Path to the Congo

By Sarah Luddy <meerkat_comments AT aslandia DOT net>

Rated: PG-13 Warning: Violence

Submitted: November 2002

Summary: Glimpses of the young lives of Lois, Clark, and Lex Luthor show the path that leads them to their inevitable meeting — in the Congo.

Author's Note: This story couldn't possibly have been written without help from many different people. Laurie has been an amazing beta-reader and nagger for, if you would believe it, almost a year. She even promised me (and sent me!) chocolate chip cookies when I finally finished. Talk about incentive! Paul came in near the end, but he managed to beta-read over a hundred pages in a few short days, which he should definitely receive some sort of beta- reading award for. My twin, Annie, spent hours helping me brainstorm the story back when it was just a loose concept I had. Crazy ideas of mine that she laughingly rejected from Anybody's Baby, which she was writing at the time, were frequently adapted into my own story. Kaylle and Helene both read sections of PttC and gave me advice. And Missy offered invaluable help with writing smoochies. It would take hours to thank everyone who saw bits and pieces and gave me encouragement and ideas over the year it took me to write, so I just want to thank everyone who helped, from IRC, the boards, and the ficlist.


*Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.*

John Barth

Lansdowne Suburbs, Metropolis, New Troy, 1959 — Lex is 10 years old

Alex pushed off from the ground and swung out, then back, listening to the creaking protest the swing made at being forced into action. The playground was deserted in the approaching darkness of a late October evening. All the other children's parents had called them home for dinner already.

Alex shivered and suddenly noticed how cold it had become. He pulled his jacket closer around him with a shiver. A quick glance around the park showed that his father was still absent—late again. He'd been late yesterday, too. Alex hated being the last to be picked up. It left him alone on the playground long after the other kids had gone home.

"Hey, Alex!" a voice said sharply.

He jerked, almost falling off the swing without the support of his hands. He quickly pulled his hands from his pockets and gripped the chains. Standing in front of him was a freckle-faced boy, his chubby hands on his hips. One of the dreaded 6th-grade bullies.


"You've been in that swing for hours," the kid said. "It's my turn."

Alex raised an eyebrow. "There are two other swings," he said, indicating them with a sweep of his hand.

"I like that one," the kid said. "It's higher."

Alex rolled his eyes. "It's mine."

The kid stepped closer to him and grabbed the chains. "Give it up," he said.

"No, thanks," Alex said. Shoving away from the kid to force his chubby hands from the chains, he pushed himself backwards forcibly and then swung forward with feet extended.

His feet connected with the kid right in the middle of the stomach, and Alex took a perverse pleasure in watching the kid bowl over in pain.

"Get your own," he said with a slight smile.

A clapping sound from behind him made him spin around. His father stood a few feet back, watching the scene.

"Well done," he said. "I should have known that no son of mine would let a kid get the better of him just because he was bigger." He slapped Alex hard across the back, and Alex clenched his teeth to keep from wincing in pain.

"Your mother is supposedly making a roast for dinner," Alex's father said. "If she doesn't burn it, of course. Ready to go eat?"

"Always!" Alex said. He grinned up at his father.

His father smiled at him and tousled his hair. "That's my boy, always eating. You'll be catching up to me by next month at this rate."

Alex winked. "Next week, if I have any say in it."

His father laughed.


Alex huddled in his room, listening to his father's raised voice and his mother's crying.

"That stupid woman," Alex thought ferociously. "She can't do anything right, and then she cries like a baby when he yells."

Alex winced when he heard the sound of flesh hitting flesh. He dug his fists into his ears, trying to keep from hearing the sounds of his mother's screams and his father's blows.

"It's her fault, it's her fault," he told himself over and over like a mantra. "He wouldn't have to hit her if she did it right the first time."

He sniffled, and realized that he'd been crying silently for some time. He sniffed loudly and blinked, forcing himself to stop. "A Luthor doesn't cry. A Luthor never cries," he said to himself.

"Dad, please stop," he whispered. He knew his father was only trying to keep his mother in line. He wouldn't hit her otherwise, of course. After all, he hardly ever hit Alex, only when he'd done something truly awful. His mother seemed to earn beatings far more often.

The sounds of the beating finally stopped and Alex tentatively removed his fists from his ears, where they weren't helping much anyway. He could hear the thuds of his father's boots as he marched up the hallway and flung Alex's bedroom door open.

"Dad?" Alex said, looking up nervously.

His father stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. His footsteps gentled as he neared Alex's bed.

"Lex… " he started. "I'm sorry you had to hear that. You know I love your mother. I hate having to punish her, but sometimes it's the only way to make her understand what I want."

"Wh—what did Mother do?"

"She managed to destroy my favorite dress shirt, the incompetent woman," his father said curtly.

"Dad, what's incompetent mean?"

"It means she can't do anything. Lex, you've really got to work on your vocabulary. And don't call me Dad, it's puerile. Remember, we agreed. Father."

"Yes, Father," Alex said meekly. He didn't think it was a good time to ask what "puerile" meant.

"Good night, son."

"Good night, Father. I lo—Good night."


Amelia dropped onto the couch with a sigh, earning a glance from her son. She watched him for a moment. He was busy unscrewing the radio and taking out the parts. Each time he took a part out, he stared at the radio for a few minutes, perhaps memorizing the part's location, then placed the part in some neatly-organized pattern on the floor.

She rested her head against the back of the couch. She wasn't sure if she should be proud of her son, or hate him. He was so much like his father. That was good, in some ways. He was strong, and smart. He did things like take appliances apart, like the radio, just to see how they worked. And he never failed to put them back together.

And to his credit, he hadn't followed his father's footsteps in some of the crueler ways. He had never tried to hit her, and he generally obeyed her. She rubbed a sore spot on the back of her neck as she watched him.

In fact, sometimes she thought he sided with her when Jason hit her. He'd flinch, and there was pain in his eyes. Jason always seemed eager to assure the boy that he was doing it "for her own good," though, so one day Lexie might come to think that his father was right.

She rubbed her temples absentmindedly. She loved Jason so much. How could he be such a jerk sometimes? It seemed that men came from an entirely different planet.

She closed her eyes for a moment to rest. She needed a break after a long day. Just a few minutes would do.


Alex carefully removed the last dial from the radio and set it out neatly in the organized rows of pieces he'd removed from the appliance. He'd been careful to put them in an order known to him so he could put them back in again.

He glanced up at a soft snore from his mother, who was sleeping on the couch. Rolling his eyes at her laziness, he turned back to the radio parts. The whole thing was beginning to make sense. He was pretty sure he understood how the radio worked as a whole now, and what each piece did. He hadn't been sure if it would be too complicated for him, but he'd already gone through every other appliance in the house during his after-school hours, so this was the last great mechanical adventure left to him.

The sound of a key turning in the lock made Alex jerk his head up, and he paled as he realized that his father was home. It hadn't occurred to him that it would take longer to disassemble the radio than it had the other appliances, and he hadn't had time to put it together yet. He began to hastily assemble the parts, but he was too late.

"Woman!" he heard his father shout, walking into the room. "What are you doing sleeping?!" Then he caught sight of Alex and the radio parts, and Alex watched his father's face flush purple.

"LEX LUTHOR!!!" he screamed, his eyes bulging out of his face. "What have you done?!"

Alex flinched. His father grabbed him by the front of his shirt, dragging him through the radio parts and knocking them everywhere.

He tried to escape, but his father had lifted him into the air and above his head. Alex felt himself choking. "Father, stop!"

His father stared at him for a long moment, then slowly let him to the floor. "You stay right there. Don't you dare move." He stalked off down the hallway towards his room, leaving Alex shivering with fear.

Alex caught movement from the corner of his eye, and he saw his mother, still seated at the end of the couch, staring at him. There was a strange look on her face, but she quickly dropped her eyes.

Alex closed his eyes until he heard the heavy footsteps that indicated his father's return. When he opened his eyes, he took in a deep breath, for he'd seen the belt in his father's hand.

"Turn around and lift your shirt," his father commanded.

Alex did as he was commanded, and waited in shaking anticipation for his father's first blow. But nothing had prepared him for the searing pain of the first hit. His father was using the end with the buckle, he realized with a dazed understanding.

With the next hit, the buckle caught his backbone, and with a squeal of anguish and humiliation he collapsed.

His father grabbed him by the waist and forced him back up. "A Luthor does not flinch. He does not cry. He takes the beating like a man. Like a Luthor."

Alex forced himself to stand perfectly still, and he squeezed his eyes shut to keep the tears from creeping through. The next lash sent a chill of agony through his spine, and he felt a roaring in his head. He forced himself to concentrate on the lashes and not let his mind remove itself from the pain, like his cowardly mother did.

"Five," he whispered to himself. "Six." Another, another, he mentally pleaded. "I can take it, I am a Luthor, we can survive anything," he thought to himself, the words protecting him.

When his father finally stopped, Alex felt no relief, only a dizzying sense of misery. He'd failed his father, and his father hadn't even thought him able to take more than ten lashings. He would never be the same in his father's eyes. He couldn't even face his father when he finally turned around and pulled down his shirt. Instead, he turned towards his mother.

His mother was sitting in exactly the same spot on the couch, facing him with a slight smile on her face, but tears running down her cheeks. He looked at her for a long moment, trying to interpret her expression, but he couldn't. He turned to stare at his father's feet.

For what seemed like an eternity, his father stood in front of him, saying nothing. Then he finally turned and went back into his bedroom to replace the belt.

Without a word, Alex gathered up the scattered parts of the radio and carried them upstairs to his room. He stayed in his room all evening, not even coming out for dinner. Finally, two long hours after he'd heard his parents put the dinner dishes away, he emerged from the room.

He walked straight to his father, carrying the repaired radio in his arms. He stood in front of him, able to look him in the face once again. Without a word, he placed the radio on the floor in front of his father's chair.

His father took the cord and plugged the radio in, tuning it to his favorite station. When the station came on loud and clear, his father nodded slowly.

"Dad—Father—I'm sorry. I shouldn't have taken apart the radio, even if I thought I could fix it."

"Lex, a Luthor never says he's sorry."

"Yes, Father."

His father nodded to his mother, and she got up from her chair and hurried into the kitchen. Alex stood with his head down until she returned. When she did, he was surprised. She'd brought him a plate of food from dinner.

"I'll never earn a beating again, Father, I promise you," he told him solemnly.

His father nodded. "I'm sure you won't. Eat your dinner."

As Alex ate, he noticed his father looking at him strangely. He didn't look up, uncertain if he'd draw unwelcome attention if he met his father's eyes. When he finished, he scraped his plate and put it in the sink. He turned slowly to face his father.

His father smiled at him. "Lex, my boy, we're going out. I have things to do, and it's about time you started coming with me."

Alex nodded and followed his father. Without another word, his father walked out the front door, and Alex assumed that he was expected to follow.

It was growing dark as Alex and his father stepped onto the street. Alex shuddered as he realized how cold it had grown since dinner. He huddled closer to his father, but didn't dare to touch him. He wished he had the nerve to ask if he could go back for his jacket. Knowing how his father would respond, he forced himself to stand straight and tall and ignore the cold.

While Alex had been concentrating on his physical discomfort, he hadn't been watching where his father was taking him. When he finally started to pay attention to his surroundings, he realized they'd wandered into one of the worst parts of town, East Side. It was completely dark now. Very few of the streetlights were actually in working order. His father walked with long, resolute strides, and Alex was forced to trot alongside to keep up. He felt childish. Puerile.

"Father?" he began.

"Not now, Lex," his father admonished him.

Alex sighed and tried to keep up.

Finally, his father rounded a corner and walked into a dark alley. He opened a door in one of the side buildings. The door opened into a staircase that twisted and turned as it went up. He started up the stairs, taking them two-at-a- time and ignoring the handrail. Alex tried to imitate him, but his legs weren't long enough to make skipping steps easy. He was gasping for breath by the time he reached the top.

A tall, sandy-haired man met them just inside the hallway.

"Luthor," he said, frowning, "why did you bring the boy?" He spoke with a strong Australian accent that Alex thought made him seem rather young.

"He needs to learn about the business," Alex's father said. "I figured this is as good a time as any."

"Are you sure about this?"

His father placed a hand on Alex's head. "Yes, absolutely."

"All right, then." He pushed open the door behind him and motioned for Alex and his father to go in.

Alex stopped in the doorway when he saw the men standing there, but when his father walked right up to them, he took a few tentative steps forward until he stood at his father's side.

"Mr. Luthor, gentlemen," Sandy-Hair said. His right hand made a graceful notion to indicate Alex's father.

Alex's father inclined his head, and two other men nodded at each other. One of them, a very short man with thick black hair, stepped forward. He unrolled a large sheet of paper and spread it across the table in the center of the room.

"You see here the information you've asked for, Mr. Luthor. These numbers are guaranteed to be correct, and you'll see that we have all the information you'll need to outbid your competitors."

"Excellent, excellent," his father said, peering down at the sheet. "Lex, come here."

Surprised, Alex inched up to the table and stood at his father's shoulder. He looked down at the chart, but the whole thing seemed to be graphs and figures. It didn't make any sense. He looked up at his father, puzzled.

His father laughed, and after a hesitant moment the other men did as well. Alex started to shrink away, but his father clamped onto his shoulder and held him there. "They make no sense to you now, boy, but they will one day. Whenever a lot of money is involved, you should always remember to buy insurance. These are insurance salesmen, Lex."

Alex frowned at the men around the table. They didn't look like insurance salesmen. Or—did his father think he was stupid? There was more than one kind of insurance. Was this how his father did business?

"What kind of insurance?"

Alex's father laughed. "You see," he said to the men around him, "I told you he was quick enough for this." He smiled at Alex. "Do you know what I do for a living, Lex?"

"You're a contractor."

"That's right. And that means that I'm often bidding against other companies for certain contracts. The company offering the contract accepts the lowest bid, as long as they believe the contractor can do the job. So the trick is to make a bid that is the lowest, but just barely, so that you get the contract but still get as much money off it as possible."

One of the men, a skinny gray-haired man at the end of the table, rolled his eyes and leaned back in his chair. Alex flushed as he realized that the man was expressing his annoyance at having to wait for Alex's father to explain everything. But how else was he supposed to learn?

"So what's the insurance for?"

"Well, if you knew what all the other companies were going to bid… "

Alex grinned. "Then you could bid just below them, and get the contracts but still earn a lot!"

His father nodded. "Exactly. By "insurance," I mean that we're buying those numbers, ensuring that we'll get the contracts we want. Of course, we pick and choose. If we got every contract, not only would we not have the resources to complete them all, but we'd draw suspicions. And we don't want that! The trick is to succeed in business without anyone thinking you're doing anything under the table."

Alex nodded slowly. What he didn't understand was why his father was telling him all of this. He was putting an awful lot of trust in Alex, wasn't he? What if he told another kid on the playground tomorrow? But when he thought about it, he realized that his father had to induct him into the business somehow. He'd been trusted, and he'd never betray that trust.

He sat down at the chair on his father's right to join the meeting. Maybe he didn't understand what all the papers meant, but someday he would. He intended to follow his father's footsteps.

"My dream," his father told the men as he leaned back in his chair, "is to see the South Side become the wealthy industrial center I know it could be. I wouldn't like to see that dream ruined by a traitor."

"No, sir," one of the men said anxiously.

"I wouldn't like to know that there was a man in this room tonight who wanted to destroy me."

Now all the men around the table were looking nervous. Alex gulped. His father couldn't mean him, could he?

"In fact, Reynolds, didn't somebody see you enter the police station on 33rd and Roosevelt just the other day?"

The gray-haired man, who Alex assumed was Reynolds, started to shake. "No, sir, not me."

Alex's father merely lifted an eyebrow.

Reynolds made as if to get up, but then reached into his side pocket and pulled out a revolver. Alex gasped at the sight of the gun pointing across the table. While Reynolds was holding it on Alex's father, it seemed to Alex that he could see all the way down the barrel. He swallowed again and turned to look at his father.

His father's face was a carving of stone. Alex's eyes widened when he saw the complete lack of fear in his father's eyes, and he turned back to Reynolds. Reynolds was still pointing the gun at Alex's father, but his hand was shaking badly. Nobody had made any effort to take the gun away. As Alex continued to watch, Reynolds lowered the gun and finally dropped it onto the table, beginning to sob.

Before Alex was even quite sure what had happened, the sandy-haired man had grabbed the gun, pointed it at Reynolds, and fired. Reynolds flipped backwards on his chair.

Alex started to scream, and his father quickly pulled him from his chair and shook him.

"Shut up, boy, shut up."

Alex shook his head, trying to calm himself down, but images of the shot kept running over and over in his mind.

"Is the boy okay?" Black-hair asked nervously.

His father didn't answer. He pulled Alex around to the side of the table where Reynolds had fallen. Alex tried to pull away, to shield his eyes from the sight of the blood, but his father grabbed his head with one large hand and kept him from turning it. A sob escaped him, and his father hit him across the back. "Shut your trap, boy. Shut up and look."

After a long desperate moment, Alex regained control of his emotions. He stared with what he hoped was a dispassionate look at the victim, then turned to his father. "I see."

"Good boy," his father said softly. He led him back into his chair. "Today is a good lesson for you. A Luthor never gets his hands dirty."

Alex nodded, looking blankly across the table.

"I have just a bit of business to finish. Then we'll go home."

Alex felt numb all over as the meeting progressed. The words of his father and the men, even when they rose in anger, sounded as if they were in a dream. He couldn't stop replaying the scene in his mind, the gun pointing at his father, his terror, the man's face as he was shot, the horrifying sound of a man being fatally shot, the crash as the chair hit the floor. And none of the men had made a move to take away the body. Alex's sensitive nose picked the smell of blood. The smell made it even more difficult for Alex to get his head to stop swimming. He was grateful when the men finally stood up to leave.

The sandy-haired man followed his father out of the room, and Alex hurried after them as they walked down the hallway.

At the other end of the hallway, a burly man was waiting to open the door to another stairway. At least this time they were going down and not up.

A limousine was waiting for them just outside the entrance. A chauffeur held open the back door. Alex's father and Sandy-Hair got in, and Alex went to follow. He reached out to grab the car door for support as he clambered in, and he gasped when he saw that his hand was covered with blood. He pulled it away from the door in a flash. He stared down at it. The blood was gone.

Blinking several times quickly, he climbed in, this time careful not to touch anything.


"Lexie?" Amelia called, pushing the door to Alex's room open slightly. The room was dark and quiet. "Alex?"

A slight sound from the bed drew her attention.

"Lexie? Is that you?" She walked slowly towards the bed.

A lump under the quilt solidified into human form. "Go away!" Alex shouted savagely, his voice muffled by the blankets.

Amelia sighed. "Alex, you have to get up. You have to go to school."

She knew Jason had taken Alex along on his business last night. They must have had an argument of some sort, because ever since they had returned, Lexie had been silent and withdrawn.

"Alex Luthor. Get up now," she said, attempting to mimic Jason. "A Luthor does not skip school."

Alex burst out of the bed with a speed that astounded her. He drew himself up to his full height and glared at her.

"Don't you DARE use my father's words on me!" he bit off angrily. "You're hardly a Luthor yourself, don't you ever try to tell me how to be one."

Amelia's eyes widened and she took an involuntary step back. For the first time, she noticed how big Alex had gotten. He was still several inches shorter than her, but he was developing muscle. And with the fire in his eyes, he looked frighteningly like his father.

She spun and fled the room.


"Alex!" Mrs. DeWinter called. "Alex, are you paying attention?"

Alex snapped awake with a jerk. "Yes, Mrs. DeWinter."

"Then could you please point out where Somalia is on the map?" she asked, handing Alex the wooden pointer.

Alex stood up slowly and walked to the map in the front of the room. Somalia was easy to find. It was the place where blood was leaking out of the map. He touched the pointer to the blood and watched it disappear, and Mrs. DeWinter nodded.

"Excellent, Alex. I can see that you've been keeping up. Glad to see it. Now can you please try to stay awake during class?"

Alex nodded and sat back down at his desk, dropping his head into his hands. Could nobody else see the blood? It was following him around. Haunting him. Normal people got ghosts. It seemed that Luthors got blood.

"Alex!" Pete whispered, prodding Alex's back with a pencil.

"What?" Alex asked sleepily, turning around.

Pete rolled his eyes. "He asks "what?" Alex, are you crazy? What's been going on lately? You've been acting really crazy."

Alex shrugged. "What do you care?

Pete frowned, puzzled. "Why shouldn't I?"

Alex turned back around, and this time ignored the prodding of the pencil in his back until it went away. Nosy classmates who thought they were friends with everybody. Gah.


As rest finally comes to the weary, so does recess to the elementary-schooler. Alex found himself outside on the playground without quite knowing how he got there.

He sat down on a rock next to the basketball court to watch the impromptu teams play. An interesting game, basketball. He decided to root for the team without the blood on their clothes. They seemed more likely to win.

A sudden blink, and both teams wore clean clothes.

"What is WRONG with me?!" Alex said aloud, leaping to his feet. Several nearby 3rd-graders stared at him, startled. He grabbed a stone and lobbed it at a nearby tree, missing by more than a foot. He growled.

When the bell sounded to end recess, Alex was almost relieved. It was all he could do to make it through the day.


Alex stood in the entranceway to the kitchen, watching his mother cook.

"Lexie," she said, without turning, "could you please set the table?"

He shook his head, even though he knew she couldn't see him. "No, I'm busy."

"Lexie, I don't have time for this now," she said. "Set the table, please."

Alex grabbed the edge of the table with both hands and gave a might shove, toppling it over on its side. The vase of flowers and the candlesticks on the table went flying, the water from the vase spraying in all directions.

"Lexie!" she shouted, finally spinning to face him. "What is wrong with you?"

He clenched his jaw and took a menacing step towards her, a fist raised. He half-expected her to cower, but she stood her ground.

"I'll show her," he thought. With a quick motion, he slammed his fist into her cheek, reveling in the feel of flesh beneath his fist and the thud when she hit the ground.

"Lexie!" she shouted, struggling to stand up. "You—"

He kicked her in the ribs, putting all of his pent-up fury into each kick.

She screamed and fell silent, curling into the fetal position to escape.

"Alex, stop," she moaned. "Please, please, stop."

And finally, he did. He stared for a long moment at a small pool of blood gathering on the floor near her face. For a moment, he wondered whether it was real or another hallucination. In the end, he decided he didn't care.

He gave her huddled form one last contemptuous look, then left the room.


Alex pulled back the slingshot, aimed carefully at the tree, and let the stone fly. Bam! A perfect shot. Right in the spot of blood on the tree.

He bent down to pick up another stone.

"Hey, Alex."

He rolled his eyes. "Hello, Pete," he said.

"So, whatcha doin'?" Pete asked, leaning against another tree.

"Shooting stones into the spot of blood on that tree over there," Alex explained.

"Spot of blood?"

"Yep. On the tree."

Pete walked over to the tree and squinted at the spot Alex was aiming for. "It's a bit darker, I guess," he said, "but it's not blood."

"Well, that's because I'm just hallucinating the blood," Alex said. He took aim again. "But if you keep standing right there, I could make that spot of blood real."

"Oh! Sorry," Pete said, moving away.

"So," Pete said, beginning again, "do you want to play basketball with us?"


"O-kay… why not?"

"Because I'm busy shooting stones into the bloody tree."

Pete bit his lip, staring at Alex. "Alex, are you all right?"

"Of course I'm all right. Doesn't everybody hallucinate blood on everything?"

"Um, listen, I'll get out of your way," Pete said hastily. "We're on the court if you change your mind." He backed away slowly, then turned and jogged the rest of the way back to the playground.

After Pete left, Alex turned and watched the rest of his classmates play. They all seemed to segregate into groups, according to age and sex. It was interesting to watch them. Perhaps certain other lessons that his father had taught him could be put to use here.


"You're kidding, right?" Geoff said with a grin.

"Not a bit. So are you in?"

Geoff cuffed Alex on the shoulder. "Kid, you're pretty stupid. I do that stuff anyway. What's in it for me, if I let you have your way?"

Alex sighed, deciding that he really needed to explain things more slowly to 6th-grade bullies.

"Look, it's pretty simple. We're going to start a protection racket. It's something my dad's talked about before. You will be the threat. I'll tell younger kids that unless they hand over half their lunch money, you'll beat them to a pulp. We'll start with a few select scaredy-cats, but eventually, I'm sure you can have the entire 5th-grade under your wing, and then expand to some of the littler kids. Though with them we have to be careful they don't break down and tell a teacher or a parent. You not only promise you won't hurt them if they pay for protection, but that you'll make sure that no other bully touches them. You're big enough to do it, too."

"And then we split the money, right?" Geoff said.

Alex nodded. "I'll even give you 60%."

"So," Geoff said, a broad smile crossing his face, "why don't I just run this protection racket by myself and get 100%?"

"Because, not only do you not know who the best initial targets are to get this going, you can't possibly have time to collect all the money every day. And the kids will be too scared of you to hang around to give you the money, they won't care about the protection you offer. And besides, that's just the way a protection racket works."

Geoff scratched the back of his neck, nodding slowly. "I guess it makes sense." He cocked his head and squinted at Alex for a moment. "All right, I'm in," he said. "And I might even be able to get another guy or two, if you need additional 'protectors.'"

Alex grinned. "We might, in the future. You made the right choice. Now, you'd better stick around on my first rounds, make sure people know we mean business."

They had amazing luck on their first few passes through the playground. Alex was careful to choose gullible, weak- willed kids. They were more likely to give in without a fight, and once word started to get around, other tougher kids would be more willing to give in.

Alex noticed Pete leaning against the brick south wall of the school building, and he grinned to himself as he motioned to Geoff to follow.

"Hey, Pete," he said.

"Hello," Pete said warily.

"Pete, this is Geoff."

Geoff raised one hand in a small wave.

"Geoff and I have decided on a new deal in the playground. You see, Geoff is a nice guy, and he really takes it to heart whenever one of the smaller kids gets beat up by one of the bigger ones, you know what I'm saying? So he and I have decided to create a protection for the playground. In exchange for half of your lunch money, Geoff will make sure that no bully beats you up, ever."

Pete glanced at Geoff, who smiled, showing a set of very large, crooked teeth.

"And if I don't want to join this 'protection?'" Pete asked.

"Well, then, Geoff will just have to beat you into a bloody pulp," Alex said, grinning slightly.

Pete's eyes widened. He stared at them in silence for a moment. Finally, he pushed himself off the wall and stood as tall as he could.

"I don't believe you."

"Oh, really?" Alex said. He nodded to Geoff, who took a threatening step forward.

Pete took a deep breath and turned wide eyes on Geoff. He took a step backwards.

"Your answer?" Alex asked.

Pete shook his head frantically. "Still no!" he said, but fear was beginning to creep into his eyes.

Alex smiled coldly. "Go ahead, Geoff."

Geoff took a step forward and swung out at the same time, whacking Pete to the ground with a single sweep of a hand.

Pete shrieked as the edge of his head slammed into the brick wall before he hit the ground. In another moment, Geoff was on him, and Pete was screaming for help.

Alex watched silently, the same slight smile on his face. When Geoff finally backed off Pete, Alex noted the blood that covered Pete's face and stained the edge of the brick wall. At least this time, the blood was real. He had a feeling he wouldn't need the hallucinations anymore.


Alex frowned at his homework, then leaned back in his chair.

"Mother?" he started, turning to look at his mother, who was washing dishes in the kitchen. But she was humming tunelessly and looked worlds away, moving her hands slowly in the dishwater.

Alex leaned slowly back into place, studying her. She'd aged so much in the past few years. She seemed ages older than his father now. She'd been having problems keeping up with the household chores lately, earning herself even more beatings by his father, but she seemed to have stopped caring. Her mind always seemed somewhere else. Alex wondered where her mind went, and whether she was going crazy.

He shrugged. She wasn't going to be any help on his homework. "Father?" he called down the hallway.

His father hurried into the kitchen at the sound of his voice. "Yes, Lex?"

Alex could see his mother tense and shrink into herself, and he frowned.

"Father, could you explain linear equations to me? I'm having a little, uh… " Alex trailed off as he suddenly realized that his father would not be pleased to hear that he was having trouble in a class. "My algebra teacher isn't very smart, and she doesn't know how to explain some of this stuff."

"Sure, Lex," his father said with a smile, sitting down next to Alex to explain the complicated math that Alex was struggling over.

Alex smiled to himself as he listened to his father. So many kids at school would be envious of him, of his family. All of them were together, his mother washing the dishes, his father helping him with his homework. Most fathers didn't have time to help their sons, or didn't know enough. When his father reached the end of the explanation and Alex found himself understanding the lecture completely, he grinned up at his father. His father smiled back and ruffled his hair.

"Thanks, Father. I really understand now."

"Glad to hear it. I'd better hear that you got a perfect grade on your next test."

Alex laughed. "And when have I not?"

His father shook his head. "You make me proud, Lex. Keep it up."

Alex could feel his face turn bright red with pleasure at his father's words. His father never praised him so openly! His excitement was so all-encompassing that he didn't even notice when his mother started her tuneless humming again.


Alex buried his head in his pillow and moaned. He'd only just fallen asleep when he woke to the sounds of his mother screaming and his father shouting. He wished somebody would make pillows thicker so that they were soundproof. A beating was a beating, but he needed his sleep. He had school tomorrow.

The fighting seemed to go on forever, and a few times Alex heard heavy thuds as if his father was hitting his mother with something large. Finally he gave up on sleep and got out of his bed, walking out to the landing to see what was happening.

The sight he saw below shocked him fully awake, and he dropped to his knees, hugging the stair railing. His mother's nightdress had blood on it, and her eyes were wild as she fought off his father.

She must have done something pretty extreme for his father to beat her enough to draw blood. It wasn't a hallucination again, was it? He squinted for a moment, then decided that, no, it wasn't. He couldn't see where she was hurt, though. Was his father going to kill her?

Alex's father had turned away from his wife, and as he headed towards the stairwell, he saw Alex watching from above. He frowned at the sight of Alex, but he didn't look angry. The rage over the actions of his wife was already subsiding.

Alex's brow creased as he watched his mother walk over to the fireplace. She took a poker from the rack next to the hearth. Alex gasped.

He tried to call out, to warn his father somehow, but the words caught in his throat.

His father saw his terrified expression and spun around, but it was too late. Alex's mother swung the poker and hit her husband in the forehead with the full weight of the metal weapon.


"Oh, my God, what have I done?" Amelia said with a gasp, staring down at the body of her husband.

A sound made her jerk her head up and stare at the landing of the staircase, but nothing was there.

She dropped to her knees before her husband. "Oh, Jason, what have I done?" she cried. "Please, God, please, give him back!"

She lifted her husband's head in her arms and held him close to her chest, wishing that somehow the tears that fell on his silent face could bring him back to life.

She sat there for a long time, rocking back and forth with her husband in her arms. In one moment of fear for her life, she'd lost control. She hadn't known what she was doing. She repeated it to herself over and over. She hadn't known what she was doing. She was scared. She hadn't meant to do it. But no matter how many times she repeated it, she couldn't hold back the tidal wave of guilt that threatened to overwhelm her. How could she have possibly killed the husband that she loved? And, more importantly… how was she supposed to go on without him?

A siren suddenly blared outside, and she tensed for a moment until she realized that it had gone by the house without stopping. But it stuck in her mind, and in a moment she realized why.

Survival instinct kicked into full gear, and Amelia realized that she was going to be sent to jail if she was found like this.

Giving her husband one last regretful look, she stood up.

"I'm sorry, Jason," she said softly. "I loved you… I'll always love you… but I need to think of myself now. I know you'd want me to go on… at least, I think you would," she said, suddenly uncertain. She took a deep breath. "So, please forgive me."

Amelia stood up and dragged his body over to the hearth. She held his head in the air, his forehead just above the corner of the hearth, then dropped it. His head smacked into the hearth exactly where she'd hit him with the poker, then rolled to the side slightly. Satisfied, she took the poker into the kitchen and carefully scrubbed all traces of blood from it. She carried it back into the living room and held it in the fire for a few minutes, hoping that the heat would burn away what miniscule traces might remain. She then dug it in the ashes to get it properly sooty.

Lifting her husband's foot, she slipped the edge of the poker between his legs at the ankle, leaving the bulk of the poker to trail out behind him. She stepped back a few feet to check the overall impression. She nodded. It really looked as if he'd tripped over the poker and hit his head on the hearth.

A sudden thought hit her, and she quickly grabbed a rag and wiped the handle of the poker clean. Most likely she could mention that she was the last to use the poker and must have left it out, but just in case, it was better to be safe than sorry.

As she looked over the scene again, she began to cry. She hurried up the staircase to her room, where she forced her shaking fingers to change her bloodied nightgown for a clean one. She washed her face and brushed her hair, all the while trying to keep her emotions in check. When she felt certain that she was as prepared as she'd ever be, she walked over to the phone by her bed.

She picked up the receiver and dialed 911. Her fingers were trembling so much that she misdialed twice before she managed to get the simple number right, and she didn't have to fake her tears and panic when she reached an operator.

"Please, please, come quick," she said. "My husband fell, he's hurt badly, and I don't think he's breathing!" She gave the operator her number and was about to run back downstairs when it occurred to her to check on Alex.

She peeked into his bedroom, but even in the darkness she could tell that he wasn't there. She frowned.


Something pulled her to look more carefully, and she stepped into the room and turned on the light. She peered under the bed and the desk, but no Alex. Finally, she opened the closet door.

She gasped when she saw her son huddled at the bottom of the closet, pale and as stiff as if he was frozen in place.

"Lexie?" She touched his shoulder.

He jerked away from her and looked up at her, his eyes filled with hatred. He burrowed deeper into the closet, and she watched him with puzzled eyes.

A noise at the front door made her run to let the police and paramedics in, and she forced herself to look at the body to develop a few tears before she opened the door. As quickly as she could, she let them know what had happened, and that her son seemed comatose in the closet of his bedroom.

The female police officer walked upstairs with her to the boy's room.

"I think he saw something," the police officer said. "It looks like he's in shock."

Amelia reached out to touch her son again, and he again shrunk away.

"It's all right," the police officer assured her. "Sometimes children act a little funny under shock. How old is he?"

"He just turned eleven," Amelia said softly, staring at Lexie.

"He'll be okay. He just needs some time to recover," the police officer said, giving her a gentle smile. "We'll take him to the hospital overnight to make sure he's okay, but kids are resilient. He'll bounce back in no time."

Amelia nodded.

The officer accompanied her downstairs. As they rounded the corner, Amelia saw her husband being lifted onto a stretcher. The blood on his forehead had caked, giving his whole face a reddish tinge. She gasped and felt her knees buckle. She would have fallen to the ground if the officer hadn't grabbed her just in time.

"Here, honey, you need to sit down," the officer told her.

She nodded, but seeing her husband like this, being loaded onto the stretcher to go in the ambulance, when she knew he'd never be back… it brought new waves of guilt and pain that began to overwhelm her.

"Mother?" a small voice spoke from behind her.

She spun around, almost losing her balance in the process.

Alex stood in the doorway behind her, looking with pale, wide eyes at his father's body. "Mother, Dad's gonna be okay, right?"

His mother turned away from him and closed her eyes.

Alex turned to the police officer. "My dad—is he dead?"

She hesitated. "They're taking him to the hospital."

Alex stared at the ground. He knew why she was being evasive. Evasive, another word he'd learned from his father.


Alex bent down to dust an imaginary spot of dust from his black shoe. Standing up, he looked out over the sea of faces in the cemetery. All of them were there to pay their last respects to his father. He found himself beaming at the realization that his father had been beloved.

The minister said something to Alex, and he remembered what he was supposed to do. He walked over to the open grave, where his father's casket lay, and tossed the white rose he held into the grave. It landed on top of the casket. For a moment Alex felt tears stinging in his eyes.

But then the minister tossed a handful of dirt in the grave, and Alex forced himself to stop crying. "A Luthor never cries," he reminded himself, wiping the back of his hand across his face. "I will never cry again."

The other guests slowly wandered back towards the pavilion, leaving Alex alone at the grave. He stared down at it, at all that remained of his father.

"She killed you," he told him, his voice breaking. He cleared his throat. "She killed you. You were only trying your best. You were the most wonderful father in the world, and I loved—I respected you more than anyone I've ever known." He paused for a long moment. It seemed there was something else he should say, but he wasn't sure what. "Father, I'll never forget you. I'll become what you would have wanted me to. I'll make you proud of me."

Alex walked slowly back to the pavilion, where dozens of people mingled, talking and eating. Their pale faces seemed stark in contrast to their dark clothing. Alex didn't recognize any of them. He wanted to shout at them to go home, to leave him alone here, but "a Luthor doesn't make scenes."

A single face separated from the crowd, and Alex recognized Mrs. Roberts, his kindly neighbor. "Are you doing okay, Alex?" she asked him, giving him a worried look.

Alex straightened his back and looked her in the eye. "I'm fine now," he told her. "And my name isn't Alex anymore. It's Lex. That's what my father called me, and I'll be Lex Luthor from now on."

"Lex," she said, nodding. "It's a handsome name."

Lex scanned the crowd, looking for one person. Finally, he saw her. She sat surrounded by a group of sympathetic mourners across the room. As he watched, she drew her handkerchief across her face, wiping away more fake tears. Lex stared at her with narrowed eyes, until she finally looked up and saw him. Her face clouded for a moment, then she looked down again.

"She'll pay," Lex said softly. "Oh, she'll pay. She can't kill my father and get away with it."


Lex rounded the corner and stopped suddenly when he heard his mother's voice. He stopped, making sure he was carefully concealed behind the wall.

"And I just don't know what to do with myself with Jason gone," his mother was saying. "Everything seems so dark, so cold. I'm just lost."

"You know we're here for you," her friend said. "We'll do anything we can to help."

"That's very kind of you," his mother replied. "It's just… I just don't know what to do."

Lex clenched his teeth to keep himself from shouting out "But she killed him! She has no right to pretend to be mourning!" He contented himself with a low growl he was confident they couldn't hear.

"Didn't you say the doctor prescribed something for you?" the friend asked.

"Yes, he has me on Valium. I just started it last week, so I can't really tell if it's helping yet."

"Oh, you do sound much better than you did a week ago," the friend hastened to assure her.


"I think so, anyway. And it's good to get your feelings out, to talk about them. Only way to recover."

Lex gripped the edge of the wall, focusing on his whitened knuckles. How dare she pretend she was mourning a man she'd killed in cold blood? He'd seen it with his own two eyes. He only regretted that he hadn't had the gumption to interfere, to accuse her right away. Somehow, from the moment his father had fallen to the floor and his world had collapsed around him, everything had gone blank until he'd awakened in the hospital two days later with the vague memory of an evasive police officer.

He turned back towards the stairwell. She wouldn't get away with it. He was a Luthor, and a Luthor never forgot a grievance, no matter how long it took to get revenge.


Metropolis, New Troy, 1963 — Lex is 14 years old

Lex tiptoed down the stairs to the living room. His mother was sitting there in the dark, drinking. She looked up when he walked in.

"'Lo, Lexie," she murmured.

"Hello, Mother," he said. "That scotch is almost done, would you like another glass?"

She opened her mouth to say something, but finally just nodded.

He took the glass and went to the liquor cabinet. She was pretty far gone, maybe this wouldn't be as hard as he thought. He pulled a tissue out of his pocket and opened it on the bar, revealing a large number of pills. He opened the cabinet and took out the bottle of scotch. Sitting it on the bar, he dumped all of the pills into the bottle and swished it around until they were dissolved.

Finally, he poured some of the scotch from the bottle into the glass and brought both it and the bottle back to his mother.

"Here you go, Mother," he said. "I brought you the bottle too, in case you wanted more."

"Thanks," she said weakly, taking hold of the glass and taking a sip. She made a face, and for a moment Lex froze in place.

"This tastes funny," she said, peering at it with a puzzled look. She stared at the glass. After a long tense moment, she smiled. "But I like it." She downed the rest of the glass in one gulp, making Lex's eyes widen.

"Ah, I'll just be, uh, upstairs, if you need me."

She closed her eyes in response.

Lex bounded up the stairs, but once he reached the landing, he watched and waited.

Snitching his mother's Valium pills had been no trouble. Mourning. Ha. Little did she know that her playacting would lead to her death.

Lex crouched until his legs ached. He watched as she downed another glass, and another. It seemed as if she was on the verge of passing out at every moment, but each time Lex was tempted to go down and check, she filled another glass. But finally, finally, her head dropped back onto the couch and stayed that way. There was no indication that this wasn't just another bout of exhaustion, but somehow Lex knew that the combination of Valium and alcohol had worked. He tiptoed down the stairs and walked up to her side.

He wasn't sure exactly how to check a pulse, but he took her wrist and pressed it, feeling for a heartbeat. Nothing. He leaned close to her mouth. Not breathing.

Finally, he allowed himself a sigh of relief. It had worked. Now to cover the tracks.

He carefully lifted the glass and bottle from the coffee table and carried them into the kitchen. There was a pair of cleaning gloves on the counter, and he put them on. He poured what little remained in the bottle down the sink, and scrubbed it thoroughly. He scrubbed the glass as well. Then he tossed the scotch bottle into the trash.

He went to the liquor cabinet and took out another bottle of scotch. Opening it, he poured a bit into the glass, then poured most of the rest down the sink. He carried the bottle and the glass back to the coffee table. Sitting them next to his mother's still body, he lifted her right hand and wrapped it around the bottle in several positions, then around the glass. "Lots of fingerprints," he muttered. Marching back to the kitchen, he pulled off the gloves, rinsed them, and put them back in place. Sudden realization hit him, and he ran upstairs for the empty pill bottle, wiped it clean, set it next to his mother and placed her fingerprints on it, then left it on the table.

Back in the living room, he surveyed his handiwork, and felt satisfied that he'd remembered everything. He could only imagine the sympathy he'd get. Poor little Lex. His father died in an accident, then his mother committed suicide from depression. He shrugged. It was a pity, but then, didn't all heroes have a bad childhood to make them strong? Picking up the phone, he dialed 911.

"Please, help, I think my mother might have killed herself!"

Smallville, Kansas, 1965

Martha hummed to herself as she looked out the window over the fields. She smiled to herself with pleasure. Jonathan was at the doctor's, and in a few minutes he'd be home and they'd find out why they hadn't conceived yet, and what they needed to do.

She allowed her mind to drift as she slowly washed the dishes, singing an old song softly to herself. Someday soon, she'd be singing the lullaby to a new baby. She and Jonathan were so excited about having a child. They already had a nursery set up, and all the supplies they needed for a child, all ready.

Martha heard the front door open, and she smiled to herself, drying her hands on a towel and turning expectantly.

Jonathan trudged into the room slowly, and Martha felt her heart stop beating. He looked so dejected … could the news be that bad?

"Martha," he started, looking close to tears. "Martha, the doctor … he said the treatment didn't work. We still can't have kids."

Martha stared at him, tears shining in her eyes. "You mean I can't have kids."

"No, Martha, it's us. We're in this together. Oh, Martha…" He broke down.

Without thinking, Martha reached out and pulled him to her. They held each other tightly for a long moment. Martha was sure she could feel her heart breaking. How could two people with so much love not be able to enjoy the product of that love, a child?

Jonathan pulled back slightly, and smiled tremulously down at Martha.

"I know that it's been our dream to have a child," he told her. "But, Martha, I love you more than anything, or anyone, in the world. And even if we can't have children— I think we're still luckier than just about any couple on this planet."

Martha tried her best to hold back her tears. "Oh, Jonathan."

"Martha, I promise you, we'll find a way. We'll adopt, if we have to. So many children in the world have to grow up without love, and we have so much to offer. I know that any child would be glad to have you as a mother."

Martha stared at the ground. "Jonathan, I don't know anything about raising a child! What if I'm a terrible mother, and I mess him up for life? My family life wasn't exactly ideal, after all."

Jonathan laughed and kissed her, swinging her around the kitchen. "Martha, you'll make a wonderful mother. We'll make wonderful parents! Maybe this is a kink in our plans, but we'll find a way around it."

She couldn't help but smile at his enthusiasm. Yes, they'd have a child someday, even if they had to adopt him.

Martha hung up the phone and slowly turned to face Jonathan.

"What was that?" he asked, puzzled at the frozen expression on Martha's face.

"It was Jamie Richardson," she said. "She … she was calling to invite us to

Annie Irig's baby shower."

"I didn't know Annie was expecting again," Jonathan said.

"Neither did I. I think that maybe she didn't tell us because she knew how it would make us feel."

Jonathan stared into space. "We were married the same year, weren't we? Annie's struggled so much to have a child."

Martha nodded. "Oh, Jonathan."

Jonathan pulled her close to him and kissed her, at first gently, but then with all the urgency he felt for her.

"Oh, Jonathan," she murmured beneath his lips. She could already feel her heart racing with love and need for this man.

"Martha, I love you, so very much. And I promise you we'll find a way to have a child of our own someday.


Martha smiled at Jonathan and took his hand as they stood in front of the Irigs' front door.

A tired but smiling Wayne Irig opened the door. "Annie, Martha and Jonathan are here!" he called.

He led them into the living room, where several neighboring families were already clustered around his wife, Annie, who held a blanket-swathed newborn on her lap.

Annie looked up and smiled as Martha and Jonathan entered the room. "Martha, Jonathan, meet Richard!" she said, holding the baby up for their view.

"Oh, Annie," Martha said, looking at the beautiful sleeping newborn. "He's perfect!"

"Every baby is," Annie answered matter-of-factly. "But I think Richard's more perfect than most. I might be biased though."

Wayne smiled down at her. "Never," he said.

"So, Annie, gotten any sleep in the past week?" Doctor Harris asked with a wink.

"Not a bit," she said. "When does it end?"

"Give it a few weeks," Maisie said. "It'll sort itself out."

Annie handed the baby to Martha, and she rocked him softly, crooning, while the couples talked. Wayne and Jonathan were talking about crop conditions. She noticed, though, that Jonathan glanced at her and the baby from time to time, alternating wistful and sad expressions. She tried to smile at him to show him she was all right. Unfortunately, he didn't look convinced.

She smiled down at the sleeping baby in her arms. Annie didn't know how lucky she was. She wondered vaguely how the baby could sleep through such chatter as the adults were making.

When everyone slowly gathered his or her things to leave, Martha handed baby Richard back to Annie.

"Thank you for letting me hold him," she said.

Annie nodded. "Martha…"

"It's okay, Annie. Congratulations." Martha's words were sincere. Neither she nor Annie had been able to have a child for many years. In many ways Martha thought Annie's situation was worse, because Annie had been able to get pregnant but had miscarried numerous times. She truly was happy for her friend, even if it just reminded her more powerfully of her own loss.

Metropolis, New Troy, 1966

Sam Lane looked up, startled, as he heard the door to his office open. Ellen had gone home to get dinner ready, so he wasn't expecting anyone.

"I'm sorry, sir," he said to the young man who walked in. "I don't give walk-in appointments, and I'm about to go home. You'll have to come back tomorrow."

"I'm not an appointment," the man said, sitting down at the chair in front of Sam's desk.

Sam was intrigued by the young man's brash manner. "Then you are …"

"Lex Luthor." He said the name as though it meant everything, and in all honesty, Sam was astonished to find that this young man was Lex Luthor. Could he really be the owner of so many of Metropolis's industries? Maybe his father had the same name.

"Is your father the Lex Luthor who owns Luthor Industries?"

Lex laughed. "No, I am. Surprised to find me so young?"

"Yes, actually," he said.

"Well, I'm here to make a sort of business proposition for you."

Sam cocked his head. "Yes?"

"I hear that you are at the forefront of the field of prosthetics. You've discovered ways of making artificial limbs that allow amputees whole new ranges of motions and uses."

"Yes. Though I spend most of my time in clinical work, so I don't get as much time for my research as I'd like."

"Well, that's why I'm here." Luthor leaned over Sam's desk. "Mr. Lane, I would be willing to give you a grant to allow you to switch entirely to research work and give up the clinical entirely. But the grant would be for the combination of studies in prosthetics and robotics."

Sam leaned back in surprise. "Robots? But what do robots have to do with…do you mean you intend to use robot parts in humans?"

"That's exactly what I mean. It would allow people the same control over a prosthetic hand, for instance, that they'd have over their own. It would allow handicapped people an entirely new way of life. It would revolutionize the field."

"But robot parts would be incompatible! And in order to make movements that precise, you'd need some sort of computer running the robot, a tiny processor. I've heard talk of a microprocessor, but that kind of technology is simply impossible for a robot."

"Nothing's impossible, and I'm sure that you could find a way to make this very thing possible. Just think of all the people who have lost a limb and struggle, day after day, to live a normal life with a prosthetic. With a robotic limb, they could live a normal life, a life they can now only dream of. Isn't a small attempt at accomplishing the impossible worth it, for them?"

Sam's eyes misted as he thought of some of his patients, small children, who were so frustrated at their inability to play sports or even walk properly. It might be a pipe dream, but it was such a lovely one.

"Besides," Luthor continued, "it's no loss to you if it doesn't work. You'll get the grant whether you succeed or not."

Sam nodded thoughtfully. "Okay, Mr. Luthor, I'll do it."

Luthor smiled at him and reached across the desk to shake his hand. "Thank you, Mr. Lane. And I'm sure millions of handicapped children and adults thank you as well."


"You did what???" Ellen shouted.

"I accepted a job doing research instead of clinical work. I'm going to look into using robot technology to improve prosthetics."

"Without asking me? I'm your nurse!"

Sam sighed. "Ellen, this is a chance of a lifetime, doing research. You know I've never liked clinical work very much."

"You could have talked to me about it! We're partners."

"Partners? I'm the doctor! You're just the nurse."

She stared angrily at him as he realized his mistake.

"You—you—you jerk! You never valued my work! And I'm most certainly not going into research with you! I've always enjoyed working with patients."

"Suit yourself."

Ellen raced upstairs and slammed the door behind her. Sam sighed.


Sam smiled to himself as he locked away his papers for the night. It was past midnight, and he'd have to be back by 7 in the morning. But the reward was worth it. He was able to get so much more done when he didn't have to see patients. And Luthor's grant had been large, sufficient enough to hire plenty of assistants and still get a raise himself.

In fact, one of his assistants was particularly helpful. She was very young, newly out of grad school, but she was completely fascinated with prosthetics, and she enjoyed the challenge of trying to find a way to incorporate robotic parts into a prosthetic limb, and how to control them effectively. Working with her kept his enthusiasm high. And she also was willing to put in many hours of work, for which he was grateful. It was good having someone else working late when he had to.

He smiled at Jenna now, as he turned away from the file cabinet. She smiled back tentatively. Then, to his surprise, she glanced around the room, and seeing that they were alone, walked up to him.

"Hey, handsome," she whispered with a flirtatious smile.

Sam widened his eyes. "What?"

Jenna's smile widened. "Oh, come on, you can't tell me you aren't interested. I've seen the way you look at me."

He stared down at her long eyelashes and delicate features. She really wanted him?

"But … I'm married."

She pouted. "Not like that bothers most men. Besides, if you were happily married, you wouldn't be working until midnight."

"But I am—" he started to protest. But his words were muffled when she pressed her mouth against his.

"Don't even try to tell me you're happy," she murmured against his mouth. He felt himself responding, and realized that she was right.


Sam closed the door behind him quietly, and winced at the loud sound it made. What would Ellen say if she heard him getting in after 3am?

He tiptoed upstairs to the bedroom he shared with Ellen. For a moment he stared at her silently, filled with remorse. He had never cheated on her before. Why had he started now?

He sighed and bent down to remove his shoes. Taking off his shirt and pants, he climbed into bed with only his boxers.

"Hmm?" Ellen murmured, rolling towards him. She was suddenly awake. "Sam?"

"Yes, honey, I'm here," he whispered. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her, first gently, then with more urgency. She kissed him back, stroking his hair. Sam felt something wet on his cheek, and he touched her face gently. She was crying.

"Oh, Ellen," he said, close to tears himself. He slid his hand under the top half of her nightclothes, stroking the smooth skin of her stomach. She pressed closer to him, and he ran his hands across her back.

Their lovemaking was quick and fervent, but not particularly satisfying to either. Afterwards, Ellen fell asleep almost immediately, but Sam couldn't find sleep so easily.

He sat awake and wondered what it was about cheating that made him so eager for his wife. Jenna was so beautiful, so generous with her body. Thinking of her made him want to moan with delight. His wife just didn't give him the same feeling.

He sighed. The answer was fairly simple, he supposed. Perhaps if Ellen was satisfied, she wouldn't be as likely to look too deeply into his late nights at the office. And somehow it only seemed fair to keep her happy, since he was getting what he wanted. Why was life never simple, though?


"Why is life never simple, indeed?" Sam thought with a sigh, watching his wife dash into the bathroom for the third time this morning.

Who'd have thought that after their many years of marriage, the one time they had sex after his infidelity, Ellen would get pregnant? Life was certainly full of irony.

Ellen dragged herself out of the bathroom, gripping the doorframe unsteadily.

"I hate you," she moaned. "You did this to me."

Sam laughed nervously. When she said things like that lately, he could never be certain if she was being sarcastic or not. "Oh, honey, you know you liked it," he quipped with a grin.

She glared at him, and he immediately snapped his mouth shut and made a fast escape from the room.

Closing his eyes, he leaned over the papers cluttering his desk. He couldn't concentrate on his work. Ellen was at home, probably hating him for making her pregnant and forcing her to give up the clinical work she loved. And he was at the office, mooning over Jenna and trying to turn a piece of plastic into a robot. What a life.

He looked up as Jenna entered the room. She smiled at him, a smile that promised a great deal more, and he smiled back. Just once more couldn't hurt, could it?


Hong Kong (Xianggang), 1967 — Lex is 18 years old

Lex rolled over and away from his lover in disgust. She had been an interesting amusement for a while, but now she held nothing new. There was no excitement, no exhilaration. It was time to move on.

"Lex?" Analisa spoke up timidly from her side of the bed.

"Yes, darling?" He was careful to keep his voice controlled. It was never a good idea to let them know what he was thinking at this stage.

"I'm pregnant."

Lex blinked. "Weren't you on the pill?"

"Yes. I guess it wasn't completely effective. Or maybe I missed a day, though I didn't think I had."

"How long?" he asked.

"About a month." She sighed, obviously bracing herself for what would come next.

Lex thought for a long moment. His first reaction was to explode at the blonde for her idiocy in getting pregnant, then send her packing. But when he stopped and thought for a few, the idea of a son didn't sound so wholly bad. He remembered how his father had taken the time to show him the business and always seemed to enjoy having him around. And even at the ripe age of 18, Lex was already far richer than his father was.

He could afford nannies and the finest childcare. He'd only need to be with the child when he wanted. Yes, a son could be interesting. A daughter? Well, a daughter might not take over the business, but he could have her trained in something else valuable to him. Perhaps she could be a scientist. An empire run by his children, with him standing at the helm, appealed to him. Yes, a child could be valuable.

"Well, I suppose it's regrettable that it happened, but you mustn't worry now. I'll take care of you, and the baby, of course." He smiled generously at her.

"Oh, Lex! I was so afraid that you'd be angry! Thank you so much!" She hugged him tightly.

Lex returned the hug, meanwhile calculating exactly how Analisa fit into his plans. His end decision was, she didn't. He'd keep the child, but she'd have to go. It was no good for a child to have conflicting loyalties, and Analisa was too weak to stand at his side and rule his empire. Probably a death in childbirth, or shortly after, would be the best.

Lex stood over Analisa's hospital bed, feigning sadness. What a pity it was that Analisa had had such a difficult labor that it had killed her. It was lucky for Lex, though, because it saved him a potentially risky murder. Murder in a hospital room wasn't the safest idea, because nurses and orderlies walked in and out with no warning.

"Mr. Luthor?" a young nurse said, standing at the door. He turned, and saw that she held his infant son in her arms. "Would you like to hold your son?"

He smiled down at the baby. "Yes, I would."

She transferred the child from her arms to his. She watched his obvious adoration for his son, mixed with sadness.

"Sir?" she said. She touched his arm gently. "It'll be all right, you know. He'll help keep your mind off your wife. Just please don't ever blame him for what happened."

"Oh, never!" Lex assured her. "He's so beautiful and perfect. If only Analisa could be here to see him." He pretended to hold back a sob, and he could see the nurse trying to keep tears from showing in her eyes.

"Did you think of a name for him?" the nurse asked.

"Well, if she had been a girl, I would have named her Analisa after her mother. But since he's a boy, he'll be Alexander Phillip Luthor, Junior. Lex Luthor, Jr."

"A special name, I'm sure," she said.

He nodded. "Very special." He thought for a moment of his father, and wondered if the boy should go by Alex or Lex. Lex seemed a bit adult for a baby. But in honor of his father, he thought Lex would be appropriate.


Hong Kong (Xianggang), 1970 — Lex is 21 years old

Lex placed his two-year-old son on the ground beside him. He nodded at the foreman. "Yes, I'd like a demonstration of its power."

The foreman nodded to an assistant. The assistant walked over to the computer that dominated a full half of the room, and flipped a few switches to turn on the advanced system. He pulled up a display on the computer that showed all of Metropolis from the air. It was nighttime, so the display was a mass of lights, brightest and thickest near the center of the city, more spread out towards the perimeter.

"Now, Mr. Luthor, you can see that all the sections of Metropolis are organized by these gridlines."

Lex bent closer to the screen, and the assistant enlarged the picture so that Lex could see lines dividing the lights into grids.

"The grids are smaller towards the center of the city, where they have to control a great deal of power to light, for instance, an entire skyscraper. They're larger towards the outskirts of the city, where they only have to supply power to houses, and the houses are far apart. A few large industrial centers have their own grids, which they pay dearly for, because it's imperative that they do not lose power. The nuclear power plant, for instance."

Lex nodded. "I already know all this. Show me your contraption before I become bored."

The foreman looked at his assistant nervously, then shrugged. "Okay, Mr. Luthor, choose a grid, any grid."

Lex raised one eyebrow. He pointed to a large grid near the northwestern end of the city.

The foreman leaned in close to the screen to read the grid's number, then walked over to the metal tank that stood against the far wall. The tank was punctured by a great many levers, each of which had a number on them. The foreman found the correct number and lowered the lever.

Immediately, all the lights in the quadrant Lex had chosen went blank. He nodded. He walked over to a phone against the far wall, and quickly dialed the number he wanted.

"Arthur!" he barked when his associate picked up. "Are you standing at the top of the building as I asked?"

"Yes, sir," Arthur said.

"Good. Tell me, are any lights in the city out?"

"Yes, a large chunk of the northwestern part of the city appears to be."

"Now, tell me when they go back on." Lex nodded to the foreman, who pushed the lever back up.

"They're back on, sir."

"Good. Thank you, Arthur. Please remain there another 5 minutes, in case I need another demonstration, then you may leave."

"Very good, sir."

Lex hung up the phone. He walked sharply back to the foreman and his partner.

"Well, I'm pleased with the product," he said. "All city grids are constructed along these lines?"

"Yes, sir," the foreman assured him.

Lex nodded. "It's just what I need. How much?"


"A fair price. I'll take it."

Lex opened the door and called for his personal assistant, Mr. Cox. Mr. Cox walked in carrying a briefcase. He walked over to the foreman and placed it before him.

"Your advance," Lex told the foreman. "You'll receive the rest when the controls are delivered to me."

The foreman nodded. Then he frowned. "Didn't you have a little boy?" he asked Lex.

Suddenly, Lex heard a scream, and his blood froze in his veins. He raced out of the room and towards the sound.

He saw Junior high above his head, crawling on the catwalk that stretched across the ceiling.

"Junior! Get down from there!" he yelled.

One of his workers was crawling up the ladder at the far end in an attempt to rescue the boy. Lex watched from below.

"Daddy!" Junior gurgled. He reached towards the railing to get to his father.

"No, Lex, get down!" Lex called.

The little boy, looking confused, turned the other way. He looked for another way down, but all he saw was a machine blocking his path forwards. With a puzzled look, he reached for the lever at the front of the machine.

"No!" one of the workers shrieked.

Junior pulled the lever, and a strange liquid came pouring out. It sizzled as it hit the boy's face, and after a moment of silence, the boy began to scream, and scream, and scream.

The worker reached him and pulled him away from the pouring liquid. He grabbed a metal rod and used it to shut the valve, and he dragged the boy to safety.

But Junior was still shrieking at the top of his lungs. His face and right arm looked as if they'd been half melted and half burned away. Lex stared at his son with a mix of fascination and revulsion. The boy continued to cry as one of the workers hurried to dial 911.

The boy reached out his arms for his father, but when Lex shrank away, the boy stopped, staring with tearful puzzlement at the father who loved him.

The ambulance finally arrived, and paramedics came to take Junior to the hospital. When the paramedic asked what had caused this, a worker told him "battery acid." Lex was astounded that something so simple as battery acid could destroy his son's life in a single instant.

Lex reluctantly got into the ambulance with his son. The boy was strapped to the stretcher so that he couldn't move and hurt himself.

The female paramedic who sat on the child's other side looked at Lex with sympathy.

"You can hold his hand, you know, let him know you're here."

Lex glared at her, and she instantly turned away.


Smallville, Kansas, 1972 — Clark is 6 years old

Martha walked out onto the porch, gently shutting the screen door. She smiled at Jonathan, who was sitting on the porch swing. She sat down beside him.

"Such a lovely evening," he said. "Just look at that sunset."

"Mmm," she said, leaning back on the swing and taking his hand. "Just perfect."

They sat in silence, rocking back and forth. Their son, Clark, ran across the yard in front of them. His friendly black Labrador retriever, Shady, barked happily as she chased her young master.

Jonathan chuckled as he watched his young son tumble to the ground and Shady leap on him, licking for all she was worth. Clark finally managed to push her off and stand, waving at his parents. Martha waved back.

"You know, Jonathan, it's amazing how perfect life can be, isn't it?"

"That's for sure. After all, wasn't it only a few years ago that we despaired of ever having a child of our own? And here we are, with a beautiful little boy who loves us."

"And to think we found him in a space—"

"Martha!" Jonathan barked. He softened his voice at the look on her face. "Honey, I don't think we should talk about where he came from. Less likely that we'll accidentally let something slip."

Martha sighed and squeezed his hand, watching Clark climb the rope ladder to his treehouse. Shady barked below, disappointed to have lost her playmate to the trees.

Just as Clark reached the top of the rope ladder and put out a hand to grab the railing, Shady grabbed the bottom of the ladder in her teeth and pulled.

Clark's ear-splitting scream filled the air as he clutched for the railing, missed, and, set off-balance, tumbled off the ladder.

"Clark!" Martha shrieked, running across the yard as quickly as she could, until she reached Clark's side.

Clark was lying on his back, still crying. His leg was bent at a slight angle, and he screamed when Jonathan tried to touch it.

"Martha, call 911," he said grimly.

Martha raced inside for the telephone, her heart pounding loudly in her chest.

The doctor smiled at Clark and handed him a lollipop. "Well, Clark, you are one lucky boy," he said.

He turned to Jonathan and Martha. "His leg was definitely broken, but it's not a very bad break. It should heal just fine. God must have been smiling on this little boy. By all rights, falling that far, he should have gotten far worse of an injury."

"Well, we're just glad he's all right," Martha said, ruffling Clark's hair. He smiled up at her.

The doctor handed Martha two small crutches. To her surprise, Clark stuck the lollipop into his mouth to free his hands, leaped off the examining table onto his good leg, and took the crutches. He placed them under his arms and took a few experimental steps around the room.

"Well, I'll be," the doctor said, staring after Clark with a frown. "That is one sturdy boy. Would never have expected him to bounce back that fast."

"He's always been pretty quick to recover from injuries," Jonathan assured him. "It's normal."

The doctor nodded, but he still wore his frown. "Well, just keep an eye on him. He should be about 8 weeks in the healing, then we'll take the cast off and exercise the leg back into shape."

Martha nudged Clark. "Say thank you to Dr. Harris, please, Clark."

Clark balanced on his good leg and stuck out his chubby right hand. "Thank you for fixing my leg," he said, slurring slightly around the lollipop. "I'm sorry I hurt it, and I promise I'll be careful next time."

The doctor smiled down at the boy. "Don't mention it. Just take good care of that leg for me, okay?"

Clark nodded. "Tell Rachel I said hi," he said.

The doctor's face broke into an even larger smile. "She'll be glad to hear you said that."

Clark nodded and hobbled out of the room, Martha and Jonathan close behind.

As Clark headed for the car, Martha grabbed Jonathan's arm. "Jonathan," she hissed, "did you hear what the doctor said? He said Clark should have been hurt worse than he was, and that he's recovered almost too quickly. Isn't that strange?"

Jonathan shook his head quickly. "He's just a sturdy, healthy boy, Martha. That's all. Now just…let it drop."


With violent chops of the knife, Martha sliced a cucumber into slices for dinner. "Jonathan is so blind," she muttered as she worked. Chop!

"I know something's wrong!" Chop!

"No kid should be able to run on crutches, yet Clark can. And it's only been two weeks. That can't be normal." Chop!

"I think it has something to do with that spaceship he came on, only Jonathan won't even talk to me about it!" Chop!

She stopped chopping and stared into space for a moment. Her eyes filled with tears. "I just want to know what's wrong with my son," she said, barely above a whisper.

"Momma?" a voice came from behind her. "I heard you talking to yourself. Are you okay?"

Martha wiped her eyes and turned around to face Clark. "Oh, honey, I'm fine." Then she noticed something. "Clark! Where's your cast?"

Clark shrugged. "My leg felt better, so I took it off."

"You took it off? How?" She lifted Clark into the air, noting as she did that he seemed heavier than he should be. She put it off as exhaustion. Settling him on the couch, she ran her hands up and down his leg. Sure enough, the bone seemed perfectly in place. He didn't wince or show any pain at her touch, and when she asked him to wiggle his toes and flex the muscles in his leg, the results were perfect.

"Clark, your leg can't have healed that fast," she said.

Clark hopped off the couch and stood tall on both legs. "It's fine, Ma. Just leave it alone."

"I can't leave it alone, Clark. We'll take you to Doctor Harris tomorrow. I don't want you to cause any damage to it. Meanwhile, crutches."


"Crutches! And my word is final."

Clark gave her his patented puppy-dog look. "Please, Mom? I don't like having to use the crutches, they make me too slow."

"You're as fast with the crutches as you are on your feet! Use them until we talk to Dr. Harris."

Clark kicked the side of the couch angrily, but at the stern look from his mother, he rolled his eyes and went upstairs to get the hated crutches.


Doctor Harris lifted his glasses up on his nose and stared at the x-rays again. "I don't know when I've ever seen anything like this," he said. "I mean, it wasn't a bad break at all, but even so, there's no way it could have healed in two weeks. But here it is. Look at these two x- rays." He handed the Kents two x-rays. It was plainly obvious that the first picture showed a break in the bone, and in the new picture it was healed perfectly.

"Clark, you been taking healing potions?" the doctor joked.

Clark shook his head solemnly and looked up at his parents. "I'm not in trouble, am I?" he asked nervously.

"No, Clark, not in trouble," the doctor said. "It's just very strange. Now can you tell me how you got the cast off?"

"I just pulled it off. It came right off," he said.

Doctor Harris frowned. "Had you gotten it wet?"

"No, you said not to! I was very careful."

"Then how—? Nevermind. You know, I think there are more mysteries about you than I'll ever solve."

He turned to the Kents. "Do you mind if I take a blood test?"

"No, go ahead," Jonathan said.

The doctor pulled out a needle and swabbed Clark's upper arm.

A curly-haired little blonde girl stepped into the room. "Hi, Clark," she said shyly.

"Hi, Rachel," Clark said.

Jonathan and Martha smiled at each other. It was quite obvious to them that Doctor Harris's little girl was crazy about Clark. Clark simply didn't seem to get it. Maybe what they said about girls maturing two years faster than boys was true.

Rachel twirled a lock of hair around her finger and smiled at Clark. He smiled back, but turned nervously towards the doctor.

"Are you going to give me a shot?" he asked.

"No, just drawing a little blood. Having a bit of trouble with the needle though," the doctor said.

Jonathan glanced at Martha and frowned. She shrugged.

The doctor uttered a mild curse and tossed the needle away, pulling out a new one. Martha gave Jonathan a look of alarm.

They both watched as the doctor tried to stick the needle into Clark's arm. It wouldn't go, and the doctor pushed it harder until it snapped.

Jonathan reacted quickly. "Doctor Harris, we're actually really in a hurry, Clark has a soccer game. Can we do this another time? I really don't think it's a big enough deal to need blood tests, anyway."

Doctor Harris pulled back, looking at Clark with his perpetual bemused look on his face. "Very well. I'll see you for your next check-up then, Clark."

"Bye, Clark," Rachel said, opening her eyes very wide and blinking them quickly in what was obviously an attempt to flutter her eyelashes.

"Bye Rach. See ya in school tomorrow," Clark said, following his parents out of the room.

Clark was the only one who didn't seem to notice the terse silence in the car on the way home, and when they reached the farm, he dashed out quickly and ran to his treehouse, which he was finally allowed to climb up to for the first time in two weeks.

Martha followed Jonathan slowly into the house, where they locked the door and sat at the kitchen table.

"Jonathan," Martha started, her voice breaking.

"I know, Martha. You're right, you were right all along. Something's different about our boy."

"He should have gotten hurt worse than he did, but he didn't. The break healed too quickly. Jonathan, he broke that cast off in his two hands! Doctor Harris doesn't realize it, but he must have. And the break healed in two weeks, and already the leg looks normal, it's not thinner than the other one at all. It took me weeks for my leg to catch up when I broke it in middle school. And the needle wouldn't penetrate his skin! It broke! Jonathan, as much as you don't want to admit it, I think this has something to do with the spaceship."

"So he seems to be, well, invulnerable. And strong? Do you think maybe somebody did experiments on him before sending him into space? Or maybe somehow being in space changed him?"

Martha picked up the saltshaker from the center of the table and twirled it in her hand for a moment. "Jonathan, I think we should also consider that he's from outer space. I mean, like from another planet."

"An alien???" Jonathan said, practically shouting.

Martha winced, but nodded. "Maybe it's not likely, but then how likely is a Russian experiment baby being dropped from the sky into our yard? And he certainly doesn't look Russian."

"Maybe Siberian," Jonathan murmured. "All right, Martha, we'll keep that as a consideration, but let's not jump to conclusions. We don't know anything, and honestly, I don't think it matters. He's our boy, and we love him no matter where he's from. But we need to decide what to do about it. Of course we can't tell anyone."

"They'd take him away from us," Martha agreed.

"And dissect him like a frog, I'm sure," he said.

Martha shuddered. "So what do we tell Clark?"

Jonathan picked up the peppershaker and spun it around, smiling at Martha as she imitated him with the saltshaker. "Honestly, Martha, I think we tell him nothing for the moment. We wait until he notices something different. Then we tell him."

A knock sounded at the door, making the Kents jump. Jonathan peered out and saw Clark standing on the steps.

"Oops, forgot we locked the door," he said with a grin, letting Clark in.

"Dad, Shady's in the treehouse."


"Well, she always looks like she wants to come play. So I carried her up with me. But now I can't get her back down, and she's scared."

Jonathan glanced at Martha. "How did you get her up there?"

"I carried her, under my arm. She was awfully heavy, but not too heavy for me to carry. Dad—I don't think any other kids are that strong. How come I could carry her like that?"

Jonathan felt like laughing, but managed not to. He and Martha hadn't guessed, when they made their decision, that it would be so soon.

"Well, Clark, let's rescue Shady first. Then, your Mom and I would like to tell you a story…" He put an arm around Clark's shoulders and steered him towards the treehouse.

"Cool, a story! Does it have space invaders?"

Jonathan had to laugh this time. "Well, sort of."


Metropolis, New Troy, 1973 — Lex is 24 years old (Melanie is 18)

Melanie rolled over in bed and stretched luxuriously. She smiled when she felt the sun's warm rays on her face. Sitting up, she gazed around the room lazily… and was startled to see a pair of deep brown eyes staring at her out of the shadows at the opposite end of the room.

Quickly grabbing the silken sheets and hugging them to her chest, she stuttered, "w-who a-are you?"

The man stood and strolled towards the bed, and she shrunk back on herself.

"I, Madam, am Mr. Cox."

She stared at him blankly.

He sighed. "Mr. Luthor's personal assistant. Mr. Luthor would like you to know that he will have no more need for your services."

"My services?" she said with a gasp. "Surely you aren't implying that he's paying me to be here?"

"Not at all."

"Then why would you say 'my services?' He's my boyfriend!"

"I'm sure he was."


But Mr. Cox didn't answer. He motioned to several suitcases near the wall. They were brand-new luggage, nothing she could afford in the usual scheme of things. Presumably filled with her belongings.

"If you would be so kind, Madam, as to change into something presentable, then exit Mr. Luthor's penthouse, we would be much obliged."

She stood angrily, not even caring that she dropped the sheets. "He's breaking up with me, and he can't even bother to come tell me that himself? He's such a jerk!"

"Be careful. I would watch what you say about the man who is the most powerful being in Metropolis."

She growled at him, but he made no response other than to leave the room while she changed.

Melanie fought back tears as she dressed. Lex was breaking up with her, and he couldn't even come tell her himself? It reminded her of middle school, when dating and breaking up was all done by proxy, and was more a statement of popularity than of actual affection. Was that what this was? Maybe not popularity, but power? Oy, had she misjudged Lex. She'd known from the start that he wasn't "the one," but he'd seemed pretty nice, and she'd enjoyed her time with him.

"Oh, well," she thought to herself. "I'd be far worse off if I actually thought myself in love with him. I guess now he's just another boyfriend down the drain. Saves me the trouble of having to break up with him down the road."

She didn't even have to pick up her bags herself. The moment she was dressed and went to pick them up, a footman stepped into the door and took them for her. This made her wonder if somebody had been watching her, but in the end she flipped her long dark hair over her shoulders and decided she didn't care.

"All right, Lex, if that's the way you're going to have it- -then I don't need you!" she said aloud, tossing her hair again and not giving a second look to the room they'd shared for the weeks of their relationship.


Melanie sat on the edge of the bathtub, staring down at the stick. Blue. How could it be blue? She'd been so careful.

The tears she'd been holding back for so long finally escaped, and she burst into tears.

"Lex! You jerk! How could you do this to me?"

She bent almost double, wrapping her arms around her legs. "Lex, Lex," she cried. "I can't raise this baby by myself, I'm not old enough. Please, please, I'm only eighteen. I can't do this."

She sat there a long time, hugging her knees and crying desperately.

Finally, she took a deep breath and sat up, forcing herself to calm down.

"Melanie," she told herself sternly, "you are strong, and you will get through this. You do not need a man. Now, get up and pull yourself together. And stop talking to yourself, while you're at it."

She stood up and went to the sink. She washed her hands, then looked into the mirror. She tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear and stared at her reflection for a long time. She found herself wondering which of her features her child would take on. It wouldn't look just like Lex, would it? That wouldn't be fair at all. She smiled softly and hoped maybe it would look just like her, with dark eyes and dark hair.

"I'll call my baby Jackie," she said after a moment. "Jackie. I like that."

Feeling far better about herself, Melanie turned and left the bathroom. She grabbed her purse from a chair near the door. Somewhere nearby there was a pregnancy aid center, wasn't there?


Lex motioned for the handsome young man to take his position. Very gingerly, the man stood against the far wall, his body perfectly lined up with the chalk outline against the wall. When he was in the right position, Luthor nodded to the man, and the man froze.

Mr. Cox walked in just as Luthor was reaching into the box. Luthor pulled out one of his newest "toys," a magic star.

"So, Mr. Cox, how is the little bride?"

Mr. Cox smiled. "Well. She's a pretty little thing, I'm quite pleased. She's smart, too. Worked as a secretary for a few years before I met her."

"Really? Well, if you're ever interested in, ahem, getting her out of the house for a few hours, let me know. I may have something along the lines of a secretarial position open in LexCorp."

"Will do."

Lex flipped the star around in his fingers, getting a feel for the weapon.

"So, what news do you have of Melanie?"

"We've found her," Mr. Cox started. "It wasn't hard."

Luthor nodded and took aim at his human target, squinting an eye almost closed.

"I don't think she was really trying to hide. She moved into a run-down apartment near the South Side. Not a very nice place, but probably all she could afford."

With a quick snap of the wrist, Luthor threw the star across the room. It landed perfectly in the wall behind the man, exactly on the chalk line.

Mr. Cox cleared his throat. "I don't think she has any plans to tell anyone anything. We could still take her out, if you prefer."

Luthor tossed another star. Another perfect hit on the chalk line.

"No, don't take her out unless it's necessary. She's young, and quite pretty, and talented. It's possible I might like to make her an offer again in the future."

He tossed another star, and another. His target was relaxing as he realized how perfect Luthor's aim was.

"We had her followed for a few days, just to see where she went."

Luthor aimed one just above the target's head.

"She's pregnant."

Luthor gasped and let the star fly at the same time. "Oops," he muttered.

"Aieeeee!" The scream was quickly cut off.

"So, pregnant, is she. Girl or boy?"

"Too early to tell. And I have a feeling she won't ask."

Luthor closed the box of stars. "Well, you know what to do."

"Of course, sir." Mr. Cox bowed and left the room.


Metropolis, New Troy, 1974 — Lex is 25 years old (Melanie is 19)

Melanie walked in from work and tossed her jacket over a chair in the kitchen. Carefully maneuvering her swollen belly around chairs and through doorways, she dragged herself into the living room and collapsed on the couch.

"Oh, that feels so good," she moaned, enjoying the sensation of getting off her feet.

Just as she started to close her eyes, she felt something odd.

"Ow!" she said, startled, clasping her hands to her stomach. Her eyes flew open.

"Oh, no!" she whispered. "Jackie, are you coming out already?"

Looking frantically about the dingy apartment, she managed to locate her purse by sight before trying to get up. Since she'd have to take the bus to the hospital, best to leave right away and not bother waiting 'til the pains were closer together.

She groaned and pulled herself to her feet. Walking into the tiny alcove she'd set aside as the nursery, she glanced about the room to make sure that it was ready. She didn't have much money, but she was willing to spend all she had on her baby. The crib stood there, old and used but still beautiful. There was the bassinet for when the baby first came home. And the changing table, with all the diapers and baby powders. And in the kitchen, she had bottles and formula and everything else she could need for a good long time. She was definitely ready for this baby—even if she didn't feel like it.

