By Pam Jernigan <email@example.com>
Submitted: December 2003
Summary: Sparks fly as Lois and Clark begin their new relationship, but a nice quiet trip to Smallville turns out to pose quite unexpected challenges. The third story (following "I is for Illusions") in the author's "Alphabet Series."
This is the third story in a series. The first story (H is for Hubris) branched out from canon at the end of Strange Visitor. The second story (I is for Illusions) picked up the action approximately a month later, in a rewrite of I've Got a Crush on You. This story begins a few hours later and will completely ignore the episode Smart Kids. ;-)
Thanks to my incredible essential brilliant beta readers Kathy Brown and Claire Hess, as well as to everyone who kept asking me about "J" and the letters beyond that. Honorable mention to Jocelyn Brant, who tried valiantly to keep up but was defeated by my erratic writing spurts and my habit of saying "no, wait, ignore everything I sent you two days ago, I've rewritten everything." And thanks to Erin Klingler for agreeing to some last-minute GE-ing.
The reason this "alphabet series" didn't start at A was because when I started, I had no intentions of making it a running theme! I'm still not quite sure how that happened, actually…
Clark rocketed across the sky, flying twists and barrel rolls that probably had air-traffic controllers all up and down the East Coast scratching their heads. He was careful to avoid mid-air collisions, but all other considerations were drowned out by an internal refrain: He was going on a date! With Lois! Tonight!
Eventually, he calmed down enough to begin thinking about practicalities. Lois wanted him to take her to dinner, so that was what he would do. And now that she knew about Superman, he could take her anywhere in the world.
Superman. That thought slowed him down a trifle. Lois wasn't reacting the way he would have expected. Of course, she never did. She'd been incredibly affectionate last night, once she'd admitted her attraction to him, and he'd been happy to reciprocate. If it hadn't been for Toni Taylor, they might even have ended up going to his place for the night. But then she'd discovered he was Superman — and since then, she'd backed off somewhat.
He supposed he couldn't blame her for that, since Superman had usually done his best to discourage her from getting too comfortable in his presence. He just had to assume — hope — that she'd stick around long enough to realize that underneath it all, he was really just Clark.
Up until a few days ago, he'd thought that while she would jump at the chance for a relationship with Superman, she'd drop him like a rock once she realized that she'd be spending most of her time with Clark. It would be the ultimate irony if she decided to go for a relationship with Clark, only to be put off by Superman.
He was thinking about himself in the third person again. He tried to get a grip on reality. It had been less than a day since Lois had put one and one together to make… one. It would be astonishing if she didn't need any time to adjust. He could wait. Sooner or later, she'd see that Superman wasn't real.
The really difficult part would be restraining himself around her. Making love a month ago had been so incredible. He'd dreamed about it many times, and fantasized about repeat encounters… but at the same time, this whole relationship was so new, so fragile. He was determined not to ruin things this time around. Given the way she'd panicked before, it seemed wise to take things slow, and follow her lead. Her trust was a precious gift. He couldn't bear the thought of spoiling it.
Of course, this wasn't just a date. It was the beginning, he hoped, of a great future. He couldn't wait to tell his parents all about it. As soon as he calmed down enough to get his feet back on the ground, he'd give them a call.
On second thought, though, he wasn't quite sure what to say. He hadn't told them about spending the night with her. He'd told himself it was because gentlemen never kiss and tell. He had to admit, though, that part of it was that he was ashamed of how he'd acted. Not just the unintentional one-night stand, though he sure wasn't proud of that, but also because he didn't want them to know how careless he'd been. His dad would do the frog speech again.
No, as far as they knew, Lois was just another work colleague. They didn't really need to know anything more, until there was a "more" for them to know.
He smiled, imagining what might happen when he introduced them to Lois. His mom would love her on sight, he was sure. And if cliches were any guide to the world, they'd probably both embarrass him by looking at his baby pictures. Dad might be a little more reserved — and there was no doubt he'd be worried about Lois knowing about Superman — but he'd warm up to her soon enough.
Lois and Smallville, on the other hand, might not be love at first sight. Lois thought big cities were the only worthwhile places to be; she was snobbish even about suburbs. Rural towns would rate very low in her estimation. He'd like to take her to the corn festival next week, but he wasn't sure if that would make Smallville look better to her, or worse. Maybe that could wait a year or so.
It occurred to him that he was planning a little far ahead, considering, as she put it, he'd never even bought the woman dinner. One step at a time. It had worked so far.
So, in the meantime — where should he take her to dinner? He had too many options. Even if he ruled out Europe and Asia due to time differences, that still left thousands of great places in North America. He knew a great southwestern restaurant in Albuquerque… or they could go for Chinese food in the China towns of either San Francisco or Toronto… and, sooner or later, they could even get some good old fashioned home cooking in Smallville.
He was really looking forward to showing her the world.
Lois carefully brushed her hair smooth and gave her outfit another once-over. The simple black dress was classically styled, and she was pretty sure she looked great. A little black dress worked almost anywhere, right?
Her stomach fluttered and her hands shook slightly with a mixture of terror and joy. She was going on a date! With Clark! Tonight! Was she insane??
She took a deep breath, willing her heart rate to slow. She had already thought this through. Clark was nothing like the jerks she'd dated before. She didn't even have to take it on faith; he'd proved it in the last month.
So that wasn't a problem. Clark would be a great boyfriend. Assuming she didn't scare him off… But then, if he hadn't been scared off by now, following a month of rough treatment, she was probably safe for at least a little while. Until he got a chance to see if reality matched up to his hopes, anyway.
Lois shook her head to clear it. She needed to keep a sense of perspective here. They were only going out to dinner, not getting married. There was nothing to be afraid of here. She could handle dinner.
And, she reminded herself, she'd never been happier than this morning. They'd just sat together, talking about various inconsequential things — in between kisses. That memory calmed her down, as her lips curled up in an involuntary smile. Clark wasn't just jaw-droppingly handsome, he also had a great sense of humor and a wide range of interests. Talking to him had been a lot of fun. In fact, she couldn't think of anyone she'd rather be with on the face of this earth.
Not even Superman. He was very awe- and crush-inspiring, but not much of a conversationalist. Then again, she realized, he didn't need to be. Those around Superman were usually too star-struck to say much. She'd dreamed about breaking through that reserve of his, getting to know the *real* man underneath… which had happened, kind of. She hadn't had any luck with a frontal assault, she thought whimsically, but then she'd found a secret entrance, around the back.
With one last little spritz of hairspray, she walked out of the bathroom. What a difference a few days could make! Two days ago, she hadn't even wanted Clark's help at the Metro Club. "But you had such persistence…" she sang softly, thinking again how well some of those song lyrics fit them. "You wore down my resistance…"
The doorbell rang and she jumped. With one last deep breath, she went to unlock her door and let him in.
He slipped inside the apartment but stayed near the door, nonchalantly propping up her wall. The sight of him calmed her fears somewhat. He'd worn a dark suit tonight, one she hadn't seen before, with an almost-tasteful tie. "Hi."
He smiled, and her stomach flutters intensified at the sight. "Hi, yourself. Lois, you look…" His eyes wandered briefly, and Lois couldn't help but be pleased at the look of appreciation on his face. "…you look fantastic."
"Thanks. So do you," she replied, feeling almost shy. "Black is definitely your color." She looked away, fussing with her evening bag. She was intensely aware of him, her fingers itching to touch his arm, his hair, his skin… The depth of that wanting left her shaken — and a little scared. This was too much like that night a month ago. She told herself sternly to focus; this date was about dinner in a nice public place, nothing more. The only thing on the menu tonight was food. "So, where are you taking me?"
"Just a little place I know. Are you ready?" His eyes were beginning to wander again, and were acquiring a heated look.
On the other hand, they could always get takeout… "Oh, yeah," she said huskily, "I'm ready." She cleared her throat, blushing. "Ready to go, I mean," she clarified hastily. "Out for dinner," she added, cringing inside at what an idiot she was making of herself.
"Out for dinner, right," Clark echoed her, taking a deep breath. "I knew that. We'd better get going, then." He smiled wryly. "While we still can."
Lois returned the smile, feeling the over-heated atmosphere relax. "Yeah, we should." She reached for her wrap. They could always get takeout next time. The very idea of a next time, followed by others after that, warmed her heart and slowed her pulse rate. They didn't have to rush anything. She was smiling as she let them out of the apartment and fastened all her locks.
"… and she was *so* furious at me for getting into a fight." Clark shook his head, wondering how on earth Lois had persuaded him to share this story. He distinctly remembered planning to be suave.
Lois was clearly delighted about this new view of him. "Clark Kent, juvenile delinquent. I would never have guessed!"
Clark grinned at her, but was distracted from replying by the waiter bringing them their main courses.
"You were doing the right thing, though," Lois continued, taking an experimental taste of her entree. Her eyes widened and a smile grew as she chewed and swallowed. "This is fantastic! You know, sometimes, when restaurants say their dishes are 'low-fat' they just make them taste so awful that no one wants to eat more than a few bites… but this is wonderful."
"I was hoping you'd think so. I mean, I've heard they were good." Clark cut himself off before he could add the detail that he'd heard it from his mother; he didn't think that would add to the suave image.
Lois nodded around another bite, then reached for her wine glass. After a sip, she said, "Anyway, bullies won't stop until someone stops them."
It took Clark a moment to realize she'd jumped back a topic. "Well, after we left the principal's office, Mom wanted to hear my side of the story." Clark shrugged. "And at the end of it, she said I'd done a good thing *but* I was to make darned sure that things never got to that point again — that I needed to find other ways to handle problems."
Lois laughed. "I think I like your mom." A familiar wide- eyed look crept across her face. Glancing around the busy restaurant, she leaned forward to ask, "But what about that whole 'bending steel with your bare hands' thing?"
"Lois, I was only ten at the time. At that point, I'm not sure I could have bent a spoon." That was a slight exaggeration, but if it made Superman less awe-inspiring, Clark was all for it. "Anyway, I'll have to take you to meet my folks sometime."
Lois frowned. "Clark, aren't they in Kans— oh!" Comprehension lit her face, and her eyes widened. Only this time, it wasn't unconditional admiration. "Well, maybe sometime. This would be a little early."
"Well, okay, so we've only been dating for—" he checked his watch, grinning at her. "Nine or ten hours now."
"Yeah, better wait to see if this works out," Lois suggested, with a hint of cynicism.
"Lo-is," he said gently. He hesitated, not knowing how much he should say. "This is going to work out. Just give me a chance, okay?"
"Oh, Clark, it's not about you," she replied, playing with her napkin. She glanced up at him, and seemed to be gathering her courage. "I just—
She was interrupted by the arrival of the waiter, offering more wine and taking away their empty dishes.
"So, Clark," Lois said in a determinedly cheerful tone. "Why don't you tell me more about your mis-spent youth?"
Clark hesitated. He'd rather hear more about Lois's fears, but the moment was clearly gone and he didn't want to push. "Really, it was just that one thing. Other than that, I had a very boring childhood."
"Oh, yeah, I'll bet. Tell me another one, Kent."
"No, really!" Clark protested, enjoying the way she teased him. "But what about you? You must have had some excitement going on somewhere."
"Well… mostly of the unpleasant kind," she said, her lips twisting wryly. "I have dealt with bullies once, though. Heh. I'd almost forgotten that was what started the whole thing."
Clark paused in the act of sipping his wine. "Started what thing?"
"Martial arts. See, my folks divorced when I was twelve, so mom and Lucy and I moved after that, and for a few years, we were in a pretty seedy neighborhood." Her voice was steady, but her eyes were lowered.
"That must have been rough," he offered tentatively.
"Mostly, it was okay. I still keep contact with some of those people. But there was this one creep who decided it'd be fun to make Lucy's life miserable. I tried everything I could to protect her, but…" She shrugged. "It didn't work so well. About that time, the local gym was offering karate classes… so I signed up." She met his eyes now, as a tiny smile played around her mouth. "It took a while, but eventually I, ah, convinced him that we weren't very good targets."
"I can imagine." He tried to look properly impressed, but couldn't help feeling a spasm of retroactive fear, that she could have been hurt or killed so long ago.
"Anyway, by then I'd really gotten interested in the philosophy behind the martial arts, and I've kept up with it." Her expression turned something close to smug. "I've nearly got my brown belt in Tae Kwan Do."
Clark grinned. "Somehow this does not surprise me, Lois."
She smiled back, then sat up, with a startled look. "Hey, I just thought of something! Considering your, um, method of transportation, we could have gone *anywhere* for dinner. Why are we still in Metropolis?"
"Well, it is one of the best restaurants in town," Clark defended himself. "I thought about it, Lois, but I couldn't decide where I wanted to go, let alone where you might like to go, so I figured I'd better keep it simple. For now."
Lois pretended to think about that. "Okay, I'll forgive you this time. But next time, I want to pick."
Clark's heart skipped at this casual mention of their next date. "Anything for you, Lois," he told her lightly. Anything in the world, he wanted to add, but he didn't want to scare her by sounding too intense. Still, it was true, and he repeated softly, "Anything for you."
Their plates were nearly empty when Clark stopped mid- sentence, his head coming up and his gaze going vague as he listened to something beyond her hearing. He pushed his chair back from the table, then paused, his attention returning to Lois.
"Uh, Lois… there's been a wreck," he explained in a low, intense tone. "It sounds like some kids are trapped…"
Lois blinked. She'd recognized the far-away look he got before running off, but somehow she hadn't expected an explanation.
Clark got to his feet, but didn't leave the table, still watching her anxiously. "I'll be right back, I promise."
"It's okay," she told him, in mild wonder. On one hand, it was gratifying that he worried about her reaction… but on the other hand, did he really expect her to be so mean- spirited as to object? She rolled her eyes. "What, do I have to shove you out the door myself? Go!"
Clark's expression lightened. "Be back in a flash," he murmured, then started walking swiftly toward the door.
She watched him leave, a smile playing around her lips. It was still hard to get her mind wrapped around the concept that Clark — her good-natured, slightly naive, fresh-from- the-country reporting partner — was a part-time superhero.
It was only a few minutes before Clark returned, straightening his tie and slipping back into his seat. "I'm sorry about that. I really hadn't wanted any interruptions tonight."
Lois shrugged, taking another sip of her after dinner coffee. "It's fine, Clark, really." Doubt still lingered on his face, and she reached out to touch his hand. "Don't you know how much I *love* watching you do your hero thing?"
Clark grinned as he picked up his fork again. "Oh, well, that's good to know."
The waiter stopped at their table again, asking rather pointedly if they wanted any more coffee. Clark glanced at his watch and was astounded to realize they'd been here for over three hours. "Ah… not me. Lois?"
She shook her head. "Let's just get out of here."
Clark handed the waiter his credit card and winked at Lois. "There. Now you can't say I've never bought you dinner."
Lois and Clark exited the restaurant in silence. He hoped she really hadn't minded about him being called away. He'd hated to go — he'd planned to ignore anything but the direst of emergencies — but he couldn't have ignored the cries of the trapped children.
The noises of the restaurant faded as they walked to the sidewalk, then stopped. Clark scanned the street for empty taxis. "So…"
Lois flashed a smile that vanished again almost immediately. "So. Um… is this where we say goodnight?"
Clark tried to read her expression by the streetlights, but couldn't tell what answer she wanted. "Well, I suppose it could be." Was that a look of disappointment? Emboldened, he said, "Or I could escort you home."
He could see the emotions flit across her face as she debated the pros and cons.
"When I'm escorting a lady, I like to give her door-to-door service." He grinned. "Just don't ask me in for coffee, or to see your etchings, or anything like that. This is only a first date, you know, and I'm not that kinda guy."
As he'd hoped, she laughed, and the tension abruptly disappeared. "Get us a taxi, Clark."
"Yes, ma'am," he murmured. He spotted several taxis approaching, and raised an arm to try to attract one. The first cab cruised smoothly past them. Clark nearly jumped out of his skin when Lois emitted an ear-piercing whistle. The second cab swerved over to the curb. He helped her into the backseat. "My hearing may never recover," he muttered, settling himself next to her.
She shifted over slightly to press lightly against him. "Sorry." She chuckled softly. "But you have to know how to handle Metro cabbies. It's a knack."
"I defer to your expertise."
"So you should." She slanted him a speculative glance. "I'll bet you don't bother much with taxis, when you're on your own."
"Well, now that you mention it… no." He hadn't offered to fly them tonight because he'd wanted it very clear that she was on a date with Clark, not Superman. But maybe he was being overly cautious. "I could offer you a lift next time… if you like."
Her smile flashed briefly. "That'd be nice."
It seemed only moments later when they arrived at Lois's building. "Okay, this is my stop," she said lightly.
"Thanks for having dinner with me, Lois."
"Thanks for asking me. This was really, really nice." She got out of the taxi without waiting for a reply. As soon as he'd paid the cabby, Clark met her on the sidewalk.
"Are you sure I'm not keeping you from, you know…" She waved one hand in the air.
It took him a second to work out that the gesture was meant to represent flying. "Oh! Sure. It's not like Superman punches a time clock."
"No, I guess not." She grinned at him. "Which is a good thing, because if Superman's anything like you, he'd always be showing up late and leaving early."
To Clark's delight, she slipped an arm around his waist, making it natural for his arm to encircle her shoulders. They walked up to the door and proceeded through the lobby to the elevator. "So…" Clark said as the elevator doors closed, "I'm sorry about running out on you earlier. Um… are you sure you're okay with the whole Superman thing?"
She frowned at him. "Of course I am, Clark! I mean, sure, it's a lot to adjust to — and it's not like I *want* you to run away all the time or anything, but that's not such a big deal now that I know you've got a good reason. And I'm pretty sure that there's an upside to this somewhere. Think of the hundreds of dollars I could save in cab fare!" She gave him a playful bump on the hip before her voice turned serious. "Well, after hours, anyway — I still have no idea how things are going to work at work."
The elevator jerked to a stop at Lois's floor.
"The same way things have always worked at work, Lois," Clark assured her as they exited the elevator and strolled down the empty hall. "You bark out orders and I meekly comply."
"Clark Kent, I do not bark out orders!" She smacked him lightly on the chest with her free hand. "And as for meekly complying — I wish! Except really I don't."
"You don't?" Clark asked, surprised but pleased.
"Well, every once in a while you come up with something useful. Much as it pains me to admit it," she teased. They reached her door, and she turned to lean against it for a moment. "Seriously, Clark, I'm starting to think we work well together. It's just…" She looked up and down the hall, then lowered her voice. "…this whole 'strange visitor from another planet' thing is… well, it's…"
"Wait, wait, wait. Strange visitor from another planet? Where'd you hear that?" Clark was torn between amusement and embarrassment. He glanced around as well, nervous about this conversation happening in public, but couldn't see anyone within earshot. And as long as they used oblique terms they should be okay.
"That? Um… I think that one was from the Whisper. One of those rags, anyway."
"Uh-huh. You know Perry'll fire you if he catches you reading those."
