By Caroline K. <email@example.com>
Submitted: July 2006
Summary: In this alternate take on the end of Season 1, Clark may be furious with Lois for her rejection of him. But the author reworks L&C canon to remedy a host of fan complaints. And at least Lois doesn't accept Luthor's proposal…
Disclaimers/Author's Notes: This is a work of appreciative fiction based on the television series "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman." This story uses situations and certain lines of dialogue from the following episodes: "Barbarians at the Planet" and "The House of Luthor" written by Dan Levine and Deborah Joy Levine; "We Have a Lot to Talk About" written by John McNamara; and "Green, Green Glow of Home" written by Bryce Zabel. A heavy debt of inspiration is also owed to the episode "The Foundling," written by Dan Levine. No infringement is intended to the rightful owners of these characters and situations, and no money is being made from the publication of this story.
Though I don't really consider this a songfic, the title and a certain amount of inspiration were derived from the song "If I Were You" performed by Collin Raye and written by Chris Farren and John Hobbs. I also thank CC Aiken for her wonderful story, "Something the Cat Dragged In," which inspired a particular cat in this story.
Many thanks to those at the Lois and Clark Fanfic Message Boards http://www.lcficmbs.com/index2.html who offered so many helpful and encouraging comments while this story was in progress!
Finally, special thanks to Sherry, GE extraordinaire, who polished this story up for the archive and patiently helped me through the process of submitting my first L&C story. I am so grateful for her efforts!
He knew that he should be doing anything else but the thing that he was doing. He should be anywhere else on earth but where he was, which was outside of Lois Lane's apartment window, watching her silently and trying to work up the courage to make his presence known. Surely someone somewhere needed him worse than she did — needed him in that life-or-death way that was both the blessing and the curse of his entire existence. Often — so often that he was sure it must be a statistical impossibility — she *did* need him like that, needed him to save her from whatever feat of brilliant-stupid-reckless-daring she was attempting in pursuit of the almighty story. How many times had she put her life on the line for a few columns of ink that had long since been tossed in the trash? He'd lost count now. And he knew there was more to it than that, for he, too, was a journalist through and through, but no story had ever been worth the life of Lois Lane. No story ever could be. Since he couldn't seem to convince her of that, however, he had simply stayed close and listened for her call, and when she called, he had always come, in one guise or another.
It was a simple enough arrangement, and until recently it had formed the foundation of his life in Metropolis. Now, however, the foundation was eroding, his whole life crumbling more quickly than he would have believed possible, even knowing the power of Lex Luthor was behind it. There was no longer a Daily Planet, no longer a Lane and Kent. Perry was heading for Florida, of all places, to work on his tan; and Jack was in jail for a crime Clark was sure he hadn't committed.
And Lois…Lois didn't love him.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise to him, let alone made him feel as though he'd been punched in the gut and didn't know where to find his next breath. She'd made herself perfectly clear on the subject from the very beginning; it was only his own foolish, hopeful heart that had allowed him to believe that maybe, just maybe, his love for her wasn't a wasted emotion. She'd put paid to that, however, kindly but decisively, and then she'd undone all the attempts at kindness by asking for Superman. He'd known her to be thoughtless before, but he'd never suspected her capable of such cruelty.
He should just leave…really he should. He should be anywhere, answering anyone else's call. It never worked that way, though. It never had. The whole world could be shouting for him, and he would somehow hear Lois Lane's slightest whisper and rush to her side, even if it were just to offer himself up for another round of her special brand of torture. So here he was, staring into her window like a voyeur as he tried desperately to gird himself for the coming conversation.
She was in her living room, wearing a satiny blue nightgown that hugged her slim form and dipped low enough to make his heart pound and his groin tighten. She would probably be shocked to know that he was capable of such a typically male response. To Lois, Superman was far too noble for such base reactions, and Clark was the safe friend, practically asexual in his comfortable dependability. How he wished just then that either was true. But no, he was neither noble nor asexual, and he'd long since faced the fact that Lois Lane draped in burlap would have the power to stir him; Lois Lane in satin lingerie left him incapable of higher brain function.
Still, the thing for which his body was clamoring was quite clearly not on the night's agenda, so he somehow mustered the willpower it took to drift away from her window and up above the clouds, where he gained control of his more traitorous parts and gave himself a stern reminder of all the reasons she'd given him to be angry with her lately. It seemed to work, too, and when he swooped back to her window, all he would let himself think of was her breaking his heart in one breath and then asking for Superman in the next.
She heard him this time, as he'd meant her to. She jumped up from where she'd been reading, sounding a bit startled as she said his name.
"I heard you wanted to see me," he said, taking care to keep his face blank and his voice neutral.
"Yes," she said, smiling nervously at him. "Please come in. I'll just…put on a robe."
He let his eyes sweep over her blatantly, indulging the impulse just once. "Unless it's lined with lead, Lois, it's a waste of time."
He felt a twinge of guilt when he saw her startled by his crass remark. But then his hurt from earlier in the day made its way back to the fore, and he shook off the guilt and wrapped himself in the pain he was feeling. What a farce this was! Whatever she had to say, he was going to hear it and then get away from her once and for all.
"I guess so," she stammered. "Anyway, I'm just trying to figure out…well, there've been a lot of changes going on in my life and I'm trying to make the right decisions, but I can't until I know…how you feel."
She walked up to him and put her hand lightly on his chest, and he felt like she'd stolen his breath. He shook his head, fighting the urge to step away. "Lois, I do…care for you. But there are things about me you don't know. Things you may never know. Reasons why you and I aren't a good idea."
"It doesn't matter. I know you. And I don't mean you the 'celebrity' or you the 'superhero'. If you had no powers — if you were just an ordinary man leading an ordinary life, I'd love you just the same. Can't you believe that?"
He had to force himself to answer calmly, still desperately wishing for some distance from her. "I wish I could, Lois. But under the circumstances, I don't see how I can."
He saw the tears in her eyes and hardened his heart to them. "I don't understand," she said. "What circumstances? Why won't you believe me?"
Bitterness had lodged itself in his heart like a shard of glass, and suddenly he wanted to return some of the pain and embarrassment she'd dealt him that day. "You're not in love with *me*, Lois," he spat, stepping backwards, moving away from her soft touch, her sweet scent. "You're in love with a role I play when I'm dressed up in a spandex suit my mother made for me. And without the flashy suit, you wouldn't give me a second look."
"That's not true!" she cried. "It's not!"
Without stopping to think about it, he spun into a whirl of color before her astonished eyes, and when he stopped, he stood before her as Clark Kent. "Tell me again that it's not true, Lois," he said softly. He felt a thrill of victory when she backed slowly away from him, her face pale…shocked. He stepped forward, deliberately crowding her. "Tell me you didn't hand me back my heart this afternoon and give me the let's-just-be-good-friends speech." He held his hands up and turned around, giving her a 360-degree view. "Here's your ordinary man leading an ordinary life. The second banana. The hack from Nowheresville. The farmboy. The one you could never love as anything more than a friend."
"Oh my God," she whispered.
"I'm leaving, Lois. If I loved you less, I might be able to stay, but I…can't. I can't hang around waiting to see if maybe I'll get to be your consolation prize. But before I go, I want to say this: if you believe in me at all — if you believe in *Superman* at all — please don't marry Luthor. I can't give you any proof, but I have reason to believe that he's responsible for numerous crimes, including the destruction of the Planet. He's a dangerous man, and I'm not going to be here to protect you anymore."
"Wh…where are you going?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure. I'll probably travel again, like I did before. There's nothing left for me here." He stepped forward and brushed a kiss against her cheek. "Goodbye, Lois," he whispered, just before he spun into the suit and streaked off into the night sky.
Predictably, anger was the first emotion Lois caught hold of amongst the many that were churning up her insides with the force of a tornado. It was some time before she could give voice to anything other than primal sounds of rage, and the tears that leaped from her eyes were tears of fury denied any other outlet. When the words did come, when her brain once again became capable of coherent thought, she dashed the tears from her face furiously, ashamed of them even though no one had seen them. Her hands were shaking, and she clasped those in front of her as she paced vigorously around her apartment. Then she realized she was pacing — was nearly climbing the walls, in fact, thanks to the adrenaline that was racing through her — and she stopped that, too, determined not to give Clark Kent the satisfaction of unsettling her so thoroughly. That Clark Kent was no longer there made no difference. She *wouldn't* react. She would find some way to calmly, coolly accept the fact that her partner — he of the denim shirts and goofy glasses and appalling ties — had just bitterly rejected her and then flown out her window.
Flown. Out her *window*.
She poured herself a glass of wine, desperate for something to calm her down and resenting Clark all the more for making her do something she'd sworn she'd never do — turn to alcohol for help in dealing with a problem. It was one thing to drink socially and quite another to *need* a drink, as her mother's children had had ample opportunity to learn. She needed this drink, though, and it worked, soothing her tumultuous thoughts into something manageable. She resisted the temptation to pour a second glass. She didn't want to obliterate the problem, just to slow down her mental processes enough to work through it.
Once she could sit in peace and think about what had happened, she was a little surprised to realize that her primary emotion was no longer anger…or at least not the sort of anger she'd experienced at first. No, now she felt something much closer to grief, and that surprised her once she recognized its source. But she'd lost something tonight — something she'd been clinging to for a long time. She had genuinely believed that she'd been telling Superman the truth when she'd told him that she would love him even if he were an ordinary man. She'd meant those words with all her heart. But the truth she now had to face was that Lois Lane didn't think much of ordinary men, and she certainly didn't want *Superman* to be ordinary. Oh, it wasn't the powers she cared about — not as such. She would love Superman if he couldn't fly, so long as he was still…perfect. Perfectly kind, perfectly generous, perfectly selfless. Certainly not the kind of man who would toss her in a dumpster or send her on a wild goose chase at the sewage reclamation facility. *Or* the kind of man who would make cracks about undressing her with his x-ray vision.
*Clark Kent* had made that crack about her robe…the big jerk.
She didn't want Superman to be Clark Kent, and the more she thought about it, the more it hurt — not because Clark had kept a secret from her, but because in the end he *hadn't* kept it. He'd spoiled her fantasy of the perfect man, and damn it, she'd *enjoyed* that fantasy. She dealt in grim realities every single day; was it too much to ask that she have one tiny corner of her heart free to devote to her dream of a risk-free relationship? Apparently it was. If Superman could turn out to be a liar and a fake, then there was certainly no other man who could live up to her expectations.
And yes, that included Lex. *Lex*, who had asked her to marry him. *Lex*, who, according to SuperClark, was not a kind philanthropist but was instead some sort of…well, criminal mastermind. It seemed utterly preposterous, as ridiculous as finding out that Perry White was the Easter Bunny, but having seen Clark Kent fly out her window, Lois was now prepared to believe anything. And she had to admit, galling though it was, that Clark's superpowers put him in a better position to know about Lex than she was. Inasmuch as she hated for *anyone* to be in a better position to know *anything* than she, the very thought made her want to throw something; she repressed the urge, however, and let herself consider instead what she was going to say to Lex. She had just accepted a job at LNN and promised him an answer to his proposal, and she knew he had every expectation that by dinnertime tomorrow they'd be celebrating their engagement. Lex Luthor wasn't in the habit of being turned down, and she knew he'd be surprised and displeased when she suddenly turned up and declined both his proposal and his job offer.
She'd have to do it carefully, she realized, so as not to involve either Clark or Superman in any way. If what Clark said was true, his antipathy for Lex Luthor stemmed from a great deal more than simple jealousy over Lois's affections, and until she knew the details — which she certainly intended to do — she would have to tread carefully with Lex to avoid awakening his suspicions. She might want to tear Clark Kent limb from limb just now, but somehow she knew that he'd been telling the truth when he warned her about Lex. He knew something — something big. He'd said Lex was "dangerous." He'd said Lex had destroyed The Daily Planet. He'd said he wouldn't be around to protect her anymore, which meant that he thought Lex capable of actually hurting her. Of course, if it were true that Lex had bombed the Planet, then he was certainly capable of hurting her, for few things had ever hurt her as badly as seeing the Planet destroyed. But she knew that Clark had been referring to a more direct physical threat. That still seemed difficult to credit, and it was probably just Clark being overprotective, but she would be cautious nonetheless.
And once she was finished with Lex, she would find Clark Kent and make him tell her absolutely everything he knew. He might not have any proof now, but if Lex had destroyed the Planet, then they were darn well going to *get* proof! How dare Clark talk of leaving? He couldn't, not when things were in such a complete mess and she needed his help to straighten them out. And she would make him see that, of course. Clark could always be talked around to her way of thinking; it was one of his finest qualities. She was still angry with him, and that would take some time to get over, but she realized that angry as she was, she still couldn't quite imagine her life without him. When had he become so…essential? She hadn't noticed. She'd just gradually absorbed him into her life, taking for granted that he'd always be there. Even after their painful conversation in the park that day, she had assumed that Clark would graciously accept being relegated to the "friend" section of her life and continue to be there for her no matter what choices she made.
The extent of her selfishness suddenly came crashing down on her like water from behind a breached dam; once again, she felt tears spring to her eyes. This time they were tears of grief as she realized that, not only had she lost her fantasy of the perfect man when Superman had flown out of her life, but she might also have lost a very real friend when he'd taken Clark Kent with him. She reached for the phone, frantically punching in the number to Clark's apartment, little caring that it was now past midnight. The phone rang four times, and then the machine came on, with Clark's voice pleasantly requesting that she leave a message. She opened her mouth to speak, but her mind was suddenly blank and the lump in her throat impassable. What could she say? How could she possibly repair the damage to their friendship with a two-minute message on his answering machine? What if he'd really *meant* it when he said he was leaving, going back to Borneo or wherever it was he'd been before? He was Superman; he could be anywhere in the world by now, already building a new life away from her. She hung up the phone without speaking, leaving nothing but a long silence on Clark's machine.
The loss of Clark was just too much to contemplate in a day that had been emotionally draining and had lasted far too long. Feeling a bit like Scarlett O'Hara, she told herself firmly that tomorrow would be soon enough to start fixing the mess she'd made of things. She'd begin with Lex and then somehow find Clark and figure out what she needed to say to him. She wasn't sure where Superman fit into it all, but already the superhero had begun to fade into the background of her mental landscape, where once he'd loomed larger than life. Clark was still Clark, but Superman had gone all hazy and indistinct, and she supposed that meant something significant. But, whatever it was, she didn't want to face it just then. She'd figure that out later, too. She crawled into bed, hiding her head under her pillow as if that would somehow stifle her frantic thoughts, but it was a long time before a restless sleep finally claimed her.
"Lois, my dear, how lovely to see you." Lex glided across his office to greet her, taking both of her hands in his and pressing a decorous kiss to her cheek.
"Hi, Lex." Lois smiled and tried to sound her usual self, but she could hear the nervousness in her voice and, judging by his close scrutiny, so could Lex.
"Come in, please." He gestured her toward one of the comfortable chairs in his office and then seated himself next to her. "Would you like a cup of coffee? Some refreshment? I'd be happy to call for something."
"Uh, no, thanks. I had breakfast before I came." It wasn't true; she seldom ate much breakfast anyway, and today just the thought of it had made her ill. So she had skipped it altogether, instead electing to call Lex's office and arrange for this early morning meeting.
"Very well," he said amiably. "So tell me what brings you here so early this morning. Dare I hope that you're here to make me the happiest of men?"
<<Oh, please!>> Lois thought. How had she even considered marrying a man who was capable of a line like that? Out loud she said, "I'm sorry, Lex…but, no."
"No, you're not here to give me an answer, or…"
"I *am* here to give you an answer," she said gently. "It's just…the answer is no. I can't marry you, Lex."
He closed his eyes and bowed his head as if awash in a pain too great to bear. "I'm very…sorry to hear that, Lois. Sorrier, I think, than you could possibly know."
His voice sounded slightly unsteady, and it was impossible for her to remain unmoved. "Oh, Lex," she murmured, reaching out to touch his arm. "I'm sorry, too. I truly am. But you deserve more…more than I can offer you."
"Lois," he said, sounding suddenly fervent. "You're *everything* to me, darling. Everything. How could you possibly imagine that you're not what I need? This is just nervousness talking, isn't it? You just need more time…"
"No!" she exclaimed, cutting him off. "When I said that you deserved more, I meant that you deserved a woman who could…" She couldn't say it, not that baldly. "I don't…have the right feelings for you, Lex. Not the kind of feelings I need to have to marry you."
"You mean you don't love me," he said quietly.
"I…um…no. I guess I don't. Not that way." Or any other way, she realized, as she said the words. With Clark she'd been able to tell him honestly that she loved him as a dear friend, but she and Lex had never really been friends. It was an odd thing to recognize at this juncture, but it was true. He'd been an interesting escort, an amusing companion, but he'd never been her confidant, nor had she been his. He'd never been someone she'd turn to with a problem, never been someone she thought to call when she was having a bad day or even a good one.
"Is this about Superman?" he asked, an edge to his voice. "I know you've harbored feelings for him…"
"No," she said, perhaps a bit too quickly. "I mean, I don't deny I've had a crush on Superman, but that's all it's ever been. I'm not in love with him. I don't even know him, really. I'm not sure anyone does." It was an interesting mixture of truth and lies, but since she could hardly sort it all out herself, she wasn't terribly concerned about Lex knowing which was which. "This isn't about another man, Lex. It's about you and me. I just can't marry you."
"I admit that when you accepted the job at LNN, I'd reason to hope you'd be giving me a different answer."
"I know," she said, "and that's part of the reason I'm not taking the job either. It was a generous offer, and I do appreciate it. But I'm a *newspaper* reporter. LNN…well, it just isn't right for me."
"And yet it was right for you yesterday," Lex said, his eyes narrowing slightly. "What happened between then and now to make you decide you can't work in broadcasting and can't marry me?"
She shook her head. "Nothing happened. I just did a lot of thinking last night, and I realized that what you were offering wasn't the right path for me."
"Forgive me, my dear, if I don't quite believe that. Yesterday you told me you had something you needed to settle, and today…well, you're different today." He gave her a penetrating look.
"I'm a little uncomfortable," she admitted. "I never wanted to hurt you, Lex."
His face softened. "I know that, darling. I *am* hurt, I admit that, but I'm also hopeful. I'm not ready to give up on us, Lois. Perhaps I rushed you, and for that I'm sorry. Please allow me to continue courting you, though. I truly believe that in time, you'll see, as I do, that we are meant to be together."
"I'll not take no for an answer, my love. Just give me a chance, that's all I ask."
He leaned forward, and the intensity of his gaze unnerved her. Suddenly, somewhere in the depths of his eyes, she saw something dangerous, something coiled and ready to strike. It slithered away and was gone in an instant, but she knew she'd seen it and recognized it for what it was. This, then, was what Clark had warned her about, and she felt her arms break out in gooseflesh and the hairs on her neck stand on end. She drew back from Lex slightly, now desperate to bring their interview to an end and leave his office once and for all. She had a feeling, however, that just leaving wasn't going to be enough. Lex Luthor was accustomed to getting his way, and she realized that he saw her refusal as little more than a new challenge. He wanted her and he meant to have her, irrespective of her feelings on the subject. She could leave, but she would not have seen the last of Lex Luthor. Clark's words echoed in her memory: <<"He's a dangerous man, Lois, and I'm not going to be here to protect you anymore.">> She suddenly felt very vulnerable, more alone than she'd ever been, and more sure than ever that her next order of business was to find her partner.
"I…need to go," she stammered. "Lex, I'm sorry…"
He smiled slightly and nodded, every inch the gracious, urbane businessman. "I understand. Just think about what I said…please. And if you change your mind about the job, you need only say the word. Our…personal setback doesn't change the fact that you're an extremely talented and hard-working young woman. Exactly the kind of person needed by LNN. The offer will remain open."
"Thank you, Lex," she said, managing a smile. She stood and let him walk her to the door, where she again offered up her cheek for his kiss, though this time his touch made her stomach lurch. She felt the relief wash over her as the door to his office closed behind her, and then she walked to the elevators as quickly as she could without drawing attention to herself. She didn't allow herself to relax, however, until she slid behind the wheel of her Jeep; then she let her head drop back against the headrest as she took several deep breaths to calm her frazzled nerves and steady her shaking knees. When she felt she was able, she started her car and drove out of the garage and into the morning sunlight, feeling as though she'd emerged from a lion's den.
She had to stop next at LNN to tell the people she'd met with only the day before that she wasn't going to be taking the job after all. She came off sounding like a complete flake, but it couldn't be helped. And she didn't think anyone there seemed particularly heartbroken about the fact that Mr. Luthor's girlfriend wasn't going to be foisted on them after all. She would have proven herself in time, she knew, but it didn't matter now.
No. What mattered now was finding Clark, and toward that end she next turned her Jeep toward Clinton Street. But Clark's apartment was locked and dark inside, and though she probably could have picked the lock, she didn't quite see what was to be gained by it. She doubted he'd have left his itinerary lying around even if he'd had one, which he probably didn't. She made up her mind to call Perry and Jimmy and see if they knew anything. And if they didn't, and if she hadn't heard from Clark in a day or two, she'd break down and call Martha and Jonathan Kent as a last resort.
It wasn't a great plan, but it was a start; she felt a little better as she returned to her own apartment. She was able to smile and speak pleasantly to a neighbor, something that would have been impossible when she'd left that morning. And, as she slid a succession of keys into her locks, she felt the first stirrings that indicated her appetite was returning. Perhaps some ice cream…
But the ice cream was forgotten as she opened the door and saw what awaited her inside: It was an enormous bouquet of flowers — an explosion of color in the middle of her living room — and whoever had delivered them had somehow gotten through the locks on her door without leaving a single trace.
"Oh, Mom," Clark moaned, his head in his hands. He sat at his parents' breakfast table, having finally landed in Kansas after flying all night long. He was now pouring out his confession to his mother, thankful, for once, that his father wasn't around. The phrase 'dissect you like a frog' was already reverberating through his head; he didn't need his Dad to actually voice it. "I've ruined everything. One stupid moment of anger, and I put myself at risk — put you and Dad at risk. How could I do it? Why did I let her make me so crazy…so incredibly *furious*?"
"Because you love her," Martha said simply, reaching out to touch his shoulder soothingly.
"I don't," he insisted, twitching away from the tender gesture. "This can't be love. Nothing this…this *awful* can possibly be love. I admit I thought it was, but it's not. I wouldn't love someone like her. She's…shallow. And manipulative. Heartless."
"Well, she's a little shallow, maybe," Martha conceded. "And everyone's manipulative at times."
"Trust me, Mom. Lois takes it to the next level."
"More than anything, she sounds confused to me," Martha said. "And like it or not, you share in the responsibility for that."
Clark looked at her, incredulous. "Whose side are you on, anyway?"
She shook her head. "I'm not taking sides, sweetie."
"Yes," he insisted. "Yes, you are! You're *my* Mom. You're supposed to take a side. *My* side."
"No, I'm supposed to help you see reason when maybe you're just a little too close to the situation to see it for yourself. You put a lot of effort into convincing Lois that you were two completely different people, and now you're blaming her for believing it. You confused her, Clark, and you did it deliberately."
"I confused *everyone*, Mom! I had to."
"Maybe so, but Lois is the only one you're angry at for not seeing through the charade."
"I can't believe this," Clark snapped, scraping back his chair and standing up, preparing to escape.
"Clark Jerome Kent!" his mother said sharply, pointing a finger at him. "We're not finished here."
"Yes, we are," Clark said, but he moderated his tone. "I can't talk about this anymore, Mom."
"Fine," she said. "So don't talk. But I still have some things to say, and you're going to sit down and hear them."
His jaw clenched, but out of long habit of obedience, he dropped back into his chair and gave his mother an expectant, if truculent, look.
"Good enough." Martha rolled her eyes. "Now, here are the facts as I see them: Clark Kent went to Metropolis, met Lois Lane, and decided he was through wandering the world. Only you know how related those last two things might be. Your father and I have always thought they were pretty much cause and effect." She paused for a response from her son, but he was sitting stony-faced, refusing to give anything away. She sighed, clearly exasperated, and went on. "Then Clark Kent had his mother sew him an outlandish costume and began moonlighting as a superhero, going to a great deal of trouble to make sure that no one would suspect he and Superman are one and the same. The first thing he did as Superman was to save the Messenger shuttle, appearing in glorious red and blue to swallow a bomb and then single-handedly lift the shuttle into space. The second thing he did was to choose *one* reporter out of all the ones covering the launch and sweep her up into his arms and fly her back to The Daily Planet. Remind me, honey — which reporter was that again?"
Clark gave her a baleful look, to which she responded with a gentle smile.
"Don't you see, sweetie?" she said, covering his hands with her own. "You singled Lois out — as Superman — from practically the very first minute. You brought this crush of hers on yourself. You've never for one second treated her like the other reporters. And I know why, and you know why, but how on earth was Lois supposed to know it?"
Clark shook his head. "I don't know, Mom. But even though I might have…flirted with her a little as Superman, it doesn't change the fact that she didn't know anything about him and threw herself at him anyway. The guy's an alien! He could have lived in a…a *pod* somewhere and survived on dead rats for all she knew."
Martha blinked at him. "That's…one of the strangest things I've ever heard you say, son. But let's go with it for a minute. Yes, Superman was born on another planet, to another race of people, and I happen to know that one of his biggest fears has always been that he wouldn't be able to find a woman who could deal with that…could accept his differences, whatever they might be. No, he doesn't live in a pod or eat, um…rats," she wrinkled her nose slightly and then went on. "But he does shave with his eyes and float in his sleep and dash off at a moment's notice to save the lives of total strangers. A lot of women might find that disturbing or, at the very least, disruptive. But here's Lois, prepared to accept him for exactly what he is…prepared to love him in spite of any of his differences."
"No," Clark said bitterly. "She was prepared to love him *because* of his differences. Because, as far as she could see, he was perfect. I mean, it's great that she's not prejudiced against me because I'm from Krypton, and you're right — that's always been a fear of mine. But being loved only *because* I'm Kryptonian is just as bad. Is it too much to ask for someone who loves the whole package?"
Martha laughed. "Oh, honey! Of course it's not too much to ask. The catch is that you have to be willing to *show* someone the whole package, or you'll never know."
"I guess what I wanted was for her to love Clark first," he said, "and then I would have told her everything."
"And I can understand that," Martha said, "but as Clark, you had a lot of strikes against you right from the start that Superman has never had. You told me a long time ago that Lois saw you as a rival at first."
"Yeah, but we'd gotten past that."
"But you were still a professional colleague," Martha said. "And Lois seems like the type who would be cautious about getting involved with a colleague."
Clark looked thoughtful for a minute. "Yeah. She told me…well, it's not important. But yeah, there are reasons she would have been cautious about that."
"So why would she have taken that risk when she could have you as a friend and still have the hope of Superman? Hope that *you* gave her? Honestly, Clark, it's a darn good thing you are invulnerable, as much time as you've spent shooting yourself in the foot."
Clark glared at her again. "Don't tell *me* you're not taking sides. Is this a woman thing? You just all stick together, even against your own son?"
Martha smiled. "No, honey. I'm just trying to help you see things from Lois's perspective."
"Well, I'm sorry, Mom, but that's a waste of time now. Lois doesn't love me, and I've realized that I couldn't really have loved her either. It was…infatuation, I guess. The problem isn't my relationship with Lois — not anymore. The problem is that I just ticked off the best reporter in Metropolis and then, just to make life interesting, told her my biggest secret. And let's not forget that she could very well be Lex Luthor's fiancee by now, and he'd like nothing more than to have me at his mercy." Clark ran his hand through his hair restlessly. "I've put you and Dad in incredible danger."
Martha waved a careless hand. "Oh, nonsense, Clark. Lois isn't going to expose you. She loves you far too much to do that."
Clark goggled at her. "Mom, are you crazy? This is Lois Lane we're talking about. An angry Lois Lane who we've established does not, in fact, love me. And I'm telling you that Lois Lane is the least rational person on the planet when she's angry. There's no telling what she might do. You've got to take this seriously!"
Martha shrugged. "OK, I'll take it seriously. But what should I do about it? Should your father and I just leave the farm, go into hiding, because of what Lois *might* do?"
She snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. Your father and I have known from the time you became Superman that we might all be exposed one day. And if we hadn't already known it, the situation with that Trask character would have convinced us. But we've done nothing wrong, and we're not going to run away and hide."
"I'm not sure Dad would agree. You know what he's always said…how he feels about me being exposed. He's going to *kill* me when he finds out what I've done."
"No, he's not," Martha said calmly. "In the first place, he's finally accepted, I think, that you're a grown man now who has to follow your conscience, even if that means risking exposure. You know, honey, he was terrified, at first, every time you put in an appearance as Superman. We'd see you on the news at night, and even though he was always proud of what you were doing, he was worried to death about you doing it. I think there was a big part of him that wished you'd go back to the way things were before, when you were freelancing and wandering the world."
"He was probably right. I never should have stayed in Metropolis."
"You didn't let me finish," Martha said gently. "Gradually, your Dad accepted what I'd seen from the very beginning — that you were *happy* in Metropolis, honey. For the first time since you were just a little boy, you'd found a place where you belonged, where you could be yourself, even if you had to turn yourself into two different people to do it. You'd found a job you loved and a woman you loved even more."
"I wish you'd quit saying that," Clark huffed. "I've told you…"
"I'll quit saying it when it quits being true," Martha said with asperity. "You can lie to yourself if you want to, but you can't lie to your mother. Until you're ready to see sense, we'll just have to agree to disagree about that. But what your Dad and I both saw was that you were happy, Clark. And we're willing to risk a lot for that. We always have been."
Clark sighed. "I appreciate that, Mom. You know I do. But I'd never forgive myself if something happened to you and Dad because of my carelessness. And right now Lois is a loose cannon. I don't know what to expect, but I think you and Dad should be prepared for the worst. Lois wouldn't *want* to do anything to hurt you, but she doesn't always think things through all that well, and she refuses to believe that Luthor is dangerous. If she trusts him with this…with my secret…then you really might have to go into hiding. I'm not sure there'd be any other way to keep you safe from him."
"Then we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
"I guess so," Clark conceded with a sigh. "But I'm going to hang around here for a few days if that's OK. If someone were to come out here sniffing around about me, I want to be close by, not all the way in Metropolis."
"You're always welcome here — you know that — but I still think you're overreacting."
"Maybe, maybe not," Clark said stubbornly.
"Well, suit yourself." Martha stood up and transferred some breakfast dishes from the table to the sink. "Your father can always use the extra help this time of year."
"Where is Dad?"
"He got out early this morning. Working in the south field, I think. Why don't you go find him?"
"I will. Might as well get his lecture over with." Clark scraped back his chair and handed his mother his coffee cup. She took it and put it in the sink before opening her arms to him.
"I'm sorry, honey," she said softly, pulling him close. "I'm so sorry you're hurting."
She felt him shudder slightly against her as he allowed his head to drop to her shoulder. Superman's invulnerability was the biggest myth of all, Martha thought tenderly, as she smoothed her hand over her boy's dark hair. She'd played devil's advocate a little and told Clark some things she believed he'd needed to hear, but there was a corner of her maternal heart that fiercely resented Lois Lane for the pain she'd caused. Yes, it had been unintentionally done, but it didn't make the hurt less real for Clark. No one had ever stolen Clark's heart before, and for Lois to do so and then to hand it back to him so cruelly…well, that would take some time to get over — for all of them.
"I'd better go," Clark said, his voice muffled in the fabric of her jogging suit.
"OK." Martha released him and then turned away quickly so that he wouldn't see the tears in her eyes.
The farm was a living miracle in the springtime. It had always been his favorite time of year, and as he made his way toward the south field, he took his time and breathed deeply of the sweet air, imagining that it had the power to purify him of all the anger and frustrations of the previous day.
How he wished he had been meant for this life. How he wished it could be enough for him to pour his soul into the fertile Kansas soil, to arrange his existence around the simple rhythms of planting and harvesting. To return each night in sweat-stained clothes to a small frame house with a squeaky screen door. To sit quietly in the evenings on a darkened porch, watching the fireflies dance. To awaken each morning to the smell of strong coffee, knowing the new day would follow the same soothing pattern as the one before.
It wasn't to be, of course. As much as he loved the farm, he knew that if he stayed there long enough, the restlessness would eventually come to claim him, would grow until it became a fierce itch to be out in the world. The farm soothed him, but it was people — people in all their flawed humanity — who fascinated him, who inspired him, who endlessly beckoned him into their midst. They touched him and amused him and sometimes horrified him; and then they seemed to whisper in his ear when he sat at his keyboard and tried his best to tell their stories. It was the people of the earth who made him feel there might be a reason a baby had hurtled through millions of miles of cold, dark space and landed unharmed in a twilit Kansas field. The farm had never had the power to do that for him.
Of all his "gifts," the two he valued the most were his ability to fly and his facility with languages. The former allowed him to explore the world, every nook and cranny of it if he chose, and the latter helped him to truly get to know the people he encountered along the way. It was no coincidence that when he had finally settled down, it had been in a bustling city. His work as Superman still took him all over the globe, but he always returned happily to Metropolis. It had felt like home from practically the moment he'd gotten off the bus with his battered suitcase in his hand, and even after a year there, he hadn't felt the slightest hint of wanderlust. He loved the pace of the city. He loved the variety of people he encountered there every day. He loved that he was actually paid to learn their secrets and tell their stories, and he even loved that he had a silly blue suit that gave him the freedom to help them when and where he could.
But as usual, his mother was right when she said that Lois Lane was the reason Metropolis had so quickly felt like home. He'd settled into orbit around her from practically the moment they'd met. And, until very recently, it had never even occurred to him to try to break free. He'd known women in every corner of the globe, but he'd never before met one he found so endlessly fascinating. He'd never met anyone who was such a delightful mix of strength and vulnerability, feistiness and tenderness. She was brilliant and foolhardy, talented and defensive, generous and self-centered, and a thousand other conflicting attributes, all wrapped up in a package so lovely that she had left him tongue-tied and stammering like a schoolboy when they'd first met.
Well, no more. He was wise to her now, and he flatly refused to be held in her thrall any longer. He was the strongest man in the world, and he was certainly capable of conquering his own heart. As he caught sight of his father, a rotund figure atop a tractor, obscured by a cloud of dust, he renewed his vow to keep his distance from Lois Lane.
"Perry's retirement dinner is tomorrow night," Clark said, staring down at the shape he'd fashioned with his mashed potatoes. It resembled his S-shield, and he used his knife to neaten up the corners.
"So are you going to go?" Jonathan asked, after exchanging a quick look with his wife to determine who would be the one to take up the inquiry.
Clark sighed and traced the S into the potatoes. "I should. Everyone's expecting me. They'll worry if I'm not there."
Jonathan and Martha glanced at one another again, and this time Martha got the nod. "Then you should definitely go, honey. Think of all Perry's done for you this past year."
"Yeah," Clark said again, still sounding unsure. "But I could call him…give him some excuse."
"Clark, we know why you don't want to go, but Lois isn't your only friend in Metropolis. What about Jimmy? What about poor Jack? Have you given any thought to him? Your father and I didn't raise you to run out on your responsibilities just because things get a little tough."
"You and Dad are my first responsibility," Clark insisted. "Making sure nothing happens to you is more important than anything."
"That's sweet of you, honey, but I don't think spending the rest of your life helping your Dad out around the farm is the answer. If Luthor is a threat to us, which I frankly doubt, the place to find out about it is going to be in Metropolis. You need to know what's going on there, and that's not going to happen if you're hiding out here."
"I have not been hiding out!"
"C'mon, Clark," his dad said gently.
Clark's fingers tensed briefly on the knife before he caught himself and set it to one side before he damaged it. "Maybe I just needed a few days to…clear my head. Is that so wrong?"
"Not wrong at all," Jonathan said. "But you've had your few days, and now it's time to go back to Metropolis. If you want to move on, then you know your mom and I will support you in that, but you need to do it the right way. You owe your friends better than to just disappear one night and never return."
"I've done it before." Clark felt depressed as he considered returning to the nomadic life he'd led before he'd settled in Metropolis.
"It was different then and you know it," Martha argued.
"Yeah. It was. Metropolis actually felt like home for a while."
"And maybe it still can," his dad said. "It's not like you to give up so easily."
"You don't understand, Dad." Clark shook his head, unable to explain. He'd spent the last few days convincing himself that he didn't love Lois, but he still doubted his own strength where she was concerned. His biggest fear was that she would recant her words in the park and throw herself at him, knowing as she now did that he was Superman, and that he'd be so desperate for her love that he would actually consider accepting her on those terms. It was far easier to just stay away than it would be to face that final indignity, however it played itself out.
"I think we understand more than you give us credit for," Jonathan said. "Go to the party, son."
"And give Perry our best when you see him," Martha added.
Clark gave her a wry smile. "All right. You guys win."
"Of course we do," Martha said, sounding smug. "Now eat that food before it gets cold."
"Superman! Superman!" The reporters' voices rose up in a clamor around him, and Clark searched through the throng and pointed to the man who covered the city beat for The Metropolis Star.
"Thank you, Superman. How many hostages were in the building?"
"Six," Clark answered. "Two women and four men. One man had been shot by the time I arrived. He's been taken to the hospital."
"Is he going to make it?"
"I'm not a doctor, so I'd prefer not to speculate on that," Clark responded smoothly. He pointed to another reporter. "Cynthia?"
He wondered as he fielded questions if it ever occurred to anyone that the average pod-living, rat-eating, visitor from another planet would probably not be able to handle the media as deftly as Superman seemed to. But no, no one ever questioned it. In the days when virtually no one was exempt from media speculation, Superman seemed to have been given a blank pass. He would like to think that it was because he'd shown clearly that he was on the side of the light, and that because he was polite and helpful, his colleagues in the media were willing to repay him with their trust. But despite what Lois had always said about him, he wasn't quite that corn-fed and naive. He suspected that his free pass owed more to fear than to trust. Either they feared him directly — feared that he would respond to harassment by using his powers to take over the world — or they feared that he would simply get so ticked off that he would quit coming when he was called, would find something better to do with his time than saving an ungrateful populace. The experience with the Nightfall asteroid had done wonders for his public approval. Since then, the members of the press had treated him with kid gloves.
He carefully kept his face arranged in its usual, distant expression as he pointed to the one member of the press whom he'd given the power to ruin his life.
"Thank you, Superman," she said. "Do the police believe that the gunman was acting alone?"
Long familiarity with her habits made him notice that she wasn't carrying her notebook; while she appeared interested in his answer, she obviously didn't intend to write it down. "I don't know what the police suspect, but I gathered from some of the hostages' comments that the gunman was a disgruntled former employee. If that's true, then it seems unlikely that he was working with anyone else. This is only my opinion, of course."
"Thank you," Lois said. She gave him a challenging look. "I was also wondering…you haven't been seen in Metropolis the last few days. Are you helping out in other cities now?"
Clark felt a muscle in his jaw twitch. "I've always helped out when and where I could."
<<There, was that vague enough for you, Lois?>>
"But where have you been?" she persisted.
It was all he could do to keep from grabbing her and tossing her into another dumpster. Really, that had been one of his more brilliant moments, all things considered. "Nowhere, Miss Lane. I've been nowhere."
<<Some hack from Nowheresville…>>
"Nice place to visit," Lois said, her mouth turning up a little at the corners, "but I wouldn't want to live there."
<<So far I've been given a glimpse of ritual crop worship, been treated as your girlfriend, and insulted your parents…>>
The assembled press tittered a little, even as they looked at Lois in confusion.
"Fortunately," Superman said coldly, "you don't have to." He watched just long enough to see her react and then looked away. "That's all for today. If you'll excuse me…"
He shot into the sky and rose above the clouds, breathing deeply in an attempt to calm himself after his public sparring match with Lois. He paused in midair once he was sure he was shielded from view, furious with himself, with her, with the whole situation. He'd acted impulsively — stupidly — when he'd spun into the suit in front of Lois, and he'd done it to be cruel. He'd wanted to hurt her. He'd wanted to taunt her with her own lack of perception, her own shallow desires. Somehow, though, in showing her who he truly was, he'd managed to lose himself completely. In thrusting Lois away, he'd also cast aside something elemental in his nature. Who was this Clark Kent with the ice flowing through his veins?