"A baby at nineteen," she allowed herself to think for the first time. "Wouldn't Mom be proud?" Rolling her eyes, she managed to get hold of her bag she'd kept packed and ready for the hospital, and headed out the door.


Melanie smiled down at her baby. "Hello, Jackie," she said with a smile. "Took a lot of effort to get you into the world, but I'm glad you're here."

Unfortunately Jackie was too little to coo, but he was still beautiful even in sleep.

Melanie looked up, startled, as the door to her room opened. The nurse motioned for a man to enter, then left.

"Mr. Cox!" Melanie blurted out.

"Ms. Xavier. We meet again."

"What do you want?"

He inclined his head. "Why didn't you tell Mr. Luthor that you were pregnant?"

Melanie frowned. "He broke up with me, why would he care?"

"Mr. Luthor always takes care of his children."

She hardly dared to hope he meant what she thought. "You mean he wants to help with the baby? I could sure use it, raising a child alone could be difficult."

"He's willing to offer you an apartment in a—" he sniffed, "nicer part of the city. And he will pay for the support of you and the child, and for the boy's schooling when he gets older."

Melanie couldn't believe her good luck. "Oh, thank you so much! I was so worried I wouldn't be able to properly take care of him."

"Do you have any plans for his name?"

Melanie nodded. "I was going to name him Jackson."

"Well, considering all that Mr. Luthor is prepared to do to help you, perhaps you could give him some input on the name, and include an 'X' in the name."

"Lex wants an 'X' in the name?" she asked, astonished.

Mr. Cox nodded.

"Well, then," she said resolutely. "Jaxon it is."

He smiled coldly at her. "Good. I'll see you in two days about packing your things and moving you to the new apartment." He left the room quickly.

Melanie smiled down at Jaxon. "You hear that, Jackie? We're getting a nice new apartment, and your daddy is going to help with it. Maybe he does want you after all, and he'll try to be the nice father you deserve. He's a bit of a cold fish, perhaps, but he's not altogether bad. And he's rich, which will give you lots of opportunities I never had."

She hugged Jackie close to her, and smiled happily.


Metropolis, New Troy, 1977 — Lois is 10 years old (Lex is 28)

Sam Lane sighed and pushed away the prosthetic arm he was adjusting. He heard a soft chuckle behind him, and turned quickly.

"Mr. Luthor!" he exclaimed. "I thought you were in Australia!"

Lex stepped through the doorway. "I was," he said. "I had some—shall we say—personal interests there. But now, as you can see, I'm back in Metropolis. My affairs were managed well by my personal assistant while I was away. I decided to stop by for a report from you."

Sam sighed and waved a hand to indicate the various plastic pieces scattered about the room. "I'm working on the whole robotic idea, Mr. Luthor, but there's no possible way to make robotic controls for these that are reasonably sized and weighted to fit into a prosthetic. The most advanced system we can come up with is one in which the robot is controlled by a distant computer and run through a radio signal. But that obviously won't work. What we need is access to a microprocessor. They're too expensive under our grant though."

Lex waved a hand carelessly. "I don't care," he said. "Just bill it to my account, I'll take care of it. Get whatever you need, I want this project off the ground. Actually, I have a recommendation. There's a young research scientist, Bernard Klein, working for me at STAR Labs. I think that he'd be eager to get a chance to do some work on the microprocessor. He might be able to adjust it to fit what you need. I'll give him a call in the morning."

Sam nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Luthor. I think the microprocessor would really give us the chance to get these off the ground."

"Just make it worth my time," Lex said. "I've heard about the late nights you've been working on this project. I appreciate the effort."

Sam blushed, and Lex narrowed his eyes, wondering about the reaction. He shrugged. He inclined his head and left without another word.

Sam watched Lex leave. He was startled when he felt cool hands at the back of his neck.

"Ready to go, sweetheart?" he heard a female voice say from behind him. He spun around to see his newest lover, Natasha, lounging against his chair.

"Perfectly ready," he said. He stood up and took her arm in his.


Wanda scanned the room as she usually did, looking for the right man to receive her song. Her eyes lit on a man standing in front of the bar. She struggled not to let her shock show in her voice.

"I've got a crush on you," she sang seductively.

He looked different. The dark goatee gave him a bad boy look, and his scruffy attire made him look like a bum. But the clothes couldn't hide his muscles or his perfect physique. She swallowed.

Had he recognized her? Surely he wouldn't expose her for what she really was—would he? But why was he here? Was he looking for her? She suddenly felt very exposed on stage.

His dark eyes met hers, and he smiled slowly. He lifted his glass to her in silent tribute.


A crash from the living room jolted Lois from her daydream. She tossed her notebook to the table and stood up.

Ellen Lane appeared in the doorway, leaning on the frame. "Loish," she slurred.

"Mom!" Lois ran to her side. "You're awake!"

"Lois?" Lucy called from the living room. "Jimmy has to pee!"

Lois closed her eyes in frustration. She grabbed her mother's hand and pulled her into the living room. "Can you take him, Luce?"

"No," Lucy said, calmly brushing her doll's hair. "I'm busy."

Lois gently pushed her mother onto the couch and grabbed Jimmy by the hand.

"Come on, Mr. Olsen, let's take you into the bathroom."

"Too late," Lucy said, pointing to Jimmy's pants. A large wet spot was appearing in the front.

"Oh, darn it!" Lois exclaimed.

"Lois, your language!" her mother admonished, standing up again. "I'll take him." She wobbled on her feet. "Just give me a minute to catch my breath."

Lois shook her head and blinked back tears. "Mom, stay there. I've got him." She tugged Jimmy into the bathroom to finish, then changed his diaper and pants for him.

When she returned to the living room, Lucy was staring open-mouthed at their mother, who was singing in a very loud, off-key voice, "I've Got a Crush On You."

Lois nudged Jimmy into the room and went into the kitchen. The coffee pot, thankfully, still had coffee in it from that morning. She put the pot on the stove and turned it on to heat.

When it finished, she filled a mug and carried it into the living room and shoved it at her mother. "Drink," she ordered.

"Oh, LoLo," her mother said in a singsong voice. "You're too good to us."

The phone rang, and Lucy ran to pick it up. "Daddy won't be home tonight!" she called out to Lois.

Lois's mother groaned and fell back in her chair.

Jimmy suddenly looked at Lois with a strange expression on his face.

Lucy walked into the living room. She wrinkled her nose. "What is that smell?" she asked, looking pointedly at Jimmy.

Lois burst into tears.

There was a sharp rap on the screen door. "Lois?" she heard Mrs. Olsen call. "I'm here to pick up Jimmy!"


Lois collapsed on her bed, near to tears. Why did her family have to be so—so—so stupid! She slammed a fist into her pillow angrily. They were all such idiots. Her mom couldn't seem to stop drinking, and Lucy—Lucy was definitely going through a bratty stage. And where was her father? He was never home! Like today, when she'd really needed him.

"The jerk," she muttered into the pillow. "Jerk, jerk, jerk!" Saying the words didn't seem to help, however, and she was too restless to stay in her room.

Lois peered into the mirror opposite her bed, and frowned. Her face was red and blotchy, and her eyes looked bloodshot. She walked across the hall to the bathroom and splashed water on her face, breathing a sigh of relief as the red slowly faded. She didn't want anyone to know how upset she'd been.

Back in the hallway, Lois opened the closet and pulled out her jacket, pulling it on. "I'm going for a walk!" she called out, and quickly hurried out the front door before anyone could call her back.

Lois had always loved living in the city, its vitality and bustle and drive. But today, she wished she was anywhere but. She wanted to be alone, completely alone, and one could rarely get that in the city.

Hurrying across the street and down a few blocks, Lois entered Centennial Park. At least it was late enough in the evening that few people were still in the park. The mothers with their baby carriages and small playful children had finally gone home. The dog walkers had brought their pets back home for feeding time. And it was too early for the lovebirds to be walking hand-in-hand yet.

Her favorite spot was a little out-of-the-way bench near one of the smaller fountains near the back of the park. Most of the couples tended to follow the paths or stick to the large fountain near the entrance, leaving this fountain all to Lois. She smiled as she turned the corner and it came into view. A few fall leaves were scattered in the water and across the bench of the fountain, giving it a perfect autumnal appearance.

Lois sat down on the side of the fountain. She trailed one hand lazily in the still water at the edge, watching ripples appear and send the leaves spinning. A sigh escaped her lips as calm slowly invaded her mind.

She found herself wishing that she had someone to share this special place with. Not Lucy, Lucy would never understand what it was. This could be the most romantic spot with the right person. In fact…

In fact, it would be the perfect place to be proposed to, or to propose, someday.

She let her mind wander, imagining the perfect proposal. Mr. Right, down on one knee before her. As hard as she tried, she couldn't picture his face. Would he know that this was the perfect spot? Before doubts could cross her mind, it occurred to her—he would if he was really Mr. Right.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a boy walking down the path towards her. She expected him to walk around to the other side of the fountain to give her some space, so she was a little surprised when he sat just a few feet away from her, glancing at her with lowered eyes as if tacitly asking her permission. She shrugged, and he turned towards the water, gathering some of the leaves close to him.

"What are you doing?" she asked, her voice sounding loud in the quiet park.

"I'm making leaf-boats," he said.

She frowned. "Leaf-boats?"

The leaf he was adjusting did look remarkably like a boat, small sticks arranged on it to look like masts.

"Yes, leaf-boats. If you look at the pattern of the ripples and push them the right way, they keep going around and around the fountain."

"Can I try?"

He pushed a leaf at her. "Sure."

She fashioned a boat in rough imitation of him, then watched how he pushed the tiny boat into the faster water. To her surprise, it did continue to move around the fountain. She pushed her own boat out, and clapped with delight when it followed his. She watched them circle the fountain together, her little boat chasing his. By the time they had circled the full way around, her boat had caught up to his and they were traveling together.

She looked up, laughter in her eyes, to thank him for showing her the trick. But he was gone.


Smallville, Kansas, 1978 — Clark is 12 years old

"Clark," Mrs. Winters said, "would you like to go first?"

"Sure!" Clark said, bounding to his feet. He walked up to the front of the classroom.

It was amazing the difference it made to stand at the front of the classroom. Suddenly the class was a sea of faces staring at him expectantly. He gulped.

"Clark? Go ahead; it's okay," Mrs. Winters urged him gently.

Clark nodded and swallowed. He tried to remember what his mother had told him this morning.

"If you get scared," she had said, "just picture everyone in his underwear. Then they look sillier than you, and you have nothing to worry about."

Clark slowly eyed his fellow classmates, picturing each of them in their underwear. It wasn't hard. David, now, boxers for him. Emily probably wore yellow, she always wore yellow. Megan still wore undershirts, you could see them poking out of clothing with large necks. And Lana, what color did she wear? Red, for sure.

But to his astonishment, Lana wore black. Then he frowned. Why wasn't she wearing what he'd tried to picture her in? In fact, now everyone in the class was in underwear, and he knew he hadn't gotten to all of them.

He glanced at Mrs. Winters, and immediately turned away, fighting the urge to shield his eyes. He looked back at his classmates.

But now they weren't even wearing their underwear, they were naked. He blinked, frightened. He didn't mean to be picturing people naked, it seemed such an invasion of their privacy.

He blinked again, and suddenly they weren't wearing their skin, either. He started to whimper when he saw all of his classmates staring at him, their veins pumping blood through their bodies, all of it visible to his eyes. He could even see their organs. He could feel a tear start down his face.

He shook his head to clear the image, and the entire class was suddenly a class of skeletons. Skeletons! He shrieked.

"Get away, get away!" he shouted, waving his hands at them in a shooing motion. "Please, just go away!"

"Clark," Mrs. Winters said, starting towards him, "are you okay?"

He glanced at her, and now she was a skeleton with almost translucent organs. He started to scream, and once he started, he couldn't stop.

Jonathan and Martha hurried into the school building, in a panic from the phone call they'd received. A very worried receptionist led them into the room where Clark was sitting.

Clark was sitting on a cot, his head in his hands, crying and rocking back and forth.

Martha hurried to him. "Oh, baby, what's wrong?" she asked, reaching for him.

Clark looked up at her and screamed, turning away and throwing himself on his bed. Martha looked at Jonathan, bewildered.

"Clark, please tell us what's wrong!"

Clark shook his head and said nothing.

"Clark!" Jonathan said, trying to sound firm. "Get up and tell your mother and me what is wrong."

There was no response from the cot, and finally the terrified Kents lifted Clark into their arms and carried him to the car.

Somehow, the frightened boy dozed off during the car ride, but as soon as they reached the Kent farm, he woke up in more of a panic than before. He pushed the car door open clumsily and ran, tripping every few feet. He looked to be running for his treehouse.

Martha looked at Jonathan, and he shook his head wordlessly.

"Leave him be, Martha," he said. "He'll tell us when he's ready."

"Jonathan," she said tearfully, "this isn't just some usual school problem. He was afraid of us, Jonathan! Afraid! Of his own parents! What could possibly have happened to him in school to make him so afraid?"

Jonathan shrugged. "On the phone, they just said he'd been at the front of class making a speech. He'd looked nervous, but nothing more, until he seemed to become more and more panicked, and finally broke down."

She looked helplessly at the treehouse, but allowed Jonathan to guide her into the kitchen.

Several hours later, by common consent, Jonathan and Martha finally decided to try approaching Clark again. Jonathan let Martha climb up the rope ladder first, then he followed.

They peered in the dim doorway to find Clark huddled on the floor under the table. He seemed to have finally stopped crying.

"Clark, honey, would you like some dinner?" Martha asked.

Clark looked up and saw his parents, and he let out another shriek and clamped his hands over his eyes.

"Clark!" Jonathan said, grabbing Clark's shoulders before the boy could pull away. "Stop screaming and tell us what the problem is."

Clark didn't answer, and Jonathan shook him slightly.

"They're going to get me!" Clark screamed at the top of his lungs, trying to pull away. "They've got me!"

"Who's got you?" Martha asked, confused.

"The bloody skeletons, they've got me and they won't let go! The whole world is falling apart! Mom, Dad, please, please, help!"

Martha felt her eyes fill with tears. "Clark, honey, we're right here, we want to help you."

Clark shook his head quickly. "You're not here, I can hear you but I can't see you! I just see the bloody skeletons! Please, get them away! Get them away!!!" By his last plea, his hysterics were back full-force.

Jonathan grabbed Clark's hands from his eyes, and Clark's tearstained eyes suddenly opened and stared at Jonathan, unseeing.

"Take a deep breath, boy, and try to calm down. The skeletons haven't hurt you yet, have they?"

He shrugged. "Not yet."

"Clark," Jonathan asked, "can you see anything more now than you did before?"

"Just the bloody skeletons."

"Close your eyes."

Clark obeyed.

"The same?" Jonathan asked.

Clark nodded. "The same."

"How many skeletons are there right now?"

Clark held up two fingers.

Jonathan glanced at Martha, and she shook her head, confused.

"Clark, I think those two skeletons are your mother and I. Your mother is on your left, and I'm on your right. I want you to picture those skeletons as being us, okay?"

Clark opened his eyes again and glanced at each of them for a moment, then widened his eyes. "Dad, Mom got fat! And you're skinny!"

"Clark, you do know your left from your right, don't you?"

He shrugged.

Jonathan sighed. "Switch them."

Clark glanced at them again, sniffling, then quickly turned away. "Okay, now you're my parents, but you're naked."

"There you go. You're doing better. Now I want you to think that we have clothes. Don't try to picture them, just expect to see us fully clothed. Got it?"

Clark looked at his dad, eyes wide. "Dad, you're back! Dad!" He leapt for his father and clung to him tightly, sobbing happily.

Martha smiled and hugged Clark from the back, and the three of them held each other close for a long time.

Clark sipped slowly at his buttermilk and smiled at his mother across the table. "Thanks, Mom. You're right, buttermilk always 'cures what ails you.'"

She smiled back at him. "That it does."

"So you think that I have the ability to see through things, as well as hear from really far away?" Clark asked.

"Yes, it sounds like it. I think you were actually seeing through us, to our skeletons and muscles and inner organs. Movies always show such things as being scary, so you were naturally terrified."

"No more horror movies for you, young man," Martha said. "Now, did this by chance start by you trying to picture everyone in their underwear to overcome your nervousness?"

Clark almost knocked over his milk. "How did you know that? I mean …. maybe …"

Jonathan laughed. "It's a common practice, Clark. Only it's not such a good idea when you have the ability to look through people."

"So do we get to name this power too?" Clark asked.

Martha nodded. "Any ideas?"

"How about 'x-ray vision?'" Clark asked. "After all, it's almost like an x-ray machine. Just bloodier."

"Sounds good," Martha said.

"Mom, I don't have to go back to school tomorrow, do I?" Clark asked, putting on his best puppy-dog face. "My super-hearing never stopped working, and I could hear my classmates all making fun of me the whole time I thought I was being attacked by skeleton-creatures."

Jonathan glanced at Martha. "Son," he said, "I don't think it's a good idea to let you stay home. You will need to go back, and it will make too big a deal out of it if you are gone for a day. If you go back tomorrow, we can just say that it was intense anxiety from having to speak in front of the class. Your classmates are nervous too, they'll forget it soon enough."

"But what if it happens again?" he asked, his brow creasing.

"Well, for one thing, you now know what it is, and that they aren't evil skeletons, they're just your friends. You just need to look at them and remember that they are human and fully clothed, and you should be okay."

Clark nodded, then grimaced.

"What is it?" Martha asked worriedly.

"Oh, I was just remembering seeing Mrs. Winters without any clothes. I think I'll be having nightmares about that sight for a long, long time."


"So, you really think these'll help, Dad?" Clark asked.

His father nodded. "I got some odd looks over that, but they agreed to make them. Plain glass, but lined with lead. It should help you control that x-ray vision of yours, make sure you don't use it without thinking about it. And make sure you don't use it in situations that you shouldn't."

"Like looking in the girl's locker room?" Clark said impishly.

Martha's mouth dropped open. "Clark Jerome Kent! Now you listen to me. You may have some powers that ordinary people don't have, but don't you ever dare use them to take advantage—"

"Mom!" Clark interrupted. "It was a joke, really!"

She growled at him, and he squealed. "Honest!"

Jonathan rolled his eyes. "Anyway, hopefully they'll remind you to keep a rein on your powers. You can take them off when you're around the house with us, but when you're out in public, glasses mean no powers."

"I got it, already! Sheesh. You'd think you'd never seen a kid with x-ray vision and incredible hearing before."


Cairns, Australia, 1979 — Lex is 30 years old (Lex, Jr., is 12)

Lex, Jr., stared down at his plain wooden desk, mystified. His nanny, Janine, had told him that someone was coming to visit today, but he wondered who it would be. He didn't have any real friends, and he only knew a few people in the town. Janine didn't like a boy of "Luthor blood" mingling with his "lessers" very much. He wished he could tell her that he'd rather have friends among them than no friends at all, but she was very dedicated to preserving his importance.

Lex heard someone enter the room. He glanced up for a moment, saw that it wasn't anyone he recognized, and quickly jerked his head back down to face the desk, blushing.

In the quick glimpse of him, he had seen a tall man with curly brown hair and noble bearing. Who was this man?

"So, Lex," the man spoke. "I've spoken to your nanny."

Lex didn't respond.

"She says that your grades are fair, but no better. A pity, that. Are you stupid, or do you just not apply yourself?"

Lex flushed angrily, and tried to think of a suitable retort. But years of little interaction with the outside world worked against him, and the words refused to come forth.

"The former, then. Did that acid burn a hole in your head?"

Lex looked up angrily, his hands fisting. The man laughed.

"Finally, he appears to speak English. And he has a temper, as well. What a pity. Perhaps you would have been the son I wanted, and made a proper right-hand man."

Lex realized with those words who this man was. "You're— you're my father," he choked out.

"Bravo, boy, I knew no Luthor could be completely stupid," his father said, clapping.

Lex flinched at the sharp sound. He felt hot tears coming to his eyes, and looked back down at his desk to avoid showing them.

His father was now pacing the room in silence. Lex thought it looked as though the man had something specific to say to him, so he used the time to control his tears until he felt ready to face his father again.

Finally, his father stopped in front of his desk, and leaned forward, resting his hands on his desk. Lex was unable to keep from leaning backwards, to preserve his personal space.

For a long moment, his father's eyes met his own, and Lex was shocked at the intensity he saw there. Anger, frustration, pity, hate, disgust, longing, and loneliness, all reflected in those burning dark eyes. Then his father blinked, and the eyes were cold and emotionless once again.

"Do you believe the sins of the father are visited upon the son?"

Lex frowned at the unexpected question. "I—I don't know."

His father laughed, a cold, bitter laugh, releasing Lex's desk and turning away from him. "You'd better hope not," he said. "For your sake."

Lex opened his eyes wide. He'd always suspected that his father wasn't a particularly nice man. But what—what had he done, that he would say such a thing to his son? Lex couldn't tell if his father was saying it out of regret, or if there was something else to it. His father was a hard man to read.

Without another word, his father stalked out of the room, not even giving a backwards glance at the son who sat at a desk, mouth gaping open.


Metropolis, New Troy, 1980 — Lex is 31 (Melanie is 25, Jackie is 6)

"Mommy!" Jackie cried as he leapt from the bus.

"Hi, Jackie," she said with a smile, taking his backpack. "How was your day?"

"Pretty good. We're learning the names of the planets." He reached out for her hand and gripped it tightly, smiling up at her.

"Good for you! Which ones do you know so far?"

He thought for a moment. "Mercury."

She stopped at the traffic light and waited for the walk signal to turn white. "Just Mercury?"

He nodded.

"What planet do we live on?" The walk signal came on, and they crossed the road in silence, Melanie pulling Jackie along so that he wouldn't dawdle.

When they reached the other side, Jackie turned to his mother with a huge grin. "We live on Earth! So I know two."

She smiled and ruffled his hair. "You're very smart. How'd you like to go visit Daddy?"

He shrugged and scuffed a toe on the curb.


"Do we have to?"

"Well, I need to talk to him about something. Maybe Amelia will be there to play with you."

"Amelia? Okay!"

She turned left at the next crosswalk, and they walked up to Lex Towers.

Jackie frowned suddenly, and tugged on Melanie's hand until she looked down at him. "Mommy, will Ari be there?"

"Ari?" she asked, puzzled. "Who's Ari?"

"I don't know, but I don't like her," Jackie said. He stuck the thumb of his free hand into his mouth. "Maybe she's Daddy's secretary, she kisses him a lot."

Melanie stopped cold for an instant, staring down at Jackie. "She kisses him a lot?" she asked, forcing her voice to remain steady.

Jackie nodded, looking puzzled. "Yeah. What's wrong?"

She shook her head and started walking again. "Nothing, honey."

The doorman waved them through, and they stepped onto the elevator. "You know, honey," Melanie said, "just because Daddy kisses Ari, that doesn't mean she's his secretary."

Jackie bobbed his head up and down. "Yes it does!" he insisted. "Daddy kisses all his secretaries."

Worse and worse. Melanie gripped Jackie's hand tighter.

"Mommy!" Jackie whined, tugging at her hand, "you're hurting me."

"Oh, I'm sorry, love," she said, loosening her grip a little. "I'm just a bit mad that Daddy lets you see him kiss Ari."

Jackie bit his lip. "Well, I'm probably not supposed to see."

The elevator dinged as it reached the penthouse, and they stepped off. "You're not supposed to see?"

"I see them when I'm hiding in Daddy's desk."

Choking down a laugh, Melanie smiled at him. "And why are you hiding in Daddy's desk?"

"Because I'm playing spy," he whispered. "And that's what spies do."

"Ah, okay," she said, shaking her head in wonderment. "Well, don't spy on Daddy and Ari anymore, okay? I don't want you to see that stuff."

"But that's what spies do, they spy! Besides, all spies have girls. Like James Bond! I want a girl just like one of his. Not at all like Susie, she's annoying and she's always trying to kiss me. Ew."

As they reached the end of the hallway, Melanie could hear voices, and she held her finger to her lips. "Quiet," she said softly, "we don't want to disturb Daddy." A thought occurred to her, and she added in a whisper, "but I do want to hear about this Susie later. And maybe her mother's name and phone number, okay?"

"Okay, Mommy," Jackie responded in a childish whisper.

They walked up to the door of Lex's office, and Melanie peered inside. Lex was visible through the open door at the end of the study. He and a distinguished-looking older gentleman were facing somebody she couldn't see.

As she watched, Lex nodded to his associate, and the man moved his hand to his side. With a strangled gasp, Melanie dropped to her knees and grabbed Jackie, pulling him close, burying his head in her chest and covering his ears.

Her reaction was instantaneous, and none too soon. The older man took a gun from his pocket and fired a single shot.

In the moments that followed, Melanie reacted faster than she'd have thought possible. She grabbed Jackie, lifted him into her arms, and ran back out of the apartment. She stood in front of the elevator, nervously hopping from foot to foot, but decided it was too slow. She ran for the stairs.

It was no easy task to carry a heavy six-year-old from the penthouse of the tallest building in Metropolis. In the end she had to stop on the sixty-first floor and take the elevator from there. She reached the ground floor and ran, ignoring the startled doorman and receptionist.

"Mommy!" Jackie cried as she continued to run. "Mommy, you're hurting me! Mommy, I want to see Amelia! Mommy!"

She didn't answer him, just held him closer and continued to run. When she'd rounded the corner and reached the safety of a nearby public restaurant, she finally stopped running and relaxed her hold.

Melanie noticed the strange looks she was getting from the restaurant's patrons, but she ignored them. The pain in her side and back was almost unbearable.

"Oh, Jackie, how in the world did I manage to carry you so far?" she gasped out, clutching her stomach. He was a heavy boy; she couldn't believe she hadn't noticed his weight.

"You should have put me down," Jackie said with a pout. "I can walk, I'm not a baby."

"I know you aren't, sweetheart, but we were in a rush."

"Why were we in a rush, Mommy? I wanted to see Amelia."

Melanie sighed and gently touched his cheek. "Sweetie, Amelia wasn't there. And I remembered that we have something else we need to do, and we're late."

"What do we have to do?" Jackie asked.


Melanie closed the front door of the dingy motel behind her with a sigh. So much for life outside of the slums. Somehow she'd always thought things would be better once Lex had moved her out of South Side. She should have known better.

"Mommy?" Jackie called. She walked over to the bed and sat down next to him.

"Jackie, have you been crying?" she asked, noticing the tear-trails on his dirty face.

Jackie nodded.

"What's wrong, sweetie?"

He sniffled. "I was lonely. And scared. I kept hearing people screaming in other rooms. And there's not even a TV to watch in here."

"Oh, honey, I'm sorry," she said. "How about I pick you up some of those books you are learning to read before I go to work tomorrow?"

Jackie rubbed an eye. "Can't you take me to Amelia's and let her watch me?" he pleaded.

"No, love, I can't."

He blew air out of his mouth sharply, the way he always did when he felt he wasn't making himself understood. "Why not?"

"Just … because, honey." Melanie glanced at the newspaper she held in her hands, and sighed. "Her husband died yesterday, Jackie. She's probably very sad."

"Oh," he said, thinking this over. "Can we send her flowers?"

"We already did," she lied. "I sent her a big bouquet, and told her on the card that the yellow ones were from you."

He smiled at her. "I love you, Mommy."

"I love you too, sweetie."

Jackie walked over to the window to look out, and Melanie used the break to skim through the front-page article in the Daily Planet. A man named Emmanuel Cox had been found dead in an alley in South Side, the cause of death a bullet-wound to his heart. His employer, Lex Luthor, was saddened and dismayed at his death, the probably result of a mugging gone awry, and was campaigning for better lighting and more police in the South Side district.

She closed the paper and leaned back against the pillows for a moment. "It could just be a coincidence," she told herself. "But no matter if it was Amelia's husband Lex killed, or a random man, Lex was an accessory to a murder. That man with him must have been his new assistant. And Lex as good as told him to shoot the man. How could I be such a horrible judge of character?"

She watched Jackie as he stood in the window, framed by the sunlight. "And my son shares his blood. Oh, please, God, don't let Jackie turn out like his father. Please."

Lex leaned back in his chair and eyed the beautiful brunette seated demurely across from him. He took a puff from his cigar, then sat forward.

"So, Mrs. Cox, you would be willing to step into your husband's shoes as my personal assistant, I see."

The brunette smiled. "Please, call me Amelia."

"I'd rather not," he said, watching her smile fade. "You understand, don't you, exactly what your husband's job entailed?"

"Of course."

"And you understand the consequences if you show any disloyalty?"

She sighed. "Mr. Luthor, I'm sure you of all people know the value of self-preservation. I, more than anyone, know what you are capable of."

He nodded. "I have Nigel working on a little project. I could use your particular 'talents.' If you see Nigel he'll explain."

She nodded and stood up, reaching forward to shake Lex's hand. He shook hers firmly.

"Mommy, I wanna go out!" Jackie whined. "I'm bored! I wanna see Amelia!"

"Honey, please," Melanie said desperately. "Look, sweetie, we'll go to the park. Just sit still, okay?"

"Eeee!" Jackie screamed as he wiggled and she got some of the hair dye into his eyes.

"Jackie, hush, baby. We're almost done."

Jackie didn't stop crying until she'd rinsed his hair and rubbed him all over with a towel. She led him to a mirror.

"Is that me?" he asked, fascinated. His shaggy once-dark hair was now short, almost spiky, and ash-blond in color.

"Yes, honey," she said with a smile. "And can you remember your new name for me?"

"Ben. Ben Jacobs."

"Good boy," she said, hugging him tight. She turned back to the mirror. "And see, honey, we match. That way everyone will know, no matter what, that I'm your mommy and you're my son."

Jackie nodded, staring into the mirror perplexed. Then he turned to his mother and touched her hair. "I like my hair short like this," he said, "but I miss your hair."

"I know. I do too. But it'll grow back soon enough. And this way I look more different. And remember our game?"

He nodded eagerly. "We're secret agents, and we have to make disguises and use fake names and all so nobody catches us spying."

"Exactly. That's a fun game, isn't it?"

Jackie nodded, then frowned. "But I want to go to school."

"Can you remember your new name, and be careful never to tell anyone your name is Jackie?"

"Yes, Mommy! And I even remember all nine planets! Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, um, um, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Pluto."

"That's eight."

"Oh, darn." He thought for a minute. "Did I say Saturn?"





"Come on, sweetie, let's go to the park." She reached down and took his hand.

He stuck his thumb in his mouth as they started out the door, chewing thoughtfully. "Mars? Jupiter? Come on, give me a hint."


Melanie sat back on one of the park benches and heaved a great sigh. It had been a long day at work. Waitressing was harder work than she'd ever thought. She couldn't afford any sort of daycare for Jackie, and she wasn't sure how to go about registering him in school under a different name, so for the moment she was leaving him home alone. It wasn't particularly safe, and she was pretty sure it was illegal, but she had no choices. Maybe in a few weeks she could approach the welfare center, explain that her child had been born on the streets and so didn't have a birth certificate, but that she wanted to get him into school. Surely they'd know the process, right?

Jackie was standing in line for the slide. She watched as he neared the ladder.

Just as he reached the ladder, a bigger kid shoved him out of the way and stood in front of him. "It's my turn!" the bully said.

She watched Jackie shrug and let the bigger kid go first. She sighed. "Ja—Ben!" she called. He didn't turn. "Ben!"

Finally, he seemed to remember his alias. He turned and saw her waving, and trotted over.


"Why'd you let that kid butt in line?"

Jackie shrugged. "He's bigger."

"Yeah, but you have to stand up for yourself! I'm here to step in if things get out-of-hand."

"Like that'll help things?" he said.

She sighed. "Go on. Sorry I called you away."

Jackie trudged towards the sandbox. Several other kids were digging in the sand, but Jackie didn't say a word to any of them, just picked up a shovel and dug listlessly at the sand with no real apparent purpose.

Melanie leaned back against the bench, taking in the last rays of sunlight. The air was already growing cooler. She'd have to find Jackie winter clothing soon. And before long it would be too cold to let Jackie play in the park at all.

Melanie glanced at her watch. A quarter 'til 5. She'd have to head back to work soon. She stood up to call Jackie in.

"Ben!" she called, walking in the direction of the sandbox. She frowned when she saw that he wasn't there.

"Ben?" she called again, looking towards the slide, then at the rest of the park. No ash-blond head in sight. In fact, there were no heads in sight at all. The playground had gone utterly deserted while she'd been sitting there. All the nannies and mothers had gathered their little charges home for dinner.

"Ben!" she shouted, becoming desperate. Was it worth risking his real name? "Jackie! Jackie, where are you?"

She heard a sound and turned towards the road.

The man she recognized from Lex's office, the silver-haired gentleman, had Jackie held tightly by the hand and was dragging him across the road.

"Jackie!" she screamed, running towards the road. "Jackie!"

"Mommy!" Jackie called back, struggling to be free of his captor.

Melanie leapt over a park bench, a feat she wouldn't have thought herself capable of, and raced across the patch of grass before the road. "Let go of my son!" she shouted at the man.

The man only pulled the boy more quickly, finally lifting him up and slinging him across his shoulder. Jackie looked back at her from over the man's back, his eyes wide with fright.

"Mommy!" Jackie called.

Melanie ran into the road, heedless of the traffic, her mind on the desperate chase to rescue Jackie. She suddenly heard a honk that seemed to deafen her, and the last sight she saw was her son's eyes as he stared at her in shock. Then the world exploded with pain, and went dark.


Lex stared down at his son, mystified.

The boy was surrounded by all the toys Lex had deemed appropriate for a Luthor: a slingshot, a bow-and-arrow set, an Erector set, even a small puppy (who was currently snoozing on Jaxon's lap).

Nonetheless, the boy hadn't stopped screaming for two hours. It was a wonder the puppy was still snoozing. Lex wondered if maybe the dog was deaf. If he hadn't been two hours ago, he most certainly was now.

"How long can he possibly keep this up?" Lex asked Nigel.

Mrs. Cox entered the room just in time to hear Lex's question.

"For a very long time, Lex," she said. "Kids can be pretty stubborn at that age. And he did just see his mother killed before his eyes."

Lex shook his head, watching the boy and trying not to wince at the sound. "I saw both my parents killed before my eyes. Did me a world of good. Made me who I am today."

Nigel raised an eyebrow. "If you say so, sir."

Lex motioned to Mrs. Cox to stay with the boy and walked out of the room with Nigel, closing the door behind him. He took a deep breath of relief when he could no longer hear his son's screaming.

"He's got to stop sooner or later, right?" he wondered aloud, mostly to himself.

"What are you planning to do with him?" Nigel asked.

Lex shrugged. "Well, provided he shows some gall and snaps out of this, I plan to groom him to follow in my footsteps. Melanie used to say that he was a smart boy—perhaps with some better influence in his life he can turn out to be a son I could respect."

Nigel lifted a hand to indicate the room they'd just left. "It sounds like he could use a lot of that influence."

"Well, I've found in my own life that you have to start young. Only time will tell if he's got what it takes to be a Luthor."


A Cruise Ship off of the Midway Islands, Pacific Ocean, 1980 — Lex is 31 years old

The wine glasses tinkled together as Lex toasted his new wife, Arianna. "To our lives together," Lex said.

"To our future," Arianna said. She took a small sip of the wine. "Oh, Lex, this is delicious."

"Only the best for you, my dear," he said. He reached across the table and took Arianna's hand in his own. "Only the best for you."

Arianna blushed. "Oh, Lex. You can be so romantic."

He leaned across the table and gently kissed her, letting his lips linger against hers for a tantalizing moment. "I love you," he whispered.

"I love you too, Lex."

They drank in silence, then Arianna spoke up. "So, did you take care of the loose end?"

Lex nodded. "Nigel had no problem at all taking the boy, though he'll be dealing with a hairstylist tomorrow to dye the boy's hair back. Melanie, unfortunately, met with an accident while trying to rescue her son."

"Such a pity," Arianna said, taking another sip.

"Very," he agreed. "So, are you looking forward to being a stepmother?"

Arianna made a face. "In all honesty, no. But for your son, I'll do the best I can. But perhaps soon, we can have a child of our own. Then Jaxon will be superfluous."

"My plan exactly. I'd really rather not have Melanie's son at the head of my Empire when I retire. But, it goes as it goes. It's better to have an heir and a spare, as they say, n'est-ce pas?"

She nodded. "And at least he's young enough to mold, I should hope." She winked at him. "What do you say we get started on that son of our own now?"

"You read my mind," he said, raising an eyebrow. He downed the last of his wine. "Are you ready?"

She lowered her lashes. "I'll always be ready for you, my love." She reached across the table to take his hand.

"So, the newlyweds!" a blustering voice called from across the room, dumping a bucket of cold water on their mutual lust. "How goes it?"

"Fine until you showed up," Lex muttered under his breath, watching the captain of the ship make his way across the room. Arianna giggled.

Captain Keane dropped himself onto a chair at their table. "Well, the two of you looked quite romantic. Hope I'm not interrupting anything, har har!"

Arianna smiled prettily at him. "Oh, not at all, sir. We were just discussing politics."

Lex guffawed, and the captain looked from one to the other in dismay. "You mean I wasn't interrupting anything? Darn! I'll just have to come back later when I can."

Lex shrugged helplessly at Arianna, and she winked back. "We'd be delighted if you'd join us for dinner," she said.

It was hours later before they could finally escape the crowds of well-wishers and head to their cabin.

"Lex," Arianna breathed, as he carried her over the threshold. "Lex, this is perfect." Lex had snuck into the room after the ceremony and before dinner, setting out wineglasses, putting the wine in a bucket of ice to chill, dimming the lights, scattering rose petals about the room, and turning down the sheets.

"Do you like it?" he said, smiling slightly.

"It's perfect." She reached up and pulled his head down to his, kissing him gently. "And so are you."


Metropolis, New Troy, 1981 — Lois is 14 years old

"LoLo!" someone called from across the room.

Lois waved to show Peggy that she'd heard her, then lifted her tray high as she navigated the crowded cafeteria. Peggy and Julie had staked out one of the best tables, near the lockers and away from the strange burning smell emanating from the kitchen.

"Lois," Peggy said when Lois reached her side, "Julie said that she heard from Dick that Joe thinks I'm cute!"

Lois dropped her tray onto the table and sat down. "When did Joe say this?"

Julie waved a carrot stick. "Dick said they were talking after football practice and that little dork, Jerry, was lusting after Peggy as usual." Julie pointed her half- eaten carrot stick across the room, to where Jerry was talking to Annette.

"Anyway, Jerry said something about how she looked in her cheerleading outfit, and Joe said that he thought Peggy looked cute!"

Peggy made a face. "Not that cute is at the top of my list of flattering adjectives, but I'll take anything if it comes from Joe."

Lois choked on her milk and Julie snorted. "Just don't let Joe hear you say that," Lois warned with a grin.

Lois picked up a spork and poked it into her food. Peggy made a face and Julie gagged.

"How you can eat that cafeteria food is beyond me," Peggy said.

Lois shrugged. "There's never much food at home, and I don't feel like going shopping."

"How either of you can eat meat is beyond me!" Julie said.

Peggy threw the balled-up wrapper from her sandwich at Julie. "You always say that, and we always ignore it. Why do you bother?"

Julie grinned. "Wishful thinking? Persistence? I've heard that they're considered good qualities in some states."

Lois held a hand in front of her mouth and pretended to whisper conspiratorially to Peggy. "Dick's a vegetarian."

Peggy laughed and Julie threw carrot sticks at them both. "Shut up," Julie said, feigning anger. "I was a vegetarian before I started going out with Dick."

"Not before you liked him, though," Lois said. "And how a football player can be a vegetarian is beyond me."

"You just have to know the right meat substitutes," Julie said.

Lois noticed that Peggy was staring off into the distance. She turned in her chair to see Joe entering the cafeteria with Dick.

"Julie," Peggy said urgently, "wanna go talk to Dick?"

Julie giggled. "Yeah, Peggy, I'm sure it's Dick you want to talk to. But sure. Lois, we'll be right back."

Lois nodded and watched Julie walk over to Dick and kiss his cheek. He blushed and smiled down at her. Peggy was standing just behind Julie, smiling shyly at Joe. Joe seemed preoccupied, though, and Lois sighed. "Poor Peggy."

"Hi, Lois." Lois turned back towards the table to see Annette taking a seat across from her.

"Hi, Annette."

"I was wondering if you and Peggy and Julie would like to come over to my house Saturday," she said. "I'm having a pool party."

"Uh, I think we have plans on Saturday," Lois said evasively.

"Oh. Another time, then," Annette said. She got up slowly and headed back towards her table with Jerry.

Julie and Peggy plopped back into their seats.

"What did she want?" Peggy asked, nodding in the direction Annette had gone.

Lois shrugged. "To invite us to a pool party, apparently."

"But we're not even her friends," Julie said. "Why would she ask us?"

"Well, who else's she got to ask?" Peggy said. "Jerry?"

Julie shuddered. "Jerry is so disgusting! I wish he'd get the idea and leave me alone. Annette is welcome to him."

Peggy turned to Lois. "Have you heard about the thefts?"

Lois's instinct immediately perked up. "No, I hadn't. What's being stolen? From where? When? Do they have any leads?"

Julie laughed. "Good old LoLo, always the nose for news. I can't believe they didn't accept you for the school newspaper. Anyway, several different things have disappeared: a pair of Adidas, a wallet, a pocketbook. A kid in my homeroom got his letter jacket stolen. The teachers are keeping this quiet so they can get the kid without having to punish him too badly, but Chris told me about his jacket, and he had a friend lose a wallet."

"Do you think Chris will tell me about it?" Lois asked.

"You planning on solving the mystery?" Peggy asked.

"I dunno, but if I got the story on who was behind it, I'm sure they'd let me work on the paper."


"I'll just be a minute," Lois assured Julie, spinning the dial-lock on her locker.

"Hey, Joe! Hi, Dick!" Julie called.

Lois turned slightly to see the guys walking towards them, and smiled at each before turning back to her locker. Her brow creased as she tried to think which classes had assigned textbook homework that night.

Dick grabbed Julie around the waist and kissed her gently. "Ready to go?"

"I'm waiting for Lois," Julie said. "Anyone seen Peggy?"

"She had to talk to Mr. Hobbs about the homework," Joe said. "She'll be here in a minute."

Lois pulled her math and history books from her locker. "She'll miss the bus if she doesn't hurry," Lois pointed out.

"So will you!" Julie said. "Hurry up!"

Joe touched Lois's shoulder. "Don't worry about it," he said softly. "I'll give you a ride home. You guys, too," he said, lifting his head to face Dick and Julie.

Julie giggled. "That's okay, Dick said he'll give me a ride home too. He can take Peggy too, she lives closer to me."

Lois thought that Peggy would probably prefer to ride with her and Joe, but then Lois would feel like a third wheel. She shrugged.

"Hey, Dick, can I borrow a dollar to buy a soda?" Julie asked. "The machine around the corner has Cokes, and I've been dying for one all day."

"Yah, sure," he said, digging in his back pocket. He frowned. "My wallet's not here."

"In your bookbag?" Lois asked, standing up.

"I'll check. But I never put it in my bookbag, I always keep it in my back pocket." He dug through his bookbag quickly, finally dumping the contents onto the floor to sort through them.

Julie pounced on the scattered belongings. "Dick, you keep a pack of condoms in your backpack?"

Lois snorted.

Dick did a brilliant imitation of a squirrel faced with an oncoming vehicle.

Julie let him suffer for a long moment, then laughed. "I'm just teasing you, Dick. For the most part, at least."

"It's definitely not here," Joe said, digging through the last of Dick's belongings. "You're sure it's not in another pocket?"

"The Metropolis High Thief strikes again!" Peggy said, walking up behind Joe. He tensed.

"You heard about Dick's wallet?" Lois asked.

Peggy looked puzzled. "Dick's wallet? Naw. Catie Grant got her car keys stolen."

Joe coughed, and Dick grinned slightly.

"What?" Julie asked, putting her hands on her hips.

"Oh, nothing," Dick said quickly.

Joe coughed again.

"Guys!" Lois said, frustrated. "What?"

"Well," Dick said, "it's just that Catie lets just about any guy 'borrow' her car keys."

Julie threw Dick's backpack at him. "You better not have."

Dick held his hands up. "Innocent, honest!"

Lois changed the subject. "So, Dick, your wallet is definitely gone?"

He nodded. "I might have left it in a class, I guess. I'll go back and check."

"I'll go with you," Joe said.

Peggy sighed gustily and dropped to the floor next to the locker. "By now I've missed the bus, and I need to have time to eat before practice."

Lois stared off into the distance, mentally cataloguing the recent thefts. A book, a wallet, a letter jacket, a pocketbook, and now Dick's wallet. Most objects of at least some value, but the villain hadn't been caught yet. This sounded like a job for…Lois Lane!

Julie giggled, and Lois turned to look at her. "What?"

"Oh, you just have that look on your face."

"What look?"

"Like you're on the case. 'Lois Lane, Amateur Detective.' I can just see it now."

"Investigative Reporter, thank you very much," Lois said darkly. "I have no intent of becoming a detective."

"Well, just don't forget all your old friends when you win that first Pulitzer, okay?"

Lois laughed. "Never!"

"So are you really going to try to solve the mystery?"

"Why not?"

Annette passed by at that moment, walking so quickly that her short auburn hair fanned out behind her.

"Where's Little Miss Pool Party going in such a hurry, do you think?" Julie asked, indicating Annette.

"Dunno," Peggy said, feigning a yawn.

They sat in silence for another few minutes, until the sound of footsteps made them jerk their heads up in unison.

"Hello, girls," Catie Grant drawled lazily. "Don't you know you're going to *ruin* the seats of your pants by sitting on that dirty floor?"

"Who cares?" Lois said. "We're thinking." Or something.

"Little Miss Reporter trying to solve the mystery, I suppose?" Catie asked. "Aren't you going to interview me?"

"Not if I can avoid it," Lois muttered under her breath. Catie wasn't exactly the person to ask for accurate, unbiased information.

Catie took off her backpack and arranged it neatly on the floor beside Peggy, then sat down very gingerly on it. "My car keys were stolen. I could be a key witness."

Lois burst out laughing, while Catie and Peggy stared at her. "Key witness!" she managed to gasp out between breaths. When neither seemed to notice any humor, though, she gave up and got herself back under control. "Okay, right. So… did you see anything?"

"Well, no," Catie admitted. "I left them in the locker room during gym."

"So that proves it was a girl!" said Peggy, excitedly.

"Hate to burst your bubble, kiddo, but not necessarily," Lois felt compelled to add. "They don't keep the room locked, and with everyone in gym, couldn't be too hard for a guy to slip in. The female gym teachers have offices in there, a guy could always claim he was trying to find one of the teachers."

At Peggy's downcast look, she quickly added, "But it still might be a girl. I mean, it's easiest for a girl to do. A guy would be more likely to steal from the guy's locker room."

"Well, I'd better be off. Since my car keys are missing I'll have to get a ride home from someone," Catie said, standing up and methodically brushing off her bookbag. "I'll catch you later. Maybe." She laughed as she headed down the hallway.

"What is it about being a senior that makes you like that?" Peggy asked. "We won't turn into complete jerks when we hit seventeen, will we?"

"I don't think it's because she's a senior. I think that's actually her personality." Anyway, back to business. "So, do you know who has had something stolen so far?"

Peggy ticked off on her fingers. "Well, there's Catie Grant. And Dick, of course. The letter jacket was stolen from some guy on the football team, I've heard. The book and wallet were both stolen from cheerleaders during the senior pep rally."

"A cheerleader had a book?" Lois asked, pretending astonishment.

Peggy stuck her tongue out and went on. "And the purse was stolen during lunch. I don't really know the girl who lost it, but I've heard she's tough. If she ever finds out who stole it, they won't have long to live."

"Hey, where's Julie?" Lois suddenly asked. "She was with us when we sat down, wasn't she?"

"Probably went off with Dick," Peggy said with a sigh. "I really wish Joe would look at me the way Dick looks at Julie. She doesn't know how lucky she is."

Lois nodded sympathetically, but she couldn't help thinking how pathetic every other girl in her grade seemed to be. Their entire lives revolved around guys. Even Julie and Peggy, her best friends, could be a bit guy-dependent sometimes.

But she was sure that given a good case to solve, they'd snap right out of it.

"Do me a favor, Peggy?" Lois asked. "Keep an eye out on anything suspicious, and let me know. Especially when things get stolen, as you seem to know the people losing stuff. I'm gonna get this thief if it's the last thing I do."


Lois added another squiggle to the doodle in her math book and sighed silently. Her ability to tune out Peggy's mooning over Joe was fine-tuned by now, but the teacher had been talking seriously to one of the cheerleaders about something for several minutes, and Peggy had been using the time wisely.

"So, then, do you know what he did? You would not believe what he did."

Spare me, Lois thought. "Yeah? What'd he do?" It was hard to really listen to what Peggy was saying, if she'd even wanted to, when Jerry and Annette were competing at throwing spitballs out the window. You'd think Annette would have matured just a little bit over the summer before joining high school, but no…

"Well, he only just asked—"

"Class, can I have your attention please?" Mr. Harrison called out, rapping the desk to punctuate his remark—or puncture their eardrums, Lois wasn't sure which.

He motioned to the girl next to him, whose face, Lois noticed, appeared tear-streaked. The red eyes didn't go very well with the plaid skirt of her lacrosse uniform. Before the thought was completely well-formed, Lois gave herself a mental smack. That was catty of her. She didn't like the snobbishness of most of the cheerleaders, but that was no call to judge them all harshly. After all, Peggy was a cheerleader, and she was cool.

Any excuse to tune out Peggy's prattle about Joe was good in Lois's books, so she sat up straight and listened to the teacher with rapt attention.

"Josie here just informed that her purse disappeared when she got up to use the bathroom. Now, I know that there has been a rash of thefts in the school lately, and it's got to stop. All of you, empty out your desks and backpacks and stand up. I'm going to be doing a desk-to-desk search until we find the purse. It can't have left the room."

"Mr. Harrison!" Lois called out. "You can't make us all empty our backpacks and stuff. That constitutes an illegal search. I mean, I want to find this thief as much as anyone, but you can't violate the rights of innocent students to do so!"

"I can," he said sternly, "and I will. Empty out your desk and backpack, Miss Lane. As long as you're in my classroom, you'll do as I say unless you expect your report card to reflect your attitude. And I think that in this case I have very just cause to search the room."

Lois fumed as she emptied her backpack onto her desk. This was so stupid! Some people had private things in their backpacks! She could see Julie turning bright red as she tried to hide a container of tampons on her desk so that nobody could see, but Jerry was pointing and giggling as he watched. Lois wondered vaguely if Dick had to empty his collection of condoms out. Of course, while Julie was getting laughed at for something girls were forced to deal with every month, Dick would probably get high-fived for the condoms.

Out of the corner of her eye, Lois saw Joe slide something from his desk and shove it under his coat, which lay haphazardly on the floor under his desk. It didn't really look like it could be a purse, though, Lois reasoned, which was the reason she didn't say anything to him about it. She did, however, notice that his face looked rather red when he sat up again, and he seemed determined not to meet Lois's eye. Very strange…


"This is getting ridiculous," Julie fumed as she stalked out of the classroom. "Not to mention humiliating! And to think that Mr. Harrison didn't even manage to find Josie's pocketbook, even searching all the desks, backpacks, cabinets, and everything!"

"Yeah," Lois said, frowning. "I'm trying to think… do you remember anyone leaving the room at any point?"

"Just Josie. Oh, and Annette."

"That's right. She went to get a drink of water, didn't she?" She'd only been gone for a minute… but if she'd had the purse with her, a minute was all it would take. Which meant… they'd better see what Annette did.

Annette walked over to the water fountain and took a sip. She swallowed, then stared at Lois and Julie, who were watching her from across the hall.

"What?" she asked, sounding annoyed.

So much for their first stealth stakeout. "Nothing," she said evasively. She dodged Jerry, who was juggling his backpack and a pile of loose books as he hurried out of the classroom. He trotted over to Annette.

"That was pretty intense, wasn't it?" he said with a grin.

Annette threw them one last glance as she walked down the hall with Jerry.

"Do you think Annette was involved?" Julie whispered as they waited until Annette and Jerry had turned the corner.

"I don't know," Lois said. "She doesn't seem the type… but she had the best opportunity."

"But she didn't pick the purse up!"

"Of course she didn't. We were watching. She must have it well-hidden enough to feel secure waiting and coming back later."

Lois stepped over to the water fountain and examined the surrounding area. "I don't know where she would have put it, though," she said. "There isn't really much of a hiding place." There wasn't anything underneath the fountain, behind it, or beside it. There were locker banks up and down the hall, but Lois had seen Annette use a locker near hers before, which was on the other side of the building. Too far for Annette to have walked in the short time she was gone from the classroom. And the locker banks were low enough that Lois could see nothing had been stashed on top.

"We're gonna be late," Julie said fretfully as they gave the hall one last scan.

"It'll be worth it when we crack this story wide open," Lois assured her.

Julie rolled her eyes. "For you, maybe."


Lois stood outside the school building watching a group of boys play wiffleball while they waited for buses and rides home. Jerry was scrambling around on the roof, trying to retrieve a ball Dick had hit up there.

When he finally found it, he clambered down and tossed the ball to the pitcher. Before sitting back down on the cement wall next to Annette, he pulled his jacket off and tossed it on the ground behind them. Lois eyed it. It wasn't an expensive jacket, but you never knew… sometimes surveillance was the most important part of a young reporter's job.

"Hey, Lois," Joe said, drawing Lois's attention from the jacket. "Do you want a ride home?"

She shrugged and tried to look past him to see the jacket. But Joe had stepped around to her side, blocking the view. She sighed.

"I'm okay, actually."

He smiled in what was probably supposed to be a gallant manner. "No, I insist. You shouldn't walk all the way home in this cold."

"It's not cold," Lois said, hoping Joe hadn't noticed her shivers. It was freezing, but there was no way she was admitting that to him.

While Joe seemed to be attempting to force his brain to think of a suitable response, she took a quick step around him to look for the jacket. It was gone!!!

Fortunately, before she took Joe to task for blocking her view, she saw Jerry jogging away with his jacket towards a bus that had just pulled up to the curb. She sighed.

"All right, you can give me a ride."

Before Joe even managed to wipe the look of glee from his face, however, a disturbance caught their attention from the front of the school building.

"My wallet!" Annette shrieked, her face turning a peculiar shade of red. "Somebody stole my wallet!"

Kids from all over were gathering around, leaning on the brick railings to get a better view of a real life hissy- fit.

"My wallet!" she screeched again on an even higher note.

Lois figured she'd better take charge, for the sake of everybody's eardrums. They could thank her later.

"Annette, what happened?" she asked, approaching quickly with Joe tagging along behind. "Where was it stolen?"

"I had it when I left my locker after 7th period," the girl wailed, rubbing at her already-splotchy face. "I know I did, because I wanted to make sure I'd put it back in my purse from my gym bag. Jerry and I went outside and hung around to watch for a while, but then I got cold and realized I'd left my jacket in my locker, and I went back to get it. When I walked back out of the building, I reached into my purse to get my wallet, and it was gone!"

Lois's head was spinning. "So it had to be stolen either while you walked down the hall, were watching the game, or were at your locker?"

Annette nodded.

"Which makes the culprit… just about anyone," Lois said, letting out a sigh of frustration.

"Was your wallet really stolen?" a short girl asked, staring at Annette in awe. "I thought they were mostly stealing stuff from upperclassmen."

"Yeah," another guy said.

"Josie and Dick are 9th-graders, too," Lois informed them. "They had things stolen."

But her classmates weren't listening. "Do you think somebody just reached into your bag while you were walking down the hall?" Mark DeMarco, a boy from Lois's math class, asked. "That's kind of eerie."

Annette nodded, looking very serious. "If I'd noticed them doing that, who knows what they would have done!" she said. "Somebody who's brave enough to steal something right out of a person's purse while it's on their shoulder must be desperate!"

Lois rolled her eyes. But that did bring up a valid point. "Did you put your pocketbook down at any time during that period?" she asked Annette. "Like while you were watching the game?"

Annette shrugged. "I guess."

"Where?" Lois asked, increasingly frustrated. People made such terrible witnesses. Nobody ever seemed to pay attention to anything. If Lois ever witnessed a crime, you bet your bootie she could tell the cops exactly what she'd seen, in detail.

"I dunno. Next to me or in front of me, I guess."

In front of her. While Lois was watching Jerry's jacket behind them. The irony.

"Do you remember anybody who walked in front of you while you were watching the game? Maybe who stopped for a minute."

Annette was starting to look annoyed. "I don't know!" she cried. One of the other girls from the grade put an arm around her and shot Lois a baleful glance. "Leave her alone," she said. "She's still upset."

Lois groaned. She'd be less upset if Lois could figure out who the thief was and get her wallet back! Stupid girl. Lois sighed and turned back towards Joe. "You ready?" she asked curtly.

"Of course!" he said, looking startled. He led the way towards his beat-up Chevy.

As he started the engine, it occurred to Lois that getting other people's thoughts about the thefts might not be a bad idea. Besides, she still wanted to know what he'd been hiding under his coat during Mr. Harrison's class. If only she had a good subtle way to ask him.

"So, what were you hiding under your jacket during English?" Lois asked.

Joe slammed on the brakes, narrowly avoiding running a stop sign. "W—what do you mean?"

She had him. She tried to hide a grin. "I saw you slip something under your jacket so that Mr. Harrison wouldn't see it."

"Oh, that," he said, laughing awkwardly. "It was just… a note. You know how Mr. Harrison prescribes to that old- school thing and reads any notes he finds aloud."

She frowned. That couldn't have been what it was. Joe was too obviously lying. But if he wasn't going to admit it… she decided to try another tactic.

"It's pretty amazing that he didn't find the purse, even after invading our privacy and all that. What do you think the thief did with it?"

"I don't really wanna talk about this, Lois," he said sharply. "I hear enough about it all day. Let's talk about something else. Have you seen that new movie, 'Josephine,' yet?"

If she didn't know better, he was being evasive! "Why don't you want to talk about it?"

"I told you, I hear enough about it. Can't you for one minute stop thinking about your story and think about something else?"

Lois slumped back in her seat. This questioning was obviously getting her nowhere. "Uh… " she offered tentatively. "I haven't seen 'Josephine.' Have you?"

There was silence, then Joe laughed. "Oh, all right. I can tell you have a one-track mind. No, I have no theories about who the thief is. But, if I were him—"

"Her," Lois added. "I mean, it could be a her."

"All right. It could be a her. But as English doesn't have a third-person genderless pronoun, bear with me as I call it a he."

Lois giggled. Joe had been paying more attention in English class than she had, obviously.

"Anyway, if I were him, I'd put the purse in the trashcan."

Lois sat bolt upright. "The trashcan!"

"Mr. Harrison didn't look there. We usually think of a trashcan as being too gross and smelly. But really it's mostly all paper in a classroom. Besides, what thief cares if the purse smells? It still has money inside. Then he could come back later in the day when Mr. Harrison steps out of the room for a minute between classes, and rifle through the trashcan at will. If anybody says anything, he could say he threw away something accidentally."

"It's perfect," Lois breathed.

"'Josephine' got pretty good reviews," he said conversationally.

Lois laughed. "Oh, Joe," she said, leaning over and giving him a hug. "You're so funny."

He blushed bright scarlet.


The next day, Lois was walking down the hall, scribbling away in her reporting notebook. The previous night, homework had had to take the back burner while she created a chart of what objects had been stolen from where and when. She'd then had a perfectly good reason to ignore her teachers and study the chart all morning. She had to find out who the crook was, she just had to.

"Ouch," a boy said in front of her as she stepped on his heels.

"Oh, sorry." Why was everyone standing around? The hallway was so full even a mouse would have had trouble sneaking between everyone.

"Get off!" a familiar whiny voice was saying angrily. She could detect tears behind the whine.

Pushing herself forward, Lois found a crowd surrounding a frightening scene. Jerry, the skinny little freshman, was facing a junior Lois knew only by sight. Needless to say, the 11th-grader was considerably bigger than Jerry.

"What did you say to me?" the bigger kid asked. Lois had to stifle a giggle as she realized that his red face looked very much like a teakettle about to go off.

"N-nothing," Jerry stammered.

"Oh, knock it off, Tray," a girl said, pushing herself into the circle of students. It was Annette! She glared at Tray. "You know he didn't say anything. Leave him alone." Jerry was staring at her, incredulous, as she grabbed his arm and pulled him out of the circle and down the hallway.

"Wow, what was that all about?" Dick asked, materializing next to Lois. She shrugged.

"The little twerp made some stupid comment about Tray's intelligence," the kid whose feet Lois had stepped on said. "Everyone heard it. I don't know what the kid was thinking."

"Probably that Tray wouldn't hear him," Lois said, lifting a brow. What interested her was the way that Annette stood up for Jerry. Usually the outsiders who banded together did so only for safety in numbers, and perhaps out of loneliness. The minute one of their number landed in trouble, the rest faded away before you could say "dork."

Maybe Annette and Jerry were real friends. In a way, they deserved each other.

As the hallway thinned out, Peggy, Julie, and Joe joined Dick and Lois. They all had Math and English together, so they usually tried to walk together when possible.

"Hey, Dick," Joe said suddenly. "Can I talk to you for a sec?"

"Sure." He and Dick ducked into a locker bank as the girls continued on.

"Wonder if Josie's purse ever showed up," Julie whispered to Peggy. "I swear, Mr. Harrison looked like he was gonna burst a blood vessel yesterday. And the amount of homework he assigned… brutal."

Uh-oh. English homework.

"Uh, guys, I just realized I left my English homework in my locker," Lois said, digging into her backpack to make sure. "I'll have to catch up with you in a minute."

"Hurry," Peggy advised. "You know Mr. Harrison if you're late."

"Being on time but without my homework would be worse," she pointed out. "See ya!" Jogging down the hall and keeping an eye out for teachers—they didn't like running in the halls for some reason—Lois had almost passed the lockerbank before she heard her name.

She stopped. It was Dick and Joe. But they were… talking about her?

She told herself she wasn't eavesdropping. She was just checking to see if they were calling her name because they… needed her or something. Yeah, that was it.

"I don't think she even noticed," Joe was saying. "I swear, the girl has a skull as thick as… " He seemed to stop to think. "Well, really thick."

"The letter was just gonna be a last resort though," Dick said. "Are you sure you really wanna go through with it? Give Lois your heart on a platter, so to speak?"

Lois gasped and clamped a hand over her mouth.

"I… Well, if it's the only way to get her attention, I guess I'll just have to risk it. She's already suspicious. She was asking me what I was hiding under my jacket during English."

Dick's voice again. "So maybe she already knows. I guess you'll just have to go for it, man. Hey, good luck."

Lois flattened herself against the corner of the lockers as the boys walked past her and down the hall. Once they were safely out of sight, she allowed herself to drop slowly to the ground.

Joe liked her. Joe liked… her.


Lois buried her face in her hands, English long forgotten.


Lois tucked her notebook under her arm and her pencil under her ear. She'd spent the afternoon getting statements from the people who'd lost objects, and a definite pattern was emerging. Things had only been taken during a class twice, and both times it was during a 9th-grade class: the thief was a 9th-grader. One theft had occurred during 2nd-lunch: the thief had 2nd-lunch. The rest of the crimes had taken place after school, either in front of the building during the time when kids horsed around waiting for buses or rides, or an hour or two later while sports practices were going on. In the case of the latter, the thefts had happened on the fields.

So she knew that the thief was somebody in her grade. Probably somebody she knew, since she was in both of the classes where something had been taken, and she at least knew on sight every person in the class.

But as for narrowing it down… anybody had motive. Money, brand-name shoes, a wallet… a letter jacket. They were all worth money.

The letter jacket was strange, now that she thought about it. You couldn't wear it if you weren't on a team, everyone would know. And it didn't have resale value.

Well, you couldn't wear it… around here. But what if the person got a personal kick out of wearing it around their house, or maybe somewhere else they hung out? Was an interesting thought. Or maybe the person would store it, save it until high school was long since over. Then, when the loser was telling people about their high school years, they could claim to have been on a school team for some sport, with all the implications of popularity that entailed. Or they could claim their boyfriend gave it to them…

The real way to catch the criminal was to observe them in action. And since trying to keep an eye on theft-worthy materials obviously wasn't working, maybe she could set a trap.

An empty classroom after school was the perfect place to take something, if you know something had been left there. Lois had taken great care in mentioning, while she was watching Joe at football practice, that she'd accidentally left her watch in Mr. Harrison's English.

"It's a good thing it's safe in my desk," she had said loudly to a group of people. "I won't be able to go and get it until after my yearbook club meeting."

Peggy was looking at her strangely, but nobody else really seemed to be listening. Of course, the crook would hardly be likely to broadcast their interest, would they?

As soon as she felt a reasonable lapse of time had gone by, Lois hurried into the school building, ostensibly to her yearbook club meeting. But instead, she slipped into Mr. Harrison's English room and hid in the cabinet at the back of the room. They'd always joked about how the cabinet was big enough to store bodies… now was the time to judge it.

Fortunately, she fit in easily. She waited breathlessly for the sound of footsteps. And, sure enough, she soon heard them.

Just as they were about to step into the classroom, Lois had a sudden panic attack. What if the person saw the cabinet open and guessed? She quickly pulled the door shut. Maybe she could see through the crack this way… nope.

The steps crossed the classroom and stopped at a desk. She could hear the person rifling through papers and belongings.

On second thought… she didn't need to spy and see who it was. All she needed to do was catch them in the act! She gave the cabinet doors a mighty shove, ready to leap out and yell "Thief!"

But there seemed to be a slight kink in her plans. Namely, in the "leap out" part. Given that the doors didn't quite get the "open" message.

"Uh-oh," she whispered, pushing harder at the doors. Nothing.

The footsteps receded as their owner walked back out the door.

"Darn, darn, DARN!" Lois yelled, banging at the doors harder. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her. How airtight was the cabinet? Those darns had probably consumed a lot of air. What if she only had a limited amount? She'd die just because she'd felt the need to utter watered-down cuss words!

She sighed loudly, then clamped a hand over her mouth. More loss of oxygen! She tried breathing very lightly, taking in the minimum amount of oxygen that her lungs needed. It made her feel somewhat lightheaded.

"Julie, Peggy, somebody," she willed silently. "Please, please come find me. I don't want to asphyxiate in Mr. Harrison's cabinet. I don't even like his class!"

The door to the cabinet suddenly opened, and Lois came tumbling out. "Joe!" she cried, never quite so happy to see anyone in her life, but trying very hard to conceal her pleasure because of what she'd overheard between Joe and Dick.

"Geez, Lois, you have the ability to get into some of the strangest scrapes," Joe said. "What were you up to now?"

"Framing the thief!" Lois said. "I almost caught him, too, only the cabinet door got stuck. See, he stole my watch… "

But he hadn't. It was sitting there, plain as day, on Lois's desk. A few desks away, near the window, a wallet sat on Annette's desk. Lois could have sworn it was sneering at her.

"He… brought Annette's wallet back?" she said, wonderingly. "You see this, Joe? A break in his pattern! This could be the clue we need! He's going down!"

"Calm down, Lois," Joe said. He grinned. "You sound like you're talking about a serial killer who finally made a major mistake."

Lois sat at Annette's desk and stared at the wallet thoughtfully. "It's similar. I mean, what would make the thief bring something *back*? There's gotta be a reason."

"I can think of one," Joe said.


"To drive you crazy."

Lois resisted the urge to heft the plant dying on the windowsill and lob it at Joe, but it took every ounce of control.

"Sit down," she said, indicating Jerry's desk next to her.

Joe shrugged and sat down, leaning back and putting his feet up on the windowsill. "What's up?"

"I need somebody to bounce ideas off of, and you're it."

Joe beamed. "I'm glad you picked me."

"Well, you're here." She ignored his crestfallen expression and went on.

"Look, while we're the only ones who know that Annette's wallet was returned, we have the perfect time to think about motive."

He scratched his head and frowned. "I don't get it. Why is this such a break-through?"

"Well, why would the thief return the wallet?" she said. She opened it and flipped through it. "Money's still here. At least, she has almost $50. Doubt the crook took anything. So the question is… why? He wasn't close to being caught, or anything of the sort."

"Maybe he didn't mean to steal it in the first place."

To some degree, that actually made sense. The thing was… of all the people who were robbed, Annette was the one who didn't fit, like the picture you'd circle in kindergarten homework of the one that didn't belong. All the rest of the people were part of the in-crowd. They were cheerleaders or jocks or presidents of clubs. Good- looking, smart, and popular, they were the most important kids in school.

Annette was… not. She might make good after high school, but so far she was basically a nonentity. It was doubtful that the in-kids even knew who she was.

And as if that wasn't enough to make her stand out, her wallet was returned. Nobody else's had been… or was this just the first in a line of things to come? That would certainly throw things off.

But… assuming that this was the only thing that was going to be returned… who would benefit? Annette, obviously…

And she had been included in the popular crowd to some extent, merely by the association of having had something taken.

Lois paused for a moment to think about the fact that nothing of her own had been taken. But… that was probably just because she watched diligently. Definitely because of that. Or because it was too risky to take something from the budding reporter. Not because she was less popular than Dick and Cat and Josie.

"You know, Joe, I think I know who it is," she said suddenly. "Thanks!" she jumped to her feet and gave Joe a quick peck on the forehead in thanks. "You were great for bouncing ideas!"

He shot her a puzzled look. "Uh… I didn't say anything."

"I know. Sometimes that's the best help of all."


"Anyway. I've got a plan to catch the thief, but I need you."

"Me? Why?"

"Because you're the best freshman football player this school has ever seen, and everybody knows you'll be quarterback by next year. Because that makes you one of the most popular guys in the 9th-grade."

He was still looking bewildered, which Lois was starting to think was not a particularly attractive expression. She made a mental note to, if she ever got an interest in dating, look only a guys who were intelligent—and hadn't had all their brains knocked out by wearing too loose a football helmet as kids.

"I need you to help me with a stakeout," she explained patiently. "With something of yours worth stealing. Don't worry, we'll get it back. How about… that signed football?"

"The one I got signed at the Dallas game? No way, Lois!"

"It's for a good cause," she wheedled.

He sighed. "You promise it won't be hurt?"

"I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye, yadda yadda."

"It won't be me sticking a needle in your eye if it gets stolen," Joe warned. "My dad'll have your head. He stood in line for hours to get that football signed."

She grinned sweetly at him. "Would I lie to you?"



The next day, Lois repeated her trap, but this time with a twist. Joe brought his signed football to the playing field to show the team, on the pretense of "boosting their spirits" after their losing streak.

"One of these days, men, we'll be playing for the Cowboys. Or against them, if you prefer. This is just a little bump in the road. But Saturday, things are gonna change! Westchester is going down!!!"

The football team cheered, and the cheerleaders joined in, unsurprisingly. Joe held the football over his head, making sure everybody had seen the cause of so much team spirit. Then he jogged over to his gear bag and tucked the football in, out of sight. He tossed the gear bag under the bench, out-of-sight of the cheerleaders and most of the fans.

But not out of sight of Lois, who was huddled under the same bench. The back of the bench was against a wall, and because of its depth, its shadows made the perfect hiding place for a petite freshman. Which Lois just happened to be.

Lois got her camera ready. Diligence would be the key, because the thief could strike at any point during the game. And if she was right, she'd catch them red-handed.

"Third time's the charm," Lois whispered to herself to keep from nodding off. "Works for stakeouts as well as other stuff. It's gotta."

Sure enough, she could hear somebody approaching from the opposite direction. Somebody approaching stealthily. Somebody ducking under the bench in front of the gear bag.

"How's it going?" Joe asked.

"Joe!" Lois squeaked, her head almost cracking into the underside of the bench. "What are you doing?"

"Checking on you."

"Well, get out! You'll spoil everything."

She didn't miss the crestfallen look that crossed his face, but she had a lot more to think about than Joe's hurt pride. The thief, for one! She only hoped he hadn't scared the thief away entirely.

A head ducked under the bench, and Lois squinted to see. Joe again? No, it wasn't!

She snapped a picture, the flash going off like a lightning-bolt in the dark under the bench.

"Hey!" a voice squealed angrily.

Lois crawled out from under the bench, facing down the would-be crook. Joe was standing behind him, looking angry. Jerry was hunched over, looking very small and trying to appear innocent.

"Jerry!" Annette squeaked in astonishment.


Lois had figured it wouldn't be hard to make Jerry confess once he was caught in the act, but she hadn't imagined that he'd fold publicly in front of the entire practice field. On the good hand, that meant that her photograph wasn't necessary as evidence. She'd had her finger over the lens.

"But you didn't know it would be Jerry, did you, Lois?" Peggy asked, twirling a piece of hair around her finger and giving Joe a coy look, all at the same time. She, Julie, Lois, Dick, and Joe were all gathered in Julie's furnished basement to talk about the results of the practice.

"Well, I had an idea," she said truthfully. "I didn't know for sure."

Dick frowned. "What gave you the idea? I never thought of Jerry."

"It was when Annette's wallet was returned," Lois said. "That made Annette's case stand out. I mean, it could have just been that everything was about to be returned, and Annette's was first. But I stopped to think anyway. You know, if I hadn't been there, Annette might have gotten her wallet back without anybody knowing. She usually arrives to English early. And anyway, nobody in English would have touched the wallet, or probably even noticed it."

"Annette was special because she wasn't popular like the others," Joe said. "You said that before."

Lois nodded. "That made me think maybe it was either somebody who hung out in their crowd and only had access to them, or it was somebody who resented them. Once Annette's wallet was stolen, that proved it wasn't one of them. They'd never notice Annette. That was when I started thinking it was Annette herself, or Jerry."

"Why would Jerry steal Annette's wallet?" Peggy asked.

Lois shrugged. "Maybe because she was his one true friend, and he wanted to do her a good turn. By stealing from her, he was associating her with the "cool" people. You saw how people looked at her differently once she was one of them."

Julie, who was sitting on the floor against Dick's legs, nodded thoughtfully. "But she could have done it for the same reason."

"And it was returned," Dick filled in, "because Jerry didn't really want to harm Annette by keeping her money and things."


"And he had the opportunity!" Peggy burst out. "He walked out of the building with Annette, and down to the field. He could have slipped his hand into her purse at any time."

Julie was chewing her lip thoughtfully. "But Josie's purse? That was a mystery theft."

"Joe had a good idea on that one," Lois said, glancing at him. "But Jerry wasn't smart enough to think of it. He tossed the purse out the window while nobody was watching. He sits right next to it, after all."

"Out the window?" Dick laughed. "That's ridiculous."

"Remember how he fetched the wiffleball you hit from the roof? I've never seen Jerry so eager to help out, have you? He was wearing his jacket when he went onto the roof. When he climbed down, he took his jacket off. While he was on the roof, he concealed the purse in his jacket. Nobody would notice a bulge then, he's scrunched up from climbing. When he got down, he took off the jacket as if he was hot, and hid the purse in it. Then he later carried the jacket to the bus. It was a cold day, remember? Everyone else was cold, but he was taking his jacket *off*."

"It's circumstantial," Peggy complained.

"Exactly. Which was why we needed to catch him in the act."

"Well, I'm really glad that I don't have to worry about bringing nice things to school now," Julie said definitively. "Jerry won't be able to steal anymore, will he?"

Lois shrugged. "He got suspended for three weeks, and he's undergoing counseling. And, of course, he has to return everything."

"And that's it," Joe said.

"Except for one thing." Lois tried to hide her triumphant grin, but she couldn't. "For more details, you can read about it in the Metropolis High School Chronicler!"

Peggy and Julie squealed in unison, causing Dick and Joe to roll their eyes. "You got a job as a reporter!"

"Well, only on a free-lance basis at this point," she said. "They don't really accept freshmen as staff. They want people to learn the ropes of the school first. But they said I can turn in stories I investigate, and if they're good, they'll accept them. I have to share my byline with a partner who helps work over the story, but next year they'll take me as a real reporter."

"That's great, Lois." Joe's smile was warm, and she couldn't help flushing.

"I guess Annette didn't take it well?" Peggy asked.

"Well, judging by the 'I'll get you for this, Lois! You just wait!' comments, I would assume not."

Lois couldn't keep from swelling with pride as she continued to field all her friends' questions. In a lot of ways she was the least conventionally popular of them. She wasn't a cheerleader like Peggy, a pretty and popular leader like Julie. She didn't have Joe's talent for sports or Dick's talent at class leadership. But she was a pretty darn good reporter… even if she was only free-lancing for a high school paper.

They had to split fairly early, because it was a school night. Joe offered Lois a ride, but she insisted on walking. Julie only lived up the road from Lois's mother's house.

Somehow, though, she ended up finding herself walking with Joe. Which probably wasn't a bad thing, safety-wise. And the truth was, things had been going on long enough. It was time that she told Joe just how she felt.

The night air was just chilly enough to be brisk, but they were having a momentary respite from the cold of the past weeks. Nevertheless, Lois shivered as they stepped out into the cold.

Without even asking, Joe quickly took off his jacket and placed it around Lois's shoulders. She snuggled into the warmth. It even smelled good, a little spicy, like Joe himself. But she couldn't lead him on like this.

"Joe," she said, at the same moment that he said, "Lois."

They both laughed.

"There's been something I've been meaning to talk to you about for a long time," Joe said.

"I know," Lois said softly. "But… let me go first?"

He looked puzzled, and a little worried. Lois tried to ignore the look of his soft brown eyes.

"Joe, we've been friends for… well, a few years, anyway. I think we know each other pretty well, right?"

He nodded silently.

"Well… I know what you're feeling. And the thing is, I really love being friends, but… I don't want to add any more complications to that. I don't think I'm ready for more. With anyone. I'm too busy trying to figure out who I am to bother adding another person into the figure."

Joe didn't respond immediately. He was looking up, above the treeline, staring at the stars. A streetlight flashed across his face, though, and Lois thought she saw the sheen of tears.

"Oh, Joe," she said, putting her arm through his. "I'm selfish. But that's just the way I am."

"And I love you for it," he said, in a choked voice. He cleared his throat. "As a friend."

"Do you want your jacket back?" she asked timidly.

He smiled at her and shook his head. "A friend can share his jacket with a colder friend, can't he?"

They walked in silence for a few minutes before Joe spoke again. "I'm glad you went first," he said. "It's much easier… not to have said anything."

"You're okay?"

