Seven Seconds

By bakasi <>

Rated: GP

Submitted: January 2007

Summary: When Lois accepts Luthor's proposal, Clark's world is gone for broke. Unfortunately, Lois is clueless as to why Clark can't accept her choice. She desperately wants to know why Clark hates Lex so much. Lois confronts Luthor and gets quite an interesting answer.

Author's note: Thanks a lot to my wonderful beta-reader Classicalla. When I first introduced the storyline to her, she wasn't quite convinced. I was devastated at first, because I just couldn't change my idea in a way that we both could live with. So I had to either search for another beta, or rework my story. I decided to do the latter, which resulted in Lex Luthor giving Lois a slightly different (and much better, I think) explanation for Clark's hate. We both considered this as much better a story and I really hope that you, dear reader, will enjoy it.

Usual disclaimers apply: I don't own the characters of this story. It's simply written for fun.



{*I do not want to see myself

As someone that you saved

I'd rather be your adversary

Than to be your slave*}

(a-ha — Don't do me any favours)

Lois saw Lex staring at his empty hands in disbelief. His eyes looked over to the abandoned railing, and Lois followed this gaze. She had felt panic before, but now she feared that she was going to pass out any moment. The understanding of what had just happened sank in slowly, dissipating the haze in her mind. The railing seemed to be bare, missing something now that Clark wasn't standing there anymore. He was falling! Her Clark was falling down to the streets of Metropolis with nothing to stop him but the hard ground!

Clark is going to die, her conscious screamed. No, she thought, he wasn't. Clark couldn't die. The mere thought was impossible to bear. She didn't want to accept that things could be over in just a moment. Clark was too young; how could this be happening? How? She didn't even hear him scream and no sounds of panic filled the air, not even hers. She had opened her mouth but no noise would come out. What should she do? Panic went through her head. But suddenly her usual reaction to danger kicked in before she had consciously decided what to do.

"Superman! Superman! Superman!" she screamed as loud and powerfully as she could.

Again and again she cried out the name of the hero. She had done it so many times, always for herself, because she had yet again managed to get in danger. This was the first time she cried because someone else was in trouble. But why did it have to be Clark in such a dangerous situation? Was Superman in the city tonight? No red and blue flash appeared. How long did it take to fall down about 1000 feet? Was it already too late? Her panic increased.

She hadn't heard a thud, yet. But did that mean anything? Weren't the streets down below too noisy? Didn't they cover the sound? She kept crying for the hero, hoping that he would fly to her and tell her that nothing had happened to Clark, that he was perfectly fine.

*Let him be okay, please let him be okay,* Lois prayed silently. She knew that she was asking for a miracle, but she kept praying and screaming. She didn't want to lose him. Her heart felt like being stuck in ice, unable to move. Any warmth that had ever filled it was vanishing, falling down 1000 feet into nothingness.

Seconds passed that seemed like an eternity. Superman was nowhere to be seen, no single fibre of his suit. Was he already flying away with Clark? Or had what seemed to be so impossible to her now really happened? Had Clark's life found a sudden and violent end? With every passing second that was more and more likely. She closed her eyes as if it would help to shut out reality. Breathing had become so difficult. Lois didn't want to breathe, not now that she feared that her partner wasn't going to ever again take a breath. Her love had perished, she admitted silently.

"No, please, no," Lois whispered under her breath, getting more and more desperate. Never had she felt this helpless. She couldn't do anything but stare into the dark abyss. She had to accept the cruel truth, but every fibre of her being resisted acknowledging it. She opened her eyes again with the futile hope of seeing Superman finally, but he wasn't there. Lois was paralyzed. She stared helplessly at the dark blue sky, but couldn't see anything but a few blinking stars. She shivered with fear and shock until darkness surrounded her comfortingly. She didn't hear anything, didn't feel anything and stopped thinking anything.


Chapter 1

{*Come back my darling one,

I'm calling on you,

The road ahead is long,

And I must warn you*}

(a-ha — Analogue)

*3 days earlier*

Clark was freezing for maybe the first time in his life. It wasn't the cold air of the arctic that sent shivers through his body. The icy grip of fear had gotten hold of him. She had accepted Luthor's proposal. Lois had said yes! This was the worst nightmare he could ever think of. He had feared just that for some time now but hadn't actually assumed that things would become so bad. Had he really been that naive? It couldn't be! It couldn't be because it mustn't be? What a fool he was!

Hours ago she had rejected him, and that still hurt like hell. He had had his revenge, though, Clark thought bitterly. He had lied to her about his feelings towards her, when he met her as Superman. His reaction seemed so childish now, so unreasonable and so totally unasked for. Why had he done that? He should have been better than this. He should have been wiser than this.

But Clark knew all-too well, why he had done it: because of his own damn ego. Superman was him; he was Superman. It was plain and simple as that, but his ego refused to accept it, always musing that he was only Clark with a suit as a disguise. It didn't matter who of the two Lois loved, since they were one and the same person. That was the reasonable side of him, but his ego had another opinion. He should love and cherish her, like she deserved it, regardless if it was Superman or Clark she paid more attention to. In fact he had assigned all his love and affection to his Clark persona, totally ignoring that Superman had to feel the same. And he had expected that Lois would see through his mist of deceit and make the favoured decision. How could he be that ignorant?

He couldn't remain silent about his identity, anymore. Lois had to learn his secret sooner rather than later. Would Lois still want Superman, when she knew that he was in fact Clark? Maybe she couldn't imagine living together with Clark. Hadn't she just told him this earlier? He could also become Superman full time, for Lois' sake. If she wanted the hero, she could have him. He could kill Clark and never speak about him again.

Clark noticed that he was trying to kid himself. He couldn't easily stop being someone he had been his entire life and become someone who had only existed for about a year now. Superman didn't have parents; he didn't have friends apart from Lois. He shared a flat with a reporter — a reporter who earned the money for him. He even shared parts of his personality with that reporter. If he stopped being Clark, would that also mean he had to give up parts of his identity? How one-dimensional was Superman? And how real would he become if he existed alone? Would Superman be the same person when he wasn't a part of Clark anymore?

Was he getting psychotic? He thought about himself as if he were two persons. This wasn't a good idea and his mother would definitely tan his hide for such thoughts. Then again, maybe she wouldn't. After all, 'tanning his hide' would probably cause her more physical pain than it would cause him. Restlessly Clark paced through the cold wind of the arctic.

If he became Superman and killed Clark, he would have to depend on Lois. A man shouldn't rely on a woman to feed him if it wasn't inevitable. Okay, actually he could do without food, and he would probably still need clothing even though that would probably only consist of Superman suits. He had often said to himself that without the suit, he was just Clark. But sometimes it would *have* to come off — some activities just couldn't be accomplished with it on. And what would happen when he *had* to take the suit off? Would he revert to 'just Clark' again. Would he never be able to wear regular clothing again? Would he be stuck in the Superman suit until he died? The mere thought disgusted him.

Lois had asked Clark if Superman's outfit came off. Well, it did come off, but the man underneath it wasn't Superman anymore then. He shook his head. This was so ridiculous; of course he remained Superman when not wearing the suit. Getting rid of the hero wasn't as simple as taking his clothing off. Otherwise Lex Luthor would have found a way to strip his enemy. A brief smile flashed across his face at the thought, but it vanished almost immediately.

Clark felt so sad, so tired of thinking about his problem. He should have known from the beginning that Lois was going to throw herself at Luthor, when she couldn't get Superman. She had mentioned the billionaire's proposal soon enough for him to realize that Lois was walking on dangerous ground.

He had tried to save her as Clark, but that average guy couldn't save people so easily. For the first time in his short life Superman had refused to do the rescuing. Why? He should have been wise enough to recognize this as a mistake that would lead to a catastrophe.

Clark was so darn good at seeing the mistakes of the people around him, but he was awfully blind concerning his own. Clark covered his face with his hands and let out a moan of pain that intensified slowly, growing into a growl. After the growl it became a howl, escaping from the depth of his being.

He had howled earlier because of pain and despair. But now it was more than despair. His feelings were beyond any words of explanation. His cry was a weak attempt to express the pain, but it couldn't convey half of it. The pain was torturing him and refused to pass. But while Clark prayed for relief, he feared that his pain was the last link between Lois and him. When he allowed it to fade, he would have lost her forever.


Lois glanced at her ring. The diamond was sparkling brightly and filled her apartment with a strangely cold light. It didn't reach her heart. Would a ring from Superman look just as impersonal? Did she really want to marry Lex? What would it be like to be Mrs. Superman instead?

Mrs. Superman. It sounded strange. She whispered the name, but that didn't make it any better. It wasn't his real name, anyway. So she might keep her name then. What would she call him? Superman? Honey? Darling?

Could she call Superman, Honey? The thought was somehow ridiculous. But it didn't matter, anyway. They weren't going to have a future. He had told her so. Thinking about it, she really didn't know him too well. Where did he sleep, for example? Did he actually need sleep?

Forget Superman, she told herself. He had practically accused her of being dishonest concerning her feelings for him. How could he think that? Maybe Superman wasn't that perfect after all. But she still felt the longing in her heart. Lex might be the second best choice, but if the first choice wasn't available, Lex would be best for her.

She would have liked to talk to someone right now. But she couldn't think of any person who would listen. She couldn't go to Clark. He would be the best choice, but he wasn't available anymore. Part of this was her fault, she thought bitterly. Telling her mother about her lovesickness was a downright weird idea. She was experienced with divorce and marital arguments, but that wouldn't help Lois.

Lois sighed. She felt that her friendship with Clark was breaking apart, and she didn't even know the reason. That depressed her more than anything. She had lost friends before, but she had known why. It had been because of a new part of their life, or because she wasn't seeing them in school anymore. Or they had had a bad argument about boys or their view of life.

With Clark it was different. There was no argument she could blame for this. He just couldn't accept that she was going to marry Lex. He hated him but had told Lois no good reasons why. She still heard him growling, "Get into bed with the devil."

That had been all, no explanation why he called Luthor a devil. She had never thought of him as being able to say things like that, anyway. He was always so shy. Something had to really bother him about Lex.

Maybe it was jealousy. Clark had claimed to be in love with her, but he might be jealous of the rich man he had to compete with. But there weren't any competitions, Lois thought sadly. She liked Clark as a friend, but she didn't love him. She had tried to break it to him gently. Why had he refused to accept this? He kept being mean instead, accusing her of being shallow.

Get in bed with the devil. He could just as well have said that she was a prostitute. Marrying Lex was not only about finding a bed mate. Men didn't understand that, but she had never considered Clark to be like the other men she knew. She felt now that she may have been mistaken about that.

Why on earth couldn't Clark accept that Lex would make her happy? Why did he begrudge her this life? Jealousy couldn't be the whole reason, could it? Maybe she should ask Lex if Clark was refusing to tell her something. She was an investigative reporter for Heaven's Sake. Who could stop her from finding out? The time of day could stop her, Lois realized. She didn't know about Lex's sleeping habits, but she was pretty sure that he didn't want to be called in the middle of the night.

She was sitting on her bed, unable to sleep. She kept looking at her ring. Lois wasn't tired, not really. Her thoughts kept her busy, but her back was aching and so she sank down in her pillows. Lois closed her eyes, more because of habit than the need to sleep. After several hours she finally drifted to sleep.


Lois was dressing herself in something long, black and silky. She looked in the mirror and liked what she saw. Her hair was just as it should be. It was soft and slightly curly. Her skin was a bit tanned, her cheeks were rosy and neither too flushed nor too pale. The dress was tight where it was supposed to be tight. The neckline was low cut and emphasized certain assets without being embarrassingly exaggerated. It was modest and elegant. Her lips had a soft tone of rose and looked very tempting, even to her own eyes. Lois smiled at the mirror, when she heard a knock at the door.

Lois turned away from her reflected image and went over to the door of her apartment. She opened it and saw Clark's smiling face.

"Good evening, my love." He bent forward and kissed her softly but passionately.

His tongue brushed over her lips for a moment but withdrew again and left her longing for more. She invited him in. Clark followed her into her apartment and suddenly had a red rose in his hands.

"For you, darling. But I have to say, this night, that your beauty makes the rose pale in comparison," he said softly.

"Thank you, Clark." She kissed him again, briefly but intensely and led him in the living room where she had prepared the table for an extraordinary candle-light dinner. Three candles were lit and their warm, glowing light filled the room. The silverware glistened and the candles reflected in the wine glasses.

They sat down at the table and started dinner. Lois didn't even notice what she was eating, she just looked at Clark, drinking in his heart melting smile. He was telling her something amusing and Lois laughed. But she only had eyes for this fascinating man. She saw his lips and his dark brown eyes that gave her such a loving glance. She felt light-hearted and happier than she had been for years. Being with Clark was so comforting, so safe.

When they had finished the dinner, he took her hand and invited her to dance with him. He held her tightly against his warm and firm body. Lois felt the heat between them, and she leaned her head against his strong chest and Clark placed a kiss on her hair. Then he trailed kisses down to her forehead, her nose and finally her lips. His mouth felt warm and silky on her lips.

His tongue slid against her lips, and she opened her mouth. She welcomed his flickering tongue with her own and felt him caressing hers softly. He stroked her back and her arms with his hands and…


Lois woke up suddenly and felt a little drowsy. What had that dream been about? She had been dancing with Clark? Somehow she still felt him touching her. It had been so pleasant and comforting. But Clark? She dreamed of Superman and was going to marry Lex. Clark wasn't part of this game. She didn't love him. Maybe she had dreamt this because of his declaration.

Her mind was mixing things together that didn't make sense. She shook her head and sank back into her pillows. But Lois noticed that the kiss she had dreamt affected her more than she was ready to admit. She relived the memory over and over again, though she tried hard to avoid the thought of kissing Clark. Lois closed her eyes and drifted away again.


*2 days earlier*

Lex Luthor woke up slowly. It had been a good night, granted by the knowledge of his victory. He had placed the ring on Lois' hand. Now he needed to tie her to him forever. He had to do that carefully. Lois liked her freedom and that was one of the reasons why it was so challenging for him to trap her.

Someone had said it this way: Put a frog into hot water, and he will jump out of it right away. Put him into cold water, and heat it slowly and he will wait until he's boiled. This was the right recipe to get Lois Lane.

She had to feel admired but safe, desired but respected, but what was most important was that she needed to think that she was the one in control. If Lois noticed the trap he was going to catch her in, she would be dangerous to him. After all, she was still the best reporter in Metropolis. If she got the slightest hint that he wasn't the gentleman he claimed to be, she would hunt him down until he went to prison.

Getting Lois was playing with fire, was walking a tightrope. The implied danger made it exciting. Lois must not get aware of the changes in her life. He had to be careful until the day she was chained to him and completely at his mercy. She would be only able to breathe when she had his permission.

But there was still an awful lot of work to do. Two enemies had the power to take her away from Lex. Being her fiance wasn't secure enough, yet. He needed to await their marriage to be sure that she was really his.

Superman was one of those foes. As much as Lex liked the challenge, the hero was going to interfere with his plans. He had finally outstayed his welcome. Lex had already taken care of this special problem. The trap for Superman was prepared.

The other enemy was somehow a surprise to Lex. Despite all his efforts, Kent had never bought the rich philanthropist Lex pretended to be. Usually he wouldn't consider the average human being as an enemy. They were inconveniences at best. But the strange thing about Kent was that he noticed what everyone including Lois ignored.

Though Lois was the best reporter in town, he was still able to fool her. With Kent, on the other hand, Lex had always felt exposed. Kent had shot him those intense, knowing glances. He had to get rid of that guy. Killing him wouldn't be the best way, though. Lex felt that he would need this man to intensify his influence on Lois.

She had mentioned Clark several times, complaining that she did miss her partner and friend. Kent wanted obviously more than friendship with Lois. Lex had seen the loving and worshipping look in the eyes of that fool. Lois was just perfect at ignoring it, but that didn't leave Kent harmless. Lois needed Kent and if Lex broke her contact with him too abruptly, he might lose Lois.

But he needed Kent incapable of being a potential lover and a future pursuer. At the moment, Kent remained silent and left the hunting of Lex Luthor to Superman. When Lex killed Superman, Clark Kent couldn't rely on the hero any more. Perhaps he would get active on his own then. Lex wouldn't allow him that.

But how exactly was he going to make Kent his personal lap dog? Lex Luthor was just enjoying plan making, when his telephone rang.

"Lex? How amazing," Lois said. "This must be about the first time that I didn't need to deal with your public relations for hours, just to get to you."

"Things have changed since yesterday, Lois, my darling." Lex laughed.

"Lex, I need to know why Clark hates you so much," Lois asked, getting to the point directly.

"I see, this is not going to be a conversation about sweet little nothings," Lex replied, pretending to be disappointed. In fact, he had never liked any question better than this. It provided him with the reason to fill her in with the biggest lies he had ever told.

"Don't change the topic, Lex," Lois answered with a hint of annoyance in her voice.

"Lois, I…" Lex hesitated in order to increase her longing to hear his lie. He wanted her to become less sceptical than she usually was.

"Lex!" Lois reminded him impatiently to go on.

"I'd rather not talk about it," he said hoarsely. He gave his voice an extra soft touch, inviting her to dig further. Would he have spoken with her in his normal manner, she would have been scared away by the sharpness in his words.

"Lex, please, I need to know the reason. Clark doesn't tell me. He accuses you of not showing the world your real face, but he doesn't say what he thinks is the truth."

He had caught her in his trap. She couldn't blame him for telling her deliberate lies. She had forced him to do so. He smiled inwardly, but exercised care in using his best sad voice. He sighed into the receiver, making her notice that he was giving in involuntarily.

"I have kind of betrayed Clark a long time ago." He let out another sigh to emphasize his sadness. "I'm not proud of it and I wish I could undo that. I've asked him for forgiveness so often. But heaven knows that he cannot forget it." Lex placed a pause there, giving the words time to sink in. He waited until Lois said something.

"Oh my! What has happened, Lex?" Lois inquired with a trembling voice.

"Clark and I met years ago, when he was still living in Smallville and writing for a local newspaper. One of my companies that was close to the town needed may attention. Clark wanted to publish a few articles about the company and me. I agreed and we met so that he could interview me," Lex said.

"I didn't see any interviews with you in the last couple of years when I was researching for the interview with you, Lex," Lois mentioned, sounding doubtful.

"Well, it was never actually published. I don't know what excuse Clark found to hide it from his editor." Lex tried to sound as uneasy as possible. "When I worked in Smallville, I met an incredible woman there and fell in love with her."

"And Clark loved her, too?" Lois asked.

Lex harrumphed, pretending to be embarrassed. "Yes, she was and still is his wife."

"What?" Lex could hear her confusion and surprise.

"She didn't tell me that she was married. I was so blind then. I guess she liked playing in the neighbour's yard. When Clark noticed that something was going on, she told him that I tried to seduce her. She cried heart wrenchingly and said that it was all my fault. She clung to him, pleading him to save her from me. When it came to it, Clark chose to believe his wife rather than me. I can't blame him," he said these words hoarsely as if he were fighting tears.

"See you later, Lex," Lois whispered and hung up.


Everything tossed and turned inside her head. How could Clark be married? He had never ever mentioned a wife. Or had he? They had spoken about being married briefly, when she had asked him what he would tell his wife when she looked ghastly. Had he really used the subjunctive? She wasn't so sure anymore.

Why had he claimed that he loved her when he already had a wife? Did he, too, like to play outside? Had his wife betrayed him once too often, so that he had stopped caring about the vows? Did he need her, Lois, as an excuse to get divorced, finally? But family meant so much to him; she had seen that in Smallville.

Neither Clark nor his parents had shown any sign that there was another woman in his life. Hadn't they offered that she and Clark should sleep in the same room? They surely didn't think that Clark was immune to seduction, did they?

Lois was confused and everything inside her revolted against believing Lex. But then, there were all those strange things about Clark. There were his frequent disappearances with rather lame excuses. And was he really so tidy or why didn't his apartment look like a copy of Jimmy's? They were both supposed to be bachelors, weren't they? Well, unless Clark wasn't.

*You have no proof,* a small voice in the back of her mind whispered. *You have absolutely no proof for Clark being married.* The voice belonged to Lois, the investigative reporter. Lois often listened to that voice and it was rarely wrong. The disadvantage was that it made her walk on dangerous ground frequently.

*You have the word of an honourable man,* replied the trusting Lois. It was just the Lois she sometimes wished to be. This Lois was able to relax when safe and strong arms embraced her. This Lois loved Superman, admired Lex Luthor and felt at ease with Clark, the rock, who offered her shelter in the stormy sea of life.

Lois disliked both answers, because the two Lois's kept arguing with each other. Lois the investigative reporter had been stronger for years now. She was experienced with winning fights.

But this time the inner battle ended with a compromise. Lois the investigative reporter had wanted to address Clark directly. She wouldn't let him escape without a satisfying answer. The trusting Lois had feared to offend either Clark or Lex. They had agreed that a marriage needed documents. If Clark was indeed married, there had to be a paper to proof that.

After she had made this decision, Lois considered the two possibilities. She didn't think about the likelihood of each, she just filled them with life.

The first assumption meant that Clark had a wife and Lois didn't know her. Where did his wife live? In Metropolis? It would be the usual way for a couple to live in the same city. So maybe they shared Clark's apartment. But Lois assumed that this wasn't the case. She had been there often. Unless Clark's wife was invisible it would be strange that she never happened to be there.

Another important question was why Clark had kept his marriage a secret. Was he afraid of not getting enough love affairs if everyone knew that he had a wife? Lois had seen him rejecting Cat. She couldn't imagine that someone who looked for sex would do that. Cat didn't care if her bed mates were married. No, Lois thought, Clark just wasn't such a man.

Maybe his wife embarrassed him because she had some kind of mental illness or whatever. But was that really his way of dealing with problems? Lois didn't know; she rather thought that was wrong. But extreme situations brought out the best or the worst character traits.

Maybe Clark was even forced to keep his marriage a secret. Maybe his wife wanted to betray him more easily. But why didn't he escape her then? Did he disappear so frequently because she was controlling every step he took? Was his declaration of love a cry for help? The mere thought made Lois regret her rejection instantly.

But there was also the other possibility. Lex was lying. But why? Because he had something to hide as Clark kept saying?

Lois couldn't really see the point in telling her that Clark was married when he really wasn't. Why should someone tell her a lie that was so easily proven wrong to hide anything? On the other hand, Lex's explanation for Clark's hate sounded so logical.

There was again the trusting Lois speaking. It didn't help to consider what was wrong or right. Lois needed proof.


When Clark woke up in the morning, he didn't remember having returned to his apartment. But somehow he had managed to get there and was lying in his bed. He was still wearing the suit. Obviously he hadn't cared too much about undressing himself. That wasn't really astonishing since he didn't really care about anything.

The apartment seemed darker than it ever had before. Everything, including the colours of his suit, was less bright. Of course, this was just his imagination. Clark knew that. He didn't feel like getting up; he didn't feel like doing anything but mourning the loss of Lois. This seemed like more than enough to do for the coming days. She had been the most precious thing in his life. Tears weren't enough to express his feelings.

He had lost her. *Lost Lois, lost Lois,* the thought resounded in his head. But unlike an echo, it didn't fade away but grew even more intense with every repetition. Clark seemed to drown in his misery; he was aware that it was his fault that he had lost her. If he hadn't rejected her, he wouldn't feel so lousy now. Would this be an ever present pain, or would he learn to live with it, someday?

At the moment it seemed more likely to last forever. And he couldn't help but feel that he had perfectly deserved that for exposing Lois to Luthor. He hadn't saved her, and he didn't know how he ever could, now that she had accepted the proposal. He had let her down. She might never have asked for his support and protection, but he had known that she relied on him.

*Lost Lois, lost Lois, lost Lois,* his conscience repeated the mantra mercilessly until an ear shattering knock on the door caused Clark to jump out of his bed. He clutched his hands to his head involuntarily as someone knocked again.

Clark let out a moan of pain; his head felt like someone had placed a knife in it. He tried to re-collect his senses to control his powers. Since he was out of bed, he could also see who was trying to contact him so violently. He spun out of his suit and grabbed his glasses.

Clark wasn't dressed accurately. His shirt was turned inside out; his trousers still gaped open, and he hadn't shaved for more than twenty-four hours. His hair was a mess with remnants of hair gel in it in an attempt to wear it in Clark style. Another knock on his door didn't hurt Clark anymore; his hearing was under control now. That was about the only thing he managed to control these days, he thought grimly.

"Hey, C.K., I'm starving. You don't wanna see me die from hunger right in front of your door, do you? The cops will ask questions. Open up, big guy!" Jimmy complained after having waited a long time.

Clark had seen him with his x-ray vision, and he opened the door, greeting his friend monosyllabically.

"C.K., you look awful. What's the matter with you?" Jimmy asked when he entered the apartment.