He remembered a time when he'd thought about the kind of woman who could make him happy. He'd painted her imaginary portrait in broad strokes: she'd have to be kind, and intelligent, and have a good sense of humor. She'd have to love and accept him for who and what he was. As far as he'd known, however, there was a whole wide world full of potential candidates. He wasn't sure of the exact moment when that had changed, when he'd stopped seeing the potential in the women he met. Now he divided women into one of two clear categories: A woman either was Lois Lane, or she wasn't. None of the not-Loises could cause his heart to pound and his palms to sweat. None of the not-Loises could draw his eyes across a crowded room. None of the not-Loises could rip his heart from his chest and still have him craving her like a drug. And none could make him behave so very badly in front of a crowd of reporters.
It was sick. So completely wrong. And he was determined to out-run it, whatever 'it' was. He refused to call it love. It was…a masochistic obsession, and one he refused to indulge in any longer. His instinct in Kansas had been absolutely right: He should never have returned to Metropolis. He wasn't strong enough to face her…not yet. He would have to see her at Perry's party, but other than that, he was going to stay as far away from Lois as possible.
She was sitting on his stoop when he returned to his apartment.
"I wasn't sure you'd come back here," she said, standing and dusting her trousers off. "Thought maybe you would head back to Smallville."
"I plan to soon," he told her, shoving his hands in his pockets. "But there are things I need to do here first."
"Like talking to me?" she asked.
"Like attending Perry's party tonight," he corrected. "Like clearing Jack's name and seeing to it that Luthor gets what's coming to him."
"We need to talk about that, too," Lois said. "You going to invite me in?"
"I hadn't planned to, no."
"Fine," she said, plunking herself back down on his steps. "I'll just sit out here until you're ready to start acting like a mature adult then. I'll probably be mugged, of course, since this isn't exactly the best neighborhood in town. But you don't care about that, do you? You don't care about anything but your own hurt feelings. You know, you should think about sulking professionally, Clark. You've got a real knack for it."
"I'll consider it," he said, pulling out his keys and stepping past her, "seeing as how I don't have any *other* job these days, thanks to your boyfriend."
"What, saving the world doesn't keep you busy enough, *Superman*?"
He let out a startled hiss and whirled to glare at her. "A little louder, Lois. I don't think they heard you in Gotham City! And what were you *thinking* asking me those questions in front of half the press in Metropolis?"
She blinked up at him and spread her arms wide in a gesture of exaggerated innocence. "Gosh, I don't remember being asked to keep anything secret. I remember a really offensive crack about my robe, and a spin thingy, but…nope, nothing about a secret. Of course, if you wanted to keep our conversation private, you might ask me in instead of leaving me out here on the stoop, where I might say just anything to anybody."
He sighed and banged his head against the door a couple of times before muttering, "Why do I even bother?" He turned to her. "We'll talk on one condition: I want you to promise me that you'll never ambush me in public like that again."
"It was the only way I could think of to make you talk to me!" she exclaimed, standing up again. "I've been trying to talk to you for the last two days. I've left messages but you haven't called me back. Do you think I *liked* having to chase ambulances in order to have a conversation with you?"
"I didn't ask for an explanation — I asked for a promise. Repeat after me…'I will never ambush Clark in public again.'"
She put her hands on her hips. "I will never ambush Clark in public again," she mimicked obediently, and then she added in a sharp tone, "as long as *you* don't disappear like that again when we have things we need to talk about."
Was there no way to make her take him seriously? He'd spent three minutes with her, and already he felt as if his head might explode. "Lois, I'm very close to leaving you sitting on this doorstep," he warned.
"Please, Clark," she said, sounding sincere this time. "I won't do it again and I wouldn't have done it this time except I *really* need to talk to you. Please?"
"Come in," he said with a sigh, pushing open his front door.
"I thought you'd never ask." She followed him into his apartment. It was, he realized, probably the first time since they had met that he'd preceded her through a doorway, but apparently a little thing like forgetting his usual chivalry wasn't going to deter her from their conversation.
He stopped in the middle of the room with his back to her and lifted his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. "You don't get headaches," she said.
It wasn't what he'd been expecting in the way of an opening gambit. "What?" He turned to stare at her, settling his glasses back into place.
"The way you were pinching your nose…it looked like what people do when they have a headache, but you don't get headaches, do you?"
"Is that really what you came here to ask?"
"Well, no, of course not. I just was curious is all. Do you have a headache?"
He let out a breath. "I certainly do. I found it on my front steps. Now what is it, Lois? Let's be done with this so we can both move on."
"Move on. Is that what you want to do?"
"I'm not going to marry Lex."
"I'm glad to hear it." His voice sounded cold, barely interested, and he was proud of it.
"Clark, if what you believe about him is true, then we need to be investigating him."
"There is no 'we', Lois. There is I and there is you, but there is no 'we.' I have that on very good authority."
She waved her hand at him in blithe dismissal. "Clark, I said that about a million years ago. Let it go, already. We're partners. We need to work on this together."
"We're not partners, Lois. Thanks to Luthor, there's no Daily Planet, no Lane and Kent. Whatever partnership we had went up in smoke."
"Do you hate me?" she blurted suddenly, her breezy facade falling away. Her eyes looked huge and worried and so very earnest, and they tore at his determination to keep her at a distance.
"No," he said quickly. "I could never…I admit I haven't *liked* you all that well the last couple of days, but hate…no. Never that." He paused a moment, looking down at the toes of his shoes. "I'm sorry for the way I behaved the other night. I should have found a better way to tell you that you and Superman…well, couldn't ever happen. I was hurt and angry, and I took it out on you. I shouldn't have. You're entitled to your feelings, and you were honest about them. I accept that now."
"My *feelings*? How could you possibly know about my feelings? How could I know, for that matter? I don't even know you."
He gaped at her. "Of course you know me, Lois — we've been partners…friends for the past year."
"Friends, Clark? Am I your *friend*? Your friend whom you just happen to have *lied* to every single day since we met? Who you've shut out of half your life? You've told me again and again that I didn't really know Superman — and you were right, I didn't. But it's equally true that I didn't really know you. You're him — he's you. Without knowing that, there was no way I could ever know either of you."
"I'm Clark Kent, and you *know* Clark Kent," he said stubbornly. "Superman is just a costume I wear."
"You heard me. I'm not buyin'. Superman is more than just a costume. He's part of you, Clark, and if he weren't, you wouldn't *need* a costume. What you can do…it's amazing. You're not like anyone else."
"I am in the ways that count," he said quietly. "That's what you've never seen — what you've never wanted to see. You wanted a perfect hero, and I can't be that. God knows there have been times this past year when I've been tempted to try — when I'd have been Superman for you if it meant…well, that I had a chance with you. But I'm just me, Lois." He held out his arms and let them fall to his sides in a tired gesture. "Just me. A few hours a day, I'm Superman. The rest of the time, I'm the ordinary man you overlooked."
"And you're not willing to give us the chance to change that, are you?"
He shook his head slowly. "I…can't," he said.
She gave him a long, serious look. "OK, then," she said finally. "But that's no reason we can't work together. We need to talk about Lex."
"No?" she repeated incredulously. "What do you mean, no?"
"I mean I'm not working with you on this. I've begged you for months to take me seriously about Luthor, and you've ignored me every single time."
"So you're going to punish me by getting the story on your own? That's beneath you, Clark."
"The story? The *story*?" He was practically yelling at her, his brief moment of susceptibility now under iron control. "Lois, this isn't about a story! For once in your life, can't you see that there might be something more important than getting the *story*? I don't even have a job right now! I'm not after a story. I'm trying to see to it that one of the most dangerous criminals alive today is brought to justice, and all you can think about is your next award. And you wonder why I don't want to work with you on this! Your priorities are completely out of whack."
"How dare you!" She looked at him through narrowed eyes, her voice deadly. "You've made your living writing the same kinds of stories I write, Clark Kent, so don't you try to act like it's suddenly all about truth and justice for you. We catch the bad guys and then we write the story. That's how it works. How many times did you zip back to the Planet and write up Superman stories? Stories no other reporter ever had a shot at? Where were your priorities then?"
"That's different. Superman's activities are news, and often I was the only reporter on hand to write them. I didn't do it because I wanted to top anyone else or because I wanted to win awards."
"So when *you* write, you're being noble, and when *I* write, I'm being selfish. Fine. You know what? I can live with that. So now that we've got that settled, let's talk about Lex. What does it matter *why* I want to investigate him? The bottom line is that I'm good at what I do, and you know it. You may be Superman, but there have been plenty of criminals you wouldn't have caught in the last year without my help."
"And there have been plenty of times you'd have been *dead* without my help," he shot back. He saw her eyes widen and heard her sharp intake of breath, and he immediately regretted his harsh words. "I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded."
"Well why don't you tell me how you meant it, because it sure sounded like saving my life has been a real *inconvenience* to you."
"No," he said. "No. Of course that's not what I meant. It's just…you scare me to death with the risks you take. Yes, you're incredibly good at what you do, but you're not invulnerable. I am. So if one of us is going to take on Lex Luthor, it should be me. I can't do what I need to do to catch him if I'm constantly worrying about what might be happening to you. Can't you see that?"
"You said it yourself, Clark. You're invulnerable. As long as we're working together, nothing will happen to me. I swear I won't take any crazy risks."
He shook his head. "You know, what's funny is that you probably believe that. Lois, you wouldn't know a crazy risk if it jumped out and bit you — and it usually does! It always seems perfectly rational to you at the time. It's only when you've been thrown off the building and are half-way to the ground that you start to think that whatever hare-brained scheme you've hatched just might not have been such a good idea."
"Well, your opinion of me just gets better and better, doesn't it?" Lois said bitterly. "You know what, Clark? Just forget it. I'll investigate Lex on my own."
"No!" he exclaimed. "Have you been listening to me at all? Luthor is ruthless, Lois, and no matter what's gone on between you, he won't hesitate to kill you if he thinks you're suspicious of him. You *have* to stay out of this."
"I *can't* stay out of it!" she cried. "I'm already in it. *That's* what I've been trying to tell you, if you'd just quit fighting with me for five minutes and listen to me."
He took a deep breath and for a few seconds they just stared at each other as she waited for his response. "I'm sorry," he said finally. "Let's start over, OK?"
"Thank you," she said, the relief evident in her voice. "Can we sit down?"
"Of course," he said, motioning her toward the sofa and then perching on the chair across from her. There had been a time when he'd have settled next to her, as natural as breathing, but not now. "So tell me."
"After you left the other night…well, I was really upset. I guess that was pretty much what you were going for, and hey — it worked. I was mad at you, and I still am." She glared at him. "But I also believed what you'd said about Lex. I knew that you might have lied to me every single day about Superman, but you wouldn't lie about something like that."
"No, I wouldn't. And I wasn't lying all the *other* times I warned you either."
"My turn to talk, Clark, remember?" she snapped. "You can do your 'I told you so's' later. *Anyway*, I went first thing the next morning to tell Lex that I wasn't taking the job at LNN and that I couldn't marry him, and he…well, I don't know quite how to describe his reaction. He wasn't angry or anything, but he just wouldn't accept that I meant it. He said he was going to continue to 'court' me and that he was sure I'd eventually realize that we were meant to be together."
"Luthor doesn't like being told 'no' about anything."
"Yeah." She clasped her hands tightly in front of her. "I'm getting that impression."
"What do you mean?"
"He's…well…he sent me flowers. I found them in the middle of my living room. He'd somehow gotten into my apartment. Clark, you've seen my locks, and no one but Sup…*you* could possibly get in my windows. And since then, he's been turning up wherever I am and acting like it's all a big coincidence; but I don't believe it and he *knows* I don't believe it and doesn't seem to care. I had lunch with Perry yesterday, and Lex just 'happened' to be dining at the same restaurant. Perry and I had made those plans over the phone, Clark. There's no way Lex could have known about them unless he's…"
"Tapped your phone, bugged your apartment, had you followed," Clark finished for her, sounding grim. "He's probably done all three."
She stared at him. "You're not exactly making me feel better here."
"You're being stalked by a sociopath, Lois. I don't know how to make you feel better about that."
"I know. The only thing that's going to make me feel better is knowing that Lex is behind bars. I need your help, Clark." She turned to him with pleading eyes, and then she looked down at her hands, which she was twisting in her lap, and added in a small voice, "I'm scared."
He felt her last words pierce him, as he suspected they'd been intended to. Lois was a master at getting him to do what she wanted him to do, and he was too off-balance just then to sort out how much of her little speech was honest emotion and how much was manipulation. In his present frame of mind, it was easier just to assume it was all the latter.
"I'll help you, Lois, but for once, it's going to be on my terms."
"What does that mean?"
"It means that I'm top banana this time. I call the shots. I do the investigating and you leave Metropolis — go somewhere where you'll be safe."
"What?" she exclaimed. "You're crazy. I'm not leaving Metropolis!"
"Yes, you are," he said firmly, invoking his Superman voice. It was effective, too; she sat up a little straighter and cocked her head at him slightly as if trying to make him out. "I'll still work with you on the investigation, but you're going to do your part from a distance."
"Oh, right," she said sarcastically. "I'm sure I'd be a big help."
"You could be. A lot of what we'll be doing is sorting through LexCorp.'s financial records, and the Planet's too. You can do that in Kansas as easily as here."
"In Kansas!" she shrieked, jumping to her feet. He'd had a feeling she wasn't going to like that part. "Are you out of your simple little farmboy mind?"
His voice was laced with steel when he issued his ultimatum: "Lois, either you stay with my parents while we investigate Luthor, or I fly out of here tonight and leave you to him. If I were you, I'd consider this decision very carefully."
Her eyes narrowed. "You wouldn't do that."
He leaned forward and stared right into her eyes. "Just watch me," he said softly.
It was a bluff, of course, but it was a powerful one, and he stood his ground. She blinked first, and her eyes suddenly filled with tears. "I hate you, Clark Kent."
He sighed, awash in a mixture of pain and relief. "Thank you, Lois. I'm going to do my best to make sure you can continue hating me for years to come."
Lois didn't believe for a second that Clark would fly off and leave her vulnerable to Lex Luthor. He had watched over her too carefully for too long, and she knew that he wasn't capable, even in the face of great anger, of knowingly letting her come to harm. He despised Lex Luthor, yet just two weeks earlier he had saved the man from bleeding to death. She knew she had hurt Clark, but she couldn't believe she had sunk lower than Lex in his estimation. No, Clark wouldn't leave her until Lex had been brought to justice…but what then?
It was this question that had made her give in to him in the end. She'd spent the last three days trying to find Clark and growing increasingly frantic the longer he'd stayed away from Metropolis. If there was one thing those days had taught her, it was that she needed Clark in her life and was not prepared to lose him. He'd told her that she was the one thing about Metropolis that he couldn't live without, and suddenly she realized that she felt the same way about him. She needed Clark — needed his friendship and his protection and his constancy.
Not that she was in love with him. No, she wasn't in love with Clark and maybe wouldn't be in love with anyone else, ever. She was still trying to make her peace with the realization that the man she'd believed she was in love with didn't actually exist. Just the thought of Superman and the kind of love she'd imagined they could share still brought a startling sense of loss. When she'd seen him addressing the press after resolving the hostage situation, she'd felt relief, on the one hand, that she'd finally found Clark; however, she hadn't been able to suppress that momentary surge of excitement that she always felt when she caught sight of Metropolis's resident superhero. Intellectually, she knew it was just her hayseed partner masquerading beneath all that red and blue, but the sight of his chiseled features and commanding posture still made her heart start to pound and the butterflies flutter busily in her stomach. This irrational, irrepressible response made it clearer to her than ever that her head and her heart would never be on the same page when it came to love. Much better, then, to simply give it up completely.
So she couldn't be in love with Clark, but she *did* need him and want his friendship, and she was well aware that her words that day in the park — and later at her apartment with Superman — had significantly shaken their relationship, one she'd always thought was built on bedrock. Clark could hardly stand to be in the same room with her, and it would take time to heal that breach and convince him that things could return to the way they had been before. When Clark issued his ultimatum about going to Smallville, she had recognized that this was the decision upon which any future relationship between them hinged. If she didn't show Clark that she trusted him and respected him as a true partner, then she would lose him entirely. For once in her life, she needed to step aside and let someone else take charge, even if "stepping aside" meant going all the way to Kansas.
And though it went against every instinct, the decision, once it was made, didn't actually feel all that bad. Knowing Lex was spying on her was unnerving; if she continued in Metropolis, she'd have to let the spying continue lest he realize she was suspicious. The last few days of feeling uncertain about Clark and having Lex pop up unexpectedly in odd places had taken their toll. A few days in Kansas might be just what she needed to restore her equilibrium.
"I want you to go home and get ready for Perry's party tonight," Clark said, in that authoritative voice she'd only ever heard from Superman. "Don't pack a suitcase or do anything out of the ordinary. Assume that Luthor is listening every second."
"That is *so* creepy." Lois shuddered slightly.
"I know," Clark agreed. "And it's possible that I'm wrong, but I doubt it. I'll come pick you up at 6:30, and I want you to invite me in. I'll check for any surveillance equipment then. If there are no cameras, you might be able to *quietly* pack a suitcase."
"Cameras," Lois repeated, feeling the blood drain from her face. "You really think he might have put cameras in there?"
"Lois, the man bought and destroyed a newspaper for you! I think it's safe to assume a little thing like a hidden camera is within his capabilities."
"Clark!" she exclaimed, sitting forward suddenly as a horrible thought occurred to her. "What if he was watching the other night? What if he heard what you said…saw you change into…"
"No," he said firmly. "Your apartment wasn't bugged the other night. I would have known." He tugged lightly at one ear.
"Are you sure?" she asked anxiously.
He smiled at her for the first time that day. It wasn't his usual open grin, but it was enough to give her a glimpse of the old Clark and to warm the atmosphere between them slightly. "I'm sure. But thank you for being concerned."
"We haven't talked about the other night much," she began.
"Later," he said, the warmth disappearing immediately. "Right now we need to be focused on Luthor and making plans to get you away from him."
"You wanted to be top banana," she said grudgingly. "So you tell me."
He raised his eyebrows at her. "I think I'm going to like this arrangement."
"Don't push it, Kent," she groused, and she was rewarded with the almost-smile again. It was enough to reassure her that her instincts about a man had, for once, been good ones. Clark was enjoying feeling in control, and though she had no intention of allowing him to get carried away with it, she was finding that she didn't mind handing him the reins as much as she'd thought she would.
"OK, so I'll pick you up at 6:30," he was saying, "and come in just long enough to check the apartment. Then we'll take your Jeep to Perry's party. Fortunately, there's a nice dark alley behind the restaurant, so half-way through…"
"I've never noticed an alley there," she interrupted.
"Lois, I am probably the world's leading expert on Metropolis alleys. There isn't an alley in this city I haven't landed in, changed in, or stopped a mugging in at one time or another. Trust me, there's an alley."
"Fine," she said, holding her hands up in a gesture of concession. "Far be it from me to question your *alley* expertise."
He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and ignored her. "Anyway, half-way through the party, we'll slip out through the back into the alley and take off for Kansas from there. Even if Luthor has someone watching the front door, he won't be suspicious until much later, when you don't come out with all the rest of us."
"Wait a minute…what 'us'? I thought you were taking me to Kansas."
"I am, but I'm not staying. I'll return to the party and leave with everyone else. I don't want Luthor to have any reason to associate me specifically with your disappearance. I doubt even then he'd think to track down my parents, but you never know."
"I didn't think of that," she said, biting her lip. "I don't want to put your parents in any danger."
"Neither do I, I promise you. But I think this is the safest thing. If you're in Smallville, I can check on you and my folks at the same time. And they're the only ones I feel safe trusting with this."
"I guess you don't have many people you can really trust," she said, the thought occurring to her for the first time. What must it be like to live day in and day out with a secret that big, knowing there was no one in whom you could confide?
"No," he agreed, sounding tense. "Mom and Dad…and now you, I hope. You've joined a very small club."
"You can trust me, Clark," she told him seriously. "We still have a lot of things to talk about, but I want you to know that I never for a second considered not keeping your secret."
"Thank you," he said. His face softened slightly, but when she reached to touch his arm, needing some contact with him, he jerked it away as if he'd been burned. "Um, I need to go." He stood up.
"Wait a minute!" she protested. "You haven't told me what it is you know about Lex. We haven't talked about the investigation."
"We'll have to do it later," he said. "I've been away for three days, and Superman needs to show his face around town a bit."
"Soon," he said vaguely. "Just be ready tonight, OK?"
She was annoyed at being brushed off, but she managed to swallow her protests and allowed herself to be shown to the door. She'd barely made it off his front stoop when she heard the *whoosh* of Superman taking off. The sound made her nervous. His incredible powers made it so easy for him to get away from her, and she had a feeling that if she made a single misstep, the day would come when she'd hear that *whoosh* for the last time, and Clark Kent would be gone from her life forever. She knew she would stay uneasy until Clark arrived as promised to pick her up for the party.
Lois hated the idea of being in her apartment now and put off her return there as long as she possibly could. Her skin positively crawled at the thought of Lex or one of his underlings watching and listening to everything she did. When she did return, she had to force herself to dress for the party normally, in the middle of her bedroom where she always dressed, despite being tempted to slither into her clothes in a dark closet in case Lex had planted cameras in her room. She absolutely refused to shower, opting instead to simply touch up her hair and makeup. She surreptitiously tucked as many cosmetics as she could into her purse in case Clark told her she couldn't pack them later.
She was almost ready when she heard Clark's knock at the door, and she felt a wave of relief as she crossed to let him in. He had come back, as he'd promised, and soon she'd be out of this apartment and well away from Lex Luthor. After only an hour in her apartment, her nerves were stretched taut and the idea of relocating to Smallville seemed positively inspired.
"Hi Lois," Clark greeted her cheerfully. His easy grin seemed to light the room, and Lois felt something inside her leap with recognition. *Clark's back!* her heart seemed to sing, and she had an irrational urge to hurl herself into his strong, familiar embrace, to rest her head in that sweet, perfect niche just above his clavicle, to breathe in his fresh scent and hear the rumble of his laughter. For a few seconds, she forgot the hurt, angry man she'd confronted at his apartment that day and instead saw just *Clark*, her friend, whom she'd come to depend on more than chocolate and coffee put together.
But then she saw his eyes, bleak and wounded behind his glasses. The smile and cheery voice were just an act, put on like a disguise in case Lex was watching or listening. The eyes told the real story, though, and seeing them made her realize that her Clark was no longer within reach, even when he was standing three feet away. He wasn't back at all, and suddenly she was afraid that maybe he never would be — that the friendship and love she'd always thought were hers for the taking had really been withdrawn completely.
She swallowed over the lump in her throat and returned his cheerful greeting as convincingly as she could. "I'm almost ready," she added. "I did some shopping this afternoon and got back here a little late. I just need to put on my earrings."
"Take your time. We're in no rush." They were mundane, ordinary words, but again in the friendly-Clark voice that sparked a hundred memories of lighthearted pleasantries and easy chivalry. She'd thrown all that away with both hands, and only now could she see its value.
"Thanks." She returned to her room and came back holding her earrings. "Did you have a good afternoon?" she asked as she slipped one diamond stud into her ear.
"Pretty good," he said lightly. "Sent out a few resumes. Ran a few errands. Nothing exciting." As he spoke he lowered his glasses slightly and glanced around the room so casually that if she hadn't been looking for it, she'd have missed it completely. "Do you mind if I use your bathroom before we go? I helped a man get his car started outside and got some grease on my hands." He held up his hands for inspection and, sure enough, his fingers were smudged. She didn't know if this was in the interest of verisimilitude or if he really had helped a man with his car. With Clark, it was probably both.
He disappeared into her bedroom, and she used the time to straighten a few things in the kitchen and then to check her appearance in the mirror one last time, using her finger to scrub a tiny smudge of lipstick from her teeth.
"All done," he called out, startling her. "Thanks."
"No problem." She gave him a slightly inquisitive look.
"We'd probably better get going," Clark said. "Don't want to keep the guest of honor waiting."
"Right." She supposed this meant she wasn't going to be allowed to pack anything.
He ushered her out the door and stood patiently while she locked the many locks. When she was done, she again shot Clark a questioning look, but he just shook his head minutely, letting her know they couldn't talk yet.
They maintained a steady stream of small talk in the Jeep, but it cost more in effort than any conversation she'd ever had with him, including the one in his apartment earlier that day. Honest anger seemed somehow more comfortable than this false friendliness, and the fact that he was bothering at all was enough to tell her that theirs were not the only ears listening to the conversation. *That* thought was enough to make a difficult conversation nearly impossible, and she found herself missing conversational cues as her mind skittered around in a blind panic, trying to recall exactly what she'd said and done in the last couple of days. Obviously, Lex was spying on her. What had he seen or heard? She tried to remember if she'd done anything really embarrassing. She didn't think she had, but couldn't be sure. She sometimes talked to herself when she was upset. Had she said anything out loud about Clark being Superman? The very possibility was enough to make her blood run cold, but there was no way to be sure. Her mind simply wouldn't call forth the memories in that much detail.
She realized that Clark was giving her an expectant look, waiting for her to respond to something he'd said. "I'm sorry," she said. "What did you say?"
He shook his head. "It's not important."
"What?" He probably thought she was half-witted, unable to attend to a simple conversation about…she thought it was something to do with a fire near Hobbs Bay, but it could just as easily have been some barbed wire in Bob's hay. She hadn't a clue.
"Never mind." He pointed out the window. "I see a spot there. That's probably as close as we're going to get."
"Got it," she said. She changed lanes with a sharp jerk of the wheel that sent her purse flying and then whipped into the parking spot Clark had pointed out before anyone else could take it.
"Nice driving." He reached down to retrieve her purse from the floorboard.
"I got the space, didn't I?"
He sighed and rolled his eyes. "Congratulations, Lois. You win again."
"The meek may inherit the Earth, Clark, but they do *not* get parking spaces in this part of town."
He handed her the purse. "I'll keep it in mind."
"Whose idea was the belly dancer?" Lois asked as she watched Perry lurch around the room after a scantily clad woman, all the while crooning "Lonely Teardrops."
"Comes with the price of the party," Jimmy said, grinning. "What, you don't like her?"
"I don't like watching Perry make an idiot of himself."
"Too late," Clark said, wincing as Perry bumped hard into the wall and took a moment to right himself.
"Oh no," Lois moaned. "Now he's singing 'All Shook Up.' Jimmy, go get him — make him sit down."
"Uh uh," Jimmy said. "Not me."
"Nope. Let him have his fun. I've gotta…" he gestured in the direction of the restrooms and gave Lois a significant look. "Excuse me for a minute."
"Sure, CK," Jimmy said.
"Um, I need to go, too," Lois said, reaching for her purse and scrambling up from the low cushions on which they'd been seated. "Wait up, Clark."
"I thought it was women who always went to the bathroom together," Jimmy said, but he didn't seem to be paying them much attention, his eyes glued instead to a new belly dancer who had just emerged and was gyrating through the room.
Clark gestured for Lois to precede him, and they worked their way through the crowd to the back of the restaurant, where, instead of heading to the restrooms, they quickly made their way through the kitchen and out the back door into the alley. The kitchen workers barely glanced at them, well used to the antics of partiers who'd had time for a few drinks.
The alley was dark and narrow enough to send a claustrophobic into a panic attack, offering barely enough room for two people to walk abreast. It held nothing more than a collection of foul-smelling trashcans and the occasional battered chair where, judging by the number of crushed out cigarette butts on the ground, employees of the street's restaurants and businesses sat and took smoking breaks. Lois wrinkled her nose a little at the stench and watched as Clark lowered his glasses and looked carefully up and down, making absolutely sure they were alone.
"I'm going to have to go straight up, and much faster than I have before when I've flown with you." He cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. "I, uh, need you to close your eyes and hide your face in my neck to protect it. It'll only be for a few seconds, until we're above the clouds."
She nodded. "That's fine. Um, are you going to do your…" She twirled her finger in a tornado-like motion.
"Yeah." He stepped back and quickly spun into the suit.
"Wow," she said, unable to keep a note of breathlessness from her voice.
"I need to…" He moved closer again, seemingly unsure of how to go about picking her up.
"It's not like you haven't done this before," she pointed out.
"Right." He lifted her into his arms, but she could feel how rigidly he held her, as if he wanted to touch her as little as possible. It felt nothing like the other times Superman had held her, when she'd used it as an excuse to get as close as possible to him. Little had she known that he'd been doing the same thing. *Superman* had been in love with her. Now he was practically repulsed by her, if his current discomfort was anything to go by. She looped her arms around his neck for stability and hesitated a little before putting her head on his shoulder and burying her face in his neck as he'd told her to do. It was the exact spot she'd been longing for when he'd arrived at her apartment — that warm, masculine niche that seemed to have been created just for her. She felt him swallow once, and then they were shooting into the air so quickly she felt as though she'd left most of her vital organs back in the alley.
"You can look up now," he said, his voice sounding slightly ragged.
She lifted her face, brushing a cloud-dampened piece of hair out of her eyes. "That was something." This time she was distinctly breathless.
"Sorry. I didn't want to risk being seen."
"No, it was fine. Exciting."
"Let's hope it's the last excitement you'll have for a while."
With that repressive statement, he turned his attention to the business of flying, which seemed to require a great deal more of his focus than it usually did. She closed her eyes against the wind and tried to pretend that nothing had changed, that Superman and Clark Kent were still their comfortable distinct selves. She tried to imagine that she and Superman were on a romantic moonlit pleasure flight to…well, to almost anywhere on earth besides Smallville, Kansas. Since she'd become infatuated with the handsome superhero, she'd imagined him taking her to tropical beaches and snow-capped mountains. She'd imagined romantic interludes at the top of the Eiffel Tower or on a gondola ride in Venice. She'd even imagined eloping to Vegas, for heaven's sake. But not once had she imagined him taking her to a farmhouse in Kansas. It was just impossible to build any kind of a decent fantasy around that, especially when he was holding her so stiffly and so silently.
In only a few minutes they were drifting down to the Kent's front porch, but the flight had seemed to take much longer, and for the first time ever, she was glad when she was out of Superman's arms. Clark seemed to feel the same way, taking care not to touch her as he reached out and opened first the screen door, which complained loudly, and then the front door with a key he'd fished from under a nearby flowerpot. Once, Lois would have teased him mercilessly about that, but that sort of banter now seemed to belong to another life. If he wasn't quite Superman to her anymore, neither was he her naive farmboy. She'd lost them both, somehow, and was left with this angry stranger.
"Mom? Dad?" Clark called as he stepped inside.
"Clark?" His mother's voice drifted down from somewhere upstairs. "Why aren't you at the party?" She appeared on the steps then, still knotting a bright pink bathrobe, and immediately stared. "Lois?"
"Uh, yeah," Clark said. "Lois needs to stay here for a while, Mom. She can tell you why. Right now, I need to get back to Metropolis before I'm missed. I'll be here for breakfast in the morning, though, all right?"
"Of course," Martha said faintly.
"Thanks, Mom. I'll see you tomorrow." He was gone again in a gust of wind, leaving Lois and Martha staring at one another.
"What's going on out here?" Jonathan demanded, appearing beside his wife.
"I have absolutely no idea," Martha answered.
<<I'm going to kill him,>> Lois thought as she blinked up at the bewildered couple on the stairs. It had never occurred to her that Clark wouldn't have called his parents and told them she was coming. And then to just drop her and leave! <<I don't care if he is invulnerable. I'm going to kill him.>> Aloud she said, "Hi, um, Martha. Jonathan."
"Hi Lois," Jonathan said, offering her a tentative smile.
"Lois," Martha echoed flatly. "Lois is apparently staying with us," she said to her husband, sounding as if she didn't quite believe it.
"Well," Jonathan said, finally moving from his spot on the stairs. "I suppose we should get you settled. Eh, Martha?"
"Right." Martha followed him down and looked hard at Lois as if she were taking her measure. "I guess you'll be in Clark's room again. Where are your things?"
"Oh, um, I don't have any. Clark wouldn't let me pack anything…said you might be able to take me tomorrow to pick up a few things…if, um, that's OK?"
Martha nodded but said, "We probably don't have the kinds of stores around here that you're used to."
"Anything will be fine, Mrs. Kent." The 'Mrs. Kent' was a test of sorts, and she felt her heart sink when Martha didn't immediately correct her. Apparently Clark wasn't the only member of the Kent family who was determined to keep Lois at arm's length, and suddenly the idea of a few days of peace and quiet in Smallville seemed a lot less inspired than it had a few hours before.
Jonathan cleared his throat. "Uh, can we ask why Clark brought you here? Not that you're not welcome," he added hastily, his eyes sliding to his wife.
She nodded. "He brought me because Lex Luthor is stalking me. He's bugged my apartment — Clark checked it tonight and even though he never told me what he found, he must have found something or I wouldn't be here, and I just can't *believe* I've been living with that stuff for days and didn't know…and I think he's having me followed, too, so that's why I couldn't pack anything, not even a toothbrush, though I did make sure to wear my grandmother's earrings…not that Lex would take my grandmother's earrings — I mean, he couldn't wear them, and it's not like he needs the money, but it felt weird leaving them so I brought them, but I couldn't bring anything else and I just had to leave the party right in the middle like I was going to the bathroom and five minutes later I was here and you obviously had no idea, and I really thought Clark would have *told* you, I swear, and don't think I'm not going to have something to say to him about that…"
She broke off there, suddenly realizing that she was both babbling and insulting their son, neither of which was probably helpful under the circumstances. She took a deep breath. "Clark wants to prove that Lex is the one who bombed the Planet, but he said he can't do that if he has to protect me from Lex at the same time. So he brought me here to get me out of the way."
"I'm sure he didn't mean it like that," Jonathan offered, sounding a little dazed.
She raised her head and met his kind eyes. "I'm sure he did." She glanced at Martha, whose face was still an emotionless mask. "Listen, I can tell this isn't convenient for you. I can stay at a hotel or something. Really."
Martha shook her head and seemed to soften a little for the first time. "No, Lois. If Clark wants you here, then here is where you need to be. We'll go into town tomorrow to get you what you need, but in the meantime, I can loan you some nightclothes, or you could probably find something of Clark's to wear. He leaves some clothes in the dresser drawers upstairs."
"Thank you," Lois said softly. "I'm sorry to cause so much trouble."
"It's no trouble," Jonathan said. They all knew he was lying, but there was no point in arguing about it.
"We were about to turn in," Martha said. "The days start pretty early around here. I'll just get those things for you, all right?"
She turned and went back up the stairs without waiting for a reply, leaving Lois and Jonathan alone. He looked like a big teddy bear in his worn brown robe, and Lois was warmed clear through when he slipped her a quick wink, his blue eyes twinkling at her behind his glasses. "It'll be all right, Lois," he said.
She had no idea if he was referring to the rift between her and Clark, the nightmare with Lex Luthor, or the awkwardness with Martha, but she didn't ask, just grateful for any reassurance. "You think?"
"Wait and see," he promised, as he guided her to the stairs. "C'mon. Let's get you settled in."
Martha provided her with an assortment of things, including, she was grateful to see, a new toothbrush, still in its box. She spent a few minutes in the bathroom, taking care to be as quiet as she could since it seemed that Martha and Jonathan really had gone straight to bed. She had stayed in 'Clark's room' before, when she and Clark had been in Smallville to check out the bogus EPA investigation at Wayne Irig's farm. It appeared to be the only other bedroom in the house; although it must truly have been Clark's while he was growing up, it since had been made over into more of an all-purpose guest room that reflected Martha's taste far more than it did Clark's. As she stored her paltry collection of things in the top dresser drawer, Lois tried to imagine what it had looked like when Clark had lived there. She'd never given much thought to Clark's life before she met him. He occasionally entertained her with anecdotes about his travels, but rarely did he talk about the years before that, the years when he had grown to manhood in a cozy Kansas farmhouse. She'd never asked. Always before, she'd assumed that Clark's life had simply been too boring to warrant inquiry.
Now, however, she was consumed with curiosity about him. As much as she knew he would resent it, the fact that he was Superman *did* make him more interesting. The fact that he was both Superman and Clark Kent made him downright fascinating. She realized that, even having seen Clark go from one to the other more than once now, she still hadn't fully wrapped her mind around that concept. Intellectually, she knew they were one and the same, but her gut response to each of them was still very different. Superman inspired awe and knee-weakening attraction; Clark inspired friendship and warm affection. She loved them both, but each in his own way. She had no idea what to make of this new SuperClark dichotomy, and it didn't help that he was angry and not acting particularly like either of his identities at the moment.
Perhaps here, in the place he grew up, she would be able to reconcile the two men in her mind and solve the puzzle of who Clark Kent really was. She would be helping with the investigation of Lex Luthor, of course, but there was nothing to prevent her from conducting her own investigation on the side. She needed to know and understand Clark as a real, whole person rather than as the two halves he'd kept so carefully separate over the past year they'd been working together. Clark might wish to be an ordinary man, but he never could be. He was from another planet, for goodness sake; as far as anyone knew, he was the only one of his kind. He was super-strong, super-fast, and he'd flown her to Kansas in his arms. He routinely defied every law of physics she'd ever heard of, and probably some she hadn't, science never having been her best subject.
But he was also a writer of depth and sensitivity, capable of touching the hearts of his readers and inspiring them with his beautifully crafted stories. Lois's own style was very different, and probably more appropriate for the kinds of hard-hitting stories she liked to write, but she'd come to appreciate Clark's graceful turns of phrase. They seemed to beg to be spoken aloud, and then they lingered on the tongue like a fine wine. To his face she called him touchy-feely. But, deep down, she felt the occasional pang of envy that Clark's writing attained heights her own workmanlike prose would never approach.
*Superman* was that gifted writer she admired. *Clark Kent* could fly and catch bullets with his bare hands. Somehow both of them were the same man, and he'd grown up here, in this room, on a wheat farm in Kansas. She would solve the puzzle, put the pieces together, and when she was finished, she would see Clark for who he truly was. <<You're an investigative reporter,>> she told herself. <<So investigate!>>
She began with the dresser drawers, opening and closing several that were empty before finding one that held a jumble of men's shirts. She pulled them out one by one, wrinkling her nose at a particularly hideous flannel and taking note of the paint splatters and holes in the various t-shirts. These were apparently Clark's work clothes, things he wore when helping his Dad around the farm. Just seeing them, she had an immediate mental image of him laughing with Jonathan as they worked side-by-side under a wide blue sky. At the bottom of the drawer she found several shirts that were noticeably smaller than the rest. One was a Midwest U sweatshirt in good enough condition that she immediately set it aside for her personal use. The next was a heather-gray "Property of Smallville Crows" t-shirt that made her giggle. Superman had played for a team called the *Crows*?
Yes, Superman had played football for the Smallville High Crows — and not nearly as well as he could have, she suspected, sobering at the thought. Had he possessed his full powers then? While the other adolescent Crows were trying to improve their passing and punting, had Clark's energies been focused not on doing his best but on trying to hide his abilities? For Lois, who had always been fiercely competitive, such a thing sounded like torture. But what would have been the consequences for Clark if he'd slipped up? At best he could have exposed himself as different, and at worst he could have killed someone; Clark never could have lived with that. She'd always seen him as someone who enjoyed the simple pleasures in life, and she'd assumed that football qualified; but she was beginning to realize that for Clark Kent, nothing was simple.
When had it started? Had his whole life been one of hiding and pretending? When had he come here? And how? The house was full of pictures of Clark growing up. She tried to think of the earliest one she'd seen but couldn't remember. Was it possible that he'd been here since he was a baby? Did she dare ask Martha, after the frosty reception Lois had received? On the whole, she thought she did. There wasn't much Lois didn't dare to do, after all, and the worst Martha could tell her was to mind her own business.
She stripped off the pajama top Martha had loaned her and pulled the musty Smallville Crows t-shirt over her head instead. It was nearly threadbare and incredibly soft against her skin; somehow wearing it made her feel closer to the boy who had once owned it. As she folded the rest of the shirts and returned them to the drawer, she imagined a sixteen-year-old Clark. He'd have been handsome even then, of course, but probably shy and awkward and mostly unaware of his own appeal. He still seemed caught off-guard when women showed an interest in him, even though it happened tolerably often to Clark and constantly to Superman. Lois was fully aware of her own charms and used them when necessary to get what she wanted. She'd only known Clark to do that once, however, with Toni Taylor, and she had a feeling he'd felt bad about it later.