He nodded. "I'd rather be your friend than nothing. And maybe this way… well, without anything else to complicate things, as you said, we can just relax and be better friends for it." He put his arm around her shoulder. "All right? No pressure. Just friends."

"Just friends," Lois repeated on a happy sigh. Nothing had ever sounded as wonderful in her life.


Metropolis, New Troy, 1982 — Lex is 32 years old (Jackie is 8)

Jackie sat on the edge of the roof of the highest building in Metropolis, cheerfully swinging his feet. He tuned out the sounds of his father talking business with Nigel, and squinted across the street.

A pile of smooth stones twinkled merrily in the sunlight next to him. Without even looking down, Jackie reached his hand into the pile and pulled out one of the roundest stones.

He aimed carefully, still squinting against the sun, at his target. With a mighty heave, he lobbed the stone across the gap between buildings.

His feathered target gave a squawk of dismay as the pebble bounced off the ledge below her, and took to the air. Jackie grumbled with disgust.

He turned to glance at his father, who was pointing out something in the Daily Planet to Nigel. Nigel nodded, took the section of paper, and hurried off.

Jackie waited hopefully for a moment, just in case his father turned to him in the absence of Nigel. But his father went back to his breakfast, skimming another section of the paper.

"Lex! Jaxie! How are my favorite boys this morning?" Jackie's stepmother's voice impinged on his hearing, and he groaned.

"Fine until you came out," he muttered, but he was careful to keep his voice low so that Ari didn't hear him. Last time he'd said something like that in her presence, she'd smacked him so hard that he was still pretty certain a few body parts were out of whack.

He watched Lex toss aside his paper with a smile and hold out his arms to Ari. Ari sat down on his lap and twisted to kiss him passionately.

Jackie groaned loudly, but either they didn't care, or their own moans of passion were loud enough to drown him out. He rolled his eyes.

"Get a room," he muttered, louder this time.

"Did you want to say something, Jaxon?" Lex said, pulling away from Ari.

"No," he said. Lex stared at him for a moment, then went back to kissing his wife.

Jackie picked up a stone, tossing it back and forth from hand to hand, and indolently wondering what would happen if he tossed it in their direction. Ice water would have a better effect, he finally decided.

"Honey," Ari said finally, extricating herself from his arms and sitting in the chair next to him, "I was looking at some of the numbers for your little, uh," she shot a glance in Jackie's direction, "project. You know, on South Side."


"Well, I know how generous an employer you like to be—"

Jackie burst out laughing.

"Jaxon!" Lex admonished.

Jackie grinned. "Sorry, Dad."

"…How generous an employer you like to be. However, I was looking at some ways that you could revisit your expenses on this project. It might result in a little trim off the top, but if you consider that you're paying 75 employers at the refurbishing plant for only…"

Jackie tuned them out, tossing a pebble into the air. Having a stepmother involved in his father's business was incredibly annoying. In some ways, he thought he liked it better back when he thought she was only a secretary.

That thought reminded him of his mother, and he threw the rock violently at the next building, not even bothering to aim. His mother. Lex never tired of telling Jackie how weak she'd been. He didn't know if it was true, but he didn't care. Lex considered Ari strong. She was his equal. He'd met his match. And all sorts of sayings that he supposed were supposed to sound romantic, and did usually lead to lots of kissing, but were pretty lame-o in his opinion. His mother had been a lot nicer than Ari, and he was pretty sure she'd loved him. He just wished his strongest memory of her wasn't the image of her being mowed down by a car in front of his six-year-old eyes.

Ari finally finished whatever she was talking with Lex about, and to Jackie's surprise, she didn't immediately drag his father off to the bedroom. Maybe she had an appointment at the beauty parlor. Whatever the reason, she headed back into the house, and Lex immersed himself in the paper, yet again.

Jackie sighed loudly. Grabbing another stone from the pile, he tossed it in the vague direction of the ledge, and idly watched it fall harmlessly to the ground.

He closed his eyes for a minute, then took a deep breath and chose a good stone, reveling in the feel of its smooth surface as he rolled it in his hand. He held it until it grew warm, then looked across the gap for a target.

There she was. A plump, fat pigeon, preening herself on the south edge. He took careful aim and let loose with the stone.

The pigeon exploded in a fury of blood and feathers.

Jackie shrieked, horrified at the sight of the pigeons feathers and blood plastering the wall around the bird. His breath came in gasping sobs as he stared at the destruction of his target. Spinning around, he found himself staring into the smiling face of his father.

Lex was still sitting at the breakfast table, but in his hands he held a shotgun.

Without taking his eyes off Jackie, he blew the barrel of it, then calmly set it down beside the table.

"What did you do?!" Jackie cried angrily. "That was my pigeon!" He shivered at the mental image of the innards of the bird scattered far and wide.

Wiping his tearing eyes angrily, he shoved past his father and stalked into the house.


Lex was staring thoughtfully in the direction that Jaxon had gone when Nigel reentered.

"Your suspicions were correct, sir," Nigel said. "Would you like me to take the necessary precautions?"

Lex shook his head. "That won't be necessary. Doesn't Carruthers have a pretty new wife?"

"Yes, sir."

"Have someone trusted take a picture of her through her bedroom window. Send it to Carruthers with the renewed offer."

"Very good."

Lex's eyes hadn't left the doorway, and Nigel made a motion in that direction.

"Would you like me to bring him back?"

Lex thought for a moment. "No, I don't think so. But I do think it's about time to start involving my son in the business."

"Isn't he a bit young?"

Lex shrugged. "Perhaps. But it's never too early to judge character, and I'm beginning to think that it's about time Jaxon has his eyes opened to the way the world works."

"Very good, sir. So he'll be coming with us today?"

"Yes. I think today's little expedition might be a good time for him to start."


Jackie clenched his hand around the smooth stone in his pocket nervously, and glanced at his father. His father walked two steps ahead of him, stepping so briskly that Jackie was forced to trot at his heels to keep up. Nigel, his father's best friend, walked next to him.

He glanced at his father's hand, wondering if his father would yell at him if he tried to take his hand. Probably, he thought. Last time he'd tried it, his father had acted disgusted and told him that it was puerile. Whatever that meant. His father had seemed angry that he didn't know the word, so he'd tried looking it up in the dictionary. But it wasn't there under "purile" or "pyurile," and he was afraid to ask his father how to spell it.

Jackie could smell the water before they even reached the docks of Hobb's Bay. He wrinkled his nose. The water didn't smell particularly good around here. He much preferred the water at Martha's Vineyard, where he spent every summer.

There was a man dressed in a dark trenchcoat near the water. He looked up as they approached, and Jackie's father handed him the briefcase he'd been carrying. He walked up to the man, and they talked for a moment. Then Lex made a motion to Jackie to join them.

Jackie's eyes widened in shock and pleasure. His father wanted him included? Oh. He sighed. His father just wanted the briefcase.

But to Jackie's surprise, his father immediately introduced him to the man. "Jackie, this is Captain Hastings of the United States Navy. Captain Hastings, my son, Jaxon."

"Hey, hey," Captain Hastings said nervously. "Don't be tossin' my name around out here. You never know who might be listening."

Lex laughed. "Do you truly think that I wouldn't have had this area checked out before bringing my son here? If so, you are far more gullible than I thought."

Captain Hastings's eyes flashed to the building behind Lex, and Lex laughed softly.

"You can come out, now," he called.

Jaxon shrank behind his father as two men emerged from the building and approached Lex, guns trained on him.

"And the other," Lex said softly.

One last man walked slowly from another dockside building, this man unarmed—at least outwardly.

Lex clapped. "Very ingenious, Hastings," he said. "I suppose you are proud of yourself, having caught the most elusive prey in this city, no?"

Captain Hastings shrugged, shooting Lex a patronizing smile. "Perhaps."

"Or," Lex said, nodding to the three men, "perhaps not."

Hastings's three men moved to stand behind Lex, turning their guns upon Hastings.

Hastings face went white, as he glanced from one face to another. "No," he whispered.

"You see, Hastings, I don't like people who try to turn the tables on me. I pity them, but at the same time, I can't exactly allow them to get away with it, can I?"

Hastings shook his head. He was backing slowly away from Lex, glancing behind him to check his proximity to the water. One of the men moved to grab his arm and hold him. Finally realizing his danger, Hastings struggled frantically, but the goon's hold on him was strong.

Lex smiled down at Jaxon. "You see, Jaxon, this is why you must always learn everything you can about a person you are dealing with. And why you must always bring backup."

Jaxon nodded, fascinated by the scene. "It's just like a movie!" he whispered.

Lex laughed. "It certainly is," he said. "And what would the villain do next in a movie?"

Giving his father a puzzled look, Jaxon shook his head. "I don't know."

Lex handed Jaxon his gun. "Would you care to do the honors?"

Jaxon stared at the gun in horror. "What?"

"Well, it's better than pigeons, after all."

When he heard those words, Jaxon's mind was immediately drawn to the image of the dead pigeon, its peaceful feathered shape sitting on the edge of the building as he took aim, then suddenly exploding outwards in a riot of red blood and gray feathers, leaving the building stained until the next rainfall.

He looked in horror at Captain Hastings, who was also staring at Lex, fear plain in his eyes.

"No!" Jaxon yelled, frightened. "Not the pigeon, not again."

Lex boxed his ears in disgust, and through their painful ringing Jaxon heard two blasts. He glanced up, terrified, to see Hastings fall to the ground, his chest covered with blood.

Jaxon pulled away from his father, ran to the water, and vomited over the dock. He heaved and heaved until his sides ached, and he still couldn't seem to stop. He was sobbing, the sound of his own voice loud in his still- ringing ears.

"Jaxon! Jaxon!" his father yelled. Jaxon tried to ignore it, but he couldn't ignore the powerful arms that gripped his shoulders and forced him to turn around. His father frog-marched him over to the body of Hastings.

The man's chest was blown partway open with the powerful blasts that had overtaken him. Blood was oozing out from the wound and dripping onto the ground. His eyes were wide-open in shock, and his face already held the gray tinge of death, and was splattered with blood. The scene was as macabre as anything Jaxon had ever imagined in his worst nightmares.

His legs buckled under him, and he would have fallen to the ground if his father wasn't holding his shoulders tightly. He could hear himself screaming hysterically, and he felt his stomach rebel once again, but it seemed as if it was happening to another boy, as if he was watching his body's reactions but was not part of them. That face—that blood- splattered face—would never leave his mind.

Lex finally threw his son to the ground in disgust. "Take him back home," he said angrily to Nigel.

"Sir," Nigel said, "you know he is younger than you were. He's only eight, sir. What are you going to do to him?"

Lex turned and stared pointedly at the sobbing boy who lay in a heap on the ground. "What do you think I'm going to do to him, Nigel? I'm not a cruel man."

Nigel looked as if he was about to say something, but thought the better of it.

"I'm not, Nigel. But I am an ambitious man. Eight, eleven, eighteen, that boy does not have what it takes to become the head of the Luthor Empire. Melanie's blood was weak. Weak blood always shows, Nigel."

Nigel walked over to Jaxon, pulled the boy to his feet. "Should I dispose of him, then?"

Lex snorted. "Dispose of him? That's so untidy. No, I might be able to use him someday, even if he won't be the one to follow in my footsteps. Find a home for him where they'll ask no questions, and make sure they get him trained in something useful. Maybe there'll be a job for him someday at Luthor Industries. In the meantime, I do not want to see him."

Nigel nodded. "Very good, sir." He gave the boy a look of disgust. He hefted him by the scruff of his shirt and carried him towards the limo.

Lex walked in the opposite direction, farther into the Hobb's Bay district. The criminals of this district knew perfectly well who Lex Luthor was, for he funded the majority of the crime in the city. He was completely safe no matter where he chose to walk, a fact for which he felt grateful now.

He looked up at the stars. They shone as brightly tonight as any night. From their distant vantage point in the sky, they couldn't care less if Lex managed to raise the son he wanted. And Lex knew that a son wasn't important to his life. Hell, there were dozens of young men as corrupt and intelligent and savvy as he was as a boy, he could teach any one of them to be his right-hand side at business.

But no matter how often Lex tried to convince himself that a son wasn't important, wasn't necessary, he couldn't keep from thinking back to his father. It wasn't arrogant or false pride to realize that his father truly had been proud of him. And here he was, thirty-three years old and having already long surpassed his father at business. If his father had been alive today, they could have shared Luthor Industries together. Lex wanted that for a son.

"So what do I get? A son deformed by an accident, and a whining, spoiled brat. Neither of them has the qualities that made me what I am."

"How many women must I impregnate?" he called out into the night, throwing his hands into the air. A voice in his head pointed out that if he kept a woman or two alive long enough to have multiple children, he might have better chances at getting the son he so desperately yearned for.

He stared out over the black, silent waters of the bay. "All I want," he whispered softly, "is a son I can respect, a son who will make me proud."

Metropolis, New Troy, 1983 — Lois is 16 years old

Lois clattered up the porch stairs and thrust open the screen door. She was tempted to play the perfect sitcom daughter and call out "I'm home!" but thought better of it. Not like anyone would care anyway.

Lois's first impression was that nobody was home, but she knew better than to go by appearances. The bathroom light was on, and the door locked. "Mom's home," she thought, rolling her eyes.

She then knocked on Lucy's bedroom door. "Lucy?" she called.

There was no answer.

"Luce? Open up."

She heard a faint noise, but the door remained shut.

"Lucy!" Lois pounded harder, to no avail.

"I'll do it, Lucy!" No answer. "I swear!" No answer.

Lois sighed and stalked into her room. She reached into the decorative mug full of pens just inside her door, and removed her lockpick. She walked back across the hall to Lucy's room.

"Last chance!" she called, digging the pick into the lock. She wiggled it around, grimacing slightly. "This gets harder every time," she muttered to herself. But fortunately, the locks were cheap and easy to pick.

Finally, the lock snapped open, and Lois pushed open the door and stepped into Lucy's room.

Lucy was huddled on her bed, her back to the room. Lois marched over to her sister's bed and pulled her out of it.

"Come on," she said. "Get up. You're not a baby."

It took some effort on her part, but Lois managed to get Lucy out of the bed and into a standing position.

"Lucy!" she said sharply. "Come on, snap out of it."

Lucy shoved Lois away. "Leave me alone! Get out of my room. You're not my boss."

"I'm older than you. And since Mom's … well, since she is what she is, that makes me your boss. And practically your mother. So march."

"Um … no!"

"Lu-cy …" Lois started.

"Lo-is …"

"Fine!" Lois said. "Stay in your room on that stupid bed 'til you rot. Not like I care." She stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind her.

Dragging herself slowly to her own room, Lois sat down on the edge of her bed. For a moment she listened for sounds of her mother or sister. Not a sound. She sighed and grabbed an old yellow notebook from her desk. She tossed the notebook onto the bed in front of her, lying on her stomach to write.

Several minutes later, Lois heard a soft knock at the door. She smiled.

"Come in," she called.

Lucy tentatively pushed open the door and walked in. She sat on the edge of the bed next to Lois.

"I think Mom's drinking in the bathroom," she said.

Lois bit her lip. "That her newest place?"

"I guess. She's been in there for hours."

"And you've been locked in your room the whole time?"

"More or less."

Lois stroked her hair gently. Lucy smiled up at her. Lois shook her head and sighed. "You're such an idiot. Don't you remember what I told you?"

"Forget her. I don't need her. Us Lane kids stick together."


Lucy trotted after Lois as she went into the kitchen to retrieve her backpack and brought it into her room. She dumped it onto her desk and began to rummage through it.

"What's for dinner?" Lucy asked.

Lois frowned. "I'm not sure. I doubt there's anything in the freezer. I guess we can go shopping. Got any money?" She glanced up at her painfully empty money jar on the dresser.

Lucy gave her a mutinous look, but then her stomach rumbled. "If it's for food, I guess. Is Dad coming home tonight?"

"Doubt it. And Mom will be sleeping it off, if she's been in there all day." In triumph, Lois pulled the object she'd been digging for from her backpack, her camera.

Lucy rolled her eyes. "We could always go over Jimmy's for dinner."

Lois brightened. "Another brilliant idea from the smart one in the family!" She ruffled Lucy's hair, and Lucy giggled and pulled away.

"C'mere," she said, crooking her finger.

Lucy leaned forward and smiled brightly, and Lois snapped her picture.

"Perfect! Okay, let's go call Jimmy."


Lois nudged Lucy before her into the house. Under one arm she carried the dish of leftovers that Jimmy's generous mother had given them. Lois was feeling pleasantly sorry for herself. Her family was so… so… there was hardly a word for it. Dysfunctional? Idiotic. Definitely idiotic. She sighed and tried to shake herself out of her melancholy mood. On the other hand, at least they provided interesting gossip for the neighbors.

As they entered the living room, they saw that their father had indeed come home from work, and was by all appearances waiting for them. He reclined on his old dark chair, smoking a cigar.

Lucy turned on her heel and started up the staircase. Lois made as if to follow her, but her father stopped her.

"Lois," he said.

She sighed and faced him reluctantly, one eyebrow raised.

"I have a convention tomorrow evening," he told her. "Some of the most powerful research scientists in the world will be there. It will be a wonderful networking opportunity, and a chance for you to learn a lot more about the field."

"I'm not going," she said curtly.

"You most certainly are," he said. "You're sixteen, Lois. It's about time you started to think about your future."

"I am thinking about my future. I'm reading as much as I can about journalism and practicing my photography. Since you won't let me work for the school newspaper, it's the best I can do"

"That's not what I mean, Lois. Photography is a nice hobby. A very nice one, I'll admit. But it's not a career. And journalism? Lois …."

Lois stood up angrily. "It is a career, and it's going to be my career. You read the newspaper every day. Somebody has to write that news. It's a chance to expose the truth, tear it out of its dark hole and expose it to the light."

"Sit down, Lois," he said sharply. She sat, reluctantly. "And just how much do you think that a photographer makes a year? 30k? 35k? And a journalist can't make much more than that."

"Who cares?!"

"You will someday, when you don't have your parents to support you."

"I'll make enough for what I want."

"You're sixteen, you don't know what you want."

"And you do?"

He glared at her. "Don't you ever talk back to your father!"

"Then stop being such a jerk," she said, getting up. This time when she left, he didn't try to stop her, but he did call out as she left the room.

"Lois Lane. You want to go to college, you'll major in something I approve of. You are not wasting my money to go to college just to study journalism."

Lois spun around. "But that's not fair! You won't let me get an after-school job! How am I supposed to earn the money to pay for college myself?"

He grinned at her and leaned back in his chair.

"You can't do that!"

"Now, Lois, calm down. I hate having to do this, but you'll thank me for it later."

"I'll earn a scholarship."

Her father laughed. "You won't get anything need-based, not as long as I claim you as a dependent. And your grades may be excellent, but since you don't do any after-school activities, I don't think you'll get a full-scholarship to any school that offers journalism."

She screwed up her face in anger. "You're the one who forces me to come straight home from school. Not that you're even home to care! Why do I bother?"

Close to tears, Lois headed back to the safe sanctuary of her room. She slammed the door behind her, and grabbed a shoe and threw it against the wall for extra measure.

Lucy opened the door tentatively and stuck her curly head in. "You okay?"

Lois growled. "Forget to knock?"

Lucy picked up her shoe and waggled it at her, grinning. "Thought your walls had gotten enough of a beating for the day."


"So," she said, dropping onto Lois's beanbag chair. "Dad being a pain again?"

Lois nodded. "Why does he think I'd wanna follow in his footsteps when he's abandoned his family and works 80 hours a week?"

"Maybe he just wants us to earn lots of money so once we finish college he'll never be bothered by us again. Or maybe he figures if we have careers like his, we'll understand why he works so much and ignores us, and it'll justify his neglect."

She picked up a book from her shelf and stared at it absently. "Maybe. Anyone ever tell you you're way too smart for your age?"

"Oddly enough, it's never come up. I wonder why that is."

"Your grades, maybe?" Lois said with a grin.

Lucy grimaced. "Well, I'm content not being the smart one in the family if it means Dad doesn't bug me about being a doctor just like him.

"That's true," Lois said.

"Besides, how does he think you'd make a good doctor? Your bedside manner, I can just see that. You'd frighten all your patients away."

Lois threw her book at Lucy. "Go do some homework or something."

"Big sisters have no sense of humor," Lucy muttered as she left.


Lois tossed aside her homework with a sigh. It seemed impossible to concentrate tonight. She decided to go downstairs and see if any decent food had magically appeared in the fridge.

In the living room, her mother lay passed out on the couch. Lois frowned and looked around for her father. Now where had he gotten to?

She noticed that his briefcase was gone, and narrowed her eyes. He didn't usually go back to the lab late. He might be out late, but once he was home, he stayed home.

She chewed on the inside of her lip for a moment, thinking. Should she?

Finally, Lois made her decision. She grabbed her backpack, stuffing her camera and her books into it, and tossed it over her shoulder.

"I'll be back in a bit, Lucy!" she called. She let herself out of the door quietly and jogged down the street towards the bus stop.

Lois got off the bus across the street from the building that housed her father's laboratory. Hitching her bag onto her shoulder, she took a deep breath and crossed the street. For once, she was going to confront her father. And if she had to do it in front of his work colleagues, at least those who were workaholics and working as late as he, then so be it. Maybe they should know what kind of man they were working with.

She nodded to Andy, the security officer who stood at the door. He knew her well from her frequent visits. Whenever she needed her father, whether to sign a field-trip permission slip or because her mother had gotten hurt in one of her drinking binges, she could always find him here.

Getting off the elevator at the third floor, she jogged down to his lab. She opened the door quietly.

Her jaw dropped at the sight of her father and his pretty assistant, kissing on the couch. The woman's shirt was off, and her father was only wearing his boxer shorts.

It was apparent that neither of the "lovebirds" had noticed her entry. Without even thinking about it, she pulled the camera from her backpack and started snapping pictures. She'd taken four when her father finally heard the snapping of the shutter and looked up.

"Lois!" he shouted, leaping to his feet and holding his shirt in front of him.

The secretary shrieked, a high-pitched "outraged female" sound that made Lois wince for her ears.

"Lois, give me the camera."

She shook her head wordlessly.

"Give it!" he said, louder.

It struck Lois that he sounded a great deal like a petulant Lucy, and, unable to resist, she stuck her tongue out.

"Lois Joanne Lane! Give me that camera!"


Lois dashed out of the room as quickly as she could. Her father dashed after her as best he could, trying to hold his shirt in front of his boxers.

She ran around the corner and toward the stairs, figuring that they were a safer and quicker bet than the elevator.

Lois breathed a sigh of relief when she reached the entrance to the building with no sign of her father. She feigned a cheerful good-bye to Andy and crossed the street to the bus stop.

Lois had just gotten into bed when she heard her father come in the front door. She tensed as she heard his footsteps in the hall. Her door opened, and she looked up to see him in the doorway. In the dark, his large form was incredibly intimidating, and for a moment she felt a jolt of fear.

"Lois, I want those pictures."

"What, don't want your dearest wife to see them?" she taunted.


She rolled over to face away from him. "They're hidden. Well-hidden."

"I'll find them."

"Not a chance."

"Lois," he said, his voice pleading. "Don't show them to your mother. You know what a state she's in already. Lois—it'll kill her."

Lois didn't say anything. She hunched her shoulders and waited until he finally sighed and left.

Only then did she allow herself to think. He was right, in a way. Her mother probably already knew he cheated. Maybe that was even the cause of her drinking problem. It would kill her to see them, to get that confirmation. At least this way, she could pretend it wasn't happening.

How had Lois missed seeing that, all these years? That her father was cheating, and her mother drank to ignore it? She'd always thought they were a nice normal dysfunctional family. This was something else.

What would happen if she showed her mother the pictures? Would she finally stop drinking, realize what a jerk her husband was, and ask for a divorce? No, her father was probably right. She'd kill herself. Maybe not immediately, but she'd drink and drink until she'd done herself to death.

What if she didn't show the pictures? Would her father be scared into not cheating anymore? Fat chance. He'd realize he could get away with it. He'd keep right on doing it.

So what did she have to gain from the pictures? Nothing she did would change her parents' relationship.

The next morning, she sat on the edge of Lucy's bed and waited for her to wake up.

Lucy finally blinked and rubbed her eyes, smiling sleepily at her.

"Good morning, Merry Sunshine," Lois said with a gentle smile.

"G'morning. What time's it?"

"Seven. Gotta get up."

Lucy sighed and rolled over, burrowing into the covers.

"Lucy, if I had something that proved Dad did something bad, what would you think I should do with it?"

Lucy sat up, wide-awake suddenly. "What do you have?"

"It's a hypothetical situation."

Lucy cocked her head. "What?"

"I mean, I'm just saying, what if I had something like that? I don't mean that I do."

"I know what a hypothetical situation is. What I mean is, nobody says that unless there's a real situation they're trying to make a decision about. So whatcha got?"

Having an intuitive little sister was not always a good thing.

"Forget it. Not gonna say."

"Then no advice," she said, crossing her arms.

Lois pulled the covers back. "I heard of a used little- sister sale down the road. You're not irreplaceable, you know."

"You'd subject some innocent little girl to our parents?"

"Point. Come on, let's get breakfast."

As Lois scrambled the eggs and tried to make pancakes for her picky little sister, she tried to decide what to do with the pictures. The easy decision was just to destroy them, to pretend she'd never seen anything. She could go on raising her sister and fighting her father, and her mother could go on drinking her life away and ignoring everyone else.

"Here ya go," she said, dumping another load of pancakes on her sister's plate.

Lucy prodded the pancakes with her fork. "They're burnt," she accused.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Lucy, they're as good as they're going to get."

"I don't want crappy black pancakes. Why can't you make normal ones like Jimmy's mom?"

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Weren't you supposed to have the fun of sex and the wedding before you had to deal with a bratty child who constantly expected you to live up to the illustrious Mrs. Olsen?

By the time Lucy had finally found enough round pancakes to fill her stomach, Lois was washing her dishes. Both of them looked up, startled, when their father walked in the door.

"Dad!" Lucy said joyfully. "You're home!" She glanced at Lois.

Their father looked at Lois nervously, and for a moment she enjoyed the power she held over him. For only a moment. In that split second, she made her decision.

"Dad, can I talk to you?"

He nodded, his eyes shifting from Lucy to Lois.

Lois led the way to his study, and planted herself in the chair by his desk. He sat down at his desk, his hands on his lap.

Lois sat silently for a moment, letting him stew. Simmer, then stir. The most important part was to make him think he had no other choice than to go along with it.

Finally, she judged that he'd had enough, and she stood up quickly. She leaned over the desk, and holding the pictures in her hand, she ripped them up before her father's eyes, dropping the torn remains onto the waxed surface of the desk.

His relief was obvious, and she refused to allow him long to dwell on it.

"There are the pictures. But I still have the negatives."

His face fell.

"The negatives will be destroyed when I finish college—at which I study the major of my choice."

His eyes met hers—and in that moment, she knew she'd won.


Smallville, Kansas, 1984 — Clark is 18 years old

Rachel swallowed hard and took a quick glance at Clark, who sat to her right. He was bent low over his work, and she sighed and looked up at the clock. One fifteen. Fifty minutes until they got to go home. And fifty minutes to somehow get up her nerve.

She glanced at Clark again, and noticed that the back of his neck was turning red. Had he noticed that she was staring at him? She grabbed her pen and pretended to write for a moment, just in case.

The integral of sin3 x * cos5 y * esin x? What the hell kind of problem was that? She must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. She sighed and looked back over her previous steps.

When she finally finished her problem, she glanced up at the clock again. One twenty-five. She gulped, and she could feel her body grow weak. Only forty minutes left, she had to ask him now.

She turned towards Clark, but he was very busily writing, and showed no inclination to stop. She sighed.

Rachel found herself staring at the clock, her eyes glazing over as the minute hand crept closer to the six. She was running out of time. She had to ask him, she just had to.

"Oh, why is this so awkward?!" she felt like shouting. "He's one of my best friends, this shouldn't be such a big deal."

And it wasn't. So why did it feel like it?

"Clark," she said.

Clark jerked his head up quickly, staring at her wide-eyed. "Yeah?" he asked.

Rachel faced him for a long moment, then shook her head. "Uh, did you get the answer to number six?"

"Yeah. It's the same as the second example, the numbers are just a bit different."

"Oh, okay, thanks," she said, flipping back to the second example in the book and mentally cursing herself.

"Rachel, you're a wimp. That's what you are, a wimp. If you don't ask him, you know Lana's going to push him into it. And then you'd be a jealous wimp, and that's even worse. So ask him, already!"

She read through example two, and Clark was right, problem six was exactly like it. She got through the problem, then put her pencil down.

"Look, what's the worst that can happen?" she reasoned to herself. "Do it!"

"Clark," she said.


"Darn it!" she shouted, getting the attention of half the class. They stared at her as they gathered their books and left the room.

She grabbed her backpack and caught Clark before he made it to the door.

"Clark! Wait! I want to ask you something."

Clark turned to her, looking like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Rachel frowned. She wasn't used to seeing that look on his face except—well—when Lana was around.

"Look, Clark, I wanted to ask you, well, will you go to the prom with me? As friends, of course! Just … well, I don't have a boyfriend or anyone else to go with, and, you're one of my best friends, and I just thought, maybe it would be fun."


Clark stared back at Rachel, his thoughts tumbling about his head in confusion. Rachel didn't like him too, did she? Dealing with Lana was enough.

Then the voice of reason knocked him over the head with a baseball bat and reminded him that Rachel did just say she wanted to go as friends, and that he shouldn't assume any more than she'd said.

"Uh," he said, stalling for time.

Rachel seemed to notice his indecision, because she hastened to pass it off casually. "I mean, it's no big deal, Clark, so don't panic. I just thought maybe it would give you a break to go with a friend, you know?"

Clark nodded. What were his other options? Lana would probably ask him soon, she'd been hinting at it off and on. Did he really want to go with Lana? Probably not. And it would be nice to go with a friend.

"Yeah, okay," he said. "That sounds good."

Rachel beamed, and at the brilliance of her smile Clark felt a moment's doubt. This was just as friends, wasn't it?

"Clark!" he heard a voice behind him say. He spun to see Lana's bright golden head poke into the room. "Are you done with class?"

He nodded mutely.

"Wanna walk me to mine?"

He gave an apologetic look to Rachel, who looked about ready to commit murder, and followed Lana out of the room.

"So, Clark," Lana said casually, "have you thought about the prom yet?"

Clark winced. "Uh, a little," he said.

"Well, I was thinking, maybe you could pick up your tux at the same time I buy my dress so we can get ones that complement each other. What do you think?"

"Actually, Rachel—"

"—probably isn't going to the prom, but we won't let that worry us. No girl with front teeth that big would look good in prom pictures."

"Lana!" Clark said sharply. "Rachel's a friend, a good one. And you know perfectly well that she's pretty enough to be in the running for Corn Queen every year."

Lana tossed her hair. "Whatever."

"And," Clark said slowly, "she asked me to the prom, and I said I'd go with her."

"What?!" Lana shouted. Several students in the hall turned to look, and she lowered her voice. "Clark, what is wrong with you? She's just a friend of yours, but you and I are dating—"

At his look, she quickly amended her phrase.

"—practically dating. But still. You should be going to the prom with a date, not a friend with buck teeth."

As they reached Lana's classroom, Clark sighed. "Look, Lana, I think it'd be nice to go with a friend and all. And you know we're not dating."

"We could be," she said, smiling boldly at him.

At his frown, she rolled her eyes. "Look, I'll see you later, okay?" She flipped her hair again and walked into the classroom.

A hand on his back made him turn suddenly, and he spun to find his friend and football teammate, Pete Ross, standing behind him.

"Clark, what is your problem, man?" he said. "You know you aren't dating Lana, you know you don't want to—though why, I'll never know—yet you let her treat you like her personal slave, and even shun friends like Rachel for her. What are you doing?"

Clark shrugged. "I don't know!" he said. "I don't mean to, but she just doesn't give a guy a chance to give no for an answer."

"Well, you'd better start," Pete said. "Don't you dare ruin the prom for Rachel. She's a sweet girl, even if she's only your friend."

Clark nodded. "Look, I gotta get to class."

"Want me to babysit Lana for a while?" Pete said hopefully.

Clark laughed deeply. "Well, at least then she wouldn't come looking for me to walk her to her next class."

"Deal," Pete said, peering into the classroom and grinning wildly at the sight of Lana.


Clark escorted Rachel onto the dance floor, and she smiled and shivered with excitement. He gently took her into his arms and swept her into the dance.

Rachel rested her head against Clark's shoulder and let the music drift her away.

Clark smiled down at Rachel, gently, but his mind wasn't on her. He was somewhere else entirely, soaring and tumbling among the stars. He breathed in deeply, remembering the night before. He had discovered recently that he could float whenever he wasn't paying attention to what he was doing, and he'd thought this pretty amazing. But last night…last night, he had discovered he could fly.

"Clark?" Rachel asked softly. "What are you thinking?"

He answered honestly. "About the stars, and the sky, and how this music makes me feel that I could float."

She smiled at him, and he decided his answer must have sounded sufficiently romantic, while, of course, being anything but.

He had soared higher than the clouds, and he was still able to breath. Above the cloud line, the stars looked close enough to touch. His powers might be strange and give him no end of problems, but last night had made them all perfect. That starry night sky, that bed of clouds, they were his and his alone. Maybe one day when he met the right girl, he'd share them with her.

Rachel suddenly lifted her head from his shoulder and twisted in his arms. Lana was standing behind her.

"Mind if I cut in?" Lana asked, her smile looking false even to Clark.

Rachel shrugged and backed away slowly. Lana quickly inserted herself into Clark's arms, and he found himself holding the one person he wanted to avoid, while his date stood alone on the dance floor.

"Lana," he said, "you know Rachel's my date."

"Can't save one dance for an old friend?" She pouted.

"It's not that, I just don't want to abandon Rachel on her prom night. Besides, I thought you came with Pete?"

"Yeah, he's around here somewhere."

Clark sighed. With his friend Rachel, he could let his mind drift into the stars, but somehow Lana's sharp voice knocked him right back to Earth with a thud.

"Look, Lana," he started to say.

He was interrupted by Rachel, who tapped Lana gently.

"May I cut in?" Rachel said.

Lana snorted. "My, my, Rachel, getting bold, aren't we?"

Rachel backed up a step and looked at Clark. He gently extricated himself from Lana and held out a hand to Rachel. She took it gratefully.

Lana rolled her eyes and stalked off the dance floor.

"Lana likes you, you know," Rachel said.

Clark choked on a laugh. "Yeah, I noticed."

She smiled up at him. "I wasn't sure. I mean, I noticed you get this frightened look and tend to turn tail and flee whenever she's around. But a lot of the time you're rather—"

"Dense?" he offered with a grin. "Not that dense, I hope."

"It's too bad she doesn't like Pete," Rachel said. "He likes her back, at least. And I wish—"

"Wish what?"

She shrugged. "Never mind."

She jumped, startled, at the tap on her shoulder. Lana again.

"May I cut in?"

Rachel sighed loudly. "Lana!"

Lana raised an eyebrow. "I do believe it's polite to accept cut-ins."

Before Rachel could respond, Lana grabbed Clark's arm and pulled him into the center of the dance floor with her.

"Lana!" he said angrily.

"Little Miss Doctor's daughter is starting to get a little worked up, don't you think? She's cute when she's mad."

Over Lana's shoulder, Clark saw Rachel approaching. He wasn't sure whether he should be pleased or annoyed.

Lana spun around at Rachel's voice.

"Cut in?" Rachel said sweetly.

Lana backed slightly away, and Rachel slipped into Clark's arms.

By now, several of their other classmates on the dance floor had noticed the drama going on, and were slowly turning to watch the romantic triangle.

Lana didn't give Rachel more then a few moments before she tapped her and took Clark.

Rachel growled and grabbed Clark's arm, pulling him back towards her.

Clark's eyes widened at what was quickly turning into a full-scale war between the two girls. What should he do? He tried to pull away, gently, without using any powers.

"Lana! Rachel!" But neither seemed inclined to listen. Lana pushed Rachel, and Rachel almost toppled over backwards.

Clark backed away, startled, as the two girls faced off.

Lana stood with her hands on her hips. "You buck-toothed fake-blonde Momma's-girl chess-club ninny! Get off my Clark!"

"Your Clark? If you hadn't noticed, he took me to the prom."

"Only because you begged him to take you, so he felt sorry for you. You little tramp."

Rachel opened her mouth and worked her jaw a few times, trying to give back as good as she got. But the words didn't appear to be forthcoming. Finally, she decided actions spoke louder than words.

She took one step closer to Lana, pulled back her arm, and let it fly, punching Lana squarely in the jaw.

Lana screamed and fell backwards, and the crowd gasped. Rachel looked at her fearfully, wondering if she'd gone too far.

Lana was struggling to her feet, and it was apparent she wasn't finished. "Rachel, you little b—"

"Lana!" a voice shouted from behind her. Lana was pulled the rest of the way to her feet and swung around by none other than Pete Ross. "I've been looking all over for you," he said. "C'mon, let's dance." She struggled to get free, but he overpowered her easily, dragging her off to the far corner of the dance floor.

Clark stared after his friend for a long moment, wondering where he'd been when all this first started. He noticed Lana gingerly touch her chin and nose. She seemed surprised that they weren't bleeding.

He turned to Rachel, who was still standing in front of him, looking a bit shell-shocked.

"Are you okay?" he asked softly.

"Yeah. No." Her jaw trembled for one telling moment, then she burst into tears. "Clark!"

"Shh, c'mere," he said, wrapping an arm over her shoulders and guiding her towards the entrance to the ballroom. Just inside the entrance, there was a lobby, with men's and ladies' rooms off to the sides.

Rachel sniffled. "Thanks, Clark." She gave him an impromptu hug. "Look, just give me a little while, okay? I don't care if you go back to the dance."

"I'll wait," he told her.

She nodded and walked into the ladies' room.

Clark watched people walk back and forth for a few moments, before deciding that he could use some recovery time as well. He walked into the men's room.

"Wow," he thought, stepping through the door. Fancy establishments sure had nice bathrooms. There was a foyer in the men's room, with couches and mirrors and even magazines. He raised an eyebrow at the magazine choice, then walked through the connecting door into the actual bathroom.

Leaning over the sink, Clark splashed cold water on his face, blinking into the mirror. He blinked several times at his reflection. With a slow movement, he dampened his hair and slicked it back.

"I look really different like this," he whispered to himself. "I rather like it." He decided to leave it that way, and dried his hands before walking out into the foyer.

He stopped cold when he saw the girl sitting on a couch in the foyer, thumbing through one of the magazines. She looked up and smiled when she saw him.

"Hello, Clark," she said.

"Uh, hi." He frantically tried to remember her name, but it wasn't coming to him. Was she even in his class? She had to be, to be at the prom, and she did appear to know him. He'd always thought he knew everyone at Smallville High, though.

"I saw what happened out there," the girl confessed, tossing her long silky black locks over her shoulder.

Clark winced. "Did you?"

"Don't feel bad about it, Clark," she said. Her eyes met his, and he suddenly found himself gripping the doorframe for support. Her eyes were the most beautiful he had ever seen, he was absolutely sure of it. Warm, soft, gentle, like the eyes of a doe. But oh, so dark and mysterious. Who was this girl?

She seemed amused at what he quickly realized must be a love-struck expression, and he straightened up quickly and dropped his eyes.

"Yeah, well, they were fighting over me. Pretty stupid, huh?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Taken a good look in the mirror lately?"

He blushed, thinking of his time at the mirror a few minutes ago.

She laughed. "Okay, so maybe you aren't completely oblivious. I don't think it's just the looks, though. You have a—a sweetness that girls seem to like."

"Who are you?" he said. "I'm sorry, but I have to admit I don't recognize you, and you seem to know me so well."

She shrugged. "I do. I've been watching you, well, let's say 'from afar,' for years. And honestly, Clark, it is not your fault. You haven't led either of them on. But you do need to stand up for yourself a bit more. Rachel's your date. You should never have let Lana cut in on you, at least not after the one time."

He hung his head. "I know. I was a little—"

"Flattered? Any guy would be."

"And just unsure of how to deal with it."

She nodded. "Well, at the moment, your date is about to leave the bathroom, so you might want to be there for her." She stood up to leave.

"Wait!" he said. "What's your name?"

She turned, her hand on the outer doorknob. "You'd better hurry, Rachel will be looking for you."

With that, she pulled open the door and hurried out.

Clark crossed the room in three strides and pulled open the door, glancing around the lobby for the dark-haired beauty. But she was gone.

He stood in the doorway, staring. She couldn't have disappeared. He'd followed her almost immediately. The lobby was big and empty, she couldn't possibly have reached the door of the ladies' room, or the external door, that quickly.

Had she only been a dream? He didn't expect the feeling of loss that coursed through his body at the thought.

Just as he was about to run outside to look for her, the door to the ladies' room opened and Rachel walked out. She'd scrubbed her face; it was slightly red and all traces of makeup and tears were gone. But she looked better.

"Clark!" she said. "I'm glad you're still here."

He smiled and walked across the room towards her, and by the time he reached her side he'd forgotten what it was that made him take so long in the men's room.


Metropolis, New Troy, 1984 — Lex is 35 years old

Lex held the squalling baby close to his chest as he approached the ledge of his penthouse. A crack of thunder sounded, and the baby lifted its voice to a whole new level of ear splitting. Lex didn't notice.

He stepped up onto the ledge, and pulled the baby from his jacket.

The blast of cold rain that struck the infant and soaked it through in an instant shocked it into silence. But the silence lasted only a moment until the child decided it was better off voicing its displeasure. It opened its mouth and continued where it had left off.

Lex lifted the child above his head. Balancing on the ledge, he looked up at the sky. The rain poured into his face and open mouth, blinding him. But at this moment, nothing mattered. For the first time in his life, he felt like thanking a higher power. Almost.

He looked down. Standing as he was, the whole city was in breathtaking view before him, lights blinking in the darkness, the roiling clouds of the storm clearly visible with every flash of lightning.

He held his son above the teeming city, his triumph too great for words. Finally, he lowered the suffering baby, clutching him close to his chest.

"Metropolis, meet Felix Luthor," he said softly.

Exhausted from his bout of crying, Felix lay whimpering softly in Lex's arms as Lex walked slowly back through the balcony doors and into the nursery.

Drying the boy off carefully, he placed him into the double bassinet next to his sleeping sister. He stood in front of the bassinet for a long time, watching his sleeping son silently.

After several minutes, he turned to leave. At the doorway, he almost ran into his wife.

"Admiring him again?" Arianna asked, her eyes twinkling.

Lex smiled at her. "Of course. Thank you, my dear."

She reached out and slipped her arms around his neck, pulling him close. "What, the most powerful man in Metropolis and fifth-richest man in the world, thanking me?" she teased.

He kissed her deeply, holding her close. "Yes, thanking you," he said huskily. "You gave me the one thing money and power can't buy—a son."

"And love, right, Lex?" she asked, frowning slightly.

"Oh, that too," he said, guiding her towards their bedroom. "That too."


Metropolis, New Troy, 1985 — Lois is 18 years old

Lois sighed happily and rested her head against Mike's chest. He smiled down at her and hugged her closer.

"The music's perfect," he whispered. "And the lights, and the setting—and the company."

She blushed. "Thank you," she said softly.

"So, I was thinking, after this, you wanna go to Cal Grant's house? He's having a big after-prom party."

"All they do at those parties is have sex."

Mike looked down at her and said nothing.

"Uh-uh, no way. Mike, I'm not that kind of girl."

"Oh, come on, Lois, you know you've been making eyes at me the entire year. Don't even try to tell me you don't want it. Gives you the reputation of … a tease."

She pulled away from him. "I am not a tease. I never let you think that I'd give you sex just because you asked me to come to one dance. Geez, we're not even going out!"

"So your reputation of Ice Queen really is earned," he said, shaking his head. "Funny. You know, I was the one who stood up for you, told those guys that I bet you'd actually be hot in bed. Just goes to show you can never really know a person."

"No kidding!" Lois said, raising her voice.

"Hey," he said, his voice low and smooth. "Let's not make a scene."

"I'm not the one making a scene!"

Several nearby couples were starting to glance in their direction, and Mike grimaced and put his hand on the small of her back, propelling her towards the door. "Let's talk privately, okay? We don't need to argue in front of the whole school."

She shoved his hand from her back and walked quickly towards the door, avoiding touching him.

When the door was safely closed behind them and they stood alone in the hallway, Lois allowed herself the freedom to shout. "You jerk!" she said. "You invited me to the prom just because you thought I'd be so grateful that you asked me that I'd sleep with you? You've got to be insane!"

Mike grinned at her. "Not at all. Maybe you just don't know what you want, is that it?" He bent down and kissed her gently on the lips.

She pushed him away and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "You disgust me. I'm going back to the dance. Alone."

He laughed. "Oh, no, you aren't. You don't think I'm going to let the money I spent for this tuxedo and the limo go to waste, do you?"

"You'd have gone to the dance with or without me, so it's not exactly like you spent them on me."

"No, but I did spend them with the intention of getting laid, and I'm hardly about to change my plans now."

To Lois's horror, Mike grabbed her upper arms and pressed her against the wall of the hallway, kissing her brutally. She struggled to get free, to no avail.

"I knew I should have taken those self-defense classes," she thought to herself, trying to get the leverage to kick him. "Why'd I ever think dating a wrestler was a safe idea?"

She tried to bite his tongue but he forced her mouth open too wide for her to be able to bite down. Finally she got one arm free, but before she could use it he'd recaptured it and gripped both of her hands in one of his. With his free hand, he started to pull down the front of her prom dress.

"No," she cried, suddenly realizing how real this was. "Please, Mike, stop. MIKE!!! This is rape!" She hoped the harshness of the word would bring him to his senses, because she obviously was not strong enough to fight him off.

"This isn't rape," he mumbled against her mouth, pulling her dress down to her waist. "I'm just taking what I was promised."

Lois gasped when Mike pulled away from her sharply, almost taking the top half of her dress along with him.

"Joe!" she exclaimed, seeing one of her best friends.

Joe had Mike by the collar, and he held him practically in the air. He pulled back his fist, then smashed it into Mike's face.

Mike screamed, a high-pitched whining shriek that echoed down the empty hallway.

Lois suddenly noticed Debbie, Joe's girlfriend, standing just inside the doorway. Their eyes met for a moment. Lois could see horror and shock in Debbie's, and she quickly pulled the top half of her dress back up. Fortunately Mike hadn't ripped it.

Mike, who had fallen to the ground with the punch, was slowly getting back to his feet, his hand covering his bleeding mouth.

"What'd you do that for?" he said, his voice still whining. "You know you're getting some tonight, I just wanted a bit of my own."

Joe punched him again, and Mike fell backwards again.

"For crying out loud, man!" Mike said, trying to stand back up but falling to the floor again.

"Debbie," Joe said softly. "Get Rosenberg."

Debbie nodded and ran for the ballroom doors.

Moments later, Debbie came running back with Mr. Rosenberg, the assistant principal and a favorite among the students— at least, among those who were not troublemakers.

"Joe! Mike! What happened!"

"He attacked me!" Mike said, standing up with the help of the wall.

"Is that true, Joe?" Mr. Rosenberg asked.

"No," Lois said softly. "Mike tried to rape me. Joe came in just in time. He saved me. He didn't have any choice but to hit Mike, Mike wasn't exactly listening to reason."

"Is that true, Mike?"

Mike shook his head.

Mr. Rosenberg stared at Mike for a long moment, then finally nodded towards Debbie, Joe, and Lois. "You all can go back to the dance. I think Mr. Koon and I need to have a talk."

He put an arm around Mike's shoulders and guided him down the hallway in the opposite direction.

Lois stared in the direction they took and started to shake. She shuddered in silence for a few moments, then burst into tears.

"Oh, Lois, it's okay," Debbie said, putting an arm around her shoulders. "It's okay, it's over."

Lois tried to force herself to stop crying, but she couldn't. She dropped to the floor and hid her face in her hands as she shook hysterically. "O-oh, geez, Joe," she managed through her tears. "Thank goodness you got here. Thank you."

"Don't mention it," he said awkwardly. "Julie noticed you were leaving and she caught some of your conversation with Mike. When you didn't come back in the ballroom she asked Debbie and I to look for you."

"Thank you, Joe," she said, not daring to look up. She couldn't face them this way, when she couldn't control herself.

"Uh, look, Lois, we'll leave you alone for a bit, okay?" Debbie said. "We're just inside the ballroom if you need us."

Lois nodded, thankful that Debbie understood. "Yeah, I just need a few minutes alone. I'll be there in a few."

Joe hugged her tightly. "You know I'd do anything for you, Lois," he whispered. He held on for a moment longer than was strictly necessary—or comfortable, given that Lois was still feeling self-conscious. But she hugged him back, grateful for his knight-in-shining-armor act, even if his lady was standing just a few feet behind him.

She smiled weakly and watched as Debbie took Joe's arm and both walked back through the doors into the ballroom.

For a few minutes after they had gone, Lois allowed herself to give in to her hysteria, and she cried her eyes out. Finally, her tears were gone, and she stood up slowly, clutching the wall for support. She didn't quite feel ready to go back into the ballroom yet.

A flash caught her eye, and she noticed the almost-full moon from an open window. It was a lovely, balmy evening for late May. Without even noticing her steps, she found herself outside the building, standing on the steps of the Colonial Ballroom in the middle of the night, looking out over the empty streets of Metropolis.

She sighed and sat against one of the pillars, listening to the music wafting out from the main room. She closed her eyes and smiled, imagining herself back in the ballroom, dancing with the man of her dreams. He'd be tall, dark, and handsome, like Mike, but not a rapist. And he'd smile down at her, holding out his hand.

"May I have this dance?" he'd ask, in the most romantic way imaginable. And she'd smile up at him, and blush, and give him her hand. And they'd swing into the dance, swirling to show off her lovely full-skirted dress, and laughing, and enjoying the sensation of being in love.

"May I have this dance?" someone said, and Lois quickly opened her eyes, her daydream abruptly broken by reality.

A handsome young man stood before her. He wore simple clothes, a plaid shirt and jeans, certainly not prom clothes. His eyes were framed by glasses, but they didn't mar his looks one bit. He smiled shyly at her, showing off white teeth and perfect smile. In fact, he was her dream come to life. He even stood there with his hand outstretched the same way her dream man had.

"Are you my dream come to life?" she asked.

"Excuse me?" he said, looking puzzled.

"Are you my dream come to life? You know, like Sleeping Beauty." At his bemused look, she continued. "She was dancing, singing to herself, and Prince Charming—was that his name, or was that Cinderella's hero? Actually I think it was Snow White's. What was Sleeping Beauty's again?"

"Uh, Prince Phillip?" he offered, grinning.

"Yeah, Prince Phillip! At least in the Disney version. You never know how closely they stuck to the original. Anyway, what was my point again?"

He shrugged. "Was there one?"

"Oh, yeah! So Cinderella—I mean Sleeping Beauty—was singing alone in the forest. Well, not alone, technically, she had all those animals with her. And Prince Phillip heard her and came running on that horse—the cute one, that he had to offer carrots to—and he filled in for her imaginary guy, and scared her, though actually I thought it was pretty romantic. So, are you him?"

He looked lost. "Um, who, again?"

"Prince Phillip!"

"No. But I could be, if you wanted."

She laughed. "You would, wouldn't you? Oh, it feels good to laugh."

He sat down next to her. "Hard day?"

"Well, tonight's my prom."

"So that's the reason for the dress?"

Lois nodded. She tugged at the neckline. She remembered the reason it felt tugged out of shape, and blinked quickly to hide tears.

Her prince noticed, and reached out a gentle finger to touch a tear.

"Prom didn't go so well?" he asked.

"It was a horror," she said. "Well, it's still going on, but I'm not quite ready to go back in yet."

"What happened?"

She opened her mouth to tell him, then decided she didn't really want him to know.

"It doesn't really matter," she said.

"Well, since you're missing your prom," he said, getting to his feet again and holding out a hand to her, "would you like to dance?

"I'd love to."

He took her hand and pulled her gently into her arms. She was amazed at how far up she had to look to meet his eyes.

He spun her around gently, twirling and twirling. She reveled in the feel of her dress swirling and the warmth of his hands on her.

Lois snuggled close to him and rested her head on his shoulder. One of his hands came up to softly caress the back of her head. She closed her eyes and let herself be swept away in the feeling. Somehow she was sure that he'd always be there for her when she needed him, a safe haven in the midst of the chaos of her life. Life with him would be … perfect.

The song ended, and the prince slowly pulled back from Lois. She held him tight for a moment, desperate to save the moment as long as possible.

He stood in front of her, only a few inches away. He stared at her face as if he wanted to ingrain it upon his memory. Finally he leaned in and touched his lips to hers.

Lois had been kissed before, and she'd always thought it not particularly interesting. Nice, maybe, but she didn't exactly see the appeal of the whole thing.

But this kiss—this was something different. From the moment his lips touched hers, she felt as if she was flying. Fireworks were nothing compared to this. She was soaring high above the clouds, held safe in his arms. She sighed with pleasure and leaned into the kiss. He stroked her back gently, and her skin felt on fire under his touch. When he finally ended the kiss, she cried out with dismay.

"I have to go," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."

She stroked his cheek one last time. "I—I think I love you," she said.

"I think I love you too." He caressed her left cheek, sliding his hand under her hair. She closed her eyes in happiness.

The feel of his hand was suddenly gone, and she heard something akin to a "whoosh!" She opened her eyes quickly. He was gone.

Still feeling as if she was walking on clouds, she slowly walked back to the column where she'd been sitting before. Another song had started up, and she found herself humming along to it.

The door opened, and Lois's friend Julie poked her head out. "Lois?" she called, not seeing Lois in the dark. "Debbie told me what happened. Are you okay?"

"Yeah," Lois said. "Yeah, I'm fine. Actually I think I'm ready to come back to the dance now."

"Good!" Julie said. "Dick promised to save a dance for you, so you'd better take it up on him soon. Last dance with him is mine."

Lois laughed. "Sounds fair." She followed Julie back into the ballroom.

The bright lights of the ballroom sharply contrasted with the romantic darkness outdoors, and Lois found herself wondering if she'd really met her prince that night. Could it have been a dream? It all seemed so unreal in comparison to the bright swirling colors and loud voices of her senior prom. And was it only a few minutes ago that Mike had tried to rape her? It seemed a lifetime away all of a sudden.

She stopped in the entranceway for a moment, savoring the last memory of her prince's touch before joining the rest of her class.


Smallville, Kansas, 1985 — Clark is 19 years old

Clark lifted the fence railing and held it into place while his father hammered it.

"Glad to have you home, son," his father said. With one last pound of the hammer, the railing was in place. "Chores take twice as long without you."

Clark grinned. "So you just love me for my strength, is that it?" He ducked as his father threw a hammer in his direction, and dove after it, grabbing it before it hit the ground. "Violent today, aren't we?"

His father laughed. "Everything just seems brighter with you around."

They worked in comfortable silence for a few minutes, Clark holding the heavy fence posts and railings in place while his father hammered. Finally his father spoke again.

"Lana's home from Kansas State for the summer."

"I know."

"Plan to visit her?"

"I dunno."

"You know, Clark, that girl has had a crush on you for ages. So has Rachel, for that matter. You had to have noticed."

"It's not like Lana exactly hides it," Clark said, ignoring his reference to Rachel. "I'm just—not interested, I guess."

"You interested in any girls?" his father asked, trying to sound casual.

Clark shrugged. "No, not really."

"Any boys?"


"Just asking." His father grinned. "The sort of thing your mother would have asked, isn't it?"

Clark blushed and nodded. "I suppose. But, no. I don't know. Lana's beautiful, but she just doesn't interest me."

His father thrust the pole-digger into the ground and started to pull out dirt.

"Here, let me do that," Clark said, taking it from him. He worked quickly without quite going into super-speed, and within seconds he had a reasonably deep hole for a fence post.

"Thanks, son."

His father placed the post in the hole and held it steady while Clark filled in the dirt around it and pressed it in solidly.

"Dad, do you think something's wrong with me, if I'm not— you know, interested in girls in that way?"

"Well," his father said slowly, "I don't think anything's wrong with you, precisely. We mature at different speeds and all. And maybe you just haven't met the right girl yet."

Clark held the last fence post for his father. When they finished and he let go, he looked out over the field.

"Well, that's gotta keep Richard's cow out of our fields now. The fence is good and solid."

"I keep telling Wayne to sell that good-for-nothing cow. But he insists that Dolly belongs to Richard, and he's not gonna sell his son's cow while the boy is away at school."

Clark nodded. "I wish Rich had come home for the summer, though. I miss having all my friends around. At least Rachel is visiting her mom."

Jonathan slung an arm over his son's shoulder as they walked towards the house. "Don't worry, Clark, you don't need to have too many friends around over the summer. I have plenty of chores for you to do to keep busy!"

Clark laughed. "Yeah, but I'm starting at the Smallville Press in a week."

"Darn," his father said. "Oh well, knew your superspeed ability to do chores would come in handy. I think I'll just take this summer off …." He winked at Clark.

"Hey, Clark!"

Clark looked up to see Lana leaning on the fence of the yard waving at him.

Jonathan grinned at Clark. "Good luck," he said, patting him on the back. He turned and headed for the house.

"Lana," Clark said, hooking his thumbs into his belt loops. He walked slowly over to her.

"Clark! I've missed you all year! How's Midwestern?"

He shrugged. "Not bad. I miss my folks, though, and the farm."

"Still determined to become a reporter?"

"Someday," he said. "You?"

"Well, design is still interesting. Not exactly sure where I'm going to go with it. Wanna go for a walk?"

"I really shouldn't, Mom's gonna have dinner ready in a few."

"Okay, then," she said. "I'd better head back. But before I do …" She leaned over the fence, pulled his head to hers, and kissed him deeply.

Clark's mind was reeling. He felt like he should respond, but he wasn't sure if that would encourage her. And he felt absolutely nothing.

Lana finally broke the kiss, pushing him away. "You're such a cold fish, Clark. Are you gay, or what?"

"Lana!" He backed away. "I'm not gay, just—leave me alone, all right?"

"You're such a jerk, Clark. Don't even try coming after me."

Clark choked down laughter for a moment, but sobered as he turned towards the house. Lana was right. Why wasn't he interested in girls? He had girls hitting on him constantly, but none had ever managed to turn his head. Most guys he knew were turned on by the mere idea of a naked girl, and here he was, with superpowers that allowed him to look through girl's clothing at will—although he never did—and he simply didn't feel any real desire for girls. And he knew he wasn't interested in guys. Maybe it was part of his genetic make-up, along with his superpowers. Maybe Russian experiments, or aliens, or whatever he was, couldn't fall in love with normal Earth women. Maybe they weren't even sexually compatible. Maybe.

He kicked a stone angrily, and watched it soar into the sky. With a sigh, he turned into the house.


Late that evening, Clark stood on the front porch of his house, looking up at the stars. They were so much more visible here than they were at school. Walking slowly, he headed out into the fields where he could look at the stars more clearly.

Clark felt himself slowly float. He didn't try to stop, just let himself float up and out of the fields, towards the stars. The world looked so beautiful and perfect, lit by starlight.

He'd taught himself how to navigate by the stars or the lay of the land, in a desperate attempt to keep from getting lost yet again. So he felt carefree as he floated higher and higher, knowing that he could always find his way back.

He found himself floating east, looking down at the rivers and lakes and then the Appalachian Mountains as he crossed them. The lights from the cities in the east caught his attention, and he headed north along the Chesapeake Bay, then past it.

The light from one particular city drew his attention, and he dropped lower as he flew over the city of his dreams, Metropolis.

"One day," he whispered to himself, "I'm going to work here. Here, in Metropolis, at the Daily Planet. One day."

He dropped into an alley and walked out cautiously, wandering the darkened streets. It was almost midnight, and very few people were in this part of town.

Lights and music caught his attention, and he headed towards the building they were coming from. A sign out front labeled it the "Colonial Ballroom." He walked closer.

On the front steps, a dark-haired girl sat, leaning back against a pillar with her eyes closed. She wore a beautiful blue dress, very obviously a prom dance. It must be a prom going on inside. But why was she out here? She was far too beautiful to be unable to get a partner.

Something nudged him to approach the girl. He walked up to her slowly and stood in front of her. She didn't seem to hear him, and her eyes remained closed. Finally, he decided on the bolder approach.

"May I have this dance?" he asked, holding out his hand.

She opened her eyes slowly and stared at him.

"Are you my dream come alive?" she asked.

"Excuse me?" he said, puzzled. What was this girl on? Was she sleeping off drugs or something? No, surely not at a prom.

"Are you my dream come to life? You know, like Sleeping Beauty." At his bemused look, she continued. "She was dancing, singing to herself, and Prince Charming—was that his name, or was that Snow White's hero? Actually I think it was Snow White's. What was Sleeping Beauty's again?"

This girl could really babble! "Uh, Prince Phillip?" he offered, grinning. Oddly enough, he found the babbling amusing and sweet. Maybe if he contributed she'd keep doing it.

"Yeah, Prince Phillip! At least in the Disney version. You never know how closely they stuck to the original. Anyway, what was my point again?"

He shrugged. "Was there one?" As soon as he said it, he realized it could be taken in an offensive way, but he did want to know what she was trying to say.

"Oh, yeah! So Cinderella—I mean Sleeping Beauty—was singing alone in the forest. Well, not alone, technically, she had all those animals with her. And Prince Phillip heard her and came running on that horse—the cute one, that he had to offer carrots to—and he filled in for her imaginary guy, and scared her, though actually I thought it was pretty romantic. So, are you him?"

Was she still talking about the same thing? "Um, who, again?"

"Prince Phillip!"

"No. But I could be, if you wanted." He held his breath. That was certainly a loaded offer, and made him sound like a bit of a dweeb. Would she notice?

She laughed. "You would, wouldn't you? Oh, it feels good to laugh."

He sat down on the step, turning towards her. "Hard day?"

"Well, tonight's my prom."

"So that's the reason for the dress?"

He watched as she touched her dress, bringing his attention to the low neckline. He took a deep breath as she fingered it, and he could feel his body react. But then he noticed the tears in her eyes, and he wished there was something he could do to make everything better for this amazing girl.

"Prom didn't go so well?"

"It was a horror," she said. "Well, it's still going on, but I'm not quite ready to go back in yet."

"What happened?"

She shrugged and shook her head.

"It doesn't really matter," she said.

"Well, since you're missing your prom," he said, getting to his feet again and holding out a hand to her, "would you like to dance?

"I'd love to."

He took her hand and pulled her gently into her arms. He smiled down at the top of her head. She was so small, so perfect.

Clark spun her around gently, twirling and twirling. Her dress spun out in a bell-shape, and he wanted to laugh at the amazing feelings that were threatening to overcome him.

He felt her snuggle close to him, and his heart began to beat faster. He moved a tentative hand to caress the back of her head. There was something about her that made him feel as if he belonged. All his life, he'd felt that need to belong, that dream of being like everyone else. And somehow, with that girl, Clark felt that he was accepted for who he was.

The song ended, and he started to pull away from her. She clutched him, and he closed his eyes. Why couldn't she be the one who lived in Smallville, instead of Lana?

He stood in front of her, studying her. She looked at him with wide and hopeful eyes. It was from those eyes that he drew the courage to lean in and touch his lips to hers.

He'd kissed, or rather, been kissed, by Lana before. But it had always left him empty, wondering if that was really all kissing was.

But this kiss—this was something different. From the moment their lips touched, he felt as if he was on fire. This was even better than flying! He'd never thought that he'd find anything that was. He stroked her back gently, and smiled when he felt her tremble at his touch. He finally realized that he needed to end the kiss, to get back to Kansas before his parents noticed that he was gone. He pulled away gently, and his heart clenched at the pained sound she made at the loss of contact.

"I have to go," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."

She stroked his cheek, her feather-light touch setting every nerve afire. "I—I think I love you," she said.

"I think I love you too." Clark caressed her cheek, sliding his hand under her hair. She closed her eyes, and he leaned in to kiss her again. At the last second, he realized that he shouldn't keep this going when he was going to have to leave anyway. He didn't want to hurt her more than he had to. He backed away quickly, turned, and shot into the sky and towards Kansas, not even allowing himself a single look back.

He landed softly in the field in front of his house. The stars still shone brightly, and it was as if he had never left. But everything seemed different. The stars seemed brighter, the sounds of the night sharper, and his spirit had never felt so light.

"I'm in love," he whispered to himself.

Clark jerked awake, startled. "What the—" he stared down at his bed. "It was a dream! It couldn't have been a dream! It was a dream."

He took a deep breath and noticed how sweaty he was. He sighed. "I'd better take a cold shower if I want to be able to get back to sleep." He rolled out of bed and grabbed a towel.

Martha was awakened by a sound. She listened carefully, hearing the sounds of Clark moving around in his room and then going into the hall. A few minutes later she heard the shower start up.

"So he's finally interested in girls," she said softly.

"What?" Jonathan asked sleepily.

"I think Clark finally found a girl he likes, if only a dream one," she told him.

Jonathan sat up. "What? Martha! How do you know?"

"Well, I didn't get to become a mother because I knew how to yodel," she told him.


Metropolis, New Troy, 1986 — Lex is 37 years old (Felix and his twin are 2 years old)

Lex shifted uncomfortably with the weight of his wife on his lap. She giggled and kissed his cheek, and he had to resist the temptation to roll his eyes.

"Sir, South Side is giving us some trouble. Lower South Side is, of course, no problem. But Upper South Side has a few larger and more successful businesses that simply do not see any reason to give in."

Scooting over in his chair so that Arianna was forced to give him room, he grabbed a pen.

"What about that new technology we were looking at?" he asked, shuffling through his papers. "Project Toaster Oven?"

"We're still in the early stages of that, Mr. Luthor," Mrs. Cox said, handing him a file. "The project has been put in motion, but it might be several years before we are ready to go with it."

With a growl, he tossed the file down. "I do not have several years!" he thundered. "We need South Side now!"

"I could speak to the bank about the mortgages on the buildings," Nigel offered quickly.

"We can run certain campaigns to convince people to frequent different businesses instead," suggested Mrs. Cox.

"And see what you can do about the crime rate," Lex said. "It's atrociously low in that section of South Side. If South Side becomes one of the most dangerous parts of town, even the Upper South Side businesses will fold. Meanwhile, keep on those scientists at the toaster technology. We may still need it."

Arianna yawned, looking bored. "I'm going to go check on the twins," she said, getting up. "Don't mind me, just go on without me."

After the door had safely closed behind her, Lex sighed gustily.

"Problems on the marriage front?" Mrs. Cox said with a wink.

Nigel looked surprised. "I thought you fancied yourself in love," he said.

"Love fades. You of all people should know that, Nigel."

"Well, you have your son now," Nigel said. "Would you like me to dispose of her?"

Lex tapped his pen against his chin thoughtfully. "That's always a possibility. But I've already 'lost' two girlfriends, losing my wife on top of that may begin to make people suspicious of me. And besides, I've always loathed having to kill people. It happens, of course. But somehow it always makes me feel that I've failed to fix the problem more creatively. And what if Felix doesn't turn out well, and I wish for another son? Killing off potential mothers is becoming increasingly tedious."

"If I may point out," Nigel said, "Arianna is far more like you than either of the others. Perhaps she's a bit foolish with love, but at times I think her mind is almost as devious as yours. I'm sure her son will be more like you than Lex, Jr., or Jaxon."

"True." Lex opened his desk and removed a box of cigars. He offered them to Nigel, who declined, and Mrs. Cox, who accepted.

"If I may jump in," Mrs. Cox said, "I have an idea. The solution is to play on her love for you. If she thinks that she is at fault, that she has done something unforgivable, then she will let you divorce her and give you no trouble, even giving you full custody."

"I hadn't thought about custody," Lex said. "Metropolis rarely awards the father full custody." He chose a cigar for himself and clenched it between his teeth.

"They might be persuaded to make an exception in your case, sir. Being the most powerful and richest man in the city has its benefits."

Mrs. Cox broke in. "But having her hand over custody, with no scandal, and having an amicable divorce in case Lex should desire to father more sons later, is infinitely more desirable."

Lighting his cigar, Lex leaned back in his chair. "So, Mrs. Cox, tell us this great plan of yours."


Ari closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of her masseur gently rubbing grease into her back.

"Is that good, Mrs. Luthor?" he asked, his voice smooth and warm.

"Ahh, yes," she said, not opening her eyes. She moaned as he pressed a particularly sore spot. "Ohhh."

"That feels good?" he asked. She could hear the smile in his voice.

"Very. Don't stop."

"Oh, believe me, I will not."

She felt his hands running down her back, lightly, teasingly, before coming back to her shoulders.

"This is the best massage I've ever had," she told him. "You're much better than your predecessor."

"Well, it's far easier to perform well for someone you want to please."

She started to turn slightly, but found herself unable to with the pressure on her back. "And I'm someone you want to please?"

"You are a very beautiful woman. But of course you know that."

She blushed, but she wasn't sure she liked where this conversation was going. "Yes, and I'm also the wife of a powerful man."

"There is that."

His hands suddenly disappeared from her body. His footsteps went across the room, and she frowned. What was he doing? Unfortunately, he had his back to her, and she couldn't tell what he was doing.

After a moment of suspense, he turned around to face her, revealing two glasses of wine in his hands.

"Your shoulders are very tense. I thought a glass of wine might help relax you so I can get those knots out."

She accepted the flute he handed her. "Is that usual? I mean, my previous masseur never suggested wine."

He smiled at her. "Perhaps that is why I'm better?"

She found it difficult to handle the wine glass in her current position, and had nowhere to set the glass down. Finally she shrugged and downed the wine in a few quick gulps, then handed him the glass.

"Excellent wine," she said. "Very dry, just the way I like it."

"I know," he said. "Mr. Luthor said you would."

"Mr. Luthor?" she asked, puzzled. Then a wave of dizziness swept over her, and she collapsed to the table in a haze.

She could feel his hands on her, and suddenly she felt on fire. She gasped as he touched her in places that no masseur usually would, and soon the towel fell away.

"No, we can't," she murmured as he turned her over and his mouth met hers. The feel of his hands on her made her forget her protests, and her next gasp was one of sheer pleasure.

Before she ever quite understood what was happening, she felt herself lifted into the air, and in moments she was on the couch, the masseur lying across her, their naked bodies intertwined.

"I don't even know your name!" she said weakly.

"Claude," she heard him whisper, as her mind fell into oblivion.


At a soft knock at the door, Claude gently extricated himself from the clutches of Arianna. Not even bothering to grab the towel, he strode across the room.

He opened the door slowly, and came face-to-face with Lex Luthor.

"Is it done?" Luthor asked.

"Yes, sir," he said. "Do I get my money now?"

Luthor looked past him to where his wife lay sleeping naked on the couch.

"Stay with her until she awakens," Luthor said shortly. "The drugs might cloud her mind and make her think it was a dream if she wakes up alone. Then you'll get your money. I trust it will pay your tuition for another year?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well then. Get to it."

Claude nodded and turned back to the room. Stepping gingerly up to the couch, he lifted the sleeping woman enough to slip under her in an intimate embrace.

If he'd watched Luthor, he might have noticed the powerful man's eyes darken and his jaw clench at the sight of another man intimate with his wife. But Luthor simply closed the door behind him and left.


"Well?" Mrs. Cox asked as Lex entered the room.

He didn't answer.

"Is it done?"

Lex grabbed the edge of his desk and gave it a powerful shove. It flipped over with a crash, sending paper, pens, folders, and paperweights flying.

Mrs. Cox backed out of the way quickly and Lex crossed the room in long strides, grabbing a sword from his cabinet and swinging it over his head. He slammed it into the front of his glass cabinet, the sound of shattering glass sending shivers of relief down his spine.

"I thought you'd fallen out of love," Nigel said tentatively.

"I have," Lex said, spinning around to face him. He still held the sword above his head, and his dark eyes were full of rage. Nigel involuntarily stepped back.

"I have," Lex said, "but she's still my wife. My wife. No man sleeps with my wife and gets away with it."

"But you agreed to the plan!" Mrs. Cox protested.

He turned to face her. "And the plan has been implemented. Now we're done with him."

"Shall I take care of him?" Nigel asked.

Lex thought for a moment. "No, this one I'll take care of myself."


Ari woke slowly, aware of a blissful warmth and sore muscles. She stretched, finding a male body under her own.

"Lex," she murmured. She rolled over, to find herself staring into the eyes of someone who most definitely was not her husband.

"What the—" she exclaimed, pulling away and leaping to her feet. She stared at a face that was momentarily unfamiliar, until the memory popped into her unwilling mind.

"Claude! You—we—how could you do that?"

"Now, my dear," he said soothingly, "you were a willing participant. I hadn't realized you'd be so passionate in bed. Or, in couch, rather."

"I what? Ugh!" She grabbed her towel from the floor and wrapped it around herself, pacing. "How could I do this to Lex? How could I? I love him! Oh, Lex."

"Darling," Claude said with an air of desperation, "come away with me. I love you, and I promise I'll cherish you."

"Claude, I—I can't. Please, just go. I need to talk to Lex." She tried to curb her tears as she walked into the back room to collect her clothes. She rubbed her sweaty palms on her pants as she approached Lex's office.


Lex stood up quickly, thrusting his hands into his pockets. He walked across the room to look out the window.

Ari stared at her hands, held clenched in her lap.

"Lex," she said hesitantly.

He held up a hand. "No! Don't say any more. I've heard enough."

Ari found herself fighting back sobs. "I still love you," she whispered inaudibly.

He turned abruptly to face her. His eyes were full of pain, and Ari gasped and looked away.

"How long has this been going on?" he asked.

Her eyes widened. "Lex, I told you, it was once!"

"Then tell me this!" he demanded, eyes flashing. He leaned across the desk, planting his palms on the desk in front of her. "How long until you do it again? How can I ever trust you again?"

"Lex, I love you!" she said. She frantically wiped at the tears coursing down her face.

He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them she could see the sheen of unshed tears in them. "I don't believe you anymore," he whispered, his voice breaking.

Ari's eyes met his own, but she dropped them at the despair she saw.

"I'll give you a divorce," she said softly.

"No, Arianna," he said. "I love you, even if you can't be faithful. But this place—I can't stay here, not thinking about you with that—that man. I'll leave, I'll go to Geneva."

"Alone?" she asked, holding her breath.

He nodded.

"Lex, I can't let you do that! This is your home!"

"There are too many painful memories here now."

Ari stared past Lex's face, out the window, as she considered her options. After several long moments of silence, she made her decision.

"Lex, I can't let you do that," she said firmly. "I'm the one who was in the wrong here. I'll leave. Please, just divorce me. You can keep the children, you care more about them than I ever did anyway. Just, please, please forgive me, Lex. Can you?"

He gently reached out and touched a strand of her hair that hung loose across her forehead. "I'll forgive you, in time, Arianna," he said. "Just give me a little time to sort out my emotions, all right?"

"Yes, Lex. No matter what, I love you."


Midwestern State University, Kansas, 1986 — Clark is 20 years old

"Hey, Clark, wait up!" Richard called, running to catch up with his friend and roommate, Clark Kent.

"Hey, Rich. Where ya headed?"

"McKeldin. I need to return some books I borrowed." So they were due a few weeks ago.

Clark nodded. "So, did you finish that paper yet?"

Richard groaned and shook his head at Clark, more amused than annoyed at Clark's nagging. "It's not due 'til tomorrow! I'll start it tonight."

Clark rolled his eyes.

A flash in the distance caught Richard's eye, and he gasped. "What's that?"

"What's what?" Just as Clark followed Richard's pointing arm, the flash seemed to explode outwards, and it became obvious what it was. Jimenez, the language building, was on fire.

"Clark, wait!" Richard called, running after him. But Clark was too fast, and he reached the building and dashed inside. "Clark, what are you doing?" He had never seen anyone run so fast.

Choking and gasping, Richard came to a stop on the Mall in front of the building, staring at it in shock. Jimenez was one of the biggest buildings on campus; the type of building one imagined lasting forever. But it was on fire. Flames leapt from the windows, smoke darkened the sky. Richard had never imagined that a fire would have so much smoke.

"He went inside!" somebody was saying, pointing at the building in shock.

"Isn't everybody out?" another student asked.

Richard gulped. His friend had gone in there. "Clark!" He ran towards the building, but a tall skinny kid grabbed his arm.

"Man, you can't go in there, it's on fire!"

"My friend's in there!" he said, trying to pull away.

"I've never seen anyone run that fast," the skinny kid said in shock. "What's with him?"

Hit with an urge to defend his friend, Richard retorted: "Haven't you ever heard of people getting an extra boost of energy in an emergency? Now let me go!"

Richard heard the sirens of an approaching fire truck, and he prayed fervently that it would arrive in time. What was Clark doing?

Just then, Clark walked out the front door, carrying a dark-haired girl in his arms. Richard pulled away from the skinny kid and ran towards Clark.

"Clark! You okay?"

Clark nodded wearily, his face smudged with soot. "It's pretty bad in there," he admitted.

The first of three fire trucks finally pulled up, with sirens wailing and lights flashing. Two paramedics leaped from an ambulance and rushed to a stunned Clark, taking the girl from his arms. "Is there anyone else in there?" the first paramedic asked.

Clark shook his head numbly.

"Clark," Richard said, "what happened?"

Just then, Richard noticed that most of the kids who had been standing around watching the fire were all looking at Clark with puzzled expressions.

"How did you get there so fast?" Skinny Kid asked. "You were really flying."

"And you didn't get burned or pass out from the smoke!" a girl said.

Richard stepped in front of Clark. "He wasn't in there all that long," he pointed out. "And there are tons of stories about people who are able to do amazing things in an emergency." He put an arm around Clark and dragged him off. "Clark," he hissed, "we gotta get out of here before people ask too many questions."

Clark nodded and allowed himself to be dragged along as Richard marched across campus and back to their dorm room.

Richard slammed the door behind him and shoved Clark down onto the bed. He paced the room in front of him.

"Clark, we've been best friends for ages, right?" he asked.

Clark nodded, his head down.

"Our parents have been friends for years. We've grown up together. And ever since I first knew you, I knew there was something odd about you. I'm built bigger than you are, I work out and you don't, and yet you can lift heavier things than I can, and easily, too. I've seen how fast your dad gets work done on his farm when you're there to help, it's not humanly possible. I've never said anything before. I figured if you didn't tell me on your own, that was fine.