Clark closed the door behind him and didn't reply. He descended the stairs and walked mechanically into his kitchen. What had he wanted in the kitchen? He barely remembered. Jimmy wouldn't stop talking, asking questions or anything. Clark didn't listen. He hated himself for it, but he just couldn't concentrate on his friend. He answered with yes, no or maybe to Jimmy's words, hoping that they would fit in, somehow.

Suddenly Jimmy tapped on his shoulder. Clark awoke from his own sad thoughts.

"What?" he asked confused.

"Clark, you didn't listen to a word I said. I have just asked you if we were going to hunt us a zebra, and you said 'yes'. What is eating you?" Jimmy wanted to know.

"I'm sorry, Jimmy. I didn't mean to be so unfriendly," Clark said unhappily.

"So what's bothering you, bud?"

"Lois is going to marry Lex Luthor," Clark replied.

"Great shades of Elvis. Does he know what to expect?" Jimmy said wryly. Then he became serious again. "If Lois thinks that he'll make her happy, then I guess we should be okay with it."

"You think Luthor will make her happy? He's most definitely the worst imaginable choice as a husband," Clark exclaimed.

"Do I hear jealousy? Clark, I know she's a great woman. It's hard to see the rich, good looking guys win, but you have to accept her choice," Jimmy said.

"I can't watch her running into a disaster of life and do nothing about it. Luthor is evil. He will put her into a golden cage and never let her go again. Can you imagine Lois being trapped like that? She needs her freedom; she will wither like a flower without water when Luthor gets her."

"Aren't you exaggerating things there a bit?" Jimmy asked cautiously.

"I'm not exaggerating," Clark blurted out. "I know Luthor better than almost anybody in this whole big city. He's not the nice guy he pretends to be."

"So you say Lois is in danger. Why don't you go and save her? The girls fall for those knights in shining armour on their white horses."

"I tried, but I blew it, somehow. She doesn't want me the way I am."

"Still that Superman obsession?" Jimmy asked sympathetically. "What can I say? The girls always want the rich and good-looking guys. You and I, we have no chance." When Jimmy realized what he had just said, he blushed. "Not that you're not good-looking, Clark."

"It's okay, Jimmy." Clark tried to smile but failed.

"Hey, what do you think? Let's go out tonight and enjoy ourselves until we're completely drunk." Jimmy offered.

Clark shook his head. "Alcohol won't help me in any way. Someone has to convince Lois that Luthor is a bad choice," he said thoughtfully. "Maybe Superman will be able to do that."

"Not just anyone, Clark — you! My mother always says that you shouldn't wait for someone else to do your work. If you want it done, do it yourself. You can't hope that Superman will help you with the nasty job of getting Lois away from her fiance because maybe he won't do it."

Jimmy was right. Though Clark knew that Superman would do whatever was needed, maybe this fight against Luthor was Clark's, not Superman's. The villain hadn't exactly taken Superman's woman. It might have been a major reason for Luthor's sudden interest in Lois, but she was and had always been Clark's girl. It was his task to save her.

"Okay, what do you think? I prepare breakfast and you tell me what you're going to do about Jack," Jimmy said.

"I don't need to eat," Clark muttered.


"I'm not that hungry, Jimmy."


Lois was sitting at her desk in the modern newsroom of LNN. She trying to read a press release, but she just couldn't concentrate on a word. She had been stuck on the same paragraph for over ten minutes now. Once she had read it, she tried to remember what it was about, but she couldn't. After the tenth time reading it, she still hadn't been able to comprehend the text.

Instead, she was thinking about Clark. Who could she ask to find out if he was married? Even if Jimmy had been available at this place, she couldn't have asked him. Would he spy on his friend? Lois didn't think so. And what explanation could she give for her curiosity? Clark wasn't of public interest. She couldn't claim that she was going to write about him. Everybody in the city knew that they had been partners.

Wouldn't it look quite odd if she wanted to know about the marital status of her partner and didn't ask him directly? Yes, that definitely was a weird situation. Maybe she should find someone who didn't live in Metropolis. A private investigator could check it out. She might even choose someone from Kansas. Lois began to like the idea. She put down the papers in her hand and turned to her computer.

It took her a few minutes to find a directory of the phone numbers in Kansas via Internet. Another couple of minutes later, she had found a private investigator's office close to Smallville. Lois took the receiver of her telephone and dialed the number.

"Detectives Harrod and Greene, hi, this is Mary, how can I help you?" a young woman with a very squeaky voice said when she answered the phone.

"Hi, this is…" Lois hesitated a moment and considered giving Mary a false name. "Lois Lane. I want to place an order with your bosses."

"Wait a moment, I'll give you to one of them," Mary replied.

Lois waited several moments, listening to the music in the meantime. When it ended, a male voice greeted her. Lois explained to him what she wanted to know. She gave him some information about Clark and mentioned that she wasn't sure where exactly he had married the unknown woman. Lois also asked him to find Clark's wife if he had one. The whole thing was over in about ten minutes. The detective had promised to call her back if he had news. Lois hung up when their conversation was finished and sighed. She had made the first step.

What was she going to do when she got the results? What was she going to do if Clark really was married? Lois had an unfamiliar feeling of loss burning in her chest with the mere thought of Clark being married. Why was that? She didn't love him; she had recently told him so. Was she envious because he had found this person in his life he wanted to grow old with, while she hadn't? But he was her best friend, and she wanted him to be happy.

Maybe she felt this loss because his being married would mean that he hadn't been honest with her. It would mean that he had concealed an important part of his life. Of course she hadn't told him everything either, but she wouldn't have kept silent about such an important thing. She still refused to believe that Clark would actually do that. But if he really had done it, she was going to lose her friend a second time. She'd lose him even more completely than what had already happened. Was that possible?

Lois shook her head. It couldn't actually get worse than it already was. After being partners with Clark for almost a year, their professional relationship had grown into a real friendship. She had seen him almost every day since he had walked into their newsroom for the first time. They had shared a hotel room, had fought really smart madmen like Trask and she had helped him regain his memory.

And now they hadn't talked to each other for days. She didn't know what was right or wrong. Worst of all was that they had separated after an argument. How had it been possible to lose him so totally in just one little moment? The bomb hadn't just destroyed the building of the Daily Planet; it somehow had cracked the invisible links between the reporters working for the newspaper.

Lois hadn't seen Jimmy or Perry either. She didn't know where Cat was. She had never thought that she'd miss Cat some day, but she did.


Lex Luthor was content with his work. He had made a few phone calls after his conversation with Lois. It was almost too easy to have Clark's marriage certificate appear in the archive of Smallville's county office. He had called the office and to his delight and surprise found a classmate of Clark's who had been jealous over his success playing football. The amount of money he had needed to bribe the clerk was ridiculously low.

It hadn't been a challenge for Lex to install those parts of the trap, so he decided to put some more effort in it. He didn't want to be bored too soon. Finding a suitable Mrs. Kent was very amusing. Lex had paid special attention at this task. Maybe his effort was wasted on the guy. He was quite sure of a quick victory and sighed at the thought. Mr. Kent would surely be devastated when he found out that he was reportedly married. When he became acquainted with his wife, he would be crushed.

Lex allowed himself to smile at the thought. Fighting Kent would be an awfully brief pleasure, but none-the-less enjoyable. It provided him with a foretaste of his battle with Superman. The Man of Steel would struggle a bit longer to win over his enemy, but he would also perish into nothingness. It was somehow sad to lose a worthy adversary, but killing Superman was an inevitable step on his way. Lex would stop for a moment and thank the hero for being an interesting challenge for him. Then he would go on and never look back.

"You've asked for me," a woman's voice interrupted his thoughts.

"Ahh, Mrs. Cox. I've got a paper here, and I'd like you to place it in Mr. Kent's apartment when he goes out. Would you please be so kind?"

"With pleasure, Mr. Luthor." The assistant smiled broadly. There was something demonic and cunning about her smile that Lex had always loved to see.


Jimmy had convinced Clark to leave his apartment by telling him how badly Jack was doing in prison. It wasn't a lie, but Jimmy had exaggerated things a lot. Clark noticed this as he sat in front of the younger man and studied his face. Jack hadn't cried as Jimmy had claimed, but his face was pale and lined with hopelessness.

"Do you really think you can get me out of here?" Jack asked, making it perfectly clear that he didn't believe that he could. "Luthor has put me into this prison and he won't let me out of it."

"I know, Jack," Clark said hoarsely, "but someone has to stop him. So far, you're about one of the only other people in this city who sees him for who he really is."

Jack stated wryly, "That's gonna help. Sorry, Clark, but that guy is way too rich and way too powerful to stop, even for Superman."

Clark nodded. "Yes, Superman won't be able to stop him without betraying his own ideals. We can't arrest Luthor because we have no proof that he destroyed the Planet, but I'm going to find it. And I will save Lois."

"What's Lois gotta do with it?" Jack asked.

"She will marry Luthor if I can't stop him soon enough."

"Boy, you've got a problem!"

"You can say that again, Jack." Clark sighed.

The now familiar feeling of being helpless and desperate again took hold of Clark. It had cost him an awful lot of effort to just leave his apartment. But for Jack's sake he had managed to do it. What was he good for if he couldn't help his innocent friend? What could he do against Luthor? That man was so good in hiding that not even the police suspected him of being responsible for any crimes. He had been trying for a year to stop the madman, but he hadn't made a single step in the right direction. Why should it be different now?

"Boy, you've got a problem!" Jack repeated and interrupted Clark's thoughts for a moment.

Clark leaned back in his chair and covered his face with his hands. He breathed in and out, trying to get out of this inner trap of despair. He concentrated on the task like he did when he prepared for one of his rescues. Clark wanted to sort his problems out and note them down on a mental list. What came first?

How much time do you have? He didn't have the faintest idea how much time he had left. Clark knew very well that as soon as Lois wore the wedding ring on her finger, it would become much more difficult to pursue the enemy. When he finally managed to reveal the real Luthor to the world, his wife would be one of the suspects as well. Clark had sworn himself to protect her and not let her get into trouble with the police. Okay, he had found his first assignment. Find out more about the wedding.

He felt Jack's eyes on him, watching him anxiously. Jack obviously feared that Clark wouldn't dare to fight against Goliath. But Clark wasn't going to run away. He laid his hands back in his lap and watched Jack with the stern look he usually wore when he was Superman.

"I've got to find out which day Luthor has scheduled his marriage with Lois," Clark said, breaking the silence.

"Do you really think you will be able to stop Luthor on your own?" Jack asked doubtfully. "You know that this isn't a battle of strength but a battle of the mind."

"And I'm not smart enough, huh? I have no idea, Jack, if I will be able to hunt him down. But Luthor has no idea who's going to be his worst foe either. I've gotta go."

"I wish you luck, bud, and I somehow think you're gonna need it even more than I do."

"Thanks, Jack. Is there anything else I can do for you now?" Clark asked, turning to Jack as he was leaving.

"Maybe you can ask Superman if he's going to get me out of this," Jack replied.

"Jack!" Clark admonished him.

"I can at least give it a try." Jack laughed as he saw Clark's shocked expression.

Clark said good-bye to Jack quickly and turned to leave the visitors area of the prison. A guard opened the door for him, and he left the depressing coldness of those walls.

*I will get you out of this, Jack.* Clark promised silently. *I've been watching Luthor long enough without stopping him. It won't go on that way.*


Chapter 2

{*I will never bring you down,

I will always stick around,

I will heat you when you're cold*}

(a-ha — Dragonfly)

The sunlight greeted him when Clark got out of the Metropolis Juvenile Detention Centre. He was still concentrated on his task. What would be the second step? His father had taught him how to manage seemingly impossible things. Years ago, when he had been a boy and hadn't developed most of his powers yet, they had planned to build a barn on their land. Clark had thought this was impossible. He hadn't understood how his father could dare to do that. The task seemed too big; he didn't even know where to start.

Jonathan had explained to him that Rome wasn't built in a day. It wasn't necessary to make the barn appear in a wink. They would separate the whole big task into a lot of minor ones, each easy to manage. They worked day after day, and the building looked more and more like a barn until they were finally finished.

Clark had used his father's advice to manage controlling his every power. And he still used it when he thought that even a Superman was too weak and small to do the rescue that lay before him. So Clark considered what his second step would be. * Find help.* He would look out for allies in this fight. He wouldn't endanger them voluntarily, but he would find help.

Help was always an important thing even for Superman. Whenever Clark had approached a disaster, he had searched for the medical staff and for the fire-fighters. They were more important than him. Without them he often would have been no help to the victims. He flew them out of danger, but saving their life, that was what the physicians and nurses did.

But who was going to help him? Clark needed proof as to the evilness of Lex Luthor. Witnesses would be useful to bring him to court. But while Clark was pretty sure that there were people who had witnessed Luthor's crimes, he feared that none of them would tell anything.

They were criminals themselves, and that was certainly a reason to remain silent. The other reason was that they feared Luthor's revenge. Even in prison, the man would be powerful. So he would need assistance from the police. Inspector Henderson might be the right person to ask.

Clark made the second note on his mental list. Where should he start his investigation? The answer was obvious: It had all started at the Planet. Maybe he would find something there. The building was the third note on the mental list. With a little bit of super-help, Clark hoped to work through his list easily.

The first step was likely to be the easiest. Luthor was vain; he would want everyone to know when the marriage was going to happen. The fact that Clark didn't know yet was more because he had refused to find out than because Luthor had kept it a secret. He searched for the nearest newsstand to buy a newspaper. Lex Luthor would definitely have told the press when he was going to marry.

The answer shocked him, though he wasn't too surprised. Within three days he had to find enough evidence to imprison Luthor for the rest of his life. He glanced at his watch. It was noon. He had 70 hours left; he should get started then. Clark turned in the direction of the police station where Henderson worked.


Mrs. Cox had parked her car close to Clark Kent's apartment. She had watched Kent leave his apartment and remained in her car waiting to see if he would be returning anytime soon. Since he was no longer employed he didn't have to go to his job. Mrs. Cox smiled to herself. She liked seeing the Planet destroyed and devastated. She had enjoyed the desperate look in the employees' eyes as the Planet had faced insolvency. The despair had faded for a moment when Luthor had seemingly saved their jobs. But it had returned and even increased when it was definitely clear that Metropolis' most famous newspaper was vanquished.

She had enjoyed all that very much though she couldn't understand Luthor's reasons. Had he done it just for fun or to demonstrate his powers, it would have been understandable, but he had done it because of Lois Lane. Mrs. Cox hated the weak woman Lex was chasing after. Lois Lane didn't deserve Lex. She would never honour his talents, his brilliancy and ruthlessness. Lois Lane didn't see Lex for who he really was; she couldn't admire him the way he deserved it.

There were 70 hours left to win Lex over. She loved him; she was ready to serve him, to grant his every wish. He didn't see it yet, but Mrs. Cox was the right woman for him. She had talents he hadn't even dreamt of yet. She would make her beloved man happy.

Until she could do this, she concentrated on the task that lay before her. She glanced at the marriage certificate that lay on the front passenger's seat and smiled. This was another proof of Luthor's intelligence, though she would have preferred to kill Kent right away. But whatever reason Luthor had to set up this trap, he had thought a lot about it. She shouldn't question his plans.

Clark Kent had been gone long enough now. She was pretty sure that she had enough time to break into his apartment to place the certificate there and get out afterwards. So she left the car and took the certificate with her.

Lex was wealthy enough to provide her with the best equipment available. She had no reason to expect someone would notice the break-in. In fact, there was nothing that was going to be taken away, but, rather, she would be leaving something behind. Clark Kent was unlikely to notice.

It only took seconds to get in. Mrs. Cox closed the door behind her. It was nearly embarrassing her how bad his security system was. Though he was living in Metropolis, he still behaved as if this was a small town with honest people around. She descended the stairs and looked around his living room. Where would he place the certificate assuming that he didn't need to hide it? After all, she expected Lois to find the document.

Mrs. Cox found a desk in the room where Kent stored several papers. She searched the drawers and placed the certificate in one of them. Obviously, it shouldn't be on top of his other documents. Lois Lane was in some respects smart enough to dig it out, even if it wasn't right in front of her nose. She tended to ignore other things that were right in front of her, but documents weren't among them.

When she had finished this, she left the desk as she had found it and glanced at her wristwatch. There was still time left, and though Lex hadn't advised her to do it, she decided to investigate Mr. Kent's apartment more thoroughly. It was always good to know the enemy.

Kent seemed to be a pretty boring guy, and Mrs. Cox didn't wonder why Lois chose to marry Lex. There were loads of books on the bookshelf. Not all of them were written in English. She found a few travel guides and assumed that Kent liked to spend his holidays abroad. Most of the books were novels, some of them were from important authors like Hemingway and others were just for fun. He also had books about physics and chemistry. She glanced into one of them and found it pretty hard to understand.

She placed the book back on the shelf and turned her attention to other things. Closed doors were usually more interesting than open ones. She searched through his cupboards and found none of them very interesting. Mr. Kent was indeed a normal, boring guy. She was disappointed that the apartment held no secrets, and she didn't want to leave until she found something. Mrs. Cox always finished what she began, and so she turned with a sigh to the least interesting closed door — the wardrobe.

But when she opened it, a flash of excitement ran through her being. Behind Mr. Kent's clothes there was a hidden door. He had obviously forgotten to close it properly. Mrs. Cox couldn't resist looking behind it. The sight of red, blue and yellow was worth the previous fruitless search. It seemed that Mr. Kent wasn't that boring after all. Mrs. Cox smiled with contentment about the knowledge she had gained today. She thought about telling Luthor about it but dismissed that idea. It might be more useful if she kept that knowledge for herself.

Mrs. Cox remembered that she had a second assignment that day. She should leave the apartment and prepare for the things to come.


"You aren't really telling me anything I haven't already heard, Kent," Henderson said in a sad tone of voice. "There has been a lot of rumours lately but no evidence at all. I can't go to Luthor and arrest him without a good reason. If only half of the things they say about him are true, I won't only lose my job but my life and family."

The inspector shot Clark a rather frustrated glance. He had obviously tried to get a grip on the billionaire. Clark had tried it himself, but whenever he thought that he had found a trace to follow, he lost it almost as soon as he found it. Luthor's path was paved with dead bodies, but somehow he managed to let them cover his footprints. It was impossible to tell that he was responsible.

"I know, Henderson," Clark sighed. "I'm not asking you to arrest him without good reasons. All I want is a bit of help. If I'm going to find witnesses that will testify to his crimes in front of the court, I'll have to offer them security. Most of them are probably criminals in their own right. They don't want to get arrested, and I can't blame them for their wish to remain free. And they will probably be afraid of Luthor killing them. I've already asked Superman if he would keep an eye on them. He said that he'd be honoured to help me."

Clark hated to play the Superman card. He was depending so much on his second identity that he sometimes wondered if he would be able to get around without the Superman suit. Whatever Clark Kent couldn't get, Superman could get at once. It was this way with Lois and surely the same with most other things.

"Well, I'll ask the DA's office what they can do about it, but I won't promise you anything now, Kent. All I can say is that you have to be careful. If Luthor hears what you're up to, your life's not worth much anymore. He will hunt you down mercilessly. And I wouldn't count on Superman too much, if I were you."

Clark shook hands with the inspector and said good-bye. He hadn't expected Henderson to be excited about his plan. Right now it seemed to be more like the dream of a desperate fool than something that was going to work. Clark left Henderson's office and returned to the streets of Metropolis.

He hadn't been especially successful this time, but there was still a lot to do. His next destination was the Daily Planet. He would see what he could find there.


Lois was still at work when her telephone rang. As she was still filled with the memory of her strange dream, she hadn't really managed to be productive. She didn't understand it. She knew that her subconscious was trying to tell her something, but Lois had absolutely no clue why it had her dating Clark so it could do so. She picked up the receiver and said, "Lois Lane."

"Hi, this is Alan Greene. You hired me as private detective," the young man she had spoken to this morning said.

"Mr. Greene, I hadn't expected to hear from you so soon."

"Well, it wasn't too difficult to find out what ya' wanted to know, actually. Ya' told me that Mr. Kent spent most of his life in Smallville, so I decided to call the county offices in Smallville first. I have a couple of friends there. I was lucky with the third one I called. They told me that your Mr. Kent married a Sarah Elaine Warner seven years ago."

"Is he still married?" Lois asked hoarsely.

"Oh, yeah, he is, but ya' could say that the couple's kinda livin' separate," Mr. Greene replied.

"Where does she live?" Lois wanted to know.

"Metropolis Penitentiary for Women. She committed homicide when she burglarized jewelry," Mr. Greene explained.

"What?" Lois exclaimed with shock. "When did that happen?"

"A year and a half ago," Mr. Greene answered her question.

"Thank you. Send me your bill," Lois said weakly and hung up.

Lois felt her heart beat thundering in her head. She couldn't believe what she had just heard. Lex had been right, Clark was indeed married. How could that be? Had he moved to Metropolis a year ago to be closer to Sarah? An imprisoned wife was of course a reason why he hadn't mentioned her yet. And it explained perfectly why she had never seen the woman. And if his wife burglarized jewelry, what did that say about Clark? Could he be a criminal as well? No, most definitely not, Lois dismissed the thought.

Lois felt once again like she was losing something very special. But why was this? She didn't love him so it couldn't be the fact that he wasn't free. Was she feeling sorry for him because her mild-mannered, honest partner shared his life with a woman who betrayed him? Was she feeling sorry for him because he was separated from the person he apparently loved deeply? Had this been the reason he had moved from Smallville to Metropolis?

Lois remembered her dream, and for a short moment she wished that someone would love her that much. It had just been a dream, but for a brief period of time she had gotten a taste of this love. Her Dream-Clark had affected her with his kiss beyond belief. It hadn't been demanding or hungry. The passion in it wasn't forcing her to do something against her will, and it told her so much about the kisser. It had conveyed a deep love and admiration, a shy begging to get more. It had been a foretaste of what could have been if they had continued.

Lois shook her head. It had just been a dream. It wasn't real. The Clark in her dream was another man than the one she had worked with for a year. And considering that she had found out that Clark was married made the two even more different. The real Clark had betrayed her, maybe not in the way his wife had betrayed him, but that didn't diminish his guilt.

Had Clark tried to soothe his hurt soul by being close to Lois? She understood more about his behaviour towards Lex. Maybe he considered his wife still as innocent and hoped to be able to prove that. In fact, Lois had no clue what was going on in Clark's head. She would have liked to ask him, but could she go straight to him and admit that she had investigated his past without his permission? He trusted her, maybe not enough to tell her his darkest secrets, but she was pretty sure that he trusted her.

*You haven't told me your secret, have you?* she had asked him.

*No, I haven't ,* he had replied.

Now she knew his secret, and she somehow wished that she had been less curious. It must be hard for him, she thought. Maybe he was running away to visit her or to catch a glimpse of the woman he loved. Maybe he ran away to hide the tears when he was missing her badly. She couldn't even imagine what Clark might be enduring. What had he wanted to gain with his declaration of love? Had he wanted a woman he could touch? Or had he wanted to save her from Luthor, who he said was responsible for his misery?

But he wasn't right about Luthor. She should help Clark to see his wife for what she was. He was the one who needed to be saved.


The building looked awful. Without the glass the windows seemed to be dead eyes staring into the day. They were scary and depressing. But Clark didn't look at the debris; he only saw the still visible strength of the former Daily Planet. He remembered his time there, his time together with Lois. They had faced so much, and he had enjoyed every single day he had walked through those doors.

The past year had been so much better than many others in his life. He had found the place he wanted to be, the place where he felt at home. Lois Lane had made it a home though she didn't even know that. She had helped him to live without the bounds he had had to wear since his childhood. Even though he rarely had any spare time now, Clark Kent had never felt so free.

But Lois had made this free time special. Every single minute with Lois counted. Even when she had been snobbish and offending, he had enjoyed being with her. Of course he liked her to be friendly to him, but that wasn't a must. He wanted to be with Lois, not with an ever-friendly fantasy. Her stubbornness and her tendency to get in danger were part of her, even though they drove him crazy sometimes. He loved her for who she was. He admired her intelligence, he loved her humour, and he saw how beautiful she was. It wasn't just her looks, though they were adorable enough. Lois had a beauty coming from deep within. Her soul was beautiful, and it touched his in a way he had never experienced before.

The sight of the building represented his dream of belonging and was so connected to the love of his life. Watching it made Clark light-hearted. For the first time since Lex Luthor had bought the Daily Planet he didn't worry, and he felt no sorrow. He just breathed the freedom of the past.

"It's the symbol of dreams, you know?" a familiar voice interrupted Clark's thoughts.

"What are your dreams, Mr. White?" Clark inquired.

"Truth," Perry replied. "I came here with the urgent desire to make people see the truth. When I was young the whole world was so complicated. There were communists and capitalists. Everyone claimed to be right and most of it was just propaganda. I had always dreamt of being the light in that darkness of different ideologies. What about you, Mr. Kent?"

"Justice and freedom," Clark answered but didn't explain.

Perry nodded. "So what in the Sam Hill are you doing here, Kent? Just drowning in memories?"