How was it that *she* of all women had captured this shy man's attention? She'd been hostile and condescending to Clark and fawning and fatuous to Superman. Just the thought of how she'd treated both of them caused her cheeks to flame when she thought about it now. She'd made a complete fool of herself, not once but again and again, and somehow Clark had still loved her. He had loved her enough to carve out his own heart and offer it to her on a platter, knowing full well that he was taking a huge risk in doing so. Why? He could have practically any woman in the world. Why would he settle on prickly, impulsive Lois Lane?
Well, whatever the reason, he'd certainly learned his lesson, she thought sadly. Whatever love he'd felt for her had been replaced by the cold disdain she was honest enough to admit she probably deserved. It wasn't that she wanted Clark to be in love with her, she told herself, but she *was* sorry for the obvious pain she had caused him, and she definitely wanted him back as her friend. She crawled beneath the bright patchwork quilt that covered the bed and switched off the light before snuggling down into the plump feather pillows. She'd see Clark tomorrow morning, she reminded herself, as her eyes drifted shut. She'd have both the time and the opportunity while she was in Smallville to learn more about him — to understand him for the first time. It wasn't hopeless. She held on to that thought as she allowed herself to relax into sleep.
Lois woke to the mingled smells of coffee and baking biscuits and squinted against the sunshine streaming into the room. She'd meant to awaken early so she could offer to help Martha with breakfast, so she rolled quickly and guiltily out of bed, taking time only to make a quick stop in the bathroom before padding down the stairs in her bare feet. Before she'd gained the ground floor, she became aware of the hiss of furious whispers coming from the kitchen. She paused briefly and then forged ahead, pasting a smile on her face. She was greeted by an odd tableau: Martha stood before a sizzling cast iron frying pan, wielding a spatula like a deadly weapon, and Superman towered over her, his arms folded across his chest. Both of them stared as she entered.
"Good morning," she ventured.
"Morning, Lois," Martha returned, offering her a tight smile and then turning quickly back to her sausages. "Breakfast is almost ready."
"Oh, I hope you didn't go to any trouble on my account. I usually just have coffee."
"We have coffee," Martha said. "Clark, why don't you show Lois where everything is?"
"Sure, Mom." He glanced at Lois. "The mugs are here…" He opened a cabinet and pulled down two mugs with a 'Smallville Bank and Trust' logo on them. "And milk's in the fridge, but, uh, I don't think Mom keeps any of the stuff that you usually put in your coffee." He opened and closed one cabinet after another until Lois physically stopped him, putting her hand on his arm.
"It's fine, Clark. Milk's fine." There was something unsettling about seeing Superman rifling frantically through the pantry in search of Sweet n' Low. She'd take her coffee without sweetener today. She took the mug from his hand and poured herself a cup of coffee and then helped herself to milk.
"Can I help you with anything, Mrs. Kent?"
"No…thank you," Martha answered. "Clark, would you please go call your father in?"
"Sure, Mom." Clark put his coffee down and strode out the door, his cape fluttering behind. Lois and Martha were left alone in the kitchen, an echoing silence between them.
"Thanks again for the toothbrush and pajamas and things," Lois ventured. "I slept like a rock."
"I'm glad." Martha pulled four plates from a cabinet and Lois reached for them.
"Here. I'm a terrible cook, but I do know how to set a table."
Martha's mouth quirked a little at that and she surrendered the plates. "Thank you, Lois."
They fell silent again as Lois set the table and Martha heaped a platter with biscuits, eggs, and sausages. Soon Clark and Jonathan came in, to Lois's great relief. Clark had changed out of the Superman suit and was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but without his glasses, a difference that caused her to stare briefly until Jonathan distracted her with a cheerful greeting.
"Morning, Lois," he called out as he washed his hands at the sink. "Sleep OK?"
"I slept great, thank you," Lois said, smiling at him. "I really appreciate your hospitality."
"We're glad to have you," Jonathan said warmly. "And by the way — I like your t-shirt."
Lois remembered then what she was wearing and looked down a bit self-consciously. "Oh…well…it looked comfortable."
"You'll fit right in with the locals in that," he teased. "They'll probably try to recruit you to the cheerleading squad."
Lois laughed. "I'm afraid I'd disappoint them. Tennis was my sport, but even that I haven't played in a while."
"Were you any good?" Jonathan asked.
She shrugged, feeling uncharacteristically modest, but Clark answered his father's question. "She was good," he said dryly.
"How would you know?" she asked. Clark had never seen her play tennis that she could recall.
"Lois, you're the most competitive woman I've ever met. If you played tennis, you were good."
He actually cracked a smile. "So were you?"
She huffed at him. "Yes, Clark, I was good. I won the state high school singles tournament two years in a row. Satisfied?"
"Were *you* satisfied?"
"No. I should have won it my sophomore year, too. I had Achilles tendonitis just before the tournament, and my father wouldn't let me compete."
Clark looked at his father and raised an eyebrow. "See what I mean?"
Jonathan chuckled and then Martha gave him a little shove in the direction of the table. "Sit down, Jonathan, and eat before your food gets cold."
They fell silent as they filled their plates, but only Jonathan ate with any real enthusiasm. Lois didn't normally eat much breakfast, but she nibbled at what she'd been offered so as not to offend Martha. Clark spent most of the meal staring into his coffee cup as if it held the secrets of the universe. Martha didn't even sit down with them, but bustled around the kitchen tidying up, giving the impression that she had pressing business elsewhere.
"So Clark," Jonathan said, once he'd taken the edge off his appetite, "you planning to hang around here today?"
Clark shook his head. "Can't, Dad. I can't stay much past breakfast, actually. I need to talk to Lois for a few minutes, and then I'll head back to Metropolis. I have a ten-o'clock appointment at the Juvenile Detention Center to see Jack."
"How is Jack?" Lois asked, feeling guilty that she hadn't thought to inquire before.
"I'm not sure. That's one of the things I'm going to find out. And even though I don't believe he had anything to do with the bombing of the Planet, I need to ask him if he knows anything that might help us."
"Well what can I do?" she asked. "You promised I could help."
"You can, but we're just getting started. I'll let you know when there's something you can do."
"In the meantime, you can tell me what you know about Lex." She gave him a look that said she'd brook no argument.
"Fine," he said on a sigh. "After breakfast, though, OK?"
"I'm finished," she said, pushing back her chair and reaching for her plate. "And it doesn't look like you plan to eat anything."
He glanced at his mother and then back at Lois. "Let's go outside, all right?"
She nodded. "Give me a minute to get dressed." She took her plate to the sink and thanked Martha for breakfast before heading upstairs and putting on the pantsuit she'd worn to Perry's party the night before. The shoes weren't ideal for a walk on a farm, but they were all she had. She found Clark waiting for her in the living room; he didn't say anything, just opened the front door and gestured for her to precede him through it.
The artifice of Clark's friendliness the evening before had been painful at the time, but Lois realized as he held the front door for her that it might have had one advantage. He didn't seem to be able to go back to the open hostility with which he'd greeted her at his apartment. He was still clearly uncomfortable, and there were none of the light touches and sidelong smiles that had marked their friendship. But his innate courtesy was asserting itself, and there wasn't quite the same degree of tension between them as they left the porch and walked toward the pond where Clark had nearly died at Jason Trask's hands.
The scene was picturesque: a shady, tranquil pond with a neat little dock and sturdy fishing boat. It should have conjured up visions straight out of "The Andy Griffith Show". Instead, what Lois thought of as she took in the scene was the sheer terror that had consumed her when she'd seen Trask raise the gun and point it at Clark. But Clark was *Superman*. Could a bullet have killed him? She frowned to herself, remembering. He'd certainly been beaten up that day; there was no way he could have faked the cuts and bruises she'd helped Martha doctor that evening. He'd fought with Jason Trask, and he hadn't had superhuman strength when he'd done it. Could Trask's ravings about a meteorite hurting Superman actually have been true? She opened her mouth to ask Clark about it, but he spoke first, raising an entirely different subject:
"I'm sorry about my Mom," he offered, absently picking up a stone and tossing it into the still water. He seemed engrossed in the widening ripples, never glancing her way.
Lois shrugged. "You're her son, Clark. We had…an argument." Or two or three. "It makes sense that she'd take your side."
"That's the thing," Clark said, frowning thoughtfully at the water. "She didn't. A few days ago she was taking *your* side. I never dreamed she'd be so…"
"She took my side?" Lois asked, her curiosity piqued.
"Pretty much. I really didn't expect her to act this way, and I'm sorry if it makes you uncomfortable, but I need you to stay anyway, OK? Promise me."
"I've already said I would, Clark," she said testily. She didn't like being reminded of how little he trusted her to keep her word, especially when he hadn't exactly been a paragon of honesty himself. "But since she obviously doesn't want me here, and I don't want to be here, we need to do everything we can to catch Lex so I can go home."
"I know. That starts today. After you disappeared last night, I had to tell Perry and Jimmy something. I told them what we suspected about Luthor and that Superman had taken you somewhere safe. Perry and Jimmy were relieved to hear it and said they both want to help nail Luthor."
"Wait a minute — I thought Perry was leaving for Florida."
"He was, but he's changed his mind. He's sending Alice ahead and going to stay with me for a few days. Jimmy, too, as it happens. He had just enough beer last night to admit that he was losing his apartment. Can't make the rent."
"That *stinks*," Lois said, feeling furious on Jimmy's behalf. Lex had wrecked so many lives when he'd blown up the Planet. It was nothing more than bricks and mortar to him, a means to an end, but to those who had worked there it represented so much more. "I have some money saved up…" she began.
"No," he said sharply. "You can't go near any bank. You can't touch your credit cards. You can't even make a long-distance phone call. You can't do anything that Luthor might be able to trace, Lois. Nothing."
"How am I supposed to buy clothes?" she demanded.
"I brought you some cash, and Mom and Dad will loan you more if you need it."
She glowered at him. "I don't like feeling like a charity case."
"He had a camera in your bedroom," Clark said softly. "He had a camera in your bathroom. He's been watching you shower, Lois. He's been listening to everything you've said…in your apartment, in your car, on your phone."
"Oh my God," she whispered. She'd known, of course, but hearing it confirmed still left her feeling shaky and slightly nauseous.
"I wasn't even going to tell you — about the shower, especially — but you have to take this seriously. If you leave any kind of a trail, he will find it, and he will follow it. I don't want him here. I don't want him near you, and I don't want him near my parents."
"No," she said faintly. "I wouldn't let that happen." She sank down onto the dock, suddenly feeling as if her legs wouldn't support her anymore. She took a deep breath and looked up at him. "You need to tell me what you know about Lex. I want to hear it all, Clark. Every single detail, right from the beginning."
He nodded and lowered himself down beside her, dangling his long legs over the edge of the dock and nudging the water with the toe of one heavy boot. "I guess it started with Space Station Prometheus and the Messenger shuttle…" he began.
Lois shifted her position and made herself comfortable. If Clark was going back that far, this was liable to take a while.
If he lived to be a thousand, a possibility that held absolutely no appeal at the moment, Clark was sure that he would never understand women. They just didn't make sense. He arrived for breakfast expecting to find Lois and his mother chatting together over a cup of coffee, and instead, his mother lit into him with the force of a hurricane, demanding to know what he'd been *thinking* to drop his ex-partner on their doorstep at 9:30 at night with no warning and no explanation.
"W-well," he stammered, "you always told me my friends are welcome here."
"Your friends, yes," Martha retorted. "But you spent the better part of the last week telling us all the reasons Lois *isn't* your friend. Should I remind you of what you said about her, Clark? Manipulative, wasn't it? And self-centered? Cruel, heartless, selfish…do I need to go on?"
"And suddenly we're just supposed to welcome her with open arms! Let her live here for who knows how long, knowing that she broke our son's heart and cost him a job that he loved…"
"Mom, she didn't cost me my job. Lex Luthor did that."
"Because of Lois!"
"And now her life is in danger! No, I'm not all that happy with Lois right now, but I'm not going to let her *die* just because she doesn't love me."
"Oh, of course she loves you," Martha snapped, startling him. "And you love her. But you both seem determined to make a complete mess of things, and now you're putting your father and me right in the middle of it. Well, I won't have it, Clark. If you leave Lois here, you two had better be prepared to get along, because I'm not able to be impartial about this. It's like you said the other day — you're my *son*, and no matter which one of you is at fault, I'll always be on your side. I won't sit quietly by and watch her hurt you again. I just *won't*."
He heard Lois moving around upstairs then and hissed, "Mom, she's not going to hurt me. I told you — it was an infatuation and I'm *over* it."
His mother made a frustrated sound and punctuated her feelings with several sharp jabs to the sausages.
"And we're getting along, Mom. I promise. I'm not putting you and Dad in the middle of anything. Lois and I are adults."
Martha snorted at that.
"Fine, Clark," she said, lowering her voice to a whisper as she heard Lois on the stairs. "I don't want Lois in danger, but that doesn't mean I want to adopt her into the bosom of our family, either. You should have given us some chance to get used to this idea. A *phone call*, say, at least as a courtesy."
"I know, Mom, and I'm sorry, just please…" He broke off there as Lois entered the room, looking sleep-tousled and entirely too appealing in one of his old t-shirts. She must have felt like she was facing a firing squad, but she smiled bravely and wished them good morning. Some recessive part of him felt like rushing to her and offering reassurance, and he wondered at the bizarre notion. Two days ago, he would have sworn that he didn't care about protecting Lois from anything at all. Still, protecting her from Luthor was easy enough to rationalize; the urge to protect her from his own mother, however, was patently ridiculous. Lois was a big girl. She could handle his mother.
That thought wasn't enough to keep him from scurrying around like a fool, trying to help Lois fix a cup of coffee to compensate for the hospitality his mother so pointedly wasn't offering. He was almost grateful to Lois when she stopped him, though her light touch on his arm was enough to send his heart racing and to cause him nearly to jump out of his skin. Why, why, *why* couldn't he control his responses to this woman? It wasn't fair. He knew her for who and what she was, but, standing barefoot in the farmhouse kitchen wearing his Smallville High t-shirt and his mother's pajama bottoms, she looked like a helpless fifteen-year-old. In the normal run of things, Lois was about as helpless as a Bengal tiger, but just the sight of her sent all his heroic impulses into overdrive.
Which was precisely how he'd gotten into this mess in the first place, he reminded himself sternly, as he sipped his own coffee. He was absolutely, positively *through* being Lois's hero. He would be polite, nothing more. He would keep his promise to his mother not to fight with Lois, not to make his parents uncomfortable by airing their dirty laundry at the farmhouse. It was funny — when he'd poured his heart out to his mother he'd been outraged that she'd seemed to take Lois's side, but now that Martha was firmly in his camp, he found he didn't like that much either. He had, entirely without meaning to, stranded Lois in hostile territory, when what he'd meant to do was to take her to the safest, most comforting place he knew. He felt guilty about that, but there was nothing he could do about it now; he resolved not to let his feelings of guilt make him vulnerable to her.
He was relieved when he fetched his dad for breakfast and saw that his father, at least, seemed to have every intention of making Lois feel welcome. His dad had always liked Lois, he knew, from her first visit to Smallville; that initial fondness had been cemented when Lois had fought so tenaciously to prove that Superman wasn't responsible for the Metropolis heat wave. Jonathan always said that Lois had "spunk", which was one of his highest accolades, even though Clark thought it was just a tactful way of saying she was dangerously foolhardy and darned lucky to be alive. Jonathan had been properly sympathetic when Clark had arrived at the farm brokenhearted, but he had surprised his son by not seeming particularly alarmed by the fact that Clark had revealed his secret. He hadn't given his 'dissect you like a frog' speech, and that, more than anything, told Clark that beyond just thinking that Lois had "spunk," his father trusted her in a way he trusted few others. It was something to think about when he had the time and emotional energy to spare.
After an uncomfortable breakfast, he ushered Lois out into the bright Kansas morning and away from the tension with his mother. He'd thought he didn't want to be alone with her, but it turned out that being alone was preferable to sharing space with Martha Kent while she was indulging her Mama Bear impulses. He apologized to Lois for that and was relieved that Lois seemed to understand — better than he did, anyway. <<It must be a woman thing,>> he thought, and sighed again at the apparent futility of ever trying to understand them.
It had taken an hour to give her the Cliffs Notes version of Superman's interactions with Lex Luthor over the past year. He had expected her to be angry — at him, mostly, for all that he'd kept from her, but also at Luthor for deceiving her so thoroughly. And she was quite vocally angry at him at first, and outraged on behalf of Luthor's victims. But, as he'd gone on with his recitation, she'd fallen silent and curled around herself, hugging her knees to her chest and staring out over the shady water as his story unfolded. He had no idea what to make of her strange silence and defensive posture, and he had no time to try to work it out. He was expected at the Metropolis JDC in ten minutes, so anything further was going to have to wait.
"I have to go," he told her, when he was finished. "I'm supposed to see Jack at ten."
"I remember," she said quietly, not looking at him. "Tell him we're doing everything we can to get him out of there."
"I will." He stood and shifted from one foot to the other, feeling that something important was being left unsaid. "Lois…"
"It's fine, Clark." To his horror, she reached up and wiped a tear from her cheek. "Go," she whispered. "Please just go."
"I…" He had no idea what to say to her. No idea which part of what he'd said had upset her. No idea why she was crying instead of shouting at him. If he lived to be a thousand, he thought again, he'd *never* understand women.
Like a complete coward, he spun into Superman and did just as she'd asked: He went, leaving her alone and weeping on his father's dock.
Lois had never considered herself a quitter, but as she fought the tears that chased one another down her cheeks, she wanted nothing more than just to walk away from everything. And she really, truly might have done it had she not been stranded in the middle of Kansas in uncomfortable shoes.
It had been hard enough coming to terms with the fact that neither Clark Kent nor Superman was what he had seemed; now she felt as though she'd spent the last year in a fictionalized version of her own life. She'd seen only what Clark had allowed her to see, what Lex had wanted her to see, what she herself had deigned to see. And never once had she suspected. She, who prided herself on her instincts and discernment, had never had the slightest inkling that Lex Luthor was anything other than a charming businessman and philanthropist.
She thought of the women Lex had used and discarded — and sometimes killed outright, as he had Antoinette Baines — and realized how incredibly close she had come to being one of that number. She had thought the consequences were high when her instincts had failed her with Claude Reynard, but she now realized that a lost award and some embarrassment at the office were inconsequential compared to the price she'd have paid with Lex Luthor. He'd had her exactly where he wanted her, prepared to walk straight into his arms; she wasn't sure anything less than Clark's dramatic revelation could have stopped her. Clark had warned her about Lex before, certainly — vague, seemingly groundless warnings that had come off sounding like a simple reporter's envy of a rich and powerful man — but she'd rolled her eyes and let his warnings whistle by her while she readied herself for the next evening at the opera. Was she really that shallow? That blind? It hadn't been Lex's money that had attracted her any more than it had been Superman's powers. It had been the things he'd done with it. She'd thought he was a great philanthropist, just as she'd thought Superman was a perfect hero and Clark Kent was a simple farmboy.
She'd been furious at Clark at first, as he'd been telling her about Lex's role in sabotaging the Messenger and murdering Samuel Platt and Antoinette Baines. Her anger only mounted when he told her about the tests Lex had set for Superman during his first days in Metropolis. How could he have kept that from her?
The fight had started to go out of her, however, when he told her he suspected Lex of deliberately engineering the heat wave in yet another effort to get rid of Superman. She let her mind wander back to that time and remembered her shock and, yes, sadness when Clark had announced he was leaving Metropolis, too. He'd cupped her cheek in his hand and bent and brushed her lips with his in a tender farewell; she'd wanted to argue with him, to demand that he stay and be her partner, be her friend. But she hadn't. "I don't know which of them I'll miss the most," she'd said at the time. Now she did know, and with the knowledge came bitter self-recrimination.
She'd have missed Clark the most. She'd have missed a thousand sweet, funny moments and brown eyes laughing behind horn-rimmed glasses. She'd have missed late-night take-out and early morning coffee, fixed just the way she liked it. She'd have missed strong arms, broad shoulders, and a gentle, protective hand at the small of her back. She'd have missed friendly teasing, unconditional support, and appreciative glances at her legs when he thought she wouldn't notice. She'd have missed loud ties and quiet comfort. She'd have missed all that and a hundred other silly, meaningless things that came together to mean more than anything else ever had. Clark's friendship had been the one thing in the past year that was real. Only she hadn't seen it, hadn't treasured it. She'd fought like crazy to save Superman and let Clark Kent slip quietly away from her in the middle of the night.
She heard the rest of what Clark told her, but it had all seemed unnecessary at that point. She believed him. Somehow, he'd managed to tell his story without a single 'I told you so,' but the words echoed through her head anyway. He'd tried to tell her. And when she wouldn't believe him, he'd let Superman tell her in a way that was guaranteed to get her attention. She wasn't sure she could give him full credit for that, since it seemed to have been the work of an impulse, but the bottom line was that Clark had saved her from herself once again, and she wasn't sure she could bear it.
She swiped at her face, knowing that, despite her efforts, her fair skin would bear witness to her tears. She could only hope that Martha Kent would be tactful enough — or just disinterested enough — not to ask. She wasn't prepared to talk about her own failings just yet, and certainly not to the woman whose son was wronged by them. She still, more than anything, felt the urge to run away from it all, but she knew that was impossible. She couldn't run away and she refused to wallow, so she unfolded herself from her hunched position on the dock and made her way slowly back to the farmhouse.
She paused only once, outside the largest of the outbuildings, and stood a moment to watch a fat, black cat dozing in a dusty patch of sunshine. The cat looked so tranquil, she thought, as if it didn't have a care in the world. In that moment she envied it more than words could express. As if it could feel her watching, the cat's eyes opened, first to slits and then to a wide, green stare.
"Hi there," she said softly. She took a step toward it with one hand extended, but she checked herself when the cat's ears went back and its mouth opened in a prolonged hiss. She sighed. "You've been talking to Martha, haven't you?"
"Hi, Lois," Martha greeted her as she came in. There was no smile, but her tone was less frosty than before. "Has Clark gone back?"
"Uh, yes. He left a few minutes ago in time to make his appointment to see Jack. He didn't say when he'd be back."
"Oh, I expect he'll turn up pretty regularly now you're here," Martha said dryly.
Lois shook her head. "I wouldn't bet on it." She took a deep breath. "Mrs. Kent …I just wanted to say…I understand how you feel about me. I really do. I don't blame you for not wanting me here, and I wouldn't have come if I'd known that Clark hadn't discussed it with you. I'm sorry for putting you in such an awkward position."
Martha sighed. "That's not your fault, Lois. It's Clark's, and I've let him know how I feel about it. As for the rest…well, I'm not sure you *do* know how I feel. I'm not sure you could, unless you were a mother yourself. But I understand that you need to be here right now, and I'm prepared to try to make the best of it if you are."
"I'll try to stay out of your way," Lois said. "Or to help you, if there are things I can do. You'll need to tell me, though. I'm afraid I don't know very much about farms."
"I appreciate the offer, Lois. In the meantime, why don't we make that trip to town to get you the things you need?"
Lois nodded. "That sounds great. Thank you."
They took the Kents' battered old truck into town, bouncing down the dirt access road that led to the Kent farm until they came to a paved, two-lane road surrounded by neatly fenced land on both sides. It was beautiful, but too open for Lois's comfort. The level fields stretched to meet the horizon, making the truck and its passengers seem completely insignificant. She wondered if maybe that was why Clark liked it there. Perhaps when you spent so much time being larger than life, it was good to return to a place where you were nothing more than a pinprick on the neatly stitched landscape. She dismissed the thought as fanciful as soon as she had it; Clark loved Kansas because it was home.
"We found him right over there," Martha blurted into the silence between them, as if she'd tried to keep the words in and at the last minute they'd made a break for it anyway. She pointed off to her right, but the field looked like any other to Lois.
"Found who?" Lois asked, feeling stupid the minute the question left her mouth.
"Clark." Martha gave her the expected answer. She kept her eyes on the road as she went on. "We saw a light in the sky — like nothing I'd ever seen before. Jonathan didn't want to stop, thought it might be dangerous, but I was determined to find out what it was."
"That's pretty much how most of my investigations with Clark went," Lois said, smiling sadly at the thought.
"Clark's a lot like his dad." She didn't say that she and Lois were alike; it was more than either woman was ready to concede. She paused a few seconds and then went on, remembering. "He was just a little baby. About five months old, we figured. And from the first time I held him, he was *mine*. I don't know how to explain it. I've held lots of babies — before and since — but I've never held one who fit so perfectly in my arms, who just seemed to belong there like Clark did. No matter where he'd come from, I knew he was meant to be mine." She glanced over at Lois, suddenly looking embarrassed.
Lois wanted the conversation to go on and on. She wanted to ask a hundred different questions, but it was obvious that Martha had already told her far more than she'd intended to. Lois's instincts, honed by years of interviewing sources for her stories, told her that this wasn't the time to push. She wondered why, when Martha was so obviously unhappy with her, she had chosen to share such a personal memory, and suddenly she knew what to say. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you for telling me that."
Martha's lips compressed briefly, and then she offered Lois a wry smile. "Other mothers swap birth stories, Lois. When you find a baby in a spaceship, you don't get to talk about it. In nearly thirty years, you're the first woman I've ever been able to talk to about my son."
Lois felt as if the wind had been knocked out of her as the magnitude of what Martha was saying dawned on her. Martha and Jonathan had been guarding this secret, protecting their son, for nearly thirty years. Never once had they breathed a word — not to their own families, not to a single friend or neighbor. And then without warning, without asking permission, Clark had suddenly brought his unpredictable city-gal ex-partner into this "small club," as he had called it. At the time, she hadn't really appreciated what that meant. Now she realized that whether any of them really wanted her to be, she had become a part of the secret that lay at the very heart of the Kent family; with that knowledge came a responsibility to guard it as faithfully as Martha and Jonathan had. She was sure that Martha would have chosen almost anyone else to exchange confidences with, but she had no one else, had never had anyone else. No wonder the secrets were bubbling up now and spilling out, almost against her volition. They'd been locked up tight in her heart for nearly three decades.
"Mrs. Kent," she said, her voice wavering, "I need you to know that I will never, ever do anything to expose Clark. Whatever happens between us, with our…friendship, I'll protect him."
Martha glanced at her, her mouth turning up a little at the corners. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Lois. I've told you to call me Martha."
Martha took her to a strip mall just outside of town, and there Lois was able to buy the necessities for a few days on the farm. It was true that Smallville didn't offer the stores she was used to, but she made not a word of complaint as she tried on the unfamiliar brands of clothes. She didn't need designer labels on a farm, and the jeans she found for $25 fit better than the expensive ones she'd left at home in Metropolis. She bought three pairs and a selection of comfortable tops and then Martha tactfully left her alone while she chose bras and panties.
They went to a separate shoe store, where Lois chose a pair of athletic shoes exactly like the ones she had at home. She'd planned to just make do with those, but Martha insisted she select a pair of heavy boots for walking around on the farm. Lois went along at first but then balked at the price tag on the boots Martha selected.
"This is Clark's money," she protested. "I don't know when I'll be able to get to mine to pay him back, and he doesn't even have a job right now."
"Good boots are a necessity of farm life. Don't worry about the money. I think Clark left enough to cover them, but if he didn't, Jonathan and I will. Unless you're going to be content to sit in the house all day long, you'll need these."
Lois had to admit that the idea of being trapped in the house didn't particularly appeal. The fact that she and Martha were on a first-name basis again didn't mean that the tension between them was gone completely, and Lois thought it would be best if they didn't spend every minute of every day together. Besides, she hadn't abandoned her plan to learn more about Clark, and part of that would include exploring the farm where he'd grown up. She gave in and bought the boots.
They drove back through downtown Smallville, stopping in at a quaint, old-fashioned drugstore so that Lois could supply herself with the various cosmetics and supplies she hadn't been able to bring with her. While she browsed the selection of shampoos, Martha went over to the pharmacist's counter and picked up a prescription. Lois could hear snatches of their conversation and pricked up her ears when she heard the pharmacist say something about "Clark's girl," but whatever Martha answered was too low for her to hear.
Martha had just rejoined her when they both were slightly startled by a man's voice exclaiming, "Mrs. Kent! How are you doing?"
"Oh, hi Adam," Martha replied, smiling at the young man who stood before them. He was lean and deeply tanned, and to Lois he looked like a surfer, with sun-bleached hair and some of the bluest eyes she had ever seen. "It's good to see you. How's your mom?"
"She's doing fine, thanks. I'll tell her you asked." He glanced at Lois, and Martha made the introductions.
"Adam, this is Lois Lane. She's visiting us from Metropolis. Lois, this is Adam Rainey. He and Clark have been friends since they were kids."
"Lois Lane! You're Clark's girl, then," Adam said, offering his hand with a friendly smile. "It's great to meet you."
"Uh, it's nice to meet you too, Adam." She managed to return his smile, but thinking of the pharmacist's comment and remembering her reception at the Corn Festival, she privately wondered how it was that every single person in Smallville seemed to know that Clark had been in love with her, when she herself had missed it completely. What had he done? Taken out an ad in the Smallville Post? "But I'm not…Clark and I aren't…"
"Lois needed a break from Metropolis, and we offered to let her stay with us for a while. She and Clark aren't involved." This last was said so firmly that Lois was almost insulted, until she remembered all the reasons Martha had for wishing Clark and Lois had never even met.
"Oh," Adam seemed a bit taken aback by Martha's tone as well, but he recovered quickly. "Well, Lois, I hope you'll enjoy your stay. It was nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, too."
He turned to Martha. "Give my best to Mr. Kent, and tell Clark hello for me when you talk to him."
"I will, Adam."
Adam gave a jaunty wave, turned to go, and then stopped and turned back. "Say, Lois, a group of us gets together every Friday night down at the pizza joint. It's nothing fancy — just pizza and beer and some of the folks Clark and I have known since we were kids. They have a band on the weekends. It's pretty bad, usually, but every now and then they play something you can actually dance to. Would you like to join us tonight?"
Lois looked from Adam to Martha. "I appreciate the invitation, Adam, but…"
"You should go if you want to, Lois," Martha said. "I'm sure you'd have more fun with people your own age than hanging around the house with Jonathan and me."
Which could mean that Martha didn't mind if she went, or that Martha would really rather she go — Lois wasn't sure. She was tempted by the idea of seeing more of the people Clark had grown up with, however, so she nodded. "All right, then. I'll look forward to it. What time?"
"I'll pick you up around 6:30." He flashed her a charming smile. "See you then, Lois Lane."
"I went in to buy deodorant and came out with a date," Lois said to Martha as they were on their way back to the farm. "That never happens in Metropolis."
Martha's mouth twitched. "Maybe you're not shopping in the right places."
"Apparently not," Lois agreed. And then, "Adam seems nice."
"I think he is. He was a bit wild as a teenager, but he got married right out of high school and that settled him down some. It didn't last, though, and neither did the next one."
"He's been married twice?"
Martha nodded. "The first divorce was no surprise to anyone. Neither one of them had the least business being married, but there was a baby on the way, and…well, it's a pretty common story around here. I think he was crazy about the second girl, though. They lived in Wichita and were happy from all I've heard. But then his dad died and he felt like he needed to come back here and run the farm for his mom. His wife came with him, but she couldn't stick it out. Hated small-town life, hated being a farmer's wife. It's not for everyone."
"That's really sad," Lois said. "I wonder why he didn't just sell the farm and find some other way to take care of his mom."
Martha shrugged. "Well, that's what I would want Clark to do, but some people are funny about land, especially when it's been in the family for generations. They're determined to hold on to it, no matter what it costs them."
"I can't imagine you and Jonathan living anywhere but the farm. You just seem to belong there."
"Oh, I don't know. We've been happy there, but I think we could be happy somewhere else, too. We'll probably never know. Our life would never suit Clark, though."
"Were you disappointed about that?"
Martha smiled and shook her head. "No. Clark's never disappointed us. We knew from the time he was a little boy that he was too curious, too eager to learn about the world, to ever want to settle down on the farm. He's never been happier than this past year in Metropolis. Somehow we managed to raise a big-city boy."
Lois laughed out loud at that. "Clark? No way. He's still a farmboy at heart. He's so naive…so trusting. I can barely get him to lock his front door."
"He's not naive, Lois." Martha looked suddenly serious. "Remember, as Superman, Clark's seen more of the underside of Metropolis than you or I ever will. He knows the worst of what's out there. He just…lives as though the world were the way he wants it to be rather than the way it is. I think it's his way of balancing the things he sees as Superman. It would be so easy for him to let himself stop trusting people, to believe that there was no good in anyone, but I think he knows that if he does that, Clark Kent will disappear."
"You've thought about this a lot," Lois said softly.
"I turn on the TV at night and I see my son pulling people out of burning buildings and wrecked cars. I see him catching bullets and bombs and confiscating guns and knives. I've watched him stop hijackings and carjackings, and once I watched him lift a sabotaged shuttle into space." Martha looked angry, and her hands tightened convulsively on the steering wheel. "So you bet I think about it! It's a miracle that I ever find time to think about anything else. They think because he's invulnerable that he can't be hurt, but I know better, Lois, and I think you do, too."
"I *do* know that," Lois said, her eyes suddenly brimming with tears. "I *never* meant to hurt Clark, Martha. I swear. I'd give anything if I could make things right between us again. Clark is…my best friend. He's my partner. I *need* him in my life."
Martha sighed. "When I said that you knew better, I was speaking generally, about the things Clark faces as Superman. I actually meant it as a compliment — that you understand him better than most people. I didn't mean to fuss at you about your personal relationship with him. But since you brought it up, I'm going to say one thing, Lois, and then I'm going to butt out and stay out."
She glanced at Lois, who nodded and waited, tense, for whatever was about to come raining down.
"You say you need Clark in your life," Martha said softly. "And I'm sure that's true, but that's not what makes you special to him. Everyone on earth *needs* Clark. He could spend every minute of every day helping people who needed him. I'd like you to spend some time thinking about what *Clark* needs and whether you think you're able to give it to him. You just might not be. Loving Clark is rewarding, but it isn't easy. It's going to take a very special, very patient person. Someone who's willing to lie for him every single day. Someone who's willing to share him with the world and then to help heal that tender heart of his when he comes back with it battered and bruised. He's not an ordinary man, and he's not perfect. It can be a difficult combination. So if you don't think you can be what Clark needs, then please, Lois…let him go."
"I don't think I *can* let him go," Lois admitted in a small voice.
"Then ask yourself why that is, honey."
Lois took a shuddering breath. "I'm not sure I'm ready for the answer."
Martha's face suddenly lit up in the first true smile Lois had seen from her that day. "No one ever is, Lois. That's what makes it so exciting."
After he'd left Lois crying that morning, the guilt had eaten at Clark all day. He'd dumped a year's worth of deception and betrayal on her and then just taken off into the clear blue sky. He flattered himself that the betrayal was mostly Luthor's, but there was no kidding himself about the fact that he'd had a hand in the deception. And yes, there were reasons he'd deceived her, and some of them were even quite good, but he knew that all Lois would see was that he had lied to her repeatedly and withheld significant information about several of their investigations. He would have predicted that her response would be anger, rather than tears, but he had known she'd be upset.
He'd left her sitting on the dock with tears slipping quietly down her cheeks, and that forlorn image hadn't left his thoughts all day. It had been there when he'd sat in the bleak visiting room with Jack and told him firmly that no, Superman would not help break him out of jail, but that they'd try to get him a new lawyer, one who wouldn't ask him to confess to a crime he hadn't committed. It had been there as he'd wolfed Chinese food with Perry and Jimmy and made plans to track down the Planet's board members and find out just why they'd decided to sell the paper to Lex Luthor. It had been there while he'd sought out long-time advertisers and asked why they'd suddenly lost faith in the paper after being customers for so many years. And it had been all he could think about when he had reached for the video on his kitchen counter and told Perry that he needed to return it right away. He'd done that, and then he'd hurled himself into the air and shot toward Kansas.
As he flew, he acknowledged to himself that his plan to forget about Lois Lane wasn't exactly a rousing success so far. But these things took time, didn't they? And it absolutely didn't mean he was going to fall for her again. It just meant that he didn't like seeing her hurt, which was a different thing altogether. He didn't like seeing anyone hurt, really. If he occasionally thought back with a certain amount of satisfaction to the moment he'd smeared the orange juice-chewing gum concoction on Luthor's raw wound, it didn't mean that he was the kind of person who liked seeing people hurt in general. Any fool could see that Luthor was an exceptional case, and that that situation had no bearing on the situation with Lois. Because even though Lois had hurt him deeply, she had still been his friend. When he'd seen her tears that morning, he'd realized that the urge to return hurt for hurt had fallen away. The realization didn't change his resolve to move on once Luthor had been brought to justice and Lois was safe. But it did make him feel as though he and Lois might be able to part without open hostility; there would be a certain amount of peace in that.
He'd have them exchanging Christmas cards next, he thought with disgust, as he landed on his parents' porch and let himself into the house.
The scene that greeted him was a familiar one: his father was seated in his favorite armchair, reading a farming magazine, and his mother was perched before a colorful canvas with a paintbrush in her hand, another between her teeth, and a jaunty smear of orange on one cheek. They both looked up with surprise as he entered, but he was enormously relieved when his mother removed the paintbrush from her mouth and greeted him with her usual cheerfulness. Apparently he'd been forgiven his sins of the previous day.
"Hi, honey! We didn't expect you."
"There's pecan pie in the kitchen," his dad added. "Better get it while you can." He patted his ample belly with satisfaction, and his wife gave him a reproving look.
"Not one more bite for you, Jonathan. You know what the doctor said. But Clark, you help yourself if you want some."
"Thanks, Mom." He extended his hearing, seeking out Lois's presence, and almost instantly concluded that she wasn't in the house. "Where's Lois?"
He was unable to keep the note of panic from his voice. If it had been anyone else, he would have assumed she was fine, that there was a logical explanation, but with Lois, absolutely anything was possible. She could have fallen down a well, been mowed over by a combine, or hitchhiked a ride with a serial killer. Suddenly, Smallville seemed like a hotbed of potential catastrophes, and how dare his parents sit so calmly in the living room when Lois was probably clinging to life by a mere thread?
"Oh, she had a date," his mom said, frowning thoughtfully at her canvas as she added another swipe of magenta.
Clark was so busy mentally preparing for the imminent rescue that it took a moment for his mother's words to sink in. When they did, he thought it was a joke, and not a particularly funny one.
"Seriously, Mom. Where's Lois? You didn't kill her and bury her in the back garden did you?" He laughed uneasily.
His mother shot him a dirty look. "Lois and I are fine," she said, "and if I did kill her, I hope I'd have better sense than to bury her on my own property. I told you…she had a date. She's out at The Pizza Joint with Adam Rainey and some of your old friends."
"You let her go out with Adam Rainey?" Clark's voice rose to an octave it hadn't visited since he'd hit puberty. "Mom, how could you do that?"
Martha's eyebrows shot up into her hairline. "Let her?" she repeated. "Clark, she's my guest, not my prisoner, and she's a grown woman. If she wanted to go out with Adam, it certainly wasn't my business to stop her. Besides, Adam is your friend, or I thought he was. Why shouldn't she go out with him?"
"Because he's…he's…he likes women, OK?"
Martha's mouth twitched. "And you don't?"
"Mom, you know what I mean. Adam likes lots of women. And he only wants one thing from them."
Martha gave her son a look of angelic innocence. "And what would that be, honey?"
Jonathan snickered behind his magazine as Martha dissolved in a fit of giggles. Clark glared so furiously that it was a miracle he didn't accidentally start a fire.
"Clark, he invited her for pizza with a large group of people," Martha said. "I really don't think you need to worry."
"I just don't understand how you let this happen," he grumbled.
"Well, we ran into Adam at the pharmacy, and I introduced him to Lois. He apparently found her attractive, so he asked her on a date. It's really not that complicated."
