Don't Be a Stranger

By Wendy Richards <>

Rated: PG-13

Submitted: October 2004

Summary: Lois and Clark are best friends and she's in on the Secret. So what's making both of them think that they can never be more than friends? And what happens when Lex Luthor moves in on Lois? A sequel to Tank and Wendy's Strange Visitor: An Evil Vignette.

Author's note:

This story is a sequel to Strange Visitor: The Evil Vignette, by Tank Wilson and Wendy Richards, which may be found under either of our names on the Archive or Annesplace. Although it's not essential to have read the original story in order to follow this, it may be helpful!

I have a lot of people who need to be thanked for their assistance in various ways with this story. First and foremost, Tank Wilson: for writing a story called Strange Visitor: The Evil Vignette, which he thought was perfectly fine all on its own; for not screaming blue murder when I decided — without any permission at all! — to 'fix' his ending for that vignette; and for agreeing to let me write a sequel to a story which, as far as he was concerned, needed no sequel at all — in fact, hadn't even needed the 'happy ending' I gave it. Thank you, Tank. :)

Second, RL for giving me the story's title, and he and others for their help with coming up with useful real-life criminals. <g> The readers of this story on the Lois and Clark Fanfic Message Boards <>, for sticking with what turned out to be a very long and much-interrupted story, since my posting of it coincided with moving continents! It was with great relief that I finally posted the last section in early October — probably for the long-suffering readers as well!

And most important of all, a huge thanks and hug to my invaluable, put-upon and deeply-appreciated beta-readers. To Meredith, Kaethel and Elena, who began Bring this but had to pull out as RL became too hectic: I valued your help and suggestions, as well as your continuing interest in the story, more than I can say. To Sara Kraft and Sarah Luddy, who somehow managed to crowbar (without too much difficulty, I should add <g>) the entire story file from me towards the end and who sent me back detailed comments, enthusiasm and suggestions: you were a terrific help and I did use several of your ideas. Most of all, you reassured me that people wanted to read the story!

But most of all to Yvonne Connell, who lasted the whole way through this monster, sending me helpful suggestions, enthusiastic cheers and lots of stuff to make me laugh over a period of more than half a year… you are the best. :) Thank you. And may your own keyboard never dry up!

Very many thanks also to Larissa, my Archive GE, who spared my blushes by catching some stupid errors on my part — naturally, any remaining errors are entirely my own fault!

Disclaimer: All rights in the copyrighted characters belong to their owners: DC Comics, Warner Brothers. No breach of copyright is intended by their work of fiction, which is being distributed freely and not for profit.


"Help! Superman, help!"

Clark halted in the act of crossing the newsroom, glancing around anxiously. This wasn't a good time to get called away. Their department head had just called his section into the conference room for a meeting, and as he was still very much a new kid on the block at the Planet, it wouldn't be a good idea to make himself conspicuous by his absence.

But that cry had sounded desperate…

Realising that someone was watching him, he turned and saw Lois. She raised one eyebrow in his direction before turning to call to their manager. "Hey, Steve! I need Clark to run downstairs first and pick up a package. We're the only ones the guy will give it to and if neither of us shows, he'll offer it to another paper," she said disgustedly.

Clark barely paused to nod his thanks in Lois's direction before heading towards the exits, hoping that no-one other than Lois noticed that he took the stairs rather than the elevator — and that he ran *up*!

Twenty minutes later, he slid into the seat beside Lois in the conference room, ostentatiously handing her a rumpled package. "Thanks," he muttered softly before turning to concentrate on the meeting.

"Glad you could join us, Kent," Steve said with a tinge of sarcasm to his voice.

"Sorry," Clark apologised automatically. "Our source had already left — I had to chase him down."

Steve shook his head. "That stuff better be worth it, that's all I can say."

"Have we let you down yet?" Lois interjected.

Steve rolled his eyes. "I thought Perry was crazy teaming you up with anyone, Lois, much less a rookie, but it seems to have worked out. So far," he added meaningfully.

"That's partly because Clark was never a rookie. Check his cuttings file some day — it might surprise you," Lois said in an amused tone. "Course, it helps that he got lucky and was partnered with the best in the business," she added, spoiling the compliment.

Clark gave her a private grin. "Yeah, I was lucky," he said in a low voice, then, louder, to his boss, "What'd I miss?"


Emerging from the meeting later, Lois tugged on Clark's sleeve, pulling him to one side. "So, what was it, then?"

"Truck overturned on the freeway," he murmured in response. "The driver was trapped underneath, so I held the cab up so the paramedics could get him out, then righted the truck once the police had taken their photos. That's what took me so long."

Lois shook her head, smiling. "I still can't get used to what you can do!"

It was true; even though Superman had been around for more than six weeks now, she felt a continual sense of amazement at his abilities. Despite Clark's willingness to answer whatever questions she had about him and his occasional private demonstrations of his talents, it was still difficult to get her head around the fact that there was a being as incredibly powerful — as *magical* — as Superman on the Earth.

And, even more amazing, that he was her friend.

Well, there probably weren't many people around who could say that they'd saved Superman's life, she'd reflected on a couple of occasions. And also the lives of his parents… so the fact that she'd ended up as his friend might not be too surprising. At the same time, the way she'd treated Clark Kent when she'd first met him could well have put him off her for life.

And it might well have done, except for a madman called Jason Trask and her determination to find Superman's body. And, of course, Clark's capacity for forgiveness. He'd offered her his friendship unhesitatingly after that night, and she'd got the impression that he'd have done so even if she hadn't just saved his life and that of his parents. That all she'd needed to do was tell him that she wanted to start again with him.

As she reached her desk and sat, Clark paused beside her, bending to add quietly to her, "That's three I owe you now. Thanks!"

A little embarrassed because, after all, she was enabling *Superman* to do what he did best and to save lives, Lois shrugged. "It's nothing. I'm glad to help."

"Well, I appreciate it. Want to let me take you for a chocolate sundae after work?" he suggested lightly.

"Oh, you know my weaknesses already," Lois said, surprised.

Clark grinned. "Well, it's pretty easy to find out…" Trailing off, he touched his ear lightly, and she smiled. No doubt it was simple for someone with his hearing abilities to discover anything he wanted to know.

"I see I can't have any secrets from you," she teased. "Anyway, I'd love to. Thanks!"

"Great." He smiled again, then returned to his desk.

Lois opened the file she'd been working on before the meeting, but her thoughts were elsewhere. On Clark.

He was her best friend now; her first ever best friend, in fact. He was the kind of friend she'd never known before, someone who made it clear that he would always be there for her. He was protective towards her, but also teasing. His manner, when they were alone, was always relaxed and frequently affectionate — which still amazed her, because she was well aware of the effect she had on people.

People were terrified of Lois Lane. It was an effect she'd cultivated, once she'd discovered that to succeed it was necessary to be tough. Once she'd discovered that men weren't to be trusted — and that letting her guard slip led to disaster.

She still resented the heck out of the fact that Claude Valois had won a Kerth for *her* story. And she hated the knowledge that some of her colleagues still sniggered over the easy conquest she'd been for him, and the insulting little details Claude had felt it necessary to share with all the guys in the newsroom — and not even in the men's room, where she wouldn't have had to see them snickering and nudging each other, but by the water- cooler. Right when she was at her desk and trying to work.

No, she'd learned not to trust anyone after that.

But she trusted Clark.

She sneaked a glance at him; his entire attention was focused on his own screen. He seemed to be re-reading something, occasionally tapping the keyboard as he found something he wanted to edit.

He was one incredibly good-looking man.

Actually, she thought he looked even more attractive as Clark than as Superman.

How on earth had she not noticed that before? What crazy stupidity had caused her to treat Clark like something the cat had dragged in while she'd practically swooned at Superman's feet?

Well, she'd well and truly got what she deserved for that. The man she'd sneered at and the man she'd swooned over had turned out to be one and the same. Now, there was no way that she could show any kind of a romantic interest in Clark — why would he ever believe that she was genuine? That she wasn't just setting her sights at him because he was also Superman?

No, Clark was out of reach so far as anything more than friendship was concerned.

Although, Lois thought as she glanced at her file again, trying to remind herself that she really needed to hurry up and get that story finished, it was just as well that there was no possibility of any kind of a closer relationship with Clark. She was the kiss of death to relationships, after all. All of her previous relationships had been federal disasters — there just seemed to be something about her which drove men away. No, which made them think they had to treat her like dirt and then walk away.

There was no way that she wanted to risk that happening with Clark.

She'd never before had someone in her life who meant as much to her as Clark. Oh, sure, she'd only known him for a few weeks, but already he'd become essential to her in every way.

He was her best friend. And she never wanted to lose his friendship. So… they would be friends and no more, and that way she'd manage to hold onto him.

Love, she'd learned through bitter experience, was something which just wasn't ever going to be a part of her life. There seemed to be something about her which turned any possibility of romantic relationships sour. Maybe she was just unlovable. Maybe there was something about her — a neon sign over her head invisible to all except eligible guys who were also decent — which declared loud and clear that Lois Lane wasn't worth loving. That she messed up relationships and wasn't worth getting involved with.

Whatever… it was certainly true that love was an emotion which had been distinctly lacking in her life. And she'd decided several times already that she would be better off not even looking for it. Love, for her, was best only found within the pages of those paperback novels she occasionally read in secret.

So, whatever her feelings for Clark, whether the way her heart seemed to turn flip-flops whenever she looked at him meant that she was in love with him, none of that mattered. It couldn't matter. He was her friend, and that was all he could be to her.

She turned her head slightly, just enough to catch sight of him again as he worked at his computer, his dark head bending every so often as he glanced down at his notes. Yes, she needed him in her life. And she would do nothing to jeopardise that.


Including never again giving him cause to suspect that it was his abilities and powers which made her like him. That just wasn't true now, although of course she was amazed and admiring of what he could do. No, what meant most to her now about Clark was the man himself, the qualities of friendship, compassion, kindness, sensitivity and humour which he had in spades.

In just a few short weeks, he'd become the most important person in her life.


Clark leaned back in his chair, taking a sip of coffee as he began to read over the story he'd just finished. It was fine, he thought; just low-key enough to make it look as if he, the writer, had happened by just as Superman got into action. A short description of the latest Super feat, with a one-line quote from the Superhero himself.

With a simple keystroke, he sent it off to the subeditor. One more task to tick off on his list.

Instead of moving to the next one, however, he paused, taking the time to glance around the newsroom. He still could hardly believe his good fortune. He, Clark Kent, was a member of the reporting team at what he thought of as the best newspaper in the world. For so many years, he'd dreamed of getting a job at the Daily Planet, and he still had to pinch himself occasionally to persuade himself that it had really happened.

Though, of course, it had all nearly ended in disaster, and he still had shivers about how close he'd come to that. If not for Lois…

Yes, Lois. He allowed himself to steal a glimpse of his beautiful partner and friend, seemingly engrossed in her own work. At least, she was staring fixedly at her monitor, which probably meant that she was intensely focused on whatever story she was writing.

She'd just rescued him once again with that cover story of hers, and he smiled as he remembered her quick thinking and her excuse, which was far better than most of the lousy explanations he'd been coming up with ever since he'd invented his alter ego.

Clark could never have imagined how good it would feel to have someone else in on his secret. All his life, from the moment they'd realised just how different he was, his parents had impressed on him how important it was that no-one should ever find out about his abilities. He'd be captured by the government — or, even worse, by rogue scientists. He'd be shut up in a laboratory. He'd be dissected like a frog so that they could find out how he worked; just how different he was. He would end his days as a lab specimen, always assuming that they let him live long enough to know about it.

And, of course, their worst nightmare had come true when his secret had been exposed. Jason Trask, who'd claimed to work for the government but who had turned out to be rogue FBI, disowned by his own superiors — although Lois wasn't convinced of that- had found out the truth about him and had captured him.

Using Clark's parents as hostages to ensure his co-operation, Trask had kept him in a laboratory for ten days. And since Clark had been unable to give Trask or his scientists any of the information they were demanding, his parents had been hurt.

If it hadn't been for Lois, they probably would all have been killed. Clark had felt his own strength draining away bit by bit with the prolonged loss of sunlight.

He'd been dying, and he'd known it. Would have died from the loss of solar exposure, if Trask hadn't killed him first with his 'experiments'.

He owed Lois his own life and the lives of his parents. For that, he could never thank her enough.

The whole episode had been more appalling than his worst-ever nightmares. It wasn't only what Trask had done to him, though that was bad enough; but far, far worse had been having to lie there, powerless, while Trask and his hired thugs had hurt his parents. He didn't know how his parents had managed to get through it all. Stoic as ever, his father had refused to plead with Trask — even when he'd had to sit and watch his own wife be hurt — and hadn't once asked Clark himself to do what Trask wanted in order to save them. Nor had his mother.

That hadn't stopped Clark wanting desperately to do anything which would stop his parents being hurt. The only problem had been that the information Trask had wanted hadn't been anything he could provide. And the more he'd said that he simply didn't know, that there was no 'invasion', that he didn't even know where he had come from, the more Trask had refused to believe him.

But Trask was dead now. And Clark thanked god for that fact every day.

Things were better now, now that his parents' bruises had faded. But he couldn't help wondering if he was the only one of the three Kents who'd had nightmares about their ordeal afterwards. He and his parents had talked about it, of course, but they had just wanted to put it behind them and get on with their lives. No point brooding over things they couldn't change, his father had argued. The point was that they had to make sure nothing like that could ever happen again — so they all needed to be very careful to guard Clark's secret.

Though, of course, now more people knew that he was Superman. Thankfully, only people that he was very sure that he could trust.

Lois knew. And so, of course, did Perry White, although the Planet's editor had only referred to that fact once after Clark's return. He'd gone, rather nervously, to the Planet offices the morning after Lois had rescued them, unsure whether he still had a job and whether his secret was common knowledge throughout the newspaper building. Even though Lois had assured him that she thought Perry was the only other person who'd realised, he hadn't been able to let himself accept that his secret was safe without proof. It had been surprising enough to discover that it hadn't been blazoned on the front page of the Planet.

Even without that, of course, he'd been very conscious that the Planet's editor might not be willing to put up with a reporter who was also a part-time Superhero and who could disappear without notice at any time.

However, he needn't have worried. Perry had been overjoyed to see his newest member of staff alive and well, and had automatically assumed that Clark was resuming his employment. And, between the three of them, they'd come up with a semi-truthful cover story for his disappearance, portraying the now-dead Jason Trask as a madman who, for some reason, had assumed that Clark Kent, ordinary reporter, knew how to contact Superman, and had held him hostage. The front-page story which resulted had secured Clark's reputation in the newsroom.

He'd come to an agreement with Perry about his Superman duties, too. If he needed to leave for an emergency, he would go, but he had to cover for himself with the rest of the newspaper staff as best he could. Perry would turn a blind eye to any prolonged absences, but there had to be some way of explaining this to the other staff, in case accusations of favouritism were levelled. And, in return, Clark would give the Planet as many Superman exclusives as he could without making other news organisations suspicious.

For the sake of appearances, Superman was always referred to in the third person in any conversations with Lois or Perry. Clark was now very used to keeping the two parts of himself separate.

And Lois… Lois was becoming a very good friend. The night she'd rescued him, they'd talked for a couple of hours afterwards, he telling her how he'd come to be Superman and she apologising, shamefaced, for the way she'd treated him as Clark, as compared to the way she'd fawned over him in his Superhero guise. They'd agreed to put all that behind them — even though he hadn't liked it at the time, Clark had been able to understand Lois's reaction. After all, who would notice an ordinary guy from Kansas next to someone who could fly?

And from that moment they'd been sworn friends, the past put behind them. Yes, life was good, Clark thought with a smile, and with the treat he'd planned for the evening ahead of them still, it was going to get even better.


"Ready to go?"

Lois looked up to see Clark standing by her desk, his jacket on, clearly ready to depart. "Just let me shut this down."

Grabbing her coat, she walked with him to the elevator, but to her surprise he ushered her into the stairwell. "Are we supposed to be on some sort of health kick?" she said, her voice laced with irony. "Because I'm not sure that it's going to make any difference to the four hundred calories I'll be eating!"

He laughed. "We're going up, not down," he explained. "And I didn't want anyone to see the elevator going up to roof level."

"We're going to the roof?" Puzzled, Lois stopped in her tracks and stared at Clark. "What for?"

"Well, I did promise you a chocolate sundae," he said blandly.

"Yeah, but the Fudge Castle's down there," Lois pointed out with exaggerated patience.

"Did I mention the Fudge Castle? Come on, Lois, trust me. Would I lead you on a wild goose chase?"

"Well, unless there's a soda fountain on the roof…"

Clark laughed again and caught Lois's hand, tugging her after him. She followed, still baffled as to what he was up to, but willing to follow his direction.

It had been a good day, she thought as they hurried up the stairs. That afternoon, a lead had broken on one of their ongoing investigations, and they'd spent several hours chasing down additional information and putting the pieces together. For a while, Lois had thought that they'd have to stay late and take a raincheck on that chocolate sundae. But she'd reckoned without her partner's extraordinary abilities. He'd commandeered one of the smaller conference rooms and she'd sat, her jaw dropping, as he'd scanned through hundreds of pages of documentary records in seconds. And he'd found the missing proof they'd needed to write their story.

He was amazing. And what was even more astonishing, he wanted to be her partner. Considering all he could do, and the fact that he was also a talented journalist, if he'd wanted to work solo he could have run rings around her, beating her — and probably every reporter in Metropolis — to the best stories. Yet he wanted her as a partner. And he made it clear how much he admired her own ability as a reporter.

His attitude was so different from any other male journalist she'd ever worked with. Every one of them had been interested in promoting their own careers, and they hadn't cared who they stepped on in the process — and she'd come to understand that the only way to succeed was to behave exactly as they did. Clark was turning her expectations of men upside down.

And putting her own treatment of him to shame.

Yes — as she'd admitted to him the night of the long confessions, as she thought of it now, she had treated Clark appallingly. Right from the moment he'd arrived, she'd resented him. She'd done her best to put him down at every opportunity, and it was only to his credit that he'd fought back — though in a humorous rather than a nasty way. She'd done her best to assert her seniority over him, made it clear that as far as she was concerned he was very much the low man on the totem pole — and she'd even stolen his story.

She'd stolen his story — the same crime she'd never forgiven Claude for.

And yet he'd forgiven her. And he was waiting for her right now, ready to take her out for ice-cream…

Moments later, they stepped out onto the flat roof of the Planet. He dropped her hand, and she instantly felt the loss of the solidity and warmth of his grasp. Then he started to spin, and moments later she was looking at Superman.

She'd seen him execute that spin manoeuvre before, but she never ceased to marvel at it. To see him transform from Clark to Superman in less than a couple of seconds was breathtaking. But she didn't even have time to wonder why he'd done it before he was holding out his hand towards her. "Come flying with me?" he asked, a smile in his voice.

Flying. With Superman.

She'd dreamed of flying in Superman's arms again ever since that first time she'd met Clark in his Superhero guise. He'd flown her back to the Planet then, swooping in through the huge picture window to deposit her beside her own desk — and now, of course, she understood how he'd known exactly where in the newsroom she worked.

And he hadn't offered to take her flying again since. She'd been hoping that he would, over the past couple of weeks, but it somehow hadn't seemed right to ask him for a social flight. Sure, he was Superman. But he was also her friend Clark, and since the last thing Lois wanted him to think was that she liked him for what he could do, instead of the wonderful person he was, she was doing her best to let him see that she was focusing on Clark and not on the Super side of him. She'd made that mistake once already, and through luck and Clark's own forgiving personality she'd got a chance to start again with him. She wasn't going to wreck this chance.

So she hadn't asked him — for this, or for anything else which would involve him using his Super abilities.

Now, it seemed, he was offering.

"Wow," she said softly as he scooped her into his arms, holding her close to his chest.

"Put your arms around my neck," he suggested. "I'm going to take off pretty quickly — I don't want us to be seen."

The surroundings turned to a mass of indistinguishable colours as Clark swept them up into the air — and yet, to her surprise, Lois didn't feel any of the dizziness or discomfort she'd have expected from the speed they were moving at. She allowed herself to relax against him, watching the scenery rush past beneath them.

Then she heard his voice in her ear. "You okay?"

"Are you kidding? This is wonderful!" Lois exclaimed. "I'd forgotten how fantastic it felt to fly with you — last time, I think I was too caught up with trying to figure out who you were to enjoy the flight. This… wow."

His laughter tickled her hair. "We'll have to do this more often, then. I don't often get to share this with anyone."

"I'm glad you're sharing it with me."

As they flew, he pointed out states and landmarks to her, all of which sped past in the blink of an eye. They were travelling far faster than even a supersonic jet, she realised as she saw how quickly the state borders he was pointing out were vanishing beneath them. Even the fairly basic knowledge of physics she possessed told Lois that she should be vaporised… and yet she was perfectly safe and whole in Clark's arms. And, despite their altitude, she wasn't even cold.

He truly was an incredible man.

And, astoundingly, he was her friend.

*Her* friend. Lois Lane, the woman who didn't really have any friends — who'd never really noticed the absence of friends in her life before now.

They were flying over the ocean now — the Pacific, she realised, off the coast of northern California; the shape of the coastline told her that much. She still had no idea of their destination, and Clark's grin when they'd emerged onto the rooftop had told her that he had no intention of telling her his plans until he was ready.

And then the scenery below began to take on a more defined form, and she knew that they were losing altitude. "Isn't that the Golden Gate Bridge?" she exclaimed, recognising the distinctive orange towers.

"Sure is," he answered. "San Francisco. We'll be landing in a minute. You'd better hold on tight, because I'll have to come down quickly."

He'd brought her to San Francisco? They'd flown all the way across the US, just for a chocolate sundae? That was unbelievable… and yet it was the sort of thing Clark could do any time he wanted. No wonder he was so well-travelled.

"Where are we?" she asked once he'd set her on her feet in a small back alley.

"Between Fisherman's Wharf and the Cannery," he explained, pausing then to spin back into his normal clothing. "The ocean's this way."

"Why San Francisco? I mean, this is fantastic! I've never been here, and I can't believe it, but… why?"

Clark grinned, guiding her out onto the Embarcadero. "I promised you chocolate, didn't I?"

"Well, yeah, but…"

They'd passed the Cannery; Clark ushered her across the road and through a grassy area, then gestured ahead. "I wanted to take you to the best place I could think of. And there's nowhere better than Ghirardelli's."

"I love their chocolate squares!" Lois said instantly. "They do sundaes?"

"There's a small chain of soda fountains," he explained. "They're mostly on the west coast — there's hardly any back east apart from in Florida. And if we're going to Ghirardelli's, how could I take you anywhere else but San Francisco?"

"You're out of this world," Lois murmured, almost lost for words. "And I'd have settled for the Fudge Castle? I must have been crazy!"


Yes, he was out of this world, Clark mused silently as he led Lois through Ghiarardelli Square and towards the soda fountain. Just another reminder that he wasn't human; that he could never expect anyone to accept him as a normal guy. Still, at times like this he could persuade himself that it didn't matter. Lois's delight in his surprise gladdened his heart, and he resolved to enjoy their evening together. And, if she was interested — and that seemed very likely — he could suggest other trips together. He'd never known just how much better it could be to share his enjoyment of flying, and travelling to different places, with a friend.

Though, ten minutes later, watching Lois's ecstatic expression as she ate her World Famous Hot Fudge Sundae, smothered in hot fudge sauce, whipped cream and almonds, Clark found himself wondering whether she thought chocolate or flying was more of a treat. He couldn't help the grin which stole across his face as he studied her; how she managed to keep her slender figure when she was so addicted to chocolate and ice-cream was a miracle.

He soon found out; she hadn't even eaten half of the contents of the glass when she sat back and declared herself replete. Pushing the glass over to him, she said, laughing, "It's all yours. So I hope you like chocolate!"

"Oh, I think I can force myself."

"So." Lois grinned at him impishly. "Do we have to go back straight away, or can we do the tourist thing for a while?"

"If you like. I thought you might like to ride the cable car — it shouldn't be too crowded now."

"Sounds good. And maybe Chinatown? Can we eat there?"

"Eat?" Clark allowed his eyebrows to shoot towards his hairline. "You want to eat again?"

Lois shrugged. "In a couple of hours. I mean, all those hills in this city… I'll have walked off the sundae in no time!"

"Okay, dinner in Chinatown," Clark agreed. "But, you know, the food's pretty good here but it's still not a patch on Shanghai."

Lois blinked. "Shanghai? I guess you've been there, of course… You don't fly over there just to eat, do you?" she asked disbelievingly, her voice carefully lowered.

"Whenever I want decent Chinese takeout, sure," he said, enjoying the incredulous look on her face. "Remember that first night we worked late at the Planet?"

"You're kidding!"

"Nope," he assured her, and burst out laughing at her expression. It felt good to know that being different wasn't altogether a bad thing.

Sitting across from Lois, enjoying her company, Clark again felt amazement at how far his and Lois's relationship had come from those first couple of weeks. He still wondered occasionally why she'd treated him the way she had when they'd first met. It was in such contrast to her behaviour now, though he supposed that it wasn't too different from the treatment some other guys in the newsroom occasionally got from her. But it had been far worse with him. She hadn't just been dismissive; she'd been downright rude, offensive and occasionally nasty.

There had to be a reason for it. From his knowledge of Lois over the past few weeks, that wasn't her normal behaviour. She was thoughtful, caring, funny and even casually affectionate — a far cry from the cold, arrogant woman he'd been paired with for his very first story.

Actually, he had a pretty good suspicion of what was behind her attitude. She'd given him one big clue that night they'd been chained together at EPRAD; she'd told him about that other reporter, Claude, whom she'd slept with and who'd then stolen her story. Clearly, she didn't trust male reporters… though he was sure that there was more to it than that.

He'd finally come to the conclusion that he obviously resembled Claude in some way. He probably looked like the guy, and perhaps he'd even — in some superficial way — behaved like him as well. If that was so, he could hardly blame her for reacting badly. That was his theory, anyway. He hadn't had an opportunity to prove it, mainly because he hadn't wanted to ask questions around the newsroom about the other reporter. If it had got back to Lois, she'd have been sure to think that he was gossiping about her — something he would never do, though she probably hadn't know him well enough at that point to know that. And even if it hadn't got back to her, he wouldn't have wanted anyone else in the newsroom to wonder why he was asking questions about the love-rat who'd slept with, then dissed, Lois.

But anyway, her initial behaviour towards him didn't really matter any more. She had apologised for it, after all, and after what she'd done for him and his parents he could hardly hold it against her, even if he'd wanted to. And he didn't. He was finding, ever since that night, that he liked her far too much to bear a grudge.

They worked together, and also spent time together socially — Lois's favourite means of relaxation could very quickly become pizza and a movie at his place, or so she'd informed him the previous weekend after he'd suggested it for the first time. It had been fun, he thought now, remembering. They'd talked for hours afterwards, discovering all kinds of interests they had in common, and had argued good-naturedly about politics and literature and other subjects.

She was ambitious as a reporter, but he was also discovering that she was a fiercely loyal friend. They'd become close — in fact, she was the closest friend he'd ever had, since he'd never before had a friend who knew everything about him.

And a friend with whom he could be himself. It was so good not to have to hide his real self around her. That was such a novelty for him, and he found he was loving it. When they were alone, he could be truly himself. He could heat up water with his eyes, or reach stuff on high shelves by floating, or look through walls when she was around if he wanted. It felt great. He felt free.

Alone with Lois at her apartment or his, he could use his powers in the same way he would if he was on his own, or with his parents. When he'd fixed her microwave the previous week by, first, X-raying the case to discover that there was a loose connection, and then welding it with his heat vision, she'd stared at him in amazement but then burst out laughing. And twice already, when she'd been so focused on her work that she'd let her coffee go cold, she'd simply brought the mug over to him and given him an expectant look, demanding that he heat it up for her.

She was proving herself a good friend to Superman too. She'd covered for him three times now, as he'd just reminded her. And she'd helped him write up Superman stories a couple of times when, as she'd pointed out, it wouldn't do him any good to have Superman too closely associated in the public mind with Clark Kent. Okay, it was true that in doing so Lois then gained herself another byline above a story about Superman — and a front page story on one of those occasions — but he knew her well enough to be sure that it hadn't been her primary motivation.

Best of all, her crush on his alter ego seemed to have disappeared completely. He was very glad of that — despite her apologies on the night she'd rescued him, he'd been worried that she might transfer her infatuation to him as Clark. Although of course he wouldn't have objected to Lois seeing him as more than a friend, the last thing he wanted was to have her want him because of what he could do. If all she wanted was to be Superman's girlfriend, he wasn't interested. But he had nothing to be concerned about there, it had turned out; he hadn't once noticed that hero-worshipping look in her eyes since she'd found out the truth. What remained was far better; their relationship was rapidly turning into the most solid friendship he'd ever had.

And he intended to keep it that way. Which meant that his own feelings for Lois were under very close guard. The very first time he'd seen her, he'd fallen hard; but, as he'd acknowledged to himself many times since, he'd known her as little as she'd known Superman. His feelings for her at that time had probably been little more than a crush, too. Although of course he still found her attractive, and he longed to kiss her, he knew that keeping her as a friend was the right thing to do.

After all, he was an alien. He was from another planet, a planet he still knew next to nothing about. That was a very recent discovery, too; while he and his parents had often wondered whether he could possibly have come from somewhere other than Earth, their suspicion had only been confirmed when, after he'd flown his parents back to Smallville, his father had shown him where the craft he'd arrived in had been buried. Clark had dug it up, and had then been astounded to find a small globe which actually seemed to communicate with him. From the globe, he'd discovered that he came from a planet called Krypton.

He was an alien. He now knew for a fact, therefore, that he wasn't human. So how could he assume that he could expect any woman to accept him as a man? As a lover? Okay, he knew that he looked identical to human males, and locker-room talk and comparisons as a schoolkid, and later at college, had reassured him that his body worked pretty much as a human male's did. Well, up to a point. He'd never actually made love to a woman. And that was the only way he would know if he was completely normal in that respect.

But how could he make love to someone without being honest with her about himself? And, assuming that he did manage to tell someone the truth, how could he expect her to accept him as he was? He wasn't normal, and that was all there was to it. And, of course, there was his deeper fear, the one which had been the subject of nightmares for him since the time he'd been dating Lana. What if he couldn't control his abilities when making love? What if he held her so tightly that he crushed her? What if he suffocated her? There were so many ways that his actions could result in his lover's death.

Oh, he had tried to convince himself that he was worrying about nothing. But then he'd remember the time when he'd got carried away when kissing Lana. He'd tightened his arms around her, holding her so close to him, and he'd deepened the kiss, completely forgetting that he was able to hold his breath far longer than she could. She'd had to struggle to make him release her, and when he had, she'd been almost blue in the face, gasping for breath and holding her ribs as if he'd hurt her. Bruised her. He'd been very lucky that bruising was all she'd suffered.

And she'd never let him get too close to her from then on.

After that, he'd always been very careful. On the rare occasions when he'd kissed a woman since, he'd touched them very lightly, if at all, and kept any kisses brief. He was careful around his parents too, making sure that he kept hugs brief, his powerful strength under intense control. He was never going to risk hurting anyone ever again.

And that was the main reason why any thoughts of Lois as more than a friend were out of the question. Even if she was willing to consider him, a being from another planet, in the light of a boyfriend — which he knew would be very unlikely, despite her early crush on Superman, since after all he knew that she hadn't even considered the consequences of a relationship — he could never risk her safety. As anything more than a friend, he was a danger to her. It was as simple as that.

And that, he thought, was why it was time to leave Ghirardelli's and get on with doing the tourist thing. Sitting opposite her, sharing her sundae, was just too dangerous. He was at risk of letting himself fall into the trap of seeing the two of them as more than friends; of imagining that they were like the many other couples sitting around in the cafe — that they were a couple.

They weren't, and he knew they could never be.

So he forced himself to smile at her and to adopt a light, cheerful tone. "Ready to go?"


"Wow! The view from here is *incredible*!" Lois exclaimed, pressing her face against the protective fence running along the side of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It's even better from up there," Clark said, grinning and gesturing towards the sky. "Later, if you want, we can fly over… I'll have to stay high, or at least above cloud cover, but still…"

That sounded utterly fantastic. When Clark decided he was going to share his gifts with her, he really went all out to make it spectacular, Lois mused. Some day, some woman was going to be the luckiest person in the whole world.

The thought of Clark with another woman, spending time with her, taking her flying, holding her close to him, made Lois wince painfully inside, her joyful mood of seconds earlier dissipating. But, she reminded herself, one day he was going to have a girlfriend. One day he would fall in love. And, as his friend, she was going to have to be happy for him.

But that day wasn't today, she told herself. Right here, right now, she had him to herself, and she was going to make the most of every second.

She smiled happily at him. "I'd love that, Clark."

"Okay. After dinner, then. Before we have to head back."

By unspoken consent, they carried on strolling across the bridge, enjoying the evening sunlight along with the San Franciscans who were also out for a walk on the city's most famous landmark. Couples walked past hand in hand — some, Lois noticed, not made up of members of opposite genders, and she acknowledged that at least one thing she'd heard about San Francisco was true.

Glancing at Clark, walking in lazy strides beside her, she longed for the courage to reach out and take his hand. Just for the experience of walking hand in hand in what had to be one of the most romantic places in the country: the Golden Gate at close to sunset.

It would be nice. But still… It was wonderful to be there at all.

"Lois?" Clark, sounding tentative, interrupted her thoughts.


"Can I ask you something?"

He still sounded awkward, as if he expected her to reject his request.

"This sounds like something I'm not going to like," she said, teasing. On impulse, she bumped her hip against his. "Spit it out, Clark. What's the worst I can do? Tell you I won't answer?"

"Well, you might not want to," he said diffidently. "But… okay. Lois, do I look like Claude?"

Lois came to a sudden stop. What on earth had made Clark ask that? Why had the idea even occurred to him?

"Clark, what the heck gave you that idea?" she demanded, incredulous. "What made you even think of that waste of good oxygen?" She stared at him, noting the anxious expression on his face. Clearly, he had a good reason for his question, but she couldn't imagine what it might be.

She saw him take a deep breath before answering. "I just wondered, Lois. I know it's all past history now and I'm not trying to resurrect it — it's just that I'd been wondering for a while if the reason you didn't like me when I first joined the Planet is because I look like him, or I remind you of him in some other way."

He thought that? But then, she reminded herself quickly, what else was he to think? To Clark, newly arrived in Metropolis, a nice guy used to being friendly to people and being treated with friendliness in return, her attitude had to have been an unpleasant shock.

Lois bit her lip, looking down at the asphalt beneath her feet. He deserved an explanation, but she wasn't even sure what sort of explanation she could offer him. She wasn't even sure that she entirely understood herself what drove her to be so…

"Hostile," she said abruptly.

"Huh?" His puzzled tone made her look up to meet his gaze again.

"Hostile. I was hostile to you."

"I guess," he said softly. "I… kinda didn't want to use that word."

"That's what it was, though," she admitted. "Look, I'll try to explain, but I'm not sure you'll understand — or think that it's very fair. I mean, I guess it's not fair, but… well, it's not easy to be in another person's shoes."

"You mean that you can explain, but I might not see it from your perspective?" Clark asked.

"I guess that's what I'm trying to say, yeah."

Clark gestured to the walkway in front of them, leading to the centre of the bridge. "Want to walk?"

She nodded. And, silently, as he fell into pace beside her, Clark looped his arm loosely around her shoulders briefly, giving her a one-armed hug.

The message was clear: he wasn't judging her. He was still her friend, supportive and affectionate. He just wanted to understand. And, she thought, she owed him an explanation.

"You know the cliche about history repeating itself?"

He nodded. "Heard it once or twice." There was humour in his voice.

"I've seen it happen," she said, trying hard to resist slipping into bitterness. "Too many times."

"Let me guess," Clark offered. "Guys less talented than you coming in and grabbing all the plum assignments?"

He was quick, Lois thought. She hadn't expected him to work it out so easily — unless, she thought with a sinking heart, he was being sarcastic. After all, it was one of the perennial complaints of feminism, that women usually had to work twice as hard as men to succeed. In her experience, that was true, too.

Then she looked at him, and realised that his question had been entirely sincere.

"Yeah. That was part of it. Then there was the Claude thing, too — I mean, using me, stealing my story. That taught me that I had to be very careful about who I trusted. But even then I didn't write off everyone. I worked with a couple of guys in the year or so after Claude left. I tried, Clark. I really did. But they all seemed to want to prove that they were better than me, or they could get the big stories… I got fed up with them trying to make me do the grunt work while they went for the glory. In the end I just told Perry that I wouldn't work with a full-time partner again. By that time I'd won my first Kerth and was nominated for a second, so he listened," she concluded.

"That's pretty lousy," Clark agreed. "But —"

"But I shouldn't have taken it out on you? Made you pay the bill for what those other guys did to me?" she cut in to say. "You're right. But after a while it seemed like it was a case of being assertive — even nasty — or be walked all over. I *couldn't* take the risk of trusting some guy I didn't know, just in case he might be different. Too many others weren't. And, yeah, that just turned me into a horrible person. I know that. I… just couldn't figure out how to be any other way and survive."

"I can understand that," Clark said softly. "And I wasn't going to criticise. I was going to say that the worst of it is I hate the fact that they robbed you of your ability to trust."

Lois stilled, and he halted beside her. She turned her head to look at him, barely knowing how to respond. How could he possibly understand so clearly? No-one else had — well, not that she'd tried to explain to many people. Lucy couldn't understand why she was so mistrustful of men; she tried on a regular basis to persuade Lois that she really should give some guy or other 'a chance'. And, while Perry had — mostly — given up trying to persuade Lois to accept a permanent partner, she'd known that his attitude was more of impatient resignation than real understanding.

"I'm sorry that I didn't give you the chance you deserved," she said abruptly, biting her lip. Knowing that he'd so easily understood why she'd behaved the way she had made her treatment of him all the more shameful.

"It's in the past, Lois," he said with a shrug, encouraging her to walk onwards. "We agreed that the night you saved me and my parents. I probably shouldn't have brought it up — I wasn't trying to criticise you. It was just that I'd been wondering whether I reminded you of him in some way…"

Superficially, in a way, he had. But once she'd known Clark for more than a couple of days, she'd known that there was very little resemblance at all.

"You're both good-looking," she told him. "But it was always obvious that he knew it, and he traded on it. You're not like that — I realised that after the first day or so. And when you work with someone, it's a genuine partnership — Claude always had to be the glory-hunter. So, no, you're not like him at all."

His hand caught hers momentarily, before releasing it again — too quickly for Lois's liking, and she felt the loss of his warmth immediately. "I'm glad," he said. "Now, let's see if we can make it to the other side before the sun sets, okay?"


Back in her apartment later that night, Lois sat back on the sofa which Clark had declared to be an instrument of torture the last time he'd been over… which reminded her; she probably should go shopping for a new couch. He was right. These really were much more showpiece items of furniture than anything designed with their users' comfort in mind. Maybe he'd be willing to go with her, if she went to the furniture malls at the weekend… after all, if Clark was going to keep spending time at her apartment, just as she was at his, then she wanted him to be comfortable.

She wanted him to be comfortable. At that thought, Lois shook her head in amusement. Since when had she ever put someone else's comfort before anything she wanted? Least of all the comfort of a man?

If someone had told her just three weeks earlier that she'd be making changes to her lifestyle in order to please Clark Kent, she'd have thought they were insane.

But now… well, everything had changed.

He was her friend. And after that evening's little trip to San Francisco, so was Superman. Clark seemed to be very relaxed and happy to be Superman around her, spinning in and out of the costume, letting her see him perform Super feats whether or not he was appropriately garbed in Spandex at the time. Metropolis's Superhero was making it very plain — albeit privately — that he considered Lois Lane a close friend.

It might seem odd to separate Clark and Superman out like that — after all, they were the same person and so if Clark was her friend then obviously Superman was — but in a way Lois had been doing exactly that almost since she'd got Clark back after Trask had kidnapped him.

She wanted Clark as her friend. She'd been thoroughly ashamed at the way she'd treated him and the way she'd fawned over Superman at the same time — and so she'd made a special effort to focus on the *Clark* side of him. It wasn't that she ignored the fact that he was Superman so much that she consciously treated him as Clark.

So she deliberately made very few requests for him to do Super things for her. Okay, she'd been wowed at the way he'd fixed her microwave last week, but she hadn't asked him to do it; she'd been complaining about having to get it fixed and he'd just gone and taken a look. She had asked him to heat up coffee for her a couple of times, but that was only after he'd done it once on seeing her take a sip of what had turned out to be cold coffee. He'd come over, winked at her and lowered his glasses slightly; seconds later, the liquid had been bubbling and steam had eddied upwards. "Next time, just ask," he'd said, grinning, before wandering back to his desk.

Clearly, heating up her drinks was something he didn't mind doing in the least. And so she'd presented him with her mug and an expectant look a few times since, and he'd obliged with a grin.

But still, she didn't want him thinking that his super-powered side was the reason she liked him. And so there would be no suggestion that, since he could fly to the other side of the world in seconds, he might fetch them some exotic takeout for dinner; and definitely no hints that she'd like to go flying. She wanted Clark to have no doubts whatsoever in his mind that it was him, the ordinary guy — or as near-ordinary that someone as *extra*ordinary as Clark Kent could possibly be! — that she wanted as her friend.

Her friend. No more than that — even though she still thought that Clark was quite simply the most drop-dead gorgeous man she'd ever met. She'd instinctively thought that when she'd first noticed him, but she'd been too busy trying to get Perry to let her off that stupid mood piece so that she could concentrate on what she'd known — and she'd been right, too! — was a real front- page story.

And yet even then, and more so the next day, she'd known that Clark was attractive. But she'd had her fill of attractive men, especially those who used their good looks to get what they wanted from women. And so she'd told herself that she didn't care how he looked.

Then she'd seen Superman, and all caution about reacting to attractive men had flown out of the window.

Superman was just so magnificent in every way. His good looks had been immediately obvious, and his amazing powers had sent her into awe mode instantly. But what had taken her beyond hero- worship had been Superman's innate goodness. The way he helped anyone, regardless of who they were, how much — or little — money they had, how they had got into the situation they were in.

It was that, the decency and integrity she'd seen in the man under the suit, which had made her believe that she was in love with Superman; of that she was sure. But it was the way she'd treated Clark at the same time which now made her ashamed, made her doubt her own judgement once more.

She still cringed when she recalled what she'd said to the sketch artist in Clark's hearing. She couldn't have made it any more obvious if she'd taken out a full-page ad in the Planet. Or a billboard outside the building. Lois Lane had a Pulitzer-sized crush on Superman. And Clark Kent might as well be a woodlouse for all she cared.

With that memory, there was no way that she was going to let Clark realise that she was still attracted to him — as Clark as well as in the Suit. Or that she'd found herself dreaming about kissing him, or wondering what it would be like to be touched by him — the way a man would touch a woman he was in love with.

No; she'd missed her chance with Clark. She'd missed it at the moment she'd told him not to fall for her, that she didn't have time for it.

Why should he ever believe her? How could she possibly convince him that she loved him for everything that he was, and not just because he occasionally dressed up in a Spandex suit and saved the world?

How could she even be sure herself that her feelings were all for the man Clark really was — the ordinary guy who worked with her in the newsroom, brought her coffee, teased her, wrote stories with her — and not for the smaller part of him which had some amazing abilities? Could she be sure that she found him just as wonderful when they were sitting in his apartment watching a movie as she did when he was flying her to places like San Francisco?

Well, she thought she was sure. Although she knew herself well enough to be aware that, if she hadn't made that incredible discovery about Clark, she would still be treating him as something the cat had dragged in. She could tell herself that it was his kidnap, and believing that he was dead, which had made the difference, but would she really have gone searching for a mere Clark Kent?

No; it was Superman she had hunted high and low for.

Regardless of the fact that, over the past few weeks, she'd come to know Clark for the wonderful, special man he was, she'd made so many mistakes in the beginning that there was no way she could hope to make up for them completely. It was clear, too, from his out-of-the-blue question tonight that Clark hadn't forgotten her behaviour, although he had forgiven her.

And so there was no way that she was going to embarrass him — or herself — now by making a play for him, or even hinting that she'd be open to something more than friendship. No; it was far better to play safe, be his friend and hang onto the only relationship she'd ever had which actually meant something.

The one relationship in her life that she cherished beyond anything.


The next morning, Clark entered the newsroom bearing two carryout coffees from the Daily Java. On his way to Lois's desk, he detoured via the watercooler, snagging a couple of doughnuts from the box. "Morning, partner," he said cheerfully, placing Lois's double-chocolate mocha on her desk along with a chocolate doughnut.

"Hey." She smiled up at him. "Mocha?" she asked hopefully.

"Need you ask?"

"I'll be putting on weight if I spend much more time with you," she commented wryly, opening her takeout coffee cup and taking a sip.

Raising an eyebrow, Clark gave her a slow once-over. "I can't see a problem," he observed, giving her a teasing grin.

She actually blushed, to his amused surprise. "Yeah, well, give it a couple of weeks and you'll see! It's all right for you, Mr I-never-put-on-a-pound-because-I-have-a-super-metabolism!"

"Hey, any time you want a jogging partner, I'll be there," he offered.

"Don't think I won't take you up on that," she warned with a grin as she reached for her coffee again.

Laughing, Clark took his own coffee and doughnut back to his desk. As he loaded the research files for the story he was currently working on, he couldn't help thinking about his attractive partner, and the terrific time they'd had the previous evening. He really loved spending time with her, and it gave him so much pleasure to see her delight in new places and new experiences.

Their conversation had been good, too — at least for him, though he hoped that she hadn't been upset by it. She knew — she had to — that the rocky early days of their working relationship were all ancient history as far as he was concerned. He didn't hold it against her in the least. But he had wanted to understand.

He just wished that he could have five minutes with Claude, and with every other one of the men who'd damaged her confidence and her ability to trust.

But, since he couldn't, then he was going to do his best to teach her to trust again. She had already made a good start in his case, and he was noticing changes in the way she behaved with other work colleagues.

He couldn't wait to take Lois somewhere else; there were so many places in different parts of the world he would simply love to show her, places which were special to him but would be so much more so when he could share them with someone.

Someone special.

Lois. His best friend.

At last, he had someone in his life with whom he could really be himself. After so many years of feeling set apart, detached from other people, he wasn't alone any more.

San Francisco with Lois had been great. Next time — well, there was Niagara, or the Amazon Basin, or Paris, or London, or Vienna, or Prague, or the Taj Mahal… In fact, if he remembered correctly, Lois had a birthday coming up. Smiling in anticipation, he mulled over a few options and started planning…

The sound of a telephone ringing interrupted his thoughts, and he glanced around in search of the source, just in time to see Lois picking up her phone. He was about to turn his attention back to his work when his attention was abruptly caught.

"Mr L — oh, if you prefer it — Lex. This is a surprise."

Lex Luthor. Clark felt his gut tighten.

He hated even the thought of that man showing an interest in Lois. He had no idea why Luthor had called her, but he was darned sure that it wasn't just business. He'd seen the way Luthor had looked at Lois at the White Orchid Ball. And anyway, Luthor was known to be reclusive where the press was concerned. The man was happy to issue press releases or even give press conferences when he had something he wanted to hit the news, but otherwise he avoided journalists the way other people avoided dentists.

So why was he calling Lois?

Shamelessly eavesdropping now, Clark caught what Lois was saying.

"…interview? Yes, that would be great. Let me see…" She began to flick through her day-planner.

Luthor was offering her an interview? Yeah, right. As if that was that was his real purpose in contacting her!

Just about managing to restrain himself from listening in to Luthor's side of the conversation, Clark picked up a pencil and started playing absently with it while he waited for Lois's next response.

"Yes, that looks good… next Friday, five o'clock. Now, are there any topics you're going to say are off-limits? …Now, come on, you know I want to ask about the years before LexCorp. I have no intention of simply reproducing your press releases, Lex. I want to know what makes you tick!"

By Lois's tone, Clark guessed that Luthor was flirting with her, and he had to grit his teeth to stop himself from doing something stupid, like marching over there and cutting off the call. And then he caught himself sharply.

What right did he have to object if another man found Lois attractive? What right had he to feel jealous if there was a possibility that she found him attractive too?

If only it wasn't Luthor, he told himself bitterly.

Luthor. He was convinced that the man wasn't the benevolent, respectable businessman he claimed to be. Those couple of encounters he'd had with the man as Superman gave him good reason to be suspicious. But he was well aware that he had too little to go on. He had no hard evidence, nothing he could give Lois to persuade her that the man was dirty.

But if there was a chance that she could end up dating Luthor, didn't he have an obligation to find out the truth so that he could warn her?

He did. And he would. It wasn't all dog-in-the-manger possessiveness, he told himself. It wasn't a case of not wanting anyone else to have Lois, even if he couldn't have her himself. He just didn't want her to be in the position of dating someone who didn't deserve her in every possible way — and, even worse, someone who was quite possibly a murderer.

It wasn't until some time later that he realised — or perhaps admitted — that the nagging, churning sensation in his gut wasn't only due to the fact that it was Lex Luthor who was coming on to Lois.

He would have felt possessive — no, jealous — no matter who it was.

That was crazy! he told himself. He had no right to feel possessive of Lois. No right to be jealous. She wasn't his, after all. They weren't involved with each other. They were friends, no more — and would be no more than that. They couldn't be any more than that. He knew that it was impossible. There were so many reasons, chief of all being his fear — no, his absolute certainty — that he would hurt her if they became intimate. Maybe even kill her.

It didn't even have to be intimacy. His experience with Lana had shown him that even a hug, even a kiss, could be enough to inflict hurt and possibly serious injury. Heck, he'd almost forgotten all the need for caution yesterday evening when they'd been walking on the bridge — he'd just slung his arm around her without even thinking. Just in time, he'd remembered to make his hold on her *very* gentle, keeping his arm hovering millimetres above her shoulder — and then letting her go before he could get too used to the sensation of having his arm around her.

As he'd reminded himself only the previous evening, he was a danger to her.

Heck, even taking her flying with him was dangerous for her, wasn't it? Holding her tightly in his arms… but he'd reasoned that, since he flew with people frequently when he rescued them, he'd obviously worked out the most safe and effective way of holding them so that he didn't cause them any injury. For all he knew, the motion of flying, the way the air cushioned him and his passengers as he flew, or even the fact that he had to concentrate on keeping them in the air, helped to protect them. All theories, and not very good ones at that — but still, flying at least seemed safe. So far, at any rate.

But he was still only too aware of the evidence that embracing a woman, kissing her, was too hazardous for him to contemplate. And that absolutely dictated that he could never be more than Lois's friend.

So what right did he have to feel jealous at the thought of Lois dating another man?

No right at all. And no reason. He wasn't in love with her, after all. Sure, he found her attractive. Yeah, he'd found himself enjoying holding her close to him — though not too close, of course — and wanting to kiss her. But she was an attractive woman, so that was only natural, wasn't it?

He wasn't really jealous, he reasoned with himself. It was just that Lois was the first person with whom he'd ever shared his secret, the only person other than his parents with whom he could be truly himself. That created a special bond between them; made them close in a way he could never be with anyone else. That was why he was so uncomfortable — unhappy — at the idea of her becoming involved with someone else.

After all, once Lois did get a boyfriend, she couldn't be his best friend any more — not in the way she'd been over the past few weeks. Once she started seeing someone, getting serious about someone, he would lose her. And he was only just getting used to having her in his life.

It would happen, one of these days. So he needed to treat this experience as a warning: one day he would lose the closeness they had together. And if he acted like a jealous moron when it happened, he'd lose her altogether. If he wanted to keep her friendship, he would have to make sure that she never saw how he really felt about her dating another guy.

After all, he'd known for the past ten years that he was always going to be alone, hadn't he? He'd been foolish to even imagine that anything had changed.


