Waking a Miracle

By Aria <aria5@vt.edu>

Rated: PG

Submitted: November 2004

Summary: Clark Kent, in an attempt to escape his past and start over, moves to Metropolis, but his efforts are in vain. In this rewrite of The Pilot, ghosts of the past are never far behind, and neither is a sparking collision with Lois Lane…

Author Notes:

Wow, where to start? This story started out of my desire to contribute something meaningful to this community. After so many years of reading all of the wonderful L&C fiction on the archives, I wanted to give something back. I've already submitted one story before, but it was about eight years ago or more, and I think my writing, both in style and form, has matured past my ability to describe the difference other than, "Ummm, well, it's better." <=== Notice my perfect command of metaphor there.

Since there is no established canon where this story breaks off from, I guess you could call it elseworld. However, I borrow dialogue heavily from the show from the Pilot, Strange Visitor, and a bit from Neverending Battle. Speaking of which, many thanks to Caroline, whose wonderful website of L&C scripts helped me beyond words in the writing of this story. And of course many thanks as well to the L&C script writers, from whom came so much sparkling dialogue.

Many thousand thanks to my beta readers Sara, Gary, and Nick. Sara you started as and continue to be a true bastion of inspiration for me, and a pleasure to work with. Gary, I hate you and love you for being so nitpicky, and Nick, you were a huge help when I was hashing out the plot for this monster. Additional thanks goes to MDL for encouraging me and giving more general comments on my ideas.

I'm including the obligatory WHAM warnings, but don't worry, there are laughs and good feelings abound as well! This is a drama, so it's got the full range :)

I absolutely thrive on feedback. Whatever you feel like sending me, from praise to constructive criticism, is just fine with me. My goal is to improve my writing (my *dream* is to write professionally), and if you have some suggestion to help me do that then by all means, criticize. My e-mail for the time being is aria5@vt.edu, and I check it regularly if you don't feel comfortable posting feedback to the boards, but I have no problem with publicly posted stuff so feel free to zing or gush at me with whatever method you feel like using. ;P

And so, with the introduction out of the way, let us begin :)


Overwhelming was the first word that came to her mind.

Janice Forrester stood, heavy shopping bags clutched in her hands, an island of inactivity in a sea of frantic bustle. She imagined that she could hear every rushed breath, every frenzied heartbeat, every curse and shout, every belligerent car horn, and every other noise from there to the end of three blocks down, even despite the harsh, chest-melting thrumming of bass emanating from a nearby boom box. Casting a disapproving glare towards the adolescent with the monstrous stereo perched on his shoulder, she shifted her bags and glanced to her left.

A handsome young man stood next to her, a brown, ragged suitcase resting at his feet beside him. He was relaxed, not fidgeting like the rest of the frenetic crowd around her. The movement of air generated by passing cars kicked his trench coat into more the guise of a cape flapping in the wind, and in the breeze, his suitcase bumped into his leg in an odd rhythm. Bright golden letters, 'CK,' glinted unevenly in the light.

She wondered briefly what the 'CK' might stand for. Carl? Clay? Chris? No. He looked like a Charlie, she decided.

He was a striking man. Dark black hair fell unruly almost down to his shoulders, but the muted sunlight that pushed through the canopy of buildings overhead glanced off it brightly enough to make it appear dark brown. Glasses framed his oval face, but unlike some folks she knew, they did nothing to detract from his olive complexion and wide, soulful, brown eyes.

She met his gaze by accident and quickly averted her eyes, as was the appropriate thing to do, but couldn't suppress a gasp at the spark she had received in just that short set of moments. The pain and desolation that hovered in his stare was enough to make her shudder, even though the air passing capriciously about her was balmy. She had seen that look before once in a puppy she had found abandoned and stranded in the alley by her apartment.

A handsome man, yes, but not an unmarred one, she decided. That man had known pain.

The acrid scent of exhaust bled into her nostrils as the sudden roar of traffic to her left made her realize that the walk light had come on in her corner. She was struck and jostled about as the crowd standing behind her refused to wait for her to move. Wobbling like a bumped bowling pin, she nearly lost her footing, but a firm, reassuring grip around her arm righted the tilting horizon.

"Are you all right, Miss?" Maybe-Charlie asked. His voice was soft and he wore genuine concern on his face.

Janice stared back into those chocolate eyes, trying and mostly failing not to drown in them. "Y-yes. Fine, sorry, and thank you," she stammered as he released her. She brushed off her light coat and righted her shopping bags.

He gave her the smallest of smiles before she stepped gingerly out into the crosswalk. Her heel caught a nick in the pavement, but she saved her balance, this time under her own power. In several minutes, she knew Maybe-Charlie would be only a fading memory.

The main group of pedestrians was already out in the middle of the street, and Janice was lagging slightly behind when she froze mid-step. She noticed sounds of distress and glanced up the hill. A metro bus was careening down the road, swaying drunkenly back and forth in its designated lane. The driver was gesturing, and the horn blared obnoxiously, over and over like a steady stream of insults.

"Look out for the bus!" Maybe-Charlie's rich voice pierced her panic.

People were scattering. The young man carrying the boom box rushed back towards her, and suddenly, she was yanked out of harm's way.

The bus whipped past her as cars down below on the street flew up onto the sidewalk to avoid the oncoming battering ram. She could hear the terrified screams of the bus patrons through its open windows as it barreled past her, only several feet away. The gust of air that accosted her as it swerved by set her hair on ends.

A banshee's wail of torn and twisted metal echoed off the towering buildings up and down the street as the bus collided with a line of parked cars. Glass shattered, and the tires of the bus left ugly black scars on the road.

The behemoth came to a slow halt, and people began evacuating, spilling out the rear and sides like disturbed ants. Several of them were staggering about, clutching wounds of varying severity.

The driver had not yet emerged.

Not knowing what possessed her to do so, Janice glanced back at Maybe-Charlie. He was standing there, his face pale as fresh white-wash, eyes squeezed shut. His fists were jammed into his pockets and his lips were clenched into a tight, straight line.

Janice stumbled to her feet, thanking the young man with the stereo for pulling her out of the way.

"Sir, are *you* okay?" she asked pointedly toward Maybe-Charlie as she brushed off her coat. He had not moved an inch yet.

The man's eyes opened and he glanced around haphazardly, as if he had forgotten he was standing in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, until his gaze came to rest upon her. "No, not really," he whispered. And then he was gone, rushing down the street in the opposite direction, suitcase in hand, as the dull whine of sirens began in the distance.


The cicadas were keening. Dry soil cracked under young Clark's feet, and aging tawny grass spread out into the dying September fields like rotting carpet. The small, off-white farmhouse stood just up on the rise, framed in a halo by the sun.

The world seemed to stretch into a flat, treeless eternity before him, as though it were God's cruel joke to set him on a treadmill. His father's bright-red truck sat in the distance, smoke billowing from the hood in lazy, bulbous plumes. There was a man standing nearby on the road, staring, but not helping. His arms were crossed before him, and his feet stood apart in a haughty, superior posture.

Clark felt his insides twist, and the stretch of dusty road before him snapped back into place like an over-taxed rubber band. He was there at the truck, staring dumbly at the occupants. He had never moved so fast in his life. Dust was scattering upwards all the way from the farmhouse.

"Mom, Dad, wake up," he called.

He approached the vehicle and nearly ripped the door off. Metal screamed at him.

"Mom?" His mother was at the seat behind the wheel. Her eyes were closed and her chest wasn't moving. She was still, like those mannequins at the department stores in Wichita, except blood trickled down over the crown of her forehead.

The smell of dry turf and smoke burned his nose.

"Dad?" His gut wrenched when he heard no reply. The bright golds and sun hues that framed the late afternoon seemed to fade into a bleak dullness. He should have been faster. He had been in the kitchen when he heard the screeching of metal. He could remember his father shouting something. Shouting. He should have moved the second he had heard.

"Wake up, please."

But he hadn't moved, not right away. There had been a moment, just a moment, of hesitation.


The man that had been standing on the road finally approached. "Do you see now?" he asked.

Clark shook his head. No, he didn't see. There was a strange solid thing gathering in his throat. His breaths shortened as he tried to inhale around it.

"Do you see now the pain you caused me when you took my Sarah away?"

Clark blinked and turned. The man was tall. His face was broad and unblemished, and his brown hair was very short. He was wearing a dull gray jump-suit.

"Who are you?" he asked the man.

The man's eyes widened and he pointed to himself. "You have the audacity to ask me who I am, Alien, after you already took pains to ruin my life?"

The man wasn't making sense. He choked on his words, his face turning scarlet, his eyes watery and bloodshot. "You killed my Sarah, and now I'm showing you what will happen every time I catch you using your powers. You freak. Alien. Scum." The man was spitting, his words coiled and rolled in Clark's stomach like a snake.

"Look there!" The man gestured to Clark's silent parents. "That's your fault and yours alone." He leaned back into his crossed-arms, haughty posture. "You don't understand yet, do you?"

Clark felt the pricks of tears in the backs of his eyes, but he wouldn't let them come. Not yet. The thing in his throat wasn't going away either.

The man's lips slithered into a leer. "My name is Jason Trask, little alien, and I will make you understand."


The word reverberated in his head for a few seconds as though it were carried on the rumble of distant thunder.

"Son?" The voice repeated, but seemed to be a few pitches higher and not so distant this time.

Clark blinked his way back into the present and winced. Calls for help, so numerous in this city, were taking their toll on him. Every cry shot through him and seemed to set his body into a quivery, nauseated, useless-feeling lump, and always there were the horrible flashbacks.

Noisy, horrible, Technicolor flashbacks.

He could still remember how long the road had looked when he had been trying to get to his parents. He could still remember the sounds of their screams and the ripping of metal — a ghastly sound at that, as though someone were scraping nails over glass.

But that was the past, and in the present, the room was quiet, save for the sound of traffic lifting up through the window panes like the scent of warm food wafting out from a homey kitchen.

"I'm sorry, sir, what were you saying?" His voice sounded weak, even to his own ears. Way to go, Clark… This was not going to make a good impression, that was for sure.

His hands started to clam up a bit, and the wood of his chair's arms began to feel slippery. He forced himself not to make any obvious gesture of wiping them dry. At least the room wasn't blotted like a watercolor anymore. He blinked a few more times.

Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, sat across from Clark, looking at him with a piercing gaze. Mr. White was wearing a dark set of pants, a light blue cotton shirt, and a rumpled vest. His suit jacket was hung over the back of his heavy wooden chair, and the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up to the elbows. The smell of ink and new paper hovered in the air, and his desk had marked up papers strewn about as though a gust of wind had done the sorting for him.

Mr. White stared at Clark for a long set of moments, the ticking of the office clock marking off the end of each long second. One. Two. Three. Four. Mr. White's eyebrows waggled almost imperceptibly, and his pupils dilated a bit. Five. Clark felt hot for a moment, as though he were an ant under a magnifying lens on a sunny day.

"Dan Carlton called me about you," Mr. White said. "He's a good friend of mine. We used to go golfing on Sundays before he took that editor position out in Kansas City at the Star."

Five seconds, and Mr. White had already, no doubt, formed an opinion. The knowledge was daunting.

"Yes, sir. I worked for Mr. Carlton for a year after I got back from Australia," Clark replied noncommittally.

Bad. This was going bad already.

He tried to shake off the last pound of the cold ball of guilt clenched in the pit of his stomach. He couldn't help, he had to tell himself repeatedly. He couldn't help. Ignoring those cries was the most aid he could offer. If he tried to assist, more would be hurt than if he just did nothing.

You're a coward, a voice said.

Perry grunted. "Sounds like you've done some traveling."

"Yes, sir," Clark cleared his throat and continued, "Before Australia, I was in Nepal. I spent a few years after college traveling everywhere I could. I'm conversationally fluent in pretty much any language you can think of."

"A citizen of the world."

"I guess you could say that. Although this is my first time in Metropolis."

Liar, the voice said to him. But Mr. White had no way of knowing that, he reasoned. His stomach curled.

"And you hail from Smallville? That's…"

"Kansas, sir."

"Right, Kansas."

Mr. White flipped through Clark's writing samples. His lips moved a bit as he read, and his eyes moved right to left as he quickly skimmed the top article. His face got a bit brighter.

Clark suppressed a small cheer. He had chosen that article from the small handful he had written for the Kansas City Star under Dan Carlton. That particular piece was about corruption in the city's appellate courts. Several justices had been taking bribes.

"Tell me, son. Why is it that you want to be an investigative reporter for the Daily Planet?" Mr. White leaned back in his seat and clasped his hands in his lap.

Clark looked upwards and thought about the question.

Why did he want to be a reporter?

He remembered the warm feeling he had when the papers had blitzed thank yous for and speculation about his amazing feats across every front page from Metropolis to Borneo.

"Mysterious Saves = Miracle Man?" a bold headline had shouted.

He recalled one article claiming, "For the past month or more, this planet has been witness to an unending fountain of miraculous turns of good fortune, from the Air France jetliner that landed itself with no engines intact, to the averted repeat of the Exxon Valdez disaster. There is no seeming relationship between these events, but all witness accounts are the same. A mysterious figure in black appears, saves the day, and is gone before anyone can determine surely if it's an apparition, hopeful imaginations, or a flesh and blood individual. Regardless, Miracle Man seems to be a dream come true, and a recurring one, at that."

But it wasn't about the celebrity or the thanks. Every time someone he had rescued walked home on their own two feet, every time a loved one got to say a few more words to their special someone because of something he did…

He tried very hard not to leave indentations where his fingers rested, clutching the dampened chair arms as though they were life preservers.

Every time somebody got killed because you tried to help someone, the voice taunted, because you thought if nobody recognized you, you would be safe. You'll never be safe…

A small sound came from his throat, but Mr. White didn't seem to notice. He had gone back to looking at the writing samples.

"Well, sir, if I can't…" Mr. White looked up and Clark forced his voice to remain even. His heart throbbed nervously in his ears, and the room seemed much hotter. "If I can't be some sort of Miracle Man, a symbolic icon of all the right morals and values, fighting my way through every injustice with my brawn, I'd like to do what I can with my pen. The media is society's metaphorical watchdog, for when the literal watchdogs aren't functioning. Sir. And as for being at the Planet, any reporter would be crazy for not wanting to work at the most widely read, trusted, and distributed newspaper in the world."

Perry White smiled at that, and Clark felt the knots in his taut muscles begin to loosen a bit.


The televisions blared in the background of the Daily Planet's ever-active bullpen as news from across the world came in over the wires, and the scrolling marquee on the wall updated every few minutes or so with the latest information about the markets, car accidents, Messenger launch failures, candidacy debates, and whatever else happened to be happening that day at that moment. Reporters, messengers, researchers, and copy boys ran this way and that as the sound of ringing telephones dotted the bustle with their chorus.

At least…

That's how she would have described the newsroom if she were writing her novel. But no, everything was mostly dull today. The marquee had been repeating the same message all morning. Messenger launch failure. Messenger launch failure. Messenger launch failure. Because it was basically the only thing that had happened.

Lois Lane leaned back in her chair and sighed as she watched the news on her small desk set. After reorganizing her desk, watering her plant, refilling the coffee pot up at the refreshment station, moving her nameplate from the top of her monitor, down to in front of her lone, dilapidated plant, and then back to the top of her monitor again, finally resorting to harassing the police to rustle up some criminals, she had run out of things to pass the time. Inspector Henderson had basically hung up on her, although the low-pitched grunt he'd made at the end of the conversation might have been a polite goodbye instead of a growl, given the fact that, well, it was Henderson. But, anyways. After that, she had even lowered herself to checking the court dockets. 235 speeding tickets and not a single felony.

It just wasn't fair.

The world was conspiring against her.

She crossed her legs at the ankles and used her heels to prop her chair back comfortably. This seemed like just one of those days where she was doomed to be bored. At least she didn't feel so bad for resorting to the television to see if there was any news she was missing somehow. It was a purely justifiable act of desperation!

"Transport vehicle Messenger, piloted by Commander Jack Laderman and carrying the final propulsion module for Space Station Prometheus, is scheduled for lift-off Friday at 9 A.M.," the anchorwoman on LNN commented.

Lois rolled her eyes. Who could have ever guessed that this would be the top story?

"Many hopes are riding on the success of this mission, especially in light of the failure of last week's unmanned launch. Space Station Prometheus, an international effort, is still lying low in its orbit, awaiting the arrival of the remaining modules, including the colonist habitation module scheduled to launch next week. Once all are in place, the Station will be lifted into permanent orbit."

Lois resisted the urge to bite back at the TV. The repeated delays and malfunctions, to her, just screamed ineptitude. Typical government ineptitude. She had done a preliminary investigation as soon as reports that the first shuttle launch had failed had begun to trickle in, but had been bounced around to so many ignorant department heads she had ended up switching tracks and had spent the rest of the day researching the space program.

The anchorwoman continued. "Dr. Toni Baines, Director of the Extra-Planetary Research and Development agency, reminds us that timing is crucial. A series of delays and launch failures has put EPRAD's back to the wall."

EPRAD, in the past several years, hadn't managed to complete a single mission successfully, which she suspected was more the reason that their future projects were threatened than just the failure of this particular one. She had decided she could easily write an op-ed piece regarding the tribulations of EPRAD, but that there certainly wasn't any breaking news in yet another one of their projects going down the tubes, which was too bad, considering that the goals of the projects were beneficial to just about everyone.

She had visited EPRAD's facilities just to make absolutely sure there was nothing fishy going on, and she had gotten bounced around to different secretaries almost as if they were playing hot potato with her. The few supervisors she had managed to get through to could tell her absolutely nothing, and it had been easy to figure out that they had had no more idea about their own situation than she did.

The whole trip had been a ridiculous waste of her time.

The picture of the LNN anchorwoman flipped to Dr. Antoinette Baines. Her face was round, almost like a pie-plate in shape — the short, sort-of-curled blond hair that framed it made it seem even more so — and her make-up was impeccable. "Unless all modules are in place within the next few weeks, Space Station Prometheus will lose its orbit and fall back into Earth's atmosphere. That kind of occurrence would surely spell the end to any future projects and the space station as a whole."

Well, Baines sounded sincere. Sort of.

Lois glared, a bit angry that a woman could preside over such a mess of failures. Lois had to work her butt off just to make sure men were looking at her writing and not at her chest. This woman had managed to gain a director position, and now she was blowing it for herself and for women everywhere by making herself look like a bungling, bureaucratic fool.

The LNN anchorwoman didn't seem to care, however, and moved on to the next story on her list.

"And in other news, political golden boy, George Thompson, jumped ahead several points in the polls today. With the Democratic and Republican candidates clawing for approval, primaries only days away, for the first time in history, an Independent is leading the pack. Virtually an unknown before this year's candidacy race, George Thompson was a long-standing special agent in the FBI and also served in the Air Force earlier in his life, although neither career seems to be marked with any hallmarks of achievement. When asked why he had chosen no party affiliation, Thompson commented that he would do what was best for the United States, regardless of which party that plan fell under. When asked to elaborate on his campaign goals, however, he stated he would do what the people wanted him to do."

"Well, that's just perfect," Lois snapped, unable to help herself. "It figures that this is the one country where a nobody with no real values, no campaign goals, no recognizable personality whatsoever, and whose only claim to fame is that he seems to be a darned nice guy, can become the leader of the free world."

That had come out a lot louder than she had intended.

The choir of telephones and jumbled noises seemed to hush as her last words sling-shot off the walls. Even the scrolling marquee seemed to slow down, as if wary of her next move.

She rolled her eyes, feeling heat form on her face. Gazes were resting on her, pricking into the back of her neck, curious and intrusive. Whispers seemed to dart about like a morass of hungry locusts. She hoped her foundation was hiding the blush she felt creeping across her skin.

Her chair protested, feet scraping loudly across the tiled floor as she stood and jammed it backwards with the backs of her knees. "What?!" She raised her hands outwards from her shoulders as if to say, 'I don't know,' but the mean spirit in her voice and the serious look on her face quickly dispelled that interpretation.

She waved flippantly. "Go back to work!"

The noise level returned to normal as everyone switched back to what they had been doing before, most notably nothing, and she collapsed back into her chair with a sigh. Several pens and pencils cascaded to the floor as she knocked over her pencil cup, but remembering that she had just gotten everyone to stop looking at her, she managed to withhold a flamboyant curse in favor of a sigh.

They were gossiping about her, she knew. It was like her innate spider-sense. Lois, they're talking about what a cold fish you are again. Not a cold fish. Driven! A driven ice queen? Get a grip, Lane!

It didn't matter what they thought as long as she was the one pulling in the Kerths and scaring up leads. Today, naturally, didn't count in that assessment, since there were no leads to scare.

She bent to the floor to retrieve her spilled writing utensils, only to feel a familiar pair of eyes on her.

"Morning, Lois," Cat Grant's snide voice dripped over Lois's shoulder. "On your hands and knees again, I see."

Lois peered under her arm only to meet eyes with a heeled shoe. How Cat did not have back trouble with heels like that, she would never know. "Isn't it a little too early for you to be in, Cat?" she snapped as she rolled back onto the balls of her feet and pushed up into a standing position, pens and pencils clutched in one hand. "I thought ladies like you only worked nights."

Cat's left eyebrow raised and a slow smirk spread across her face. She shifted on her feet so that the split in her dress was even more revealing. "Part of my job as a society columnist—"

"Mud-slinging rumor monger," Lois interjected, rolling her eyes.

Cat's voice rose, fighting for dominance, "—is to maintain an active social life." Every word was punctuated as her stare grazed Lois's figure from head to toe. "You remember what that's like… or do you?"

Lois's cheeks started to burn with heat again. There was pressure in her chest that threatened to explode. "Listen, Cat," she began, her tone low, almost a growl.

But Cat seemed to give up the subject and tilted her head towards Perry's office, a questioning look in her eyes. "So who's the new tight end?"

Lois turned to follow Cat's gaze and noticed for the first time that there was a man in the office with Perry — a very good- looking man with dark hair, a loose-fitting charcoal suit, and a horrific tie. "I have no idea," she answered, surprised.

"Some new guy," Jimmy answered as he approached. There was… a thing… clutched in his hand. It looked almost like one of those horns circus clowns used, but… "Sorry, I overheard you two," he replied sheepishly when Lois raised her eyebrows at him.

"It's okay." She eavesdropped all the time — not like it was a sin when people were too focused on what they were saying to move somewhere more private. "What do you know, and what *is* that in your hands, Jimmy?"

Jimmy glanced downward at his bundle. "It's, um, the horn for Perry's golf cart. He wanted me to fix it. The tone's still off but—" He cleared his throat.

Lois looked at it in disbelief as he squeezed the bulbous end of the horn and a dull bleat emitted, kind of like she imagined a dying cow would sound, if she were in fact present, by some horrible trick of fate, at its death. Deadpanning for a few seconds, she could resist the temptation no longer. She threw her fists into the air and grimaced. "Please, send us a conspiracy! Anything! I would cover a movie premiere at this point!" she cried to no one in particular.

Even Cat had no arguments.

"Anyways," Jimmy continued, "Perry's looking at him for the open investigative reporter position. He used to live in Smallville, I think, but he worked at the Kansas City Star."

"Smallville? I couldn't *make* that name up."

"You know, Lois," Cat purred, "Sometimes the small town boys are the wildest."

"Spare me the Danielle Steele novel, Cat."

"You know, I've visited Chautauqua County once." Jimmy grinned and wagged his eyebrows suggestively. "Think I've been imbued with rural powers?"

Cat looked appalled, her lips curling in disgust. She took a deep breath and began to respond, but the phone on Lois's desk rang, and Lois gratefully extricated herself from the conversation before she heard Cat's no doubt searing retort.

She lifted her phone off its cradle and answered, "Daily Planet, Lois Lane speaking."

Please. Please, let this be a story, she chanted silently.

"Hi, Lois. It's Scott." Her FBI contact's deep baritone voice filled her with hope that this might not be a slow news day after all.

The sounds of Cat and Jimmy's verbal boxing match faded quickly.

"Hi, Scott. How are you doing? Do you have information for me?" Hoping she hadn't sounded too eager, she shifted the phone to her other ear, grabbed a pen, and flipped open her notepad past pages and pages until she arrived at an empty one.

"As always, but this is more sticky than usual. This is deep background, understand? I'm not to be implicated in any way."

"Of course, Scott." She let loose a breath of indignation. "You know I always protect my sources." She had been to jail more than once for brief periods when the Shield Laws had failed to come through for her. She actually played poker with some of the Daily Planet lawyers from time to time. Mad Dog Lane didn't reveal sources. It was as simple as that.

She had to pull the phone back from her ear when Scott let out a heavy breath into the receiver. "George Thompson — you need to keep your eyes on him," Scott said.

She suppressed a shiver as a rush of excitement twanged through her, and she smiled. Proof positive that no man was ever a decent individual.

'George Thompson,' she wrote on her pad.

"Has he done something illegal?"

There was a long pause, but she heard movement on the other end of the line so she knew he hadn't gone anywhere.

"Scott? Has he done something illegal?"

"Well, I can't say for sure." Hedging. Scott had called her to give her a tip and now he was hedging? What did *that* mean? Scott *never* hedged. He always gave her two minutes of fact after monotone, regurgitated fact, said his pleasantries, and was off the phone.

This was big. Huge. Bigger than huge.


She brought herself back down from orbit in time to hear Scott finally continue. "Rumor has it there is a certain very hard to find FBI office called Bureau 39 that was somehow involved with the disappearance of Miracle Man last year, and also that certain parties are now trying to cover up what little points to the department's existence."

'Conspiracy? Bureau 39 = ? FBI cover-up of MM disappearance?' More notes flew down onto her pad. More excitement. Not only was it bigger than huge, it was her dream story.

"Involved with the disappearance?" she asked. "What is Bureau 39? What does this have to do with Thompson? It wasn't even solidly proven that Miracle Man existed in the first place!"

Suddenly, she became aware that she was thwacking her pen against the corner of her desk in an odd, but very loud, rhythm — like a drunk woodpecker. Jimmy and Cat had stopped arguing and were standing side by side, arms crossed, eyebrows raised, and both were peering at her. She swallowed and stilled the pen, giving them what she thought was her best, most hopeful smile.

"Thompson is supposedly Bureau 39's supervisor, at least in name."

More scribbled notes.

George Thompson was Bureau 39's supervisor, 'in name.' What did 'in name' mean? That would imply somebody else was really pulling the strings. Wouldn't it? Or maybe it meant he wasn't really a supervisor in the sense of the word she thought of — signing checks, making a few decisions here and there, but never really getting his hands dirty, not knowing anything worth knowing. *Maybe* he went down into the trenches with his men!

And did what, exactly?

"What do you mean, 'in name'? What's Bureau 39?"

"You'll have to find that out for yourself, Lois, because even I don't know." Scott sounded much more relaxed now, like someone who had gone in for dental work dripping with apprehensive nerves and was pleased to find out nothing bad was really going to happen.

But… She was flummoxed. That couldn't be everything! He couldn't dangle a piece of meat in front of her and then explain that, well, he didn't really know what *kind* of meat it was. Or if it were really meat at all. Which brought about a whole new set of issues. Because if it wasn't meat, well then, what was it? Fruit?

"Scott, come on," she protested. "Don't throw me a bone and then yank it back out of reach."

"I'm sorry, Lois, I really don't have anything else. Just watch Thompson, and I'm sure you'll get your story."

The sound of the dial tone put a very definite period on that exchange. She growled as she slammed down her phone and looked at her notes. She had a bunch of questions, and she wasn't even sure what they were about.

"Well?" Jimmy asked expectantly, reminding her that he and Cat were both still standing there.

She shook her head. "I have to talk to Perry."

She stood and made a beeline for his office, leaving her pair of spectators gawking in her charged wake.


The interview, he thought, had progressed fairly well after he had finally steadied his footing. The last remnants of the call for help that had so startled him as he had sat down had faded with time, and Mr. White had actually started to converse casually with him after a while. There had even been an anecdote about Elvis interning as a cub reporter. That had taken some effort to keep a straight face about, but he'd managed.

"No," Clark had said, "I didn't know Elvis wanted to work at the Planet."

He was enduring another pause in the interview as Mr. White churned further through Clark's portfolio, when the door rocked on its hinges and opened without so much as a knock for precursor.

"Chief! I have a Pulitzer story for sure!" The cry was a feminine machine-gun. A gust of air from the outer newsroom flew past and startled the papers on Mr. White's desk.

Mr. White's eyes widened just a bit, as if he had spotted an oncoming train and was nailed to the tracks, but his composure returned so quickly Clark debated whether he had imagined it. He heard the click of heels echoing off the floor behind him, and a tingling sensation began on the back of his neck.

Clark turned to face the intrusion.

His breath caught, and he stared, despite how rude it seemed. For the barest of moments, her eyes locked on his, and the world spilled away. It was the first time in his life he had floated without leaving the ground. The voice, relentless in haunting him, was silent, and her thrumming heartbeat filled the void left in its wake. Exquisite.

She blinked and shifted her gaze back to Mr. White.

"Chief," she began again, "I think there's a story here. I got a call from my contact in the FBI, you know, Scott, and—"

Her voice seemed to be fading in and out. He saw her lips moving, arms gesturing frantically, but that was all. Her brown hair, cut in an immaculate bob, framed the motions of her head as she cycled through her speech.

Sound came roaring back.

"—he's claiming there's some sort of *cover-up* going on about a Bureau 39 and that Independent candidate, George Thompson. I think—"

Mr. White finally stood up to intervene. His hands splayed, he pointed to his chest and cleared his throat. "Can't you see I'm in the middle of something here?"

Her gaze twitched to Clark and then back to Mr. White, and her lips closed into a small 'o' shape. "Oh." Her tirade stopped, but the tension in her posture told him she was just waiting for the light to turn green again.

This woman, whoever she was, was pure spitfire.

Clark felt his breath come back to him at last, and he stood, his chair creaking obnoxiously as he did so as if to say, "This man didn't know to stand when a beautiful lady entered! The idea is just now processing through his thick cranium. Look and behold the Neanderthal…"

He barely held his mouth closed. If he were to say hello now, he was sure it would come out something like, "Uhhh."

Great job, Clark. Drooling will really help the image.

Silence ticked by for a few moments. Clark watched varied emotions shift through Mr. White's features, from annoyance to acceptance to pride… His eyebrows seemed to tick each one off in fast succession.

The editor, it seemed, was going to introduce them.

"Lois Lane," Mr. White gestured to the woman and then moved his hands to point towards Clark, "Clark Kent."

Lois Lane.

Clark felt as though air were rushing through his veins when her eyes flicked again to him. He hoped the burning sensation he felt across his brow, cheeks, and throat was not a blush. A surreptitious glance downward revealed that his feet, at least, still remained firmly on the ground.

Lois Lane.

He had read many of her articles, but not once had he imagined, well, this…

You're still goggling like a fish, Clark.

But the world was speeding past, and all he could do was blink.

Lois Lane.

"Nice to meet you," she said, so quickly she sounded like one of those dolls with a pull cord, with some sort of maniacal puppeteer yanking at the string.

She inhaled a bit, and Clark started a mental countdown.




"Anyway," the whirlwind started again, "This could be the story of the century! It might solve the Miracle Man mystery and bring down Thompson all in one fell—"

"Lois," Mr. White enunciated, his tone low and cautionary. "What happened to the investigation on the Messenger launch?"

She was flippant. "I wasn't in the mood. Every station is covering it already and—"

Mr. White's voice got even lower. "Looois…"

"There's nothing there, Perry!" Her face took on a look of urgency. "It's nothing but a malfunction in a fragmented organization that doesn't know its own arms from its feet. I could write something for the op-ed page if you want, but you never seem to have a problem coming up with people to jaw jack about their opinions for twelve paragraphs. I'd much rather be investigating a scandal involving our potential future president!"

"Now listen here, Lois, I—"

A young man in casual wear took that moment to knock on the side window of Mr. White's office. Probably a gopher, Clark thought. The kid looked pointedly at Lois and mimed talking into a phone with his thumb and pinky.

"Gotta run!" Lois exclaimed after looking over at the boy. "Catch you later, Chief."

With a small wave and a quick about-face, Lois Lane was gone, and Clark finally began to catch up with the world around him.

Lois. Lane. Lois Lane.

The woman had put such conviction and strength into her stories that he had imagined she would be complicated. Domineering, uncompromising, pig-headed… It seemed she was all those things and more, but also…

"Brilliant." Clark sighed.

"Well I, uh…" White shook his head, as if he, too, were trying to clear some cotton from his brain. "What was that, son?"

"Nothing, sir."

"If that woman wasn't one of the best damn investigative reporters I've ever seen, I'd…" The editor sighed, shook his head again, and returned to his seat.

Clark followed suit.

It briefly occurred to him that Lois had mentioned, in a part of her tirade that he'd actually managed to hear, something about investigating Miracle Man. He supposed it should worry him that a three-time Kerth-winning investigative superstar was looking into him. But the voice hadn't caught up with the situation yet, and he was still peacefully stuck on batting her name backwards and forwards in his head, as though that would make some sense of the wide array of feelings that had overtaken him the minute she had barged into the room.

"Well, look, Kent, you seem like an intelligent guy," Mr. White began.

For a minute, Clark tensed up again, and the clamminess to his hands returned. Was this the end of the interview? He hoped he hadn't blown it.

The smile that crept across Mr. White's face, however, told him his fears were unfounded.

"Your writing samples are exactly what I'm looking for. Dan Carlton couldn't say enough about your reporting skills over the phone. You came in here a bit nervous, and you're not quite as experienced as I'd like, but I can see you've got a good set of ideals and are ready to stand up when you're challenged. That's exactly what I like to see in a reporter, and exactly what I want for the Daily Planet. I'd like to extend you a job offer."

"That's…" Clark was speechless. He had hoped for over a year that the Daily Planet would eventually be his home, and the idea had been looking more and more realistic as his interview with Mr. White had approached, but, finally obtaining his dream instead of just dreaming it… Well, that was, "Wow."

"When can you start?" Mr. White asked.

Without even thinking, Clark replied, "Tomorrow."

"Good." Mr. White stood, came around to the front of his desk, and offered Clark Kent a hand to shake. "Clark Kent, welcome to the Daily Planet."


"Help! The scaffolding is coming loose!"

The screaming was like an ice pick to his brain. Clark squeezed his eyes shut and stood still as a steel pylon. He was on the landing of his potential new apartment, but at that moment, it could have been Mount Everest from how thin the air suddenly seemed.

Deep breaths were the ticket, he tried to convince himself. Deep breaths. But the nausea and light-headedness didn't go away.

The voice came back with a vengeance.

Coward, Clark. You're a coward. Nobody would notice if you just did it. Save them! Real quick. You can move faster than sound, nobody will see. Trask couldn't possibly be keeping you under surveillance twenty-four hours a day.

Could he?

And yet he found himself back in Kansas, running down that dirt road to the smoking remnants of his parents' truck, Trask standing idly by as his mom and dad died in terror. His body felt cold and tortured as he relived their screams, the subsequent sound of warping, tearing metal, broken glass, and the dream-like silence that followed in the moments after.

Sssave them, coward, the voice hissed.

He felt like he was being ripped in two, and his chest constricted when he finally decided it wasn't worth the risk. It wasn't. He couldn't take that chance again. Not ever. Accidents happened in life. They were unavoidable.

But if that logic was so applicable, why did he feel like he was being rent like a piece of meat at the hands of a butcher?

He longed for the euphoria he had felt in the presence of Lois Lane to return, but it seemed to have been thoroughly kicked out of the way by the city's never-ending tumble of distress calls. His whole body was tense, tremors of stress running through him like electricity through a wire. How was he going to endure living in a city like this?

He was loath to even debate it, but… Lois Lane. He pictured her exactly as she had been when she'd decided to storm into his life earlier that day. The tremors settled into dull vibrations. Far from relaxed, he at least didn't feel like he was going to throw up anymore.

He sighed.

He still didn't know what to think about her. A new pain began whenever he rolled her name through his head, but it was a different kind of pain than what he was used to — one that most certainly was not bad. It was more… a wanting. A wanting to fill a hole he hadn't even realized he'd had.

This whole bit was crazy, he knew. He didn't even know the woman. But years in the future, when memories of now were dulled like aging watercolors, he knew he would still remember with perfect clarity what he had felt when she'd walked in on his interview. And like a drug, he knew it was something he wanted to feel again.

His whole nervous system seemed to tingle at just the thought of seeing her tomorrow.


He was going to work with her.

Oh sure, he had no delusions it would be a partnership. But he would see her. Every day.

Co-workers with the intrepid Lois Lane.

That had a nice sound to it.

What *are* you talking about, Clark Kent? I thought we were discussing what a coward you were.

"Clark Kent?"

He snapped to awareness. The heavyset landlord had snuck up on him without much, if any, effort.

"Yes," Clark said as he turned to face a man dressed in a sloppy pair of pants, white undershirt, and red corduroy jacket.

"Name's Floyd." Floyd did not proffer a hand to shake. "The one-bedroom I had open, right?"

Clark nodded.

"You look pale," Floyd commented as he fumbled with the keys a moment until he found the right one and pushed it into the aging lock. "Not sick are you?"

"Just a dizzy spell. I didn't have much to eat today." It was a bald-faced lie, but Clark didn't think he could feel any worse at the moment. In the place he had heard screams just minutes ago, he now only heard silence.

The door creaked open loudly enough to make Clark wince. That would need some oil.

Floyd made a grand gesture as he stepped inside the apartment, but the disheveled look of the living space made it seem almost like he was a ring-leader at a circus. Yes, folks! It's the messiest, most ruinous apartment on the market in the world. Behold the patchwork paint job! The uneven flooring! Behold!

"Quietest building in Metropolis," Floyd commented proudly as a nearby car alarm pierced the air and the ventilation system began to make a heavy whumping noise, as though it were conveying something considerably more solid than air through the ducts. "You married?" he asked.

"No." Clark glanced around. What a dump, but… There was something that just seemed right about it.

Floyd pried further. "Girlfriend?"

"No." There were layers thick dust on the floor and the counters, and full-blown breeding piles of dirt heaped up like mountains in the corners of each room. Papers were strewn everywhere. Some of the furniture was overturned or broken or both. Had the last resident been related to a cyclone?


Clark paused and looked at Floyd, an incredulous look on his face. Was there nothing this man would not ask? He felt oddly like he were under a microscope, being picked apart piece by cowardly piece. He didn't think his pallor had even hinted at returning since Floyd had started talking to him.

"Me, I mind my own business." Floyd shrugged. "Where you from?"

"Kansas." Screams. Metal. Blood. He tried very hard to make sure his voice didn't crack.

Clark turned away from Floyd and moved into the kitchen. When he placed his hand on one of the overhead cabinet handles, the door fell off. He resisted the urge to jump back a bit. He'd barely touched it, that couldn't have been him.

Floyd was unperturbed, and Clark untensed a bit. "Few screws is all," Floyd explained.

Clark moved to the sink and turned the faucet on. Brown water that looked slightly more appealing than tar glopped down into the basin.

"Minerals," Floyd assured him. "Good for the liver."

Clark was very glad he didn't have to eat or drink.

He moved on to the living room area, pushing aside some debris with his foot as he hazarded a path.

There was a beautiful multi-paned window that went at a slant from the ceiling to a dilapidated window-seat. Sunlight streamed through the panes in what seemed like solid shafts because of all the dust drifting around in the air. Beyond the window there was a patio and then the solid brick wall of another building.

"Nice view." Floyd gestured to the window in question. "You see out. No one sees in. Walk around in the buff. I do."

Clark stared at the overweight landlord and tried very hard not to picture it. At least he wasn't asking questions anymore.

"How much?" Clark felt compelled to ask after glancing around again. He doubted he would find a better place — this apartment was quite large considering he was in the middle of a populous city. The brief home he had made in Kansas City had been about half the size, for an exorbitant fee, and Kansas City wasn't even that large in comparison. With a bit of cleaning up, this place would probably end up being quite suitable. And of course, there was the curious feeling he had gotten the moment he'd entered — that he was somehow destined to feel at home here.

"950," Floyd answered.

"950?!" Clark felt his eyebrows shoot towards his hairline. That was steep. Real steep.

"You want cheap?" Floyd asked. "Go back to Iowa."


Floyd didn't seem to notice the correction. "This is Metropolis. Nine even. Take it or leave it."

Clark made another circle of the apartment. He put his hand on the banister, and the handle came off in his hands. If he hadn't known better at this point, he would have doubted his self- control of his powers. "Mind if I make a few repairs?" he asked.

Floyd seemed to debate with himself for a moment. "I guess not."

"When can I move in?"

That drew a very small sliver of a smile from the landlord. "Soon as the check clears."

Clark drew out his checkbook. This would hurt, but not as much as staying in a hotel. He needed a home, and his savings from Kansas City would allow this expenditure, provided his paycheck from the Planet arrived in a timely fashion.

"I'll have extra keys made," Floyd replied as Clark placed a filled-out check in his hands.

He glanced around one more time and sighed. This was going to be quite a fixer upper.


Clark stepped off the elevator and allowed himself a long, deep pause. Putting a hand on the railing over the bullpen, he overlooked the bustle below. The newsroom of the Daily Planet seemed wholly different now that he was officially a part of it rather than a vagabond passing through, and he wanted to take a moment to absorb it all.

A deep inhalation brought him the sharp scent of already cooling coffee, which was wafting over from the nearby drink station. There was a dull electrical whir of computers and other electronic equipment drifting around in the air, over scored with random staccatos of telephones, typing, voices, and television sets. A copy boy pushed past him, apologizing blithely behind himself as he ran down the ramp, but Clark was looking elsewhere and barely noticed getting hit in the first place.

He had spotted Lois at her desk down below. She was typing something, sipping at her coffee at odd intervals, unaware she was being watched. She paused to stretch and then went back to her task.

Dedicated, he thought.

"Olsen!" Mr. White poked his head out of his office, his voice rumbling through the air. Most people in the newsroom seemed to duck their heads further into or behind whatever they were working on when they identified the source of the yell, but Lois seemed unperturbed.

Clark turned his gaze and squinted, resisting the small urge to pull down his glasses and zoom in on Mr. White. There was something bundled in his hands that Clark couldn't really identify. It looked like a horn… But…

"Olsen!" Mr. White repeated. "I asked for this to be fixed!" A horrific sound emanated from the thing as Mr. White raised it and squeezed the round end. "This sounds like a stampeding whoopee cushion, not a golf-cart horn!"

"Coming, Chief," came a groan from elsewhere in the pit. Clark saw the boy who had motioned Lois out of the office yesterday pop up near one of the Xerox machines in the corner, shoulders slumped, and a small frown on his face. He ran a hand through his short hair and headed towards Mr. White to grab the offending item.

Lois still hadn't even looked up from whatever she was doing, engrossed and either unaware of the disturbance, or in possession of good focusing skills. Her coffee mug went up to her lips again.

Centered, too.

Clark smiled and walked down the ramp, across the pit, and to Mr. White's door. He knocked lightly.

"Don't come back til that's fixed!" Mr. White's voice filtered through the glass, somewhat muffled. Clark peered through the cracks in the blinds and saw that the editor was sitting behind his desk, pouring over some copy with a fat red pen. A desk lamp cast a harsh glow on the sheet of paper and on Mr. White's face. In the light, dozens of markings screamed upwards like flames from the edited piece of copy.

Clark opened the door after some hesitation and poked his head in. "It's Clark Kent, sir. You asked me to be in at eight- thirty today."

"Oh, Kent." Mr. White's tone was apologetic as he looked up. "Well, I just sent Jimmy to fix that damned horn so your intended tour guide is tied up. Oh, and call me Perry, or Chief if you have to. Mr. White makes me think of the suits upstairs. Let me see, who could…?" The rest trailed off in a mumble as the editor thought to himself. He got up from his chair, and Clark took care to step aside as he ambled to the door.

The fat editing pen nearly rolled off Mr. White's desk, but it caught on the lamp. Clark traced its movement with his eyes.

"Lois!" Mr. White yelled in a similar tone to the one he had just used for… Jimmy? Olsen. The shocking volume made Clark wince — it sounded like a jackhammer to his head at this distance, but it did seem to get the job done.

Clark turned to glance beyond Mr. White's shoulder. Lois looked up and stood, unmoved by the editor's terrorizing intonations beyond what appeared to be simple curiosity. "What's up, Chief?" she asked as she walked up a few seconds later.


Mr. White pointed back to his office with a tilt of his head. Clark backed up a bit and all three of them shuffled in to the editor's office. Lois flicked her gaze to Clark as she walked past, and Clark felt his heart jump a bit.

"Well?" she asked.

Mr. White, no… *Perry*, Clark reminded himself, turned to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Clark, you just go with Lois for today while I figure out what desk to put you at. Have her show you around and then you can shadow her to start learning the ropes. You two remember each other from yesterday, right?" He didn't really give them a chance to answer. "Good."

The speech was so quick Clark almost thought it seemed like Mr. White was trying to avoid talking with him, but it was Lois that the editor was ticking his gaze to every other word.

"Yes, thank you, sir. I mean Chief," Clark said.

"What?!" Lois snapped at nearly the same time. Things were apparently sinking in. "But, Chief!" Her arms folded over her chest, and she looked decidedly more hostile than curious.

Clark grinned. It seemed the Chief hadn't been trying to avoid talking with him, but rather with her. He watched the editor bolster up his posture as if he were preparing for physical blows.


"Lois," Perry sighed. "You told me yesterday that the Messenger story was a dud."

Lois's eyes grew wider. "But the Thompson story—"

"—Hasn't got a leg to stand on until you locate more than hearsay," the Chief finished for her, his tone low and his pronunciation slightly elongated.

Lois flushed a bit and threw up her hands, starting to pace a bit. "Which I can't do if I'm giving office tours!"

The papers on Perry's desk let loose a shrill ring. Growling, the editor rushed over to his desk started moving aside documents trying to find the phone. The red pen which had so precariously hung on to the desk cascaded to the floor as papers shifted back and forth. "Lois," Perry grumbled, "I really don't have time for this. Take Clark around for the day. Hell, maybe he can help you with the Thompson thing."

The Chief finally found what he was looking for and lifted the phone off the hook. He held the receiver to his chest with one hand and with the other used the butt of the phone to corral Clark and Lois out.

Exiled to the bullpen, Lois turned a one-eighty and raised a hand of protest. "But—" she growled, only to be met with the door closing in her face. She reached for the doorknob and turned it, her body lunging forward as if she planned to charge back in, but Perry had planned for that.

The doorknob didn't budge, and she almost slammed into the door before she stopped her momentum. Clark, through the slits in the blinds, could see Perry chatting on the phone with his back turned to them.

Lois cursed up a streak, ending the sentence with an, "Arrrgh!" for good measure. Quiet for a moment, she stood there trying to catch her breath. The pink in her cheeks and ears receded, but her eyes narrowed dangerously when she looked over at him.


"What are *you* smiling at?" she snapped.

Clark held his hands up and shook his head, indicating he hadn't meant to provoke her. Gorgeous, yes, but she was definitely *not* happy. He heard some very quiet chuckles far back in the bullpen that Lois was most likely unable to hear. Everyone closer to their position was making an extra special effort to appear busy and inattentive to a one Lois Lane. This was apparently not an unusual occurrence.

She looked at him for a long moment, either oblivious of the inattentive attention she was receiving from the bullpen, or not caring. She then spun on her feet with her index finger outstretched, rotating through all the points of interest with a speed that he hadn't thought even he was capable of. Air buffeted him as she whirled around. "There's the copiers, there's the televisions, conference rooms are over there, bathrooms up that way, locker rooms are down a floor along with the mailboxes — I'm assuming you're smart enough to know how to use the elevator."

He opened his mouth to thank her, but she was already gone when he looked back at where she had been standing. He stood there with his hand outstretched and mouth gaping for several moments before he caught up with the situation, closed his mouth, and looked around. The click of her heels on the tiles of the floor allowed him to follow her trail back to her desk, but when he arrived, she was already sitting and working again, sipping coffee as if nothing had happened.

He faced the front of her desk for several moments. She didn't look up.

He took the moment to examine her working area more closely. It was fairly organized on the writing surface — a bent and torn notepad that seemed veritably ready to burst with scribbles sat to the left of her keyboard, a stapler here, tape roll there, an overflowing rolodex next to her monitor, and a small dying plant in the corner, but the rest was a mess of article pinups and tape. Headlines screamed back at him: Miracle Man Saves Air France Flight 402. Miracle Man Averts Oil Spill. Spree of Alleged Arsons Rocks Metropolis — Miracle Man Saves the Day. And more. Dozens more.


He blinked. Lois was still 'not noticing' him.

"Ah," he cleared his throat, suddenly at a complete loss about what to say. He felt heat cross his face as he imagined himself a lone flagpole in a parking lot of working people, and more pointedly, *sitting* people.

"Ms. Lane?" he hazarded as he glanced around.

The clackity-clack of her typing stopped, and she finally looked up. Her eyes flashed like fire, an eruption clearly imminent. "Let's get something straight," she began. "I didn't work my butt off to become an investigative reporter for the Daily Planet just to baby-sit some hack from Nowheresville."


He opened his mouth to respond but she cut him off. "And another thing. You're not working with me, you're working *for* me. I call the shots. I ask the questions. You're low man. I'm top banana. That's the way I like it. Comprende?"

"You like to be on top," he grinned. "Got it."

Something about her… If it had been any other person on the planet he probably would have found himself annoyed at the rudeness, but with Lois Lane, it just made her seem more wonderful, and he had no earthly idea why… His observation earlier that she was domineering seemed to short-change what she was in actuality. In *actuality*, she had airs worthy of a goddess.


She sneered at him, not amused. "Don't push me, Kent. You are *way* out of your league."

Well, that was certainly true.

And yet, even with the voice chipping in, he didn't feel appropriately debunked. He felt… happy. At least he managed to stop the stupid grin that was spreading across his face to keep her from snapping at him again.

Silence ticked away until the clackity-clack of Lois's typing began once again. He looked around the news room for a while until it became painfully obvious she didn't intend to engage him in conversation any time soon. "So what's with all the Miracle Man memorabilia?" he hedged, hoping to regain conversational footing.

"My Pulitzer, if I ever figure out where he went." She didn't stop typing, nor did she look up from her screen, but she apparently saw his mouth open. "And no, you can't help. He's *mine*."

With such vehemence, he had no doubt of her sincerity on that topic. She had sounded downright possessive.


"I wasn't going to ask that."

That gave her pause. It almost seemed to him as if she expected him to try and horn in on her work. "Oh," she replied, her voice quiet.

"I was going to ask what this curiosity about Thompson was?"

"A contact called me the other day and told me there might be a connection between Miracle Man's disappearance and Thompson, among other things."

Clark shook his head. "That's impossible."

He remembered vividly the tortures that had been exacted upon him, the face that laughed at him each time he was forced to fall. It was a wholly different visage than George Thompson, whose was old, thin, and angular. No… Trask was younger, heavier, and rounder, and it had *always* been him. That, he was sure of.

He closed his eyes for a moment, but it seemed as if the image of his tormentor was burned on the undersides of his eyelids.

"How would *you* know?" Lois's eyebrows raised in inquiry and she finally stopped typing. Her chair creaked as she leaned back in it.

"Because…" Clark fought for an explanation. "Well…" Grasping at straws. He should have known better than to interject statements that were based entirely off his first-hand experience like that. "If this man was so miraculous, what could an ordinary human have to do with his disappearance?"

He knew it sounded a bit lame, but what else could he say? Miracle Man disappeared because he's a big flaming coward? Because Jason Trask acted out one threat too many? He doubted he could have explained either with any level of ease, even if she had known who he really was.

You're quite possibly the strongest man in the world, rumored unkillable, and you let a human bully you? Coward…

"Well that would be the point of me investigating it," her voice dropped in pitch, and she spoke slowly as if she thought she were catering to an idiot. "To find that out."

He swatted the voice away before the queasiness began. "What makes you so sure Thompson's a bad apple?"

He mentally ticked off confident as well.

"What makes you so sure he isn't?"

"Not every politician is corrupt, Lois."

The last word had slipped out unintentionally. He hoped she didn't mind that he'd called her by her first name, especially since she seemed to be distancing from him as much as possible, but she didn't even appear to notice.

"I'll bet you this one is." The conviction in her tone was stronger than steel. One look at her face told him that strength extended outward into every part of her. He felt a buzzing heat of admiration set down upon him, and he sighed. If only he were able to stand up to the world the way she seemed to want to. But even so, he hadn't meant to light this particular spark — enthralling though it was to watch it burn.

"Lois," he tested again. He was delighted to see she genuinely didn't seem to care. "I wasn't trying to make this a competition."

His words only seemed to kick start her further. Her chair shot backward, and she was on her feet. "JIMMY!" she shouted. "Get me all the stuff you can on George Thompson and a Bureau 39."

"On it," came a mumble from somewhere off to the right, followed by the strange blurping moan of the horn Perry had spotlighted earlier. As he peered back at Lois, Clark could hear whispered curses from Jimmy.


She held up her right index finger to her lips. "Shhh— Hello, my name is Lois Lane, I'd like to set up an interview with Antoinette Baines about the Messenger malfunctions. Yes thanks, I'll hold."

When she turned he saw the phone clasped in her other hand. How this woman moved between tasks so fast was beyond him.

Driven. His list of adjectives was growing so long he feared he'd end up with a dictionary soon.

She hazarded a glance his way. "Might as well formally finish this story so I can move on," she explained.

"Mind if I pull up a chair?"

"Just don't get in the way."

"Wouldn't dream of it."

"Good, because— Yes, thanks. What time is good for you?"

Had he mentioned thrilling in his list yet?

He sat down and watched her as she chatted into the phone, her voice mesmerizing him into a dull, relaxed state. All in all, today was a pretty good start, he supposed.


Juggling multiple grocery bags, a set of keys, and a stack of file folders was quite a balancing act, Lois decided as she hopped around to keep from toppling over. She bent over a bit, trying to grab her key ring with her teeth, belatedly realizing that there was no way she would be able to unlock the door with only her lips for a grip on them. Soooo… tottering, she twisted and leaned backwards until her back was protesting and the grocery bags were resting more on her torso than her hands. The manila folders that had been stacked on top of the bags cut backwards and caught on the underside of her chin, but didn't finish their fall.

She took as deep of a breath as she could manage in her position, trying not to pay attention to the stars that were beginning to form in her vision. Somehow, she managed to get the key in the first deadbolt.

Progress! But she couldn't lean back far enough to get the key up to deadbolt number two, so she tried a new method. Leaning forward, she propped her knee up on the wall beside the door and rested the bags on her thigh. The folders threatened to cascade downward, but she pressed her chin down like a paperweight and forced them to stay.

Well, this was certainly uncomfortable.

Deadbolt number two clicked open as she twisted the key in the lock.

It was like a game at this point. There was absolutely no way she was putting the bags on the ground now, not when she'd gotten this far.

Luckily, when she shifted to lock number three, she was able to catch all of her cargo before it fell off its precarious resting spot. Lock number four proved to be the easiest of them all.

The door gave way, and she nearly didn't stop herself from falling flat on her face, but somehow, she maintained her balance and didn't lose one single item from her collection to the floor. She let a triumphant smile radiate from her face as she hobbled her load over to the counter and set it down. Whew. She took a deep breath as the manila folders cascaded off the top of the bags and fanned out like toppled dominoes across the counter.

"Lucy, you home?" she cried. "I brought dinner."

There was no immediate answer.

Lois managed to cram all of the TV dinners she had bought into their small, overtaxed freezer. There was already a ton in there, which she hadn't remembered when she had gone grocery shopping. Actually, it seemed her entire grocery list was already in the fridge and pantry, in duplicate, as if some double of herself had already gotten home from shopping for the night.

Try though she did, she could not remember having gone to the supermarket earlier in the week, so… Hmmm.

She shrugged and tossed a dinner into the microwave. The light came on, and the dinner spun lazily in circles, starting to bubble a bit as it went. As the machine whirred, she turned back to the fridge to grab a drink, but found she was being watched.

"Hi!" she exclaimed to Lucy, trying to hide her surprise. "You in for the night?"

Lucy shook her head and hopped up onto the counter. "I'm meeting Jose."

"Jose?" Who the heck was Jose? Her sister seemed to shuffle through losers faster than a dealer did cards in a poker game. "Is he new?" She tried to keep her tone neutral, and tried even harder to hide the grimace that resulted when she realized she hadn't.

"Lab tech," Lucy shrugged. "Works on my floor."

Lois opened her mouth to reply, but the microwave's harsh ping interrupted her. Her two-minute macaroni was done. She turned to fish it out, grabbing a fork from the silverware drawer with her free hand.

"So…" Lucy began. "What are you up to tonight?" Her gaze was tracing the file folders that were strewn across the counter.

"I've got a ton of work and— Luce, don't start," Lois threatened as she closed the silverware drawer with her hip.

Here it came, Lois thought. The speech where Lucy lectured her that she wasn't social enough. That she didn't get out enough.

