By Caroline K. <>

Rated PG-13

Submitted June 2007

Summary: After being turned down for a job at the Daily Planet, a dejected Clark Kent attempts to drown his sorrows at the Stardust Lounge, where he meets a beautiful and mysterious woman calling herself Wanda Detroit. A re-working of "The Pilot" episode.

Author's Note: This is an alternate beginnings story that picks up right after Clark's first interview at the Daily Planet, except that in this universe, Lois didn't barge into the interview, so she and Clark haven't yet been introduced when this story begins.

This story makes use of plot elements, characters, and direct quotations from "The Pilot" written by Deborah Joy Levine. Several lines are also quoted from the song "I've Got a Crush on You," written by Ira and George Gershwin in 1936.

Thanks so much to those who commented when this story was first posted at the Fanfic Message Boards. So many of those comments were truly helpful as I revised this story for the archive. Huge thanks also to my friend and beta-reader Sara Kraft, who helped me to polish this story up and encouraged me tremendously by laughing and crying in all the right places.


He'd known from the start that it was a long shot. Even with Professor Carlton's recommendation, there was little about Clark Kent that would tempt a man like Perry White to hire him. Clark had hidden himself in out-of-the-way places for too long; jobs at major newspapers didn't go to journalists who had spent their years since college writing about the mating habits of geckos.

Climbing the walls of his seedy hotel room with Perry White's rejection still ringing in his ears, Clark was a little tempted to mourn the death of a dream he'd never even known he had. Just being in the Daily Planet newsroom that day had been a thrill, and he'd felt a little bit like a fifth grader on a field trip, just trying to take it all in. The place had thrummed with energy, with activity. It had been modern, with computers on every desk and phones buzzing back and forth, but it was also steeped in history. It was easy to imagine the days when the air had been filled with the clatter of typewriter keys as the giants of journalism had pounded out their Pulitzer Prize winning stories.

He had gone to the Daily Planet that day out of a vague desire to do something different. His wanderlust had been waning for some time, his itch to see every nook and cranny of the world gradually replaced by a hearty appreciation for indoor plumbing. He'd have never come up with the idea of interviewing at the Planet on his own, but when Professor Carlton had offered the recommendation, Clark had been quick to take him up on it. The worst they could say is 'no,' he'd thought with a mental shrug, as he'd packed his battered brown suitcase for the trip to Metropolis.

From the moment he'd stepped off the elevator and into the famed bullpen, however, that casual, que sera sera attitude had deserted him entirely. He'd *wanted* that job, wanted to be a part of that place, and yet he'd known from practically the moment he'd handed Perry White his portfolio that there was no chance he was going to get it. He knew for an absolute certainty that Clark Kent's byline belonged on the pages of the Daily Planet, but he also knew there wasn't a single story in his portfolio that would convince Mr. White of that fact. And the worst of it was that Mr. White hadn't even given him a chance to plead his case. There had been one interruption after another during his interview: Mr. White's lunch order, his blood pressure, even his *golf cart* had commanded more of his attention than Clark had.

Clark sighed and drifted down from the ceiling, giving himself a forceful mental shake at the same time. It certainly wasn't Perry White's fault that Clark had wandered around the world for four years after college. It wasn't Perry White's fault that Clark had elected to take over as temporary editor of the Smallville Post last summer so that he could help his Dad with the farm. While other journalists had been working their way up the ladder, he'd made other choices. And as he reached for the jacket he'd tossed over the battered desk chair, he realized that he'd never regretted those choices until today. He was sulking like a little kid who'd been denied a treat, and that was ridiculous. But since hanging around his dumpy hotel room wasn't doing anything to cheer him up, he decided he'd go for a walk.

It didn't look like he'd be living in Metropolis anytime soon; he might as well take in the sights while he could.


<<You don't have dates, Lois. You have interviews.>>

Her sister Lucy had said those words to Lois Lane just that evening. And Lucy was right, of course, but most of the time, Lois just plain didn't care. She was too busy to date, and when she did, the man invariably wound up wanting more than Lois was willing to give. The easy ones were the ones who just wanted to get her into bed; she could dump those without a second thought. Every now and then, however, she would have a casual date or two with a nice guy and then realize that he was entertaining fantasies involving picket fences and 2.5 children. Those were the hard ones, the ones who refused to be dumped cleanly and instead always made her promise that they could still be *friends*. Lois always made the promise, but it was tossed over her shoulder as she was sprinting for safety. Those guys didn't want a friend; they wanted someone to decorate their house in the suburbs and host dinner parties for the boss.

No, thanks.

No, dates just led to trouble, but every now and then she had the impulse for…something. A night out. A little male admiration. A little flirting, just enough to show she still knew how. Maybe a dance or two that made her wish for more.

She'd only done it twice — no, three times — before, but each time it had been fun. It had been freeing to leave Mad Dog Lane behind and be someone else for a night. It was easy to do, and with Lucy's comment still fresh on her mind, she peeled off her work clothes and strode to her closet in her bra and panties. She rummaged around in the back until she found the black leather skirt Lucy had talked her into buying more than a year ago. She slithered into it and took her last deep breath of the evening before zipping it up. She paired the skirt with a bright pink sweater that clung to the curves her work clothes worked so hard to hide, and then she slid her feet into the least sensible heels she owned.

She smiled at the reflection in her mirror: 'Wanda Detroit' was beginning to take shape.

A few minutes in the bathroom and she'd completed the transformation. With her bright pink lipstick and teased hair, she looked as little like Lois Lane as she had when she'd been working undercover dressed as a car thief. And the beauty of it was that if anyone she knew *did* happen to recognize her, she could always pretend she was again undercover for a story. That had never happened, though. The few other times she'd ventured out as Wanda Detroit, she'd kept to parts of town that were reasonably safe, but certainly not frequented by her colleagues and professional acquaintances. She'd had a few drinks, done a little harmless flirting, and then she'd gone home.

And that was what she'd do tonight. It wouldn't be a date, exactly, but it sure as hell wouldn't be an interview either.

<<If Lucy could see me now,>> she thought, laughing out loud at the very idea.


It felt good to leave the Apollo behind. There was a slight chill in the evening air, and Clark had thrown on a jacket, not because he felt the cold but because he wanted to blend in. Always, he wanted to blend in. A few minutes' observation of the people around him taught him that giving in to his impulse to smile at everyone he passed would defeat that purpose entirely. This was not a part of town where one opened up to strangers. Folks hurried by him with their heads down, streaming toward bus stops, parking decks, and subway stations and exhibiting no interest whatsoever in the young man taking a more leisurely walk through the south side of town.

He'd avoided big cities for most of the years he'd traveled, but there was something about them that energized him. Just walking down the street in Metropolis gave him a thrill, as if something exciting might happen at any moment. Each of the people who hurried by him had a story. Each had a history and a future. Whether they were chattering into a cell phone or swearing at a Metro cabbie, they each sparked his curiosity. He'd found interesting people in every remote corner of the Earth, but surely, with this many people, there must be a wider variety of curiosities.

He thought of his failed interview and once again felt the disappointment — so much stronger now than he'd ever expected it to be. What a thrill it must be to work at a place like the Planet. What a thrill to take to these streets each day in search of stories.

A window display caught his eye and a grin flashed across his face as he paused to examine it more closely. A tattoo parlor, with some very…interesting possibilities advertised in the display. He thought of what his mother would say if he returned home to Kansas with something like *that* on his arm, and it was all he could do not to laugh out loud. Actually, his mom would probably be cool about it, he mused. His more conservative father would be appalled. And it was impossible anyway, but it was fun to think about. He felt his mood lightening just a little as he proceeded down the street.

He wandered for more than an hour, until darkness had fallen completely and the commuters had cleared the sidewalks. The homeless were beginning to emerge from their shadow world, and he drew his wallet from his back pocket each time he was approached. Jaded friends had told him before that he was a pushover, that he should keep walking, that his money would just be used for drugs or booze, but he'd never been able to walk by someone in need if it was in his power to help. Maybe that meant that he wasn't cut out for the big city, or maybe it meant that the big city needed more Clark Kents in it. He wasn't sure.

He was down to his last twenty dollars but feeling a little better about things when he stepped into a dingy little club he'd seen on an earlier pass through the neighborhood. He might not have noticed it if he hadn't heard the music — not the pounding beat of his generation, but instead, a sultry voice singing old standards that wafted out into the night and seemed to fit his mood perfectly.

The Stardust Lounge was dim and smoky but more crowded than he'd expected; the music that had drawn him in apparently drew others as well. He had worried briefly about being underdressed in his jeans and rugby shirt, but a quick scan of the room showed that he had nothing to worry about. There were people there from every age group and every walk of life, and there was nothing to keep him from settling at a table with a beer and blending effortlessly into the crowd.


She saw him the moment he entered the room and watched as he took the place in, glancing around with interest. It was obvious that he'd never been there before, and he took a moment to get his bearings before heading to the bar. She was seated just down from him, but close enough to overhear him order a beer, and she tracked him with her eyes as he made his way from the bar to one of the few available tables. He was a muscular man, but he moved with an easy grace she admired, and she felt her insides flutter a little when he flashed a quick smile of apology at a waitress as he stepped to one side to let her pass by. Without the smile he was handsome; with it, he was devastating, in spite of the heavy glasses obscuring his face.

"If I weren't working, I'd sure as hell take a shot," the bartender whispered, startling her.

"I can't imagine what you mean," she drawled, staying in character.

The bartender just laughed. "Oh, I think you know. Go on over there, and if it turns out he swings my way, maybe you could put in a good word for me."

She smiled and winked at him. "Deal."

She wasn't sure later if she'd have had the nerve to approach him without the bartender's nudge. The man she'd been admiring was exactly what she'd been hoping to find when she'd set out that night, but the pull of attraction she felt for him was so strong and so unexpected that her first instinct was to run the other way. Lois Lane would have, of course, or would have been so completely abrasive that he'd have wound up doing the running. But she wasn't Lois tonight; she was Wanda Detroit, and Wanda wasn't afraid of approaching handsome men.

She came upon him from behind, taking a moment to settle into her persona before she made her move. "It's crowded tonight," she said in a throaty voice, daring to put one hand on his shoulder. "Do you mind if I join you?"

The object of her attentions turned to look at her, and seemed to be momentarily struck speechless. "Uh…sure," he said finally, swallowing hard. "Um, allow me."

He stood and pulled out the chair next to his, and Lois murmured her thanks as he seated her.

"You're welcome," he said. "My name is Clark," he added as he resumed his own seat. "Clark Kent."

"It's nice to meet you, Clark Kent." She leaned forward, intruding slightly into his personal space and giving him an opportunity to admire her décolletage at the same time. "I'm Wanda Detroit."

She smiled when she saw him drag his gaze back to her face with an effort. It appeared that the bartender was out of luck.

"Nice to meet you," he echoed softly, and the funny thing was, she had the feeling he really meant it.

"First time in here?" she asked.

He nodded. "First time in Metropolis, actually. I was out exploring and heard the music. Do you come here often?" He winced as soon as the words were out of his mouth. "I can't believe I just said that. I'm sorry — I don't usually speak in cliches."

She laughed. "In this case, I'll take it as an honest question. I've come here a few times before, but no — not often. So where are you from?"

"Kansas originally — a little farming community I'm sure you've never heard of. But since college, I've traveled all over the world."

College graduate, she noted, pleased — and apparently well-traveled as well. She might actually get some intelligent conversation out of this evening. She usually played Wanda as a bit of a ditz, but she decided some improvisation might be called for. Wanda with a dash of Lois, perhaps? It wasn't something she'd tried before, but she had a feeling this guy was worth the balancing act.

"Really?" she asked, batting her eyes to let him know she was impressed. "What do you do? …No!" She threw up a hand. "Don't tell me. Let me guess. You're a…pilot."

He grinned, and she again felt that unfamiliar stab of desire. This guy's smile should require a permit, really it should.

"Nope, but I do like to fly." His eyes twinkled as if at some private joke, and she felt warmed through.

"Okay, not a pilot. Let's see, you're a doctor, maybe doing humanitarian work."

"Wrong again," he said. "But I think we'd better quit this game. My real job is going to seem very boring next to the ones you're imagining for me."

"Well, don't tell me yet. I want to figure it out. I bet you'll drop some hints while we're talking."

"I wouldn't count on it, Wanda. I'm pretty good at keeping secrets."

"And I'm pretty good at finding them out," she teased. "It's my business, you know — seeing beyond the external."

"And what kind of job is that?" he asked, turning the tables. "No — let me guess. You're a radiologist."

She laughed. "No. I didn't mean it quite that literally."

"OK. A psychic then."

"Maybe I am." She dropped her voice suggestively. "Does that make you nervous?"

"Not a bit," he said, matching her tone. "Can you tell me my future?"

She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. "I'm seeing you with someone," she said. "A woman. You're at a table in a crowded room, and you're…asking her to dance." She looked up at him through her lashes. "Think it'll come true?" she murmured.

"You're definitely psychic," he said, his voice husky. He stood and offered her his hand.


As she went into his arms and they began to move slowly together on the dance floor, Clark was reminded of the first time he'd flown — really flown — when he'd shot straight out of his father's wheat field and into a sky so vast it felt as though it might swallow him whole. He'd been scared to death, terrified that one false move would send him plummeting to earth, but he'd also felt as though he'd been set free — as if he had finally found a place he belonged.

Having Wanda Detroit in his arms felt a little like that.

It was crazy, and he knew it was crazy. It was absurd to think that he'd fallen in love or anything like it with a woman named Wanda in a ratty little bar called the Stardust Lounge. She was beautiful, of course, but she wasn't anything like his usual type. He didn't know anything about her.

But something about this — holding her in his arms — felt as thrilling as soaring into that huge Kansas sky.

He was *such* an idiot. The quintessential naive country boy let loose in the big city. And it would probably end with her picking his pocket or slapping his face or some other indignity, but it had been a disappointing day, and he wasn't feeling strong enough to hold himself aloof when pulling her close felt so incredibly good.

And besides, his wallet only had a few dollars in it anyway.

"You're a wonderful dancer," she said, her mouth disturbingly close to his ear.

"I learned from a Nigerian princess," he told her, hoping it didn't sound like he was bragging.

"Really?" She drew back and looked at him thoughtfully. "Hmm. I've got it! You're a gigolo. An international, world-famous gigolo."

He chuckled and dared to pull her a little closer. "I think your psychic powers are a little shaky tonight."

"Spy?" she asked, sounding hopeful.

"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you," he said seriously.

"If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that." She sighed dramatically, and he broke out in gooseflesh when he felt the warm puff of her breath tickle his neck.

"Dance with a lot of spies, do you?"

"Constantly. It gets very dull."

"Mmm. Good thing I'm not really a spy then. In fact, I'm nothing at the moment."

She drew back and arched her eyebrows at that. "Nothing? You certainly feel like something." She trailed an exploratory hand across his chest and he sucked in a sharp breath and prayed she didn't notice.

"I meant…I'm unemployed. I came to Metropolis for a job interview, and it didn't go so well." He wanted to kick himself right back to Borneo the minute the words left his mouth.

<<Way to impress her, Kent,>> he thought with disgust. <<One dance and you announce that you're practically a vagrant.>>

But Wanda didn't seem inclined to judge. "I'm sorry," she said, sounding genuinely sympathetic.

"It's all right. I've always landed on my feet so far, and there's a job waiting for me back in Smallville if nothing here works out." Of course, to a smart city girl, living in Smallville was probably a step down from vagrant, but at least he didn't sound quite so pathetic.

"*Smallville*? Seriously?"

He laughed. "'Fraid so. It's the town I grew up in. Smallville, Kansas."

"I'm sure it's…charming." There was no mistaking the doubt in her voice.

"You probably wouldn't think so, but it was a great place to grow up. How about you? Where did you grow up?"

"I'm a Metropolis girl."

"Do you still have family here?"

Her bright eyes clouded over, and he immediately wished he hadn't asked. "They're here," she answered, "but not here for me, if you know what I mean. My boss is kind of like family, though. I guess he'd come closest."

"I didn't know psychics had bosses," he said, wanting to lighten the atmosphere a bit.

It worked. She giggled and then said, "The psychic thing is just a sideline."

"Am I allowed to ask about the day job?"

She looked up at him, searched his face, and seemed on the verge of answering when her gaze shifted away to the middle-aged singer on the stage. Wanda studied the older woman intently for a minute and then shook her head. "I don't think so," she said. "It's like you said earlier — if I told, it would just seem dull and uninteresting. This is more fun."

"This is fun," he said carefully, "but I think really getting to know each other could be fun, too." He hoped he wasn't pushing too hard and held his breath as he waited for her response.

But her only answer was a sigh and a slight shake of her head before she rested it on his shoulder. He supposed he had his answer, and if that was the case, then he would just enjoy whatever time he had left with her.

In a rare feat of daring, he tipped his head slightly and brushed her cheek with a soft kiss.


Lois knew that she was lost from the moment Clark Kent's lips caressed her cheek. She'd always scorned weak-willed women who claimed they couldn't resist a man, but in that moment she became a card-carrying member of their club. If Clark had chosen at that second to throw her over his shoulder and carry her out to the back alley to have his way with her, she'd have gone without a single word of complaint.

In fact, he didn't seem inclined to take things any further than that one sweet gesture, so she took the initiative, reaching up to cup his cheek in her hand and lifting her face to meet his lips with her own. Every cell in her body seemed to shiver with pleasure at that first tentative touch. She gasped, and he drew back and searched her face. Whatever he saw there must have been encouraging because he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her again, and this time she could swear she saw stars. Surely the singer was still singing. Surely there were still other couples dancing around them. Surely the Earth was still spinning, but just then, Lois couldn't have proven any of it. Clark Kent's kiss had the power to blot out the rest of the world.

"Wow," he breathed, when he finally drew away from her.

"Yeah," she agreed, too dazzled to be articulate.

He caressed her cheek with the back of one hand. "I didn't mean to get so carried away."

"I did," she said boldly, because she was Wanda tonight, and at some point in the middle of that kiss, Wanda had decided that this time, a little flirting wasn't going to be nearly enough. Dancing cheek to cheek was all well and good, but she had something a little more stimulating in mind. She moved back into his arms, pressing her curves to his muscles, her softness to his hardness.

"Wanda…" he said, sounding a little dazed.

"I want to feel you against me," she said. "Dance with me, Clark."

"As if I could say no," he murmured.

They swayed together on the dance floor, their lips occasionally finding one another and clinging briefly. They were making a spectacle of themselves, but Lois didn't care — had quit caring some time ago. Her desire for this man was wiping out every other consideration.

"I love this song," she said as the piano began a new tune and it worked its way into her consciousness. She rested her head on his shoulder, singing softly along with the Lounge's vocalist. "I've got a crush on you, sweetie pie/ all the day and nighttime, hear me sigh/ I never had the least notion that I could fall with so much emotion…"

"Wow!" Clark said. "Your voice is *amazing*. You should be on that stage."

"No, thanks." She smiled up at him. "I'm pretty happy right where I am. Unless…"

"Unless what?" he asked, looking adorably worried.

"Unless you'd like to go someplace where we can be…alone?" Her heart was hammering, and she hoped she didn't look as rattled as she felt. Because even though she was Wanda tonight, and Wanda had just recklessly propositioned a near-stranger, Lois was still lurking in there somewhere, and Lois hadn't been 'alone' with a man in a very long time.

She saw his eyes widen in surprise and felt him miss a step. "Sorry," he said automatically. "Uh, Wanda…"

Wanda. She was *Wanda*, she reminded herself. Lois Lane was about to panic, but what would Wanda do?

"I'll sing you a solo you won't forget," she murmured into his ear before nipping gently at his earlobe.

"Oh, God," he breathed, and she felt his hands tighten briefly where they rested at her waist. He seemed to take a moment to gather his thoughts.

"It's not that I don't want to. You have to know that I do…want to…a lot. I just don't usually jump into a relationship quite this fast. I know that probably makes me sound like a complete loser…"

"No, it makes you sound like a gentleman," she assured him, feeling wistful for some reason she couldn't fully understand. "The thing is, Clark, I'm not offering you a relationship. I can't."

And even though that was one thing she was certain of, she still felt a pang as she said it. But she was in his arms under false pretenses, and if he liked Wanda Detroit, it was a sure bet he wouldn't want a thing to do with Mad Dog Lane. Even if he did, by some miracle, forgive her the deception and want to pursue a relationship with her as Lois, she was sure he'd be one of those men she'd eventually run from and disappoint. Every relationship she'd ever had had been a federal disaster, and she had no reason to think a relationship with Clark would be any more successful. Wouldn't it be far better to have one magical night — something perfect they could both remember for the rest of their lives?

"Wanda, are you married?" he asked.

Her eyes widened. "No," she said quickly. "Absolutely not. And I'm not engaged or involved with anyone either. Clark, I…" She broke off. Worked up her courage. "I want you to know I don't make a habit of this. And if you say no, I'll respect that. But I feel something for you that I haven't felt for anyone in a long time." She gave him an embarrassed look. "And now I'm the one talking in cliches."

"I feel the same way," he said, his tender smile reassuring her. "But if that's the case, why can't we take our time…get to know each other? I'd love to take you out on a real date…"

"I can't," she repeated softly. "I know you don't understand, and I can't really explain it to you. I'm just not…relationship material. I can only offer you one night, Clark, but I think that one night could be really special."

"Is it because I don't have a job right now? Because I will, Wanda, I promise you…"

"No, Clark. I swear, it doesn't have anything to do with that. It has to do with me — with things about me you don't know and I can't tell you without messing up this whole evening. And it's too incredibly perfect to mess up. We're too perfect together."

It was cheating a little, but she punctuated that statement with a hungry kiss and some dance moves she was pretty sure his Nigerian princess had never shown him.

When she heard his breath hitch with pleasure, she knew she'd won.


"We need to get out of here."

The words escaped Clark's mouth in a gasp as he jerked away from the woman in his arms. All he could think — if you could even call it thinking — was that for the first time in his life, he wasn't going to be able to talk his body out of what it wanted. He wasn't even going to try. All the reasons why it was a bad idea to go home with this woman had deserted his brain completely, and if they dared to come back, he fully intended to send them off with stern instructions not to return until morning.

He had been saving himself for someone special, telling himself that he would know when the time and the woman was right, and everything he had was telling him that the time was *now* and the woman was *this one*. Wanda Detroit was the woman he'd been waiting for, and if he couldn't get her to promise him more than just the one night, then he would take the one night and pray that something he did or said would convince her otherwise.

Because she was right — this was special. This was magical. This was desire on a scale he'd never experienced before, had never even known existed. And if this was his one chance at the kind of passion he felt for Wanda Detroit, then he was going to take it.

He caught her hand in his and led her from the dance floor, and then together they threaded their way through the maze of tables, not even pausing at their own, where his beer and her glass of wine sat abandoned. He didn't slow down until the door of the club swung closed behind them and he was taking deep breaths of crisp autumn air. The fresh air revived him a little, and he felt his brain gaining some slight bit of control over the rest of his anatomy.

"Where are you staying?" she asked, giving his hand a slight squeeze.

"Oh." That brought him up short. "It's not very…I mean, you might be happier at your place, if that's all right."

"It's fine, Clark. Wherever you're staying is fine. My sister is staying at my place right now, so…"

"The place I'm staying, it's really a dump, Wanda. I figured until I found a job, why spend the money, but I don't mind taking you somewhere else. Maybe you could recommend someplace…" He had a credit card, and for this he'd use it. His parents would loan him the money, wouldn't ask questions. They were great that way.

"No." She wrapped her arms around him, kissed him again, though lightly this time — a kiss to reassure rather than inflame. "I don't care about all that."

"Are you sure?" he whispered against her lips.

"Positive," she said, in that sexy, throaty voice that sent his blood thundering through his veins and immediately undid the fresh air's good work. "We'll make our own ambiance."

He swallowed hard. "It's the Apollo…about a block from here."

"Lead the way."

He held her hand, enjoying the feeling of her fingers laced through his. The contact could have been perfectly innocent, but instead it was like a conduit for the desire that leaped between them. By all rights, he should have been nervous, but whatever nervousness he might have felt couldn't seem to penetrate the haze of arousal.

With the reality only a few steps away, he let himself imagine actually making love to her. He pictured himself removing her clothing piece by piece, like unwrapping a beautiful gift. He'd start with the tiny buttons on her sweater, he thought — undo them slowly one by one — and then he'd slide it from her shoulders so gently that she'd shiver at the brush of his hands. He'd take a moment to admire her in her bra, perhaps teasing her by lightly tracing the pattern of the lace. When neither of them could stand it anymore, he'd unzip her skirt and lower it to the floor. He pictured her stepping out of it still wearing her high heels…and he nearly ran smack into a lamppost.

He dodged it just in time, a faint blush rising to his cheeks.

"You OK?" she asked, smiling up at him.

He was a million miles from OK. He was so blinded by lust that he could hardly put one foot in front of the other. "I'm fine," he said, amazed when his voice sounding almost normal.

<<Just imagining you without your clothes on.>>

He needed to redirect that train of thought quickly, he realized, or he'd have bigger problems than a dented lamppost. This was the woman he'd been waiting for, and he was going to *keep* waiting for her as long as necessary, he instructed his body sternly. She was expecting a 'really special' night, not a 'really special' three minutes, and…

Suddenly an urgent thought intruded — a single sensible thought that had somehow fought its way through his fantasy and into his consciousness. He felt the blush return with a vengeance, and he knew he had to say something but had absolutely no idea how to go about it.

"Wanda, um…"

She looked up at him, and her glazed eyes and flushed cheeks suggested that maybe he wasn't the only one who'd been engaging in a few fantasies along the way.

"We might need to stop…somewhere…"

"You want to stop?" Her eyes widened and she looked almost desperate. "*Why*?"

"Just for a minute to get…um, I don't have any…"

Well, *this* was certainly going well. He wanted to crawl into the nearest manhole and just let the earth swallow him up. What single man in the nineties not only didn't *have* condoms but couldn't even bring himself to say the word? He was an idiot, he was in over his head, he was going to ruin *everything*…

"Oh," she said, sounding almost as embarrassed as he had. "Don't worry about it. I, um, have some."

…he was going to make love to the woman of his dreams!

For the space of perhaps three steps, he lost touch with gravity and floated beside her before bringing himself back down to earth.

Fortunately, Wanda didn't seem to notice. "I don't want you to think I, um, planned to do this," she said hurriedly. "I really didn't, and I meant it when I said I don't do this kind of thing often…or at all, really. It's just that my mother is…well, *nuts* would be one way of putting it. And she's a nurse, and she doesn't trust men — or me, for that matter — and every time she comes to my apartment she puts condoms in all my purses and goes on and on about how a girl can't be too careful and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and…you probably didn't need to know all that, did you?"

"I'm not sure I followed it all," he said truthfully, "but I do think I'm going to send your mother flowers. Would that be all right?"

She giggled. "Only if you promise to write on the card exactly what they're for."

He squeezed her hand and smiled down at her, his embarrassment forgotten.

"For the best night of my life," he said simply.


Later, their night together would come back to her in wisps of sweet memory.

She would remember his hands. They were like the rest of him — strong but gentle — and they had shaken slightly as he had fumbled with the key to his door. Then, only a few minutes later, those hands had moved nimbly down the row of little buttons on her sweater before caressing her with something like reverence.

She would remember her first pure glimpse of his eyes when she slid the heavy glasses from his face and set them gently on the desk. He hadn't had that bare, unprotected look she'd expected. He had smiled at her, his eyes crinkling up a little at the corners, and she'd reacted with an odd shiver of intimacy. Those beautiful eyes would haunt her later, when she let herself remember his look of absolute wonderment at the moment their bodies were finally joined.

She would remember the way her heart had stuttered briefly and then started to race when she slid his shirt up and caught her first sight of his chest…the way her hands had just been drawn to his smooth flesh, touching and exploring each incredible inch of him without any instruction from her brain.

She would remember that the place was a dump, just as he'd said, but that neither of them had cared. Just the right amount of light had filtered through from the neon sign outside the window to bathe their night together in a soft glow, like moonlight.

She would remember the ache she felt as she wrote the note with a cheap pen that kept fading in and out. She would remember the exact way it looked when she placed it on the pillow next to him — the way his name looked in her handwriting. She would remember how wrong it felt to see the name 'Wanda' at the bottom of that note, because already, Wanda was disappearing, and Lois Lane was the one left with the memories.

*Clark —

Thank you for the most wonderful night of my life.



For a weak moment, she wanted to snatch it back and throw it away, to crawl back into his bed and wake with him in the morning. She forced herself to turn away. Tears stung her eyes as she tiptoed to the door with her ridiculous heels in one hand and turned the knob as quietly as she could so as not to disturb him. She slipped out into the hallway and paused just long enough to put on her shoes before hurrying outside to hail a cab.

When she crept back into her apartment at three in the morning, Lois was relieved for once to find that Lucy was still out doing whatever it was that Lucy did. Another night, another bar, another guy…and now Lois was no better, not that she'd ever confess as much to Lucy.

<<But Clark was different,>> her heart insisted. She wanted that to be true, but she didn't really believe it. Perhaps Clark *could* have been different if she'd had the courage to be honest with him…but no, she didn't really believe that either. Clark wanted Wanda Detroit, not Lois Lane, and Wanda Detroit didn't exist. She had turned back into Lois Lane the minute she'd left a note on Clark's pillow, and she hadn't managed to conveniently leave any glass slippers behind. She would never see Clark Kent again.

As she slipped between the cool sheets of her bed, she told herself that it was for the best.


Clark couldn't claim she hadn't warned him, but that didn't make it any less painful when he woke up and saw that all that was left of Wanda Detroit was a note on his pillow. He read it quickly and then folded the scrap of paper and put it to one side. It did nothing to assuage the emptiness he felt.

After the night they'd shared, how could she leave him without even saying goodbye? It couldn't possibly have meant as much to her as it had to him; if it had, she would have stayed, would have been willing to find a way for them to be together. "Not relationship material," she had said, but if she wasn't involved with someone else, what could that possibly mean? What could keep two consenting adults from pursuing a relationship if it was what they both wanted?

The brief note left on his pillow cheapened what had seemed so magical the night before. It hadn't been a meeting of souls after all; it had just been a one-night stand, no different from any other except that this time it had happened to him. It was the same tired story of hormones running high and two people who hadn't bothered to fight them. And that might have been all right for someone else, but it had never been all right to Clark. He supposed that made him old-fashioned, but he had always thought that sex should be a part of a loving, committed relationship. Never once had he considered that his first sexual experience might be with a stranger he'd met in a bar.

No matter how beautiful, how sensual, how passionate the night had been, in the harsh light of day, he had to admit to himself that it had meant nothing. It wasn't the start of something. Wasn't the consummation of anything. It was just sex. Really *good* sex — not that he had anything to compare it with — but just sex.

He sighed and rose naked from the bed, picking up the note and then stooping to gather up the torn condom wrappers they'd tossed to the floor the night before. In his utter shame, he almost threw it all in the trash, but then he thought better of it and tucked the note into his briefcase. He might want to look at it again one day. Not soon, but one day.

He rummaged in his suitcase for fresh clothes and then turned on the shower, hotter than usual, needing to wash her scent from his skin. Because as much as he wished it weren't so, the faint traces of her perfume and their lovemaking were arousing him and indicting him at the same time.

He should just go home, he thought over and over as he showered and dressed. He even packed up his suitcase, tossing things in haphazardly, wanting nothing more than to leave this room and this city forever and as soon as possible. He would fly, he decided — fly home to Kansas and the job he had waiting at the Smallville Post. He didn't belong in this city. He snapped his suitcase shut and then grabbed his wallet and slid his glasses into place. His mom had asked him to do some shopping for her while he was in Metropolis. He was going to do it as quickly as possible, and then he was going to go home.


Lois woke to the sound of persistent beeping and groaned into her pillow. The beeping went on in spite of her protest, and she snarled several very unladylike words before she finally managed to silence her alarm clock with a fumbling hand. She was never a morning person, but on three hours of sleep, she became someone to avoid at all costs. The entire newsroom would probably pay the price for Wanda Detroit's night out, but Lois didn't care. Why shouldn't everyone else be as miserable as she was?

She stumbled blearily into her kitchen and went through the motions of making coffee, not bothering with measuring. The result would probably be unspeakably nasty, but if it kept her awake long enough to get to the Daily Planet, she could augment it with some that was only disgusting.

She left the coffee maker hissing on the counter and went straight through to the bathroom, where she actually emitted a small shriek when she saw herself in the mirror. She hadn't bothered to take 'Wanda's' heavy makeup off before crawling into bed, and she looked like a raccoon, with smears of dark eyeliner around both eyes. She hoped the damage had been done while she slept; she could hardly bear the thought that Clark's final memory of their encounter would be of her looking like a battered woman. She dashed into the shower, wanting to scrub away the evidence of her deception. By the time she stepped out, the last of Wanda Detroit had been washed down the drain.

She dressed for work as she always did — conservative suit, light makeup, sleek hairstyle — with only the slight shadows beneath her eyes hinting that anything was amiss. She was Lois Lane, she reminded herself firmly as she choked down a cup of coffee, and Lois Lane did not wallow. Lois Lane did not allow romantic entanglements to sidetrack her from the pursuit of her goals. She was a successful career woman, and she had work to do: the day before, a brown bag full of scraps of research had been shoved into her hands by a crazy man, and her instincts were telling her that there was a story there somewhere.

She would focus on the story. She would not think about Clark Kent, about the way his eyes had crinkled when he'd smiled at her or the way his hands had felt as they glided over her skin. She would not think about the weight of his body on hers or about the…

<<Dammit, Lois!>> She slammed her coffee cup down, ignoring the resulting mess as the dregs sloshed over onto the counter. <<It's over. You had your fun, and now it's back to real life.>>

"Somebody had better have made the coffee when I get there," she muttered to herself as she grabbed her purse and hurled herself out the door.


Clark left the Apollo with every intention of just doing his mother's shopping quickly, but he hadn't spent many minutes outside before he was again caught up in the excitement of the city. Once more, commuters were rushing by him, this time on their way to work, and as he wandered down Forty-Second Street in the direction of some shops he'd seen the night before, he saw business-owners unlocking doors, turning 'closed' signs to 'open', and greeting customers and employees. Clark had intended to hurry, but he found himself pausing again and again to peer into shop windows or to sneak peeks at interesting pedestrians.

Wanda had hurt him. His own poor judgment had probably hurt him even more. In his hotel room, surrounded by the memories of the night before, it had almost hurt to breathe. Outside, however, it was a new day, and though he knew it would be a very long time before he was able to put his experience with Wanda in perspective, he could already feel his inherent optimism returning. He would not allow the events of one night to color his entire visit. There was more to Metropolis than the Stardust Lounge and Wanda Detroit and a note on his pillow. He would do his mother's shopping, and then he would take a little more time to explore.

Just down the block from where he was standing, Clark noticed a crowd milling around outside of what once had been a lovely theatre. It had unfortunately been allowed to fall into near-ruin, and as he approached, he saw that the crowd was protesting the theatre's immediate demolition. The wrecking ball was in position, and as Clark drew near, he saw the driver of the truck climb in and start the engine.

"Save the Sarah Bernhardt!" someone called, and as others took up the cry, Clark lowered his glasses and peered through the thick walls of the building. What he saw nearly broke his heart: an elderly actress standing alone on the stage, speaking her lines to an imaginary audience. Instantly, he turned and aimed a shot of heat vision at the motor of the truck, silencing its ominous rumble. The crowd erupted in cheers, and Clark took advantage of the distraction to slip inside the theatre.

She was there, on the stage, and she could have looked sad or ridiculous or pathetic, but to Clark she was none of those things. She was lovely — lovely in the same way the old theatre was lovely. He paused for a moment just for the pleasure of hearing her voice ringing out with such emotion:

"Oh, for the days of my childhood! Back when my soul was pure! I slept right here in this nursery, looking out at the orchard from this very room, and every morning I awoke with such joy in my heart! My orchard is just the same as it was then. Nothing different. All of it, all of it dressed in white! My lovely orchard!"

She paused then, and he applauded, the gesture heartfelt. He had needed to hear her passion, her love for the theatre and for the play coming through with her every utterance.

"Who's there?" she asked, peering into the shadows.

"Just a fan," Clark said softly, stepping closer so that she could see him.

"I'm not leaving until I finish." Her bright eyes flashed defiance.

"All right," Clark agreed. "Mind if I watch? I've always loved this play."

"You know it?" she asked skeptically.

"'The Cherry Orchard'. Anton Chekhov."

She beamed at him then. "His finest, don't you think?"


"They don't understand," she said sadly. "A theatre is more than just bricks and mortar. It's drama and passion and mystery and comedy and life. Please don't make me go. I'm not ready."

In that moment, Clark realized that he wasn't quite ready to go either. Wasn't ready to say goodbye, though whether to Metropolis or Wanda Detroit he couldn't have said.

But this beautiful woman didn't need to hear about his problems. He smiled at her. "We have some time," he said gently, and then he settled in to enjoy the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre's final performance.


The story seemed to pour from his soul straight through his fingertips, and his keyboard was smoking slightly when it was finished. He was pleased with it — as pleased as he'd been with anything he'd written in a long time. He printed it out and tucked it into his portfolio, right on top of his copy of the Borneo Gazette.

Thirty minutes later, he was, for the second day in a row, gazing up at the giant Daily Planet globe mounted outside the venerable building. He was going to try again, and this time he was sure he had a story worthy of the Planet's pages. He took a deep breath and strode into the lobby, trying to infuse himself with confidence as he crossed to the bank of elevators and pressed the call button. <<I can do this,>> he told himself. <<I'm a good writer, and here I'll learn to be a better one. I'll write obituaries for a while if that's what it takes, but I know I can do this job. And this story will convince Mr. White that I can do this job.>>

He was still giving himself a pep talk when the elevator doors opened and he stepped out and glanced across the bullpen, experiencing the same thrill he'd felt the day before. He then set his sights on Mr. White's office door, refusing to allow himself any time at all to lose his nerve. He made his way in that direction with such single-minded purpose that he nearly ran over two Daily Planet employees along the way. "Excuse me," he murmured with a distracted smile, but all the while he was thinking, <<Confidence, Kent. Be confident. Act like you belong here.>>

He knocked at Mr. White's door and opened it when he heard the older man's gruff voice call for him to come in.

"Mr. White," he said, projecting every bit of confidence he'd just convinced himself he had. "Do you have a few minutes?"

Perry White blinked at him and then sighed. "I have time, son, but I still don't have a job for you. You're persistent, I'll hand you that, but…"

"Please, sir," Clark said, reaching into his portfolio. "Please just look at this. It's a story I wrote this morning, and I think it might give you a better idea of my abilities. If you don't like it, I promise you I'll never bother you again."

The editor gave him a look that was part indulgence and part exasperation. "All right, Kent. Hand it over." He accepted the story and waved Clark into a nearby chair. Clark settled himself quietly, wanting Mr. White's attention to be on his work.

"The Sarah Bernhardt Theatre," Perry said, sounding surprised when he saw the subject of Clark's article. "I assigned this story out yesterday, but the reporter told me she wasn't in the mood."

"Wasn't in the *mood*?" Clark found it impossible to hide his shock. He couldn't imagine telling a man like Perry White that he wasn't in the 'mood' to complete an assignment.

Perry wagged his head. "You'd have to know her," he said wryly. "Well, Kent, let's see what you've got here."

He read quickly, his eyes skimming over the text, but his facial expressions were promising, and when he came to the end, he began reading aloud: "She came to say goodbye, as we all must, to the past, and to a life and a place that soon would exist only in a bittersweet memory." He put the papers down on his desk and eyed Clark with new respect. "You know, Kent, if there's one thing I value more than experience, it's initiative. Clark Kent, welcome to the Daily Planet."

He stood and offered Clark his hand, and Clark nearly fell out of his chair in his haste to reciprocate. "Thank you, sir," he said, taking care this time not to leave any bruises. "You won't be disappointed, I promise you."

"I've got a good feeling about you, Kent. Don't let me down."

"I won't, sir," Clark promised.

"Go home today, and I'll put the paperwork through to human resources. Be here at eight o'clock sharp tomorrow, and I'll have you fill all that stuff out and get someone to show you around."

"Yes, sir!" Clark knew he looked overeager, but he couldn't wipe the grin from his face as left the editor's office, this time as a brand-new Daily Planet employee.


Lois was standing in the middle of the bullpen, sipping a cup of coffee and sniping at Jimmy, when the elevator doors slid open and Clark Kent stepped out.

Just like that.

Just stepped out of the elevator as if he did it every day.

Her hand clenched her coffee mug so tightly that it was a wonder it wasn't crushed to a fine powder. For a moment her brain skittered around in a blind panic before grasping at the reporter's questions out of habit:

*Who?* Clark Kent.

*What?* Walking straight toward her.

*When?* Now! Right this minute!

*Where?* Wasn't that already covered in number two? Really, this wasn't helping much, and he was getting closer…

*Why?* Oh, God…why?

*How?* Seriously. How? How had she given herself away? Had he gone through her purse? But no, she'd never had it out of her sight.

Would he actually say something in front of Jimmy, who was looking at her strangely and beginning to glance at Clark strangely, too? And Clark was bearing down on them, and all she could think to do was to look down, to take a sip of her coffee as if it were necessary to sustain life — which it was that day, so that part didn't require much acting.

"Excuse me," he murmured, as he stepped around them at the last minute. She glanced up in time to catch his fleeting smile — the same one he'd given the waitress the night before, the same one that had sent Wanda Detroit straight into his arms. Only now it seemed like what it was — an impersonal smile he'd give a stranger. It was nothing like the way he'd looked at her when they'd danced. Nothing like the way he'd looked at her when they'd made love. It was a smile for Lois Lane, not Wanda Detroit, and as he knocked at Perry's office door, Lois felt her heart splinter into razor sharp pieces.

He wasn't there to see her.

He didn't even *know* her.

He had brushed by her — their shoulders had actually touched — and while she'd gone weak in the knees, he'd felt nothing at all. He hadn't even given her a second glance. Her theory that Lois Lane couldn't possibly hold any appeal for him was now a stone cold certainty.

But that left the 'why?' more up in the air than ever, didn't it? Why would Clark Kent be at the Daily Planet?

She thought back to their conversation the night before, and…


Fate couldn't possibly be that cruel.

"Jimmy." She grabbed Jimmy's arm so tightly that he would probably have bruises. "That man who just went into Perry's office. Do you know him?"

"Uh, yeah. I mean, I don't *know* him, know him, but he was here yesterday for a job interview. Kent something or other, I think." He winced a little and glanced down at her hand. "Do you mind, Lois? I'm kind of attached to that arm."

She loosened her grip but didn't release him, not about to let him get away until she'd wrung every last bit of information from him. "What did Perry tell him?"

"I think he told him he didn't have any openings. Not sure what the guy's doing back here. Why, do you know him?"

"No!" Lois flung his arm back at him. "Why would I know him? Why would I even care? Do you think I know every two-bit hack who comes in here looking for a job?"

Jimmy's eyes widened, and he took a cautious step or two backwards now that his arm was once again in his possession. "Uh, no," he said, shaking his head. "Of course you don't. Why would you know…? You're like a lone wolf…or something…in a *totally* non-dog-like way, of course. Listen, I, uh, need to be going."

"Don't forget to get me that information on EPRAD," she snapped. "I'm going blind looking through that pile of scraps Mr. Crazy Man called his 'notes'."

"Right away," he agreed, nodding and then darting away, out of range.

She whirled and headed toward her desk, toward the ragged sack full of papers that hadn't made any sense to her before and certainly weren't going to now that her mind was consumed with the thought of what was going on behind Perry's closed door. She kept sneaking glances in that direction, pretending to be busy as she waited for Clark to come out.

When it finally happened, she knew immediately from the look on his face that whatever had gone on in there had been good news for Clark. He looked like he was fighting to keep the smile off his face, and he cast a satisfied glance over the bullpen as he made his way toward the elevators with a spring in his step.

Dear God. Perry had offered him a job.

Clark Kent was coming to work at the Daily Planet.

He was going to meet Lois Lane, and he was going to realize that she was a liar and a fake, that she'd played him for a fool and gone to his bed under false pretences. He was never going to be able to respect her — that was a given. No man respected a woman who fell into bed with him on two hours' acquaintance. And what if he told the whole newsroom? That had happened before, and she'd be damned if she'd let it happen again. She'd worked too hard to get where she was to let a one-night stand ruin everything.

Clark Kent was *not* coming to work at the Daily Planet. Not if she had anything to say about it.

The elevator doors had no sooner closed on Clark than Lois was up and out of her seat and blasting into Perry's office with all the subtlety of a stick of dynamite.

"Well, hello to you, too, Lois," he said mildly, barely glancing up from the copy he was reading. "What can I do for you?"

"You can tell me that you did *not* just hire that man!" She threw herself down in an armchair and then immediately sprang back up again, glaring at her boss, who by now had looked up and was studying her with a furrowed brow.

"You know, correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure I'm the one in charge of the hiring around here."

"You can't hire him, Perry! He's…he's…" A great lover? A nice guy from Kansas? "*Bad news!*" she finished ominously. "Very bad news."

"I see."

She *hated* Perry's 'I see's.' She knew that trick of old. He would toss out an 'I see' and then wait for her to spill her guts all over his office floor. Well, not this time. She'd learned a thing or two over the years, and she was no longer a rookie who could be trapped by an 'I see'. She folded her arms and met his patient silence with a blistering glare, prepared to carry on the staring contest all day if necessary.

Finally, he cracked. "Would you care to elaborate a little bit, Lois? Kent came highly recommended by an old friend of mine. Frank Carlton doesn't seem to think he's 'bad news.' And the story he brought me today was top-notch." He tapped a couple of printed pages on his desk. "Razing of the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre. A story *you* couldn't be bothered to write, if I remember correctly."

Lois emitted a snarl of pure rage. He'd stolen her story! While he was supposed to be sitting around his hotel room nursing his heartache, he'd gone out and stolen a story that she'd been assigned. Granted, she hadn't *wanted* the story — hadn't even intended to write it — but that didn't change the fact that *he* had no business writing it.

"I'm running it tomorrow," Perry went on. "Kent's got a hell of a nice touch."

"Kent is a *hack* from *Smallville*!" she spat. "I couldn't make that name up!"

"He's traveled all over the world," Perry pointed out. "Speaks I don't know how many languages…"

"Who cares?" she fired back. "The Daily Planet is written in English."

"I know that, Lois." Perry's voice was getting softer, more dangerous, and she realized she was going to have to switch tactics. "I'm the editor of the Daily Planet, which means that I know everything about it. It also means that I'm in charge of hiring, and a few minutes ago I offered Clark Kent a job. Now, I don't know what's put this bee in your bonnet, Lois, but you're just going to have to deal with that."

She took a deep breath. Calmed herself a little. A very little. When she finally spoke, it was in a low, even voice. "Perry, I'm going to say something to you that I've never said before — never even imagined saying. I'm not going to explain it because I think I've been here long enough and worked hard enough that I should have earned your trust by now." Another deep breath. "Clark Kent is trouble. He is not someone I will *ever* work with, and if you hire him, you'll have my resignation on your desk the same day."


"It's him or me, Perry. Take your pick."

It was a good exit line, and she took it, bolting from his office without a backward glance. Her stomach was churning, and she made straight for the ladies' room and barricaded herself in one of the stalls. She huddled on the cold tiles, not at all sure that she wasn't going to be sick.

What had she just done? Had she really just threatened to quit her job over Clark Kent? What if Perry called her bluff? There was no other paper in the world like the Planet, no other city in the world like Metropolis. She'd spent far too much time building her reputation there to lose it all now. And Clark could go anywhere, she reminded herself. He was young, and Perry had said he was talented. He would get a job somewhere else. He'd even told her he had a job waiting for him back in Smallville.

She wouldn't think of how disappointed Clark had sounded the night before, when he'd told her his job interview hadn't worked out. She wouldn't think of the way he'd looked after Perry had offered him a position at the Planet…of the delight he hadn't been able to hide. She *couldn't* let herself think of those things…couldn't let her heart soften toward Clark Kent again. Look where that had gotten her the last time.

Perry would send Clark on his way, and she would continue on the same as before. That was the only acceptable outcome, and by the time she finally crept out of the ladies' room stall, she'd convinced herself it was the best thing for everyone involved.


Clark's euphoria over his new job lasted only as long as it took him to get back to the Apollo. Every inch of the place reminded him of Wanda and of the fact that at some point the night before, he'd lost his mind and maybe his heart and decided to act out the lyrics of a bad country song.

The worst of it was that he couldn't lie to himself: He knew that if he saw her again, he would be in danger of falling just as hard and just as fast. She would only have to touch him, to look up at him in that bewitching way she had, and he would once again be under her spell. He'd like to think that with the benefit of hindsight he would fight it, but he wasn't entirely sure he would succeed. He was accustomed to thinking of himself as the strongest man on Earth, yet a beautiful woman had, in a single evening, rendered him weak enough to cast aside a lifetime of convictions. It was an uncomfortable realization.

And now that he would be staying in Metropolis, he knew he would be looking for her every day, would be harboring a secret hope that fate would bring them together again and the magic of the night before would still be there. He even considered returning to the Stardust Lounge that evening, but he was certain that all he'd find there were more memories, and he wasn't sure he was ready to face them.

He'd already checked the tattered phone book in his room, and there wasn't a single 'Detroit' listed — not that that meant anything. Lots of single women had unlisted numbers for their own protection. Of course, having one's name in the phone book was a good bit less dangerous than going home with strange men, but Clark preferred to believe that she'd been telling the truth when she'd said that she wasn't in the habit of picking up men in bars. He had nothing to base that on but his own gut instinct — and maybe the fact that the alternative was just too humiliating to consider. He couldn't have been just one in long line of one-night-stands for her, could he?

He sighed and flung himself on the lumpy mattress, trying to ignore the memories of what they'd done on that mattress the night before. But the memories haunted him. *Wanda* haunted him. He had a feeling she always would. Their night together had changed him, somehow, as if making love to Wanda Detroit had ushered in a new phase of his life that he was only beginning to understand. He didn't believe she'd 'made a man of him' or any other such macho nonsense; it was more that he'd caught a glimpse of something he'd never known existed and felt things he'd never believed he'd feel. He suspected that having seen and felt those things might make it impossible for him ever to settle for anything less.

It was a lonely thought.

He thought about calling his parents to tell them about his new job, but then he realized that his mother, whose psychic powers far exceeded Wanda Detroit's, would know instantly that there was more on his mind than just the job and would attempt to ferret out each and every mortifying detail. He couldn't face the Martha Kent inquisition just then, so he decided to go see his parents in person the following night, when he could tell them all about his first day on the job and hopefully keep up such a running commentary that his mother wouldn't be able to get a word in edgewise.

Fat chance, that.

Anyway, he could put it off another day. He rolled off the mattress with its sweetly painful memories and decided that it was dark enough outside to risk a flight. He needed to be away from this place, even if it was just for a few hours — needed to be in the one place he always felt comfortable, as if he belonged. Ever since he'd learned to fly, the sky had been that one special place for him, but only very recently had he learned why.

He'd spent the previous summer working part time as the editor of the Smallville Post and part time on his father's farm. His dad had suffered a recurrence of an old back injury in May, and without Clark's help, there would have been no harvest that year.

Neighbors help one another in Smallville, so Clark hadn't hesitated when his father's old friend Wayne Irig had come to him to ask for a hand in clearing an enormous old tree that had been uprooted in a summer storm. But he and Wayne had no sooner begun the job than Clark began feeling weak and nauseous for the first time in his life. He'd terrified Wayne by collapsing, unconscious, amidst the wreckage of the old tree. Wayne, unable to move him, had called Martha and Jonathan Kent, who had raced to their son's side.