It was strange but, now that she'd finally got the elusive Lex Luthor interview she'd been trying to get for the past couple of years, Lois was finding it hard to get particularly excited about the idea.

So much had happened over the past month or so — Lex Luthor simply wasn't the biggest story in town any more. She knew that he'd been put out by her focus on Superman in the weeks following the White Orchid Ball, but every reporter in the city had been trying to track down Superman at that point.

She did want to get the definitive Luthor interview, of course. But now Luthor was just another story, whereas before he'd been… oh, mysterious, intriguing, a challenge. His very elusiveness had made her want to get to him more. And now that he had become the pursuer — after all, he was offering her the interview on a plate, and he'd been making the running ever since the ball — her interest had waned.

Luthor was an enigma, and to Lois a mystery was always an invitation to investigate. But, yes, now he was only a story, whereas before, she mused, her interest had also been in the man. After all, he was the third-richest man in the world. He'd built his companies up from nothing, which spoke to his abilities and intelligence. He was a philanthropist, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to good causes every year. And, she had acknowledged a long time ago, he was very attractive.

A couple of months ago, she'd have been very flattered by the fact that Luthor was actively showing some sort of interest in her. She was pretty sure that it wasn't entirely faked; she'd seen the way he'd eyed her at the ball, and had observed the direction of his gaze when she'd danced with him. In contrast, when Clark had cut in and stolen a quick dance, his gaze had not dropped below her face.

But then, Clark wasn't interested in her — at least, she didn't think so.

Was Lex Luthor?

Well, it didn't really matter whether he was or not, she thought. She wasn't interested in him — and since he was rarely out of the news for one reason or another, that was probably a good thing. She couldn't very well report on him if she were seeing him socially.

That reminded her, of course, that she was seeing Superman socially — but the difference there was that no-one knew about it.

But, yes, she was fairly sure that Luthor's interest in her went beyond the purely professional. She was also pretty certain that he'd been flirting subtly with her on the phone — and his choice of time for the interview was also rather convenient, if he had some ulterior motive in mind. Just as he'd done before, he would try to turn the occasion into something social, something which might end with her in his arms or even his bed.

Not that she had even the remotest intention of allowing that to happen! She was a professional to her fingertips, and when she was doing a job she was focused one hundred and twenty percent on it. Besides, she reminded herself with a wry inward smile, who could possibly be interested in Lex Luthor when Clark Kent was around?

Even if she couldn't have Clark, it was difficult even to pretend an interest in any other man — and Lex Luthor now left her cold.

"Lois! Clark!"

Perry's bark interrupted her musings, and she laid down the pencil with which she'd been intending to scribble down some notes of interview questions. By the look of their editor, he had another story for them — and by the way he was clearly avoiding her gaze, she had a suspicion that this was a story she wouldn't like.

So what was new? Meeting Clark's gaze, she waited for him to join her before heading to Perry's office.


"Your father's an… interesting man," Clark said dryly the following afternoon as he and Lois walked back to the Planet after their second meeting with Sam Lane.

"I guess you could say that," Lois replied after a moment. Although she'd found herself beginning to tell Clark a little about her relationship with her father the previous evening — he'd been naturally curious when Perry had told him that she was the daughter of Sam Lane, the sports scientist — she felt strangely reluctant to confide in him further. He was her friend, and so she knew that he'd be sympathetic and that — as someone with his own secrets to keep — it would never occur to him to mention anything she told him to anyone else. But she'd met Clark's parents. And, in the few short weeks since she'd discovered the truth about her new partner and he'd answered a number of her questions about his origins, she'd realised that his life while growing up might have been a million miles from hers.

His parents had seemed so *normal*. They were decent, kind and caring people who openly adored their adopted son, and his own love for them in return was evident in every word he said about them. There was no artifice or pretence in their family relationship. They might have secrets from the outside world, as the Lane family also had, but those secrets had never bled like an open wound into their relationship with each other. Clark had never once had to doubt his parents' love for him. She could bet her next Kerth that he'd never had to suffer the disappointment of a birthday forgotten, a major event passing unmarked or an important occasion at school without at least one parent present.

How could the Clark Kent who'd grown up as part of such a perfect family possibly understand what life as part of the Lane family had been like? How could he grasp the concept of a father whose love for his children had been measured solely in terms of what they could achieve of his expectations for them? Of a mother whose maternal love had become subsidiary to her addiction to vodka?

And yet he seemed to understand without knowing the full truth. He'd listened to her the previous evening, not asking any questions beyond his initial couple once she'd showed some reluctance, and he'd obviously drawn some conclusions about what she wasn't saying. He'd been polite when introduced to Sam Lane, of course, and had remained discreetly in the background during the brief conversation. But he couldn't possibly have failed to notice the bitterness in her own tone, especially as the meeting drew to an end, or fail to wonder at a father and daughter who had such infrequent contact that in many ways they behaved like strangers.

And the comforting hand against her back as they'd walked away, together with the words he hadn't said, had told her without any words that he did understand. And he cared.

So now, for the first time in her life, she was walking away from a meeting with her father without the hollow sense of failure a conversation with Sam Lane had always left with her. Because she knew that, whatever her father believed, Clark didn't think that she was a disappointment or a failure. He believed in her. And he liked her just as she was.

And that was an entirely new experience for her.


"Thanks, Superman!" Lois exclaimed several hours later as Clark scooped her up and carried her to safety before returning to deal with the cyborg boxer. He couldn't resist a private smile of amused triumph to see Lex Luthor arriving just too late to help.

They'd solved the mystery and caught the bad guys — well, almost all of them, Clark mused to himself; he had his suspicions about Lex Luthor's involvement in this business, but of course, as with everything else Luthor touched, he had no proof. Not even any circumstantial evidence. And Sam Lane's involvement had been mitigated by his own voluntary statement to the press and then to the police. Best of all, in the last hour or so Lois and her father seemed to have reached some sort of understanding.

He'd hated seeing Lois so uptight that morning before they'd left for the meeting with her father; even worse, he'd hated seeing her so upset afterwards. She hadn't said a word to him about the issues which had clearly been just beneath the surface in her exchange with her father. Not that she was under any obligation to — but he wished that she would confide in him.

It wasn't just that he wanted to know the real Lois Lane, to understand the brittle, defiant and under-confident woman who seemed to retreat at any hint of real emotion. He just knew that she needed to talk to someone about this — someone who cared, and who would listen uncritically, and who would reassure her that she wasn't to blame for other people's shortcomings.

Back at the Planet, their story written and sent to the night editor, Clark allowed his hand to rest lightly on Lois's shoulder as she shut down her computer. "I don't know about you, but I'm starving. How about we go back to my place and I get us some of that real Chinese I told you about?"

She turned, and he could see that he had her entire attention. "You mean, from…" Breaking off, she glanced around carefully, noting — as he already had — that they were virtually alone in the newsroom. "From Shanghai?" she finished in a low voice.

"Sure." He grinned; the novelty of having someone to share his abilities with still hadn't worn off. "You interested?"

"You bet! You know," she added, "You should be careful making me offers like that. I could get too used to them."

Watching Lois smile at him, Clark knew that he could definitely think of worse things.

Back at his apartment, he told her to make herself comfortable before spinning into his Suit and disappearing to fly to China.

Lois wanted to eat casually on the sofa rather than at the kitchen table, so they arranged the bamboo containers on the low table in front of them and picnicked. It was a wonder that she kept her lovely, slim figure, Clark thought in amusement once again as he watched her savouring the variety of dishes he'd brought back. She certainly loved food. The mental list he was keeping of her favourites seemed to grow longer by the week, and he was already planning a trip to Switzerland or Belgium at some point for the sole purpose of bringing her back some chocolates. Or perhaps, he thought as he remembered her delight at the trip to San Francisco, he might even take her with him. He did still have that birthday outing to arrange, after all.

"You saved my life again this evening, you know." Lois's voice cut across his thoughts.

He turned to smile at her. "Yeah, I guess I did." Frowning then, he added, "I'm just glad I got there in time. I knew that guy was dangerous, but I didn't know just what he was capable of… He'd have killed you, even though he had to know that he'd never have got away."

"I'm glad you got there in time too." Lois reached out and touched his arm lightly, briefly. "Though Lex Luthor was on his way too, so I'd probably have been all right. I'm glad it was you, though."

Oh, so was he — the thought of being indebted to Lex Luthor for Lois's life wasn't a pleasant one.

And that was a point, he reminded himself, making a mental note to discuss Luthor with Lois some time soon. Some time *very* soon, in fact. That man's activities needed the kind of scrutiny that only Lane and Kent — with the assistance of Superman — could give them. And he still didn't like the idea of Luthor pursuing Lois, even if all that ever came of it was an interview.

"In fact," Lois continued, "you're making kind of a habit of it. I can't tell you how glad I was to see you when you crashed through the wall of that vault last week."

"You should have been yelling for me," Clark pointed out grimly. "Okay, I found you, but next time please make it a bit easier for me, huh? Though," he added after a moment, "I wasn't exactly thinking straight then either. The way I barged through that wall, you could've been killed! Okay, I did X-ray it first to make sure that you weren't right behind where I was standing, but you could've been hit with flying masonry. That was just plain stupid, and I'm surprised you didn't yell at me as soon as I got to you."

He hadn't been thinking sensibly at all. The only thought in his mind had been getting to Lois before some madman could kill her, leaving only her lifeless body for him to find. He'd been so stupid! After all his fears that by some thoughtless use of his superpowers he could kill or seriously maim someone he cared about, he'd put Lois in danger.

He couldn't bear the thought of the best friend he'd ever had being taken from him in less than the blink of an eye. And so, in that split second when he'd entered the vault and seen her safe and well, all his inhibitions and fear of hurting her had been forgotten; he'd reached for her and held her against him in a crushing embrace.

Although she'd hugged him back as tightly as she was capable of, and when he'd let her slide to the ground after carrying her outside she'd clung to him briefly, he still hadn't been able to prevent himself worrying that he might have hurt her — not from the flying rubble, but as a result of not knowing his own strength. He'd even paused to X-ray her ribs before going after the bad guys.

She'd been okay. That time. But there would be no other times. Lois was too precious for him to risk her safety, even if he ached, sometimes, to hold her close to him and to taste her lips. That would never happen.

He might have saved her life several times. But only he knew that her life would be in even more danger with him.

But then, maybe he was deluding himself that, in the absence of any possibility that he could kill her, there would be any chance of a closer relationship anyway. Why would Lois even consider for one second getting involved with an alien? Of course she wouldn't.

Who would, after all? That was something he'd always known, ever since he'd started wondering about who he really was — and then, of course, Jason Trask had confirmed his worst fears.

<Alien. You're nothing but a dirty alien>

He'd lain there, strapped to that table, day after day, powerless to move, while Trask had attempted to conduct his experiments. And in between being prodded at and having questions fired at him which he simply couldn't answer, he'd had to endure Trask's insinuations and barbs.

<Who'd ever want to come within twenty yards of you? I can't believe the world simply accepted you. Traitors, all of them! Especially your so-called friends at the Daily Planet>

<Filthy, stinking alien! You repulse me!>

Clark winced at the memories, sighing inwardly. He'd thought he was managing to forget his ordeal — it was almost a month ago now, after all. He'd stopped having nightmares after the first week. Mostly. He'd had one only three nights ago, he remembered glumly.

But still… it was hard to forget entirely.

Not that Lois would think the way Trask had. He knew that. She didn't think of him as 'alien'. And she had accepted him as her friend. Her very close friend, at that.

But there was a huge difference between friendship and a more intimate relationship, wasn't there? And who said that, even if he thought it was possible — which he didn't — Lois would ever consider a relationship with someone from another planet? Another species?

Yet she'd practically swooned at Superman's feet when he'd first worn the disguise…

Yes, he reminded himself; but she hadn't known then that Superman was an alien. Heck, no-one had. He hadn't even been sure of it himself. It was Jason Trask who had come out with that little piece of information — and made sure that Clark knew it, and knew how much it disgusted him. How much it would disgust everyone…


He raised his head from the carton of Szechuan chicken he'd been staring into. "Sorry. Did you say something?"

"I just wondered what was so fascinating in there," she said, laughing. Then, as he was slow to respond again, she added, "Is something wrong? Are you… you're not mad at me, are you?"

"Mad at you?" Taken aback, he stared at her. "Why on earth would I be mad at you?"

"For getting myself into dangerous situations where you have to rescue me."

Clark shrugged, grinning at the idea that Lois Lane, star reporter, might ever *stop* getting into dangerous situations. "If I was, would it stop you doing it again?"

Her expression gave him his answer. "I thought not," he added dryly. "Lois, getting into danger seems to be part of who you are. And since I like you just as you are, I don't want to change you. Just… well, don't get reckless, will you? And if you get into trouble, call me!"

"Oh yeah, like Superman has nothing better to do than rescue me!"

"It's what I do," Clark pointed out. "And, Lois, you're my friend. I care about you. You think I wouldn't do anything to help you?"

He was watching her, and at his words he saw her flush slightly before ducking her head. "I think I know that, Clark. And not just as Superman, either."

She'd given him the opening he'd been looking for since that morning. "Lois, tell me about your family," he said, trying not to let his concern for her show. He was well aware that Lois hated even the suspicion that someone felt pity for her. Not that he pitied her. He cared, and he wanted to help. But he knew that Lois wouldn't see the difference. She was so proud, and prickly in her defence of those walls she'd built around herself.

She wasn't going to let them down just because he asked. Of that he was very sure. But he was patient, and he wasn't going anywhere.


Goodnight, Clark," Lois said several hours later, watching him walk down the corridor towards the stairs before closing and bolting her door. Leaning against the closed door, she shut her eyes briefly, shaking her head as she wondered just what it was about Clark Kent that she seemed unable to resist.

He'd actually persuaded her to talk about stuff she'd never told anyone before. Things she'd spent years trying to forget. Things she hadn't even admitted to herself.

All he'd had to do was ask her, using that gentle, persuasive voice of his. "Tell me about your family, Lois," he'd said, those deep brown eyes focused on her, his expression concerned, offering the caring support of a friend.

And she'd been lost, unable to resist the quiet persuasion, the unspoken plea in his eyes. Completely ignoring her first instinct, which had been to get the heck away from him, from the sort of question she *never* answered for anyone, the kind of question she'd sidestepped from him only the previous evening, she'd told him. Everything.

Her father's affairs. Her mother's alcoholism. Her father never being around. Her mother drunk or out cold for much of the time. Lucy's tears. Having to clean up after her mother and take care of her baby sister.

How they'd even run away one year, she and Lucy. It had been just after Christmas — yet another miserable Christmas when Sam Lane hadn't even come home the night before, when their mother had half-heartedly put up the Christmas decorations not long before midnight. When she and Lucy had woken up on Christmas morning, excited to see what Santa Claus had brought them — and found nothing. Downstairs, Lois — who had made five-year-old Lucy stay in her bedroom — had discovered their mother snoring on the sofa, yet another empty bottle of vodka clutched in her hand.

Daddy had reappeared around lunchtime, holding a large sack of presents; paying no attention to Mommy, who by then was complaining about her migraine while haphazardly throwing a meal together, he'd fussed over his two little 'princesses'. But it was all fake, Lois had finally realised. If Daddy had really wanted to be with his little princesses, he wouldn't have stayed away all night. He wouldn't have let them wake up on Christmas morning without any presents. He wouldn't have done that to little Lucy.

Daddy didn't really love them. That was the hard, cold realisation Lois had come to that Christmas. And Mommy didn't either, otherwise she wouldn't prefer a vodka bottle to her daughters. And so, once the holiday was over and she and Lucy were supposed to be going back to school, Lois had packed up as many of their things as she could fit in her backpack — including Lucy's favourite teddy — and she'd taken her sister by the hand and just started walking. The bus station; that had been her destination. She'd emptied her piggy-bank — that had been one advantage of her father's guilt, she remembered wryly now; he'd tried to make up for his absences by showering his daughters with dollar bills to buy themselves treats — and she'd been sure that she had enough money to get them tickets to go and stay with Aunt May, who lived in upstate New Troy.

But, at the bus station, a counter clerk had become suspicious at two kids travelling alone, and had attracted the attention of a young beat cop patrolling nearby. That cop had taken the two of them home, having managed to get their address out of Lucy.

He'd done them a favour, Lois recognised now. From the perspective of the nine-year-old she'd been at the time, she'd been furious. But when she thought of what could have happened to the two of them… it didn't bear thinking about.

Which was one reason, although she would never in a million years admit it to him, that she had a soft spot deep inside her for Inspector William Henderson. Now hard-bitten and cynical, the homicide detective was a very different person from the barely- out-of-police-academy rookie who'd rescued Lucy and herself more than seventeen years ago. But he was still that rarity: a good, honest cop through and through. Not that he had any idea that the older of the two well-to-do runaways he'd returned to their home all those years ago was the reporter he complained about almost on a daily basis now — and she had no intention of ever telling him. It was, however, one reason why Henderson was usually her first call whenever she had a story the police would be interested in following up.

Clark had listened to the sad tale, told in semi-clipped tones and with repeated insistences on Lois's part that she wasn't looking for sympathy and that she didn't even know why she was telling him all of it. She *hadn't* known — it was only that he'd asked. And that he was her friend. And that, somehow, she'd known instinctively that, whatever else his reaction would be, it certainly wouldn't be pity.

He hadn't offered platitudes. He hadn't badmouthed her parents. Instead, when she'd finished, he'd just said quietly, sadly, "And through all of this, did anyone ever tell little Lois Lane that she was loved?"

She'd bitten her lip. And he'd wrapped his arm around her shoulders, hugged her briefly and then said, "I think we need chocolate here."

And, before she could even think of a smart-ass reply, he'd vanished, to reappear seconds later bearing a slab of Swiss chocolate and a takeaway double-strength mocha from her favourite coffee joint.

Yes, he knew her weaknesses well. What had impressed her most, though, had been the fact that he hadn't gone overboard on the sympathy. It was as if he'd known instinctively that she wouldn't appreciate it, that she was embarrassed enough by the fact that she'd confided all that stuff to him anyway — and that she'd come close to tears as she'd done so, despite her efforts to remain detached.

If he'd tugged her into his arms and held her tightly, if he'd murmured platitudes to her, she might well have cried and clung to him. But afterwards she'd have felt humiliated. She would have wished that she'd never said a word to him about any of it. And she would have felt uncomfortable with Clark from then on.

But, instead, his brief demonstration of sympathy followed by the tender gesture of fetching her coffee and chocolate had allowed her to put the painful, intimate confession behind her. Once he'd come back with his gifts, he hadn't referred to anything she'd said again. Instead, he'd turned the conversation to their story, due to appear in the morning's Planet, and to Lex Luthor.

Lex Luthor.

Now, that had been an eye-opener. She'd noticed that Clark had pulled a face when she'd mentioned that Luthor had been on hand as well and had been prepared to rescue her from the fighter. "What's your problem with Luthor, Clark?" she'd asked immediately.

He'd taken a deep breath. "Where do I start, Lois?"

"Cut to the chase," she'd said. "It's quicker, and you can fill me in on the details later. Just give me the big picture."

"Big picture, huh?" He'd given her a wry grin. "Okay. I think he's a crook. In fact, my suspicion is that he's a major criminal, someone who controls a lot of the crime in this city, and also very possibly a murderer."

"Whoa! Well, that's a big picture all right," she'd said slowly. "Lex Luthor? You're serious?"

His expression had shown her that he was definitely serious. "You've never thought there was anything strange about him? Things that just didn't add up — or added up too coincidentally?"

That had made her think. In fact, she was still thinking now as she prepared for bed. Not that Clark had said any more, or given her any indication of what he was basing his suspicions on — he hadn't had a chance, since he'd been called away by a cry for help not long after. By the time he'd returned it had been late; their conversation abandoned, he'd insisted on seeing her safely home.

But he'd left her with plenty to think about.

Lex Luthor — owner of several major companies in Metropolis, the biggest employer in the city, man of the year three years running, friend of Senators and Congressmen, even spoken of as a potential future President. And Clark thought that he was a murderer?

That was big. Huge! And, if Clark was right, this was a story which would win them a Kerth. No, a Pulitzer.

Win *them*?

Lois stilled in the act of undressing as she realised just what she'd conceded. Her lifetime ambition, ever since deciding that she wanted to be a journalist, had been to get her name on a Pulitzer some day. And now she was actually contemplating — in fact, planning on — sharing that Pulitzer with someone else.

No, not just 'someone else', she reminded herself. Clark. Her partner. Her friend. And a reporter who was equally as talented as herself.

Yes, she liked the idea of sharing a Kerth, or even a Pulitzer, with Clark.

Lois Lane had lost her competitive drive, at least where her partner was concerned. And she wasn't one bit sorry.


Lois had confided in him, after all. And, having heard the history of her childhood and her relationship with her parents — related in a detached tone which almost made it sound as if the events had happened to someone else — Clark could completely understand why the adult Lois had ended up so single-mindedly ambitious, so desperate to prove to the world that she was the best.

She was still trying to prove to her father that she was a deserving person.

Not that Lois would readily admit that, he knew. But he was very sure that she was, subconsciously or otherwise, still trying to win Sam Lane's approval.

Clark shook his head disbelievingly as he landed on the balcony of his apartment. If Sam Lane didn't value his daughter just as she was, he deserved to be alienated from her. But it was so very sad, he thought; families should be close. Family members should love each other just because they were family — not as a punishment and incentive system.

Lois had never known the kind of loving, stable environment he himself had grown up in. And, as a result, while she had family, she wasn't close to any of them. Her sister, perhaps — but Lucy Lane had moved away now.

He wished that he could have known Lois years ago — in high school, maybe. If he could have been her friend then, maybe things would have been different for her. Maybe she would have begun to realise that she really was a special person. That she was deserving of love and attention. That her parents' neglect was their shame, not hers; that she had so much to be proud of in who she was.

Okay, she'd done her best to suggest that her school years, especially high school, hadn't been too bad; but then, he hadn't forgotten what she'd said to him earlier that day, about her father's expectations of her and in particular his lack of praise. Telling her, a child desperate for her father's approval, that she still had two percent left for improvement if she got 98 on a test…! His blood had boiled when he'd heard it.

It wasn't fair that she had missed out so badly; that she had no idea what a loving family environment could be like. But then, Clark thought as he prepared for bed, it didn't have to be that way. She had him now. They were friends. And his parents loved her — she'd saved their lives, after all. Sometime soon, he'd have to bring her to Smallville for a few days. He'd enjoy that, and so, he was sure, would she.

They still had to finish their discussion about Lex Luthor, but that could wait; there was no immediate hurry which meant that they'd needed to do it tonight. After all, it wasn't as if any other news team was rushing to investigate the city's wealthiest man. As far as Clark was aware, he was the only person outside Luthor's own empire to have any suspicions at all about the man's bona fides.

Tomorrow, he thought. He'd already suggested to Lois that they have breakfast together before going into work. He was looking forward to that already; he loved bouncing ideas and hunches off his intelligent, quick-thinking partner. They'd talk, and he'd tell her everything he suspected about Luthor. He was looking forward to getting stuck into this investigation with his partner. They made a great team, in every possible way.

Well, almost every possible way, he acknowledged regretfully, remembering how much he'd wanted to do more than just hug her gently when she'd told him about her childhood. Of course, he'd known that she wouldn't appreciate profuse sympathy or any attempt to dwell on what she'd said. But he'd longed to hold her in his arms and tell her that, if he had anything to do with it, she would never feel unloved or unwanted ever again. He'd wanted to hug her tightly and never let her go.

He'd wanted to cover her lips with his and banish all the bleak memories, all her insecurities, with his kiss.

But that wasn't going to happen, and he knew it. He and Lois were friends, and that was the way it was going to stay. It was safer that way.

So he was just going to have to keep reminding himself of that. Friends. That was all he could have with her — and so it would be all he wanted from her. He could live with that; of course he could. She meant far too much to him to take risks with her safety or well-being.

Friendship was enough; of course it was.

And it felt good to know that she trusted him enough to confide in him about something which was clearly such a painful matter for her. Lois Lane, he knew, was an intensely private person — and yet she'd opened up to him. It reassured him that their friendship really was a two-way street, given all that he owed her and how much it mattered to him that Lois knew his secret and helped and supported him daily in maintaining it.

She needed him every bit as much as he needed her. And that, for the alien from a planet millions of miles away, who had despaired for most of his adult life of ever having someone special in his life, someone other than his parents to whom he was important, meant the world to him.


To her surprise, even the following morning Lois had no regrets about confiding in Clark. No paralysing fear that he would somehow use the information against her; no fierce wish that she had never allowed any man an insight into what Lois Lane the person was really like under her public facade. No concern that Clark would despise the weak, insecure person she was in private.

Clark seemed to like her just as she was.

And that was something which she couldn't remember ever having happened before.

She was hurrying to get ready now. Clark had said, on their way back to her apartment the previous evening, that he'd like to take her to breakfast so they could discuss the Luthor question. She'd been a bit concerned about having that conversation in public, but Clark had assured her that he knew a very discreet place where they could discuss anything they liked without worrying about being overheard.

"And don't forget," he'd reminded her with a grin, tapping his ear, "I'm pretty good at figuring out when someone's taking an interest in me."

"True," she'd agreed, giggling. "Yet another advantage in having you as a partner!"

Now, she was itching to hear just what it was Clark thought he knew about Luthor. It had almost killed her that they hadn't been able to finish their conversation the previous evening. It couldn't be helped, she knew that; but still, her primary emotion when Clark had rushed off had been acute frustration. Well, that and a pang of disappointment that she was losing his company on what had become a familiar habit: spending the evening together.

It was going to be like that. She knew it, she understood it and she accepted it. Clark wasn't just her partner and her friend, at her beck and call whenever she needed him. He was Superman. He had a responsibility towards the world. If someone needed him — someone other than her — he had to go. If it meant saving lives, or preventing serious injury or mass destruction, he had to go. And he would go — because that was the kind of person he was.

And she wouldn't want him any other way, anyway, regardless of how frustrating it could be, and was going to be.

So… Clark believed that Luthor was a criminal — a crime lord, by the sound of it — and quite possibly a murderer.

As she dried her hair, Lois mulled over what she knew of Lex Luthor, billionaire businessman and known philanthropist.

She'd compiled a mental list the previous evening, of the sort of information she would consider if she were writing a profile of Luthor — since she was interviewing him next week, she already had some of it to hand anyway. Owned several companies, and all told was the city's largest employer. Generally a good employer to work for, from what she'd heard; the various companies owned or controlled by Luthor had the reputation of paying employees well and offering good benefits. The culture in the various companies was also, she believed, good; while, as in all companies, workloads got frenetic at times, the management style wasn't oppressive and initiative and innovation were rewarded.

That didn't sound like the employment practices of a crime lord…

On the other hand, these were legitimate businesses. They also made a lot of money, and gave Lex Luthor personally a considerable amount of prestige and status within New Troy — and, Lois was aware, in the wider US. For some months now, she'd been hearing rumours that both national political parties were courting the billionaire, who had yet to declare any political allegiance. He'd donated money — large sums, too — to both Republicans and Democrats over the years, never favouring one party over the other. He'd be an enormous feather in the cap of whichever party managed to net him, assuming one of them did — and the rumour which had reached Lois's ears was that there were efforts to persuade Luthor to stand for one of the state's Senate seats which would become vacant at the next mid-terms. He could have either party's endorsement, and thus the support of the entire party machine, for the asking — and Luthor's prestige was such that he would be guaranteed election.

Did he harbour political ambitions? Lois didn't know, and nor did any of her sources. Regardless, it would be an unusual person — and an even more unusual public figure — who wasn't at least flattered by such approaches.

So it was certainly in Lex Luthor's interests to have business interests which were entirely legal and above board — and to be known as a good, responsible and well-liked employer. Apart from the prestige and income, these also provided him with the kind of respectability he wouldn't have if his only activity was crime. He'd be a shadowy underworld figure, in that case.

Instead, if Clark was right, he was Metropolis's Godfather, running legitimate businesses in public and involved in all sorts of illegal activities in the background.

Was that really likely?

She paused in the act of slipping on her shoes, wondering for a moment if she wasn't getting too carried away with her speculation and extrapolation.

What if Lex Luthor really was all that he appeared to be — a perfectly legitimate businessman?

Okay, Clark had suspicions, and it was certainly easy to think of ways in which Luthor's public reputation could shield an awful lot of unknowns, but there were plenty of other rich, influential people in American business about whom she could speculate in just the same way and on the same grounds as she'd just used to speculate about Luthor. Would she really suspect, say, Bill Gates or Michael Eisner or Warren Buffet of engaging in illegal activities behind their public facades?

And it wasn't even as if what they were talking about were the typical white-collar crimes of insider trading or securities fraud, of which some quite unexpected people had been found guilty: Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, for example. No, Clark had mentioned murder. How likely was that, really?

Well, who knew? Who really knew what anyone might get up to behind the public gaze? There'd been that cleaning company back in the eighties… what was its name again? Oh yeah, she remembered. The ZZZZ Best Carpet Cleaning Company. Its owner, Barry Minkow, had been defrauding investors by coming up with a huge paper trail of false customers and misleading auditors by renting buildings and showing them to clients he had business with. He'd made millions as investors poured money into his fraudulent business. He'd only been found out when he'd tried to take his non-existent business public.

There was Jim Bakker, too — for years he'd been a successful evangelist, highly respected, even loved, by his followers. And, in his role as an ordained preacher, he was beyond suspicion… until he was found out as a swindler who had also bribed a prostitute to keep quiet about their sexual relationship. Other revelations had followed, including a gay lover and tax evasion. Yeah, there was no such thing as being beyond suspicion where any public figure was concerned, Lois mused.

And even Al Capone had appeared to run legitimate businesses for years, although in his case, Lois conceded, the police had had their suspicions about him — the problem there had been in proving anything. Did the Metropolis Police Department have suspicions about Lex Luthor?

It wasn't unusual, in the history of crime and criminal activity, to find the most unlikely of people behind gangland or unlawful behaviour. And in any case legitimate businesses were the perfect accessory for a crime boss — the perfect outlet for dirty money and ill-gotten gains. Lois knew all that. So there was no particular reason why she should regard Lex Luthor as incorruptible or beyond suspicion.

Clark had asked her if she'd ever had her doubts; ever noticed anything which didn't quite add up. She hadn't — at least, not until he'd asked her. But a couple of things had been nagging at her ever since. Space Station Luthor was one of them. At the time, she'd been too caught up in, first, trying to land the first exclusive Lex Luthor interview, and later, chasing Superman around Metropolis.

Just why had Luthor decided to enter the space race? There were clear gains for his companies from having a private space station, of course — patents from any pharmaceutical or medical discoveries, for example — but the cost and the risk of such a venture would clearly outweigh by far any potential profit, even in the medium term. But that wasn't all; she'd had a tip-off at the time that Luthor was involved with Antoinette Baines. She'd dismissed it as a coincidence; Luthor was a powerful — and attractive — man, and Baines was an attractive woman. Why shouldn't the two of them be involved?

But now… well, it really did look like *too* much of a coincidence. And when the plot to sabotage the shuttle ships had been discovered, Baines had mysteriously — and very conveniently — been murdered. Well, her helicopter had blown up, and so far the police hadn't managed to prove conclusively that it was sabotage… but again, it was too coincidental.

Way too coincidental, maybe?

Luthor was also a philanthropist, on a pretty grand scale; only last year he'd donated close to fifty million dollars — from his personal fortune, not out of company profits — to a health charity for a water purification project in Africa. And there was the homeless shelter he'd funded the year before. Yes, he spent lots of money on good causes.

But that, too, was a great way to build good public relations and to create and maintain a good reputation — as well as, to some extent, making the city and even the state dependent on him and his charitable giving. Who would dare to criticise a man as generous as Lex Luthor?

Yes, it was easy to see how his reputation had remained intact for so long if he really was rotten underneath, as Clark believed.

And if Clark was right… yes, this would be one heck of a story. The lawyers would hate it — it would all have to be gone through with a fine-tooth comb before it could even get within sniffing distance of the printers' ink, but she could live with that. They'd just have to make sure that they had as much proof as possible — and if that meant even bringing in the police once they'd got to the stage of having something convincing, she could live with that too, and it would make the lawyers happier. And that would make Perry happier still.

Oh yes, she could definitely smell a Kerth in this, if not even better. And wasn't it good timing that she had that interview coming up?

That thought reminded her that she hadn't yet told Clark about that. She frowned, trying to work out why that was. They worked together; she should have mentioned it. But then, they didn't work together on everything — although Perry had paired them for a couple of major stories, they weren't full-time partners, and this, if she got anything usable out of the interview, was her story.

But the thought of holding out on Clark felt… wrong.

Of course it was wrong now, she told herself. He'd raised the question of Luthor's probity, clearly intending that the two of them should investigate once he'd filled her in on exactly why he was suspicious. Therefore she needed to tell him about the interview.

Well, she would tell him. She was sure that he'd agree that it was highly opportune timing. They had enough time to do a lot of digging before her interview, and by then she could well have enough evidence to ask Luthor some very pointed questions. Always assuming that Clark was right in his suspicions — and she found it hard to believe that Clark — Superman! — would accuse someone without being very sure of his ground.

With an anticipatory grin, Lois collected her bag and coat and headed for the door.


Clark leaned casually against Lois's Jeep, waiting for his partner to emerge. She'd offered to come and pick him up, but he'd reminded her with a grin that he could be at her place in less than the time it would take her to unlock her car.

He'd been there for about five minutes, enjoying the fine autumn morning. It was sunny, with a light breeze which rippled through the rusty-gold foliage on the nearby trees. Soon, the weather would turn cold as winter approached; already, rain was much more likely than the sunshine of today, and by November he expected that they'd begin to see snow. This would be his first winter in the city, and already he was noticing major differences in the seasons between Metropolis and rural Kansas.

He straightened as the door to the building opened and Lois emerged, her hair ruffling slightly in the breeze. He watched her admiringly; she really was beautiful, he thought. Totally focused this morning on the day ahead, she clearly hadn't noticed him yet, but even with a businesslike expression on her face she was breathtaking — to say nothing about her slender but shapely body, he mused.

His partner was quite simply the most incredible woman he'd ever met. He'd been impressed by her intelligence and journalistic ability even before they'd actually met, but that had been nothing to what he'd been learning about her ever since. Her incredible intuition. Her leaps of logic which seemed almost insane, but which frequently turned out to be correct. Her drive and determination — she was a human dynamo. Even he, the strongest man in the world, occasionally found it difficult to match her endurance. As for her courage — she was absolutely the bravest person he knew.

He'd never forget the way she'd taken on Trask and his men single-handed to save his life and that of his parents. Okay, she'd gone to the warehouse in the first place expecting to find his body, but she'd still known, or expected, that Trask and his thugs would be there. She'd gone regardless. And once she'd realised that he was alive, it hadn't occurred to her to get out of there and call for help. No; courageously, or even possibly foolhardily, she'd fought for him and for his parents.

Even mentally and physically weak as he'd been, he'd been so terrified for her, convinced that he would see her killed in front of him just as Trask had threatened to have his mom and dad killed in front of him. Just as he'd been forced to watch his parents being beaten and abused. He still wasn't sure just how Lois had managed to get them out of there; whether it had been pure fluke, combined with the small amount of help he'd managed in the end to give her, or whether, with her indomitable courage and determination, Lois Lane had always been going to win.

She was just amazing.

She saw him then, and a bright smile curved across her features, lighting up her face completely, transforming her from an attractive woman to a stunningly beautiful woman.

Clark had imagined himself in love once before — but his feelings for Lana paled into insignificance next to what he was feeling now as he watched Lois walk towards him.

He was in love, head over heels, with his partner and best friend.

And he had been right from the moment he'd first seen her. He'd just been pretending to himself that his feelings were only friendship and admiration.

He loved Lois Lane.

But his admission of his feelings for her, he told himself firmly, didn't mean that anything had to change between them. He knew what he had to do. He knew the risks of getting too close to anyone — and especially of being physically affectionate. And he would never put Lois at risk — he cared about her too much for that.

She was his friend, and it was much, much safer for her if she stayed his friend.

After all, he already worried about her far more than was good for him. Lois went into risky situations with about the same frequency as other women went shopping. And she did it almost as casually. As she'd reminded him only the previous evening, he'd already saved her life five or six times since they'd met. He'd carry on doing it, of course… but there only had to be one time when he couldn't do it, and then it'd be too late. She'd be dead.

There were times — like the previous evening, when he'd rescued her from Mencken — when he longed to be able to scoop her up and carry her away somewhere safe from any danger. He could take her to a deserted tropical island… though, knowing Lois, she'd probably stumble over some breed of man-eating spider or go swimming in piranha-infested waters.

No; he couldn't stop Lois doing the job that she loved. But that didn't mean that his heart-rate was going to stop going into overdrive any time soon over her safety.

"Hey, big guy." She'd reached his side, and she reached out and thumped his bicep lightly, affectionately. "You look worried — is something wrong?"

Schooling his features quickly — Lois would not appreciate knowing that she aroused all his protective instincts — Clark smiled at her. "Nah — I was just thinking. Dangerous, I know!" He gestured towards the car. "You want to drive or…" Winking, he added in a soft murmur, "…fly?"

She grinned. "Why? We going far?"

He shook his head. "Not really. The place I have in mind isn't far from my apartment."

She dangled her keys in front of him. "Want to drive, then?"

"What, I get to drive your precious Cherokee?" he teased, taking them from her.

"That's a *Grand* Cherokee, for your information," she pointed out in mock admonition, moving around to the passenger side. "And since you're the only person I trust to drive me — well, other than Metropolis cabbies, and that's only out of necessity — I figure I might as well take advantage once in a while."

Clark grinned, getting into the car and starting the engine. Lois was in very good spirits this morning, he noticed; it was quite a change from the sad, unhappy woman he'd listened to the previous evening. He had a strong suspicion that introducing the subject of Lex Luthor had been exactly the right thing to do at that moment. Lois was now in her 'on track of a great story' mood, and nothing distracted her from that.

A few minutes later, he led the way into his favourite breakfast haunt. The cafe was a couple of blocks from his apartment, and he tended to go there a couple of times a week. The pancakes weren't quite as good as his Mom made, but they were still very tasty, and he liked the atmosphere. As he'd told Lois, it was an ideal place to have a confidential discussion without worrying about being overheard, but that didn't mean that it was one of those city restaurants where nobody ever met anybody else's eye, preferring to pretend that they were alone even in the midst of a packed diner. The regulars, and the owner, were friendly, but they knew how to tell when someone didn't want to talk.

"Hey, Clark! Should I put the pancakes on?"

Clark looked towards the source of the voice and smiled. "Hey, Gio! Yup, sure, for me — but I don't know what my friend wants yet, so maybe you should hold off a couple of minutes."

Gio, a fortysomething Italian who had run the cafe for about fifteen years as far as Clark knew, gave him an exaggerated wink. "Nice friend you got there, pal. Good-looking. You sure she's just a friend?"

"Unfortunately so," Clark said, giving Gio an exaggerated look of regret, then winking at Lois. "We work together. I lost a bet and the forfeit was that I get to buy her breakfast," he added, stifling a slight qualm at the lie. He felt that it was a good idea to have a cover story as to why he was there with his reporter partner, just in case anyone recognised Lois Lane, star reporter, and wondered what she was doing in an out-of-the-way diner.

Lois obviously picked up his cue; rolling her eyes, she drawled, "Yeah, and don't think I intend to stick to coffee and a low-fat muffin, either, Kent! Pancakes sound terrific," she added, turning to Gio.

"Sure — regular or low-fat? And you can have butter, cream, maple, strawberry, blueberry, chocolate or toffee topping."

Clark was amused to see Lois practically drooling at the list of options. "Chocolate," she said after a moment's pause. "And — oh, what the heck. Regular pancakes. I can just do an extra work-out session this week."

"You got it. Coffee'll be right over."

"Good choice, partner," Clark told Lois as he ushered her to a booth near the back of the cafe. "I like maple syrup with pancakes, but Gio uses Gianduja — that's a chocolate and hazelnut spread to die for. He orders it straight from Italy."

After their breakfast had been served, and Lois had exclaimed in ecstasy over the topping — she waited until she'd eaten one entire pancake before saying anything other than "Mmm… this is *delicious*!" — she turned businesslike. "Okay, Clark, so spill. What have you got on Luthor?"

"Don't get your hopes up," he cautioned. "It's mostly circumstantial stuff, plus suspicions and other things I can't put my finger on."

"Instinct?" Lois asked.

"Yeah, that's about it."

"I know how that feels. Lots of my big stories came out of a nagging feeling that something wasn't exactly right," she told him. "Plus I trust your instincts — and I take it that we're also going here on Superman's instincts?" she added softly.

Clark inclined his head, and saw her nod in acknowledgement of his response.

This was starting off more promising than he'd hoped. He'd raised the subject of Lex Luthor the previous evening partly to take her mind off the obviously painful subject of her childhood and her relationship with her father, but also because he'd known that he couldn't delay any longer. Not after the way he'd reacted when he'd seen Luthor on his way to rescue Lois.

His blood had boiled when he'd noticed that the tycoon was about to save the day, and he'd put on an extra burst of speed to ensure that *he* got there first. He'd told himself that he didn't want to be indebted to Luthor for Lois's life, but deep down he'd known that wasn't the whole truth.

He was jealous of what he was sure was Luthor's sexual interest in Lois.

And, because he had no idea how Lois felt about Luthor, he wanted to get in first, to ensure that she wouldn't even consider the man as a possible romantic interest. That was the real purpose of this conversation, regardless of the fact that he wanted Luthor brought to justice: he was making a pre-emptive strike, attacking Luthor before the man could make a move on Lois. Before the interview she had planned for next week — about which she still hadn't told him. And that had worried him.

Lois was listening, which was a very good sign. She couldn't have been interested in the man beyond seeing him as a story. He felt relief flood him.

"Okay, so start at the beginning. Then we'll see what we've got." Lois took a sip of coffee. "I've been thinking this through myself since last night, so I might have something to add to your suspicions."

"Okay. Well, it all started when we were investigating the Messenger disaster. Remember when Antoinette Baines tried to kill us at EPRAD?"

Lois nodded. "You think I'd forget being chained up and left to die?" She rolled her eyes. But before he could continue, an arrested look came over her features. "You!" she exclaimed, but he noticed that she took care to keep her voice low.

"Uh… yeah?"

"You let me confess all that stuff… You could have had us out of there in seconds, couldn't you?"

"Well, yeah," he admitted. "But I wanted to find a way to explain it, and… well, anyway, you started talking and… okay, Lois, I was curious. I wanted to know what made you tick. I wanted to find out what was underneath the tough exterior you showed the world. But there was no way I would have risked your life."

"Oh, I know that!" she said, dismissing his final comment. "But you still… oh, I'll get you for that, Kent!"

"Hey." He reached across the table to touch her hand lightly. "I'll apologise for it, if you like. But you know I've never told another soul a single word you said that night, and I never will."

"I know that. Okay, you're forgiven. This time." She threw him a quick wink and a smile. "Anyway, so you were saying…?"

"Baines said something. You asked her why she'd done it — remember? And she said that it was all about profit — that outer space was no different from any new frontier. It'd belong to those who got there first and…" He paused, then waggled his fingers to show that he was quoting. "…'seize the high ground'."

"Yes?" She clearly hadn't made the connection.

Lois reached across to steal a section of pancake from his plate, having cleared her own. Clark grinned, pretending to swipe at her hand. "I can order more if you like," he pointed out.

"You're kidding! Clark, as it is I'm going to have to book at least two extra sessions at the gym this week!"

"Well, just remember that I offered, next time you try to eat from my plate," he said, giving her a teasing grin. He loved seeing her enjoying her breakfast so much; so many other women he'd known simply picked at their food and complained about their figures. Lois, of course, had nothing to worry about, as far as he could see… and he definitely enjoyed looking at his partner's slim but curvy body.

Yes, he could happily spend the rest of his life looking at Lois. Sure, there was no way that he could ever have any kind of romantic relationship with her, but that didn't mean he couldn't look.

"Anyway," he continued, "remember the White Orchid Ball? When Luthor found us snooping around his penthouse?"

Lois nodded. "He threatened you with that sword."

"He meant it as a threat, I think. I chose to pretend that he was just showing me an interesting artifact. Anyway, I don't think Luthor expected to find an ordinary reporter — especially someone he'd never heard of — who had a classical education. Well, I'm pretty much self-taught," Clark added. "But I know enough to go head-to-head with Luthor on mythology and ancient history any time."

"So…?" Lois waved her hand, the message clear: get to the point.

"Luthor studies military tacticians, especially classical ones. He quoted Alexander the Great to us — that's whose sword he had. 'Alexander's strategy was simple: always control the high ground'."

"Similar phrase," Lois agreed, stabbing another piece of his pancake with her fork. "But could it be a coincidence?"

He rolled his eyes at her, simultaneously loving it that she felt so at ease with him that she would treat his breakfast as her own. "I don't think so. It was the context as much as the words; I couldn't help but think that it sounded like she was quoting someone."

"Well, I did hear a rumour that she and Luthor were having an affair," Lois observed.

"Really?" Clark sat back, interested, and at the same time pushed his plate, with the remains of his last pancake, towards her. "That explains where she could have heard the phrase."

This was going even better than he'd hoped. Lois was with him all the way, clearly having no difficulty at all with the idea that Luthor could be the master criminal Clark believed him to be. The fact that she hadn't told him about the interview still rankled, though, and he was trying hard to convince himself that there was an innocent explanation for it — or that she simply hadn't got round to mentioning it, but fully intended to.

"I was thinking about the Messenger and Baines earlier," Lois said, barely skipping a beat as she devoured the rest of Clark's breakfast as if by right. "Why should Luthor want to get into the space race? And why was he so confident that the Congress of Nations would cancel funding for Space Station Prometheus? I mean, he had to have put weeks of research and money into Space Station Luthor —"

"I'd say years, actually," Clark interrupted. "That level of design and research? You don't get that in weeks or even months."

"Even more suspicious, then," Lois agreed. "And the Messenger disaster was only a couple of days before the ball. He had to have had some sort of inside track."

"Baines," Clark supplied.

"Impossible to prove, with Baines dead," Lois added, pulling a face. She dropped her napkin on the now-empty plate in front of her, then sat back with a satisfied sigh. "So what else?"


Lois sipped her coffee, looking to any observer as if she was simply relaxing over a leisurely breakfast before tackling the workday ahead. But she was listening intently to her partner. He'd told her the truth: there was nothing concrete in any of what he knew or suspected, but it was enough to convince her that there really was something to go on.

If they were right, and Luthor and Baines had been working together, then Luthor was probably ultimately responsible for the Messenger's destruction, and the deaths of its crew. And also Dr Platt — and, most likely, Baines herself.

Yes, that would make Lex Luthor a murderer, all right.

Then there were the tests Clark had mentioned. She remembered those attempted suicides — and the bomb at the museum. She'd been there, after all, and had got injured herself because she'd been so anxious to track Superman down.

And Lex Luthor had orchestrated it all because he wanted to gauge Superman's abilities.

It was a shock to realise that Clark had almost given up Superman because of it.

When he'd told her that it was only her words to him, words she'd said almost absently in a minor fit of irritation at Clark's apparently over-emotional reaction to a drive-by shooting, which had persuaded him to keep going, she'd been astounded. And very, very thankful that she'd said it. Clark was right: she had saved Superman more times than she knew.

It was funny; even though over the last few weeks she'd known his secret and had conspired with him to protect it, it was just dawning on her now that she was really in a unique, very privileged position. Clark depended on her. *Superman* depended on her.

He needed her almost as much as she needed him. And that felt really good.

"So," she said at last. "We think he was behind the Messenger sabotage and associated murders. And we know he tried to intimidate Superman into leaving Metropolis. Anything else?"

"Well, I did find myself wondering just what he was doing there yesterday, Lois," Clark commented.

"Yesterday? Oh, you mean when he came to help me."

"Yes. What does he have to do with robotic prize-fighters? I can't quite see him as a boxing fan, anyway — it's not cerebral enough for him," Clark observed sardonically.

"Someone was funding the work," Lois said quietly. "My father doesn't know who it was — he reported to Mencken and had no idea who was really calling the tune. But it might be worth looking into."

"Sure," Clark agreed. "I might be able to find something we missed -" He waggled his glasses slightly. "I mean, when we were there before, we weren't really sure what we were looking for."

"Okay." She took another sip of her coffee. "I can talk to my dad too. See if he remembers anything else that might help. When do you want to check out his lab?"

"Maybe tonight," he suggested. Lois understood his meaning: it depended on whether anything urgent came up for Superman.

She drained her coffee, then got to her feet. "Come on, partner." Patting his arm, she added, "We'd better get to work."

"Sure." Clark went to the till and paid while she collected her things, then they went together out to the Jeep, his hand lightly in the small of her back as they walked. It was just a gentlemanly gesture, she told herself. It meant nothing.

It was just a pity that it felt so good, given that he was out of bounds.

In the Jeep, she decided to broach the topic of her Luthor interview, guiltily aware that she still hadn't told Clark about it. There had been opportunities during their long discussion, of course. But she'd been so caught up in listening to Clark's suspicions and coming up with theories that she hadn't given it a thought.

"Luthor called me a couple of days ago. He offered me an exclusive interview."

Clark's hands seemed to tighten on the steering-wheel. "I know." The acknowledgement was abrupt.


He touched one ear lightly. "Super-hearing, remember. I didn't deliberately listen," he added quickly, still sounding tense. "I heard you mention Luthor's name — that caught my attention. And it wasn't difficult to figure out what the conversation was about."

"But why didn't you tell me?" Lois stared at Clark, unsure how she felt about his having listened to her phone call. Of course she knew about his abilities, and she'd thought a number of times over the past couple of weeks how useful they would be in investigations — but she hadn't envisaged that he'd use them to spy on her.

That was unfair, she chided herself immediately. Clark wouldn't spy on her. And he'd only done exactly what she would have had the positions been reversed. If she'd been within range of his desk and heard him mention the name of someone she was pursuing for a story, she would have listened too.

"I figured it was for you to tell me," he said with a faint shrug. "I was hoping you would — especially once I told you my suspicions about the guy."

"I wasn't holding out on you!" she exclaimed, stung. "I would have told you. And after last night I had every intention of telling you this morning. I just hadn't got around to it until now."

He seemed about to say something in response, but then his mouth sealed in a straight line. After a few moments, he relaxed as he drew the Jeep to a halt at an intersection. "Were we fighting?" he asked softly.

"It… kind of felt like it," she agreed.

"I'm sorry." The smile he threw her was wry. "I guess Lex Luthor just sets my hackles on edge."

"I believe you about him. You know that," she reminded him. "And this interview is a great opportunity if we can get enough research done first."

"You're right, it could be." He drove across the intersection, then signalled to turn into the Planet's parking garage. "I'll go with you, okay?"

"No." The response was instinctive, but she knew she was right. "He's expecting me alone, Clark."

"He's got the hots for you." Clark's tone was rough, angry. He was worried about her, she told herself… but it sounded as if there was some deeper emotion at work. That didn't make sense, though.

"I think so too," she agreed. "That's why it's better if I go alone. He's more likely to open up if it's just me."

"But what if he tries it on with you?" Now Clark's tone just held concern. Okay, so it had only been a friend's worry for her safety after all.

"I can handle it," she assured him. "I've had a lot of practice — as a woman in this job, it's unavoidable. And I'm a brown belt at Tai Kwon Do, too."

Clark was silent as he parked the car. Then he sighed, turning towards her as he released his seatbelt. "Okay. But Superman will be there, keeping an eye on things. That's non-negotiable. All right?"

The implacable note in his voice was one she was only used to hearing when he was dressed in the Suit. He wasn't going to brook argument on this one. It wasn't a difficult concession to make, though — and anyway, she would feel safer if she knew that Superman was within reach. "All right."