She allowed herself an inward growl. She got out plenty! Just today she had gone to get groceries, and the proof was in the fridge that she'd somehow already done that earlier this week as well. That was twice she had had to gamble on which checkout line was the fastest, and twice she had had to complain to the manager about the lousy service, threatening to run an article about the dirty truths of express lines, that they weren't express at all, but rather a trap to those with fifteen items or less to be stuck staring at all the trash tabloids and impulse candy. Which she hadn't bought, by the way. She had gotten her fudge bars from the candy aisle like a good shopper. Totally *not* impulse. And wasn't there always somebody who had misread the sign, a full cart of junk in tow and fifty coupons to scan in, who they let through anyway? Wasn't there? Pathetic how the management had no policing whatsoever set up on those lines. Actually she would put that in the suggestion box next time she went—

"Did you find an escort to Lex Luthor's White Orchid Ball?" Lucy interrupted.

Oh that. Lois frowned. She wanted an interview with Lex Luthor almost as bad as she wanted to find out what had happened to Miracle Man. Jimmy had pulled her out of Perry's office early yesterday to talk to Mr. Luthor's personal assistant. The woman had been pleasant enough to chat with, but it was fairly obvious that the billionaire was dodging her, and dodging quite well. This ball was the only chance she had at getting up close to the man — being rich certainly did help for when one wanted to be a recluse from the media.

"Not yet."

Lois finally took a bite of her macaroni and grimaced. It was a bit rubbery, and the cheese was drippy in some places, but practically a solid mass in others. It smelled decent, at least. She chewed a bit as Lucy continued to grill her.

"Lois, it's tomorrow night!" Lucy sounded quite exasperated. "What about Alan? I thought you liked him."

"I did," Lois replied honestly. Alan had been quite nice actually. Very good-looking and polite, but not chauvinistic like most of the pigs she'd managed to land in her life. "But after the second date he didn't call, so…"

That's right, Lane, because you're an ice queen. Men don't want a career woman like you, they want sleaze like Cat — a woman who doesn't wear clothes, she wears new skin.

She grimaced when she thought of her own, 'Don't touch me' business suit. The shoulder pads, dark colors, and fat heeled shoes made her look taller. Tougher. Strong.

But certainly not delectable.

That, however, was okay with her. She didn't need another trip down memory lane, like 'Claude: The Return', except it'd be one of those crummy remakes with a different actor playing the lead.

"What happened with that other guy, Barry? He still leaves messages on the machine."

Lois rolled her eyes and put her fork down, macaroni finished. "Please."

"He was a very nice guy. He brought flowers."

And chocolates, and more flowers, and called more, and— Well the guy was a borderline stalker.

"He's a periodontist."

"And Mitchell?" Lucy asked. She was pacing now.


Now *that* made for some interesting dates. Has this fork been cleaned? I see a speck. Are you absolutely sure? Lois, don't use the bathrooms in public places, do you have *any* idea how many diseases are congregating just on the doorknob alone? Lois! Don't take the mints by the cash register, they have more urine particles on them than a lot of places in the bathroom. And of course it was hard not to laugh when he placed a handkerchief over his nose to filter the air.

"They can't all be bad, Lois. They can't all be stupid or boring. What are you waiting for?"

"Fine," Lois conceded. "I'll ask Mitchell to take me." At least Mitchell was too preoccupied about catching himself a cold to do anything lascivious. He hadn't even tried to kiss her — probably because of the germs. In fact he gave her so much personal space a lot of times it felt like they weren't even together.

Was it sad she was finding that to be a good aspect?

"I'm not just talking about the ball, Lois. You have to get out more."

Yep, there it was. The 'you have to get out more' speech. Lois had been wondering what had taken so long for that to finally come out. She rolled her eyes and sighed. "Will you stop?" she asked. "You sound like Dad. Jeez, I'm only twenty-six."

She flashed back to the last conversation she had had with her dad. It wasn't, "Congratulations! You graduated from college, and I'm so proud of you!" It was, "Do you have a job yet? Are you absolutely sure you want to be a journalist? They're so low- paid… It's too bad you only had a 3.9 average, 4.0 would have looked so glowing on your resume."

Her cheeks started to burn a bit, and she bit back a growl.

"Twenty-six today. Thirty-six tomorrow," Lucy said, her hands gesturing flightily.

"Give it a rest, Luce."

She didn't want to have this discussion again, she just didn't.

By the time she was thirty-six she planned to have a Pulitzer, nine more Kerths, and a man hanging off *her* shoulder rather than the other way around.

"And I know why Alan never called you again… dragging him to that Women in Journalism seminar, 'Weak Men and The Wise Women Who Love Them.' You've got to stop scaring them off, Lois!"

"What are you talking about?"

It wasn't her fault that men were scared off by a woman who could think for herself. A woman who didn't have to bat her eyes and make him think all his ideas were good. Who didn't have to say, "Hoooooney, can I borrow the checkbook for some new shoes?"

It was disgusting some of the behavior she saw these days.

Lucy yanked on her arm and pulled her into the bathroom. "Look in the mirror. You could get any guy you wanted, but do you have to be so smart all the time? So intense?"

Lois looked at her reflection. She didn't seem particularly pretty. Okay-looking yes, certainly not unattractive, but she didn't see a knockout. Her face was too round and her hair was too boring. Easy to style, but boring. Boring mucky brown.


"Look, I'm just being myself. If they're not man enough to handle me, then I'll wait for someone who is." She threw up her hands and walked back out into the kitchen.

You're not being yourself, Lane, you're being what you know men wouldn't want you to be.

Something clenched in her gut.

"I just hate to see you sitting home," Lucy said, her voice sounding plaintive.

"I get out plenty. I have dates."

"You have interviews. It's not the same thing. Lois, I just want you to meet a super guy — wait a minute. I know that look. You're smiling. Who did you meet? Why have you been stringing me along this whole conversation?" Lucy bubbled. Her eyes widened, and the grin that was on her face screamed pure elation.

Lois shrugged. The smile had sort of slipped out. Really. She hadn't meant it.

"Well," she confessed, "There's this new guy at work." Way to throw a dog a bone, Lane. Yep, there she goes.

Lucy bounced up and down like a cheerleader on drugs. "Is he cute? What's he look like? What's his name? Have you two been introduced yet? What's he like? Has he asked you out?"

"I am not going to gossip like a fourth grader with you. Lucy, he was attractive, this little chat just reminded me of him, and that's as much as you will ever hear from me."

She mimed pulling a zipper across her lips for good measure.

Lois could immediately tell that Lucy was not and would not ever be satisfied with the answer she had just given. The look on her sister's face was one of unadulterated agony at being kept in the dark, but Lois, for one, did *not* want to discuss Clark.

A change of subject seemed to be in order.

Though Clark had been rather cute in an innocent, hick meets the city, doe-eyed way. What had she called him? A hack from Nowheresville? That was a class A zinger, she thought, enough to keep any slobbering hormonal man away. Except he had kept smiling at her throughout the day, and whenever she'd looked over and caught him doing it, she felt a little breathless. It was unnerving at times.

N.O. Ever notice Clark and Claude have three identical letters? That was a bad omen for sure. Wasn't it? They both had dark hair too.

Not that he hadn't surprised her in an un-Claude like way by completely avoiding an offer to 'help' her on her Pulitzer story. Everyone at the Planet knew she was interested in exposing what had happened to Miracle Man, and everyone had learned early on that any information about it went to *her* or they risked her wrath. She had learned her lesson the first time — she kept her notepad in sight at all times, and hunted down anyone who threatened her turf with such a vengeance that the gossip mill had started calling her Mad Dog.

Not that she minded that much. It was better than Ice Queen, and it struck fear in the hearts of mortal reporters. She had noticed that at some point all the new employees had suddenly started giving her a very wide berth, an action she attributed to the gossip-mongers who got early warnings out.

Clark, though, seemed to be laid back enough to take her temper in stride. It was weird finding someone who was neither chauvinistic nor terrified of her. She wondered about that for a moment.

Bad, Lois. Didn't we say we weren't going to think about him?

She blinked.

"Hey," she finally administered her one-eighty. "I'm supposed to be the big sister here, remember? Go meet…"

What was his name?

"Jose," Lucy said. "Lois…"

"Have fun!"

Lucy gave up at that point and disappeared back into her bedroom to finish getting ready, leaving Lois alone at the counter with the pile of folders in front of her and her empty macaroni tray. Jimmy had given her this stack at the tail end of the day, claiming it to be the definitive guide to everything she did and maybe didn't want to know about George Thompson, but he had woefully explained that Bureau 39 had seemed to elude his more basic searches.

Well, that made sense, considering the rumor was that somebody was trying to cover it up. It kind of ruined the point if it was easy to find. So… What could Bureau 39 be?

She perched herself on a stool and opened the folder labeled "GT Timeline." It seemed he had been in the Air Force. He was a member of project Blue Book from, essentially, its start in 1947 to its finish in 1969, at which point he transferred into the FBI as a special agent.

Project Blue Book…

She did a double take. Wasn't that the Air Force's organization of UFO fanatics? They had formed up around the Roswell crash and just didn't go away. She wished she could remember precisely the details but she was sure it had something to do with UFOs.

George Thompson was UFO obsessed. George Thompson was possibly related to the disappearance of Miracle Man.

She weighed the two facts in her head. It was a loose connection, especially since the origins of Miracle Man were still a complete mystery. No one had even disproved that it was nothing more than an elaborate hoax yet, but she was one to disbelieve the hoax theory after seeing witness after witness report the same thing. A man in black with a funny symbol on his chest flies in in a blur, saves the day, and flies back out again, usually so fast that he had finished his job and was gone before someone could even react enough to pull out a camera.

She resisted the urge to get frustrated with the fact that she had been working on his disappearance for a year now and had come up with absolutely nothing. All she knew was that he had stopped appearing to save the day after the spree of arsons that had swept Metropolis. The city had been sucked into a swell of riots as building after building burned to the ground. Firefighters couldn't keep up with the blazes, and only with the initial help of Miracle Man had the fires been contained reasonably well.

Even with the full weight of the FBI brought down on the investigation no culprit had ever been found. The CIA and NIA had not gotten involved, spokespersons from each stating with absolute certainty that the fires had not been the result of any known terrorist cells. Miracle Man naturally could not be flagged down for comment about any clues he may have spotted in the course of his fire-fighting, but after several weeks, it became apparent that he was no longer in the business of rescuing at all. It was as if the man had vanished from the face of the Earth, which, given his seeming quick entrance onto the scene of reality, wasn't entirely implausible, she supposed.

So was Miracle Man an alien?

Oddly, she felt more relieved thinking he was an alien than she did when the popular belief was that he had just been some unexplained magical phenomena. Like an angel or something. She hated magic.

Maybe he had a ray gun. Earthlings, I come in peace.

She laughed in spite of her self.

Klatu! Verata!

Stop it, Lane.



She focused again. She had to admit that it did seem a little ridiculous. Miracle Man, she suspected, was just a man with a lot of neat gadgets, like Batman from the comics. Except this wasn't the comics, and she knew they didn't have technology to make a man appear to fly unassisted. She had investigated that avenue until she couldn't stand to talk to another scientist again.

Unless *maybe* he had access to classified government stuff and the only scientists who knew about it were ones they kept locked up underground in some bunker somewhere with no way to escape and no way to contact—

She shook her head again.

George Thompson. George Thompson. She rubbed her temples with her index fingers. Geeeeeooooorge Thoooooooooooompson.

I will get you, George Thompson, she thought.

She dumped out the next folder. It was a list of all the unclassified cases he had worked on as an FBI agent. The ones she wasn't allowed to see were blacked out, as was typical of government documents. She rolled her eyes. Three fourths of the list was blacker than Miracle Man's purported costume.

Nothing caught her eye in that folder, at least not yet.

Next folder was a stack of photos. She flipped through them slowly until she came upon one that made her stop. There was no caption, but she could tell quite plainly that the man in the center was George Thompson. A much younger George Thompson, but what struck her was his eyes. There was no innocence there, despite his young age. She guessed he was maybe in his early twenties when it was taken. He was standing on some barren field, his Air Force uniform clashing brilliantly with the desert behind. A long metal fence with a barbed wire top stood in the distance, the only item of any elevation in the picture besides George Thompson himself.

She flipped to the next photo and was brought to an even longer pause. George Thompson was at the center again, but this time older. He had a man on either side of him. The one on the left seemed slightly older than Thompson, and the one on the right seemed about the same age as Thompson had been in the picture she had just flipped away from. They were sitting at a table all in uniform — it looked to be some sort of formal affair. The man to the left was holding a pen and there was something on the table that he appeared to be signing. A large crowd was gathered behind the three. None of them appeared happy.

She wondered about that.

She flipped the photo around, hoping to find some sort of label, but there was nothing, not even a date. She flipped back to it and stared at their faces again. Nothing seemed to jump out at her until she looked at the left-most man one more time.

General Burton Newcomb, she thought. That was who he was. A very decorated general. He had retired recently, and the affair had managed to land a smaller article in the Planet on the second or third page — she couldn't remember exactly. He was a lot younger in this picture, which was why she hadn't recognized him right away.

She would double check with Perry first, but the more she thought about it the more she was sure that was who it was — and he lived in Metropolis, that was good. She could get an interview, maybe.

Next photo. Again no date or description. She quelled a flash of annoyance.

The trio of the previous picture was down to two men, and they were in suits instead of Air Force uniforms now. Without actual dates to assist her, she guessed it was after Thompson had switched from the Air Force to the FBI. George Thompson and the young man that had been to the right in the previous picture stood posing like it was just any old picture taken spontaneously. But even if it looked like a completely normal affair, something not normal was happening in that picture.

Finally she was able to put her finger on it.

The man to the left — the younger one this time, not Thompson. His eyes had the same dark look about them that early Thompson's eyes had had, but there was something more. Something even darker. That man, she decided, was not nice.

Not nice at all.

His eyes seemed to be undressing her, and the smile on his face was more reminiscent of a leer.

Something had happened between the span of those two photos to make him go from 'regular Joe' to 'warning bells: this man is dangerous' in her mind.

And Thompson looked… She couldn't decide how to describe it. Haunted, maybe? He had aged terribly between the two photos, looking more as he did now, with silver hair and ample crags to his face, claw marks gripping the corners of his eyes in a vice of time. His angular face had grown thinner and more pronounced. Whereas the younger man didn't appear that much older at all. It was obvious no more than ten years or so had passed. So Thompson got older and the younger one got darker.

She stared at the photo.

Thompson and the unnamed man stared back.

"I'm going out!"

Lois practically fell off her stool as Lucy slammed the door behind her. Her heart thudded like a rampant timpani in her ears, and she took deep calming breaths.

She pushed the folders aside. Contrary to popular opinion, three times out of five… no, she amended… two times out of seven, she knew when it was time to quit, and besides, a bubble bath sounded just delectable at the moment.


A blaze was going steadily in the study's fireplace. Shadows danced along the walls as sharp pops of wood and heat gave the room a percussive background noise. The sky outside the window was dark and purplish, a sliver of lighter navy blue rimming the horizon to the west. Buildings surrounded the hotel, sprouting from below like trees — only a few were taller than the Lexor.

But the view wasn't what interested him at present. Under the dim light of the one lit lamp in the room, George Thompson flipped to the next page of his book. The tattered pages glowed slightly under the odd illumination. The book was a cheap fantasy novel that he had picked up a long time ago and never gotten around to, but it was entertaining, and he was enjoying one of the rare moments he had to himself.

The door behind him slammed open as if on cue.

"Someone is looking into your FBI records."

George looked up from his book and stared at the intruder. "I'm running for election," he shrugged as he uncrossed his legs and leaned back further into the heavy, wing-backed chair. "I don't find that surprising."

Trask's eyes widened slightly, and the look on his face seemed indicate he was evaluating George's intelligence. "Someone from the *Daily Planet* is looking into your FBI files," Trask clarified.

George put his book down and stared. So? he wanted to say, but the look in Trask's eyes just screamed rampage. And a rampage was something that he really just didn't need at this juncture.

"That's where the Alien works now," Trask stated pointedly.

George shrugged again. Trask was becoming more and more of a liability. More unstable, more… frenzied… as time went on. He set himself off on witch hunts, often without any proof beyond circumstantial evidence that there was something amiss. Several case files had been closed prematurely as a result of his behavior, one of which the subject had turned out, during the autopsy, to be a genuine human. Trask had just shrugged it off as an acceptable loss.

"Well it *is* his job now, Trask," he attempted to placate the man. "It's probably routine. Think about it — how would he even suspect me enough to investigate me? The only one who's been a troublemaker in this organization is you."

Trask ignored the jab. "We need to act. Now!"

George couldn't have cared less about Clark Kent. The man had proven to be no more a risk to this country than any normal human. In some cases, he had helped. But Trask, due to George's own interference, was stuck to Clark like muck to a sewer and would not be turned off the trail. If anything, he had become more obsessed as time went on, and George had little doubt that Trask had slowly developed a psychosis.

"Relax, Jason," George soothed. "This campaign puts me in the perfect position."

Ever since Sarah had died, Trask was like a fly that couldn't be swatted. Or perhaps a beast, pouncing on everything that moved and impossible to calm down.

"To what?" Trask made a face. "Smile pretty for the cameras?"

The suits had found out about Trask's little… indiscretions… with Mr. Kent. They had left the Metropolis arson investigation unsolved, but they had made it clear that Bureau 39 was to be shut down, once and for all. Officially, that was. Unofficially… Well, that was another matter.

"No, Trask. Think, what are campaigns based on?"

"Public opinion."

Trask was to be silenced. Publicly. In a way that would remove all possibility of doubt and conspiracy theories, and certainly all lingering attention on just how far Trask's connections went, and who they were indirectly sanctioned by. The plan was already in motion, if only he could keep Trask leashed long enough.

"And who better to destroy Clark Kent once and for all than the public? Our hands will be washed entirely of this whole messy business. Besides, I think that our science team has finally found something we can use. A rock with certain… unusual properties."

"A rock?" Trask snorted and began to pace. George traced his movements with his eyes. "What are you going to do, throw it at him?"

"The boys say it isn't from Earth." George had been inclined to agree after seeing it. The rock had hummed and pulsated, a sickly lime-green color that was strong enough to provide illumination in a dark room. He had never seen anything like it. "They say that it emits a very high band of radiation that doesn't seem to affect humans, at least not with short-term exposures."

"Doesn't affect humans?" Trask finally seemed to relax a bit. A slow, sickly grin crept across his face. "You mean you finally found something that might affect the Alien?"

"Magic-eight ball says, 'Signs point to yes.'"

Perhaps this would get Trask to relax a bit. All George needed was a few more days. Just a few more.

"Astounding! When can we test it?"

Or not.

"Patience, Trask. Patience," he soothed. George could only hope it was enough.


The abominable snowman, Clark thought as he looked in the bathroom mirror. He looked like the abominable snowman. Every inch of him was covered in gray, powdery dust and grime. His hair looked a striking shade of silver, but had none of the shine of natural hair color, and his face looked pale, more a dull taupe than flesh.

He smiled, but noted his expression appeared rather odd when he looked like father death.

The good news was that all the furniture in his apartment was in the upright and locked position, and all the dust was swept up. He had a line of trash bags along the living room wall that had nothing but dirt and debris in them. He had gone through the place with both a vacuum and a broom, multiple times each. Several vacuum bags had been claimed in the bitter struggle.

The beautiful window that vaulted over his living room area was now spotless, along with all the other mirrors and windows in the place. He had gone over all the countertops, shelves, molding, appliances, and furniture with rag after rag sprayed with cleaning solution and polish. Everything that wasn't salvageable was now in the dump in the alley — he had carried several loads of woodchips and pieces of… things… down using the service elevator. Clark had also replaced all of the broken or burnt out light bulbs.

The process had taken about six hours. His new landlord Floyd had stopped to check on him, watching for several minutes, but didn't offer to help. He had questioned what Clark was doing, grudgingly accepting the answers, and then he had walked off again, probably to harass the next tenant.

Next up was to paint and refinish everything, but that could wait until the following night or until the weekend. He had a working shower that didn't spray brown goo, a mattress, a clock, a beat- up dresser closet combo to keep his clothes in, and a general atmosphere that wasn't so clogged with dirt anymore that he couldn't breathe. As far as he was concerned, he could live off just that indefinitely.

Now, there was only one thing left to clean, and it was in dire, dire need of attention.

He turned the hot/cold knob all the way into the red, twisted on the water in the shower, and let it run a few minutes until the water had pooled slightly in the basin and was sending billowing mushrooms of steam into the air. The mirror turned clouded, and Clark could no longer see his ghastly white visage. He stripped quickly and left his soiled clothes on the floor in a small heap, hopping into the shower stall as they landed with a rustling thud.

Warmth buffeted him, and ribbons of brown water sluiced off him in thick, solid-looking threads. He sighed with pleasure into the warm spray. Grabbing his washcloth, he began to soap himself off in lazy circular motions. Like the before and after pictures of a detergent commercial, his skin was two drastically different tones where he had scrubbed and where he had not. He couldn't recall another time in his life he had been so dirty, not even during the brief period he had been doing rescues.

Well, he amended, there had been the one time.

He started to scrub much harder, as if there were a spot of dirt he just couldn't get out, working up a rich lather as he went. Suds were everywhere, and his washcloth seemed to be thinning in the center. Bare threads still held it together, but the towel fuzz that gave it its good scrubbing quality was disappearing in large patches. Another squirt of shampoo went into his hair, and he worked his fingers across his scalp in a frenetic haze.

The steam was thick enough to cut on a chopping block and his extremities seemed to blur into a fog-hazed oblivion. More scrubbing. Dirty. The only sounds were the thudding rainfall from the showerhead and his own soft panting — it was as if the city outside had disappeared into a soundless void. When he put his head directly under the spray, the thudding became a steady, relentless thunder, and everything felt hot.

He stood baking for several long minutes in the virtual silence. The water running off him was crystal clear, and he felt so wet he was heavy with it. Closing his eyes, he let the water continue to buffet him across his front, striking him, hitting him. He braced himself against the cold, slick wall tiles and rested there until the water started cooling off and the thick steam began to dissipate.

Finally, he turned the water off and grabbed a puffy black towel. The water had chilled off so substantially that by the time he turned it off there was no need to turn on the exhaust fan, but he flipped it on anyways. The mirror was still fogged over with condensation, and the walls seemed damp.

He slicked his dripping hair back out of his face, smooth against his scalp, and peered into the mirror. All he saw was a blur until he swept his hand across it and cleared away some of the moisture. His features seemed sharper and more angular, and his face still looked grim even without the dust. The vague shadow of stubble that had begun to form made him look even more haggard.

With a sigh, he finished drying off and wrapped the towel around his waist. He walked back out into his bedroom and, mindful of his overall dampness, pulled his suitcase up onto his mattress rather than sitting down to bend over.

There were a few remaining sets of clean clothes — he didn't need to visit the laundromat just yet. He did need more things to wear, that was for sure, but it could wait until his first paycheck. Splurging to get the apartment and, on top of that, splurging *more* to buy the proper supplies to fix it up had ended up making a rather sizable dent in his pocketbook. He had enough suits and casual wear to get him through the week, at least.

He rifled through his suitcase, looking for his last clean pair of flannel boxers, when his hands struck something smooth and soft. He stopped.

He hadn't remembered packing that… That was supposed to be in the trash in Kansas City along with most of his other former belongings.

Breath caught in his throat, he pulled the uniform out of his suitcase. It was black spandex — his reasoning having been that he was less likely to stick out in black. It was supposed to have made him harder to see, and thus less likely to have been spotted on rescues.

Stupid, Clark.

He had realized belatedly that any form of rescue work was going to get him recognized soon enough. Newspapers had splashed speculation and bold type headlines proclaiming things such as, "Miracles: Man or Myth?" Mere weeks after he had started doing larger rescues, he had been dubbed Miracle Man, even though nobody had proven the thing doing the rescuing was actually a man.

He ran his hand over the silver 'S' symbol. The texture was rough and glittery, and his fingers seemed to snag on it from time to time. At the time when he had made it, he couldn't resist adding a copy of all that was left of his heritage to his costume, but looking back now, it had been stupid to give himself such a recognizable look.

It was stupid to have ever tried the whole get-up at all in retrospect, but… After fifteen years of silence, how could he have known that Trask was still keeping tabs on him?

The man *murdered* your parents, Clark. Obsession like that doesn't go away.

He brought the uniform up to his face and buried himself in it, trying hard to keep his breathing steady. It still smelled of acrid smoke and death, even after all this time. Or maybe he was imagining it. The scent tickled the back of his throat and urged him to inhale his last moments as the world-renowned could-be hero, could-be angel. He kept his eyes closed, trying to keep the world blurred and black like his uniform, but that seemed to bring the memories even closer to the surface. They threatened to burble forth like a geyser, and this time, he couldn't keep them at bay.

His chest constricted and suddenly he could see flames. Everywhere. They glowed and blurred like orange dancers. Mesmerizing in his state. He was tired, so much so that the feeling seeped into his bones and infected the marrow underneath with a cold deadness. Everything ached and the smoke was suffocating him.

The alley between two of the burning buildings was a luminescent inferno. The shadows quivered and leapt about.

And he was dirty. Covered in soot and grime and grease and chemicals and smoke and nastiness that he couldn't identify. If he could have clawed his own skin off just to escape the soiled, slovenly feeling, he would have.

So tired… He just wanted to curl up and hide in a hole until the misery was gone, but there were still three buildings burning in the distance, and the two that towered directly over him. He could hear the screams of the victims inside, piercing his eardrums so harshly he thought he would die from the assault.

"Help me," they screeched, as if expecting someone, someone like him, would be able to come to their aid. He could hear them coughing, goggling, and flailing like fish out of water, even the ones in the buildings several blocks away. And the sirens, the sirens and the radio talk, the explosive boom of the buildings crumbling around him like houses of cards in a breeze — he could barely think straight.

But he didn't move.

"You see this in my hand?"

Trask stood in front of him in a hefty black ops uniform. In the strange light, he looked like a floating, ghostly head with two hands drifting along side. The fire glanced off his irises and made his eyes appear incandescent. He was clutching a small, blinking device in his hands, and he seemed unaware of the destruction and chaos surrounding them.

"What are you doing here?" Clark choked. He hadn't seen Trask since the day his parents died, but he would never forget his face. Not then, and certainly not after tonight.

More screaming clawed at him and rent him from the inside out. Some of them were kids. Crying for their parents.

Trask grinned. "I'm teaching you a lesson. I can see from the look on your face you hear them. Save them, and I keep killing. I have twenty-five more buildings rigged to go off as we speak, and I'd say you look about ready to collapse as it is. I guess there are limits to how super you really are. How many have we gone through today? Twelve?"

Clark looked at the transmitter.

"Don't even think about zapping it or me, or every single building I rigged will suddenly get a lot hotter."

"The people are dying," Clark whispered. His throat felt tortured and raw, and his eyes burned in the dancing light. "Why are you doing this?"

"You've forced me into this, Alien. Didn't I tell you before that this would happen any time I caught you using your powers? I've obviously been too lax. Save them, and I keep killing. Walk away. Disappear, and the dying stops. It's your choice."

One of the far away buildings that had managed to hold on to its moorings began to crumble, and the foundation gave way in a rumbling superheated vortex. The collapse wreaked devastation on Clark's tortured eardrums. Some of the screaming stopped, but he was far from grateful.

"You can't be everywhere at once, but I can," Trask proclaimed. He hit a button and three more buildings erupted in flames.

Clark blinked as his new apartment came back into focus. So many dead that night, and the following morning he had seen some headlines thanking him for helping to save the first batch of buildings that had succumbed to Trask's handiwork. He tossed the uniform away from him and stared at his hands.

Miracle Man.

He went back into the bathroom, but this time it was to vomit.


This was quite potentially the worst coffee ever concocted. It tasted as if someone had recycled the beans six times already and had left them in the machine for further punishment. Lois winced and took another sip. The stuff was just not settling well in her stomach. Her innards felt like a brick was gathering there, which was fairly astounding since this coffee was theoretically a liquid. Theoretically being the key word. When she gave up and poured the noxious contents of her steaming cup into her desk plant's pot, it was definitely more viscous than normal coffee should have been. Poor plant — it seemed like it was taking more and more hits for the team lately. The past few weeks, it had started taking on a wilted demeanor.

"Morning, Lois."

She felt a small shiver race through her and looked up to see Clark arriving. Most people avoided her, especially early in the day. She rarely got a simple good morning — at this point she suspected most people thought she was some horrible, dragon-like harpy that ate fair copy boys for breakfast. Not that she minded, much — having everyone avoid her sure made getting her work done easier. But nope, this man gave her a small smile and started to pull up a chair without any apparent hesitation.

For a moment she was speechless. Lois Lane, the babbling brook to babble all brooks, had her mouth open and nothing was coming out.

"Maybe for you," she answered, finally recovering. She had an image to protect. Snarl, goes the dragon, she thought wickedly. "I've been at it several hours already."

Dr. Baines, as Lois had suspected, had been a complete waste of time. She had given some sob story about how everyone would miss Captain Laderman and that he was one of their best. Then she had explained that they didn't know what caused the malfunction, and wouldn't until they examined the shuttle. And *then* she had not-so-kindly told Lois that they really didn't have much else to discuss.

Well, okay, Lois granted. Dr. Baines hadn't asked her to leave until after Lois had boisterously explained that she was there because she had to be, and that she thought the space program was a quintessential example of the government throwing money down a rat hole.

But it was true!

She finished typing up a quick article about her interview with Baines and hit submit. She hoped Perry wouldn't be too angry that it basically read, "I went to see Dr. Baines. Dr. Baines told me nothing of importance." After all, she had a far more interesting lead at the moment.

"Jaw-dropping exclusive?" Clark quizzed her.

She looked over to Clark and noticed for the first time he seemed a lot more subdued than he had the previous day. His skin was paler, and his eyes had lost the twinkle she'd noticed yesterday. Not a huge difference, but he did seem like some of the lights in his personality had gone dim. Not that he didn't still look gorgeous. Oops, was she staring?

"Hardly," she grumbled. "Are you okay?" The words tumbled out of her mouth before she could stop them. She forced herself not to raise her hands to her lips and tried to keep her face straight. She had *meant* to ask that as far as he was concerned.

Clark blushed a bit, and his lips quirked upward. "Just didn't get a lot of sleep."

"There's a shocker. No cows lowing you to sleep anymore."

This man was not her friend. This man was not her friend. Not. Her. Friend. This man was a *man*. And leading him on would certainly do her no good.

If Clark was annoyed or confused by her signal changes, he didn't show it. He actually chuckled.

"It *is* a bit noisy here."

Their eyes met, and for the briefest of moments, she could swear he wasn't referring to the traffic when he mentioned the noise. But the double meaning dangled there like a big question mark and his face was oh so much more interesting to look at. She licked her lips and tried to ignore the flutter in her chest.

Was it hot in here all of a sudden? They really needed to consider waiting until later in the fall to switch the heaters on. This was downright sweltering. The Daily Planet's heating bill must be atrocious and easily exploitable. She made a note to investigate that at a later date.

A magenta-colored scarf whipped across Clark's face and Lois was snapped from her mood like the tip of a cat 'o nine tails being put to good use. Cat stood there with a predatory grin, showing off her too-gorgeous teeth as she let her eyes go wide and threw the fingers of one hand towards her chest as if to say, "Who me?"

Clark stood up from his chair.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Cat sighed, batting her eyes. "I really should watch where I'm going."

Suddenly, it didn't seem so hot. Frigid, more like. Lois wanted to yank Cat's eyelashes off. It was genetically impossible for lashes to be that long naturally — they were probably the result of seventeen layers of cheap mascara. Lois crossed her arms and tried not to think about how her morning routine involved slapping some foundation on, putting curlers in for ten minutes, and declaring victory.

Clark's mouth opened and closed. And opened again. "Hello, I'm Clark Kent." He extended his hand towards Cat.

Cat swallowed the offered canary and moved towards Clark with a sinuous gait that was surely meant to show off her legs and hips. As Cat's heels struck the floor, Clark's trapped look growing deeper with each individual step, Lois could only think of that scene from Jurassic Park where the kids were in the car, watching the water tremor in the cup as the T-Rex approached.

"Catherine Grant, 'Cat's Corner.'" Cat's hand snaked out in front of her, and she held it out as if she were royalty expecting Clark to bend over and kiss the outside of her palm.

"Yes," Clark said, his eyes seeming to light up with recognition. "I've read your column."

Lois rolled her eyes. He'd read her column, had he? To his credit, at least he wasn't panting or drooling, or really showing any signs of interest.

Actually, he looked quite terrified.

Lois might have even found it amusing if it weren't happening practically on top of her desk. Cat leaned in very close, and Lois's hands shot out to keep her plant upright as Clark unwittingly backed into it.

"Then my reputation precedes me," Cat said, her voice so low and throaty it sounded like a growl.

"Among other things," Lois couldn't help but interject as she yanked her plant to safety and put it on the other side of her writing space. This was sexual harassment. Right there on her desk! But if Clark hadn't the sense to cry foul she wasn't going to stick her neck out for him. At least he wouldn't look so darned delectable after Cat had chewed him to pieces.

"I know what it's like to be new in town." Lois bit down her disgust. Had Cat swatted his nose with her index finger? "I'd be happy to show you around."

Lois couldn't see Clark's face anymore, but she could hear him goggling. After several strange utterances, she heard him say, "That's very nice of you, Ms. Grant."

Clark snuck away from the tackle and rotated the discussion, conveniently making it so that Lois could see both of them. Cat took Clark's escape ploy in stride and leaned in even further, showing off her plunging v-line, not-quite-enough-material-to-be- an-actual-shirt shirt. "Cat," she corrected as she let loose a positively libidinous leer.

"Cat," Clark said in return, his teeth biting off the word as if it were something that tasted like rancid meat and he was trying to get as little as possible of it into his mouth. "Maybe when I get settled."

"It's a date," Cat announced, gave another predatory smile, and walked languidly off, scarf twirling behind her.

Lois shook her head and glared at her retreating form.

Clark stood there for several moments, looking for all the world like a lost and extremely dumbfounded small child. "Is she always like that?" he asked as he returned to his seat. The look on his face was not a happy one.

"To any man with a pulse," Lois confirmed.

So, not only was Clark nice to Lois, he didn't look like he was pleased at being targeted for another notch on Cat's garter belt. Cat had been practically pinning him to her desk, and still he had managed to remain polite without showing signs of interest.

Maybe he was gay. But then, she couldn't think of any gay man who would ever be caught dead wearing such a horrid tie — it looked like a finger-painter had gotten drunk and jotted down the Battle of Midway on it using mismatched fluorescent polka dots. She wondered briefly where it was even possible to buy ties like that. No department store worth its salt would carry such an abomination.

No, this would have had to come from some men's magazine, special ordered. 'Men's Abominable Ties 'R Us,' or something. Which meant that Clark was pointedly and deliberately breaking a serious rule of fashion, or that he was just clueless about matching colors. *Maybe* he was colorblind. That would explain it.

"She comes on a bit strong," he said with a shake of his head. "So what have we got?"

"*We*?" She raised her eyebrows, forgetting about the tie. "There is no we," she snapped, immediately incensed. There was what she had been looking for — he was trying to steal her story. It was all so obvious now. He wanted her notes so he could walk off and publish them behind her back. Maybe he had planned to butter her up and take her for a spin, first. It would explain the country-boy innocent act.

She had almost been fooled.

And just as quickly as she'd changed gears and leapt to that assumption, she started having doubts. He really just didn't have the same sleaze-vibe that most men seemed to have. Sure he smiled at her, but she had never once yesterday gotten the impression he was looking at naked Lois, or slowly-undressing Lois. He seemed to genuinely just like looking at her, clothes and all. And when he spoke to her, it wasn't as if he was pumping her for information. To her, his inquiries felt like he was just interested in getting to know her.

"Sorry I—" he stuttered. "Well, Perry still doesn't have a desk for me. I figured I was—"

He looked horrified. His eyes had gone wide and his whole demeanor was slouched and adorned with regret, as if he felt he had broken something sacred. It was rather cute.

"Oh relax, Farmboy," she found herself reassuring him. Reassuring him!? Farmboy!? "Just so long as we're clear on the pecking order."

Not my friend, she recited in her head like a mantra. Not friend. Friend not. Co-worker. Competition. Claude. Bad. Bad, Lois.

"Top banana," he replied with a wry grin. "Right."

"That's the way I like it," she concluded definitively, parrying his reference to one of their earlier conversations with the most serious look she could muster. Her mantra didn't seem to be working.

"So what have you got that you're deigning to allow me a peek at?"

That beam of his was infectious, darn it. She had to steel herself against duplicating it.

Not friend. Friend not. Man bad. Co-worker.

"Well," she began, "I looked into all the stuff Jimmy pulled up for me about Thompson. He's a UFO nut—"

The grin on Clark's face faded so fast she almost started to wonder if he was manic. It figured there had to be *something* wrong with him. "Ah, heh, UFOs?" he mumbled.

"Yeah." Lois flipped through her notes and ticked things off with her pencil. "He was in Project Blue Book. As soon as it was shut down he was out of the Air Force and into the FBI almost instantaneously."

"Interesting career shift."

"Suspicious," she confirmed. "Career military doesn't just jump ship like that in my experience. So my question is, what's the motivation?"

Clark seemed to have homed in on the same thing she had, albeit with a little less clarity. He was still fairly green, after all, but she couldn't count on one hand the number of forced partners she had gone through that wouldn't have even been able to make even that simple logical leap with her. It was rather exhilarating.

"I'm thinking that whatever he was doing in the Air Force, the only way he could continue it was by joining the FBI. Does the FBI have a UFO department?" She held her hands up in front of her, her index fingers and thumbs forming a vague diamond shape. "You know, Martian Files? Or something?" She stared through her makeshift picture frame, her eyebrows shifting as she considered the possibilities.

He shrugged.

She pulled out the deck of photos and flipped through them again, at a loss. "I just wish the photos Jimmy pulled had some form of identification on them. It would make it a lot easier to crosscheck names against government payrolls."

Clark gestured to the photos. "Let me see."

She shrugged and handed them to him. Did he expect to recognize anyone? Some of the photos were likely to be as old as he was, unless he aged better than a vampire.

She blinked. "Don't tell me you actually know any of these people?"

She hadn't thought it would be possible for Clark's face to fall even further from his earlier happy countenance, but it did. His eyes widened a bit as he flipped through the deck. He mumbled something that sounded like, "Ask," as he zeroed in on one of the pictures she had examined last night. It was the one where Thompson and the 'dangerous' man were standing there posing in suits. There was no mistaking the look of horrified recognition Clark was giving the photo in question, and the surprise on his features led her to believe it wasn't Thompson he was looking at with such dread.

"Did you say something, Clark?" she asked, trying to prod him into speaking, but he didn't seem to hear her. Curiosity burned within her. How did Clark know this man? What had happened that was so horrible? Clark was breathing a lot more heavily now — it almost appeared that he was having a small panic attack.

"Clark? Are you okay?" She cursed herself for asking that. Of course he wasn't okay. And why did she care?

Not friend. Friend not. Bad, Lois. Bad, bad, Lois.

She put her hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Uh, Clark?"

Even through his sport jacket she could feel knots of muscles corded and wound. And, wow, what muscles they were. He *had* to work out. Good Lord, he belonged on a calendar in full Technicolor glossy prints. She now worked with a potential Mr. January. She tried very hard not to focus on that, and resumed her 'not friend, friend not' mantra even though it didn't appear to be helping much.

Several moments passed before Clark made a move to respond. He gestured nebulously towards the picture, but his gaze was centered on a point past the film paper, as though he were looking through to the other side of a mirror. "Jason Trask," he whispered.

Lois looked at him. "Probably just some flunky. How do you know him, anyways? What was that all about?"

"Lois, maybe this investigation isn't such a good idea. These people could be dangerous."

That didn't sound like speculation to her.

She grabbed the photos from his slackening grip, straightened the stack, and slapped it onto the desk. The photos settled with a loud clap and shuffled into minor disarray from the force.

"Okay, Kent, what's the deal? You're smiling one minute and the next you look like someone died. On top of that, you were Mr. Optimist about this whole thing yesterday. And *no one*, got it, buster? NO ONE tells me something is too dangerous, especially not our newest Mr. Green Jeans."

"I— I'm sorry," he stammered. "I just. Got a weird vibe from—" His voice fell off into silence. So, not only was he nice, but he could be as stubborn as she was. Great.

She let loose a frustrated sigh. "Me too, but I still say Thompson is the story. You never answered my question."

A flash of panic swept across his face. "Question?"

"How do you know Trask?" She stared at him hard, determined not to let herself get distracted again. He was not looking her in the eye, and he had grown decidedly more twitchy. Clark *knew* something, and she was going to find out what.

"I—" he floundered.

She leaned in closer and crossed her arms over her chest. She meant business. "Well?"


The door to Perry's office slammed open and the editor stalked out of it, eyes flashing. "There's been an accident with one of the construction workers on the corner outside," he announced, his gaze roaming around the room only to land on… "I want you on it, Kent!"

Clark let loose a hefty sigh. The look of relief on his face was palpable. He looked at her and mouthed, "Sorry," but she knew he really wasn't.

Damn it.

"Is there a reason you're still here?" Perry asked as he ambled over.

"Sorry, sir," Clark answered, and then he was gone. She had barely let the sight of his vacant chair register when she shoved hers back and got to her feet, eyes blazing.

"Chief," she cried, slamming her fist on the desk for good measure. "How could you!?"

The newsroom got decidedly quiet at that moment, and with what had become an all too familiar feeling, heat spread across her cheeks. But she didn't care. The Chief had just handed Clark Kent a get out of jail free, and she was going to make sure he regretted it. Oh yes.

She set her mouth into a straight line and gave him what she esteemed to be her most deadly glare.

Perry blinked. "How could I what?" His utterance wasn't really a yell, but the room had gotten so quiet, it sounded like it.

She groaned and gestured for a minute before giving up trying to find words. "Forget it," she sighed. "Can you take a look at this while you're over here?"

The newsroom began to regain its earlier noise level as people got back to work and stopped looking her way. She pulled the photo in question back out of the stack she had made earlier and gestured towards it. The photo was the one with the man she suspected to be General Burton Newcomb alongside George Thompson and the man Clark had identified as Jason Trask.

The Chief took her subject change in stride and glanced at the photo. "Hmmm, General Newcomb."

"I thought so! Thanks."

That sealed it then. Trying to contain her excitement at having a lead that was not drier than Death Valley, she decided rationally and calmly that she would call General Newcomb later to set up an interview. Already trying to formulate a set of questions, she took a few moments to realize Perry had not left yet, and that he was staring at the photo in question with a look of keen interest. He was rubbing his thumb and index finger along his chin, deep in thought.

"I know this picture," he finally said. "It's the stock Air Force press release photo of the day he signed away funding for Project Blue Book. It got used in the article I wrote on it way back in the day."

He laughed and shook his head. "1969. That was a good year for Elvis. Why, I remember seeing him in concert at a—"

"Chief!" she interjected.

He snapped out of his flashback and looked back at the picture. "Hey, that's George Thompson isn't it?"


"He seems to be popping up in an awful lot of places all of a sudden."

"Yeah," she confirmed, slowly. Prodding. If he was going to destroy her interrogation sessions, the least he could do was admit—

"Oh, Hell, Honey," he caved before she could even complete the thought. "I never actually said no on this story, you didn't give me a chance to. I've learned it's best to let you fly with the bit in your teeth anyways, but this better be that Pulitzer you keep mentioning."

She let loose a mega-watt smile. "Thanks, Perry."

He shook his head and disappeared back into his office, mumbling loudly enough for her to catch the words, "Craziest woman…" something something.

She sat back in her chair to do some thinking. It seemed as if a tapestry of clues was coming unraveled almost faster than her ability to process them. The photo in question with Burton Newcomb had been in 1969, when Project Blue Book had been closed down. The previously unidentified 'dangerous' man now had a name with the face, and Clark was for some reason terrified of him. Clark was also being close-lipped and infuriatingly stubborn. Didn't he know she would find out what the deal was before the week was up, regardless of whether he contributed or not?

Look out, Clark Kent, she grumbled to herself.

Still, there had been a look of panic in his features that had been unnerving, and even given her annoyance at his reticence, she still found herself worried. Given Thompson's position in the FBI, and the similar change in dress she had witnessed with Trask throughout the veritable timeline of photographs, it was logical to assume Jason Trask was in the FBI as well.

Was Clark in trouble with the law? He had been cropping up to be a really decent guy. And as much as she tried to deny it or mantra it away, she was attracted to him. Given that information, it wouldn't be too farfetched to discover he was the worst scum on the planet, possibly a mass-murderer in disguise.

But somehow the picture of Clark stalking around as a wanted serial axe-murderer didn't seem to fit. No one with a smile like that could be an axe-murderer, could they? She ignored memories of the warm feeling she got when he looked at her, smile devastating away any and all prior inclinations she had towards being her usual snippy self.

Maybe he had an unpaid parking ticket.

Or maybe there was something else going on entirely.

What she did know was that there was a story around George Thompson. Scott had never given her false information. Not once. He was a veritable gold-mine of an informant, and she would have staked her career on his veracity at this point.

So, the question was now whether she was looking at two unrelated stories in her midst, and hence just a disturbingly large coincidence, or if the one she was grasping at was even bigger than she thought.

She tapped her pencil on her desk for a moment.

Not friend. Friend not.

Coincidences were Pulitzers.

"JIMMY!" she shouted. "Get me everything you can on Jason Trask!"


Smoke billowed out of the nearby manhole, lazy and peaceful — a perfect contrast to the surrounding bedlam. Fire trucks were everywhere, the sharp strobe of their emergency lights casting a haunting tone across the skin and clothing of the emergency workers and firemen who were running this way and that. A man lay silent on the stretcher two EMTs were loading into the ambulance. The only thing indicating that he was still alive was the oxygen mask that was cupped over his nose and mouth.

"Clark Kent, Daily Planet. What can you tell me about the accident?" Clark asked after flashing his press badge, having managed to pull over a fireman who had not appeared to be too busy.

Clark tried to ignore the slam of the ambulance doors. The man wasn't dead. There had been no fatalities. Things were okay, and the emergency crews had things well under control.

The fireman pulled off his helmet and clutched it beside him at hip height with one arm. His blond hair was darkened with sweat, and his face was ruddy. He was very trim and very young. To Clark's eyes, he looked all of twenty-two.

"Reggie Dale." The fireman shook Clark's hand. "We think a pipe got busted. It's a mess down there — the smoke is making it hard to figure out just how bad the damage is."

Reggie let loose a dry, rough-sounding cough, a sound imitated at random by several of the nearby workers and a few of the EMTs. The smoke seemed to be causing more than just visibility problems.

Clark tried to swallow the lump that was forming in his throat. If this man, in his early twenties and quite vulnerable, could risk his own life daily in a high-risk job such as this…

Coward, Clark Kent. I've told this to you how many times before?

"Do you think—" Clark's voice broke a bit and he cleared his throat. "Do you think this will have any impact on the city's operational status?"

"Well, we might have to shut off gas, water, power, or all three to the buildings immediately surrounding this area — grids 45, 46, and 47 — while we assess the damage, and maybe again when the crews repair it, but I don't expect there to be any prolonged difficulties."

The siren on the ambulance turned on, and it pulled out of the throng of onlookers. Several police officers were keeping the crowd back, and had set up barricades.

The lump in Clark's throat wasn't getting any smaller.

"Can you tell me anything about the injured man?" Clark asked.

Yes, Clark. Find out if the man had any kids. A wife. Torture yourself further, you certainly deserve it.

"I'm sorry," Reggie shrugged. "I don't have any information on that. You might want to check with this construction site's supervisor, Bob Chesney. He's over there."

Clark followed Reggie's gaze to where a rumpled, dirt-smudged man sat against one of the fire trucks with a cloth held to his head. He was gazing at the smoke as though mesmerized, probably still a little shell-shocked.

"Thanks," Clark told Reggie, and proceeded to walk over to the man Reggie had identified.

"Mr. Chesney?"

The man took a moment to look up at Clark. "Yes? Sorry, I'm a bit woozy."

"No problem at all," Clark assured Bob as the man wobbled to his feet. Clark waited patiently until Bob nodded. "I'm Clark Kent from the Daily Planet. I was wondering if you could answer a few questions for me about the accident?"

"Sure, just don't expect me to be doing complex math equations in this state," Bob joked. His laugh ended in a bit of dry wheeze.

Clark didn't smile. "Can you tell me anything about the injured man?"

Bob, who looked like he had been preparing for the third inquisition, relaxed his posture a bit. "Oh, sure. Lindsay Price. One of the best men I've got, I'm sure he'll pull through just fine. He's never even taken a sick day before this."

"So, he's dedicated then?"

"Like I said, one of the best men I've got," Bob confirmed.

"Does he have any family?"

"Yes, a little girl about five years old. I think her name is Beth." Clark felt his stomach plummet into his shoes. "The mother is long gone though."

A girl had almost lost her father today.

"Aren't you going to write any of this down?" Bob asked.

Clark shook his head, gesturing at his right temple. "It's all up here." Burned, forever, indelible.

Clark thanked Bob for his time and stood watching the organized chaos of repair crews and workers for a few more moments. The air smelled burned to him, although he was sure the breeze that was kicking up was contributing to make it seem stronger than it actually was. Smoke oozed about along the ground, nipping at the hem of his trench coat, and the flashing lights just seemed to make it more surreal.

He could have prevented this.

He had been right in the vicinity, and he hadn't lifted a finger. Although, oddly, he hadn't even heard the trouble this time. Not until Perry had pointed out that there had been an accident did the sounds of sirens seem to filter back into his realm of existence. It was as if they had been blotted out, for a time.

Had Lois's inquiries about Trask distracted him that much?

Ironic that the man that represented such pain and fear for Clark had the power to give him respite in *any* area, let alone this one. He sighed a deep, rattling sigh as he tried to collect his thoughts. His muscles knotted and strained under his skin — no amount of trying to relax would soothe them. He felt like he was being pawed at by invisible claws, and his chest was tight.

Lois Lane was after him, and a man had almost died today.

This was not cropping out to be a good day.

Understatement of the year, Clark. Are you going to go back and face her now?

The accident had been, at least, an escape from Lois's invasive questioning, and though he felt guilty for admitting it, a slight relief. When Lois had been prodding him, he had felt like he was stuck on a precipice, nothing but air behind him and Lois in front of him, and the only way out was falling off or charging through her to get away. Even if he hadn't been able to fly, he probably would have picked falling.

He ambled back inside the Planet building without a thought, barely mindful of the revolving door, but it took him a long time to convince himself to move towards the elevator. He stood there for several moments, staring, clenching and unclenching his fists until he finally leaned forward and pressed the up button. Soon the doors would beckon him inward, and he'd be well on his way to walking the last mile.

Lois would be waiting to jump him the second he got off, he was sure. She had smelled blood in the water the second he had admitted to knowing Trask. He cursed silently, remembering how he had been so shocked at seeing the picture of Trask that he had identified it and started trying to get Lois to back off before reality put on the breaks. He should have known better than to reveal anything at all. He could have feigned ignorance as he had flipped through that deck of photos.

Well, no he really couldn't have, he decided. He was a horrible liar, and worse, just thinking about Trask usually got him breathing funny and floundering against the horrible dregs of memories his image brought up. Even someone about half as perceptive as Lois would have noticed his reaction. As it were, the sight of it had sent a sharp stab of fear pushing backwards through his skull and he had been hopeless to try and hide it. He thought he'd seen the last of Trask when he'd put his costume in the closet in Kansas City for the last time, but it was apparent that for the second time in his life, he had misjudged Trask's absences for transience. His first misjudgement had cost lives.

And now it had the potential to cost lives again. Lois was in danger because from what he knew of her, regardless of how George Thompson was involved, she was going to start poking around and finding too much of what Trask didn't want her to know. By dodging the issue, Clark was sure he'd made her even more curious than she normally would have been if he'd just ponied up, or ignored the photo. He wasn't sure how Thompson would deal with Lois, but he knew Trask enough to not even have to worry about it, because it meant he was already planning for the worst.

He corrected his earlier assessment.

Lois was in danger, Lois was after him, and a man had nearly died.

The elevator lumbered into place, and he stepped aboard. He pressed the button and continued his trip towards the snapping jaws of certain death.

Things were getting even worse, because he knew there was no way he would be able to worry about Lois being in danger if he was avoiding her to fix his other problem with her. He felt like he was twisting in six different directions as he considered all the possible ways this week could end in cataclysmic circumstances.

And speaking of cataclysmic… he really, really liked Lois.

That was another problem he hadn't thought to add.

Just her smile had the ability to melt him in place — her inner fire was faster and hotter than any strength of his heat-vision. And she was beautiful.

He really, really liked Lois, Lois was in danger, Lois was after him, and a man had nearly died.

Cataclysmic began to feel like an understatement.

Somehow he had to get Lois off the story if she hadn't figured it out already, which was something he didn't put past her, given her wit. When she sat there making connections and solving puzzles for stories, she was just breathtaking. He honestly felt a little guilty for not holding up his share — he was too busy just watching her shine. But as exhilarating as it was to watch, he knew her perceptiveness was a big problem. A huge problem.

Tell her the truth, you idiot!

Would she be afraid of him? Of the things he could do?




He winced as the memory of Trask's knife-like words surfaced.

Yes. Yes, she would be afraid. Of him. Because he was different.

And he didn't think he could take that.

There was a way people looked at you when they were afraid. When they hated you. It burned like hot daggers to flesh, knowing something completely out of your control was the cause of such strong negative emotion. Such tumult. Such… abhorrence.

He could still remember the white fury in Trask's pale blue eyes. The tremor of terror, masked by his guise of superiority. If Lois ever looked at him liked that, he was sure he'd never be able to live with himself.

No. He would try his hardest to protect Lois Lane in the course of her inevitable investigation, but he wouldn't tell her the truth. If she happened to discover his origins in the process, well, then he would deal with that when the situation arrived, but he dreaded it. Until that point, however, he would have some semblance of normalcy, and he would cherish every single moment of it, like the last scraps of a fine dessert, almost gone.

The bell dinged, and the doors in front of him peeled open, revealing the bullpen sprawling out before him. He took a breath to steel himself and proceeded down the ramp towards Lois's desk. Each step closer and his muscles seemed to stiffen even more until he felt like a walking vice. But he wouldn't turn away from her.

For as much as he couldn't save anyone else in his life, he would surely protect Lois, or die inside trying.

"No, Mitchell, I'm not mad," Lois was saying into her phone as he approached and reclaimed his seat.

She caught his eyes and gave a little wave before turning back to her conversation.

"If you've got the sniffles, you've got the sniffles."

She paused, and he could hear faint mumblings on the other end of the line.

"Yes, that could lead to complications," she answered, but she was rolling her eyes and not looking very interested.

"No don't call me," she finally said. "I'll call you."

She slammed the phone down on the hook with such force it made her desk shudder. She smiled at him. "Welcome back. Did you get your story?"

He blinked. "Yes. A man was injured, but there were no fatalities. The firemen don't know how bad the damage is yet. I was going to call the fire chief later this evening and also check up on the injured man, but I think I have enough to write up something preliminary."

She nodded, staring at him, but she seemed to be giving him more a look of appraisal than of determined curiosity. He squirmed in his chair — her gaze was very unnerving. But there was no way was he going to ask her about why she wasn't interrogating him already — if she had decided to let go then asking would only prod her back into wondering again. And, well, he wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.


This was a long stare.

No gift horse mouth looking here. No sir.

A really long stare.

It was getting awful hot in here.

Finally, she spoke. "I don't suppose you have a tuxedo?"

"No, I really don't know anything about—what?" Whatever manner of questioning he had been expecting, he certainly hadn't imagined it to begin like this. All of his previous determination seemed to be gone, and he was left feeling breathless and agitated. Maybe this was some new form of torture — to get him so completely confused and distracted that by the time she was through he would be desperate to reveal everything just to get the dizzy feeling to stop.

"A tux," she repeated more slowly. "Do you have one?"

What on Earth? Maybe she wanted him to look snazzy for the imminent moment in which she ripped him to shreds.

"Uh…" he stammered. "I can get one. Why?"

"Well, the man I was going to Lex Luthor's ball with has the flu and…" Her voice trailed off and she looked at him expectantly.

Oh. OH. He inhaled sharply. "Yes?"

She couldn't be asking him out. No, this was for work, he was sure. It had to be. Didn't it? Well, she did send pretty mixed signals. She'd snap one minute, and the next she'd be staring almost as moony-eyed as he feared himself to look the majority of the time.

Though she definitely wasn't snapping now.

"Well, I was wondering if you'd like to…" She got up and paced for a moment. He watched her go back and forth. Back and forth. She bit her nail for a moment, and then finally turned back to him. "Look, do you want to take his place or not?" Her breath seemed bated and the look of hope in her eyes was making him anxious to reply, "yes, yes, YES."

He tried desperately to keep his cool.

"A date?" he asked, but the moment he put the question into words he regretted it. She balked, visibly, as if his utterance had knocked some sense back into her, and her anticipative gaze turned into a glare.

"I live by three rules," she snapped. "Never get involved in your stories, never let anyone else get there first, and never sleep with anyone you work with. This is business. I'm going to land Lex Luthor's first one-on-one interview if it kills me. And I will not walk into his party unescorted. So are you coming?"

