapsed to the ground in a trembling heap.

She immediately crouched at his side but was stopped by a death grip seizing her forearm and holding her away from him. She started to struggle free, fighting like a cat and kicking aimlessly, until a sharp pain shot through the back of her head.

The world spun dangerously, and everything faded to black.



There was nothing but the dull aching, deep within her.

A throbbing that came in waves over her, shooting through her legs, her arms, her lungs, invading her head and clouding her thoughts, making her struggle to consciousness more difficult and exhausting — a sharpness sifting through the least of her movements, paralysing her fingers.

Lois dug her teeth into her lower lip to hold back a moan of pain as she rolled her sore body to the side, blinking against the darkness surrounding her. Her hand blindly felt its way around her, looking for any clue about the — critical — situation.

The floor was hard and cold, and felt like metal. As she reached the bottom of the wall, her first impression was confirmed. She was locked in some kind of bunker, couldn't see a thing, and the only certainty of her situation was the soaring pain engorging her muscles.

Her eyes slowly surveyed the blackness around until they encountered the green glow that had preceded Clark's passing out in the cabin. A cascade of memories came hurtling through her, and she whined as utter confusion encased her recollections in blackness.



The crystal.

The crystal and Clark's struggle to keep standing as soon as it had neared him.

Lois frantically resumed her fumbling around until her fingers came in contact with something warmer, and, immediately forgetting about the dull ache invading her head and threatening to pull her back to the oblivion of unconsciousness she'd barely left, she scooted closer to the body lying next to her, tears filling her eyes as her hands recognised Clark's beloved features and thick mass of soft hair.


He wasn't dead!

He couldn't be dead. He had no right to leave her now, not after the silent promise they'd exchanged. They wouldn't let go of a relationship that had only just begun.

Clark's sombre expression as Tempus had revealed her real name and made him believe she'd been deceiving him came back to her, and, overcome by another rush of determination, Lois seized her friend's shoulders, shaking him hard in her diminishing hope that he would wake up. She still had so much to tell him, so much to explain…

Pleading his name through the sobs of despair that were progressively drowning her didn't get her a response or a reaction from him. And as her hands slid down his chest no breath seemed to stir there.

Her fingers came up to cup his face and she bent down to pull his mouth into a soft kiss, aching for any sign of life. But his lips were cold, dry and unresponsive under hers, and his skin was sleek with cold sweat from the fever that had eaten at him.

She let out a scream as the painful reality of Clark's death hit her, before collapsing onto him, letting sorrow claim her soul and shake her body. Hot tears flooded her vision, rolling down her cheeks and burning her eyes. She rested her head against his throat, instinctively slipping her hand into his and squeezing the lifeless fingers. She needed to feel his touch, to be reassured by his presence and take some strength from him, and the thought that she wouldn't ever be able to lose herself in his gaze was unbearable.

Her thoughts battled in vain and the quiescence of defeat descended on her. It was over. Everything was over. For the first time in her life, she'd been willing to take a chance in a relationship; she'd even have let him make love to her back in the cavern, if the obstacle of his involvement with someone else hadn't erected barriers between them.

And everything had to be destroyed because she was too reckless to stay out of trouble. This time, her lack of caution had become lethal to someone she cared so very deeply for, and the weight of guilt and remorse mingled with the feeling of loss prevailing in her mind.

It was her fault. If Clark was lying there, lifeless after painful minutes — or was it hours? — of agony, it was because she'd been too stubborn to listen to him and be reasonable. Instead of letting the police deal with Tempus, she'd needed to do it all by herself, ignoring the possibility that she might be in over her head a little. She should have known that someone who didn't hesitate to kill or kidnap a young woman wouldn't mind murdering an innocent man. After all, she now had no question in her that Tempus was involved in the murder of her source. The Secretary was in cahoots with Jason Trask, whom she'd seen eliminate George Thompson the night before.

If only she'd known what they were looking for, back then! But how could she have guessed that they were on the track of an alien gifted with superpowers? How could she have known that Clark Kent wasn't as much of an ordinary man as he looked?

He was an alien. She hated the term and its connotations, but Clark was indeed out of this world, coming from a far away planet. When had he arrived on Earth? He didn't remember much about his childhood, but she believed him when he said he'd been raised by the Kents until the accident that had taken their lives and left a young child pretty much on his own.

A child who was more human than anyone she'd ever known.

Clark was gentle, caring and understanding. He had every quality one could dream of, and yet Jason Trask and Lloyd Tempus wanted to eliminate him on the sole ground that he had unusual origins.

Unusual was an understatement, actually, and had she been smacked in the face with Tempus's claims without having got evidence of Clark's extraordinary abilities, she wouldn't have believed it. Yet if a man could see through opaque walls, test the strength of any material of this world, and *float*, for Pete's sake, then learning that he'd landed on earth in a spaceship and that he didn't belong to the human species wasn't such a big step away from sanity. Or insanity, depending on how you looked at it.

Still. As stunning as the information was, it didn't change anything about how she regarded him.

"Don't die on me, Clark," she whispered to him, fighting against a reality that was too quickly catching up to her.

Her gaze travelled lovingly down the length of his inert body, making out the hazy shapes of his limbs as her eyes finally started to get used to the darkness around. Her forehead dropped against his chest again when she still got no response from him, and renewed tears clouded her mind.

She didn't know how long she remained huddled against him, her fingers curled around his and her other hand threaded into his hair. A couple of seconds. A few minutes. An hour, maybe. Her conception of time was disrupted and her only anchor to life was the rapid beating of her heart echoing against the silence of their jail.

Suddenly, a tiny movement aroused her attention again, and she caught her breath, her body tense and immobile as she tried to determine if the sharp perception was the product of her imagination or had been real. She'd felt a tremor in Clark's fingers from where they were tightly wrapped in hers.

Fascinated with her discovery and fed by a renewed hope, Lois pressed her cheek to his chest, letting tears of relief wash over her as a faint but nonetheless regular heartbeat vibrated in the bones of her ear.

He was alive.

Weak, but alive.

Sending a silent thank you to fate, Lois frantically looked around, knowing she needed to act, and act fast. She had to do something to help him, whatever that was. Her eyes fell on the green rock and she cursed against the time she'd wasted feeling sorry for herself when she could have helped Clark so much earlier, if only she'd thought about dealing with the origin of his pain instead of crying all over him.

Dragging herself off him, Lois reached for the deadly crystal and, using it as a source of light, crouched to what seemed like the furthest corner of the bunker. She needed to put this thing as far away from Clark as possible. She remembered Trask's words and shuddered, unable to prevent herself from keeping the rock at a reasonable distance from her face even though it apparently didn't hurt humans.

She wished she could put it away in the same kind of box as the one Trask had been holding. It had seemed to preserve Clark from its deadly radiation as long as it was locked. But there was nothing remotely close to such an item in this empty bunker; it looked like she and Clark had been left alone with this piece of rock and abandoned to a lethal fate. The crystal would kill him, and if she didn't suffocate from the lack of air, thirst and hunger would take her after him.

Lois returned to Clark's side and, after having made sure that his heart was still beating, pondered her decision to move him towards the corner of the room opposite the rock. She'd heard so many times that manipulating someone who was unconscious or wounded could do more harm than help, but at the same time, the ominous glow of the crystal was still perpetrating its deadly work.

Refusing to let Clark anywhere near the alien mineral, she adroitly manoeuvred around him and carefully lifted his head to lay it against her knees. Sliding her arms under his shoulders, she started to pull him to her, crouching backwards as she dragged him with her.

Boy, but he was heavier than he looked. She'd barely managed to move him a couple of feet and she was already out of breath. Another effort brought her back to the hard wall, and she winced as pain stabbed through her spine again. A wary look towards the rock informed her that it was still much too close to them, but the room was too small and it was the best she could do.

Another thought struck her, and she shifted to the other side of Clark's immobile body, putting herself between the green, glowing rock and its victim. It didn't seem to have any harmful power on her, whereas its effects were immediate on Clark. Even if it did end up hurting her, she didn't care; she'd worry about that when the time came. The main thing was to prevent the radiation from hitting Clark. Now.

Her hands came down to caress Clark's face where it was resting against her thighs, and she flinched as she came in contact with his moist, burning skin. She had to do something about his fever before it worsened his state. It was probably related to the presence of the crystal in the room, though, and there wasn't much she could do about it. His t-shirt was still humid from the rain, and although the continual wetness on his chest could do damage to his lungs, it could be useful to make a fresh compress for his forehead.