"I'm not trying to get in your way, Lois," he said, more gently. "The last thing I want to do is try to coddle you. Or act like I think because I'm Superman I have the right to dictate what you do when we work together. But you have to know that the thought of you getting hurt terrifies me."

She'd seen that when they'd talked the previous evening. And his concern for her warmed her inside. "I know. Last night, remember? And I will be careful."

"I know. And since I can't always be around — and you'd resent the heck out of it if I did try to stop you getting into anything that might be dangerous — I have to trust you to take care of yourself."

"Good." She patted his arm, then opened the car door. "Let's get upstairs, and I'll get on the phone to see what I can find out about the bionic research."


"Ms Lane is becoming a problem, Mr Luthor."

Lex Luthor reclined in his leather executive chair, giving his assistant a mildly curious stare. "In what way, Nigel? You mean she's cancelled the da- the interview?"

"No, sir. She has been asking questions the answers to which we would prefer her not to know."

"Hmmm." Lex allowed his chair to return to its upright position. "What sort of questions?"

"About the experiments in bionic technology which created the boxers, sir."

Lex waved a hand carelessly. "She's a reporter, Nigel. Of course she's asking about that."

"Questions making it clear that she has certain suspicions about the funding of the research?" Nigel's tone was now pointed. "Questions which suggest that she believes that your interest in the fights was not merely casual?"

"Ah." So the beautiful reporter wasn't as easily charmed as he'd thought. He'd hoped that if he flattered her sufficiently, paid her some attention and perhaps even seduced her into his bed, she'd lose interest in the complete Lex Luthor expose she'd made it clear that she was after. Not that he'd had any reason to suspect that she was on the trail of anything in particular; no reason to believe that his elaborate web of obfuscations and artistry, of shell companies and arms'-length operating could possibly have been penetrated by anyone, even a multiple-Kerth- winning reporter such as Lois Lane.

Still, his courting of her had been an additional sleight of hand, intended to distract her attention from her original interest where he was concerned.

No matter. She could be dealt with. Anyone could be dealt with, given unlimited resources and the lack of a conscience — both of which he had.

"Should I arrange for Sam Lane to be eliminated, as a warning?" Nigel suggested.

Lex winced. Far too unsubtle. "No. I have a better idea. All we really need is to be fully aware of what the lovely Lois is up to, and I know exactly how that can be achieved."

He reached for the telephone.


"Lois! Call for you!"

Clark raised his head in curiosity as Lois picked up her receiver and pressed the key to take her phone call. She'd made a few calls earlier, trying to establish where the funding for the robotic boxers had come from, trying to see if it wove a trail back to Luthor. This could be one of her sources with the necessary information — or, at least, he hoped so.

And then he saw her face pale.

"Lois!" In under a second, he was on his feet and heading to her.

"…they're not saying what the problem is?" she said as he reached her side. "Okay… well, thanks for calling, Patty. Yeah, I'm on my way."

"What's up?" Clark asked anxiously as she hung up.

"My apartment," she said hurriedly, getting to her feet. "Something's happened — everyone's been evacuated and the firefighters are there. Police, too. I have to get over there."

His eyes widening, Clark returned to his desk to grab his jacket. "Want company?"

"Seriously?" She barely broke stride as he joined her again. "I'd love it — are you sure?"

"Hey." He squeezed her arm briefly. "Leave my partner to face something like this alone? It could be nothing," he added as he took in her pale face again, making his tone comforting. "Someone might have gone out and forgotten to turn out the gas under the tea-kettle. It'll probably all be over in twenty minutes."

"Yeah." He could tell that she was making an effort. "You're probably right, Clark. I'm over-reacting. It's just… that's my home, Clark! All my stuff's there… everything I own, all my personal things…"

"And if you need to get anything out, you know you have help," he pointed out.

Her stride faltered momentarily, before enlightenment obviously dawned. "Oh. Right. Would you believe, I still sometimes forget?"

Clark stared at her incredulously for a moment before releasing a bark of laughter. "Oh, Lois, you just made my day!"

He meant it too, he thought as he placed his hand lightly at Lois's back to escort her into the elevator. Oh, sure, he was used to her knowing about Superman, and he loved her calm, matter-of-fact acceptance of that these days. But still… There were still occasions, when he was in the Suit or when he did something very Super in front of her, when her eyes widened and he saw something of the same flash of admiration which had been there in the beginning. Just a touch, and only ever for an instant. And he could even understand it, too — after all, to her it had to seem very impressive. But he wanted to be just Clark to her.

She drove the Jeep on the way to Carter Avenue, her fast speeds and edge-of-the-seat cornering showing him just how tense she was about whatever was happening at her apartment building. He should probably have offered to fly her there, he thought. But just then, in less than half the time it should have taken, she turned into her street.

The emergency-services vehicles were immediately apparent, but Clark could see instantly that there was no sign of a fire. So, whatever the problem was, it didn't pose an immediate risk to the building. Lois screeched to a halt behind them, jumping out of the car almost before she'd killed the engine. Clark followed her, instantly taking hold of her arm and walking with her. They were stopped by a police officer. "This street's closed off, sir, ma'am. If you would just follow the diversion signs…"

"I live here!" Lois exclaimed. "1058 Carter Avenue. Will someone tell me what's going on?"

"Oh. Well, they had to evacuate everyone from the apartments —"

"I already know that much! I want to know why!"

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I don't know anything —"

"Come on, Lois." Clark squeezed her arm. "Let's leave this officer to do his job. We might be able to find out something if we go over there." With his free hand, he indicated further up the street and across the road from Lois's building, where a group of local residents was gathered.

He was listening carefully as they walked, hoping to overhear something which would explain what was going on. But there was too much general chatter, combined with the beeping of pagers and the sound of engines. He couldn't manage to distinguish anything in particular. However, he was also keeping an eye on Lois's apartment building, and was relieved to note that he couldn't see anything posing an immediate threat there.

Lois, once they'd reached the group of residents, immediately engaged in conversation with her neighbours. Clark couldn't help thinking that it was probably the longest conversation she'd had with any of them since she'd moved into the apartment block.

None of the other residents had been told anything about why they'd been evacuated; rumours ranged from a gas leak to an earthquake.

And then, finally, he heard something. Pulling Lois to one side, he murmured, "Sounds like there's some damage to the foundations — I can't figure out why yet. I'm going to investigate, okay?"

In case she hadn't understood what he meant, he gave a little wave of his hand, mimicking take-off. She nodded, and he disappeared into the crowd before ducking into an alley.


A minute or two after Clark left, a blue and red speck appeared in the sky, before flying nearer and then coming in to land. Superman went over to speak to one of the senior fire officers before taking off again. Lois hoped that Clark could help; she hated not being able to get to her stuff. It was silly; after all, she knew that once the emergency services had stopped fussing over whatever it was they were worried about everyone would be allowed back in again. It wasn't as if the building was on fire or about to collapse or anything like that. At least, she hoped not…

A few minutes after that, Superman reappeared and flew down to land beside the fire officer again. Lois edged closer, trying to get near enough to hear what was being said. But all she could hear was an occasional word. "… cracked… wall… could be… explosion… leak…"

None of that sounded good. But she had to know more. Lois grabbed her notebook, wielding it in front of her almost like a battle- weapon, and pushed her way closer still. "Superman!" she called. "Lois Lane, Daily Planet. What have you found out?"

"Lois." She could see Clark trying to quell the twinkle in his eye. "I wasn't expecting to see you here. I'm just seeing if there's any way I can help the emergency services."

"What's the problem?" she persisted. "Is it a gas leak?"

Clark glanced at the fire chief, who shrugged.

"There's a crack in the foundations," Clark explained. "I suspect that there might have been some sort of gas-related explosion; I smelt gas when I was taking a look around just now."

"That's how Mr Trezewski figured out that there was a problem — he was down in the basement this morning and smelt it," the fire chief interjected. "The gas supply's been shut off now. But, of course, if there's still gas around then anything could spark off a further explosion. And the building hasn't yet been made safe for my men to go in with foam."

Clark caught her gaze then, and she could see reassurance in his eyes. "Give me some foam," he said to the officer. "I can go in and douse the place — and I'll get rid of the gas while I'm at it. And I'll take a closer look at the damage to the foundations."

It really paid to have a super-powered friend, Lois thought as she stepped back to let the firefighters supply Clark with a couple of foam tanks. He conferred briefly again with the fire chief before striding over to the building and inside.

Ten minutes later, he returned, going straight back to the fire chief. Lois strained to listen; she managed to glean the fact that there was indeed structural damage as a result of an explosion of some sort. The building would need underpinning, and as such the residents would have to be accommodated elsewhere for the night. The building owner's insurance would pay the costs.

Lois grimaced. She hated not being in control of her life, and in this situation she was far from being in control. "All my stuff…" she muttered, annoyance battling with alarm. She had papers, files, disks in there she needed for work — important information for investigations. If she wasn't able to get that…

And then she realised that Clark's head had shot up and he was looking in her direction. He looked away as soon as she met his gaze, and resumed talking to the fire chief. It looked to her as if they were having some sort of argument. A few minutes later, the chief left Superman's side and spoke to another firefighter, who went over to where the residents were standing. Lois put her notebook away and went to rejoin the group.

"…be sent to a hotel for the night. There'll be some cabs coming in a few minutes to take you over there. And Superman has very kindly offered to escort each of you, one by one, into your apartments to collect a few things for the night. We have to limit that strictly to five minutes each, though, because we have a lot to do here and we can't take up too much of Superman's time, and the building isn't safe yet."

"The building will be safe by tomorrow?" Mr Coletti, Lois's upstairs neighbour, asked worriedly.

"We hope so. Superman's report on the extent of the damage was very helpful. We're going to do some work in there once you've all finished collecting your stuff, and there's a construction company on the way over."

A shadow fell over the group; Lois turned her head and saw that Clark, cape flapping in the breeze, had joined them. "Okay, who's going in first?"


Clark kept Lois until last; she wasn't happy about it, he could see, but he hoped that she'd at least guess that he had his reasons. He'd only done this for her anyway. It wasn't the normal kind of thing that Superman would do, but he'd heard Lois's anxious mutter and seen that she really was upset, although he suspected that it wasn't all to do with not being able to get her stuff. This was her home, after all.

He ushered the penultimate resident out and passed the man's duffle-bag to him. "Here you go, sir."

"Thank you, Superman! I really do appreciate your help." The man smiled, then hurried to the waiting taxi.

Clark gave him a wave, then turned towards Lois, who was making use of her enforced waiting time by interviewing anyone she could get to talk to her: police, firefighters, construction workers, the building's manager and so on. "Ma'am? Are you ready to go inside?" As she turned, he pretended to recognise her again. "Ms Lane! You live here?"

She followed his lead. "Yes, I do. Or I did. And will do again, I hope, once these guys let me go back home!"

"Now, you know that they're only doing their job," he said soothingly, cringing as he imagined how much it would irritate her. As he led her towards the entrance, knowing they were still within hearing distance of bystanders, he added, "And they have people's safety at heart."

"Is this all really necessary?" she asked him as they went inside.

Clark lowered his voice. "Yes, unfortunately. There's quite a bit of damage down there, and there was a lot of gas around — enough to knock someone out at the very least. I've done a bit of emergency repair work, just to make the place safer and to show them where the real problems are, but there's no way that you'll be able to move back in before some time tomorrow at the earliest."

"So it could take longer?"

He shrugged. "Maybe."

"That why they're letting us collect some stuff?"

Clark shook his head, giving her a wry smile. "Oh, no. If they'd had their way, none of this would be happening. I heard you," he told her, his tone amused. "And I knew you'd grumble at me all night if you didn't get what you wanted out of your apartment."

She shot him a questioning look. "You talked them into letting residents into the building — for me?"

"Of course." She should have worked that out for herself, he thought, but didn't comment. He waited while she unlocked her door, then followed her inside. "Anything for my best friend. But they only agreed so long as I observed a strict five-minute limit per apartment. So why don't you tell me what you want from here and I'll get it while you pack your personal things."

Lois told him where the files she wanted were, and he set about packing them at a speed in which he became less than a blur. As he worked, he thought about what he'd told the fire chief in private about the damage to the building.

Whatever had caused it, it wasn't accidental. He didn't have absolute proof of that, but all of his instincts were telling him that this was sabotage.

But who would want to wreck an apartment building? Who could possibly gain from it?

The building's owners were the obvious suspects, he knew. On the other hand, while they might assume that they would get money from their insurers, it wouldn't be a cash payout; it would go directly to the construction company which got the contract for repairs. Unless, he thought, perhaps the owners would get a kickback from the construction company? Yet the extent of the damage wasn't that great. He couldn't see the repair-work being a major job.

But that all assumed that the insurers would pay out for this — and from what Clark had seen, he wasn't at all sure that would be the case. Well, it might have been if the forensic people didn't spot what he'd seen — though now, since he would tell them, any payout was unlikely.

Some insurance money would go to tenants, to compensate them for the disturbance they were suffering. However, all hotel bills would be paid direct to the hotel concerned, and he couldn't envisage any of the tenants having grounds for a large claim.

But someone clearly stood to gain from this. At the moment, though, he couldn't figure out who that might be. How would it benefit anyone to cause a small amount of structural damage to an apartment building?

Though maybe he was focusing on the wrong potential benefit, he mused. Perhaps it wasn't money at all. The other consequence of the damage to the building was that all of the residents were being accommodated elsewhere on a temporary basis. Other than construction workers, and whatever security guards were left on duty at the site overnight — if any — the building would be empty.

What if the aim was to allow someone to gain unrestricted access for some reason?

It was a lot of effort to go to just for a straightforward breaking and entering, Clark thought. Simple robbery? He doubted it. Maybe, though, one of the residents had something very valuable? On the other hand, his intervention to allow everyone to collect a few items from their apartment could have put paid to that, if robbery were the motive. Something else? Someone wanting to hide something in the building?

He needed to talk to Lois, Clark concluded as he zipped out through her window at a rate faster than the human eye could follow, taking her files to his apartment. They worked best as a team anyway, and she'd have ideas to add to his.

When he returned, she was standing in her sitting-room, holding a carry-all into which, he could see, more than it was supposed to carry had been stuffed. He reached to take the bag from her; she shook her head, indicating that she preferred to carry it herself. She threw him an enquiring look. "Where are my files?"

"My place," he explained briefly. At her puzzled stare, he explained, "How much could you really have packed in five minutes?"

"You didn't help anyone else?"

He shrugged, reaching past her to open the door. "A little here and there. But they were mostly packing personal stuff, so it wouldn't have been appropriate."

Lois glanced down at the bag she was carrying and raised an eyebrow. "Uh-huh."

Clark touched her arm lightly before they left the building. "I'm going to take off pretty quickly — wait for me, okay? I'll be back."

Lois nodded, saying audibly as they emerged, "Thanks, Superman!"

"You're welcome, Ms Lane," he said, leaving her and heading back over to the fire chief.


"You want us to call you a cab, ma'am?"

"Oh!" Lois turned away from watching Clark take off — that sight still made her catch her breath, every single time — to see a police officer trying to attract her attention. "It's okay. My car's parked just up the road."

"Lois!" Clark came running up, slightly out of breath. "I'm sorry — I got called away. What's happening?"

Of course. He was here now as Clark, and so he had to pretend that he didn't know anything about what was going on. Just as, when he'd been there as Superman, he'd had to be formal with her, calling her Ms Lane, pretending that he didn't know where she lived, treating her as courteously as he did everyone else, but showing no sign of any personal interest in her. Carrying on that deception had been a strain for her, she knew — remembering to call him Superman, to behave differently around him, not giving anyone cause to think that she knew him any better than Lois Lane, reporter, should. How much more of a strain was it for Clark, who had to keep up that act every day, living the lives of two people, doing his utmost to keep the two as separate as possible?

"We're all being sent to a hotel for the night," she explained quickly. "I guess I need to get over there and check in."

He took her bag from her without asking. "Why would you go to a hotel?"

"Uh… because that's where everyone's going?"

He shrugged. "You don't need to go to a hotel. You can stay with me."

Stay with Clark? She hadn't considered that as an option. Did she want to stay at her partner's apartment? He did only have one bedroom, although she knew Clark well enough to be sure that he wasn't offering to share it with her.

<More's the pity>

That thought escaped before she could stop it. <Stupid!> she told herself. Clark was her friend. She didn't want anything more with him. She'd told herself that enough times already, so why was she indulging in that sort of wishful thinking?

Still… If it was a choice between a hotel-room and staying with Clark, she'd stay with Clark. Of course she would. She hated the anonymity of hotel rooms, the impersonal decor, the feeling that she could be in Metropolis or San Francisco or even Abu Dhabi and the room would look exactly the same.

And… she didn't want to be alone, suddenly. Okay, all that had happened was that there'd been some sort of explosion and her apartment was temporarily unsafe. Yet she couldn't help feeling at a loss, uprooted. And she wanted, needed, the comfort of having a friend nearby. Not just any friend — having *Clark* nearby.

"Thanks!" she said, throwing him a grateful smile.

"Come on." He laid his hand lightly against her shoulder, steering her away from the emergency workers. "You can tell me what's happening on the way."

Or he could tell her, she thought; he had a lot of explaining to do about what exactly had happened and what he thought had caused it. And her instincts were already screaming at her that there was something odd going on. Clark had seemed preoccupied as he'd accompanied her into her apartment, and she'd also had the feeling that there were gaps in what she'd heard him say to the fire chief. She'd sensed, when they were in her apartment, that he was waiting until they were alone before telling her more about what he'd found.

And tell her he did, once they were back at his apartment. Lois stared at Clark in disbelief once he'd explained all he'd seen and the conclusions he'd drawn. "You think someone deliberately set off an explosion? But why? It's just an apartment building. What possible motive — ?"

He shrugged. "That's what I've been trying to figure out. It doesn't make sense to me. I thought maybe insurance, but —"

"But I can't see how anyone would really benefit. It's not as if the building was destroyed and the owners would get compensated for it."

"Exactly. So I can't figure it out at all. I was hoping you might have some ideas."

"Hmmm." Lois wandered into Clark's kitchen, picking up items and setting them down again as she mulled over what Clark had said. He was right: it didn't really make sense. In fact, she couldn't see that it made any sense at all.

"And you're positive that it was sabotage?"

"Absolutely." He came over towards her, pausing to lean against the worktop. "It was very cleverly done — I guess it might've fooled a forensic investigation. But then, the forensic officers don't have my abilities," he pointed out with a quirk of his lips.

"So who would benefit…?" she murmured, thinking aloud.

"That's where I'm stuck," Clark told her. "I even thought about non-financial possibilities — you know, like someone wanting unhindered access to the building…?"

"Yeah, but won't the fire and construction crew be there most of the night, doing the underpinning or whatever it is?" Lois pointed out.

Clark shrugged. "I guess so. That's pretty much the brick wall I came up against, too."

"So, where do we go from here?"

Clark glanced at his watch; automatically, Lois looked at hers too and was surprised to discover that it was early evening. "I guess we call in to the newsroom and tell them we won't be back today. And we could ask Jimmy to run a check on the building owners, their insurers and anyone else who has any kind of an interest in the place — okay? Including the superintendent — Mr Trew -?"

"Trezewski, yes," Lois supplied. "Okay, you make the call. I just want to check that my notes are all safe."

Clark gestured towards the kitchen table, and she noticed for the first time the tidy stack of folders there. "It's all there. Be right back, and then you can tell me what you'd like for dinner. Then I guess we'd better sort out the sleeping arrangements."

Sleeping arrangements. Lois cast her partner a surreptitious glance as he headed for the phone. Of course he was going to be his usual courteous self — he'd offer her his bed and he'd sleep on the couch.

Taking advantage of the fact that he was standing with his back to her as he talked to their department head, Lois studied Clark, taking in his tall physique, the way the muscles in his back and shoulders rippled through his shirt as he moved, at one moment shaking his head, at another running a hand absently though his dark hair.

Clark Kent was one incredibly good-looking man. Though she was already well aware of that — in fact, on one memorable occasion, she'd seen *exactly* how good-looking he was, how well-muscled he was all over. Not that she'd been supposed to be looking at the time. She'd been focused on trying to save him and getting all of them safely out of Trask's laboratory — but all the same, she hadn't been able to resist just a peek. She'd bet there wasn't a woman alive who could have resisted sneaking a peek at a naked Superman tied to a bed, intrusive though it was.

Right now, Lois couldn't help wishing that, for once, Clark would also be less of a gentleman. If he would just say something like, "I've got a big bed — you know, we could share…?"

But that just wasn't Clark. He wasn't pushy, in any way. Even if by some remote stretch of the imagination he was interested in her in that way, he'd never put pressure on her — least of all when she was his guest. She was staying with him because, short of a hotel, she had nowhere else to go. No, Clark wouldn't be suggesting that they share his bed.

Clark, who had for the last couple of minutes been talking to Jimmy, finished his conversation at that moment and turned to face her again; Lois hurriedly put all thoughts of sharing Clark's bed out of her head, hoping that her expression wasn't revealing any of what had been going through her mind. "No problem at the Planet?" she asked, pre-empting anything he might have said.

"Nah. I told Jimmy about your apartment building and he said he'd tell Perry — he said the Chief had heard why we left anyway so there wasn't a problem. Oh, and Jimmy'll look into that stuff for us. He should have something for us in the morning."

"Okay. So there's nothing more we can do on this for today?"

Clark shook his head. "I'll talk to the fire investigators again tomorrow — or Superman will," he amended. "Given I've told them what to look for, they shouldn't have any problem finding evidence of sabotage. So then it'll be a question of whether there are any clues I didn't see, or whether the saboteur left fingerprints."

"Right." This was good, Lois told herself. She was seeing Clark as her partner again, instead of as a good-looking man whose bones she wanted to jump. "So if there's nothing more we can do on that now, why don't we get back to what we were working on before we were interrupted? I got my father to do some digging on the bionic research…"


The pain was excruciating.

He was in agony. But however much he tried, he couldn't get away from the source. He tried to roll over, to turn away, to curl up in a ball — but something was pinning his body down.

He couldn't move.

He couldn't see.

And all the time, the voice pierced the darkness. "Tell me. Where are they?"

"W-who?" he managed to croak out through dry, cracked lips, though he knew what the answer would be.

"The rest of you! The alien invasion!"

He tried to shake his head. He'd told the voice over and over again that he knew nothing about any invasion.

The knife gouged him again. This time it was his thigh; the pain was red-hot. It hurt. It shouldn't hurt, but it did.

There was something very wrong…

Why was it hurting? Why was there so much pain? Pain like he had never before experienced. Pain like he wasn't supposed to experience.

He was invulnerable. So why was it hurting?

"No! Please, don't hurt him!"

The voice. A different voice. A voice he knew, but racked by pain. She shouldn't be here. His mother. His father was here too, he knew. And he — the voice in the darkness — was hurting them as well. He'd seen them beaten, whipped, taunted — he'd heard threats to rape his mother.

All unless he gave the voice what it wanted: the alien invasion.

What aliens? What invasion?

But *he* was an alien. A dirty, sub-human, *in*human alien. An alien who had somehow subverted the minds of honest humans, making them complicit in his criminal, conquering intentions. The humans who had aided him, whose minds had been taken over by him, no longer deserved to be called by the name of human. Not any more.

So the voice claimed.

His parents were complicit, willing accomplices in the destruction of their own race. They deserved to die.

He had to get them out of here. Had to protect them…

But he couldn't move. No matter how hard he tried, how much he struggled against the restraints, he couldn't move.

And he knew that if he didn't answer those questions, those questions to which there were no answers, they would be hurt. Again.

"Shut up!" The harsh voice was there again, and it was followed by the sound of flesh on flesh, brutal, violent. Then there was stillness, punctuated only by a sob.

"No!" he screamed, and was silenced by a brutal slap to his mouth. But that didn't — couldn't — silence the cry in his head. The memory of the agonised sob he'd heard through the darkness.

His mother's voice. His mother's sob.

And he was helpless to protect her. He, who had believed himself invulnerable, invincible, was unable to help his own mother.

"I…" he began, but his voice gave up before he could finish the half-formed thought. "Please…" He tried again, not knowing what he could say; only knowing that he had to say something. Anything, to stop those men hurting his mom…

He tried to move, but still he was pinned down, trapped in a supine position. The pain was back again, and he cried out…

…and awoke, sweating, breathing heavily, and realised that he was lying on the sofa in his own apartment, blanket tangled around him.

It had been a dream. Just a dream.

He was on the couch… oh yeah, Lois was in the bedroom. Quickly, he glanced through the bedroom wall to check on her, and sighed in relief to see that she was still fast asleep. He hadn't woken her.

He didn't want her to know about the nightmares.

That, he supposed, was the disadvantage of having Lois as an overnight guest — but since she already knew that he was Superman, at least he didn't have to worry about giving his secret away. Still, having her in close proximity meant that she could have heard him tossing and turning — and even crying out, if his cries and moans had been real and not just a part of his dream.

Lately he'd actually thought the nightmares had gone, that he'd finally got over those horrifying days — eleven in all — that he'd spent in captivity, under Jason Trask's control, being tortured and seeing his parents tortured. And all for the sake of that man's paranoid xenophobia. So there really hadn't been any risk in inviting her to stay — and how could he have let her go to an impersonal hotel when it was no trouble to let her stay at his place?

Clearly, though, the nightmares weren't a thing of the past after all. And he was still shaking, still sweating. And the blanket on top of him, tangled with his body, was partly ripped to shreds.

Tossing the remains of the blanket aside, Clark stood and spun into his Spandex. It was probably time that he went out to make another circuit of Carter Avenue anyway.

Scanning the bedroom again, he confirmed that Lois was deeply asleep; there was no chance that he'd wake her if he floated through the room to get to the balcony door.

He'd won the battle of the bedroom, as he'd jokingly called it earlier. He'd insisted that Lois, as his guest, should have his bed, while she'd insisted that, since she was only a guest, she couldn't possibly take over his bedroom and that she'd be perfectly fine on the couch. He had pointed out that, first, he could sleep comfortably anywhere because of his ability to float, and second, he expected to be out patrolling and keeping watch for at least some of the night, so he wouldn't be using the couch for very long in any case.

At her question, he'd explained that he intended to keep an eye on her apartment building during the night. Sure, he'd acknowledged, there would be a security guard on duty, and they'd also surmised that construction workers would be at the site most of the night, but even all of that wasn't necessarily sufficient protection. Someone had caused that explosion for a reason. The building was currently empty, and therefore he had every intention of trying to find out what the saboteur was up to.

He opened the door leading to the balcony very cautiously, watching Lois and listening all the time for any sign that she might stir. Okay, she'd known that he would probably leave the apartment as Superman, had even known that he'd have to come through the bedroom to do it, but he didn't want her to see him now. He wasn't sure how much would be revealed in his face, and he couldn't let her find out about the nightmares.

Oh, she would be sympathetic. But he didn't want her sympathy. He just wanted the whole horrible experience to be gone, forgotten completely. He wanted no reminders, ever — and if Lois knew that he was still dreaming about it, he'd be even less able to forget it.

He padded out onto the balcony, relieved to have got there without disturbing her, and took off immediately, becoming a mere shadow against the black night sky within a second.

That nightmare had been worse than the last couple he'd had. He couldn't understand why, this time, in his dream, he'd been in so much pain. He *was* invulnerable. He'd hardly ever felt pain in his life; at least, not after his early teens, when he'd begun to develop invulnerability. True, over the days he'd been a prisoner, the sunlight deprivation had begun to wear away at his body's natural resistance, and then he'd begun to bruise and his skin had broken under Trask's attacks. But even then Trask hadn't managed to inflict excruciating pain on him.

No, not on him. But on his parents.

And he'd had to watch every instance of that torture, see his parents' faces as they were hurt — or as they had to watch each other being hurt.

Clark shivered as the memories of reality joined with those of his dream. The whole experience had been terrifying — it was no wonder that he was still suffering the aftermath. Were his parents still having nightmares? He'd never asked them — mainly because he hadn't wanted them to ask him the same question.

Deliberately making himself do it, he confronted the memories — better awake than dreaming, he thought.

It hadn't seemed so bad at first. But then, he hadn't known that he was being confronted by a madman. At first, his principal concern had been for his identity: the fact that Clark Kent was Superman had been revealed to people at the Daily Planet as well as to these shady FBI-types. How much more widely had the information spread? That was the question which had been foremost in his mind while he'd been answering Trask's endless questions. Foolishly, he'd even thought that he would surely be able to convince Trask of his bona fides.

As time had gone by and Trask wasn't being convinced, Clark had just decided that, when he was ready, he would inform Trask that the meeting was over, and walk out. After all, he was Superman. Who could stop him?

And then he'd found out exactly how he could be stopped, when four men dressed in fatigues had entered the room, leading his parents, in handcuffs, between them.

From then on, he'd been forced to watch just how cruel human beings could be to one another. He himself had been stripped naked, his parents held hostage for his good behaviour. He'd seen his parents abused, beaten, tormented, threatened with more and more horrific forms of attack. The actual violence had never gone so far as to be life-threatening — after all, of what use was a dead hostage? — but the taunts, threats and dark hints had been enough to make it clear that the next attack might be worse than the last. And, of course, torture was most effective when it was psychological as well as physical — as this had been.

He had felt, inside, each one of the blows his parents had received. Something inside him had died every time he'd seen his mother cry. And he had been helpless to stop it, for any time he moved an inch in their direction Trask would give the order for another blow.

The man had been diabolically clever. At first, while he still had all of his powers, his parents had been kept in a separate room, visible from his own torture-chamber through reinforced glass. Of course, he could have shattered it in seconds, but his parents would have been cut, badly injured, by flying glass. If, of course, they wouldn't already have been dead, shot as soon as his intentions had become clear. After all, one of Trask's minions had held a gun to his mother's head the whole time, as a method of ensuring his own 'co-operation'.

Torture was not merely physical.

Although he'd learned the meaning of physical torture too, later, as sunlight deprivation had robbed him of his invulnerability and, slowly, most of his powers. And Trask had taken advantage of his prisoner's state of vulnerability; his parents had then been brought into the same room, where they were so close that he longed to reach out and touch them. Where their bruises were much more apparent. Where his mom's sobs and his father's grunts of pain and quickly-stifled protests cut through him like lashes of a whip.

He hadn't realised just how badly his abilities had been harmed until Lois had burst into the room — he hadn't known she was in the building, hadn't heard the scuffles in the corridor as she'd dealt with another of Trask's minions. He hadn't detected her heart-beat.

But her arrival had given him the distraction that he'd needed, and he'd drawn on every reserve of strength he had left in order to break his bonds. And they'd escaped.

The realisation struck him suddenly. Lois had burst in… he'd been naked… yes, he remembered her bringing him scrubs to wear, to cover himself up. She'd seen him naked.

He wanted to cringe. As if the torture hadn't been bad enough, he also had the humiliation of knowing that his partner — his friend, true, but still, the woman he worked with, held down a professional job beside — had seen him completely naked.

How was he going to face her in the morning?

But he was going to have to. And, after all, Lois had never referred to that since, although they'd talked about other aspects of his kidnap. So maybe she'd forgotten all about it? He could hope, he supposed.

Physically, at least, his parents hadn't been too badly hurt. But, until now, he'd given little thought to their psychological scars. That had been very wrong of him, and it was something he'd have to remedy at the earliest opportunity. Especially since they would never have been hurt if not for him.

*He* was the one Trask had been after.

*He* was the one being questioned, the one being accused of being the advance guard for some alien invasion.

They'd just been convenient hostages, taken because they were *his* parents.

Some reward for having taken him in as a baby and brought him up as their own son!

He'd often thought that he could never repay his parents for all they'd done for him. And now, thanks to what he was, they'd suffered pain and torment and indignity and terror — all because of him.

He'd avoided the subject with his parents for long enough. It was time he found out just how much they were still suffering from what had happened, and how he could help.

And, of course, he would have to find a way to deal with his own psychological scars. This latest nightmare was definitely considerably worse than the others had been. So much for thinking that he was almost over the experience. So much for thinking that he could handle it alone.

<Not so Super after all, huh, Superman?>

And, as his mind flashed back briefly to the memory of Lois sleeping soundly in his bed, one more thought occurred to him. If he needed another reminder of why he couldn't possibly consider anything closer than friendship with Lois, this was it: if they became intimate, always supposing that she survived that experience, then if he happened to have a nightmare when she was sleeping beside him, he could easily thrash around in the bed and end up killing her.

He grimaced, shuddering once again at the thought of what he could do to Lois if he were ever foolish enough… But that wasn't even worth a second's thought. Quite simply, he *wasn't* that foolish. And nor would he ever be.

A thought taunted him suddenly. Even if he were that foolish — well, why would any woman ever want him? After all, he was a "dirty, sub-human alien," as Trask had told him.

"No!" he yelled, startling a passing bird. He couldn't let himself believe Trask's venom. If he allowed himself to think for one second that Jason Trask was in any way representative of other people's perceptions of him… No, that way lay madness.

It was time to stop obsessing over things he couldn't change, he told himself firmly, taking a deep breath and deliberately, calmly, forcefully pushing unwelcome images out of his head. He had to deal with what had happened, one way or another — and that included talking to his parents about it as soon as he got an opportunity.

But for now, he needed to get on with what he'd come out for. Clark took another deep breath, then flew in the direction of Carter Avenue.


Lois woke to the tantalising aromas of freshly-brewed coffee and some sort of cinnamon-scented pastries. For a moment, she was disoriented, unable to work out why her apartment should smell like a bakery, but then she remembered. She was in Clark's apartment — in his bed! — and he had to be up already.

That was confirmed when he tapped lightly on the wall next to the open doorway. "You awake, Lois? Breakfast is ready — like me to bring you a coffee?"

"If you don't mind me not showering first, I'll throw on a robe and come out and have breakfast with you," she called back.

"Why would I mind?" he answered, and she could hear the smile in his voice. "I'll pour your coffee."

Lois threw back the covers and grabbed the robe she'd laid across the end of the bed; quickly pulling it around her, she headed for the kitchen.

Clark greeted her with a friendly smile. If he'd been out much during the night, she couldn't tell from his appearance; he looked wide awake and ready to face the day. Though, if he'd already showered, she hadn't heard him. Nor had she heard him using the balcony door during the night, though he'd told her that he'd be as quiet as he could.

"Did you go out at all last night?" she asked once she'd accepted a mug of fragrant coffee from him.

"Yeah, a couple of times. Once was around three am, and the second time was an hour ago — that's when I got these," he added, gesturing to the cinnamon rolls. "I checked on your place — there were workmen in the basement and someone was guarding the front door, so it looked secure." He pushed the plate of rolls towards her. "Then I ended up helping out at a pile-up on a freeway in the next state."

Lois took a bite of a roll, simultaneously sliding into a chair. "Was it bad?"

"No-one killed, thankfully. But several people badly injured — a number of them were trapped, and I was able to free them quicker than the fire department could… so I guess I was there half an hour or so." He threw her a teasing smile. "You were fast asleep when I came back in — I'm pretty sure I even heard a snore."

"You did not!" Lois retorted. She pulled off a piece of her roll and threw it at him. "I do not snore!"

Clark laughed. "Next time, I'll get my tape recorder."

Next time? As in, there was a chance she might end up spending the night at Clark's place again? It wasn't going to happen; she'd be back in her own apartment by tonight. But still… she supposed there could be nights when they might stay up late watching a movie, and when he could suggest she stay over rather than drive home.

Only as friends, of course. Nothing more intimate than that. But she'd rather be Clark's friend than nothing at all, so even that was good.

"More coffee," she demanded, holding out her mug towards him. He even made better coffee than she did — but then, that wasn't much of a contest. Yes, breakfast at Clark's had a lot to recommend it.


Having breakfast with a guest was really quite nice, Clark thought as he poured each of them more coffee. Well, of course he always loved being with Lois. But having her staying in his apartment was different, and although he'd made the offer in all sincerity, he'd had some reservations.

After all, he was used to having his own space. And, even though Lois knew he was Superman, he still felt a little awkward about dealing with the dual identity around her. Spinning in and out of his Suit was one thing, but he did lots of things differently from most people, and having someone else see him boil water with his eyes, or destroying yet another knife or plate because he'd momentarily forgotten his own strength… well, he just tended to prefer his own company at home.

And yet this was Lois, his best friend… the woman he loved. Which also made it hard to have her around. So close, and yet so far… he could look, but he dared not touch. Even more so after last night — if he'd managed to shred a blanket in his sleep, what could he do to another human being without even realising it?

No. Don't even think about it, he told himself.

And, in fact, he was finding that the real advantage to having Lois here was that he was having to make an effort to behave normally. He had a reason to force himself to stop obsessing over the effects of what Trask had done to him — and, more importantly, what Trask had done to his parents. He couldn't do anything about that until he had time to go to Smallville, and the earliest he could do that would probably be later today. And he couldn't afford to spend the day brooding — apart from anything else, he didn't want Lois wondering what was wrong. So sharing cinnamon rolls with her was a useful discipline.

She looked so gorgeous in her robe over satin pyjamas, hair untidy from her night's sleep; so clearly having only just got out of bed. It would be so easy to imagine that *they'd* both just got out of the bed they shared.

The bed they'd both slept in… sharing kisses, gentle caresses, slow, deliberate touches and long, passionate lovemaking. Where he would have discovered every inch of her luscious, nude, satiny body, and she -

But she already knew what he looked like naked.

She'd seen him. All of him.

He felt himself blushing, and he jumped to his feet, rushing to the fridge to grab something — anything — just to cover his embarrassment.

Lois was looking at him curiously as he returned, and he held out the carton of grapefruit juice to her. "I forgot. Would you like some?"

"Well, a glass would be nice," she said, giving him an amused grin.

"Good." He smiled in return, placing the carton on the table in front of her and resuming his seat.

"Umm… Clark?"

"Yeah?" What was it? Had she noticed his embarrassment? Wondered why he'd just been acting like an idiot? Or had he covered it adequately?

"A glass?" she prompted.

"Uh… yeah?"

"Well, unless you'd like me to drink straight from the carton…?"

Okay. Yes. He was an idiot. And he had just behaved like one in front of Lois. He really did need to concentrate on what was actually happening, rather than brooding over stuff he couldn't help!

Getting up again to take a glass from one of the cupboards, Clark reminded himself forcefully that he couldn't change something that had already happened. So, she'd seen him without any clothes on. It had hardly been the first time she'd seen a naked man, so it wouldn't have been a big deal for her. It clearly wasn't a big deal for her — after all, she'd never mentioned it since, and she showed no embarrassment in his presence, unlike his own moronic behaviour this morning.

<Grow up and behave like an adult!> he told himself, and passed her the glass.


Half an hour later, Lois had showered and was dressed, ready to leave. It felt strange, and yet at the same time entirely natural, to leave Clark's apartment and get into her car together to go to work. On the way, they heard a news report about Superman's nocturnal activities; it seemed that he'd done considerably more than Clark had let on, but Lois didn't comment. She was beginning to notice that Clark sometimes had a tendency to downplay his achievements, as if it embarrassed him to talk about them. Well, she wouldn't embarrass him; she'd just make a mental note to treat his descriptions of his own doings as an underestimate in future.

Exiting the elevator on the newsroom floor, she turned to Clark. "Okay, we need to get hold of Jimmy immediately and find out what he's been able to —"

Lois broke off abruptly as her gaze fell upon her desk.

A man she'd only seen a couple of times before was sitting at it. And her name-plate, which normally sat right at the front of the desk, in the middle, marking out her territory to all and sundry, was… gone.


Clark felt Lois stop dead beside him. Her entire body tensed, and then she lurched into an abrupt forward movement, in the direction of her desk. And it was then that he noticed Matt, the freelance whom Perry had been commissioning a lot lately, sitting at Lois's workstation.

He frowned, already anticipating the torrent of fury which was about to descend upon the hapless, unwitting reporter. Hurrying after Lois, he caught hold of her arm. "Hold on — he probably doesn't know —"

Realising what he'd done, Clark released her arm immediately. He'd just grabbed her — he could have hurt her. He didn't know his own strength; he could have pressed too hard, bruised her, maybe even crushed the bone…

How many times did he need to remind himself!

"That is *my* desk!" she hissed at him. He let go the breath he'd been holding. She didn't sound as if she was in any sort of pain. He hadn't hurt her… this time. But it was another timely reminder after realising that he was actually in love with Lois: if he got too close to her, he could hurt her. Badly.

Lois began striding in the direction of her desk again, but walked into Jimmy, who was unfortunate enough to choose that moment to pass by, carrying an open box.

"Sorry, Lo — " he began, but she didn't give him a chance to finish.

With admirable reflexes, she'd reached into the box; now she was holding something up accusingly. "And just *what* are you doing with this?" she demanded.

Clark recognised Lois's name-plate and, wincing, wondered just why Jimmy was courting disaster by having it in his possession.

"Taking it to the store-room, of course!" Jimmy protested, trying to move himself out of the danger-zone.

But Lois wasn't letting her prey escape that easily. "And why are you doing that?" Her tone was menacing, and Clark grimaced, moving forward to try to defuse the situation. Not that he had any clue what was going on either.

"Because no-one's going to have name-plates any more, of course, Lois!" Clearly thinking that he'd explained everything, Jimmy made one more attempt to leave.

"Since when?" A furious and a disbelieving Lois… Clark didn't envy Jimmy one bit.

"Lois — " He tried to interrupt, but she waved an impatient hand in his direction in silent instruction to keep out.

"And why is someone else sitting at my desk?" she demanded.

"Didn't you read the memo?" Jimmy rolled his eyes and stared at her. "Geez, Lois, everyone else knows about it, so what —"

"Knows about *what*?" she asked; that tone of voice, Clark thought, could frighten off criminals more effectively than a hard stare from Superman.

"The new policy!" Jimmy exclaimed. "It was all in the memo!"

Lois practically growled, "What memo?"

"The memo we all got yesterday." Jimmy's voice was wary, and Clark saw that his body was tensed, prepared for a quick escape as soon as the opportunity arose.

"Yesterday?" Lois glanced at Clark, then back at Jimmy. "We were out of the office most of yesterday. My apartment, remember?"

"Oh yeah." Jimmy's eyes were flicking from side to side, Clark noticed; he definitely wanted out of there. "That was a real bummer, Lois." He took a careful step sideways.

"The memo," Lois reminded him, a warning note in her voice. "And my desk?"

Jimmy gave a resigned grimace. "New policy. We're all hot-desking now!"

"Hot… *what*?"

"Hot-desking," Clark repeated. "It's a policy where no-one has an assigned desk. You just come in, use whatever desk is free, then vacate it again when you've finished so as to leave it clear for someone else. It's a way of saving on space in a workplace where not everyone's in work at the same time."

She turned to stare at him, disbelief written all over her face. "Perry thought *that* would be a good idea? Here? Is he crazy?"

Jimmy, Clark noticed, had begun to take the opportunity offered for a discreet getaway, but at Lois's accusation he turned back. "Actually, it wasn't Perry's idea. The memo came down from the suits upstairs. Seems they wanted to get rid of the freelances' room on the fourth floor, plus there's those two new writers in Features. They thought this would be a good way to save money, I guess." The eye-rolling expression on Jimmy's face made it clear what he thought of the idea.

Lois stood unmoving for several seconds, as if digesting the information. Then she drew herself up to her full height. "Right — I'm going to tell Perry that this just isn't acceptable. I won't work in this environment!"

"Lois…" Clark put his hand lightly on her arm, again trying to calm her down. He might not be happy about this crazy new idea either, but he couldn't see that it was worth getting really agitated over. "Look, you know what the suits upstairs are like. Give it a couple of weeks and this'll all probably just go away again. My desk's free — why don't you use that for now, and when Matt's finished —"

Her expression softened. "You shouldn't have to give up your desk either. Clark, we're the Planet's best reporting team! There's no way that we should have to hang around and wait for desks to come free — can you imagine having to use a different computer every day?"

Clark couldn't manage to suppress the grin that came to his face on hearing Lois describe the two of them as the Planet's best team. Yet more proof that she no longer regarded him as a greenhorn with lots to learn; they were equal partners.

"Well, all the computers are networked, and we save everything on network drives, not hard drives, and we use floppies too, and everything's password-protected…" he began to point out, but gave up when he saw his partner's expression.

"Okay, okay." He held up a hand to pre-empt her forthcoming tirade. "You're right. This is crazy. We can't work like this."

"He better not have opened my drawers," she muttered. "That's all my stuff in there! My Rolodex, my makeup, my spare pantyhose…"

"Your secret stash of chocolate," Clark supplied with a grin. She glared at him.

Someone brushed past them then; Clark recognised her as one of the new Features writers, who'd started work just a couple of days ago. With a feeling of inevitability, he watched her head straight for his desk and log into the computer.

He met Lois's gaze; she rolled her eyes at him in an 'I told you so' manner. He shook his head in wry acceptance. "Okay. Let's go see Perry — together."

Lois turned on her heel and headed in the direction of the editor's office. About to follow, Clark felt Jimmy tug lightly on his arm.

"You've really had a good effect on Lois! I was sure she'd hit the roof!"

Incredulous, Clark said, "This isn't hitting the roof?"

"No way!" Jimmy insisted. He pointed a finger upwards. "The roof's still intact!"

Clark grinned, and then abruptly schooled his expression as Lois caught at his other arm. "Come on, Clark! We haven't got all day!"

"I'm coming…"


Lois barely waited for the door to close behind Clark before she launched into her complaint. "Perry, this is crazy! We can't be expected to work like this. You know we can't!"

The editor got to his feet, grimacing. "I know it's crazy. But I don't —"

"Whose stupid idea was it, anyway?" Lois continued, determined to have her say. "Clearly some pen-pusher who's never actually worked in the news business. Someone who thinks saving a few measly dollars is worth making it impossible for the Planet's best news team to work!"

"Lois -" Perry started, but she forged onwards.

"And don't say that I can work just as well at any desk — that's just not true! Having to look for a free desk every time I get in here, not having my familiar things around me, having to dig out my work from some network drive —"

"You do that already," Clark pointed out from behind her, but she ignored her partner's interruption.

"It's going to be incredibly disruptive. I just can't work under these conditions, and you can darned well tell whatever pea-brain it is that —"

"Lois!" This time, Perry's growl penetrated, and Lois closed her mouth. She knew better than to continue when her editor was looking at her like that.

"Good," Perry said approvingly. "Now you listen for a minute. If you think for one minute that I'm happy with this nonsensical policy, then you don't know me anything like as well as you should do. I agree. It's a total waste of time. It's counter- productive, and it'll get in the way of getting a newspaper out."

"Then tell them that!" Lois retorted.

"You think I haven't?" Perry rolled his eyes. "That policy came from upstairs yesterday afternoon. It came in an inter-office memo to all newsroom and admin staff. I didn't even see it before it went out. I went straight upstairs and spoke to Marshall — the guy whose signature was on it. I told him all of that stuff, and more. But he wasn't interested." Perry's lip curled. "Seems he's read some *management journal* -" The words were said scornfully. "- which claimed hot-desking saves thousands of dollars a year, as well as stopping employees wasting the company's time by playing games or making private phone calls at their desks. He wasn't backing down, even when I threatened to go to the chairman of the board. He insisted the new policy had been agreed right at the top."

"It's ridiculous!" Lois exclaimed. "It won't work. This place will grind to a halt in a couple of days if they insist on it."

"That's what I told him, too. So, kids, you don't have much choice other than to ride this one out. Give it a week, tops, and things will be back to normal."

"We can't do that, Chief," Lois said, her tone deliberately quieter now. "Clark and I are working on a big story — one that's got to be kept under wraps. I don't care about password- protection and all that sort of stuff — we can't keep moving around from desk to desk under these circumstances."

"Want to tell me what it's about?" Perry gave her a shrewd look.

Clark stepped forward to stand beside Lois, and she threw him a quick smile — she didn't need his moral support, but that didn't mean that she didn't appreciate it. "For now, I think the fewer people who know the better, Chief," Clark said calmly.

"Oh, one of those? Okay, but I'm trusting you, Clark — not Lois, because I know she'll just ignore me — I'm trusting you to come and brief me about it if anything starts to go wrong, or if you're getting into anything the lawyers need to know about. You hear?"

"Sure, Chief," Clark said. Lois rolled her eyes; of course Clark would promise. But she would see to it that he was talked out of it if he tried to keep his promise before she was ready for Perry to know.

"So, you see, Chief, we really can't work under these circumstances," Lois continued in a more persuasive voice. "If there's really nothing you can do about it, Clark and I will just commandeer the conference room for the time being. Okay? It's either that or we work at home — not that I can work at my place for the time being," she added disgustedly. Turning on her heel, she prepared to walk out of the office.

"Now, just hold on here!" Perry said firmly. "Look," he added once she'd turned to face him again. "I'd like to say sure, you can work there. But that's also part of the policy — haven't you read the document? The conference room is to be used only for bona fide conferences. And when it's not in proper use in accordance with the new policy," he drawled, clearly quoting, "then it has to be made available for -" He waggled his fingers in the air to simulate quotation marks. "- 'commercial use'. Some bean-counter's even estimated that the Planet should be able to bring in extra revenue of up to twenty thousand bucks a year just through renting out spare office space!" He rolled his eyes once more. "I guess I should just be grateful they're not renting out my office and making me hot-desk too!"

"But that's ridiculous! Rent out the confer —"

Lois trailed off abruptly as it became clear that neither Perry nor Clark was listening to her. Perry, she noticed, was watching Clark… and her partner was staring into the middle distance, a distracted expression on his face.

"What is it, son?" Perry asked softly.

"I have to go," Clark said abruptly, urgently. "Lois, get over to your place *now*. I don't know what's going on, but a call's just gone out for reinforcement fire trucks."

Lois could feel herself stiffening. "Again?"

Clark nodded, already heading for the door. "It could be nothing. Or it could be there's more damage to the foundations. But the sooner I get there…" He trailed off, leaving her to draw her own conclusions, then shot through the door; she could see him heading at a brisk pace for the stairwell.

He could be right, Lois told herself firmly. It could easily be just that the construction crew was having difficulty reinforcing the foundations and they'd called out the fire department for help. Or maybe a wall in the basement had collapsed from the stress of yesterday's explosion and someone was trapped… None of that would be unexpected.

All the same… "I have to go," she told Perry.

"Sure. Go," he instructed her.


"I take it that everything is in place?"

"Naturally, sir," Nigel St John murmured, lifting the lid on the Spanish cedar humidor without waiting to be asked; like any well- trained butler, he could anticipate his master's wishes.

Lex carefully selected a cigar, weighing it in his hand for several moments before holding it out for Nigel to clip the end, then placing it between his lips so that it could be lit. "Excellent." He took a long, slow draw of the fragrant aroma before exhaling a perfect smoke ring.

Nigel silently closed the humidor again. "I received a call a few minutes ago confirming that the loose end has also been disposed of."

Lex inclined his head. "I never doubt your ability to carry out my wishes, Nigel. That is, after all, why I employ someone of your… experience." He smiled in amusement.

Nigel's smile in response was wintry. "Indeed, sir. My former employers did, of course, offer impeccable training."

"Of which I am only too happy to take advantage." Lex took another puff of his cigar. "My poor Lois," he added, his expression creasing in sympathy. "She will be distraught. To lose her home, all her possessions… to have nothing other than what she stands up in…"

"She will be in need of a friend, sir," Nigel observed, standing back, a hint of an amused smile curving over the patrician features.

"Indeed she will. And I, of course, could not simply stand by and watch a woman as beautiful, as charming, as Ms Lane suffer. Not when I am in a position to assist her." He held the cigar to his lips again.

"Naturally, sir."

There was silence in the penthouse office for a couple of minutes as one man smoked while the other watched contemplatively.

Lex exhaled once more, watching with satisfaction as the blue smoke wafted across his office. Then, stubbing out the remains of the finest Cuban, he got to his feet. "The charcoal pin-stripe for later, I think, Nigel."

"An excellent choice, sir. And a sober tie? One with just a hint of a brighter colour — one would not wish to present too much of an aura of seriousness," Nigel suggested.