She crossed her arms over her chest.

His lofty hopes plummeted and went splat on the floor tiles, but they weren't quashed entirely. She was interested, he could see it, but there was something in the way, and it was more than those three rules. Of course, there was the issue about Trask, but for some reason she wasn't asking about it. Her mood shifts almost made it seem like she was at war with herself.

"Okay, sure," he said, hoping to sound nonchalant.

"Meet me in front of LexCorp. Nine. Sharp. You're sure you can get a tuxedo?" She looked very concerned.

He smiled. He was going to Lex Luthor's ball with Lois Lane. Whether this was as a co-worker, friend, or potential lover, he wasn't quite sure, but it was still something to get excited about. "I'll see you there," he reassured her.

She glanced at his chest and then back at his face. "It's a *black* tie affair."

"Hey," he protested. "I own a black tie."

"Never would have guessed." She smirked at him, and he felt his cheeks redden a bit.

After glancing at her watch, she picked up her things and packed up her briefcase, making a slow show of it before she finally turned to him again. "Don't think you're off the hook about Trask," she said. "I have some appointments."

And with that, she turned on her heels and stalked out, leaving him staring, open-mouthed in her wake.


Clark's pale face stared back at him from the mirror. He stood there watching himself for a set of long, painful moments. The blemish of stubble crept across his chin and cheeks like a weed, demanding to be taken care of. He couldn't go to a black-tie ball with a five o' clock shadow frosting his face.

His eyes grew wide, and there was a small rim of perspiration along his brow that shined, even under the bleak fluorescent lighting. Taking a deep breath, he looked around again — to the left, the right, above, below, although it seemed ridiculous in such a small room as this.

Come on, Clark, he urged himself. Just do it.

He crunched up his toes and made tents in the towel mat he had left on the floor.

You can do it without getting the curtains and the door. Try it. Just once. Who's left in your life to get hurt?


He sighed and moved away from the mirror, darting for the window. With a grimace he drew closed the makeshift towel curtains he had put up along his bathroom window. Then he went to the door and closed it, flipping the light switch off as he passed.

Again he searched around.

Okay. No excuses left, Clark, even you can barely see in here now. You do this every day, Clark. This is getting to be really pathetic.

He stared again at his reflection and took a deep, cleansing breath.

Oh, good grief, Clark. *No one* is going to get killed because you shaved.

His reflection looked like a ghost in the dim lighting. He gripped the sides of the little sink below the mirror as hard as he dared.

Get on with it!

He leaned in, let loose a burst of low-intensity, wide-beam heat vision across his face, and was done with his task in seconds. The dark shadow of stubble was gone, leaving an unblemished apparition in the mirror. With a sigh of relief, he let muscles he hadn't even realized were held taut relax a little, and his hands shook as he released the sink.

The tuxedo that he had rented on the way home lay out on his mattress, waiting, but he was drenched with sweat now.

Weary, he took a long, hot shower, and relaxed in the dark.


Lois sat in her cab watching rain splat onto the windows and meander down past her view. She could see Clark standing there under an awning, water spilling over it as though someone were dumping buckets on top. His hands were in the pockets of his coat and he was still, staring off at some unknown fascination in the sidewalk.

He's waiting for me, she thought, and her breath caught. She was immediately thankful for the cradle of darkness that the backseat of the cab offered. What was she going to do? What had possessed her to ask him as an escort when she knew she was attracted to him?

Real smart move, Lane. You're probably going to break all three rules in one date.

It wasn't a date!

She had said so!


She took a deep breath, and another, clutching at her raincoat. His face was pale in the darkness, and his look uncertain. He appeared lost in thought, or maybe just lost. He wasn't even fidgeting — just standing there, set in stone. Like a chameleon, he blended further into the background the longer she looked at him.

Like someone practiced at not getting noticed.

The rain grew a bit more steady, and she placed her hand on the glass, wishing the stream flooding down the window would part for her to see better. Clark's figure blurred, tremored, and seemed to fade even more behind the curtain of water.

"Lady, are you going to pay and get out, or should I drive you home to meet the family?"

She jumped back from the window and fumbled for her wallet. "I was just waiting for the rain to let up," she fibbed as she handed the cabbie a twenty-dollar bill. "Keep the change."

Well, here we go, she thought.

She pushed open the door of the car and fanned her umbrella out in front of her like a shield. She got out of the car with some effort and moved her umbrella overtop of her. She hopped over the river of muck and liquid in the gutter as best as she could with her heels and darted underneath the awning where Clark stood.

He became animated almost immediately. "Lois, hi," he said with one of his dashing smiles as she brought her umbrella down and shook it off. Water flew everywhere and splattered across Clark's trench coat, but he didn't even seem to notice, his eyes on her the whole time.

She looked up into his eyes and tried to ignore the blurry, relaxed feeling that seeped into her bones like a drug. "Hi," she replied, but was frightened to discover how breathless she sounded.

Silenced stretched forwards, interminable. Clark's breath fanned out in front of him in misty tendrils, and she clutched at the handle of her umbrella as though it were her only lifeline. She couldn't wrench her eyes away from him.

"I—" She began as a blush began to creep across her skin, but her tongue was suddenly a dead thing.

What was she doing? She shook her head to clear it.

"I've got to fix my hair," she snapped. "I'll meet you inside."

And then she fled into the LexCorp building without waiting for him to respond. What was she doing? This was to get an interview with Lex Luthor. And that was it!

Why then, was she suddenly afraid of how dressed up she was? One thought toward her plunging v-line dress and she didn't even want to take off her coat.

She jammed her thumb on the elevator's 'up' button and began to pace. Clark had looked at her as if she were the only thing that existed on this Earth. No man had ever looked at her that way before, not even Claude when he had been faking it. No one ever, not even anyone in her family, but there was no mistaking its meaning, and it was terrifying.

What was she doing? Why had she invited him along? She should have just gone stag like the career woman in her said she should go. And it didn't help that she had known beforehand that Clark was a little attracted to her. She would have to have been *dead* to have not noticed that. She'd noticed his furtive glances her way when he obviously thought she wasn't paying attention, and often caught an amazed look in his eyes before he had a chance to mask it.

So why had she invited him along?

Well it had been flattering, really. Not many people seemed to think she was amazing.

She blushed again. She seemed to be doing that a lot lately.

"Lois, I thought you had to fix your hair?" she felt Clark walk up behind her more than she heard him. The soft, mushy sound of his feet hitting the lush, red carpet told her he hadn't been in a real hurry. Had she been standing here that long?

Damn this elevator for being so slow! The bell dinged and the doors trundled open, but she didn't enter.

"I—" her voice cut off as though the word were only intended to be a mere grunt. Excuse, girl, you need an excuse! "—couldn't find a bathroom."

Her hands flew to her head to feel around for anything that seemed to be in disarray. "It… doesn't look bad does it?" Suddenly the thought that she might look tussled caused her panic. What if she walked into Lex Luthor's ballroom looking like a tribble? Would Clark care? Why did she care if Clark cared? She could look how she wanted to look! As far as Clark was concerned, tribble-Lois would be fine.

But excuses kept tumbling from her mouth like rocks off a cliff, and she was powerless to stop them. "I had to work so hard get the pins in right, I'm sure one of them nicked something when I got into the cab and I'm in all sorts of disarray. Hurricane Lois — that's me. Oh, and the rain certainly didn't help, I'd imagine."

Her eyes grew wider and wider as she babbled along, noting Clark's small grin of amusement.

What was *wrong* with her?


Her mouth just kept on going. "Maybe I should have brought a brush, but then, it wouldn't fit in this sort of purse, would it? I guess not. I really don't know what's gotten into me, I don't normally talk this much. Well, yes, okay, I do, but—"

"Lois," Clark interrupted more forcefully. "It looks beautiful. *You* look beautiful."

"Oh," she finished lamely. She started to tremble a little bit and forced herself to remain calm. A really gorgeous man had told her she looked beautiful.

Calm, Lois. Stay calm! This is *not* a date. You are okay. You owe Clark nothing. Clark's not expecting anything. It's *all* okay. He's from Kansas, he can't be shifty! But then there was that thing about Trask that they still hadn't cleared up, wasn't there? But he couldn't be bad, he just couldn't.

Yeah, right, another voice interjected. Clark's a man. Claude said the same stuff. It's nothing more than a ploy.

Her body, however, seemed to be ignoring both voices, and was sending signals she wasn't really sure she knew what to do with. Every muscle seemed to be hung in a state of hypertension, and she was sure if she were to release the death grip she had on her purse's handles, her fingers would prove to be shaking.

The elevator dinged again and threatened to close, but Clark stuck his hand out and the doors snapped back. "Shall we?" he asked, gesturing towards the private, very small, enclosed space.

She nodded, for the first time in her life too terrified to let herself speak. Her stomach felt like it was in knots, and the butterflies in it were gasping and twitching for much-needed breath. And just when she thought it couldn't get any worse, Clark removed his trench coat to reveal his sleek, well-fitting tuxedo.

To say he was handsome in it was understating things by about twenty times over. His healthy olive complexion and dark hair made him look fabulous in black, and he didn't look stiff as though being dressed up bothered him. His shoulders were broad and his waist very narrow, making him appear masculine with a capital M, and with her earlier sampling of his shoulder, she didn't have to try too hard to imagine what lay underneath the tux.

Her heart thudded furiously in her ears, and she fought a desperate fight to keep her breath steady as she stepped into the elevator. The doors closed, and she was alone. With him.

Worse things had happened…

Get a grip, Lane!

The bittersweet, spicy aroma of his aftershave was almost making her dizzy, but not in a nauseated way. She leaned back against the wall of the elevator, not trusting her legs to hold her upright, and stared at him.

"Lois, are you all right?" he asked. The smile he had carried plastered across his face had slipped into a concerned frown.

"Not friend, friend not!" she blurted and immediately brought her hands to her mouth in horror. "I mean—"

What did she mean?

The elevator dinged, and the doors decided to open.

"Look, we're here!" she said breathlessly as she launched off of the elevator wall, shrugged her coat off and shoved it, along with her umbrella, into Clark's hands. Despite the look of complete surprise on his face, he managed to catch them midway down his legs, moments before they slipped to the floor.

She turned and moved along, not waiting for him to collect himself.

At the end of a long hall, two wide double doors were propped open. The elegant ballroom sprawled out behind them, and from this distance, the air sparkled as though stars were scattered about, dancing. As she got closer, she could tell it was really just everyone's jewelry glinting against the dimmed lights, but the effect was dazzling. Lois had never seen so many beautiful people in one space before in her life. Everyone who was anyone in Metropolis was here. It was a writhing mass of news stories.

"Madame," the usher at the door said with a flourish as she flashed her invitation and moved past as fast as her heels and dignity would allow her.

The gigantic room she found herself in was stunning. A massive chandelier hung over head, glittering, and over the soft hum of whispering voices she could hear the sounds of a piano tune akin to smooth jazz. A glance to her left revealed an ebony-colored grand piano about ten feet long, and a thin, red-haired man seated at it playing, his hands gliding over the keys, graceful, like the gentle crush and swell of waves. The soft, tasty smell of hors'douvres wafted from the nearby refreshment table, overwriting the imprinted scent of Clark's aftershave.

She took a cursory glance downward at herself. Her blue dress cascaded downward, and she seemed to be in order. Nothing unsightly stuck to her shoes. Everything in place. No weird wrinkles or pleats in the fabric of her skirt.

You look beautiful, Clark's voice echoed in her mind.

Lex Luthor!

She was here to interview Lex Luthor.

She wandered out amidst the throng of dancers. The soft clicks of their heels on the floor tiles echoed in time along with the music emanating from the huge piano. In the distance, she saw a set of steps leading upwards to another floor of the penthouse, just as a tall, handsome man strode out onto the top landing. His hair was a chestnut color, and curly, but his eyebrows seemed a dark black. His face was long, and there was a cleft to his chin that made it seem to turn upwards a bit. The end result of which made him appear younger than he probably was, but cultured.

Lex Luthor.

A group of people came out onto the landing after him, and he walked down with a bounce to his step and a smile. He greeted guests as he recognized them. "Good evening Margaret. Thanks for coming, Charles. I—"

This is it, Lois! Everything within her screamed, every cell urging her to go forward. Go! Forget about Clark! Loose the dogs of war! Tell this man what you really think of him for ignoring you!

*No one* ignores my phone calls!

"Lex Luthor!" she called, putting her hands on her hips and casting a deadly glare in his direction. Her voice sliced the air like a sword, and he looked up, his eyes widening in surprise.

"Why haven't you returned my calls?" she asked.

He turned to her and smiled.

Oh my, he's approaching me…

She suppressed a small burble of panic, not having planned what she was going to do if he didn't tell her to stuff it. But to her surprise, he looked intrigued.

"Lois Lane, Daily Planet," she answered the question in his eyes as the distance between them closed to inches, and he took her hand in his. The warmth of his skin on hers did little to ease the nerves she'd frazzled earlier in the elevator.

His eyes roved up and down her body, and she immediately felt uncomfortable. "I can assure you," he said with a suave charm, "I'll never make that mistake again." His voice was rich and deep, and his eyes sparkled under the dim light of the chandelier. But there was something there that she caught, deep within his gaze. Malevolent. Festering. So different from Clark's pained and soulful stare.

Clark was a lot cuter too.

She nixed that thought.

"Care to dance?" Mr. Luthor asked.

She nodded mutely. This was her opportunity to snag an exclusive interview with the most eligible bachelor on the planet, not to mention the most sought after by the press. If she got him to speak more than a paragraph to her, it would probably be an instant Kerth award and a raise. This man was news, for sure, and yet he managed to dodge it as deftly as she could ask questions and seek clues.

But for some reason, as she felt his firm hand slip around her waist, she found her stomach roiling in disgust rather than fluttering with excitement. The sweet odor of cigar smoke was making her eyes water. Luthor didn't speak for a moment as they moved about in dizzying circles.

She could feel eyes on her, but one set in particular made her crane her neck to see who was giving her such attention. Clark stood back against a marble pillar, watching, silent. He didn't have a smile on his face. His lips were parted slightly as if he were slack-jawed. Jimmy stood next to him and was saying something.

Jimmy must have arrived before them to take photos for the society section. Lois remembered offhandedly that Perry had sent him on this job as a test of his skills after Jimmy had spent days trying to convince him.

But Jimmy wasn't what made her do a double take. Clark was several feet taller than Jimmy. Wait a minute, no he wasn't! As fast as she noticed it, Clark's height seemed to drop alarmingly, until his eyes were back to hovering only a few inches above the top Jimmy's short, spiked hair.

She blinked and tried not to gasp. She must have imagined that. She must have! The wine — it was getting to her already.

But Lois, you didn't have any wine…

Maybe she was sick. Dying. What if she had some sort of sudden death syndrome? That would explain the flip-flops her stomach had been doing and the weakness in her legs. Wouldn't it?

It occurred to her that Mr. Luthor was staring at her.

She forced her attention and racing thoughts back to her dance companion. "I hope you'll forgive me for being so bold," she began, but her voice sounded like someone had knocked the wind out of her with a bat, and she had to clear her throat mid- sentence.

What was *wrong* with her today? Maybe she really was dying. First she'd been feeling like a quivery mess just by looking at Clark, and now she was hallucinating and feeling ill. Her thoughts raced as she tried to recall if she'd taken any pills or eaten anything strange that day.

What were the symptoms of salmonella? She knew she should have cleaned out the gunk in her microwave… Could you even get salmonella from microwave goo?

"Boldness is a trait I find very attractive in a woman, Ms. Lane," Mr. Luthor was saying.

Pay attention, Lois! Your exclusive is talking!

"Oh," she said, her heart beginning to hammer in a method altogether different than when she had been in the elevator with Clark. What do I say? "Thank you."

Lame! Where did your fancy practice speech go, Lois? You wrote it and serialized it on index cards just so you could practice in the cab!

Get to the point, before he wanders off!

"I was wondering, Mr. Luthor—"

"Lex," he corrected.

She bit back a retort at his correction. That certainly assumed a level of informality which they did *not* have. But she needed to get this story. "Lex," she edited herself. "I know you're hesitant to give interviews—"

"I hope you can understand," he interrupted again.

Don't bite his head off, Lois, or you'll lose the opportunity. Nod and smile, girl. Nod and smile! Think Kerth. Think big shiny Kerth. Biiiig, shiny Kerth.

"A man in my position," he continued, "I wouldn't want to be misinterpreted, and I have had one or two bad experiences with the media." He looked down on her with a condescending smile.

Why did jumping in front of trains and breaking into labs for stories suddenly seem much more appealing?

"But not with me," she said, plastering the best smile she could manage on her lips. Must get this story. Don't blow it!

Mr. Luthor grazed her with his eyes again and smiled as though he were sampling an exquisite wine. She tried not to wince. "Why don't we make it dinner?" he asked.

Her eyes widened. He was surrendering already? Wow, that had been remarkably easier than she expected. Her index card speech had had a lot of point and counterpoint examples prepared so she could argue from any front, but it seemed she didn't need any argument at all. Which was good, because in the state she was currently in, she doubted she would be able to remember past 'card 3A: How to introduce yourself.'

His eyes are eating you up like Claude, Lois. This will be dinner and more. Do you want the story that bad?

"Mind if I cut in?" Clark asked from somewhere to her right.

She resisted the urge to scream. She didn't need a deus ex machina. She could navigate on her own perfectly well, thanks. She suppressed a growl, and was thankful to discover that her previous shivery feeling was not returning when she glared in Clark's direction. Oh, he was so dead. Deader than dead.

"Lex," she gritted, "This is Clark Kent. He works at the Daily Planet."

"A pleasure," Mr. Luthor said, but his stare was considerably colder.

Oh yeah, Lois, this man was not interested in your wit.

Mr. Luthor turned back to her, and she suppressed her anger. Kerth, she thought again calmly. Kerth, Kerth, Kerth. "Later then?" he asked.

And suddenly Luthor was gone, and she was in Clark's arms.

"Clark, you idiot," she snapped. "It's taken me a *year* to get this close!"

I don't need to be rescued! she wanted to scream. Did she?

Clark pulled her closer, and she gasped. The scent of his aftershave threatened to make her drunk again. Lost, she stared up into his unblinking, chocolate eyes. Blood rushed in her ears, and the sounds of whispering, footsteps, and the piano dulled in the thrumming roar.

"This close?" he asked. His voice was quiet, but to her it sounded like potent thunder.

She licked her lips and tried to find words, but was speechless yet again. Clark, or maybe it was the salmonella, was doing bad things to her vocal chords.

The music stopped and the man at the piano stood, but her attention on Clark's face didn't end until applause yanked her back into reality like a bungee cord. She pushed against his chest and backed up, thankfully without tripping on her much too painful heels. "I would have thought square-dancing was more your style," she said.

Clark smiled. Why did he smile so darn much? It was infuriating! "Actually," he said, "I learned from a Nigerian princess who studied ballroom dancing in England."

She looked across the dance floor and noted for the first time that there was a set of doors off in a darker corner of the room that nobody seemed to be paying attention to. Interesting.

"Really? How fascinating."

She made a beeline for the door.

She heard Clark call, "Where are you going?" over her shoulder, but she didn't answer.

Target acquired!

She put her hand on the doorknob and found it wasn't locked. Watch it be the world's largest walk-in closet, she thought. She glanced around to make sure no one was looking and pushed it open. It stuck a little on the hinges, but with a firm shove, her hip forced it open. She was surprised to find a large, yawning study with a balcony behind a set of wide, French doors, which opened into the rainstorm like an offering.

One more glance behind her revealed she wasn't being watched, so she slipped into the darkness and closed the door behind her. So, Lex Luthor, what do you have to hide? Given what she'd seen earlier in his gaze, probably a lot. Although granted, she could have read him wrong—


Something bumped up behind her, and she flinched. She flipped around and nearly brought her nose into Clark's chest. He smelled *really* good.

"Lois, what are you doing?" he asked.

She resisted the urge to scream at him as she backed up. He needed one of those little bells to tie around his neck, like they did with cats so the birds would know they were coming. Although, she wondered how much good it would do. When she was a kid, her neighbor's cat had learned how to move without making the bell sound off, and had continued to bring little mouse and bird bits back home with him every evening. She was relieved, however, to find that imagining Clark with a little bell around his neck was making him more amusing than handsome.

"Being a reporter," she retorted. "You should try it sometime!"

She turned again to look around, not bothering to wait for his reaction. The less time she spent looking at him, the better. She didn't need the salmonella to flare up again, not when she was sneaking uninvited through an unlit room in the home of one of the richest men in the world.

Her eyes were finally adjusting to the lighting when the room flared bright white, and a crack of thunder pealed through the air. Her heart skittered about in her chest, but she kept body steady and continued her assessment of the room. At the center of the room stood a heavy mahogany desk. Books littered the shelves everywhere, and along the wall there was an array of weapons hanging in a decorative display.

Clark looked more interested in the weapons, and wandered that way, but to her, the desk looked to have the most investigative potential.

She walked up to it and started rifling through the drawers, but most of it seemed to be unused stationary and writing implements. Jeez, the man didn't even take notes on anything, it seemed. There weren't even any phone numbers or scribbles jotted on the yellow sticky pad by the decorative, rotary-dial phone that sat on the corner of the writing surface. Maybe this was a guest study and his real office was somewhere else, or perhaps it was an alternate study that he used only every other Sunday. She knew his penthouse was probably big enough to have a study for every day of the week.

Her muscles tensed, and she sensed something was wrong before she had even finished closing the drawer. She looked up and her mouth fell open. Lex Luthor stood before her, the hilt of a sword clenched in his grip. The sword clawed out in front of him like an extension of his own arm, and it pointed directly at Clark's heart. The metal of the blade flashed as lightning reflected off of it, and Mr. Luthor's eyes glinted like a predator in the darkness.

Clark, to his credit, didn't even appear startled. His gaze flitted down to the blade that was nearly poking a hole in the breast of his tuxedo, and appraised it. "Macedonian," he said, his voice low and cautious.

Luthor nodded. "It belonged to Alexander the Great. A brilliant tactician."

Lois tried not to gape at the weapon. Alexander the Great. That meant Luthor was flaunting a sword that had to be worth millions, casually, as though it were a mere sparring weapon.

Luthor lowered the sword and flipped it so the hilt pointed towards Clark. Clark grasped the handle and inspected it.

"Alexander's strategy was simple," Lex continued. "Always control the high ground. It was with this sword that he—"

"Defeated Darius the Third, and was proclaimed King of Asia," Clark interrupted.

Go, Clark! She wanted to cheer, but resisted the urge. At the same time, she wondered briefly how Clark could possibly remember all that from what was probably a high school world history class. People with eidetic memory made her so jealous! It would come in such handy the days she couldn't get her little disposable cameras to work.

"You surprise me, Mr. Kent," Luthor said. "I'm not often surprised."

The two men stared at each other for an eternity of moments, and Lois could have sworn they were sizing each other up like male lions fighting for control of the pride. She chose this moment to draw attention to herself. Glancing back at the desk, she made sure everything was as she had happened on it the first time, and then walked up to the pair while Clark placed the sword back in its holder.

"I hope you don't mind our looking around. You have a beautiful home, Lex," she gushed, hoping she wasn't laying her saccharine tone on too thickly.

For the barest of moments, she saw his feelings unmasked. Yes, he certainly did mind. And *if* he minded, that was even more evidence that he had something to hide. Why would a man have a personal party in his own home without locking the places he didn't want nosey people like herself in, and then get upset when people breached his privacy? All of a sudden, she found it very suspicious that the man had had no interviews with the press his entire life, and had seemingly emerged out of nowhere. He didn't exist, and then he was third richest man in the world.

You didn't shoot up the financial ladder that fast unless you had a busload of dumb luck, or a business savvy that was a little skimpy on the ethics side. And she was fairly sure it would have made the news if he'd been the lucky recipient of fifty winning lottery tickets, all of which probably wouldn't have added up to even a quarter of his full worth.

One glance at Clark told her that he agreed with her assessment.

But as quickly as she had caught it, the look in Luthor's eyes disappeared behind a charming smile. A slippery one, he was. She felt his hand on her hip and forced herself not to stiffen up. "Have you seen the view from here?" he asked, gesturing grandly towards the balcony.

She let him guide her out almost to the edge, although her body was screaming against allowing this man to get her so close to a place she could fall so very far from. The massive building towered not much farther above them, and the sky was a mass of dark, flickering clouds, but the surface of the balcony was, for the most part, cool, and dry. An overhang sluiced the rain off from the roof a few inches out from the railing. She hazarded a look down and was greeted with a carpet of glowing, dazzling lights that spread outward until they fuzzed and disappeared over the horizon. The spectacle before her made it appear like millions of tiny fireflies were congregating at the base of the tower.

The view was thrilling.

Clark had followed behind them, and she could hear his deep breaths, but he wasn't speaking. A quick glance behind her revealed he was standing with his eyes closed, his face turned upwards toward the sky as if meaning to catch the breeze. At first, she thought his eyes might be closed because he was afraid of heights, but the vaguest of smiles crept across his face, and he looked at peace.

Luthor took no notice of this, and urged her again to look out. "Tallest building in Metropolis," he explained. "I must confess a certain pleasure in knowing that everyone in the city has to look up in order to see me."

She raised her eyebrows. It appeared Lex Luthor had an ego the size of his pocketbook. Luthor blinked and cleared his throat, and she realized with satisfaction that he knew he had made an error in revealing that to her.

"Let's get back to the party," Luthor hedged. "I think my announcement will interest you."

Yeah right, Lois thought. You just want to get me out of your hair, you louse. She, however, managed to place another fake smile on her face. Clark had done the same.

He was a fast learner, she thought. He hadn't said much, but she could tell he was picking up on the same things she was just by his minute facial reactions. Luthor, of course, wasn't paying anything but the barest attention to Clark, so he had more freedom to observe without having to act like he was impressed.

Luthor led them back out onto the main ballroom floor and hopped up onto a raised part of the floor, which she supposed was a makeshift stage. A small crowd had gathered around the area. Apparently this was a planned announcement.

Jimmy caught up with them and stood to their left. "I guess this is what you call the high society," he commented as he gazed along the teaming crowd of rich and richer people.

"Did someone mention my name?" Cat's voice called from behind them.

Lois turned and was blinded. Cat's skintight, semi-transparent, metallic-colored dress glinted in a fantastically garish fashion under the chandelier overhead. "How did you pass the metal detector?" Lois asked.

Cat ignored her comment and was looking hungrily at Clark, who had his mouth open and looked horrified, but he didn't speak. Cat inhaled to begin her pounce, but Luthor chose this time to begin his presentation.

"Honored guests," he began grandly. His right hand swept over the crowd in a half-arc. "We're here tonight for a good cause. Thanks to your generosity, Luthor House for Homeless Children will soon be a reality. As you know, I have dedicated my life to improving the quality of the lives of the citizens of Metropolis. Tonight, I'd like to go further. It is my sad understanding that due, in part, to the terrible tragedy that befell the Messenger last week, the Congress of Nations intends to cancel Space Station Prometheus."

Lois eyed Luthor with suspicion. He didn't sound that sad, and there was that funny glint she caught in his eyes again. Sinister. Malicious.

"I cannot stand by and allow that to happen to the citizens of this planet," Luthor continued. "Profit aside, potential benefits that a zero gravity laboratory could bring — most importantly, pharmaceuticals that could end crippling diseases here on Earth — must not be lost. Therefore, I have decided to commit my *total* financial support toward the building of a privately owned space laboratory. I have submitted my proposal to the Congress of Nations, and I am awaiting their go-ahead. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you… Space Station Luthor."

The lights on the makeshift stage changed to a haunting cerulean color, and the hologram of a huge space station began to hover in the middle, rotating slowly in circles. The light glowed across everyone's faces, making them appear to be a crowd of mystical apparitions. Lois fought down her initial inclination to be impressed.

It was completely obvious to her that Luthor was doing this for the profits, and the profits alone. Although, from the resounding applause, the rest of the room didn't seem to think so. She turned to see Jimmy and Cat clapping with grins and looks of enthusiasm on their faces. Clark, however, was still along side her, and he was not smiling.

"An engineering marvel," Luthor concluded. "Signpost to a new age in exploration and scientific advancement. A *gift* to the future of mankind."

And your wallet, Lois thought. She glared at him, but the moment he looked over and caught her eye, she flourished the biggest, widest smile she could manage and tried to imitate the boisterous clapping of the rest of the onlookers. He gave her a dashing smile, and walked back off into the crowd, letting everyone have a good look at his newest profitable endeavor.

The rest of the night was rather uneventful. Luthor didn't return to mingle with her after the presentation, instead choosing to roam amongst the more important guests. She spied him having a little tˆte-…-tˆte with the mayor in the corner towards the end of the night, and spotted him even later with a few other important dignitaries.

As the night progressed, she even danced with Clark a few times without her knees turning into complete spaghetti. He was a good dancer. Very good. Perhaps the spiel he'd given her about the Nigerian princess had been the truth, although the naive way in which he'd put it forth hadn't given her any reason to doubt it the first time. She'd just been more interested in other things.

Her little foray into Luthor's private domain still had her a bit buzzed and excited, and she guessed it had rubbed off on her demeanor. She ended up enjoying herself quite thoroughly, much to Cat's utter and obvious disgust, and by the time they were filtering out of the ballroom to go home, she felt sated in a way she hadn't been in a long time. Her whole body was relaxed, and she was quite sure she was carrying around a dopey smile for the world to see.

"Mmm, I should go investigate corrupt billionaires more often," she mumbled as she and Clark dumped out onto the sidewalk and began looking for cabs to hail. Rain was still drizzling down, but it had calmed enough that she didn't care enough to open up her umbrella, and neither, it seemed, did Clark. Water spattered on his glasses, and his hair was flattening onto his scalp, but he didn't even appear distracted by it.

Clark smiled at her. "Well, I admit, I'm not a seasoned veteran by any means of the word, but that was a bit more invasive than any investigating I have ever done."

"Let me guess," she laughed. "Before this you hadn't once even considered breaking the law to get a story."

He blushed. "Well, no. And this wasn't exactly breaking the law, Lois, it was more like wandering into a place by accident." He gave the word 'accident' air quotes and looked at her with a mischievous gaze.

"See, Farmboy, you're learning already!"

They stared at each other as a cab drove up. "You want this one?" Clark asked, and Lois felt strangely sad.

Even drenched with rain, he *did* look handsome. And the evening had been so much fun. She had forgotten what it was like to be social just to be social — after hunting down Luthor and scoring an interview, she probably would have just left if it had been not even two weeks ago.

"Would you…" she began, and halted, her voice trailing off into silence as her mental blocks slammed on the breaks. Ohgod. Had she been about to ask?

Clark looked at her expectantly. "Yes, Lois?"

"Never mind," she muttered, and hobbled into the cab. If he was disappointed, he didn't show it. He was so gentlemanly! She was about to say goodbye and close the door behind her when her mouth ran away with her again. "Wouldyouliketocomebackforcoffee?" she blurted, the syllables all running together like one long mess of a word.

His eyebrows raised, but he didn't seem to have trouble understanding her garbled outburst. "Only if you want me to."

Did she want him to? She began to feel a bit fluttery again just thinking about it. He was kind enough to give her an easy-out, unlike most men she had known in the past. But still… This probably wasn't a good idea. Actually it was most likely a very bad idea.

Very bad.

Three rules!

Plus, it was nearly two AM already and they had work in the morning. What was she thinking?

But the protest was weak, and her defensive flags seemed to be flying at half mast. She nodded and gave him a hesitant grin. "Yeah, I think I'd like that."

"Then that sounds wonderful," Clark answered, and moved into the cab after her as she slid aside.


After much awkward scenery transition, Clark sat quietly on Lois's designer couch, listening to her making noises in the kitchen that did not sound promising. There were crashes here and there. Well, they sounded more like avalanches, and he could hear the curses rushing softly over her lips.

When they had arrived, and Lois had taken his coat, he had seen another young woman poke her head out of one of the doors to the back. Lois had grabbed the woman and dragged her towards the door. "Clark, this is my little sister, Lucy," Lois had said as she shoved Lucy outside.

Lois had grabbed a fuzzy pair of slippers that were resting by the door, and an unfamiliar looking, navy-colored leather purse, and had shoved them into Lucy's barely responsive hands. "Lucy was just leaving for her appointment," Lois had gritted, her voice rising as she spoke. "You know, in that *diner* down the *street,* you have to meet *that guy.*"

Never mind that Lucy had been in a bathrobe and looked quite sleepy-eyed. Her hair had been frizzing up in different places, and she hadn't been saying much other than "Uhhh," "Huh?" and various other monosyllabic utterances.

"Nice to meet you," Clark had said as the door closed on Lucy's gaping look of shock. He had turned to Lois, and her index finger, which was being drawn across her neck in a mock- decapitation motion, had quickly dropped to her side as she gave him the most innocent of innocent smiles.

Another crash ripped him back into the present.

He hoped Lucy was all right. She hadn't asked to come back in yet, so he could only assume she had managed to find her sleepy way into the diner Lois had hinted at. Either that or she knew Lois would be out for her blood if she came back in. Whichever it was, there was little he could do about it.

"How do you like your coffee?" she finally called.

He swallowed and tried to find his voice. Things had gone too fast on the way back here for him to get nervous, but now, sitting alone in her living room while she made coffee, he had plenty of time to think about what an interesting predicament he was getting himself into.

I like Lois, he thought. Lois possibly likes me. Lois also wants to expose me and make me her Pulitzer. Despite the dire situation that revolved around the latter problem, he was having trouble weighing it up against the former. And why did the latter sound like some sort of journalistic sex fantasy?

He shook his head, scolding himself.

"Caffeinated, three creams, three sugars," he said, hoping his nervous voice had carried far enough.

His worries were unfounded.

She had definitely heard him.

There was a long, interminable pause, accented by another quiet curse that he doubted even someone standing right next to her would have been able to hear, and he wondered if, perhaps, he had offended her.

"How about decaf, black?" she called back.

"Lois," he tried to assure her, "Whatever you have is fine."

There was a tapping noise. He wondered briefly if it were Lucy knocking on the door to come back in, but as it filtered into his ears intermittently, he looked down and saw that it was the ball his own foot hitting the floor in time with his own nervous anticipation. He stilled it and took a deep, calming breath.

Just what exactly was he doing here?

Courting disaster, that was what.

There was another crash in the kitchen.

It was a small consolation to him that judging from her culinary antics, Lois was as nervous as he was about this whole ordeal. Her heart was literally racing, and he could hear her footsteps in the kitchen as she made frantic pacing motions. He made a point to not stare at her in hopes of not making her even more uncomfortable, but listening to her heart race along faster than a Kentucky Derby winner was making him even more on edge than he should have been, and he was well aware that he was fidgeting.

"I'm sorry," Lois was saying. "If I have caffeine at this hour it makes me hyper, and then I can't sleep, and I never keep sugar and cream in my pantry, because if it's there, I'll eat it, and if I eat it, I'll have to spend extra time in the gym, and that just won't work well, since I usually have very little time to go to the gym in the first place. I'm sure you have no idea what I'm talking about, you must live in the gym off hours. God, did I really just say that?"

He couldn't help but smile as Lois came back out into the living room with two steaming cups. Her blue dress cascaded behind her and rustled in the intermediate silence. She was still stunning, even after so many hours and several rain showers later. Her eyes glowed in the dim light, more so than the small diamond studs she wore in her ears. Simply put, she was an elegant creature.

"Lois, really," he assured her again as she set the cups down on the coffee table with a clink. "I'll drink anything, so long as it's masquerading as edible."

She sat next to him — close, but not intimately so — and sighed, running her hands up along her arms as if she were cold. "See, even that may be in question, when it comes to me."

He grinned at her, and she met his eyes for the longest of moments before looking away, uncharacteristically shy. She kept shifting in her seat, as though she couldn't quite get settled. If this wasn't hyper, he wondered what she would have been like with the caffeine.

"You don't spend much time in the kitchen, I take it," he said.

"No, not really. Unless you count pressing microwave buttons as quality time."

From what he'd seen of her work ethics so far, that seemed to fit. He could just picture her dashing around to get ready for work while a hot pocket heated up in the microwave, or pouring over a story she was working on while sitting at the nearby counter, too engrossed to do more than just let the microwave do the cooking for her.

"Lack of time, or lack of talent?" he pressed onwards, taking a small sip of his coffee.

It was hot, not scalding, and a lot more bitter than he was used to, but considering it was black coffee, he doubted Lois had anything to do with the bite it had. Noticing that she was watching him with a keen interest, he hid a wince. It wasn't bad — it just wasn't how he liked his coffee. She didn't need to know that, though.

"Equal helpings of both, I think," she replied with no small amount of rue. "You cook?" She took a sip from her mug.

She seemed to be relaxing, and her nervous energy was growing more and more focused. Instead of her whole persona appearing antsy with movement, she was now down to just tapping the side of her cup with her fingers. Her eyelids drooped ever-so-slightly, as though she were sated, and her heart rate was slowing considerably. As an added bonus, no longer hearing her heartbeat skittering along in his ears did a lot to calm his own nerves.

"Well," he answered, "My culinary skills don't equate to disaster, no, but I don't cook a lot."

"You fall into the lack of time bracket then?"

He considered that a moment, taking another sip of his coffee.

He could remember way back, when he and his mother had stood in the kitchen for hours baking all sorts of things. She had taught him pancakes, apple pies, chocolate chip cookies, and basically everything that was unhealthy pretty much straight off, and he'd loved it. The warm, sweet smells of the farmhouse kitchen, and his mother's bell-like laughter, remained housed with the rest of his small collection of good memories.

He didn't really spend much time in the kitchen anymore.

"Well, no. Lack of desire," he explained, unable to remember the last time he had even eaten at all before tonight, beyond what was necessary for appearance's sake. But as she looked at him, he felt ashamed, and a dull shaky feeling began to overtake him. "And at the moment my kitchen is in shambles, so I couldn't even if I wanted to," he added hastily.

I can be normal, for you, he wanted to whisper.

She didn't seem to notice his sudden switch to excuses. Her eyebrows raised. "Redecorating?"

"No, I just moved in this week. In fact, my major week night accomplishment thus far has been extremely complicated moves with a broom."

Somehow that had sounded funnier in his head, and it brought his thoughts back to the crumpled heap of uniform that was still lying in the corner of his closet. It sat there, untouched, since he had tossed it there yesterday.

This was going downhill. He felt like he was failing an exam.

"Funny," she laughed, not seeming to notice his mental critique, "I pictured you more a college football jock than a professional sweeper."

"I did play ball in college," he confirmed, "But it was more a hobby than a calling — I quit my Sophomore year. I was more interested in the academic side of things."

Very downhill.

Truthfully, football had been a short-lived outlet. Dan Westing, a fellow teammate and almost a friend, had attempted to tackle him as a joke when he wasn't ready for it, and Dan had been knocked flat, his nose broken, and three ribs cracked, along with having the wind completely knocked out of him. Lost in thought about an exam earlier in the day, Clark had barely felt the impact, and recalled the astonished looks of his teammates as he turned and found Dan collapsed behind him in a heap. That unfortunate event had convinced Clark he had to commit to quieter activities. And so writing had become his vehicle for release, although he hadn't gone directly into the newspaper business. With no need to hold back, he found writing a more adept outlet anyways.

"You ended with a degree in Journalism?"


"Me too." She leaned back against the sofa and stared at the ceiling, a grin spreading across her face as she dove into some memories. "I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life after I broke a huge school lunch ingredient scandal for my high school newspaper. You'd be surprised what they put in those things." She shuddered. "You?"

"I was an English major at first," Clark explained, "But I submitted some freelance articles that had the editor of the college paper coming after me with a stick to join the staff there. And then after that, things just sort of happened. I traveled after college, but I had a job at the Kansas City Star waiting for me the moment I got back."

"I interned at the Planet, so my roots were pretty much set there the moment I was out of college."

Her coffee was completely forgotten now. She was leaned back in her seat staring at the ceiling, relaxed, with a dull smile across her lips.

"You didn't do any traveling?" he asked.

She turned her head lazily to peer at him. "No, not really. At least, not without a story being involved. If you count that, I've been to just about every continent except Antarctica."

"Yeah, I've read a lot of those stories." He had particularly liked her story about the gunrunners in the Congo. From the looks of that article, though, she had barely gotten out alive, and had brought down one of the region's hugest crime syndicates. Scary, he thought, that if things had gone even a little differently he might have never met her. "Very good work, Lois."

Her smile was infectious, although she hid her elation underneath modest words. "Thanks," she replied. She dropped an unintended bomb with the next sentence. "So why did you end up leaving Kansas City?"

How was he supposed to answer that? He had had a wonderful job, an apartment, a few friends, and overall a good life there, except… After he had been forced—

Bullied, Clark. You were bullied!

—Bullied out of his rescuing career… Things had just seemed wrong. Off. Like he was drifting through life as a black-and- white painting when he could have been in color. He had considered moving back to the quiet of Smallville, but couldn't bring himself to make the final steps. There were so many bad memories there. Why, then, had Metropolis been a draw, especially given his last visit? He didn't know, but it had felt like he was destined to end up there from the moment he had stepped off his bus. A year later, there had been little evidence of the destruction he had caused, and it was easy to kid himself that things were cruising along at the pleasant altitude of 'okay.'

Until someone screamed for help, that was.

"I needed a fresh start," he began, hesitantly. "I tried staying around after I gave up—" his breath hitched. He hoped she didn't notice. "After one of my— business ventures went bad. But I just started to feel like I was stagnating. I needed to get away, and Metropolis has always been a place I've wanted to live in."

She sat up straighter and gave him a practiced eye of inquiry. "Business ventures?"

He tried to shrug the creeping sensation of dread off and looked at the floor. "Just something I used to do in my spare time. I thought it would work. But it didn't."

Well that was oversimplifying things by about ten factors of magnification. A failed dog-walking endeavor and a position that had killed hundreds of people were suddenly equals with that outlook.

He began to feel as though he were sinking, and for all he tried to hide it, he could feel Lois's eyes boring into him. She probably knew he was lying, to her and to himself. Not necessarily by changing facts, but certainly by glossing them over and giving them some much needed paint touchups.

Her lazy, relaxed smile was gone, and she was leaning closer to him. He could suddenly smell her faint perfume, and could hear her breathing ever so close to him. He knew if he turned towards her he would meet with her eyes, mere inches away.

"You don't seem like the entrepreneur type to me," she said warily. He didn't need to see her to know her stare was unblinking, and he could feel her move in almost imperceptibly closer. The warmth of her skin hovered just away from his stock- still figure. He could feel her heat, radiating.

If these were the pressure tactics she used when she was trying to get information, he wasn't surprised she got so many exclusives. Suddenly, the scent of her perfume was cloying, and her closeness grew uncomfortable. A crawling sensation began, as though clammy, cold fingers were rifling through his brain.

"Why do I get the feeling you're interviewing me all of a sudden?" He chuckled nervously, trying to lighten the mood.

Lois pulled back. "I'm sorry. It's just what I do best and—" He dared to look at her, and sighed at her apologetic grin. "It figures I would interrogate the first date I've brought home in mon—"

Her eyes widened a bit, and her hands flew to her mouth. She didn't even try to correct herself, but the sudden rosy hue of her cheeks and nose revealed what she refused to say.

She called it a date! a tiny voice said. The prospect would have seemed exciting earlier, but now it just seemed to shore up even more pressure.

"It's all right, Lois," he assured her, although it did little to ease the tension that had been building steadily in his muscles. An ache was developing in the back of his neck, and he could just feel the knots forming. Why did this woman set him so out of sorts? "If it helps," he added, "I'm a nervous wreck as well."

She let out a huge breath, like a bursting balloon, and held her hands clutched around her stomach as though she were feeling nauseous. "Oh that *does* help. I've never—" She looked at him, her eyes glowing softly in the darkness. "I'm really not an ice queen. I'm sure you've heard it."

Clark was silent. He had heard it mentioned once or twice in the course of his annoying ability to hear everything from here to three blocks away without even having to focus much. But he doubted she was really looking for confirmation.

"I just haven't had the best of luck in this area. You know. And now you're staring at me like I've got three heads. Oh, God."

"Lois," he began, breaching the personal space barrier and grasping at her hand. "I'm staring at you like you're beautiful." Dizzyingly so, he added to himself. He had never felt so desirous and terrified all at once in his life.

"Oh." Her eyes widened as she stared at her hand in his, and her voice was so breathless it sounded as though someone had knocked the wind out of her.

Her dress rustled in the silence as she shifted in her seat, a bit more towards him. Her lips were parted slightly, and she seemed to be grasping for things to say, but was failing dismally.

I like Lois, he thought. Lois possibly likes me. But once she finds out I'm the news story she's always wanted, well what then?

And that was when he panicked.

"So, I think Lex Luthor is definitely dirty," he blurted. What!? Where had that come from? "We should investigate him."

Well, that was sort of a given, Clark. Real observant. Your cowardice is spreading like a disease — it's almost sad.

At first, she seemed jarred by the sudden subject change, and then she blinked, her eyes flooding with visible relief.

"Yeah," she confirmed, her voice burbling with excitement. He watched her expression change from nervous lack of surety to utterly anticipatory as the possibilities fleeted past her mind's eye.

But her gears kept changing, and then the gavel came down. He regretted ever changing the subject at all.

"After we're done with this whole Thompson Trask thing," she continued. "Speaking of which…"

He felt his stomach sink into his shoes, and he looked at the floor. In the course of the evening, he had forgotten all about the impending doom. "Oh yeah," he mumbled, with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

"Ah hah!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet. Chasing a story truly was her element. There was not a single trace of her earlier anxiety. She seemed to know exactly where her footing was now. Her gaze seemed to be peeling layers of his skin off with each passing second. Bare didn't begin to describe how he felt.


"I was beginning to wonder if you ever frowned or if your reaction earlier today was just my imagination." Her haughty tone bit into him, and for once he couldn't take her jabs with a shrug and a smile.

"Is that why you asked me back here today?" He jumped off the couch, his voice raising a bit. "To grill me?"

How had this conversation gone so bad, so quickly? First they had been discussing nerves, and now everything had done an about face back onto Trask.

"Hey, you're the one who jumped subjects on me here, buster. Don't blame me!" She folded her arms across her chest.

He tilted his head, his heart beginning to pound. "What does Luthor have to do with Trask?"

"Well I—" she stopped, and for a moment he thought he had derailed her, but no such luck. "Well. Okay fine, maybe I changed subjects too, but this is driving me nuts! I have a mystery sitting in my lap and I have this hunch you can solve it, but you're not talking. How do you know Trask?"

Never do a verbal duel with someone who can connect apples to oranges without saying fruit, he thought wryly.

"Lois, I can't tell you that."

His shoes suddenly seemed very interesting. As much as he could say those words, he doubted he could deter her. Through his own stupidity, this relationship was going to implode before it even got past the starting line.

"Why? Do you think I'll use the information irresponsibly? I'm not that kind of journalist! I protect my sources!"

"Lois, that's not it at all, I—"

How was this about her? She was making connections at dizzying speed, and he was left behind to gape. The sudden need to backpedal and apologize was enough to confuse even him.

"Oh, I get it. It's because I'm a woman. Or maybe you really *are* trying to steal this story. You know something that can one-up me and so you're just waiting to get away and use it while I'm stuck flailing around without a flight plan."


"Of course not, Lois," he protested, "It's—"

"Then what, Clark. What!?" Her foot stamped down, and she looked for all the world like a kid on the playground, demanding her way. It's *my* turn on the monkey bars, her expression seemed to be saying with a pout.

"Because it's private," he finished lamely.

She sighed and began to pace, unmindful of her very-expensive dress. "There is no private, Clark. Just boring versus newsworthy."

His jaw dropped open. If she truly thought that, then he was in far, *far* more trouble than he had originally thought. "You can't possibly believe that."

"The public has a right to know," she countered.

"If it affects them, yes. But this is *my* problem."

She came to a full stop and did an about face. "The disappearance of Miracle Man is your problem?" Her eyebrows raised.

He felt her stare burning into him, and he glanced to his left and his right, fully expecting walls to be erected, preventing his escape. She was a good interviewer, all right. He was cornered, and she knew it. "That's not what I meant."

"Miracle Man, or whatever it was that did those rescues, was a godsend. He saved so many people, changed so many lives for the better. I know because I reported on a large portion of them. So yes, when Miracle Man disappeared it *did* affect the public, Clark. Don't you think they deserve to know the truth about where their hero went?"

"I—" His protest faded into silence. She thought Miracle Man was a godsend? The image of himself on a pedestal seemed so wrong to him, now, when all he could see of himself was the flames of burning buildings licking at his heels as he gave up and called it quits.

If you only knew, Lois, you wouldn't miss my creation. You would be cheering Trask on.

He couldn't even bring himself to look at her. She didn't seem to notice his sudden shortness of breath, or the fact that his voice seemed choked and constricted.

"If the information you have about Trask will lead to solving that mystery — well… The more you dodge this, the more I think you know something critical to this investigation."

"All I can say is that Trask is a very dangerous man. And he *will* kill you if you go snooping around. Please, Lois, just back off."

Yes, his shoes were *very* interesting.

He was lying to her. Lying by omission, but lying all the same. To save her life, yes, but his second and far less admirable goal, to prevent the onset of the inevitable, tainted the gesture in his mind. Lois Lane would figure him out, and then she would look at him with even more disgust than she was now as she slapped him onto the front page and dissected him with glee for the world to see. He could feel her glare without even looking up.

"You obviously don't know me very well."

"No, I don't." He finally brought his head back up and was dismayed that his imagination had conjured the look on her face quite aptly. "But I'd like you to live long enough for that to change."

"Really? I—" For a brief second, she looked like she had run up against a wall and stood there stunned, blinking. And then she shook her head. "Oh no, don't you dare try to distract me from the issue."

"You think I'm trying to distract you?"

"Well aren't you!?" she gestured wildly, her eyes flashing. "Ever since you walked in on my life I've been nothing but a bundle of stomach churning nerves and self-consciousness. The whole time at the ball I thought I was dying of salmonella, but maybe it was you after all. And then of course there's the hallucinations."

The sinking feeling renewed. She was comparing him to food poisoning? And she didn't even know the half of it yet. "So, I make you nauseous."

"No! I meant—" She began to pace again. "Well. I don't know what I meant."

"Lois, I think I should go." He turned and lost sight of her for only a moment when he felt her hands on his shoulders, turning him back to her as if he were a feather in her grasp. The hands roamed to his cheeks and held him captive. He was likely the strongest man on Earth. And he couldn't move a muscle.

"Please, don't," she whispered.

He could hear her heartbeat sprint back into high gear. She was still for the barest of moments, like a caught spring. And then she launched into him and her lips crushed against his. His knees wobbled, and he felt his hands snake around her in a surreptitious attempt to keep his balance, but that only drew her closer. The world was spinning as a slow fire spread through him.

"Now who's doing the distracting?" he whispered, trying to catch his lost breath when she pulled back.

She grasped weakly at his biceps, eyes sparkling with amazement. "You're shaking."

"So are you."

They stood, staring. For a brief moment, they were connected.

"Please." Her eyes searched his face. She was very close. "Just tell me you're not an axe murderer."

The mood was killed instantly. She had suspected him a cold- blooded killer, and not only that, suspected it enough to ask him for confirmation? Well, he supposed he was a murderer, in a way, but feeling responsible for a death and coming right out and labeling it as butchery… Two very different sensations of guilt.

He felt a sudden need for air. The apartment couldn't have seemed more claustrophobic than right at that moment. The walls were living, breathing creatures, constricting around him. His fight or flight mechanism had picked flight, and it took a considerable effort to not just bolt right then.

"Nothing quite so macabre, I assure you," he replied, disheartened, as he disentangled himself from her grasp.

"And it's not a parking ticket."

"I don't even own a car, Lois."

Where was his coat?

She chased after him as he meandered towards the closet. "You won't give me even a little hint?"

There it was, on a hook right inside the door. "Sometimes a little mystery is good for the soul, Lois Lane."

"I'll figure it out!" she told him definitively as he threw his coat over his shoulders and headed towards the door. He struggled briefly with the multiple deadbolts and pulled it open. The hallway awaited, quiet, constant.


Keep moving, Clark Kent. Keep breathing.

He turned and grinned at her, though it was sure to be a sickly smile. He didn't feel happy in the slightest, possibly even a bit queasy. "I know you will."

And then he crossed the threshold, closing the door behind him.


She had one of those sleep headaches that you get when you catnap for an hour when you should have taken a full night's rest. Everything ached, her eyes were watery, scratchy even, and she didn't know how she had managed it, but Lois was standing inside the carefully cordoned area marked, "Press," as George Thompson's meeting with the Metropolis Labor Union came to a close, looking for all the world like an extra for a Clear Eyes commercial. One of those "Before application, you look like this!" extras.

"And so, if you do your part as Metropolitans, I promise when I am in office, I will do my part. I *will* solve your wage problems when I become this great country's next president," George Thompson was saying.

Cameras flashed about, reflecting off of his eyes, and making her dizzy all in one strobing, stabbing motion. She shielded her gaze with her hand as more flashbulbs went off. She should have taken an aspirin before she left. Or possibly just ripped her skull out and left it in bed.

After Clark had left the previous night, she had tried to get to sleep, but her nerves were frayed, and it had taken a half hour just to get into a doze. Then, she had been woken up as Lucy came stumbling back in. It had taken roughly twenty minutes to get Lucy to calm down enough to explain what had happened.

"The diner down the street!?" Lucy had cried, flailing her arms wildly. "Do you have any idea who the heck resides in a city diner at three in the morning on a work night!?"

Well, yes, Lois did, unfortunately. Full complements of having to investigate a conspiracy regarding mislabeled ingredients at local frozen bacon and eggs redistributors. Imagine! A nefarious vegan had schemed to replace all Metropolis breakfast foods with Tofu… That had been a front page break when she'd finally proven it. But there had been much pain in the process. A very large biker with a beard named Bob had spent the entire duration of her stakeout sitting in her booth drooling at her and showing off all his tattoos in alphabetical order, but starting with numbers zero through nine. Lois, however, hadn't been able to get a word in edgewise to explain she understood, Lucy being almost as accomplished a ranter as she was. It must have run in the family, compliments of Ellen Lane.

Luckily, after she had calmed down somewhat, Lucy had been appropriately dismayed for her when Lois had explained what had happened on her side of the universe with Clark. Lucy had hugged her. Both had moped. Until Lucy had announced she needed to sleep, and that Lois did too.

Then, *finally* she had managed to get about an hour nap in before her six AM alarm rang off, and here she was, ninety minutes later, standing watching the nation's front-running political candidate drone on and on about the minimum wage problems that the MLU had been having in the docks area. It was almost enough to get her to fall back asleep. Did the man intentionally reserve his most boring campaign topics for early morning press conferences?

That probably made him even more evil and maniacal than she had originally expected. Maybe he wanted everyone to fall asleep so he wouldn't have to answer questions. From the looks of her colleagues, it was almost working. She didn't see a single individual taking notes anywhere, and Carol Fout from the Star was listing so badly she looked drunk. One of the cameramen nearby appeared to be taking pictures of his shoes, inadvertently of course.

Well, she hoped it was inadvertently.

Anyways, suffice it to say, the rather circuitous point was that she was tired. Very tired. Except that anxiety served as no caffeine ever could.

And the lesson in all this? Coffee was never a good idea. Not even decaf, black.

What had happened last night? She wasn't exactly sure. No, she was pretty sure. She had been a dope — pressing, and pressing, and pressing Clark for information he obviously didn't want to give. On a social visit, no less, that *she* had invited him to — and not even under false pretenses. Nope, she had wanted him for coffee, not an interview — not that she hadn't ever stooped to doing that sort of thing. But not *this* time.

Lucy. Was. Right. Painful to admit, but true. Well, admitting it here where no one was witness was all right, but Lucy would never hear a word of it. And neither would Clark, or anyone else she knew.

She ground the words in like bamboo shoots under the fingernails.

Lucy. Was. Right.

She scared men off. Dominatrix Lane sounded like a more appropriate nickname than Mad Dog to her. She clenched her fists and unclenched them. Was she doomed to remain a single spinster, right down to the finish line, when she was old and gray, and undoubtedly still dangling from flagpoles and being held at gunpoint on a regular basis?


The look on Clark's face before he had left, when he had finally snapped… Well, she would never forget it. He had looked like he wanted to throw up. He had looked like he was in agony, like he wanted to flee right out of his skin, but didn't know where to go or what to do when he got there. And he had looked like he really wanted to kiss her again. All wrapped up into one — a four-for-one look special.

Her curiosity was burning inside her like a wild flame. What was Clark's role in this mess? What would cause him such turmoil?

A wave of applause shuffled through the crowd, so she clapped along, although not entirely sure what for. She didn't consider anything George Thompson said to be particularly applause-worthy, and probably, as it were, he was the worst political candidate to date as far as ideals, which he of course had none of, went. Vague and ambiguous seemed to be George Thompson's modus operandi. Yes, America, I will do that thing for those people in that place, sometime in the future! His pitches were ridiculous. And also there was the whole issue of why she was investigating him in the first place.