Taking hold of the hem of his t-shirt, she used what little strength she had left to rip its seam and get it off him before she tore a large strip of cloth and applied it against his face. She folded the rest of the garment and pushed it under his head as an improvised pillow that would probably be more comfortable than the cold, hard floor.

She kept wiping his face and murmuring encouraging words to him, looking for the tiniest sign of improvement and refusing to lose hope a second time now that she'd found out he wasn't dead. She didn't know if strong will would help, but she was determined to get them out of here alive. Together. And, she remembered, Lana Lang and Mr Irig had been on their way to the police when she'd left Smallville, to tell them about the cabin and the possible involvement of Lloyd Tempus. Her only concern was that the Sheriff and his Deputy wouldn't believe Lana's account, but she assumed they'd at least check the place.

*If* they were still there. The thought suddenly occurred to her that Tempus and Trask could have carried Clark and her far away from the wooden house, and uncertainties drained her again. She fought the bout of depression with renewed energy, determined to keep her spirits up no matter what happened. Giving up now wouldn't change anything, and she needed to be strong for Clark.


Jason Trask wiped his hands and threw a cheerful smile at the hatch under his feet, rejoicing in the satisfaction of achievement. He'd been able to save the world from a possible alien invasion, and thanks to his determination, the creature masquerading as a human being was out of the way. It was a good thing he'd run into the information jealously kept by Thompson in the F.B.I. offices a couple of months back. If he hadn't found the file reporting that U.F.O. sighting in Smallville, Kansas, in 1966, he might never have known what was happening until it was too late and the space invader took over the nations of earth.

His mission was completed. He still needed to make sure than no other alien was lurking in the background, living among humans and waiting for the right moment to emerge, but if the patterns he'd observed over the years were anything to go by, the mysterious death of one of them would encourage his possible companions to keep quiet in order to survive on a planet that would fight them till the end.

Tempus had insisted they kept the woman locked with the invader, and he hadn't argued. If Lois Lane was helping the creature despite her knowledge of what it was, her actions were nothing more than high treason and it was a matter of national security that she didn't stay alive.

The lives sacrificed to this sacred mission wouldn't have died in vain.

The Secretary of the Interior rejoined him at the front of the cabin and nodded towards the pickup truck whose dark colours meshed with the undergrowth where it was hidden, a few feet away from the cabin. The spaceship had been loaded on the flatbed and covered with a protective tarp for the sake of discretion, and there was nothing else keeping them here in Smallville.

Trask sneaked a knowing look at his superior, smirking when the man snatched the keys from him. Tempus would always be the same, in need of a control that nothing or no-one could surpass. Everything had to be done *his* way, and if Trask would have argued under other circumstances, the peace he found in the accomplishment of his mission would have lessened his rebellious character.

Just as he closed the door to the cabin behind him and prepared to follow Tempus to the truck, a roaring sound resonated above their heads, getting increasingly louder with each second that passed. Trask knew that noise — he'd heard it enough times to immediately recognise it, and he wasn't surprised when the round shape of an helicopter appeared above the high tops of the trees surrounding the abandoned cabin.

His trained eye caught sight of an automatic gun pointed towards him before a firm voice urged him not to move in the name of the law and, at peace with himself after what he'd accomplished, he didn't make any attempt to run away, knowing that answering the state's queries would give him a chance to be granted freedom thanks to the rest of Bureau 39's support, which he was certain to obtain.

The aircraft skilfully manoeuvred to land on the narrow clearing spreading before the house, its blades swishing the air, pushing the pliable branches of the trees around. Several uniformed men jumped from the cockpit, and Trask raised his hands to indicate his non-resistance. The supreme humiliation was to hear the Sheriff read him his rights while he was handcuffed and unceremoniously pushed towards the helicopter, but he kept firmly in mind that he'd achieved what he'd been hired for, and that was the only thing that mattered.

Trask turned towards Tempus but stopped dead in his track as he noticed that the spot where the Secretary had been standing only a few seconds before was devoid of any sign of life. There was no trace of Lloyd Tempus anywhere around. Shrugging in indifference, he let the police officers push him inside the aircraft, letting his now former boss deal with his life.

Each to their own problems.


Lois abruptly woke from her half-dozing state when a deafening noise made the walls of the bunker tremble and vibrate, and she scrambled to her feet in a rush of energy and hope, only to violently bang her head against the low ceiling of the jail. The disorientation of the shock only lasted for a few seconds before she was raising her hands to the metal-coated wall above her, trying to locate the direction of the sound and determine its origin.

Her first thought had been an earthquake, but as far as she knew, Kansas wasn't a seismic-active area, and somehow, the noise held something familiar which couldn't possibly be related to the natural phenomenon. It was something else…

She waited for a few seconds, closing her eyes in concentration as she kept listening for the sounds that the bunker's thick walls let sift inside, and started when she recognised the faint rumble of human voices above her. Several people were there, and it looked like a heave of activity was taking place just over her head.

Her fingers came in contact with a narrow fissure running in a large square, and Lois started banging her fists against what couldn't be anything else but a door, unmindful of the pain spreading through her arms as she forcefully hit the wall and joined screams for help to her restless call for attention.

There were people out there, and they had to know she and Clark was here. With a bit of luck it was the Sheriff, and right now, she didn't feel concerned about Tempus and Trask being captured. What mattered was that Clark was taken away from the green crystal and eventually got the medical care he needed.

If they left without being aware that two people were trapped just under their feet, her last hope to pull through would die with their departure, and she couldn't allow that to happen.

Lois Lane would *not* give up.

Not in this life.



Wayne Irig observed the military man's arrest from a distance, frowning as he didn't find any sign of Clark and Julia Lewis. Surely they couldn't have lost themselves in woods that Clark knew by heart.

Clark to follow her despite common sense and good reason.When they hadn't returned to the police office even after he'd accompanied Lana so she could give her statements and inform Harris and Thorpe about the cabin where she'd been held prisoner, he'd understood that the young newcomer in town had somehow managed to convince

She was a real tornado, and she'd managed to sweep Clark off his feet. There was no need to be psychic to realise that the young man would follow her to the ends of the earth if she asked him to accompany her there. Under normal circumstances, Wayne would have been ecstatic about this turn of events, but knowing that Julia and Clark were out there, possibly at the mercy of men who hadn't hesitated to shoot Marty Stevens and kidnap Lana, was making him nervous.

It had been several hours since Julia and Clark started on their climb, and back at the police station, Wayne had been stamping his feet with impatience while arguing back and forth with Harris and Thorpe about the pertinence of waiting for the thunderstorm to move away before they used the helicopter bought by the state of Kansas for the benefit of Franklin County. It was indeed the most drastic way to deal with the problem they faced, and it had turned out to be the fastest, too. But it didn't change the fact that two people were still missing and that worry was churning at his stomach.

"Chief! Chief!" The frantic screams of a police officer aroused Wayne's curiosity and he approached the man who only halted his run in front of Thorpe. "There's something," he explained, catching his breath, "over there!" He pointed his finger towards the side of the house. "I heard something, like hard thumping, and there's some kind of hatch in the ground!"

"A hatch, you say?"

Thorpe sounded incredulous, but Wayne didn't need to hear more before he was running towards the direction indicated by the officer. He knew exactly what the man had been talking about; the shelter had been built even before the cabin was erected here, and it had been the centre of numerous hide-and-seek games with Jonathan Kent when they were kids.

A few seconds later he'd reached the hatch, a mixture of relief and concern hitting him as he heard a shouting, female voice inside. He skilfully manoeuvred the locks, recalling the day when he and Jon had discovered the entry to what they'd been convinced was a secret treasure trove, the same kind that was described in their favourite books. The hinges were a little rusty, but he still remembered how to open the trap door, and after some fumbling, the metal plate slid off to the side and revealed the gaping hole beneath.

Two thin hands gripped the edge and Julia's brown hair emerged from the darkness. The young woman blinked against the brightness outside, but Wayne was already helping her out, and as she lay in the strip of shadow provided by the cabin's wall, exhausted and trembling, she gestured towards the shelter, and Wayne crouched by her side to hear her words.

"Clark…crystal…hurting…took his invulnerability…away."