"Perfect." Lex headed towards the door. "Have the car ready for about two."


Thick black smoke was visible as Clark approached Carter Avenue. He focused on the source, and wasn't really surprised when it proved to be coming from Lois's apartment building. He'd been right to suspect that yesterday's sabotage hadn't been the end of the story — and he'd bet anything Lois cared to wager that this fire, wherever it had started, wasn't accidental either.

The flames were licking at the roof; several fire crews were directing hoses at parts of the building, and officers wearing protective gear were staggering out through the doorway, carrying an unconscious form. Clark swooped down, taking the man from them — a firefighter whose oxygen tube seemed to have burned away — and flying him over to the waiting paramedics.

For the next hour, he was kept busy assisting the emergency services. He searched the building to ensure that there was no- one else inside; the fire crew hadn't been able to be sure, and inside the apartment building the fire was an inferno. The officer in charge had already given the order for all crew to withdraw from the interior. Superman took hoses and foam spray to inaccessible parts of the building. He gave reports on the extent of the fire. And he rescued a couple of firefighters who were blown off their ladders when an upper-storey window exploded.

By the time Clark noticed Lois standing on the pavement trying hard not to chew her fingernails, the fire was finally getting under control. Still, the damage was extensive; he would be surprised, he thought, if the building could be saved. He was pretty sure that the roof was vulnerable, and although he'd had little opportunity to see the scale of interior damage he doubted that it would be superficial.

From what he'd been told, the fire had been raging for about an hour before he'd heard the call for backup fire tenders. It had seemed relatively minor at first, confined to the lower floor, and the crews had thought that they had it well under control. And then, the officer in charge had told him, there'd been an explosion of flame. A backdraft, perhaps, or a fire the crew had thought was out flaring up again — they didn't know, couldn't be sure at this stage. From then on, the fire had raged out of control and they'd had to call for backup.

The fire had to be deliberate. Clark simply wasn't prepared to accept that this could be a coincidence. But why? He and Lois had been through all the arguments yesterday; there just didn't seem to be any rationale for it. They couldn't come up with anyone who might have a motive for destroying an apartment building. The question of insurance was even more remote now, surely — all the emergency workers at the scene were talking openly about this surely being deliberate. No-one was prepared to buy the possibility that there could have been two accidents in a row.

Finally, he was able to go to Lois. She'd been talking to a couple of bystanders for a while, he'd noticed; he hadn't been sure whether they were other occupants of the same building, or just neighbours from elsewhere in the street. Now, she was alone again; her expression was strained, and she was looking at him.

"Lois." He took her arm gently and steered her a little away from anyone who might overhear. "I'm sorry. There was nothing I could do."

"I know," she murmured, sounding as if she was straining to keep calm. "I could see how bad it was… Clark, what happened?" she demanded, almost shrilly.

"Lois," he cautioned gently. "Clark isn't here."

She started. "Oh! I'm sorry!" she muttered. "Superman. I forgot. Superman."

"It's okay. No-one heard," he reassured her. "But — we just need to be careful, okay?"

She nodded.

"I don't know what happened yet," he said. "But it had to be deliberate. As soon as I can, I'm going to go inside and take a look — though I'll have to be careful, because I don't know a lot about forensic science and I wouldn't want to damage anything. You know the police and the fire department will be investigating too, though, Lois. We will find out what caused this."

"I guess." She shuddered slightly. "But — Superman, what's it like inside? Is anything salvageable?"

He shook his head, saying gently, "I'm sorry, Lois. It's pretty devastated. There wasn't anywhere the fire didn't reach. But you know that even if it hadn't been that bad, you wouldn't have been able to salvage anything anyway. Smoke and water damage, remember?"

"I guess," she said resignedly. "I'm sorry — I'm being such a wimp. I'm never a wimp!" she added, sounding annoyed with herself.

"It's hardly surprising," Clark pointed out. "First what happened yesterday, and I know how worried you were then, and now this." He glanced around; seeing that no-one appeared to be paying them any attention, he reached out and gently squeezed her arm. "I wish I could have done more — I don't know, got here sooner, or maybe stayed here and kept watch —"

"You couldn't have stayed here, Superman!" Lois pointed out, sounding more like her normal self. "You're not a night watchman — you have much more important things to do than that anyway. And besides, if you had been here, whoever did this would probably have just waited until you were called away to something else."

She was right, he knew. There was no sensible way that he could have prevented this. And yet, for Lois's sake, he wished he could have.

His partner — his friend — was now homeless. And she had nothing except the clothes she stood up in and the few things they'd brought over to his place.

Okay, insurance would take care of possessions — or, at least, he hoped so. He wasn't sure whether, if this were proven to be arson, insurers would pay out on tenants' contents policies, or whether all insurance policies would be invalidated. Which could mean that several people, most of whom really couldn't afford it, would have lost everything they owned.

Still, something would be done for the tenants, he imagined. Even if the building owners weren't insured in the circumstances, he was pretty sure that they'd at least arrange temporary accommodation. As for Lois, he wouldn't let her suffer.

He glanced at her again. She was still pale, but making a determined effort to pull herself together. "I have to go," he murmured. "I'll see you later, okay? You know where to find the key to my place?" he asked, his tone very soft.

She nodded.

"Fine. If I don't see you at the paper, I'll see you there," he whispered. "And we'll talk about everything then, okay?"

Lois nodded. "Thanks, Superman," she said, more loudly than he'd spoken; he knew that it was for the benefit of anyone who might be watching.

He gave her a brief smile, then strode off in the direction of the chief fire officer.


She went back to the Planet. There was really no point hanging around outside the ruins of her apartment building; there was no way that anyone was going to allow her to go inside, and even if she sneaked in on her own there was nothing to go in for. So Clark had assured her, and she believed him. She also knew that if there was anything at all which could be saved from her apartment, he would make a point of finding it and bringing it to her.

Her Kerths, for example. Oh, how she wished she'd thought to take them with her the previous afternoon! But then, she'd been sure that she'd be back in her apartment today or the next day. Even though Clark had said the explosion had been sabotage, it hadn't occurred to either of them that it might be followed up by the complete destruction of the building.

Her Kerths. A sudden rush of guilt assailed her, hitting her like a physical blow. How could she be so shallow, so focused on something which was really, in the scale of what had happened today, so trivial? She and her neighbours had lost almost everything they owned. Their homes. Their valuables. Their prized possessions — things which were irreplaceable. Everything which added up to who and what they were — gone, in a blaze of fire.

And she was crying over some pieces of crystal? Which she could probably get replicas of anyway if she contacted the Kerth Committee.

And yet…

In the same way that her neighbours' prized possessions represented who they were and were precious to them, her Kerths were who Lois Lane was. They were the tangible symbol of what she had made of herself: an award-winning reporter, the best in Metropolis. Those pieces of crystal said that no-one could call Lois Lane a failure. No-one could castigate her for not being the best. No-one could say that if she'd just tried that extra two per cent harder… She *was* the best, and those awards proved it. And now they were gone.

Locking her Jeep, Lois turned to walk to the elevator which would take her up from the parking garage to the newsroom floor. But for some reason her brain refused to send the command to her feet to move. After a few moments, she felt her body slump, as if the mammoth effort she'd put into holding herself together up until now had just run out of energy.

She'd lost everything. Her home. All of her belongings, apart from the Jeep and the few items she'd taken over to Clark's. As if having had her desk stolen from her wasn't bad enough, she was now homeless as well. She didn't even know where she was going to sleep tonight.

Unbidden, unstoppable, tears began to flow. In the middle of the parking garage, Lois Lane sobbed helplessly.

Some minutes later, she fumbled around inside her purse, eventually coming up with a Kleenex that had seen better days. She scrubbed at her face, hoping that she was managing to erase all trace of tears. No-one was allowed to see Lois Lane upset, she told herself. Well, except for Clark. And then only in extreme circumstances.

Right now, she didn't have time for senseless emotions such as tears. She had a job to do, and at the top of her list of tasks was finding out who had torched her home.

It simply didn't make sense. What possible motive could there be?

She sighed and, fairly confident now that she looked presentable and not as if she'd just come out of a crying fit, took the elevator upstairs and went in search of Jimmy. Maybe, she thought, he would have come up with some answers to the questions Clark had set him the previous evening.

She couldn't see him immediately, though, so she automatically headed for her desk… only to halt abruptly at the sight of a different staffer sitting there. The hot-desking policy, she remembered with an inward groan.

Not only had she lost her apartment, but she'd also lost her desk, she reminded herself again. Did she have nowhere left in the world to call her own?

"Lois!" Perry's holler caught her attention; as she turned to him, he waved in her direction, beckoning her to him. "What happened?" he asked as she drew near.

She waited until he'd escorted her into his office before explaining.

His expression grew grim as she concluded the story. "Aww, honey, I'm so sorry. Is Superman still there?"

Lois nodded. "He's going to try to find out what caused it. One thing's for sure, it wasn't accidental."

"But who would want to burn down your apartment building?" Perry asked, shaking his head.

Lois shrugged. "Beats me. Look, Perry, I need Jimmy and I need somewhere to work. Forget this stupid policy — where can I go?"

Perry sighed. "Take the conference room. And if anyone has a problem with it, they can take it up with me. Send Steve to me if he objects, too. Not that I think he will — he's just as unhappy with the policy as everyone else."

"Thanks." Lois rolled her eyes. "I'd work at home, except I don't *have* a home to work in!" Tears threatened again, and she glanced away, furiously blinking to force them away. She was *not* going to give in to stupid crying again!

Perry noticed. She'd hoped he wouldn't, but she'd learned long ago that her editor was too shrewd to miss things like that. But, to her relief, other than the swiftly-disguised expression of sympathy, he gave no sign of having seen.

"Go." He waved her towards the door. "And I hope you figure out what's behind it. But don't forget that I have a newspaper to run, too, and I need column inches, okay?"

"Yeah, yeah." Lois tossed her head. "How's this for a headline: Award-Winning Reporter Watches her Home Burn? And, In Freak Coincidence, Also Has Desk Stolen?"

He gave her a sympathetic, but impatient look. "You know, Lois, anyone else but you would be asking for the rest of the day off to deal with insurance companies and find somewhere to stay tonight."

She shrugged. "If I don't have anywhere else to go, I can pull an all-nighter here. So what? And I already called the insurance company before I got back here. There's nothing more I can do until their assessor gets back to me. So I might as well work."

Leaving Perry's office, she headed for the conference room, spotting Jimmy on her way and dragging him along with her. No matter how long it took, and how many long shots she made him check out, she was going to get to the bottom of the fire.

No-one made Lois Lane homeless without paying the penalty.


It was early afternoon by the time Clark made it back to the newsroom; he'd stayed around as long as possible once the fire was out, offering his help to the investigators searching for possible clues as to the cause of the blaze. He'd also taken a quick look around inside what had once been Lois's apartment, looking to see if, despite what he'd told her, there was anything which could be saved.

He'd found something he knew she would be glad to have. Blackened by smoke and slightly melted at the edges, her Kerth awards had survived the inferno. He'd smuggled them out of the building — it wasn't as if they'd be vital pieces of evidence in any case — and cleaned them up as best he could. They were safely stored in his apartment; he'd give them back to her later.

As far as getting to the bottom of the fire was concerned, he was still none the wiser as to a motive, but arson had been confirmed. Someone had got into the building earlier that morning — how the person had got past the security and construction workers baffled Clark — and had left containers of paraffin in a few strategic locations. The arsonist must also have poured the fuel over the furniture in a first-floor room and set it alight. The fire's ferocious spread had been guaranteed by the containers of paraffin elsewhere.

Arson. Someone had deliberately burned down Lois's apartment building. But why?

The police were already looking into possible causes, and Clark intended to call the officer in charge once he'd updated Lois and found out what, if anything, Jimmy had found for them. He was beginning to think in different directions, since he was now very sure that an insurance payout couldn't possibly be a motive. The fire was so obviously deliberate that there would be no question at all of a payment.

Had the arsonist wanted to kill someone? And yet that didn't make sense; the building had been empty apart from construction workers, who had got out as soon as the fire had started. Someone had raised the alarm very quickly and all of the workers had been safely evacuated. Yesterday's explosion had ensured that none of the tenants was inside.

Nothing made sense.

It had even crossed his mind to wonder whether Lois herself could be the target. And yet that didn't make sense either. She hadn't been in the apartment at the time — at either time. Anyone who knew her schedule would know that she was never home during the day.

Someone worried about a story she was working on, who wanted to destroy her notes? But again, her notes hadn't been in the apartment — although, he reminded himself, no-one else would necessarily know that. But anyway, why would anyone assume that her story notes would be in her apartment? Most reporters kept their papers at their workplace; someone would have to know Lois very well to be aware that she, unusually, kept copies of important information at home.

As he walked out of the elevator and into the newsroom, therefore, he was at a complete loss.

The first person he saw was a man he had never expected to see on the newsroom floor of the Daily Planet.

Lex Luthor, immaculately-dressed as always, was standing at the top of the small flight of steps, looking around him. Clark had to force himself to suppress the automatic recoil he felt on seeing the billionaire; it definitely wasn't a good idea to give Luthor any kind of clue that he didn't like the man.

"Mr Luthor," he said calmly. "Can I help you?"

"Ah…" Luthor turned slowly around to face him, his expression bland. "Clark Kent, isn't it? By the way, I did enjoy that article of yours on the so-called invisible man. That was a stylish piece of writing, even if it did hint at my role — or rather, my company's role — in firing that man in the first place," he added in a self-deprecating manner which irritated Clark intensely.

Clark gave a slight shrug and made himself smile. "It's a journalist's duty to report the truth. And, of course, you did get some good publicity out of it. You'll have noticed that I included the fact that you offered him his job back?"

Luthor inclined his head, his expression — at least in Clark's opinion — smugly satisfied. "Anyway," he continued, "I'm actually looking for Lois. Is she here?"

Clark glanced around, not at all happy at the thought of Luthor being in search of his partner. All the same, he reminded himself, they were investigating the man. And Lois had argued very persuasively in favour of presenting herself as completely lacking in any suspicions where Luthor was concerned.

She wasn't anywhere on the newsroom floor, he noticed, and wondered if she'd gone to sort out her insurance details. But then he realised that the conference room was in use, and that its occupant was his partner. That was as good a place as any, he supposed, turning back to Luthor. "She's over there. I'll take you to her."

Luthor followed him across the newsroom floor, making no attempt at social conversation. Once Clark opened the conference-room door, and before he had a chance to speak to Lois, his companion pushed past him.

"My dear Lois!" Luthor said effusively. "I just heard a few minutes ago — how appalling! You must be devastated. And I understand that the police believe it's arson?"

Lois, seated at the table surrounded by papers and with Jimmy next to her, looked up in surprise. "Lex! Oh, and Clark — have you just got back?"

"Yes," Clark confirmed. "And Mr Luthor's right — it is confirmed as arson. The chief fire officer told me himself."

She shrugged. "It's only what we expected." Grimacing briefly, she then turned her attention back to Luthor. "Thanks for the sympathy, Lex. But you really didn't need to come all the way down here for that, though I appreciate the thought."

"Actually, I came to offer my help," he said smoothly. "I couldn't bear the thought of your being homeless, Lois. And although I'm sure that some temporary arrangements will be made for the building's tenants, I can imagine that you would hate to have to stay in a hotel indefinitely. I certainly would, in your position. It so happens that I own, through one of my property companies, a couple of apartment buildings, and I've come to offer you the use of an apartment in one of them." He smiled, somewhat patronisingly in Clark's opinion. "The building is on Mercer Avenue — perhaps you know it? There is a vacant apartment on the penthouse floor."

Mercer Avenue. Only one of the most exclusive residential addresses in the downtown area of Metropolis, Clark noted sourly. Overlooking the river, and in an area boasting several exclusive restaurants, upmarket shops and the lowest crime-rate in the city. Apartments there, whether for rental or purchase, were far beyond the reach of anyone on his or even Lois's salary.

He gave Lois a wary glance. He could understand it if she were tempted by the offer, but he couldn't bear the thought of her being indebted to Lex Luthor in any way. As well as that, he'd planned a solution of his own to her accommodation problem, and he felt as if Luthor had just cut the ground out from under him.

He'd decided, flying back from the Planet, that he was going to invite her to move in with him. For as long as she wanted — until she found a new apartment, until they decided that they couldn't stand living with each other any more; whatever. Sure, he'd had qualms about the possibility of her hearing him if he had a nightmare, but he'd convinced himself that that wouldn't be a problem. Not for much longer, anyway. He was going to get himself sorted out — he was going to talk to his parents, and make himself get over what had happened to them.

And he was looking forward to having Lois around; seeing her at home as well as at work, having her company over breakfast and last thing at night. Okay, part of it was going to be frustrating, in that it would only remind him of what he couldn't have — but he'd reconciled himself to that. And having Lois as a friend and an apartment-mate would make his life pretty terrific.

But now, how could his modest apartment on Clinton Street — which she'd have to share with him — possibly compete with what was sure to be a luxury penthouse on Mercer Avenue?

Lois was smiling at Luthor, an expression of genuine pleasure on her face. Clark kept looking at her, willing her to look at him and read his expression, to understand that he wanted her to reject Luthor's offer.

She didn't look at him. Instead, she got to her feet and went over to the billionaire, reaching out to touch his sleeve. "That's incredibly kind of you, Lex. I really do appreciate it. It's extremely thoughtful."

"Not at all, Lois," Luthor said smoothly. "It's little enough to do for someone I consider a friend."

"As I said, it's very sweet of you." Lois smiled again, and then moved across to stand beside Clark, sliding her hand through his arm. "But it isn't necessary. I'm going to stay with Clark until I have something permanent sorted out."

She was? Clark covered her hand with his, not sure whether she was deliberately sending Luthor a signal about a supposed relationship between the two of them, but determined to play along in any case. "Yes, that's right," he confirmed, giving Luthor a smile which was every bit as false as the one the other man was offering in return. "My apartment is Lois's for as long as she wants it."

"Well, if you're sure, Lois — but the apartment on Mercer Avenue would be yours for as long as you want it, too. And if you liked it, I'm sure we could come to some arrangement about rent, once your insurance claim is sorted out." He gave an expansive smile. "You should at least come and have a look at it. I'm sure Mr Kent's apartment is very nice," he added patronisingly. "But this place is very large, and it has the most amazing views across the river. And I believe that one of the rooms is fully equipped as an office, with telephone and fax facilities and even a dedicated Internet line. You could even work there if you wished."

Luthor was being extremely persuasive, Clark thought. This was more than just doing Lois a favour because he felt sorry for her predicament. Though, of course, if the man really was sexually interested in Lois, which he suspected, then how better to get into her good graces than by making a grand gesture such as this? And it would also make her feel some sense of obligation towards him — especially if she were to take him up on his offer to rent the apartment at whatever preferential rate he offered her.

Was that what was behind the offer? An attempt to make Lois feel beholden to him? Or was there something else?

There was something suspicious here, and Clark couldn't quite figure out what it was. Perhaps, he thought, he should take a look at this apartment himself later…

"That all sounds wonderful, Lex," Lois was saying, and at the same time she released Clark's arm. He felt her absence immediately. "You're right, perhaps I should take a look at it. When would be convenient? Should I just go over and tell the concierge that you sent me?"

Luthor's smile held a note of triumph. "I'll take you, of course. And as for when — there's no time like the present, is there?"

Lois glanced at the papers on the table, and at Jimmy, who was following the conversation with great interest, Clark saw. "I guess I could spare the time now," she said. "How about you, Clark? Do you have time to come with me?"

Luthor hadn't expected that, Clark saw, and he suppressed a grin. "I don't see why not," he told Lois, still puzzled as to her motive but again willing to follow her lead.

"Great!" She gave both of them a dazzling smile. "Would you mind waiting for me by the elevator? I need to -" She made a gesture roughly in the direction of the ladies' room.

"Naturally," Luthor said smoothly. Crossing to the door, he added, "After you, Lois."

Clark followed Luthor to the elevator area, watching Lois out of the corner of his eye as she made her way to the ladies' room. She was up to something; he knew it. He just hadn't figured out what it was…

…and then he realised, as her voice, soft but insistent, penetrated his powerful hearing. <Clark? I hope you can hear me. I'm just going to assume you can>

He glanced idly at Luthor; the other man was studying his cuff, clearly ignoring Clark's presence. So that was what Lois had been up to — and it was very clever of her, he thought, composing his features and assuming a bland expression as he waited for Lois to continue.

<Don't worry. I have no intention of taking him up on his offer. But it's suspicious, isn't it? I don't have a clue what's going on here, but he was pretty darned keen on getting me to agree to move into this apartment of his. And that's why I want to take a look at it. Actually, I mean I want *you* to take a look at it. See if you can figure out why he wants me there>

Why Luthor wanted Lois there…

Was that the missing link?

Clark forced strict control over himself as the question occurred to him. Luthor wanted Lois installed in an apartment he owned. Why? And was *that* the explanation for the arson attack on her building?

Or was he just reaching?

No. He had to be reaching. It all seemed far too clumsy for a man of Luthor's Machiavellian nature. The sabotage, and then the arson, were far too obvious. Far more likely that Luthor had just seen an opportunity and seized it. He thought that it might be useful to have Lois living in an apartment he owned. Clark couldn't figure out why, but Lois was right: stupid to miss the opportunity to check the place out.

<…so we'll go there with him, take a look around, and then I'll find a way to decline. Okay? I'm coming out now>

And the voice murmuring to him abruptly stopped.

Clever Lois, Clark thought again. She had the quickest brain of anyone he knew. While he'd been growling inside at Luthor's audacity, she'd been trying to figure out why — and working out the most effective means at their disposal of finding out. Which proved, of course, that despite her occasional slips she really hadn't forgotten who he was and what he could do. She'd taken her knowledge of his abilities on board and built it into her calculations as a matter of routine. She'd realised that, if there was anything odd about the apartment, he'd be able to figure it out — and even more impressive was the way she'd gone about explaining her motive to him.

He gave her a mental two thumbs up, and just then he saw her approaching them, all faintly-embarrassed smiles for having detained the very important and extremely busy Lex Luthor while she went to the bathroom. <Nice one, partner!> he silently told her, vowing to repeat it aloud to her later.


It should have occurred to her to ask Clark to give her some sort of sign that he'd heard her, Lois thought as she approached the two men waiting patiently by the elevator for her. There she'd been, inside a cubicle, mumbling to herself — probably making an enormous fool of herself, since she hadn't taken the time to check whether there was anyone else in the restroom — and now she had no idea whatsoever whether he'd actually heard her and therefore knew what she expected of him.

But, as she came up to them, he gave her a smile. And, behind the glasses, a slow, steady wink.

He'd heard. And he would do as she asked. She touched his hand fleetingly, at the same time turning to smile dazzlingly again at Lex Luthor, musing to herself that she'd deserve an acting award, never mind a Kerth, when all this was over. "I'm so sorry I kept you waiting, Lex."

"Not at all, Lois." Lex gave her what even she had to admit was a charming smile. It made her skin crawl. "The car is downstairs. Shall we go?"

In the elevator, Lex manoeuvred so that she was against the wall, and he stood next to her. Clark then had no choice but to stand in front of the two of them. Lex Luthor was definitely a smooth operator, Lois thought, and was glad that it was a short descent.

The car was waiting: a gleaming black limousine, naturally, with tinted windscreens and a uniformed driver who got out as the little group emerged from the Planet building, standing to attention and pulling open the rear door. Lois found herself wondering just how it was that Lex could leave his car outside, on a busy city street, and not get ticketed or towed away. The advantages of being filthy rich, she assumed.

Lex ushered Lois in first and immediately climbed in after her, joining her on the comfortable rear seat of the car, thus again forcing Clark to get in last. Lex, Lois noticed, was sprawled casually on the seat, making it obvious by his behaviour that Clark wasn't welcome to join them. Clark took the seat facing them, showing no apparent reaction to Luthor's strategy.

No, Lex wasn't at all pleased that she'd invited Clark to come along, Lois mused. Nor had she missed the flash of annoyance in the billionaire's eyes when she'd slid her arm through Clark's, sending the clear signal that the two of them were closer than mere work colleagues. Good, she thought.

But in the same moment, it occurred to her to wonder what Clark's reaction had been. Had he minded? By her behaviour, and her announcement that Clark had invited her to stay with him — which, of course, was a lie — she had been suggesting that she and Clark were dating. That they might already be lovers. And, as far as she knew, Clark had no interest in her in that way. Oh, he was fond of her. He cared about her as a friend. And he was casually affectionate with her, in the same way she was with him — occasional fleeting touches, his hand on her shoulder as he read her computer screen, that sort of thing. But nothing any more intimate.

He would know, wouldn't he, that she was just playing a game for Luthor's benefit? That she wasn't really expecting him to let her stay with him for longer than his original offer of one night? Oh, why hadn't she told him that too while she was in the bathroom?

He wasn't looking at her now, instead seeming to be staring out the window. With Clark, who knew what that meant. He could simply be watching passing traffic — or he could be listening to or seeing something no-one else could possibly be aware of. And it could be important — or it could be completely trivial.

"Lois? You seem distracted."

Lex's voice broke into her thoughts, and she started slightly before turning towards him. "I'm sorry. Did you say something?"

"Nothing of any importance." He made a little gesture with his hand. "But, of course, you must be distraught. Have you lost everything you own?"

She shrugged. "Pretty much. I just have the small bag of stuff I took over to Clark's place last night."

Which contained… not a lot, exactly. Just some underwear, a couple of changes of clothes — one of which she was already wearing — a small amount of jewellery, because it was valuable and she hadn't wanted to leave it in the apartment, and the sleepwear and robe she'd had last night. Oh, and she'd thrown in a couple of books — now, of course, she wished she'd used the space for more clothes. She was going to have to go shopping as soon as possible, and hope that she wouldn't have to max out her credit card just to get enough outfits suitable for work to tide her over until the insurance company paid out.

If the insurance company paid out…

"That really is terrible," Lex said sympathetically. "You do know that if I can help in any way at all, you only have to ask."

"You're being very kind, Lex." Lois made herself give him a warm smile while refusing to give him any clue as to her real feelings. "I do appreciate it. But that's what insurance is for. And it was only things, after all. It would have been far worse if anyone had been hurt."

"Yes, that is something we must be thankful for," Lex replied. "I will be forever grateful that you were not in the apartment at the time."

He was making no effort to draw Clark into the conversation, Lois noticed; but then, Clark wasn't making any effort to join in. Clearly her partner had read the situation just as she had: Lex saw him as an unwelcome interloper and was doing his best to exclude Clark as much as possible. That, of course, could have its advantages…

The car drew to a halt. Lex waited until the door was opened, and then stepped out, afterwards standing on the pavement and extending his hand to Lois. Clark was once again left to follow behind.

"This is it," Lex said, indicating the very exclusive-looking building in front of them. Lois didn't even want to begin to imagine what an apartment there would cost. Set back from the road, with well-tended shrubs and flowers at street level and on every balcony, it exuded status and wealth. A concierge stood at the entrance, and security cameras seemed to be everywhere. In the lobby, Lois felt her feet sink into expensive carpeting.

"You like it?" Lex asked. He clearly wasn't conceiving of a negative response.

"It's certainly luxurious," she answered.

He strode across the lobby, indicating that the concierge, who had followed them inside, should summon the elevator. Lois took advantage of his momentary absence from her side to murmur, her head dipped, "If I stick to him like glue, that should leave you free to look around, right?"

Clark's hand was at her elbow suddenly, but she could barely feel his grip. "Watch your step, Lois," he said, sounding concerned, but then added in little more than a whisper, "No problem."

"Are you all right, Lois?" Lex demanded, his eyes narrowing. No, he didn't like Clark holding her arm. Even though it could scarcely be called holding!

"Her heel caught on the carpet," Clark said, before she could respond. And she'd thought her partner was a terrible liar? Still, it was a good excuse. And, judging by the tone in which Clark had spoken, he didn't approve of what he'd seen so far — and he was letting his feelings be known.

"Allow me." Suddenly, Lex's hand was under her other elbow, his grip firm and his manner apparently solicitous — but Lois was reminded of nothing more than a jealous lion chasing away a rival.

Lex steered her over to the elevator, barely waiting for Clark to enter before instructing the concierge to send them to the penthouse floor. The ride up was swift and soundless, this elevator clearly the latest technology and very well-maintained, unlike the creaky, slow machinery at the Planet. In no time at all, to Lois's relief, the doors were opening again.

She wouldn't have believed it possible, but the carpeting was even more rich and decadent on the top floor. The walls were decorated in a marble effect, and large, beautifully-framed paintings hung here and there; Lois could almost have believed that she was in an ambassador's residence or the most expensive suite at the Lexor Hotel. It certainly didn't look like a home, but someone had spent an indecent amount of money on the place. She again wondered just how much one of these apartments cost, and just what Lex wanted from her in exchange for setting her up here.

It would have been hard not to be impressed as soon as the door to the apartment was opened, she told herself in the same moment as a gasp of admiration escaped her. The entrance hall was large, airy and bright; a skylight almost created the impression that they could have been in an outdoor courtyard. The lush carpeting had been replaced by marble tiling, which extended into at least some of the rooms.

There were two very large living rooms, one clearly set up as a study; the equipment there made Lois almost drool in envy. An enormous mahogany desk, with leather executive chair, was placed in front of a large window offering a view right across the river.

"If I worked here, I'd never get anything done!" she exclaimed, making sure that she smiled up at Lex, who had remained by her side as if glued. Clark, she noticed, had dropped behind and was looking around at his own pace. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed him pull down the frames of his glasses just a fraction as he swept part of the room with his gaze.

Lex smiled, obviously pleased. "But these blinds can be closed at the push of a button," he told her, and demonstrated. Silently, vertical blinds glided across the window, shutting out the light; immediately, spotlights in the ceiling flickered to life. "You can control the light-setting from your desk as well," Lex explained, showing Lois the panel. "All of the rooms are divided into sections, so that you can have as much or as little light as you wish anywhere in the room."

Impressive indeed. And then there were all the labour-saving devices for the home office: a dedicated Internet connection, as Lex had assured her, and discreet networking so that she could plug in her laptop in any room in the apartment and still be connected. There was a combination fax-printer hidden away in a closet beside the desk, and the closet also contained more filing and shelf-space than Lois would know what to do with.

The other rooms were every bit as impressive: an expensively- furnished sitting room, a bright, spacious kitchen with every labour-saving device known to humankind — as if she would even know what to do with any of them, Lois reflected sardonically as Lex did a perfect impression of a real-estate agent. There were two bedrooms, each with its own bathroom; the master bedroom alone was about as big as Clark's whole apartment.

Opulent. That was about the only way Lois could describe it, she thought as the tour came to an end.

"So, what do you think?" Lex asked as he escorted her back into the hall. Clark, Lois noted, was nowhere in sight — and Lex either had not noticed or didn't care.

"Oh, Lex, it's simply beautiful," she told him, completely truthfully.

"Good. I knew you'd like it." He smiled, and there was something triumphant in his expression. "As you can see, it's fully furnished, and so there's nothing to stop you moving in immediately — this minute. We can sort out the formalities later."

"Lex, wait." She laid a hand on his arm to attract his attention; he seemed intent only on detaching the key from his own ring to hand to her.

"Yes?" He favoured her with a surprised expression, clearly having noted her tone.

"It's beautiful, yes, but I can't live here."

He frowned. "But why ever not? It's perfect for you, Lois." Slipping his hand under her arm again, he guided her back into the study. "You know that you'd love working here. There's so much more space than working in that cramped newsroom, where you don't even have a desk right now. And you have every facility you could possibly need."

"Oh, I know, Lex. But it's just not… me," she told him, making deliberate eye contact and doing her best to convey a regret that she didn't feel — or not entirely. As she'd told him, the apartment was beautiful. But neither was it her. It was a showcase, the type of place that a billionaire like Lex or a Hollywood star might live. Not a home for an ordinary reporter whose entire annual salary probably wouldn't cover even a month's rent on this place.

"Lois." Lex dropped her arm, but immediately took possession of both of her hands instead. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Clark, who had re-entered the room silently behind them, watching them; her partner's jaw was tense, she noticed. Worried about her? Or… could he possibly be jealous? But she doubted that. Clark just didn't like Lex; he'd already made that very clear, and that was obviously why he'd been so challenging in his attitude to the older man earlier. He was being protective of her.

Lex hadn't noticed a thing. He smiled at Lois, patronisingly in her opinion, and continued. "I understand. You're worried that you might not be able to afford the rent. As I told you, I own this building. I make a very handsome profit on it already. Every other apartment is rented. So if I decide, as the owner, that I am prepared to let one apartment out at marginal cost rather than full cost, that is my choice." He smiled again. "So, you see, you really have nothing to worry about."

"But I do," Lois insisted, still smiling. She pulled her hands from his. "Lex, you have to see that there's a very obvious reason why I can't accept your offer. Yes, the apartment is lovely, and you're right: there's no way that I could possibly afford it on my salary. But I can't accept any kind of financial favour from you — you have to see that."

"I'm afraid I don't." Lex was clearly not pleased.

"I'm a reporter, Lex. You know that means that I have to be very careful about everything I do, in my private life as well as my job. I can't accept favours from people or organisations the paper might write about — that would compromise my position and, as a result, it would compromise the Planet. And, remember, I'm going to be interviewing you for the Planet next week."

He shook his head, obviously unwilling to accept her argument. "Give the interview to someone else. I'm sure that Mr Kent would be grateful for the opportunity — wouldn't you?"

Clark, Lois realised, had come up to join them. "I wouldn't dream of taking Lois's story. I don't think I'd live to tell the tale!" he observed dryly.

"That's true," Lois agreed, mentally high-fiving her partner. "But, Lex, it isn't just a matter of that story. It's my job. If I were to accept this from you, I really would be compromising my position as a reporter. You must understand that. It would mean that the paper could never write anything about you, and I don't think you'd want that. Would you?"

Lex wasn't a fool; he could see when he'd been outmanoeuvred. And he was gracious in defeat; Lois had to give him that. "Of course, Lois. I would never wish to place you in a difficult professional or personal position. I'm just sorry that I couldn't help you in your time of need."

"I appreciate the thought very much, Lex." She smiled at him again, then gestured towards the door. "Do you have time to take us back to the Planet?"




"Surveillance devices. Everywhere — in the phones, the nightstand, the kitchen, you name it. Even the fax is wired to send a copy of every document to another number. And that's not all."

"It isn't?" Lois was looking shocked enough already.

"Hidden cameras," Clark said quietly, unable to hide the disgust he'd felt at the discovery. "Again, everywhere — but especially in the bedroom and the bathroom."

"Even in the *bathroom*?"

"There were two in the shower alone."

"He was going to spy on me in the *shower*?" Lois's voice was shaky, and she subsided into a chair.

They were in Clark's apartment. On returning to the Planet, they'd discovered that their notes and work had been moved out of the conference-room so that one of the directors could use it for a meeting of his own; Lois had grumbled that she hoped the paper was charging him for the use of the room, since the meeting wasn't newspaper business. Clark had just gone straight to Perry's office to tell the editor that they were working at his place for the rest of the day.

Lois had barely been able to restrain herself on the drive over. Even though they'd been in her Jeep, he'd refused to talk about what he'd found at Luthor's apartment — she was driving, and he'd been too worried about her reaction to what he had to say. The last thing he wanted was her having an accident as a result.

"So?" she'd demanded once they'd made it inside. "I know there's something. I saw your face on the way back to the Planet. Luthor wouldn't have noticed a thing, but I know you too well. You were furious."

Now, Clark took the seat across the kitchen table from Lois and regarded her with concern. She'd had several shocks in the last couple of days and, while he would never underestimate his partner's resilience, even Lois had to be struggling to cope with everything she'd been through.

Heck, he was struggling to cope with it himself. He was furious — had been from the moment, less than a minute after entering the apartment, when he'd seen the first bug. He'd wanted to seize Lex Luthor by the man's ridiculously expensive lapels and hold him several feet off the ground — preferably dangling from one of the apartment's balconies — until he'd pleaded for mercy. And then, he would have wanted to drop the man. Just let him fall, unfettered, plummeting freely… and then he *might* have considered catching him, say about four feet from the ground.

Lois had lost everything she owned. Her home, the one place where she had a right to feel safe, to feel at ease, had been razed to the ground. She was reduced to depending on the kindness of friends — and no matter how willing he was to help, she would still feel dependent and awkward about it. Even her own desk had been taken from her. And then Lex Luthor had turned up and, in the guise of a friend trying to help her, had planned to spy on her.

Walking around that apartment had been sheer hell for Clark. It had been bad enough discovering bugs and cameras everywhere he'd turned — and the cameras in the bedroom and bathroom had been worst of all. He'd literally seen red at that point, and had been within an inch of doing Lex Luthor physical damage. But even harder to bear had been watching Luthor with Lois — standing too close to her, touching her, guiding her, acting solicitous, pretending to be such a concerned friend — while all the time the man had planned to get her into the apartment so he could spy on her. And so that he could invade her privacy still more by playing the voyeur.

"Why did he want to spy on me?" Lois asked, her eyes huge.

Yes, she was very shaken. Not for the first time that day, he longed to take her into his arms and hug her. Tightly. He wanted to hold her close to him and reassure her that she wasn't alone, that he was there and that he'd take care of her. He wanted to give her the comfort of another human being's physical presence; the comfort she deserved to have from the man who called himself her best friend.

The comfort that he could never give her, because he would hurt her.

He pushed his need aside and concentrated on the matter at hand.

"Apart from the obvious?" Clark said bitterly.

"He knows we're onto him," she said instantly. "Or that I am — I don't think he thinks you're a threat at all. Well, other than that he didn't like thinking that we're close."

"Oh, you noticed that too?" Clark gave her a crooked grin. "I thought he was going to rip my throat out when you told him you were staying with me. Well, not that he could have, but he wanted to try —"

"Yeah, and that reminds me." Lois's voice was shaky again, and this time Clark reached across the table to take her hand in his. Heck, surely he couldn't hurt her just by holding her hand. Not as long as he didn't tighten his grip.

"Reminds you?"

"Yeah. I only said it to put Luthor off. I wasn't taking anything for granted, Clark. You don't have to worry that I expect you to offer to let me stay or anything —"

"Wait a minute." He interrupted her, shaking his head. "I was going to offer anyway."

"What? You don't have to, Clark —"

"Lois." This time, he took the risk of squeezing her hand, just a little. She looked down at their joined hands and her expression seemed to lighten fractionally.


"Lois, when I came back to the Planet I had every intention of telling you that you're welcome to stay here as long as you want. Until you find another place. Or… not even then, if you like." He caught her gaze, hoping that his intent expression would convince her.

"Really?" For a moment, she looked relieved, as if a major worry had been lifted from her mind. But then her face fell again. "Clark, I can't let you do that. You only have one bedroom — and, sure, I'm happy to sleep on the couch, but that won't do other than as a very temporary measure."

"I know," he told her. "As if I'd let you sleep there anyway." He released her hand, adding, "But that's not what I had in mind." Getting to his feet, he walked towards the cast-iron spiral staircase in the corner where the kitchen met his living-room. "See this?"

Her gaze followed him. "Yeah. I never noticed that before… what's up there?"

He shrugged. "Right now? Nothing much. Just some boxes I haven't got around to unpacking yet. But there's quite a lot of space up there. Plenty of room for a bed, a closet, a nightstand… even a desk, if you wanted. And, okay, it's not the most private space in the world, but I can put up a curtain-rail to give you privacy. So… what do you think?"

He waited anxiously for her answer. Even though she'd turned down Luthor's luxury apartment, with or without surveillance equipment, he was well aware that the gallery area of his apartment wasn't exactly the kind of accommodation Lois was used to.

And suddenly Clark realised just how much he wanted Lois to move in with him. Despite his earlier worries about losing his own privacy, even despite his concerns about what would happen if he had more nightmares, he wanted her there. Anyway, if she was up in the gallery, she'd never hear him.

"It sounds… nice." Her tone was wistful. "But, Clark, all my furniture's gone…"

He turned back to her. "I know that. But I know where I can get all we'd need. My folks cleared out their spare bedroom a few years ago so my mom could use it as a studio. They kept the furniture — it's in the attic. You know I could fly it all here in no time at all." He shrugged. "It's up to you. I'd understand if you don't think it's — well, private enough or nice enough for more than a few nights, but as far as I'm concerned you're welcome to stay as long as you want."

As long as she wanted… He'd thought about this very carefully — in fact, he'd thought of little else, apart from Lex Luthor and the bugs, since he'd seen the devastation of the Carter Avenue building earlier that day, and Lois's pale, shocked expression as she'd watched it burn. Why shouldn't they share his apartment? It was big enough for two — well, just about. And they got along well — very well. He enjoyed her company.

Well, it was up to her. And anyway, she didn't have to make any immediate decision about how long she stayed, did she?

Lois got up and walked across to him, looking up at the gallery area as she did so. Then she turned to him, and for an instant he thought she was going to hug him. And in that instant he recognised just how much he wanted her to do that, regardless of how risky it was. She'd be safe enough just for one brief hug, wouldn't she? he asked himself.

But she didn't hug him. Instead, she laid her hand against his upper arm. "Thank you, Clark. I'd like that very much."

Like what? She hadn't said whether she was responding in terms of the couple of days or a week which was probably all she would need to find somewhere else — or in terms of longer. But still… they could talk about that later. For now, it looked as if he had a housemate. And he liked that idea.


It was incredibly sweet of him. And, she had to admit, it was a weight off her mind. Oh, she'd been pretty sure that Clark intended to offer to let her stay again tonight, and she'd been prepared to accept — after all, she didn't have a lot of choice. But she'd known that she couldn't sleep on his couch — she'd had no intention of putting him out of his bed again — indefinitely. This, though, was a much better solution, and he actually seemed to like the idea himself.

Lois could have hugged Clark. Actually, she'd wanted to when she'd come to join him, but something about him, about his stance, his expression, had told him that he wouldn't welcome it. Clark just wasn't a very touchy-feely person. Oh, sure, he touched her occasionally — light, casual gestures; affectionate, but nothing which suggested that he was comfortable with having his personal space invaded. Even when he'd put his arm around her, when they'd been in San Francisco, the gesture had been fleeting — and he hadn't made a move to hug her today, although he knew she was upset.

So. Okay. It was no big deal. Some people just liked having their own personal space and weren't the 'touchy' type. She knew that Clark cared about her — he was entitled not to want to show his affection for her in physical ways.

Sure, he'd hugged her once, last week, when he'd rescued her from the bank vault — but that was different. Her life had been in danger once more; if he hadn't come bursting in as Superman, she could have died of suffocation. He'd known that as well as she had. She'd been incredibly lucky to be alive. In the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that he'd put aside whatever hesitation he had about physical contact. And, of course, he'd hugged her again, just briefly, when she'd told him about her parents — but he'd moved away pretty quickly after that. It clearly wasn't something he was comfortable with.

Anyway, now her accommodation problem was resolved. Certainly temporarily — and, if Clark had been serious, possibly permanently too. Had he really suggested that she could consider this a permanent move? Living with him for as long as she — or both of them — wanted?

She wasn't really sure how she felt about that. Staying with him for a few days, or maybe a couple of weeks, seemed fine. In fact, it sounded terrific. Clark was a great host: thoughtful, considerate, a wonderful cook and great company. But… permanently? Sharing the apartment with him?

In one sense, it sounded perfect. Living with her best friend, having Clark's company whenever she wanted — well, whenever he wasn't out on rescues. But, on the other hand, she was used to having her own space. Apart from when Lucy had been staying with her for a few weeks a while back, she'd lived on her own for several years. Sharing — and sharing with a man, too — could be awkward. But not insuperable, surely?

Well, she didn't have to decide yet. They could just see how things went over the next week or so, couldn't they?

And in the meantime, she told herself, they needed to get back to more important matters — such as why Lex Luthor wanted to spy on her. Well, that was easily answered. Somehow, Luthor had figured out that she was a potential threat to him, and he'd intended to neutralise her. She supposed that she should consider herself lucky that he'd only tried to install her in an apartment where he could have her every move watched, her every conversation monitored.

After all, he could have decided to have her killed…

Lois shuddered slightly. She'd had death threats before, of course, but familiarity didn't make them any more pleasant or welcoming. At the same time, though, if Luthor was going to all this much trouble over her, didn't it suggest that she and Clark were right about him? That they really were onto something big? He clearly saw her as a risk, and there could only be one explanation for that one.

Yes, Lex Luthor was nervous — and Lois could smell that Pulitzer now.

"He would choose the very day I had my desk stolen out from under me as well as having my apartment burned down," she muttered, scowling.

"Huh?" Clark, clearly confused by her change of subject, gave her a questioning look.

"Oh, I was just -" She began to explain, but then halted abruptly as another thought occurred to her. Eyes widening, she stared at Clark. "Just how did Luthor know about the hot-desking?"

He frowned. "He knew?"

"Yes! He said…" She concentrated, trying to remember the exact words. "Got it! It was something like… 'so much more space than working in that cramped newsroom, where you don't even have a desk right now'. So just how did he know about that, Clark?"

"Good question," Clark said slowly. "And it makes his offer even more timely, wouldn't you say?"

Suddenly, it felt as if the whole world was tilting on its axis. The thought which occurred to her was ludicrous, and yet at the same time shocking in its cold audacity. "You don't think… that maybe Luthor planned all this? The hot-desking — though I don't know how he could have managed it — and burning down my apartment?"

Clark's sober expression told her that she wasn't the only one to have considered that option. "I thought about it," he said. "Not the Planet — like you, I have no idea how he could have been involved in that. But — yeah, sabotaging your apartment, so that he could get you moved into his."

"It seems… well, kind of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut," Lois said, unsure what she thought about the possibility.

"Maybe. But what I thought was that it was sort of crude for someone like Luthor. Though I don't know — maybe it's not. But still…"

"It's not exactly subtle," Lois agreed. "So maybe it's all a horrible coincidence?"

"I sure hope so," Clark said, moving back towards the stove. "More coffee?" At her nod, he began to prepare more drinks. "Because if it's not a coincidence," he continued, "then Luthor's responsible for you losing everything you own — and for you and your neighbours being made homeless. Which is a pretty rotten thing to do."

"Sick, more like," Lois said, and shivered. Could Luthor possibly be so twisted that he would think it acceptable to burn down her building, making a dozen or more people homeless in the process, just to get her where he wanted her?

But then, if their guess was right, he had callously arranged for the deaths of people whose only 'crime' had been getting in the way of his planned Space Station Luthor. What was arson next to murder?

Though Clark was probably right. It did seem too clumsy for Luthor. Maybe.

The phone rang. Clark passed her the coffee he'd made before reaching across to answer it. "Clark Kent." There was a pause. "Inspector! Yes, Lois is here — hold on." Covering the mouthpiece with his hand, he said, "It's Henderson."

Henderson? Now, what did her favourite homicide cop want? And how had he known she was at Clark's?

"Yeah, Henderson, this is Lane. Now, what's the MPD doing calling me of all people — and going to the trouble of tracking me down to do it?"

"Grateful as ever for the help of the police, I see, Lane," the dry voice of Inspector William Henderson retorted.

"Well, when the police manage to do something to make me feel grateful, you'll be the first to know." Lois rolled her eyes. "Now, what can I do for you?"

"Get ready to offer some of that gratitude," Henderson drawled. "I've just seen a report on a stiff that should interest you."

"You're giving me a tip-off on a murder case?" Amazed, Lois shot Clark a glance, raising her eyebrows as she did so. Normally, Henderson was the one doing his best to keep her curious gaze away from his homicide cases.

"Not exactly. In fact, this just looks like accidental death from the report. Guy got run down by a car. The most we have evidence of is probably hit-and-run, but there aren't any witnesses so the chances of getting the driver are round about zero. Anyway, the guy was wearing overalls with Norton Construction on them, and the police report said there was paraffin spilt on his clothing. Am I making any sense yet?"

It couldn't be that simple, could it? And yet what possible motive would a construction worker have? "My apartment building?"

"So it would appear. The arson attack on your place is being handled by another precinct, but for once the MPD communication systems worked the way they should, and the connection was made. From what I see here, this guy had a grudge against Norton Construction — he was fired yesterday and he was working out his notice. Some of the other workers reported hearing him make threats about doing them damage. Making sure they'd lose a couple of contracts. Costing them some money — you get the idea."

"And so setting fire to my apartment was getting back at his employer?" Lois said incredulously. "If I could get my hands…"

"He's dead, Lane," Henderson reminded her dryly.

"So he set fire to my place, then died a few hours later as a hit-and-run victim? That's what you expect me to believe?"

"You find something hard to believe about that?"

"You bet I do!"

"Such as?"

"Try it's far too damn convenient for a start!" Lois exclaimed. "He sets fire to the place, and is then found conveniently dead a few hours later with paraffin all over his clothes? And even more conveniently, his co-workers remember him making threats? Oh, sure, an open and shut case there, all right, Henderson — for a set-up!"

"Maybe. And maybe it's just possible that the convenient answer is actually the truth this time?" the detective suggested.

"And maybe I can walk on water! Come on, Henderson, you don't really believe that, do you? You wouldn't even have this report if you did, would you?"

His response ignored the question. "I just thought you'd want to know, since he's linked to your current… involuntary homelessness."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Going to give me a name, Henderson?"

She thought he would refuse, but after a moment he spoke again. "Craig Allen. And the department is still trying to trace next- of-kin, so that's classified information."

Lois gestured to Clark for pen and paper; he brought her what she needed and she hurriedly scribbled the name down. "Sure. Thanks. And, Henderson?"

"Yeah, Lane?"

"If you need any more convincing that this isn't the neat and tidy solution you're snowing me with, think about this: what caused the explosion at Carter Avenue yesterday? The one that got Norton Construction on the job in the first place? Because, according to Superman, that was no accident either."

A dry chuckle met her ears. "Oh, you're good, Lane. But if you quote me, I'll deny I ever said it."

"You think I need a testimonial from the MPD?" Lois quipped.

"Just one more thing. This is my case now, so don't get in my way. Okay?"

"The day I take orders from you, Henderson, is the day I turn in my Press badge!" Lois retorted. She heard another laugh before the click of the line disconnecting told her that he'd hung up.

Interesting. He'd told her, without saying so directly, that he thought the Allen case could be murder. It could only be his case if it was a suspected homicide, after all. And it was her guess that he'd suspected foul play all along — and he'd been playing her along to see what she knew.

"So someone's going to a lot of trouble to cover up their role in burning down your apartment," Clark said thoughtfully as she turned back to him. She'd been all set to repeat Henderson's side of the conversation to him, but at his words she realised that there was no need. He'd heard it all… she really had to get used to everything he could do!

"Yeah. And I want to get Jimmy to run that name through his databases… see what he can find out. Allen's the stooge, definitely, but there might be something to give us a clue as to who put him up to it."

"Like Lex Luthor," Clark said grimly. "Forget what I said about it being too clumsy for him. The whole thing just stinks of a set-up — apart from anything else, how could he have had all those bugs and cameras set up so quickly if he only found out about the fire today?"

"Yeah." Lois shuddered. "You know, I feel dirty just having been inside the place."

"Well, you're not going to be living there. He'll just have to think again if he wants to find out what you're up to — and he'll have a pretty hard time of it around me, Lois."

"Yeah." She smiled at Clark. "I'm really glad I have you around."

He smiled back, and for a moment it almost looked as if he was about to take a step closer to her. But then his expression changed and he looked away. "So, how about you call Jimmy?" he suggested. "And while you do that, I'll go to Smallville — I need to talk to my parents and start getting the bedroom furniture back here."

"But you'll need to wait until it's dark for that, won't you?"

Clark shrugged. "It'll be dark here pretty soon, and my folks' farm is remote enough that no-one's going to see me flying stuff out of there. And once I'm airborne I can fly above cloud cover. It's not a problem."