She blushed. "I can't help reading those forty-point headlines in the grocery store." Her chin came up. "And he'll only fire me if I start *writing* like them, which I think will be a cold day in — but don't you distract me!"
"Sorry," Clark replied, trying not to grin at her. "So, before you yelled at me, you were saying you were over-awed by Superman…?"
She rolled her eyes. "Clark, this is serious."
"Okay, then — seriously, Lois, we'll figure it out as we go along. At least I can stop lying to you." He still felt just a little nervous about that from years of conditioning, but he was determined to look on the bright side. "I was kinda hoping you'd help me out with my excuses, actually."
That coaxed a smile out of her. "Yeah, you could use some help there." Her eyes searched his face for another moment before she took a deep breath and nodded. "Okay."
She was looking up at him with such unexpected vulnerability that his heart twisted. He wanted to vow to protect her from any and all comers. To keep her far away from any dangers. Yeah, he'd keep her safe and warm… in bed… with him… Once again, Clark felt an almost irresistible tug pulling him towards her, binding him to her.
"Lois, we'll work it out." He moved a little closer and brought his other arm up to join the one that was loosely encircling her waist. "Together."
She began to smile, accepting his embrace and resting her hands on his chest. "Partners," she said, with a new note of satisfaction in her voice. Then she closed the small remaining space between them and kissed him.
The kiss was gentle at first, barely more than a brief brushing of lips, coming together only to dance apart again. Clark tightened his grip on her waist. Their lips met again and stayed together. They moved slowly, testing out this still unfamiliar territory, both relishing the lack of tension. Clark's hand trailed up the side of her body, to cup her cheek and explore the softness of her hair. He deepened the kiss, and Lois eagerly met him halfway, until the two of them felt almost as if they'd joined bodies.
It was long moments later that they separated. Lois smiled up at him dreamily, looking gorgeously disheveled.
"Lois," he growled, then couldn't help but lean in again, this time to plant tiny kisses on her cheek. "Oh, I would love to make love to you right now," he murmured against her skin before drawing back to look at her again.
Her eyes were half-closed and her lips half-opened, but as he watched, she pulled herself back together. Wariness crept across her face. "Um, Clark…"
"Shh, it's okay." Clark took a deep breath and ordered his hormones to settle down. "We do have to go to work tomorrow," he said, forcing himself to release her. "You need your sleep. And I should probably go, um…" He copied her hand movement from earlier.
"Right. Okay, then." Lois took a deep breath as well, smiling shyly at him as she regained her composure. She reached up for one more quick kiss, then turned around and began fumbling with her keys and unlocking her door. While she was busy with that, Clark slid his glasses down his nose and took a quick peek through her apartment. Everything seemed quiet, no bad guys lurking anywhere.
She opened the door and leaned against the door jamb, a spark of mischief in her eyes. "You're sure I can't get you to come in for a minute? I've got some pretty cool etchings…"
He smiled wryly. If she was feeling confident enough to joke about it, then he hadn't scared her off. "Maybe tomorrow. Goodnight, Lois."
"Goodnight, Clark. I'll see you in the morning."
They shared one more lingering kiss, then he tore himself away and let her slip inside her apartment. Morning couldn't come soon enough for him. In the meantime, he had some air traffic controllers to baffle.
Lois woke up feeling better than she had for weeks. Or maybe years. Had she ever felt this good? She'd been in love before, of course, diving in headfirst, uncertain of where things would lead. This time… it might actually work.
She quickly got ready for work, impatient to see Clark again. She considered just throwing open a window and yelling for him… but Superman wasn't really who she wanted. Besides, she wouldn't want to pull him away from a real emergency. She gave the window one last longing look, then went out the door.
Her virtue was rewarded a few minutes later when she spotted a commotion on a side street. Her reporting instincts kicked in, and she changed her course to walk down towards it. As she got near to the clump of people on the sidewalk, she saw that Superman was in the center of the commotion. Correction, *Clark* was.
She paused for a moment, just watching him. He'd apparently just caught a hapless pair of jewel thieves, and was conferring with the police. Looking at him now, she decided that it really wasn't so surprising that she hadn't recognized him. He did look and act differently — more stern and aloof — but it was more than that. He was just so, well, *focused* on being a superhero that it was nearly impossible to imagine him kicking back and relaxing, let alone working for a paycheck. And there was no reason to suspect he had any other life — why would someone with his great abilities choose to hide them?
The curious crowd was beginning to disperse, and Lois knew the instant that Clark spotted her. His eyes widened just a little, and his lips twitched toward a smile before he caught himself. "Hello, Lois."
She stepped forward, fighting a totally irrational nervousness. "Good morning, Superman. What's up?"
"Oh, just the usual, really." He paused, then continued. "How are you this morning?"
"I'm fabulous, thanks." She smiled at him, then sternly reminded herself to not show too much in public. She shrugged. "I was on my way to work, but I saw the commotion and decided to come see what was going on."
"Well, I can give you the exclusive, if you like. Or," he added, his eyes beginning to dance, "you could delegate it to your junior partner."
She stifled a laugh. "I suppose I could leave it in his capable hands, couldn't I? So how are you this morning?"
"I'm just great, thanks." His smile broadened. "Thought I'd do some patrols, since I skipped 'em last night."
Lois winced, feeling guilty about depriving the world of its hero, but unable to defend herself in public. "Well, good," she rallied. "Being unpredictable keeps the bad guys off-balance."
"That's what I've always thought," he surprised her by agreeing. "And some things are more important than patrols."
Before Lois could work out a way to respond to that, she was interrupted by a child's voice. "Superman?" Lois looked down to see a little girl, around preschool age. She was looking up at Superman with rapt admiration.
Clark shot a quick smile at Lois before crouching down to get on eye-level with the child. "Hi, there. What's your name?"
"MynameisAshleyI'mfouryearsold," the girl replied in one run-together phrase. "And I wanna be just like you when I grow up."
Lois saw movement and looked up to see a harried-looking woman coming to claim Ashley. She winced when she heard her daughter's declaration. "Ashley," she said in a tone of forced patience, "don't bother Superman."
Clark glanced up at the mother and smiled gently. "It's not a bother, ma'am. Ashley," he continued, returning his attention to the girl. "When you grow up, you can help make the world a better place in lots of different ways."
Ashley looked thrilled at this encouragement, and began chattering about her preschool and her big brother. Superman listened carefully, clearly enjoying the interaction.
Lois exchanged glances with the girl's mother. "I'm sorry about my daughter running up like that," she said quietly. "I told her he was busy talking to you, but she couldn't wait to see him."
Lois smiled wryly. "I know exactly how she feels."
The mother laughed at that, relaxing now. "Don't we all. I'm just glad he's being so kind to her. I didn't think he'd be nasty on purpose or anything," she explained, "it's just that some people have no idea how to relate to children."
"He seems to be doing pretty well," Lois replied. Clark obviously loved children. He'd be a terrific father, she thought, then considered that. Before yesterday she'd never have imagined Superman in a family context. But then, she wasn't thinking about Superman that way —she was thinking about Clark.
Superman hugged Ashley, then stood up again. "For right now, Ashley, the best thing you can do is listen to your mom, okay?"
Ashley nodded enthusiastically, and above her head, her mother mouthed "Thank you." Taking a gentle but firm grasp on Ashley's shoulders, she steered her back down the street. The last thing Lois could hear was the girl's high clear voice saying, "Did you see that, mama? He hugged me!"
"Sorry about that," Clark said quietly. "But I just love talking to kids."
"I could tell," Lois said. "Don't apologize — I thought she was cute. And her mother is now your biggest fan."
Clark grinned at that. Suddenly, his head tilted and he stared into the distance as he listened to something beyond her hearing. "Excuse me — boating accident on Hobs River."
"Go, then. I'm sure I'll see you around."
"Yes, you will," he promised, leaning forward and giving all the signs that he wanted to kiss her.
She swayed forward for a moment herself, then remembered where they were and who they were supposed to be. She contented herself with a brief squeeze of his hand. "Later."
He straightened, re-assuming his classic "Superman" posture. With only a brief nod and a heated look, he floated upwards.
Lois watched him until he was out of sight, then smiled. That had been more fun than she'd expected. He'd better write up that story, though.
By the time Clark made it into the newsroom, Lois had probably already been there for some time. She had the phone cradled between her ear and her shoulder, and was scribbling notes as fast as her pen could move. He smiled at the intent look on her face. As he watched, the scribbling stopped, and Lois relaxed back into her chair, thanking whoever it was on the other end of the line. Clark took a detour by the coffee machine before joining her at her desk.
Lois looked up from her notes and smiled. "Good morning." She glanced at her watch. "It's about time you got here, Kent."
Clark shrugged, trying hard not to grin. "I must have overslept this morning."
"Remind me to get you an alarm clock for your birthday," Lois replied dryly. "Oh, new coffee?" He nodded, handing it over. She took a cautious sip, then a longer drink. "Okay, all is forgiven."
"Thank heavens. Anyway — would you believe it — on my way in this morning, I ran into Superman."
Lois raised her eyebrows. "What an astonishing coincidence."
He shrugged modestly, trying not to grin at her. "I'm just lucky that way. He told me about an attempted robbery." He began edging toward his desk. "Just give me a minute and I'll get it typed up."
She nodded, looking just a little bemused. "Good plan. And then I'll tell you about what I've been digging up on Luthor."
That caught his attention. "I can't wait to hear about it. I've got a few things, myself, so we'll have to compare—"
"Lane! Kent!" Perry called across the newsroom, sounding slightly grumpier than usual. "In my office, now!"
Clark exchanged a baffled look with Lois before they both obeyed the summons.
As soon as they got inside the office, Lois seized the initiative. "Morning, Chief, have you seen the latest follow-up on the Metro Club thing? I have some more material coming, but in the meantime I wanted to get you as much as I had. Was there a problem with it?"
Perry sat down heavily, shooting her a sour look. "Not with the story. It's screwier than that. Judas Priest! That woman's crazy."
Clark paused halfway into his seat. "Um, what?"
"Toni Taylor," Perry informed them, "is suing you both. For breach of contract."
"What?" Lois sputtered. "That's insane!"
"Yep," Perry agreed.
Clark frowned, settling into the chair. "What basis has she got? I can't imagine any judge would be impressed by a complaint that we interfered with her illegal activities!"
"No, I don't imagine they will. I've just been on the phone with the Planet's lawyers. They're confident they can derail this thing fairly quickly. But… for reasons known only to their pointy-headed legal minds, they've decided that their job will be much easier if neither of you is served with papers just yet."
"And how are we supposed to avoid that?" Clark asked with an uncomfortable sense of deja vu.
"You're both going to high-tail it out of here, and stay gone at least until tomorrow." Their boss was clearly unhappy with this idea. "Maybe longer."
Clark sighed. Hadn't they just gone through all that last month? And Toni Taylor didn't seem nearly as threatening as Jason Trask.
"What?" Lois demanded, her voice edging towards shrill. "They can't do this to me! I've got work to do!"
Well, at least this time, he would *not* be staying at Cat's apartment. He'd be with Lois. All of a sudden this seemed like a great idea.
"Nothing that can't wait," Perry told her. "Not unless you stumbled across something huge this morning on the way to work."
Clark glanced at Lois just in time to catch her looking at him. Lois turned back to Perry. "No, nothing major," she admitted, sounding more resigned to the situation.
"So, go on, get out of here." Perry waved them irritably toward the door of his office. "You've both got some comp time coming to you after the hours you worked on that Metro Club thing. If you run through that I'll cover it somehow. Just don't go home and don't go anywhere anyone could find you. Wear your beepers! If you don't get paged, call in tomorrow and I'll let you know how it's going."
"—and phone calls." Lois exited the Daily Planet's lobby, still explaining to Clark all the ways they could continue to do their jobs outside of the newsroom. "And research at the library," she added. "You know, we tend to think that the Planet morgue has everything we'll ever need to know, but the library has all that and more."
"Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised, Lois," Clark replied in a more subdued tone.
They reached the sidewalk and Lois halted, undecided where to go first. She glanced at Clark, but he gestured for her to lead the way. After a moment, she decided to turn towards her apartment. There were some things she wanted to pick up before officially disappearing. "So what do you want to tackle first, Clark? I grabbed a couple of file folders, so we have some leads to follow up on."
"Actually, Lois," he said, glancing sideways at her as they walked. "I should probably visit my folks for a little bit."
"Oh." But how could they work together if he was in a different state?
"Well, it's just that they had a big thunderstorm go through last night," he explained, seeming almost embarrassed by the explanation. "A really big one; I just saw it on the newswire. And those things usually knock things over."
"Oh. Do they?" City-bred Lois tried to visualize the possible damage but could only come up with an image of Toto swirling in a tornado.
"Yeah, they do." Clark sounded faintly amused now. "Trees, mostly, but trees fall on houses, cars, power lines… It's usually not a huge emergency or anything, but there's a lot of cleaning up to do, and I like to give my Dad a hand when I can. He'll tell you he can do it all himself, and I guess he could, but I kinda feel obligated to help out, you know?"
"Yeah, I can see that," Lois replied, her steps slowing a little. She tried to conceal the pang of disappointment that went through her at the idea that he would be spending time away from her. She told herself not to be ridiculous; she didn't have any claim on his time, and it sounded like his parents needed him. "I know what you mean, Clark — like I do things for my mother sometimes. Not much, I admit, but that's because she doesn't want me to and if I try she's never happy about how I do things. But that's just my messed-up family. I'm sure your folks are a lot nicer. Not that it'd be difficult, but still. Anyway, I'm guessing it won't take you long."
"No, it shouldn't. At least I won't have to ask you to cover for me, considering."
She looked up at him, then swung her gaze back to the sidewalk ahead of them. "Well, okay, you do that. I'll grab some things from my apartment, and then… we could meet later or something." She tried to sound offhand about it.
They reached a street corner, and Lois realized that if they were both walking home, their paths would diverge here; Clark's place was west and south of hers. "Well, this is where you turn, I guess," she said, slowing to a halt.
Clark glanced at her. "Yeah, I guess it is. I'll still walk you to your building, though. Door to door service, remember?"
It surprised Lois how much she wanted those few extra minutes of his company. Old reflexes kicked in. He was going to have to go sooner or later, and she abruptly decided she'd rather it was sooner, so she could get the painful moment finished. "No, that's okay, Clark." She smiled at him, taking one sideways step away. "I'll catch up with you later. Beep me when you're done."
He looked unsure, and she had a hunch he was debating with himself whether to leave her so quickly, or go against her wishes. It comforted her a little, that he wasn't looking forward to leaving her. "The sooner you go, the sooner you'll be finished," she said lightly.
"Yeah, I guess so," Clark replied, shifting his weight to his other foot, turning slightly away from her.
Lois indulged herself briefly by walking back to him and giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, but then immediately turned and started walking away. "I'll see you later, Clark."
"Definitely," Clark promised. He stayed still, though, she thought; but told herself it was just that he was waiting for the "walk" sign on the corner. She had to smile at that. Couldn't have Superman jay-walking, now could we? Come to think of it, maybe she should be listening for sonic booms, not footsteps.
"Come with me."
Lois stopped, and turned around slowly.
Clark walked over to her, his face serious. "We can work later, right?" She searched his face as he gained confidence. "Please? I just… well, I was looking forward to spending some time with you today."
Lois felt a warmth grow, somewhere near her heart. She stepped a little closer to him, reaching out to lay her fingers lightly on his arm, drawn by an almost palpable desire to touch him. His sincerity was obvious, and he looked endearingly anxious for her reply. "Are you sure? Wouldn't I just get in the way?"
"Lois, you could never be in the way. And then we could talk for a while, just you and me without anyone nearby to overhear the wrong thing." He grinned suddenly. "Besides, I'd kinda like to show off for you."
Lois laughed, now resting both hands against his chest. "Well, how can I resist that? You'll have to tell me what to wear, though. I'm not sure I have any farm clothes."
"I can do that," Clark said, smiling, as he slid his arms around her waist and pulled her that last fraction of an inch closer. He just looked at her for a moment, with an expression that made Lois's heart flutter. He leaned forward to give her a quick kiss on the lips, drawing back almost immediately.
That wasn't enough. She reached up for him and kissed him back, and this time the kiss was longer, more lingering, blotting out all thoughts from her mind.
When they separated, Clark was smiling at her more intimately. Even after the kiss they'd shared, she was struck by the strength of his feelings for her. He hugged her softly, then pulled one arm back, turning so they were both facing the same direction — the way to her apartment. Lois fell into step happily, the file folders nearly forgotten at her side. Work could wait.
Clark followed Lois into her apartment, drifting over to the living room area.
"I've got jeans, of course," Lois said, halfway to herself. "Is it going to be cold?"
"Well, it's a sunny day, but it is October… wear layers. My mom used to wrap me up like an onion." He chuckled at the memory. "But that was before we both realized it wasn't necessary."
"I guess not," she said. "But that reminds me — Clark, are your parents going to have the foggiest notion who I am?" She watched him closely, chewing her lip.
"Sure they will, Lois. I have to admit, I've mentioned you a few times, talking to them… I haven't told them *everything,* though."
Her lips twisted wryly. "And I'm sure you've said lots of nice things about me while I was being such a bitch to you."
He smiled slightly. "You weren't that bad. We were starting to be friends, I thought…" Her expression softened. "Actually, in a way," he grinned, "it was a step up from how you treated me when I first started. "
"Oh, yeah, that'll make me feel better, Kent!" she retorted, but he heard the hint of laughter in her voice.
"Oh, I don't know. Even back then, I told them you were beautiful, brilliant… and stubborn."
"Well, actually," he smirked, "I think the term I used was 'pig-headed' — but I meant it in the nicest possible way."
She laughed. "I'll just go get changed, okay? And then we can head over to your place so you can change, too — if you don't mind having me there."
"Why would I mind?" Actually, he wouldn't mind "having" her here, there, or anywhere, but that was definitely getting ahead of himself. "But I could just, um, run over there and be back before you're ready."
"Oh!" She paused on the way toward her bedroom and looked briefly startled. She grinned at him. "I forgot."
"I can see I'm going to have to make more of an impression on you!" he called after her as she left, disguising how much he loved the idea that she'd actually forgotten he was Superman.
Lois hoped she wasn't taking too long with changing, but it had taken some time to find her old jeans and decide on a casual-but-still-attractive shirt. It had been hard to come up with one, since she didn't do casual very much. Or attractive, either, she ruefully realized — it had seemed much safer to dress down most of the time and thus forestall any unwanted advances. Thank heavens it hadn't worked on Clark.
That reminded her, they *still* hadn't had a chance to work together. They'd barely been in the office for fifteen minutes before getting thrown back out again. And then, in all her worries about how she was going to work with Clark, she hadn't given a thought to how things would appear to others. Two days ago she'd been pushing him away, not very subtly. If she started kissing him in the newsroom, Lois was certain at least some of the staffers would faint dead away. And she could just imagine the sneers from Cat.