He didn't wait for more before he was jumping into the old refuge. He located his best friend's son huddled in a corner of the narrow space, blanking out the feeling of distress that swept through him when he realised that the woman might know more about Clark Kent than he thought she did.

Just as he was taking a firm hold on the young man and pulling him towards the exit, hoping that Thorpe would give him a hand in lifting Clark out of the shelter, a faint humming caught his attention, and the meaning of Julia's words hit him. She'd said that a crystal was responsible for Clark being hurt, that it had made him vulnerable, and that had to be it.

"Hold on tight, son, I'm getting you out of here," he muttered to the unconscious body held against him.

His head spun slightly when Deputy Harris bent down and called out to him from outside the refuge, but he quickly shook off the sensation of unsteadiness, and within a few seconds, Clark was dragged out of the hole and his vital signs were being checked.

Wayne stood a few feet away, holding back his fear as he watched a boy he thought was as solid as a rock being probed and examined. He was alive. He had to be. Jonathan Kent had implicitly let his friend take care of his son, and Wayne wouldn't fail him; if Clark died, the grief of losing someone who'd become so dear to him would be made heavier by the weight of having betrayed Jonathan's trust.

Clark was going to be fine, that was all there was to it. He'd never been sick and hadn't seen a doctor since the age of three. There was no reason why he should become more vulnerable right now, right?

Julia's words came back to him, and he remembered the green glow he'd observed at the back of the bunker while he was taking hold of Clark. The crystal. It was that thing that was hurting him, according to the young woman, and as strange as it sounded, Wayne wasn't willing to take chances and let Clark get close to this mineral ever again.

He sneaked a glance at the policemen and paramedics busying themselves around Julia and Clark, providing them with the urgent care they required, and took a tentative step back, towards the hatch. He needed to retrieve the rock before anyone else found it, and he couldn't let anyone suspect it was able to harm Clark; there was only one reason why this crystal had power over the young man when Wayne hadn't felt a thing upon approaching it, and the old farmer shuddered at the realisation. After all these years where he hadn't worried too much about his protege, he came across a material that seemed to be able to kill him.

Holding back a shudder of fear, he glanced back at Clark and heaved a sigh of relief as he heard his weak voice answer the paramedics' questions. He was itching to push his way through the crowd of policemen and crouch next to the boy to see with his own eyes that he was all right, but there was one thing he needed to take care of first.

Taking advantage of the confusion still ruling around the shelter, Wayne dipped back to the far corner and retrieved the piece of glowing rock, thrusting it into his pants pocket. He quickly climbed back outside and after darting a quick look at Clark to make sure he was still conscious, he stalked off into the forest behind the house. He needed to dispose of this thing before it could harm Clark more, and before anyone got their hands on it and asked too many questions.

He also had no idea about the extent of Julia's knowledge about Clark, and the thought that she might confide in anyone about her friend's unusual abilities scared him to the core. Still, she had seemed concerned about getting the crystal away from him, and that was a good sign. Not that it reassured him any about her intentions.

Rows of trees surrounded him as he pushed the brackens aside and made his way through the thick woods encircling the cabin. The sharply cut edges of the rock in his pocket grazed against the skin of his hand, and he held it more firmly in an attempt to gain control over a material that could kill.

Not kill just anyone, he corrected sombrely. There was something in this crystal that had a deadly power over Clark. Julia had said it took his invulnerability away, and Wayne had no doubt that it could do much more damage if Clark was exposed to it long enough. He shuddered and his fingers tensed, pressing the rock tighter to his palm.

A flash of brightness on his right caught his eye, and he stopped short, staying immobile as he tried to determine the origin of the phenomenon. The sight had been furtive, almost like a stroke of lightning…or the catching of a ray of sunlight in a rear-view mirror.

Intrigued, Wayne directed his steps towards the new object of his attention and, as he neared a dirt track, he discovered the dark green hood of a truck. He was careful as he scooted closer, intent on any noise that would signal the presence of any of Trask's accomplices, but the area was plunged in a silence only punctuated by the twittering of birds and the faraway echoes of the police officers busying themselves around the clearing.

He threw a quick look inside the cabin, sighing in relief when the absence of any living form confirmed the abandonment of the vehicle, and he turned towards the flatbed, concentrating on the bulky shape distorting the protective tarp.

There was something in there…something that gave him a strange sense of familiarity, and a growing worry inside his guts. He reached a trembling hand towards the plastic sheeting and heaved it carefully aside, catching his breath as his memory was hit with the recognition of an object he'd thought he would never see again.

An object he'd buried under Jonathan Kent's land many years ago.

It was the same as when he'd last seen it: silver-coloured curves joining at the prow, and red and yellow emblem engraved on the front.

His hand automatically reached out to touch the smooth material of the capsule, but he quickly withdrew it, seized by remorse.

He should never have encouraged Jonathan to bury Clark's ship and hide its existence from the kid; seeing it again now, Wayne realised how important a part it played in what made Clark who he was, and he wished he'd been thoughtful enough to take the initiative much earlier than the previous night and told the young man about his possible origins. Instead, he'd spent years listening to his friend's son, letting him confide his deepest fears, and shrugging an evasive reply whenever Clark became frantic to know about his past.

It hadn't been fair…

…and yet, neither would it have been, had he betrayed Jonathan and Martha's will to protect their son from the weight of his legacy.

Wayne buried his hand in his pocket again, reaching for the green crystal and sighing softly. Clark had received the knowledge of two parts of his heritage today: one, held between his fingers, had taken away his strength and almost promised him to death; the other, resting at the back of an abandoned truck, had probably brought him to this world. To life.

The old farmer regretfully turned away from the truck, promising himself he'd come back later to retrieve what was due to Clark. He wouldn't let anyone get their hands on the capsule and was determined to let his surrogate son decide what he wanted to do with it. The ship belonged to no-one but Clark Kent, now.

Wayne started again on his quest for a secure place to hide the deadly rock, sweeping his surroundings with an attentive glance to make sure he was still alone. The thought had crossed his mind to put the crystal inside the ship, but he'd quickly rejected it. He couldn't take the risk of letting tiny shreds of the material disperse themselves around the capsule; he had no idea what quantity was required to harm Clark, and he couldn't take the chance of guessing.

He needed a remote, safe place to bury it, where no-one would ever retrieve it until he found an even better solution to get rid of it. He walked for a few more minutes and, when he thought he'd put enough distance between Clark and the dangerous rock, he started to dig the soil under the bracken at the foot of an old tree whose overlarge trunk would be a good marker for him to retrieve the mineral once things had settled and the hill was deserted again.

When he returned to the clearing a few minutes later, he was happy to notice that Clark was progressively regaining more strength and moving his fingers tentatively, following the instructions of the paramedic attending him, and as he approached him, the young man gave him a weak smile.

"Close call, huh?"

Wayne nodded thoughtfully. "Are you sure it's reasonable to stay out in the sun like this?"

"No idea," Clark replied, his voice getting a bit stronger. "It makes me feel better, so I think it helps. Somehow."

Wayne understood the words hiding under his explanation, and didn't insist. After all, they knew nothing of his physiology, and while the sun could be dangerous to an earthling, it might well be helpful to the recovery of someone as special as Clark.

"Clark, do you feel well enough to walk to the helicopter?" Harris enquired, handing him a clean khaki shirt.

"I…I think so," the young man replied, tentatively moving his arms and legs as he slipped on the too-tight piece of clothing. But just as he was trying to get on his feet, he stopped and looked up at the deputy, a worried expression eating his face. "How's Julia?" The concern was palpable as he voiced his question, but Harris hurried to reassure him.

"She's okay. Exhausted, and she probably needs checking over at the hospital. But she'll be fine."

"I want to see her. I want to be sure," Clark insisted almost frantically when the deputy didn't look like he would comply with his demand.

Harris sighed but gestured for one of his men to obey, and a few seconds later, Julia Lewis was approaching them, walking carefully while trying to refuse the support offered by the officer. She looked a little wobbly, but otherwise fine, and Clark's gaze brightened when she smiled encouragingly at him.

No word was spoken between them, but Wayne Irig understood the significance of their silence. He'd seen the same kind of passion devour Jonathan Kent's eyes when he'd been introduced to Martha, and it was the same expression that had been shining in his gaze when he'd found Elisa. A look that spoke of a love which couldn't be broken by any of the arrows thrown by life. The ever after kind of feeling that everyone was looking for but that few people found.

"Have you found Trask and Tempus?" Julia anxiously asked Harris, her abrupt question bringing Wayne back to the present.