It was an odd way to begin a voyage of self-discovery, but since when hadn't Clark Kent been odd?

His mother was the one who had found the green rocks mixed with the dirt and the tree's root system and guessed, based on their strange glow, that they might have something to do with her son's unprecedented illness. They had tested that theory once they'd gotten him home and conscious again. His father had shown him one of the rocks, and he hadn't been able to keep from crying out at the excruciating pain. It was just one more thing that set him apart; a rock that bothered no one else — no one *human* — had the power to render him unconscious, maybe even kill him.

That night, his parents had taken flashlights to Wayne Irig's field. Like homespun archeologists, they had spent hours sifting through the freshly turned earth, collecting every bit of the green rock they could find, down to the smallest pebble.

"What did you do with it?" he'd asked his dad at the breakfast table the next day.

He had thought that being felled by a shiny green rock would be his biggest surprise of the week, but nothing could compare to the shock he'd received when his parents had exchanged a glance and his father had replied, "Well, I, uh, put it in that old trunk of Grandpa's and buried it with your ship."

Clark's jaw dropped. He had a *ship*?

He'd known that his parents had found him in Schuster's field — now Irig's field, not that anyone actually called it that. He'd known that there had been a bright light, that his parents had followed it, and that they had assumed he had somehow fallen to Earth. How had it never occurred to him to ask what had happened to the ship? Because obviously there had been one. He'd crashed to Earth in *something*; he hadn't been dropped off by the stork.

In hindsight, he realized that he hadn't asked because he really hadn't wanted to know. Being dropped off by the stork was somehow preferable to knowing for a dead certainty that he'd come in a spaceship. He had to live every day with the evidence of his otherness, but at least he looked normal and acted normal, even if that's what it was: an act. He hadn't asked about the ship because knowing about it would have been just one more tally mark in the "not normal" column, and he really hadn't needed that while he was coming to grips with the strange things his body could do.

But at twenty-seven, he was ready to know about his ship. He was more comfortable with the fact that his brand of not-normal *was* normal for him. He could fly and see through things and hear things he shouldn't and had a host of other weird abilities with varying degrees of usefulness. He'd finally learned to live with all of that. He was ready to learn to live with the rest of it, he thought, whatever that might entail.

He'd lost his powers briefly during his illness, but when he had recovered, he'd insisted on digging up the ship. His parents had protested, worried about him getting too close to the rocks again, but something in the trunk his dad had found must have shielded him because it didn't prove to be a problem. He'd had the ship out in just under five minutes, and if it hadn't been for the strange glow, he might have missed the tiny globe that had fallen from the ship and into the bottom of the hole. It was with some trepidation that he'd floated back into the hole to retrieve the globe; he hadn't had particularly good luck that week with glowing relics of his arrival on Earth.

The globe had felt surprisingly warm in his hands, and the minute he'd touched it, he'd seen the continents shift from the familiar green arrangement of Earth to an all-new configuration in bright red.


The one word had insinuated itself into his consciousness with perfect clarity. It had felt immediately right…almost familiar. While his parents watched in silent awe, he had touched the red land masses and then had immediately looked up into the sky, searching the stars for the one that had once been his.

He was an alien. A visitor from the planet Krypton. At one time, he'd have cringed away from that knowledge. Holding the globe in his hand, however, he'd felt only peace. This, then, was why he was so different. This was why he never quite felt he belonged. This was why he felt most at home when he was drifting in the quiet space between the stars and the Earth, as if he were waiting for one or the other to claim him.

As he'd stood in that darkened field, holding the tiny globe in the palm of his hand, he'd wondered if perhaps Krypton was staking her claim.

But as he'd held Wanda Detroit in his arms, he'd felt *certain* that she was.

He'd spent his entire life trying to fit in but still feeling as though he were set apart; with Wanda, he finally felt as though he'd found a person who could anchor him to Earth, to humanity. It sounded ridiculous in the light of day, but with her body pressed to his, it had all made perfect sense. He had this crazy feeling that if he could just find her again, it would still make sense.

If he could just find her…

But she was gone. She had slipped away from him and into the night, like a dream he would soon only half-remember. And with her had gone that confidence that Earth was the place he belonged. He was uncertain now, and with the uncertainty came the urge to disappear into the night sky — to pillow his head on the clouds and wrap himself in a blanket of stars.

He found a dark, secluded alley and double checked to make sure he was alone. As he drifted up into the sky, into that comfortable, private space above the clouds, he waited for the familiar peace to steal over him, but it didn't come.

He stayed up there more than an hour, but it never came.


He arrived early at the Daily Planet the next morning, wanting to make a good impression. The newsroom was barely stirring. The night shift had gone home, and only a handful of early birds had trickled in. Clark relished the mingled smell of coffee and newsprint and smiled a little as, for the third day in a row, he cast his eyes over the jumble of desks in the pit, this time wondering which would be his.

He would know soon enough, he thought with satisfaction. He threaded his way through the maze and knocked at the editor's door.

"Come in!" Mr. White called.

Perry White was, as before, seated behind his desk, but this time the entire surface was covered with newspapers. The morning edition of the Daily Planet was there, of course, but so were at least five other newspapers that Clark could see. At that moment, Mr. White was thumbing through The New York Times.

"Ah, Kent," he said, folding the Times and setting it to one side.

"Good morning, sir. I'm a little early. I hope that's all right."

"It's fine. Sit down, Kent." The editor gave him a stern look. "We need to talk."

Clark suddenly felt as though he'd been called to the principal's office. Every instinct was telling him that something was very wrong. He perched at the edge of a chair. "Yes, sir?"

Mr. White shifted in his chair and drummed his fingers against his desk. Just when Clark was sure the sound was going to make him scream, the editor stopped and rubbed his chin. "I'm not a happy man, Kent."

<<What am I supposed to say to that?>> Clark thought desperately. Before he could come up with anything, the editor went on.

"I don't know how they do things in Borneo, but here at the Daily Planet, we're professionals. I expect honesty and integrity from the people who work for me; I won't accept anything else. And when I interview someone for a job, I expect that person to be up front with me — to tell me if there are any potential…bumps in the road. Because there are some questions I wouldn't even think to ask, but that doesn't mean that you couldn't have volunteered the information instead of letting me be blindsided. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," Clark said automatically, but then he thought about it and realized that wasn't true. He really didn't understand anything about this at all. "Uh, no, sir," he amended. "I mean, I'm not sure what this is about. There's a…bump…in the road?"

"Actually, 'bump' isn't really the right word. It's more like the road is…washed out."

"Washed out?"

"There's a big storm, lot of damage…it happens sometimes."

Clark nodded. "Uh, that's true, sir. I've seen that happen."

"I'm glad you agree," the editor said. "Because when that happens, sometimes the only thing to do is to take another road."

"Another road," Clark repeated, trying his best to stay in the conversation. "I'm sorry, sir, but I'm a little confused."

Perry White gave him a grim look. "What I'm trying to say is that I'm seeing detour signs, Kent."

"I'm not exactly sure what that means, Mr. White, but it doesn't sound good."

"Well, then let me just clarify it for you." The editor leaned forward and pointed an accusatory finger. "If you had a major problem with a member of my staff, you had an obligation to tell me that before you let me offer you a job."

Clark had been nervous when presented with the washed-out road analogy, but now he was nearly lightheaded with panic. "Mr. White — sir — I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."

Mr. White sighed. "I find that mighty hard to believe, son. Now listen, I know as well as anyone that there are two sides to every story. The problem is, Lois Lane is the best damn investigative reporter in this city, and I can't afford to lose her. I know she can be difficult, and I know that whatever happened between the two of you might be as much her fault as yours, but the bottom line is that it doesn't matter. She's prepared to quit over this, and I can't let that happen. If I have to choose between an unknown reporter and a three-time Kerth winner who consistently brings me front page stories…well, I'm sure you can appreciate my position."

Clark was stunned into speechlessness as he tried to make sense of Mr. White's words. But there was no sense to be made! He'd been completely lost since they'd hit that first bump in the road. He took a deep breath, determined that one of them should say something that made some sense.

"Mr. White, I *really* don't know what you're talking about. I don't know Lois Lane. I read a few of her articles when I was preparing for my interview, and I was impressed with her work, but I've never met her. I can't imagine what I could have possibly done that would make her hate me enough that she would threaten to quit."

Mr. White gave him a hard look. "I've known Lois a long time now, and I know she wouldn't have come in here yesterday and said the things she said about you without some reason."

"*What* things did she say about me?" Clark could feel anger gradually overtaking his panic. He had no experience at being called a liar or at being slandered by a stranger, nor did he have any intention of sitting still for it.

"I don't think that matters."

"It matters to *me*," Clark insisted. "If I'm being accused of something by someone I've never even met, I think I have a right to know what it is."

"She knew you were from Smallville, Kansas. Pretty good guess for a total stranger."

<<She knew he was from Smallville.>> Clark's thoughts were in a whirl, his anger making it impossible for him to make sense of anything.

But she knew he was from Smallville. She *knew* him. This Lois Lane person somehow knew him — knew him and hated him enough to try to cost him his dream job. He felt a sense of creeping paranoia. What *else* did she know about him? Could she have been investigating him? Could this be the beginning of everything his parents had ever feared — had taught him to fear? He felt the blood drain from his face at the thought.

"Now listen, Kent: I've made you an offer, and I'm a man of my word. But I'm going to have to make that offer provisional, and I've gotta tell you — I don't have a whole lot of hope of this working out. I'm going to give you and Lois two weeks to try to resolve whatever this problem is between you. If it can't be worked out — if it disrupts my newsroom — then you're going to have to look for something else."

It was on the tip of Clark's tongue to tell the editor to forget the whole thing. His first instinct was the same as it had always been when he'd felt the threat of exposure: Run. Fly away. Start over somewhere new.

But he was *tired* of running, tired of starting over. He was tired of always looking over his shoulder, of always being afraid. He had the feeling that if he ran this time, he would never stop.

And he needed to know.

If this Lois Lane suspected him of something, he needed to know that. If she knew about a baby in a field or green rocks or a buried spaceship, then it wasn't fair to his parents that he just run away without trying to find out just how much danger they all were in.

And if it turned out that he'd met her somewhere, so long ago that he couldn't even remember it, and somehow offended her, then he deserved the chance to tell his side. But leaving without understanding this situation would surely drive him crazy.

He noticed that Perry White was giving him an expectant look, obviously waiting for his answer. Clark nodded slowly. "Thank you, sir. I appreciate your honoring your offer to me under the circumstances. I'm honestly not sure what the problem is, but whatever it is, I'll do my best to work it out with Ms. Lane."

"Good luck," the editor said, pulling a manila folder from beneath a stack of newspapers and offering it to him. He added under his breath, "You're sure enough gonna need it."

"Uh, thank you, sir." Clark took the folder and glanced inside. Employment application, tax forms, insurance forms…they'd take half the day to fill out, and it would probably be a waste of time anyway.

"Fill those out this morning, and I'll get Jimmy Olsen to show you around. There are a couple of empty desks out there. You can just pick one for the time being."

He didn't say that he doubted Clark would be using it long anyway, but Clark got the message loud and clear.

"Thank you," Clark said again. He took his folder and left the office, feeling Perry White's suspicious look following him out the door. The activity in the newsroom had picked up while he'd been closeted with Mr. White, and he immediately stopped the first person he saw, a young man rushing by with his arms full of folders.

"Excuse me. Can you tell me where I can find Lois Lane?"

"Sure. She's right over there." The young man shifted the folders to one arm and pointed to a nearby desk. The woman seated there was hunched over her keyboard, her dark hair falling forward to conceal her face.

"Thank you." Clark gave the kid a quick nod and headed straight for his target. "Excuse me. Lois Lane?"

"Yeah?" She didn't look up. Kept typing furiously, hidden behind her curtain of hair, though Clark noted with some satisfaction that gibberish was filling her screen.

<<Good,>> he thought. <<She should be nervous.>> Aloud he said, "I think we need to talk, Ms. Lane."

"Well I don't. Goodbye." She was up and out of her seat and headed away from him before the words were out of her mouth.

He had a considerable speed advantage though, and caught up to her in seconds. "Ms. Lane," he said angrily, "I think I have a right to…"

He trailed off.

Searched the face that was turned on him in utter fury.

"Wanda…?" he whispered.

"Don't call me that!" she hissed.

"I…I'm very confused." And he was. He was so confused. Because this was Wanda Detroit, but it also clearly *wasn't*. "We need to talk."

"No. No we don't. I need to work, and you need to leave. So goodbye. Good luck to you…wherever." She made an agitated motion with one hand and then turned away from him again, but this time he put a hand on her shoulder, stopped her.

"You left me without saying goodbye." His voice trembled with shock and hurt and anger and a whole host of other emotions that he'd be weeks sorting out, and he took a moment to steady it, to attempt to sound calm and rational. "And then you tried to cost me a job — a job you knew perfectly well that I needed. Now either we find someplace private to talk, or we have this conversation standing right here where everyone can listen. Which is it going to be?"

Her eyes flashed briefly, but then she said, "We can use the conference room." She whirled away and led him to a little glassed-in room, taking herself immediately to the farthest corner of it and crossing her arms defensively.

She looked like she expected him to attack her, he realized, appalled. What could he have possibly done to make her afraid of him? He was missing something here, something huge, but then, nothing about this day had made the slightest bit of sense to him.

He closed the door carefully behind them and then sat down, putting the table between them.

"So you're not Wanda Detroit," he ventured.

She rolled her eyes. "*Brilliant* deduction."

He felt her sarcasm like a slap but pressed on. "Why? Why did you lie to me?"

"You wouldn't understand."

"Try me."

"No," she snapped. "It's none of your business. All you need to know is that there *is* no Wanda Detroit. She doesn't exist. She's just someone I made up to…to…just someone I made up. So whatever fantasies you built up around her…not gonna happen. And if you can't handle that, that's too bad. Wanda told you she could only offer you one night, and that's what you got."

"You!" he said. "*You* told me. Why are you talking about yourself in the third person?"

"I'm talking about *Wanda* in the third person because she isn't me."

Clark tried to follow that. Failed completely. "You just finished saying that she doesn't exist at all. So who did I spend the night with?"


"The person who isn't you and who doesn't exist," he clarified.

"Exactly." She actually looked pleased, like a teacher who had finally gotten through to a slow pupil.

"You realize, don't you, that you're not making any sense? I mean, really, none at all. You can't change your whole identity by changing your hair and clothes!"

"Yes, I can!" she shot back. "I fooled you, didn't I?"

"Yeah, you fooled me," he said bitterly. "Are you proud of that? Is that what you set out to do — to make a fool of me?"

"I said I fooled you, not that I made a fool of you. They're not the same thing." She wouldn't look at him.

"Well, it sure feels like it from where I'm sitting. I really felt something for you…her…whoever." He looked down at the smooth conference table. His throat had gone tight, making it hard to speak. "That night meant a lot to me."

"Yeah," she said acidly. "It meant so much to you that when you saw me the next day, you didn't even know me."

His head came up and he blinked at her. "What?"

"You walked right by me on your way to Perry's office! Didn't give me a second look."

"I…I was nervous! I wasn't thinking about anything except what I was going to say to him. And you really do look…different."

"*Different*. That's one way of putting it."

"I didn't mean it like that." He searched frantically for the right thing to say, but it seemed impossible. She was so angry. So *different*. Wanda he could have teased or kissed or *something*, but Lois Lane was a stranger — a very hostile stranger. But he had to try to understand this. "So is that what this is about — with the job, I mean? You were angry that I didn't recognize you, so you went to Mr. White and told him…what, exactly?"

"Don't flatter yourself!" she spat. "If you'd recognized me instantly, I still wouldn't be working with you. I live by three rules." She ticked them off on her fingers. "Never get involved with your stories, never let anyone else get there first, and *never* sleep with anyone you work with."

"You *didn't* sleep with someone you worked with! In the first place, we didn't work together then…"

"Or ever," she interrupted.

"…and in the second place, it wasn't you, remember? It was *Wanda*, who doesn't exist."

"See! This is exactly what I'm talking about — why you working here could never work. You just can't let that go, can you?"

"It's a pretty big thing!"

"And you'd never forget it, not as long as we both worked here. It'd just be this big, awkward thing between us, and you'd never be able to see me as anything except some tramp you'd picked up in a bar…"

"I *never* thought of you like that!"

"…and you'd probably spend half of every day trying to look down my blouse or up my skirt, and I don't *need* that. I've worked damned hard to get where I am, and I don't intend to let a stupid one-night-stand ruin everything!"

<<A stupid one-night-stand…>>

The words hung between them, even Lois seeming slightly shocked by the way they changed the atmosphere in the room. She stared at him, wide-eyed, but she didn't take it back, didn't recant a single word.

Clark cleared his throat slightly and hoped that the devastation he felt wasn't written all over his face. "I see," he said quietly, when he thought he could speak again. "Well, you'll be disappointed to know that Mr. White is letting me take the job provisionally. I think he was hoping we could work things out."

"We can't," she said, her voice slightly unsteady. "We can't work things out. We *can't* work together. Just tell him that you…"

"No." He spoke more sharply than he'd intended. But he'd decided he wasn't running away this time, and he wasn't going to let himself be pushed away either.


"I haven't done anything wrong here, and I'm not telling him anything. He's agreed to let me try the job, and that's what I'm going to do. If you're so sure we can't work in the same building together, then you can be the one to leave."

"Oh right!" she scoffed. "You think Perry's going to choose you over me?"

"I don't think he should have to choose at all," Clark said. "You're the one who's forcing that issue. If it matters to you, though, I can promise you I won't be looking up your skirt or down your blouse or any of that other stuff you're worried about. I won't even speak to you if that's the way you want it."

She made a sound of frustration. "So how long is this *provisional* job supposed to last?"

"I think that should be between Mr. White and me." Clark stood up and tried to look her in the eye but couldn't manage it. He shoved his hands in his pockets and turned to go. <<This is a mistake,>> he thought. <<I don't even know why I'm doing this. I should just go…should just fly back to Kansas…>>

"Please, Clark…" Her voice changed completely all of a sudden, and when he looked at her, he was horrified to see the sheen of tears in her eyes. "Please don't do this to me. It was supposed to be one perfect night…just one night…and you're *ruining* it." Her voice broke. "You're ruining everything."

*He* was ruining everything?

It was too much, on top of everything else. It was just way, way too much. His chest tightened at the sight of her tears and the bittersweet sound of his name on her lips, but he refused to be swayed. He was in the right here, and he wasn't going to let her manipulate him into believing otherwise.

"It quit being perfect the minute you left," he told her around the lump in his throat. "Right then, it became…what did you call it? *A stupid one-night-stand.* And that was *your* choice, not mine. I wanted to know you. To know…everything about you. And you weren't willing to give me that chance."

"You wanted to know Wanda," she whispered as the first tear made its way down her cheek.

"I wanted to know *you*," he insisted. "You just didn't feel the same way about me. And that's fine — that's your prerogative — but don't dress it up in a bunch of talk about perfect nights and people who don't exist. You wanted a guy for one night, and you got him. What I don't understand is why you want to punish me for it. I need this job. I *earned* this job. All I'm asking is that you give me a chance to do it."

"What about everybody else?" she asked in a low voice. "Is the whole newsroom going to know…how we met?"

He gave her an incredulous look. "Is that what you're worried about? That I'm going to go around bragging?"

"Most men would."

"I'm not most men." And the fact that he'd let himself be used for a night of anonymous sex was hardly something to be proud of, but he didn't bother telling her that. He doubted she'd believe him. Her opinion of him — or maybe of all men — seemed to be so incredibly low that there was little point in trying to change it. "As far as I'm concerned, I never met Lois Lane before today." He was pretty sure he could swear to that in court.

Her head jerked in a quick nod, but she didn't say a word.

"Lois…" He was surprised at how right the name felt on his tongue. He waited for her to look at him, and when she finally did, he went on, as gently as he could given the turmoil of his feelings. "I'll try to stay out of your way, I promise. I mean, you're Lois Lane, and I'm the new guy from Smallville, Kansas. I'll be busy covering school board meetings while you…I don't know…topple heads of state and single-handedly rid Metropolis of corruption and graft." He saw her lips turn upwards slightly and thought he might be on the right track, but her next words proved otherwise.

"This isn't going to work," she said stubbornly, hugging her arms tighter around herself.

He again turned to go, realizing that the conversation was futile. She wasn't going to give him her blessing, and he didn't need it anyway. "I'll try to stay out of your way," he repeated, with his hand on the door. "And…I'm sorry."

He wasn't sure why he even said it, but just then, the regret was so powerful that it threatened to overwhelm him, and something made him put words to the feeling. How could he have been so incredibly wrong about everything? How could he have messed up this badly? And she was right — this was *never* going to work. He wasn't even sure why he was so determined to try. She had lied to him, deceived him, pretended to be someone she wasn't, and now she obviously wanted nothing more than to cost him his job. He should be running away from Lois Lane — running as far and as fast as he possibly could, which was very far and very fast. He was almost afraid to analyze the impulse that was making him stay, but he was pretty sure it didn't have as much to do as it should with wanting to be a reporter for the Daily Planet.

The only thing he was absolutely sure of was that he was sorry — sorry for both of them — that the fleeting pleasure they'd found together now had the power to cause them so much pain.


Lois waited until Clark had made his way from the conference room before she swiped at the tears that were making hot tracks down her cheeks. Even after he was gone, she could still see the hurt that had flared in his eyes when she had dismissed their night together so cruelly. He had looked…shattered, and she had been the one who had shattered him. She had been the one who, with a few brutal words, had sucked the light and hope out of his eyes.

She'd *had* to do it though. However painful it was for both of them right now, she couldn't let him think that their night together had been real. She couldn't live with seeing him every day, knowing that he was searching her for signs of the woman he'd loved and finding her wanting. He would never see Lois Lane as anything more than a pale and cranky shadow of Wanda Detroit, and it was easier for both of them if he realized that now.

So she'd driven him away from Lois Lane, but she'd failed in her attempt to drive him away from the Daily Planet. Why couldn't he see that it would never work? Why couldn't he get a job somewhere else? He'd even told her that he had a job waiting for him back in Smallville. Why wouldn't he do the right thing and take it? She was very proud of the thick walls of defense she'd built between her work and her personal life, such as it was. It just wouldn't do to let a man like Clark Kent — or any man — breach those walls. Why couldn't he see that?

"Lois?" Perry appeared in the doorway.

"Yeah?" She tried to paste on an expression of cool professionalism, but she knew it was a wasted effort. She had wiped away the tears, but she was still huddled like a cornered rat on the far side of the conference room — a fact that Perry was unlikely to miss.

"You all right? I saw you come in here with Kent."

Her mouth was dry. She wished she had a drink of water. She wished she had anything at all to drink. And while she was at it, she wished she were somewhere else drinking it. Somewhere very, very far away from the corner of the conference room, which was dusty and cobwebby and starting to feel a little humiliating, she'd been huddled there so long.

"Lois?" Perry prompted, sounding impatient.

"I'm, uh…I'm fine."

Perry shut the door and turned to face her. She was desperate for comfort, but one glance told her that she wasn't going to get it from Perry. She could tell that he wasn't interested in being her friend and mentor at that moment; he was her *boss*, and he looked like he needed that blood pressure monitor he'd bought the week before.

"I'm gonna ask you a question," he said flatly, "and I want an honest answer."

She nodded, feeling her stomach twist with dread. He was going to ask her about Clark. He was going to say something — and it wouldn't take all that much — that was going to break the fragile hold she had on her emotions.

"This problem you have with Kent — I don't need the details, but I want to know: is it personal or professional?"

She stared down at the floor. Definitely dusty.

"It…*was* personal," she admitted, not trusting herself just then to construct a believable lie. "Now it's professional."

"Now that I've hired him, you mean."

She nodded and dared a peek at her boss. She immediately wished she hadn't; Perry's face had flushed an alarming shade of red.

"So what you're telling me is that yesterday, when you came into my office and told me that Clark Kent was 'bad news' and that you'd quit if I hired him…what you're telling me is that you didn't have a thing to say against him professionally. Is that right?"

She didn't answer. Couldn't. She clenched her hands into tight fists, trying to focus on the small pain of her nails biting into her palms.

"Lois, do you know how close I came to sending that man packing this morning?" Perry exploded. "I consider myself a man of integrity, and I'd made that fellow an offer — an offer based on his professional abilities and the initiative he showed in going out and getting me a damn fine story. I nearly compromised that integrity this morning by sending him away without giving him a fair shot. And now I find out that it's *personal*?"

"I can't work with him, Perry," she said desperately, emerging a step or two from her corner and meeting his eyes for the first time. "*Please* don't do this to me."

He heaved a deep sigh and his face softened for the first time since he'd come into the room. "Are you afraid of him, honey? I mean, he seems like a nice enough fellow to me, but looks can be deceiving. Has he threatened you? Harassed you?"


She wanted to say it so badly. Perry was giving her the perfect out, and all she had to do was to say that Clark Kent was dangerous. All she had to do was weep a little and say that she was afraid of Clark, afraid to be in the same room with him.

She couldn't do it, though.

Clark Kent was the most dangerous man she'd ever met, but not the way Perry meant. Never like that. And as much as she wanted him gone, she couldn't bring herself to tell that particular lie. Not when she could still remember the gentle touch of his hands on her body and the sweet words he'd whispered in her ear. Not when she could still remember how safe and content she'd felt in his arms.

She swallowed hard and wished again that she had something to drink. Her throat was aching and her mouth was dry and Perry was waiting…waiting for her to tell him the truth.

"No," she said in a low voice. "As far as I know, he's exactly what he seems."

"I see."

There it was again. Another 'I see.' And she knew he was expecting some sort of explanation from her — some reason why she'd tried to scuttle a decent man's job opportunity, some reason why she'd lowered herself to issuing ultimatums. But she couldn't. It was too personal. Too embarrassing. And way, way too painful.

"Should I be expecting your resignation, then?" he prodded.

"Clark said…" How strange it seemed to say his name out loud to someone else. Even his name seemed personal and private somehow, as if it were meant just for her. But it wasn't, of course. It was just his name, and now she had less right to it than anyone. "He said you made the job provisional."

"Whatever is going on here, I need to know that it isn't going to disrupt my newsroom. If it does, then obviously one of you will have to go."

"One of us?" she exclaimed. "Perry, you can't seriously be suggesting…"

"What I'm suggesting is that you and Kent find a way to keep your personal problems out of my newsroom," he said firmly. "And I'm also suggesting that if you ever hit me with an ultimatum like that again, you'd better have your resume up to date. I'd hate to lose you, Lois, but no one is irreplaceable. Remember that."

She nodded, hugging her arms tighter around herself and wishing Perry would just leave her alone so that she could cry or be sick or somehow fall into a thousand pieces right there in her dusty, cobwebby corner. She had suddenly remembered that Clark was outside the conference room somewhere, and now that corner seemed like the perfect place to spend the rest of her career.

Perry, of course, had other ideas. "All right, then. Get back to work." He turned and waded into the newsroom, bellowing questions and orders at other reporters — his own special brand of motivation.

Lois unfolded herself from the corner and made her way back to her desk on wobbly knees, deliberately not allowing herself to look for Clark. If she didn't see him, he wasn't there, right? She sank into her chair and took a big gulp from her coffee cup, nearly spitting it right back out again when the cold, bitter coffee hit her taste buds. She poured the remainder into her bedraggled African violet and got up to get some more, slamming to a halt when she caught sight of Clark sitting at a desk on the direct path to the coffee pot.

"All right there, Lois?" Jimmy asked, coming up right behind her.

"Fine." She veered off in the direction of the ladies' room, still clutching the coffee mug in her hand, and once inside, she barricaded herself in the same stall to which she'd fled the day before. She felt sobs tearing at her throat, but she refused to let them escape. She couldn't be caught crying. Not at the Planet. A few tears leaked past her defenses, and these she quickly attacked with a wad of toilet paper.

She took several deep breaths and tried to figure out how she was going to get through this. She could either hand Perry her resignation — and in the mood he was in, he was likely to accept it — or she could find some way to work in the same newsroom as Clark Kent for as long as his 'provisional' employment there lasted. She needed her job, so the latter was the obvious choice, but she had no idea how she was going to manage it. Just the brief glimpse she'd had of him sitting at a desk had been enough to stop her in her tracks and send her on a headlong flight to the ladies' room. He hadn't even been looking at her — just dark hair and broad shoulders had been enough to unnerve her. And she *hated* that. She hated any man having such power over her. She wanted to hate *him*, too, but couldn't quite manage it — and then she hated her own susceptibility to him most of all.

She froze in place when she heard the door open and a pair of chattering voices entered the restroom. She could only place one of them — a recently hired copy editor she'd butted heads with only two days before — but the subject of their discussion was quickly apparent.

"…see him?" the copy editor said with a giggle. "Oh my God."

"Shame about the glasses," the other woman said as she entered the stall next to Lois's. "Otherwise…yum."

"I think the glasses are kind of cute." The copy editor stopped in front of Lois's stall, facing the mirror. Lois could see the heels of a pair of black pumps beneath the door.

The other woman laughed. "Like you'd know. You were too busy looking at his butt to notice them."

"Well…yeah," the copy editor admitted. Lois heard the sound of running water; the editor was apparently washing her hands. "But can you blame me?"

A flush came from the stall next door. <<Good,>> Lois thought, gritting her teeth. <<Leave already.>>

"Not at all." Lois heard the sound of the-woman-she-didn't-know arranging her clothing. "Whoever he is, he has one of the world's most perfect butts. It should be in a museum somewhere. There should be poems written about it. I may write one myself."

Her friend burst out laughing. "I want to read that."

Lois heard the door next to her open. "You can help me write it if you want. We'll call it 'Ode on the New Guy's A**' and become rich and famous."

"But then women everywhere will want to see it. I'm not sure I want to share."

"You can't keep a tush like that a secret, Shari."

Shari…that was her name! Shari Thomas. <<I should have bludgeoned the little tart with a stapler when I had the chance,>> Lois thought viciously.

"Well, but there's no point in advertising it either," Shari argued. "Has Cat seen him yet, I wonder?"

<<Oh, God.>> Lois wished there were an oven nearby so she could stick her head in and be done with it. She'd thought it couldn't get any worse than hearing these two twits having raptures over Clark's as…sets, which as far as she was concerned were absolutely off-limits to all women, including herself.

*Especially* herself.

But the thought of Clark in Cat Grant's clutches ranked right up there with moving back in with her mother, disaster-wise. If Cat even thought about hitting on Clark, Lois wasn't sure if she'd be able to keep herself from scratching the gossip columnist's eyes out…and of *course* Cat was going to hit on Clark. Cat hit on *everyone*. A man didn't have to be nearly as good-looking as Clark was to become another notch on Cat's garter belt.

<<You wanted a guy for one night, and you got him.>> Clark's voice echoed in her head, and her conscience whispered that he was absolutely right. She'd done the very thing for which she'd always scorned Cat Grant. So why was Cat able to get away with it, time after time, with no apparent repercussions? Lois had tried it *once* and now she was hiding in a toilet.

"I doubt she's in yet," the other woman replied, "but then, I was only in the newsroom for a minute myself. If she puts on a good show, promise you'll call me upstairs and tell me about it."

Upstairs. That meant that Other Woman was in advertising or accounting. Lois tried to peek through the crack in the door to see if she recognized the woman, but all she could see was a white sleeve and a sliver of blue skirt. She would just have to start hating all of the women upstairs on principle. Or maybe it would be easier just to hate all of the women in the whole building. She didn't like most of them much anyway, so it wasn't like it would take a lot of extra effort.

"I will," Shari answered. "Right now I'm going to head back. I wanted to watch the shuttle launch."

"Oh, I forgot that was this morning," Other Woman said.

She didn't sound particularly interested, but the reminder of the launch hit Lois with a jolt. Normally, she wasn't all that interested in shuttle launches either. She'd covered them before and at first had found them exciting, but now they all seemed pretty much the same. There was the countdown, and then the shuttle would go up, and afterwards the talking heads at EPRAD would say the same old things about it: new frontiers…coup for the space program…blah blah blah. She hadn't even been assigned the story, but she could write it in her sleep. The only thing that distinguished this launch from any other was that a couple of days before, Samuel Platt had burst into the newsroom insisting at the top of his lungs that the Messenger shuttle had been sabotaged and was likely to explode.

She hadn't believed him, but she'd been interested enough to hold on to the notes he'd thrust into her hands, and she'd spent some time since then trying — and failing — to make sense of them. She'd decided that Platt was probably a crackpot, but Shari's mention of the shuttle launch was enough to distract Lois — at least a little — from her jealous anger at the two women and her consuming dread of working in the same newsroom with Clark Kent. She had a mystifying pile of notes on her desk that could lead to a story…and if it did, the story just might keep her out of the newsroom and away from Clark. That thought alone was enough to inspire her, and the minute the women had left the restroom, their cheerful voices fading away down the hall, Lois freed herself from her stall, filled her coffee cup with water from the sink, and then charged back into the newsroom with renewed determination.

A crowd had formed around the television to watch the countdown to the shuttle launch, and Lois couldn't seem to keep her eyes from automatically seeking out Clark, who was standing nearby with Jimmy. He had taken off his jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his crisp, white shirt, and Lois could see exactly why he'd caught the eyes of the women in the restroom and probably of every other woman in the building. The jacket had hidden the broad shoulders and tapered waist — as well as that other part of his anatomy the women had been so impressed with — but without it, Clark Kent would draw the eye of any living, breathing woman, and probably quite a few men as well. He had certainly caught her eye that night at the Stardust.

But there was so much more to Clark than that, and among the many other confusing emotions he was arousing, she felt offended on his behalf that women in the building were jokingly composing poems to his physique without knowing anything about his sweet spirit and quick wit. She'd only had time to catch glimpses of those things herself, but she knew instinctively that they were what made him special. She admired broad shoulders and a perfect behind as much as the next woman, she supposed, but they were not the reasons she had found Clark so irresistible that night at the Stardust. Still, she was baffled by this odd feeling of…was it protectiveness? Possessiveness?

Maybe it was both.

Whatever it was, she knew it was outrageous for her to be feeling that way, in light of her own outright attack on Clark. She had no claim on him and no obligation to protect him.

With an effort, she forced her attention away from him and to the television screen. The countdown was already in progress, and as soon as the shuttle lifted off, Lois planned to go back to her desk and sift through Platt's notes one last time.

But then a panicked voice broke in, interrupting the countdown, and suddenly the Messenger launch wasn't routine at all, and Samuel Platt didn't seem like quite such a crackpot. *"Wait a minute…there's something wrong…there's a fire! There's a fire!"*

She and her coworkers all surged forward with a collective gasp just as the Messenger exploded on the launch pad. While many of the women around her covered their eyes, Lois stared at the screen, the horror of witnessing such a thing accompanied by the prickle of excitement she always felt when she knew she was on to a good story. She welcomed the feeling without a shred of guilt, having made her peace with that aspect of herself long before. It didn't make her a bad person. She didn't *want* terrible things to happen, but when they did, she wanted to be there to report them — as honestly and fairly as possible.

As the murmur of shocked conversation began to fill the newsroom, she turned and sought out Perry, pulling him to one side. "I *knew* there was something to Platt's story! I just knew it."

"Lois, just because one madman's prediction came true doesn't mean there's a conspiracy to sabotage the entire space program."

The words were right — the words of an editor trying to ensure that she didn't go off on a wild goose chase — but Lois knew Perry, and she could see that he, too, had caught the scent of a story the minute the Messenger had gone up in flames. Their earlier altercation was forgotten. This was business. This was what they did — what was in their blood — and she knew that it wouldn't take much convincing for Perry to back her all the way.

"Maybe not," she agreed. "But with more than a hundred colonists going up in the next launch, are you willing to take that chance?"

"I guess not," Perry conceded, just as she'd known he would. "So what have you got?"

"Right now just a lot of confusing notes. But I'll get more. I need a task force, though. I can't cover this alone."

"Take Jimmy."

She gave him a look of disbelief. "Chief, we're talking about the space program."

"Too bad. Take Jimmy."

"What about Myerson?"




"Chief, Jimmy is a kid."

"Fine. Then take Kent. He's free." Perry gave her a challenging look. Maybe their earlier altercation *hadn't* been completely forgotten.

"Jimmy's fine," she said quickly. Except it wasn't true. Not only was Jimmy ridiculously inexperienced, but he was also still standing with Clark Kent, chattering and gesturing wildly as if they were new best friends. She let her eyes flicker in their direction and saw that Clark was still staring at the television, looking somber as he took in the sight of the emergency vehicles swarming over the scene.

Then, as if he could feel her eyes on him, he turned the look on her — a look so full of sorrow and regret that she sucked in a breath at the sight of it. Had she put that look on his face, or was it the tragedy unfolding on the television screen? For a few seconds she was caught, unable to look away as something achingly painful passed between them. She even took an instinctive step forward, in an insane urge to offer comfort, before remembering that she was the last person on Earth from whom he would want it.

"Lois?" Perry asked. "You change your mind about Kent?"

"Uh, no." She dragged her eyes away from Clark. "I'll take Jimmy."

"Fine. Get him and get out of here. If there's a story in this, I don't want some other paper beating us to it because you were too busy staring at Kent to be bothered."

"I wasn't…" she protested, but she broke off when she realized she was talking to Perry's retreating back. "Oh, all right, I was," she muttered to herself as she worked up her nerve to approach Jimmy and Clark.

She steeled her expression into one of icy professionalism and walked up to the two men. She could feel Clark's presence, like a shiver over her skin, but she was careful to give no hint of it. Instead she locked her gaze on Jimmy, who looked slightly alarmed at the sight of Lois bearing down on him.

"Let's hit it," she told him, giving his arm a tug and turning her back on Clark as quickly as she could.

"Uh, where are we going?" Jimmy asked, scrambling to catch up with her.

"To interview Samuel Platt." She snatched her purse from the drawer of her desk. "He's convinced the Messenger was sabotaged."

"Wow! Really?"

"Yes, *really*," she said in her most scathing tone. "Listen, you just stand there and be quiet. If I need you to do something, I'll tell you, all right?"

"Right. Fine." Jimmy was practically dancing beside her as they headed toward the elevator. "Seriously, Lois, you won't regret this. I've thought all along I might have a knack for investigative work. I just needed that chance, you know? And it's so cool that you're willing to give me that. I can't tell you what it means to me to know that you have that much faith in me."

"Everyone else was busy," she snapped, and then she felt a little guilty when she saw his face fall. It wasn't Jimmy's fault that her nerves were in shreds that day. "But that doesn't mean you can't learn something," she added, a little more gently.

A smile broke through the clouds on Jimmy's face as he hurried to press the elevator button for them. "I will," he chirped. "You can count on it. So who is this Platt guy, anyway? Is he the one who came in here the other day? 'Cause he seemed like a kook to me. Of course, what do I know?"

<<What indeed,>> Lois thought, gritting her teeth as Jimmy kept up a running line of excited blather. Usually she liked Jimmy…mostly…or at least she tolerated him better than she did most of the rest of the people at the Planet, but if she was able to keep from choking him that day, it would be an absolute miracle. But then, she was getting out of the newsroom, and if time was on her side, she might not have to see Clark again until tomorrow. She would focus on her story, on the-man-who-might-not-be-a-crackpot-after-all, on not killing Jimmy…it was all surely enough to distract her from Clark Kent.

But as the elevator chimed its arrival, she couldn't help letting her eyes slide toward the place where she'd last seen Clark standing. He was still there, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, and he was making no attempt to hide the fact that he was watching her. She felt the bottom drop out of her stomach at the intensity of his gaze, and she turned quickly away, stepping into the elevator and releasing a ragged sigh of relief when the doors closed between them.


Lois Lane…Lois Lane…Lois Lane…

Her name had seemed to throb in his temples all day long, never giving him a moment's peace. It continued to play in an endless loop as he let himself into his depressing room at the Hotel Apollo. The room was still filled with memories of Wanda Detroit, a woman he now knew had never really existed. How could he have fallen in love with someone who didn't exist?

The answer, of course, was that he hadn't fallen in 'love' at all, and he'd reached that conclusion on his own even before he'd met Lois Lane. Now, though, he realized that even his attraction, his infatuation, had been misplaced. Wanda Detroit had been soft curves and sweet laughter, gentle caresses and hope for the future. Lois Lane was sharp corners and cutting insults, flashing eyes and petty revenge. She was not someone he could like, let alone love.

And he didn't like her — not one little bit — but that didn't keep her from inspiring a terrible fascination. He hadn't seen her much after their conversation in the conference room, but the few times they'd both been in the newsroom, he'd felt a powerful awareness of her, as if the whole room became charged with electricity the minute she entered it. It was not a comfortable feeling; it kept him on edge, and he'd been glad when she left with Jimmy, glad that she'd stayed gone most of the day. Once she was gone, he'd at least been able to think straight, but even that wasn't much of a reprieve, since his thoughts continued to return to her, again and again, even after the dreadful explosion they'd witnessed that morning.

How selfish did it make him that even after watching a man die in a fiery explosion, he had continued to think about his own hurt? His problems were clearly nothing compared to what Commander Laderman's family must be feeling that day, but no amount of telling himself that managed to drive Lois Lane completely from his thoughts. Not that he didn't think about the Messenger explosion as well; it was all anyone could talk about in the newsroom, and it was never far from his mind, even if it was sharing space with Lois.

As he'd stood and watched the explosion and its aftermath, he had the same thought he always had when he witnessed or heard about a disaster: Was there something he could have done to help? Was it wrong for him to stand on the sidelines, to passively report the news, when his unique abilities made it possible for him to do so much more? Maybe he couldn't have predicted the explosion. Maybe he couldn't have gotten there in time to prevent it. But he could have put the fire out quickly, preserving more of the fuselage for investigation. He could have kept firefighters from risking their lives battling the flames. He could have done *something*. He had helped in small ways for years — surreptitious acts that he thought were unlikely to be noticed, and whenever they were noticed, he had quickly moved on.

But he couldn't help with something like the Messenger explosion surreptitiously. To help with major disasters would mean exposing himself as an alien, and his parents had counseled against that for as long as he could remember. He knew their fear was for him, for what it might do to his life if he were exposed, but he also knew his frustration was mounting. It went against every inclination to stand by and do nothing when it was possible for him to help, and he felt as though he'd been locked for years in a battle with his own nature. Every time he did nothing when he could have been making a difference, he was a little closer to losing that battle, a little closer to a step that seemed as inevitable as it was terrifying.

And now he had little hope for the job at the Planet working out. Maybe the whole fiasco with Lois Lane was a sign that he'd been pursuing the wrong kind of life all along. Maybe it was exactly what he needed to convince himself that 'normal' would never be an option for him anyway, so why keep fighting so ridiculously hard for it? He loved being a journalist, and he thought he was pretty good at it, but he had a whole set of unique abilities that weren't being used at all. As he'd watched the emergency crews desperately trying to extinguish the Messenger fire, he'd known deep down that his place was with them, and that it was only his own cowardice that kept him from doing what he *knew* he should be doing.

Of course, only two days before, he'd been convinced that his place was at the Daily Planet. And then hours later, he'd been convinced that his place was with Wanda Detroit. Now he was sure that his place was helping at disasters. Obviously, he couldn't be right on all counts. He'd have to be three people — or at the very least two — and that was impossible, even for him.

As he stripped off his tie and tossed it to the floor by his suitcase, he allowed himself a snort of self-derision. Why not just admit that he didn't have a clue where he belonged? And that maybe he never would? Why this need to find a 'perfect' place anyway? Was that something most people looked for, or was it some side effect of knowing he was so different? He'd probably never know. It wasn't the sort of thing one asked casual acquaintances, and except for his parents, casual acquaintances were practically all he had allowed himself in years.

Clark was invulnerable, so one set of clothes was no more or less comfortable for him than another, but it still felt good to peel off his dress shirt and tie at the end of the day and climb into his blue jeans and a t-shirt instead. He had been out of college for years, but he still felt like a kid playing dress-up every time he put on a coat and tie. He hadn't had to wear a tie to the Smallville Press office, but working at the Daily Planet called for a more polished look. If by some miracle the job worked out, he'd have to expand his professional wardrobe.

Lois had looked every inch the polished professional that day, sleek and stylish and utterly different from Wanda Detroit. Wanda's clothes had been loud and just a little too obvious for his usual tastes, but Lois had been dressed conservatively, in a suit that flattered her figure without flaunting it. It would not be true to say that Lois faded into the background when she wasn't dressed as Wanda Detroit — he had a feeling that she'd have caught his eye in any case — but she certainly looked *different*. So different, in fact, that if he hadn't confronted her practically nose-to-nose, he might well have missed the fact that she was Wanda. Apparently he'd walked right by her the day before without even realizing it.


He'd told her that she couldn't change her whole identity by changing her hair and clothes, but he was beginning to think that maybe she had. If he understood the situation rightly, she had put together a whole other person out of bits and pieces she found in her closet, and then she had given that person license to behave in a way she wouldn't normally behave. It had worked because she had believed it herself; for those few hours, she had let herself *be* Wanda Detroit.

He stared down at the pile of work clothes he'd just tossed to the floor. Was he a different person in his blue jeans and t-shirt than he was when he wore a coat and tie? Not exactly, but he felt more comfortable in the jeans…more himself. Could he do what Lois had done? If, for instance, he dressed as a street tough and wore a temporary version of one of those tattoos he'd seen in the window that night, would he be able to play the part convincingly? Would he be able to rob someone or hurt someone — to do something completely contrary to his values? He didn't think so. No matter what he wore, he would still be Clark Kent where it counted.

But what if the thing he was doing *wasn't* contrary to his values? What if it was something good…but something he would never have the nerve to do as Clark Kent?

An idea that seemed to have been swirling formlessly in his mind for a long time finally began to take shape. It was crazy. Completely insane. He felt his heart started to pound with the sheer reckless daring it would take to pull it off, but at the same time, he felt as though a missing puzzle piece had finally been slipped into place.

<<He'd have to be two people…>>

He'd thought it was impossible, but maybe it wasn't. Maybe he'd always been two people — Clark Kent of Kansas and a visitor from Krypton — and it was finally time for the Kryptonian to get dressed up and come out of hiding. If Lois Lane could be Lois by day and Wanda Detroit by night, why couldn't he be both Clark Kent and…well, whatever he decided to call that part of himself that could fly across the country in minutes and lift his father's truck with one hand? If he could find something distracting enough to wear — Wanda's tight pink sweater flashed through his mind — and change his body language, he was sure that no one would think to associate him with a bespectacled reporter covering minor stories for the Daily Planet.

He whipped around and tidied his room at super-speed, suddenly anxious to get to the farm for dinner. He'd been almost dreading it before, there being so many things he preferred not to share with his parents just then, but now he knew that they were the only two people in the world who could help him with his plan. They would think he was crazy, of course, and they would worry, but they would help him. He knew they would.


The rich aroma of his mother's home cooking greeted him before he'd even landed in the yard of his parents' small farmhouse. When he drifted to earth, he stood silently in the glow of a lighted window for a moment, listening to chirping of the crickets and the rustle of the wind in the trees. Inside the house, he could hear the gentle clanking sounds of his mother getting dinner. After the day he'd had — after the *week* he'd had — he was moved by the sheer normalcy of a quiet night in Kansas and the knowledge that the two people inside the house loved and welcomed him. He didn't try to deny the instant affinity he'd felt for Metropolis or for the busy newsroom at the Daily Planet, but he realized in that moment how lucky he was that wherever his wandering had taken him, he'd always had this one precious place in the world to call home.

"Clark?" His father stuck his head out the screen door and peered into the darkened farmyard. "You out there, son?"

"Yeah, Dad." Clark came into view and greeted his father with a smile.

"Thought so." Jonathan Kent stepped out onto the porch and welcomed his son with a smile and a brief hug. "Heard you land a couple of minutes ago. What're you doing standing out here?"

"Just appreciating the quiet, I guess." It wasn't quite true, but it was as close as he was willing to come. He actually liked the bustle of the city — the energy of it — but his battered heart needed the uncomplicated peace of home just then.

"Not like this in the city, is it?"

Clark laughed. "Everything about Metropolis is different, Dad. But…I think I could like it there."

"I couldn't live there for a minute."

"No," Clark agreed. The city would never suit his father. "But there's something about the city…the pace…everyone going somewhere."

"Impatient — like you." His father gave him an understanding smile. "So have you finally found your niche? Ready to stop living out of that old suitcase?"

"I…it's kind of complicated. But I do have a job. I went back to the Daily Planet with a new story, and Mr. White agreed to give me a try." Even now, in spite of everything, Clark couldn't suppress the surge of pride he felt in telling his father that.

"Clark, that's wonderful!" Jonathan exclaimed, clapping his son on the back.

"What's wonderful?" Martha Kent stood at the screen door, her hands on her hips. "And why are you two telling secrets out here on the porch?"

Clark grinned. "No secrets, Mom. I was just telling Dad that I got a job at the Daily Planet."

His mother let out a shriek of delight and stepped outside to pull her much-larger son into an exuberant hug. "Oh, honey, I'm so proud of you! Why didn't you call and tell us sooner? Have you started yet?"

Clark laughed, feeling almost good for the first time that day. "I wanted to surprise you, and yes, I started today. Let's go inside and I'll tell you all about it. I'm starved."

"You are not," his mother countered.

"OK, I'm not. But I can't wait to eat anyway." He sniffed the air. "Is that meatloaf?"

"And mashed potatoes and green beans from Mrs. Sanders' garden."

"Mmmm." He cast an appreciative look in the direction of the kitchen and then paused in front of an elaborate metal sculpture — obviously his mother's latest art project. He cocked his head at it, frantically searching for something to say about it that would please her.

"Do you like it?" she asked eagerly. "I call it 'Too Much, Too Soon, Tortured Heart, Waning Moon'."

Too much, too soon…

Well, that sounded about right. His reunion with his parents had temporarily pushed Lois Lane to the back of his mind, but his mother's art project brought her back again with a vengeance. Or, not the art project, exactly, since to his untrained eye it wasn't much more than a twisted heap of scrap metal, but the name of it sounded like it had been plucked straight from his own folly.

"What do you think?" his mother prodded. "Too cerebral?"

"No," Clark said, in a voice he hoped was enthusiastic rather than tortured. "It's very…inspired."

"Uh huh." Jonathan said skeptically.

"Oh you," Martha said. "You just have no appreciation for art."

"Not true." Jonathan pointed to the meatloaf resting beside the stove. "That right there is a work of art, and I'm all set to appreciate it."

Martha laughed and took the hint, and soon the little family was seated around the cozy kitchen table. Clark spent most of the meal telling them about his first day at the Daily Planet, though since he hadn't done much more than fill out forms and tour the place, he didn't have anything very exciting to tell. Still, his parents were an appreciative audience, and he allowed himself the luxury of basking a little in their pride and happiness for him. He wasn't being totally honest with them, and he knew that wasn't right or fair, but he needed a few minutes of unconditional approval before he broached the more difficult subjects.

So he waited until they were eating his mom's cherry pie to mention the idea he'd had back in his hotel room, opening the new subject without any attempt at a segue.

"Mom, how's your sewing machine?"

Martha blinked at him from behind her round glasses, obviously surprised to hear him inquiring after household appliances out of the blue. "I guess it's fine, honey. I haven't used it in a while."

"Do you think you could use it to make me some sort of a costume?"

"I suppose I could. Are you going to a party?"

"Uh, no. Maybe costume was the wrong word."

"So what's the right word?" Martha stared at her son, her fork poised half-way to her mouth.