"But, Clark, this is big! You could be a starter on any sports team you wanted! Baseball, football, hockey, basketball… do you know how much a pro sports player makes? And the endorsements!"

Clark stared at Richard, his mouth gaping open.

Richard punched his arm. "Just kidding. But seriously. If I'm supposed to help protect your secret, don't you think it would be fair for me to know what I'm protecting?"

Clark stood up. "Look, Rich, I—"

"No, Clark, don't make up some lame excuse. If you aren't gonna tell me the truth, fine. But I don't want lies."


Clark wanted to tell Richard everything. His secret, his stupid secret, had been pressing down on his shoulders ever since he was a kid. His parents helped, but they weren't enough. They weren't like having a confidant his own age to talk to.

But he was so used to keeping his secret to himself, it felt incredibly frightening to even contemplate telling somebody else. He trusted Richard, but was it really fair to expect Richard to take on a share of that weight just so that he could experience a bit of relief himself?

"Rich—I can't tell you the truth."

"Why not?"

"I just can't."

"You already know that I have some idea about it, and I haven't let on to anyone else. You have to know you can trust me by now. Don't you?" Richard looked as if he'd been betrayed. Clark sighed. He had never meant to hurt his best friend. But he simply couldn't risk telling him.

"Clark… " Richard opened and closed his mouth a few times, trying to work out the words. Finally he threw up his hands in disgust. "I'm going out for a while." He walked out, slamming the door behind him.

Clark sighed when the door closed behind Richard, and he closed his eyes for a long moment. Great, his one real friend was alienated now, all because of these stupid powers. He kicked his desk and winced when it flipped over, spilling papers and books onto the floor. Were the powers going to control his life forever? They were certainly doing their best to ruin it.

He got up and walked to the window, flinging it open. He pushed out the screen and followed it out the window, zipping up to the roof as quickly as possible to hide the screen. Once the screen was safe, he zipped into the sky faster than the eye could follow, and headed in the direction of Smallville.

Landing safely in front of the house, he jogged up the front steps and into the kitchen.

"Clark!" his mother said, surprised. "What are you doing here?"

"I—I—" he choked out, the words suddenly failing him.

Almost moving at super-speed herself, Martha bustled around the kitchen, seating Clark at the table with a glass of buttermilk. "I'll get your father," she said.

A few minutes later, Martha came rushing back into the kitchen, Jonathan just behind her.

"Son, what's wrong?" Jonathan asked. "Did something happen at school?"

"Yeah." He took a deep breath, knowing the response he was likely to get. His father had always drilled him to hide his abilities so that "they" didn't capture him and "dissect him like a frog." It still gave Clark the shivers to hear those words, and when he'd been faced with dissecting a frog in 9th grade biology he'd been unable to face it. But he couldn't hide this. He told them everything that had happened, his rescue of the girl, the other kids' suspicions, and Richard's accusations.

Martha took Jonathan's hand and squeezed it tight. They exchanged a worried glance.

"So what do you want to do, Clark?" Jonathan asked.

"I don't know," Clark said, shaking his head. "I don't know if people will even notice what I did. But if they do, and start asking questions…"

"Then you can't stay there," Jonathan finished.

"But Jonathan, what else would he do? He has to get a college education! He deserves that much!"

Clark reached out and touched his mother's shoulder. "Mom," he started. He swallowed. "Mom, I'd rather see my secret safe, keep you and Dad safe, than have a college education. If I need to, I'll travel, I'll find somebody who will publish my writing. I'll even stay here and help Dad on the farm and write in my spare time if I need to. I can't risk letting anyone know my secret—our secret."

"I hope it doesn't come to that," Martha said. "Why don't you take it easy, wait and see if anybody seems to be making a big deal out of it. You don't want to make a mountain out of a molehill. If it becomes a problem, we'll find a way to deal with it."

"You're strong, son," Jonathan said. "And I don't just mean physically. Why don't you go back and talk to Richard. If nothing else, you don't want to alienate him more than you have to."

"You mean, I should tell him?"

Jonathan glanced at Martha. "Well, we wouldn't tell you what to do. But it might be best to avoid it, if possible. The fewer people who know, the better. But get back before he starts wondering where you went."

Clark nodded. "I'll let you know tomorrow if people are asking too many questions."


Clark stared blankly at the front page newspaper. "Miracle Man Saves Coed From Fire."

"Shocked to find yourself a celebrity?" Richard asked grimly, dropping onto his bed.

"You could say so," Clark said, unable to take his eyes off the article. There were several eyewitness accounts of his "hyperspeed" dash into the building, and his miracle rescue of the girl without seeming to be affected by the smoke or the flames.

"People in all my classes were talking about it," Richard said nonchalantly. "Yours?"

Clark shrugged. "I didn't go."

"Probably smart. So whatcha gonna do?"

"I don't know." Clark folded the paper and tossed it onto his desk. "Rich—I don't know if I can stay here, if everybody's gonna be looking for me."

Richard nodded. "Look, Clark, I'm sorry about what I said earlier."

"No, Rich—"

"Let me finish. Yeah, I want to know what's up. But it is your secret, and it's your right to tell whoever you please. And honestly? I think I'd rather not know too much. A secret can eat at you. And I think this is enough of a secret for me to handle right now."

Clark breathed a sigh of relief. "So you won't tell anyone?"

"Not in your life!" Richard looked surprised. "Clark, no matter what, you're my best friend. I'd never betray you like that. Not even for a million dollars … well, maybe for a billion." At Clark's look, he laughed. "Psych! Look, honest, I wouldn't. But I think you'd better figure out what you're gonna do."

"Yeah, I'm gonna go talk to my parents tonight. I may need to leave."

Richard held out his hand to shake Clark's. "Well, it was great rooming with you. And, good luck."

Clark shook his hand, then hugged him warmly. "Thanks, Richard. You're a true friend."


Clark closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. "Mom, this is insane," he said, indicating all the college brochures littering the kitchen table. "Didn't we go through this once before?"

"Clark, we are going to make every effort to keep you in school. This might put a bit of a dent in our plans—"

"And our budget," Jonathan added helpfully.

Martha frowned at him and continued, "—but we'll find you a school in a big enough city that people won't be as likely to notice you. And you'll have to keep a low profile, Clark. You need to graduate. Once you do, you'll have a lot more freedom to move, and keep your secret."

Clark moaned. "Is this what it's going to be like for the rest of my life? Staying in a place only until I make a mistake, then moving on? You know I can't keep from trying to help someone in trouble, Mom. If I did that, just to preserve my secret…I don't know if I could live with myself."

Martha shared a look with Jonathan. "Well, Clark, you're going to have to think about what you want to do. But meanwhile, I think we need to get this moving. You need to find another school, and fast. What about this one? Metropolis University. It's a big school, 35,000 students, and it's in the middle of a city. That makes it easier to get lost in a crowd, and to avoid notice. And you've always wanted to work for that newspaper, The Daily Planet. It's centered in Metropolis."

Clark took the brochure. "Well, the campus looks nice, at least," he admitted. "Maybe I'll give their admissions office a call tomorrow."

"That's the spirit, son," Jonathan said. "Don't give up, and we'll make this work."

"Thanks, guys," Clark said. "I don't know what I'd do without you."


Metropolis University, Metropolis, New Troy, 1986 — Lois is 19 years old

"Lois, look at this!" Linda called. "'Miracle Man Saves Coed from Fire!' Some guy went into a burning building and saved this girl. Get this: firemen said that the stairwells must have long since collapsed and the floor was surrounded by fire. The guy would have had to be invincible and be able to fly to get in there. Yet he did."

"Linda, stop reading that trash," Lois said. She leaned back on the grass and closed her eyes, enjoying the warm sensation of sunlight on her skin.

"It's not trash, honest," Linda said. "It's syndicated from the Breadbasket, Midwestern State University's student newspaper."

Lois said up with a start. "It happened on a campus? That's from a real newspaper?"

"Did you think I would read you something from the National Whisper?"

"I guess not," Lois said.

Both girls suddenly shrieked as a splash of cold water hit them. A large golden retriever leaped out of the fountain and landed in front of them, shaking frantically. Both girls frantically grabbed at their books and belongings to protect them from the onslaught.

A blond-haired young man laughed from his position to their right.

"Is that your dog?" Lois asked angrily.

"What?" he asked, hands held up in mock innocence. "I've never seen him before in my life!"

Lois rolled her eyes as the dog caught sight of his master and bowled the blond man over, licking him eagerly.

"Okay, okay, maybe he is mine," the man said, pushing the dog away and standing up with a grin. "I'm really sorry he splashed you. Usually he's quite the gentleman."

"I'm sure," Lois said, glaring at the dog. Her eyes widened when Linda bent down and petted the dog.

"Who's a good boy?" Linda was murmuring to the dog.

"Linda!" Lois said sharply. "What are you doing?"

Linda stood up quickly. "Hi," she said, extending her hand to the young man. "I'm Linda King. And this is my friend, Lois Lane."

Lois kicked Linda, but Linda pretended not to notice. Lois sighed and stuck out her hand, and the young man took it with a smile.

"Pleased to meet you," he said. "I'm Claude Charogne."


Wanda smiled brightly at the audience and bobbed her head to accept their applause. As soon as she felt the applause begin to die down, she slipped out of the spotlight and hid herself in the welcoming shadows backstage.

She took several deep breaths to calm herself. Surely if she didn't reappear immediately, he'd give up and leave, wouldn't he?

"Wanda?" Jolie asked, poking her head behind the curtain. "Tobias says you'd better get back there pronto. You've got drinks duty tonight."

Wanda groaned. "I forgot. Cover for me?"

"Can't," Jolie said with a shrug. "I covered for Ngani last night, and I got a date tonight."

"All right, just give me a minute."

"Don't take too long, you know how he gets." Jolie dropped the curtain and headed back to the main room.

Wanda sighed. Perhaps if she dawdled changing, he'd be gone when she returned.


No such luck. "Just give me a sec, Tobias!" she called back, hurrying into the changing room.

When she finally stepped out into the main room, wearing the oh-so-skimpy waitressing dress the boss preferred, she tossed a glance in the direction of the bar.

"Darn," she muttered. Purposely ignoring the man who stood waiting for her, she stopped at several tables on her way, taking drink orders. Only when she absolutely couldn't hold any more orders in her head did she turn her reluctant feet towards the bar.

She chose the bar stool next to him and sat down, clinking her tray on the bar. "Tobias!" she called. She rattled off the drink orders quickly, telling herself that it was a desire to do her job efficiently and not nervousness that made her words tumble over each other in their urge to get out.

She was careful not to look at the man next to her, but she could feel his eyes on her. She lifted her chin and pretended to examine the wall behind the bar very carefully.

Wanda was startled when the man suddenly put his warm hand on top of hers.

"Wanda," he said. "That is your name, right?"


"That is your name, right?"

"Huh?" Lois said, blinking rapidly, as she tried to remember where she was.

"Lois, right? We met by the fountain."

Lois turned to face the young man who had claimed half of her bench. The sun was almost directly behind him, and she had to squint to meet his eyes.

"Uh, yeah." She cocked her head and looked him up and down, trying to place him. "Claude, right? Claude Chardonnay?"

He laughed. "Claude Charogne. Nice to see you again. I'm sorry; I have interrupted you."

"Oh, I was just daydreaming, that's all," Lois said.

"Dreaming of what?"

Lois flushed. She suddenly felt shy about sharing her daydream. What if it sounded silly to Claude? His accent made him seem so much older. And she'd never seen anyone with quite that color of golden buttery-blond before. How had she not noticed this before?

"Oh, nothing, just a story I was making up."

His eyes widened. "You are a writer, then?" His eyes twinkled, and she wasn't sure if it was her imagination or if he was laughing at her.

"Well, not exactly. But I'd like to be."

"I'm a writer, in a way," Claude said. "I'm a reporter at the Star. I majored in journalism here."

"Really?" Lois said, forgetting her momentary shyness. "I'm a journalism major! Though I'd like to work at the Daily Planet someday"

"You see, already we have much in common." He reached out a tentative hand to touch Lois's hair. "You are so beautiful," he whispered.

She closed her eyes for a moment, reveling in his touch. Her skin felt warm where he'd touched it. "Am I really?" she asked, hoping the eagerness she felt didn't show in her voice.

"You're the most beautiful girl on this campus," he said. "Lois, may I take you to dinner some evening?"

"I'd like that."


Lois was still laughing as she walked out of the movie theatre. "That was so funny!" she said, gasping for breath. "My ribs still hurt!"

"I know what you mean," Claude said with a grin, taking her hand. "I think that's the funniest movie I've seen since I've been in your country."

"I loved the part where Ferris tries to run the car backwards to reverse the mileage! Poor Cam. I can't imagine anyone loving his car that much though, can you?"

Claude slung an arm over Lois's shoulders. "Enough to be angry when it crashed through the garage?"

She giggled. "Okay, maybe then. But I'd just be mad about the insurance! Geez, if I was that nerdy Cameron, I'd have killed Ferris for that! Especially when he just made some crack about not having to explain the mileage anymore."

"Lois," Claude said, stopping. He gently stroked her cheek. "Ch‚rie, trust me, you would never be the nerd."

She smiled shyly at him. He brushed a strand of hair back from her face and took her hand again as they walked back towards the dorms. Lois blushed when she felt him intimately entwine his fingers with hers.

Lois took a sidelong glance at Claude as they walked along the streetlamp-lit path. The irregular light made Claude's blond hair glow and sparkle, an effect she could hardly take her eyes from.

He turned towards her slightly and smiled, and she responded in kind. His eyes were so beautiful, so brilliantly blue in the daytime, so dark and fascinating at night.

The closer they got to her dorm, however, the queasier Lois's stomach got. After every date, Linda always invited the guy up to her room. Lois knew—she'd spent many a night on the couch in the floor lounge. Was that what college guys expected? Mike certainly had, and he hadn't even been in college.

She took deep breaths, trying to calm herself, as they approached her dorm, but it didn't help. They walked up the front steps of Barringer Hall.

"Claude," Lois started.

"Lois," Claude said at the same time.

They both laughed awkwardly.

Claude gently framed her face with his hands. "Lois, I would never want you to do anything you are not ready for. So, we say good-night here, no?"

She breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, Claude." She closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and smiled at Claude. "It's not that I don't want to, it's just… "

"I understand, tr‚sor. But, I would like to kiss you, if you would not mind."

She nodded. "I'd like that."

She closed her eyes as he leaned in towards her and softly touched his lips to hers. His kiss was gentle and tentative, and she kissed him back eagerly. Finally, he pulled away.

"Claude, thank you for this evening. The dinner, the movie—both were wonderful."

He bowed slightly. "Any time, mademoiselle."

She giggled.

"Good-night, my dearest Lois. Until tomorrow."

"Until tomorrow," she whispered back, watching him turn and bound down the steps.

She smiled to herself as she unlocked the front door of the dorm and hurried inside. One hand found its way to her lips, and she touched them gently, remembering his kiss. "Goodnight, Claude," she whispered to herself.


Lois rubbed the bridge of her nose and sighed. She'd been studying all evening, but still, the answers on the practice exam failed to match those on the quiz they'd taken in class. Had she made an error copying down the answers?

"Hey, Linda," Lois said, leaning back in her chair. "Do you have your copy of the last quiz handy?"

"What?" Linda said. She carefully fit a barrette into her hair, smiled at her reflection in the mirror, then turned to Lois.

"I said, do you have your copy of the last quiz?"

"Oh, yeah," Linda said, indicating her bookbag with her hand. "Somewhere in there. Listen, I'm heading out. Don't wait up."

"Wait a second!" Lois called as Linda headed towards the door. "Aren't you going to study for the Econ exam tomorrow?"

Linda laughed. "What for? I'm acing that class. I'm ready for the exam already." She tossed Lois a wave as she hurried out.

Lois grumbled to herself. "Some people have all the luck," she said as she rummaged through Linda's backpack. "She never studies for this class, yet she's doing better than me. It's just not fair!"

She pulled out one folder after another, scanning each to see if it appeared to be for Econ. Finally she found the right one and took it over to her desk.

Digging through the folder, she found the previous quiz. She put it on her desk and compared it to hers.

Linda had gotten a 10 out of 10, so her quiz would make a great key for the quiz. She squinted at Linda's first answer. She frowned.

"That can't be right," she said softly. "It doesn't make any sense."

She grabbed her notebook and a pencil and tried to duplicate Linda's process. But not only did her process defy the laws of logic, the numbers Linda had gotten didn't match the work she'd done at all.

Lois tried the problem over several different ways, but she still couldn't seem to get Linda's answer. Eventually, she sighed and flipped open the book.

The book showed the process in one of the early sections of the chapter. It made perfect sense to Lois, and she duplicated the process on the problem on the quiz. But her answer still didn't match Linda's. This was insane!

With a sigh, she decided to move on to the second problem. But with each problem she tried, she couldn't seem to match Linda's answers, or even understand the process she'd done.

The thing that most puzzled Lois, however, was the realization that on the two problems she'd actually gotten right on her own quiz, her answers didn't match Linda's. Yet they'd both gotten them right.

Lois tried to squelch the growing suspicion in her mind. She reached across the desk for her phone.

"Hi, Molly? Yeah, it's me. Listen, I was going through the last quiz in math. Yeah, yeah, I know your section had different quizzes. But I was wondering, if I read you a problem and a process, could you tell me if it makes any sense?"

At Molly's yes, Lois read aloud one of the problems from the quiz and Linda's process and answer.

"Lois, that's definitely wrong. In fact, you'd have to be some special kind of an idiot to make that many mistakes on one problem. The person obviously had no idea what they're talking about." Molly paused. "Um, that wasn't your answer on the quiz, was it?"

Lois laughed. "No, but it was Linda's, and she got full credit."

"You're kidding! Who'd she sleep with to manage that?"

"That's what I'm starting to wonder," Lois said slowly. "Anyway, thanks for your help, Molly."

"No problem. Good luck on the exam tomorrow!"

"Yeah, you too," Lois said. She hung up the phone and stared into space for a few minutes. Then she shook her head and got back to studying.


Lois knocked softly on the door of her Economics teacher's office.

"Come in," he called.

She stepped into the room.

"Well, hello, Lois," Mr. Dochin greeted her with a smile. "I didn't expect anyone to be using my office hours immediately after taking the exam!"

She blushed. "Well, actually, I was studying last night and I was a bit confused about some of the answers on the quiz. Thought maybe you could look over them for me."

"Sure," he said, putting on his glasses and motioning to a chair next to the desk.

She handed her quiz and a handwritten copy of Linda's work. "This is my quiz, and these are the answers as I got them from a friend. But they don't seem to match the way the book tells you to do the problem, so I thought either the friend copied the correct answers wrong, or he was giving me his uncorrected answers."

"Well, let's see," the teacher said, taking the papers. He carefully read through the paper with Linda's work on it, his eyes widening. "This is terrible," he said, handing it back to Lois. "Each one of the problems is absolutely and completely wrong, and shows a lack of even the basic understanding of the course material. If these are your friend's answers, I'd be surprised if he's passing the class. Though I don't remember anyone doing that poorly, perhaps your friend just had a bad quiz."

"It's possible," Lois said. "So my quiz is graded correctly?"

He looked over it, frowning. "Well, the two problems you have marked right are definitely correct. Though I'm not sure why the Teaching Assistant marked this one wrong," he said, pointing to the third problem. "And you most definitely should have at least gotten partial credit for the others. You could definitely ask for a regrade. Who's your TA?"

Lois stood up quickly. "Actually, it's not all that important," she said. "I really need to be going, I just wanted to check on those first. Thanks for your help!" Before he could respond, she hurried out of his office.

Lois sat down at a bench in the Atrium to think. "Okay, I know that Linda's answers aren't right," she said to herself. "Yet she's getting perfects, and I'm getting problems marked wrong that shouldn't be wrong. That implies that the TA is grading unfairly. But why would he grade unfairly? Is Linda buying her grades?"

She thought for a few minutes, but she kept hitting one contradiction. "If Linda is buying good grades, that explains why her quizzes are marked up. But why would he mark me down? That doesn't make any sense."

She grabbed her backpack and headed to the library. "At least I can Xerox Linda's quizzes so I have proof."


"So, Linda," Lois asked casually at dinner, "what do you think of Matt?"

"Matt?" Linda asked over a mouthful of pizza.

"Yeah, Matt, our Econ TA."

Linda swallowed and grabbed a sip of her soda. "Oh, Matt. Actually, I'm probably biased," she said with a smile. "I've known Matt for years. We went to high school together."

"No kidding? What's he like? Outside the classroom, I mean."

"Oh, he's a pretty cool guy," Linda said. "We hang out sometimes, though since he's a year older I mostly only see him at parties."

"Must be fun having him as a TA, then," Lois said. "Isn't it odd to have a friend effectively be your teacher, though?"

Linda shrugged. "Nah, it's kinda neat," she said. "One of those 'only in college' things, I guess."

Lois carefully switched off the tape recorder she held under the table and shoved it in her bookbag, hoping that it had caught the words through the background noise of the dining hall.


Claude yawned and leaned back in Linda's chair, catching Lois's eye.

Lois gave him a vague smile and spun her pen in the air absentmindedly, her mind on the papers in front of her.

He frowned when his movements failed to get the attention he wanted. "What are you working on?"

"Oh, just a story," Lois said, shoving the papers into a pile on her desk.

He grinned at her. "A big secret? You know that you have my attention now."

"It's really nothing," she said. "Just a story." She pretended to be suddenly very interested in what she was reading, hoping he'd lose interest. She almost didn't notice when he stood up quickly and walked over to stand behind her.

"Claude!" she said, frowning at him. "I told you, it's secret."

"We keep secrets from each other, ch‚rie?"

"Of course not. Well. Not usually. I mean, I have to keep some secrets from you, after all. I can't tell you who my sources are, and sometimes when I'm investigating I can't tell you everything I find. But you're used to keeping secrets like that from people, aren't you? So it's not exactly like it's a big deal."

"Lois," Claude said, reaching out to touch her lips, "you're babbling."

"I'm sorry," she said, blushing. "It's a bad habit."

He smiled. "But anyway, you're only a reporter for a college newspaper, how secret can your sources be? And this little story you are working on, if you told me about it, perhaps I could help you. It appears that you are stuck, perhaps I could help."

A little miffed at having her story called "little," Lois turned away.

"Lois, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply that your story isn't important."

She sighed. "Well, I guess I could use some help. I'm not sure where to go with this next."

He grabbed the chair from Linda's desk and pulled it over to Lois's.

Lois walked over to the door, opened it, peered down the hallway to make sure Linda wasn't on her way in, then locked the door. She sat back down at her desk.

"A bit paranoid, are we?" Claude asked with a grin.

"Not so much about her finding out about a story, but because she's involved in what I'm investigating."

"Really?" he asked with a frown. "How?"

"Well, I got started on this story when I borrowed an old Econ quiz from Linda. She got a perfect score on the quiz, but her answers were almost all wrong. I even went to the teacher and asked him to look over it. He agreed, the answers were all wrong."

"Wait, the teacher saw Linda's test?"

"No, I copied her work and answers onto a blank sheet of paper to show him. I didn't want to reveal my hand too early."

"Go on," he said, steepling his fingers as he listened.

"I looked through some of Linda's other quizzes, and found the same thing. She did horribly on all of them, yet got almost perfect grades. She's well on her way to getting an A in the class without knowing a thing. So I talked to Linda at dinner the other day to see if I could figure out why the TA would give her grades she didn't deserve."


Lois took her tape recorder from her drawer and played it for Claude. His eyes grew wider as he listened.

"So, she is a friend of the TA," he said when the tape finished. He scratched his nose thoughtfully. "It seems obvious, the TA gives better grades to his friends."

"But why mark my quizzes lower?" she pointed out. "There doesn't seem to be any point. Unless… "


"Unless he needs to cover for what he's doing by making sure that while he grades one person higher, he grades another lower, so the professors don't notice."

Claude nodded. "So what is your problem? You could either print what you know, or you could go to a professor."

"The problem is, I don't know if Linda knows that he's doing it. If she doesn't know, I'd like to make that clear when I tell people what I've found out. If she knows… I don't know!" she said, standing up quickly. "I mean, I don't always like Linda all that much… but the consequences for cheating are harsh. She'll at the very least get an XF for the course, and it'll be on her transcript for the rest of her life, showing people that she cheated. The university might even expel her!"

"If she cheated, she deserves it, no? And, Lois, you are going to be a reporter. You cannot refuse to print a story just because it will hurt a friend of yours."

"I know, I know. But shouldn't I find out if she's in on it, first? And I wonder if it's just her the TA is favoring, or if there are others."

Claude nodded. "If there was a whole ring of students cheating, this would be a major story. Perhaps even a story that a real newspaper would take. But you'd have to be very sure of it."

"I know. I need proof. But I can't exactly go around asking people if I can see old copies of their quizzes."

Claude stroked her cheek gently. "You will think of something."


"Ow!" Lois exclaimed. She rubbed her sore knee and gave the edge of the filing cabinet a baleful glare. "Stupid, Lois. Watch where you're going."

She aimed the flashlight at the ground as she carefully walked around to the front of the filing cabinet. Pointing the light at the label, she squinted to read what it said. "Wrong cabinet. Why can't TAs keep their offices better organized? I can't find anything."

Turning around, she shone her flashlight around the room, scanning for anything else that looked like storage space. A pile of papers on the TA's desk caught her eye.

"Maybe he didn't actually put the quizzes away?" she wondered aloud, heading towards the desk. Picking up the stack and rifling through it, her eyes widened. "Voila!" she said softly.

She sat down and picked up the first quiz, shining her light on it. She mumbled under her breath as she skimmed through the techniques and the answers. Sighing, she tossed the quiz aside. "It looks like it's graded right, but how can I tell for sure?" she wondered.

Suddenly, Lois had an idea. She thumbed through the stack again, pulling out all quizzes that had been awarded 9s or 10s, implying that they were close to perfect. Then she lined up all the 10s in a row and skimmed to see if they had the same answers.

"Ah-hah!" she said. Almost every quiz had a different answer for each problem, yet all had been marked perfect. The 9s were graded similarly, with a point taken off in one place or two. Two of the 9s actually looked to deserve the grade. The rest, she assumed, were in the same group of cheaters and had only been marked down to avoid suspicion.

Grabbing her notebook, she jotted down the names of all the people who appeared to have gotten high grades they didn't deserve. Then she took the papers and walked over to the Xerox machine she'd noticed in the corner. She made copies of all the cheater's quizzes and stuck them in her backpack.

As the last quiz was being copied, Lois groaned and rubbed her back. Hiding in that storage closet for hours until the building had been locked and everyone had left was probably the most adventurous part of this entire investigation, but it had sure taken its dues on her back.

Putting everything back in its place, Lois sidled out the door of the TA's office and headed for the exit she'd staked out earlier that day, the only one in the building that didn't claim to set off an alarm if used on evenings or weekends.


"So you have proof that the TA is giving out grades to several students. But you still don't know if they know about it?" Claude asked, taking a bite from his Popsicle.

"Well, no. They must at least have been dishonest. These quizzes should have been getting 2s or 3s, and they're getting 9s and 10s. It had to have been obvious to the students that they didn't deserve the grades, so at the very least they were being dishonest in not telling the professor. But there's a big difference between being dishonest and being a member of a cheating ring."

Claude threw an arm around Lois. "You'll find your proof. And then, dinner at my place to celebrate?"

"You can cook?"

"I'm French!" he declared, giving her a hurt look.

Lois laughed.

"Seriously. My mother taught me how to cook when I was very young. My father died when I was a baby, and it was a special time I shared with my mother."

"Aw, that's sweet," Lois said, remembering the times she'd spent putting her drunk mother to bed, and the meals she'd occasionally burnt for her sister and herself when her mother was too drunk to make dinner.

"Well, I need to go, Claude," Lois said.

"I will see you tonight for dinner, then? At my apartment?"

Lois smiled shyly. "Yes. With luck, I'll have a decent idea of whether the students know about the quizzes today."


Lois kicked her bed, hard. It didn't seem to faze the inanimate object any, though her foot complained with every nerve it had in it.

"What'd you do that for?" Linda asked, dropping into her desk chair.

"I'm just pissed about something," Lois said. She shoved her bookbag against the desk and flopped down on the bed.

"No kidding. Care to elaborate?"

"Not really."

Linda rolled her eyes. "You know, if you don't ditch the attitude, you're going to end up a dried-up old spinster without a friend in sight."

"Maybe I'd be better off," Lois said, closing her eyes and remembering their Econ discussion that afternoon.

The TA had handed back their quizzes quickly and cheerfully, and Lois had despaired of getting the proof she craved. At least, up until the TA handed back one kid's quiz with a wink. The kid had smiled broadly back. Lois had noticed, and immediately sat up and paid attention. She scrutinized the TA's expressions as he handed back the papers. The kids responses confirmed it. They knew what he was doing.

Lois opened her eyes and turned her head to watch Linda grab a journalism textbook and open it on her desk. Lois bit her lip.

A reporter couldn't let herself be swayed by emotion or false loyalty. If somebody deserved exposure, well, then, a reporter exposed the naked truth. Roommates and even friends deserved no special protection.

But they said that everyone has a secret to hide. Roommates and friends as much as anyone else. If she went with the story and printed what she knew, the consequences wouldn't only be terrible for Linda. Who would trust Lois again, knowing that once she found out their secrets, she'd print them?

Not everyone's secrets were illegal and immoral, like cheating. Lois had secrets of her own, sure, but none that were newsworthy. But would her friends think about that? They'd just think that she'd betrayed her roommate's trust, and she'd betray theirs too.

But if she kept this under wraps and concealed what she knew, she'd be betrayed herself. And she'd be helping them. She'd be betraying the trust people put into journalists, to determine the truth and print it, to keep the public informed.

Lois rolled onto her back and placed her hands behind her head. She stared up at the peeling white plaster ceiling and followed the largest crack with her eyes.

A choice was at hand. Her friends, or her profession. She had a feeling that once the choice was made, there was no going back.

But once she realized that, she realized something else. There really was no choice to make. The story came first. It always had.


Lois flipped through the numbers on the callbox until she found Claude's apartment number. She hit the button to call it.

"Hey," Claude answered.

"Hey, yourself," she said, smiling. "Ready for me?"

"Always," he said, and she heard the buzzing that indicated that he'd opened the door.

Pushing open the glass door, she left herself in. She walked up one flight of stairs to Claude's apartment.

He wasn't standing in the doorway as she'd expected. She tentatively pushed the door to his apartment open.

"Claude?" she called cautiously.

"Lois!" Claude greeted her with a smile, emerging from the small kitchen.

She laughed at the sight of Claude in a chef's hat and apron. "You're really going all out, aren't you?"

"Well, I have to get into the proper mood."

She smiled and walked into the living room, dumping her backpack onto the sofa. She frowned at the sofa's worn state and fashionable puke-green color. "Living the life of the starving writer?" she asked.

He shrugged and walked back into the kitchen. "I'm still just considered a 'cub reporter,'" he said. "One good story will be enough to make my name, but until then, I'm budgeting."

She laughed. "Your English is definitely improving."

"I'm learning from the best."

She looked up as he walked through the door balancing a tray.

"Smells wonderful," she said. "What did you make?"

"Well, for appetizers we have oeufs en gel‚e, then coquilles St. Jacques, canard … l'orange, salade de concombres, camembert, and finally, for dessert, crepes suzettes."

Lois's eyes widened, especially at the mention of dessert. "Really?"

He blushed. "Okay, maybe we're just having boeuf bourguignon."

She pushed aside the objects on the coffee table to make room. "It sure beats ordering a pizza," she pointed out.

Even if it wasn't the multi-course meal he'd joked about, the dinner was delicious and Lois was ready to burst by the time she pushed away her plate and leaned back against the sofa.

"That was wonderful, Claude," she said. How lucky was she to have found a guy who was not only wonderful, charming, witty, and a journalist, but he could cook! Fate must be smiling on her, eager to make up for her father's negligence and her fateful prom. Claude was an adult, and he even thought of her as an adult. After all, he'd included wine with the meal, and even discussed its attributes with her like a connoisseur.

"So, how did the final leg of the investigation go?" he asked.

She shrugged. She didn't feel like talking about her discovering of Linda's guilt, or the choice she'd had to make.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. It went well, I suppose. The students are definitely in on it. It took nothing more than watching their interactions with the TA to determine that."

"So you print?"

She nodded. "Tomorrow I'll go talk to the editor. I need to work it into an article, of course, but since it'll require space, I need to propose the article first."

She took out the information she'd gathered to show Claude. Together they looked over the quizzes, the notes she'd made, and the recordings she'd taken from talking to Linda and her teacher.

"Did you tell anyone about your findings?" Claude asked.

"Not yet. Only you," she said shyly. "I most definitely couldn't tell Linda."

Claude tucked a strand of Lois's hair behind her ear and stroked a finger across her cheekbone. "So beautiful," he said. "I'm rather glad your story is our little secret. It makes me feel like I'm special."

"Of course you're special," Lois said. She felt her face grow warm where he touched her. She took a deep breath. Times like these, Lois felt utterly amazed that she'd had the wonderful luck to meet such a man.

"Claude, there's something I've been wanting to tell you," she said, nestling back against his shoulder. In sudden shyness, she didn't feel up to meeting his eyes.

"I love you," she said, so softly it was almost a whisper.

She felt him tense, but it was too late to back out now. "Claude, I love you," she said again.

She gasped when Claude pulled her to her feet and clenched her in a rib-crushing hug.

"Oh, Lois, you don't know how long I've dreamed of hearing those words," he said.

She breathed out with relief. "I was so afraid that I'd scare you away," she admitted. "You always hear that guys hear the word 'love' and decide they need to join the Peace Corps or take an extended vacation to Timbuktu or something."

"Never," he said with a grin. "And please don't lump me in with those delinquent Americans. I am French. And we of all people know how to love."

The words hung in the air between them for a long moment, before Claude ever-so-slowly lowered his lips to hers.

Lois closed her eyes at Claude's first touch. His lips were warm and soft, and she enjoyed the sensation they made against her own. His tongue gently pressed at her lips, and she opened her mouth.

Lois had been French kissed a few times before, and while it was interesting in a way, she'd never really understood the appeal. But she'd been told, even her first time, that she was good at it. So she tried to use every bit of knowledge she'd gleaned from reading her secret stash of romance books, and was rewarded with a deep groan from Claude.

He pulled away. "Lois, do you know what you're doing to me? God, I love you so much."

She smiled and slid her fingers through his blond hair, reveling in the feel of it between her fingers and enjoying her right to touch it.

He bent his head to kiss her again, and she put everything she had into kissing him back. He groaned, and she was startled to feel his hands slide under her shirt at the waist. His hands were cold, and she was slightly annoyed at his caress. But as his stroking hands slid slowly up her back, she relaxed and let herself enjoy his touch.

Claude drew his hands out of her shirt and touched the first button lightly, as if asking for her permission. She nodded slightly, and he quickly unbuttoned her shirt and tossed it aside in his eagerness to touch her.

Lois winced as he grabbed a little too roughly. She started to pull away, but he lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her again, and in the distraction somehow managed to remove her bra as well. It was when she felt his hands at the button of her jeans that she felt a glimmer of fear.

"Claude," she started to whisper against his mouth.

"Shh, honey," he said, unbuttoning her jeans and starting to slide them over her hips.

"Claude!" she said more urgently, grabbing his wrists to still their movement. "Claude, wait, I don't want to do this."

"Of course you do," he said. He shook her hands from his wrists.

She struggled to get away, fear rising in her throat.

She loved him. Would it be so bad to give in and have sex with him? Part of her brain was urging her to let this take its natural course. He loved her, after all. What was to keep her from going all the way?

But she simply wasn't ready, and she didn't see why they couldn't wait until the situation was right. And she didn't have any protection with her.

"Claude, stop!" Lois said, pulling away. She was breathing heavily as she faced him. She quickly buttoned her jeans back up and stepped a few feet away. "Claude, I don't want to do this right now. I'm not ready."

"Not ready?" Claude repeated, his eyes on her chest. "Lois, we're in love. What, exactly, are you waiting for?"

"I don't know," she admitted. "I'm just not ready."

He stepped across the room, and before she could react, he'd pinned her to the wall and was kissing her again. He pulled his mouth free for just a moment. "How can you say you aren't ready for this?"

"Claude," Lois said, frantically trying to push him away, "stop, please."

He lowered his head to kiss her neck. Lois felt his hands at the button of her jeans again, and the cold feeling that had filled her stomach before was back. She pushed at him. He didn't stop. Suddenly it was Mike in front of her, and the same helplessness that she'd felt that night at prom coursed through her. Only this time there was no Joe to rescue her.

With that realization, she suddenly felt calm. She'd sworn that night that she'd never end up in the situation of being helpless at the hands of a male again, and she'd taken Tae Kwon Do to make sure that was true. She'd just expected to have more than a year to learn it.

"Fine," she thought. "I hate to do this, but he's asking for it."

She wriggled a leg free and jerked it upwards, quickly, kneeing him. But he second-guessed her and turned his body at the last minute and her knee merely connected with his thigh. He groaned slightly, but it didn't hurt him enough to get him off.

"Now it's time to panic," she thought. That was supposed to be enough. She'd learned lots of things to do in this situation in Tae Kwon Do, but why couldn't she think of any now? She wracked her brain, trying to think of the right move. So far he'd been unsuccessful at getting her jeans over her hips without her cooperation, but it wouldn't last.

He was holding her against the wall by her shoulders, which left her arms free but with limited mobility. But just enough to make fists of them and slam them into his ears.

"Ow!" he shrieked, pulling away and covering his ears with his hands. "What'd you do that for? Crap, that hurts!"

Now was her chance. She kicked him hard, and he yelled and grabbed himself.

"Lois! What's wrong with you?"

Lois didn't answer. She grabbed her shirt and slipped her arms into it, grabbed her backpack, and took off at a run. She didn't know what had happened to her bra, but she decided it wasn't worth it.

She held her shirt closed as she ran, but the tails still flapped in the wind. She didn't even stop when she reached the edge of campus. It wasn't until she ran out of breath at the brick courtyard in front of the undergraduate library that she realized she was crying.

The courtyard was empty at this time of night. Nonetheless, she ducked behind one of the library's massive columns to button her shirt back up. She leaned back against the column and slowly lowered herself to the ground.

She tried to control herself by breathing in slowly and deeply, but it didn't work. She burst into tears and buried her head in her knees.

She loved him, why hadn't she just let him make love to her? How could she have rejected him like that? He was going to hate her. For heaven's sake, she'd boxed his ears and kicked him where it hurt. Could he ever forgive her?

What was she thinking? How could she want him to forgive her? He'd tried to rape her, after all! It didn't matter if she had told him she loved him, she had the right not to have sex. Didn't she?

Everything was so confusing. She should probably have given in, but what gave him the right to try to force her when she'd refused? Slow realization was beginning to creep into her awareness, whispering that perhaps she'd fallen in love with a man who didn't deserve her.

But, no, this was Claude! Handsome, sweet, adoring Claude! Of course he deserved her love. He had just been a bit too persistent. Maybe he'd read too many adventure novels and seen too much American TV, and had decided that girls liked guys who take charge and act aggressively. Of course, that was it.

Part of her conscience was trying to knock her head against the wall. She forced it into the back of her brain. One last sob forced itself from her throat before she could help herself.

"Hey, are you okay?" a voice said. She looked up, startled. A young man stood before her, nervously pushing his glasses higher on his nose.

"Yeah, I'm fine," she said, standing up.

He didn't make any move to leave, and she lifted an eyebrow. It took everything she had not to burst into tears again, and the young man seemed to sense it. He reached into his pocket and took out a handkerchief, handing it to her.

She stared down at it for a moment, surprised. "I didn't think anyone carried these anymore," she said, smiling despite herself.

"I guess I'm just an old-fashioned kind of guy," he said, smiling back.

Lois wiped the tears from her face and blew her nose, trying to be as dainty as she could but failing miserably. She lifted her head to face him, but he was gone.

"Hey," she said, hurrying around the column, "where'd you go?" But the courtyard was empty.


Lois tucked her hair behind her ear as she hurried across the Quad. She hoped desperately that none of the students passing by could tell that she'd spent the whole night crying. But after that long sleepless night, she'd come to a decision.

Claude had taken her by surprise, that was all. She loved him, and there was no reason to withhold sex from him when they both loved each other. She'd just have to get over her fear and show Claude how much she cared about him. Surely he'd forgive her, surely he'd understand.

The thought of actually going all the way scared Lois a little, but it also sent shivers of excitement up her spine. She'd put herself in dozens of compromising and dangerous situations for stories. Well, maybe not dozens, precisely. But definitely a few. And she'd never balked at the danger. This was just the next great adventure.

She had almost managed to work herself into an excited pitch as she crossed the courtyard in front of the library. The line of blue newspaper boxes along the wall inside the library's alcove caught her eye, and she decided to grab a newspaper to read while she got her thoughts together. She still wasn't quite sure what she was going to say to Claude when she got to his apartment.

Lois pulled out her wallet and dug in the change purse for a quarter as she absentmindedly scanned the headlines. What she saw made her drop her wallet entirely.

"That scum!" she shouted, grabbed one of the boxes. But it wasn't about to give up its bounty without a coin, so she had to still her trembling fingers long enough to pull out a quarter and slide it into the slot. She grabbed a copy of the day's "Star" and stared at it.

"Campus Cheating Ring Revealed," she read softly. She noticed that several students were starting to stop and stare at her, so she walked over to a nearby bench and sat down.

Skimming the story quickly, she gasped. "This is my story," she fumed, flipping to the continuation of the story. "This is all my story. My research, my notes, my interviews, quotes I got, even the little bits of the story I wrote already. Byline: Claude Charogne! He didn't even thank me for my 'input.' The jerk!"

"Like what you read?" a voice asked from behind her.

Lois spun quickly to see Claude standing behind her, grinning slightly.

"Claude!" she said, jumping to her feet. "How dare you?"

"So I didn't even thank you for your 'input,' huh? Well, thank you, then. You just got me moved out of cub reporter standing and into a position as a real journalist. My own desk in the pit and all. Aren't you proud?"

"You—you used my story to advance your own career? You're even a bigger cheat than Linda and the others!"

He laughed. "Lois, grow up. You're going to be a journalist. All journalists steal stories, it's part of the job and all. I'm impressed, though, that as a student you actually managed to rake in a story that got onto the front page of the Star. It was a slow news day, but nonetheless, that's impressive. Good work."

Lois felt hot tears start to fill her eyes, and she took a deep breath and tried to will them away. "You aren't the man I thought you were," she said softly.

He was standing with the sun behind him, just like when she'd run across him that fateful time. It lit his hair to the color of golden butter. His disarming smile would have forced a smiling response from her only one day ago. But now every feature took on a malice that it had never had before. She was suddenly very, very sure that she hated blond hair.

"Look, Lois," he said, adopting a serious expression. "I took the story to teach you a lesson. But I got it onto the front page of the Star. You could never have done that. Maybe everybody else doesn't know it, but you know that you got a story on the front-page when you were only 19. Can't we just consider it equal and go back to the way we were?"

"Oh, you mean, can we go back to your apartment and sleep together, now that you've shown me the error in my ways?"

He frowned. Perhaps his thick head was finally getting an indication that she wasn't as contrite as she should be. "Lois, ch‚rie—"

"And stop trying to use stupid French words on me just so you can play the part of a romantic foreigner. I'm not your ch‚rie, and I regret that I ever was." She shoved the paper into his chest, spun around, and stalked off.

"Lois! Please!" he called after her.

She pretended not to hear. As soon as she rounded the corner, she broke into a run. Strangely enough, now that it was all over, she didn't feel any urge to cry. Claude wasn't worth a single tear.


(3 months later)

Lois shoved the president of the college's financial records into his desk and stood up. She had all the information she needed. Now to find a corroborating witness.

She crept from his office, locking it behind her and rubbing away all evidence that the door had been picked. She slipped out the front door of the building and glanced in both directions, trying to decide if she was ready to head back for the night.

A glimmer of light caught her eye, and she headed in the direction of the fountain in the center of the mall. Who could possibly be out at this time of night? Either drunken frat boys, or someone up to something nefarious. She smiled slightly as she realized what category that put her in.

The glimmer was gone by the time she reached the fountain, but she pulled her flashlight from her bag and shone it into the water. What she saw made her drop her flashlight with a gasp.

She hadn't seen Claude for months, but she'd recognize his face anywhere. Even floating face-up in a fountain.


The flames crackled and spat as they ate at the single log in the fireplace. Lex smiled slightly at the log's fate as he watched. His cigar filled the room with the pleasant odor of tobacco, and a single exhalation filled the air in front of him with smoke rings.

He leaned back on his arms for support, letting the heat of the fire lend his body the feeling of fever.

"You know, Father," he said to the fire in a conversational voice, "I always admired you when I was a boy. Still do. In many ways, though, I think I've surpassed you."

He paused for a moment, letting the fire blur and swim before his eyes. The dim lighting of the room made the fire seem an entity in itself, possessing of near human intelligence as it devoured the log.

"There's one rule you told me above others, Father, that I've been hesitant to break. You always said that a Luthor shouldn't get his hands dirty. Well, I have twice. Both times for revenge."

He took a deep breath of cigar smoke and left the cigar hanging out of his mouth at the side, continuing to speak around it.

"You'd be proud, I think, to know that neither time did I act in the heat of the moment. I waited until the time was right, and then, the deed was done. The first time, I'm sure you know, I didn't have a choice but to do it myself. But this time… this time, I took great pleasure in shooting a certain young man. I think leaving him on that college campus for that girl he'd wronged to find him was a stroke of genius, though."

He frowned and took the cigar out of his mouth. "A pity that she wasn't accused of the crime. She had motive and opportunity. And, as it turns out, she has enough tenacity not to let go. She's been asking questions."

The log snapped suddenly, sending several sparks onto the rug in front of the hearth. Lex ground them out with his heel without a thought. He stared at the log, now broken in two and almost dead to the fire.

"Fortunately, if she asks too many questions, the trail will only lead to Arianna. Perhaps it would be better for the girl if she drops the case. It would be interesting to follow her career. A pity that the young man I chose for the task turned out to be majoring in journalism, but we must learn from our mistakes. Next time I choose a masseur to seduce my wife, he'll be majoring in something safe like economics or engineering."

He sat up carefully and grabbed for another log to add to the fire to replace its unfortunate predecessor.

"Not there will be a next time," he said thoughtfully. "Not that there will be."


Metropolis University, Metropolis, New Troy, 1987 — Clark is 21 years old, Lois is 20

Lois pushed open the door to the roof and peered out into the darkness. The light-colored gravel of the roof almost glowed in the soft moonlight. There didn't appear to be anyone on the roof.

She sighed and let the door shut behind her, stepping onto the roof. She walked around the edge of the roof.

"Why do sources always insist on meeting in the craziest places?" she muttered to herself. She sighed and scanned the roof again. There was no sign of her source.

It had been a similar hour of the night when Lois had found Claude's body in the fountain. She shivered a little at the memory and wrapped her arms around herself.

"This is stupid," she said finally. "I'm Lois Lane, soon- to-be investigative reporter. I am not standing on a roof in the cold waiting for a source just because he claims to know something about Claude's murder."

She glanced in the direction of the roof door.

"I'm going to find him myself."

She walked towards the south side of the roof again, where she'd notice a drop of a few feet onto a lower roof. "Good thing they built all these buildings so close together," she thought with a grin. "And a good thing that I wore jeans today."

She sat on the edge of the roof and looked down at the lower roof below her. She took a deep breath and pushed herself off.

The landing was hard enough to send shocks of pain through her legs, but neither leg appeared to snap, so she figured that was a good sign. She stood up gingerly, testing her legs. All in working order. She brushed herself off and looked around.

The lower roof was full of small smokestacks and other strange metal contraptions with unclear purposes. It took Lois considerably longer to ascertain that this roof, too, was empty.

She sighed. "Stupid sources," she said, kicking a piece of gravel and watching it fly in an arc over the edge of the roof and land in the courtyard below. "Where is he?"

But even the persistent Lois Lane had to acknowledge a lost cause, and she headed back towards the upper roof.

She reached the ledge that she'd jumped from and looked up. "Uh-oh," she said under her breath, noticing how high the edge of the roof was. She lifted her arms above her head and reached for the edge, but it was no go.

Frowning, she jumped in place with arms outstretched. The ledge was still beyond her reach. "Okay, Lois, don't panic," she whispered.

Forcing herself to remain calm, she backed up a few yards and took a running start. At the last minute she jumped, grasping desperately for the ledge. When that didn't work, she tried again, this time using a foothold against the brick to propel herself higher.

"I will not panic, I will not panic," she mumbled, trying to keep her voice steady. She turned back to look over the strange metal contraptions. She hadn't seen any doors while she was looking around before, but she checked again just to make sure. No luck. And none of the metal contraptions appeared removable to make a ladder.

She even tried leaning over the side of the roof to see if any of the windows were close enough to break, but when she felt herself slip reaching for one of them, she decided it was not a good risk.

"Time to panic!" she whimpered, looking down at the courtyard many stories below her.


Clark landed softly behind the Student Union. He knew he probably looked ridiculous with the huge grin on his face, but he couldn't help beaming with the memory of his soaring flight through the air so recently.

Fortunately, there was nobody around to see his grin, ridiculous or not. There were definite bonuses to waiting until almost 4am to take his daily flights. Without anybody around, it was safe to take off and land in the alley behind the Union, and as long as he wore dark clothing, he could get into the air quickly enough to avoid being caught.

He walked out of the alley and into the courtyard, whistling to himself. Being special was tough sometimes, but flying was most definitely one of the perks. He activated his super hearing, something he rarely did when walking around the campus. But at this time of night, caution was never a bad idea.

A rock suddenly landed on the ground at his feet, making an odd pinging noise as it hit. Puzzled, he picked it up and rolled it between his fingers.

"Gravel?" he murmured, staring at it. "From where?" He looked up at the roof of the building next to the library, where the rock appeared to have come from. He frowned and zoomed in with his distance vision. He widened his eyes when he caught sight of a dark-haired girl who seemed to be jumping up and down for no reason, making her ponytail bob. He watched her for a moment before realizing that she was trying to reach the edge of the higher roof.

He grinned and watched her repeated attempts to escape the lower roof. A quick scan showed that there was no way off the lower roof. Of course, she could probably get a rescue in a few hours, when the maintenance crew came in the morning. But then, he was nothing if not a good Samaritan, or so he liked to think.

He shrugged and headed towards the library's main entrance. Normally he'd float up to the roof, but if she didn't hear him come out the door she'd probably get suspicious.

When he finally pushed through the door onto the roof, the first hints of dawn were just beginning to appear on the horizon. He realized he'd better hurry with his rescue effort while it was still too dark for her to see him clearly.

He walked towards the edge of the higher roof. The girl was sitting on a metal vent, looking as if she wanted nothing more than a victim to kill.

"Hey, need a lift?" he called. He grimaced when it occurred to him how that sounded like a pick-up line.

"Are you my source?" the girl asked.

"Your source?" Clark asked, confused. "No… " Was that why she was up here? To meet a source? One half of his mind was wondering if that meant she was a journalism major, and, if so, why she hadn't appeared in any of his classes yet. But… meeting a source on the roof of the library? At 4am? The other half of his mind was wondering if she realized how ridiculous she sounded.


Lois wondered if he realized how ridiculous he sounded. Trying to pick a girl up on the roof of the library, no less. Maybe that was the only way he could get a girl to talk to him, by cornering her on the roof. And why was he just standing there with that stupid grin when he was supposed to be helping her?

"Are you going to help me off this roof, or what?" she asked, hoping she didn't sound as peeved as she felt.

He grinned at her. "Are you willing to admit you need help?"

The nerve. She was tempted to fire back some retort, although none seemed to be forthcoming, and find her own way off the roof. But she'd exhausted all avenues of escape, and accepting this stranger's help seemed the only way.

"I could, maybe, use a little help. I mean, I was well on my way to getting off here on my own, but since you're here… " She hoped that didn't sound as lame to him as it did to her.


Clark wondered if the girl realized how lame she sounded. Was her pride so all-important that she couldn't even accept a simple helping hand when it was offered? Well… maybe he could have made it just a bit easier on her pride to accept help. But the girl was stuck on the roof in the middle of the night. He couldn't help teasing her a bit.

He lay down on the upper roof and extended his arms over the edge. "Can you reach?" he asked.

His vision was blocked by the edge of the building, but he activated his special vision to watch her as she gazed at his hands and bit her lip.

"Are you sure I won't just pull you over the edge? I'm going to have to jump a little," she said.

"I'm fine," he told her. "Just do it."

She nodded, backed away a few steps, and took a running leap. She grasped his hands easily… and a shock coursed through his hands, almost startling him into dropping her.

She let go with an exclamation and dropped back to the ground. Did that mean she'd felt it too? What was that, anyway?

"Are you okay?" he asked her.

She was staring up at him with a frown, but she nodded hesitantly. "Sorry about that," she said. "I must have slipped. Let me try again."


"What was that?" Lois wondered, rubbing her hands together. It was probably a good thing that he couldn't see over the ledge, lying down as he was. Her expression was probably enough to give her away.

If she hadn't known better, she would have sworn they'd just connected on some cosmic level. But that was ridiculous. Even the romance novels she liked to read, and kept hidden under her bed, didn't mention anything like that.

No, it was probably just static.

She backed up again until her back was pressed against one of the metal contraptions. She stared at his hands hanging over the ledge.

A frisson of fear kept her from starting her run, and she was reminded of stories about experiments on lab rats. You put cheese on little devices so that when the rat came to get the cheese, he got an electric shock. Eventually you got him so scared that he'd never eat cheese again, for fear of being shocked. She'd always felt so sorry for the poor little lab rats. Just trying to live their lives and occasionally get cheese for dessert, but instead they were taught that the thing they wanted the most was the worst for them. She had a sudden vision of having her chocolate electrocuted… electricized… was there a word for that? Would a shock be enough to keep her away from chocolate?

She was stalling. Not only that, she was babbling in her mind. What were the first signs of insanity? Talking to yourself? And probably contemplating your sanity, too. She sighed and squinted at the boy's hands where they waited patiently. She took a deep breath and ran.


Clark felt the girl grasp his hands, and he clenched them tightly and slowly pulled her up, careful not to scrape her against the brick wall. It was doubtful that the average guy would be able to pull her up like this, even as small as she was. The best he could do was hope that she wouldn't notice his feat of strength.

When he had her halfway over the edge, he let her crawl the rest of the way onto the roof herself.

"Thanks," she gasped, standing up and brushing herself off. She suddenly frowned. "What were you doing up here, anyway?"

Think fast, Clark, think fast. She would have walked around the roof looking for a way off, wouldn't she?

"I was in the courtyard. Couldn't sleep, so just decided to take a walk. You walked near the edge of the roof at some point and I saw you. Came up to see if you needed help."

Just please, please don't let her wonder how I saw her from so far when it was practically pitch-black out here.

"Oh," she said. "Well, um… thanks. I appreciate your help."

He nodded. "Shall we?" he suggested, pointing to the door.

She pushed ahead of him as they walked over to the door. Grabbing the handle, she pulled. And then again. "Uh-oh," she said, her eyes widening.

Uh-oh? That didn't sound good. The door was locked? But wait… all he'd have to do was pull a little bit harder at the door handle. He could break the lock easily. Maintenance would probably wonder about it when they discovered the broken lock the next day, but it was still dark enough to hide it from the girl.

"Here, lemme try," he said, nudging her away from the door.

"Excuse me!" she said, pushing him back. "I tried the door, didn't I? Why do guys always have to try the door themselves? Is it that hard for you to believe me, just because I'm a girl?" She gave the door one last tug in illustration. "It is most definitely locked."

Clark rolled his eyes. So, she was one of *those* girls, was she? His mother had always been a feminist in every sense of the word, and he admired her for that. But did this girl have to make such a show of it when a simple tug on the door on his part could get them off the roof?

"So, then, what's your plan? Sticking around on the roof until classes start and we can get the attention of someone in the courtyard?"

"I was thinking that we could get the attention of someone in the courtyard by pushing you off the roof," she muttered under her breath.

He hid a grin. She sure had spunk, didn't she? Her words made for an interesting image, even if she didn't know it. He could just see her pushing him off the roof. He'd soar over the heads of everyone in the courtyard. Maybe he could hum the Batman theme. How did that go again? He tried to hum a few bars of it under his breath.


Lois felt herself blushing when she realized she'd said that aloud. But he'd grinned and a moment later he'd started humming the Batman theme. Thought he could make fun of her, huh?

She'd certainly gotten herself into a royal mess, she realized. And it wasn't his fault, as much as she'd like to pretend it was. But she hadn't been able to pass up the chance of investigating Claude's murder, even if she had absolutely nothing to go on. The memory of his frozen face haunted her dreams, especially if she'd had too much Chinese food that night.

It seemed almost too much of a coincidence that she'd been the one to find Claude after all that he'd meant to her. Could she have been meant to find him? But as much as she'd thought over her actions that night, she couldn't see how the murderer could have managed to time everything so perfectly. And who had known of their relationship, anyway?

No, Claude must have been murdered for some other reason. Even the police had been certain he'd been murdered deliberately. But none of his stories warranted murdering the writer, he was wanted for no crimes, and he wasn't involved in anything illicit. Though he did have an extraordinary collection of unpaid parking tickets. A disgruntled meter-maid?

The source had been Lois's only lead. And unless the young man sitting next to her was the source and for some reason wasn't telling her, that lead had dried up. A hopeless cause.

She watched him fidget and glance at the door, and she rolled her eyes. Typical male.

Lois got up and walked to the edge of the roof to check the courtyard. It was after 5, and it was possible a few early risers or joggers would be out soon.

She heard a noise and spun around in time to see him grab the handle of the door to the roof and give it a hard tug. It opened.

"Hey!" she exclaimed.


Clark winced at the volume of her voice. But he couldn't resist getting a dig in there after her tirade against men. "The door's pretty heavy," he said, "but not locked."

She looked as if she was about to cry, or scream, or perhaps make due on her threat to throw him over the edge. He quickly stepped inside the door and motioned for her to follow.

They walked down the stairs silently until they reached the front steps. The girl was staring oddly at the line of newspaper boxes in the alcove just outside the library's front door. He scanned the headlines but saw nothing unusual. Maybe they just reminded her of her story.

"Well, I should head back," he said awkwardly.

She nodded. "I should, too. I guess I'll see you around?"

"Yeah. Later."

He walked off towards his dorm for a nap before he had to go to class. His elation from his flight was long since past, but for some indefinable reason, he still felt like skipping a little as he walked. He decided it was probably relief to have escaped the girl's company. And that was when it occurred to him that he hadn't even asked her name. Or her phone number.


What was his name? Had he said it? Had she asked? Lois couldn't even remember. Everything had happened so fast, she hadn't even gotten a clear look at his face. He had dark hair and glasses, which seemed familiar somehow. Blue eyes? Dark? She hadn't really been able to see. Well, it had been dark. That was a safe excuse. It kept her from having to think about how she'd avoided meeting his eye.

Of course, he was probably a frat boy. Or a dork, with those glasses. Strong dork. Not every guy could have lifted her the way he did. Muscles.

Definitely a frat boy. Another Claude. Not someone she wanted to get involved with. So why did she wish he'd asked for her phone number? She wouldn't have given it to him. Of course not.


Metropolis University, Metropolis, New Troy, 1988 — Clark is 22 years old

After some maneuvering, Clark managed to extricate himself from the body of well-wishers and make it through the crowd to his parents.

"Ah, the graduate!" Jonathan said, slapping Clark on the back. "I'm proud of you, son."

Martha's eyes looked a little misty as she hugged Clark tightly. "Congratulations, honey," she whispered into his ear.

"I couldn't have done it without your support, Mom and Dad. You've been the best parents a guy could wish for." He smiled at both of them, a smile that went vacant a moment later as he focused on a distant sound. His face paled.

"What is it?" Jonathan asked. "Did you forget something?"

Clark shook his head. "Trouble," he said curtly.

A man appeared at the edge of the crowd. His clothes were mismatched and stained, and he stood out sharply from the well-dressed crowd of graduates and their families. But what made him stand out the most was the gun he was waving around.

"Suzy!" he called. The crowd gasped and parted before him. A woman somewhere screamed. Clark edged his way through the crowd towards the man, hoping to avert a catastrophe.

One of the administrators was also approaching the man through the crowd. "Excuse me, sir, you can't just… oh my god, he's got a gun."

"Thass right, I got a gun!" the man said, waving it some more. "And I want to see Suzy and Tommy. Is that so bad, just to want to see my son on his graduation day?"

He suddenly caught sight of a blonde woman standing on the edge of the crowd, gripping the arm of her tall son firmly.

"Suzy!" he shouted, advanced towards her.

Suzy backed away, her eyes wide. The son, Tommy, didn't seem quite certain what to do. His eyes flicked back and forth between his parents.

"Can you believe my wife?" the man said. "She divorces me, then she takes my son away from me? Now, I ask you, is that fair? All I want to do is see my son on his big day. Hello, Tommy. Come give Daddy a hug."

The boy shook his head and backed away.

The man's eyes darkened as he lowered his gun towards his wife. "So, she's poisoned you against me, has she? I'll fix that."

Clark was almost at the man's side, but at those words he didn't wait any longer. Graduation robes flowing, he jumped the man, knocking him to the ground. The gun went off, startling everyone and provoking a new round of shrieks.

Clark dragged himself to his feet, keeping a strong grip on the distraught man's wrists and pulling him up with him.

"You're hurt!" someone said, grabbing Clark's arm.

He looked down at his sleeve, where there was a gaping tear in the loose robe. "It didn't hit me," he said. "It must have just grazed the material."

The woman stared at him, somewhat puzzled.

A security guard rushed to take control of the man. Clark tried to take advantage of this to disappear into the crowd to his parents, but several people crowded around him.

"You were so brave!" someone said. "I can't believe you didn't get hurt."

"He came awful close," the first woman said, grabbing his sleeve. "See?"

Clark met his parents' eyes, knowing he was probably mirroring their own expressions of fright. "Um, I gotta go," he said, pulling away. He jogged towards his parents, and together they hurried towards the parking lot.


Clark sat on one of the boxes in his room and faced his parents. "So… "

"Somebody's suspicious," Jonathan said. "Again."

"Aren't we leaping to conclusions?" Martha asked. "Maybe nobody will remember it? I mean, that bullet really could have just go through your robe."

"Maybe," Clark said. "But is it good to have people start to notice that I'm always around when things like that occur? Since I've been in college I've saved a girl from a fire, rescued a girl from the roof, prevented countless car accidents, and today stopped a man from shooting his wife."

"Rescued a girl from a roof? When did that happen?" Martha asked.

"It's a long story. But even if every rescue I do can be explained again, it's a risk to have my name constantly connected to rescues and last-minute saves."

Jonathan touched Clark's shoulder lightly. "What are you trying to say?" he asked.

What was he trying to say? He didn't even quite know himself.

"I guess… that I think I should leave Metropolis for a few years."

Martha's eye lit up. "And come back to Smallville?"

"No, Mom," Clark said. He hated to see the hurt in his mother's eyes, and he knew she wanted her to live close to them. But couldn't she see that it would put them at risk? "I was thinking another big city, where nobody knows me."

"Like where?" Jonathan asked.

Clark shrugged. "Maybe Washington, D.C.? I could try for a job at the Washington Post."

"Would they hire you right out of college?" Martha asked, doubt clear in her voice.

"Well, I can try. If not, there are many other smaller newspapers I can apply to. With some luck I'll get the experience that way. And if I stay away from Metropolis for a few years, there will be less risk of people remembering me by the time I have the experience to come work for the Daily Planet."

"Still your dream to work for the Planet?" Jonathan asked.

Clark nodded.

"Well, it sounds like you've thought this through," Martha said. "You're a grown man, now, and it's time for you to make your own decisions. Your father and I will always be there for you if you need us, though. And if you ever decide to come back to Smallville, we'd love to have you."

"Thanks, guys," Clark said, hugging them both. "I'll be careful, I promise."

"Oh, Clark," Martha said, standing up quickly, "we have something for you." She walked out of the room, leaving Clark to stare after her, mystified.

"I almost forgot about it!" Jonathan said, grinning at his wife. He turned back to Clark. "You see, there was something we found in the ship you arrived in, so many years ago. It's pretty simple, but we thought that you might like to have something to remind you of where you came from. Sort of a souvenir, I guess."

Martha walked back into the room, carrying a small box. She handed it to Clark without a word.

Clark opened the box and stared at its contents. Inside was a perfect globe of the Earth, incredibly detailed and perfect. He gingerly grasped the globe and lifted it out of the box.

He almost dropped the globe when it light up. "What the—" he started, staring at it. He could hear his parents gasp at the edge of his consciousness, but the sound seemed very far away, as if he was dreaming.

The colors of the globe swirled and changed before him, and when they resettled, they had changed to the blue and orange pattern of unfamiliar oceans and continents. But, at the same time, they were completely familiar.

"Krypton," he whispered.

"What?" Martha asked, grabbing his arm. He jerked back into consciousness and put the globe softly back into its box.

"Krypton. That's where I came from," he said. "I really am an alien! I… really am an alien."

"How do you know?" Jonathan asked, taking the box before Clark dropped it.

"I don't know," Clark said. "I can't explain it. I just… know."

He stared at the box. The swirling colors definitely hadn't been his imagination, the globe had actually changed to different colors and patterns. The continents and oceans didn't look all that different from Earth, at least in proportion. But they were shaped and located differently. Was the odd orange just to differentiate the globe from Earth's, or was Krypton's land actually orange? He couldn't quite picture orange land.

He extended a tentative finger to trace the edge of a continent. The globe glowed just slightly at his touch, as if it was eager to see him again after all these years. But it didn't light up or swirl again.

He smiled up at his parents. "Thank you," he said. "This means a lot to me."

"I'm sorry we didn't give it to you sooner," Martha said.

"Yeah, Martha put it up in the attic when you were a baby and forgot about it entirely," Jonathan quipped.


"Well, you did. I always said that attic was a black- hole."


Clark carefully closed the door behind him and then floated the boxes he was carrying the rest of the way into the room. He sat them down on the floor in what would, hopefully, eventually resemble a living room.

Opening the top box, he glanced inside for a clue as to where the box belonged. He sighed as he took out a newspaper-wrapped graduation photo. It wasn't the graduation photo that made him sigh, though. The paper that he unfolded and lay out before him was a copy of the Daily Planet.

He'd be starting work as an intern at the Maryland Gazette tomorrow. He hadn't managed a job at the Post, as his mother had predicted. The Gazette was a smaller local paper, but it had the distinction of being the oldest continuously running newspaper in the country. And if he could manage to climb the ranks to a respected employee at that paper, it would help his resume when he went to apply to bigger papers.

That was, if he managed to avoid getting into problems for long enough to rise in the ranks. He hadn't even managed to move in without using a bit of superpowers to save an elderly neighbor from falling down the stairs.

But all the same, he wasn't where he really wanted to be. He'd trade being the editor of any other newspaper for a job as a copyboy at the Daily Planet. He'd wanted to work there since he was a little boy, and he hadn't changed his mind over the years.

He set the picture aside and took out the next object. It was that box that his parents had given him on the day of his graduation.

Carefully opening the box, he took the globe out and held it in his hands.

A bright light suddenly surrounded the globe, accompanied by a sharp electric shock that startled Clark into dropping the globe on the floor. It hit with a resounding crack, and Clark winced as he reached down to pick it up, hoping it hadn't broken.

He grasped it carefully with both hands and lifted it slowly to eye level. Suddenly a beam of light shot out, and what appeared to be a hologram stood in the room in front of him.

Clark watched in awe as a man who introduced himself as his father, Jor-El, told him his real name, where he'd come from, and everything that his parents had done to save him when their planet was about to explode.

"Kal-El," he said softly, repeating the name his father had told him was his own. "My name is Kal-El." He imagined introducing himself to someone that way, and wondered what weird reactions he'd get.

It suddenly occurred to him that there was someone else who deserved to hear this. He glanced outside. Dark enough. He opened one of the windows and quietly flew out.


Martha took the globe in her hands and stroked it gently, seeming unable to believe what Clark had just said. "So you're really Kal-El, son of Jor-El, the last son of Krypton?" she asked softly.

"No, Mom," Clark said, taking one of her hands. "I'm really Clark Kent, son of Martha and Jonathan Kent. I just happen to have been born with the name Kal-El. On another planet."

She smiled at him and touched his face gently. "We love you, Clark."

He grinned back, then frowned as he tried to figure out how to explain to them what he'd been thinking about.

"What is it, son?" Jonathan asked.

"Well, it's just, the globe, and finding out about my past, made me do a lot of thinking on my way over. It just seems that my par—my birth parents did a lot to make sure I escaped the planet safely. They put everything on the line. And they succeeded."

"As you are proof," Martha said, frowning.

"Which is a miracle in itself, if you think about it. That they not only got me off the planet, but that I survived to travel millions of miles to get here. And I landed, not in an ocean or somewhere that nobody would find me, but in Schuster's field, where I was found by a couple who wanted a child and were kind and loving enough to take me in and be wonderful parents."


"Well, it's just, it's so amazing, so miraculous, that I ended up here today. And not only that, but that I have these special powers. I've regretted having them my entire life, because it keeps me from being normal. But I'm not normal. And I think knowing what my birth parents did to get me here makes me appreciate that. Maybe these powers aren't weird, but are… special. And it seems a waste to ignore them, to wish them away, to hide them and try not to use them except when I absolutely can't avoid it. I still want to lead a normal life, and not have the media flock to me all the time. But I think I've finally realized that I can't ignore them. So I've decided that I'll use my powers."

"Clark!" Martha said, grabbing Jonathan's arm.

"I won't do it obviously," Clark assured her. "I'll try my best to hide what I'm doing. But if keeping my secret means risking hurt to someone, I'll do whatever it takes to save them. It's part of me, and I have to do it, Mom."

"But what about when people notice you?" Jonathan asked.

"Then I'll move on. I've already had to twice, when I wasn't even trying to use my powers. I'm sure I'll have to move constantly. But Dad… I think I owe it to them."

"To your birth parents?"

"To them, to the Fates who brought me here, to the people of the world. I'll keep moving whenever somebody gets suspicious. And I won't let myself be traced back to you.

"I don't know, maybe it's stupid, but you know how people always ask why we're here? What the meaning of life is, what our purpose is? Well, I think I've found mine."


Metropolis University, Metropolis, New Troy, 1989 — Lois is 22 years old

"Yeah, that's my name," Wanda replied, avoiding eye contact with the stranger. She pulled her hand free from his. "And I'd ask you to keep your hands off me without my permission."

He raised an eyebrow. "Oh, but Wanda, you were eager for my touch last night."

She quickly glanced at the bartender and heaved a sigh of relief to see that he was at the other end of the bar. "Cut the crap," she said. "You know I wasn't with you last night."

"Maybe it was just a dream," he said thoughtfully. "I'm not sure I know anymore."

"What kind of pick-up line is that?" Wanda asked. She tapped her foot nervously, hoping Tobias would hurry back with her drinks order. She didn't want this man to know how much he was rattling her.

"One that leads to this," he said. With one smooth motion, he scooped her from her barstool and deposited her on his lap.

"What the—" she started, but was cut off mid-sentence when his mouth descended upon hers.

His kiss was hot and sensual, but not rough. She could easily have pushed him away. But she couldn't. From the moment he'd touched her, she'd felt that connection, and she couldn't let it go. She'd only felt that spark one time before, a long time ago. Why did it have to be here, now, when she felt it again?

A sudden crashing sound at the other side of the room startled Wanda into jumping off the stranger's lap and away from his dangerous kisses. Before she could even quite get her wits about her, she saw Tobias leap over the bar with a single fluid motion and race to break up the fight that was threatening to break heads and furniture.

The scream that accompanied the crashing sound forced Lois's pen out of her hand. She jumped up and ran towards the door, although similar crashes and screams had not been uncommon in her mother's house over the years.

"Mom?" she called, peering down the stairs into the dark living room. "Are you okay?"

Her only answer was a groan.

Rolling her eyes to cover her worry, Lois flipped on the light.

"Mom!" she screamed, when she saw her mother in a crumpled heap at the foot of the stairs. "Lucy!"

Lucy came barreling out of her room so fast she ran into Lois and would have caused her to fall face-first down the same stairs if Lois hadn't had a tight hold on the railing. Lois felt frozen in place, and she desperately hoped her sister knew what to do.

Lucy gasped when she saw their mother. She raced down the stairs, skipping over two and three at a time, until she was at their mother's side. "She's still breathing," she called up to Lois.

"Lucy, stay with Mom while I call 9-1-1, okay?"

Lucy nodded, and Lois turned to use the phone in her mother's room.


The doctor walked into the waiting room, and Lois felt Lucy grab her hand as they stood up. The doctor smiled gently at them.

"I'm Doctor Klonicki," she said. "Your mother is going to be okay. She has a broken leg and some broken ribs, and her blood alcohol was dangerously high." She paused for a moment, fiddling with her hands. "Do either of you think it's possible she tried to commit suicide?"

Lucy gasped, and Lois put an arm around her. "It's possible," Lois said, trying to be as honest as possible. "She's an alcoholic, and she's been in and out of treatment for it. You said she had high blood alcohol, and she gets very depressed when she's drinking."

"Mom wouldn't try to commit suicide, though," Lucy said, pushing Lois's arm away. "She loves us, and I know she wouldn't."

The doctor nodded at her, but she gave Lois a knowing look. "May I speak to you alone?" she asked.

"No!" Lucy said. "Lois is just going to say that maybe she did commit suicide. It's ridiculous, it is. Anything you want to say you can say to both of us."

Doctor Klonicki shrugged. "Well, I was going to suggest that somebody stay with her as much as possible. She should wake up soon, and it would help if she had a familiar face with her."

"I'll stay with her," Lucy said. "Lois is graduating tomorrow, she has to get ready for it."

"How about I stay with her overnight?" Lois suggested. "Then you can stay with her tomorrow while I'm busy."

"Okay," Lucy said. "But… that means that both Mom and I will miss your graduation. I guess I could leave Mom for a few hours, right?"

Doctor Klonicki started to nod, but Lois shook her head.

"No, that's okay, Lucy, you stay with Mom. It's just a stupid ceremony, after all. Over in a few hours. And Dad'll be there."

Lucy rolled her eyes. "Of course. Probably wouldn't miss it for the world. Are you sure you don't mind if I stay with Mom?"

"Not at all," Lois lied. "Why don't you go home and get some sleep, be here tomorrow morning?"

"I'll see you tomorrow then," Lucy said.


Lois wiped a tear from her eye and took a deep breath, forcing herself to concentrate. She faced her tearstained image in the mirror and willed her tear ducts to control themselves.

"Ladies and gentlemen. Teachers and fellow graduates.

"We have just finished four of the most important years of our lives: our years spent getting a college education. No matter where we go in the future, no matter where our lives will lead, we'll look back on these years as some of the best in our lives. A college education is something that nobody can ever take away from you… "

Lois burst into tears. She leaned forward until her head rested against the mirror, her tears slowly streaking down its shiny surface. Who would be there to watch her make this speech? She'd spent months hoping for it, planning for it, and wriggled with excitement over her secret for weeks. And only her father would be there to see it, perhaps with his newest babe-of-the-month in tow. Was it even worth it?

She closed her eyes and tried to control her breathing until she got her sobs under control. Then she straightened up and stared into the tear-stained mirror.

"Ladies and gentlemen. Teachers and fellow graduates."


"And now I'd like to introduce the University of Metropolis's valedictorian, Miss Lois Lane!"

The applause echoed in Lois's ears as she stepped up to the podium. She scanned the crowd one last time, but she already knew that her father wasn't there. She'd waited for him earlier. The biggest day of her life, and where was he? Probably off banging his newest girlfriend.

The applause died down slowly as Lois stared out blankly into the crowd. There was finally silence, or at least as much silence as a packed stadium could ever give, and she was taking too long to start. She fumbled slightly as she pulled out her crumpled notes and flattened them on the podium.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she started. "Teachers and fellow graduates."

"We have just finished four of the most important years of our lives—"

She broke off. A nervous sensation started to well in the pit of her stomach. She swallowed and took a deep breath.

"Four of the most important years of our lives. We're graduating from college."

And not a single member of my family came to watch me graduate.

"What does it take to get here today? I'd say that most of the odds have been stacked against me since I was a child."

Let's see, we can almost mentally tick off my family problems. Alcoholic mother, cheating and workaholic father, withdrawn sister with low self-esteem from years of parental neglect…

"I may not have come from poverty, or fought against discrimination, other than the discrimination against women in journalism… "

And my father's discrimination against any field that isn't medical and doesn't earn money in the 6 digits.

"But discouragement can be a powerful weapon in the right hands."

Like not showing up for my graduation. Were they busy? Not really. It depends if you consider my father's decision to spend the day in bed with his girlfriend instead of coming to this ceremony as being "busy." If you count the accident my mother was in last night, falling down the stairs while drunk, as being "busy." My sister is probably the only one with a real excuse, as she is taking care of my mother in the hospital.

"My father strongly disapproved of my career choice, and I was forced to take drastic measures… "


"… just to get a college education in the field I wanted. My father was prepared to pull out all the stops to force me to choose pre-med."

He's probably only glad that I'm graduating so that he doesn't have to pay for it anymore.

"And yet he discourages his one daughter who would actually like to become a doctor."

Lucy's become so withdrawn I hardly recognize her sometimes, and her self-esteem is so low that I worry about her constantly. She's the one who'd like to become a doctor, only my father considers her too much of a loser to actually succeed in it. And with her self-esteem, she's letting his prophecy come true.

"But the fact that I'm here today, graduating with a major in journalism, and giving the valedictorian speech, proves that a person can win the game even when all the cards are stacked against her."

Cards that are tumbling all around me today, with Mom in the hospital and Lucy with her. When did Mom get this bad? I didn't even notice. I have no idea when Mom's alcoholism started. Probably before I was even born. And I don't think Dad's affairs and lack of emotional support helped any.

"I'm not trying to make myself look good, or ask for your pity."

Please, please, don't pity me. Just listen to what I have to say.

"What I want to do is encourage you. At any point in your life, when you think it's impossible to get what you want, that the world is against you… well, maybe it is. But you're strong enough, if you want to be, to overcome that. To overcome anything. You don't need other people to help you. You can do and be anything you want on your own."