"Okay." Actually, having Clark gone for an hour or so was probably a good thing, Lois thought. She needed to regain her equilibrium — she was still feeling shaken up from the combined shock of the fire and Luthor's spy equipment, and being around Clark at the moment felt just a little bit dangerous — as if at any moment she might embarrass herself totally by throwing herself into his arms and pleading with him to hold her. Or, even worse, to kiss her.

And, since he clearly had no wish to do either, that would be simply humiliating.


Finally out of sight of his domestic and security staff, Lex Luthor marched into his study, lips thin and eyes narrow. He grabbed at the title deeds to the Mercer Avenue apartment complex, crumpling the newly-acquired papers in his hands before letting the ruined documents fall to the floor.

A complete waste of time.

That, and the hours he'd wasted cultivating the idiot from the board of the Daily Planet. Some use that hot-desking policy was now!

She'd suckered him into believing that she was going to accept his offer. That she would willingly crawl into his web, right where he wanted her. And all along she'd planned to reject him. That excuse of hers wasn't something she'd just remembered on the spur of the moment. It had sounded too well-thought-out for that. She'd obviously known all along that she would refuse. She'd been playing with him — for some reason of her own which he had yet to divine.

But he would. Nobody got one over on Lex Luthor, and least of all one very irritating, thorn-in-the-side reporter.

He'd exerted all his charm on her. He'd smiled, flattered, shown concern, allowed her to see some of the advantages of his wealth, been protective — had even almost acted lover-like in his treatment of her. Just about every other woman he knew would have been putty in his hands after five minutes of that treatment. But not Lois Lane.

Oh, it wasn't that he actually *wanted* her. Though he wouldn't have been averse to taking what was on offer if she'd fallen into his hands like the ripe plum he'd expected. And, too, he had to admit that the sight of her cuddling up to that insignificant country hick Kent, rather than responding to his own charming courtesy, hadn't been at all flattering to his ego. To think that any woman with a brain could prefer a low-paid hack reporter with a Kansas accent to the third-richest man in the world, someone with culture, good looks, charm — someone who knew how to behave and who had access to all the best places in society, politics and business — was quite simply astounding. Unbelievable.

But then, this was Lois Lane he was talking about. And he'd known that she was trouble from the day she'd accosted him at his White Orchid Ball.

The question which remained now was: how was he going to deal with her?

She was moving in with Kent. One solution, therefore, was to install the necessary equipment in Kent's apartment instead. But then, there was no guarantee that she would actually work there — he had no idea what Kent's apartment was like but, on the sort of salary a man like him would be making, he couldn't possibly afford anything remotely adequate. The place would no doubt be extremely cramped with Lois living there too. They would probably just try to work at the Planet.

And anyway, Lois had made it very clear that she and Kent were a couple. He had no wish to be assailed by their asinine love-talk — or, even worse, their intimate congress.

He grimaced at the thought.

No, perhaps it would be better to see what could be done at the Planet itself. It wouldn't be difficult to have the appropriate surveillance equipment set up there — Nigel could have it done without breaking a sweat. Perhaps, also, it was time to examine the contents of Lois's network drive. He'd have to have Nigel see to that, too. And get some computer security expert on the job in case she'd inconveniently encrypted any of the files.

At least there was one consolation to be drawn from the experience. The very tiresome Ms Lane had been well and truly distracted over the last couple of days, and that distraction would continue. She would have had little time to spend poking her nose into his business, what with spending several hours at her apartment building, at least an hour with him that afternoon, and now all of the dealings she would need to have with her insurance company. And, of course, she still had no permanent desk to work at, which would continue to slow her down. So, he supposed, the hot-desking policy wasn't a complete waste of time.

Lex marched across his office to the large window overlooking the city. A flick of a switch, and the glass door swung open; one second later, he stood on the balcony gazing across at the panorama in front of him.

Everyone in the city had to look up if they wanted to see him. That fact never failed to please him.

Well, everyone except Superman, of course — as that irritating scarlet monstrosity had pointed out on one unforgettable occasion. Superman — someone else with whom he would have to deal at some point. For now, there was no immediate hurry; despite the man's — the *alien's* — threats, he hadn't actually dared make any open attempt to challenge the supremacy of Lex Luthor.

Unlike Lois Lane, the more pressing problem.

Of course, perhaps he was being unduly precipitate. There might well be no cause for concern at all. The Lane woman had been asking questions, true; but questions for which she had not received any helpful answers. There was no evidence to tie him in any way to the robotic boxers. He'd been very careful about that: all leads pointed to Max Mencken. And Mencken would keep his mouth shut; he was only too aware of what would happen to him if he didn't.

What else could Lane possibly know about?

Nothing, so far as he knew. But that didn't necessarily mean that she wasn't… curious. He'd observed her from a distance for the past couple of years, after all: it didn't do for a man in his position to ignore the journalist who, three years running, had walked off with the Kerth Award for Best Investigative Journalism. For investigative read nosy, naturally.

He would just have to take precautions.

And as for Kent… Lex scowled as he remembered the way the younger man had spoken to him. Kent had all but accused him of publicity-seeking in offering Allan Morris a new job. That kind of disrespect couldn't go ignored. Perhaps… well, some sort of accident should do nicely. A couple of broken bones would suffice as punishment.

Nigel would see to it.

Smiling again, Lex Luthor turned away from the window and stabbed the bell to summon his assistant.


It wasn't until he noticed the Sears Tower directly beneath him that Clark realised just how distracted he was. He was on his way to Kansas, and yet he'd drifted considerably further north. He didn't even have the excuse that airlines had. He didn't need to make allowances for the curvature of the Earth.

Lois Lane had him so distracted that he didn't even know what he was doing.

Was it a mistake inviting her to stay?

On reflection, he didn't think so. Apart from anything else, she was his friend and she was homeless and desperately upset about it — though, being Lois, she was doing her utmost not to show it in any way. He'd admired her enormously for her show of utter casualness in front of Luthor. But she was devastated, and he knew it. To send her to stay in a hotel now would be the worst act of callousness, and from someone who was supposed to be her best friend… It would be incredibly cruel.

Apart from that… he wanted her to stay.

Despite the fact that her presence was already driving him crazy. Despite the fact that, when she'd come to stand beside him when he was showing her the balcony, he'd wanted to wrench her into his arms and kiss her senseless. Despite the fact that the last thing he needed was to be in intimate proximity with the woman he loved and could never have. He wanted her to stay.

So he'd just have to get a firm grip on his libido. And look forward to at least daily dips in the Arctic Ocean.

At least he had a couple of hours now in which to regroup, to strengthen his resolve. He'd hinted to Lois that he'd be gone for some time, and she had stuff to do herself anyway, so it wasn't as if he was being a lousy host. He'd get what he needed from his folks' home, sure; but he could also take the opportunity to spend time with them. It had only been last night, after all, that he'd acknowledged that he needed to talk to them about Trask and what had happened to them all.

Seeing the farmhouse in the distance now, Clark began to lose altitude; in seconds, he was dropping down to the ground just behind the back door.

"Clark!" His mom was at the door before he even had time to grab the handle. "What a lovely surprise! Are you staying for dinner?"

He shook his head as he entered the kitchen. "I can't — Lois will be expecting me to eat with her. I'm just here because I need a favour."

"Lois is expecting you to eat with her?"

The grin on his mom's face told Clark that he should have been more cautious with his choice of words. Now she was going to put two and two together… But there was an easy solution, of course.

"She's staying with me for a while," he explained. "Her apartment was burned down this morning."

"Oh my!" Martha Kent clapped a hand over her mouth, her expression horrified. "What happened, Clark? And is the poor girl all right?"

He shrugged. "She's as okay as she could be in the circumstances. Shaken, but doing her best to put a brave face on it, as always. As for what happened, it looks like arson. We're looking into it."

"Arson? But who would want to burn down Lois's apartment?"

"That's what we don't know yet," Clark explained. "But we intend to find out. And it wasn't just her apartment; it was the whole building. So it might or might not have anything to do with the fact that Lois lived there. Anyway, in the meantime, she's staying with me, and I want to make a bedroom for her up on the gallery in my apartment. So I need some furniture…"

"And you want the stuff from our old spare bedroom? Of course you can have it! And tell that poor girl that I'm so sorry about what happened, and if there's any way your father and I can help, she should just pick up the phone. You should bring her here for dinner too, you know. In fact, Clark, you should have brought her today!"

Yes. He could have. But he hadn't wanted to. Quite apart from the fact that he wanted to talk to his parents alone, he'd needed space from Lois. Just enough to give him time to regroup, that was all.

"Another time, Mom. I'll ask her," he promised. He gestured towards the hall. "I'm going to go look at that furniture, see what I need," he added. "I'd like to talk to you and Dad, though, before I leave. You got time?"

"We always have time for you, Clark, you know that," his mother said, rolling her eyes slightly. "When have you ever had to ask if you can talk to us?"

"Okay." He grinned. "See you in a half-hour or so."

Sorting through the furniture wasn't difficult. Deciding what he could take with him was slightly more problematic, though: it was a question of what would fit in his gallery and what Lois would actually like. The bed, certainly. It was only a small bed, but then there wasn't room for a double anyway. Not if she wanted any other furniture up there. There was a nightstand, and even a small lamp to go on it. The closet would stand against the wall, and there was a chest of drawers — that would be useful, too. There was a comfortable chair, but… No. There was something Lois would prefer, he knew. He looked around the attic — nothing there of any use. He thought for a moment, then it came to him. He knew where he'd find what he wanted.

He ran down the stairs and into his old bedroom. "Perfect." His old desk was in the corner; a bit battered now, true, plus it was marked where he'd scored his name in the mellow wood when he'd been bored. But he could sand it down and polish it in seconds. As for a chair — well, his old one would do for the time being, and if it wasn't comfortable enough he'd buy Lois a new one. Or she could buy one herself once her insurance came through.

Yes, the desk was looking much better now, Clark thought some time later, giving it a final polish with a cloth. It really helped being amazingly strong and invulnerable — he hadn't even needed sandpaper to do the job. He stood back and admired his handiwork. Yes, Lois should be perfectly comfortable working at this desk.

"Clark? Are you coming down?"

His father's voice broke into his thoughts, and Clark realised what he'd been doing. Procrastinating. Spending far longer than needed to be spent on this simple task — in order to put off the moment when he had to speak to his parents.

He sighed and headed downstairs. It was time to face his nightmares.


Lex Luthor was definitely getting careless. Lois looked again at the notes she'd taken of her phone conversation with Jimmy, and smiled. Craig Allen had been a construction worker, all right, but up until about a month ago he'd worked for Luthor Construction. Jimmy hadn't been able to find out why he'd left Luthor's company, but another couple of phone calls had got her that information. He'd been fired — carelessness and disregard for safety practices, her source at Luthor Construction had said.

Sure, that might appear to tie in neatly with his setting fire to 1058 Carter Avenue — but the foreman had mentioned carelessness, not deliberate malice. And if Allen was the type to engage in sabotage over some petty grievance, then why not set fire to a Luthor Construction project? Since apparently he'd also been fired by Norton, and this was seemingly the alleged motive for burning down the building, why hadn't he done the same while working out his notice for his previous employer?

And it was, Lois was convinced, far more than a mere coincidence that Allen had worked for Luthor Construction.

Good. She was getting closer to nailing Luthor.

And, after the last couple of days — especially after the last couple of hours — she wanted to see him nailed so hard he would scream and beg for mercy. The man was utterly without a scruple — and such a hypocrite.

He could have her apartment burned down one minute, making several other people homeless just to achieve his objective with regard to herself, and the next minute turn up at the Planet, all sympathy and concern, as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

He was truly the most evil person Lois had ever encountered in her years of crime reporting.

And, as if making her homeless wasn't enough, then he'd planned to spy on her in the *shower*! Lois shivered again as she thought of that beautiful apartment full of bugs. He could have watched her from every room. He could have let anyone watch the cameras, or the tapes. She'd met that butler, or aide, of his — Nigel, she remembered. Imagining that man with the cold eyes watching her dressing or undressing, or in the bathroom… her blood ran cold.

She could understand the listening devices. Luthor was clearly worried that she was too interested in his activities. But the cameras? Why those?

But the answer was obvious. Voyeurism.

What man in his right mind — or even his wrong mind, for that matter — would pass up the opportunity to be a Peeping Tom if he could get away with it? Of course Luthor had had the cameras installed.

She shuddered again as the thought of how close she'd come to being Luthor's victim occurred to her. If she hadn't already been as suspicious of him as she was — which was Clark's doing, of course — she might have accepted the offer of the apartment.

Clark. The thought crossed her mind that she was staying with a man who, if he wanted to spy on her in the shower, wouldn't need cameras.

Clark could see through walls simply by staring at them. He could listen to conversations up to half a mile away.

But the thought of Clark using his powers to spy on her made her laugh in disbelief. The man she knew as Clark Kent and Superman would never do that. No, she told herself; not all men were voyeurs.

There really was one decent man in the world. The only shame of it was that he wasn't interested in her.

She sighed and pushed Clark out of her mind, trying to dismiss the sick feeling in her stomach over Luthor's apartment at the same time. She needed to focus on the investigation.

So. Allen had been fired from Luthor Construction. And he'd been working for Norton for about three weeks, from what she'd been able to find out. His work record had been, she'd been told, acceptable over those few weeks. There didn't appear to have been any signs of the problems he'd exhibited in his previous job. And then suddenly, the previous day, he'd been fired. The Norton foreman on the Carter Avenue site, who had been reluctant at first to talk to a reporter until she'd told him that she'd been given the tip-off from the MPD and that nothing would be printed until the police had confirmed the story, had told her that he'd had to fire Allen. Out of the blue, the guy had turned insubordinate. He'd refused to obey a direct order, and he'd put workers' lives at risk as a result. He'd also damaged some equipment by failing to follow correct procedure. The only reason he hadn't been ordered off the premises immediately, the foreman had said, was that they were short of workers and he was needed.

On the face of it, here was a recurrence of the reasons he'd been fired by Luthor Construction. But all Lois's instincts were screaming at her that there was more to it. Why would an employee who had been fired and just got a new job, and had worked well in his first couple of weeks on the job, suddenly change his behaviour so completely? Listening to the foreman catalogue the incidents which had made him fire Allen, Lois had been convinced that this was the behaviour of someone who actually *wanted* to be fired.

Why? Because he was acting under instructions? Instructions from his previous employer?

What had he been promised? Money? That was the most obvious. Unless Luthor, or someone reporting to Luthor, had some sort of hold over Allen. If he was being blackmailed, then it would be a simple job to persuade him to get himself fired and then torch the building, taking the blame. He'd probably been told that, while he'd get a prison sentence, he'd be looked after in jail and there would be a large sum of money waiting for him at the end of it.

It was so clearly a set-up. And as if the information she'd collected in the last couple of hours wasn't enough, Lois re-read the section of her notes which, to her, was the clincher.

There had already been an act of sabotage at Carter Avenue before Allen had been fired.

She'd gone over that point with the foreman several times, and each time he'd confirmed it: although Allen's behaviour had been causing concern before the first explosion, he hadn't got around to firing the guy until an hour or so afterwards, when a dangerous act on his part had risked other members of the team.

So that meant that either two people had been trying to wreck the apartment building, or there was just one person behind it, but using different means of achieving the end result.

Had Henderson come to the same conclusions as she had? Lois wondered. She was certainly aware that he agreed with her that Allen hadn't been working alone — but had he put all this together? She was actually tempted, for a moment, to call him and share what she had, but then she caught herself. What was she doing? Giving away important information to the police before she'd had time to see where else it took her and what she could prove? Let alone before she'd even discussed it with her partner!

On the other hand, it was unlikely that Henderson would be thinking along the same lines as she was, Lois reflected, leaning back and flexing her shoulder muscles. She'd been sitting in the same place for too long. Henderson would have no reason to make the connection to Luthor — she hadn't told him about Luthor's offer of an apartment, after all, or the fact that it was bugged. She assumed, in fact, that the inspector had no reason to believe that Luthor was anything other than the upstanding businessman that he pretended.

So sharing information probably wouldn't get her anywhere anyway. Except that one thing she did need to have checked out was the state of Allen's finances. Had he had any sudden influxes of cash into a bank account? Or had any large sums been found at his home? Henderson was by far the best source for that sort of information — far better than Jimmy.

Maybe there would be something to gain from meeting Henderson. She'd have to discuss it with Clark.

Getting up to make herself another coffee, Lois reflected in wry amusement that the notion of discussing something with a partner before making a decision was something she wouldn't even have contemplated mere weeks earlier. Yet now it was axiomatic.

Clark Kent was having a very bad influence on her. And she liked it.


"Clark? You've already reheated that coffee twice. You going to tell us what this is about?"

Startled, and suddenly guilty at the realisation that he'd sat with his parents at their kitchen table for over half an hour making mindless, banal conversation, Clark swallowed. "Sorry, Dad. I just — I thought this was going to be easy, but it's not."

"Take your time, honey." His mom patted his arm. "We can wait."

"I don't know — I do have cattle to feed." But as Clark met his father's gaze, the twinkle in the older man's eye belied the sentiment.

Clark took a deep breath and sat upright in his chair. "Okay. I wanted to talk… I needed to ask… Um…" He hesitated, despairing at his inability to start a simple conversation. Except this wasn't exactly a simple conversation.

His parents waited patiently, their expressions encouraging. And then the words, or at least some words, came. "We've never really talked about… about Trask. And what happened," he began.

His father's expression darkened. "I think we were all just glad to get out of there alive. If it hadn't been for Lois…"

"Yes, we owe Lois everything," his mom said, and Clark could see her shiver. Guilt assailed him; he hadn't had to bring this up again, had he? Why had he raised painful memories for her?

But then she smiled at him. "You said we've never talked about it, and you're right. Jonathan and I do talk about it," she added, giving his father a quick smile. "But you seemed to want to forget it. At least, the one time I mentioned it afterwards you changed the subject, so we decided to wait until you were ready. I knew you'd want to talk sooner or later." She squeezed his arm. "Should I have pushed you to talk sooner, honey?"

"I don't know. No," he decided then. "No, I wasn't ready. I'd have insisted there wasn't a problem."

"But there is a problem." It was a statement, not a question.

"Yeah," he admitted. And then it all came tumbling out. The sleepless nights. The nightmares when he did sleep. Trask's vile words haunting him. Torn apart inside by the knowledge that he was different, not human, sub-human, *alien*. That he didn't belong, either on this planet or with normal people. That he had no right to exist. That he should apologise for even being himself.

Being tormented by the knowledge that it was his fault that his parents had been hurt, had been exposed to that maniac's diabolical scheming.

Racked with guilt for having been able to do *nothing* to help them. For all his incredible powers, despite everything he was able to do, he'd had to lie there and watch them being tortured. Listen to his mom crying. Hear his father plead and beg — a man who should never have to beg anyone for anything.

His fault. All their bruises, all their cuts, all their inner scars… all his fault.

They just let him talk, and he talked for a long time. His voice sometimes shaking, he recounted his nightmares and his recollection of the actual events, realising as he did so that he'd almost ceased to be able to distinguish between dream and reality. He broke off several times as his voice faltered, only to resume again almost immediately, the words flowing, tumbling over each other in his need to say it all, to vocalise the full horror of it.

As if by putting it all into words he could somehow exorcise the atrocity from his mind. As if talking about it would diminish the awfulness in his memory by shining light on what he'd been hiding away, keeping to himself all these weeks. As if confessing it all would give him permission to forgive himself for making it happen — for being who he was.

He drew breath at last, raking a hand through his hair; the spiky ends which met his touch told him that this was far from the first time he'd done that during his monologue. And then he realised that he was shaking. He looked at his hand as he lowered it again; it was definitely trembling. And there was moisture on his cheeks.

"Clark, it is *not* your fault!" his father said sharply, before he could speak again. "Blame that madman Trask! He's the one who did this. He was the one with the twisted mind, who thought that terrorising innocent people and a good man who's done nothing but help people was okay!"

"I know." Clark closed his eyes briefly before turning to look at his father. "In the light of day, like this, I know. I tell myself that all the time. That it's not my fault. That I didn't do anything. That he was… a monster. A xenophobe. And I even believe it some of the time. And then at night, when the dreams come…"

"Oh, honey!" And suddenly he was in his mom's arms, and he was transported back to his childhood days, when a cuddle from his mother could cure any problem. But he wasn't a child any more, and he knew that this wasn't something which would go away because his mom kissed it better.

But he'd talked about it. It was a start.

"And you've been having these nightmares ever since?"

He straightened, but held onto his mom's hand. "Yeah. Well, not every night. And they'd got less frequent — but last night it was bad."

"I wish you'd told us about this sooner, honey."

He grimaced. "I should have, I guess. But I was hoping that they'd just go away. And I guess I just didn't want to remind you guys of it all if you'd put it behind you. I think last night made me wonder if maybe I was wrong to assume that you'd got over it so easily."

"It hasn't been easy, son," his father said quietly. "But, like your mom said, we talked about it. Especially the first couple of nights after it happened, when neither of us could sleep. Bottling the feelings up inside only makes something like this worse."

"Yeah, well, I guess I know that now!" Clark laughed ruefully. "I thought I was over it. And, really, I've been refusing to let Trask's xenophobia affect me. I mean, it's not as if anyone else has had that kind of reaction to Superman. People know that he's an alien — I let Lois write that in the Planet — and mostly the response is curiosity. And, of course, some groups were delighted because Superman confirms their belief that there's life on other planets. And then there's Lois," he added with a slight smile.

"Yes?" His mom smiled back.

"Well, she knows who I am. Who Superman is. And it hasn't affected the way she sees me one bit. She doesn't think that I'm… repulsive, or that I don't belong, or that I'm about to take over the world. And so I tell myself that Trask and his minions were completely unrepresentative."

"Don't forget crazy, Clark," his father pointed out dryly.

"That, too," he agreed.

"You keep on telling yourself that, Clark," his mom encouraged. "And you know you can call us any time. Even if it's three o'clock in the morning. You'll get past this."

"I know. And with you guys to help…" Clark smiled, feeling lighter inside than he had for some time. "Believe me, talking about it did help. A lot. I feel much better now."

"Good." His mom hugged him again.

"And you guys — you sure you're okay?"

His father nodded. "It took a while. But, yes, we're fine. We all survived, Clark. That's what matters."

"And… I have to ask, because that's what tortures me most… you don't blame me, do you?"

"Clark Jerome Kent!" his mother exclaimed, dropping his hand — had he really been holding her hand all that time? Panicking momentarily, he X-rayed it discreetly. No damage. That was a relief. He really had to be more careful. As if what Trask had done to them hadn't been bad enough!

Then the tone of his mom's voice registered, and he switched his gaze quickly to her. She seemed angry, but then her expression softened, became sympathetic. "Oh, honey! How could you ever think that? Haven't you been listening to anything we've been saying? Of course we don't blame you! And shame on you for even thinking it for one second!"

Clark gave her a rueful look, running his hand through his hair again. "Sorry. Like I said, most of the time I don't think that kind of thing — but when I'm awake at three in the morning…"

"Next time you wake up at three in the morning, you call us," his father admonished. But at the same time he placed his hand on Clark's shoulder, giving a reassuring squeeze.

He really had the best parents in the world. He had no idea how he'd got to be so lucky, but it was something he would never cease to be thankful for.


"Wow!" Lois stood back, admiring the effect from the top of the steps. "That looks great, Clark! Thank you!"

And it did. After a two-hour absence, Clark had suddenly returned, carrying a bed. He'd disappeared again almost immediately, and for the next ten minutes had flitted in and out, each time bringing a new item of furniture. The gallery area now resembled a very comfortable bedroom, with bed, nightstand and lamp, a comfortable chair, a closet and dressing-table, and even a desk where she could work. Martha Kent had supplied bed-linen and a set of curtains, and Clark had installed a rail from which to hang them, so Lois could have privacy whenever she wanted it.

He smiled widely at her, clearly pleased by her obvious delight. "I hope you'll be comfortable here — and whether you just stay for a week or two or if you take up my offer to stay longer, treat the apartment as your home, please, Lois."

She nodded. "And next time you talk to your mom, thank her for me, please?"

He smiled again and indicated that she should precede him back down the stairs. "You can thank her yourself. My parents want me to bring you for dinner soon — you okay with that?"

Lois hesitated for a moment. She'd only met Clark's parents briefly, that night she'd rescued them all from Trask, and she was beginning to wonder what they — Martha in particular — would think of Lois having moved in with Clark, however temporarily. And if Clark was setting up a bedroom for her, that would hardly sound temporary. But then she dismissed her concerns — after all, from her own experience of them, and from everything Clark had said about the elder Kents, it was obvious that they were nothing like her own parents. The chances were that she might even like them.

So she nodded. "Yes, I'd like that."

"And speaking of dinner," he added, "I think it's time I fed you. I could cook again, but it's a little late — any objection to takeout?"

"You're asking *me* that?" Lois exclaimed, laughing. "Do you know how many restaurants I have on speed-dial?"

"Oh yeah, stupid question." Clark rolled his eyes, then grinned. "I think I can probably do better than the local pizza parlour, though — do you like Thai?"

"Love it! Feed me green curry and coconut rice, and I'll be your devoted slave all evening!"

A bark of laughter greeted her request. "That sounds too good an opportunity to pass up. Okay, I'll be back in a few."

And, before she could blink, he'd spun into the Spandex again and disappeared through his bedroom. Lois drew breath once he'd left and wondered why it hadn't occurred to her that he was probably going to Thailand. So much for her offer to supply him with a phone number of somewhere local… She really had to get more used to what her new apartment-mate could do.

Making herself useful in the meantime, she found plates and cutlery to lay the table, before moving her overnight bag up to her new bedroom. It was a good thing Clark had left earlier, she mused as she unpacked the few possessions which remained to her. It had given her time to collect herself and stop behaving like an idiotic teenager with a crush around him. He clearly didn't feel the same way, and the last thing she wanted was to embarrass him with the realisation that the woman he'd opened up his apartment to actually wanted to share more than just his living space.

The whoosh of Clark's return sent her downstairs again, and she joined him in the kitchen as he was unpacking delicious-smelling containers. There was even beer — a couple of bottles of Phuket Island which, Lois saw when she examined the label, was brewed in Thailand.

"I probably should have brought some Thai iced tea," he told her with a grin. "It's made with condensed milk — good to drink if your mouth is on fire."

"You trying to imply that I can't cope with spicy food, Kent?" Lois challenged him.

He shrugged slightly, the grin widening. "Would I dare? But I warn you, this is hotter than most Western restaurants make it."

It was too, Lois realised after a couple of mouthfuls. Delicious as it was, her mouth was burning — but she wasn't going to tell Clark that he was right. She didn't have to, though. He reached down to the carrier-bag, which he'd left on the floor, and produced a small container. "Coconut and condensed milk. Just add a little."

Lois rolled her eyes, but did as he suggested. "Yeah, much better. I love it — but it was just a little bit…"

"Too spicy?" he finished with a wink.

Of course, he was eating his own meal — also a green curry — without even breaking a sweat. One day, Lois thought. Just one day, she'd find *some*thing about Clark Kent which was vulnerable!

In the meantime, they had work to discuss. She filled him in on Jimmy's findings and her thoughts. Clark paused in the act of sipping his beer. "Did I hear right? Lois Lane is proposing to share information with the police?"

"Only in return for information we'd find it hard to get. And only because I trust Henderson," she retorted, trying not to feel defensive.

But he gave her a quick grin. "Oh, I think it's a good idea. And I trust Henderson too."

"Okay. I'll call him after dinner to set up an appointment."

Henderson was surprised to hear from her, though he was clearly doing his best to hide it. However, he was unable to disguise his astonishment at her suggestion. "You actually want to share information with the cops before you've got your story?"

"You scratch my back…" Lois pointed out.

"No thanks, Lane; I'd rather keep my fingernails intact," he quipped. "Besides, I heard that Kent's been acting kind of possessive around you lately — I wouldn't want to upset your new boyfriend!"

Lois felt herself flush. "I don't know what you've heard, but it's nonsense. Clark and I work together."

"Okay, if you say so! Geez, Lane, it's just too easy to jerk your chain."

"Jerk it any more and I'll withdraw my offer."

"I doubt it," Henderson said dryly. "You obviously want something from me, or you'd never have made it. Tomorrow, one o'clock, my office, okay?"

"We'll be there," Lois agreed, then hung up.

Turning to look at Clark, she felt herself blushing again as she acknowledged that he'd have heard both sides of the conversation. But he'd obviously decided to ignore Henderson's reference to their relationship. "One o'clock?" he confirmed. "Okay. Want to show me your notes?"

They moved to the couch and she handed over the papers she'd assembled; ten seconds later he handed them back. "Where were you when I needed to research my term papers?" she demanded rhetorically.

Clark grinned. "Probably researching my own."

"I'm glad you're my partner," Lois commented dryly. "I wouldn't think much of my chances of getting any more Kerths with you around!"

"I don't use my abilities to get ahead in work!" Clark protested. She raised an eyebrow at him. "Well, okay, maybe just occasionally. But never to get a story by cheating."

Yes, that was certainly believable, knowing Clark, Lois thought. But before she could comment, he slapped a hand to his forehead. "I completely forgot!" he exclaimed.


"I have something for you!"

He was jogging into his bedroom before she could even ask him what he had. Seconds later, he was back, and carrying something — some *things* which looked very familiar.

Three pieces of glass — crystal, in fact, engraved and personalised.

"My Kerth awards!" Lois exclaimed, standing up and taking them from him. "But how…?"

"I found them," he explained. "That cabinet you kept them in — it must have protected them from the worst of the heat and flames. They were a bit black, but I've cleaned them up. The only thing I couldn't do much about was the edges — you see they got a bit melted."

But she barely paid attention to his explanation; she was focused on examining her precious awards, the symbols of her success as a reporter that she'd thought had been lost to her.

"My Kerths," she murmured again, sinking back down to the sofa. Unbidden, tears flowed freshly, splashing onto the pristine crystal of her statuettes — which, despite Clark's protests, looked near-perfect.

"Thank you," she said through her tears, looking up to smile at him.

He sat beside her, his body language seeming to her to be awkward. "I'm just glad I was able to find them for you."

"I… I've lost so much, but there's nothing you could have… found that would've made me happier," she managed despite her sobs.

He patted her shoulder gently.

No hug, which was what she wanted most of all. No comforting embrace. Just a pat on the shoulder.

Yes, Clark really did have a problem with physical closeness of any type.

But he was the perfect best friend in every other respect. So what right had she to wish for more?


Clark woke abruptly, sitting bolt upright in bed and trying to figure out what had woken him. A glance at the clock by his bedside told him that it was almost six in the morning.

Not a nightmare this time. Talking to his parents seemed to have done the trick, he decided, relieved.

And then he realised what it was that had awakened him — sirens. Not another fire!

In under a second, he was dressed in the Suit and was on his way to the balcony. Leaping into flight, he followed the sound of the sirens, quickly realising that the emergency, whatever it was, seemed to be over on the west side of the city, by the river. The West River area, in fact, he confirmed as he flew. And it was definitely a fire — a big one.

What was happening in the city lately?

But then, he reminded himself, the fire at Lois's apartment was arson. There was no reason to suspect that this was too.

Half an hour later, however, he had cause to reassess that idea. This was definitely arson — and even more obvious than Carter Avenue had been. Eyewitnesses reported seeing men dressed in something similar to chemical protection suits and using weapons akin to massive flame-throwers. The fire had spread rapidly, therefore, putting many lives in danger — although the building which had been attacked was an old, but still operational, warehouse, right next to it was a boarding-house. Clark's priority had been rescuing the terrified residents, carrying them out as quickly as possible through thick smoke and leaping flames.

A couple of people, wakened abruptly from sleep and frantic once they realised that there was a fire, had panicked, clutching at him and at the same time fighting his efforts to pick them up and fly them out through the choking smoke. He'd had to hold them more tightly, gritting his teeth and hoping fervently that he wouldn't hurt them. Telling himself that even a broken bone or two was preferable to letting someone die, Clark focused on suppressing his fear of causing physical injury to the people he was saving. It wasn't easy, and each time he deposited a victim on the sidewalk outside the blazing building, he had to fight the urge to spend a few crucial seconds X-raying to check that he hadn't actually injured them.

Somewhere at the back of his mind was the nagging thought that his sense of panic about hurting people was getting worse. After all, he'd been using his powers to save people for years, and most of the time he'd never really thought about it; he'd gone in, picked up the person and flown them or carried them out. The knowledge that his strength could easily cause him to injure someone, so present in his reactions on a daily basis, had usually taken second place to instinct when he was in an emergency situation.

Somehow, now the fear was taking hold and causing him to hesitate in a way he never had before. Which was bad, he recognised; even a split second's hesitation in a situation like this fire could mean that he was too late to save a life. He had needed to tell himself several times this morning that not grabbing hold of someone, or waiting until he could ensure that his grasp was gentle, didn't mean that he was saving that person from injury; it meant that he might be leaving someone to die.

People could *die* because he was too scared of his own strength to save them.

He didn't know how, but he was going to have to do something to test the limits of his control, to reassure himself that even when acting on instinct and at speed he could be in command of his strength.

He'd never hurt anyone before, had he? But even as he tried to tell himself that, he had to acknowledge that he simply didn't know. After all, it wasn't as if he tended to stick around after rescuing somebody. It was entirely possible that people could have been hurt and he would never know about it. What he did know for sure was that he'd hurt Lana all those years ago. And that the constant awareness of how he could hurt Lois was making him… well, he could only describe his behaviour now as paranoid. And that wasn't good.

He didn't know what was worse — this continual terror that he would hurt Lois, or the way he'd felt last night when she'd sat beside him and cried and he'd been helpless to comfort her in any way. He'd longed to take her into his arms. At that moment, he'd wanted nothing in the world more than to wrap his arms around her and hug her, to brush away her tears and to promise her that he'd never allow anything to hurt her ever again.

It tore him apart that he was incapable of holding the woman who meant more to him than anything in his arms. And he hated this feeling of second-guessing himself every time he tried to rescue someone in danger. One way or another, he was going to have to do something about it — but what?

Even with his assistance, the firefighters were struggling to bring the fire under control. And, even more alarmingly, a second fire had started a couple of blocks away. And one of the firefighters had mentioned a couple of smaller, but suspicious, fires over the previous couple of days, all in the same part of the city. Fires he hadn't heard about because, of course, he'd been distracted by the problems at Lois's apartment building.

Another story for Lois and him to investigate? He was pretty darned sure of it. He'd have to discuss it with her over breakfast, see how they could fit it in along with their investigation of Lex Luthor and making time to see Henderson.

But when he got back to the apartment, she was gone.

The realisation hit him like a slam to the gut. Lois wasn't there. And the apartment felt very strange without her vibrant, energetic presence.

It felt… empty.

Clark returned to the kitchen, deciding that he might as well make coffee. Then he noticed the slip of paper on the worktop, weighted down by a mug. Lois's handwriting stared up at him.

'Gone to meet a source. See you at the DP. L.'

Okay. At least he merited a note, Clark told himself in a not- very-effective attempt to cheer himself up. But it was only what she would have left him had he returned to the newsroom to find his partner gone. It was nothing special, as far as notes went. No 'hope everything's okay wherever you were'; not even a 'love, Lois'.

Telling himself not to be so idiotic, he reached into the fridge for some milk. But then the phone rang. Lois, reporting on what she was doing? he wondered as he went to answer it. But it was Perry White.

"Chief! What's up?"

"Can you make an 8.30 press conference?"

Clark glanced at his watch; it was only just 7.30. "Sure, no problem. What is it?"

"On the face of it, nothing deserving more than a couple of columns in the business section. But I think there's more to this one," the editor explained. "It's apparently about plans for redevelopment in the West River area —"

"You said West River, Chief?" Clark interrupted.

"Yeah. Apparently the plan is to demolish most of the existing buildings and create a new 'city within a city'," Perry drawled.

"Who's behind this?" Clark asked quickly.

"That's why I wanted you or Lois there. It's Lex Luthor — well, one of his companies, but he's speaking at the press conference. You two are investigating him, aren't you?"

Clark frowned. "We didn't tell you that, Chief."

"What, you think I was born yesterday, son? You and Lois have had Olsen looking up stuff on Luthor the last couple of days. Plus the two of you went off with him yesterday, all so doggone polite I could've made coffee for the entire board with the saccharine in your smiles. Of course I know what you're up to."

"I'll be there," Clark promised. "In fact, I'll be in the newsroom in -" He glanced at his watch. "- about five minutes. I want to do some research first."

"Olsen's already here. Anything he can help with?"

"Yeah. Get him to check out a series of fires in the West River area in the last few days."

"More fires? What's this?"

"Arson again, and reports of guys in protective suits using weird flame-throwers. The police are looking into it, but they don't have any leads so far."

"You're thinking someone's trying to buy up real estate cheaply?" the editor suggested.

"That's what springs to mind," Clark said dryly. "I wouldn't miss that press conference for anything."


It surely couldn't be a coincidence that everything this morning seemed to have Lex Luthor mixed up in it somehow, Lois thought as she poured herself a coffee while waiting for Clark to return from the press conference. There had to be a link.

Perry had told her about Luthor's plans for the Lex Harbour development, and Clark's suspicions about the coincidence of several serious fires in the West River area, right where Luthor would need to acquire real estate. The tip Lois had gone to investigate also involved activities in the West River area — the Metro Club in particular. West River was controlled by the Metro Gang, and the tip she was following was that there were some changes in leadership in the Metros, which could have an impact on the kind of activities they got involved in.

Including burning down half of West River? That had been Lois's thought when she'd heard what her source had to say. And that in itself would be an interesting story, although Lois had found herself tempted to pass it up — after all, her main priority had to be their Luthor investigation.

But then Luthor's name had come up in conversation. He'd been seen, her informant had observed, having drinks in the Metro Club with its joint owner a couple of times. Toni Taylor, Lois had been told — an attractive young woman who, it seemed, had just become the new boss of the Metro Gang.

So what was a supposedly-upright businessman like Lex Luthor doing drinking in a club in a very seedy part of town, a club known to be connected with criminal activities, and with a woman known to be a new crime boss?

And then, back at the Planet, her conversation with Perry had supplied the missing piece of the jigsaw. If Luthor wanted to build his harbour development, he was going to have to neutralise the Metro gang. The fires, also, were very much to his advantage, and yet her source had told her that the Metros were believed to be behind them — so was Luthor perhaps playing a crafty game? Working with the Metros to achieve his aim, and therefore controlling them?

She had to find out. This, after all, was potentially an even stronger lead to evidence that Luthor was not the upstanding citizen he pretended to be. She had a plan, and now all she needed was her partner to return so that she could put it into action — or rather, gain his agreement to what she had already put into action.


"Lois, that's too dangerous! You're talking about going undercover in a club run by known gangsters, who are probably responsible for arson attacks in which people could have *died*! Not to mention the fact that no-one who knows the Metro gang believes they'd hesitate for one second to murder anyone who got in their way. You could get killed!"

"What, so you think I should just forget the story?" Lois demanded, giving him a belligerent stare. Clark groaned inwardly. Why did she have to be the one insisting on putting herself at risk? He was the invulnerable one, and she knew it! It could just as easily be him with the undercover job, and that way she'd be safe. But, no, there was no way that Lois would consider that.

"No, we don't forget the story," he told her, deliberately laying stress on the 'we'. "But why don't I go undercover instead? You have to know that would work better in so many ways."

Lois rolled her eyes. "Oh yeah, Mr Invulnerable! Are you going to use that as an excuse any time I want to do something even remotely risky? Clark, I'm an investigative reporter! I don't just sit on my butt waiting for stories to come to me — and I'm sure as hell not going to cower back in the newsroom while my partner does all the exciting stuff!"

Clark blinked. This was a Lois he hadn't seen for weeks — but he supposed he shouldn't be too surprised. Everything he knew about Lois Lane told him that she was naturally argumentative and assertive. And, much though he hated to admit it, he could see her point of view. She loved doing what she did. He'd seen it about her from his very first day working with her: it was the thrill of the chase, the element of danger, the adrenalin she got from skating right on the edge of discovery and disaster — all that was what Lois loved most about being a reporter. She'd fight anyone who tried to take that away from her.

But the fact that it was him trying to take it away from her would make it even worse. He was her partner — and in terms of reporting and Planet experience, he was a junior partner. She'd had to fight tooth and nail to get to where she was — why should she sit back and calmly allow a relative newcomer to push her out of the exciting stuff? Even if she knew — because she had to know, didn't she? — that he would never try to push her out of the rewards.

And there were his powers. She'd been thrilled by what he could do ever since she'd encountered Superman, and on discovering that it was Clark Kent who possessed those powers she'd been even more delighted. But was she beginning to see a downside? This wasn't the first time they'd clashed over his desire to protect her and his insistence that it was far safer for him rather than her to do risky things.

He had a sudden horrible thought. Was he trying to control her?

But even if he wasn't, he acknowledged, refusing to answer that question, it was clear that because of his abilities she felt threatened. That he had an unfair advantage. That… He closed his eyes briefly. Was it possible that she wondered if he even needed her, given all he could do?

He'd been going to point out to her that he would be of far more use in the undercover role anyway, since with his powers he could overhear conversations and figure out what was going on with ease and without any dangerous sneaking around. But now he realised that he couldn't possibly say that to her, or she really would feel a useless part of their partnership. And yet nothing could be further from the truth.

She was still glaring at him. He gave her an apologetic shrug. "I'm sorry, Lois. I really don't want to stop you doing what you're great at. I just can't help worrying about you, that's all. You know I'd hate it if anything happened to you."

His explanation seemed to mollify her a little. "Clark, you know I've been looking after myself for years. Since long before you came along."

"I know. I still can't help it." He ran a hand abstractedly through his hair, then faced her again. "Lois, it's not just some stupid macho thing on my part. You have to know that I really do care about you. You're my best friend — you're the first person, other than my parents, to accept me just as I am. If anything happened to you, it'd tear me apart," he confessed quietly.

She stared at him. "Oh," she said at last, her anger entirely gone. An expression of wonder came over her face. "No-one's ever… ever said I meant that much to them before."

"You do, Lois, believe me," he assured her, and once more felt the urgent desire to round up her parents, and anyone else who had ever made her feel unloved and unwanted, and rip them asunder.

A shy smile greeted his assurance. "I… I'd hate to lose you too, Clark. I've never had a best friend before."

It would have been so right to end the exchange by pulling her into a hug. But he just didn't dare to. Ripping the sheets in his sleep the other night had made him even more terrified of hurting her — or hurting anyone — than he'd been before. Even if he knew that he was probably being paranoid.

So he just returned her smile instead. "Back to the Metros — I have a suggestion," he said.


"Why don't we both go undercover? I could try to get a job working behind the bar — and even if that doesn't work, I could still just hang out in the club. What's to stop me being a customer?"

"I guess," Lois said slowly. "But you won't try to get me out of the way at the first hint of danger?"

Clark gave her a crooked grin. "No. I promise that if someone pulls a gun on you I'll just stay right out of the way."

"Yeah, sure," Lois drawled. "Okay, if someone pulls a gun on me, you have my permission to save me, big guy!"

Clark inclined his head. "Thank you. Seriously," he added, "we can work this out, Lois. The last thing I want to do is get in your way — you're a brilliant investigator and I love working with you. And I couldn't do this without you anyway."

Her mouth twitched. "You don't need to try to make me feel good about myself, Clark. You should know that's not really a problem."

"You mean you don't like it when I compliment your work?" he teased. "Anyway, it's all true, you know that."

"Naturally," she retorted. "Okay. You go undercover too. And in the meantime, we need to see if Jimmy's got anything else for us — and work out what we say to Henderson later."

"Then let's get busy, partner."


It was a busy few hours. Clark had to disappear twice to be Superman, but apart from that they combed through documents, records and other information looking for any trails which might lead them to Lex Luthor. Jimmy hadn't been able to get hold of any financial information on Craig Allen, but Henderson wouldn't have a problem accessing that — assuming he hadn't already. All the same, it wasn't going to be easy to pin anything on Luthor, Lois thought as they tidied up the piles of paper they'd been working with. He was clearly expert at covering his tracks; but then, they'd already been aware of that.

As they left the conference room, a portly man in a business suit, who looked vaguely familiar, collided with Lois. "Watch where you're going!" she grunted.

He did a double-take. "What were you doing in there?" he demanded.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Watching blue movies. Working! What do you think?"

His expression darkened. "That conference room is not for reporters' use whenever they see fit. Haven't you read the new policy?" he snapped. "I intend to see Perry White about this!"

Ignoring Clark's muttered, "Let it go, Lois," she took a deep breath.

"You wouldn't be the idiot behind this new policy, would you?" she demanded, arms akimbo. "Do you have the faintest idea how reporters work? Do you even have a clue how disruptive it is for us? How do you expect star reporters like Clark and me to do our jobs if you make us work under these conditions?"

The man looked her up and down, before turning away dismissively. "I should inform you that I am on the board of directors of this newspaper. And if this is how you speak to a representative of your employer, I might have to take steps to have your employment status reconsidered."

"Yeah, right," Lois drawled. "You'd consider firing a three-times Kerth winner. Sure. I take it you know who I am? And you know how much my byline is worth to the paper?" At his taken-aback expression, she added sardonically, "You know, if I wrote a story without doing some pretty thorough research, I'd expect to be criticised. Yet you directors will happily push through idiotic policies without even considering how they'll impact on the people who work here — the people who earn the profits which pay your salaries. You should think about that next time you come up with some stupid idea."

He glared at her, then brushed past her; Lois watched as he headed straight for the elevator. "Moron," she said to Clark.

Clark sighed. "You know I agree with you. But was it really sensible to jerk his chain? He is a director, after all."

"You think he's going to insist on firing me?" Lois said incredulously. "Even if Perry would stand for it — which he won't — I'd have to do something far worse than be rude to a director. Clark, I'm the only reporter in the city to have won three Kerths. They're not going to fire me."

"No, I guess not," he agreed. "Come on, let's go, or we'll be late."

Walking beside Clark, Lois was struck by a thought. They had come to the conclusion that the hot-desking policy had to be Luthor's doing somehow, and that it was probably so that she'd accept his offer of an apartment where he could spy on her — but what if he had another agenda too? What if he'd hoped that she would quit as a result? With her out of the way, he might feel less threatened.

It was a possibility, one she would have to bear in mind, she decided; when she and Clark were alone again she'd mention it to him.

In the elevator, though, Clark raised something else. "You know, Lois, I've seen that guy somewhere before."


He nodded. "He's Wendell Dalton, isn't he? President of Dalton Electronics?"

Lois clapped her hand to her forehead. "I knew I recognised him from somewhere! A while back, Laker-Elektronic made a takeover bid for Dalton, and Wendell Dalton's picture was in the paper a few days running. I should have remembered."

"That's not where I've seen him," Clark said, his brows narrowing. "A couple of nights ago — I was flying home after an emergency, so I only saw them for a couple of seconds — he was coming out of an expensive restaurant with Lex Luthor and they were getting into Luthor's limo."

"Interesting," Lois murmured. "Could all be coincidental, of course, but that would explain how Luthor managed to get the hot- desking policy adopted."

Clark nodded. "Definitely."

The elevator slowed as they reached street level. "By the way," Clark said, "have you called the insurance company yet, Lois?"

Darn — that was something she'd intended to do first thing that morning, but the tip-off about the Metros had put it out of her mind. "I'll do it when we get back from seeing Henderson."

"I'll remind you," he promised, standing back to allow her to exit the elevator ahead of him. "You need to know if they're going to pay out."

"Yeah." She pushed open the door to the street, glancing around for a cab; it just wasn't worth taking the Jeep since parking was at a premium around the precinct where Henderson worked and she had no intention of being an easy mark for a traffic cop. "Taxi!" she yelled as a yellow vehicle came into sight.

She was climbing into the cab when she heard a roar and a screech of brakes, followed by a scream and the sound of crashing metal. She swung her head round sharply to see what had happened.

A motorcycle lay on its side on the sidewalk, its rider getting to his feet. And on the ground, tangled in the bike's front wheel, was her partner.

"Clark!" Lois scrambled out of the cab again and ran to him, crouching down beside him. "Are you okay? Are you hurt?"

He gave her an almost imperceptible wink. "I'm fine, Lois." And then she remembered: he was invulnerable. Of course he wasn't hurt.

But if he hadn't been invulnerable, he could have been badly hurt…

People were crowding round, staring and offering suggestions, most of which were completely useless. One man, pushing himself to the front of the bystanders, thrust a card in Lois's face. "You should sue," he announced. "I'm an attorney. I'll represent you."

Clark got to his feet and brushed himself down. "I'm fine," he repeated, more loudly this time. "And I don't want to sue." He turned to the rider. "Are you okay? What happened? Did you lose control of the bike?"

For the first time, Lois looked at the motorcyclist. He was dressed entirely in black leather and his head, and most of his face, was covered by a plain black helmet, and the only visible part of his face was obscured by a tinted-plastic visor. She couldn't even see if he was Caucasian or black. To her surprise, he didn't respond to Clark's enquiry. Instead, he hauled his bike upright and, before anyone could stop him, jumped onto it, kick- started it and rode off, making several people step back abruptly to avoid getting run down.

"What the — ? Come back here!" Lois yelled indignantly, waving at the disappearing rider. "Did you see that?" she demanded, turning back to Clark. "He just ran off! Without waiting for the cops — did anyone call 911?" she asked suddenly, directing the question at the bystanders.

The silence, and the speed at which most of the crowd began to leave, gave her the answer. Lois looked back at Clark, seeing from his expression that he was just as stunned by what had happened as she was.

"Leaving the scene of an accident… reckless as to the safety and well-being of an accident victim… avoiding reporting an accident… failing to provide insurance… You really should sue, sir," the lawyer pointed out. "I got his licence number. I have a lot of experience in representing accident victims, and you wouldn't have to pay a penny unless you win — and I win most of my cases —"

"I don't want to sue," Clark repeated.

No; this needed to be reported to the police, Lois thought.

"Hey, lady! You want this cab or not?"

Clark clearly had no wish to wait around any longer. "Yes, we do," he called firmly to the cabbie, and indicated for Lois to precede him into the taxi, leaving the lawyer standing on the sidewalk, still trying to thrust his card into someone's hand.

In the taxi, once they'd given their destination, Clark voiced the thought uppermost in Lois's mind. "Was that really an accident?"

"You're getting as suspicious as me!" she exclaimed. On the face of it, there was no reason at all to assume that the incident had been deliberate. A biker had simply lost control of his vehicle and mounted the sidewalk; in trying to avoid a collision, he'd turned the bike on its side and crashed, knocking Clark over in the process. At least, she assumed that was what had happened, since she hadn't actually seen it. And then he'd panicked, probably, and run off — though he'd at least waited until he'd seen that the guy he'd run down wasn't hurt.

But if he'd waited that long, then why not wait so that it could be reported to the police? Why not give his insurance details? If he'd been going to run from the scene of an accident, then why not run immediately?

And… right outside the Daily Planet, and the victim just happened to be Clark Kent, Lois Lane's partner, who had definitely got up Luthor's nose the previous day…

"He came straight at me," Clark said softly. "It wasn't as if he lost control and I just happened to be the one who got in the way. He was headed for me."

"It's Luthor," she murmured to Clark.

He nodded. "I know it'd sound far-fetched to anyone else, but I agree with you."

As a thought struck her, she leaned closer and murmured even more quietly, "No-one guessed anything, did they? I mean, because you weren't hurt?"

He shook his head. "I was very careful — I made sure that the bike was resting above me when I fell rather than directly on me. It'll be easy to explain if anyone asks."

If they were right, this was both good and bad — bad in the sense that Luthor had to be getting desperate to try to harm Clark, but good in the sense that he clearly saw them as a threat — which meant that they were right about him. Luthor didn't even know what it was that they knew, or thought they knew, about him, and yet he was taking pretty direct action. He had to be worried.