"Trask and Tempus?"

"The two goons who kept us locked in there."

"Two? What do you mean, two? Lana said there was a whole army in here, yet everyone seems to have left before we arrived, except this guy who could have been their boss."

"There were still two guys when Clark and I got here," Julia argued, showing signs of impatience. "Including our very own Secretary of the Interior, Lloyd Tempus."

"Oh man, not you too!" Harris whined. "Lana claimed he was involved, too, but come on, it's impossible!"

"As impossible as a kidnapping happening in Smallville?" Julia enquired with a raised eyebrow.

The deputy excused himself before walking back to the front of the house, and it was with a touch of amusement that Wayne observed his determination to clear up the mystery.

"Mr Irig, the rock —"

"Is somewhere safe where no-one will find it before I can think of a way to destroy it," he cut her off and watched her sigh in relief.

"There are other samples around the Kent backyard, I'm sure," she added. "From what I gathered, it's where they got the crystal from in the first place."

"I'll go take a look and put away anything that might be harmful, I promise," Wayne reassured her again. "You know everything about him, don't you?" he enquired shakily.

Julia nodded, lowering her eyes in embarrassment.

"I told her," Clark said quietly, reaching for her hand and giving it a brief squeeze. Then, as another thought occurred to him, he added, "Wayne, the capsule was in the house. I don't want them to have it."

"They won't," the farmer replied quietly. "It's hidden on the flatbed of a military truck over there." He gestured towards a thicker part of the woods, indicating a vague direction.

"But won't the police want to investigate that vehicle, too?"

"Not if I have anything to do with it," Julia muttered in reply before hurrying after Harris.

Wayne excused himself to Clark before following her, knowing she'd need his help in handling the stubborn policeman and convince him to let them take care of the abandoned truck without arousing his suspicions.


Tempus sneaked a look outside the cabin where he'd taken refuge as soon as he'd heard the helicopter approach, letting out an angry curse as he witnessed Trask's arrest and observed his complete lack of resistance. Not that he particularly cared for the man — now that Superman was dead and didn't represent a danger to his dreams of power any more, he couldn't care less about the fate of the head of Bureau 39. If the man had stuck around after they returned to Metropolis, he'd have done a quick job of eliminating him as a potential menace to his electoral ambitions.

But Trask had to play noble and let the police take him. The moron. How he had managed to trust the man with such a delicate mission, he didn't know, but he could take some consolation in the fact that Lois Lane and Clark Kent were in agony a mere foot under this cabin. And Utopia wouldn't be founded.

If only they'd had a few minutes more, the plan would have been perfect, and his dream would have become reality. He'd been aware of the risk he was taking by staying up here even after Kent's current girlfriend had escaped thanks to Trask's complete lack of attention, and had even transformed the possible danger they incurred into an infallible booby-trap for the intrepid Lois Lane. He'd figured that letting Trask order the dismantling of the camp would be enough to prevent any unexpected visitor from figuring his involvement into the case.

And he couldn't give up on his real intentions when he'd got so close to his goal. One mistake perpetrated by a complete idiot didn't mean that the entire plan had to suffer; if Lana Lang ever managed to make it back to town, her super boyfriend would be more than happy to come and find out for himself who was behind his girl's kidnapping. Especially if Lois Lane was around to drag him with her regardless of the danger.

He knew those two by heart. The Utopian cult devoted to them had sickened him for most of his childhood, and he'd felt dizzy too many times when hearing the story of his world's founders. 'Courageous, fearless, restlessly fighting for truth and justice, and finding peace in their beautiful and everlasting love.' Bleah!

It had been unbearable. Could have been the setting of a Walt Disney movie, Tempus thought with a disgusted grimace.

But now they didn't have any power over him any more, and he could live in peace, without having to worry about the possible intervention of the blue-clad superhero on his favourite playgrounds. He could model this dimension to his own image and no-one would be able to stop him. The thought filled him with pride, and he grinned.

His smile faltered when he caught sight of the unmistakably familiar shape of Lois Lane as she ran towards the Deputy and started discussing something animatedly with him, her arms waving in brusque motions as she argued with him vehemently. Yup, it was Lois indeed — always contesting whatever she was told and heedless of any authority. Damn it, but she couldn't even stay dead for a minute before she was ruining his life again! Talk about restless!

And if Lois was still running around like a rabbit, then there was a major risk that the Super Irritant wasn't very far away either. Made you wonder if the lethal effects of Kryptonite had been exaggerated by the famous couple's descendants. He'd have to take advantage of Clark's vulnerability to shoot him next time; to hell with the sweet revenge of knowing that Superman was agonising for hours in a seedy sewer.

Sending a tired sigh towards the window through which he could still see Lois bustle about the county's deputy, with the visible intention of driving him nuts until he agreed to whatever stupid idea had crossed that pretty head of hers, Tempus dug into his pocket and brought out the small, square device that now accompanied him on every trip he made. A couple of skilful manipulations later and the futuristic invention projected a fuzzy rectangle of blueish light, the size of a door. After throwing one last regretful look at the dimension that had been hosting him for the past few years, Tempus stepped into the time window, letting the temporal fluids close around him and carry him to a better place.


Clark took a large gulp of air, breathing in the forest's scents as if discovering them for the first time. The storm had awakened the late summer's aromas and mingled them with the unique fragrance of the countryside washed by the rain — sharp and spicy, but soothing to his soul.

It had been a close call. A *very* close call. He had little remembrance of what had happened exactly after Trask had presented him with that green crystal, except that an excruciating pain had swept through him, producing a pain that had spread through his veins like a poison and paralysed every nerve end he possessed.

After he'd collapsed, unable to stand on his legs any more, he only had flashes of memory reminding him of his feeling of impotence when he'd heard Julia's whimper and understood that Trask had hit her. There was the fuzzy sensation of being dragged across the cabin's floor and outside before a foot had kicked into his ribs, the blow throwing him into a dark pit.

After that, he didn't have much recollection. A velvet blackness had enveloped him, its thickness only pierced by the ominous glow of the green rock whose faint humming kept cutting through his skin and scorching his flesh. He'd heard Julia's cries and had wanted to reassure her despite his own fear, but moving had been impossible, as if he were held immobile with pain.

The rest was a blur. The only certainty that had been planted in his mind was that he had to fight against the pain and not let death take him away. For her. For what they still had to live.

It was hard for him to reconcile the near-death experience and the life that had filled him again when he'd been pulled out of that rat-hole and brought away from the stone, which Tempus had claimed come from his home planet.


He couldn't doubt any more, and even though the truth of his origins should scare him, it lifted a weight off his shoulders to finally know. There were still so many unanswered questions, most of them triggered by this new revelation, but now he didn't have to wonder any more if he was a Russian experiment, a result of the space conquest that had made the USSR and the United States rival in the sixties, or an alien who'd come from the stars.

He *was* an alien.

He flinched at the word, immediately associating it with the sci-fi TV shows he'd grown up with. The good news was that he didn't have green or grey skin, and he looked human. He *was* human, apart from the floating and other various details of his life. Powers, as Julia had called them.

He smiled as he recalled her lack of fear or rejection. Even though he was different, she was still willing to accept him, and if he went by the silent message they'd exchanged just before she'd left him to take care of the capsule, she didn't seem to mind what she'd learned. He hoped.


Lois, he corrected sombrely, remembering Tempus's awful claims about her character. He'd refused to believe it at first, hanging onto the honesty that had been shining in her eyes and resonating in her words back in the ancient quarry. Still. It had hurt to find out that even after he'd completely opened up to her, she hadn't reciprocated. Didn't she trust him at all?

He didn't have issues with the secret identity she'd taken on, nor with her real motives for coming to Smallville; he couldn't blame her for trying to protect herself, especially now that he realised what danger they'd incurred. But he wished she'd told him the complete truth before someone else revealed it all to him.

He'd seen her frantic look when he'd almost subconsciously taken a step backwards, but it had been too much of a shock for him to hear Tempus's words. Despite logical reasoning reminding him that the Secretary was only trying to play havoc on their alliance, Clark hadn't been able to think of anything but the lies she'd kept feeding him with. About her reasons for being here, about her interest in the environmental operation, and about her name — details that seemed innocuous but that had made him doubt, if just for a second, that he could trust her.

If she'd lied about that, what was telling him that her kisses had been real?