<<Not that complicated.>> It had always seemed incredibly complicated to him. Was it really just that simple? If he'd asked Lois out on the spur of the moment, would she have gone? If he'd leaned over and kissed her, as he'd wanted to a hundred times, would she have kissed him back, or would she have reminded him not to fall for her?
As if she were reading his mind, his mom said, "I'm sorry, honey. I was teasing you a little and I shouldn't have. Your situation was a lot more complicated for a lot of reasons. I know that. But I also know that if you were as over Lois as you say you are, you wouldn't care so much about her being out with Adam."
Clark gave his mother a suspicious look. "Did you set this up just to make me admit to something?"
"Clark, when you left this morning, did I *seem* like I was interested in playing matchmaker?"
"No," he admitted. "But you're a woman."
"What's *that* supposed to mean?"
He sighed. "Just that I've realized that I have no idea what any of you are thinking, and whatever ideas I do have turn out to be wrong. You women are very confusing, Mom."
Jonathan lowered his magazine. "You just now realizing that, son?"
Martha rolled her eyes. "I promise you, Clark, I didn't have anything to do with us running into Adam or with him asking Lois out. And I really didn't expect you here tonight anyway."
"I hadn't planned to come, but Lois was upset this morning when I left, and I wanted to make sure…well, I guess she's over it if she's out on the town with *Adam*."
Martha cracked up. "Out on the town? In Smallville? For goodness sake, Clark, go join your friends at The Pizza Joint. They'll all be glad to see you — including Lois, I predict."
"Oh, sure," Clark said, sounding sulky. "And what do I tell them? I'm supposed to be in Metropolis."
"Tell them you flew in this weekend to surprise us. It's more or less the truth."
"Story of my life," Clark muttered. He was a fundamentally honest man, raised by fundamentally honest people, and they all spent their lives trapped in a web of white lies. It got tiresome. He moved toward the door. "All right. I should stop by, I guess — check on Lois — make sure she's OK."
"Yeah, you can't be too careful," Martha teased. "Who knows what terrible trouble she could get into at The Pizza Joint?"
"The fact that you can joke about that just proves that you don't know Lois at all," Clark said as he headed for the door. "I'll see you guys later."
"See ya, son," Jonathan called.
"Have fun, honey," Martha said.
Jonathan waited until he heard the sound of Superman taking off, and then he fixed his wife with a stern look. "I thought you weren't going to meddle."
"Who's meddling? He asked where Lois was, and I told him. How is that meddling?"
"Oh, all right, so I enjoyed it a little. But those two…they both need someone to knock some sense into them."
"I don't know, Martha. Getting involved in our son's love life — it seems like a bad idea to me. Could get awfully messy."
"Not nearly as messy as burying her in the back garden," Martha said with a grin.
Jonathan shook his head, but he allowed as how his wife was probably right.
Lois smiled when she realized that "the pizza joint" was actually *named* The Pizza Joint. The name wasn't terribly original, but she liked the place as soon as she entered it. It was the kind of place Clark would like, she thought wistfully. There was nothing franchised about it; it was in a converted old warehouse and had high ceilings, scuffed hardwood floors and lots of atmosphere. It was filled with the smell of pizza and the sounds of laughter, and just being there reminded her that there was a whole world full of people who had nothing to do with the problems she'd left behind in Metropolis — people for whom Lex Luthor was nothing more than a name on a list in the rumpled "Forbes" magazine they glanced through at the dentist's office. It helped to put things into perspective, and she was glad she'd decided to come.
They were spotted almost instantly, and from a large corner table came shouts of "Rainman!" Adam waved to his friends and grinned at Lois.
"You ready for this?" he asked.
"Hey," she said, sounding insulted, "I survived the Corn Festival."
"You did? Well, hell, why didn't you say so? If you lived through that, this'll be a piece of cake."
Adam led her to the table where three couples were seated and immediately made the introductions. "Lois, this is Jennifer and Jack Simmons, and over there is Michael Kirk and his wife, Leslie. The ugly fellow at the end is Sam Jackson, and next to him is his wife, Julie. Everybody, this pretty lady is Lois Lane from Metropolis."
Adam's friends exchanged startled looks when they heard her name, but they quickly recovered themselves and gave Lois a friendly welcome. Jennifer Simmons, a pretty redhead, pulled out the chair next to her and said, "Here Lois, sit by me. The men always wind up at one end talking about sports." She wrinkled her nose in obvious distaste.
"Thanks…Jennifer, right?" Lois seated herself and smiled at the other woman, as Adam took the seat on the other side of her and immediately joined the mens' conversation.
"Do you drink beer?" Leslie gestured to the pitcher in front of her. "If not, you could order wine or something else."
"Beer's fine. Thanks." As Leslie poured her a glass, Lois looked at her more carefully. "Didn't we meet at the Corn Festival last year?"
Leslie nodded as she passed her the drink. "We did. Clark introduced us at the dance. Um, aren't you and Clark…?"
"Clark and I are friends," Lois said, though even that was stretching things just then, "and we were partners at The Daily Planet."
"We heard about what happened to your newspaper," Jennifer said, sounding sympathetic.
"Have they found out who was responsible for the bombing?" Julie asked.
Lois shook her head. "They've arrested one of our copyboys, but the charges against him are ridiculous. He had nothing to gain from destroying the Planet, and everything to lose. We're trying to find out what really happened, but we have a long way to go."
"Do you think The Daily Planet will ever be back in business?" Jennifer asked. "We've all just loved following Clark's stories."
"I don't know," Lois said, shaking her head. "I sure hope so. But Clark's a great reporter. If he's not writing for the Planet, he's sure to be snapped up by another paper."
And what would *that* be like, seeing Clark's byline in another paper over stories she knew nothing about? And worse, what if he got a new partner? How would she feel seeing another name linked with his and knowing that someone else now spent her days at Clark's side? She could practically picture it in her mind's eye: Clark leaning over some other woman's shoulder, tussling good-naturedly over the wording of their lead. She felt the urge to scratch her imaginary rival's eyes out, and she realized that it was far from the first time she'd felt that way. She'd never been willing to admit it to herself, but she'd *always* hated it when another woman garnered Clark's attention, professional or otherwise. Ever since they'd worked their first story together, she'd staked a firm proprietary claim on Clark Kent. She had told herself that he was a greenhorn who couldn't be trusted on his own and that keeping him on a short leash was for the good of the paper, for the good of the partnership. She'd found fault with every single woman who'd ever shown an interest in him and had neatly cut him off from any and all admirers, sure that she was doing him a favor. In hindsight, she wondered at her self-delusion. For the good of the paper? Sheesh! She'd been keeping him to herself, plain and simple, and had been too cowardly to admit the reason why. And she *still* wasn't quite ready to admit it, but she could feel herself inching closer to something both thrilling and terrifying — something she was hesitant to reach for, yet afraid to let slip away.
She was glad when conversation drifted to other topics, including a major negotiation on what kinds of pizza should be ordered. But along the way Lois was called upon to explain what she was doing in Smallville, particularly without Clark, and even though she felt a bit silly, she used Martha's excuse that she just "needed to get away for a while." She was grateful that the other women were too polite to ask what it was she was getting away from. Not everyone was as nosy as she was, it seemed.
As they munched pizza, Lois learned a little more about the three women she was seated with. Leslie and Jennifer had lived in Smallville all their lives, and they and their husbands had grown up with Clark, but Julie and Sam had moved to Smallville after college, when Sam took a position at the bank there and Julie got a job teaching at a local elementary school. They had met Clark several times over the years but didn't know him well. The Kirks were farmers, like Adam, and the Simmonses owned the local hardware store. All had children who were home with babysitters or grandparents, and Lois felt her attention drifting a little as the discussion turned to the children and their various illnesses, activities, and escapades.
She was thus a little startled when Jennifer suddenly leaned over and grabbed her arm to get her attention.
"Lois, I hope you don't mind…but can I ask you kind of a personal question?" Jennifer asked, her eyes alight with mischief.
"Uh, I guess so." Lois knew it could only be about Clark, and she dreaded having to sugarcoat their current situation for his friends.
"What was it like kissing Superman? Is he as completely sexy in person as he seems on TV?"
Lois stared, stunned into speechlessness for a moment. "Wh-what?" she managed.
"We saw you on TV — before he went after that asteroid. I mean, we all thought you were Clark's girlfriend, so we figured it must have just been a good luck kiss, but still…"
"Oh." She had kissed Superman, and in front of about a hundred TV cameras. What had she been *thinking*? "Um, yeah. Well, he's definitely a good kisser. But it was just for luck…like you said. I mean, I don't really know him all that well."
"I'm sorry," Leslie said, shuddering delicately, "but you wouldn't catch *me* kissing him. I don't care what he looks like. He's…not human. I just couldn't do it."
Lois felt a white-hot rage flash through her. Not *human*? Clark? She'd never known a man possessed of more humanity than Clark Kent.
"We'd all be dead now if it weren't for him," she said acidly.
Leslie raised her eyebrows, obviously surprised by Lois's tone. "Don't get me wrong. I'm grateful and all."
"You're grateful!" Lois spat. "The man flew millions of miles into space and attacked an asteroid with his bare hands…" And dear God, that had been *Clark* up there, alone in the dark and the cold, and she hadn't known, hadn't worried *nearly* enough. "…To save a bunch of people he doesn't even *know*…"
"Well I think he's amazing," Julie interrupted, clearly trying to head off an argument. "It's exciting that you know him, Lois."
Julie gave Leslie a look, and Leslie clamped her lips shut and allowed her friend to change the subject. Lois, however, continued a slow burn, tormented both by Leslie's bigotry and by thoughts of Clark out in space. He'd been hurt out there and had returned home disoriented and confused, and then he'd somehow put the pieces back together and turned around and done it all again. It was far too late for her to be feeling what she was feeling: the sheer terror mingled with hurt and anger that he had taken that risk without telling her, and the cold fury at the people who took for granted that he would risk so much to save them — who took him for granted every single day. Whatever misconceptions she'd had about Superman, she had always instinctively known that he had human feelings and values, and she had always seen him as much more than just the sum of his good deeds. That was why she had kissed him that day; she had wanted him to know that there was someone on earth who cared about more than just whether he was successful in his mission — who cared about whether he returned safely. Suddenly, she didn't regret the kiss at all. She hoped it had brought Clark some comfort at a time when he was shouldering a responsibility no man should have had to bear alone.
Her reverie was distracted by the sound of the band starting to play. She glanced at Leslie one more time and then caught Adam's eye and asked him if he wanted to dance.
The band really wasn't very good, but both Lois and Adam were good enough dancers to make a go of it, and soon the activity had helped to take the edge off of her anger and her belated attack of nerves about Clark taking on Nightfall. When the band switched to a slow number, Adam pulled her into his arms.
"So are you glad you came?" Adam asked, raising his voice to be heard over the music.
Lois nodded. "It's been fun. Thanks for asking me."
"Anytime pretty lady. If you're still here next weekend, maybe you could join us again."
Lois smiled and nodded, but privately she doubted it. It had been a nice evening, except for the near-spat with Leslie over Superman, but she didn't want to encourage any interest Adam might have. Her life was way too complicated just then as it was.
Adam pulled her closer and spoke right into her ear so he wouldn't have to shout. "Are you sure you're not Clark's girl?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said with a mirthless laugh. "I'm pretty darn sure."
"That's funny…because I can't think of any other reason he'd be standing over there looking like he wants to tear me limb from limb."
Her eyes flew to his face and then, when she could see that he wasn't joking, she followed his line of vision to a spot just inside the entrance, where, sure enough, Clark stood watching them with a face like a thundercloud. As they made eye contact, he nodded a cold greeting and her hand tightened reflexively on Adam's shoulder.
"I think that look is meant for me," Lois said.
"Hmm. You know, I haven't seen much of Clark lately, but he's one of my oldest friends. I don't want to get in the middle of anything."
"Things with Clark and me are kind of…complicated right now," she admitted.
"Yeah, I had a feeling." He smiled. "Don't take this personally, Lois, but I think I'm going to take myself out of the equation. What do you say I let Clark see you home tonight, and you two can maybe work on whatever it is that's so complicated?"
She nodded, relieved. "Thanks, Adam. That would probably be best. Clark and I do need to talk."
As they finished their dance, Lois watched Clark make his way toward the table where the other couples were seated. She saw the split second that he wiped the look of raw emotion off his face and replaced it with the bland, friendly look that people associated with Clark Kent, a lightening fast transformation that went some distance toward explaining how it was that she'd misunderstood so much of Clark in the past year. It wasn't entirely her fault, she realized suddenly — not when he was such a master at hiding his true feelings.
When the song ended, Adam led her back to the table and immediately greeted Clark with a slap on the back and a handshake, as if he were oblivious to any awkwardness in the situation. "Clark, good to see you! If we'd known bringing Lois along would get you to come out with us, we'd have kidnapped her a long time ago."
"You'd have had to stand in line," Clark said dryly. "For Lois, being kidnapped is a weekly event."
"Very funny, Kent," Lois said, but she smiled, relieved that he was able to joke. "Gimme a break. I'm trying to make a good impression on your friends here."
"What happens in Metropolis stays in Metropolis, huh?"
"Something like that." She took the seat he pulled out for her and was grateful when Adam went to the other end of the table and left the seat next to her for Clark. He'd meant what he'd said about taking himself out of the equation, and she felt some of the tension dissipate as Clark settled himself beside her and accepted a beer from Michael.
It was fascinating to watch Clark chat with his old friends. It was as if he'd never left Smallville. He'd kept up with every bit of gossip, it seemed, and followed every conversation as if it were the most interesting he'd heard in a while. When the men's talk turned to football, he borrowed a pen from Leslie and began drawing plays on a napkin. When Jennifer mentioned her little boy's frequent ear infections, Clark told her about a Chinese herbal remedy he'd learned of during his travels. He talked farming with the farmers and commerce with the businessmen. He knew something about everything, it seemed, and could contribute just enough to any conversation to be a participant without ever being in danger of monopolizing it.
When Lois thought about it, she realized that Clark had been like that in the newsroom, too. He was always genial, always easygoing, but he never went out of his way to draw attention to himself. When he wasn't immediately involved in a conversation, he managed to subside into near invisibility. He wasn't that way with her, but he was with most acquaintances. How could he have such presence as Superman and be so retiring as Clark? And was one of the two the real Clark Kent, or was the truth somewhere in between? She knew that, if asked, any of Clark's old friends would have claimed to know him well, just as she would have claimed to know him well only a week ago. Now she suspected that Martha and Jonathan Kent were probably the only people on earth who could make that claim.
When the evening broke up and the others had said their farewells and gone home to their children, Adam stood outside the restaurant with Lois and Clark and said, very casually, "You don't mind seeing Lois home, do you Clark?"
"No," Clark said, equally casually, "I'm going that way."
"Oh, so if it was out of your way, you wouldn't bother, is that what you're saying?" Lois demanded playfully. "You'd just leave me here to wander aimlessly around Smallville…"
"Lois," he complained, "when have I ever let you wander aimlessly anywhere?"
She put her hands on her hips and stared him down. "Do the words 'Sewage Reclamation Facility' mean anything to you, Kent?"
Clark laughed. "You had that coming and you know it."
"Someday I wanna hear all about that one," Adam said, grinning. "But not tonight. We farmers have to get up with the chickens, you know. Clark, it was great to see you, man. Don't be such a stranger." He and Clark shook hands, and then he leaned over and kissed Lois's cheek. "It was fun, Lois. Thanks for joining us."
"Thanks for asking me," she said. "I had a good time."
He smiled and waved, and she and Clark watched as Adam climbed into his truck. When the door slammed behind him, Lois turned to Clark, feeling suddenly shy now that they were alone. They'd both been putting on a bit of a front for his friends, and now that it was no longer necessary, she wasn't quite sure how to act with him.
"I, um, didn't expect you tonight," she said.
"It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision," he admitted. "Mom talked me into it."
"I'm glad she did. Uh, she and I talked some today. I think things are a little better there."
"Yeah, she gave me that impression. That's good." He set off down the street, guiding her with a light touch to the small of her back before quickly drawing his hand away and letting it fall to his side.
"So did you drive or…" She made a little flying motion with her hand.
"I didn't drive. Do you mind?"
"Are you kidding? So where are we going?"
"Behind the Simmons' hardware store, there's a place where it's private enough for me to take off."
"You really do spend a lot of time in dark alleys, don't you?"
He smiled. "You have no idea."
He led her behind the hardware store, and though it was more of a small courtyard than an alley, it was dark enough and private enough that they wouldn't be noticed. She was surprised when he lifted her into his arms and up into the air without bothering to change into his Superman suit. It felt strange to fly in *Clark Kent's* arms, but nowhere near as strange as it would have right after he'd revealed his secret.
"Why didn't you change?" she asked.
He shrugged slightly. "Short flight, and out here things are so spread out," he nodded in the direction of the farmland below. "The chances of me being seen are practically nil."
She wondered if there might have been more to it than that — if perhaps he'd been trying to make some sort of a point — but she didn't pursue it. Much too soon, she recognized the Kent farm down below and knew that the flight was about to be over.
"Can we stay here just a minute?" she asked softly. "The stars are incredible tonight."
Clark stopped and adjusted his hold on her slightly, and they hung suspended in the brilliant sky. "Yeah. It's one of the things I miss in Metropolis."
"It's so quiet here, too." She spoke in hushed tones, the majesty of their surroundings inspiring a sort of reverence. "It's nice after the noise at the restaurant."
"Did you have fun tonight?"
"I did. Your friends are really nice."
"Yeah. They're good people. Be careful of Adam though, Lois. He's the kind of guy you wouldn't want dating your sister, you know? I think he deflowered half the girls in my graduating class."
"*Deflowered*?" She giggled. "Did you go to high school in Victorian England?"
"I was *trying* not to be crass," he said. "Respect for your delicate ears and all that."
"Delicate ears — that's a good one." She grinned at him. "Anyway, I think Adam's grown up a little since your high school days. He was a perfect gentleman."
"I'm glad to hear it." He paused for a moment and then, "I wasn't going to come back here tonight, but I felt bad about the way I left this morning. I'm not sure what I said…what it was that upset you…but I didn't mean to, whatever it was."
"It was nothing you said. Or maybe it was everything you said. I just realized all of a sudden what an idiot I'd been. It didn't exactly feel great."
"Lois, most of what I told you, you couldn't have known."
"I know, but as a reporter, I've always prided myself on my instincts about people. And it turns out that all my instincts this year have been dead wrong. I was wrong about Lex, I was wrong about Superman…and I was wrong about you. I…didn't really see you, Clark. And I realized tonight that it wasn't entirely my fault. I'm not sure you realize how good you are at hiding who you really are. You're like a chameleon, always blending into the background, making sure people don't notice the details."
"I grew up being told that some of those 'details' could get me locked up in a lab somewhere and dissected like a frog," he said softly. "Chameleons blend into the background because that's what they have to do to survive."
A shudder went through her and she instinctively tightened her arms around him, wanting to offer comfort. "Oh, Clark," she whispered. "I'm so sorry." She thought of Leslie's comment that night about Superman not being human and of the revulsion on her face as she'd said it. It would be difficult to lock Clark up in a lab these days, but he would still spend his whole life hiding from the Leslies of the world or, worse, the Jason Trasks, and for reasons no more significant than geography. For Clark was human in every way that mattered, and nothing and no one would ever convince her otherwise.
"It's OK, Lois. It's better since I invented Superman. At first it was crazy…the media attention, especially. I didn't expect that, or didn't expect it to be as bad as it was. But at least I can help people now and not always have to move on afterwards. You can't imagine how that feels after so many years of looking over my shoulder. And I have you to thank for that. Superman was your idea, you know."
"What?" She looked at him, stunned.
"I rescued a worker down a manhole right after we started working together, and when my suit got dirty, you told me to bring a change of clothes to work. That's what gave me the idea for a costume."
"Wow!" She was delighted. "You mean I invented Superman?"
"Well, you *helped*. I had a little something to do with it, too."
She waved her hand dismissively. "You were nothing but raw talent, Kent. Admit it — I'm the one who made you what you are today. Though I have to give your mom some credit for costuming," she added. "That suit is *inspired*."
"Lo-is," he moaned.
She laughed, knowing full well that if it were light enough, she'd see a blush on his cheeks. Mostly she laughed because Clark was talking to her again, they were teasing one another, and he was holding her easily, comfortably, in his arms under a starlit sky. Somehow, in this quiet space between the heavens and the earth, a truce had been declared, and things felt as close to right as they had in a week. As her laughter died away, she dared to rest her head on his shoulder in that sweet spot she loved. She felt him tense, but he didn't push her away, and she worked up the nerve to say the words that lay heavy on her heart: "I've missed you, Clark."
He sighed and let his arms tighten around her just the tiniest bit. "I've missed you, too, Lois."
Clark crept into his apartment and held his breath as he glided silently past Perry, who was snoring on the sofa, and Jimmy, who was sprawled on a nearby pallet. If he could keep from waking them, he would have until the next morning to come up with some reasonable, logical explanation for the fact that it had taken him four hours to return a video. He suspected he could get away with just about anything with Jimmy, but he had no wish to press his luck with a man as shrewd as Perry White. He would have no choice but to slip out for Superman emergencies, but as long as Perry was staying with him, he knew he wouldn't be able to indulge in any more evenings out in Smallville.
And it had been an indulgence, no question about it. Once he'd gotten over his initial pique at seeing Lois with Adam, there was a part of him — a rebellious part he hadn't yet managed to subdue — that had reveled in being out with his old friends with Lois Lane at his side. It was obvious that the entire group, including Adam, thought that he and Lois belonged together — that they made up a pair even if they professed not to be a couple. Lois had done a masterful job of pretending that there was nothing amiss between them, and for a while he'd let himself fall into the polite fiction and enjoy the feeling.
Lois Lane and Clark Kent.
Lane and Kent.
Lois and Clark.
Their names had been linked so often that they seemed to flow into one another naturally, just as it seemed natural to have Lois seated at his side. Throughout the evening, he'd staked his claim on her in small, familiar ways — by pulling out her chair, by refilling her glass, and, twice, by finishing her sentences. He'd let his friends know that though she might have arrived with Adam, she belonged with Clark. He had no idea how the evening might have gone if Adam hadn't bowed out so obviously and so gracefully, but he doubted he would have acquitted himself well. And in hindsight, he was disgusted with himself. He was firmly resolved that he *wasn't* in love with Lois, and yet the sight of her with another man had sent him into an unmistakable, albeit subtle, show of possessiveness.
As he slipped between the sheets of his bed, he realized in an epiphany that the way he'd behaved that night had been remarkably like the way Lois had always behaved with him. She had never wanted him herself, but she certainly hadn't wanted anyone else to have him. She teased him and called him Mr. Greenjeans, but let another woman look his way, and her claws came out. He'd picked up on it early on and had always found it amusing — endearing, even. At times, he'd even allowed her possessive behavior to give him hope — the very hope that had led him to pour his heart out to her in the middle of a public park. But never had he dared to assert a similar claim on her. Never for one minute had he thought she'd sit still for it. So what did it mean that he'd done so tonight and lived to tell the tale?
The only answer he could come up with was the most painful one imaginable: What she'd never have tolerated from Clark, she suddenly welcomed now that she knew he was Superman.
It was his worst fear, and he felt almost sick as he forced himself to reevaluate the evening in that light. For a few sweet, treasured moments as he'd held her in his arms beneath the stars, he'd dared to hope that their friendship might actually have weathered the storms of the past week. He had even cautiously allowed himself to envision a future with Lois Lane in it. It wasn't a romantic future — he wasn't feeling that brave or that stupid — but perhaps some sort of return to the way things had been before. Maybe they'd be able to live in the same town, even work at the same paper. Maybe he wouldn't have to start over someplace new in an attempt to outrun his memories.
And then she'd put her head on his shoulder in that vulnerable, trusting way that had always melted his defenses, and his heart had stuttered to life for the first time in a week. She'd told him that she had missed him, and he hadn't been able to keep from responding in kind. Because he *had* missed her. He had missed her like he'd missed his powers when he'd been exposed to Kryptonite. His powers were something that often aggravated and inconvenienced him, and many times he'd wished them gone, wished he could be 'normal.' But when it happened for real and he'd thought the superpowers might be gone for good, the loss had been devastating — more so than he'd ever admitted to his parents. He'd felt like half a person for those few days, and that was exactly how he'd felt since he'd fallen out so spectacularly with Lois. It was easy to think of a hundred different reasons he'd be better off without her, but when he *was* without her, he felt utterly incomplete.
Was it possible that it was only about Superman for her? She'd called him by name, and he'd been dressed as Clark at the time, but the fact that they had been floating a quarter of a mile above his parents' farm might make the first two points moot. For most of the time she'd known him, Superman had done the floating and Clark Kent had remained safely on terra firma. Had she really had time to accept that the two were one and the same?
Intellectually, he thought she probably had. He hadn't been acting particularly like Superman, after all, and she hadn't been treating him as a 'god in a cape.' In fact, she'd been teasing him in a way she'd never have dared to tease Superman, and there had been none of the breathless adoration that he had always found irritating and intoxicating in equal measure. No, there had just been warmth and reassurance, and then that final confession that she had missed him, had missed what they had once shared. Those words *must* have been meant for Clark. They just had to have been. And if he hadn't been so completely wrong about her just a week before, he might even have allowed himself to feel a little hopeful.
As it was, he told himself firmly that he needed to put the evening out of his mind. He'd left her in Smallville, in the care of his parents. She was as safe as Lois Lane could ever be anywhere, which wasn't as reassuring as he'd like, but it was the best he could do. He had a job to do in Metropolis, and he needed to give it all his attention. Lex Luthor was a formidable opponent, even for Superman, and Clark was determined to vanquish him once and for all.
But in direct defiance of all those very practical, very sensible thoughts, the last thing on his mind as he slid into sleep was the feel of Lois relaxed in his arms, her head resting comfortably on his shoulder and her breath warm against his neck as she told him she'd missed him.
"OW! *Damn* it!"
Clark's eyes snapped open and he jerked upright to find Jimmy hopping up and down at the foot of his bed. He made a quick grab for his glasses and slid them into place.
"Jimmy? What are you doing?"
"Sorry CK," Jimmy said through gritted teeth. "I stubbed my toe on your bed."
"Oh." Clark rubbed his face, still feeling muddled. "You OK?"
"Except for the broken toe, yeah. Still need the bathroom though."
"Be my guest." Clark waved in the direction of the bathroom and then flopped back onto his pillow. The red numbers on his clock indicated that it was almost 6 a.m. — too late to go back to sleep and earlier than he wanted to get up.
"You boys all right in there?" Perry rumbled from the next room.
"Yeah, Chief," Clark called. "Jimmy just ran into my bed on the way to the bathroom."
"Oh." There was silence for a few seconds and then, "Shame he woke you up. I expect you were wanting to sleep in a bit, what with getting in so late and all."
<<Here we go,>> Clark thought.
"Now me, when I rent a video, I use the store closest to the house. Alice says they don't have as good a selection as the one over on Calhoun, but I just don't like having to go so far out of my way to return 'em, you know? Now I figure you're more like Alice and willing to go a little bit out of the way…to the next state, say, or maybe clear into Canada."
Instead of feeling annoyed, Clark grinned up at the ceiling at Perry's tactics.
"You haven't lived 'til you've seen the video selection in Canada, Chief. It's like a whole new cinematic world up there."
"Uh huh." Perry's voice was thick with skepticism. "Try again, son."
"I use the video store a half mile away," Clark admitted. "I just got…detained on the way home."
Perry appeared in the archway leading to Clark's room, his hair standing on end and one eyebrow raised inquisitively as he knotted his bathrobe.
"I ran into Superman, and he took me to see Lois." Clark had learned long since that the closer he stuck to the truth, the better off he would be.
"Really? Well, that's just great! How is she?"
"How's who?" Jimmy asked, having just come out of the bathroom.
"Superman took me to see Lois last night," Clark explained, sitting up in bed again. "And she's fine, Chief. Settling in. She's anxious for this to be over so she can come home, though."
"Well, you tell her next time you see her that we're doing everything we can to make that happen. I'm not going to ask where she is — I think the fewer people who know that the better — but I'm awfully glad she's safe."
"Me, too," Clark said.
"Well you're a better man than me, Chief," Jimmy said. "I'm dying to ask where she is. Wouldn't it be cool if Superman had some kind of secret lair? Someplace he goes when he's not out saving people? It's probably got all sorts of alien technology that makes it unplottable by humans…"
Clark couldn't help it — he burst out laughing. "You've seen too many movies, Jimmy. I don't know if Superman has a 'secret lair' or not, but I can promise you that's not where he took Lois. She's in a perfectly normal, plottable place — just hopefully not a place where Luthor would think to look for her."
"And that's good enough for me," Perry said, giving Jimmy a quelling look. "Now since we're all up, why don't we get started on our day? We've got a lot to do if we're gonna get to the bottom of this mess. Clark, why don't you take the first shower, and I'll start breakfast. Jimmy, while Clark's in the shower, you head down the street to the newsstand and pick up a copy of today's Star. I hate reading that rag, but I can't start my day without a newspaper."
"I can run get it, Chief," Clark offered, thinking he might be able to sneak in a quick patrol on his way.
"Nothing doing," Perry said firmly. "The last ten-minute errand you ran took hours. If I decide I want the Montreal Gazette, though, I'll call you."
"Sheesh." Clark swung his legs over the edge of the bed. "Come in past curfew *one* time…"
"Aw, quit your griping and get in the shower," Perry ordered. "Jimmy! Newspaper!"
"On it, Chief." Jimmy hastened in the direction of his suitcase, though Clark noticed he was still favoring one foot slightly.
It should have seemed ridiculous, Superman being ordered around in his own home by a man who was neither his father, nor, at the moment, his boss, but Clark found it natural to let Perry take charge, and he suspected Jimmy did too. Their former editor had earned their respect, and with the Planet in ruins and their lives in upheaval, there was something almost comforting about having Perry White barking orders at them at six o'clock in the morning.
That didn't mean, however, that Clark couldn't at least attempt to have the last word: "I like my eggs over easy," he said, flashing Perry a grin.
"Too bad," Perry retorted. "I only do scrambled."
Even with rampant bed-head, the man was formidable. Clark conceded defeat and hit the shower.
Clark had showered and was sipping a cup of coffee and watching Perry put the finishing touches on breakfast when his front door opened to reveal Jimmy holding the requested copy of the 'Metropolis Star'. "Hey Chief!" Jimmy called. "I think you're gonna need to scramble a few more eggs."
Before Clark and Perry could ask what he was talking about, Jimmy moved inside the doorway and made way for Jack, who greeted them with a cocky smile and a wave.
"Hey," he said. "Got room for one more?"
"Jack!" Clark exclaimed, moving toward his young friend. "Of course there's room, but what are you doing here? Did your lawyer get you out?"
Jack rolled his eyes. "That guy? Not a chance."
"C'mon Clark. It's juvie hall, not Alcatraz. They won't even miss me 'til the trial."
"You have to go back," Clark insisted, sounding sanctimonious even to his own ears.
"No way." Jack's face took on a belligerent cast. "Forget it."
"Let the boy tell his side." Perry entered the conversation for the first time. He waited for Clark's nod of agreement, and then turned to Jack. "What's the story, Jack?"
"Can we eat first? I'm kind of starving."
Perry nodded. "Sit down, all of you. We'll eat then talk."
Perry's attempt at breakfast was only passable, but Jack shoveled in the rubbery eggs and overcooked toast as if he hadn't eaten in days. Clark and Jimmy ate more moderately and attempted some small talk, but mostly it fell flat, since the only thing anyone was truly interested in was their surprise guest.
"All right, kid. Why'd you break out?" Perry said, pointing his fork at Jack when it seemed the boy had eaten his fill.
"I overheard some stuff," Jack said, looking troubled. "They brought in a kid a couple of days ago — he was bragging about how he and his brother pulled this frame-up. You know, planted incriminating evidence in some guy's crib."
"So?" Jimmy asked.
"So I was the framee! He was talking about me and the explosives they found at my place after the fire at the Planet."
"Who was he?" Perry asked, and then, rapid-fire, "Who hired him?"
"The guy's name was Pete. Pete Black and his brother John. And I don't know who hired him — just that it was somebody important, and they got paid a ton of money. Pete called him 'The Boss.'"
"It has to be Luthor," Clark said. "I'm sure of it."
"Now wait just a minute." Perry stabbed a finger in Clark's direction. "I'm not saying I disagree, just that it doesn't do a bit of good unless we can prove it. The one thing we can be sure of is that this 'Boss' didn't burn down The Daily Planet just to frame Jack for the job. There's got to be another, bigger reason."
"Insurance?" Jimmy offered.
"Could be," Perry said. "Look into it. Find out how much Luthor made on the Planet."
Clark shook his head. "I don't buy it, Chief. Luthor has enough money that he doesn't need to risk insurance fraud to make a few bucks, or even a few hundred thousand bucks. And besides, he told Lois that the Planet was underinsured and he didn't make enough to rebuild."
"Well, we should be able to verify that, if it's true. Jimmy, get on it."
"He didn't do it for the insurance," Clark said stubbornly. "I'm telling you, I know how this guy thinks. Everything's a power trip with him. Everything's about control. And this time, the person he wanted to control was Lois. He did it because of Lois."
"Clark, are you sure you're being completely objective about this?" Perry asked, but his tone was kind. "I know Luthor proposed to Lois, and I've got a pretty good idea of how you felt about that…But son, men propose to women every day, and they don't go around blowing up buildings because of it. It just doesn't make sense."
"It does!" Clark shoved back from the table roughly and began to pace. "It does make sense! He wanted to cut her off from everyone and everything but him. Everything he's done — running the paper into the ground, buying it, blowing it up — it was all about Lois. He was systematically destroying everything that was important to her so that once her life was in ruins, he'd be in position to ride in on his white horse and save her. And when it didn't work, when she told him she wouldn't marry him, he bugged her apartment and her car so that he could anticipate her every move, her every need. He was getting desperate, and if she hadn't realized it in time…" He broke off, the look on his face speaking volumes. "I'm *sure* of this, Perry," he finished with quiet intensity.
Perry gave him a measuring look and then relented. "All right, then. Let's say for the time being that we agree with you. That still doesn't put Luthor behind bars, it doesn't get the Planet rebuilt, and it doesn't make it safe for Lois to return to Metropolis. We need proof, people! So get out there and get me some! Jimmy, you're on the insurance lead. Jack, you find out where we can contact this John Black character. Clark, get me whatever you can on anyone known as 'The Boss'. I'm going to start digging into the Planet's finances."
Perry's instructions were greeted with a chorus of 'yes, sir's,' and his little army scattered immediately to begin their assignments. Jimmy headed for the shower, since he hadn't taken one yet, and Perry, who had already gotten dressed, grabbed his keys and his copy of the Star and headed out the door to meet with the Planet's accounting firm. Clark was about to follow when Jack stopped him.
"Hey, Clark, you got a minute?"
"Sure, Jack. What's up? Oh, you probably need clothes and things, don't you? Well, you're probably closer to Jimmy's size than mine, but…"
"No." Jack shook his head. "I mean, yeah, I'll probably need some stuff, but that's not it. I wanted to talk to you — you know, while everyone else is gone."
"OK," Clark said slowly. "Shoot."
"Well, it's about that night at the Planet — the night the terrorists held us hostage, remember?"
Clark felt himself start to sweat a little, but he tried to hide it with a joke. "Gee, I'm not sure…I think it rings a bell, but…"
"Yeah, yeah." Jack rolled his eyes. "Anyway, there's something about that night I haven't told you."
Clark was truly nervous now. He'd known Jack suspected something, but he'd hoped it would remain unspoken between them. He didn't want to lie to his young friend, but neither did he want to tell him the truth. As long as it was unconfirmed, he thought Jack would probably always have doubts.
"What is it?" he asked quietly.
"Well, it's about…uh, the globe…the one I took from you." Jack looked up, regret shining in his eyes. "You know I'm sorry about that, right?"
Clark gave his young friend a reassuring smile. "Yeah, Jack, I know. That's all behind us now. No worries."
"Thanks. Anyway, the night I was kidnapped and taken to the museum, I woke up right before Superman rescued me, and I heard two men talking. Not for long — I mean, they got the hell out of there and left me for dead, you know? But I did hear them, and I recognized the guy with the British accent, the one I'd sold the globe to. I didn't know who the other man was." He took a deep breath. "But the night we were held hostage at the Planet I realized…well, I'm pretty sure the other man at the museum was Lex Luthor. I couldn't swear to it in court, but he's got that smarmy upper-class accent, and after spending so many hours with him during the terrorist thing…I just really think it was him."
Clark sucked in a sharp breath and then let it out again softly. "Luthor…" he murmured. "I should have known…should have thought of it myself." He shook his head as if to clear it. "Thanks, Jack. I appreciate your telling me."
"You're welcome," Jack said. "But I gotta ask…if you'd known he was the one who bought…Superman's…globe, would you have still…?"
"Would I have saved him?" Clark interrupted with a wry smile. "Yeah, I probably would have."
"I kinda figured." Jack shook his head in frank disbelief. "You know, you're a little too good to be true sometimes. It's not many guys who'd give the coat off their backs to the punk who robbed their apartment."
Clark shrugged and looked embarrassed. "It was cold," he said simply. "Anyway, Luthor knowing…what he probably knows…well, in a way, maybe it's for the best. Luthor's a known enemy to Superman. There's been no love lost between them from the very beginning. So knowing that it's Luthor makes it easier than thinking there was someone else out to get him."
On the other hand, Clark thought, if Luthor had somehow guessed at the truth, he would be in a perfect position to take his revenge if they should succeed in having him arrested. He didn't *think* Luthor had heard anything in the messages that could lead him to Clark Kent, and Jack hadn't told Luthor where he had found the globe, but still, the thought of Lex Luthor being privy to something so incredibly personal made him feel violated. It was like knowing that Luthor had watched Lois in the shower. The thought of *anyone* spying on Lois that way nauseated him, but knowing it was Luthor made it just that much worse.
For a terrible moment, he remembered Jack's earlier question and wished he could live that night at the Planet over again. How much simpler everything would be now if, instead of playing the hero, he'd simply let Lex Luthor bleed quietly to death on the conference room floor.
"You all right, Clark?" Jack's question and his look of genuine concern jerked Clark out of his dark reverie.
"Yeah," Clark said, managing a wan smile. "Just…forgot who I was for a minute."
Jack cocked his head and gave his friend a strange look. "Clark Kent, right?"
"Right," Clark said firmly, a sense of relief flooding through him. "Clark Kent."
On her second morning in Smallville, Lois didn't bolt out of bed the way she had the day before. She knew she would only be in Martha's way in the kitchen, and she knew not to expect Clark. He had told her the previous night that with Perry and Jimmy staying with him, it would be difficult for him to make scheduled trips to Kansas. He would simply have to pop in when he could, and she doubted it would be as often as she'd like.
It had been hard to watch him fly away the evening before, hard to let their interlude under the stars end when she couldn't be sure if it was actual forward progress or simply a temporary cessation of hostilities. She hoped for the former, of course, but she also knew that Clark was…well, *Clark*, and that it went completely against the grain for him to be hurtful and vengeful. The fact that she had driven him to that point at all was surprising; the fact that he hadn't been able to sustain it was much less so. Had he meant it when he'd said he missed her, or had he just been mouthing the expected platitude? She didn't think she could bear it if he'd just been being polite. There had been too many lies between them already, and she was prepared to forgive Clark's and even try to understand them, but she was certainly not willing to let them continue.
There was no way to find out if he'd really meant it, though. Even if they hadn't been half a country apart, she didn't think she'd have the nerve to broach the subject. Things whispered by starlight had a way of sounding silly when deconstructed in the stark light of day. No, couldn't ask him. She'd just have to be patient, to wait and see, a process she'd always found teeth-grindingly annoying.
In the meantime, she planned to devote her day to her own private investigation into Clark Kent. She showered and dressed in jeans and the sturdy boots Martha had insisted she buy and then, after helping to clean up the breakfast dishes, she ventured out onto the farm with her hostess's blessing.
"You can't get lost," Martha assured her. "I'm going to be working in the garden for a while this morning if you need anything, but feel free to look around all you want."