Did she want to be dragged through the gossip mill again? She wouldn't mind so much if she didn't feel so insecure about the whole relationship.
She picked up a light sweater to take along, then suddenly realized she should be packing for overnight. Sure, they'd only be in Kansas until lunch or so, but she wasn't supposed to come back to her apartment before tomorrow sometime. Sighing at the extra step, she went to get her duffel bag.
Where was she going to sleep, anyway, she wondered as she began packing. She was tempted to think that she and Clark could share a hotel room somewhere, platonically, just to share expenses… but even the world's champion at self- deception couldn't get herself to fall for *that.*
This relationship of theirs was fairly topsy-turvy, Lois decided. She'd never before gone on a first date with a man she'd already slept with. Her body was all in favor of repeating the experience, too, but her heart and head were more cautious. She didn't want to turn into a clingy, emotionally dependent, and desperate woman, unable to survive without her man. She was in bad enough shape as it was, wanting to spend every minute with him. If they made love again, she might lose it completely.
She was probably over-stating the danger, she told herself. But until she could be more sure, she didn't want to risk it. She finished packing the bag and headed back toward the living room.
When she entered, the first thing she saw was Superman. Sitting on her sofa, to be precise, with his red boots up on her coffee table, channel-surfing. "You need a pair of sunglasses," she said, chuckling. "Just to complete the look."
He startled, pulling his feet back down to the floor and turning around with a sheepish expression. "Hey. Um…" His eyes widened. "Nice outfit."
Pleased, she put a little bit of swagger in her step as she crossed the room. "Thanks. So…" she gestured in the general direction of his 'S' and inquired innocently, "this is what they're wearing on the farm these days?"
Clark grinned and stood up, turning off the TV. "Well, I had to change to fly over to my place and back, and in another minute we'll get going to Kansas, so… I'll change to 'farm clothes' once we get there."
"Oh, don't apologize," she said. "In fact, just stand right there for a minute." Feeling very daring, she walked right up to him, putting a hand on his chest to explore the texture of his costume. Then she raised her face to gently kiss him on the lips. She pulled away before he had much chance to react, suddenly feeling very foolish. "It's just that, um." Her other hand came up to run lightly along his upper arm to his shoulder, exploring the spot where the cape began. She looked up shyly. "I've kind of always wanted to do that." Just having the freedom to touch Superman like this was very exciting.
His eyes darkened as he watched her. "Oh, well, if we're living out fantasies here…" he growled, then reached out to pull her closer as his lips sought and found hers once more.
Lois wound both her arms up around his neck and gave herself to the moment. The kiss was tender and sweet, but meanwhile her entire body was rubbing against his… and the thin material he was wearing was very little barrier. She moaned involuntarily, her knees weakening. She had dreamed of being kissed by Superman.
As the kiss deepened, though, Lois found it impossible to think of him as anything other than Clark. Her Clark. Her friend and sometime lover. Her future… Some small part of her mind was scared of the idea, but that voice was easily drowned out by the part that told her this felt right. More right than anything she'd ever done before.
The kiss gradually tapered off by mutual consent until Clark finally pulled back, breathing heavily. "Um… we should probably get going."
"Yeah, probably." She didn't loosen her grip, though, turning slightly to lay her head against his chest.
"So… you need to let go," he prompted.
"Yeah, probably." She tilted her head upward and pressed a quick kiss to the base of his neck.
Clark closed his eyes briefly, then changed tactics. "We should go do this somewhere out of range of our beepers."
Lois's head came up. Her eyes were dancing as she stepped back and grabbed her full duffel bag. "Well, what are you waiting for, slowpoke?"
Clark rolled his eyes, took the bag, and then scooped her into his arms. There was a moment of confusion as they worked out the mechanics of getting out her window and closing it behind them, but then he sped them upwards. "Slowpoke, huh?"
It took Lois a moment to get her breath back, but by the time she recovered, she'd apparently forgotten about him. Instead, she was looking wide-eyed at the tiny city beneath them. "Wow. Clark, this is amazing."
"Yeah, it is," he agreed, tightening his arms around her just a bit. He glanced up to where the thinning atmosphere allowed him to see the bleak beauty of the stars, then returned his gaze to the vibrant beauty in his arms. "I never thought I could bring anyone up here. Well, except for my mom and dad," he joked. "But it's just not the same."
Lois wasn't deflected by his weak attempt at humor. "Do you come here a lot?" She turned to watch his face, eyebrows drawn down slightly as she tried to understand.
"When I want to think, sometimes. I love the noise and bustle of Metropolis, don't get me wrong, and I like being around people, but sometimes…" He hesitated, turning his head to stare at a nearby cloud. "Well, I just don't fit in, and sometimes I just can't stand to keep pretending that I do."
"Oh, Clark…" Lois's voice was full of sympathy, and her hand cupped his cheek, gently drawing him around to face her.
He pasted on a bright smile, regretting the moment of weakness. He just wasn't ready to bare his soul quite that much. "It's okay, Lois. And anyway… now I have you."
"Yes," she replied firmly. "You do. Now, I believe we're expected in Kansas?"
His smile softened and turned real. "Oh, yeah. Thanks… for the reminder." He began moving them westward, gradually increasing their speed. "And actually," he added, "we're not expected. I tried calling earlier, but the line was busy."
Lois stiffened in his arms. "You mean I'm going to meet your mother for the very first time, and she doesn't even know I'm coming?"
He glanced down at her. "You're not nervous, are you?"
"No, of course not."
He just kept looking at her until she started to squirm.
"Okay, okay, so I'm a little nervous. Which is ridiculous, I know, when you think about all the shady characters I run into on a daily basis. I can deal with them, no problem. It's just…"
"That my parents *aren't* shady characters?" Clark suggested, amused at the thought.
After a startled second, she nodded. "Yes, that's exactly it. They're *nice*! I mean, I haven't met them but if they raised you they have to be nice, and, well… I don't… have much practice at that. At being nice, I mean."
Clark hugged her closer. "You do just fine, Lois. Really." And even if she did get somewhat abrasive, Clark was sure his parents would understand. He didn't think it would be helpful to say so, though, and the remainder of the trip was fairly quiet.
By the time Clark set her down in front of a big farmhouse, Lois was a nervous wreck. She took a few deep breaths, staring up at the house. There was a brief blast of wind, and she instinctively turned to Clark for reassurance — and found that he'd changed into jeans and a denim shirt. She blinked.
He smiled at her, reaching out to hold her hand. "You'll be fine, Lois, really." He pulled her up to the door and knocked loudly before pulling the door open. He stuck his head inside. "Mom, Dad? Anybody home?"
Lois felt her stomach clench even tighter as the silence stretched out.
Clark looked at her. "Um… they're not home."
Lois stared at him in confused disbelief.
"I looked everywhere," he said, pointing towards his glasses-free face, "and I don't hear them, either. I guess they're… out. Somewhere."
The embarrassed look on his face, coupled with the sudden release of tension, was too much for her. She laughed. "You mean you brought me to an abandoned building? Perry's warned me against guys who do that." She leaned against Clark briefly, taking the moment of reassurance to calm herself down. "Well, that's what you get for not calling ahead, I guess."
Clark looked around, and Lois followed his gaze. There was a house, a barn, and a free-standing garage which held a tractor and an empty space. Was that where the Kents parked?
"Looks like they took the truck," Clark murmured, confirming her guess. "And I don't see a lot of damage to worry about, either." He sounded chagrined, and wouldn't quite meet her gaze.
"So… now what do we do?" She glanced into the dim interior of the house. She thought she could see a sofa. And Clark probably had his very own bedroom… "Well, we *are* here…" No, that was just too dangerous. "It's a beautiful day. Want to show me around?"
Clark nodded slowly. "Yeah… or maybe we could take a walk." His voice gained enthusiasm as he spoke. "We could talk about some of that stuff we keep saying we're going to talk about."
A twinge of Lois's earlier nervousness returned, but she ignored it. "Good idea, Clark. There are lots of things I've been curious about."
"Okay, then." Clark smiled at her, setting her duffel bag down on the porch beside the door.
Holding hands, they began a slow walk across the lawn. A slow *quiet* walk; now that Lois had the freedom to ask any question she wanted to, she couldn't decide which one she wanted to have answered first. "Why did you sleep with me?" The question surprised her as much as it did Clark.
He was looking sidelong at her, carefully weighing his response. "I really don't know," he finally said. "I was ready to kick myself once I realized what I'd done. I mean, I was in- interested in a relationship, but I knew you weren't. And I've never… well, jumped into bed on a first date. And it wasn't even a date!"
Lois nodded, mulling over this new information. "It did feel like one, though," she admitted. "And I was pretty sure that wasn't your usual pattern. Once I calmed down, I mean." She was quiet for a moment, then realized he deserved some answers from her, as well. "I'm not sure why I did it, either. I knew you were… attracted to me. And…" This was getting harder to say out loud.
Clark squeezed her fingers in gentle reassurance.
"Well, I guess I needed that. It'd been such a long time since someone really looked at me like he cared. Lex was charming and all, but I had no idea how he saw me, really. And Superman…" She glanced upwards at him and caught him in an embarrassed grimace. "Well, I was drawn to him, but there didn't seem to be much hope there, at least that's how I felt at the time. But I was drawn to you, too, you know… and you were there." She winced at that bald statement, and rushed into speech again. "I know that makes me sound like such a slut. Like I was settling for you since I couldn't have my first two choices, and I don't know, maybe that was true — but even then, Clark, there was this… *thing* between us. You know?"
She held her breath, waiting to see if this confession would disgust or anger him.
"A *thing,*" he repeated thoughtfully. "Yeah, I felt it, too. Up until that night I hadn't had much trouble containing myself, but I'd been attracted to you from the beginning."
"And I'd been ignoring it, as you could tell. But that night… and after that kiss on the plane…" She paused, searching for an explanation. "It was just like I didn't have any defenses anymore. That scared me."
"Scared you?" Clark sounded confused and faintly hurt. "Why?"
"Oh, Clark, it's not you personally, just… me, actually. I've had some bad experiences — I told you about Claude, and he's not the only one, worse luck — and I'd decided that, well, I wasn't going to make the same mistake again… and then you showed up." She looked up at him, frustrated at her inability to explain.
He glanced down at her, smiling faintly. He untangled his fingers from hers, and she had a moment of panic, thinking he didn't want her anymore. Then he put his arm around her shoulders, drawing her into a hug. She closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief.
"Mr. Wells said we share some kind of… bond, I guess," he spoke into her hair. "I thought he was nuts at the time, of course, but it might explain a few things."
Lois frowned. "He *was* nuts, Clark. Forget about him. Although…" She paused as a strange new thought popped up. "Maybe we do owe him something. If he hadn't shown up to distract us from that fight…"
"Things could have gotten ugly. We might not have talked to each other again for months, if ever."
She looked up at him in alarm. "Not talked for months? That would have been awful," she said without thinking, then flushed. "But it didn't happen that way, so I guess we don't need to worry."
"You like talking to me?" Clark asked in gentle teasing. He drew back from the hug and retook her hand, gently pulling her along as he resumed walking.
"Yep," she agreed in a breezy tone. "And flying with you is pretty cool, too. I always wanted to join the jet set."
Clark laughed. "Just stick with me, baby. I'll show you the world."
"—so then you said I should bring a change of clothes to work, which got me thinking. I told Mom I needed an outfit of some kind, and, well… you saw the result." Clark shrugged.
Lois blinked. "Your mother made that suit for you? Well, I guess you couldn't have gone to a tailor or anything. She's a pretty good seamstress."
"Yeah, although she doesn't sew much anymore. Now she's being an 'artiste,' as my Dad says. Last I heard, she was welding a metal sculpture, but she might have moved on by now."
There was a pause, then Lois asked, "Um… welding?"
"Yeah, Mom likes to try new things. She takes all these adult education classes." Clark tried to gauge Lois's reaction, but her face was hard to read. "It's pretty cool, really."
She pondered that for a few more seconds, then said, "You know what? I think I'm really going to like your mom."
Clark wasn't quite sure how Lois had come to that conclusion, but he didn't want to discourage it. "She's really gonna like you, too."
They walked up a grassy hill and paused at the top to gaze around. From this modest elevation they could see a fair distance. "Okay," Clark said, "over there is the field where my space ship landed."
"Wow. Can we go see it?"
He shrugged. "There's really nothing to see, anymore. Dad took the ship and buried it while I was still a baby. Mom had wanted him to burn it, but he just couldn't do it — plus, you know, a ship that came all that way through space and then landed intact would *not* be easy to destroy."
"Hmm, good point."
Some motion in the distance over Lois's shoulder caught his eye. He reached to pull down his glasses, then remembered he wasn't wearing them. "Hey, I think I found my parents."
Lois turned in his arms, squinting. "Over by that big building?"
"Yep." He pointed. "That's Mr. Irig's house. The truck's there, anyway… yeah, there they are. Come on." He led her down the other side of the hill.
As he took in more details of the scene, he chuckled. "Remember how I wanted to come here to help my dad clear out storm damage?"
"Looks like he had the same idea; Mr. Irig lives alone and my folks keep an eye out for him. My dad's in the side yard helping him cut up a fallen branch."
As they passed a stand of young trees and scrub, they were able to see more of the farm yard. "Wow," Lois said. "That's one big tree." An entire oak tree had toppled sideways, its root system now upended and extending several feet in the air, leaving a corresponding bare patch where it had been ripped out of the ground.
Clark winced. "Yeah, he's lucky it didn't hit the house. See, now that's the kind of stuff I came to help out with." They changed course slightly to get a closer look at how the tree had fallen. "And look — it's taken out part of a fence. I hope none of his animals have gotten out yet."
Lois tilted her head. "I think all the branches and leaves are covering the gap pretty well. I guess it would depend on how badly his animals wanted to escape." She turned away to study the farm house. "Is your mom in there?"
"Yeah, it looks like she's doing something in the kitchen." He took an experimental sniff of the air. "And something smells good. Maybe she's making a pie," he suggested hopefully.
Lois laughed. "Well, we should go investigate that, then. Since that's what we do for a living, and all." She paused, then added morosely, "Not that you'd know it, where you're concerned."
"Hey, don't beat yourself up over that, Lois." He squeezed her hand gently. "You're the one who figured me out on very little evidence."
"Well… that's true." She brightened. "Actually, I think I didn't figure you out earlier because I was trying to ignore you, not analyze you. Especially after we slept together."
"Hmm, I'll have to keep that technique in mind, next time I'm worried about a reporter figuring me out."
She bumped him with her hip. "Don't even think about it."
Clark laughed. "No, ma'am."
Lois rolled her eyes, and they walked a few more steps in silence. "So, tell me — did your dad ever dig up your space ship?" she inquired. "Have you ever seen it?"
"Yes and no." He glanced at her, wondering how she'd take this. "Well, we tried to dig it up back when Trask was snooping around. But it wasn't there — and then I found it in that warehouse Bureau 39 had on Bessolo, when we were snooping around."
Her head came around sharply. "What? You never said anything. Well, of course you couldn't say anything," she answered her own question with barely a pause for breath. "You were there as Clark, not Superman, and you would *not* have wanted me to make that connection then. And then we were thrown out of a plane…" Her lips quirked up. "At least now I know how Superman happened to be close enough to catch me."
"Yeah. They must have thought I was nuts — I jumped out of that plane after you."
Lois turned her body towards him, moving slightly closer. She reached up and gave him a short kiss. "Thanks, Clark."
Clark shifted uncomfortably. "It was just part of the job, Lois. Although I've gotta admit, I didn't mind having an excuse to hold you close again."
She grinned. "Yeah, me neither — at least once I saw that I wasn't going to die."
He returned the smile, pulling her in for a swift hug. "Not while I'm around, you won't."
As they approached the tree, it seemed a thick cloud had blotted out the sun; the world went gray and blurry. A step later, Clark noticed that the enticing scent of apple pie had disappeared. On the next step, sudden intense pain swept over every joint and muscle. "Lois…" he managed to say, grabbing at her arm before falling to his knees. He heard her asking him what was wrong, but the words were thin and far away. He continued falling, and was barely able to turn so that he landed on his side rather than his face. Pain seemed to center in his gut. He instinctively curled up, but the pain wasn't mollified. The ground itself seemed to hurt, against his cheek. He felt a wave of cramps, aware of nothing more than pain. Then even that faded away.
"Clark!" Lois stared at his fallen form for one panicked moment, then knelt beside him, checking for a pulse with trembling hands. She found one, but it was thready, and his skin had a sickening greenish tinge. "Oh, my god, wake up, Clark!" She looked over towards the farmhouse and called for help, but there wasn't any movement. They were probably too far away.
She smoothed his hair back from his face, hoping his eyes would flutter open on their own. They stayed stubbornly closed. And was that sweat on his forehead…? "Okay, I've gotta do something. Think, Lois, think."
Her head came up, looking around, searching for the cause of this sudden collapse. He hadn't seemed sick earlier — in fact, he'd been fine coming down the hill. It wasn't until the last one or two steps… could he have reacted to something in the area? She couldn't see how, but it didn't seem any weirder than anything else, and it gave her something to do. "Okay Clark, I'm going to move you away."
She moved to his back and began trying to drag him by his armpits. "Or at least I'm going to try!" He was utterly limp, and too heavy for her to get an arm under him for a firm grip. And she was at a bad angle, anyway. She rolled him onto his back and grabbed his hands. He moaned, very faintly, and she grimaced. "I'm sorry, Clark. I'm trying — umph — to help." She stood up, drew his arms up, and began dragging him backwards, angling towards the farmhouse and help.
He didn't wake up, or show any improvement, and she feared she was doing him more harm than good. But she had to do something. She dragged him at least a foot, maybe more, before needing to stop to rest and check him again. "Please, please, please…" Was it her imagination, or was his color starting to come back? Heartened, she pulled him another foot. He groaned, and twitched, which in the circumstances seemed very reassuring. "Come on, Clark, wake up. I need some help here."
She turned around, trying to locate the people Clark had said were here. "Hello — help!" Her voice didn't carry as much as she'd wanted it to. She glanced back and forth between Clark and the farmhouse. She didn't think she'd be able to drag him all that way, but she hated to leave him.
She tugged again, pulling Clark a little further. Her arms felt as if they were going to come out of their sockets, and she was breathing heavily. Clark, however, was beginning to breathe easier. He moaned, feebly pulling his arms back towards his body. Lois folded his arms back over his chest and knelt next to him again. "Wake up, wake up…"
His eyelids fluttered, and then opened partway before closing again, followed by a moan that could have been an attempt to say her name.
"Okay, that's a little better." She rose to her feet, looking toward the farmhouse again. "There's no way I can drag you that far, Clark. Stay here," she told him, not even caring how stupid that sounded, and swiped a hand over her face. She was either sweating or crying or both, she hardly knew. "I'll be right back."