Clark smiled. "Just like you, I want to find out the truth about what happened here."

"I'm retired, Kent. I just like drowning in memories." Perry replied.

"Weren't you just telling me that you wanted people to hear the truth?" Clark teased his editor-in-chief.

"Okay. I just want to know why this ship sank so abruptly." Perry gave in.

"That's easy to say but hard to prove. Lex Luthor destroyed this building." Clark sighed.

"If you're right about that then we will prove it," Perry stated and looked at Clark.

"I'm going inside now and see what I will find. Maybe the police missed evidence," Clark told Perry.

"I'm coming with you," Perry said immediately.

"I'd rather see you stay here," Clark replied.

"Lois told me that you're overprotective, Kent. Do you really think you will find what a bunch of policemen didn't see? Better if there are two pairs of eyes looking." Perry stopped every argument before it could start.

Clark sighed again and nodded. The two men went over to the Planet's entrance that was now covered with wood. Clark pushed the barrier away and went in. Perry followed closely behind him. It was dark inside the building, but Perry switched on his light as soon as the sunlight was gone. The smell of smoke still hung in the air, and the walls were black with soot.

Clark looked up and x-rayed the structure of the ceiling above them. He still wasn't quite sure if the building was in danger of collapsing, but at the moment it seemed stable enough. They continued on their way, heading for the staircase that would lead them downstairs. The bomb had exploded in the basement. Someone had put it there, and maybe there were still traces left.

Perry and Clark kept silent, and both were nervous but for different reasons. Clark knew that even if the building collapsed on him, it wouldn't hurt him. That was different with Perry. He would give his secret away without hesitation if Perry was in danger. But never-the-less, Clark feared that he might not be fast enough. He stayed close behind Perry always looking out for the unexpected.

Perry was nervous because he hadn't done much investigation in the past couple of years. He knew that they were in a restricted area, and if the police showed up they were likely to be in trouble. For him that didn't matter so much, but Clark was still young, and problems with the police were never good, not even for a reporter. And last but not least, he didn't trust the ceiling; he had written about too many collapsed houses to ignore the danger.

Clark looked around, angry because it was so dark inside the building. Seeing in the dark was not exactly one of his special abilities. He had even forgotten to bring a light with him. He had been too distracted pitying himself that he rarely thought about what he was doing.


Lex Luthor had his spies all over the city. He was aware of the whereabouts of Clark Kent, though the fools had lost him for a short time. That was the risk with relying on others. But he knew where Kent was right now, and that was about all that interested him. Kent was digging in the past, and that wasn't something Lex liked. Of course it was more than unlikely for Kent to find anything there, but Lex had his principles.

He had to be careful, of course, and wait to see if Kent indeed found something. That he had help now didn't exactly please Lex Luthor. Maybe he should scare the two a bit to prevent them from being too curious. It would be for their own good. He would advise Mrs. Cox to do something about the two men.

Lex was still waiting to hear from Lois. She surely had found the evidence for Kent's marriage by now. He was ready to soothe the girl; maybe she was so angry at her partner that their friendship was over by now, but he didn't count on that. All Lex wanted was to emphasize that he was the good guy.

Lex sat back in his armchair and lit his cigar. He loved the scent and taste of the tobacco. The Havana was expensive, and the few people who had them rarely dared to smoke them. Rather they stored them somewhere to look at them and sniff them. Being rich was one of the single best things in the world. Even better than that was to be the smartest criminal around.


Perry and Clark were still walking through the debris of the Planet. Clark searched the floor in the small cone of light. He examined every fibre he saw very closely. The floor was filled with burnt sheets of paper. He x-rayed almost all of them until he found the corner of an identity card. There were two photos on it, and that caused Clark to really notice it. The photo down below was almost undamaged, but it wasn't the interesting one. The upper photo was melted, and the person on it was hard to identify. Clark decided to give it a try though and kneeled down to pick up the card.

He wanted to look at it more closely when he was outside again.

"Don't think we're going to find anything, Kent," Perry said suddenly.

"Maybe it's time to go, Chief." Clark agreed, and the two of them turned around to walk outside again. Since they weren't searching the floor anymore, they were able to get out quickly.

The sunlight greeted them outside, and both Perry and Clark sighed with relief that they weren't walking through the darkness anymore. Clark fetched the card out of his pocket and looked at it. He lowered his glasses to use his super-vision to see the burnt parts of the photo a bit clearer and tried to memorize the face.

Clark could see the name on the card underneath the burnt one, but what good would that do him? He frowned and very much wished that the upper photo had a name next to it, too. But that wasn't likely since it was a faked card. After all, the intruder had wanted to remain unnoticed. Clark chewed his lower lip in frustration. Having a name could possibly be helpful, but when he looked up again, he suddenly saw the face on the card watching him. He smiled. Maybe he wouldn't need that name, after all.

"I'll be right back," he mumbled and started running.

"That isn't the first time I've heard that," Perry muttered and shook his head when he saw Clark chasing after a young man.

Clark was fast, and he didn't use super speed or at least not much. It wasn't exactly difficult to get to the young man. He had panicked when he saw Clark approaching and had run in the opposite direction. But the street had a dead end, and unless the guy had super powers himself it was unlikely that he would get away.

Clark caught the wrist of the man and stopped him, holding him tightly so that he couldn't struggle free.

"What's your name?" Clark demanded and repeated his question menacingly when he got no answer.

"John Black," the young man muttered.

"I know it was your bomb that destroyed that building over there. Who asked you to place that bomb?" Clark dug further.

"I have no idea what ya' talkin' about," John tried.

"Don't lie to me," Clark said. He shook the guy and waited for an anxious glance to appear in his eyes. "So are you going to tell me, or do I have to get angry first?"

"I don't know who he is. He's called the boss." John admitted and Clark let go of him.

"Who spoke to you?" he wanted to know.

"Someone phoned me; I don't know the name."

"Man or woman?"

"A woman," John replied.

Mrs. Cox, Clark thought. Would she really be the one to give orders directly? He wasn't sure. Unfortunately John had told him nothing important yet. Clark searched for the next question, the one that would bring him closer to Luthor.

"What do you know about this boss?" he asked.

"Nothing, really. A whole lot of people are scared to death, and they pay any price to be left alone. He demands money from almost everyone in the entire city," John said. "Restaurants, bars, shops, whatever. Nobody works here without his permission."

Clark sighed. This sounded so like Luthor. "Did you already get paid?"

"Paid? Are you kidding me? I'd be grateful if they don't kill me. That's the deal. I set up that bomb and stay alive." John almost laughed at Clark's shocked expression. "You've killed me now, you know that, don't you?" he hissed at Clark and tried again to struggle free.

"I can bring you to the police department; you'll be safe there," Clark offered, but John just laughed and ran away as soon as Clark had loosened his grip. Clark didn't follow him. He couldn't watch the whole city. But he seriously hoped that he would catch Luthor before he had the chance to kill John Black.

Clark returned to Perry and gave him a sad glance while he shrugged. "No news, I'm afraid. But I'm pretty sure now that Luthor is responsible for the explosion at the Planet. Luthor is way too avaricious to burn money that easily. I think we should do some investigation about the financial background of the paper. Maybe that will give us a clue," Clark said.

His former editor nodded. "I will do that, but first I'll have to find a place to stay for the night. Alice still thinks that I'm fishing." He sighed. "When I return to her, I'll have to face another marital argument, but to tell you the truth, Clark, I want to know what happened to the Planet."

"Feel free to come to my place, Mr. White." Clark offered.

"That would be good, Kent. Where are you going now?"

"I'll try to find out what I can about a person called the boss. See you later in my apartment, Chief."


It was already dark when Perry and Clark met at Clark's apartment. Clark had arrived there a bit earlier and opened the door when his editor stood in front of it. They smiled at each other, and Clark invited Perry in.

"What did you find out, son?" Perry asked.

"This boss is still somewhat mysterious, but I bet it's Luthor, "Clark replied, disappointed that he hadn't been more successful.

"I spent the day hunting the chairmen of the Planet. It took ages to find one of them willing to talk to me. They hadn't really wanted to sell the Planet, but Luthor promised them a lot of things if they did- Ferraris to begin with. If they didn't agree, they faced financial ruin. Of course he didn't say that out loud. But Luthor must have been pretty convincing." Perry mused.

"I found out that there was additional insurance at Lexal investments. It would have been enough money to rebuild the Planet," Clark added.

"That's interesting. I think we're getting at it, son," Perry said slowly. "Aren't you hungry? I could prepare us a meal you could tell your great-grandchildren about."

Clark grinned and nodded, then showed Perry the way into the kitchen. "I'll guess you'll find what you need, Chief." He suddenly heard an emergency call. "I'll just go and return a video, and I'll be right back." Clark rushed away and left Perry in his apartment.

Perry shook his head. This was somehow familiar. He had seen Clark disappearing from time to time. In the majority of cases he left a fuming Lois in the newsroom, who was just about to tell him something. He didn't understand the guy; he really should keep his thoughts together. Why did he return things at the last minute? Perry decided not to think about it and turned his attention to the fridge.

He was even more astonished. How had Clark survived to his age with food like that? He remembered clearly what his physician frequently told him. But Clark seemed to have missed all those little speeches. Did he hide all this stuff when his parents were visiting him? There was no way they could agree with that kind of nutrition.

But there were a couple of useful things, too. Perry grabbed what he needed and searched for a pot. He looked over Clark's numerous spices and noticed with satisfaction that he wasn't such a hopeless case after all.


In the meantime, Superman flew over Metropolis and listened for the sounds of the alarm bell he had heard earlier. He followed the sound, and it led him to a bank. An officer was pacing on the sidewalk in front of the main entrance. He looked up when Superman landed in front of him.

"Oh, Superman, thanks for coming, but there isn't actually anything happening here. We're already checking on the alarm, but we have no idea yet why it went off."

"So everything's okay here?" Superman wanted to know.

Suddenly he felt queasy, and pain spread through his body. His head felt as if it was going to explode, his vision went blurry, and through a haze he heard the concerned police officer ask if he was all right. The pain subsided almost as quickly as it had started.

"I'm okay," Superman assured the officer and wanted to take off into the sky again.

It didn't work. Superman did his best to act like he had never planned to fly and hurried to the next abandoned alley. He looked over his shoulder to make sure no one had followed him. As he didn't see anybody, he slipped into the next dark entrance of a house. He was pretty sure that no one had noticed him and leaned against the wall. After his last encounter with kryptonite he had hoped to never see that stuff again. He was weak and exhausted from this brief exposure.

At least he hadn't passed out this time. He had managed to run away and should be grateful. That wouldn't have been possible after what had happened in Smallville. Lying unconsciously on the street would have gotten Superman into serious trouble. The fact that the kryptonite obviously hadn't been destroyed completely worried him. Even worse was that someone had gotten hold of it. And this alarm at the bank had supposedly been a test. He had to change back into Clark. Since it was dark outside he wasn't going to regain his strength before dawn.

Clark needed a lot longer to dress as an average guy. He prepared himself for going back on the street. He breathed in and out and decided to return to Perry. He still felt a little queasy and hoped that his editor-in-chief wouldn't get suspicious. Clark stepped away from the entrance of the house back into the night air. He wasn't so weak that he couldn't move on his own, but he was anything but super. He needed about ten minutes to walk back to his apartment. When he had finally reached it, he noticed with worry that the glass was shattered, and the door gaped a little.

"Chief? Everything all right?" he asked as he entered his flat. Perry was standing in the living room and stared at two masked men in front of him.

"What are you doing here?" Clark shouted and went over to the invaders. "Get out of my apartment!"

He approached the man that was closer to him and grabbed his shoulder. The man struck out to land a punch. Clark saw his fist coming, but he didn't move out of the way. When the fist landed hard in his stomach, it pressed the air out of his lungs. Clark stumbled back. The second man came close to him quickly and hit him hard in the face. Clark's cheek was burning and his stomach heaving. He struggled with nausea and the weakness from the kryptonite exposure. He didn't even see the third punch coming that impacted his stomach.

Clark landed on the floor, struggling for air and trying to avoid the aggressors. They kicked his side. Clark moaned with pain. This was different than kryptonite. This wasn't the first time Clark had to fight without his strength. Clark tasted blood. He wasn't actually familiar with that. Again and again the two men kicked and punched him. Had they broken one of his ribs? Clark didn't know.

He had no chance to get up. He was already weakened from the kryptonite, and this rough treatment only made it worse. Through a haze of pain he heard Perry shouting, trying to get to him. Clark saw that one of the men hit Perry, who sank down on Clark's sofa and didn't move. He was on his own. Another kick struck his upper body. Clark could barely breathe. He felt so weak and silently prayed for the embrace of unconsciousness to come.

But they would kill him if he lost consciousness, so he couldn't let that happen. Not that he cared if he was dead or alive, but he was the last person to save his beloved Lois. Since it was pitch dark outside, he knew he wouldn't regain his super strength any time soon, but he had to survive this. And somewhere deep in his soul, he found strength. Clark grabbed the ankle of the first man and caused him to stumble. The man fell against his partner, and Clark had enough time to get to his feet. He gave one of them a hook to the chin and managed to knock him out. The other hit Clark again, and he fell back down on the floor.

By then, Perry had woken up and sent the remaining man to the ground with a hard punch in the face. The fight was over, and Clark was still lying on the floor, his entire body bruised and hurting like hell. He coughed, struggling for air helplessly.

"Clark!" Perry was appalled. He kneeled down beside Clark.

"I'm okay, Chief. Call Henderson!" Clark managed to say. Perry looked at him indecisively. Then he helped Clark to get up and to sit down on the sofa.

"Thank you. Are you okay?" he whispered.

When Perry said that he was all right, Clark lowered himself down into a partially reclining position. His ribcage was hurting with every breath he took. Clark heard Perry rushing through his apartment and speaking with someone.

"Henderson is sending a car to get these two," Perry told Clark as he returned to him. He watched him anxiously. "I should call you a doctor."

"I'm fine, Chief. I don't…need…a doctor." Clark replied firmly but not very convincingly.

Actually he didn't feel too well, but if someone found out how bad his injuries were and checked on them again tomorrow they would start to wonder. For the sake of his parents, Lois and a private life he had to play along. If that meant gritting the teeth, it was worth it.

The police came within minutes and arrested the two men. Clark had to tell the policemen again that he was okay and not really injured. He hoped that Henderson would do a good job with their interrogation. Maybe the two knew something about Luthor.

Perry's meal was slightly burnt, and so Clark had an excuse for not eating very much of it. His stomach wasn't up to food yet. He mumbled something about a hard day and went to bed rather early. Perry had prepared his bed on the couch.

One thing was sure: Clark wouldn't go out tonight to save the world. Usually he would have flown around for his patrol, but he dismissed the idea. A little bit of sleep would be helpful, he thought, before he fell onto his pillows and closed his eyes with a sigh.


Lois sat in her apartment and was still clueless. She had phoned Lex earlier in the evening to explain that she couldn't see him tonight. Lois wasn't up to it because her mind was still trying to get a grip on the new information. It wouldn't have been fair to Lex if she went on a date with him without being able to concentrate fully on him. She had had dates where her partner was obviously totally distracted by something else. A pair of long legs was an example, and she had sworn to herself that she'd never be so impolite.

Lex had understood her and told her that she should take the time she needed to come to terms with the marital status of her former partner. He felt that it wasn't so easy to accept that her partner had lied to her. Lois was still hurt, but she couldn't help but feel sympathy for Clark. His life was certainly a lot different from the life he had dreamt of. She considered him as the romantic type of man who longed for a family to return to in the afternoon. What he wished for in life was probably nothing more than to have someone he could bend down to and kiss softly. He didn't want to come into an empty flat after work, and he'd want to play with his children, read or tell them a story and kiss them good night. He'd pull their covers up tight. And he would leave a light on their nightstand to scare away the dark shadows that carried nightmares.

Lois was surprised and slightly frightened as she imagined herself waiting at the door of their children's room, watching Clark in delight. He'd be a father like she had never had. But why on earth would she consider his children hers as well? She didn't want children because she could never be a good mother. His declaration of love had just confused her.

Still lost in thoughts, Lois went to bed and drifted to sleep almost immediately.


1 Day earlier ***

Hours later a ringing phone interrupted her sleep violently. Lois was wide awake. Dawn was breaking, and she wondered who would be calling her so early. She picked up the receiver.

"Lois Lane," she said gruffly. She wasn't exactly a morning person.

"Lois, this is Perry. I'm worried about Clark. There were two guys here last night that he had to fight with. They beat him up, though he managed to overpower them in the end," her editor-in-chief told her.

"Oh my god! Is Clark all right, Perry?" Lois asked anxiously.

"I don't know. I'm pretty sure that he needs a doctor, but I can't make him go. Lois, will you please come over to his apartment and talk to him? I could barely sleep last night, and I frequently checked on him while he was fast asleep. I didn't have the heart to wake him up, but maybe he has some serious injuries, broken ribs or something," Perry replied.

"I'll be there in about twenty minutes, Perry." Lois promised and hung up.

Someone had beaten up Clark? But why? Lois was afraid that Perry might be right, and Clark had really bad injuries. A broken rib could penetrate his lung. His spleen could be ruptured. Lois knew that he might lose a lot of blood this way. Heaven only knew what could have happened to him. It was an awful idea that he might be gone forever some day. She didn't want to lose Clark. Lois jumped out of her bed and got dressed quickly. Then she stormed out of her apartment to get to her car and drive over to Clark's.


Someone tugged on his hand and whispered his name. The voice was familiar. Clark's eyes fluttered open, and he saw Lois sitting next to him and watching him anxiously. The sun came through his window and shed light on her. It was still rather dark in the room though. He noticed that he wasn't wearing his glasses. Would Lois guess the truth now? When she turned around and spoke with someone else, he quickly grabbed them. Then Lois looked back at him again. Clark smiled. Lois face showed nothing but worry. There was no disbelief or anger in it, and Clark assumed that she hadn't seen the superhero in his naked eyes.

"Lois." He couldn't hide his surprise. "What are you doing here?" he asked softly.

"Perry called me. He said that you were hurt," Lois replied with worry.

"I'm fine," Clark said. He was indeed feeling better now and not just because Lois was there.

"You're sure you don't need a doctor, Clark?" Lois asked.

"Pretty sure."

"You're still mad at me, aren't you?" Lois whispered sadly.

"Lois, I'm not mad at you." Clark sighed. "It's gotten all so complicated lately. I don't want to upset you."

"When Perry told me what happened this evening, I was so worried. He said that you were doing really badly. I couldn't stand the thought that something had happened to you. I could only think of the argument we had. I didn't want it to be the last thing you see and hear of me." She sounded desperate.

"I'm not going to die, Lois. But I didn't want us to separate because of a fight either. I'm sorry, Lois." Clark sat up and embraced her, stroking her back. He enjoyed feeling her so close to him but was worried that she'd push him away at any moment, so he tried to keep his distance and avoided touching anything but her upper back.


Lois couldn't help but remember her dream. His touch on her back felt exactly the same. No, it was even better: his hands were warmer and more comforting. For the first time since Perry had called her, she was able to relax. In fact she hadn't been this relaxed since she had dreamt of being with him. And before that? Lois didn't ever remember feeling so totally at ease. But why was it this way with Clark? She still loved Superman, but she tried to dismiss every thought of him. He had hurt her, but Lois cared for him. It wasn't reasonable, and she knew it.

Lois rested her head on his shoulder and noticed the scent of sweat and aftershave that mixed in a very attractive way. She started to stroke his back, too, and felt his firm muscles under her hands. Had she ever noticed that he was that strong? A brief memory of Clark opening the door to her, only dressed in a towel, crossed her mind. She seemed to remember that he had a very tempting body. Lois blushed and was glad that neither Clark nor Perry could see the reddish tint to her face.

She heard Perry turn around and leave the bedroom. They were on their own. She watched Clark's earlobe and suddenly felt her own lips brushing it. Why had she done that? Lois backed away, surprised by herself. Clark stared at her in disbelief.

"Lois," he whispered huskily.

"I'm sorry, Clark, I shouldn't have done that."

"Yeah, you already have a man, don't you?" Clark said with a hint of anger.

"I'm not married yet, Clark. But you're right, I have a man," Lois replied. *And you have a woman, Clark,* she added sadly.

Did she really want Lex? Lois looked at the man in front of her. Where did this strange attraction come from? Was it his slight resemblance to Superman? The dark hair was the same. And she had seen even this boyish grin on both their faces. But there were a lot of differences, too, and not only the obvious one that Clark needed glasses. Superman was so much more self- confident. He was plain and direct. *If it's not lead-lined it's a waste of time. * Clark would never have said those words.

Lois was confused, now more than ever before. Three men in her life were two too many. But Lois knew her usual luck with men. While she was choosing one of them, she was going to scare away all three and would be left alone in the end.

"Don't marry Luthor, Lois. For Heaven's Sake, please don't choose that man," Clark pleaded.

"You really get obsessive over him. Clark, he isn't that bad. From your point of view, you might think you are right, but Clark, you're mistaken about Lex," Lois replied. She was annoyed that Clark had obviously decided to continue their argument where they had left off.

"I'm not mistaken, Lois. I know him a whole lot better than you do." Clark tried to convince her once more.

"Clark, you're wrong about him," Lois said and stood up again.

"Is anybody ready for breakfast?" Perry asked, interrupting them.

"That's great, Chief, I'm starving."

"Good girl, you know? Elvis never left his house without a good breakfast," Perry announced.

"Really?" Lois asked.

"I guess so…" Perry muttered and returned into the kitchen.

Clark got up and mumbled that he needed to take a shower and vanished into his bathroom. Lois was surprised that she was practically on her own. She went into the living room and looked around. She had always been curious what was inside the drawers and behind the closed doors of other people. She strolled through the room and glanced at Clark's belongings. The perfect opportunity to find out more about her partner presented itself, and Lois Lane couldn't resist. She opened one drawer, then another…


Clark stood in the shower and felt the cold water running down his body. He breathed in and out slowly and tried to regain his sanity. Lois nibbling on his earlobe had driven him crazy and had built up the urgent need to get closer to her, to touch and kiss her. If it hadn't been for Lois and Perry, he might have flown to the arctic to take a bath in the icy cold water underneath the pack ice. But now a cold shower would have to do the job.

He knew that he'd lose her if he showed her his love openly. It had been bad enough for Clark to force himself onto her, wanting her to make the decision she obviously hadn't been ready to make. But what had Lois intended when she nibbled on his ear? Had she mistaken him for Superman? His earlobes weren't part of the disguise, and maybe her subconscious had seen what Lois was able to consciously ignore. He had wanted her to ignore it. He wanted to keep his secret in order to protect her from villains trying to get to Superman.

Clark was confused. Not only because Lois had been around this morning, but also because of the attack. He was pretty sure that Luthor was behind it. But his encounter with kryptonite was somewhat mysterious. Was it just a strange coincidence? Had Luthor tested kryptonite on Superman and happened to have sent rowdies to Clark at almost the same time? And what was the reason? Had Clark gotten too close to him? But why didn't he make sure then that Clark would die? A bullet in the right place would certainly have killed him in the state he had been in at that time.

No-one could tell Clark that Lex Luthor didn't know people who were able to handle a pistol. He would have been able to make it look like a break-in murder or even better: suicide. Lois would even be able to testify that he had been desperate after her rejection and maybe depressed enough to end his life.

If it hadn't been a coincidence and Luthor had found out about his secret, why hadn't the attackers had kryptonite with them? That didn't make sense. With that stuff next to him he wouldn't have been able to overpower them. He would have been completely at their mercy. He remembered passing out quickly the first time he had been close to the deadly crystal.

With a sigh Clark turned off the shower and stepped out. He grabbed a towel and dried himself. His powers were back to normal and he wasn't suffering pain any more. With the sunrise and a good night's sleep, he felt increasingly better. A few bruises were left on his upper body but they were already fading. He spun into the clothes he had taken with him into the bathroom and left.

Clark went into the living room. Lois was in front of his desk, obviously fascinated by something she saw there. He went closer and noticed that she was searching the drawers. Lois was indeed rummaging his desk. Clark could barely believe what he saw. Of course he had watched her doing this often, but never had he imagined that she'd violate his own privacy. Weren't they supposed to be friends?

"What are you searching for, Lois?" he asked as calmly as possible.

His whole life he had been so busy protecting his secret that there was nothing he disliked more than someone taking his things without permission. His privacy was very special to him, and it meant even more since becoming Superman. That it was Lois doing this didn't make it easier; it was just the opposite. He'd expected more decency from her. He had thought that even though she didn't love him that she at least respected him.

Lois looked up at him with a guilty expression on her face. Her hands closed the open drawer, and she tried to hide it with her body. Maybe she didn't do it on purpose; maybe it was more a habit, but Clark didn't care. He felt anger overwhelming him.

"You never know when to stop, do you, Lois?" he asked, threateningly calm as he watched her, waiting for the answer.