He shut off the concern, refusing to fall into cynicism and promising himself that he'd get to the bottom of this and find out what was real from what had been a pretence. He wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, and not judge her after what she'd done for him. She'd saved his life — if she hadn't been there, talking to him, attending him, and holding his hand as if it was a life preserver, he wouldn't have come through. Although he hadn't been able to understand her words, he knew she'd spoken of tenderness and encouragement, and it had made him want to fight against the pain and the pull of oblivion.

The pain had gone now. He was still feeling weak, and as he attempted to see beyond the cabin's wall, he realised his abilities seemed to have left him. An unexpected sadness filled his heart as a couple of tests determined that all of his gifts had disappeared. Funny how he'd lived with them for most of his existence, considering them like a burden, and now that they were gone, he felt empty.

It seemed impossible that the powers he'd been granted would vanish like that. Although, considering how the crystal had taken away his strength and eaten at his apparent invulnerability, he supposed it made sense. Did it mean he'd become an ordinary man for good? The emotions provoked by his thoughts were conflicted, one part of him revelling in this newfound normality to which he'd aspired all his life, while another part regretted the little advantages of being stronger, faster, and most especially the latest gift he'd discovered.


Floating could open such a wide range of possibilities, and Jul…Lois might have been right when she'd told him he might well be able to fly. When he'd willingly lifted his feet off the floor and felt the air around him lighten, it had been easy to imagine that he could shift his body horizontally and let the wind currents carry him through the clouds. It would have been good.

Clark shook his head, getting rid of the stray thought like a fantasy he didn't have a right to explore. What was done was done, and now that he was…*normal*, it was pointless to dream of something that wouldn't ever happen.


The return to Smallville had happened quite fast after a very much handcuffed Trask had been put in the helicopter, Clark mused as Wayne navigated the military truck and its precious load back onto the large street leading to the town centre.

The numerous potholes of the very sinuous forest road had made the journey somewhat tiresome for the three of them, and he was glad to find himself on flat ground again. Julia seemed to sigh in relief, too, and the tense expression she'd harboured during the entire trip lessened a little when they reached the first houses of the small country town.

Everything had turned out fine, and Clark could pretty much get on with his life, now. The only dark point was the complete disappearance of Lloyd Tempus, but an international arrest warrant had been issued, and it wouldn't be long before he was found and brought to justice for his crimes.

And thanks to Wayne's quick actions, they'd managed to preserve his secret, Clark thought, giving the older man a grateful look. The green rock was still somewhere up on the hill, but he'd promised to take care of it before anyone had a chance to find it, and the ship was securely tied to the flatbed of the military truck they'd 'borrowed' to drive back to town.

Harris had looked vaguely annoyed at their claim on the vehicle Wayne had said he'd seen a few feet away from the cabin, protesting that it was part of the evidence and was being impounded until it could be examined. Clark had started to panic when he'd imagined the consequences of the discovery of an item like his ship, and the gleam of uncertainty wavering in Wayne's grey eyes hadn't done anything to reassure him.

Fortunately, Julia had argued vehemently that there wasn't enough room in the aircraft's cockpit for everyone; she'd also added that neither she nor Clark felt comfortable being confined in such a small space with Trask besides, and after a small hesitation, the deputy hadn't found any other valid reason to forbid them the use of the truck. When she'd finally reminded him that Tempus could still be out there in the woods, looking for the first occasion to take the abandoned vehicle and escape, he hadn't been able to retaliate with an argument of his own. Harris and Thorpe didn't have enough men with them to leave one to guard the truck, that was obvious. That someone was willing to help and bring it back to town was already a stroke of luck for them.

At first he'd wanted to accompany them, but Wayne had convinced him to leave them alone when he'd reminded Harris that it was safer to stick with Thorpe and fly Trask to the nearest jail in Wichita, while the farmer took care of bringing Lois and Clark back to town and getting them medically examined.

Clark remembered that Julia's eyes had grown wide at the mention of the hospital, but he'd given her an insistent glare, urging her to play along until they got rid of the deputy and his police officers.

The good thing was that they could drive the capsule to somewhere safe before they returned the military truck to police custody, but Clark couldn't help but be nervous nonetheless, and he would be until the ship was hidden where no-one could ever find it. He was already lucky enough that Harris hadn't had time to check the precious content of the vehicle before he handed them the keys and let them drive back to Smallville. He couldn't take the chance that someone — even Deputy Harris — discovered the strangely shaped object and started asking questions to uncover the knowledge of his origins and let rumours spread around more.

Of course, Trask did seem to know a little too much, but without the ship, he had no evidence to back up his claims, and with a bit of luck, no-one would believe his tale for one second. He seemed pretty much of a wacko and had sounded obsessed with Clark's alien origins, behaving as if he was the David Vincent of the 1980s. If anyone listened to his wild theories, he'd certainly end up in an asylum.

Wayne pulled the truck in front of the Smallville emergency room, and Clark sneaked a look at Julia where she was sitting next to him, wincing when he felt her immediately tense. She hadn't looked exactly enthusiastic about being checked over, but he'd assumed she was just fussing a little and wouldn't offer any resistance when they reached the hospital.

However, the light of fear and rebellion shining in her eyes when Wayne turned off the engine and extended his hand to help her out of the car told Clark otherwise.

"What is this all about?" she asked warily, nodding towards the large sliding doors of the entrance.

"You need to get an X-ray, make sure that you're not hurt."

"I'm not hurt!" she immediately retorted, a hint of defensiveness sneaking into her voice. "I'm fine and dandy."

"He hit you on the head," Clark argued, backing up Wayne's argument. "We need to at least make sure you don't have concussion."

"I could say the same for you," Julia answered, looking pointedly at him. "You were *worse* than just hit on the head."

"But you know I can't let them examine me, it wouldn't be safe."

"Yeah? And would it be safe to ignore the fact that you remained unconscious for, I don't know, maybe hours before we could get out of that shelter?"

"Julia, be reasonable," Wayne cut in quietly. "Clark's physiology is probably very different from yours, and if they decided to take a sample of blood from him, they'd realise something's not quite right. Heck, they wouldn't even be able to dig the needle into his skin!"

"They would, Wayne," Clark replied. "I don't know what this green rock was or how it achieved its job, but in any case, I'm vulnerable," he explained when the older man gave him a blank look.

"Needles? They use needles?" Julia stuttered, turning extremely pale.

"There would still be the risk that your blood might not have the same composition as a…uh…well…human," Wayne continued, oblivious to the young woman's question.

Clark nodded before turning to Julia and reaching for her hand, twining his fingers with hers. "I'm sorry I can't come with you, but I promise I'll come back to pick you up in a couple of hours, as soon as we have dealt with…this," he said, nodding towards the still covered back of the truck. "Meanwhile, please promise me you'll let a doctor examine you," he pleaded, his gaze conveying the seriousness of his demand.

She grimaced a little, but finally nodded hesitantly, probably realising she had little choice. "Still. Not fair," she mumbled when Clark pulled her towards the glass doors.

"Promise," he asked again.

She rolled her eyes before complying grudgingly. "All right, I promise."

"Thanks," Clark murmured before impulsively bending down and brushing his lips on hers in a sweet kiss. He released her, the feel of her fingers tingling against the skin of his hand as he watched her walk to the reception desk and be immediately taken to an examination room.

Someone beside him tentatively cleared their throat, and he started when he recognised Lana's long, blond hair.

His girlfriend.

"Hey there," she said quietly, her weak smile betraying her emotions.

His girlfriend, who'd probably seen more in his goodbye to Julia than she should have. And who wasn't letting him in on her knowledge.

"Hi," he replied automatically, swallowing the feeling of guilt that immediately took hold of him.

He resolved to tell her the truth; he'd already made too many mistakes and the one thing he didn't want was to see her hurt for something that was all his fault. Dragging out a relationship that had no future was pointless for both of them, and she deserved a lot better than sticking with a man who'd been able to fall head-over-heels in love with another woman.

"Are you…okay?" he asked hesitantly after a heavy silence.

She shrugged, letting the awkwardness float between them. "Guess so." She nodded towards the hospital before speaking up again. "They told me I could go home, so physically, I'm just fine," she said, keeping her eyes lowered and shuffling her feet uncomfortably.