With one last worried look, she turned and sprinted for the farmhouse. She stumbled up the stairs to the porch, and began banging on the door. "Hello? Help, I need help. Please, someone be there…"
The door was yanked open from the inside, and a woman peered out, looking concerned. "Oh my goodness! What happened? Come in, come in!"
"No." Lois shook her head, trying not to gasp between every word. "It's Clark… out there."
The woman's eyes widened, then narrowed in alarm. She was out the door and down the stairs before Lois could explain further. She halted there for a moment, then yelled, "Jonathan! Clark needs help!" She covered the remaining distance to Clark's side in a remarkably short time.
Belatedly, it occurred to Lois that the woman had to be Mrs. Kent. Two men came around the corner of the house, meeting Lois as she came back down the stairs. "Clark needs help?" asked one man, sounding confused. Lois didn't know which one was Jonathan and didn't much care.
"This way," she said, stumbling back towards Clark.
Mrs. Kent was already kneeling next to Clark, with his head cradled in her lap. Lois arrived in time to hear the rounder of the two men say, "I'll go back the truck up closer," before heading off to the right of the house.
"It hasn't got a back seat!" Martha objected, looking worried.
"You could borrow my sedan," the other man offered. "Oh, no, wait — I was in town for supplies this morning, and the back's pretty full, still."
"Well, if we have to, we have to," Martha muttered to herself, then looked up at the man who must be Wayne Irig. "Could you go fetch us some blankets and pillows, Wayne?"
"Of course, Martha. I know just where to get 'em." Puzzled but cooperative, he headed off toward the back door.
Lois was puzzled, too, until a look at the slowly approaching truck cleared it up. "You're going to put him in the bed of the pick-up."
Martha nodded. "I don't like it, but there's no other way. The bedding will help."
"I can ride in the back to keep him from sliding," Lois added.
The truck seemed to be moving with agonizing slowness, then suddenly it was there, only a few feet away. The engine was abruptly silenced, and then Jonathan was out of the cab, hurrying past the truck to check on them. "How is he?"
"No worse," Martha replied. "But I can't figure out how…" She looked up at Lois. "What happened?"
"I don't know! We were walking, and then all of a sudden he fell over. We'd just come down the hill, over that way, near the tree. Then whatever it was hit him. All I could think of was to get him away, over toward the house. I think it helped…"
"Oh, there's Wayne," Martha pointed out.
He had his arms full, almost to the point where he couldn't see. He was probably going as fast as he could, but it still seemed way too slow to Lois. She contained herself until he dropped a pillow. "Oh, for Pete's sake," she muttered, and sprinted over to help him. She picked up the pillow he'd dropped and helped herself to the top few items from his stack and took off. By the time he reached the truck, she'd already laid down a blanket and a line of pillows. Martha arrived at about the same time, helping her distribute the rest of the bedding.
When they were done, Lois and Martha turned to check on Clark — and saw that Wayne had already joined Jonathan. The two of them began to carry Clark's body toward the truck.
"Time to get ourselves in," Martha said, turning and grabbing the side of the truck. Lois grabbed her other hand to steady her as she climbed in and over the makeshift bed, then followed the same path herself.
Wayne and Jonathan had almost reached the truck, and it was only a few more moments until they lifted Clark up and into the truck. Clark moaned faintly at the jolt. Lois found herself sitting next to Clark's legs. Now that she was in the truck, she realized that she didn't have any clear idea of what she could do, but she knew she couldn't leave Clark. She glanced at Martha, who was carefully cradling Clark's head.
Martha glanced over at her. "I'm Martha Kent," she said. "Thank you."
Jonathan motioned for them to slide Clark further into the bed of the truck. "Hold him," he said curtly, then flipped the tailgate closed.
"Hi," Lois said briefly. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet." The familiar terse introduction slipped out without conscious thought. To soften it, she added, "I work with Clark."
Martha looked at her sharply for a second, but then Clark stirred, riveting both their attentions. Martha was closer to his head, and she touched him lightly on the face. Lois, further away, contented herself with holding one of Clark's hands and squeezing gently. He remained stubbornly unconscious.
Lois only vaguely registered the sound of a car door closing behind her, but she did notice when the pick-up's engine roared to life. She grabbed onto Clark's legs to stabilize him, and looked over at Martha. "Is this such a good idea? Moving him, I mean? An ambulance would have to be a lot more comfortable than jouncing around."
"He'll be okay," Martha said, though her voice was less confident. "It's a short drive. We just have to get him home."
"Oh, right," Lois said, remembering why they wouldn't want Clark to be seen by professional medical personnel. If he'd been hiding this secret all his life, his parents must have been, too. Caution would be ingrained by now. "I guess a doctor couldn't do anything anyway."
Martha looked briefly startled, but then a muffled "look out!" from Jonathan warned them of an upcoming bump, as they moved from dirt road to pavement. Lois squirmed around, trying to find the best way to ensure that Clark wouldn't bang against the tailgate. He was heavier than a normal man, but the quilts beneath him were sliding around a little. She ended up sitting with her legs crossing his thighs, her sneakered feet forming a makeshift bumper between Clark's side and the tailgate. One hand had a grip on the waistband of Clark's jeans, and the other was clutching at the side of the truck.
Once the truck was on the pavement, the ride became much smoother, but Lois was still relieved when the truck pulled into the Kents' farmyard and parked on the grass just past the door to the house, as close as Jonathan could make it. The engine stopped, a car door opened and closed, and then a grimly efficient Jonathan was opening the tailgate. Lois slipped, just a little, as her support was removed, and she moved out of the way.
Lois watched Jonathan and Martha carry their son into the house. As they disappeared, and the immediate crisis was over, the rest of the view began to waver, and Lois felt her thought processes slowing down. Maybe this was all just a really weird dream. She certainly felt strange enough. But then, she reasoned slowly, if this were a dream then all the stuff before was a dream, too, and she didn't want that to have been unreal.
The bang of a screen door bouncing against the doorframe as it closed roused her, and she shook herself. She swung her legs down to the ground and landed — not quite as lightly as she'd planned. Her legs seemed shaky, and she grabbed the truck for balance. After a second, she recovered somewhat, and walked toward the house.
Some small part of her brain pointed out that she was entering a stranger's house without so much as a by-your- leave, but the thought was shunted aside as irrelevant. She followed the sound of voices toward the stairs.
Martha was coming down the stairs, blocking Lois from going up. "Jonathan's upstairs getting Clark undressed and into bed." She was smiling, but there was a hint of steel in her eyes. "In the meantime, how about you and I have a little chat."
Lois met Martha's eyes for a moment, abruptly remembering that this was the mother Clark had brought her to meet. "Okay." She let herself be steered to the kitchen table. "Um, it's nice to meet you, Mrs. Kent. Or at least it would have been, without all… this."
"Yes. So you're Lois." Martha looked her over with a critical eye. "Clark's said a lot about you."
Judging by the older woman's tone, she hadn't much cared for what she'd heard. Lois felt her stomach tense — she'd just known that Clark's parents would hate her.
"I wouldn't have expected to see you anywhere around my son outside of work hours," she observed coolly.
Lois winced. "Look, I know I wasn't the world's nicest person to Clark all the time, but that's all changed now."
Martha still looked skeptical. "Changed how, exactly?"
"Well, the other night, I finally realized…" Lois trailed off, unwilling to share her emotions. Why on Earth had Clark ever thought his mother would like her? He'd be very upset to find out otherwise. "Never mind. That's between Clark and me."
"I see." Martha paused. "So tell me, dear… I didn't see a rental car out front, so I was wondering… How did you and Clark come to be here?"
"Well, we flew, of course," Lois gave the obvious answer to that silly question. Martha still didn't seem enlightened. "You know… Superman Express?"
Martha just studied her more intently. "And… where did Superman go?"
Lois frowned across the table. "According to you, he's upstairs with your husband, but I'm starting to think something funny's going on here. Unless…" A horrible, faintly plausible thought crossed her mind. "I mean, you know about him, right? Clark said you made the costume!"
Martha raised her eyebrows. "You seem to know quite a lot about my boy. As his mother, I have to ask… what do you plan to do about it?"
"What do I plan to *do* about it?" Perplexity was giving way to anger. "What on earth are you talking about? I'm not going to *do* anything about it. As if I could." Abruptly, she realized what Martha must be thinking. "Wait, do you think I was planning to print this?" Her words were coming louder and faster, a process not entirely under her control. "Or blackmail him or something?" Just because she'd been rude to Clark a few times? This was ridiculous. "How dare you?"
Martha studied her for a moment. "I had to be sure. Now that I know you know about Clark and Superman, I can be a little more direct." Her face softened a bit. "What is your relationship with my son?"
"Not that it's any of your business, but if you must know… I'm his girlfriend. Clark wanted to come help his dad clean up after the storm, and he brought me along for the ride." Lois sighed as her fear and frustration began to drain away, leaving her very tired. "We were having a very nice walk up until he fell over." She heard her own voice go querulous. "How could anything hurt him? Nothing's supposed to be able to hurt him!"
"You're dating?" Martha repeated, looking astonished. Then she shocked Lois by adding, "Oh, that's wonderful!"
Lois started to worry that Clark's mother had more than a few screws loose. "Okay, why is it wonderful, considering that you hate me?"
"Oh, honey, I don't hate you!" Martha reached out, not quite touching Lois's arm. "I'm sorry, Lois. I've been looking forward to meeting you, actually — it's just, when you showed up here today, with no warning…"
Understanding slowly dawned. "…and with Clark collapsing and all, you just didn't know what to think."
"I had to be careful," Martha agreed, sounding truly apologetic now. "I didn't want to spill any secrets, in case you didn't know them already."
"I hate it when people play head games," Lois grumbled. Reluctantly, she added, "But I guess I can see why you'd have to."
"Please, forgive me — and call me Martha." Martha smiled warmly, the first genuine smile Lois had seen from her. "I'm delighted that you're here. And I'm very grateful for what you did for him out there."
Lois didn't know what to say to that. Her gaze returned to the staircase. "Can we go upstairs now?"
"Oh, yes." Martha stood, motioning for Lois to go first. "Let's go take care of our boy."
Everything ached. His legs were as heavy as lead weights. His arms felt as if someone had been trying to pull them out of their sockets. His stomach still swirled sickeningly, and it hurt to breathe.
This was a vast improvement.
It took him a moment to remember what it was an improvement upon. Yes, this was much better. Upon consideration, he'd take aches over agony any day. He dimly remembered falling, and flashes of being carried… the jostling had not done his aches or stomach any good. He wasn't moving now, though. There was a rumble of a voice saying something. He couldn't make out the words, but he recognized his dad's voice.
Dad sounded worried. It occurred to Clark that he was probably the cause of that worry. With great effort, he opened his eyes, and tried to speak. "Dad…? I'm okay…"
He was in his childhood bedroom. That seemed very comforting. His father was looking closely at him. "Clark, you're safe now, at home."
More of this morning was coming back to him. "Lois… Where?"
Clark drew in a breath, then coughed. "Ow. Remind me not to do that again."
There was movement in his doorway, and then Lois was in the room, heading directly for him. "You're awake!" She perched on the side of the bed, her hands touching his chest. "Oh, god, Clark, I was so scared…" She brushed some hair back from his face, watching him intently. "I thought I'd lost you."
He reached up to catch hold of her hand. "I'm okay, really." He tugged at her, and she seemed to understand the invitation, leaning down to give him a gentle kiss on the lips before moving sideways to give him a one-armed hug. She buried her head in the hollow of his shoulder, and he felt her body shake. She wasn't crying, was she? "Hey, it's okay… shh, Lois, you haven't lost me, you won't lose me. It's okay…"
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his mom come into the room to stand next to his dad, laying a hand on his shoulder, waiting for Lois to pull herself together. He brought a hand up to the back of Lois's neck, gently stroking, murmuring soothing nonsense.
In a remarkably short time, though, she sniffled and sat up again. With an embarrassed glance toward the older Kents, she ran a hand through her hair and tried to straighten up her blouse.
Clark stretched, evaluating. He still had a lingering soreness all over — his arms and shoulders were the worst — but he definitely felt better. His stomach was settling down now, too. He still felt weak and shaky, though. Well, that would soon pass; whatever had happened couldn't keep him down for long. Whatever it was… He'd be back to normal soon. He had to be.
"How are you feeling, Clark?" his mother asked.
"Oh, I'm fine," he said vaguely, not ready to inspect that question too closely yet. "But I'm dying of curiosity — how did I get here? Seems like I missed it."
"We were walking, and then you… fell over." Lois's eyes were stark and red-rimmed, remembering. Clark gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. "I didn't know what the heck to do. All I could think of was to get you out of there, away from… whatever. It seemed to work."
Martha nodded. "Then when she had you to a safe distance, she came to get us, and we all brought you home."
Jonathan stirred. "If you're sure you're all right, Clark, I think I want to go back over to Wayne's and have a look around."
"I'm okay. Just… tired." It was getting harder to keep his eyelids open. "Need to sleep a little bit, that's all."
Lois was glancing back and forth between him and his dad. "Clark… if you're okay, I think I'll go with your dad. He's going to need me. I can show him where we were when… whatever it was happened. I want to figure out what it was."
He smiled, his eyes drifting shut. "That's my Lois. Investigate…"
There was a rustle of fabric moving, and he heard his mother's voice coming closer. "You go on, Lois. I'll take good care of him."
His mattress shifted as Lois stood up, leaving a cold spot where she'd been sitting. "Thanks, Martha. I'll be back soon, Clark." There was one more brief caress on his arm before she exited.
Clark felt as if he was sinking into the mattress. It was okay, he could rest. He felt a flicker of satisfaction at the exchange between Lois and his mom. He'd known they'd love each other on sight. Silly Lois, worried about nothing…
The truck ride began in terse silence. Lois looked out the window at the scenery she'd been too busy to see before. Jonathan drove with economy, not wasting any moments or movements.
Jonathan broke the silence first. "What time would you say that you and Clark walked over?"
Lois looked at him warily. The question itself was innocent, but the tone was terse. She was making one heck of a first impression, she thought blackly. She focused on the question. "I wasn't really paying attention… we left Metropolis around quarter to ten, I think. It only took a few minutes to get here." She wondered if she might be in for another round of mind games. Might as well save them both some steps. "By the way, yes, I know Clark is Superman, and no, I don't have any plans to use that knowledge against him. I work with him, I'm dating him, and… we're just going to see where that goes."
Jonathan chuckled. "Now, that's putting your cards on the table. I like that." He paused for a moment, negotiating the turn off the paved road and onto Wayne's long dirt-and- gravel driveway. "I'm not worried, Lois. I saw you two in there. I raised Clark to be cautious — enough to be paranoid, I suspect—" he added, his voice turning rueful, "about revealing his abilities. If he's comfortable with you knowing, that's good enough for me."
"Oh." Lois didn't quite know how to respond to that. Jonathan didn't say anything more, either, but now the silence seemed much more relaxed.
After a moment, she remembered his earlier question. "So, um, anyway, timing — we got here before ten. Which I guess is nine, your time. We saw you weren't home, and Clark suggested we go for a walk. We weren't really looking at the scenery, though, just talking. Then we came down that rise toward the farmhouse. We were about halfway there when he just — fell over. One minute he seemed fine, the next minute he was passed out on the ground." She shivered at the memory. "Do you think the time of day had something to do with it?"
They reached the farmhouse, and Jonathan carefully parked the truck before replying. "I don't know. I'm not ruling anything out."
"Works for me." They exited the truck.
"I want to talk to Wayne," Jonathan said. "You go on and find the spot you were. I'll be out in a minute."
Lois nodded, walking back towards the hill. It wasn't such a long walk as she remembered it. She had lots of details sharply imprinted in her memory, but the big picture was hazy. Where had they been, anyway? She walked up the hill a little way, retracing their steps. Okay, so… they'd come down through here, around the bushes… then they'd seen the tree crashed on the fence. Had they gone that way? Yes, she thought they had. She took a few more steps, watching the ground. Ah. This was it.
It seemed like an entirely ordinary patch of grass.
She looked around, trying to calculate firing angles. Apart from this knocked-over tree, there wasn't much cover around for a sniper. That seemed far-fetched, anyway — even if someone had figured out something that could hurt Clark, they could hardly have been lying in wait. They hadn't planned to be here. Up until an hour ago, she'd expected to stay in Metropolis all day. No one could possibly have anticipated this. Unless it was someone who was already here, and who had followed them… Looking back towards the hill, she frowned. They'd come around a stand of bushes and saplings, obscuring them from view from behind.
No, it must have been something else. She looked around again, closer this time.
"Is this the spot, Lois?"
She turned to see Jonathan approaching. "Yeah, this is it. I still can't figure what it might have been." She filled him in on her discarded sniper theory. "There weren't any airplanes going overhead at the time, were there?" she asked without much hope.
"None that we heard."
"Well… if we rule out any sort of time-delayed poison, then it had to be something hidden around here. And not toward the hill or the house, I don't think." She began walking forward, continuing their earlier path toward the downed tree.
Jonathan nodded, taking a course that led nearer to the fence. "He did seem to get better when we got him further away from here."
"Right. Well, then…" Lois reached the newly bare patch of ground. The tree's root system had torn right out of the earth. Tipped on its side, it was nearly as tall as she was. She walked over to poke at the clods of dirt still clinging to some of the roots. "I'm no expert, but I don't see anything." She turned to check on Jonathan's progress, then frowned as something caught her eye.
It was hiding in the edge of the uprooted ground, still partially buried. She walked closer, noting peripherally that it was only a few feet away from where Clark had fallen. It was a crystal of some kind. She'd never seen crystal of that color before, though. It almost glowed, reflecting a malignant green light. "I think I found something."
Working together, they unburied it. There was a clump of crystals, altogether about the size of a person's head. It looked even less innocent in full view. "Unless something better drops out of the sky," Lois said, "I think this is our culprit."
Jonathan picked it up.
"Um, maybe I should carry that. Just in case it strikes again. You can carry me better than I can carry you."
"I asked Wayne to keep an eye on us from the house," Jonathan replied calmly. "Now, what do we do with this? We can't leave it here."
"No, it's got to be hidden. Just not too close to Clark." It looked as if Clark hadn't been affected until he'd been within a few steps of it, indicating it had a short range. That was hopeful.
Jonathan huffed agreement. "Let's see if Wayne has any boxes we could put this in. I've got a spot in my tool shed waiting for it."
Wayne met them as they re-crossed the yard. "Did you find something?"
"We're going to take this, if you don't mind. And we need a case to carry it in," Jonathan said.
Wayne eyeballed the size of it. "I've got just the thing." He hurried back up to his porch, pulling out an old battered box. When he got within speaking distance again, he added, conversationally, "I'd forgotten about that rock."
"You've seen it before?" Lois asked, hardly knowing whether to be suspicious or relieved. If it had been around for years, then maybe…
"Well, only this morning."
So much for that. Well, at least they had it in hand now, and could keep it at a safe distance.