Lois had seen the farm before, of course, but she hadn't paid it much attention. Her overall impression had been that it was quaint, in a country sort of way, but not particularly impressive. And it still wasn't impressive, not really; but she realized that it was exactly the kind of place that would have seemed just this side of heaven to an active little boy. There weren't many signs of that boy now, but she did note an old basketball goal, its net hanging in tatters, and she imagined young Clark playing there with friends. There was plenty of room for all the sports Clark loved — football, baseball, basketball — and she wondered how often he'd had friends visit the farm. She'd grown up in a gated subdivision where the kids could easily walk to one another's houses. Being a farm kid, Clark wouldn't have been able to do that. It occurred to her that the relative isolation of the farm might just have been an advantage to a family that had something to hide.
She walked toward the barn and was greeted by a different cat than the one she'd seen the day before. This one was a lean red tabby with huge ears, and it immediately began winding in and out of Lois's legs.
"Well you sure are nicer than your friend," she said, reaching down to scratch behind the cat's ears. "He didn't like me much."
"Who didn't like you much?" Jonathan said, coming out of the barn and making both Lois and the cat jump.
"Oh, your other cat. He hissed at me and wouldn't let me near him."
"Huh? What other cat? What'd he look like?"
"He was black, and kind of fat, with green eyes."
"Black…and did you say *fat*?"
"Well, a lot bigger than this one," Lois said, looking down at the tabby, which was now sprawled at her feet.
Jonathan looked disgusted. "I thought that cat had run off — haven't seen it in two months. Darn that Clark!"
"Clark? What does Clark have to do with it?"
"He found it in an alley in Metropolis," Jonathan said, shaking his head in annoyance. "Said she was starving and wanted her to live in our barns. Meanest animal I've ever seen. Wouldn't let Martha or me near her, and if Clark hadn't been invulnerable, he'd have been cut to ribbons catching her. I saw her every now and again after he dropped her off, but then she disappeared about two months ago, and I figured good riddance, to tell you the truth."
"Well, it's not so bad that she's back, is it? I mean, she's not very friendly, but she wasn't doing anything except taking a nap behind the barn."
"It's not bad that she's back, but it is bad that she's fat," Jonathan said dryly. "It means I'm going to be overrun with kittens soon."
"Oh!" Lois said, and then, "But kittens are so cute!"
"I'm glad you think so. I'll plan on sending a couple home with you to Metropolis," Jonathan said with a grin.
"You must really hate them, then. I can't even keep a plant alive."
"In that case, you can take the mother," Jonathan deadpanned.
"Jonathan," Lois protested. "You don't mean that."
"No, I s'pose I don't. But the next time Superman finds a stray cat, he'd darn well better take it to his own place."
"What made him think to bring it here, if you don't like cats?"
"Oh, we always have a barn cat or two around. They're not pets, though that one there is a pretty friendly fellow. But he's here because he's a good mouser. On a farm, every living thing has a job to do."
"So what's my job?" Lois asked impishly.
"Hmm. What are you good at?"
"Well, Clark would say I was good at getting into trouble."
"With a capital T, as I understand it." Jonathan chuckled. "Well, until we find some other way to keep you out of trouble, why don't we say that your job is keeping me company while I work on my tractor? Darn thing always decides to act up in the middle of spring plowing."
"I'd be glad to. Can I ask you a few questions while you work?"
Jonathan led her into the shady barn. "Depends. Are they hard questions or easy questions?"
"Um, they're Clark questions."
"Ah." He reached for his toolbox, and Lois perched on a nearby bale of hay as he shifted through it, looking for what he needed. "I should warn you, if this is about your *relationship*, you'd do better to take your questions to my wife. She's the one who meddles in Clark's love life. Me, I think he's old enough to handle all that on his own."
"No," Lois said, grateful that Jonathan was too busy with his tools to notice her blush. "It's nothing like that. I just was wondering what he was like when he was little. What he liked to do — that kind of thing."
"Oh." Jonathan looked at her, appearing faintly surprised, and then turned away and peered at the engine of his tractor before saying, "Well, Clark was a pretty normal kid, Lois. Aside from the fact that he didn't get sick, he was a lot like most of the other boys his age up until he turned ten or so, and then things started changing. But as a little fellow, he went through…phases, I guess you'd say. He was obsessed with dinosaurs for a while, I remember. Learned the name of every one anybody's ever heard of. Played with plastic dinosaurs, read dinosaur books, wore this one T-rex t-shirt every day for weeks. Martha had to buy a second one just so she could take turns washing them. After that it was bugs, I think." He looked up from his tractor and grinned. "Martha didn't enjoy that one much. He kept bringing bugs in the house, for one thing, and one day he decided to make a bug zoo and cut air holes in the tops of all her Tupperware containers. She never spanked Clark when he was a kid, but I think she came darned close that day."
Lois laughed. "My mom definitely would have spanked me. How old was he then?"
"Oh, about six I guess. It wasn't too much after the bug phase that he played Little League baseball for the first time, and after that, sports became his obsession for a good long while." He smiled. "Matter of fact, it lasted until he discovered girls, and even then it was kind of a tie."
Lois chuckled obediently but then pursued her own line of questioning. "I was thinking the other night about Clark and sports and wondering…how could Clark play high school football? I mean, it seems like he could have hurt someone without meaning to. Didn't he have his powers then?"
"Oh, yeah. He'd been getting stronger and stronger since he was about ten. Matter of fact, he had to give up all sports for about two years during middle school, and it just about killed him. It's a hard time anyway for kids, and for Clark, it was just that much harder. But we just couldn't let him play — we knew he couldn't control his strength well enough. Another sort of boy might have turned rebellious, I guess, but Clark just made up his mind that he'd learn to control his powers if it was the last thing he did."
"That sounds like Clark."
"Yeah, but it changed him. He spent a lot of time by himself during those years. Built himself a tree house and spent hours there doing who knows what. Thinking, I guess, and maybe writing. He even called it his 'Fortress of Solitude.'" Jonathan looked up from his work with a sad smile. "He probably thought that had a dramatic ring to it. Martha and I worried about him something fierce during that time, but he always said he was fine. He kept his grades up and did his chores, so there was nothing we could complain about, but still we worried. By the time he was in high school, we felt like it would be safe for him to play football as long as he promised to be careful. He played all through high school and college and never hurt a soul."
"It seems like it would have been frustrating for him, though — always having to hide what he could do. That would drive me crazy."
"That's why you were a tennis player," Jonathan said, his eyes twinkling at her.
"For the most part, tennis is a sport where you succeed or fail as an individual. Football is a team sport, and that makes all the difference to Clark."
Lois frowned thoughtfully at him. "I'm sorry — I don't get it. There are plenty of football stars — guys who really stand out. With his abilities, Clark could have been the top player in the country."
"He could have been, yeah." Jonathan reached for a nearby rag and wiped his fingers. "But you're thinking like Lois Lane and not like Clark Kent. From what Clark has told us, you've always been really…driven. Really wanted to succeed, and pushed like crazy to make that happen. And don't get me wrong, that can be a great thing. You should be proud of what you've accomplished, young as you are. But Clark's just not wired that way. Who knows? Maybe he would have been if he'd grown up on Krypton. I think about that sometimes — about what Clark would have been like if he'd grown up with people who had the same basic abilities he does. About how things would have been for him if he hadn't always been so different. But that's not the way things were, and from the very beginning, Martha and I tried to teach him that he needed to try to hide his differences — that the worst thing he could do would be to stand out." He gripped the greasy rag in his hand tighter as the sadness moved over his face like a drifting cloud. "I probably overdid that a little, to tell you the truth. We were just so darn scared of losing him, Lois. We wanted that little baby so bad, and when we got him, we loved him more than we could have believed possible. We just wanted to protect him."
"I'm sure he knows that," Lois said softly.
"I hope so," Jonathan said on a sigh. "I hope so. But from the very beginning, Clark wanted to fit in. And sports…well, sports was his ticket, I suppose. He does love football. He loves most sports. But for him it's not about winning and losing — it's about being a part of a team that's all working together toward the same goal. He doesn't care about being the star. He'd rather just be one of the guys…an insider. He doesn't get that feeling very often, and when he does, he cherishes it."
"I saw that last night," Lois said thoughtfully. "I mean, I guess I've seen it from the very beginning, but I never understood it before. But Clark's always trying to fit in without really being noticed too much. The only thing I've ever seen him be competitive about is his writing, and even then he's not crazy-competitive like…well…I guess like I can be sometimes. But he does care a lot about it, and I can tell it's something he's really proud of."
"Oh, yeah. And going to the Planet was a big step for him. He's always cared about his writing, but he was content to write for out-of-the-way papers where he was never likely to get much attention. I'm not sure what made him finally decide to interview with a big paper like the Planet. It had always been a dream of his, but he'd shied away from anything that high-profile."
"Maybe he doesn't mind getting noticed for his writing because it's something he can do without his superpowers," Lois suggested. "It's something he's had to work hard at, just like any other writer."
Jonathan nodded. "I think you've probably got the right idea. That, and the kind of writing you kids do is the kind that makes a difference in the world, which is important to Clark whether he's wearing a cape or not. The bigger the paper, the bigger the difference."
Lois sighed. "And I'm just in it for the awards. That's what Clark thinks, anyway."
Jonathan chuckled. "I don't believe that for a minute, Lois, and neither does Clark. No one risks her life as often as you do for an award."
"You know, I don't *mean* to have a near-death experience every other day! It just sort of happens. It's not like I get up in the morning and say, 'Hey, I wonder how I can put my life in jeopardy today.' Nope, I go to work like a normal person, I eat a doughnut, have some coffee, and then next thing I know, I'm strapped to some train tracks. I don't *know* why. I just have the worst luck of anyone on the planet."
"Oh, I don't know," Jonathan mused. "I'd say your luck is pretty darn good. I mean, you're still here, aren't you?"
"Yeah, and now I know it's because I've spent the last year with a superhero for a partner."
"See there? More good luck."
"I'm seeing where Clark got that whole 'the glass is always half-full' attitude of his," Lois said dryly. "And for the record, it's one of his most irritating qualities." Jonathan laughed, and then she went on, more seriously, "But yeah, working with Clark *is* about the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, and I thought that even before I found out about Superman."
"You and Clark make a good team."
"Made," she said sadly. "But yeah, we did."
Jonathan shot her a sympathetic look but didn't comment. "Lois, can you come hold this out of the way for me?" he said, gesturing down at a tangle of wires."
"Sure," she said, leaving her bale of hay and feeling grateful for the change of subject. "Just show me what to do."
Once Jonathan had finished the repairs to the tractor and headed out to the fields for the day, Lois interrupted her investigation into Clark's childhood long enough to go back to the house. After first making sure that Martha was busy in the garden, she scrounged around in the kitchen cabinets until she found a can of tuna fish. She opened the can and hid the lid in the bottom of the trash, and then she took the tuna outside to the place behind the barn where she'd seen the black cat the day before. "Here kitty," she called softly. "Here kitty, kitty."
She felt a little silly — the cat could be anywhere in Kansas by now, and even if she was within hearing distance, she'd probably never answered to "kitty" in her life. Lois set the can down in the grass and looked around a bit. There were paw prints in the bare patch of soft dust in which the cat had been napping the day before, and she found another set of prints near a V-shaped crack in the barn's weathered boards that seemed to lead below the building's foundation. On a hunch, she put the can of tuna about two feet from the crack and then backed some distance away, squatting down to watch. She'd given it more than five minutes and was just about to give up when she saw a black head pop out of the crack. She held her breath as the cat crept out and eyed the nearby human with deep mistrust. Now that she knew what to look for, Lois could tell that the cat was pregnant, her belly swinging heavily beneath her as she inched toward the smelly can of tuna. When she reached it, she attacked it with vigor, tearing at the contents as if she were starving.
"You poor thing," Lois said softly. The cat's ears twitched at the sound, but she didn't stop eating. "We have a lot in common, you know. He brought me from an alley in Metropolis, too. Guess this is his solution to everything — find a city girl in trouble and take her to Kansas.
"Of course, I wasn't in trouble like *you're* in trouble — that would be a whole different kind of mess — but it was still pretty awful. And it's not so bad here, is it? I mean, it's not home, but Martha and Jonathan are good people, and you've obviously found yourself a boyfriend. I don't mean to tell you what to do, but if I were you, I'd try to be a little nicer, a little more trusting. If Clark's anything to go by, this is a pretty great place to raise your babies, and Jonathan says all you have to do is catch a few mice to earn your keep. That can't be so hard. I mean, if the country cats can do it, surely a smart Metropolis girl like you can. And as long as I'm here, I'll try to sneak you out some food now and then, OK?"
The cat ignored her totally, never lifting her head from the can of tuna, but Lois didn't mind. She had succeeded in her mission, and it was satisfying to see the hungry animal enjoy her much-needed meal. Once the can had been licked clean, the cat removed herself some distance away and undertook a thorough self-grooming, keeping one eye trained on Lois all the while.
"Guess one can of tuna isn't quite enough to buy your trust," Lois commented as she picked up the can. "That's all right. I don't give up easily. You can ask anyone."
Lois just barely had time to hide the empty tuna can in the trash before Martha came in from the garden to fix lunch.
"Hi, Lois," she said. "Did you explore the farm?"
"Well, not as much as I'd planned to," Lois admitted. "I spent some time talking to Jonathan while he worked on his tractor."
"Oh, that thing." Martha rolled her eyes. "He's needed a new one for years but he won't replace it. Personally, I think he just likes tinkering with it. He knows if he got a new one, he'd have to get right to work in the morning instead of fiddling around in the barn."
Lois smiled. "Well, I enjoyed talking to him. He was telling me about Clark when he was little."
"Really?" Martha looked pleased. "Would you like to see some pictures sometime? I might be able to find one or two around here somewhere."
"More like one or two hundred, I'd bet," Lois said.
"Maybe thousand," Martha conceded, laughing. "I lost count a long time ago."
Lois truly was intrigued by the thought of seeing Clark's baby pictures, but perhaps more importantly, she realized that the way to Martha's heart was by showing an interest in Clark. However much Martha might want to keep Lois at arm's length, she was unable to resist the lure of another woman who would listen as she spilled out her memories of raising her remarkable son. "I'd love to see your pictures," Lois said, "even if there are a million of them."
"Well, it's a date then. I'd do it now, but I have my art class this afternoon, so I need to clean up and eat some lunch. Maybe we can get the photo albums out tonight."
"Let me make lunch while you clean up," Lois offered. "I can usually manage sandwiches without poisoning anyone."
Martha laughed. "It can't be as bad as all that, Lois, but thank you. I appreciate your offer. I'll just go hop in the shower, then. There are plenty of sandwich makings in the fridge."
"Should I make one for Jonathan?"
"Yes, just wrap it up and put it in the refrigerator. I never know when he'll decide to take a break, so I try to leave something waiting for him."
Lois was fairly proud of her sandwich efforts, and she and Martha enjoyed a pleasant lunch together. As they were cleaning up, Martha said, "I'm planning to stop by the store on the way home. Is there anything in particular you'd like?"
"Um…" Lois debated whether she should make her request, but then decided it would be better than continuing to steal food from her hostess. "Would you mind picking up some cat food? I promise I'll pay you back."
"*Cat* food?" Martha repeated incredulously.
"Yeah. It's, um, for the cat that Clark brought from Metropolis. I saw her for the first time yesterday. She's living under the barn, I think, and she's pregnant and…I gave her some of your tuna. I hope you don't mind."
"Oh, good grief!" Martha exclaimed, sounding as annoyed as Jonathan had. "I thought we'd seen the last of that awful creature. Of course I don't mind about the tuna, Lois, but if she's pregnant, she should be eating kitten food. I'll pick some up, but I'll let *you* be the one to feed her."
"I'll be glad to," Lois said, pleased. She had no idea why, but she kind of liked the thoroughly unlikable cat. And besides, now she had her very own job on the farm. "Thanks, Martha."
Once Martha had left for her art class and shopping, Lois set out with one goal in mind: She was going to find Clark's tree house.
She had a pretty good idea of which way to go — the only significant stand of trees on the farm seemed to be at the back of the property, just beyond Martha's vegetable garden. She skirted the garden carefully and ventured into the small wood, checking back now and again to make sure she could still see the farmhouse. She tramped through rough brush, blessing Martha for insisting that she buy the heavy boots, until, finally, she came to an area that looked like it had once been a trail. She only had to follow it a few yards before she found what she was looking for.
It was a snug little nest perched high in a sturdy tree, and it boasted a weathered sign lettered in Clark's childish hand: 'The Fortress of Solitude'. Just the sight of that little sign nearly broke her heart as she imagined the loneliness and isolation of the boy who had made it. Based on what Jonathan had told her, young Clark hadn't retreated to this fortress because he craved solitude but because he'd thought he didn't belong anywhere else. And even though he no longer hid himself away in the top of a tree, she suspected that some of that doubt remained.
Her eyes slid down the trunk of the tree, and it was then that she realized that there was no ladder — no way, apparently, to reach the tree house from the ground. Whatever method Clark had used as a boy had probably long since been taken down or rotted away; if he ever had the occasional nostalgic urge to visit, he could now fly straight through the door. It posed a problem for nosy, Earthbound reporters, however, and she felt like kicking something as she realized that just seeing the tree house from the ground wasn't going to be enough for her. Somehow or another, she had to find a way up there.
As Lois glanced over her shoulder and slipped into the barn, she had the grace to feel a little guilty about her behavior as a houseguest. That morning, she'd been pilfering tuna from the pantry, and now the afternoon found her creeping into Jonathan's storeroom to steal a ladder. However, the only one she could find was about a mile long and made of sturdy wood — no lightweight aluminum for Jonathan Kent, apparently. She thought of how far she had to drag it and growled in frustration, no longer troubling herself with guilt. It was pretty darn thoughtless of the Kents, actually, not to leave a more conveniently-sized ladder in a place where it would be available to nosy guests. A thorough inspection didn't reveal any such thing, though, and she was too impatient to spend time looking in the other buildings. She took a deep breath and lugged the ladder out of the cool barn and into the sunshine. The muscles in her arms were twitching before she'd made it as far as the farmhouse, and she vowed that she was buying Jonathan a smaller ladder for Christmas.
She was panting and exhausted by the time she finally propped the ladder against the tree, and she stopped a moment to rest, wondering at her own foolishness — at the lengths to which she would go to satisfy her curiosity. She knew that all she was likely to find at the top of the ridiculously heavy ladder was a dusty tree house long since abandoned by the boy who had owned it. It would have been considerate of Clark to leave behind a journal in which he'd poured out his pubescent angst, but if such a thing had ever existed, she knew Clark was too smart and too cautious to have left it lying around. Since Jonathan had told her the history of the tree house, she'd come to think of it as a cocoon of sorts in which an amazing metamorphosis had taken place. She knew the idea was completely fanciful, but she had a mental image of a scrawny boy going in — scared, frustrated, and confused — and, several years later, a young superhero emerging. Probably no one would ever know what had gone through Clark's mind during the lonely hours he'd spent in his tree house trying to accept the miraculous, though surely disconcerting, changes he was going through. Whatever he'd gone through during the years he'd hidden himself away in this 'Fortress of Solitude' would probably be as much of a mystery to her after she'd seen it as it was before, but still, something spurred her on, and she took a deep breath and began to climb the ladder.
"Don't you *dare* fall, you stupid heavy ladder," she muttered as it wobbled a bit from side to side. It steadied as she climbed, however, and she made it to the top without incident.
The 'Fortress of Solitude' was much as she'd pictured it — a cozy wooden haven just right for an eleven or twelve-year-old boy. Dust motes danced and sparkled in a shaft of sunlight that shot through the one window, but the rest of the little room was in shadow, and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. When they did, they swept over the expected clutter only to snap back to an item that had consumed her considerable curiosity ever since she'd first heard of it.
*Superman's globe*. It was here, sitting unguarded in a tree house in Kansas! And if she'd known, she'd cheerfully have hauled that ladder twice as far — no three times — without a word of complaint. She'd have dragged that stupid, heavy wooden ladder for *miles* for the chance to take the globe in her shaking hands, to feel its weight and its unexpected warmth, to caress the familiar arrangement of the continents…
She jumped and nearly dropped it when the globe began to glow and the continents shifted and turned red, rearranging themselves in what must have been the configuration of Clark's home planet. She tightened her grip on the globe and her nerves, however, and it was a good thing, because the man she'd seen once in a wrinkled Polaroid photograph suddenly tested both by joining her in the tree house and soberly introducing himself to his son.
"Omigosh," Lois breathed, her heart hammering in her chest. She'd thought she was being silly when she'd imagined that the tree house held the ghosts of Clark's past, but this was beyond her wildest imaginings. Jor-El, the man had said. Clark's father was named Jor-El…
**…That you now hear these words is proof that you survived the journey in space and have reached your full maturity. Now it is time for you to learn our heritage. To that end…**
Her attention was so captivated by the hologram that she didn't even notice when the light in the tree house changed, and she nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the sound of a throat being cleared just over her right shoulder. Her head whipped around and the globe fell from her hands, silencing Jor-El as it hit the floor of the tree house with a thud and rattled into a dusty corner.
"Superman!" she exclaimed, the name springing automatically to her lips as she was confronted with the glowering, spandex-clad superhero, who was floating just outside the doorway. She winced, feeling immediately foolish. "Clark," she corrected, and then she began gaining steam. "You scared me half to death! Don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Don't *sneak*! Lois, if anyone is a sneak here, it's you! Did it ever once occur to you that maybe this place was private?"
It had, actually, but she wasn't about to admit it. "Your old tree house," she said scornfully. "I was supposed to know that your old tree house was off limits. Right, Clark."
"You had to drag a ladder a half a mile to get up here. To anyone else, that would have been a pretty big clue, but *no*, not to Lois Lane."
"That's right!" she exclaimed. If he wanted a fight, he was darn well going to get one. She jabbed a finger right in the middle of his "S" and he bobbed backwards a little in midair. "You knew who I was when you brought me here. You knew I was nosy and pushy and that I would have about a million questions about you, and then you left me in the one place where I might actually get some of those questions answered. You should have *known* I'd be investigating you."
"Investigating…" He went white to the lips before her very eyes. She'd heard of that reaction but had never quite believed it was possible, and she'd certainly never imagined a look of such abject terror on Superman's face. "I trusted you…" he whispered.
Suddenly, she realized what she'd said, and how he'd taken it, and she was immediately filled with remorse. "No, Clark! Not like that. I just meant…I want to *understand* you. Not to print it…no…no, I never would. Not if it won me a thousand awards, I swear. I would never, never…"
He closed his eyes in relief as her gabbled assurances washed over him, and some of the color returned to his face. "Then why?" he asked quietly. "What does all this matter?"
"What does it matter?" she repeated incredulously. "How could it not matter? This…" she indicated the tree house, "it's you, Clark. All the things I've never really understood about you…all the things that didn't make sense. They're here, on this farm and in your parents' memories and in this tree house and in that globe. It's all you, and it's stuff you've never let me see before."
"You never cared," he said coldly. "You never showed the slightest interest in where I came from, how I grew up. But now that you know I'm Superman, suddenly I'm worthy of being *investigated* by the great Lois Lane. Well, forgive me if I'm not flattered by the attention."
"You really think that's all it is? You really think I dragged that ladder half-way across Kansas because of *Superman*?"
"It's not just because of Superman," she said, frustrated at trying to explain something she hardly understood herself. "It's because *you're* Superman. You, Clark Kent. And I need to make sense of that so that I can understand you…so that I can understand how I feel about you. Because it's confusing, Clark, and you're…you're complicated…so much more complicated than I ever knew, and I…" She broke off, feeling her throat tighten with emotions she didn't dare voice.
"You what?" he prodded. Much of the fight had gone out of him, and he was looking at her curiously, as if he'd never seen her before.
"I'm afraid I'm going to lose you," she whispered. It was true, even if it wasn't the whole truth.
"Would that be so bad?" he asked, sounding so lost in the asking that she ached to put her arms around him.
"Yeah," she said, taking a ragged breath. "It would be bad. I think…it might just be the worst thing that could happen to me."
"But why, Lois? A week ago…" He broke off and simply asked again: "Why?"
"It just would be, OK?" she fired back at him. "And I'm not saying anything else. Because I'm not ready to say anything, and I don't think you're ready to hear the thing that I'm not saying, and if I *did* say it, which I positively am *not* going to do, I'd probably mess it up, because let's face it, we haven't exactly been communicating all that well lately, and I've already told you I'm *confused*…and…and…are you going to let me see the globe or aren't you?" She folded her arms across her chest and looked at him defiantly.
He gave her a long, considering look, and then his mouth turned up slightly at the corners and he raised his right hand. She watched in awe as the globe rose gracefully from the ground and drifted into his open palm. In seconds, Jor-El was standing before them again repeating the first of his messages. Later, she would have sworn that she'd held her breath the entire time Jor-El was speaking. His presence filled Clark's tiny fortress, and tears rolled down her cheeks as she saw the dignity with which he and his wife had faced their own imminent deaths and the selflessness with which they'd worked to ensure their infant son's survival. Somehow, her hand found its way into Clark's, and she laced their fingers together, though whether she was offering comfort or receiving it she wasn't quite sure.
"Oh, Clark," she whispered, when the final hologram faded away. "They loved you so much. They must have, to have done what they did."
"Yeah," he agreed quietly, returning the globe to the table but keeping hold of her hand. "That was the best thing I learned when I found the globe. It was good to know where I came from, but I think it was even better to learn that I hadn't been thrown away or…used as an experiment." There was a haunted look in his eyes as he said this last, and Lois squeezed his hand.
"That will never happen, Clark. Never."
He smiled down at her. "You don't know that…but thank you anyway."
"Anyone who tries it is going to have me to deal with," she said fiercely, "and your mom, too, I'd guess. And we may not have superpowers, but I have a feeling that if we worked together we could be pretty formidable."
He chuckled. "I'm terrified just thinking about it."
"Good. You should be," she said smartly, and then she turned serious. "But Clark, you told me you found the globe when we investigated Bureau 39. That was less than a year ago! Have you really gone your whole life not knowing any of this?"
"Pretty much." He nodded. "C'mere. Let's sit a minute." He released her hand and stepped past her, seating himself on the floor of the tree house and pulling his knees to his chest while she sat cross-legged beside him.
"I knew from the time I was five or six that I was adopted, and later, after my powers really started to develop, my parents told me that I was a foundling, and that there had been some sort of spaceship, but the ship didn't tell them anything, really. There were some markings on the side, but it wasn't any language they could read, and at the time, they were a lot more concerned with the legalities of adopting a baby they'd found in a field than they were with worrying about where he'd come from. They just figured that anyone who'd send a baby up in a spaceship probably didn't deserve to have one, and I guess I always pretty much felt the same way. That's why it was so amazing to find out that my biological parents actually had a reason for doing what they did. I've felt kind of guilty ever since, though."
"Yeah." He fiddled with his cape, pleating it between his fingers. "Partly because I'd grown up resenting them for not wanting me. I think all adopted kids probably go through that, no matter what the circumstances, but in my case…well…I think the whole spaceship thing made it worse. And then, once I finally learned the truth, learned that my parents hadn't thrown me away but had saved me, I felt guilty because I realized that if someone came to Earth tomorrow and told me that it was all a big mistake, that Krypton was fine and hadn't exploded and my parents were back there waiting on me…"
"You wouldn't want to go," Lois finished softly.
"No," he admitted. "I know a lot of people here think of me as an alien…but I feel like I belong here, Lois. Earth is my home. Mom and Dad *are* my parents."
"People think of *Superman* as an alien because you've gone out of your way to let them know he is one," she said firmly. "But no one who knows Clark Kent would doubt for a minute that he belongs here. Of course this is your home! You've been here since you were a tiny baby. You have a family…friends…a career. You'd be lost on Krypton. You don't even speak…Krypish? Kryptonese?"
Clark's eyes twinkled at her. "Kryptonian, Jor-El said. But you're right. I don't know a word of it. And I wouldn't know my way around…"
"Exactly! You'd never be able to find a dark alley when you needed one. And you probably couldn't even make a living…because I don't want to hurt your feelings, Clark, but some of what Jor-El was doing looked pretty complicated. I don't think they taught that stuff at Midwest U."
"Definitely not at the journalism school," he agreed.
"Who knows if they even *had* journalists on Krypton? You'd be homeless and probably starving," she said decisively. "And speaking of starving, I bet you'd *hate* the food. Who wants to live someplace where you'd have to go a bazillion miles through space for decent Chinese takeout?"
He burst out laughing and snaked an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. "All right! All right! You've convinced me."
"Of course I did," she said, leaning into him. "Seriously, Clark, the people who recorded those messages for you *wanted* you to be happy here. They spent their last hours trying desperately to give you a home and a chance at life that you wouldn't have had on Krypton. The last thing Jor-El told you was not to grieve for them…all is fate, he said. I believe that. I'm not even sure why, but I really believe that you're meant to be here on Earth, meant to be both Clark Kent *and* Superman. I think that Jor-El and Lara would be so proud of you. I know Martha and Jonathan are."
"Thank you," he said softly, resting his head on top of hers.
"For what? Barging into your tree house and going through your things without permission?"
He laughed softly, his breath stirring her hair. "Yeah. Thanks for that."
"Anytime. Barging and snooping is what I do best." She looked up at him and batted her eyes. "But if you *really* want to thank me…"
"What?" he asked, immediately suspicious.
"You'll take that stupid ladder back to the barn for me! That thing weighs a *ton*."
Clark grinned at her. "My pleasure, Miss Lane."
They had done it again — gone from fighting to laughing, from hurt to friendship. She looked up at him, warmed clear through by the smile that lit up his face, and her breath caught as their eyes locked and the air between them suddenly seemed to fizz like champagne. She felt as though she were perched at the top of a cliff, feeling the edge with her toes, her head swimming with vertigo as she contemplated a thrilling, terrifying leap. "Clark?" she whispered.
"Yeah?" His voice was husky, and she knew that he'd felt something, too.
"That thing that I'm not saying…I think I might be ready to say it soon."
He took a shuddering breath and pulled her close. "If I were you, Lois…"
"If I were you, I'd wait," he said softly. "I don't think I'm quite ready to believe it yet."
And she deserved that, she knew, but it didn't keep it from hurting worse than anything he'd ever said to her.
"Do you think you ever will be?" she asked, drawing back to look into his eyes once again.
"I *want* to. God help me…but I want to."
Clark knew he didn't have a lot of time to spare, but after returning Lois and the ladder to the barn, he flew a couple of fast laps around the world just to work off his nervous energy.
He'd been talking to Lois's friend Louie, ironically enough, when suddenly his head had exploded with the sight and sound of Jor-El delivering his first message. Clark had known it had to be Lois activating the globe — leave it to Lois to not only find the tree house but to waste no time risking her neck getting to it — but the globe was a touchy subject just then, thanks to his morning conversation with Jack. And when he'd arrived at the tree house, all he could think was that his privacy had been invaded again, and by someone he'd been foolish enough to trust.
That feeling had faded quickly in the face of her defense; Lois was nosy, yes, and she *should* have asked, but her motivations for wanting to see the globe were clearly different from Luthor's. When she'd pleaded with him that she wanted to understand, he suddenly realized that he wanted the same thing. For so long, the only two people in the world who really understood him had been his parents. His parents were wonderful, but they were still parents, and there would always be things he wasn't quite comfortable sharing with them. The urge to be understood by a friend, a contemporary, was almost overwhelming, and Lois was the only one who knew enough to be a candidate. He knew that total understanding wouldn't result from Jor-El's messages, but it was a step; and he impulsively decided to take it. Having told her so much, what could it hurt to tell her that little bit more?
And Lois's reaction had been everything he could have desired. She'd responded with understanding, insight, and humor and had helped put to rest some of the nagging guilt he'd carried around ever since he'd first learned his history. He'd never even confessed that guilt to his parents. They had never given him any indication that they were threatened by his biological ties to Jor-El and Lara. But, still, those were deep waters for any adopted child to navigate, and it had seemed easier to avoid them altogether. But with Lois, he'd felt comfortable voicing his doubts for the first time. He would always be grateful to Jor-El and Lara for giving him a chance at life. Because of that gratitude, he'd felt an uneasy obligation to love them and grieve for them like parents, and to regret Krypton as his lost home. Unfortunately, his heart just hadn't been along for the ride. Krypton was little more than a concept to him, and Jor-El and Lara were benevolent strangers. He saw much to admire in them, but he simply didn't know them well enough to love them. Lois had understood that. Lois had understood that Kansas was home in a way Krypton could never be, and that Jonathan and Martha Kent were the only parents he would ever know well enough to truly love. In just a few words, Lois had freed him from the burden of being the last surviving son of Krypton and had made it all right for him to consider himself a full citizen of Earth.
With her understanding and kindness, any remaining doubts about whether she considered him Superman or Clark Kent had fallen away. It seemed that she was truly on her way to knowing him for what he was — and for what he wasn't, which was even more to the point. But even though his heart had turned handsprings at the thought, some instinct of self-preservation had made him pull away when it had seemed she might be working up to further declarations. He hadn't done it deliberately to hurt her, though he suspected she had taken it that way. But no, he wasn't lashing out in retribution for the hurt he'd suffered the week before; he was prepared to forgive her for that, but he just hadn't quite managed to forget. He'd meant what he told her: he *wanted* to believe that Lois could love him. He wanted it more than he'd ever wanted anything else. Every lecture he'd given himself about why he wouldn't/shouldn't/couldn't love her had been completely in vain. The truth was that he couldn't do anything *but* love her, no matter how hard he tried. That realization just made him more vulnerable, however. Only a few days ago, Lois had told him she didn't love him. Now it sounded as if she wanted to tell him she did. Which thing was he supposed to believe? And what if she changed her mind a week hence, or a month, or a year? How much worse would the pain be then?
Oh, yes, he wanted to believe, but he wasn't quite ready to risk his bruised heart again. And with their friendship just barely reestablished, he was afraid that attempting more too soon could prove disastrous. He loved Lois, but at that moment he had the feeling that he needed her as a friend more than he needed her as a lover. With their conversation in the tree house, many of his reservations about Lois knowing his secret had fallen away, and now their friendship seemed rich with new possibilities. The knowledge that he could talk openly with her was positively exhilarating. He could talk about the questions he had about his origins, his abilities, and his mortality. He could talk about his dual identity — about all the problems inherent in his double life, but also all the blessings. He could tell her about the rescues that plunged him into a sea of despair and about the ones that lifted him out again, restoring his faith in humanity.
He could look right into her eyes, without hiding behind a pair of glasses.
It was, quite literally, more than he had ever allowed himself to hope for. He had dreamed of a romantic relationship with Lois since practically the moment he'd met her, but it had always taken on a rosy glow of unreality in his mind. There had been ridiculously conventional dreams of a perfect, picket-fenced life, and there had been more blatantly sexual fantasies, which, though tame by many men's standards, still made him blush when he thought of them in the light of day. Somehow, though, his mind had balked at imagining the inevitable moment when he would have to reveal himself to her completely. He had never allowed himself to indulge in dreams of total, unconditional acceptance.
Only now could he concede that she had been right that terrible day in his apartment: she had never really known him. He'd never given her that chance. He'd divided himself neatly down the middle and offered her the half he most wanted her to accept, never even considering how unfair that was to her. What if she *had* accepted? How long would he have waited before letting her know that she was getting far more than just a simple reporter from Kansas? She'd said it herself in the treehouse: Clark Kent was complicated. Life with Clark Kent would be complicated. It would be difficult and inconvenient and absolutely nothing like whatever Superman fantasies she'd entertained. And she had a right to know that before deciding if she could love him. As of yet, he didn't think she'd had time to be sure of that. She might have had time to reconcile Clark Kent and Superman, but that didn't mean she'd had time to understand what it would mean to make a life with him.
And that was what he wanted — a life with Lois. And life with Lois would never be picture perfect. He could see that now. It wouldn't be perfect because all the things that made her so endlessly fascinating to him could also make her incredibly difficult. It wouldn't be perfect because he would be bringing not one person to the relationship but two, and somehow they'd have to find a place for everyone to squeeze in. And now that the blinders were off and he could envision a more realistic future for them, he wondered why he'd ever indulged in those pale, generic dreams of the past, which were as unrealistic, in their own way, as Lois's dreams of Superman. Life with Lois — the real, live Lois who would drag a heavy ladder a half a mile just to stick her nose somewhere it didn't belong — life with *that* Lois would be interesting. It would be challenging. It would be crazy and fun and sometimes aggravating, and it would remind him every day of all the reasons he'd fallen in love with her in the first place.
He wanted to believe that she felt the same way about a life with Clark Kent. But she hadn't had time to be sure of that, and he *needed* her to be sure. Because if she wasn't, if they started something and then she changed her mind, he wasn't sure he would survive it.
Once he'd flown his laps and convinced his heart to settle down, Clark flew a quick patrol over Metropolis, which seemed to be behaving itself for the moment. Before he'd been interrupted by Lois's snooping, Louie had given him the names of several "businessmen" he suspected had ties to the mysterious "Boss." So once Clark had given the city a once-over as Superman, he found an alley convenient to the first one on the list and then spun back into Clark Kent.
Going about the business of Clark Kent was frustrating that day, as few of the people whose names he'd been given were interested in detailing their financial dealings to anyone, let alone a well-known local reporter. More than once, he thought about Lois during the course of that day and missed having her at his side. *She* would have come up with a clever way to elicit the information, he admitted to himself. It probably wouldn't have been safe or legal, but it would have been more effective than his approach, which was to ask his questions and watch the door slam in his face. He did manage to confirm, by dint of several conversations with underlings, that this "Boss" existed and ruled Metropolis with an iron hand; however, he wasn't able to acquire a shred of evidence that linked him to Luthor.
Clark was almost relieved to dart into a nearby alley and spin into the suit when his sensitive hearing picked up on the sound of an alarm across town. Maybe as Superman he would actually accomplish something that day.
He arrived at the bank and was immediately greeted by the security guard. "Thanks for coming, Superman, but it's a false alarm. Our security system has just gone crazy all of a sudden."
"Well, I'm glad that's all it was," Clark said pleasantly.
He'd no sooner gotten the words out, however, than he was assailed by a wave of pain and nausea. He bent almost double as every cell in his body seemed to catch fire, and then, when the pain was accompanied by a wave of dizziness, he clutched at the security guard to keep from smacking into the pavement. Dimly, he could hear the guard speaking to him, saying his name, but he couldn't respond, couldn't do anything but try his best to stay upright.
And then, as quickly as it had come, the pain seemed to recede, and though he felt far from normal, Clark could once again lift his head and form words.
"I'm fine," he managed, loosening his grip on the concerned guard. "Fine."
Clark glanced around, looking for anyone suspicious, but the bank alarm had caused a crowd to form, so the street was more congested than usual. It was impossible for him to see everyone, and his own body was telling him that whoever had the Kryptonite was now some distance away. Instead of wasting any more time looking, he lifted unsteadily into the air and managed to fly several blocks to a secluded alley. It took him two attempts to spin back into Clark Kent, and once he had, he slumped against the wall for several minutes just to catch his breath.
<<This is not good,>> he thought to himself. <<Not good at all.>>
It had been a very long day.
Clark had hardly had a moment's peace since Jimmy had crashed into his bed at 5:50 that morning, and he hadn't let himself slow down, even after the Kryptonite exposure had left him weak and exhausted. He never lost his powers completely, but they'd flickered like a dying light bulb all afternoon and had been far too unreliable for him to consider any Superman duties. Finally, while he was eating dinner and trading leads with Perry, Jimmy, and Jack, he'd suddenly been able to hear clearly the radio in the next apartment; for a moment he'd felt such relief that he was back to normal that he had failed to take in the substance of what was being announced. When he did, he made his excuses — something about a late appointment, he thought — and bolted out the door. Two minutes later, he was battling a hotel fire in Chicago. Two hours after that, he was on his way to his parents' home in Kansas.
Upon opening the farmhouse door, he concluded almost immediately that Lois was trying to drive him insane. He was sure of it. It was the only explanation for the fact that every time he arrived in Smallville, she was engaged in some new activity that seemed custom-designed to shatter his nerves. The night before, he had found her out on a *date*, and then that afternoon he had caught her with his globe. Though in hindsight he didn't regret either instance, each had been emotionally wrenching in its own way, and each had made him question, at least temporarily, the wisdom of bringing Lois to Kansas.