"I know your secret, Clark," Lois whispered, startled.

"And that gives you permission to do anything you like? I can understand that you're mad at me, but that's no reason to invade my privacy, Lois. Certain things stay secret for a reason; they are not meant to be public knowledge. But that doesn't apply to Lois Lane, does it?" Clark tried hard not to shout at her. He breathed in and out, desperately wanting to calm down. When had she found out that he was Superman? He had always feared this moment, but now that it was there here, it wasn't bothering him nearly as much as Lois rummaging through his stuff.

Being so hopelessly in love with the person he was angry at made it even more difficult. He couldn't find the strength to apologize for his own betrayal. He had let her believe that he was two separate persons. He could imagine how she felt at the moment. She must be just as hurt as he was. But she had crossed a line that he would never have dared to cross. She had invaded his privacy in a very intimate way. Their friendship wasn't in that state yet. Would he have been equally intimate with her, though maybe in another manner, he would have at least told her his secret, as a sign of deep trust in her.

"I'm sorry, Clark," Lois said hoarsely. "But why didn't you just tell me? I can understand that you hide it from the people around you. But why did you exclude me from that part of your life? Did you think it wasn't worth mentioning when you told me that you love me? Or were you lying then as well, Clark?"

"I have never lied to you, Lois. I didn't tell you certain things, granted. But as I said, I have a reason. What is Lois Lane, the great LNN reporter, going to do about my secret now? Are you going to publish it?" he blurted out. "Go and do it, Lois. There isn't anything left in the life of Clark Kent you can possibly destroy. Wait… I could still die for you. And I would gladly do it if that would save you. But you like to get into trouble, don't you? Luthor owns LNN. Maybe he'd let you have the exclusive after you're married with him. You can write your own book: Lois' secret life as Lex Luthor's slave. That will definitely win you the Pulitzer."

Suddenly Clark remembered why he had spent hours and hours in meditation. He had visited almost every place on earth to learn to relax whatever the situation. It had provided him with the ability to keep calm regardless of whatever disaster he had had to face. But it hadn't prepared him for Lois. She had brought him close to the edge so often. But now he felt that he was falling, and that he had been pushed beyond the edge. Clark Kent had avoided every argument since he was ten, because he knew what would happen.

In this very moment it happened: he lost control. It was unpredictable which of his powers would break to the surface and leave him unable to handle it. And he didn't know which of them would be the worst case scenario. As soon as her voice cut like a knife into his head, and he couldn't understand a word of what she said, Clark was aware that it was his super-hearing that had betrayed him this time.

He clutched his hands over his ears in a futile attempt to block out the millions of voices and noises, but it was in vain. Clark groaned and his legs gave out as all the sounds of the city flooded his senses. It was early morning and the city was as busy as ever. There were planes taking off and thousands of cars driving through the streets. People talked to each other in all different types of languages. He ceased to see anything, and his breath was racking. The pain in his head was almost unbearable.

He felt Lois touching him, shaking him and trying to say something. Her panic was the worst of all. He should have taken her in his arms now to tell her that everything was going to be all right. But he could barely move. He could only moan and hope that he would regain control soon. But as long as he wasn't alone, his powers were dangerous. But would she leave without getting a satisfying explanation for his behaviour?

"Migraine," he winced. "Go, Lois, get outta here! Get outta here, all of you! Now!" Clark roared the last part.

Obviously he had managed to be convincing enough for Perry and Lois to leave him. The apartment was a little quieter, and Clark breathed in and out, concentrating on his heart-beat. It was thundering in his head as were most of the other sounds, too. He rolled on his back lying in the middle of his living room. It took about half an hour until he could just hear his heart.


Chapter 3

{*I don't want to fall again,

Don't want to know this pain,

Don't want another friend,

Don't want to try again,

Don't want to see you hurt,

Don't let me see you hurt*}

(a-ha — Manhattan Skyline)

Lex was furious. He had ordered the men to beat up Kent; he hadn't asked them to lose the fight and go to jail. But exactly that had happened. Obviously he had misjudged Kent, but he would be wiser the next time. The problem was that Kent had obviously decided to hunt him until he had enough evidence to send him to prison. Lex didn't really believe that Kent could be successful. After all, he had hidden his tracks very well. And there were many options to get rid of Kent before he could become dangerous to him. Of course, that was assuming that he was smarter than he looked.

Luthor was well-known, whereas Kent was a nobody. He had gained a small amount of fame writing articles for an important newspaper. But the problem with newspapers was that they were read one day and thrown away the next. So who would remember the name, Clark Kent? In this fast moving time, the headlines of today were forgotten completely after twenty four hours. The Planet hadn't been published for almost a week now. Kent's fame had risen and set with the sun. But his sun was extinct.

Another problem was Superman, but Lex had another plan for him, and the man of steel didn't need his attention until tomorrow night. The first test had been very promising. But before he could deal with Superman, he had to find a solution to the Kent problem. He wanted to see Kent suffering for the rest of his life knowing that he had lost Lois. Lex didn't want to kill Kent, because leaving him alive would be so much more fun. Kent virtually begged to be murdered.

Maybe he would have to dismiss his Kent plan for the greater good. But he would wait and see what was going to happen next. Patience would gain him more than a sudden and half-baked reaction. Until then he should find out what his two brilliant assistants were going to tell the police. He would ask Mrs. Cox to make sure that everything happened as he wished. He could trust her with important tasks, and it wasn't easy to find people like that these days.

He had to do something about these possible traitors. Killing them would be the best solution, but that had to happen carefully. He didn't want any trace of their murders to be found. He wondered who the best choice was to trust with this assignment. To help himself think, Lex lit another of his cigars and smoked it with delight.


Mrs. Cox was still wondering what she was going to do with her new information. She had to use it carefully and prudently. She didn't want Lex to marry Lois Lane. She wasn't good enough for him. Mrs. Cox didn't love Lex; she wasn't able to feel love. In this respect the two of them were similar. But she admired the man's status and power, and she desired the man himself. That was as close to love as she would ever get.

Mrs. Cox considered letting Lex in on Kent's little secret. One of the possible advantages was that Lex would be very pleased about her success in finding Superman's weakness and turn to her. But Mrs. Cox had no illusions about Mr. Luthor. She knew that he was rotten to the core and that trusting him was nothing she'd ever dare to do. Maybe he would turn to her for a brief moment and then concentrate his attention on someone else. Lex Luthor always did as he pleased. Since Mrs. Cox couldn't really find guaranteed advantages in telling Luthor that Mr. Kent was Superman, she decided to keep that knowledge for herself. She would decide later on if telling him was a good idea.

At that moment Lex came into her office. He wore his usual charming smile and positioned himself in front of her.

"Mrs. Cox, I might need your help. Mr. Kent is becoming a little annoying, and I'd like to get rid of him," Luthor said.

"Temporarily or permanently?" she asked matter-of-factly.

"Well, personally I'd prefer temporarily. I have certain plans for him. If you can make sure that he won't get in the way of my plans then temporarily will be fine. Otherwise, permanently would be the better choice," he replied.

"I'll see what I can do about that." She gave him a reassuring smile. Mrs. Cox had no problems with self-confidence.

"And Mrs. Cox, there are two guys in jail. I'd prefer them to remain silent. Maybe you can arrange that, too. We are speaking of permanent silence here," Luthor said. She nodded as a sign that she would do that as well.

Luthor turned around and left her office. She looked after him and started thinking again. Getting rid of Mr. Kent could be dangerous in both the permanent and the temporary way. And she had to find a solution to this problem that would not only satisfy Lex but also meet her wishes. She needed Lex until she wore his wedding ring. Only when she was his wife she could become his widow.


Lois wandered through the streets of Metropolis, barely seeing anything through the tears in her eyes. She managed to hold them back so that they weren't running down her cheeks, but they burned her eyes and clouded her vision. Again she had had an argument with Clark. Though she knew that Clark had overreacted, she felt guilty. She had rummaged the living room of her best friend to find the proof she already had. The detective had told her that Clark was married, but she had searched for the document.

The last proof was sitting in prison, and Lois had decided to visit Sarah there. She didn't exactly know why, maybe because she wanted to punish herself for invading Clark's privacy. Lois was also plain curious to whom Clark had lost his heart. She wanted to understand him, wanted to see for herself what he had hidden for over a year. Why had Clark reacted that way? Was this sudden attack of migraine pretended? Or had she really caused the terrible headache by reminding him of the memories? Lois had no idea if Clark had suffered, or if he showed her only a facade, desperately trying to hide who he really was.

Sarah might explain his frequent disappearances. Maybe he visited her every spare minute that he could find and risked losing his job to be with his beloved wife. Clark might have planned how to get her out of prison for all Lois knew. The worst thing was that she didn't know him any more. He had hidden such a vital part of his life. Maybe her visit that morning had only one reason: she wanted to reconnect with the friend she'd lost. Lois had an urgent need to become acquainted with the real Clark. She had always felt that there was something underneath the surface that she couldn't touch, but she had never known what it was.

Now she had the chance to get to know him completely. She'd never had that before. Lois wondered about herself. Why was she so interested in Clark beyond just the friendship? She shook her head. No, this wasn't beyond friendship. Being interested in the other person was part of being friends. Another strange thing was that she didn't really feel angry about his deceit. She understood that talking about his wife must be painful for him. She hadn't let him in on every painful moment of her life either.

Lois approached the prison and went to the visitor's entrance. She had been here as a reporter several times. Although she preferred to stay outside these walls, she went straight inside and asked for permission to visit Sarah Elaine Warner. One of the guards was a fan of hers, and that made it a lot easier to get inside.

About half an hour later, Lois saw her for the first time. Sarah wore an orange overall that hid most of her slender frame. Never-the-less, Lois saw that she was beautiful. Her hair was silky and blonde. She had it up in a bun, and some loose wisps fell around her face. Her eyes were deep blue and somehow shining. Lois had often seen that prisoners had empty eyes. She was moving like a cat, elegant but also powerful. Lois had to admit that the woman was very impressive. Her face was immaculate but her lips allowed an insight into her true personality. They gave her face an expression as if she felt superior to the people around her. There was a brutal set about them, but Lois couldn't have explained what exactly had caused that impression. It was barely visible at the moment, but she could imagine that it would increase when the woman was brutal to someone.

Sarah looked at her and a scary smile appeared on her face.

"Lois Lane, how nice to finally meet you," she said. Her voice was harsh and didn't really fit her outer appearance. "Clark has told me a lot about you."

"I cannot return the compliment," Lois replied in an icy tone of voice. She had disliked the woman immediately.

"He's embarrassed. A wife in prison doesn't fit in his perfect little world. And he's a very private person; he doesn't tell people everything." Sarah laughed.

Lois swallowed hard. She had just experienced how protective Clark was concerning his secrets. He had lashed out at her in a way she had not thought him capable of. It had been so scary, but she also felt that she had deserved it. Lois couldn't help but blush at the memory. Sarah laughed again.

"So you got to know that character trait of his, didn't you? When was it? In the moment you found out that I existed? Poor Clark. Not only is he afraid that someone might see through his disguise, he is also more than anxious that another man might lay his eyes on me. There isn't much danger of that here, is there?"

Sarah smiled and her gaze drifted away from Lois to the guard next to the two of them who watched their conversation closely. She gave the guard a seductive smile and formed a kiss with her lips. The guard forgot for a moment that she was a prisoner and wore a very stupid and besotted expression on his face. Lois' eyes opened wide in shock. Sarah didn't seem to notice as her attention was still on the guard. She waved at the guard he waved back.

"I guess not," Lois managed to say without sounding too ironic.

She didn't want any trouble with Clark's wife. Where had he found her anyway? Had she always been like this? Was something about her so irresistible to men that he couldn't help himself? When she watched the guard, Lois had no doubts that this was the case. Somehow her beauty had turned Clark's brain into jelly. She didn't envy him his fate. She had always thought that Clark was different, but maybe she was mistaken about that.

"You can't help my foolish husband, Ms. Lane. He believes in his vows, and he would never get divorced. And I have no intention of ending our marriage either. And he strongly believes in my fidelity. He wouldn't want to hear that I'm betraying him. You'd better not try to tell him this if the two of you want to stay friends." She smiled again and giggled. Lois disliked her even more.

"How can you do that to him?" Lois asked hoarsely.

"I don't think that's any of your business, Ms Lane. He's my husband. I can do with him whatever I please." She stood up and turned around to leave the room.

The guard followed her with a hungry gaze and hurried to open the door for her. Somehow Lois couldn't help but think that this woman was even capable of making the best out of being imprisoned. She was really strange. Lois herself got up and had the urgent need to leave the prison as soon as possible. And there was another thing she wanted more than anything: more information about Sarah Elaine Warner. She would go to the police department and ask Henderson.


Clark regretted losing his temper. It was so totally unlike him. It had prevented him from really hearing what Lois had said. She had found out about his secret; she knew that he was Superman. That was no minor inconvenience, and it presented an increased threat for his parents and for his life. He wasn't so worried about his own life. But his parents mattered to him, and he had to protect them.

When the press found out that his parents knew his deepest secrets, for the rest of their lives they would never leave them alone. They would always be hunting for sweet little baby stories of the famous hero. But it wouldn't end there; they would also dig out the more unpleasant parts of his adolescence. It was already difficult enough being a teenager, but being a teenager with superhuman powers had even been a bit worse.

He had hurt a few guys involuntarily, and it hadn't been always his fault. Even though it was unintentional, just being invulnerable could cause people to be hurt — especially when they had chosen him as the punching bag of the day. He had had to learn quickly how to pull back slightly at the right moment. That hadn't been exactly easy. When he had been too late, the others were hurt. When he had been too quick, the others called him a coward, and he would get another chance to practice his abilities the next day. Well, of course, he hadn't hurt people very often. He had been more a coward than an aggressor. His parents had helped him in difficult situations especially when his temper threatened to overcome his convictions. But Clark knew the media. If everybody in Smallville knew that Clark Kent had always had these powers, the TV and newspapers would find people claiming that he had hurt them. For some reporters, it didn't matter what was true and what wasn't. They would say whatever sold. And it would be boring news to say that he had mostly been a nice little boy. So since they couldn't find real scandals, they would invent them.

Clark had also hurt Lois, and he felt sorry about that. He had no idea how he was going to fix it. He would have to apologize for his behaviour and not only to Lois but also to Perry. The poor man had suffered from his outburst and was completely innocent. He had no idea where his editor-in-chief had gone, but if he didn't return to his apartment Superman would find him. Clark hoped that his white lie about the migraine would suffice as an explanation. He hadn't been able to tell Lois or Perry that he might have hurt them by accident if they had stayed with him. He should have stopped short of losing his temper, and he should have ignored Lois' rather small betrayal.

Clark was on his way to the police department. He wanted to talk to Henderson and to his two attackers of the previous evening. Maybe he could find out more about Luthor this way. He wondered what he should say, if Henderson allowed him to have an interview with the two men. With every step he took he came closer to the police department and felt more and more nervous. When he finally entered the department, he heard his heart thundering in his ears. This was the single best opportunity he had ever had to hunt Luthor down, and Clark seriously hoped that he wasn't going to blow it.

It was unusually quiet in the police department, and Clark couldn't help but wonder if he had missed a major disaster. Had he been so lost in his thoughts that he didn't even hear sirens and screams anymore? That was hard to imagine, considering the fact that his super-hearing had kind of paralyzed him just an hour ago. So what was going on here? Clark was worried, especially since this was the police department where the witnesses for Luthor's evilness were staying at the moment. What had John Black said? * I'd be grateful if they don't kill me.*

Luthor didn't exactly have a high estimation of human life if it wasn't his own. But was there really something wrong, or was Lois right and he had become too obsessive about Luthor? And was Luthor behind what he didn't even know for sure was actually happening? Clark shook his head. He was really losing his mind. It shouldn't be a problem to find out if anything was wrong.

Clark focused his super-hearing on the faintest sound in the building. He knew that this was rather daring since a loud sound next to him would be extremely painful. There were only whispers in the next room, and that was definitely odd. Clark used his x-ray vision to look through the wall. A couple of anxious policemen sat in one corner of the room, and right next to them was a bomb. Clark held his breath at the sight of this. Three masked villains with weapons were in the room as well; one of them was guarding the policemen in the corner, and two of them were watching every move of a single officer.

How had they managed to overpower a bunch of policemen? Clark knew at once that these three guys had to be really dangerous. The single officer was fumbling with a key and shivering with fear. Clark knew the poor man. Officer Michaels had four small children and his wife had died of leukemia only months ago. He couldn't even imagine how this man was suffering now. Anger was building up inside him when he saw the violence of those villains. How could they be so cruel? Clark became convinced that Luthor was behind this, and that the villains were trying to get at the two prisoners. His anger increased. Was there anything evil happening in this city that wasn't caused by Luthor?

He had to do something, but decided that an appearance as Superman was out of question. These three villains looked so nervous that he expected them to kill the policemen and themselves if they felt threatened. Clark didn't dare take that risk. He heard loud footsteps approaching him and turned down his super-hearing immediately. Only seconds later he felt something hard pressing against his back.

"Hands up, slowly." He heard a rough whisper. Clark obeyed and lifted his arms making sure the criminal behind him saw his empty hands.

"Move," the man said. "Don't say a word or you're dead before you even get a glimpse of that pair of tights."

Together they went straight ahead in the direction of the office Clark had viewed minutes ago. He remained silent and wished that he didn't have this habit of always pushing his glasses back in place. If he had been able to still look over them he could have destroyed the bomb right now. The villain pushed him over to the group of policemen waiting in the corner. Officer Michaels had managed to find the key for the jail cells. Clark looked at him while he was searched for weapons and forced to sit down within the group. He didn't have much time left. Officer Michaels would open the door any minute. Clark turned his attention to the villain watching them. He wasn't looking at Clark right at that moment, and Clark managed to push down his glasses a bit. He x-rayed the bomb and placed a bit of laser vision on the right place.

Clark seriously hoped that no one noticed the smoke emerging from the bomb. He got up quickly and he heated the weapons of the two men next to Michaels. Their guns immediately fell out of their hands. Clark grabbed the gun from the third man, knocking him over with well measured strength. The policemen had watched him with great interest but also fear, because his actions must have seemed quite risky to them. They weren't aware of his invulnerability and didn't know that he had destroyed the bomb. But as soon as they noticed that luck was on their side now, they got up quickly and overpowered their attackers.

The scene had changed completely. Clark was content with his work, and everyone called him a damn, lucky fool. They admonished him not to pull such a stunt ever again. Not a single person became suspicious. He told them that he had seen Superman hovering outside the window and had decided to take action. The policemen bought it. They didn't know enough about Superman's abilities to know that he couldn't have heated the weapons from the outside without melting the glass.

After this rescue, it was no problem to have a little chat with his attackers. He could only make them tell him that they didn't know exactly who had given them the assignment. But they assured him that they would recognize the voice on the phone when they heard it again. Clark had found two witnesses. They promised him they would testify in court, if the police offered protection and if their sentence for breaking into Clark's apartment and beating him up would be mild. Since they were still on probation, Clark couldn't spare them jail time, but he would do all he could do reduce the amount of time they would have to spend there. Clark did offer to ask Superman for extra protection.

Henderson was glad that he had finally found five promising witnesses. The three villains that had invaded the police department were very eager to tell their story to save their skins. To demonstrate his satisfaction, Henderson had shaken Clark's hand.

The two of them knew that they didn't have enough evidence against Luthor to nail him, but they were on the right track. Together with Henderson, Officer Michaels couldn't stop thanking Clark for his bravery. Michaels had been very afraid that he would leave his four beloved children alone. They were suffering from the death of their mother, and losing their father as well would have been even worse.

Clark felt so much sympathy for this poor man. His Lois wasn't going to die, but he had still lost her. That was bad enough, but if he really was never going to see her ever again, it would be worse than hell.

When Clark stepped out of the police department he was very aware of the fact that life was often too short to have a second chance. He had to make up with Lois as soon as possible. Right at the moment that he was thinking this, he found that she was standing right in front of him.


Lois was stunned as she saw Clark stepping out of the police department.

"Hi Clark," she greeted him uneasily.

"Hi Lois," he replied, sounding just as shocked as she was. "I'm sorry, Lois, I overreacted."

"I shouldn't have searched your desk," Lois admitted, still embarrassed by her own nerve. She had learnt more today than she had ever bargained for. "Are you better, now?"

"Yeah, I tend to get bad headaches when I become furious. That was totally uncalled for, Lois. I really need to apologize," Clark answered.

"No, you don't, Clark. I had no right to invade your privacy. What are you doing here, Clark?" She bit her lip. She really was unable to stop being the nosy reporter. He had the right to be wherever he wanted to be.

"I had to talk with Henderson," Clark said. "There is still someone in jail who counts on my help." He sounded somewhat reproachful. Lois didn't really understand why. After all, his wife was sitting behind those steel bars for a reason. She had killed someone.

"You can't help everyone, Clark. Some people sit in jail for a reason," she replied and bit her lip again. Why was she provoking another argument?

"Have you ever heard of the concept of innocence?" Clark asked. "Not everyone behind those steel bars is guilty of what he's accused of. Unfortunately not everyone breathing the air of freedom is innocent either."

"Clark, please stop this stupid crusade against Lex. He isn't personified evil as you tend to see him."

"Lois, can't you see through his disguise? He is personified greed; he does literally anything to achieve his goal." Clark said helplessly. How was he going to make her see the true personality of Lex Luthor?

"You're envious, Clark, and jealous. Why do you begrudge me living with Lex?"

"You don't listen to me, Lois." Clark stated annoyed. "What do I have to do to make you believe my words? Wear tights?"

"You don't have to steal your wife's clothing, Clark." Lois said and ran away.

Why was he like this? She had always considered him to be her best friend, but during those last couple of days he had been so mean. She felt tears streaming down her cheeks. What was there about Clark Kent that had made her cry for the second time this day when she hadn't cried for years. Lois couldn't believe it, he made her behave so strange that she didn't recognize herself. She had lost him for sure now. They were not able to talk to each other without arguing. Lois felt so empty. She relied on him, and she needed Clark to talk to. It didn't matter how unkind he had been; because she still needed him. Why was she already missing him so much? Had she again managed to fall for the wrong guy?


Lex had made a big mistake by underestimating Clark Kent. He had thought that he would be easy to fight, but it was more difficult than he had ever imagined. Who could have guessed that Clark Kent would be so challenging? And moreover he didn't even have the powers of Superman. Lex felt more and more amazed that he needed to be resourceful to beat that man. Of course it wasn't easy either to hunt down Superman, but he had already set that trap. It was interesting that he didn't care so much about the Man of Steel at the moment. Superman had dominated his every thought in the last couple of weeks. He had planned his death with more accuracy than he had ever needed to kill another adversary.

But right now, there seemed to be another force in town to be reckoned with — someone he had never considered a threat but more an inconvenience. It didn't happen very often that Lex Luthor's targets changed their own classification, but Mr. Kent had managed to redefine his status. Lex was able to admit an error, and he would correct it. Once he had only been the partner of Ms. Lane, but he had quickly gained a name. Mr. Kent was no longer an inconvenience but a threat. Lex didn't believe that he would climb the next step and change from a threat to a real enemy. Lex Luthor would read Clark Kent's obituary in one of the local newspapers before he had the chance to become an enemy.


It was already dark when Clark returned to his apartment. He had been called to several emergencies all over the city, and that had pretty much kept him from thinking about what had happened. This was about the first time that he felt kind of grateful for disasters. It caused a wave of guilt to wash over him because the welcomed distraction was so awful for the people suffering from it. But he couldn't help his feelings. The new argument with Lois had left him stunned at first. He hadn't been able to move, let alone run after her. He had heard her sobbing after she had run from him. He never missed the faintest sound she made when she was anywhere near him. The sound had mixed with her heart beat making it a very heart-wrenching experience. It had left him unable to move.

He hadn't actually understood what she had meant with the comment about a wife. It confused him because he had assumed that she knew about his being Superman. Had he misunderstood? But then exactly what secret had she found out? The only other secret that he could think of was that he was still a virgin at his twenty-seven. But since sex had never been of any relevance between them, that couldn't really be of interest to her. And it certainly wasn't anything she might have found out by searching his desk. In fact she wasn't likely to have found the truth about Superman in his desk either.

For the moment he had, unbelievable as it was, more important things to do than think about Lois. Clark noticed that Perry was in his apartment. He needed to find a very good apology for his editor-in-chief. And if he didn't manage to find one, he would have to tell Perry the truth. Perry was too good a friend to be treated so mean. Clark owed him a lot, and he thought of the man as an uncle.

Clark entered his apartment through the front door. "Perry?" He asked into the silence.

"I'm already packing, Clark," his chief replied from the living room.

"That's not necessary. I'm sorry for being so rude this morning. It won't happen again," Clark said as he approached Perry. He felt really crushed about this. Perry was not involved in any way in this whole mess.

"She has hurt you a lot, hasn't she, son?" Perry asked sympathetically. He stopped packing.