And this was serious. If Clark hadn't been invulnerable, he could have been badly hurt.

The sooner they got proof of Luthor's true nature, the better.


As they exited the cab outside Henderson's precinct, Clark resolved to keep an even closer watch on Lois than before. It hadn't occurred to him that Luthor might try more violent, or permanent, means of getting her out of his way; up until twenty minutes earlier, he'd assumed that Luthor found Lois attractive, despite his obvious worries about whether she was investigating him. But was the incident with the motorbike a sign that the billionaire was now careless as to whether Lois was harmed or not?

He was very glad that she had moved in with him. That made his task easier.

Henderson came out of a back office as they were ushered into the precinct; the dour detective raised an eyebrow at Lois and said, "You're late."

"I didn't schedule in Clark getting run down by a crazed biker," Lois drawled. "So sue me."

Henderson swivelled to look at Clark, raising an eyebrow. "You hurt, Kent?"

Clark shook his head. "I was lucky. The bike didn't fall directly on top of me."

"You report it?"

Lois shook her head. "The rider took off."

"I got his licence," Clark supplied. "We'd appreciate it if you could get it checked out."

Henderson shrugged. "Give the details to the duty officer — she'll take care of it for you. Not that it's likely to do you much good — most hit and runs are never traced, even with the number."

"We want this one traced," Lois said firmly. "We think it may have been deliberate. And that it's probably related to what we've come to talk about."

The eyebrow crawled up again as Henderson reached across to a nearby desk and snagged a form. "Okay, give me the details. I can have someone check it out while we're talking."

The form completed, Henderson led them into his office. "So, Lane, I'm breathless with curiosity to know what makes you willing to share all of a sudden."

Lois shrugged. "We need some information, and you can get it for us."

"You must need it pretty badly. What's up? Your usual sources on vacation?" As he spoke, Henderson was pulling some files from a drawer; sliding his glasses very slightly down his nose, Clark could see that they all related to the apartment fire and Craig Allen.

"No games this time, Henderson," Lois said, all humour and sarcasm gone from her tone. "This is big, and I think you know it too. There's someone we want to nail, and it's not Craig Allen."

"Okay." The detective sat back, fixing Lois with a straight stare. "Why don't you tell me what you have and what you want, and I'll see what I can do."

Clark expected Lois to object to the expectation that she would go first, but she nodded. "First, I want to know if we're safe here. No-one can overhear us?"

Henderson paused, then got to his feet. He ambled to the door, then said casually, "Either of you two want a coffee?"

Clark was about to say no, when the detective answered his own question. "Okay, I'll just be a minute. Lane, black, no sugar, right? Kent?"

Playing along, Clark said, "Milk, two sugars. Thanks."

He watched, looking through the door, as Henderson poured coffee from a carafe which was on a nearby table; as he did so, the detective seemed to be keeping a close eye on other officers nearby. Heading back to his own office, Henderson told an administrative assistant that he was not to be disturbed until further notice. Once inside again, he dumped the coffees on his desk and then shut his door firmly.

"You can speak freely," he said.

Lois glanced at Clark; from her raised eyebrow, he assumed that she suspected, as he did, that Henderson didn't entirely trust everyone at the precinct.

"Okay. To cut a long story short, let's begin by saying that the person we want to nail is Lex Luthor," she announced, keeping her voice softer than usual.

Henderson simply leaned forward in his seat. "And you have some evidence to go on?"

"Mostly circumstantial at the moment. But we think that Luthor — or someone acting on his behalf — paid Allen to set fire to my apartment."

"And why would Luthor want your apartment burned down?" Henderson asked. Without waiting for an answer, he added, "Let's assume I'm not going to disagree with you so far. And, if that's what you wanted me to confirm for you, yes, Allen did pay a substantial sum of money into his account a couple of days before the fire. Cash — untraceable," he added with a grimace. "You were right last night — I never believed he did it for a grudge. But that's what made no sense to me — what motive is there for burning down an apartment building?"

"That made no sense to us either," Clark agreed. "At least, until Luthor appeared at the Daily Planet offering Lois the use of an apartment he owns."

Henderson's eyebrow crawled up to his hairline again. "And you're saying that this wasn't just a friendly gesture on his part?"

"Not unless people routinely set bugs and spy cameras all over apartments they're offering to lend to their friends," Lois said dryly. At the detective's quizzical look, she explained, "We asked Superman to take a look. Apart from the cameras in the bedroom and bathroom, he also found listening devices all over the study and in a number of other places."

"Uh-huh." Henderson scribbled something.

"He's also behind a new policy of hot-desking at the Planet — he knew about it, and it's what made him sure that I'd accept his offer of an apartment. He was selling it not only as somewhere to live, but somewhere to work too. He knew I couldn't work at the Planet under current conditions. He's been seen with the Planet director who's behind the policy. I think Lex Luthor is trying to interfere with the freedom of the press."

"Well, that's an aim I'll admit to having shared on occasion," Henderson observed sardonically.

"An aim worth putting people's lives at risk for?" Lois retorted.

"Have you got anything at all linking Allen to Luthor?" Henderson asked crisply.

Lois shrugged. "He used to work for Luthor Construction."

The cop nodded. "That's on his file. That all you got?"

"It's enough, isn't it?" Lois exclaimed.

"Circumstantial." The word was bitten out. "Lois, if that's all you have, don't waste any more of my time."

"You didn't know why someone might have wanted to burn down my apartment!" she pointed out sharply.

"Look, you two, there's nothing I would like better than to be able to put Luthor away," Henderson gritted out. "But I can't do it on hunches and theories and circumstantial evidence. You get me some hard proof and I'll use it. But what you've got so far is nothing."

"Have you got anything better?" Lois retorted. "You can't have or you'd have used it by now."

The detective inclined his head, conceding the point.

"We think he was behind the cyber-boxers. And that he destroyed the Messenger. And that's just for starters," Lois said.

"Superman told us that Luthor tried to… *persuade* him to leave town during his first week in Metropolis," Clark added.

Henderson gave him a keen look. "Would he put that in a statement?"

Clark shrugged. "Don't see why not. But you're right," he added. "Just about everything we have is guesswork. There's no proof."

"Not yet," Lois pointed out.

"Not yet," he agreed. "We intend to get it," he added, turning back towards the detective. What we want to know is if you'll be willing to act on anything positive we do get hold of, and if you're willing to share what you have if you can."

"Can you be sure your apartment phone's not bugged?" came the immediate reply.

Clark nodded. "Not so far. I can contact Superman and have him check it out this evening."

"Get an anti-surveillance device."

"I thought they were illegal!" Lois objected.

Henderson shrugged. "They work. Why do you think they're illegal? And since when has the legality of things bothered you?"

Lois simply raised an eyebrow. Clark said. "I'll see to it." He should have thought of it himself anyway. He had, that morning on arriving at the Planet, had a quick scout around to make sure that there weren't any bugs anywhere there. There hadn't been any — though of course, he'd reflected, not without some amusement, the hot-desking policy would make that more difficult anyway. How would whatever minion Luthor had sent to do the job know which desk, or which phone, to bug? He made a mental note to fill Lois in on that later; it would make her smile, if nothing else. And he would definitely keep a check on his apartment. And Lois's car, he thought belatedly; it would be simple enough for a listening device to be planted in the Jeep.

"Do that. And call me on my direct line, never via the precinct. Okay?" He got to his feet, and it was clear that agreement had been reached and the conversation was over.

As they left Henderson's office, however, a uniformed officer came hurrying up. "That motorbike licence you wanted traced, Inspector?" he said.


"It was stolen."

Henderson glanced at Clark, the silent "What did I tell you?" coming across loud and clear.

"It was reported abandoned almost an hour ago," the officer continued. "A white male of around 35, height just under six feet, and wearing black leathers and a black motorcycle helmet, was found dead a couple of blocks away — officers on the scene suspect that they'll find his prints on the bike."

Clark froze. Another human being killed in the cause of Luthor's grand plan.

"How soon will they know?" Henderson rapped out the question.

"Depends how quickly they get the bike to the lab and take prints from the corpse," the officer said.

"I want it expedited. And I want the results on my desk yesterday." Henderson gestured to Lois and Clark to precede him towards the station exit, then said quietly, "You think this was an attempt to kill you?"

"I'm not sure," Clark said. "He did ride straight at me, but I had time to take evasive action."

"About a split second!" Lois objected. "Henderson, if Clark was anything other than healthy and extremely fit, he could have been killed! And so could innocent bystanders. Now do you believe that this is serious?"

"Lois, when I think something's not serious, you won't be in any doubt about it," the cop informed her. "I'll call you when I know anything. And I'm probably wasting my breath here, but be careful. My workload's impossible enough without you two landing me with another couple of murders to investigate."

"We will," Clark promised.


"You failed, Nigel." Lex Luthor's voice was icy.

"Kent was knocked down by the bike," the ex-spy observed. "It is indeed true that he was unhurt, but my sources tell me that he and Ms Lane were shaken up."

"I want him *hurt*!" Luthor raged, for once losing his cool entirely. "I want him to suffer for attempting to make a fool of me. And Lois Lane… if she cares about Kent as much as she appears, I want her thoroughly distracted worrying about him. Now, do I have to do this myself?"

"No, sir," Nigel replied, sounding unusually chastened. "I will take care of it — and this time I'll do the job myself. But the timing will be crucial if it is to look like an accident. Two apparent accidents in one day could be suspicious. So tomorrow…?"

Luthor grunted, clearly not completely satisfied. "If it has to be tomorrow, then so be it. Those two have become far too much of a thorn in the side. I want Kent in the hospital for at least a week. If his injuries are life-threatening, that will feel even sweeter," he added, a smile at last curving over the stern features.

"Nothing could be easier," Nigel commented; the expression on his face told his employer that the Briton was already planning and that this was the kind of activity he loved most.

"Let me know when it's done." Luthor turned away and marched out of the room.


There was one downside to sharing his apartment, Clark thought, glancing at his watch for what seemed like the fiftieth time. Sharing the bathroom. He was beginning to regret his gentlemanly gesture in letting her go first: Lois had been in there almost half an hour now. Of course, she didn't have the ability to work at super-speed, but even when he did everything at human speed he never took more than about fifteen minutes. Just what did women do when they got in the bathroom?

And, of course, his bathroom was inconveniently placed off his bedroom, with no door from the main living area. So Lois had to go through his bedroom each time. Out of courtesy, he was waiting in the living-room, not his bedroom, but if he'd known she was going to be this long he could have spent the time getting his disguise ready for tonight.

He pushed his irritation aside and focused on their plans. He'd managed to get himself hired at the club as a bar-tender, having made a trip over there while Lois was sorting out her insurance that afternoon. The insurance company had kept her on the phone for almost an hour before informing her that the relevant manager hadn't yet made a decision on whether the company would be willing to pay out. By the time Clark had got back, she'd been fuming.

But she'd been pleased that he'd got himself an undercover role; her annoyance earlier that day about what she saw as his over- protectiveness seemed to have vanished. Or else she'd accepted that he really wasn't trying to edge her out of the story — or any stories.

So he'd be behind the bar, while she would be up on stage — in full view of everyone, a fact which didn't please him. All the same, her costume should be a reasonably effective disguise. She'd shown it — reluctantly — to him: a chicken outfit.

"You dare laugh, Kent, and the next time I write about Superman I'll make some comment about your *tight* tights, you hear?" she'd threatened. He'd grinned, even though he'd been inwardly blushing at her comment. She'd *noticed* the tights? But of course she had, he'd acknowledged immediately. Hadn't he known himself that they were… well, eye-catching? And hadn't his mom made that comment that nobody would be looking at his face? But the thought of Lois… well, ogling his body in that way made him uncomfortable.

<You look at her!> he told himself now.

But not when she was as good as naked, he objected.

<Really? You've never just happened to notice how good her legs look when she's wearing a short skirt?>

Yes, he admitted. He had looked at Lois admiringly. He'd looked at other women in the same way, too. And now he understood exactly what women meant when they said a man looked at them as if they were a piece of meat. That was exactly how he felt when, as Superman, he — his body, not his face — was the subject of appraising stares.

"Bathroom's free!" Lois yelled. And a streak of pale robe-clad woman hurried past him as he swung around.

"Thanks," he called, and strode into the bathroom. And stopped dead.

What was *that*?

Dangly things were hanging over the shower-rail. He got closer and inspected them.

Panty-hose. He rolled his eyes.

That wasn't fair, he told himself. She had to wash them, especially considering she probably only had a couple of pairs now, since the fire. She had to hang them somewhere. But not on the shower-rail when he needed to take a shower!

Gingerly, he took the two pairs down, trying not to let himself dwell on the fact that, routinely, these covered Lois's legs. Clung to them. Caressed them.

<Stop it!> he told himself.

The nylon was wet. He took a deep breath, then focused on them, allowing a warm stream of heat-vision to flow over the panty- hose. Within seconds, they were dry, and he went back out to the kitchen and left them on the table for her.

Okay. Time for his shower. Clark wondered ruefully if he now needed to make it a cold one.


Lois high-kicked in time with the other dancers, straining to keep her movements synchronised with them while she also focused on the people in the bar and the comings and goings. She couldn't hear anything, of course, from her position on stage; apart from the very loud music, she was too far from anyone to hear any conversation. Clark, naturally, wouldn't have any such problems, she reflected ruefully. In fact, this was the kind of undercover investigation where he really didn't need her at all. If there was anything to see, or to overhear, he would find it. He'd probably come back to the apartment later having found out everything the Metros were up to.

Did Clark Superman Kent really need a reporting partner? she asked herself again. He'd said that he did. He'd assured her that he needed her; that he respected her talents as an investigator and her quick mind, as well as her abilities as a writer.

She sneaked a glance towards where he was working at the bar. He was busy serving a customer, his movements graceful and quick as he set drinks on the bar counter. Unless anyone looked closely, he would be impossible to recognise as Clark Kent, she reflected again; he'd styled his hair differently, worn a pair of glasses she hadn't seen on him before and which were a completely different shape to his usual ones, and he'd applied a neatly- trimmed fake goatee and moustache.

His disguise was a lot more palatable than hers. Lois grimaced inwardly as she caught a glimpse of her tail-feathers. To give Clark his due, he hadn't so much as let his mouth twitch when she'd emerged from her new upstairs bedroom in the costume. He'd just held her coat for her and wished her luck before she left.

She directed her gaze slowly around the bar again. Nothing suspicious, just customers getting drunk and ogling the dancers. Oh, she really needed to get off this stage and start snooping around in the back! Toni Taylor was around, and earlier she'd caught a glimpse of her brother Johnny, but she hadn't had an opportunity to overhear any conversations. She needed a shift waiting tables for that.

Following the movements of the dance, Lois turned her back to the audience and shook her butt for several seconds before turning around again. And in the interval, someone new had come into the bar and was now sitting at a table near the stage with Toni Taylor.

It was Lex Luthor.

So her source was right: Luthor did frequent the place. Now the question was: why?

She already knew that it couldn't possibly be for any innocent, above-board reason. There were dozens of clubs, wine-bars and bars in the upscale area where Luthor's offices and penthouse were located. If all he wanted was a drink and some entertainment, he could find it in far more salubrious surroundings. Not to mention an establishment where he could be certain that the glassware was clean. And it wasn't as if the Metro Club had an outstanding reputation for its food, or the quality of the entertainment, or anything like that.

No; if Lex Luthor was here, and socialising with Toni Taylor, something was going on.

Clark had to be right. It must be connected to Luthor's proposed development and the fires in the West River area. And if he was talking to one of the Taylor family, it had to involve the Metro Gang. So were the Metros behind the fires? And was Luthor funding and orchestrating it all?

She just wished that she could get close enough to overhear what they were talking about. Maybe Clark could, though; Lois glanced quickly over at her partner again, hoping that he'd noticed the new arrival. Clark was again serving a customer and seemed focused on his task — but then she noticed the flick of his eyes towards the table where Luthor was sitting. Good. He'd noticed and was monitoring the situation.

Lois returned her attention to the bar area in front of her — and realised that Lex Luthor was looking straight at her.


Clark was aware of the very instant Luthor recognised his partner. A casual observer would never have noticed; the well- dressed, looking-slightly-out-of-place man in the dark business suit seemed perfectly relaxed as he sipped his drink and chatted to his companion.

But Clark noticed the infinitesimal stilling, the moment when Luthor paused and did a very minute double-take. The billionaire's heart-rate speeded up briefly and his grip on his drink tightened; for a fraction of a second, a look of pure fury crossed his face. But just as quickly the urbane expression was back.

He'd recognised Lois. But there was nothing that Clark could do about that right now. He would, though, make very sure that Lois got away safely — and yet again he felt very relieved that she was staying with him. It made it much more difficult for Luthor to get to her or harm her in any way.

For now, all he could do was try to overhear as much as possible of Luthor's conversation with his female companion. Toni Taylor — it was she who had given Clark — or Charlie King — the bar- tending job earlier that day. The bar supervisor had insisted that they weren't hiring, but just as he'd been about to leave an attractive blonde woman had emerged from a back room. She'd asked what was going on and had then given Clark a very deliberate once-over. Observing that it was about time that female customers and staff had some eye-candy around the place, she'd immediately hired him.

Toni Taylor. Part of the Taylor family, owners of the club and, as he and Lois suspected, controllers of the Metro Gang. Sharing drinks with Lex Luthor, billionaire and would-be property developer in the West River area… oh yes, he could certainly guess at what they might be discussing. He tried to zero in on their conversation, doing his best to shut out the variety of noise from elsewhere in the bar.

Apart from anything else, he was anxious to know whether Luthor intended blowing Lois's cover. If the other man were to tell Toni Taylor who Lois was, then not only would Lois be out of the club — and perhaps in big trouble — but also any chance of finding out anything about the Metros and the arson attacks would be lost. They'd already lost any chance they might have had of getting anything on Luthor, Clark was sure; the older man was far too clever to discuss anything incriminating with a reporter in the vicinity.

"… the old jeans factory… corner of March and Fremont… out of the picture," Luthor was saying. Clark concentrated, trying to catch Toni Taylor's response. This sounded promising, but he had to be sure that Luthor meant what he thought he meant…

"I said, can I get a whisky sour, please?"

Clark blinked, readjusting his hearing as the customer at the bar almost deafened him. "Sorry, sir," he said immediately, hoping that his inattention hadn't caught the attention of anyone who might wonder at it.

Having served the customer, Clark glanced over at Luthor and his companion again. He really needed to get closer… Clearing the tables was supposed to be the job of the table servers, but since the bar was quiet and the servers were busy at the other end of the room, Clark decided that he could get away with it.

He moved smoothly out from behind the bar and began to collect used glasses, moving ever closer to Luthor's table but ensuring that Luthor never got a direct look at his face. And then the conversation became clearer. Carefully, Clark slid a hand into his pocket and squeezed the record button on the miniature tape recorder Lois had 'borrowed' from the newsroom.

"…should be able to arrange that for tomorrow," Toni Taylor was saying.

"The earlier the better," Luthor said, pausing to take a sip of his drink. "Once that's up in flames I'll be able to persuade the idiots in the next few buildings that they'll be far better off accepting my company's offer than taking the risk that they'll be next."

Bingo! He had the proof he and Lois needed. Okay, covertly- recorded material wasn't admissible in court, but it was a start.

He turned away and began to clear another table, still listening.

"I need to contact the Toasters — and they don't make it easy," Taylor replied. "Usually, the deal is they come to me. So I can't guarantee it'll be early."

Luthor's voice held a note of warning. "Make it early. Don't you have another big meeting with Johnny tomorrow? You need my money if you're going to keep control of the Metros, Toni."

"Don't threaten me, Lex." Toni was clearly angry. "I said I'd try. And you should remember what I have locked away in my safe, if we're talking threats. You wouldn't want that getting out."

Clark risked a glance at Luthor; the billionaire looked furiously angry. "You were supposed to destroy that!" he snapped.

"Did you really think I'd be that stupid? That document's my insurance policy!"

"Your best insurance policy is to do what I told you," Luthor said coldly. "If you're stupid enough to do anything else, you know I'll make sure you get taken down too. And you can't exactly afford the best attorneys without my help, can you?"

"Lex…" Toni began. Then her tone changed. "Charlie! What are you doing away from the bar? Leave the girls to clean tables!"

"Sorry, Toni," Clark apologised, doing his best to disguise his voice; hurrying back to the bar, he again kept his profile averted from Luthor's view.

He needed to see what was in that safe. Ten minutes, fifteen tops, he could take a bathroom break, and then he'd take a look. Clark smiled inwardly as it occurred to him that Lois was usually the half of the partnership who indulged in breaking and entering and acquiring documents illicitly; she'd be very surprised when he told her what he'd done. Impressed, he hoped. Though that was probably somewhat optimistic; she'd be put out that he'd done it without her.

Oh well. He'd explain it to her somehow. After all, they were a team. And sometimes one team member just had to drop back and let the other one take the lead. Right now, he was in the best position to get the touchdown, and if Lois had to wait by the sidelines… well, that was too bad.

On second thoughts, perhaps he'd better not put it quite like that.

He served a few more customers and prepared orders for a couple of the waiting staff, and almost jumped when one of the women, who had come behind the bar to get some change from the till, patted his butt. "Hey, cutie!" she trilled. "What you doing after closing?"

Wincing — was this what women had to put up with? — Clark gave her what he hoped was a regretful smile. "Sorry — my girlfriend's expecting me home."

"Shame." The waitress pulled a face. "Any time you get tired of her, I'm available!"

"I'll remember that," Clark promised insincerely before finding something to do to make himself look busy.

Luthor and Taylor were still talking, though he had no idea what about; he didn't want to risk being caught watching them. After a few minutes, the bar grew quieter and Clark called across to the other tender, "Okay if I take a bathroom break?"

The guy shrugged. "Sure."

The staff restrooms were through a door marked 'Employees Only'. The corridor through the door led to the dancers' dressing-room, the restrooms and then on down to the management offices. Just in case anyone might have been watching, Clark went into the men's restroom; having checked that it was empty, he darted back out at super-speed and shot down the corridor, X-raying walls as he went.

Only one of the management offices had a safe. It was well- hidden, behind a bar-fridge well-stocked with a local brand of beer. The coast was clear; Clark, using his bar-apron to avoid leaving fingerprints, carefully opened the door. He didn't need to put on the light.

Moving the fridge to get at the safe was a simple task for someone with his skills, and opening the safe took under a second — it had a simple combination lock and it was extremely easy to hear the cylinders slotting into place. Clark scanned the contents without touching them; there were a couple of stacks of cash, used bills in mixed denominations, and several documents. The first few related to the ownership of the premises, insurance papers, fire-inspection certificates and so on; nothing at all interesting. But then Clark noticed something odd about the interior dimensions of the safe, and he realised that it had a false bottom.

A quick X-ray showed him the release mechanism for the hidden compartment — and he hit pay-dirt.

Luthor had been incredibly careless — or incredibly trusting. He had actually put in writing his arrangement with Toni Taylor to have parts of West River burned down. The amounts to be paid for each fire were detailed, with distribution of the cash as between Taylor and the arsonists, referred to as the Toasters, to be determined by Taylor. There was a final amount which would be payable on completion of the contract. And the document even specified what would happen if the Toasters were busted and their financing traced back to the Metro Club: Taylor would take the fall without incriminating Luthor, but Luthor would take care of her legal fees and provide a lump sum which she would claim once she had served her prison sentence.

No wonder Luthor had wanted this document destroyed. Clark could only marvel that the billionaire had ever allowed it to exist in the first place.

Presumably it had been Toni Taylor who had drawn it up. Just how she'd got Luthor to sign it was beyond Clark. However, that simple piece of paper was dynamite. An insurance policy, indeed.

Very carefully, again using his apron so as not to leave fingerprints on the paper, he pulled it out of the compartment. A quick scan of another cupboard revealed a stack of stationery, and he was pleased to see that there were some clear plastic folders; it was the task of less than a second to slide the contract into one and hide it in his pocket. Moments later, the safe was locked again, its secret compartment again hidden, and Clark had pushed the bar-fridge back in front of it.

A quick scan of the hallway told him that it was safe to leave, and he zipped faster than the human eye could see back to the men's room. Emerging at normal speed a few seconds later, he made his way back to the bar. "Thanks, Carl," he called to his colleague.

Lois was still dancing on stage, along with the rest of the farmyard animals; Clark could imagine how much she was hating that part of her undercover role. He was longing to tell her what he'd discovered, but it was just too risky to try to talk to her at the club — especially with Lex Luthor still hanging around. He sat alone now, just sipping another drink and watching the dancers. Was he waiting for Lois to finish her routine so that he could talk to her? Well, he wouldn't get the chance; Clark was determined on that.

<<…we need more engines as fast as you can get them here! This fire is burning out of control!>>

Clark stilled. Another fire? He could hear the sirens now, and they weren't coming from far away. The Toasters striking again. Did he need to go? But he couldn't — there was no way he could risk leaving Lois on her own with Luthor hanging around. It was too dangerous.

<<…someone trapped on the top floor — can't reach…>>

With a sick feeling in his stomach, Clark realised that he had no choice. If a life was at stake, he had to leave. Superman was needed.

But what about Lois? he asked himself even as he was working out the easiest escape-route from the club.

Lois would tell him that she didn't need his protection. Only that morning, she'd complained again that he was too over- protective — and if she found out that Superman had been needed and he hadn't gone because of her, she'd be furious. He needed to show her that he did trust her to look after herself, he acknowledged. Superman would go to the fire. And Lois would be fine. Wouldn't she?

Casting his Charlie King undercover role to oblivion — he'd be fired for this, of a certainty — Clark ducked under the hatch and marched swiftly to the employee exit. Within seconds, he was airborne.


Lois noticed Clark's departure and couldn't resist an inward smile. There were some times when Superman needed a partner, after all. She knew that he'd gone to some emergency — she'd seen the tilt of his head, the distant look in his eyes. All signs that no-one else would even notice, but which to her were now obvious. Superman was needed somewhere.

And so she was on her own, and it was up to her to find out whatever was there to be discovered. Unless, of course, Clark already had it — she hadn't missed his disappearance a few minutes earlier. Of course, it could just have been a bathroom break. Though she'd noticed that he'd been listening in on Luthor and Toni Taylor, and she couldn't wait to hear what, if anything, he'd overheard.

For herself, though, the sooner she got off this darned stage and out of that abominable chicken costume, the better! They were on the last chorus now, and that was the cue for each 'animal' to take a bow, making its own sound — and just how she was going to make a chicken noise she had no idea — before leaving the stage. And *then*, at last, she'd have a chance to snoop around backstage!

Luthor was still there, but she hoped to get into the dressing- room without being caught by him; she had no intention of letting him talk to her at the club. At least he hadn't blown her cover. If he had told Toni Taylor who she was, Lois had no doubt at all that she'd have been unceremoniously thrown out of the club by a bouncer.

But that was concerning. Luthor knew that she was onto him. So why would he protect her in this situation? That in itself was suspicious. He clearly had a reason for it, and she wanted to know what it was.

The routine over at last, Lois escaped to the dressing-room, quickly getting changed into the skimpy waitress costume she'd brought with her; all of the supporting dancers who didn't have other roles in the club's entertainment were expected to wait tables when they weren't onstage. Still, the outfit gave her an excuse to snoop around in the back area; she could always pretend that she was looking for the ladies' room or for supplies.

Toni Taylor's office had to be around here somewhere, Lois reasoned as she came back out into the corridor. The woman herself was no longer out front, so it was a little risky to be poking around now; on the other hand, there was always the chance that she might manage to overhear a conversation -

"Heading in the wrong direction, aren't you?"

The smooth-voiced question halted Lois in her tracks. She already knew who she would see even before she spun on her heel to confront the speaker. Lex Luthor's cultured tones couldn't be disguised.

She summoned a confident smile. "Ladies' room."

Luthor gestured behind him with a lazy movement. "Back there."

"Well, then, I am heading in the wrong direction, aren't I?" She gave him a fake self-deprecating grin and began to move past him.

"Not so fast." Luthor's hand shot out and caught her arm. But, to her surprise, the grip wasn't tight. She could escape it easily if she tried. "I think we should talk, Lois, don't you?"

She shrugged. "I'll call you. Tomorrow."

"No. Now." And now the grip tightened, and he led her along the corridor and back out into the bar area. "You can get me a drink," he instructed. "And I'll make apparently casual conversation with you for a couple of minutes. With the music so loud, no-one will overhear what we're talking about, and that way your cover won't be blown."

Even more puzzled as to why Luthor was going to so much trouble to protect her cover — especially given that his presence in the employee-only area had been even more suspicious than hers — Lois did as he bade her. He'd taken a seat at a corner table, an area which was even darker than the rest of the room. As she placed his drink on the table, he gestured casually towards the empty seat with his cigar. "Sit."

"I can't. I'm supposed to be working."

"And I'm a big-spending customer. A good tipper too. Sit."

Lois subsided into the chair, waving away the pungent cigar-smoke as she did so. The direct approach was often the best. Taking the initiative, she asked, "So why protect my cover, Lex?"

"It's a temporary measure, believe me," he said, a note of warning in his voice. "I want to know why you're here, Lois. And if I don't like the answer…"

"I'm working," she repeated. "And I don't reveal details of investigations."

"If I'm not satisfied, there won't be an investigation," he countered. "Why are you here?"

Lois shrugged. "Why are you here, Lex? This is hardly the kind of upmarket establishment someone in your position would normally frequent. In fact, an observer could be even more suspicious about your presence here than mine."

Mistake, Lois, she told herself as soon as the remark escaped her. She didn't need the flash of anger in Luthor's eyes to tell her how careless she'd been. Okay, Luthor already knew that she was suspicious of him, but she hadn't needed to confirm it.

"I won't waste my time trying to protect you again, Lois," he snapped. "For your information — not that it's any business of yours — Toni Taylor is an acquaintance of mine. She has been asking my advice about expanding and improving her operation here. Naturally, under the circumstances, I would spend some time on the premises." He got to his feet, stubbing out his cigar, and tossed a twenty down on the table in an insulting manner. "I think we'd better forget next Friday's interview, in the circumstances. Goodnight, Ms Lane."


The Toasters had struck again, and it was in West River once more. They — and, of course, Lex Luthor, who he now had proof was funding them — clearly had a callous disregard for human life. The building they'd incinerated this time was a flop-house, and it had been half-full. Most of the residents had managed to escape unhurt, but a few had needed to be brought out by firefighters, and some were suffering badly from smoke inhalation. Clark had got there in time to rescue the man who was trapped on the top floor, but not before he had suffered badly from the smoke and had a couple of burns to his hands.

No-one had died. But that was no thanks to Lex Luthor.

Furious and itching to march straight down to the police station with the evidence he had, Clark flew back to the Metro Club to find Lois. They needed to talk. He had to tell her what he'd overheard, show her what he'd found.

They'd done it — they had Luthor cold. Okay, not for the Messenger crash, or the murder of Antoinette Baines, or the robotic boxers; not even for the arson attack on Lois's apartment and the deaths of Craig Allen and the biker. But they had him red-handed for funding and directing the Toasters. It was a start. Once Luthor was in custody, Clark had absolutely no doubt that Henderson — and Lane and Kent — would be able to pin more on him.

He halted in mid-air, staring down at the building below him. Lois wasn't in the club.

<Don't panic> he told himself. She had probably just gone home. Her shift was probably over.

Luthor wasn't there any more either, he noticed, and a chill ran down his spine.

There was no need to worry, he told himself firmly. Lois was well able to look after herself. Of course she'd just gone home.

He zipped into flight again, heading across the city to Clinton Street. His apartment was in darkness. And Lois's bed was empty. A faint hope made him check his own bedroom; empty too.

Where was she?

Luthor. The name invaded his mind with cold certainty. Luthor had her.

No, he was over-reacting, he told himself. Or, at least, he tried to tell himself. But still the dread filled him. Luthor had her. That had to be what had happened. Lois wouldn't just disappear. She'd know that he'd be looking for her. Why would she have left the club? It was still open, albeit only just. And even if she had left, why wouldn't she have gone home?

But Lois wouldn't have left of her own volition anyway. She was hot in pursuit of a story, and desperate to be able to pin something on Lex Luthor. He'd known that she planned to try to snoop around backstage and in the management offices once her shift was over. Of course, he'd planned to be there to keep an eye on her and cover her if necessary.

Only he hadn't been there. And now Lois was missing.

Luthor had definitely recognised her. He would have known, of course, that she was undercover. Given what he had to hide, he must have decided that he couldn't take the risk of Lois finding out what was going on. And he must have grabbed her. Lured her away. Had her kidnapped… or something.

He would find her, Clark resolved. He had to. Even if he had to search the whole city, from top to bottom, end to end, he would find her. Just as long as Luthor hadn't… killed her…

No. No, he wouldn't let himself think that. He couldn't. Lois had to be alive.

After everything they'd been through together; after all of his caution around her, how he hadn't allowed himself to hope for more than friendship with her, the way he barely even allowed himself the luxury of touching her in case he hurt her, to think of her being hurt in any way by Lex Luthor, let alone killed, was too painful to contemplate.

<Think, Clark!> he told himself. Where else could she be? Where should he start looking?

The Planet, he realised. She just might be there. Stupid of him not to have thought of it sooner.

Leaving a gust of wind in his wake, he headed for the Daily Planet.


So, the Toasters had struck again. Lois jotted down some notes based on what her contact at the fire department had told her, then leaned back in her chair and rolled her eyes. It was all so obvious: Lex Luthor wanted to demolish a chunk of the West River area to build a luxury development, and simultaneously, coincidentally, huge swathes of the West River area went up in smoke. Why on earth was nobody else making the link?

Not that she really wanted anybody else to make the link. This was their story — hers and Clark's. The only problem was that they had no way of proving a link between Luthor and the Toasters. Sure, Luthor had been at the Metro Club — but he'd provided an explanation which, had she still believed him to be an upright, law-abiding businessman, she wouldn't have questioned for a second. He was friendly with Toni Taylor. But there was nothing to link Taylor or the Metros with the Toasters, other than speculation — and nothing at all to link Luthor with the Toasters.

If she and Clark wrote a story right now — assuming Perry would even print it — the Planet would get sued. And they'd lose in court.

There had to be something — some chink in the armour, some loose end *somewhere* that Luthor hadn't tied up. Because Henderson was right: all that they had so far was speculation and circumstantial evidence. That wouldn't even get them as far as an arrest, let alone a decision by the DA's office to prosecute. Luthor was just too powerful for anyone to risk a wrongful arrest suit. He'd sue the city for millions, and the citizens of Metropolis would be right behind him: to most of the city, Luthor was a benevolent saviour.

She went through her notes yet again, in the vain hope that she'd missed something. Maybe she needed to do another search for any financial connection at all between Luthor or any of his companies and — well, anyone suspicious. Craig Allen. Toni Taylor. The Toasters. Max Mencken. Antoinette Baines. *Anyone*!

Lois had just booted up her computer and was contemplating calling Jimmy to get him to come in and do some more searching for her when a faint whoosh came from behind her. She turned, just in time to see Clark spinning from his Suit into the clothes he'd been wearing behind the bar of the Metro Club. She glanced down at herself, glad that she'd taken the time to go back to Clark's apartment first and get out of that awful chicken costume.

"Lois!" Clark exclaimed. "Do you know how worried I've been about you?"

She frowned, puzzled. "Worried about me? Why?"

He took a few steps closer, stopping at the edge of her desk. "I went back to the club. You weren't there. And you weren't at the apartment either."

"I decided to come here and see if there was anything we'd overlooked. We *have* to get Luthor, Clark! I can't *stand* seeing him walk around acting so superior all the time…"

To her surprise, he placed a hand gently, comfortingly, on her shoulder. He even squeezed lightly. She must really have been sounding hysterical, she thought, for Clark to overcome his dislike of touching. "We'll get him," he promised. "And I know how you feel. When I couldn't find you, I thought he had you."

"Oh." Clark had thought… But Luthor wouldn't be so stupid as to come right out in the open, would he? On the other hand, given the attempt on Clark's life earlier, it was perfectly possible that Luthor could have given instructions for her to be kidnapped or otherwise removed from his path.

No, it wasn't at all a far-fetched idea. And Clark had clearly been very worried. The harsh, anguished note in his voice when he'd told her what he'd imagined…

"He didn't get me, Clark. We did talk, and I think I probably said a bit too much, but I'm fine. You can see for yourself — I'm fine."

Clark smiled. "Yes, I can see. And I'm glad. So — what have you been doing? Have you found anything?"

"Not yet. I was just about to have a try at searching for financial records, if I could figure out what it is that Jimmy does —"

Before she could finish, Clark had leaned over her shoulder and taken her mouse away. "Let me take a look." He clicked on several menus, then stopped, his brow furrowing. "There." With his free hand, he gestured towards something on the screen.


"A Trojan. As far as I can make out — and I'd have to ask Jimmy or one of the IT department people — this file is intended to record keystrokes, commands given, pages printed and anything else that might be of interest. And it would either store the information in a file on the network or email it somewhere."

Lois stared at her partner. "You mean someone's spying on me?"

Clark nodded. "I should have checked it earlier. Henderson telling me to check my apartment for bugs made me think that, if Luthor was willing to put you in a bugged apartment, he might try to have some devices planted here. I meant to take a look when we got back to the newsroom, but I forgot." He picked up Lois's phone and stared at it, concentrating. "That's bugged too." Unscrewing the end of the receiver, he added, "It activates when you use the phone."

Lois frowned. "How did he — whoever did the bugging — know what desk I was going to use? With this stupid policy, I could've been using any desk."

"Good point." Clark side-stepped to the next desk and examined the phone there — and quickly saw that it was also bugged. "I'll say this for Luthor: he's determined," he commented. "Probably every phone in the bullpen's been tampered with. And every computer too, I'd bet."

Lois whistled. "Perry would hit the roof if he knew!"

"And he'll get a chance, too," Clark said. "We'll tell him, when the time is right. For now, though, I'd prefer it if we went back home."

Lois shrugged. "We might as well. I'm not getting anywhere here anyway. We can start again in the morning."

But Clark gave her a grin. "Actually, we are getting somewhere. I have something to show you — back at my place."

She looked at him expectantly, but he shook his head, his eyes alight with enjoyment. So she stood and raised her eyebrows at him. "Then what are we waiting for?"

"Let's go, partner. The Jeep downstairs?"


He offered her his arm. "Then lead on."


He'd been so relieved to find her, and so torn apart to see her upset, that he'd actually dared to squeeze her shoulder. And either he hadn't hurt her, or she'd been so upset that she hadn't said anything.

Maybe he wasn't as dangerous to humans as he feared — on the other hand, it wasn't safe to take too many risks. He really should find out what his limits were. Not that Clark could think of any safe way of doing that. Of course, he should probably talk to his parents — they rarely failed to come up with good ideas. But what could they suggest this time? He really didn't like the idea of using his dad as a guinea-pig to see how good his control was.

"You want to drive, or will I?" They were in the parking garage, and Lois's voice interrupted his thoughts.

"Your choice," he told her, then grinned as she went to the driver's side herself.

"So what do you have?" Lois asked as they drove out of the building.

"I'll show you when we get back." Clark smiled again at his partner's impatience, but he was savouring his triumph. He wanted her full attention when he told her about it. "What about Luthor? Did he blow your cover?"

"No, and that's definitely weird," she said. "He even talked to me. He found me poking around near the back offices — he acted as if he was in charge, Clark! He asked what I was doing and made me sit with him in the bar area." She related the conversation, and Clark felt his blood beginning to boil at Luthor's behaviour. And at the same time he felt chilled at the realisation of how much danger Lois could have been in.

"Good question — what he was doing there, I mean," was all he would allow himself to say.

"Yes; well, I probably shouldn't have said it to him," Lois said, to Clark's amazement. "It was more of a risk than I needed to take."

"Am I hearing this right? Is Lois Lane actually admitting that she took too much of a risk?"

"Yeah, well, mark it in your calendar, Farmboy. Cause you won't hear me say anything like it again for a long time."

Clark's mouth twitched. "If you say so, partner."

Moments later, she parked the Jeep outside his apartment — *their* apartment, he told himself, feeling a considerable amount of pleasure at the thought. They went inside, and he headed straight for the kitchen. "Coffee? Or hot chocolate?"

"Clark!" she exclaimed, frustration in her tone and body language.

Pretending innocence, he raised an eyebrow enquiringly at her. "Lois?"

"Clark. Sit. Now!" she ordered, pointing to the kitchen table. He grinned and did as she asked; she sat opposite him. "Now, what did you find out?"

"Well, you saw Luthor talking to Toni Taylor?"


"I managed to get close enough to overhear some of the conversation."

"I thought as much!" Now she looked really excited. "What were they talking about?"

"It was more of an argument than a conversation. They're not exactly the best of friends — and they've each got a hold over the other that neither likes," Clark began, then continued to relate what he'd heard.

When he'd finished his recital, Lois gave him an approving nod. "Great work, partner! Okay, I admit it, I'm glad you were there tonight."

"I'm glad to hear it!"

"Okay, so what are we waiting for?" She jumped to her feet and looked expectantly at him.


"We have to get back there and find whatever it is that's in Taylor's safe, of course!"

"No need." Now really enjoying himself, Clark reached inside his jacket for the contract. "I already found it."

"Let me see that!" Lois grabbed it from him. "Did you put it in this plastic?"

He nodded.

"Oh, nice work!" She fell silent then, reading, only to look up again less than a minute later. "This is dynamite, Clark! If we can be sure that it's really Luthor's signature and not a forgery…"

"That's why I was careful not to handle the paper myself. Henderson can have it tested for fingerprints, and he can have handwriting analysis done on that signature. And, yes, if it's genuine — and I think it is — we've got Luthor, Lois! It may only be for the fires in West River, but it's a start!"

Lois spun around, looking for the phone. "We have to call him. Do you have that number he gave you? Oh, and by the way, did you check this place for bugs?"

Clark nodded. He'd done it earlier, when they'd got back from the Planet. And just now, in the few seconds it had taken him to walk from the door to the kitchen, he'd done another scan. There was nothing — for whatever reason, Luthor had decided not to spy on them in the apartment. "It's all clear," he told her.

"Good." She was already dialling. "Henderson? It's Lane. We need to meet right away."

Listening in, Clark heard the detective say, "Gee, Lois, it can't wait until morning?"

"This can't. At least, not if you were serious earlier," Lois replied scathingly.

"Just tell me where." Henderson was matter-of-fact.

"We're at 344 Clinton. But we could get to —"

"Kent's place? I'll be there in ten." And the connection was cut abruptly.

"I'll make coffee now," Clark said mildly.


Lois was pacing long before the ten minutes were up. Now that they finally had proof — solid, undeniable evidence — that Luthor was a criminal, even if it was only a drop in the ocean compared to everything she knew he was guilty of, she wanted him nailed. She wanted him arrested and locked away before he could harm anyone else.

For her, that was a new reaction, and part of her was surprised by it; normally, she would want to get the story first and call in the cops afterwards. Now, she just wanted Luthor behind bars and facing as many charges as possible. Sure, she'd get the story anyway, but the story wasn't her principal motive.

Revenge on Lex Luthor was.

He'd made her homeless. Destroyed her apartment, and the homes of all her neighbours — just so that he could spy on her. She'd lost almost everything she owned, as had her neighbours. He'd also tried to kill Clark, of that she was very sure.

And those were only the things which affected her personally. Add to that everything else Luthor was responsible for, and Lois wanted to see the man punished as severely as the law would allow. Although, on second thoughts, perhaps not; while New Troy had the death penalty, it seemed to her as if that would be letting Luthor escape easily. He needed to rot in jail for as many years as possible.

Just sitting there in his lonely cell, remembering everything he'd once had and lost. Reading newspapers and letters about how much he was hated. How evil he was. What a waste of good human DNA he was.

When the knock sounded at last, she beat Clark to it, yanking the door open. "Where have you — " She broke off, staring at their visitor. It was Henderson, but his appearance was completely unlike any way she'd seen him look before. Instead of the shiny and slightly ill-fitting business suits, he wore shabby, ripped jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball cap pulled low over his face.

Henderson glanced at his watch. "It's exactly nine and a half minutes since I hung up the phone with you, Lane. So don't start."

She ignored his comment. "What's with the grunge?"

"It's called being undercover, Lane. You might have heard of it." Stepping inside, he pushed the door closed.

"Coffee, Inspector?" Clark offered.

"Great. Black and as strong as you can make it."

"Coming right up."

"So, what's so urgent that you got me over here at after midnight?"

Lois led the way back to the kitchen table. "You wanted hard evidence; we've got it."

"Oh yeah? And should I anticipate breaking and entering charges?"

"I doubt it," Clark said with a grin. "We went undercover at the Metro Club. So we were there legitimately enough — as paid employees."

Henderson shook his head, groaning fatalistically. "I guess you gave fake names?"

"No, we told them we're Lois Lane and Clark Kent," Lois drawled. "What do you think?"

"I'm thinking obtaining employment under false pretences, using fraudulent insurance numbers — or else failing to declare income for tax purposes… need I go on?"

"Only if you don't want to know what we found out," Lois countered.

Clark brought coffee-mugs to the table. "I would guess that Charlie King's already been fired, and I didn't get paid, so if you want to arrest me, Inspector, I'm not sure what you could charge me with." He grinned, taking a seat.

"I'm off-duty anyway," Henderson commented, reaching for his coffee. "This isn't bad, Kent! I've been up since five this morning, so I need it."

"This is worth it," Clark said, then began to explain what had happened, glossing over how it was that he'd been able to hear conversations and gain access to Toni Taylor's office. Henderson listened intently, but didn't comment.

And then Lois pushed the contract across the table. The cop took it and read it quickly; then read it again slowly, and again a third time, even more slowly.

"Did either of you touch this, Clark?" he asked urgently.

Clark shook his head. "I used my bartender apron like a glove to pick it up, and once I realised what it was I got that wallet to put it in."

"Good. I'll have it tested for prints as soon as I leave here. The lawyers will try to argue that the signature's forged, so I'll have handwriting analysis done too. This is a damn good start."

"We want a copy, Henderson," Lois warned. There was no way that she was agreeing to let their principal evidence out of their sight without guarantees.

"And you're telling me that you haven't already taken photocopies?" Henderson demanded, amazed.

Clark gave a faint shrug. "The Planet could well be compromised. We already found spy software on the computer Lois was using earlier and a bug in her phone. And it's my guess that every workstation in the bullpen is bugged."

Henderson emitted a low whistle. "Did you disable them?"

"No — I thought it was best not to tip Luthor off that we know what he's up to."

"Good. What about this place? Did you check it out like I told you?"

"Superman took a look about half an hour ago. It's clean."

Henderson raised an eyebrow to his hairline. "You got Superman to sweep your apartment for bugs?"

"Why not?" Lois said. "He's a friend of ours. And he wants Luthor put away as badly as we do. Like Clark said earlier, he'd be willing to sign an affidavit saying what he told us Luthor said to him."

"Yeah, so if you need that, just let me know and I'll ask him to contact you," Clark added.

Henderson rolled up the contract and stuffed it inside his sweatshirt. "I'll get a copy of this to you by morning."

"Thanks," Clark said. "Oh, and one other thing — I just remembered. I overheard Luthor and Toni Taylor talking about an old jeans factory on March and Fremont — I think that's another target for the Toasters. I got the impression they were talking about arranging a fire there for tomorrow."

Henderson rolled his eyes, his expression long-suffering. "You'd think having half of the West River area already fire-damaged or blighted would be enough for the guy, wouldn't you? Okay, I'll make sure that the appropriate people are tipped off. That's one we should be able to prevent." He took another long gulp of coffee. "Don't call me at the precinct about any of this — as you might have guessed, I think we have a leak there."

"Hence the disguise," Clark commented.

"Exactly." Henderson pushed back his chair and stood. "I'd dearly love to get Luthor for major fraud or even murder, but having hard evidence that he's paying gangsters to burn down parts of the city is a pretty good second-best. Thanks."

"Not to mention reckless disregard for the lives of people who live in the parts of the city he's having burned down," Clark added dryly. "Superman told us that one man almost died in the latest fire."

"I heard about that. And arresting these so-called Toasters is also pretty near the top of my priority list." Henderson headed towards the door. "There goes another night's sleep," he commented sardonically.

"Sleep's over-rated anyway," Lois told him.


For once, the view of the city at night afforded him no pleasure at all, Lex Luthor noted with irritated detachment. He stubbed out his half-finished cigar in a Wedgwood trinket-bowl and strode impatiently to his desk. Jabbing at the intercom, he rapped out an order.

Mere seconds later, Nigel St John entered the room. "Good evening, sir."

"Is it?"

"Something amiss, sir?" Nigel's tone was annoyingly soothing. Lex suppressed a further rush of irritation. Nigel had failed miserably so far — the man should be grovelling abjectly. His henchman-in-chief would have one more chance — tomorrow, when he was supposed to deal with Kent. If he failed again, he would have to be dealt with. Lex Luthor did not employ passengers.

"The Lane woman is even more of a nuisance than I believed, Nigel."


"She was there tonight. In the club. Apparently masquerading as a dancer," Lex said with a contemptuous curl of his lip.

"Moonlighting, sir?"

"You know better than that, Nigel."

"How much do you think she knows?" his assistant asked, sounding as unperturbed as usual.

"I'm not sure, and that is what is most frustrating. She was suspicious of my presence; while I gave her a plausible explanation, I'm not convinced that she believed it. She is certainly aware of the club's connection with the criminal element — that appears to be why she was there."

"What do you wish done about the situation?" Judging by his tone, Nigel could have been discussing the presence of an annoying bug in the room.

"I'm not sure yet."

And Lex wasn't happy about that. He was rarely uncertain about anything, and that was what made the Lane woman's interference so infuriating. It would, of course, be simple to have her removed entirely from the situation. All he needed to do was give a simple instruction to Nigel and it would be taken care of. At least, that was what should happen; of course, Nigel had failed spectacularly with Kent earlier that day, and so far there had been no report of any success with the attempts to find out just what Lane was up to.

Removing her from the situation would solve one problem, but it could lead to additional problems. And that was why he was hesitating. What if she had told others about what she was working on and what her suspicions were? He already knew that she and that tiresome partner of hers had been to see Inspector William Henderson of the MPD; his source at the precinct had informed him of that within minutes of Lane's arrival. But his source had been unable to offer any report of what had been discussed — useless fool.

Lex strode to the window again, gazing out without seeing anything while he considered his options. Then he swung back to Nigel.

"Nothing, for now. I want to know how much she knows first, and who she might have talked to. And then… then I may well wish her to be disposed of."

"As you wish, sir." And Nigel left the room as silently as he'd entered it.


"Filthy, stinking alien!"

He flinched again, even though the blows which landed on his body didn't hurt. The words caused agonising pain.

"How dare you masquerade as a human being? What arrogance, to pretend that you're a normal man! What gave you the right to mutate yourself into a man's body? What do you really look like, alien?"

Helpless, silenced by the viciousness of the words, the hatred in the tone, Clark could only shake his head.

"And how many humans have you brainwashed? Subverted to your will? Like these two here!" Trask pointed to his parents. "Unless, of course, they're not brainwashed at all. Maybe they're aliens like you. Maybe they've mutated too."

"No!" Clark yelled. "They're nothing like me. They're the kindest, most loving human beings I have ever met. They don't deserve to be here. Let them go!"

"Protecting them, alien? Why would you protect an alien species? Members of the species you came to destroy? Maybe they are alien too. Cut him, Harris!"

And he watched helplessly as one of Trask's minions sliced a cut in his father's arm. Blood flowed freely, dripping onto the floor, as Jonathan Kent kept his head held high and showed no reaction. But the set of his jaw showed Clark how much that stoic response was costing his father.

If he could only move… if he could only get to them… But Trask's minions had a gun to his mom's head. He was fast, but at that distance a bullet was faster. His mom, the woman he loved more than his own life, would be dead before he was even halfway across the room.