She continued to think, assembling what she knew in slow order.

George Thompson was a known UFO nut. He was leader of some mysterious organization called Bureau 39, which, unfortunately, Lois was unable to prove even existed at this point in time. She suspected Bureau 39 was a continuation of his Project Blue Book work. Her contact in the FBI had nebulously connected both George Thompson and Bureau 39 to the disappearance of Miracle Man, which seemed to her to indicate that Miracle Man was indeed real, and was indeed an alien. George Thompson, throughout the years, had been connected with various individuals. Burton Newcomb, one of those individuals, she planned to interview later in the day. Jason Trask, who Clark seemed to rank as a cold- blooded killer and was strangely terrified of, was still an unknown quantity, although she expected Jimmy to get back with her on his research about Trask later in the day. Either that, or she would be barking on his heels all afternoon after she was done with Newcomb.

So where did that put Clark?

Clark was from Smallville. He was an incredibly sexy, incredibly nice guy, who smiled *incredibly* too darn much. He was easy- going, although he seemed to have a nervous quality about him from time to time. His eyes were wondrously expressive. When he looked at her, she felt the world peel away from her, and she felt special.

Facts, Lane, facts!

He was perceptive, educated, worldly, and well-built. Really well- built. Seven world wonder, well-built. Good old Pyramids Clark. Although, the Babylonian Hanging Gardens were long gone in a pile of biodegraded rubble, weren't they? Well, Clark was hopefully biodegradable, so it still fit.

Sort of.

She'd migrated off the facts trail, hadn't she?


His avoidance of the Trask issue annoyed her to no end, and while she conceded she probably shouldn't have pressed the issue during their 'date,' she would have done so during the day anyways, after the ball mess was out of the way.

Their date. Well, it wasn't really a date. More of a convenient togetherness that happened at her suggestion. And it had just so happened that during this convenient togetherness, she had managed to lock lips with him in what had proven to be one of the most earth-shattering kisses she had ever participated in. Explosive. More so than his ties.

But still not a date.

Then why had she felt so bereft when he'd left? And why had she needed to talk to Lucy for almost a half-hour?

God, Clark was a good kisser, even when he was ready to bolt and was just the unwitting recipient of her own advances. He had been surprised for a moment, almost stumbling, wrapping his strong arms around her waist, but… Wow.

And she had scared him away.

Way to go, Lane.

Her eyes started to sting a little and she brushed them with her index fingers.


Anyways, Clark.

Not a traffic violator, not an axe-murderer. Just Clark.

She was getting nowhere, wasn't she?

"Any questions?" George Thompson's voice pierced through her veil of wayward thought processes.

Finally, what she had been waiting for, what she had slogged through this entire press conference for! She raised her hand and yanked her small micro recorder out of her briefcase. There was a flood of voices and movement as the throng of reporters all clamored to be the first one picked, but she didn't stoop to hopping up and down. Not for George Thompson. She waited calmly.

He gestured towards the rabid group. "You first," he said.

Well, he *technically* was pointing at her. And about twenty other reporters. If she twisted a little, his pinky was jabbing right at her.

"Lois Lane, Daily Planet," she belted. She heard a familiar chorus of twenty grumbles and tried not to grin.

"Jeez, wait your turn, Lois," mumbled the familiar voice of Walter Nguyen of LNN from directly to her right. She swung her briefcase from one shoulder to the other as she adjusted her footing, accidentally thwacking him in the hip. Hard.

She shifted again. Her shoes were pretty uncomfortable. It was a shame that innocent bystanders were getting hurt because of it.

Walter shuffled back and disappeared into the crowd. The rest of the group stopped complaining fairly quickly. She flicked an errant lock of hair away from her face and stuck her micro recorder out in George Thompson's general direction.

"Mr. Thompson," she began, slightly more snitty-sounding than she perhaps intended, but she didn't really care.

"Please, call me George."

What *was* it with people correcting her lately? She resisted the urge to snap back. Focus, girl. Focus!

"Mr. Thompson," she continued. "I was curious if you could tell me what you did while you were a member of Project Blue Book in the Air Force, and also, what connection you have, if any, to Bureau 39."

George Thompson stilled, and his gaze hardened considerably. His hands gripped the podium, and his PR-intensive smile was no longer present — not even just a quirk of the lips.

Oh, she had certainly pegged him now.

Her colleagues apparently had noticed this reaction as well, even if they didn't know what the heck she was talking about, and grew silent, staring at Thompson expectantly.

"I don't see what that has to do with the Metropolis Labor Union," he commented.

Too late now, Thompson. You're live, and now you look like you're hiding something. She resisted the urge to smile wickedly as more cameras clicked and seared like lightning.

"Project Blue Book," Thompson explained after an extremely long pause, "Was a project involved with investigating unusual occurrences in United States airspace. You can read all about it in public records, I'm sure. It's certainly not classified."

"You mean UFOs?" she pressed. It drew a chuckle from the surrounding cadre of reporters, and the look on Thompson's face was a priceless example of why she loved this job.

Dominatrix Lane, ahoy! She flicked a mental whip at him.

"Yes, I suppose the *uninformed* would call it UFO hunting. Any other questions?"

She refused to let the dig sting. He had given her all she needed, even if he didn't know it. By refusing to even acknowledge her reference to Bureau 39, not even so much as a, "What's Bureau 39?" she knew he was hiding information about it. His reaction to the question alone, before he had even responded, had proven substantially enough to her, that something fishy was going on.

Something very fishy.

Before she knew it, the press conference was over, and George Thompson was ushered out of the throng by security to a black Ford Taurus with solidly tinted windows. He glanced around to the left and the right before he slithered into the back of the car, followed quickly by his press secretary and his campaign manager.

She hailed a taxi with a shrill whistle and shuffled her way into the back seat after it had screeched to a stop. "Follow that car," she said, pointing ahead to the receding taillights of George Thompson's escort vehicle. He was probably just headed to his next campaign stop, but she was going to find out for sure before she went in to the Planet.

"This ain't no movie, Lady," the cabbie grumbled as he pulled out into traffic, several cars behind Thompson's.

She clenched the bridge of her nose with her index finger and thumb, leaning into the support. Her head was simply throbbing at this point. "There's a $20 extra in it for you if you don't lose him," she sighed.

The cabbie just shook his head and shrugged. "All right."

"Don't follow so close," she hissed.

That warranted another shrug as the cabbie lengthened the distance to a half a block and then a full block.

"Turn your lights off!"

"Lady, it's broad daylight. Keep your skirt on."

The car ahead came to a brief stop after about two minutes, and the press secretary and the campaign manager got back out again and stood on the corner. The pair chatted idly on the street, as if there was nothing unusual about it, and Thompson's black Taurus began to pull away, leaving them behind.

She perked up instantly.

That *certainly* wasn't standard campaign trail procedure. Was it?

After several minutes, Lois began to grow more suspicious. At first, it seemed like they were going in very wide, erratic circles. Well, squares, technically, what with the general layout of a city block. They passed by the bay more than once, and not on the same side of the car, either. So actually it must have been zigzagging rectangular… things. Whatever.

And then the trail straightened out a little and stopped cutting back on itself. The buildings went from warehouse and large constructs, like that of the docks where the press conference had been held, to upscale and ritzy as they traveled through one of Metropolis's more exclusive neighborhoods, and then back to smaller and more seedy as they went along.

Lois suppressed a gasp, and not because her fare was approaching ridiculous. Which, it was. Completely ridiculous. Cab fares should be contingent on actually *going* somewhere, not driving around in zigzagging rectangular… things. But anyways.

George Thompson's car, two blocks up ahead from where her own cab was now, was headed towards Suicide Slum, and she knew his next Metropolis campaign stop was nowhere near it. He was due at Centennial Park for a ribbon cutting something or another, for some new kids daycare program later in the afternoon.

Interesting, indeed.

The car made a left and stopped outside a large, oblong warehouse. The building was all black, and the windows were boarded up. The pavement outside leading up to the main doorway was covered with skid marks, flattened gum and grease spots, trash, and other things she didn't want to think about or even attempt to identify.

"Stop here. I'll walk," Lois commanded the cabbie, who shrugged again. He seemed to be happy enough with his extra tip that he wasn't going to give any extra lip.

She smacked several twenties into his hand and took off, low to the ground and near the wall, but mindful of her briefcase, which was actually sort of new, and still fairly clean, unlike the rest of her god awful surroundings. As Thompson got out of his vehicle, she ducked into an alley and peeked around the corner of the building.

Thompson looked around again and spotted the cab, which was now driving towards him at normal speed, and she held her breath in her throat for several seconds. Thompson didn't appear too suspicious, and she was immediately thankful that she had gotten out and hidden well before he'd spotted it. Or at least, she hoped she had.

She crunched up against the wall even harder, barely peeking around the end where the corner met the street. The cold roughness of the brick stabbed through the thin fabric of her light-weight business suit, and the breeze kicked up some dirty, grease-spotted newspapers which caught on her pumps, but she kept her eyes on Thompson.

Thompson went into the building and didn't come back out. Car alarms dotted the breeze that flitted past her on gentle wings. She heard the heavy thrum of bass as someone in a beat-up, yellow sports car drove past with the volume set way too high. The alley stunk of garbage, and she kicked away the papers that were collecting on the points of her shoes. She watched with bated breath.

But still, Thompson did not emerge.

She watched for forty-five minutes. At least the stench of the odiferous alley had faded to a dull unpleasant annoyance, rather than remaining its former noxious self.

What did a presidential candidate have to do in a beat up old warehouse in Suicide Slum for an hour? She glanced at her watch. 10 AM. Thompson wasn't due in Centennial Park until 11:30 AM, which was a fairly large gap that allowed for some free time. She found it unusual that he hadn't made any interim appointments to occupy himself.

Very interesting.

Maybe this was a secret hideout. Or something. Did government agents need hideouts these days? In her experience, they just used their regular office, and maybe got an alternate fax extension.

*Maybe* they had kidnapped Miracle Man and were keeping him hostage in this very building! But what would you kidnap an invulnerable flying man with? Fly paper? A big fish net?

That didn't seem right.

Maybe it was a secret government installation that you needed a password for, like Swordfish, just to enter. Hmmm. She should have invested in a shotgun microphone from Jimmy's little Spies 'R Us catalogue to see if Thompson had said anything when he approached the door.

Or, maybe, he just wanted a quiet place to have lunch with some friendly rats.

Most likely, however, Thompson was the only real rat around.

She fished out her cell phone and used information services to get the number for Thompson's press secretary. She punched in the numbers, never letting her eyes leave the warehouse, which still sat quiet and unassuming down the street. No Thompson in sight.

"Yes, hello. I'm wondering what George Thompson's campaign itinerary for today is?"

The voice on the other end of the line was extremely unhelpful.

"So he's not appearing anywhere in Suicide Slum, Metropolis today? At…" She glanced up and down for a street sign. Ah. There it was. "Bessolo Boulevard?"

"No, ma'am," the confused man on the end of the line answered.

"Oh, well, silly me! It must be one of those look-alikes. Thanks!" she said with saccharine cheer, and turned the phone off with a grin.

10:15 AM and still no Thompson. He'd been in that warehouse a full hour, or he'd covertly exited from another door.

Either way…

George Thompson, she thought, I'll have you on the front page in no time.


A short, thin brunette stood outside, staring for the longest time. Her trench coat flowed down sleekly to her ankles. Dark nylons and fat-heeled pumps were all that were visible under the hem. She peered around the corner at sporadic intervals. Her gaze was one of wariness, cynicism, and fire — even through the hazy fuzz of the black and white image on the monitor, he could see that.

"The Lane woman who questioned you this morning," Trask observed, suspicion biting into each syllable. His hands clenched the back of Thompson's swivel chair so hard that Thompson couldn't move it to turn around.

"I know that," Thompson snapped. He was losing his cool. Things were conspiring to thwart him, he could see it. His timetable was already getting completely thrown off. "Do you take me for an idiot?"

"Well, obviously," Trask snorted, "If you let her follow you here."

Something tightened in his chest, and he felt a desperate need to defend himself.

"I took all the precautions, I didn't see anyone following me. She used a cab. That type of vehicle doesn't exactly stand out in a city like this."

She was a slight snag in his perfect plan.

He stared at the monitor until things began to blur and split apart into doubles. The room was dim and haunting under the glow of the overhead fluorescent lights, and as time progressed, it was feeling more and more claustrophobic.

"We should have her detained," Trask's harsh voice ripped him away from his musings. "I'll grab her myself if I must."



"Not when all she's got is suspicion," he sighed. "If we detain her, we'll be handing her the remnants of this organization on a silver platter. Might as well give her a free interview and a button."

She was *more* than a slight snag. She quite possibly had the ability to ruin everything without much effort at all. What was he supposed to do? She was too high profile to do anything to without arousing suspicion, at least, not quite yet. Perhaps if she knew the full scope of the situation she would be more willing to cooperate? He recalled her snipped words to him at the press conference earlier, and decided it wasn't really a likely possibility. Something else had to be done.

"How do you know suspicion is all she's got?"

He didn't. In fact, he wasn't even sure how she had happened across information pertaining to Bureau 39 at all. A leak, perhaps. He would have the staff submit to a polygraph and an examination at the nearest convenience of the containment crew. He didn't have the time or the patience for treachery at this juncture. Not when he was so close.

"Fine, take care of her. Just don't kill her."

They turned to the monitor, only to see the intrepid reporter getting into cab. Her shoes disappeared behind the door and it slammed shut. She took one last look at their building, her fingers splayed against the glass of the window, and then the car drove slowly off.

Trask slammed his fist into the desk, his cheeks turning a reddish hue as fury erupted in his features. The monitor wobbled on its frame, and the image blinked out for a bare second. "Too late," he growled. "Your complete inability to be discrete has cost us."

Thompson resisted the urge to glare back. He could be a lot more discrete than Trask, that was for sure. Twenty-five years now, almost, and there hadn't even been so much as a leak.

Until now.

Because of Trask. It if weren't for him, they would still be operating under the radar of the American public's quiet complacency.

Instead, now, they had a public hungry to peg a villain for Trask's terrorist acts in Metropolis. They had one reporter for sure after them, Lane, and possibly two if Lane was in collusion with Kent. Trask had terrorized Kent enough, however, that Thompson doubted he was an active threat. No, it was mostly that Lane woman.

He gripped the arms of his chair as he stared at the monitor. The dirty street in front of the warehouse was now deserted like it usually was. Napkins and papers were blowing around in the typical wind-tunnel fashion of a regular city block, not a soul for them to catch or get obstructed on. There was no trace that Lois Lane had ever been there at all, though he knew he couldn't kid himself that far, as much as he wished that the sight had been his imagination.

Hell had, simply put, broken loose.

"Trask, we *will* move forward, and we will do it when I say we will. Not before then."

Thompson folded his hands in his lap and spun around to peer into Trask's incredulous glare.

"And when will that be, exactly? The next ice age? The Alien and that woman are conspiring to expose us. It's obvious!"

Thompson ground his molars. Things would still work if done properly.

He could slap a gag order on Lane — bind her legally. Scare her to death, maybe. Or something. And Kent, well… The Kent problem would solve itself if things went according to plan up until the press conference tomorrow.

"Tomorrow morning. We'll have them brought in."

"By then, there could be a front page article in the Daily Planet!"

Well, that would be better than coffee, he thought wryly.

No, he decided. If Lane had enough to print, it would have happened by now. She was still snooping, which meant she thought there was more to snoop for.

He forced himself to relax a little bit. Less than forty-eight hours and he would be out of this godforsaken city and back on the campaign trail, a hero, and a sure-fire win in his bid for election.

"Tomorrow morning, and not before, Trask. I have a timetable."

Thompson watched Trask come frighteningly close to erupting.

His hand slammed into the desk again with a sickeningly hard thud. "Screw your timetable!" Trask belted and began to pace. Dots of sweat glistened across his brow, and his agitated, volatile motion almost made Thompson want to start pacing.

Psychosis began to feel like too tame a term to describe his former friend.

"The laboratory has been informed that they are under no circumstances to release the rock to you until I've given the okay," Thompson countered. "Your hands are tied as far as Clark Kent goes."

There. That had gotten his attention. Trask went still, and dangerously quiet for several seconds. All Thompson could hear were his soft, ragged breaths and the buzz of the overhead lights.

"I can still kill the woman." Trask's tone was low, and dangerous, like an animal that had been threatened.

Thompson snorted. "What was this you were saying about discrete?"

That finally seemed to register. Trask blinked, and his breathing slowed a bit. "Tomorrow morning then."

"Good. I have to leave. I trust you are able to proceed without any further fits of rage? I have a ribbon-cutting to attend."

"Of course," Trask said with a wicked grin. "Forget the clear and present danger, you have to keep the adoring fans drooling."

Thompson didn't deign the jab with a response as he walked out of the small office and closed the door behind him with a soft click. Trask's lack of restraint might actually prove useful.

Everything would be okay.



Clark ran his hand slowly along the smooth, worked surface, stopping when his fingertips hit the rough edges of the mouse pad. There were soft indentations in the wood where writing implements had created nearly imperceptible canyons. The soft surface was dull enough, however, that only his shadow stared back at him under the dim overhead lighting, blurred and faint.

A desk. His own desk. He had a desk at the Daily Planet.

His chair squeaked a little as he leaned back and relaxed with a deep breath. Perry had finally made arrangements for him, and he now sat about ten feet across from Lois. Her gold nameplate stared back at him over the top of her monitor, flashing like a beacon. Home. Clark suspected that the editor had taken a keen notice to the fact that he hadn't been dismembered the first day. If chatting with her gave him any particular impression of her lifestyle, it was that she didn't play well with others.

He glanced again to her empty desk. Lois wasn't in yet, despite the fact that it was almost lunchtime. Most of the staff didn't appear concerned, however, and Jimmy had just said, "That's Lois. She's probably out chasing a lead. Expect a front-pager in the next couple days."

But as far as he knew, she didn't have any chasable leads, except maybe Thompson. The thought that she was out this very instant tracking the politician down made him feel a bit ill. He hoped Trask didn't get his feathers ruffled in the process of her snooping around, assuming that Trask still had any sort of relation with this Thompson guy. The sinking feeling in his gut, like he was being sucked under by quicksand, told him to dream on.

As the seconds ticked by, he grew more and more anxious. Where was she? Maybe lying cold in a dumpster, or weighted down to the bottom of the bay like a sack of potatoes. He had doubts that Lois even had an inkling of how dangerous Trask was, which was pretty much his fault. But what was he supposed to do, explain the truth and ruin everything?

Yes! the voice screamed.

But she would still investigate then. At least by dragging his feet he could control the pace of her descent — possibly even divert her onto a nice, rickety ledge. By not allowing her the essential clues she needed to proceed, he was keeping her safe. Right? Except logic be damned, he sure wasn't doing much controlling now, what with her missing and him staring fitfully at his watch every five seconds.

And last night… God, what a mess. He felt his chest constrict. She probably thought horribly of him. Her skittishness with him spoke volumes about how she normally regarded men, or perhaps just friends in general. Either she was inexperienced, and just frightened, or she *was* experienced, and was now a complete and utter cynic. He was tempted to believe the latter, given her supposed rules of Lois Lanehood.

And he had run away.

From her.

Way to inspire confidence in her, Clark.

So now, she was lying in a dumpster, her last thoughts having been how much she hated him.

He took in a shuddering breath, wishing once more that he knew enough about her by now to even have a *clue* where to start trying to find her.

"What's with you, Clark? You look like you lost your best friend." Unfamiliar hands slithered over his shoulders and held him like a vice in his chair. Well-sculpted nails dug into the skin below his shoulders.

Cat. He resisted a shudder.

"I—" he stuttered. If this kept up, he was going to have to think up a less than polite way to deal with her. She was positively predatory, and her forward, sexual nature made him feel a little sick. He felt like a piece of meat whenever she cast her lascivious attention his way. He was used to women looking at him more than once, but this… This was a bit too much.

"What you need…" Cat began, her voice warbling suggestively as her hands roamed lower down towards his pectorals, sliding, fondling… "Is a pick-me-up!"

He placed his hands over top of hers and she immediately stilled. Her warm skin was soft, and, well… nice… but he was already well past disgusted. He pried her off, gently.

She got the message. Her hands snapped back as though stung, and he could feel her back up a step or two. He imagined she wasn't used to this kind of continual rejection. "Or not," she grumbled with a disappointed sniff. The click of her heels indicated her retreat.

He felt a rush of air as Lois breezed past him and made for her desk. The relief that exploded like a canon in his chest was enough to make him dizzy for a moment. Clark didn't even have a chance to recover and possibly manage a greeting before she was on the phone. She didn't look in his direction. Not once.

"Bobby," she growled into the receiver as she slammed her briefcase onto her desk. She shrugged off her coat with a look of disgust. Her nose crinkled up a bit, and she collapsed into her chair with a huff.

The blast of air that her movement encouraged brought an… interesting… scent to his nose. She smelled… Well she smelled like she had taken a few laps in the city dump. Or something she was carrying smelled. But whatever it was, it was definitely a bit on the ripe side.

What *had* she been up to?

He stopped his thoughts from roaming back to images of her lying dead in a dumpster somewhere.

"Who do you *think* it is?" She started tapping her pencil on the desk with agitation. Her eyes flashed with annoyance, and a hint of something else.

Excitement, he decided.

And something else, still. He studied her with a scrutinous gaze.


He caught a furtive glance in his direction, but her eyes flicked back to her notepad almost immediately.

"I need you to see what you can find about a Bureau 39, Jason Trask, and George Thompson."

His heart sank. So she really hadn't taken his words of warning seriously. Or she had, but didn't care enough for her own safety that she thought it mattered. Although, he had imagined her blas‚ attitude about this whole investigation earlier while waiting for her to return, seeing it first hand now was decidedly more gut wrenching.

Not that he had expected her to listen to him at all. He hadn't given her much reason to trust him yet. Or any reason, really, what with the clandestine, "I can't tell you," insistences. But it seemed she was steamrolling into the land of inevitables a bit faster than he had imagined possible if she was calling in source favors. Unless this Bobby character wasn't a source, but he found that hard to believe.

She would know soon. She would know it all, and his last semblance of normalcy would fall to ruin at her feet. But he cared more about the fact that she was set on cruise control towards her own destruction.

Just *tell* her, Clark!

He bit back a groan. Damned if you do, damned if you don't seemed to be the modus operandi of the day.

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, *that* George Thompson."

Another pause. She sat forward in her seat, looking more and more incredulous.

"Look, I don't *care* if you're voting for him. There's a half- dozen ‚clairs in it for you. From that little French bakery you loved so much last time."

"Okay, *fine*, a full dozen. Just do it."

The phone slammed down, and there was relative silence, although the atmospheric sounds of the Planet building refused to recede. Lois, not even looking at him, opened up a folder which Jimmy had left on her desk while she was out and started reading the contents. From this distance it looked like an old newspaper article.

He stood and approached her. He saw her eyes flick to him again before returning to her reading, and her breathing and heartbeat got a little faster as he got closer.

Fear? Apprehension? Or… God, her signals were just so hard to read. It was like trying to figure out Cyrillic when you only knew the English alphabet.


She looked up from the paper and for a moment there was silence. The pained stare that hung on her face made his heart want to break, but as fast as he had spotted it, it was gone, and her face was an emotional mask. She said nothing, but her eyebrows raised, as if permitting him to at least attempt to speak his peace.

He took a deep breath and began, "About last night—"

Her shoulders slumped almost imperceptibly, and she stared at him for a long, agonizing moment. Her lips parted, and she looked like she was going to say something else entirely, like she was *desperate* to say it, something akin to understanding, but her shaky demeanor faded into an awkward certainty. "I trailed George Thompson after a press conference today," Lois blurted. "He's dirty, Clark." Her proud glare just screamed, "I was right!"

Jarred, Clark blinked. "What?"

"He went to a warehouse on Bessolo Boulevard — that's in Suicide Slum."

She was upset, all right. She didn't even want to talk to him about last night. Had it been that awful for her? That horrid? Or had his run and bolt move hit a raw spot that was more than casual discomfort on an almost-date?

He suspected that with relationships this woman was like a skittish horse, ready to balk at the slightest moment of uncertainty. It would take very slow and very steady progress to approach her. And out of his own sense of self-preservation, for reasons which he had already concluded were going to doom him anyway, he had fled. Every careful brick of trust he'd built up, he'd sent cascading back to the ground as he'd bolted right through them.

Now, he'd never have a chance with her. She would never want him, not after the stunt he'd pulled last night.

Tell. Her. The. Truth!

No. It would sicken her. He would be just a story for her, once he'd crossed that threshold — she'd made it quite clear she was nothing short of obsessed with his short-lived alter ego, and what with her tenacity in the past few days, she'd given him no reason to think that she would behave with any semblance of restraint once she knew. She would beam one of her gorgeous smiles his way, lick her lips suggestively, and then shove her micro recorder in his face. "How long have you known you were an extra-terrestrial?" she would ask, the excitement bleeding from her eyes as she formulated her front page lead.

Trask's voice bounced around in his head. You're an extra- terrestrial. An alien. Scum. Freak.

Yes, Clark. Tell her what a freak you are. Explain you ran out on her because you're a little green man and you don't respond well to spotlights.

What a mess.

He just had to keep her away from the truth. At least then he could have her as a co-worker, and maybe a friend, although even that was in jeopardy at this point if she kept pressing.

"Lois," he began, slowly. Please, please just don't upset her even more, Clark. "That's hardly a reason to suspect the man. What if he was helping the homeless, or something?" That sounded weak, even to his own ears.

His cautious speech didn't have the intended effect. "Don't start with me, Kent," she snapped. "Not right now. I can't."

Flags went up. He got the impression she was alluding to something else entirely. He ran his hands through his hair, trying desperately not to get frustrated with her, to show that he was being deliberate, slow, and apologetic. That he was not threatening in any way. "Start what?" he asked with extreme caution.

Anything to get her talking. Maybe they *could* sort out what had happened without too much in the way of uncomfortable revelations.

She ignored his question, dancing away even further. "I checked with his campaign office, Clark. The man was *not* scheduled to be anywhere in Suicide Slum today."

Or maybe they couldn't.

Her eyes flicked to and away from him again, and suddenly he felt like a predator outside the herd. Did she really think that horribly of him? She was obviously noticing his closeness to her, and her vitals indicated some sort of hypertension. Bolt. She was going to bolt, although she was hiding it well behind her caustic veneer. He resisted the urge to place a gentle hand on her shoulder, part for fear it would send her flying away even faster, and part for his desire to not feel how tense he imagined her muscles to be.

He had really messed up.

"Okay, Lois," he sighed. "We need to talk."

It was her turn to blink. "About what, Clark?"

"Last night!" he said, again forcing his distress deep down into the pit of his throat. He was proud to note his voice barely warbled.

"What about it?"

"What *about* it?" he cried, his exasperation finally punching to the surface. "Lois…"

He could tell that she was long past paying attention to him, though, or was at least making a good front of it. She gathered up her things, and, apparently thinking better of it, left her smelly coat on the hook. "So are you coming?" she asked, eyebrows raised as her arms settled into a crossed position.

Although he was getting used to her constant switch-backs, he still hadn't followed this particular train change. "Huh?"

"To interview General Newcomb. Or are you just going to stand there goggling like a fish?"

She turned on her heels and left, giving him the option to follow immediately or be left in the dust. He frowned and ambled after her. The dust, it seemed, was where he was already.


The ride to Burton Newcomb's was interminable. Every once in a while, Lois would sneak a glance over to her left, only to find Clark staring back at her with an eager, yet broken look, hands clasped in his lap and his shoulders slumped in solemn acceptance.

She shifted and looked back out the window, observing the people scurrying past like ants. A man at a hotdog stand, chunky lime- green relish dripping down his front, was screaming at a young boy. An overwhelmed dog walker trying to manage about seven dogs was being pulled along more than she was walking. A crew of thirty or so touring, uniformed children trailed behind a teacher that looked like she was going to commit mass homicide. Two wildly gesticulating men were arguing beside a pair of crunched up sports cars.

She sighed as the scenery flew past. The horizontal blur came into focus every few minutes as their cab was forced into a halt, and the driver hurled numerous obscenities at whatever poor soul or object happened to be the obstruction.

She knew Clark wanted to talk about last night, but she just didn't want to hear about it right now. She didn't want to hear Claude's speech regurgitated all over again. "Mon tr‚sor," he had slurred after that awful night, when she had gone to him in the newsroom, trying to find out why. "No offense to you, but you are very, comment dit-on cela? Bad. TrŠs mauvais."

She had wanted to ask why her story was on the front page, staring back at her in ugly bold print with Claude's byline. Not why he had left in the morning. But the tears had stung too badly, and she had fled. Lois Mad Dog Lane, had fled the newsroom amidst a flurry of chuckles and harsh, judging stares. Men high-fiving.

Ever the father figure, and always aware of what was going on in his bullpen, Perry had later tried to cheer her up with some god- awful Elvis analogy. Something to the effect of, "Even Pricilla said Elvis wasn't a pro from time to time, but that doesn't mean what she said was remotely true." Suffice it to say, his words hadn't really helped, and she'd left his office mortified.

She blinked away the memories, trying to ignore the sting of tears. She didn't want or need to hear Clark's explanation. She'd heard it all before. She scared them away. Not only was she too interested in work, she was horrid at … other things.

She sighed, remembering Clark's horrified eyes when she started to ask about Trask. His look of sickness after she had kissed him. That was definitely a doomed relationship right there. She made him *gag*. Well maybe not gag, but he hadn't looked happy. Hadn't stayed. Run away just like Claude, although with a bit less humiliation on her end. At least they hadn't gone *that* far — thank the Lord for small favors.

From Clark's stare of oblivion, however, it seemed as though they had.

She could feel his eyes on her, shameless and unending in their observation. His gaze still seemed to have the ability to speed up her heart and make her feel incredible, in a knees-wobbling, light-headed way. Salmonella? Hah.

What *was* it with that man. He was so unlike anyone she had ever met before. She heard him sigh and snuck another glance his way. He had finally stopped looking at her and was leaning his forehead against the window with his eyes closed. Fog clawed out along the glass from his slightly parted lips with each soft exhale.

The cab screeched to a halt, and the driver screamed something horrible as a bicyclist scurried across the crosswalk in front of them, returning a rather rude gesture. The light was red, but it didn't seem to matter to the cabbie. She rolled her eyes and returned her gaze to Clark's face.

He hadn't opened his eyes during the cabbie's verbal assault, although she saw the muscles in his face twitch and his breathing went slightly uneven, as though the cabbie's loud voice had physically hurt him. Sensitive ears, maybe? He had commented earlier that the city was a loud place. "It *is* a bit noisy here," he had murmured. She had felt something then. Grasped at some larger truth, but it was gone now, and she couldn't even remember what had triggered it.

An unruly, loose lock of black hair hung over his forehead, making him look small and alone, like a young boy, despite his sheer size. Although not bulky, he was not a slight man by any stretch of her active imagination. But innocent? Yes, she suspected he was indeed that. Not so much in a sense of not having seen the world, or some of the horrors in it. The dim look that invaded his eyes at times told her he had seen that much and more, and he had certainly traveled. But rather his innocence came from the fact that he didn't seem to have a cruel bone in his body. He was a genuine nice guy.

And that's what made her feel worse. She'd effectively scared off the only decent guy she'd met in a long time, if ever. She didn't know how she knew he was clean, but she did. And the damage was done. She'd gone after him like an interview subject. She'd brought work into the bedroom, so to speak, like a complete, sexless dope. And she'd paid the awful price.

And even despite all the complications that her innate curiosity had brought her, she still couldn't help but wonder. Clark seemed to be a straight arrow. His overall persona was about as mild-mannered and unassuming as they came.

Which brought about the question, once again — what the heck did he have to do with a potential black-ops… potential… secret agent man? She slammed the brakes on the tune that threatened to explode into her head and continued to think. So she didn't have much as far as actual proof of wrong-doing yet. Well, actually all she had was evidence that Thompson had visited a warehouse. Which, really, was hardly a crime. But it was an evil warehouse! She was sure. And, never mind that she'd only seen a photograph of Trask with Thompson and not much else. She *knew* there was something there, and boy was it frustrating to know Clark knew something he wasn't telling.

Watch the whole side-distraction of Trask be some hick family feud, she thought with rue. The Kents and the Trasks had had an argument about which cow, Bessie or Bonnie, had really deserved the blue ribbon at the 4-H fair. It had been a nasty altercation. Blood had been spilled. Ma and Pa Kent had gone after Jason Trask with pitchforks and 12-gauge shotguns, and Jason had vowed to never let the terror go unreturned.

More and more ludicrous scenarios began to traipse through her head, and she was helpless to swat them away.

"Oh, by the way, Lois," Clark would say with a mid-western twang. "Trask hates me because I told him he was wrong about his prediction that cow stocks were going up. We got into a bit of a row at the bar. Never mind this investigation."

She stared at Clark and tried to picture him driving some horrid, stereotypical, ready-to-collapse pickup truck, straw stuck between his teeth, Bessie moo-cheering in the background, and the grimace of revenge on his face spreading as he gunned the engine and darted for the unsuspecting Jason Trask.

Shaking her head, she stared at Clark's blank, slightly tense face. Hardly, she thought.

So maybe he *didn't* have something bad to say about last night. Did you think about that, Lane? Maybe he wants to explain why he flipped out on you. *Maybe* he's finally going to explain what the deal with Trask is!

Or maybe you've misread him completely and you're in for a world of hurt if you even acknowledge his existence.

It was a toss up.

"Oh, Clark," she whispered, but the sound of her voice was drowned in the steady thrumming of the heaters and the engine of the cab. Or so she had thought. Sensitive ears were apparently an understatement in his case.

Clark's eyes snapped open, and he turned his head in her direction.

I wasn't staring, she immediately wanted to blurt, but resisted the urge. Caught in the cookie-jar, she was. She felt her cheeks turning a dull shade of red, and her breath hitched sharply in her chest.

"Yes, Lois?" he said, eyebrows raised, staring at her with expectant, soulful brown eyes. His hand gripped the handle of the car so strongly she almost imagined she heard it groaning in protest. It was the 'you are my world' stare that she thought she wouldn't ever see again after last night.

Never mind yesterday, she wanted to say. Take me, now! But as fast as she turned to Jell-O, however, she managed to solidify herself again. "Nothing," she muttered, and diverted her eyes.

Get a grip, Lane. *You* are strong. A loner. No need for Clark. No sir. Not friend. Friend not. What does it matter what he thinks? Go get a Kerth and do us proud.

"Lois, if you want to talk—"

No! … Yes!

The cab, however, had its own designs on the course of this conversation, and screeched to a final halt right then. "We're here," the cabbie growled, and leaned his hand over the back seat, wiggling his chubby fingers indicate he was waiting for payment.

Clark immediately leaned forward went for his wallet, which he kept in his back pocket, but she beat him to it — all praise the side-carrying purse. She whipped out a twenty and slapped it into the cabbie's waiting clutches.

The man didn't appear happy with the small tip, but he wisely said nothing as she scooted out across the gutter and onto the sidewalk, followed very shortly by Clark.

The neighborhood was sound enough, although that wasn't saying much considering this was Metropolis. Lois lived in one of the reputed safer areas, and she couldn't recall a month where the cops weren't in her building for some reason or another. And that was despite the door security, and despite Mick, the hired rent-a-cop that patrolled on a semi-semi-semi-regular basis when there wasn't some sort of sporting event on the little television in his disgusting closet of an office. Lord, that place had been atrocious the one time she'd had to foray into it to inquire about whether her lost set of spare keys had been picked up. Wrappers and magazines. Everywhere. The security monitors barely poked through from under the heap of junk. "Oh, by the way," she had muttered on her way out, "Does a Neanderthal do your cleaning?" Suffice it to say, Mick became even more rare of a fixture in her life after that.

The actual apartment building was somewhat small, and homey looking. The lawn, although tiny, was attractive. If you were anal-retentive… On either side of the walk to Newcomb's building the grass was cut to a meticulous three quarters of an inch, and ankle-high, red ornamental bushes sprouted up from the manicured mulch piles that embraced the building.

They walked up the landing, Clark trudging dutifully along behind her as she pressed forward. The door didn't open at her insistence, even when she yanked on its chipped handle. She cursed and gave it another pull. The door slammed and jolted loudly on multiple deadbolts, but otherwise didn't budge.

Clark, however, had found the intercom to the left. The pale plastic of the device was discolored and stained, and the speaker was dangling in the precarious grip of several different colored wires. It was making a dull clicking noise, sort of like a Geiger counter, and it took very little imagination to picture sparks fluttering down in the breeze.

Quick, she wanted to blurt, cut the blue wire or she'll blow!

She rolled her eyes. "They can't possibly expect us to communicate with that heap of garbage," she growled.

Clark shrugged and pressed the button. He leaned in a little, jerking as if he didn't really know how close to get. "Clark Kent and Lois Lane to see Burton Newcomb…" Silence. "Please?"

"See? Farmboy has to learn," she sneered.

Clark grinned. "Well what do you suggest, Hardened City Woman?" He mimed a bow of worship.

"Watch and learn," she retorted as she shoved past him to the device and pressed the button.

"Hey!" she shouted. She saw Clark wince at her sudden change in volume, but ignored it. "Cloth ears! Open the door before I have your security badge on a platter! Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to have such a despicable excuse for an intercom? You could get fined for this! What if I were a police officer or an EMT responding to an emergency? You wouldn't know, would you? In fact you probably can't tell that I'm calling you a moron, now, can you?"


"A MORON, you hear? Hey! The building is burning down! Oh no! This—"

The intercom made some sort of fuzzed, electronic mumble that sounded like a cross between Chewbacca and a dying cat, and the door locks clicked open.

She beamed at Clark. "See? Consider this a life lesson. No charge!"

"I'll keep it in mind," he replied wryly.

The door opened into a small foyer with a receptionist desk off to the right and two elevators to the back. Inside, things were in much better shape than the intercom.

The receptionist, who Lois could only assume was the one who had buzzed her in, waved and smiled. "Hello!" the young blonde said, before resuming her perusal of some magazine that, from this distance, looked like Cosmo.

Clark waved back, but Lois just pushed onward towards the elevator. After pressing the button and waiting for a few moments, she thought better of it as the light that said 'seventh floor' took an eternity just to change to 'sixth floor.' She grumbled and whip-turned towards the doorway to the stairs. Newcomb was on the fourth floor of seven. Not a horrible climb by any means, and it wasn't like she was out of shape.

The stairwell smelled a little funny, sort of like a combination of rot, disinfectant, and a hospital all rolled in to one, but proved to be functional enough, and before long they were knocking on Newcomb's door.

An old, heavy-set man opened the door. His graying hair was still in a military buzz-cut, and his round face was framed by small gold wire-framed glasses. Clark should get wire frames, she thought offhandedly. They would look even better than the horn-rimmed ones he already had. Or contacts.

"Lois Lane, Clark Kent. We're here for the Daily Planet," she began. "I made an appointment with you yesterday."

The man who she presumed to be General Newcomb nodded. "That was an interesting performance you did on the landing," he replied with a noncommittal grunt.

Lois heard Clark suppress a chuckle. "You *heard* that?" she asked, incredulous.

Newcomb directed them into a small, den-like room. There was a mahogany desk in one corner. Rifles, ammunition, and other military artifacts decorated a glass case near the window. But at the far end of the room there was a large set of security monitors that looked *much* more functional and state-of-the-art than the ones rent-a-cop Mick had. The images were sharp, and the middle one clearly showed the landing where they had been standing moments before.

"It pays to be informed." Newcomb gestured towards the monitors with an offhanded flick of his wrist before he sat down behind the desk.

Lois crept forward and placed her micro-recorder on the desk near a bowl of walnuts, and pointed to it as she turned it on, so he would know full and well she was recording what he was saying. She then sat back on a rickety wooden chair. Clark adjourned to the second seat, which was a duplicate of her own, but slightly off to the right.

Newcomb leaned back and folded his hands across his lap.

"As you know," Lois began, "George Thompson has been touring Metropolis the past few days as part of his campaign."

"Regrettable." Newcomb's tone was serious, without any hint of irony or intent of jocularity. Interesting. So. Newcomb either didn't like Thompson as a person or just didn't like him as a candidate. "What's that have to do with me?"

Lois raised an eyebrow. "We know you worked with him back when he was a member of Project Blue Book. You were his supervisor, weren't you?"

Newcomb looked straight at Clark with an unblinking gaze. Clark squirmed in his seat a little and shifted his legs. The chair creaked in protest. "Have either of you ever had to keep a secret? A *huge* secret?" Newcomb asked, his eyes never leaving Clark's withering form.

"Sure," Clark answered, as if he hadn't realized it was a hypothetical question. His voice contained uncharacteristic weakness of tone, and strain was evident on his features. Her partner looked at the floor.

Hmmm, her partner? That did have a nice ring to it, but— His body language was just…

She turned fully towards him and he looked back up at her. "Like what, Clark?"

She didn't have to imagine the look of horror that flitted across his face. His eyes widened to the size of saucers, as if he had just now realized what a horrible verbal trap he'd sprung on himself. He quickly averted his gaze to the floor again and shrugged, noncommittal.

What. On. Earth?

"Keeping a secret eats away at you," Newcomb continued. He rose from his chair, no longer looking at Clark. He headed towards the window to peer out on the yard down below, and she suddenly wished the man had a pause button so she could keep pressing Clark.

Clark had been close. Close to revealing something then. She saw it. And Newcomb somehow knew he was hiding something. How was that, exactly? Clark hadn't even flinched at the picture with Newcomb in it. They couldn't have met before, could they?

No, Clark hadn't shown even a hint of fleeting recognition this whole time. They couldn't have.

She stared at Clark as Newcomb continued. "It's just a nibble at a time, but it adds up. And one day, you wake up and realize it's consumed everything inside you."

Clark wasn't showing recognition now. He was showing pain. Understanding. A sort of kindred spirit to Newcomb seemed to have taken control of his facial muscles.

She narrowed her eyes. Clark had a secret, mmm? Probably just the deal with Trask. But…

"We were just a small group when we started, but we all took special oaths on the same day. August the second, 1947."

She managed to tear her gaze from Clark. She was interviewing *Newcomb* here, not Clark. Clark could wait until they were done.

"You didn't take an oath to protect people like Thompson, did you?" she asked as Newcomb ran his fingers along the latticework of the window. "We have suspicions that he's connected to the disappearance of the phenomenon we called Miracle Man, and possibly other crimes too numerous to count. Him and a man named Jason Trask—"

"Lois—" Clark interrupted.

"What?" she snapped. "You have something to say? Say it!"

He shook his head.

"You know something, don't you General," Lois prodded, ignoring Clark's exasperated sigh. Whether he wanted her to or not, she was going to figure this out. It didn't matter to her if she had to drag Clark around like this for a month, she *would* figure this out. Nobody gave her a puzzle and then told her to back off. No way, no how. "What's Bureau 39? Who are these men, really?"

Newcomb turned back around from the window and collapsed back into the chair. With a low grunt, he leaned forward and grabbed her tape recorder. Before she realized what he was doing, he had pressed the stop button and had yanked the little tape out.

Then, he started reaching for the walnut dish. Oh, God. She realized with horror what he was intending to do with the tape, and leaned forward, trying to rescue it, a small squeal of protest falling from her lips like a rock climber that just couldn't hold himself to the mountain anymore. But she could see from his glare that her protests were in vain. He wasn't going to talk until — *crunch*. The cassette shattered in the iron grip of the nutcracker. Little splintered bits of plastic went flying, and yards of thin, shiny tape spilled out onto the desk like guts.

Well, she thought with a pained wince, there went her notes for the week. Newcomb swept the mess aside into the wastebasket next to the desk. She was tempted to crawl forward and scoop it out, hoping something was salvageable, but thought better of it. If Newcomb was going to tell them something sensitive enough that the tape had to go off, well then, it would be worth it.

Yep. Worth it.

Convincing herself wasn't working, entirely. She winced again when she looked down at the trashcan.

"George Thompson has some unsightly skeletons in his closet."

That drew her attention away from the trashcan quite successfully.

"Really? What are they?" she asked.

Newcomb dodged the question. "But he's not the one you should be expending resources to find."

One look to her right revealed Clark appearing for all the world like he was being slowly boiled in oil as he shifted once again in his seat. His face was a rictus of regret and despair.

Just what are you getting yourself into, Lane? a tiny voice interjected, but she squelched it with a steel hand. This seemed to disprove the cow futures theory, quite definitively. No, this was big. And this was serious.

"Trask?" she asked, her voice low, just to confirm the inevitable.

"Find the connection between the two men, Miss Lane. Find that connection, and you may have your Miracle Man Pulitzer."

She gasped. She hadn't mentioned her intent to write that specific story. Had she? "How did you know—"

"You don't need my help for this," he cut her off. "I suspect the answer is hiding in plain sight."

And for the second time that day, Newcomb seemed to be staring so hard at Clark she half-expected rays to shoot out of his eyes and smite her partner where he sat. Clark slouched even further in his chair. And all at once, she wanted to leap from the chair and tackle him.


Clark knew something. And Newcomb knew something. But she sure didn't.

The injustice of it all was typical, and infuriating.

"Like in that abandoned warehouse on Bessolo Boulevard?" she asked, grasping desperately for the connection that those two had already established but were refusing to tell her outright.

From the look Newcomb gave her, she could tell that wasn't it. He followed her lead, however, and she cursed herself for making the wrong guess. "If this warehouse is what you suspect it to be, it would no doubt be protected by an impenetrable security system." He raised an eyebrow, as if meaning to challenge her ability.

Hackles rising by the second, she countered, "Every system has a flaw."

"Not this one." Newcomb shook his head. "I designed it myself. You'd need someone on the inside, or someone who'd been on the inside, to help you out."

Oh. From the way Newcomb was talking, she doubted her lock- picking skills would come in handy in this instance.

But Newcomb wasn't done. "Now, assuming you could find such a person, you'd have to hope that person found a man like Trask so repugnant, and his methods so un-American, that he would choose to help you. That's a tall order."

Repugnant and un-American? She glanced again to Clark, who was looking more and more relieved that Newcomb seemed to be unwilling to assist them, or give them any information that could remotely be classified as direct and to the point.

Oh, just you wait, Clark Kent. She glared at him, trying to beam her thoughts his way. After this was over, she was going to drag him into a conference room and duct tape him to a chair until he talked if she had to. Perry would support her, she was sure, as long as she didn't kill Clark in the process. Which wouldn't be too hard. She wanted him to suffer. A lot.

Newcomb rooted through the desk in front of him, pulling a small key-card out from the center drawer after some amount of searching. It was rectangular and white, and very thin. He flicked it in his hands before placing it not far from where her tape recorder had been before he'd ungraciously smashed its contents.

She eyed the card with hunger, but restrained herself from hopping out of the chair to snatch it. That must be the key to the warehouse! She apparently didn't need to say "Swordfish" or some ridiculous password after all. Which was good, because she *really* hadn't felt like investing in a shotgun mike.

Newcomb got up from the chair and approached his small collection of artillery, running his hands wistfully along the metallic muzzles of a line of guns, until he arrived at a shotgun. He grabbed the stock and pulled it out with a small tug, his other hand going for the small box of shells.


What was he doing?

"I'm going to count to three. When I turn around, I expect you to be gone," he said as he pushed the first shell into the left chamber and cocked it.

Ohmygod. She glanced quickly to Clark, who seemed to be arriving at the same conclusions just a shade faster than she was. He launched off his chair and was immediately between her and the General.

"What are you doing?" Clark demanded.

Newcomb ignored him. "One."

She rolled her eyes as she leaned forward and shot her hand past his waist to grab the keycard and her defunct recorder. She heard the gun cock again, and concluded that there was little doubt the thing was fully loaded now.

Which was bad.


Her heart was racing. She tugged on the back of Clark's sport jacket and they both turned and fled.

"Three!" Newcomb shouted, just as Clark slammed the door behind them with a crashing thud, practically ripping the outside doorknob off. Air flew past her ears, and she was breathless. The stairwell door got closer. Her heart thudded heavily in her ears.

"Plain sight, Miss Lane!" she heard the muffled cry through Newcomb's door as they flew into the stairwell and skated down the steps like a pair of bobsled runners.

Plain sight, Miss Lane. Plain sight. His words echoed over and over again in her head, bouncing around like a pinball against the sides of her skull.

As they came to a panting halt in the lobby, she looked at Clark again. He gave her a weak smile. "Well, that was interesting," he said. "Do your interviews usually go like that?"

The receptionist was looking at them oddly, but after a few moments of observation, went back to her magazine.

"No, Clark," she replied. "They really don't."

Plain sight, Miss Lane.

She crossed her arms over her chest and watched with a practiced eye as Clark led the way out of the lobby.


The elevator doors trundled open as though they were ton-weighted concrete slabs being slid along the base, groaning. Slow, and nerve-wracking, he could see the scenery of the bullpen and upper landing of the Daily Planet stretch out before him, miniscule fraction by miniscule fraction, until finally a complete-sized opening stood before him. Beckoning.

Like a flailing, drowning man, Clark broke to the surface. He had a gasp's worth of freedom as he emerged into the newsroom, but his foot had barely struck the tiled floor when, with a small note of exhilaration, he felt her hand slip along his back, swift, fleeting, like the touch of a lover. And then the illusion shattered. She grabbed on to his sport coat, taking up a tent of the outer fabric into her fist to form a brutal makeshift vice.

"Lois, what are you doing?"

"Taking us somewhere more private," came her clipped response, as if she could barely let the words loose without making them into a yell.

Then, she was tugging him this way and that, getting him to walk the way she wanted, steering him like some sort of horse that she'd mounted. The people in the newsroom were staring, but if Lois happened to care, she wasn't showing it. Her habitual blush whenever she drew attention to herself after an unintended rant or conspicuous newsroom activity was absent. Her gaze was steely, and her muscles seemed locked with tension.

It was as if she was preparing for war.

He braced himself as he allowed her to guide him into the empty conference room, unwilling to make a public scene with the act of dislodging her, and some small part because he simply couldn't walk away. He felt strangely like a bug, flitting around one of those electric zappers, except the light was Lois Lane, enthralling, uncompromising, domineering, and in this case, just as deadly. No, there was no way he was getting out of this discussion this time. He could tell that under no circumstances was this to be interpreted as anything short of an offered ultimatum.

Talk, or die.

Lois flipped the lights on as she passed through the threshold on the way into the conference room. She guided him to the chair facing the bullpen at the end of the long, rectangular table in the center of the area. Then she went and yanked the blinds down, much to the apparent dismay of the people outside watching with keen interest.

He heard whispers of protest, though he tried his best to shut them out.

She pointed to him. "You. Stay here, or I will hunt you down and flay you," she growled, the cold sound of her voice enough to make the blood in his veins feel curdled. He had little doubt she spoke the truth. She then left, slamming the door behind her, and leaving him isolated, alone, and he may as well have been naked. He put his head into his hands and heaved a woeful sigh.

For about thirty seconds, as he had come out onto the landing of General Newcomb's building, Clark had thought he had gotten away once again without having to answer a thing. The walk down the sidewalk, he had begun to feel a tingling sensation, and had noticed that for once, Lois Lane was not charging out ahead of him like a battering ram as per her usual style. No, she had been staying behind him, studying him with a keen interest. She hadn't even tried to hide it when he'd turned around to look at her.

During the ride back in the cab, the staring had only gotten worse, to the point where he had felt like he was being torn apart with her very gaze, rent, and bared before her. He had asked her what was wrong, knowing full well the answer, but she had only shrugged and said, "It can wait until we're somewhere more private." Overall, however, she had been extremely calm and collected. Nonchalant.

Something that she definitely was not now.

The door to the conference room opened again and she came back in. There was a thick folder in her hand. All the info she had on Trask, Thompson, Bureau 39, and this case in general, he assumed. He watched her slough her burden onto the tabletop. The deck of photos which had gotten him into this mess cascaded out of the top end of the folder like a pack of collapsed dominoes.

Lois didn't sit down. She stood, feet braced slightly apart, arms crossed over her chest in a stance that simply screamed, I'm in charge. "All right, Clark. You're going to tell me what the Hell is going on, and you're going to do it now."

Yep, there it was.

A battle to the death, one of them wasn't getting out of this conference room in one piece, and he knew full well he was the unfortunate candidate for termination. "Lois," he began. "I really have no idea what Newcomb was talking about. I've never met him before."

And that was the honest truth. The only person in this whole investigation he knew about was Jason Trask, who they had seen neither hide nor hair of since they had started, except by photo. Thompson and Newcomb seemed to be the only breathing entities in this whole mess. Trask had remained a ghost from the past, a fact for which he was unendingly grateful.

"But *he* knew *you*, Clark. Don't try to tell me you didn't notice it."

"I really don't know how!"

Good, this was good. He could deal with this. He could say he didn't know all day long, and it wasn't lying a bit. Although it did force him to consider General Newcomb's pointed words.

Newcomb had known him, and had known he kept a secret. During the interview, as Newcomb had spoken, Clark had felt a peculiar sensation, as though something heavy had sat on his chest. Like the walls were closing in on him and there was no escape. But he had dodged the inevitable when luck had blessed him. Newcomb refused to be as direct as he no doubt could have been.

Now that was puzzling. What did Newcomb have to gain by being unwilling to contribute? Perhaps he was not safe if he revealed too much. The fact that he turned the tape off had indicated the information he was even *hinting* at was extremely sensitive.

Clark puzzled over it for a moment, feeling slightly more curious than he ever had about this situation. Was Trask really *not* a lone gunman? He had suspected as much, but to be smacked in the face with the evidence was another matter. And suddenly, it made him feel more alone, and even more helpless. It wasn't just one person after him, it was a group. Perhaps this mysterious Bureau 39. And if Thompson was connected to it, that meant that the US government was possibly sanctioning it.

Sanctioning the destruction of Metropolis.

Sanctioning the cold-blooded slaughter of the two most wonderful people he had ever known.

All to keep him quiet.

It made him feel sick inside.

Several moments of his musing had passed before he realized she was staring at him, as if assessing his veracity. She seemed satisfied and finally allowed herself to collapse into her chair with a sigh.

"Well," she began as she clasped her hands in front of her, all business. "Why don't you explain to me what's going on with Trask, and we can start assembling clues about this from there?"

"I can't tell you about Trask."

He knew he wouldn't be able to stand up to pressure, but he wouldn't give in without a fight. If Trask truly was involved in this mess, especially given the new information that he wasn't alone, and possibly aided and abetted by the government, well…

The knowledge was chilling.

Someone high up wanted him subdued so badly that they were willing to expend countless American lives to keep him down. *Lois* included. Well, he thought, bitterness seeping into his bones like a stinging dose of poison, it was working quite well.

He sat here, the strongest man on the Earth. Unkillable. Capable of astounding feats. Flight. Speed. Acute vision and hearing. But a coward.

Yes, that's right, Clark Kent. That's exactly what you are. A coward alien who has *no* place in this world. Not as a savior, nor as a piece of plankton, barely drifting along the surface.

Trask saw him as a weapon with a particular compassion that could be exploited to promote silence, and nothing more.

A weapon.

The day he turned his abilities on a human being was the day he flew himself into the sun. It was as simple as that. He was no more a weapon than an invincible, cowardly pillow. But people, Trask's people, apparently, did not agree.

"*Why* can't you tell me about Trask?" she asked, her eyes pleading with him. The fire he knew so well by now loomed there behind her gaze, but she hadn't let it loose yet. She *was* trying, albeit weakly.

"Because if I do, you'll never look at me again!" Or you will, but you'll be sickened. Hi, Lois, you work with Miracle Man. The alien. The freak. How does that make you feel? Happy or repulsed? Oh, it's a tossup, you say? Or did you mean to say a throw-up? I'm sure you'll have plenty of time to think about it when Trask has decided to have you slowly boiled in oil.

'My Last Moments on Earth, Spent With a Little Green Man… Miracle Man!' — an in-depth interview by Lois Lane.

"Oh, come on, Clark. What could possibly be so bad? You haven't committed a crime, right?"


Not directly. His very existence had resulted in hundreds of callous slaughters, though. Did that count?

"Well, what's the problem then?" she asked, a shrug sluicing off her shoulders in what appeared to be the final calm before the storm.

He looked longingly at the door.

Please, Lois. Just let me go, he wanted to scream. Leave me alone to wallow and die alone, as soon as Trask figures out how to finally off me. I'll even resign if it keeps you safe.

"I can't say," he replied.

A warbling, grated growl fell for her lips as she threw back her chair again began to pace, pent up annoyance fueling her furious pace. "Clark Kent, you are the most frustrating man I have ever known."

"Thank you, I think."

He sighed. This relationship had gone from precarious, to potentially good, to potentially bad, to pretty darn bad in the course of a few days. Mostly due to his own stupidity, which made it all the worse, especially when even now, he was sitting here, staring at her in awe. She was a beautiful woman, inside and out. Her strong will — the very reason he was stuck here in the first place, terrified — was the thing he found most breathtaking.

She winced and her agitated movement ceased. "Seriously, Clark. Tell me. I'm going to find out regardless of what you do or do not tell me. Wouldn't you rather put your own spin on it first?"

Well, that was logical.