I will be a famous investigative reporter someday. Famous because I deserve it, because I'll break stories that will make Watergate look like a story about a Girl Scout bake sale.

"I think that I'm stronger because of the difficulties I've had to face in my family. I'm sure that what I've dealt with is nothing compared to what some people have experienced. But whether your obstacles are big or small, overcoming them is possible if you want it enough."

Time for some nice stereotypical encouragement things before I break down and start crying in front of this crowd.

"Graduates, get out there. Find what you want. Experiment. Live hard. Try everything. And when you discover what you want, hang on to it. Fight for it. Want it. Dig into it with both claws and refuse to let go. You'll be the better and the stronger a person for it. Dive in headfirst without checking the water first."

If people are always going to criticize me for that particular attribute, I might as well make the most out of it. See, people are nodding. Never again can somebody say that about me as if it's a bad thing.

"The rewards are worth it."

At least, they'd better be. Or I just got all dressed up in this stupid gown for nothing.

Lois smiled through the tears she hadn't been able to hold back. The audience was quiet for a long moment, and Lois feared that her impromptu speech had been terrible. But then, as if they shared one set of hands, the audience began to applaud as one. The graduates stood to give her a standing ovation, and they were joined by the rest of the audience.

Lois wasn't quite sure how to react, so she ducked her head, flashed a smile once more at the audience, and hurried back to her seat.

The rest of the ceremony seemed to go on forever, and Lois was sure she had aged two years before she finally escaped off the stage and into the procession leaving the room.

As soon as they were out of sight of the audience, Lois saw Molly break rank and run to her side. She sighed, hoping Molly wasn't going to tell her the speech was horrible.

"Geez, Lois," Molly said. "Your speech was great! You seemed more open than usual. Did you make that speech up on the spot?"

Lois shrugged. "I don't even know what I was doing. I had a speech all prepared, but it just didn't seem to ring true once I got up there."

"I guess your family never showed?" Molly asked.

Lois shook her head.

"I'm sorry," Molly said. She was obviously sincere, but the pity Lois could see in her face hurt more than scorn would have.

Tears stung Lois's eyes, but she was determined not to start crying again. "Thanks, Molly."

"Do you think your father just forgot?"

"It's possible. I'm going to go over there after the ceremony and show him the diploma. Who knows, maybe he'll feel bad about forgetting and take me out to lunch or something. Stranger things have happened."

"Well, just, don't get your hopes up too much, okay? I don't want you to get hurt," Molly said, squeezing Lois's hand one last time before disappearing into the crowd.


"I'm sorry, but Dr. Lane is busy right now. You'll have to try again later."

"What are you, his maid?" Lois shouted, furious.

The elderly woman looked down at her black-and-white maid uniform, then raised an eyebrow at Lois.

Lois blushed. "What I meant was… I'm his daughter, after all. I just graduated college today. I'm sure he'd want to see me. Can't you just tell him I'm here?"

The woman shook a duster in Lois's face, and Lois was hard- put not to sneeze. "No, I can't tell him you're here. He gave specific instructions that he was not to be disturbed. You'll have to come back later."

"Oh, okay," Lois said, turning away dejectedly. She took a step towards the door, then in one smooth fluid motion spun on her heel, ducked under the maid's arm, and raced towards her father's office.

"Lois! Lois, get back here! Lois, don't go in there!" Lois could hear the maid calling in the background. She didn't stop. As she rounded the corner, she almost slipped on the slick wood floor and ran into the sliding glass doors to the patio. She caught herself just in time, grabbed the door handle of her father's office, and flung it open.

She stepped inside, trying to calm her breathing after the run. "Dad!" she exclaimed, seeing him seated in a leather chair behind his desk, a leggy blonde draped around him. The blonde had his shirt open and was kissing him at the base of his neck.

"Lois," her father said sharply, opening his eyes. The blonde started to pull away, but he quickly stopped her. "Keep going, that feels wonderful," he said softly to the blonde. Then to Lois, "what are you doing here? I told Sandra that I was not to be disturbed."

"I got past her. Dad, you missed my graduation today."

Sam glanced at his watch carelessly. "Oh, was that today? I must have forgotten."

"You didn't forget, did you?" Lois said, crossing the room to stand in front of his desk. She tried to keep her anger moderated. "You purposely didn't go, just to spite me, because I didn't major in what you wanted."

"You got what you want," her father said. "You got that precious degree, and you forced me to pay for it. That was the deal, and the extent of it. I'm done with you now."

A frisson of fear ran up Lois's spine, but she held eye contact with him. "And what does that mean, exactly?"

"It means that you had better never come to me for financial assistance." He moaned slightly at the blonde's ministrations. "It means that I don't want you to ever set foot in this house again. And don't you dare ask your mother for help, either. As of this moment, you've been disowned. I don't care if Lucy or Ellen wants to see you, but they had better not do so in Ellen's house, which I also pay for. You've made your bed, I believe the saying is," he said with a raw chuckle, "now lie in it."

"Oh, I plan to," Lois said. Her voice shook as she spoke, but with luck he'd assume it to be with anger. "You'll see my name in the paper and you'll realize what you've done. But by then it won't matter… " her voice cracked. "It won't matter, because I'll have long since disowned you. Farewell, father."

As she crossed to the door and headed out the same way she came in, this time brushing past a dejected maid who had obviously listened in to the entire conversation, she realized that she appeared to have cried more today than she ever had before in her entire life.


Lois's shadow stretched before her, a long, thin version of herself. Shadow-Lois danced just ahead of her human counterpart, keeping just a step ahead no matter how fast Lois ran. She just skipped and waltzed tantalizingly out of Lois's way with each step.

The t-shirt and jeans Lois had thrown on for her trip to her father's were showing their resentment at the workout Lois was giving them. The tight jeans constricted movement and, from running in the heat and humidity of late May, made her feel as if her legs were in an oven.

Her t-shirt was soaked with sweat, and Lois winced at the picture she must make. Gone was the perfect Lois Lane, the aloof and unattainable ice princess of the class of '89.

When Lois realized that her physical state was starting to register, she stopped running. How many hours had passed since she first started jogging, she had no idea. Her shadow certainly hadn't been so long when she'd left her father's house.

Glancing around to get her bearings, she caught sight of a tall wrought-iron gate on her left. "Centennial Park," she whispered. Perfect.

Ever since she was a child, Centennial Park had been a special place to her. The only real semblance of nature one could find in the city, it had been a haven. When her parents' arguments or her mother's drunken fits had become too much for her, the park offered her quiet. When the world seemed its darkest and Lois had refused to allow her family to see what they were doing to her, the park alone was privy to her tears.

At the north side of the park, a small pond gave children a place to feed ducks and families a place to fish and picnic. Most of the activity tended to be crowded around the small rocky beach, leaving the rest of the pond's banks untouched. Lois headed for the most secluded edge of the pond now.

She sat on the grass with her back against a tree, looking out over the water. A few kids were attempting to paddle a canoe about the pond, but they didn't seem to have gotten the hang of paddling on opposites sides of the canoe, so they were going in circles. A smile crept onto her face as she watched them.

By the time the kids had managed to discover how to move the boat forwards, the sun had dropped low enough in the sky to make a painful glare off the lake. Lois closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of the lake.

When she opened her eyes, it was no longer the glare of the sun spread across the pond, but the softer gleam of the moon. The sky had grown dark while she slept. She realized she must have been out for hours.

Someone cleared his throat behind her. Lois turned slowly to see a dark-haired young man with glasses sitting behind her. Watching her.

"You're here," Lois said matter-of-factly.

"Yes." He opened a picnic basket she hadn't noticed by his side, and lifted out a picnic blanket.

"That must mean that I'm still asleep and dreaming. You only come when I dream."

He spread out the blanket between them before he answered. "So you've finally noticed."

"I didn't used to know you were only a dream. Why do I know now?"

He stopped his activity and faced her. His dark eyes seemed to cut through all pretense between them as he met her eyes. "I think you know."

"I'm too old for fantasies. But then why are you here? Why all this?" she asked, sweeping a hand to indicate the picnic dinner he was setting out.

"Because you needed me," he said simply. "We're never too old to dream of something else, something better, as long as we know we're dreaming. You could no longer accept me as somebody who was able to reappear mysteriously in your life every time you needed me. By understanding my appearance as a dream, you're willing to take chances you'd never take in real life."

"So why does my dream guy talk like he should be an old wise man on a mountain somewhere?" she asked. "I'm not really subconsciously attracted to guys like that, am I?"

He looked affronted, if a dream-figure could look affronted. "I'm just explaining. You asked, after all. And, I'm sorry to say this, but you have no idea what your dream guy is like. He'll surprise you. At least, I hope he will."

She winced. "I guess that's why I keep dating guys like Mike and Claude and getting hurt?"

He had the wisdom not to respond. He was busily opening the cartons he'd set out on the blanket.

A whiff of chow mein reached Lois's nose. "You brought Chinese food for a romantic picnic dinner?" Lois asked, laughing. "Maybe you really are my dream guy."

He pushed his glasses back on his nose and smiled at her. "Maybe I am. Do you want to give me a hand here? Chivalry only goes so far."

"Oh, sorry," she said. She reached into the basket and pulled out two candelabras and a book of matches. "Dinner by candlelight?"

"I thought it'd be romantic," he said. He blushed, and Lois had to laugh. Dreams could blush?

"Oh, it is," she assured him. "Very romantic. Fits right in with the Chinese takeout."

He laughed, and Lois delighted in the sound. His laugh was deep and rich and real. She was so used to forced-laughter that the sound of his laughter delighted her.

"Do that again," she commanded, smiling.

"Do what?" he asked. He cocked his head in puzzlement.

"Laugh," she said. "Your laugh… I've never heard anyone laugh that way. Like you haven't a care in the world."

"When I laugh, I don't," he said. "You haven't had much laughter in your life, have you, little one?" He touched her face gently, caressing her cheek. He slid his hand through her hair and pulled her face toward him. "So soft," he said, still stroking her hair. "Lois, you are so beautiful."

For a moment Lois let the words charm her. But then she remembered that she was still wearing her sweaty clothes from her run earlier, and her hair was probably falling out of the loose knot she'd tied it in. Scrubbing her face of tears after leaving her father's house had removed every semblance of makeup.

She pulled away quickly. "I'm not beautiful," she choked out. "I look terrible, and you know it."

He grabbed her upper arm before she could escape. "Lois," he said. "Look at me."

She shook her head, keeping her eyes averted.

"Lois, look at me," he said again. A note of pleading entered his voice. "Please."

She reluctantly allowed him to pull her towards him again. After a long moment, she raised her eyes to meet his.

With a tentative touch that sent a shock straight to her heart, he traced her eyebrows, her nose, and her lips. She sat perfectly still, shaken. His touch did something to her, made her feel something she'd never felt before. It scared her, and it took an extreme act of willpower to keep her from pulling away again. After he'd explored all the contours of her face, he removed his hand. For a moment she felt bereft at its loss.

"Lois," he said softly, but insistently. "You are beautiful."

The same dark eyes were staring into hers. Dark eyes that could read her mind and touch her soul. He couldn't possibly lie to her. Those eyes, they could never lie.

Lois suddenly jerked away, a sob escaping before she could hide it.

"Oh, Lois," he said, grabbing her again and pulling her close to him. He wrapped strong, protective arms around her and let her nestle against his chest. "I'm here," he whispered.

"No, you're not," she said. "Not really."

She could feel him stiffen, and she hurried to amend her hurtful words.

"But that doesn't matter. You're here in the way that counts."


Desert country near Beledweyne, Somalia, 1990 — Clark is 24 years old

Clark shaded his eyes and looked out over the horizon. The ground was fairly flat, with nothing other than sand and rock and the occasional stunted growth in sight. Yes, he was most definitely lost. He sighed.

A sudden sharp jolt to his ankle startled Clark, and he looked down to see a desert scorpion scuttle away. Poor thing probably dented its stinger on Clark's ankle. He gazed after it, a vague sense of foreboding making him wonder what kind it was. In these parts, one couldn't be too careful. Two of the most dangerous scorpions in the world freely roamed the area, even in habited locales. But they didn't count on a Kryptonian's invulnerable skin.

To the southwest, the land seemed somewhat more habitable, more rock than sand. Vegetation was still sparse, but even that was better than nonexistent. He turned towards the southwest.

Even though he was in what one could probably be safe in calling "the middle of nowhere" and no human was in sight, Clark still tried to keep his pace to that of a fit human's. He couldn't afford to have someone come up on him unawares and catch him doing something super.

About an hour after he'd seen the scorpion, a muted sound caught Clark's ear. The wind was rushing over the rocks in a way that tended to obscure distant sounds, so he headed in the right direction and hoped he'd pick it up again.

Clark scanned the ground before him as he listened for the source of the sound. When he caught sight of something that stood out against the rock, he began to run.

In a moment he was at the side of a man, dressed in nomadic robes. The man was groaning and curled in on himself. His body seemed to be jerking spasmodically.

Clark quickly tuned in to the man's heart rate and organ functions with his super-hearing and vision. His heart was beating rapidly and erratically, and his swollen lungs looked in danger of giving out. He was obvious in the last stages of a severe attack of some sort. But what?

"Sir!" Clark said, shaking the man. "Can you tell me what's wrong?"

The man groaned and hissed, but uttered nothing of value.

A sudden vision of the scorpion came to Clark's mind. Could this be the victim of a scorpion sting? He'd studied scorpions when he first came to the desert, but the symptoms varied such from person to person that it was hard to tell.

Making a quick gamble, Clark stood up and flew away with a whoosh. It was unlikely that the man would notice his takeoff, given the situation.

He was at the nearest hospital in an instant, quickly explaining the man's symptoms and his suspicions to an on- call doctor.

"I have no time to spare!" Clark said, when the doctor appeared to be taking his time making a diagnosis.

The doctor frowned at him. "The symptoms you describe could be from a scorpion bite, but they could be from something else entirely, including a snake bite. And I don't even know if what you're telling me is the truth. Yet you want me to release the antivenin to you, without even examining the man?"

"It will save his life," Clark said firmly. "I can't take you to him, not in time."

The doctor stroked his beard, and Clark suppressed the urge to scoop him up and take him to the dying man, even if it would reveal his powers, just so that the doctor could understand the urgency.

Finally, the doctor must have seen something in Clark's face, for he nodded. "I'll release the antivenin to you," he said.

Clark breathed a sigh of relief. That battle over, it was only a few short minutes before he was able to take to the air again.

A few short minutes that were almost too long. Clark reached the dying man and followed the doctor's directions, administering the antivenin as quickly as he dared. He monitored the man's heart rate and breathing until, to his relief, they slowly headed back towards normal.

The man's lungs were still swollen and full of fluid, but as the man came back to consciousness, Clark helped him to sit up and cough until he was able to draw clear breath again.

The man looked at Clark with bleary red eyes. "You—you saved my life, didn't you?" he asked in low-pitched Somali.

Fortunately, Somali was one of the 347 languages that Clark had happened to pick up. He ducked his head modestly. "I did what I could."

"But what happened?" he asked.

Clark shook his head. "I'm not entirely sure, but you must have been bitten by a scorpion. I saw one a little ways before I found you, it could have even been the same one."

The man sat up a little straighter. "Do you know who I am?" he asked proudly.

Clark flushed. He wasn't very familiar with the locals, but he didn't want to insult the man by telling him he didn't.

After a long silence, the man laughed. "I didn't expect you to answer. But I am Harmayu, the chief of my tribe. I would be honored if you would accompany me back to my people. I believe I have a reward for your bravery and good deed."

"Oh, please, sir," Clark said, growing red with embarrassment. "I don't need a reward. Anybody would have done the same."

"Anybody would not have done the same," the chief insisted. "You must come with me and meet my family. There, I will present you with your reward."

Clark reluctantly accompanied the chief back to his tribe. It turned out to be a good choice, because Harmayu was still very weak. Clark scanned his heart and lungs at intervals, and he was relieved to find that the older man was improving, albeit slowly.

Harmayu's tribe turned out to be camping on a plain that had enough of the tough, sparse grass to feed the small herd of goats. It didn't surprise him to find that they were nomadic goat-herders; many tribes in the area were. What puzzled him was why the chief had been so far from the tribe.

"Aabe!" a young man called, hurrying from the tent.

The chief smiled broadly. "This is Aleeke, my son," he introduced.

Clark held out a hand to shake. Aleeke looked at it, puzzled, for a moment, then took it and gave it a squeeze.

"I'm Clark," he said.

A girl, heavily veiled, emerged from one of the tents.

Harmayu walked up to her with a smile and took her hands in his. "Clark," he said, calling him over, "this is my daughter, Waris."

Only her eyes showed through the veil, but Clark got the impression that Waris smiled at him. She gave a slight bow.

"Waris," Harmayu said, "Clark saved my life. He didn't have to do so, he could easily have walked away. He's a good man, and he deserves a reward."

"Please, sir," Clark protested, "I don't need any reward."

The chief ignored him and continued to speak to his daughter. "Please bring Clark the cup."

The girl stared at her father in seeming disbelief for a moment, but she said nothing. Clark heard the chief's son gasped and wondered at it. Finally, the girl turned quickly and walked into the tent.

"The reward being I am about to bestow upon you is a great honor," the chief said. "It directly makes you a member of the tribe and my son."

Clark quickly glanced at Aleeke, but the young man didn't seem resentful, only shocked. Maybe being made the chief's son wouldn't usurp Aleeke's position after all. But how could the chief dream of giving him such an honor when they'd hardly met, and he'd done what any decent person would do.

Waris returned very slowly, almost comically so. Harmayu looked merely annoyed on the surface, but by judging the tenseness in his shoulders and face, the tightness of his jaw, and the fierceness in his eyes, Clark judged that for some reason, Harmayu seemed a great deal beyond annoyed with his daughter. Why, Clark couldn't fathom. She seemed to be reluctant and moving slowly, but then it did seem like Harmayu was giving her all the chores and orders, while Clark and Aleeke stood around doing nothing. And if the chief really did intend to make Clark his son, a little resentment among the chief's children seemed natural.

The girl carried the cup to the chief, and he motioned to another woman. The woman separated one of the camels from the herd and led it to stand in front of Waris. Waris touched the camel and spoke soothingly to it, though her body language was anything but calm.

Clark heard soft murmuring sounds from behind him, and he turned from watching the girl to see that most of the tribe seemed to have gathered behind and around him. Their expressions were mixes of surprise, disapproval, and delight. It seemed, however, that the majority of the tribe members were displeased with Clark's "adoption." He wondered that the chief had chosen to make such an unpopular motion. Were foreigners rarely adopted into the tribes? He supposed it was possible.

One young man stood at the edge of the crowd. He was about Aleeke's age, and wouldn't have stood out for any particular reason, if it wasn't for the scowl and look of intense hatred he directed at Clark.

Clark studied him closely. He was a good-looking lad, at least to the extent that Clark could judge. He was also completely unfamiliar, which negated Clark's having met him before. For, with his photographic memory, he never forgot a face.

If the young man didn't know him, then the only justification for his hatred had to either be a prejudice against Clark himself, or anger about one of the few things that Clark had done while he'd been with the tribe. He'd saved the chief's life… could this be the angry disappointed successor? He'd been adopted into the tribe as the chief's son… could this young man resent that? Or was it the prejudice against foreigners that Clark had discovered around the globe? One would think that you couldn't possibly feel so strongly against another person merely based on the color of their skin or hair, or because they came from a foreign land. But he had been amazed at the degree to which people were prone to isolate those who were different just to make themselves look better.

"Aleeke," Clark whispered.

The young man looked startled. "Yes?" he asked.

"Who is the man in the red tunic?" he asked, motioned with a jerk of his head. "The one who's staring at me as if I'm evil incarnate."

"As if you're what?" Aleeke asked, puzzled.

"Never mind. The man who looks like he hates me."

Aleeke glanced at the man and frowned. "Never mind that," he said. "You should be paying attention."

"His name, at least?"

"Galcaio. Now, before you miss something, watch!"

Waris had finished milking the camel, and was holding a cup full of its milk. She carried the vessel to her father, who shook the cup and peered inward.

"This is good milk," he said. "Milk that comes from the best of my camels. It symbolizes the gift I am about to give." He handed the cup back to Waris. Then he looked towards Clark.

Aleeke nudged Clark's arm. "You should give my father a gift now."

A gift? What did he have to give?

"What kind?" he whispered back.

Aleeke shrugged. "Aabe knows that you are a foreigner and a traveler. Not much is expected."

Clark quickly thought through the contents of his pockets and rucksack, and brightened as an idea came to him. Pulling the rucksack from his back, he dug his hand in and pulled out a pocketknife. It was a rather expensive one, a gift from a distant uncle for his college graduation. It was extremely sharp, and Clark had taken excellent care of it with a small whetting stone that had accompanied the knife. He handed the knife to the chief.

The chief stared at it, puzzled. Clark reached over and showed him how to open it, and the chief gasped with what Clark fervently hoped was pleasure. He flipped it open a few times, tried the whetting stone, and smiled at Clark.

"This is an excellent knife," the chief said. "It hides its strength and prevents the innocent from injuring themselves on it. But when its sharpness is called for, it is ready. Thank you, Clark."

Clark smiled shyly.

The chief nodded at Waris, and she carried the cup to Clark and held it out to him, eyes lowered and body language very subservient. Clark took the cup uncertainly.

"You drink from it," Aleeke hissed. "One deep sip."

Clark stared at the camel milk cautiously, then steeled himself and took a deep sip. To his surprise, it wasn't all that bad, though very different from cow's milk. He handed the cup back to Waris.

Waris took a sip, a smaller, more feminine sip. Then she carried the cup to her father.

He carefully poured the remaining milk into another cup. He drank, then passed it to his son, who then passed it around to several others before the milk ran out. Harmayu then threw the first cup down onto the rocky ground, where it broke. He gave up a shout, and the other members of the tribe joined in.

"Welcome to the clan," the chief said to Clark with a smile. "Now, we celebrate!"


Clark emerged from the chief's tent with his head swimming. He'd been subjected on a lecture of how a Somali man lives, what his duties are, how he treats a wife, and how children should be raised. He was hesitant on explaining to the chief that he couldn't stay permanently among these people. While he was proud to have been inducted into the tribe, this wasn't a region where he could work at a newspaper. He was a journalist, and while it was one thing to explore the world to find stories, it was another to remain with a nomadic tribe where such a thing as a "newspaper" didn't exist.

The women were setting a large platter in the middle of a foldout table. Most of the plate was filled with things that looked somewhat like a pancake, and there were a few roots of some sort around the edge of the platter.

Clark noticed that the women held back while the men went forward to eat. Each of the men seemed to just reach out and grab what they wanted, so Clark followed suit. He grabbed one of the pancakes and a root and sat down by the fire one of the women had started. He tasted the pancake first. It was actually pretty good, though a bit dry. The root was definitely… unique. But it offered more water content than the pancakes, and liquid seemed to be scarce enough in the desert.

After all the men had taken their share, the women took theirs, and then the children grabbed what was left. Clark would have laughed at their grumbling over who got what, except for the realization that these weren't children fighting over treats—they were fighting over the sustenance they'd need to survive. This tribe wasn't starving, like some he'd seen, but food was still precious, and there would be children who wouldn't make it. He'd never really seen the impact of "the survival of the fittest" until he'd begun his travels.

Clark noticed that as the women finished eating, they immediately began to clean up and gather the children. Then most of the women disappeared into one of the larger tents.

"Come, Clark," the chief said, motioning for Clark to follow him. He led Clark into a small tent on the fringe of the camp and motioned for him to go in. "She'll be there in just a minute."

"Who?" Clark asked. But the chief had already gone.

Clark waited impatiently, pacing as much as possible in the confined area. A few minutes later, he heard a sound outside, and a girl ducked under the flap and walked into the tent.

To his surprise, when she lifted her head to meet his eyes, he found that it was the chief's daughter, Waris.

"Waris! Why are you here?"

A look of bewilderment crossed her face, then her brow creased. "You know why I am here, husband."

Clark stared at her. "Husband?"

"Yes," she said impatiently. "You married me just a few hours ago. Don't you remember?"

Clark thought back. The adoption ceremony? "But I thought I was just being inducted into the clan."

She laughed. "And just how do you think a man is inducted into a clan? A woman is given as a bride to create unity between the clans. You, of course, are a foreigner with no clan. But you saved my father's life, a great favor. He owed you a great favor in return. So you have earned a high-status wife. Me. What did you think that ceremony was? We both drink of the wedding cup, then it is smashed so that no other may drink of it. That's a tradition among our tribe."

Clark could have sworn her expression had morphed into one of resentment, and he decided to probe a bit. "But you aren't happy to be married to me."

She lowered her eyes. "A woman marries the man her parents choose for her, or a man who offers and meets her parents' approval."

"That doesn't answer my question. What do you feel?"

"No, I didn't want to marry you, are you happy?" she said sharply. A tear slowly disappeared below the veil. "You may know my language, but you are in every way a foreigner. You don't belong here. You don't even know our traditions well enough to know when you are being married!"

"Do people often meet the tribe and get married off on the same day?"

She blushed. "Well, no. I think my father was anxious to make amends for the rescue before you left. Usually I'd get a real wedding." Her voice turned somewhat wistful. "With dancing and music, and the women would paint my hands and feet with henna so that I could be beautiful for my husband, and the men would chew khat and talk of great things… " She closed her eyes. "But, that does not matter. I am married to you now."

"Is that all that bothers you?" Clark asked.

"Of course," she said, a little too forcefully. "What else would there be?"

A niggling suspicion was growing in his mind. She seemed to resent him and the hasty marriage, but he still had the feeling that it wasn't necessarily him that she objected to, per se. "Who was the young man at the wedding, the one that Aleeke said was named Galcaio?"

Her face paled. "He's a member of the clan, of course."

"Only a member of the clan?"

"Why, what else should he be?"

Clark shrugged. "Maybe I'm wrong, but I get the sense that maybe you're in love with him."

"In love with him!" She turned away angrily. "A woman of my clan does not fall in love. Not like your stupid western ways. She marries the man her father chooses for her, and that is that."

"He obviously feels the same," Clark murmured, ignoring her protestations. "So what's keeping you apart?" An idea came to him. "She marries the man her father chooses… or the one who her parents' approve of. Did your father reject his suit?"

"Soundly," she said, still facing away. "Galcaio is low- rank. He is not 'good enough' for me, Aabe says. I had to marry you instead. You, a foreigner! Of no rank. If only Galcaio had been the one to save my father. Then, perhaps, I would be here tonight with him instead."

Clark gently grasped her shoulders and turned her to face him. He touched her face gently. "Waris, you're a very sweet girl. But I cannot marry you. I cannot stay here among your tribe. I was honored to think that I was being inducted into the tribe, but I thought that I'd be able to leave when the time came. I'll have to leave now."

"No!" she said, pulling away. "You cannot leave!"

Clark was puzzled. "But you don't want to be married to me."

"But don't you see? A woman's purity is a great honor. If you declare the wedding to have been a false one, I will have spent the night with a non-mahram man. I will be considered impure, and lose a great deal of face."

Clark thought for a moment. That could, perhaps, work to their advantage. "Is marrying the man you love worth losing your rank?"

"Of course."

"And would he still be willing to marry you if you weren't the chief's daughter?"

"Of course. He loves me, as I love him."

"Then," Clark said, "I have an idea."

Waris cocked her head. "Oh, great, the foreigner has a plan. Everything's all right now." She rolled her eyes. "You didn't even know the ways of my people well enough to avoid getting roped into a marriage. I think you'd better tell me your plan so I can make sure it'll work."

"Not a plan, exactly," Clark said. "Just the truth. After all, the truth shall set you free," Clark whispered. It probably was a better idea to tell her everything anyway, so that she could decide if she was willing to go through with it.

Fortunately, she agreed. "It may be a bit humiliating, but I think it should work. And if it fails… "

"I will keep my promise to take you to my country and find a place for you," he said softly. "If that is what you want."

Waris nodded. "If this works, I'll stay here. But if it doesn't, I want a chance to start a new life, a place where I can be my own person."

Clark smiled at her. "You already are."


Despite his pretense of being completely confident, Clark couldn't sleep for nervousness. He knew perfectly well that he wasn't at risk. He could fly out of here anytime, and nobody would be able to find him. There wasn't a legal system that could or would chase him, for he hadn't agreed to the marriage in any way that would stand up in a court.

But for Waris, he was nervous. He hadn't been in Somalia long, but he had quickly learned the position of women in this society. Waris's position was very precarious, and if all didn't go well, then she would lose everything she'd been born with.

Clark had never abandoned his responsibilities, though, and he wasn't about to start now. If he couldn't reconcile Waris with her tribe without having to remain married to her, then he would take her with him and find a place for her elsewhere in the world. She didn't speak any English, but she was intelligent and quick-witted, and she'd learn quickly. If he didn't know she'd grown up among the tribe, in fact, he'd have thought her an American woman of the 90s. Her personality wasn't what he would have expected from the more submissive position of a nomadic tribal woman. But perhaps she wasn't so very unusual, and the women of the tribe simply learned to be subtler about getting their way.

Clark rolled over to face the sleeping body of his "wife." She was lovely, and he almost wished that he could stay here and be married to her. She had a temper and a personality that he felt he could probably fall in love with, given time. Maybe they wouldn't exactly be soulmates, but who believed in that, anyway? And… he swallowed as he took in her attractive body, ill-concealed under the lightweight wrap she wore to bed. He quickly rolled to his other side and stared at the tent wall. The fact that he was 24 and still a virgin didn't help things any.


It was Clark's intention to ask for a private audience with the chief, but the chief was unwilling to go off in private with him.

"Whatever you have to say, there's no reason the rest of the people cannot hear," he announced. Several other members of the tribe were already beginning to gather around.

Clark took a deep breath and glanced at Waris. She nodded encouragingly, and he took assurance. As long as Waris thought this would work, he was sure it would.

"Chief, I didn't realize that you wanted me to marry your daughter when you adopted me into the tribe. I cannot marry your daughter, and I cannot stay here."

The chief's jaw came unhinged. "But all of our alliances and adoptions are made that way, through marriages. It is a great honor to be given the daughter of the chief."

Clark bowed his head, hoping to convey his sorrow. "I realize this now, and I'm cognizant of the honor you've given me. Nonetheless, I cannot marry your daughter. I should have been more certain of the customs of your tribe before I allowed myself to be adopted. But the marriage is not valid by my country's laws, and I must dissolve it."

"But you can't dissolve it!" Aleeke said, stepping forward. The chief glared at him, but he ignored his father. "My sister is the daughter of the chief, and as such, has a high ranking in the tribe. If you deny that the wedding took place, then she has spent the night in the tent of a non-mahram man, and she'll be considered ruined."

Clark glanced at Waris. She nodded and shrugged.

"I can't help that," Clark said. "It was not made clear to me that I was marrying Waris, and even though I take responsibility for not being familiar with your tribe's customs, I still feel that somebody should have explained what was going on, knowing that I was a foreigner."

Aleeke stared at the ground.

"And as such," Clark said, taking a deep breath, "I deny that a wedding took place, and announce my intentions of leaving immediately." He was careful to say the exact words that Waris had told him.

Harmayu cried out. "My daughter is ruined!" he moaned, grabbing his son's arm. "She will never be able to find a husband."

The young man that Clark had noticed earlier stepped forward.

"Chief," he said quietly. "That is not true. I will marry your daughter, ruined or not."

Harmayu stared at Galcaio. "You are hardly worthy of her."

"I know," he said fervently, "but you know that I will cherish her and adore her. And, as you pointed out, she is ruined. There is no other unmarried male of the tribe who could step forward to speak for her, and certainly no clan member would."

Clark held his breath as the chief stared at Galcaio. The young man had proven his love just as Waris swore he would. She would never regain the status she'd once had, and as a woman took the status of her husband, she would take a significant drop. But she didn't care, and it looked as though Galcaio didn't mind marrying a ruined woman.

"All right," the chief said. "The two of you may marry."

Galcaio uttered a loud whoop and Waris burst out with a sound that was half a laugh, half a cry. They weren't permitted to share their joy with a kiss, but Clark suspected a quick wedding. He smiled at Waris, and she smiled shyly back.

The bewildered members of the tribe were finally getting their bearings and coming forth to congratulate the soon- to-be-engaged couple, and Clark took the opportunity to slip through the crowd and disappear into the desert.

Next stop, Europe, where hopefully he couldn't make quite so much a fool of himself by not knowing customs. At least, they didn't have any wedding ceremonies masquerading as adoptions in Europe, did they? He frowned, and decided some reading up on local culture might be just the thing.


Metropolis, New Troy, 1991 — Lois is 24 years old

Lois muttered under her breath and tucked the recalcitrant strand of hair behind her ear. She briefly toyed with the thought of cutting it short, but on the whole, her shoulder-length bob was both easy-to-handle as well as convenient for disguises.

Except, of course, when one had forgotten to grab a clip for it and it kept falling into one's eyes. Inconvenient when one was suspended precariously over a dumpster in a midnight attempt to retrieve important tax documents that one's bubble-headed sister had tossed out with the garbage.

She sighed loudly and inched forward, shining her light into the huge metal bin. Unfortunately, the tax documents seemed to be disagreeable this evening, as tax documents tend to be, and weren't lying conveniently on top of the garbage.

Despite her absorption with finding the forms, Lois was aware that she was in a dark alley in the middle of the night behind what had to be one of the crummiest apartment buildings in Metropolis. So when she heard two male voices outside the alley, she snapped off her flashlight.

Now, while turning off the flashlight was undeniably a good idea, losing the support of that arm to do so just as undeniably was not. She muffled a scream as she tumbled headfirst into the dumpster.

"Did you hear something?" Man One asked.

Man Two's response was inaudible.

Lois struggled to sit up without making any noise. Carefully crawling through the smelling mess in the bin, she reached the front and peered over the top.

Both men wore suits, and one carried a briefcase. Man One was looking around the alley with furtive glances, while Man Two waited with apparent unconcern.

"You have the money?" Man Two asked suddenly.

The focus of Man One's nervousness seemed to move from the alley to the other man.

"Of course," he said. "The shipment?"

"Dock Twelve, midnight tomorrow," Man Two said. "Do you want it delivered, or are you sending someone?"

"The warehouse would be best," Man One said. "I'll have someone there to check it. How long will it take?"

"Not long. It will be safest if the shipment is gone before the security guard returns, though if he's early we'll handle it."

Man One nodded. He shoved the briefcase and shoved it towards Man Two, who took it and opened it, rifling through the contents.

"Excellent," he murmured.

"The Boss will not be pleased if you don't deliver," Man One warned.

Man Two smiled coldly. "You don't trust me?"

"We trust no one," Man One said.

Man Two laughed. "As well you should. I don't intend on making an enemy of the Boss. I'll deliver as promised."

Man One left the alley, and Man Two waited a few moments and then left in the opposite direction.

Lois took a deep breath and grabbed the rim of the dumpster. She freed herself from the garbage and was about to climb out when she noticed a yellow paper stuck to her leg with chewing gum. She rolled her eyes when she realized that it was the tax document she'd been looking for.

Reaching down, she grabbed at the piece of paper…

And felt her hand grabbed by somebody else's.

She screamed.

"Hello," the man said, sitting up. He was holding a half- eaten hoagie in his hand. "Can you believe that somebody threw away this perfectly good sandwich? People just don't value their food nowadays." He shook his head.

She frantically reached for the rim of the dumpster and vaulted over the edge. Hitting the ground so hard that pain shot up her legs, she took off at a run. She didn't stop until she was safe in her apartment, trying to catch her breath and at the same time explain to Lucy why she was covered in trash and stunk to high heaven.

When Lois had finally calmed down, she grabbed a notepad and tried to jot down everything she remembered about the meeting of the two men. They hadn't known she was there, so they couldn't possibly have been a set-up. No, it had to be real.

And it couldn't possibly be legal, not with this kind of secret meeting. So a shipment of something illegal was due in at the harbor, Dock Twelve, at midnight. It would be moved to a warehouse somewhere, though where, she didn't know. Now, the next step for an award-winning investigative reporter would be to check with her sources on the street, find out what the shipment was going to be and where the warehouse was.

There was just one small problem with that. Being an inexperienced recent graduate, she didn't have any decent sources yet. Oh, she had a few on campus or in federal buildings, based on stories she'd done in college, but she didn't know anybody on the streets yet. Exactly how did one gain those secret sources, anyway? Was there some sort of How-To manual for Investigative Journalism out there?

Well, it wasn't like she was going to let the fact that she was probably walking blindly into danger deter her any. She'd just have to be at that dock at midnight and follow them to the warehouse. With luck, she could catch a glimpse of what they were unloading and even get a few pictures.

But, first things first, she thought to herself as she put her notepad away. Tomorrow was her big day, and she was *not* about to blow it because she was preoccupied with this story.

The night was full of restless dreams of chasing faceless men down dark alleys, falling into garbage cans and choking on garbage, only to be rescued by homeless men who knew the Heimlich maneuver but performed it while munching on lettuce-filled hoagies, then dumped her into the water by Dock Twelve while yelling "there is no shipment, you moron!" Needless to say, she didn't sleep well.

It was almost a relief when the alarm clock finally buzzed to life with an atrocious blaring of Howard Stern discussing some playboy actor's sex life. She hit the off button and dragged herself out of bed. Peering into the mirror, she saw that her eyes were red-tinged and bleary and she had dark circles around her eyes. Sighing, she made a mental note to look for eye drops and allot some extra time for makeup.

One of the occasional benefits of living with a sister who did care about you was getting special treatment on important days. Lucy was already in the kitchen when Lois wandered in, and she handed Lois a mug of steaming coffee and said "breakfast's on the stove." Lois mumbled a "thanks" and sat at one of the stools. Lucy had always been annoyingly cheerful in the morning, but at least she knew that Lois wasn't a morning person and didn't expect much chatter. And having somebody awake enough to make breakfast was a bonus. Not that Lois usually bothered with breakfast, but today the fortification could be necessary.

The coffee woke Lois up a bit, and the scrambled eggs finished the job. She hugged her sister and hurried to get a shower and change into her best outfit so that she could make sure she arrived early. No traffic jam was going to mess this up for her.

Hailing a cab, she tried to keep her heart from pounding loud enough to share her nervousness with the world. It seemed such a clich‚, but… certainly other people could hear it, couldn't they?

She was reminding herself that she was being psychotic when the cab stopped in front of the Daily Planet building. For a long moment, she stood on the curb, staring up at the beautiful model planet above the door. The cabby had to clear his throat twice and finally honk before she remembered the small detail of needing to pay him.

She wasn't exactly sure why, but the moment she stepped out of the revolving doors and into the lobby of the building, she felt as though an ache that had been with her for her entire life had just gone away. She was home, she realized. For the first time in her life, she belonged somewhere.

The question was… would Perry White, Editor-in-Chief, agree?

She was still half an hour early for her interview, but she entered the elevator and heading up to the newsroom, figuring she could look around for a while before the interview.

When the elevator doors opened on the main newsroom and she looked across to what was commonly called "the Pen," her heart did a wild mamba that forced her to gasp for breath. This… this was it! This was where she wanted to work late at night on breaking stories, make her friends, get her headlines, write the stories that would win her Kerths and, eventually, Pulitzers.

She glanced towards the glass windows of the Editor-in- Chief's office. He was gesticulating wildly at somebody. It looked like a woman who was wearing—was she wearing a bikini? No, there seemed to be a bit more cloth than that. "Bit" being the operative word. Did that count as being dressed? Tearing her eyes away, Lois wandered down the ramp into the room.

Reporters ran helter-skelter, yelling to each other about stories and leads, or sometimes yelling at people on the telephone. A few sat quietly at desks, typing stories or thinking about who to yell at next.

All of a sudden, about half the reporters skittered towards one side of the room, near the TVs. Breaking news? A big story? Lois's heart rate went up dramatically and she crept closer to see what the commotion was.

One woman moved away and Lois was able to see what was in the center of the crowd: a man carrying a large box of doughnuts.

So it wasn't just the police, but reporters, too.

The scantily-clad woman walked, no, sauntered out of the editor's office, and Lois glanced at her watch and headed that way herself. She knocked softly on his door.

"Come in!" he barked. She let herself in and stood before his desk. "Lois Lane, sir. We had an appointment."

"That's right. Sit down, Lane. I received excellent reports about your work from your professors. McNeedy was actually an old friend of mine when I started at the paper."

She smiled shyly.

"Do you have samples of your work?" he asked.

Lois nodded and handed him her folder. He glanced through the papers in the folded and whistled under his breath. "Well, you don't go for the easy way out, do you? You've got some heavy-hitters in here."

She beamed. "Thank you, sir. My goal is to expose the truth, no matter what it takes."

He looked up from the paper and met her eye. "That's not always the right answer," he warned. "Sometimes the truth is better left unspoken. And, more often, the truth simply isn't newsworthy. You'll need to know the difference between scandal and news if you want to work for the Planet."

"Oh, I do, Mr. White," she said quickly.

He nodded and put the folder back on the table. "Well, Ms. Lane, you have style, and your record from Metropolis University is excellent. Valedictorian—impressive. The Daily Planet would be pleased to hire you… "

She gasped with delight and stood up to shake his hand. "Thank you, Mr. White!" she started to say.

"As a research assistant."

Her face fell as the meaning of his words sunk in. "A—a research assistant?"

His gaze was gentle. "Lois, I'm afraid that we can't hire you as an investigative reporter right out of journalism school. You don't have the experience or the sources to handle investigating yet. Now, if you spend some time as a research assistant, you'll get the hang of how to research a story, you'll pick up a few sources, and you'll get a chance to see real reporters in action. I'll understand if you want to try getting a job at a smaller newspaper so that you can be a reporter from the start, but, honey, I think you'd be best off learning the ropes by starting at the bottom of the totem pole here."

Lois fought to keep her emotions in check. She forced herself to remember the feeling of belonging she'd felt when she saw the Daily Planet logo, when she walked through the downstairs doors, when she stepped off the elevator. It was time to make a choice—and she knew she had to stay here.

"I'll accept, sir. On one condition."

He chuckled. "What's that?"

"That, if I manage to bring you a story worthy of an investigative reporter, you'll reconsider my position."

He stared at her thoughtfully. "There's nothing I admire more than initiative. Very well, Lois Lane, if you bring me a story worth of an investigative reporter, I'll give you a promotion. But your investigating needs to be on your own time. I need you as a research assistant first."

Lois nodded. "Of course."

"Then let me introduce you to some of the people you'll be researching for." He opened the door to his office and led her into the bullpen.

"Cat Grant, this is Lois Lane," he said to the almost-naked woman lounging over a man's desk. "Lois, this is Cat Grant, our gossip columnist. Cat, Lois is going to be the newest research assistant, so let her know if you have anything for her to do." Lois blinked as she recognized the name. Catie Grant! Cat looked… very different from high school. She'd worn more clothes then, at least.

Cat looked Lois up and down and gave a grin not unlike the Cheshire version of her namesake. "I don't think that'll be a problem, Perry." Obviously she didn't recognize Lois. Of course not. They'd only met the once, anyway, and seniors rarely associated with freshmen. But Lois remembered Cat, at least, by reputation.

He introduced Lois next to Eduardo, a man who at least seemed to spend time writing real news, as opposed to gossip. She hoped most of her research would be for him.

A commotion sounded from the other end of the room, and Lois noticed a boy frantically trying to gather together a stack of papers he'd dropped. Mr. White waited patiently for the boy to get the papers together and bring them over. "This is everything, Perry," the boy said. Lois's eyes widened as she recognized him.

The editor nodded. "Jimmy, I'd like you to meet Lois Lane, our newest research assistant. Lois, this is Jimmy. He's working here after school as an assistant copyboy."

"Or something," Jimmy muttered under his breath. "Hey, LoLo."

Mr. White's brow lifted. "You two know each other?"

"I used to babysit Jimmy when I was a kid," Lois told him.

Jimmy turned bright red and almost dropped his stack of papers again. "Uh, yeah. A *long* time ago."

"Here, let me take those," Lois said, quickly grabbing the sheaf before it landed on the floor again. "It's nice to see you again. Have you talked to Lucy lately?"

"Not since she moved out to California." He shrugged. "Anyway, I should take those downstairs. Catch ya later!" He grabbed the papers from her hands and headed off. Just before the elevator closed behind him, Lois saw the papers, once again, scatter.

The day ended up being filled with gathering random facts about the reports Eduardo was writing, having her fashion sense mocked, as usual, by Cat, and having things spilled on her, dropped on her, and clumsily tossed at her, by Jimmy. Apparently he hadn't quite outgrown his childhood klutziness.

Fortunately, she had thoughts of a nighttime investigation to make the day go quickly, and before she knew it, she was gathering her things and contemplating which restaurant to grab a bite at before heading over to Hobb's Bay to wait.

Since she had gotten a job, even if it wasn't exactly her top choice, she decided she was due a reward. There was a seafood restaurant on 33rd and Marshall called "The Seven Seas" that she'd been meaning to try. It wasn't crowded, since she'd worked a bit late and it was past the dinner hour. As she waited for the waitress, she opened the day's copy of the Daily Planet to read.

Somebody cleared his throat behind her. "May I take your order, please?"

She turned, her mouth open to give him her order, when she recognized the man. "You're the homeless man from the dumpster!" she exclaimed.

"Guilty as charged, only not homeless," he said with a grin.

"Then why were you there?"

He shrugged vaguely. "I was hungry."

She rolled her eyes and gave him her order. But she couldn't keep her mind on the paper after the interchange. What kind of man would root around in a dumpster for food when he was hungry, considering that he had to earn enough to buy decent food? Though he was pretty skinny. Maybe he'd just gotten this job.

When the waiter returned with her food, Lois noticed that he grabbed little bits of her side order to munch on.

"Hey!" she protested. "I don't think you're allowed to do that."

"One of the perks of the job," he said around the mouth of food.

She sighed. After he'd left, she watched his interactions with other customers. It wasn't just her that he stole food from. He ate off the plates of every customer, a bit here, a bit there. Sometimes he was subtle, probably with those customers who'd complain. Sometimes he was blatant. Perhaps he really was the homeless man she'd at first thought he was, enjoying his first job as a waiter to sneak bits of food. After all, he was incredibly skinny.

She shrugged and glanced at her watch. Almost time to head down to Hobb's Bay. She wanted to be hidden long before the shipment arrived, she'd have a better chance of being well hidden. She left the money she owed on the table, together with a reasonable tip. She wasn't about to give a good tip to the man who stole food from her plate.

Hobb's Bay seemed to grow worse every year, Lois reflected as she crept through the darkened streets towards the harbor. In fact, it had gotten so dramatically worse in the last year or so that she couldn't help wondering if there was more to it than a simple drop in the poverty level of Metropolis's poorest.

The last normal shipments of the day were being unloaded on Dock Twelve as Lois approached. Under the cover of the dark, she slipped behind a wall of barrels to hide until the smugglers approached.

Shortly after the regular shippers had disappeared, though, she heard a strange noise from the water by the dock. Careful not to make a sound, she snaked through barrels and crates to the edge of the harbor.

She almost shrieked when she saw the body floating there. Clamping her hand over her mouth to keep herself under control, she leaned forward for a closer look. It was the man from the dumpster, the waiter who had served her that evening.

"Poor guy," she murmured, backing away.

The corpse suddenly sat up. "Lovely night for a swim, isn't it?" he asked, putting his hands behind his head and backstroking a little.

This time she really did scream.

"Oh, hush," he said, sitting back up. "Got anything to eat?"

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

"Same thing you are, I imagine," he said, shrugging. "Waiting for that shipment we heard about."

"But—what interest could it possibly be to you?" she spluttered.

He shrugged again. "I like to know what's going on in this fair city of mine. You could call me an information- monger."

"Fancy word for an eavesdropper and curiosity-seeker," she said.

He raised an eyebrow. "And just what do you call what you were doing in the dumpster, and why you're here now?"

"I was taking a walk," she said primly.

"Sure," he said, managing to convey worlds of disbelief in a single word.

"I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet," she confessed.

He grinned. "No, you're not."

"Of course I am." She paused. "How do you know?"

"I told you. I like to keep informed about goings-on in this city."

Lois suddenly had an idea. "You're an informant, aren't you?"

He held up his hands in mock surrender. "Guilty as charged."

"Will you be mine?" she asked eagerly. "I need to gain sources."

"We've already established that you aren't a reporter for the Daily Planet," he said. "What do you need an informant for?"

"Okay, maybe I'm not a reporter, per se. Yet."

He raised an eyebrow.

"I'm a research assistant," she said. "But as soon as I get my first investigation story, Mr. White will promote me to investigative reporter."

"Well, you'd better get back to your hiding place before they get here," he said.

She nodded and headed back for the barrels where she'd been hiding.

Fortunately for her cramped legs, the bad guys didn't take long to show up. She peered between the barrels to watch them pace and mutter and mock-fight until the shipment finally arrived.

They seemed to be loading crates onto a truck, and Lois realized, as she snapped pictures, that when they were done, the truck would drive away and she'd lose them. Her only chance was to go with that truck.

When all the loaders were near the truck, Lois grabbed an empty crate from the stack near her and dragged it to the pile. Climbing in, she pulled it shut behind her.

Just in time. One of the men walked over and grabbed her crate. She braced herself so that she wouldn't wobble and betray her presence to the men.

She was loaded roughly onto the truck. As she sat in the dark, she wondered vaguely what the informant was up to. Had he gone? Or perhaps stowed away similarly?

She couldn't tell what was in the boxes, but there was a strange chemical smell that made her suspicious. As the truck began to move, she called softly, "hello?" There was no answer.

So he hadn't stowed away with her. It didn't really matter, she didn't need an informant when she could get the information herself—but it would have been nice to have someone with her, sort of like a partner.

The truck didn't seem to travel very far before it stopped. Lois waited as the men got out and opened the back door.

All of the crates were carried into a warehouse. Through a crack in the crate, Lois could watch the men finish unloading and then head towards a door.

The chemical smell was even stronger in the warehouse. Lois waited until the men had left the room before freeing herself from the crate. She dug in her purse for her penknife and used it to pry the lid off a crate.

The crate contained a huge tank. Lois judged that this was the chemical she'd been smelling. Carefully tilting the crate so she could read the lettering on the side of the tank, she read the label aloud softly. "Tripotassium nitrous oxide?" It didn't sound familiar, but then, she could have been misremembering her periodic element symbols. "K" *was* potassium, wasn't it?

Was this what all the crates contained? Perhaps it was worth a check.

She pried open another crate and peered inside. It contained a block of something she couldn't place. In a way it looked like packed sugar, though she wasn't about to taste it to find out. It was protected in a plastic bag, but not labeled.

"Seen enough?" came a voice from behind her.

She stood up and spun around to see one of the men training a gun on her.

"Ah, yes, actually. My inspection agency just wanted to make sure your shipment arrived safely. Looks like it did, so I'll just give you a check and move on."

Why did her cover stories always sound so lame in the light of day? Not that it was actually light, being the wee hours of the morning, but…

And so Lois found herself being tied to a chair in the dank back room of the warehouse. She tried to remember the tricks she'd read in her favorite mysteries as a child. She exhaled and held her breath as they tied a rope around her waist to secure her to the chair. She twisted her arms and legs so that the rope seemed to be tied tightly but went around the thickest part of the limb. The only part she couldn't alter was the duct tape across her mouth.

As soon as the goon left her alone, Lois went to work wriggling on the ropes. Her tricks had earned her a little slack, but she earned considerable rope burns for her efforts.

Painfully pulling her right wrist through the rope, Lois freed her last limb and stood up gingerly. Her wrists and ankles were a bit sore, but nothing she couldn't handle. She headed towards the door.

"Not so fast," one of the goons said, appearing in the doorway. "I don't know how you got free, but don't think there's a chance you're getting out of here alive." Of course, he would come back the instant she got free.

Over his shoulder, Lois caught a glimpse of the informant sneaking into the warehouse. "You!" she shouted.

The goon started to turn, and with his attention off Lois, she snap-kicked the gun from his hand and dove for it. The distraction paid off. The informant ran into the room and grabbed the goon before he could go for the gun, and in a moment Lois had possession of it and trained it on the goon.


The light of the police cars flashed across the informant's face as Lois spoke to him in an alleyway. He didn't want the police to catch wind of his involvement, so he was giving Lois all the credit.

"So what was in those crates, anyway?" Lois asked, curious.

"The newest drug to attempt to invade Metropolis. No name on the streets, yet, but a daunting scientific name. Purely synthetic. Made from some strange chemical mix, cut with the same."

"So that's what the tank was," Lois murmured. "So, what's your name, anyway?"

He grinned and popped a piece of gum into his mouth. "Bobby Bigmouth."

She smiled back. "The name fits. I'm Lois Lane."

"Now why do I get the feeling that I'll be hearing that name a lot in the future?" Bobby asked.

"Check out the front page tomorrow. So, what do you charge for information?"

"Food," he said.

"Food? What kind?"

"Pretty much anything. The better it is, and the more you get me, the better the information." He grinned wickedly. "Now I've got to go. Write your story." He turned and started to disappear into the shadows.

"Bobby, wait!" Lois called. "How do I contact you?"

"I'll contact you, don't worry," he said. "But if you need info fast, spread the word around, it'll get back to me."

Lois frowned after him until even his shadow had disappeared, then went back to the police car to make sure they had her statement.

A few hours later, Lois was adding the finishing touches to the story. She'd gotten all her information confirmed by the police before they released her, so she felt fairly sure that Mr. White would appreciate her work. The only question was if he would appreciate it enough.

She leaned back and stretched, glancing at the clock. After 5am. Wasn't worth going home, really. Maybe she could just close her eyes for a minute.

Lois heard her name called from somewhere far away. She turned her head to hear more clearly and found herself falling. She screamed just before she hit the ground.

Opening her eyes, she found herself sprawled on the floor beside her desk, a puzzled Jimmy standing behind her with a cup of coffee.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

She considered telling him she'd been freaked out by meeting her first source, tracked smugglers, found drugs, been tied up and almost killed, used her limited Tae Kwon Do to kick the bad guy's gun away, then spent the night giving police reports and writing up her story, but—what was the point? "I'm fine. Where's Mr. White?"

"His office."

Perry White was on the phone when Lois approached, so she waited outside the door until she heard him hang up. She knocked tentatively.

"Come in!"

She walked in and stood before his desk.

"So, I heard you spent the night in the newsroom," Mr. White said, grinning slightly.

"Not exactly." She handed him the printout of her story.

He was smiling as he started to read, but his smile quickly turned into a frown, surprise, shock, then kinda did a little twist and went sideways—okay, maybe she needed a bit more sleep.

"Is this all true?" he asked seriously.

She nodded. "I have any proof you need."

He beamed. "This will look great on the front page of the evening paper! One thing: does this drug have a name?"

"I don't know," Lois said with a frown. "The police don't think it was ever released in the United States. It may not have a name in English."

"This copy will sing a lot sweeter if you give it a name," he said.

"Well… " Wow, what an honor. She got to name a mind- altering substance. She thought for a minute. "Euphoria?"

"Sounds good."

She waited, but nothing else seemed to be forthcoming. "Mr. White? You said that once I showed I could get a decent investigation… "

"Oh, yes." He looked at her for a long moment. "Look, hon, I want to give you a chance, but I'm not really sure you have all the sources and experience you need yet. Let's make a deal. I'll partner you with somebody for a while. Once you've got a bit of experience, I'll let you work on your own."

"Thanks, Mr. White."

"Ask Jimmy to point out Ralph for you. He'll be your partner for the time being." An opportunity to work with a real reporter! This was great. She hadn't met Ralph yet, but she'd find him as soon as she could.

"Oh, and Lois?"

"Yes, Mr. White?"

"Call me Perry."


Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, 1992 — Lex is 43 years old (Felix is 8 years old)

Felix caught his lower lip between his teeth and stared at the cards on the board.

"Gunta Enterprises is only grossing $1.2 million a year," he said thoughtfully, "and the fire chief has his eye on the company already for that little incident. So Gunta will probably make the best sacrificial lamb, given that we want to preserve Kabala at all costs."

"Excellent choice, son," Lex said, favoring him with a grin.

Felix flipped over another card. "Ah-hah!" he crowed. "Gunta was failing because the CEO was altering the books and stealing from me. How come I didn't notice that earlier?"

"Well, you are still learning," Lex said, eyes twinkling. "So what will you do?"

"Kill the CEO, of course," Felix said matter-of-factly. "Make it look like an accident. Destroy his records, but see if we can retrieve any of the money."

"Good, good," Lex said. He stood up and walked over to his desk. "Go ahead and add two points to your scorecard," he told Felix as he pressed the intercom button.

"Please send Nigel up," he told the secretary.

Just as Felix managed to recalculate the total, Nigel entered the room.

"Felix," Lex started. He pressed a button to lock the doors. "A minute ago you said that if you found out that an employee was cheating you, you'd have him killed."

Felix nodded.

"Nigel has been cheating me for some time. I've suspected for years that Nigel is not only skimming a bit off the top, but leaking certain information to an officer Henderson. Do you deny it, Nigel?"

Nigel raised his chin and fixed his pale eyes on the boy. "I do not. I don't regret what I did. You're a villain and an incarnation of evil, sir, and the world will be better off without you." His English accent had abruptly disappeared, to be replaced by a gruff Texas twang. "No matter what you do to me, Henderson is suspicious, and you'll be exposed for what you are sooner than you think."

Lex opened a desk drawer and removed a revolver. He handed the gun to Felix.

"Shoot him, son," Lex said. "He's a traitor."

Felix lifted the gun and trained it on Nigel's temple.

He fired.

Nigel fell backwards with the force of the bullet.

Lex started to clap slowly.

Felix handed the gun back to his father and massaged his hand, somewhat sore from the kickback.

"I've finally bred true," Lex said, resting a hand on Felix's shoulder.

Felix craned his neck to face his father. Bred true?

He was startled when he heard a noise come from Nigel's corpse.

Nigel sat up and smiled his usual cold smile. "Very good, sir," he said. His English accent was back.

Felix grabbed the gun from his father and stared at it. "Blanks," he said with disgust when he handed it back.

Lex laughed. "It was a test, son. A test I must admit you passed with flying colors."

"The test your other sons failed?" Felix asked.

Lex nodded. "But you passed. You're the son I was meant to have, the son who'll follow in my footsteps."

"Or go off in my own direction."

"As long as you are a credit to the name of Luthor, which I know you will be."

"Can I go out and play now?" Felix asked.


Felix stood just outside the back arch of the house and looked out over the backyard. What to do, what to do? Oh, yes, there was that idea he'd had. Now might be a fun time to put it into play.

He headed towards the left wall of the yard. A tall brick wall with metal spikes separated the yard from the yard next-door.

Felix stood back from the wall, then approached it at a run, pushing off with his sneaker against the wall to propel himself higher. He grabbed the top of the wall and pulled himself over, carefully avoiding the metal spikes.

Jumping down, her surveyed the yard. His little next-door neighbor sat on a blanket playing with a doll.

He strode across the yard and towards the house. The little girl saw him and jumped to her feet to follow him.

"Felix, what are you doing?" she asked anxiously.

He didn't stop, pulling open the back door and heading for the living room. "Borrowing your goldfish," he said.

"Plic? But why?" her plaintive voice asked.

"For an experiment, Zoe," he said.

She whimpered as he grabbed the fish bowl and turned to leave. "Please give it back," she begged.

"Don't worry, you'll get him back," he said. He kept the fishbowl held high and out of her reach. She jumped for it.

"Be careful," he admonished her. "If you jostle me I might spill him. He can't survive without water."

"I hate you, Felix Luthor," she said angrily, stomping her dainty foot. Her curly blond pigtails shook with indignation. "I wish you were dead."

By this time they'd reached the brick wall. "Now, Zoe, watch your mouth. You wouldn't want to anger the person who holds your goldfish's life in his hands, would you?"

She burst into tears.

Fortunately, from this side of the yard, he could simply open the gate. Zoe followed him, still whining angrily and making occasional frantic leaps at the bowl.

Felix crossed his yard and entered the first-floor kitchen. He set the goldfish bowl on the high counter, where Zoe had no chance of reaching. Then he walked into the living room to get a chair.

"What are you doing, Felix?" Zoe asked, torn between watching him and trying to get her goldfish.

"Preparing for my experiment," he said. He disappeared into his room for a second and reappeared with a length of rope.

Zoe looked at the rope doubtfully. "You can't use that on fishes."

"No, but I can use it on Zoes," he said, grabbing her arm.

She uttered a brief shriek as he forced her into the chair and tied her ankles to the legs and her wrists to the armrests.

"Now, for Magician Felix's magic show. How to make a goldfish disappear in 5 minutes flat."

"No!" she screamed, tugging at the ropes.

Felix took a bowl from the cupboard and reached into the goldfish bowl. He pulled out the goldfish and placed him in the bowl. Then he put the bowl in the microwave.

"Felix! No no no no no-no-no!!!" she cried. Her frantic struggles had caused her to slide down on the chair, her wrists burning red.

Felix hit several buttons to turn the microwave on high for five minutes.

Zoe had finally stopped shrieking and was staring at the microwave with a terrified morbid fascination. The goldfish flopping slightly in its bowl as the heat started. The tray spun round and round slowly.

"Please… " Zoe whimpered. "Please stop, Felix. I'll do anything you want."

"I know," Felix said nonchalantly.

Suddenly, a loud splat came from the microwave, as red decorated the front of the microwave.

Zoe screamed.


Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, 1993 — Lex Luthor is 44, Felix is 9

Felix watched, eyes huge, as the crate was lowered onto the sawdust-covered floor of one of his father's deepest sublevel basements. It wasn't the crate itself that fascinated Felix… it was what was inside the crate. An object with capability almost beyond human conception. And yet an object whose awesome power was conceived and created by humans.

Power was important, he knew that much from observing his father. His father had power, and this object would give him more power. But his father merely used the power to get more power. His lust was for power alone. He got a kick out of seeing people kowtow before him, beg and plead for their lives, jump to do his bidding.

Felix wanted power too. But when he got it, he wasn't going to be like his father, a small-minded man. Felix was going to have the power to choose who lived and who died. He was going to rule the world someday. And when he did, he wouldn't rest on his haunches, licking his lips and feeling rather proud of himself for his accomplishments. No, he'd take the reins of power and get rid of all of those he didn't need. The world had too many needless people as it was. Like ants, they were. And anthills were pretty easy to squish.

And this… this object was exactly what could give him the power he craved.

The lifters pulled the crate apart, revealing the sleek, streamlined body of a nuclear bomb. Felix's father stood at the head, with Nigel, observing the unpacking. Felix smiled slightly at the way the straining men sweated even harder should they happen to notice his father's eyes on them. They weren't immune to the threat that hung over their heads should they damage their not-so-delicate-but- still-frighteningly-dangerous cargo.

"It's not complete yet," Nigel informed Felix's father. "It shouldn't take more than a few days, though. They've put in orders for the few parts we needed. But I thought you might appreciate overseeing the remaining construction."

"Excellent," he replied. "Felix, do you know how to build a nuclear bomb?"

Felix couldn't take his eyes off the beauty before him long enough to face his father. "I'll know by tomorrow," he promised. "I know where to find out."

Lex laughed. "Excellent! I told you, Nigel, he's a prodigy. Never ceases to amaze me how true the saying is, 'The third time's the charm.' Felix, you can stay and watch the construction if you like."

Felix looked up for a moment to beam at his father at the not-unexpected boon. "Thank you!" he crowed, before turning back to the bomb.

His father laughed again. "Come, Nigel," he said. "We have plans to discuss."

Interesting as his father's plans for the bomb might be, they weren't half as interesting as the plans Felix was forming in his head. His were much bigger. More dangerous, perhaps. But more fun. He just needed to learn enough about how the bomb worked… and he could probably find most of what he needed online and by watching the construction.


The technicians were long gone home for the night when Felix slipped down to the bomb's quiet resting place in the basement. For a long time he simply stood over the bomb, looking down at it. He could almost imagine the image he made, his eyes glowing in the soft blue emergency lighting, his face suffused with delight. Because that was what the bomb gave him. An internal happiness that far succeeded any he'd ever achieved in his life, even during the many times his father had praised him.

Felix had watched eagerly, whenever he was allowed, as the bomb was constructed. It went from an empty shell to a creature living and breathing with the power to kill. Sometimes when Felix snuck down here at night to stare at it, he could almost imagine that he saw it moving up and down as it sucked in oxygen and released carbon dioxide— human in the most sinister way.

Finally, though, he tore his eyes from the metal being before him. There were more important things to do tonight.

Crates along one side of the warehouse stored the supplies needed to finish the building of the bomb. Wires, switches, a million bits of machinery.

Most of them, Felix didn't know what to do with. He'd looked up everything he could find on nuclear weapons—and his father's study had been a goldmine on the subject—but nothing was really written on a 4th-grade level. Felix was, of course, far beyond that in school, but he still found most of the material beyond his depth.

But there was one book that he'd been able to understand, a book that explained about the importance of kryton switches. And other books gave diagrams of a properly constructed bomb and showed what the kryton switches were.

Felix carefully dug in the crates until he'd found what he recognized from the illustrations as a kryton switch. Another was packaged just beneath it, and he took both for good measure.

Slipping them into the bag he'd brought with him, he left the room.


"Damn!" one of the technicians blasted when he opened the last crate. "We're still short."

"They probably just made a mistake up at Pointe Noire," another technician said with a shrug. "The Boss will order us more."

"Yeah," the first technician said, "but he'll probably kill the messenger first. Don't you remember the Star Wars movies, where Darth Vader could choke subordinates if they displeased him?" He grabbed his throat and mimed choking sounds. "I ain't bein' the one to tell 'im."

Felix chuckled from his vantage point in the corner. The technicians didn't want him watching, and they always made him stand in the corner, "out of the way," while they worked.

It didn't matter. Felix's vision was better than perfect, and he could see what they were doing well enough. And there were advantages to being forgotten.

"Felix," the first technician said, "Go tell your father that we're missing two kryton switches. We'll need more before we can finish the bomb."

"Me?" Felix asked, pointing to himself with a wide-eyed innocent look.

"Yes, you! Scat!" the first technician said, turning his attention back to the black timer he was lovingly carrying towards the bomb.

Felix grinned to himself as he headed up the elevator to his father's study. This would certainly be fun. And just when he'd thought the day was going to be dull, too.

"Hey, Father," he said, bounding out of the elevator and into his father's office.

"Felix!" his father said, delighted. "To what do I owe this treat?"

"The technicians sent me up. Apparently they're missing two kryton switches, and it's very crucial. They need more ordered."

His father frowned. "I'll get right on that immediately. Although that means that the operation in Pointe Noire tried to cheat us. I'll have to have a *talk* with the manager over there."

"Also, the technician made fun of you. Compared you to Darth Vader. And told me to 'scat.'"

"Is he important?"

"Hardly. He does the least work, anyway."

"Let Nigel know. He'll take care of it. Unless you want to?"

Felix thought for a moment. "I'd rather watch Nigel, if you don't mind. I'm still learning his technique."

"Very well." His father slapped him on the back with a broad grin, and Felix headed back down to the basements.


"So it's done?" Lex asked Nigel as they stood together looking down at the bomb.

"To perfection," Nigel said.

Felix ran his hands along the side of the bomb in reverence. "Perfect," he whispered.

"And it will work."

"It will destroy an entire city," one of the technicians told him. "Maybe more, depending on how the wind carries the radiation. And generations around will suffer cancer and radiation poisoning for years to come."

"Excellent," Lex said.

"Can I play on it?" Felix asked eagerly.

Lex smiled indulgently. "If you like."

Felix giggled and grabbed hold of the end of the bomb to pull himself on. The technicians did not seem amused as they watched the boy climb on and swing around the bomb, but they said nothing. One of their number had mysteriously disappeared during the construction process, and after that they joked very little and concentrated merely on getting the bomb completed.

"Three!" Felix shouted. "Two! One! Bang!" He grabbed his chest and fell backwards off the bomb, landing spread- eagle on the floor.

Lex watched his son's antics with enjoyment. Felix was still a boy sometimes, and Lex loved watching him at play. He himself had always been a mass of contradictions, and he enjoyed a son who at times acted like the small boy he was, but at other times was Lex Luthor in miniature.

"I'll have a man of my own take a look at it," he told the technicians. "If it doesn't work, it'll be your lives."

Felix smothered a laugh, and the technicians exchanged an annoyed look.

"Meanwhile," Lex continued, "you'll all be given a ride back into Brazzaville. From there you can find your own ways back to your homes. Your loved ones will shortly join you."

The technicians walked out of the room, looking excited and chattering to each other. Once the door had closed behind the last of them, Lex nodded to Nigel. "Take care of them."

Nigel nodded and bowed himself out.

Lex carefully closed the hatch, but it snapped shut on his finger.


Felix quickly pulled the hatch back open and released his father's finger. "Only just nicked it," he told him.

Lex nodded, staring transfixed at his son. After a few moments, Felix grew uncomfortable. "What?" he asked. But even Lex couldn't explain the feeling he'd suddenly had… a feeling that his son was nothing like him, no matter what he liked to think. But that was absurd, surely. The contempt he'd seen in his son's eyes when he'd caught his finger… that had been his imagination. He shook his head to rid his head of the image.

"I'm going to call for one of my men to take a look at the construction. You can stay and watch if you wish."

Felix nodded, still looking curious. "Yes, sir. I'll stay."

Lex turned on his heel and headed for the elevators. He tried to ignore the sudden need to scour his hands.

Metropolis, New Troy, 1993 — Lex Luthor is 44, Clark Kent is 27, Lois Lane is 26 (twins are 9)

Lois stuck her pencil behind her ear and looked around for Jimmy. There he was, halfway across the room talking to that new girl, Angela. A lot of help he'd be with helping her through writer's block.

Of course, Lois knew exactly why she was having difficulty getting through this piece. It was a story about the mayor's recent press conference to explain what he was going to do with the budget now that Metropolis's famous absent millionaire had donated a generous sum to the city.

Now, the original press conference about the donation had been fascinating. Lex Luthor had left Metropolis years ago and gone off to some foreign country. Nobody was quite sure where. But he continued to insist that Metropolis was his true home, and philanthropist that he was, he liked to donate a considerable amount of money to the upkeep of the city and to help the less fortunate. Lois couldn't help admiring him for his generosity. She'd sat wondering about the man, Lex Luthor. By all accounts he was still in his 40s and very handsome.

This was not going to get her story written. She sighed. While writing about the donation had been interesting, writing about the mayor's decisions about who to allocate money to was not. She suppressed a yawn and wondered how cruel it would be to tear Jimmy away from Angela, who appeared to be giving him her phone number.

Lois jerked her head up and dropped her pencil at the sound of yelling. A wild-eyed crazy man, wearing a ragged trench coat, burst into the newsroom.

"Lois Lane!" he called.

He spotted her and ran towards her desk, flanked by two security guards.

"It's going to explode!" he cried, reaching into his coat.

"He's got a bomb!" Jimmy screamed out, frightened.

She stood up, alarmed, as the security guards grabbed him. He dropped the package as they pulled him away.

"It's my credentials!" he said.

The guards looked singularly unimpressed as they continued to drag him off.

"You don't understand! They have a nuclear bomb! It's going to blow, and I'm the only one who can stop it! Please, Miss Lane, you must tell my story!"

"Wait," Lois said, holding up a hand. "Please, wait a minute."

"We've had trouble with him before," the guard said. "He ran right by us this time. Don't listen to him, Miss Lane, he doesn't know what he's talking about."

"Please, you have to believe me! Otherwise Brazzaville is doomed!"

The guards dragged him onto the elevator and they disappeared behind the closing doors.

Perry broke the silence. "Okay, folks. Show's over. Everybody back to work."

Lois watched in silence as Jimmy scooped up the package from the floor and dumped it into a wastebasket. As soon as she could feel sure that nobody was watching, she sauntered over to the trash can and grabbed the package, quickly taking it back to her desk.

She opened the package very gingerly. Even though the crazy man had said it was his credentials, she couldn't discount the "it's going to explode!" Fortunately, the package remained still even after she unwrapped it, and she felt safe opening the box.

It included several papers that seemed to be the credentials of a Dr. Samuel Platt, nuclear physicist. He had considerable experience in the field and a good record, until he'd up and quit several months ago.

But the papers that startled her more were the plans nestled beneath the credentials. She had to turn them around several times, trying to make sense of them. "Hey, Jimmy!" she called out as Jimmy passed by. She handed him the blueprints. "Any idea what these are for?"

"Whoa," Jimmy said, whistling softly. "Where'd you get these, Lois?" He sat on the edge of her desk, calmly ignoring her attempts to shoo him off.

She rolled her eyes. "What are the plans for?"

"Well, I'd say these are plans for a nuclear bomb," Jimmy said, pointing. "Not that I know too much about it, but I have read plenty of books that talk about the process."

"An atomic bomb?"

He shrugged. "Or a hydrogen bomb, which is even more powerful."

"Any idea what kind of damage it would do?"

"I dunno. Flatten a city?"

Lois shuddered. "Do you think the plans are real?"

"I'm not a nuclear physicist. I have no idea. They look like stuff I've seen, but I doubt I'd notice the difference if they were just Xeroxed out of a library book." Jimmy handed the plans back to Lois and stood up. "I have to go, Perry has me on urgent duty."


"Doughnut-duty," he said with a grin.

She smiled absentmindedly as she stared at the plans. Perhaps it was worth giving this Dr. Platt a house call. She reached for the pencil behind her ear and realized that she'd dropped it.

With a sigh, she bent to retrieve her pencil. Just as she was crawling under her desk, she heard a sultry laugh from above her.

"'Morning Lois. On your hands and knees again, I see."

Lois sighed and stood up slowly. "A position you're quite familiar with, I'm sure, Cat."

"Is that envy I hear?"

"No, Cat, it's not. I'm afraid your highly-developed journalistic instincts have once again failed you. Maybe if you spent more time getting to know people in the normal sense instead of the biblical sense, you'd know better than to mistake contempt for envy."

"And miss out on all the fun? Lois, honey—part of my job as a society columnist is to maintain an active social life." She paused meaningfully. "You *do* remember what that was like… or do you?"

"A bit catty, even for you," Lois said. "Don't you have *gossip* to write or something?"

"Oh, I'm gathering it even as we speak," Cat said with a wink. "Ta-ta."

Lois tried to ignore that last remark as she turned back to Platt's "credentials." They weren't exactly organized to make finding his address easy. But within a few minutes she had his address and credentials in hand and was hailing a cab.


Samuel Platt's workshop turned out to be a tiny apartment in an abandoned building. She gazed around the room as he paced nervously in front of her.

"I'm not a brave man, Ms. Lane," he said, clearing his throat multiple times. "I was always the kid who got chosen last for teams and whose lunch money was stolen regularly by the class bully."

Lois tossed these attempts at an excuse aside with a shrug. "You built a nuclear bomb," she said, her mind refusing to bend around the words. This was all some big joke, right?

"It's no joke, Ms. Lane. I promise you I'm telling you the truth."

"So you were hired to build a bomb for somebody in the Congo you only knew as 'The Boss.' And, knowing that the bomb might be used to kill innocent people, you built it."

"They had my daughter," Platt whined. "And my wife. I couldn't say no, they'd have killed them."


The case had suddenly gotten more interesting. "Did they use similar blackmail on all the people who built the bomb?" Lois asked eagerly. "Did any of them build it willingly? What about after the bomb was finished? Did they free the technicians?"

He shook his head and turned away. "They killed our families or whoever they were holding hostage. And then they killed us."

Lois raised an eyebrow.

Platt stared uncomprehendingly at her for a moment, then blinked. "Oh! I got free!"

"I sort of figured out that part," she muttered.

"They don't have any hold on me anymore. They've already done their worst to me, and I have nothing more to live for."

For a moment, Lois felt sorry for him. He seemed to sink in on himself when he told her about his family, as if they really had taken his life along with his family's.

After a moment, Platt looked up, his eyes shining. "The only thing I have left is to make sure my little girl didn't die for no reason. To tell the world what I was forced to do. They've got to stop 'The Boss' before he sets off that bomb! Only… nobody will believe me. They think I'm some sort of crackpot."

"What makes you think 'The Boss' is a he?"

"Well… he's one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes people in the region. He has a ton of money stored away, and is into illegal arm sales. A woman?"

"Why not?"

Even Platt seemed to know when to back down. "Uh… I guess he could be a woman. I mean, we all referred to him as a 'he,' but we didn't really know. It was just 'The Boss.'"

Another part of Platt's story didn't seem to make sense. "You said that you were fairly renowned for your work in nuclear physics and for your advances to the kryton switch. Why wouldn't people believe you when you told them what had happened to you?"

"It's because of the way they killed us, or tried to. They gave us an overdose of cocaine."

"And you survived?"

Platt actually blushed. "Well, you know. I mean, in the 60s, I had a little bit of fun. And a little after the 60s, as well. I guess you could say I'd developed something of a tolerance to it. I was still in bad shape. I'm not entirely sure how I managed to get out of there, but I found myself back on a plane heading towards Metropolis before I entirely came out of my stupor. I may have started… ranting a little bit. So they noticed the drugs in my bloodstream."

Lois sighed. "You're an addict."

"I'm not making this up, no matter how bad it sounds!" Platt insisted. "You've got to believe me, Ms. Lane. This man… woman… whoever… has to be stopped."

"What do you expect me to do about it?"

"Go to the Congo, get proof that he has a bomb. Get somebody to stop him before it's too late!"

It would be the story of a lifetime… if he was telling the truth. If this all wasn't some drug-induced paranoid dream.


"Bobby, *please* tell me he doesn't know what he's talking about," Lois begged, dropping onto the bench next to Bobby.

Bobby took a bite from a piece of chocolate cake and shook his head. "I'm afraid he's right, Lois."

She threw her hands in the air. "He wants me to find a nuclear bomb, Bobby! Without having any more knowledge than that it's in the hands of some insane person named 'the Boss' and that it's somewhere in the Congo."

Bobby chewed and swallowed. He took a huge gulp of milk and wiped his face with a napkin. "Well, I can tell you a little more than that. It's in Brazzaville. There's a little nightclub called the Brazza Club, and that's the center of operations. Rumor has it that all the meetings take place there. You could always go undercover and start from there, find out who the Boss is and where the bomb would be."

Lois nodded thoughtfully. "The club might be hiring."

"You going to join the chorus?"