"Alien!" The word resounded again. He didn't know whether Trask said it or if it was just in his head.

"So they are human. You took over their minds, then. You sucked away their human spirit and independence and made them subject to you. They are obviously your creatures — why else would they shelter you? They're no better than zombies." Trask turned to his parents. "When you're no longer necessary to control him, I will kill you. I'll be doing you a favour, setting you free from the alien's control."

"He isn't controlling us!" His mother's angry shout tore through him. It was all his fault that his parents were here, were enduring this torture…

"No? Then why else would you shelter him? Why take an alien into your own home? Why did you ever lay a finger on the filthy alien? I saw you hug him. Don't you know that he could snap you in two between his little fingers?"

"He'd never hurt us!" Martha Kent retorted.

"Just because he hasn't doesn't mean he wouldn't. You've seen what he can do. Superman!" The word was uttered with utmost disgust. "He can lift a space shuttle with his bare hands. He can twist steel. There's no object in existence that he can't break into any number of tiny pieces. You think a human body is any exception? If I wasn't having you held at gunpoint, he'd have torn me into shreds long ago."

"No!" Clark yelled his revulsion. "No matter how much I hate what you're doing to my parents, that's not how I work! I would never use my strength to hurt someone!"

"No? You couldn't help yourself, alien," Trask taunted. "I bet you don't even know your own strength. You could break this table you're lying on with your little finger. How do you know you've never hurt anyone? You shake hands with someone one day in your masquerade as a human — how do you know you don't leave them with bruises? You dare to coil your arms around these people you call your parents — how do you know you've never injured them?"

"Don't listen to him, Clark!" his father yelled. "You know it's not true."

"Silence, alien-lover!" There was a thump. His father had been pistol-whipped again. His mother cried.

Clark flinched and cringed back on the gurney. He couldn't move. They'd hurt his parents again. Guilt was coursing through him. If it wasn't for him, his parents wouldn't even be there. If they hadn't taken him in as a baby, this would never have happened to them. Inside, he felt sick and dizzy, sensations he'd never experienced before. They were hurting his parents, all because of him. Because he wasn't human, and people like Jason Trask didn't like that.

Somehow, he had to stop it. But he couldn't seem to figure out how.

"No, don't hurt them!" Clark whimpered. "Please, don't hurt them!"

"Then tell me what I need to know!"

"What can I tell you?"

"Where are you from? Where's the rest of your kind? Where will the invasion take place? What's the primary target? How can you be stopped?"

"You're wrong!" Clark protested.

"Liar!" His father was hit again at Trask's response. The resulting grunt of pain reverberated inside Clark's head.

Clark shook his head, tears streaming down his face. "There is… no invasion," he said wearily. "I'm the only one. And I can't tell you where I'm from, because I *don't know*!"

"Liar!" Trask repeated. This time his mother was slapped across the face.

"Don't hurt her!" Clark almost reared up off the table, but Trask's upraised hand, prepared to give the signal to shoot, stopped him. "Please, don't hurt her…"

"Clark? Clark!"

"Please stop. Please don't hurt her!"

Hands gripped him, shaking him.

"Please! Yes, I'm an alien! But I'm not a threat!"

"Clark!" The hands shook him some more. "Clark!"

He seized his captor, gripping the man's upper arms and pushing back. "Leave me alone!"

"You're having a bad dream, Clark." Suddenly, the voice was soothing, and he recognised it as female. "It's okay. No-one's trying to hurt you. Come on, wake up."

He was dreaming. Again. But it was only a dream. Trask was dead, and his parents were safe.

Sobbing with relief, he collapsed into the waiting, welcoming arms.


Something had awoken Lois from a deep sleep minutes earlier. Disoriented, she'd lain in bed for a few moments before hearing the sound of voices. Someone was shouting, but she hadn't immediately recognised the voice.

Then she'd realised. It was Clark.

Was he being attacked? she'd wondered. That was what it had sounded like. Had Luthor actually sent someone to come after Clark in his own apartment?

But he'd been yelling "Don't hurt them!" — which hadn't made any sense at all.

Grabbing her robe and throwing it on, she'd hurried down the spiral staircase, almost losing her footing once or twice. Once she'd reached Clark's bedroom, it had become clear that there was no-one else in the apartment. He was dreaming — having a nightmare.

It had clearly been a pretty bad one, because she'd been shaking him and calling to him for a few minutes before he'd finally woken. She'd heard him yelling some stuff in among the whimpers — whimpers so full of anguish they'd torn her apart inside. But none of it had made any sense to her: stuff about aliens and an invasion, while Clark insisted that he knew nothing about anything and yelling for someone to stop hurting someone else.

He'd even tried to push her away while she'd been holding him; he'd grabbed hold of her arms as if he was trying to fight her off. When he'd finally come out of the nightmare, he hadn't even opened his eyes. He'd just slumped against her, allowing her to hold him, his head pressed into the crook of her shoulder.

And, as she cradled him in her arms, loving the freedom she had to hold Clark at last even at the same time as she ached for the pain he so clearly was feeling, his arms came around her, enfolding her tightly against him.

She stroked his back, murmuring his name and hoping that somehow she was getting through to him. And she realised that the collar of her robe was damp — with his tears.


Warmth, comfort and the assurance of being loved that always came from being held in his mom's arms surrounded Clark. It had only been a nightmare, after all. Another one.

They were hellish. Every time he had one, he was back in that living nightmare, when Trask had tortured him and his parents for ten days, locked up in that windowless fortress with his strength draining away day by day due to the lack of sunlight. Not that all of his powers had been any use to him or his parents before then. All of the incredible powers that he possessed — and he hadn't been able to lift a finger to save his parents.

<Because they'd have shot Mom before you'd have got to them> he reminded himself. He sometimes tortured himself with the thought that he should have just grabbed Trask, threatened to break the man's neck if his minions didn't let his parents go. But in his more sensible moments he knew that hadn't been an option anyway. Trask had made that clear early on: his men were well trained. If he was taken out, they would kill the hostages before saving their own skins — or letting themselves be killed in return.

And yet, when Lois had arrived, he hadn't hesitated. He'd broken the bonds tying him down and had launched himself at Trask.

But his captor had been distracted. Lois had had a gun, he remembered, and she'd been pointing it at Trask. That had evened the odds considerably. Perhaps Trask's threat to have Lois raped had been the final straw, too.

His nightmare over for another night, and wrapped in a warm, comforting embrace, Clark tried to reassure himself once more that there had been nothing he could have done sooner to get his parents out of there.

That soft hand stroked his back again. The gentle voice spoke his name. "Clark? Want to talk about it?"

He stilled.

Arms around him? *His* arms around someone?

Lois. He was in her arms. He was *holding* her — holding her so tightly that she must be -

"Let go of me!" he yelled.

Abruptly, almost rigid with fear, he pushed her away. He didn't dare to look, to see what he'd done to her. And yet he knew he'd have to.

He'd look, and she'd be lying there bruised, in pain, and with shattered bones. And her eyes would look at him with fear.

"Clark?" Now she sounded hurt, confused. But not in pain.

Not in pain?

He opened his eyes at last, sitting up in the same motion. She was sitting on his bed, beside him, dressed in that pale robe he'd glimpsed a few times. She didn't look injured in any way. But she did look hurt — as if her feelings had been hurt.

"Lois?" he said carefully.

She dropped her gaze. "Clark, I know you don't like to be touched. I'd kind of worked that out. But you didn't need to… to just push me away as if I'm some sort of leper. I was only trying to help —"

She thought that he didn't like her touching him?

Aghast, he interrupted her. "Lois, it's not that! I swear, if I wasn't terrified that I'd hurt you… *Are* you hurt?" he demanded quickly. "I was holding you pretty tightly — you must be bruised all over! I'd be surprised if you didn't have a couple of broken bones — do you mind if I X-ray you?"

"What are you talking about, Clark?" She stared at him.

"Me. My strength — god, Lois, you must have noticed! Aren't you in pain?"

She shook her head. "I don't know what you're talking about, Clark. Sure, you were holding me, like I was holding you. But you didn't hurt me. Why would you?"

"Lois, I'm Superman!" he reminded her. "I'm the strongest being in the world. I can snap steel with my bare hands. Are you telling me that I was holding you the way I was and I didn't hurt you? At all?"

"Not one bit!" she insisted. "Look, you can X-ray me if you want. You won't see a single bruise, I'll bet."

He hesitated, but then said, "Turn around."

She did, her expression apparently perfectly calm. Fearless, he thought, marvelling at her courage. Surely she of all people had to be aware of what he was capable of doing to her? Slowly, he skimmed her back with his X-ray vision, trying not to focus too much on the fact that he was seeing Lois's bare skin. She was right. No broken or even cracked bones. And not so much as a bruise in sight. No reddening of her skin. Nothing whatsoever except unsullied, creamy flesh.

Lois's flesh.

Feeling himself grow warm, he blinked, shutting off his vision powers. He hadn't hurt her. She was safe. This time. But he'd been lucky. Next time…

There wouldn't be a next time.

"Okay, you can turn around again," he told her abruptly.

She did. "Clark, are you going to tell me what all this is about? Why were you so convinced that you'd hurt me?"

Wasn't it obvious? He shook his head, unable to understand why she wasn't seeing it. "It's my strength, Lois! Doesn't it frighten you? Don't you know that I could crush you with my little finger?"

"You *can*, of course," she said, her voice as slow as if she were explaining to a child. "But you wouldn't. Of course I know that. Why would I be worried?"

"What makes you think I wouldn't?" he asked immediately. "Of course I wouldn't *want* to hurt you. Or anyone. But what if I can't help it?"

Lois shook her head, as if to deny his words. "Of course you can help it! Clark, every day of the week you control your powers. You control your strength! You pick things up — a coffee-mug, your mouse, the keys to my car, all sorts of things — if you weren't able to control your strength you'd crush every one of them! And I'm sure that it's instinctive, unless you're telling me that every time you touch any inanimate object you're exerting huge control over your reactions."

He stilled. She had a good point. On the other hand, the last time he'd had a nightmare he'd shredded his blanket. And he'd hurt Lana all those years ago.

He had to tell her, even if it made her afraid of him as a result. It was only fair to Lois. She was living with him — she had a right to know what sort of danger she could really be in. "But I did hurt someone, Lois," he began to explain. "It was years ago — when I was about seventeen. I was kissing someone. A good friend — well, a girlfriend. And she was struggling for breath before I even noticed what I was doing — and I think she was bruised too where I was holding her."

Watching Lois, Clark mentally prepared himself for her reaction. The way that she would, of course, flinch from him. Move away from him. And from now on she'd keep her distance. Of course she would. He wasn't human, and he was dangerous.

But, although she was frowning, she wasn't moving away. Instead, she widened her eyes and shook her head slightly. "When you were seventeen, Clark? When you were little more than a kid, bursting with hormones like any normal teenage boy? When did you start getting your powers?"

"Depends which power you're talking about. They arrived bit by bit from the time I was about ten. Flying was the last — I was eighteen."

"And when did you realise how strong you were?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I was bench-pressing cars when I was thirteen."

"But were you able to control your powers then? All of them, I mean. Didn't you ever — oh, I don't know. Accidentally set something on fire?"

He almost choked at the memory. "Mom's vegetable patch!" he exclaimed. "I didn't even know how it had happened — I wasn't trying to do anything weird. I was just picking some green onions for dinner. And the next thing it all went up in smoke. That's why I started wearing glasses, you know — so my vision powers can't kick in accidentally."

"You don't wear glasses as Superman," Lois pointed out. "And I've never seen Superman set anything on fire accidentally."

Okay… he thought he could see where she was going with this, but he still had to ask. "Lois… what are you saying?"

"Only what you should be saying to yourself, Clark," she said wryly. "If you hurt someone back then, you were only a teenager. You were still learning to control your powers. Of course you made some mistakes then. Everyone does at that age — it's part of growing up. It would've just been a bit tougher for you — you had to cope with superpowers on top of puberty and raging hormones."

When he'd been a kid… when he'd only been learning to control his abilities… Clark leaned back against the pillows, wondering if she was right. Had his fears been based on something so… well, teen angsty?


<Don't you know that he could snap you in two between his little fingers?>

"Trask!" he blurted out suddenly.

Lois blinked. "What has that monster got to do with anything?"

"Lois, even Trask knew that I was a danger to humans!"

"Clark!" Lois exclaimed, and, before he could stop her, she'd moved closer to him and shaken him.

"Wha -?" he protested.

"First off, how can you possibly take anything that madman said as even close to the truth? Clark, he was a xenophobe! He hated you because you were different. Because he had this crazy, skewed view of the world in which anyone different was automatically bad. You know, we call the Ku Klux Klan racists, and rightly so. Would you believe a word that comes out of their twisted lips? So why do you believe anything Jason Trask had to say?"

"Just because he was a xenophobe doesn't mean that he was wrong, Lois," Clark felt obliged to point out.

"I'll get to that," she said, waving his point away with her hand. "Second, why do you talk about 'humans' like that — as if you're not one?"

Well, that was obvious, wasn't it? "Because I'm not, Lois," he said flatly.

She shrugged. "Sure. If you want to be literal about it, you're Kryptonian. By birth anyway. But you were brought up on Earth. Do you think of yourself as an American?" she shot at him suddenly.

He blinked. "Well… yeah. I mean, I pay my taxes, I vote, I hold a US passport…"

"You weren't born in the US," Lois pointed out. "And you never obtained naturalisation papers. Does that make you feel any less American? Any less like you belong here?"

"You mean I'm a fraud," he said bluntly.

"No, I'm talking about assimilation," she said with exaggerated patience. "Clark, you're human in every way that matters. You sure *look* like a human. You have human emotions — very human, in fact. You're about the most compassionate, caring person I have ever met. And if that's not human, I don't know what is. When you talk about humans as if they're other people, not you — it sounds like you're thinking of yourself as an outsider. As if you don't think you belong."

"Maybe I don't," he said softly.

She just rolled her eyes. "I won't even ask what your mom would say if she heard you say that. Anyway, my *point* here is that Trask was talking through his… well, you know what. What did he say to you?"

He shrugged. "I'd forgotten about it until now, but I guess it was in my subconscious all along. I remembered it in my dream. He said to my parents, 'Don't you know that he could snap you in two between his little fingers?'"

Lois rolled her eyes again. "I'm sure you *could*, Clark. But you wouldn't. That's the difference between someone like you and someone like him. If Trask had your powers, he'd have used them for evil. You use them for good — and you always control them." "But how can you know that?" Clark objected. "I've always been so careful around you…"

"Simple." She smiled triumphantly at him. "How much do you remember about when you came out of that nightmare just now?"

He frowned. He'd been yelling at someone to let him go… and then he'd woken up and realised that Lois had been holding him. Alarm bells started ringing — he'd known that he'd been touching her, but just how much of what he remembered was dream and how much reality?

"Tell me, Lois," he demanded urgently.

"You'd grabbed my arms. And you were shaking me, trying to push me away," she said. "Clark, if controlling your powers didn't come instinctively to you, I'd be on the floor with multiple broken bones, assuming I was still alive." She grinned at him. "See? You're not a danger — to me or to anyone."

He'd done all that to her — and he hadn't hurt her? And her description was familiar. He did remember shaking someone, trying to push them away. Was she just saying she was okay to make him feel better?

But he'd X-rayed her. She was fine. Not hurt at all. There was no way that he could disbelieve the evidence of his own eyes.

"You told me about the way Trask was using your parents against you and vice versa," Lois continued. "If I had to guess, I'd say that he was just trying to scare your parents — trying to drive a wedge between you by talking up how different you supposedly are. He was fixated on this notion that you're an alien. But he didn't know you at all. How could he? He was judging you by what he would have been if he had your abilities."

Dare he believe her? He wanted to, so badly. So much of what she said made sense. He'd let Trask's ranting xenophobia get to him. He'd allowed himself to become increasingly paranoid about his strength — to the point where even the thought of touching another person made him terrified. To the point where he denied himself physical contact with other people wherever possible. To the point where he would avoid hugging his parents in case he might hurt them — and he avoided touching Lois at all.

To the point where he'd crippled himself because of his own fear. And where his ability to help other people could have become seriously compromised.

But what if he *could* control himself? What if it was all in his mind after all?

If that was the case, he should feel shame that he'd allowed himself to become so paranoid. And he did — but more importantly, at last he was finding out the truth. At last he was doing something about it.

"Lois," he began hesitantly. "I want to know… I want to find out if I really can touch someone without hurting them."

Before he could continue, to ask her if she'd be willing to help, she interrupted again. "Clark, you touch people all the time! You're Superman. You rescue people!"

"Yes, but I only touch them when absolutely necessary. And if I have to pick someone up I'm really careful and I put them down as soon as I possibly can. But," he added with a grimace, uncomfortable about confessing all of this to anyone, even Lois — especially Lois, "I know this fear has been getting worse. When I first became Superman I just did what I had to do. If I needed to catch someone, or pick them up, I just did it. I didn't think about it."

"You've picked me up a few times. You took me flying — to San Francisco, remember?"

Clark nodded. "I was being careful, though. You probably didn't notice, but I was very cautious about the way I held you."

He glanced down, feeling embarrassed at everything he'd told her — and yet at the same time feeling overwhelmed with relief at having voiced his fears for the first time. The conventional wisdom about internalising things, bottling them up, being worse than talking about them was very true, he admitted. Even if it made him feel somehow inadequate to have confessed all this to Lois, the woman he loved, the woman he'd prefer to see him as a capable, confident man rather than a gibbering fool, he did feel better.

Lois scrambled up the bed, moving closer to him. "You want to know if you can touch someone without hurting them, right?"

He nodded.

"Okay then. Touch me." She moved closer still, then slid her arm around his waist. "Hold me. Only if you want to, of course."

Only if he wanted to? If she had any idea how much he wanted to, she'd probably run screaming out of the apartment!

He still hesitated, though, the automatic response to avoid contact still present. Yet she was right: he had to touch her if he was going to find out if Trask was wrong. He didn't have to hold her for long — all he had to do was put his arms around her and hug her, just for a few seconds. That would be enough to show him whether he was capable of controlling his strength.

He took a deep breath and leaned towards her. She gave him an encouraging smile. "It's fine. Don't even think about it. Pretend I'm your mom or your old girlfriend, if it makes it easier."

He blinked in surprise at her words, and what they implied. She thought it would be difficult for him to hug her? It was, but not for the reason she clearly imagined. No, he couldn't allow her to think that he found the thought of touching her repulsive. He'd already given her reason to believe that a few minutes earlier, when he'd pushed her away.

"I don't need to pretend, Lois," he said quietly. "I would love to hug you. You know, I wanted to last night — remember, when I gave you back your Kerths?"

Her eyes widened and she dipped her head. "I wished you had."

A lump began to form in his throat; regret flooded him. For the missed opportunity; for his failure to give her the comfort she'd obviously wanted from him. Needed, even.

"Let me make up for it now," he said huskily, moving closer still and, with a deep breath and a silent prayer that everything would be okay, that he could do this without harming her, wrapping his arms around her.

She felt soft and warm and utterly appealing. Clark closed his eyes, letting his head rest lightly on top of Lois's, and drew her against his chest, pressing her gently against him. Not too much pressure, he told himself. Keep his hold on her easy, so that she could break it if at any time she felt he was hurting her.

She pressed her body against his. He could feel her curves through the thin fabric of her robe and whatever she was wearing beneath it. She felt so warm and soft against his chest, which he only now realised was bare. He hadn't worn a T-shirt to bed. He was holding Lois next to his skin.

Without conscious thought, his arms around her tightened. He wanted — *needed* — to hold her close. To feel her next to him. To show her every ounce of affection — of love — that he'd wanted to give her right from the moment that she'd let her barriers down with him and told him about her childhood.

"Oh, Lois," he murmured against her hair.

"It's okay, Clark. Everything's okay," she whispered in return. "You're not hurting me. I promise you."

Her words reminded him of what he was supposed to be doing, and he checked himself. He *was* holding her more tightly than he'd intended. And yet… she was assuring him that he wasn't causing her pain…

"How about now?" he asked tentatively, tightening his grip a little more.

"Nope. You're going to have to try a lot harder if you want to cause me any pain at all," she teased.

Daring, he squeezed just a little more. She laughed. "Not a chance, buster!"

He began to increase the pressure — and then halted, *knowing* without any doubt that if he did so now he would hurt her. And suddenly he realised exactly what he'd been doing — now and at any other time he'd been in contact with human beings, just as he did when he was in contact with inanimate objects.

Controlling his strength. Moderating himself. Understanding instinctively just how much pressure to apply in order to grasp something without causing damage. How to hold his coffee-cup. How to shake hands with someone. How to grip a door-handle in order to open it. And, also, how to increase the strength of his hold if he did actually want to break something.

Instinct. He'd been using it all along — he'd just somehow forgotten that. Or been brainwashed, or intimidated, into forgetting it.

He *knew* how to control his powers. He did it every single day, every moment of every day. It came as naturally to him as breathing.

"Oh, Lois!" he said again; an exclamation. He rocked her in his arms, never wanting to let her go, jubilant in the knowledge that now he could hug her any time he wanted. He was free to touch her, hold her, do all the things with her that he'd dreamed of — well, always assuming that she wanted to, too, which was by no means a foregone conclusion.

But he wasn't going to let even that worry him right now. A huge weight had been lifted from him. At last, the terror he'd lived with for so long had gone.

Clark lifted his head from her shoulder and, still holding her, held her gaze with his own. He was surprised to find her eyes shining with the faint shimmer of tears. So she found this as emotional a moment as he did? It surprised and touched him.

"Thank you," he murmured, then leaned forward and touched his lips to hers. A kiss of friendship, deep affection and a gratitude he could never express, he told himself.

Her lips felt soft and inviting. She tasted of mint toothpaste and very faintly of coffee. He struggled to resist deepening the kiss — he had no right to, after all, but even a kiss as light as this was sending his senses into overload.

And then her lips parted, and she kissed him back.


Clark was kissing her. Just like she'd imagined so many times — only better. Much better.

How could she have imagined how wonderful it would feel to be held so close to him, pressed against his broad, muscular chest? To be able to feel his heartbeat and the heat of his skin, with only the thin barrier of her nightgown and robe between them?

And even her most heated fantasies had never done justice to the way his lips felt against hers. The way he'd touched her, gently and almost tentatively, making her want so much more with only the lightest of caresses of mouth against mouth. The way a fleeting touch made her want to give him so much more…

A fleeting touch…

With a shock, Lois realised what he'd done. What she was doing. Cringing in embarrassment, she broke the kiss and pulled away.

"Sorry," she muttered, feeling humiliated, hoping that she hadn't ruined their friendship — which had just become even deeper — by her stupidity. By the way she'd kissed back her best friend, who'd only intended to kiss her to say thanks. "I didn't mean… I misunderstood… you didn't want the way I kissed you back —"

Clark refused to release her, keeping hold of her with his hands on her shoulders. His brown eyes, unobscured by glasses, gazed at her with a message she wasn't entirely sure that she understood… but which made her heart want to leap. "Are you kidding, Lois? There's nothing I'd like more!"


"Really." He smiled at her, then added, in a lazy drawl which set her tingling, "Do I need to prove it to you?"

"But I thought… well, you wouldn't be interested in me, not like that. Not after the way I made such a fool of myself over Superman —"

He interrupted her. "I thought we'd agreed that's ancient history, Lois. But, for the record, I have *always* been interested in you that way, right from the moment you barged into my interview."

"Oh." Lois could feel herself blushing as the memory of how she'd dismissed him then as someone of no account whatsoever came back to her. But he was right: that was all in the past. They'd started over. Now they were best friends — and maybe more?

She remembered what he'd said a moment or two ago and gave him a challenging grin. "So, what was that you said about proving it to me?"

He laughed, then growled, "Come here." And, as his mouth settled over hers again, she knew without a doubt that he really was interested in her like that. He really was attracted to her, just as she was to him.

Her best friend Clark was becoming her boyfriend Clark — or so she hoped.

When he broke the kiss, several minutes later, she knew. His expression and the way his eyes devoured her told her so. His feelings for her went far beyond friendship.

"Oh, Lois," he sighed, releasing her to place his palm against her cheek. "I don't want to stop. But I think we should, before we — I — get carried away."

He was right, she realised, remembering how they were dressed, or rather, not dressed. And, although she was confident that she loved Clark, she didn't really want to sleep with him this soon, for all sorts of reasons. Mostly that she wasn't ready for that sort of commitment, and she had no idea whether Clark was either. Or what he wanted from her. Though that was hardly surprising. They'd only just had their first kiss, after all.

"Yeah, she agreed, scooting back down the bed a bit, but covering his hand with hers to show that she wasn't withdrawing from him.

"I guess I should let you get back to sleep," he offered, reluctance clear in his voice. "It's late."

Yes, it was late, and he was right: she should go back to bed. So what if she didn't really want to say goodnight just yet? That was just being selfish, no matter how much things had changed between them in the past few minutes. She should let him get some sleep too — more restful sleep this time.

And then she remembered why she was there in the first place — what had woken her. "Clark, you had a nightmare," she pointed out. "What was it about? Do you want to talk about it?"


Did he want to talk about it? Well, he didn't really. He was so frustrated about still having these nightmares weeks after the event. He should be over it by now. If anyone should be having nightmares, it was his parents — they were the ones who'd really been hurt, after all. He'd just had to lie there and watch, and endure interminable questions he didn't have the answers to… and watch his mother being hurt…

He should let Lois go back to bed. It was bad enough that he'd woken her up in the first place, although he couldn't regret that given what had happened. She'd given him a priceless gift. Thanks to her, he didn't have to worry about controlling his powers.

And she'd given him another gift too: her kisses. The fact that she *wanted* to kiss him. She'd enjoyed it as much as he had, he could tell. And tomorrow, or as soon as Luthor was behind bars, he was going to do what he'd promised a week or so ago and take her somewhere exotic for dinner. But now it would be as a date.

Yes, he should send her back to bed. But, on the other hand, maybe he owed it to her to explain why he'd woken her up… and if they did talk about it, she'd stay with him for a while longer. He wouldn't have to say goodnight just yet.

So he nodded. "Yeah. If you don't mind, I would."

And then, as she settled herself more comfortably at the foot of his bed, he saw her shiver.

"Lois! You're cold!"

She shrugged. "I'm okay."

He leaned forward and laid his hand on her exposed calf. "No, you're not! You're cold. And I'm a thoughtless idiot for not realising it."

She glanced around. "Do you have a robe I could borrow?"

Impulsively, he said, "I have a better idea." He should just send her to bed. That was most definitely what he should do. They could talk about his dream any time. But he didn't want her to leave.

He wanted… well, what he really wanted was way out of the question. It was far too soon. He hadn't even begun to tell Lois how he really felt about her — he didn't want to scare her off, for one thing. But he loved her. And that meant that he wanted a lifetime with her, not just one night which she'd probably think afterwards was a mistake.

If he wanted to build a lifetime, it was best to do it one tiny step at a time. They'd taken the first tentative step towards a relationship, and he'd been able to make it clear that he wanted her as more than a friend. That was enough for tonight. For now, though, he really didn't want to say goodnight just yet, even if it was selfish of him.

Scooting over to the far side of the bed, Clark raised the quilt on the side he'd just left. "Come on. If you're sure you don't mind staying to talk, the least I can do is make sure you're warm enough."

He was about to add reassurance that he wouldn't assume anything if she did get into his bed, but before he could, Lois crawled towards the top of the bed and slid under the quilt. "Thanks — it was getting a little cold out there."

Clark lay on his side, propping his head up on one elbow. "I'm sorry I woke you," he said softly.

"I'm not." She turned on her side, facing him. "If something's upsetting you, I want to help. And I'm really glad we talked — I had no idea you felt that way about touching people."

He grimaced. "Yeah. Makes me feel pretty stupid now."

"You shouldn't," she insisted instantly. "You were traumatised. That kind of thing can really screw a person up. I should know — you know what Claude did to me. And it took me a heck of a lot longer to stop letting what Claude did affect the way I live my life."

That was true, Clark thought. Although he was Superman; he should be holding himself to a higher standard… but then again, that was the kind of thinking which had him tied up in knots over what Trask had done to his parents.

"My nightmare," he said quietly. "It's the same sort of thing I've had ever since Trask."

"All these weeks?" The sympathy in her voice was plain, as was the shock.

"At first it was every couple of nights. Now… not so frequent. Two in the last three days, though."

"You relive what happened?"

"Pretty much," he agreed. "Sometimes it's worse. Or I just relive the worst bits — like seeing his thugs beat up my parents. I always hear him calling me 'alien!' — usually with 'dirty' or 'filthy' attached. Really, that's not the worst," he added quickly, seeing Lois's wince.

"Before you woke up," she said quietly, concern and sympathy for him in her tone, "you shouted that you were an alien, but you weren't a threat."

"I did?" He winced himself, then shook his head. "Well, he kept claiming that I was a threat. That I was the advance guard for an alien invasion. So I guess that bit's stuck in my mind as well. But, really, Lois, that's not the worst of the nightmares. The worst is watching my parents get hurt and knowing that I'm just lying there, not helping them. I'm Superman, Lois!" he exclaimed in disgust. "I lay there and just watched Trask's thugs hurt my parents. They cut Dad. They made Mom cry. And I just lay there and did nothing. Some Superman I am!"

Lois's hand came to lie on his free forearm where it lay on the bed between them. "What could you have done, Clark? What would Trask have done?" she asked quietly, no judgement at all in her tone.

"He had them in a separate room for most of the time," Clark explained. "With two or three thugs with guns standing over them. If I even twitched, one of the thugs would pull at the safety on his gun. I'm fast, Lois, but I'm not that fast — there was no way I could've got to Mom before they'd have killed her." He closed his eyes briefly, the memory of his feeling of sheer impotence painful.

"So you did the only thing you could, Clark," Lois said softly. "You wanted to keep your parents alive. So you did nothing that would antagonise Trask or his thugs."

"Yeah, but what good was that? I knew they'd kill my parents eventually. When Trask got tired of his games, or he decided he'd learned as much as he could from me. Or when he'd discovered a way of killing me."

Lois gave a faint shrug. "You're probably right. But that still doesn't mean that you'd have done anything to precipitate it. Knowing you, Clark, every second you were lying there you were going through all your options and calculating the odds on each of them — over and over. Am I right?"

He let a reluctant smile escape. "Yeah, you're right."

"And you were darned quick to take advantage of the opportunity when I burst in there," she reminded him. "I thought you were dead, you know that? You looked it. And even when you started talking to Trask you sounded… weak, powerless. But before I could even blink you'd overpowered Trask."

"He was distracted," Clark explained. "He knew I was weakened — that's why he'd brought my folks into the same room. With them closer, I was pretty sure that I could take him and get them safe, but I needed him and his thugs to be concentrating on something else, even just for a second. And you were that perfect distraction. As soon as he got his thugs looking at you — remember, he threatened to have them rape you — I knew I had the opportunity I was looking for."

"See?" Lois said, giving him a triumphant grin. "You were thinking straight the entire time. *You* got us all out of there, not me — I was just the distraction."

"You're a pretty wonderful distraction," he murmured, unable to resist gazing at her, admiring her beautiful eyes, her silky hair, everything about her that he loved. "Talented, brave, intelligent, beautiful, fiercely loyal… and very good at making stubborn idiot Superheroes see when they're being stupid," he added ruefully.

She flushed, but that didn't stop her commenting with a grin, "I'm always happy to point out when you're being an idiot; you should know that by now."

"I'm getting the message." He smiled at her in return. "I know I've been obsessing about this. And in my sane moments I know there's nothing else I could've done. I even talked to my parents about it yesterday — you know, when I flew to Smallville to get the furniture for you. And they told me the same thing — that they knew I hadn't been able to do anything sooner, that they were grateful that you and I between us had got us all out of there… that I shouldn't blame myself."

"But you blamed yourself anyway. You couldn't help it," Lois said. "I'm getting to know that about you, Clark — it's part of that compassionate, sensitive guy you are. You can do so much — so many times you've saved the day. But on the rare occasions when you can't help, you blame yourself, don't you? You feel guilty. Even when there's absolutely nothing you could've done." Her hand squeezed his arm. "Clark, you're Superman, not God. You can't help everyone. And sometimes the people you can't help are going to be people you care about."

He nodded. She was right: he did obsess when he wasn't able to save someone, or when he just couldn't get there in time. He did feel guilty. "I can't help it, Lois — I can't pretend it doesn't matter when somebody dies and I could have saved them," he pointed out.

"Of course you can't. That's what makes you human, Clark, and not the kind of cold, emotionless robot Trask tried to claim you were. But you can't feel that kind of pain every time. You can't get too involved — if you do, you'll never be able to carry on as Superman. You'll burn yourself out."

"I know that," he said, agreeing. "I realised that even before I became Superman — there was a mine collapse in South Africa, and I was trying to help without anyone seeing what I was doing. I did my best, but still almost a hundred men died. And I just slunk off into the veldt for a couple of days, brooding… When I came out, I happened to pick up a newspaper and I read about how counselling was being offered to the emergency services workers and the mine rescuers. The article mentioned rescue workers' trauma. And the symptoms pretty much matched what I'd been feeling, so I went to a library and did some reading up on it." He paused, giving a faint shrug. "I'm not saying that I've learned to cope with it yet — I guess that's pretty obvious — but I do know the dangers and I try to be conscious of it."

Lois didn't comment, but she began stroking his arm.

"But it's different when it's someone I love, Lois. My parents, you…" He stopped abruptly, realising what he'd given away.

He did love Lois. But was it too soon to tell her? The last thing he wanted to do was scare her off.

But she didn't look scared. Her expression was nervous, uncertain… hopeful. And it gave him hope too. Maybe it wasn't too soon to tell her.

"Clark…" She swallowed, appearing to have trouble speaking, and her eyes darkened. Her hand on his arm stilled, tightened. "You… love me?"

He lay flat on the bed, freeing both his hands so that he could reach for hers. "You have to know that I love you, Lois," he said softly, allowing his feelings for her to be revealed in his tone.

"As a friend, yeah…" she said slowly. "I mean, we've been so close ever since…"

"Since Trask, yes. And of course I love you as a friend. But that's not what I meant." He squeezed her hands, meeting her uncertain gaze with his, knowing that the way he was looking at her should be leaving her in no doubt of his feelings. "Lois, I love you. I am *in love* with you — and I have been right from the moment we met. And if that scares you… well, okay, but I'm going to do everything I can to show you that it's nothing to be scared of."

She caught her breath. And then said slowly, deliberately, "I'm not scared, Clark."

Joy filled his heart. "You're not?" He smiled at her — couldn't stop smiling. "In that case… come here."

And he tugged her gently closer to him so that he could kiss her again.


Lois woke slowly, wondering sleepily why she felt so… cocooned. The quilt was over her, true, but she felt as if she was safe in a warm, welcoming embrace. And then she realised — she was in a warm embrace. Clark was holding her.

He'd kissed her last night, after telling her that he loved her. It had been a wonderful kiss, full of love and need and promise. But he hadn't pushed things too far; in fact, he'd broken the kiss long before she'd been ready to end it. He'd hugged her then and said that they'd both better get some sleep. She'd been about to leave his bed to return to her own, but he'd said sleepily that she should stay where she was.

And so she had. And she'd slept incredibly well.

She turned her head to look at the handsome man still sleeping next to her. The handsome man who loved her. After all her efforts to persuade herself that there was no way that Clark could possibly trust her to love him for himself and not what he could do — that there was no way that he'd want to fall in love with her anyway, after the way she'd treated him when they'd first met — miraculously, he did love her. Had loved her right from the start.

She was so glad that he'd had that nightmare last night. If it hadn't been for that, they would never have talked, and she wouldn't have found out why he hated to touch people. It was just awful to think that he'd denied himself the comfort of touch for so long, unable to reach out to those he loved for fear that he would injure them, or worse. Yet another crime to lay at Jason Trask's door.

But he was over that now, or so she hoped. At any rate, he'd shown her last night that he wasn't worried about touching her any more.

Clark's eyes fluttered open; for a moment he looked disoriented, but then he smiled at her. "Goo' morning, Lois," he mumbled, clearly not fully awake yet.

"Morning, Clark." Feeling unaccountably shy all of a sudden, she added, "I'll just go and let you get up, okay?"

"What's your rush?" He shifted, seeming much more alert suddenly. Then he gave her a lazy smile. "You haven't kissed me good morning yet."

Well, that wouldn't be difficult to remedy. She leaned closer, feeling his arms tighten around her at the same time, and met his lips with her own. It was a sweet, brief kiss, but still had enough power to leave her breathless. And, no, he had no problem with touching her now, she was very pleased to see.

"Wow! I could get used to waking up like that!" Lois exclaimed as Clark moved away.

"Well, that could be arranged." He grinned at her. "Just say the word — I'll bring you coffee and kisses every morning from now on if you like."

"Kisses *and* coffee?" She grinned back. "You do know how to spoil a girl."

"When it's the woman I love, nothing could be too much."

Lois studied his face; no glasses this morning, of course, and his hair was dishevelled from sleep. He looked younger, more carefree and, with the affectionate expression in his eyes as he looked back at her, very happy. And suddenly she realised what she had yet to say to him.

"I love you too, Clark."

The smile on his face widened still further. "I was hoping," he confessed. "But even if you didn't, after last night I figured I had enough to work with — and I was going to do everything in my power to make you fall in love with me."

That might have been interesting to see, Lois thought. Rather than waste words, though, she just leaned over and kissed Clark again. He didn't seem to object.


Life was pretty wonderful, Clark thought a short while later as he prepared breakfast. He now knew that he was safe to be around — that there was no way that he would hurt Lois, or anyone else, by getting close to them. He was fully in control of himself.

He could touch Lois as much as he wanted. Whenever he wanted. And he wanted to touch her every single second of the day!

And, even better, Lois loved him. They hadn't talked about where their relationship was going yet, but they would do so soon. As he'd promised himself last night, as soon as Luthor was behind bars he would take her somewhere nice and they would talk.

Which gave him an even greater incentive to do whatever they had to do in order to bring Luthor to justice. He would get Superman's statement to Henderson before the end of the morning. In fact, he thought, now was as good a time as any — leaving the coffee to filter, Clark found some paper and a pen and, at superspeed, drafted a statement. He'd get Lois to check it over and then write a new version, in disguised handwriting, and sign it as Superman.

A short time later, they were ready to leave for the Daily Planet. The statement was finished and signed, and Clark planned to deliver it discreetly later. "Okay, Lois," he said as they went down the steps to the street together. "I think I should drive today."

"Why's that?" she asked suspiciously.

"Well, neither of us got much sleep, and I can cope with lost sleep better than you can," he told her, stifling a grin.

"Hah! That's baloney!" she scoffed. "You just want an excuse to drive my Jeep."

"Yeah, so? It's a great excuse."

"You think?" She stuck her tongue out at him — and then froze. "Clark…" she muttered, a warning in her tone.

He'd already sensed the man approaching him stealthily from behind, so was prepared.

"Hand over your wallet, bud." The demand was accompanied by the pressure of a knife at his ribs.

"Or…?" Clark prompted, at the same time signalling to Lois with his eyes to get out of the would-be mugger's reach.

"You stupid or something, pal? You feel this knife between your ribs? Let me give you a hint — it's not plastic."

Clark took a slow, deep breath, buying himself a couple of seconds to think. If the mugger tried to stab him, the knife would bend and perhaps shatter. He couldn't let that happen. On the other hand, he had no intention of handing over his wallet. He glanced briefly at Lois, who had done as he'd silently asked and had ducked down behind the pillar at the front of his apartment building. He was very glad that she knew that he was Superman — it meant that at least he didn't have to worry about her doing something foolishly courageous in an attempt to help him.

He raised his hands slowly; the mugger pressed harder with the knife. "Hey, if you want me to get my wallet, you're going to have to let me move," he pointed out.

"Okay. Get your wallet," his assailant instructed.

In one swift movement, Clark grabbed the mugger's wrist and squeezed — hard, but controlling his grip so that he wouldn't do any serious damage. It only took a few seconds before the mugger gasped and dropped the knife. Clark released him as soon as the knife hit the ground, and he bent to pick it up using his handkerchief.

As he straightened, all he could hear was the sound of footsteps receding at a fast pace.

He could easily have caught the man, but it would have meant using his powers as Clark or else intervening as Superman — either of which would mean leaving Lois alone on the sidewalk. Given everything that was going on, he had no intention of leaving her unprotected. Who knew what Lex Luthor might decide to do next? Especially since he now had every reason to know that Lois was suspicious of him. So, reluctantly, he let the mugger escape.

Lois hurried out. "I know you're not hurt, but do you want me to call the cops?"

He shook his head. "Not yet. If I report it, it'll be to Henderson."


"Because that's the first mugger I've ever seen wearing a hundred-dollar shirt underneath his grunge."

"Huh?" Lois stared at him. "He was *what*?"

"That was no mugger," Clark said slowly. "He sure wanted us to think he was — but he wasn't after my wallet."

Lois's eyes widened. "Yesterday that motorcyclist tried to hurt you — do you think that guy just now was after the same thing?"

Clark shrugged. "It's about the only thing I can think of. I mean, apart from the shirt, if he was a genuine mugger why go after me? You're holding a purse and car keys. I might or might not have a wallet on me. And also, you're an easier target than a tall guy like me. So, no, I think he was planning on stabbing me. I just don't know why."

"Lex Luthor," Lois said flatly. "We worked that much out yesterday — he wants to stop us."

"Yeah, and he's clearly given up relying on lowlifes to do his dirty work for him," Clark added. "This guy has to be one of Luthor's own people." He held the knife up. "I didn't touch this, so it'll have our would-be mugger's fingerprints on it. Can you call Henderson and ask if he can meet us somewhere?"


"I warned you two to be careful!" Inspector Henderson muttered twenty minutes later in the diner around the corner from Clark's apartment. "We all know that this guy's dangerous."

"Clark can look after himself pretty well," Lois said dismissively. "Plus we're reporters, Bill. It's what we do."

"Get into trouble? Put your lives at risk? Make yet more work for people like me?" the detective suggested dryly.

"Let's see if you're still saying that when we finally get him put away," Lois retorted.

"We're not there yet," Henderson warned. He turned to Clark. "From your description, I'd hazard a guess that your mugger is Nigel St. John."

Clark raised an eyebrow. "And he is…?"

"Luthor's assistant," Lois interjected. "I met him once. I had dinner with Luthor not long after the White Orchid Ball — I'd asked for an interview and Luthor suggested we do it over dinner. Not that he actually answered any of my questions, but anyway… St. John was there. I got the impression that he was pretty indispensable." Lois paused, casting her mind back to the attempted mugging. She hadn't got a good look at the mugger, but she did remember that the man had white hair underneath the woollen cap he'd worn, and that his straggly beard had also been white. "Yeah, that could have been St. John. Though the accent was different…"

"From what we know of his history, he seems to have been a former British spy," Henderson commented. "Changing his accent is probably child's play to him."

"That explains a lot," Lois murmured, remembering the wariness she'd felt around the older man, the uneasy feeling she'd had that he saw more than he pretended.

"If there are prints on the knife, that should confirm it," Henderson said, then paused to take a gulp of coffee. "I'm pretty sure we have St John's prints on file. As long as I can get a match run without the precinct leak catching on to it."

"Good luck," Clark said. "Oh, by the way, while you're here, Superman dropped this off with us earlier." He reached inside his jacket and pulled out the statement. "He says he hopes that it will help, and if you need anything else just let him know."

Henderson reached across the table to take the paper, then scanned it quickly. "This works. Tell him thanks." He drained his coffee. "Gotta go. I'll let you know if anything comes up on that knife. Contact me if you find out anything else — but be careful."

"You want to watch it, Henderson. If you don't, someone might actually think you'd care if something happened to us," Lois drawled, winking at her old sparring partner.

"Yeah, I'd never want that to happen," Bill deadpanned, getting to his feet. "Nah, it's only that I don't want to add to my workload — I get little enough sleep these days as it is."

"Mainlining caffeine could work," Lois suggested.

"Yeah, yeah. My bloodstream's already 190 proof." He started striding towards the door, then abruptly halted and came back to the table. "You're slipping, Lane."

"I am?" Lois raised one eyebrow.

"Yeah. You didn't ask for your copy of that document you gave me."

He was right. Lois mentally kicked herself. "So, you got it? Hand it over."

"Kent, if you ever manage to teach this woman manners, let me know," Henderson commented, but handed Lois an envelope. "There you go. But I warn you, if you print this before I say you can…"

"For once, Henderson, I'm on your side," Lois said firmly. "He needs to be put away — there's no way Clark or I will do anything to interfere with that."

The detective nodded, then left.

"Better get to the Planet before Perry thinks we've quit," Lois said to Clark, who grinned.

"I doubt that'd be his first thought about you. He's probably wondering if he should start calling the hospitals."

She swatted his arm. "Yeah, right. Come on, let's go." They needed to go, she thought, before she forgot all about work and decided to spend the day kissing her unbelievably handsome partner instead. The way he'd just smiled at her… The memory of the previous night, and the knowledge that he was all hers, just made her want to grab hold of him and drag him somewhere they could be alone.

But they really did have work to do. And that included getting Lex Luthor put away.

"We should tell him about the bugs, too," Clark commented as they got into the Jeep.

"Yeah. Discreetly, though. After all, if Henderson thinks Luthor's planted a spy in his precinct, why wouldn't he try to plant one at the Planet?"

"Good point." Clark nodded in agreement. "I'll keep an ear out. We better tell Perry not to disturb the bugs just yet, though — we don't want Luthor tipped off too soon that we're onto him."

"True," Lois agreed. "But he's not going to be happy about it!"

Twenty minutes later, they finally made it to the newsroom. As she exited the elevator, Lois groaned inwardly at the thought of having to find somewhere to work for the morning. She glanced longingly over at what used to be her desk…

…and saw her Lois Lane nameplate displayed prominently.

"What -?" She stopped dead, staring at it.

"Ah, Lois. And Clark. Just as I was beginning to wonder where you two had got to," Perry drawled from somewhere close to her left ear.

"Chasing leads. Meeting sources." Lois shrugged. "What we're paid for, basically."

"I just better see something for tomorrow's edition," the editor grunted. "Oh, by the way, you got your desks back."

"So I see!" Lois exclaimed. "What happened?"

"Wendell Dalton called me at home late last night," Perry said, betraying by the curl of his lip his opinion of the Planet shareholder. "He said that, *on reflection*, he wasn't convinced that it worked in a newsroom environment. That he wouldn't want to have the paper's best reporters *inhibited* in any way." The editor rolled his eyes. "So you can get off my back now and start turning in some front-page stories, okay?"

"On reflection, huh?" Lois commented sarcastically. "Nice to know he has the ability to think for himself every once in a while."

"Perry, there's something we need to tell you about," Clark said quietly. "Your office?"

The editor shrugged and led the way, closing the door once the three of them were inside. "So what's up? You made some progress?"

"Yes, actually, though nothing we can print yet," Lois said. "This is related, though. Clark discovered last night that at least some of the newsroom phones are bugged."

"You're kidding!" Perry exclaimed. His expression furious, he added, "If this is Luthor, the paper'll sue him so fast he won't know —"

"There's more," Lois interjected. "The computer I was using has some sort of Trojan programme which records everything the user writes. With the hot-desking policy in place, there was no guarantee that I'd be using that particular computer —"

"So every computer on the floor could be compromised." Perry's face grew redder.

"Yeah, that's my guess," Clark said. "Look, I know it goes against everything we stand for — but you shouldn't get the bugs removed just yet. The fewer reasons Luthor has to believe that we know what he's up to, the better. He saw Lois at the Metro Club last night."

Perry pulled a face. "I keep telling you to be careful, Lois! Okay, I don't like it, but I'll do what you say. In fact, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to call a friend of mine who works in… well, let's just say that he's in security. I'll get him to check this place out just so we know what's what. But he'll do it discreetly. And for the moment, you two kids should find somewhere else to work, and don't call in until I tell you it's safe."

"We'll do that," Clark said. "Anything you need here, Lois, or shall we go?"

"Let's go." They could work at Clark's place again — after all, everything they needed was there. It seemed unlikely that they'd be able to break the Luthor story today in any case. They could check out a few different leads, see whether any other evidence against the billionaire might be forthcoming — if the guy was going down, she wanted him going down for a very long time. The longer the better.


The telephone buzzed. Impatiently, Lex Luthor reached for it. "I thought I said I didn't wish to be disturbed," he bit out abruptly.

"And I thought you'd want to talk to me," Toni Taylor's voice said in his ear. "The minion who answered your phone seemed to agree."

"You shouldn't be calling me here!" Lex snapped, angrier now.

"So how else am I supposed to contact you?"

"You aren't. I contact you. That's how it works."

"So you don't want to be told that the Toasters are refusing to do that little job you wanted taken care of today?" Toni enquired, in a sarcastic tone which really infuriated him.

"What the *hell* is their problem? They're being paid enough!"

"They're getting a prima donna complex," Taylor said, dropping the sarcasm and sounding frustrated. "My contact even said something this morning about the *art* in what they do, if you can believe it. And they said that the factory doesn't fit in with the nature of their performance."

"They want more money," Lex said disgustedly. "Tell them I'm prepared to increase their fee by five hundred, but that's all. And this is the last commission they'll get from me. I won't work with anyone unreliable."

"No?" Now Toni sounded more sure of herself. "So why do you employ that ex-spy?"

Lex frowned. He knew who she meant, of course, but why…? "What are you talking about?"

"Oh, come on. You know who I mean. That creepy British guy."

Nigel. What had she heard? "Nigel St John is a highly-valued member of my staff."

"Yeah? And right now the cops are after him. Apparently he tried to mug some guy in broad daylight — I mean, *really*! Don't you pay him enough?"

"You must be mistaken," Lex said stiffly. "And, if you have nothing else of importance to discuss, you'll have to excuse me. I am quite busy at the moment."

Before the Taylor woman could say anything more, Lex replaced the receiver carefully in its cradle; he'd have loved to slam it down, but he had no intention of allowing that woman to have proof of how furious he was.

He would deal with her in due course — but soon. As for Nigel…

Lex got to his feet and paced across the room. Could it possibly be true? Could Nigel possibly have taken leave of his senses so far as to do something so utterly *stupid*? So amateurish!

A mugging! And a botched mugging, at that!

For crying out loud, Kent wasn't that big. Or that muscular. And his job was mostly sedentary, wasn't it? Armed with the element of surprise and some kind of weapon, even a man of Nigel's age should have been able to take him. And Nigel was considerably fitter and stronger than most men his age.

This was the third time in two days that Nigel had failed miserably to execute a simple request. How difficult could it be to put one excessively irritating man in the hospital? How difficult could it possibly be to find out *exactly* what that nosy reporter, Lois Lane, was up to and how much she knew about things she should know nothing about?

Nigel had had his last chance, Lex decided angrily. He didn't employ passengers. He'd already given Nigel more chances than most employees would get — only St John's previously impeccable record had seen him through thus far. But it was obvious that St John was past his sell-by date. The man was in his late sixties now, after all — the onset of senility was probably close.

Well, he was fired. As of right now, Nigel St John no longer worked for Lex Luthor.

Lex paused as he contemplated the one thing which might make him hesitate about getting rid of his assistant — the fact that Nigel, more than anyone else among his senior staff, knew enough to cause him serious trouble with the police. But then, Nigel himself equally had reason to worry about involving the police: he had enough of a criminal past to ensure that he would die in prison should he face trial. And since Lex himself had always had the forethought to leave no evidence of his instructions to his senior assistant, Nigel would find it difficult to prove that his recent actions, including some murders, were at his employer's behest.

And then there was Toni Taylor, Lex reminded himself as he returned to his desk. That woman had turned out to be a most unreliable business partner. She was in no way trustworthy. Nor did she appreciate how privileged she was to have someone of the stature of Lex Luthor assisting her.