"Uh, *disguise*, maybe. Something…flashy, you know? Something that will distract people from the fact that it's me."

"Distract people from the fact that it's you," Jonathan repeated. "What exactly are you going to be doing that you need to distract people?"

"Well…helping, I guess."

"Helping." Martha put down her fork. "Honey, we're trying to follow this — really we are."

"Listen, I *know* it sounds crazy. But I really think it could work. I have all these abilities…ways that I could really be helping people. Did you see the shuttle explosion on the news today? That happened right there in Metropolis. And instead of doing anything to help, I was just standing around watching. Don't you think that's *wrong*?"

"Son, even you couldn't have prevented what happened today," his father said gently.

"I know." Clark ran his hand through his hair, frustrated by his inability to explain. It was so clear in his head now — so obvious what he needed to do — but his parents, much as they loved and supported him, couldn't know what it was like to live with his kind of differences day in and day out. "I know I couldn't have prevented it, Dad. But I could have helped afterward, maybe. And what about other disasters — hurricanes, earthquakes, fires? You can't tell me I couldn't do some good there."

"No. I can't tell you that," his Dad agreed, but he looked troubled. "So you're thinking of becoming some sort of…hero? Just showing up to help and then disappearing again?"

"Yeah, I guess so." But Clark was uncomfortable. The title of 'hero' wasn't one he'd ever imagined applying to himself. He certainly hadn't done anything to deserve it yet. "I just think there has to be a way I can be Clark Kent and still use what I've been given to do some good."

"Honey, aren't you worried that people will recognize you?"

"Well, a little, maybe," Clark admitted. "But don't you see — when I'm dressed as…whatever we decide to call this guy, I won't actually *be* me."

"But you'll still be wearing your face," his mother pointed out. "Or will you wear a mask?"

"No," Clark said slowly. "I don't want to wear a mask, and I don't think I'll need to. Trust me, Mom — this'll work. No one will ever look at a guy who can fly and think of Clark Kent."

"But what about your new job?" There was a slightly pleading tone in his Dad's voice, and Clark recognized it for what it was. Why risk everything now? his father was asking. "You've just started there, son. How can you do this…thing…and still do your job?"

Clark looked down at his plate, gathering his nerve. He didn't want to tell his parents the whole truth about his job, but at the same time, he needed to talk about it, and maybe if they understood just how unlikely it was that he'd remain at the Planet, they'd understand why the timing finally seemed right to him for this unveiling of his abilities.

"I doubt the job at the Planet is going to work out," he said slowly. "I kind of blew it before I even started. Mr. White is letting me try the job provisionally, for two weeks, but…"

He looked up and saw his parents staring at him, both of their brows knitted tight with concern.

"You…blew it?" his mother repeated. "How did you do that?"

His mother was on full-alert now, and he realized he hadn't thought this conversation through well enough. He wished he could take it all back, but he knew he couldn't, and he also knew that his mother wasn't going to be satisfied with half-truths and evasions.

"Clark?" she prompted, her voice just a little sharper than it had been before.

He resisted the urge to squirm and wondered if she'd ever lose the power to make him feel like he was five years old. He couldn't meet her eyes as he said, "I, uh, did something I shouldn't have. Something you're probably not going to approve of."

"Did you help someone?" his father asked. It was always the first thing his dad thought of — that out of his natural desire to help, he had risked exposure.

"Oh, of course not, Jonathan." Martha waved the suggestion away with a flip of her hand. "Why would he feel guilty about that?"

"I didn't say I felt guilty," Clark countered. "Just that you wouldn't approve."

"You didn't have to say it. It's written all over your face. Now what is this about, Clark?"

"I'm trying to tell you, Mom. But this isn't exactly the kind of thing…it's not easy to tell you about this."

Martha raised her eyebrows at that, and he realized that he might as well have waved a red flag in front of a bull. Oh, *why* had he started this conversation?

"Well, we don't want to pry, honey, and if it's none of our business you can tell us so," Martha said, surprising him.

"Okay," he said quickly, grasping at the miraculous chance for escape. "It's none of your business."

"But you might feel better if you got this off your chest," she went on, as if he hadn't spoken. "And of course, now that we know you've done something we wouldn't approve of, we'll be wondering what it is and probably imagining something much worse than whatever actually happened…right, Jonathan?"

"Leave me out of this." Jonathan reached for a second helping of pie. "If the boy wants to tell us, he'll tell us."

Martha shot him a glare, though whether it was because of his defection or because of the pie, Clark wasn't entirely sure. His father didn't seem to notice it at all.

"It's not that important," Clark said.

"You know we'll love you no matter what," his mother said. "Even if you…lied on your resume…"

"I didn't…"

"Or broke the law…"

"I would never…"

"Or accidentally started a fire…"

"Mom, I haven't done that since I was…"

"Maybe you eloped!" She sounded hopeful this time, and Clark nearly choked.


"Well, if you won't tell us, what are we supposed to think?" His mother folded her arms and gave him an expectant look.

Clark heaved a sigh and let his head drop into his hands. How could he have been stupid enough to fall for the 'none of our business' line? Talk about a rookie mistake! He could feel his father's sympathetic gaze, but it was clear that Jonathan wasn't going to interfere. Clark could hardly blame him; he had to live with the woman, after all, while Clark could eventually escape back to Metropolis.

"IsleptwithawomanImetinabar." He said it as quickly as possible and addressed it to his half-eaten piece of pie. He felt his parents go absolutely still and he took another deep breath. "She didn't give me her real name or tell me anything about herself. It turns out…she works for the Daily Planet. Things are, uh, awkward now."

That was such an understatement that it bordered on being an outright lie, but it was just too humiliating to tell his parents the lengths to which Lois Lane had gone to try to ensure that they never saw one another again.

He peeked at his mother and saw that she actually looked…excited? Pleased? He wasn't exactly sure; he only knew that whatever look she had on her face was a far cry from the disapproval he'd anticipated. A glance at his father revealed something closer to what he'd thought he would see. Jonathan looked shocked, and yes, disapproving. Somehow, it was almost comforting. In a day that had been full of unexpected reactions, it was reassuring to know that there was one person in the world whose responses he could predict. He didn't even want to think about the smile playing around his mother's lips. Whatever she was thinking had to be completely off-base, and explaining it was likely to be a hideous experience.

Sure enough…

"You met someone?" Martha asked, leaning forward. "Tell us about her."

Clark groaned. "I didn't *meet someone*, Mom. It was a one-night-stand. That's not the same thing."

"It certainly isn't," Jonathan said sternly.

"But you liked her," Martha argued. "You must have. And now you're working together…"

"I told you, she didn't give me her real name — or her real personality, as it turns out. I liked her that night, but now…she's not exactly likable. Kind of the opposite, in fact." He pushed away from the table and stood up, beginning to pace. The kitchen suddenly seemed confining, claustrophobic. "It was a *mistake*. I admit that, OK? It was stupid and I shouldn't have done it, and now it's probably going to cost me my job. But don't go turning this into some big romance, Mom, because it's not like that at all."

"All right, honey," his mother said mildly. "But if you ask me, it sounds like you're trying to convince yourself."

"Oh, trust me, Mom — I'm convinced. She didn't leave a lot of room for doubt. She doesn't want anything to do with me now."

"Well, she must not have very good taste." His mom sounded far more offended by Lois's rejection of him than she had been by his sleeping with Lois in the first place, and Clark couldn't help loving her for it.

"It doesn't matter, Mom. It really doesn't. But I've got to figure out where to go from here. And maybe I should thank her: I've been wondering for so long how I could help people while still having a normal life, and Lois is actually the one who gave me the idea of wearing some sort of costume. When I first saw her at the Planet, I didn't even recognize her, she looked so different from the woman I'd met. If she can do it, surely someone with my abilities can."

"I don't know, son," Jonathan said doubtfully. "It doesn't sound like her 'disguise' was a good thing for either one of you."

"Well, no," Clark agreed. "It wasn't. But I'm going to be using my disguise to help people, not because I want to deceive them."

"Was that what she was doing?" Martha asked. "Trying to deceive you?"

"No." Clark dragged the word out thoughtfully. "I don't think so. I'm not sure why she did it, but I don't think she meant for her deception to hurt me. If I hadn't gotten the job at the Planet, I'd have never even known about it."

"Well, I don't like this," Jonathan said. He looked at his son over his glasses. "Any of it."

Clark nodded. "I didn't expect you to, Dad. But I was hoping I could count on your support."

"Of course you can." His father's face softened a little. "You're a grown man now, Clark. You're old enough to make your own decisions…and your own mistakes."

"And you think this is a mistake?"

"I think sleeping with someone you barely know is *always* a mistake, but you seem to have found that out for yourself, so there's no point in me beating you up about it." Jonathan gave his son a sympathetic look. "As for the other, I'm just not sure. I worry about folks finding out about you…probably always will. At the same time, I don't want you to be less than the man you are. I would never want that."

Clark felt his throat tighten. There was so much he wanted to say just then, but all he could manage was a soft word of thanks. His father seemed to understand, and his mother, too.

"So what is this costume of yours going to look like?" she asked, with the brisk air of one who was anxious to get down to business.

Clark cleared his throat. "I don't know. I was hoping you'd have some ideas."

"Well, you did say flashy," his mother said, giving him a teasing look. "I can do flashy."


"And we'll want it to be tight — to cut down on wind resistance, you know."


"You just leave it to me," she said. "I'm the artist around here, you know."

Clark's eyes slid to the tangle of metal in the next room and his father laughed. "You got yourself into this one, Clark."

"I know," he conceded. "I'm sure you'll come up with something great, Mom."

"Come back tomorrow night, and I'll have some ideas for you." She rose from the table and started transferring dishes to the sink.

"I will." He bent down and kissed her cheek. "I should probably be going now, though. You want me to clean up the kitchen first?"

"No thanks, honey. I can do it." She reached up and cupped his chin in her hand, forced him to look her in the eye. "We love you. You know that, right?"

He felt the shame burn through him. He didn't deserve this kind of support, but oh, he was so glad he had it. "I really messed up, Mom."

"Yep." She released his chin and patted his cheek. "You did. And I know it probably seems like the end of the world right now."

He nodded. Yes, it felt a lot like that.

"It's not though, honey. You're still young. This is just a bump in the road."

He couldn't help but chuckle. "Mom, I think you and Mr. White would really get along."

She looked a little confused at the apparent non sequitur. "Huh?"

Clark shook his head. "Never mind. It's a long story." He gave her quick hug.

"I'll walk out with you, son," Jonathan said.

"Thanks, Dad."

The two walked out of the farmhouse and stood quietly for a moment in the darkened farmyard.

"So." Jonathan cast a sideways look at his son.

"So." Clark repeated.

"Back to Metropolis."

Clark nodded. "For a while at least. There's a part of me that really wants to find a way to make this job at the Planet work, and then there's another part that thinks it would just be so much easier to leave. Things with Lois aren't good. It's worse than I let on in there."

"What's she like, this Lois?"

Clark sighed. "I don't even know, Dad. That's the thing. She's beautiful…I do know that."


Clark smiled. "Brunette."

"I prefer blondes," Jonathan said, his eyes twinkling.

"I always have, too." Clark admitted. "But there was just something about this woman, Dad. From the moment I set eyes on her, it was like I'd been struck by lightning. And the worst of it is, I still kind of feel that way, even though most of me can't stand her. It doesn't make sense, does it?"

"Oh, I don't know." Jonathan sounded sympathetic. "I reckon you're not the first man to feel that way."

"Maybe not." Clark looked up at the stars, wondering for the millionth time if one of them might be his. "The night I met her she was funny…and easy to talk to, like we'd known each other forever. I know I shouldn't have…rushed things, but I just…" He stopped himself before he said something truly embarrassing and melodramatic about how he'd thought he'd found the woman of his dreams. "Anyway, now she says that it wasn't real. That she was just playing a part and that she never promised me more than one night. That she doesn't want to work with me because I won't be able to respect her."

"Is that true?"

"Of course not! She's the best investigative reporter in Metropolis. I've read her work — it's amazing. Why wouldn't I respect her?"

"Do you respect yourself right now?"

The question was asked gently, but it hit Clark like a blow to the gut. "No," he admitted. "I guess I don't."

"Well, maybe she feels the same way. I'm not defending her, mind you. Any woman who lies about who she is sounds like trouble to me, and I think you're probably better off without her. But maybe her problem has more to do with how she feels about herself than how she feels about you."

"Maybe. She sure seems to be blaming me, though."

"Well, I wish I had some advice for you, son, but I guess I don't this time. You're going to have to figure this one out on your own."

"You've helped, Dad. Just knowing I can tell you and Mom about stuff like this helps, even if it isn't easy."

"We've never known much about the women you've dated. Not since you broke up with Lana in high school."

Clark shrugged. "There haven't been many, and even those weren't all that serious. There hasn't been much to tell."

"I admit we've wondered…" His father broke off, and Clark looked at him curiously.

"Wondered what?"

Jonathan cleared his throat and looked off into the distance. "It wasn't any of our business, of course, but we wondered…with your strength…if it was even possible for you to…"

"Oh." Clark felt his face flame with embarrassment, and then, just as quickly, his entire body seemed to go cold with horror as the implications of what his father had just said really sank in.

How was it that his strength had never once crossed his mind while he was making love to Wanda Detroit? It hadn't been a problem, thank God, but what if it *had* been? What if he had hurt her…or killed her? He was used to controlling his strength while doing everyday tasks, but that had been the first time he'd ever had sex. And he'd been so addled by lust that it hadn't even *occurred* to him to worry about how his differences might manifest themselves while he was being intimate with a woman. At the time, the fact that he'd remembered condoms had been a small miracle.

And did he even know for sure that condoms worked on him? Was it possible that they hadn't and he just hadn't noticed? His mind scrambled backwards, tried to remember the pertinent details, but they'd been lost to the darkness of the room and his preoccupation with his lover. He couldn't have given her any diseases, but could he get a woman pregnant? If that were even a possibility, he would *have* to discuss it with Lois — as if she needed more incentive to hate him.

<<You know how you didn't tell me your real name? Well, I might have forgotten to mention that I'm really an alien from outer space with superpowered sperm…>>

He made a small choked sound. Yes, that was sure to go over well.


His father was giving him a concerned look, and with effort, Clark dragged his mind back to their conversation. "Uh, it's fine, Dad. I mean…I don't have any problems with…what you and Mom were worried about."


"Ah, good," his father said, still sounding awkward. "We know marriage and family is something you want eventually."

Clark was too preoccupied with his own reckless irresponsibility to even think about marriage and family just then. Every good feeling he'd had since arriving at the farm seemed to have fled and been replaced by raw nerves. Suddenly all he wanted was to get away, to be alone with his thoughts and self-recriminations. He'd spent most of the day casting Lois Lane as the villain in this piece, but hadn't he been just as dishonest? Hadn't his been the more dangerous lie?

"Uh, I should probably go, Dad. I'll see you guys tomorrow about the costume thing."

His father nodded and pulled Clark into a quick hug, but Clark was so numb that he couldn't find any comfort in the affectionate gesture.

"Take care, son."

"I will." It sounded like his voice was coming from far away, as if the words were being spoken by someone else.

Without a backward glance at his father, he shot up into the heavens.


"Hi! You're late," Lucy called from the direction of the bedroom.

Lois deposited her purse and her briefcase on the kitchen counter and then tossed a fistful of unopened mail beside them. "Did we have plans?" she asked, *really* hoping they hadn't.

Lucy appeared in the doorway, wearing Lois's favorite bathrobe and toweling her hair. "Nope. Well, I had plans with Kyle, but he had to cancel. Something about his mother — and doesn't *that* just set the warning bells ringing? I'm better off without him, don't you think?"

"Huh?" Lois didn't even try to figure out who Kyle was or what she was supposed to know about him.

"*Kyle*," Lucy said, as if that should explain everything. "Do you listen to anything I tell you?"

"Luce…" Lois sighed.

"Never mind." Lucy let the damp towel fall to the floor in the doorway and began finger-combing her long hair. "So what's your problem tonight?"

"You mean besides my sister wearing my clothes and dropping wet towels all over my apartment?"

"Sheesh, Lois. How many days a month can one woman have PMS? I think you're setting some sort of gynecological record." Lucy flopped down on the sofa.

"It's not PMS," Lois snapped. "It's just been a long, tiring day — something you wouldn't know about since you don't *work* for a living."

She felt guilty when she saw the flash of hurt in Lucy's eyes. Lucy had left her last job because her boss kept hitting on her, and Lois had been the one who had encouraged her to do it. She had also offered to let Lucy stay with her while she got back on her feet.

"I'm sorry, Luce," she said, before Lucy even had the chance to respond. "I didn't mean that."

"I *am* looking, you know. I look every day." In spite of the apology, Lucy sounded annoyed.

"I know. Something will turn up."

"So seriously — what's up with you tonight? What made your day so long and tiring?"

Lois let her head fall sideways onto her sister's shoulder. "I wouldn't know where to begin," she said with a sigh.

She wished she *could* confide in her sister — wished they had that sort of relationship. However, Lois had long since cast herself as the responsible older sister and allowed Lucy to settle into her role as the free-spirited irresponsible one. Neither description was strictly accurate any more — if it ever had been — but somehow, the dynamic between them had never changed. Confessing her recent behavior to Lucy and looking to her younger sister for advice would require both of them to step too far out of their roles. Even if Lois could bring herself to try, she couldn't imagine that Lucy was up to the task. At least her sister was *there* — all warm skin and wet hair and fuzzy bathrobe — and Lois took some measure of comfort from her physical presence even if she couldn't go to her for emotional support.

Lucy fidgeted a little so that Lois was settled more comfortably against her. "C'mon," she cajoled. "Tell baby sister all about it. Is it work stuff or personal stuff?" She laughed. "What am I saying? Do you even *have* personal stuff?"

"Ha ha." Lois took her head off of Lucy's shoulder and scooted as far away as the uncomfortable sofa would allow. She knew Lucy was just being Lucy, but the jab had hit far too close to the mark for her to see any humor in it.

"Oh, don't be that way. What's up?"

Lois shrugged. "Just…like you said. Work stuff. Did you see the Messenger explosion on the news today?"

"Omigosh, yes!" Lucy exclaimed. "Wasn't it awful?"

"Yeah. It was horrible. And I'm working on the story." Even with Lucy, Lois wouldn't divulge too many details.

"Oh, man," Lucy said sympathetically. "I'll bet that did make for a hard day."

"Yeah." But Lois knew that her investigation into the Messenger explosion had actually been the easiest part of her day. Even going with Jimmy to Samuel Platt's condemned, rat-infested apartment building had been preferable to being in the newsroom and trying to work with Clark Kent nearby. Platt had given her more 'notes' to go through and told her of a report he'd submitted to EPRAD that had specifically warned of the very malfunction that had caused the explosion. If Platt was right, then someone at EPRAD had deliberately sabotaged the Messenger.

But in a subsequent trip to EPRAD, Dr. Antoinette Baines had denied receiving the report and told them that Samuel Platt was an alcoholic and a drug user who had been let go from EPRAD after setting fire to one of the laboratories. If this were true, it made him far from reliable as a source. Unless Lois could make some sense of Platt's notes and prove his 'report' existed, she was afraid that her investigation might be at a dead end. Dr. Baines had made it quite clear that she and Jimmy weren't going to be allowed any more information on the explosion until EPRAD's 'official' findings were released to the public.

"You get too involved in your stories, Lois. You need to learn to let this stuff go when you get home, or it'll drive you crazy."

"I never get involved with my stories!" Lois protested. "That's one of my…"

"…three rules," Lucy finished. "Yeah, right."

"You're not helping, you know."

"What would help?"

The memory of being wrapped in Clark's arms came back to her with startling and painful clarity.


*That* was just what would make her feel better. His shoulders would be broad enough to bear the weight of all her mistakes. His warmth would ward off the cold that seemed to be seeping into her soul.

It had been years since she'd had anyone to lean on, and she'd thought she'd stopped caring. She *had* cared once, back when her father had left them and her mother had quit being a mother and become a full-time victim instead, but it hadn't made any difference; she'd learned the hard way that the only person she could depend on was herself. Each year, the armor she wore to protect herself from the outside world became a little thicker, a little stronger — but a little heavier, too, until the weight was too much and she did something stupid, like casting it off completely and falling into bed with a total stranger.

It had felt so good, though, to let herself be free from all that responsibility for the few hours she'd spent in Clark's arms. It should have been terrifying, letting herself be that vulnerable to another person, but somehow with Clark she hadn't felt vulnerable. She'd felt safe. Protected. Even cherished, as trite as that sounded. It had only been later, when she'd seen him at the Daily Planet, that she'd let all the old doubts assail her and had felt vulnerable to him for the first time. Then she had panicked and thrown up every defense in her arsenal.

"Chocolate?" Lucy prodded, dragging Lois away from her thoughts. "C'mon. That always makes you feel better."

"No, thanks. I'm just going to take a bath and then read over my notes from today. I have a long day tomorrow." She could hardly stand to think about tomorrow — about seeing Clark in the newsroom again, about the investigation that wasn't going anywhere, about Jimmy yipping at her heels like an exuberant puppy. A long day indeed.

"That's right!" Lucy exclaimed. "You have Lex Luthor's ball tomorrow. Have you decided what to wear?"

Oh, *hell*.

She'd completely forgotten the ball. Her long day was even longer now. "Um…I guess not. I haven't really thought about it."

"You haven't thought about it!" Lucy sounded outraged. "Lois, you told me yourself this was the biggest social event of the year. And you'll finally get to meet Lex Luthor."

"The jerk who won't return my phone calls," she grumbled.

"The incredibly rich, handsome jerk who won't return your phone calls," Lucy corrected, giving Lois a nudge with her shoulder. "So make him want to call you! What about that red dress you bought on sale after Christmas last year? You've never even worn that."

Lois shook her head and wrinkled her nose. "It's too…red."

"It's *hot*. Lex Luthor will be falling at your feet and begging you to interview him."

"I want to him to look at me and see a competent reporter, not a hooker. I need something classy."

Lucy made an exasperated sound. "What about the blue dress you wore to last year's Merriwethers? It's classy."

"Do you spend every minute I'm at work going through my closet?"

"How else will I know what's available to borrow?" Lucy teased. "Come on — the blue dress is great."

"Those sleeves make me look like a linebacker."

Lucy laughed. "They do not."

"All right fine. The blue dress." Lois was tired of the conversation and really didn't care what she wore anyway.

"And you're going with Mitchell?"

Lois groaned. "I guess so. If he doesn't have to cancel at the last minute because he cut himself shaving."

"I thought you liked Mitchell."

"Mitchell is a hypochondriac."

"But a good-looking one."

Lois shrugged. "He's all right."

In truth, she had thought Mitchell Stephens handsome once, too, but now his looks seemed no better than average. One night with Clark Kent, and suddenly every other man she knew had paled into insignificance. It was yet another repercussion of her outing as Wanda Detroit that she'd never anticipated. They seemed to be snowballing, piling on top of one another so fast that she couldn't keep up. It wasn't supposed to be that way. It was supposed to be one night — one memorable night, yes, but not one that changed her forever.

With a sigh, she heaved herself off the sofa and pulled her briefcase off the countertop. She would have a long night of it going through Platt's notes, and she might as well get started.

"Lois, you just got home," Lucy complained. "At least take time to eat. Want me to get Chinese?"

"I'm not hungry," she said truthfully. She hadn't eaten a bite since her confrontation with Clark that morning. She'd been plagued by a butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling that left her completely disinterested in food.

"Oh, come on."

Lois shook her head. "Listen, Luce…not tonight, OK? Tonight I just need to…"

To *what*, exactly? She didn't particularly want to be alone, but she didn't want to be with Lucy either. She wanted to be with someone to whom she could tell everything, someone who would hug her and tell her it was all going to work out, even if no one could really know that for sure. She wanted to be with someone who could give her advice, advice she could trust, without condemning her in the process. She thought of Perry briefly, and then she put the idea aside. Perry's professional advice was invaluable, but his personal advice tended to be wide of the mark and couched in so many Elvis analogies that she often had no idea what he was talking about anyway.

There was no one. And that wasn't new, so there was no point in getting upset about it. She had her work — a lot of it, as it happened — and that would have to be enough.

Lucy must have seen something in her face because she backed off without even asking what it was Lois needed to do. "All right," she said. "If you're going to work, I'm going to go out for a while."

Lois nodded. "Be careful, Luce," she said, as she always did.

"Careful is boring," Lucy replied with a laugh. Lois knew she was just teasing, but she couldn't respond in kind.

She gave her sister a serious look. "Trust me, Luce: There's a lot to be said for boring."


Lois made a point of being early to work the next day, hoping that she could get a cup of coffee and be settled at her desk before Clark came in. Early wasn't early enough, however: When she stepped off the elevator, she immediately saw Clark standing near the coffee pot talking with Perry.

"…know it's not very exciting," she heard Perry say, "but let's see what you can do with it. You do well with these kinds of stories and some of the more exciting assignments will start to fall your way."

"I'll do my best, Mr. White," Clark said.

"Good man," Perry said, clapping Clark on the back. "And listen, Kent — enough of this 'Mr. White' stuff, okay? Folks around here call me 'Perry' or 'Chief'. Well, that's what they call me to my face, anyway." He chuckled heartily. "Expect they call me some other names when they think I can't hear 'em."

"I certainly have," Lois muttered, as she reached her desk. She was annoyed at Perry, who suddenly wasn't treating Clark like a 'provisional' employee at all. He was treating him like someone he expected to have around for a while, someone who was going to be growing into his job and playing in the monthly poker games. And that was just unthinkable.

She wished she'd had the foresight to stop and get coffee on her way in, but she hadn't expected Clark to be there yet, and she'd been sure she could get some from the office pot before he arrived. But no, out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Clark was settling into his desk, once again effectively blocking her from the coffee service. It shouldn't have been a big deal; he wouldn't expect her to talk to him anyway, and all she had to do was to walk by him and pour herself a cup of coffee. It was a normal, everyday activity that now seemed as daunting as scaling Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel or…or…some other very hard thing she had no intention of doing.

It was impossible to come up with decent similes without coffee, for goodness' sake.

So she would do this. She would just pick up her cup…that's what she would do. Then she would march right over to the coffee pot, which was as much hers as it was anyone's and a damn sight *more* hers than it was Clark Kent's, who was only supposed to be provisional anyway. She would calmly pour herself some coffee and would even take the time to add the artificial sweetener and creamer she always used. She might even take a sip right there, right next to him, so that he could see that his being there didn't bother her — not one little bit.

Yep, she would do this. She grasped her lipstick-smudged gray cup as if it were the Holy Grail (and there she went with the similes again…) and calmly stood up. She turned in the direction of the coffee pot, but her eyes seemed to want to go everywhere else in the room, flitting from one thing to another and so obviously *not* looking in the direction of Clark Kent that she suddenly felt ridiculous. How would she normally look while going to get a cup of coffee? Did she just head straight over there, head held high, or did she look at the ground, or did she glance around the newsroom to see who had arrived? She felt herself begin to panic as she realized that she had no idea. How could she look normal when she couldn't remember what normal was?

She paused and looked down at her dirty coffee cup while her mind raced through the possibilities. She should probably look in the direction she was going, she decided. She didn't have any memories of crashing into people on the way to the coffee pot, and she had no intention of starting today, with Clark there as a witness.

She raised her head, determined to just do it, and she was immediately arrested by a pair of soulful brown eyes. He was staring at her, with something in his face that made her breath hitch and her heart start to pound. <<He was hurting.>> She knew this from one glance, though she couldn't have said how, and just like the day before when they'd watched the Messenger explode, she had an almost uncontrollable impulse to go to him, to offer what comfort she could. Odd, that, since the night before she'd been desperately wanting *his* comfort and been so sure that he was strong enough to handle anything.

He held her gaze, not pretending that he wasn't watching her. He had promised not to speak to her, she remembered dizzily, but he'd never promised he wouldn't look, and what was the point of not speaking if every feeling he'd ever had was allowed to blaze forth from his eyes?

Coffee. She'd meant to get coffee, not to stand in the middle of the newsroom exchanging tortured glances with Clark. She bit her lip and shook her head slightly, almost in apology. She couldn't do it. She couldn't get that close to him — not now.

She turned back to her desk. Put her coffee cup back in it's spot on the corner. Opened her briefcase and dragged out Platt's notes. And all the while, she felt the weight of that look — that look that had seemed to beg for some kind of help, some kind of relief that she instinctively knew was in her power to give.

She booted up her computer and began to type up her notes from the night before, even as her mind worked on formulating a plan for the next part of the investigation. It was her usual routine, and it calmed her slightly. She would *not* think about Clark. She would think about work and nothing else. She was squinting at her notes, trying to make out her own handwriting, when she felt his presence beside her.

It startled her so much that she gasped, loud enough for him to hear. She stared at him, wide-eyed and speechless, stunned that he had approached her. She was so focused on his face that she hardly noticed when he set down a steaming Styrofoam cup and then reached into his pocket to pull out an assortment of little packets — sweeteners and creamers — and a plastic stirrer.

"I wasn't sure what you liked in your coffee." He sounded almost apologetic, as if he'd somehow been remiss, but she was still at least two steps behind.

"What?" she asked, because what he had said was so far removed from anything she'd expected to hear from him — not that she'd expected to hear anything at all.

"You shouldn't have to give up coffee because of me," he said softly.

"I wasn't…" She began her denial and then gave it up just as quickly. They'd both know she was lying. She looked down at the cup on her desk, at the pile of little packets. "Thank you."

A smile touched his lips, there and gone much too fast. "You're welcome."

And without another word, he walked away, back to his desk and whatever mundane story Perry had assigned him. Lois, her heart still pounding from his nearness, from the fact that they'd exchanged a few simple words, reached for packets of artificial sweetener and powdered whitener and ripped them open, dumping them into the coffee and feeling at once even more guilty than she had before, but also relieved.

Maybe they could actually do this. Maybe they could even — one day — be friends. Maybe he didn't hate her as much as she deserved to be hated. Maybe when he'd said he wasn't like most men, he'd actually been telling the truth.

As she sipped carefully at the coffee he'd brought her, she felt something that had been clenched tight inside her begin to relax, just a little.


As Clark walked away, he wanted to feel elated that she had accepted his small gesture without a fight, but he couldn't. Elation simply wasn't in his emotional range just then.

He'd spent a sleepless night mired in his own guilt and dishonesty, pacing the floor…and walls…and ceiling…of his hotel room. He had never considered himself particularly fanciful, but now he was investing the room and everything in it with ridiculous power over him: Those walls had seen what he had done; they knew his guilt…and his pleasure in it. Her sweater had graced that chair. In his imagination, he could still see the echo of its bright pink splash against the chair's scarred wooden slats. The bed still held her scent, and even though the sheets had been changed, if he pressed his face to her pillow, his sensitive nose could find her perfume. It was rich and musky, with nothing cloying or floral about it. He knew little of women's perfumes, but he knew he'd liked hers.

And then there was the floor. The dingy, threadbare carpet was swept clean now, but he could still picture those condom wrappers tossed so carelessly beside the bed, looking utterly sordid in the light of day. Haunting him.

His room was haunting him.

His *guilt* was haunting him.

He'd gone in to work early, tired of wallowing, tired of torturing himself with the what-ifs that always seemed so dire in the middle of the night. He *hadn't* hurt her with his strength — that was the most important thing — and even though he would always feel guilty that he hadn't even given the possibility a thought, he knew there was no point in dwelling on it now. Nothing good could come of throwing himself at Lois's feet and confessing everything. His guilt had had the effect of softening him a *little* toward Lois Lane, but it hadn't made him completely stupid. She was at best unpredictable, and she was clearly hostile toward him. Risking his own security — and his parents' — by trusting Lois with his secret would just compound the mistakes he'd already made.

He had arrived at work to find Perry White already there, and for whatever reason, the editor seemed to have completely acquitted Clark of whatever sins he'd been accusing him of the day before. It was a little bewildering, this sudden about-face, but Clark thought tiredly that perhaps the Daily Planet employees *all* changed their personalities every day. Maybe Cat Grant, who had been uncomfortably obvious in her attentions to him the day before, would come to work dressed as a nun and sit primly at her desk all day. Maybe Jimmy Olsen would be sullen and uncommunicative. Maybe Lois would be open and friendly.


He had just dragged his wandering attention back to his boss when Lois Lane stepped off the elevator. She went to her desk without appearing even to look in his direction, but Clark had watched her out of the corner of his eye — had admired her, however unwillingly.

Because, God, she was beautiful. She wasn't Wanda Detroit, but she was beautiful in a perfect, cut glass, razor-sharp way that he found even more intriguing than Wanda's more obvious charms. He didn't like her; he didn't *want* to think she was beautiful, but he couldn't deny the evidence of his own eyes. And his eyes were telling him that they would be content to gaze on Lois Lane for the rest of the day and maybe for the rest of his life. That they'd be perfectly happy to just watch her boot up her computer, sift through her briefcase, reach for her coffee cup — boring activities that normally wouldn't interest his eyes for a second. Because his eyes had seen things. Lots of things. *Incredible* things. His eyes had seen the whole world.

Yet they wanted to stop right there and watch Lois Lane get coffee.

He had made some answer to Perry White that must have satisfied the man because he went away and left Clark to seat himself at his desk and look his fill at Lois Lane. It was easy enough to do since she was looking everywhere in the newsroom but at him, a fact that penetrated his consciousness belatedly. Once it did, however, he realized how uncomfortable she was, just trying to get a cup of coffee, and his guilt returned in a rush. What had they *done* to one another?

Suddenly, her eyes had locked with his, and he'd been unable to move, unable to breathe, even. Watching her had been a pleasure, but looking into those wide, scared eyes was a torment, an accusation. <<I'm sorry Lois,>> he wanted to say. <<I'm so sorry for both of us.>> If she had asked him at that moment to leave — to walk out of the Daily Planet and leave her in peace, he would have done it. He would have packed his things and given up on everything he'd fought for the day before. But she didn't ask. She stopped and then turned away from him, returning to her desk.

She couldn't come near him. She couldn't even walk past him to get a cup of coffee. He knew that this was *not* all his fault. He knew that whatever guilt there was had to be shared between them, and he had not forgotten for a minute her underhanded attempt to cost him his job. He knew all this, but it didn't change the fact that he hated seeing what he was doing to her. He hated seeing this bright, confident woman reduced to a shambles merely because of his presence. He had to find some way for them to coexist. He had to find some way to get her to relax, at least a little, while he was in the newsroom.

Or else he had to go. They couldn't endure this indefinitely.

So he had taken her a cup of coffee. A peace offering, of sorts, but also a salve to his own guilty conscience. He had lied too, he reminded himself. He had let her think she was going to bed with a nice, normal guy from Smallville, Kansas. The fact that the guy came to Kansas by way of the planet Krypton wasn't exactly a small omission. He hadn't meant to do it, but he had lied.

As he'd handed her the coffee, he had cursed the enhanced senses that had allowed him to hear so clearly the pounding of her heart and the shallowness of her breathing as he'd stood beside her. He saw the blush on her cheeks, which in other circumstances he might have found attractive — even endearing. But it wasn't either of those things. It was just that much more evidence that she was on the verge of a full-fledged panic attack, merely because he'd approached her.

No, there was nothing in that to feel elated about. But she *had* said thank you…and that was all she'd done. She hadn't hissed and spit and reminded him of his promise to keep his distance. She hadn't tossed the coffee into his face. She hadn't threatened him or his job or done anything to cause a scene. In spite of her obvious discomfort with his presence, she hadn't done anything except say a quiet thank you, at which point he had beat a strategic retreat. So he didn't feel elated, but he did feel the first stirrings of hope that this situation might eventually ease enough for her to brave a trip to the coffee pot.

<<One little blue packet, two of the powdered creamers…>>

He again watched out of the corner of his eye as she fixed her coffee, watched as she blew on it once and took a tentative sip. It took a ridiculous amount of effort to tear himself away from the sight of Lois Lane drinking coffee and working at her desk, but Perry (or the 'Chief' — he wasn't sure when he'd be comfortable enough for that…) had given him an assignment that morning, and he needed to do a little background research before he covered the annual Kiwanis Club awards luncheon that day. It wasn't an exciting story, true enough, but it would give him a chance to meet some of the business people in Metropolis, and maybe they'd be useful contacts in other stories. He wasn't disappointed in his assignment; not at all. After his sleepless night, anything more challenging might well have been beyond him anyway.

"Hey, CK!" Clark heard the words but didn't look up from his computer until Jimmy Olsen punched him lightly on the shoulder. "You don't mind if I call you that, do you?"

Clark smiled. "Probably not, but I wasn't paying attention. Sorry, Jimmy. What did you call me?"

"CK. You just kinda look like a CK for some reason. But I can call you Clark if you don't like it."

Clark chuckled. "It's fine."

"So…you working on a story?"

"Yep. I'm covering the Kiwanis Club luncheon today."

Jimmy grinned. "The Chief's got you on the rubber chicken circuit, eh? Don't take it personally. He thinks people should have to prove themselves before they get the good assignments."

"You must have proven yourself, then. Aren't you working with Lois Lane on the Messenger explosion?"

"Yeah, but Lois didn't waste any time telling me that it was only because no one else was available." Jimmy looked a little rueful at the admission. "A week ago I was writing obituaries, and usually I'm just a gofer. So the Messenger story is way out of my league. The truth is, I'm just on it so if Lois gets herself into trouble, there'll be someone around to call 911."

Clark couldn't tell whether or not Jimmy was making a joke. "Gets herself into trouble?" he repeated.

"Well, yeah. Oh, I forget you don't know Lois. She's kind of…" Jimmy looked thoughtful, obviously trying to find just the right word. He shook his head, giving up. "Things just seem to happen to her. I guess you don't get the kinds of scoops she gets without taking some risks."

"I guess not," Clark said, but he frowned, not much liking the sound of what Jimmy was telling him. "It works out well for you, though — the Messenger story is a great assignment, no matter why you got it."

"That's what I figure, too. And I'm used to Lois — I know how she is and don't take it personally like a lot of people do. She's not so bad once you get to know her."

"All bark and no bite?" Clark suggested.

"Well…no, I wouldn't say that either," Jimmy said with a grin. "More like I've been bitten so often I've kind of stopped noticing it. Anyway, for a chance to work on a story like this one, I can put up with a lot. It's really cool — we went to EPRAD yesterday and met that Dr. Baines who's been on TV so much since the explosion. She's even hotter in person than she is on television."

"An important quality in a scientist," Clark deadpanned.

Jimmy snickered. "Yeah, yeah, I'm a sexist pig. But you didn't meet her. Trust me, you can't help but notice."

Privately, Clark couldn't imagine how anyone standing next to Lois Lane could possibly notice another woman, but he would rather rip out his tongue than admit that to Jimmy or anyone else. He wasn't all that happy about acknowledging it to himself.

"I'll take your word for it," Clark said.

"Say, listen," Jimmy said, as if a thought had just occurred to him. "Do you know about the ball tonight?"

Clark raised his eyebrows. "Uh, no. Guess not."

"Well, it's this thing Lex Luthor is putting on. An everybody-who's-anybody-will-be-there kind of thing."

"The billionaire?" Clark said, and then realized immediately that it was an asinine question. How many Lex Luthors could there be? He attempted a recovery. "Do you know him?"

"I've never met him, but I've read all five of his unauthorized biographies. Rags to riches, wrong side of the tracks, self-made billionaire, owns dozens of companies, employs thousands of people. Man of the Year, every year, has his finger in every pie, but won't give personal interviews — which has Lois spitting nails, by the way." He smiled, obviously enjoying Lois's failure a little bit. "Anyway, he's having this ball tonight as a fundraiser, and the Chief gave me a couple of tickets. I was going to go with this girl in my building, but she cancelled at the last minute. So I was wondering if you might want to use my extra ticket…in a non-date kind of way, I mean. Not that you're not…I mean, if I were…or you were…though I guess I don't *know* that you're not, but I'm not…"

Clark burst out laughing. "Relax, Jimmy. I didn't think you were asking me for a date. And thanks — I'd like to go if you really don't mind. I don't go to many balls, but this sounds like the kind of thing where I might be able to make some useful contacts."

"Exactly." Jimmy sighed with relief. "That's what I was thinking, what with you being new and all." He reached into his back pocket and pulled out slightly crumpled gold and white ticket and handed it to Clark.

"The White Orchid Ball," Clark read aloud. "Sounds like I'd better get a tux."

"That's the best part. Yeah, they're uncomfortable, but women go crazy over guys in tuxedos," Jimmy said conspiratorially. "Kerry — that's the girl in my apartment building — well she doesn't know what she's missing. Trust me, CK, we may be going to this ball alone, but if we play our cards right, we won't be leaving that way, you know what I mean?" He gave Clark's shoulder a playful shove.

Clark smiled, as Jimmy obviously expected him to, but he wasn't amused. The last thing on earth he intended to do was to pick up another woman. He wasn't sure he'd ever see the end of the trouble the last one had caused. No, for him Lex Luthor's ball was just another professional opportunity.

"Well," Jimmy said, "I'd better go check in with Lois. I'm not sure what she has planned for me today. Enjoy your rubber chicken."

"Right," Clark said, chuckling. "Try not to be too jealous."

Jimmy laughed and set sail in the direction of Lois's desk. Clark looked her way and caught her staring at him, much as she'd caught him staring a little earlier that morning. But this time she quickly averted her gaze, focusing instead on Jimmy's approach, and soon she and Jimmy were huddled over her desk, with Lois talking and Jimmy scribbling notes.


"Jimmy, I need a list of the names and phone numbers of everyone who worked with Dr. Platt at EPRAD. Anyone who might have known him, and that includes secretaries and custodians, people who worked in the mailroom, the cafeteria — *anyone*. I want to start with those who have left EPRAD for one reason or another, but if we have to, we'll move on to the ones who are still there. We have to know if we can trust this guy. Right now it's just his word against Dr. Baines's, and she's obviously not going to tell us anything else."

"I'll get on it," Jimmy said, making a note. "But it's a tall order. It might take a while."

"The phone calls will take a while, too. When you have the first few names, bring 'em here and I'll start calling while you track down the rest."

"Are we going back to EPPRAD today?" Jimmy asked, sounding hopeful. "That place was cool."

Lois gave him a look. "Cool?"

"Well…yeah. I mean, it's EPRAD! With spaceships and stuff. And then that Dr. Baines was…she was…"

"Yes?" Lois asked, narrowing her eyes dangerously.

"Uh, very…professional." Jimmy grinned, knowing he hadn't fooled Lois for a minute. "As a matter of fact, I was just telling Clark over there how *professional* Dr. Baines was."

Lois scowled, not liking the idea of Jimmy and Clark sitting around talking about the beautiful scientist. "And what did *Clark* have to say about her?" Lois's tone was sarcastic, belying her genuine interest in the answer.

"Uh…nothing, now that I think about it." Jimmy sounded surprised as he considered that none of his 'guy talk' had seemed to interest Clark at all. He returned to the idea that had occurred to him when he'd offered Clark the ticket to the ball. "Say, do you think Clark might be gay?"

Lois blinked at him. "What would make you think that?" she asked, trying hard to sound disinterested.

"Well, Cat was all over him yesterday. Trust me, he had a sure thing there, but he didn't seem interested."

Lois looked over at Cat Grant's empty desk. If fate had granted her the powers she thought she deserved, the desk would have been reduced to a pile of smoldering cinders from just the one glance. "Maybe he just has *standards*."

"Maybe." Jimmy shrugged, clearly not convinced, and Lois let the subject drop.

"Aren't you supposed to be finding some phone numbers for me?" she said.

"I'm on it!" Jimmy moved away quickly, and Lois knew that he would be back soon with the first of the numbers she'd requested. Jimmy was sometimes annoying, and his writing was painfully raw, but he had a real talent for research and a tenacity that she appreciated. If the information could be gotten, Jimmy would get it.

The rest of her day was spent making phone calls and trying to put together an accurate picture of Samuel Platt. She wished she had an excuse to be out of the office, but the reality was that investigative work was often desk work and research, and she'd learned the hard way that it didn't pay to go out without a certain number of facts in hand. So she spent the day navigating a tedious series of dead ends, since many of the former EPRAD employees with whom she talked either didn't know Dr. Platt or didn't know him well enough to contribute anything useful. The few who had worked with him seemed unwilling to help, clamming up the minute she started asking questions about the Messenger. By the time four o'clock rolled around, she was frustrated enough to scream, and Jimmy was giving her a wide berth.

Of course, the fact that she'd spent most of the day in the newsroom with Clark didn't help matters. He'd been gone at lunchtime, but other than that he'd been there, at his desk and around the newsroom, providing her with a constant and unwelcome distraction. Perry could cross the newsroom when she was working, and unless he was literally bellowing her name (which, granted, was a pretty common occurrence) she didn't bother to look up. Cat could walk by half-naked (which, ditto) and if Lois was working, she wouldn't even notice. But let Clark Kent so much as lean back and stretch, and her attention was diverted from whatever she was doing to whatever *he* was doing. And of course, all the while, she was trying to make it look like she was still busy working. Watching Clark while pretending she *wasn't* watching Clark took twice as much effort as just watching him would, which would mean four times as much effort as not watching him at all.

Wouldn't it? Maybe not. Math had never been her best subject. Anyway, the exact formula didn't matter, since not watching him at all just wasn't happening, despite her best efforts.

It was maddening, but it wasn't like she could complain. Aside from bringing her coffee that morning, something he'd done when the newsroom was almost empty, he hadn't approached her, hadn't spoken to her, hadn't even glanced her way again, as best she could tell. He was keeping his promise to keep his distance, and that should have pleased her, but instead it was nearly driving her crazy. How dare he be so totally immune to her when his very presence was shredding her nerves?

An insidious little voice whispered to her that if she'd looked and acted like Wanda Detroit, he wouldn't be able to help looking. It whispered that this just proved what she already knew — that Wanda Detroit was what he'd wanted all along, and Lois Lane wasn't worth a glance. He'd probably brought the coffee out of pity, after watching her make a spectacle of her inability to approach him.

Because that was the other thing she'd learned during this day of involuntary Clark-watching: Clark Kent was an *incredibly* nice guy. It was in everything he did, all day long. She'd watched him smile and chat with his new colleagues, even the ones like Edna from travel, who had spent twenty minutes showing Clark pictures of her grandchildren.

And if that wasn't boring enough, she'd actually seen him listen to three of Perry's Elvis stories in a row, appearing interested in each one — even the one about Elvis having a dead twin brother, which surely even people from hick towns in Kansas already knew. But watching Clark, you'd never have suspected that news of Elvis Presley had made its way to Smallville. Perry was clearly in raptures at being presented with this tabula rasa when it came to Elvis lore.

And then that afternoon, Clark had held the door of the elevator when Myerson was dashing to get on. Granted, he'd probably regretted it immediately, since absolutely everyone knew that Myerson never showered after going to the gym at lunchtime. For Lois, "never share an elevator with Myerson in the afternoon" was rule number four, right after "never sleep with anyone you work with." Some things you only have to learn the hard way once. But she had a feeling that even after the memorable experience of an afternoon elevator ride with Myerson, Clark would probably hold the door again the next day if the same situation arose. He was just like that.

There was a cynical part of her that was revolted by Clark's relentless niceness. There was a part of her that wanted to believe it was all a ploy — that he was sucking up to anyone and everyone so that his 'provisional' job would become a permanent one. But she couldn't quite make herself believe it. Everything she'd seen that day in the newsroom was exactly what she would have predicted based on the one night she'd spent with Clark Kent. He *was* that nice. He was the kind of guy people just liked having around, and if he could write at all, Perry White wasn't likely to let him go.

The buzzing of her phone broke into her reverie, and she realized that she'd been staring, unseeing, at her computer monitor for at least ten minutes. She was incredibly sick of talking on the phone, but she still had a number of messages out to Platt's former co-workers, so she sighed and reached for it.

"Lois Lane."


She recognized the voice immediately and winced as she realized that she'd forgotten the ball *again*. She glanced at her watch — still plenty of time to get ready, thank goodness.

"Hi, Mitchell." She tried to sound enthusiastic, but even to her own ears, she sounded more like she was making a dental appointment than confirming a date.

"Just wanted to touch base about tonight." Mitchell sounded distracted, as if he were reading while he was talking. He probably was, Lois thought, and checking his phone call to her off of his to-do list at the same time. "I've made dinner reservations for 7:30. Is that all right?"

"Um, yeah." They hadn't talked about having dinner first, but she supposed it was fine. "Where are we eating?"

"Uh…I told my secretary either Calverts or Centennial Gardens. Is one of those all right?"

In other words, he'd delegated their date to his secretary. If Lois had cared about Mitchell in the slightest, she might have been wounded. As it was, she'd only asked in the first place because it seemed polite to express some interest in their evening. "Either one will be fine." She smiled wryly into the phone. "Sure you're feeling up to it? No sniffles or tummy aches?"

"Funny, Lois. I've only canceled on you twice."

"At the last minute," she pointed out.

"And I'll apparently never hear the end of it. You know, if I wanted to be nagged, I'd get married."

"You'll never get married." One of the things that Lois liked best about Mitchell was that he was at least as commitment-shy as she was. He seemed perfectly content to escort her to various social events without expecting anything at all from her beyond a dry, fraternal kiss at the door. For a while, there had been some gossip about them after they had turned up together at several functions, but it had died down when it became apparent even to the most casual observers that the relationship — if it could be called that — wasn't going anywhere. They had each found in the other a person of commensurate attractiveness who knew what to wear and which fork to use and was capable of making decent conversation over cocktails. It was enough for both of them.

"Damn straight," he agreed, chuckling. "Listen, I have to run — late meeting with a client. I'll pick you up around 7:00, all right?"

"I'll see you then."

They both hung up without bothering to say goodbye. Mitchell's attention was obviously on his client, and Lois's had been riveted by the sight of Clark Kent standing up and reaching for the sports coat that had been draped over the back of his chair. He shrugged himself into it with easy grace and then reached for the switch on his computer, shutting it down.

"You heading out, CK?" Jimmy called from his place a few feet away from Lois's desk.

CK? Lois thought, a little amused.

Clark flashed his devastating smile. "Yeah. I have some things to take care of. I'll see you tonight, though. Thanks again."

"No problem. Were you able to get a tux?"

Lois felt lightheaded for a few seconds as the implications of that question sank in and then bounced around in her brain.

<<Clark was going to the ball.>>

She couldn't help it. Her head came up and she stared at Jimmy, uncaring, for once, what her face might be giving away. Because Clark was going to be at the ball. He was going to be wearing a tuxedo. He was going to be smiling and laughing and maybe flirting with other women. *Dancing* with them, like he'd danced with her at the Stardust. She was going to have to see Clark Kent with another woman in his arms. She felt like throwing up just thinking about it.

Clark approached Jimmy's desk, never once looking her way. "Yeah," he said. "Took care of it at lunchtime."

"Good deal." Jimmy's head swiveled around toward Lois, catching her completely off-guard. "Lois, what about you? Are you going with that lawyer guy?"

Clark's eyes flickered in her direction, and she felt her face flame. "Uh, yeah."

"What's his name again?" Jimmy asked. "I always want to call him Ken."

Well *that* was weird, even for Jimmy. "Ken?" she asked.

Jimmy grinned at Clark. "He looks like a Ken doll. I know that's not really his name, but every time I see him, I just think…Ken!"

"His name is Mitchell," Lois said through gritted teeth. Her irritation with Jimmy had almost made her forget her embarrassment. Almost. "And if you call me Barbie even one time, they'll never find your body."