Just *tell* her, Clark!

A part of him still clung to the precipice before the abyss. He just couldn't do it.


"I know there's something weird about you, Clark."

Her words brought all previous thoughts to a halt, and suddenly there was a brick lying in his stomach, solid, amorphous. His body felt desperately hot, and yet the air surrounding his skin was freezing.

Oh, God. She knew. She knew, after all this time he had spent deliberating.

He clenched his fists on the table in front of him to hide his shaking fingers.

"What?" he asked. His voice was low. Abrupt. Grated. Even to his own ears.


What he had really wanted to ask, was, "When can I expect to see my life smeared across the Daily Planet's front page?"

Her gaze softened a bit, an uncharacteristic change, but a welcome one, and she approached him. She stood there before him, her posture more open than it had been this entire time, looking for all the world like she wanted to reach out and touch him.

"Clark," she began. "You have an innate goodness about you that just doesn't happen anymore. I can see it. I read your story about the explosion in that manhole this morning while I was drinking my coffee, before I slogged out to Thompson's interview. It's heartrending, *good* journalism. That type of empathy doesn't just happen on the fly. You can't fake that."

Her hand jerkily went to his shoulder and sat there weakly, as though she hadn't wanted to but couldn't stop it from wandering there. "But what's worse is that I don't think you realize that every time we get somewhere in this investigation, the pain in your eyes is like an explosion. Something happened, Clark. I *know* that it did. Maybe I screwed up our date by asking, but this thing you're keeping… It's eating you inside, just like Newcomb said. It's impossible to *not* ask."

The relief that spread into his limbs was so intense he had to bite back the urge to cry out, to say thank you, to lean into her arms and sigh. The precipice that he had been flailing his arms over was gone, and he was on strong, expansive ground again. She didn't know. There was still time left.

There was still time left to be Clark. Not some bug. Some object for her to interview.

Still time left, and he was utterly tongue tied.


The door to the conference room rocked on its hinges, and Jimmy exploded into the room like a gangly human canon. He clasped a folder in his flailing hands, and his face was ruddy with excitement. "Lois!" he cried. "You will *not* believe this. I finally have that—"

Her glare brought him to a full stop. Lois took a deep breath, visibly shaking. "Jimmy," she began, her voice so low it had the tone of a dull hiss. "You. have the. WORST. timing. ever!" The word 'worst' was accented as she slammed her fist into the table. The whole structure wobbled, despite its gargantuan size.

Jimmy swallowed hard. "Info… on… Trask… that you wanted…" he finished weakly.

The sinking feeling Clark had felt in Newcomb's apartment had renewed. Still time left to be Clark, but not much. Not much at all.

"Oh!" Her glower flipped into a look of excitement. "Well, do tell. I'm sure Clark is interested." The sarcasm dripping from her voice was enough to douse any remaining relief that he felt. She leaned against the table at a slant, legs crossed to keep her balance, and her arms folded over her chest, although it was more of an impatient stance than a defensive one.

Jimmy's wide eyes flicked back and forth between Lois and Clark, as if he couldn't decide who looked worse to mess with. Lois and her glare of a thousand deaths, or Clark, who imagined he appeared as though he had been hit by a truck and dragged for several miles, invulnerability aside. "Okay, well, he was in the Air Force. Joined Project Blue Book its last year in 1969."

"Figured that, mostly," Lois interjected with a bored tone.

Jimmy's voice stumbled a bit at her interruption. His gaze shot down to the folder he held open in his hands, and his eyes darted right to left as he scanned the page to find his place again. The air was filled with the dull thrumming of his casual umms and ahhs as he searched. "Stayed in the Air Force for a while after Blue Book shut down. Apparently he was a very hot shot pilot," he said with a nod as he located where Lois had derailed him.

Lois shifted her feet. "Interesting. So he didn't follow Thompson?"

"Not directly, no."

"What do you *mean* not directly?" Lois had meandered around the table by this point, her hands absently snaking out to pick up the pen that had fallen beside her own folder of information when she'd slammed it on the table.

"I'm getting to that, Lois," Jimmy said in a half-whine. He looked at the sheet again.

She began to tap the pen against the side of the table. "Well?"

Jimmy had the good sense to not retort. Clark figured at this point she might get violent with just about anyone, instead of directing all of her attentions to him. Which was good in a sense. Bad in others. "He transferred to the FBI in 1975. But get this, his *wife* also died that year."

Lois's pen percussion stopped immediately, but it was Clark's turn to shove his chair back and stand. "What?" He walked around to Jimmy and peered over his shoulder as he read further.

"You killed my Sarah, and now I'm showing you what will happen every time I catch you using your powers," Trask's voice echoed in his head. Could his wife be the mysterious Sarah? He had always just assumed it was the ramblings of a madman. He had been nine. A kid. And Trask had thought he'd killed someone?

"Yes," Jimmy said as he read from the file. Lois was peering over his shoulder on one side, Clark on the other. "Apparently he was coming home from a post in Fort Leavenworth for some advanced battle simulation training."

"Fort Leavenworth. Why do I know that name?" Lois asked, looking at the ceiling in thought, tapping the pen against her chin.

"It's where the National Simulation Center is situated. A lot of military offices send their top people there for special training," Jimmy explained.

Clark felt a dull pounding beginning in his head as the pieces began to assemble. He ran his hand through his hair and tried to calm down.

"And where is that?" Lois asked.

"Kansas," Clark responded dully. The world ahead of him was beginning to move into an unfocused jumble, like an impressionist painting.

Jimmy nodded. "He was normally stationed at McConnell Air Force Base."

"Also Kansas…" Clark said, but his voice had faded into a listless whisper. Even he could barely hear it. His throat felt raw. Parched.

He tried to remember if he had ever seen Trask before That Day. The day his parents had died. He couldn't remember. He just couldn't. His life before the accident was a pale jumble of happy moments with his parents and the angst that came with learning, slowly, that he was different from the rest of the kids at school.

He didn't get hurt or sick. He could move faster than anyone he knew. He had just discovered his heat vision the very last year before his parents had died.

He just hadn't worried about the people around him. It was all him. Him, him, him. Why was *he* different? Why was *he* special? And why couldn't anyone answer his questions?

Trask had been the first to label him as an alien, and as an impressionable nine year old who was grief stricken and lost, he had just accepted it at face value. The theory of his origins stood the test of adult logic, however, and Clark had remained a firm believer.

Alien. Scum. Freak.

You are *all* those things, Clark Kent.

"So anyways," Jimmy explained. "He gets home from his training at Fort Leavenworth to find his wife murdered, pretty much minutes before he arrived. The perpetrator was never caught. But get this."

"What?" Lois demanded. Out of the corner of his eye, Clark could see her hand grabbing on to Jimmy's elbow and she inched in further to see. She was practically blocking the young gopher's view.

"George Thompson was the FBI agent assigned to the investigation."

"Well there's the connection. But what does this have to do with Miracle Man? It's like I'm trying to connect the dots without the right set of numbers! Let's see." She grabbed the file from Jimmy's hands, though Jimmy seemed all too happy to relinquish his hold, if only to escape from her unending scrutiny.

"Sarah Trask," Lois mumbled as she scanned the page. Her pacing step as she read was ambling and undirected, as if she were just moving for moving's sake. "Deceased 1975, cause: blunt force trauma to the head, possibly a bad fall? Hmmm, this says Trask lived in Smallville…"

Clark closed his eyes. "That just can't be right."

How could he not remember Trask? Smallville was tiny. Even by the time he was nine, he at least recognized everyone's faces. There was Marshall, the man in the barber shop who always gave him lollypops when he walked by, even though he never stopped in to get a hair cut. There was Betty, the woman in town who managed the diner. Bob, the mailman. And more. So many faces, hundreds. But none belonged to Jason Trask.

The folder flashed in front of his face, and sent a gust of cool air onto the skin of his cheeks and forehead. He opened his eyes, but things remained unfocused. Nebulous. He was learning more today about Jason Trask than he had ever figured out in the course of the past eighteen years. Mostly because he had no desire to find it. No desire to endanger more people. And now the information was here. In front of his face. And it was overwhelming. Terrifying. It felt as if the mere act of possessing it was a death sentence.

He tried not to let himself shake.

"Here it is, Clark. Read it and weep. So what do you know about all this?"

Oh, God. Now he remembered. Jason Trask. Clark had seen him and his wife walking through the market one day when Clark had been young. Too young, he couldn't remember the exact year. She had been pushing the cart and Trask had been crunched up behind her, smiling into her neck as he ambled along, stepping forward each time his arms, which were clasped around her waist, outstretched enough to be in discomfort.

Sarah Trask.

Her brown hair had spilled over her head and flipped up at the shoulders. She was thin, and pretty, but not breathtaking. Her face had been oval-shaped, her nose small and buttonish. Her smile, pulled back over an array of off-white, slightly crooked teeth, was kind and gentle. She had even gotten Clark a jar of honey off the shelf because he was too short.

The memory came flooding back like an assault, and he was hard pressed to keep his footing. No, it was collapse or sit. And so he sat.

He struggled weakly to find his voice. "Lois, this happened in 1975. I was nine then."

"Everyone in a small town knows everything about everyone else!" she snapped.

"Lois, once again. I was nine. I remember them. Seeing them. In a supermarket. But—"

She glared at him through the blur. "You're hiding something still, Kent. I can see it. You're intentionally trying to block this investigation."

That did it. The world snapped back into focus, and he felt hot anger in the place of his former blurred confusion. "Well, gee, Lois. I've told you already that I think Trask will kill you if you start sniffing around. What ever would possess me to keep you away from him?"

His tone was mean. Nasty. Biting. Like a snake that had been poked one time too many. He knew it, and regretted having to take it, but his anger wasn't lessened. She was putting herself in unnecessary danger. This was *his* problem. One that he knew substantially more about because of her, he grudgingly admitted, but *his* problem all the same.

"Is that it, Clark? Did Trask kill his wife?"

"I have *no* idea," he insisted.

"Then *why* do you insist he's a killer? God, I *will* solve this myself if I have to." Her pacing resumed. "Jimmy, get me everything Smallville's newspaper has on this murder. I want to know exactly what happened there in 1975."

Having spun on his heels so fast, he almost appeared to have Clark's flight of foot, Jimmy nodded and fled. Clark wished he had such an easy escape. Such an easy out. He looked at the door, longing once again, but his feet remained firmly planted on the floor, his body stuck in the chair as though adhesives had stuck him there in the first place.

Bug to light. He dreaded the next jolt of electricity that was sure to come his way.

"I wonder who the sheriff on duty then was?"

"John Hannover. Was the sheriff then," he gritted.

"Finally," she threw up her hands, but continued to pace around the room in dizzying circles. "He says something definitive. I thought you said you were nine then, how would you remember?"


"Really, Clark. You're a mountain of inconsistencies today. It's really unbecoming. I can't believe I was naive enough to think this was just a traffic ticket. Of all my luck."

"Lois, I remember *everything* about the day my parents were murdered," he snapped.

Oh, God, he'd finally said it out loud. It sounded so foreign, coming from his very own lips to his very own ears. And at once, he felt the sting and spasm of guilt, clawing out from his heart.

Murdered. Trask had murdered his parents. Because of him.

"Murdered." Lois, brought to a full stop mid-stride, did not look impressed. Skeptical. She stood there looking at him quizzically, head tilted to the side as if she thought a layer of cotton were blocking her senses.

"Yes, murdered. The cause of death is officially listed as a car accident, but *that* man, the man you are so keen on finding and having a face-off with, Jason Trask, murdered my parents, and there is absolutely *no* doubt in my mind that the second he knows you're on to him, he *will* kill you. Lois, the man is unhinged. Please back off the story, I don't think I can bear this anymore."

Guilt-wrenching, but self-preservationist at the same time, the words came forth like an explosion. He was powerless to stop him. The need to defend himself, to give himself armor as she stood staring at his bared soul was immense. And as the words tumbled forth, he felt something new, and strange.

Liberating. Something pent up was being released, exhausted.

He was talking about the murder for the first time in eighteen years, and it was liberating.

"Trask. Murdered your parents."


There was silence for several seconds. She looked at him then, and their eyes met in the usual fashion. He could almost see the thought processes clicking through her head, random, all- expansive. She stilled to the guise of a statue for only a moment, before her breathing quickened and the explosion happened.

"And you let the case go unsolved!? What kind of reporter are you?" The pacing renewed yet again as her outburst sliced the air.

This was not exactly the response he had been expecting.


"Really, Clark, I thought you had a sense of decency, but allowing a murderer to go free when you know he did it? Your *parents* no less?"


"What on Earth were you thinking? It's our *obligation* to bring this man to justice, Clark."


"WHAT?" she yelled as she did an about face.

The look on her face told him this was it. This was his last chance to convince her that staying on the story was a bad idea. That her life was in danger.

"If I even get near him, more people will die. He went free because I want people like you to have a tomorrow. This man can't be brought to justice, he thinks he *is* justice. And if you pursue him you're going to end up lying cold in a dumpster somewhere, and I will never ever forgive myself. Please, please just back off."

And from the glare on her face, he knew he had blown it.

Her lower lip trembled for a moment, but it wasn't sadness, it was fury. The look that she burned him with was more potent than any heat vision he could ever hope to produce, and he felt all of his hopes withering away. Lois Lane would not be stilted.

"God, you're such a…" She paused, as if struggling to find words. "Such a…" She had her fingers closed in a pincer like formation, pulling away from her lips as though she expected to yank the right thing to say out of her mouth by force. "Controlling…" Another groan, as she struggled to find her rant, but failed. "Egotistical…" More gesturing. "MAN," she finished with a raucous belt.

Clark was absolutely speechless as she moved to the door and poked her head out.

"Jimmy, get back in here please!"

Jimmy poked his head back in the room in short order, but swallowed when he seemed to take in the state of the room's occupants. "What's up, Lois?" he asked, wary.

"I want the phone number for a John Hannover. Smallville sheriff, circa 1975."

"On it, Lois."

And Jimmy was gone again.

Clark rushed her, then, but stopped short of actually touching her. The look she gave him as his hands hovered over her shoulders, trying to grasp at her but finding an invisible barrier, was pure menace.

"Lois, please, listen to me, you can't—"

"I'm going home, Clark," she said, her voice having found the cold center she had started this interview with. She glanced at her watch and then started policing up all her loose notes and files. "It's almost dinnertime. I have work to do, and you're obviously not going to help me."

"But, Lois!" he protested.

The protest was in vain, and as the door slammed shut, leaving him alone once again, he felt himself deflate. He knew better than to follow her. If anything on this Earth could kill him, he was fairly sure it was her. He collapsed back into the chair and took a huge, wracked breath. His whole body shook, unable to cope with the sudden tension, and his head swam with self-imposed nausea.

His true secret was still safe.

But that was hardly any consolation.


Well, that had gone splendidly, Lois thought as she stormed down the hallway toward her apartment, the loud thunder of her footfalls harking her arrival for all to hear. Thud, thud, thud, came the dragon.

Jimmy had bounded up to her as she had stalked toward the elevator. Shaking and stuttering under her withering, unforgiving glare, he had slipped a small piece of paper with a phone number jotted on it in the messy chicken-scratch typical to the male species. The number had been labeled, "Hannover," which Jimmy had mumbled to her suddenly fascinating shoes before he had skittered back down the ramp, darting for the nearest available cover. She would have to tell him later that ducking under somebody else's desk was not exactly the most inconspicuous way to hide. Not only did she know that from countless investigations, she was able to see his shoes poking out.

The paper was still clutched in her hands, and although her perspiration had made the numbers bleed and smudge a little, the writing was legible, barely.

The emotions of the interview still raged within her, black, discordant, festering, and she found little satisfaction at all in the fact that her rabid curiosity had finally been tossed a bone. Instead, there was this angry, writhing, dark pit of fury, just waiting to explode upon the next human soul she encountered.

In the basest, most cut and dry sense of the word, Clark Kent had committed no crimes. But he, with full knowledge of his actions, had let a murderer go free, unhindered. And even worse, he had had the gall to try and tell her to stay off the story, as if it were some sort of furniture item. Bad, Lois. Stay, Lois. Good girl, Lois. Contrary to her nickname, she was no dog. She was a person, and she would tread where she damn well pleased.

The phone began ringing just as she jammed her key into the top lock. Pushing her full weight into the door, noting offhandedly that the extra pressure made it extremely hard to turn the key, but that the outlet of extra energy was at least quite satisfying, she unlocked the last deadbolt with a growl and barged forward into her apartment like a stampeding… well… Like a stampeding Lois. There was simply no other comparison necessary.

She threw her stuff onto the kitchen counter with a mighty heave, and stalked toward the phone. "Hello!" she snarled as she grabbed the offending, noisy thing off the hook. Her word was not a question, nor said with the exuberance of greeting. No, it was belted in the exact tone that sent telemarketers into stammering, quivering messes. She held the phone more as she would to strangle a victim than to listen intently.

If this was an insurance salesman, he was doomed.

There was a small pause, and she thought with a wicked smile that she may have sent some poor soul into heart failure. Take that, Solicitor Man!

"Wow, Lois, did I catch you at a bad time?" The familiar voice of Bobby Bigmouth chuckled into the phone, and she felt the immediate urge to smite him for being so darned happy, but alas, despite all the hate that she could manage to conjure, he was still breathing on the other end of the line.


"Hey, babe," Bobby chuckled some more. She wrapped the phone cord so tightly around her index finger that the tip started to turn a purplish color. Don't. Call. Me. Babe. She thought it, but with bated breath, she somehow managed to restrain the words from actually tumbling from her lips.

"Don't act so happy next time I call," Bobby continued. "Listen, all I can find on Bureau 39 is that it deals with defense against aliens—"

She snorted, interrupting him. The information wasn't a surprise, but in her current state of mind, anything would have seemed ironic. The world is about to be hit by a giant asteroid and blown to smithereens, you say? Goodness, how amusing! A tidal wave of mass destruction? Now that's funny! Next you'll tell me a computer virus is coming to take over the world, and Linda King is in town. That'd be enough to finish me off. Oh, it's a real barrel of laughs.

She started to wear a trough into the floor.

"Yeah, that's what I thought too. Anyways, that's all I can find for now. I'll keep my head down to the ground and see if there's anything else, but that's all for now. You can treat me to lunch next week, preferably when you're not contemplating tearing the next living thing you see limb from limb."

And with that, he'd hung up, apparently afraid of her reply, and rightly so. "Oh, yeah!?" she snapped as she brought her pace to a full stop, glaring into the receiver. "Well, I'm going to pick all the chocolate icing off your ‚clairs and feed it to my fish!" She knew full well that he wouldn't hear her, but it still felt better to say. She slammed the phone back on the hook.

She stood there, still for a moment. She needed to calm down. She really did. She had work to do still. People to call. Hannover's number was almost illegible at this point.

No. What she *really* needed… was Rocky Road. She went to the freezer and was happy to find the carton exactly where she'd left it. With a lustful smile, she pulled the container out of the freezer. Hmmm. It was awful light.

She peered inside and looked, aghast. There were exactly two spoonfuls' worth of chocolate ice cream left, and a lone marshmallow, sitting in the corner, alone, and mashed like the runt of the marshmallow litter.

Lucy had struck.

Lois grabbed a spoon and impaled the last little chunk of ice cream. She stuffed the contents of the carton in her mouth all at once, even the solitary little marshmallow. The smooth dessert melted across her tongue, sending small synaptic flares of pleasure coursing back into her brain.

But it was simply not enough.

Lucy had eaten all of her ice cream.

Was there no justice left in the world!? Murderers walking free, dessert thieves roaming every corner. Her sister was very lucky that she wasn't home right now. Lois absolutely despised people who ate all but the last little smidgen of something in the fridge, and then left the entire container behind, a beacon of false hopes and promises for anyone who might happen upon it later. A single swig of orange juice. A tiny slab of butter. A spoonful of ice cream. Servings of inadequacy, the entire purpose of their existence was to enact the simplest of lies. That there was actually enough food left to be a satisfying meal. What a crock.

It was like Clark's morals, apparently, only Trask was the thief, and she had *no* idea how all the puzzle pieces fit together, or what, if anything, any of this had to do with Miracle Man.

Well, no. She didn't *really* mean that. The part about Clark, anyways.

She sighed as she collapsed onto one of the kitchen stools stared at her collection of evidence. Trask's wife had been killed in 1975. Clark Kent's parents had been killed a few months later. There had to be a connection there. Why would a seemingly stable military pilot suddenly up and kill a little boy's parents?

And why would Clark not say a word about it until you practically forced it out of him? a small voice asked. Her fury abated somewhat as she recalled the look of unadulterated terror in his eyes as she and Jimmy had peeled back layer after precious layer of detail in Trask's life. His eyes had gone wide in a strange, unfocused way, and he had spent the majority of the time looking completely surprised, or in a dull state of shock. Many of the clues they had unraveled, it was obvious to her, he had never unraveled either. Which meant… that he knew Trask had killed his parents, and he hadn't even lifted a finger to try to prove it. Hadn't searched for even the easiest to find information. If it had been her, she would have been desperate to bring the man to justice, but something had kept Clark quiet.

Fear? But what leverage did Trask have when Clark's family was already dead? Wasn't that the part in the movies where the hero went all loner Rambo and got revenge?

There was still a piece of this puzzle that she just wasn't seeing. There had to be. No man as compassionate and friendly as Clark would just roll over like that. Would he?

God, this was giving her such a headache.

There was no sense of satisfaction that Clark had fallen farther and farther from her initial evaluation of near-perfection. She had no sense of angry smugness. No, "Hah! I *knew* you were just a typical rotten man!" shouts jittering out of her mouth or around in her head. Despite the fact that she wanted to strangle him with his own freakish ties for being so darned over- protective, she really, honestly, and truly couldn't say she felt anything other than hurt. Not by him. For him.

And now, more than ever, she wanted to wrap Trask, Thompson, and all their sins into a nice neat package for the front page of the Daily Planet.

She relinquished her seat long enough to pick up the phone again, and then sat back down. Readying a pen and notepad, she dialed the number on the crinkled little piece of paper.

"Hannover residence," a gruff, throaty sounding voice answered. She pictured the man on the other end to be heavy-set and balding, overall a round man, with glasses and a mustache kind of like the Monopoly guy. Didn't seem to fit with the sheriff persona, but, oh well.

"Hello, this is Lois Lane. I'm a reporter for the Daily Planet. I was wondering if I could speak to Mr. John Hannover?"

There was a small pause, and rustling noises. A faint, steady, mumbling sound in the background, a television perhaps — she thought she could hear the Jeopardy tune — faded away as the phone jostled about.

"This is he. Now, what's this about?"

"Well, Mr. Hannover," Lois began, "I'm preparing to write an expose on presidential candidate George Thompson—"

"What's that have to do with me?" Mr. Hannover cut her off.

"George Thompson was the investigating agent for the FBI in a murder case that happened around your area. I have listed here that a Sarah Trask, Smallville resident, was murdered in her home in 1975?" She asked the question and held her breath. Mr. Hannover didn't seem to be the most forthcoming of individuals. Not outright hostile, but he didn't seem that interested in being helpful either, at least not right away. Weren't small-town folks supposed to be friendly?

There was silence on the other end of the line. Mr. Hannover made a sniffling sound. "You're a reporter, you say?" he finally asked, though his voice was weaker and more vacant.

"Lois Lane, Daily Planet," she reconfirmed, suppressing a tired sigh. She really hoped she wouldn't have to do much more convincing. As she finally sat here, calm, and relatively unstressed, the day was finally catching up to her. She'd been on her feet almost twelve hours, and she was running off a nap's worth of sleep.

"I quit."

"Excuse me?" she blurted. She hadn't even asked any questions yet!

"I quit in 1976." Mr. Hannover sighed. "Round these parts, well, you can go a career without seeing much of anything. 1975 was a bad year, I try not to remember much about it."

She was at a loss for words. Her mouth opened and closed a few times as a few superficial condolences bounced around in her head, but the tone in this man's voice said that not a single one of them would be adequate enough. And at the same time, she wondered. The deaths of three residents all in the same year in such a small town… well that had to hit them hard. She hadn't ever considered it. Three murders in a place like Metropolis, while regretful, were barely even news.

"I'm sorry, Ms. Lane." There was another wracking sigh on the other end of the line. "I'll try and help, but I don't know how much I'll be able to tell you." His voice was less abrupt and less grating. More dismayed than anything.

"Thank you, Mr. Hannover. Can you tell me anything about George Thompson?"

"Well… I saw him around town quite a few times. I think he was a close family friend of the Trasks."

Lois filed that away. So. Trask and Thompson had kept in touch, even after they'd gone separate ways, the former to become a decorated pilot, and the latter to join the FBI. Interesting.

"You mean he didn't just come into town for the investigation?"

"Hmmm," he said, a throaty warble that vibrated in the lower registers. "No, I believe he was in town already, visiting."

But… Trask was just arriving back from Fort Leavenworth that day. Wasn't he? Wouldn't Trask and Thompson have planned around that, especially if they were friends? The whole thing just screamed that something was wrong, to her.

"Mr. Hannover, are you absolutely sure of that?" she asked.

The noise of jostling came through the line. "No, Ms. Lane. I'm not. It's easy to come and go using some back road. And I don't think I ever saw him in town."

She tried to tap her frustration away with her pen, but it didn't work very well. At least with each passing question, the caution in Hannover's voice faded a little bit more. He was opening up to some degree. She switched tactics. "Well, can you tell me anything about Sarah and Jason Trask?"

More jostling. "They seemed happy enough to me. I really don't remember, Ms. Lane. They were pretty much on the peripheral of the community. Rarely did more than the essentials in town. Trask commuted out of town, and Sarah was a housewife."

More of nothing. No clues. Zip.

"What about the murder itself?"

"Well, now that's the strange part, Ms. Lane. I got a call about a noise disturbance. When I got there, the door was ajar, and I heard voices inside. Thompson and Trask were both in the living room, and poor Sarah was on the floor, but that was all I saw before Thompson flashed his badge and backed me on up out of the house, saying it wasn't my jurisdiction. I—" Hannover made a strangled sound, and his voice cut off abruptly. She could hear rustling, and jostling, as if he were pacing.

"It's all right, Mr. Hannover," she soothed. "Take your time."

"There wasn't much else I could do. I called up a storm and everyone I asked said the same thing. Stay off it. Like I was some sorta dog that was in the way."

Lois grimaced, trying to suppress further thoughts of Clark for the moment. She knew the feeling all too well. "Was there anything leading up to the murder that was suspicious?" she asked.

"Well, a few months back, I got a complaint from one of the town gossips. I didn't put much heart in what she said. You know how rumors go, especially in a small town — three quarters of them are blown up so darned far out of proportion you have to laugh when you see what started them. She mentioned that she thought Sarah Trask was having an affair, but… There's not much I can do in a situation like that."

She tried not to grip the phone too tightly. Her hand was beginning to hurt. "Did you ever corroborate it?"

"No, Ms. Lane. And Susanne never said another word about it."


"The gossip."

Lois shook her head. There was something just not right about this whole situation. If Thompson had been there already for a visit, which seemed strange if Trask was out of town, that had to have meant he was there *during* the murder. Where else would he go if not into town? She doubted Smallville had a lot of surrounding attractions. And if he hadn't been there to start, his timing must have somehow been lucky enough that he got to the scene before the Sheriff, but after the deed had been done, which seemed unlikely.

She considered that for a moment.

*Unless* Thompson *hadn't* been visiting Trask at all! Her heart quickened and she felt a sharp electric thrill as pieces started to assemble. Thompson was visiting *Sarah*. She was willing to bet her salary on it.

Had Trask arrived home too early and caught them in the act? Maybe Sarah had somehow gotten caught in the scuffle, and Thompson had used his weight in the FBI to cover it up as an unsolved case? But then why would Trask *follow* Thompson to the FBI? If anything, wouldn't he want to get farther away?

Something still seemed a little off, to her, but she could tell she was closer to the truth than before. However… this brought about the question, once more. What did this have to do with Miracle Man? And what did this have to do with Clark Kent?

"Is there anything else you can remember?" she asked.

"No, Ms. Lane. It was eighteen years ago, and like I said. I try to forget it. Trask stayed in Smallville another year at best, and then, well, that's it." Hannover sounded genuinely regretful that he couldn't help more at this point. She was satisfied that he wasn't intentionally or unintentionally leaving out any other details.

"All right. Well, I do have some other questions to ask you."

"What else can I help you with?" Hannover asked.

"What can you tell me about Clark Kent?"

There was a long pause, and she was immediately worried. Had she said something wrong? "Clark's a good boy, Ms. Lane. He wouldn't hurt a fly," Hannover finally answered, but his voice sounded strained. Defensive. And altogether odd. "May I ask what this has to do with an expose on George Thompson?"

"Well, Mr. Hannover, this is probably going to sound a little off-the-wall, but I think Sarah Trask's death may be, in some way, connected to the death of Clark Kent's parents."

Although how, even she couldn't fathom at this point. A wife dying in the midst of a scuffle between the husband and the other lover didn't really seem to lead towards an act of violence against the Kents. Even if they *were* connected by place of residence. Maybe she had come to the wrong conclusion about Trask, but it seemed to fit so perfectly, given what Mr. Hannover had told her.

"I think you may be one conspiracy theory short of Big Brother," Mr. Hannover replied, his tone considerably more biting.

"Please, Mr. Hannover, just bear with me," she pleaded. "What can you tell me about the accident?"

There was another long pause. "Wayne Irig," Mr. Hannover began, but from the sound of his voice, it was mere anguish to remember. He had to pause again, and she heard a sniffling sound. "One of the neighbors, was the one who called it in. When I got there, little Clark was sittin' cross-legged down the road a bit, staring at the dirt. Lord, I will never forget the look on that boy's face for as long as I live. I couldn't even get him to speak at all for three days. I think he saw the accident, but he never would say a word about it. Ms. Lane, please don't drag Clark into this. That boy deserves some peace."

Too late, Lois sighed. Could Clark have been mistaken, though? Maybe Trask hadn't had a thing to do with the accident at all, and Clark was just looking for somebody to blame. Although it seemed more feasible than her own theory being wrong, she found it odd that out of the billions of people on this Earth, Trask was the one he had chosen, if that were the case. And the panic attack his image had instilled… Well that couldn't easily be faked. Could it?

Her head was starting to spin as theories flew about.

"Is there any chance the accident could have been foul play?" she asked.

"The brake line was frayed, not cut. It could go either way. But there were no witnesses aside from maybe Clark. The tread patterns on the road indicated the Kents swerved to avoid something, or perhaps lost control of the vehicle. Went straight into a telephone pole. The Kents didn't survive impact." Mr. Hannover sounded clinical as he went through the details of the accident, and she wondered if perhaps it wasn't similar to the way doctors tried to distance themselves from their patients. Or the way *she* tried to distance herself from her stories.

Oh, get off it, Lane. If you're distanced from your stories, I'd like to see what you think close is, a voice griped. She had to admit that particular rule was like a speed limit. Just a suggestion that nobody ever followed.

She swallowed. There was a lump forming in her throat that she didn't quite know what to do with. "What happened to Clark afterwards?"

It appeared Hannover had the same problems as she did, however. His voice went back to a carefully controlled, low-volume tremor. "Well, the Irigs took him in for a while until Social Services took over, and from then on, he bounced around. Tough life for a kid, but he was never a troublemaker. Real damn shame if you ask me. The Kents were wonderful people — Clark was no different."

"You say that like Clark wasn't a Kent."

"Originally, no. The Kents adopted him when he was very young. But that made him no less a part of their family."

"Huh," she grunted.

So, Clark had not only had his family killed, he'd been lifted from his home, and bounced around like nothing more than a sack of hot potatoes. The thought was sickening to her. Was this what all foster children had to go through if no one would commit to actual adoption? Or was Clark a rare case? She made a note to investigate it later.

"That's what finally made me quit, you know."


"Seeing Clark's face, when I drove up to the scene. I didn't think I could ever bear to see that again as long as I lived. And so I quit. I guess I just wasn't cut out for this Sheriff business."

Her vision blurred a little bit, and after she had clenched the phone between her ear and her shoulder, she swiped at her eyes with her fingers. She realized that taking notes had long been forgotten. She found she could easily imagine the look the Sheriff described on Clark's face.

"And you have no reason to suspect that Trask was involved with the accident?" she asked weakly as she readjusted the phone.

"I didn't see him anywhere around when I got there."

"Well," she sighed, unable for once to think of anything else to ask. "Unless you can think of any other information that might help me in this investigation, I think I've taken up enough of your time."

She gave Mr. Hannover her contact information, in case he thought of anything else, and then got up to hang the phone up. She leaned against the wall, thinking, her head resting near the receiver. She'd connected a few dots this interview, but had ended up, in the long run, with even more question marks, and a lot of squiggly miscellaneous lines that were wrecking the overall picture. Actually, what she mentally had at this point was a finger painting that looked like it had been done by a five-year-old.

What was the connection between Clark's parents' deaths and Sarah Trask's death? Aside from the alleged perpetrator. What she couldn't get a grasp on was motive. And there was *still* a huge question mark over Miracle Man. What did a murdered wife, Clark's parents, George Thompson, and Jason Trask all have to do with that? She wracked her brain and came up with squat.


A sigh of frustration curdled in her throat as she shoved off the wall and began to pace agitatedly. She rubbed her eyes as spots started to form. Her headache seemed to be on the verge of coming back full force as well. She ignored it and began to tick off her options.

Jason Trask was still a ghost in all of this.

George Thompson was touring Metropolis for a few days on his campaign tour. He was due to make his exit speech tomorrow.

She had a security card for the Bessolo Warehouse in her purse.

She decided she was vaguely confident that the Bessolo Warehouse wasn't going to grow legs and walk away. Which would actually be quite damning, in and of itself. Mad warehouse stalks the streets of Metropolis. Round, and round, and round it goes, where it stops… nobody knows!

With a wry smile, she gathered up her things. George Thompson, she thought as she stalked back towards the door, you're next.

Clark Kent.

On the way out the door, the words slipped past in her head like a jingle of a tune that just couldn't be booted from memory and brought her charge to a jarring halt, left shoulder in the hall, right shoulder still in the relative shelter of her apartment.

She glanced back at the phone. She wasn't really seeing red anymore, and knew despite his protests, he probably would want to be in on this. She glanced back out at the hallway. Clark was the quintessence of drag, like one of those parachutes they used to stop racecars. She pictured herself running from the bad guys, Clark dangling from her angle by a tightly clenched hand, taking care to bump into every obstruction as she went, and she heard his voice echoing in her head. Lois, stay! Lois, it's not safe! Bad, Lois! Good girl, Lois. She glanced back at the phone. He had been terrified at the fact that she was doing this investigation. He wouldn't want her to do this alone. She glanced back at the hallway. Which was precisely why she was going to do just that.

The door closed with a bang as she pulled it shut behind her.


It took Clark several long, and very painful moments to calm himself down enough to leave the conference room, but finally his panicked shaking ceased, and he didn't feel like he was going to explode into a messy jumble of nerves. The stares as he emerged, slow and deliberate, were piercing. Condemning. Sympathizing. He saw a whole array of emotions plastered across the faces of his new co-workers.

"Another man, chewed up and spat out," he heard a small brunette woman standing by the copier whisper to a much taller, lanky black man. The woman shook her head. Annie from advertising, and Frank from sports, he finally remembered. Annie was looking at him with a sympathetic frown. Frank's lips, in contrast, were quirked into a cold, unforgiving smirk.

"Doubt Kent could handle that much woman, even if she weren't the devil incarnate," Frank replied. "Do they even teach that sort of thing in Kansas?"

Annie batted his arm.

Clark turned his gaze down to the floor, trying not to make it obvious that he'd heard their remarks, but knowing the burning look on his face would make it dismally obvious. The rumor mill was already flying with wild and ludicrous assumptions. And, he realized with horror, that they all probably thought he had attempted to seduce her and she'd blown up at him. Well, that was okay with him if they smeared him, but it was infuriating that they were molding Lois's reaction into something that it wasn't.

She had every right to be angry with him. About, well, about everything. And she didn't need everyone assuming she was a man- eating psycho whenever she got justifiably piqued. Having that sort of preconception about her did little to help with the professional airs she tried so hard to convey to her co-workers.

The realization that Lois was having her reputation torn to pieces because of him did not help with the sinking feeling that wouldn't let go of him. An undertow of panic, it was threatening to pull him beneath the plummeting depths of frantic oblivion. Lois was out there. Chasing after Trask and Thompson on presumably more steam than he had. And he had no doubt she would propel herself along until she finally noticed that her little boat was sinking, and possibly continue even then. Until her engine got shot out and she was sucking in lungfuls of cold and unforgiving water. He squeezed that metaphor from his mind, unable to cope with the images of her flailing for breath.

What was he supposed to do?

Get there first. That's what he was supposed to do. If he couldn't stop the tidal force that was Lois Lane, he could surely beat her to the punch and drag Trask and Thompson's attention onto himself, couldn't he? He was convinced already that his life was going to be ruined in the course of this whole situation. So he didn't have much left to lose, if anything at all.

The problem with his whole 'getting there first theory,' however, was that she was figuring things out a lot faster than him, and not only that, she already knew more about what had happened in 1975 than he did. She had a half-hour of head start time and a folder full of notes and extra facts to work with. Would that beat out his hazy memories and suppositions? Probably.

He made a move for the exit ramp. He needed to start working on this story instead of trying to act as an ineffective hurdle. And he needed to switch gears *fast.* But where could he possibly start?

"Kent, my office. Now," he heard Perry's voice call out, loud, and jarring, but considerably more friendly than most of his verbal employee lassos.

Clark whipped his gaze toward the editor, who was staring at him expectantly from the doorway of his office. "But—" the word tumbled from his lips before he could hold it back.

"Did that sound like a suggestion, Kent?" The Chief waved him over. "Now get yer butt in here."

The newsroom, which he had thought couldn't have gotten more obtrusively whisper-filled as people stared at him than it had been earlier, was alive with eyes turned his way and the wispy sounds of words. He shrugged them off, trying not to specifically identify what was being said, and walked over. The door, which still stood open, was suddenly seeming more like a gaping yaw than anything else. Chomping jaws, trying to pull him in.

What could *this* be about?

"Yes, Chief?" he asked as he shuffled over the threshold and pulled the door shut behind him. The Chief was sitting behind his desk, hands clasped in front of him on top, graceful and proper.

"Have a seat, Kent," Perry said, his hands leaving their clasp to motion him to the chair that sat ominously in front of the desk, exactly where he had been seated earlier this week for his job interview.

This couldn't be good, could it? Clark tried to withhold a new swell of panic as he took the seat across from Perry.

"Now, Son," Perry began. "The article you submitted for this morning about the accident yesterday was top notch journalism. Top notch."

Clark swallowed, forcing his thoughts away from Lois for the moment, and arm-wrestling away any inclinations to look back towards the so very inviting door. This sounded almost like an 'I'm sorry, but' speech. He hoped he wasn't getting fired already. "Thank you, Sir," he said, though it was hard to sound grateful in his current state.

Time's up, freak. You had your week of fun. The voice dripped with sarcasm.

"But, Kent, that's not what I called you in here for," Perry began.

See? Told you!

Clark forced his gaze to remain level, and tried very hard not to look like the paranoid lump of nerves that he felt like. His hands fell into the old habit of gripping the arms of the chair. They immediately started to slick over with anxious perspiration.

"Yes?" he managed to say.

"When the King was a young man in the fifties, Son, oh… before you were even born, he met this young lady named Petunia."

Clark blinked. And then he blinked again. There'd been the Elvis anecdote during his job interview, and he'd accepted the propensity towards them as one of the Chief's little personality quirks, but… Well, he hadn't been expecting this. He suppressed a flash of annoyance that saving Lois had hit the backburner for a story about a dead singer. The question still remained, however. What was this about?

"She was a looker," Perry continued, his voice taking on more and more of a southern drawl as he immersed himself in the memory. "I tell you. Why, probably, the belle of any ball in the south, if she had ever gone to any balls, but, well, anyway. She had a heart of nails. She wouldn't even bat her eyes at any poor man who wandered her way. Are you with me so far, Son?"

No. "Uh…"

"Anyways, well, the King met her and fell for her harder than a sack of rocks off a tall pier, and got turned down colder than an ice cube in the arctic. Oh, he was heartbroken, Son. Utterly heartbroken. Locked himself in his room and didn't come out for days."

Nerves and utter confusion slowly morphed into mortification. Clark felt his mouth fall open a little bit, and it took extreme effort not to stare dumbly at his boss. Perry thought this whole mess was about Lois turning him down too? He almost wanted to grab a bullhorn and announce to the whole swarm of rumor flies that *he* had run away from *her*, and that today had *NOTHING* to do with that. This was positively exasperating, and now Lois was even further ahead of him on the road to danger. "Chief, Lois and I are—" he tried to explain, but Perry interrupted him.

"Now, Son. I know it looks like there's trouble in paradise."

"But, sir—"

"It looks like the doors are closed, and nobody's getting in."

Agitated, Clark stood up. "Sir—" he protested more firmly.

"Sit down and listen to me, Son," Perry said, his exasperated tone forceful enough that Clark fell back into his chair in defeat. "Lois has always been like this. The fact that I had to force you in here instead of you coming on your own, gibbering in terror. Well, that's a good sign! I think there may be something special there."

"Sir, I really do like working with Lois, and I'm not having any prob—"

"And if it doesn't work, well, you know how the King turned out…"

A drug addict, and dead? Clark thought, wryly, but stiffened soon after the image passed through his brain. Dead. Lois dead. He *needed* to get out of here. Soon.

"That whole debacle was what inspired Heartbreak Hotel, and his whole career took off. Do you see what I'm sayin', Son?"

"Yes, Sir." Completely. Just let me out!

"All right then, Kent. I'm glad we had this chat." And with a small, satisfied nod, the Chief finally gave him leave.

He didn't pay attention to the drop in volume as he exited the Chief's large office. He didn't look around, or think in self- recrimination about all the shaking heads and snickers. With exactly enough speed to show he was human, but in the Olympic athlete category, he raced up the ramp, into the stairwell, and soon he was on the roof.

Wind buffeted him as he walked towards the edge. His tie flapped across his chest with an unsteady thumping rhythm, and his sport coat almost seemed to lift off his back. If it weren't for the arms of the coat, he suspected it would have flown out behind him like a very short, very gaudy cape, well, before it flew off in the breeze entirely.

As he got to the fence surrounding the corners of the building, he peered out at the horizon that spread before him. The dull sounds of the city rose up from below, but were practically drowned by the wind that was smacking into him as if it were actually annoyed at the obstruction. He looked down to the forest of concrete below. Then he looked out ahead, and for the first time in a year, he consciously lifted his body off of the ground.

He was in the air, so quickly he was staring at light wisps of cloud and greater Metropolis sprawled out below him like a hobbyist's toy model before he had time to think twice. A jolt of weightless glee swept through him uncontrollably before he managed to shove it back down deep inside of him. The sun setting in the sky cast a flaming glow across the west faces of the all the buildings, and with the window panes of the towering skyscrapers flashing, the city itself appeared ablaze.

But for once, he wasn't thinking about the past. He wasn't remembering the fires. There were no logical debates going on in his head. And the use of his powers didn't bring him another moment's pause.

He was already lagging behind her badly — at least an hour — what with his own need to compose himself and Perry's intervention. He needed to beat Lois Lane to the scoop, and at this point, he had few doubts at all that his power of flight was the only thing that would get him there first before she came barreling through to the finish line. And he was even less doubtful that if she *did* arrive at some amazing epiphany first, she wouldn't last twenty-four hours alive with the knowledge.

And so now, he had an unintended mystery on his hands. He rotated as he peered around his urban surroundings. What was next? He made a quick lap around the city, sizing things up.

Trask was nowhere to be found, so far, so that was one element ruled out for the time being. The Bessolo Boulevard warehouse was a likely candidate to investigate, but the street was a long one, he could see as he flew overhead, and not only was he not sure which warehouse it was, but his whole view of the area was mottled. A lot of the warehouses were old, and still had remnant layers of lead-based paint. He sighed. It would take him hours to try and weave his way through that mess. All that was left was Thompson, it seemed.

Where would Thompson be staying? He had an educated guess.

He bolted for the Lexor Hotel and scanned it. Yes. George Thompson was staying in one of the top level penthouse suites. There were tons of papers in the study with his name on it, scattered across the desk like a mussed, new-age tablecloth.

Luckily, it was still relatively early, and a campaigning candidate like Thompson probably had some sort of fundraiser or dinner thing to attend. Whatever the reason, the hotel room was empty for the time being. There weren't even any housekeeping officials busy there, or anywhere else on the floor. Lois was nowhere to be seen, but that didn't mean much yet. Clark looked once more behind him, to the horizon, and the surrounding buildings. He could only hope that Lois hadn't decided to try her luck in the warehouse first, or he was going to end up increasing the gap between them.

He set down, light and unobtrusive, on the balcony that led into the study. The air that had buffeted him while was up higher was much subtler and more gentle now, the brunt of it taken away by the towering obstruction of the hotel, which clawed into the sky still quite a few feet above him, despite this being the penthouse. The balcony was fairly large — roughly five feet deep and twelve feet long. It ran the whole length of the study's side. Sliding glass doors, covered from the inside by thick, embroidered drapes were all that stood between him and the room.

Clark slid forward along the balcony, past the two lawn chairs and the small glass table that sat between them. He gripped the handle of the door and pushed. At first it didn't give way, but eventually the foot lock snapped and the door jittered backwards along the track. Not the most subtle of break-ins, he realized, but he really didn't care that much at this point.

The study was a large room. There was a fireplace against the wall that appeared to have real wood in it. The fresh, burnt scent indicated that Thompson had been using this deluxe hotel feature quite enthusiastically. The mantle that hung over the fireplace was a rich, dark brown wood, covered with elaborate carvings. Candles and gothic-looking ornaments decorated the top, and a wingback chair sat a comfortable distance in front, a small beaten paperback book resting beside it on a circular table.

He pushed himself over the door track, struggling a bit as the drapes clung to him like vines. Over in the corner of the room there was a hefty-sized desk — the one that had been strewn with all of the papers which had allowed Clark to identify this penthouse as Thompson's. Might as well start with what's in plain sight, Clark thought. Plain *normal* sight, he added with a frown.

He slipped over to the desk and started rifling through the vast assortment of papers. Mostly financial stuff, and a lot of extraneous campaign things. There was a small schedule he found that listed George Thompson as being at a banquet right about now. Good. He had at the very least an hour or two before anyone was expected back in the hotel room.

The sharp pierce of a whistle sounded in the hallway directly outside the hotel suite, and he stilled, but it turned out to be a man entering the adjacent penthouse suite. Nothing to worry about. Clark relaxed and continued searching. Nothing of use, it was all pointless campaign things that didn't tell him much of anything except who was paying him money and why George Thompson was a darn nice guy.

He lowered his hands to the center drawer and tried to pull it open. It was locked, so he yanked. The bolt on the lock snapped and the drawer went careening back into his waist before coming to a halt. All that was in the drawer was another smaller box with a lock on it, and he was immediately struck with the similarity of this perplexing situation to that of a Russian Matryoshka doll. He had seen one of the dolls being peddled by a street vendor during his travels through Moscow. The vendor had been very enthusiastic at making a sale, and had shown Clark at great length the fascination of opening the large oval-shaped doll to reveal a smaller doll inside, and so forth and so on until there was finally an inseparable doll the size of a peanut.

He snapped the simple padlock on the side of the smaller box and tipped open the lid. A small, unlabeled, leather-bound book sat inside. It was the size of a regular novel, but the spine was cracked along multiple lines, making it easy for Clark to set it on the desk and let it lie open and flat, unassisted by brute force. The writing inside was far from pretty — it was tiny, blocky, scribble-print that was barely legible and looked like it had been scratched, not written, onto the paper.

It appeared to be a diary of some sort.

He flipped to the first page and was shocked into stillness at the name that was jotted under the beaten cover, small and unobtrusive. This wasn't George Thompson's at all. This was Jason Trask's.

And, he found, as he skimmed quickly through it, it was a catalogue of Clark's life, starting with 1975.

Clark stood there for a few moments, unable to look more closely at the contents, instead stalling by examining the penthouse around him again. Another sweep of x-ray vision revealed a small detail he had failed to notice before. There was a duffle bag lying next to the couch, and the cushions were covered with a tussled up, forest green sleeping bag.

Thompson had a sleep-in guest. The duffel bag contained miscellaneous clothing articles — all fatigues and sweats — a loaded beretta 9mm accompanied by several extra clips, a safety razor and some other toiletry items, and also a passport.

Jason Trask.

Jason Trask's mug shot stared back at him, cold, calculating. His passport was stamped into oblivion. Russia, Nepal, Australia, Borneo, Great Britain, New Guinea, Nigeria, and more, and more… All countries Clark had visited. All in the same order.

His throat closed up, and his eyes burned. It seemed Trask had not been absent in his life after all. All those years, during high school, during college, during his travels, when Clark had thought he was free. Unhindered. All those years… and his life had been getting written down in this book. The whole time he had remained blissfully unaware, the details of his existence were getting carefully catalogued like he was some sort of lab specimen. Some sort of freak. Discovering this was almost worse than his fear of being dissected.

His stomach began to flop about, and the room felt very cold, like ice was slipping in slow glacial sheets across his skin. His legs started to shake, and his muscles lost all their strength in one woozy motion. He pulled out the desk chair and collapsed into it like a falling heap of stones. The room wobbled and spun on a carousel wheel around his head — he didn't think he could get up if he tried.

The book sat out in front of him on the desk, a mere foot, but it may as well have been miles. Staring dully ahead, he pulled it toward him. Inch by inch, his life, bled out onto those pages by Trask's sinister pen, came closer. And closer. He drew it into his lap, where it sat for several moments like a still, disgusting thing, worthy of recoil. He almost couldn't bear to look, but somehow he forced his gaze down onto the first, well- worn page.

Trask's voice seemed to claw upwards, curling around the words and reading them aloud as though he were present in the room. "George took me to the house of my wife's murderer the morning after…"


The side of the barn was on fire as we drove up in the truck, behind a shallow bank of trees. Smoke plumed upwards in dull lazy tendrils that coiled in the light breeze. Two frantic adults — one male, one female — ran about with hoses, trying to put the small blaze out with copious douses of water. The hoses wrapped back and forth, tangling like fighting snakes as the couple darted up and down along the side of the building. Up and down, up and down.

The sight before me would have seemed almost like a relay race if it hadn't been for the child. A small, black-haired boy sat in the dirt about twenty feet back from the barn, sobbing uncontrollably, wailing, clutching at his knees, his distress so loud that we didn't even need our microphone turned on to hear it. It filtered back through the reflective glass of the window as though there were no barrier at all between it and my eardrums.

My vision blurred, and despite the awful racket of that kid, I found myself back at home, staring at Sarah's body, crumpled in my arms like a rag doll. When I had arrived home from my training, I had known something was wrong the moment I pulled into my driveway. The house had been quiet. Too quiet for my liking. There had been nothing but an ominously mournful chorus of crickets to greet me. Sarah usually rushes out to hug me and say hello after a long trip, but this time, she had not. Also, George's car had been in the driveway, blocking me from my usual parking spot, and George hadn't said he would be visiting.

I had darted through the door and had found George standing there over the body. Her body. George's face had been clawed across the cheek and was still oozing slow trails of rust-colored blood. "Jason," George had gasped as I ran to her and pulled her limp body into my arms.

"Sarah!" I had cried, although I knew from the gash on her forehead, the horrible red stain on the corner of the overturned table, the stillness of her chest, and the soft feel of her slowly cooling skin, that she wouldn't answer me. That she wouldn't answer me ever again.

"Jason," George had said again. "Thank God you're here. Thank the Lord. I couldn't…" He had sounded woozy, as if he couldn't remember. "I couldn't stop him. He came at us so fast. I tried…"

"Who did this?" I had growled. Who had done this to my wife? My sweet, beautiful Sarah. My heart. Her final, porcelain stare, dead and looking past me, not at me, will never be something I forget. Not as long as I live.

"That's him, Jason," George said, forcing me back to the present, back into the claustrophobic quarters of that truck, away from the awful memory of my broken wife, gone then not twenty-four hours. I was still having trouble even referring to her in the past tense. It wasn't hard to imagine she'd be fixing dinner for me if I were to just pack it in and drive back home. But I knew in my heart that she wasn't there, despite how badly I could twist my brain into thinking it were true.

My eyes were threatening to overflow again as George pointed to the scene ahead, his index finger extending toward the child like a gnarled claw. "The boy. He's not human."

I raised my eyebrows, my grief momentarily forgotten. "You can't be serious?" I snorted and turned to George. George was smiling oddly as we looked on at what was happening ahead, as though he had won an unexpected jackpot.

"We've been tracking him since his crash landing on May 17, 1966," George finally replied. "This couple picked him up and passed him off as their own. He's developed some unique characteristics."

"Unique?" I asked, wondering how a child as small as this could be so strong that he could overcome both George and Sarah. Strong enough that he could have shoved my wife to the floor so hard her skull had cracked on the table as she collapsed. How could this innocent-looking mess of sobs be the alien murderer George confessed was able to outmatch him? I glanced sidelong at the gashes across George's face. There were five of them, long, inflamed, like a brand down along his cheek.

And, so help me, I grew suspicious of my best friend, even though when I found her, Sarah had had no blood or flesh caught in her nails. Looking back on it, I guess I just wasn't being rational then.

"Just watch," George said. "I can show you the spaceship and our file on him if you're still doubting me after we watch them."

I forced myself to watch, despite my growing, all-consuming anger. Even the grief I was feeling seemed pale in comparison to it. The fury burbled up inside me, but I somehow put on the large earmuff headphones without crushing them in my grip.

The couple had finally put out the blaze on the side of the barn and were consoling the young boy, rubbing his back in meandering circular motions. He looked human to me. Completely so. They rocked him in their arms, just like a human boy. They spoke to him in English, just like an American human boy.

I knew there were aliens in this world. I knew that we had even captured some of them for study, examined several. We had piles and piles of research, even had some recovered, but unworking craft stored away somewhere. I knew all that from my work with Project Blue Book back before it was signed out of government funding. But I couldn't count on one finger the number of aliens I had ever seen that didn't look… alien.

But. He. Looked. Human.

At that precise moment, I was growing more suspicious of George with every passing second. But I was about to find out that the little boy's looks were deceptive.

"Oh, sweetie," the woman said. She was short, and her hair was a light strawberry blond. Her voice came crystal clear through the headphones, like a bell. Like Sarah. My fists clenched. "The barn is okay. See? All fine."

In truth, the whole side of the building was marred by scorch marks, and smoke was still rising from the scars, but not one of the three of them seemed to be paying it any mind. The boy finally calmed down, his breaths coming strong and even, rather than in huge, jerking, moaning inhalations. And that was when the couple did something odd.

The heavyset man stood while the woman continued to rub the boy's back. "Let's try aiming away from the barn this time," he said, his tone and face lighthearted as he pointed to a stump that sat behind them. They all rotated 180 degrees, the boy and woman kicking up a bit of dust as they slid around.

"I can't," the boy whispered plaintively and shook his head, burying his face in the woman's chest, eyes squeezed tightly shut.

"Clark," the woman said, running her hands through his hair. When the boy did not respond, she replied a lot more forcefully, "Clark Jerome Kent, stop feeling sorry for yourself and just do it."

After a lot of similar coaxing from both the woman and the man, the specifics of which I have forgotten, the boy began to look intently at the stump, as if he were searching it for deformities, perhaps examining the grain of the wood, or counting the rings to see how old it was. What bizarre ritual was this? I shook my head, ready to protest that we just get out of there. That there was no murderer here except the one in this truck. That George was lying. I wasn't stupid, I'd had my doubts when George had finally told me his ludicrous story.

And that was when the stump burst into flame.

My mouth fell open as the three cheered and congratulated each other. "See, Clark?" the man said with a grin that just dumbfounded me. What was happy about that event? "You can control it just fine."

Control it. Just fine. The boy could control fire?

Something settled, cold and still in my stomach just then as I stared at the flames licking up from the dead wood like a miniature inferno. What kind of power must that boy have to be able to light things ablaze with just the wink of an eye? What kind of dangers could he pose? The ability to incinerate a person with just a thought. One angry flash and the object of his gaze would be in flames. Spontaneous human combustion began to take on a whole new meaning for me. And the human couple was *teaching* him how to do it!

I ripped the headphones from my head, fury dripping from my pores like a hot sweat. I grabbed my pistol out of my glove compartment and started clawing at my seatbelt. Struggling to get free. To escape that suddenly claustrophobic vehicle and run at them.

"Jason, no, you can't," George said woefully.

"Why?" My vision was burning. I could barely see. It was as if something in me had just snapped. I saw the flames on that stump, burning brightly, climbing higher and higher as the oxygen fed it more and more strength. And I saw Sarah's dead, cold, expressionless mask of a face dangling backward over the crook of my arm. And that was all I could see.

All I still see, even two months later, as I write this now. Every time I think about that wretched creature walking around, unscathed, untouched. Still alive when Sarah is not.