"What, do you think I'm going to parade around in a chicken suit and dance in the background? Not a chance."

"A pity. You'd look great in feathers."


Clark stepped off the bus and set his suitcase on the ground with a satisfied thud. He stood up straight and threw back his shoulders, inhaling the city air and letting the sights and sounds of the busy metropolis invade his senses. Here, here was where he belonged. The greatest city in the world. And in front of him, the main headquarters of the Daily Planet dominated a corner, the great globe sprouting defiantly from the stone like a proud sentinel.

A distant screech caught Clark's attention, and he spun to see a bus careening out of control on the busy street. His super-hearing caught the bus driver's frantic "I can't stop it!" Without a second thought, Clark ran to the rescue. The bus was nearing an intersection filled with pedestrians, so he had to act quickly. He stopped in front of the intersection and held out his hand while he braced himself. The bus flung itself into his outstretched hand, screeching to a halt. The riders in the bus were flung out of their seats, but while they might have some bruises, it was better than allowing the bus to reach the crosswalk.

But as he glanced around, he saw that one woman appeared to have seen him. She was pointing in his direction, stuttering, "He—he—he stopped the bus!"

Clark quickly ran back to the sidewalk where he'd left his suitcase. But his suitcase was gone.

He lowered his glasses and stared down the street. A young man was carrying a suitcase marked "CK" and running at full-tilt down the hill.

Clark took a deep breath and then ran after him. He had to constrain himself to human speed, but nonetheless he was gaining on the boy easily when he was suddenly brought to a stop.

A policeman had caught the young man and was holding him around the upper arm. "Did you steal that suitcase, boy?" he asked the kid, shaking him.

"I didn't steal it! I was—carrying it for him."

"I've caught him stealing before," the policeman told Clark. "Don't worry, he'll be put away for this."

Clark met the young man's resentful eyes. He showed no remorse, yet there was something—fear?—shining in them.

"No," Clark said slowly. "He was telling the truth. He was just carrying it for me."

"At a run?" the cop said dubiously.

"He was in a hurry," the boy said.

Clark nodded.

The officer released his charge and shrugged. "All right, if you say so. Stay out of trouble, young man," he said, shaking a finger at the boy.

"Yes, sir," the boy said, mock-saluting.

The officer sauntered down the walk, leaving Clark and the boy alone.

"What's your name?" Clark asked.

The boy raised his eyebrows.

"Come on, the least you could do is tell me your name."

"Jack," he said sullenly.

"Can I have my suitcase back, Jack?" Clark asked, holding out his hand.

Reluctantly, Jack handed over the suitcase.

Clark reached into his pocket and pulled out a 10-dollar bill. "It's not much, but it's all I have. I'm on my way to a job interview, a bit low on cash."

The boy nodded. "Thanks, man," he said. He turned to leave.

"Wait!" Clark called. "Is there… any way I can help you?"

A sudden sadness filled Jack's young eyes. "Nope."

Clark nodded and watched as Jack made his way slowly down the block and around the corner. Then he turned and started back towards the Daily Planet building—ten minutes late for his interview.

Five minutes later, he was seated in a chair across from Perry White's desk, fidgeting nervously as Mr. White scanned through his sample work.

"Well, Kent, I'm gonna have to admit that your resume isn't the most impressive I've ever seen. While your samples show an excellent writing style and an ability to explain complicated issues in very simple terms, your experience simply doesn't match what we would usually expect in a reporter for the Daily Planet, the greatest newspaper in the world! Our people are dedicated servants of the fourth estate who deal routinely with matters of international significance."

The door suddenly swung open and a young man entered, dropping a set of keys on the Editor-in-Chief's desk.

"Okay, Chief, I fixed the horn on your golf cart."

Clark watched curiously as Mr. White turned an interesting shade of red.

"Not now, Jimmy," Mr. White said, gesturing towards the door.

Jimmy continued as if he hadn't heard him. "The tone's still off, but… "

"Jimmy, not now!"

"As I was saying," White continued.

A sound at the door made both men turn, but it was only Jimmy causing a commotion outside the door by spilling a cup of coffee on a very attractive, though less-than-fully- dressed woman.

"Your resume isn't what I'd normally expect from a potential reporter for the Daily Planet. However, we've recently developed a hole in our newsroom staff."

"A hole?" Clark echoed. Could Mr. White mean what it sounded like?

"Yes. Our best investigative reporter, Lois Lane, is on a story in the Congo. She's been gone for two weeks already, and I don't expect her back anytime soon. Which means that we're short one reporter. You're in luck, Clark Kent. You're hired."

Clark's heart began to beat faster. "Thank you, sir!" he said, eagerly shaking Perry White's hand. He was careful not to squeeze harder than the average man his size would.

"Your first assignment is a mood piece on the razing of the old Sarah Bernhardt Theatre on Forty-second. Given your samples, I have a feeling this would be a good piece for you."

"Lois would have hated it," Mr. White added under his breath.

Clark was sure he hadn't been meant overhear that, no normal man would have been able to. But it only intrigued him. So Lois Lane, the Daily Planet's star reporter, would have been too eager to write the "real news" to deal with a mood piece? Or had Mr. White meant something else?

"So, what are you still here for?" Mr. White barked. "Get that story!"

"Yes, sir!" Clark said, hopping to his feet. "Thank you again."


"All right, Clark," Perry barked, standing in the door of his office.

Clark jumped to his feet. "Yes, sir?"

"Suicide on 52nd Street. Harrison's busy, so I need you to cover it."

Clark gaped. Perry wanted him to handle a suicide? It wasn't exactly front-page news, but it was still a lot bigger than most of the stories he got to cover. The East Metropolis Dog show *had* turned out to be interesting, what with the rampaging Chihuahua, but the rabies suits had petered out when the dog turned out to be clean. But this was definitely a lot bigger.

He grabbed his jacket and rushed out the door.

The crime scene wasn't Clark's first. Frequently after he made a rescue, he came back a little while later, once the police had arrived, to report on the event. But because he'd stepped in to help in those cases, the crimes had usually been minimized or averted. He'd never actually seen a crime scene for a suicide or murder before.

The body had been taken away already. Police tape marked off the area where the man had apparently died.

"Excuse me," Clark said, interrupting one of the police officers. He showed his press pass. "I'm Clark Kent of the Daily Planet. Can I ask you a few questions?"

The officer shrugged. "All right. I'm Inspector Henderson of the MPD. What do you need to know?"

"Could you tell me who the deceased was?"

"Sure. His name was Samuel Platt. He was a nuclear physicist who worked for STAR Labs until about a year ago."

Clark quickly jotted down the details in his notebook. "What happened a year ago?"

"From what we can tell, his wife and daughter died in a car crash. He just went ballistic. He'd been having problems with his wife before that, or something. Disappeared for a few months. Not sure if it was guilt going into overdrive, but he started telling everybody that there was some sort of conspiracy theory. Went really haywire. I guess he just couldn't handle the remorse over his relationship with his wife when she and the girl died."

It sounded… suspicious. Oh, it was an innocent enough tale. It even made sense that Platt would feel guilty enough over his relationship with his wife at the time of her death to push him over the edge. But there was still something about it that made him want to know a little bit more about where Platt had gone when he disappeared for those months.

"Thank you, Inspector Henderson. I really appreciate your help."

"No problem. Just make sure your photographer captures my left profile, okay? I'm much more photogenic on that side."

Clark spun around to see Jimmy standing behind him, swinging a camera and grinning at him.

"Hey, CK. You get the story?"

"Maybe," Clark said as he followed Jimmy through the maze of police tape and police officers running every which way, all looking very important and busy—well, with the possible exception of the one who was munching donuts in the corner. He bore a strange resemblance to Ralph, with slightly thicker hair. It couldn't be…

On his way back to the newsroom, Clark tried to analyze what it was that felt fishy about the suicide. The problem was, there really weren't any hard facts to go with. It was just a feeling, a suspicion. And suspicions didn't go over well with Perry White.

"You want to investigate a suicide you think is a murder, just because you have a *feeling* something isn't right?" Perry roared. "If you think I'm going to waste a reporter on an dead end story like that, you've got another think coming!"

At Clark's look, he softened. "Look, Kent, I know you've got good instincts for the news, and I don't want to curb your impulses to seek out the best story. I trusted another reporter when she insisted that there was a story behind the fa‡ade once, and I've never regretted it. She used to be able to take the simplest story and turn it into a major scandal." He sighed. "But the thing is, Kent, we're understaffed. I need you on other stories of more importance. And there really isn't anywhere you can go with this one. You can't tell what the man was thinking or whether he really was crazy without asking him, and that's one thing you can't do. I hate to do this to you, but I'm gonna have to ask you to work on a different story. The police academy is having their graduation Thursday, and it's imperative that we have somebody cover it… "

Clark sighed. So much for his first big break.


Clark typed the last line of his latest story on the computer and hit save. He glanced up as Jimmy approached his desk.

"Watch out," Jimmy warned. "Perry's on the warpath."

"What's wrong?" Clark asked.

"Well, I don't know for sure," Jimmy said slowly, "but I think it has something to do with Lois."

"Lois Lane?" Clark asked.

Jimmy nodded. "I keep forgetting that you never met her. It seems odd that someone could work for the Planet and not know Lois. She's the Daily Planet as much as Chief is. Anyway, it's been over a month now, and Perry hasn't heard from Lois in three weeks. He's always sorta thought of her as his surrogate daughter, and I think he's worried. Taking it out on poor coffee-wielding copyboys like yours truly."

"Does anybody know where she is?" Clark asked.

Jimmy shrugged. "From what I've heard, she's dropped off the face of the earth. Nobody's seen or heard anything."

"Clark Kent!" Perry yelled, standing in the door of his office.

Clark jumped to his feet and threw Jimmy a wave.

"Good luck, CK," Clark overheard Jimmy say as he walked towards Perry's office. "You're gonna need it."

"Come in, son," Perry said, pulling the door behind Clark.

Clark sat down at the chair Perry indicated, watching as Perry paced back and forth.

"Clark, by now I'm sure you've heard the office gossip. Lois is missing, and nobody has the slightest clue what happened to her. One minute she was there, the next… she disappeared."

Clark nodded.

Perry's expression softened. "I'm sure you've also heard that Lois is something of a daughter to me. And not only that, but she is the finest newswoman the newspaper business has ever known. I want her found."

Clark nodded again, not sure where this was going.

"You spent some time in Africa while you were on your travels, didn't you?" Perry asked. "Mostly northern Africa, but I believe you visited the Congo Basin at some point?"

Feeling a bit like a puppet, Clark continued to nod.

"Good," Perry barked. "I'm sending you to the Congo first thing in the morning to search for Lois."

"But, Perry," Clark protested, "I don't even know what she looks like. Why me?"

"I've sent two others over there in the past week," Perry said. "They've had no luck, and I eventually had to bring them back. I don't have anyone who knows their way around the region, or who speaks the local languages, except you."

"Most of the people there speak English or French," Clark said softly, but Perry bulldozed on without hearing him.

"Someone who knows the region might have an edge. This paper needs her back. *I* need her back." He stood up and walked over to the window, seeming unable to meet Clark's eyes. "I'm not sure if something's happened to her or it's just not safe for her to contact me, but I can't just do nothing. You're the best chance of finding her."

Clark saw something in Perry's face that made him nod slowly. "All right. I'll go."

Perry's relief was obvious. "I'll give you Lois's story notes so you have a place to start. And be careful, Kent. I can't afford to lose you too."


Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, 1993

"Lois Lane? Nope, nobody by that name around here," the old woman said.

Clark sighed. "You don't recognize her at all?" He held out the picture. "She kinda stands out in a crowd."

The woman took the picture in a gnarled, shaky hand and stared at it intently. Clark thought he saw a spark of recognition, but the woman simply handed the picture back and shook her head. "Don't know her."

Clark thanked her and stepped back onto the street, narrowly missing being run over by one of the many mopeds that zoomed up and down the street with no regard for any sort of traffic laws.

The sun was low in the sky, and Clark suddenly remembered that he hadn't eaten lunch. He walked back to his hotel to grab a bite to eat.

The locals were being singularly unhelpful. None admitted to recognizing the name Lois Lane. None claimed to know the woman in the picture, although he was sure that some of them had shown a moment of recognition.

Perhaps it was his approach. He'd traveled the world, and generally people had been accepting and eager to welcome him. He was the right kind of tourist, one who usually knew their language well and was willing to try the food and the customs. But this trip was business, so he'd kept himself distant and talked to people in interviews instead of normal conversations. Maybe that had been his mistake.

If he could get a job where he saw a lot of people and could talk to them, perhaps they'd be more willing to open up.

But what kind of job could he do?

It occurred to him that he could be a barber. Barbers often talked with clients while cutting their hair. And he'd been cutting his own hair for years, after all.

Of course, the clients might become a little frightened by the smell of burning hair if he cut it his way.

So what other job could he do that would give him access to many people?


Lois rolled over with a groan and slapped the shrilly- ringing alarm clock. It paused for a moment, contemplating, then resumed its ringing at what seemed to be an even higher volume.

Lois growled and sat up, rubbing her bleary eyes with one hand while fumbling around for the alarm clock with the other. Her questing hand knocked the clock off the dresser and into the bottomless depths behind it, where it continued to ring its heart out happily.

"Stupid 4 a.m. closing hour clubs," Lois muttered as she dragged herself out of bed and pulled the dresser away from the wall. She reached a hand behind it to dig around for the alarm clock.

"If they could just close at 1 or 2, then I could get a decent night's sleep and not kill my alarm clock every morning, but no-o-o." Frustrated, she grabbed the alarm clock and slammed it down on the dresser, hitting the off button. It continued to ring. She slapped at it a few more times, finally picking it up and holding it to her ear. The dial tone rang out cheerfully, and her half- asleep mind finally realized that what she'd found was the phone.

"I wondered where you were," she told the phone, dropping it back behind the dresser as she continued her quest for the ringing alarm clock.

A pounding on the floor from the room below sounded, and Lois jumped as she heard a loud voice yell in a foreign language.

"I'm trying to stop it!" she shouted back. "It's hiding!"

Finally, one hand caught the cord of the alarm, and she hauled it back out of the crack. She carefully checked to make sure that it was, indeed, the alarm clock, before hitting the off switch. Blessed silence. At last.

She crawled back into bed and closed her eyes, drifting off into a blissful sleep.


An hour later, Lois woke with a jerk to find the sunlight streaming in through her window.

"Oh, drat," she said, sitting up. "I'm late."

Through half-closed eyes, she managed to make out the time on her alarm clock. "After eight!" She jumped out of her bed and ran to the closet for clothes.

A few minutes later, she hopped across the room, tugging on her shoes. "Now where did that blasted phone go?" she wondered. It wasn't on the dresser.

A vague memory prompted her to check behind the dresser, and she met with success. She dialed a number she knew by heart now. "Is the car ready yet?" she asked hopefully.

"We'll have it ready for you by 9," the man on the other end of the line said.

"Oh, good." She put down the phone with a half smile on her face. The mechanics had only taken 3 days more than they'd originally told her; she had to hand it to them.

A few minutes later, she was out the door and on her way to the shop. She could only hope that her car would actually be ready this time, as promised. Next time she'd definitely remember to try a more reliable mechanic, if there was one somewhere in the city.

It was early for the garage to be open, and Lois didn't see anyone at the front desk. She headed around to the back and peered in the slightly dim garage.

"Hello? Anyone there?"

"Just a second!" she heard a man call. She saw his dim shape slide out from underneath the car and walk into the sunlight towards her.

As the man walked into the sunlight, Lois gasped. He was, no doubt, the most handsome and sexy and, well, most *anything* man she'd ever seen.

He was naked from the waist up, his bare chest gleaming slightly with streaks of grease from the car he'd been working on. His skin was deeply tanned, or perhaps naturally dark in tone, which made the impressive muscles stand out even more. Lois found herself leaning forward to touch, and only at the last minute did she gain enough control to keep her hands in check.

"You said 9! I thought you'd be naked! Er… ready!"

The man was staring at her with the same shocked look that she realized she must be giving him, and she closed her mouth with a snap. But noticing his expression forced her to pay attention to his face, and she found herself near swooning again. Beautiful, dark, chocolate eyes, attractive tanned skin, silky dark hair with just a lock falling over his forehead… he could easily be a movie star. He certainly had the looks for it. Realizing that she was close to making a fool out of herself, she blinked and forced herself to take a step back.

Lois, get a grip! He's just a man. Just a man.

And I'm just a woman.

"Well, do you have the car ready, or not?" she snapped.


Clark stared at her in shock. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Flashing dark eyes, silky black hair, well-formed—uh—figure. Long, shapely legs, shown to their best advantage under her long sweatshirt and leotard.

But wait. He squinted. There was something familiar about her. He couldn't put a finger on it, but… yes, that was it. She looked just like the picture of the reporter he was supposed to be searching for.

This couldn't be her, could it? How could he possibly have found her on his second day in the Congo? But on the phone… hadn't she given her name as Wanda Detroit? What was going on?

"Just a moment," he told her.

He hurried back to the workbench he had at the back of the shop, and grabbed the picture Perry had given him of Lois. He stared at the picture as his eyes quickly adjusted to the dim light. He glanced up at Wanda. Both women had the same dark, flashing eyes, the same silky dark hair, even the same tiny mole just below the hairline on the forehead. The same lips, the same nose. It was most definitely Lois. But if she had been here and safe the whole time, why hadn't she told Perry she was okay?

He walked back towards her slowly, frowning. "Lois?" he said uncertainly.

Her eyes widened, and she gasped. "How did you… how did you know?" she said, just above a whisper.

He didn't respond, and she spun around quickly.

"I have to go," she said, looking about wildly. And almost before he could blink, she was gone.

He could have chased after her, his speed gave him the advantage. But he knew that if Perry White's best investigative reporter was hiding and using a false name, she had good reason. Besides, now he knew her alias. Maybe it would be best to find out a little more about her before confronting her again.

"Hey, Joel!" he called back to his boss. "Any idea who this Wanda Detroit is?"


"Nobody knows you when you're down and out," Lois crooned, trying to ignore the fact that only a few patrons of the club were actually listening to her. If this had truly been her life's work, she might have considered throwing things to get a bit more attention. But then her unsympathetic boss would probably fire her anyway.

"In my pocket… not one penny… and my friends… I haven't any." Lois suddenly identified with the girl in the song. Usually she didn't really pay attention to the words as she sang, but she couldn't help realizing that she was in a similar situation. She'd long since run through the money she'd brought with her, and aside from a few tenuous relationships with other girls at the club, she really didn't have any friends she could trust her.

An ache of homesickness suddenly hit her, and it was all she could do to keep singing without letting her feelings take over. Perry and Jimmy, and even Lucy and her parents, all were thousands of miles away.

She scanned the room as she neared the end of the song. A man by the bar turned slightly and raised his glass. He reminded her a great deal of the mechanic she'd seen that morning. A man who could give away her secret in an instant, if he chose, and get her killed. A cold shiver ran up her back.

Narrowing her eyes, she realized that the man at the bar didn't just resemble the mechanic—he *was* the mechanic! She was pretty sure he hadn't had that goatee this morning, but other than that, he was the mechanic. She just hoped he didn't recognize her.

The man, his eyes still locked on her, winked.

She gulped and choked on her last line. He knew who she was. She had to get out of here.

She abandoned the little trill she liked to finish the song with and escaped backstage as quickly as humanly possible.

But as soon as she was safely offstage and away from the knowing eyes of the stranger, she rethought her plan of escape. Escape was something ordinary, run-of-the-mill reporters did when they got too close to a story. Lois Lane didn't turn tail and run. She faced her adversaries. Of course, that usually resulted in weekly attempts on her life, kidnappings, and other things she could do without. But Lois Lane did not shy from danger. Or handsome strangers.


Clark chose a quiet corner of the room where he could stand undisturbed with his drink, but still have a good view of the stage and the rest of the room.

His eye was almost immediately caught by a powerful-looking man in a business suit who was seated next to an attractive blonde. The man looked familiar somehow, but he couldn't place him. Oh well. It would come to him.

Clark tuned in to their conversation.

"—shouldn't be a problem," Business Suit was saying. "Take as much time as you need. But it had better be ready on time."

"Of course," the blonde said. "As long as the payment is on time. The only way I'm going to be able to wrest control of the Brazzas from Johnny is if—"

A sudden jerk on Clark's shirt caught him off-guard, and he almost tumbled backwards. He found himself on the other side of a curtain in some sort of a dressing room, facing none other than Lois Lane.

A Lois Lane who, his libido noticed, was wearing a sleek, shimmering, low-cut dress. And who had a rather uncomfortable hold on his collar.

"Ow," he said unnecessarily.

"What are you doing here?" she hissed.

"Well, you see, Lois, I *am* a heterosexual male. The Brazza Club has a nice assortment of rather attractive dancers." He let himself glance at her costume. "Do you need me to draw you a diagram?"

She pulled his collar tighter and held one high-heeled shoe over his toes. It wouldn't, of course, hurt him, but she didn't need to know that.

"Perry sent me to find you," Clark said softly.

"Perry?" she asked, loosening her hold on his collar.

Clark reached into his pocket and pulled out his press pass. "I'm Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet. Perry was worried about you; he sent me to find you."

Lois was examining the press pass closely. Clark had a feeling it wasn't so much that she was looking for evidence that it was a forgery, but more that it was a cover while she contemplated how to react.

She looked around the room nervously, then closed the other door. "First," she said, "I'm not Lois, I'm Wanda."

"Lois, you can't still expect me to—" His words were cut off as she clamped a hand over his mouth.

"Do *not* say that name again. Unless you want to get me killed. It's Wanda Detroit, got it?"

He nodded and she removed her hand.

"Why would it get you killed?"

"I'm getting close," she said. "There've been two attempts on my life since I've been here. Adopting a new persona seemed the safest bet."

"Two murder attempts?" he questioned, horrified.

She nodded. "Which is, if you think about it, not all that bad—at least for me. Back home in Metropolis, I'd have two a week. It's all in a day's work."

"Not for all reporters," Clark felt duty-bound to point out. "Nobody's ever tried to kill me."

"Then you haven't been investigating hard enough. You're still a rookie," she said. "It's the mark of a seasoned reporter to have people trying to kill you right and left. Tells you you're doing your job."


"Two murder attempts is nothing, a slow month. I guess not many people know me in this country yet."

It would have been amusing if his heart didn't tighten at the thought of this beautiful, fiery woman in danger.

"But still," she said with a shrug, "I don't have my usual network of sources and hideaways. It seemed easier to adopt a disguise so that I can ferret out information without getting caught."

"Be careful, Lo—Wanda," he said quietly. "At least now that I've found you, I can call Perry and tell him you're okay."

"No!" she cried. "You can't. They might have our phone lines tapped, you'll give me away."

"Paranoid a little?" he asked wryly.

A knock sounded on the closed door. "Wanda, you're on in five!"

"Coming!" she called back.

"Look, I have to go," she said. "You've seen me alive. Go home, tell Perry I'm fine and will be back with the story soon."

Clark leaned against the dressing table and took a sip of his drink. "I think I should stay," he said. "I could help."

"You?" she scoffed. "Hardly, rookie. Go home. I'm the one with the inside track here. No way are you stealing this story."

Steal her story? What kind of a jerk did she think he was? "I'd never steal your story. But I could be your partner."

"Wanda! You're on!" came the voice again.

"I don't need a partner. I work alone," she hissed. "Now get out." She spun and headed out the door, slamming it behind her.

Clark shrugged and headed through the curtain, determined to catch more of the conversation from the power table.

When Clark turned back towards the table, he noted that the businessman was sitting alone and looking bored. As Clark watched, the man sighed and glanced at his watch.

So where was the blonde? Clark scanned the room, finally catching sight of her standing next to the bar.

Her body language was tense. She leaned over the bar, supporting herself on her arms, and she and the bartender had their heads very close together.

Clark tuned in with his super-hearing to catch some of the conversation.

"—already gave you a warning."

"Ain't my fault, ma'am. You can't expect—"

"I can and I do expect professionalism from my staff. If you can't control yourself, rest assured that I will. You're fired."

"You can't fire me, you b—"

"Excuse me," she interrupted, radiating cold fury, "were you just about to compound your previous crimes by insulting me? You may want to remember the position I hold in this city and over the Brazzas. I am not someone you want to cross."

"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry, ma'am."

"Take your things and go."

The man stalked off into the back, and Clark waited and watched until the blonde cooled down and started across the room back towards the table.

A quick few steps put Clark in her path.

"Excuse me, ma'am," he said, "I'm looking for a job."

She looked him up and down, narrowing her eyes. "How did you know I was in charge?" she asked, putting her hands on her hips and giving him a sharp look.

Oops. "You have that air of command about you."

She laughed. "Do I? What's your name?"

Uh-oh, pseudonym, quick. "Charlie King."

"Nice to meet you, Charlie. I'm Toni Taylor. I don't suppose you have any experience bartending?"

"Well, as a matter of fact—" Clark was about to tell her about bartending in Morocco, but quickly changed his mind. "Yes, I do. And I'm certified, nothing illegal."

"Excellent. I just fired my former bartender. You've got the job, as long as you do better than he did."

She flipped a lock of golden hair over her shoulder. "And I don't think that will be hard."


Lois stepped onto the stage, smoothing her dress nervously as she listened to the warm-up bars. Her eyes scanned the audience for one man, and she wasn't sure whether to breathe a sigh of relief or to be disappointed that he wasn't there.

Almost missing her cue, Lois realized she'd better pay at least minimal attention to the song. But she couldn't keep her mind from wandering as she gazed out that audience.

One man in particular caught her eye. He was tall, with curly brown hair, and the look of his business suit and his attitude told her that he was nobody average. Was the blonde next to him his girlfriend? Wife? Or perhaps, in these 90s, his business partner? She couldn't help wishing it was the latter. He was an attractive man, and he seemed to exude power. Maybe she should try to find out more about him.

As she neared the end of the song, she put every ounce of effort into her voice, drawing out each note, giving each measure her absolute best. The effects were noticeable, as the audience as a whole sat up straighter, listened more intently, and even the rowdies stopped to listen.

The man in the business suit watched her with a strange glow in his eyes, his entire expression alive. But in his hands he fiddled with a rose, stripping it of its thorns.

The song finally neared the end, and she allowed a smile to cross her face as the woman in the song finally regained her beloved. She ended with a flourish, and curtseyed to the crowd.

She looked up to meet the man's eyes again, and he suddenly tossed her the rose he'd been de-thorning. Holding it in her hands, she smiled at him. She ducked shyly at the rest of the applause, then hurried offstage.

There had to be some way to meet the man in the suit. And it was up to Lois Lane, intrepid reporter, to find a way.

Lois hurried into the backroom to change. Shoving open the door, she almost barreled into someone who was already in the room.

"You again!" she burst out, recognizing him as the Clark Kent person she'd met earlier. And he was, yet again, without his shirt. She suddenly realized that he was changing clothes, and if she'd been a minute later… she blushed furiously.

"Sorry," she said quickly, turning and hurrying out.

"Lo—Wanda! Wait!" he called, but he didn't stop until she was safely locked in another changing room.

Once her nerves had calmed somewhat, Lois changed into her serving dress and hurried back into the main room. She grabbed a tray from the back and walked slowly to the first of her tables, trying to decide how she'd find out who the curly-haired man was. She eyed his cell phone where it clipped onto one of his coat pockets and dangled tantalizingly close to the floor.

As she passed by one table, a man reached out and grabbed her bottom. Surprised, she only just caught herself from tripping. While she angrily swatted his hand away, though, an idea came.

She hurried over to the table where the businessman sat. Pretending to trip, she let her empty tray fall to the ground next to his briefcase.

"Oh, excuse me," she said, quickly scooping her tray and his cell phone up in one swoop. She curtseyed as she hurried away, trying to avoid meeting his eyes.

Backing slowly up to the bar, she plunked the tray down and stuffed the cell phone into her pocket. "Two sidewinders and an apple martini, please."

"At your command," a gentle voice said, and she spun to see Clark Kent nonchalantly setting out the glasses.

"You!" she hissed. "What are you doing here?"

"Didn't you ask me that before?" he said. "Same thing as you. Getting information."

"This is *my* story!"

"And it still will be," Clark said seriously. "I'm just helping. Any information I get, I'll pass on. But I'm making sure Perry gets you back alive." He quickly mixed the drinks and placed them on Lois's tray.

"I could keep myself alive before you were ever hired by the Daily Planet," Lois retorted. "I didn't need you then, and I don't need you now."

"Suit yourself, then. I'll just keep my information to myself."

"Ooh, you—" Lois stopped as another waitress plunked her tray down and gave Clark her order.

"Whatcha waitin' for?" the waitress asked Lois.

"He wasn't quite finished my order," Lois said, attempting to keep the anger from her voice.

The waitress heard it, but misread it. "He'd serve you first, honey-doll, if you stuffed your chest a bit more and dyed your hair blond like mine." She fingered her platinum hair. "It works like a charm, it does."

Lois rolled her eyes and tapped her foot as Clark finished the waitress's order and she hurried off.

"All right," she said as soon as the other woman was gone, "Do you know anything yet?"

"Not yet," Clark said. "Remember, I was busy trying to find you. I don't even know what you're here to investigate! You didn't exactly give Perry all the details."

"You're really useful. Why do I want to work with you again?"

"Well, I found you, didn't I?" he asked. "None of the other reporters could manage that."

"None of the other… "

"You didn't think Perry would let you fall off the end of the Earth without at least trying to find you? He's sent several people here in search of you. Nobody was able to find you."

Lois sunk down onto one of the bar stools. "Perry sent people to look for me? But without me, he couldn't spare anyone to send over here."

"Your humility astounds me," Clark said wryly.

Lois concentrated on ignoring him. "I didn't mean to worry him," she said with a sigh. "I guess I was just too intent that nothing break my cover." Her mind suddenly insisted on fixating on an image of Clark as a mechanic, his bare chest covered with streaks of grease, and she had to swallow hard to retain her composure.

"That sounds a lot like the Lois Lane I've heard of."

What? Insensitive? "What?" she asked suspiciously.

"Well, being so focused on a story that nothing can break your concentration."

Oh, that. "Yeah, that's Lois Lane, all right. Listen, I'd better get back to reporting, and you'd better get back to—" She glanced at the cup he was absentmindedly drying. "—bartending."


Clark watched as Lois picked up her tray and her drinks and hurried to distribute them. Just as she was handing her last drink to a man at a table near the front, she seemed to jump, startled, and then stare fixedly in one direction. Clark followed her gaze to see a group of men and the blonde he'd been watching before scuttle into one of the side rooms. A waitress immediately glanced towards the room and headed for the bar.

"What can I get for you?" Clark asked her with a smile.

"There's a standing drink order for Johnny and his boys," the waitress said, giving Clark a broad smile. "Toni wrote it on a sheet of paper near the drinks list since you're new."

"And I'll be picking it up," Lois said, pushing the other waitress out of the way.

"Hey, no way," the girl said. "They give big tips."

Lois looked thoughtful for a minute, then smiled at the waitress. "There's 30,000 francs in it for you," Lois hissed, slipping the waitress a handful of creased bills.

The waitress scoffed at her. "Do you even know the exchange rate on the franc CFA? That's about $5 American money. Not worth it." She smiled at Clark and sidled a little closer. "My name's Rachel, by the way. Phone number 55 51 248. Just in case you need to reach me in the middle of the night or something."

Lois was obviously growing desperate. "All right, 120,000." She held out an even larger wad of bills, and the waitress threw Clark a kiss and headed off.

"Lois, you *do* know the exchange rate on the franc CFA, right?" Clark asked.

"Why is everybody asking me that???" she snapped.

"It's about 600 francs to a dollar."

Lois gave him a "you are such a boring idiot that I can't believe I'm still standing here talking to you" look.

He tried again. "That means that $20 would have been about 12,000 francs. You originally offered her about $50, and you gave her close to $200."

"That little weasel!" Lois shrieked. "I'm going to tear her limb for limb!"

"Okay, Lois," he said with a grin. "But first you might want to take the drinks to the men. They probably aren't used to waiting."

"Oh!" Without another word, she hurried off, leaving Clark to muse over the fate of the waitress. Lois Lane was not a safe person to cheat. If he had to make a bet, he'd say Rachel would be regretting her falsehood within the hour.


Lois waited until all the invitees had disappeared into the room and presumably had time to sit down, finish their small talk, and begin talking about important illegal business dealings before she slipped into the room.

The blonde was sitting at one end of the table, Johnny Taylor at the other. Or, at least, one could only assume they had been sitting, because at the moment, they were both standing in front of their chairs, shouting at each other.

"We're inefficient, we're misdirected, we're only a fraction of what we could be if we concentrated on real business instead of this nickel and dime gangster stuff," the blonde was shouting. "Look at us. We're more interested in the new lounge act than in preserving the family legacy. What would Papa say?"

With a shock, Lois realized that the blonde must be Johnny's sister, Toni Taylor. She'd heard the other waitresses complaining about her. Unlike Johnny, who could be persuaded of anything as long as one winked a little and raised one's skirt, Toni was tough. She thought the waitresses and singers were lower than low, and she didn't hesitate to show her distaste for them and their entire class.

Johnny shook his fist angrily. "Papa would tell you to find a good husband, start having some babies, and leave the real work to the men."

Toni glared at him with disgust. She appeared to be actually shaking. "That's what he did tell me, Johnny, only he didn't realize that you would all destroy it."

She turned towards the door as if she was about to leave. Lois, her eyes still on Toni, heard a gasp from the men around the table, and quickly turned to Johnny. He had a gun out, and was pointing it at Toni.

"I'm still the head of this organization, and don't you forget it!" he shouted, emptying his gun with a series of loud bangs into the wall behind Toni's head.

Lois screamed and dropped the tray, diving under cover with the rest of the group. She thought she heard a slight scuffle from the wall in which a group of fresh bullet- holes had appeared, and she prayed that nobody had been hit. Only when Johnny stopped shooting did she tentatively peer out from the table.

Toni was still standing exactly where she had been, smiling slightly. "Just what we need," she drawled sarcastically, "a cool head in charge."

She walked out of the room, and before things could get any worse, Lois quickly followed her out.


Clark tentatively rubbed his chest, off of which several bullets had just bounced. He'd chosen this little room as the best place to observe the meeting. He was able to watch through the wall without having to deal with people walking in front of him all the time, and it was the perfect angle to see everything that was going on. Of course, he hadn't expected to get to join in the action. He glanced down at the hand that was still holding the flattened bullets, and crushed them in his fist. Dumping them on the floor, he removed his shirt and winced at the bullet holes. They were going to be difficult to hide. He was glancing around the room for inspiration when the door suddenly crashed open and Lois burst in.

"What the heck do you think you're doing?" she shouted as soon as the door had slammed shut behind her. She turned bright red when she saw his bare chest.

"Being a reporter," he said with a grin. "Got a problem with that?"

"Half-naked?" she asked. "Just what *were* you doing? You could have been caught!" Lois shouted. "Or shot!" she added almost as an afterthought.

"Yeah, fortunately I ducked just in time," he said, thinking quickly. "Was definitely a close call. But it's a great opportunity for us."

"How so?" she asked, sounding slightly mollified by curiosity.

He pointed to the bullet holes. "Spy-holes," he said. "We can hide them by stacking something in front of them when we're not using them."

"And if anyone finds us in here?" Lois asked, looking around. The room appeared to be a storage place for extra supplies for the bar, including stacks of ice buckets, cases of various liquors, and packages of glasses.

"Then we're in the midst of a hot affair and couldn't get enough of each other at the bar," Clark said mischievously.

Lois spluttered for a moment, and Clark attempted not to laugh at her obvious dismay.

"I guess your, um, attire will help with that," she said, blushing even more furiously.

Clark grinned and tucked his torn shirt behind a box.

"Look," he said, "it's probably safer to spy from here than to actually go in there. And it'll save you a lot of money in bribes," he couldn't help adding. Suddenly, he noticed something protruding from Lois's pocket.

"What's this?" he asked, grabbing the cell phone.

Lois snatched it back. "A cell phone," she said quickly. "Haven't you ever seen one before?"

"I have, actually. But this one looks just a bit expensive for a reporter's salary. Is it really yours?"

She stuck it back in her pocket. "None of your business."

"Lo-is… "

"Wanda!" she said with a look of annoyance. "All right, if you must know, I… found it."

Clark coughed. "Found it?"

"Yes!" she insisted. "Found it. And I'm going to return it as soon as I can see if it has a home number stored on it. Otherwise I'll wait until he calls it."


Lois blushed. "He, the owner, I mean."

Clark shook his head in amusement. "All right, Lois, don't tell me what you're up to," he said. "Just be careful."

"Me?" Lois said, wide-eyed. "I'm always careful. It's almost my middle name."

She turned to leave the room, and just as she closed the door behind her, Clark heard her mutter, "Almost."

As soon as she left, Clark realized that he should have asked her to grab him a spare shirt. With a sigh, he prepared to leave the room and make a run for the changing room before he was accosted by one of the over-zealous waitresses again.


Lois noticed a man at one of her tables frantically waving at her, and she hurried towards him. He pulled out the drink menu with a grateful look on his face as she neared the table.

"I'd like a martini on the rocks," the man said, "and my friend would like a wine—white?—yes, and very dry."

But Lois wasn't really listening. Toni Taylor had just exited the back room and was heading towards a back table to the left of the stage. Next to her and walking quickly to keep up was one of the men from the meeting, a rather greasy-looking man who, from his fashion sense, probably fancied himself quite the ladies' man.

Lois smiled quickly at her customers. "A margarita and a Heineken. Got it." She escaped the table and hurried towards an empty table not far from where Toni Taylor and her friend sat talking. The table had a few empty glasses and crumpled napkins on it, and Lois very slowly cleared the table, then pulled out a cloth to wipe it.

"The shipment arrived yesterday, Toni," the man whined. "You can't expect us to have it delivered by now. These things take time. Given the merchandise, do you really want us to rush?"

"Oh, cut the crap, Joe," Toni said sharply. "You know perfectly well that it's not carefulness, but laziness, that's making you run so far behind schedule."

The man took a long sip of his drink, then seemed to go into a coughing fit that made his red-veined nose even redder. Finally he sat the drink back on the table, ran a hand through his slick hair, and smiled at Toni.

"Soon. I'll let you know."

He glanced Lois's way, and she quickly buried herself in scrubbing the table.

"By the way," he said, leaning forward towards Toni but not managing to lower his voice, "speaking of lazy employees, you may want to talk to that girl over there. She's been wiping that table for a good long time."

Lois's ears burned, and she began humming to herself as she saw, from the corner of her eye, Toni get up and approach her.

Toni's hand snapped out and stopped Lois's in the midst of her scrubbing. "Isn't that table clean yet?" she asked, her voice tight.

Lois looked up, feigning surprise and stopping her hum mid- tune. "There seemed to be this spot," she said, thanking her lucky star as she pointed to a stubborn brown spot, "and I just wanted to see if I could get it to come out."

Toni examined it. "It looks like a cigarette burn. Leave it be and move on."

"Yes, ma'am," Lois said quickly.

"And that table over there seems to want your attention," Toni added, nodding towards the table whose orders Lois had taken a few minutes ago.

"Oh, yes!" Lois said, shoving her things into her pockets and hurrying past the beckoning table to the bar. "Just a minute," she mouthed to the patrons as she told Clark their orders.

The customers didn't seem very happy when she arrived with their drinks, but neither complained. Perhaps her service had been a bit slow, she admitted to herself, but then, who could bother with serving drinks when there were secret meetings to overhear?

For a moment, she considered telling Clark what she'd overheard. But she hardly gave it serious consideration before her mental voice gave her a resounding no. And who was she to argue with her mental voice? After all, Clark would either steal it, or make fun of her for it, or tell her she was imagining things. He hadn't said as much, but Lois could hear the doubt in his voice when she told him about the seriousness of the situation. He couldn't even remember to say Wanda instead of Lois, obviously not believing that there really was a risk to her life if she was found out. Or did he have some lame idea that *he* could protect her if she got in trouble? Why would Perry have sent such a wet-behind-the-ears rookie to find her? Was that all she was worth?

Or was it only the rookie who could be spared for long enough that he could actually manage to find her? That was somewhat comforting, that it took so much effort to find her that no one had the time. Might mean the bad guys didn't either.

A loud bang reverberated through the large room as the main door was flung open. Four men entered wearing ski masks and dressed all in black. Each one was carrying a huge machine gun.

"Hello, Brazzas!" one of the thugs called merrily. "We've come to pay you a visit!" With that, all four began firing.

The patrons screamed and ducked behind the tables. Lois could hear the frantic shrieks of women and the angry shouts of the owners as she ducked under the nearest table.

After a moment, the machine guns went simultaneously silent. Lois peeked out from under her table cautiously.

"That was just a warning," the ringleader said, appearing to grin behind his mask. "Next time, we aim lower. So you'd better watch what you sell to the Brazzas. The Metros will get you!" With that, he and all the thugs raised their fists in salute.

They turned to leave, and Lois was about to breathe a sigh of relief, when one of them turned.

"I like this one," he said, grabbed Toni by the blond hair from beneath the table she was cowering under. "Can't we take her?"

The ringleader glanced around the room anxiously, then shrugged. "Just be careful with her."

"You can't take her!" the man Lois had seen her with earlier shouted from across the room. For the first time, she noticed how strong his accent was.

The man laughed. "Says who?"

"Says me," Toni said, sounding royally pissed off. The man holding her laughed.

"Let her go," said a new voice.

Lois groaned to see that it was Clark.

"This is not a time to play hero," she muttered to herself. "Playing hero is how you blow your cover and the story. And get me killed."

The ringleader gave Clark a look up and down. He held up his machine gun and pointed it straight at Clark, safety off. "Are you sure?" he asked softly, his finger on the trigger.

Clark blanched, but he nodded. "Let her go," he said, even more softly.

There was a long tense moment, then the ringleader threw back his head and laughed.

"Give 'er up," he said to his partner. "Let's get out of here before we're forced to kill pretty-boy here."

Throwing a baleful glance at Clark, the masked guy holding Toni released her and jogged after his friends out of the room.

For a moment, there was complete silence. Then, as if it had been planned beforehand, the room erupted with sound as everyone began to talk at once.

Lois and Clark's eyes met across the room. She slide one hand across her throat in an "I am going to kill you as soon as I get over there" gesture. He shrugged. Before she could head towards him, however, he was accosted by Toni Taylor. Lois seethed as she watched the woman accost him, touching his sleeve gratefully and smiling up at him.

She had to admit, he'd been brave. He could have been shot, so easily. He wouldn't have stood a chance, not at that close range. But why, why, would he risk his life for someone he hardly knew, and on a story? That kind of bravery bordered on recklessness. She was going to have to have a talk with him about flying in the face of danger pretty soon, or the rookie was liable to get himself killed. Perry might yell at her if she let that happen.

"What are you doing, girl?" Johnny asked her in a whiny voice. "Help the other girls get this place fixed up!" He pointed to the back wall, which was peppered with bullet holes right about the height of the average man's chest and head. Lois blinked. If anyone had taken too long to duck…

It didn't bear thinking about. But they hadn't planned that. They'd intended this as a warning. But a warning about what?

They had said something about selling something to the Brazzas. The Brazzas, Lois knew, were the biggest gang in Brazzaville, their home and the source of their name. The Metros were another gang based on a tribe spread across several villages to the north.

But what did they have to do with each other? Her instincts told her that this was what she was looking for. A rivalry? Somebody had to know. She'd check her sources in the city tomorrow.


Clark stood almost motionless, trying to calm his beating heart. The thug couldn't have possibly hurt him, but if he'd shot Clark at point-blank range… it hadn't even occurred to Clark how easily bravery could blow his cover.

It was very fortunate that the man had seemed to respect bravery (or foolhardiness) and hadn't shot. If Clark had demonstrated his invulnerability in front of a crowd of people…

He'd have had to fake his death and move on. Losing Lois forever.

Toni's tug on his arm caught his attention. "Charlie!" she said, "you aren't even listening to me, are you?"

He shook his head mutely.

She smiled slightly. "I guess I can understand. I'm still a bit in shock myself. But I wanted to thank you for saving my life! That was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen. Usually I'm not the type of woman who is turned on by male protectiveness, but… " She lowered her eyes. "Charlie, would you like to have dinner with me tomorrow?"

This could be a great opportunity to question her and find out what was going on at the club. But not only might it not be a very good idea to be out with her in public, he would have less opportunity to question her.

"I'm not sure I'll feel like going out after work," he said.

She appeared to think for a minute, then she smiled. "That's okay. I'll come visit you and bring lasagna. How's that?"

Too tempting. He'd have a whole evening to question her with subtlety. See how the club worked, and try to pinpoint possible suspects. The business man Toni had been talking with… there'd been something about him that bothered Clark, something he couldn't put his finger on. He'd like to know the man's identity and what he was doing there.

"That sounds wonderful, Toni," he said with a smile. "I'd love that."


What Lois wouldn't have given to be back in Metropolis right now. Back in Metropolis, where apartment buildings had fire escapes like they were supposed to.

Drainpipes were far harder to climb up than fire escapes, and a woman couldn't exactly keep her dignity while clinging to the skinny little pipe. That, and drainpipes weren't properly attached to apartments. They never seemed to take human weight very well.

Lois heard voices above her, and recognized Clark Kent's deeper tones along with the higher-pitched, whining tones of Toni Taylor. She clambered up even more quickly to catch their words.

Clark's apartment had a small balcony, and Clark and Toni were leaning on the edge, looking out over the nighttime city. Which was much better than looking down, where a slightly discomposed Lois was huddled just below, clinging desperately to a small bar protruding from the bottom of the balcony.

"So," Clark said.

"So," Toni replied, a smile in her voice.

Lois rolled her eyes, clung a little tighter to the bar, and wished they would get on with it.

"So," Clark said again.

Lois wondered vaguely if falling off the drainpipe would offer them a conversational topic, at the very least. She'd be almost tempted to try it if she'd had a bug she could have placed to catch their response.

Toni sighed softly, a sort of wistful sigh that made Lois want to snort. "Oh, Charlie, what makes you so easy to talk to?" she asked.

Lois clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing, forgetting that both hands were necessary to hold on. She got it back on the bar just in time.

"You know that my brother is the head of the Brazzas, don't you?" she continued.

There was a long pause, then Clark answered simply, "Yes."

"It's just so frustrating!" Toni burst out. "There's so much we could do with the Brazzas. We could actually make more money, you know, if we ran a legitimate operation! It's ridiculous. All Johnny wants to do is be a thug, lead a gang of no-goods who deserve to be in jail. If I could just gain control… there's so much more we could be. We could be a real conglomerate, not a crime syndicate."

"Sounds like a good plan," Clark said.

"You don't believe we'll do it?"

Lois could imagine Clark shrugging. "People can be hard to change. They get into a pattern of doing things one way, and they don't want to think that there's a better way."

"Well, we're not getting anywhere with Johnny in charge," Toni said fiercely. "He's too stupid, he doesn't see what we could be."

"It might be a lot harder to go legitimate than you think, you know," Clark suggested cautiously.

"I've already put things in motion, actually," Toni said. "It might not happen right away, but… as long as things go according to plan… well, you just wait and see, Charlie."

"I believe in you," he said softly.

Lois attempted not to choke. Toni wasn't really going to fall for that line, was she? Lois knew Toni was a blonde, but… come on.

Toni's voice softened as she said, "I know you do, Charlie."

There was another long, frustrating pause, then Lois heard the unmistakable sound of kissing. She widened her eyes in shock. Clark was kissing that woman? What was he doing?

She crept closer to see for sure. Just as she was able to see over the edge of the balcony to where Clark and Toni stood, she saw Clark's hand reach out and make a shooing motion.

Did he—how could he—know she was there?

Clark turned suddenly, dipping Toni slightly so that she emitted a gasp of pleasure, and made eye contact with Lois. One dark eye winked at her, and then he motioned her away again.

Lois gasped and forgot to hold tightly to the drainpipe. With a muffled shriek, she found herself falling straight down.


Clark winced as he heard the sound of crashing garbage cans and the startled yelp of a cat's yelp muffled as a large, heavy object landed upon it.

He x-rayed through the floor of the balcony to make sure Lois hadn't hurt herself in the fall. She appeared to have landed in a dumpster full of rotten vegetables. Her clothes, not to mention the cat, may not have fared well, but she seemed fine.

He turned back to Toni, who was looking rather adorably mussed. The only problem was… well, kissing her hadn't been a turn-off or anything, but there had been something missing. Maybe it was just the knowledge that Lois had been a few feet away, listening to everything—judging everything.

Still listening.

"Um, maybe we should go inside?" he suggested uncertainly.

A smile lit Toni's face. "Oh, Charlie, I'd love that," she said, taking his hand as they walked in through the balcony doors.

"Uh, that wasn't exactly what I—" But he couldn't even finish his sentence before she was on him, kissing him and reaching for the buttons on his shirt.

Clark panicked. He had to get her to stop, he didn't want this. But at the same time, he liked Toni, he didn't want to hurt her. She really was a decent person, even if she was mixed up in some bad things. And she seemed the best link into the Brazzas, maybe the only one in the family who was willing to change.

"Toni," he said, catching her hands and holding them away from him, "I think you've got the wrong idea." Probably kissing her hadn't been the greatest idea, especially so soon. But he hadn't been able to think of any other way to distract her so that Lois could escape. And Toni *was* a beautiful woman…

"No, no, Charlie, it's okay," she said with a smile. "Really. I want this."

"But I don't," Clark tried to say, but was again muffled by her lips pressing greedily against his.

A loud knock on the door suddenly thundered through the apartment, and Toni sprang away from Clark. She wiped her mouth, looking startled. "What's that?" she asked.

"The door. I'd better get it." Thanking his lucky stars, Clark jogged lightly up the stairs to the door, hoping against hope that he could manage to delay his caller long enough to get Toni out of here, or at least cool her down.

He opened the door, and Lois burst in. "Charlie!" she exclaimed before he could react. "Is Toni here? There's an emergency at the club! Water everywhere! It's all flooded!"

Toni quickly hurried to his side. "Where's it coming from?" she asked, at once professional.

"Nobody can tell. Maybe a broken water main. But it's all over the place, and the cleaning crew is panicking!"

"Okay, calm down," Toni said, looking irritable. "I'll be right there, lemme just get my purse." She walked calmly down the stairs and towards the living room couch, where she'd left her purse."

Lois gave Clark an impish grin. "You have some lipstick on your mouth," she said, digging in her pocketbook for a handkerchief. "Just… there," she said, wiping it away.

"Lois… " he said warningly. "Is there really a leak down at the club?"

"Of course there is!" she said brightly.

He glared at her. "Really?"

Lois glanced over Clark's shoulder to monitor Toni's progress. "Well, there *wasn't*," she said. "But I called a friend just before I knocked on your door, so by the time she gets up there, there oughta be at least a *little* flood."

Clark laughed and shook his head, he couldn't help it. "You're really something, you know that, Lois Lane?"

Lois gave him a warning look. "Wanda, remember?" she hissed. "And of course I am. You'd just better not forget it."

Clark suddenly thought of something. "How did you call the club?" he asked suspiciously. "There aren't any public phones around here."

Lois grinned and patted her pocket. "Why, with my new cell phone, of course!"

Clark started to remind Lois that it wasn't *hers*, but stopped before he got out the words. There were just some battles with Lois that weren't even worth the attempt.

Toni came up behind Clark at that moment, carrying her things. "Sorry to cut our evening short, Charlie," she said with a regretful smile. "Hopefully we'll be able to continue where we left off later." Clark's temporary relief was cut short with those words. Later? Much as he liked Toni, he didn't think he liked her ideas for later.


Lois sat on the bar, swinging her legs merrily as she watched Toni attempt to "supervise" the crew that was cleaning up after the burst pipe. There was water covering most of the main room. Lois might have felt bad for the extra work the cleaning crew had to deal with, but because it was after-hours, they were getting paid for overtime. She and the other girls, who were supposed to spending the morning rehearsing, were watching the clean-up in amusement.

Toni appeared to have been up all night. That, or she was taking sleeping pills. She appeared alternately exhausted and hyperactive. At the moment, she was yelling at one of the men for damaging the carpet with his vacuum. Her face was getting redder and redder, providing an interesting contrast with her hair. Suddenly, she slipped on a still- wet patch of carpet and went over backwards, legs kicking up in the air just the way they did in movies.

Lois glanced at the other waitresses. They were all holding up various numbers of fingers. Toni had earned a '4,' a '9,' a '6,' and a '5,' apparently. Lois added another '4' to the mix and winked at the cleaning crew, who were grinning at them with amusement.

Lois's pocket suddenly started to vibrate. She jumped, then realized that it was the cell phone. She'd set it to vibrate so that the other girls wouldn't notice anything.

"Be right back," she whispered to Rachel, who was nearest. Rachel nodded.

She hurried into the ladies' room and opened up the cell phone. "Hello?" she whispered, trying to ignore the way her voice echoed in the tiled room.

"Hello?" an imperious voice said sharply. "Who's this? Why do you have my phone?"

"Why, hello," Lois answered in her sweetest voice, knowing that everything depended on this one conversation. "This is Wanda Detroit, the singer. I have your phone because we found it after closing last night."

There was a long pause. When the man spoke again, his voice seemed to soften. "Wanda Detroit… I heard you sing, I believe. Lovely voice you have."

"Thank you," Lois said, silently punching the air. She had him!

"I'd like to get my phone back. Perhaps we could meet at the club a bit early tomorrow, before you're on duty? I'd like to buy you a drink to thank you for finding it."

Well, a drink wasn't exactly dinner, but it was a start. Lois had to know who this man was, she just had to. She wasn't sure exactly what drew her to him. It wasn't attraction, the way she felt when she saw Clark's bare chest… well, she wouldn't go there. But it wasn't really that. This man had power, you could see it in every move he made, hear it in every word he spoke. He had power. He was just the person Lois needed. A contact, an in, somebody who knew people. He must have heard rumors, if a dangerous weapon was really headed here. He had to keep abreast of the political situation, surely he knew everything there was to know about what was going on, who would want a weapon of mass destruction, and for what. If she could just get him to talk…

It helped that he was a rather attractive man. No, drinks with him wouldn't be a sacrifice at all.


Clark wasn't exactly sure how he was going to face Toni after the night before. He hoped he hadn't ruined everything by pushing her off. Regardless of how he felt about her—which, at the moment, he was none too sure of— she was in a position to be useful to him at the club. She knew everything that went on in the club, even more than her brother Johnny did. Surely she could be a useful source of information on the story Lois was investigating. If only Lois would let him in on the story so he knew what he was looking for. Being left out in the dark only made him worry more about the risks Lois might be taking.

He had been polishing the same spot on the bar for about ten minutes when Toni finally walked into the main room.

She saw Clark and blushed. "Just a minute," she mouthed, then turned to speak with one of the maintenance men.

Clark quickly tossed away the polishing cloth, but then he was left with nothing to do with his hands, which was even worse. He was looking desperately around for a task to busy himself with when Toni finally approached the bar.

"Hi," she said, smiling shyly.


Clark hoped desperately that Toni would go first, because he had no idea what to say after last night. They were on an entirely new footing now, and it was definitely awkward when they had to work together. Not to mention… would she be upset about the way he'd brushed her off? Granted, she didn't seem upset, but still…

"Look, Charlie," Toni said finally, "I want to apologize for last night."

Clark lifted his head to face her. "What?"

"I mean it. I was way out of line. I don't even know *what* I was doing, only that it wasn't the way I normally behave, I can promise you that. I could blame it on the alcohol, but, well, I hate people who can't take responsibility for their own actions, so I won't. Can you forgive me?"

"Forgive you?" Clark was astounded. "Of course!"

"Thank you." She smiled broadly at him. "The truth is, I really like you, Charlie. But I don't want to push you into anything you don't want. So we'll just… start fresh, shall we?"

This couldn't have worked better if he'd planned it himself. And he liked what Toni had said, about taking responsibility for one's actions. That was really what the Brazzas, and the Taylor family, needed. Somebody willing to stand up and take responsibility for their actions, somebody willing to put himself—or herself—on the line to change things.

"Would you like to go out to dinner with me, Toni?" he asked.

"I'd love to!" she exclaimed. She glanced behind her, then whispered, "But maybe someplace else? I'd like to get away from the enclave for a while."

"Of course. I think I know the perfect place, a little hideaway I found on the other side of the city," he told her. "How about eight?"

"Eight's perfect."


Lois couldn't believe she was sitting across the table from Daniel Reardon. She'd heard of him, of course. He was practically a legend in the Congo. Half the buildings in Brazzaville were named after him, and yet… here she was, speaking with him. She couldn't believe her luck.

"It's a beautiful city," Daniel was saying, "although the political situation can be a little difficult at times."

Pay dirt. "How so?" she asked innocently.

"Well, you know how there are two powerful tribes, run by two powerful families, battling over this region?" he asked. "The Brazzas currently have control over the city, with this club as their center point." He laughed slightly. "Why I'm here, of course."

She decided to bypass opportunities for more information about the tribes in order to learn a little more about Daniel himself. "Why *are* you here?" she asked.

He shrugged and raised his glass to her. "I've been fairly well-known in the United States for many years as a philanthropist," he said modestly, "but the time finally came when I realized I was ready to branch out a bit. Many of the countries in this region are ready for development. They need a great deal of money to help them get started, but once they're on their feet, they have the manpower and the natural resources to become countries to be reckoned with. I've been working on creating a branch of my businesses here to try to stimulate the local economy."

"You must lose a lot of money!" Lois exclaimed.

"Some, yes," he said, shrugging. "But the rewards are truly worth it. Every one of these children I'm able to keep in school, children who will be able to find jobs and decent housing when they're adults because of the industry I've brought to this area, they're my rewards. And my own son has thrived living in this country."

"You have a son?" Somehow it didn't seem right for Daniel to have a son. She tried to reform her image of him to include a laughing father tucking a small son into bed, or teaching him to play baseball, but the images just wouldn't come.

Daniel beamed with pride. "Yes, Felix is nine years old. Would you like to see a picture?"

Lois hid her grin as Daniel pulled a photo from his wallet to show her. The boy was indeed a handsome younger copy of Daniel, obviously inheriting his coloring and his wicked grin. She smiled and handed the photo back to Daniel.

"He looks sweet," she said.

"Oh, he's the joy of my life. Handsome, smart, athletic, and just a touch of mischievousness."

Lois treaded carefully. "I didn't know you were married, Daniel," she said tentatively.

Daniel widened his eyes. He reached across the table to take Lois's hand in his, and while he spoke, he gently caressed the skin on the back of her hand. "I was married, a long time ago." His eyes took on a distant look as he remembered. "Arianna was… very special to me."

"What happened?" She was almost afraid to ask.

Daniel hesitated. "There was a boating accident," he said slowly. "Arianna was killed."

"Oh, that's terrible!" Lois said. But she couldn't help feeling just a tinge of relief that Daniel wasn't married. Not that she really wanted to analyze why that brought her relief, but it did make her feel a little better.

"So you're raising your son yourself?" she asked, curious.

He nodded. "But enough about me. What brings you here?"

"Oh, the usual," Lois replied, her standard response. "Fame, fortune, glory."

Daniel laughed. It was a beautiful thing. Lois hadn't gotten to hear many people laugh, real laughs, since she'd been here. That Clark Kent had a nice laugh, though, deep and throaty. She wouldn't mind hearing him laugh again.

But she was here with Daniel! It was all Clark Kent's fault. Ever since she'd seen him in his mechanic garb that first day—or, rather, without much garb—she'd had the worst trouble getting him out of her mind. Even at the oddest moments, like now.

"You look lost in thought," Daniel said, pouring her a bit more champagne. "Anything on your mind?"

She quickly snapped out of her distraction. "Just taking the evening in. It's so nice to have an evening out, not having to sing, you know."

Daniel was looking around the club as well now. "Toni did a nice job getting everything cleaned up after that Metro attack," he said, frowning slightly.

"Metro attack?" Lois asked, perking up. Maybe she wouldn't even have to depend on her mad-dog interviewing tactics to get juicy information from Daniel.

"You know, the attack the other night," Daniel said, looking somewhat surprised. "It was an attack by the Brazzas rival gang, the Metros. They live north of the city, in caves, probably. The name is a ridiculous statement of their intent to win the city back. Both want it, and with it, control of the region. But if they can't have it, they're willing to destroy it. Without Brazzaville as its center, the entire country would be split up like one very real game of Risk."

Lois shuddered. Usually she could distance herself from ideas of things such as tribal warfare and gang wars. But when two rival gangs were fighting over a city that she happened to be living in—and when she knew that there was a nuclear weapon somewhere afloat, although she didn't quite know its purpose yet—she couldn't help but be a bit nervous.

"I've heard rumors," Lois brought up hesitantly, "that Toni Taylor's the new head of the Brazzas."

Daniel laughed. "I wouldn't be surprised. She's certainly a woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants."

Lois leaned closer and asked, "Do you think she wants to end this war with the Metros for once and for all? Make the Brazzas the firm rulers of Brazzaville?"

"Why do you ask?" Daniel's question was innocent, but something about the way that he was twiddling his glass made Lois realized she'd stepped just a little too far.

"Oh, nothing," she backpedaled. "I've just been hearing things, and I'm getting worried. You know, like there might be some major war over the city. I like it here, but I don't have any special attachment to it. If something like that breaks out, I'm outta here."

"Sounds rational."

"What about you?" she asked curiously.

"Well, there's my son to think about," Daniel pointed out. "I can't just leave easily. But we live on an estate south of the city. Since the Metros are to the north, I think we could safely retreat to our home and be safe."

Sounded almost too good to be true. "I'd like to see it," she ventured. She wanted to prolong the relationship. Not only was Daniel a goldmine of inside information—if she could just become friendly enough with him that it would slip out naturally—but he was also the most interesting man she'd met in a long time. Or, one of the most interesting, she amended when her brain pulled up an image of Clark to remind her of the other man who'd been intriguing her recently.

"Well, Ms. Detroit, it's been delightful. I'm afraid I really need to get back to work though," Daniel said, standing. He pulled back Lois's chair, and she stood and grabbed for her purse.

"I had a wonderful time, Daniel," she said, smiling. "I hope we'll see each other again."

He took her hand and bowed over it. "I'd like that. Perhaps you'd like to come to dinner at my house some day?"

Lois would, of course, be ecstatic. She managed to contain her reaction long enough, however, to arrange a date and time.

As she watched Daniel leave, she couldn't help being slightly curious about his son. Lois hadn't had a lot of contact with children, aside from her sister and occasionally Jimmy. She hoped Daniel's son wouldn't take an instant dislike to her. But she had a feeling any son of Daniel's wouldn't be allowed to be a brat. He'd be expected to be completely obedient and well-behaved. Daniel wasn't the sort to tolerate bad behavior in a son, even one he loved. She just hoped that he meant "mischievous" in a good way.


Clark held out the chair for Toni as she settled herself into it. She smiled up at him, and he felt grateful for the old-fashioned manners his parents had taught him.

Seating himself across from her, Clark picked up the napkin. But almost immediately, he heard a sound that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

"Toni, I have to go," he said, standing up so quickly he almost knocked his chair over backwards.

"Go?" she asked, lifting an eyebrow.

"Go. You know, like, um, *go*." He made a face that he suddenly realized probably indicated constipation and quickly hurried off before he could dig himself any deeper.

He took off at a run, probably fueling any lingering suspicions Toni had, and darted out the back door of the restaurant. The back door let out into an alley, and although it didn't exactly fit the description of "dark, narrow alleyway," being rather wide and well-lit by streetlamps, it was deserted enough to let him take to the air.

He flew to the South District, but had to circle several times until he saw a suitable place to land out of sight. It happened to be a roof, so he had to run at full-speed down the stairwell and out onto the street.

The South District's streets and alleyways weren't nearly as wide or as well-lit as those surrounding the restaurant where Toni was waiting, probably wondering if offering a laxative would be helpful or embarrassing. It wasn't a district where most people who valued their lives would walk at night if they could avoid it, and with good reason.

Three men were surrounding a young woman carrying a basket. She was backing away, but obviously with little hope of escape. When she felt the wall behind her, she crouched into a self-protective position. Two of the men had knives, and she knew she was trapped. There was fear but also morbid resignation in her eyes.

Clark approached the scene slowly, not entirely certain of what he was doing here. All he knew was that when his super-hearing picked up an assault, he couldn't just ignore it. It was hard to help without being noticed, but he'd always done his best, and moved on whenever suspicions seemed to arise. It was the only way he could think of to help without forfeiting his right to a normal life.

The problem was, he spent more time trying to keep hidden than trying to determine the best way to help. The result was that, countless times, he would approach the scene of a crime in progress without the slightest idea how to stop it.

"I'd put those knives away if I were you," he said, sounding more confident than he felt. At least, he hoped his voice hadn't been shaking.

Two of the attackers spun to face him, startled at the intrusion. The third trusted his partners to take care of the unexpected distraction while he continued to advance on the woman.

With a defender near, however, the woman seemed to gain confidence. The dark of the night helped to shield her as she, without breaking eye contact with her attacker, slid her hand across the ground until she encountered a loose rock. She clutched it tightly in her hand. It wouldn't help much, but it was something.

Clark eyed the two men facing him. One held a knife, the other simply looked prepared to fight. He'd always meant to learn some karate or another martial art that would enable him to pretend to fight the attackers and hide his invulnerability while he took their weapons. Unfortunately, he'd never found the time or a suitable instructor. And so he was stuck with speed.

Before the possessor of the knife could react, Clark darted forward and pulled the weapon out of his hand, twisting the wrist at the same time.

The attacker screamed, clutching his wrist.

The other assailant slammed a fist into Clark's stomach at the same time the first one launched a roundhouse kick into his knee.

Clark let himself appear to react as any man would, doubling over at the stomach and then dropping to one knee as the other gave out. But the moment he was low enough, he grabbed one man by the leg and flipped him onto his back, slamming him into the ground just hard enough to daze him.

The girl screamed, and Clark threw the other man off as he ran towards her. The third man had an arm around her neck and seemed about to use his knife, which her stone could do little to ward off.

Clark judged the situation in a moment and decided that speed was more important than furtiveness. With one burst of super-speed he had the knife in his possession and the girl released.

His back to the wall and his arm around the girl, he stared at the three men. They stared back, dumbstruck, and then simultaneously turned and bolted down the street.

Clark sighed. Before morning, word would be out on the street that there was some sort of mystical hero on the loose. If he could just avoid having to act again and thus confirming the rumors until after he was able to leave. Usually, leaving a city sooner than he had planned didn't matter, but there was a story here. Not only that, but Lois still needed protection. She claimed to be able to protect herself, to not need him, but he couldn't leave things at that.

He turned to the girl. "€a va?" he asked.

She nodded. "Vous m'avez sauv‚ la vie," she said, her eyes shining. "Et… la vie de mon b‚b‚." She held out the basket and moved a piece of cloth away to reveal the face of a miraculously still-sleeping newborn.

Clark couldn't keep the huge smile from brightening his face. She was grateful to him for saving her life, and her son's. It was a rare rescue that he was able to hang around afterwards and actually see the happiness and relief on the survivor's face, but hers was worth it.

He offered her his arm to guide her safely to her home.

When he finally managed to escape the thanks and well- wishes from the young woman and her husband and relatives, Clark realized he'd been gone for an hour. He needed to get into the air quickly. But there were too many windows, too many people to see around here.

The docks might be a good take-off point. They were usually fairly quiet and isolated late at night. He headed in that direction to see.

An alley between two windowless warehouses seemed just the thing, until Clark realized that there were people in the alley.

"The shipment's ready, if the payment is," a man's voice hissed.

"It's ready. We'll want a demonstration, though," said the other voice.

"Fine. Pointe Noire, tomorrow, midnight. You know the spot."

Clark x-rayed through the edge of the warehouse blocking his view, but neither man looked familiar. All the same, he had an idea Pointe Noire would be a good place to check out tomorrow at midnight.

Now that he thought about it, why was it that bad guys always met in alleys? He ducked into the alley to take off, and laughed at himself. Alleys were the most isolated outdoor spot for him to take off; it made sense that they were also isolated enough for clandestine meetings.

He soared across the city towards the restaurant, trying to remember how to get to Pointe Noir. He might need to look at some maps in the morning.

Landing softly in the alley, he brushed his suit off and hoped he didn't look as though he'd been in a street fight. Might be hard to explain that one, given that Toni thought he was just in the bathroom.

Toni was, somewhat to his surprise, still sitting at their table. He'd half-expected that he'd walk into the restaurant to find that she'd long gone. But she was sitting serenely, eating by herself. When he walked in, she lifted an eyebrow.

"I didn't order for you," she said calmly. "Wasn't sure how long you'd be gone. Everything… better now?"

He nodded and sat down, trying to hide the tear he'd suddenly discovered the hem of his shirt with an artful arrangement of his napkin.


Daniel's estate was definitely the mansion Lois had been expecting. But at the same time, it wasn't a tasteless structure in marble or brick that would have out of place in the landscape at all. It was made out of wood. High, vaulted ceilings with beautifully treated and stained wood beams, arranged so that the grains formed interesting patterns above her head. Soft lighting that made the wood itself seem to glow.

"Hello," a young voice said from somewhere below her.

Lois looked down. A young boy stood in front of her, looking very proper in a miniature suit and tie. "Father says I'm to bring you into the sitting room."

Was this Daniel's son? She wasn't entirely sure it was polite to ask, just in case he was a servant or something. He did look like the picture Daniel had shown her. He'd be breaking girl's hearts someday. Wasn't that what they always said about cute little boys? Which was kinda sad, if you thought about it. Why would you want to think that a cute little boy would be breaking girls' hearts someday? Wouldn't you prefer to think that he'd be happily married?

She could babble even in her thoughts. That seemed pretty impressive, even for Lois. She attempted to stem the flow and just enjoy the luxurious surroundings.

"This way, ma'am," he said as he politely bowed her into the sitting room.

Daniel stood to greet her as she entered. "Good evening, Wanda," he said, taking her hand and kissing it lightly. "You've met my son Felix, I see. He's almost ten years old."

Felix puffed up his chest. "In two months," he told her proudly.

"It's very nice to meet you, Felix," Lois said, shaking his hand. She couldn't help feeling a little awkward. She hadn't really been around kids much since she had been a kid herself.

"My pleasure," Felix said. He shook her hand back, then glanced at his father. Daniel nodded, and Felix bowed, said, "Excuse me," and hurried up the stairs.

"What was that about?" Lois asked Daniel as he led her into the dining room. He guided her with a hand on the small of her back, a feeling Lois had always hated.

"I asked Felix earlier if he'd excuse us for dinner. I thought it might be nicer if we could have dinner by ourselves, and Felix is used to dining upstairs in the nursery."

Sounded like something straight out of an Agatha Christie book. No, take that further back, maybe a Jane Austen.

Dinner at Daniel's house was as Lois might have expected… expensive and multi-coursed. Thankfully, the fancy dinners Lois had occasionally had to attend in order to report on the speeches of dignitaries and politicians came in handy, as Lois knew which fork was which. Although she did have the bad habit of forgetting to swallow before bursting out with questions.

After dinner, she and Daniel sat in the sitting room with coffee, and Lois finally felt ready to ask Daniel a few more questions.

Before she could begin, though, Daniel spoke up. "You were asking about Toni Taylor the other night?" he asked, lifting an eyebrow.

She nodded.

"You were right. She has taken over the Brazzas. I asked a few discreet questions, and it seems that she is making a big push to get the Metros out of the city entirely and protect her gang's turf."

Lois leaned forward. "Do you think her plans are in motion?"

"I don't know. But if you don't want to be in the city when things get crazy, I would consider being ready to leave at any time." He smiled gently at her. "I wouldn't like to see you hurt. Toni is a dangerous person. Stay away from her, don't get on her dark side."

Lois nodded, pretending to be seriously frightened. But it wasn't her own safety she was concerned with—it was Toni's plans. And the shipment she'd heard was arriving.

Daniel seemed reluctant to go into more detail, although Lois noticed how worried he seemed for the rest of the evening. He was probably worried over his son, Felix. If the city suddenly got dangerous, his son might be in danger. And yet Daniel couldn't just pick up and leave as easily as Wanda Detroit could.

Lois sighed. She'd started to think of herself in the third person. Was that a bad sign, or what?

When Daniel finally walked her out to her car that night, Lois was almost relieved. She enjoyed Daniel's company, but she couldn't wait to get back to Clark.

To tell him what she'd heard about Toni, of course.

And maybe see if, once again, she'd manage to catch him without his shirt.


Clark cleaned the counter diligently, keeping one eye and his super-hearing on Daniel Reardon the entire time. He hadn't managed to meet up with Lois since the previous night, but he knew she had gone to Reardon's house for dinner. Obviously nothing catastrophic had happened the way Clark had half-wished, because she was dancing and seemed in fine spirits. Reardon, too, seemed pleased. He sat by himself sipping a drink, but his behavior was not the lonely depression of many of the men who drank alone. Instead he seemed merely… thoughtful.

And Clark would have given an eyetooth, as his mother liked to say, to know what Reardon was contemplating.

Or was he merely waiting until Lois's show was over? But Reardon didn't seem to be paying any attention to the stage. He had his back to it.

"Good evening," a man said to Reardon, sitting down next to him. He lifted a hand to call Clark.

"A dry martini on the rocks."

Clark nodded and turned his back to him as he got the drink ready. He could still hear the conversation, however.

"I don't discuss business at the bar," Reardon said, seeming annoyed.

"You aren't at the office," the other man replied. He sounded somewhat accusing. "When am I supposed to show you the quarterly reports?"

Reardon harrumphed. "I've already seen them."

Clark could actually hear the man's gulp all the way behind the bar—without use of his super-hearing.

Reardon gave the man a look of contempt. "Your investments are nothing short of idiocy. You risk nothing, therefore you lose everything."

"But sir!" the man blurted. "You told me you'd have my head if I lost a cent!"

Reardon laughed. "So staying on the straight and narrow, nothing ventured, nothing gained, is better?"

"It is if I get to keep my head," the second man muttered.

Clark turned around with the man's drink ready, and placed it in front of him. "Would you like another, sir?" he asked Reardon. The man shook his head.

Reardon's business partner took a huge gulp of his drink, puffing out his cheeks and turning a bright shade of purple. His eyes almost popped out of his head. After a moment, he swallowed and gave Clark a nod. "Excellent."

Clark gave a slight bow and returned to the sink, where he rinsed out the cloth he'd been using to wipe the counters. But he continued to listen with avid attention to Reardon's conversation.

Neither said anything for a few moments, and Clark had a feeling that it didn't bode well for the partner. Finally, Reardon spoke. "Alexander the Great once said, 'I would rather live a short life of glory than a long one of obscurity."

"What's that mean?" the partner asked with a quaver in his voice.

"It means that you're fired."

"And that's all, folks!" the announcer on the stage declared, as the troupe finished dancing to wild applause. Clark's head shot up as he looked for Lois. There she was, front and center, looking charming in her bright yellow chicken costume. He grinned at the sight.

The moment Lois realized she'd caught his eye, however, she started gesturing. Clark got it in an instant: she wanted him to meet her in the storeroom where they'd discovered the bullet holes. He let his face remain a mask of incomprehension, however, to watch Lois continue her wild attempts at sign language, while at the same time trying to act like she was an innocent chicken walking off the stage with her fellow chickens.

Finally, Clark took pity on her and nodded.

"Toni," he called softly to the woman at a table near the bar. She looked up. Clark pointed to his watch, then lifted his eyebrows. She nodded, indicating that he could take his break now.

He hurried around the corner, hoping nobody was looking, and darted into the storeroom.

Lois was already there, wearing a soft brown bathrobe over her chicken costume. Clark chuckled when he saw it.

"What?" she said defensively, pulling the edges of the bathrobe closer together.

"Nothing. So… what's the secret meeting for?"

"I think I know who the Boss is," Lois said, planting her hands on her hips. "Toni!"

Clark frowned. "Why?" He wasn't blind to Toni's faults. She'd done some illegal things in her attempt to gain and keep control of the Brazzas. But, while the end didn't justify the means, she intended to do good with the gang once she had control over them. She wasn't like her brother. The Boss had to be someone else.

"Well, I overheard a conversation with her and one of her henchmen," Lois said triumphantly.

"Henchmen?" Clark asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Henchmen! And they were talking about a shipment. She was angry that it hadn't arrived yet, and he said that, given the contents, she didn't want him to hurry. Don't you see? Because it was weapons!"

"Lois, you're guessing."

"And then there's what Daniel said… "

Clark suddenly heard somebody coming down the hall. It was the head waitress, and she was looking for them, by the way she was looking into all the dressing rooms and break rooms she passed.

She would hit the storeroom in a minute. She'd find them! There was only one thing to do.

Clark took Lois's face in his hands and kissed her.

Lois's startled squeak was lost in Clark's mouth as he closed his mouth over hers, praying that she wouldn't pull away and slap him.

But when she gave a soft sigh and kissed him back, the thought flew out of Clark's head before he'd even half- considered it.

Kissing had always just seemed part of the package with other women. A precursor. Not that Clark had gone too much beyond it, but it had always left him feeling incomplete, at loss.

Not so with Lois. Kissing her was an entire experience in and of itself. Like the description of a man "losing himself in her eyes," he could lose himself in her kiss. And when Lois willingly parted her lips and Clark entered… there weren't words to describe it.

Could you fall in love from a mere kiss?

An instant later—well, probably several minutes later, but it felt like an instant to Clark-they finally broke the kiss. Clark found himself staring down into Lois's face a mere inch from his own, her lips swollen and eyes huge as she looked up at him.

"What did you do that for?" she whispered.

"Somebody was coming," he whispered back. It seemed like it would break the moment to speak in a louder voice. "I thought we could pretend… you know."

Lois blinked. "How would you know? I didn't hear anything, and I have perfect hearing. Besides, nobody opened the door."

Clark attempted not to swallow his tongue. "Uh—I heard something. It sounded like somebody was coming."

"But people pass by all the time. They never look in the storeroom."

"I… " He wasn't sure what to say. She was right. But he really *had* seen somebody. He scanned the hallway again, but the head waitress was long gone. She'd obviously just been checking the rooms she expected them to be in, the break rooms and the changing rooms.

Lois grinned, stood up on her tiptoes, and kissed him again.

"I gotta go," she whispered. "I have another show in half an hour, and I'm starving. Let me know if you find anything."