"I was out this morning surveying the storm damage — I'd heard the tree go over during the night." As he rambled, Wayne helped Jonathan get the crystal into the box. "That tree hasn't been doing so good lately, not sure why. And I'd been planning to run into town this morning to stock up on a few things, so I thought I'd better check to see if there was anything I needed to add to the list."
"Thanks for all your help, Mr. Irig," Lois said, hoping it would stem the tide of words. They reached the truck, and she crossed to the passenger side to let herself in. She was anxious to get back to Clark.
Jonathan placed the box on the seat between them, then climbed in himself. "Appreciate your help, neighbor." He closed the truck door, but rolled down the window.
"Oh, any time, Jonathan, you know that. What do you think that thing is, anyway?"
"It's dangerous, that's all I know."
Dangerous seemed like an understatement to Lois. At least they'd found it before it could do any more harm. They'd have to figure out some way to hide or destroy it, so it could never hurt Clark again.
"Well, it'll be interesting to find out," Wayne commented, leaning against the car, his arms folded and halfway in the vehicle.
Would this man never shut up? Lois wanted to go see if Clark was awake and back to normal yet.
"I don't think we'll be doing many tests on it, Wayne," Jonathan commented, starting up the truck's engine.
"Well, that's what I've been trying to tell ya. I saw this chunk a'rock this morning, and took a sample. When I was in town, I mailed it off to the state lab in Wichita."
The next time Clark woke, it was to a welcome absence of pain. And something else was missing. It took him a moment to work out that the world had suddenly gone very quiet. Someone had turned down the volume, and eliminated many channels of sound entirely. The only heartbeat he could hear was his own, even though — he peeked — his mother was sitting just on the other side of the room.
He was afraid he knew what this meant, though it scarcely seemed possible. The world hadn't been this quiet since he'd been a pre-teen. He tried levitating, hoping against hope… nothing.
He must have made some sort of face; he heard his mother move toward him. "Clark?"
"Hi, Mom." With only a minor amount of effort, he opened his eyes. It wasn't just the volume that had been turned down, he confirmed. The brightness and contrast were cranked way down, too.
She sat down on the edge of the bed. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm okay." He forced a smile.
She looked him over for a second. "Uh-huh. Try again."
He sat up against the headboard. "Ow."
"What is it?"
"My arms… and my shoulders. Ouch. I didn't feel it until I moved. But really, Mom, I feel okay. It's just…" He hesitated, as if saying the words could make things worse. "Things look… different. And I can't hear."
"What do you mean, you can't hear?"
"I can't fly, either."
After a second of confusion, Martha sat up straight. "Oh. My."
"Yeah." He tried to see the bright side. "Well, I always wanted to be normal…"
"You're still recovering," she insisted.
"I guess so," he replied, more to reassure her than because he believed it. Still… there was always hope. "So, what did I miss?"
"Your father and Lois are still over at Wayne's place. They should be back soon. I was wondering if you could tell me what I've missed," she added, with a touch of asperity. "Last week, you were pretty pleased about just being Lois's partner at work. Then today, you show up here with her, and she says she knows about you and that she's your girlfriend…"
"She said that?" Clark felt absurdly touched.
Martha nodded, her eyes narrowing. "Isn't it true?"
"Well, I wanted it to be… we've only had one date. Last night." He smiled. "It was a great date. She's a great person, Mom."
"Yes, but what happened, Clark?"
"Well… we were working, and the bad guys were about to find us talking in a closet." He grinned at how that sounded. "She kissed me. Just to deflect suspicion, I thought."
Martha's lips twitched. "Did it work?"
"Ah, no. We were both kicked out. But then we talked, and — I couldn't believe my ears, Mom. She said she'd been thinking about me, and ever since last month—" Clark stopped abruptly. He hadn't told his parents about his impulsive night with Lois for a variety of reasons, some of which still applied. "Well, anyway, she'd finally decided she could trust me, I guess."
"So is that when you told her about you?"
"Err, no, actually. I was going to, but before I could, she figured it out. It was pretty funny, in retrospect. I'm there trying to figure out how to tell her, and she's asking me to fly her out of the window."
Martha looked startled for a moment, then chuckled. "Now that I've met her… I can believe that."
"Yeah…" Clark's smile faded. "Of course, that was back when I could still fly… I don't even know how we're going to get home," he realized in mild dismay.
Martha shook her head. "Don't worry about that. You and Lois can stay here until tomorrow. She said she'd brought some overnight things, and tomorrow… well, we'll see. If it comes to that, we can always buy some airplane tickets."
Clark made a face. "Now *there's* an incentive to get better!" Not that it would make much difference. The powers that had gradually developed and been there for all his life were suddenly gone without a trace. And he didn't have the slightest idea what to do about it.
"We have to go get it back," Clark stated grimly.
Sitting next to him on the porch swing, Lois nodded and squeezed his hand. "Your dad and I talked about it — we only came back here so he could grab a few things, then we're going into town. He thinks maybe we can get someone at the post office to give it back to us, since everyone knows he and Wayne are close friends."
Jonathan had disappeared upstairs shortly after Lois and he had returned to the farmhouse, and Martha was bustling around doing mysterious things in the kitchen. To Lois's great relief, Clark was sitting on the front porch, looking much improved. She'd filled him in as quickly as she could, including the detail that the chunk of — whatever — was hidden in the tool shed, until they thought of a more secure place for it.
Clark looked doubtful, but didn't argue. He took a deep breath and announced, "I'm going with you. I'm sure they'll let us borrow the car."
"Clark, no! That stuff almost killed you, and—" She stopped abruptly, and looked at him in confused dismay. "Why would we have to borrow a car?"
"Well… I told you I was fine, and I am," he reiterated, watching her carefully. "But at the moment… I'm grounded."
She frowned at him. He couldn't be saying what she thought he was saying.
"When I woke up, I realized… my special abilities — my superpowers —" He paused, and looked away from her. "They're gone."
Lois stared at him in horror. "What? How is that possible? Oh my God, Clark, are you okay?"
He hunched his shoulders. "I'm fine. I feel fine. I can do anything a normal person can do. And right now, that includes going with you to find that sample!" he added, with an edge in his voice.
"No…" Lois whispered. Watching him pass out had been terrifying, but this seemed worse, somehow. "No, Clark — that rock nearly killed you. You can't go anywhere near it."
He brushed that aside. "Yes, I can — and anyway, that was the reaction to the big piece. This is just a little sample."
"So you'll only be a little bit dead? Yeah, Clark, that's much better."
"I can stay away from it. Maybe we can come up with a way to shield it. You thought it was emitting something like radiation, right?"
She narrowed her eyes at this change of subject, but went along with it. "That's the closest analogy I can think of, yeah."
"Well, there are things that block radiation. Lead, maybe. I can't see through it, anyway. It's worth a shot."
"Clark, there's no point getting this stuff back if it kills you in the process." She rolled her eyes, impatient with his inability to see this basic point. "I can do this, and your dad will help."
He frowned at her. "Wouldn't you rather have me along than my dad?"
"Well, of course! I'm not trying to ditch you here, Clark. But it's only for an hour or two." Lois mentally crossed her fingers for luck. "Then we'll both be back here and it'll all be over."
"What if it's not?"
"What if you go to the post office and can't get it back? I think there are federal laws about these sorts of things." His voice edged toward the sarcastic. "I know that wouldn't bother you, Lois, but some people pay attention to laws."
Lois glared at him. "Oh, now you're saying I'm a criminal?"
"Only when you think it'll get you the story — just ask Henderson!"
"I can't believe this. Just because I *bend* a few rules — and I don't hurt anybody, by the way — in an effort to bring *real* criminals to *justice*—"
"The ends justify the means?" he asked dryly.
"Yeah, sometimes they do. It depends on the means, and the end! And don't act like you're all so pure, either, Clark, Mr. I-Lie-To-People-Constantly."
"Oh, come on, Lois — that's to protect people; I have to do that!"
She smiled at him sweetly and went in for the kill. "Oh, so now you're saying that the ends justify the means?"
A noise from the other end of the porch interrupted them, as Martha loudly cleared her throat. When she had their attention, she moved forward. Her voice was mild as she said, "Here you go. I brought some iced tea." She gave each of them a cold glass. "I thought it might help cool you down."
Lois stared at her as she retreated back inside, once more suspicious of Clark's mother's mental health. "Doesn't she know it's October?"
Clark sighed, hunching forward in the seat. "That's not the sort of cooling down she meant. Look, Lois, I'm sorry — I'm not trying to insult you here. All I'm saying is that it might not be that simple to get the package. For all we know, it might have already been shipped out of town. Then what?"
"Giving up is *not* an option," Lois replied automatically, then frowned. "If we have to, we'll chase after it."
"And that's why I'm going with you." He turned his head to look over his shoulder at her. "You need someone local, and my dad can't exactly take off for a road trip with no warning."
Lois saw the logic, but refused to like it. "Are you sure you'll be okay?"
His head dropped forward again, obscuring his face. "I keep telling you, I'm fine. Stop babying me."
"I'm not—" Lois cut herself off, finally realizing why Clark was this edgy. His ego was normally very resilient, but this morning's events had evidently pushed him to his limits. And she was making it worse by trying to take care of him. Well… good. She'd never been very good at this tender-loving-care stuff; it would be a relief to drop it. "Okay, you're right."
He swung his head around again to stare at her suspiciously.
"What? It'll be more fun with you, anyway." She hurried on, not wanting to dwell on her abrupt surrender. "What can we drive? Your dad's truck isn't the most comfortable vehicle I've ever been in, but—"
"No, that's okay," Clark interrupted, his voice sounding less strained. "They've got a car, too."
"Well, if they'd be okay with us borrowing it for a while…"
"…then let's get going." She set her untouched tea down on the porch rail. "It's time to get this show on the road."
Clark tried to hide his smile as he watched Lois rant and rave on the sidewalk outside of Smallville's post office. Despite his personal crisis, there was something magnificent about Lois on the rampage. Even if it was a thwarted rampage.
"The nerve of that woman! Where's that famous small town friendliness? Hasn't she heard about neighbors helping each other out?"
Clark motioned her back toward the car, and when that hint failed to penetrate, he took a light hold on her elbow to guide her. She scowled at him, but didn't resist. "Well, technically, Lois, being in a small town just means that they all know each other… not necessarily that everyone *likes* everyone else…"
"Well…" She paused outside the driver's side door. "Aren't they supposed to pretend?"
He laughed. "Sometimes. I guess Mrs. Phipps just wasn't having a good day today." He crossed to the passenger side and let himself in. After a short, belligerent pause, Lois followed suit. He was still a little surprised that his folks had let Lois drive their car. He suspected a conspiracy to keep him from exerting himself. Maybe his mother and his girlfriend were getting along a little too well. Although to be fair, a guy who keeled over with no notice was probably not the best one to put behind the wheel.
"With customer service like that," Lois muttered, starting the engine, "it's no wonder the post office has such a stellar reputation."
"Well, you have to admit, Lois, our cover story was pretty thin." Clark buckled his seatbelt and winced as Lois pulled out of their parking space with unnecessary force.
"It was not! She knows you and your family are friends with Mr. Irig — and if you're even half the do-gooder here that you are in the city, it's perfectly reasonable that you'd run some errands for him. Which way do I turn, here?"
"Turn right," he directed, mentally mapping out their shortest route to the highway and converting it from an aerial view. "Go through the next light, over two railroad crossings, then turn left at the next light. After a block on that, you turn right, and that'll take you right to the interstate."
"Oh, well, as long as it's not *complicated* or anything." Despite her grumbling, she drove as indicated. "Why are we heading toward the interstate?"
"After the mail leaves here, it goes to the central office in Wichita." It was a good thing they'd thought to bring both Lois's much-used duffel bag and an overnight bag for him. "If we get there before the package maybe they can stop it for us. Or if they won't help us, we'll at least be close to the state lab."
She turned toward him, and Clark was briefly distracted by the way her hair moved, flaring out slightly as she turned, then settling back obediently to frame her beautiful face. Or in this case, her indignant face. "Can't people change their minds after they mail something?"
"Generally, no." Clark hesitated, then decided he should try to defend the small town's honor somehow. "C'mon, Lois, she was just doing her job. You know, federal laws and everything."
"Well, if looks could kill, I'd be a goner. I don't think there are any laws requiring her to be nasty. Granted, if any organization would have laws like that, it would be a government agency of some kind, but as far as I know, she was going above and beyond the call. And it's easy for you to talk, she was being nice to you. How do you know her, anyway?"
"What? Oh, Mrs. Phipps… well, just in general, of course — oh, and her daughter Janice was in school about a year or two behind me, so we used to run into her at school events."
"Ah!" Lois looked enlightened. "That explains it, then."
Clark remained unenlightened. "How do you figure?"
"Simple. I'll bet you anything that her daughter had a crush on you, and you never even noticed, and now here you are with another woman."
"Well, maybe," Clark said, not really believing it. Little Janice Phipps, with a crush on him? "But even if she did, she must be over it by now — she's getting married at Christmas."
"Janice may have moved on," Lois allowed, "but her mother hasn't. And shouldn't we be eating lunch? I'm hungry."
Clark glanced at his watch and realized with some shock that it was past noon. "Oh, yeah… and now that you mention it, I'm hungry, too. Or at least I think I am," he added. "It's been a long time."
Lois glanced at him sympathetically, but to his relief she didn't say anything. Being normal wasn't that difficult a thing, surely — billions of people did it, after all. There was no need for her to fuss over him.
"So, where do we eat?"
"Well, let's see," Clark replied, going into tour director mode. "There are a couple of chain restaurants in town — including the ever-popular Dairy Freeze — or we could do something more local."
Lois tilted her head, considering this. "Well, let's see. So far today, I've locked horns with your mother, practically told off your father, and have been thoroughly dissed by a postal clerk. I'm not sure I'm up to any more of this small town hospitality."
"Lois, you know Mom was just being protective of me."
She flashed him a smile. "I know, and I'm okay with that, really. It's just that if I keep making such wonderful first impressions, I'll end up being run out of town on a rail."
Clark chuckled at her wry tone. "No, you won't. Let's give it one more try. We've got time; we're definitely going to get to Wichita before the mail truck. A friend of my mom has a diner just up the road." When she hesitated, he tried to tempt her. "She does a killer chicken salad."
"Well… okay. But if I end up getting banned from Smallville, I'm blaming you."
Lunch was a relaxed affair, and Lois found herself enjoying the meal. Perhaps fortunately, it was the lunchtime rush — she'd really wanted to avoid an encounter with curious locals. A few people had waved or said hello to Clark as they passed, but then they moved on, busy with their own lives. That was more like how people were *supposed* to behave, in her book. She paged through the cheap plastic menu, noting the lunchtime specials listed on the paper insert, searching for desserts. "Does this place have anything decent in chocolate?"
"I don't know," Clark replied, picking up his own menu. "She used to have the *best* brownies, but Maisie's always changing her menu, so you'd better check the insert — ow!"
Lois looked up to see Clark with a slightly stunned look on his face, regarding a bright red spot welling up on one fingertip. She winced in sympathy; the poor guy probably hadn't been cut in almost twenty years. She was thinking of something comforting to say when the look on his face stopped her. He was looking at her warily, and she remembered that he didn't want anything resembling pity. "It's just a paper cut, Clark," she told him with calculated indifference, dropping her gaze back to the menu. "Stick it in your mouth and suck on it."
Belatedly, she recognized the double entendre and blushed. The feeling of warmth spread throughout her body as flashes of memory resurfaced. She peeked at Clark through her lashes. He was looking slightly stunned, so she assumed he was remembering the same things she was. Unable to resist, she said, "You're pretty good at that."
Clark's smile widened. Lois caught her breath at the heated look in his eyes, but he only said, "Thank you."
Sometimes she thought that this whole celibacy idea was vastly overrated. Before she could follow up on that thought, however, she was startled by a female voice exclaiming, "Clark!"
Lois looked around to see a young couple heading their way, and stiffened when it became obvious that they were about to be joined for lunch. Clark, however, didn't seem upset by this chance meeting. He was leaning back against his chair, his expression smoothed out and a pleasant smile in place. "Hey, Janice, Rob! Fancy meeting you here."
As the three Smallville natives exchanged greetings, Lois studied Clark. Until he'd retreated into his shell, she hadn't realized how open he was being with her. Lois had her own "professional face" that dropped into place when she was working, and so did Clark — but this wasn't his professional face. It was more relaxed, laid-back, friendly… his usual "Clark" mode, in fact. But she hadn't realized how much of that was assumed.
"And this," Clark said with a note of pride, "is Lois Lane, my…" He glanced at her, suddenly uncertain. "My partner at work. Lois, this is Rob Little, and Janice Phipps. We all were in high school together."
Lois produced her own professional smile. "Hi, Rob, Janice. Nice to meet you. And for the record," she locked eyes with Janice, "I'm also his girlfriend."
Janice just smiled broader at that. "Really? Congratulations, Clark's a great guy."
"I think so," Lois murmured in reply.
"And maybe now," Janice continued with a laugh, "my mother will regain her sanity." She exchanged a look with her fianc‚. "But never mind about our problems. What are you two here for? You're a bit early for the Corn Festival — you know you don't want to miss that, Clark."
"Well," Clark looked at Lois, "we'll probably need to be at work next week."
"So remind me, Clark, where is it that you work these days?" Rob entered the conversation, with an air of rescuing Clark from corn-related inquiries.
"Oh, we're at the Daily Planet." Clark smiled proudly, a smile that dimmed slightly as Rob looked blank. "You know, the one in Metropolis? Lois grew up there, so she helps me get around."
"Oh, right, that one!" Janice agreed eagerly, before turning her attention fully on Lois. "Tell me, honey, have you ever seen Superman? Up-close and personal, I mean?"
Lois managed to stifle a laugh, but she didn't dare look at Clark for fear that she'd burst out in giggles at the absurdity of it all. "Um, well, yes. Once or twice."
Janice's eyes grew rounder. "You have? Oh, that would be so exciting! Didn't you just die? Oh, and is he as gorgeous up close as he is on TV?"
"Oh, yeah." Lois sighed happily, getting control of the urge to giggle. Unfortunately, that urge was followed by an irresistible temptation. She leaned toward Janice, "And let me tell you, that suit of his… whew! It's a wonder any woman in town can even think straight."
A stifled choke drew Lois's attention to Clark, who was looking down at his food and turning bright red.
Her voice slowed, feeling out what she wanted to say as she went along. "But the really great thing about Superman is that he *cares,* you know? He does what he does to help people, just because he thinks he ought to, just because he can."
Clark's head came up, and he met her eyes.
"He's just got this, I don't know… innate goodness." She reached casually across the table to lace her fingers with Clark's. "It's really pretty incredible."
"Wow," Janice said. "I hadn't even thought of it that way… If I were in the same room with Superman, I swear I wouldn't even remember how to breathe, let alone get all philosophical like that!"