"Who me?" Jimmy pasted on his most innocent expression. "Compare you to a tall, sexy blonde? Why would I do that?"

Jimmy was teasing her, of course, and on a normal day, she actually appreciated that Jimmy was the only person in the whole newsroom who had the nerve to tease her. On a normal day, she didn't mind his annoying-kid-brother shtick and gave back as good as she got. But Clark Kent was standing *right there*, and Jimmy's comment had gone straight to the heart of Lois's insecurities. Her eyes went wide, and she sucked in a furious breath, prepared to deliver a scathing response that was totally out of proportion to Jimmy's comment.

"Lois is more beautiful than any blonde," Clark said firmly, squaring his shoulders and giving Jimmy a look of stern disapproval.

If he'd suddenly dropped to one knee and declared his undying love, neither Lois nor Jimmy could possibly have been more shocked. Both stared at Clark, who quickly went from looking almost menacing to looking completely flustered. He reached up and fiddled with his glasses, averting his gaze from Lois and shooting an apologetic look in Jimmy's direction.

"Take it easy, CK," Jimmy said with an awkward laugh. "Lois knows I was just kidding. Right, Lois?"

"Right," she said faintly, forgetting that two minutes before she'd been planning to feed Jimmy to the tiger at the Metropolis Zoo. She was still staring at Clark and grasping blindly for her own response. She should be angry, shouldn't she? Clark was clearly violating their agreement — an agreement they'd made only yesterday — and she'd be well within her rights to put him squarely in his place. But as she watched the dull red flush make its way across his cheeks, down his neck, and even to his *ears*, she couldn't seem to find the anger she thought she should be feeling.

His head came up and he looked at her, those expressive eyes seeming to beg for her forgiveness. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "From now on I'll keep my opinions to myself." He glanced at Jimmy. "I'll see you both tonight."

He strode away, and as they watched him go, Jimmy said in a low voice, "What the heck was that all about?"

"Kent's version of small-town chivalry, I guess," she answered coldly, throwing up the words like a shield against Jimmy's curiosity. "He won't last a month in Metropolis. Mark my words."

"I dunno," Jimmy said, shaking his head. "He might be tougher than you think. Did you see the look on his face when I insulted you?"

She *had* seen it. She just wasn't sure what to make of it, and she certainly didn't want to encourage Jimmy's speculations on the subject. "Don't you have work to do?" she asked pointedly.

"On it." Jimmy hurried back to his desk, and Lois looked up just in time to see the elevator doors close on Clark Kent.

He'd said she was beautiful. He'd said *Lois* was beautiful, with no reference to Wanda Detroit. More than that, he'd all but said straight out that she was the most beautiful woman he knew. She kept telling herself that she should be angry, that this wasn't in their agreement. She reminded herself that someone as relentlessly *nice* as Clark Kent probably just wasn't capable of standing by and seeing a woman insulted, no matter who the woman was. Because after the way she'd behaved, it just wasn't possible that he could still care about her.

That thought was enough to deflate her.

She thought of the look on his face, though, when he'd stood up for her, and she realized that she'd liked it — liked having someone on her side, no matter what his reasons. She'd hardly needed rescuing from Jimmy, but the fact that Clark had bothered was still…

Well, she'd liked it — that was all.


<<He won't last a month in Metropolis…>>

Thanks to his enhanced hearing, Clark heard Lois's words loud and clear as he made his way to the elevator, and they continued to echo in his head after the doors had closed and the car began its descent. Those scornful words seemed to claw at his insides, inflicting sharp, invisible wounds. He wished he could cast them out of his head and somehow render them unheard, but they were *there*, relentless in their cold certainty.

<<Won't last a month…>>

No, he wouldn't, would he? Because he couldn't live like this. It had only been two days, but he was ready to concede defeat. She had been right: they couldn't work together. It was just that simple. Their night together had been too wonderful, too life-altering an event, for him ever to treat her as an indifferent acquaintance. He had no idea whether he'd have been attracted to Lois Lane had he not met Wanda first, and he didn't much care. The point was moot. He *was* attracted, no matter how little he wanted to be and how hard she worked to repel him, and apparently he wasn't going to be very good at hiding it. He'd just made an absolute idiot of himself, overreacting to Jimmy's tease and barging in where he was neither needed nor wanted, and he could foresee a long line of similarly humiliating experiences if he were to remain at the Daily Planet, mooning after a woman who had made it clear she wasn't interested in him beyond the one night they'd already shared.

By the time he stepped off the elevator and into the lobby, his face was no longer burning and he'd made his decision: He would work out his two weeks, and then he would go. He knew that in making that choice, he wasn't just giving up the chance at the best job he'd ever had, though that was certainly true. But it was far more than that. He knew that in leaving the Daily Planet and a beautiful, infuriating, confusing woman named Lois Lane, he was walking away from the door marked 'Normal Life' and was choosing instead a path that would be decidedly *not* normal, not anything like the life for which his upbringing had prepared him. He would be answering the call of a distant planet he couldn't even remember and embracing those parts of himself he'd always been compelled to keep hidden. The thought was frankly terrifying…but so was the thought of walking back into that newsroom.

Once outside, he paused a moment to get his bearings, to breathe deeply of the fresh air and let the late afternoon sun warm his face. People rushing by took no notice of him standing there, just one more face in the crowd. He basked in his anonymity and took comfort in the fact that his ravaged spirit apparently didn't show. If he'd looked as bad on the outside as he felt on the inside, people would be forming a circle around his prostrate body and reaching for their mobiles to call for immediate medical assistance.

He shook his head at his own bizarre thoughts and then began to walk in the direction of the formalwear shop where he'd arranged for his tux. He would have much preferred to do nothing just then — maybe to go flying somewhere quiet where he could be alone with his thoughts — but he needed to collect his tuxedo and then head to Kansas, since he'd promised his mother he'd come see her ideas for his disguise. After that was the ball, where he'd have to spend an evening watching Lois Lane in the arms of another man.

*Mitchell*. Mitchell the lawyer who looked like a Ken doll. The mental image made Clark feel vaguely sick.

Once his errand was completed, Clark dashed back to his hotel to drop off his tux and change out of his work clothes. That done, he found a quiet alley and shot into the air.


"Mom? Dad?" he called, entering the farm house.

"Up here, honey." His mother's voice drifted down from the direction of her bedroom. Clark took the stairs two at a time and soon was standing open-mouthed at her door. The room looked like a fabric store had exploded, with scraps and swatches of some of the most garish fabrics he'd ever seen covering the bed, the floor, and even one lamp.

"Mom, I thought you were just going to come up with some ideas!" Clark's voice sounded panicked even to his own ears. Was that *faux leopard skin*? Had she completely lost her mind?

His mother pulled some pins out of her mouth. "Well, I went by the Fabric Hut this morning just to get some ideas, and they were having this huge sale on spandex — they were practically giving all of this away."

"Imagine that," Clark said sarcastically.

His mother gave him a look. "Anyway, I thought I'd just pick up an assortment for you to choose from, and then when I got home, I couldn't resist whipping up a few possibilities. These bodysuits are so simple to make." She held up an example, something in orange and green that seared his retinas. "I just kept going."

"I can see that." He ventured further into the room, growing more and more alarmed as he examined the sample suits. "Mom, these are all really…" <<Awful,>> he wanted to say. <<Unspeakably, unimaginably awful.>> But he wouldn't hurt her feelings that way. She'd obviously spent the entire day on this project. "Creative," he said finally. "But don't you think they're a little…out there?"

"You said you wanted something flashy," she reminded him. "*Distracting*, you said. Now I ask you, are these not flashy and distracting?"

"Oh, they're definitely that," he agreed nervously. She was really going to make him do this. She was going to make him at least try on these crazy outfits. "But now that I actually see them, I'm thinking maybe a little *less* flashy. Surely the fact that I'll be flying will be distracting enough?"

"If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right," his mother informed him, thrusting four suits into his hands. "And if you wearing leopard skin will distract people from the fact that you're actually Clark Kent, then I'm all for it."

He sighed and accepted the suits. She had a point, after all. He owed it to his parents to do absolutely everything he possibly could to protect Clark Kent's identity. And if wearing something outlandish was what it took, then he'd do it.

"Oh, here's one more," his mother said, pulling a bright blue suit off the table with the sewing machine.

"This one isn't too bad," he said, examining it. It was just…blue. Bright, yes, and sure to be a snug fit, but not as ridiculous as the rest.

"Well, you have to wear these over it," Martha said, handing him what looked like a red Speedo with a yellow belt.

"Over it?" His voice rose so high it cracked. "Mom, this is underwear! *Under*, get it? As in, you wear it *under* your clothes!" Assuming you were the type to wear red underwear in the first place, which he emphatically was not.

"Clark, who are we to say how people from Krypton dress? Maybe all Kryptonians wear their underwear on the outside. It's not like anyone's going to be able to argue with you about it."


"Just go change," she said, pointing to her bathroom, and giving him a look he recognized from childhood — a look that said she was through arguing with him and he'd better get on with doing what she'd told him to do.

He sighed and obeyed. Once inside the bathroom, he chose the leopard-skin first, wanting to get the worst out of the way. Sure enough, even his mother wrinkled her nose and shook her head at the sight of him looking like an embarrassed Tarzan of the Jungle. "Your father would never speak to me again. Try another one."

He did. And another. And another. His mother liked the green one, but he thought it made him look like an oversized leprechaun. The yellow one made him look like a canary.

His father stuck his head in while Clark was modeling one with bright yellow and red stripes, and for a few seconds Jonathan just stared, speechless, before finally saying, "You joining the circus, son?"

"I can't do this, Mom! Dad's right. I look like an idiot."

"I didn't say that," Jonathan protested.

"Jonathan, go away," Martha ordered firmly, pushing her husband out the door and shutting it in his face.

"What about my dinner?" he asked plaintively, through the door.

"Go make a sandwich," Martha called. She turned her attention back to her son. "Don't listen to your father. What does he know? Go try the blue one."

"The one with the underwear?" Clark was perilously close to whining.

"It's not underwear!" Martha sounded aggrieved. "It's a…splash of color. It's meant to draw the eye *away from your face*, which I thought was the point of this whole idea."

Clark gave in and put on the blue suit. And the underwear, which was still underwear to him, no matter what his mother said and how many little yellow belts she attached.

But when he was finished and he stepped out into his parents' bedroom to look at himself in the full-length mirror, he had to admit that the overall effect was…well, not *good*, but at least not as dreadful as the others had been. He might, given a decade or so, be able to work up the nerve to venture outside of the house wearing something like this…if it were very dark at the time. And absolutely no one else was around.

"It's…better," he said, frowning at his reflection.

His mother grinned at him. "Well, one thing's for sure. No one will be looking at your face!"


"It needs something," she said, examining his reflection thoughtfully. "I've got it!" She went to the trunk at the foot of her bed and rummaged around, pulling out a yellow shield with a stylized S in red. The same symbol had been on the ship he'd arrived in, he remembered. "We found this in the ship with you," she said. "Right on top of your little blanket. We've never known what it meant."

"I'll probably never know."

Clark reached out and took the shield, tracing the S with one finger. He wished he could feel something when he looked at it — wished it would whisper to him some clue as to who he was and why he'd been sent to Earth. But if the shield knew, it wasn't telling.

"Maybe you'll give it meaning on your own," his mother suggested. "I think we should put it right here." She laid her palm over his chest.

"I agree," Clark said. And then, "Hey! It's a splash of color, isn't it? Does that mean we can lose the underwear?"

"They're *not* underwear, and they're staying," his mother said firmly. "And I think maybe we should add a cape."

"A *cape*?"

"It'll look fantastic when you're flying. So dramatic."

Clark moaned. "I'm never going to be able to do this."

"Well, that's your decision, honey. You don't have to, you know."

"No," Clark said, shaking his head. "I think I at least have to try. I'm just having trouble picturing the moment when I actually appear in *public* like this."

"Wait'll you see it with the cape," his mother said. "It'll all come together."

Clark had to laugh at his mother's optimism. "Yeah, Mom. The *cape* will make all the difference."

His mother slapped the back of his head, knowing full well that it wouldn't hurt him. "See if I spend a whole day sewing for you again."

"Is that a threat or a promise?" Clark teased.

"Smart-aleck." Martha laughed. "Go change back into your regular clothes and come have a sandwich with us."

"It'll have to be a quick one. I'm going to a ball tonight."

"A ball!" his mother exclaimed as he disappeared into the bathroom. "What kind of a ball?"

"Tell you in a minute," he promised.

He emerged a few minutes later, loving his blue jeans and t-shirt more than ever before, and he handed the blue suit to his mother for her to put the finishing touches on it. He still wasn't sure he'd ever work up the nerve to actually use it, but then he thought of Lois, and her comment about him not lasting a month in Metropolis, and he knew that if it came down to a choice between humiliating himself again in front of Lois Lane and wearing his underwear on the outside in public, he'd actually choose the latter. It was an interesting perspective.

"So what's this about a ball?" his mother asked as they went down the stairs together.

"It's a fundraiser for Lex Luthor's shelter for homeless children. One of the guys I met at the Planet gave me a ticket."

"Lex Luthor!" His mother sounded extremely impressed. "My goodness. Do you think you'll actually meet him?"

"Don't know. Depends on how many people are there, I guess. I'm not counting on it, though."

"Meet who?" Jonathan asked. He was seated at the table in front of an enormous sandwich.

"Clark's going to a ball tonight," Martha said, "and it's being given by Lex Luthor!"

"Well, I'll be." Jonathan looked impressed as well. "Didn't take you long to make the A-list there in Metropolis, did it, son?"

Clark laughed. "I'm not even in the alphabet, Dad. Just happened to be talking to a guy at work with an extra ticket. I think Luthor sent them complimentary to members of the press."

"So do you have a date?" his mother asked, far too casually.

"Mom, don't even go there, all right? It's not happening."

"I just asked a simple question!" she protested. "I didn't mention anyone specific."

"I don't have a date. There's your simple answer."

"Will *she* be there?"

Clark glared at her. "I thought we weren't talking about anyone specific."

"That was a polite fiction. So, will she?"

"She will," Clark admitted grudgingly. "She has a date. His name is *Mitchell* and he's a lawyer who looks like a Ken doll, apparently."

"A Ken doll?" Jonathan asked, looking up from his sandwich. "What the heck's a Ken doll?"

"Someone blonde and perfect who probably doesn't float in his sleep," Clark said bitterly.

"Someone artificial and plastic and uninteresting," Martha countered. "And besides, he's a lawyer! Think of all the lawyer jokes out there. There's bound to be some truth to them or people wouldn't keep making them up."

"Should I tell you some of the alien jokes I've heard?"

"Clark!" his mother exclaimed, and he felt guilty when he saw both of his parents looking at him with concern. "Honey, this doesn't sound like you."

"I'm sorry, Mom. It's just…it's been a bad week. And someday I might be ready to be teased about Lois, but I'm not there yet, OK?"

"I really didn't mean to tease," his mom said, sounding so remorseful that he couldn't possibly stay angry with her. "It's just…I know you're not the type to fall in and out of love every other week, so it seems like this woman must have really meant something to you. I'm curious about her, I guess, and if you really care about her, I hate to see you give up because of a little rough patch."

"A little rough patch?" Clark echoed incredulously.

"I know it all seems terrible now, but trust me, honey — couples have come through worse."

"And if we were a couple, I might find that reassuring. But we're not. We're not anything right now. I spent the whole day in the newsroom with her, and she practically jumped out of her skin any time I got close to her. And I want to just ignore her, but Lois isn't the kind of woman you can ignore."

"What's she like?" his mother asked gently.

Clark wished he knew. "Lois is…she's complicated. At the Planet, she's domineering, uncompromising, pig-headed…brilliant. But the night I met her, she was different. Funny…sweet…flirtatious."

Martha smiled at Clark's description. "Pretty?"

He shook his head. "Pretty doesn't even come close, Mom."

"Sounds like the kind of woman who would keep you on your toes," his mother observed. "Make life interesting."

"Drive you crazy," his dad added, shooting his wife a disapproving glare.

"I'm just saying…"

"He knows what you're saying," Jonathan said. "Leave the boy alone."

"It's OK," Clark said, shaking his head. "It's just…don't go getting your hopes up, Mom."

"You should ask her to dance tonight," Martha counseled. "Take a chance."

Clark laughed. "You don't give up, do you?"

"Not when your happiness is at stake."

"I'll be fine, Mom." He leaned over and kissed her cheek. "But I think I'm going to take a rain check on the sandwich. I should probably be heading back to Metropolis."

"OK, honey. Come back tomorrow, and I should have your suit ready."

"It's not the circus one is it?" Jonathan asked.

"If you think that was bad, you should have seen the leopard skin," Clark told him. "Or the one that made me look like one of the Keebler Elves. But no — we went with the underwear-on-the-outside one."

"The underwear…" Jonathan stared at his son and then at his wife. "You know what? I don't want to know."

Martha threw up her hands. "It's *not* underwear!"

"Show it to Dad. Bet he'll be on my side."

"Have fun tonight," Jonathan said.

"Thanks, Dad."

"Ask her to dance!"

Clark laughed. "I'll think about it, Mom. 'Night."

"Good night, honey."

Clark heaved a sigh of relief when he stepped out the door, and then he remembered that the trip to Kansas was supposed to be the *easy* part of the night.

If that was easy, he wasn't sure he was going to survive hard.


Several hours later, Clark crossed the threshold of Lex Luthor's lavish penthouse apartment and stepped into another world. He was quite sure that he looked every inch the wide-eyed country boy as he gazed, awestruck, at his surroundings. Clark had traveled, had likely seen more of the world than anyone on Earth. He had certainly seen it from some of the most unique perspectives imaginable, but he had never had access to this type of event. The lives of the rich and famous had always been at a distant remove from his own, and that had never bothered him — not at all. He had never aspired to either wealth or fame, and he'd always suspected that the most interesting lives were the ones that no one ever saw, ever wrote about. Those were the people who fascinated him.

Still, it was impossible not to be a little impressed with the sheer spectacle spread out before him. Lex Luthor's ball had drawn the glitterati of not just Metropolis but the entire East coast. In just a few minutes of looking around, he spotted well-known actors, artists, writers, athletes, and politicians. It was odd, at a party where he likely was acquainted with fewer than five people, to see so many familiar faces.

The room itself was staggering in both its proportions and its fittings, given that it was inside of Luthor's private home. Enormous arrangements of white orchids towered over the guests, and here and there were tables heaped with enough food to feed an entire village in some parts of the world. Waiters circulated discreetly, passing out champagne, and Clark accepted a glass, not because he wanted it but because he thought he'd be more comfortable with something in his hand.

"Clark! Hey, CK!" Clark looked up with relief at the sound of Jimmy's voice. Having gotten over his initial awe, he was beginning to feel awkward moving through the room by himself.

"Hey, Jimmy," he said, as Jimmy made it through the throng and landed at his side.

"Glad you could make it. Hey, can you believe this place? And these people! I've never seen so many beautiful women in my life. I think I'm in love!"

Clark grinned. "With which one?"

"Haven't decided yet. Whichever one will have me, probably."

Clark chuckled obediently and then resumed glancing around. "You were right when you said everyone who was anyone would be here. I've never been to anything like this."

"Me either. I think even the Chief was a little impressed, even though he pretends like he's bored with this kind of thing."

"Is anyone else from the Planet here?"

"I saw Cat a few minutes ago. She pretended she didn't know me." Jimmy shrugged and then nodded toward a staircase. "Hey, look. There he is: Lex Luthor!"

As Clark looked in the direction Jimmy had indicated, a flash of lightning lit the figure on the staircase, the subsequent thunder announcing his arrival like a drum roll. Even nature, it seemed, stood in awe of Lex Luthor.

Their billionaire host smiled over his guests and then descended the staircase like a monarch deigning to venture down into the masses. He smiled and shook hands left and right as he waded into the crowd, patting shoulders and kissing cheeks, bestowing his benevolence on all he passed. It was a consummate performance, Clark thought, and he couldn't help but be impressed with the man's flair, even as he began to have suspicions about his sincerity. It was all a little too staged, a little too dramatic. Clark wouldn't have been surprised to learn that the thunderstorm outside had been faked, arranged by Luthor's minions to add sound and fury to his performance. He noted how the crowd parted before Luthor, how no one dared to approach him.

With one notable exception.

"Lex Luthor!" Lois's voice rang out, confident and clear, arresting Luthor's progress and drawing the attention of everyone nearby. She stepped out of the crowd, and at the sight of her standing there, looking as magnificent as a queen in her deep blue ball gown, Clark lost touch with gravity and floated six inches off the floor. It didn't matter; with the scene playing out before them, no one was paying any attention to Clark Kent.

And then she was speaking again, addressing one of the richest men in the world as if he were an errant child. "Why haven't you returned my calls?" she demanded.

A slow smile spread across Luthor's face as he took in the woman before him, apparently deciding that her audacity was sufficiently mitigated by her beauty. He approached her, and Lois offered her hand.

"Lois Lane, Daily Planet."

Luthor lifted her hand to his lips. "I can assure you, Ms. Lane, that I'll never make that mistake again." He leaned in and whispered something to her that Clark couldn't make out over the noise of the crowd.

"Wow!" Jimmy breathed. "She's something, isn't she?"

Clark suddenly realized that he was floating, and he forced his feet back to the floor. "Yeah," he said softly. "She's definitely something."

He watched as Luthor led Lois to the dance floor and pulled her into a waltz. They were dancing much too closely, he thought, and Lois was smiling up at Luthor as they talked.

It's business, he told himself. She's trying to get an interview.

But with that smile lighting up her face, she reminded him painfully of the night they'd met, of the night her smiles had been for him and her body had been his to hold. He'd been dreading the sight of her with her plastic Ken-doll lawyer, but this was much, much worse. It was worse because he didn't like Lex Luthor, and it was more than just jealousy over the fact that the man was dancing with Lois Lane. Clark had experienced an almost visceral distrust of the billionaire at first sight, and now he recognized the predatory gleam in Luthor's eye as he looked down at the woman in his arms.

Clark had not intended to take his mother's advice. He had not intended to approach Lois at all, in fact. But somehow, he found himself next to her on the dance floor, looking into the eyes of one of the richest men in the world and asking a question no other man in the room would have dared to ask.

"May I cut in?"


If Lex Luthor looked with some surprise upon the man who had dared to interrupt his dance, it was nothing compared to Lois's utter shock that Clark had approached her in such a way and among so many people.

Conquering Luthor had been child's play; she'd simply thought in advance of the approach that was most likely to garner his attention and respect, and then she'd played her part to the hilt. Men like Lex Luthor saw so much bowing and scraping that they must surely become tired of it, she was certain. The way to gain his respect was by behaving as if she were his equal in consequence. So she had done so, making her own entrance and speaking the lines she'd prepared for herself with a confidence she hadn't really felt. Had he snubbed her, it all could have gone very badly, of course, but once he'd asked her to dance, Lois knew she had him exactly where she wanted him.

And then Clark came along, and all of the confidence she'd manufactured for herself evaporated into thin air. What *was* it about this man? How was it possible that she could have the third richest man in the world eating out of her hand within five minutes, yet a hack reporter from Kansas made her feel fifteen-years-old again?

She stared up at Clark, and then glanced back at Lex Luthor, who was clearly waiting to see how she felt about Clark cutting in.

"Lex, this is Clark Kent," she managed. "He works at the Daily Planet."

Luthor took the introduction as a sign that she was willing to change partners. "A pleasure," he said, stepping away from her and giving Clark a brief nod.

"Likewise." Clark responded with a cool nod of his own, and before she quite knew what was happening, she was in his arms, in the exact place she'd been longing to be ever since the last time she'd been there. She barely heard Lex Luthor's parting words to her, so awash was she in the sweet feeling of homecoming.

And then common sense asserted itself and she tried to pull away, fluttering against the strong circle of his arms like a trapped bird. "What are you…? I was trying to…"

"Lois," he whispered fiercely. "*Lois*."

Just the one word — her name — but the way he said it…the desperation she heard in his voice…

The fight went out of her, and she subsided into his arms. He felt the change and pulled her closer, not so close as to be unseemly, but close enough that she could feel the heat of his body and the whisper of his breath against her hair.

"Thank you," he murmured. "I shouldn't have come over here…I know you were trying to get an interview with Luthor, and I shouldn't have interrupted. But I'm not sorry I did."


"I know what you're going to say, so I'll say it first. You were right — this isn't going to work. Us working together, pretending like nothing happened…it's just never going to work. I thought I could do it, but I realized today that I can't. So I'm going to go…leave the Planet…leave you in peace. But just once I'd like to dance with the real Lois Lane." His eyes searched hers. "Please?"

She stared up at him, saw all her own sadness and regret mirrored on his face, and nodded slowly.

"Thank you," he whispered.

She closed her eyes, left to the uncomfortable realization that she had fought very hard for something she didn't actually want at all. Now that it had been handed to her, she perversely wished it undone. But she couldn't find the words to tell him that — couldn't find the nerve, really. Because Clark Kent had the power to turn her life upside down. She'd known that from practically the moment they'd met. And admitting she was wrong, asking him to stay…it would mean changing everything. She might be brave when chasing a story, she might be able to stare down Lex Luthor without blinking, but when it came to risking her own heart, she was and always had been a coward. So she stayed silent in his arms, trying to store up the feeling for the lonely days and nights to come.

"It's just the same," he said wistfully, almost as if he were talking to himself.

She knew what he meant. It *was* just the same. The setting precluded them dancing as closely as they had that night at the Stardust, but the incredible feeling of fitting perfectly with another human being was still there. She could hardly look him in the eye, but her body remembered his, remembered the clasp of his hand and the strength of his broad shoulder.

"I'm not her, Clark."

"You're wrong about that, you know." He looked at her earnestly, as if willing her to believe him. "She's not you, but she's part of you. You're just a lot…more. You're complicated."

She actually smiled a little at that. "Complicated. That's a tactful way of putting it."

"I like complicated."

She didn't really believe him, but she appreciated the effort he was making. So she stared very hard at his shoulder. Took a deep breath. "I just…I wanted to have some fun," she said in a small voice. "That night. I wanted to be someone else. To not have to be…Lois Lane. I never meant for it to go as far as it did."

"Lois," he said softly, "you don't have to explain."

"I do…I know you must think I'm crazy, and I don't blame you. I just don't want you to leave without knowing…without me telling you…I don't do that. I don't go home with men I've just met. And when we…I didn't know how to face you afterwards. And then you showed up at the Planet, and I was afraid of what you'd think of me. I…panicked. I do that sometimes. I panicked and I told Perry that you were bad news and that I'd quit if he hired you. And I shouldn't have done that."

"No. You shouldn't have."

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

She *hated* saying those words. She avoided saying them as much as possible. But she owed them to Clark Kent like she'd never owed them to anyone else in her life. And not just because she'd tried to cost him his job — and ultimately succeeded, she supposed, since it was her fault he was leaving. She owed them to Clark Kent because she was a coward, and because as much as she hated saying 'I'm sorry', those words were still easier than the words that she was keeping back — words he had a right to hear.

"It's forgiven." His thumb began to stroke gently over the skin of her hand where he held it clasped in his, a delicate touch that made her arms break out in gooseflesh.

Forgiven. Was that really possible? Was it really that easy? Would she be as quick to forgive someone who had done to her what she had done to Clark Kent?

Not likely.

"It's not that simple." It couldn't be.

"It is," he said. "I'm leaving — I told you that — and I don't want to spend the rest of my life being angry with you. I don't even want to spend this dance being angry with you. It's probably the last one I'll ever get, you know, and I don't want to waste it."

And that was maybe the sweetest thing anyone had ever said to her.

"If you want to spend this dance being angry," she offered, "I'll give you another one for free."

She was rewarded by the beautiful smile that spread across his face. "Wait a minute! If I spend the rest of this dance being angry, I get another one? Well, I take it back then," he teased. "You're not forgiven, Lois Lane. In fact, I'm furious! I'm so mad that it might take *two* more dances to even things up."

Her heart fluttered in response to his smile and the delighted sparkle in his eyes. This was supposed to be harder, wasn't it? He wasn't supposed to be smiling at her and teasing her, and she wasn't supposed to be letting him.

But in spite of herself, she smiled back. "Are you even capable of getting two-whole-dances worth of angry?"

"Hey, don't let this geeky, mild-mannered exterior fool you," he told her.

She actually laughed. "You're not geeky," she told him. "But I don't think you're all that angry either — though God knows why."

"Do I still get the second dance?" he asked, the request sounding somewhat urgent as the last strains of the music faded away and the couples around them began to separate.

"Yes…" She swallowed hard, suddenly wondering if it was such a good idea. "But then we should…I should…this is really a work function for me, and I shouldn't be…"

"Enjoying yourself?" he supplied.

"Yes…no. I mean, it's fine to enjoy yourself, as long as you don't lose sight of your objectives."

"And what are your objectives?" The music started up again, and he pulled her back into his arms.

"My objectives…" It was hard to think like this…hard to make sense when her body was so close to his and the music was swirling around them, seemingly cocooning them in their own little world. "My objectives are to get that interview with Lex Luthor, of course, and maybe with Councilman Wall, if I can corner him about that proposed commercial sewer line on the South Side."

Clark laughed, and she immediately bristled, thinking he was making fun of her. "It's called being a reporter, Clark. You should try it sometime," she snapped.

"I'm sorry," he said, not sounding particularly contrite. "It's just kind of a blow to my ego to find out that the beautiful woman in my arms is thinking about sewer lines."

"It's my *job* to think about sewer lines." She wasn't going to think about the 'beautiful woman in my arms' part. It would just confuse her.

"Even at a ball?"

"Even at a ball."

He seemed to mull that over for a bit, all the while looking down at her in a way that was wholly disconcerting. She refused to look back at him, instead staring intently over his shoulder. Try as she might to find someone else to focus on, however, the others in the ballroom seemed like nothing more than a shifting mass of colors. The only real, solid person in the world was Clark Kent.

"I think I'm starting to understand Wanda Detroit a little better," he said finally. "She didn't have to think about sewer lines, did she?"

"No," she admitted softly.

"Or reclusive billionaires."


"So what *did* she think about?" he prodded gently. "Smart girl like that, she must have been thinking something."

<<She only thought about you,>> Lois thought. But she could never say those words out loud. She shook her head. "I don't want to talk about her."

"What do you want to talk about?"

"I don't want to talk at all," she said, finally looking at him, hoping she could make him understand. "I just want to dance."

"Lois, why did you give me this second dance?" His eyes held hers, his gaze gentle but insistent.

"I just…you said something about being angry…"

"I said I *wasn't* angry, wasn't going to waste my time on it. You knew I wasn't angry. So why are you dancing with me?"

"Would you rather I hadn't?" she returned, feeling that he was trying to corner her somehow and not liking it one bit.

His mouth quirked slightly. "You're evading my question. I'm a journalist, too, you know. I notice when someone does that. Why are you dancing with me?"

"What does it *matter*?" she cried, truly irritated now. He was ruining everything with his stupid persistence.

"It matters to me. I want to know why you let me cut in. I want to know why you're still dancing with me."

"I'm not!" she snapped, pulling away from him and snatching her hand from his. The separation was almost physically painful, but he'd left her no choice. "There. Are you satisfied?"

She fled the dance floor, feeling the tears gather in her eyes but determined not to let him see them. Why had he ruined their dance? Why hadn't he let her just enjoy being with him for a few more minutes?

She made straight for the first door she saw, yanking it open and slipping inside without ever once looking back. She closed the door behind her and sighed with relief as the sounds of the party faded into the background. Only then did she notice that she was in what appeared to be Lex Luthor's private study.


"Whoa there," Perry said, stepping in front of Clark and intercepting him. "What's going on here, Kent?"

"I'm sorry, I just really need to…" Clark had momentarily lost Lois in the crowd, but he managed to spot her just as she disappeared into a door at the rear of the room. "Excuse me, sir," he said, as he made to follow her.

Perry, however, had other ideas. "Not so fast. You know, I can't quite decide what to make of you, son. You seem like a nice enough young fellow — a little green maybe, a little wet behind the ears, but not a bad sort. But it takes a lot to put Lois Lane in tears, and you've managed to do it twice in as many days."

"I know, sir, and I'm sure that looks bad, but I'm truly not…it's just that…well, it's…a long story." Clark shifted nervously, still glancing in the direction Lois had gone. What if she'd left the penthouse?

"A long story."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm not hearing anything that's reassuring me, Kent."

Clark sighed. "I haven't either, sir."

"Yeah, I got that impression." Perry sized up the man in front of him, giving him a penetrating look. "You know, in a lot of ways, Lois is like a daughter to me."

In spite of his eagerness to be gone, Clark couldn't help cracking a smile. "Are you asking me if my intentions are honorable?"

"Well…yeah. I guess I am."

"Do you believe in love at first sight, Perry?"

Perry raised his eyebrows. "No, can't say that I do."

"I never did either. I'm still not sure I do. But if there's even a chance that this is what I think it is, I have to try. Can you understand that?"

"Maybe. But it doesn't look to me like Lois feels the same way."

"Well, she doesn't want to — that's for sure. But you know her better than I do, sir. Is she normally in tears over men she doesn't care anything about?"

Perry snorted at that. "I guess not. Point taken." He nodded in the direction Lois had gone. "All right, Kent — go find her and say your piece. But I'm going to check in on the two of you in a few minutes, and if Lois isn't happy about you being there, you need to just back off. I'm forcing her to work with you, and I can't do that in clear conscience if I know you're making her uncomfortable."

"I wouldn't ask you to," Clark assured him. "And I won't ask her to. If Lois still wants me to leave the Planet, I'll go. I've already told her as much."

"Well, good luck to you, then," Perry said, clapping him on the shoulder.

"Thanks, Perry. I think I'm going to need it."


He found her on Lex Luthor's balcony, staring out over the lights of Metropolis. He knew she was aware of his presence, but he didn't speak. He just stood there, waiting for her to acknowledge him.

"You know why," she said finally in a low voice. "You know why I danced with you."

"Yes," he agreed. "Why can't you say it though? Why can't you admit it?"

"I can't do this, Clark. I can't have this conversation with you. I don't know if you're fishing for compliments…"

"I'm not…"

"…or flirting…"


"…or just trying to figure out if I'm as crazy as I seem…"

"I don't think you're…"

"…but I can't do this. It's too hard and I'm not good at it and you're…you're…"

"I'm what?" he asked.

"You're *dangerous*," she said. "You're gorgeous and sweet and funny and smart and…when you're near me, I just…I…"

Without warning, she launched herself at him, one hand going behind his neck as she stood on tiptoe to crush her lips to his. For a moment, he was frozen in shock, but then instinct kicked in and his arms went around her, pulling her close, pressing her body to his.

He'd known in the ballroom that their physical attraction to one another was as powerful as ever, but nothing could have prepared him for the feelings ignited by this kiss. He wanted to claim her, to worship her and — yes — to punish her a little, and all at the same time. He wanted to pour every single one of his conflicting emotions about this confusing, complicated woman into each searing touch of their lips.

How could she deny this? How could she ignore the fact that the very air around them seemed to change the minute they got close to one another? How could anyone experience this avalanche of feeling and not need to move heaven and earth to find out where it all could lead?

She broke away from him, gasping for breath, and only then did he realize that tears were coursing down her cheeks, as if the passion of their kiss had burst some sort of inner dam. "Oh, God," she whispered, backing away from him. "I hate this."

"You hate what?" he demanded urgently, following her, unwilling to let her back away again when they had come so close. "What do you hate?"

"I hate feeling like this…so…out of control. I'm supposed to be working, and instead I'm out here…and we're…and I'm *crying*, and I *never* cry. How can I work if I'm crying, Clark?"

"Shh." He reached for her, gathering her into his arms. To his surprise, she let him comfort her, let him wipe gently at the tears streaking her face. Between the kiss and the crying, her makeup was a mess, and though he didn't care — he thought she was beautiful no matter what — he was struck by the contrast between his first sight of her that night and the woman he now held in his arms. The confident woman who had challenged Lex Luthor had disappeared completely, leaving behind this fragile, desperate creature. It had been an act, he realized suddenly. In a way, Lois Lane was as much of an act as Wanda Detroit.

He had a feeling, however, that he was beginning to break through and catch glimpses of the real woman. That her tears, as much as they pained him, were a good sign. He had promised to leave her in peace, and then he had pushed and prodded at her defenses until they had finally given way. He hated to see her cry, but he couldn't regret the fact that she was allowing him to see her tears, allowing him to be the one to wipe them away.

"Lois…sweetheart…please don't cry."

He continued to hold her, murmuring foolish endearments until she took a shuddering breath and stepped away, looking up into his eyes. "I don't know what to do," she told him, sounding so utterly lost that he thought his heart might break.

"I don't either," he admitted softly. "But I know I don't want to walk away from this, whatever it is. I will, if it's what you want, but I'll always be sorry."

"I don't know," she said again. "I think it could be a disaster."

"I think it could be wonderful," he countered.

"I'm difficult."

His mouth curved a little. "I've noticed. For some reason, I like you anyway."

She shook her head. "You're crazy."


She turned away from him, resting her hands lightly on the wall of the balcony and once again looking out into the night. The storm had passed, but clouds still hung heavy overhead, blocking out the moon and the stars. She kept her face in the shadows as she began to speak.

"Do you remember my three rules?"


"Well, I've broken every one of them. I always get involved with my stories, and I, uh…"

"Slept with someone you worked with?"

She nodded, still looking down at the blanket of city lights spread out below them.

"It wasn't Jimmy was it?"

She shook her head and gave him a quick, reproachful look. "No. Definitely not. It was a long time ago. His name was Claude. He was French and had this accent…well, I guess I was in love, or thought I was. I had just started at the Planet and was working on my first big story. One night, I told him about it, and when I woke up the next morning he was gone…and so was my story. He won an award for it."

"Ah," he said, pondering what he'd just learned. For a moment, they both were silent. "You know, I could tell you that I think what this Claude did to you was despicable and that nothing like that would ever happen with me, but that's what you'd expect me to say, and there's no way I can make you believe it. You just have to decide if you're willing to take the risk."

"I haven't been…since then. I haven't ever been willing to take the risk again."

"And now?" he asked softly.

She turned to face him, giving him a long, serious look. "I don't know. I *want* to think you're different from other men."

He smiled. "If there's one thing I can absolutely promise you, Lois Lane, it's that I *am* different from other men."

She eyed him with a glimmer of curiosity that chased some of the desolation from her face. "You told me that before, too. What do you mean, exactly?"

He shook his head. "Not telling. You'll have to get to know me to find out."


"Lois, you know Perry made my job provisional — he just gave me two weeks. Let me stay the two weeks…please? And not the way we talked about before — where we ignore each other and try to pretend we've never met. Let me talk to you at work a little. Let me get to know you better, be your friend. And at the end of the two weeks, if you still think it's impossible, or just not worth the risk, then I'll go. It might kill me, but I'll go."

"I don't think we could ever just be friends, Clark. This…" she gestured between them, "…this isn't friends."

"No," he said, glad, at least, that they were agreed on that. "But we need to be friends, too, in addition to whatever else we might be. What we did before…that night…it was wonderful, but it was a mistake, too. I don't want just one night with you — or with any woman. That's not who I am, and I don't think it's who you are either. I think that's why practically everything since has been such a disaster."

"You say things like that, and I can't believe you're for real."

"I mean every word," he assured her solemnly. "So what do you say? Will you give me a chance?"

She nodded slowly. "I still think you're crazy."

He couldn't keep the smile from his face. "I still think you're difficult," he told her.

She smiled back at him, a shy smile that tugged at his heart. "You don't know the half of it."

He took a cautious step closer. A strand of hair had fallen into her face, and he brushed it away, tucking it carefully behind her ear before cupping her cheek in his hand and bending to brush his lips against hers. He drew back to gauge her reaction, and, when she didn't seem to object, he kissed her again, this time allowing their lips to cling briefly before he pulled away. He was careful to keep his touch light and undemanding, terrified of losing even an inch of the ground he'd managed to gain.


They both jumped at the sound of a throat being cleared right behind them. Clark dropped his hand with a jerk and stepped away from Lois as if he were an eighth grader caught kissing his girl in the stairwell.

"Just making sure you two were all right," Perry said, frankly assessing the scene before him. "Luthor's about to make some sort of an announcement, and Lois, I think Stephens is looking for you."

"Oh my gosh," Lois exclaimed, wide-eyed. "Mitchell! I completely forgot about him."

"Ah…well, maybe you shouldn't mention that when you see him," Perry said.

"We'd better go," she said to Clark. "Like I said, I'm supposed to be working."

"I understand."

"It's none of my business," Perry said, "but Lois, you might think about freshening up a bit before you go back out there. And Kent…" He reached into the inside pocket of his tuxedo jacket and pulled out a white handkerchief, which he handed to Clark. "You don't really seem like the type of guy to go around wearing lipstick."

"Uh, no, sir," Clark said, wiping quickly at his mouth. "Thanks."

"I'll, um, see you later." Lois edged past both men and out the door.

Perry waited until they heard an inner door close behind her before turning to Clark with raised eyebrows. "You still working for me?"

"For now," Clark answered.

"Glad to hear it." Perry clapped him on the shoulder. "Now if you're done sparking, why don't you get your butt back out there and listen to whatever it is Luthor has to say? We're in the news business, Kent!"

Clark laughed. "Yes, sir."


Lois charged through Luthor's sumptuous study and began opening doors as she came to them, searching frantically for a powder room. The fact that she was invading her host's privacy concerned her not a whit; had she not been distracted by Clark, she'd have probably sneaked in there anyway, and for far less legitimate reasons. She found a conference room, a supply closet, and then, finally, a short hallway off of which there was an enormous bathroom, complete with a massive sunken tub. It was hardly the kind of bathroom she'd expect to find adjoining someone's office, and the oddness of it penetrated her consciousness, even though her mind was still full of Clark and everything that had transpired between them.

<<What kind of meetings does this guy have, anyway?>> she thought, glancing around distractedly.

Lex Luthor was quickly forgotten, however, as she caught sight of herself in the mirror and sucked in a sharp breath. Her carefully applied makeup had melted down her face with her tears, and she quickly grabbed some tissues and began trying to repair the damage as best she could. She was short on supplies but was at least able to remove the streaks from her cheeks and reapply her lipstick. She smoothed her hair with her hands, turning this way and that before the mirror to make sure there were no snagged spots in the back. When she was finished, she still didn't look quite as put together as she had when she arrived, but she thought it was unlikely anyone would notice in the dim light of the ballroom.

She made her way back through the darkened office toward the muffled sounds of the party and stood for a moment at the door, poised to make her second entrance of the evening. She took a deep breath and tried to steady her nerves, reminding herself that she was Lois Lane, that she was working, and that this was no place for her to be acting like a schoolgirl in the throes of her first crush. In spite of her little lecture, however, the thought that she was about to walk back into that ballroom and see Clark again made her go weak in the knees.

He had seen her behave as badly as she'd ever behaved in her life, and he still wanted to know her — to be her friend, he'd said. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been extended such grace. She felt humbled and excited and a little bit suspicious, all at the same time. The suspicion was inevitable, a part of who she was, but for the first time in years she thought she might be able to conquer it. For the first time since Claude, she was willing to give a man a chance. Maybe Clark Kent was the one man who wouldn't let her down.

She didn't know exactly why she thought this might be so. She couldn't tell if some instinct was telling her that she could trust Clark, or whether it was just that her hormones had run amok, making her reckless and willing to take a chance. Only time would tell, she supposed. He would either let her down or he wouldn't. She would either run from him or she wouldn't. She had trouble imagining anything lasting forever, that being a scenario she'd stopped believing in many years before, but even a few months of happiness with Clark might be nice. It would be more than she'd had with any man since college.

She screwed up her courage and twisted the doorknob, peeking out into the ballroom. After the quiet of Luthor's study, the noise of the party was like an assault, and she took a moment to acclimate herself to it before crossing the threshold, her head held high. She glanced around the room, telling herself that she was looking for Perry, for Jimmy, for Mitchell — for anyone she knew — when the truth was that she needed to see Clark Kent, needed to catch his eye to make sure that she hadn't dreamed what had happened between them on the balcony. She made her way into the crowd, smiling and nodding each time she saw an acquaintance, but always, her eyes were darting around in search of Clark. She could do that now, could look for him and even smile a little if she happened to catch his eye, and it was all right — even expected. They had an understanding, of sorts, even if she wasn't quite sure what it was they understood. But she was pretty sure that the understanding conveyed the freedom to glance at one another across a crowded room. That would be OK.

"There you are!" Mitchell suddenly appeared at her side, sounding mildly annoyed. "Where have you been?"

"Did you need me for something?" she asked, dodging his question.

He arched one blonde eyebrow, letting her know without words that he hadn't missed her evasion. "I was speaking with Councilman Wall. I thought you might want to know that he's had enough to drink that you might be able to get something out of him about that sewer debacle."

The sewers. She was supposed to care about the sewers, wasn't she? Only just then, she couldn't muster up a shred of interest. It was happening already: one kiss on the balcony (well, one big one and a couple of little ones, if you were counting, which she certainly wasn't, since that would be adolescent and undignified) and already she was going soft. Mad Dog Lane was being replaced by Fuzzy Kitten Lane or maybe Fluffy Bunny Lane, since everyone knew that bunnies spent all their time thinking about making more bunnies, and Clark Kent pretty much sent her mind racing down that same path. Except without the bunnies, of course.

She had a sudden mental image of herself pushing a baby carriage full of little bunny rabbits and couldn't suppress a giggle.

"Is there something funny about the Southside sewer problems?" Mitchell asked. "Because if there is, I confess it's escaped me."

"No," she said, shaking her head. "I was just thinking about…never mind. Um, I think I'm going to let Councilman Wall off the hook for tonight. But thank you."

Mitchell peered at her more closely, arranging his picture-perfect features into a look of concern that might even have been genuine. "Lois, are you all right? Have you been *crying*?"

Well, so much for hoping no one would notice.

"Uh, just got something in my eye. You know how that is. I'm fine." She patted his arm, her eyes scanning the crowd again.

"Luthor's supposed to be making some sort of big announcement. You know anything about that?"

"Nope," Lois said absently. She'd just spotted Clark, who had managed to pick up a barnacle in gold lame. Cat Grant had one arm around his neck and was plastered to his side, her other hand caressing his cheek. For a moment, Lois was tempted to be jealous, even angry, but the look of utter desperation on Clark's face put paid to that. Even Lois, who had raised jumping to conclusions to an art form, could see that Clark was miserable and in need of rescuing.

"Excuse me," she said to Mitchell, never taking her eyes from Clark.

"Isn't that the guy you were dancing with earlier?" Mitchell asked, following the line of her gaze.

"Clark Kent," she confirmed. "He's new at the Planet."

"Oh, Lois." Mitchell laughed. "Say it isn't so."

"What?" she asked, dragging her eyes away from Clark and Cat with an effort. "Say what isn't so?"

"I wondered when I saw you dancing with him. The way you looked…it wasn't you, Lois. This isn't you."

"*What* isn't me?"

"Getting all soft and sentimental over a man isn't you. I never thought I'd see the day."

"Who says I'm soft and sentimental?" she demanded, glaring at him. "And even if I were, what would be so wrong with that?"

"It's just not you, Lois. That guy has house-in-the-suburbs written all over him. He'll have you knocked up and knitting little things before you can say Stepford."

"That's ridiculous," she snapped, but she felt the doubt worming its way into her heart. "You don't even know him. He's a journalist, too. He understands what's important to me."

"Right," Mitchell said. "So introduce me. Let me meet this paragon of understanding."

"Why are you acting like this?"

"I just hate to see you throw your career away on a fling with a co-worker. Think about it: If it works out, you'll wind up on the mommy-track, trying to juggle the hunky hubby and a litter of brown-haired moppets with a job that doesn't leave room for either of those things. If it doesn't work out, you'll wind up having to work with your ex. I've been there and done that, and I don't recommend it."

"I've been there, too," Lois murmured. <<But Clark's different,>> her heart insisted. <<He said he wasn't like other men.>> Oh, how she wanted to believe that. But Mitchell wasn't saying anything she hadn't thought herself a hundred times.

"See? Nightmare. Take my advice, Lois, and don't go there."

"Is it really enough for you?" Lois asked. "Living and breathing your work, calling me up when you need someone on your arm? Is that all you want?"

"Of course not. I'm not made of stone, you know. When I get an itch, there are discreet ways to see to it that it gets scratched."

"Oh very nice, Mitchell," she snapped.

"Hey, if you want poetry and flowers, go talk to Mr. Tall, Dark, and Nearsighted over there. I'm just telling it like it is."

"No, you're telling it like it is for *you*, and you're assuming that I feel the same way. Maybe I want more than that." She snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and took a fortifying sip.

"And you think that guy is *more*?"

Her eyes narrowed slightly as a thought occurred to her. She knew she would probably do better to leave it unexpressed, but she couldn't quite hold it in. "You know, Mitchell, if I didn't know any better, I might think you were jealous."

"Jealous?" He raised the one eyebrow again, his expression so supercilious that Lois wanted to slap it off his face. "No, Lois. You may count me among the few men in Metropolis who will never be falling at your feet. But I do consider you a friend, and I've always admired you — admired your professionalism and dedication to your work. I hate to see you throw that away."

"You just hate to lose a convenient date."

"That, too," he admitted. He took a sip of his champagne and gave her a thoughtful look before sighing and shaking his head. "I can tell I'm wasting my breath — you're too far gone already. Anyway, it's your life. You can screw it up if you want to."

"Thanks so much," she said sarcastically.

"But when it all falls to pieces, I'm going to be first in line to say 'I told you so.'"

"And when Clark and I live happily-ever-after, I'll expect you to be first in line to admit you were wrong."

Had she just said that? She didn't *believe* in happily-ever-after; she never had. Was she really starting to believe that things might work out? She wasn't sure, but just saying 'Clark' and 'happily-ever-after' in the same breath was doing strange things to her insides.

"Happily-ever-after!" Mitchell threw back his head and laughed. "That's a good one! So how many years are there in a happily-ever-after? Should we make it a bet?"

"A bet?"

"Tell you what — I'll make it easy on you. If you and this *Clark* are together a year from now, I'll buy you both dinner, anywhere you want to go."

She gave him a wary look. "And if we're not?"

Mitchell shook his head. "If you're not, you won't owe me a thing. I expect in that case, you'll have paid enough already."

"Deal," she said, and they touched their champagne glasses lightly to seal the agreement.

"So are you going to introduce me?" he asked, nodding toward Clark, who had managed to put a few inches distance between himself and Cat but was still looking distinctly uncomfortable.

"Will you behave?"

"Of course," he promised. "I'll tell him that in my opinion, you would be a wonderful acquisition for any man. You exercise regularly, practice good dental hygiene, and come from healthy breeding stock. I won't mention your cooking. Hopefully it won't come up."

She laughed in spite of herself. "I hate you. You know that, don't you?"

"No you don't. It's my job to make guys like Loverboy over there look good," he said with a grin.

"In that case," she told him, "you deserve a raise."


Clark had spent ten uncomfortable minutes fending off Cat Grant, and his patience was wearing thin. It didn't help that he could see Lois and a man who had to be her Ken doll smiling and laughing a few yards away. He tried to use his enhanced hearing to eavesdrop on their conversation, but that presented difficulties. In the first place, the room was too noisy and it was difficult to filter out the sound of the crowd, and in the second place, he suspected that if he gave Cat anything less than his full attention, she might well move from fondling him to all-out sexual assault. He had declined a dance, a date, and a visit to her apartment in that order, and she didn't show any sign of giving up and moving on to her next conquest. It was not in his nature to be rude to a woman, but he was beginning to think he'd have to make an exception for Cat Grant.