"He exhibits heightened strength, speed, and just recently developed a low-level resistance to damage. Minor physical trauma won't affect him," George explained.

I gestured to the gun, waving it about as though it were a more menial item, like a stapler or a beer bottle. "This is minor?" I cried, incredulous. A creature that could burn things into soot with a simple gaze, and not only that, survive any attack or defense? My heart began to race, and I plastered myself against the window, staring at the boy. The thing.

If George was nervous, he didn't show it. "His skin is thickened somehow. He can't be punctured," George replied as he pulled the truck back out and put us back on the main road.

I wanted to protest. To scream. To run from the car and strangle the couple harboring that creature in their lives, and in their home. To take that small boy and show him the body of my Sarah. Show him what he'd done to her. And then kill him in a likewise fashion. But the knowledge that I simply couldn't took a while to sink in.

My hands found themselves clawing weakly at the door handle, but my awareness of them darkened as I was wracked with salty, wet sobs. My sight went fuzzy and it was as if I suddenly couldn't suck in enough oxygen. George said nothing about my crying. I'm thankful that he did not.

"Is it even a he?" I asked after I regained some of my senses.

George shook his head. "Unconfirmed, but if not, it's a very accurate facsimile. This is why I want you to join me, Jason. The work we do — protects Americans from creatures like that."

Why couldn't you protect my Sarah? I wanted to shout, but I withheld a curse. Choked on it. Grunted as breaths heaved in and out of my chest like solid, disgusting, writhing things.

"I want to kill it," I said. "Kill it for what it did."

"I just said that you can't, Jason," George tried to soothe me, but I wouldn't be consoled. "He can't be hurt by any weapon we have." He seemed smug. Almost relieved. And I wanted to strangle him for it.

"Then I'll find out what *will* hurt it. And I'll use it," I threatened.

George nodded in approval, and we drove back to my house to figure out what to do with the body.


"Well, I have observed the creature for several months since that incident, and I believe I have found the answer…"

The book fell from Clark's slackened, nearly lifeless grip and smacked into the carpet below, pages bending all out of sorts. He sat, cold, and shivering in the chair for several long moments, arms flopped to the side as if he didn't even realize they were appendages of his own. The whispers of shallow breathing echoed around him like thunder, magnified in the addled pit of his mind, and his listless stare continued, unthwarted.

He didn't even hear the maid coming until the door to the study crept open with a yawning creak.


Lois really pitied the cleaning staff of this hotel. The little black jumpers the women were forced to wear as their uniform cut into her in all the wrong places. Her armpits felt like they were going to sever at the joint, her waist felt like she had a belt five sizes too small strapped around it, and she couldn't move her arms all that well when she tried.

And the little white clog tennis shoe things? They looked like they would be comfortable in a euphoric sense. No heels, flat, wide and roomy… But they definitely were not euphoric. They were material embodiments of pain and suffering, that's what, and she was convinced that a sadistic minion of Satan had designed them. She raised her foot and clawed at the heel, trying to dig it out of her slowly inflaming skin, but without much luck.

Okay, well, it probably would have helped somewhat if she'd managed to steal a uniform that had been the right size. She'd snuck through the staff locker rooms and grabbed the first one she'd seen hanging out on a hook. A woman, possibly smaller than Tinkerbell, must have been the owner of this particular ensemble.

She growled and dropped to her knees, peering at the doorknob to George Thompson's suite. At least this hotel hadn't caught up with the rest of the world and started using those annoying little keycard systems to lock all the doors. Nope, this was a standard, pickable tumbler lock. She yanked out a pair of paperclips from her small utility purse and started working, trying to get the tumblers to behave. Jimmy was so much better at this sort of thing! She jammed the clips around, trying to make it work, but her progress was slowed to a crawl. There was a series of odd-sounding clicks and with a suppressed growl, she pulled the clips out and started again. She just couldn't quite get the tumblers in the right spot—

Finally the lock gave way.

With a grin of satisfaction, she turned the handle and peered inside the suite. The lights were all out, despite the darkness hovering outside the windows. Good. With luck, that meant that there was nobody there. She pulled the clips out of the doorknob and moved inside, slipping along the wall in the darkness like a panther.

Panther Lois, that's what she was.

After moving through the small foyer, she found herself in expansive, luxurious living room. The darkness was almost cloying, and she cursed as she collided with a small table with a lamp on it. Her knee banged into the rounded brass knob of the drawer below the table and throbbed with pain.

That was going to bruise for sure.

"Oh, give me a break," she whispered, finally giving in and pulling her flashlight out of her small purse. She flipped it on and raised the light in front of her, wincing as her uniform threatened to cut off what little was left of the circulation to her arms. The haze of the flashlight fanned out in a dim, wavering cone, making things seem eerie and sort of grayed out. She moved the light in a weaving pattern, examining every surface and cranny of the room.

Nothing appeared out of place or unusual… except…

She went over to the couch when she noticed the rumpled sleeping bag lying there. Interesting. There was also a medium-sized duffle bag between the coffee table and the sofa. She bent down and unzipped it, shining her flashlight into the depths within. Quickly rifling through the contents, she immediately struck something flexible, cold and smooth like vinyl, and square- shaped. She curled her fingers around it and pulled it back out of the bag.

'United States of America,' in faintly shining gold print stared back at her from the top of the navy-blue object. A passport. She flipped open the front page and tilted it sideways. A passport which revealed the owner of this bag to be none other than Jason Trask. Her muscles slackened as she almost dropped it, but managed to keep it clutched in her grip.

She stared at his passport photo. Even there in the luminous glow of her flashlight, he looked positively dangerous. Pale, weary, and dangerous. Anger clipped the skin around his eyes into pinched crags, and his mouth was set in a firm, melancholy line, as though he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders with every passing second. Like there were some sort of moral responsibility that he could no longer fill, or wanted to fill, but was being held back.

Well, at least this solved the puzzle of Trask being nowhere to be found, and yet somehow central to this entire investigation. So Trask, 100 percent for sure, was in Metropolis with George Thompson.

She rooted her hands around in the bag some more. Fatigues. Fatigues. Sweats. A toiletry bag. Fatigues. A gun. Was this man a poster child for the military? She gave up on finding anything else useful, returned the passport to its home, and zipped the bag up tight like she'd found it.

What other treasures were here to be found?

She seemed to have two options. There was a hallway that went presumably to the bedroom and bathroom. Or she could go back in to foyer and take that doorway into… some other room?

People kept most of their secrets in the bedroom, she decided, and tiptoed that way. The door was open already, so she just slipped right on past the threshold, sweeping her light around. The bed was made and overall the room didn't even look like somebody was living in it, save for the suitcases on the floor and a collection of papers at the small writing desk.

She rolled her eyes. Even *she* didn't have a writing desk in her bedroom in her apartment. The hotel suite's living room was probably a little bit bigger than her apartment as a whole. Ridiculous. Shouldn't this man's money be going towards… buying little children ice cream and kissing some babies? Or something? Maybe hiring a campaign director that could actually coach him on having actual values?

But still, at least the writing desk meant Thompson had had a surface to write upon, thereby leaving products such as information lying in wait just for her to discover!

Unfortunately the paper on the writing desk looked like all it had for her to discover was doodles that looked like they had been drawn by a child. Wait a minute. Doodles that were actually a speech gone bad? There was actual writing, much of it scratched out in what seemed to be frustration, almost to the point that the paper was near to ripping at some points where the pen had pressed too hard into it. Little gnarled stick figures were drawn in the margins, sure, but there *was* writing. She brought her flashlight down as close to the piece of paper as possible without blocking her own view and squinted, trying to discern what she was seeing.

It is with great regret… service in the FBI… marred… … … aliens among us… apologies… to justice.. forgive…


She gave up with stealthy and flipped the switch on the small desk lamp that was sitting on the table. But it didn't help, even when she leaned in real close. The words were just too far scratched out. The whole page was drenched and crusted with black ink, and the parts where she could see through the scribbles were few and far between. Enough to absolutely infuriate her that she couldn't see more, but not enough to really draw any solid conclusions.

It sounded like Thompson was going to make some sort of apology speech? But then there was the aliens among us deal that just didn't seem to go along with that. Could that be a reference to Miracle Man?

It is with great regret that my service in the FBI has been marred by withholding aliens among us in a small unlighted prison with no food and no water, just because we can, although I'm not exactly sure how we managed to do that to Miracle Man, since he's reportedly invincible and indestructible, and actually not even proven to be human or not, or existing in the first place, but anyways, I hope you'll accept my apologies and after Miracle Man, excuse me, *alleged* Miracle Man, is all better, take me to justice, arrest me, and then forgive me? Oh, and by the way, somehow Clark Kent is involved in this. I'll let you know when I figure out how.

Somehow, her makeshift fill-in-the-blanks speech just didn't seem like it was going to cut it.

She did a quick circuit around the room, rifling through all of the drawers and cabinets she found, but after encountering nothing of interest, she gave up and went back to the writing desk. Sighing, she flipped the desk lamp back off and was plunged once again into the eerie triangular glow of her flashlight. Shadows and specters danced along the walls as she rotated and headed back out the door.

She took a detour into the bathroom just to make sure there was nothing unusual in there. There was a damp pair of boxers hanging over the shower curtain, which she discovered only by placing her hands on the fabric by accident and then cringing backwards in horror. She didn't want to know why they were there. She really didn't. He had obviously been in need of a dish rag and had come up short, so he'd used… Yeah. That was it, she decided as she exited the bathroom too quickly to appear even the remotest bit like she wasn't running in terror.

What candidates do with their underwear! Find out, in the next issue of the Dirt Digger! At least the boxers or briefs question had been answered for inquiring minds wanting to know.

But she wasn't. An inquiring mind. At least, not about this.

She shuddered as she walked back through the living room and into the foyer. One last room.

She turned the handle slowly, her flashlight out in front of her like a shield. The door gave way and pushed open with a long, whining creak. She rolled her eyes at the clich‚. Young, gorgeous woman, alone as she sneaks through the darkness, unaware that the axe murderer in the nearby closet is about to strike… Very funny, Lane.

She shot her light out in front of her, and was met with the dull translucence of the beam hitting two eyes. Two human eyes. Her hands flew back to her mouth.

Ohmygod. There was somebody in here!

The flashlight, surrendered in defeat by her lax fingers, went skittering to the carpet with a dull thud and went out, shrouding her and the stranger in darkness. But the person she had happened in upon didn't move except for what seemed like a dull tremor in his shadow. She could see his outline as her eyes adjusted reluctantly to the new light levels.

"Lois?" the voice was weak. Breathy. But she recognized it.

"Clark!?" she exclaimed as she rushed over to him. "What are you doing in here? Why are you sitting in the dark?"

He didn't respond.

What was going on? How had he beaten her here? He must have decided to do some investigating on his own. She felt a flash of respect when she realized that he must have been here the whole time she had been in the suite. She hadn't heard any doors open, or anyone picking the front lock. Not a sound. So he must have solidly beaten her to the punch. Well, that was odd. Surely if he'd been picking around in here she would have heard him searching the room?

The draperies were thumping against the sliding glass doors to the back of the room, each swell letting a small burst of wind and the briefest of lights through to where she stood, and Clark sat.

He was awfully still… His breath was sounding rather thready.

"Clark?" she whispered again, this time more worried.

It wasn't until she flipped the lamp on that she noticed something was really, really wrong. There was no color to his skin at all. He looked like somebody had tossed a heap of flour on to his face, and it had just settled there, a dull, pasty white. His breath was short and shallow, and his stare seemed glassy. Even with the light on, he barely moved, almost appearing… disoriented, or dizzy somehow.

She put a hand on his forehead and was shocked at how icy cold it was. And his skin was slick with the sheen of perspiration.

Looking around, she noticed that the desk where Clark sat was a mess of papers. There was a discarded book, crumpled on the floor below his slack hands, and the drawer of the desk was slightly ajar. The lock appeared broken.

The flapping of the drapes was starting to annoy her, and she went over to the sliding glass door to attempt to force it shut. It went with a small protest and a groan, but when she put her foot down, she noticed the foot lock was completely destroyed. The lock had popped off the rails and was lying in a disfigured, mangled heap between the draperies and the track. What on Earth?

She looked back at Clark, who still wasn't moving and barely appeared aware that she was in the room in the first place. She rushed back to his side, gathering up the book that lay strewn at his feet, and shoving it in the desk drawer in the process. She rubbed his back, and he wobbled about with each circular motion. Was he that weak? "Clark?"

She'd seen victims go into shock before in the process of her reporting career. But it'd never been someone she cared about. And it certainly had never been something that she and she alone was in a position to help with. It wasn't like she could call the paramedics.

"Hello," she'd say. "Yes, I was breaking into George Thompson's suite and discovered my partner, who apparently has also broken into George's suite. What a happening place, eh? But anyways, Clark hasn't beaten me here except by luck, he obviously just got a faster cab, but you see he's gone into shock and I'm not sure what to—"

She stopped that rant right there.

So what had happened to him? She bit down her worry.

There were no physical signs of injury anywhere on him. No blood. Nothing. So, maybe this wasn't *real* shock. Didn't you have to be suffering circulation loss for that? Or maybe he was just manifesting the symptoms like people experiencing stigmata, except with shock. Was that possible? Manifesting, manifestation, maaaanifest, hmmm.

"Clark? Can you stand?"

That was when things went from bad to worse. Voices rumbled up against the suite door, and the sound of the lock being opened made her almost panic. But Lane women didn't panic. She grit her teeth and darted towards the study door. She closed that, swiped up her flashlight from the floor, and darted back to the desk where Clark sat. "Get up, Clark, now!" she hissed as she turned the light off and started pulling at his shoulders.

Come on, Clark, she encouraged in her head. Come on, come on. She heard the door to the foyer from the hallway outside the suite open, and she squeezed his shoulders even harder, surprised she wasn't doing damage to him. He finally seemed to respond to her prodding and was up on wobbly feet.

She guided him quickly to the center of the room and looked around, again experiencing the beginnings of panic. There was absolutely no where to go. But Lane women didn't panic. Oh, forget it, yes they *did* panic. What was she going to do? There was no way out of the suite except by way of the foyer, which the voices were now coming from. She gulped, realizing that all that stood between discovery and them was a door which she hadn't even locked. Clark was with her, barely able to stand on his own steam, and she couldn't in her right mind leave him behind. Actually, Clark didn't seem to be comprehending what was going on at all. His breathing, still shallow and fast, echoed along with the thumping of her own heart, and all he seemed to do was stare ahead dully. What was *wrong* with him?

Oh, God. They were going to get caught and…


She looked at the drapes. They were *heavy* drapes, and they came down past the floor. There was an inch of extra fabric that caught on the oriental carpet on the floor. That would do, she hoped.

"Lois," Clark whispered again, followed by a mumble that was mostly nonsensical, like his voice had been mashed and cracked in a compactor. He wasn't making any sense, and he was looking at her in a not looking at her sort of way, almost as though he were blind.

"Clark, you have to be quiet," she hissed as she pulled him back behind the viney tangle of drapes. She prayed that they didn't make a visible lump. Shoving her hand out, she smoothed the drapes as best she could before wrapping her arm around Clark to support him. He stood there, sort of half-huddled and limp, curled over like a dead flower or something. His arms were down at his sides, and she had her own arms wrapped around him at about his elbow height. Lord, but he was a big man, well, at least compared to her own tiny frame. Her arms didn't go all the way around, not when she had to encircle his arms too. And he was *heavy*. She felt almost crushed into the small corner as he hovered over her, leaning partially against the wall and partially on her, his cool skin trembling.

She stifled a flash of worry for his condition when she heard muffled movement. She apparently had hid them none to soon, because now the voices were coming closer, and the door cracked open wide. The thunder of conversation invaded the room, and her whole body stilled and stiffened. In a sudden change of heart she was actually glad Clark was so large, because she feared she would be crushing him with the tightness of her grip at this rate.

The room flooded with light, but aside from a vague glow over the top of the curtain rod, it was dark back where they were. These drapes were *thick*. Lois buried her head in Clark's firm chest, as if it would somehow help. But it didn't. She was still stuck here in a room with two government madmen with nothing but a shoddy set of curtains between her and discovery. Well, they weren't that shoddy. But still.

She hoped against hope that they wouldn't notice that the lock on the desk was broken. Please, please, just don't let them look at the desk, she pleaded with whatever entity had allowed her through life thus far unscathed. Well, except for the miscellaneous scrapes and a sprained ankle or two, but hey, she wasn't dead, and she really, *really* had a strong desire to stay that way.

"That can't possibly be the plan," an unfamiliar voice rumbled through the thick drapes. She could hear him pacing back and forth like some sort of rabid animal. Could this be Jason Trask? She imagined it was, and wished that she could see what was going on. What was this about? Plan? What plan?

"Well, it is. Simple, isn't it?" the distinctive voice of George Thompson replied.

Clark's breathing was soft against the top of her head, still irregular, but quiet and, she prayed, unnoticeable. She rubbed her hand along his back, trying to be soothing and yet not audible at the same time.

"Insane! You expect the public to do your dirty work for you, George. But what if they don't realize how dangerous he is? Indestructible! He could kill them all with a stare."

"When they see something strange, they will cry out for action. And in this case, there is no minority group for aliens. No one to be there to help him. He'll get burned alive in the throng of public opinion. Just think, Jason, you won't have to use such extreme measures to control him in the future. No one will ever accept him back as a miracle maker if they hate him. And we won't be villains in line for a fall any longer for keeping him down."

There was a long pause, and she squeezed her eyes shut, willing them not to discover her and Clark. As he paced right past their position, and she heard the soft pats of Trask's feet on the carpet, her heart thudded in her chest.

"They accepted him before," Trask said.

She exhaled. Were they talking about Miracle Man? It sounded a lot like they were.

Clark jerked in her grasp, and she tightened her grip to keep him still, praying that he wouldn't topple over. Was he coming around? Or was he starting to spasm? Spasms would be bad. The drapes were sure to move if he moved — he was simply too large. Then she realized Clark was against the window. She had a wall, thankfully, but Clark, who was already freezing to the touch, was stuck up against the glass, which was bound to be uncomfortable. Weren't you supposed to keep people who were in shock warm? Glass on a cold fall day was *not* warm!

She mentally kicked herself for not having reversed their positions before they had become permanently committed to them. Great. Her partner was going to freeze to death while she stood in the relative comfort of this… really cramped… dark… corner.

And then as her thoughts drifted back to the window Clark was leaning on, with horror, she realized they were completely visible should George and Trask decide to go outside. Or at least Clark was. She was smashed up against the corner like she herself was wallpaper. Or was that molding. Okay, maybe paint. But at least it was fall, and they weren't likely to want to go outdoors.

Unless one of them smoked. In which case, she and Clark were doomed.

Did George Thompson smoke? That wouldn't be good for the public image would it?

"But that was before they were even able to prove his existence. He did a very good job of lying low, so to speak. Always out in a flash," Thompson reasoned.

Okay, that was definitely Miracle Man they were talking about. What could they be planning? They were talking about him like he still existed! Which would mean he existed in the first place!

"I think you have *no* idea what you're talking about," Trask grumbled, his voice sarcastic.

Exactly! Wait…

"We'll still have the rock if my plan fails."

Okay, these men were making absolutely no sense whatsoever. It was a conversation *designed* to pique her interest and fail to deliver anything remotely close to coherence. She *hated* when people she was eavesdropping on did that. It was horrible etiquette!

So. They were going to use public opinion to kill Miracle Man, and if that didn't work, they were going to kill him with a rock.

What the heck?

"Which you haven't even allowed me to test yet," Trask continued.

"Well, you'll get your chance in a few hours, Trask. I want them brought in in the morning. Ah, here's what I was looking for. Let's go."

Them. There was more than one Miracle Man? She blinked and pondered that. She'd never considered that one before. Could there be a whole race of aliens on the planet? That fit with the plural aliens she had found in Thompson's garbled practice speech.

Thompson and Trask began to leave, and Lois almost collapsed she was so relieved, but first of all, she was pinned, and second of all, the phone rang shrilly just as she heard one of them enter the foyer.

"You go ahead, Jason," Thompson said with suave ease, a tone that just screamed fake friendly. She had learned how to peg that saccharine-laden mirage easily over the course of the years. It helped extremely when she was trying to interview people. "I'll take this."

The door shut once again, and she could only presume that Trask had left, which left them in the room alone with Thompson. She rested her forehead on the soft cotton of Clark's shirt, withholding a growl of frustration. His chest rose and fell so minutely, and he stood there so still and silent that it was like she was hiding with her arms wrapped around a statue.

Please be all right, Clark, she thought.

The shrieking of the phone finally stopped when Thompson picked it up. "Yes?" he asked.

There was a long pause.

"Everything is going according to plan. He doesn't suspect anything. Don't worry."

That perked her up from her worry a bit. She hugged Clark tighter. What was Thompson talking about now?

"Yes, he thinks the press conference will go exactly as my speech outlined."

Another pause. She forced herself not to strain against the drapes to hear better.

"Yes, I made absolutely sure to hide my real drafts."

Hmmm, so the scratched out gibberish she'd found wasn't even what he was really planning on saying?

"Look, Bureau 39 is my baby. Not yours. And *I'll* decide how to deal with her. The press will think I'm the good guy, here, and the problem with Clark Kent will go away. I assure you."

Lois withheld a choked gasp. Fat chance of that now, you snake, she thought as her mind roamed back to Clark. Thompson was going to double cross Trask and… do *something*… to Clark. Kill?

What could these men possibly want to kill Clark for?

Thompson stalked out. She heard the door to the study shut, and then she heard him leave the suite entirely. As the outer door shut with a resounding slam, she let loose a breath she hadn't even realized she'd been holding, but stood quietly with Clark for a few moments to make sure that neither Trask nor Thompson were coming back.

It didn't seem that they were. Five minutes of silence had ticked by.

She muscled the both of them back out of the drape tangle. Clark still had no color, but his eyes weren't nearly so distant. "Clark?" she whispered. "Clark, we have to get out of here," she urged him.

There would be time for questions later, but first they had to get out of danger. She grabbed his hands and pulled him forward, wishing she could do something that would ease his shivering.

"What's going on?" he whispered. He was definitely still not quite all right.

"I'm saving your butt, now come on," she said. And with that, they fled out of the suite and into the stairwell, Lois firmly out ahead, while Clark shuffled along behind with a dazed look on his face.

They had made it down about four flights of steps before she heard Clark collapse behind her. "I have to sto—" his legs gave way and he fell into a sitting position, "—op," he whispered with a bit-back moan.

She raced back up and sat beside him. "Hey, take your time," she replied. Trask and Thompson were long gone by now, most likely, and they were high enough up in the building that nobody in their right mind would be using the steps except two crazy reporters interested in avoiding elevator traffic. With the excitement finally dying down, she realized that she could barely breathe in this horrible mal-fitting uniform.

One look at Clark, however, pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind. She would change later.

"What happened, Clark? Why were you there? What's wrong with you?" The questions tumbled from her lips so fast she doubted he was even comprehending what she was saying. He still had a somewhat dazed look on his face, although he looked *a lot* better than he had just a few minutes ago.

"I found out. He killed my parents because of me. I mean… I knew before that he did it because of me, but—" Clark replied in clipped tones, the self-recrimination dripping from his words like thickened oil.

"What?" she asked.

Her hands kept trying to snake over his shoulder and start rubbing his back, but she held them tightly in her lap. He wouldn't want her comfort now that he was lucid enough to reject it, would he?

"Trask found his wife dead with Thompson. Thompson somehow managed to convince him it was me."

She blinked, taking in once more his pale, shivery form. A hick from the bowels of Kansas, where the sheriff had quit the job over three deaths. Did they even *know* how to kill people in Kansas? Well obviously somebody did, but that wasn't the point! And besides, Clark looked like he would blow away at the slightest breeze, he was that wobbly. "You? Clark… How could Thompson convince a man that a nine-year-old boy had killed his wife?"

The whole story was surreal. Ridiculous even. There had to be more to it. She imagined a younger, littler Clark, and she just couldn't even comprehend how somebody could convince anyone he was a killer. Not if they knew him, as she sort of felt she was starting to.

"It's complicated." He stared at his shoes, his tone flat, and unforgiving. There was a *lot* more going on than he was letting on, that was for sure. A *lot* more.

"Complicated," she echoed, mirthless.

His face went into his hands, and he groaned. "Please, Lois, can we not do this right now?"

She considered him again. Forget the how for now, Lane. Let's work on why. *Why* would Thompson target Clark in such a way? What in the world would convince him to shift the blame onto a local kid—

"Oh, my God."

"What?" His head woozily tipped back up as he moved to look at her.

"Clark!" She sort of half-stood with the exclamation, but her awful uniform brought her back down into a seated, calm position.

"What!" Clark looked at her, his eyes riddled with fear and anticipation. The dazed look was definitely receding now, and there was at last a little hint of color to his cheeks and lips.

"Thompson killed her," Lois explained. "It's the only explanation. And now he's shifted the blame onto you to save his own skin."

So, Thompson was a murderer. Thompson was a *murderer*. Despite the horror of the fact, she almost wanted to giggle. Oh, this was getting better by the second. Thompson was in charge of a secret FBI agency dealing with defense against *aliens*, possibly the cause of Miracle Man's disappearance, *and* a murderer. Not only that, but if he was in collusion with Trask, he was harboring *another* murder, and possibly planning to backstab him at the same time. What a scum! This was going to look very juicy on the front page. Very juicy. At least the elections weren't for another month or two. She still had time to prove everything—

"Yeah," Clark mumbled, breaking her from her mental tirade.

She blinked. "What do you mean, yeah?"

"I mean, yeah, Lois. That makes sense." He shrugged, as if it weren't news. As if it weren't even important to him. Defeat bled from his sagging shoulders. He had never given her an inch on this investigation. Not once. And now he was giving her a mile. He knew more. She was sure of it. He had even *more* information that he wasn't telling her.

"And you don't care?" she asked, incredulous.

"I do care, Lois, but—"

She cut him off, anxious, "But, what?"

Another shrug. "There's nothing I can do about it, Lois."

"Yes, we can Clark. That's our job. We *do things* about umm… these… things."

"No, Lois, not this thing."

Despite his pallor and her uniform, she wanted to launch across the steps and wring his neck.

"Clark, this is huge," she exclaimed. "We have the chance to bring down the man responsible for your parents' deaths and a political golden boy all in one move if we do this right. Can't you see how important this is?"

"Important to what?" he shot back. "Getting another journalism award? You would do all that. Wreck my life. All for an award?"

She stilled, barely stomaching the hint of accusation, the fear, and paranoia biting at his words. *What* was making him like this? Yes, she was a driven woman. Okay, maybe driven was a little bit of an understatement unless the image brought a miniature Andretti out of her head and to the wheel, but— but… Well, jeez, he was a dense one. That was the only explanation!

"No, Clark. Not for an award, although that might be a nice side-effect. You can never have too many of those. But anyways, because it's bringing a very bad pair of men to justice. It's the *right* thing to do. And how is it wrecking your life?"

Just ANSWER! she resisted the urge to scream as he peered at her. She could practically feel him assessing her, peeling off layer after layer of her personality in one, scrutinous examination.

"Because if we take one wrong step. Everything that I care about. Innocent people. You, most likely. Will be destroyed and I will be left behind to watch the burning wreckage."

"That's why we need to expose this, Clark. We need to expose this man so he doesn't have any power over you. Can't you see? I've seen victims in my life before, Clark, but I think you're taking it to a whole new level."

She looked at him, sitting there. The very dull shade of blood finally flowing under his skin did nothing to remove the appearance of utter devastation shunting off him in waves. He was looking much better. *Much* better. But he still looked like he probably couldn't have stood up if he wanted to. Like a big, Clark-like, albeit extremely muscular kitten. He was just too weak and wracked with other emotions to recover properly. Maybe his innate paranoia was hurting his chances at snapping out of this… shock-like state. Or something.

What are you, a psychologist now, Lane?

"Clark, talk to me here," she pleaded, feeling more and more like she was trying to get a delinquent child to fess up to stealing the cookies from the jar.

He shrugged. "What is there to say, Lois?"

She folded her arms over her chest, trying to keep a hold of her frustration. It wasn't working in the slightest. "You're a pigheaded lummox, you know that?!" She waved her arms around for good measure, finally convincing her body a standing position wasn't going to bisect her torso even if it did feel like her waist was in a vice.

Clark was up in a flash, eyes blazing, finally responsive, and finally, definitely, completely, not a kitten. "And you're a domineering obsessive …" His voice cut off into a small groan as he fought to find words. She stared at him with wide eyes. "Crazy person!" he finished.

They stood there panting, staring at each other for several minutes.

God, he was infuriating. He knew something and wouldn't tell her. He was the one going into shock for no apparent reason, at least not one that he felt she needed to be clued in on. He was the one being paranoid and scared. And he thought *she* was crazy? Of all the nerve!

She opened her mouth once or twice to retort, and unusual for her, but usual for her in the presence of Clark Kent, it just wasn't working. She just wasn't able to make a snarky comeback. The possibilities rolled before her eyes and toppled off cliffs, unused, and gone from sight. As she took in his scarlet-colored face, she couldn't help but smile with relief. He was all right, relatively. "Well, hey, at least your color is back. You're all red now. I never knew my temper was therapeutic for bystanders."

There was a long pause, and his own look of fury relaxed, slow but steady. "You're good for me, Lois Lane," he replied as he quirked a small grin.

"So," she hazarded, sensing the unaired truce. "Bessolo now?"

Surprisingly, the grin remained plastered across his face. Not that that was unusual — the man probably burned more calories from grinning at her than any other exercise. Screw the gym, he probably got all his conditioning just from looking at her. That would be a neat trick for fitness. Smile more and you lose weight! Or wait, didn't it take more muscles to frown?

"You're going to go regardless of what I say, aren't you?" he asked.

She nodded and gathered her purse from where it sat on the steps. "Pretty much."

"And there's nothing I can say to get you off of this story?"

He was learning!

"Also true."

"I guess we're going then," he shrugged. The grin was still there, but it did little to hide the defeat in his tone.

She regarded him once more. He was hiding something. She knew it. But his willingness to go along with her anyways, despite his obvious fear, was amusing. Almost sort of touching in a way, even if it was mostly for chauvinistic purposes.

Protect the little woman.

But then, she had just saved *him* hadn't she.

"I just saved your life, you know."

Points for subtlety, Lane.

"I guess I owe you one, then," he whispered.

"I don't need protecting."

Again, with the subtle! And again, with the lies, another voice interjected. She smooshed that thought like a bug under her painful little shoe.

"Is this really about who is saving whom?"

He moved closer, until he was a solid tower over her. Ominous, but she wasn't afraid. The soft sounds of their breathing tangoed as she gazed at him. His expression was riddled with a deep caring, and something more. Desire. Heat.

All for her.

Maybe she hadn't scared him off as much as she'd thought.

She swallowed harshly and took the plunge. "You think after all this is over, we can try that date again?" His breath caught, and in the horrible, awkward, embarrassing silence that followed, she hastily stammered, "I promise, no interrogations."

He stared at her for the longest of moments. Silent. But the look in his eyes was thankful. "If you still want to, after all this is over, I think I'd like that very much, Lois," he said.

Her pleasure at his response was stunted immediately, once again, by indelible curiosity. If she still wanted to after all this was over. What kind of stipend was that?

Plain sight, Miss Lane. General Newcomb's words bounced around again.

Plain sight, she thought, as Clark started moving down the steps.

She felt like the final clue was dangling in front of her like a piece of cheese for a mouse, just out of reach, taunting.

Just what was she missing?

"Lois, I do have one question, though," Clark called over his shoulder as they shuffled down the steps.


"What exactly are you wearing?"

She felt heat spread across her cheeks in a sharp, stinging blush as she looked down to her pinched uniform. Under the dim fluorescent lights of the stairs, it looked even tighter than it felt. "Don't ask," she growled as she shoved out in front, purse flung over her shoulder like a trophy. She just hoped she could get back out of this wretched thing without resorting to scissors.

Clark chuckled all the way down to the street.


The door beeped obligingly, and the previously red light on the lock turned a sickly lime green. Lois, who was now adorned in loosely fitting sweats, having stopped off at her apartment on the way there to change, looked up at Clark with a grin that positively screamed, "Jackpot!" although the green glow on her face made her appear more nauseated than excited.

"And the General thought this was going to be hard," Lois jabbed snarkily as she pushed the door open and moved triumphantly into the next room.

Clark watched her as she shoved her way ahead, unable to contain his wariness. He had tried to x-ray the building on the way in, but as had been the main reason he had chosen not to search the boulevard in the first place, the paint on the building was riddled with lead. He got blurry images here and there, but it was like looking at an out-of-focus watercolor painting. He couldn't identify solid objects so much as he could identify varying shades in color and a general theme of what he was looking at. The entire premises was a palette of gunship grays, dull shell whites, taupes, and the bland earthen tones, similar in shade to what one would see when looking at fake plastic wood. An office-complex, a warehouse, a laboratory, or none of the previous, it was a complete toss-up, and try as he may, he could not get any more precise than that.

And thus, they were walking into an unknown situation, completely unprepared, despite Lois's protests to the contrary. Straight into Trask's and Thompson's supposed territory. The thought nearly stopped him in his tracks, but he forced himself to continue. He had promised himself he would protect Lois, and he was going to do just that.

He had known with sinking dread as he stood head-to-head with Lois Lane in the stairwell of the Lexor that there was absolutely no stopping her. His last kernel of hope that she could have some sense knocked in to her had been popped and devoured into oblivion as she continued to press him for details in the stairwell, even as he remained there shaking with shock and disorientation. There was simply no way to halt her forward momentum. None whatsoever, short of him exerting physical force to keep her put, which was not an option. Not even thinkable, as far as he was concerned. He would never use his powers in that way, not ever, having seen demonstrations from his earlier reporting career, as well as from his stint at Miracle Man, the disastrous consequences that could be brought to bear by forcing a human to do something they didn't want to do, even if the intentions were good.

No, there was no holding her back. She was a tidal force to be reckoned with, and he was lucky enough to have the rudimentary surfing skills necessary just to keep up with her without getting toppled over and drowned. Although, even that skill was debatable at times, what with the bloodthirsty sharks swimming around his position, even at that very moment, when the water seemed relatively calm. Optimistic even. He had steeled himself to the idea that he would tag along to his own ruin.

His own ruin, which seemed indicated by the green light and Lois's grin of excitement to be approaching all too quickly. And even despite that, there was a lingering curiosity. He had already found out more about his earlier life today than he had ever cared to know previously. The questions he had never asked. Been *afraid* to ask… Well, they'd finally been shoved in his face with the answers intact. Could there be more?

More than finding out, finally, why Trask had been so enamored with reaping vengeance? He shivered as his thoughts returned to Trask's diary. He had never felt so strange in his life, reading that diary, to be placed willingly, although unprepared, into Trask's head. He had viewed himself with a hatred he had never thought possible before. He had spent his life thinking he was a random victim of paranoia and psychosis, embodied in Trask, and although he still shuddered at the thought of Trask, Clark now had an understanding that hadn't been there before. They had *both* been puppets in a larger game, neither aware that the true villain was indeed George Thompson, if he had murdered Sarah as Lois suspected. It seemed likely. Even Trask, blinded by inconceivable grief, had been inclined to think it in the stages of his grief, and supposedly he had been a good friend with Thompson at the time.

He *wished* he could remember what had happened at the Lexor leading up to the part where he realized he was being lead down a very large stairwell by none other than Lois Lane. He remembered sitting down. Reading. There had been a cold sensation slipping through his body, as though someone had slid rods of ice under the top layer his skin. A strange sense of lethargy. And after that, it was all a muddled blur, as though it had happened somewhere beyond reality. The more he tried to remember, the more it slipped away, out of his grasp like the wispy remnants of a dream that didn't want to be recalled.

On the way to Lois's, he had been unable to remain calm anymore, and had lapsed into a bout of paranoia. Had Lois picked up the diary? He couldn't remember what had happened to it after he'd read it. But Lois hadn't looked at him funny, at least not more strangely than she had after they had left Burton Newcomb's residence. But, given that she hadn't been jumping down his throat with new questions, there was little reason to suspect she'd actually picked up the damning piece of literature. Had she?

No, she couldn't have. She had given him a summary of what she'd heard, and what she thought, and there had been nothing about a diary. Only something about a blacked out fake speech, wet boxers, which he was still quite confused about, and some talk of a plot to backstab Trask and kill Clark in the process. For the most part he was as baffled as she seemed to be.

He was struck from his thoughts as he nearly collided with Lois's stock-still figure. The door he had come through closed automatically behind him with a shuddering groan, followed by a clunk that echoed interminably across the whitewashed walls. The room he now found himself in was empty, save for him and Lois, and about the size of a hall closet or possibly an entry foyer. The door in front of them had a large security lock off to the side, with a number pad that looked like it had been ripped off of a phone. Next to the pad was a spinning dial, sort of like a combination lock, or a really shoddy safe.

"They must have added this since General Newcomb's day," Clark commented glumly, although secretly he could not contain his relief. There was no ambiguity in being blocked like this. No uncertainty, wondering what he had to do next. A higher power had struck down a barrier, and he was happy to oblige it. Yes. That was right. Not curious at all. All they had to do was walk away now. Yes. Walk. Away.

The temptation within burst all sense of restraint. He tried to x-ray ahead, but even with one layer of the building removed, he was once again thwarted. Nothing but a hole-filled mushy blur of nondescript objects and colors, although somewhere inside… he was absolutely positive now that there was an industrial-grade stapler.

Lois glared at him. "This is no time to get smug."

That was when the numerical readout above the number pad began to count down from forty-five, beeping and being incredibly obvious about their imminent doom, just like in the movies. What did that mean? A bomb would go off? An alarm would blare?

He glanced around frantically.

She wouldn't know, he convinced himself, as he approached the door and leaned his ear to the cool steel of the door. She wouldn't know, and he could do this. He could do this. Yes, yes he could. He inhaled deeply, although it didn't help much, because all it did was make him more aware of her and the unique, pleasant scent that identified her as Lois Lane. He placed his thumb and forefinger on the rough edges of the dial and began to spin it.

He heard Lois snort and her eyes widened in mock surprise. "Don't tell me. Your secret is that you're a safecracker."

Of a sort, he winced.

Thirty-five seconds left. If worse came to worse, he could bust through the wall and fly her out, couldn't he? Absolutely not. No way. Where was this aberrant thinking coming from? One flight to get a speed gain on her wasn't license to don the suit again or use his powers frivolously.

No. He would do this as normally as he possibly could.

Whatever *that* meant.

He held up his hand to silence her and consciously opened up his hearing as far as it would go. He could do this. Yes. Her heartbeat started thrumming wildly like a runaway timpani in his ears. She was nervous, although she only showed an outward veneer of sarcasm. The distant sounds of traffic outside were magnified so badly that they almost made him want to clamp his hands over his ears. Threatening to overwhelm him, the horns and screeches were almost too piercing to bear. A couple several blocks away was screaming at each other over who would tip the waiter. There was a football game blaring loudly on somebody's radio. But he heard one sound in particular. The one he was searching for in the bedlam. Click. Click. Click click click. Echoing around in his skull like tiny hammers being struck to the bone. He strained even harder and then brought to bear a focus so intent, the rest of the world seemed to melt away, and there was only the sound of the locks, moving their way towards equilibrium within their small prison. He spun the dial more, listening to the tumblers behind the thick sheets of metal click and lock into place.

All of the tumblers now rumbled into place, his focus inverted back to the world around him, and he withdrew his extended senses to find Lois gaping at him. The door swung open with horrendous moan not befitting of its appearance of technological advancement, and the timer next to the door stopped at a glaring ten seconds. Plenty of time to spare.

He let out a breath of relief.

Lois appeared utterly befuddled as he gestured her through like the gentleman that he was. How was he going to explain *this* without her thinking him some sort of escaped felon? Stretching for the first idea that came to him, he finally blurted, "The General said August 2, 1947. Eight right, two left, forty-seven right."

That was quite possibly the lamest excuse he had ever managed to come up with. The combination had actually been much less predictable. 24-7-61. But maybe she hadn't been watching closely.

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, and he felt as though he were pinned under a microscope. He could imagine her thought processes whirring in her head, and there was a sense of heat spreading across his skin as he crumpled inward under her scrutiny. "You are so weird," she replied. "But it works for you."

She was covering for the stare she was giving him, of that he was sure. He had done what he'd set out to do without any overt use of his powers, but he feared she was even more ready to take guesses about his true nature than before. He had already dropped far too many clues, and this was just the icing on the cake.

Sooner or later, she was going to guess. And he was loath to consider her reaction when she finally did figure it out.

Lois finally shook her head and moved through the now open door, but for the second time in that small span of minutes, she halted and gasped. The room they found themselves in was immense. It was a huge, rectangular area, hundreds of feet long both wide and deep, but the lighting was dimmer and shadowy, perhaps more befitting of a place of worship than a warehouse. It seemed that all the windows were pasted over with black contact paper, hidden behind boards covered in more of that chipped, lead-based paint that was giving him so much trouble. With his enhanced vision, he was able to identify row after row of cabinets and sheet- covered objects that were amorphous and varying in size. The dim glow of the dying fluorescent bulbs gave the bulky, gray tarps a haunting cast. He imagined that Lois could only see a vast, darkened blur.

Lois crept forward a step, the sound of her footfall on the concrete floor making a horrendous echo that nearly screamed, "Intruder alert! See here for details!"

But not a soul was roused by the sound, save for Lois, whose heart was cranking into overdrive. Clark, despite his extended senses, identified no other signs of life but their own. They were quite alone in this desolate house of luminous apparitions. At least, for now.

"I don't know about this, Lois. Where is everyone?" he whispered. It was one of those situations where he had no idea why he was whispering, but it somehow felt appropriate, as though he would disturb something that should not have been disturbed, or perhaps alert some all-seeing guard to their presence if he were to speak loudly. He wheeled about her still figure to her side and gazed around some more, partially in awe, and partially in terrorized apprehension.

Just what were they to discover in this place? Something stopped him from taking a preview with his x-ray vision then. Some last vestige of himself that just didn't want to know. Wanted to stay away while it still could claim naive innocence.

Lois patted him on the shoulder. "Clark," she admonished him, "The thing about luck is: don't question it."

Luck, he thought grimly. He very much doubted that the current abandonment of this building had to do with luck. Everything within him moaned woefully that this was a trap. It had simply been too easy to break into, even despite his slightly talented assistance, and no one would leave a stockpile such as this without at least someone to guard it. Unless this was truly junk, which he doubted. And yet, despite the little voice that was telling him to grab Lois by the arm and steer them right back out the door and to safety, he just couldn't seem to do anything but stare. Curiosity burned. And besides, the door had shut quite firmly behind them.

Lois seemed to give up on stealthy after deciding with a sense of finality that she was alone, save for Clark, and stalked forward to the nearest cabinet, only ten or fifteen feet away from their starting position. She yanked open the cabinet. The drawer slapped backwards into her torso, and she had her hands immediately pawing through the folders. Seemingly at random, she grabbed one out of the collection and rifled through its contents. A small photo fell onto the breadth of folders, and she picked it up to examine.

She snorted. "Oh, give me a break. I've seen this movie," she said with a blithe chuckle. The photo was of a ridiculously tacky, shining, metal, triangular… thing. A spaceship? The lens flare in the photo was such that neither of them could get a real good look at it, but seeing the photo finally gave him the courage to take a peek around.

He x-rayed quickly and gasped. The whole room was filled with file after file of alien encounter reports. The amorphous masses housed in gray tarps were all contraptions of a seeming otherworldly nature. Some he could clarify no purpose for. But others had the distinct look of craft, meant to house some sort of … being… for travel through the unknown. Space, air, whatever the medium, the reason for those particular contraptions' existences was clear. Had Bureau 39 catalogued all its alien-related materials?

What if they had things from his own past here?

The thought sent him reeling as he scaled the room, absently commenting to Lois as he scanned around. "Lois, some of these look like the genuine article."

Lois had moved on to another cabinet and was yanking out more photos. Some of them appeared fakish like the first one she had un-earthed. But some… appeared to be quite realistic looking. "They're too good," Lois said, the rational side of her seemingly wanting to take over for piloting purposes. "This has to be a set up…"

But the doubtful tone laden in her voice left Clark to believe that she was starting to believe, the more and more files she flipped through. Her lower lip was stuck out, and the tiniest of frowns encased her lips, almost imperceptible, as she rooted through the rest of the folders. She was perusing through all the Ns and Ms, all of which were catalogued precisely by locations and dates.

Giving up on the folders after she hit the back of that particular cabinet, she walked off to the side, away from the line of cabinets toward the first blobbish tarp. "I suppose I'm going to pull one of these off and find a UFO?" she joked, but her voice contained a tremor, and her eyes were widened in apprehension. Oh yes, she was *definitely* starting to believe. She lifted it up and Clark saw what appeared to be a malformed toaster with barbed wire curling around it. And TV antennae.

She gazed at Clark, her eyes big and round. "This can't be a joke. No one is this crazy. Are they? I mean, maybe we've found a junkyard for the world's retired toaster equipment, but… it seems like a whole lot of effort just to distract little old me. Especially when I'm a skeptic to begin with." She knocked on her temple. "Oh, God, where has my skepticism gone! It's not working!"

Clark shrugged, unable to find words. This was no hoax. No joke. This was real. Bureau 39 was real. Trask was evidence enough of that. All of this was the genuine article.

Which, on one hand, meant he wasn't as alone as he had originally thought. How many other… creatures… had Bureau 39 caught and catalogued? How many had been hounded their whole lives like he had? Or, unlike him, had they not been invulnerable, and been taken to slaughter upon discovery, as he was sure now that Trask would have done if he could have, right from the start—

He felt a stinging sensation spear his temples, and he winced. The sensation was unfamiliar. Strange, like a sense of deja vu that couldn't be quelled, and drove one crazy trying to figure out what exactly it was that had been experienced before. But as he grew accustomed to it, the stinging dulled to a fading buzz. It was a beacon, pulling him. Tugging at him. Somewhere. A solid, but invisible, vice grip snaked around his torso, chilling his skin into puckered goose bumps of anticipation. And he moved. Towards it. It. Whatever *it* was.

"Clark, do you really think…" Lois was mumbling behind him, somewhere, but even the wary sound of her tremulous voice, the familiar thrumming of her heartbeat, didn't stay his feet.

They were moving across the room of their own accord, and he was a slave to follow them to their destination. A strange-shaped tarp at the far end of the warehouse. He stared forward, grave, fearful, nervous, a jumble of anxiety. Lois had remained behind, choosing to go back to the file cabinets. She had her little disposable camera whipped out, and she was taking shot after shot. He heard the sounds of the shutter closing and opening, clicking in the far distance like rips of thunder. But she was barely a distraction to Clark at this point. A dull, whining sense that he was not alone in the back of his mind. Lois Lane was there.

But Clark Kent was not.

The tarp beckoned him.

Here, it seemed to hiss and throb in his head. I'm under here. Not words, but the intent was clear. It were as if a new consciousness had taken up residence next to his own, however, the feeling was not a warring one, but of strange familiarity. Not malevolent. More patriarchal than anything. And he felt comforted.

With no more hesitation, he peeled back the tarp like the skin off a banana and stared. In the dim light, the small craft glowed bluish-silver. It was pear-shaped, sort of, although much more angular and streamlined than an actual pear would have been. Mysterious markings, kind of like hieroglyphics, were indented along the frame that ran around the central 'bubble' and curled up like a wave into an apex at the front of the craft. Under heaps of dust, his pentagonal symbol was etched into the crest. It was a marking that looked like an S, although he doubted that was what it really was. He ran his hands across the indentations, and felt the ship hum and spark beneath him, although it appeared quite inanimate otherwise. The dust surrendered like unwanted snow to a shovel on a walk as his hand swept across the surface, coming to rest at the top of the 'S' for only a few seconds before tracing the squiggle to its completion.

The ship was small. Too small for a normal-sized human to fit within. His parents had told him at an early age that he was 'special' and that he needed to keep that specialness a secret from the world. That if anyone were to ever find out, he or she would dissect Clark like a frog. That prophecy now seemed to have been quite true. They had told him of the small craft he fell to Earth in, although they hadn't been sure at the time if it was because he was some sort of diabolical experiment of another country, or perhaps the United States, or genuinely an extra-terrestrial. They had told him that they had recovered it and buried it far away where no one could ever hope to find it again, but that if he ever wanted to see it, it would be there. A place he could find his heritage.

Apparently, the location they had buried the ship in had not been as secret as they had thought. They had never gotten a chance to tell Clark exactly where it was hidden, and Clark had never wanted to search for it after they had died.

But here it was, smooth and warm as though it were unnaturally heated, coursing underneath the skin of his fingertips like a living entity. This was the only place of origin he knew to be true, whether it was from Earth, or somewhere else.

And he had found it, however inadvertently.

He felt a life-long clamp of anxiety lift from around his chest, and he gasped in exhilaration as he looked around. Smallville, Exhibit A, the label next to the ship said. Bureau 39, intending to catalogue his life in greater detail, it seemed, had given him the greatest gift he could have ever imagined. A look into his heritage. His origins. His self. A self he had long wondered about, but been afraid to pursue.

There was a dusty burlap sack cast uncaringly to the side of the ship, and again the voice he had heard from before invaded his head.

Set me free, it seemed to whisper, and the deja vu feeling renewed in vigor. Set me free, it whispered. Set me free.

He reached into the bag, and was suddenly greeted with a glow so fierce, he felt as though a nuclear reactor had exploded in his face, and yet so soft, he felt caressed, warm, and whole, as though he were encapsulated in a fleece blanket. The voice calmed immediately as he pulled the small globe free of the bag, and he stared into it. It was a small object, the size of a grapefruit at best. The orange light was strobing and humming like the dull buzz of an electrical current. He ran his free hand over the globe, and it seemed to pulse in time with his touch, responding to him. Like skin.

It was a piece of him.


His own.

He stared into the globe, bewitched by the ghostly pulsating glow. He saw before him a brilliant ice-covered planet, glowing fantastically in the light of a sun, too close. Harmful. The sun was harmful. The blue swirls of planet began to couple with the blazing red of the gigantic star and lost. The explosion was brilliant. Crystal flew apart everywhere, sparkling, creating a horrific show of lights more fantastical than any Christmas tree he had ever seen. But just as quickly as the particles of the planet exploded into light, they melted and surrendered to the unforgiving heat of the star. Too close. Too close.

A small ship — his ship — flew out from the explosion like a particle of the planet, but where the other pieces melted, the ship grew more purposeful in its motions. It zipped below into the canopy of stars in a wide arc before righting itself and pealing out in a straight, slingshot zoom. Right towards the disembodied viewpoint where he was gazing from. The ship flashed past him, so close he imagined he could feel the bass rumble of its small engines, even in the silence of space, and then he was staring at an empty star field. Hot flares of the murderous star arced out like graceful, deadly rainbows, but the planet was gone. Destroyed.

And suddenly, he knew.


He blinked as the vision faded, and the globe became dull and lifeless in his hands. Krypton. He sucked in a breath. He knew now where he was from, and what had transpired to bring him to this planet, this planet that seemingly did not want him. His world had exploded into a cataclysm of ice and light, and then it was gone, leaving only him behind.

He was the last one.

The last one of whatever race had surrendered to their fates on that planet. A Kryptonian, he supposed.

The last.

Was this supposed to give him direction now?

He wasn't sure.

He didn't feel different, and yet, he did.

He stuffed the globe into his pocket, where it came to rest, snug, and happy in its new cocoon. The buzzing feeling was utterly gone, and he felt bereft. The ship was no longer warm to the touch, nor pulsing. It seemed as if everything had come alive with the sole purpose of drawing his attention, and then had withdrawn back into a peaceful hibernation, dull and senseless, oblivious to whatever might befall it after it had instilled its knowledge within him.

For several long moments, he felt raw and beaten. Exhausted and exhilarated all at the same time.

But as the exhilaration began to evaporate off its lofty peaks, it was then that he realized he was being watched. The hairs on the nape of his neck stood on end, and there was a tickling sensation of dread that began in his chest and radiated outward. His gaze jolted upwards, only to find her staring at him. He inhaled sharply, his pained gaze flitting indecisively towards the exposed shell of his dulled craft, and back to her. Her mouth toppled open, as though she had lost control of her jaw- muscles and was left to surrender alone and frightened to uncertainty, and her eyes were wide with … something. Comprehension? Astonishment? Revulsion? Possibly all three. But where he had expected a gasp, there was only the dull throbbing of silence.

He glanced to the folder she had clenched in her white-knuckled hands. S. She had found the S's, he thought dully. Smallville, KS, 1966. The folder, which she had held high next to her head like the spoils of war, drifted slowly to her side as her arm slackened, and she continued to stare. The contents, unchecked, fell from the folder and cascaded to the floor like an unruly deck of cards. Notes and observations of his life dribbled out around her feet. Photos. Everything. But he couldn't look away from Lois. And Lois was acting like she was a bird stuck in the glare of a cobra. It was as if neither of them were capable of blinking.

Oh God, he thought. She knows. She *really* knows.

And that was when a white hot lance of agony, agony like he had never felt before, split him through the temples, bones, muscles, and nervous clusters he had never known existed, and sent him careening to the ground in a paroxysm of spasms. He didn't even feel himself hit the floor, only realizing, belated, that he was horizontal. A thunder fall of footsteps descended on him like a flock of gnats, but the pounding of his heart and blood in his ears seemed to overcome the intrusion, sending him into a dull state of curious, but pained, lethargy. He couldn't think. Couldn't move. Everything was hurting. Things were a slow mash of blurred sensations. There was mumbling, faint and distant, as though he were trying to hear through gobs of cotton, but by then, the throbbing waves of torment had eased into a dull buzz, and darkness wrapped around him like a cloak.


She approached the 'S' section feeling nothing more than the particular forced indifference that had been twisted around her since they had arrived. None of it was real. She wasn't walking through a spaceship graveyard. She was perusing a derelict Circuit City. A Best Buy for the cosmic community, possibly key providers for every space movie since The Day the Earth Stood Still. And the file cabinets had been fictional works worthy of that esteemed science fiction award. What was it? The Hugo? She didn't really keep up with fictional awards, all she cared about was Kerths. Okay, well, and Merriweathers. And… And Pulitzers, she thought with a curtailed sigh, snapping herself back to attention. This was no time to dream. This was a story, and however ridiculous the subject matter seemed, she had no doubts that Thompson and Trask were very serious about it.

She brushed past another tarped ship that looked sort of like a cross between a lawnmower and a mailbox. With a derisive snort, she let the tarp fall back down, having only lifted it up on sheer impulse. This couldn't be real. Not a lick of it. It couldn't be. It *looked* real. Too stupid to be fake. Who would fly through space in a machine bent for lawn care? Too ludicrous. Clark had believed — she had been able to tell from his voice as he walked mysteriously off toward the other end of the warehouse. But she hadn't really cared. There were far too many amusing things to look at here.

Yes, that was right. They were amusing. *AMUSING* Not real. Not real, she repeated to herself. Why did she keep having to repeat herself?

Because it's a lost cause, Lane. You believe it.

Speaking of Clark… she looked up and in the direction where he had disappeared into, but was rewarded with just a dull, dark blur. It was too hard to see that far in this dim lighting. She shrugged and turned back to the cabinet that now stood before her, staring back, innocently, yanking it open with one swift.

Sacramento, CA, 1972. San Antonio, TX, 1987. San Diego, CA, 1985. San Jose, CA, 1978. Californians were sure getting their fair share. Or maybe their civil engineers were entirely too obsessed with 'S' names. Saratoga, NY, 1991 was the first folder in the cabinet that caught her eye, mainly because it was the only thing remotely far away from the Pacific Ocean.

She scoffed.

Saratoga. Saratoga. Why was Saratoga sticking out? She knew it was something— *Horse racing!* Belmont, right? The Belmont stakes had had a UFO sighting? Oh, good grief. Maybe the aliens had come to watch Secretariat win, or something. Had Secretariat won the Belmont? Well, she knew the name, so Secretariat must have won *something*. Unless Secretariat was some codename for a missile system and she'd gotten her memories crossed, which was entirely feasible, since she cared much more about missiles being fired by maniacal overlords than she did horses. Secretariat Missiles. It sounded feasible. Anyways.

She flipped further through the folders rather quickly until she happened across a name that made her come to a screeching halt. Smallville, KS, 1966. Smallville. Where Clark was from. Where Trask had lived. Where this whole sordid tale, the whole reason she was here, seemed to be centered around. Smallville.

As much as she wanted to deny that she was standing in a genuine UFO graveyard, she couldn't deny the importance of Smallville, however ironic that sounded. There was no coincidence that could possibly be more damning. And certainly, it wasn't even a coincidence.

Kansas, 1966. The year, thereabouts, that Clark had been born.

With a slightly paranoid glance down along Clark's last known heading, she saw only darkness. She peered back at the folder, and with bated breath, opened it. The file was pages and pages long, in neat 10-point courier type. There were photos. Pink and neon yellow highlighter marks that still stank of ink. An active case.