But neither could compare to the horrifying scene that greeted him when he walked through the farmhouse door that night. What made it even worse was that this time, Lois hadn't gotten into trouble all by herself. She'd had accomplices. Very willing accomplices, from the looks of things.
"Hi, honey," his mom said, smiling brightly from her place in the middle of the floor. "Oh, dear. You need a new cape, don't you?"
"Hi, Clark," Lois said, barely looking up.
"Hi, Clark," his father echoed. "Can you stay a while? …Oh, here, Lois, look at this one. See — he's wearing the little T-rex shirt I was telling you about."
For a moment Clark had been shocked into speechlessness, but his father's blatant disloyalty and Lois's resulting squeals helped him find his voice. "Dad!" he protested.
"Oh, how *cute*!" Lois exclaimed, taking the photo album from Jonathan's hands. "And look at this one…how he was sleeping with all his little plastic dinosaurs."
"No fewer than thirty of them in the bed every single night. It was a wonder he didn't wake up covered in bruises, sleeping with those hard things," Martha said. "Well, it's not a wonder *now*, but at the time I worried. But he cried and cried when I tried to get him to sleep without them."
"You even took them in the bathtub with you?" Lois said, laughing and pointing at a picture of a naked Clark surrounded by a herd of floating dinosaurs.
Clark grabbed the photo album so fast that his arm was nothing but a blur.
"Hey — I was looking at that." Lois glared at him. "Didn't your mother teach you not to snatch?"
"I certainly did," Martha said. "Clark, give Lois back the photo album. We're all the way up to your fifth year, anyway. She's already seen you naked plenty of times tonight."
"Mom, how could you let her talk you into this?" he demanded, but he handed Lois back the book, after first turning to a page where he was fully clothed in all the pictures.
"She didn't talk me into anything. I *offered*," Martha said tartly. "And I'll remind you that these are *my* pictures of *my* child and I can show them to anyone I please. Now, are you here for a reason or did you just come to complain about how we're choosing to spend our evening?"
"I came for a new cape," Clark said, indicating the singed and tattered cape hanging from his shoulders, "but complaining about how you're spending your evening suddenly seems much more important."
"What happened to your cape?" Lois asked.
"Hotel fire in Chicago," he said. "No fatalities, thank goodness, but it was pretty bad. This was my last good cape, and I think it's pretty much a write-off."
"The cape isn't close enough to his skin to be protected by his invulnerability," Martha explained. "I go through more yards of red silk than you can believe." She put her photo album to one side and stood up, wincing a little as her knees popped. "I have a couple of capes upstairs, honey. I'll go get them for you."
"I'll come with you, Mom," Clark said.
Martha looked surprised, but she nodded. "All right," she said, leading the way up the stairs.
"If you came up here just to fuss about me showing Lois your pictures…" Martha began as soon as they were alone in her room.
"No, Mom, that's not it. It's something else."
"What is it, honey?" Martha asked, seeing the worry on Clark's face.
"Something happened today. I responded to what turned out to be a false alarm at the First National Bank. That in itself isn't that unusual, I guess, but when I was talking to the guard afterwards, I felt…"
"You felt what?"
"I felt sick…a flash of pain and then nausea and dizziness."
"Oh, Clark…" Martha breathed, sinking down onto her bed. "Was it…?"
"It *had* to be, Mom. The feeling's unmistakable: pain, weakness, dizziness…It took me hours to return to full strength. Fortunately, I felt like myself again by the time I heard about the hotel fire."
"But where would anyone *get* Kryptonite? You threw all that Trask had into the pond, didn't you?"
"I thought so, but then I remembered the chunk supposedly sent off for testing at the University. The one that disappeared."
"Did you see anything?"
"No," Clark said. "Not anyone I recognized, anyway, and even if my x-ray vision had been working properly, I wouldn't have had time to x-ray everyone on the entire street."
"I don't like this, Clark," Martha said.
"Me neither, Mom, but what can I do? I have no idea who has it, or why."
Martha stood up and put her arms around her son. "Just be careful, honey. Promise me you'll be careful."
"I will, Mom. I promise." He returned his mother's hug, feeling better for having unburdened himself.
"I'll get you those capes," Martha said, opening her bottom drawer. "Are you heading straight back to Metropolis?"
"I'm going to talk to Lois for a few minutes first. We actually made some progress today, I think, and I want to let her know about it before I head back."
"I'm glad you're making progress," Martha commented, handing him the capes. "Do you think Luthor could have anything to do with the Kryptonite?"
"He was the first person who came to mind," Clark admitted, "but I don't want to lose sight of the fact that he's not the only person in Metropolis who might have an interest in putting Superman out of commission. Right now I'm so focused on Luthor that it seems natural to blame him for anything that happens. But Perry pointed out this morning that I might be losing perspective a little. Now that Kryptonite's involved, I can't afford to do that. It actually seems more likely that it's some government nutcase like Trask."
"*Horrible* man," Martha said with feeling.
"Don't worry, Mom. Please. I just told you because…well, I just needed to tell someone. I don't think there's anything to be concerned about."
"OK, honey." Martha sighed and Clark felt guilty when he saw the worry she couldn't disguise. "I'll just let you get changed, all right?"
His mother left him alone then, and when he went back downstairs a few minutes later he was wearing one new cape and carrying another under his arm. "Lois, can I talk to you for a few minutes? Outside maybe?"
"Sure." She put the photo album she'd been examining to one side. "Save my spot," she said to Jonathan.
"It'll all still be here when you get back," he promised.
"Don't be so sure," Clark muttered. "I can move pretty fast."
"Hey, I've already seen you sitting on the potty for the first time," Lois said. "How much worse could it get?"
"Oh, God," Clark said weakly, hiding his face in his hands. "I should have taken you to a field station in the Arctic Circle. A deserted island in the Pacific. Anywhere on Earth but here."
"And I loved the one where you dumped the bowl of spaghetti on your head," she went on, as if he hadn't spoken. "That's a good look for you."
"It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Take her to Kansas, I thought. She can stay with Mom and Dad. She'll be safe there, I thought."
"The grasshopper funeral was a little over-the-top, though. I mean, you can take that whole tenderhearted thing too far, even when you're four. And don't grasshoppers destroy wheat crops?"
"Dad refused to attend the funeral," Clark admitted.
"Would have been hypocritical," Jonathan said.
"I admire you for standing on your principles," Lois reassured him. "And I'm sure Clark does, too."
"Simon never ate any of the wheat," Martha objected. "Jonathan should have gone for Clark's sake."
"You named a grasshopper *Simon*?" Lois gave Clark an incredulous look.
"Could we just go outside and talk about what's going on in Metropolis?" Clark demanded. "Because I'm thinking that's a little more important right now than the pet grasshopper I had when I was four!"
"A grasshopper isn't really a pet," Lois argued. "A dog, a cat, even a goat or a pig, maybe, but I don't really think…"
"I'm leaving," Clark threatened. "I swear to you, Lois, if you don't quit talking about grasshoppers, I'm flying right back to Metropolis and leaving you here for the rest of your natural life."
"All right, all right," she said, reaching for the door. "I do want to hear."
"Thank you," Clark said prayerfully, as he followed her outside.
"OK," she said, turning businesslike the instant the door closed behind them. "What've you got?
"Well, we've made a start," Clark began. He paced up and down the porch and began with Jack breaking out of the JDC and giving them the lead on John Black, and then he told her about the conversation he'd had with Jack about the globe.
"Clark," she said, a panicked look on her face, "didn't Jor-El say something at the very end about sending you to Kansas?"
"Luthor didn't hear that part," Clark said confidently. "I was seeing it in my head at the same time he was seeing the image projected by the globe, and it shut off before Luthor could hear the end of it."
"You were seeing it in your head…" she repeated. "I guess that's how you caught me today, huh?"
"Yep." He looked smug. "I was talking to Louie when you activated the globe. I was here a few seconds later."
"Show-off," she said, sticking out her tongue before returning to their original conversation. "But what about Louie? Did he have any leads for you?"
Clark nodded. "He definitely knows guys who know guys. Getting them to talk is the hard part. Basically, all I was able to confirm is that practically every criminal in Metropolis pays protection money to a shadowy figure called 'the Boss.' *I* think it's Lex Luthor, but nobody I talked to is about to admit it — if they even know, which is debatable."
"Still, it's a start," Lois said thoughtfully. "If we could get a look at their books, and compare them with Lex's…"
"That'll take search warrants, which we won't be able to get without a lot more evidence."
"What'd Perry come up with?"
"He spent the morning with the accountants, but Luthor was too smart to leave a trail there. He spent the afternoon trying to track down the Planet's board members, but he said every one of them is ducking him."
"That's suspicious right there," Lois said, frowning. "Some of those guys have known Perry forever."
"I know. And Perry knows. They're obviously hiding something — it's just getting them to talk that's the problem. We're going to work on that tomorrow. Jack says he has an idea, whatever that means."
"Scary thought," Lois commented. "What about Jack's lead? The John Black guy."
"That's the best news of the day," Clark said. "Jack was able to track down an address. With what he overheard at the JDC, it might be enough to get John Black brought in for questioning. If he knows who hired him…"
Lois shook her head. "I have a feeling Lex is too smart for that. He's not going to deal directly with street thugs."
"Still, if we can link it to one of his people, that's as good as linking it to Luthor. And from what Jack told us, neither this John Black nor his brother is the sharpest knife in the drawer. I think a smart interrogator could wring a confession out of one of them."
"Let's hope," Lois said. "You know, I *hate* this, Clark! I should be there helping you! It shouldn't be up to Jack to find out why those board members sold us out. Jack's a copyboy…a kid."
"Jack's a *smart* kid," Clark returned. "Street smart, which may be what counts here. Don't sell him short."
"I'm surprised *Superman* didn't send him straight back to the JDC."
"He wanted to," Clark admitted. "Perry talked him out of it. And I think Perry was right. Luthor doesn't fight fair, Lois. The only way we're going to get him is if we bend a few rules along the way."
She smiled at him. "Boy, I bet it hurt to say that."
He chuckled. "Yeah. It did, kind of. But it's the truth. And that's what I'm all about, isn't it? Truth…"
"…justice, and the American way," Lois finished. "Very catchy. I was having one of my more inspired moments when I wrote that."
"When you invent a superhero, you don't do it half-way," Clark agreed. "It can be a lot to live up to."
"Have I made you feel that way?" she asked, cocking her head at him.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Many times. But you've also made me feel…" He shrugged, feeling a little foolish. "*Super*, I guess. Like if I tried hard enough, I could actually be the hero you thought I was. It sounds silly…"
"No," she said softly. "Not silly at all. But I can hardly believe that anything I said meant so much to you — that I had that responsibility and didn't even know it. It's kind of scary, thinking about it now."
"It shouldn't be. More than once, you kept me going when I wanted to give up. You set the bar incredibly high, but you also made me want to reach it. I guess I never wanted to let you down."
"You've never let me down," she promised him. "Not as Superman, and not as Clark. And you won't, no matter what happens."
"That's a lot of faith to put in a farmboy," he said softly, feeling somewhat awed by the thought.
"Clark, if I didn't have faith in you, I wouldn't be vacationing in Kansas right now while you and Perry and the others chase down leads in Metropolis," she pointed out. "I don't let just anybody be top banana you know."
He smiled. "No you don't. But…for the record, I missed my partner today. I missed us working together, having you there to tell me what's wrong with all my ideas. I missed having you make some crazy leap of logic that turns out to be dead on. It didn't seem right without you."
"Thank you," she said softly. "It doesn't seem right knowing you're all working this without me. I wish…"
"No, Lois. I want you to stay here, even if it means you see every embarrassing picture my mother's ever taken of me."
Lois laughed, as he'd meant her to. "I'm going to do my best," she warned.
"I wouldn't expect anything else. But it's worth it if I know you're safe." He wasn't entirely comfortable with how much of his feelings that revealed, but there was no taking it back once it was said. "I need to get back to Metropolis," he said, by way of a change of subject.
"I guess you do," she said, looking a little disappointed. "Do you know when you'll be back?"
"I'll check in sometime tomorrow," he promised. "I'm not sure when, exactly, but I'll be by."
There was an awkward moment, an empty space that seemed as if it should be filled with some gesture of goodbye. But in the end, he just smiled and wished her goodnight before taking off with a flourish of his new cape.
Lois wasn't sure what to make of the strange currents around the breakfast table on her third morning in Smallville. She had spent the previous evening laughing and talking with Martha and Jonathan over Clark's baby pictures, and that pleasant experience had given her reason to believe that her difficulties with Martha were more or less behind her so long as she didn't break Clark's heart again. At the moment it seemed that Clark might be poised to break *her* heart rather than the other way around. She doubted Martha knew anything about that, though, so it wouldn't account for her near-silence as she went about her business in the kitchen. She roused herself to make some small talk as they ate breakfast and seemed to be making an attempt to be a good hostess, but Lois could tell that there was something weighing on her — and on Jonathan, too, who spent his breakfast picking at his food and staring out the window in the direction of his storage building. Granted, she'd only been there a few days, but Lois had never in that time seen Jonathan do anything less than clean his plate; he usually went back for seconds, with Martha fussing and clucking about his blood pressure all the while.
No, there was definitely something wrong, but neither Kent seemed inclined to confide in her, so after observing just enough to assure herself that whatever the problem was, she wasn't at the center of it, she fixed her cat's breakfast — a vile-smelling mixture of canned and dry kitten food — and slipped out into the farmyard.
It had taken Lois several minutes to coax the cat out from under the barn the previous evening, but this morning her head popped right out when Lois called to her. Lois, encouraged, tried holding out the food to see if the cat would come close enough to take it from her, but the hungry animal just sat on her haunches and glared imperiously as she waited for the food to be put in its usual place.
Lois chuckled and complied, and then she backed away so that the cat would feel comfortable enough to eat.
"OK," Lois said conversationally, "I won't expect you to eat out of my hand, but I am concerned about you having your babies under the barn where no one could get to you and help you if you needed it. I know — you probably think you can handle it all yourself and don't need anybody else, but it's possible sometimes to be a little too independent for your own good. Trust me, I've been there, done that, and bought all the t-shirts. So I'm going to board up your hole while you're out and about this morning, and I'm going to make you a nice soft bed in the barn where you can have your babies. I promise, I won't let anyone bother you or them, but I really want to know you're all OK."
The cat raised her head, gave Lois a long, steady look, and then went back to eating. Lois wasn't quite sure how to interpret that, so she took it as agreement, mostly because she liked being agreed with. Once the cat was finished eating and had started on her post-breakfast toilette, Lois collected the bowl and headed into the barn.
She knew the cat probably didn't need or want a birthing suite in the barn, and she really didn't even expect her to use it. The truth was, however, that Lois needed the distraction of something to do after her conversations with Clark the previous day, both of which were unsettling, if for entirely different reasons. The conversation in the tree house had left her with the fear that Clark would never be able to trust her, would never be able to believe that she had feelings for him. And of course, perverse creature that she was, his doubt only served to make her surer than ever that she *did* love him, had probably loved him for a long time, and had just refused to acknowledge it. She didn't blame Clark for not being ready to believe her, but patience had never been her strong suit. Now that she'd acknowledged her feelings to herself, she was anxious to have them out in the open and, preferably, reciprocated. Her worst fear was that Clark would decide she wasn't worth the risk and would follow through on his intention to leave Metropolis once Lex was brought to justice. If that was still his plan, she might not have the time she needed to convince him that her love was neither the work of an impulse nor a mere transfer of her Superman crush. And worst of all, she wouldn't have *Clark* — wouldn't even have the consolation of his friendship. She wanted much more than that from him, but if that was all she could ever have, she would take it and be grateful for it. But life without Clark Kent…she wasn't prepared for that at all.
Their conversation the night before was bothering her for an entirely different reason. Her first two days in Smallville, she'd been able to distract herself from the fact that there was an investigation going on back in Metropolis, and she wasn't a part of it. Now, however, she couldn't get it out of her mind. Clark, Perry, Jack, Jimmy…they all were working on what could be the biggest criminal investigation — and biggest story — of the decade, and what was she doing? She was hiding out in Kansas, awaiting the birth of kittens. Since when did Lois Lane hide out? It went against every instinct. Knowing that Clark was working without her was like having an itch she couldn't scratch, and yet she knew that her entire relationship with Clark depended on her keeping her word and staying in Kansas. It was beyond frustrating. She loved Clark and didn't want to lose him, but she didn't want to lose herself either, and what she was doing right now simply wasn't *her*.
So, filled with nervous energy and nothing else to do with it, she decided to unleash it on the poor cat. The cat would not be grateful, but Lois didn't particularly care so long as it gave her something to do with herself that didn't involve fretting about Clark Kent or the investigation into Lex Luthor.
It took a few minutes of rifling through the piles of things stored in the barn for her to find a wooden crate of approximately the right size and shape for her purposes. It appeared to have held produce at one time or another, and she inspected it carefully and then borrowed one of Jonathan's hammers so that she could tap in a couple of tiny nails that were sticking out a bit. She filled the box with fresh straw, and then, after pondering it for a minute, went back into the house and up to her room to rummage through the drawer she'd explored on her first night in Smallville. She pulled out the phenomenally ugly flannel shirt she'd seen and made a sound of satisfaction.
It would do just fine.
"Hey farmgirl," Clark said teasingly. "Dad put you to work?"
Lois looked up, startled, and saw Superman sitting cross-legged in the air, watching as she boarded up the hole in the foundation of the barn. She spat out the two nails she'd had clenched between her teeth and tried her best to glare at him.
"What did I tell you about sneaking up on me?"
"Hey, is it my fault you were making so much racket you didn't hear me come in?" he said, gesturing to her hammer. "What on earth are you doing, anyway?"
"I'm boarding up a hole," she said, as if talking to a preschooler. "Guess you city boys wouldn't know about those kinds of things."
Clark snorted his opinion of that. "OK, I'll bite. *Why* are you boarding up a hole?"
"Because I don't want the cat to have her kittens in there. She's been hiding out under there, but I've fixed her a place in the barn so I can make sure she's OK."
Clark knit his brows in confusion. "I thought the barn cat was a male."
"He is," Lois said. "And he might even be the proud papa for all I know. But the one having kittens is the cat you brought from Metropolis a few months back."
"Oh, no," Clark groaned, letting his head drop into his hands. "I'd forgotten about her. Dad's gonna kill me."
"He's not exactly handing out cigars," Lois agreed. "Your mom either. I've been feeding her though. I guess I kind of feel sorry for her."
"Yeah, I did, too, but she wasn't all that grateful for my help."
"Maybe she was happy where she was," Lois suggested, more sharply than she'd intended. "Maybe she belongs in Metropolis."
"She would have died if she'd stayed where she was." It was clear from Clark's defensive tone that he knew they weren't just talking about the cat.
"You don't know that," Lois insisted. "I know you mean well, Clark, but…"
Clark lowered himself to the ground and started pacing, his red boots kicking up a cloud of dust. "You promised, Lois," he exclaimed. "I thought you were happy here. You were laughing with my parents last night. You had a *date* the night before. What's so wrong with staying here for a few days?"
"What's wrong is that I have a job to do back in Metropolis! I have a partner there who needs me. It took me a long time to admit it, Clark, but we're a team. We work better together than either of us does alone. I don't hate it here in Smallville, and sometime, if we're not busy with something work-related, I wouldn't mind coming back and spending some time here together, but as long as you're investigating Lex, I should be in Metropolis helping you."
"Luthor is stalking you!" Clark practically shouted. "You're not *safe* in Metropolis. Yes, we usually make a great team, but not on this investigation. You promised, Lois. Just last night, you said you'd stay here."
"What about the next time?" she asked. "What about the next time an investigation gets dangerous? Are you going to pack me off to Smallville again? Are you going to play the Superman card every single time, Clark? Because that's not a partnership, and you should know that I'm not about to stand for it."
"No," he said, running his hands through his hair and disarranging Superman's neatly gelled style. "No, I don't plan to make a habit of this. You just aren't getting it, Lois. You're not getting how incredibly…scary this guy is. You've never seen him for what he is, and I think even now you don't really believe it — you don't believe he could hurt you."
"Thank you for reminding me once again of how incredibly poor my judgment has been," she said sarcastically, picking up her nails and flouncing off toward the front of the barn. "I'm *so* glad you dropped by."
"Lo-is," he complained, striding after her. "That's not what I meant and you know it."
"Well, that's sure what it sounded like. Poor dumb Lois, dated the biggest criminal in Metropolis and didn't even realize it."
"He's been perfecting his act for years," Clark soothed. "The whole city fell for it, not just you. And if I hadn't interacted with him as Superman, I might have fallen for it, too."
Lois put the hammer down on Jonathan's tool bench with a clatter. "You probably don't mean that, but thank you for saying it anyway," she said, slightly mollified.
"It's the truth. You're the smartest person I know."
"Oh, *please*. I worked with Superman for a year and never even noticed."
"Like Lex Luthor, I've been perfecting my act for years," Clark said quietly. "Normal, boring Clark Kent. Nothing interesting about *him*. No reason to give him a second look. Just like you said the other night, I've had my whole life to practice blending in to the background. In my own way, I'm as big a con artist as Luthor. I just happen to think I'm doing it for better reasons."
"You are," Lois said, feeling her residual anger fade away. "You're doing the right thing for the right reasons. Superman's identity has to stay a secret. I'm not even mad that you kept it from me as long as you did. The only thing that bothers me is that now that I know, you'll always think you have an excuse to keep me in the cheap seats. I can't live like that, Clark. I can't *work* like that. I don't want to be stuck back at the office while Superman does the exciting work."
"Lois, we don't even have jobs right now!" Clark pointed out. "We might not even be able to be partners again. I mean, I'm not saying I don't *want* to, but…"
"Don't," she interrupted sharply. "Don't pretend this is only about us *working* together. It's more than that, and you know it."
He froze like a wild animal scenting danger, and then he seemed to force himself to relax. "OK, maybe I do," he conceded, but he couldn't look at her as he said it. "But I still think this discussion is premature. Right now, you need to be here, and you promised me you'd stay. I need to know that I can trust you to keep your word just as much as you need to know I'm not always going to be protecting you."
"I *am* keeping my word! While you chase the bad guy, I'm spending the morning building a box for kittens, for crying out loud." She flung her arm in the direction of the cat's box.
Clark glanced that way and then did a double take. "Lois!" he exclaimed. "That's my shirt!"
She looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "Well…yeah. But it's not a good one."
He strode over and snatched it up from where Lois had arranged it over the bed of hay and then dusted it off. "Not a good one!" he repeated, obviously outraged. "It's the best shirt I've ever had."
"Are you just trying to change the subject?" she demanded, her hands on her hips. "Because *no one* could possibly think that was the best shirt they'd ever had. No one! And if you think you're going to distract me…"
"Just look at it." Clark held it up as if he were displaying a rare painting.
She folded her arms across her chest and huffed at him. "I'm looking…I'm looking…and all I'm seeing is an ugly, worn-out shirt."
"I got this shirt in college," he said. "It traveled the world with me."
"Explains why you're still single," she noted.
"See this stain?" He pointed to a darkish splotch on the breast pocket. "That's from the pen I wrote my first story with — the first story I ever sold, anyway. I scratched it out on the back of an envelope in a hotel in Peru."
"Clark, are you feeling OK?"
"And this hole? Got that helping Dad string fence wire. It was at the end of my last summer at home."
"Been flying too high? Lack of oxygen to your brain, maybe? Because that shirt is the color of vomit, and it looks like it's been through a war."
"No wars, but I do think I was wearing it when I helped after a terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv…and what do you mean the color of *vomit*? It's green!"
"It's *puke* green, Clark, and that's the nicest color in there. The only reason I'm letting the kittens use it is that kittens are born blind."
"You are *not* letting that cat have kittens on my favorite shirt," Clark insisted.
"Why not?" she asked, snatching the shirt from him. "It'll just be another memory to add to the collection."
"Lois," he protested, as she spread the shirt back over the hay and patted it down.
"Trust me, Clark. If it means you never wear this shirt again, I'm doing you a favor. Now, could we get back to the conversation we were having before you lapsed into utter insanity?"
He sighed. "The cat's probably not even going to use that box."
"Probably not," Lois agreed. "I only made it because I was going out of my mind wishing I could be in Metropolis helping you."
"No." He shook his head stubbornly. "But let me see what I can bring you to work on here. I said I would do that, and I haven't. That's my fault. I'll talk to Perry this afternoon and bring you something this evening, OK?"
"It's not the same," she said.
"I know. And I absolutely meant it when I told you that I wished we could work together on this. I swear to you, I will be here tonight, I will tell you every single thing that happened today, and I will bring you something you can work on — something you can do to help. I promise, Lois."
"OK," she said, and for a moment she wondered if yielding that much authority to him would ultimately enhance her life or diminish it. In the end, she knew she couldn't do anything else: Clark's trust meant more to her than anything, even her career. It was a staggering thought, and one she knew she'd have to explore more fully. She loved him, however, and she suspected that he still loved her. Never having loved before, she'd never realized how life-altering an emotion it could be. She was willing to give up a little of herself, a little of her Lois Lane-ness, for Clark's peace of mind. That was a new feeling for her. In return, Clark seemed to be recognizing that she needed to keep her hand in, needed to feel involved. For the moment, it was enough. They could haggle out the details later.
"I'll see you tonight, then," he said. "Probably around seven. That'll give me time to have dinner with Perry and the others and to find out how their day went."
"So why did you come this morning?" she asked, realizing for the first time that he'd never said.
"Uh…" To her utter amazement, Superman seemed to be blushing. "I just…had a few minutes. Thought I'd check in."
Her heart heard the words he didn't say, and a smile spread across her face. "I'm glad," she said shyly. "I'm sorry we spent the whole time fighting."
"It's all right," he told her, giving her a crooked smile. "I know I'm being protective, and I do have some idea of what it's costing you to stay here."
"And I appreciate that you want to keep me safe," she acknowledged. "I know I'm sometimes a little…impulsive."
Clark snorted. "Remove the adjectives and adverbs from that sentence, and you might have something close to the truth."
"Don't edit my confessions," she complained, pretending to be miffed. "That's not how this game is played. You admitted something, then I admitted something. Now it's your turn again." She folded her arms and gave him an expectant look.
"Nope, that's all you're getting out of me this morning," Clark said with a grin. "But if you have some other flaws you'd like to admit to, I'm all ears."
"Flaws!" She gave him a look that could have scared the paint from the walls.
"Foibles?" he tried. "Slight but charming imperfections?"
"That's a little better," she said grudgingly. "I like the charming part."
He laughed. "Listen, I've gotta go. I'll see you tonight, OK?"
"Seven o'clock," he agreed. "Tell the folks I'll see them then."
Lois nodded and then worked up her nerve. "Clark?"
"We *are* going to be all right, aren't we? I mean, whatever is going on between us…" she made a sweeping gesture that took in him, her, the barn, and most of Kansas "…whatever happens…you're not still thinking about leaving, are you?"
He looked briefly uncomfortable, and then his face softened and he gave her a half-smile. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not all that great at staying away from you."
It wasn't quite the answer she was hoping for, but it was enough, and without invitation, without giving a thought to whether it was what he wanted, she walked straight over and wrapped her arms around him, burying her face in his neck and heaving a shuddering sigh of relief and happiness. She felt his arms come around her and hold her close, and for a few sweet seconds he relaxed into the embrace. He was solid and reassuring and so completely *Clark*, despite being head to toe in spandex, and she wanted to weep with the sense of homecoming she had in his arms. He had just given her the gift of time — time to make things right between them, time to work out the differences that still remained. She felt something inside her unclench at the thought.
He stepped away, then, but paused to cup her cheek lightly in one hand. "See you tonight," he said again, but this time his voice was rough with some emotion she couldn't quite name.
She smiled, her cheek still tingling from his touch. "See you tonight."
Clark's head was spinning as he flew back toward Metropolis. Being close to Lois always had that effect on him, truth be told, but it was even more pronounced today. When Lois had stepped into his arms, he'd felt the paltry defenses that were still erected around his heart come crashing down, and all he'd wanted out of life was to remain there forever, standing in his father's barn holding tight to Lois Lane. He had promised himself that he would remain on his guard against her. He had promised himself that he wouldn't fall so blindly, so foolishly again. But in the end, all she had to do was to wrap her arms around him, and all his promises came to nothing. He was just as hopelessly in love as ever, and his heart was hers to do with as she pleased. There was no defending it. No protecting it. Just a fierce hope that she'd handle it more carefully this time.
And yet, while he might be as much in love with her as ever, he sensed that things were not yet ready to be resolved between them. She had apologized for fighting with him, which had surprised him at first because they'd always fought a lot. The fact that they were squabbling over things like the use of his favorite shirt as a cat blanket — and how *could* she?! — represented a rather reassuring return to normalcy. Their other argument had been different, however, and apparently Lois had recognized that. It was complicated in a way that their day-to-day tussles had never been — painful and intimate and cutting to the very heart of who they were and what they could be to one another. He had fallen in love with Lois Lane at first sight, more or less, and had naively believed that the only impediment to their being together was the fact that she didn't feel the same. Ever since their conversation in the tree house, he'd had to acknowledge that it was a lot more complicated than that.
He wanted Lois to stay safely in Kansas, and he knew he would always have that same urge to protect her, no matter what the perceived threat. Lois was right to be worried about that. At the same time, he realized that a Lois Lane wrapped in cotton wool and tucked safely away for her own good would not be the Lois Lane he'd fallen in love with. It was a paradox that threatened to fracture his heart. How could he love her and knowingly let her be in danger? How could he love her and want to change her?
He saw no resolution — or none that was comfortable for him — but he realized that she was right: that argument hadn't just been about work or their professional partnership. They were blazing entirely new territory, territory he'd once thought he'd charge into without a backward glance. He should have known that Lois would be too cautious, too downright contentious, to let either of them make that mistake. She might love him, though even that was still up for debate, but she wasn't about to allow herself to be swept away on a fluffy cloud of romance. Lois wouldn't fall in love at all, come to think of it; she'd shoulder her way into it and tackle it with passion and feistiness, the same way she did everything else. As he landed in an alley near his apartment and spun back into Clark Kent, he thought wryly that life would sure be simpler if he'd been able to fall in love with some complacent farmer's daughter. But even as he had the thought, he felt his heart rebel. His heart knew what it wanted, and what it wanted was Lois Lane.
He Clark was distracted from his thoughts of Lois when he returned to his apartment and found a message waiting for him from Lex Luthor. Perry, Jack, and Jimmy were all out, and even though he'd half-way been expecting the call, Clark's heart still pounded as Luthor's voice oozed out of the machine and seemed to infect every corner of the apartment. He wished that instead of calling Luthor back, he could simply reach into the phone and grab the man by the throat and tell him what he thought of him and what would happen if he threatened Lois in any way. But he was Clark Kent…normal, boring, myopic Clark Kent, and Clark Kent didn't grab and threaten. Clark Kent played innocent. He grit his teeth and dialed the phone.
"This is Clark Kent returning Lex Luthor's call," he said when a bored-sounding receptionist answered the phone. He waited impatiently while his call was routed, and the instinctive tightening of his fist nearly cracked the phone in two when Luthor's voice came on the line.
"Mr. Kent, thank you for returning my call," Luthor offered smoothly.
Clark, however, wasn't inclined to false politeness. "What do you want, Luthor?"
Luthor pretended not to notice Clark's hostility. "I am concerned about Miss Lane. She seems to have disappeared, and I thought you might know her whereabouts."
"I have no idea," Clark lied. "She told me she needed to get away for a while. That's all I know."
"Forgive me, Mr. Kent, but I find that rather hard to believe."
"I can't imagine why. Lois and I no longer work together. She's under no obligation to advise me of her plans. And if she chose not to advise you of them…well, I can only assume she had her reasons."
There was a moment of tense silence, and Clark could easily imagine the fury that Luthor was working to get under control. "Very well, Mr. Kent. If I might ask one thing further of you?"
"What now, Luthor?"
"I'd like to speak with Superman. If you see him, would you pass along the message?"
"I'll see what I can do," Clark said, and then he avoided the need for false pleasantries by hanging up the phone.
He looked at his watch — it was just after 10 a.m. He was supposed to try to meet with one of the Planet's ex-board members at noon, but he had plenty of time to see Luthor first and get that distasteful chore out of the way. He expected Luthor to ask Superman the same questions he'd just asked Clark, and Clark was determined that he would meet with exactly the same results. Still, Luthor might just give something away, so it was worth accommodating his request.
With a sigh of disgust, he spun back into Superman and then launched himself out of his bedroom window and toward the LexCorp headquarters.
Superman arrived at Luthor's lavish penthouse office by his usual means — the balcony — and was somewhat surprised to be greeted by the billionaire's exotic assistant, Mrs. Cox. Though she welcomed him politely, there was something about her that sent a shiver down his spine. He couldn't deny her beauty, but it was like the cold elegance of a spider poised to devour her mate.
"I understood that Luthor wanted to see me," Superman said bluntly. "Please tell him I'm waiting."
She smiled condescendingly, as if she pitied his attempt at taking charge. "Mr. Luthor is expecting you. If you'll just follow me this way?"
She went through the door without looking back, obviously confident that he would trail along in her wake. Though it went against his instincts to let Luthor choose the setting for their encounter, he decided it couldn't make much difference in the end. It was all Luthor's territory anyway, so he followed obediently behind Mrs. Cox, wondering idly if there was a Mr. Cox or if he'd long since become a post-coital snack for his wife.
She led the way down two sets of stairs and a labyrinth of corridors to a service elevator, which she directed to a sub-basement. It seemed to Clark that the descent took forever, but finally they reached the very bowels of the LexCorp building and he was once again following the imperious Mrs. Cox, this time down a narrow, dingy hallway. When she reached a heavy metal door, she rapped at it once before turning the knob.
It was a wine cellar, apparently, and Lex Luthor stood before a cask of wine, a glass held loosely in one hand. "Come in, come in," he called heartily. "Don't be shy."
Clark stepped through the door, folded his arms across his chest, and gave Luthor an expectant look, though inwardly he was rolling his eyes at the billionaire's theatrics.
"They say that civilization was invented so that men could cooperate in the making of wine," Luthor said conversationally.
"What do you want, Luthor?" Clark snapped.
Clark raised an eyebrow at him. "From me? You *must* be joking."
"Hear me out," Luthor said, smiling. "Now, you might not have suspected it of me, Superman, but I am as capable as the next man of falling in love."
"I doubt that, Luthor. The only person you'll ever love is yourself."
"Ah, you see me as a narcissist, then."
"Among other things, yes," Clark said, not bothering to hide his contempt.
Luthor tutted sadly. "And here I thought that meeting over a glass of wine might help to cement our friendship. But I'm remiss. I haven't offered you anything. Do you have a favorite wine, Superman?" Luthor picked up a second glass.
"Do you have a *point*, Luthor?"
"No wine, then." Luthor set the extra glass aside. "My point, Superman, is that I am in love with Lois Lane. For a time, I had reason to believe that she felt the same way about me. Alas…that was not the case. But a love like mine does not admit impediments. I want the chance to woo her, to court her. I want the chance to make her see how wonderful things could be for us. Unfortunately, she has disappeared, and even her closest friends claim not to know where she is. I spoke with Clark Kent, as you know, and all he would say is that she needed time away."
"So I believe that you, Superman, know where Miss Lane is."
"Why would you think that?"
"She disappeared in the middle of Perry White's retirement party. She didn't take her car, nor did she take a plane, bus, taxi, or train. I've checked."
"That's sick, Luthor," Clark spat.
Luthor went on, completely unperturbed. "The only way she could have gotten out of Metropolis without my knowing it is if she disappeared into thin air…literally. You're the only one I know who could make that happen. I suspect the uninspiring Mr. Kent knows more than he was telling, but since he was unwilling to help me, I'm turning to you."
"You live in a fantasy world, Luthor. Neither Clark nor I will *ever* help you find Lois."
"I see. Then, I suppose I'll have to find another use for you." Luthor made as if to pour himself a glass of wine, turning the tap on a dusty cask. As he did so, a cage dropped down from the ceiling, enclosing Clark completely.
Clark gave his would-be captor an incredulous look. "You know that bars won't hold me."
"Oh," Luthor said, "I think they will." He pulled a small remote control device from his pocket, and the instant he hit the button, Clark felt the pain strike. He instinctively took a step to move away from it, and just as his hands gripped the bars of his cell, they began to glow a sickly green. Clark reared back as if he'd been hit with a cattle prod, and with nothing to hold on to, he fell to the ground, writhing in pain.
"I think that *you*, Superman, are the reason Lois refused to marry me," Luthor said. "I wonder what she would do to save you, hmm? It will be interesting to find out. You see, it's a win-win proposition for me. If she's willing to trade herself for her beloved hero, then I'll get the girl. If she's not…then I'll have the pleasure of watching you die. Of course, you'll die either way, but my dear Lois won't know that." He smiled, and even through the haze of pain and nausea, Clark could see the light of insanity in his eyes. "A fantasy world?" Luthor asked softly. "Perhaps. But it's all about to come true."
Clark heard the sound of footsteps and then the slamming of a door. He forced himself to look around his cell, around the room, to see if there was anything he could use to break free, but there was nothing…nothing but a pain so all-encompassing that he soon gave himself up to it, abandoning all hope of escape.
He knew he should be trying to save himself, but Clark couldn't think clearly enough to formulate a plan. His body was curved tightly in the fetal position, and his eyes were closed to avoid the lurid glare of the green bars. There was nothing he could do, nowhere he could go to escape the pain that was burning him alive from the inside.
He knew he was dying, and he wished for the distraction of his life flashing before his eyes. Clark had always found that idea comforting, somehow, but it wasn't happening properly for him at all. He'd imagined it like a movie shown in fast forward, but this was more like bits and pieces of mental flotsam that were bobbing randomly through his mind. He'd try to catch hold of one memory, and it would slip from his grasp and be replaced by something unrelated.
A girl he'd kissed once in Florence…her name had been lost to time, but he could still taste the wine on her lips and feel her hair slipping between his fingers. There was music playing somewhere in the distance, drifting towards them on the soft night air, and he felt again the frisson of excitement as she pressed her body close to his in obvious invitation…
…and then he felt the weight of the smooth wooden bat in his hands as he stepped up to the plate in some long-ago baseball game…he heard his parents on the nearby bleachers cheering for him, calling his name, and he breathed in the smell of popcorn mingled with the scent of freshly cut grass. When he faced the pitcher, the sun blinded him for a moment and he reached up to adjust his helmet — better now — and tapped his bat against home plate once, twice, before hoisting it into position…
…and that gave way to a high school math test, a problem he had no idea how to solve, the drone of a fly flinging itself against the window, and the added distraction of Lana Lang in a short skirt, her gloriously smooth legs crossed just within his line of vision in the next row.
He wanted to fast forward somehow, to find the memories of Lois and have those be the ones he was clinging to when the end came, but his mind refused to cooperate, and while he could call up her image, he couldn't hang on to a specific moment, couldn't make her feel real to him in the same way the other memories did. He wanted to smell her perfume and to feel her shoulder beneath the weight of his hand as he bent for a closer look at her computer screen. Once more, he wanted to be dazzled by her smile or secretly amused by the magnificent excess of her rants. He wanted to relive each of the times he'd kissed her, even if they hadn't meant to her what they'd meant to him. If his life was going to flash before his eyes in this odd, disjointed way, why couldn't it linger on the moments he'd spent with Lois?
Maybe with Lois there was no specific moment. Maybe it was all so tightly woven together that there were no individual memories, just emotions so deep and so powerful that they weren't his to command. He wanted to wrap himself in those emotions, even the ones that were painful, to cling to them so that her name was the thing he'd whisper with his dying breath.
He wasn't afraid of dying, but neither did he want it, not when there was so much left unfinished. So much for Superman to do. So much for Clark Kent to do. So many dreams still unrealized. Parents who loved him and would need him all the more as they moved past middle age and into their later years.