He had just removed her hand from his chest for the third time when he became aware that Lois and the Ken doll were coming his way. He wasn't sure if he was more relieved that they might help free him from Cat or disturbed by the fact that he would be expected to make polite conversation with Lois's date. Relief won out when Cat caught sight of Lois and took a step back, her eyes narrowing with displeasure at the intrusion.

"Using Clark as a scratching post, Cat?" Lois enquired sweetly.

"We were just getting to know one another better," Cat drawled. "Right Clark?"

"Uh, right," he said. "Getting to know one another. As *co-workers*. Because we, uh, work at the same place…and it's good to, um, know the people you work with…at work." He was too busy trying to edge away from Cat to pay any attention to what he was saying.

Mitchell made a soft choking sound and then coughed into his hand, at which point Lois elbowed him sharply in the ribs. Clark, noticing, mentally replayed the words that had just come out of his mouth and fiddled nervously with his glasses, feeling like an idiot.

"Mitchell, this is Clark Kent," Lois said, once Mitchell had gained control of himself and Clark had stopped twitching. "Clark, this is Mitchell Stephens." As the two men shook hands she added, with obvious reluctance, "And you've met Cat, haven't you, Mitchell?"

"I have," he said. "Miss Grant, it's nice to see you again."

"The pleasure's all mine." Cat offered her hand and gave Mitchell a sultry look, which he returned with a dimpled and flirtatious glance of his own before turning his attention back to Clark.

"Lois tells me you're new at the Planet. How are you liking it so far?"

"It's been…hectic, these first few days, but things are improving," Clark answered, glancing at Lois. "I think I'm going to like it there a lot."

"Are you new to Metropolis?" Mitchell asked.

Clark nodded. "I'm originally from Kansas, but I've spent the last few years traveling and doing free-lance work. I'm hoping to settle down here."

Mitchell spent some few minutes drawing Clark out on the subject of his travels, occasionally sharing an anecdote of his own, and Clark found, to his surprise, that he was unable to hate Mitchell. He wasn't even able to feel jealous of him. Yes, the man did look remarkably like a Ken doll — blonde and tanned with a smile that was a triumph of orthodontia. He looked like he'd come out of the womb wearing a tuxedo and had worn one every day of his life since, and every word, every gesture, bespoke ease and confidence.

Physically, Mitchell Stephens was everything Clark had dreaded he would be, but it appeared that whatever Lois Lane was looking for in a man, Mitchell wasn't it. Mitchell might have been the one to arrive with Lois, but he hadn't been the one she'd been kissing on the balcony, and he wasn't the one to whom her eyes kept wandering. Clark could feel it every time Lois glanced at him, and he wondered at the fact that the touch of her eyes was more seductive than the touch of Cat Grant's hands, that standing two feet away from Lois was more electrifying than having Cat draped all over him. The chemistry between them was simply unlike anything he'd ever experienced; it made it difficult to attend to Mitchell's small talk.

When Mitchell began to advise Clark on Metropolis real estate, launching into a lengthy disquisition on the appeal of various parts of town, Cat Grant finally conceded defeat. It was bad enough that she'd made so little headway with Clark, but being utterly ignored by two men was apparently more than she could stand. Clark might not even have noticed when she left their little group and went back on the prowl had it not been for the small smile of satisfaction that touched Lois's lips at the sight of Cat tossing her hair and walking away. He caught Lois's eye and smiled, too, and a sweet tension spun out between them. Whatever Mitchell was saying about the newly renovated lofts near Centennial Park was lost as they shared a moment of silent understanding. Mitchell seemed to realize that his presence had suddenly become intrusive, and he smirked a little in Lois's direction.

"I see Judge Diggs over there, Lois. I should go speak to her."

"Uh, fine," Lois said, tearing her eyes from Clark's. "I'll…catch up with you later." She made a vague motion with her hands.

"Right." He turned to Clark. "Clark, it was good to meet you. Don't ever let her cook for you, and you should survive Metropolis just fine."

Lois's eyes went wide, but Mitchell just laughed and gave Clark a friendly clap on the shoulder before heading off in search of Judge Diggs.

They had wanted nothing more than to be alone — or as alone as they could be standing in the middle of hundreds of people — but now that they were, Clark felt shy and unsure of himself, and a glance at Lois made him suspect she was feeling the same way. "So what was that about your cooking?" Clark asked.

"Uh, nothing. He was just…I'm sorry about that…if it was awkward."

Clark shook his head. "He seems like a nice guy, actually." He lowered his voice. "And he got Cat off of me, which makes me like him even more."

She raised her eyebrows. "Why couldn't *you* get Cat off of you?"

"I tried," he insisted. "I tried everything short of having her surgically removed. She's very…determined."

"Most guys would love it," she said.

"Ah, but as we've already discussed, I'm not like…"

"…most guys," she finished for him. "Yes, I may be starting to believe that."

"Good, because I intend to keep proving it to you." He looked down at her, willing her to believe him, and was once again caught by the expression in her wide brown eyes. He saw hope there, and fear, and the same thrill of excitement that had been thrumming through him ever since she'd thrown herself into his arms. Would he ever get used to how completely bewitching he found her? Would the day ever come when their eyes met and he didn't feel as though he were drowning in her gaze?

When the moment threatened to become too intense, and he was sure he couldn't go another minute without kissing her, he dragged his eyes from hers and contented himself with admiring the rest of her. She had repaired the damage to her face and touched up her coiffure, and once again, that distracting strand of dark hair trailed down one ivory cheek, occasionally brushing against the corner of her mouth. He knew she had arranged it that way deliberately; it was one of those mystifying things women did, and if its purpose was draw men's attention, it was succeeding admirably. His hand itched to rearrange it, to tuck it back behind her ear just for the pleasure of letting his fingers brush against her smooth skin. He didn't dare, however. Not in the middle of a ballroom, with half of Metropolis watching. This fresh start was too new, too fragile, and he had the feeling that a single misstep might send her running from him. So he simply looked at her, all the while marveling over the fact that she was standing there next to him of her own free will.

"You're staring," she blurted suddenly, startling him out of his reverie. "I look awful, don't I — all I had was my lipstick — and it's kind of your fault for making me cry in the first place, though I guess that's really my fault for being such a basket case. And now I look awful, and there's nothing I can do about it, so you might as well stop staring at me."

She sounded annoyed, almost angry, and he hastened to reassure her, feeling simultaneously embarrassed and alarmed. "Lois…I'm not staring because you look awful. You *don't*… you don't look awful. You look beautiful. I don't know why every man in the room isn't staring at you."

"Oh." She blinked at him, appearing completely nonplussed by his answer. "I'm sorry. I did it again, didn't I? Why do I always say the wrong thing to you?"

"Because you don't know me yet, and I don't know you," he said. "But we will. Just give us time, Lois. That's all I ask."

She nodded and appeared on the verge of some response when they were interrupted by Jimmy, who bounded into their midst like a Labrador Retriever puppy.

"Hey, guys! Where did you two get off to? One minute you were dancing, and the next — poof! — it was like you disappeared. I just was over by the bar, and I heard someone saying that Luthor is about to make his big announcement. What do you think it's about?" Jimmy finally ran out of breath, and Clark exchanged an amused look with Lois.

"I have no idea, Jimmy," Lois answered. "But I see Luthor coming this way, so I guess we're all about to find out."

At the sound of a drum roll, Lois gravitated toward what was apparently the staging area for the big announcement, and Clark and Jimmy trailed along in her wake. Clark, watching Luthor's approach, felt the same instinctive distrust he'd felt earlier in the evening. He was in the news business, though, as Perry White had rightly pointed out, and Lex Luthor was news, however little Clark might like it.

A hush fell over the room as Luthor took his place before them. "Honored guests," he began, "we're here tonight for a good cause. Thanks to your generosity, Luthor House for Homeless Children will soon be a reality. As you know, I have dedicated my life to improving the quality of the lives of the citizens of Metropolis. Tonight, I'd like to go further. It is my sad understanding that due, in part, to the terrible tragedy befell the Messenger last week, the Congress of Nations intends to cancel Space Station Prometheus."

Clark felt Lois tense next to him and heard her slight hiss of indrawn breath. He looked down and saw that she'd undergone a subtle transformation the minute Luthor had mentioned the Messenger explosion. It was difficult to believe that an hour before she'd been weeping in his arms; now, she was every inch the investigative reporter. The Messenger was her story, and anything that related to it, however tangentially, would receive her undivided attention.

Far from being offended by her distraction, Clark admired her focus and professionalism. This was why she was the best, he realized — because even at a formal ball, while poised on the cusp of a new relationship, she was able to block out everything but her story. It might make her difficult at times, but it also made her brilliant. Watching her, he wished he dared to suggest that they work together, but after what she'd confided to him about Claude, he knew it was out of the question. Perhaps later, once their relationship was on some sort of firm footing, she would trust him enough to let him work with her. He had a feeling they could make a good team, and he was certain he could learn a lot from her.

Clark dragged his attention away from Lois with an effort and listened as Luthor set forth plans for a privately owned space laboratory that would undertake the same scientific and humanitarian works originally planned for Space Station Prometheus. His speech culminated in the display of a dazzling rendering of the proposed 'Space Station Luthor'.

"Aw, cool!" Jimmy exclaimed, and judging by the collective gasp of the crowd, he wasn't the only one impressed. Lois, too, was beaming and clapping alongside everyone else, and as he saw her eyeing Lex Luthor with obvious admiration, Clark felt the same jolt of jealousy and distrust that had propelled him onto the dance floor earlier in the evening.

This time, however, those feelings were met with a dose of self-reproach. Luthor was prepared to commit a substantial amount of money — more than Clark could even wrap his mind around — to building a space laboratory dedicated to the fight against crippling diseases. His only sin that evening had been in having the good taste to dance with Lois. Clark didn't know why Luthor made him uneasy, but he was determined not to condemn the man without evidence, and certainly not on the basis of something as petty as jealousy. He couldn't bring himself to like Lex Luthor, but he would at least attempt to keep an open mind about him.

That resolution lasted only as long as it took Lois to mutter, "I'm going to get that interview if it's the last thing I do," before disappearing from his side. He watched as she threaded her way through the crowd until she reached the billionaire and, for the second time that evening, commanded his attention. Clark felt something inside him clench as Lois presented Lex Luthor with her megawatt smile, and Luthor, in response, bent and whispered something into her ear. Clark had to force himself to remain in place when every instinct was telling him to streak to Lois's side and forcibly rip Luthor away from her. He held himself in check, however, until Luthor was finally pulled away by someone else.

Lois shot him a look of triumph, and Clark arranged his face into what he hoped was a supportive smile.

"I got it!" she said, once she was again close enough to speak to him. "He wants to have dinner. He's going to call tomorrow to set it up."

"Congratulations," Clark said weakly. "Do you, uh, normally have dinner with people you're interviewing?"

She gave him an incredulous look. "Clark, this is Lex Luthor we're talking about! He hasn't granted a personal interview in five years. If he wants us to do this hanging upside down from the ceiling like bats, you can bet I'll do it."

"Anything for the story, huh?" He had meant the question to sound lighthearted, but it fell short of that, even to his own ears.

She seemed to catch the drift of his questions, then, and stiffened slightly. "Don't go there, Clark."

"I'm sorry," he said immediately. "I didn't mean to…I'm sorry. It's an incredible opportunity, Lois. I'm excited for you."

"Thank you," she said, softening a little. She glanced up at him. "Lex is business," she added.

It was generous of her, under the circumstances, and he admitted as much. "I know. And even if he weren't, I know we're not…I mean, we haven't made any promises or anything. I shouldn't have…"

"No, you shouldn't have," she agreed quietly. "Because Lex is *business*. He's a story — a big one — and I don't back away from stories, Clark."

He heard the implicit warning and nodded his understanding. "I wouldn't ask you to," he promised.

But privately, he wondered if it was a promise he'd be able to keep. He knew that Luthor was hoping for more from his dinner with Lois than just an interview, even if Lois didn't. Or maybe she did know it and just trusted that she'd be able to manage the situation. Either way, it made Clark uneasy, but he didn't dare say another word about it. He had the feeling that he'd just navigated a minefield, and that it wouldn't be the last one he faced if he chose to pursue a relationship with Lois Lane.

But there was no 'if' — not anymore. He had already handed her his heart, despite the fact that a more risky proposition could hardly be imagined. He barely knew her, he had no reason to trust her, and if he read her correctly, her feelings about him were ambivalent at best. But he couldn't walk away. At some point that evening, Clark had passed the point of no return.

"The evening will be ending soon," he said. "And as I recall, we didn't get to finish our second dance."

He was warmed by the smile that spread across her face. "I did promise you two whole dances, didn't I?"

He nodded and offered her his arm to escort her to the dance floor. "You did. And I know you wouldn't break a promise."

She laughed and tucked her hand through his arm. "Not about dancing, anyway."

This was about so much more than dancing, but he didn't press her — not then. For the moment — for as long as she'd let him — he would just enjoy having her in his arms again.


Lois felt a little bit like Cinderella as she readied herself for work the morning after the ball. She looked at herself in her conservative gray suit, which she had thought very flattering when she bought it, and she felt unusually drab after the glitz and glamour of the night before. But Clark had seen her in her work clothes before, she reminded herself, and his feelings for her had apparently survived the experience. If this thing between them was to work at all, they would both have to realize that it couldn't all be dress-up and dancing. Somehow, real life had to be worked into the equation.

The problem was, she'd never been very good at juggling real life and romance, which was how she'd gotten into such a mess with Clark to begin with. She had, like Mitchell, thought that it just wasn't worth the bother. She remembered with a prick of conscience her indignation when Mitchell had made his comment about scratching an itch. Hadn't she intended that Clark be no more than that? And if he'd never shown up at the Planet, if she'd never seen him again, that's all he would have been.

But he *had* shown up, and she was beginning to think he might be worth the bother of actually incorporating him into her life. It had been so long since she'd tried to do that, however, that she had no idea how to go about it. She was used to taking no one into consideration but herself. Even remembering to feed her fish was a challenge. How could she possibly be in a relationship, with all that that entailed? She was sure to make countless mistakes and to hurt Clark's feelings at every turn, and by the time she left her apartment, she'd convinced herself that the whole thing was going to be a complete disaster.

She was a nervous wreck by the time she arrived at the Planet, and she felt almost resentful of Clark as she stabbed at the elevator buttons and tried to check her makeup one last time in their shiny panel. A week ago, she'd been able to go to work in the morning like a normal, calm, sane person, and now every elevator ride up to the newsroom was fraught with nervous anticipation. He had done this to her. And she would have liked to pretend that she didn't know how or why, but the truth was that the memory of their night together had inscribed itself on her heart with remarkable precision and clarity. The minute she began to think that no man was worth this…this… *upheaval*, she would be reminded of what it had felt like to be loved by Clark Kent, and she would once again think that any amount of upheaval was worth it.

Her eyes swept the newsroom the minute she stepped off the elevator, and she immediately caught sight of Clark, standing near the coffee service in friendly conversation with Pete Frye, the Planet's sports editor. From the looks of things — Clark appeared to be scratching out a play on one palm — they were talking football, which was Pete's consuming passion. Lois huffed a little and then headed for her desk.

What had she expected? That he'd be waiting at the elevator with a bouquet of flowers in his hand? She reluctantly acknowledged that she *had* imagined something of the sort. Okay, maybe not with the flowers, since that was clearly over-the-top, but she'd thought that he'd be waiting for her, looking for her — would drop everything the minute she walked in the room. She hadn't thought that he'd be so busy talking sports that he wouldn't even notice her arrival.

She switched on her computer and dared another look. Still talking, and this time, Pete was miming throwing a pass. Since Pete was approaching sixty and was so out of shape that he got winded if he walked across the room, Lois fully expected him to throw his back out with the exertion, but he survived the experience and the conversation went on.


It was nothing to her if Clark wanted to stand around talking sports when he could be talking to her. She couldn't care less, frankly. And she'd show him that, too. Remembering the debacle with the coffee the previous morning, she decided that calmly helping herself to some coffee would be the perfect way to demonstrate to Clark that she was unaffected by his presence and by the things that had transpired between them the night before. He could stand around talking football all morning for all that it mattered to her. She'd get her coffee and then get started working on her story, and he would see that cool professionalism was the order of the day.

She grabbed at the spot where she normally kept her coffee cup and met with a bare patch of desk. Her eyes darted around the rest of her desk, even looking behind her computer monitor, but no coffee cup appeared.

Well, if that wasn't just *perfect*!

Much as she'd appreciated Clark's gesture with the coffee the day before, the truth was that she hated drinking out of Styrofoam cups. She wanted her coffee cup, which was just the right size and weight and fit nicely in her hand, but the damn thing seemed to have disappeared. Her first thought was that someone had stolen it, but she quickly admitted, if only to herself, that it was far more likely she'd just put it down somewhere and forgotten it. Even she realized that her lipstick-stained coffee mug wasn't exactly a hot commodity. It *was* possible that someone had hidden it as a joke, though, just to irritate her. That was the kind of wacky prank that Jimmy still found riotously amusing.

But she wasn't going to allow the missing coffee cup to deter her from her goal, which was to show Clark that she was capable of calmly, coolly helping herself to coffee. She made much better progress this day than she had the day before, managing to walk all the way across the newsroom and into Clark's immediate vicinity without mishap.

"Morning, Lois." Clark looked away from Pete and greeted her with a friendly smile.

"Someone stole my coffee cup!" she blurted.

Oh, God.

Why had she *said* that? Why hadn't she just said good morning, like a normal person, instead of acting like a missing five-dollar coffee mug was front-page news? She shouldn't be allowed out of the asylum, really she shouldn't, and it wasn't going to be any time at all before Clark figured that out and turned his attention to a normal woman. A sane woman. A woman whose brain actually communicated with her tongue.

Clark blinked at her, clearly taken aback, and then his face cleared and the smile reappeared. "Uh, that was me," he said, sounding apologetic. He reached over to the coffee cart and picked up her coffee mug, which was filled with steaming coffee. "One Equal, two creamers, right?"

She felt her cheeks blaze with embarrassment. "Right," she said faintly, accepting the coffee. He'd even washed the mug — the lipstick stains were gone from the rim. She wished she could just disappear into thin air.

"Well, mystery solved!" Pete laughed. "Bet you wish all your investigations were that easy. Guess I should get to work. Kent, good talking to you. I want to hear more about that bowl game some time."

"Anytime, Pete."

Lois waited until Pete had walked away and then managed a smile and said, "Thank you for the coffee."

There. That had sounded perfect. Why couldn't she have managed something like that in the first place?

"You're welcome. I'd meant to leave it on your desk, but I got distracted talking to Pete, and you came in before I had the chance. Sorry about that."

"No…it's…I'm not always…" She sighed, having no idea how to explain. "I'm an idiot, all right? Just ignore me."

"I thought we weren't doing that anymore," he said softly, with a look that left her feeling distinctly breathless.

"Doing what?" she managed.

"Ignoring one another."

"Oh, right. Well, maybe you could just ignore me when I say stupid things. Of course, that would be pretty much all the time, wouldn't it, so we'd be right back to ignoring each other. Or you'd be ignoring me, and I'd have to ignore you right back…because that's just the way I am."

"Competitive ignoring?" he asked, his mouth twitching.

"Well, it sounds silly when you put it like *that*," she said, with as much dignity as she could muster.

He apparently couldn't hold it in any longer: he burst out laughing. She tried to glare at him but gave it up when she realized that he was right. It *was* funny.

"I don't want to ignore you, Lois," he said, his eyes twinkling down at her.

"I don't really want to be ignored," she admitted. "But…I don't want to be obvious, either," she said in a rush. "You know, all…obnoxious, like some couples are, and people just can't stand to be around them because they're always so mushy and lovey-dovey and touching each other at inappropriate times and right out in public. I *hate* that."

"So…the sex on the conference table is out, then?" he deadpanned.

Even though she knew he was teasing, the mental image his words inspired was enough to send a jolt of arousal flashing through her. Her breath hitched slightly and she swallowed hard, hoping he couldn't hear the sudden racing of her heart. "I can't…I can't believe you just said that."

"I shouldn't have," he said, looking earnest now and a little worried. "I was kidding — I hope you know that. But listen, we're both finding our way with this. If I do something you don't like, just tell me, and I won't do it again."

"So…honesty." She said the word as if it were in some exotic foreign tongue and she wasn't quite sure of its meaning.

He nodded. "Might make for a refreshing change."

"Well, I'll try anything once." She realized the moment she said it that she'd left herself wide open for another suggestive comment, but if Clark noticed, he tactfully declined to pursue it. Instead, he just gave her a warm look of approval and changed the subject.

"I'm, uh, not exactly sure what I'm going to be working on today," he said. "Perry came in right before you did and said something to me about it being 'time to take the training wheels off', which I guess means he has some assignments for me, but I don't know yet what they are. Anyway…if we're both around, would you like to have lunch together?"

A date! He was asking her for a date. And it was the *perfect* date, too. She wouldn't have to obsess over what to wear, because she was already wearing it. She wouldn't have to wonder what was going to happen afterwards, because they both knew that nothing *could* happen except that they'd go back to work. It didn't even have to be romantic at all. Just two co-workers having lunch together, getting to know one another a little better. Assuming they could keep their hands off of one another — an assumption with, granted, little to no corroborative evidence so far — no one would think anything of it if they saw Lois Lane and Clark Kent having lunch together.

"Lois?" Clark's worried voice snapped her out of her reverie and made her realize that she'd been so busy delighting in his invitation that she'd neglected to accept it.

"Sorry." She gave him a sheepish smile. "Lunch would be great. I don't quite know what my day has in store yet either, but I should be able to get free."

"I'll catch up with you later, then, and we'll try to work something out."

"Sounds good."

The background noise had increased as they'd talked, with more and more of the day shift arriving for work, and though they'd moved a little bit away from the coffee service and its constant flow of morning traffic, they still didn't have much privacy. Suddenly, Lois felt self-conscious about the amount of time they'd spent standing there talking.

"Well, I guess we should both probably get to work," she said.

"I guess so," he agreed. "But wait…" He took a few steps over to his desk and retrieved a paper plate with a chocolate-covered doughnut, which he presented to her with a flourish.

"Pete brought in doughnuts this morning. I wasn't sure what kind you liked, so I just made a guess."

She accepted the doughnut with undisguised delight. "And I thought I was supposed to be the psychic!"

"You like chocolate?"

"Mmm." She dragged a finger through the icing and then popped it in her mouth, sucking the chocolate off slowly, with an exaggerated look of pleasure. "*Love* it," she purred.

Clark's expression told her that her tease had found its mark; for a few seconds his easy-going, boy-next-door persona seemed to fall away, and something raw and hungry took its place. "Have mercy, Lois," he muttered, just loud enough for her to hear.

She smirked at him, glad to see *him* discomposed for once. She leaned forward and murmured, "*That* was for the conference room table comment."

He got himself under control, and a slow smile spread across his face. "Touche, Ms. Lane. Tell me, do you always get even?"

"You can count on it, Farmboy."

And with a sassy wink and a grin, she walked away, feeling positively elated that the encounter had ended on such a high note. How could she have been anxious about seeing Clark? How could she have been nervous about an office romance? This was delightful. She had a sweet, wonderful, drop-dead gorgeous man bringing her coffee and doughnuts — *chocolate* doughnuts! — and flirting with her adorably. She'd have to be crazy to turn that down.

She was still smiling goofily at her computer screen when Jimmy arrived, presenting himself for the day's duty. She pulled herself together with an effort. It wouldn't do to have Jimmy noticing her preoccupation with Clark; she had no desire to subject herself to his juvenile speculations. So she wiped the smile from her face and got down to business, giving Jimmy some phone calls to make while she reviewed her notes from the Messenger investigation.

If her eyes occasionally strayed across the room to Clark…well, she was only human, after all.


"I need to go back to EPRAD," she announced, smacking the button that would close her Messenger file. "I need to find out what caused that explosion."

"And, uh, how is going back to EPRAD going to do that?" Jimmy asked cautiously. "That Dr. Baines didn't sound interested in telling us anything else."

"She's not," Lois agreed. "And all our phone calls have been dead ends, which is why we're going to have to find it out for ourselves."

"Um…how?" Jimmy asked again.

"I don't have the slightest idea," she admitted. "What I do know is that the answers aren't in this newsroom, so we're going to have to go get them. I think it's time to divide and conquer. I want you to go over to Platt's place and see if he can pull together a copy of this report he claims to have submitted. I'm going to go to EPRAD and sniff around."

"I can't go to EPRAD with you?" Jimmy asked hopefully. "I could maybe go to Platt's place afterward."

"I'm not going to see Dr. Baines, Jimmy," she said dryly. "In fact, I'm going to do everything I can to stay out of her way."

"EPRAD's still cool, and that place of Platt's is…" He took one look at Lois's face and reversed course. "Cool, too," he said quickly. "I've always loved, um…rats and stuff."

"Good answer." Lois scribbled the exact address on a piece of paper in case Jimmy had forgotten it, ripped it off, and handed it to him. "If he can actually produce this report, do you think maybe you could get one of your friends at STAR Labs to take a look at it?"

"I can ask," Jimmy said, shoving his rolling chair away from her desk. "Let me make a phone call."

"Thanks, Jimmy." She reached down and collected her purse. "I should be back before lunchtime, if all goes well. We'll compare notes then, all right?"

"Gotcha," he said, already reaching for a phone at his temporary desk near hers. "Be careful."

"I always am."

He snorted at that. "Right."

She ignored him, looking instead in Clark's direction. He was at his desk, on the phone, and she moved slowly toward him, hoping she wasn't being obvious, hoping he'd have time to hang up before she arrived, so that she wouldn't have to stand around waiting to speak to him and making a spectacle of herself. Compared to her performance the previous two times she'd approached his desk, however, she was the epitome of calm, so she supposed that was progress of a sort.

He was still talking when she reached him, but he held up two fingers, indicating that he'd be off soon. She heard him confirming an appointment of some sort, watched him scribble something down on his calendar, and then he was hanging up and greeting her with his brilliant smile. "Hi," he said.

"Hi." She wished she could think of something witty and memorable to say, but she had nothing. "Um, I just wanted to tell you that I'm going out…my story, you know…and I'm not exactly sure when I'll be back. I didn't want you to think…um, that I was standing you up. If I can get back I will."

He nodded. "I understand."


"Sure. I'm a journalist, too, remember?"

"Right." She bit her lip. "It's just that I know I haven't been exactly consistent, and I don't want you to think I'm using the story to avoid you. Because I'm not."

"Lois, a man died the other day. A transport full of colonists may be going up next week. Don't get me wrong — I really *want* to have lunch with you — but I think what you're doing is a little more important. If you don't make it back today, we'll go tomorrow. Or the next day." He smiled. "I'm new in town and writing stories about the groundbreaking for the new Cost-Mart. My dance card is pretty much empty."

She smiled at the realization that he was putting himself at her disposal. It made her feel secure and unusually generous. "It doesn't have to be, you know," she said teasingly. "Cat's not the only woman who's noticed you. As a matter of fact, I overheard a couple of women in the restroom the other day composing a poem about a certain part of your anatomy."

The look on his face was priceless — a hilarious mixture of disbelief and mortification. "They were *what*!?"

"Not *that* part," she assured him, delighting in the blush that bloomed over his cheeks.

He sighed and closed his eyes. "Can you give me a hint? One that maybe won't embarrass me into the next millennium?"

"Now where would be the fun in that?" she teased.

"Lo-is," he pleaded, and she so enjoyed the sound of him pleading with her that she gave in much more quickly than she usually would.

"Okay," she said. "You're sitting on it."

"I guess it's too much to hope that they were writing a poem about my chair." He opened his eyes and dared a peek at her. "There are lots of good rhymes with chair, you know. Air, fair, hair, bear, lair, square, dare…"

"Grass, pass, lass, sass, mass…" she countered.

"…blare, care — darn, this is getting harder — tear, pear…"

"Mutt, rut, putt, what, cut, lut…" she was laughing so hard she could hardly talk, let alone think of rhymes.

He was laughing, too. "Wait a minute! I need a judge's ruling on 'lut'. That's not a word."

"Of course it is. Which of us has three Kerth awards?"

He raised his eyebrows. "They give Kerths for making up words?"

She was about to tell him what she thought of that when Perry's voice intruded on their silliness. "You know, I think I liked it better when you two were just sneaking peeks at each other across the newsroom," the editor grumbled, coming up behind them. "Don't you both have work to do?"

Lois blushed, even though she knew from experience that Perry wasn't nearly as annoyed as he sounded. "I was just leaving, Chief — to go back to EPRAD. I had to, um, tell Clark something before I left."

"Uh huh." He gave her a skeptical look. "So, have you told him yet?"


"And you're still here because…?" he prompted.

"We were, um, talking about poetry." She was kind of hoping that sounded highbrow and literary enough to impress Perry. She heard Clark choke back a laugh but didn't dare look in his direction.

"Poetry," Perry repeated.

"And semantics," Clark added helpfully.

"You two must think I just fell off a turnip truck. Lois, get out of here. I've got a hole in my front page you could drive a tank through."

"I'm going, I'm going!" She shot Clark an apologetic look and saw that he was looking nervous. She would tell him later that Perry White was about 90% bluster, but there was nothing she could do about it just then. With a little wave, she headed for the elevator.


Three hours later, she returned to the Daily Planet, her silly, cheerful mood having been destroyed by one Dr. Antoinette Baines.

She was really starting to hate that woman.

She had gone to all the trouble of talking her way into EPRAD, which was no small triumph. She'd had to flash a little bit more than just her press pass at the guard, but not *too* much more. The flirting had just softened him up enough that she could launch into a rapid-fire speech that had covered everything from freedom of the press to her close and personal friendship with Dr. Baines (Toni to her close friends, of course) and eventually the guard had let her in just because he had a line of traffic backing up behind her and hadn't been able to reach Dr. Baines on the phone to get confirmation of her 'guest'. Lois felt a prick of conscience that she had probably cost that nice young man his job, but then she consoled herself with the fact that if the kid was going to let in every reporter who flashed a little cleavage at him, he probably didn't deserve the job anyway.

She had arrived just in time to see the wreckage of the Messenger being moved into a hangar for investigation. She would have to tell Perry that. She would have to tell Perry that had she not stopped and talked to Clark, she'd have arrived too soon and probably been caught before she even had a chance to get a glimpse of the shuttle. Of course, then *he'd* just remind *her* that had he not stopped by Clark's desk and given her a shove out the door, she'd have missed seeing the shuttle completely, which was true enough that she decided the conversation wasn't worth pursuing.

But she'd seen the shuttle — that was the material point. She'd seen it being slowly dragged toward a huge hangar, and she'd been impressed with how enormous it was; they didn't seem quite as big when you were watching them be launched on television, or even at EPRAD a safe distance away. But the Messenger was massive — massive and so very wounded, it's left side ripped out by the blast that had killed its commander. It had impressed her with its size and its damage and its appearance of shattered dignity. Seeing it, she had felt the tragedy of its destruction afresh, had renewed her determination to find out what had happened to it and why.

But that was pretty much all she'd had time to do. There was a swarm of scientists standing around just waiting for the Messenger to be relocated, and to a nosy reporter, each one represented an opportunity. She was just sizing them up, trying to decide which one would be her first target, when she was approached by two broad-shouldered security guards and frogmarched to Dr. Baines's office, an experience which did nothing whatsoever for her pride or her temper. Apparently, her friend the guard wasn't quite as incompetent as she'd thought.

Dr. Baines's reception had been even chillier at this meeting than it had been at the one before, which was perhaps understandable in light of the circumstances. She informed Lois in no uncertain terms that the investigation into the Messenger explosion was classified and that any further attempts to undermine the integrity of that investigation would result in criminal prosecution…blah, blah, blah. Lois had heard that speech so many times she could repeat it in her sleep, but she couldn't remember a single time she'd actually heeded it. Dr. Baines didn't need to know that, however, so despite what it cost her in pride, Lois did what she could to appear intimidated and chastened and then allowed herself to be 'escorted' back to her car without protest.

By the time she got back to the Planet, it was 12:45, and she wondered if Clark had gone to lunch without her. It would probably be best if he had, she thought. In the mood she was in, she wasn't likely to be a very fun lunch date anyway. She did notice, however, that for the first time since Clark had started at the Planet, she wasn't a nervous wreck during the elevator ride up to the newsroom. She didn't know if that was because things had gone so well between them that morning or if it was because she was still distracted by her irritation with Toni Baines and her failure to find out anything at EPRAD; whatever it was, she was grateful.

She did look for Clark the minute she stepped off the elevator, and her mood lifted a little when she saw him seated at his desk, his fingers flying over his keyboard. As if some sixth sense had alerted him to her presence, he paused and turned around, a smile lighting his face at the sight of her. It was impossible not to be affected, impossible not to smile back, no matter how discouraged she was feeling. Before she had time to think about it, her feet took her straight over to him.

He'd taken off his jacket and slung it across the back of his chair, and for a crazy moment, she had the urge to rest her hands on his broad shoulders, just to feel the warmth of his skin seeping through the cotton of his shirt — to feel his strength. There would be such comfort in that.

"Hi," she said, clasping her hands tightly in front of her to keep them from getting any ideas.

"Hi," he returned. "How did it go?"

She shook her head. "I don't want to talk about it."

"I'm sorry." He looked properly sympathetic, despite having no idea what had happened. "So, um, lunch. Is it too late? Or do you need to work on your story? Because I'll understand if you do."

"I thought maybe you'd already eaten," she said. "I'm sorry it took me so long at EPRAD, and I *do* have a lot of work. But if you still want to go, I could probably get away for a quick lunch."

"I haven't already eaten, and I'd still love to go," he told her simply.

"I might not be the best company today," she warned him.

"I think I'll risk it."

She smiled. "Let me just check in with Jimmy first, okay?"

"Whenever you're ready."

She found Jimmy at the copier, laboriously duplicating the huge pile of tattered pages that constituted Platt's "report," so that he could take the copy over to STAR Labs, as she'd requested. Seeing it, she had to suppress the urge to scream, thinking of how incredibly tedious it was going to be sifting through it. But she managed to keep her temper and even to thank Jimmy for his efforts before informing him that she was going out for lunch.

"Oh," he said, just as she'd turned to go. "I forgot. You have a message on your desk from Lex Luthor."

Her eyes lit up at that little bit of news, and she hurried to her phone, deciding that Clark could wait the five or so minutes it would take to set up her dinner with Luthor. She was unable to speak with him personally, but his secretary, who had been informed as to the reason she was calling, was happy to help her set up their meeting. After all the years of trying, it was finally happening: Two nights hence, she'd be having dinner with the third richest man in the world, and if all went well, her in-depth story about him would grace the front page of the next day's paper. It didn't quite make up for her run-in with Antoinette Baines, but it helped.

The knowledge that she would have a few quiet minutes with Clark helped, too. When she looked across the room and caught Clark's eye, she smiled and nodded toward the elevators, indicating that she was ready to go.


The sidewalks were crowded, it being lunch time, and Lois and Clark paused outside the Daily Planet building, both realizing at the same moment that they weren't sure where they were going.

"Since you only have a few minutes," Clark said, "would you like to just get a sandwich and maybe eat it at the park? It'll be quieter there than at a restaurant."

She nodded, pleased with the suggestion. "That sounds great," she said. "There's a deli down this way about a block." She pointed. "It's not too bad."

"Let's go."

They set off together, neither talking, but it was a companionable silence rather than an awkward one. Once they reached the deli, their conversation was centered around ordering sandwiches, and it wasn't until they were perched on a park bench near the fountain that Clark ventured to mention her apparent displeasure with her morning outing.

"I'm sorry if your story isn't going well."

She sighed and tossed a potato chip to some nearby pigeons, just to see them fight it out. "Jimmy picked up a report this morning that might help, assuming we can make heads or tails of it. My trip to EPRAD was a bust, though. That woman — that Dr. Baines — she had me thrown out by security." She gave him a wry smile. "I'm pretty sure I hate her."

"Want me to go beat her up for you?" he offered.

What an inspired idea! Just imagining it cheered her immeasurably. "Would you do that?"

"Actually, no," he admitted. "I don't think I could hit a woman."

"Well, if you could handle the guards, I could probably beat her up myself."

He chuckled. "Let's save that as Plan B, all right?"

"You're assuming I have a Plan A," she groused, but she realized that just talking with Clark about the situation had improved her outlook considerably. "The thing that got to me, though, was that I actually saw the shuttle. It just looked so…*wrong*."

"What do you mean?"

She thought for a few seconds, unsure of whether she could put what she was feeling into words. "One whole side was gutted by the explosion. Seeing it up close was…it just looked so…*violated*, and it made me think of Commander Laderman — of what it must have been like to be inside there when it exploded. Do you think he knew what was going to happen?"

"I don't know," Clark said gently. "I hope not."

"The thing is, I'm *convinced* it wasn't an accident. I just can't prove it. But whoever it was, whoever did this — they shouldn't get away with it!"

"No," he agreed. "They shouldn't. Which is why you're not giving up, right?"

"Right," she said. "As soon as I get back, I'm going to tackle Platt's report. And Jimmy is taking a copy of it to STAR Labs, so even if I can't figure it out, maybe someone there can."

"Who's Platt?" he asked, and before she quite knew what was happening, she was telling him the whole story about the crazy man who'd come bursting into the newsroom insisting that there was a conspiracy to sabotage the Messenger, about her visit to Platt's condemned apartment building and his claim that he'd warned Dr. Baines about the problem with the coolant systems, about her futile trips to EPRAD and Dr. Baines's determination to keep everything classified.

It did cross her mind during the telling that she was doing something that she'd promised herself she would never, ever do: She was making a free gift of information which could land Clark Kent the story of the year, if he chose to follow up on it and actually managed to beat her to the scoop. But she wasn't twenty-one years old anymore, and she had an established track record as an investigative reporter, something Clark clearly lacked. Furthermore, Perry knew that the Messenger explosion was her assignment, and if Clark or anyone else took her notes and ran with them, Perry would take her side; she was sure of that.

And at the heart of it, of course, was the gut feeling that Clark wasn't Claude — that he was asking about Platt because he was genuinely interested and concerned, and not because he was looking to steal her story. Maybe she was testing him a little. Maybe she was testing herself. Because if this thing with Clark was going to work at all, she was going to have to learn to trust him, and he was going to have to show that he could be trusted.

And more than ever, she found herself wanting it to work. When she wasn't letting her nerves get the better of her, she found Clark remarkably easy to talk to and easy to be around. With Clark, she found it easier to be a little more like Wanda Detroit — someone who was actually capable of laughing and having fun in the middle of a workday. She remembered the night she'd met Clark, how she'd decided to play Wanda with a dash of Lois thrown in. Now she was playing Lois with a dash of Wanda, and she was beginning to think it might be a nice way to live.

"We should probably get back," she said reluctantly, once her story was told. "I need to quit talking about all of this and actually do something about it."

"I have work, too," he said, crumpling up their trash and stuffing it in the deli bag. "Nothing so exciting as your story, but it still needs to be done."

"Here, I'll take that." She reached for the trash bag and tossed it neatly into a nearby trashcan.

"Good shot," he commented.

"I'm a woman of many talents."

"I never doubted it." He smiled and she felt the familiar flutter in her belly, the one that she always felt when he smiled in just that way, and she knew it was for her.

"I was wondering," he said lightly, "if this was one of those situations where touching in public would be obnoxious."

<<He wants to kiss me,>> she thought dizzily, and maybe it *was* obnoxious, but there was no way she was going to stop him. "Uh, no," she said softly. "I don't think that would be obnoxious at all."

"Good." And with that, he reached for her hand, lacing his fingers with hers and pausing for a moment to admire the look of their hands joined together. "Thank you for having lunch with me," he said, giving her hand a little squeeze.

And then they walked together, hand-in-hand, down the quiet path that would take them back to the hustle of the city streets and, from there, to the rest of their day.


After his lunch with Lois, Clark spent the next several hours making a concerted effort to keep his feet on the ground. His euphoria was premature, he knew, but that didn't make it any less real. He felt exactly the same certainty about Lois that he had that night at the Stardust; it was a feeling of recognition, as if they'd met before and somehow gotten separated, and now they were saying, "Oh, *there* you are. I've been looking all over for you."

And he had. He'd been looking all over for her. It hadn't been a conscious looking, not most of the time, but rather a sense that he would find her one day and he would know it when it happened. Now he had and he did, and all that was left was to find out if she felt the same way. She was attracted to him, he knew that, and she seemed to enjoy his company, but anything more was unclear. He didn't know if she was even looking for something serious; she certainly hadn't been the night they'd met, but she seemed more willing to entertain the notion now.

Until he had a better understanding of her heart, however, he knew he would have to tread carefully. He wanted her to be *his*, wanted to put a ring on her finger or a down-payment on a house or whatever it took to make sure that she couldn't get away from him again. He couldn't afford the ring or the house, however, and he recognized that this fierce feeling of possessiveness was completely inappropriate at this early stage in the relationship — as inappropriate as falling into bed with her had been. He hadn't expected love to be like this. He'd thought it would come on slowly, with friendship giving way to tenderness, tenderness blossoming into love. Instead, this was like an explosion of feeling, desperate and a little painful. He was going to scare her off if he pushed too hard, so he spent the afternoon working diligently. He peeked at Lois occasionally but kept his distance, particularly as he could see that she was deep into reading Platt's report.

It was the middle of the afternoon when he heard a rumbling explosion followed by shouts from outside, somewhere just up the street from the Daily Planet building. His head came up and he focused his hearing on the trouble, whatever it was.

<<"…explosion…fire department…one of my men is down there! Damn it, where's the fire department?" >>

As the shouts became more panicked, and with the sound of sirens still far in the distance, Clark was paralyzed with indecision. A man was trapped… somewhere, and Clark was sitting comfortably on that part of his anatomy that he and Lois had been joking about that morning. Sitting and doing nothing while a man died, maybe, right outside the newsroom. He didn't have his costume yet, though. He didn't have any way to disguise himself. If he went to help, it would have to be as Clark Kent, and Clark Kent had a great deal to lose. He glanced at Lois, bent over her report, and he felt almost sick at the thought that in rescuing this man, he might expose himself — might have to leave Metropolis, leave *her*, chased by the shadow of his own good deeds, as he had been so many times before.

In the end, though, he couldn't stay and do nothing, even if it meant risking everything. He grabbed a notebook and jogged to the stairwell, thinking it would be quicker than the elevator, and then he went down the stairs in a blur before racing out onto the street. Only a block or so down, he saw a plume of smoke rising up out of an open sewer in the middle of the street, an agitated crowd standing by watching helplessly. He located another sewer opening and quickly lowered himself into it, and then he sped through the smoke and the oppressive darkness in the direction of the explosion. He found the city worker slumped over, his legs caught by some fallen debris. Clark freed him quickly and then lifted the man, unconscious, out of the hole and into the waiting hands of his co-workers. When the man was out, Clark paused only long enough to extinguish the last of the fire with his breath, and then he went back the way he came, popping back out onto the city street like a bespectacled gopher and then trying very hard to make such a thing look normal and natural, as if reporters crawled around in sewers every day. Fortunately, everyone's attention was focused on the scene of the explosion and the apparent miracle of the man's rescue, and Clark allowed himself a small moment of triumph.

He had done it! He had rescued the man and preserved Clark Kent's secret at the same time. He wouldn't have to pack up his suitcase yet, and once he got his disguise from his mother, maybe he never would have to again. The suit was still silly, but he would wear it, underwear and all, if it meant that he could make this work.

He looked down at his filthy sports coat and trousers and dusted at them vigorously until he felt they were presentable, and then he pulled his notebook from his breast pocket and approached the accident scene.

"Excuse me," he called to one of the workers. "Clark Kent, Daily Planet. Can you tell me what happened here?"


"Kent!" Perry barked, coming out of his office with a sheet of paper in his hands. "Great job on this sewer accident!"

"Thanks, Chief," Clark said. For the first time, the editor's nickname rose naturally to his lips.

"I'm running it on the front page of the Metro section." He waved the paper around a little, snapping it at the other reporters nearby. "See this, people? This right here is what happens when you show a little initiative. You don't wait for stories to find you, you don't wait for assignments — you go out and *get the news*! This happened practically on our doorstep, and Kent here was the only one to get the story."

Clark looked down at his keyboard, his pleasure in the compliment diminished by embarrassment — and guilt, too, since he knew perfectly well that without his extraordinary hearing, he wouldn't have gotten the story either. He could feel the other reporters looking at him with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance and was grateful when Perry wound down and stomped back into his office.

Five minutes later, Lois walked by on the way to the coffee pot. "Teacher's pet," she whispered.

When she came back by, holding her steaming mug, Clark grinned at her. "Feeling threatened, Ms. Lane?"

"By Mr. Greenjeans? I don't think so."

Clark laughed. "Ouch."

"So how *did* you get that story?" she asked, her eyes narrowing slightly.

He shrugged and felt himself start to sweat a little. "I just… was in the right place at the right time, I guess."

"Just happened to be walking by."


"Interesting." She sipped her coffee, and the look she gave him over the rim of her mug made him shift nervously in his seat. "So, when you bolted out of here a little while ago like your pants were on fire, that didn't have anything to do with the story?"

"No," he said, too quickly and too vehemently. "I had a…" *What?* What did he have? His mind scrolled rapidly through a list of possibilities, as the feeling of nervousness began to edge toward panic. "…sudden craving. For ice cream."

"Ice cream?"

"Mint chocolate chip." Why had he said *that*? Why was he compounding his lie with more detail? He wouldn't put it past Lois to sniff his breath for traces of mint. "But I didn't get any," he added quickly, hoping this small bit of honesty would help balance things out a little. "I happened on the sewer accident and…like I said, I just was in the right place at the right time."

"Well. Good for you." Her expression lightened and he felt himself begin to relax.

"Beginner's luck," he said modestly.

"Maybe." She gave him a thoughtful look. "You know… you're a strange one, Clark Kent. I think there's more to you than meets the eye."

Though not entirely comfortable with this observation, he felt compelled to point out that that was true of everyone.

"Yeah," she agreed. "The difference is that with most people I don't care. Not unless there's a story in it."

He might have been flattered by that sentiment had she not looked vaguely troubled as she said it. But he knew that she needed to be able to trust him, and instead of being worthy of that trust, he was spinning lies about ice cream. There was no way, though, to tell her the truth in the middle of the newsroom — even if he'd wanted to, which he didn't.

Not yet.

He needed to be able to trust *her*, too, and it was just too soon to be certain that he could. Theirs had hardly been what one could call a stable relationship so far. On Monday, they had made incredible love on two hours' acquaintance, and on Tuesday, he had awakened to find her gone. On Wednesday, he found out that she had lied to him about who she was and had tried to cost him his job, and on Thursday, they had exchanged passionate kisses and confessions on a millionaire's balcony. Now it was Friday, and they'd had a nice lunch together and held hands for a few minutes in the park. His heart was shouting that he was in love, but his head was insisting that it was too soon to be spilling his deepest secret to this woman, no matter how much he thought he might love her.

Once they were surer of each other, once he was certain she was really The One — that was when he would tell her. He couldn't quite picture it — the exact moment when he would tell the woman he loved that he was from another planet — but he was sure he would know the right time when it came.

"I'm glad you care, Lois," he said softly, so that no one else could hear. "And I'm glad you want to know more about me. I want to know more about you, too. But…it takes time."

<<Please give me time, Lois,>> he thought anxiously. <<Sharing my body with you was easy compared to sharing this secret. I need time.>>

She nodded. "There's just one thing."

"What's that?"

Her seriousness gave way to an impish look. "The next time you go for ice cream, you might ask me if I want some, too."

A slow smile spread across his face. "Chocolate, right?"

"Is there any other kind?"

She grinned at him and walked away, and he watched her with undisguised admiration, even as he heaved a secret sigh of relief that she'd apparently bought his story. He would have to be careful around her. There was just so very much at stake.

He went back to work, finishing up his stories for the day without any further excitement. Before he left for the evening, he looked for Lois so that he could say goodbye, but Jimmy told him that she was closeted with Perry, giving the editor an update on the Messenger investigation.

"She's planning on being here late tonight," Jimmy added. "I offered to stay and work too, but she told me to go on home."

"Does she do that a lot?" Clark asked. "Work late?"

"And early, and on weekends, holidays — you name it," Jimmy said. "Lois is the original workaholic. When she's on a story, there's no such thing as office hours."

"Guess that's why she's the best."

"Guess so," Jimmy agreed. "Me, I like to have a personal life, too. You got anything going on tonight?"

"Not really," Clark said. "I have an errand to run, and then I'll head back to my hotel. What about you?"

"Got a date with that new girl in accounting," Jimmy said, beaming. "Wish me luck."

Clark laughed and obliged, and then he left, giving Jimmy a quick wave as he headed for the elevator. His errand consisted of a trip to Kansas, not that he could have told Jimmy that, and then he had nothing to look forward to but a night in his hotel. Before the elevator doors shut, he cast a regretful look in the direction of Perry's closed door.


When he arrived at the farm, the sun was just setting over the fields, and he took a moment to enjoy the vast explosion of red and gold over the open Kansas plain. He'd seen sunsets all over the world, some so beautiful that they took his breath away, but somehow the one he could see each night from his parents' front porch remained his favorite. He loved the funny silhouette of the sprawling barn, dark against the brilliant colors of the sky; when he was a child, he'd thought it looked like a fat man in a stovepipe hat. He still thought that.

"Perfect timing." Jonathan emerged from the barn with a smile on his face.

"Hi, Dad." Clark called, starting toward his father. "You mean the sunset?"

"Nope." Jonathan slung his arm around his son affectionately. "I mean I just finished evening chores."

Clark laughed. "You know I'm glad to help out anytime, Dad. Just say the word and I'll be here."

"No. I was just teasing you, son. If you're going to make a life for yourself in Metropolis, you can't come running back here every time something needs doing on the farm. Your mother and I can manage."

"How's the back?" Clark asked.

Jonathan shrugged. "Still plays up a little if I put in too long of a day, but with fall harvest over, I should be able to give it a good rest this winter. Don't you worry about it."

"You know I'm gonna worry. And come spring planting time, either I'll come home for a few weeks, or we'll hire someone to help out."

"Look who thinks he's in charge of the farm all of a sudden." Clark didn't miss the fact that his father sounded slightly irritated.

"I'm really thinking of Mom," Clark joked. "I don't think she could take another summer with you in the house all day long."

Jonathan chuckled, as Clark had intended. "Well, you might have a point there. We'll talk about it in the spring, okay?"

"Okay," Clark agreed, as the two men climbed the front steps.

"Does your mother know you're here?" Jonathan stomped his work boots a few times and then scraped them vigorously across the doormat.

"Nope. Just landed."

"Staying for dinner?"

Clark shook his head. "No. I'm just here to pick up the costume Mom made for me."

Jonathan opened the door. "Martha! Clark's here," he called. To his son he said, "You really gonna be able to wear that thing?"

"I think I'm going to have to try. I actually needed it today, and…"

"Hi, honey!" Martha called from the top of the stairs. "I was just getting your suit together. I'll be down in just a minute. Jonathan, did you scrape those boots before you came in?"

"Yes, dear." Jonathan and Clark exchanged quick smiles. Martha had asked that question every single night when they came in from the farm for as long as Clark could remember.

"What do you mean you needed it today?" Jonathan asked, a look of concern lining his face as he returned to their previous subject.

"There was a sewer explosion just outside the Daily Planet, Dad. A man was trapped."

"Did you…?"

"I *had* to, Dad. He could have died."