Lois laughed ruefully, still looking at Clark. "Oh, I was like that at first, too… it took repeated exposures before my brain kicked back in." She squeezed his hand. "Clark and I run into him now and then, since we're reporters."
Janice sighed and joked, "Can I touch you? This is probably about as close as I'm ever gonna get to Superman."
Lois grinned at her. "Oh, you never know."
Clark checked his watch and stirred. "Ladies, I hate to break this up, but Lois and I have to get going…"
"Oh, okay." Janice took the news gracefully. "But I'd love to see you again sometime, Lois! You tell Clark to bring you back real soon."
Clark waited until Rob and Janice were gone, and until the bill was paid. He even managed to contain himself as they left the cafe and began walking toward the car. As they turned a corner and gained a measure of privacy, however, he couldn't wait any longer.
He tugged on Lois's hand to slow her down and get her attention. Then he was backing her up against the cinderblock wall, swallowing her tiny gasp of surprise. He kissed her hungrily, and after one startled second, she molded herself to him, her hands running up and down his back.
After only a few moments, the worst of his hunger was satisfied, and he forced himself to ease back on the kiss. This was exactly the sort of thing he'd been convinced would scare her away forever. Passionate intensity gave way to tenderness, and scaled down to a series of little nibbling kisses.
It occurred to Clark that most people did kisses in the opposite order, starting small and growing. Just like everything else they did, he thought distantly. Backwards.
When he finally pulled his head away enough to see Lois's face, she was looking a little blitzed. Her eyes opened slowly and she smiled. "What was that for?"
"Thank you," he told her huskily. "For what you said in there. Just… thank you." It had touched him deeply, in ways he couldn't even express.
Lois's smile wavered as she looked at him solemnly. "It was all true," she whispered. The corners of her mouth twitched as she dead-panned, "Especially the part about the Superman suit."
It took a moment for the joke to penetrate. When it did, he laughed out loud, full of joy and wonder and love for this incredible woman in his arms. "What would I ever do without you?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said quietly, still watching him. "You seem to have done well enough for yourself so far."
He shook his head. "I was only marking time until I met you." That came out a little more truthfully than he'd intended. Before it could spook her, he leaned down for one more swift kiss. "We've got a few hours of driving ahead of us. We should get on the road."
She pulled herself together and smiled up at him. "Let's go."
Conversation turned light as they got on the Interstate. After the intensity of that kiss, Lois felt herself retreating from him slightly until she could sort things out. She'd known that Clark wanted her, but apparently she'd underestimated him. Again. This wasn't a passing thing for him, she realized with a sense of amazement and trepidation. He didn't think of this as a trial period, to see if she could measure up. If she was reading him correctly — which wasn't certain, given her track record — he was thinking in absolute and permanent terms.
How did she feel about that? She knew that she liked Clark — the jury was still out on whether or not this was love, although it seemed to be a possibility — but she wasn't really ready to admit to anything beyond that. He seemed to know that, though, and was giving her enough room not to feel trapped. The really amazing part was that the idea of being trapped by him wasn't entirely unattractive.
She wasn't ready to tell him any of that, though. It was just as well that they had something objective to do. They *would* retrieve the sample. They had to.
"Lois, can I ask you something?"
Lois glanced at Clark. "Sure."
"I was just wondering…" Clark sounded very unsure of himself. "Well, you said the other night that you'd wanted to kiss me for weeks. But, ah — you sure had me fooled."
Lois smiled wryly. "Well, a lot of the time I had *me* fooled, too. And even when I didn't — well, in my experience, men aren't to be trusted, and relationships at work are uniformly disasters." She grimaced, unsure whether she wanted to go on.
Clark stirred, but didn't immediately speak. When he did, his voice was hesitant. "You'd told me about Claude."
"Uh-huh. What you don't know is that he was just the latest in a long line of bad relationships. After him, I kinda gave up on the male half of the species. I mean, I'd date — occasionally — but… I don't know. I would just keep *pushing* them — testing them for something. Strength, I guess. Most of them folded pretty quickly, and after that, I'd lose all interest."
"Strength?" Clark asked quietly. "Well, that explains Superman, but why me?"
"You're stronger than you think, Clark. Although it took me a while to figure that out. You're always so darned polite!"
Clark grinned at that complaint.
"But you wouldn't let me push you around." She laughed. "It was *so* annoying! That's the kind of strength I mean, I think."
"So… you're saying that you're only dating me because you find me annoying?"
"Clark!" A quick look showed that he was teasing, and she swatted him playfully on the chest. "You goof." It was good to see him so relaxed, though. In fact, she was having a really good time now, considering the circumstances. Well, they'd get the sample back soon enough. And then… She frowned. "What are we going to do with this stuff once we get it?"
There was a brief pause as Clark worked out the new topic of conversation. "Destroy it."
"Yeah, but how? Can we destroy it?"
He hesitated. "Well… I don't know. You said it was a crystal, or like one, anyway. Can't you shatter crystals?"
"Hell if I know. It's worth a try, anyway. If not, we'll have to hide it someplace remote. Your dad was talking about dropping the big chunk in the deepest part of a lake, somewhere. The ocean might be better, if we could get it there."
"I'm sure you'll think of something."
Lois glanced at Clark, thinking he sounded unusually subdued. Well, it had been a rough day for him; he was entitled to feel tired. "What do you think this stuff is, anyway?"
Clark stirred restlessly in the passenger seat, turning slightly toward her. "I have no idea."
"Well, I've been thinking." She paused, gathering her thoughts. "Before this, has there been anything that could hurt you?"
"Other than you?" he asked, flashing a quick grin. Lois rolled her eyes. He continued, more seriously, "No, not since I was a kid. I've never run into anything remotely like this."
"And you've traveled all around the world, right? By the way, you'll have to tell me all about that sometime. So it's safe to say that nothing on Earth affects you."
Clark looked unconvinced. "Well, except for this stuff, which, if you've noticed, is right here on Earth."
She ignored his weak attempt at sarcasm. "I don't think it started here. I think it came to Earth right along with you."
"Your spaceship got here from — what was it, Krypton? What if it wasn't the only thing that did?"
"Well, it was kinda close to Shuster's field… it's as good a theory as any, I guess. Though I still don't see why it's dangerous."
"Me neither, actually," Lois confided. "I just want something to call it. Like… Kryptonium or something."
"Kryptonite," Clark replied absently. At her surprised look, he elaborated. "According to this theory of yours, we're talking about a meteorite."
"Oh. Okay." Lois shrugged, losing interest in the topic. "You know, it's hard to get my head wrapped around this."
"Well, Superman just appeared out of nowhere a couple of months ago. But Clark's been here all along. I have no trouble seeing you as a kid, Clark." She smiled at the mental image. "But Superman as a baby? That just doesn't add up." She grinned at him. "I keep picturing an infant in spandex and a cape."
Clark chuckled. "No, Mom says I was pretty normal. Look, Lois, you've got it right — I've been here for twenty- seven years. Superman's only a few months old. Sometimes *I* have trouble getting my head wrapped around it, and I'm living it. Or at least, I was."
Lois wasn't quite sure how to respond to that. She focused on passing a slow-moving rental truck. "Powers still aren't back, huh?"
"Do you want to talk about it?"
There was silence from the passenger seat. Before she could regret asking the question, though, he stirred and said quietly, "It's really weird."
"Yeah, I'll bet. It's weird for me, too." She tried to think of the best way to say this. "I mean… you're sitting there with no superpowers, which is what I'd thought about you for most of the time I've known you — but now that you match my mental image, it just feels… wrong."
"Yeah. But you know, it could be a good thing."
That startled her. "How, exactly?"
"I always wanted to be normal," he said softly, looking down at his knees. "No huge secret, nobody trying to lock me up, nothing interrupting the things I want to do…" He didn't sound convincing so much as wistful. "Just, you know — normal."
"But Clark, being normal for you is being super!" Lois insisted. Absently, she noted a road sign informing them they were now only fifty miles away from Wichita.
His voice dropped until it was almost too quiet to hear. "Maybe not anymore."
"Just give it some time, Clark." She reached over to touch his knee and was rewarded by a half-hearted smile.
This was temporary. This had to be temporary. He'd had powers for all his adult life; they couldn't just be turned off. She refused to believe that. "Just give it some time."
They had to stop to ask for directions twice, but eventually they arrived at Wichita's main post office. It was a very large building, Clark noted as he climbed out of the car. He studied it for a moment, filled with misgivings. Rationally, he knew that the package might not even have arrived yet. And this was a much smaller piece. And it had a very short range. Still, he remembered the intense pain from earlier and shivered.
"Are you okay, Clark?"
He forced himself to focus, ashamed of the flash of cowardice. He walked around the car to join her, and together they walked across the parking lot. "I was just thinking."
She seemed to accept that. "Yeah, me too. We need a new cover story here. 'Friend of the family' just isn't gonna cut it. Nobody here has any clue who you are."
"That's true…" An idea stirred. "Maybe we should pretend to be related, instead." He grinned, and suggested, "Mr. and Mrs. Wayne Irig, Jr.?"
"Now there's an idea."
They left the parking lot and began crossing the wide plaza leading to an imposing set of stairs. Whoever had designed this building had been trying to impress someone.
"Oh, no, wait," Lois said suddenly. "They'll probably want to see some ID."
"Okay… how about we say you're Wayne's married daughter. That'll explain why your last name is different from his."
Lois made a face at him. "I guess that works. But don't be fooled, mister." She waved a finger in his general direction, which he ducked. "When I get married, I'm *not* going to change my name to—" She broke off abruptly. "I'm not going to change it." She hurried ahead of him, charging up the stairs. Clark was left staring after her. Had she been about to say what he thought she'd been about to say? He smiled, suddenly feeling a lot better about his life.
Clark caught up with her in the main lobby. There was only a short wait before they were called up to the counter.
Lois automatically took the lead, smiling at the middle- aged male clerk. "Hi there. I was hoping you could help us." Clark stood to the side and tried to be inconspicuous. If they did get the package, he'd probably have to make a quick exit.
The clerk put on an air of polite interest that wasn't entirely convincing. "Yes?"
"Well, it's the silliest thing," Lois confided in an unusually fluff-brained manner. "See, we were visiting my folks in Smallville — my Dad hasn't been doing so well, lately, and Mom's taking care of him, but she could use a rest sometimes, you know? And it was a nice visit, but then Dad got a little bit more confused than usual, and well, to make a long story short — he took something of mine, thought it was something else, and mailed it."
"Did he insure the package? Or send it express?"
"I'm afraid I don't know — well, about the insurance. We checked with the Smallville post office first, of course, but the postmistress there was… well, she was really busy, and couldn't remember exact details, except she was certain he sent it out just as regular parcel post. Anyway, if you can find the package — I *think* I know where he sent it, and I've got all that information written down — we can just take it home with us, no harm done. He's really very upset about it, now that we've told him what he did. So if you could just go find it for us…" She smiled expectantly at the clerk.
He stared back for a moment, then shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't do that, ma'am."
Lois's face fell. "Oh, no. I was sure if we just got here, we could stop it from being delivered, that's what I told Clark, here, right Clark?" She gestured in his direction but didn't give him any time to answer. "Are you sure there's nothing you can do?"
The clerk looked briefly at Clark with what might have been a flash of male sympathy. "Ma'am, we don't track individual pieces of mail. The truck that brings the mail from Smallville also collects from other towns, and *all* the mail goes through central sorting. We don't have the manpower to search through all that. And besides," he clinched it. "It's against federal law. We have to deliver things to the correct address."
"But then what can we do?" Lois wailed. "I need that back! It's something very… personal."
"Sorry, ma'am, the best I can tell you is that you'll have to go to wherever you think he mailed it, and get it back from them."
"But they won't even get it until tomorrow!" The dismay in Lois's voice, Clark thought, was probably quite real.
He shrugged. "Sorry. Can't do anything for you."
Lois stared at him in frustration for another moment, then turned around and walked off. Clark said a hasty thank you and followed, suddenly feeling very tired.
When Clark exited the lobby, he saw Lois standing at the top of the stairs, looking blindly outwards. He walked up behind her, and with some trepidation, slipped his arms around her waist. She leaned back against him, but the tension in her body didn't ease.
"Dammit, Clark! How are we supposed to get that thing back from the state lab?"
"We'll tell them the same story." Clark held her a little bit tighter, just because he could. "It'll work — oh, and we can say that Wayne's changed his mind and won't pay for any analysis. They'll be happy to avoid wasting their time."
She sighed. "I hope you're right. But the sample won't even get to them until tomorrow… looks like we've got some time to kill. No point in driving all the way back to Smallville and then coming back in the morning."
"Hmm, true. Well, we said we wanted to spend more time together — and Perry doesn't want to see us anyway… Maybe a little later, we can go out for some genuine Kansas cuisine."
"Oh, that sounds alarming," she said, laughing a little as the last of the tension leeched out of her. She gently dislodged Clark's arms so she could step away, but grabbed his hand for the walk down the stairs. "But it is dinner together, so… okay."
"Yep, two nights in a row. And hey, there's another time I'll buy you dinner," he joked. "I think my credit card can take it."
"No, let me buy dinner."
He looked sideways at her as they reached the car. She seemed very intent on putting the key in the lock. "It's okay, Lois, I can get it."
"Save your money," she advised him. He opened his mouth indignantly, but the protest died when she finally looked up and he saw the sexy look on her face. She leaned close, patted him on the chest, and said, "You'll need it — you're paying for our hotel room tonight."
"Well, okay, here we are," Lois chattered as she led Clark into the lobby. "Nice lobby. That's the good thing about going with a national chain, you always know what you're going to get. Ooh, look, they have a little fountain. And…" she scanned the perimeter of the room, "over there is the check-in desk. Come on, let's go."
She adjusted the duffle bag that she wouldn't let Clark carry and started walking. She resolutely refused to acknowledge the icy ball in the pit of her stomach. Before dinner, the idea of sharing a hotel room with Clark had been thrilling. Dinner had been good — it was questionable, food-wise, but it was worth it just to sit across a table from Clark, teasing him into a reluctant good mood. At that point, the idea of getting a room had still been pretty attractive. Even if they hadn't talked about it. But once they'd gotten into the car and started looking for a hotel, bad memories had come flooding back.
Memories of waking up to disasters. It had taken Lois two or three disasters before she'd wised up and realized the pattern. Things could be going great, but the moment she slept with a guy, it would all fall apart. The possibility of another repeat was twisting her stomach in knots.
Which was ridiculous, she told herself. This was *Clark*! She liked him, *more* than liked him, she trusted him, and he had a body to kill for. This was going to be very, very good. There was absolutely no reason to be nervous. They wouldn't be doing much of anything they hadn't done before, after all. Not much that she hadn't dreamed or fantasized about repeatedly.
And she'd already agreed to this — had suggested it, in fact. And before then, she'd spent the better part of two days flirting and throwing herself at him. She couldn't back out now.
"Lois?" Clark's voice was uncertain. "Can we just talk about this for a minute?"
She turned to scowl at him. "No, we can't. Come on, let's just get a room. My feet hurt," she added as an extra incentive that also happened to be true.
Clark hesitated, watching her indecisively, but then nodded. "Okay, I'll check us in. You can sit here until we're ready to go up."
Lois smiled brightly. "Okay, good plan, you go do that. I'll just stay here for a little bit — oh, look, they have magazines." She picked up a travel magazine and began reading about lower Botswana with great fascination.
When she got up to the room, she'd be okay. Of course she would. This was just a stupid case of the jitters.
In a very short time, he was back. "Here's your key, Lois." Clark handed over a plastic hotel key that matched the one he was keeping. "We're in room 468."
"Okay, let's go." She smiled up at him with only a small amount of effort. They took the elevator and located their room with a minimum of conversation. Once they were in that room, Lois decided, she'd kiss Clark, just to get things started. No sense wasting time.
"Ah, here we are," Lois commented as Clark held the door open to let her into the room first. "Pretty standard hotel room layout," she reported. The hallway in which she stood went past an open closet and a bathroom door.
She moved further in, focusing on the furniture directly ahead of her. "So, we've got a desk, and a bureau… oh, look, they have list of all the hot spots in Wichita — that should be a short read — and a channel guide to go with the TV."
She heard Clark coming along behind her with all the bags, and nerved herself to turn around. He was dropping her duffel bag on the bed … and placing his own bag on the second bed. Waittaminute — two beds? She would have thought a king-sized bed would be preferable. Maybe the hotel didn't have any of those available.
Well, they could always get a king-sized bed next time. That thought steadied her a bit. This wasn't some passing fling, here. Clark wanted a relationship with her, that much was obvious. And she wanted one with him, too. And, frankly, sooner or later they would end up back in bed. So this was just a little sooner than later, that was all. It didn't make any difference.
Now would be a great time to go over to Clark. He was right there over by the bed and everything.
She turned her attention back to the stack of brochures on the bureau. "Now, this is nice," she observed, surprise briefly triumphing over nerves. "It's a list of local restaurants that will deliver to the hotel rooms here. I mean, I'm sure they charge an arm and a leg, but it could be worth it…" Her fragile calm disintegrated as she finished the thought. "If people didn't want to leave the room."
She felt pressure on her waist and jumped. "Clark! You startled me."
"Sorry." He embraced her from behind. The warmth of his body was very comforting, reminding her just why she'd been flirting in the first place. He ran his hands gently up and down her arms. Oh, yeah… She closed her eyes, leaning back against him.
"So…" Clark kissed her temple. "You seem a little… Are you okay, Lois?"
Lois's eyes popped open. She twisted around in his arms, smiling brightly. "Of course I'm okay, Clark. How about you — are you tired?"
"Not really." He smiled faintly. "It's only six o'clock. I figure I'm good at least until, oh, eight."
Lois's smiled turned real, her stomach relaxing. Now that she was here in his arms, all her earlier worries began to fade. She stretched upward far enough to kiss him, anxious to get things started. She'd be okay once they got started.
After a moment, though, he pried himself loose, looking down at her in confusion. "Okay, Lois. You wanna tell me what's going on here?"
"I thought it was obvious." Lois smiled, with only a moderate amount of effort. "You're a man, I'm a woman… do you want me to draw you a diagram?" She pulled one arm down to caress his chest.
He just stared at her. "Lois, you say that with all the enthusiasm of someone getting a flu shot."
She flushed, then twisted out of his arms, sitting down on the edge of one of the beds. "I'm sorry, Clark." She should have known she'd screw this up, she thought in despair. Now the rest of the evening would be awkward and uncomfortable, and it would all be her fault, for talking big but not delivering.
Clark sat next to her, close enough that his hip and thigh pressed against hers. "Sorry for what?"
"Sorry for getting your hopes up," she mumbled. "Leading you on and everything. I'm such a mess."
"No, no," he soothed, putting an arm around her shoulder. "Honey, you're just fine. I wasn't expecting anything tonight."
She peeked up at him. "Really?"
"Well, okay, so maybe I was hoping, a little…" he said, with a brief note of humor. He turned serious. "Look, Lois — I would love to make love to you again. You've no idea how much, and I know I was a little intense today after lunch. But… well, it's no good if you don't want it just as much." His voice dropped. "It kills me to think I'm scaring you."