Clark nodded. "That was still no good reason to attack you as well, but I had the feeling that I was going to lash out. I didn't want to put anyone in danger."

That was as close to the truth as Clark could possibly get without telling Perry that he was Superman. He hadn't actually felt like he was going to deliberately hurt anyone. He wasn't actually the aggressive type. And when he really felt anger, it was more aimed at himself than at others. But he wasn't always able to control his superhuman part. It scared him that Lois was able to push him beyond the edge of control, especially since she was the person that he would never want to hurt.

"Women do strange things to us, son. Alice can drive me rather crazy sometimes, but I love her. And you love Lois."

"With all my heart," Clark admitted.

"That's the reason why she affects you so much. She brings out the best and the worst in you," Perry said softly.

"But I don't want to be the worst version of myself, Perry. That's way too scary," Clark muttered and sank down on his sofa, covering his face with his hands.

He felt so weak right now. The last argument with Lois had drained him emotionally. He could still see better than anyone else on the planet. He could still hear the faintest sound. He could still lift a rocket into orbit. At the same time he had never felt so limp. He had lost every hope of getting her back, of being able to give her the freedom she deserved. In his mind he already saw Lois enslaved by Luthor. Clark was literally able to fly, but Lois was the person with the wings. She shouldn't be caged like that. She needed to be able to spread her wings and fly wherever the winds carried her.

Perry sat down next to Clark and patted his shoulder consolingly.

"Sunshine follows rain, you know that, son. As dark and hopeless as things might be now, they can only get better," he said calmly. "All you need is a little bit of patience. Lois will realize that Lex Luthor is not the nice guy he pretends to be. She just cannot admit that she has made a mistake. But I'm sure she will, before it is too late."

"I really hope so, chief. It makes me sad that we're not able to speak to each other anymore. We always argued, especially when we became partners. But it never was that bad. I love her so much, but I can't help but be angry with her sometimes." Clark sighed and looked at Perry.

"You really think that love is an ever-happy kind of thing? This is about feelings, Clark. You can't have true feelings for a person and never get angry with him or her. What she does bothers you because she can touch your soul. It would be a sad sign if she wasn't able to annoy you."

Clark slowly nodded as Perry's words sank in. Maybe he didn't have to feel guilty because Lois had turned him into an emotional wreck over the last couple of days. Maybe he really felt that way because Lois mattered to him so much. But he was too tired to think about these things. He muttered an apology as he got up from the sofa and went to bed.

He just didn't feel like eating right now. In fact he hadn't eaten all day, but there was no way for Perry to know that. Since Clark didn't need to eat, it didn't really matter if he actually did. He had already made his evening patrol by then and saw no point in flying around a second time. He didn't really feel up to doing anything but sleep. His dreams were the last place where everything was just the way it should be.


Someone was knocking at his door, and Clark got up from the sofa. He checked quickly to see who his visitor was and grinned with satisfaction when he saw Lois standing there. She wore a coat but seemed to shiver despite that. He started toward the door but then quickly stopped to check on his outfit. When he saw the washed-out jeans and the casual shirt, he made a short detour into his bedroom and changed into black jeans and a black shirt. Then he hurriedly went to the door.

She greeted him with a smile, and he invited her in. He noticed that her eyes were wandering over his body. She took off the coat as she went down the stairs. Lois wore a sweet little nothing that didn't leave much to imagination. Her dress was black and short, silky and flowing. It emphasized her curves in exactly the right manner. Only Lois could manage to look so decent in such a state of undress. Her skin was flawless. "Red like blood, white like snow and black like ebony," the phrase of the fairy tale resounded in his mind. Never had anything described her in a better way. Like Snow White she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Clark felt his knees grow weak.

She turned to him as he descended the stairs, came closer and laid her arms on his shoulders. "I love you so much, Clark," she said. Those were the words he had longed to hear so desperately. She leaned forward to kiss him.

Her warm lips touched his, and her breath caressed his face sending shivers through his body. Her tongue slipped through his lips that parted of their own will. While she was kissing him passionately, her fingers played with his hair, wandered down his neck and trailed over his chest. He felt her every movement, and time seemed to stand still, stopped by some generous power that granted him his deepest desire to never let this moment pass. They shouldn't have to part ever again. Clark needed to know that Lois wasn't going to marry Luthor, and in this very moment he was sure of this. Nothing was going to ever separate them again. Lois was his present and his future.

She ended the kiss and rested her head against his shoulder, allowing him to drink in the sweet but spicy scent of her hair, a mixture of roses and something he wasn't able to define. Clark was aware of her with every one of his senses. He heard her steady but increasing heart beat and smelled the unique scent of her. Her body felt warm in his arms. He could still taste her kiss on his lips; it was like dark chocolate. It was a bittersweet moment, and it fulfilled his desires but also made him ache for more. Even though his eyes were closed, he could still see her beauty. And he didn't just see her face; he saw her soul.


Clark woke up to strange noises in his apartment. He was wide awake immediately and left his bed silently. A quick glance with his x-ray vision showed him that a second pair of invaders had come into his apartment. This was getting really annoying. He had been having such a lovely dream, and they had interrupted his sleep. He sneaked off to his living room as the two men were coming in from his balcony. They didn't hear him, and they didn't see him. He moved so quickly that he was just a blur. Faster than a speeding bullet he took their weapons away and lifted the two men a few inches above the ground.

"Who sent you?" Clark grumbled.

"Don't…don't know what you're talking about," one of them said as he tried to lie. Clark shook him lightly.

"I hate it when someone thinks that I'm a fool. So who gave you the assignment to break in?"

"All we know is that he's called the boss," the other criminal said.

Clark nodded grimly. "That much I assumed. Tell me something new, guys. Who is the boss?"

"I…I don't know," one of them stammered. But Clark could hear their increasing heart rate, and he could smell the sweat.

"You know more than you are admitting," he stated simply. "Who contacted you?"

"Okay, there was this guy that sounded rather British. He promised us money if we kill you."

"Would you recognize his voice?" Clark asked.

"What will we get?" The criminal wanted to know.

"My personal guarantee that Superman won't fly loops during your flight to the police," Clark replied. He shot a quick glance at Perry who had woken up as well and was watching the scene. "Would you mind watching the two of them while I contact Superman?" He asked the older man.

Perry nodded and grabbed one of the guns that were still lying on the floor. He pointed it at the two invaders, looking rather threatening.

"Don't try anything funny, guys, I know how to handle this baby," he said menacingly. He grinned at Clark, who set the two back on the floor and hurried away. He ran out of his apartment, changed into Superman and returned via his balcony.

"Thanks, Mr. White. I'll take care of these two. You can go back to bed. I don't think that anyone will try this again soon," Superman said in his firmest voice. He lifted the two villains up to the skies and disappeared into the night, heading for the police station.


Lois was sitting on her sofa when suddenly Clark materialized in the living room.

"I'm sorry, Lois. I'm so very sorry."

"I'm sorry, too, Clark. I never wanted us to argue. You know, Clark, I love you," she said as she got up and approached him. He welcomed her with an embrace.

"I love you, Lois. More than anything in the world; more than words can ever say." His embrace was so comforting, so sensual. "I only wish that we could be together. This is so frustrating, Lois, honey. I loved Sarah so much; I still love her, but she has changed into a person I don't know anymore."

"I have met her, Clark. I felt that she was not the same person you had fallen in love with. She couldn't be," Lois said softly, stroking his back and holding him tightly.

"I should have told you about her, and I wanted to, for a long time now. I really needed someone to talk to. I was so alone. Sarah ripped my heart out and left nothing but grief, ache and emptiness. You were the only person able to fill that hole with affection and life. I thought that I'd died the day Sarah was convicted. You saved my life," he whispered into her hair.

"But you believe in your vows, don't you, Clark?" She felt sad, so unbelievably sad.

"I don't feel like I could really leave her, Lois. When I admitted my feelings for you in that park, I really hoped that you would say that you love me, too. I hoped that with you I would find the strength and courage to leave her. I thought that you and I would be strong enough to do that together. His voice was trembling from the effort of holding back tears. She could see them glistening in his eyes. "Lois, please don't marry Luthor. He's evil. He doesn't love you the way I do." Clark kissed her, and she could almost taste his despair and felt him begging her to let go of Luthor and help him cut his ties with Sarah.

"It wasn't his fault, Clark. Sarah didn't tell him that she was married to you when she seduced him. Lex didn't betray you. He never meant to hurt you and is so awfully sorry, Lois said softly, trying to give him support and comfort. It also was an attempt to free him from Sarah. Maybe if he only knew that she had been cheating on him, he would be able to leave her.

Clark stared at her with the most painful expression she had ever seen. He furrowed his brow and his eyes grew wide. He was no longer able to restrain the tears, and they rolled down his cheeks. She saw him wince and heard a deep growl of pain that emerged from his throat. "No," he whispered. "No. It was Luthor's fault, not Sarah's."

But his attempt to fool himself was weak.


Lois woke up, still lying on the sofa where she had drifted to sleep. The lights were still on. She had again had a dream about Clark. Why was she dreaming about him? She could still feel his pain as if it had been real, as if it was hers. Why did he affect her so much? She could no longer run away from the realization that there was more to Clark than she was willing to admit. She had again made the same mistake, the mistake she had desperately tried to avoid since her disastrous affair with Claude. She had tried hard not be so stupid again. Ever since she had met Clark, she had tried hard to push him away, but she had failed.

And now she had made this terrible mistake again: She had fallen in love with the wrong guy: Clark Kent. Not that Clark was bad in any way. He was just perfect except that she couldn't have him. Lois should have known that. She just wasn't meant to be happy.

*Never get involved in your stories, never let anyone else get there first, and never sleep with anyone you work with.* Had she really claimed to be that hard hearted? Maybe she just wished to be that way because reality was so hurtful. Lois was a fugitive, always running away from the people who could harm her emotionally. During her constant flight she ran into the arms of those who intended to hurt her physically. But Lois wasn't afraid of them. She knew how to deal with injuries that could be seen. It was the invisible ones that she couldn't cope with. Those were the ones that refused to heal.

Lois looked at the marriage certificate in her hands. Why had she taken it with her? It only proved her betrayal. Maybe the reason she took it was because she wanted to punish herself for the terrible thing she had done. Why hadn't she stopped herself before things had gotten out of hand? They had been so close to reconciliation, but she had blown it completely. Lois left the sofa and buried the certificate in her own desk. She didn't want to see it again anytime soon.

She had assumed Clark to be the safe harbor she had finally found. But she had understood too late that this man wasn't only a friend to her, but also the man she loved. And worst of all was that Clark was bound to this terrible woman. His declaration of love had been a cry for help, but she had rejected him. Even if she had felt this love before, he still might not have been able to flee his own prison. Now that she knew about his marriage, she didn't have the heart to save him. She couldn't easily destroy a marriage since she had suffered from the divorce of her parents so much. She couldn't be the reason for something that had once made her mother start to drink. She would never want to be the cause of such misery. She only wished that she and Clark hadn't parted the way they had. Why had they drifted apart?

She heard a soft tapping at her window and looked over to it. Superman's concerned eyes watched her and pleaded silently for entrance. She was surprised to see him, but she stood up and opened the window for him. He wasn't the man she longed to see. If only it had been Clark telling her that everything was all right, and that he was free from Sarah.

"Hello, Superman," she greeted the Man of Steel. "I didn't expect you to come to my apartment again."

"Hello, Lois. I was around and saw the light in your apartment. I wanted to talk to you," he said. He had spoken much more gently than the last time he had been here. "You seem to be upset. What's the matter?"

"I had a bad argument with Clark. I'm so sorry for that."

"He is sorry, as well, Lois."

"He has told you?" she asked, even more surprised. Clark and Superman were obviously really close friends. He didn't answer her question. "Has he sent you?"

"No, he didn't. He is still working up all his courage to apologize to you, but he would never ask me to do it for him." Superman said. "Lois, I…"

Lois sank back on her couch and buried her face in her hands. A sob escaped her and she interrupted Superman. "I love him. I told him that I didn't, but I love him so much."

"He loves you, too." She heard Superman swallow. His voice was husky for some reason. He didn't sound much like himself.

"It's impossible, though." Lois sobbed again and then started to cry her heart out. "I can never have him."

Superman sat down next to her and put his arms around her. She leaned into his embrace and sobbed against his firm chest. Her tears fell on his suit and got it wet, but Superman didn't seem to care.

"Oh, Lois, stop crying, sweetheart." He tried to soothe her.

"I rejected him, and now I've lost him forever."

"You haven't lost him, Lois. He will come to apologize, I'm sure. Tell him that you love him."

"I can't," she mumbled. "He hasn't told you about it, has he?"

"Told me what?" Superman asked.

"I better not say. It was bad enough that I betrayed him by rummaging through his things. I won't do that again by telling you his secrets," she said firmly.

"Lois, what secret are you talking about?" Superman inquired.

"I can't. Please leave me alone, Superman." Lois cried. "Go!" She screamed the last word, sounding as helpless as Clark had sounded when she had seen him in his apartment.

"I know Clark quite well; I don't think there is anything he has hidden from me. Tell me what is bothering you. I might be able to help."

"I said go!" Lois screamed. Superman shot her an irritated glance and got up from the sofa.

When he had indeed left, she sank onto the couch and tears streamed down her face as she silently wept.


"I don't believe it. You dare tell me that you've failed again?" Lex Luthor fumed. "He's an ordinary guy for Heaven's Sake. What's so complicated about killing him?"

"I sent two of the best people that were available," Mrs. Cox replied.

"Two of the best? Are you kidding me? You should be able to get rid of him with the biggest fools you know. He isn't even bullet proof. But now he is getting closer and closer to us. And I promise you, if he finds evidence for our criminal business, I'll make sure they take your head first." He paced through his office, shooting angry glances at Mrs. Cox. "I have a brilliant idea, and I really hope for your sake that this won't be too difficult for you. There are rumors about a brilliant scientist; his name is Derek Camden. I think he can help us."

Mrs. Cox nodded. "I'll contact him and see if he can be useful."

Lex Luthor sent her away with a harsh gesture and started pacing again. Clark Kent had just achieved the status of an enemy. Luthor started to really like this challenge. His new plan would be infallible, provided that Mrs. Cox was able to make Derek Camden help them. If the rumors were right, he had invented a weapon that didn't leave any evidence. It should be able to kill and disable. With Kent it would suffice to disable him briefly. If everything worked the right way, he would turn Clark Kent into a loyal friend, which would be much better than killing him.

Thinking of Clark Kent made him realize that he hadn't heard from Lois for quite some time. She had definitely had enough time to cope with her best friend's marriage. He should tighten his grip on her and invite her for dinner this evening. Lex Luthor stopped pacing and smiled broadly. Kent wasn't going to stop him. It would be just the opposite after he was through with him. And Superman would soon be his. As a test to the new found loyalty, maybe he would even ask Kent to be a little rude to the Man of Steel.

The mere thought was so exciting that Luthor considered asking his technician to program this scene for his virtual reality. But could the guy be fast enough before he would enjoy the reality? Luthor doubted it. But he would film the event and make it available for reliving his victory over and over again. He would need that, because after these two great enemies were at his mercy, it would be difficult to find someone able to follow in their foot-steps.


Chapter 4

{*I do not want to see myself

As someone that you saved

I'd rather be your adversary

Than to be your slave*}

(a-ha — Don't do me any favours)

*The Day*

This was getting rather odd. Clark thought it was ironic that Clark would have a secret that Superman didn't know about. It was amazing that Lois had started to be so loyal to Clark that she wouldn't give away his secrets. She had also told him that she loved Clark, and that should have put him on cloud nine. He wanted to get back to her as Clark immediately, but he doubted that this was a good idea. She had told Superman that she loved Clark, and she might expect the hero to keep this a secret. She had said that it was impossible for her and Clark to be together.

He had been taken by surprise when she had suddenly declared her love for Clark. Superman had shown up at Lois' apartment to confess his love to her. He had wanted to admit that he had lied because he wanted to protect her. Superman had wanted to tell her that he couldn't live without her and that he needed to apologize. Maybe he should have told her right then that Superman was Clark. But he hadn't been able to do that. He was so startled by her sudden confession that telling her the truth hadn't even crossed his mind.

Since Clark couldn't easily claim that Superman had told him about Lois' disastrous state of mind, he couldn't show up at her place in the middle of the night. He desperately wanted to know what Lois assumed was his secret. One thing was perfectly clear: when she had told him that she had found out about his secret, she hadn't meant that he was Superman. Paradoxically, he would be glad right now if she had guessed just that. This split-personality thing was getting very annoying. The whole situation would have been ridiculous if it hadn't been so sad.

So lacking any better idea, Clark started to search his own desk and cupboards. He couldn't do it at super-speed, because Perry was there. Unfortunately, he didn't manage to do it without waking up his editor, but he really needed to know what Lois had found.

"Clark, what in the Sam Hill are you doing?" Perry asked drowsily.

"I'm trying to find something, Chief," Clark replied.

"You're trying to find something at 3 o'clock in the morning? What can be that important?" Perry inquired curiously.

"Honestly, I don't exactly know, Perry." Clark shrugged and continued his search.

"Good thing that you're a great reporter, Clark. Otherwise I would have had to straightjacket you." Perry smiled.

"Lois said something about having found out my 'secret'. I'd like to know what that secret is supposed to be," Clark explained.

Perry nodded. "I can't convince you to find out what that is at another time of day?"

"You can take my bed, Chief. I just need to know now." Clark said.

He made a mess out of his living room looking in every possible place, but there was nothing that would have explained Lois behavior towards him. Perry had vanished somewhere, trying to not stand in the way. After Clark had searched his place the second time and still hadn't found any hint, he began to clean up. When Clark was finished it was six o'clock in the morning.

Suddenly someone was knocking at his door, and Clark went to open it. He recognized the slender shape behind the door. He was surprised. It was Lois. Was he dreaming again? Clark wasn't sure, but he hoped that this was reality. Though they had argued, he longed to talk to her.


She interrupted, "Clark, I need to talk to you." She sounded rather desperate, and before he realized what was happening, she clung to him in a tight embrace. "I can't stand to lose you. Can't we…can't we cheat on her? She would never know, Clark. I understand…if you don't feel able to do that, Clark, but she is evil. Don't you see that? She doesn't deserve you. I would make you happy. I don't care that we can never get married. But please, Clark…"

Suddenly Lois kissed him with passion, holding him as if he were the tree trunk that was going to save her from drowning. She pressed her body against his, trying to have contact with every inch of him. Helplessly he put his arms around her, unable to move. Somehow he was shocked by the sudden real life contact. He had dreamt of this a thousand times. But the real experience was almost more than he could take. He had never felt so weak and so strong all at once. His brain was clouded, and he couldn't think straight.

He noticed that her hair didn't smell like roses but like peach today. But the taste of her kiss was indeed dark chocolate. It was a sweet tantalization, since he was well aware that he was just getting a brief foretaste of what *could* be. The real Lois would surface soon enough and push him away again. But as long as it lasted, Clark was going to enjoy it. It didn't matter what price he was going to pay for this short moment of sheer ecstasy.

Her warm body felt incredible, better than in any fantasy he had had about this woman. Her tongue was even softer and silkier than in his dreams. When Lois broke the kiss, Clark roughly fell off of cloud nine.

"So what do you say, Clark? Please tell me that you at least like me a little bit and that you won't refuse my offer. I know that cheating is a sin in your eyes, but, Clark, she was cheating, too. It's only fair for you to have an affair. You deserve to be loved, Clark. Please tell me you love me." She was babbling again, but this time her words sank in.

"Lois, I love you, but what are you talking about? Cheating? How…" he said.

"Oh, I should have known. Of course you would never…Oh, Clark forgive me, please forgive me." Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

Clark lifted her face up, covering her wet cheek with his palm as he wiped away her tears with his thumb.

"Please stop crying, honey." He mumbled. "Talk to me, Lois. I still don't understand what you are trying to tell me." He pulled her in an embrace, and she sighed as she rested her head against his chest.

"I'm talking about you and me, Clark. And S..Sarah." She sobbed heart-wrenchingly.

"Sarah?" he asked. He was confused and stroked her back, trying to soothe and comfort her.

"Oh, why have you never told me about her? But, Clark, we will find a way, no matter how long it takes. Even if you can't stand the idea of cheating on her, we will find a way."

"Lois, who is Sarah?" Clark asked and held her at arms length so he could see her face.

"Oh, come on, Clark, I already know about her; there is no reason to hide her from me any longer," Lois said a bit annoyed.

"Lois, maybe you know what you are talking about, but I don't. So please tell me who Sarah is supposed to be?"

"Your wife," Lois stated grimly.

"My… my… what?"

"You can stop lying. I've seen your marriage certificate. Oh, Clark I can't believe that you are still denying it." Clark had already expected the old Lois to return, and bang, here she was: furious — just the way he knew and loved her. The sudden change was none-the-less scary.

"You honestly think that I'm married?" Clark sank down on the steps of his apartment. His voice was hoarse and barely audible. That was the last thing he had expected to hear.

"Clark, I've seen the evidence. I had the marriage certificate in my hands, and I've talked to your wife," the old Lois said impatiently.

Clark couldn't believe what he heard. He wanted to reply, but a voice in the back of his mind grumbled, *Yeah, Kent. She's going to believe you. After all, you're already such a great liar. She'll definitely believe what you say.*

What on earth had caused Lois to think that he was married? He couldn't really sort this out. He had obviously been silent for far too long because she was speaking again.

"Clark, I can understand that this is difficult for you, but I see no point in denying it," Lois said sympathetically.

She sat down next to him, laying one arm around his shoulders. Why was she being so nice to him? Oh, how Clark had longed to be so close to her. He felt like he needed someone to soothe him. He wished that Lois was telling him that her being Luthor's fiancee was just a bad nightmare that he had finally woken up. But now he was confused because she was trying to comfort him because of a situation he wasn't even in.

Had he really assumed that things couldn't get worse? Who had told her that lie about him being married? The answer was obvious, but Clark couldn't really understand why Luthor would do this. Did he really consider him as a potential rival? After all, she had rejected him; he wasn't really dangerous anymore, was he?

"Clark, please talk to me. Tell me to go away, tell me to back off with my stupid ideas of having a life with you despite the existence of Sarah, but please don't remain silent. If you're thinking that I'm the most despicable woman you've ever met, please say it. I can't stand that I don't know what's going on in your head!" Lois cried suddenly and shook him, not hard, but enough to make him talk.

"Lois, it was Luthor who told you that I was married, wasn't it?" Clark said softly.

"Yeah, Clark. He told me about what happened between you, Sarah and him," Lois replied.

"I've told you so often that you cannot trust him, Lois," Clark said, hoping to solve the misunderstanding.

"Clark, he told me the truth. He admitted that he made a mistake. He's sorry, Clark. I think you should forgive him. Are you so blinded by love that you can't see your wife's true character?" Lois interrupted him.

"Lois, I am not married, and I never was married. You can't have met my wife because I have none. I seriously hoped that you would take that place in my life some time in the future." Clark bit his lip. He knew that he had said too much. He had certainly scared her away by now.

"Clark, why are you still trying to hide it? I know that she is in prison. You think that she's innocent; that much I understood when we had that fight."

"I was talking about Jack, Lois. For Heaven's sake, you're really forgetting about everything because of Luthor. There are people that need help getting out of his evil grip. And you are one of them. When will you realize that he is evil? I'm almost sure that he had the bomb placed at the Planet. Where is that great investigative reporter I was introduced to a year ago? I'm not the one who's blind in this, Lois. You are." Clark was desperate.

He wanted to make her see the truth; he wanted to maul the veil of deceit that Luthor had built up. But what if he let her see too much? What if Lois realized that Clark had also weaved a web of deceit. She would be furious and turn away from him without listening further. Clark was pretty sure of that. He was dancing on the edge of a volcano.

"So you are honestly telling me that Sarah Elaine Warner is not married to you? Even though I found the marriage certificate in your desk?" Lois inquired.

"Luthor must have placed it there, Lois," Clark attempted to explain.

"Come on, Clark. You cannot be in earnest. Assuming that's true, and he invented this marriage, why would he do that? And how would he make a marriage certificate appear in Smallville and in your flat? And how did the woman in prison know things about you when she wasn't your wife? Please Clark, you are an investigative reporter as well. I only followed the evidence, and there is more evidence for his story than there is for yours. I thought better of you, Clark. I really did. But you are jealous and you are just behaving ridiculously." She got up and ascended the stairs hurriedly.

"You trust that b


more than me?" he howled after her.

"I trust evidence, Clark," she replied coldly and was gone.

Clark couldn't help but wonder if maybe Lois had super-powers, too. She had vanished quicker than he had ever assumed possible. He was stuck on the stairs as if someone was holding him down. Now he knew what Lois' problem had been the whole time. This time Luthor had bested him. He was never going to get out of this trap. Luthor hadn't even needed kryptonite. Why didn't Lois believe him?