Clark stared after her, speechless. Was this the same Lois Lane who hadn't wanted anything to do with him? Could a kiss change that much?


Lois resisted the urge to bolt out of the room and walked calmly down the hall and into a vacant dressing room.

Wow! Was that ever some kiss!

Lois couldn't help feeling a little guilty. After all, she'd been dating Daniel. Well, okay, going on dates with him while she pried information from him. But at the same time… had she been leading him on?

He was everything she always thought she wanted in a man. Suave, debonair, to use romance-novel words. A man of the world. A man who had most certainly spent time in Europe, who was cultured. A man who could enjoy the ballet and the opera and not feel as if he was forfeiting his manhood.

This was probably Clark's first trip out of the United States. He was probably from some small town out west and had just recently come to Metropolis to work for the Daily Planet. His first trip to the big city. He had that small-town innocence about him that Metropolis hadn't had time to wear away yet.

Daniel was always impeccably dressed.

Clark was frequently not entirely dressed to begin with. Lois started blushing as she remembered the last time she'd bumped into Clark without his shirt.

She slipped into the sequined costume she was to wear for the next act without really paying much attention to what she was doing. Quite a few tiny sequins fell to their unloved, unmourned deaths on the changing room floor due to her rough treatment of the costume, but she spared them hardly a glance.

Daniel was the man she'd always imagined she'd fall in love with.

But it was still Clark she couldn't stop thinking about.


His most prized possession had betrayed him. Lex stared down at the bomb, wishing he could erase the words he'd just heard.

"What do you mean, it won't work?" Lex asked his technician calmly.

"Two of the kryton switches are faulty," the man explained. "A nuclear bomb is set off by a series of small explosions, which have to be timed exactly, to the microsecond. Two of the kryton switches are faulty, which means they won't time correctly."

Lex frowned. "Can someone tell just by looking at the bomb that the switches are faulty?"

The technician shook his head. "No, not at all. They look completely fine. It's only when you run a series of tests on them, tests that take a few days, that the fault appears."

"And what would happen if the bomb was set off as it is?"

The technician frowned. "It probably wouldn't go off at all. It's possible, though, that it could cause a small explosion. Either way, it would release a great deal of radiation, potentially dangerous in a close radius. But it wouldn't cause the wide-scale destruction that it would if the switches were working."

Lex dismissed the man with a wave of his hand.

"'Daniel Reardon' has something to attend to," he told Nigel. "Then I want a full description of the technician's background and experience. I also want dossiers on the men who actually built the bomb."

"Yes, sir," Nigel said.


Clark landed lightly behind a vacant warehouse in the dock district of the Republic of the Congo's largest port city, Pointe Noire. The docks were quiet at this hour, mostly vacant. Except for one dock on the East Side.

Keeping close to buildings for cover, Clark super-sped his way over to Dock Six, where most of the activity seemed to be centered.

Here, the dock-workers didn't even seem to be trying to control the noise. The only nearby buildings were warehouses, possibly staffed by paid-off guards, but more than likely just empty. There wasn't much stored here that was worth spending more than the money for a few simple locks to protect it. Most of the oil was shipped by other means than water. Through the heavy mist that clouded the scene, Clark could just make out the outline of a large ship. Only by focusing his super-vision could he see the ship clearly.

The loading dock was lowered so that crates could be carted off the ship and new ones. Several men were pushing carts off the boat, while others were loading them onto trucks that stood nearby, waiting. No warehouse storage for these goods. Clark had a feeling they were headed into the rocky hills, where countless caves and hollows could conceal them.

With his super-vision, Clark scanned the contents of the crates. The guns he'd been half-expecting filled almost every one. There were also land-mines and grenades. The Brazzas were obviously planning a full-out land war against the Metros. There had to be a way to stop them.

Could Toni hold them back? She couldn't know about the scale of destruction they intended. Her control over the gang was tenuous at best, but if she could convince them that there were better ways to lead the city, like through business and community, perhaps she could stop the war that seemed potentially catastrophic to the region.

Two men seemed to be standing by the platform and keeping track of the number of crates that were taken off the ship. Clark had a hunch that they were slightly higher on the henchmen scale than the other workers, so he crept towards them in the shadows.

The platform was too open to provide a decent hiding place, but it wasn't difficult to creep onto the dock itself a little further down, behind some barrels. He lowered himself over the edge and hovered just below the dock, then flew gently towards where the men stood talking, hiding under their feet.

"I'm still short ten crates of the new AK-47s," one thug complained to the other.

"They're coming, they're coming. The boss ordered those pretty boys special. They were packaged good so they wouldn't spoil from seawater."

The first man seemed placated. "Your men had better hurry. I'm supposed to have this shipment at the storage facility by 8 a.m. And with the roads I'm gonna have to take, it's gonna take almost twice what the same distance would take on good roads."

The second man made a humph sound, but Clark wasn't sure if it was one of sympathy or simple acknowledgement.

"I hear the Boss already has the biggest weapon, anyway," the second man said after a minute. "These ain't half as important."

The first man nodded. "True, true. It seems a little… drastic… to me. But, what the hell do I care? I'm gettin' the hell out of Dodge the first chance I get. Not gonna stay around here when things get rough."

"Same here. With the money I earned off this job, I can buy myself a nice little hut in the Caribbean, anyway."

"Do you think he's really gonna go through with it? I mean… what's the point?"

"Maybe there isn't one," the second replied. "Maybe the point is simply to do it. After all, what is it he always says, about preferring a short life of glory to a long life of obscurity?"

Clark gasped, and quickly covered his mouth. He'd heard that quote before. Fortunately, his gasp obviously hadn't been overheard, because the two men were laughing.

The first man spoke again. "Well, I'm sure he has plenty of enemies who are bound and determined to see the short part happen, at least. As for the glory… "

"Depends if he sets things in motion first."

The first man yawned. "Hey, that's the last of 'em. I counted right, so I'm outta here. Gotta get these trucks to the spot on time or the Boss'll have my head."

"Nice doin' business wit'cha."

They shook hands, and the Clark watched with his super- vision through the dock as the first man rejoined his comrades and drove away in a caravan of trucks. The second man watched them leave, then climbed back onto the boat.

Clark was vividly remembering the other night in the bar. Daniel Reardon had used that exact same quote in his lecture to his business partner. And his attitude, his connections—Daniel Reardon would make an impressive criminal mastermind. It seemed almost too easy, but everything seemed to fit. He was a constant presence at the club, and always seemed to bring his business associates there. Every associate Reardon met with spoke to him with deference. He could be the Boss.

Fifteen minutes went by. Finally, he could hear the ship pull up anchor, and it left the harbor with painstaking slowness.

Clark reached up and clasped the edge of the dock. He raised himself enough to look over the top and make sure nobody was around.

Only to find himself staring into the large brown eyes of Lois Lane herself.

"Agh!" he shouted, losing his grip and toppling backwards into the water.

When he broke the surface, Lois was still staring at him. Not laughing as he would have expected.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, pushing wet hair away from his eyes.

"Following you, of course. You left directions to Pointe Noire at the bar."

"I threw them away." Shredded them at super-speed, in fact.

"Well, yeah, but you wrote hard enough to make an impression on the next piece of paper."

He gaped at her, but she pushed boldly on. "And what I'd like to know is… how were you hanging onto that dock?"

"What do you mean?" He gulped.

"I mean, there's nothing under there. Nowhere underneath that you could possibly cling to, even if you were Spider- man, which you're not. And yet, you were under there, somehow. Dry, presumably, up until now. And you didn't grab the edge of the dock until you were ready to come up."

This was going to be harder than he expected. He swam downstream a little until he reached an area where a ladder went down to the water. He scrambled up it, only to find himself in front of Lois again.

"I want to know how you did that!" she said, putting her hands on her hips. "And don't lie to me, Kent!"

"Okay," he said with a shrug. He squeezed his shirt to get rid of some of the excess water. "I won't lie to you."


Giving up on his shirt, Clark unbuttoned it and pulled it off, wringing it out in front of him. "Well, I guess 'Clark!' is an improvement," he said with a grin. "Over 'Kent!' that is." There really wasn't any easy way out of the situation. Lois no doubt thought he had some trick up his sleeve, and he wasn't about to tell her it wasn't a trick, it was superpowers. Laughing it off seemed the best way to get her off his case without making it clear that there was a bigger secret behind his behavior.

But Lois didn't seem to be paying attention. She was staring, transfixed, at his chest.

Clark flushed and held his shirt in front of him. "Uh… shall we head back to Brazzaville? Did you drive down?"

Lois nodded mutely.

"Mind if I hitch a ride back?"

She frowned. "How did you get down here?"

"I got a ride." On the wind, he added mentally, trying to keep a straight face.

She rolled her eyes. "Come on, farmboy. Let's go."

He almost had to jog to keep up as she headed towards a parking lot behind one of the warehouses. "Farmboy?" he repeated. "How'd you know I grew up on a farm?"

"Your Midwestern accent. And your utter innocence. Nobody grows up in a big city and manages to retain that naivete."

"I'm not naive!" Clark insisted.

"You only think you're not," she said. "Has anyone tried to kill you yet?"

"No… "

"Case in point."

"That's not naivete, that's a lack of a death wish!"

"That's not digging into your story with both hands and holding on for dear life, refusing to listen to anyone who might try to persuade you to go easy. A real reporter scares people. You, Clark Kent, are an amateur."

"Hey, I'm the one who found out who the Boss is."

"Who?" she demanded, starting the engine.

"Daniel Reardon."


"Sir," Nigel said, poking his head into Lex's office. "Are you busy?"

Lex glanced at Felix, who was lounging on one of the desk chairs and reading over the quarterly report, then shook his head. "Do you have something for me?"

"The Brazzas are anxious for their 'ultimate weapon,'" Nigel said with disgust. "Should I let them know that the bomb is dysfunctional?"

Lex stood up and walked towards the window. Everything was working perfectly… had been working perfectly. Up until now. The payment for the bomb was absolutely necessary. The Brazzas might only be a gang, but they controlled many of the Congo's oil interests, and they were willing to pay a very, very high price for the ability to take out the Metros for once and for all. It was an investment for them. Whether the weapon was used as a threat, or whether it was used in actuality, it didn't matter. They'd contaminate the city, but in doing so they'd gain the sole rights to the oil that was the Congo's most expensive export. If that meant they had to move out of Brazzaville, or that the area north of it became uninhabitable, it didn't matter to them.

He'd been counting on the money from this sale. The extraordinary amount they were willing to spend would be enough to create his whole new identity. He would be the wealthiest man in Metropolis, and before anyone knew it, he would control half the city. It seemed somehow appropriate that his life came full circle. He would return to the city where he was born and had spent most of his life, and he would return as himself. Daniel Reardon could stay in the Congo.

"Don't tell them a thing," Lex told Nigel. "Tell them we'll deliver as promised."

"But… "

"Felix," Lex said, turning to his son. "I have a favor to ask of you… "


"Daniel Reardon?" Lois said with a gasp. "You're crazy!" He had to be. Daniel was rich, but he was a good man. He loved his son. Why would he be gun-running? Besides, the entire city was full of his businesses. He didn't need to deal in guns as well.

"Don't you see? It makes perfect sense. He's connected. He's at the club all the time. He meets all his business contacts at the club—you've seen him. Besides, I overheard—"

"That's ridiculous! Toni's the Boss!" As Clark gaped at her, she went on. "She's taken over the Brazzas from Johnny, and she's willing to do anything to keep their loyalty and stay in control. The Brazzas have been fighting against the Metros for years—she's bringing in the heavy weaponry to take out the Metros for once and for all. With complete control of the city, she'll control all the local assets—including the oil industry."

Clark frowned, and she smiled to herself. He hadn't thought she'd do any research into the economic and political situations, had he? Well, she'd spent quite a few hours at the Brazzaville library before he'd gotten here and started distracting her by wandering around in a wet shirt all the time and throwing crazy theories at her.

"Ah, but the Boss is a man," Clark said. "Those two men talked about the Boss as a 'he.'"

"Are you sure?" Lois asked. "Or did they avoid using the pronoun, and your mind mentally filled in a 'he' because you think all arch-villains should be male?"

While she could tell Clark was mentally rewinding the conversation to see if he could remember, she added, "Besides, the henchmen themselves might not even know that the Boss is a 'she.' It's the type of thing the Brazzas might want to keep quiet. Remember how careful they were that nobody knew Toni had taken over the gang?"

"But it wasn't just the fact that they said 'he.' I know they were talking about Daniel Reardon. One of them gave it away."

"How?" It couldn't possibly be true… could it? She knew Daniel!

"Just the other night, Reardon mentioned a quote from Alexander the Great. 'I'd rather live a short life of glory than a long one of obscurity.' The henchmen mentioned that the Boss was always using that quote."

Lois laughed with relief. "Like that'll hold up in court."

"It doesn't need to! We know who the Boss is, now. We can concentrate our investigation on Reardon and stop wasting time on Toni Taylor."

"This wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that you're dating Toni Taylor, would it?" Lois asked suspiciously.

"No, it wouldn't. Your reluctance to suspect Reardon wouldn't have anything to do with the fact that you're sweet on him, would it?"

"I can be completely professional."

"So can I."

Lois sighed and shifted the car into drive. "So you investigate Reardon, I investigate Taylor?"



She ignored his gasp as she took the first hairpin turn at a speed guaranteed to throw the unseat-belted through the window. It was going to be a long drive home if they weren't speaking to each other, so she might as well make it fast.


Lois tucked her long red hair behind her sunglasses and opened her menu. From the corner of her eye, however, she watched the table next to her, where Toni Taylor sat with one of the men Lois recognized from the meeting.

Lois's purse perched on the table next to her. Ostensibly the safest place to keep a purse in the city—in her sight. Except that it wasn't on the table so it wouldn't be stolen.

Toni pulled out an envelope and handed it to the man. Lois managed to slip a hand into the purse and click twice just as the envelope was between hands. Her associate obviously wasn't the most prudent soul. He immediately opened the envelope and held it, probably thinking he was concealing it in his lap as he counted the bills within. Two more clicks, and Lois had that on film too.

She couldn't hear what they were saying from over here, but it didn't matter. She flicked her hair over her shoulder one last time and stood up.

The waiter, who was standing ready to take her order, looked astounded. "You're leaving, Ma'am?" he asked.

She nodded. "I'm sorry, but there's simply nothing here worth my time," she said with a flounce. "I'll have to look elsewhere." She had been waiting to do that since she'd taken her first step into this smoky, high-priced joint.

The waiter followed her, jabbering apologies and begging her to stay. But when she reached the door, he finally had to give up.

She slipped around the side of the building away from the street, pulled off her wig and sunglasses, and ditched the long coat she'd been wearing. Underneath was her waitress dress. Leaving the costume concealed in the bushes, she hurried back in the same door.

"Where have you been?" the same waiter greeted her sharply when she walked in the door. "I've been watching your tables an entire three minutes into your shift. I'm going to make Toni deduct it from your pay."

"Fine," she snapped. She stowed her purse in her locker and tied an apron around her waist.

Toni and the man were just getting up from their table. Lois gave them a bright smile, and as soon as they'd gone a few feet, she began to clear. Glasses and plates onto tray, napkins rolled up on corner of tray, bug in pocket. Once the table was clear, she carried the dishes back into the kitchen, whistling to herself.

She dumped the tray on the counter and hurried back out.

"Hey!" one of the dishwashers called after her. "You can't just leave that here! You gotta clear it yourself!"

Lois tossed a hand in the air behind her. "I'll be back," she said.

Just before the door closed behind her, she heard him mutter an insult.

It had been easier than she'd expected to plant the bug. Toni always seemed to prefer one particular table, and the only time she sat elsewhere was during the occasional meeting with Daniel Reardon, who preferred a table closer to the stage. Lois had chosen a nearby table earlier, and while she was waiting for her drink, she had pretended to get up to use the ladies' room. On her way past the table, she had slipped the bug under the centerpiece.

Being a waitress had its advantages. Clearing tables had never been her favorite part of the job, but it certainly made it easier to retrieve bugs.

She hurried down the hall to the storeroom, where she'd stored the recorder for the bug on one of the shelves behind some extra tubs of dishwashing fluid. The tape only took a few minutes to rewind. Then she listened to it again.

"You made a ho-o-o-le in my heart! And I'll tell mah-self I'm over you, 'cuz I'm the k-i-i-i-ng of wishful thinking!" sang a very off-key and slightly nasal male voice. Lois winced. Obviously Toni's friend had been entertaining himself with a little a capella while he waited for Toni to show. Lois fast-forwarded before he could get into the next verse.

"The shipment arrived at Milieu's camp safely. Everything was there. I checked and double-checked."

Lois frowned. It wasn't going to be very helpful if they didn't get into incriminating specifics.

"The correct model?" Toni asked.

There was a pause, and Lois assumed her partner had nodded. Or shook his head, only there was no follow-up question.

"You tested everything?"

"Shot up the mountainside," he said. Lois could actually hear the grin his voice. "The men loved it. Like kids playing with new toys."

"Well, good. They'd better get comfortable with them if we're to use them effectively to rout the Metros," Toni said. "There should have been some things larger than guns, too."

"Mines and grenades—check. Sampson said they weren't able to get any of the new missiles you wanted, though. He said there was a chance he could get them through a contact, but the man would charge through the roof. His opinion was that it wouldn't be worth it for the Brazzas, that the same money put into guns would buy dozens of times the killing power."

Another pause. "D'accord," Toni said finally. "Ask him for a specific price, but he's usually pretty accurate about that sort of thing. So you found no flaws in the shipment?"

"Not a one. But then you know Sampson's group is always reliable. It's Fimel's group you gotta watch out for. I'd swear they're shipping to the Metros as well."

Toni laughed. "Of course they are." There was a rifling sound, and Lois guessed that Toni was handing the envelope over. "They all sell to both of us. Probably even Sampson. But the Brazzas own the city and we have more buying power. Besides, soon we'll have the ultimate weapon. Don't worry about it."

There were sounds like the crinkling of papers, and Lois guessed that the man was now counting the bills. She grinned. He obviously hadn't gone to villainy school. No subtlety, that one.

She used a blank tape to make a copy of what she'd heard, then stuffed it with the tape recorder under the bottom shelf. Just in case. Then she put the original and the bug back in her pocket and hurried out the door. Between that and the pictures, she had enough to convince Clark that she was right and he was wrong. Toni was the Boss, and she was about to destroy the Metros, and maybe the city as well. If Lois wasn't mistaken, the "ultimate weapon" was the bomb Platt had told her about. She and Clark needed to be working together now more than ever if they were going to save an entire city.


Clark rang Reardon's doorbell and tried not to look as uncertain as he felt. In his early days of reporting, he'd often had to make up excuses to meet with or question people. But it was so much easier when you could go in as yourself and interview them.

The door was opened by a small boy, about nine or ten. "Yes?" the boy asked, looking as if he had much better things to be doing than answering doors. Like playing Legos. Or pulling the wings off butterflies.

"May I please see Daniel Reardon?"

The boy bowed him into the house, then strode importantly through the foyer and down a hall. He knocked on a door.


"Mr. Reardon," Clark said, stepping into the room. "I'm Charlie King, the bartender down at the Brazza Club."

"Oh, yes!" Reardon said, his face filling with recognition. "Come in."

Reardon's office was tastefully decorated. The paneling was dark wood, the carpet a soft green. There was no mess, no stack of papers waiting to be processed—but Clark hadn't really pictured it otherwise.

"Forgive me, but while I was fixing your drinks, I couldn't help overhearing your conversation with your business partner."

Reardon's face darkened and he stood up at his desk, but Clark quickly went on.

"You seem to be an incredibly savvy businessman. And I could really use some of your advice. I'm working as a bartender, but I have a trust fund from when my parents died, and I'm trying to invest it in a small business. You know, the way you started out."

Clark unobtrusively scanned Reardon's office while he recited the cover story he'd thought about on his way here.

There was nothing interesting on Reardon's desk. The man was good at hiding what he was up to.

Being here made Clark nervous. "So, anyway, I have a lot of ambition, and I was looking for some advice." It sounded pretty lame, even to him. But, hey, Reardon didn't have to think Charlie was intelligent. He just had to let him in his office.

There was a filing cabinet in the corner, but before Clark more than glanced at it, he realized that Reardon was waiting.

Reardon's dark eyes were focused on Clark. His expression seemed… not particularly benevolent. Clark wondered if he'd seen Clark's eyes wandering.

Reardon wandered over to the side wall, where wood paneling made way for several glass display cases of art. He gazed into a case that held a small dagger for a long moment. Then he smiled without looking at Clark.

"It could be said that one's life of glory would always be cut short because there is always someone else waiting to step into that light."

He turned to face Clark. "Obscurity is safer."

Clark nodded, trying to keep his confusion off his face. Jimmy had once told him that everything he felt was always obvious to anyone who could read faces.

Did Reardon suspect something? How could he? But that had sounded like a threat.

"Felix will see you out," Reardon added, as the young boy materialized in front of the office. Before Clark even entirely got the chance to think, he found himself following the young boy through the halls and out the front door.

He could almost imagine picking himself up and dusting himself off after the booting he'd received. But he still didn't understand what had tipped Reardon off. Or did he simply not approve of strangers in his own office?


"Clark?" Lois asked, astounded. "What are you doing here?"

Clark blinked at her, looking as out-of-place on Daniel's perfectly manicured lawn as… well, one of those wrought- iron pink flamingos.

"I was… uh, asking Reardon for some advice."

She frowned at him. "You were not." Thankfully, the front door was closed, and Lois didn't see any small peeping faces at any of the glittering windows. "You were spying."

"Well, you were supposed to investigate Toni, and I was supposed to investigate Reardon."

Speaking of Toni… "Yeah. I got the proof on Toni. I guess you didn't get anything on Daniel?"

Clark glanced back at the house, then down at his feet. "Well… no. I didn't really think it would be ethical to go through his stuff, if I'd even had the opportunity."

Lois snorted. "Unethical? Get real, Farmboy. I'll show you how it's done. Meet me back at the bar tomorrow, and I'll show you what I've got. By then, we'll have enough info to call the police." Lois didn't add that the proof would show that Daniel was innocent—or, at least, as innocent as any big businessman in an area with loose business laws could be.

Clark shrugged. "Good luck. His office seems clean, from what I could see, but I wasn't able to get on his computer or into his filing cabinet." He waved and walked back across the lawn.

Lois walked over towards the building. She had a sudden urge to duck under the shrubs and spy through the windows. But there wasn't much she'd be able to see through them anyway, so she rang the doorbell and hoped for the best.

Felix entered, looking solemn as usual. "I guess you want my father?" he asked. He looked bored. Probably being butler wasn't his style.

"Yes, please."

Felix led Lois to Daniel's office, knocked, then disappeared down the hallway. Lois opened the door cautiously.

"Wanda! What a surprise!" Daniel said, standing up to greet her with a smile.

"Hello, Daniel," she said with a smile. He led her into his office, and she took a chair across from his desk.

"I know this is rather sudden, but I just thought I'd drop in. See you in your natural environment," she said, giving him a winning smile. "Oh, your window has a beautiful view!" She crossed behind his desk to look out the window, which did indeed have a charming outlook over a sweeping park. Of course, she would never have spared it a second glance if it hadn't gotten her behind his desk.

"Would you like to stay for dinner?" Daniel asked her. Lois smiled her most charming smile at him, then suddenly started coughing.

Daniel watched her uncomfortably for a moment. "Are you all right?" he asked.

She pretended to gasp for air. "No! Can't… stop!" She coughed again, more violently. "Please… water!"

He continued to stare at her, seeming dumbstruck. Obviously not the best person to have around in an emergency. "Please!"

"All right," he said, and left the room.

The moment he was gone, Lois was in front of the computer, moving the mouse to bring it out of sleep mode.

Good. It hadn't gone to screensaver, so she didn't have to wade past a potential password. She coughed a few times in case he was able to hear her from wherever he was getting water.

The file on the screen was some sort of spreadsheet. Lois scanned through it. Numbers with labels. Numbers were always good. Bank accounts, things like that. She glanced down the hall. Did she have time to print it?

Well, she could always have *accidentally* hit print while she was coughing desperately, couldn't she? She coughed several times quickly to help cover the sound as she hit print.

The printer was slow. Too slow. Why didn't somebody like Daniel Reardon have a laserjet?

While it was printing, while still coughing to cover the sound, Lois snuck over to the filing cabinet. The cabinet wasn't locked—was Lex really trusting, or did he usually keep the door to his office locked?—but the files didn't look particularly useful.

Except that they all seemed to be for large orders of… something. But they didn't say what. They recorded the ships that had brought the imports from the United States, the harbors they'd left and the harbors they'd arrived at, even the times and dates. The imports had arrived in Pointe Noire and then been shipped to somewhere outside of Brazzaville—this could be what they were looking for!

There weren't any specifics as to what the products *were*. No listings of assault rifles, machine guns, or grenades. But times and dates could probably be compared to make a solid case against—against Daniel!

Lois sat down in Daniel's chair. Daniel… Daniel was in on this? Maybe he wasn't. Maybe he didn't know what the shipment was, he was simply paying for the shipping and delivery of something Toni had ordered in the United States.

But she knew she was only fooling herself. Maybe she wasn't in love with Daniel, but still. It hurt to think that, yet again, she'd been misjudging his character from the start. Daniel had seemed so different from Claude, from Mike. He was a philanthropist, a cultured man, an intelligent businessman. But he was also a smuggler. Not just a smuggler—a gun smuggler. He couldn't even pretend to have innocent intentions if he was smuggling weapons.

It struck Lois that Daniel had been an awfully long time getting her that glass of water. She glanced at the door, half-expecting him to be standing there, watching her look through his files. But there was no sign of him.

She grabbed the papers off the printer, folded them into a small rectangle, and stuffed them into her pocket. They made a bulge, but it wasn't too noticeable. Then she went out into the hallway in search of Daniel.

The smartest thing might have been just to walk out the front door while she could. But Lois had never been one to follow the smartest plan. She still had her tape recorder, and she was going to get a confession, come hell or high water.

She could hear Daniel's voice as she walked down the hallway. She considered entering with a few more fake coughs, but when she heard the deep, cultured voice answering Daniel's, she reconsidered. Crouching low and pressing herself against the door, she strained to hear. After a moment, it occurred to her to turn on the tape recorder.

"Your papers are all ready," the other voice was saying. "As soon as you've made your last transaction, we'll be ready to go."

There was a pause. "I'll be sending Felix along with it to clean things up a bit," Daniel said. "We'll have to wait for him. But that should buy us some time, as long as the plane's ready."

"Metropolis awaits her newest son," the other man said. "The paper trail for Daniel Reardon will end at the fire, and you'll emerge as Lex Luthor on the plane."

"You're sure no old fingerprints remain from my childhood?"

"Every old trail has been followed and destroyed. Nobody except those loyal to you will remember your real childhood. We've already circulated in the media that a man who originally grew up in Metropolis is returning home from a long stay in Europe, but that's all people will know about you."

"Excellent. All that's left is to put the plan in motion. And, of course, to kill that nosy reporter."

Lois gasped as she felt the cool pressure of a gun against the back of her neck.

"Turn around slowly," a young voice said.

Lois obeyed. She found herself staring into the cool gray eyes of Daniel's son, Felix.

"Well, hello, Lois Lane," a voice said from behind her.

Lois spun again. The door was open, and Daniel stood there with a gray-haired gentleman.

What was it with people turning up behind her? Didn't she already have enough nightmares as it was?

"Wow! You know, they always do say that a scare works well to get rid of the hiccups. Apparently it works on coughing fits, too! Thanks, everyone! I'd better be going now." She tried to edge past Felix to the door.

"Not so fast," Daniel said, his voice hard. "Unless, of course, you would like a first-hand experience of how good a shot my son is. Your snooping has not gone unnoticed, Ms. Lane. I've done a bit of checking up on you. You have quite a reputation in Metropolis, you know."

Why did she have a feeling Felix had been playing with guns from the cradle?

Lois felt a prick in the back of her arm, and before she could turn to see who it was, everything went black.


So, Lois was going to disprove—or prove—Daniel Reardon's involvement in the operation. Clark couldn't let her show him up. He'd have to show he was investigating Toni.

Lois had said that she already had proof on Toni. Or, at least, what Lois regarded as proof. He wasn't exactly sure what she had, but when Clark saw Toni walk with one of her partners into the meeting room, he dropped what he was doing and headed for the storeroom.

As he closed the door, he thought fleetingly that he actually felt a little guilty skipping out from work so often. In previous jobs, he'd always been very careful to make sure he was working steadily during all hours he was paid for. But here, he kept slipping off to the storeroom to listen to conversations.

Of course, once Toni found out what he and Lois had been doing, it was doubtful that they'd be paid for the time. Which was to be expected, except that he did have rent due on his apartment in Metropolis next week. It was a good thing he'd set up a direct deposit account with the Planet before he left—otherwise it might have been difficult to get his check from the paper in time to pay the rent.

Clark sat on the floor near a shelf while he listened to Toni talk with the dark-haired man. Sometimes having powers was nice, he thought, as he levitated slightly. Poor Lois had to stand on her tiptoes and peer into the peepholes to see or hear anything—Clark could just sit patiently. It also helped, if someone walked in, that he very obviously wasn't in a position to spy.

Clark frowned as he noticed a telltale yellow feather languishing on one of the lower shelves. He quickly scanned the room, wondering if they'd left any other evidence of their meetings. But the lone feather appeared to be it. He grabbed it and stuffed it under the bottom of the shelf.

But his hand touched something else. He grasped it and pulled it out. It was Lois's tape recorder.

Her proof! This had to be it! Clark wasn't entirely sure that he wanted to know what was on the tape, but he had to hear. He turned it low so that the occupants of the next room wouldn't hear anything.

When he'd finished running it, he had to play it again. So Toni was involved—not just minimally so that she could take control of the gang and then turn them legit—really involved. But despite this tape, Clark was sure that he was right about who the Boss was. Toni might be buying guns for her city, but she was buying them through someone bigger than herself—Daniel Reardon.

To get one of them, they were going to have to get them both.


When Lois came to, she found herself in a cellar of some sort. She was sitting on a wooden chair bolted to the floor, her hands tied to the armrests. Most of the cellar was hidden in shadow. The walls she could see were made of cold cement blocks, crusted over with dirt and spider webs. Lois shuddered to think that the webs' architects must be around somewhere. The ceiling was low, but disappeared into the shadow in front of her.

"Hello?" she called, trying to keep her voice steady.

There was no answer.

She sighed. Tugging hard on the ropes and twisting her wrists, she tried to pull free of her bonds. To no avail.

"What is it with my luck with men?" she muttered, trying to pull one wrist out. "All right, so maybe Daniel wasn't my type. But he was nice and charming and rich. Perfect."

Bending her arm almost sideways, she pulled at the knot from a different angle. Still no luck.

"So if he's so perfect, why am I now tied to a chair, alone, in a cellar? Where there are probably rats and spiders and all other kinds of gross creatures."

"Well, rats, anyway," a young voice said from across the room.

"Hello? Who's there?" Lois called, squinting into the dark.

A young girl walked out into the light. Her t-shirt and jeans were dusty, and she looked as if she hadn't seen a hairbrush for days. She gave Lois a wide grin, her white teeth shining brilliantly in a tanned and dirty face.

"You might want to watch what you say about my father, though," the girl continued conversationally. "I might take offense."

"Your father?" Lois asked. "You're Daniel's daughter?"

The girl nodded proudly. 'I'm Maxine Luthor. Max, for short."


Max laughed. "You *did* hear that my father's real name is Lex Luthor, right? Daniel Reardon is only his alias, so that he can start a new life when he reaches Metropolis."

"I thought he only had a son," Lois said, frowning.

Max's eyes narrowed. "You might want to watch what you say, since you are the one tied up."

Lois laughed. "I'm not afraid of a kid."

Max raised her eyebrows. She disappeared into the shadows at the other side of the cellar again. Lois heard low scufflings and a sound as if Max was moving several boxes.

A few moments later, Max reemerged.

"Maybe you aren't afraid of me—but what about these?" Max asked. She took her hand from behind her back, revealing that she held a rat by the tail.

Lois gasped. "What are you doing with that?"

Max held the rat towards Lois, suspending him above Lois's lap. "Isn't he cute? He just wants to play. By the way, did you know that rat's tails are kinda slippery? It's hard to keep my grip."

Lois shrieked. "Stop it! Get that away from me!" She frantically wriggled in an attempt to get her body out from beneath the rat.

Max laughed. "Scared of rats, are we? Look, Dexter, the big bad reporter woman is afraid of you!"

"That thing has a name?" Lois exclaimed.

Max pretended to be hurt. "Of course! Dexter's my pet. I thought about naming him Fluffy, but all Luthors must have an 'X' in their name. That's why you could never really have been a Luthor, even if my father had ever intended to marry you."

Just what she needed. A brat on an ego trip. Holding a disgusting, slimy rat. As if this day could get any worse.

"Hi, Lois," Felix said, appearing behind Max.


Toni's meeting with the man, this time, seemed to be routine. They discussed nothing except the consideration of some renovations in the club and whether it was worth the investment to hire an extra singer so that they could come up with more show variety and not bore the regulars.

Clark watched and listened, but only with half an ear. He kept running over the tape, remembering every word Toni had said. He hadn't thought Toni was perfect. She was attractive, and he'd enjoyed dating her, even if he had known it wouldn't become serious. She just wasn't his type.

He had honestly thought that she wasn't all bad, though. That she'd been serious in her intentions to turn the gang around.

Oh, maybe she had been. Maybe she truly thought that the only way to end the rivalry between the games and become a legitimate head of business in the city was to rout the other gang entirely.

But things just didn't work that way. More weapons meant more bloodshed, on both sides. Even Toni admitted that the sellers were probably selling to both sides.

He had to talk to her, to find out what she had been thinking. Whether she had been lying to him the entire time.

When her associate got up to leave the room, Clark quickly left the storeroom and hurried back out into the main dining room of the club. He waited until the man left, then walked up to the meeting room and knocked on the door.

"Come in," Toni's voice called.

He stepped inside. It felt so strange to actually be inside the room he'd spent so much time spying on. The room seemed… smaller, somehow. He couldn't help glancing at the bullet holes, wondering vaguely if Lois might come and watch him speak with Toni.

Toni followed his gaze. "We'll get those repaired soon," she said. "They don't really add much class, do they?" she added, laughing slightly. "So… what brings you here, Charlie?"

He sat down at a chair across from her and shifted uncertainly. "I've… been hearing some things. About war between the Brazzas and the Metros." He stuffed his hands in his pocket. In his right pocket, the tape recorder still huddled. He pressed the record button.

She nodded. "That's all?"

"Well—that there are weapons. Lots of them. That it'll be an all-out war, not just a fight between gangs. That it could destroy the city."

"Well, both sides have reasons to want to protect the city," she told him. "But as for the rest, the rumors you've heard are probably pretty accurate."

"You're aware that the Brazzas are armed?" he asked cautiously. He wasn't sure how much she'd be willing to admit to.

Toni laughed. "Aware? I armed them myself. Look, Charlie, the Brazzas have to defend their territory. Don't you see? If we win this thing, we can take Brazzaville permanently and scatter the Metros across the county. We'll be safe, and we'll end things for once and for all."

"Why is the city worth so much?"

She shrugged and leaned back in her chair. "It's worth a lot to the Metros because it used to be theirs. It's worth a lot to us because it's our sign of dominance over the Metros. Once we get rid of them, it won't matter if we control the city anymore. We'll be getting our wealth elsewhere. But we have to hold the city until the Metros are destroyed."

"That doesn't make sense," Clark said. Every word out of Toni's mouth seemed full of contradictions. Maybe because she was torn between telling Charlie the "story" and telling him the truth?

"That's why I'm the new head of the Brazzas, and you're the bartender, Charlie. Don't worry, if it looks like things will get dangerous in the city, I'll let you know in time to get out."

He nodded, pretending to look relieved. As long as that was all she thought he was worried about…

"I worry about you, too, though," he said, trying to put some warmth into his voice.

"Don't worry about me. I know what I'm doing."

She stood, and the tete-a-tete was obviously over. Charlie thanked her and went back to the bar. He hadn't learned much, except that Toni was willing to do anything to defeat the Metros.


Felix was pointing a gun at her. Lois closed her eyes for a moment, but then she figured if she was going to die, she at least wanted to see death coming. Even if that meant her last sight would be Daniel's little brats.

Wasn't your life supposed to flash before your eyes right before you died? Because it wasn't happening. Maybe it wasn't until he actually fired that that was supposed to happen. Only Lois wasn't really sure she wanted to see her life flash before her eyes. She'd had some good times, but a lot of things she really didn't want to relive.

Felix fired.

"Bang!" he said.

Lois felt a splash of freezing water hit her face.

Max broke into peals of laughter. "Felix gotcha!" she gasped out. "Water gun!"

Lois tried to give both of them her most ferocious glare, but she had a feeling that being tied to a chair and dripping didn't help much.

Felix grinned at Lois and tossed the water gun to Max. He disappeared into the shadows, and Lois thought she heard a door open and close.

"Is he gone?" she asked Max, who seemed at least a little more tolerable than her brother.

"Oh, yeah."

Lois tried shaking her head to get the water to stop trickling into her eyes, but it was a mostly futile effort. After watching her for a moment, Max reached into her pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. It didn't seem especially clean, but Lois was still grateful when Max wiped the water from her face. It had still dripping down her shirt, making her skin break into goose bumps in the already chilly basement, but it was better than nothing.

"He's pretty scary," Max told her. "You'd better be careful around Felix. If you even look at him wrong, he'll getcha."

"That sounds like the voice of experience," Lois said wryly.

"Well, he can't kill me. Father wouldn't approve of bloodshed among the siblings. But we still terrorize each other. And I can hold my own, so don't you start thinking he's the boss of me or something."

"Never even crossed my mind."

Max leaned against something, facing Lois. There must be a wall or a pole of some sort directly in front of her. She squinted into the darkness, but she couldn't make out a shape.

"I'm not sure my father realizes how dangerous Felix is," Max told her conversationally. "He thinks Felix is just the cat's pajamas. Completely blind."

"But you know Felix better?" Lois asked. This was almost like the interviews she used to do back in Metropolis, when she was able to ask questions legitimately, as a reporter. Leading the subject to telling her what she wanted to know had been a talent. And, if necessary, trying out a shocking question on the subject to see their reaction. She usually lost the interview at that point, but at least she'd get a reaction that would tell her if she was on the right track.

"Of course I do. I don't love him, so I'm not blinded the way my father is. Felix has big plans, you know."


"Yep. He's going to set off a bomb."

The bomb! Platt's bomb!

"What bomb?" Lois asked.

Max laughed. "Don't play innocent. *The* bomb. The nuke. The reason you're here. My father knows everything, you know. He finally got smart and did a search on you back in Metropolis. Found out you're not Wanda Detroit, nightclub singer, but Lois Lane, investigative reporter."

"I was on sabbatical."

"Yeah, right."

Max folded her arms and started whistling. Lois got the hint immediately. If she didn't tell Max the truth, Max wouldn't tell her anything.

"All right. I was here to find the bomb and get the story."

"That's better. Anyway, the bomb is broken."

"Broken… how?"

Max shrugged. "How should I know? Felix is the one who reads Tom Clancy."

Any nine-year-old who read Tom Clancy came from a strange world indeed. "So the bomb is broken."

"Yes. By Felix. He stole some switch things that the bomb needs to go off. The guys building the bomb assumed they just hadn't ordered enough, and ordered more. Then after the bomb was finished, Felix replaced the good switches with the ones he'd stolen and damaged. So now the bomb appears defective. Father is gonna give it to the Brazzas that way and hope they don't find out. Only, Felix is gonna switch the parts back and set the bomb off. Bye-bye, Brazzaville!"

"And bye-bye us, too," Lois pointed out. "Has he thought about that?"

"Well, you, maybe. But Felix and my father and I will be on a plane bound for Metropolis. Father is going to start a new life there, with his real name, Lex Luthor. I'll be Max Luthor, like I should be. We won't have to go by a stupid alias anymore. We have enough money to *rule* that city," she said, practically crowing.

"Is there any way to stop the bomb?" Lois asked.

Max laughed. "What, so you can wriggle free from the rope, escape the house, find the bomb, and turn it off? Would make some story. But, nope, I'm not that stupid."

Lois sighed.


Clark dried a glass without paying much attention to it as he scanned the room. There was a peculiar dearth of suspicious individuals. Daniel Reardon was a no-show, as was Toni. Not even any of their business partners mingled about or watched the show. And he hadn't seen Lois yet, prancing around in her skimpy waitress uniform.

A snap brought his attention back to matters at hand, and he realized with a sigh that he'd broken yet another glass. The waste bin would be suspiciously full of glass powder when the janitor emptied it at the end of the night. Fortunately, though, this glass he hadn't crushed, just broken.

After eyeing the room to make sure that nobody was paying particular attention to him, Clark ducked beneath the counter and used a bit of heat vision to fuse the glass.

The result wasn't bad. If you looked close enough, you could tell that something about the refraction of light through the glass was off. But while men in their cups were often seen to be staring into their glasses, he didn't think one likely to notice.

The lights dimmed, and Clark glanced at his watch. It was time for Lois's chicken dance. He'd always enjoyed this particular routine. Lois's singing was more all-around pleasurable to listen to, but it was fun to watch her make the best of the chicken costume. She blew feathers out of her face, danced her heart out, and glared at him whenever she caught him watching her.

The chickens filed onto stage with the farmer girl. Pink, blue, green, a space, and then orange.

He blinked. Where was the yellow chicken?


Lois licked her parched lips. If she hadn't got caught by Reardon—Luthor, she'd be doing her chicken routine now. Or so she estimated by her watch, which had been left to her. Well, thank God for small pleasures.

Of course, if she'd been wearing her chicken costume when she got caught, she could have left a trail of yellow feathers. Maybe that rookie, Kent, would actually know enough to follow the feathers.

Nah, Felix would probably snatch them up to make a voodoo Lois doll.

Was she really thinking about dropping breadcrumbs in the form of feathers? Had she passed over into delirium?

"Hey," a soft voice said. "You must be thirsty."

She felt a glass pressed against her lips and water dribble into her mouth. She swallowed reflexively and opened her eyes to see Max staring at her in concern. The girl seemed clean, her hair neatly brushed this time.

"What's going on?" Lois asked, waking the rest of the way. She was still in the cellar she'd begun to think of as her dungeon. "Why are you all dressed up?" she asked suspiciously.

"Because we're leaving. Now."


"My father, Nigel, Felix, and me. Plus a few servants."

"And me."

Max placed the cup of water on the floor near Lois. "You stay."


"No time to talk," Max said. She pulled a knife out of her pocket and held it in front of Lois's face, grinning.


"Chill." Max lowered the knife towards Lois's wrist and cut the rope that bound her arm to the armrest. She then released Lois's other wrist.

"I have to go," Max whispered. "It was nice knowing you."

Lois stared after Max as the girl yet again disappeared into the darkness. The door opened and slammed, and Lois was once again alone.

"It was nice knowing you?" People said that to Lois a lot. Usually before they killed her. Was this part of the plot? Or was Max serious? The kid was too unpredictable to tell.

She gently flexed her wrist, and winced at the pain as blood rushed back into the hand. There were raw red marks where the rope had cut into her skin, and her hands felt weak and shaky.

She stood up. And immediately fell on her face on the cement floor.

Oh, yeah. Ankles had been tied too.

Lois sighed.


Felix huddled in a small compartment built into the crate that held his nuclear bomb. He was so close to it, he imagined he could hear it hum with power. He was lucky that the amount of padding the Brazzas seemed to think necessary to protect the bomb called for a larger crate, otherwise he'd have never managed to fit a hiding place at all. It was cramped and he wasn't sure he'd ever manage to forget the smell of the padding, but it was enough to conceal a rather small nine-year-old boy.

Above the crate, he could faintly hear his father's voice, discussing the sale with the Brazzas. He had, true to form, told them that the bomb was perfectly good. It looked fine, and they probably assumed they had enough political clout to make his life miserable if he failed them.

Not that his father was about to let such a thing happened. He had always possessed the talent of making other people responsible for anything that went wrong. In this case, it would be the Metros who would be thought responsible.

The Brazzas finally accepted the bomb and made the exchange. The bomb was lifted onto a truck, and Felix braced himself as the truck bounced over rough, rocky ground on its way to the city.

Felix would have expected the Brazzas to take the bomb to the lair they were rumored to have somewhere outside the city. But instead, he and the bomb road along down the busy streets of Brazzaville's dock districts and into the loading spot behind a warehouse.

He shifted uncomfortably. One of his legs was going numb, and he was pretty sure the whole left side of his body was bruised black and blue from the bouncing in the truck. He wished he'd thought to scrawl "Fragile" on the outside of the crate. Of course, they probably did consider themselves to be careful—this was a nuclear weapon, after all.

Finally, the crate was dragged into a warehouse. Several of the Brazzas stood over it, talking amongst themselves in a mixture of French and one of the tribal languages. He thought it sounded like Kikongo, but he couldn't make out enough words to be sure. They opened the crate and peered inside, staring at the bomb and jabbering. Now that he could hear clearly, they were definitely speaking Kikongo. His sister was more fluent at it than he was, but he was pretty sure they weren't discussing the bomb's shiny casing.

One of them opened the hatch and peered inside. He seemed to approve, although he said that he wanted "Joe" to examine it more thoroughly.

Felix smiled to himself and sat back against the side of the crate. They showed no signs of leaving, but he could be patient.

It seemed like hours, though it was probably less than one, before the men finally left the bomb in the room. There were no doubt guards posted outside the door, but that wouldn't matter.

When he was certain the room was empty, he climbed carefully from his hiding place. The room was large and cold, a decent storage place for a nuke. The Brazzas weren't quite as stupid as he'd thought.

Felix slipped on the pair of heavy gloves he'd kept hidden with him and set to work. He knew enough from the books he'd read to make the bomb look as if it was destroyed, according to his father's wishes. The best part was, the Brazzas would blame the Metros for the sabotage. They knew they'd gotten it from his father in perfect condition, so when the inspector found the switches to be ruined, they'd think it was part of the sabotage.

However, Felix didn't follow his father's instructions to the letter. He knew enough not to actually cause any real damage to the bomb. And if the faulty switches were replaced with a working ones…

When he finished, he pulled the two switches he'd hidden in his pocket out. Moving some wires aside, he replaced the two defective switches with the two working ones he had kept. All the books he'd read on building nuclear bombs had served him well, as he knew exactly how to attach the switches without setting anything off. Not that it really mattered whether he set it off, but he'd prefer to be on a plane to Metropolis when it went off.

Everything seemed to be perfect. The bomb looked destroyed. Little did they know…

He fiddled with the timer until he had it set exactly as he wanted. 3:00:00. He grinned and hit enter. It would be fun to hear, once he was safely out of range, that a nuclear bomb had flattened Brazzaville. Such power. And to know that he was the one who did it!

Tragedies always made life so exciting, at least for a few days. Whichever school his father sent him to in Metropolis, he'd have all the glory of having just escaped in time from a major catastrophe. It would be more interesting if the bomb went off somewhere in the States, where it would be a bigger deal to his classmates than one that went off far away.

Still… bombs were made to go off. It was too much of a waste to allow the bomb to go unused just because the Metros gave in to blackmail to the Brazzas. Given the chance, those morons would probably do anything to keep the bomb from going off. And what was the fun in that?


Lois's apartment in the cheap building she was living in was almost entirely bare. She had a bed, an alarm clock, some clothes in her closet, and very little else.

The one thing that definitely wasn't in her apartment was Lois herself.

Clark sighed. Knowing Lois, she could be just about anywhere, doing just about anything in the name of journalism. She could be in trouble, but he'd never be able to find her. She might be in Pointe Noire again, but it would be dangerous to make the trip by flying now, while it was still light outside. And the trip by car was too slow.

The only thing he could do was retrace her steps. And the last place he'd known her to be was at Reardon's house. Reardon—the Boss. The biggest criminal mastermind in the Congo.


Untying your ankles, when they are tied to a chair and you are lying facedown on the floor, is difficult. Doing it in the dark with hands still sore from being tied themselves was practically impossible.

Unless, of course, you happen to be so experienced in the situation that you've considered teaching a college course on the subject. "Rope Tricks 101: How to untie yourself when tied in any position by the latest bad guy." Lois knew all the tricks—how to get them to tie you looser, for one. That hadn't worked well in this situation since she'd been unconscious at the time. But she still knew how to untie ropes even when she couldn't see what she was doing and could hardly reach them.

Lois had managed to pull herself back towards the chair and curl in a fetal position on her right side so that she could reach her left ankle with both hands. Her right hip, shoulder, and cheekbone were all aching from having to lie at such an angle just to reach her ankles. But it would all be worth it once she got free. Just a little further. She could already feel the knot loosening. A spider crawled by not two inches from her eye, and she paused to freak out for a moment before going back to the knot. Almost…

And… there! The left ankle was free!

She paused to massage her ankle before working on the right. At least she could twist herself so that she could sit upright while she worked on that rope.

The burning of the rope against her skin as she twisted one way and another was giving off a peculiar smell. Perhaps "rope burn" was a little more literal than she'd thought. If anything, the smell was something like her kitchen that time she had tried to make lasagna. Lucy still laughed at her for the legion of fire trucks that had been pressed into service to calm the ensuing flames. It was hardly a legion! Only two. And one had just been passing by on the their way from another fire when they heard the address, and came by to see what she'd managed to set on fire this time.

She tugged a little more on the knot, and the smell seemed to grow even stronger. It didn't seem to be coming from the rope, though.

Lois turned her head and sniffed. It wasn't just the smell… it was also heat.

Her heart started racing. It couldn't be…

She tugged frantically at the knot, then forced herself to calm down. People always panicked in such situations, and it never did them any good. The way to get the knot out wasn't by tugging, it was by keeping her cool and untying it. She forced her breathing steady, stilled her shaking hands, and gently twisted the rope to force it back through the knot.

It worked! The knot loosened, then fell away! Her ankle was free!

She stood up quickly, only to fall on her face again.

"Ugh," she said as she landed face-down on spider-webbed concrete again. "I have got to stop doing that."

She wasted a few precious moments massaging her newly-freed ankle to get the blood moving again before she stood up and walked straight into the darkness.

There were no convenient neon arrows pointing her towards the door, and standing in the darkness didn't help her see through it any better. Daniel's—Lex's kids must have eaten a lot of carrots to be able to walk through here as easily as they did.

She walked forward a few tentative steps, hand outstretched, until she felt the coolness of a cement wall. Or, at least, she'd expected it to be cool. It was warmer than she'd expected, though, almost as if it was sun- warmed. She felt something brush against her hand and shuddered. Using both hands to feel the wall, she moved towards the right, the direction Max and Felix always seemed to come from, and where she thought she'd heard a door.

Bingo! Cement gave way to wood.

She kicked it.

Solid wood. Ow.

With no doorknob.


Clark stood outside Reardon's house. There was something strange about it. It seemed closed, empty. But at the same time, there was something wrong that he couldn't pinpoint.

Suddenly, he realized what it was. There was a thin stream of smoke trailing upwards from the roof—and there was no chimney.

"Lois!" he cried, running to the door. A quick punch burst it open. The house was deserted, but he could smell smoke and hear the sound of flames crackling and wood walls crashing inwards. But where was Lois?

He used his x-ray vision to scan the house, but there was no sign of Lois. The floor, however, was lined with lead. There must be a basement beneath, but he couldn't see into it. So how did you get down to it?

He super-sped through the house, checking every room, every wall, for a secret door. The house was huge, though, and even at super-speed it took him several minutes. Finally, he found the hidden elevator in Reardon's office. There seemed to be several levels below the ground, labeled subbasement one, two, and three… how could he possibly know which one she was hidden in? He decided to start at the one just below the ground floor, basement one.

The elevator moved excruciatingly slowly, though, and Clark couldn't help thinking that if he did find Lois, he might be stuck taking this way up. What if the fire damaged the cables? He'd be fine, but could he protect Lois? He could hold her tightly against him, but if he had to push through the ceiling of the elevator or through the burning building above, what would happen to her?

The elevator arrived at basement one, and he got off. This level seemed something of a warehouse though. It was full of tools and supplies, but a quick x-ray showed nothing living except one lone rat, huddled in a cage in the corner. Clark was about to head back to the elevator when he thought about the fire. He quickly grabbed the cage and carried it back to the elevator with him.

Clark hit the button for the next floor down, and when he arrived, he got off and left the rat and cage in the elevator.

This basement was full of workstations and computers. Little cubicles filled the room in little rows. But here, too, there was no life.

The third basement was a wine cellar of some sort. It was dark and damp, and his scanning came up with nothing here, too. He was about to get back on the elevator when he saw something. It looked like… Lois?

"Lois, wait!" he called, not even bothering to use her alias.

Lois was running towards a dark corner of the room. She ran into the wall and disappeared.

Clark stopped, stunned, then followed more slowly. The wall, he saw when he approached, was really an archway into a stairwell. "Lois, wait!" he called. He super-sped down the stairwell even though it was next-to-impossible to see where he was going. Sure enough, he missed the landing and fell down the last few stairs. Times like these his invulnerability proved useful.

"Hurry!" Lois called back to him, disappearing into a dark hallway and around the corner.

Clark jogged after her, trying to keep up with the twists and turns. There were so many offshoots from the hallway, if he lost her he'd never catch up. The walls seemed to be lined with lead, perhaps from an old bomb shelter of some sort?

In fact, the very labyrinth quality of the walls, along with the fact that they were lead-lined, made Clark wonder if they'd been built for an emergency. They were only three levels below the ground, but there was a great deal of distance between the levels, as well as several feet of lead. Had the entire subzero sector been intended to withstand a war? There weren't exactly nuclear wars frequently in the Congo, but the region had been a war zone for years during the civil war. How long had Reardon been in the country?

Lois darted down a corridor to the left, then one to the right. Clark, following at super-speed, suddenly wondered why he was having difficulty keeping up. Lois surely couldn't run as fast as he could.

The corridors were heating up, and Clark could smell smoke, even though the signs weren't very close. The fire wasn't far.

Lois turned to the left, Clark close on her heels. The fire was here! Rampaging down the hallway from the other direction, desperately seeking something to feed on.

His x-ray vision was limited between the lead-lined walls, but Clark squinted through the fire. Down the hallway, right at the corner… did he see something?

He leapt into the flames.


Lois pounded at the door desperately. She could feel the heat beyond it. She had to get out!

"Lois!" a voice called from deep within the darkness. "Here! There's another way out!"

It was Clark! Lois breathed a sigh of relief and ran blindly towards the voice. There was another door, this one with a knob. She twisted it, but it held. Locked.

"Clark?" But there was no answer.

Frowning, Lois pulled a lock-pick from the survival pack she kept tied to her waist underneath her shirt. When you got yourself in danger as often as Lois did, it helped to be prepared.

Picking the lock only took a minute, with Lois's experience. "Clark?" she called again. But there was still no answer. Had he gone out without her?

She darted out the door and up the cellar stairs she found in front of her. But as she reached the top of the stairs, she was forced back by the awesome heat of a fire filling the hallway. Blocking her exit. "Clark!" she screamed.

A body came hurtling through the flames, and Lois shrieked as Clark landed in front of her.

"Are you okay?" he asked.

Lois nodded mutely. "But how do we get out of here?" Clark didn't seem burned, but she wasn't so sure she was willing to go back the same way he'd come.

Clark seemed to read her thoughts. "We have to go back through the fire," he said. "It's the only way. I'll protect you."

Somehow, she knew he would. "All right," she said.

She closed her eyes as he wrapped his arms around her and held her close against his chest. His grip tightened, and she took a deep breath. And then… they were through.

Clark released her, and Lois looked around. The fire was behind them.

"How did we get through so fast?" she asked.

He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "I guess it wasn't as far as it seemed."

He didn't look singed in the slightest. She didn't feel burned, although she had a feeling her hair didn't look so good.

"Let's get out of here," she said. He took her hand, and they ran down the corridor towards safety.

The halls were like a maze, full of twists and turns that went nowhere. They dead-ended over and over until finally, miraculously, they emerged at the foot of a stair. Clark gestured for her to go first, and she took off at a jog up the stairs, despite her lungs feeling on the verge of collapse.

Clark led her across the room to an elevator in the wall on the other end.

"Are you sure it's safe?" she asked. "Don't they always say, 'In case of fire, take the stairs, not the elevator?'"

"They do," he said, as the elevator door opened. "But there aren't any stairs going up."

Lois stepped on and shrieked. "What is that?" she asked, pointing her finger at the rat who scuttled around in a cage in the corner.

"I found him on one of the other basements. I couldn't leave him to die in the fire."

"There were dozens of rats in my cell. Spiders too. You left them all to die."

Clark blinked, and before he could insist that they go back to rescue them, she poked him in the chest. "Not a chance, buster."

"He doesn't look like a regular rat. He looks like a pet. He was in a cage and all."

Lois wrinkled her nose as she watched the rat. "Probably that stupid pet Max was carrying around."

"Who's Max?"

"Lex's daughter."

"Who's Lex?"

Lois forgot that he didn't know everything she'd learned. She filled him in about Daniel Reardon being an alias for Lex Luthor. He hadn't even known about the existence of the two kids, but he didn't seem surprised to hear about them.

"So he's heading back for Metropolis?" Clark asked grimly, just as they reached his office.

Lois nodded. "With the money from the nuclear bomb sale, he's going to try to buy the city, building by building. He loves power, and he has the money to throw around. Once the Metropolis is in his pocket, he'll have control of the most important city in the United States, and that will give him a lot of influence in the world."

"Wait… go back a second. Nuclear bomb?"

Oops. "I knew there was something I never got around to telling you," Lois added with a blush.

Just short of the main floor, the elevator suddenly went still and silent.

"Uh-oh," Clark's voice came out of the darkness.

A loud crashing noise sounded from above, and Lois shrieked as something landed on the elevator, making it drop for several feet before coming to a halt.

"Why didn't he build stairs?" Lois asked, trying very hard not to freak.

"You would think he'd have prepared for every eventuality," Clark said. "Do you think they're hidden somehow?"

"How should I know?"

Clark seemed to be staring through the elevator doors. "I bet we're lined up with the second sublevel," he said. "Or close to it. Why don't we get off here and look for stairs?"

"Because we can't get the elevator doors—"

Before she could even finish her sentence, Clark had pried the elevator doors apart and was ready to jump down onto the second floor. "Coming?" he asked.

Lois widened her eyes. "Um… okay." She jumped.

The cubicles that lined the floor were dark and lonely- looking. It had to be a terrible place to work. There weren't even windows where you could look out and daydream for a few minutes as you worked. The fire didn't seem to have affected this floor much, except that the lights were out.

"There must be two fires," Clark muttered. "At least, I thought I heard the fire in the main house when I was there, and it was a raging inferno in the third basement."

"Do you think it was set on purpose, when they left?" Lois asked. Her spine tingled as she realized what must have been intended. "The fire in the main house to destroy evidence, the fire in the basement to kill me?"

He nodded. "Quite possible. By this point, I would expect that the house is demolished. The fire just doesn't have any way to skip floors because there's nothing for it to eat between them. It might go up the elevator shaft, but I don't know that it would get to this floor."

"So we're safe, just trapped."

"Until we suffocate from the smoke.."

Lois sighed. "Well, we'd better start looking for stairs."

They both started on opposite ends of the basement, checking all side corridors (mostly bathrooms and meeting rooms) and knocking on all the walls.

"You know, you'd think even Daniel Reardon's—I mean, Lex Luthor's—elevators would malfunction on occasion. Were his employees trapped whenever that happened?"

Lois shrugged. "There has to be… wait! Look!"

She'd found what seemed to be a sealed maintenance shaft. Clark pulled the door open to reveal… a ladder. "It must go up for a hundred feet! And look below! It goes so far down I can't even see the end. Can you imagine falling?"

"We'd better find something to tie us together," Clark said.

"What, so if you fall I get dragged down too?" But she liked the thought of having somebody to help her if the worst should happen. "Would there really be any rope in a cube farm?"

"Something just as good," Clark said with a grin. He stood up holding a set of 25-foot extension cord. "C'mere."

Once the cords were twisted into a rope and tied around each of their waists, they headed back for the shaft. Clark went first, swinging out onto the ladder and climbing up a few feet to make room for Lois.

Lois glanced down before she started. Bad idea. She swallowed.

"It's all right, Lois," Clark said. "I've got you."

She wouldn't have thought that would be very assuring. She was used to relying on herself, not necessarily because she wanted to, but because, in her experience, other people were completely unreliable. They might seem like friends or partners, but when push came to shove, they were outta there. And Clark was just a wet-behind-the-ears newly- hired rookie.

But he did look pretty strong. She'd seen his bare chest enough times to be sure of that. He probably weighed almost twice as much as she did. He could hold her weight if she fell… right?

But what happened if he slipped?

She pictured him without a shirt again to remind herself of his muscles and strength. He wouldn't fall.

Seeing him that way so often had its purposes after all, aside from simply sending her pulse racing.

"All right?" Clark asked as they started to climb.

She nodded, then realized he couldn't see her. "Fine. Just don't go too fast, okay?"

"Got it." They climbed slowly, laboriously. The ladder had looked tall, but Lois still hadn't really been able to conceive exactly how far they had to climb. "Aren't we only two floors down?" she asked him after they'd been climbing for several minutes.

"Sort of. But the floors aren't right on top of each other. If you're on the elevator, it's a long distance between each floor."

Lois sighed. Her hands were growing slippery with sweat. She gripped each bar tightly so that she wouldn't slip, but that only served to scrape her hands raw.

She reached upwards for the next rung. But her wet hand slipped, and she grasped only air.

"Clark!" she shrieked as she lost her balance and dropped, hanging by the cord.

The knots, and the cord, held. Once Lois realized that she wasn't falling to her death, she was able to relax enough to grab hold of the ladder again. "Clark," she whispered, near tears, "I can't do this much longer."

"You won't have to. I'm almost at the top."

Lois's relief was such that she clung to the ladder for a moment to thank the stars. With an end in sight—or, at least, in Clark's sight, which was almost as good—she gained her second wind.

True to his word, when Clark reached the top, he pulled her up, so that all she had to do was push lightly off the rungs with her feet. The top had a hatch that opened out a short distance from the house, and he had pushed himself through the hatch and then dragged her up behind him.

When Lois found herself standing on solid ground and in daylight, she wanted to drop to her knees and kiss the earth. However, it was rather… dirty. So she satisfied herself by kissing Clark instead.

For a moment, Clark seemed too surprised to act. Then his arms came around her to hold her tight, at the same moment that his mouth began to react. "Oh, Lois," he whispered, his lips against hers. She could feel his breath on her face, and she smiled at the feeling. But smiling brought on the tears she'd been holding back since the moment she'd seen him.

"You're safe," Clark whispered, brushing her tears away. "Everything's all right now."

But she couldn't stop crying. She buried her face in his shirt—he was, for once, wearing one—and let her body react to the fear and adrenaline high she'd gone through. He held her tightly without saying another word, until she was finally finished.

The heat of the fire at last made her look up. The house was still burning, although it looked to be in the later stages. As she watched, part of the roof fell in, and she winced as sparks and pieces of wood flew.

"I think we'd better get out of here," Clark said.

She nodded.

He took her hand, and they started across the singed lawn. A rat, squeaking noisily, suddenly ran across their path.

Lois glanced at Clark. "That wasn't the rat you left in the elevator, was it?" she asked.

"Oh! I left the poor thing!" he said.

She snorted. "Poor thing, my foot."

"Oh, no!" Lois said, stopping short. "The bomb!"

"What bomb? You never told me."

"The bomb! The reason I came to the Congo! I found out from a source—well, two sources—that the illegal arms sales in the Congo had escalated and that a nuclear bomb was being sold to one side. A bomb, and weapons, that came from the U.S. I came here to track it down. The weapon was being sold to Toni's gang, the Brazzas."

"And Lex Luthor was the seller," Clark filled in.

"Yeah." She avoided his eyes, hoping he wouldn't add an "I told you so."

"Anyway, Max said that Felix was supposed to sabotage the bomb, but that instead, he was going to set it off! We have to stop him!"

Clark grabbed the car keys from his pocket as they ran up to the car he'd taken from his old mechanic job. "It's probably too late to stop Felix from setting it off. All we have time for is to stop the bomb itself."

"Do you cut the red or the black? I never remember," Lois said, climbing into the passenger seat.

"You've done this before?"

"Not with a *nuclear* bomb, no."


Clark tried not to let himself analyze that remark too far. There was a nuclear bomb to defuse, and he had no idea where it was or when it would go off.

He got out of the car and handed Lois the keys. "Lois, take the car, and just drive. Get as far away from the city as you can."

"What?" she said, looking thunderstruck. "Clark, you can't keep me out of this! This is *my* story, remember? I'm the one who came here to find the bomb!"

"Yes, but, it could kill you. And we don't know when it will go off."

"It could kill you too!"

Clark wisely kept silent.

"Besides," Lois added reasonably, "I know something about disarming bombs. You don't. Is it worth letting an entire city die just so you can play out some masculine protective instinct on me?"

Clark sighed. She had a point. He could scan the entire city until he found the bomb, but that didn't change the fact that he wouldn't know what to do with it if he found it. But having Lois with him would limit his ability to scan the city.

"All right," he said, getting back into the car. "But I'm driving."

Lois grinned at him, and he had the distinct impression that she was laughing at him.

Clark drove faster than he'd ever driven in his life, directly into the heart of the city. Somehow he knew that the bomb had to be here. From what Lois had told him on the trip over, it was large enough to destroy a city, but it would have to be *in* the city to do so. He had a feeling Felix wouldn't have set it off if it had been in a cave 10 miles from the city, where it would do very little damage.

The warehouse district seemed the most likely, so he steered in that direction. Lois, he noticed, was staring out the window. She seemed nervous.

Clark reached across with his right hand and took hers. She squeezed his and rested their joined hands on her lap.

As they neared the warehouse district, Clark started to scan everything. Factories, warehouses, docks, and the few run-down office buildings that lined the roads. The equipment stored in some of the buildings was heavy and metallic, occasionally with some lead content, which made the whole process very tedious. It was difficult to scan each building thoroughly before they passed it.

"Clark! Look out!" Lois called out suddenly.

Clark slammed on the brakes just in time to miss hitting a delivery truck that had stopped in front of them.

"What are you *doing*?" Lois asked. "You could get us killed! Maybe I should drive."

He pulled into a side alley that looked suspiciously familiar, and then he saw it. The old strips of lead paint couldn't hide the metallic glow of the bomb.

The alley, interestingly enough, was the same one in which he'd overheard the conversation about Pointe Noire when he was on a date with Toni. Probably not a coincidence.

"Here," he told Lois.

She glanced at him, looking disbelieving. "How do you know?"

"I was thinking, and it occurred to me that I overheard some guys talking right in this alley the other night. That was the clue that led me to Pointe Noire. Maybe I had been right at the base of their operations without knowing it."

Without waiting to see if she'd accept his explanation, he get out of the car and headed towards the building.

When they walked into the warehouse, they passed through the area where the guards would usually be standing watch. Clark had been hoping that Lois was good at off-the-cuff excuses, because he certainly wasn't. But there weren't any guards around. In fact, the area gave evidence that they'd deserted the building as quickly as they could. Playing cards were scattered. A flask containing some sort of alcohol lay abandoned on the floor, dripping into the dirt.

"Do you get the feeling we're walking *back* into a nuclear explosion?" Lois asked.

Clark didn't answer. He'd spotted the bomb. 00:15:39. Fifteen measly minutes to figure out how to disarm a nuclear bomb.

"Well," Lois said brightly, "this doesn't look so bad."

He glanced at her.

She bit her lip. "Do you think Brazzaville has a bomb squad?"

"If they do, I think I can guarantee they don't have a response time of under 15 minutes. You can't even get through to the police department that fast."

"So it's up to us."

He took her hand again, and for a moment they simply held onto the human contact in the face of a device powerful enough to destroy a city.

"All right," Lois said after a minute. "The first thing, I think, is to detach the wires from the detonators."

"Which are… "

"Um. Maybe these things?" Lois pointed to three likely- looking devices. "Maybe. Or maybe it's these ones?" She pointed to several others.

"I thought you said you'd done this before."

"I have. But not this type of bomb. Usually small, homemade bombs."

"Aren't you just supposed to know which color wire to clip or something?"

Lois raised an eyebrow. "And when a psychotic criminal changes the colors of the wires… "

"Good point."

"They could make all the wires the same color. Now *that* would confuse people."

00:12:01. Clark nodded to Lois. "Maybe figuring out this bomb would be pertinent."

"Do you think my cell phone would reach the bomb squad's headquarters in Metropolis?" She sighed. "I'm stalling. All right. I'm pretty sure these are the detonators." She indicated the objects she'd pointed to originally. "The placement is right, and it seems reasonable that it have about three."

"So what do we do?"

"Detach the wires from them. One at a time."

"Does order matter?"

Lois shrugged. "No idea."

Clark took a deep breath. "Okay. Shall I do it, or do you want to?"

"My hands are shaking too hard. You do it."

The brightly-colored wires taunted him. He hoped she knew what she was talking about.

"Wait!" Lois said. "I think the other things are the kryton switches. Maybe we should remove them first."

He let out his breath in a whoosh of air. "Lois!"

"Clark, I don't know what I'm doing," she said, near tears.

00:10:26. There had to be a way he could use his superpowers to prevent this. Even if it meant revealing himself to Lois, it was worth it to save the city and Lois herself. He wasn't so sure, in fact, that he could survive a nuclear blast. He was pretty good at surviving having farm implements dropped on him, and he'd once totaled the tractor without getting a scratch. But a nuclear explosion was on an entirely different scale.

What would happen if he threw the bomb into outer space? Would the fallout be so great that it would cause, what did they call it, nuclear winter? That would be ever worse than letting it go off on Earth, where at least the damage would be local, for the most part.

Clark suddenly remembered a toolbox he'd seen at the guard station.

"Just a second," he said to Lois. He jogged over and retrieved a pair of pliers from the toolbox and brought them back.

"All right," he said. "Not all the detonators always go off in a nuclear bomb, right?"

Lois nodded. "Yeah, it causes a less-than-fullscale explosion when that happens, which isn't as uncommon as you'd think. One will be defective, or something like that." Her eyes brightened. "So, if we remove a wire from a detonator, the switches controlling the explosion will probably just think that one detonator went defective. So we detach the wires, one at a time, from the detonators. Once all the detonators have gone, the timer can go off, but nothing will happen."

"Let's just hope you're right about what the detonators are," he said.

Lois covered her ears and watched, eyes huge, as Clark took the pliers to the wire connecting the first detonator.

With utmost delicacy, he detached the wire from the detonator. Nothing happened.


"Now the second," she whispered, hands still covering her ears.

He took the pliers to the second detonator, and repeated the action. There was a strange fizzing noise, and both jumped nervously. But nothing happened.

"Only one left," she whispered.


The pliers were getting slippery in Clark's hands. He was even more nervous than he'd thought. He paused to take a handkerchief from his pocket and wipe the pliers and his hands. It didn't seem to help much. He frowned at the handkerchief, then, realizing his own stupidity, wrapped the cloth around the pliers. Now he had a much better grip.


"Here goes." The third wire was tight, stubborn. It didn't want to be detached. He had to almost yank it in the end, causing Lois to gasp and the pliers to slip. It didn't work, and he had to dry the pliers off again before trying again.


He gripped the wire more tightly with the pliers, then pulled with his super-strength. It came free.


"The timer's still going," Clark observed.

"We've only taken out the things that actually explode, not turned the timer itself off," Lois explained. "In fact, maybe we should remove the detonators entirely now that they aren't connected? Just to be sure, you know."

Clark nodded. Lois ran and got some cartons, and he lifted out the detonators, one-by-one, and placed them in the cartons.


"Should we detach those other things? Just in case?"

Lois shrugged. "Couldn't hurt."

He pulled the wires from the other objects, possibly the switches, and then put them in cartons that Lois offered.


"And now?"

"Now… I guess we've done all we can. In three minutes, we'll know."

He blinked. "So we just wait? Maybe we should get in the car, try to get as far away as we can in time."

Lois shook her head. "We wouldn't get far enough in three minutes. We'd still be killed, just probably slower. I'd rather stay here. If it goes off, at least we'll never know it."

"All right." Strange. He'd been calm until they started trying to disarm the bomb, but as he worked on it he grew increasingly anxious. Lois, on the other hand, had panicked at first sight of the bomb, but now seemed so calm and in control that he couldn't help trusting her implicitly. Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing, having opposite coping mechanisms.


They sat on the dirt floor a few feet from the bomb, in sight of the timer. Clark leaned against the wall behind him, and Lois sat next to him. He wrapped an arm around her and held her close, and was relieved when she didn't reject him. She curled into his arms and Clark realized that, if the bomb did go off, this was the way he'd want to go. With Lois in his arms.




Lois buried her head in his chest, but Clark couldn't take his eyes off the timer. He didn't even blink as it slowly, inexorably, counted down.


"Clark," Lois whispered.


"I love you."





The bomb made a strange clicking noise, and both closed their eyes without thinking about it.

But it didn't go off.

After several long, intense moments, they opened their eyes again. They were alive. Alive! And their faces were only inches apart.

Without even letting himself think about it, Clark pressed his lips to Lois's. The touch of her lips against his sent a shock of desire through his body and he instinctively pressed closer for more. The sense of urgency that had been driving him from the moment he realized that Lois might be trapped in the fire had exploded into passion as he kissed her.

His mind was torn between enjoying the kiss and contemplating her last words before the timer went off. She'd said… she loved him. But wasn't that what people always said when they thought they were going to die?

He couldn't—wouldn't—let himself read too much into it. It would be disastrous to rush her by assuming she was ready for a declaration so soon. Kissing Lois was too wonderful to let himself dwell on possibilities.

She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close, and he deepened the kiss. She was kissing him back, eagerly, desperately, and her response only excited him further. Unable to get enough, he leaned into her, and she offered no resistance as they fell backwards into the dirt of the floor.

Clark found himself on top and the protective side of himself reminded him that he might be crushing her. He rolled them to their sides as Lois's hands wound themselves through his hair, tugging his face even closer. One more half-roll caused them to bump into something cold… and hard.

Through the haze of their passion, one lone sound suddenly pierced through the warehouse. Tick.

Clark was pretty sure both had gotten to their feet at super-speed.

"Do you think—do you think it's going to blow?" Lois asked cautiously, pushing her tousled hair behind her ears.

"Might be hard without detonators. Maybe it was its dying tick."

They both stared down at the bomb, which seemed innocent and still. "Maybe we just knocked something loose when we hit it," Lois said hopefully.

"Either way, maybe it's time to see if Brazzaville has a bomb squad."

Twenty minutes later, much faster than Lois or Clark would have given them credit for, Brazzaville's young and inexperienced bomb squad showed up. They were all regular police officers who had done a correspondence course in bomb dismantling, apparently. They seemed very relieved to find that the bomb had been dismantled for them, and they seemed to relish swaggering about in their professional bomb-squad protective gear while they gathered up the loose bits and loaded them into cases.

"What now?" Clark asked Lois as they followed the bomb squad guys out into the meager daylight of the alley.

"Now, rookie, we get the bad guys."


Her words weren't far from the truth. Lois's pictures and recorded evidence, fortunately safely stored in her room and under the shelf at the club, were enough to convince the police to compare the fingerprints they'd gotten from the bomb to the fingerprints Toni had been required to provide in order to get the liquor license for the bar. There was a match.

"We also found a sample of blood on the bomb," the police chief was willing to state. "However, it is not a match for Toni or any of her employees, although we did find the fingerprints of some of her employees on the casing."

The police had required fingerprints from both Lois and Clark in order to discount any of theirs they found on the bomb. Lois had protested to the high heavens at the injustice, but after the police had taken possession of her passport and refused to release it unless she complied, she gave in.

Clark had been even more hesitant, although more quietly. His case was even more delicate, given that he hadn't exactly brought along a passport. But after examining his fingers and comparing them to books of fingerprints, he decided that his were enough like human fingerprints that they wouldn't notice the difference. He marveled, in fact, that he was like humans down to such a tiny detail. It really did make him wonder if Kryptonians and humans had come from the same place at some point not so long ago.

Toni had been arrested amongst much protesting, along with several of her confederates. Lex Luthor and his children, however, had gotten away scot-free.

But not for long. Lois and Clark were on his trail.

Given that he hadn't remembered to bring along his passport when he flew over, Clark had to make his excuses to Lois and avoid flying back with her. He could tell she was disappointed and even a little suspicious, but there was no way around it. If he told her he hadn't brought his passport, she'd never believe he'd gotten onto a plane in the U.S.

Lois had gotten on her plane in a huff, so Clark hadn't managed to talk to her before they left the Congo. If nothing else, he supposed he'd see her in the newsroom, but he'd hoped they could talk before that to get their stories straight.

Of course, flying under super-powers had its advantages. Clark stayed in the Congo later, getting the detailed reports from the police before he left. He still got home early enough to drop by his apartment, toss his clothes in the washer, and take a shower. Once he was dry, he wrapped the towel around his waist and picked up the cordless phone to call his parents. His clothes were still in the dry cycle, so he had some time to kill before he could wander over to the Planet. It was almost noon, but he knew Lois's flight had only arrived about an hour ago, so she couldn't beat him to the newsroom by much.

His mother picked up the phone and squealed to find her son on the other line. True to his promise to Lois, he hadn't contacted anyone from the Congo under the danger that the phones might be tapped. His father picked up on the other phone almost immediately. After exchanging greetings, they were eager to know how his trip had gone.

"Well, you know how I went to the Congo to find a reporter, Lois Lane?"

He could almost imagine his mother pressing her ear against the phone. "Yes? Did you find her?"

"Did I ever," he said. "We kinda ended up working together on the story she was there for. We've taken care of everything there, so now we're back in Metropolis to tie up the loose ends." While he talked, he wandered into the kitchen to fix himself a peanut butter sandwich.

He could hear his mother whispering to his father. She always seemed to think that covering the mouthpiece would do it, conveniently forgetting about his super-hearing.

"Yes, Mom, she is pretty," he said, half-laughing. "She's also brilliant, headstrong, and totally out of my league."

"You really oughta try locking your door sometime, Farmboy," a voice said from behind him. He turned to see Lois standing in the doorframe. She gaped when she saw what he was wearing.