Clark sighed, trying to come to terms with the unpleasant news he had to give her and frantically looking for some way to tell her it was best they end their relationship in a way that would make it as easy as possible for her. It sure wasn't easy breaking up with someone you liked and respected as much as he did Lana. She'd been his best friend for as long as he could remember, since he'd learned to talk, and he couldn't bear to see her hurt.

"Look, I—"

"You don't have to explain," Lana interrupted him with a half-hearted smile, gazing up at him and reaching to touch his bare arm. "I think it's obvious to anybody that you…" She hesitated and lowered her eyes again, breaking the physical contact with him. "That you two are…" She sighed shakily, looking up at him through unshed tears and, he knew, biting her lip to stop herself crying.

"Thank you, Lana," Clark said simply, smiling sadly at his now ex-girlfriend and letting his gaze convey his gratitude to her.

He didn't know what to do. His instinct was urging him to gather her in his arms and give her the comforting hug she seemed to need, but at the same time, he wasn't sure it was a good idea; it could convey the wrong kind of message, and hurt her even more than he already had.

After five years of semi-romantic relationship, she would need time to settle back into a friendly routine with him, if she ever accepted it. He wished it had happened otherwise, that he'd had time to tell her the truth before she figured it out, saw the score and bowed out, but if there was one thing he'd discovered over the past two days, it was that life rarely asked for your opinion before sending a curveball at you.

"Tell her…" Lana added after a moment. "Tell her to take good care of you."

"I will." And as the young woman smiled bravely at him, he knew they would be all right.


The soft knock on the door disturbed Lois from the complete boredom she'd been plunged into ever since the doctor had finished running a whole battery of tests on her and insisted on placing her in a room with an intravenous injection of painkillers planted in her arm. She threw a wary "Come in!" towards the corridor, preparing herself to jump into a full argument if the intruder turned out to be one of the nurses, deciding to torture her more.

She breathed a sigh of relief when Clark entered the hospital room, her smile broadening when he produced a nicely wrapped bouquet of white daisies from behind his back. He bent down to press a kiss on her forehead and she closed her eyes, breathing in the mingled fragrance of the flowers and the unique scent that was him.

"Hey," he said quietly.

"Hi, handsome," she heard herself say, feeling transfixed by the depth of his gaze. Her heart made a little flip-flop when he grinned at her endearment, and she ordered the butterflies in her stomach to stop fluttering at once. It was silly to feel so giddy; he was just…he was just Clark, after all.

The man she was in love with.

A man who had another girlfriend, and who, despite his earlier show of tenderness and the bouquet resting on her lap, could well be here to tell her that their relationship wasn't meant to be. She gulped, and the nervousness immediately came back.

She gestured for him to sit on the chair next to her bed, and he took the place beside her, reaching out to take her hand in his, the gesture reasserting their connection.

"How are you feeling?"

That was him all right; always concerned and looking out for her well-being, making it a priority over everything else. From any other person, this kind of protective attitude would have irritated her, but from Clark, it was…sweet. "Oh, if you don't count the fact that Dr Mills isn't my favourite person at the moment, I'm fine."

"Uh oh…what did he do?"

"Apart from planting a stupid needle into my arm, you mean?" she asked sourly, frowning warningly when he chuckled. "I don't need painkillers, but somehow they always *have* to have their way," she muttered darkly. "And he also wants to keep me here under observation until tomorrow. Says I'm too weak to be released and that he doesn't want to risk a concussion. As if I didn't have better things to do!"

"Jul…Lois," he corrected himself, and Lois flinched at the reminder of Tempus's damaging revelations and what Clark could possibly think of her, now.

She knew she should have told him everything back in Smallville; it could have kept him from following her and encountering danger, for starters. But then, things had been a bit awkward between them after their confrontation in his parents' farmhouse, and his direct accusations hadn't done anything to clear the air. He obviously did *not* trust her at that time, and she had no reason not to return the feeling of wariness.

She would have told him on their way up to the cabin if they hadn't been interrupted by the storm. His questions had made her uncomfortable at first, but she'd quickly realised that he was only trying to determine who she was and whether he could trust her; under the circumstances, letting him on the truth could have sealed their alliance against Tempus and Trask more easily.

And after they'd…well…got to know each other better, she'd only had the investigation on her mind, and such a tiny detail as explaining to him that she'd come here to work undercover, under a fake name, hadn't seemed so essential.

An uncomfortable silence settled between them and stretched for a few interminable seconds, and Lois hold onto Clark's hand more tightly, afraid he'd break the contact between them.

"We need to talk," she finally spoke up when he lowered his eyes.

"I guess we do," he sighed downheartedly, and the dull ache in Lois's stomach resumed.

She didn't know where to begin. What seemed so simple before was making her lose her nerve now; and her use of a secret identity hadn't even been useful for keeping her presence in Smallville hidden from Trask and Tempus. The only thing it had done was to make Clark feel left out, as if she didn't trust him enough to confide in him.

"I know what you're thinking," she murmured, breaking the silence.

Clark raised his head and looked surprised. "You do?"

"You think that I should have told you, that it was unfair to keep the truth from you for so long."

His lack of response told her she'd hit close to what was on his mind, and she started playing with his fingers nervously.

"I guess you had your reasons," he finally sighed. "Whatever they were. And I do understand…well, for the most part," he amended. "Trask and Tempus seemed to know who you were and addressed you like you were their number one enemy."

"Clark, you remember when you asked me if I was a cop?"

"Yes, you sounded almost…outraged." The hint of an amused smile passed over his face before seriousness claimed his expression again.

"Well, it was true. I'm not part of the police force," she repeated with a timid smile. "Not exactly."

"So…are you a detective? You look a bit young for that. A reporter, maybe?"

"Close. A wannabe-one." He raised his eyebrows in a question, so she hurried to explain, "I'm a journalism student."

Clark's mouth formed a 'oh' of surprise before he frowned in a mixture of confusion and sarcasm. "Student? So that part was true?"

"Clark!" Lois protested, but couldn't bring herself to continue. He was right, and he had reasons to be resentful for what she hadn't told him. And Tempus's claims had probably let the doubt spread in his mind. What she wouldn't give to get her hands on the man right now!

"Hey," Clark said softly, brushing his thumb on the back of the hand holding his. "I'm sorry, that was uncalled for, but I —"

"You have your reasons to be angry, too," she cut him off. "And I apologise if I hurt you."

"This is all so confusing," he said, frustration creeping into his voice. "I can't manage to reconcile the person I thought I knew, Julia Lewis, from the real person you are, Lois Lane. I just want to know, *need* to know, Lois. What was part of the pretence and what was real?" His eyes never left hers as he asked his question.

"Clark, Tempus didn't know what he was talking about," she replied almost frantically. "I swear to you nothing of what I said or did was a pretence…well, except the part about settling in Smallville," she added in a feeble attempt at relaxing the atmosphere. "Julia Lewis and Lois Lane aren't that different, you know?" she continued more seriously. "Julia is just a name I used to protect myself against people who might recognise me from what I'd witnessed in Metropolis, before I got the information about the Smallville operation."

"What you'd witnessed?"

Lois then proceeded to tell him how she'd got her hands on the story, the leads that Burton Newcomb had furnished her with, the discovery of his death and the mad run in the streets that had followed before she'd ended up at the police station, being questioned relentlessly. She was still blaming her lack of discernment for having trusted an administration that was visibly undermined by Tempus's men, even if back then, she had no idea about the Secretary's involvement in the secret governmental organisation.

She also told him about her stakeout in Suicide Slum and the murder of George Thompson, as well as her anonymous phone call to the police to warn them about the assassination of the head of the F.B.I. And finally, she explained that Thompson's murderer was none other than Trask, whom she knew as a personal associate of the Chief of the Metropolis Police District, and that she'd almost felt that she was getting in way over her head with her investigation before she'd taken the decision to take the next flight to Smallville and check out for herself what Bureau 39's interest was in this small Kansas county.

"So you knew, right from the start, that you were in danger?" Clark enquired when she finished her account. "And you still came here?" He sounded puzzled.

"I wasn't in any more danger in Smallville than I was in Metropolis. At least here they didn't know where to find me."

"Yeah? How come they wanted to kidnap you, then? Lana said they'd mentioned she wasn't the right girl, and although in the confusion, she couldn't remember the name of the person they were looking for, I assume it was Lois Lane…"

Lois sighed, lowering her eyes. "I suppose so," she mumbled. "I'm sorry for putting your…girlfriend in danger."