A side-by-side mug shot of a young boy, dark hair, no glasses, kind of wiry, along side the unmistakable image of a grown Clark Kent, dark hair, glasses, and very muscular, was paper clipped to the inside of the folder sleeve. With a rising sense of panic, she began to read the file, her eyes darting frantically from left to right. Subject landed in Schuster's Field, Kansas, May 17, 1966. Immediately taken under the wings of a local married couple, Jonathan and Martha Kent.

Clark Kent was adopted — she knew that much. The wayward thought danced around in her head long enough for it to register in full clarity before she could stifle it.

Her heart slammed in her chest, uncontrollable, and she was so shocked she nearly lost her grip on the folder. Clark Kent. Subject. Synonymous? It couldn't be! He was so… so… so NOT alien, it almost felt like lunacy just to consider the idea. He had two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth, a chin… A gorgeous, well-toned set of shoulder muscles at the very least. He was no Martian from outer space. Martians didn't wear tuxedos and go to balls. They didn't work as reporters. Didn't tell her she was beautiful and mean it. No. He couldn't be. Martians did NOT LIVE in Kansas.

She panted. Get a GRIP, girl!!! It wasn't working. She kept reading, even as her heart began to feel like it was seizing up in her chest, and ants were chittering around in her veins, tickling, dreadful. The subject's wards have been terminated, it said. Wards. Jonathan and Martha Kent. It couldn't be! But… It made so much sense, it couldn't be fake, either. It…

She blinked, shaking her head.


She blinked even more furiously.


Trask had killed Clark's parents, according to Clark. Trask was supposedly a member of this Bureau 39 entity — an entity which, although shaded and indefinite as far as a paper trail went, seemed to revolve around defense against a heretofore unknown alien threat. She was standing in a warehouse, filled with a bunch of hardware that could be new age models for microwaves, but were in all logical reality, probably spaceships. There was file after file of photographical evidence. UFO sightings. Probably the biggest pile of xenophobic malarkey she had ever come across. And there was a file on Clark. Clark was an alien. He was NOT an alien. He was an alien… And Trask had killed his Earthling parents.

Oh, God.

Clark *was* an alien. NOT! Yes! NO… YES. And these evil bastards had killed his parents because of it. Yes. NO. That couldn't be it. She was going insane. She was suffering sleep deprivation. She'd gone into chocolate withdrawal because Lucy had eaten all of her Rocky Road. A taxi driver had given her some previously undiscovered, airborne, crazy disease. She was really still stuck behind the curtains in Thompson's penthouse with Clark, the stuffy air and close quarters finally having addled her brain enough that she was suffering hallucinations. She'd suffered hallucinations earlier in the week. This wasn't new. Yes, she was hallucinating. That was it. She was definitely insane. Insane for even thinking it — for contemplating that the US government had killed an alien's parents out of what… fear? Retribution?

Retribution, she decided.

Why was she deciding!? She was insane. And pacing. Really fast, she was pacing. But still quite Looney Toons. And suddenly in need of large doses of alcohol. Anything to dull the onset of wackiness that was her sleep-deprived, chocolate withdrawal, heat exhaustion, taxi-driver disease. Loislanitis. That was it. Symptoms: hallucinations, fluttery heartbeat, headaches, shaky limbs, and sudden suspicion that your partner is a Martian.

And still, there was sense to be had.

George Thompson had turned Trask's latent xenophobia from his short-lived work with Project Blue Book against him. For whatever reason he had killed Sarah, it was obvious that in the aftermath he had chosen to blame Clark. But why was this obvious? She couldn't possibly be following this logic. THERE WAS NO LOGIC HERE. No, there had to be a reasonable explanation. And that reasonable explanation was… The only reasonable explanation was that Thompson had somehow convinced Trask that a nine-year-old, seemingly innocent boy, had been capable of murder. And what better excuse than that he was a malicious alien?

Like ET, but with a chainsaw and a bulldog named Butch. She imagined the loveable little alien with a Schwarzenegger accent, growling throatily, "I'll be back."

But Clark wasn't malicious! a voice screamed inside her head. And he didn't look like ET.

But, then, how to convince Trask that Clark was an alien? Word alone wouldn't do it — Clark appeared human for all intents and purposes. No, no, no, NO. He was totally human — he didn't just *appear* human. Yes, he was Clark, the innocent-minded, kind-hearted lummox she'd grown to enjoy having around, despite his more frustrating characteristics. Like… like that secret he was keeping. Which wasn't that he was an alien. It couldn't be, it just couldn't. Clark. Alien. He must have some special qualities that made him a potential danger, regardless if that was the intent of those qualities or not.

And that was when she felt like the wind was completely knocked out of her, and she skidded to an abrupt halt, folder clutched in one hand, her other hand hanging off of the cabinet as if it were her only means of standing upright.

Special qualities.

"Plain sight, Miss Lane," General Newcomb had said.

Clark Kent.

Miracle Man.

One and the same?

He had excellent hearing. More so than any person she had ever met. "It *is* rather noisy here," he'd said. She'd thought he meant traffic. But did he mean other things? He didn't respond to rescues anymore. Did he have to ignore calls for help? Why would he ignore calls for help? The fires in Metropolis just before he had disappeared must have had something to do with it. They must have. It was the only explanation to why someone as caring as Clark would ignore people asking for aid. And why was she still on this track? Clark couldn't be Miracle Man. Miracle Man had—

Speed — he'd gotten to the penthouse before her. And…

Flight. The sliding door in the study had been ajar when she'd arrived at Thompson's penthouse, the curtains flapping noisily in the breeze, the foot lock busted beyond repair. Clark had been sitting there, silent, in the dark. He had *flown* into the penthouse. She gasped. The sight of Clark's height plummeting during Luthor's ball hadn't been a hallucination. He had been FLOATING, and he'd FALLEN.


She made him float when he looked at her? Her heart rammed into an even higher gear. She made Miracle Man float. A blush crept over her face before she shook it away.

This was ridiculous. Ridiculous to even think about. NOBODY COULD FLY.

Except Miracle Man.

And Clark had looked awful happy out on that balcony in Luthor's penthouse. Like it was something he missed. And if Miracle Man hadn't been around for a year, it meant he wasn't likely using his powers right?

But this was ridiculous. She couldn't be thinking it.

She was so wrapped up with her circular bout of logic, she didn't notice the room had gotten substantially brighter until she was in her fourth round of Clark's not an alien, yes he is! The folder in front of her began to glow as though it were under direct sunlight, and she turned towards the source.

Something had lit up across the room…

Reality slammed the brakes.

She blinked her way back to the present, furiously trying to stop drifting off into tangents like that. She'd already been through that. Already figured it out. Already seen Clark's expression when she had walked up to him with that folder… She didn't need to review it fifteen million times!

Now, she was crunched up in a dark corner of the small, cubicle- sized room. Her arms were around her knees, and she was pasted so tightly into the corner she was having trouble breathing fully. She stared out over her knees into the haze.

All she could hear was the soft thrum of the overhead fluorescents. The soft sounds of his labored breathing. The slamming of her own heart in her chest. Blood rushing in her ears like water running through pipes, as she sat, lightheaded, confused.

A figure lay across from her in the corner of the dim room. He was on his side, his back to her, not really in a fetal position, but rather sort of in an arc like a banana. He wasn't moving much. He certainly wasn't awake, but neither was he sleeping, nor dead. She could tell by the way his body was racked with shudders from time to time that he was still in the throes of some painful oblivion. The state that had come over him as Trask had snuck up behind them in the warehouse.

Before, when Lois had found the folder, she had felt beset by confusion. Triumphant, that the puzzle had finally been solved, when she had come upon Clark, but confused. The light had lead her to him, and he had stood there, a glowing ball of illumination clutched in his hands, a strange, oval-shaped, metallic spaceship with an unmistakable symbol on it directly to his side. Miracle Man.

She had found him, looking lost, and yet fulfilled, all in one gaze. And then the glow had gone out, he had thrust the ball into his pocket, and had stood, still like stone for several moments. At first, it had been a peaceful stance, and then strained. He had turned towards her. The look of apprehension that had held his features in a vice had bled into one of horror, when he had identified her standing there. His anguish had given her such a shock that the last vestiges of sanity in her gaze had fallen into an 'o' of surprise that cradled around her lips. The folder had cascaded to the ground out of her slackening grip, and she had stood there, silent, unable to speak. Then he had made a weird-sounding moan, his eyes had rolled back into his head, and he had been on the floor in a writhing tangle with the notes she had stolen from the 'S' cabinet only moments ago.

She tried to stop the review and screwed her eyes shut, tried to remain calm, but the memories still flooded her. "It's good you guys decided to stop by. It sure made my job a lot easier," Trask had said as Clark had rolled into another a fit of spasms.

"Clark?" she whispered, blinking the horrible images away once again.

The banana figure in the other corner of the room didn't move. Didn't stir. Gave no indication that he would hear her pleas for him to wake up. She wanted to crawl over and see how he was, and at the same time, she wanted to curl up and die in the corner by herself.

Clark Kent was Miracle Man.

He must have been so smug, watching her flail along for clues that he could have given her with a single-sentence utterance. And yet, despite the hurt, she couldn't really argue his logic. He obviously hadn't wanted to be discovered, especially not like this. Why would he tell her, his pursuer? Well, his secondary pursuer. At least she understood now why he was so frightened of Trask.

Trask had hurt him with the deaths of his adopted parents, and presumably with other atrocities she had yet to know about. Trask had something that could hurt him still. Something physical, to follow up after years of mental destruction. She knew from that phone conversation between Thompson and whoever was on the other end of the line that the "Clark Kent problem would go away." Sounded like a death threat if there ever was one, and she had no hopes that these people would be at all nicer to her, not with her reputation in town for being completely unforgiving with the morally corrupt.

And these Bureau 39 guys were the morally corrupt to end all morally corrupt.

Clark was in trouble. And so was she.

"Clark?" she whispered again.

Clark still didn't stir, and she slowly began to panic. How were they going to get out of this mess? What was going on? Why had Trask just locked her away in this room, alone, with Clark? There had to be a way out of here! If only she could actually think of it…

She finally dared to scoot over to his still form. She put a hand on his shoulder only to be shocked back by the heat she felt radiating there. He was drenched and slick with sweat. And, even in this lighting, she could tell he was as pale as a sheet. His eyes were closed, though, and she was thankful for that small boost to his comfort. Maybe he would sleep the worst of it away.

He's not *sleeping*, Lois.

She blinked, feeling the sting of tears. She hadn't meant to drag them into this mess. Surely he knew that she had just been operating with her usual gung-ho glory. Her constant brushes with death had never seemed so real. She didn't feel she lacked courage, not at all. But she *was* frightened this time around. She was *really* in trouble this time. And it wasn't just her that she'd dragged along for the ride.

Clark had told her to back off. Numerous times. Been quite explicit about how bad Trask was. Why would Thompson be different?

She looked at his pale form again, wondering. What could have caused such a reaction like this? He had been panicked before he had collapsed, and from her experience he was indeed prone to panic attacks, but… no panic attack did this. Not that she had ever heard of anyways. No, he was sick, somehow. Some unseen force, one carried or administered by Trask, had felled him. She combed her memories for anything. A spark. A glimmer. Any indication of what had been done, and came up blank. Things were a blur from the moment Trask had come into the picture. She had been too dulled with shock to think straight. Wait. Maybe it had to do with that rock Thompson and Trask had been talking about? Could be…

Despite her fear, she felt a cool determination that Trask and Thompson would pay for this, somehow. She would make them. If she had to move heaven and Earth, perhaps come back to haunt Perry and explain the story after they'd killed her, she would do it.

But she would worry about that later. She would worry about *all* of that later. She had to find a way out of here, and she had to find it fast.

The door that locked them in was a simple one. There wasn't even a deadbolt or a special lock. Just a regular old metal handle stood between her and freedom — the angular, rectangular kind often used in office buildings, with the small keyhole in the joint where the handle met the part that connected to the door. The grip, perhaps an inch wide, forked out, parallel to the floor, for about four inches. Just a stupid handle with the kind of lock she could pick with a credit card, if she had had one. But Trask had kept her purse before dumping her in this godforsaken place. A missing credit card was all that stood between her and freedom. Well, and the fact that there was no way in Hell she was leaving Clark with these paranoid, delusional psychos, she didn't exactly know where in the building she was, and there was probably a large number of guards between her and wherever freedom was. But that wasn't the point.

The handle began to turn, seemingly of its own volition, and quicker than she thought possible, she scooted to the corner the door would open into and flattened herself against the wall, ready to pounce. There was a mumble of voices, somewhere beyond, followed by a caution-filled silence that hung in the air like a drape, as though the people outside were listening intently. There was a click, and the door began to open, but only traveled back along its arc an inch, maybe two, before arriving at a long pause, and she was frozen in hypertension.

"Miss Lane, really." It was the unmistakable growl of Thompson, condescending to the last. The door shoved open so fast, she didn't have time to react. The oncoming door hit her hard, and she rocked back into the wall on the balls of her feet, slamming against it painfully. There was a loud, thunderous crack that left her dizzy and her ears ringing, and a neat hole formed in the door slightly above the handle. The wall beside her hip crumbled a little, dripping dust and pieces of sheet-rock like blood, and she wobbled forward to see what had happened as the door swung back along its arc. A bullet had embedded itself in the sheet-rock behind her, six inches to the left of her now heaving side. She stilled in abject panic. "Why don't you come out from behind the door before I enter, and we can have a civilized conversation, hmmm?" Thompson added.

With a raw rumble of anger, she slammed her foot out and thwacked the door into George Thompson with a hard, merciless shove. There was a nasty thud as the sound of something hard hitting something marginally softer careened back toward her and jackknifed off the walls in a vicious echo. She smiled triumphantly as a small curse fell from Thompson's lips and he growled, "Are you quite through?"

She heard the unmistakable click of a gun being cocked, and thought better of repeating the gesture, creeping out from behind the door, her hands raised in the air to show she wasn't planning anything. "Sorry, my foot slipped," she grunted as she came into full view. She tried not to look at Clark too plaintively.

George Thompson stood there looking rather annoyed, a Glock in his right hand, and a quartet of guards behind him. He made a minute gesture to the guards, and two of them came out in front of him and corralled her against the wall, their own guns drawn menacingly. She was a fighter, but she wasn't stupid. She let them pin her. The other two guards wormed their way in and walked over to Clark's prone form.

"What are you doing?" she hissed as one took hold of Clark's limp arms and the other his legs.

Thompson smiled. "Merely taking him somewhere more comfortable so that I may deal with you."

She resisted the urge to fight, another flare of panic bursting like a flowery explosion in her chest as they dragged Clark out the door and away. The sound his body made as it was dragged along the spotless floor was sickening, like the slither of a snake in the grass. Her heart ratcheted in her chest as his foot caught on the doorway, and the guards cursed before they yanked him completely out of view. Where were they taking him? This was it. They wouldn't split them up for another reason. Thompson was going to kill her, and Clark would be dead soon too.

No. There had to be some way out of this. There was still time to escape. There had to be.

Thompson raised his gun, and she froze.

"I suppose you think I'll be using this on you in short order."

"Well, yes," she whispered breathlessly as she let her gaze flit to the Glock and then back to his steely eyes. "The thought hadn't escaped me…"

Thompson didn't move the gun into a less offensive position, and he cracked a smile that certainly didn't extend to his eyes. "I'm the good guy here, Miss Lane. If you will just give me a chance."

"A chance?" she asked, incredulous. "You kidnapped me and Clark. You're holding us hostage with loaded guns. One of which you *shot* at me. You own some crazy xenophobic alien police force. You murdered a woman and blamed it on Clark. Trask is Darth Vader to your Emperor, endlessly tormenting an innocent man to the point where I've had to badger him all week just for one measly clue or two about you. And you expect me to give you a *chance?* What do you think I am, galacticly stupid?"

Thompson sighed, his gun still staring unblinking into her midsection. She eyed it, but doubted that she would be able to kick it out of his hands, not with the two guards restraining her. She was quite stuck. And quite dead, most likely, especially if she made the wrong move here.

"First of all, Miss Lane," Thompson replied, beginning to tick his points off on the fingers of his free hand. "It was you and Mr. Kent who chose to break into my property. Kidnap is a strong word considering your unlawful entry onto government-owned premises. And if you hadn't attempted to subjugate me when I entered the room, I wouldn't have shot at you at all."

His middle finger raised alongside his index finger. "Second of all, I don't own Bureau 39. I discovered it recently and have been trying to bring it down ever since, although I can't say your interference has helped in that area."

Up went his ring finger in an odd bastardization of the scouts' honor sign. "And third, have you any proof of this supposed murder? I dare say I don't even know *who* you're talking about. And as for Trask, I have no control over the man's actions. I've been trying to get rid of him for years, though he used to be a dear friend I will admit."

The buzz of the overhead lights seemed to grow more ominous.

"You killed Sarah Trask!"

"Ah yes." Thompson frowned. "I investigated that case for my dear friend, Jason. It's a shame the perpetrator was never caught."

"Never caught because it was you," she growled.

"We all must have our villains, Miss Lane. It makes sense of the crimes committed. I wasn't the murderer of Sarah Trask, but I can understand what may lead you to think that way."

"Right." She glowered. Thompson, however evil he happened to be, was definitely not stupid. She glanced wistfully at the door, but Thompson didn't seem to care about her wandering attention.

"I was shocked to discover all the horrible dealings of this agency. I swear to you, Miss Lane, my only intention is to bring down the true criminal. Bureau 39 is detestable. It must be destroyed. The conflagrations in Metropolis last year have gone without punishment for far too long."

To Thompson's credit, he was an exceptional actor. His spiel had almost sounded genuine. Almost. But not quite. And in his admission that the fires were the result of Bureau 39, he had made his fatal error. She had already sort of decided that they had been the reason that Miracle Man had retired from service. And now she was sure. Another damning clue to file away in her mental collection. "We all must have our villains," he'd said. Her stomach churned as she started to truly grasp Thompson's plan.

"If you're such a good guy," she countered, "Then why don't you let me go?"

She had no hopes that he would comply with her request. But he didn't seem to mind conversation, so cocky was he. And the more information she could get, the better.

"Because, first I need you to agree not to print any of what you find in the future or have already found regarding this situation. That will be for me to do."

She rolled her eyes. "You have *got* to be kidding me. You actually think I'm going to fall for this load of crap?"

"You'll come around." He gave her a rather unnerving grin, like a wolf smiling down on some delectable prey.

But she was no lamb. "When you let me go, with Clark alive and in tow, I *might* agree not to roast you alive in a 72-point header on the front page."

Her threats seemed to brush off Thompson like a transient gust of air. Completely ineffective. "I'll give you time to think it over." He turned to leave.

"Sure," she spat. "Be sure to come back when I'm DEAD from starvation. Because that's about the soonest I see myself not printing this."

He came to a full pause, and turned back around to face her. If she had had any doubts before of his true intent, the malicious grin that slithered across his face quelled them. "I'm sure, Miss Lane," he said in a guttural, dangerous tone, "That can be arranged if that's what it comes down to."

Her two guards released her and exited after Thompson. The door clicked behind her, and she was left in a shocked, dim silence. She tried to stop her hands from trembling. Despite her brave, snappy comebacks, the conversation had thoroughly rattled her.

This. Was. Bad.

She knew now exactly what Thompson was planning. She'd pieced it together from the various snippets she'd heard.

Thompson was going to hold a press conference. He'd said as much. The fake speech supported it. But. He wasn't going to say what Trask expected him to say.

Trask expected him to malign Clark in public as a true alien threat.

But Thompson wasn't going to do that at all. He was going to explain that Bureau 39 had been the force behind the fires in Metropolis, and countless other crimes. And he was going to pin it all on Trask. Thompson would then look like a hero. Trask, the unsuspecting — but necessary — villain, would get crucified.

But where did that leave Clark? Thompson had said that the Clark Kent problem would go away. What did he mean by that? With Trask finally out of the way, Clark would be out of the picture as well? Somehow, she just didn't think that was the case, especially not with her in custody. She had to be a rather unknown factor that they hadn't been planning on.

So what were they going to do with them?

That was still a mystery.

A mystery that frightened her.

She *had* to get out of here. And she *had* to save Clark.

Lois stared at the bullet hole over the door handle for a long set of moments. Slowly, a plan had begun to hatch. A crazy one. But it would never hurt to try.

She was suddenly very, very happy she had opted to change into sweats and sneakers before she'd come on this little jaunt.

She reached down to her white Keds, and began to work a shoelace free.



Mushy white swam before him, hazy, indistinct, blurred. A cloudy sky? But the blur didn't seem that puffy in texture. Perhaps someone had given him one of those white dish napkins that restaurants used for a blindfold. He blinked, and the mush got a little clearer, but it was still mostly a mess of white.

Oh. It was one of those square panel fluorescent lights that they put in the ceilings of office buildings and schools. He blinked again and became aware that he was not feeling well. His head swam and throbbed as if somebody had been using his temples as the bass drum in a marching band. Thump. Thump. Thump. He could feel the little marchers making circles.

There was a small whining sensation buzzing in the back of his mind. Something was wrong. Very wrong. Why did he feel this way? Definitely not normal. But the pain swept the worries away for the time being, and he squeezed his eyes shut, rejoicing in the darkness before opening them once again experimentally.

Everything felt like lead. He knew his limbs were indeed there, and still quite attached. But moving them was an impossibility. He became more and more aware that yes, he was awake, and that he was horizontal under a fluorescent light, but that was really about the best he could do. It was as if his torso and limbs were dipped in wet concrete.

A singsong of pain careened through his veins, almost convincing him back into the welcoming darkness of unconsciousness, but with a heaving breath, he surfaced again into clarity. He felt bad. Real bad.

What was going on? He couldn't recall…

Wait. Yes he could.

There was a big warehouse. And Lois. Yes. Lois. What had Lois been doing? Something about skepticism. Yes, she had wanted to know where her skepticism had gone. But why would she want to know that?


Events came wobbling back in a woozy, drunken sequence, and he remembered, new images coursing through his head with each furious blink. From the moment he had laid eyes on his ship, to the moment where he had the foreboding sensation of someone watching him, to the moment where he had realized that Lois *knew*. Everything. Just from the one look she had given him. That slack-jawed look of utter amazement and horror. Lois *knew*. But what had been the truck that'd hit him near the end? He'd gone from the horror of Lois knowing his secret to being on the floor in throbbing agony in the space of moments. And hadn't there been voices? He was sure there had been voices. Or maybe it had just been Lois in triplicate, compliments of this horrible headache.

For a nanosecond, he almost was fascinated that he even *had* a headache, but then he decided he felt far too awful to care or be grateful for this supposedly 'normal' experience. Somehow, he didn't think this was a normal headache. Nor was it normal to be unable to move. He tried again and got a twitch, but for the most part he was Jell-O. His nerves felt raw and wasted, as though somebody had scratched them away slowly with sandpaper. Twinges and twangs of agony seemed to pulse through him with every heartbeat.


In the haze of pain and confusion, he hadn't really noticed before…

He stretched out with his hearing, only to be rewarded with a dull buzzing. Muffled. Like through cotton. All he could hear was what he could hear already. He squinted, trying for anything from his eyes, x-ray, heat, anything, with no results.

As he realized his powers were gone, a cold well of fear began to form. He was here, wherever 'here' was. Here, and at the mercy of his captors. There was no escape. This definitely was no normal headache. No normal muscle ache. Everything was rapid- fire sensation. Muscles were protesting fitfully even though he wasn't even attempting to move around at this point — he understood a lost cause when he was presented with one.

The world started to get murky again, but only for a moment.

Powers gone. After so long trying not to use them, he should have been happier, he thought with a wry wince. Nope. Definitely not happy about this development. He wasn't going to think about whether they would even come back at this point — that was a worry for a safer time. He rocked backward into an arch as another spasm rent him.

What had caused this? What was *causing* this?

He blinked again as a strange shadow eclipsed the light overhead and plunged him into another tumble of confusion. "Don't tell me you passed out on me again," a voice growled, low, dangerous. It reverberated strangely in the room — must be small — and it reverberated even more strangely in his head. But he recognized it. Definitely.

The man he had come to think of as an apparition in this whole mess. A mess he was starting to remember more and more quickly as moments passed and clarity began to catch up with him, latching into his brain.


The well of fear that had begun to form earlier took on a fuller shape. He was helpless. At Trask's mercy. And likely, so was Lois.

Lois. Where was she?

He made a sound. "What?" he had meant to say, although it was probably more of a gurgling groan than anything else. At least it sounded that way to his cotton-laden ears.

There was a blur to his right. The light flickered as a flesh- colored obstruction passed through the corner of his view field. And then there was a smashing, stinging sensation on his right cheek. The light snapped to the right as his face whipped to the left. He blinked tears away.

"Listen to me, Alien!" Trask yelled. "Did you think you and that whore could investigate us and not get caught? What is she? Is she your alien consort?"

The words became indistinct and mashed all into one long litany. Even Trask's ever-present hand couldn't keep Clark's mind from wandering. Something was muddling his thought processes, he slowly came to realize. Maybe it had to do with the ache that was searing his joints the more and more he came reluctantly awake. Or the plodding dump trucks that were smacking into the sides of his skull in tandem.

After several more long moments, he had the strength to lift up his head and look around. He was lying flat on his back on a table. Not a lab table or anything. Just a plain, fake-wood table. The kind that often inhabited office buildings. His feet hung off the end because he was too tall.

There didn't seem to be any other furniture in the room. Only Trask. Who was holding a glowing green thing about the size of a matchbox in the hand that wasn't doing the slapping. Blurry though his vision was, the glow was quite distinct and haunting, pulsing on and off in a vaguely regular rhythm as though it were breathing. Despite Trask's endless, crazed ranting, he must have noticed the object of Clark's attention. He stopped yelling, and moved the green thing clutched in his hands closer.

The pain increased from a dull hum to a horrific roar as the clenched green blob came closer to Clark's face. BAD. He veered away, but suddenly his head was in a vice grip — Trask's — and he was forced to look at it. It. Hovering right over his eyes, blurring even further until it was all he saw, like a glowing, lime eclipse. He felt like his eyes were getting gouged. "Are you looking at this?" Trask asked.

Clark was sure he made a pained gasp, but he could almost hear nothing in the roar at this point. Whatever that was… it hurt.

"This, my friend, is your home. Surprising, the damage it can do, isn't it? The lab guys say that because of its origin, the radioactivity it emits actually affects you. How it got here is anyone's guess."

His home? But that would mean… Clark blinked in the strange green glare, opting not to respond. Unable to respond. He was sure if he opened his mouth it would only let a strangled moan escape.

His home.

A piece of his exploded planet had ended up on Earth, somehow. And now, he thought with a wince, it was killing him. Or the experience was just bad enough that he *thought* it was going to kill him. Another wave of hurt undulated through him. He was willing to bet on the former.

And another wave… His eyes rolled back and he was granted a dizzy respite until his conscious thought swam back like a riptide.

"A shame," Trask was rambling, an insane gleam in his eyes. "We don't want you. Your planet *obviously* doesn't want you. Just who exactly wants you?" Trask's tone held no small amount of glee, but thankfully he pulled the strange rock back.

Clark gasped with the small relief, and Trask grinned maniacally. "Finally," Trask said. "You'll pay for what you've done."

"I didn't—" Clark panted, knowing his words would do no good. "Kill Sarah—" Pant.

Trask's eyes narrowed into predatory slits. "Liar." His tone was low, and dangerous. Threatening. Like a dog about to snap off a finger or two from the person trying to feed it. Trask was sure that Thompson's lie was true, that much was evident.


Another swift smash across his cheek, this time the left one, brought Clark skittering back into silent, twitching misery. There was no reasoning with this man. None. And now he was going to die here.

He wondered distantly where Lois was as Trask stared at him and let the rock-thing — Kryptonite, he supposed, since it was from his home planet — do the damage for him. He had completely lost track of her in the vague scuffle that had followed Trask's entrance into the warehouse. He seemed to remember her calling his name, off in the distance, as though she were standing on the precipice at the other side of a canyon. But he was sure it had been a whisper, not a shout. There was also the soft, fiery sensation of her hand touching his shoulder, gentle, fleeting. Pleasant. She must have been alive and well at some point after he'd blacked out. But…

Where was she now?

The worry didn't help as he was sent into another paroxysm of agony. And on top of it all, he felt cold, and yet sticky with sweat. It was a miserable existence.


The words pierced his conscience and slammed around inside his aching head so harshly that he jolted on the table, not from pain, but from surprise. Thompson, it seemed, had arrived, and Clark didn't know whether to sag with relief, or be even more worried.

Trask scoffed, indignant. "I'm testing the rock. What does it look like?"

"He was *not* to be harmed yet," Thompson replied as he brushed at the sleeves of his suit, like he had just finished with some other dirty work. His eye contact, tone, and posture all indicated Trask was not as 'in control' as Thompson would have liked, and Thompson was speaking as if Clark were not even in the room.

"He's not dead." Trask shrugged, a small smirk marring his otherwise serious features.

Thompson circled the table, looking Clark over like a piece of meat. "But he can't look like that for the press conference! Are you mad?"

Yes, his tone said it all. Thompson didn't quite know what to do with Trask, almost like a man who had bought a baby python at a pet store and was overwhelmed to discover one day that it had grown to several feet long and was perfectly capable of eating more than just rats.

Trask looked for a moment like he was going to protest, but eventually shrugged with the barest of motions, the slickest of smiles, and turned to leave. The Kryptonite disappeared into his pocket, the green cast that had slicked over the walls disappearing with it. Thompson watched closely.

"I'll be back…" Trask growled over his shoulder, glacial cold gripping his tone. Clark was sure it was directed at him.

"Don't count on it," Thompson said under his breath as the door clicked shut behind Trask's retreating form. Even Clark wasn't sure if he had heard it or not, but it didn't matter, much. The sensation of his nerves being put in a garbage disposal was gone, replaced by only a wretched, but dull, ache, like an aftertaste. It was unpleasant but tolerable. Clark panted in relief.

"What…" Clark began, stopping in the middle to catch his breath yet again, "Are you doing?" His body still felt like it was going to turn to mush, assuming it hadn't already.

"Quite frankly, Mr. Kent," Thompson began with a sigh, "That really doesn't matter. What *does* matter, however, is the fact that I have Miss Lane locked away and secured."

Silence for a moment, save for the snap-buzzing of the overhead light. Clark subverted back the panic that threatened to overcome him.

Lois was alive. Think about that. Not the part about her being in custody. ALIVE is important!

Something inside of him just wasn't listening.

Clark struggled to sit up. He shoved his elbows back behind him along the cool table and ratcheted upwards. Little black spots started to appear in his vision and he furiously blinked them away. "Did you hurt her? Is she okay?" he demanded.

Help her! Save her! the voice was yelling. Screaming. *Demanding.* Like a mosquito buzzing past his ears, unwilling to be ignored.

Various scenarios involving Lois dead or in the process of dying began to flit through his head. She had entirely too much knack for trouble, he could tell that and he'd barely known her a week so far. Actually, she was probably holed up in a room similar to this one, screaming her head off at whoever had the misfortune of being her guard, but that was beside the point.

"Relax, Mr. Kent. Miss Lane is, and will remain, perfectly fine…" Clark felt a sinking sensation. That tone indicated a 'but' coming along. Continuing, Thompson didn't disappoint. "As long as you cooperate. I do trust you understand my meaning."

So that was that, then. Thompson wanted a favor. Perhaps abuse Clark's special abilities before killing him. Hypocrite. Anger started bleeding in overtop of the panic that had settled.

"What do you want me to do?" Clark snapped. At least the world was getting less blurry, and much less painful.

Thompson raised an eyebrow. "Honestly, I want you to help me."

Silenced ticked by for a few seconds.

Thompson wanted help. It was laughable. Ridiculous. More anger began to flood in, anger that had been shoved back behind a wall of terror for years. "You *must* be joking," Clark responded.

"I want to bring Bureau 39 down as much as you do," Thompson shrugged, gesturing grandly. "I have all the evidence to bring Trask to justice, which I will provide at the press conference today. What I need *you* to do, is convince Miss Lane not to print anything, and, of course, cooperate such that Trask will believe I'm bringing you along for a public roasting."

Clark had managed to get himself fully upright now. The room wasn't spinning anymore. His powers were still a complete loss, however, and everything ached as though his nerve endings had been strung through a cheese grater. Wincing as he experimentally flexed his left arm, and then his right, he stretched a bit. Pain shot back through the muscles, but he kept a straight face. To his credit, Thompson was giving him full mobility, and didn't appear to have any lack of trust. There were no guards to back the elder man up.

"And where will that leave you?" Clark asked, glancing at the door, not five feet away from him. If he were to lunge—

Another twinge in his muscles curbed that thought.

"Well, in a few months, President, I hope," Thompson answered.

A masthead symbol for oppression, leader of a country known for its freedom of expression. The irony wasn't lost. Clark glanced at the door again, debating. There was no way he would be able to get to it feeling the way he was.

He looked back to Thompson. Back into his slate-gray eyes. There was humanity there. He hadn't really taken the time to study Thompson, but now that he was upright and not racked in pain, he was being a little more analytical. Thompson was old. Old and frail and human. Not some omniscient beast that Clark had imagined.

And suddenly, he felt the well of fear that had been collecting begin to dissipate, and the anger was all that was left behind. Pure. Empowering. With a sneer, Clark shot back, "You disgust me."

Thompson quirked an eyebrow, apparently not expecting such a snippy response. He raised his hands, palms forward in a universal symbol of placation. "All of this will end if you just cooperate," Thompson responded, his voice dropping in volume and tone. Soothing. A true politician. It only made Clark mad, but Thompson, for all the politician in him, didn't give up. "Trask has been after you your whole life. I would have thought you, of all people, would want to stop him. Just think. You could be free of him forever. You could be Miracle Man again, if you so chose."

"I want to stop him," Clark snorted. "But not at the expense of letting another killer go free."

And it was true, Clark noted with wonderment, now that he was focusing carefully on it. He didn't want Trask merely stopped. He wanted a hand in it. The feeling was like a slow fire, burning, hot. Where had this mindset generated? Earlier in the day he'd wanted nothing more than for Lois to back off and for everything to go away. He'd been terrified.

And yet, ever since he'd taken to the air, things had been gaining a clarity he'd never possessed before. Since Lois had found him in the stairwell, he'd resigned to the fate of helping her investigate, instead of stepping in her path and using his own willpower to back her off. Not that his willpower would have been a match for Lois, but, he'd just stepped aside with a grin, despite the fact that he'd thought he was going to his doom.

And then, as he'd gone towards his ship, it'd all started piecing together—

"You, too, with the murderer accusation," Thompson shook his head. "Really, I've killed no one."

Lois must have been alive enough to toss that particular theory at him. Clark found himself grinning like a fool despite his dire situation. Well. Thompson was fairly old. Definitely not overpowering. Maybe Clark *could* subdue him.

When he shifted and his vision started to black out a bit, he hesitated again.

Maybe that wasn't such a great idea.

Ironic that he finally had courage and no physical faculties to back it up.

Hmmm. What would Lois do? Probably make more sarcastic remarks.

"I'll believe that when you let me go," he taunted, not caring what response he provoked. Not caring anymore, except that this man had to be stopped, somehow.

Thompson finally seemed to realize he was at an impasse, and his political look of appeasement disappeared behind his normal, cold veneer. "What a quandary we're in," Thompson said. "You won't believe me until I let you go, and I can't let you go until you believe me. The same thing happened with Miss Lane."

Well, that was one-hundred-percent genuine Lois.

"Yeah, what a quandary," Clark commented wryly. "Imagine that."

Thompson looked angry at this point. Obviously, Clark was not behaving as planned. Not as submissive now am I, huh, Clark thought. The voice that always seemed to chime in about his cowardice was quiet indeed. Mostly, it was just buzzing about rescuing Lois.

"Well, Mr. Kent. We still have a few hours before I have to go to the conference. I'll give you a little while to think my proposition over."

Clark quirked an eyebrow. "And what if I don't agree still?"

Thompson's face turned a bit pink, as though someone had splattered just the faintest bit of blush across his cheeks. It was the least amount of composure Clark had ever seen the man with. No, Thompson was definitely not very happy. "I don't think anyone will miss you," he growled. He peered at Clark once more and let loose a disdainful snort before exiting.

The door slammed behind the retreating politician, and Clark found himself grinning, of all things, even as the lock clicked into place, ominous and unforgiving. He swung his feet over the side of the table. Might as well test to see how bad that was.

It wasn't.

Things swam a little bit, and for a moment he thought he was going to pass out as seeping, black tendrils laced around the corners of his vision, but the aches were slowly dissipating as time went on. His balance wasn't great at all until he took a few laps around the table and tested it out. Muscles complained for a bit until they once again got used to motion. The more circles he did, the less he felt like he was going to fall over.

He imagined it was like a hangover was supposed to feel.


He wasn't in fighting shape, but he wasn't in horrible shape either. What next?

He again pictured what Lois would do. She'd have probably kneed her guard in the groin and took off at a run. Except Clark didn't have a guard. Thompson was obviously a bit overconfident about how badly Clark had been incapacitated, and how much of a fight he would offer, regardless of how bad off he was.

Clark went over and tested the handle on the door. Definitely locked. He twisted it a little harder, hoping some vestige of his strength remained, and that the thing would snap off. But no such luck — it remained firmly stuck in place.

What would a normal person do in this situation? He couldn't very well hope to slam through the door — that would make too much noise and he didn't know the layout of the area. He checked, just in case. No special vision to help him. And besides, even if he *had* vision still, he doubted he would get very far with the lead paint.

He did a full turn, examining the room he was in. What tools did he have to work with? Just his glasses, it seemed. There was nothing on the table he could use. Wait.

He shuffled back to the table and looked at the corner closest to the door. Must be an old table. The laminate surface was peeling back, just enough for him to get a grip on it with his fingers. He clawed at it and struggled with it until he managed to worm his index and middle fingers underneath it. Then he yanked up. He worked the laminate backwards until he had a triangular piece, perhaps the size of an index card. Then he started twisting at it until it ripped off. It would do.

He approached the door and jammed it into the crack between the door and the wall, working it, hopefully, between the lock and the stop. It stuck strangely, and for a long time the lock didn't seem to want to move. Perhaps the laminate was too thin and flexible? It was definitely a lot more flexible than a credit card. He glared at his handiwork in consternation.

Well, what now? Maybe there was a way to make the material more stiff…

He didn't have time to debate further, however, because as he jiggled the laminate some more in frustration, the lock finally decided to give way, and the door popped back toward him. In surprise, he lost his grip on the makeshift lock pick, which in turn lost its purchase in the jam and slipped to the floor with a splat sound. He jumped out of the way as the door yawed slowly backwards along its arc with a barely audible moan. There, standing with her hand out as though she had just opened the door herself, was Lois. She popped her gaze down to the piece of table that now lay resting at his feet, and then looked back at him.

"Well," she said, "I was going to rescue you, but this works too."


Footsteps rumbled along the hallway behind him as a cadre of guards tailed him through the warehouse. It was a conference on the move, mostly to avoid the roaming, prowling Trask. After their last confrontation, George was not looking forward to the next run-in, especially not this close to the completion of his scheme.

"So," George began.

This was not going as well as he'd planned. Not at all. Lane wasn't scaring in the slightest. And the factor that he thought he could rely on — Clark Kent's submissive nature — was all but bleeding away before his eyes like blood from a gaping wound. If he were to kill Lane, Clark Kent would never remain silent. Never. And that was a fact he had banked on.

"Kill them," he said to the guard walking behind them. "Take Trask's extra Beretta from my hotel suite and the other sample of that rock and kill them both. After the press conference or during, I don't care. Dump them in the bay, but don't weight them down. It will just be more evidence against Jason."

"Yes, sir," the guard in front replied, and the six of them that had been following him were suddenly gone, leaving his footsteps unaccompanied in their echoes across the walls.

He glanced at his watch. A few more hours and this would all be over.


Voices tickled at her ears — soft, indistinct, distant.

The cool air swept past the skin of her face as they skidded to a halt by the corner. She peeked around, only to see two men in camouflage chatting with each other, surprisingly casual-looking, all things considered. AK-47s hung silent by their sides on black weave straps as they gestured back and forth. She caught enough words to know they were talking about some football game. Of all the things she would have expected roaming lackeys to be discussing, that was probably the lowest on the list. At least that meant nobody knew she and Clark were gone yet. Unless they were so unimportant that the football game and whether the quarterback from the Metropolis Destroyers sucked ranked higher on the list of urgent topics of the day, which would be slightly insulting and highly unlikely. Right? Of course. Clark was way more important than a sucky football team that hadn't won a Super Bowl in over three decades.

And speaking of Clark… Clark was panting softly behind her. A quick glance back revealed him to be leaning up against the wall. There were small beads of sweat forming on his face, and his chest was hitching violently as he sucked in air, but he didn't say anything or complain. Given the state he had been in when he'd broken open the door in front of her, this had to be taking a considerable toll on him.

She studied him more closely.

He looked horrible. Really horrible. The whole side of his face was swollen and discolored, but other than that flowery blemish, he looked very, very pale, as though someone had stolen her much coveted white-out and slathered it across his face. Okay, well maybe not *that* pale. But definitely on the pale side — more white than flesh-toned, for sure. Regardless, it wasn't hard to guess what Trask and Thompson had been doing with him while they'd been separated. At least the heat of fever was no longer rising from his skin like it had been back in her room before they'd taken him away, but he was still, and quite undoubtedly, in bad shape.

She couldn't decide if he had looked worse at Thompson's hotel suite than here or not, and for a brief moment she felt anger swell up inside her. But, as a superstar reporter for the Daily Planet she had had more than her fair share of experience escaping mysterious maze-like warehouse buildings. And now was just not the time for those kind of thoughts.

No, seeing *sunlight* was her focus right now. Escaping this dilapidated fortress. Tasting Rocky Road again! And talking. With Clark.


She rotated on her feet to look at Clark directly, only to find him staring right back at her, his lips creased into a sloppy grin, even as he continued to pant. How could he be happy at a time like this?!

"Back the other way," she mouthed, gesturing back at the hallway. "Let's move."

Clark's quirk of a smile immediately fell into a flat line, and they were off again, only to find themselves in the same situation at the other end of the hallway, except these men at least had the sense to be discussing the fluctuating stock market instead of sports teams. She growled in frustration, but it died softly in the back of her throat. Making noise at this particular point in time was probably a very bad idea.

So. Blocked at both ends of the hallway. She looked at Clark, who shrugged, and then winced at whatever that motion had twinged. It was strange feeling a bit like cattle being herded into one spot for roping. She assured herself, however, that it was merely a coincidence. None of the wandering people in the building had seemed even the slightest bit worried about more than their shares in LexCorp or Johnny McGoyle scoring another touchdown. Certainly not a roaming Miracle Man and his Girl Friday.

Clark Kent was Miracle Man—

Stop that!


She blinked and counted to ten. So, there were men at both ends of the hallway around the corners. Either way they went, they'd be seen if they tried to make for it across the intersection. If they stayed here and the men started to move past this hallway, they'd be seen.

For Pete's sake, hadn't the man who'd designed the layout of this building given any thought to escaping fugitives? There were no obstructions anywhere. None. Not even a small trashcan or an unlit area in the whole sprawl!

And that was when the men she had been observing around the corner started to move. Towards the intersection where she and Clark now sat just feet away from like very glaring, very illegally parked cars. Towards her and Clark. She pushed back on her heels only to collapse onto Clark, who was huddled right behind her. She barely suppressed a yelp and she found her legs flailing out as she tried to keep her balance. Her heels skidded along the floor, and she flopped about like a landed fish, helpless, but he pulled her up with a surprisingly strong grip and ferried her back down the hallway. Before she had had time to register the situation, Clark had pulled her into one of the unlocked side rooms, and now they were swathed in darkness as the door clicked shut behind them.

"Clark," she hissed, "What are you doing?"

His arms were still clutched around her midsection, and thus, she was right smack up against his sculpted chest. In the dark. Alone. It was comfortable.

Very. Lots.

"We had to hide, I thought," he replied in a whisper. She felt his breath slip down the back of her neck as he spoke, soft, rustling. The hairs on the nape of her neck rose with the sensation, and goose bumps flecked her skin.

Really comfortable.


She righted herself, goggling for much-needed oxygen, just in time to keep her precarious footing from turning to mush altogether, and he released her without a word.

She didn't respond to his earlier comment as she fumbled along the wall in the darkness. His feet shuffled as he darted clumsily-sounding out of her way, hissing a soft curse as he slammed up against something hard. She paused and looked blindly towards the sound. All she could see was a dark, mushy blur, even as she strained to focus on it. Probably, this was how he felt even when the lights were on. This situation must be odd for him — being relatively helpless for what was probably the first time in his life. The soft sounds of his breathing interrupted her thoughts, and she shook her head, resuming her search along the wall. The surface was smooth and cool wherever her hand went, until finally she brushed against the particular obstruction that she was looking for. Flicking the lights on, she peered around.

They were in an office cubicle, it seemed. There was a computer on the desk that sat against the wall. There was a lamp next to the monitor. And papers. Everywhere. They were practically spilling over the sides of the desk surface and clotting the drawers from shutting all the way. There was a bulletin board on the wall with newspaper clippings from all sorts of locations, mostly small articles involving some sort of unexplained phenomenon, all the way back to Roswell in 1947.

"Where are we?" she murmured.

"Room 113c," Clark whispered back, as though it meant something.

"What's that?" she asked dumbly. One of those automatic responses that people tended to give in order to fill in conversation, even when they weren't really interested in the response. She hated people who did that.

"The room that we're in," he replied.

Heat rushed to her cheeks as she whirled about on her feet, her index finger pointing at him in an accusing gesture. She had her mouth open, ready to zing a withering retort back at him when she noticed he was grinning ear to ear.

"Cute," she growled. So how were they going to get out of this one? "Well, newsflash, Kent, we're stuck in an office without a window in the middle of a huge warehouse complex full of bad guys with semi-automatics. Unless you're about to get miracley anytime soon, which I'm assuming you're not, since you look like you just went through several rounds with a garbage disposal and came out the loser, not that I wouldn't be eternally grateful if I were wrong, I just don't see a way out of this one."

He shrugged and ambled over to the desk, shifting the papers aside. She could tell from the way his stare was set that he wasn't really looking at the contents of the papers, perhaps on purpose, perhaps not. She suppressed a shiver. Finally, he unearthed his evident goal. A phone.

"Call for help?" he suggested.

She stared at him, slack-jawed. "Just who are we going to call, Clark?"

He shrugged. "The police?"

"Right, I'm sure Inspector Henderson will raid a huge government complex at just my behest. No… we could call the coastguard to come save the day. Granted there's no water around here, but heck! Jeez, did that rock thing affect your brain too because—"

She stopped talking right then. All amusement that had been cradled in his bruised features bled out in an instant, and he looked for a moment, horrified, or perhaps… guilty? But why would he be guilty— unless he thought this situation was his fault.

A sigh of realization hit her.

And why wouldn't he, since all these goons seemed to want were his pain and destruction?

"Clark, relax. I'll call Inspector Henderson. It can't hurt, I guess."

She picked up the phone and stuck it next to her cheek as she watched Clark. He didn't look like he was entirely convinced by her reassurances, not that she'd done a very good job with the reassuring bit anyways. The phone rang several times before somebody finally picked up. At least a busy signal or the dumb elevator-country music that indicated she was on hold hadn't greeted her.

"I need to speak with Inspector Henderson," she whispered into the receiver when a young-sounding male voice that she didn't recognize answered. A new pencil-pusher, she supposed. A young hopeful who probably didn't even know the grip from the muzzle of a gun, so they'd given him the thankless job of talking to pig- headed people like her who had emergencies that just *had* to be addressed right then.

But this *was* an emergency that just *had* to be addressed right then.

"I'm sorry, Inspector Henderson isn't avail—"

He sounded almost a little whiney. She cut him off. This was important after all!

"But he's there right?"

Completely unprepared, the young-sounding desk lackey rebounded with a response, most likely before he realized what he was saying. "Well, yes, but—"

Good, so Henderson was just screening calls. "Listen, cloth- ears," she growl-whispered into the phone, not giving the young man a chance to finish his excuse, "This is Lois Lane, top reporter in the *entire* city, and trust me, he'll want to hear about this!"

There was a confused pause, and the man's voice got quiet to match her own tone. "Why are we whispering?"

"Just put him on the phone," she hissed.

There was a long pause and some shuffling before Henderson's snarl of a voice greeted her. Actually it was more of a grunt. Neanderthal man. Errrrr. Snuffle. Kind of like she was without coffee in the morning. He didn't sound very happy, but then, when did Henderson *ever* sound happy? The man was like a walking frown that had handcuffs to play with.

"Henderson!" she snapped as loudly as she could risk. "It's Lois."

"Do you have a sore throat or something?" Henderson's gruff voice replied.

"No, I'm not sick. I have to be quiet. Would you just listen a moment? Clark Kent and I—"

"Dug up a new one, eh?" Henderson cut her off. She resisted a growl. Just who did he think he was taking on a judging tone like that?

"Yes, he's my new partner." There was a long silence, and she suddenly felt the need to retort that she did indeed know how to connect with fellow human beings. "Hey, I have partners!" she snapped.

She could practically feel his grin bleeding through the phone lines, mocking her. Taunting her. "Uh huh, and what happened to Jeevers?"

Hypocrisy! she wanted to scream. She rarely saw Henderson wandering around with *his* partner. In fact, Meyers was usually still at the crime scene looking cluelessly around at the lines of yellow tape by the time Henderson and she had conferred notes and gone their separate ways following leads off into the unpredictable beyond. HYPOCRISY. The word burned across her throat like a searing flame, only to be followed by the stomping pouting of lame excuses.

"He didn't count," she replied glumly.

Jeevers had been after Claude, and he really *didn't* count. He had quit after a week, and it had totally *not* been her fault. So she had borrowed his car to get to a source meeting on time. So she had scratched it up just a little when she had tried parallel parking with it. The thing was a monstrosity! Reporters should *not* drive classic Cadillacs! It was against the great reporter rulebook or something! The insurance people had all been very nice. It wasn't her fault that they didn't sell the type of fender he needed for a reconstruction anymore. Anywhere. And *certainly* not her fault that the replacement paint job had been ridiculous. And pink. Wow, what a mix-up.

Henderson didn't seem to have followed her on her mental tangent. "Mahoney?" he quizzed.

"He didn't count either," she growled in return. "Look cut the crap. I'm in a warehouse on Bessolo being held hostage by George Thompson and his alien-fearing cronies!"

Silence. Well it did sound a little odd, she granted. Okay, a lot odd. Looney-bin odd. He must have thought somebody had put her up to this. An office bet. Or something.

"Henderson! Would I joke?" she pleaded. "I'm sitting in room 113c at the moment with Clark. We're cornered and we need help."

"And what do you want me to do about that, Lois?" The grin of Henderson's was more infuriating than Clark's. She couldn't even *see* Henderson's, and it was making her scarlet-faced mad and wanting to scream. Except she couldn't scream, because that would be too loud. Curses.

"Send the SWAT or something!" She started to pace, not caring that her voice was definitely not whispering now. Clark was making shushing motions and looking viciously between her and the door with his eyebrows raised.

"Lois…" Henderson began. Oh, so he was being condescending now. He was going to get a piece of her mind if they ever walked out of this alive. Maybe Clark's powers had an on-off switch and they would get out of here with or without Henderson's help. She glanced at Clark again, who had ceased his shushing motions now that she'd stopped to listen to Henderson. He mostly just looked tired and worn. Henderson continued, apparently unaware of her worry, "Were you breaking and entering when you happened to umm, be taken hostage?"

"No!" she groaned in a half 'pity me' half 'just let them find me and kill me' tone. "A source gave me a security card under the table. We got in with no breaking… Just entering!"

"And that's *so* much better." He rolled his eyes. She didn't see it, but she certainly imagined it. Yep. There they went. Around in a giant circle like he was watching a fly do a loop- the-loop over his coffee cup. She grit her teeth together and patted Clark on the shoulder in reassurance, although who she was reassuring, she didn't really know at this point.

Good grief Lois, is he a dog?


"Henderson. Will you just *listen* to me?" Silence. She took that as her cue, and babble began to tumble forth, strung into one long uninterrupted concatenation of syllables. Henderson had absolutely no chance of interrupting her, assuming he didn't want to let her keep going just for the entertainment value. "Clark and I have been working on this story all week. We know that George Thompson is head of a secret government organization called Bureau 39 that is bent on destroying the alien threat. Don't ask me what the alien threat is because I don't know. Anyways, Bureau 39 is responsible for the fires in Metropolis last year and countless other crimes. We know the press conference is really going to be a setup for him to slam all the blame onto one of his agents so that he can exit gracefully. You know about the press conference right?"

Nope. No chance of interrupting her at all. She doubted he had any speech left in him after that ridiculous spiel, regardless — she'd probably knocked it right out of him.

He found his voice after some amount of seconds. "Yes," he answered with a cautious drawl, "I've got men cordoning off the streets around the Courthouse already."

"Look, we're stuck here," she pleaded with him, staring at Clark the whole while, wishing she could beam some will into whatever inside him caused those powers to work or not work. "We can't get out, there's too many guards roaming around. We need help, Henderson. A 911 call is probable cause! Arrest me for breaking in when you get here… Or, say you were pursuing me for that break-in to your office you had last month."

Another long silence.

"That was you?"

Well, yes, but—

"Does it matter!" She gesticulated wildly. "JUST GET US OUT! Since when does Lois Lane ask for help?"

There Clark went with those shushing motions again.

"Hmmm, you do have a point," Henderson replied, but his tone of voice was almost jovial. There was a small flutter of air that swept against the receiver on his end.

She saw red.

"Oh, my God. You're *enjoying* this aren't you? Clark's life and mine could be in danger and you're sitting there eating Krispy Kremes, drinking your disgusting black coffee, and snickering at me. What a waste of public funding— I *pay* your salary, you know!"

"All right, Lois. All right. Relax. I've traced your call. I'll send a squad car over."

"Don't send a squad car, for crying out loud! Send your whole damned force! There's at least a dozen guys here and they all have semi-automatics."

"I'll do what I can, Lois. Be careful okay?"

It was a rhetorical question but she answered it anyway. "Who me?" she had the nerve to ask before the line went silent with a click.

She set the phone back in its cradle and stared at it for a long moment. Well, that had gone better than expected. But she couldn't tell if that meant it had gone well, or just not horrible. Hopefully Henderson didn't send just a car out, or they were in trouble.

Clark was looking at her expectantly as she turned around and took a deep, heaving breath, trying to calm her now energized, sparking nerves.

"Cavalry, so to speak, is coming," she commented wryly. "Just don't ask me if it's one horse or fifty."

He visibly crumbled at the words. The tenseness faded in his posture, and he let out a long sigh. "So, Miss Lane," he said with a quirky look. "Just how do you propose we spend the time?"

She raised an eyebrow at him, wondering once again at the fact that *this* was Miracle Man. Her Pulitzer was sitting right in front of her in all his well-defined glory, waiting and ready — well maybe not quite so ready, she noted at the apprehension hidden behind his relaxed expression — for the interview of a lifetime. And for the first time since the mysterious figure dressed in black had started stopping bombs and saving planes, that prospect didn't excite her at all.

"Clark, I think it's time we had a talk," she replied gravely. "While you can't fly away on me, and we're probably going to die soon — when could be better?"

He regarded her for a long moment. There was such expression in his eyes once again, she felt like her breath had been swept away. The fear was there anew. Horror. Acceptance. Apprehension. And unadulterated desire.

The pieces were slowly starting to fit together one by one. But she had a feeling she had a long way to go before she understood this man.

"All right, Lois," he began, his tone calm despite his strange potluck expression. "What would you like to know?"


It was amazing how little talking actually happened in the immediate moments after he had asked that question, that vulnerable question.

"What would you like to know?" he had asked.

Sometimes, in his experience, that question was perfectly innocuous, but more often than not, those words ushered in a pressure that could only be bested by a real firing squad. He imagined he felt the glare of targeting sights nipping at his eyes, and the temperature in the room seemed to raise quite a bit as he sat there under her scrutiny. All of the rifles were pointed his way… She stared at him for a long set of moments, but as time passed he came to realize it was not the look of cold calculation that he was so used to from people who knew. Her face was a fountain of wonder, hurt, inquisitive nature…

Before, when they had been attempting to escape — and failing — there simply hadn't been time for fear or discussion. But now… He just wasn't sure where he stood.

"You make it sound like you're waving a white flag in defeat," she began, a small amount of suspicion in her voice.

He shrugged, backing up infinitesimally. "Essentially, I am," he replied. From the way she watched him, she had noticed his small movement.

It was true though. He was sure his life was out on the chopping block at this very instant. And in that moment, as he gazed at her, he came to realize that the fear welling up inside of him had nothing to do with what he thought she would *do* with the information of his origins, but rather what she *wouldn't* do. Pulitzers weren't the problem here. Not at all. But rather, it was the fact that she would never be his friend, not now that she knew he wasn't even human. He felt his normalcy slipping away like sand in the high tide on a beach, and she hadn't even said anything yet. Everything was slipping away from him. Slipping.

And even worse, the fact that she knew would place her in Trask's sights with no get-out-of-jail-free card. Not that she hadn't thoroughly gotten him interested already.