Clark shook his head. He knew the answer. Lois was a woman that needed evidence. Even though it was false, Luthor had evidence for his story. And Clark didn't really have much evidence against Luthor. Jack had said it. This was not a battle of strength; this was a battle of the mind. Clark had failed, because he wasn't playing unfairly. Lex Luthor didn't care if he lied or not. Honesty and morality weren't part of his vocabulary. Clark buried his face in his hands and moaned.

He fervently longed to smash something. His blood was thundering in his ears, and his nerves were tense; Clark was at the verge of exploding. He had never felt such a need to do something and at the same time still feel so incredibly helpless. Being helpless wasn't a common feeling for him. But right now his mind was empty, and his body was filled with a hot rush of rage. He needed all the strength he had to control himself. He didn't want to freak out because that would do more harm than good. But Perry was likely to be somewhere around so Clark would have to control himself. Better safe than sorry.


Lois ran through the streets of Metropolis as if Jack the Ripper were pursuing her. She had never felt so betrayed by someone. Why couldn't Clark just say that he was married? She had made a fool of herself. What an embarrassing memory would that be! She had thrown herself at Clark like a drowning person. And he hadn't even reacted. She had at least expected to be pushed away by a humiliated husband. He would have had every right to be mad and humiliated. Lois still blushed at what she had offered Clark. As strange as it sounded, she had felt that this was the right thing to do, and because of that she had dismissed all her personal objections concerning adultery. She loved Clark, and he had told her that he loved her as well. His wife was cheating on him; she didn't obey the vows she had made when they had married. As a child Lois had thought that a marriage was worth saving at any cost, but now she was an adult. She understood that not every marriage was good and that it could make people unhappy. With the dangers she had faced and everything else she had encountered in her life, Lois had learnt that life was really too short to waste on marital arguments and deceit.

Everyone deserved to be happy, and Clark just couldn't be happy with such a wife. He had made the wrong decision years ago, but that didn't mean that he should have to pay for it his entire adult life. But even though he had briefly cried for help, Clark seemed to like being caged. But now that she had come to save him, he was sending her away and pretending that nothing was wrong. She had seen his misery, yet he had the nerve to call her blind.

How could life be so cruel to both of them? She had asked herself frequently if there were perfect for her, the soul mate that she could share the rest of her life with. In the very moment that she had found the answer and with it the man, she realized that it had come too late. Another woman was married to the man of her dreams. But for Clark, it was even harder. He was so ashamed that he couldn't even confess his marriage.

Despite all her anger, she felt mostly sad for her best friend and new found love. There was a nagging pain torturing her heart that was the last bond between her and him. Right now, she felt the same incredible pain that he had to endure. This loss was the worst thing Lois had ever experienced; it was even worse than the pain Claude had caused her. She didn't know how to bear it. Lois had the impression that she was never going to survive this and that she would die any minute because of a broken heart. But she knew something else: there was no way she could marry another man now. If she couldn't have Clark, she didn't want to marry at all. Assuming that she would survive the day, she couldn't imagine ever kissing someone else.

Lois knew what to do and where to go. She had to break the engagement. She would visit Luthor and apologize for her mistake. She just couldn't marry him anymore. But could she tell him this directly? Lois decided that she would make some detours to her apartment and LNN. She hoped this would help her find the courage to go to Lex.


Perry had rarely seen anyone as devastated as Clark obviously was. He felt that this poor guy needed all the help he could possibly get. So he had decided to phone Jimmy because he was Clark's friend and more importantly, he lived in Metropolis. While Perry waited impatiently for the young man to arrive, he approached Clark cautiously as he had already noticed that Clark wasn't too keen on company when he was in a very bad mood.

And right now, he was in the worst imaginable state. Clark hadn't moved since Lois had left, but a constant shiver seemed to control him. His face was still buried in his hands, and after this first heart-wrenching moan, he had been terribly silent. Perry had watched him anxiously from a secure distance. He didn't want to be sent away again. The scene hadn't changed a bit for four hours. Clark seemed to be weeping silently, though he couldn't possibly have tears anymore.

The pain of this young man cut into Perry's heart like a knife. He liked both Lois and Clark very much. Usually he knew everything that was going on, but this time he was clueless. Of course he had overheard their conversation; he would have had to be deaf to miss it. Perry was well aware that only one of them could be right. Clark couldn't both be married and a bachelor. He knew that Clark was a very bad liar and that his excuses often were rather lame. But he also knew that Clark was a very honest person. Whatever reason he deceived people about the things he was actually doing, Perry was convinced that he had a good reason.

But Perry knew Lois as well. She was a great investigative reporter. She sometimes was blind concerning certain truths, and she never believed anything easily unless she could get proof. So Lois had to have evidence for her theory that Clark was married. And she wasn't a liar either. When Lois said that she had met Clark's wife, she had done just that. So what was the true story in this mess? He seriously hoped that Jimmy would help bring some light in this affair. Perry valued Jimmy's research skills. He was talented in that way and had access to sources that Perry was too old to use. Perry also felt that Jimmy's good humor would be the right way to get Clark out of his depressive state.

In the very moment Perry wanted to say something, Clark moved for the first time. He lifted his head up and his hands sank down, resting on his knees. His face was still lined with pain, but he hadn't cried a single tear. His eyes were dry. There was a shade of grief in them, but they were neither red nor swollen. Perry was surprised. Not that he was actually used to men crying their heart out, but he didn't think that men shouldn't cry at all. After all, Clark was more the soft hearted kind of guy. But right now, nobody would have guessed that. Clark looked very determined. His eyes had a hard, almost aggressive note. It actually scared Perry, because he noticed that there was fatalism in them.

Clark stood up and had an air of strength that Perry had never seen in him before. How could the appearance of a person change so completely within a second? It was amazing.

"He's going to marry her tomorrow morning, Perry. We have just 24 hours left to hunt Luthor down," Clark said hoarsely. His voice was trembling and soft, totally opposite to the stance of his body.

"I've called Jimmy. He'll help us to gather the evidence against Luthor."

"Good. I'll go and get Superman. He'll keep an eye on Lois," Clark said as he rushed out of his apartment. He left a very startled Perry behind.


Clark had to admit that Luthor had prepared his trap properly. He hadn't left anything to chance and had planted all the needed evidence. All those things Lois had told him were embarrassing accusations. Clark wouldn't easily declare his love for a woman if he wasn't free to do so. He certainly wouldn't marry a woman capable of committing burglary. And he wouldn't have hidden a wife regardless what she was accused of. He didn't much care what others thought about him anyway.

But even worse than Luthor was that he couldn't talk to Lois lately. They hadn't been able to have a proper conversation for what seemed like ages. Luthor might have set the trap, but they had granted him success. They had caused this terrible misunderstanding themselves. If they hadn't been arguing so frequently, maybe Lois would have listened to him. And *he* would have really listened to her. Luthor didn't know that Clark indeed had something to hide from Lois. Clark was pretty sure of that. Otherwise his attackers would have had kryptonite with them.

He had to find Lois and do the one decent thing. He had to tell her the whole truth about his dual identity. He had to let her know that she didn't have to decide between Clark and Superman. He had to tell her what he knew about Lex and why he was so convinced that this man was evil. He had to tell her about the people Lex had sent to hurt him and about the insurance Lex had had on the Daily Planet. Lex had told everyone that there wasn't any insurance. He had already told her that Lex was responsible for the explosion of the Planet, but it had been to no avail. There was one person left that Lois might believe — Superman.

But that led him to another problem. He couldn't easily expect Lois to believe Superman and then tell her a moment later that the Man of Steel had deceived her for a long time. What a wicked web this was!


Mrs. Cox smiled with contentment as she took the invention of the crazy scientist in her hands. He had explained her that it worked with sound. But the poor fool lacked the right power source to allow it to work. But he was very self-assured that the sound pistol actually worked. She had asked him if it could even defeat Superman. Derek Camden had nodded and told her that everything had its own frequency. He had also given her advice as to which frequency she should use for the Man of Steel.

So far she had prepared for the great encounter between Lex, Lois Lane and Superman- Clark Kent. Did they count as three persons or as four? At least Mr. Kent's dual identity spared her from worrying about Superman. The guy in spandex wouldn't intervene. She doubted that Mr. Kent would blow his cover in front of Lex and Lois Lane. If Superman appeared in Lex's penthouse, he would have another encounter with kryptonite. Mrs. Cox knew that Lex had also prepared a trap. Of course, this was a possible problem, and Clark Kent was likely to be aware of this danger. He surely had guessed that Lex had the green crystal after his brief exposure in front of the bank. Mrs. Cox hoped that he wouldn't come in his Superman suit because she didn't want him to be killed yet.

Now, she needed to wait until Clark Kent found his love and tried to rescue her out of Lex' hands. The first step was already done. Lex Luthor had Lois Lane. Mrs. Cox had to wait patiently for the right moment. Until then she would stay hidden and get herself ready to destroy the relationship between Lex and Lois. Killing Superman could wait for the moment.


It was shortly before sunset. Lois sat on an expensive but not very comfortable sofa. She assumed that its only task was to show the wealth of the owner. She was waiting in the anteroom. Lex had apologized for being quite busy right at the moment. He had told her that a few unforeseeable catastrophes had happened in his empire. It wasn't life threatening for anyone. He had promised to be with her in no time.

That had been half an hour ago, and Lois was impatient. She had wanted to do this quickly. There wasn't much to do. She had to take the ring off and apologize. That was pretty much all of it. For her, this was a simple task. But unfortunately, what would happen between her and Lex just didn't depend on her. She didn't love Lex. She had never truly loved him. Lois was at least sure about that. But what about Lex? Did he love her? Would he let her go so easily?

Lois bit her lip. She was really fooling around with men's hearts. Hadn't she looked down on Cat because she wasn't capable of a lasting relationship? But during the last week she had rejected Clark, she had accepted a proposal from a man that she didn't even love, and she had messed with Superman's heart. She remembered that he had wanted to tell her something, but she had barely let him say a word. What if he had changed his mind then? Hadn't he even called her 'sweetheart'?

Lois shook her head. There was really no reason why anybody should find her lovable. She always reacted in the worst possible way. She could have been more sympathetic with Clark. And she really should have given him a chance to explain. He had deserved that.

The door to the anteroom opened, and a smiling Lex entered the room. "I'm sorry, Lois. There were a few problems that needed to be solved immediately. I couldn't trust anyone with the task, so I had to do it myself. But Lois, I promise you that this won't happen often. I don't want to be the kind of husband that is too busy with his career and has no time for his wife." He apologized.

"Hi Lex," Lois managed to say. Her heart was beating so loud that she feared Lex would hear it from across the room. "I need to talk to you." She added in a low and hoarse voice. Why was she so nervous? Lex had always been the perfect gentleman. He would let her go, wouldn't he? He would understand.

"Of course, Lois. I need to talk to you, too. Our marriage is tomorrow morning and we haven't even spoken about the cake, let alone your wedding gown," he replied and sat down next to her.

Had she ever felt so uncomfortable? Being so close to Lex suddenly disturbed her. It raised the need to run away and put as much distance between them as possible. Was it because she was afraid of hurting this man? Lois didn't know. No matter, she had to break the engagement.

"Lex, I'm so sorry, but I can't marry you." She took off the ring and put it in his hand.

Lex stared at it. For a short moment his eyes seemed to glow. He winced and then looked at her, and the expression on his face was hard, almost frightening. For a millisecond, she could see right through his eyes and into his soul. She didn't like what she saw, but the moment had been too brief for her to really understand what she had seen. It left a certain uneasiness and fear within her. Lex's face softened almost immediately and he seemed to be as gentle as ever. Lois wondered if she had really seen this frightening version of Lex or if she was starting to hallucinate.

"It's Clark, isn't it? He is still confusing you, Lois," Lex said softly.

"Yes, he does, Lex. I didn't realize that I love him until you told me that he is married. How ironic can life be?" Lois sighed and felt tears in her eyes.

"And what did Clark say?" Lex asked.

"He isn't going to leave her. He is still so infatuated with that woman. I can't understand him, and it hurts like hell," Lois replied sadly. Lex seemed to be so understanding and kind. Lois could hardly understand why she had become afraid of him. Shivers were running down her spine, but she knew that it would be impolite and childish to run away now. Lex didn't pose a threat to her at the moment.

"Lois, why don't you want to marry me?" he inquired. He held the ring out to her as he was offering it to her again. "You can't have him, anyway."

"Well, that's the reason, Lex. I don't want anyone but Clark. Even if that means that I have to stay alone and lonely."

She really couldn't imagine spending her life with someone else. Why had she been so blind? Why hadn't she seen that Clark was so kind and handsome? Lois had blown all her hope of getting him when she had rejected his declaration of love. How could she have been so cruel? Now that she felt this pain herself, she couldn't understand why she had done that to Clark.

"Lois. I know this is hard for you. But please consider this: If you marry me, you would never have to worry about money again. I would love and cherish you. I don't care too much if you return this love. Maybe you'll learn to love me one day. All I would ask of you is your respect. Please allow me to love you," Lex declared desperately. "I will always care for you. Do you really want to be alone for the rest of your life? Please think about it, Lois. And it's not as if these vows are literally made forever. You could still get divorced if you decide to do so some day."

"Oh, Lex…" Lois said hoarsely. Tears rolled down her cheeks.

She felt sorry for Lex. He must be desperate. She still had this uneasy gut feeling, but Lois was more and more convinced that she had been mistaken. Maybe she had only seen his fear of losing her. She still felt her own despair after acknowledging that being together with Clark was impossible. Yes, that must be it — Lois must have seen the hurt in his eyes. There was just no way he could be such a good actor. She was tempted to say yes. Lois didn't really want to be alone. And it almost killed her having to hurt such a kind man. There was still anxiety within her, but she dismissed it as ridiculous. She had no reason to be afraid of Lex. She believed in evidence and Lex was the gentleman he had always been. That brief moment that he had seemed so frightening hadn't meant anything, had it? Had Clark really called him a devil? He didn't know the man, not at all. Lex was different. She looked into those yearning brown eyes…


Clark had been at almost every place in the entire city. He had spoken to many, many people. Actually he had lost count. After he had seen that Lois went to her apartment, he had been somewhat relieved. He had decided to find as much about Lex as possible. He frequently checked on Lois, who went to work after having been in the apartment.

When he noticed that he had still time left, he visited more and more people. Slowly he gathered information about Luthor. From time to time he called Perry and told him what he had learnt. He also went to Henderson and told him that Jimmy and Perry were working on it, too. Henderson had promised to help as well as soon as he saw that the hints were forming evidence against Luthor.

When he had last checked on Lois, she was again walking through the streets of Metropolis. But this time, he disliked the direction of her steps. She was on her way to Luthor. Clark was aware that there was barely time left until Lois would walk down the aisle to become Luthor's wife. He had to stop that before it was too late.

Right now he was flying as Superman across the city, moving as fast as he could. He would bring this to an end this evening. It was already getting dark. Clark could see the Lex tower in front of him. It was very high, about 1000 feet. Clark landed somewhere next to it and changed into his street cloth again. Then he approached the huge building and entered it.

Clark searched for the next staircase, knowing that he would be faster that way. He gritted his teeth and prepared for the encounter with Luthor. He wasn't going to let Lois go without fighting for her. And he would force Luthor to tell her the truth. Clark wouldn't let him get away with that lie about his marriage. Luthor would pay in prison for the hurt that he had caused Lois and him.


"Sorry, Lex. Your offer is very generous. But I cannot accept. It wouldn't be fair to you." Lois smiled sadly.

Lex didn't believe what he heard. This couldn't be true. She was rejecting him! How did she dare to do that? Never had anyone tried to be so offending. Of course his generous offer was a plain lie. He hadn't a moment intended to leave her untouched. And he surely wouldn't allow her to get divorced. Lex was furious and he knew the responsible person. Clark Kent was really stronger than he had ever thought possible. He had caused him a lot of problems over the last twenty-four hours. Lex really hoped that most of them were solved by now.

Clark Kent was coming close, threateningly close. He had never assumed that Mr. Kent would be so dangerous to him. On the other hand Lex had never felt so challenged by anyone. Lois was difficult, granted. But Mr. Kent was a worthy enemy. Lex had to admit that. But tonight his end had come. Lex would win Lois over. He had the perfect plan. All that he needed was Mr. Kent. But Lex was sure that he'd come sooner rather than later.

"You have to accept it, Lois," Lex replied with a slight hint of threat in his voice.

"No, really Lex…" Lois said, obviously ignoring the change in his attitude.

"That wasn't a question, my dear Lois. You better accept my proposal," Lex became more explicit.

"Lex," Lois whispered.

Her eyes widened in shock and sudden awareness. She had obviously opened her eyes for the first time. Lex smiled.

"Yes, my dear. I wait for your answer. In case you haven't understood that yet. I don't accept 'No'!" This time he didn't try to hide his anger. He was just plain aggressive towards her.

In this moment Clark Kent stormed into his penthouse. Lex didn't actually know how he had come inside so quickly. He had expected to be informed about Kent's arrival. On the other hand, he had lessened security. After all, he had longed to see his enemy's face.

Lex noticed with content that the last days had taken their toll on the reporter. He hadn't shaved and wasn't dressed as neat and tidy as he would usually show up in public. Clark Kent wasn't wearing his usual suit and that ridiculous tie. Instead there were a casual jeans and a washy shirt. Both looked as if he had stayed several nights in them. Others would have appeared ridiculous in this outfit. Clark Kent had never seemed to be more dangerous. His facial expression conveyed anger and his entire bearing had an air of restrained strength.

Lois on the other hand glanced at him like a frightened deer. She had obviously noticed that the kind human that fed her in winter just wanted to hunt her down. She was at the edge of running away but was too shocked to really move. Lex felt a flush of excitement running through him. Being top banana was so great!

Lex ignored Clark Kent and approached Lois.

"Leave her alone, Luthor!" Clark yelled and came closer to Lex. "She doesn't want to marry you. What part in that didn't you understand?"

"Clark!" Lois whispered, who seemingly wasn't capable of saying anything more than a name.

"Shut up, Kent. I decide who's going to marry me," Lex replied.

"Really? How about your future wife, Luthor? And I'm not so sure that they allow you to marry in prison. Anyway, what kind of family life will that be?" Clark shot back.

Lex grabbed Lois's arm and pulled her closer to him. "She's already said yes, Kent. There's no escape clause in that contract!"

"You're mad, Luthor. An engagement is no contract, Clark disagreed.

Meanwhile Lois struggled to get free from him, but Lex didn't lose his grip. He held her even tighter and he knew that he was causing her pain. But Lois didn't seem to care. She tried again to break free. Clark Kent watched them and his expression grew even angrier.

"Let her go, Luthor!" he shouted and approached him. "Or…"

"Or what?" Lex replied mockingly and watched Clark appraisingly. "You're gonna kill me with a piece of cotton wool?" He laughed.


Clark felt hot rage burning inside him. Lex Luthor was even more evil than he had already assumed. Lois shivered with fear, trying desperately to get free from Luthor. He had to help her. But Clark needed to be careful as well. Lex might be a devil, but dashing him into thousands of pieces was maybe the appropriate punishment, but hardly explainable. He stood for moral standards. He couldn't work with arbitrary justice. He couldn't be accuser judge and executer all in one person.

Clark approached Luthor and Lois. He shoved his enemy away from Lois, using well dosed strength. It was enough to hurt him, but not to injure him. Luthor glanced at him with surprise and a slight shock. Obviously he had underestimated Clark, who noticed that with fierce satisfaction.

"Lois can decide who she wants to marry. If she rejects you, you have to accept that, Luthor. If she doesn't want me, I have to accept that too. Even Superman shouldn't force her to something she doesn't want. Nobody owns her," Clark said menacingly.

He looked at Lois briefly and saw still the lines of fear on her face. He felt her pain and angst as if it were his. In fact he had never been that afraid in his life. What if she sent him away, telling him to attend to his own affairs? Had he really interpreted this scene right, or was it a hallucination of his own troubled mind? Did he wish so desperately that Lois was seeing Luthor for real that he had begun to imagine things?

Lois seemed to be in shock; she didn't say anything. He heard her heart beating rapidly. Her breath was laboured and rapid. Her eyes were wide and her glance unsteady, moving from Clark to Luthor and to the exit. She obviously didn't know what to do.

But Luthor hadn't given up yet. He tried to struggle free and pushed Clark through his penthouse. Clark let it happen, knowing that he would harm Luthor too much if he fought with his whole strength.

And all of the sudden he didn't even need to pretend that Luthor was as strong as he was. Clark felt his world turning around. A strange pain was cutting in his head like a knife, making him nauseous. It wasn't kryptonite. The pain was located in his head. With kryptonite he had never felt so dizzy. He couldn't focus his vision anymore. Metropolis and the interior of the penthouse were moving in circles. Where was he? Where was top and where was the bottom?


Lois had watched Clark struggle with Luthor. She had never been so afraid. Clark had been right from the very beginning. Luthor had just shown her his real face. Had she really ever felt pity for that man? How blind had she been? How awfully blind! And now Clark was fighting for her. After all what she had done to him, he was indeed fighting her battle. He could have said *I have told you so, Lois. Now see for yourself how you get out of that trap.*

But he was saving her instead. Lois winced as she saw Clark stagger and fall. He seemed to be confused and Lex was taking advantage of it. Had she missed a punch Luthor had placed on Clark? Lois felt panic as she noticed that Clark might lose the battle. What would Luthor do to him? She wanted to get to them, but her panic had nailed her down on her place. She wanted to say something, but her mouth was dry and the words refused to form.

*Clark,* she screamed inwardly. But she could only watch Luthor pulling up Clark and shoving him across the room to the roof-deck. What was he up to? Slowly Lois regained control over her feet and forced them to follow Clark and the madman.

"Let him go!" Lois managed to say and grabbed Clark's arm.

Clark seemed to be helpless. He was caught in Luthor's grip like she had been shortly before. It was up to her to save him now. He had helped her. She loved him. And he was free. The thought crossed her mind involuntarily. Clark had been right from the beginning. He was the one she could really trust. Lex had lied to her. She hadn't listened to Clark. She hadn't given him the chance to explain. He was in this situation because of her. Why hadn't she believed him? They could already be on their way to Las Vegas, Smallville, Paris or wherever he wanted to marry her.

They could have been out of danger, somewhere Lex was never going to find them. But now Clark was at Lex's mercy. He desperately tried to get up, but his feet gave away under him. Luthor was dragging him closer and closer to the balcony, while Lois tried desperately to get Clark free. When Luthor opened the doors the cold air blew in, moving the curtains.

"Let him go!" Lois tried once again, but without any effect.

She pulled at Clark's arm even more to get him free, but she was weaker than Luthor. He lashed out and sent her to the floor. She cried in anger and frustration more than in pain. When she stood up again, Lex had managed to drag him to the railing. Clark still struggled against him, but his punches missed Luthor and landed in the air.

Lois ran again over to Luthor and tried to stop him.

"Don't get closer, Lois, or I'll push him down," Luthor yelled into the night.

Lois stopped dead. "No", she whispered in shock. Then she became louder and shouted again. "No!"

"Sure!" Lex said with an evil grin on his face. He pushed Clark over the edge, but still held his hands.

Lois' eyes grew wide with fear. Clark was hanging in the air and all what kept him from falling were the hands of the most evil man on the planet. Lois felt her stomach heave.

"Lex!" she screamed. "You can't do that!" He couldn't be that bad, could he?

"I can do that, my dear," Lex said softly and then his voice turned bold. "And I most definitely will if you don't marry me. I'd vote for a quick decision. I can't hold him any longer. And screaming for Superman won't be a solution, Lois. I can make him unable to save your darling one. So Lois: his life? Or your freedom? What is the greater value to you?"

He really forced her to decide between Clark and herself? Lois did exactly know what she valued more. Though the thought of marrying Luthor made her nauseous now, she knew that she could take that for Clark's sake.

"You're so evil, Luthor." Clark's weak voice interrupted her thoughts and stopped her from agreeing to his second *proposal*. "Do you honestly think that I would make her give up her life for me? I'd rather die than to be the cause of her pain. Lois run away!" was the last thing she heard from Clark.

Suddenly Luthor's hands were empty. Clark had released his hold and was falling a thousand feet down to the streets of Metropolis.


Lex Luthor stared at his empty hands in disbelief. Clark Kent was indeed falling down. This man had a strange interpretation of pride. Had he actually wanted this foe to die? He had been challenging; he didn't seem to give up fighting him. He had had a hard time dragging him to the edge of his building. Though Kent had lost orientation and had to have been in a lot of pain, he had tried to fight him.

Panic was rising inside him as he understood the ultimateness of this. Clark Kent was the enemy he had longed for his whole life through. He was smart enough and acted like a shadow. Though Lex had really tried his best he hadn't managed to get hold of him. He hadn't gotten close to him. Clark Kent had seemed to be invincible. And yet he was invincible. In Lex's last attempt to win over this man and to bind him forever, he had lost him definitely. Clark Kent didn't obey his will but rather lost his life. First he had wanted to make Clark Kent's falling over the railing look like an accident. Lex had wanted to be his saviour. Clark Kent should have owed him his life.