But most of all, he didn't want to die without telling Lois one more time that he loved her. Loved her whether she could return his love or not. Loved her even if the only part of him she could love was the part that could fly. Loved her unconditionally. It had been foolish to think he could turn his love off with the flip of a switch, and now, even through the haze of pain and delirium, he felt a freedom in allowing himself just to feel it again, to let his love for Lois Lane flow freely through his veins. He couldn't call up a memory, couldn't remember what it felt like to hold her hand, couldn't remember the smell of her shampoo, but the love…that came to him as naturally as breathing.
He'd failed her, he knew. He'd failed their partnership. He'd gone off on his own, sure that he could handle whatever came his way, and he hadn't trusted her enough to let her back him up. It was just what he'd always accused *her* of doing, and now it was going to cost him his life. And the worst of it was that she might never know. Clark Kent would simply disappear, as if he'd never existed, and no one would ever know that his life had ebbed away in a green cage hidden deep in the lair of a madman.
"I'm so sorry, Lois…" he whispered.
And then he was lost in another memory, this one of a long-ago fishing trip with his father, and he took what comfort he could from the sweet simplicity of that time, of cold Coca-Cola on a hot day and his father patiently untangling his line… <<like this, son…hold it just like this…>>
…And then he was a preschooler, chasing bubbles in the front yard, the grass soft beneath his bare feet… <<more, mama, more…I catch 'em!…>> and his mother was laughing and blowing more bubbles, so many that they seemed to sparkle down from heaven and his hands were slick and soapy from grabbing at them…
…And then he was a baby, nestled safely in his mother's arms. Her robe was satiny-smooth against his cheek, and her voice was low and musical as she soothed him towards sleep. His eyes were heavy, but he fought to keep them open, gazing on her beloved face. With one chubby hand, he reached up and grabbed a fistful of her long, red hair and tried to maneuver it to his mouth for further inspection. She laughed and gently loosened his grip, tossing her hair over her shoulder and out of his reach.
He didn't know if it was even possible, if his memories actually went back that far or if he was extrapolating from what he'd seen in the globe, imagining a scene he wished he could remember. It didn't really matter. His last thought before he slipped into unconsciousness was that despite all that Lex Luthor had taken from him, he had given him something, as well.
He hadn't come.
It was nine o'clock, two hours past the time Clark had promised to visit her in Smallville, and he hadn't come.
It hadn't been a casual promise. He had meant it. He had meant to come. And the fact that he hadn't could mean…so many things. Things she had no way of finding out. She felt helpless, and she hated feeling helpless. The strangeness with Martha and Jonathan had continued, and they seemed to be carrying out an argument with their eyes as they watched her pace the house, her initial irritation giving way to worry with every passing moment. She went out to the front porch again and again, looking for a streak in the sky that would mean he was keeping his promise, but the soft dusk gave way to darkness without a sign of Clark.
Finally, after Lois returned from yet another futile trip outside, Martha seemed to win whatever battle she'd been waging with Jonathan, and suddenly her voice broke the silence of their vigil. "Lois, did Clark say anything to you about Kryptonite?"
Lois's head came up and she stared at Martha, uncomprehending. "Kryptonite," she repeated, tasting the strange word. Oh, she remembered it all right, but at the time the word had been coined, she hadn't believed it even existed. She remembered back two days ago, however, to the thoughts inspired by her first sight of the pond — remembered wondering if Trask's mythical rock might actually have been real — and then she'd let herself get distracted, hadn't given it another thought. Her brain was absolutely rotting to pieces, she thought with disgust. If Kryptonite was real — and why else would Martha have mentioned it? — then that meant that there was something out there that could hurt Clark, could possibly even kill him, and if that were true, then… "What about Kryptonite?" she asked urgently. "What did he tell you?"
"He was exposed to Kryptonite yesterday," Martha said, her hands twisting in her lap. "He said he was called to a false alarm and he felt the same sort of pain he'd experienced when he was exposed to that rock here on the farm. He didn't see who had it, and he only lost his powers for a few hours, but…"
"It's real then," Lois breathed. "It can really hurt him."
"We think it could kill him." Jonathan's voice was taut with fear. "And someone in Metropolis has it…"
"…and now Clark is missing." Lois couldn't keep the note of hysteria from her voice.
"We don't know that," Martha said, sounding almost angry. "Maybe he's just been called to an emergency."
"You've had LNN on for the last two hours," Lois flung back, gesturing at the muted television set. "There's been nothing, Martha."
"Clark wouldn't want us to panic," Jonathan said, but it didn't sound like he was taking his own advice.
"Oh, yeah?" Lois said, her eyes flashing at him. "Well who cares what Clark wants! If I want to panic, I'll darn well do it. And if I want to catch the next plane back to Metropolis, I'm going to do that, too. I'm going to find my partner, and then I'm going to make him understand what being partners *means* if I have to strangle him with his own cape to do it. Now are you two going to help me? Because if not, I need to call a cab. Can you even get a cab out here? Oh, God, you probably can't. I'll hitchhike then. Don't think I won't…"
"Lois," Martha said sharply, "Clark is our son, and I'll thank you to remember that we've been loving him and worrying about him a lot longer than you have. Now of course we'll help you, but we're going to be smart about it."
Something in Lois responded to Martha's tone, and she took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down a little. "I'm sorry," she said in a small voice. "I'm just scared."
"We are too, honey. We are too. Now the first thing we need to do is to call Clark's apartment again and make sure he hasn't turned up there."
"I just called thirty minutes ago," Jonathan objected. "Surely Mr. White would have given him my message."
"Let me call this time," Lois said. "I can find out from Perry what Clark was doing today."
"You're not supposed to use the phone," Martha reminded her. "What if Clark's line has been tapped?"
"I doubt it will matter. If I go back to Metropolis, Lex will know it soon enough. But I'll call Perry's cell. That's probably safer."
Her hand shook slightly as she dialed the familiar number. Perry picked up on the second ring, and she could hear the sounds of conversation in the background. For a moment, she felt a flash of hope — maybe Clark had just gotten busy talking with the guys and hadn't been able to make an excuse to break away.
"Hi, Perry," she said, trying to keep her voice as normal as possible. "It's Lois."
"Lois!" Perry exclaimed. "It's great to hear your voice, darlin'. How are you doing?"
"I'm…fine," she lied. "Uh, listen…is Clark around?"
"No," Perry answered, dragging the syllable out. "I haven't seen him since this morning. Between you and me, I'm starting to get a little concerned. You know Clark's a big one for disappearing at odd times, but I sure would've thought he'd be back here by now."
"Yeah," she answered, simultaneously shaking her head at Martha and Jonathan. Martha went into Jonathan's arms then, and Lois envied them the comfort they were able to provide one another. "Listen, Perry, what can you tell me about what Clark did today? Do you know where he went?"
"Uh, no, not exactly. We were supposed to meet over dinner and brief each other, but Clark never showed up. I know he had some sort of a breakfast meeting at around 9:00," that was when he'd been in Kansas, Lois realized, "and then he was supposed to track down one of the board members over lunch, but I can't say for sure if he ever did that. He must have come back here sometime during the day, though, because he checked his answering machine." Perry lowered his voice slightly. "He had a message from Luthor."
"What?" Lois exclaimed. "When?"
"The time stamp said Luthor called around 9:30 this morning. I don't know when Clark listened to the message — just that he played it at some point. I went back over the tape when Clark didn't show up, thinking maybe he'd called to let us know where he was. It took me a minute to figure it out — I hate those darn machines — and while I was punching buttons I somehow picked up Luthor's message."
"What did he say?" Lois asked urgently. "What did Lex say in his message?"
"Nothing much. Just that he wanted Clark to call him. What's this all about, Lois?"
"I don't want to say over the phone. I'm going to try to catch a red-eye to Metropolis, and I'll come straight there."
"Whoa!" Perry exclaimed. "I thought you were sitting this one out."
"Not anymore," Lois said grimly. "I'll see you in a few hours."
"All right, honey," Perry said. "We've got some things to tell you, too, when you get here. Like you said, though, it's probably best we don't do it over the phone. It's good news, though. Best news I've had in weeks."
Her curiosity was fierce, but she recognized that Perry was right. It wouldn't do to say any more just then. She said her goodbyes and then hung up the phone, staring blankly at it for a moment while her mind scurried to catch up with what she'd just learned.
"Well?" Martha asked, her face tight with worry.
Lois suddenly realized that she was biting her lip so hard that it was beginning to ache. "Perry said it's likely that Clark talked to Lex today," she said slowly. "And now he's missing. We have to at least consider that those two things could be related."
"But Luthor wouldn't know to use Kryptonite against Clark," Jonathan said.
"I don't think he would, no," Lois said, but the thought of the globe flashed through her mind. If Lex *had* somehow figured out that the globe was Clark's, then Clark would be even more vulnerable to Lex than any of them knew. No, she wouldn't even mention that possibility to Martha and Jonathan. "But he might have asked Clark to contact Superman for him. But why would Clark go, knowing that Lex might have Kryptonite?"
"He said last night that he thought it was more likely another government agency that had gotten hold of the Kryptonite Wayne Irig sent off for testing," Martha said. "He didn't seem to think Luthor was a likely candidate."
Lois boggled at her. "*Not a likely candidate*? Lex has the money and the connections, and he hates Superman. How could Clark discount him?"
"I don't think he discounted him entirely, but he didn't want to let himself forget that Luthor isn't the only person in the world who would like to see Superman hurt."
"I guess I can see that," Lois conceded, "but knowing that Lex called Clark this morning puts him right back at the top of the list of suspects. And besides, it's our only lead."
"So what are we going to do?" Jonathan asked.
"We're going to give Lex what he wants," Lois said calmly. "Lois Lane — back in Metropolis."
"Lois…you can't," Martha said. "Clark would never forgive us if something happened to you."
"I'll never forgive myself if something happens to him while I'm hiding out in Kansas," Lois returned. "The Kryptonite changes everything! Can't you see that? Clark brought me here because he couldn't be hurt, and I could. But if Lex — or anyone else — has Kryptonite, then he's just as vulnerable as I am. Maybe more, because Superman works alone, and I'll have Perry and the others to back me up. I swear, Martha, I'm not going to be stupid about this, but I *am* going back to Metropolis."
Martha looked at Jonathan and then back at Lois. "Well, then we're coming with you," she said. "I don't know how in the world we can help, but if that awful man has our son…"
"No." Lois shook her head. "I think you two should stay here, at least until tomorrow. There's no sense in all of us rushing off in the middle of the night, and there's still a possibility that Clark will turn up here. Let me see how things stand in Metropolis, and I'll call you tomorrow morning. If there's anything you can do there, you can catch the first flight out."
Martha and Jonathan looked at each other, and Lois could tell that their instincts to rush to their son's aid were warring with the fact that her suggestion was a sensible one. Finally, Jonathan nodded. "Go pack your things, Lois, and Martha and I will call the airline."
"Thank you." Lois hugged first Martha and then Jonathan, and then she took the stairs two at a time. She didn't need to pack much at all since she'd left everything she owned back in Metropolis, but she took a few minutes to brush her teeth and neaten her appearance.
When she got back downstairs, Jonathan had his keys in his hand. "We were able to get you on a midnight flight to Metropolis, but that means we have to leave for Wichita right away. Are you ready?"
"I'm ready," she said. It occurred to her that her departure from the farmhouse was nearly as precipitous as her arrival had been. It was amazing how much had changed in just three days, however. Now, instead of looking at her like an interloper, Martha was regarding her tearfully and pulling her into an embrace.
"Find him, Lois," Martha pleaded, her voice thick with emotion. "But look out for yourself, too, honey. Promise me you'll be careful."
"I will," Lois whispered. "I'm going to find him and we're going to come back here together for a nice, long vacation."
"You're welcome here anytime, honey, for as long as you want to stay."
Lois pulled away and nodded. "Thank you for having me…and thank you for letting me go. I need to do this."
"I understand," Martha said, "and Clark will, too."
"We've gotta go," Jonathan said. "Martha, I'll be back in a few hours."
"Be careful," she urged, following them out the door. The last thing Lois saw as they drove away was Martha standing on the porch with one hand pressed to her mouth and the other raised in a gesture of farewell and benediction.
At the sound of the sing-song voice calling his name, Clark struggled to open his eyes and then squinted against the green glare of the bars that surrounded him. Lex Luthor was pacing like a lion on the other side, but all Clark could make out was a dark silhouette moving back and forth.
"Ah, good, you're awake," Luthor said cheerfully. "And how are we feeling this morning?" He scrutinized his prisoner and then tutted insincerely. "Still a little green around the gills, I see. I'm afraid 'Superman' is something of a misnomer at the moment. I, on the other hand, am feeling wonderful. 'She is beautiful and therefore to be wooed. She is woman, therefore to be won.' Henry the Fifth."
"What do you want, Luthor?" Clark ground out, in far too much pain to follow Luthor's convoluted conversational tactics.
"I'm so glad you asked! I've come here to give you the good news, actually. I've just gotten word from one of my trusted employees that in one hour, Flight 603 from Wichita will land at the Metropolis airport, and on that flight is a passenger by the name of Lois Lane. What, I wonder, could bring her back to Metropolis in the middle of the night? Could it be that she's missed you already? Could it be that she actually *loves* you?" He pretended to give that some thought. "It doesn't matter, of course. Only one of us is in any condition to court the fair Lois, and your unfortunate circumstances are going to give me all the leverage I need to get her to agree to marry me. And once she's my wife…well, I love Lois, but she's a bit too independent, don't you think? Leave that to me."
"You sick…" Clark was seized by a fit of coughing and couldn't finish the epithet.
Luthor opened the door of the cage and smiled down at his prisoner, his eyes glittering with malice. "Do you know, Superman, just when it was that I decided I had to have Lois as my very own?"
Clark deliberately looked away, biting back a moan at the pain the movement caused.
"It was at the airport, after you'd apprehended Miranda. You took Lois in your arms and impulsively declared your love for her while I stood by and watched. Napoleon once said, 'Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.'" He lowered his voice to an intimate hush that seemed to crawl up and down Clark's ravaged nerves. "And that, Superman, was a very big mistake. I've always admired Lois, but once I knew that you loved her, I was determined to have her. You showed me your weakness that day, and that weakness is what put you in this cage. I wanted you to know that, so that you could ponder it in whatever time you have left.
"But now, I must be off," he said, sounding completely lighthearted again. "I have a plane to meet, and I need to look my best. Which do you think?" He held up two neckties, but even if he'd cared, Clark could barely make them out through the glare of the Kryptonite and the haze of pain, both physical and psychological. "An elegant gray, or a more passionate red?" He laughed and looped the gray tie around Clark's neck "I agree. Definitely the red."
Luthor left the cage, locking it behind him and tossing the key onto a nearby cask of wine.
"Luthor," Clark rasped, hardly knowing what he wanted to say, but feeling desperate enough to try anything.
"How strange to hear you say my name and know it's probably the last time. I'll be back later…when it's all over…and by then, I trust that Lois will be my wife. Goodbye, Superman."
Clark again heard Luthor's footsteps and the closing of the heavy door, but all he could think about was Lois. She was coming to Metropolis, putting herself in danger, and it was all because of him — because he had stupidly, impulsively, pretended to be affected by the pheromone so that he could steal a kiss. He could have kissed Lois at any time while *she* had been affected by the pheromone. If he was going to pretend to be affected by Miranda's compound, why on earth hadn't he done it as Clark Kent? The answer was almost too dreadful to admit, even to himself: He'd *wanted* to kiss Lois, of course, but he'd also wanted to flaunt her attraction to Superman in front of Lex Luthor. He'd kissed her deliberately, playing to his audience, little suspecting that his action would have ramifications beyond feeding Lois's Superman crush. Encouraging her feelings for Superman had been inconvenient and short-sighted; this was a tragedy. His own death paled in importance beside the possibility of Lois marrying Luthor in some noble and futile effort to save him. And she would do it, he knew. She would give Luthor anything he asked for if he promised to let Superman go.
It was in that moment that he realized Lois truly loved him. He knew it with absolute, unshakeable certainty. Despite the utter mess they'd made of things, despite her hesitance to voice the words and his own reluctance to hear them, despite the fact that they'd argued practically every day for a week…despite all that, he knew to the very depth of his soul that Lois loved him. And if she did, God forbid, allow Luthor to trick her into marrying him, it would be because Clark Kent's life meant more to her than her own.
He felt the lethargy seeping into his bones, felt the pain of the Kryptonite tugging him towards unconsciousness again, but this time he fought it with every bit of strength he still possessed. It was one thing to wallow in old memories and wait passively for death when the only life at risk was his own, and quite another to do it when Lois was, perhaps, on the verge of getting in bed with the devil in order to save him.
<<Napoleon also said that victory belongs to the most persevering,>> he thought to himself as he struggled to sit up. He felt Luthor's tie swinging against his suit and reached for it, fingering the fine silk with the first stirrings of hope.
If Lex Luthor thought his little visit would cause Superman to roll over and die of despair, then he was very much mistaken. He might still die — Clark was under no illusions about that — but he'd fight it to his last breath.
Someone like Luthor, who was incapable of understanding love, couldn't possibly know that he'd just given Superman every reason in the world to live.
Lois's plane touched down at the Metropolis airport just before 3 a.m. Though she'd tried to rest during the flight, the combination of worry and adrenaline kept her wide awake, her mind racing. She had made twenty different plans and then discarded them all just as quickly. LexCorp was a veritable fortress, and disguising herself as a coffee vendor or someone from housekeeping simply wasn't going to work this time. She doubted a mouse could sneak into that building without Lex knowing about it within minutes; Lois Lane certainly wasn't going to escape his notice.
No, the only thing for it was to meet with Lex and hope that she could — somehow — glean something from him about Superman. It was incredibly vague, as plans went, but she'd gone forward with less before and had it come out all right in the end. The problem was going to be convincing Perry and the others to let her do it. She rubbed at her eyes tiredly, just thinking about that conversation, as she waited for the seat belt light to blink off so she could be on her way. The seat next to her was mercifully empty, but the other passengers on the plane were stirring, moving pillows to one side and beginning to collect their things. Finally, the plane eased to a stop and they were given permission to leave.
As she disembarked, she felt very alone. For a weak moment, she wished that she'd called Perry from Wichita and asked him to meet her or that she'd encouraged the Kents when they said they wanted to come with her. She hadn't called Perry because she couldn't see depriving him of a decent night's sleep when she was perfectly capable of getting a cab; she had discouraged the Kents partly for the reasons she gave, but also because she knew that Clark wanted to keep them as far from Lex Luthor as possible. She would never tell them that, but neither would she involve them directly in the investigation unless it was absolutely necessary to save Clark's life. It was bad enough that she was breaking her own promise to stay in Kansas; she hoped rather than believed that Clark would understand that and would be able to forgive her. She'd already decided, however, that saving Clark's life was worth anything, even if it cost them a future together. She knew Clark well enough to know that he'd rather die than put her at risk, which in her opinion just showed what an idiot he could be sometimes.
She refused to even consider the possibility that she might already be too late. It was, quite simply, an unacceptable outcome, so she wasn't going to think about it. Not at all.
She had no luggage to collect, so she broke from the tide of her fellow passengers and made her way through the concourse in the direction of the escalators.
"Lois, my dear."
She'd heard of hearts stopping in fear but had always taken it as hyperbole. But no, she would swear that the lurch in her chest was her heart stopping cold when she heard Lex Luthor call her name. She had known, of course, that he would find her, but she had never dreamed it would be so quickly or that she would have so little control over the time and place.
She whirled and stared at him as if he were an apparition. He was actually there, not three feet away, resplendent in a charcoal suit, a crisp, snowy white shirt, and a patterned red silk tie. A matching handkerchief peeked out of his breast pocket. Once she would have thought him dashing; now, it simply seemed bizarre for him to be so perfectly turned-out at 3:30 in the morning.
"L-Lex…" She swallowed hard. "What are you doing here?"
He smiled and reached for her hand, clasping it warmly in his. "I've come to offer you a ride, my love. I'll not have you taking a cab like a common peasant."
"I *am* a common peasant," she said, with some of her old spirit. "And I'm not your…" She couldn't bring herself to say the word 'love' — not about Lex.
"Oh, but you are," he said in a low voice. "And as to the ride…I really would suggest you come along with me. I have some information about a friend of yours, you see. A friend who wasn't doing at all well when last I saw him. It would be best if we could talk privately, I think."
"Oh my God," Lois whispered. "It's true…you have him."
"I see you know to whom I am referring," Lex said. "Full marks, my love. Your intelligence is one of the things I most admire about you, you know."
"I really must decline to discuss this further in such a public place. The limousine is waiting, my dear." He guided her towards the escalators with the light pressure of his hand at the small of her back, taking for granted that she wouldn't resist. She thought of all the times Clark had done the same, the gentle touch reassuring her without patronizing her. Lex's touch was an insult to that sweet memory, but she had no choice but to permit it. He had as much power over her as if he held a gun to her back instead of just his hand, and he knew it.
It seemed an eternity before they were out of the airport and Lex's driver was holding open the door of the limousine. She felt her panic flare anew as she slid into the car. Once the door closed behind him, she would be entirely at his mercy. Every plan she'd considered on her flight to Metropolis was now moot. Lex had the upper hand and, clearly, he wouldn't be afraid to use it against her…and against Clark.
Lex climbed in beside her, and the door slammed shut. Lois felt the last remnants of hope crumble to dust.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked on a sob.
"I think you know why," he said softly. "I am quite desperately in love with you, and yet I know that even someone with my advantages can't compete with a muscle-bound superhero. You see my difficulty."
"So you think that kidnapping my…friend will make me fall in love with you?"
"Ah, no," he admitted. "At least not right away, though I have every hope that will come with time. At the moment, I am simply proposing again. It's not quite as romantic as my last proposal, I admit, but it has certain added incentives. You marry me, and you save Superman. It's really as simple as that. If you don't marry me…well, I went down to see him just before I left for the airport, and I'm afraid things aren't looking very good for him right now. I would suggest that you not take as long making your decision this time as you did the last."
"I want to see him!" she demanded fiercely.
"Not so fast, my dear. I believe I have a proposal outstanding."
"Why would you want to marry me?" she asked desperately. "I told you I don't love you…why would you want to be married to someone who doesn't love you?"
"It's quite simple, really. I've always been attracted to you. You know that. I admire your beauty, your spirit, your talent. You have many of the qualities I'm looking for in a wife. But most of all, I want you because he does."
"Because he…no, Lex! He doesn't want me. I…asked him once, and he turned me down flat. I swear to you, if Superman had wanted me, he could have had me any time in the last year." Which was absolutely true, as far as it went.
He smiled. "If he turned you down, I suspect that had more to do with his ridiculously overweening sense of responsibility than with his true feelings. But if I'm wrong about that…" he shrugged slightly "I'm certainly not wrong about your feelings for him. Are you willing to let him suffer, Lois, when you could prevent it? Knowing what he means to you, what he means to the world…are you willing to let him die?"
"No," she said hoarsely, knowing that Lex had won. She *couldn't* let Clark die without doing everything in her power to prevent it. And she knew he might die anyway; she wasn't quite as stupid as Lex seemed to think she was. She knew that Lex wasn't going to marry her and then just release Superman to the skies, knowing that the superhero's first order of business would be to rescue her. But if she agreed to Lex's plan, maybe she could buy a little time, could figure something out. It was exactly the sort of no-plan plan that drove Clark to distraction, but it had worked for her before, and if sheer desperation counted for anything at all, she would find a way to make it work this time, too.
"It sounds like we have a wedding to plan," Lex said lightly, reaching for her hand and kissing it gently. "My dear, you have made me very happy."
Lois snatched her hand away and hugged her arms close to her chest. Lex chuckled. "There is little point in playing hard to get, my love. We will be married in just a few hours, and by the time this day is over, I will have done far more than just kiss your hand."
Lois shuddered — she couldn't help it — and turned her face to the darkened window so that Lex wouldn't see the tears that were gathering in her eyes. Apparently he meant to marry her today. He had no intention of giving her any time to rescue Clark or herself.
"I'd like…" she began, and then she paused to clear her throat, which was thick with unvoiced sobs. "I'd like Perry to give me away."
"I don't think that's a very good idea, under the circumstances. You may, of course, call him after the wedding. I'm sure he'll want to offer his felicitations."
Lois merely nodded wearily. It was the answer she was expecting. Lex wasn't giving her an inch, but that didn't mean she was giving up. Lex probably didn't realize it, but he'd given her one little clue. It wasn't much, but she was going to follow up on it the minute he gave her the chance.
Lois felt as though she were trapped in a nightmare. Her night of no sleep and the confusion of her emotions had left her feeling muddled, which made the preparations for this mockery of a wedding seem even more surreal than they would have otherwise. Lex had planned ahead, it seemed, and upon their arrival at the LexCorp building, she had been whisked away to a room that held several white dresses in her size, each more ridiculous than the one before, along with a full selection of makeup and hair care products. She was left alone in there and told by one of Lex's many assistants that she was welcome to nap on the couch before readying herself for the ceremony. She had no idea when the ceremony was supposed to be, but she was absolutely certain that she wouldn't be wasting time napping when Clark was probably being held prisoner somewhere in this very building. Instead of resting, she paced around her well-appointed cell, looking for any way out. The door was locked, and repeated attempts to pick the lock with a hairpin yielded no success. If it had been a movie or a detective drama on TV, there would have been a conveniently placed air vent through which she could crawl daringly to Clark's aid, but the air vents at LexCorp were infuriatingly small, barely big enough for her hand to fit through.
There were no windows, but her watch told her that dawn would be breaking soon, and she wasn't one bit closer to finding Clark. She wasn't closer to anything, actually, except the moment when Lex would claim her for their 'wedding'. She paused in her pacing before the full-length mirror, taking in the sight of her own reflection. She was wearing a fitted t-shirt and the comfortable jeans she had bought on her shopping trip with Martha. Her hair was ruffled and the part askew thanks to the many times she'd run her hands through it in frustration. There were dark circles under her red-rimmed eyes. She hadn't broken down and sobbed, but the tears had continued to leak out at odd intervals, when the worry for Clark seemed to jump out at her and catch her suddenly by the throat. With every passing moment, she felt their future slipping away, lost before she'd done more than dare to dream about it.
Could she bring herself to marry Lex? If she knew for certain that it would save Clark's life, she'd do it in a minute. But she knew better than to think Lex would keep his word, so where did that leave her? <<Oh, Clark,>> she thought. <<I wish you were here to tell me what to do. I need my partner!>>
She whirled away from the mirror at the sound of a tap at the door. The woman who had brought her there poked her curly red head in. "Excuse me, Mrs. Luthor?"
"Lane," she snapped. "My name is Lois Lane."
The redhead blinked at her in surprise. "I'm sorry. Miss Lane. Mr. Luthor asked me to make sure you were awake. I believe your wedding is in two hours. Will you need some help getting ready?"
"No." Lois turned away to discourage further conversation. She had absolutely no intention of dressing up in some ruffled white nightmare just to feed Lex's sick fantasies, but she didn't feel like arguing the point with this latest in his parade of personal assistants. She briefly considered tackling the woman, perhaps knocking her out with a curling iron, but before the idea was even half-formed, the door closed and she heard the soft 'snick' of the lock.
'I feel weak as water.'
For some reason that expression, a favorite of his Grandma Kent's, kept running through Clark's head, even though he'd always thought it was a ridiculous simile. Water was one of nature's strongest forces — just ask the guy who stopped the tidal wave. 'Weak as water' didn't really make any sense.
Yet somehow it seemed to describe just how he felt, as though bone and muscle had dissolved and the spandex suit was the only thing keeping him from seeping out all over the floor. His superpowers were all but gone. He'd used the remnants of his super breath to suck the key to his prison from the top of the wine cask and on to the floor, but repeated attempts to move it further or to reach it with Luthor's tie had done nothing but exhaust him. An accidental brush with the cage bars had nearly sent him back to unconsciousness, so for the moment he was resting in an attempt to conserve some strength.
It was impossible to keep track of time, but he was sure that Lois would have arrived in Metropolis by now. He hoped she was safely with Perry, but he couldn't make himself believe it. Likewise, he couldn't wrap his mind around the possibility that she might already be Luthor's wife. Surely Luthor wouldn't get married in the middle of the night? Luthor would want a spectacle, Clark thought, even if it was making a mockery of a farce. He had a sudden vision of Lois in a wedding gown, standing at the front of a church, and for the first time since he'd been trapped, he felt tears sting his eyes. That moment, that breathtaking moment, was meant for Clark Kent, and Luthor was going to defile it, to turn it into something as filthy and dishonest as he was.
He reached for the tie again and tossed it through the bars of the cage in the direction of the key.
Under the circumstances, it was impossible to be amused, but ordinarily, Lois would have laughed at the expression on Lex's assistant's face when she came to escort the bride to her wedding and found her still wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt. The mousy little redhead looked horrified and not a little afraid, but Lois merely fixed her with a defiant look and said, "They weren't my size."
"If Mr. Luthor loves me as much as he says he does, then what I'm wearing won't matter, will it?"
"Uh, well…that is to say…"
"It's none of your business," Lois snapped.
"But it is *my* business, my dear." Lex appeared in the doorway, having clearly been listening all the while.
Her eyes narrowed. "It's bad luck to see the bride before the wedding, Lex. Hasn't anyone ever told you that?"
"I had some concerns about the bride getting cold feet," he said smoothly. "Moira here is a dear, but she's a bit less…assertive than my regular assistant, Mrs. Cox, who seems to be running late this morning."
<<Assertive,>> Lois thought. <<That was one word for it.>> Having met Mrs. Cox, she suspected 'vicious' was more apt. And once again, Lex was a step ahead of her. She'd been on the verge of introducing Moira to some of her Tae Kwon Do moves and making a run for it when Lex had intervened.
"I cannot approve of your choice of wedding clothes, but for this morning, I won't insist that you change. Even I cannot arrange a formal society wedding on a few hours notice, so today's will be a private service. In six weeks or so, we can have the lavish wedding you deserve and celebrate our nuptials properly."
"But *today* you'll keep your part of our bargain," Lois said coldly. "I want to see him."
"As soon as the marriage is consummated." The look he gave her as he said the words was a violation, but she didn't flinch, even though inside she was despairing. She was going to have to do this, going to have to give herself to a man she abhorred, and in the end, it probably would all be for nothing. But what choice did she have? How could she ever look Martha and Jonathan Kent in the eyes again knowing that she hadn't done absolutely everything she could to save their son?
She allowed Lex to tuck her hand through his arm and to lead her to his penthouse office high above Metropolis, feeling all the while as if she were being led to her own execution and half-way wishing it were true. An elderly man in ministerial garb waited there, standing before Lex's imposing desk. Lois didn't know who he was and didn't bother to ask.
At Lex's nod, the minister opened a book and began to intone the traditional wedding ceremony, though Lois barely heard it over the roar in her ears.
"…to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony…"
<<I can't do this…I can't do this…>>
"…not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly…"
<<Help me. Someone please help me…>>
"…till death do you part…"
And then, much too soon, Lex was squeezing her hand, smiling down at her, and saying the dreadful words: "I do."
"And do you, Lois, take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, from this day forward, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do you part?"
"I…" She looked into Lex's eyes, and saw the deceit there, the cold, calculating malice, and she knew in that instant that she couldn't do it. She would give her life to save Clark's, but this…this would only destroy him, if he lived to know about it. To marry Lex would be the ultimate betrayal of Clark's love, and she knew with sudden clarity that if she couldn't speak these words to Clark, she would never speak them to any man, and certainly not to Lex Luthor, his sworn enemy.
"I can't," she said firmly, tugging her hand from Lex's grasp and stepping backwards, away from him.
Lex advanced on her, but just then they all became aware of a disturbance outside his office, a mingling of voices and advancing footsteps.
"What the…?" Lex snapped, whirling on his assistant. "I told you I was not to be disturbed!"
She cringed away from him just as the door crashed open, and Lois felt weak with relief when the first face she saw was Perry's, followed instantly by Bill Henderson's and at least five other members of the Metropolis Police force. Perry rushed over to her, and she fell, weeping, into his arms. From the protective shelter of his broad chest, she heard Lex yelling, protesting the interruption, and then she heard Henderson placing him under arrest "for arson and other crimes too numerous to mention."
"You have the right to remain silent," Henderson droned, as if he routinely arrested billionaires and this was all in a day's work. "You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be…"
"I can afford a thousand attorneys!" Lex sneered. "I'll have your badge for this. Moira, get me the governor on the phone…wait, make it the president! Make it…" He broke off then, and Lois looked up from Perry's shoulder and saw that Mrs. Cox had been led into the room in handcuffs. Lex's eyes narrowed as it dawned on him just exactly what that meant.
"Et tu, Mrs. Cox?" he asked coldly. He turned to Lois, seeking her out amidst the confusion in his office. "I'm sorry, Lois. I'm afraid our little agreement is now null and void."
He made a break for it then, rolling and dodging Henderson's men to hit a hidden button on his desk that caused the window to the balcony to slide open. He was outside almost before the police had time to react, but by the time he climbed up onto the wall, there were six guns pointed at him.
"It's over, Luthor," Henderson called, for once not sounding bored. "Give yourself up."
"Lex Luthor will not live in a cage!"
"Did you know this is the tallest building in Metropolis?" Lex asked, smiling at them. "Top of the world!" And with that, he hurled himself over the edge.
Lois gave a shocked whimper and hid her face in Perry's shoulder as the assembled police reacted with shouted expletives and bolted from the room, save the one who was guarding Mrs. Cox.
"It's over, honey," Perry soothed as he held her and patted her back. "I don't know what in the world was goin' on in here, but whatever it was, it's over now."
"No, Perry," she choked, lifting her tearstained face from his shoulder. "It's not over…and I need your help."
"Anything, darlin'. You know that."
She took a deep, shuddering breath and forced the assorted traumas of the previous half-hour to the back of her mind. There would be time to dwell on them later, if she wished, but right now Clark was still missing.
She pulled away from the safety of Perry's arms and marched over to Mrs. Cox. "Where is he?" she asked in a deadly voice.
Mrs. Cox raised an elegant eyebrow. "I can't imagine who you mean."
"Lex just took the coward's way out and left you holding the bag. Why are you still protecting him?" Her voice rose to a hysterical pitch, and she paused to get herself under control. "I'll find him," she promised, "and if he's dead, I'll make sure you're charged as an accessory. I'll make sure you're held responsible."
Mrs. Cox tried to stare her down, but Lois's glare never wavered. "The wine cellar," she said finally, as if she were washing her hands of the matter. "The last time I saw him, he was in the wine cellar."
"Perry," Lois said urgently.
"I'm right behind you, Lois. I don't know what we're talkin' about, but I'm right behind you."
"Thank you," she said, and then she whirled on the little red-headed assistant, who had sunk into a chair when Lex had thrown himself off the balcony and still had her fist pressed to her mouth in horror. "I need you, too," she snapped. The woman cringed away from Lois, clearly wishing she could disappear into the upholstery.
Lois wasn't having any of it. "Come on," she said, jerking the woman up by the arm. "You're taking us to the wine cellar." She gave her a shove that was about half as forceful as she really wanted it to be, but it was enough to send the woman scurrying out the door, looking over her shoulder as if the Devil himself was at her heels. As far as Lois was concerned, the Devil would be a whole lot nicer than Lois Lane would if this woman dared to cross her.
"I've…only been to the wine celler once," the woman stammered. "I haven't worked here very long, and…"
"Save it for your trial," Lois snapped. "Just take us to the wine cellar."
The woman nodded, glancing at Perry as if he might save her, but Perry's face was as cold as Lois's, and Moira took off in the direction of the service elevator that would take them down to the wine cellar. She hoped.
Lois's heart was hammering in her chest as the elevator lowered them into the bowels of the LexCorp tower. She remembered Lex's comment about this being the tallest building in Metropolis; clearly, he'd wanted to bury Superman in the very lowest part of it. It made sense, in a sick way, and at the airport she'd noticed when Lex had said that he'd been "down" to see Superman. It was her only clue at the time, but if she hadn't had the assistance of a LexCorp employee, she still would have begun her search for Clark in the lowest part of the building she could find. Would she have found this elevator and ultimately the wine cellar? It was doubtful.
Moira led them down a corridor to a heavy metal door. "It's in there," she said, automatically handing over a passkey and edging away from them and down the hall. It was clear that whatever they might find, she wanted no part of it.
Lois snatched the key and fitted it into the lock, and then she hoisted the heavy door open with Perry's help. She gasped at the sight that greeted her as she crossed the threshold, the glare of the Kryptonite cage searing her retinas. "Oh my God," she whispered before she bolted headlong down the stairs.
The cage was open and empty, except for a wrinkled gray necktie that lay abandoned on the hard floor.
"He's gone," she said, choking on her tears, not wanting to believe the evidence of her own eyes. "I'm too late…"
Perry was right beside her. "Who, Lois? Who did that bastard have in here?"
"Superman." She sank to her knees as she whispered the one word. <<Oh, Clark,>> her heart wept, but she wouldn't say his name aloud. She would protect his secret, even in the midst of a grief that was more powerful than any emotion she'd ever known.
Her head snapped up, and she saw that Perry, too, had turned in the direction of the faint voice that had just called her name. In a far corner of the cellar, she caught a glimpse of red silk.
"Superman!" she cried exultantly, scrambling up from her knees and racing to Clark's side. He was wedged behind a cask of wine, leaning heavily against a wall. He had a day's growth of beard and his face was pinched with pain. Lois thought he'd never looked more beautiful. "You're here," she said, frantically touching his face, his shoulders, his chest, feeling the beating of his heart and the warmth of his living flesh. "You're alive."
"Just barely," he whispered, but she saw one corner of his mouth lift in an attempt to smile.
"We've got to get you out of here…away from that horrible thing," she said urgently, realizing that prolonging their reunion wasn't doing him any good. "Can you walk?"
"I don't…think so," he said, his voice obviously weakening. "Crawled over here. Thought you were…" He coughed and flinched against the pain it caused. "Thought you were Luthor."
"Luthor's gone," she said, deciding to save the details of that for later. "You don't have to worry about him any more. But Perry's with me, and we can help you try to walk, all right? I need you to try. I need to get you out of here."
He nodded, apparently having used up his store of words for the moment.
"Lois, where are we taking him?" Perry asked, entering the conversation for the first time.
Lois thought quickly. Under ordinary circumstances, she'd take Clark back to her apartment, but with Lex's bugs still planted there, that was out of the question. Clark's place was equally impossible because of Perry, Jimmy, and Jack staying there.
"I'm checking into a hotel," she said suddenly, "and I'm taking him with me. Help me get him up…please, Perry?"
"Uh, don't you think he might be a little more comfortable at Clark's, honey?"
"This man is not leaving my sight," she said fiercely. "He needs peace and quiet, and he won't get that at Clark's place with half the staff of the Planet staying there. My place is still full of Lex's bugs."
"Well, that lets that out," Perry admitted, bending down next to the fallen Superhero.
"Here," Lois directed him. "Put your arm behind his shoulders…there. Superman," she said, caressing Clark's bristly face with a gentle hand. "We're going to try to help you up now, OK?"
Clark nodded, and with an agonizing groan, he struggled to stand.
Somehow, with Perry's help and Lois's encouragement, Clark managed to get to his feet and to put one foot in front of the other long enough to make the painful trek to Perry's car, where he collapsed, apparently unconscious, in the back seat. Perry wrestled his legs far enough in to close the door and then wiped the sweat from his brow.
"Weighs more than he looks, doesn't he?"
"I guess so," she agreed, but she was distracted, frantic with worry. Clark had been exposed to Kryptonite before, but never for so long. Jonathan had said that they believed Kryptonite could kill him. What if he was dying in the back seat of Perry's car? Should she have sent him to the hospital? "No," she said aloud, to Perry's bewilderment. She didn't think Clark would want to go to a hospital, and she wouldn't take him there without talking to Martha and Jonathan first. She dashed around to the other side of the car. "I'm going to ride back here with him."
She crawled in, lifting Clark's head with effort and settling it in her lap. The action seemed to bring him around a little, and as Perry started the car and eased into traffic, Clark began muttering.
"It's me, Superman," she whispered, carding her fingers through his sticky hair.