But Clark didn't react to the term she used to designate Lana. "I guess…by not telling us who you really were, it wasn't just yourself that you were trying to protect."

She nodded hesitantly, amazed that he understood so quickly and beyond any explanation she could possibly give. He was right, though — if she had gone by her real name, it could have been much easier and faster for Tempus and Trask to find her, and maybe take action against anyone she came in contact with. "It didn't change anything, though," she said downheartedly. "Lana being kidnapped was my fault."

"Not your fault, Lois," Clark protested. "*Their* fault. Please, don't blame yourself for something that you couldn't have foreseen."

"I'm just glad she's okay. It could have been much…worse. If something had happened to her, or to any of you, I couldn't have forgiven myself."

"But she's fine. *We're* fine. Lois, it wasn't your fault," he added forcefully when she didn't reply. "You couldn't have known what would happen." His hand left hers and came up to her face to cup her jaw, forcing her to look up at him as he pronounced his next words. "What you did was very brave — all right, it was too dangerous, but you meant well. You wanted to bring those criminals to justice, and you succeeded."

"They almost killed you," she whispered, her eyes filling with tears and her voice breaking under the force of emotion.

"They almost killed *us*," he corrected. "And if you hadn't been there, they would probably have managed to eliminate me. Remember how Trask seemed…obsessed with my…origins," he finished, squirming uncomfortably. "Fortunately, I don't think he has any proof of my abilities, and even if he does talk, I doubt anyone will believe his account that he indeed met an alien."

She nodded weakly before broaching the other topic occupying her mind. "Did you and Wayne find a discreet place for the…" She trailed off, hesitating before she mouthed the word 'ship'.

"We did. It's temporary, but Wayne said he'd try to think of a secure enough place as soon as possible. And now that the so-called environmental operation is definitely interrupted, the county is much safer."

"You think their goal was to find you?"

Clark shrugged helplessly. "Probably. What else could have brought them here? They seemed to know a great deal about it. Even more than I did myself. It was as if they expected me to come to the cabin, and were prepared to strike with that green rock, which they said is from my home planet."

"But they failed. Right?" Her question held uncertainty and Clark hurried to reassure her.

"Yes, they failed. My…abilities are gone, but otherwise, I'm all right."

Lois's eyebrows went up. "They're gone? How can they be gone?"

"I don't know, it's as if this weird crystal from Krypton drained whatever powers I used to have."

"If they're only drained, they'll come back."


She saw him hesitate, and knew he was about to ask something that was eating at his mind. She recognised the haunted look that preceded a question that could compromise a whole relationship, and despite her conviction that everything would be all right, she shuddered.

"Does it matter to you?" he finally murmured, so low that she had to strain her ears to comprehend his words. "My…being an alien, that is?"

"Yes, it matters, Clark."

His head snapped up and the light of hurt glittered in his eyes, as if she'd torn a piece of his soul by her reply.

"It does matter, because it's part of who you are," she added, clarifying her thoughts. "It's ingrained within you, it's a piece of your heart, it's important to you, and therefore it's important to me."

Moved by the relief showing his face, she was taken with the urge to pull him towards her and kiss him, but something was stopping her.


Despite everything they'd shared, despite the passion coursing through her when he'd kissed her so thoroughly, despite the fear gripping at her heart when she'd thought she'd lost him, she couldn't bring herself to believe in the certainty of a future for Clark and her.

But as her eyes locked with his and she started to imperceptibly, almost unconsciously lean towards him, she knew she had no choice but to confront her feelings. Now. After what they'd been through, she couldn't wait any longer and miss the one chance of her life with the one man who'd ever mean something to her.

"Clark…" she started hesitantly, her voice no louder than a whisper. "I know now might not be the right time to say this, or even the most romantic moment, or well, maybe you don't feel ready to hear it, but — " She interrupted the flood of words coming out of her mouth and tried to calm the erratic beating of her heart. "I love you, Clark," she finally said, feeling a huge weight lift from her shoulders as she let go of the tension that had been tearing at her mind for the past twenty-four hours.

She hadn't ever let herself pronounce those three little words before, knowing what a scary prospect they held, and how vulnerable they left you, but this time, with this man, it felt so right that she didn't feel the wave of regret she'd expected. On the contrary, a sensation of freedom coursed through her as soon as she let it out, and even as she anxiously waited for Clark's reaction, she knew that she'd done the right thing.


Clark closed his eyes, hearing Lois's words to him over and over, savouring the moment as he let their meaning sink in and all his previous doubts vanished.

She loved him.

She didn't mind his origins, didn't reject them, taking him for who he was, a whole person with his strange abilities and the legacy he had to bear, and she loved him.

When he gazed at Lois again, she was looking at him expectantly, and he got up from his chair to sit on her hospital bed in a need to be physically closer to her. Seizing her hands in his, he took a deep breath to steady his voice. "Lois, I —"

"I know you probably can't reciprocate and the feeling isn't mutual," she cut him off before he could say any more. "I know it sounds so crazy when we've known each other for less than a day, but I can't imagine living my life without you, Clark. And yet I know there's Lana and you can't exactly put your relationship with her behind you like that, and you probably don't even want to, but —"

"Lois!" Clark protested firmly, the raising of his voice effectively silencing her babbled apology. "The feeling *is* mutual," he said when he was sure he had her complete attention. "I can't imagine living without you either."

Time seemed suspended for a few seconds as she processed his words, but, unable to wait any longer, Clark gathered her in his arms, careful not to hurt her bruised muscles as he embraced her. It didn't take Lois long to respond, and a moment later, she was returning the tight hug, leaning her head against his shoulder and dropping a stray kiss against the skin of his throat.

Then, just as he was relaxing in the feel of her body held close to his, she pulled away, a concerned expression on her face. "What about Lana?" she asked almost eagerly, the tremor in her voice indicating her awkwardness with what she thought was their current situation.

He sighed, remembering the sadness of Lana's words to him as she let him go. "We talked," he murmured.

He felt uncomfortable broaching the topic of his now former girlfriend with Lois, but she had a right to know. He couldn't let remorse destroy what they were living when it was so simple to explain the outcome of his relationship with Lana. But the subject was still sore with him, and he felt guilty for knowing his indecisiveness and lack of real signs of commitment with Lana over the past few years had made her suffer. He felt as if he'd stolen five years of her life, and even though the time they'd spent together held moments of joy and a sincere affection, he should have taken his lack of passion as a sign.

But he'd assumed that it just worked that way, that love was a highly overrated feeling and that it couldn't transport you into heights you'd never experienced before. Until he'd met Lois. Until her lips had touched his and set him on fire. Until she'd told him she loved him and made his cynical beliefs crumble under the force of his emotions.

"You talked?" Lois prompted, visibly not satisfied with his answer.

"I met her outside the hospital just after we brought you here, and we talked."

She gave him a blank look, forcing him to go on.

"Lois," he protested faintly, wishing they would shift to a lighter topic. But she didn't let him off the hook and he had no choice. "All right," he finally gave in, a sigh on his lips. "She'd sort of…well…gathered what was happening. That I was falling in love with you. Lois, what we have here," he added, pressing a hand to his heart, "is stronger than anything I've ever felt. I can't let it go."

For a second, he thought she would pull away from him. For a second, an infinite second, fear gripped at his heart as he saw her eyes close and foresaw her withdrawal.

But she did nothing of the kind.

Her hands, which were still lying on his shoulders and keeping him at some symbolic distance, relaxed and came around his neck, the gesture tugging him to her. Her fingers threaded themselves in his hair, and she inched her face closer to his, ever so slowly, letting the moment last as time stood still.

Their lips met in the whisper of a kiss, a bare brush that sent a shiver down his spine and blocked any other thoughts but the woman in his arms and the spell she'd set on him. A turmoil of pleasure ran through him as she deepened the kiss, and he let himself drown in the force of their love for each other.

He couldn't prevent a small groan of disappointment from escaping him when she broke off, but she joined her mouth to his again, silencing his protest before he'd had time to say more. Carried by the passion sweeping through him, all coherent thought left him and world faded to black while he tasted eternity…

…until a firm knock on the door brought them both back to the present with an abrupt jolt. They jumped apart, blushing in embarrassment as they turned towards the intruder.

A middle-aged man carrying a notepad and a camera around his neck entered the room, a cheerful smile on his face as he greeted them. "My name is David Murton, and I'm a reporter for the Wichita Post," he introduced himself without further ceremony, extending his hand towards Clark, who could only stare at him in stunned silence.