It would be harder to cope with than anything he had ever experienced in his life if the former were true. The latter, he simply couldn't deal with. She was in danger.

Because of him.

His fault.

If only…

It always happened to the people he got close to.

A well of anger swelled up again like a warm flame when his mind flit to an image of Trask, standing over him with dancing, glowing fire all around, grinning. Evil. Blas‚ as Clark was huddled, exhausted, panting, wanting it all to end…

They had to get out of this. Somehow.

His thoughts were ripped away when Lois narrowed her eyes and replied. "You don't trust me," she said. As though it were the worst crime imaginable. The worst thing anyone could ever do to her.

He was quick to attempt to reassure her, "Lois, I trust you more than anyone on this Earth."

Her mouth remained in a flat line, her eyes bitter and hurt. "With your past and present," she began, "That's not necessarily saying a whole lot."

The words were like an anvil striking the ground before him. Who was the last person he had ever trusted, fully and completely? Or even at all? Something tight gripped him. "No, I guess it's not," he mumbled.

But he did. He did trust her. He trusted her to not make his life into a news story. Whether that was foolish or not, he really just didn't care anymore.

"Remember when I told you my three rules?" she asked, eyebrows raising in inquiry. She shuffled forward a bit. Closer to him. Intentionally.

Just that simple motion made him melt. She wasn't shying away at all.

"Pardon?" he whispered, struck hoarse as her hand slipped to his thigh in a comforting gesture. It was a close contact.

"I've broken every one of them," she said woefully. "I seem to *always* get involved. I—" Her voice cracked with weariness. With regret.

"Slept with someone at work?" he choked, unable to tear his eyes from the hand that now rested on his quadriceps, unmoving, warm. There.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her head shake in a subtle, guilty nod. "Yes," she whispered so softly he wondered if he had heard it at all.

"It wasn't Jimmy was it?" The words had leapt out of his mouth before he had the conscious thought to stop them. They hung in the air, obnoxious for several moments, ringing and discordant, before dropping off into silence. Utter, petty jealousy for something that obviously hadn't happened recently… Well, he *hoped* it wasn't recent.

Please, anyone but Jimmy, a small voice said, but he squelched it with a shudder of self-loathing. He was disgusted with himself, and yet now he was committed to finding out the answer.

"Don't be ridiculous," she said. The hand on his thigh moved to swat at his bicep lightly. Playfully. "It was a long time ago—"

He sagged with relief and felt guilty for it all at once.

"When I first started working at the Daily Planet," she continued. "Claude — he was French — he had this accent. I guess I must have been in love. Or thought I was." She sounded pained. Embarrassed. "I was only twenty-one, working on my first big scoop: this perfectly ordinary middle-age couple — gun runners. One night, I told him about it, and when I woke up the next morning he was gone. So was my story. He won an award for it. Didn't even thank me for my… input."

He dared to look at her then. Her eyes were watery, and she was blinking furiously.

Offer some comfort, you dope!

"I guess," he struggled, his throat constricting as he saw her trembling, "When you're in love with someone… it doesn't matter how smart you are or how many rules you've set for yourself. You're still vulnerable."

She sniffled and then was silent. All that remained was the dull snap-buzzing of the overhead lights, which grew louder and louder the longer the relative silence stretched. There was a pop and a crackle here and there. A subtle flicker. The cool, sighing groan of the ducts overhead chimed in and added to the chorus.

They locked eyes, and her gaze seemed to say, "You too," in response to the words he had spoken. But she blinked, once more becoming animated, and the mood was broken. "Well, now you have some blackmail material," she said with another sniff. "Does that make things easier?"

With that question, she fully committed herself like a date at a drive-in movie, and slipped under his arms alongside him. They leaned back against the wall and he sighed.

How to respond to that?

"Easier?" he began. "Lois, I've spent my entire life hiding who I was, afraid to do more for fear of others getting hurt. This isn't about which of us has better material to send the other up the creek if things get nasty—"

"Which I *wouldn't* do!"

"—This is about your life."

"I can take care of myself," she replied. Her tone had that low and dangerous quality to it, and he rushed to explain further.

"As you've proven time and time again, Lois. Never doubt that I find you the most capable human being I've ever known." He noted his arm, wrapped languidly over her shoulder, and gave her a light squeeze.

"But—" she protested.

For once, he was the one not letting her finish, and not the other way around. "Lois," he hurried to explain, "I thought I was invincible. Before today I have never gotten physically hurt, but they still found a way. You can be the most capable person on this Earth, but sometimes there are things thrown your way that you just can't handle. And it's okay to admit that."

When did you get this attack of wisdom? the voice nipped at him. You always just run away and hide.

Not anymore, he thought back with a firm image of steel.

Man of steel.

He wasn't going to bend for people like Trask anymore. Never again.

"Trask?" Lois asked, almost seeming to read his mind.

"Holds the key to my utter destruction," he replied. "And it isn't that Kryptonite stuff."

He shuddered slightly at the memory of that harsh green glow. A jagged thorn of worry slipped under his skin when he realized it'd been quite a while now and there was still no sign of his powers returning. He quickly went through an inventory of all his powers, and once again was dismayed to find that not a single one of them worked.

But just as the worry began to clot in his veins, she distracted him again. She saved him in that moment, probably without even realizing it.

"And that is…" she prodded.

"I care Lois," he answered truthfully. "My problem after all this time. All these years of hiding, running, and worrying because I'm different. Despite Trask and Thompson. Despite the fact that my life has been catalogued and processed like I was some lab specimen. Despite the fact that my parents are dead as punishment for *my* differences… Despite *all that* I still care. And that will be my ruin."

He remembered, bile forming in his throat, all the times he had been subjected to Trask's will, based on what *might* happen. What *might* be. And even with this newfound desire to see Trask finally and effectively paying for his crimes, he wondered if he would be able to do it. To cast aside his fear for the moments necessary to follow through with that decision.

Man of steel, he chanted to himself. Steel.


"So you're not afraid of me knowing," Lois said, caution seeping into her tone.

"I'm afraid of what your knowing might do to you. And even though you're obviously not now," he said, noting the warmth of her body pressed against his, and the ease with which he took comfort from it, "I'm afraid one of these days it will really sink in, and you'll be afraid of me. Lois Lane, I love you, and I'm afraid that after all this is over, all you see is an alien."

"Bull," she snapped, wiggling out of his embrace as she did so. She wobbled onto the balls of her feet and rotated around so that she was facing him directly, crouched so that her eyes were level with his own.

"Excuse me?" he asked, unsure, and partially in shock from her sudden mood change.

"Trask is the alien here. You're just a really cute guy who can fly." She enunciated the words slowly. There was little doubt in his mind that she meant exactly what she said, and that she desperately wanted him to believe it too.

His chest felt like it was collapsing, and the weight that had been pressing against him slowly lifted. He looked at her, and all he saw in her gaze was determination. Hope.

No fear.

The relief almost made him faint, even if there was still niggling doubts that this would all change if they escaped later.

But he wouldn't worry about it now.

He wouldn't.

"Thank you, Lois," he replied, his voice hoarse.

She nodded. "I do too, I think."


"Love you." Her eyes widened as she said it, as if she were coming to her own self-revelation. After the look of amazement crossed her face, her gaze warmed considerably, and she looked at him with a sparkling gaze.

She was beautiful.

"You only think? You wound me!"

She swatted at him, collapsing into an Indian-style seat across from him, rather than crouched. "My brain is running on fumes here. I've gotten no sleep in the past twenty-four hours or so, I've been kidnapped, had several shocks to the system… You can't expect too much from me right now…" Her voice trailed off, giving him a moment to muse.

Again, this situation was all his fault—

"HEY! Don't you get that look!" her voice speared back into his woeful thoughts. The volume shocked him so much he flinched backwards a bit.


"What look?" he asked, attempting to sound innocent.

"The this-is-my-fault-I'm-so-guilty look."

"But—" he tried to protest, but she cut him off.

Her hands came forward to grip his shoulders tightly. "I forced your hand, Clark. We're in this situation because I bulldozed right into it. Just like always. You can blame me if you're going to blame anyone."


"On second thought, let's blame the Big Bang," she cut him off again.

He was used to her sudden subject changes by now. But being used to them still didn't seem to curtail the confusion when she made a logical leap he just couldn't figure out how to follow. "What?"

"If it hadn't happened we might never have met. If you're going to play the blame game at least get the real culprit."

"The Big Bang is why we're stuck in the middle of a secret government installation waiting for Henderson to rescue us?" he asked wryly.

She nodded stiffly. Certainly. "Exactly."

There was a finality to her tone with an appropriate smidgen of hilarity. He felt a grin seep across his face, and saw it infect her too, until she was grinning right along with him.

She was crazy. "You're a nut." But that was one of the things he liked about her.

"I blame the Big Bang for that too," she said matter-of-factly. After several moments of long grinning silence, she continued, "So. Miracle Man."

He looked down at himself, and then back to her. "Yep."

"What gave you the idea?"

"I thought I could do some good and still remain anonymous enough to slip under Trask's radar. My mistake."

His mistake all right.

"Hey!" she swatted at him again. He felt the harmless cuff against his bicep. "Don't get that look. We went over this. It's Big Bang's fault!"

Man of steel, Clark. Don't forget already!

"How very touching," the cold familiar voice sent them both to their feet. Clark immediately whirled around so that he was in front of Lois, who immediately moved to his side as soon as he came to a full stop.

He wanted her behind him, but—

"Trask!" she hissed and stepped forward.

No, Lois, don't do that, he wanted to scream. Trask was standing by the door, a pistol held out in front of him like a ward. They'd been so engrossed in each other that they hadn't even noticed the door opening.

Trask ignored Lois's outburst and smiled. If ever a devil were to grin, Clark was sure that was what the expression would look like. "Did you think I wouldn't notice that you had escaped, Clark?" Trask asked, his eyebrows raised in disbelief.

Clark glared back at him. He was feeling okay. Still not 'special' by any means, but there were no aches. How to immobilize Trask quickly? He glanced to his side at Lois, who was practically foaming at the mouth, and back to Trask, who, despite the gun he held, looked way too relaxed to be taking this encounter seriously.

Man of steel. What could he do?

"Where's Thompson?" Lois asked.

"I don't know. He's apparently not as smart as me, for the time being," Trask said, his attention almost fully diverted to Lois. This was it. He felt a spring develop in his legs, and he was about to launch into a pounce, when pain ripped through him. "You stay back," Trask hissed, his free hand having moved to his pocket. Although he couldn't see it, it was obvious that Trask was holding something in his pocket. Not very big, since it barely enlarged the size of his fist.

Clark stumbled a little. Must be kryptonite, he thought dumbly.

The wall smacked into him. Or maybe he had fell against it. Something like that.

"Clark!" Lois exclaimed, but it sounded as though the words were being shouted from across a wide canyon. Things were going cottony again, and woozy. The room started to spin as a wave of pain speared him.

He almost lost his footing completely when it all abruptly stopped, and he was left with the familiar achy hangover feeling he'd had before, after the first exposure.

Through bleary eyes, he could see that Trask's attention was back on Lois. The wall felt deliciously cool against his cheek, and he inhaled deeply, trying to find some equilibrium again to mount some sort of campaign to help Lois out, but his hopes were dashed when his breath curbed off into a coughing fit.

"Why do you insist on helping this creature?" Trask asked.

"*He's* not a creature, Trask," Lois spat. "You are!"

The glare he returned to her was positively disdainful. "I've never murdered without cause," he snarled.

"Neither has he."

Stop it, Lois. Just stop it. Don't defend me to him. You can't. Stopitstopitstopit, the mantra bounced around in his skull as he inched closer to upright. The room started dancing around again when he moved his head too quickly. Stopitstopitstopit.

Trask growled. Deadly. Barely audible. "Liar," he began, like a volcano that was preparing to erupt. Similar to how Lois prepared for a rant, but with so much more menace, the effect was chilling. "I *saw* him do it. I saw him kill Sarah." The gun in his hand was shaking as his grip became unsteady, and Lois was at least smart enough to not try anything. She was eyeing the firearm with caution. It seemed as though Lois was the bird, and Trask was the cobra.

Or not.

Her foot twitched. She was debating kicking him. He could see it.

Get attention off Lois!

"If you believe that," Clark wheezed, his breath short and hard to catch with the aches still so fresh, "Then Thompson has twisted your mind beyond repair." At first Lois didn't look happy that he had interjected and brought Trask's attention back to him, but now she was nodding ever-so-slightly.

"It's true, Trask," Lois added. "Thompson was having an affair with your wife."

Trask's head ticked to the right, as though he had begun to shake his head, and stopped in mid motion. "Sarah loved me."

"Maybe so," Lois said, her voice mustering a sympathy that sounded almost genuine, "But it doesn't change the fact that Thompson killed her."

Trask's head shook minutely again. "Ridiculous," he snapped. The cold, uncertain look on his face was growing, even as he tried to cover it with a sneer. His lip curled up, and his skin turned a deeper hue. Sweat dotted his forehead. He was looking back at Lois.

Look over here!

"I saw your journal, Trask," Clark said. "Even you had doubts in the beginning."

"He distracted you, Trask," Lois chimed in. "Clark was a decoy, nothing more."

They were making a dent. Trask didn't look nearly as confident. Perhaps even doubtful. The gun in his hand was far from steady, almost a bit lax in his grip. It was pointed more towards the floor than anything else. And his head was bobbing back and forth as if he just were not certain what to do. A sigh grated the air. Trask's frame was hung in hypertension, even as he lost further grip on the gun.

Lois twitched again, but seemed to think better of it. Her mouth opened to make another addition, possibly to destabilize Trask's control even further, but the door pushed open again and a white- haired head poked through to see what was going on. Trask launched back against the other wall as though he had been shot from a canon, and all their work at getting him unaware was lost.

Clark crumpled in defeat. The wall was cool. It felt good against his burning skin.

"I *thought* I heard voices," George Thompson explained as he slipped into the room, his gaze unconcerned.

Surely of all people, Thompson had to know how unstable Trask was?

They stood now in a triangle. Trask was back towards the desk. Lois and Clark were huddled in a pair against the wall adjacent to the right of the door. And Thompson stood, authoritatively, stiff, just inside the door itself.

"George," Trask growled. He didn't look pleased.

"Jason," Thompson replied, just as coldly, but with none of the uncertainty. "Why don't you let me handle this, Trask? We need to be moving soon if we want to be on time."

Clark remembered the vicious argument the two had had at his expense, while he'd been withered with pain, and immediately felt fear. He felt Lois's small hand grip his shoulder more tightly. Don't say anything, Lois, he pleaded silently. Don't get in the middle of this. Don't do it, Lois. Don't do it.

She didn't hear his wordless plea.

"Trask, listen to me," Lois explained calmly, ignoring their new guest. "Thompson's plan was to frame you for Bureau 39. The press conference has nothing to do with—"

Thompson's demeanor grew a lot less relaxed. His skin flushed pink as Lois spoke. "Shut up!" he finally hissed. He withdrew a Glock from a shoulder holster under his suit and it was now pointed at Lois.

Clark cursed softly, glancing back and forth between Trask and Thompson. The room was swimming a bit. Any attempt to tackle either of them would probably result in him getting shot, or possibly toppling to the floor before he even made contact, or both.

"Lies," Trask screamed. His gun was completely off target now and he shook it dangerously. The knuckles of the hand that held the pistol were white as he clenched it, and Clark waited for it to go off accidentally and ricochet everyone to their deaths. "You're just trying to save your alien friend."

"Shall we—" Thompson cut him off. He truly didn't seem to understand the magnitude of this situation.

Trask's gun swung back from its drunken stupor square to Thompson's chest. There was a click. "Don't you move either," Trask interrupted right back.

Thompson's eyebrows raised, and his face grew pinker. He was starting to get the picture. "Pardon?"

"You've treated me like a pest lately. Don't think I haven't noticed."

"My apologies, Jason," Thompson gestured, his arms sweeping wide in a conciliatory gesture, his own gun lolling towards the door as he did so, "If my actions came across that way, but perhaps we should work this out later?" His voice was honey sweet. Just like a politician trying to make a concession. Out of the corner of his eye, Clark saw Lois's eyes narrow considerably.

Just be quiet, Lois, he pleaded at her again.

There were two guns in the room. Provoking the owner of either would be a sure-fire way to come out of this in a body bag. Courage or no.

"Let me see that folder," Trask gestured loosely towards Thompson with the hand that before, had been firmly hidden in his pocket. There was nothing clenched in his fingers now, but a quick glance down and Clark saw a small, barely noticeable bulge in his left pocket.

"Excuse me?" Thompson asked.

Clark glanced back and noticed for the first time, a small manila folder clenched under Thompson's armpit.

"Your speech, I assume," Trask clarified. "Let me see it."

"Jason, don't be ridiculous," Thompson hedged. His gun twitched. He was going to fire. But Trask was a military man. He took a step forward and kicked outward in a sweeping roundhouse, disarming the older man in a swift, silent motion.

Thompson's gun clattered to the floor and remained there, and Thompson was defenseless. It was at that moment. That precise moment. When Thompson's whole face seemed to shift away from his last vestiges of confidence into something else. Apprehension. Thompson was a bureaucrat. Not a soldier.

And he knew he was in trouble.

The sound of Trask's gun firing in such a small space was horrendously loud, as though thunder had ripped through the air right above them. Clark's ears were ringing by the time he had registered what was happening, and he swayed a bit as he blearily focused on the hole in the door about three inches to the right of Thompson's ear.

"Let," Trask enunciated. "Me. See. It."

Thompson's composure was nowhere to be found now. He handed over the folder to Trask with pale, shaking hands.

The situation was deteriorating rapidly, and neither of the two men seemed to care that Lois and Clark were there at this point. It was a long rivalry that was being settled here. Today. And Lois, along with himself, was stuck in what was likely to be deadly crossfire.

He felt Lois's hand grab his and squeeze.

Trask's eyes darted from right to left as he read the contents of the folder. He was silent. Thompson tried to make a few interjections, but Trask didn't say a word, merely holding his gun out, pointed toward Thompson, as he read what Clark could only assume was to be the real speech Thompson had prepared for the press conference.

Trask's skin grew paler and paler as he got farther down the page, until finally, the folder slipped from his grasp. For a moment, it seemed as though he had become a statue, but his torso rocked with a shuddering breath and dispelled the illusion. Trask's attention went fully to Thompson, his face the color of taupe. "Tell me what you did to her," he stated calmly, although his body-language was anything but calm.

"Did to whom?" Thompson had the audacity to ask.

Another slap of thunder. Another hole in the door, this time to the other side of Thompson's head. Splinters of wood dripped from the wound in the door's surface. "Tell me what you did to Sarah!"

Thompson's mouth opened minutely, and closed again.

Trask emptied another shell. Clark could barely hear now, save for the ringing and the distant echo of voices through a mile of water and cotton. "Tell me!"


The movement that followed was too quick for Clark to process. Trask's fist had connected with Thompson's cheek so hard there was an audible smack, even despite the cottony deafness he was experiencing. And as Thompson recoiled backward, Trask re-cocked his pistol. "Tell me, you bastard!"

"We were seeing each other," Thompson hissed as he spat blood onto the floor and straightened himself. "She… started having doubts. The argument that resulted got a little out of hand…"

Trask's voice grew colder than Clark had ever seen him before. Even the day of the fires. "You killed her." Distant. Deadly. He was looking at Thompson, but not *at* Thompson. He was remembering.

"Nonsense," Thompson hedged, a small chuckle or nervousness cascading from his lips, "She lost her balance, she—"

"You mean you *killed* her. She wouldn't have lost her balance if you hadn't been threatening her into backing away from you. I'm an utter fool. I *knew* the marks on your face were from her nails. Tell me."

"Tell—" Thompson began to ask.

"Tell me," Trask hissed as he stepped in so close that Thompson was trying to veer away from Trask's heated, snorting breath. "What you. Did to her."

"I— I slapped her. She fell against the coffee table. I—"

There was another cruel blow and the smack of Trask's fist hitting something softer smudged off into silence. "Tell. Me."

"Blamed it. On Clark…" Thompson whispered.

And that was when things devolved into a vicious scuffle. They rolled on the floor. There was hitting and pummeling. Thompson somehow regained possession of his gun and there was another loud crack, but Trask did not collapse. A miss? No ricochet though.

They were by the desk now. Papers were flying everywhere. The chair was being used as a weapon. Somebody was screaming.

Lois yanked on Clark's sleeve and they both wheeled around to the door, which there was now a clear path to since the two men were on the other side of the small room. She opened it and they darted out as the sounds of the fight grew more vicious and hateful. There were grunts of pain.

More yelling.

As they surrendered to the hallway, several men in black gear, their torsos bloated in size from what could only have been Kevlar, flew past. Air buffeted him as each one of them blurred by. The SWAT team? he considered dully. Clark collapsed against the wall, dizzy. Aching. A man in a gray suit — Henderson? — was running down from the opposite end.

"FREEZE!" somebody shouted. "DROP YOUR WEAPONS!"

"Oh, thank God, the police," he heard Thompson say, only to be cut off by another smacking sound. More scuffle sounds and shouting. And finally the echoing click of handcuffs being put into place.

The man in the gray suit spoke from the hallway, witness to whatever carnage lay inside. Clark didn't want to look. "Save it, Thompson. We found *your* office while we were searching around here. I'm also guessing it's reasonable to assume the bullet wound in that man's knee is from your gun."

"Office, what? That's crazy I don't have— You'll be hearing from my lawyers! Get your hands off me, I'm going to be President!" Thompson snarled. There was blood all over his face, dripping down, staining his suit. His knuckles were stained a rusty red as well. His nose was sitting at an odd angle, and it was swelling up cruelly. The overall effect made him look like a monster. A very animated, growling, angry monster.

"I'd call you a backstabber," Clark heard Trask hiss as they brought him out behind, limping, strangely not struggling, "But then I'd be a hypocrite."

"Lois? Clark, I assume? Are you two all right?" the man in the gray suit asked.

Clark nodded, unable to find his voice.

"Yeah, Henderson," Lois said with a smile. "Thanks for the save."

The sound of both men being Mirandized was the last thing he heard before he finally collapsed in relief and exhaustion. Lois's arms were around him, and that was all that mattered.


When he didn't answer the door on the first knock, she wasn't that concerned. Lois looked down at her rumpled sweat suit and brushed off an imaginary fleck of lint. The ritual occupied her thoughts for almost a full five seconds. She then examined a particularly interesting wrinkle that slipped along the sleeve of old sweatshirt like a scorching brand, shouting to all observers, "Yes, this woman slept in this! Shame on her for not changing! A sad object of desperation she is, for wanting to get somewhere so quickly that she didn't bother looking presentable…"

The day had gone by fast, and yet at the same time, interminably slowly, even despite her slumber, which had been plagued by unrest. The paramedics had taken a look at Clark on site at Bessolo after he had collapsed and couldn't find anything wrong with him, though he still hadn't woken up until Detective Henderson had come to guide them out to a waiting ambulance. It was light out when she and Clark were finally escorted out of the Bessolo warehouse, which was at that point, crawling with almost the entire Metropolis Police Department. The daylight had seemed harsh and unforgiving and bright after spending so long in the dimly lit warehouse complex, and she had felt strangely like she was emerging from a cave. In more ways than one.

The trip to the ER had been beyond stressful. Lois had paced around the waiting room, back and forth, back and forth, like a lion on the prowl, just waiting for that moment when the doctor would come running out screaming about aliens. When an orderly had sympathetically asked if he could get her anything. Coffee? A blanket? She had made what she could only classify as an animalistic snarling sound before resuming her wayward path, circuiting the area. Clark, however, had walked back out unassisted, and though pale, he smiled at the sight of her. Or just happening to smile when she appeared, possibly not exactly at her. She still found it amazing that he hadn't run screaming from her yet. But anyways.

He was apparently more human than he gave himself credit for, because the ER doctor that had checked him over had found nothing unusual. Or if he had, he hadn't mentioned it. And, Clark *did* certainly *look* normal. Even now it was hard for her to reconcile what she knew now with what she saw — a man. She stared at his door with some amount of awe. She was knocking on Miracle Man's door. Miracle Man. The most important thing in her life for the past year. More importantly, however, it was Clark's door.

Clark's door.

She knocked again and frowned. Maybe he wasn't awake yet. She fiddled with the strap on her briefcase. The ER doctor had ruled him exhausted and suffering from stress, and had sent him home to sleep. Clark had practically dropped right off as soon as they'd gotten into his apartment that morning. She, ignoring her headache and dire need for rest, had gone to type up the story about Trask and Thompson. Typical Lois, she thought with a quirky grin.

Perry had been delighted when the draft had appeared on his desk. His eyes had widened and lit up like a candle. He'd yelled in that rich, emotional southern drawl of his, "This is a Pulitzer for sure, Honey. I expect follow-ups, and sidebars. I knew Kent would be a good partner for you!"

He had said something else, but it had blurred and meshed into her giant headache, and she had winced. The words, "But, Honey, I think Clark had a good idea there. You should really think about taking off now. You look like you've been on your feet for days," had suddenly faded back into her awareness, and for once, she had been so tired she didn't even bother to protest, not even just for show. She hadn't gotten more than an hour of sleep since Wednesday and she had really been feeling it then, ever since hitting submit on that story.

Submit. That precise moment in time when the buzz usually wore off, and the thrill and utter determination of the whole story- getting affair was yanked away from her like a banana peel to reveal the pride and satisfaction within. The pride and satisfaction with herself that she'd gotten there first and helped to disseminate knowledge that would make the public just a little more aware. A little more safe.

But this morning, when the story had gone in, there had been an unusual relief. There had been a bone-weary tiredness creeping under her skin, chilly like rubbing alcohol evaporating off a wound. There had been an ache. One of those moments when you were just so happy that the pain was gone you burst out sobbing, and the thing you noticed most was the absence of stress, not the warmth of elation.

There had been no thrill. Only a grim satisfaction that Trask and Thompson had ended up backstabbing each other into the public awareness. An awareness that, she had been sure, would be a fiery updraft by the end of the day. But that was for the people who got there second. She and Clark were the first. They had the byline.

Yes, the byline. She had typed his name in the story without even thinking about it, and hadn't noticed it until she was spell-checking her work. Lane and Kent. Partners. It sounded good. It sounded right. Lane and Kent had gotten there first. The scraps were for the rest of the world, and she was satisfied. Clark had been finally and definitively, in her mind, saved from the wolves. And she had been tired. So she had left without argument or contemplation, to the stark amazement of everyone on the Planet staff, as soon as the article was approved for the evening edition.

Her first instinct had been to return to Clark's apartment right then. There had been a relief that seemed to remain even now, perennial and deep-set in her bones. Clark. All right. But tired. She had finally elected to return to her own apartment and get some sleep, which she had, sort of.

And now that that was taken care of, among other things, she was here. Knocking for a third time now. She was about ready to give up when he opened the door. He was standing there in a pair of black boxers, his brown eyes dull with shades of sleep, a haze of dark, day-old stubble creeping across his face.

"I'm—" she stuttered, rendered speechless. "I'm sorry, I must have woken you up. I should have figured that after the first knock. I'll go, I didn't mean—"

But his pale face collapsed into a weary smile as she spoke, just like it always seemed to. "Stay," he said, the word soft like a feather, but she was almost struck down by the strength that swelled underneath it. Bolstering.


And so she did.

He stepped back away from the door and she entered, for the first time noticing how barren his apartment was. There was a rickety chair and a table but the room was otherwise empty. On the table sat a grayish non-reflective ball of some sort, sort of like a colorless grapefruit. The apartment was spacious, but dim. The waning light of sunset filtered through the massive window in what was presumably the living room area, and everything had a haunted flame-colored cast to it.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "I just recently finished cleaning this place out. I was waiting for my first paycheck before I worried about the furniture."

She dismissed his excuse with a blas‚ wave and shuffled over to the table, placing her briefcase next to the globe. "It's no problem, Clark, I'm easy," she said and sat.

And then she realized what she'd said.

"I mean," she began hastily, "I'm not *easy* easy. Don't you be getting any ideas! I'm just okay with bad furniture. I mean!" She faltered under the weight of his bemused expression. She fumbled around, knowing with added woe that the more she struggled the more he was likely to laugh. Not a babbler. No babbling, Lois. Stop it. Stop it. Stop, stop, stop. You are not a brook, you are a calm piece of dirt that has no babbling properties whatsoever. Dirt? I'm dirt??? No! I'm more like… a hybrid wood. Fear the tree-Lois.

Her blush grew worse and worse.

"It's not bad," she continued, "It's just that it could use a touch-up and I really like the taste of my foot. Say, what's this thing?"

When in doubt change the subject. She gestured nebulously at the strange ball that sat on the table's surface. While curious, she didn't dare touch it. Something about it just seemed to say, "Hands off!"

If he noticed any of her inner turmoil, he pretended not to. The sleep had waned from his eyes in the process of her rant, and a small shrug sluiced off his shoulders. "I really don't know. It was next to the ship. It… I think it's from home."


He shook his head minutely and pointed up.


She stared at it and tried desperately to see anything special about it. Anything at all. But it looked like any old ball. Although it did have a strange sheen to it. Maybe it had a face that turned on and off at will. Like the Wizard from Oz.

"It spoke to me. Before you found me next to the ship."


"In my head," he explained as he brushed the tips of his fingers across his right temple. "Or at least I think it did…"

His voice sounded crushed, like he was grasping for answers on an exam and just couldn't quite come up with them. One of those multiple choice questions that hinged on a particular factoid that you *knew* you used to know at one point, where you *knew* you had read the material and could even remember what the page looked like somewhere in the back of your mind, but couldn't figure out what the darned page had *said* which was really all that counted in those instances—

Whoa there, Lane!

"What did it say?" she whispered.

"It showed me where I was from, I think." He looked down at his hands, sounding forlorn as he continued, "Called it Krypton. Showed me what happened. It's all gone, Lois. Everything. There was some sort of explosion. I'm the last one."

The last one, she thought as he started to pace a little. She looked at the globe again, and tried to imagine what he may have felt or heard or seen or smelled. Blank. It was all blank. This was outside the realm of her experience, so far it was in a distant galaxy, and she couldn't for the life of her think of what to do or say that would help. And she wanted to.

Help, that was.

She could say, "I'm sure we'll figure it out, Clark. You and me." Or… "It'll all be all right." But neither sounded fitting, or right. Just dead clich‚s that wanted to tumble off her tongue because she didn't know what else she could offer him.

For all that she had seen in the past few days, she was innately aware that her experiences were nothing in the face of his. They had both found answers that they had been looking for. She had solved a year's worth of professional curiosity. Her question had been answered. He had solved a lifetime's worth of personal terror and probably had more questions now than he had had to begin with.

Just what did you say to something like that?

"Are you *okay*, Clark?"

He paused and looked at her. "Yes…" he began, and then doubled back, "No. I'm not sure. It's just…" His voice trailed off into a shrug and he looked at her helplessly.

Nothing. You said nothing. You were just there. To listen and to comfort. That was the part that mattered, she decided.

And she *could* offer him a little peace, at least. A little peace amongst the turmoil. She eased the latches open on her briefcase, and pulled out her original reason for coming here. The paper was warm and fresh ink, slightly oily, rubbed off on her fingers as she handled it.

"George Thompson Not So Golden?" the headline screamed back. She passed the paper across the table. He came closer and stared, but didn't touch, as though he wasn't sure if he should, or could. Like it were some creature sitting on the table, waiting to leap up and snap at him.

"Look," she explained. "It's our first joint byline. George Thompson and Jason Trask bagged and tagged."

He remained silent but his expression grew worried. She pressed onwards. "But! I have something else for you!"

She reached once more into the depths of her briefcase and pulled out the fat manila folder. It read in thick black letters, "Smallville, KS 1966," on the tab, and it was so ripe with information and details that she had to exert extra pressure to keep it clenched shut.

"They won't find out about you, Clark," she said. "There's nothing left that points to you."

The tension in his posture drained like water through a sieve, and he let out a small, weeping sigh of relief. "What? How did you—"

She smiled at that. It had certainly taken some maneuvering. "Henderson let me in while they were investigating. He said not to touch anything, but since when have I ever listened to stuff like that?"

She had been there just an hour ago. The police had been scouring the entire warehouse, crawling everywhere, searching for more clues as to what precisely had been going on. Henderson had been crouched over one of the file cabinets, next to a giant lawnmower thing with wings and an egg beater attached to the side as she had left. The feds had also begun to swarm onto the premises. It was a complete zoo. So busy, in fact, that nobody had noticed a certain ace reporter swiping evidence.

The whole affair hadn't even been a remote challenge after Bessolo. Heck, she'd gotten out of *that* room with just a shoelace and the under wire from one of the cups in her bra. Which, she might add, was actually one of the highpoints in her escape artist career. Tying the wire and the shoelace together, using the wire to guide the lace through the bullet hole over the door handle, and then maneuvering the lace and wire to catch on the handle so she could pull it up from the inside had been nothing short of sheer genius, if she had to say so herself. Which she did, because one of her most cherished bras from Victoria's Secret, one that fit just right and gave her figure a vixenly delicious boost, had died for the cause. But that was another story altogether, for another time, preferably when a gorgeous man wasn't staring at her, clad only in a pair of boxers…

Clark's gaze searched her, and she melted. The depth of them remained fathomless, and filled with soul. "The ship?" he asked, his voice caught on the jagged edges of a small hope. She wanted right then to get up from the table and embrace him, but restrained herself.

"I didn't see it, Clark. I looked everywhere," she replied. "It's probably just been catalogued already. I'm sure it's nothing to worry about."

He nodded before reaching down to pull the folder toward him. He opened it and flipped through it listlessly. Silent. He looked tired again.

"I couldn't get a hold of that Kryptonite stuff for you either — that's in evidence lockup and, despite my prowess for being in places I shouldn't, that's one I couldn't do," she added, desperate to cover up the silence that hung in the air in the dead spaces between her words.

He didn't respond with more than the barest of nods.

"So how are you feeling?" she prodded.

He stopped, and the folder closed. "Better, I think," he replied. "My enhanced vision started coming back this morning. And I woke up to the wonderful sound of one of my neighbors vacuuming two floors down."

The words, while seemingly small and unimportant, were such a relief that she felt as though a crushing weight were lifting off her soul. He was here, explaining to her without hesitation or wariness the status of his particular abilities. Which meant that he not only trusted her, but maybe also that he wasn't afraid that she was going to freak on him at a moment's notice. Which was always good from a relationship standpoint. Which she still fully intended to pursue. Which was, in fact, a lot of whiches.

"You never did tell me, you know," she prodded.

Talk to me, she wanted to say. Talk to me about anything. Anything that will make you more comfortable in your own skin, she thought.

His eyebrows raised in query. "What?"

"What all powers you have," she clarified, and stared at him expectantly. Waiting. Tell me, anything. Anything at all. I'll listen and I won't be afraid. She hoped her eyes said plainly what she felt.

"Well, I can hear really sharply… Telescopic, microscopic, heat, and x-ray vision. I'm impervious. I have cooling breath. I can fly. Oh and I can hold my breath for twenty-minutes."

"Oooh," she purred throatily. "I could utilize that one."

He looked like he was caught in the path of an oncoming train. "Lois—"

Okay so she had probably been a little too forward there. But she wanted to make it absolutely clear that she was comfortable with him. With all of him. Not that she could really contemplate how anyone could be uncomfortable with him. He was standing there in boxers with a gorgeous 5 o'clock shadow adorning his face, bearing his soul to her. It was a sexy body, and an even more beautiful soul.

And he had to *know* that.

"Relax, I'm kidding," she assured him with a chuckle, which was a slight bit of a lie. She actually could think of ways to— Hmmm. It was probably best not to go there just yet. "So anyways, Thompson is being brought up on charges of kidnapping, murder, and a whole bunch of other things. I stopped taking notes when I started having to bullet the list. Trask apparently left around quite a bit of stuff for Henderson's crew to find. They ended up framing each other. Well, I guess it's not really framing if they did the things that they're being accused of. But anyways— What?"

He was staring at the newspaper article with their byline on it again, looking almost shamefaced. She would really have to work on his guilt complexes.

But to her surprise, the shame evolved into one of his lovely lop-sided grins. He looked back up at her and pointed to her, palm outward as if to say, "Here I present the world's most superest reporter! Lois Lane! Let's have a hand."

Okay, so superest wasn't a word, but still.

"I knew there was a reason I would regret taking Friday off," he said as he completed his sweeping gesture. And then back to the shame face, which she had the sudden urge to just swat right off his face. He was like a frustrating sentient yo-yo.

"You didn't have to give me that byline, you know," he continued. "I didn't help do any of the writing or the wrap up break-in— err. I mean investigations."

She released a rude-sounding pffft and stood to meet him head on. "Nonsense," she blurted with a roll of her eyes. "Half the stuff I wouldn't have even found by this time if it hadn't been for you—"

"Being a stubborn jerk and not telling you the whole story."

Well… He'd sort of cornered her into that one, hadn't he? Which wasn't fair. Darn it. But he *had* been sort of a stubborn jerk. An infuriating guilt-ridden stubborn yo-yo jerk.

"Well, I wasn't going to say anything," she said with a shrug, closing off more of the space between them as she took a few steps forward.

He was still pretty cute though. She quirked a sly grin at him and moved even closer. I *am* comfortable with you, you big lummox, she thought in his direction. You better believe it!

"It's okay. I know I sort of messed up—" His voice choked up and cut off when she placed a hand on his shoulder. His gaze darted down to her fingers as if he couldn't believe that she would touch him, but righted itself so quickly to stare back at her that she wasn't sure if she had imagined it or not. Her other hand went for his other shoulder, and she moved closer. Even closer. Until she was very much invading his personal space.

What are you doing, Lois?

Giving a lesson, she snapped back at the interjecting voice.

His muscles were taut like cords stuck in a vice, and his breathing was decidedly shallow at the moment. He still wasn't getting the message, it seemed. And so she moved. She lifted her hands from their resting place and his breath caught, but before giving him any sort of ideas about the situation, she slipped her arms under his, and collapsed into him. Into a warm, firm embrace.

For several long moments, the only sound that hung in the air was her soft breathing. She took sanctuary against his chest, which turned out to be quite a satisfactory pillow of sorts, despite his obvious desire to melt away into nothing, and not melting in a good, satisfied sense, but rather sort of like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz. That was when she realized she really *could* only hear the sound of her own breathing. It seemed as though he had stopped inhaling and exhaling entirely, and was standing still like a statue. What was she supposed to do if he suffocated himself? *Could* he do that? Hopefully he would just faint. And anyways, according to him, she had twenty minutes to fix the situation, at least.

Come on, she wanted to scream. It's all right.

But she didn't need to. After a minute had ticked by, the tension dripped out of him like a steady, bleeding sweat, and she felt more than heard his deep inhale. His large chest filled underneath her. Then his strong arms slipped around her like a constricting fleece blanket and enveloped her in the safest feeling cocoon of a hug she had ever been in.

And she smiled.

Her action that followed was an impulsive one. At first, she had no idea why she did it, but in the end, all the doubts bowed in deep, cowering submission to the divine rule of chemistry. It was the paradigm of perfection after a long assembly line of awkward and imperfect moments with other men, men like Claude, moments that were now a distant barely glimmer in the back of her most sub of subconscious, such was the sheer power of this particular eclipse. She stretched up onto the very tips of her toes, felt her calf muscles engage with a light pressure and tinge to hold her up, and she kissed him.

At first, she was hesitant. But as she felt his hands clench at her back, gathering up tents of her battered sweatshirt into his grip, and noticed in turn that he was not only a willing recipient, but returning quite fervently as well, she grew more daring. More sure of herself.

The grind of his lips against hers was a rampaging blaze, and for the first time in her life, she knew where the expression about seeing stars had come from, because she did. See them. They pricked and stuck at the backs of her eyelids until she was blind and prisoner of sensation alone. The sensation of his skin against hers. The heat.

When it was over and she remained silent next to him, save for her starved, gasping breaths, she was sure she had found something in life that she liked better than chocolate. Much better. There was chocolate. There was nirvana. And then there was this. And it was perfect. He was quite a good kisser. She wondered if perhaps he had accidentally omitted that from his de facto list of special abilities.

"Wow," he said between ragged pants.

She nodded, wide-eyed, as she collapsed back down onto the flats of her feet and settled back into his embrace. "No kidding."

They breathed. Together. The heat of his body against hers melted through her sweatshirt, and a comfortable, intimate silence lasted for several minutes.

"I do understand though," she finally whispered, and pulled back only enough to look up at him. He looked at her through a hooded, lazy, relaxed gaze. "Why you didn't tell me to begin with. Finding out what happened to Miracle Man *is* news… And well, I'm… I'm Lois Lane. Super reporter girl. I feel okay though, not telling. Your secret is safe."

"I didn't doubt that from pretty much the second you found out."

Her heart wanted to break for him then. She didn't miss the implication that he *had* thought she would at one point. And she didn't blame him. Not at all. She hadn't given him any reason to think otherwise, what with her pigheaded, bull-nosed antics. His fear over her minor Pulitzer obsession was partially his fault. And also partially hers… Maybe more so than his. A fact which she didn't like to admit, and probably never would aloud, not even to a priest in a confessional under duress, but it was sadly true.

She had just barreled through life like usual this past week, not taking Clark's copious hints that it just might not be a good idea this time. That maybe caution was deserved and smart. And Clark had nearly been crushed in the process, which she had never wanted, even when she had been downright flaming mad at him for not giving in and baring his soul to her prematurely.

And it would have been premature if she had found out any sooner, she decided. It really would have. Because if she hadn't gotten to spend time with Clark and get to know him a little better. She probably would have written the story. A truth that would no-doubt haunt her for a long time yet to come.

"Miracle Man = Miracle Discovered?" The headline screamed in her head as though she had actually written it and it was burned indelibly into the header type of the Daily Planet's Friday evening front page.

But her train of thought was curbed by her own forcible off- putting. She was here to help *him*. Not wallow in self pity. She hated wallowers. Hated them. And there was time to wallow later, when she was alone and actually in possession of the ice cream necessary for a proper moping wallowing session.

"I do have something else to show you, though," she added, reluctantly releasing herself from his solid embrace.

"What's that?" he asked, his tone indicating he felt as bereft as she did for breaking the contact.

She went for her briefcase for the third time, withdrawing the last of its contents. A standard-sized crisp sheet of white paper covered with 10-point new courier type. Words. Important words that he *needed* to see.

"Lois, what is this?" he asked as she placed the paper in his hands and backed away. Giving him space to absorb what he saw there.

"It's the article I wrote about you returning."

"But I haven't—"

She splayed her hands out in front of her, wanting right then to curb all signs of doubt that were slowly invading his expression once again. "Work with me, Clark, it's just food for thought. Clark, what you can do is special beyond words. The world… *Metropolis* was a safer place to be when Miracle Man was still a regularly seen apparition. A place with more hope, Clark. And after this whole mess, I see what it's like for you when you try to hide what you are. You're miserable. This will be release."


She rushed onwards, afraid that if she stopped for even an instant to breathe or think, all would be lost. Either she would lose momentum and she wouldn't sound nearly as convincing as this situation indicated she simply *had* to be, or he would suffer the knockout blow from the doubt that looked, from the expression on his face, to be clotting like a gooey unsettling lump in his stomach.

"I know you're probably reluctant to start again, but could you at least think about it? I called all over. Bureau 39 wasn't sanctioned, Clark. None of it. Not by the people who count. The investigation into the Bessolo warehouse is following the organization's roots back to some very warped people in the FBI who shouldn't be there, should *never* have been there, and *won't* be there much longer once the inquiries are completed. You have to see that, Clark. The people want you here. The people like me who actually have to live in reality. You're no freak, regardless of what you seem to think of yourself. You're hope. The freaks are the people who sit in their offices, plotting out your life on some stupid map, trying to figure out where you're going to flag the invasion fleet through."

"I—" His voice broke like a child's toy in the hands of a vicious dog.

"I *know* this is hard, Clark," she pressed on. "All I'm asking is that you think about it."

And it was truly all she was asking. He needed to know that he was wanted, and loved, and not a monstrosity. Earlier, she had proven that was the case between the two of them. But between him and the world was another matter. He needed to get back into things before he let his obvious doubts fester into a new kind of terror, a kind that was infinitely harder to get rid of because it wasn't even real. Or at least he had to know that if he didn't want to continue, it was by his own choice and no one else's.

He was truly a miracle. And he needed to know that.

He *needed* to.

He was silent for a long set of moments, his expression pensive. "How would I explain the disappearance? I'm sure everyone thinks I abandoned them."

"That's the beauty of it Clark!" she exclaimed. "There was only speculation. Miracle Man was never interviewed, pinpointed, or photographed as more than a blur. You can come back as someone different. Someone new. A new hero."

There was a long silence then. A long one. So long she began to feel hot with doubt and embarrassment, and wondered if she'd said something wrong or offensive.

"But that would be a lie, Lois…"

She blinked. That was all?

"Please, Clark, please think about it. For your sake as much as everyone else's. You could totally change your look, and your persona. Be approachable, talk to people. Be a known entity rather than a rumor. Go by a different name… Be more confident."

Meet the people you save, she wanted to say. Meet them and let them tell you, "Thank you!"

"Lois, I feel ridiculous enough being called a miracle," he replied with a bitter laugh. It sounded ugly and hung in the air like a festering black cloud. "I do what I can. I help. But that's no miracle."

"And that's where you're *wrong*, Clark." She shook her head and re-entered that lovely embrace, except now it was something different. Something brooding. And she went to work fixing it all over again. "Sometimes the best miracles are the littlest things."

"So you're really serious about all this." She felt his breath sweep across the top of her brow, and she sighed back into him. Well, duh, she wanted to scream at him. He truly was a blockhead at times, he really was.

She hugged him tighter.

"Dead serious. I don't know what else I can say to convince you. I just hope you'll think about it." She wondered then, what else she *could* do if this all failed. Dress up in a pink leotard and traipse around as Ultrawoman or some such nonsense. It's okay to be a superhero, Clark! See?

He sighed, and they stood there, silent for a while, just enjoying holding each other. The sun had long since set, and the orange glow from before was now the dim pale silver and purplish haze of streetlamps and light pollution.

"I have a lot to work through, Lois. But I *will* think about it, at least," he said finally.

"Good, that's all I ask."

And it was true. All she wanted from him was for him to be happy. That fact was more than just a little scary. She had never cared about someone more than she cared about herself before. Never. And here she was, hoping Clark would be happy for Clark's sake, and not for any added perks it would give her.

This whole thing was scary beyond reason.

"You really thought about all this, didn't you," she heard him whisper overtop her head.

"Practiced the speech even," she confessed.

Scary. And new.

And good.

"So in your warped imagination," he began, his tone moving from wistful to playful, "What new hero am I going to be?"

"Warped?" She twisted in his grasp and punched him very lightly on the arm. "My imagination is not warped!"

"Looois," he answered in a sing-song voice.

Surprisingly good. And having opportunities for another one or multiples of those kisses was fine in her book.

"What hero? Let's see. Oh, I don't know…" She hadn't really thought *that* far ahead, had she? But, well. Hmmm. "Something brighter at the very least. Black is gorgeous on you, but it's just too morose," she thought aloud.

"Morose." The word was said with caution. As if he suddenly knew he had asked her far too dangerous a question.

And he had. Because now she was thinking about it, and planning, and formulating. She *did* sort of know how to sew. At least she knew more about sewing than cooking.

"Yeah, you don't want to be the grim reaper incarnate do you?" she replied, mischief welling up inside her from within. "The Undertaker from the WWF should not be your role model. Nah, you need something flashy. Like bright blue. And… And a better name to go along with it. Something… Something super…"

His grip faltered and slackened considerably. Yes. He knew he was in trouble now.

"Ummm," he stuttered. His eyes darted around the room, as if he thought a good excuse would just pop out at random from inside one of the many walls. "Well…" She pulled back and stared at him with a playful grin on her face. "Look at the time," he finally stumbled, though there were no clocks in sight, and he was not wearing a watch. "Miss Lane, I do believe I owe you that dinner date now."

"You're dodging!" she protested.

Oh, this was just fun!

"Lois, you have me picturing a flying clown named Incredibleman. You bet I'm dodging."

She snorted with laughter, because now she was picturing it too. "Well okay, I'll let it slide this once. But only if you take me somewhere with a very nice dessert menu," she replied. "There's just one problem, though."

A pause.

"What's that?"

"You're only in a pair of boxers and I'm in a frumpy sweat suit that looks like I've slept in it for two years without washing it."

He held up an index finger and backed away from her. "Au contraire!" he protested. His image blurred for a second, as though this were a cartoon, and someone had dashed him out with grayish watercolors. There was a sharp searing sound, kind of like a drill but less shrill. Air rushing. Her hair flew back away from her head in the draft. And then he was standing there in the gorgeous tux he had worn to Luthor's ball, completely back in focus. Even his stubble was gone.

She felt her mouth tumble open and she watched him, speechless. "Seems my abilities are definitely back," he mentioned with a grin.

"But," she protested weakly. "I'm still in this…" She gestured at her sweatshirt.

"That's good," he said. "It will keep you warm."

"What?" she asked dumbly. Thoughts were abandoning her at this point. She knew he could do things. She had sort of registered the laundry list of abilities he had given her earlier. But this was the first time she had seen up close and personal any sign at all that he was indeed what all the evidence had indicated he was.

A miracle.

He had just changed clothing and gotten ready in less than a second, right before her eyes. With no sign of tumultuous emotion, just his gorgeous smile.

"I think I know just the place," he explained, not giving her the opportunity to collect her thoughts, which probably would have taken a year or two anyways.

She forced her mouth shut and inhaled much-needed oxygen before she asked in a breathless, befuddled tone completely unbecoming of a professional communicator such as herself, "Where?"

Who, what, when, why, and how… Those were the proper questions!

"How about I just show you…" he said with a wink.

It was as if she was under a drunken spell, and swimming through a tub of molasses was the only way to get out. "Show me—?"

Who… What… When… Err… What was the rest again?

"Do you trust me?"

"Trust you to what?"


"Yes," she finally squeezed out, accompanied by a blink and a nod and the grumble of her throat as she cleared it. "Yes, I trust you."

And suddenly, without any warning whatsoever, his arms snaked around her, scooped her up like a kitten or a baby, and the weight was gone from her feet. Air was rushing around them. Lots of air. And it was darker. And colder, but not too cold.

She finally registered that they were in the air, and didn't quite grasp that they had gone through the door onto his little patio and took off until she looked down and saw the pale surface shrinking away behind them to the point that it looked miniature and fake, like a little train set prop.

The air. They were. Flying. That's right, he *had* said he could fly, hadn't he. Somehow that hadn't really registered. And here she was, cruising right along with him in his arms like cargo on a miniature jetliner. The lights were a dazzling spectacle, like thousands of fireflies swarming below them in a dark valley. There was a faint smell of water and ozone, and the air swept past her in surprising quietness. It was more like they were in a boat gliding across a lake than swooping through the atmosphere. And she didn't feel cold at all.

Lois made a strange garbled sound in her throat as she stared around.

"You okay there?" Clark's voice interrupted her amazement, but only momentarily. "Sorry if I surprised you. We can land if you want."

"No!" she protested. Too quickly almost. "No, don't land. It's beautiful, Clark."

"This is what I most missed the last year."

"I can see why. This is amazing!" she exclaimed as they flew over the Metropolis Trade Tower. The second tallest building in Metropolis. And she was sailing over it with no parachute or plane involved. It was breathtaking. Amazing. Spectacular. And she was doing it! Well, Clark was doing it, but she was definitely participating as well.

The excitement erupted from within her, the sheer thrill finally overcoming her muzzled shock. "Where are we going?!" she suddenly found herself asking, like a two-year-old in the back seat of a frazzled mom's minivan. "Can you do a flip?"

The sound of his laughter was as rich as whipped chocolate, and she took comfort in it. He was laughing, and happy. And she was flying. Literally. "Lois Lane, you are insatiable!"

"That's what makes me the best reporter in the city!"

They were moving along the coastline now, gliding like seagulls in the night.

"Insatiable, and modest too."

"Well, you can never go wrong with a little confidence, Clark." She hugged him tightly. "So where are we going!?" she asked again, her excitement once more getting the better of her.

This was incredible. Beyond that. She knew now why he had looked so wistful on the balcony of Lex Luthor's tall tower.

"Well," Clark explained as she leaned her forehead into his neck and sighed in pleasure. "I was thinking this French place I know, but I'm open to suggestions."

"Anywhere?" she asked.


She gazed down at the fleeting coastline. City lights streamed past them on the left. The breaking waves and ocean glistened in the moonlight on the right like a filmy, gleaming swatch of wax paper. It was a perfect division of light and dark.

"How about we just keep flying?"

"Anything you want, Lois. Anything you want."


His old fingers slipped over the leather binding, shaking slightly. Damned hands. Couldn't keep them still these days. He shook his head and leaned further in to read. His thick bifocals weren't as helpful as they once were.

The inside cover read, "Jason Trask," in horrible, barely- legible, scratchy print. And the majority of young Mr. Kent's life unfolded before him on the aged pages that followed. He eased back in his chair, sighing heavily as he closed the book and laid it to rest on top of the crisp map that lay unfolded across his desktop.

The map was of the state of Kansas. There was a large red X scribbled shakily in permanent marker, just outside the town on the side of one of those back roads that folks hardly ever traveled. The ship would be safe there. No one would ever find it. Except Clark. When he was ready.

"You have friends," he scrawled in looping cursive on a small sheet of notebook paper after he took a sip of his coffee — a light mocha blend. No caffeine.

After glancing to see if everything was in order, he folded up the map and the notebook paper and placed them in a battered manila envelope that was covered with postage stamps. The diary went in next. And then he sealed the envelope, first with a lick, and then with reinforcing clear tape.

He addressed it to Mr. Kent's new apartment on Clinton Street, and shuffled it out and down to the front desk, where he slipped it into the outgoing mail pile. It sat there amongst the other packages, innocuous and unassuming. Just a standard envelope filled with what most people would probably assume were just legal documents and maybe a ledger book.

He brushed his hands together. He was old, and tired. But now he was finally done. The news was drowning with reports of Bureau 39 and its suspected dealings. Reporters were pawing through the wreckage, looking for any and every tidbit they could find about some new and even more heinous event that had been directed by the Bureau. Everything was as it should be. As it always should have been.

Burton Newcomb went back up the stairs to his apartment and sat down in his recliner, flipping on the TV with a remote as he collapsed into it with a heaving, weary sigh. Old, he was. And tired. There was still nothing but reports of Thompson and the 'mysterious' Jason Trask and Bureau 39, no matter what channel he turned to.

He fell into a peaceful sleep, soothed by the rumbling sounds of one of the debate shows on LNN, and was oblivious to the world by the time the reports of the morning failure of the Messenger launch came on.

Bureau 39 was gone. He was tired. And he was done.

He slept with a smile.


The night air was crisp, but delightful. The slight scent of rain tickled his nostrils, and humidity brushed across his face like the cool hands of a sated lover. He leaned closer to the edge of the balcony and smiled down at the lights below. Lights like a thousand villagers with torches, all gathering below his magical tower. Always a gorgeous view. Always. Power was always about the view.

And he had power.


"You look happy, sir," the stiff voice of his English assistant said behind him.

Lex Luthor turned and shrugged. Nigel stood there, a bottle of Dom Perignon clenched in one hand, two champagne flutes tangled in the fingers of his other hand.

"The Messenger launch failed. I'm on top of the world," Lex said with a fulfilled sigh. "I trust Samuel Platt was taken care of since I haven't heard about any disturbances?"

"Yes," Nigel said with a slight, graceful bow. "We apprehended him shortly before he reached the Daily Planet on Monday. He's been… taken care of. Antoinette was also properly dealt with."

Lex let his grin spread like an infection, betraying his true elation. He had gotten away with everything. Again. "Good!" he exclaimed, clapping his hands together in a jaunty little motion.

Nigel quirked an eyebrow. "A toast, sir?" he asked, bringing Lex's attention to the champagne bottle he held in his hands with a slight inclination of his head.

Lex gave him a regal nod, and the Englishman set the two flutes down on the railing. He poured the Dom Perignon into the shining crystal flutes, and handed one to Lex with a sly, twinkling smile. The crisp air ruffled Lex's hair and sent his suit coat fluttering up a bit. The wind smelled of change. And triumph.

"A toast! To wealth, and power," Lex exclaimed with a slight tilt of his head.

Nigel tilted his head in kind. "To wealth and power," he replied, though slightly less intoned.

The glasses clinked together like the sound of choir bells, and Lex leaned back against the railing to breathe in the smell of victory once more. But the smell was bittersweet, at best. "Ahhh, Nigel. Sometimes I do feel though, that there lacks a challenge in this. Something… Something is missing, Nigel."

"But, sir." Nigel quirked an eyebrow upwards after taking a sip of his champagne. "No one looks down on you. You're a king in your tower, and no one can touch you."

Lex looked up at the sky, noting a small blinking light that traveled along the sky scape. A lone firefly buzzing along in the bleak world overhead. He saluted the departing plane.

"Only until someone learns to fly, Nigel. Only until then…"