But things had happened different from his plan. Making him his slave wasn't possible anymore. But Lex had at least wanted Clark to blame himself for Lois' misery. He had seen so many people begging for the tiny bit of life that was still inside them. Pointing a gun at people's head made them do about everything. Lex had made husbands kill their wives because they didn't want to die themselves, only to commit suicide a week after that. Lex had assumed this will of living as one of nature's eternal rules, a rule he could rely on. And this assumption had proved itself to be true a thousand times, until today.

Scientists could never proof anything to be right; they could just confirm that a theory was wrong. Right now Lex saw the wisdom in this scientific rule. That was one of nature's laws.

Another law of nature was gravity. Everything kept falling down. And while Lois was screaming frantically for Superman, Lex Luthor noticed with astonishment that his own voice mixed with her screams, crying for his arch-enemy as well.


When Lois came to, she felt herself in a warm embrace. Someone was stroking her arms and then patting on them softly. Voices were around her, but she didn't understand a word. Was she in heaven? Most definitely not! She had read so often that people who woke up from unconsciousness didn't remember what had happened to them earlier and had no idea where they were. Lois knew it all-too well. She was with Lex Luthor and the horror of seeing Clark falling down was still fresh within her. She didn't want to open her eyes. She didn't want to come back to the reality that had been so cruel to her.

Who was patting on her arm? Was it Clark, though that seemed to be impossible? She desperately hoped that it was Clark. She hoped that the seconds had passed slow enough for Superman to be able to save him and bring him to her. But what if it wasn't Clark? What if she opened her eyes and stared into the face of another person? Could she take the disappointment, or would she die the next moment? Did she even care anymore whether she lived or died? Without Clark she would rather be dead. He had sacrificed his life for her, not knowing if Superman would come in time. He hadn't even shouted for him.

Clark had refused to let Luthor have power over him. He had chosen to end his life, because he didn't want to destroy hers. All their silly arguments during the last week! Most of them were caused by her. But that hadn't stopped him from showing his deep feelings for her in a last act of devotion. Could she only have done the same for him! But there was nothing left to do for her but to cherish his sacrifice. No, Lois couldn't die. Though she had no idea how she was going to go on living, she couldn't end what Clark had virtually protected until his last breath.

Did Lois really dare to find out who was holding her so tightly? Maybe her eyes should stay closed until the day she died. If Clark was gone she would be able to let him live in her fantasy, at a place where no one would ever be able to violate him again. She would protect him like he had protected her. But why was it necessary for her eyes to remain closed to do that? Hadn't Clark a secure place deep in her heart and soul, where he would stay until the end of days and even beyond that, assuming that the soul was eternal? He was going to stay with her, no matter what happened.

Opening her eyes would offer her the small chance to see those wonderful brown eyes of him again. She might get a glimpse at his boyish and charming smile. She would be able to touch his lips again, first with the tip of her finger and then with her lips. She would feel his silky tongue again, she would taste him. She would taste this wonderful mixture of chocolate and cream that had made her melt in his arms. Never had a kiss made her so hungry and never had anything satisfied her need so much. With him she had felt capable of living without chocolate, no danger would ever be able to scare her and she had felt the truth of Archimedes words. * Give me where to stand and I will move the earth.* Even that had felt possible with Clark.

Lois swallowed, gathered all her courage and opened her eyes.


His world had broken apart in just one short second. Lex Luthor hadn't only lost the one worthy enemy, he had also lost Lois forever. Had she seemed to be willing to trade her freedom for Clark's life, she now would surely die before she tied herself to him. Clark Kent had managed to throw all the power he had gained in many years of hard work and ruthlessness into the dark abyss. Everything Lex Luthor had had, was gone forever like the proud man that was capable of such earth shaking love.

If Lex Luthor had had a heart, he would have been envious of the feelings Clark Kent was able to feel. But instead of grief, there was only a strange loss. This enemy couldn't easily be replaced by another. Lex Luthor might have earned more money and even more influence. He might rule the Planet someday, but he would always feel bored, because he didn't have to fight for it. There lay no challenge in getting richer than he already was.

But Clark Kent had taken care of leaving Luthor unable to win the battle. In the very moment that Lois had passed out, exhausted and desperate from her unavailing cries for Superman, Inspector Henderson, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and several other people had stormed in. They hadn't gotten hold of him though. Lex Luthor was invincible. Maybe not as invincible as Clark Kent had been, but he wouldn't go to prison. And after all, who said that he wouldn't meet his arch-enemy in the afterlife? They could fight their never-ending battle there.

Lex Luthor laughed as he was falling down into the empty space beneath him. Nothing was going to stop him now!


"Perry!" Lois whispered as she recognized the face watching her with concern. "Where is Clark? Is he okay?" She thought frantically, 'He has to be! Please let him be okay.'

She sighed heavily as she realized there was no way this could be possible. Superman hadn't shown up. She looked around her and still didn't see him. She was past feeling panic. Her body had used its last reserves of adrenaline. Her mind wanted her to scream, to run and to smash things. She wanted to search every place on earth, lift every stone and move every mountain, desperately hoping to find a living Clark somewhere. Her mind was active while her body needed rest.

She felt so terribly empty and lost. Did she still have hope, or was it dead and buried? Had it fallen down with the beloved man she should have chosen as her future husband instead of Lex? Had her hope shattered on the hard tarmac of Metropolis' streets like Clark's body surely had? Lois felt a wave of nausea hit her as she imagined that. She tried to blind out the thought, clinging desperately to what little was left of her hope of seeing Clark again. He had died to set her free. But how was she going to live with his ultimate sacrifice? How was Lois supposed to keep breathing when every breath she took hurt like hell and reminded her of him?

How was she *not* going to breathe, when she felt that the memory was all she had left? She couldn't give up loving Clark because it was painful. She was as completely in love with him as he had been with her. She would forever be in love with him. From now on, there would never come the day that she would not be in love with him. And there would also never come the day that he had been her lover. He would always be the man who *had* loved her.

"Oh, Lois, honey. No one has seen him for hours," Perry replied sadly. "We wondered where he was and hoped that he had come here."

"He *was* here," Lois whispered hoarsely and tears streamed down her face. "He saved me, and he sacrificed his life for me."

Perry didn't say anything, but his expression was pale with shock. His eyes told Lois that he refused to accept this knowledge as truth. His mouth gaped open a little and he was pale. After an eternity of silence between them, all he could say was, "No!"


Chapter 5

{*Help me

I need your love

Don't walk away

The dark scares me so

We're nothing apart

Let's stay friends forever


Here I stand and face the rain

I know that nothing's gonna be the same again

I fear for what tomorrow brings*}

(a-ha — Here I stand and face the rain)

As he was falling from Luthor's building, Clark didn't know where he actually was. At least the pain in his head had subsided. His vision cleared slowly, but the world was still turning around him fast. Gravity was his friend because it gave him a slight hint of direction. A diver, who had lost orientation in his weightless state in water, could watch the bubbles. They always ascended to the surface. Clark had lost his sense of equilibrium.

He didn't dare to actually fly. As much as his clouded mind wished to become Superman and get Lois out of the devil's claws, he knew that he if tried to fly that he might hit a building. His rescue might not be successful, and he would eventually endanger Lois beyond the threat that Luthor posed. All he could do was soften his fall. The direction of it was a law of nature. Seconds passed. To fall down a thousand feet took seven seconds. Clark slowed his fall. He was grateful for the darkness around him. Maybe sunlight would have helped his troubled senses. But the way it was, he was grateful that he wouldn't have a lot of witnesses.

Finally Clark landed on the ground, and his feet gave way under him. He crawled on the street. He was still dizzy and knew that standing up would only cause him to fall down again. He could see his surroundings now, but they spinned around him. Or was it in his head? He wasn't sure, but chances were good that it was the latter. He desperately wanted to get to Lois. She had to think that he was dead. He was still her friend, and he really hoped that he remained her lover of choice. How he had suffered at the thought of having lost her to Luthor. How did she feel knowing she had lost him forever? Was there a chance that Luthor had given up pursuing her? He doubted that. Just because he had robbed Luthor of the possibility of extorting Lois didn't mean that he would leave her alone now. Had Lois managed to escape? Or had Luthor gotten hold of her again? Did he force himself on her?

Clark's stomach heaved again. The nausea was caused by his still chaotic equilibrium and the thought of what Luthor might do to Lois. Clark threw up in the dark entrance of a house. He felt really sick. But he had to get to her. He needed to be there for her. He tried to get up and managed to stumble a few steps into the night, but gravity won over, and he landed on his knees.

This was the weirdest situation he had ever been in. He had his powers, but he was weak none-the-less. He couldn't use them because he could barely focus. What if he hurt innocent people? He couldn't take that risk. He also hadn't been able to take that risk earlier. When Luthor had dragged him through his penthouse, Lois had pulled at him, too. Clark hadn't been able to tell whose grip was whose. He wouldn't have had a problem with hurting Luthor. But what if he had hurt Lois instead? Because of that, Luthor had been able to get him into this terrible situation.

Clark cursed and tried again to get to his feet, but to no avail. He cried out in frustration and sat down, leaning against the wall of the next house. He breathed in and out, desperately wishing to get his sense of equilibrium back under control. He really hoped that his healing ability would get it back to normal soon. But could he be sure about that? Nothing like this had ever happened to him, and it scared Clark to death that this had rendered him so helpless.

Where should he go now? Every tendon and bone in him screamed to get back to Lois. She had seen him falling from Lex Tower, and Superman hadn't appeared. Of course he could still claim that Superman had saved him. But right now Clark was dead. And to be honest, Superman wasn't alive either. There was no way he could continue playing the superhero if he remained in this state of disequilibrium.

But Clark knew that there was no time to wallow now. He had to find out what was happening on the top of Lex Tower. Was Lois still at the villain's mercy or had she run away? Clark felt terrible that she had been left alone with that madman. But when he had been there with Luthor, his head exploding in pain and his senses clouded, he hadn't been able to do much. He had hindered Luthor's use of him in applying pressure on Lois. All he could hope now was that it had worked. He hadn't been able to get her out of Luthor's hands because he was powerless so to speak.

Clark stood up, clutched the wall and tried to stand upright. He didn't actually know how to get her out of the villain's hands now. He needed help and not only because of his jumbled senses. Even if he managed to get upstairs, which he seriously doubted, he couldn't get her out on his own. Luthor had told Lois that he had kryptonite. And he was no fool. If Clark suddenly showed up again, Luthor might guess the truth. And even if he didn't, he might suspect Superman of being around. Either way it would cause him to use the kryptonite, and Clark would again end up being used to force Lois into that damned marriage. Yes, he most definitely needed help.

Clark got up and began to stagger through the streets. He needed to get to Henderson and tell him the truth about Superman, if necessary. It would be difficult to get there. Clark noticed that not only his sense of equilibrium but also his hearing was out of order. His vision was still blurry. Clark took a few steps and stumbled again. He got up as quick as possible and continued his way. He needed a cab. This was the first important task for tonight. Clark searched for the way to the street and hoped that there was a nearby cab. The police department wasn't far away. If he could only find a cab it would only be a matter of minutes before he could get hold of Henderson.

When he managed to get to the big entrance of Lex Tower, a few red and blue lights from cars blinded him. Clark blinked; he was confused for a moment until he noticed that it was the police. That was even better than a cab. Were they here because of Luthor? Clark didn't know, but they would help him get out of trouble. He hurried up and walked to them. He fell to the ground once or twice and got up again.

"I need your help!" he shouted. He stumbled over to a couple of officers that were waiting by their car.

"Oh, no, not another sot tonight. I am so *sick* of them," one of the officers sighed.

"I'm not drunk," Clark protested. "I'm…"

"Yeah, right! You're completely *wasted* ," The officer interrupted him.

"You don't understand, Lex Luthor, he…"

"Yeah, Lex Luthor fired you, and he's responsible for all your misery. Come on guy, I've already heard that a thousand times from another thousand drunks."

"Are you here because of Luthor?" Clark asked.

"That's none of your damn business, man."

"I need your help, and you're going to listen," Clark said furiously as he grabbed the officer.

"You back off!" The officer shouted and pushed Clark away violently. Clark fell to the ground. "Get this guy into the drunk tank."

Clark was desperate. He wanted the policemen to help him, but they weren't even listening. Of course he must look like a victim of alcohol. Everything around him was still tossing and turning. But he needed to try again. They just had to listen. And if saving Lois meant that he had to let the world know he was Superman, he would do just that. Clark got up again.

"I'm Superman. Lex Luthor has incapacitated me," Clark said and started to rip his shirt apart. "You have to believe me."

He knew that it sounded ridiculous, but if he managed to show them the spandex they might believe him. But Clark wasn't successful. He had opened a few buttons and the flash of blue and red had to have been clearly visible. But before Clark knew it, the officer had again pushed him to the ground. They wouldn't help him in any way. Clark got up again, and this time it was him who pushed the policemen to the floor. He had to find help, a payphone, a cab, anything.


"Lois, please tell me what happened," Perry asked impatiently.

Lois answered with a heart-wrenching sob. "He wanted to save me; all he wanted was to save me from Luthor." Her voice was low, barely a whisper. She sobbed again, mumbling something that Perry didn't understand.

"What did Luthor do to you, darlin' ?" he inquired, stroking her arm, trying to make his embrace comforting but not intimidating. He was anxious about what he was going to hear. Lois was such a strong woman. Perry wasn't sure if he really wanted to know what had caused this state of distress.

"I wanted to break the engagement, but he wouldn't accept it," Lois replied hoarsely.

Perry was slightly surprised that Lois had finally changed her mind since she was usually too stubborn to acknowledge having made a mistake. Lois often stuck to her decisions and ran into the arms of disaster because she considered it a weakness to change her mind. There was nothing Lois feared more than being weak. She had been so offending to Clark because she didn't want to rely on anybody, especially not a male partner.

Perry had often thought that she needed protection. Clark Kent had been just the right person for that. He had seen love and admiration for Lois in Clark's eyes. He was sure that Clark wasn't easy to scare away. He had been determined enough to break through Lois' defensive attitude towards others. Perry loved that young man like a son, and he had considered himself the proud father of this couple even when neither of those two had seen a "together" in their future.

The news of Lois' decision to break the engagement caused a flush of happiness in Perry's stomach. But it ceased immediately when he remembered that his team had broken apart and only one half of it was left, assuming that Lois was right and Clark had indeed died.

"Clark came to help you convince him?" The reporter in Perry dug further. The loving father didn't want to force her to tell him this, and he didn't want another confirmation of his son's death. So why did he ask her anyway?

"He tried, but there wasn't much he could do about it," Lois said weakly. "Lex overpowered him quickly and dragged him across the room onto the balcony. He lifted Clark over the railing and pushed him down."

"Oh my god, so Lex killed Clark?" Perry was startled at the evilness of that madman.

There was no way Clark could have survived a fall from that height if Superman hadn't saved him. But wouldn't Superman have brought him here or at least told them that Clark was safe? Superman wouldn't be so cruel as to let them believe that their friend was dead. So Perry came to the conclusion that he hadn't managed to save Clark. Perry felt his heart break at the thought of never seeing that mild-mannered reporter again.

"Not exactly," Lois whispered. "Lex held him and told me that he would drop Clark if I didn't marry him. Clark voluntarily released his grip and…" Lois couldn't continue. Her voice was so hoarse that no sound came out of her mouth. Her face was ashen and large tears streamed down her cheeks.


Telling this to Perry was hard for Lois. Every single one of her words confirmed the knowledge that Clark wasn't coming back. There had never been anything more painful for her than reliving that memory. She had lost Clark for the third time. The first time it had happened because of her stupidity. She hadn't seen the love of her life though he had sat right in front of her. The second time it was her stubbornness that had caused the loss because she had refused to acknowledge that Clark's judgement of Lex Luthor had been right. And now she had lost him forever, and she really tried to understand that. Despite all evidence against it, there was still this tiny bit of hope that Superman had saved Clark.

"Is Lex in jail?" Lois asked, slightly surprised by her words. She didn't want to hear anything about him. He had destroyed her life completely just as Clark had said he would. Lex had killed Clark to force her into a marriage she hadn't wanted anymore. Suddenly Lois felt the cold grip of that thought around her heart. Was it really Lex who had killed Clark? Hadn't all this been her fault? Her stupidity had brought Clark into a situation where he had to decide between her happiness and his life. It had been Lex who had pushed Clark and Clark who had loosened his grip, but Lois had caused them to do this. The thought was too sickening, and Lois tried to dismiss it. Perry said something, but Lois wasn't listening. "What?" She wasn't in the mood for the rules of politeness.

"Lex is dead, Lois, darlin'. He jumped down into the abyss when we came up here. We couldn't stop him," Perry repeated.

Was she happy about that? Lois didn't know. But somehow she felt uncomfortable with Lex and Clark sharing the same death. They had nothing in common, and Clark shouldn't be united with his worst enemy, not even in death. He really didn't deserve that.


*Justice and freedom,* Perry heard Clark's words again in the back of his mind. Freedom was obviously a great value to Clark. Maybe freedom and love would have described his convictions better. What kind of man would rather die than see his girl bound to the devil? Would he himself fall down from a building if that would help to save Alice? Perry would have liked to answer this question with, 'Yes, I would jump without hesitating'. But he loved living, and he was afraid to die. If it came to the worst and he was forced to decide, would he beg for his own life or would he have the courage to sacrifice it?

But on the other hand, where had Lois' choice been? He was convinced by the sight of her that she would have agreed to the marriage in order to save Clark's life. She would have sacrificed her freedom. There would still have been the hope of escaping Luthor before it came to a marriage. Clark's decision offered no loophole. Clark and Lois could have had a chance to spend the rest of their lives together. But now there was only the Romeo and Juliet kind of tragedy that would reunite the couple. Why hadn't Clark allowed Lois to say yes?

A little bit later the police confirmed Lex Luthor's death. They found his dead body on the streets of Metropolis. But apart from his wallet, there was no sign of Clark. Perry didn't know how to tell Lois. Her face was already pale and though there was a doctor around, she hadn't taken any sedatives. She had completely rejected them. Perry was afraid of what was going to happen now. And he didn't know what to think about the absence of Clark's body. Hadn't he died? Had Superman saved him and not returned him to them? But why? Why would he do that? And if his body was missing did that mean that he was still alive? Perry's mind played some thoughts that he really wasn't able to think to the end. He shook his head. This was too weird.

When Perry told Lois the news, her expression went completely blank. If her eyes had been red from tears and her mouth lined with grief before, there was nothing left now but a strange kind of emptiness. Her eyes weren't the mirror of her soul anymore. It was as if a curtain had fallen and veiled everything that had been clearly visible before.


Lois still felt empty. She didn't know how to cope with Clark's missing body. Did that mean that he was still alive? Lois desperately hoped so. But after a seemingly endless time of fierce hope and deep despair, she was so very afraid. She didn't know how much time had passed. It had been merely a glimpse ago that Clark had been standing in the middle of Luthor's penthouse. He had never been stronger or prouder. He had been self-confident and the only truly secure harbor on this planet. Her knight of fairy tales had come to save his fair one, and he was invulnerable to whatever force the evil sent onto the battle field. At least it had seemed so. But this moment of obvious strength had passed so quickly.

The memories of Clark stumbling and being dragged across the floor filled her mind and rendered her weak and shivering. She couldn't shut out those images by closing her eyes. They were left within her memory forever to torture her until Judgement Day. Lois felt too weak to hold onto the faint hope that Clark might still be alive. Yet it was the only light that might possibly guide her though this darkness. But how was she going to survive when she finally found out that he had died? And how was she going to keep on living accepting that the worst had happened?

Lois felt a warm touch on her shoulder. She glanced up into Perry's sorrowful and sad face. Lois saw that he was desperately trying to be strong for her. But he failed miserably. Clark had meant very much to him as well.

"Come, Lois, let's leave this horrible place. I'll walk you home." Perry said softly. "You could also stay at Clark's place if you feel like company tonight. I am sleeping there, and you won't be alone tonight. You could have his bed."

"I'd rather be alone," Lois replied involuntarily.

She had never thought of herself as a person that needed support in any way. She had always been free and independent. Right now she felt that she needed company more than anything. She wanted to lose herself in the warm embrace of another person. But she couldn't sleep in Clark's bed. She couldn't spend the night smelling the spicy scent of his aftershave that he had certainly left on his pillows. Everything in his apartment reminded her of what she had lost so violently, and moreover it reminded her of all those arguments and her own terrible blindness. Lois needed comfort, and though he was trying, she didn't want comfort from Perry. She needed the strong arms of Clark Kent. She needed his warm breath tickling her neck and the sweet taste of his endearing kisses. Only Clark could kiss away the pain that threatened to defeat her completely.

But when Lois gave it a second thought, she dreaded being alone. And as Perry promised her that she wouldn't notice his presence unless she asked for his company, Lois agreed to stay with Perry tonight, but she insisted that Perry sleep in Clark's bed. He helped her to stand up and gently lead her to the elevators that brought them down to the streets of Metropolis. They were leaving the house of nightmares, but despite all their efforts it still held them in a firm grip. Only their bodies could escape its influence, but their minds could never do the same.


Sometime later that night he had found himself in a park and didn't exactly know if it was Centennial Park or if he was in a smaller park close to the suburbs of Metropolis. He could hardly estimate how long he had been crawling rather than walking through the streets of the city. He had tried everything, but he hadn't been successful with the payphone, because he couldn't find a working payphone. He had to have lost his wallet somewhere. Clark had tried to get a cab, but no one had been willing to take a drunk along who might throw up in his cab. The lack of money had only added to the problem. Somewhere on the strets of Metropolis Clark had completely lost orientation.

After a couple of days with only a few hours of sleep, even he had been tired. The terrible headache, though now gone, that had started in Lex' penthouse had made it only worse. Clark didn't know how Luthor had caused it, but it definitely made him even more determined to send this terrible man to prison. His sense of equilibrium refused to work, and the world had been spinning around him. His hearing hadn't been very good either. A park bench had seemed so inviting that he couldn't resist. He had promised himself just a few minutes of rest, but before he even realized it he had drifted off to sleep.

Clark woke up slowly. Despite all his efforts he hadn't managed to rescue Lois. He had been pretty much out of it during the last couple of hours. Slowly Clark opened his eyes and looked around. Most of his dizziness was gone, though he still felt a little bit queasy. But the world had stopped turning. He felt so much better than he had earlier in the night. He recognized Centennial Park and sighed with relief that he finally knew where he actually was. But with the realization of where he was, he also realized that he obviously hadn't made it very far.

There was still that nagging worry that something might have happened to Lois. Even if it hadn't, which hopefully was the case, she still needed to know that he was alive. He could hardly imagine what she had been through tonight. If she was still at Luthor's mercy, there was even more she probably had to endure. Clark took a brief look at his wrist watch and noticed that there were only a few of hours left until when the wedding was supposed to be.

Where was he going to find Lois now? She could be in her apartment where he hoped she would be. But Lois could also be in Luthor's penthouse or worse: at the church and already preparing for her marriage. But she couldn't really be in the church, could she? There was no way on earth she could be willing to marry this devil!

Clark decided to try Lex Tower first. Afterwards he would fly to her apartment and then the church. But he seriously hoped that he would find her at her apartment. Clark got up from the park bench, was able to remain upright, and could even walk without stumbling or falling. Compared to the state he had been in over the last several hours, that was some kind of miracle. He sighed with relief and hurried to a hidden place where he changed into Superman and took off into the sky of Metropolis.

Clark was glad that he was more or less back to normal. His flight was unstable but not to a threatening extent. Although he flew a bit slower than normal, he was never-the-less hovering above Lex Tower a few minutes later. He listened for Lois' heart-beat, but she apparently wasn't anywhere near him. He also x-rayed the building, but there was no sign of her. But he *did* see Inspector Henderson. The policeman was walking through Luthor's penthouse examining it closely. It looked like he was investigating a crime scene.

It wasn't until then that Clark noticed the contour drawing of a body on the street. A dead person must have been found there. He knew it wasn't him. He swallowed hard. What if it had been Lois? He closed his eyes as panic washed through him. He had to know. Clark landed on the balcony and addressed Henderson through the open doors.

"What happened here?" he asked huskily and with a note of urgency to his voice.

Henderson flinched and turned around, startled.

"Superman!" he gasped. "You scared me!"

"Who fell from this building?" Clark insisted, not being in the mood to be nice like he would have at other times.

"Luthor jumped," Henderson replied. "I thought you knew that. Where were you anyway? We really could have used your help last night."

"Let's say I had to deal with some serious problems of my own," Clark answered and stumbled lightly, because his sense of equilibrium still wasn't completely back to normal. He was relieved that it hadn't been Lois that fell.

"I see that. Are you okay, Superman?" Henderson wanted to know.