She looked up quickly. "No, Clark. No! You weren't scaring me — I know I can trust you. It was just a case of nerves, that's all."
"There's nothing to be nervous about. We don't have to do anything here, okay? In fact," he added on a lighter note, "if you find me a Bills game on TV, you won't even have to talk to me."
That drew a real smile. She sighed, leaned sideways to lay her head on his shoulder, and reached up to hold the hand he'd draped around her. "I'd love to make love to you again, too, Clark. But… maybe not tonight."
"There's no rush, sweetheart. I promise." He gave her shoulders one more squeeze, then stood up and stepped away. "Let's just get our stuff unpacked for now, and then we can talk about what to do next."
"Okay, that sounds sensible." Lois stood up as well, feeling much lighter than when she'd entered the room.
There was a moment of peaceful silence, before Clark spoke again. "Hey, I noticed a store downstairs that's got some board games. You wanna play Scrabble?"
Lois laughed and felt the last of her tension evaporate. "Nah, I wouldn't want to humiliate you."
"Oh, competitive, are we?" He lifted one amused eyebrow.
Lois considered this, trying not to grin. "Let's just say… you'd better hope those superpowers of yours come back, or you'll be permanently eating my dust."
"Now, that sounds like a challenge, Ms. Lane." Clark grinned at her. "You're gonna eat your words."
"Promises, promises," Lois scoffed, pulling her makeup case out of the duffel bag. There were small containers of shampoo and conditioner in there, too, but she decided those could just stay out of sight. For now, anyway.
"Well, let's do something non-competitive tonight," Clark suggested, flipping through the "what to do" guide to Wichita. "There's not a lot going on 'cause this is a weekday, but we could always see a movie."
"Now there's a good idea." Lois ran a brush through her hair and made sure she had her purse and her hotel key. "I'm ready."
Clark opened the hotel door and stood there gallantly. "Ladies first."
Lois smiled, and as she passed him, she quietly whispered, "Thanks."
By the time the movie was over, Lois was once more feeling at ease with Clark. At first, she'd been hesitant to touch him at all, but that had evaporated fairly quickly. The discomfort in touching him was exceeded only by the discomfort of *not* touching him. Now, leaving the theater, he had his arm around her shoulders as they walked together.
"Well, that was a fun movie," Clark commented without much enthusiasm.
Lois grinned. "Sure, if you don't count the gaping plot holes…"
"Or the crummy dialog." He grinned back at her. "I've never met anyone who talked like that."
"Apart from that, though…" Lois laughed.
"Well, you've got to admit, the special effects were terrific. Great explosions."
"And lots of them," she agreed. "But what the heck, it wasn't a bad way to kill two hours." Especially not as it involved sitting next to Clark, sharing popcorn, and exchanging barbed film commentary in the nearly empty theater. She glanced at her watch. "It's just after eight, now… things will start closing in a little while. How are you holding up?"
He shrugged. "I'm okay… a little tired, and my shoulders are a little bit sore… but it's nothing I can't handle. And you know," Clark said in a pensive tone, "that movie gave me an idea." He gave Lois a sideways glance and a sly smile. "How do you feel about a little B & E?"
"B & E?" Lois frowned at him. "Do I want to know what that is?"
"I'm surprised at you, Lois. Especially with your vast experience."
"What are you—" Suddenly, the light bulb flashed on. "Oh, B & E! Right." She laughed and bumped him with her hip as they walked. "Mr. Kent, I'm shocked. I think you can get arrested for that sort of thing here in Kansas."
Clark laughed. "I think you might be right."
"Seriously, Clark… breaking and entering? I assume you mean the Post Office."
"We have to try something, Lois." Clark shrugged uncomfortably. "Just knowing that that stuff is out there gives me the creeps."
"I'm not real happy about it, either. Well, we can check out their security system. It might be easier than trying to negotiate with the lab people tomorrow."
"And if the sample never even gets there," Clark added, "there won't be any records at all."
"I like that part. Okay…" Lois chewed on her lip, formulating plans. "We're going to need to pick up a few things, but first… let's go case the joint."
"I had no idea it would be this hard to find a simple stupid little box!" Lois grumbled, handing him their new purchase. "And it's heavy." They left the store behind and headed for their car.
"Well, it is lead," Clark pointed out. It was just a little dark-colored rectangle with a hinged lid. Clark tried not to be reminded of coffins. "And it's not the sort of thing people normally need."
Lois snorted. "Thank goodness for whacko survivalists!"
"And the stores that carry their supplies," Clark agreed. "Well, only one store, I guess. I can't imagine there'd be enough business to support any more."
"Me, neither — but then I wouldn't have thought there was enough business for one."
"I keep telling you, you're underestimating the great state of Kansas." Clark grinned at her as they entered the car.
"No, it's just that I thought all the nut cases were out in Idaho." There was a moment of quiet as Lois negotiated her way out of the parking lot and onto the lightly traveled street. "How are you doing?"
"Better, I think." She looked unconvinced, so he added, "Maybe I'm getting my second wind."
"Oh, good. Well, then… guess it's time to hit the post office."
"Yeah, I guess." The interior of the car was lit only by flashes of street and store lights. Clark took a deep breath. "So you think the side entrance is our best way in?"
"Yeah, it's right next to the loading docks, which is where all the mail comes in. They probably don't move it much further into the building before sorting it. And what do you mean, 'our'? You can't come with me."
Clark shook his head. "Well, I'd rather not — but you need me. Have you any idea how much mail goes through that building every day?"
"They've got a sorting system, and we know where it's headed," Lois argued, frowning at him briefly as they stopped at a light.
"Yeah, but can you figure out their sorting system, is the question. And has the package even been sorted yet? You can't spend all night checking every box in there. Believe me, I'll know when we're close to it." Maybe if he stayed at a distance, it wouldn't be so bad.
"Oh, so you're volunteering to be a canary in a coal mine?"
His lips twitched at her phrasing. "Something like that."
"Uh-huh. And has anyone ever told you what happened to those canaries?"
"Lo-is. Yes, okay, the canaries were more susceptible to toxic gases than the coal miners, so the miners would know to get out when the canaries started keeling over. Trust me, I do not want to carry the analogy that far." He searched for another way to phrase it. "I'm planning to be more like a Geiger counter. I'll just complain really loudly."
There was silence from the driver's seat. Then Lois said quietly, "I really don't like this plan."
"Yeah, well… I'm not crazy about it myself. But it's our best shot."
"I hate it when you're right."
Clark couldn't help but crack a smile at her grumbling. "I'll try not to do it very often, dear." It was hard to tell in the intermittent lighting that flashed through the car, but he was pretty sure she rolled her eyes.
Wichita's downtown area was fairly deserted this late at night, so they were able to get a parking space very close to the door they planned to use. Lois made sure to feed the meter with quarters — the last thing they needed was to have the car noticed. Besides, she was pretty certain Martha and Jonathan wouldn't appreciate having the ticket on their record.
She looked over at Clark. Plan or not, he couldn't be looking forward to this. The streetlights tinted everything slightly orange, but even so, he looked pale. But determined. "Okay, let's get this over with."
He looked up and down the quiet street, then gestured for her to go first. "I'll keep an eye out for anyone coming by."
"Good." She led them up to the shadowed doorway. To distract them both, she added, "If you see anyone, just grab me and start kissing."
There was a brief pause. "Yes, ma'am." In a voice tinged with laughter, he added, "See, this is why I like your plans better than my plans."
Well, if he could joke about things, that was a good sign. "And don't you forget it," she replied absently. Lois pulled out her improvised lock picks and started working on the door. They were fortunate that this was an old building, and it hadn't — as far as they could tell — been upgraded with much in the way of security systems. With any luck, they could be in and out without anyone ever knowing they'd been there.
At least she hoped so. She didn't relish facing federal charges.
After an endless moment, she felt the click as the lock opened. "Yes," she whispered. She put the lock picks away and put on a pair of gloves, bought especially for the task. "We're in." With some trepidation, she reached out and opened the door. Light spilled out from the hallway within, but other than that, nothing seemed to happen.
"I don't see any cameras," Clark commented. "Usually if they have them they're pretty obvious."
"Right." She turned around and kissed him. "For luck."
They moved quietly into the building and let the door close almost all the way — after taping the lock so that it couldn't re-engage. The first door on their right opened up into a large open space. Well, technically it was open. In practice, it had mail piled everywhere, letters stacked neatly and packages in loose piles, on counters, in bins and in wheeled carts. Lois admitted to herself that Clark had been right — there was clearly some kind of sorting going on here, but it was far from obvious which pile was headed where.
Clark touched her arm and said softly, "This all looks sorted… and I'm guessing, but those carts on the side look like they're ready to be loaded onto mail trucks, to be delivered in the morning."
Lois looked where he was pointing. "Yeah, might be. Wonder which one…?" She started walking towards them, noticing with approval that Clark was lagging behind her. She pulled out the paper where Wayne had written down the address he'd used and noted the zip code; that ought to narrow down the range of carts to check. As they approached the row, she saw small signs, and turned to Clark. "Look — they've tagged each cart with a zip code. They're even lined up in numerical order."
Clark glanced at the note in her hand, then looked back up. "How kind of the postal workers."
"I'm guessing they didn't do it for our benefit," Lois replied as she began going down the row, checking numbers. "I think I'm getting close…"
Suddenly, Clark was behind her, whispering, "Someone's coming!" They ducked down and split up, each moving between two carts on opposite sides of the row, hoping that would shield them. As Lois got her breathing back under control, she began to hear the approaching footsteps.
It seemed like an eternity spent crouching down behind a mail cart to Clark, as the footsteps grew gradually louder. He entertained some hope that whoever it was would pass by the sorting room, but instead the steps slowed and entered the room, the sounds changing subtly.
Someone was in the room with them, moving idly around. So far, no one had come close to their hiding places, which was good, but still, how could they find the package with someone right there? Maybe he ought to do something, although he wasn't sure what. Could he knock the man out? What if it was a woman? The footfalls had sounded masculine in some not-fully-understood way, but that could be deceiving.
Another set of footsteps approached. "Hey, Harry, whatcha doing in here? The Chiefs game is on in the lounge."
From inside the room, Harry replied, "Well, I'm done with the front room, so now I'm finishing up in here. You know, doing what they pay me for."
"Oh, relax, it's all set for tomorrow. It'll get crazy soon enough, once the Christmas rush starts to hit. We should enjoy the slow nights while we can!"
"Well… I guess it is a pretty quiet. What's the score?"
"We're creaming them."
"Come to think of it, I'll just take my break now. I can get back to this later." Two sets of footfalls receded down the hall.
Clark closed his eyes in relief, his heart thumping loudly. If his plan had gotten Lois thrown in jail, he'd never have forgiven himself. Bending the rules in Metropolis was one thing, but there was no sympathetic Inspector Henderson in Wichita.
The footsteps had almost completely died away when Lois peeked out from her hiding place. "Clark?" she called softly. "I think they're gone."
Clark stood up on shaky legs. "Yeah, I think so. That was close."
Lois stood, too, looking at him speculatively. "I don't think it was as close as you think… I didn't hear that guy until he was almost in the room. You heard him a lot earlier than that."
"Oh." Cautiously, Clark listened to the room. His own heart was beating loudly… but behind that, he heard Lois's heartbeat as well. His hearing was back! The intensity of his relief staggered him.
"What is it?" Lois asked warily.
He smiled broadly. "I'm back."
Her face lit up. "Yes! I knew you'd get over this." She hugged him impulsively, pulling back almost immediately so she could see his face again. "You're sure?"
"Firing on all cylinders," he assured her. His energy was back and the soreness in his shoulders had disappeared. Even the lead box he was carrying seemed to have lost ten pounds.
"Great! Now all we have to do is find that stupid rock. I think I'm getting close on the zip codes." She turned back to her perusal of the outgoing mail carts.
"Right." Clark squared his shoulders. If anything, it was even more important now to keep the existence of Kryptonite a secret; they not only had to find it, they also had to get away undetected. And he was still the fastest way to locate it.
He walked down the aisle, x-raying the carts as he passed them. He'd never actually seen this stuff, he realized, but how many packages of green crystals could there be? A wave of dizziness hit him, and he stopped. "Lois, I'm getting close."
Unfortunately, he'd only narrowed it down to four or five potential carts at best. Slowly, he inched forward, trying to feel where the pain was coming from. His stomach began cramping, and he bent forward, instinctively putting out a hand to steady himself. A second later, he snatched it back, gritting his teeth against any loud reaction to the sudden pain.
He felt Lois's hands on his back as she helped him retreat. After a few steps, the symptoms began to fade and he could breathe easier. "Okay, far enough. It's that one, Lois — somewhere in the one I grabbed onto." He handed her the lead box. "I'll just watch from back here."
She still looked worried about him, but after only a second of indecision she turned, holding up the lead box and marching toward the cart he'd indicated. She rummaged around inside it for a moment, then let out a soft, "Yes." After a moment of fumbling, he heard the box snick closed, and let himself relax, just a fraction.
Lois straightened up and turned back towards him. She grimaced. "Time to find out whether this really will protect you." Moving slowly, she progressed toward him.
He tensed, but as she got closer he smiled. "I don't feel a thing."
"Thank goodness. Now let's blow this popsicle stand."
Clark nodded fervent agreement. The tiredness was back with a vengeance, but at least his arms felt okay. Thank goodness for accelerated healing.
They headed back the way they'd come in, keeping a wary eye and ear out for wandering employees. Lois kept the box a few feet away from him, just in case, Clark noted, but he wasn't about to complain. While he removed their strip of tape from the door, she went ahead and loaded the box into the trunk, then moved forward to meet him on the sidewalk. "Whew."
"Yeah." He hugged her tightly. "Thanks."
"Clark, I hardly did anything!" she protested. "You're the one who… oh, I forgot! What about your powers?"
He shrugged. "They're gone again. But that's okay." He smiled at her, feeling almost light-headed. "It's only temporary."
"Are you sure it'll be okay in the car?" Lois asked, casting a doubtful backwards glance.
Clark swung around, walking backwards for a step or two. "It's a well-lit parking lot, and we got a space near the front of the hotel… I think it should be safe enough."
Lois raised an eyebrow at him. "Is that your professional opinion?"
He grinned at her. "I guess it is." He held open the hotel lobby door for her. "Anyway, we don't have anywhere else to store it, and I do *not* want it in the room with us."
"Can't argue with that." Lois reached for Clark's hand. She was happy to note that her earlier nervousness was completely gone. In fact, she was quite relaxed. She smothered a yawn and rested her head on Clark's shoulder. "Why am I so tired?"
"It's been a long day — and don't forget the time change. It's nearly eleven at night back home." They reached the bank of elevators and Clark hit the button. "And it's only been two days since we were chasing Toni and the Toasters until dawn."
She smiled up at him. "You called Metropolis home."
"I guess I did, didn't I?" He shrugged, smiling faintly. "Well, I love Kansas, but I haven't really lived here for a long time."
The elevator arrived, and they boarded the empty car. A memory from weeks ago surfaced. "You said… you said Metropolis had a bigger hold on Superman than I might think, or something like that… I guess you'd be in a position to know."
"Yeah." He put an arm around her, and Lois enjoyed the sensation of snuggling in a little closer to him. She just loved touching him, and she was deeply pleased that he seemed to enjoy contact with her just as much — and that he was gaining confidence in his reception. So, Metropolis had a hold on him, did it?
The elevator deposited them on the fourth floor, and they walked quietly back to their room. This time, instead of nervous, Lois was merely curious about what might happen inside that room. She wasn't quite sure what she wanted to have happen. Or what she'd have the energy for.
As Clark unlocked and opened the hotel door, she caught him trying to stifle a yawn. It had been a long day, and had to have been a lot more trying for him. He'd been exposed to Kryptonite twice, passed out, been dragged through a field, and he'd lost his usual super strength. It was a testament to his strength of character that he was still on his feet at all. "Tired?"
"Just a little." He waved her inside the room. "Here we are…"
"It's deja vu all over again," Lois joked as she slipped inside.
Clark followed her into the main area, looking uncertain. "You can have this bed, okay? I'll take the other one."
"That'll be fine, Clark." It wasn't like either of them were up for anything more exciting. "I guess we should just get some sleep — it'll be another two hours to drive back to Smallville tomorrow."
"That sounds sensible," Clark agreed unenthusiastically. He yawned again, which set her off, too.
"We'd better get ready for bed before we pass out," Lois advised dryly. "Dibs on the bathroom!"
After a few minutes of puttering around, Lois climbed into one of the two beds, closest to the nightstand between beds. She was glad she'd thought to pack for an overnight stay. The loose flannel pajamas she'd brought weren't her idea of attractive nightwear, but then maybe that was a good thing. And they were comfortable.
Clark came out of the bathroom wearing only sleep shorts and a t-shirt. Drat. She'd hoped to get another good look at his chest. Her hands itched to slide inside that shirt and reacquaint themselves with it.
He moved up the narrow aisle between the two beds, and hesitated, looking at her. Before she could decide what signal to send, though, he turned away, and got into the other bed. Lois tried to remember which of them had decided they'd need separate beds, anyway. Probably Clark. But a moment ago, he hadn't looked so sure.
After a moment, Clark took off his glasses, setting them on the nightstand between them. He met her eyes uncertainly, but she just smiled, enjoying the view. Even without them, he no longer looked like Superman to her — or at least, not Superman as the unapproachable icon.
"Ready to turn out the lights?" he asked.
He switched off the lamps, leaving the room lit only by reflected street lights coming through the window's sheer curtain. "Goodnight, Lois."
"Goodnight, Clark." She lay on her back, closing her eyes. A minute later, she popped them open again. She was tired, but more restless than sleepy. She rolled over onto her side, peering across the gap toward Clark. "Wanna talk?"
"Sure," he replied sleepily, turning his head her way.
"Okay. Um…" Lois searched for a question. "In your whole life, what was your very favorite Halloween costume?"
"Halloween costume?" he asked, bemused at her choice of topics.
"It's only a week away, you know."
"Yeah, I guess so. Okay, let's see… in my whole life… when I was eight, my mom made me a really cool pirate costume. How about you? I'll bet you were a really cute princess."
"When I was younger, maybe," Lois replied, keeping her voice neutral. "Daddy used to call me that. After he left… I went with other costumes."
"Ah." Clark rolled over to face her, too. "Sorry."
She shrugged. "Such is life. Actually, I think my favorite Halloween," she said with more enthusiasm, "was the year that Lucy and I dressed up as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. I might have been fourteen, I'm not quite sure."
He grinned, his teeth flashing in the shadowy room. "Which one were you?"
"One guess," she told him, smiling sleepily. "I had a lot of fun saying 'elementary, my dear Watson.' It drove Lucy nuts."
"I'll just bet it did." There was a moment of comfortable silence before he spoke again. "What's it like, having a sibling?"