Who had warned the press? And how had they managed to know where he was so quickly? Moreover, what was he supposed to tell them?

He turned towards Lois, seeking her help, and almost backed away when he met her thunderous expression. She visibly wasn't any more happy about the reporter's intrusion than he was, and -

"Did anyone tell you to come in?" she growled towards Murton, her eyes flashing with anger.

"Uh…it was open, and I assumed that —"

"Oh, you assumed? You assumed that a woman who'd been brought to hospital would be happy to give you an interview? You assumed that by coming to me you'd get all the sickening details to publish in some rag and make sales? Get out of here!" she finished before the journalist had time to say another word.

The man seemed to hover at the door for a moment longer, as if hesitating, before he made a prudent retreat and left the room.

"What a nerve!" Lois exclaimed furiously once he was gone.


"Yes, Clark?"

"The…um…Wichita Post is *not* a rag," he mumbled timidly, trying to hold back the fit of laughter tickling at his throat.

"Oh!" She frowned for a few seconds before speaking up again. "Oh. Does it matter?"

Clark shook his head, amused with her pig-headed response. "I guess not. How did he know something was happening, though?"

"I suppose Trask's arrival at the Wichita prison aroused the interest of the local paper. As for how he found out that I was here, don't forget it's a reporter's job to know everything." She winked at him.

"Wonder how much he knows and how much he'll publish, though. Too bad you couldn't finish the investigation and get the story published with your own byline," Clark said regretfully.

He hadn't finished his sentence before Lois was pushing her sheets away and scrambling out of bed, oblivious to his gasp of surprise. She frowned at the needle planted in her forearm and started to tug at the band aid keeping it in place, but before she had time to do any damage, Clark was in front of her and softly taking her fingers away.

"What do you think you're doing here?"

"Going to strangle that…that *purple* *monkey*! How dare he steal *my* story? I made too much of an effort to get there, Clark, I won't let him do that! I'll knock his eye straight and show him that —"


"No, you're not going to stop me this time. I'm going to make him eat his notepad. You don't understand, Clark — this was my big chance to finally make it to a big newspaper. Like the Planet!"

"Look, Lois, I know it's important to you, but there's no way you're risking your health over something like that."

"My health? Clark, this isn't my health we're talking about! This is big! This is huge! This is —"

"This is *not* what you're gonna do," he replied firmly, forcing her to sit down on her bed.

She pouted and whined a little, but Clark's gaze was enough to tell her that putting up a fight was hopeless. Still, it was such a good opportunity, and he was making her miss it just because the doctor had ordered she stayed quiet. What did she care about a doc's opinion, anyway? These guys knew *nothing* about reporting, while she was well aware that the story wouldn't wait for her, and staying here doing nothing wouldn't get her a job.

Sure, she was feeling a little weak, and when she'd got up, her legs had felt like cotton. But she would have been fine! She had enough stamina to deal with the writing of a story. Surely Clark had to see that!

If she didn't write the story and send it to the Planet's editor-in-chief, it would mean that she had come here for nothing, that she had risked her life for nothing, that -

/What about Clark?/

The small voice in her head immediately stopped the flood of outraged thoughts invading her mind, and she mentally nodded, admitting she might be letting herself get carried away too quickly.

"Look, Lois, I know it means a lot to you, and I understand," Clark said softly. "But this guy doesn't know half of the elements *you* have for this investigation."

"It won't prevent him from going to press!" she replied frantically. "I won't get the scoop!"

"But you'll still have the exclusive insights on the story. Even if he managed to get an interview with Harris and Thorpe, they won't have revealed anything. Not so soon."

Lois grumbled a protest, but she knew it was a lost cause. Besides, Clark had a point; she had information about Trask's arrest and his involvement with Tempus that certainly hadn't been given to the Wichita Post's reporter, nor any other journalist who might be onto the story yet.

"Listen," Clark spoke up again, "I'll get you some paper and a pen, and you can write the story, then I'll go find a fax machine and you can send it to wherever you want. How's that?"

Her smiled returned as soon as she heard his suggestion, and on impulse, she drew him into a warm hug. "Thank you, Clark," she whispered wickedly, her eyes twinkling mischievously as she dropped a kiss onto his cheek.


Autumn was slowly taking its claim on the Kansas scenery. Leaves were detaching from the trees and falling in swift, circular motions, pushed by the fresher wind until they landed on a ground covered in red and gold. The air was pure, sharp with a coolness coming from the north and descending on the plains, bringing the first hints of winter along.

It had been almost a week since Trask had been arrested, and Lloyd Tempus was still missing, as if he'd miraculously vanished, or even as if he'd never even existed. But it didn't matter to the couple strolling, hand in hand, along the river on the outskirts of Smallville, exchanging loving looks and sweet kisses, and contemplating their newfound bliss.

Clark let go of Lois's hand to wrap it around her shoulders, pulling her closer to him and sighing happily as they walked on the grass bordering the mud-covered track leading to the Irig farmhouse.

The past week had been spent in a blur, and he could only remember the sweetness of the moments he'd spent with her, discovering their relationship, revelling in the beauty of each minute he lived at her side. She was filling him with life, cherishing him with love, and he felt finally complete.

And tomorrow, they were taking their flight to Metropolis to start their life together. They hadn't talked about their arrangements yet, but despite the apparently quick evolution of their relationship, there was no awkwardness about thinking of renting an apartment together. It just felt right to be with her as much as he could, to drink in every minute of their existence and reaffirm their love on every occasion.

At first, he'd been reluctant to leave Smallville. A part of his soul would always belong to this tiny Kansas town, and then there was his parents' farmhouse, which he couldn't bring himself to leave. His eyes lifted to the shadow looming up on the right side of the track, and he instinctively pulled Lois closer as they walked past the old buildings, needing the reassurance of her presence.

Putting things into perspective had helped him see that where Lois lived was where he belonged. They always said that love made you make the craziest decisions, but this time, he knew that he was doing the right thing. Wayne had promised to take good care of the farm, like he had over the past nine years, and Clark knew that his father's fields would always be there when he came back to visit his old friends.

What mattered, now, though, was to stop focusing on the past and start looking towards his future. *Their* future, he corrected, sneaking a fond glance at the woman snuggling up to him.

Her story about Trask's capture and the charges laid against Lloyd Tempus had made a side bar to the Daily Planet's front page, and she'd quickly got over her disappointment that one of the big newspaper's reporters had taken four columns about the main scoop, 'effectively reducing her efforts to almost nothing', as she'd put it.

But Perry White's phone call offering her a job interview had quickly lifted her spirits again, and within a few days, she would probably join the staff of the Daily Planet as an intern. She would still have to finish her studies and obtain her diploma, which, knowing Lois's opinion on a value such as patience, would make her growl, but she had all the chances to become one of the best investigative reporters this world had ever known, in the next couple of years.

Her article had been powerful. She'd managed to write a comprehensive summary of her investigation, giving the main information and backing it up with facts and quotes she'd obtained from Deputy Harris, while leaving out all potentially dangerous clues about the truth of Trask's obsession with aliens. The discovery of the ship and the existence of the deadly crystal had also been kept secret.

Clark had been extremely touched by what she'd done, even though he'd never doubted that she wouldn't take his life and make a story out of it. It might have been tempting to any other reporter, though — it could have been the scoop of the century, the kind that made a journalist a dead cert for the Pulitzer Prize.

As predicted by Lois, Clark's powers had returned gradually, first his strength, then his vision abilities, and finally, the floating, which was quickly developing more into flying than floating — a gift from his alien heritage that still left him awed. The green crystal from his home planet hadn't been enough to erase the special capacities left by his legacy.

It was strange for Clark to remember the relief he'd felt when the first signs of his complete recovery had kicked in. For as long as they'd appeared, he'd thought his abilities were a weight he could well do without, and yet reflecting on his life without them had made him realise that they were part of who he was, and he couldn't be whole without them. Lois's words of acceptance had also made him understand that his powers weren't a curse, but a blessing.

The woman in his arms shivered a little, and Clark looked down at her, immediately taking off his jacket and laying it on her shoulders in a tender gesture. Lois gave him a grateful look, and she shifted to stand in front of him and wrap her arms around his waist. She laid her head against his chest, and they remained immobile for a long time, simply listening to each other's calm breathing and quiet heartbeat.



November 2001