"Who could have died?" Martha asked. She was coming down the stairs with her arms full of blue spandex and red silk, and… good grief, were those red *boots*?

"There was a city worker trapped in a sewer outside the Daily Planet building," Clark explained.

"Son, what if someone had seen you?" Jonathan asked. "Metropolis isn't some little out of the way village, you know. All it'll take is one person with a video camera, and they'll…"

"Lock me in a lab and dissect me like a frog," Clark finished miserably. "I know, Dad. I was careful."

"I don't like it, Clark. I'm not crazy about this whole costume idea either, but at least it'll give you a chance at a normal life. Don't go jeopardizing that."

"What should he have done, Jonathan?" Martha demanded, tossing the suit to the sofa. "Just let the man die?"

"I don't know," Jonathan admitted. "I just can't help worrying."

"You said yourself the other night that he's a grown man who has to make his own decisions," Martha reminded him. "I, for one, trust him to do that." She looked a challenge at her husband, who nodded.

"I do, too," he said, giving Clark an apologetic look.

"It's all right, Dad. Really. No one saw me. And after today I'll have…" He glanced at the suit and got distracted. "Mom, we didn't talk about the boots."

"Did you think you'd wear your Nikes?"

"*Hoped* is more like it."

"Clark Kent wears Nikes. This guy…what are we calling him again?"

"I have no idea."

"Okay, well, whatever we're calling him, he *doesn't* wear Nikes."

Clark laughed. "You seem to know a lot about him. Glad one of us does."

"You'll figure it out as you go along, honey." Martha gave him a reassuring smile, and then her expression changed completely as she pinned him with an inquisitive look. "Now for the *important* question."

Clark knew what was coming and put up a token resistance, knowing all along that it was futile. "Uh, I need to be getting back." He reached for his suit. "You know, a reporter's work is never done. You're only as good as your next story, Perry White says."

"Nice try." Martha tugged the suit out of his hands, one red boot hitting the floor with a clunk. "I'm holding this for ransom," she declared. "So did you or didn't you?"

"What on earth are you talking about?" Jonathan looked from his wife to his son, who was suddenly blushing.

"You did!" Martha crowed triumphantly.

"I did," Clark admitted.

"Did *what*?" Jonathan asked plaintively. "Why is it that I never have any idea what you two are talking about?"

"And…?" Martha asked, ignoring her husband completely.

"And things are… better," Clark said cautiously.

"Define better," Martha demanded, a grin spreading across her face. "Did you kiss her?"

Clark looked down at his feet, too embarrassed to meet her eyes. "Technically, she kissed me first."

"I knew it! I knew she couldn't resist my boy." Martha was practically dancing a jig. "So did you do *more* than kiss her?"

"Mom!" Clark exclaimed.

"Martha!" Jonathan, who had finally caught up, gave his wife an admonishing look. "That's none of our business."

"And the answer is 'no'," Clark said firmly. "She's agreed to give me the chance to get to know her. We had lunch together today. That's it."

"Oh, honey, that's wonderful!" Martha gave him an impulsive hug, the suit crushed between them. "You really like her, don't you?"

"Yeah," Clark admitted. "I really do. Only…I had to lie to her this afternoon. She saw me rush out of the newsroom when I heard the sewer explosion, and then Perry made a big deal in front of everyone about me coming back with the story. Lois suspected that the two were related — which, of course, they were — but I couldn't very well tell her that I'd heard an accident that no normal person possibly could have heard."

"So what *did* you tell her?" Jonathan asked.

"That I'd had a sudden craving for ice cream," Clark admitted sheepishly. "I know it was stupid. It was just the first thing that popped into my head."

"Craving for ice cream, huh?" Martha laughed. "Well, tell her that if you're pregnant, we're going to expect her to make an honest man of you."

"Mom!" Clark protested. "It's not funny!"

Jonathan chuckled. "Actually, son, that *was* a little funny."

Clark threw up his hands. "I hate lying to her. In the first place, she's too smart for me to get away with it for long, and in the second place, she has issues with trust already. If I want to have a real relationship with her, I'm going to have to be honest."

"It seems a little soon for that." Jonathan's smile faded. "I mean, I know you like this girl, but don't forget she lied to you about who she was. Are you sure you can trust her?"

"I… no," Clark admitted. "I *think* I can, but I don't know if that's just because I want so much for it to be true. Anyway, I agree that it's too soon. I'm just going to have to hope that when and if I do tell her, she'll be able to understand why I lied to her."

"Well, honey, I wish we could give you some advice, but I think you're going to have to figure this one out for yourself." Martha handed him the suit and then reached down to pick up the fallen boot. "We don't know Lois, and you do, so trust your instincts — they don't usually lead you too far in the wrong direction."

"Thanks, Mom." Clark accepted the suit and the boots. "I'll let you know how it goes. She's working late tonight, so I'm going to go back to the newsroom and see if I can talk her into going to dinner with me."

"When are you going to make your big debut?" his dad asked, indicating the suit.

"I have no idea," Clark admitted. "I think I'll just wait for something to happen like what happened today — when I know I *have* to do something to help. I'm hoping that when the moment comes, I'll know it."

"Well, we'll look forward to hearing about it," Martha said. "Call us."

"I will, Mom." Clark bent and kissed her cheek. "Thanks for all your hard work."

"You're welcome, honey."

"Take care, son," Jonathan said, giving Clark a one-armed hug.

"You, too, Dad. Careful of the back."

"Yeah, yeah." Jonathan waved away his son's concerns. "You've got plenty to worry about in Metropolis without worrying about that. Get out of here. Go see your girl."

Clark grinned and gave his folks a wave. "You talked me into it. I'll see you guys soon."


Clark stopped at the Apollo long enough to stash his suit and then went back to the Daily Planet. The newsroom was nearly silent when he entered. Aside from Lois, only the copy editors were still there, working at their cluster of desks in the corner to put the finishing touches on the day's stories. Lois was bent over her desk, so engrossed in Platt's report that she didn't even look up when the elevator doors opened and Clark stepped out.

"Hey there," he called softly, warning her of his approach.

She still jumped slightly, clearly startled. "Hi," she said, looking a little embarrassed. "What are you doing back here?"

"Just checking on you," he admitted. "Thought I'd see if you'd had any dinner."

"Oh. Um, no, I haven't… but I don't really think I can get away. I'm still trying to figure this thing out. It's impossible — nothing matches, no dates. It's just a mess." She rubbed her forehead tiredly.

"Are you hungry? I could bring you something."

"That's… nice of you, but I don't want to put you to any trouble."

"It's no trouble. What would you like?"

"I *am* starving," she admitted. "Um, Chinese maybe?"

He smiled. "Leave it to me. I'll be back in a few minutes."

As he left, he couldn't resist reaching out and touching her shoulder briefly, just a light caress. Never in his life had he felt such a strong compulsion to touch someone. Normally, he agreed wholeheartedly with Lois's sentiments about public displays of affection, but there was just something about her that made him forget where he was and drew his eyes and his hands like a magnet. He pulled his hand back and glanced quickly at the corner where the copy editors were working. No one seemed to have noticed, and he made his way quickly back to the elevator before he could give in to any further temptations.

He found a dark, secluded alley from which to take off and headed west at top speed, his destination Shanghai. He thought of his costume briefly — should he be wearing it for this? — but shrugged the thought away as quickly as it came. He wasn't making his debut as a hero; he was just getting Chinese food, and he'd traveled the world plenty of times without being caught. He suspected that he'd been responsible for quite a few UFO sightings over the years, and as long as nothing linked the UFOs to Clark Kent, he didn't much care.

About twenty minutes after he'd left, Clark was walking back into the newsroom, his arms laden with bamboo containers. This time, Lois heard him coming, and her eyes lit up at the sight of the food.

"That was fast!" she exclaimed.

"I took a short cut," he told her, setting the food down on her desk and pulling up a chair. He began to open containers, giving her a glimpse of what was inside of each one. "I wasn't sure what you liked, so I got an assortment."

She reached eagerly for a dumpling and bit right into it. "Mmmm," she moaned. "This is out of this world. And it's still hot."

"Glad you like it," he said, handing her some chopsticks. "We should go for Dim Sum sometime. I'm sure there are some great places here in Metropolis."

"I tend to stick to Kung Pao from Mr. Wong's." She flashed Clark a smile as she reached for another dumpling. "I'm not sure he's even Chinese, actually, but he delivers to my apartment."

"No Kung Pao tonight," Clark said, laughing. "But I've got braised pork and Shanghai noodles, and if you're feeling adventurous, I brought some stir-fried eel."

Lois wrinkled her nose. "Eel?"

"Just try a little. It's delicious." He'd wanted to bring back some hairy crab, which was his favorite of Shanghai's delicacies, but in the end, he'd stuck with foods he thought he might plausibly get in Metropolis. "There are some more dumplings as well," he said, offering her the container. "In China, you can buy these from street vendors — and all sorts of other foods, too. I've spent whole days just wandering around eating."

"Mmmm. Sounds like my kind of day," she said as she began to fix a plate. "How much time did you spend in China?"

He shrugged. "I never really kept track. I spent about a year in Asia, but I moved around a lot during that time." He reached for his chopsticks and sneaked a serving of eel onto her plate.

"I saw that," she said, pointing at the eel.

He grinned at her. "One bite. That's all I ask."

"I'll think about it," she said, looking at the eel suspiciously. "Aren't you going to fix a plate?"

"Yep. I'm starving." As she began to eat, he served himself a healthy helping of everything he'd brought. When he was finished, Lois stabbed her chopsticks accusingly in the direction of his plate.

"You look like Mr. Hardbody and eat like a lumberjack," she grumbled. "You must live at the gym."

He shook his head. "Good metabolism."

She glared at him. "If I didn't kind of like you, I think I'd hate you for that."

"You *kind of like me*?" he asked, laughing. "I feel like I'm back in eighth grade."

"I never liked a boy well enough in the eighth grade to eat eels for him."

"You haven't eaten them for me, either," Clark pointed out.

"All right, all right. I can see I'm not going to get out of this." She snagged a tiny bite of eel with her chopsticks and quickly popped it into her mouth. Her eyes widened with surprise and pleasure as she chewed and swallowed.

"See?" Clark said.

"It is good," she admitted. "Different than I expected. But I think I like the pork better."

"Want some more?" he asked, reaching for the container.

"No, thanks." She shook her head. "I have more than enough already, and I need to get back to work soon."

"Maybe I'll offer some of the leftovers to the copy editors."

"That would be nice," she said slowly. She cocked her head at him, as if she were trying to figure him out. "You're a nice guy, Clark Kent."

He smiled. "Don't sound so surprised."

"I guess the only thing that surprises me is that you'd want anything to do with *me*," she said. "I'm still trying to figure that out. Because I'm *not* all that nice, Clark, and if I weren't so selfish, I'd warn you not to fall for me."

"You'd be too late," he told her softly, taking her hand and not giving a damn about the copy editors. "You'd be about five days too late."

She stared at him, her eyes wide and her mouth parted in surprise, and he was just utterly lost. It was as if the newsroom disappeared, and there was no one in the world but the two of them, sheltered by a fortress of bamboo containers. If Perry White himself had stormed in, he couldn't have stopped Clark from leaning in and claiming Lois's lips in a deep, tender kiss that made his heart pound and the blood sing through his veins. He only pulled away when the sound of giggling coming from the corner somehow managed to penetrate his consciousness.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. "You said you didn't want to do that."

"I take it back," she said breathlessly. "It was a stupid thing to say. In fact, I want to do that a whole lot more."

The only possible response to that was to kiss her again, and they continued to sneak kisses in between bites of Chinese food, neither of them caring that they would probably be the talk of the newsroom the next day. Clark was amazed at how easy it was, how familiar, as if he'd been kissing her forever. Of course, he'd been intimate with this woman in a way he'd never been intimate with any other, but he thought the feeling was something more than just an echo of their night together.

"I wish I didn't still have work," Lois said, when they'd finished eating and were covering up the rest of the food.

"I do, too," Clark admitted, even though he suspected it might be a blessing in disguise. He'd be lying if he said he didn't want this evening to end exactly as their evening at the Stardust had ended, but he knew it was much too soon for that. "You know, sometime I'd like to take you on a real date. One where we go out — eat in an actual restaurant instead of on a park bench or at your desk."

"I might be able to find a place in my schedule for that. With enough advance warning."

"I'll keep that in mind," he said dryly. "Here, hand me that and I'll take it all over to the copy editors."

"First we need to do the fortune cookies," she said. She handed him the bamboo container he'd requested and then passed him a wrapped fortune cookie. "Hey," she complained, as she cracked hers open. "This is written in Chinese."

"Let me see," he said, taking the slip of paper from her hand.

"Oh, don't tell me you can read…"

"'A good horse is like a member of the family'," he read.

She gave the paper a dirty look. "I *hate* that. That's not a fortune. What does yours say?"

He cracked his open and a slow smile spread across his face. "'You will find romance in the workplace'."

"It doesn't say that!"

"Yes it does," he insisted.

"You made that up."

"Read it yourself," he said, handing it to her.

She sniffed. "I don't think you can even read Chinese."

"Can too."

"Can not."

"Can too."

"I think we've gone from eighth grade to second," she said, tossing the fortune onto her desk.

Clark laughed. "Tell you what — you share your horse with me, and I'll share my workplace romance with you."

"I don't know," she said doubtfully. "That horse is like a member of the family."

"Well, there's always Cat Grant," he teased, picking up his fortune.

"Give me that." She snatched it out of his hand.

"Do we have a deal?" he asked.

"You drive a hard bargain, Farmboy." She leaned forward and sealed the deal with a quick kiss. "But you've gotta get out of here now and let me work."

"Are you sure you're okay here so late at night?" he said, turning serious. "Because I could stay and see you home. I won't bother you, I promise."

"I'm fine, Clark. I've worked late about a million times before, and there's security downstairs."

"You're not going anywhere else? Just straight home?"

"You're even more of a fusspot than Perry, and that's saying something. I'll be fine."

"Okay," he said, relenting.

"Thanks for dinner."

"You're welcome." He bent down and cupped her cheek in his hand before caressing her lips in a gentle kiss. "Be careful, and I'll see you in the morning."

"'Night," she murmured.

It took a great deal of fortitude for him to gather up the Chinese food and leave her desk, and even more for him to ignore the knowing looks he got from the group of copy editors who had been shamelessly watching his impromptu date with Lois. They accepted the Chinese food with enthusiasm, however, and he hoped they'd be satisfied enough with it that they wouldn't tease Lois once he was gone. It was far, far too much to hope that they wouldn't gossip the next day, but he figured if he and Lois were going to date, it wasn't likely to remain a secret anyway. Might as well get it out in the open now, and hopefully, people would soon find something new to talk about.

When he left the newsroom, she was once again bent over her report, but he smiled a little to see that she was still fingering the tiny slip of paper that had contained his fortune.

"True gold fears no fire," it had said.

He hoped Lois never learned to read Chinese.


Try as she might, Lois couldn't seem to concentrate on Platt's report once Clark left the newsroom. It had been giving her fits before, and it hadn't gotten any less confusing during her interlude with Clark. The "report" was a disorganized mess, and even if it hadn't been, she didn't have the background to understand the subject matter. Platt might be crazy — the jury was still out on that one — but he was still a brilliant scientist. The report probably seemed perfectly simple to him, but to Lois it might as well have been written in Chinese, just like her fortune cookie.

<<Maybe I should have asked Clark to take a look,>> she thought, remembering how he'd rattled off her fortune. The thought made her slightly uneasy, though. Did she want to work with Clark? *Really* work with him, as opposed to just occupying the same space every day? Though she bowed to the necessity on occasion, she had never particularly wanted to work with anyone on her stories. She worked alone, and she preferred it that way. So why did the thought of working with Clark hold so much appeal? Why did she wish she could call him back and they could spend the evening with their heads bent together over Platt's report?

Well, she knew why, didn't she? She was letting these…these *feelings* cloud her better judgment. If she wanted to have a relationship with Clark, and it was getting harder and harder to convince herself otherwise, she needed to find a way to keep that relationship separate from her work. There were just too many potential pitfalls to them working together, from her own destructive competitiveness to the possibility, however, remote, that Clark would find some way to deceive and disappoint her like Claude had.

So no working with Clark, however tempting the idea might seem when her desk still smelled like Chinese food and her lips still tingled from his kisses. Even the thought that their relationship would be common knowledge in the newsroom the next day didn't bother her. What was there to be embarrassed about? Clark was sweet and gorgeous and everyone who had met him loved him. No, having the newsroom know that she was seeing Clark wouldn't make her a laughingstock; it would make her an object of *envy*, and she did so enjoy being an object of envy. Not that that was why she was interested in Clark, but it was a pleasant bonus.

Before she quite knew what was happening, her mind had drifted completely away from Platt's report and was instead entirely on Clark. She'd thrown him out of the newsroom so that she could get something done, but he was almost as distracting in his absence as he had been when he'd been present. She was slipping, and the worst part of it was that she was so besotted, she hardly even cared.

But she *had* to care. This investigation was too important not to care, and there was far more at stake than just Lois Lane bagging another headline. Even she had that much perspective. She made her decision quickly and then gathered up Platt's report and stuffed it in her briefcase. She was going to see the only person on earth she was certain could decipher this mess.


It was a bad part of town and a worse building, but Lois didn't experience her first twinge of unease until she heard the rats scratching and scurrying away from the sound of her footsteps. She hated rats. She'd *always* hated rats. There was just something about their beady little eyes and pointed noses that made them look like they were plotting something. She'd seen signs of them when she and Jimmy had been by in the daytime, but there was something exponentially creepier about hearing them at night, in the dark, hollow building. She shuddered and picked her way carefully up the threadbare steps to Platt's apartment, going as quickly as she dared.

How was it possible for a man to fall this far? Samuel Platt had once had a normal life. He had been a respected scientist at the top of his field. He'd had a family and presumably a nice home somewhere. And now he was in professional disgrace, living alone in a rat-infested, condemned building. Antoinette Baines had said that drugs and alcohol were to blame — that after his divorce, Platt had fallen completely apart. Platt claimed that he had been drugged to silence him about the sabotage. It was all still just a case of Platt's word against…well, everyone else's, but somehow, Lois found herself wanting to believe him. Wanting it wasn't good enough, however. She had to have proof.

The door to his apartment wasn't quite closed, and she knocked on it softly, not wanting to push it open without giving Dr. Platt some warning. She heard another rat scrabble by, though, and knocked a little harder, wishing he would open it already and let her get out of this hall.

"Dr. Platt?" she called. "Are you home?"

Through the crack in the door, she could hear an intermittent sound, an occasional short burst of white noise, like radio static.

"Dr. Platt? It's Lois Lane."

Another rat just inches away, this one giving a startled squeak before diving for cover.

"Dr. Platt?"

She could see a faint light, so she knew he must be home. She pushed at the door, opening it another few inches, just wide enough that she could slip through the crack and step tentatively across the threshold. She patted along the wall for a few seconds until her fingers found a switch. She flipped it, and a dim bulb lit up overhead. Dr. Platt was seated in a chair with his back to her, but he didn't turn, didn't greet her. Lois felt her heart start to race as she took a step toward him, her body realizing that something was wrong even before her brain had a chance to process the information.

But with one more step it all came together, and she felt the bile rise up in her throat as she realized what she was seeing. He hadn't turned, hadn't greeted her, and he wouldn't, would he?

He couldn't.

Not with his bare feet in a pan of water and a live electrical wire in his hands.

His feet were so white, she thought irrelevantly. They were feet that had never seen the sun, feet that almost glowed in the light of the dim bulb. They were the feet of a scientist, someone who had worn navy blue gold-toed socks every day of his life, even when he was on vacation. Even when he was wearing shorts. He'd have worn the socks even then. And maybe his family would have teased him a little, but he wouldn't have had a moment's self-consciousness about it. Without the socks, those feet looked raw and vulnerable.

Suddenly, it was as if the rest of her senses woke up and began to really process the horror of what they were experiencing. The sound she'd heard was the crackle of electricity, still coursing through his dead body. The smell was seared flesh and stale urine. She clapped a hand over her mouth and nose and stumbled backward, nearly tripping over a stack of magazines.

She bolted from the building, not noticing the rats or the threadbare carpet or the peeling paint. She ran outside and breathed deep gasps of fresh air as tears leaked from her eyes. The tears surprised her; she hadn't felt them coming and didn't quite know why they were there. She'd seen dead people before. But her fingers were shaking violently as dialed the nearest pay phone.


Finding a dead body was never a simple business. The police asked her the same questions over and over, and before she was allowed to come home, she had to go down to the station and sign a formal statement. She knew she wasn't a suspect; Inspector Henderson knew that, in spite of her propensity for finding trouble of that sort, she wasn't the type to actually cause it. She was the only witness, however, and the only one who knew anything about Platt's final days, so she'd answered their questions again and again, and finally, at nearly five a.m., they let her go home.

It was the second night in a week that she'd stayed out until the wee hours of the morning. The first time, she had been with Clark, and though it had been wrenching to leave him, she'd had a flood of sweet memories to sustain her. This time, she felt bone-weary and shaken, and every time she closed her eyes she saw those white feet in their deadly pan of water. She tiptoed past Lucy, asleep in her bed, and quietly closed the door of the bathroom. She shed her suit quickly — she would probably never wear it again — and climbed into the shower, standing a long time under the hot, stinging spray, trying to wash away the scent of death that seemed to cling to her.

Wrapped in her bathrobe, her hair still soaking wet, Lois crawled into bed next to Lucy, who was snoring slightly, and sighed as her head sank into the soft pillow. She was afraid that thoughts of Samuel Platt would keep her awake, but mercifully, she was tired enough to fall into a heavy, dreamless sleep from which she didn't awaken until four hours later, when she heard the sounds of Lucy in the shower.


It was Saturday, and after sleeping in, she would only wind up working a half-day, so she dressed more casually than usual, in jeans and a light sweater. Her shakiness was gone, replaced by a grim determination to prove that Samuel Platt had been right about the Messenger sabotage. Any doubt she'd had about his story had fallen away at the sight of him sitting in that homemade electric chair. Someone had killed Samuel Platt to silence him. She was as sure of that as she was of her own name.

The newsroom was in full swing when she walked in, and her eyes automatically went to Clark's desk. She wanted to see him, wanted a few minutes of light-hearted banter, like they'd shared the night before. She needed a little of his healing comfort, after the night she'd had, and this time, she knew she could go to him for that. They might not have had an official date yet, but she knew Clark's broad shoulders were hers to cry on if she wanted them. He would listen if she needed to talk and talk if she needed the distraction. He would do whatever he could to make things better for her. It was something she'd secretly always wanted and yet, for some reason, pushed away with both hands. But Clark was different. With Clark, she wasn't pushing anymore.

He was there, typing, and again it was as if he could sense her presence. His hands stilled and his head swiveled around, but the smile died on her lips when she saw his face. He looked almost…angry. His face was closed, tense, with nothing of the warmth it usually held when he looked at her. She remembered the copy editors and wondered if the inevitable gossip was bothering him, but they'd *known* that would happen, hadn't they?

Just then, she couldn't find it in her to care if everyone in the newsroom was talking about them. A man had *died*. A sweet, slightly nutty man had been killed and his body left for the rats. Wasn't that a lot more important than the fact that Lois Lane and Clark Kent had traded a few kisses over Chinese food?

Well, if Clark didn't think so, he needed to work on his perspective.

She took a deep breath and walked over to him. "You knew it was going to happen," she said, taking the offensive.

"I most certainly did *not*," he responded, his voice clipped and cold.

"I *warned* you, Clark. I told you what it was going to be like."

"So I'm supposed to be OK with it then? Just because you warned me?"

"Well…yeah. It's not that big of a deal."

"Not that big of a deal!" he exclaimed. "Lois, you lied to me!"

"I did not!" she said hotly. How *dare* he? "Have you ever actually worked in an office with other reporters? This is the way it is, Clark."

"Is that why you lied? You don't trust me?"

"Trust…? What does trust have to do with this?"

He lowered his voice to a furious whisper. "Lois, I know that a man stole your story once, but I'm not like that. And I can't *believe* you'd rather risk your life than trust me."

She blinked at him. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about the fact that you told me you were going straight home last night, and now it's all over the newsroom that you went by yourself to a condemned building in the worst part of town and wound up finding a dead man! What am I supposed to think?"

"Wh…what…?" she spluttered, still trying to catch up. He wasn't angry about gossip; he was angry about her doing her job. And again…how *dare* he? "Conference room," she snapped, turning on her heel and storming in that direction. She didn't look back, but she heard his chair shoot out behind him as he stood up, heard his footsteps following her.

"How dare you?" she said, the second the door closed behind him. "How *dare* you?" It was worth saying twice, she figured. She might even go for three.

"How dare I *what*, Lois? How dare I care about what happens to you? How dare I think that what you did last night was stupid and reckless?"

"I was doing my job!"

"You were risking your life!" he shot back. "You had no business being down there by yourself."

"I had every business. Being a *reporter* is my business. This *story* is my business."

"You told me you were going straight home."

"I…" She cast her memory back over their conversation. "No," she said firmly. "I didn't. You asked me if I was going straight home, and I said something about you being a fusspot. I never told you I was going straight home."

"You…" He broke off, and she could practically see the wheels turning, could see the moment he realized that she was right. "You're splitting hairs," he said finally. "You know you gave me the impression you were going straight home. I would never have let you stay by yourself otherwise."

"You wouldn't have *let* me?" Her voice was deadly. He actually took a step back.

"I didn't mean…"

"Oh, I think you *did* mean," she spat. "But it's obvious that you've got me confused with some other girl. Because if you think for one minute that Lois Lane is going to let any man tell her how to do her job, then you're in for a rude awakening."

"I'm sorry," he said quickly, holding up a placating hand. "I'm not trying to tell you how to do your job. But I'm not going to apologize for being concerned about you, either. I wish you had let me go with you last night, and when I found out you hadn't, I assumed it was because you didn't trust me around your story."

"As a matter of fact, that had nothing to do with it. Not that it's really any of your business, but at the time, I assumed I *would* go straight home. But then I realized that I needed Dr. Platt's help with his report, and so, yes, I went to see him. If I had it to do over again, I'd do it exactly the same way. And I'm not *about* to apologize for it just because you brought me some Chinese food."

"Because I…" He made a frustrated motion with his hands. "What does Chinese food have to do with anything?"

"It has everything to do with it. We haven't even had a real date, and you're already trying to tell me how to live my life. You know, Mitchell warned me about this!"

"*Warned* you? Warned you about *what*?"

"He took one look at you and figured you'd want to tuck me safely away in the suburbs. Maybe I could write for the local PTA newsletter, put together recipes for the Junior League. Does that sound about right?"

"Lois, I may have overstepped a little here, but could we stick to fighting about the thing I've actually done, instead of the things your friend thinks I *might* do? I grew up on a farm and have been wandering around in third world countries for the last few years. I'm not even completely sure what the Junior League *is*."

"It's an organization of women that…" She broke off, shaking her head. "Never mind. My point is that I don't back away from a story. I told you that the other night. If this thing between us is going to work, you're going to have to accept that."

"I *do* accept that." He raked his fingers through his hair. "But *you* need to accept that I care about what happens to you. And it scared me, okay? It scared me hearing that you'd been through that by yourself."

"And maybe it was scary for me, too." Her voice quivered slightly and she paused to steady it. "Maybe it was scary and…and *horrible* and sad…and maybe I would have liked to be able to come in here and talk to you about it instead of getting yelled at and called a liar. Did you ever think of that?"

"I'm sorry," he said softly — and sincerely, she thought. She felt herself softening a little toward him. "I really thought this was about protecting your story."

"If I were protecting my story from you, I wouldn't have sat in the park yesterday and told you all about it. I wouldn't have let you sit at my desk with that report spread all over it. Trust me, Clark, if I were protecting this story from you, you'd have never heard the name Samuel Platt."

"How did he die?" Clark took a step toward her, closing the distance between them. "Perry didn't give us any details."

"He was electrocuted. He had his feet in a pan of water and…" She closed her eyes and tried to shove away her memory's snapshot of those feet. "I *have* to prove that he was right about the sabotage. That's all I can do for him now."

"I'm afraid to even suggest this, for lots of reasons, but I wish you'd let me help you. You wouldn't even have to credit me, I swear. I just wish you'd let me help."

"Because you think I need a bodyguard?"

"Partly," he admitted cautiously. "But also because I trust your instincts about Dr. Platt."

She was tempted — more tempted than she liked to admit. But… "I can't. I need to do this in baby steps, Clark. Working together…it's too much right now."

He looked hurt, and he looked like he was trying *not* to look hurt, which made it even worse. "Too much time together?"

"No…yes." She shook her head. "I'm not sure. Maybe it's just too risky. I mean, just working in the same place is causing us problems already. Imagine how much worse it would be if we were actually working *together*."

"I think we could work well together," he countered. "I'm not saying we'd never have any problems, but I think we could be a great team. I know I could learn a lot from you."

She was surprised that he would admit that — that the male ego would allow it — but she still shook her head. "I'm not saying never. Just not right now, okay?"

"Okay," he agreed, and she was relieved that he was backing down.

"I need to get to work," she said, edging awkwardly toward the door.

"Lois…are we okay?"

She nodded, even though she wasn't entirely sure it was the truth. "It's fine, Clark."

"Women *always* say things are fine," he said, his mouth curving upwards in a half-smile. "In my experience, that can mean things are actually fine, or it can mean that they would really like to disembowel you with their nail scissors. Which does it mean in this case?"

"Well…I don't have any nail scissors."

"Whew." He pretended to wipe sweat from his brow, and she cracked a smile.

She was, in truth, disappointed in him, and with any other man she'd ever known, she'd have already decided he wasn't worth the trouble and walked away. But there was something that was telling her that Clark *was* worth the trouble. "It's fine," she said again, more sincerely this time.

"All right. I'm going to hold you to that. Oh, and listen, just so you know…the gossip thing you mentioned earlier?"

She sighed. "All over the newsroom?"

"All over the *building*," he corrected.

"What are they saying?"

"About what you'd expect, I guess. Mostly they're shocked that you'd give a hick like me the time of day."

She laughed, not believing that for a minute. "More like they can't believe a nice guy like you would fall for Mad Dog Lane."

He smiled, but she noticed he didn't deny it. "I'm not worried about what people say, and I hope you're not either."

"I'm not, really. I can't pretend that I like it, but it's like I said earlier — back when I thought that's what we were talking about — we knew it was going to happen. Reporters are nosy. They talk. Right now they're out there talking about what we're doing in here and wondering if we've already had our first fight."

"Ha! Shows what they know." Clark's eyes twinkled at her. "This is at least our second fight."

She laughed. "They're getting better, I think."

"Oh, definitely," he agreed. "And maybe later, we can even kiss and make up." He waggled his eyebrows at her teasingly.

"Sounds promising," she said lightly, as her stomach did little flip-flops. "But right now I really need to get to work."

"Sure." He opened the door and stepped aside, gesturing for Lois to precede him. She pasted a smile on her face as she walked out the door. There was no sense in giving the gossips anything else to chew on.

As they walked out, Jimmy came up, glancing from one of them to the other with frank curiosity. She expected she'd be seeing a lot of that, but that didn't mean she had to put up with it from Jimmy. "Did you need something?" she asked curtly.

"Uh, just to give you this." He thrust a pink message slip into her hand. "Inspector Henderson called."

"Thanks. I'd better get back to him." She gave Clark a quick smile and then hurried away, leaving him to bear the brunt of Jimmy's knowing looks.



The preliminary finding in Dr. Platt's death was suicide, Inspector Henderson said. It was so patently stupid that Lois wanted to kick something…or someone. Henderson came immediately to mind.

Because no *way* had Samuel Platt killed himself. Of that she was absolutely sure. He was a little kooky, yes, but he wasn't suicidal. And it was just too much of a coincidence that the one person who claimed to have proof that the Messenger had been sabotaged had wound up dead just days before the launch of the colonist transport. Something was going on, and Lois was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of it.

"Jimmy, have you heard from STAR Labs?" she asked, seeing Jimmy passing by.

"Sorry." He shook his head. "The Chief has me working on some photos for one of Myerson's stories this morning. I'll give 'em a call, though — see what they've found out."

"Thanks, Jimmy." She settled back into her chair, frowning down at her notes. STAR Labs was her only hope of understanding them now that Dr. Platt was dead, and if that lead fizzled, she honestly wasn't sure what she would do.

"Lois." It was a sign of her extreme preoccupation with her story that she didn't even notice Clark's approach until he spoke her name softly.

"Oh," she said, startled. "I'm sorry. I was just thinking."

"I could tell." He gave her an apologetic smile. "There's someone here to see you," he said. "Mrs. Platt and her daughter Amy." He nodded in the direction of the elevators where an attractive middle-aged woman waited with her daughter, a girl of about twelve who was wheel-chair bound.

"Oh, God," Lois whispered. "I don't know what to say to them." The Platts were divorced, she knew, but still, they'd had a life together — had created a child they both loved. And now he was gone and Lois was the nosy reporter who had found his body. What did you say to someone in that situation?

"Do you want me to come with you?" Clark asked gently. "I already introduced myself. I was in the elevator with them on my way back from an interview."

"Would you?" It had only been a couple of hours since she'd told Clark they couldn't possibly work together, but somehow, talking to Mrs. Platt seemed less upsetting with Clark by her side.


She stood up, and as they walked together over to where Mrs. Platt and her daughter were waiting, Clark kept one hand lightly over the small of her back, his touch just enough to reassure without being too possessive or patronizing.

As they approached, Mrs. Platt stepped away from her daughter, meeting Lois and Clark just far enough away from the little girl that they'd be out of earshot.

Lois offered her hand. "Mrs. Platt, I'm Lois Lane. I'm so sorry for your loss."

"Thank you," Mrs. Platt responded quietly. "I haven't told Amy yet. I don't…I don't quite know how. My husband was killed, Ms. Lane. I'm sure of that. The police are calling it suicide, but I know better."

Privately, Lois agreed, but she didn't say so right away. After all, his divorce was one of the reasons they were calling Dr. Platt 'suicidal.' "Mrs. Platt, when you and Amy left your husband…"

"No," she interrupted sharply. "We never left him. He made us leave. He was sure that they would come after him, and he was afraid that Amy and I would get hurt. He sent us away because he wanted us to be safe." She took a deep breath and glanced at her daughter. Lois could see the sheen of tears in her eyes. "Everything we worked for was for Amy. We wanted a cure for her, and the research they plan to do on the Space Station Prometheus was our only hope. My husband was *not* insane, Ms. Lane."

"Do you have any idea who might have killed him?" Lois asked.

"All I know is that Samuel knew that Prometheus was being sabotaged, and that knowledge got him killed," Mrs. Platt answered, with quiet intensity. "Please help us, Ms. Lane. Please don't let his daughter grow up thinking her father committed suicide."

"If anyone can do that, it's Lois," Clark said. Lois looked up at him with surprise, unsure whether she was more flattered or unnerved by the utter confidence in his voice.

"I'll certainly try," Lois agreed. "For what it's worth, I don't believe your husband committed suicide either. If I can prove that, I will."

"Thank you." Mrs. Platt pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed carefully at her eyes before turning a weak smile on her daughter. "Ready to go, sweetie?"

"Sure, Mom." Amy gave the adults a curious look but didn't ask any questions.

"Amy, it was very nice to meet you," Clark said, smiling down at the girl as he pressed the elevator button for them.

"You, too, Mr. Kent," she answered politely.

"I'll be in touch with you soon," Lois promised Mrs. Platt in a low voice. The older woman nodded and then stepped into the elevator, allowing Clark to help Amy in. Lois admired his easy way with the girl. She never knew what to say to kids and always wound up feeling awkward around them. But Clark didn't seem to be awkward around anyone.

Once Amy and Mrs. Platt were in, Clark stepped back so that the elevator doors could close, immediately giving Lois a troubled look.

"I hate thinking about that little girl finding out about her father," he said sadly.

"Yeah," Lois agreed. "And it doesn't seem like the police are interested in any theories except the one that says Platt committed suicide."

"Hey, Lois!" Jimmy called from across the newsroom. He was staring up at the television set. "The Congress of Nations is making an announcement about Prometheus."

"Turn it up," she ordered, already half-way there.

"…pleased to announce that we have unanimously decided that the Space Station Prometheus will proceed," the Congress's chairperson announced. Lois felt an immediate flutter of nerves. If the colonist launch was back on schedule, it was more critical than ever that she expose any ongoing attempt to sabotage the program. A hundred people would be going up in that launch — people like Mrs. Platt and her daughter Amy.

"What about Lex Luthor's proposal?" a reporter at the press conference asked.

The Congress's chairperson responded with a gracious thanks to Lex Luthor for his generosity in proposing a private space station, but made it clear that the Congress believed the space station should be a cooperative, global effort as had originally been intended. She went on to say that every precaution would be taken to ensure the colonists' safety, and that they anticipated a successful mission.

But what else could she say? Lois thought cynically, as the press conference ended and the small crowd of interested Daily Planet reporters dispersed. She sighed, and immediately she felt Clark's hand on her arm — just a light, reassuring touch.

"You'll figure it out," he said, as if he could read her mind. "You will."


After the announcement, Clark reluctantly parted from Lois and went back to his desk. He had liked the way it had felt, standing with her talking to Mrs. Platt and then afterward, standing next to her as they watched the televised announcement from the Congress of Nations. It had almost felt as if they were partners. And perhaps they would be one day, but he'd made a misstep that morning, and for all that Lois said things were "fine", he'd felt a slight chill from her ever since. She didn't seem to be angry, exactly, but she'd pulled away from him. He could feel the difference from the night before.

And the worst of it was that he knew he'd been in the wrong. Why had he jumped to conclusions? Why hadn't he just asked her about her night instead of getting angry and assuming she'd lied to him? His only explanation was that his fear for her had made him a little crazy, but he didn't think she'd be impressed by it. Clearly, the overprotective boyfriend held no appeal for her.

Determinedly not looking at Lois, he scrolled through the few files on his computer and pulled up the story he'd been working on before he'd left for his morning interview. He needed to drop in a few quotes, give it a final proofread, and then he'd be ready to send it to the Metro editor. But he'd no sooner pulled up his story than a slim, feminine body was draped over his back, derailing his thoughts completely.

Unfortunately, it was the *wrong* feminine body. Cat Grant was an all-out assault on the senses, and Clark's body tensed with nervousness the minute she came near him. Her makeup, her perfume, her barely-there, figure-hugging dresses, her low, purring voice in his ear… it was all too much for Clark. Today she was wearing a leopard-skin dress in what he would swear was the same fabric his mother had used to make the rejected Tarzan suit, a fact that had given him a private chuckle when he'd first seen her that morning. Now, with all that spandex pressing into his back, he found it much less amusing.

"Uh, Cat…" he said, trying to pull away.

To his surprise, she actually allowed it, turning so that she was nearly perched on his desk, facing him. "I heard a *terrible* rumor," she said, reaching out to caress his cheek and then tracing his lips with one scarlet-tipped finger. "Say it isn't so, Clark."

He sighed and twitched away from her touch. "First I'd have to know what you heard, wouldn't I?"

"You and Lois…?"

"Are none of anyone else's business," he said firmly.

"Then it *is* true." She arranged her face in an elaborate pout.

He looked down at his keyboard. "No comment."

She rolled her eyes, casting off the pout like an out-of-style scarf. "I'm in the gossip business, Clark. No one says 'no comment' when they're innocent. If there's nothing going on, they shout it from the rooftops."

"So you're saying that if I'm involved with Lois — and notice that I said 'if' — then I'm *guilty* of something?"

"Bad taste?" she suggested.

"Cat," he chided.

"Withdrawn." She sighed. "No point in rousing those chivalrous impulses. I suspect yours are stronger than most, anyway."

It suddenly dawned on Clark that he was seeing a new version of Cat. From the minute she had realized he really was involved with Lois, she had dropped most of her affectations and was allowing her real personality to shine through. "Those chivalrous impulses have already gotten me into trouble today," he admitted.

Cat chuckled. "I thought maybe there was trouble in paradise when Lois dragged you into the conference room this morning."

"We worked it out," he said, but he sounded a little doubtful, even to his own ears.

"Well, this should be fun to watch," Cat said. "Not as much fun as *we* could have had together," she paused to give him a sultry look, "but not without entertainment value."

"I'm so glad we can provide our co-workers with *entertainment*," he said dryly.

"Hey, if you wanted to keep this private, you shouldn't have been playing kissy-face in the middle of the newsroom."

Clark felt a flush creep across his cheeks. "We don't plan to make a habit of it," he said sheepishly.

"Are you blushing?" Cat exclaimed, leaning forward to peer at him more closely. "I didn't know men still knew how to do that!"

"Cat," Clark protested, blushing even harder.

She laughed. "You realize, don't you, that I'm going to have to throw myself at you even harder, now that I know how much it'll annoy Lois?"

Clark winced slightly, both at the thought that he would have to continue fending off Cat's advances and at the thought that it *would*, indeed, annoy Lois mightily, which was the last thing he needed just then. "I wish you wouldn't. I think I've annoyed her enough for one day."

"It'll be good for her," Cat assured him. "Don't want her taking you for granted."

"She might as well," he admitted. "I don't think I'm going anywhere."

Cat rolled her eyes. "Well now you're just being sickening. There's a reason guys like you are a dying breed, you know. Wearing your heart on your sleeve is a dangerous business."

"I know. And I never have before. But this time…" he shrugged.

Cat shook her head sadly and gave him a condescending pat on the shoulder. "Well, I can tell this is hopeless. But if it all goes to hell and you need someone to pick up the pieces…"

"You'll be the first to know," he promised, laughing when he realized she was just teasing.

"Until then, gorgeous." She blew him a kiss and slithered off his desk, sauntering away after tossing a little wave in Lois's direction.

Clark glanced that way and saw that Lois was watching them with a steady look in her dark eyes that he couldn't read. He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring — and innocent — smile, but he felt his heart rattle painfully in his chest when she didn't smile back — just bit her lip and went back to her work.

He didn't think he'd ruined things completely; after all, she'd wanted him with her when she talked to Mrs. Platt, so she wasn't utterly furious with him over their argument. But it was as if the night before, when their kisses had come as easily and naturally as their next breath, was nothing but a sweet dream, and this was the messy, complicated reality. His relationship with Lois so far had been a series of those moments, he realized — moments that showed him the promise of what could be, only to be snatched away and replaced by frustrating complications. He wished he could wipe the complications away with one broad sweep of his powerful arm, so that there was nothing left in the world but Lois and him and their feelings for one another. He wished it so much that he had to remind himself that flying across the newsroom and carrying her off to a deserted island was not feasible, no matter how tempting the prospect.

He watched her a little longer, wishing she would look his way just one more time — wishing for one reassuring glance to sustain him until he could talk to her again, kiss her again, remind them both of what existed between them. But she didn't look up, and when he felt his mind start to wander to how *remarkably* good she looked in a pair of jeans, he wrenched his thoughts back to his story with a sigh.

He was pathetic.


Clark had finished his story and was manufacturing things to do to make himself look busy when he heard Jimmy's delighted whoop and saw Lois leap out of her chair and fling her arms around him in an impulsive display of joy. Seeing it, Clark was jealous — not because he thought Lois had the slightest interest in Jimmy, but because he wished he were the one celebrating with her. He eavesdropped shamelessly and heard Jimmy's excited babble — he'd just come from STAR Labs, where they had confirmed Platt's theories to the letter — had agreed without equivocation that if the modifications laid out in Platt's report had been made to the Messenger shuttle, then it had indeed been sabotaged.

This, then, was what it looked like when a huge story broke, he thought. This was why Lois Lane loved what she did; Clark could see the rush of it sparkling in her eyes, the sheer relief and triumph of the moment. He wanted to touch her then, to feel a connection with her, to be a part of that experience. He wanted it so badly that he was half-way across the room before he even realized it, and when she leapt into his arms in her utter exuberance, he felt the rightness of it in the deepest part of his soul. These moments — these important moments — he and Lois were meant to share. It may have been nothing more than an impulse for her, but for him it confirmed everything he'd known with bone-deep certainty since the night he'd unbuttoned that first tiny button on her sweater.

She was only in his arms for one glorious moment before she was pulling away, too excited to stay still. It was like trying to hold pure energy, he thought indulgently…admiringly. He didn't need to be holding her, not just then. She was including him, and that was enough.

"Good news?" he asked teasingly.

"The best!" She was pacing now, practically shooting off sparks. "He was right…Platt was right, and STAR Labs was able to prove it. They did some hologram thingy, Jimmy says…"

"They recreated the launch," Jimmy added excitedly. "It was awesome!"

"…and proved that there was deliberate sabotage. I can write my story now — the first part of it, anyway. I'm still going to prove that Dr. Platt didn't commit suicide and find out who was behind all of this, but this is enough for now."

"It's incredible," Clark said, his admiration absolutely genuine. "Congratulations…and to you, too, Jimmy. You both should be proud."

"Thanks, CK," Jimmy said happily, and then with a not-so-subtle wink, he scooted away, leaving Lois and Clark as alone as they could be in the middle of the newsroom.

"Why don't we have dinner?" he blurted impulsively. "To celebrate."

"I'd love to," she said, and then her eyes grew wide. "Oh, no. I can't. I'm sorry…I just remembered…"

"Luthor?" Clark felt ice creeping around his heart as he said the name.

"Uh, yeah." She gave him a wary look, the delight of the previous moment fading from her expression.

"Lois…" He caught himself just in time. It was just business, she had said. He knew it wasn't true — wasn't true for Luthor, at any rate — but she'd taught him a lesson about getting between her and a story, and it wouldn't do for him to forget it so soon. "I hope he gives you a good interview," he said, the words unbearably bitter on his tongue.

"Thanks," she said softly. She looked up at him, glanced quickly away. "I'd, uh, better get to work on my story."

"Right." He turned to go, realizing he was being dismissed. He felt almost sick that the moment had come and gone so quickly this time, that the brief burst of joy they had shared had evaporated and become…this. This quiet dismissal. "Can I talk to you privately for a minute?" he asked suddenly, wheeling back around to face her. He looked at her intently, silently begging her to accept.

She looked mistrustful of the request but nodded once. "Conference room?"

"More privately than that," he said firmly. With one hand lightly at the small of her back, he guided her to the stairwell, a place most of the Planet employees eschewed in favor of the elevator. It was deserted for now, and he trusted his hearing to warn him should they be in danger of company.

The minute the heavy door shut behind them, he leaned toward her and put both hands against the wall on the two sides of her, effectively trapping her between his body and the cinderblock wall. "Lois," he breathed, loving the taste of her name on his tongue, loving the warmth of her body so close to his.

He rejoiced in the smile that spread across her face as she realized the reason for their private conference. "Is this the modern version of dragging me off to your cave by my hair?" she teased.

"Yep," he murmured, bending to kiss one tantalizing spot on her neck, the tender place where her pulse fluttered beneath his lips. She arched to give him better access, and he pulled her closer, letting his hands roam across her back, down her sides, finally daring to cup the perfect curve of her bottom and fit her to his body more intimately. He pressed increasingly fervent kisses to her neck, her jaw, and down into the V of her sweater, and it all felt so daring, so *dangerous*, even, with their co-workers just outside, but he reveled in her responses to him, rejoiced when her body trembled at his touch and he again heard the sweet sounds of pleasure and encouragement that fell from her lips.

When he could resist the temptation no longer, he crushed his lips to hers, exploring her mouth with thorough deliberation. It was nothing like the sweet, tender kisses of the night before. It wasn't even like the heady, sensual kisses on the dance floor of the Stardust. It was a claiming, pure and simple. The thought of her with another man — with a man like Lex Luthor — for even one evening was abhorrent to him. He couldn't let her go without a reminder of what he felt for her. And dear God, but he felt *everything* for her. Too much, really, in only a few short vertigo-inducing days. But it was there, and he wanted her to know it, to feel it to the depths of her soul, as he felt it in his.

"Whoa," she said, when he finally dragged his lips from hers and they both stood panting in the echoing stairwell. "Do I want to know what brought that on?"

"Probably not," he admitted.

"I had a feeling." She was quiet for a moment, and then she reached up and brushed his cheek with the back of her hand in a touching, tender gesture of reassurance. "You have nothing to worry about," she said finally. "It's business."

"I have no doubt that for *you* it is. But for him…be careful of him, Lois. There's something about him I don't trust."

"Like the fact that he's having dinner with me tonight," she said dryly.

"Yeah," Clark agreed. He wanted to say that there was more to it than that, but he knew that he couldn't without sounding irrational. The man was a billionaire, a philanthropist, and a top news story. Lois would be a fool to turn down dinner with such a man just because her new hayseed boyfriend 'had a feeling' about him. So he just said, "I admit, that doesn't exactly endear him to me."

"And it makes you go all caveman."

He smiled. "Very caveman. And not very professional. Should I apologize?"

"Be a little hypocritical of me to insist, under the circumstances. When I don't want a man to kiss me, he'll know it."

Clark found that terribly reassuring. He had an instant fantasy of Luthor trying something with Lois and her giving him a bloody nose or a fat lip for his trouble. He'd buy tickets to that.

"So we're okay, then?" he asked.

"We're okay," she said. "But…

"Uh oh," he said, smiling to cover his fear. He didn't want there to be a 'but', but somehow there always was.

"It's just that we said we were going to take this slow…get to know one another. And this doesn't feel slow. I don't mean the kissing, really, even though I guess that's true, too, but the thing this morning, with you worrying about me being out at night, and now you're upset about me having dinner with another man…"

"I'm not…" he tried, but she wasn't listening. She was on the move, pacing in the tiny stairwell, her words bouncing off the walls in crazy echoes.

"I'm not used to that, not used to having anyone care what I do or where I go, and it's just so sudden. I'm not sure I can… that I *am* what you want me to be. I don't know how to be someone's girlfriend, Clark. It's been years since I tried. I didn't even think that was something I wanted. So I need to kind of work up to the idea. And we just met, but you seem so sure of everything…"

"I am," he interrupted.

"How?" She whirled to face him, her arms crossed defensively. "How can you be so sure? You hardly know me, and a lot of what you know, no sane person would like."

He didn't argue with that. It was true — there were times in the past few days when he'd found her unlikable, but there was never a moment he hadn't felt drawn to her, and ever since they'd made love, he'd felt bound to her in ways even he didn't understand. "I'm just sure," he said simply. "I've been sure since practically the minute I met you."

"I wasn't even *me* the minute you met me!"

"It was always you." He was sure of that now. He took a step toward her, placed his hands on her shoulders. He could feel her tension beneath the thin fabric of her sweater, and once again, he had the impression of barely contained energy, as if his hands were the only things keeping her in place.

He ran a finger down the V of her sweater and then tugged it just slightly to one side, so that he revealed the upper swell of her left breast, the lacy edge of her bra. "You have a beauty mark right there," he said softly, and he bent to caress the tiny spot with his lips. "It's one of the first things I noticed about you that night." He lifted his head and met her eyes, which were hazy now and a little confused. "And when I kiss you there, I can feel your heart beating. *Your* heart, Lois. It was always your heart. No matter what you were wearing or how you fixed your hair, it was the heart of Lois Lane…wasn't it?"

"Yes," she whispered.

"Trust this, Lois," he begged her. He rested his hand over her heart, felt it stutter beneath his fingertips. "Trust *this*."

She took a deep breath, and that, too, he felt… felt the gentle rise and fall under his hand, felt the small puff of her exhalation against his neck. "I'm not sure I know how. It's happening so fast… it's not supposed to be like this."