"Um, I've never really thought about it before." She supposed it wasn't surprising that Clark would be curious; from what he'd said so far, she'd gotten the impression his childhood hadn't included many other children. "She was my playmate. And she could make me crazy. And after the divorce… we got closer, I think. Daddy was gone, and Mother was drinking heavily. We had to take care of each other." Lois decided she really didn't want to dwell on that tonight, so she asked, "What's it like having superpowers?"
"Kinda strange," he admitted with a hint of humor in his voice. "Sometimes, it's the best thing in the world. I love to fly — and the other stuff can be pretty fun, too. And then, sometimes…" His voice slowed down. "It's kinda scary."
Lois was intrigued, straining to see his face. "Scary how?"
He shrugged, sounding almost embarrassed. "Well, growing up… I never knew what might happen next. There was this one time, when I was eleven, I think. I'd picked up a dandelion — you know, when it's all gone to seeds and you blow on them to see them float away?"
"We have dandelions in the city, too, Clark."
"Just checking. Anyway, it was a perfect puffball… and then I blew on it… and the air came out super cold. Frosted the poor dandelion." He laughed softly, ruefully. "I was terrified to open my mouth after that — but then Dad hauled me off to the fields so I could practice."
"He made you practice?"
"Well, I needed to learn how to control it. Dad was great — no matter what happened, he was never rattled."
"Yeah, I can picture that." And she could imagine that Jonathan's calm would have been the exact thing that a terrified young boy needed to see. "Your dad's cool."
"Definitely." Clark fell silent and rolled back on his back. After a moment, he said softly, "It was scary today."
Lois looked over at him, trying to read his expression, but he was too far away. Okay, enough of this. "I'm sure it was," she replied, climbing out of bed. She took one step forward. "Scoot over."
He looked up at her, a question clear on his face.
"We can just keep talking, but I… well, that other bed is just way too lumpy."
"Ah… it is, huh." He moved away from the edge, creating a space for her. "Can't have you trying to sleep on a lumpy mattress."
He clearly didn't buy her excuse. As long as he didn't call her on it, that was fine. She crawled in next to him and cuddled up. It was a bit awkward at first, though it helped that they were both fully clothed. After a moment, she began to relax, just savoring the warmth of him. Now she was ready to continue their discussion. "I can't even imagine what today must have been like for you."
"It was… weird. I don't think I've ever hurt like that before. But that wasn't even the worst part. There for a while… I didn't think the powers would ever come back."
"That must have been devastating." It had been deeply unsettling for her, and she'd only known him a few months.
"Yeah. But there was one small part of me…" He hesitated, his voice getting even softer. "It was happier without them. Glad to be rid of Superman."
She pulled her head back from his shoulder, looking up at him. "Really? Why?"
Clark squirmed a little. "Superman's taken up more of my time than I ever thought he would. It's great to be able to help, but being public has its own problems — more attention than I ever wanted, whether it's from groupies or UFO nuts. But the worst part was… he was scaring you away."
"What? No, he wasn't!"
He turned his head to meet her eyes, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "Not even a little?"
Lois sighed. "Okay, maybe it was a little intimidating to suddenly find myself in a relationship with the strongest man on the planet… but that was pretty short lived. Once I knew what I wanted," she added for emphasis, "it would take a lot more than just Superman to put me off."
His arms tightened around her. "Well, that's good, 'cause it looks like Superman is part of the package — two for the price of one. Just call me a twin set."
She snickered. "Considering that one of you can fly, maybe we should call you a jet set."
"Just so long as you call me…" There was a sleepy pause. "I don't want to be without you."
Lois considered that before softly admitting, "I don't want to be without you, either." She wasn't comfortable saying something like that to a man. Her previous experiences had taught her that letting down her defenses only led to a more painful attack later on. But this time… well, this was Clark. She didn't think he even knew how to be malicious or cruel. If — speaking theoretically — she was in love with him, it would be safe to say so.
She looked up at him, taking a deep breath.
He was sound asleep.
Her lips curved helplessly upwards. It just figured. Oh, well. She lay down again and snuggled in closer. She didn't have to say anything, really. It would keep. She closed her eyes and joined him in sleep.
Clark woke slowly, savoring the fleeting remnants of a wonderful dream. Lois had been there. He stirred, and then froze. She still was.
He warily opened one eye, then two, to confirm this. Yep, Lois was lying next to him, although fully clothed and facing away from him, sound asleep. Oh, and he had an arm draped over her waist.
This beat the heck out of his dreams.
He glanced around the rest of the room in confusion for one second. A hotel room? That woke him up. Right, they were in Wichita. His powers were gone, though they should come back. And Lois was in his bed of her own free will. He'd wanted to cuddle with her last night — he'd been too tired to contemplate anything more active — but after her previous bout of nerves, he hadn't figured she'd agree. But she must have wanted to cuddle with him, too. He smiled. Lumpy beds, indeed.
Lois stirred, then turned towards him with a sleepy smile. "G'morning," she mumbled.
"Good morning, Lois." He kept a wary eye on her, waiting for the moment when she realized where she was, just in case she had another morning-after panic attack.
She snuggled closer, pushing him over onto his back so that she could rest her head on his shoulder. "Mmm. Best pillow I ever had."
He hugged her gently. She might kill him later, but right now, she was in his arms and he fully intended to savor the experience. A moment later, she yawned and looked up at him with a small frown.
"So, how are you feeling this morning?"
"Um, pretty good, actually."
Her gaze sharpened as she became fully awake. "Are your powers back again?"
"No, not yet. But I had a great night's sleep."
"Yeah, me, too."
Daringly, he added, "And this is a great way to wake up."
"Mm, definitely. You know, as mornings after go," she confided shyly, "I'd have to say that this is a personal best."
Clark let himself smile then, finally believing that she knew where she was and wanted to be there. He couldn't help bending his head to kiss her. It was a chaste kiss, a little shy, but she responded sweetly. He pulled back after a moment, not willing to press his luck any further, and she settled back onto his shoulder again.
After a moment, she spoke again, sounding more alert. "What time is it?"
He craned his neck to see the clock. "It's nearly nine," he reported, a little surprised at himself for sleeping so late. "We must have been really tired."
"Yesterday was a pretty busy day," she said, but she seemed distracted by watching her hand trace little patterns on his t-shirt clad chest. "And I'm hungry."
"You know, now that you mention it, so am I." He hesitated, hating to give up this closeness.
"So… we should probably get up, huh." She made no move to leave. Her hand reached his shoulder, then moved lightly, experimentally across his upper arm.
"Probably," he agreed. On the one hand, he was pretty certain Lois wasn't really ready for anything momentous to happen. On the other hand, though… there was no reason they couldn't explore just a little.
"The hotel has a continental breakfast downstairs." Her hand retreated from his arm, but then moved down to rest against his waist.
Being daring earlier had paid off. "I saw that." He decided to try it again. He rolled them a quarter turn, ending with her on her back and him on his side right next to her, then propped himself up on an elbow to look at her.
"Or, if you want something more substantial…" Her voice wavered with a hint of nerves, but she seemed mesmerized by the sight of him. "I think there's a Waffle Hut across the street."
"Sounds good." He sent his hand exploring, beginning with a light movement trailing down the outside of her arm.
"So then, after that, I guess we'll have to check out, and drive the car back to your parents' place." She closed her eyes as his hand came back up the inside of her arm, and then moved to the side of her flannel pajamas. At the moment, they seemed incredibly sexy to him, all soft and warm.
"True." His hand trailed back down the side of her body, and then lingered at her waist, slipping beneath the flannel to touch warm skin.
"And, then, eventually," she continued, but with more than a touch of breathlessness, "we'll have to go back to — ohmygosh!" Her eyes popped open and her body tensed. "Clark, we have to get back to work!"
He stared at her, as this took a moment to sink in. Then he groaned and flopped over backwards. "Yeah, you're right." Their morning interlude was over. Well, it had been incredibly exciting while it lasted.
Lois sat up, running a hand through her hair. "Perry only gave us one day, and he might have been trying to page us since noon yesterday, for all we know." She slid out of bed and began rummaging through the few clothes she'd brought.
"True." And, Clark reflected, they'd have more opportunities to explore in the future. The thought was very cheering.
"Although I don't know what I'm going to tell him… 'sorry, Perry, I can't come in for another few hours because Clark and I are in a hotel in Wichita.' That's just a little bit more information than he needs to know."
"Well—" Clark propped himself up against the headboard of the bed to watch her rampage.
"But if I don't tell him that, what do I tell him? I mean, if he wants us to stay away for another day or something, that's fine, but what if he tells me to get into the newsroom before—" She whirled around to stare at the clock. "And I forgot the time change! Clark, do you realize it's almost ten a.m. in Metropolis?"
"Yeah—" He'd have to get up and dressed, he supposed.
"And we can't possibly get back there for hours yet. We still have to drive that car back to Smallville; that'll take two hours right there." She began pacing around the room.
"Lois…" Although it would probably be a good idea if he waited a few moments before leaving the protective concealment of the bed covers.
"After that it won't take long *if* your powers are back, but what if they're not?" With jerky movements, she started throwing her things back into the duffel bag.
"And even then, how do we explain this? No offense, Clark, but people are going to be shocked enough that we've started dating." She made a face at the thought and went back to pacing. "I do not want to let them know we went out of town together; I don't even want to think about what they'd say, and it's not like—" She finally came within arms reach, and Clark pulled her down to sit on the edge of the bed.
"Calm down, okay?"
"Clark! I can't—"
Greatly daring, he took a finger and held it vertically against her lips. "Shh."
Her eyes narrowed, but then the tension in her body eased. She took a deep breath and let it out again. "Okay. I'm calm."
He was skeptical about that, but didn't want to press the point. "We'll just tell him that we're… following a lead." While they talked, he scooted her out of bed and followed, starting to get ready to go.
She looked unconvinced, but went back to packing up her things. "Sooner or later, he's gonna want to know what the story is, and, you know, he is our *boss* so he might expect an answer."
"Okay, then… we're working on the Luthor investigation. We can get each other up to speed on what we know this morning in the car, you know, so it wouldn't be that much of a lie."
"Well, maybe. We won't have much to show for it. Although of course, stories can be like that — work for days without much visible result, and then all of a sudden, wham! it all comes together. He might buy it."
"That's the spirit," he said dryly.
"Just let me do the talking, okay?" She selected a bundle of clothing and what looked like a make-up bag, and headed for the bathroom. She raised her voice a bit to add, "Because, Clark, you may have to lie all the time but you're still really bad at it."
"Hey!" he protested half-heartedly, gathering his own clothes.
She stuck her head out of the bathroom to flash a smile at him, then disappeared back inside and closed the door. From inside, she called, "I'll just tell him we're meeting for breakfast, so I can pass news along to you."
"Well, that's true enough." While Lois was in the bathroom, he quickly got dressed. "Quickly" being a relative term, of course — he felt horribly slow and clumsy.
"I plan to leave out the part about breakfast being in Wichita, though." Lois emerged from the bathroom, fully dressed. "Your turn," she said briefly, then continued unabated, "I mean, how on earth could we explain Wichita? A field trip to work on our criminal skills?"
"Yeah, that could be a little tricky."
He entered the bathroom and went through his morning routine on automatic pilot. Something she'd said earlier came back to him, working away at his self-confidence. Would it be so bad if their co-workers knew that Lois had gone out of town with him? They'd have trouble explaining their transportation arrangements, but he didn't think that was what she'd meant.
When he emerged from the bathroom, he said, hesitantly, "Um, about what you said, earlier, about people being shocked… are you saying you don't want anyone at work to know you're dating me?"
She turned and stared at him. "No! No, Clark, that's not it. I mean, okay, I've been dragged through the gossip mill before, and I'm not exactly looking forward to facing that again, but this time it's *good* news. I just want it to be something we can control." She saw that he was still unsure, and added, "Besides, don't you want to see their faces?"
He tilted his head, considering this. "Actually… yes. Okay, then we'll keep this little jaunt private."
Lois smiled at him, then picked up the phone. "Wish me luck." She punched in the buttons for a long-distance call. Clark could faintly hear the ringing as the line connected, but couldn't make out voices when someone picked up. "Hi Jimmy, it's Lois. Put me through to Perry… What do you mean he's not there? He practically lives there!" She fell silent again, listening. Clark finished his packing, trying to contain his frustration. "Oh, okay. Well… tell him I called, okay? No, no message. I'll call back later. Bye!"
She hung up the phone. "We've dodged the bullet for now. Perry's in a meeting with the Legal Department."
"Probably about us."
"Yeah, very likely." She looked around the room. "I think I've got everything. It's not like we had much to start with."
"Yeah, me too." Clark tried to find the bright side. "But if Perry's still in a meeting, that might mean that the whole thing hasn't blown over yet, so he won't want us back yet."
Lois smiled. "We can hope. Come on, let's check out, get some breakfast and hit the road."
Clark picked up both their bags. "Lead the way."
"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" Lois observed. They'd had a nice breakfast together and had been on the road for over an hour, just talking and laughing. It had been something of a revelation to Lois. On the rare occasions when her family had taken any long car trips, the fighting had begun within only a few miles of home and wouldn't stop until all combatants were exhausted into silence. Even yesterday's voyage in the opposite direction had had a measure of tension.
Clark smiled in the passenger seat. "I'm surprised you even noticed, city girl."
"Oh, I can appreciate the great outdoors," she assured him. "It's just that I'm usually too busy. And getting out of the city is always such a hassle and takes forever, so I figure Centennial Park is as close to nature as I need to get."
Clark vented a theatrical sigh. "I can see I've got a lot of work to do here."
"Hey," Lois protested, laughing and hitting him lightly on the knee. "I like me just the way I am."
"So do I," he replied, grabbing hold of her hand. "But we need to get you to like nature in all its beauty."
"We do, do we?" Sooner or later, she was going to need that hand for driving, she knew… but it was a straight road without much traffic.
"Don't worry, we can start small." He squeezed her hand gently. "Maybe a short hiking trail or two at first; get you into the beauties of the country."
They were coming up behind a slower-moving car. "I have gone camping before, you know," she said, reluctantly retrieving her hand.
He waved that off. "It obviously didn't take. So once you're okay with the hiking, we can move up to rivers and lakes."
"Well, okay, it was only that one time — and I grant you, camping out was a disaster." Lois flicked on her turn signal, preparing to pass the slower car ahead of them. "It was the summer before Mom and Dad's divorce."
"Ah. Well, maybe instead of woods and rivers we need to go tropical. Hawaii is always nice, although the Bahamas or the Caribbean would be closer…"
"My mother complained bitterly the whole time," Lois recalled gloomily, changing lanes. "We only had a borrowed pop-up trailer, you see, and she was trying to cook and clean with some pretty primitive equipment."
"Did you know there are whole groups of islands in the Florida Keys that aren't visited?"
"Except by bugs, you mean." Of course, as soon as they pulled over next to the other car, it began speeding up as well, keeping pace with them.
He grinned at her. "Just say the word, and we can go find out."
"Yeah, sure, Clark, that could happen." She pressed the gas a little bit more; no two-bit Kansas farmer was going to win a race against her.
"Lois, I think you're forgetting one important factor here," he told her, his voice suffused with humor.
"No, Clark, I think *you're* forgetting an important factor." She glanced over at him. He was grinning widely, and he had seemed to gain alertness and energy as the morning had progressed. "Unless — are you saying Superman's returned?"
His smile widened. "Yep. And the driver in that other car is muttering some pretty unpleasant things about you right now."
"Hah." She glared at the other car. "Eat my dust, you yokel!" She floored it, putting on a burst of speed that carried them past the other car. Even after changing back to the right-hand lane, however, she maintained the higher speed.
"Is there a reason we've just gone to warp?" Clark asked mildly.
Lois grinned briefly at the Star Trek reference. "The faster we go, the sooner we get this car back home, and then get ourselves back home. Even if Perry doesn't want us yet, I do have some research I want to do, on Lex."
"Well, there is that." He shifted a little closer to her on the car's bench seat. "I think we're coming up on our exit pretty soon now."
"Good. Let's talk Lex. What do you know about him?"
For the next ten minutes, Lois listened in fascinated horror as Clark filled her in on everything he knew and suspected about Luthor. "Wow. I knew you didn't like him, Clark, but I didn't realize all this was going on. I mean, these last few weeks, I've kind of been avoiding him, but now I think I didn't turn him down nearly as often as I should have. I'll have to make up for that. And darn it, Clark, what does 'pretty soon' *mean* in country talk? We're still not to that exit."
"Oh, anything less than half an hour drive time, I guess."
"Half an hour. Right. Well, in Metropolis 'pretty soon' would mean within a block or two."
"I've seen the traffic in Metropolis, Lois — it can take half an hour to go two blocks. This is kind of the same thing," he assured her in a laughing tone. "Just instead of city block, think rural town."
She shook her head. "I am never going to get used to that."
"That's okay." His left hand somehow ended up at the back of her neck, playing idly with her hair. "Just make sure you always have a native guide with you."
"Hmm, that sounds like a good idea. Got any recommendations?"
"Let me think about it…" Clark pretended to ponder the question.
"So, in the meantime, I guess I'm stuck with you."
"Just try to bear up nobly," he advised her, his eyes dancing.
She sighed gustily. "Well, if I must, I must. Is this the exit?"
"Yeah, this is it," he said, becoming somewhat more serious as he guided her toward the farm. "I wish we could stay for a longer visit, but you're right, we do need to get back."
"Well, we can drop off the car, tell them about the lead box — your dad will take care of that, won't he?"
"Oh, yeah, he's probably already gotten rid of the big chunk. Listen, Lois…"
"I just wanted to thank you, for everything. I couldn't have done this without you."
She glanced at him, surprised. "Well, what else could I have done? And, if you think about it, if I hadn't been here, you wouldn't have to have done anything — you wouldn't have walked into Wayne Irig's backyard like that on your own."
He shrugged. "Well, maybe — but then that stuff would still be out there, and some geeks in lab coats would be analyzing it right about now. But you were terrific, Lois, really."
She focused on the road in front of her, torn between embarrassment and gratification. "It was the least I could do. Besides," she rallied, "If I came back without you, your mother would *never* forgive me."
He chuckled. "No, we can't have my mother mad at you!"
"Nope, wouldn't want that," Lois agreed with just a touch of unease. There was no doubt that she and Martha had gotten off on the wrong foot. That was behind them now, of course. All the misunderstandings had been cleared up. Everything was fine.
"Well, anyway," she said brightly, ruthlessly dragging the conversation back onto topic. "We'll drop off the car, say hi and bye to your folks, grab all our stuff, and take off. Literally."
Clark sighed. "I hate to rush off like that, but we have been in Kansas for a day longer than we planned, so yeah. We need to get back to Metropolis."
"Back to work," Lois added dryly.
"Back to normal," Clark concluded, giving her a beautiful smile.
She smiled back at him. "Super."
(at least until K <g>)