He had been very foolish indeed to agree to that contract she'd foisted on him. And even more so to allow her to keep it. That was the kind of incriminating evidence which he had always taken great care to avoid. He should have had Nigel steal it from her safe days ago.

Well, it would have to be stolen now. Lex couldn't possibly allow that document to remain in Toni Taylor's possession.

He spun on his heel. "Ni —"

Breaking off abruptly, Lex shook his head. There was no way that he could entrust such a sensitive task to St John any more. There was no way that he would entrust *any* task to St John. Nigel, as he had already decided, was fired.

"Nigel!" he shouted, cool anger in his voice.

There was a pause. Then, instead of the sober-looking St John, Mrs Cox entered the room. Glamorous as always, she was looking particularly sexy today, Lex considered, and he briefly contemplated postponing his dismissal of Nigel. But Mrs Cox would wait; he'd suggest a working lunch, he thought.

"I wanted Nigel," he said abruptly, but gave her one of his charming smiles as well — he only wanted to remind her who was boss.

"Ah. Well, there seems to be a problem, Mr Luthor," she said, her low, sultry voice doing wonders for his bad mood. "No-one has seen him for the past couple of hours. He left earlier saying that he had an errand to run for you, but he never returned. Would you like me to have someone track him down?"

What was the point? It wasn't as if he had any intention of doing anything other than firing St John, Lex thought. And, given Nigel's disappearance, he could add dereliction of duty to the list of complaints justifying dismissal without notice.

Nigel could wait for a couple of hours. So could the document in Toni Taylor's safe. Lex smiled again and strolled towards Mrs Cox. "That won't be necessary, my dear. However, there is one thing you can help me with."

She understood his meaning instantly, and ran her tongue around the edge of her lips. "I would be delighted to assist you in whatever capacity you need."

"Close the door," he instructed; he followed her over and, once the door was closed, he turned her around, pressing her briefly against the wooden frame with his body. Then he moved back. "That is a charming blouse you're wearing today."

"Thank you. Would you like it?" she murmured huskily.

"That would be very kind." He gave her a feral stare, raking her body with his gaze, and watched as she unbuttoned the crimson silk garment. When she'd finished, she pushed the material aside and allowed it to fall off her shoulders, revealing a sheer black lace bra, and then down her arms. Lex stepped forward to catch the blouse before it hit the floor.

Yes, Nigel could definitely wait. Some things just shouldn't be rushed.


Walking towards the steps to Clark's apartment, Lois couldn't resist the urge to slip her arm around her partner's waist. He paused at the movement, smiling down at her.

She gazed back up at him, and her heart skipped a beat. He'd said that he loved her last night and this morning; his love was still clear in his eyes now. This wasn't a man who would play with her feelings. He wouldn't profess love for her only to dump her when a better prospect came along. He wasn't looking for only one thing. The fact that they'd shared a bed the night before and he hadn't pushed for sex — in fact, he'd been the one to stop them when their kisses had threatened to get out of control — reinforced still more how different Clark was from Claude.

Clark loved her, despite the way she'd behaved to him as Clark and as Superman when they'd first met. And she loved him in return. She reached up, wrapping her arms around his neck, and kissed him, right in front of his apartment in broad daylight.

"What was that for?" he asked, teasing, as she moved away.

"Does there have to be a reason?" She grinned as he gave her an affectionate hug. "We're going to get Luthor put away for what he did. I'm with the man I love and I'm happy."

"I'll have to make sure that you stay happy, then," Clark observed. "If you're going to keep kissing me like that…"

Lois shrugged. "Well, there's no reason why you can't kiss me too from time to time…"

"No reason at all," he agreed, and did just that. His arms tightened around her, drawing her closer to him. It felt so good to be held in Clark's arms. Now that she finally knew what had been preventing him touching her, getting close to her, it was clear that he was making up for all those weeks when he'd barely laid a finger on her.

Pulled up against his strong, solid body, Lois felt warmed and protected — and then, as Clark's lips descended and he kissed her, she felt a surge of unfamiliar excitement rush through her.

Kisses had never affected her particularly before. Oh, she'd always thought that they were *nice*, but kissing someone didn't set her world on fire. Or, at least, *hadn't* ever set her world on fire. Kisses were just a means to an end, she'd thought. Part of the preliminaries to something else, whether there and then or at some point in the future. They hadn't even made her want what followed, particularly, though she'd always known that the men she'd kissed had wanted it. Because they were men, of course. Kissing Clark… the flames were burning so strongly that it would take a dozen Supermen to put them out. And they were in the middle of the street in broad daylight. And she was very sure, after last night, that Clark certainly didn't see kissing as a mere preliminary to something else.

So this was the difference between being in love with the man she was kissing and… not being in love, she thought dazedly as Clark raised his head. She actually *wanted* to kiss him, wanted him to kiss her in return — never actually wanted him to stop kissing her. She wanted to wrap herself in his arms and stay there forever.

And yet cuddling close to someone had never been her thing before, either. She'd always thought of herself as not being a toucher, preferring to keep her distance rather than feeling the need to make contact with other human beings all the time. Even with men she'd dated, she'd kept both a physical and a mental distance.

And yet, walking from the car, she'd been the one to initiate contact. She had slipped her arm around Clark's waist, not the other way around. He'd responded to the contact in a very satisfying way — but it had been at her instigation.

Lois Lane was changing. And it felt great.


Clark raised his head and looked down at the woman in his arms, loving the dazed expression on her face and the faint disappointment which went along with it. He hadn't wanted to end the kisses either. But he'd become aware that they weren't alone; a couple of teenage boys — who should have been in school — had halted a few feet away, sniggering.

"Come on," he urged softly. "Let's get inside. We have more *privacy* there."

She blinked, then glanced around. When she saw the kids, a blush crept over her features. "Oops. Yeah, we'd better go in."

Clark smiled, steering her up the steps. "We should get some work done too. Much as I'd *love* to spend the whole day kissing you and holding you…"

"Me too," she confessed softly. "Clark, I can barely believe what's happening to me! I was just thinking a minute ago: I never liked kissing before. And yet now… I kiss a guy in broad daylight and I forget everything — where we are, what we should be doing instead…"

"You think I was remembering what we should have been doing?" He gave a wry laugh. "Lois, I only have to be near you to have all rational thought disappear. And it feels wonderful!" he added with a grin.

"I'll second that!" She laughed. "But you're right. We have work to do."

"Yeah." He smiled at her quickly again, and once more Lois felt her insides melt and all desire to spend their time together working began to dissipate. <Focus!> she told herself.

"But first," Clark added, "Tonight. Will you come to Smallville and have dinner with my folks? Or, if you prefer, I'll take you anywhere in the world you'd like to go."

Wow. Once again, Lois recognised that there were definite advantages to having Superman as her friend — her boyfriend. On top of everything she got with Clark, she had the flying too! She pondered the options briefly, then decided to go for what would please Clark most.

"Smallville tonight. Sydney tomorrow."

His pleased grin was more than worth it — and she was looking forward to meeting his parents again anyway. "Great! Though I'm not sure how easy it'll be to find dinner in Australia at that kind of time, but we can have fun trying."

"Hey, breakfast would work, as long as I can see the harbour and the opera house!"

Clark grinned again. "That can be arranged. Anyway," he added, his expression sobering once more, "Work."

"Yeah, work," Lois agreed. "Okay, I want to call my father again — he said last time that he'd see what else he could find out about Luthor and the robotic boxers, and he's had a couple of days, so that's long enough."

"Yeah," Clark agreed, unlocking the door and waving Lois into the apartment ahead of him. As he closed the door, he added, "And I've been wondering whether there's anything Superman can do."

"Like what?" Lois asked. "You've already given Henderson that signed statement."

"I know. But I meant… Superman can see through walls — or desks — he can hear conversations at a distance… he moves so quickly he could be in and out of somewhere before anyone knows he was there…"

Lois stared at him. "You'd use Superman to break in and get evidence?"

Clark hesitated, but only out of surprised realisation of what he'd been thinking. Superman, ever since he'd created him, had been a staunch upholder of what was right and decent and good. He obeyed the law. He set an example for others — and when people broke the law in a way which harmed others, he apprehended them.

And now he was talking about using Superman to break the law.

But this was different. This was to put away a criminal who had managed to fool everyone — the police, the general public, politicians, the media — for so long that everyone believed he was a model citizen, a billionaire philanthropist. And his tentacles were everywhere. He had influence in politics and the media — heck, he even owned his own major news channel! And, if Henderson were correct, he had influence with the law as well.

He was so powerful and so ruthless that the few people who had developed suspicions about him had to counter disbelief about their claims, and also had to be in fear for their safety. Clark had no illusions about what had been happening over the past few days. Lois had been burned out of her apartment. She'd almost found herself in a situation where she would have been spied on every single second. The Planet had been compromised. He himself had encountered two attempts to hurt him, if not kill him. And William Henderson, Detective Inspector of the Metropolis Police Department, had to meet reporters secretly because he was convinced that someone in his own department was reporting back to Luthor.

Luthor was responsible for who knew how many deaths. He was a cold, brutal, Machiavellian mastermind, who was not going to be brought down effectively by legal means, Clark was sure. Oh, yes, Henderson could use the contract Luthor had signed to tie him to the Toasters and arson — but that wouldn't lead to the sort of prosecution, or the sort of sentence, which Luthor deserved.

It was worse than Al Capone going to prison only for tax evasion.

"Superman's always sworn to uphold the law," he said hesitantly to Lois. "I mean, not that he's ever stood up on a platform and said so. But he does so in everything he does. In all the examples he sets to others. Might *isn't* right — and so just because Superman is so much more powerful, and he can do all these incredible things, doesn't mean that he has any right to dictate the rules."

Lois nodded. "I know. That's not what Superman stands for. But… isn't this different?"

Clark shrugged. "That's what I'm wondering. I'm telling myself about everything Luthor's done, and that getting him put away properly, convicted of the worst of what he's done, would be a public service. But…"

"Where does it stop?" Lois finished softly.

"Exactly!" Clark flung his arms out in frustration. "Superman uses his powers to… *acquire* evidence to convict Luthor, and what next? Does he go after the next big criminal to come along? Does he break into a crooked politician's office? Does he steal someone's bank records? Does he kill a mass murderer to stop that murderer killing again? Where do you draw the line?"

"At killing?" Lois suggested, but then she smiled wryly. "I know. It's an impossible line to draw, so it's better not to cross it at all. At least, not as Superman."

"Yeah, I already crossed it last night as Clark," he conceded with a smile.

"Yeah, but that's what undercover reporters do. We sometimes do have to… stretch the concept of breaking and entering just a little to get what we need."

Clark raised an eyebrow. "So if I do Super stuff as Clark, it's okay?"

"Come on, you know that's not what I'm saying!" Lois told him. "Look, if it were possible to get some sort of proof that Luthor was involved in murder, that'd be fantastic. But let's put our heads together and work out a way it can be done without compromising Superman, okay?"

Clark nodded. "You're right. I just… I want to see him brought to justice so badly!"

"Me too," Lois agreed. "But you know that an —"

The phone rang. Clark gave a slight shrug and went to answer it. "Clark Kent."

"Kent, it's Henderson. You free to talk?"

"Sure." He beckoned Lois to come closer. "It's Henderson," he murmured, covering the mouthpiece briefly.

"I called Perry White on what I know is a secure line. He said you and Lois were at your place. Anyway, I thought you'd like to know — the fingerprints on the knife match up to St John's. There's a warrant out for his arrest right now. Not that anyone can find him."

"It was St John," Clark murmured to Lois. "Sorry, Bill, just filling Lois in. But won't your… leak… cause a problem?"

"Probably, by now," Henderson agreed. "But there's not a lot he can do, whoever he is — St John's committed a crime, and we have evidence placing him at the scene. If I know Luthor, he'll already have taken steps to distance himself."

"Which means St John is on his own," Clark said. "He's not going to be too happy about that, is he?"

"Doubt it," Henderson said dryly. "*If* I could only get my hands on him, I'd gladly offer to cut him a deal if he agreed to testify against his boss."

"I'll bet." Clark paused; the way in which Superman could help was suddenly very clear to him. "Bill, I need to contact someone. Lois or I will be in touch later, okay? Thanks for the update."

"Sure. Just don't —"

"Do anything stupid. I know." Clark smiled. "Take care."

He hung up and turned to Lois, a broad smile on his face. "Can I leave you here for a while? You had a phone call to make anyway."

"Sure." Lois narrowed her eyes, looking at him. "What are you up to?"

He stepped away from her and spun into the Suit before answering. "Going to find Nigel St John."


Lex jiggled the little tool once more, then felt the lock give way. He smiled in satisfaction; it really was like riding a bicycle. You never forgot how to do it.

He was inside the Metro Club. Now to find Toni Taylor's office.

He'd chosen his time well — it was late morning, too early for any of the bar staff to be around. He'd also decided that it was unlikely that Taylor herself or her brothers would be in the club; the place did stay open, officially, until midnight, and unofficially for at least a couple of hours longer.

Not that the presence of one other person would be too much of a problem. Lex ran his gloved hand down the outside of his beaten- up leather jacket; the small, unmarked and unlicensed pistol he'd put in there before leaving his penthouse was within easy reach. And in his other pocket he had a silk scarf. Should Toni Taylor happen to be present, she would be quickly silenced — and repaid for her arrogance and lack of courtesy.

Actually, he needed to arrange for a discreet tip-off to the police about the club's after-hours serving of alcohol. Probably not to the local precinct; the cops there were no doubt all on the take and would do whatever the Metro gang told them to. But the precinct in the next district would be glad of the opportunity to get one up on their colleagues.

Lex listened carefully before making a move. There was nothing but silence from inside the building. Down this corridor, then, and around the corner, and the office was the second door on the left.


In under a minute, he was inside Taylor's office. Now, where was the safe?

It wasn't in plain sight. But that shouldn't have surprised him. He looked around, considering. Where was the best place to hide something bulky which one didn't want found?

Two walls were bare of anything except a small noticeboard — Lex quickly checked behind it but saw nothing — and a poster, which again revealed no hiding-place.

One other wall had shelving fixed to it. Lex examined it carefully, but could see nowhere that a safe could be hidden. If he couldn't find it on the other wall, then he'd have to search the ceiling and the floor, which would be annoying and time- consuming. Damn! But if he had to, he would do it.

The fridge caught his eye as soon as he turned his attention to the final wall. He should have thought of that before, he told himself in irritation as he wrenched the small unit away from the wall. Pay-dirt. There was the safe.

Now, what was the combination? He crouched down and examined the lock. It was a standard numerical dial, which meant that the combination would be a series of numbers of some sort. So… what numbers would mean something to a woman like Toni Taylor? And in what order?

She was very proud of her MBA. But how could that translate to a number? He thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers. 1992 — that was when she'd got it. He could try 1, 9, 9 and 2 and see if that got him anywhere. But then he realised that wouldn't work; two nines together wasn't a possible combination for a safe like this.

But nineteen followed by nine and two would work. Except that he'd need one more number. Her age was a possibility, Lex thought. Or, more likely, her age on gaining the MBA.

He carefully selected the numbers 19, 9, 2 and 26.

Bingo! There was a click and the safe swung open.

And then he heard a noise from outside. Lex threw his head back, tense and irritated. Not now, when he was so close!

But what had the noise been? Footsteps? A door closing? No, it hadn't sounded like either of those. It had been more like a… a whooshing. Some sort of whooshing or rushing noise. Like… A furnace or air-conditioning system kicking off. That was probably what it was, he decided. The staff would begin to arrive at the club in an hour or so — the system was probably set to come on some time before that.

He bent his head back to the safe again and wrenched the door fully open, noting in satisfaction that there was quite a lot inside, including a couple of piles of paper.

Lex quickly rummaged through the contents. Some stacks of money — no doubt not declared to the IRS; perhaps that was another phone call he needed to have made. Some random documents, but nothing familiar and nothing even the slightest bit questionable. The contract he'd signed was nowhere in sight. He gritted his teeth in frustration. Had Taylor moved it somewhere else? Had she taken it home with her, in anticipation that he might try to get it back?

Burning up with fury, he swore fluently in language which hadn't passed his lips for decades — not since Lex Luthor had become respectable. He was just about to concede defeat, not an easy task, when it occurred to him that the interior of the safe seemed smaller than the exterior. To be precise, the bottom of the inside was several inches higher than the outside, and that couldn't all, he thought, be taken up with casing.

A false bottom!

It was a matter of seconds to figure out how to get into the hidden compartment.

It was empty. Lex cursed loudly and long.

*Damn* that Taylor woman anyway!

He would have to deal with her later. He would simply have to use whatever methods necessary to get her to hand over the documents — and since it appeared that she would be of no further use to him, as he had already decided that he wouldn't be needing the services of the Toasters any more, she was expendable.

Lex slammed the safe shut and then straightened, anger still coursing though him. What a waste of time this had been!

He would get out of the club and, once back in his penthouse, put the necessary instructions in place to deal with Taylor. She and Nigel, in fact. *That* was an oversight. Given everything Nigel knew, he couldn't afford to just fire him. Nigel would have to be removed — permanently. Once he got back home, he would have to make arrangements to ensure that those two little problems were dealt with.

Lex strode towards the door. And then he halted, his hand on the doorknob. He could smell smoke.


Clark strode into the precinct headquarters, his cape swishing behind him, and had to stifle a smile at the stunned expression on the face of the desk sergeant, who stammered, "Uh… Sup- Superman, c'n — can I help y-you?"

Keeping his voice steady, Clark said, "Thank you, Sergeant. I need to see Detective Inspector Henderson."

"Uh, sure. He's… he's in the back. If you want to go through there — " The sergeant indicated a door. "- I'll give him a call to let him know you're here."

Clark proceeded into the back section of the building again, taking care not to give the impression that he knew where he was going.

"Superman!" Henderson had emerged from his office. "This way."

Clark followed him into the office, closing the door behind him. "Good morning, Inspector."

Henderson acknowledged the greeting with a nod. "What can I do for you, Superman? It's good to meet you, by the way. What you're doing is certainly making life easier for the MPD."

Clark nodded in return, guessing at what the experienced cop wasn't saying. "But maybe a little too easy, perhaps?" he suggested.

Henderson threw himself into his seat. "I wouldn't want you to get the wrong idea, Superman. Believe me, every cop in this city thanks God for you every night. But at the same time, it does bother me to think that if they start relying on you too much, policing standards will slip."

Clark took a seat opposite him. "What you're really trying to say is that some officers might get lazy, Detective."

"I didn't say that." Henderson's eyes twinkled faintly. "Anyway, you didn't come here to find out what the MPD thinks of you, I'm sure, so…?"

"Actually, I want to do something for you. Clark and Lois tell me that you have a warrant out for the arrest of Nigel St John. I want to help find him, but I don't have a very clear idea of what he looks like. Do you have any photographs?"

Henderson got to his feet immediately. "Glad you said 'photographs', plural, because this guy's a master of disguise. You need to study his overall physical characteristics as much as facial features. He can disguise his hair or eye colour, shave off his beard, pad himself to make himself look fat, use make-up to look younger — but he can't do much about his height other than stooping." He spread several photographs out on the desk, at the same time giving Clark a detailed description of St John.

Clark took in the patrician features, the watery pale blue eyes, the wispy silver hair and goatee beard. He gazed at the photographs for a few moments, visualising the man who had attacked him that morning and seeing the man in the photos underneath the disguise. After a minute or two, he looked up and nodded at Henderson. "I don't think I'll have any problems recognising him."

"Good. If you find him, I'll consider myself in your debt, Superman."

Clark shook his head. "I have my own reasons for wanting to find him. He's… hurt some friends of mine. And I think his testimony could help put away someone else who's caused them even greater hurt."

"Yeah." Henderson got to his feet. "Okay. I'm going to be around here most of the day, but if you need to speak to me and I'm not here…"

Standing up, Clark said, "I know how to contact you. And I won't speak to anyone but you."

"Thanks." The detective walked to the door, then paused, his hand on the knob. "And thanks for coming in, too. I appreciate it."

"You're welcome." Clark nodded in acknowledgement as he left the office, then strode out of the building and immediately took flight.

He began to circle the city, but then was struck by a thought, and he headed south. A few seconds later, he was hovering above the airport. It crossed his mind briefly to wonder what the air traffic controllers made of the unannounced, unauthorised blip on their monitors, but he ignored that thought and focused on the task at hand.

And his hunch paid off. In the middle of the departure lounge, dressed in biker leather and wearing a baseball cap, a clean- shaven, dark-haired man sat reading a Harley-Davidson magazine. There was little about the man which resembled either the photographs Clark had seen or the man who had mugged him that morning. The build was the same, but he had dyed his hair and was wearing make-up to make himself look younger. Even his eyes were a different colour — but Clark had seen beyond the brown contact lenses and the near-black hair dye.

This was Nigel St John, he was certain of it. Clearly the man had suspected that his game might be up, and he was making a pre- emptive departure from town.

Seconds later, Superman strode through the airport concourse, to considerable consternation. Clark avoided making eye contact with anyone, even airport security; he was focused only on getting to the departure lounge before his target realised that his getaway had been foiled.

A flight was called: a Brazilian airline flying to Rio de Janeiro. And, as Clark watched through the partitions screening the departure area from the main concourse, St John got to his feet and picked up a small carryon bag. Clark broke into a run, avoiding using Super-speed because, in an environment as crowded as this, it would be too easy for people to get knocked over and hurt. But running at a slightly faster than human pace would do just as well.

St John was almost at the gate for his flight when Clark vaulted over the security scanners with a shout of, "Sorry, but this is important!" And, seconds later, as his quarry was handing over his travel documents for inspection, he was able to lay his hand heavily on the man's shoulder.

"This is as far as you go, St John. I know a police officer who would be very interested in talking to you."


"…so what do you think, Dad? The guy's going to go down anyway, but any additional evidence we can get will make him stay locked away even longer."

Lois waited, anxious beyond her own expectations, though she wasn't sure why that should be the case. When had her father ever done anything that conflicted with what he wanted just because she'd asked him to? Even when he'd helped her and Clark out with the Mencken investigation, that had mainly been to save his own skin: by coming forward, he'd managed to escape being arrested.

But when Sam Lane spoke, his reply wasn't what Lois had expected. "You're telling me that you were burned out of your apartment three days ago, and you've been spied on, and that your partner's almost been killed twice — and this is the first I've heard of it?"

Lois almost rolled her eyes. Just why would she have called him? It would have been every bit as useless as calling her mother. Each would have remonstrated and told her how terrible it was and that someone needed to be brought to justice — but neither would have offered any practical solutions.

Unlike Clark, who had, quietly and efficiently, stepped in and offered her comfort and the shelter of his home.

"I've been busy trying to put away the man responsible, Dad," she pointed out, her words a deliberate reminder of what she'd asked him.

"I can see that," he agreed. "But, Princess, where have you been staying? Are you all right for money?"

She must have got through to him for once, Lois realised — the concern for her welfare was sincere, even if his solution was, as always, to throw money at the problem. "I'm staying with a friend," she told him. "You know him — Clark Kent."

"Your partner? The guy you said has had two attempts on his life in the last two days? That doesn't sound very safe, Lois," Sam Lane pointed out, in the same patronising tone which had driven her crazy when she'd been at college. The tone in which he'd pointed out that her major wasn't in an 'important' subject like medicine or the law or business. The tone in which he'd criticised the time she'd spent on extra-curricular activities such as writing for the college newspaper. The tone in which he'd pointed out that interning at the Daily Planet was really a very poorly-paid job.

Lois closed her eyes briefly, driving away the memories. She was an adult now, after all, in control of her own destiny. And at least one person thought that she was lovable no matter what she did.

"Clark can look after himself," she said firmly. "And I can too, as it happens. But, just to remind you, Daddy, the guy responsible is going to be arrested pretty soon anyway."

"And you want me to help by coming forward," her father concluded. "Of course, that would suggest that you believe I didn't tell the police everything last time."

Lois allowed her silence to speak for itself.

After a pause, her father spoke again. "Okay. Tell me who I need to call. And this cop friend of yours better give me witness protection."


Nigel St John hadn't at all enjoyed his free Super flight to the police precinct.

Inside the airport, at first the man had protested, insisting that he wasn't who Clark claimed, but a quick and very light application of heat vision on his face had made the make-up and latex begin to peel away, at which point he'd admitted his identity and observed that the game was up. And then he'd exclaimed in fear as Clark, having marched him out of the building, had swooped upwards suddenly.

"Put me down!" he'd yelped.

"I could," Clark had told him idly. "Or I could just keep flying for hours. Or I could go up, like this — " and he'd swooped up vertically. "Or I could drop like a stone." Again, he suited action to words. "Or I could even just… drop you." His grasp of St John loosened.

"Don't! Please don't!" his captive screamed.

"That all depends on you," Clark pointed out. "Like I said, there's a detective inspector who very much wants to talk to you. I think he's got quite a few outstanding charges against you, including an armed assault against Clark Kent this morning. But I have reason to believe that, should you be… co-operative, he might be willing to offer you a deal of some sort."

"Co-operative," St John spat out, more belligerent once Clark had started flying normally. "I presume you mean if I am willing to give evidence against… someone."

"Try Lex Luthor."

"And why would I wish to do that? The man is an upstanding businessman. And furthermore, he employs me."

"To do things like mugging reporters he doesn't like?" Clark suggested. "You and I both know that Lex Luthor isn't what he claims. Isn't that why you were fleeing to Brazil? Because you knew that, once Luthor discovered that you'd failed again, he would have you dealt with?"

St John had been silent for several moments after that. Then, as the precinct came into sight below them, he'd said, "You may tell Inspector Henderson that I will be pleased to assist in his investigations."


The door was hot. Very hot, in fact. Lex pulled his hand back swiftly, squeezing it against his chest protectively, and then waving it in front of him as his body heat increased the burning sensation.

He was inside a burning building. The Metro Club was on fire.

Accident… or arson?

A thought struck him, and cold fear coursed through him. Was this Toni Taylor's idea of revenge?

But that couldn't be, he told himself quickly. How could she possibly have known he was here? He'd taken great care to ensure that no-one saw him enter the club. And he'd been looking for security cameras, too, and had managed to avoid the couple he'd seen.

But there could have been hidden cameras…

Maybe she had seen him. And maybe she'd called her friends, the Toasters.

Although… would she really have set fire to her own club? He knew, because she lost no opportunity to tell him, how proud she was of what she'd done with the club — not just the bar itself, but the little businesses she directed from its back rooms. At the same time, as he knew very well, a building was just a building. It could be rebuilt; it could be built in a different place.

Was Toni Taylor trying to kill him?

"You crazy fool!" he shouted to himself. "Get OUT of here! You can figure out who and why afterwards!"

Frantically, he looked around the room, searching for another exit. There were no windows. The only door was the one which was looking increasingly scorched, and under which tendrils of smoke were already beginning to appear. Was there a ventilation shaft somewhere? Or access to the basement?

Beginning to cough, Lex dropped to his knees and started grabbing at the floor-tiles. There had to be another way out. There had to be!


Bill Henderson had been very pleased indeed to take delivery of Nigel St John. Clark was still smiling as he swooped up again after leaving the precinct. St John had barely waited for introductions to be concluded in the interview room before asking for witness protection and insisting that he wanted to be told what the best deal he could expect was before he would say a word.

Henderson had glanced up and winked at Clark before saying, "Thanks, Superman. You can leave this… gentleman… to me now."

"I'll be happy to. And if there's any other way in which I can be of assistance, let me know."

So, Nigel St John was in police custody and, Clark was sure, about to sing like a canary, to borrow a clich‚. Clark made a mental note to call Henderson once he was back at his apartment, just to remind the detective that he had promised Lane and Kent the exclusive.

He dropped down onto his balcony and strode into his bedroom before spinning into his Clark clothes. Striding out into the kitchen, he called to Lois, "I got him! And he's currently interrogating Henderson about the likelihood of getting a police escort to a safe haven somewhere in Rio," he added, joking.

"Who?" Lois looked up from her laptop. "Oh! Nigel St John?"

"Yeah. I found him."

"And he's willing to give evidence against Luthor?"

"Yup." Clark grinned. "The guy's not going to know what's hit him."

"Terrific!" Lois's smile could have lit up the entire city. "And my father's going to —"

But Clark didn't hear the rest. His Super-hearing cut in, picking up an emergency broadcast.

"…all units respond… report of fire out of control… Metro Club…"

"The Metro Club's on fire!" he exclaimed, spinning back into his Suit. "I have to get over there."

"As Superman or as a reporter?" Lois demanded, jumping to her feet.

Good question. She was right: at this time of day, Superman wasn't really necessary to help with a fire in a nightclub. However, Lois Lane and Clark Kent had very good reason to be interested in this particular fire in this particular location.

"You want to come?"

"You need to ask?"

"Okay. But I'm going to be flying pretty fast, and I'm also going to dump you pretty quickly somewhere close to the club, okay?"

Lois's quick acceptance and her immediate expectation that he would pick her up and go didn't surprise him. What did surprise him was the ease with which he'd informed her that he'd be somewhat rough with her. He hadn't even thought twice about it. It really did seem as if he was managing to overcome his paranoia.

The fire was burning fiercely as they drew close. Under cover of the smoke, Clark dropped down in an alleyway and set Lois down. "I'm going to help," he told her. "I'm not happy about how close the flames are to the building on the other side. I can see some containers in there with what looks like something nasty in them — if they catch fire it won't be pretty."

Lois nodded. "I'll see what I can find out. And I'll want a Superman interview later, okay?"

He grinned before taking off again. A second or two later, he landed in front of the chief fire officer on site. "Anything I can do to help?"

"Superman! You've been busy around this part of town lately," the officer said dryly.

"So have you and your colleagues," Clark replied. "Believe me, if I'd been able to find these so-called Toasters, the police would have had them in custody by now."

"I wish." The officer shook his head. "Anyway, this one isn't as bad as some. It's a nightclub — the owner is on her way here, apparently, but she told the police over the phone that the building should be empty at this sort of time. We're treating it as a salvage-property fire rather than one that endangers lives."

Clark nodded. "The building to the left — any idea what it was used for?"

"A factory of some sort. I have some men checking it out now."

"Good." Clark related what he'd seen from above. "Let me know if you need any help with that — in the meantime, I'll see what I can do to help get this under control."

With that, he gathered his cape and shot upwards, heading for the heart of the blaze. A few applications of freezing Super breath calmed the flames noticeably, and he shifted position, planning to apply the same technique in a few other places.

And then he heard it. A long, high-pitched scream. It was a sound like an animal in distress, but he felt sure that the voice was human — a human being in intense pain.

He darted downwards. The scream came again, loud, uncontrollable, anguished.

There was someone in the club.


The smoke was thick and black, and Lex's throat was dry and burning from coughing. He'd tied the scarf around his nose and mouth, trying to cut down on the amount of smoke he inhaled, but the silk was too sheer. His lungs must be full of smoke by now, he knew.

And there was no way out. No way other than the way he'd come in.

He was trapped in a burning building, one which threatened to become an inferno very soon, he suspected. And there was no sign of the fire department — he'd thought a few minutes ago that he could hear sirens, but there'd been no sound of people making their way into the club with axes, no welcome deluge of water to extinguish the fire.

So much for the Metropolis Fire Department. He wondered why he bothered paying his taxes — well, at least those taxes which he did actually pay.

So he had a choice: he could either stay where he was, in which case he would die within minutes of smoke inhalation, or he could open the door and make a run for it, taking the risk that he might burn to death before he got out of the building.

One way meant certain death. The other… there was a chance that he could get out alive.

He couldn't allow himself to contemplate the prospect of death. It simply couldn't happen — not to Lex Luthor. When he died, it would be when he was ready, when he'd achieved every goal he had set himself. It would certainly not be because some insubordinate minion had dared to challenge his authority.

He — Lex Luthor — owned the Toasters. He had bought and paid for them. There was no way that he intended to die in any fire started by them — and especially not one which he had most certainly not authorised.

Once he was out of this building… the Toasters were finished.

Lex stripped off his jacket and wrapped it around his hands, then reached for the door. The handle still felt hot, even through a couple of layers of leather. He ignored it, tugging at the door. It didn't open easily — warped already by the heat, he realised, and had to pause for a coughing fit to pass.

The door opened suddenly, and the corridor was visible. Or… he had to presume that it was the corridor. All that Lex could see was a towering wall of flickering red and yellow.

And then an enormous ball of flame, attracted by the sudden availability of oxygen, rushed towards him with a loud roar.

Lex screamed in agony as the flames rolled over him, making him stagger backwards and fall to the floor. And then he screamed again, the heat and pain excruciating.

He was on fire! The pain… the pain…

They… would… pay…


Clark plunged into the building, searching intently with all of his senses to detect where the trapped person was. The screams had ceased, cut off abruptly a second or two ago. He knew very well that he was probably already too late — but if there was even the faintest chance that whoever was trapped inside could still be alive, he didn't intend to give up until he found them.

At first, he found nothing — just furniture in flames or already reduced to cinders, or parts of walls and roof which had collapsed and were burning. And then, suddenly, just inside an open doorway, he saw what he was looking for.

A human being — Clark couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman — lay curled up protectively in the foetal position. Flames still licked the body; Clark blew to extinguish them and hunched down by the body. But he knew without even looking that it was too late. The person was already dead. The body was far too badly burned for there to be any hope of life — too far burned for identification, too, he realised with a rush of sadness. It would take dental records or DNA to work out who this had been.

It was probably a tramp, he thought. Someone in need of shelter from the elements on a near-winter's night. He — it was probably a male body — must have broken in and then not woken until the fire had taken hold and escape was impossible.

All he could do for what had once been a human life was to carry the remains outside, where the fire couldn't devour them, and deliver them to a paramedic. Careful not to leave behind any fragments of clothing or body parts, Clark gently picked up the charred body and headed for the quickest way out.


Lois was trying, without too much success, to interview the chief fire officer, who didn't seem to have much interest in talking to the press. The answers she received were mostly monosyllables, apart from suggestions that she should go back behind the cordon and wait until the fire was out, when he would be releasing a statement. The guy didn't seem to understand the concept of an exclusive, or of getting there first. He wouldn't even confirm that this fire was the work of the Toasters, although there wasn't much doubt of that.

And then she saw someone she recognised, breaking through the police cordon and coming up at a run. Toni Taylor.

"Ma'am, please go back behind the tape," the fire officer instructed brusquely.

"I'm the owner of the Metro Club," Taylor gasped breathlessly.

"I see." The officer's tone changed. "I'm afraid there isn't a lot we can do for your club. The fire just took hold too quickly. Our strategy is to try to contain it, to stop it spreading to other buildings." He gave a sympathetic shrug. "Superman's here somewhere and he's helping —"

"I don't care about the building," Taylor interrupted, and Lois noticed that her expression was frantic. "There's someone in there!"

"What?" The officer stared at her. "Are you sure?"

"Positive. There's a high-tech security camera connected to a video display in my apartment. After I got the call, I checked it just in case — and it was flashing, which means there'd been an intruder."

"Why the hell didn't you tell the police immediately?" the officer demanded. He broke off to wave over a couple of firefighters, telling them that there was someone inside.

One firefighter shook his head. "If there's anyone in there, there's no way they're coming out alive. We can take a look, but I don't think it's safe to put men inside to search."

The expression of appalled shock on Toni Taylor's face drew Lois's attention. She stopped writing notes and studied the other woman. There was something she wasn't telling the fire officer, of that Lois was certain.

"Who is it?" she demanded. "Who's in there?"

"What?" Taylor stared at her. "How would I know who's in there?"

"You know," Lois retorted. "One of your brothers?"

The fire officer, who had finished issuing instructions, turned back, his attention clearly caught by the exchange. "Ms…?"

"Taylor. Toni Taylor."

"Ms Taylor, if you know anything at all about who is in there, you need to let me know. As it is, you're running a serious risk of having charges pressed against you for negligence."

Taylor looked from the fire officer to the burning building, to which firefighters dressed in protective clothing were currently running, then back again. "I saw him on my camera," she said, the strain audible in her voice. "Lex Luthor's in there!"


Clark made his way through the flames to the outside of the building, almost running into three firefighters dressed in fire- retardant clothing and breathing apparatus, and carrying hoses. "It's too dangerous to go in," he called, concerned for their safety.

One of them shoved his headgear aside. "We were told someone was in there…" His gaze fell to Clark's burden. "I guess that's him, huh, Superman?"

"I heard a scream," Clark explained. "But by the time I found him it was too late."

"Where did you find him?" the firefighter asked.

Clark described the surroundings.

"Just inside an open door?" The firefighter shook his head. "A fireball. Poor fool. If he hadn't opened the door he'd probably have made it — you'd have got him out alive if a little scorched and suffering from smoke inhalation."

Another firefighter had removed his headgear. "What the hell was he doing inside there, anyway? The owner said he broke in." He pulled a face. "I guess that's the police's problem. You sure there's no-one else in there, Superman?"

"Couldn't see any sign of anyone," Clark confirmed. "Look, let me hand this guy over to the paramedics, and then I'll be back to help you guys get this under control."


Her back to Toni Taylor, who was standing watching the blazing club, Lois hit a speed-dial number on her cellphone. It was answered within two rings.


"It's Lane. Can you get down to West River now?"

"I've come out of questioning a suspect to take this call, Lane. You think I have time to run halfway across the city?"

"You'll thank me for this," she told him. "And the suspect you're questioning might too. The Metro Club's on fire."

Henderson's groan was audible. "The Toasters again? There's nothing I can do there, Lois."

"Lex Luthor was in the building, Henderson. Still is, I understand."

"What?" Now she had his full attention. "He's trapped inside?"

"Probably pretty crispy by now," Lois quipped dryly. A flurry of movement caught the corner of her eye, and she turned back to the club to see Clark — as Superman — walking in her general direction and carrying what looked like a body. "No, I think he's out — Superman's here and I see him carrying a body out of the building."

"I'll be there in ten minutes. Don't go away." And the call was disconnected abruptly.

Rolling her eyes, Lois put her phone back into her purse and checked her watch. She was looking forward to this — even she couldn't get from Henderson's precinct to West River in ten minutes.

She made her way across to the fire department's paramedic vehicle, where Superman had taken the body. "Superman! Lois Lane, Daily Planet. He's dead, I take it?"

The paramedic gave her an irritated look.

"Unfortunately, yes. By the time I heard him scream, it was already too late." He laid the body on a gurney and moved back, closer to Lois; the paramedic thanked him, but then turned away to attend to the body.

"You know that's Lex Luthor?" Lois said quietly, watching her partner carefully.

He stared at her. "You're kidding!"

"Nope. Unless there's anyone else in there…"

"Not that I could see." Clark turned and stared back at the body on the gurney for a moment, then faced Lois again. "Yeah, it's him. The face is burned beyond recognition, but the bone structure's right. How did you know…?"

Lois explained briefly about Toni Taylor. "What a way to go," she added, glancing sideways and shuddering as she gazed at the corpse for a few seconds.

"Yeah," Clark said softly. The expression on his face made Lois frown.

"You're not blaming yourself, are you?"

"What, for not getting to him in time?" He shrugged. "I went down as soon as I heard him scream. But I guess he screamed because the fire had got him — so it was already too late then."

"Good," Lois said vehemently. At Clark's surprised expression, she bit her lip. "I know, I know. But if anyone deserves to be dead, Lex Luthor does. And we're going to prove it, too."

"Yeah," Clark agreed, then sighed. "I'd have saved him, you know? If I'd seen him in time, I mean. But… I can't be sorry that I didn't. This isn't like one of those poor guys caught in yesterday morning's fire. These fires were all his fault."

"But not this one, I'd guess," Lois pointed out. "Why would he order the Metro Club torched? Especially if he was planning to visit it."

"And Toni Taylor would never have agreed to it," Clark added. "I think this was a little bit of moonlighting by the Toasters."

Lois nodded. Her attention was caught then by the screech of brakes as a car pulled up sharply. "Henderson's here," she said abruptly. She checked her watch; he'd made it in under nine minutes. Impressive. "I'll talk to you later."

"Yeah, I said I'd help the firefighters anyway, and we've been talking here too long. I'll see you later." Clark hesitated for a moment, all the same, and in that instant Lois saw the expression in his eyes change: the sudden heat in his gaze warmed her and she was reminded of their kisses outside his apartment earlier. Yes, she was looking forward to seeing him later too.

And it was good to know that she wasn't the only one who'd found it hard to stand together like that and not be able to touch or to show their feelings for each other in any way at all. Lois had amazed herself with the strong impulse she'd felt to reach out to Clark. She'd wanted to stand closer to him so that he could put his arm around her shoulders. She'd wanted to reach up and plant a kiss on his jaw, and she'd wanted his arms to come around her and hold her. She'd wanted to kiss him the way they'd kissed that morning.

Reminding herself that he was there as Superman had required all of her concentration.

Clark strode away, taking flight quickly. She made herself *not* look at him, even though she loved watching his graceful movements in the air, and instead she went to meet Henderson, who was flashing his badge at a local cop.

"Is there any speed limit you didn't just break, Henderson?" she enquired drolly.

"For your information, Lane, there's one big difference between a cop and a reporter when it comes to breaking speed limits," he drawled in response. "I have a pretty flashing light on top of my car that allows me to do it."

"Yeah, yeah." Lois rolled her eyes at him. "The guy we're pretty sure is Lex Luthor is over there," she told him then, indicating the ambulance. "Toni Taylor said she saw him go into the building, and Superman just told me that the corpse's bone structure fits. Guess you'll need DNA or something to confirm it, though."

"Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," Henderson observed sardonically, before stuffing his hands in his pockets and strolling over to the ambulance.

Things happened very quickly after that. Toni Taylor was handcuffed and escorted to a police cruiser, apparently on Bill Henderson's instructions. The emergency personnel on the scene, who had been making it clear that they saw journalists as an annoying intrusion, suddenly became extremely co-operative — also Henderson's doing, Lois was sure.

And then Superman flew back, carrying two passengers. He landed just where Henderson was standing with a couple of uniformed cops, letting go of his captives abruptly once he did so. Lois noticed that the men, dressed in strange suits which appeared to be made of some sort of aluminium, were tied up with bent pieces of metal.

"Inspector, meet the Toasters," Clark said, a chill in his voice. "Two of them, anyway. I caught them in the act of setting another fire — which I put out, by the way. The third is confined a few blocks away, waiting for his ride. Oh, and their flame-throwers are there too. If you give me just a minute, I'll bring them here."

The eyebrow which shot right up into his hairline was the only sign that Henderson was actually taken aback by this development. "Good of you to arrange delivery, Superman," he said dryly. "Officers, take good care of these two, okay?"

Lois shook her head in admiration. Nigel St John and Toni Taylor under arrest, Lex Luthor dead and now the Toasters caught too. Perry was going to get his front-page story, all right. She just couldn't wait to see her editor's face when she and Clark delivered it to him. This year's Kerth for investigative journalism had Clark's and her name written all over it.

She turned to watch Superman take flight again, and remembered that tonight she'd be flying with him — to Smallville, to visit his parents. Best of all, though, she and Clark would get to have some private time alone together later.

And that thought gave her even more satisfaction than the prospect of winning another Kerth.


With a feeling of immense satisfaction, Bill Henderson oversaw the placement of the Toasters in another police vehicle and watched it drive off. As he'd told Lois, the West River fires weren't his case, and they certainly weren't on his patch. But given the evidence he had linking the fires to Lex Luthor, who certainly had been on his patch, he was entitled to claim some jurisdiction.

Of course, the document he had, the one Kent had obtained, wouldn't have been very much use in court anyway, given the way it had been acquired, although that still wouldn't have prevented him using it to try to get some sort of a confession or plea bargain out of Toni Taylor — Luthor's lawyers were far too smart for those tactics to be of any use with them. Now, of course, little of that was necessary: Lex Luthor was dead. Bill had seen the body and, while it was true that there was little left to identify, his policeman's eye had seen clues others might miss. Things such as bone structure, especially around the face, overall build and the quality of the fragments of clothing which had survived the inferno. Luthor was definitely dead.

Luthor's empire would start to crumble pretty quickly, revealing a lot of murky stuff which could keep him busy for some time. And he was looking forward to that; he had a very strong suspicion that, in the unravelling of Luthor's doings, he'd find the answer to a considerable number of questions which had been worrying the MPD for some time. And now, pressure could be brought to bear on Luthor's former associates to get them to come forward voluntarily rather than waiting to be arrested. Plus, he could finally deal with the leak within the department, something he hadn't tried to do so far in order to avoid tipping off Luthor that his source's cover had been blown. Yes, it was going to be a fascinating, and very satisfying, six months or so.

And the fact that they'd got to this point was, Bill admitted, largely due to the bane of his life, Lois Lane, and to her new partner. His gaze swivelled to Lane where she stood interviewing another firefighter.

Lois Lane. Who could have predicted, all those years ago, that the skinny, belligerent but scared kid he'd rescued would have turned out so well?

He remembered that evening as clearly as if it were yesterday. He'd been a beat cop at the time, called by a railroad station attendant to pick up two suspected runaways. The younger kid had been tired and tearful; the older, however, had given him a suspicious glare and immediately moved to stand protectively in front of her sister. Even when he'd shown her his badge — as if his uniform hadn't been enough to prove his status — she'd been wary. She'd refused to tell him anything about why the two of them had been running away, or where they'd been going. She'd also refused to tell him where they lived; the younger kid, though, had recited her address when asked, much to Lois's obvious annoyance. And yet, when he'd delivered them home, Lois had turned to him and thanked him, stiffly and formally.

He'd never forgotten her. And, although he hadn't exactly intended to, he'd kept track of her over the years. In part, it was the unsolved mystery which had bugged him: why should two kids from a well-off household, with a doctor for a father, feel such despair that they would run away? And why had he been left with the strong impression that, if it hadn't been for her younger sister, Lois would have left again in a heartbeat?

So he'd followed her progress through high school and her interest in journalism, through MetU and her internship at the Planet. Once, only once, had he come close to making contact again: a friend of hers in college had been attacked and Lois was listed as a witness. But he'd hesitated and then handed the case to a colleague, worried that, if he'd made himself known to her as the cop who'd rescued her years before, Lois might take a dim view of the fact that he still remembered her. A guy almost old enough to be her father — she could've thought of him as some sort of stalker. Though that had never been his motive. Something about the young Lois, her courage combined with the sadness he'd seen in her eyes, an expression which, then, he hadn't been used to seeing in kids, had struck a chord in him.

But she'd turned out well: a highly successful journalist by her mid-twenties, persistent enough to be a real pain in the butt to him much of the time. Regardless, he respected her highly, and he was aware that, under her sarcasm and aggression towards him, she respected him too. One thing, though, that had never gone away was the aura she projected of Lois Lane against the world; it was clear that she still hated to rely on anyone but herself, and that she believed no-one could be trusted.

That, though, could be changing. Bill smiled inwardly as he recalled his morning meeting with Lois and her partner after Kent had chased off his mugger. Despite Lois's attempts to pretend otherwise, it was clear that she and Kent were more than just work colleagues.

And she'd found one of the good guys, too, Bill reflected as he watched Superman accept the appreciation of the firefighters and take off into the air again. His hands in his pockets once more, he scanned the crowd of onlookers until he saw what he'd been looking for.

A man slipped out of a side alley and melted into the crowd. Seconds later, Clark Kent pushed his way through and flashed his press-pass at the police cordon, then made his way over to Lois. Bill smiled again. The nagging feeling which had been pestering him since he'd talked to Superman about Nigel St John, and which had turned into a hunch when he'd seen Superman talking with Lois just a few minutes earlier, was confirmed.

It was completely understandable that no-one else had seen through the illusion — the flashy costume was intended to distract, after all, and it did that very well. But Bill did have years of experience at seeing beyond what people wanted him to see. He noticed things that others would not — such as Superman's faint twitchiness earlier that morning when Bill had been talking about penetrating disguises. The biggest clue of all, though, had been the way Lois Lane and Superman had been looking at each other. They probably hadn't even been conscious of it themselves, and no casual observer would have noticed. But he had.

Although wild horses would never make him tell her so, young Lois Lane had grown up into a woman Inspector Bill Henderson was proud to know. And now, with Clark Kent in her life, he thought he could finally stop worrying about her.

"Take care, Lois," he murmured, too softly for her to hear him, and he turned to walk towards his car.



A week later


Clark, in the middle of preparing dinner, looked up and smiled at Lois, who had just come into the apartment. It had been the best week of his life so far. No more nightmares — they'd simply disappeared after the night he'd finally talked to Lois. His trauma finally seemed to be a thing of the past. Not that he would ever forget what Jason Trask had done to him, or to his parents. But he was putting it behind him and learning to live again without being haunted by fear or guilt.

And he had come to terms with being alien — and he knew that, for all his differences, the people who loved him wouldn't have him any other way.

Best of all, he had the woman of his dreams living with him, loving him. Being there for him.

"Hey. You worked later than you said you were going to."

"Got a phone call just as I was leaving," she explained. "My insurance agent."

"Oh yeah?" Clark raised an eyebrow. Lois's insurance company had delayed and delayed making a decision on whether it intended to pay out for the fire. The company had acted very badly, he felt; it wasn't only Lois who was in limbo, but other former residents of the apartment building too, almost all of whom were insured with the same company.

"Apparently, they finally decided that, although the fire was arson, it wasn't caused by anyone who lived there, and no-one who lived there gained in any way from the fire. So they're going to pay out after all. And the building's owners, because they're going to get a payout too, have offered everyone a new apartment in a building about half a mile away. No increase in rent, although the apartments are newer and bigger."

Clark stilled. Lois was still staying with him, of course, using the bedroom he'd created for her upstairs. For the past week, he'd been living with his girlfriend, except for the separate bedrooms — something he didn't have a problem with, although he had to admit that he longed to have her share his bed. Not just for lovemaking, although he longed for that too; he wanted to hold her through the night and to wake up in the morning next to her. Living with Lois made his life complete.

But the duration of the arrangement was something they'd never discussed. He'd made it clear that she could regard it as temporary or as permanent; whatever she preferred. And she'd never expressed a preference either way.

"So what are you going to do?" he asked, trying to keep his voice even despite the sinking feeling in his heart that she was going to move out.

"Well…" She sounded hesitant. "I… wondered if I should go and look at the apartments…"

There had definitely been uncertainty in her voice. "You wondered? You don't know?"

Lois shrugged awkwardly. "I… well, I can't impose on you indefinitely…"

He dropped the vegetable knife he was holding and rushed to her side. "Lois, you're not imposing on me! Don't you know how much I love having you live here with me?"

She dipped her head, even as he took her in his arms. "I love living here with you. And I know you said in the beginning that I could stay as long as I wanted… but I figured you might have changed your mind, or that now that we're dating you might think it's awkward if I stay here and we're not sleeping together…"

"Lois," he said firmly, interrupting her. "I *love* it that we're living together. Of course I'd love it if we were sleeping together too, but what's the hurry? I'm not going anywhere, and I hope you're not either. Making love can wait until we're both ready." He paused, giving her a wry smile. "I'm in this for the long term, Lois. I'm hoping that you are too."

"The… long term?" She pulled back and out of his arms, but stayed close, just looking up at him.

"Lois, I want to marry you," he said, heart in his mouth. "Look, I know it's far too soon, and I don't want you to consider that a proposal. But it's what I want eventually, when the time is right. So in the meantime, if you're asking me do I want you to move out of here and move into an apartment on your own about six miles from here, leaving me on my own here… the answer's no."

Her smile warmed his heart. "I'm glad. Because I want to stay."

"Stay, then," he asked, smiling at her, his love for her in every look, every touch.

"I will." She took a step closer, bringing herself into his arms again.

"Good." He lowered his head and brought one hand up to slide his palm along her cheek. "Because I'm not sure that I could've let you leave."

"I'm not sure that I could've left," she murmured against his lips.

"That's just as well, then." He smiled softly, then captured her mouth with his own.

And the strange visitor from another planet finally knew that he belonged.


(c) Wendy Richards 2004

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