"I've thought the same thing," he told her. "This isn't anything like I thought it would be. But I do know that sometimes life *does* change in an instant. I've seen it happen — seen people's lives completely altered by one single event. Sometimes it's something terrible — like Mrs. Platt today, and her daughter… their lives will never be the same. And sometimes it's something wonderful, like meeting a beautiful woman and realizing the minute you put your arms around her that she's the one you've been searching for… that no matter what happens, for the rest of your life you'll draw a line *right there*, at that moment. That from then on, everything that came before will seem like it happened in black and white." He saw tears welling in her eyes, threatening to spill over, and he reached up and cupped her cheeks in his hands. "If we can be born in an instant, and die in an instant, why can't we fall in love in an instant?"

She laughed, a shaky, uncertain sound, and turned her face to nuzzle his hand. "You have a silver tongue, Clark Kent. Did you rehearse that?"

He smiled. "Completely off the cuff." <<Straight from the heart,>> he wanted to say, but he didn't.

"Wow." She was quiet for a moment. "I want to believe you, Clark. But I quit believing in fairy tales a long time ago."

"Then I'm just going to have to make you believe again," he said, pulling her into his arms. He pressed his lips to the crown of her head, breathed in the sweet fragrance of her hair. "Someday, Lois Lane, I'm going to show you magic. I'm going to slay your dragons or fly you to the moon or whatever it takes to make you believe in fairy tales again."

She laughed softly and relaxed into his embrace. "You're pretty sure of yourself, Farmboy."

"No," he said, as serious as he'd ever been in his life. "I'm sure of *us*."


Clark paced around his cramped hotel room, every now and then darting a glance toward the bed and feeling a stab of nervousness. For the first time in days, the bed didn't inspire memories of his night with Lois, with all their attendant feelings of guilt and arousal. No, now when he looked at the bed, all he could see, all he could think about, was the bright red and blue suit spread out upon it — the hollow trappings of a hero.

Could he really fill that suit? Was he crazy to try? The suit itself seemed like a bold statement of pure confidence, but Clark felt anything but confident. Just the thought of putting on that suit made him feel like a sham, a fake. That was the suit of a different sort of man. A cool, level-headed hero. A stern enforcer of the public good.

A man of steel.

But Clark Kent was made of flesh and blood. This he knew. Could he don that suit and pretend otherwise? Could he pretend to be cool and stern and made of steel? Because if he couldn't, if he let even the smallest bit of Clark Kent seep through, then the suit would be nothing more than a ridiculous costume. He might have been inspired by Lois's outing as 'Wanda Detroit', but he realized that this was about a million times more dangerous than that. He was stepping out onto a public stage and assuming a role before a single line of dialogue had been written for his character.

He pulled his eyes from the bed and paced some more.

Glanced at the suit again.

Felt the nervousness sprouting like thistles in his belly.

He wasn't ready for this — wasn't ready at all — but he had the feeling that if he put it off, if he let the nervousness continue to grow, that he might never muster the courage to wear the suit. And there was still that feeling that this was a part of his destiny, something he was *meant* to do. Somehow the sight of the 'S' emblem on the suit reinforced that feeling. He didn't know what it meant, didn't know anything about Krypton at all, but he had the feeling that he had been born to wear that emblem. That one day, he would know what it meant and would be proud to be associated with it. It drew him to the bed, and he reached out to touch it reverently, wondering if he could ever be worthy of it…wondering if it was something to be 'worthy' of at all. It had been on his ship and on his blanket, but did that automatically invest it with higher meaning? Maybe it was just a logo, like the BMW propeller blade or the Mercedes star, something that would be found on many Kryptonian spaceships. It could mean anything or nothing, really, and as he fingered it, he remembered what his mother had said, that since he didn't know what it meant, he would need to be the one to make it mean something.

And that was almost scarier than knowing it was something he needed to live up to. He was on his own in this. There would be no script, no direction, no Greek chorus to back him up. There would just be Clark Kent, a flesh-and-blood man in a suit his mother had made out of remnants from the Fabric Hut.

He touched the 'S' one more time and then stepped back and peeled off his shirt and jeans. He stood there in his white briefs and socks, feeling unbelievably foolish and about as un-heroic as it was possible for a man to feel. He reached for the suit — anything was better than standing around in his underwear — and stepped into it, twisting awkwardly to work the zipper. The cape buttoned on (though his mother had promised to work on a better system for that) and that, too, was awkward, his large fingers fumbling with the small buttons along the back of the suit. And finally, he reached for the red briefs, which, when layered on top of his regular briefs and the blue suit, made him feel as though he was wearing an iron girdle. It wasn't entirely comfortable, but neither did he object to keeping his bits and pieces firmly subdued while he was wearing such a revealing outfit. Likewise, he thought the cape was extremely silly, but he appreciated that it covered that part of his anatomy about which women at the office were apparently already composing poetry.

He glanced at himself in the mirror… and saw Clark Kent looking back at him, shifting awkwardly from one foot to the other. He took off his glasses — that was better — and pushed his hair back off his forehead experimentally. It helped, but still there was something missing.

The solution, when it came, was simple: He thought of Lois. He didn't think about her alter ego Wanda Detroit — didn't waste time analyzing the differences between Wanda and Lois or wondering how she'd created her character. No, he just thought of Lois as she was right then — on a date with Lex Luthor. For all her reassurances, the thought of Lois in intimate conversation with Lex Luthor by candlelight was enough to make Clark clench his jaw and square his shoulders. It was enough to put a cold look in his eyes that bore very little resemblance to the easy-going Clark Kent.

He rested his hands on his hips, and right there… that was the guy. *That* was the man of steel. The suit didn't look foolish anymore because he wore it with the air of a man whom no one would dare to question. He wore it like a second skin, as if it were as much a part of him as his brown hair and dark eyes. He wore it as if the emblem on his chest already meant something — and maybe it did. He wanted to believe it did, anyway, and for the moment, that would have to be enough.

It took another few minutes to work out how to cover the suit with his regular clothes, and he had to remind himself not to squirm beneath the unfamiliar layers. There was a scratchy place on the zipper, and he made a mental note to ask his mother to fix it. It was one of the mysteries of his body that though his skin was invulnerable, he still hated itchy clothing and was as irritated by it as the next guy. And men of steel *didn't* fidget. He was pretty sure of that.

He didn't have much of a plan. In truth, his big "debut" had begun as nothing more than a way to fill the evening, a way to take his mind off of Lois's dinner with Luthor. So there was no big catastrophe to rush off to. He hadn't heard so much as a single siren since he'd gotten into the suit. But in a city the size of Metropolis, surely someone somewhere needed help. *Surely.* So he'd go find him…or her…or them…and help. Hopefully it would be something small. Something where he could practice his persona without garnering a lot of attention. Something that might start rumors but wouldn't generate huge amounts of publicity. He was new at this, after all.

So he took to the streets as Clark Kent, keeping one eye open for trouble while most of his mind was working out the best way to shed his outer layer of clothing when the big moment came. He noticed a number of dark alleys and hoped that one would be nearby when he needed it. He had a theory that he could spin out of his shirt and jeans, but he hadn't actually tried it yet.

Maybe he *should* have tried it.

His steps faltered as he imagined one disastrous scenario after another, most of which ended with him mother naked on a Metropolis street corner, and he almost turned back, almost convinced himself that he should practice some more in the privacy of his room before making any public attempt at a transformation.

But no, that was just cowardice talking. If he was going to do this, he needed to just *do* it. So why didn't Metropolis seem to be cooperating? Why had every citizen of this huge city suddenly decided to embrace peace and goodwill? Where was a robbery in progress, a mugging that needed stopping? Where were the *bad guys*, for crying out loud? And how was a good guy supposed to rehearse without them?

Without consciously thinking about it, he walked in the direction of the Stardust Lounge, his steps slowing as he heard the music and realized where he was. He considered going in and getting a beer, but he rejected the idea almost as soon as he had it. The person who had made that night magical wouldn't be there. She was across town, having dinner with Lex Luthor, and without her, the Stardust would lose it's magic and be nothing more than a slightly run-down bar with a better-than-average singer. So he walked on by with nothing more than a sweet pang of memory, and he kept walking until finally, nearly two hours after he'd set out, he heard the squeal of brakes followed by the sound of impact and glass breaking.

Instinctively, he took off running, finding the accident two streets over. A car had hit a telephone pole — had hit it so hard that it had splintered and was listing crazily to one side. The front of the vehicle had collapsed like an accordion, and Clark saw as he peered through the window that the driver was unconscious, his face a mass of blood.

The front door was jammed, so Clark ripped it from the car and reached in to switch off the ignition. By then, a crowd was beginning to form, and he heard sirens wailing in the distance. He surreptitiously blew on the engine to cool it.

"Hey buddy, ya need some help?" a man called, jogging over to the side of the car.

"He's unconscious," Clark said, reaching into the doorway and putting his fingers to the driver's neck, feeling for a pulse. He had heard the man's heartbeat already, of course, but the gesture provided him with cover while he x-rayed, looking over the top rims of his glasses for the source of the blood.

"Should we get him out of there?"

"Better not to move him," Clark answered. He knew that unless the car was in danger of exploding, it would be better to let the paramedics assess the injured man before he was moved. Clark could x-ray, could identify obvious injuries, but he hadn't had formal emergency training. The sirens were getting louder and help would be there in minutes if not seconds, so waiting was the best of his choices just then.

"Sheesh," the other man said, crowding Clark and peering over his shoulder. "Lotta blood."


"Think he was drunk? Betcha anything he was drunk."

Clark turned and glared then, fiercely enough that the man backed off. "Maybe you should wait over there," Clark suggested coldly, nodding in the direction of the small gathering.

The man was still backing away when they were surrounded by a swarm of police cars and ambulances, their lights bouncing around in the dark, their sirens screaming in Clark's sensitive ears. In seconds, Clark was pushed out of the way by paramedics and hustled off to one side by two police officers. He unable to give them much information, however, since he hadn't actually witnessed the accident.

It wasn't until he was walking away from the scene that he realized he'd forgotten to change. He'd spent the night trussed up in the clothing of two separate identities, and when the moment finally came to cast off one and become the other, he'd reacted instinctively as Clark Kent and forgotten the other guy completely.

With a sigh of disgust, he found a dark alley and shot into the sky. He'd just go flying — as Clark Kent, good Samaritan.

As for the heroic man of steel… apparently, it just wasn't his night.


"*Grrrr*!" Lois slammed the door and then tossed her purse onto the kitchen counter with a good deal more violence than necessary, causing her sister to blink at her in surprise.

"Should I not ask how it went?" Lucy asked.

"It was a big fat waste of time. *That's* how it went." Lois hurled herself onto the sofa and then kicked off the black heels that had been pinching her toes mercilessly for the last three hours. What had possessed her to buy the stupid things in the first place, she wondered, as she rubbed one foot. "I *hate* these shoes," she said out loud.

"Can I have them?" Lucy asked hopefully.

"If you like being crippled in the name of fashion, be my guest."

"Cool!" Lucy picked up the shoes and examined them with all the pride of ownership. "So why was your evening a waste of time? Didn't he ask you out again?"

"Sure, he did. He just didn't tell me one single useful fact for my story. I dodged his smarmy come-ons for hours and walked away with nothing." Lex Luthor had been as slippery as one of Clark's stir-fried eels and just about as appealing, she thought with disgust.

"So he was hitting on you?"

"Oh, yeah."

Lucy gaped at her. "Let me get this straight…an *incredibly* rich, handsome man was hitting on you — wants to see you again — and all you can think is that you didn't get the *story*? Lois, I think we need to work on your priorities."

"My priorities are just fine," Lois snapped.

"Yeah, if you happen to want to be *alone* for the rest of your life. You don't even give guys a chance, Lois. For all you know, Lex Luthor could be Mr. Right."

"Lex Luthor is *not* Mr. Right." She spoke the words with the utmost conviction.

"Because you won't give him a chance to be!" Lucy exclaimed.

"No, because I think I might have *met* Mr. Right, and he's not Lex Luthor!" Lois fired back. She regretted the words the minute they left her mouth. Lucy's exasperated expression was immediately replaced by one of consuming curiosity.

"You've met Mr. Right?" she repeated, dropping the shoes and giving her sister her full attention. "And when, pray tell, did this miracle occur?"

"In the last week," Lois admitted. "And if you tell Mother, I will *disown* you. Toss you in the street. *Take back my shoes*."

"Jeez, Lois. I'm not a monster!" Lucy gave her an insulted look. "So tell me absolutely everything. Each little disgusting detail. Is he rich?"

Lois thought of the Apollo, of the threadbare carpet and bare bulb swinging from the ceiling. She shook her head. "More like…poor as a church mouse. But he has *prospects*, as Mother would say." She smiled at the outdated phrase and Lucy giggled. "He's new at the Planet, and from what I've seen so far, he's very good."

"Wow. I haven't heard you say another reporter was good in, like… *ever*. He must *really* be good — or you must really be in love."

"I think it's a little of both. Objectively, he is good, but I probably wouldn't admit it if I didn't like him."

"You *like* him," Lucy said, grinning from ear to ear. "Which means, once we put it through the Lois Lane translator, that you're hopelessly, passionately in love." She giggled and began to sing-song, "Lois is in luu-uuve, Lois is in luu-uuve!"

"Would you shut up!" Lois reached for a throw pillow and swatted Lucy over the head with it. Over the sounds of her sister's laughter, she added, "I just met the guy. It would be ridiculous for me to say I was in love with him. Some of us like to take more than, oh, five minutes to make those kinds of decisions."

"And that's your problem right there," Lucy said, wrenching the pillow out of her sister's hands and bopping her back with it. "Falling in love isn't a *decision*, Lois."

"You've been reading too many romance novels, Luce."

"Yeah — from the stash right under your bed," she retorted. "C'mon. Why can't you just admit that you might be in love?"

"I've already admitted that he might be Mr. Right, which means that I think I might, possibly, one day know him well enough to be in love with him."

"Which is about as romantic as overgrown armpit hair." Lucy rolled her eyes.

"Well it's all you're going to get from me." Lois made to stand up.

"Oh no you don't," Lucy said, grabbing at her. "We're not done here. So he's not rich, but he has prospects. Is he handsome?"

Finding this topic rather appealing, Lois allowed herself to be tugged back onto the sofa. "Gorgeous," she admitted on a sigh. "Tall, dark, muscles in all the right places. But he has kind of a wholesome, boy-next-door thing going on, too. He grew up on a farm, and it's so much a part of him that you can practically still see the hay in his hair. He falls all over himself to open doors and calls any woman five minutes older than he is 'ma'am'."

"You're attracted to a farmer?" Lucy hooted. "Does he know that your idea of a day in the country is a trip to Centennial Park?"

"He's not a farmer, nitwit. He's a reporter. I said he *grew up* on a farm. But after college he traveled all over the world."

"An itinerate reporter," Lucy said, sounding skeptical for the first time. "Do you think he'll stay in Metropolis?"

Lois nodded slowly. "I think so. He'd be a fool to walk away from a job at the Planet."

"And from you," Lucy added loyally.

Lois laughed. "No, walking away from me would be the *smartest* thing he could do, but for some reason he doesn't seem inclined to do it."

"So all this *like* is mutual?"

"Uh…yeah. It seems to be." And that was still a wonder, but if she wasn't quite ready to believe in love at first sight, she was at least convinced now that *Clark* believed in it.

"Have you been on a date?"

"Not exactly." She immediately thought of the Stardust and the night they'd spent together. Her sister certainly wasn't going to get *that* story. Lois had lectured Lucy for years about her willingness to fall in bed with men she hardly knew, and she would never hear the end of it if she admitted that she'd slept with Clark the night she met him. "Work has been pretty busy with this Messenger story. We had lunch together yesterday, though, and he brought me Chinese food to the newsroom last night. It wasn't quite a date, but it was a lot more fun than tonight's dinner with Mr. I'm-So-Rich-and-Charming-and-Important."

"Did you just say *fun*?" Lucy stared at her. "I'm sorry — I was just talking to my sister, Lois. Did you happen to see where she went?"

"Oh, ha ha, Lucy. I can have fun."

"Yeah, you *can*. You just haven't *chosen* to in a decade. Seriously, Lois, you need to marry this guy. If he can make you quit working long enough to eat Chinese food and have fun, then he's definitely Mr. Right."

"Maybe," Lois conceded. "He's not perfect…" She thought of his protectiveness and his jealous tendencies, which could be annoying, but she also realized that they both stemmed from the fact that he cared about her — cared about her more deeply than anyone ever had. Was he too protective, too jealous, or was she just not used to having anyone love her enough to be those things? "…but he just might be perfect for me."

"Oh!" Lucy clapped her hand over her heart and pretended to swoon back onto the sofa. "That's the sweetest thing I've ever heard! I think I'm going to cry!"

"Luce. Come on." Lois gave her sister a shove.

Lucy laughed. "So does Mr. Right have a name?"

"Clark," Lois said softly, giving her sister what she suspected was an embarrassingly goofy smile. "Mr. Right's name is Clark Kent."


When he readied himself for work the next morning, Clark debated briefly over whether to wear the red and blue suit under his clothing. His false start the night before had been discouraging, but in hindsight, he thought that perhaps it had been a necessary baby step. He'd found the courage to wear the suit, had practiced his demeanor in front of the mirror, and when he'd gotten home, he'd spent a few minutes practicing spinning in and out of his regular clothes until he could manage the transition smoothly. So he hadn't actually used the suit to do anything heroic, but he was working his way in that direction. He figured he'd know the right moment when it came, and there was always a chance that there would be another incident like the sewer accident during the work day. If that happened, he would need to have the suit close at hand.

He reached for the blue spandex and put it on with far less angst and introspection than it had inspired the night before. It was better this way, he told himself. Ever since he'd gotten his extraordinary powers, life had presented him with one situation after another in which he'd felt led to intervene, even at the risk of his own security. It was ridiculous to think life would suddenly stop handing him those challenges now that he was better prepared to face them. He didn't need to try so hard, he realized. He didn't need to go looking for trouble. It would find him sooner or later, and all he needed to do was to *remember to change*. So he wore the suit…along with a dark shirt that would be sure to hide the electric blue spandex and bright red 'S'.

<<Remember to change,>> he told himself, as he left his hotel room.

<<Remember to change,>> he reminded himself again, as he entered the elevator at the Daily Planet.

<<Remember to change,>> he thought, as he helped himself to a cup of coffee.

And then he forgot all about the suit and the 'S' on his chest, when Pete once again stopped him to talk about football.


It felt a little bit like deja vu when, while he was still talking to Pete, Lois came barreling off the elevator, her briefcase over one shoulder and her purse clutched tightly in one hand. She met his eyes this time and gave him a little smile, and he must have returned it, must have let himself get completely distracted, because suddenly Pete laughed and punched him on the arm. "Guess the Big 12 can't quite compete, eh?"

Clark tore his eyes from Lois and gave Pete an embarrassed smile. "Sorry. The Big 12 is great. But…"

"Yeah, yeah. I was young once, too, you know. Go see your girl, Kent. There'll be plenty of time for football once you're married. Just ask my wife!" He laughed heartily at his own joke and gave Clark one more congenial slap on the back before grabbing a doughnut and ambling away.

Once he was free, Clark made a beeline to Lois's desk, not bothering with subtlety. Obviously, their fledgling romance was common knowledge in the newsroom; it would probably generate more talk if he avoided her than it would if he just went over and said hello. The time for coy games had passed, he decided.

"Morning," he said, smiling at her.

"Hi Clark!" she beamed at him. "Guess what this is?" She waved a floppy disk around excitedly.

"I'm going to guess…a story?"

"Yep. I stayed up half the night writing it."

He felt his chest tighten at this news, but he forced himself to sound normal when he said, "It must have been a good interview, then."

"What…? Oh, no." She waved a hand dismissively. "Lex Luthor was a complete waste of time. You were right. All he wanted was a *date*." She made a face that perfectly expressed her feelings on the subject, and he was so elated that it took every ounce of willpower he possessed not to sweep her up in his arms and dance with her around the room. All his worries had been for nothing! Her only interest in Luthor was in telling his story. And she'd *told* Clark that, of course, but he hadn't quite been able to believe it. He hadn't quite been able to believe that, given the choice between a farmer's kid from Kansas with hardly a dime to his name and a suave, confident, self-made billionaire, that she would choose the farmer's kid. That she would choose *him*, Clark Kent. And somehow the realization that she had chosen him — that there had been a choice to make — made all his worries about her date with Luthor worth it. He was almost glad she'd gone now — glad that they'd both been put to that test and emerged from it unscathed. Not that he ever wanted her to do it *again*, mind, but the once was good.

"I'm sorry," he forced himself to say. And he *was* sorry, he realized, that she hadn't gotten the story she'd gone after.

"It doesn't matter." She shook her head. "I haven't given up on finding out more about him. If he won't cooperate, then I'll just have to use other methods. Mr. Luthor ticked off the wrong reporter last night."

"Ticked off?" Clark forced his voice to sound light, but inside he was seething. If Luthor had laid a hand on her…

Apparently he didn't fool Lois for a minute. "It was nothing I couldn't handle, Clark." She laughed. "You look like you're ready to go take him apart."

His mouth quirked in a smile. "Well…the thought might have crossed my mind. I *did* promise to slay your dragons."

"That's very sweet…I think. But I can handle this particular dragon just fine on my own. I don't need a bodyguard, remember?"

"I remember," he said obediently, and then he decided a change of subject was in order. "So, is that the Messenger story then?" He gestured to the floppy disk she still had clutched in her hand like a prize.

"Yep! I just need to print it out and take it to Perry. This is going to be big, Clark. *Huge*." She sat down and switched on her computer before popping the disk into the slot.

"I don't doubt it." Her excitement was contagious…intoxicating. He could watch her like this for the rest of his life and he'd never get tired of it, never get bored. "So, can I bring the next Pulitzer Prize winner a cup of coffee?"

She laughed, obviously pleased with the description. "You don't have to do that. I'll get some on my way to see Perry."

"I don't mind." He reached for her coffee cup. "I was going to get some more myself, anyway."

"Well…thanks, then," she said, but her smile was distracted as her story popped up on the screen and drew her attention.

He made his way to the coffee pot, and as he fixed both of their coffees, he watched out of the corner of his eye as she skimmed the article, made a few changes here and there, and then, with a deep breath, sent the story to the printer. She was scooping up the pages when he returned and placed her steaming coffee mug on her desk.

"Wish me luck," she said, grabbing the coffee with one hand and her story with the other.

"Good luck."

She took off in the direction of Perry's office and then halted suddenly and turned around. "Since we, uh, couldn't have dinner last night," she said, "would you maybe like to go after tonight's meeting?" She seemed to be holding her breath, waiting for his answer, which was about the silliest thing he could imagine. She couldn't possibly think he'd say no, could she?

"I'd love to," he told her warmly.

She let out the breath she'd been holding, let her smile spread across her face. "Good," she said. "That's good."


When she emerged from Perry's office twenty minutes later, the smile was gone, replaced by barely controlled fury. She stormed over to Clark's desk and threw her story down in front of him.

"Hard facts!" she snapped. "He said it needed hard facts. He said he wouldn't publish it, that Platt's 'suicide' called everything he told me into question. And then he started stuffing *leaves* in his mouth. Seriously, Clark, I think Perry is cracking up."

"Paava leaves," Clark said, wincing slightly. "I told him at my first interview that the Yolngu tribe in New Guinea eat paava leaves to relieve stress."

Lois looked, if possible, even more furious. "Well that's just great! You tell him to *eat leaves*, and he just does it, no questions asked. I tell him the Messenger was sabotaged, and he acts like I'm asking him to believe in the Tooth Fairy."

She snatched up her story abruptly and whirled away from him.

"Where are you going?"

"To get some *hard facts*," she called back, already halfway across the room. "Jimmy!"

Her voice rang out across the newsroom like a shot, and Clark watched, just a little amused, as Jimmy nearly fell out of his chair, a look of blind panic crossing his face. As much as he loved being with Lois, he had the thought that he wouldn't trade places with Jimmy Olsen just then for all the money in the world.


Clark was out most of the afternoon, trying hard to come up with some decent stories for the next day's edition. Monday was a notoriously slow news day, and he was hoping to have some good, solid material in hand at the evening story meeting Perry had called. He and Lois had worked things out, so he didn't really fear for his job anymore, but it didn't hurt to impress the boss a little during this two-week trial period. He wanted to show that he was capable of being a big-city reporter and worthy of the faith Perry had shown in him when he was first hired. He also wanted to show that he might one day be good enough to partner with Lois Lane, though he never would have admitted that out loud.

He was pleased with his efforts. When he returned to the Planet, just in time for the meeting, he had notes for two different stories. One was a feel-good piece about a new senior center and one was about a break-in at the Metropolis University admissions office. That one showed promise for follow-up articles, since it seemed that some of the students' private data had been tampered with, and he thought that Perry would be pleased.

The newsroom was practically empty when he arrived, most of the reporters having already filed into the conference room for the meeting. He slid into his seat at the last possible second, giving Perry White an apologetic look as he did so. Perry nodded back at him in understanding.

"Sorry about the late hour, folks. There's just not enough time in the day these days." He looked around the room and then more pointedly at Clark. "Where are Lois and Jimmy?"

"Uh, I don't know," Clark said. "I've been out doing interviews all afternoon. I assumed they'd be here."

Perry sighed in irritation. "We'll start without them. Pete, what've you got for your section this week?"

As the sports editor made his presentation, Clark's mind wandered to Lois, as it was wont to do of late, but this time, he felt a twinge of unease. She'd been on the phone when he'd left the office, frantically trying to get the proof she needed for her story, and now she was gone, and no one seemed to know where. He knew she wouldn't have given up and gone home. She was somewhere working on her story. Somewhere she thought she could get the 'hard facts' Perry was demanding…

He slid back his chair and stood up.

"Kent?" Perry glowered at him. "This meeting isn't over."

"It's not like Lois to miss a staff meeting," Clark said. "I thought I'd… call around a little."

"Fine. Go." Perry dismissed him with a wave, and Clark didn't give him a chance to change his mind. He was out the door and up the stairs to the roof practically before the meeting had time to resume.

Darkness was falling, and Clark was grateful for the cover it provided. With an uneasy glance at the buildings around him, Clark took to the sky, flying in the direction of EPRAD — the only place he could think of where Lois might have gone.

When he arrived at EPRAD, flying right over the high fences and security stations, he let himself drift through the air as he scanned the various buildings with his X-Ray vision. It was a large complex, and he didn't find her in the first building, or the second, or the third. But then his sensitive ears picked up the sound of soft weeping.


He knew it was her. The sound wrapped itself around his heart and squeezed, and he couldn't have done anything *but* follow it. He found her in an enormous hangar, and a peek through the wall showed him that she was tied to a pole, tears streaking her cheeks. Jimmy was sprawled unconscious a few feet away, and for a moment Clark was so happy to have found them, so grateful that they were alive, that he didn't notice the chemicals trickling slowly across the floor. But then Lois glanced in that direction, stark terror in her eyes, and at that moment he realized their danger, realized he had only seconds before the chemicals met and caused a reaction that would surely destroy the building.

Later, he would attempt to rationalize it all. He would attempt to tell himself that his 'decision' was reasonable. He would construct a complex rationale of all the reasons that Lois Lane was the very best subject upon whom to test his new persona. His explanation would begin with his desire to protect Clark from her likely displeasure that he had followed her to EPRAD. She had made it clear that she didn't want him playing bodyguard while she was on a story. He supposed that the life-or-death nature of this particular situation might make her more apt to be lenient with him, but wasn't it better to remove Clark from the equation completely? Have her be rescued by the new hero in town?

His rationale would go on to say that if she didn't recognize him, it was likely no one would, and if she *did* recognize him, the fact that she cared about him would make her more likely to be sympathetic to his cause. Lois had seen him without his glasses. Lois had spent more time with him than anyone else in Metropolis. If anyone was going to spot Clark Kent hiding underneath all that spandex, it was Lois Lane.

He would tell himself all of that, and he would even sort of believe it, but deep down, he knew that his perfectly reasonable explanation wasn't the truth. The truth was that when he saw Lois tied up and Jimmy unconscious and realized the danger they were in, something in his brain woke up and shouted, "*Now*!"

There was no time to do all that thinking, no time to make a reasonable, rational decision. One second he was standing there in a coat and tie, and the next second he was wearing boots and a cape and ripping the door from the hinges.

He moved toward them in a red-and-blue blur and ripped the bindings that held Lois to the steel pole. She only had time to give him one shocked look before he gathered her to his chest with one arm and swept Jimmy up in the other, flying out the door just as the chemicals met and mingled and formed the deadly cocktail that would level the building in their wake.

He heard the evil hiss of that meeting, though Lois and Jimmy could not have. But he heard enough to brace for the explosion, to wrap his arms that much tighter around his charges and to fly as fast as he dared with two vulnerable people in his arms. They were barely clear when they were surrounded by a brilliant flash of light and then a deafening *boom* as the ravaged building breathed fire into the night.

He landed a safe distance from the building, his heart pounding in his chest at the nearness of it all, at how close he'd come to losing her when he'd only just found her. And he felt angry, too — coldly, blindly *furious*- at whoever had done this to her, certainly, but also at Lois, for putting herself in danger again, for apparently valuing her life less than he did.

"Are you all right?" he demanded, hearing that anger bleed into his voice with a sort of detached wonder. He hadn't meant to sound that way at all. He should be comforting her, shouldn't he? He should be reassuring her, not making demands.

"Y-yes," she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper. The fire still roared in the background, the heat and noise of it surrounding them; it was like trying to have a conversation in the deepest pit of hell. "Thank you."

He was going to respond, but just then, a helicopter lifted off from somewhere beyond the explosion.

"Look!" Lois exclaimed, pointing. "She…the woman who did this…" The look on her face was one of pure outrage. "She's getting *away*!"

Clark surveyed their immediate surroundings and determined that Lois and Jimmy were safe enough there for the moment. "Stay here," he ordered brusquely, and then he took off into the sky to intercept the helicopter.

Only this time, he was too late.

The helicopter exploded just as he approached it, and this explosion took him completely by surprise, knocking him backward in midair as the flames and debris rained down around him. There would be no possibility of survivors, he knew, and so for a moment, he just let himself float in the darkened sky as he tried to assimilate the events of the past few minutes.

Below, he could see that emergency vehicles had arrived, that firefighters were already dousing the flames. He watched, feeling strangely detached, as Lois left the place he'd ordered her to stay and approached an ambulance, getting help for Jimmy, who still lay unconscious on the ground.

It was an entirely reasonable and sensible thing to do under the circumstances, but it made him feel superfluous. There was no need for him to rush back to her side — no need to return to the scene of the explosion at all, actually, since the fire was quickly being contained and the only person injured — Jimmy — was now in the hands of the paramedics. He could see Lois talking, her hands moving rapidly, pointing this way and that, and he could see that Jimmy was coming around.

If he'd been there as Clark Kent, it would have been natural for him to return to be by her side, to comfort and support her, but he *hadn't* been there as Clark. He'd been there as… whoever he was when he wore the blue suit and the 'S' on his chest. And he had no idea whether Lois had recognized him. She hadn't indicated that she had, but there hadn't been much time for conversation, either. He felt the reaction come over him all at once — a mixture of elation that he'd actually done it — had worn the suit and used his abilities openly — and fear that in doing it, he might well have ruined his life.

But he'd do it again; there was no question of that. The thought of how near a thing it had been, how close he'd come to losing her, still bathed him in panic, even knowing that she was safe, that she was at that moment down below him, ordering the paramedics around and terrorizing the police. He wanted to swoop back down and carry her off in his arms. He wanted to kiss and touch every precious inch of her, to reassure himself that she was whole and alive and safe and his. He wanted to make love to her again — wanted it so desperately, so fiercely, that his whole body ached with it. He had thought he'd learned his lesson about rushing into intimacy, and he had planned on a slow, romantic courtship before they took that particular step again. But as he stared down at her from his perch in the clouds, he knew that he'd jettison those careful plans in an instant if he could only figure out a way to be near her.

There was no way, though. The blue suit distanced him in a way he hadn't expected. It would be too hard to go back there now — to explain a man in a blue suit and a cape descending from the sky and landing in the midst of all those flashing lights. What had come naturally in a moment of desperation felt awkward again now that the crisis was over. And even if he did work up his nerve to do it, he wouldn't be able to approach Lois in the way he wanted. He wouldn't be able to touch her, to comfort her — and just then, he wasn't sure he was capable of playing the polite stranger. He knew that if he got close to Lois, it would be with Clark Kent's heart pinned to his sleeve.

So, with one final look, he flew away.


<<Why aren't we dead?>>

That was the question that ran through Lois's mind as she watched the firefighters extinguish the last of the flames. The hangar in which she and Jimmy had been left to die had been completely obliterated from the landscape, leaving an empty space like a lost tooth among the hodgepodge of buildings that comprised EPRAD. She and Jimmy had been in that hangar, prisoners inside that now-empty space. They *should* have died. It should have been an absolutely foolproof way for Antoinette Baines to silence a couple of nosy reporters who had learned too much. There had been no way to break the bonds that had held her to that pole, and yet someone…*someone*…had snapped them effortlessly. Had snatched her up, and Jimmy, and flown them out of the building to safety.

And she *knew* they'd flown. It had all happened so quickly, but she knew the man hadn't been running. There hadn't been the jostling, up-and-down feeling of running. It had been swift and smooth, the only prevailing sensation one of wind whistling across her face and through her hair. And then there had been the deafening explosion, and she'd felt him hold her tighter, felt him protecting her with his own body before gently setting her down a safe distance from the building. Still, Lois might have doubted her own senses had he not then taken off into the air after the helicopter that had presumably carried Antoinette Baines to her own fiery death. But there was no room for doubt: She'd seen a man *fly*. Seen him just slip away from the Earth's gravity under his own power and take to the sky, his cape fluttering behind him.

Yes, he'd worn a cape. She remembered that. It had been red, she thought, and his suit was blue with some sort of emblem on the front, but she couldn't remember what the emblem was. She'd been clutched to his chest most of the time, unable to see it, and then it had been dark, the flames from the burning buildings making a crazy play of light and shadows across their faces. When he spoke, his voice had been gruff, but she remembered the way he'd held her, the way he'd shielded her from the blast, and then the gentleness with which he'd set her down in the field, and she couldn't bring herself to find him fearsome. No, whoever he was, whatever he was, he was good. She was certain of that.

And now, perhaps, he was dead. She'd last seen him flying straight into the helicopter explosion. If he'd been close enough, if he'd been near the helicopter when it exploded, he couldn't have survived it — *no* man could have survived it. So he had probably died. He had saved her, and then he had gone to his own death, and the horror of that was more than she could contemplate just then, so she pushed it from her mind. She concentrated instead on Jimmy, who was sitting dazed and aching in the back of the ambulance. She held his hand, as much for her comfort as for his, because they'd been through something together that night. They'd nearly been killed, and it had been her fault, her story, her harebrained scheme that had brought them to this place. She knew she should apologize, but apologies didn't come easily to her and the words stuck in her throat; she just squeezed his hand and hoped he understood.

"Ms. Lane?" A uniformed policeman approached, stern and no-nonsense, creaking as he walked. Why did policemen always seem to creak when they walked? Was it their shoes, she wondered, or their belts? "We need to ask you a few questions."

She nodded and ran her tongue over her dry lips, dragging her thoughts away from the creaking and back to the business at hand. "Yes," she said, her voice an unpleasant croak, though whether from the smoke or emotion she didn't know.

"What were you doing here tonight, Ms. Lane?"

"I was…" She looked at Jimmy and decided his injury had earned him a place in the story. "*We* were investigating the Messenger explosion. We had reason to believe the shuttle was sabotaged, and we came here looking for proof."

"Did you have authorization to be here?"

"Um, not exactly."

"Not exactly," he repeated.

"We sneaked in," she admitted. "We needed evidence, and it was obvious we weren't going to get what we needed through official channels."

"And did you find this evidence?"

She glanced at Jimmy, then back at the policeman. It went against the grain to give her story away before it was printed, even to the police, but she knew this had gone far, far beyond being just a story. "Yes," she admitted. "When we got here, we realized that the shuttle in the main hangar wasn't the Messenger. I'd seen the Messenger two days ago when it was first brought in. The whole left side was ripped out. The shuttle we first saw tonight wasn't like that, and we realized that someone at EPRAD must be trying to cover up evidence of something."

"And how had you happened to see the Messenger two days ago?"

"I, uh, sneaked in then, too." The policeman raised an eyebrow at that but didn't comment. "Lives were at stake," she added, more sharply. "The next launch is tomorrow afternoon. If the Messenger was sabotaged…"

"I understand, Ms. Lane. We'll get to your unorthodox methods of investigation in a bit. For now, I need to know what happened tonight."

"She caught us is what happened," Lois said bitterly. "Antoinette Baines. She's the one who's behind all this, as near as I can tell. We found a second hangar — the one with the real Messenger wreckage — and Baines caught us there. One of her thugs hit Jimmy and knocked him out, and then they came after me, too, and tied me up. She left some chemicals leaking across the floor that she said would blow us up. She called it their 'penalty for trespassing'."

"But you *weren't* blown up," the policeman noted, nodding in the direction of the smoldering buildings. "How do you explain that?"

"I, um, can't, exactly." Lois admitted. "A man saved us. I don't know how he did it, but he saved us."

"A man?"

"A man in a blue bodysuit and a red cape." She winced slightly, knowing full well how it sounded. But it was the truth, damn it, and there was nothing else she could say. "He snapped my restraints, grabbed me and then Jimmy and flew us to safety."

The police officer's expression changed for the first time. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open slightly before he caught himself and pasted the cool look of disinterest firmly back in place. "He *flew* you?"

"He flew us," she said firmly. "Look, I know how it sounds…"

"Were you injured, Ms. Lane?" The man sounded genuinely concerned. He shifted from one foot to the other, and she heard the creaking sound again. "Perhaps a head injury like your friend here? Should we get the paramedics to…?"

"No," she snapped. "I wasn't injured at all because the man flew us out of there. I know it sounds crazy, but that's what happened. And I can't explain it any better than you can. But a man in a blue suit and a red cape saved my life tonight, and you can just write that down in your little book because I'm not changing my story just because you find it implausible."

They stared at one another for the space of several seconds, and the police officer seemed to puff up with irritation. "And where is this flying man now?"

"He's probably…" She couldn't bring herself to say it. "He flew off after the helicopter. I saw a helicopter taking off and thought that Antoinette Baines might be in it, might be getting away. I still think that. He flew off after it, and then it exploded in midair. If he was close enough, he wouldn't have…wouldn't have survived it," she finished in a whisper. "He saved our lives, and then he…"

"Ms. Lane, you've had a stressful evening…"

"Don't patronize me," she snapped. "I know you think I'm crazy, but I'm not. This happened exactly the way I've told you."

"Mr. Olsen," the policeman said, turning to Jimmy. "I don't suppose you saw this flying man?"

Jimmy gave Lois an apologetic glance and shook his head. "The last thing I saw was that Dr. Baines and the two guys with her. Then the lights went out. But if Lois says there was a flying man, I believe her." Lois noticed he didn't look at her as he said it. Clearly, he didn't believe her story any more than the policeman did, but the show of solidarity was nice, she supposed.

The policeman heaved a long-suffering sigh. "Fine," he said. "We'll need a complete statement from both of you later. Someone will be in touch. In the meantime, if anything else comes to you about this *flying man*, I'd appreciate it if you'd let us know."

He strode away and one of the paramedics came forward to fuss over Jimmy some more, insisting that he had to go to the hospital.

"I'm fine now," Jimmy protested. "Just a headache."

"You should go, Jimmy," Lois told him, giving his hand one last squeeze. "You were unconscious for a long time."

"Are you sure you're OK?" he asked.

"So you think I'm crazy, too."

"I…no! It's just…"

"It happened, all right? The only reason we're not dead is that a man in a blue suit and a red cape saved us. And I don't know any more about how he did it than you do."

"Do you think he might have been, like, a guardian angel or something?" Jimmy asked hesitantly.

"I…" The thought hadn't occurred to her. She didn't believe in guardian angels, for one thing, and the man had felt too real — too solid and warm and *human* to have been any sort of angel. "No." She shook her head firmly. "He wasn't anything like that. He was real."

"I don't mean that you imagined it. Just that…well, you did say he *flew*."

"I said it because it happened. But he wasn't an angel." There was *something* — something teasing the edges of her consciousness — but it stayed frustratingly out of reach. "I don't know who he was or why he could do what he did, but we owe him our lives, Jimmy. I do know that."

Jimmy nodded and then winced, his hand going to his head. "I feel like my brains are scrambled," he said.

"Go to the hospital." She leaned over and pressed a kiss to his cheek, almost smiling when she saw how startled he was by the gesture. "I'm glad you're OK," she told him.

He gave her a weak grin. "Are you kidding? It's worth a concussion to work with the great Lois Lane."

And that *did* make her smile.


Word of her exploits made it back to the Planet before she did, thanks to the police calling to check up on her story, and she was greeted at the elevator by a grim-faced Perry White. Just behind him stood Clark, looking utterly shaken. She fully expected a lecture from him, but instead, he came forward and opened his arms, and she stepped into them, little caring that Perry was standing right there watching.

"I'm sorry," she mumbled into his shirt front. His arms were around her, secure and sustaining, and it felt so wonderful that she wanted to stand there, just like that, for the rest of her life.

"What for?" he murmured.

She shook her head, unable to explain. But he'd been sick with worry about her, that was clear, and it was just one more thing to feel guilty about. She'd been stupid, going to EPRAD without telling anyone, risking not only her life but Jimmy's. She'd gotten the story in the end, but she was being tortured by the fact that if not for a flying man in a red cape, she and Jimmy would be dead. And that was a pretty big 'if'.

She felt his hand caressing her hair in a soothing motion. "I'm just glad you're all right," he said softly. "I'm so glad you're all right. Lois, if anything happened to you…" His voice broke and he stopped and heaved a shuddering sigh.

"I know." She saw it then — saw the thing they had found in one another stretching out into the future, saw all that it could be…all that it already was. It had almost ended that night, cut short by a fiery explosion, and she knew suddenly that she wanted it as much as he did. She wanted to see all that promise fulfilled, one day at a time. "I know," she said again.

She felt his lips brush gently against the top of her head. "And you're really all right?"

She nodded and pulled away slightly, glancing at Perry and then back at Clark. "I'm fine. Jimmy was knocked unconscious, so they took him to the hospital. I told him I'd pick him up…give him a ride home."

"I'll take care of that," Perry said gruffly. "You don't need to be going anywhere else tonight. Let Kent here see you straight home."

She shook her head. "I need to write my story. I got those *hard facts* you wanted."

"Damn it, Lois, you know good and well that when I said that I didn't mean for you to go off and risk your neck!"

"I know you didn't, and I didn't mean to risk my neck either — or Jimmy's. But that doesn't change the fact that I got all the evidence I needed. When Jimmy and I sneaked into the main hangar, I realized the scientists were working on a phony shell." She told him then about finding the second hangar with the *real* Messenger wreckage and about being caught by Baines and her men.

"I fought," Lois said, "but Jimmy was unconscious and Baines had a gun, which kind of put the odds in her favor."

"I'll say." Clark looked vaguely sick.

Lois put a gentle hand on his arm and felt the tension there. "They tied me up and left some chemicals leaking across the floor. The something-methyl-something-zine and the nitrogen something-or-other. She said that when they met, they would cause a reaction…would blow us up. And they would have if we hadn't been rescued."

"Ah, about that, Lois," Perry said, giving her a disapproving look. "I talked to Henderson, and he said you gave the officer at the scene some cockamamie yarn about a flying man. He wasn't too happy about it, either. So what's the real story?"

"The real story is that I was rescued by a flying man," Lois said belligerently. She didn't like the idea of Henderson and Perry talking about her behind her back — not one little bit. It smacked a little too much of the old boy network for her taste. "I wouldn't lie to the police, Perry, and I wouldn't lie to you, either."

"Honey…" he began.

"Don't 'honey' me," she said. "I know what that means! You think I got hit on the head or had a hallucination or something. But I didn't. And there's no other way I could have gotten out of that hangar. I was tied up and couldn't budge, and Jimmy was out cold. So if the flying man hadn't saved me, I'd…"

"We get it," Clark interrupted hastily. "Let's just…not think about that, all right?"

She turned to him. "Do *you* believe me?" she asked.

"I…" He swallowed hard. "Um…yes. I believe you. I'm just grateful to…him, whoever he was." His hand went to his glasses and then dropped quickly back to his side, a nervous habit she found endearing. "Would you, uh, know him again if you saw him?"

"Would I *know* him? Of course I'd know him! He wore a bright blue bodysuit and a red cape…and he flew! It would be kind of hard to confuse him with someone else."

Perry sighed. "Lois, is it possible you were drugged?"

"No! I was never unconscious — not for a minute. They didn't give me anything, and even if they had, a hallucination certainly couldn't have rescued me from that building. It was a *man*, Perry. A living, breathing man."

"Who flew." Perry put his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth.

"Who flew," she repeated emphatically.

He shook his head. "Well, I can see I'm not going to talk you out of it, but know this," he fixed her with a stern look, "the Daily Planet isn't printing a single word about flying men. I'd be laughed right out of the editor's office if I let something like that go into print."

Lois gasped in outrage. "Perry! This is the biggest news story in…well, *ever*! How can you even consider not printing it?"

"I can consider it because this isn't the National Inquisitor. This is the Daily Planet, damn it, and we have a reputation to uphold. People know when they pick up the Daily Planet that they're going to get solid news, not sensational clap-trap about flying men. Now, I'm sorry, Lois, but that's my final word. You write your story about the Messenger and get it to me as quick as you can. We'll get it in tomorrow's edition. But not one word about the flying man."

He headed for his office, a sure sign that he had no intention of continuing the argument, and she turned to Clark with an outraged look. "A man *flew*, Clark," she said. "And he doesn't want the story."

"I'm sorry," he said softly, and for some reason, he looked so miserable as he said it that she couldn't bring herself to continue ranting at him.

"Do you really believe me?" she asked.

"I…Lois, I…" He raked his fingers through his hair.

"You don't," she said flatly. "You were just saying that to be nice."

"No! It's not that. I *do* believe you, I swear. I just wish I could…make this right somehow. I want to…to…do something, but I'm not sure…what's the right thing to do."

She gave him a little smile. "You don't have to do anything, Clark. None of this is your fault."

He looked, if possible, even more miserable, and she thought it was very sweet that he was so concerned for her. It felt good to have someone on her side, even if there wasn't much he could do except support her. She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek.

"Lois, could we go somewhere?" he blurted, reaching up to brush his fingers across the spot where her lips had just been. "Somewhere where we could be alone?"

"Oh, I'd love that, and I know we were supposed to have dinner tonight, but I really can't." She gave him a regretful look and hoped he could see how sincerely she wished they could spend some quiet time alone together. "I need to get this story written, and then I really, really want to get out of these smoky clothes and take a long bath. Could we do it tomorrow, maybe?"

"Uh, yeah," he said, shoving his hands in his pockets and stepping back, putting distance between them. "I guess…tomorrow will be fine."


Clark hovered in the clouds over the Daily Planet building, shutting his eyes against the night-time glare of Metropolis sprawled out beneath him and imagining instead the small, disheveled woman he'd left working in the quiet newsroom.

He shouldn't have left her. He shouldn't have let her put him off. He should have insisted that they go somewhere where they could talk, where he could tell her the truth. But he'd let her send him away, and at the depths of his cowardly heart, he knew that he'd *wanted* to be sent away. Hell, he'd almost *run* when given the chance. Because, while he'd convinced himself that rescuing her in the suit was the best solution at the time, he hadn't convinced himself that it was going to all work out in the end. And that moment — that moment when he told her who and what he really was — was one he would never be able to take back.

He knew he had to tell her, of course, but he had no idea how he should go about it, or — and this was terrifying — what her response would be. She'd said the flying man was the biggest news story *ever*. How much bigger would the story be when she found out that he was an alien? That the flying was only one of his strange abilities? Would she understand his need for secrecy, or would her passion for printing the truth win out over her feelings for Clark Kent?

He wanted to believe that she'd protect him, even at the cost of a story, but she hadn't exactly been predictable during the short time they'd known one another. And then, on the heels of that thought, came a tidal wave of guilt for doubting her. He loved her and he was fairly certain she loved him. Of course she would understand, would protect him. He should just tell her the truth. He should just go right back into that newsroom and *tell* her.

The very thought, however, inspired old feelings of fear — feelings so deeply ingrained that he wondered if he'd ever shake them. *Flight*. That was the urge those feelings inspired. Flight, which for him was both a literal and figurative concept. Whenever someone got too close, Clark Kent flew away. Started over. Began again in a new country, a new town, a new paper. A few polite excuses, a few white lies, and he was off, never to be seen again. Starting over had become his specialty, but each flight diminished him. Each flight left him a little poorer, a little more out of step with humanity. He didn't just leave places behind; he left *people*, people who might have had the potential to be real friends had they ever been allowed inside the heavily-guarded perimeter of his life. Instead he'd walked among them for a short time, taking care to leave no footprints, no marks, nothing that might be remembered. And when he left, he had a few new articles in his portfolio — articles about people he didn't really know and hadn't really touched. He'd observed, that was all. He'd spent his life as an observer, his nose pressed to an invisible pane of glass, searching for a place where he could be more. A place where he could belong.

But Metropolis was different. He had a feeling that if he left this time, he'd be giving up every dream he'd ever had of a normal life. Because *this* was the place and the life he'd been searching for. He'd known it since he first stepped off that bus and onto a busy Metropolis Street. He'd known it since he walked into the Daily Planet newsroom for the first time. He'd known it since the first moment he held Wanda Detroit in his arms. It had seemed confusing and contradictory at first, but *this* was the life he was meant to live. So while every instinct cried out for flight, his heart was keeping him pinned to that piece of sky just over Metropolis. His heart was telling him that his *life* was down there, and if he left it, if he ran away from it, there would be no starting over again for Clark Kent. There would only be an alien in a blue suit with a mysterious S on his chest — a person he wasn't sure he even knew how to be.

He drifted, letting the wind buffet him this way and that, but always keeping the Daily Planet in sight. He pictured Lois as she'd been when he'd left. She'd been sitting at her desk, working on her story, and he'd watched as she'd reached up and brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes… watched as she shifted wearily in her chair as she checked her notes. Her brows had been knitted together in thought, and he had wanted to kiss away those lines on her forehead, to massage away the tension in her posture. Instead, he'd given a quick wave in her direction — a wave he was certain she hadn't even seen — and escaped to the stairwell. Seconds later, he'd been up in the sky. His very own personal hiding place.

He glanced back down at the Planet building. He was farther away from it now, but it was still in view, the venerable old globe seeming to keep watch over the busy Metropolis street. It would be so easy to go back, to wait on her to finish her story, to insist that they needed to talk. He could see her home… make her a cup of tea. Take care of her. That was what he *should* do. And then he should tell her the truth.

She'd been so tightly bound to that pole. He had seen red marks on her wrists where the straps they'd used to tie her had bitten into her flesh. And Baines had had a gun, Lois said. She'd been held at gunpoint that night, tied up, and left to die in an explosion. And then a flying man had come out of nowhere and rescued her before disappearing into thin air, confusing her and subjecting her to ridicule in the process. He *had* to tell her that he was that man. He *had* to tell her the truth. But did it have to be right now? Did it really have to be *this night*, which had already been stressful enough for both them, when he told her that her new boyfriend was an alien?

Surely it didn't. Surely he was only looking to assuage his own guilt. She was working on her story… busy. She'd had a long, hard day. He would know when the time was right to tell her, he thought, just as he'd known when the time was right to make his debut in the suit.