"Yeah," he said as convincingly as possible. "So Luthor is dead?"

Since his question had more been of the rhetorical kind, Henderson didn't reply.

Clark couldn't actually hide that he wasn't too sad about this news. It meant that he would never ever be able to threaten Lois again. Though this madman had pushed him far beyond the edge of his convictions, he hadn't actually wanted Luthor to die. If he had been able to do so, he might even have saved Luthor's life. But he hadn't heard anything, and he hadn't been in any condition to walk let alone fly. That had been Luthor's fault, and Clark wasn't sure whether he actually could feel guilty. But his conscience didn't always agree with his mind, and there was a guilty feeling in his gut. It didn't care if he had had a chance to save or not; it nagged him regardless of the circumstances.

"Where is Lois?" he inquired.

"At Clark's place, crying her heart out. Mr. White invited her to come there. She says that Clark Kent died last night, and that Lex Luthor is responsible for that. But since I don't have a murderer, and I don't have a dead body, there isn't much I can do about that. I don't have any evidence but his wallet that Clark Kent even was here tonight. And even that isn't very convincing, since he and his wallet were not necessarily at the same place. Of course I trust Lois Lane, but to be honest, I don't really know what to think of it. She was close to a nervous breakdown if not even beyond that when I last saw her."

"Clark is alive, Inspector Henderson. Please let me take care of telling Lois," Clark said absent-mindedly and lifted off into the sky again.


Lois was lying on the sofa in Clark's apartment, and her eyes were wet with tears that just kept on streaming down her cheeks. She was tired from hours of crying.

"Oh Clark," she whispered. "If I only knew whether you're alive or dead. If I could only talk to you." Lois was tired. Crying for hours had seriously drained her. She closed her eyes.


"You can, honey," his soft voice replied. "What's bothering you so much, sweetheart?"

"Clark," she said hoarsely.

He stepped around the sofa, and his complexion was transparent at first, but he became more and more visible, more and more firm. Clark smiled comfortingly and came closer. He kneeled down in front of her and cupped her hands with his. His thumbs stroked the back of her hands and sent incredible warmth into her arms and into her entire body. He leaned forward and placed a soft kiss on her forehead. She closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation. He used the opportunity to kiss her wet eyelids next. His soft lips caressed her skin and kissed away the pain.

"I'm not gone, Lois." he murmured into her ears and his breath tickled her neck, sending shivers down her spine. "I'm in your heart, forever."

"But that's not enough, Clark. I want to see you and feel you," she said and tears filled her eyes again. The short moment of relief was over.

"It's your fault, Lois. You accepted Luthor's proposal. I begged you so often to not get involved with him. It's your fault that I'm not alive anymore. This is the only way I can be close to you," he answered.

"I'm sorry Clark, I'm so very sorry. I know that I was darn stupid. I shouldn't have believed a word he said," Lois replied sadly and kissed Clark on his mouth. But this time his lips didn't part. He didn't even move, and his face was blank.

"It's a bit late to be sorry, don't you think?" he stated fiercely after she broke the single-sided kiss.

"I only wish I could hold you close. I want to live together with you. I want to grow old with you, Clark. Is that so difficult to understand?" she pleaded.

"Whatever I do, it's not right, is it, Lois? I sacrificed everything for you. Do you think I wanted to die? I sure as hell didn't! But for you I would go to the end of the world and beyond that." Somehow there was now a menacing tone to his voice that made her shiver. "I'm staying with you, Lois, now and forever."

"I love you, Clark," she said weakly.

"Prove it, Lois. I don't believe in words. You stay with me from now on and forever. No cheating on me, Lois. I'll come to you in the nights when you are asleep. I'll be in your dreams until you beg me to get out of them. But I won't leave you anymore."

"I couldn't be without you anyway." Lois was a bit scared. She felt that she deserved to be treated mean. In fact all this trouble had been caused by her. But Clark's attitude was new to her. "I'll love you to the end of days, Clark."

"Don't be so sure." His voice sounded threatening and was more than scary.


Lois woke up, her face damp with sweat. She was shivering and her breath came in ragged gasps. She looked around and sighed with relief when she didn't see Clark's angry face. Her breathing became more even. That hadn't been Clark speaking but her conscience. At least she hoped so. But what if it had been Clark, and his ghost really planned on making her life a living hell because he blamed her for his death? And who was she kidding? It *had* been her fault! Lois shook her head; she still couldn't be sure that Superman hadn't saved Clark. But he would have brought him to her, wouldn't he? A single tear rolled down her cheek.

A soft tapping on the window interrupted her thoughts. Lois wasn't sure whether she wanted to see this man right now. She didn't look at the window and made no gesture to invite him in. But she didn't have much choice because the door to Clark's balcony wasn't closed. She heard Superman's footsteps when he approached her.


"I'm sorry, Lois," he said softly. "I shouldn't have caused you this pain."

"You should have saved Clark. I shouted for you but you didn't come," she replied reproachfully. He could hear her pain, and it cut in his heart like a knife. She had had to suffer because of him and because he hadn't been honest with her.

"I should have told you something a long time ago. I'm so sorry that I didn't. Lois, I'm not dead. I…"

"I know that you are alive, but it's not you that I need now, Superman… I…I… still have feelings for you, but not like I feel for Clark. I…can't go… go on living without him," Lois sobbed. "I lost him and it's my fault." She cried out heart-wrenchingly.

Clark lacked words. He went over to her and sat down next to the small weeping woman, who had buried her face in her hands. He embraced her in a weak attempt to soothe her. He couldn't believe that he had really done this to her. Why hadn't he told her his secret earlier? Why hadn't he tried harder to get to her and to explain everything? He looked around quickly and checked for Perry, but he had already left the apartment. This was the best opportunity he was going to get. Clark swallowed hard.

"You didn't lose me, Lois, honey. I…I'm Clark."

Clark hadn't been sure which persona to choose to go to Lois. He knew that coming as Clark might be rather shocking, but when he had seen her weeping and suffering, he felt that he needed to be close to her. Close in a way that the spandex outfit would never allow him to be. Clark was her friend — and he hoped more — while Superman was more distant to her as they had never discussed private things. After he had entered the apartment, he had quickly changed back into Clark. He wasn't even wearing the 'suit', but she hadn't looked at him, not even a single glance.

He had finally told her the truth, and that was the single most agonizing moment in his whole life. It was worse than the moment he had made his first appearance as Superman when he had been anxious that Lois would recognize at once that he was Clark. It had been easier to cope with the moment when he had told Lois that he loved her. He hadn't been this afraid when he had first noticed that he was different from the people around him. Nothing in his whole life could be compared to this. He wanted her to say something even if she would send him away and tell him to never come back again.

But Lois remained silent; she had stopped weeping and she wasn't moving in his arms. Seconds passed slowly. Clark heard each and every one of both his and her heart beats. Otherwise nothing was indicating that time was indeed going by. He prayed silently for a miracle to come. It was as if he was standing at the top of that skyscraper now, and Lois was falling. But he couldn't cry for a hero to come and save them both from the misery they were going to face without each other.

Lois hadn't looked at him not even when he sat down on the sofa and took her into a soothing embrace. She had felt strangely at ease in his arms, though she knew who she truly loved. And then he had told her that he was Clark. It wasn't until then that Lois noticed that he wasn't wearing his usual clothes. In fact he was dressed like Clark. Lois looked up and studied his face. She was confused. He didn't wear glasses but pretty much resembled Clark. But it couldn't be Clark, could it? Clark wouldn't come into his apartment through the window. Slowly the truth of his words sank in. He was Clark; he had been Clark all the time.

"I'm sorry, Lois. I'm so very, very sorry," he mumbled into her hair. "I should have told you earlier."

Lois didn't know what to think or feel. She could barely believe that she hadn't lost him after all. But she felt betrayed, and anger rushed through her. Why had he lied to her all that time? Why had he allowed her to suffer so much? Why hadn't he told her the night she had asked him to love her? Why hadn't he told her when she thought that he was married? Things had gotten out of hand because he had chosen to keep his secret rather than to be with her. And he told her that he loved her?

"But you didn't. You made me believe that you died! How could you?" she said angrily and glanced directly into his eyes. He looked back at her, his face clearly showed how uneasy he felt. But Lois didn't care; she just felt rage. She was angry at herself for having been so blind. Not only had she missed that Lex was a criminal, she had also been completely blind at what seemed to be so obvious now. Clark opened his mouth, closed it and opened it again, but he didn't say anything. That made Lois even angrier. "Forget about it, I don't want to hear it. Just go, Clark, leave me alone!"

His expression was sheer helplessness. She could see his despair and his pain. But she had suffered because of him, and he would suffer because of her.

"I said that you should go!" she screamed when he didn't move.


Mrs. Cox didn't actually know who deserved more to be blamed for Luthor's death. Was it Lois or Clark? Anyway, she would kill both of them; she just needed to wait for the right moment. She had made sure that Superman wouldn't escape her. Mrs. Cox patted softly on a box of lead and smiled. She was sitting in her car, close to Clark Kent's apartment. She had a perfect view of his balcony and was pretty sure that she would see him land there when he returned home. And Lois Lane would come to him as soon as she realized that she was going to get Superman instead of Lex Luthor. She would surely be fascinated enough by the power of that man. That would be irresistible to her.

Mrs. Cox didn't care how much time it took to get to her goal. She was patient and now that becoming Lex Luthor's widow was out of question, she had more than enough time. She liked the thrill of killing, and she liked the taste of revenge even better. Her sight remained on the balcony, determined to see even the faintest blur of blue and red spandex.


Chapter 6

{*You opened up my eyes,

Made me want you,

Made me want to.*}

{*You know it feels so nice,

Hold me tight now,

Hold me tight as can be.*}

(a-ha — Celice)

"I won't go, Lois. This is my place!" Clark said slightly angry. "Do you think that I did this on purpose, that I liked not knowing where I actually was? It almost killed me that I couldn't escape Luthor, because I might have hurt you if I had struggled against him. I never wanted this to happen! I never wanted any of this to happen. I didn't want you to believe that I was married. I had really thought that you would know me better than that. Did you ever think of how much I was hurt by you?" His voice was hoarse and he was fighting with tears.

"Yeah, I thought that I knew you, Clark, but that was before you lied to me. I love you, Clark, but how am I going to trust you anymore?" Lois shot back.

"One lie and all the truth doesn't count anymore? You trusted in Luthor till the very end. Don't you think that I deserve as much? You offended me, you didn't believe me, and you even wanted me to cheat on my so called wife. You turned me down as Clark and begged me to be your lover as Superman. I love you still and I will love you forever on. Doesn't that count, Lois? What shall I do to make you trust me, Lois? Do I have to become the world's worst criminal?"

"You're not fair, Clark. I made a mistake and I suffered for it; we're already even. You don't need to repeat those things!" Lois blurted out

"Yeah, we're even, Lois. So don't you think it's about time to forgive each other for all those terrible mistakes we made?" he said softly.

"You're right, I'm sorry, Clark. This is just so new for me. I'm so glad and relieved and grateful that you're alive," Lois started sobbing.

"Shhh…it's okay, sweetheart. This is just as much my fault as it's yours. Maybe it was even more my fault. I should have told you about my secret." He approached her and pulled her into a tight embrace so that Lois could rest her head against his shoulders.

"Your secret. I never thought for a moment that Superman might have been here before he first showed up. But you're really Clark, aren't you?" Lois asked, looking up briefly.

Clark nodded. "Yes, I really am Clark. I have been raised as Clark Kent and I can't give up being him. I thought about it, I really did. But what life would that be if I'm not I anymore?"

"You thought about living just as Superman?" Lois asked, stunned. "Why?"

"Because you didn't seem to notice me when I was Clark. After your rejection I was devastated." Clark replied with a sad smile and kissed her forehead.

"But you know that I love you, Clark, don't you? I was anxious and too darn stubborn to understand my own feelings. But when I finally admitted to myself how much I love you, I couldn't imagine being married to anyone else, but you," Lois said frantically and captured his lips with hers. He tasted their creamy softness and his heart started to beat rapidly.

His embrace tightened around her and he drew her even closer. He felt her slender body against his and noticed how fragile she seemed to be in his arms. Incredible warmth emanated from her. Her breath tickled at his ears as he started placing kisses on her cheeks and his lips travelled down her neck.

"I love you, too, Lois. So much," he whispered breathlessly.

He did neither see nor feel anything but Lois. Her heartbeat filled his ears and her beauty robbed him off any coherent thought he might have had. Time seemed to stand still and Clark was grateful that finally his dreams had turned into reality. He didn't fear that she would be going the next minute. There weren't any misunderstandings between them anymore. There was neither Superman nor an alleged wife that could separate them. Everything was perfect, just the way it should have been from the very beginning.

"You'll never leave me like this again, you promise?" Lois begged between two kisses.

"I promise I won't, Lois, honey. Last night was the worst of my life," Clark mumbled and stroked her back reassuringly.

"How heart-rending!" a female voice said wryly.

Lois and Clark parted and looked at Mrs. Cox in shock. "How did you get here?" Clark asked, startled.

Mrs. Cox laughed. "You really didn't hear me breaking in, did you? Being in love can truly be distracting." She smiled wryly and suddenly pulled out a lead-lined box. It took her just seconds to open it.

Clark saw the green glowing crystal and felt the pain washing through him. He gasped and tried to back away from Mrs. Cox, but in vain. She grinned as she saw him struggling against the force of the kryptonite that obviously was more powerful than him. Clark felt rage burning up inside him that wrestled with the weakness caused by the kryptonite. How had she found out about his secret? And why was she interrupting the single best moment of his life? And why was he so helpless against this? His knees gave in slowly, not obeying his will to remain upright.


Lois's mind was occupied with a thousands thoughts and all flooded through it at the same time. She could barely belief what she was seeing. Mrs. Cox had gotten into the apartment without her having noticed it, and Clark was writhing in pain. Why was he writhing in pain? He was Superman for Heaven's sake! And what was that mysterious green crystal Mrs. Cox held out with such a superior grin on her face? How did she dare disturb them in the most heavenly moment? Lois was worried and angry, desperate and ready to do anything to defend this love she had just found.

"You really thought you could get in my way, Clark, or should I rather say Superman, and would escape me alive? Didn't you think I would guess your nasty little secret?" Mrs. Cox brought the crystal closer to Clark and Lois heard him groaning as he fell down to the floor.

"You leave him alone!" Lois said threateningly. "Or…"

"Or what, Ms. Lane?" Mrs. Cox interrupted her. "What do you think you can do with me? It's not like Superman's going to help you. You're on your own now. Neither Lex nor this poor fallen hero is going to help you out of this situation. Neither of you is going to stop me from taking revenge."

"Taking…revenge for…what?" Clark coughed as he tried to get up again.

"You're not separating us once more," Lois blurted out and stepped past Clark, approaching Mrs. Cox. "Nothing will come between me and the man I love. Not Lex and most definitely not you! I'm so darn tired of people wanting to control me. I'm nobody's slave!" Lois was preparing to grip Mrs. Cox's sleeves, when she saw the gun pointing at her.

"Don't move a single step forward," Mrs. Cox said softly, almost friendly.

"I'm not afraid of you," Lois replied coldly.

"So you don't fear for your own life? Maybe you are afraid for his?" she shifted the aim of the gun slightly, so that not Lois but Clark was the target. Lois stood still, frozen to her place. *No, not again.* her mind rambled. She was still shaky from mourning Clark and hadn't really recovered from the shock. The mere thought of his life being in jeopardy again did almost drive her insane. But he already was in danger, regardless if there was a gun pointing at him or not. She saw his reaction to the green stuff, whatever it was. He was doing badly, though he had managed to get to his knees again. His face was pale and his breath sounded rather laboured. He stared at Mrs. Cox intensely and his face grimaced. Maybe he was trying to get them out of this with super powers, but it didn't seem to work.

Lois knew that she had to do something. She had to get rid of the terrible green stuff and Mrs. Cox.

"Lex didn't want you; he loved me, not you," Lois said, trying to distract her.

Lois received laughter. "You honestly think he loved you? How stupid can a single person be, Lois? He wasn't capable of love and I'm not capable of it either, for that matter. Nice try, Lois."

How could a person be that ruthless? Didn't she have feelings? Lois looked over to Clark, who was lying on the floor again, nearly unconscious. There was her answer. A person with a heart couldn't do this to this kind and caring man. Lois felt rage burning up inside her. There wasn't anyone else going to decide whether she was allowed to be happy or not. She had nothing to loose. If she failed, she would die and so would Clark. Lois was fairly sure that this green stuff posed a deadly threat to him. They would be united in afterlife. If by any means she was successful, they would live together happily ever after.

Lois moved around Mrs. Cox, not stepping closer to her, because she didn't want to endanger Clark's life more than it already was. Her heart was beating fast, pumping adrenaline through her body. It activated her every muscle, preparing them for fight. She watched Mrs. Cox thoroughly and she stared back at her with the same attention. Two strong wild cats were carefully tiptoeing around each other, awaiting the other to make the first step. Mrs. Cox's gaze followed Lois, but the gun remained pointing at Clark.

"He would have dismissed you, if I had asked him to do so," Lois stated. "Have you ever been powerful enough to decide what he should do?"

"I was powerful," Mrs. Cox replied through clenched teeth. There was it: her weakness. Lois smiled inwardly.

"Oh, yes, of course." Lois replied, slightly wryly. It wasn't enough to accuse her of mocking Mrs. Cox. But it had been there, none-the-less. "You were powerful enough to do his dirty work." This was more explicit. Lois had trapped her. Mrs. Cox felt forced to reply something.

"I did what I wanted to do," she said coldly.

"Yeah, I betcha did, because you wanted to obey his every word. You know that you're just nothing without him. Remember? He jumped from Lex Tower. It's not as if he's going to help you out of this."

Lois feared for a moment that she had taken a step too much. She saw anger and rage gleaming in the eyes of that mad woman. But she wasn't pulling the trigger of the gun yet; she didn't end Clark's life right now and here, but shifted the gun's position again. Lois had stepped to the place in Clark's apartment that was the farthest away from him. It took only seconds and Lois hardly remembered what happened. But as soon as she saw the gun move, she approached Mrs. Cox quicker than she had ever though possible. With one powerful tae-kwon-doe kick she got rid of the weapon. With another kick she aimed at Mrs. Cox and sent her to the floor. Lois jumped to get the weapon and fell down as Mrs. Cox grabbed her ankle. Lois kicked at her again and struggled with the evil woman briefly before she knocked her out with her fist.

"Don't you dare get between me and Clark again!" Lois said grimly and grabbed the gun. Then she got up quickly and put the green glowing crystal back into the lead box. After she had closed the box she jumped to Clark's side to check on his pulse.

"Please be okay," she whispered wearily. "Please be okay." Her fingers searched for his pulse frantically and she got more and more nervous when she didn't find it at his neck. "No, Clark, no!" she whispered and shook him lightly as if that was going to help waking up a dead person. But he couldn't be dead. It just wasn't possible. What should she do? Wasn't there anyone interrupting this nightmare? If she could only switch it off like she could switch off a movie that was scaring her.

Lois had never felt so helpless, but somewhere in the clouded depth of her mind she remembered that she should start resuscitation. She bent down to blow air into his mouth when she felt something caressing her cheeks. Had it been his breath? Lois wasn't sure. Cold fear tightened its grip around her. What if she was wrong, if he hadn't been breathing? But Lois checked again. She watched his chest that was slowly rising and sinking. His breath was shallow but steady. Tears of relief streamed down Lois' cheeks.

"You're alive," she whispered. "Thank god, you're alive."

Lois hurried to incapacitate Mrs. Cox by tying her hands together with one of Clark's ridiculous ties she found in his wardrobe. She used another tie to fix her legs. Lois feared that she would try again to kill them when she regained consciousness. After having finished this, Lois ran back to Clark, who already looked a bit better.

A moment later, Clark slowly came to.


Clark was fighting his way through the shadows that didn't want to let him go. But a soft and endearing whisper was pulling him to the surface of this dark pool of pain and exhaustion. He could feel the tenderness of these smooth hands that were caressing his chest and cheek. Clark had this strong feeling of coming home after a sheer endless travel. Opening his eyes was worth the effort it took. When he did so, he saw wet, brown, loving eyes.

Lois captured his lips with a kiss, filling his sore body with strength and calming down his troubled mind. She kissed away the pain and the fear that he would lose her against all hope. She was there and she was with him. He returned her kiss, using his tongue to caress her lips and to reassure himself that he wasn't dreaming by adding her sweet taste to his sensations. Never had anything felt so right. It was the most intense kiss Clark had ever received and ever returned. There was despair in it and desire. It conveyed the fear of loss and the gratitude of having found a soul mate. It promised eternity and was at the same time epitomizing the moment. The kiss told from weakness and strength. Their minds and souls were meeting and they made the vows of eternal love and devotion that their mouths would speak out in the future.

When they broke the kiss neither of them felt disappointment, because it wasn't the end but the beginning of their life together.

"I love you, Clark. No one but you can make me so happy. I have never felt so beloved."

"It's because you are the most adorable woman on earth. Because of you I have someone I belong to. I've searched for you my entire life through," Clark replied softly.

"You've found me, honey. And I've finally found you."


"I tell you that he's alive," Jack said impatiently. "I know that you're the brilliant editor-in-chief, Mr. White. But you could believe me once in a while."

"Hey, you're just released from prison, Jack. How can you possibly know what has happened in the past hours. I believe Lois and if she says that Clark has fallen from Lex Tower, it's true."

Jack shook his head in frustration. But what did he expect? He had committed burglary and just wasn't the respectable kind of guy. They approached Clark's apartment, because Perry wanted to look after Lois once again. He had told Jack how worried he was that Lois wouldn't be able to cope with Clark's death. But Jack was pretty sure that Clark was still alive. He didn't understand what exactly had caused him to rather hide his secret than to spare the people he loved this incredible pain. Jack assumed that he had had his reasons.

"I hope Lois is okay," Perry mumbled. "But how can she be okay after what happened. I'm fooling myself. She's devastated." Jack could tell that it made Perry sad to the bones. He regarded Lois as a daughter and Clark as a son. He was mourning Clark as well, though he tried to be strong. Jack really wished that he could make Perry understand, but he couldn't easily give away Clark's secrets. He owed the man a lot.

Perry had reached the door of Clark's apartment and fumbled with the spare key. He opened the door and entered the flat. Jack followed him and gasped in astonishment at the sight of a tied up woman lying on the floor and struggling with incredibly distasteful ties. Next to her, but not within her reach lay Lois and Clark cuddled together and kissing each other passionately.

"Clark!" Perry gasped in shock.

The couple broke their kiss and Lois turned around to face Perry. Clark looked rather pale and exhausted.

"He's alive. Superman saved him!" Lois hurried to explain. Jack could tell that she was glad. But did she know? Had Clark found the courage to tell her?

"Great shades of Elvis," Perry mumbled, "I'm glad that you're all right, Clark."

"Me too," Clark replied and slowly came into a sitting position.

"Who's that?" Jack asked and pointed at the angry looking Mrs. Cox.

"Just someone who desperately wants to be in prison," Lois answered the question.

"We'll take care of that!" Jack stated and grinned as he tapped on Perry's shoulder. The older man had been about to ask something, but Jack felt that Lois and Clark needed some time together without any distraction. He hadn't really understood what Perry had been talking about when he had mentioned the marriage problem. But they were going to hear about it all another time. Jack advised Perry to call the police as he grabbed Mrs. Cox roughly and got her out of the apartment.


"Are you feeling better, Clark, honey?" Lois asked when Perry and Jack had left the apartment.

"Increasingly," he murmured and kissed her, enjoying his right to do so. "Thanks to you. You saved my life."

"You saved mine a thousand times. I'm just trying to catch up." She smiled.

"Would you mind if we leave the floor? It's uncomfortable, somehow," Clark whispered. He had lost his powers completely, but he didn't feel weak. With Lois he was strong, no matter if there was sunshine or rain, day or night.

Lois stood up and helped Clark to follow her. They went over to the sofa, where they sank down and embraced each other tightly.

"When I thought I had lost you, that was the worst moment in my entire life," Lois said.

"I was afraid that Luthor would win this battle. I could neither sleep nor eat. I have never felt so utterly helpless. I always hoped that someone would tell me that my nightmare was over. But no one came."

"I'm here Clark. Luthor is gone and this is no dream. He hasn't won." She kissed him softly, telling him that she wasn't leaving. This was so much better than any dream he had ever had about her. He felt her warm lips and her slender frame felt so tiny in his arms. His heart rate increased and her touch set his body on fire. He sensed the faintest touch and the light tickle of her breath on his skin. Her lips trailed slowly from his mouth to his ears and she nibbled at his earlobe for the second time. But now she did it on purpose and she didn't back away. "I love you, Clark."

"I love you too, Lois," he said breathlessly and her embrace tightened around him as her lips returned to his mouth, capturing it in a deep and longing kiss.