"You'd better get naked… I mean, dressed," she said. "We've got write-up to do."

"I have to go, Mom," he said loudly, trying to cover his mother's squeals of "Clark, just what *are* you wearing?" and "Is that her?" "Call you later."

"Love you, son," his father said, laughing, as he hung up.

"Just give me a minute," he told her. "My clothes are still in the dryer."

"They're done, actually," she said, pointing at it. The dryer must have finished while he was on the phone.

"Right. Just a second then." He grabbed an armful of clothes and carried them into the bathroom. Usually he would have just changed in his bedroom, but his apartment was open and didn't have doors.

He obviously misjudged how long it would take the average man to shave and dress, because when he walked out, Lois seemed stunned.

"So that's what you look like in a business suit," he thought he heard her murmur.

She shook her head as if clearing her thoughts. "Ah… so, anyway, I was thinking that we ought to make some sort of plan for how we're going to finish this off."

"Sounds good to me. Does that mean I get to help with *your* story?"

Lois rolled her eyes. "Oh, you know it's part yours by now. I give credit where credit is due."

Clark waited, but that was obviously as much credit as she thought he deserved.

When they got to the street, Lois hailed a taxi so effortlessly, Clark had a feeling she'd been hailing cabs from her stroller. "To the Daily Planet," she told the driver.

"Anyway," she said to Clark, "I think we have enough to write an initial story right now. We write about Toni's arrest, the gangs, and how the guns were being sent from the U.S. We maybe imply that there's an American seller behind this, but we don't get too specific. We might be able to do a series leading the reader through the investigation; they get a kick out of that. And there's enough information for it. Meanwhile, though, we figure out how we're gonna prove Lex Luthor is behind everything."

"Isn't that sort of writing on spec?" he asked.

Lois shrugged. "Not really. If we can't prove Lex is behind it, we've still got a solid story."

"But with no link to Metropolis or the U.S. I think we should wait until we can prove Luthor's guilt."

"Clark, the first thing you have to learn in journalism is that you do not *wait* on a story. You can't sit on it. Toni's arrest is already on news in Brazzaville. They don't know all the facts or anything about our investigation, but they do know she's the head of the Brazzas. They'll put her and the bomb together and beat us to the scoop if we don't get there first.

"And besides, the nuclear bomb angle is important enough that Americans *will* care about it. Something that major does affect us. And there are all sorts of side articles that can be based on it, as long as we get there first. The bomb was sent from the U.S., along with the weapons. Where did they come from before that? Were they made here? And then we'll blow the story wide open with our revelation."


"Of the identity of the seller, of course!" She had put a hand on his knee in exasperation and she suddenly seemed to notice where it was. She blinked and quickly pulled her hand away as Clark grinned to himself.

The cab had pulled up in front of the Planet, and Clark hurried to pay the driver and catch up with Lois as she walked quickly through the revolving doors.

When they entered the newsroom, it seemed as if every person there stopped dead for a moment. It might have had something to do with the fact that they were holding hands.

"Lane! Kent! In my office now!" Perry called sharply, breaking the silence.

They quickly dropped hands and followed Perry into his office.

"All right," he said. "This radio silence has gone on long enough. I want to know everything you discovered in the Congo."

Lois, with the occasional interruption from Clark, told Perry everything they'd discovered. Perry agreed with Lois that it was best to publish what had been confirmed so far, that Toni had bought the nuclear bomb intending to use it on the Metros so that she could gain control of the region and with it, the oil.

"I think you can leave out the actual identity of the people who disarmed the bomb," he added wryly. "I prefer my reporters to write the news rather than make it. Besides, I have a feeling the government would have something to say about our revealing exactly how close the bomb came to going off."

"We have enough for a main article and maybe a series," Lois told him. "With potential sidebars about the origins of the weapons and background on the situation over there. But the real scoop is the one we're still working on."

"Luthor," Perry filled in.

Clark nodded.

"Well, kids, he's arrived in Metropolis with much fanfare. They're touting him as the local son finally returning to bring glory to his hometown. If he's really what you say he is, you're gonna need solid proof."

"Like a confession," Lois said, smiling secretly.

Perry raised an eyebrow. "I don't even want to know how you're going to manage that. But I want the scoop, and I want it pronto. Sidebars are not what people buy the paper for. They'll read them out of interest, providing we have a front-page story that out-scoops every other paper. Capisce?"

"Got it."

"You have forty-eight hours."


As Jimmy walked by, Clark snagged a handful of doughnuts and dropped them on the desk between them. Lois smiled at him gratefully and chose the powdered sugar one, holding it carefully over the floor so that she didn't spill on her suit.

"So what do we have on Reardon—Luthor?" Clark asked, his mouth full.

Lois pulled out her notes. Or, rather, several sheets of blank paper that might have had notes on them, if they'd had any real information about the case. "Well… we both know he's the bad guy."


"That's it."

"So we need proof."

"Lex is too careful to leave proof."

Lois sighed and tossed the papers back on her desk. "He had all the proof in his house! Right there before me! I even saw it, flipped through his documents. Plenty of evidence. Only—everything burned in the fire."

"I should have thought to bring a camera, tape recorder, the works, when I tracked them to Pointe Noire."

A week ago, Lois would have jumped on that, razzed him a bit. If he *had* brought along something to record the evidence, at least they'd have video to back up their word. But it was over, and making Clark feel bad about it wouldn't help any. Besides… she could have brought along a camera or something of her own when she followed Clark.

Lois thought about what they knew of Lex Luthor and his alias Daniel Reardon. "He's gotta be living somewhere in the city. I wonder if he owns real estate already? He didn't beat us here by much, but from what I can tell, he moves fast. He may be trying to set up his own company again already."

"He's using his real name now. We can check hotels, realtors, rentals, everything. Find out where he's living and if his kids are with him."

"And we can track him anywhere he uses his credit card," Lois added. "I have a friend who's willing to bend the rules just a bit."

"Good work." Clark's smile was so warm, she felt it all the way down to her toes. It was a nice feeling.

"Why don't you see if you can find out where he lives?" Lois suggested. "I'll check his credit purchases and see if he has any business acquaintances in the city—or is working on making some."

Clark stood up. "So… we meet back here afterwards?"

His uncertainty was actually charming. Lois had had enough of guys who knew exactly what they were doing—and didn't really care who they stepped on as they tried to achieve it.

"Yeah. Maybe we can get a bite to eat, see if we can come up with a plan. Perry didn't give us much time."

They headed their separate ways, Lois for the elevator and Clark for the stairs, fiddling with his tie as he always did. It did give her a momentary pang of guilt, though. She *had* eaten that doughnut… if she had taken the stairs, she might not have to spend as long on the exercise bike to work it off.

She thought for a moment about Clark's physique. So that was how he kept it.

"Mind on the story, Lois!" she chastised herself, just as the elevator door opened and Cat, wearing another concoction that looked possibly dramatic enough for the Emmy's but not quite appropriate for a newsroom, stepped on.

"Talking to yourself again, Lois?" Cat asked as the elevator continued downward. "You really should get out more."

"And just why were *you* on the third floor, Cat? Kevin in finance?"

Cat laughed throatily. "Kevin was last week. This week it's Matthias in payroll."

"Excellent choice," Lois said wryly.

"We can't all be as lucky as you are, you know." Cat sounded almost wistful.

Lois's senses immediately went on high alert. "As I am?"

"You have to admit, Clark is the hottest guy in the building. If not the city. Why he's attracted to *you*—" Cat's up-and-down glance made it clear that Lois was definitely not the most eligible person in the elevator. "—I will never know."

So the whole newsroom thought she and Clark were dating. She couldn't blame them. She wasn't sure what impulse had led her to walk into the newsroom holding his hand. It wasn't like her to show her feelings so clearly. In fact, she wasn't even sure *what* her feelings were about Clark. They'd shared some kisses—all right, fantastic kisses—but they hadn't really talked about where they stood.

Lois had never been good at that sort of talk.

But right now, there were more important things at hand. Like finding out what Lex Luthor was up to before he managed to get half the city in the palm of his hand.


"So," Lex said conversationally. "Public school, or private?" He moved a white pawn.

Felix shrugged and moved one of his own pawns. "I suppose a private tutor isn't an option."

"Oh, grow up," Max interrupted, looking up from her book. "Dad wants us to network or something. Make friends we can use later." They both glared at her, but Max ignored them and examined their chess game. Satisfied that she knew where it was going, she got up from the table and wandered over to the window.

"I shouldn't have to remind you again, Maxine," Lex said conversationally as he moved a knight.

"Oh, right, *Lex*, not Dad. Very sorry, sir, won't happen again." She tried to concentrate on looking out the window, but for some reason her eyes wouldn't focus.

The room was cool. Too cool for Max's taste, and not just in temperature. The couches were hard, taut leather. The floor was tile, and the walls some sort of sleek stone that was supposed to look like wood. The table was glass. It all looked very nice, fancy, a place to entertain business guests. But there was no softness about it.

Felix, who tended to move quickly, was pushing the game on at a rapid clip. Lex was more slow and deliberate, but he couldn't help feeling rushed by Felix's quick moves. That was his flaw, and the reason Felix always won. Felix could think several moves ahead instantly. Lex was more deliberate, but he allowed his son's playing methods to interfere with his own. Just another arena in which Lex allowed his son to influence his choices for the worse.

She walked back to the table and perched on Lex's armrest. He tolerated her for a moment, but after Felix had made his next move and regained the upper-hand, Lex got impatient. "Maxine, get off."

Never Max, always Maxine. "Public school would be a good statement for your PR. You believe in Metropolis's public schooling, you have no objections to your children mingling with the lower classes." She practiced turning her ankles in as she stood next to the table, watching the game.

"Private schooling would get us into better colleges and ultimately be better for us," Felix said. He somehow managed to glare at Maxine without looking up from the table.

She lifted herself up on tiptoes and reached for the ceiling. "You could send him to private school and me to public."

"Maxine, stop fidgeting!" Lex blurted. "Sit down and shut up. You and Felix are going to the same school, whichever it is."

Felix stuck a tongue out at her. He knew Mrs. Cox would choose private school for them. Without even taking his eyes off Maxine, he made another move.

It was all Max could to do keep her hands to herself and not take Lex's turn for him. He was a brilliant strategist, yet he was so blind to his own son. Nobody else could beat Lex in chess—nobody. But Felix could beat him every time. And Lex didn't even realize that he played differently against his son—to him, Felix was simply the greatest young chess player he'd ever seen.

"If I go to private school, I'd have to wear a skirt." Max tried her last argument.

Lex didn't even look up. He was busy trying to move fast enough to keep up with Felix.

"I hate skirts. They make me look like a girl."

"You *are* a girl, stupid," Felix said.

Max bit her lip and glanced at her father. He hadn't reacted. "All right, but that doesn't mean I have to *act* like one."

"I already have a son, Maxine," Lex said. "I don't need another one."

He didn't need a daughter, either.

"Check," Felix said.

There was only one move Lex could make to save himself from the mess he'd gotten himself into. Max watched as he quickly thought through his possibilities, then made one of the other choices. Too blind to see what was in front of his face.

"See ya," Max said, grabbing her book and stomping out of the room.


The Planet was already emptying out when Lois got back to her desk that evening. Clark was sitting at his desk, busily typing notes into his computer. She blinked. He sure could type fast.

"Hey," she said, sitting on the edge of his desk. "You find anything?"

She hadn't thought of her skirt as being particularly short, but she still felt herself blush as his gaze started at her bare leg so close to him, then moved up to her face. He swallowed. "Actually," he said, turning away with an embarrassed look, "I was thinking maybe we could go out to eat somewhere? Talk over the story while we get dinner? I don't know about you, but I'm starving."

"Sounds good."

He hesitated for a moment. "Someplace nice?"

"You mean, like a date?"

If any other partner on a story had asked her out to dinner, Lois would have let him know in no uncertain terms that she did *not* date fellow reporters. Plenty had tried, early in her career. It wasn't so much dinner itself that was the issue, it was the expectations afterwards. She didn't need the complications.

Dinner with Clark was different. How, she didn't know, exactly. Except that Clark had, in a short time, become closer to her than almost anyone.

"A real date?" she added, stalling. "You mean, like where I spend two hours fussing over my wardrobe, the entire date fighting the urge to check my mirror, and then we have the whole drama over what happens at the door at the end of the night?"

He grinned. "You know I'll love whatever you'd wear, I promise I'd tell you if you get spinach in your teeth, and I'll tell you now I'm going to give you a good-night kiss."

"I don't like spinach."

"One less thing to worry about."

She laughed. "All right."

"I'll pick you up in two hours?"

"I'll be ready."


Clark was still somewhat astounded that Lois had said yes to a date. Sure, they'd shared two kisses, but he'd initiated those. Although, she *had* kissed him back… And there was that declaration before the bomb went off… but he'd put that off to last-minute desperation.

But he knew that often people acted in a certain way when they were taken out of their normal lifestyle. When they were on vacation or a business trip. Of course, from what he knew about Lois Lane, going to the Congo to investigate a story was pretty much right in the way of her normal job.

Besides, it was perfectly natural that two people, when in the midst of danger or excitement, would turn towards each other. He wouldn't have been surprised if, on their return, Lois had wanted nothing to do with him. But he'd had to try.

And she'd said yes! Which left a very difficult decision: charcoal suit or pinstripe?


It was a warm evening, and Georgio's wasn't far from Lois's apartment, so they walked. Clark debated taking her hand, but felt awkward initiating the contact. He was relieved when she made the decision herself, slipping her arm into his.

"So, I was thinking," Lois was saying. "Lex thinks I'm dead, right?"

Why did he have a feeling this was going to lead to a dangerous plan with a one-in-a-million likelihood of working out as planned? "Yes… " he said cautiously. "Until you publish what happened in the Congo. And unless he gets suspicious about there being no obituary in the Daily Planet."

"Well, of course there wouldn't be! Nobody supposedly knew where I was in the Congo, or what I was doing. If I *had* died in the fire, it would take them weeks to connect me with the cremated bones, or whatever would be left of me. So at this point they'd just be… wondering. But at the same time, my coming home isn't a big deal, so it's not like he'd hear about it. As long as we spring this on him before we publish any articles with our bylines… "

And there was the catch. "What, exactly, are we going to spring on him?"

"Well, since Lex thinks I'm dead, I figure I could probably use the surprise to shock him into confessing."


"It's a string operation," she said confidently. "I appear and tell him I know everything. He tries to kill me. You hide nearby and get his confession on film. Or, at least, his attempt to kill me."

"And what's Plan B?"

"Plan B… we wait until he gets control of all of Metropolis, stand by and fume while he pretends to be a exceptional, honest businessman, ignore all the people he kills or destroys to get what he wants, until, some day far in the future, he slips up somewhere and we write a brilliant expose, which nobody believes but it doesn't matter anyway because we've been killed by his cronies."

She had a point. "So what, precisely, are we going to do to get this confession?"

"Well, I don't *exactly* have a plan yet," she said. "But that's what we're here for, right?"

It wasn't exactly his top choice of a dinnertime conversational topic on his first date with Lois. But then, they did say to start as you mean to go on. And he had a feeling life with Lois would always be like this. At the very least, it would never be boring. And he wanted to see Luthor taken down as much as Lois did.

They reached the front door of the restaurant at this time, and the maitre d', who seemed to recognize Lois and be somewhat afraid of her, seated them quickly. Clark waited until he'd given them menus and left before speaking again.

"All right. We'll see if we can come up with a decent plan that does *not* involve putting you in danger."

Lois laughed. "Clark, danger's my middle name."

"That's what I'm afraid of."

There was another pause in the conversation as they ordered their dinner.

"So, you confront Luthor. Tell him you know everything, bluff that you have evidence, something like that. What's to stop him from pulling out a gun and shooting you, point- blank?"

"He doesn't carry a gun," she said, confidently. "And I know Tae Kwon Do, I can take him before he gets to one."


"Look, Clark. Any plan we go with is going to have an element of danger to it. I was leaping before I looked long before I met you, and I'm still alive, aren't I? I can protect myself."

"Maybe that's why you need a partner, somebody to look before you leap."

Her eyes flashed. "Are you implying that I *need* you to keep me in line?"

Clark realized that he'd stepped over the bounds, but before he could apologize, their food arrived. Lois glared silently at him from across the table until the cheerful waitress had gone.

"I know you've taken care of yourself before," he said. "But I can't help worrying. I mean, maybe I'm taking things too fast, but I think there's something special between us. And it would kill me to lose you before we've gotten the chance to explore what that is."

"Some risks are worth taking," she said. But he didn't think she was wholly unaffected by his speech. She had trouble meeting his eyes for the next few minutes. Which was the goal he intended, so he finished his dish quietly to give her time to think over it.

"Would you like dessert?" he asked her one they were done.

Lois's eyes dropped to Clark's lips for just a moment before she answered, "Yes."

He flushed. "I meant—food."

"So did I," she said, smiling slightly.

"What would you like?"

"Something sinfully chocolate."

Clark couldn't take his eyes off hers as he ordered for them, no doubt leaving the waitress in no doubt of his feelings for Lois. But she was completely captivating in a way that he couldn't even being to identify, much less describe.

It was no different when dessert arrived. Lois had a way of delicately savoring every bit of chocolate that kept him too busy watching her to eat his own. Not that that bothered her—she seemed perfectly happy to help him out.

As they finally left the restaurant, it occurred to Clark that they hadn't managed to formulate a plan to get Luthor. But perhaps it had been a little much to expect that they'd be able to discuss work when they were on a date. Tomorrow morning things would be back to business—maybe they'd have a chance of coming up with something then.


The evening had turned brisk while they were eating. Lois took a deep breath of cool evening air to try to get her senses back. Goosebumps might be a good way to cool the suddenly confusing emotions she was feeling about Clark.

Before they'd gone more than a few steps, however, Clark slipped off his jacket and, without a word, dropped it over her shoulders.

Well, there went that plan. There was no way she was going to cool down enveloped in her jacket, with his warmth and scent surrounding her. She snuggled into the lining and smiled up at Clark. "Thanks," she said softly.

"You're welcome." He put an arm around her and pulled her close against his side, and Lois could have sworn she'd found heaven.

It had been so long since she'd really been comfortable enough with a man to feel so contented when she was physically close to him. She had spent her life struggling to stand upright and not ever be dependent on anyone else. Somehow, with Clark, that didn't matter. She could lean on him and not feel like she was losing her independence. Although Lois had always been a somewhat tactile person, there weren't a lot of people in her life with whom she could really be physically affectionate. Her parents were too distant emotionally and her sister geographically. She was close to Perry and Jimmy, but it wasn't really the same thing. It just felt so good to be touched.

They walked along in silence, enjoying the sounds of the city around them. "You know," Clark started, "when I was a kid, I thought I'd never leave the farm."


"Yeah. It was a great place to grow up, and I loved it. It wasn't until my teenage years that I started to feel like there was something more out there. Someplace that existed somewhere, far away, that I had to find. I used to have these dreams… "

Lois waited, but he seemed lost in thought. After a moment, he began again.

"I started to travel, figuring that if I searched the globe, I'd one day find what I was looking for. I lived all over, but never any one place for long."

"Is this your way of telling me that you're leaving?" Lois asked, trying to keep the dismay out of her voice. Maybe after Lex was caught, Clark would think that his job here was finished. But it wasn't! There was so much to do in a big city like Metropolis. Other bad guys to find, scathing exposes to be written, criminal activities to be discovered and dragged into the light of day. A good reporter could do so much good in this city.

Clark gave her a squeeze. "Just the opposite, actually. I'm trying to tell you that… I finally found what it was I was searching for. And I don't ever want to leave again."

Did he mean Metropolis? Or could he mean… her?

It seemed a little farfetched, not to mention egoistical, to think that he was referring to her when he said he'd found what they were looking for. It wasn't like he loved her, or anything like that. And she didn't really expect him to feel that way about her this soon.

But what he'd said about searching for something—it seemed to strike a chord within her heart. Lois hadn't been scouring the earth in search of an indescribable something. She'd stayed, for the most part, right here in Metropolis. She'd spent her days, not learning about new and different peoples, but seeking out and writing stories in her city, the only place in the world where she'd always thought she could be happy.

She hadn't realized it, but she'd been looking for something, too. Something that she didn't need to look for anymore.

And she was pretty sure it wasn't the Congo.

Lois wasn't sure if she was excited or nervous as Clark held the door to her apartment building open for her. He'd promised he'd kiss her good-night, after all, and she had a feeling he wasn't the type to forget that. She couldn't help remembering, with secret pleasure, the other times they'd kissed.

Usually by the time a date took her to her door, Lois had had enough. She was ready to say her good-byes, "Don't call me, I'll call you," and slam the door shut behind him. She'd take a bubble bath and try to erase all memories of the date from her mind before calling her sister.

With Clark, though, she didn't want the date to end.

As they reached her door, Lois fumbled in her purse for her keys. She couldn't quite meet Clark's eye, but she couldn't concentrate on finding her keys, either.

Where *were* they? This was getting embarrassing. She should have put everything in one of those tiny little purses that fit an ID card and keys and nothing else. But she liked to keep everything with her, just in case. With her life, you never knew when you might end up in the middle of a spontaneous stake-out or something.

Suddenly, she pulled too hard, and the purse emptied its contents on the floor. "Oh, no!" Lois cried, dropping to her knees to gather her belongings.

Clark crouched down next to her to help. He handed her, in turn, her cell phone, lock-picking tools, camera, and recorder. Lois smiled at him in embarrassment, and they both started to laugh. Lois scooped everything else off the floor and dumped it in her purse, entirely forgetting the need to dig through and find her keys.

"You might need these," Clark said, holding out her keys with a smile. She reached out to take them and their hands brushed. Lois swallowed hard at her involuntary reaction to Clark's touch, and he seemed to react similarly. Both still holding the keys, they stood up in one motion.

The keys were forgotten as Clark took her hands in his. Lois could tell by the way his gaze dropped to her lips that he was about to kiss her. For a moment they held the position, the air between them simmering with an unresolved electricity. Finally, Clark lowered his lips and kissed her.

The kiss was everything Lois had been anticipating and more. His lips were warm and soft and amazing, and she could feel her own body's reaction all the way down to her toes. She'd never really gotten the appeal of kissing until she'd met Clark. It had always seemed somewhere between dull and sloppy.

But kissing Clark was enough to drive a girl mad with wanting more. Without ever lifting her lips from his, she slid her hands down his back and up an arm, then across his chest. She had to feel him, to know him as intimately as he knew himself.

He seemed to have the same idea. He pulled her closer and closer until she was nestled against him as he explored her mouth. She almost gasped as he deepened the kiss, and she actually felt shivers down her spine.

Lois's back was to the door of her apartment, and Clark was leaning into her, his arms supporting him against the door. His weight against her felt good, and kissing him felt even better.

"Lois," he whispered against her mouth.

"Mmm" was the most she could manage.

"Maybe we should go inside," he said.

She nibbled at his lower lip. "Why?"

"Because we're standing out in the hallway."

Lois blinked as she realized that what he'd said was true. She flushed. "Uh, yeah, lemme just find my keys."

He handed them to her and she struggled to regain her composure as she fitted them to the locks in turn. When the door swung open and they stepped into the apartment, however, Lois suddenly felt herself panicking.

Clark was in her apartment. Not only that, but they'd just been making out in the hallway. What did he expect now? Was her permission for him to enter supposed to mean she'd given permission for him to take her to bed? Was she leading him on?

An old boyfriend had once accused her of that when she had taken him out to dinner with her mother, during one of her mother's sober periods. He'd come over to her apartment afterwards, and when she'd told him she was ready to stop, he'd been mad enough to frighten her. He'd said that meeting the parents was supposed to mean that the relationship was serious. Serious, to her, meant commitment and love. Serious, to him, meant sex.

That relationship hadn't been serious on either account, and she'd soon sent him packing.

Clark didn't seem the type to expect that kind of thing, but how could she ask him without sounding like an idiot? "Um, Clark, did you expect to have sex with me tonight?" Yeah, right.

Lois turned around from relocking her door to find Clark watching her. His expression was wary, but hopeful. His eyes were still dark from their moment of ardor and she had a feeling he expected them to pick up where they'd left off.

She panicked.

"Tea?" she asked, trying to keep her voice steady. She moved to the kitchen. "Or… water? Gatorade?" There wasn't much in her fridge, and she desperately tried to think of something to distract him.

She closed the fridge and turned around, only to jump with surprise to find him right behind her.

"Are you all right, Lois?" he asked, his hands gently cupping her shoulders.

"Yes. No. I don't know."

"If it helps," he continued, his hands gently massaging her back as he spoke, "I didn't ask to come inside so that we could take things any further than you wanted. I just thought you might rather not have to explain things to your neighbors."

She smiled at him. Somehow Clark always seemed to know exactly the right thing to say to ease her fears and make her feel better. "Thanks, Clark. I didn't mean to doubt you."

"Then don't," he whispered. He kissed her gently. "I'd better go."

"Please," she said quickly, grabbing him by the lapels. "Don't."

He stopped, and his brown eyes looked deeply into hers. "Are you sure?"

For an answer, Lois wrapped her arms around his neck and lifted her lips to his.

How could she have let doubts overcome her when kissing Clark felt so real, so right? The same delightful shivers of emotion that had crossed her body before were back, stronger than before. He paused for only a moment before pulling her close in an embrace and returning the kiss wholeheartedly.

"Oh, Lois," he whispered when they broke away for air. "This is… "

"Too good to stop long enough to think of a good word," she said, smiling against his mouth.


She pulled away from his mouth enough to press gentle kisses on his cheekbones, forehead, and nose. He watched her, eyes dark and serious but full of an emotion she was afraid to name. She finished exploring his face and moved on, kissing his shoulders and neck, the only exposed skin she could reach. When she kissed the hollow at the base of his neck, she could feel him shudder.

When he couldn't take anymore, he uttered a low growl that startled Lois into a giggle, and lifted her into a tight hug. He squeezed her so tightly that she could feel all the intensity of his feelings. It made her feel wonderful—sexy, beautiful, and beloved.



This was unbelievable. Lois was unbelievable. He was actually kissing her, and, what was more, she was kissing him back! It felt as if all his unconscious dreams had been answered.

The kitchen counter was just behind Lois, and without breaking the kiss, Clark lifted her up and onto it. She smiled against his mouth.

It was his turn for exploration, and he took full advantage of it. His hands slipped under her shirt and delicately teased the soft skin of her stomach and lower back. It felt so wonderful to be able to touch her, to feel her soft, warm skin. Lois shivered as he ran a finger up her spine and back down.

"Oh, Lois," he whispered, lowering his mouth to her collarbone. He kissed her gently there. She tasted so sweet, so *Lois*. This was getting to be a bit much.

He pulled Lois into a hug, savoring the closeness while trying to keep his cool. He had to distract himself. He began reciting the multiplication table to himself.

"Clark?" Lois asked, stroking his hair. "Are you okay?"

He didn't trust himself to answer, so he just nodded. For a moment he simply held her in silence before he could speak again. "I just think we need to stop, Lois. I promised you I wouldn't push you into anything you didn't want." He pulled just enough away from her to look her in the eye. "And I won't. But there's only so much I can take, too."

Lois blushed. "At this point, I don't think you would be pushing me at all."

He blinked several times rapidly and tried to remember what 41 times 38 was. "I know, but… "

She smiled at him. "Yeah. So… shall we call it a night?"

"We'd better. But I'll see you tomorrow, right?"

"Of course."

He pulled her into his arms one last time, lifting her off the counter. One very chaste kiss on the lips, and he was reciting the 79 multiplication tables as he let himself out. After he walked out the door, he stopped for a minute with his head resting against the door, trying to gain enough control to make the flight to the arctic, where he was going to need a very long swim. He grinned slightly to think that if he was driving, a cop might think he was driving while intoxicated—intoxicated with Lois, that was. Only he'd be flying while intoxicated, instead.

Intoxicated with love.

He couldn't do other than admit it to himself. He loved Lois. He loved Lois! He suddenly had an urge to soar into the air and do a few loop-de-loops. He was in love! For the first time in his life!

He was in love with Lois.

If only he could know if she really felt the same.


Lois was afflicted with a guilty conscience. This was a pretty rare thing on her part. Usually she did whatever she thought was best, to hell with what other people might think. But she was going to have to lie to Clark, and with their relationship so new and delicate, she hated to do it.

The question was, which was the greater lie? The outright lie, or the lie of omission? She could leave Clark a note that said she was going out on some innocent story. Or she could forget to leave him a note and just leave her coworkers with the vague impression that she was out on a story, which they would tell him. The second, at least, would free her from the guilt of lying directly.

In the end, she decided not to leave a note. She already knew she was going to feel sorry for this later, but it didn't matter. Stopping Lex was important. Besides, Clark would have to learn sooner or later that she didn't listen to what other people cautioned her, and she was constantly taking risks. He'd have to deal with it then, so why not give him a sneak preview?

Lois sighed. Rationalizing this was not helping to ease her guilt. She might as well get things over with.

"Hey, Jimmy," she called, snagging him as he crossed her path.

"Hey, Lois. You're here early."

"I had some things to get done before the crowd gets here. Anyway, I was wondering if you could do me a favor."

"Yeah, sure, as long as it doesn't interfere with my doughnut and coffee-fetching duties. Chief would have my head."

She grinned. "I promise it won't. You remember that story a couple of months ago, where you gave me a bug so I could set it up in the chairman's office and find out if he was in on the scheme?"

Jimmy nodded.

"I'm gonna leave the recorder on your desk. Could you keep an eye on it, especially in about an hour?"

He raised his eyebrows. He'd been trying to perfect the one-eyebrow raise for weeks, but Lois really couldn't see any improvement. "Are you going to be getting into trouble again?"

"No! I just want… backup. Just in case."

He didn't look convinced, but she knew he was familiar with her reporting strategies by now. He'd call the police if it came down to it.

"Where are you gonna be?"

"Lex Towers."

During the cab ride across town, Lois tried to think of the best place to confront Lex. But it was hard without somebody to bounce ideas off of. Just getting Lex alone would be complicated, and she wanted it to be somewhere where he couldn't call for his cronies' assistance too easily.

Between her investigations the previous day and what she'd learned from Clark, she had a pretty good idea of how Lex lived. Apparently he'd owned significant shares in Metropolis's businesses, along with having long since purchased the tallest building in the city, long before he came back. His intention to return to the city someday must have begun a long time ago and planned for.

On his return, he'd renamed the skyscraper he owned "Lex Towers," and his own personal apartments were located in the penthouse. The other uppermost floors were his business and meeting rooms, the ballroom and entertaining rooms, and the personal rooms of his most important cronies.

In the lowest basement was his wine cellar, his pride and joy. He tasted the wine frequently to test whether it had aged enough yet.

If only he'd been living here longer, Lois could have studied his habits to figure out how best to provoke him. But, unfortunately, a few days wasn't long enough. The servants couldn't tell her much of any use. The one benefit from the bribes she'd distributed freely was that a maid was willing to let her in the building. Once she was in, however, she was on her own.

Lex wasn't hard to find, for someone creeping around the corridors of his business offices. She'd gone into full- out disguise for this operation, just in case. The red wig hid her hair and looked fairly natural, and the thick glasses disguised her eyes. She heard him before she saw him, giving orders to some frightened lackey in a business meeting. Lois simply flattened herself against a wall around the corner and pretended to be waiting for someone.

When he left the office and walked briskly down the hall, she followed him at a distance. He had another meeting, and then a third, and Lois grew bored. But as a reporter, she'd had a great deal of experience with stakeouts. They could be boring, but the moment you let your guard down, that was when the job went south.

Lois just hoped that the first opportunity to confront him didn't end up being in the men's room. His office she could handle. But there were extremes that any self- respecting reporter would stop at.

His secretary seemed to have arranged his meetings conveniently, as they were in a progressive row through the halls, keeping him from having to walk very far from one to the other.

Finally, Lex disappeared into his private office. With her ear pressed against the door, she waited. He shuffled some papers around, but didn't appear to intend to stay long. Before Lois could decide whether this opportunity was the right one or not, she heard his private elevator start up.

Dashing into the room, she watched the numbers across the top go down. He was headed for the wine cellar.

She hurried back into the hallway, giving a sharp look at a lower-secretary who seemed to doubt Lois's right to be in Lex's private office. She kept herself to a fast walk until she reached the public elevators down the corridor.

By something of a miracle, nobody got on the elevator on any of the floors before Lois reached the basement. She might have been forced to strangle anyone who tried in her eagerness to get down there and confront Lex.

When the elevator finally stopped at the bottom, however, Lois felt a moment of nervousness. Was this really a good idea? She probably should have listened to Clark. But he was too cautious for his own good, and she knew they *had* to get Lex. They had to get him now, while he would be startled by her appearance from the dead—maybe startled enough to make a mistake. If she waited until articles with her byline were published, he'd know everything and she'd lose the only advantage she had. Besides, she had the most important thing. She slid a hand into her pocket and flicked the button on the tape recorder to "on."

"All right," she whispered. "Looks like it's going to be the wine cellar or nothing. I'm going in."


Jimmy frowned slightly as he caught Lois's last words. She was a great reporter and always seemed to know what she was doing, but all the same—he wished she'd waited around for her partner. Clark was much more cautious, and he had a feeling there were a very good reason why Lois had come to the Planet early, gotten Jimmy's help, and then ventured out before Clark came in.

A shadow crossed his desk. "'Morning, Jimmy," Clark said cheerfully. "Save a doughnut for me?"

Jimmy blanched and tried to cover the tape recorder, but it was too late.

"What are you doing?" Clark asked. "Catching the score from last night's game?"

Lois hadn't actually ordered Jimmy to keep her whereabouts a secret from Clark. In fact, she'd authorized him to call for backup when she needed it. Maybe Clark was the backup she needed. "Lois asked me to listen to this for her."

"Where is she?" Clark asked sharply.

"She's about to confront Lex in the cellar of Lex Towers."

Jimmy heard a whoosh, but before he looked up, Clark was gone. "CK?"

He sighed. Well, if Clark was already headed over there, maybe now was the time to call the police. They couldn't possibly give him *another* citation for calling 9-1-1 for no reason, could they? The other time he really had thought Lois was in trouble…


Lex had left the wine cellar door open just a crack behind him, and she used it to her advantage, slipping into the room quietly without him hearing her or looking up. He stood with his back to her, facing the barrel he was testing the wine from.

One she was in, Lois closed the door with a bang and locked it. Lex froze, but, his usual unflappable self, did not spin around in shock.

He took a sip of the wine, swishing it around in his mouth for a moment, then sat his wine glass down. He turned.

For a moment Lois was sure he blanched at the sight of her. But it was gone so quickly, she wasn't sure.

"So," he said, taking a step towards her, "the little reporter didn't die in the fire."

"Despite your best intentions."

He shrugged and turned back to his wine. "No matter."

What? "You don't care?" Lois asked, astounded.

"Not in the slightest. Print a word of what you know, Lois Lane, and all you'll succeed in is destroying your own reputation. You have no proof, and my record in this city is as clean as a whistle."

She walked down the stairs just inside the entrance until she reached the real floor. "Your record is clean… now. But somehow I find it hard to believe that you'll manage to avoid skirting what is legal in the future. There'll be a trail of crime and conspiracy to follow directly to you before long."

"Care for a glass of wine?" he asked her, holding one out. "It's not quite perfect yet, but it's getting there."

This wasn't the attitude he was supposed to take. Fingering the tape recorder, she took a step closer. "Can I just ask you a question, Lex? Why?"

He laughed. "Why what? Don't act like the heroine in a third-rate movie, Lois, it doesn't suit you."

Suddenly, he frowned. "In fact, it doesn't sound like you at all. You have a tape recorder."

He had seen directly through her. She'd never let an interviewee get the better of her so easily. But it *was* intimidating to accost him on his home ground. Which had been intentional, she wanted him to feel in control, to tell her the truth. He could even try attacking her. He was bigger, but Lois was a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do and she felt confident she could take him.

"And if I do, I've already gotten enough," she said boldly, edging towards the door.

"Ah, but it won't leave the room," Lex said. He stepped over to the next wine barrel and turned the faucet handle. He stepped away from the barrel as a cage came down out of the ceiling.

Before Lois could even react, the cage had settled around Lex. Trapping him. Had he acted by mistake? She took a quick step towards Lex and suddenly noticed the glint. The cage wasn't just bars—it was plated with something. Plexiglas? And there was a tube leading from the top.

Lex lifted his glass to her. "Farewell, Lois. It's been… interesting," he said, his voice sounding distant through the glass.

As he spoke his words, vents in the room suddenly open and began pumping in some sort of gas. Lois stared, dumbfounded, for a moment. The smell of the gas reached her, and Lois realized that it wasn't poison gas—it was smoke. Smoke, that could make you suffocate in a matter of minutes. The very fate she'd escaped from in the Congo, with the help of Clark, would still be her end.

Covering her mouth with her hand, she ran for the door. But it was locked. She'd locked it herself. She flipped the lock, but it still refused to open. Her tugs on the door grew desperate.

"I wouldn't waste your energy," Lex said from his sealed chamber. "The machinery that lowers the cage also bolts the doors."

The smoke was making her eyes tear and blinding her as she ran back to the wine barrel. She grabbed the handle he'd turned, turning it back desperately. But it had no effect, and she couldn't hold her breath anymore. She opened her mouth and gulped in smoke as she dropped to her knees.

The air near the ground was cleaner. Lois flattened herself to the floor and took a deep breath of partly- oxygenated air. She turned her head and saw Lex. He was standing in his safety cage, not even watching her now, simply glancing at his watch. Probably to see how much longer she had to live. He wouldn't even bother to remove her body himself, she was sure. He'd have one of his underlings do it so that he didn't have to dirty his hands on a dead body.

Jimmy. Jimmy had to have called the police by now. Surely he knew something was wrong. "Help, Jimmy," she whispered, choking on the words. She had to make one last attempt. She gathered all her strength to get to her knees. But it was a hopeless cause.

She felt, rather than saw, a presence above her. Turning her head, she saw Lex standing above her, wearing a gas mask.

He reached down and grabbed the tape recorder from her weak fingers. Her vision blurred again and he was gone, but she heard the smash.

And then—there was a bigger smash. From the direction of the door.

"Clark!" Lois wanted to cry, but talking, not to mention breathing, was beyond her. She forced desperately tearing eyes to stay open as she watched him enter the room. The whole room was darkening and spinning, but she still saw him take two steps in and stop dead. He took in the situation at a glance, and immediately…

Sucked up the smoke, allowing fresh air to seep in from the hallway.

Through a door that was hanging off its hinges.

He turned to the vent and blew the smoke back where it came from, then stared at the vent. The metal melted before her eyes, the vent sealing itself shut.

Lois's head dropped back to the floor as the blackness pulled her in.


"Lois!" Clark cried, dropping to his knees beside her. "Lois!"

She didn't appear to be breathing. He shook her, frantic, but that only made her head roll back and frightened him even more.

"Lois, please," he whispered. If his Boy Scout training would only work now…

He slipped one hand underneath her neck and lifted so that her head was tilted back and her air tunnel was open. Lowering his lips to hers, he sent up a prayer, then slowly breathed life-giving air into her lungs.

Her chest rose with his breath.

He breathed again, and this time he could see her react.

Lois's eyes popped open, although they looked unusually blank for a moment. She gasped for air and then choked on what she managed to breathe in.

"Take it easy," Clark said softly, helping her to sit up as she continued to cough.

"Clark," she said in a hoarse whisper. Widening her eyes, she grabbed at her throat and grimaced.

"Your throat is probably damaged from the smoke. Try not to talk, it'll only make it worse," he told her.

She nodded. Closing her eyes, she slipped her arms around Clark's neck and hugged him.

Clark held her close, forcing himself not to pull her to him as tightly as he wanted to. He'd come so close to losing her. His brilliant, headstrong, pigheaded love. He wanted to shake her for doing this alone, and at the same time just hold her and kiss her and never let her go.

"I'm not sure who or what you are, Mr… King?" The voice came from the doorway.

Clark looked up, shoving Lois protectively behind him and standing up. He'd been too concerned about Lois to notice what Lex Luthor did, but he was back. With a gun.

Luthor trained the gun on Lois, who was still sitting, dazed, on the floor, but had moved to be able to see what was going on.

"But no matter what kind of strange drugs you're on or what you've done to yourself, there's no way you can dodge this."

And he fired.

Clark's secret was already out. Nothing mattered but protecting Lois.

He reached down and caught the bullet easily in midair, long before it reached his love. He held it up, triumphantly, to show Luthor.

The look in Luthor's eyes was reward enough, but he still seemed unbelieving. He shot off the other five bullets as fast in quick succession, and Clark snatched them out of the air as well. Then he directed his heat vision onto the gun.

Luthor cried out as he dropped the red-hot gun and held his hand in agony.

"Police! Hold your fire!" came the welcome sound from the open doorway.

Luthor, an intelligent man to the end, lifted his hands in surrender. But his eyes, cold and dark and knowing, remained on Clark. It was over. Luthor was going to jail. But Clark's secret would never be safe in the hands of such a man. What would… what could Luthor do with what he knew? If he was believed about it, every criminal in Metropolis could find out who he was and get rid of him before he could try to stop their crimes or save their victims. Worse, they could hold the people he loved as a way to force him to help them.

He glanced at Lois. Her eyes met his, and he couldn't read the look on her face. Confusion? Fear? Revulsion? She seemed more… curious… than anything else. After a moment, she closed her eyes, and all thoughts about her reaction to his revelation were lost as he dropped to his knees and took her in his arms.

Shortly after the police had taken control, paramedics had arrived. They gently took Lois from him and loaded her onto a stretcher. She was protesting with every breath, but as her throat was burned raw, nobody could hear. Clark took a step towards her when Luthor caught his eye.

Luthor was grinning. At him. As Clark watched, Luthor winked, very slowly, then turned and allowed the police officers to guide him out by his shackled wrists.


"Now, if you'll just give us your John Hancock right here," the receptionist said, handing the clipboard to Lois. Her overnight stay at the hospital was finally over. Having seen her face when she was told she was being taken to the hospital, Clark had a feeling that if they'd made her stay another day she would have been threatening the candy stripers with plastic eating utensils.

Lois signed it, then handed it back. She seemed to sense Clark behind her before she even turned around.

"Hey," she said, turning to see him.

"Hey yourself. You got your voice back!" he said, grinning.

"For the most part. I'm still a little hoarse."

"Sounds like you could use some ice cream."

She smiled. "You buying?"

"You bet." He lowered his voice. "How about we get some and go back to one of our apartments? I think we need to talk."

"We also have a story to write," she pointed out. "But… yeah, I guess we need to talk first. Thanks for the flowers, by the way."

He kept close to her as an intern helped her into a wheelchair. Lois had been put in the hospital often enough over stories that she was quite used to the futility of trying to explain that she didn't need a wheelchair, although she wasn't quite resigned enough as to let Clark push it once she was out of sight of the nurses.

Clark looked a little embarrassed. "Perry had me write a story for the paper last night telling about Lex's attempt to kill you. But we still have the exclusive on *why* he tried to kill you and everything that happened in the Congo, as long as we get it in today."

Lois nodded. "I didn't think he'd sit on it entirely while I was in the hospital. But the important stuff is the expose about Lex's doings in the Congo. Yesterday was only the culmination of them."

Clark had a cab waiting outside the hospital entrance. In an act of defiance, Lois stood up and pushed the wheelchair away, smirking at the nurse whose eye was caught by the act. The nurse simply smiled, taking away all Lois's pleasure in the taunt.

They stopped off at a convenience store on the way home and picked up two gallons of ice cream, chocolate, of course. Lois seemed remarkably calm, which Clark took as an encouraging sign.

That didn't mean he could keep his heart from beating wildly when they got back to Lois's apartment.

Once they were seated on the couch, Lois cleared her throat and spoke with the slight huskiness that hadn't gone away yet.

"I always thought there was something strange about you, Clark Kent."

For a moment they stared at each other, then Clark couldn't help it. He threw back his head and laughed. Of all the ways he'd thought she might respond to his display of powers, he hadn't expected that.

After a stunned second, Lois laughed too. It felt good, to laugh together. It seemed like their entire relationship had been too wrought with tension to really be able to relax together—except for their date. At the thought of what happened in this apartment afterwards, Clark colored and finally got control of his laughter. Lois, however, seemed to be going into hysterics.

"Lois, are you all right?"

But she wasn't. She shook her head, and Clark realized that she'd gone from laughing to crying. "Oh, sweetheart," he said, pulling her into his arms. She wrapped her arms around his waist and buried her face against him.

She sobbed quietly against his chest for a few minutes until she finally calmed. "I'm so sorry," she whispered.

"No, no." He pressed his forehead to Lois. "We've gone through a lot this week. And you've been in the middle of it for a lot longer."

She raised her face just enough to kiss him, once, longingly. She turned it down again as if she expected Clark not to respond. But he lifted her chin lightly with a finger and kissed her again.

Lois responded hungrily, and Clark couldn't help but give in to the same passion he could feel through her. He loved her so much, and tried to show it in every touch and emotion. Although he'd promised himself he'd forget about it, he couldn't help thinking back to her words just before the bomb went off.

She'd said, "I love you."

If they'd died, those would have been the last words she would have ever said. But was that all they were? He'd pushed them out of his mind at the moment because he knew she'd said them on impulse, because, for all they'd done on the bomb, they didn't know if it was going to go off. Did that mean she either hadn't felt them, or *had* felt them but only because of the intensity of those last moments together?

Or could she really have meant them? Now that they'd developed a real relationship together, the idea that she really had meant them didn't seem as far out as it originally had.

He pulled her into his lap and kissed her more deeply, with all the love he felt for her in his heart. Maybe she wasn't ready to be told about how he felt for her. But he could at least show it with everything he had.

But they still had more to discuss, and they reluctantly had to end the kiss.

Lois cuddled against him on the couch. "So," she began tentatively, "what—who—I mean, why can you do that stuff?"

"Would you believe me if I told you I was an alien?"


He grinned. "Guess I'll have to make up a lie, then."

"You are, then?" Lois looked, not disbelieving, but thoughtful.

"From a planet called Krypton. A planet that was dying. My father sent me away in a tiny spaceship, and I arrived safely on Earth."

"Lemme guess: in a cornfield?"

"You got that right." He stroked her hair gently. "I guess I have all of these powers because of the differences between Krypton and Earth. Krypton had a red sun, maybe that makes a difference."

"You know, I really did suspect… something. Remember at Pointe Noire, when you were hanging off that pier? It didn't seem possible for you to be doing that. And there were a few other times that I just had to wonder."

She paused. "When we were in the storeroom and you kissed me, and you later said that somebody was coming—were they?"

"They were looking for us."

She frowned. "I kissed you again because I thought you were making it up to get away with kissing me."

"I know."

She hit him playfully. "So what can you do?"

"I can see through things. I mentally call it my x-ray vision, but actually it's more like lifting away layers. If I look through a wall and see you, I see *you*, not your bone structure."

"So you could see through my clothes anytime?"

"Well… if I wanted to. I don't do stuff like that, though. It's an invasion of privacy."

She considered that. "Of course, I probably saw you without your shirt enough times to make up for it."

"Does that mean you want to even things out?"

Lois only answered with a mischievous grin. "Go on."

"I can hear things, even really quiet things, from really far away."

"You must get a lot of migraines. Or are you immune to those?"

"Unfortunately, not. And it was tough at first. But I've learned how to tune things out, how to listen, for the most part, to what humans would hear. Although my ears do tend to prick up at signs of trouble, even from far away."

"I bet it's hard to help without letting your secret out."

He nodded. "You know, I always wanted to be a reporter, even when I was a kid. But I actually think it's also a benefit to someone like me. I know what reporters look for, what they consider *news*, and I'm very careful to never leave any traces of it on the scenes where I help."

Lois threaded her fingers through his. Clark felt a soft warmth envelop his body at the contact.

"I have heat vision. That much you saw when I closed the vent. I can blow cold enough air to freeze something, and I can actually suck a poison out of the room."

"Wouldn't poison hurt you?" she asked, looking puzzled.

"Well, no, because I'm invulnerable. And can fly."

Lois sat up very quickly. "You can fly?"

Was flying going to be the one power too many? She didn't *look* revolted, but…

"Yes," he answered cautiously. "I can fly."

"Wow. Can… can you take other people flying?"

He widened his eyes. She wanted a ride? "Of course! Only, I have to fly at night, otherwise somebody might see me take off or while I'm in the air."

She frowned. "There oughta be a way around that."

"So… " He wasn't sure how to ask her the thing he most wanted to know—had things changed between them now? Did she feel differently about him? Was she going to keep it a secret?

Lois seemed to read his mind. "It's okay, Clark. I won't lie and say I didn't stay up all night in the hospital thinking about what I saw. But you're still *you*. The man—"

She stopped. She was staring at their linked hands as if she was contemplating things deeply. Then she took a breath and went on. "The man… I love."

"You… love?" Clark repeated, not sure he'd heard right. When Lois shyly nodded, he gave out a whoop.

He pulled her up from the couch and spun around the room with her, hovering above the floor. For a moment Lois looked shocked, then amazed, and finally delighted. "Clark!" she shrieked as he flipped her.

He laughed and calmed down. "Sorry. I was just… excited. If you can't tell, I love you too."

She leapt into his arms and kissed him. Their first kiss of acknowledged love. It was sweeter than anything Clark had ever experienced in his life, and even their other amazing kisses paled in comparison.

"Lois," he whispered against her mouth, "I love you. Like you, admire you, respect you, adore you, want you."

Her eyes darkened at his last words, and she kissed him deeply. Clark couldn't help but be amazed at the difference love made. He'd been attracted to Lois from the start, and even their first kisses had been utterly fantastic, leaps and bounds beyond what he'd ever experienced. But the new flavor that love gave to each and every touch was unbelievable.

Unbelievable… but he couldn't help but believe in her, in them, in their love. The past week they'd literally withstood trial by fire, and he was left with one conviction: he would love this woman for the rest of his life, and beyond.


Felix stared down at the chessboard. Only a few days ago, he and his father had been sitting here, playing a game of chess. His father had been called away just before they finished, but Felix had had him in check.

And now, his father was caught. Caught like a common criminal. The bail hearing would be in a few days and, until then, his father was actually being held in jail. It was humiliating.

Having a father who was a criminal mastermind, now *that* was something. Even if everybody knew he was a criminal but nobody could catch him—what an honor that was.

But to have a father who had taken a misstep and gotten caught…

"Hey, Felix," Maxine said cheerfully, poking her head into the room. "Whatcha up to? You aren't gonna finish that chess game without Dad, are you?"

"Lex," Felix said dully. "That's Lex to you, not Dad."

"Whatever." She walked over to the table and picked up a pawn. "How come you always play black?"

"Because I like it." He grabbed Maxine's arm to take back his pawn, but she just laughed at him and shook him off. She placed the piece back on the board, then walked over to the couch and flopped down.

"You know we're gonna get sent into foster care or something, right?"

"Yeah." He frowned at the white king. It was a stupid piece. He could almost imagine a face on the king, sneering at him. "They'll never manage to find Mother. If she even still exists. I wouldn't put it past Dad to lend some substance, even if just on paper, to that story about her dying in a boating accident."

"We'll be split up."

He fingered the white king thoughtfully. "Who cares?"

There was a long pause. Finally, Felix looked up. Maxine was staring at him, her look unreadable. It made him uncomfortable, and he was about to turn away when she spoke again. "I do," she whispered.

"Well, I sure don't. Who wants a sister anyway?"

"Especially one who can beat them up."

"You cannot beat me up!" he blurted out.

"Can so. Wanna try it?"

But, remembering the last time she'd beat him up, he figured maybe it wasn't the best idea. "No. I'm playing chess."

"Suit yourself," Maxine said, getting up and heading for the door. "Better not mess up the game, Lex will be angry when he comes back."

The door slammed shut.

Father wasn't going to be angry, because he wasn't coming back. Felix knew this with complete certainty. Mrs. Cox would blab her mouth off if she thought it would get her a lighter sentence—that was part of her personality. She was tough, but only on the outside. You just had to crack her.

His father wouldn't talk, but he wouldn't need to. They had enough evidence, both paper and eyewitness, to convict him. It might not be for long, but it wouldn't matter. His reputation would be ruined. They could go to another city and start over, but no city was the equivalent of Metropolis.

He stared at the chessboard. There was only move his father could make. He made it for him. Then he moved his own black king into position.

"Checkmate," Felix told the white king, smiling slightly.


Lois took Clark's hand as she stepped out of the taxi. It felt so good to have his arm around her shoulders as they walked through the revolving doors and into the Daily Planet building.

"Lois!" Jimmy called, running towards them from the direction of the elevators. "Have you heard?"

He gasped for breath, and Lois and Clark were forced to wait in suspense until he started again.

"Lex Luthor is dead!"

Clark's arm tightened around Lois's shoulders, and she was glad of the support. "Dead?"

Jimmy nodded. "The radio just announced it. Apparently there was some sort of explosion at the police station. He had been alone in the interrogation room while the cop went to fetch more coffee, and the room blew up."

"Are they certain he's dead?" Clark asked. "He could have staged an escape."

"They're assuming it's him, at the moment. They're comparing records as we speak. Perry wants you down at the police station ASAP."

They quickly changed course, acting together without words to get over to the station as soon as possible.

The press was already gathering on the lawn. The death of a man who for a short time had been famed as Metropolis's prodigal son was big news, and even more so because he'd died just after trying to commit murder. They worked in a team of sorts to get near the front, Lois pushing people out of her way left and right, Clark coming up from behind to offer the apologies.

"Ladies and gentlemen of the press," the police chief said, stepping towards the podium, "I'm sure you've all heard that we had a small explosion this morning. One interrogation room was destroyed. Only one person was killed in the explosion, the suspect currently being questioned in that room, as the officer had left momentarily. Lex Luthor is being presumed dead while we test the remains found for a more definite identification."

When he finished, the reporters all started calling out questions at once. The chief pointed at one of them.

"Luke Campbell, Metropolis Times. Do you have any current suspects?"

"We're working on determining motives and compiling a list of suspects as we speak."

Lois joined the next babble of questions, and as her voice was inarguably the loudest, the chief nodded to her.

"Lois Lane, Daily Planet. Can you tell us the source of the explosion?"

The chief nodded. "The explosion was caused by C-4. We can't release further details at this time, but I guarantee you that we are doing our utmost to investigate how this happened."

Clark tentatively put his hand up and Lois bumped into him, causing him to emit a squawk of surprise as he almost crashed into the person in front of him. The chief, whose attention was caught by the noise, pointed to Clark.

"Uh… Clark Kent, Daily Planet." He tried to resist the grin that threatened as he named his paper. "Could Lex Luthor himself be a suspect?"

The chief's eyes widened. He held a quick conference with another officer, then turned back to the crowd. "We cannot comment on that during the course of the investigation. We'll be able to give you further details in a later briefing."

He held up his hands as more questions were called out. "That's all I have time for today, folks. Thank you for your time."

As the crowd dispersed, Lois turned to Clark. "That was a really good question," she said with a grin.

He shoved her playfully. "Thanks for *pushing* me into his attention."

"You just looked like you could use a little nudge, rookie." She smiled and linked her arm through his. They walked in silence until they had grabbed a cab to take them back to the Daily Planet. But once they were seated, Lois brought up the question that had been in her mind since they'd heard the news.

"Do you think he's really dead?"

Clark sighed. "I don't know. We know he's capable of faking his own death, escaping, and starting over in a new city and under a new name, even if he can never return to his true name again. But I'm sure he also has plenty of enemies."

"So only the analysis of his remains will tell." Lois slumped back in her seat. "I can't *stand* not knowing what happened."

For some reason, Lois's mind suddenly went back to Lex's kids. What would happen to Felix and Max with their father gone? She assumed they'd be sent into foster care. Maybe they'd grow up to be normal kids away from their father's influence. Max, especially, didn't seem wholly bad.

The image of Felix holding a gun on her suddenly popped into her head. There was something about that boy…

Could Felix possibly have… no, that was ridiculous. There was only so much that a nine-year-old boy could do, even if he *was* the son of Lex Luthor. Besides, why would he want to kill his father? He'd have to be some sort of psychopath.


"Lane! Kent! Where are you two?"

Clark jumped. "Do you think he knows we're in here?" he asked Lois nervously. Maybe the supply room hadn't been the best place to hide after all.

Lois bit his earlobe and nuzzled his neck gently. "No. But I bet Jimmy does, and if Perry sends him after us it could get embarrassing. We'd better find out what he wants."

Clark sighed and kissed Lois one last time regretfully. "You'd think we deserved a break after that story. I know what *I* want to spend my break doing."

"This," Lois breathed in agreement. She held him close for another moment before letting him go. "But you're only as good as your next story, after all. Here, you have some lipstick on your cheek."

Clark tried to hide a grin as she wiped it off. "But I love the color," he said. She hit his arm.

"Do I look okay?" Lois asked.

"Well, a bit like you were making out in a supply closet, but it's not a bad look."


He gently smoothed down her hair. "You're fine."

She led the way out of the supply closet and closed the door reluctantly behind them. "They're having that press conference to announce the EPA's decision over whether to classify Metropolis's pollution levels as dangerously high. If they do…"

"They'll have to reconsider all their plans for expanding the highway system to reduce traffic, and that means a lot of rewriting for us."

"I have a feeling Perry is going to make us get started on the lead-in for the story. At least we can ask Jimmy to do the research."

The few reporters who had desks at an angle to see down the hall towards the supply room gave Lois and Clark amused grins as they emerged. A year ago, Lois might have given them "you wanna make something of it?" glares, but now she just smiled innocently back.

Perry was waiting impatiently in his office when they appeared.

He tossed a copy of the morning's Daily Planet on the table. "Good work, kids," he said, beaming broadly. "The other papers are already picking the story up, but we got it first, and everybody knows it. Every time I've passed the sales manager today, he's given me a huge grin."

Lois and Clark exchanged a delighted smile.

"I thought you might want to keep a copy of it," he said, handing one to each of them. "Since it's your first article under your joint byline."

Lois stared down at the paper. Sure enough, just below the headline, it said, "By Lois Lane and Clark Kent." So different from the byline she was used to. But seeing their names together felt good, somehow. She glanced up at Clark, only to find him watching her anxiously. Was he worried that she'd be unhappy to see the shared byline, even thought that was what they'd agreed on?

She smiled at him. After a moment, he smiled back, looking relieved.

"I've decided to assign the two of you as permanent partners," Perry went on.

Lois's head snapped up as she stared at him, but he went on without reacting.

"Now, I know you're going to protest, Lois, but I think this is a good idea. Your styles compliment each other perfectly. This story proves it."

"All right," Lois said. Clark took her hand and gave it a tight squeeze before releasing it.

"Don't say no before you've even thought about it. Think of the possibilities! Wait—what did you say?"

Lois grinned at him. "I said okay."

"Well—that's—that's—all right, then!"

Lois and Clark exchanged a smile.

"Anyway." Perry was back to business. "I want you on the EPA story. If they reclassify Metropolis, it's gonna make it impossible for the mayor to fulfill his candidacy promises about the new superhighway."

Lois gave Clark a knowing look.

"All right, I want an outline on my desk in an hour."

As they left the room, both spoke up at once.

Clark said, "You take the EPA, I'll take the highway administration," just as Lois said, "I'll take the EPA, you take the highway administration." They stared at each other for a moment, then laughed.

Clark waited for Lois as she stopped by her desk to print out some information that she wanted to bring with her.

"Hey, CK," Jimmy said as he walked by the desk, "You got a calculator on that computer?"

"Sure," Lois answered. "What do you need?"

"119 times 42."

"4998," Clark replied immediately.

"Thanks, CK," Jimmy said, hurrying on.

Lois stopped to stare. "How did you do that?" she asked. Lowering her voice, she added, "Is that another one of your powers? Super-math or something?"

He chuckled. "No. More of a display of super-willpower."

She stared at him for a moment, uncomprehending. Then a flush colored her face as she remembered the other night. "Oh."

"Ready?" he asked, grabbing the printout. "We can share a cab."

She slipped her arm into his as they hurried towards the elevators.

The moment they got into the cab, however, her cell phone started ringing.

"Lois, it's Jimmy. Something's happening at Lex Towers. Chief wants you there right away. It might be nothing, but it's on your way to the EPA building anyway."

Lois shrugged at Clark and gave the new directions to the cabbie. The taxi pulled up in front of Lex Towers, scattering reporters helter-skelter in its wake. Lois and Clark jumped out and the cab zoomed off.

"What's going on?" Lois asked a nearby reporter.

"Turns out Lex Luthor has kids," the woman replied, giving Clark a warm up-and-down glance. "Everybody wants a glimpse of them." Her eyes were still on Clark as she spoke.

Clark put an arm around Lois's waist. "We've seen them, actually. Are they going into foster care with Luthor gone?"

The woman nodded. "Separate homes, poor things. But Lex Luthor had no relatives the police could track down, and even then they might not like to take in the kids of a criminal."

A roar from the front of the crowd told the reporters that the children were emerging.

Both kids were neatly dressed and looked very… well, innocent was the word Lois would have used. That is, if she hadn't seen Felix with a gun pointed at her.

Max's hair was neatly brushed and braided and she wore a jumper that made her look like a sweet little girl. Felix had gotten a haircut. In his little shirt and tie, he looked adorable. Somebody had certainly intended them to look presentable. Or had they chosen their clothes themselves?

She wouldn't put it past them. They were Lex Luthor's kids. They certainly knew how to manipulate the crowd. Heads down, expressions sad, they pulled at the heartstrings of the watching crowd.

Several men and women were escorting the children out and protecting them from the crowd. Child Protection Services, Lois assumed. One woman held both children's hands as she led them towards two black government cars. When they reached the cars, the woman said something to them and let their hands go.

They both climbed into the backseat of one of the cars, and the woman got in the passenger side. The other CPS employees got into the other car, and the driver started the car.

Lois was still watching when Max suddenly turned around in the car and looked straight back at Lois. The girl's expression could only be described as wistful, and Lois had a feeling that, for once, it wasn't meant to manipulate.


Clark set a pot of tea simmering on the stove and was about to open the fridge when he heard a scuffling at his door.

Before it even occurred to him to use his x-ray vision to find out what was going on, his front door popped open and Lois appeared.

"Hey," she said cheerfully, stowing her lock-picking materials in her bag and flopping down on his couch. "You know, you really oughta get a deadbolt. Those regular locks are just too easy to pick."

"I've noticed," he said wryly. "Would you like a cup of tea?"

"I'd love one." She smiled brightly at him.

"So what brings you over here at this time of the night?"

"Well," she started, "I was thinking… you try to help people with your powers a lot, don't you?"

He nodded slowly, wondering where this was going. "Whenever I can."

"And every time you do, you risk a lot. All it takes is one person getting a good look at you, or maybe a photograph, and your secret is exposed, and you have to move on."

He nodded ruefully. "That's happened countless times. Fortunately I was using aliases, so I *could* just move on with no repercussions."

"But now… well, I'd guess you don't want to keep having to move on." She kissed him lightly and grinned. "So, I think we need to come up with some sort of a disguise."

"A disguise?" He was doubtful. "I did try that before, you know. Added a mustache and goatee, wore dark, concealing clothing. It didn't help. People still realized something unusual had happened, and they figured the perpetrator was wearing a disguise, so they started asking a lot of questions."

Lois looked deflated. "Oh."

"Here's your tea," he said, handing her a cup.

She held the cup in her hand for a moment, staring down into the steaming liquid as if the tea leaves could give her an idea.

"I've got it!"

Maybe they could.

"What?" he asked cautiously.

"Where's the best place to hide something you don't want people to notice?"

He shrugged. "Uh… in the freezer."

She blinked. "No! In plain sight!"

"So… I help people, tell them my name is Clark Kent and I live at 344 Clinton Street, and they don't notice?"

She hit his arm. "What I was thinking was a costume that everybody *notices*. Notices to the point where they think that's you, and they don't look any further as to your real identity."

The thought had merit. If he had a name and a bright costume, people might think that was who he was. A strange alien from another planet who came to help. They'd never associate a flashy superhero with plain old Clark Kent, Daily Planet reporter.

"I bet my mom could make a costume like that."


Martha and Jonathan Kent, while shocked to find their son suddenly fly onto their porch with a woman in his arms, were as pleased to meet Lois as she was to meet them. Here were parents like Lois had always dreamed of having. Kind, loving, eager to see their son, willing to drop their evening plans to help him and meet his unexpected guest.

Within an hour, Lois was sitting on a cushion in the family room, just outside Martha's sewing room, drinking a glass of buttermilk while waiting for Clark to finish putting on the latest costume attempt.

He finally emerged, wearing a pair of skintight green Spandex leggings, and nothing else.

"I can't even begin to put on the top," he explained with a sigh. "And I don't think green is my color. What about blue, maybe?"

Martha took a deep breath and pulled out an armful of blue Spandex from the pile she'd run out to the store for. They still had a whole page of sketched costume ideas to go through, even though they'd already been at it for hours.

Lois stood and went over to Clark, who was trying to make sense of the complicated top half of the costume.

"Here, let me," she said, smiling. But even she couldn't get it around him. The green material stretched less than the other varieties, and it didn't give enough to allow for his muscular figure.

Lois shrugged and tossed the shirt back onto the pile of rejected costumes. She wrapped her arms around Clark's waist and rested her head against his shoulder. His bare chest felt so good, warm and smooth. "Why does it seem like I'm always catching you without your shirt?" she asked him. "Not that I'm complaining…"

He chuckled. "Merely coincidence."

"Oh? Not a subconscious desire to show off your… assets?"

"If it was subconscious, I'd hardly know it, would I?"

"Point." She glanced back to make sure that Martha was still occupied, then mischievously planted a kiss on his chest.

The next costume, when Martha finished it, left no doubt in any of their minds. It was the one. It felt so right to all of them that Martha was reminded of a cloth symbol she'd found in the spaceship where she'd found Clark. A stylized 'S,' it suited the blue Spandex costume perfectly.

Even Martha seemed to forget her exhaustion when she looked at Clark in the costume, standing a little straighter and taller, his eyes shining. "Oh, honey," she said softly. "I think this was what you were meant to do with your powers from the very start."

Clark pulled Lois close. "I'm only glad that I found somebody to remind me of that."

Martha smiled at both of them. "I'm glad you both found each other." She yawned, though, and Lois and Clark both realized that it was time to be going.

They thanked both her and Jonathan, who had been watching a football game on TV and looked about to keel over when he saw what Clark would be doing his future rescues in.

Only his first costumed rescue would tell how Metropolis would receive their new superhero. But Lois had a feeling that, while there might be a few skeptics, most of the city would be glad to have a protector. And Clark would no longer have to hide.


Lois was finally on her way home after turning in her exclusive first interview with Superman, the hero who had just saved a Boeing 747 from catastrophe. He was hot news in Metropolis, and the Daily Planet would be the first paper to get an interview with him. It was a good interview, too. She'd gotten a lot of good quotes, and, although it went against her journalist morals (not that she had many) to twist the news to her point of view, she did her best to show his quotes in an appropriate light so that he came across as a good man and a hero.

There was one stop she needed to make on her way home, though. Ever since she'd seen Max looking back at her through that car window, she'd felt she needed to know what happened to the girl. Not that there was much she could do if her situation wasn't good, but she still had to know.

She'd gotten the address from the Planet's database. The address was on her way home, so she wouldn't be late to dinner with Clark.

Somehow Lois had expected a fairly rich neighborhood. Max had, after all, been the daughter of a billionaire. But the address was in a quiet middle-class neighborhood. The houses were tasteful older-style buildings, and the trees that lined the median and the lawns were old and graceful. It was… the kind of place where Lois had always wished she'd grown up.

She jogged up the brick steps leading to 473 Lackawanna Drive. She glanced down one last time at the directions to make sure she was at the right place and then rapped on the door.

The door opened slowly. A young boy peered out, looking curiously up at Lois.

"Uh… hi," she said uncertainly. "Is your… does Max live here?"

"Jason!" a woman's voice called from behind him. "I asked you not to open the door without me!" She hurried over to him and picked him up. "Remember our talk about strangers?" She turned to smile at Lois. "Can I help you?"

"I'm Lois Lane," she said.

The woman's cheerful smile immediately turned into a frown, and Lois hurried to go on before she got a door slammed in her face. "Please, I'm not looking for an interview or anything. I know Max has been through a lot. But… I met her back in the Congo, and I just wanted to make sure she was… well, was okay." She hoped the last sentence didn't sound like she was insulting Max's foster family.

The woman's face softened. "Of course. Max is outside." Still carrying the little boy, she led Lois through the house to the back door.

The house seemed warm and cozy. It was small, but not uncomfortably so, and while it seemed clean, it didn't look like the sort of place that was kept so neat you weren't allowed to play.

Lois stepped out into the backyard. Max, dressed in denim overalls and a bright pink shirt, was rolling her eyes at a boy about her age. He seemed to be trying to explain something by drawing in the oversized sandbox with a stick.

"Lois!" Max exclaimed when she saw who her visitor was. She stood up quickly and brushed off her overalls self- consciously. "What are you doing here?"

"I just came by to see how you are," Lois said, smiling. Everything she saw of Max's situation made her concern abate. Max's foster mother seemed nice, and her brothers, if that's what they were, seemed happy and cared-for.

The foster mother had motioned for the boy to join her in the house, leaving Lois and Max alone.

"So… are you doing all right?" Lois asked awkwardly.

Max nodded. "Dunno why you care," she said, some of her old sullenness coming back. "But this is okay. And the 'rents are talking about adopting me."

"Really? They told you that?" Lois was surprised that they'd mention it to Max before they were decided.

Max grinned and sat down on a rubber swing. She pushed herself back and forth a few times. "They didn't exactly *tell* me… I just heard them talking."

Lois smiled. She supposed old habits died hard. Besides, were she in Max's position, she'd probably have done some eavesdropping of her own. She took the swing next to Max and pushed off. "But it isn't definite yet."

Max shrugged. "No… but, even if they decide against it, it's…" She trailed off. "Well, I mean, I guess it's nice to know that they considered it, you know?"

It made sense to Lois. She nodded. "Do you want them to, then?"

"Yeah. I mean, who doesn't want a real family? And they're pretty cool. Adam's just a year older than me, and he and I are good friends. And Jason's kinda cute."

"Have you heard anything about Felix?"

Max stood up quickly. "No. I think it's time for me to set the table for dinner."

Lois took the hint. "It was nice seeing you, Max. I hope… I hope you're happy."

Max grinned at her, the same old familiar grin that Lois had seen when she was tied in a cellar, except without the malice it had once held. "Same to you."

It occurred to Lois as she drove home that Felix's records would probably be in the Daily Planet's database as well. Would Felix have gotten such a lucky break? Even if he had, though, Lois didn't think he deserved it. She had a feeling he was going to turn out to be rotten no matter where he ended up. All she could hope was that his situation didn't make him turn out any worse.


Felix took careful aim at the first target and released a volley of bullets. Most of them hit the chest or head, but before he could stop to tally them, the light blinked on that indicated somebody entering the room.

He removed his goggles and earplugs and turned around. It was his adoptive father.

"Nice shooting," Bill Church said admiringly. "Of course, I wouldn't have expected less from Lex Luthor's son."

Felix beamed. His father might have died in disgrace, but during his life he had been a legend, and his name would still be spoken of in certain circles as one of the greatest men of all time. One day, his capture and death would be almost forgotten in comparison to the stories of his deeds during his lifetime.

"Are you ready for me?" Felix asked, unloading and cleaning the gun as he spoke.

"Whenever you're ready," Bill said.

Felix finished and put the gun away, then followed his new father through the shooting range doors and down the hallway to the meeting room Bill Church most preferred.

The heads of all of the major rings of criminal activity were seated around the table. Even before he was introduced, Felix recognized most of them from watching videoconferences his father had held from Brazzaville.

Bill kept his hand on Felix's shoulder as he led him to a seat at the table. "I'd like to introduce all of you to someone."

The men looked about to laugh until Bill went on. "This is Felix Luthor… Lex Luthor's son and heir."

At that, Mario Patutti, the head of prostitution in the city, took his legs off the table and sat up, staring at Felix. Felix returned the steady stare, letting his lips curve ever-so-slowly into a smile.

"So he is," Mario said on a slow breath. "Well, well. Welcome to Metropolis, boy. If you're anything like your father, we'll be glad to have you in Intergang."

"Oh, I can assure you," Felix said solemnly, "I take after my father in most ways. Except, of course, I don't get caught." He couldn't help adding to himself, "And I can think more than a few moves ahead," but he didn't say that aloud to a roomful of men who obviously respected his father very highly.

"In that case," Mario said, standing up, "Welcome to Intergang."

The other men around the table stood to shake Felix's hand. He grinned to himself. He might have only just turned ten years old, but once he reached adulthood—watch out, Metropolis!


"Hey, Lucy," Lois said, tucking the phone under her chin and heading for the kitchen. Talks with Lucy usually required a stiff drink.

But this time, Lucy didn't seem interested in talking about her newest boyfriend, whether she should get a tattoo on her bottom, or about how waitressing really was a decent career.

"I've been hearing… rumors," Lucy confessed. "Nothing concrete, but I thought I'd give you a call."

"Oh, you mean the fact that I have a partner now?" Lois said innocently, taking a piece of fudge and a stalk of celery from the fridge and eyeing them, undecided.

Lucy burst out laughing. "So it's true? Perry assigned you a partner? Don't tell me: I'm invited to the pre-wake party?"

"Actually… he's not so bad. We worked together on a major story in the Congo."

There was a long pause. "O-kay," Lucy said finally. "So I take it you haven't scared him away yet. He must be pretty determined. What's he like?"

"Well… at first I thought he was a half sweet, half really scary individual."

Lucy laughed again. "He sounds like the perfect match for you."

Lois made a face at the phone. "Laugh all you want, but I was a little worried about him at first."

"Why's that?"

"He seems to have this shirt fetish. Or, the opposite of one, I guess. Every time I ran into him, he was without one."

"Is he good-looking?" Lucy sounded fascinated.

Lois glanced at Clark, who had just stepped into her apartment. "Yeah, I guess so." She winked at him.

"I bet you're just freaked out because you're head over heels in love with him, and he won't give you the time of day. Am I right?"

Lois stifled a giggle as Clark wrapped his arms around her from behind and nuzzled her neck. "Yeah, you've got me there, Lucy." She gasped as Clark kissed her ear softly, his warm breath sending little shots of ecstasy down her spine. "I'm definitely lusting for him."

"Is somebody there with you?" Lucy asked suspiciously.

Clark took the receiver from Lois's limp hand. "Do you mind if I borrow your sister for a while?" Clark asked.

"Oh, HEL-lo!" Lucy said in a singsong manner. "No, borrow away! Bye Lois!"

Lois gasped out a weak answer as Clark hung up the phone for her, then took her into his arms.

"I missed you today," Lois whispered. "But Jimmy got some good pictures of your first rescue and the quotes we got from the press conference should be on the first page. Don't suppose you'd consider giving the Daily Planet an exclusive interview?"

Clark grinned and kissed her deeply. "For you, anything."

She kissed him back, and for several minutes they were lost in each other's arms. There was still so much to explore, so much to learn about each other. Their relationship grew deeper with each kiss, touch, or word of devotion, as they learned how best to please each other.

Afterwards, they cuddled on the sofa, talking quietly about their love. "Do you know when I think I realized exactly what I felt for you?" Lois asked him. "It was when I was locked in that cellar. I thought I was going to die down there, and I couldn't stop thinking about you. I realized that you meant more to me than anyone in my entire life. And when I heard your voice in the cellar, calling me… I don't know if it was love then, but it was something."

"When I called you?" he asked, brushing a tendril of hair out of Lois's face.

"You called my name. You told me there was another way out, but then…the door was locked, and I couldn't hear you anymore. I never did understand where you went. And then you had to leap back *through* the fire towards me. Did I go out the wrong door? Or did the door lock behind you?"

Clark stared at her, looking puzzled. "I didn't rescue you from a cellar. I saw you running through the halls, and chased after you. I jumped through the flames so I wouldn't get my clothing on fire—I've found that only skintight clothing seems to survive fire and scratches when I do a rescue. But then I saw you. You weren't in a cellar."

She bit her lip. "But…I heard you. Are you telling me I got out of that cellar by myself?"

"Are you telling *me* that I didn't chase after you?"

Their eyes locked.

"You know," Lois said softly, "when I was growing up, there was this boy. I used to see him sometimes when I felt lonely or afraid, or needed somebody to talk to. It wasn't until I was an adult and I started to see him less that I realized that it was one guy I kept seeing."

Clark nodded. "It's the same with me. I would see this girl… well, woman, most recently. She would always know the right thing to say."

"You know, you remind me of him. I guess he was just a dream, my imagination supplying the friend I wanted and needed. But he did seem real at the time."

"The same way the voice calling you in the cellar seemed real?"

"Like you're one to talk. You were chasing some dream down the hallways."

"Then you do think that somehow our dreams led us to safety, and to each other?"

Lois laughed nervously. "This is ridiculous. What's it supposed to mean, that I've been dreaming of you my entire life?"

"Is that such a bad thought?" he asked, taking her hand.

"It just speaks of fate. Pre-destination. Soul—" She broke off. "Anyway, it's a scary idea."

"Then don't think of it that way," Clark suggested. "Just think of it as… a strange dream. Or maybe two lonely people reaching out for each other."

"And what would you do if I told you I was lonely now?" Lois asked mischievously. She kissed Clark's chin.

"Is that a hint?" he asked, grinning. He pulled her onto his lap and lowered his lips to hers. She sighed against his mouth. Every touch they shared simply made Lois want more. She couldn't remember ever having been so happy in her entire life.

"I was thinking…" Lois started nervously. "Maybe… maybe you could stay here tonight."

Clark pulled back to meet her eyes, looking surprised, but delighted. "Lois… are you sure?"

She nodded and pressed her forehead against his. "I've never been so sure of anything in my life." They stayed that way for a moment, their faces so close that every breath intermingled. "But first, I think you should take me out to dinner."

Clark laughed. "Well, now that I can safely fly with you, we can go anywhere."

"Let's go to San Francisco," Lois suggested. "I've always wanted to eat in sight of the Golden Gate Bridge."

It felt good, to realize she had the rest of her life to share with this man. And the rest of her life it would be. They might not be talking about marriage yet, but she knew as well as he did that it would only be time. Her love was forever, and she knew, without a doubt, that his was, too.