"'M glad you're here," he slurred.
"I'm glad, too. You're going to be all right."
"Don't…" he said, sounding suddenly more lucid. "Please don't…"
"Don't what?" she asked, concerned.
He shook his head a little from side to side. "Don't have kittens on my favorite shirt."
She glanced toward the front seat and saw Perry eyeballing them in the rear-view mirror. "He's delirious," she said weakly.
"Love that shirt," Clark went on. "Kittens'll just mess it all up."
<<It's already a mess,>> Lois thought, but with Perry watching she didn't dare argue. Of all the things for Clark to be concerned about at a time like this!
"No kittens," she promised, and Clark seemed to relax.
His eyes popped open again. "Mom and I used to play 'Simon Says'. Did you ever play 'Simon Says', Lois?"
"I only liked it if I got to be Simon."
He gave her a weak smile. "Figures." He was silent a moment, and then, "That's where I got the name for the grasshopper. I always loved 'Simon Says'."
She stroked his cheek gently with the backs of her fingers. It was flushed and burning with fever. "Simon says, 'rest', OK?"
He nodded and swallowed hard. "OK." He shifted a little in the cramped space. "Lois?"
<<For a guy who claims to love 'Simon Says', he isn't very good at it,>> Lois thought, with a worried glance at Perry. So far their conversation had been strange but innocuous, but she was concerned that Clark might say something to give himself away. As much as she wanted to talk to him, she would rather wait until they had some privacy.
"Yes, Superman?" She hoped the use of the name 'Superman' would remind him to be circumspect. He seemed to have forgotten Perry's existence though.
"Being top banana…it isn't all it's cracked up to be."
"No," she said, somewhere between laughing and crying. "It sure isn't. Partners is better, I think."
"Partners," he whispered. "I should have told you about the Kryptonite."
"Yes, you should have," she murmured. "And I'm going to yell at you for that later…when you're better."
"You rescued me." He sighed, closing his eyes.
"I figured I owed you one."
"I love you, Lois…" It was the barest whisper, and if she hadn't been hovering over him, she'd never have heard it.
Tears pricked her eyes and she leaned forward, her lips just millimeters from his ear. "I love you, too, Clark."
But she wasn't sure if he heard her. When she drew back and looked at his face, she realized he'd slipped into unconsciousness.
Perry took her to the Metropolis Regal Hotel. It didn't have quite as good a reputation as the Lexor, but it had the advantage of not being associated in any way with Lex Luthor. She sent Perry to get her a room and spent the time while he was gone holding Clark's hand and whispering to him.
"Don't you dare die on me, Clark Kent. Don't you *dare*. I've got a few things to say to you, and you're going to listen while I say them, and then I'm going to make you believe them if it's the last thing I do. We're done waiting, do you hear me? So don't you dare die, don't you dare leave me, don't you dare…"
She continued threatening him in that vein, breaking off only when she heard Perry knock on the door.
"I asked for a room we can get to from the side entrance," he told her as he climbed into the driver's seat. "Thought a trip through the lobby would be more attention than we need."
"Good thinking," she said.
Perry drove to the side entrance and parked in the handicapped spot. It would be difficult to get more handicapped than Clark was at that moment, Lois thought. The process of dragging him out of the car roused him only enough that he was able to stand a little with their help. His head lolled drunkenly to one side as they manhandled him into the hotel, then the elevator, and then down the hall to the suite Perry had requested, but when Perry went to settle Clark on the sofa — the nearest possible place — Lois objected.
"No, Perry — put him in the bedroom. Who knows how long he's going to have to sleep this off, and he'll be more comfortable in there."
Perry nodded grimly and did as she suggested, maneuvering Clark through the bedroom door and onto the bed with little grace. "Lois…are you sure he can sleep this off? This man's sick. He needs a doctor."
"No," she said sharply. "He doesn't want…listen, Perry, there's no doctor who knows enough about him or about Kryptonite to help him. He's been exposed before, OK, and the effects wore off after a day or so."
"How do you know that?" Perry asked suspiciously.
<<His mother told me,>> Lois thought hysterically. No, she couldn't say that. "I just know, Perry. Listen…I've got to make a phone call. Could you get him out of his suit? Cover him up? He'd probably rather you do that than me."
Perry nodded but looked less than thrilled at the prospect. Superman was completely unconscious, from the looks of things, and getting him out of the skin-tight suit was going to be difficult.
"Here," Lois said, reaching into her purse and handing Perry some tiny nail scissors she kept in there. "Just cut it off." When Perry looked uncertain she added. "The suit doesn't matter, Perry. We need to get him comfortable."
"All right, honey. You go make your phone call."
With one final glance at Clark, Lois left the room, closing the door carefully behind her before racing to the phone and dialing the Kent's phone number with shaking fingers. Martha answered on the first ring, and seconds later Jonathan picked up another extension.
"It's me," she whispered. "We've got him."
"Oh, thank goodness!" Martha exclaimed.
"How is he?" Jonathan asked.
"It's…not good," Lois admitted, her voice wavering. "He was kept in a cage…a Kryptonite cage. And we almost didn't get there in time."
It took a moment for the Kents' expressions of shock, anger, and concern to sort themselves out into something Lois felt she could answer.
"He's unconscious," she said, "but he talked to me a little when we found him and then in the car on the way here. Perry helped me bring him to the Regal hotel and is trying to make him comfortable in the bedroom. But…I don't know what to do for him. How do I help him?"
"Lois, we'll be on the first plane out," Martha said. "But in the meantime, just let him rest, and if he wakes up try to make him drink something. He was feverish last time, so a cool cloth might help. Just stay with him, honey, and we'll be there as soon as we can."
"Drink something…cool cloth," Lois repeated. "Come straight here, OK? I'm on the fifth floor — room 503."
"As fast as we can," Jonathan promised.
"Thank you," Lois whispered, nearly weeping with gratitude that there were people to whom she could turn for help and support. She put the phone back in the cradle just as Perry came out of her bedroom, his hands full of shredded blue spandex.
"The cape's all right, but I couldn't salvage this," he said, indicating the ruined suit.
"It doesn't matter." Lois took the spandex from his hands and tossed it on the sofa. "Is he still unconscious?"
"Yeah. And I'm no doctor, but I don't see him waking up for a while. Did you make your phone call?"
"Yes. I, uh, talked to Clark," she lied, suddenly inspired. "He's going to come help me take care of Superman, but it may be a while before he can get here. He couldn't believe he'd missed all the excitement."
"Right," Perry said, giving her a skeptical look. "So do you need me to stay 'til he gets here?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. "Like you said, Superman will probably just sleep. Go back and tell the others what happened. They'll be waiting."
"I'm sure." She crossed over and gave Perry a hug. "Thank you, Perry," she whispered. "Thank you for everything you did today."
"You don't have to thank me, darlin'," he answered gruffly, patting her back. "Just take care of that fellow in there. He's a good man."
"Yeah," Lois agreed. She drew away and took a deep, fortifying breath. "Listen, Perry, about what you probably heard in the car…"
Perry held up his hands. "I didn't hear a thing, Lois. I was concentrating on my driving…all that traffic…I had better things to do than listen to a man who was probably delirious anyway."
She nodded, grateful. "Thanks, Perry."
"Call me if you need me. I'll be at Clark's."
She tiptoed into the bedroom, but she could have entered by helicopter for all it mattered to Clark. She was the daughter of a gifted, albeit wacky, physician and a registered nurse, yet none of their medical knowledge seemed to have rubbed off on their elder daughter. Actually, that wasn't true; she simply hadn't been interested enough in sick people to pay any attention to what her parents did for a living. She couldn't tell if Clark was having a revivifying sleep or had drifted into a coma, and panic swelled within her at the thought. She approached the bed and touched her hand to his flushed forehead, wincing at the heat that radiated off of him. His hair had fallen out of it's slicked-back, Superman arrangement during the wrestling match with Perry to remove the suit and was in something closer to Clark's usual style. She knew, looking at Clark lying in the bed, that if Perry had had any doubts going into that hotel room, he couldn't possibly have had them when he'd left. It was something to deal with later, if at all.
She remembered Martha's advice and went to the bathroom to soak a washcloth in cool water. Four clean glasses had been left on the vanity, so she filled one of those as well, wishing she'd sent Perry for ice before he'd left. From the looks of things, Clark wasn't going to be awake enough to drink anything for a while anyway, however, so she decided to let the ice go for the moment, instead filling the ice bucket with water and dropping a second washcloth in before returning to Clark's bedside.
She put her supplies on the bedside table and sat carefully on the bed beside Clark. She wiped gently at his face, over and over, until the washcloth heated up and she had to exchange it for the second one. She fell into a pattern, soothing herself with the rhythm of her ministrations. Starting in the middle of the brow and moving down toward first one temple and then the other. Under his eyes, so bare and vulnerable without his glasses. Then his cheeks, feeling the tug of his whiskers on the terrycloth fabric. Then his parched lips, his chin, and down his neck, always pausing to touch two fingers to the reassuring pulse that thudded there. Upon reaching his clavicle, she exchanged the now-warm washcloth for the fresh one in the ice bucket and started all over again.
She never ventured lower. Perry had left Clark covered lightly with a sheet, and every instinct told her that Clark would want it that way. Her sweet, modest, old-fashioned farmboy, she thought tenderly; he'd been embarrassed that she'd seen pictures of him in the bathtub when he was four. He would hate having her see him like this, hate having her see him so vulnerable.
And Lex had put him in a cage…like an animal, a thing. Had tortured him and rendered him helpless. The sheer rage that inspired nearly took her breath away. Her temper was legendary, but never had she thought herself capable of such stark, unadulterated *hate*. Lex had done the world a favor when he'd thrown himself off the balcony, and nothing and no one would ever convince her otherwise. It wouldn't surprise her to find that Clark was incapable of such uncharitable thoughts, but she'd be bitter enough for the both of them.
She kept at it for more than an hour, until Clark began to sweat — beads of perspiration on his brow, at first, and then steady rivulets that drenched his hair, his pillow, his sheets. She hoped this was a sign his fever was breaking, but she wasn't sure. Once upon a time, Lois Lane would have been repulsed by the sticky sheets and the sour smell of the sweat-soaked body in her care. She wasn't good with sick people, she'd said a hundred times, with a careless little flip of her hand. But this wasn't people, this was *Clark*, and for the first time in her life, she wished she could absorb another person's pain and suffering, take it into her own body and go through it for him. Suddenly, the concept of *loving* someone took on a whole new meaning, and whatever she'd thought it meant before was but a pale shadow of what she felt for the man whose fevered skin she soothed with her hands.
He began to toss his head from side to side and to attempt to push the covers away. Lois tried to keep him covered but was thankful when in the process of rescuing the sheet once again, she caught a glimpse of dark briefs. At least if she wasn't able to keep the sheet over him, his modesty would be somewhat preserved.
"Clark," she said soothingly. "It's all right. You're all right now." She cupped his cheek in her hand and pressed a kiss to his damp forehead. "Try to rest, Clark. It's all right." She said it over and over again, trying to calm him, trying to make it be the truth.
"Hurts," he whispered back.
"I know," she said, laughing and crying at the same time from sheer relief at the sound of his voice. "I'm so sorry, Clark. I wish I could make it better."
"Just…stay," he breathed, and then his eyes drifted shut again and he slipped back into sleep.
Lois woke to the sound of knocking.
She was on the bed, curled on her side holding tight to one of Clark's hands, and she couldn't even remember when she'd relaxed her vigil enough to doze off. Clark was still sleeping, but he was no longer flushed and sweating, and when she pressed a hand to his forehead, his temperature felt normal. His breathing was deep and steady, and even though she knew she needed to get the door, she took a moment just to listen to it, to let herself revel in the soothing sound of Clark sleeping naturally.
The knocking became more insistent, however, so she rolled out of the bed and slipped out of the bedroom. She checked through the peephole to confirm that it was Martha and Jonathan and then threw open the door.
She didn't bother with greetings, instead just telling them the thing they most wanted to hear. "He's better," she said, her voice breaking a little. "He's sleeping, but I think he's better."
"Oh, honey," Martha said, pulling Lois into her arms. "Thank you."
The two women clung to one another as Jonathan dropped the suitcase he'd been holding and moved to hover in the doorway of the darkened bedroom.
"He was really feverish earlier," Lois offered, pulling away from Martha to speak to them both. "And then he was sweating for what seemed like hours. I think he's sleeping normally now, but I haven't been able to get him to drink anything. He probably needs to…he lost a lot of fluid. Should we wake him up, do you think, or let him sleep?"
Martha ventured past her husband to her son's bedside, Jonathan and Lois trailing along behind her. "Let's let him sleep a little longer," she said, unable to keep from reaching out and stroking her son's lank hair. "My poor boy."
"'M'all right, Mom," Clark said without opening his eyes. "Just so tired."
"Oh, Clark," she said, joy and sorrow mingling in her voice. "What can we get you, honey? What can we do? Can you drink some water?"
Clark struggled to open his eyes. "Maybe," he said, squinting up at his mother. "My mouth tastes like something died in it."
"Here, Jonathan," Martha said, thrusting the ice bucket at her husband. "Rinse this, please, and go get us some ice. In the meantime, Clark, we brought some of your things, and I can help you brush your teeth."
"Mom," he complained, "I can brush my own teeth. Just give me a minute to wake up."
"He's going to be a terrible patient," Martha declared. "Comes of never being sick."
"And of being a man," Lois pointed out.
"Oh, that too," Martha agreed.
"You know, Clark and I are both right here," Jonathan said dryly.
"Yes, and I can't imagine why," Martha returned. "You're supposed to be getting ice."
Jonathan and Clark exchanged a look.
"Don't look at me, Dad," Clark said with a weak grin. "I don't have the energy to take on either one of them right now, let alone both of 'em together."
"Smart boy," Jonathan commented, on his way out the door.
Martha rubbed her hands together. "We need some fresh sheets in here, I think. Lois, can you call down to the front desk?"
"Sure, Martha," Lois said, glad to have someone to tell her what to do. She would not soon forget the feeling of being all alone with Clark while he was so sick, knowing that the only people in the world she could call on for help were still hours away. Martha and Jonathan had lived with that feeling for years, she realized, able to turn only to one another with their fears and questions about their extraordinary son. How many times had they been terrified when he'd begun to manifest his powers, when it became clear that his body didn't work like anyone else's? How many times had they wished there was someone to tell them what to do, how to help him?
<<So this is loving Superman,>> she thought wryly, as she reached for the phone. It was a pretty far cry from what she'd imagined only a few days before, but what it lacked in romance, it made up for in depth of feeling. And she had a sneaking suspicion that once Clark was himself again, he'd be no slouch in the romance department. She just had to knock some sense into him first, that was all.
Lois watched with something bordering on awe as petite, blond Martha Kent took charge. She could learn a thing or two from this Kansas farmer's wife, she realized. Martha didn't throw tantrums and never raised her voice, but she had undisputed authority over the men in her life — and over Lois, too, for that matter. Within an hour, she had freshened Clark's room, chivvied Clark into some clothes, and dispatched Jonathan for food.
"Nothing spicy," she ordered. "Deli sandwiches or something like that."
"McAlister's is right around the corner," Lois offered. "They're pretty good. I could go with you…"
"Absolutely not," Martha said. "You've had a long day, and you're not lifting another finger. Go, Jonathan."
Clark, now wearing a t-shirt and sleep shorts his parents had brought him, had been relocated to a corner chair so that his mother could change the fetid, sweat-drenched sheets.
"Clark, I'm finished here." Martha patted the neatly turned-down covers invitingly. "You come get back in bed."
Clark shook his head. "I need a shower first. Brushing my teeth helped, but I still feel disgusting."
"Are you sure? Shouldn't you wait for your Dad to help?"
Clark scowled and glanced quickly in Lois's direction, obviously embarrassed at being babied. "I can still bathe myself, Mom. I'm fine now that the fever has passed. Just tired."
"Well, I don't know about 'fine' but you probably *will* feel better for a shower. I'm going to go lay everything out for you. Lois, look through our things, please, and see if you can find Jonathan's razor and shaving cream." She glanced at her son. "I take it you can't shave the regular way yet?"
Clark shook his head.
"What's the regular way?" Lois asked, pausing in her search through the open suitcase.
"He uses his heat vision," Martha said over her shoulder on her way into the bathroom.
"Used," Clark said quietly, looking down at his hands.
"It's no big deal, Lois," Clark said, cutting her off.
"It must be, or you wouldn't have mentioned it. Your powers came back last time, didn't they?"
"Last time I was only exposed for a few minutes. I think…this may be different. I think Superman may be gone for good."
"But Clark Kent's still here," Lois said softly. "And if I had to choose, I'd pick Clark Kent every time."
He shook his head. "You were right, Lois. I didn't want to admit it, but Superman was a big part of me. And if I've lost that part…I'm not sure I know who I am anymore."
She crossed over to him and put the razor and shaving cream on the side table before kneeling in front of him and taking his hands in hers. "You're Clark Kent," she said firmly, "farm boy from Kansas. And you're Superman, Kal-El of Krypton. And you'll be that person whether the powers come back or not. You think Superman is about what you can do, Clark, but he's not. Superman is about the fact that you choose to do it at all. Kryptonite can't take that away from you."
"But what if you suddenly couldn't be a reporter, Lois? What if that was just gone? What would you do?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "I'd hate it, and I'm sure I'd be miserable to live with while I figured something else out, but I'd just have to, wouldn't I? Would you feel the same way about me if I couldn't write? Or if I was in a wheelchair? Or blind, or whatever?"
"Of course," he said, "and I appreciate what you're saying, but…"
"No buts." She placed her fingers gently over his mouth. "No buts, Clark. It's too soon to say if your powers are gone, but if they are, you'll find some other way to make a difference in the world…because that's just who you are. Whatever happens, we'll deal with it."
He smiled, his lips curving under her fingers. "*We* will?"
"Darn right," she said, stroking his bristly cheek. "We're partners, and I'm planning on us being a lot more than that. I'm in love with you, and I can be pretty determined when I make up my mind about something. So if I were *you*, Clark Kent, I'd forget about all that waiting business and just give in and let yourself love me back."
He caught her hand and kissed the fingers that had been pressed against his lips. "I never stopped," he admitted. "Trying not to love you was a complete waste of effort."
"I told you I loved you in the car on the way here," she said softly. "Do you remember that?"
He shook his head. "No, but I remember you finding me in that cellar…and then taking care of me. Not every minute, of course, but just moments off and on when I woke up and knew you were there. I didn't have to hear the words, Lois. You told me you loved me in a hundred different ways today."
"I was so scared, Clark. I've never been so scared in my whole life. Even when my own life has been in danger…that doesn't even compare. I've never felt that way about anyone before. Loving you is so much…bigger than I ever thought anything could be."
"Stronger than Superman," he said softly, cupping her cheek in his hand, and she was amazed to see that his eyes shone with unshed tears. "I love you, Lois."
She was unable to contain the sheer joy that surged through her at those simple words, and her smile spread across her face. It should have been frightening, being in the grip of something she now realized was as inevitable and uncontrollable as the tides, but she relinquished herself to it without a second thought. "I love you, Clark Kent," she said, meaning the words with her whole heart.
And then he was pulling her closer and his lips were drifting over hers in a gentle whisper of a kiss. He pulled away much too soon, and she sighed with pleasure and regret. "I'm going to make a much better job of that later," he promised breathlessly, "once I'm clean and shaven and my mother isn't trapped in the bathroom."
"Omigosh." Lois's eyes widened. "I completely forgot she was in there."
"My mom's very tactful," he said. "But boy am I going to get an 'I told you so' from her later."
Lois giggled. "Go rescue her. Get your shower. And hurry — I want to get back to the kissing part."
Clark grinned at her. "I like the way you think, Lois Lane."
Clark did feel better after taking a shower and shaving, though he nicked his chin during his shave and stared at the blood on the tissue with what Lois told him was a positively morbid fascination.
"This is only about the third time in my life I've ever seen my own blood," he said defensively.
She snatched the tissue and tossed it into the trash. "Your blood looks just like everyone else's, Clark." She kissed the tip of one finger and touched it gently to the cut on his chin. "There. All better."
"Hurts here, too," he said, pointing to his cheek.
She couldn't discern any injury, but she raised up on tiptoes and pressed her lips obediently to his smooth cheek. "Anywhere else?" she inquired.
"My lips," he said quickly. "They hurt bad."
She raised her eyebrows at him. "You cut your *lips* shaving?"
"I think it was the Kryptonite," he murmured, tugging her closer, his intention obvious. "It does terrible things to the, uh, lips."
His mouth settled over hers, warm and gentle, and Lois melted into his arms. This, then, is what kissing is supposed to be like, she thought dizzily, as the rest of the world seemed to fade away. Why had they ever wasted time doing anything else when they could have been doing *this*? And there was nothing tentative about his touch, nothing timid in the way his lips claimed hers and demanded a response. This was no first-date peck at the door. He kissed her as though it was both his right and his privilege. She'd never felt anything like it in her life.
"Food's here, kids," Martha called, and Clark growled deep in his throat before tearing his lips from hers and pulling away, still keeping her in the circle of his arms.
"Why did you invite them again?"
"Thought you were dying," she said, pressing her forehead to his chest and trying to catch her breath. "Seemed like the thing to do."
"I'm in a hotel suite with the woman I adore, and my *mom* is in the next room," Clark murmured. "There's something very wrong with this scenario."
"They're getting their own room for tonight," Lois said, glancing up at him and trailing one finger down his chest suggestively. "What do you say to that?"
He captured her hand in the vicinity of his belly button and held it in his. "I say again — my mom is very tactful."
She giggled and handed him the eyeglasses Martha had left sitting out on the counter for him. "C'mon, Kent. Let's go eat."
While they ate the sandwiches Jonathan had bought, both Lois and Clark were called on to tell their parts in the day's adventures. Lois had the feeling that Clark glossed over his time in the cage, but she didn't press him about it then, not in front of his parents. There was a haunted look in his eye, however, that told her it had been much worse for him than he was letting on. Later, if he felt like talking about it, she would be there to listen, but if he never wanted to think of it again, that was probably all right, too.
Similarly, she glossed over the nightmarish almost-wedding to Lex Luthor, giving as few details as possible and emphasizing for Clark's sake that she'd backed out at the last minute.
"I would have done it," she said, more to Martha and Jonathan than to Clark, "if I'd really believed that Lex would spare Superman. I'd have done anything I thought would save Clark. But Lex wouldn't have kept his end of the bargain. I doubt he ever even considered it."
"He didn't." Clark shook his head. "He never had any intention of letting me survive. And more than anything, Lois, I didn't want him to get his hands on you. I hope you know that."
"I do," she said softly, giving him the very words she hadn't been able to give Lex. "When it came down to it, I knew I couldn't do it. I knew you wouldn't want me to."
"No," he said, looking at her so tenderly that his parents exchanged an amused and embarrassed glance. "You did good, partner."
"You didn't do so bad yourself." She smiled at him self-consciously. "How in the world did you get out of that cage?"
Clark explained about the key and Luthor's tie, and how with the very last of his super breath he'd finally managed to pull the key close enough to reach it through the bars.
"I was trying to figure out how I was going to climb those stairs and get out of there when I heard you and Perry outside the door. I thought it was Luthor coming back for some reason, and so I hid."
"When I saw that empty cage…" Lois's voice broke and she found she couldn't go on.
"I'm sorry." Clark took her hand. "I'm so sorry I scared you like that."
"I know." She wiped at her eyes with her free hand. "Hiding was the smart thing to do under the circumstances. But what if…"
"Don't." Clark shook his head. "Just don't think about it now."
"Clark's right, honey," Martha said gently. "The worst is over, and we're just so grateful to you for what you did. Don't tear yourself apart thinking of all the things that could have gone wrong."
Lois nodded. "I know you're right. It's just…been a long day, I guess. My emotions are kind of all over the place right now."
"We understand," Jonathan said. "Let's not talk about it any more right now. It *has* been a long day, and I doubt any of us got much sleep last night."
"You're right, Jonathan." Martha began to gather up the remnants of their meal. "We should turn in and let these kids get to bed, too. Clark, honey, you're still looking pale."
"I'm fine, Mom," Clark said automatically, but none of them actually believed him.
Lois joined Martha in cleaning up the mess but paused when there was a sharp knock on the door. Lois glanced at it, startled, and then back at the Kents. "You two maybe should hide in the bedroom," she said, taking care to keep her voice hushed. "I don't know how to explain what you'd be doing here."
Martha and Jonathan nodded without speaking and slipped into the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind them. Lois hurried to toss out the two extra cups that were sitting on the small table.
"Peek through the door," she hissed at Clark, who had stood up when his parents left the room. "See who it is."
He gave her a wounded look. "That's not funny, Lois. You know I can't."
She blinked at him, confused, and then her face cleared as she realized what he meant. "It's called a peephole, Clark," she said as the knock came again. "It's the way people without x-ray vision look through doors."
"Oh." He shot her an apologetic look as approached the door. "Sorry. I'm a little touchy about that I guess."
He lowered his glasses and pressed his eye to the little window somewhat warily, as if he expected it to jump out and poke him. "It's Perry," he said, before flipping the lock on the door and opening it to reveal their former editor. "Hi, Chief. Come on in."
"Clark!" Perry exclaimed, clapping Clark on the back. "You missed all the excitement this morning, son."
"Yeah, sure did," Clark said. "Sorry I didn't tell you about the, uh, thing I had to do out of town. It came up kind of suddenly."
"Yeah, things usually do with you, I've noticed," Perry said. "So how's Superman?"
"He's much better," Lois said. "He was really sick for a few hours, but now he's mostly just tired, I think."
"Just tired," Clark echoed.
"Well, that's just great. I'm awfully glad to hear it," he said. "Listen, I won't keep you kids, but I just came from a meeting with Franklin Stern, and I wanted to tell you about it."
"Franklin Stern of Stern Media?" Lois asked.
"He's the only one I know of," Perry said with a grin. "I went to see him…told him about what Luthor had done to the Planet and suggested that he consider buying it. I told him that a great paper like ours would be the brightest star in the Stern Media galaxy."
Clark grinned. "That's very poetic, Chief."
"I'm a newspaperman, son. It's in my blood."
"So it worked?" Lois said urgently, not the least bit interested in poetry. "He's actually going to buy the Planet?"
Perry beamed at her. "Construction starts next week."
Lois emitted a shriek that under normal circumstances would have ruptured Clark's eardrums, and then she threw herself into his arms. He caught her up in a fierce hug and then she wriggled away and hurled herself at Perry, throwing her arms around him and kissing his cheek for good measure.
Perry laughed. "Well don't be shy, Lois. Tell us how you really feel."
"Lex didn't win," she exulted, pulling away from him. "We beat him! We all beat him. He didn't get me and he didn't kill Superman and he didn't destroy the Planet. We're all still here and he's dead and gone, and…oh, Clark!" She turned to Clark and grabbed his hands. "We get to be partners again. Isn't this just the best news?"
"The second best," he said, his eyes twinkling at her behind his glasses.
"The second best," she agreed, beaming at him.
"Am I allowed to ask about the first?" Perry drawled.
"Nope," Lois answered, looping her arms around Clark's neck and standing on tiptoe to press a kiss to his lips. "Top secret," she said.
"Very hush-hush," Clark agreed, kissing her back with enthusiasm.
"I see," Perry said dryly. "All right you two, just remember when we get back to work that my newsroom ain't the back seat of your daddy's Chevy. Strictly professional, you hear?" He tried to look stern but couldn't quite manage it.
"Aw, who am I kidding," he relented. "I've been pulling for you two for a long time now. Lois, Clark here's been mooning after you for as long as I've known him. The minute he met you it was like he'd been hit between the eyes with a two-by-four."
"I wouldn't say *mooning*, exactly." Clark looked positively mortified.
"Don't worry about it, son. I see things other people miss, but I know how to keep 'em to myself." He paused briefly to let that sink in and then said, "Well, I'd best be on my way. Clark, you staying here tonight?"
"Oh, uh, yeah," he said. "Just in case Superman needs anything."
"Right. OK, I'll hold down the fort for you while you're gone, then. Lois, I bought you some time with Henderson, but he's going to be wanting a statement from you tomorrow, you hear?"
"I'll go see him," Lois promised. "But as soon as he's done with me, Clark and I are going to Kansas."
"We are?" Clark raised his eyebrows at her.
"Yep. I happen to know a terrific couple that lives on a farm there and has been known to take in wayward Metropolitan reporters…along with the occasional cat."
Clark laughed and put his arm around her, tugging her to his side. "If I show up with any more cats, my Dad will disown me, but you seem to have grown on them."
"Well, give 'em my best," Perry said, "and you kids enjoy your vacation. I'm going to expect you back on the beat in a month or so.
"That sounds great, Chief," Clark said. And with a few more words of farewell, Perry left them, and Lois immediately crossed over to the bedroom door to give Martha and Jonathan the all clear.
"We heard the good news!" Martha exclaimed. She and Jonathan were both beaming as they emerged from the bedroom.
"I can't imagine how." Clark grinned in Lois's direction. "Lois took it so calmly."
"Oh, shut up. You wanted to do the same thing and you know it."
"I have never wanted to kiss Perry in my life."
She stuck her tongue out at him.
"Kissing you, on the other hand…"
"On that note," Martha said, holding up her hand and interrupting him with a laugh, "Your father and I are going to turn in." She hugged Clark. "Goodnight, sweetie. I'm so glad you're all right."
"Thanks, Mom," he said, returning her hug. "I love you."
"I love you, too, honey."
She turned to Lois, then, and hugged her, too, and Lois was touched to see Jonathan pull Clark into an embrace. <<What a lot of love there is in this family,>> she thought. And she knew without being told that she was now a part of that. It was an amazing feeling, and the warmth of Martha and Jonathan's hugs stayed with her, even after the door had closed behind them.
"They're incredible," she said to Clark.
"Yes, they are," he agreed, sighing and sinking down into the sofa.
"You look exhausted," she said, touching his cheek gently.
"The day's catching back up with me, I think," he admitted.
"Let's go to bed."
He opened his mouth to speak, closed it, and then tried again. "Lois, just so I know that we're on the same page…"
She grinned at him. "To sleep, Clark. To sleep. I think anything else should wait for a day when we're not quite so exhausted and one of us hasn't nearly died."
Clark's eyes widened in exaggerated horror. "Lois, I don't want to rush you into anything, honey, but if we have to wait for a day when you haven't nearly been killed…that could be years…decades, even."
"Oh, very funny, Kent. Hilarious. Perhaps we need a reminder of just who rescued whom today…and did you just call me 'honey'?"
He gave her a sheepish smile. "I was just trying it out. What do you think?"
"I kinda like it," she admitted. "Almost made me forget about your pathetic attempt at humor."
"I was teasing," he said, pulling her into his lap and kissing her softly. "And you're right. You were the one doing the rescuing today. Thank you."
"You're welcome." She wrapped her arms around his neck. "I'm still planning to yell at you, you know. It's just that you were pretty pitiful today, and now you're distracting me with kisses."
"Well, let's hear it for more of that," he said, lowering his mouth to hers.
It was quite a while before they came up for breath. "Thought you were tired," she murmured.
"I'm never too tired for this," he said, still feathering kisses along her jaw line. "Besides, if that's all that's keeping you from yelling at me…"
She smiled. "We'll save that conversation for another day. Right now, you should get some rest."
He lifted his head and gave her a serious look. "I know I should. I'm tired and weak and I have to use a peephole to see through the door. I *should* rest. But I don't want to, Lois. I love this…us…being here together like this."
"I'm not going anywhere, Clark," she promised, stroking his cheek. "Just into the bedroom to sleep."
"With me," he said, as if to clarify the point.
"With you," she assured him.
"That," he breathed, "may be the most amazing thing I've ever heard anyone say." His eyes seemed to catch fire as he looked at her, and she felt an answering flare of arousal that made her breath catch in her throat.
"I think…we have a lot to look forward to," she said, surprising herself with the blatant desire she could hear in her voice.
"Oh, yeah," he growled, pulling her to him for one more hungry kiss. He pulled away, however, before things could get out of hand. "I'll be good," he murmured, "even though I don't want to be."
"Soon," she promised. "We still have some things we need to talk about…but soon. Right now you should rest, and I'd kind of like to take a shower. I feel pretty gross."
"You look beautiful to me," he said, and the amazing thing was that she knew he meant it. She would always look beautiful to him, no matter what the circumstances, just as he would always be her hero, whether or not he could fly.
"I love you," she whispered, once again overcome by emotion.
"Oh, honey…" He pulled her close, and hugged her as if he'd never let her go.
After her shower, Lois came to bed dressed in one of Clark's t-shirts, and his eyes nearly started from his head when he caught his first glimpse of her.
"This is *not* going to be easy," he said, as she slid in next to him. "Maybe I should take the sofa."
Lois waggled her eyebrows at him. "See something you like, Farmboy?"
"Mmmm." His hand quested beneath the covers and made a daring foray along the outside of her thigh. "You could say that."
It was her turn to stare when he shifted onto his side and the covers slid down to his waist, exposing his broad, muscular chest to her view. It was all right to look now, she told herself. He wasn't sick anymore; he was her boyfriend, and he was…good grief…he was absolutely *gorgeous*. She let her hand drift over his chest, a pristine expanse of honeyed flesh that was now hers to explore.
"See something you like?" he teased, smiling down at her.
"I'd have to be dead for a year not to like this," she said, giving him an exaggerated leer, and then they both dissolved into giggles.
Exhausted as they were, they couldn't seem to fall asleep right away. The strangeness of being in bed together for the first time combined with the effort that went into battling their hormones left them both feeling too keyed up to go right to sleep. The lure of pillow talk was just too seductive, so they continued to talk and laugh and tease each other until finally, Lois noticed the lines of fatigue around Clark's eyes, and the reminder of what he'd been through that day sobered her.
"You look so tired." She stroked his hair back from his forehead, not because it needed it but because she couldn't resist touching him. Now that she'd been granted that freedom, her hands just seemed to wander in his direction, the little touches and caresses reassuring herself that he was there, he was alive, he was hers to love.
"I *am* tired," he admitted, curling on to his side and propping his head in his hand. He apparently sensed her change in mood because he, too, turned serious. "Do you really want to go to Kansas?"
"I really do. I think we both need a few days of peace and quiet."
"And Mom's cooking." A small smile touched his lips.
"Mmmm," she agreed.
"What happened today is going to be the biggest news story in a decade. Do you really want to leave now?"
She sighed and rolled onto her back, staring up at the ceiling. "Part of me doesn't," she admitted. "But the other part knows that I'm too close to this one to write it up objectively, and there are too many parts of the story I hope are suppressed, for one reason or another. That feels…strange, not to want to tell the whole truth about a story. I'm not quite sure how I feel about that yet."
"Yeah," he said softly. "Tell me about it."
"I guess you've had to get used to that, huh?"
He shook his head. "I've never gotten used to lying."
"It's not lying, Clark. It's just not telling the whole truth. There's a difference. It's just kind of new territory for me, that's all."
"What are you going to tell Henderson tomorrow?"
"I'm not sure yet. I don't want to tell him or anyone else anything about what happened to Superman, but at the same time, that cage needs to be destroyed. Henderson can be a pain in the neck, but he's one I'd trust with something like that. And Perry will be giving evidence, too. It's going to come out, one way or another, if it hasn't already. If we're lucky, Henderson will agree with us that the public shouldn't know about Kryptonite."
"Then again, it might not matter anymore," Clark pointed out softly.
She reached out and touched the tiny cut on his chin. "Clark…"
"I know. I'm obsessing, aren't I?"
"No. I can't pretend to know what you're going through, but I do understand enough to know that it would be hard to lose that part of yourself. And I would miss him, too. I love Superman, you know. Always have."
"I know. I'm sorry I discounted your feelings for him."
"And I'm sorry I hurt you that day in the park…and then later in my apartment. We've both made a lot of mistakes, and we'll probably make more. Or at least I will. I don't have any experience at being in love. I'll probably be a terrible girlfriend."
He smiled and pulled her closer. "You'll still be the only girlfriend for me, no matter how terrible you are. I've searched the world over, Lois — literally — and there's only you. I hope that's not too much to tell you before we've even had our first date, but I'm through lying to you. I want this to be forever."
"Oh, Clark." She tipped her face up and kissed him softly. "That's definitely not too much to say. I want this to be forever, too, if you'll have me. And you know, we're in bed together before our first date. I think we should just take it as read that we're not going to do any of this in the right order. That doesn't mean it isn't right."
"No, it doesn't mean that at all," he said softly, stroking her hair. "This has been a day full of miracles, Lois, and this…" he gestured at the two of them, nestled together in the tumbled bed, "this is the most amazing one of all. I love you so much."
"I love you, too," she said, making no attempt to hide the tears his tender words had brought to her eyes.
And then with one final kiss, she fitted herself into the strong curve of his body, heaved a deep sigh of contentment, and relaxed into sleep.
"Lois, you *promised*!" Clark exclaimed, outraged, as he surveyed the scene before them.
"Oh, sure! You don't remember me saying 'I love you' for the first time, but you remember *that*."
"You bet I do! No kittens, you said."
"You were *dying* for all I knew, and Perry was in the front seat listening to every word. I wasn't about to have an argument about some ugly old shirt."
"So yes, I promised," she went on, "because I wanted to stop you talking about kittens — which isn't all that Superman-ish — and I wanted to make you feel better, and I would have *kept* my promise except that I kind of forgot about your stupid shirt while I was busy trying to keep you alive."
Clark wasn't petty enough to argue with that, but he still looked glum as they watched the mother cat and her four tiny kittens, which were suckling vigorously atop the ruins of his shirt. "It's all bloody and covered with…*stuff*," he said, peering at it with obvious distaste.
Lois laughed at him. "You're a farm boy! You're not supposed to get grossed out by the miracle of life."
"It's a *wheat* farm, Lois. There are no bodily fluids involved in growing wheat. And I'm only grossed out by the miracle of life when it happens directly on top of my clothing."
"I will buy you another shirt," she promised, slipping an arm around his waist. "The ugliest shirt I can find. I'll even throw in an ugly tie, though I'm not sure I can top the ones you already have."
"The shirt has to be flannel," he said grudgingly, pulling her closer and nobly ignoring the dig at his ties.
"Of course," she said. "And I'll wash it a thousand times and put a few holes in it before I give it to you."
"No, don't," he said. "You can't rush these things. Every hole and stain has its own memory. It'll take years to get it just right."
She shook her head. "You are a strange one, Clark Kent."
He grinned at the memory her words evoked. "But you think you've figured me out?"
"I'm getting there," she said smugly. "It's my job, you know…seeing beyond the external."
"Don't be so sure, Ms. Lane. I might have a few tricks up my sleeve."
"Oh yeah? Like what?"
"Like this," he said, and he wrapped both arms around her and lowered his mouth to hers. No sooner had she fallen into the magic of his kiss than she felt the ground drop out from under them. When she opened her eyes, they were hovering just inches below the rafters of the two-story barn, and Clark was grinning at her, clearly pleased with himself.
"Neat trick, Farmboy," she said. "Is this how you got the girls into the hayloft when you were in high school?"
"Nope," he murmured, bending to kiss her again. "Couldn't fly 'til I was eighteen." Another kiss. "In high school…" he trailed kisses down her neck "…I had to use the ladder like everyone else."
"Ladders are boring," she said breathlessly, as he gently traced the v-shaped neckline of her t-shirt with one finger.
"I'm glad you think so," he whispered, and then he claimed her lips in a kiss that seared her soul. At the same time, he somehow managed to navigate them into the hayloft and, with minimal fumbling and only a few giggles, to lower her down into the hay and cover her body with his own.
<<Superman's back,>> she thought dimly, with the tiny part of her brain that was still capable of rational thought. <<And I'm making out with him in a hayloft.>> It shouldn't have made any sense at all, but as he moved over her, pleasuring her with his mouth and his hands, showing her that he loved her with every touch, it made more sense than anything in her life ever had.
He was Kansas and Metropolis and Krypton all rolled into one. He was flannel shirts and wild ties and blue spandex. He was scuffed Nikes and shiny wing tips and red boots. He was Clark Kent and Superman…and wherever he was, whatever he was wearing, when she was with him, she was home.