And whatever might come of it, he couldn't bring himself to regret that decision. Not when the result was a living, breathing Lois Lane. He thought of how naturally she'd gone into his arms when she got back to the Planet, how right it had felt to be the one to comfort her, and he knew that this time, he wouldn't fly away, wouldn't go back to being a mere observer. He couldn't. It might all end in disaster — he could think of ten such scenarios off the top of his head — but he couldn't fly away from the promise of Metropolis. Of the Daily Planet. Of Lois Lane.

He wouldn't give up Clark Kent's life without a fight.


Lois was greeted with cheers when she walked into the newsroom the next morning, and Clark was first in line to hand her a cup of coffee and congratulate her on the story that blazed forth from the front page of the Daily Planet. It was a big story, an important story, and she had nearly died for it. She deserved every accolade, he thought, content to step back and watch her bask in the limelight.

And she wasn't the only one: Jimmy was back, having been released into Perry's care the night before, and he was enjoying his part in the adventure, the story growing a little each time he told it.

"No, I wasn't scared," he bragged, smiling at a young advertising intern. "I was just concerned about getting the truth. The colonist launch is going up today, you know, and if it wasn't for Lois and me, all those people could have died."

Lois glanced at Clark over the rim of her coffee cup, and he could tell that she was smothering a grin. He smiled back at her, and she sidled over to him.

"Jimmy's enjoying this," she murmured.

"And you're not?" he teased. "Biggest story of the year?"

"Well…just a little," she admitted. "But the nearly-being-killed part I could have lived without. Jimmy got to sleep through all that…not that you'd ever know it to hear *him* tell it."

Clark laughed. "Thank goodness he was there."

"Yeah…my hero. The way he laid there on that floor. It was inspiring, I tell ya." She turned serious then. "But there was a *real* hero last night, Clark, and I want to know who he was. He flew straight into that helicopter explosion, though, and I'm afraid…what if he died? What if he died right after saving me, and I can never even thank him? I've been trying to remember…I don't think I even said thank you. I was just so shocked, you know, but I should have thanked him."

Clark felt his guts twisting inside him. <<You did thank me,>> he thought, but of course he couldn't say that out loud.

He couldn't say anything. Couldn't reassure her at all. She thought he had *died*. She thought her 'hero' had been killed, when in fact he was standing next to her, sipping coffee with cream and two sugars. But it wasn't the time to tell her that — not with so many people around. Even a trip to the stairwell was too risky when he had no way of predicting her response. What if she yelled? Or ran away from him? What if she went straight to Perry and told him she'd been right, that Clark Kent was bad news…or good news…*front page* news?"

"I just spoke to ground control over at EPRAD," Perry said, joining them. "They spent the night going back over the colonist launch vehicle with a fine tooth comb and discovered the same coolant problem in the protective bands that caused the Messenger explosion. They've got it fixed now, and the launch is all set for this afternoon. Good work, Lois."

"Thanks, Chief," she said. She was trying to play it cool, but Clark could tell that she was delighted with herself. She wasn't actually saying, 'I told you so,' but she didn't have to. Her 'I told you so' was splashed all over the front page of the paper.

"There's more." Perry looked like he was about to break into a jig. "To show their gratitude, they're going to let you be the only reporter to board with the colonists. You'll have to leave before the final countdown, of course, but you can get some last quotes from them for tomorrow's edition."

"Hey!" Clark exclaimed. "That's incredible! Congratulations, Lois."

"Thanks," she said, giving him a smile so dazzling it made his heart flip-flop in his chest. "Listen, why don't you come with me? I'll interview the colonists, and you can work the crowd outside. We'll write it up together."

He froze, for a moment too surprised to answer. She wanted to *work* with him! She was opening that door, letting him into her professional life. And it was more than just that, he knew. She was telling him that she trusted him not to betray her as Claude had, not to break her heart. And he was both elated and devastated.

Because he didn't deserve her trust, did he? He'd deceived her…was still deceiving her. And the rock-bottom truth was that he wanted to keep right on deceiving her. He didn't want to throw up roadblocks of honesty, not when things were finally going so well.

She thought her mysterious hero had died. It would be so simple to let her go right on thinking that. The events of the previous night would eventually fade in her memory. The edges would soften, would blur, and the man in the blue suit and red cape would start to feel like a dream that ebbs away with the dawn.

But Clark would be right back where he started, hiding his abilities not only from the world but from the woman he loved. And he knew he couldn't do it. Not forever; and with Lois Lane, he wanted forever. The blue suit and everything it stood for was terrifying, but it was his best hope of staying in Metropolis, of staying with Lois. He had to wear the suit again, and he had to tell Lois he was doing it.

But he didn't have to like it.

An old longing pierced him, like a past injury flaring up, startling him with remembered pain. He'd thought he'd conquered it, thought he'd laid the futile desire for normalcy to rest, but no…it was still there, just waiting to attack him at vulnerable moments. How he wished he actually could be what he seemed. He wished he could give Lois a farmer's son from Kansas instead of a foundling from Krypton. In the end, he was both, of course, but he knew that he would always be more defined by his differences — or maybe it was just that he would always define himself that way.

"Clark?" she said, and he saw the hurt flash across her face before she masked it with a look of indifference. It had taken a lot for her to make that offer, he knew, and his reaction had been completely wrong.

"I'd love to work with you," he said quickly, almost tripping over the words in his haste to get them out. "That would be…incredible, Lois."

"Sounds like a fine idea to me," Perry boomed, clapping him on the back. "I always did think the two of you would make a good team."

Clark smiled to himself, remembering perfectly well that Perry hadn't thought Clark Kent would last two weeks. But it didn't matter now. "Thanks, Chief," he said, giving Lois a significant look. "I've always thought so, too."

Lois rolled her eyes at him, but he was sure he saw the slightest tinge of a blush on her cheek. Perry laughed and shot him a wink and seemed on the verge of saying something else when Cat Grant insinuated herself into their little group.

"Well, well, well, Lois," she said, offering her hand. "It seems congratulations are in order."

Lois's eyes narrowed suspiciously, and she shook the proffered hand as quickly as she could. "Thanks."

"But I want to hear the *real* story," Cat continued, threading her arm through Clark's and leaning into his side. "I want to hear about this mysterious *blue man* who supposedly flew in to rescue you."

Lois tensed and shot a reproving look at Perry.

"Don't look at me," he protested, holding up his hands in a gesture of innocence. "I expect that's your leak over there." He nodded in the direction of Jimmy, who was still holding court with several young female employees.

Lois let out a hiss of breath. "He wasn't a *blue man*. He was wearing a blue *suit*."

"Like Clark's here, you mean?" She smoothed one hand down Clark's lapel, which wasn't even blue, he thought with irritation. It was dark grey. He didn't even own a blue suit… well, except for the one he'd worn the night before.

As politely as he could, he removed her hand and disentangled himself from her grasp. Not only did he not appreciate her obvious attempt to needle Lois, but he didn't much want Lois associating her hero from the night before with Clark Kent. Eventually, yes, but not right then, in the middle of the crowded newsroom.

"No, not like Clark's. It was…tight…like a ski suit or something. And he wore a red cape over it, and…" Her brow furrowed in thought. "I just remembered! He was wearing red underwear."

Clark closed his eyes briefly in an agony of embarrassment — he was never going to speak to his mother again, he really wasn't — while Cat tossed her hair over her shoulder and gave a shout of throaty laughter. "You must have really hit it off if you were showing each other your underwear. Are you sure you want Clark to know about that?"

"His underwear was on the *outside* of his suit," Lois snapped. "I don't know why. Maybe it's the custom where he comes from."

"And just where *does* he come from?" Cat persisted. "Did you exchange addresses? Give him your phone number?"

"I have no idea. But he can't be from here. I haven't noticed a lot of the men around here *flying*, have you?"

"Lois, I don't know what you're up to with this, but you need to give it up," Perry said sternly. "This business about the flying man isn't going to do your credibility as a reporter a bit of good."

Lois wheeled on him, her eyes snapping fire. "Don't you *dare* question my integrity as a reporter! I've never knowingly printed a word that wasn't the truth, and you know it. But I'm also not going to lie just because you don't happen to like the truth. It *happened*. I can't explain it, but it happened. And unless he died last night, somewhere out there is a man in a blue suit who can *fly*."

"Ri-ight," Cat drawled. "Well, when he sees Elvis, you should have him get Perry an autograph."

Clark saw Lois's cheeks flame, though whether it was from anger or embarrassment he wasn't sure. But he hated it, whatever it was. He hated that she was being ridiculed over something he had done.

"I've seen him, too," he blurted.

Three pairs of eyes stared at him.

"I've, uh, seen the man Lois is talking about. She's telling the truth. He really can fly."

"You've seen him," Perry repeated.

"Uh, yeah. The other night. I was out for a walk, and…" His mind scrambled around for something to say. Something that couldn't be proved or disproved. Something close enough to the truth that he could make it believable. "The guy Lois was talking about helped after a car accident," he finished. It was almost the truth, he consoled himself. It *would* have been the truth if he'd remembered to change.

Perry gave him a look of undisguised disbelief. "He did, huh? What did he do, exactly?"

"He, um, couldn't do very much. He pulled the door off the car and checked on the driver. That was all I could see. He, uh, left when the paramedics came."

"And where did this happen?" Perry asked.

He couldn't tell him that. The accident would be on record, and Clark himself was listed as the witness who had checked the driver. "I…don't remember. I'd wandered around a lot that night. Somewhere on the South side."

"I see. So you were somewhere you can't remember when you saw a flying man in a blue suit help out at an accident scene. Is there some reason you didn't think this was *newsworthy*?"

Cat snickered, and Clark shot her a dark look. "I, um, didn't think you'd believe me."

"Because it's a load of hogwash," Lois said impatiently. "Look, Clark, it's not that I don't appreciate what you're trying to do, but I don't need you to make up stories to protect me. I know what happened to me last night, and I don't care if nobody else on Earth believes me."

"I'm not making it up, and I *do* believe you. I already told you that. It sounds like *you're* the one who doesn't believe *me*."

"No, all right? I don't believe you. If you'd really seen this guy, why wouldn't you have said so last night when I first mentioned him to you and Perry?"

It was a good question, and one that he had no good answer for. "I just…didn't."

"I rest my case."

"Lois, why are you mad at me?" he demanded, irritated at her for making this harder on him, when he'd been trying to make things *easier* for her. "I'm the only one here who's on your side."

"Which proves what they say about love being blind," Cat drawled.

Lois whirled on her. "Don't you have some muck to rake somewhere?"

"I was *trying* to get the big story of the flying man. Is it my fault the only witness is unreliable?"

"All right, all right," Perry said, stepping in when it was obvious that Lois was on the verge of going into orbit. "That's enough. Cat, Lois, both of you get to work. Kent, I want to see you in my office."

"Me?" Clark said, his voice rising embarrassingly.

Perry was already on his way to his office. "There anyone else named Kent here?" he tossed over his shoulder.

"Uh, no, sir." Clark followed behind the editor, giving Lois a quick look before he left. She looked furious, and he sighed.

He loved her… but boy, she was difficult.


He crossed to Perry's office and was ushered inside, the door closed quickly behind him.

"Sit," Perry said, gesturing at the chair.

Clark sat. He was reminded somehow of his dreadful first morning at the Planet, when Perry had chewed him out for something he'd known nothing about.

Perry settled into his office chair and fixed Clark with a stern look. "I know you and Lois…the two of you are…well, *hell*. I guess I don't know. One minute you were telling me you'd never met her, and the next you were telling me it was love at first sight. One minute she was telling me you were bad news, and the next she was kissing you on Luthor's balcony. I gotta tell you, Kent, it's the strangest courtship I've ever seen."

Clark smiled a little at that. "It hasn't exactly been typical, sir. I'll grant you that. But I…we're…"

Perry waved a dismissive hand. "It's obvious you're both head-over-heels, no matter how you got there. That's not really my business. But I told you on your first day that I expected honesty from my employees. Now, I've been willing to overlook the fact that you lied to me that day, but I don't want you making a habit of it. No matter how you feel about Lois, I don't want you lying to protect her, you hear me?"

Clark stiffened. "I've never lied to you."

"So when you told me you and Lois had never met…?"

"That was…" Clark licked his lips nervously. "That was a misunderstanding."

"A misunderstanding. You want to explain how you could misunderstand a thing like that?"

He thought about it for a moment. "No, sir," he said finally. "I don't."

Perry huffed and leaned back in his chair. It creaked ominously in the silence of the room. "That's the best you can do?"

"That's all I'm going to say about it, sir."

The editor sighed. "Kent…you seem like a nice fellow, and from what I've seen so far, you're a good reporter. I can make you a better one. Don't throw this chance away."

Clark felt sick. Surely he wasn't going to lose everything now — not over this. "Perry, I've never knowingly lied to you. I can see why you would think that I did, but I didn't. I can't explain about Lois. I'm sorry — I just can't. But I can tell you that the man she says rescued her last night *does* exist. I've seen him."

"Blue suit, cape, underwear-on-the-outside? You've seen this?"

It was all Clark could do to keep from cringing, but he kept his gaze steady as he answered, "Yes, sir."

Perry sighed again and rubbed his temples. "All right, Kent. Get outta here. Get back to work."


Clark trudged out of Perry's office and was immediately accosted by Lois, who obviously had been waiting for him.

"Conference room," she snapped, grabbing his arm and tugging in that direction.

"Wait just a minute," he said, pulling his arm from her grasp. "Would you like to put that in the form of a question?"

"A question? A *question*?" Her eyes widened. "As in," she changed her voice to a grating simper, "Clarkie-poo, would you pwetty-pwease come with me to the conference room? You mean that kind of question?"

"I had something a little less…nauseating in mind. But, yeah. That kind of question."

"So… I've asked." She folded her arms across his chest and gave him a challenging look.

"Fine," Clark said, gritting his teeth and gesturing her ahead of him. They were already making a scene in front of their co-workers. No need to let it get worse.

She closed the door behind them with a bang and whirled on him. "I'm a laughingstock!" she said, jabbing an accusing finger in his direction. "I broke the biggest story of the year this morning, and thanks to Jimmy and his big, fat mouth — and Cat and her bigger, *fatter* mouth — the whole newsroom is laughing at me."


"And you! You just had to go and make up some stupid story about seeing the flying man. And I know you meant well, Clark, but that makes me look about ten times as pathetic. And it makes you look pathetic. Us…it makes *us* look pathetic."

He sighed. "We're not pathetic."

"We're like some crazy couple who claims they were abducted by aliens or ran into Elvis at the grocery store. Except not really, because they all think *I'm* the crazy one and you're the love struck fool who's standing by my side no matter what."

"No, because you're not crazy and I'm not a fool," he said, really annoyed now. "Because this actually happened. We've both seen this guy. We know he's real."

"*I've* seen him," she said. "I know he's real."

"And I'm just making the whole thing up, is that it?"

"Aren't you?"


"Then prove it," she said. "Tell me something about this guy that you couldn't know unless you'd seen him."

He sighed. This had to be the most ridiculous conversation he'd ever had. Lois was demanding that he prove his own existence, which might be an interesting philosophical exercise, but he was pretty sure that wasn't what she had in mind.

<<Tell her, tell her, tell her,>> his mind chanted at him, but the words stuck in his throat. It wasn't an easy thing to tell, and it especially wasn't easy when she was angry and hostile and about as approachable as a hedgehog. It wasn't a thing he could say under the fluorescent conference room lights, with their colleagues sneaking peeks through the windows.

No, it was a thing best told under cover of quiet darkness, when he had his arms wrapped around her and could whisper it in her ear. It was a thing that would require kisses and reassurance and long explanations, not a thing he could spring on her in the middle of the workday, when none of those things was possible.

"I can't prove it," he said quietly. "Not right now. But I will, Lois. For now, though…I'm asking you to believe me."

She nodded, her lips compressed in a thin line, and he knew she *didn't* believe him. Couldn't believe him. He knew he'd disappointed her… but she'd disappointed him as well.

He told himself that it was too soon to expect blind faith. And he honestly couldn't say whether he'd have believed *her* had the circumstances been different — had he not had concrete proof that the man who had rescued her really existed. If he hadn't been that man, would he have been as skeptical as their co-workers? He hoped not, but he wasn't sure. That kind of trust came with time, and he and Lois hadn't had much time yet. It was a journey, and he was still working up his nerve to take the first terrifying step.

So when she made a terse excuse about needing to get back to work, he let her brush by him and slip from the conference room without any further effort at conversation.


Lois sat sullenly at her desk, drawing up a list of potential questions for the colonists that afternoon. Every now and then, someone would come by her desk and speak to her. About half the time it was to offer congratulations on her story that morning, and the other half it was to inquire snidely whether she'd seen any flying men lately. She wished they would all just leave her alone.

And Clark.

She didn't know *what* to think about Clark. He'd obviously thought he was being supportive, but his claim to have seen the man in the blue suit just added to the number of people in the newsroom who were laughing at her behind their hands — or to her face, and she wasn't sure which was worse. Most of the women were already jealous and couldn't figure out what a nice guy like Clark Kent was doing with Mad Dog Lane. This thing with the flying man just gave them one more thing to talk about, one more thing to make fun of.

She knew the kinds of things they were saying: The men were speculating that she must be really good in the sack if Clark was willing to make such a fool of himself over her. The women supposed she had just *scared* him into supporting her about the flying man and were trying to work out how to rescue Clark from her clutches.

She felt like she had a target painted on her back, inviting the entire newsroom to take shots at her. And there was a part of her that wished she'd just never said anything about the flying man to anyone, even if it would have meant lying to the police. He was probably dead anyway, and she'd never be able to prove his existence.

But, no; that wasn't the way Lois Lane worked. Oh, she didn't mind lying if it got her a story or even to get herself out of trouble, but she wouldn't stoop to lying just because she was afraid of the truth. That was a slippery slope for a reporter, and one she had no intention of starting down. The flying man existed, or had before Antoinette Baines'ss helicopter had exploded last night, and Lois wasn't going to claim otherwise, no matter what Perry thought it would do to her credibility.

She was staring into space, tapping her pen against her notebook, when Perry's voice just behind her made her jump.

"Lois? Can I see you in my office?" he asked, his voice surprisingly gentle. It made her suspicious, but she nodded and pushed away from her desk. She kept her gaze carefully averted from Clark as she followed Perry into his office, but she could still see him in her peripheral vision, hunched over his desk staring into his computer monitor, just as carefully not looking at her.

"Sit down, honey," Perry said, once they'd reached his office, and his syrupy tones put her even more on her guard.

"What's this about, Perry?"

"I, ah…" He sat down in his desk chair and swiveled a little back and forth. He rubbed one hand over his mouth.

"Perry…" she said, a warning note in her voice.

"I need to ask you a personal question," he said, finally looking her straight in the eye. "One I said I wasn't going to ask. But I have a reason for asking, and I want you to give me a straight answer."

Well, that wasn't what she was expecting at all. She'd thought he was about to recommend counseling or something equally absurd. "All right," she said cautiously.

"I want to know how you met Clark Kent."

Her mouth fell open. She couldn't help it. In the whole wide world of questions, that was the last thing she'd been expecting, and it landed like a bomb in the quiet room. She felt her stomach start to churn. "Why? What does that have to do with anything?"

"His first day here, Kent told me you two had never met before. Claimed he had no idea why you'd have had a grudge against him. Today he told me that wasn't a lie but a 'misunderstanding'." He put the word in finger quotes to show his skepticism. "He refused to explain any further, so I'm asking you to."

She bit her lip, silently thanking Clark for his chivalry, which she knew had come at the expense of his own good reputation. There couldn't be many men who would do as much, could there?

"He was right," she said slowly. "It was a misunderstanding. I don't know why you need to know more than that."

"I need to know because Clark Kent is still a provisional employee, and I'm not going to hire a man who makes a habit of lying to me. Now, it seems that all of his lies are centered around you, so it only seemed right that I see if you had some explanation."

"I don't know why he claimed to have seen the flying man," she said. "I guess he wanted to…support me or something."

"So you don't believe him either?"

Lois thought about it. Thought about how earnestly he had looked at her when he entreated her to trust him. "I…no," she admitted, feeling the guilt pierce her at the admission. "I guess I don't."

"You can see why I might be concerned, then. The man's been here less than two weeks, and first he tells me that he's never met Lois Lane, when it was perfectly obvious that he had, and now he's telling me he's seen a flying man, when it's perfectly obvious that he hasn't."

"He…wasn't lying about the first thing." The truth of it heated her cheeks, and the words felt like they were being dragged from her lips.

Perry's eyebrows shot toward his receding hairline. "Come again?"

"He, um, didn't know that he had met…me. Lois Lane."

Perry cleared his throat slightly, obviously waiting for her to elaborate. When she didn't, he said, "Lois, I'm not a mind reader, and surely you know this doesn't make a whole lotta sense."

She nodded, wondering how to begin, how to tell her story to this man whom she looked up to almost as a father. He sat waiting silently, expectantly, with no intention of letting her off the hook. And she didn't deserve to be let off, she knew. Not when Clark had put so much on the line for her.

"Um, Clark and I met at a bar on the South side the night he first interviewed here." She looked down at her hands, clasped tightly in her lap. "We, uh, hit it off, I guess you'd say." She ventured a peek at Perry to see if he'd gotten her drift. From the look of surprised disapproval on his face, she guessed he had. She looked back down at her hands again. "But I…hadn't given him my real name or told him what I did for a living. I was kind of…undercover. Not for a story but for myself. I was pretending to be someone else. I didn't want… I wasn't looking for anything permanent. I…left him…" She felt her heart twist in her chest as she remembered the sight of him sleeping in the bed they'd shared, her scribbled note on the pillow beside him. "And figured I'd never see him again. And then he showed up here, and I kind of…panicked."

She peeked at Perry again. He looked like thunder. "Lois, I know I'm just your boss and not your father, but *damn it*, honey! Do you have any idea how dangerous that was? Where was your good sense?"

Lois shook her head and laughed a little through the tears that had gathered in her eyes. "Perry, where Clark Kent is concerned, I don't seem to have any good sense at all."

He sighed. "Well, thank goodness you picked a nice guy. Listen, I know you're a grown woman and old enough to make your own decisions about, uh… things like that, but I just don't want to see you wind up on my front page, you hear? You and I both know that it's a dangerous world out there."

"I know. And I've been telling my sister that for years. What happened with Clark… I don't make a habit of…" She waved one hand vaguely in lieu of finishing the sentence.

"But Clark's different," Perry said, smiling a little for the first time.

She nodded. Yes, Clark was different.

"And he was telling me the truth about not knowing Lois Lane," he said thoughtfully.

She nodded again. "Yeah. He was telling the truth."

"In that case — and I can hardly believe I'm saying this — but in that case, I wonder if he was telling the truth about seeing this flying man of yours."

She stared at him. "You *believe* there's a flying man?"

"I believe that two of my reporters have now claimed to witness something that makes them think there is. And as of this conversation, Clark has a spotless record when it comes to not lying to me. You, on the other hand, will lie to me in a heartbeat, but you've never lied about a thing like this."

"I don't lie to you!"

He waved that away. "You lie to me whenever it's convenient for you," he said calmly. "But this is pretty damned inconvenient, and you're sticking to it anyway."


"So get me some proof! I still can't run a story on this thing without some evidence, but if there *is* a flying man, you can bet I want The Daily Planet to get the scoop."

"And you really think Clark was telling the truth about seeing him?"

Perry thought about it. "I'm not sure," he said finally. "I'd like to think he was, but I don't know him as well as you do."

"And maybe he was just trying to defend me."

"Maybe. I guess I can't think too badly of him if that's what he was trying to do. He seems pretty determined to protect you. He was willing to let me fire him rather than tell me the truth of how you two actually met."

"What an idiot," Lois said, but she couldn't keep the smile off her face as she said it. Never, never had anyone put so much on the line for her. "I'm not worth that."

"It's about time someone showed you that you are," Perry said, giving her a fond look. "I think you've picked a winner this time, honey."

"I think I have, too," she said softly. And suddenly, she didn't care what the rest of the newsroom was saying. Maybe Clark really *had* seen the flying man. Or maybe he hadn't. Either way, he was the most wonderful man in the world, and she'd be pretty stupid to let a thing like this come between them. "I think maybe I owe Clark an apology."

Perry waved in the direction of the door. "Well, go work it out then. But just remember to behave yourself in my newsroom. I'm running a newspaper, not a dating service."

She laughed as she stood to go, suddenly feeling a hundred pounds lighter. "Got it."


Clark was still at his desk, bent like a question mark over his keyboard and staring into his monitor. She was nervous as she made her way over to him; he didn't look particularly welcoming, and she didn't do apologies well.

"Hey," she said softly, approaching him. "You look stressed." She let her hands settle on his shoulders, felt the tension there and gave an experimental squeeze. If anything, he tensed further under her touch, but she didn't remove her hands.

"A little," he admitted, turning to give her a surprised look.

She rubbed his shoulders again, wishing she could feel the warmth of his skin, but he was still wearing his sports coat, and she had to content herself with imagining the feel of what he kept hidden underneath. "I just talked to Perry," she said, letting her fingers creep up to his neck, threading them gently through the longish hair at his nape. He needed a trim, she thought, but she loved the feel of his hair in her hands. She heard him take a sharp breath as her fingers gently massaged his neck, burrowing into the tension there.

"Uh, what about?"

She continued to rub his neck, loving the feel of his skin beneath her hands. Was this what Perry had meant when he'd told her to behave? Probably not, and she couldn't have cared less. "I told him," she said simply. "I told him how we met."

"Oh." He bent his head a little to give her better access, and she smiled. She wasn't sure he even knew he'd done it. "You didn't have to do that."

"Yes, I did. I couldn't let him think…I had to tell him." <<Now tell him you're sorry,>> she thought to herself. <<Tell him.>>

"Thank you," he said softly, and she felt him relax a little more under her touch.

"You're welcome." She took a deep breath. "If you say you saw the flying man, then I believe you." It wasn't quite 'I'm sorry,' but it was darn close.

His head came up and he turned to face her. "You do?"

She shrugged self-consciously. "Perry made me realize that you've never lied to me. So if you say you saw him…then you saw him."

"Lois…I…I don't deserve that kind of trust. I mean, I *have* seen him, but there are…things…I need to tell you. Things I should have already told you. But I can't do it here. Can I see you tonight? Somewhere where we can talk privately?"

"Is this about the flying man?"

"Kind of," he hedged.

"Do you know something about him?" she asked, sounding excited. "Because Perry's willing to consider the story now if we can get him some proof. This could be *huge*, Clark! Bigger even than the Messenger story."

Was it her imagination, or did he go a little pale? He certainly didn't look as excited at the prospect as she was. "Let me tell you what I know about him, and then we can decide together what to do," he said. "Just…not here."

"Well, here is where we work, so if it's about a story, it would make sense to do it here," she pointed out, "but all right. If you want to talk privately, we can do it at my place."

"I thought your sister was there."

"She is, but I can throw her out for the evening. She's gone most nights anyway. Let's get back here and write up the story of the colonist launch, and then we'll get take out and eat it at my apartment."

He smiled and took her hand. "That sounds perfect."

"But I warn you, if this is some trick to get me into bed…"


"…it'll probably work," she added with a grin. She laughed out loud when his face immediately sprouted a bright pink blush.

"It's not," he said, sounding a little choked, and then the corners of his mouth turned up in a smile as he added sheepishly, "but that's good to know."

"We should fight more often." She felt delighted with the entire world, suddenly. "This making up is fun."

"I don't exactly think that *not fighting enough* has been one of our problems so far," he said dryly, "but I agree about the making up."

She couldn't resist. She leaned down and brushed a quick kiss across his lips, and the entire newsroom, which had apparently been watching their whole exchange, immediately broke into cheers and catcalls.

"I hate them," she said matter-of-factly, drawing away from him.

"I'm not crazy about them myself right now," he agreed.

She sighed and pulled her hand from his. "We should probably get back to work. You ready for this afternoon?"

"As I'll ever be. You'll have the exciting part. Are *you* ready?"

"Yeah. I have to be at EPRAD an hour before lift-off. They're going to brief me and then give me twenty or so minutes on board with the colonists before they start the final countdown. Can you be ready to go by noon?"


"Good." She gave him one more quick smile and then headed for her desk. She still wasn't completely sure she believed that Clark had seen the man who had rescued her the night before, but she was glad she'd told him she did. She'd known him such a short time, but already, it felt awful when they argued, awful when things weren't right between them. And something was telling her that it was time to trust Clark. It was time to stop comparing him to every other man she'd known. He had demonstrated over and over that he wasn't like other men, and it wasn't fair for her to keep measuring him by that same pathetic standard. Clark wasn't her father. He wasn't Claude. He wasn't Mitchell or any of the sleaze balls Lucy had dated. He wasn't using her and he'd showed no signs of wanting to leave her, even when she'd given him every provocation.

So she would trust him, and trust that whatever he had to tell her that evening would be the truth.


It amused Lois that she was now treated as visiting royalty at EPRAD, whereas only the day before, she'd had to sneak in under cover of darkness, and before that, she'd practically had to perform a strip tease for the guard to be allowed inside. What a difference a day could make. What a difference being *right* could make. She loved it when the end justified the means. *Loved* it.

And she was, as ever, gracious in victory. Defeat she didn't handle particularly well, but victory — victory was one of her best things. So she smiled benevolently as their car was waved through, and kept the smile on her face as she was escorted out of it by a high-ranking EPRAD official named Dr. Morrison. He seemed to have taken over for Antoinette Baines, who had been confirmed dead in the previous night's helicopter explosion, and Lois could only hope that he didn't share his predecessor's homicidal tendencies. She didn't ask, of course, because that would have seemed less than gracious, and she had a part to play… at least until she got the colonist story.

"Dr. Morrison, this is my colleague Clark Kent," she said, as Clark stepped out of his side of the car and joined them.

Morrison, a lean, silver-haired man in his early sixties, shook Clark's hand but looked uncomfortable. "I wasn't aware you were bringing a colleague, Ms. Lane. I'm afraid that you're the only one who has been approved to board the launch."

She nodded. "That's fine. Clark will be covering the launch from the outside. The Daily Planet is very thorough."

"That's…yes, it certainly is," Morrison agreed. "Well, if you two will just come this way, I'll show Mr. Kent the area that has been designated for the press, and I'll escort you onto the launch, Ms. Lane. We're glad to have you both here."

"You're glad I'm not suing EPRAD into the next millennium," Lois said sweetly, "but thank you, Dr. Morrison."

"Lois," Clark whispered, sounding aggrieved.

"What?" she asked innocently. He rolled his eyes.

"Uh, if you'll just come this way." Morrison led them to a small golf cart and drove them first to a cordoned-off area where other members of the press were already milling around and setting up cameras. Lois introduced Clark to several people she knew and then, quite gleefully, let them all watch as she and Dr. Morrison climbed back into the golf cart. "See you after," she called to Clark over her shoulder. She heard his warm chuckle following her as the golf cart lurched into motion and zipped across the field toward the launch complex.

The launch pad, shuttle, and all its associated apparatus was absolutely immense up close, and for the first time since arriving at EPRAD, she felt a sense of awe overtake her delight at landing such a professional coup. She was about to board an actual passenger shuttle that would be taking people to *live* in space. This was history in the making, and she was a part of it. This was one of those things she'd tell her grandchildren about, assuming she ever had any, which she wasn't so sure about — but she was still young and didn't have to decide that right then, did she? But if she ever did have grandchildren, they would certainly hear about this.

"The colonists are already on board receiving their final briefing," Morrison said as he stopped the golf cart. "When that concludes, you'll have approximately 20 minutes to ask questions. You may take a notebook, but no recorder or any other electronic devices. That should have been in the information we sent your editor." Lois nodded and held up her notebook and pen.

"Good. Launch is at 1400 hours, and you'll need to be in the pad operations building at that time." He pointed to a building some distance away. "You'll be escorted off the shuttle 30 minutes before then so that the colonists can make final preparations for lift-off. Any questions?"

"No, but I might have some later. Will you be available?"

He nodded and for the first time that day, his mouth quirked in a real smile. "I've devoted my entire career to this program, Ms. Lane, and your actions last night probably saved it. I know you think we're just doing this because we're afraid of bad press or afraid of being sued, but that's not the case — at least with me. I'm genuinely grateful to you, and I want your paper to keep right on printing the truth about this program. So if you have questions, I'll do my best to answer them."

Lois nodded and returned his smile. "Thank you, Dr. Morrison."

He nodded in the direction of the launch pad. "Are you ready to see the inside of the world's first colonist transport vehicle?"

She took a deep breath. "As I'll ever be."

"Then let's go."


Lois could feel the nervous anticipation in the air as she made her way among the colonists, her notebook in hand. Some of them chattered excitedly, while others seemed thoughtful, almost burdened by the historical significance of their undertaking. All, though, were committed to the project and committed to being the world's first space 'pilgrims', and all seemed eager to have her record their final thoughts before they left their native planet and tried to make a new home so far away. Her pen flew across the pages of her notebook, her sense of excitement increasing with each brief interview. This was going to make an *amazing* story.

"Mrs. Platt," she said, recognizing Samuel Platt's widow and daughter. "And Amy, isn't it?"

Both Mrs. Platt and her daughter gave her sad smiles. "It's nice to see you again, Ms. Lane. We wanted to thank you, Amy and I, for what you did. Nothing can bring Samuel back to us, but you believing in him… proving that he was right…you've given him back his dignity. That means so much to us."

"All I did was tell the truth," Lois said sincerely. "Dr. Platt was the real hero."

"Thank you." The older woman leaned forward and gave Lois an impulsive hug. "He would have been so happy about this day," she said through tears that thickened her voice. "He would have been so happy that Amy will have this chance."

"Mom," Amy said softly, reaching for her mother's hand.

"I know, honey. I said I wasn't going to do this." Mrs. Platt laughed a little and wiped her eyes. "Samuel wouldn't want us crying. Not today."

A young woman in a jumpsuit appeared at Lois's elbow. "It's T minus thirty minutes Ms. Lane. I need to escort you from the vehicle now."

"Of course," said Lois, looking regretfully at the colonists. She'd have liked to stay, to ask some more questions, but this was not the day to push her luck. "Mrs. Platt, I hope you and Amy have a wonderful trip."

"Thank you," Mrs. Platt replied, placing a gentle hand on her daughter's shoulder.

"Thank you," Amy echoed.

"Ms. Lane…?" Lois's escort prompted.

"I'm ready." With one final smile at Amy and Mrs. Platt, Lois followed her escort through the labyrinth of narrow passageways that would lead them out to the launch pad. She trailed along slowly, however, trying to absorb each and every detail in the hopes that she might see something she'd find useful later in her article. Every now and then, her guide would have to stop and wait with forced patience for Lois to catch up to her, but Lois didn't care. This was her one chance at a story like this, and she wasn't going to miss a single thing if she could help it.

Ultimately, it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on your perspective. But a split second's difference either way, and she wouldn't have seen the man enter the narrow alcove just to the left of her and slap a small piece of plastic onto the wall. And if the man hadn't looked so sneaky as he'd done it, if he hadn't darted out the other side almost before she got a look at him, she might not even have thought anything about it. He was dressed like the rest of the technical crew, and maybe that little piece of plastic *belonged* on the wall.

But, no. If there was one thing Lois Lane knew, it was sneaky. And the man who stuck that piece of plastic on the wall didn't want to be seen doing it. She was sure of that. So she stopped and turned back. She went to investigate and let her guide go on ahead of her without giving it a second thought. Instead of following along obediently, Lois slipped silently into the tiny alcove the man had just vacated.

She squinted at the tiny piece of plastic, which seemed very small and unimportant until she saw that it was attached to a timer. A timer with tiny, ominous red numbers blinking 2:51, 2:50, 2:49, 2:48…

It took about five more precious seconds for her to find her voice. "Help!" she screamed, wishing she hadn't let her guide go on ahead. "Help! It's a bomb! *Help*!"

She didn't know her way out. She didn't even know her way back to where the colonists were preparing for take-off. She doubted she could get off the shuttle in the time left.

2:25, 2:24, 2:23, 2:22…

"Help!" she screamed again, reaching for some nearby wires and jerking at them, ripping them from whatever important-looking thing they were connected to. She began pushing buttons randomly, stabbing at whatever she could find that might communicate to someone, *somewhere* that there was a problem. When no alarms sounded, when she didn't hear any pounding footsteps, she backed away from the device, her heart thundering in her chest, and prepared to run into the labyrinth of corridors on the blind chance that she could find someone who could help her.

1:59, 1:58, 1:57, 1:56…

She ran straight into a wall of vivid blue spandex.

<<It's an S,>> she thought crazily, irrelevantly, as her hero from the night before gently steadied her and stepped past her into the little room. <<The thing on his chest is an S.>>

Aloud she stammered, "It's… a bomb," she said, pointing at the wall.

He flashed a quick grin that seemed utterly inappropriate under the circumstances. "So I heard." He squinted at it a little, frowned briefly, and then plucked it from the wall and popped it into his mouth while Lois stared. A determined swallow was followed by a rumbling sound and a slightly smoky belch, which he stifled politely with his hand. "Excuse me," he said.

"Who *are* you?" she demanded.

"We'll get to that," he promised. "Right now, though, we need to let the launch crew know what we just found."

And finally, *there* was the sound of pounding footsteps she'd been waiting for, and suddenly the tiny room was filled with people. Before she knew it, they'd been herded back into the larger room with the colonists, and she was being peppered with questions about the man she'd seen planting the bomb. The bomb itself was no longer available for examination, but her hero in the blue suit and red cape was able to describe it in every detail. Finally, the scientists seemed to have every fact they could give them — every fact except one, which was how a man had *flown* into the launch vehicle and swallowed a bomb, but they all seemed somewhat hesitant to question the man directly about that. Instead, they confined themselves to the facts about the mission.

"Unfortunately," Dr. Morrison said, addressing the entire assembly, "due to our equipment problems and this… unfortunate occurrence, we've had no alternative but to abort. I just received word that the mission has been scrubbed, and we need everyone to prepare to disembark."

A collective sound of disappointment went up from the assembled colonists. "This is it, then," one of the colonists said. "It's over."

"Why?" Lois asked.

"Once the mission has been scrubbed, the boosters are shut down and we lose our launch window," Mrs. Platt said sadly. "I'm afraid this means we have to forget about Space Station Prometheus."

"No, you don't," the man in the blue suit said. Lois looked at him in surprise. "There's nothing wrong with this transport vehicle or the space station," he explained. "You only need to get there."

"How are they supposed to do that?" Lois asked, cocking her head at him.

"Easy." Was it her imagination, or did he look a little smug? "I'll give them a boost."

Amy Platt rolled her wheelchair a little closer to the man who had saved them all. "Can you really fly?" she asked in a tone of wonder. It was a question that every adult in the room had wanted to ask but hadn't dared.

"I really can," he told her.

"Can you teach me?"

"Not to fly, no," he said, shaking his head gently. "But once this lab is operational, you can learn to walk. That's very possible."

"And you can really get us there?"

He nodded. "I really can."

She beamed at him. "I like your suit."

He chuckled at that and touched Amy's shoulder gently. "Thanks," he told her. "My mother made it for me."


The next few minutes were a jumble of explanations and scientific concerns, but the end result was that Lois Lane was relocated to the pad operations building and had a front row seat for history being made twice over as the mysterious flying man boosted the colonist launch vehicle into space. She had extracted a promise from him that he would return and give her the full story, and she could hardly believe her good fortune. The Messenger story, the colonist launch… they were small potatoes next to this guy. And thanks to her, The Daily Planet would have the inside scoop. She sipped at coffee and tried to jot down some notes, but she was too keyed up, too excited.

He was *alive*. Her hero from the night before was alive and well and proving her right on a public stage. She wished she could see the look on Perry's face right now. She wished she could see Cat's… and Jimmy's… and that cop's from the night before. What was his name? It didn't matter. He'd thought she was nuts, or lying, and now he and everyone else in the world had seen the guy for themselves. She wished she could find Clark just then. Wished she could gloat with him and share this moment with him. *He'd* believed her. He'd been the *only* one to believe her. He'd even hinted that he knew something more about the man.

Well, whatever he knew couldn't possibly compare with *this*. She'd seen the man up close. She'd seen him swallow a bomb with no more trouble than the average man might have with a little Mexican food. She'd seen the blue suit and red cape and red underwear and the S on his chest. <<What could the S mean?>> she wondered. She would ask him that.

She jotted it down.

And how could he fly? How had he survived the helicopter explosion? Where had he gone afterward? How had he known she needed help, both last night and that day, on the colonist transport?

Now that really *was* a question. She'd told Jimmy she didn't believe in guardian angels, and there was nothing about this man to suggest that he was one, but how did it happen that he'd come to her rescue twice in two days? Was he following her? And if so, why?

Her excitement began to be tempered with a bit of nervousness. Maybe she should go find Clark, make sure he was with her when this guy returned. But she couldn't leave the operations building by herself, and even if she did, it was too far to walk back to where the press was assembled. She would have to wait.

She paced restlessly, looking out of the huge bank of windows. It was late afternoon by then, and the light was waning. She'd been at EPRAD for five hours, but most of those hours had been so hectic that until now, the time hadn't started to drag.

"Ms. Lane?" a member of the launch team approached her. "I was sent from ground control to let you know that the colonist transport has reached the space station. The…man…whatever he is…was able to dock the vehicle safely."

"That's wonderful," Lois said, thinking for a moment of Mrs. Platt and Amy. The flying man had made their life's dream come true for them. She would make sure he knew that, when she saw him. "When do you think the man will be back here?"

The scientist shook his head. "I'm afraid there's no precedent for…his kind of space travel."

"Guess not," she agreed, and as the scientist melted away, she resumed her pacing in front of the bank of windows. It seemed an eternity before she saw it — a speck of bright color in the golden afternoon sky. He came closer, close enough for her to make out the blue of his suit and the red of his cape, and she saw him circle around the distant area where she knew the press was gathered. He was showing off, she thought with a grin, as if lifting a shuttle into orbit wasn't going to garner him enough attention. But it didn't matter, because she was the one to whom he'd promised the story.

And sure enough, he was coming straight toward her, close enough now that she could almost make out his features. He'd remembered his promise, and she felt her nerves fire up again as she waited for him to find his way into the building.

This was it. This was the biggest interview of her career. She had a feeling that this man, whoever he was, was going to change her entire life.

She heard the commotion as he approached the room where she'd been tucked safely away. He was being followed by every scientist on the East coast, she figured, and all of them were probably congratulating and thanking him — as well as pelting him with questions. He came into the room, followed by his entourage, and he took a few moments to answer, in careful, measured tones, specific questions about the docking of the transport vehicle and the safe arrival of the colonists. He looked so serious, she thought, so very capable and strong, but then she remembered his gentleness with young Amy Platt, and the quick grin he'd flashed her when he'd arrived to take care of the bomb, and she suspected that there was much more to him than what they were now seeing.

She hung back while he gave his report, but then he politely but firmly refused any further questions. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I've promised Ms. Lane an interview." He gave her a look that was almost beseeching, and she took the hint and stepped forward, shouldering her way through the crowd.

"You can read all about it in tomorrow's Daily Planet," she said smugly, and she could have sworn she saw her hero smother a smile.

"If you'll excuse us," he said in his deep voice, and he put one hand at the small of Lois's back and gently guided her outside of the building. For a moment, they stood in the small parking lot, just looking at each other.

"I, uh, was wondering if I could get my colleague, Clark Kent," she said, the nervousness overtaking her once again now that she was alone with this… *impossibly* powerful man. "He's here with me today. Well, not *here* here, of course, but with the rest of the press."

"I'd like to talk to you alone first, if that's OK," he said softly. "Would it be all right if I took you someplace where we could talk privately for a few minutes?"

"Uh…yeah," she said, hoping he couldn't see how uncomfortable she was with the suggestion. "I guess that would be all right. Did you have someplace in mind?"

"There's a place I go when I want privacy," he said. "A place I go to think. Can I take you there?"

She nodded, wide-eyed, and before she knew it, she was being gathered into his arms and cradled like a child, held close against his chest.

"Don't worry," he murmured, as they started to rise up and away from EPRAD. "I've got you."

She linked her arms around his neck, holding tighter. His assurances were all well and good, but the ground was a long way down, and she had no idea how this guy was doing what he was doing. What if his battery died? What if he just got careless and let her go? She was accosted by a wave of vertigo and hid her face in his shoulder.

"Lois, I promise you, you're not going to fall," he said soothingly. "Look around. It's amazing."

She ventured a peek, and once her head stopped swimming, she realized that he was right. It *was* amazing. Dusk was falling, and Metropolis was sprawled out beneath them, a gorgeous crazy-quilt of patterns and colors. She watched, enthralled, as the city lights seemed to flicker on one by one, like fireflies dancing in the twilight. Up above it as they were, all was peaceful and quiet, and she relaxed a little in his arms as the gentle evening breeze ruffled her hair. "You're right," she said in a low, breathless voice. "It's so beautiful. I can see why you love it up here."

"I do. But I love it down there, too."

She cocked her head and looked at him. "You do?"

He nodded. "I live down there, just like you."

He was looking at her so earnestly. She stared at him…stared into sweet, hopeful brown eyes that plucked at her heart in a way that she knew. A way that was so familiar…

"See me, Lois," he begged softly. "See *me*."

And then suddenly she did. She saw him.

And in his strong arms, soaring over the city she called home, she laughed out loud. It was relief and delight with maybe a little bit of hysteria thrown in, but she laughed and cried a little, too, as the face of her mysterious hero seemed to soften and blur into the face of the man she loved. And he laughed, too, and held her tighter, even though she no longer felt even a trace of fear, because she knew that Clark would never let her fall.

"You told me you weren't like other men," she said, shaking her head at him when the storm of laughter had passed.

He grinned at her — a goofy, Clark Kent kind of a grin. "I have a gift for understatement."

"You can say that again," she told him.

"I have a…"

"Oh, shut up." She was still giggling, still half-wondering if she'd fallen asleep in one those uncomfortable chairs at EPRAD, and this would all turn out to be a crazy dream.

"I promised you I would show you magic," he reminded her, gesturing to the Earth below them. "So how am I doing?"

He *had* told her that, and at the time, she'd thought it was sweet and romantic but nothing more than the hyperbole of a man in love.

"You said you'd make me believe in fairy tales," she remembered, a note of wonder in her voice.

He touched her face, a gentle caress, and then tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, out of the wind. "At the time," he said, "I didn't know just how good you were at playing the damsel in distress."

"You saved my life," she whispered. "And then you let me think you were dead."

"I'm sorry." He looked at her so remorsefully that she knew he truly *was* sorry. "I didn't mean for it to be quite like this. I didn't mean for a lot of things between us to happen the way they have. But I wanted to tell you…I wanted you to know two things. One is that I'm *really* not like other men."

"Yeah, I can kind of see that," she said, glancing down at the city below.

"But you need to know why. I don't know all the details myself, but I do know that I'm from…another planet. A planet called Krypton. My parents found me in a field near their farm when I was just a tiny baby, so everything else I've told you is true, but I can't change the fact that I'm…not from here."

She heard the word he wasn't saying: alien. He was an honest-to-goodness alien from outer space. And he was obviously afraid that that would matter to her. Would scare her or even repulse her. And maybe it would have, if men from Earth hadn't repulsed her first, or if Clark hadn't already stolen her heart so utterly and completely. But no, where Clark Kent was born didn't matter to her now. It *interested* her, that was for sure. Intrigued the hell out of her, even. She would probably have a million questions for him — later, when she had time to think about them. But right now didn't seem to be the time.

"So what was the other thing?" she asked, tightening her hold around his neck. "You said there were two things."

"Oh." He looked surprised that they were moving on so quickly. Clearly, he'd thought the 'I'm an alien from outer space' conversation was going to take a little more time. "The other thing was…well, I just wanted to tell you that…I love you. I know it's kind of soon, and I probably shouldn't even be saying that, but I always thought that I would only tell this secret to the woman I loved, and you *are* the woman I love, even if we haven't known each other very long, and…"

"Clark." She put her fingers over his lips, stopping the flow. "I love you, too."

His eyes widened. "You…you do?"

"Uh huh. So how about you make the most of this incredibly romantic scene you've got going here?"

He looked delighted. "You think this is romantic?"

"Are you kidding? This is every girl's dream. Floating in the clouds. City lights below. Really cute guy…wearing…red underwear…" She sneaked a peek in that direction.

He groaned. "I *hate* the red underwear! They were my mom's idea. The whole suit is meant to be a disguise, and she thought the underwear would distract people from looking at my face."

"Well, she was definitely right about that," Lois teased.

"I should go home and change," he said, sounding mortified. "Take you somewhere nice for dinner. Do you know we've never had a real date?"

"I *had* noticed that," she said. "But right now, you're not going anywhere, spaceman. I'm still waiting for a little romance in the clouds."

"Are you saying you want me to kiss you, Lois?" His eyes twinkled at her.

"That's exactly what I'm saying." Once again, she looped her arms around his neck. "I want you to show me magic."

"One magic kiss, coming up," he promised softly. And with that, he let go of her legs and let her slide down the length of his body, still keeping her tight against him. He once again stroked at the errant strand of hair, fingering it gently before he brushed it away from her face. "I love you," he said, his lips grazing the spot on her cheek where the lock of hair had been.

"I love you," he said again, his voice low now, intimate, and so close to her ear — his lips tickling her earlobe. She wanted to answer him back, but she was too breathless, too caught in the moment, to speak. Night was falling, and they were enveloped by soft darkness, with stars beginning to peep out shyly all around them. It was as if the entire universe belonged to them alone.

"I love you," he murmured one final time, before letting his mouth settle on hers, sweet and warm. She felt another lurch of vertigo that had nothing to do with her distance from the ground. The instant Clark's lips moved against hers, she lost all sense of everything except the intoxicating taste of him and the pounding of her own heart. They could be spinning into infinity for all she knew, but Clark was her anchor. She clutched at his shoulders, her hands slipping a little over the slick spandex, tangling in the folds of his fluttering cape. Clark's body was warm and solid and his lips moved over hers, his tongue teasing her mouth open and darting inside in quick, tantalizing forays that ignited sparks of desire deep in her belly. His legs tangled with hers, drawing her closer and fitting her to his body more intimately, and she felt the blood thundering through her veins in response.

It had been like this the night they met, she remembered dizzily, like they could never get close enough, but that night the desire had been sharp-edged and almost painful. This was different. It was the difference between having one night and having a thousand nights. It was the difference between being with a handsome stranger and being with Clark. It was the difference between dancing at the Stardust, and dancing in the stars.

"Lois," he said thickly, dragging his mouth from hers.

"Clark," she breathed.

"We're over the ocean." He looked over her shoulder in obvious surprise. "I guess I wasn't paying attention to where we were going."

She laughed softly and put her head on his shoulder. "It's a good thing we don't live near the mountains."

He chuckled, his breath stirring her hair. "Let's go home," he said. "My place or yours, I don't care."

"We have some stories to write," she reminded him, but the odd thing was that she couldn't seem to make herself care all that much.

"Yeah. We need to talk about…this." He wrapped his cape around her. "What you're going to say about this guy."

"I'm going to say whatever he wants me to say. I'm going to interview him, on the record, and whatever he tells me will go in the story. No more, no less."

"Thank you." He claimed her lips in one more quick kiss.

"But there was something I meant to ask you."

"Ask away."

She smoothed a hand over the shield on his chest. "What does the S stand for?"

"I don't actually know," he admitted. He gathered her closer in his arms and turned them back toward Metropolis and The Daily Planet and their future together. "Why don't you think of something?"